Walking in tango: a look at the possibilities

I spend a LOT of time in my classes trying to explain how to walk naturally. I teach what my tango teachers in Buenos Aires call "normal" tango embrace/walk (follower slightly offset, each person on their own axis, with each person walking their own straight line) that is foreign to students of other teachers in my town (who teach open embrace, leaning-styles of close embrace, and various other things).

When I go to Buenos Aires, I almost never have to argue about "how" I am going to dance with another person. We agree by cabeceo, we adjust to each other's styles, and it works most of the time. What part of this system is not working in the United States?

The right way?

I think that most people here think there is only one right way to dance tango. They listen to their first teacher, and then argue with anyone who suggests alterations to their dance. In Buenos Aires, everyone knows that there are tons of different styles, and there is more of an attempt to find your own dance, rather than "the right dance."

I have chosen the style that I teach because I believe it is the easiest style of tango in terms of body wear and tear. I want to dance tango until I die, not until I need back surgery. I want to dance all night, not until my feet hurt. As a student of anatomy, I constantly try to find the best ways to help people find their own body, feel how it works, and then use that knowledge to make their own dance. It's about ease of movement and body health; if you want to then go do a style that is hard on the body, that is an educated decision that you are free to make.

What village are you from?

As a folk dancer, we have a joke when we learn a new variation of a dance: "What village are you from?!?" We all know that there are tons of variation in the folk tradition, and we accept that for the most part.

In tango, it's a question of what neighborhood your teacher came from; or what teacher formed their dance. I have danced all over Buenos Aires and studied with people from a lot of different neighborhoods. According to reactions from elderly men in Buenos Aires, I appear to have learned styling that places me anywhere from Villa Devoto to Belgrano to Villa Urquiza.

For most of us who did not grow up in Buenos Aires, we have taken what we know of Argentine Tango from whatever sources we could. I am lucky that I spent a lot of time dancing with the old guys twenty years ago, and got the feeling of their dance into my body. What village am I from? From the one where you get a master's in dance and study anatomy and kinesiology AND hang out with old guys in milongas.

My maestros

Here are some of the people I have studied with to give YOU inspiration and help you see how I have built my own dance.

Omar Vega--milonga

Omar was one of my main milonga teachers in Buenos Aires. He was never one to follow the rules, so you will see some crazy things on his videos, but getting to be his assistant in milonga class formed my milonga. I would follow him as he showed moves, and then switch to leading in the class. The guys in class were very open to me leading, and provided a lot of encouragement. The women were willing to dance with another woman and the chance to study weekly gave me homework for going dancing.

 

Jose Garofalo--milonga

I learned a lot about milonga from Jose Garofalo. His classes were relaxed and enjoyable. Private lessons with him were the best: because he is such a fabulous follower, he would take what I did wrong and expand upon it in a hilarious manner--until I fixed it. Because he is an inventive leader, I have to be super-focused when dancing with him: he doesn't just follow a fixed pattern, and I never know what will come out of that incredible 30-year-tango memory! I couldn't find a video of him doing milonga except with me, so here it is:

Tete Rusconi--vals and tango

Tete was my main vals teacher. He gave me a lot of flack for leading in his classes, but I learned a lot from him. Skip the first 1:30 or so of this video where they introduce him if you don't speak Spanish. I like this dance because it is very sweet and balanced, with a lot of poetry in the musicality--and because it shows his tango, not his vals. I enjoyed dancing with him.

Oscar Mandagaran--milonga, tango and vals

Oscar was the teacher of my Argentine boyfriend, who dragged me to a class in an apartment where I was the only foreigner. I studied with him on and off for many years. Watch this video of us dancing on a crowded plywood stage out on the street in Buenos Aires. You can see a lot of what I try to teach people to do! Just skip ahead past all the stuff about the photographer!

 

Julio Balmaceda and Corina de la Rosa--tango and vals

Julio and Corina taught classes in La Galeria where I went to take classes. They are no longer together, but Corina is a powerhouse of a follower who I hope to emulate someday. Check out their vals here, which is one of my favorites to watch and rewatch. Notice they almost never walk in front of each other: when he does step in front of her, he does not invade her space, but is using it to prepare for another movement.

 

OK, there are a BUNCH more people who have inspired and taught me, but that's enough for this week!

A month of vals: Tete, Ricardo, Pepito et al.

This month, my classes will focus on the vals.

I have studied with many people, but I spent the most time on vals with Tete Rusconi. He was not the best teacher; I don't think swearing at your students is a real motivator. However, if you could withstand the teasing, ridicule and boisterousness, you would come out the other end of classes with new ideas to try on the dance floor. His ability to swirl right and left, spin on a dime, and keep the fluidity of vals going, were all inspiring.

Pepito was reknowned for his mastery of milonga, but his moves work very nicely for vals as well. His students, who taught me, emphasized the ease of his movement; the way he played with syncopation; and his groundedness. We'll pick a few of his moves to add into Tete's.

Although I have studied very little with him, Ricardo Viqueira gave me some lessons a few years ago when I was shopping for a new teacher. We will work on some of the moves he taught me as well. "If you don't teach anything else to your students, you MUST teach them to use contrabody!!" he told me. It will come as no surprise that the secret to these moves is good contrabody. What's funny, is that I learned these from Tete as well, but had forgotten them!

So, groove, spin, syncopate and swirl over to the Om Studio, 14 NE 10h, PDX, for classes on Thursdays this November! The drawing for a free private lesson for this month will happen at 8 PM.

Performance anxiety and a good partner

Scared but still performing

I have been performing since the age of five. Until college, that involved singing in choirs and attending a capella singing competitions. I started performing dance three months after I began to dance in college. I performed dance throughout my master's degree in dance. I also continued performing as a singer.

I have been terrified of performing most of that time. I know all of the tricks to calm the body: deep breathing, pretending that everyone not on stage is in their underwear, ignoring the audience, etc. None of them work for me. I get through performing, and then I retreat to a corner and shake for a while.

I try to avoid performing.

Peak experience

I recently performed twice in one week: five dances. That is the first time I have performed in several years, and I was even more nervous than before.

AND...

It was a peak experience. I danced the best I have ever danced in my life one of those nights. Even in video, which takes away something from the real experience, it looks pretty good. Even to me, the perfectionist. It was better than perfect: it was fun.

What made it work for me?

Jose Garofalo

What made me survive performing? A good partner. A partner who said, "Look at me, you are dancing for ME!" and didn't give me time to think about whether people were watching.

I have know Jose for almost 20 years. He was one of my first teachers. When I visit Buenos Aires, we always have a coffee together and chat for a few hours. I trust him. I knew he would not sacrifice me to looking good, to showing off, or to showboating for himself. He took care of me, just as a good leader does on the social dance floor.

100% improvisation

Jose was so busy before we performed that we didn't practice. I didn't get a private lesson fitted in or anything. In other words, I had to wing it 100%.

On the way to the performance, Jose played a song on his phone and asked if I liked it. I asked to perform to it the next performance, as I had never heard that version before. He played a few more, and we agreed on a tango. Three blocks from the venue, he said, "What about this milonga?" and played Azabache. "Fine," I said. That was it except for one tanda to warm up.

Not having a plan and not having practiced (and not having danced together for about ten years at all) meant that I needed to pay attention. I didn't have extra brain space to really freak out about performing.

Twenty-one years of tango training kicked in and. . . it was wonderful.

Tango Berretin, Portland, OR on 1 April 2017
Milonga performance at Tango Berretin, Portland, OR on 1 April 2017

Savoring tango

If you are eating a great meal, do you shovel your food into your mouth? NO! The cook at music and dance camp saw my son (a favorite allowed into the kitchen to help) shoving his food in, and told him, "Jamie! Respect the food!"

If you were drinking an expensive glass of wine, would you gulp it down? No, you would slowly sip it, rolling it around your mouth to enjoy the flavor, taking your time to experience each taste; to savor it.

