Optimal pelvic alignment and movement for tango

Many people have asked me how to relieve their lower back pain from dancing tango. Part of the answer I addressed in the "Heels up vs. down" post and video last year. Correcting how you use your pelvis and iliofemoral joints (hip joints) will also make your dance pain-free and beautiful at the same time. Efficient movement looks better and feels better!

Walking, pausing and balance

Tango differs from normal walking in that you must be ready to change directions at the end of each step. Yes, you might take a few steps before doing something else, but you need to be prepared at all times to avoid other dancers, deal with your balance and your partner's balance, and to respond to inspiration.

The reinitiation of movement after each step feels like a heartbeat to me. The movement is not continuous, but has a pulse with each new step. The observer may not see the "stop" after each step, but the dancers have a split second at least where they could stop, or simply begin the next step from a more balanced position.

The best way to be prepared, is to train yourself to arrive on balance after each step. Both feet should be able to land under your body, with the free leg relaxed and the support leg strong but not tense. This means that your head, ribs, back, hips and legs need to be stacked up and aligned to avoid using extra muscle wear and tear.

I find it helpful to think about how your inner thighs and gluteal muscles hug UP into your pelvic floor. Then, think about how your abdominals and back muscles hug your body DOWN into your pelvis. You are always in upper-body/lower-body alignment every step you take: this is the ideal. How you line your pelvis up with your feet and legs, helps you maintain this ideal balance.

Side-to-side (pendulum) motion at the sacrum

When you walk normally, your pelvis adjusts from one leg to the other to allow your upper body and head to move smoothly. Put your thumbs on your sacrum, right at the base of your spine where it connects to your pelvis. Now, walk "normally" (which seems to be very hard to do while we are thinking about it!). Can you feel how your pelvis tips slightly side-to-side? This is normal and we want it in tango.

The amount of pendulum will vary depending on the pelvis. Men have narrower hips, so the movement will be slighter. Women with wide hips will tip more than women with narrow hips; but still more than the average guy. We are not trying to add extra movement here: a small amount is efficient and helps with balance. This is NOT the time to drag out your ballroom "Latin motion" hips! What is the smallest movement that works here?

Note: some people have been taught not to move their hips. If the adult who raised you walked with stiff hips, you will probably also do so; we learn from the adults who parent us. Or, a dance teacher might have told you to hold your hips parallel or flat while moving; this is just not good for you! Time to learn/relearn efficient movement.

If you have had any injuries that make you clench your lower spine or pelvic muscles, you may be fighting your own body in an effort to avoid pain. This movement should NOT create any pain: have your doctor/PT/chiropractor check that you are moving well.

Front-to-back hip tip

I've been discussing hip placement with my chiropractor, physical trainer and Pilates teacher recently. Why is the motion for tango different than for strength training? The answer: tango needs the body to be able to rotate at the hips or the torso A LOT more than in daily walking and running. It's about mobility, not stability. Therefore, there is a tiny bit more tip at the hip joints to facilitate that readiness to move, while remaining as stable as possible at the same time. Whew!

Grab your butt

Those of you who have been in lessons with me know what I'm going to say here. In order to find how your hip joint works, grab your sitz bones (your ischial tuberosities if you prefer), and tip yourself over from there (don't arch your back). This should make your lower back feel broad and relaxed, allowing for more rotation when needed.

Another way to find the best position for your hip, is to grab your sitz bone and the front of your hip where it folds, next to your pubic bone. Let your hands tip you forward and backward, feeling for a release of the ligament in the front of the hip. You want to be in the zone between these points, not too far forward and not too far back.

When you get your pelvis out of that tight mode of hanging out on your front ligaments, it recruits your deep abdominals, your psoas, your pelvic floor--all the parts that allow you to suspend your upper body over your lower body, but in a way that allows movement IN ANY DIRECTION.

Share the work

Remember: Let your muscles hug your bones. Let all of your joints share the weight/stress of moving so that no one part is doing all the work. If you have a problem area (knee, ankle, etc.), spread that work out away from the weak spot.

Along with spreading the work out, try to use as little work as possible to maintain correct posture and motion. That way, you always have something left to save you if you fall, protect you from a difficult partner; or to play with when you get a partner where you can really cut loose!

Get your hips in the right position, keep them within the margin of error that allows for adjustment. Let your pelvic floor and deep abs lift. Let those butt muscles work for you. Focus on efficient, beautiful motion, and you will have a powerful tango.

Check out my YouTube channel

I put tango how-to videos up as I have time. I have not had time to put up a walking video, but there are videos on pivoting and turning, as well as milonga drills. There are also exercise, including hip openers. All of them focus on correct movement, and you can watch the hip motion and work on yours. Mine is not perfect, but we are all working on improving!

Esther Gokhale and walking

I also have a playlist about walking and posture from Esther Gokhale's work (she is my hero)! As she says, "If it were not behind you, we would call it something else!" I will add to this playlist as I find new information from her.

BE INSPIRED!

 

Train your brain and your tango at the same time

One of my students cares for his parent who has Alzheimer's. When he called the support hotline for caregivers, he asked what he should be doing to avoid Alzheimer's--and she told him he should dance Argentine Tango! He happily informed her that he already did that.

