Introduction to technique

This is an approach to Argentine Tango technique that draws on insights from somatic movement practices. It takes as a starting point the idea that tango is an improvised form and that, as argued by Steve Paxton (the creator of Contact Improvisation) you can’t learn improvised dancing by learning set patterns, steps, or movements. Investigating into the foundational skills for improvisation in tango dancing my proposal is that you should begin by learning the basic concepts of integrated movement as it relates to tango dancing. This is what Steve Paxton proposes for Contact Improvisation training and following him it is what I propose for Tango Estilo Milonguero/Tango Romantico. The foundational training (which I call the ABCD Method, see below) consists of explorations or ‘movement puzzles’ that reveal the underlying structure of movement that enables you to discover movements or “steps” experientially through improvisation.

The history of somatic movement can be traced to F.M. Alexander who discovered that the primary control in posture and thereby in all efficient movement is the head-neck relation. He found that poor posture due to tension in the neck negatively affects all movement and bodily functioning. Subsequently Moshe Feldenkrais extended this insight to the central operation of the spine in integrated movement. The Feldenkrais Method has been utilised in movement training for dance and Steve Paxton extended these ideas as a basis for improvised dancing in Contact Improvisation.*

The idea behind these approaches is that there are basic principles that underlie all efficient movement. These insights can be applied to any activity that requires the efficient operation of the body and its movements (ie., the deployment of the skeletal structure, the neuromuscular system and the fascia) such as sports, vocal performance, playing a musical instrument, or dancing. Failure to utilise these principles will result in inefficient use of the body and therefore in less power, speed and accuracy; poor breathing and digestion; and tension, fatigue and overuse injuries. By contrast efficient movement is inherently healthy, is experienced as pleasant and graceful, and is an expression of freedom and spontaneity. It is inherently more satisfying. Because you are dealing with fundamental principles of body use it is impossible to move effectively without applying these principles whether you discover them by trial-and-error or learn them systematically.

Here we must define what we mean by dancing well. When you look at movement you typically perceive its outward appearance which more often than not conceals its inner organisation. Movement which looks aesthetically pleasing is not necessarily good movement from a somatic perspective of integrated movement. Not all movement which appears pleasing to the eye is efficient movement. The dancer performing the movement may be using his body in ways which are suboptimal and may or may not be enjoying the movement. Somatic practices take an experiential perspective on movement. This means that to judge whether a movement is good you have to experience it yourself from the first-person perspective through a process of exploration, discovery and comparison, instead of judging it from the third-person perspective in terms of external or visual aesthetic aspect by using a visual image and then attempting to replicate it with the use of a studio mirror or a video recording.

So the claim is that these principles are universal to all movement that is experientially pleasant and that is also objectively efficient, healthy and spontaneous. Movement that is pleasant is an aesthetic experience that is an integral part of a fulfilling living and an antidote to a mechanical unconnected and unnatural use of the body and the mind. Using the body-mind in an integrated way is necessary to constituting the whole person. While the health aspects of applying these principles is an objective fact the psychological benefits are to be judged experientially.

So the goal of this practice is not improvisation for its own sake but rather for the sake of enhanced tango experience and also improved performance (faster learning, more efficient and skilled movement). Tango is usually taught using formulaic patterns of steps and so-called “technique” which comprises of mechanics of partnering, etc. The assumption is that these are the means of reaching improvisational dancing skills. In fact what you find is that dancers rarely get beyond dancing such set patterns and instead pile on more of them without really reaching the creativity, spontaneity and sensibility that you see in traditional dancing in Buenos Aires.

Some argue that the reason for this is a lack of cultural understanding and so if you want to move beyond such set patterns you should learn more about the culture of tango. While it is certainly true that you are well advised to learn more about the traditional culture of the tango in Buenos Aires, I take the view that the source of the problem is the use of set patterns in teaching and you also find this in tango lessons in Buenos Aires. The need to run formal dancing lessons always results in piling on ever more patterns, figures and techniques. I propose instead that a systematic approach to learning tango should begin with structured movement explorations that provide the basis for partnering and improvised walking.

