My new (second location, don't freak out Om Studio dancers!) will be upstairs at PDX SportsCenter, 8785 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. Go in the doors, around to the left, up the stairs, and turn left. You can't miss it! You can always check out what's going on at http://tangobeaverton.com/ although it does not yet come up on a Google search. Help me spread the word!
I will be starting beginning tango classes there this summer, as well as a second class TBD. There will eventually be a practica as well. Monday nights, 7-8:30 PM for right now, expanding to 7-9 PM (or something like that) will be my Beaverton schedule, at least to start. Thank you all of you West Side folks who have kept nagging me for years; I would not have gotten around to this without you!
My first class there will be....drumroll....
Tango, Toning and Technique
When I went to PDX Sports Center to look at the dance studio space, I noticed that there was a Pilates studio there--Lavinia Magliocco's new studio. I know Lavinia from the tango community, and several of my friends have studied with her. She recently had to relocate because of a fire in the building where her studio was located.
It seemed like kismet: we need to work together, Lavinia! We met and talked and played around with tango and Pilates, and the result is the first class at my new studio space. There are still 10 more spots open for the session. You can reserve your spot here.
I’ve been a ballet dancer all my life and trained in professional schools NYC and NC. Diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was 18, I was told I could never dance professionally. My other love is writing, so I got my BA in English and Comparative Lit and Communications, became a dance writer, and helped translate 19th century dance manuals for one of the country’s top Social Dance historians while performing in his troupe, The Flying Cloud Vintage Dance Troupe.
After life-saving surgery, I dove into studying Anatomy/Physiology, and Kinesiology and was introduced to the work of Joe Pilates. I credit Pilates with saving my career and body, and putting me back onstage in New York City at an age when many dancers choose to retire.
I bring 25 years of experience working with many kinds of chronic or acute injuries, and neurological conditions like Cerebral Palsy, CMT, & Guillaume Barre. My students have gone on to dance and perform professionally at high levels in their chosen arts, figure skating, ballet, ballroom, and acro.
It is my personal experience that injuries expose our weaknesses. We can let these setbacks end our careers or curtail our lives, or we can seize the opportunity to come back stronger than before. I’ve worked with clients as young as 8 years old, and currently, my oldest client is 95 years old.
Equipoise means the balance of opposing forces that allows us to move with grace. When we’re out of balance, we have no equipoise.
Enlightened means intelligent and aware. I specialize in empowering clients with knowledge of their bodies and techniques to support their lives, whether they’re performance athletes or dedicated grandfathers.
Sometimes I joke that I’m here to de-condition people - de-condition them from unhelpful and stagnant movement patterns that inhibit freedom. My private sessions with clients are one-to-one and are uniquely tailored to each person, since no two people are the same.
You can schedule an appointment by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling me at 503.887.3608.
Naughty Toddler, Shark and Fishes, Traffic, Touch My Foot: My tango students are invited to play a lot of different games, especially in my beginner and my FUNdamentals classes. Why make up all these games?
Humans learn best by play and experimentation, not rote memorization. Look at kids: they are constantly learning, and incorporating huge amounts of data. They play games themselves, and teachers have kids play games to learn. Adults learn better playing games as well. The only problem: adults are afraid to look stupid, and it gets in the way of their learning!
Here's my question: Are you willing to risk looking silly and maybe making mistakes, in order to learn faster and better? Here are descriptions of two of the games I play in class and WHY we play them.
Game 1: Shark and Fishes
Shark and Fishes is my newest game. It helps everyone on the dance floor pay attention to the flow of the room AND avoid crazy drivers on the dance floor.
When I interviewed dancers in Buenos Aires for my M.A. thesis on tango, I was told that dancers "back in the day" rarely ran into each other. The whole room of dancers would get into a groove, aware of all of the other dancers, and would move as one. If one person messed up, the others would adjust to avoid crashes and return to a group groove. I wanted to help dancers relearn this skill.
I thought about how I have seen schools of fish whirl almost as one unit, and reassemble. Could I apply this to tango? And what about the occasional "bad driver" who plunges across the dance floor, oblivious to other humans?
Rules of the game
1. Everyone moves on their own, but trying to mimic a school of fish. Fish swirl, curve, flow and clump together for safety. That means the people have to move as close to each other as possible, without hitting, swirling as a close-knit group around the dance floor. No one fish stays fixed in the grouping. Each person needs to be aware of their personal space and work together as a group at the same time.
2. Grabbing a partner, we try to keep flowing in this "school" of fish around the room. Don't worry about traditional rules of staying in front of and behind the same person; focus on rolling with the group. If a crash looks imminent, the leader should ALWAYS protect the follower by putting the follower on the far side of the crash. Do not use your follower as a sacrificial victim to be given up to the shark!
3. Here comes the shark! Someone (usually me) announces, "Here comes the shark!" and just walks straight through the school of fish. All the dancers swirl away from the shark and recombine into one school of fish as soon as possible. As the game continues, the shark stops giving verbal warnings and just walks through the school.
What does Shark and Fishes teach?
- How to navigate in bad traffic on the dance floor
- How to protect the follower, no matter what happens
- You have more room to dance if you tune into the other couples in the room
- Dancing in community with the other dancers feels better than dancing alone
- You are all in this together as a community: it's not a competition for space!
Game 2: Touch my foot
Beginning tango dancers (and sometimes more advanced dancers) are afraid to step on their partner's toes. This results in strange sideways leaning as couples try to keep the embrace intact while wandering with their legs.
What if dancers felt comfortable and knew EXACTLY where their partner's feet were? How could I get folks to dance closer and in a more relaxed way? What if I got everyone comfortable with touching feet and legs so that they would stop worrying about it?
What if we knew exactly where the partner's feet were, based on the embrace and what we could feel of the upper body?
Rules of the game
1. Practice walking in a straight line, right in front of your own belly button. The partners are slightly offset, as the follower's middle goes down the middle of the leader's right side; this creates a a slight V, based on the shape of the two people (or a big V if you are have cultivated the beer pansa/belly). For those of you who like to argue that this is walking "outside" you can call this whatever you like as long as you do it!
