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!





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.




Single axis turns: the basics and some combos

I've been so busy studying anatomy that I've had little time to blog, BUT I realized that I haven't put any notes down for single axis turns for a LONG time. Here's the short version of what we did tonight in class.

The basics

Single axis turns are turns in which the leader and the follower are (as much as is possible) sharing an axis while spinning on one foot in place, and then exiting.

A single axis turn can be done:

  • in a right or left turn;
  • with either the leader's right or left foot;
  • and through any step of the follower's turn.

Of course, not all single axis turns are created equal, and some are harder to do than others. However, I've found that each leader finds different single axis turns to be easier. I myself mastered the one my teacher thought would be hardest for me before the "easy" one! I should say that my main teacher for these has been Luciana Valle (thanks, Luciana!), but that I also studied them with Chicho and with Gustavo. I was taught them in open embrace, but I do them and teach them in the V-shaped, close embrace that I usually use to dance.

The order we did so far:

  • left turn, step through follower's open step with left foot (or right).
  • left turn, step through follower's front cross step  with left foot (or right).
  • left turn, step through follower's back cross step with left foot (right is dangerous here).


Secrets to make single axis turns easy

The list I wrote on the board for leaders:

  • Step AROUND/BEHIND the follower's front foot (whichever concept puts you in the right place).
  • Step forward HEEL-TOE, allowing both people's feet to continuing rotating, in order to land better on balance and not catch feet.
  • "Pink Panther" timing: da-DUMP! The follower's foot hits the ground, and then you step around/behind a split second after they start the weight transfer. This allows you an escape hatch if the partner lands off balance, so that you can bail on the turn, OR help them regain balance. It also allows you to "ride" the momentum of the follower, instead of working harder ;-)
  • Don't go for 360o instead of technique: a 180o is fine (heck, a quarter turn is fine). When you and your partner are aligned correctly, you will find that you turn a lot more, even without much effort.
  • There should be a moment at the end of the turn where there is a feeling of suspension before the exit: don't fall into an exit, use that suspension and enjoy it! It's like a wave gathering and then breaking.
  • Exit with the follower's easiest exit (usually back or forward) and arrange yourself as needed. If you need to change feet for stability, then do it, but ONLY to exit. For example, on the follower's back cross step version of this turn, I sometimes lead this in parallel, then transfer weight to exit in crossed system.

The list is shorter for followers:

  • Don't panic.
  • Stay aligned (you were joking about "butt out" and all of you did better after that).
  • Did I mention don't panic?
  • Do the best turn you can do, with excellent technique on each step, and you will be on balance, ready for anything.

Combinations from single axis turns plus the boleos we've been doing

1. Left turn, back boleo in the turn, rebound to front cross step, and do the single axis turn in that step, to the left, with either foot stepping around/behind follower. Exit follower stepping back for easiest exit.

2. Right turn, pivot follower as if to ocho, and lead front boleo, unwind into left turn, and do the single axis turn in that back cross step with the left foot. Exit follower stepping forward for safest results.



Improving musicality through contrast: Milonga/vals class notes

This session of my intermediate/advanced Wednesday night class, we are looking at musicality through contrast. First, we learn a figure. Then, we try it to either milonga or vals music. We explore how many ways the movement can go with the music, especially in terms of slowing it down for adornos :-)  Then, we try the figure to the other music, and make adaptations to make the musicality flow better.

Not every pattern works well in tango, milonga AND vals. There are some moves I prefer in just one dance, or in tango and vals, but not milonga (or vals and milonga, but not tango). I am not in the camp that believes these dances have different moves. Yes, there are some things I tend to do more in milonga than tango, etc., but for me, the deciding factor is: does this movement work to this music? If it does, then I use it. After all, this suite of dances are street dances! Who says we have to follow all the rules?