The ABCD Method

The movement explorations in Focused Connected Tango Movement are divided into the following parts:

  • Alignment
  • Back Release
  • Coordination
  • Direction

Alignment

These are basic practices that you can always use to connect to the space and to the body. In ordinary living we are in the mode of end-gaining, a term used by F. M. Alexander to refer to the fact that we tend to focus on a task or a goal without paying adequate attention to the body that needs to execute that task. For example, it is common for people to strain their back by lifting a heavy object with poor form. What happens is that you focus on what it is that you want to achieve, which is lifting the heavy object and moving it somewhere but due to hastiness or lack of awareness you tend to fail to take into account what is required to complete the task effectively and without injury. You might not know that we should extend our back when lifting a heavy object, or you might know this but forget to do so, or perhaps misjudge how heavy the object is and apply excessive force. So you need know all of these to execute the task: the correct form, the requirements of the task, and attention to execute the task with the correct form and force.

People who routinely lift heavy objects such as powerlifters practice these elements and are therefore less likely to suffer injuries due to poor form. In novices poor form and not lack of power is the primary source of injuries. Now, you might not view dancing as a source of injuries as in sport but poor form or inefficient movement patterns in social dancing have minor but chronic and nagging effects such as poor breathing, poor digestion and muscular wearing that makes you tired and lowers your mood. When you drop your head down during dancing you don’t just have poor posture to people looking on from the tables but your breathing is shallow and you are wearing yourself out. You will have poor connection to your partner and struggle to follow the music in a way that is natural and satisfying. It is therefore useful to ‘check in’ with your body and the space and that means that we should shift our attention away from the ordinary goal-oriented or end-gaining activity and reconnect with your natural posture of being ‘at ease’.

Back Release

When tension builds up in the body there is a tendency to shorten whereas releasing tension leads to lengthening. The state of efficient posture and movement  is experienced as a natural lengthening of the spine that comes with a release of tension. The natural movement of the body allows for easy rotation of the spine around its axis. You can return to this natural release state of posture and movement through simple explorations of the range of motion around the spine. Through these explorations you can also develop better awareness of the natural dynamic connection between the upper and lower extremities through a released spine. It will allow you to utilise the complete range of motion when moving with your partner so that you don’t need to use excess force or tension but instead to utilise the energy and dynamics naturally stored and available within your body. Tapping into this source of natural movement means that dancing will feel more spontaneous and natural. It will provide the basis for entering a state of flow in your dance.

Coordination

Learning dancing technique is ideally learning to execute complex movements without generating excess tension. You are learning to coordinate different parts of the body in new ways and thus developing new neural pathways for efficient coordinated movement. You do this by way of focused exercises that explore the connection between upper body where you are connected to your partner and the lower body where you are connected to the ground. The improvisational possibilities in tango are the result of the different possibilities of coordination. Exploring the different options for movement that are possible in a slow, focused practice brings these possibilities to awareness and makes them available when you need them in dancing.

Direction

Partnering that is efficient and satisfying requires the ability to clearly communicate the direction of movement in real time while improvising. The Principle of Reversibility means that you are able to stop and change direction at any moment. That means that while dancing you are constantly in the process of signalling and reading the direction of movement. Both partners are signalling and reading movement in real time. This coordination of directed movement creates the experience of flow in dancing and failure of this coordination results in failure to achieve flow and poor dancing experience.

Dancing in which you power or muscle through moves in leading or following does not create flow because this type of coordination is too clunky, too slow and creates too much tension, and so does not allow for the efficient coordination of directed movement between partners. By contrast, efficient partner coordination and flow is effected by directed movement that is communicated from a directed movement of the feet that is integrated with upper body movement through the awareness skills developed in the Back Release and Coordination exercises. The action of the feet creates momentary tension in the spine communicated to the upper body that is felt by the partner and released in the transfer of weight. In order to develop the basic movement skills you practice basic walking in different directions in order to discover the possibilities of movement that this affords.

Notes

*Moshe Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement; Steve Paxton Material for the Spine (see Reading recommendations)

Video analysis of inefficient and efficient movement in Tango Estilo Milonguero

This analysis of videos of people dancing tango will make much more sense after doing the ABCD Method foundational practice a couple of times rather than relying on the visual image alone even with the explanation provided. Experiencing the way in which the upper body connects to the action of the feet is likely to provide much more insight and understanding of what you’re looking at. I will use SST for Salon Style Tango and TEM for Tango Estilo Milonguero.


Tango Estilo Milonguero (TEM) is defined by an unchanging embrace or hug, with elbows floating around the level of the shoulders and pointing out rather than down (see Embrace: the essence of tango). The constraints on the dancing are the posture, the embrace, the music, and the changing momentary situation on the dancefloor. The dance is an improvised variation on the walk.

