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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!