Our body follows certain control points. In the typical case, the movement follows the direction of the gaze. If we focus on something this elicits an orienting response starting at the head that then moves down through the neck down the spine, and we tend to move in that direction. The main difficulty in dancing tango is that we canno use these primary controlling mechanisms that operate in our daily life: we don’t always walk forward but often backwards or around; we have a partner in front of us; and we can’t look at the feet so that we risk stepping or kicking our partner. We have to therefore learn to move in a completely different way, using a different set of directing mechanisms. In particular the eyes are of no use in dancing tango and looking at the feet in order to figure out where to step is detrimental to the embrace and so we have to learn to orient ourselves without using the eyes.
The solution to the problem is that in tango we orient ourselves with the feet. The feet movements that are these days considered mere decorative are actually functionally orienting movements and need to be learned as such. In some dances and styles of tango feet point more or less forward. In order to turn then it is necesssary to swivel. Swiveling is not an efficient way to move or turn. While it looks aesthetically pleasing and allows for large expressive movements with large hip movement, this is inherently unstable and requires a level of strength and athleticity that is not suitable to social dancing and is not an efficient way of moving that could be sustained without fatigue for long periods of time. Moreover, it is completely at odds with the requirements of the sustained close embrace.
So because we don’t want to swivel and we want the hips to remain relatively square to the shoulders and always facing the partner, we need to free up the feet. The feet have to open up and the differing angle between the feet orients the body. Whereas in the normal case, the gaze orients the head and body towards the point of focus, in tango the direction of the free foot orients the body in a new direction as we move into that foot and put weight on it. This information is then transferred to our partner: as the man orients the foot and moves his weight onto that foot the woman will be naturally drawn in that direction, and as the woman then moves into the next foot this information is registered by the man.
The orientation of the foot is the pointing with the toe when moving forward or with the heel when moving back. The foot works a bit like a rudder in a boat: it is oriented in the requisite direction and then the whole moves in the direction. However, it is not obvious how the direction of the rudder/foot affects the direction of the movement and so some explorations help us to coordinate our movement so that we learn, as with learning to drive a car or steer a boat, how our foot movement affects the direction of the movement of the whole couple. Moreover, we need to learn to do this without looking at the feet.
One way we can do that is with the help of an imaginary clock. The centre of the clos is between the heels. The feet are the two hands of the clock. Lets say the left foot is the big hand and the right foot is the small hand. If we point both toes forward this is 12 o’clock. If we point the feet out that’s 11.05, 10.10, and 9.15 which would be like a ballet dancers turn out. Normally we will keep one foot/hand still and the other foot/hand will turn.
The normal starting position is 11.05 and so this is our point of reference. We will never be at 12 o’clock. To turn right we will move to 11.10 by drawing the heel/knee up and then dropping the foot in the new position. When we then draw up the right foot we will be in the new position and thus return to 11.05. To turn left we draw up the left heel/knee and drop it at 10.05, and then follow that with the right foot to return to the neutral position. Always practice these movements with good posture and alignment, floating your head on top of your spine.