2. Whoever is currently walking forward (let's say the leader first), will try to touch the side of the follower's foot or ankle that is closest to the leader. The follower is just walking backwards in a straight line. If you are in parallel, that would mean the leader's left foot touches the inside of the follower's left foot; and then the leader's right foot touches the OUTSIDE of the follower's right foot. It will feel like a zigzag to the person going forward. If you are not using correct contrabody, this is much harder to do.
3. When you get to the end of the room, don't turn around; just reverse. Now the FOLLOWER is doing the touch my foot, and the leader is just walking backwards normally.
4. Now, practice finding the OTHER side of the partner's foot: walk three steps in front of yourself (L R L), and use your next right step to step in between the other person's feet, again touching their foot or ankle. Some of my students who have been taught tracks/skis say, "My track, my track, my track, YOUR track" under their breath while doing this.
5. Now walk in front of yourself, not trying to touch feet and notice HOW MUCH ROOM you really have when walking well in close embrace!
What does Touch My Feet teach?
- How to identify EXACTLY where the inside and outside edges of the partner's foot are
- How to identify the only place you can't step: on their foot
- You have better balance for dancing if you dance with your feet right under you
- Feeling like you have no space in close embrace is just a perception, not reality
- Followers need to learn to walk forward too!
I like to listen to podcasts and video podcasts while I do my fiber arts (for those of you who don't know me personally, I spin, knit, dye fiber and hope to leave to weave someday). Usually, I don't watch the Kammebornia podcast because it is in Swedish, and I still need to watch my knitting to some degree; so reading subtitles is not what I usually choose to do.
However, I decided to watch it today, and they were talking about a sweater that had a mistake on one sleeve. She decided to keep the mistake, even though it was visible. What she said made me think about tango, so I will share it for you to think about:
I have never had a perfect dance, but I have had lovely, memorable tangos for 22 years. I didn't throw them out because they had mistakes in them. They were not less wonderful for not being perfect. I think this is why I teach technique and quality of movement, right from the first day of a class. It doesn't matter if you learn a move, but it matters whether you are present or not, putting yourself into the poetry of the dance and the music. A perfect stitch is not a wearable sweater. One perfect move is not a danceable tango. Go for imperfection with soul.
Many people have asked me how to relieve their lower back pain from dancing tango. Part of the answer I addressed in the "Heels up vs. down" post and video last year. Correcting how you use your pelvis and iliofemoral joints (hip joints) will also make your dance pain-free and beautiful at the same time. Efficient movement looks better and feels better!
Walking, pausing and balance
Tango differs from normal walking in that you must be ready to change directions at the end of each step. Yes, you might take a few steps before doing something else, but you need to be prepared at all times to avoid other dancers, deal with your balance and your partner's balance, and to respond to inspiration.
The reinitiation of movement after each step feels like a heartbeat to me. The movement is not continuous, but has a pulse with each new step. The observer may not see the "stop" after each step, but the dancers have a split second at least where they could stop, or simply begin the next step from a more balanced position.
The best way to be prepared, is to train yourself to arrive on balance after each step. Both feet should be able to land under your body, with the free leg relaxed and the support leg strong but not tense. This means that your head, ribs, back, hips and legs need to be stacked up and aligned to avoid using extra muscle wear and tear.
I find it helpful to think about how your inner thighs and gluteal muscles hug UP into your pelvic floor. Then, think about how your abdominals and back muscles hug your body DOWN into your pelvis. You are always in upper-body/lower-body alignment every step you take: this is the ideal. How you line your pelvis up with your feet and legs, helps you maintain this ideal balance.
Side-to-side (pendulum) motion at the sacrum
When you walk normally, your pelvis adjusts from one leg to the other to allow your upper body and head to move smoothly. Put your thumbs on your sacrum, right at the base of your spine where it connects to your pelvis. Now, walk "normally" (which seems to be very hard to do while we are thinking about it!). Can you feel how your pelvis tips slightly side-to-side? This is normal and we want it in tango.
The amount of pendulum will vary depending on the pelvis. Men have narrower hips, so the movement will be slighter. Women with wide hips will tip more than women with narrow hips; but still more than the average guy. We are not trying to add extra movement here: a small amount is efficient and helps with balance. This is NOT the time to drag out your ballroom "Latin motion" hips! What is the smallest movement that works here?
Note: some people have been taught not to move their hips. If the adult who raised you walked with stiff hips, you will probably also do so; we learn from the adults who parent us. Or, a dance teacher might have told you to hold your hips parallel or flat while moving; this is just not good for you! Time to learn/relearn efficient movement.
If you have had any injuries that make you clench your lower spine or pelvic muscles, you may be fighting your own body in an effort to avoid pain. This movement should NOT create any pain: have your doctor/PT/chiropractor check that you are moving well.
Front-to-back hip tip
I've been discussing hip placement with my chiropractor, physical trainer and Pilates teacher recently. Why is the motion for tango different than for strength training? The answer: tango needs the body to be able to rotate at the hips or the torso A LOT more than in daily walking and running. It's about mobility, not stability. Therefore, there is a tiny bit more tip at the hip joints to facilitate that readiness to move, while remaining as stable as possible at the same time. Whew!
Grab your butt
Those of you who have been in lessons with me know what I'm going to say here. In order to find how your hip joint works, grab your sitz bones (your ischial tuberosities if you prefer), and tip yourself over from there (don't arch your back). This should make your lower back feel broad and relaxed, allowing for more rotation when needed.
Another way to find the best position for your hip, is to grab your sitz bone and the front of your hip where it folds, next to your pubic bone. Let your hands tip you forward and backward, feeling for a release of the ligament in the front of the hip. You want to be in the zone between these points, not too far forward and not too far back.
When you get your pelvis out of that tight mode of hanging out on your front ligaments, it recruits your deep abdominals, your psoas, your pelvic floor--all the parts that allow you to suspend your upper body over your lower body, but in a way that allows movement IN ANY DIRECTION.