What makes Argentine Tango especially good for maintaining brain health, compared to, say, ballroom dancing? Instead of memorizing set patterns and dancing them in sequence, tango asks more of the dancer. Improvisation within the dance means constantly playing with the building blocks of tango and recombining them in different ways. This forces your brain to make new connections, reinforcing memory and providing more pathways to find information stored there.

Like LEGO, tango components can be built into all sorts of interesting patterns that weren't on the picture on the box. If you allow yourself to do the same beginning, middle and end of a move, without variation, your dance will be OK; it's OK to build the picture on the box. However, it is NOT building your brain, and it is NOT developing your dance!

When I teach, I encourage students to stretch their mind along with their body. It creates pockets of questions about moves, questions of how you put things together. When your brain has to work a bit to build connections between different bits of information,  that information "sticks" better. You remember it, and have several pathways to accessing the moves while you dance.

Turns (giros)

Let's use turns as an example, since we have been studying them this month in FUNdamentals class. Many of you came into class with your favorite one or two turn combinations. I have spent the month trying to deconstruct your turns into components, so that you can then take the parts and make NEW versions to enhance your dance (and your brain). Yes, this is hard! Yes, this is good for your brain (and your tango).

Entrances

If you look at the dance from what the follower is doing, there are only three ways to begin a turn: front, side and back steps. For a standard giro, the leader needs to be in the center of the turn for the follower to turn around that spot. For right now, let's ignore traveling turns and sacadas turns, where the leader does not stay in one place. How do you start a turn so that followers get different entrances into the turn? Here's what we explored:

  1. A traspie (rebound, rock step, whatever you call it)--usually propels the follower into a front or side step, depending on the direction of the move.
  2. A salida (any side step, really), followed by the leader keeping both feet under and creating torque around the spot. People will argue whether this means the side step is the first step of the turn, or if the next step (usually a back cross) is the beginning.
  3. Back ochos into a turn ensure that the follower's first step is a back step.
  4. Front ochos into a turn ensure that the first step of the turn is a front step if the leader does unaccompanied front ochos; if the leader accompanies the step, we are back to the question of whether that, or the following side step, starts the turn.

Middle of the turn

Here, if you don't add things like sacadas, your only choices have to do with syncopation. The follower is supposed to syncopate by default on the giro: two fast and two slow steps. If the leader wants to slow down, the follower has to feel the deceleration before launching into the back cross step. If the leader wants the follower to speed up, the follower has to feel acceleration that encourages a continuation of the two fast steps. Most people limit themselves to one speed. Let the music and your partner inspire you to try to vary this!

Exits

The option I teach first in turns, is to finish turning, pause, and walk out. This is great, but it doesn't mean you should only do that for your tango career! Start playing with "catching" the follower's front, side and back step, and accompanying them OUT of the turn. If you think of the turn as a lollipop, find the stick!

The options we have explored in class:

  1. Exit with back ochos (lead front, follow back, but with pivots)
  2. Exit with paso americano (both lead and follow do front steps)
  3. Exit with a front ochos (lead side, follow forward)
  4. Exit with a salida (both people take side steps)
  5. The possibilities are endless, but we only had a month!

For some people, two turns are enough, and that is fine. That's good enough for government work. But consider pushing your brain, building those new connections. The more you challenge yourself, the more you improve your brain health! I hope that's worth the extra work for you!

Foot-saving tips for ballroom dancers starting Argentine Tango

Once you have your shoulders relaxed with a good embrace, and your hips in the right position to support your back, Argentine Tango should be a lot easier to manage for people coming to it from ballroom dancing. There's really only one thing more that people complain about: "My feet hurt!"

A lot of ballroom teachers teach dancers to get up on the balls of the feet to dance.  Although I personally would never counsel that having been a student of anatomy and kinesiology, I can see that the "look" of the dance is being stressed over the "feel" of the dance; I understand even if I disagree.

What's different in tango?

Tango requires a constant preparedness to change direction. As it is much more improvisational, neither the leader nor the follower may have a plan further ahead than the current step in many cases. Balance and ability to pivot and change direction take precedence over everything else in terms of the foot.

More surface area improves balance

Get those heels down! Spread out your toes! Yoga talks about the four corners of the foot: use that concept in tango.

Think about elephant feet: elephants have good balance and REALLY big feet. Imagine you have huge feet that hold you up. If you are in heels, pretend that teeny stiletto heel is enormous!

Engage your arch for pivoting

This is especially true for turns. Instead of popping up to remove as much of your foot as possible from the ground, stay more grounded. You need to keep your metatarsal arches as the center of your work, so spread your toes out, rather than scrunching them in. Yes, it takes effort to keep the arches as the focus, not the heads of the metatarsal bones. However, using that arch for support means more hours of dancing before your feet give out.

Build your ankle strength

I inherited very weak ankles from my mother. I was always the kid with an Ace bandage from spraining and straining my ankles. Luckily, seven years of West African dance training coincided with my Argentine Tango beginnings. That helped a lot, but I still didn't have the strength to work correctly in high heels

I have worked hard to correct that, and have used ankle exercises based on the ones that I have learned from physical therapists and trainers to help my students also build their ankles. A lot of power in tango comes from the foot and ankle working together. Once the ankle is strong, the temptation to take all of the work into the toes, ballet-style, can fade :-)

What's the best tango embrace?

Over the 20+ years I have danced tango, I have been taught LOTS of different "best" ways to embrace my partner in tango. Many students have come to me with sore arms, shoulders and backs "caused" by their partners. "What's the best way to dance so I don't get hurt?"