If you are experiencing a wonderful tango song, let each step roll off your feet, pause between movements, enjoy being in your body, in this embrace, in this tango. Don't shove moves into your dance! Respect it! Savor it, like a fine meal.

Using games to find organic movement to build your tango repertoire

Don't just stick moves together!

I often find newer, younger dancers who lead, obsessed by making "hard" combinations of moves, either to showcase their technical vocabulary, or to show off how they can use the music. Sorry, guys, I agree your dance is interesting, but I'm not looking for interesting. I am on the search for sheer pleasure. I want to walk off that dance floor FEELING good, not thinking about the moves you know.

My main criterion for choosing new movement for my leading is organicity. The combination must feel good to the follower and the leader for me to incorporate it into my dancing. What do I mean by organicity? It has to flow, to make sense to my body, and to feel sensually enjoyable.

Harder than it sounds

Your brain is wired to repeat the things you have practiced the most. How hard can it be to break out of the ruts you have created in your dance? Speaking from my own experience, it's not easy.

I know tons of moves. One day when I tried to write down how many moves I know, I got past 100 before giving up. That wasn't even counting combinations of moves! And yet, I find myself doing the same few things, over and over if I tired. "You just did the same ending for that dance as you've done most of the evening!" I scold myself. "Find something new to do!"

I'm not the only one. I danced with one of my students at practica last week, and he kept accidentally trying a move that we had already established doesn't work well for him. He repeatedly tried to vary it, and we laughed about how difficult it is to change one little detail of his usual routine.

When I'm stuck in my habits like that, I know it's time to bring out the tool that I use to construct new movement, find new combos, and shake up my tango: a piece of paper!

Looking for organic movement

BTW, if you are coming to the advanced class tomorrow night, here's your advance notice of what we are doing! We will be playing a game that I stole directly from Merce Cunningham and John Cage's work (thanks, grad school!) that I use to create new material for my tango.

Cut a piece of paper into strips. One each piece, write one move you want to work on. The more precise you can make the description, the more you will get out of this exercise. Then, dump the papers into a hat. Draw three strips out at a time. You must find a way to do the moves, in the order you drew them, with as few steps in between as possible.

If the combination feels good after a few rounds, write it down to work on later. If it feels REALLY good, highlight it or put it at the top of the list. If it feels "eh" or plain old awkward, either forget it, or make a "don't try this" list. Remember that a move might feel bad because one of the partners can't execute that move well; but usually you can tell the difference between "needs more work" and "don't do that" or even "try with another partner later" lists.

Remember, the only criterion for this list of new vocabulary should be: does it feel good?

And the winner is...

Last week in class, I asked people to choose moves to try out in the next hour of class. Some of these are nice and detailed, while others will probably be too open-ended. I found it interesting that the women mostly wanted to do front boleos, while the men chose drags, sacadas, etc. A few of the women in class do some leading, and several of the men follow, but mostly the moves were voted on with a male-female divide! Hmmmmm.

The list we will work with

  • linear drag (barrida/arrastre) between the leader and follower (not necessarily with a weight change at the end)
  • forced cross drag (barrida/arrastre)
  • barrida/arrastre where it looks like the follower is dragging the leader's foot
  • forward parada on leader's right side (either foot)
  • back parada with leader's left leg/foot
  • forward circular boleo with left leg
  • forward circular boleo with right leg
  • forward linear boleo

Come play!

Usually, I ask everyone to switch partners during the class, but this would be a very useful exercise to work on with one specific partner, so if you bring a partner to class this week (we will probably do this for more than one week), you can stay with that person.

 

 

 

Anxiety and tango: getting out on the dance floor

During the past few weeks, I have watched my students and how they approach dancing tango (and other dances). One Thursday night, I am happy to say, several students were out on the dance floor, doing their thing. However, two more were sitting at the dance, not making much eye contact with potential dance partners; one was texting. Another beginning dancer was hiding in the bar and watching from where no one would ask him to dance.

One student told me that he may never go out dancing, but just wanted to learn tango. Several people have told me that their fear of asking someone else to dance has made it almost impossible to dance, although they have reached intermediate and advanced levels of dancing tango by taking lessons.

This is not only about my students. I had the opportunity to talk to other dancers at workshops and milongas during the past few weeks, and asked them about their experiences going dancing. Some told me of crying in their cars after the milonga, or not being able to walk in the door some nights. Only a few people seemed to find my question silly: "What problem? I love this!"

Most of the responses of current dancers were similar to those persons who were too scared to go dancing, but something must have occurred to get them over that initial hump, and out on the dance floor. What could make this experience work better for those of us who are shy, anxious, lacking confidence, or just starting out dancing? How can we get out on the dance floor more easily?

I would love to hear what you have to say about your experience getting out on the dance floor. What advice would YOU give to someone to help them get out there?

 

Notes from Gustavo and Giselle Anne's Portland workshop

It's been a long time

I have always respected Gustavo (La computadora) and his amazing ability to break movement down, reverse it, turn it inside out, and find new permutations. However, it has been a LONG time since I studied with him. The last time I studied with Gustavo was back in 2000 or 2001 in Buenos Aires. At the time, I was heavily into "open embrace" and the universe of tango that Gustavo and his group of compatriots were exploring. The feeling in the class was that this was the most extensive system of tango available. This was THE way to dance.

As I have transitioned into preferring close embrace, I left behind the open embrace teachers and moved on. From performance videos, it didn't look like Gustavo and Giselle Anne had changed their style, although they were really, really good at it. Dancing open just didn't excite me anymore.

Why would I return to the fold?

I would not have taken the workshop usually. I get a lot more out of private lessons than group lessons, and I didn't expect to enjoy myself. I took the workshop as a favor to the organizer, who is a friend of mine. I agreed to dance with someone who needed a partner, but not someone I usually dance with. I deeply questioned the expenditure: what would make a weekend worth almost $400?

Not just sitting on their laurels

What I liked best about the workshop, was that Gustavo and Giselle Anne looked at the embrace in a way they would never have done fifteen years ago. They looked at ALL the possibilities available. There was no "one" way to do the dance anymore.

Listening to them, I was impressed at how much their teaching had expanded and improved. As a teacher who constantly tries to get better at what I do, I often feel disappointed when I watch teachers repeat exactly the same lesson, year after year. I was excited to hear how they worked together as a dialogue (not the case back in the day). Here is a world-famous couple who deserve their position at the top.

We looked at open embrace, "regular" embrace (so nice to hear that what I teach would be considered regular!) and close embrace that does not allow the follower's hips to pivot: three kinds of embrace! We looked at how the embrace affects movement that we use in the dance: ochos, turns, sacadas, boleos, etc.

We also explored the other side of the embrace: what happens when you break the embrace? What goes away, but also, what moves are now possible? What if we reverse the embrace? How does that affect both steps and how you lead and follow? Gustavo is not if not exhaustive in his explorations, but that is my way too, so I enjoyed it.

Humor and history teach lessons

It felt great to have world-famous people say, "If you want to win the Mundial, don't take our workshop! The current fad of tango says you should do x, and we have looked at the dance and don't agree that this works best." Full disclosure of disagreement in the community, but with humor, felt really good.

Instead of the politics of Buenos Aires tango, I felt that Gustavo and Giselle Anne were offering 30 years of tango experience, backed up by what Gustavo saw and experienced as a young dancer in the 80's. I loved his stories of the development of tango and its moves, and how it has changed. That is much more valid to me than what one group of people think about "perfect" tango in 2015. The longer view works better, and is better for tango and the community in the long run. I can see how Gustavo and Giselle Anne have relinquished the "right now is best" and has grown into the fabric of the tradition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DRAW your Argentine tango future!

My favorite idea of the week

I like to surf TED Talks while I knit or spin fiber (my main hobby right now). This gives me all sorts of ideas about tango. Here is the one I watched yesterday: Draw Your Future. Patti Dobrowolski gives a vibrant, short talk about designing positive change in your life. You draw what you want to see happen, and then work on making the drawing reality.