We can visualise or have the mental image of the walk either in the horizontal or vertical dimension (see Mental imagery and partnering technique: push-pull vs long spine). The horizontal type movement will lead to push-pull type partnering and will lead to movement which is less efficient in terms of (a) the use of space, and (b) the transmission of lead and follow, and therefore also (c) the range of options for improvised movement.

When we look at dancers we only see the movement in space. However, once we have experience of the vertical mental image (see Video: ABCD Method foundational practice) we should be getting better at identifying the two types of movement generated by the two sorts of mental image, horizontal/push-pull vs vertical/long spine, and how that affects the dancing.

In the videos discussed all the dancers are putatively demonstrating Tango Estilo Milonguero as defined by the type of embrace. However, there is a difference in the partnering technique due to the different type of walking and, as I argue, mental image that these dancers use. In the first set of videos we’ll look at the horizontal approach, it’s visible elements and how it affects the movement, use of space and movement possibilities, and then we’ll look at the vertical approach.

I admit that based purely on the visual image any number of different interpretations and judgements of the movement are equally possible and plausible and indeed this is the source of so much confusion. My commentary should be taken as an interpretation and evaluation from the vantage point of someone who has experienced tango movement generated by the long spine mental image and makes more sense when this mental image has been experienced.


Example 1: Tete Rusconi instructional video in TEM

In these instructional videos Tete is demonstrating the TEM embrace and movement. It has many of the elements of efficient TEM movement. But when you look at the walk you can see that he initiates with his chest and then falls into the leading foot. Initiating this way commits him to the step but then his step is too short and it gives the impression of the step being too short for what was intended, mainly because his partner is rather small and not extending enough to make the step larger. Overall, the walking takes much more space than would be available at a crowded milonga and would not be viable. The range of movements also seems quite constricted by this approach.


Example 2: TangoChino, TEM vs SST lesson demo

This video attempts to demonstrate the difference between TEM and SST, but the instructors import the horizontal image of SST into TEM. A clear sign of a horizontal mental image is the woman’s embrace which is around the man’s arm rather than up on the shoulder. This prevents him from communicating his intention without moving in the horizontal dimension first.

The result is that the movement is stifled and lacking in freedom and expressiveness, as if the dancers are lacking space which is typical of this approach. While you get the intimacy of close embrace you lose dynamism and expressiveness. This is probably the reason why many dancers who identify as dancing “close embrace” do an “in-out” approach, dance close embrace and then open up when the want to do some moves.

While the technique of crossing instead of pivoting is typical of TEM, you will notice that when the dancers transition from TEM to SST they change the steps from rhythmic to smooth. But dancing in this rhythmic fashion clearly takes up space and would not be efficient in a crowded milonga, and seems to be necessitated by the partnering technique in which you have to keep walking. Either way, it’s not accurate to characterise TEM as this sort of rhythmic walking. It is more accurate to say that TEM faciliates rhythmic dancing when it is required, but this is clearly not always required (eg., you couldn’t dance this way to Pugliese) nor efficient, and so will create a misconception about TEM. Moreover also clearly contradicts the smooth movement of Tete in Video Example 1, creating further confusion.


Example 3: Tango Vagabundo TEM demo

This is a very common approach to TEM which basically imports most aspects of SST into TEM and results in very inefficient and restricted movement that require opening up. Elbows are pointing down and the woman embraces the man in a SST embrace which pushes his leading arm down. That is a sign that the leading is push-pull. While there is some crossing footwork characteristic of TEM, the ochos are done by pivoting and the woman has to open up and they’re in an “armpit” embrace rather than chest to chest. The result is a dance lacking in dynamism or freedom of movement, and gives people a false impression of TEM, again, mainly because it imports movement technique from SST into a close embrace.


Example 4: Sara Torricelli & Gianni Loppi demo

This is exemplary of many of the aspects of competent TEM dancing and the result is fluid, dynamic and efficient dancing. Although this is a floor show taking up space this can be easily adapted to dancing at a crowded milonga. To an untrained observer the walking movement is, as in the case of the previous examples, in the horizontal dimension. But the mental image here is vertical. There are two signs of this. First, the position of the elbows. Second, the action of the feet. Although in motion the feet seem to move along the floor, when you stop the movement you can see that actually the man anticipates horizontal movement by pulling up with his heels. In other words, half of the movement is up. This means that by the time he moves forward or back he’s already communicated the movement and the woman steps comfortably without any rush.