I'm using a lot of figures that I've learned from Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas because THEY WILL BE HERE IN A MONTH!!!!!! Hopefully, this preparation will help those of you who are new to Oscar and Georgina, so that you can get optimal levels of information in one short week.

Good for vals: Salida with a change of direction

This figure is on Oscar and Georgina's wonderful Rhythmic Tango DVD (#4).

  1. Lead a parallel, regular side step to the leader's left.
  2. Lightly lead the follower to remain on the right foot by suspending her/him ON AXIS in place, while the leader shifts onto the right (into crossed system). The follower will feel the leader's chest shift sideways, but no one else should see this; it's slight. The leader's hips and chest change to the side in order to avoid pushing the follower over. The leader is now ready to walk to the outside track (on the follower's left side).
  3. Release the suspension, and step. Leader steps forward with the left; follower steps back with the left.
  4. Leader arrives on axis on left, with the right remaining behind as a "kickstand" to help maintain balance (if this is not working, remember that you can also bring your right foot up to the left to make your axis work better). The hips need to stay mainly oriented line-of-dance, but the torso will twist from left to right. The follower lands on the left, is led to pivot the hips clockwise, ready to step with the right.
  5. Leader takes a side step to the right, follower does a back cross step in the same direction. Suggestion: make this a forward diagonal, leaders! This reduces the angle the follower needs to pivot, making it simpler for a more beginning dancer to succeed in maintaining balance and looking good.
  6. Leader can switch feet in place while suspending the follower to exit in parallel, or stay on the same foot to exit in crossed system. Follower is "unwound" to prepare for a back left step, line-of-dance.
  7. Exit to steps 6-7-8 of the basic, or to the cross.

Places to mess around to make the musicality work: This pattern takes a nice 8 measure phrase to complete, OR it can take longer if the music tells you to SLOW down: it depends on the song. I like to suspend the follower after #1 and at #6 so adornos can happen, but I try to make this music-dependent.  One of my peeves is to see leaders trying to be dramatic by introducing slow and quick elements into the dance, but without listening to the music!! Believe me, the person you are leading usually prefers the dance to fit the music.

Same beginning, with a simpler pattern to move faster for milonga

The pattern above is HARD to do in milonga unless you have a follower who stays on-axis, on-balance. If you or your follower tend to fall over, . . . change it to make it more milonga-friendly.

  1. Do the same salida and switch systems/tracks as above, and the first step (#1, 2, 3 above).
  2. Walk a counter-clockwise circle (to the left), either as a regular circle, or as a "back step, back 1/2 ocho"--what I showed as I learned it from Jose Garafolo--that has a less even feel, but is funkier and feels great in milonga.
  3. Exit into whatever, moving line-of-dance (end of basic, to the cross, parallel or crossed system).

Musicality variations: You can do little corridas (quick quick slow) in this circle, or walk it in even counts. This also makes an elegant step for vals, by the way, where it can be slowed down and/or adornos added.

Vary the ingredients a little, get another move: boleo milonguero (Rhythmic DVD #6)

This move I prefer in vals (and tango), but several students showed great prowess in making this a milonga move. As a rule, I don't lead boleos in the milonga because few followers can stay on axis while pivoting that quickly, BUT that doesn't mean you can't lead it; be judicious in your choices.

  1. Do #1, 2 & 3 from above.
  2. Instead of a pivot to the leader's right and an open step, the leader leads a boleo on the ground (boleo milonguero) with the follower's pivot, rebounding into:
  3. a back right diagonal step on the right for the leader and a forward step with the right for the follower, through to the leader's right side.
  4. Same #6 and 7 as above.