What if we apply this to our tango?

Recently, many of my students have asked me, "Why am I doing this?" They have spent a lot of time, money and effort to learn tango. They go out dancing--and sit. They ask people to dance, and get rejected. They feel ignored, not welcome, and invisible. This includes my most advanced student, men with years of tango experience, and beautiful, young women with intermediate tango skills. Instead of quitting, what if we all applied Patti Dobrowolski's ideas to improving our tango life?

An example

I tried this with one student already. She took almost no time to draw it: she already knew what she wanted to be different. I asked her to list three things to change into her dream, and she had two in under a minute. All three goals were spot-on in my opinion, and all three were practical, reasonable, and could be achieved! Now, we have a plan to work on!

Translation (not word-for-word): "I have my axis, but anything like criticism, or a dancer who is not dancing well with me, or a bad day, blows me off my axis." The green is wind, energy, things pushing the dancer off-balance. Instead, she wants to add glide to her dance, more flexibility/bounce to her alignment, and warm, positive energy coming off of her that makes her feel confident about her own dance. She wants people to see her dance by, and ask, "What was that [masked] woman?"

Plan so far: part of each private lesson will be spent on strengthening her body so that she can better maintain balance and alignment without tightening her body. Part will be spent on how to use her feet, knees and hips better so that her movement smoothes out to a glide. Part of her "homework" is to go out dancing more, to practice. And part is working on her self-confidence, partially by me pretending to dance badly while she manages to still dance with grace and balance: no matter who takes her out on the dance floor, she will know she can look good and dance well. Part will be personal work on her own.

Your turn!

So, I am asking you to consider watching that short video, and then trying out this idea: draw your current tango experience, and draw the future that you envision. What is it that bothers you about your tango/tango experience now? What would you like to have happen by a year from now?

Would you draw YOUR tango future and send it to me? I would love to hear your transformation goals and how you plan to get there!

 

 

 

OK, I'm on the wild side! What do I do?

I think of move possibilities like a drop-down menu on the computer, or perhaps a flowchart. My brain makes one decision at a time, and I dance a combination of moves that I often have not set up before-hand. Instead, at each "level" I make a decision, and that affects what happens next.

Level one: things that start on the outside

If I decide to move to the outside track, I often don't have a plan. I am just moving over/out there to see what might strike my fancy. Making my decision about what move to do is based on:

  1. My follower: Whatever my follower does, right or wrong, in response to my move, helps decide what happens next. If they have good balance and alignment, I can do anything I want. If they tend to tip over right or left, that limits my choices.
  2. Space: Do I have a lot of room in front of me? What about to my left? How close are the tables to my right? Where am I in my slot? How dangerous is the leader/couple in front of me?
  3. Music: If I have plenty of space, I can let the music decide my movement choice.

Level two: right, left or straight ahead?

In the drop-down menu, this is my next level. I am on the outside, and need to pick. For my most recent session in my intermediates and up class (Portland, Oregon for those of you outside the area), we first learned several ways to get to the "outside" of the follower (to the follower's right when facing line-of-dance). Then, we explored different uses of the the space and how they work with tango, vals and milonga music.

I learned most of these moves dancing in Buenos Aires. For many of them, I first had someone use them on the dance floor, and then I took them to my teachers and asked how to lead it more clearly.

Back ocho across line-of-dance, then walk to the cross (zigzag to right)

  1. Get to the outside track.
  2. Take one step line-of-dance in crossed system (Leader's left, Follower's left).
  3. Leader puts both feet down for balance, and turns Follower about 90 degrees.
  4. Lead back ocho across line-of-dance: Leader steps side with right; Follower does back ocho with right.
  5. Leader puts both feet down for stability, and turns Follower, ready to walk line-of-dance.
  6. Exit in either crossed or parallel system: the Leader had both feet down, so it is easy to just push off whatever foot you want.

Variation with room for fun, big adornos (1 step straight, one right, one to return)

Same up to #3, then a change.

  1. Get to the outside track.
  2. Take one step line-of-dance in crossed system (Leader's left, Follower's left).
  3. Leader puts both feet down for balance.
  4. Turn the follower MORE THAN 90 degrees for the back ocho.
  5. Lead the back ocho in this direction (slightly right back diagonal to line-of-dance).
  6. Suspend the follower and let them adorn. Because the line of sight is clear, the Follower can decide to do something elegant, or something wild and crazy in the space.
  7. Exit with FORWARD step for Follower and side step for Leader.
  8. Turn follower in to regular embrace angle.
  9. Exit line-of-dance.

Two kinds of circulos

I love circulos. I have been doing them since I first went to Buenos Aires in 1999 and learned them. I like how many walking steps can be fit into a small space by bending them into a pentagon or square, or whatever shape is made by that many steps. It FEELS like a circle, nice and smooth, but the straight lines of the steps make it crisp.

"Regular" circulo

This circulo is probably the one that I use the most. It is very compact, so it takes very little room. Because the follower is on the inside of the circle, it's easier to control the size of the move. I am fond of using it in the corners when other people forget to use them.

  1. Get on the outside.
  2. For each step of the circulo, angle the step just a little bit more than the step before. In other words, you have tiny pivots at the end of each step, making a 4-, 5- or 6- sided figure before exiting.
  3. Don't forget your contrabody! It sounds counterintuitive, but I need to do regular walking, so I can't just have my chest face the follower and go around; that makes a messy circulo. Make each step a GOOD forward step, leaders!
  4. The follower needs to know that each step is a BACK step. If you lose that clarity, the follower will start to do a giro (which is OK, but not what you planned).
  5. If you walk correctly, it is pretty easy to finish the circulo, pivot your follower a bit, and walk out line-of-dance or to the cross, because you can return to the "inside" track at the end of any step of the circulo.

 

Jose's circulo

I am sure that Jose Garafolo did not invent this, but he is the one who taught me how to do this move well. There are only two differences between the regular circulo and this one:

  1. The leader steps forward and then SIDE; forward and side, etc., rather than all forward steps. This means that you need to use your contrabody well to help you pivot. The follower still steps back on each step.
  2. This is easiest to do by taking two steps (forward, PIVOT, side) and then turning the follower to face a new direction for the next chunk of the move. The follower often feels as if there is a six-step triangle or an 8-step square happening. I like the variation! Note: some people do this move in the same shape as the regular circulo.
  3. When you are almost facing line-of-dance, pivot the follower so that you are facing line-of-dance and the follower is facing you; walk to the cross.

Scoop turn

I learned this move from Daniel Trenner, probably in my first weekend of tango. We did it in open embrace, but when I went to Buenos Aires, I found that it worked even better in close embrace!

  1. Get to the outside.
  2. Two steps line-of-dance: Follower takes two back steps. The leader takes a front step, pivots, and then takes a side step (same setup as for Jose's circulo).
  3. Note: Leader must make sure to catch up with follower at this point, or the move won't work.
  4. Leader plants both feet, facing towards the inside of the dance space, and then rotates the follower in a deep ocho (overturned ocho) to do a medialuna around to the leader's left: back, side, front.
  5. Complete turn, pause (for adornos and balance), and then exit line-of-dance.

 

Marvin's favorite

My student Marvin came back from Buenos Aires completely in love with this move. It is a cross-system, counter-clockwise traveling turn on the outside, but I just call it Marvin's favorite. It has the same setup as Jose's circulo and the scoop turn, and is especially lovely in the vals.

  1. Get to the outside.
  2. Two steps line-of-dance: Follower takes two back steps. The leader takes a front step, pivots, and then takes a side step (same setup as for Jose's circulo).
  3. Note: Leader must make sure to catch up with follower at this point, or the move won't work.
  4. Leader tucks left leg behind into an enrosque, and pivots on BOTH feet around to face line-of-dance (or as close to that as works at the moment). Follower is led to step forward around leader, then side step (2 steps of a left turn).
  5. [Optional] If the pivot did not go very well, and the follower ends up on the outside track, the leader can just exit here.
  6. [Optional] If the pivot went OK, but not great, the leader will need to suspend the follower, and shift to the outside again before repeating the step.
  7. Do the same move a second time if you have room.
  8. Exit to the cross.