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Notice that here the pulling up of the heel is not merely the purely decorative, non-functional boleos that you see in SST (see Beauty or kitsch). In SST this movement is non-functional because the embrace does not allow for this movement to be transmitted to the partner. The structure of the TEM embrace means that this movement is directly communicated to the follower and is therefore functional in the movement technique. Also, it is not a kick to the back but rather a vertical movement of pulling the knee and the heel up in the vertical dimension rather than, as in the case of the boleo, to the back and out.


Example 5: Silvia y Tete

In this video we can see Tete dancing very differently from what we saw in Example 1. The use of space is much more efficient, there is greater variety of movements and greater fluidity, dynamism but also stability in his dancing. What you will notice is that there is much less of an effort to flow smoothly along the floor and more pronounced pulling up of the knee and heel. Again, these are not decorative boleos but are functionally integral to dynamic and efficient dancing in TEM. Also notice that when he exaggerates this movement into a decorative or expressive feature, he pulls the knee up rather than back and out as in the boleo. This is what I call emergent movement which is decorative movement that naturally arises out of functional movement technique and in contrast to purely decorative choreographed “decorations” remains functionally connected (see Choreography vs emergent movement).

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Example 6: Ricardo Vidort

Probably the pinnacle or ideal example of TEM technique that I describe here on ATH, and what I base my analysis of TEM technique on, is the posture, embrace and walking movement of Ricardo Vidort. Here it must be mentioned that I look at his dancing from the point of view of technique rather than the specific steps that he does. My focus is on the embrace, esp. the position of the elbows, and the specific way in which he walks which never commits him to a step but which is always reversible (see Walking and the principle of reversibility).

The initiation of the stepping movement with a horizonal floating of the heel and the knee is visible. There is also an instructional video in which he demonstrates and instructs on a motion in the lateral direction. My approach to teaching is slightly different. First, I don’t think that explicit instruction is the most efficient approach and that the focused movement practice in the ABCD Method is a more efficient approach. Second, I feel that explicit instruction for women to cross tends to lead to that movement becoming a habit and a step executed even when it is not led, rather than just a variation on the walk, and so I wouldn’t recommend teaching it that way, but rather as an exploration such as the Cross Walk (see Video: ABCD Method foundational practice).

The following video is a good example of the TEM embrace and also in the efficient use of floor space and reversible walking. There is hardly any movement in the horizontal direction beyond a step or two, and always in a compact and controlled manner. Visible is also the lateral movement that Ricardo uses to communicate his lead.


Example 7: Myriam Princen with Ricardo Vidort, female movement

The technique for men and women is essentially the same. Women are often taught in SST and also in some TEM lessons to extent her leg when walking. But when the mental image is vertical the technique for walking in TEM should be the same as the man. It is more difficult to see the image of the heel floating up in the woman because the high heel shoes already push the heel up but in this video we can see that Myriam Princen floats up the knee. Notice I’m not saying that she’s bending the knee. The key here is that the walking movement is initiated by floating the knee up. There is no need to throw the leg backward in the horizontal direction as is often seen in tango lessons (see screenshots in Mental imagery and partnering technique: push-pull vs long spine). In this video you will also notice all the elements of the vertical or long spine mental image in TEM, the elbows around shoulder level, lateral movement (there’s also a visible tilt) and the corresponding fluidity, freedom but also efficiency and reversibility of movement. There’s virtually no lag between the lead and follow.

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Mental imagery and partnering technique: push-pull vs long spine

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.

Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 8.17.49 pmThis 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.Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 8.09.44 pm

Let me briefly go on a tangent into education theory and quickly explain three approaches to designing a teaching program or syllabus. Syllabus designs can be categorised as (a) teaching centred, (b) learning centred, and (c) learner centred. A teaching centred 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 centred syllabus is focused on the goals or outcomes, so that if outcomes are not reached the syllabus needs to be changed. A learner centred 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 advocate leading with the chest where the man moves his chest around and the woman focuses on following the chest with minimal use of the hands.

The problem is that starting with the visual image of horizontal movement we end up with a highly inefficient technique for partnering. The man has to plan and signal his step through either the hands or, which is even worse, chest. The idea is that with enough practice and skill the planning, signalling and reception become instantaneous. While this might make sense in theory what we actually find is that so long as dancers hold on to the idea of horizontal movement the partnering is inefficient and cumbersome.

