Exercises for fabulous boleos: the video

The origins

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

During my lesson, Guillermo taught me:

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

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

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

Crack balls, KNIFE!

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

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

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

Adapting drills for other purposes

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

Ankle and foot stretches and strengthening for tango

Just the video, ma'am!

For those of you who don't like to read, here is the video, right at the top where you can find it!

A big thank you!

Thanks for all the nice /website messages about my last video! So nice that all of this work learning to shoot and edit video is helping other people. As a shy person, it is VERY hard to turn that camera on. Don't be fooled by how much I talk: I talk a lot more when I am nervous! For me, this is almost as awful as those dreams where you realize you don't have clothing on in a public place...

It's been fun to (re)connect with dancers from all over the country. I was thinking about working on my ocho video, but a viewer asked me about ankle strengthening exercises (Hi, Lisa!).

For those of you who don't like to read, I will try to talk through most of this on the video; but some of us still like the written word!

My ankle history

As a child, I was always the person twisting/straining/spraining my ankles. I constantly rolled over the sides of my feet and hurt them. For those of you who know me well, you know I have almost zero stereo vision, so part of this was due to not being able to see very well. However, I also inherited my mother's weak ankles. I remember Mom driving to school to tape my ankles so that I could run track (my school required all of us, even us slow folks, to take part in track meets). I always seemed to have ace bandages on.

I didn't get stronger ankles until I took about six years of West African dance in grad school and afterwards. By the time I got serious about tango, I had strong ankles.

Now, after my foot injury, I am just beginning to put my 9 cm. tango stilettos back on, and I notice that my ankles are not as strong as previously. In the video clips that follow, I will show you how to stretch and strengthen your ankles so that YOU can wear tango heels and not get injured.

Foot & ankle: 26 bones, 31 joints, 20 muscles

A complex system of bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles holds us up and moves us around. No wonder we have so many foot and ankle issues!

Warm up first!

Get the blood flowing in your system before doing stretches and strengthening exercises. Even if you just go walk around the block, that will help you protect your body while improving your tango. I usually do arm and legs swings, as well as twisting around my body, before I start stretching. If I don't walk to warm up, I do ankle circles right and left before stretching.

Part 2: Stretch!

The first part of the video shows gastrocnemius and soleus stretches. Those are the two big calf muscles. They share the Achilles tendon across the back of your ankle. If your issue is lack of flexibility, spend MORE time on this, and less on the strengthening exercises. Remember that it takes 1.5-2 minutes for the microfibers in your muscles to allow for a full stretch: they are there to make sure you don't tear and rip muscles.

Part 3: Massage your feet!

Use a massage ball or golf ball to get your plantar fasciae in gear. That's the layer that encases your muscles on the bottom of your foot. You can also massage your feet: we do this in Body Dynamics almost every week. Consider doing this also when you take your heels off after dancing, ladies!

Notes: keep your foot over the massage ball, so that the weight of your leg helps apply pressure to the sole.

Part 4: Stretchy bands are your friends!

The video shows the first of three parts of a leg and ankle stretch that we do in Body Dynamics. The rest of the stretch addresses other leg muscles, so I left it out for brevity. You will see it some other time!

Part 5: Towel exercise for foot strength

I spent a lot of grad school going to PT and getting my feet taped so I could dance as much as I needed to for my M.A. in Dance. I have learned a lot since then: in my 20s, I saw that as a necessary evil, but never really did my strengthening exercises. I just thought I would have weak ankles my entire life! My feet and ankles are much stronger now in my 50s, thanks to hard work!

Part 6: The alphabet, foot style

Fine muscle control in your feet will help you do fabulous adornos and have precision in your tango. Drawing the alphabet with your feet works the muscles you need for that. Have fun: do different alphabets, draw them upside down or backwards, write whole words--whatever works for you. I usually try to remember the Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets from my grad school studies.

Part 7: Lateral ankle strength stretchy band work

You need a friend or a heavy piece of furniture for this one. Loop a stretchy band under a chair, sofa, bed, or have a friend hold the other end. Make sure you get enough tension on the band to have a good workout, but don't overdo it. I almost always end up moving closer to the piece of furniture than I start.

