As I have pointed out (Mental imagery in movement learning) there are several ways of eliciting movement. The most common way that is found in dancing classes is by way of demonstration. The instructor demonstrates a movement or a technique and this provides the visual image that the learners use to replicate it. Another way that is found in movement exploration and improvisation practices is by way of a mental image or visualisation that the learner is verbally instructed to generate himself and that the instructor has found generates the required movement pattern or technique without a need for demonstration. The reason for the latter approach is that what we see when we look at a movement is more often than not misleading and, absent further explanation, tends to focus on merely superficial aspects of movement rather than its internal organisation.
This is in fact the situation in the teaching of probably the most important aspect of tango dancing: the technique for partnering, that is, for leading and following. The visual image is highly misleading in terms of what actually happens in efficient partnering. The teacher demonstrates the movement and what the students see is movement in space that is horizontal. The teacher moves forward or back into space. Tango dancers are said to move like a cat and this is essentially the image of horizontal movement. The cat extends its paws forward and glides along and similarly the dancer extends the foot and pushes into the space. Indeed the whole idea that in tango we walk reinforces this image, but consider the image of walking up a ladder.
This analysis of tango movement seems plausible if we look at dancers moving together through space. Good dancers seem to glide along the floor smoothly and effortlessly. Also, it is easy enough to get students to practice this sort of movement individually walking up and down or around the room pushing into space. It gives them the feeling that they’re learning to dance and takes up class time. It’s a good way to start the class as a warmup to some tango music and satisfies several requirements of conducting a tango dancing class.
Let me briefly go on a tangent and quickly explain three approaches to designing a teaching program or syllabus. Syllabus designs can be categorised as (a) teaching/ centered, (b) learning centered, and (c) learner centered. A teaching centered syllabus is built around the teacher’s credentials and the need to conduct lessons and “teach something” rather and less on the needs of the students or the outcomes of the teaching. The success or failure is measured on whether a class has been taught rather than whether the students are “getting it” or whether any tangible outcomes have been achieved (ie., the students learn the skill or perform in a test). A learning centered syllabus is focused on the goals or outcomes, so that if outcomes are not reached the syllabus needs to be changed. A learner centered syllabus is focused on whether students feel that they’re getting it.
Now, although the practice of walking individually might satisfy the need to teach something, the outcome of this should be that this walking technique should then provide the basis for walking with a partner. But this is where problems arise. Pushing horizontally into space might work in individual practice but with a partner now there is a person in front of you. The man can’t just step forward. The man has to first indicate to the woman his intention or the direction of the movement, and then the woman has to receive that information and initiate her movement so that they move together. There are several ways this can be communicated. One way is through the hands. So some teachers teach a push-pull technique in which the lead-follow is transmitted through the hands. Alternatively, teachers teach leading with the chest where the man moves the chest around and the woman focuses on following the chest with minimal use of the hands.
The problem here is that starting with the visual image of movement along the horozonal axis we end up with a highly inefficient technique for partnering. If you (the man) simply move your partner (the woman) will fall over over unless you plan and anticipate your own step through either the hands or, which is even worse, your chest. The idea is that you need to practice this until the plan, signal and reception are so fast that they’re almost instantanous.
While this seems to make sense in theory, in practice we find that so long as dancers hold on to the idea of horizontal movement the partnering is inefficient and unpleasant. This is the basic reason why most “academico” dancers look so different from so-called “natural” or “intuitive” dancers, in particular, why their dancing looks less graceful and more forced (see Naturalness in tango dancing). Leading with the chest is totally inefficient as there is really no way for the woman to see or otherwise sense the chest quickly enough to follow efficiently . How is the man to signal a simple walk with the chest unless he just starts walking? But this will startle the woman and she’ll fall behind which will create tension. Hand leading on the other hand requires tension in the arms that is also highly inefficient. You end up with the sort of push-pull partnering technique that is typical of ballroom dancing which creates tension in the body and inefficient movement.
Furthermore, it is common to notice that “academico” dancers use space differently from “milonguero” dancers. Because they visualise or imagine their movement horizontally they always move in space or if they dance in place they take up at least double the amount of space. But in a crowded milonga it is necessary to dance using the minimal amount of space, and it appears that “academico” dancers are unable to use space efficiently (see also The fundamental problem of global tango).
We also notice that the image of horizontal movement creates problems with the partnering technique for close embrace or apilado dancing. Students are instructed to lean against each other and then move horizontally. The image is the same but instead of leading through tension in the hands the dancers are required to push-pull through the chest. But this creates exactly the same problem as in the case of partnering through the hands. The leader needs to plan-signal and the follower needs to listen-respond. If the leader needs to “change his mind” then he needs to signal to the follower to “cancel” the previous instruction and change direction and so on and so forth. All of this creates tension and negative feeling, and is responsible for a lot of bad dancing experience and loss of motivation.
This situation is in fact the inevitable end result of starting out with the visual image of dancers moving in space along the horizontal axis. If you look at a crowded milonga like the one’s at Salon Caning, dancers move in place around and only momentarily move horizontally in space. The situation that you get in a studio lesson with plenty of floor space is not the norm but the exception. That is, if the goal is to be able to dance in a crowded milonga then the situation of studio lesson cannot be taken for granted. In fact, it is common to see many teachers, including those from Buenos Aires, who either cannot dance efficiently in a crowded milonga or who have to completely change their “style” of dancing from what they were teaching.
I think that the assumption is that when you’re learning you need to start out this way and then you will somehow adapt or figure it out for yourself. But again, we find that many, perhaps more, do not figure it out. Also, isn’t the point of tango lessons that you don’t need to figure it out for yourself and that what you learn will take you to being able to dance at milongas in the most efficient way possible? Viewed in this way it seems that the teaching technique that uses the image of horizontal movement is totally counterproductive.
The alternative to the visual image of horizontal movement is the mental image of upward projection or a long spine as opposed to horizontal projection and smooth cat walking. The point is that when you visually see as walking horizontally conceals the actual mental image that drives efficient dancing which is not horizontal but vertical and upward. It is the image of the spine lengthening upward. While this is a mental image, I have found that in practice this image is best generated and sustained through the position of the elbows. You will find that the position of the elbows best signals the technique that underpins the partnering. Roughly, elbows that are below shoulder level and pointing down signal push-pull partnering, whereas elbows that hover at or above shoulder level and point out (rather than down) signal the long spine image and partnering technique.
The next question is how this changes the mechanics of the partnering. As I explain in Walking and the principle of reversibility we can initiate a walking movement that is eliptical along the vertical and lateral axis, and this movement can be transmitted without moving horizontally through the chest and the shoulder (see also Embrace: the essence of tango). This type of movement, I suggest, utilises the principles of efficient movement and does not require any process of planning-signal-reception-execution. Instead, there is an immediate connection between the partners who simply need to learn the basic rules of efficient movement (see also the “finger dance” in Walking and the principle of reversibility).
The practices for Alignment, Back Release and Coordination provide the basis of the long spine image. Once this image is established, Direction provides the technique for movement (steps, patterns) which takes place naturally, efficiently, instantaneously and without the need to power into the step horizontally (which is highly inefficient in terms of partnering and use of space). The leader initiates with the foot then changing weight and releasing initiates an efficient transmission of the movement direction to the partner. Ideally there is little or no need for horizontal push-pull other than the pressure through the points of connection at the shoulder (primary) and hands (secondary) (see also Embrace).