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 and consumptive of space (see Naturalness in tango dancing). Furthermore, leading/following 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.

Screen Shot 2020-07-07 at 2.35.11 pm    Screen Shot 2020-07-07 at 2.37.18 pm

Fig 1. In this partner walking practice we can see that the man leads by simply starting to walk forward and the woman falls behind and so that he basically walks into her, probably because there isn’t enough tension in the hands and she’s trying to follow his chest. She then “catches up” and pulls away. This lag between the leader’s signal and the follower’s reaction is the normal dynamic in the horizontal push-pull scenario. (Source: Milongas en Uruguay FB group)

It is common to notice that “academico” dancers use space differently from “milonguero” dancers. Because studio trained dancers visualise partnering in the horizontal dimension they always move in space or if they turn in place they take up at least double the amount of space necessary. 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).

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Fig 2. How do you get from A to B? Theory: you adjust what you learn in A to B. Reality: you forget what you learned in A and adapt to B. Or more typically: What you learned in A becomes a habit and prevents you from participating in B effectively. Alternative: instead of learning A, learn B directly by changing the mental image.

We also notice that the image of horizontal movement creates problems with the partnering technique for close embrace/apilado type 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 at 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 image of dancers moving in space in the horizontal dimension. If you look at a crowded milonga like the one at Salon Canning 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 the studio lesson cannot be taken for granted. In fact, I’ve seen many teachers, including those from Buenos Aires, who either cannot dance efficiently in a crowded milonga, or who completely changed 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 most, 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 completely counterproductive.

The alternative to the visual image of horizontal projection and smooth cat walking is the mental image of upward projection or a long spine. My contention is that you visually perceive as walking in the horizontal dimension conceals the actual mental image that drives efficient dancing which is in the vertical and upward dimension. It is the image of the spine lengthening upward. Through some experimentation and reverse engineering I have found that this mental image is best sustained through the position of the elbows, that the position of the elbows best signals the technique that underpins efficient TEM partnering. Elbows that are below shoulder level and pointing down signal push-pull partnering whereas elbows that hover at or above shoulder level and point outward signal the long spine image and partnering technique. Coordination Practice 1 Floating Foot and Elbow best exemplifies and reinforces this mental image that should be sustained throughout the dance (see Video: ABCD Method foundational practice).

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 elliptical in the vertical and lateral dimensions, and this movement can be transmitted (without moving horizontally in space) through the primary and secondary connections of the embrace (see Embrace: the essence of tango). This type of movement utilises the principles of efficient movement and does not require any process of planning-signalling-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 of the ABCD Method provide the basis of the long spine image. Once this image is established Direction provides the technique for movement 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 direction of movement to his partner. Because the woman is standing in a dynamic position (see Back Release Practice 2: Floating Foot) she can respond efficiently (see Coordination Practice 2: Extending, Direction Practice 1: Turning Out).

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, 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 guy 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 is actually what is commonly taught, namely, powering horizontally into the step. When I visited the other teacher’s class soon afterwards I had my Aha Moment. His Argentinian teacher had the students walking around doing this sort of a power walk. 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 now teaching. What I realised 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. As a rule, you learn what you practice, that is, what you practice turns into a habit. If you practice taking power 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.

Keypoint

As a rule, you learn what you practice, that is, what you practice turns into a habit. If you practice taking power steps, pushing horizontally into the step, then that becomes the habit.

What we actually want, however, is a walking action that integrates the whole body, so that the legs adjust to what the upper body is doing. In the case of Tango Estilo Milonguero, 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 fundamentally 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 improvised and choreographed dancing is that in improvised dancing we respond in the moment. We are not committed to any sequence of two or more steps, but make or change a decision at any point in time. That means that the way we dance must allow us to stop and change direction. In fact, Moshe Feldenkrais (a student of F.M. Alexander and developer of the Feldenkrais Method) argued that a fundamental principle of freedom in movement, rather than being some sort of lack of inhibition, is this sort of reversibility defined as having the maximum number of options at any point in time:

Moshe Feldenkrais said that reversibility was a key criteria for determining whether a particular movement is done well. Reversibility basically means the capacity to stop a movement at any point and then go in the opposite direction with a minimum of hesitation. … One aspect of reversibility is that its presence implies a more general and important skill  – the ability to move in any direction with a minimum of hesitation or preparation. In other words, if you can go back where you came from, you could probably go in any other direction as well. Feldenkrais considered this quality of preparedness to move anywhere as the ultimate goal of movement training, an ideal state of affairs which represents the highest level of physical organization. Bettermovement.com

In tango we have a range of options at any point in time and the principle of reversibility means that the goal of our training in tango movement is that we are able to move in a way allowing us to stop at any point and change direction.

