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 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 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 instantanous. 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.

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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 and/or 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 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 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 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 what 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. I have found that this menal image is best 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 typically signal push-pull partnering whereas elbows that hover at or above shoulder level and point out 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 susatained 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 eliptical 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-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 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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


[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.

Direction: orienting with the feet

When learning any sort of physical skill like dancing it certainly helps if you understand the basic principles of movement. It is useful to view the body, an in particular the sensori-motor system that controls posture and movement, as organised so as approach, grasp and manipulate an object. To understand this lets can look at what happens when you execute a simple action of picking up an object such as an apple. Lets say you are looking for something to eat. The eyes scan and immediate environment and recognising an apple. Focusing on the apple then you will tend to face it and turn the body and move in the direction of the apple. You reach for the object and grasp it with your hand. The body braces itself anticipating the weight of the object.

The body follows the extremities: (i) the gaze and head; (ii) the arms and legs. It follows and adjusts to movement that is initiated from these extremities. While you normally use the lower extremities to connect to the ground and walk you can use them in a similar manner to arms/hands to reach and manipulate things, eg., to move objects and the body will reorganise to allow that to happen.

The main difficulty in dancing tango is that you cannot use the orienting mechanisms that operate in your ordinary life: you do not always walk forward but often backwards or around; you have a partner in front of you; and you cannot look at the feet because this is detrimental to the embrace so that you lose connection with your partner and no longer move through space as a single unit.

While show dancers can be seen to look around and move their arms to direct their movement, in tango estilo milonguero you are in a tight and unchanging embrace. Your eyes and hands are not available to initiate and orient movement. All the movement is below the waist, in the legs and feet.

So you have to learn to orient yourself without using the eyes. In that sense you are virtually blind and need to use a different mode to scan the environment. In tango, you shoul use your feet to scan and orient the direction of the movement, and also to communicate direction to your partner. Movements of the feet that many consider merely decorative choreography are actually functional scanning and orienting movements and are therefore emergent.

To orient the movement feet have to open up and the differing angle between the feet orients the body.* The direction of the free foot orients the body in a new direction as you move into that foot and put weight on it. This information is then transferred to your 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 your movement so that you learn, as with learning to drive a car or steer a boat, how your foot movement affects the direction of the movement of the whole couple. Moreover, you need to learn to do this without looking at your feet.

One way you 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 you point both toes forward this is 12 o’clock. If you point the feet out that’s 11.05, 10.10, and 9.15 which would be like a ballet dancers turn out. Normally you will keep one foot/hand still and the other foot/hand will turn.

The normal starting position is 11.05 and so this is your point of reference. You will never be at 12 o’clock. To turn right you will move to 11.10 by drawing the heel/knee up and then dropping the foot in the new position. When you then draw up the right foot you will be in the new position and thus return to 11.05. To turn left you 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.



*In some styles of tango feet point forward so that to turn it is necesssary to swivel. Swiveling is not an efficient way to move or turn (see Turning). While it looks aesthetically pleasing and allows for large expressive movements with large hip movement, it 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 will lead to fatigue. Finally, it is completely at odds with the requirements of the sustained close embrace. So because you do not want to swivel and you want the hips to remain relatively square to the shoulders and always facing the partner, you need to free up the feet.

Naturalness in tango dancing

“I’m a natural dancer.”

tango teacher

My very first tango teacher was an Argentinian who was an above average dancer. In addition to teaching he did performances at restaurants and events. He taught in the standard way for the time: paso basico, cross, ochos, ganchos, boleos. When a new teacher appeared on the local scene my teacher was not looking too happy. The other guy was not Argentinian. My teacher said that the other guy is academico whereas he himself is a natural dancer. I wondered whether learning from a ‘natural dancer’ means that I will be a natural dancer as well, or whether having taken dancing lessons I am destined to be ‘academico’. I guessed that being a ‘natural’ dancer means that you learn not through classes but just by dancing at milongas. The only thing that gave me hope was that the academico teacher gave long lectures while we stood listening, whereas my Argentinian teacher was more hands on, demonstrated the steps, shoved us around, but there was little verbal explanation, probably because of his limited command of English.