I see a lot of room for improvement in how we dance and how we teach the embrace. For myself, I have found that learning to stabilize my shoulders and arms has helped me dance better with more people, and with fewer injuries. As long as I am using my body correctly, I can do several different styles of tango embrace.

So what is best? Body-based choices. You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?

Anchor your shoulder girdle

You have several layers of muscles at work in your back. You want to make sure that the deepest levels of muscles are strong and aligned, and then stack the outer layers on from there. If you use too much neck and shoulder work for your embrace, you are stressing ALL the layers.

Since it is hard to feel the layers of muscle in your back (for most people), focus on one area: the lower tip of your shoulder blade, and the muscles that help anchor it into the center of your body.

back shot for shoulder girdle video with words.jpg

 

Exercises

Here are the exercises that I am currently for MY shoulder girdle strength!

1. Table top: Get your arms and shoulder girdle in the right position to use as a stable area.

2. Plank: Build your strength and stability by placing more demand on that area.

3. Negative pushups: After your can stabilize, continue to improve by increasing the demand on those muscles.

4. Pushups (and yes, I can't do these yet!). For those of you out there who do pushups: MAKE SURE you are doing them using these muscles, or you won't be training the correct muscles. Have someone watch you to make sure that the focus is back muscles. Yes, there are other muscles being used, but those muscles may not help your tango embrace as much.

 

Want more info?

For more in-depth info, I recommend two fabulous books that I use all the time to show my students how the body works:

  • The Anatomy of Exercise & Movement by Jo Ann Saugaard-Jones
  • Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain (and there is a related Exercises book)

Imagery to help you

Words get in the way. For many people, pictures work better (especially for my visual learners). However I can't transmit the picture in my head to yours without words and the pictures I draw while teaching. Here are some pictures that work for me or some of my students. If they don't work for you, throw them out!

  • Wine corkscrew: Think about opening a bottle of win. Your shoulder blades are the wings that pull down and in. Your neck and spine are the cork sliding straight up!
  • Hanger: Imagine that the back of your neck is the hanger handle, and that your shoulders and arms are following gravity, like a heavy coat drapes on the hanger. The coat does not need to hold itself up.
  • Tree: Your legs and torso are the main strength to hold up the branches. Imagine your head is the top of the tree and that you are REALLY tall. Relax your shoulders: the roots are holding you up. The tree on the right of the picture is the one I think about: it's on my college campus, and I spent a lot of time under it, playing guitar. Don't laugh too hard.
  • Fountain: Water shoots up and out of your head, falls to the basin of the fountain, and comes up the middle again. The shoulders are out of the picture! This can help with breathing as well as energy circulation.

Practice time = all the time you aren't dancing!

I definitely try to "forget" all of my technique and just dance when I am out dancing. In order to do that, my technique needs to be hard-wired into my brain so that it just happens. How do you get to that level as fast as possible? Do your tango homework all the time!

Practicing all the time does not mean carving out an hour or two a day to practice. I certainly do not manage that, and I am a dance teacher. Instead, I try to stay aware of how I move my body whenever I have spare brainpower.

I suggest:

  • Find good posture for your shoulders and middle back when you start work.
  • Set your computer timer so that it gives you a reminder every 30 minutes to find your center back, relax your shoulders, and restart your work with better posture.
  • Standing in line waiting for something? Use those extra brain cells for finding your perfect alignment so that you can use it in tango without thinking!
  • If you have a job where they don't stare if you do stretches, take 5 minutes of your break time and do the exercises above.
  • When you walk the dog, carry groceries, cart your kid around, etc., check in: are you working "smart" or cheating? Fix it!

 

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.

Exercises for fabulous boleos: the video

The origins

When Guillermo di Fazio was in Portland for Valentango, I had the chance to study privately with him. I am very interested in the style of the old masters, so when he announced a class on Todaro's style/combos, I was very excited. Unfortunately, I had to work at the time of the class, so I contacted him, requesting private lesson time.

During my lesson, Guillermo taught me:

  1. the material from the Todaro class.
  2. all the material he had hoped to cover but had not.
  3. another Todaro combo that occurred to him while we were working.
  4. drills to prep the leaders for the combinations we had worked on.

I really enjoyed dancing with someone who could lead me in the combo, and then follow well, so that I could try the same thing that I had just followed. I learn best this way, and am happiest with a strong teacher who can do this well.

My brain completely full, I sat with my camera, rewatched the lesson and took notes until all the info was on paper and on film. Although I lose some of the information, that way, the maximum that I CAN retain can be found :-)

Crack balls, KNIFE!

As is my habit, I share all information I learn with my students. I don't see a purpose in withholding information to make people wait, or pay more, or to keep my level higher. That's my main complaint about dance schools with prescribed levels--you know what I mean.

Anyway, by teaching new information, I can see how much of it works for dancers at beginner or intermediate or advanced levels, what other material they need in order to be able to do the movements; and how I can best explain it so that more people get it faster. Body Dynamics (for those of you in Portland, this is my 7 PM Monday class at Om Movement Studio) gets all my new material, as it preps for all levels of my group classes.

The men in the class were taken back by Guillermo's suggested instructions of "Crack balls! Knife!" to explain how to swing the leg across the body, pivot, and stop abruptly, on balance. The women just thought it was funny. I have since changed how I describe the movement.