Share the work
Remember: Let your muscles hug your bones. Let all of your joints share the weight/stress of moving so that no one part is doing all the work. If you have a problem area (knee, ankle, etc.), spread that work out away from the weak spot.
Along with spreading the work out, try to use as little work as possible to maintain correct posture and motion. That way, you always have something left to save you if you fall, protect you from a difficult partner; or to play with when you get a partner where you can really cut loose!
Get your hips in the right position, keep them within the margin of error that allows for adjustment. Let your pelvic floor and deep abs lift. Let those butt muscles work for you. Focus on efficient, beautiful motion, and you will have a powerful tango.
Check out my YouTube channel
I put tango how-to videos up as I have time. I have not had time to put up a walking video, but there are videos on pivoting and turning, as well as milonga drills. There are also exercise, including hip openers. All of them focus on correct movement, and you can watch the hip motion and work on yours. Mine is not perfect, but we are all working on improving!
Esther Gokhale and walking
I also have a playlist about walking and posture from Esther Gokhale's work (she is my hero)! As she says, "If it were not behind you, we would call it something else!" I will add to this playlist as I find new information from her.
One of my students cares for his parent who has Alzheimer's. When he called the support hotline for caregivers, he asked what he should be doing to avoid Alzheimer's--and she told him he should dance Argentine Tango! He happily informed her that he already did that.
What makes Argentine Tango especially good for maintaining brain health, compared to, say, ballroom dancing? Instead of memorizing set patterns and dancing them in sequence, tango asks more of the dancer. Improvisation within the dance means constantly playing with the building blocks of tango and recombining them in different ways. This forces your brain to make new connections, reinforcing memory and providing more pathways to find information stored there.
Like LEGO, tango components can be built into all sorts of interesting patterns that weren't on the picture on the box. If you allow yourself to do the same beginning, middle and end of a move, without variation, your dance will be OK; it's OK to build the picture on the box. However, it is NOT building your brain, and it is NOT developing your dance!
When I teach, I encourage students to stretch their mind along with their body. It creates pockets of questions about moves, questions of how you put things together. When your brain has to work a bit to build connections between different bits of information, that information "sticks" better. You remember it, and have several pathways to accessing the moves while you dance.
Let's use turns as an example, since we have been studying them this month in FUNdamentals class. Many of you came into class with your favorite one or two turn combinations. I have spent the month trying to deconstruct your turns into components, so that you can then take the parts and make NEW versions to enhance your dance (and your brain). Yes, this is hard! Yes, this is good for your brain (and your tango).
If you look at the dance from what the follower is doing, there are only three ways to begin a turn: front, side and back steps. For a standard giro, the leader needs to be in the center of the turn for the follower to turn around that spot. For right now, let's ignore traveling turns and sacadas turns, where the leader does not stay in one place. How do you start a turn so that followers get different entrances into the turn? Here's what we explored:
- A traspie (rebound, rock step, whatever you call it)--usually propels the follower into a front or side step, depending on the direction of the move.
- A salida (any side step, really), followed by the leader keeping both feet under and creating torque around the spot. People will argue whether this means the side step is the first step of the turn, or if the next step (usually a back cross) is the beginning.
- Back ochos into a turn ensure that the follower's first step is a back step.
- Front ochos into a turn ensure that the first step of the turn is a front step if the leader does unaccompanied front ochos; if the leader accompanies the step, we are back to the question of whether that, or the following side step, starts the turn.
Middle of the turn
Here, if you don't add things like sacadas, your only choices have to do with syncopation. The follower is supposed to syncopate by default on the giro: two fast and two slow steps. If the leader wants to slow down, the follower has to feel the deceleration before launching into the back cross step. If the leader wants the follower to speed up, the follower has to feel acceleration that encourages a continuation of the two fast steps. Most people limit themselves to one speed. Let the music and your partner inspire you to try to vary this!
The option I teach first in turns, is to finish turning, pause, and walk out. This is great, but it doesn't mean you should only do that for your tango career! Start playing with "catching" the follower's front, side and back step, and accompanying them OUT of the turn. If you think of the turn as a lollipop, find the stick!
The options we have explored in class:
- Exit with back ochos (lead front, follow back, but with pivots)
- Exit with paso americano (both lead and follow do front steps)
- Exit with a front ochos (lead side, follow forward)
- Exit with a salida (both people take side steps)
- The possibilities are endless, but we only had a month!
For some people, two turns are enough, and that is fine. That's good enough for government work. But consider pushing your brain, building those new connections. The more you challenge yourself, the more you improve your brain health! I hope that's worth the extra work for you!
I spend a LOT of time in my classes trying to explain how to walk naturally. I teach what my tango teachers in Buenos Aires call "normal" tango embrace/walk (follower slightly offset, each person on their own axis, with each person walking their own straight line) that is foreign to students of other teachers in my town (who teach open embrace, leaning-styles of close embrace, and various other things).
When I go to Buenos Aires, I almost never have to argue about "how" I am going to dance with another person. We agree by cabeceo, we adjust to each other's styles, and it works most of the time. What part of this system is not working in the United States?
The right way?
I think that most people here think there is only one right way to dance tango. They listen to their first teacher, and then argue with anyone who suggests alterations to their dance. In Buenos Aires, everyone knows that there are tons of different styles, and there is more of an attempt to find your own dance, rather than "the right dance."
I have chosen the style that I teach because I believe it is the easiest style of tango in terms of body wear and tear. I want to dance tango until I die, not until I need back surgery. I want to dance all night, not until my feet hurt. As a student of anatomy, I constantly try to find the best ways to help people find their own body, feel how it works, and then use that knowledge to make their own dance. It's about ease of movement and body health; if you want to then go do a style that is hard on the body, that is an educated decision that you are free to make.
What village are you from?
As a folk dancer, we have a joke when we learn a new variation of a dance: "What village are you from?!?" We all know that there are tons of variation in the folk tradition, and we accept that for the most part.
In tango, it's a question of what neighborhood your teacher came from; or what teacher formed their dance. I have danced all over Buenos Aires and studied with people from a lot of different neighborhoods. According to reactions from elderly men in Buenos Aires, I appear to have learned styling that places me anywhere from Villa Devoto to Belgrano to Villa Urquiza.