Some notes on leading boleos, as these were new to some of you:


  • must be on axis to lead a boleo
  • use back leg, knees one behind the other, for balance and stability
  • knees are relaxed, providing shock absorption
  • there is a slight suspension of the axis before leading the boleo
  • the boleo feels like a corkscrew motion, down around the axis and back up, if it is working correctly
  • hips remain forward, torso rotates
  • careful on foot placement: keep your V, and don't let your back foot/ankle turn in


  • must be on axis
  • hips do the pivot work; don't swing the leg
  • knees meet and rebound, with the free leg rebounding back the way it came
  • the leader's torso leads the hip pivot, which leads the leg release (because of this, the "whip" of the follower's leg does not end when the leader rebounds, but slightly behind, like the end of a whip vs. the handle)
  • keep the feet in their V, so that the shape of the boleo remains constant and looks good (remember how inelegant it looked when I showed you the toes in version I was seeing in class? ;-) )
  • ankles, knees and hips are slightly flexed at all times for shock absorption, but make sure you don't sink in the boleo: this is a rebound, not a collapse

Again, nice places to add adornos are at the first side step and after the rebound of the boleo (so, at original #1 and #6-7 of the first move. In essence, because all these steps are built off of the same main structural beginning and end, the best place for adornos remains the same. Also, boleos can be different speeds. In vals, I like folks to lead me in a slower, sweeter boleo, rather than a WHAM! movement, allowing me time to really pivot well with my hips, and giving the boleo a more swoopy, vals feeling.

Introducing the quebrada as an elegant, stabilizing element of the dance

As I hear my next lesson knocking on the door, I'll finish here, and go over this step in my next blog entry. Stay tuned!

Leader back sacada technique and combining sacadas with boleos

Last night, we combined leader back sacadas with follower front cross steps and follower side steps (both line-of-dance, LOD) and looked at ways to exit the moves, depending on navigation needs.

There are three parts to a back sacada, of which only two are visible to the onlooker:

  1. The leader pivots the hips and feet as far around as possible, so that the body is still on axis, but extreme rotation has been achieved, with the torso and hips/feet facing different directions. Both feet need to face away from the location of the sacada, so that the leader's heels and rear end are facing the follower, if possible. Note: if you are not a very flexible person, use the rotation that you do have, and focus on using the next step to adjust the sacada as needed.
  2. Next comes the invisible part of this move. WHILE in full rotation (some people call this disassociation), the leader rotates in space several degrees, with heels gathered together. Don't reach for the back step yet! This is the most important part of a back sacada because it helps avoid kicking the follower's trailing ankle.
  3. As the follower is led to take a step, the leader steps back into the follower's step, landing where the follower originally stood (replacing the follower in space). That completes the sacada.

Note: We did leader back sacadas counter-clockwise (CCW) because they are easier to do in terms of the embrace. I'll address clockwise back sacadas in an advanced class, as the need to "break" the embrace to do these adds another level of difficulty to these steps.

Tips for making the sacadas work better

1. Use a strong embrace on the open side to control the speed and size of the follower's step

The leader gets to choose the speed of the move, so instead of trying to hurry the sacada, I control the follower's step by maintaining the shape of my embrace. If I need more time to prepare for my back step, I slow the follower down compared to the music: better a slo-mo move than bruised ankles!

I don't push on the follower's right hand with my left hand as much as connect with the follower's energy. Some people prefer to keep a limp connection here, but I disagree: by creating a strong connection, I can slow down the follower's movement more easily AND I get to choose the EXACT position of the follower's step. Both partners move at the same time, maintaining the spatial relationship of the steps.

 Leaders: if you pull/push the follower to step, you are losing control over the steps that happen after the sacadas. You will now need to spend several steps regaining control, rather than dancing.When I follow, I often feel leaders pull me through this step by opening their left arm away from their body and their solar plexus. I feel they are saying, "Step somewhere over here, please." Instead of actually leading me, they are indicating that they want me to move and hoping I land correctly. Stay in control and in connection with the follower at all times!

Followers: It's difficult to find the right amount of pressure to use with your right arm. Too much, and the leader can't feel where your feet are. Too little, and the leader can't use the embrace to help the dance. I focus on using my torso muscles to anchor my shoulder girdle. I use very little tension in my upper arm and forearm and wrist. Instead, I think about sending energy out from my body, along the bottom edge of my arm, through the center of my wrist, into my partner.

