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 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.



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 :-)



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!



Dancing big in small spaces: what makes it work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, go out there and DANCE!




Ganchos: a primer on leading/following ganchos from a deep pivot

We have been working on perfecting ganchos ("hooks") and leg wraps in my advanced class this session, so I wanted to underline what technique needs to be in place for the follower to have a loose leg and good axis; and the leader to have the timing of the step perfected.

Followers: the secret to a good gancho is a good back step

The best gancho comes from making the best back step that you can do. When I see people preparing for ganchos, what I often see is abandonment of solid, basic technique. We get excited about doing a "fancy" move, and forget we know how to walk.

Also, when a gancho comes from an overturned back ocho, the angle of the pivot that prepares for the step is very important. The leader does pick the angle, but when I feel the extreme twist the leader provides, as a follower, I give my best, on-balance pivot. I try to pivot so that my butt is almost facing the leader.

Keep your legs collected during the pivot to get maximum rotation. Make sure that you are not sneaking the free foot out to get started on the back step of the gancho: that slows down your pivot and prevents you from getting the most you can out of your preparation. If you are even an inch or two further away from the leader, a gancho won't work.

For your back step, feet, knees and hips are in flexion and soft. As soon as you roll through your heel, the free leg needs to be elastic all the way to the hip. Let your foot brush the ground: holding your leg "ready" will only topple you over. The leg is heavy.

Think of your free leg as one of those wristbands that SNAP around the wrist. Your thigh makes contact, and the lower leg wraps from that contact down through the entire leg, and then releases. If you pick your leg up and try to gancho, the effect is not the same. Risk making a sloppy gancho rather than a tense one!

Above all, focus on your axis and stretch of the body: the strength of your axis makes the free leg's movement even more dramatic. It's not really about the gancho; 80% of your work is always about keeping your axis.

Last word of advice: keep breathing! A leader can't do anything with a stiff board as a follower.


Leading ganchos from overturned back ochos: let disassociation work for you

Disassociation, controlling the twist in your body so that hips and chest can maintain different angles, is the most important aspect of preparing to lead a follower's gancho. Disassociation allows you to stabilize your hips and use your torso to help the follower pivot.

I originally learned to lead these ganchos from turns, but many followers don't have strong enough turn technique to make this work well. I suggest: salida, (leader changes weight), one or two back ochitos (tiny ochos) to get the follower's hips pivoting, and then leading a stronger pivot to overturn the follower against your body, ready to gancho.

Stabilize your own hips: if you pivot the follower using your hip motion, the follower gets less of a pivot. When I follow, I prefer less torque but with stable hips. If the leader's hips turn, I get less help from the leader. Also, it brings the follower closer to the leader's body, so that the leader doesn't have to fish for gancho placement.

Adjust your angle AFTER the follower's pivot. I want to be facing perpendicular to the follower if I am going to do the gancho with the "same" side leg (i.e., using my right leg to lead a gancho on the right side of my body). I want to be facing opposite the follower if I am using the "other" leg (i.e., using my left leg to lead a gancho that was originally on my right side). Hint: I can sometimes get a secondary adjustment to the follower's pivot after I adjust myself.

Place the follower's back cross step/foot BEFORE placing your foot and ankle for the gancho. For best placement, turn your leg out at the hip, and lift your knee so that your leg is in an S-curve shape. I find that I usually get my little toe down on the ground, but I focus on connecting my instep with the follower's ankle, so that I know the location of the follower's axis/balance point. When I use the "other leg" I am aiming the back of my knee/thigh towards the spot where the follower is standing.

Keep your hips back over the support leg. Otherwise, the follower will not have space to allow the free leg to hook with your leg.

Continue to twist your torso around your own spine and rebound back to neutral in order to lead the follower's free leg. This not a wrestling match: don't pull or push with your embrace to make something happen.

As the follower's leg completes the gancho, gauge the space you have to move, as well as the force of the gancho, and use that energy to create the next step in your dance.

The principal error I see on the dance floor, is to make the gancho a move about momentum. True, a good gancho can be fast and snappy, but a slow-mo gancho feels better to me as a follower, and is no less of a hook. The gancho is about TIMING.

The best exercise I have ever seen to practice ganchos comes from Chicho Frumboli. In his teacher training workshops, he had us practice ganchos, without using an embrace (balance work), in slow motion (timing practice), over and over (motor memory). By the end of the two-hour intermediate class, followed by the two-hour advanced class, my brain was fried, but I really understood how this move works!

Dancing in tight spaces: tips for leaders

With the Valentango festival coming up here in Portland, a lot of my students have asked for pointers for dancing in small spaces. Having spent more time leading on the Buenos Aires dance floors than most women, I have experienced leading in VERY tight spaces. I learned to hold my own while men who objected to my leading, tried to push me and my partner off the dance floor. I also learned how to dance and have fun without using much room by following skilled leaders.

When I dance in small spaces, I concentrate on the follower's experience, not mine. I don't worry about what to do with my feet. I put my follower's feet in safe spots, and my body usually ends up in the right place. I keep my solar plexus relaxed, which helps my follower stay more relaxed. I make sure that I lead to the appropriate level: I try out different moves, and then stay within my follower's comfort zone in terms of levels and steps.