Adapting drills for other purposes

As the Todaro combos proved too difficult for my students to actually do, I started to look for other applications for these drills. I broke down the exercise into easier parts, and working up to the full effect.

Immediately, I noticed that these drills were really about having good balance while one leg was completely relaxed and moving quickly, followed by pivoting on balance. Hmm...this seems to be the same info needed for doing good follower moves that require loose legs! I made last week's video to show how this can benefit followers.

 

In addition, there are a lot of possiblities for the leader to add into other moves, if s/he is sooo on balance that flicking the free leg around does not inhibit a clear lead. We have recently been playing a new game I call "Crazy legs" that incorporates the leader playing with this while the follower does turns.

Go watch the video, do the exercises, and come to class!

 

 

 

 

What having a broken big toe has taught me about my tango

The saga

The bad news

About a month ago, I got kicked by an enthusiastic dancer. It hurt a lot, but I carried on teaching. The next day, another student (a doctor) felt my toe and told me she couldn't feel a fracture. I kept on teaching, but mostly danced in socks for the week.

I went dancing a week later, in heels as usual. After about three tandas, I couldn't dance anymore. I figured that, after teaching five hours, I was just tired. However, another week in socks, and another attempt to dance in heels after the second week, ended the same way. I felt a sharp snapping feeling in my toe, and couldn't pivot anymore.

My husband insisted that I go to urgent care, where they xrayed my toe, told me they didn't see a break, and sent me home in a boot with my big toe buddy-wrapped to my second toe.

The next day, the doctor called to say that the radiologist "might" have found a fracture of my toe. Two days later, they confirmed that my toe was broken. My chiropractor, who works with Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers, read me the riot act, and made me promise to cut down on teaching, as well as to wear this (stupid) boot for six weeks.

I am two weeks into the six weeks. I figure that I probably re-broke the toe at least once before wearing the boot, so I am counting the break from the Xray day, rather than from being kicked. I am NOT a good patient. I push my body. I am still teaching about three hours a day, six days a week. Being self-employed means that I don't have workman's compensation for injury on the job, and I don't have sick days or paid vacation; so I work.

The good news

I am getting a lot of help from my students. Some are coming to classes with a partner instead of solo. Some have switched to every other week to rest my foot. Some are helping out with my dance classes. I really appreciate it!

That's the only good part when I'm in a grumpy mood about my (stupid) foot.

I can still lead!

All of those years of learning moves to the right and to the left, using either foot, have finally paid off!

I can't pivot on my left foot, and the boot doesn't let me articulate my left foot BUT I have found that I can mostly lead as well as without the boot. When I need to pivot, I use my right foot. If I need a really good VROOM! of energy to get the follower to do something, I start on my right foot. I don't even really have to think about adjusting moves because of years of training lead and follow, on all my moves. I know

Simply from having learned to dance from elderly Argentine men on the dance floor, I can see how less than stellar posture and technique can still make a good dance. I focus on the follower and being clear (as usual), and I adapt my dance as needed.

I like that my core strength and my balance allow me to do a lot of my giros and other pivoting moves, on one foot. All those hours of balance training have paid off too!

Following is harder on my body

I don't think this is always the case, but without a left foot that pivots, I have to work a lot harder to get to where the leader needs me to be, without causing trouble for the leader. I have developed ways to cheat that I have not had to ever use before. It's not as easy as leading, where I have the choice of where the dance is headed, and can avoid pivoting when needed.

The injury certain shows me that I have been dancing over the center of my arch, using my metatarsals instead of my toes. If I danced on my toes, I would not be able to dance at all right now. Thank goodness for healthy technique!

My chiropractor said that he was surprised that I wasn't out of alignment, between the broken toe and the awful boot. He said it must be due to my good walking technique. He also said he is always amazed at how healthy my feet look despite wearing heels a lot, and agreed that my technique must be strong.

No social dancing for six weeks??!!??

Go out and dance a tanda for me: I can't go out social dancing until this is over. It's just too painful to watch everyone else dancing when I can't. Sigh.

At least I can still teach! I think I would go crazy without any dance. I have four new class sessions that start this week. Lots of plans, lots of enthusiasm, lots of frustration that I can't show everything the way I would like to show it.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Access more of your tango knowledge on the dance floor!

Typical tango nightmare

The music begins. Joe Tango asks someone to dance. The floor is a bit crowded, which makes Joe a bit tense. The song is unfamiliar, which makes him more tense. The partner is someone he would like to impress with his tango skills: more pressure! Suddenly, Joe can only remember three moves. His brain freezes, and for a moment, he can't remember even a single move. Freak out time!

If you lead tango, I am sure this has happened to you before. For some dancers, this is how it feels at the beginning. For others, this is how it always feels when the room is crowded. People say to me, "I went to [x] milonga, and it was too crowded to dance, but YOU looked like you were having fun and doing cool moves!" (in an accusing tone of voice). "How did you do that?!"

How I deal with lack of space

The reason I don't freak out in crowded spaces, is that I had the equivalent of learning to drive in Boston as my training for learning to lead tango. Three years into tango, I spent four months over the space of two years, dancing in Buenos Aires. I led a lot at Torquato Tasso, La Viruta, even at El Beso.

