Walking and the Principle of Reversibility

I had an aha moment about walking and improvisation when a student of another teacher asked me to teach him my ‘style’. His teacher was an Argentine who graduated from the ‘tango university’ and was teaching the sort of long, erect walking that is typical of Salon Style Tango, very elegant and upright looking. When they visited my practica I didn’t know what his teaching method was. Anyway, I showed the guy a simple pattern, which commonly goes by ‘ocho cortado’, but the guy couldn’t do it. I was puzzled given that the guys was obviously studying hard with his teacher and really wanted to get my ‘move’. I found myself telling him that the step he’s taking is too long for close embrace, and that he needs to make smaller steps to execute the pattern.

What he was doing was actually what is commonly taught, namely, pushing horizontally into the step. When I visited the other teacher’s class soon afterwards I had my aha moment when I saw that the Argentinian teacher had the students walking around in a circle pushing horizontally into the steps. I actually used to teach in exactly the same way as this is the most common practice in tango instruction, but it just didn’t occur to me that this could actually be an impediment to the close embrace tango that I was teaching. What I realised at that moment is that pushing horizontally into the step while walking, taught directly and turned into a habit, commits the dancer to a large step which is not reversible.

The issue is not that one should not take large steps while dancing, but rather that one should take a step that is as long as needed. The rule is that you learn what you practice, ie., that what you practice becomes a habit. If you practice taking long steps, pushing horizontally into the step, then that becomes the habit. A student who is trained into such steps finds that they cannot take smaller steps in the inculcated belief that a tango walk is always this sort of long step. Another way of looking at this is that the teaching method teaches the view that walking is a lower body action, and not a whole body action, it’s what you do with your legs.


The issue is not that one should not take large steps while dancing, but rather that one should take a step that is as long as needed. The rule is that you learn what you practice, ie., that what you practice becomes a habit. If you practice taking long steps, pushing horizontally into the step, then that becomes the habit.


Ideally, however, walking is an action that integrates the whole body, so that the legs adjust to what the upper body is doing. In the case of tango, the upper body is connected to another body, and the legs need to adjust to that. That’s why, practicing walking by yourself leads to the sort of partnering that is disjointed: we learn to move the legs and feet in a disjointed way, independently of the upper body and ultimately independently of our partner. But that is at odds with the goal of tango training which is to move in a way that is connected to our partner.

Principle of reversibility

So the question is how or what should we practice—individually or with a partner—so that our walking is more connected. The difference between improvisation and choreography is that in improvised dance we respond to the moment. We are not committed to any sequence of two or more steps, so that make a decision at that point time. That means that the way we dance must allow us to stop and change direction. In fact, Moshe Feldenkrais argued that the fundamental principle of freedom in movement (and by extension of freedom in general) is not lack of inhibition, but rather reversibility, defined as having the maximum number of options at any point in time.

In tango we have a range of options at any point in time and the Principle of Reversibility means that we move in such a way that allows us to stop at any point and reverse the movement. If we learn to walk with an elongated step projecting horizontally forward or backward, at the moment of projecting into space we are unable to reverse for the duration of that long step. If furthermore we learn to walk like that habitually, we are unable to take shorter steps. Generally, our movement will have a lot of power but relatively little control or flexibility. At the end of such a power step we will have to ‘land’ which will require a long ‘runway’. Our dancing will be like the action of a large jumbo jet which will be impressive but not nimble. Great for the floor show in eating up all that empty studio floorspace, but completely inefficient in limited cafe spaces where improvisational skill is required.

I don’t want to be necessarily prescriptive about making large or small steps, but rather to draw out the consequences of a type of training that focuses on one or the other. The sort of training that gets students to walk around in a circle powering horizontally into the step forward or back will lead to habitual movement of a particular type which requires a certain amount of space. If one has access to large studio spaces where each couple can have a space of 2 meters in diameter around them then large power steps are viable, but in most cities such spaces come at a premium at the door. So when one gets this type of training one should bear in mind that there is a longer term price tag for that which extends beyond the price of the class itself. There isn’t a single reason to prefer a more efficient, improvisational type of movement, but a range of reasons that include use of space, access to partners, range of music one can dance to, effort involved.