For most of us who did not grow up in Buenos Aires, we have taken what we know of Argentine Tango from whatever sources we could. I am lucky that I spent a lot of time dancing with the old guys twenty years ago, and got the feeling of their dance into my body. What village am I from? From the one where you get a master's in dance and study anatomy and kinesiology AND hang out with old guys in milongas.
Here are some of the people I have studied with to give YOU inspiration and help you see how I have built my own dance.
Omar was one of my main milonga teachers in Buenos Aires. He was never one to follow the rules, so you will see some crazy things on his videos, but getting to be his assistant in milonga class formed my milonga. I would follow him as he showed moves, and then switch to leading in the class. The guys in class were very open to me leading, and provided a lot of encouragement. The women were willing to dance with another woman and the chance to study weekly gave me homework for going dancing.
I learned a lot about milonga from Jose Garofalo. His classes were relaxed and enjoyable. Private lessons with him were the best: because he is such a fabulous follower, he would take what I did wrong and expand upon it in a hilarious manner--until I fixed it. Because he is an inventive leader, I have to be super-focused when dancing with him: he doesn't just follow a fixed pattern, and I never know what will come out of that incredible 30-year-tango memory! I couldn't find a video of him doing milonga except with me, so here it is:
Tete Rusconi--vals and tango
Tete was my main vals teacher. He gave me a lot of flack for leading in his classes, but I learned a lot from him. Skip the first 1:30 or so of this video where they introduce him if you don't speak Spanish. I like this dance because it is very sweet and balanced, with a lot of poetry in the musicality--and because it shows his tango, not his vals. I enjoyed dancing with him.
Oscar Mandagaran--milonga, tango and vals
Oscar was the teacher of my Argentine boyfriend, who dragged me to a class in an apartment where I was the only foreigner. I studied with him on and off for many years. Watch this video of us dancing on a crowded plywood stage out on the street in Buenos Aires. You can see a lot of what I try to teach people to do! Just skip ahead past all the stuff about the photographer!
Julio Balmaceda and Corina de la Rosa--tango and vals
Julio and Corina taught classes in La Galeria where I went to take classes. They are no longer together, but Corina is a powerhouse of a follower who I hope to emulate someday. Check out their vals here, which is one of my favorites to watch and rewatch. Notice they almost never walk in front of each other: when he does step in front of her, he does not invade her space, but is using it to prepare for another movement.
OK, there are a BUNCH more people who have inspired and taught me, but that's enough for this week!
Once you have your shoulders relaxed with a good embrace, and your hips in the right position to support your back, Argentine Tango should be a lot easier to manage for people coming to it from ballroom dancing. There's really only one thing more that people complain about: "My feet hurt!"
A lot of ballroom teachers teach dancers to get up on the balls of the feet to dance. Although I personally would never counsel that having been a student of anatomy and kinesiology, I can see that the "look" of the dance is being stressed over the "feel" of the dance; I understand even if I disagree.
What's different in tango?
Tango requires a constant preparedness to change direction. As it is much more improvisational, neither the leader nor the follower may have a plan further ahead than the current step in many cases. Balance and ability to pivot and change direction take precedence over everything else in terms of the foot.
More surface area improves balance
Get those heels down! Spread out your toes! Yoga talks about the four corners of the foot: use that concept in tango.
Think about elephant feet: elephants have good balance and REALLY big feet. Imagine you have huge feet that hold you up. If you are in heels, pretend that teeny stiletto heel is enormous!
Engage your arch for pivoting
This is especially true for turns. Instead of popping up to remove as much of your foot as possible from the ground, stay more grounded. You need to keep your metatarsal arches as the center of your work, so spread your toes out, rather than scrunching them in. Yes, it takes effort to keep the arches as the focus, not the heads of the metatarsal bones. However, using that arch for support means more hours of dancing before your feet give out.
Build your ankle strength
I inherited very weak ankles from my mother. I was always the kid with an Ace bandage from spraining and straining my ankles. Luckily, seven years of West African dance training coincided with my Argentine Tango beginnings. That helped a lot, but I still didn't have the strength to work correctly in high heels
I have worked hard to correct that, and have used ankle exercises based on the ones that I have learned from physical therapists and trainers to help my students also build their ankles. A lot of power in tango comes from the foot and ankle working together. Once the ankle is strong, the temptation to take all of the work into the toes, ballet-style, can fade :-)
One challenge that ballroom dancers find when starting Argentine Tango, is the need to change how the partners in the dance are connected to one another. What needs to change?
Change your frame to an embrace
The tango embrace is much less rigid than the ballroom frame. The hands and arms help the leader and follower communicate as helpers to information from the body, rather than as a rudder system to steer the follower around. It's very subtle, and requires attentive listening from both sides; but is also allows many more variations of movement to happen.
The hands and arms are receptor sites
Think about your hands and arms as receptor sites: you are feeling what the other person is doing, and through your embrace, you can get additional information about the other person's balance, axis and direction.
Instead of steering with the frame, FEEL where your partner is now! Is the follower on axis? Are you both headed the same way in the room? Small, subtle adjustments work much better than "driving" the follower around the room. As a follower, I can feel where the leader is by tuning in with my hands and arms.
Hold your partner like a baby
When you hold a baby, you need to constantly adjust your hold to accommodate the baby's movements. You also need to hold with a firm grip that give the baby reassurance that they are safe. However, if you hold too firmly, the baby feels uncomfortable. All of that applies to holding your partner in tango. If you have never held a baby, think about holding an expensive vase.
A good amount of tone in the arms and hands allows the other person to know that you are present and listening. Just like with a baby, it also calms your partner. I often spend my time dancing with beginners (when leading or following) simply getting them to relax enough to dance, usually by adjusting the energy of my embrace until I feel them relax more.
Relax your elbows!
Let your elbows drop towards the ground ("Energy underside" as one of my students says who does aikido and chi work). Anchor your arms and shoulder blades down into the lower center of your back (latissimus dorsi muscles). The lower they are anchored, the better the other person can read where your body is heading.