This illustrates some of the issues and contradictions that seem inherent in teaching and learning tango. Structured tango lessons seem to produce clunky sort of dancing with little fluency or connection to the music or between the partners. Learners seem to be forever stuck rehearsing the routines that they learned in class. On the other hand many good dancers claim that they have not taken formal dancing lessons and insist that you can’t learn to dance tango well in that way. Some insist that you learn tango by simply dancing preferably at milongas in Buenos Aires. This of course leads to the chicken-and-egg problem: you cannot start dancing tango until you have learned some, but you cannot learn to dance tango until you are already dancing. It raises the conundrum of how you get started in tango without falling into some academico trap and turn into a clunky tango robot.

Learning and naturalness

I reflected on this problem for a number of years seeing the perspectives of both sides, the advocates of structured learning as well as those who reject dancing lessons. One solution could be that this sort of is normal in all learning. For example, when you learn a language you start out taking lessons but then you need to go out into the world and actually interact in that language to gain fluency. Structured learning is necessary at the beginning, but eventually requires going out and getting real-world practical know how.

The situation in tango, however, seems to be different because people who take tango lessons seem to have trouble transitioning from what they learned in class to a more fluent and ‘natural’ dancing style, so that you can usually see this big difference between Argentinian dancers and those who learned in a dancing class outside of Argentina, and this is a source of the mystique and the idea that you can really only learn to dance tango in Buenos Aires. What you will find, however, is that the teachers in Buenos Aires teach in pretty much the same way as teachers anywhere, namely, using the demonstrate-and-drill approach with large walking steps, patterns and figures.

Now we distinguish between broadly two ways of learning something: most practical skills are picked up whereas other are learned through some sort of formal structured learning/teaching. Picking something up (for example, picking up a language or a dance while traveling) is generally considered the natural way of learning. Structured formal learning/teaching is viewed as the opposite of that and hence as not natural and is often viewed as producing knowledge that is merely academic but often inadequate to practical demands in the real world.

It is pretty clear that in the end one can only learn to dance at a milonga through practical experience. It is less clear that having someone completely clueless about the codes and rituals of the milonga decide to attent and to figure everything out through trial-and-error is a good idea. Surely there is room for some form of systematic instruction to prepare the student. But when people talk about learning to dance tango naturally, as my Argentinian teacher did, I think that they do not mean merely that the process of learning was more natural but rather that the result of that process, the dancing, is more natural.

I think that the basic idea underlying this is that the dancing learned in a studio class where one rehearses some set routines inevitably leads to unnatural and hence inferior movement that is never going to be as good, ie., look or feel as aesthetically pleasing and fluent as the dancing of the ‘natural dancers’. Academic learning, the argument is, kills naturalness in dancing and invariably results in dancing which is clunky, robotic and lacking in fluency or grace.

Naturalness as efficiency of movement

This is interesting because in another corner of the world of dancing and movement there is an area called variously somatics, improvisation or movement awareness which includes practices such as the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and Contact Improvisation, where in relatively structured sessions participants learn or rediscover naturalness in posture and movement. The idea here is that what is normal and has been picked up through practical day-to-day living is not necessarily thereby natural and that we actually need to engage in some systematic practice, typically a guided exploration of some sort, to regain naturalness. How is that possible?

The basic reasoning behind the somatic approach to movement was developed by F.M. Alexander who was an Australian and whose occupation was to recite Shakespeare. At some stage Alexander experienced difficulties with his voice and upon lengthy investigation he came to the conclusion that the cause of the problems was due to the way he was habitually using his voice. Alexander argued that when we are focused on a goal we tend to do what he calls end-gaining, that is, we we tend to rush and perform actions with excess effort and tension. This leads to poor posture and a inefficient use of the body. Alexander proposed that we need to focus less on the goal and focus some attention on the means-whereby, that is, the body mechanisms required to perform an action with efficiency and grace.

According to this scheme the normal habits and use of the body that are picked up are not necessarily ‘natural’ in the sense that they are not necessarily optimal given the evolutionary design of the body. Often our lifestyle leads to poor habits such as poor posture and excess muscular tension that over time becomes fixed in habitual patterns of movement. These come to feel normal and in that sense ‘natural’ but actually wear us out and make things more difficult than they should be. Mindful practice of certain movements such as those in the Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais Method can help us to rediscover our natural movement—natural in the sense that it is efficient and optimal given the evolutionary design of the body.

Alexander Technique | HealthypagesFor example, Alexander discovered that most people tend to shorten the neck and that the proper head-neck relation (a ‘long’ neck) is essential to how we use the spine and our overall movement efficiency. Doing exercises that release tension in that area and consciously registering the feeling of an optimal head-neck relation then carries over to a more efficient and in that sense more natural movement patterns in other tasks such as walking, daily activities or dancing.