Calesita

There are many versions of calesita that work well on the outside. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Do a circulo (1/4, 1/2 or full), and then suspend the follower and do a calesita around them until you are facing line-of-dance. Exit.
  2. Do the scoop turn preparation, but instead of doing the turn, suspend the follower and do a calesita around them at this point.
  3. Do a circulo, then a calesita, then another circulo. This was a favorite for Tete during the time I studied tango vals with him in Buenos Aires in 2000. It flows as only Tete could.
  4. Do a calesita after one of "Marvin's favorite" turns as a fun ending if you have a partner who has good balance.

Boleo

You can add a boleo to either the zigzag back ocho, or at the point where you would have done a scoop turn/calesita/Marvin's favorite; and exit.

Level three: exit!

The drop-down menu on whatever move I am doing has one more level: getting out. I have a few tried and true basic things that I do here, again based on space, partner and music.

  1. Walk to the cross: get back on the follower's right (regular or inside, depending on your dance). It's in a straight line down the dance floor, and familiar to the follower. No complications.
  2. Move line-of-dance and worry about moves later. If I have space in front of me, I will do some walking variation to keep traffic flowing.
  3. Do another one! Especially in vals, if the flow of the dance is working well and I have room, I might do a second (for turns MAYBE a third) iteration of a move, as long as it moves a bit forward. I do that less in tango.

Truth be told, I rarely think this far ahead when I dance. I am happy to have reached the stage where my body often picks a move for me. I don't think very much while dancing. It took me a long time to get here, as I am the kind of geek who thinks about movement all the time. Do the rest of you try to analyze what muscles you are using while you weed your garden? Probably not. :-)

Your turn!

Now, use these ideas for practice, and then go out and dance and see what happens organically. Let me know what else YOU like to do when dancing on the wild [out]side!

Tango as therapy

Tango will push your buttons. All of your buttons. If you have emotional baggage or trauma (and who doesn't?), tango will ask you to unpack it, evaluate it, and perhaps send some of it to the emotional Goodwill. If you want to get really good at tango, you need to be ready to tackle your issues.

After teaching tango for 20 years, what I have noticed is that people come to tango to tackle their issues, whether on a conscious level or an unconscious level. They want to dance tango badly enough to reach into the scary emotional closet and bring old fears and hurts into plain sight. They are willing to do this hard work because tango has grabbed them and dragged them into a new space. In this new space, they see that, if they work hard, a whole new universe of beauty and music and dance is waiting for them.

 

Relationship baggage

Tango brings up all of the good and bad experiences you have had with other people in your life. Many dancers bring a lack of trust, or other emotional baggage, with them into tango. Because it is done in couples, it seems to bring up ALL past negative baggage about relationships! I joke that I am the cheapest marriage counseling available in Portland, Oregon.

"He's doing it wrong again!" "Tell her I don't want her to criticize my dancing anymore!" "Why does s/he always blame mistakes on me?" Part of learning to dance tango is learning to give gentle feedback ONLY WHEN ASKED. This applies to dance partners, life partners, and to random people you dance with once and never see again!

For people who are single, or take lessons solo, these messages still come up and need to be dealt with. Can you trust me as your teacher? What about the people in group class? Which milonga feels safe to you?

 

Trust issues

Tango requires both dancers to entrust themselves to a new experience in which both people are impacted by the actions of the other person. The dance is done close together, touching bodies. For many people, dancing like that requires a level of trust rarely seen in modern life, especially in the North American culture. We are brought to value independence and individuality. Tango seems to invade this space, asking us to depend on the other person and merge into the couple, losing our individuality.

Tango actually requires the dancer to maintain the individual self and care for the self, in order to dance well as a team. Each person has a lot more possibility to embellish and make the dance their own, than is usually available in ballroom or other couple dancing.

However, it takes a deep level of trust to allow another person that close. "I can't do this!!" is the reaction I hear from many new dancers. To try something new, something complex, with another person--let alone in front of other people--brings up all of our fears about making a fool of ourselves. It brings up the middle school dance: will we be chosen or rejected? Will this person respect and value me, or will they treat me badly? Trust is a big issue for many people coming to tango.

 

Intimacy concerns

Enjoying how you feel dancing is an enjoyment of the senses (sensuality). Tango is all about enjoying how the body feels when it is moving to music, expressing itself, and interacting with other people's bodies. At its best, it is what I call an "in-body" experience, where my brain can turn off and I can just BE.

However, North Americans often conflate sexuality and sensuality. That's why we have jokes like: "Why does the [insert your choice of church/religion] prohibit sex? Because it might lead to dancing!" Our culture is not 100% comfortable with enjoying sensuality. One Buenos Aires dancer told me, "You poor Yankees! So Puritan! Here, we just do what we want, and go to confession." If you have intimacy issues, tango really pushes your buttons.

On the other hand, you learn that you can be intimate and sensual on a non-sexual level that you may not have found before. At its best, tango allows you to connect more closely with your fellow human beings in a deeply profound manner.

 

Learning to love your body

So many of us don't like our bodies! To dance and become aware of the shape of our body on a deeper level, to find how it works (or struggles) to dance, can push a lot of buttons about not feeling good about body issues.

The body awareness that tango teaches, is invaluable but not easily built. On the way, you have to learn to listen to your body and hear what it is saying. For some people, this is easy and a given in their life. For others, many years pass before the day that they say to me, "Hey, I FELT that!!!!!!" (with about that many exclamation points in the tone of their voice).

After the Princess-and-the-pea phase, where you feel every tiny thing that your body does, you can settle down to a nice medium sensitivity that allows you to care for your body, improves your balance and alignment, and retrains to move in a healthy, pain-free way. That's worth it, isn't it?

When you really feel your body and live in your body, you have to accept how it is shaped and how it works. Popular culture trained me to hate the shape of my body: strong, not slender, with a big butt and calves. Tango has taught me to love the strength and my curves. What can it teach you to love about YOUR body?

 

Traditional roles (like following) vs. the modern woman

This can be a big button for some people. Luckily, most people who feel this way know that they have an issue. Often, they announce "I have a problem with some guy telling me what to do" (or something like that) at the first lesson. Rarely is this button a surprise for the dancer :-)

Tango is a 50-50 dance. Both people need to do half of the work for it to function. The leader does make some decisions for the couple, but the follower has veto power. The follower can also inspire the leader to change the plan for the next move; the speed of a move; the flavor of the dance. In short, the follower is the motor of the dance. No motor, no dance.

Yes, if a man is leading and a woman is following, buttons about traditional roles will be pushed. However, try to reserve judgment about what it looks like tango is, and see what you can make of tango for yourself. For me, I like to lead and to follow, but not at the same time. I let myself be led when I follow, and I build my dance around my follower's needs when I lead. It's a conversation, a dialogue, not a monologue.

I'd like to hear from you: when you started tango, what buttons did it push for you? Have you found resolution/change/revolution? Tell me!

 

 

 

 

 

Tango: practical vs. ideal (or, Why I teach Naughty Toddler)

One of my students felt frustrated when her dance partner returned after several months off. She practiced diligently during that time, and brought her dancing up to a good, solid level. However, she told me that, after dancing with me for a few months, she felt upset that her technique didn't feel as good with her partner, who is an intermediate leader. Why couldn't she dance as well as with me? Several other students have also commented that, "It's no use working on good technique when, on the dance floor, I never need it!"

So why do we work on having perfect technique? What about focusing on how to deal with dancing with real people, who do not dance perfectly?

Why work on ideal technique?

Yes, it's true that a "perfect" tanda only happens once every few years for me. Most of the time, I dance with beginner and intermediate students, who don't yet have the level of dance that would allow me to dance without effort. HOWEVER, when that unforgettable tanda happens, I want to have the chops to give back what I'm receiving from my partner. I work almost every day at my technique, after 20 years of tango, for those in-body experiences.