My Spanish was eight weeks old when I first visited Bs As, so I had no idea how much negative attention I was attracting by leading. Some of the guys said rude things about "women drivers" and some women refused to dance with me. However, many guys simply tried to get me to run into them so that they could point out how badly I lead. Others just tried to run me off the dance floor.

I learned to protect my partner from other couples and from the tables at the edge of the floor. I saw that everyone else seemed to be leading just fine in small spaces, and copied their moves. I learned that a well-planted axis (an ample butt helps) keeps other leaders from taking your space. I experienced following good leaders with no space to maneuver, and alternated that with leading in the same spaces.

If you can't make it to Buenos Aires, go to crowded practicas. Or, set up chairs in your practice space, and dance around them. Attend classes focused on dancing well in small spaces. Practice is the only way to learn to do this.

How I remember moves easily

I have discussed how I arrange my vocabulary of tango moves in a way that makes it easier to remember more moves than my short-term memory has slots for recall. Here is an example of some moves from a student's lesson:


Apart from that, I practice moves in different combinations. I practice them to the right and left. I practice them as a leader and as a follower. This gives me more ease in recall, as I don't have to follow the same brain path to find a move; there are lots of connections between each move and at least several other moves.

How I deal with unfamiliar songs

At this point, I only hear a new song a few times each year. Very few of the tangos, valses and milongas that DJs play are strange to me, so I rarely have this problem anymore. So, the easy answer is: listen to tango all the time :-)

A more useful answer when you are already on the dance floor: tune into the "flavor" of the music. Explore the music with your partner. The next time you hear that tango, you will dance it better. Approach it as a new adventure, not a roadblock to good dancing!

One outstanding problem: shyness

I don't know the answer to how to deal with the nervousness that accompanies dancing with someone who you are nervous about leading. I get nervous when I dance with someone new who is above my level, even though I have danced tango for twenty years! Being a shy person, I think I will always struggle with this part of couple dancing. I just try to remember that they would like to enjoy themselves, and I try to give them a sensitive, connected, energized dance.

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!

Take a walk on the wild [out]side!

This session, I am teaching a class on using steps that use the "outside" of the dance. That is, the leader is walking on the follower's left side, in close embrace. I looked around and saw that very few people are using this, and fewer are using it effectively :-)

I really like dancing on the "outside" because it provides me with more play-space in the dance. A lot of the moves I do on the outside are things that I learned by dancing with the old milongueros in Buenos Aires milongas back more than fifteen years ago, and in classes with Jose Garafalo and with Tete Rusconi, also way back then.

Although the moves are not difficult, the perception that there is not enough room to move, causes some comical coping strategies. I showed a few to my students, who giggled, but said that was what they did to try to avoid running into the follower. So, here are some pointers for "walking on the wild side" of tango.

Getting there

My favorite

The best thing about my favorite way to switch to the outside is that it is communicates clearly to the follower AND takes up no space on the dance floor.

  1. salida: Complete the move! Collect your feet and make sure the follower did too.
  2. suspend: I think about keeping my hands with the follower and stabilizing her/his balance as the most important parts here. A light, teeny lift, small enough so that onlookers can't see it, but the follower can feel it, is my goal.
  3. slide to the outside: Although it is theoretically possible to just change weight in place to get into crossed system, I have never danced this move where taking a small open step onto my right foot did not improve this move. You really have to slide your chest across the follower's chest (so get used to it!) to get all of your axis on the outside lane.
  4. walk forward: That's why you switched over here anyway! I don't see a point to doing all this work in order to move back or sideways. If you do, PLEASE tell me what you do here, and why; all of my moves on the outside start with at least one forward step, I think.

 

Follower happy, everybody happy!

Don't rush the follower! A lot of people do an approximation of the above instructions. When I am following, I get thrown through more in a "you-know-this-so-do-it" mode that I hate. A lot of teachers teach this as a double-time step. They say that, if you do it before the follower knows you are heading, s/he won't move into your way.

WRONG!

Take your time on each part of the move. Make sure the follower is on balance (and you are on balance) before doing the next step of the shift to the outside. Balance equals elegance and beauty. Rushing makes you and your follower look bad. Sacrifice your musical plan to the comfort of the follower, and you will see a difference.

After you master this as a slow move, of course you can speed it up, but focus on the follower and making them stable and comfortable first, or you won't have a lot of choices of how to use the outside lane.

 

Other variations that work

What I learned from the old guys

In the milongas, sometimes the older guys would do a variant of this move that takes even less room (no salida). I didn't ever hear a teacher teach this version, but I find it works well with a follower who follows, rather than trying to figure out what move I am going to do :-)

  1. Stand on BOTH feet: You are the tree!
  2. Shift the follower over to your left so that you are have room to walk forward.
  3. Walk forward.

Many dancers are not used to moving just the follower, but I find this move easy to do. One of my students watched me do it, and then had me lead her, and said, "But how do you DO that?!"

It's all about intention. When I lead, I imagine where I want my follower to do, and then I accompany that step. A follower who is tuned in to energy moves based on my intent, not my pushing/shoving. I almost don't need to lead with my body because my energy has already moved her/him. This is very woo-woo, but this is how I lead. Be clear with your intentions, and this move is easy.

 

Change at the cross

This takes more room, and I originally learned it in open embrace. I do not usually use it, but it's kosher.