Anchor your shoulder blades down, not back
Many ballroom dancers squeeze their shoulder blades together to open up their chest. This is not really a position that will work for hours of dancing! Instead, think about anchoring your shoulder blades DOWN your back. If you have ever seen the wine bottle openers that pull the cork up while the sides of the opener fold down, that's an image I often use to remind folks to slide their shoulder blades down and towards the lower spine.
Let your shoulders and shoulder girdle drape over your torso so that they are balanced, but not tense. Think of a coat, draped over a hanger: the coat is not tense! This will help you dance with a lot less muscle tension and neck/shoulder pain.
Do it all the time!
Again, the more you practice, the faster you learn a new skill. What is you practiced keeping your shoulders relaxed, your elbows released, and your shoulder blades actively anchored down the back ALL THE TIME? Then you would not need to think about that while dancing, and could focus on other parts of the dance!
If you try this out while doing ballroom dance, you will find that most of the tips I have given you will also work in ballroom, and will help relieve tightness in your body while dancing. They will also help you lead and follow better: bonus!
I met a new Argentine Tango dancer this week. She is a ballroom dancer, and I found myself giving her the advice I always give people who start tango with a ballroom background. It occurred to me that it might be helpful for others who are coming over to the tango side of things.
I started teaching ballroom dance in 1986. When I started Argentine Tango in 1995, I had all of the same issues to fix that I work on with other dancers. I have been there myself!
Adjust the pelvis to save the back
Most ballroom dancers come to tango complaining of tight backs and inability to pivot constantly into turns and ochos. The fix: a different hip position to relax and free up the back!
Natural movement at the sacrum
A lot of dancers have been told to hold their hips completely straight. This is not how the body moves! As you shift weight from one foot to the other, the sacrum naturally rocks slightly from side to side, like a seesaw. This allows your head to balance over your feet efficiently.
If you hold your sacrum tight, that extra motion needs to come from somewhere, and other body parts (your back, your feet, your knees) take more pressure and get tired and sore. Let your pelvis move naturally, and you have more graceful movement and less work per step.
Try to find a new natural without exaggeration: with any new movement, you need to be careful not to overdo it.
Build slowly on your body's current abilities
The pelvic motion needed to maintain back health is not extreme. If your body says, "Ow!" pay attention. It may be that you are doing something you THINK is part of tango, but you misunderstood the teacher. Or, it may be that the motion needed is currently not something you can achieve in one leap.
I always encourage dancers coming from ballroom to take at least a few private lessons. A good teacher can evaluate whether or not you might benefit from some myofascial release, or chiropractic adjustment--or maybe just a bit of strength building in muscles that you haven't been using.
Recruit your abdominals for better pivots and less pain
Many people stand with their hips forward and their legs locked. While this may be useful for waiting in line somewhere, it is bad for movement. The back bears the brunt of the weight and the back muscles work a bit too hard.
In tango, it's really important to balance the front and back bodies out, so that pivoting and other movement around the spine is as easy as possible. To get your abdominals in gear, lift your belly button towards your back, adding abdominal tone. Look at some pictures of how your abdominal muscles help you rotate; visualize where they are and how they hug the body.
Make sure that you have a bit of a tip at the hip joint. You need to take pressure off of the ligament at the front of the hip. Yes, that takes more abdominal work than slouching into your hips. However, that little tip onto the point where your hips balance better on the leg, allows your spine and back muscles to get help from the front of the body.
Use these muscles for ballroom too!
By the way (if you haven't guessed already), I am a big fan of using these same muscles for ballroom dancing. I have never had a ballroom dancer come to study with me who did not find that their ballroom dancing also improved from their tango postural work. Once you get used to switching dance styles between ballroom and Argentine Tango, you will find that all the work you are doing in tango will pay off in other dancing.
Improving your pivots in tango makes a lot of moves easier. Ochos, turns, boleos, . . . the list goes on and on. Pivots are just as important for leading tango, but I have been focusing on making videos for followers to improve their own dance. It seems to me that many classes only focus on how to lead tango, leaving the followers to do the best they can with little information.
Build your body map
If you spend some time working just on the pivots, your moves will improve. Finding what muscles work in your body to make a good pivot, helps you build your own "body map" of how the body works. Then, if something is not working, YOU can detect and fix the problems. Having a good teacher is very important, but that person cannot follow your around the dance floor, pointing out when you have successfully done a move, or when you have made a mistake.
Take the time to work SLOWLY on your pivots. Feel how they work in your body. Focus on your feet, or your hips, or your abs, or whatever part you are working on. Once you have a good feel for that part, add it into your body map until you can see/feel how all the parts work together. For me, when it is working, I feel as if there is a fiber optic cable running through the focus points, lit up like a Christmas tree. When something is not working, one of those connect-the-dot spots fails to light up.
After many years of working on my body map, I can tune into it pretty easily, but it took a lot of work to get to this spot. Don't give up!
Here is a short video on turn drills to help improve your tango turns. My FUNdamentals class asked me to video some of the exercises that I do, so that they can remember them outside of class :-) Sorry about the sound: I was fighting a cold and sounded horrible the day I shot the footage for the drills, so I gave up talking and just typed the information on the video.
It is much harder to practice by yourself than with a partner. First, it's easier to practice when someone else says, "OK, put on your shoes now and let's go!" Also, when you have a partner, you can hold onto them, and that makes getting around the corners easier than on your own. Lastly, I tend to practice longer when I have someone to talk to; it's hard to make yourself do more than a few songs.
Making the video made me do a lot more practice that day! I kept shooting video, looking at it, and then going back to do it again. I think I did turn drills for almost an hour before I got interrupted by my family! So maybe we should all just turn on the camera and go for it! It never looks good, by the way. I can see every one of the mistakes I made here. I hope that, by leaving them in, you can see that it's not about perfect, it's about practice.