As your own technique gets better, you can maintain it under less-than-ideal circumstances. This gives you a better dance with someone than you would have with poor technique. I assume that, when I am dancing with a dancer at a lower level, one of my jobs is to my partner have a better dance experience. How? By dancing my absolute best technique. At Portland Tango Marathon, a long-time friend told me that I made him "look good" on the dance floor. Yes! That should be a given.

Why work on problem-solving, save-your-butt moves?

For me, I think a dancer needs to study both good technique and survival plans in order to dance well and to enjoy social dancing. I try to balance my classes so that we alternate working on ideal technique, flow/energy games, and what I call "Naughty Toddler," a game I made up while teaching at the University of Oregon about ten years ago.

Naughty Toddler is game where the dancers take turns NOT following and NOT leading. The partner needs to adjust in different ways to have a successful dance. This game is about getting out of your head, and into your natural body, letting your dance happen in spite of yourself; finding the flow of the dance.

I originally made up this game so that followers would give more energy to the leaders: how many of us have started tango dancing like robots, scared to do anything "wrong" that the leader didn't ask us to do? I have found that the game also helps leaders: it gives them real-life practice in dealing with unexpected situations. If you can survive Naughty Toddler, you can survive the dance floor!

The rules for naughty follower:

  • Don't follow!
  • Try to get your leader to run into other people/the wall/get flustered
  • Pretend you aren't dancing with someone else! Do your worst imitation of what you see on YouTube if you are out of ideas
  • Play!

What does the leader need to do?

  • Just like when working with a toddler, it's easier to cut off access to the forbidden space instead of saying no; don't wrestle, find a way to reduce the follower's momentum to zero, and re-take the lead.
  • Gentle hands: use your body position to block/redirect the follower. The hands for are preventing accidents if nothing else works.
  • Keep breathing and don't freak out: this is how it feels when you are a beginning lead all the time!!

The rules for naughty leader:

  • Don't lead!
  • Just dance around doing your own thing
  • It is still your job to navigate: make sure you don't run into anyone
  • Don't worry about whether the follower gets what you are doing

What does the follower need to do?

  • Hold onto the leader's shoulders
  • Stay in front of them
  • Don't worry about what foot to use, just stay upright

Naughty Leader helps followers get practice in how to stay on balance and dance as well as possible, even when there is no clear lead. It also helps leaders understand that they can allow themselves to NOT make a plan, and still have a dance.

Not everyone likes Naughty Toddler

If you are teacher, be aware that not everyone likes Naughty Toddler. Some of my elderly students sit down for the game, unless they have a trusted partner. It scares them because they are afraid of falling down. Another student refuses to play the game (although I hope she will eventually try it) because "it just doesn't do it for me" as a perfectionist: it pushes ALL of her buttons. She was shocked when I correctly guessed her motives for avoiding it. As a perfectionist myself, I know how useful this game has been for me as a dancer. Those who are very structured find the exercise emotionally uncomfortable. As a teacher, I am all about coaxing people out of their comfort zone into a stronger dance.

Bringing the ideal and practical together

The aim of working perfect technique and Naughty Toddler/energy games in tandem, is to create a vibrant, energized, joyous dance with good technique. Without energy, the dance is academic and cold. Without technique, it is lacking elegance and power. Put the two together, and ....you've got what I think tango ought to me.

Now go out there and dance!

 

 

A few more thoughts from "The Art of Learning"

I found a few more tidbits of information in The Art of Learning that are very useful for tango dancers, even though Josh Waitzkin is discussing chess and tai chi.

 

Subtle is good!

...players tend to get attached to fancy techniques and fail to recognize that subtle internalization and refinement is much more important than the quantity of what is learned. (The Art of Learning, 123)

If I could be paid for each time someone complains to me, "But this is subtle," I would be rich! Tango IS subtle, with a deep body awareness needed to achieve mastery. Dancing on Monday night, I found a zone where I was aware of how all of my muscles and my frame fit together, and I could feel the interplay of muscles, of my balance, of my partner's musicality, on a deeper level than usual. I have come to enjoy little, tiny elements of the dance; the subtlety of tango.

 

Waiting: finding the white space in the poetry that is tango

Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life. (The Art of Learning, 186-7)

This is what tango is about: finding the pauses, enjoying the waiting, being in the zone in quiet moments. If you try to live for the exciting moments only, for the big, flashy moves, you have missed the heart of tango. In the waiting, you find yourself and your partner.

 

Create a routine to make dancing less stressful

To have success in crunch time, you need to integrate certain healthy patterns into your day-to-day life so that they are completely natural to you when the pressure is on. (The Art of Learning, 187)

Although there is no one quote about this that works for tango, I really like Waitzkin's creation of a routine that helps focus, calm and prepare a person for something stressful. A LOT of people tell me that they find going out dancing so stressful and anxiety-provoking that they prefer to just come to lessons and dance with me! Now, while that is flattering on one hand, it means that they are working really hard and not getting to play with tango.

If going dancing brings out all of your negative self-talk ("I can't dance; maybe I should just quit!") or your fear of not having a good time ("No good dancers are going to notice me, and I will probably just have a bad evening!") or trigger pet peeves ("I hate it when people keep dancing with bad floorcraft! Why are they getting in my way and ruining my evening?"), then you are setting yourself up to have a negative experience. Dancing should be fun! Socializing should be fun! Dancing should feed your life, not suck it dry.

What calms you down? Build a routine of a few short activities that you enjoy, and help set yourself up to succeed and enjoy the evening. Here's what I like to do:

  1. Shower.
  2. Pick out a nice outfit.
  3. Do 15 minutes of stretching.
  4. Spin or knit for 10-15 minutes.
  5. Go dancing.

Make a routine out of things you already like to do, and the positive feelings you have about those activities, will transfer to the dancing.

Build a short-cut relaxation routine

After you have developed a good routine that helps you prepare for dancing, you can make a shorter version to work for times when you don't have an hour or more to prepare to dance. What if a friend calls and says, "Hey! I'm going to the milonga in twenty minutes! Let's go!" Do you want to refuse because you need an hour to kick into gear?

Think about gradually shortening your routine so that is still relaxes and prepares you, but only takes a few minutes. This is also helpful for those nights when you start to lose your cool part of the way through the milonga: a difficult partner, a bad collision, or just seeing someone you don't want to see across the floor. Maybe going out of the room, doing a stretch, rinsing your face, and getting a drink of water will clear your mind; but only if you have developed a short-hand version that you know works. Part of the reason it is effective, is that you have practiced it, and wired your body to relax when you go through your ritual.

Once a simple inhalation can trigger a state of tremendous alertness, our moment-to-moment awareness becomes blissful, like that of someone half-blind who puts on glasses for the first time. We see more as we walk down the street. The everyday becomes exquisitely beautiful. The motion of boredom becomes alien and absurd as we naturally soak in the lovely subtleties of the 'banal'. (The Art of Learning, 197)

 

An aside from me

This is not from the book, but from a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety. If you are stressed out about dancing tango, go dancing. If you are nervous or anxious, avoiding going will simply cause more anxiety. Just go. If you show up, sit down, change your shoes and chat with people at your table, you have succeeded in getting to the milonga! Dance one or two tandas before fleeing. Next week, stay one more tanda. Add a tanda a week. As you meet more people, you will have more folks to dance with you, and you will feel more at home. Pick a table and sit at the same place each week. Become part of the community, and feel how that helps you feel less nervous about the dancing! And listen to the tiny moments that create joy.

Body alignment: finding YOUR midline

The more I teach, the more I focus on finding where each person's body can balance best.

For a lot of people, dancing tango means finding the front of the partner's body with the front of their own body. Focusing on the front surface of each body sometimes leads to leaning, heaviness, and loss of balance. What other ways can we think of connection, in order to protect our own body and dance better?