The most important part here is to STABILIZE YOUR KNEE. You don't want to work the whole leg. The better you line up your knee, the more the ankle gets focused work.

Hope this is helpful!

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Buenos Aires Tango Tour: designed for YOU!

Not your normal tango tour!

This is not your normal group tango tour! This tour is designed for people who don’t want to go to Buenos Aires alone, but don’t want to be shackled to a group 24-7. As folks are signing up, I am incorporating their requests into my plan. If you want to go everywhere together in a group, this is probably not the right choice for you. If you are more adventurous, or looking for something really special, this is for you.

This tour will be limited to twelve people. I feel that you deserve quality work from me, and that means individual attention and help. One spot has already been reserved. There is no minimum number of people: we are going!!

What do YOU want to do in Buenos Aires?

I have been going to Buenos Aires since 1999. Those visits have provided me with a lot of local information, friends, contacts, knowledge of the dance scene, and love for the city. I am putting all of that experience to work for YOU!

This is a tour tailored to your personal goals for Buenos Aires:

·        Do you want to dance every day/night? I can help you choose the best places for you to dance, based on your level, your dance goals, etc., and help you make reservations to get decent seating.

·        Do you want to find group or private tango lessons? I will help you make appropriate choices, get you there, and even help you locate a practice partner/dance partner if you want one.

·        Do you want a “taxi dancer” (Buenos Aires dancer who accompanies you to milongas)? I have several good sources for great folks who won’t cheat you on prices.

·        Do you want to see the sights? I will organize daily excursions to fun places that you can choose to do, or do your own thing. I will also be organizing trips to folk dancing, museums, Teatro Colon, and other cool places you don't want to miss!

·        Do you want a Spanish tutor? I will find one for you!

·        Do you want to a cultural exchange? My friend (who is an English professor) is coordinating with me to give her students chances to practice English, while YOU get a native tour guide around the city.

·        Do you want to shop until you drop? I can aim you in the right direction, go to shoe stores with you and translate for you, etc. The “outlet mall” area and wholesale district are nearby!

The dates: Dec. 2-12

I am timing the tour to coincide with the National Day of Tango is December 11 (Carlos Gardel’s birthday). To celebrate, they hold a huge street party between the Congress building and the Casa Rosada (the president’s house), with live bands, dancing in the street and performances. I went in 2012 and 2015, and had fun both times. As it occurs right before summer solstice, everyone is out celebrating the start of summer as well. If you want to come a day early, or stay after the tour, etc., that is up to you; the dates can be semi-flexible.

Cost

Last year, I spent two weeks in Buenos Aires, researching hotels, locating the best current milongas, trying out teachers, and finding a good neighborhood for us to stay. I will be available 24-7 during your ten days in Buenos Aires, as well as making shoe shopping trips, milonga excursions, etc. available each day for you! It’s a lot of work, but I am excited to share my favorite city and dance with all of you, and I want you to have the best possible experience of Buenos Aires, so that you want to go back on your own!

The cost is $1200/person for my services during the trip, my pre-planning, and any individual scheduling and help that you need before and during the trip. You will pay the hotel, airfare, food, tango shoes etc., on your own.

If cost is an issue, please talk to me before deciding not to go.

Flights

I usually fly through Houston, as that is the fastest flight time. Usually, Economy is fine. However, I suggest that you DO NOT buy Economy on the United Dreamliner: I upgraded to Economy Plus on the way home, which was OK. I know some of the people planning to go have miles saved on various airlines. I willmake sure you get from Ezeiza Airport to the hotel, but it's up to you to get to Argentina :-)

Visa

There is no visa needed to visit Argentina as a tourist for under 90 days, BUT it is now required that you pay a reciprocity fee before leaving the USA. Luckily, this is much easier than it used to be. You can buy it via the Argentine Embassy online. The cost is $160 USD, and it is good for ten years. You will need proof of buying your visa in order to board the plane to Argentina. Lots of information is available from the U.S. government online.

Airport transport

I will make sure you get picked up at the airport by a reliable person. If you can arrange to fly at the same time as someone else, you can split the cost. It cost $45 in 2015, and will probably be about that. You can pay in dollars or pesos.  I will also set up your return trip to the airport when you leave, unless you prefer to do so yourself.