2. Use the closed side of the embrace to adjust for rotation

The leader's right arm and the follower's left arm need to be able to slide for this move to work. If you've ever seen Francois Truffaut's films, he was fond of the camera iris spiraling closed to end scenes, with the visible scene closing to a pinpoint and disappearing. That is the same thing that happens with the space on the closed side of the embrace. As the leader rotates, the leader's right arms slides around the follower. The follower's arm needs to slide around the leader too, which can be complicated if they are a different height :-)

After the sacada, the embrace returns to normal, with the closed side opening up again. If you are having trouble detaching the follower's hand and arm so that they slide, examine your sacada to see if you are pushing the follower off-balance: both people need to stay on-axis for this to work.

3. Adjust the distance between partners BEFORE the move

Some people teach that the leader should create more space between the dancers before leading a back sacada. I don't agree that this is always the best alternative, especially on the social dance floor. If you find that you simply cannot rotate far enough the complete a back sacada, even with using step #2, you could explore placing the follower further away on the step before the sacada.

4. Use the follower's side step for the leader back sacadas

We worked on leading leader back sacadas through the follower's front step first, in order to feel and understand the need for rotation, but these are a lot easier! The leader has more space because the follower's leg is out of the way.  However, this means that the follower's next step does not continue LOD as elegantly. Next week, I'll show you possibilities for this that we didn't cover this week.

Navigational options after sacadas

As we have been focusing on using sacadas to move around the dance floor, we've tried to do linear sacadas, followed by linear moves LOD. However, there is not always space to continue LOD in real life. One option is to turn the follower in a giro (turn) around the leader after the sacada. Another option is to change direction using a boleo, and then either continue LOD or in place with a turn, having had a few more seconds to gauge space while performing the boleo.

Example 1:

Last week, we had the leader do a leader front sacada through the follower's front cross step, followed by the leader and follower taking mirrored front cross steps LOD. After the sacada, you can lead a small front boleo, and then reverse direction so that the follower is going LOD with a BACK cross step and the leader is stepping forward OR side (depending whether the leader changed feet during the boleo or not). Hint: the follower is already rotating a lot during this combination, so the boleo is more of helping the follower to unwind from a front boleo, rather than adding more force to start the front boleo. Leaders tend to over-lead this, so careful of the follower's body!

Example 2:

On this weeks' combination, with the leader stepping in a back sacada, there are two possibilities:

  1. If the leader does a back sacada through the follower's front cross step, then the front boleo works after this move (see above).
  2. If the leader does a back sacada through the follower's side step, then a back boleo works best, followed by a front cross step for the follower. Again, make sure that the leader is helping the rebound of the boleo, rather than adding a lot of force at the beginning of the move; the follower's hip motion provides the impetus, and the rest is timing, not force.

Compact combinations with front boleos

Last night in intermediate tango class, we worked on two close embrace (or open if you like) combinations that included front boleos. I enjoy teaching moves that I lead, but that I don't see out there on the dance floor very often.

This was a continuation of some ideas we worked on the week before, with the added request from a leader to learn compact moves that would keep him interested, but help him avoid crashing into others.

Front boleo at the cross

What I like about this boleo is that you can lead it on a crowded dance floor, with almost no preparation, on any intermediate or advanced dancer who can follow a boleo. It can be a quick move, or almost slow motion, allowing the follower to play with the exit step, adding an adorno, or just caressing her way through the leg motion. Mmmm! This is a move for the follower, not to show off to your buddies watching: it's small and delicious.