 

Spine front-to-back

try to picture my spine in 3-D, and build my body around that. Here's a great picture of the spine in the body that might help you with the image I'm talking about. What I like here, is that you can see the ribs and the pelvis, but the feeling of all the bones being IN the body is really well done. I want my torso and spine to be aligned, nice and long, and supple, like in this picture.

Front-to-back, my pelvis is balanced so as to keep my spine as relaxed and long as possible; and to let me use my deep core muscles instead of my back muscles, to hold me up. This gives me a lot more rotational movement possible around my center.

 

Balancing right and left sides of the body

My body is divided right and left, with my spine as the dividing line. That doesn't mean that there is a straight line down the middle all the time. If I am standing on one foot, that midline has some curves in it! Check out The Birth of Venus! The free leg (the one she does not have weight on), is relaxed, and the pelvis is lower on that side. My pelvis is like a see-saw, with the support side up and the free side down; that tips side to side, each time I change weight from one foot to the other.

My shoulders and shoulder girdle rest in a relaxed way, as if they were draped over my body. Remember that the only bony connection between your arms and your body, is your collarbone: the rest is muscle. This page might be overkill, but it does show how everything is connected.

Both the pelvic girdle and the shoulder girdle have to adjust when we move, in order to created balanced movement through our midline. The more we can be efficient with motion at the periphery (away from the midline), the easier it is to remain balance in the center.

If we adjust right and left at our shoulders (the metronome approach, tick-tocking from side to side with the head and shoulders) instead of the hips (pendulum swing) there is a lot more movement in order to stay balanced. Why work harder??

 

Contrabody motion for balanced walking, running or dancing

The midline constantly changes, balanced over one foot or the other; with a pendulum movement of the hips; and responding balancing motion in the upper body, spine, shoulder girdle and head. If this is done without motion twisting around the torso, efficient movement is impossible.

Contrabody motion means the opposite side of the torso and hips/leg match up. If you have ever gone cross-country skiing, you had to do this to move :-) Right arm/torso and left hip/leg come forward, and then the other alternates. I looked for good explanations on the web, but have not found a really good one yet.

Think about jogging or running, or even walking quickly as if to catch the bus: The faster we move, the more we tend to use contrabody motion, because we cannot move efficiently without it!

 

Exercise for finding good contrabody motion

This is a new find-your-own-body exercise I have been teaching recently:

Version 1: Sitting for hip stability

  • Put your fingers into your solar plexus region, just under where your ribs stop and your belly starts, to feel your oblique muscles
  • Find neutral: straight ahead
  • Twist to your right and feel what muscles start to work (if nothing is working, that's a problem!)
  • Come back to neutral
  • Twist to your left and feel what muscles are working
  • Return to neutral

Version 2: Standing

Take a Pilates ball and squeeze it between your thighs (letting your midline help your stability)

  • Repeat the above exercise, with either a helper or a mirror to ensure that you are not twisting the hips.
  • Make sure that the same muscles are working as in Version I
  • Breathe!

Version 3: No Pilates ball

  • Use your thighs against each other to help you stabilize so that you don't rotate the hips (for those of you with thinner thighs, imagine that they are touching: energy does almost as much as you can with muscle, maybe more!).
  • Continue to use your obliques.
  • Now try walking, feeling this motion.
  • Repeat

 

Putting it all together

Putting it all together is both easier and harder than it sounds. After all, you have been walking since you were a baby--but no one taught you how to walk any specific way. Look! The baby is walking! Cool! Done.

As an adult, it can feel disconcerting to realize how little body awareness most of us use day-to-day. When I ask students if they can feel certain motions, I often am told, "No." Only after learning to tune into the body, can some people feel what is going on in their muscles, bones, energy, etc. For some people, even partial awareness can take years, especially if any emotional trauma is being held in the body (read: all of us).

I like to think of the body as being a bunch of stretchy bands, linked together in the center of the body, working as a system to make elegant, fluid motion possible. That's the muscles.

I think of the bones as a building structure, but perhaps one designed by toddlers: the bones don't stack in a straight line, but each one is held up by bones further down. The whole structure rests on the arches of our feet, which are like the earthquake cushions under skyscrapers: they adjust constantly with micro-motions, so that the entire structure might sway, but will stand up.

The nerves move electricity around our bodies and that of our partners. The tango connection for me is more about this electrical field interface, then just touching (although touching is nice!).

Our breath, circulation and lymph constantly pump through, connecting the other systems at many levels. The fluidity of the dance mirrors the actual fluids in our bodies!

It's a complex system to balance, even when not moving, but that constant motion within our bodies is what keeps us balanced. After all, if we tried to NOT move at all, we would not be dancing!

 

 

 

Tango mindfulness III: games for exploration, contd.

More games and exercises to tune into tango

Last post, I detailed the games that I use to teach how to tune into your own body and to your partner. In tango, we also need to tune into the whole group of people dancing for maximum enjoyment, as well as to the space and the music.

Tuning into the whole group

One of the things I remember from when I was doing my fieldwork in Buenos Aires for my thesis, was the description one older man gave me of dancing "in the old times" (pre-1990s). He said that there used to be very few crashes on the dance floor. If you watched the dancers, everyone seemed to be in the same flow, dancing together. He added that he didn't see that happening anymore, as new dancers were too focused on themselves.

I was struck by what he said, and constructed some exercises aimed at improving the awareness of the group and of the space around the dancers.

1. Blindfold tango: Just as you can feel that you are near someone or something when you have your eyes closed, you can tune into the group dancing without using your eyes. BOTH dancers in each couple close their eyes or are blindfolded. Using the breathing exercises we worked on before, the couple tunes into each other, and then starts to dance around the room in SLOW MOTION with very soft bodies so that if they collide with another couple, no one will get injured. The point of this exercise is to get both leaders and followers tuned into all the people in the room and the space in the room.

2. Solo-couple: I use this drill more than any other drill, as it helps develop navigation skills as well as tuning-in skills. When I call "Solo!" everyone walks around the room, to the music. I encourage people to walk the "wrong" direction, through the middle of the group, etc., to mix up the dancers. When I call "Couple!" everyone grabs the nearest person, and starts dancing WITHOUT pausing (grab & go). When the movement gets caught or clogged behind someone, I yell "Solo!" again and we repeat.

 

Tuning into the space

When I dance in a new space, I really pay attention to the shape of the space and how it affects the dancers. For example, El Beso in Buenos Aires is famous for that awful pillar that creates a traffic jam each time you go around the floor. Folks who are used to dancing there usually manage the space, but visitors take awhile to adjust their dance. Here in Portland, there are several spaces used for practicas and milongas with pillars that make dance flow problematic. In other spaces, the tables are set up in such a way as to intrude on the dance space; while other spaces feel easy to navigate.

Although space management is not just a beginner problem, I use this exercise mostly with beginners and intermediates. I recently used it in my advanced class for the first time, and saw a marked improvement in the quality of dance in a small space, so I will probably use it more in the future.

1. Full space: First, I let everyone dance using the whole room. When we are learning new moves, this is how I usually use the space, so everyone knows how big the room is.

2. 1/2 room: Then, I divide the room with furniture or a human wall, and make everyone do "solo-couple" in this new space.

3. 1/4 room: Gradually, I move the "wall" to create smaller and smaller spaces, each time doing "solo-couple" at least once so that all the dancers adjust to the amount of space they have. I stop squeezing the dance space when people start freaking out (not breathing, tightening their bodies, etc.) unless we are near a festival time, when I use this to accustom the dancers to how it will feeling dancing at the festival.

 

Tuning into the music

For dancers who grew up with rock 'n roll (or more modern versions of North American music), playing with tango music can seem confusing. Several of my students tell me that dancing milonga and vals are easier because they encourage simply dancing to the beat.

However, in order to fully explore tango music, the dancer needs to listen to more than just the beat of the music. Here are some exercises that I have designed to play with the music and get more out of a tanda.