  1. Walk to the cross. Instead of maintaining your positioning, allow the follower to move slightly in front of you as the cross is done (often they do this by accident, so then I take advantage of the "naughty toddler" move and go to the outside).
  2. Leave a step out: both people now have the right foot free.
  3. Walk forward. If you did not get a shift over at the cross, you need to so a slight shift here.

 

Change on the fly

This takes the most room. I remember learning it my first year in tango, probably from Daniel Trenner the first weekend I ever danced tango. Again, I learned it in open embrace, and I don't think it works very well in close embrace. However, since it takes so much space, it may just be that I avoid it because I have improved versions to dance.

  1. Walk regularly. For me, this is in a slight V, with the leader on their own "track"--what some of you call the inside track but I call normal.
  2. Walk in front of your follower.
  3. Walk to the outside of your follower.

I see a lot of people try to do this, but they usually twist their hips to the right and walk off in random directions, rather than forward in the line of dance. It's just harder to know where your partner is when you switch on the fly. I suggest not doing this in close embrace.

 

Now that I am here, what do I do?

Next week, I'll go over my favorite things to do from this position. Since one of the best things I learned from my excursion into learning theory is that posing a question and trying to answer it before being given a solution creates more brain connections and stronger memory when you DO figure it out, I'll give you some time to go play.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

What's the best way to learn Argentine Tango, Part IV

Below are a few odds and ends from Make It Stick that didn't fit anywhere else, but seemed important to share with you.

Why you need a teacher to master tango

 

We are all hardwired to make errors in judgment. Good judgment is a skill one must acquire, becoming an astute observer of one’s own thinking and performance . . . when we’re incompetent, we tend to overestimate our competence and see little reason to change… (Brown et al. 104)

One more piece of the learning puzzle remains: calibration. Calibration is: “the act of aligning your judgments of what you know and don’t know with objective feedback so as to avoid being carried off by the illusions of mastery. . ." (Brown et al 210).

It's hard to give yourself objective feedback when learning something. Brown et al. point out that many people have a false sense of mastery of information long before they actually know the new material well. Also, because we base our sense of mastery on our own subjective experience, we can be WAY off base about our level of mastery if no one else gives us a reality check (Brown et al. 111).

Taking private lessons, in addition to group lessons, is the only way to become a master of tango. If you don't care what level you reach, and you just want to dance a little for fun, you can get by with group lessons. Watching YouTube will not teach you the sublety of tango :-)


Deliberate practice usually isn’t enjoyable, and for most learners it requires a coach or trainer who can help identify areas of performance that need to be improved, help focus attention on specific aspects, and provide feedback to keep perception and judgment accurate. (Brown et al. 184)

 

It's OK to fail!

I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work. Thomas Edison

Western culture doesn't like failure. Many of us will do just about anything to avoid making mistakes, especially publically (Brown et al 90). Failure has spurred many new discoveries over the eons, and avoiding failure can make us so risk-adverse that we are too afraid to try anything new, to experiment to find new things (Brown et al 92-93). What if we were all too afraid to try learning? There would be no tango moves that had been created in the past 100+ years for us to dance. I think that most moves come from making mistakes while doing moves that already exist. What a boring dance tango would be without mistakes!

…to achieve expertise requires thousands of hours of dedicated practice in which one strives to surpass one’s current level of ability, a process in which failure becomes an essential experience on the path to mastery. . . The qualities of persistence and resiliency, where failure is seen as useful information, underlie successful innovation in every sphere and lie at the core of nearly all successful learning. (Brown et al 93)

 

There is no age limit

There’s virtually no limit to how much learning we can remember as long as we relate it to what we already know.” In fact, because new learning depends on prior learning, the more we learn, the more possible connections we create for further learning. (Brown et al 76)

Humans continue to generate neurons in the hippocampus throughout life. This is the area of the brain where we consolidate learning and memory, so we should be able to learn as long as we make an effort (Brown et al. 172).

 

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right

Many people believe that their intellectual ability is hardwired from birth, and that failure to meet a learning challenge is an indictment of their native ability. But every time you learn something new, you change the brain. . . . “We become capable through the learning and development of mental models that enable us to reason, solve, and create . . .  the elements that shape your intellectual abilities lie to a surprising extent within your own control. (Brown et al. 23)

According to Brown et al., “Mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it (35-6)." In studies of mastery, it has been seen that “ten thousand hours or ten years of practice was the average time the people . . .studied had invested to become expert in their fields" (Brown et al. 185).

 

Suggestions for Gaining Mastery

 

  1. Be the one in charge: “Mastery, especially of complex ideas, skills and processes, is a quest.” Don’t leave it up to the teacher!
  2. Embrace the notion of successful intelligence: Build on your strengths, but push your envelope. Figure out what you want to learn, what you need to do to get there, make a plan, and keep pushing yourself, testing yourself, and working on the areas that are weak.
  3. Adopt active learning strategies: “develop workarounds or compensating skills for impediments or holes in your aptitudes.” Make sure you aren’t just doing what feels easy and safe.
  4. Build the structure: look for the deep fundamental structures of what you want to learn, and build on those. That organizes all the learning, creates connections, and makes for successful learning (Brown et al. 159-160).

Where are you on your ten thousand hours? Get out there and dance!