  • For this move, you need to have your cross (cruzada) dialed in. If you arrive at the cross with no energy, or off balance, this is NOT the time to lead a boleo.
  • As the follower arrives at the cruzada, and switches weight onto the left foot, the right leg is free and available for a boleo.
  • The leader rotates slightly to the left to free the follower's right leg, and then keeps rotating to the left to create a "con" boleo (both people rotating the same direction, or counter-clockwise here). It is very important for the leader to keep the hips facing forward, or this step becomes a left turn, not a rotation in place for the follower.
  • As the leaders noticed in class, the key element is timing, not force. This is a rebound, not a throw and catch sequence ;-) You need to create rebound in your torso by keeping the hips forward, and then give the follower's leg time to finish the rebound AFTER you until both of you are ready to exit the move.
  • The follower needs to release the free leg (right) at the hip joint while standing tall on the support leg (left). Make sure that you pivot your foot on the floor enough to allow your hips to turn through the space around your axis; don't start the boleo too soon, or you will kick the leader. Keep your heels together in your "V" until the leg has to release, creating the boleo.
  • After the release of the boleo, the follower's body unwinds, or rebounds, back to neutral to allow a walking exit from the boleo.

Front boleo after the walkaround turn

Most intermediate dancers already know how to do traveling back ochos. Most also have good skills at leading turns. This move combines those elements with a spiffy front boleo that is used as a change in direction in the middle of the sequence.

Leader's information:

  • Here, having smooth traveling back ochos sets up for a tight turn, which leads to the boleo.
  • Make sure your traveling back ochos go DOWN the room, not from side to side, leaders. In class, we polished this move to make it more enjoyable for the follower.
  • After either .5 or 1.5 ochos, the leader is on the left foot traveling line-of-dance (LOD). Twist the torso (but not the hips) to the right (clockwise) to get the follower turning around you with a "back cross, open step, front cross" turn.
  • As soon as they vacate the space where they were standing before the turn, step there and rotate in place for the follower's turn. This is a sacada in a way, as you are replacing (or displacing) the follower in space. However, you step around the follower's foot, not through the open space between her feet, so it looks different.
  • As the follower lands on the front cross step (the follower's right foot), rotate as if to make a front ocho BUT don't allow the follower to step forward: keep them on balance on the right foot. Overrotate until the follower's left leg does the boleo, and rebound back.
  • At this point, the ending we learned is my favorite way to use this step on the dance floor. If done correctly, you end up facing LOD, ready to walk down the floor. As the follower unwinds from the front boleo, have them do a left turn (back cross, open step, front cross) around the leader until the leader faces LOD, and walk.

Follower's information:

  • On your traveling back ochos, make sure that you use your hips to do most of the rotation, rather than swinging your legs for momentum. This will make it easier to overturn into the right turn.
  • When the leader and you are both on left feet, the leader will have you overturn to his/her right. This gives an overturned back step to begin a three step turn: back cross with right, open step with left, forward cross step with right.
  • As you arrive on the right foot, you should feel an impetus to pivot, as you would for a front ocho, but without being sent forward into a step. The pivot should be extreme, so that your left leg has to release around your support leg (right) for a front boleo.
  • Let the boleo rebound into a back cross step with the left, open with the right, forward cross step with the left, to end up facing reverse LOD, ready to walk down the floor.
  • Remember that your boleo is a response to the leader's torso rebound. Just like a whip handle and whip tip, your leg trails the leader's initial twist, so you will finish a fraction of a moment behind the leader's move. They should wait for that unwind, and use your momentum to start your turn to the leader's left.
  • Hip motion: we worked a bit on the proper hip placement in a pivot, so that the leg swings more freely. The knees contact each other (like Pringle potato chips), fitting one in front of the other, and releasing back for the rebound. Remember that the boleo energy comes from the hip pivot and leg release, not from winding up and swinging.
  • After the front boleo, make sure that your free foot passes against the heel of your support leg, to avoid kicking the leader :-)

Those of you were in class, try these moves out, and let me know if I forgot to include something that you need to help remember the combos. I've been doing these for so many years that sometimes I forget to explain something when I write it down!