So the question is whether the sort of training whereby we power horizontally into the step as a matter of course provides for reversibility. 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. The source of the problem that I see is that this sort of movement is initiated without adequate regard for what is happening at the embrace.

If you have a good embrace and there is good connection you can to take longer steps with good control in a way that is reversible. If you instead learn to walk by taking power steps, practicing this individually and making that your normal way to walk, this is likely to make it more difficult to respond to situations where small steps are required, which is actually the normal situation in a social dancing context. Your movement will have a lot of power and will probably look great, but you will have little control or flexibility. At the end of a power step you will have to ‘land’ which will require a long ‘runway’. Your dancing will be like the action of a large jumbo jet which will be impressive but not very nimble. Great for the floor show in eating up all that empty studio floorspace but pretty useless in limited cafe spaces where good floorskills are of the essence.

The sort of training that gets students to walk around powering into the step will lead to habitual movement of a particular type which will require a minimum amount of dancing space. If you have access to studio spaces where each couple can have a space of 2 meters or so in diameter then power steps might be viable. In most large cities, however, such spaces come at a premium at the door. So when you undertake this type of training you should bear in mind that there is a longer term cost attached extending beyond the price of the class itself. There are other reasons to prefer a more efficient movement as well, including access to partners, the range of music you can dance to, and the amount of effort involved in your dancing.

Keypoint

When you undertake this type of training you should bear in mind that there is a longer term cost attached extending beyond the price of the class itself. There are other reasons to prefer a more efficient movement as well, including access to partners, the range of music you can dance to, and the amount of effort involved in your dancing.

Tango power walk and goal focus

The principle of reversibility is a development of Alexander’s distinction between end-gaining vs. means-whereby (what I call goal focus vs. process focus). Alexander held that by excessively focusing on a goal we create tension which prevents us from using our neuromuscular system efficiently in accordance with its natural design. Feldenkrais further develops this idea in terms of the notion that a mark of this sort of efficiency is reversibility. Also, he held, as did Alexander, that it is this sort of reversibility, rather than self-expression and lack of inhibition, is actually the mark of freedom and spontaneity.

As with choreography instruction in general, taking power steps is a sign of a goal focus. Some aspects of dancing are more conspicuous than others. Those aspects that are highly visible tend to be the most impressive to the uninformed beginner who is then apt to be misled into identifying them as the markers competent dancing to aim for (see Beauty or kitsch). The learner is then apt to attempt to emulate them or to be encouraged by his teacher to do so. They become the goal of his practice. Unfortunately for the learner, seeking to emulate what he considers the mark of good dancing he is merely imitating what are in fact very superficial aspects of dancing that are actually well beyond his current level of ability (see Training vs. demonstration of skill).

A tango show can be viewed as a collection of visually impressive clichés taken from what can be seen in the actions of some competent social dancers, collected into a single choreography and magnified with stage dancing technique. While they began life as emergent aspects of natural dancing technique (see Emergent movement), applied directly in movement training they become fixed choreography. They are visually impressive, which in the context of social dancing offers the dancers the idea that they are performing but at the same time takes away the satisfaction inherent in movement that is natural, spontaneous, and connected, and ultimately also stifles their development.

Keypoint

A tango show can be viewed as a collection of visually impressive clichés which, originally emergent aspects of natural dancing technique, applied directly in movement training become fixed choreography. They are visually impressive, which in the context of social dancing offers the dancers the idea that they are performing but at the same time takes away the satisfaction inherent in movement that is natural, spontaneous and connected, and ultimately also stifles their development.

Partnering practice: the fingertip exploration

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 exploration which is a basic movement exploration in Contact Improvisation.[1] In this exercise two partners touch at the tip of an index finger of one hand. It is sometimes better to do this exercise with your eyes closed. The purpose of this exercise is to explore movements while maintaining the pressure and connection between the two fingers. To those inexperienced at 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.

touchingfingers

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 so that the movement is ‘co-authored’ by the two partners in the moment. It will also be found that reversability of movement is essential for this to happen.