I read the BBC online while drinking my morning tea. Today, there was a story about a study published by the University of Maastricht. The study found that you can speak a second language better with some alcohol in your system! According to the BBC, even though "alcohol diminishes concentration, cognitive skills and motor skills," the levels of anxiety are reduced because of the alcohol. Too much alcohol, and your new-found ability to speak that language again diminishes.
I found myself thinking about Las Naifas, the monthly milonga that Luisa Zini and I organize in Portland, Oregon. Despite having a lot of work to do to set up, run, and clean up from the milonga, I get the feeling that a lot of people have more fun and dance more at this milonga than at some of the bigger venues. The entrance price includes food and a drink, so many people have a glass of wine or another drink, as they arrive and start to dance.
Many of my beginner students have told me they danced better than they thought they would dance, especially given the small space we use. I have noticed that newer dancers tend to flee the scene after a short time at some milongas, but often stay for most of the milonga at Las Naifas. I wonder if tango learners, like language learners, lose some of their inhibitions with that glass of wine? Just something to ponder for today.
I personally do not dance better with half a drink in my system, but this article has raised some questions for me to think about as a teacher and dance organizer. What is your experience/opinion?
This month, my classes will focus on the vals.
I have studied with many people, but I spent the most time on vals with Tete Rusconi. He was not the best teacher; I don't think swearing at your students is a real motivator. However, if you could withstand the teasing, ridicule and boisterousness, you would come out the other end of classes with new ideas to try on the dance floor. His ability to swirl right and left, spin on a dime, and keep the fluidity of vals going, were all inspiring.
Pepito was reknowned for his mastery of milonga, but his moves work very nicely for vals as well. His students, who taught me, emphasized the ease of his movement; the way he played with syncopation; and his groundedness. We'll pick a few of his moves to add into Tete's.
Although I have studied very little with him, Ricardo Viqueira gave me some lessons a few years ago when I was shopping for a new teacher. We will work on some of the moves he taught me as well. "If you don't teach anything else to your students, you MUST teach them to use contrabody!!" he told me. It will come as no surprise that the secret to these moves is good contrabody. What's funny, is that I learned these from Tete as well, but had forgotten them!
So, groove, spin, syncopate and swirl over to the Om Studio, 14 NE 10h, PDX, for classes on Thursdays this November! The drawing for a free private lesson for this month will happen at 8 PM.
I keep up with learning theory to help me learn to teach better. I recently read Anders Ericsson's and Robert Pool's book, Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise, Mariner Books, 2017. Their aim is to share research that shows efficient ways to get to a higher level of expertise, without wasting time. To save you time, I have summarized the book. All the information below is from the book (quotes as noted).
Deliberate practice vs. traditional learning
Traditional learning assumes you have a limit and trains you to (maybe) reach that potential. If you are trying to get "good enough" you don't need to push for peak excellence. You can take a few classes, go to practicas, and eventually feel competent on the dance floor. At that point, your dance is automatic and you don't have to think hard to dance. The only problem with automatic practice, is that it deteriorates over time. Once you reach a level, if you don't maintain it, you will actually get worse at it!
Deliberate practice assumes there is no limit: you can shape your own potential if you have the drive to go beyond good enough. If you apply the ideas in this book to your practice, you will continue to get better and better. The only stopping you, is yourself!
The elements of deliberate practice
Deliberate practice includes having defined goals. What skills do you need to master to become good at tango? What are the steps to building those skills? How can you incorporate practice into your daily life to save time and increase the time you practice?
Pursuing defined goals is not fun. It's difficult to stay focused. Make your list of skills you need in order to become a good tango dancer. Highly focused sessions where you are tuned into your body and focusing on exactly what you need to do to improve, will be exhausting, but they are still the fastest way to get better. You can't space out and just go through the motions if you want to improve.
You will not improve without feedback about what you are doing. The most efficient way to get that, is to work with a good teacher, one-on-one. That person already knows what skills you need in order to reach the top. They have already gone through the same process, and have reached a high skill level themselves. They can help you develop a plan for building your skills.
Why does it matter if your teacher is good or not? A good teacher will teach YOU how to provide your own feedback. As you understand your practice and your goals, you can monitor yourself and adjust your practice to achieve those goals. Once you understand the mental representations of what you are doing, you get coached not only when your teacher is around, but when you also can correct your practice.
How to find a good teacher
How do you get a good teacher? Find out who the teacher has taught: are those dancers good? Find out if the teacher is a good dancer; most teachers can only teach you up to their level of dance. Find out if s/he is a good TEACHER: a lot of people are good at performing in their field of expertise, but they haven't learned to teach. Can they get you to reach specific goals, provide good mental representations for you to use for practice, and help you over roadblocks? Then that's the right teacher.
Where there is no teacher
If you can't afford one-on-one lessons, there are things you can do on your own to learn. However, you aren't going to learn as fast. You need to push yourself a little bit further, constantly. You need to stay focused on your goals. You need to give yourself feedback, keeping in mind that often only one or two things are wrong: look for the one thing you need to fix. You need to address that problem, adjust your mental representation, and keep going. You have to stay motivated.
Get out of your comfort zone
You won't improve if you just practice at the same level, but it's hard to make yourself leave your comfort zone. It's not fun! This is one place where having a teacher helps. One of the teacher's jobs is to ask questions/set tasks for the student that are not always easy to complete. They should be just outside the comfort zone of the student so that they are not a huge step forward that looks impossible; just baby steps up the ladder to improvement.
The biggest factor that determines how good you will get at something, is your motivation. You can find ways and reasons to keep going; or make it harder to quit :-) It's hard to stay motivated as you pursue a goal. Most of the time, it's a long slog of practicing, and practicing is often not fun. You are pushing out of your comfort zone, trying things that are a bit too hard, and working on improving your technique. SO...figure out what kind of reward makes you keep going, and give yourself little rewards when you accomplish small goals towards your big goal.
Make it harder to quit by putting a time into your schedule where you practice. Don't just say, "oh, I will practice sometime today" and let it slide. Make the sessions short, do the work, and stop. Believe in your ability to reach your goals. Look at someone successful: that's a great example of someone who didn't give up! You can do the same thing.