Elongated walking as end-gaining

The Principle of Reversibility is a development of Alexander’s distinction between end-gaining vs. means-whereby. Alexander held that by excessively focusing on a goal we create tension and are unable to use our physical constitution in according to its natural design. Feldenkrais develops this idea further in terms of the idea that a movement which is efficient by Alexander’s standards is reversible, and furthermore that reversibility, rather than self-expression and lack of inhibition, is actually the standard of freedom and spontaneity.

On this view, taking long steps in walking, much as most other choreography instruction, is a case of end-gaining. Why or how does this occur? Some aspects of dancing are more visible than others. Those that are highly visible are often the most impressive to the viewer. The viewer identifies them as the markers ‘good dancing’ and proceeds to try to emulate them. They are the goal or end of his practice. Unfortunately, seeking to emulate what the viewer considers as the mark of good dancing, the viewer merely imitates superficial aspects of dancing.

A tango show can be viewed as a collection of visually impressive clichés taken from what can be seen in the actions of some social dancers, collected in a single choreography and magnified with stage dancing technique. Whereas originally they were emergent aspects of natural dancing technique (see Emergent Movement), applied directly to movement learning become fixed choreography. They then become visually impressive, which in the context of social dancing offers the dancers the image that they are performing, but thereby takes away the satisfaction inherent in movement that is natural, spontaneous, and connected.


A tango show can be viewed as a collection of visually impressive clichés taken from what can be seen in the actions of some social dancers, collected in a single choreography and magnified with stage dancing technique. Whereas originally these were emergent aspects of natural dancing technique, applied directly to movement learning they become fixed choreography.


Partnering practice: the Fingertip Dance

It is common to analyse the traditional tango walking as powering horizontally into the step. In scientific analyses such subjective perceptual judgements should be gauged against universal principles. If we take the relevant universal principle to be the Principle of Reversibility then an interpretation of circular motion initiated vertically is more plausible. You can test this yourself with a simple partnering exercise. When two partners connect at any point on the body, then the most efficient or reversible interaction between them is not linear or horizontal, but circular.

To test this yourself you can try the “fingertip dance” which is a basic movement exploration in Contact Improvisation. In this exercise, two partners touch at the tip of an index finger of one hand. It’s sometime better to do this exercise with closed eyes. The purpose of this exercise is to explore movements while maintaining the pressure and connection between the two fingers. To those inexperienced in this it will be a bit challenging to begin with. Probably one partner should initiate and the other partner should listen or follow. The purpose of this exercise is to learn how the two partners need to participate in order to maintain the connection while moving together.

In the course of such a movement exploration it is useful to ask some questions: What do we need to do in order to sustain the pressure between the fingertips? Do we need to move the body, eg., take a step, in response to any movement? How fast should we move in order for our partner to be able to respond? How can we indicate the direction of the movement for our partner to respond? How can we respond to what our partner is doing. How is moving in a line different from moving in a circle? And so on. What we’ll find is that with repeated practice we learn the ‘rules’ of the fingertip dance and are able to initiate and respond better to our partner, and also that we are able to exchange the initiating and listening roles.

Individual practice of 3-D reversible walking

A reversible way to walk initiates a movement without committing the dancer in a horizontal direction. That means that the movement that is reversible needs to be vertical. Moreover, when the movement is initiated we want the movement to be circular or elliptical, with gradually increasing cycles. In other words, we always initiate with small movements or cycles, each cycle initiated vertically rather than horizontally. A horizontally initiated cycle will create tension in the listener that will be detrimental to reversibility. In other words, when we move into the follower, this will turn into a power move because the follower will perceive this as something to resist. The circular oscillation of movement will be lost at that point and the dance acquires a one-dimensional character. An alternative is to move in place in two-dimensions—vertical up-down, and horizontal to the side—before moving in the third dimension, ie., forward or back.

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