 

 

 

What's the best way to learn Argentine Tango, Part III

Make It Stick: Why spaced, interleaved practice works

In the spirit of Make It Stick, I am adding details and presenting some review of the material from before, but in a different way here, to "make it stick" in your brain :-)

In this post, I am detailing how to think of the process of learning, and how you can use your practice best to retain information.

Effortful Retrieval

In effect, retrieval---interrupts forgetting. (Brown et al. 37).

Finding or remembering old information is hard because our brain has forgotten the cues or connections to the information stored, not because we have lost information permanently (Brown et al. 77). So how do we help ourselves keep information at our fingertips? Struggling to find old information forces the brain to make new connections, linking old information to new information and/or modifying the information we are retrieving with new details.

For tango, the way we self-test/retrieve information, is to try moves or techniques of moving, at practicas or milongas. If it works, you know it! If it doesn't, that is also clear. In one study that Brown et al. cited, students who didn't get tested at all on information forgot 52% of what they had learned after ONE week, while students who had been tested repeatedly, only forgot 10% (Brown et al. 55). What is the takeaway here? GO DANCING!

 

Repeated retrieval

To be most effective, retrieval must be repeated again and again, in spaced out sessions so that the recall, rather than becoming a mindless recitation, requires some cognitive effort. (Brown et al. 45)

Once you have it right, don't stop practicing/reviewing! It is easy to misremember material. Often, if you dance with someone doing it wrong, you will change your memory of the move to what they are doing. Or, someone may remember it differently, and you start to form a memory based on the other person's version (Brown et al. 116-7).

Often in tango, we say that you have to learn something at least three times to remember it well. I have heard numerous teachers repeat this information. Why does repeating the learning experience help you remember? Relearning/recalling learning makes material clearer, connects it better into cues/memory and “weakens competing routes” of cues/memory (Brown et al. 83).

 

Elaboration

Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. (Brown et al. 22)

When you learn something new in tango, figure out how it fits into the information you already know. This creates connections in your brain that help you access the new information more readily. Find how the new move or technique fits into the big picture of your tango dancing, and you will remember the information better.

One way I help my students do this, is to present information that is closely related, but different. Each new step is connected into the material we have already learned.

For example, my advanced class is working on back paradas, leader front sacadas through the follower's back step, and single-axis turns from the follower's back step. For these three moves, there is only a slight change in the lead to produce different results (send the follower, but don't go; intersect the middle of the follower's back step; and intersect the follower's back step as close to the new landing spot as possible). When we work on them in the same class, the followers can feel the difference in the leader's moves more clearly, and the leaders can see when they have misjudged the movement (and have a backup plan in place, using one of the other options).

I often have students work together doing peer-teaching, which requires them to be able to explain what they are going in their own words.

 

Generation

As you cast about for a solution, retrieving related knowledge from memory, you strengthen the route to a gap in your learning even before the answer is provided to fill it and, when you do fill it, connections are made to the related material that is fresh in your mind from the effort. (Brown et al. 88)

Generation is "the act of trying to answer a question or attempting to solve a problem rather than being presented with the information or the solution is known as generation” (Brown et al. 87). If you have to generate part of the information (fill in the blank for example); you remember the information better because you had to work on retrieval more (Brown et al. 48).

Last week, I taught Tete's "famous ocho" and this week, I taught the reverse volcada that I think developed from Tete's move. I showed the class Tete's ocho, and asked, "What would happen if I moved away from the follower at this point?" Answer: the follower steps forward. "What could I do to prevent the follower from stepping?" Answer: the leader suspends the follower so that s/he can't step. "How do I need to move to get back on balance, moving line-of-dance, to exit?" Answer: [Usually] stepping behind with my left, then sidewises with my right foot, and then walking forward out of the move.

As we worked through each piece of the movement, I tried to ask a question that required thought. I can just show the move over and over, but it won't "stick" the way that requiring students to generate their own answers will. I am still working on this part, as I love to be helpful and provide answers for them :-)

 

Reflection

Take time to think about what you’ve just learned and tie it into what you already know; figure out what you need to know to make it all fit together, or what skill you are still lacking in order to be able to do this thing (Brown et al 209). What is the big picture? What is the overarching larger context for this new information?

People who learn to extract the key ideas from new material and organize them into a mental model and connect that model to prior knowledge show an advantage in learning complex mastery. (Brown et al. 22)

After a class, you should think about/note/write down the key ideas or moves that you have learned. This helps with reflection (retrieval of recently learned info), elaboration (connecting it to what you already know) and generation (putting it in your own words as you mentally rehearse it) (Brown et al. 88).

I write detailed notes during and after a class when I study with a new teacher, or if I want to remember a pattern to teach it later. For example, if I hadn't kept a notebook during my studies with Tete in 2000 and 2001, I would never be able to teach a class of his movements from memory in 2015!

 

What's the best way to learn Argentine Tango, Part II

Make It Stick: Why can't I remember moves when I go home after class??

Most people think that repeating information over and over is the best way to learn. In "massed practice," we repeat the same information/moves over and over again, until it feels familiar. Unfortunately, instead of creating long-term memory, when we do this, we are working with our short-term memory. As we loop through our short-term memory, the material begins to feel familiar. We gain confidence and feel good, as if we learned the movement really well. However, when we get home, we can't remember what we did in class (Brown et al. 83).

Just stuffing information into your brain does not help you learn. Think of cramming for an exam: you pass the exam, but is that information really available for later recall? For example, a tango festival, with twenty hours of lessons in a weekend, would be like cramming for an exam. How much of that information is still there a week later?