Individual practice of 3-D reversible walking


The fingertip exploration is a simple practice that can nonetheless yield a profound insight into the underlying mechanics and fundamental principles of improvisational partnered movemement. While ultimately we learn partnered movement by practicing with a partner, as with many things it is nonetheless useful to do some preparatory individual practice. You want to initiate the walking movement without being committed to movement along the horizontal axis. That means that the movement that is reversible is to be initiated along the vertical axis. Moreover, when the movement is initiated we want the movement to be circular or elliptical, with gradually increasing cycles, initiating with small cycles, each cycle initiated vertically rather than horizontally into our partner.[2]

A cycle initiated horizontally into or away from our partner will create tension in the follower that will be detrimental to reversibility. It will turn into a power move because the follower will perceive this, at the level of a subconscious motor response, as something to resist so as to not fall over, as an essentially a defensive response. The circular oscillation of movement will be lost at that point and the dance acquires a one-dimensional push-pull character. An alternative is to move in place in two-dimensions—along the vertical axis (up-down) and the lateral axis (to the side)—before moving in the third dimension (forward or back).

Keypoint

A cycle initiated horizontally into or away from our partner will create tension in the follower that will be detrimental to reversibility. It will turn into a power move because the follower will perceive this, at the level of a subconscious motor response, as something to resist so as to not fall over, as an essentially a defensive response.

This type of practice is discouraged by some teachers who insist that the student not move up and down but instead cultivate a ‘smooth’ horizontal walk. Now, there is a type of up-down movement that complete beginners tend to make that is probably not useful, a sort of bobbing up and down. However, it seems that the teacher’s insistence on a smooth walk is more often purely from an external aesthetic point of view, that is, that’s what a tango dancer should look like. This, however, is the sort of goal-focus that neglects the process whereby we arrive at the smoother type of movement seen in proficient dancers.

When we look at how people move what we are seeing are the most conspicuous aspects of the movement. What is more difficult to perceive by learners are the micro-movements that dancers make in order to communicate the lead and follow. But a learner cannot be told to make precise micro-movements. We learn to make such precise micro-movements only with a lot of practice. We start out first by first making large and awkward movements. This seems to be a fairly universal aspect of learning anything. But if the learner is told to resist making movements along the vertical and lateral axes, he is basically left with the inefficient push-pull technique for partnering that we see at milongas everywhere nowadays.

Conclusion

The practice of teaching smooth walking, powering into the step and moving horizontally into or away from one’s partner is really part of the repertoire of the ‘choreography’ teacher, is unsuitable to improvised social dancing, and results in dancing habits that are in the long term inefficient. If we follow the universal principles of movement, improvisation and partnering, we want movement that is reversible and that means that you want to initiate the movement through elliptical movements along the vertical and lateral axes of the body and then only once synergy between partners is established do you want to move along the horizontal axis into or away from the partner. You can practice this type of movement, first individually by mindfully practicing initiating single steps with either foot, and then with your partner.

Notes

[1]  This is more commonly known as the fingertip dance. However, it is actually an exploratory practice rather than a dance in any proper sense, so I feel that calling it a dance might be confusing. The goal is not to have any sort of a dance, but rather to discover possibilities of movement and partnering.

[2] It is possible to initiate a movement horizontally without moving into your partner. This is done by moving around your axis as we do in leading a boleo. This motion is actually preferable because it can be performed without moving at all and yet offers a way of initiating movement into a walk. However, it is probably better left to emerge out of the basic walk, with direct instruction only after the learner acquires some skill in basic walks. It will tend to emerge naturally when the learner masters walking outside the partner in ocho-type walking patterns.

Turning without swiveling

In Tango Estilo Milonguero turning by spinning or swiveling on one foot and swerving the hips to power the spin is not viable because

(i) this twists the spine causing the tension to be projected to the shoulders which then upsets the embrace, and

(ii) the tension created by this motion is difficult to maintain under control causing further tension and loss of efficiency of movement.

Given that you do not dance tango by walking in a straight line, the question arises how do you perform changes in direction or turns?

To understand this you can think of movement in terms of physics and the energy generated by forward motion. It may be tempting to think of moving forward in line (linear motion) and turning (circular motion) as distinct. In that case, you would be imagining that in order to turn you first come to a dead stop. Then you would need to initiate a new movement to create motion which is circular. That would be like a car having to come to a dead stop every time it takes a turn.