Get your friends involved
One of the best ways to stay motivated, is to do your practice in a group. You can get feedback from the other people, borrow their training tips, watch them for new ideas, and stay focused on your goals.
Find ways to get through barriers
Everyone hits roadblocks in their training. When you get stuck, look at the problem a different way. Try a different exercise, dance with a different partner, go to a different event, take a private lesson--whatever you need to do to get back on track. There will always be barriers, and it's just a question of overcoming it.
Let your motivation get you through being stuck. Pick what motivates you, and use to so that you don't give up when you hit a roadblock on the way to your goal. For example, if I meet my running goal for the week, I get to buy a gluten-free pastry at the bakery. It keeps me running, and my overall health improves.
This is what I am implementing even more than I did before I read this book. According to the book, "A mental representation is a mental structure that corresponds to an object, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about" (p. 58). Mental representations hold a lot of information, but in chunks of data. This helps your brain process/apply information more quickly.
As your skills improve, you refine your mental representation. You try things, fail at them, redraw your mental representation, and try again. You get better at evaluating your performance, comparing it to your representation and giving yourself feedback and corrections.
One of the last things the authors note in their book: we don't know enough about mental representation in training, and that studying how top performers in a field work through their mental representations might allow coaches, researchers and learners, to tailor training to include how to improve these mental models. Verbally building these representations, explaining what you understand, should help your teachers guide the construction of your mental representation, and speed up your learning.
The big take-aways
Talent only helps the process get started
Ericsson's research shows that natural talent is not the THE key to becoming one of the best in the world at something. It helps in the beginning, as kids who seem talented at something may be steered into a path, but that doesn't mean they will be better in the long run: ". . . there is no evidence that any genetically determined abilities play a role in deciding who will be among the best." (p. 235)
Everyone has potential
Hard work, good coaching and focused, deliberate practice make the difference, not talent. The ones who get to the top work harder that other people and have more motivation. They didn't quit when they hit a plateau.
For me, I have always said that everyone is a dancer; some people just don't know it yet. Look for potential, not limits! The only person who won't be good at something, is the one who has given up. That means ALL OF US could be amazing tango dancers, top in the world. Even if we don't aspire to that, we can up our game through deliberate practice. Get inspired!!
It's time for more Pepito infusions into our milonga here in Portland! Three years ago when I first taught a Pepito milonga class, I really enjoyed getting back to my milonga roots. I didn't get to study with the maestro directly, as he died in early 1996 and I started tango in late 1995. However, I studied milonga with students of Pepito, and danced with other former students of his--and shamelessly stole their moves. Ah, the joy of leading and following!
For me, what I see in Pepito's dancing--and felt in his students--was a groove, an organic flow of energy. It felt very in control, but never wooden or artificial. I end up talking about "VROOM" when I teach his steps. When you watch him, his body and feet are very precise, but the dance is not about that: they only serve his purpose of playing with the music and his partner. He zips around the dance floor at top speed, looking calm, collected and in control of his dance.
So, MORE Pepito moves! And more technique work, so that YOU can leave your technique at the table when you step out on the dance floor, and experience joy and VROOM!
Classes will be at 8 PM at the Om Studio, 14 NE 10th in PDX. $14 drop in or $45 for the month.
For inspiration, skip through this video and watch Pepito. If you also speak Spanish, there are some nice parts where dancers talk about Pepito and how he was special and what he contributed to the Buenos Aires tango community.
You can also read an interview conducted with him (although I'd have to say the translation seems to be done by a machine, not a human).
Many of you have approached me and asked me about doing adornos. What movements "should" you do? How many? When? How do you get comfortable waving your feet around? Since I've taken a break from my Body Dynamics class (which started as a follower technique class), I have not taught an adornos class for a while, so....
I will be teaching several adorno workshops over the course of the fall. Each one will be stand-alone, but together, they will cover ALL of the adornos I have learned, tips for practicing, tips for using them, etc. Using adornos well is an art, and the best compliment I have ever received in Buenos Aires was from another teacher who told me after our first dance that I adorned not just with my feet, but with my soul! Oh yeah!
- Please sign up and pay ahead of time on my website registration page.
- Cost: $25. Pay & pre-register by cash or check before August 21st: $20.
- Duration: 1.5 hours
- Time: 7-8:30 PM
- Limit: 10 participants (first ten to pay are in the class)
- Location: 4315 NE Garfield Ave.
- Bring socks & your dance heels, and dress for stretching/drills on floor :-)
Why do we always use the phrase "mindfulness" when talking about being aware of our bodies? Biking home from tennis, I came up with BODYFULNESS as my new word of the day.
With the help of my chiropractor, I have mostly solved my shoulder issues in tango. I need to keep my shoulder blades anchored into my spine, and avoid letting my partners pull my shoulder forward when I lead. I have been working on doing correct planks, pushups and other exercises to build my muscles to keep everything in the right place. I try to keep aware of my body, and get my shoulder blades into the correct position as soon as I feel them sliding forward. I am being BODYFUL as much as possible.
Now, I am struggling with mapping new neural pathways in my body for bicycling, working out and learning tennis.
For bicycling, I have found that I refocus on my correct form each time that I have a moment to let the bike glide downhill. Luckily, my regular routes around NE Portland have a lot of up and down variation. I find I am biking a bit faster with my shoulders anchored.
When I work out, I try to picture how my deep core connects to my legs and my shoulder girdle. If there is a move that does not allow me to do that, I slow down. If that doesn't work, I simplify the move to just arms or legs and center of the body. I try to only attend class where I know the instructor is very well trained so that s/he can further tweak my form. I went to class today, and feel that I kept my shoulders anchored the whole time! That's a new level of BODYFULNESS for me, and it shows I am getting stronger.
For tennis, this is going to be a longer-term goal. I have almost no distance judgment, and I find that I was making up for that by reaching too far to get the ball. Last week, the guys at the next court helpfully gave me pointers ("You look like a ballerina! Get BOTH feet on the ground to hit the ball! Follow through!" etc.). I find that I miss a lot of balls when on both feet because my eyes think the ball is closer than it really is. To compensate, I stand on one foot and I let my shoulder drift out towards the ball. Now that I can feel that, I am working on re-calibrating my eyes, and keeping feet and shoulders anchored.