Alexander Techworks - What health professionals say about ...Here we can see that naturalness is not defined in terms of something that is picked up through practical experience as distinct from academic learning. It is defined in terms of efficiency of movement that is in accordance with our biological makeup, that is, how our neuromuscular system has been designed through millions of years of evolution. Because a lot of our practical experience is not the same as it has been throughout our evolution (eg., nowadays we are spending much more time sitting and looking at a computer or a smartphone screen than we have for 100s of thousands of years) we develop inefficient movement patterns or habits. In that case, naturalness requires us to undergo some systematic training that allows us to bring awareness to the body systems (the means-whereby) so that we learn (or re-learn) to move in a way that does not excessively strain the body and create excess tension, and is thus efficient, graceful and pleasant to the mover.

Efficiency of movement and learning tango

This is interesting because we can see that from the point of view somatic movement awareness practices, both academico and natural dancing can be either efficient or inefficient. However, it may be granted that studio academico type instruction is more likely to lead to inefficient movement for the following reason: studio teaching involves the rehearsal of steps that require focus on taking large steps and decorative movements with the legs. Because students need to focus on where their feet are going this usually requires visual feedback.

The problem is that if you keep your head up and stand completely erect, looking ahead, you will find that you have a blindspot on the floor. In my case, being quite tall, I estimate that the radius of the blindspot is about 1 meter. That means that floating my head above my spine and being completely erect I simply cannot see my own feet or those of my partner. Given that a typical tango lesson teaches rather large steps and the embrace is usually rather open, there is a high probability of colliding with your partner and generally without visual feedback you cannot see where your partner’s feet are. This invariably results in an overwhelming tendency to look downward toward the floor and you can this that this is almost universal in dancers who learn patterns in studio classes, ie., academico dancers.

By contrast, those who have learned tango informally often adopt a closer embrace and adjust their steps to the demands of the embrace. Informal learning usually does not focus on walking with large steps or rehearsal of predetermined patterns but usually starts out with walking and simple turns. Where an academico dancer will use an artificial standard of the class choreography, the informal dancer is more likely to adapt the level of dancing to what they can lead/follow and respond more to the feedback from the partner. It will be a more restrained or minimalist approach to dancing. There will probably be a longer period of taking baby steps that allows the development awareness of the connection with the partner without looking downwards. Also, when the situation becomes uncertain (eg., less feedback) there will be more pull back by reducing the movement, more physical/somatic listening rather than falling visual feedback which you commonly see in academico dancers. So their dancing is more likely to be ‘natural’ in the second sense discussed above, namely, it is more likely to be connected, efficient and graceful. Because dancers who learn informally also move more efficiently, these two issues are conflated so that informal learning is identified with efficient movement.

Even those who take lessons in Buenos Aires, which is currently becoming more common, have a certain advantage over those who take lessons in other parts of the world. The difference is that in Buenos Aires the milongas tend to be more packed (see The fundamental problem of global tango) and dancing in a loud and intrusive way that gets in other people’s way (or even risks it) attracts stern stares. This seems to be a learning experience that switches novices from merely rehearsing their patterns and to try dancing with greater awareness and efficiency. On the other hand, the vast majority of so-called “milongas” outside of Argentina are more accurately viewed as what we nowadays call “practilongas”, that is, they are really events in which the majority of the dancers are students of the local teachers and the organisers adapt these events to the weaknesses of the students rather than trying to push the students to improve. So what we typically find is that the music and space are adapted to the need of students rehearsing the patterns acquired in the lessons, and the students tolerate each other’s poor floor navigation skills so that this becomes a self-reinforcing norm that we might call “global tango”.

But once we recognize that informal learning and efficient dancing are distinct and separable issues we can now see that it may be possible to devise a systematic approach to teaching/learning. The key is to eliminate from the syllabus (i) the practice of walking with elongated steps, (ii) rehearsing fixed patterns, and (iii) the model-and-drill approach to teaching/learning. On the other hand, we want to teach a more natural (ie., efficient) movement and awareness which will eliminate the need for the sort of trial-and-error characteristic of informal learning. Exercises that develop greater awareness of efficient movement, somatic listening for feedback from the partner, and prevent the learner from making large movements that interfere with the embrace can make the learning process more direct while at the same time promoting a more efficient and natural movement. Such an approach to study should put emphasis on (i) awareness of posture or head-neck relation, (ii) efficiency of movement, (iii) efficiency in use of dancing space, and (iv) a tight connection to partner and music.