 

How to learn movement efficiently

Embrace the fact that significant learning is often, or even usually, somewhat difficult. You will experience setbacks. These are signs of effort, not of failure. Setbacks come with striving, and striving builds expertise. (Brown et al. 201)

 

Spaced Practice

Massed practice will not help you to learn tango. Instead, you need to space out your practice time. This helps your brain build the connections between the new information and what you already know, which cannot happen immediately. Also, the fact that you have to work hard to retrieve the information each time you practice, helps you learn more thoroughly (Brown et al. 65).

When people ask me how often they need to practice, or take classes, I tell them that it varies by person. If you want to improve, you need to review the information before you forget it; and then keep reviewing it. Personally, if I wait more than 48 hours to review something, I often can't find the information in my memory. So, for me, I need to practice at least every other day when I am trying to learn something new.

 

Interleaved Practice

The learning from interleaved practice feels slower than learning from massed practice. Teachers and students sense the difference . . . and the compensating long-term advantage is not apparent to them. As a result, interleaving is unpopular and seldom used (Brown et al. 66-7)

Interleaving is studying at least two things, rather than just studying one. In an example from the book, a group of people who already were good at baseball were divided in two. One group was given massed practice of hitting several kinds of pitches, but one at a time. They felt good about how they were learning, and continued practicing for six weeks. The other group interleaved all the different kinds of pitches, never knowing what was coming up. They felt frustrated that they weren’t doing very well. At the end of six weeks of practice, they performed much better than the other group (Brown et al. 80-1).

Although I have used some of these techniques for years, some are new to me, or were things that I did not often do. I had felt pressure to make my lessons feel easier from my students, and had drifted towards too much repetition of one thing at a time. However, the changes I have made to class in the past three months have made a believer out of me: I am seeing results that I have not seen in 30 years of teaching! My students agree that class is more challenging and feels more frustrating, but they are learning faster.

 

Varied Practice

If you interleave different skills or moves, you learn better than working on one thing, but you can improve on that with varied practice: mix it up! Do things in different orders! Do different exercises and drills!

The evidence favoring variable training has been supported by recent neuroimaging studies that suggest that different kinds of practice engage different parts of the brain. The learning of motor skills from varied practice, which is more cognitively challenging than massed practice, appears to be consolidated in an area of the brain associated with the more difficult process of learning higher-order motor skills. (Brown et al. 67)

My guess is that tango counts as a higher-order motor skill :-) When I teach private lessons, I often write three- to four- moves on the white board, and then have the student dance them in different orders. With the "cheat" of seeing the names of the moves, or pictures of them, the student works through different orders of movement. After that, I ask that they do so without looking at the board.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

Learning through contrast: interleaving of practice

The more I read of Make It Stick, the more I am changing how I teach. What I find most interesting, is that I will plan a class and then read a chapter of the book, which tells me to do what I just planned to do. After almost 30 years of teaching, I'm starting to do it right!

Peter C. Brown el al. write,

"In interleaving, you don't move from a complete practice set of one topic to go to another. You switch before each practice is complete. . . . It's more effective to distribute practice across these different skills than polish each one in turn. The athlete gets frustrated because the learning's not proceeding quickly, but the next week he will be better at all aspects [of the different parts of the movement] than if he'd dedicated each session to polishing one skill." (p. 81).

How are we working on this in tango this week? We always do this in Body Dynamics class, as we build on skills week after week, doing 5-10 minutes on several different themes each time the class meets.

In advanced class this week, we are looking at several very similar ideas in the dance, that all have slight differences in spacing, the marca (lead), and how the follower moves to complete the pattern.

For example, we've been working on the sentada and a leg drag that comes out of a parada. The sentada and parada are similar moves, but in the parada, the follower's weight is mostly on the back foot, but s/he is stopped with the feet apart. In the sentada, the follower's weight is 100% on the back leg, but in a flexed, springlike way, with the leg crossed in front. This again is only a tiny bit different than getting the follower to do a reverse cross and actually change weight at that moment. When you add the idea of the sacada led through the follower's back step; or a single-axis turn from the same place, then you begin to see that TEENY differences in setting up a step create different responses from the follower.

So why should be work on these at the same time? Isn't this just too confusing?

Here is my question to you: how many times have you led a move, only to have it not go quite perfectly? Perhaps you misjudged the space. Perhaps the follower jumped to conclusions and did a different move. For whatever reason, you are now forced to pull other information out of your memory and immediately apply it.

What if that piece of information was already grouped with the movement that you had tried to do? Wouldn't it be more likely that you could adjust to the reality of the moment successfully? I know this works for me, and that's why I'm teaching this to the advanced dancers.

As a follower, why would this be useful? For me, the more important aspect of working like this is to encourage the follower to be a better follower. Instead of picking a move out of what I call "the index box" from memory, and executing it, the follower MUST wait for the leader to lead the move, precisely because it is not 100% clear which move is being done, until the lead has happened (and if it has not been led, then....that's not the follower's issue). Many followers stay on the intermediate level for years and years, because they are not willing to through the index box of moves away and simply follow. To me, that is the difference between an intermediate and advanced follower, no matter how many years s/he has followed.

So, tomorrow, be prepared for crazy mayhem--for really learning these cool moves!

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!