The hotel

I will be staying at 5 Cool Rooms in Palermo. I suggest you also make reservations at 5 Cool Rooms (Honduras 4742, C1414BJV Buenos Aires, Argentina) via Expedia or another travel website. It is air-conditioned, has free breakfast (which can be gluten-free), a Jacuzzi and 24-hr. front desk security. It is near Starbucks for those of you who need your American hit of home (& second free WiFi spot). We can walk to 5-6 milongas in the neighborhood. There is a gluten-free restaurant/bakery nearby, and tons of little restaurants! If you prefer something more exclusive (there are some very lovely, very expensive hotels nearby) or something cheaper (AirBnB), I can help you make good choices about locations.

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.

 

 

 

Not yet: another great TED talk that inspires

As most of you know by now, I tend to watch TED talks while knitting. I also tend to watch TED talks about learning. I am doubly concerned with the best ways to learn, as I am both a teacher and the mother of a child with disabilities who struggles through every day of school.

Today, I watched several TED talks by Carol Dweck. Although she is discussing research about children and learning, pretty much everything she said applied to tango. I will summarize, but the talks are short and interesting if you want to watch them.

 

Professor Dweck studied how children dealt with learning and difficulty. She describes how your approach to mistakes and learning can help--or hinder--your learning. There are two models of the learning mindset: the fixed mindset, where the idea is that intelligence is fixed; and a growth mindset that understands that you can develop talents and abilities through practice.

Looking at learning as a pass-fail opportunity, where failing means that you are stupid, makes learning very emotionally difficult. Switching to the growth mindset, and learning with an attitude of "not yet" will give you better tools to learn. If you can't do something, that doesn't mean you won't be able to do it later; you just haven't had enough practice!

Every time you push out of your comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in the brain form new connections and over time, you can get smarter.

Although Dweck was talking about how to teach for better student performance, as adults, I think we can all serve as our own coaches in learning process. Work on talking to yourself the way you would to someone you are mentoring.

Instead of yelling at yourself for failing, follow Dweck's advice: praise yourself for pursuing the PROCESS of learning. Reward yourself for effort. Reward yourself for progress towards your goal. Reward not giving up! Give yourself a pat on the back (or a chocolate? works for me) for perseverance. Maybe you can't do something yet, but you can see the steps you have taken, how hard you have worked, how you haven't given up, and reward yourself.

With a positive, not-yet mentality, when you encounter difficulty, that's when the neurons are forming connections: it's getting smarter time!

 


Anxiety and tango: getting out on the dance floor

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes from Gustavo and Giselle Anne's Portland workshop

It's been a long time

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

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

Why would I return to the fold?

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

Not just sitting on their laurels

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

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

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

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

Humor and history teach lessons

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Access more of your tango knowledge on the dance floor!

Typical tango nightmare

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

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

How I deal with lack of space

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

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

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

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

How I remember moves easily

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


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

How I deal with unfamiliar songs

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

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

One outstanding problem: shyness

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

DRAW your Argentine tango future!

My favorite idea of the week

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

What if we apply this to our tango?

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

An example

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

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

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

Your turn!

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

Level one: things that start on the outside

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

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

Level two: right, left or straight ahead?

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

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

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

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

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

Same up to #3, then a change.

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

Two kinds of circulos

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

"Regular" circulo

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

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

 

Jose's circulo

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

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

Scoop turn

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

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

 

Marvin's favorite

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

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

Calesita

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

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

Boleo

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

Level three: exit!

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

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

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

Your turn!

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

Take a walk on the wild [out]side!

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

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

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

Getting there

My favorite

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

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

 

Follower happy, everybody happy!

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

WRONG!

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

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

 

Other variations that work

What I learned from the old guys

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

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

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

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

 

Change at the cross

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

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

 

Change on the fly

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

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

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

 

Now that I am here, what do I do?

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

 

 

 

 

In honor of the foot: the anatomy of walking and standing in tango

I realized from talking to a few of my new students, that it is just too hard to page through years of my blog to find the anatomy and tango parts. I am re-posting these to facilitate the work we are doing, especially in Body Dynamics and FUNdamentals.

Finding out about your feet will not only help you dance better, without pain. It will also make you more aware of your body as you dance, enjoying how your body feels during tango. I am a true movement geek, so I walk around, garden, etc., feeling what my body is doing. Perhaps this will bring you to a new level of mindfulness!