I focus on making each dance fit the music as perfectly as I can. If it's a rhythmic tango, or a vals, or a milonga, I play with the rhythm. If it's a romantic tango or a vals, I look for the pauses, for the changes in flavor of the music, and work from there. I tend to dance the feeling of the music and the melody more than I did as a beginner or intermediate dancer.

However, I try to NEVER dance the music instead of dancing my partner. If my plan for the music and steps isn't working, my first responsibility is to the follower. I slow down; I wait for the follower. I make sure my follower feels secure and protected. So what if Joe Schmoe watching from the tables thinks I danced "off" the music? If my follower is happy, I am happy.

One of the best tandas I have ever had, was at Salon Canning one Sunday afternoon, to Pugliese. Before that, I had really thought that, to do justice to Pugliese, you needed a bit of space, but we were shoved in about the third row in from the tables, with almost no space to move. That guy made every pause count, with small, wonderful movements as we had space. Although he was not a advanced, polished dancer, his dance changed the way I led more than almost any lesson I have ever had. It was an experience in connection with my partner, with the music, and with the entire crowd surrounding us. I try to dance like that every tanda.

Learning to lead is easier if you know how to follow tango

Many women I work with notice that they are learning to lead much faster than beginning male dancers. Why is this?

First, you already know the moves in tango. For example, if you have followed walking to the cross (the cruzada) five thousand times, it is not a new step. Even if you have trouble turning steps around in your head, the fact that you have been on the receiving end of the cruzada means that you already have data to plug into that move as a leader.

Second, you know what you DON'T like in a leader. If it annoys you that leaders push with their left hand, or don't use a solid marca to help you do the step they have in their mind, you are less likely to attempt to lead a step that way. Furthermore, you know what moves don't feel comfortable for the follower, and you can avoid those steps as a leader, even if they are fun for the leader; that triple boleo leg wrap thing is out! You have a checklist in your head of what a good leader does that you can follow as you learn to lead.

Third, you have prior experience dancing to the music. You already have favorite orchestras, or favorite songs. You are not building an understanding of the music from scratch, as a new leader would who does not have tango following experience. This seems to be true for milonga and vals especially, since many women admit to me that they are learning to lead so that they don't have to sit out milonga and vals tandas :-)

Fourth, you already know the other ladies at the milongas. Unlike a beginning male leader, you have friends who are willing to dance with you because they are your friends, right from the start. You have already done your "wait until they can recognize you" time in the community. Because many women start leading when they are advanced intermediate or advanced dancers, they already know the more advanced followers; this also speeds up learning time, as dancing with beginners is just harder.

Three out of four of these conditions were ALSO met for men, back when my teachers such as Tete (we miss him!) learned to dance.  In an interview, he told me about learning to dance with the other boys, and following for about a year and a half (the time changed the different times he told me this story) until he got tired of it and insisted on being allowed to lead.

The Argentine men who learned to dance this way, already knew what the move felt like as a follower. They had an understanding of what felt good (or didn't feel good) as a follower.  They knew the music from growing up around it. They didn't have instant access to lots of good followers, however: their friends had to beg dances as favors from the more advanced women, or they had to do the long wait for acceptance by the women in the community--until they were acknowledged to be a good dancer.

That means that a woman learning to lead today (unless she is starting both roles as a beginner, as I did), has many advantages. And, guys, perhaps you might consider working more on your following skills, right from the beginning: it may speed up your learning process! We can't be Argentine, but we can be good tango leaders!

What is this "marca" thing?

When I started Argentine Tango in 1995, my first teacher told us that we didn't need to use our arms and hands to lead, just the chest.  He demonstrated by dancing around without using an embrace. We took this to heart, and copied him.

When I first went to Argentina in 1999, I noticed that a lot of the older milongueros DID use their hands and arms to lead me. When I asked some of the nuevo tango folks with whom I was studying whether this was right, they said the older guys didn't have good technique--and that's why they used their hands to help lead. I enjoyed following the older guys, and switched to going to afternoon milongas on my third visit to Buenos Aires, in order to dance with the older generation, but I didn't change much about how I led. It's funny that I didn't make any connection between the ease of following them and their technique!

I started studying with Oscar Mandagaran in 2000 while in Buenos Aires. He advocated an embrace that used chest, arms and hands as a unit, the "marca," to lead ("la marca" means "the lead"). However, it wasn't until 2008 that I converted to teaching people how to use the entire body to lead, not just the chest. When I organized for him and Georgina Vargas in the USA, he took me aside and demonstrated how much easier it was to follow complex moves if he helped me with a clear marca, rather than just moving his chest. The difference was so clear that I had to start relearning tango to dance better.

As a follower, I am sold on this precision that allows me to "let myself be led" rather than trying to figure out what the leader MIGHT want me to do.  As a leader, I like having the ability to help the follower arrive at the same place I do, with less work. To quote Oscar, "You don't want to use your hands and arms? Fine! Keep doing your four or five moves! If you want to do more, you need to help the woman understand what you want her to do!" There is a delicacy and a sublety about this way of leading that appeals to me, because it allows the fine details of tango music to come out, along with the improved connection between the dancers.

While new leaders (or leaders new to using this method of leading) can sometimes feel like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, pointing several directions at once, the end result is worth waiting for! It takes a while to figure out how to use the hands and arms to HELP the torso lead, rather than to have them take over, which is NOT a good marca. For those of you who are sure I am wrong, don't knock it until you give it a fair trial!