1. Speed drill: sloooooow, pauses, half-time, regular (tiempo), fast (contratiempo)

Most dancers like one or two speeds of movement, but tango can have many different flavors within the dance. By practicing all of the possibilities, dancers can add a flavor or two to their movement, making their dance musically richer (BTW, I do NOT suggest doing this academically while dancing to be "interesting" but rather a way to access deeper listening skills to the partner and the music).

In class, we practice each way of moving to the music, one at a time, before combing them:

  • Almost all dancers can find the tiempo, or regular beat. Those who cannot, can often cheat off of the nearby dancers visually, and more or less move to the rhythm of the dance.
  • Dancing contratiempo, using syncopation, takes a bit more work. While most dancers can understand the concept of dividing the regular beat into two (or in vals, three) parts, many dancers struggle to remain elegant while dancing faster.
  • Many tangos of the rhythmic era function well when danced using just these two ideas. Indeed, this is how most of my students prefer to dance, avoiding the pitfalls of the pausa (pause) :-)
  • Alternating moving and pausing (half-time), or incorporating pauses into the dance, provides a challenge for many dancers. Foremost, if you are not dancing on-balance, pausing is very difficult. Also there is the question of "how long do I pause here?" for folks who don't hear phrasing in the music easily.
  • Adding pauses into the dance, and emphasizing them in the romantic tango music, really brings out a richness that is lost without those pauses.
  • Slow-motion dancing does not fit all tango music, but I like using it when the music is dramatic, or the melody line is slow and drawn-out. I encourage slow-motion dancing as a way to experience the widest range of possibilities for expression in the dance.

2. What's your favorite flavor?

Identify your favorite speed to use for dancing tango, and gradually add more layers of timing. Most dancers understand that more choices means richer dancing, but need some help identifying what they are using, and what could be added.

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat: same music three times:

We danced best when we love the tango (or the vals or the milonga) that we are dancing. Finding the soul of a particular tune can be easy or difficult, depending on our level of natural musicality and/or our level of musical training.

First, we listen to the song while NOT dancing. Then, we listen to the song while dancing solo (What adorno would I do? When? Where are the pauses? Where are the "fast" parts--if there are fast parts? Does this song make me dance slo-mo? etc.). Last, we dance the same song, but with a partner.

Three times through won't make that song yours, but it's a good start!

4. Find the adornos and pauses

What I do to work on my own adornos, is to put a song on and dance around my living room, practicing my adornos, and seeing what occurs to my body for each song. I try not to make any plan, but simply practice using adornos to a particular piece of music.

In a class, I have the entire class, men and women, dance around solo, interacting with the other dancers by playing with adornos (and not talking!). Then we dance again, trying to play more, cut loose, and improvise.

Tango mindfulness II: games for exploration

Teaching mindfulness in tango

First, let's get our definitions straight: mind·ful·ness (mīndfəlnəs/) noun, 1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.

Over the years, I have developed a lot of games and exercises aimed at becoming aware of your own body, your partner's body, your surroundings, and the music. Some I have stolen from teachers; others I have created from a mixture of ideas from various people; and some have popped, fully formed into my head. I use one to three of the drills in a lesson, eventually covering all of them. Each group of students has slightly different needs, so I choose the activities that are most needed by that particular group of students. Here are short descriptions of each one.

Tuning into your body

1. Breath: With eyes closed, standing still on both feet, breathe slowly in and out 3-4 times, focusing on how the lungs and ribs expand and contract. Variation: while breathing, stretch arms out and up on intake; arms out and down on exhale, to encourage movement in the ribcage.

2. Energy: With eyes closed, stand on both feet. When you breathe in, imagine drawing the breath up out of the ground, through all four corners of the feet, up your legs, up your torso, and into your lungs. Exhale reversing the path, and imagine using your exhale to push a magnet away from under your feet/the floor.

3. Axis: Visualize how your body is stacked up, from the feet up. Depending on what we are working on, I will either work through the entire exercise, or just focus on one or two of these points, drawing a figure on the whiteboard for the visual learners to focus on:

  • arch of the foot is the base; 50-50 weight on ball of foot and heel
  • knees are soft, micro-bent (unlocked but not low); a bit forward of feet
  • hips are back compared to feet, using the hip joint to tip to a good angle for balance
  • pelvic floor lifts torso on top of legs, to stack pelvis over arches
  • back is in natural curves, long and stretchy
  • deep abdominal muscles have tone, allowing for fuller breaths
  • ribcage is balanced over hips, a bit further forward to counterbalance
  • head is floating, balanced over arches of feet

 

Tuning into your partner

1. Force fields: I always work on breath and axis solo before doing this exercise, as it takes the solo body and tunes it into the partnership:

  • Facing your partner, stand so that you are in each other's personal space, but not touching.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Breathe, pulling the breath up from the soles of your feet into your lungs, and exhaling back down through your feet (or up through the top of your head)
  • Imagine your favorite color, and as you exhale, send laser beams of that color straight out your feet, THROUGH your partner and to the opposite wall.
  • [Give time for 3-4 breaths before going to next body part]
  • Each time a new body part is added, make a longer rectangle of energy that goes through your partner, to the other wall:
  1. knees
  2. hips
  3. belly button (makes people laugh and breathe)
  4. pelvis
  5. solar plexus
  6. ribcage
  7. collar bones
  8. shoulder blades
  9. full body
  • Now, move in slowly until you are touching the front of your partner, and get into the embrace.
  • Breathe together.
  • On each exhale, step side.
  • On each inhale, find your balance.

2. Breathing together/Darth Vader breathing: I designed this exercise when I taught at the University of Oregon. The students had a lot of fun playing it ("Luke, use the boleo, hooooooo") but older adults will also play it. The point of the drill is to have the partners breathe audibly and at the same time, matching their breath. I prefer to do this in practice hold, as it is a bit too weird even for me to have someone do this right in my ear.

3. Slow motion: Slow motion dancing is difficult because it requires good balance and breathing, but dancing with your partner in slow motion is an exercise in helping each other breathe and balance, and helps the couple tune into each other. At first, I need to remind everyone to slow down every 20-30 seconds, but eventually, the whole group starts to dance slowly, experimenting with whatever moves they know at their level.

 

And there's more!

Next week, I'll go over how to tune into the group, the space and the music for even more tuned-in, mindful tango!

 

 

Tango mindfulness: Tuning into your body and surroundings

A lot of people who come to me to learn tango feel disconnected from their bodies in daily life. I have had students who needed to look at their feet to see if they were standing on their right or left foot at that moment. I have students who, when I say, "Do you feel that?" when I align their bodies, often (repeatedly) say, "No, I don't." When I try to get people to feel how their hip joint works and how the torso is connected to the legs, I have had someone tell me, "I can't feel anything there," referring to their entire pelvic area. Many times, I ask someone to breathe, and they say, "But I am!" in a gasping whisper, because they have run out of breath.

Why are we so out of touch with our own bodies?

We write our life history on our body. Each event that happens, affects our body. It is impossible to divorce life experience from our body. Injuries, emotional hurt, stress, anxiety, abuse--inscribe themselves on our muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, and affect how we stand, walk, and dance tango.

For some people, the best way to survive their life, is to tune out of their body. If the truth of what has happened is too big to face, and it is written on the body, then the body must be ignored.

Tango, however, demands that we start to feel our bodies and tune in to not only ourselves, but our partners. Tango can trigger a lot of emotions and past experiences as the dancer lets body awareness back into their lives. Tango will push your buttons; ALL of your buttons. Ask me how I know.

You cannot dance your best without becoming aware of your whole self, and not everyone is willing to delve into the deep reaches of their mind and body in order to dance better. For those people, a moderate level of tango works just fine.

For those of you who are willing to work through to a deeper or higher level of tango, what can you do to fight your personal body demons?