In reality there is no need to stop to make a gradual turn. The forward momentum is diverted in a new direction so long as the turn is gradual and the car is not moving too fast (otherwise attempting to turn would cause the car to lose traction and skid sideways and perhaps even flip over). You only really need to come to a stop or near-stop when doing a sharp U-turn. In tango, gradual changes of direction are like those with a wheeled vehicle, namely, they are just a continuation of the forward motion of the walk and so we are just diverting the momentum in a new direction. Gradual changes of direction are therefore continuous with walking.

However, after we walk a few steps we would normally need to stop and go in reverse. Again, it may be tempting to think that we have to go to a dead stop, but this is not actually the case. Again, when a car stops it does not come to a dead stop instantly. When the car sharply brakes the wheels screech and the car sinks into the suspension before all the energy is dissipated and the car comes to a dead stop. Before the car comes to a deal halt all that kinetic energy is temporarily stored in the suspension and body of the car.

Kinetic energy is stored in structures such as a stretched elastic band or a bungee jumping rope at the bottom of the fall. The couple in a tango embrace can be viewed as a structure that can be characterised by tensegrity, a word which is a contraction of Tensional Integrity, coined by Buckminster Fuller who gives the following definition:

Tensegrity describes a structural relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional behaviors.” Quite a mouthful, but he also could say it in a different way, like: “…compression elements in a sea of tension…

If the couple is a structure characterised by tensional integrity or tensegrity, the kinetic energy generated by the linear motion of the walk is stored much as it is in an elastic band that is held stretched. In tango, when you walk as a couple you create the tensegrity that stores energy. Turning is converting the kinetic energy generated by linear motion in one direction, which is then stored in the tensegrity structure of the couple in the tango embrace, into energy to propel the couple either into linear motion in the opposite direction, or circular or rotational motion.

Now, in some forms of dancing the circular motion is done by pivoting or spinning on one foot. Notice that it is not necessary to pivot in order to turn. You can also turn around your axis by taking steps in place. While this may seem like a very static way to turn, in fact it is not and can be performed in a dynamic way that represents the sort of controlled release that we want to convert the linear motion of the walk into rotational or cicular motion of the turn. At not point is there a need to pivot or swivel on one foot. The advantage of not having to pivot or swivel is that you completely eliminate two problems associated with turns: (1) the problem of centrifugal force that causes dancers, especially in high heels, to lose balance; and (2) the problem of potential slipping that is inherent in having a non-sticky floor and shoes that allows for pivoting.

I call this the Principle of Linear Circularity: the possibility of converting linear motion of the walk into circular motion of the turn, which nonetheless feels like one is walking because there is not pivoting or swiveling involved. We are turning even though we don’t feel like we are turning, and instead feel like we are walking. This has the added advantage that we don’t have to separate the practice of walking from the practice of turning: they’re one and the same practice. A turn is just a variation on the walk whereby the linear energy of the walk is converted into circular energy through the action of the feet in walking and the transference of kinetic energy through the tensegrity of the tango embrace.

As you learn this way you will find that the only way you can learn the dynamics of the tensegrity structure is experientially: first, it is useful to develop a better awareness of the tensegrity in your own body by performing simple movements that connect the extremities in the upper and lower body via the spine; and second, by simple partnering exercises in which you learn the tensegrity of the two connected bodies moving in unison, and how the directed action of the feet brings about the redirection of the kinetic energy of the walk.

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But why not pivot?

Now that you understand how it is possible to change direction or turn without pivoting, you may be wondering why is pivoting such a bad thing? Pivoting on one foot is such a major part of tango dancing these days that there is a lot of time, money and energy devoted to it: dance floors can’t be too sticky but also too slippery and these are difficult to find or maintain, so we need chalk and instead of dancing in normal street shoes we need special dancing shoes that allow us to spin and swivel, and again there is special maintenance required to keep these in just the right level of non-stickiness and non-slipperiness that we can swivel without falling over. Special technique is required to spin/pivot/swivel without falling over and this of course requires a lot of lessons and practice, not to mention stress and worry.

So eliminating the pivoting/swiveling technique from your dancing you basically eliminate all of the associated time, money and mental energy costs. You get normal shoes that have enough friction to prevent you from slipping. Most importantly, you eliminate all the worry about your balance that is inherently associated with pivoting, esp. for women wearing high heels that are inherently unstable, and thereby all of the technique classes and practice time that could be devoted to other, more useful things. Of course if you live for swiveling and all the moves associated with it are the main attraction in tango for you then I can’t argue with that. But otherwise, you gain a lot and lose little by eliminating this technique from your dancing.