It's going to take some time to apply my new neural pathways to all of my activities. I am happy to find out how much stronger my upper body is when I use it correctly. I enjoy being in my body, having BODYFULNESS, and I try to stay there as much as possible. It gives me a sense of wellbeing that I don't have when I just stay stuck in my mind.
Scared but still performing
I have been performing since the age of five. Until college, that involved singing in choirs and attending a capella singing competitions. I started performing dance three months after I began to dance in college. I performed dance throughout my master's degree in dance. I also continued performing as a singer.
I have been terrified of performing most of that time. I know all of the tricks to calm the body: deep breathing, pretending that everyone not on stage is in their underwear, ignoring the audience, etc. None of them work for me. I get through performing, and then I retreat to a corner and shake for a while.
I try to avoid performing.
I recently performed twice in one week: five dances. That is the first time I have performed in several years, and I was even more nervous than before.
It was a peak experience. I danced the best I have ever danced in my life one of those nights. Even in video, which takes away something from the real experience, it looks pretty good. Even to me, the perfectionist. It was better than perfect: it was fun.
What made it work for me?
What made me survive performing? A good partner. A partner who said, "Look at me, you are dancing for ME!" and didn't give me time to think about whether people were watching.
I have know Jose for almost 20 years. He was one of my first teachers. When I visit Buenos Aires, we always have a coffee together and chat for a few hours. I trust him. I knew he would not sacrifice me to looking good, to showing off, or to showboating for himself. He took care of me, just as a good leader does on the social dance floor.
Jose was so busy before we performed that we didn't practice. I didn't get a private lesson fitted in or anything. In other words, I had to wing it 100%.
On the way to the performance, Jose played a song on his phone and asked if I liked it. I asked to perform to it the next performance, as I had never heard that version before. He played a few more, and we agreed on a tango. Three blocks from the venue, he said, "What about this milonga?" and played Azabache. "Fine," I said. That was it except for one tanda to warm up.
Not having a plan and not having practiced (and not having danced together for about ten years at all) meant that I needed to pay attention. I didn't have extra brain space to really freak out about performing.
Twenty-one years of tango training kicked in and. . . it was wonderful.
Over the 20+ years I have danced tango, I have been taught LOTS of different "best" ways to embrace my partner in tango. Many students have come to me with sore arms, shoulders and backs "caused" by their partners. "What's the best way to dance so I don't get hurt?"
I see a lot of room for improvement in how we dance and how we teach the embrace. For myself, I have found that learning to stabilize my shoulders and arms has helped me dance better with more people, and with fewer injuries. As long as I am using my body correctly, I can do several different styles of tango embrace.
So what is best? Body-based choices. You knew I was going to say that, didn't you?
Anchor your shoulder girdle
You have several layers of muscles at work in your back. You want to make sure that the deepest levels of muscles are strong and aligned, and then stack the outer layers on from there. If you use too much neck and shoulder work for your embrace, you are stressing ALL the layers.
Since it is hard to feel the layers of muscle in your back (for most people), focus on one area: the lower tip of your shoulder blade, and the muscles that help anchor it into the center of your body.
Here are the exercises that I am currently for MY shoulder girdle strength!
1. Table top: Get your arms and shoulder girdle in the right position to use as a stable area.
2. Plank: Build your strength and stability by placing more demand on that area.
3. Negative pushups: After your can stabilize, continue to improve by increasing the demand on those muscles.
4. Pushups (and yes, I can't do these yet!). For those of you out there who do pushups: MAKE SURE you are doing them using these muscles, or you won't be training the correct muscles. Have someone watch you to make sure that the focus is back muscles. Yes, there are other muscles being used, but those muscles may not help your tango embrace as much.
Want more info?
For more in-depth info, I recommend two fabulous books that I use all the time to show my students how the body works:
- The Anatomy of Exercise & Movement by Jo Ann Saugaard-Jones
- Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain (and there is a related Exercises book)
Imagery to help you
Words get in the way. For many people, pictures work better (especially for my visual learners). However I can't transmit the picture in my head to yours without words and the pictures I draw while teaching. Here are some pictures that work for me or some of my students. If they don't work for you, throw them out!
- Wine corkscrew: Think about opening a bottle of win. Your shoulder blades are the wings that pull down and in. Your neck and spine are the cork sliding straight up!
- Hanger: Imagine that the back of your neck is the hanger handle, and that your shoulders and arms are following gravity, like a heavy coat drapes on the hanger. The coat does not need to hold itself up.
- Tree: Your legs and torso are the main strength to hold up the branches. Imagine your head is the top of the tree and that you are REALLY tall. Relax your shoulders: the roots are holding you up. The tree on the right of the picture is the one I think about: it's on my college campus, and I spent a lot of time under it, playing guitar. Don't laugh too hard.
- Fountain: Water shoots up and out of your head, falls to the basin of the fountain, and comes up the middle again. The shoulders are out of the picture! This can help with breathing as well as energy circulation.
Practice time = all the time you aren't dancing!
I definitely try to "forget" all of my technique and just dance when I am out dancing. In order to do that, my technique needs to be hard-wired into my brain so that it just happens. How do you get to that level as fast as possible? Do your tango homework all the time!
Practicing all the time does not mean carving out an hour or two a day to practice. I certainly do not manage that, and I am a dance teacher. Instead, I try to stay aware of how I move my body whenever I have spare brainpower.
- Find good posture for your shoulders and middle back when you start work.
- Set your computer timer so that it gives you a reminder every 30 minutes to find your center back, relax your shoulders, and restart your work with better posture.
- Standing in line waiting for something? Use those extra brain cells for finding your perfect alignment so that you can use it in tango without thinking!
- If you have a job where they don't stare if you do stretches, take 5 minutes of your break time and do the exercises above.
- When you walk the dog, carry groceries, cart your kid around, etc., check in: are you working "smart" or cheating? Fix it!