I re-read Irene Dowd's excellent "In Honor of the Foot" article, from her book, Taking Root to Fly. She details the structure of the foot, exercises to strengthen it, and ways to think about moving that use the foot efficiently.  I encourage you to buy her book! Here, I will provide you with some ideas from her article that pertain to the work we are doing in class.

The platform of the foot is shaped like a trapezoid, with the corners being the ball of the foot (big toe), the ball of the little toe, the inner border of the heel, and the outer border of the heel. Here is a picture from the encyclopedia, showing the bones of the foot.

The way the bones of the foot are built make a twisted arch between the heel bone (calcaneus)  and the ball of the foot. The bones that make up this arch can be locked into place or relaxed. When the inside border of the heel drops (the arch is untwisting), that is called pronation. Some people naturally do this, and extreme pronation is often called having flat feet (guilty here!). When the arch is raised higher, the outside border rolls out, or supinates. People who tend to do this have "high-arched" feet.

Walking

According to Dowd, "When we walk correctly, it appears that the center of the knee travels directly above the pathway . . . from the center of the heel through the third toe." This does not mean that the foot actually moves on a straight line, because the arch of the foot bones creates a more serpentine path of movement (read the article for all the details!). The actual path strikes slightly to the outside of the center of the heel for the heel strike; rolls inside the cuboid bone (next bone forward from the calcaneus) for "midstance"; rolls back more to the outside as the heel comes off the floor in a step; and rolls back to the middle of the big toe as the toes leave the floor.

As this happens, the arch of the foot twists and untwists slightly, relaxing into the floor for stablity, then making a stiff lever to propel the body forward, and relaxing again (whew!). The big toe completes the push off of the floor. I think of this as the equivalent to following through when I throw a ball: I don't just leave my toes limp, I use them to complete the transfer to a new location.

Words to help do this in tango

I have found that using the phrase "push off" makes people use their foot by tensing it too much. I think of the motion of moving as a rolling motion.

When going forward, think about how a cat articulates through all their bones when walking or stretching! I also like Luciana Valle's "lick the floor!" with your foot :-)

When moving sideways, think about wearing fins, and letting the ankle and foot follow through as though going through water. Each bone only moves a little, but the fluidity allows elegance of motion and balance.

When walking backwards, I think about using the ankle's full range of motion, rolling through the heel and releasing, but not pushing. Another visual I use, is to imagine having a thumbtack (point at the the floor!) on your heel, and lightly pressing it into a cork board as you roll over the heel.

Standing

Dowd says the foot has to work harder to stand than to walk: "This is especially true when you are standing balanced on one foot only. In this circumstance, the foot has to be somewhat mobile because the rest of your body does not stay perfectly still relative to the ground and yet the foot has to be very stable in order to support you." The foot has to have equal balance inside (big toe), outside (little toe) and back (heel). Think of an open space between these points, lifted up. I think of a plunger, lifting/suctioning up the center of my foot.  Dowd suggests "a receptive aperture through which energy can come in from the earth." Yeah, like she said!

Remember, the foot needs to both relax and tighten in a series of motions, to complete just one step! To stand, it constants adjusts between these extremes to maintain stability.

Exercises to strength/tune into the foot:

  • Put the sole of your foot on the floor, and, with your big toe, practice pushing away a finger or some small object on the floor next to your foot. You are making a fan-shaped motion that spreads your big toe away from your other toes.
  • Do the same thing with your little toe. Both of these exercises are hard at first, especially if you've been wearing high heels with itty bitty spaces for your toes ;-)
  • Put your foot on the floor, and try to "dome" your foot (lift the center while keeping all corners down). Make sure you are not gripping with your toes: keep them relaxed. This is about the muscles in the center of your foot, not your toe muscles.
  • Then, try all three at the same time (ha! no, actually, I just did this while typing, and it is possible).
  • After that, start with that exercise, but draw all the toes towards the big toe; then all the toes towards the little toe.

You will be happy to know that Dowd recommends massage in order to loosen up the muscles and bones in your foot, to uncramp muscles as you try these exercises, and to understand the structure of your foot through feeling that structure.

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.