  1. Practice breathing deeply: put your hands on your ribcage, and expand your ribs to the sides, front and back. Let your lungs stretch your ribcage out and let it release, without a lot of up and down of the shoulders. This will help your tango embrace and provide you with (a lot) more oxygen than you may be currently taking in. Try not to hyperventilate!
  2. Feel your feet on the ground: barefoot, let your toes spread out and wriggle; let the arches of your feet work naturally; let your weight balance between the ball of your foot and your heel, freeing your toes. This will help, even if your tango shoes feel like they are squeezing your toes. Connect to the earth!
  3. Open your solar plexus: many of us from stressful, stress-out families tighten our solar plexus because it feels protective. However, it also cuts us off from other people. Think about letting yourself feel more vulnerable in order to tune in more.
  4. Increase your flexibility: stretching will help you feel more balanced, more open in your body, and more capable of using tango technique correctly. If your body won't stretch because you have spent too many years holding it in, consider Rolfing or some other myofascial release technique to break down adhesions between the surfaces of muscles, allowing your body more grace and motion with less effort.

I am not saying that this is an easy process, but it is a very rewarding process: your tango gets better, your balance gets better, your body strength increases, and your body feels better. Let's get started!

 

 

 

Dancing big in small spaces: what makes it work?

The fabulous Redwood Tango Ensemble played at Norse Hall a few weeks ago. Watching Portland dancers and visitors who came for the Tango Music Institute at Reed College, I realized that a lot of dancers were encountering difficulty dancing up to their regular standard because of the increased number of dancers on the floor. I enjoyed the extra energy level created by more people and less space, but I have a lot more experience dancing in small spaces because I learned to lead in Buenos Aires.

Because of that evening, I planned a six-week session focused on dancing with more energy AND in smaller spaces than the weekly milonga scene in Portland requires. As I always say in class, "I don't expect to see this [move] on the dance floor. The point is that everything else will feel easier once you have tried the more difficult thing." What I wanted to see was more expressive dancing, with good navigation, and without the fear factor showing when space got tighter.

What did we work on to challenge the dancers? For the past six weeks, the leaders worked on learning new classic combinations--and then took them apart and reworked them into new combinations. I think this helps the brain chose alternative possibilities more easily when faced with a navigational challenge. (If you stick to the same five moves, that's fine, but put them in a different order, or mix and match parts of them to fit the music and the space better!) To practice, after we had a handle on those new combinations, we danced in 1/2 the room; and then 1/3 of the room; and then 1/4 of the room.

For the followers, I taught a few elegant adornos, as well as working on stellar basic technique. Yes, my advanced dancers worked on turning, pivoting, walking, doing traspies--the basics--but as if each step REALLY counted in the dance. That added precision really helped the leaders know where the follower was, which in turn made it easier to negotiate small spaces.

Next, the followers worked on being the "motor" of the dance. We played a game I created at the University of Oregon that I call "naughty toddler." The follower does not follow when being the naughty toddler. Instead, they do any move they like, in any direction, but with lots of energy. The leader's job is to channel the energy into a dance as closely resembling what the leader had in mind before, but without wrestling the follower into submission. I think that the freedom created by being given permission to mess up, helps take the dance up to a new level of excitement and joy that eludes the cautious dancer sometimes.

Gradually, we combined the precision of stellar technique with the energy of "naughty toddler" into a follower who IS following, but with tons of energy. This gives the leader a lot more energy with which to play, and that creates new possibilities for combinations, without the leader spending a lot of energy thinking about what comes next. The dance becomes more organic, and more enjoyable for both partners.

As the space got smaller, what we found was that everyone danced BETTER. Why? Because everyone was dancing full out, expressing themselves to the hilt, and letting the moves come naturally. That energy spread from person to person, and then to other couples, and ended with a wild energetic tanda at the end of class that would have looked good on stage, without any dangerous flying limbs.

For inspiration, watch my teachers, Oscar and Georgina Mandagaran, in a video that they posted, providing a great example of how to use small spaces without giving up any expressiveness in the dance. You can listen to what they have to say about dancing well in small spaces, or fast forward to the dance example. I have seen them dance in the milonga in Buenos Aires, and the other dancers hang off of their seats to watch because they use space really well, don't hit other dancers, and still dance a strong, BIG dance.

Now, go out there and DANCE!

 

 

 

The moment is always changing--and so is my axis

I've been reading about impermanence: nothing stays the same forever. I've also been thinking about my axis in new ways that bring together the idea of permanence and balance. Here's what I have so far.

I realize that I've been talking about axis as if it is some attainable location that can be found and maintained. However, being on balance, or on axis, is not a stable state. Even if I have completed a step "perfectly" and have arrived on balance in a new spot, the one thing that can make me fall over, is trying to lock my axis into place.

What if the idea of axis was a constantly moving, micro-adjusting approximation of being on balance? The proprioceptors in your ankles send balance messages to the brain, creating small adjustments to keep you upright when standing. The circulatory system (and other body systems) circulate fluid throughout the body. You breathe in and out, unless you concentrate so hard to dance that you hold your breath; causing you to fall over.

What if axis is more like a fluid held inside a mostly stable body shape? Can we use this picture to have better balance by accepting that balance and axis constantly shift?

Leading different size steps for a saucy tango

Now that all the followers have learned to take uniformly sized steps, we are starting to learn to vary the size of steps during the dance. WHAT?!? What was the point of learning to keep them the same?

  • Safety: As the leader learns to lead, there are already so many variables that having a constant step size from the follower helps make tango danceable;
  • Control: You can't learn to vary your step size on purpose until you have learned to FEEL where your body normally exists in space (kinesthetic awareness).

Now that you have learned control over your steps, we can play with the dance to add flavor (what my teachers Oscar and Georgina call "picante") to your movement, based on musical promptings, other people's use of space, of just for fun.

Two of the combinations we have worked on in the Monday advanced class have dealt with leading the follower to use small steps interspersed with larger steps. In both, we changed the follower's "back-side-forward" steps of a giro into something a bit different.

The marca is the key to changing the follower's step size

One of my advanced students told my teachers that he didn't like using his hand as a part of the lead. He said he had been trained to NOT use his right hand and embrace to control movement. Oscar told him that he could continue to dance like that and "do your four or five moves" but in order to develop clear leads for more moves, he needed to learn to use the marca.

This is to head off all the comments from those of you who say to me, "But [x teacher] told me not to use my hands!" I believe that that person probably just didn't understand 100% how to make this dance easier and more elegant. Yes, it IS more work to learn to lead this way, but it means that your follower will go where you want, and do what you want them to do. I personally like to see that glazed, happy look on my follower's face after a tanda; don't you?

The point of the marca is not to signal the follower, but rather to be able to control the follower's movement gently and effectively. The follower does not need to "know" a signal because the follower's body is adjusted by the marca to make the move work.

The marca needed for step size is the suspension of the follower WHILE MOVING. When I suspend the follower:

  • If she is stationary, she will (hopefully) stay put on one leg;
  • If she is moving when you suspend, the follower's feet stay under her more, making her steps smaller: this is what we need!

 

Medialuna to the left (1st part of the combination)

Rather than getting three medium-sized steps for the medialuna, this combination asked the follower to step "big-big-tiny" in order to end in the cross: #4 is the key part:

  1. salida
  2. regresa (side step back towards original position)
  3. 1 step LOD (leader left foot, follower right foot)
  4. medialuna to the left, with the leader stepping forward diagonal on the first step with the right AND STAYING ON THAT FOOT, and then pivoting in place with the chest to twist the follower into the cross, rather than taking a forward step on the third step of the turn.
  5. Use the marca to pivot the follower into the cross with a light suspension. This limitls the size of step the follower can take.
  6. Collect and (if needed) pivot counterclockwise, then both move laterally facing left diagonal LOD, and collect again to pivot clockwise and step laterally, facing right diagonal.
  7. End ready to move LOD.

 A note: I teach followers to do uniform giro steps UNLESS led to do #4. Other teachers in the community teach to automatically do the cross, but then the leader has only one option for movement. This way, the leader has a choice of possible movements, one of which is to truncate the forward step into the cross.

Main object of doing this medialuna into the cross: use your new skills in step size to adjust spatially to position your next move on the crowded dance floor.