Walking and the principle of reversibility

I had an Aha Moment about walking and improvisation when a student of another teacher asked me to teach him my ‘style’. His teacher was an Argentine who graduated from the ‘tango university’ and was teaching the sort of long, erect walking that is typical of Salon Style Tango, very elegant and upright looking. When they visited my practica I didn’t know what his teaching method was. Anyway, I showed the guy a simple pattern, which commonly goes by ‘ocho cortado’, but the guy couldn’t do it. I was puzzled given that the 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 was actually what is commonly taught, namely, pushing horizontally into the step. When I visited the other teacher’s class soon afterwards I had my Aha Moment when I saw that the Argentinian teacher had the students walking around in a circle pushing horizontally into the steps. I actually used to teach in exactly the same way as this is the most common practice in tango instruction, but it just didn’t occur to me that this could actually be an impediment to the close embrace tango that I was 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, ie., what you practice turns thereby into a habit. If you practice taking long steps, pushing horizontally into the step, then that becomes the habit. A student who is trained into such steps finds that they cannot take smaller steps in the inculcated belief that a tango walk is always this sort of long step. Another way of looking at this is that the teaching method teaches the view that walking is a lower body action, and not a whole body action, it’s what you do with your legs.

The issue is not that one should not take large steps while dancing, but rather that one should take a step that is as long as needed. As a rule you learn what you practice, ie.,what you practice turns thereby into a habit. If you practice taking long 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 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 on the other hand you instead learn to walk by taking long power steps, practicing this alone and making that your normal way to walk, this cal rob you of the ability to respond to situations where small steps are required, which is actually most situations in a social dancing context. Your movement will have a lot of power but relatively 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.

I do not want to be excessively prescriptive about making large or small steps but rather to point out the longer term consequences of a type of training that focuses on one or the other. The sort of training that gets students to walk around in a circle powering horizontally into the step forward or back will lead to habitual movement of a particular type which requires a certain amount of space. If you have access to large studio spaces where each couple can have a space of 2 meters or so in diameter then large power steps are viable. But in most large cities 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 price tag attached extending beyond the price of the class itself. There is actually a range of reasons to prefer a more efficient, improvisational type of movement in addition to the use of space, such as access to partners, the range of music you can dance to, and the amount of effort involved in your dancing.

Elongated power walk as end-gaining

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

On my view, as with choreography instruction in general, taking elongated power steps is an instance of end-gaining in Alexander’s sense. Some aspects of dancing are more conspicuous than others. Those that are highly conspicuous tend to be the most impressive to the uninformed viewer who is then apt to be misled into identifying them as the markers ‘good dancing’ or as “so beautiful” (see Beauty or kitsch). If the viewer is a learner he 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 superficial aspects of dancing that are actually well beyond his current capacities (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 (thought not all) competent social dancers, collected into a single choreography and magnified with stage dancing technique. Whereas originally they were emergent aspects of natural dancing technique (see Emergent Movement), applied directly to movement learning they become fixed choreography. They then become visually impressive, which in the context of social dancing offers the dancers the image that they are performing but at the same time takes away the satisfaction inherent in movement that is natural, spontaneous, and connected.

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

Partnering practice: the Fingertip Dance

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

To test this yourself you can try the “fingertip dance” which is a basic movement exploration in Contact Improvisation. In this exercise two partners touch at the tip of an index finger of one hand. It 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 dance is a simple and yet profound practice that treaches us some of the 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 needs 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. A horizontally initiated cycle will create tension in the follower that will be detrimental to reversibility. That is, when we move horizontally into the follower this will turn into a power move because the follower will perceive this, at the level of a motor response, as something to resist. 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).

This type of practice is actively discouraged by ‘traditional’ teachers who insist that the student not move up and down but instead cultivate a ‘smooth’ horizontal walk. Now, first, 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, second, it seems that the teacher’s concern and insistence on a smooth walk is purely from an external aesthetic point of view, that is, that’s what a tango dancer should look like. Now, when we look at how people move what we are seeing are the gross conspicuous movements. What is more difficult to perceive by anyone except experienced dancers are the ‘micro-movements’ that the dancers make in order to communicate. But a learner cannot be told to make precise micro-movements. We learn to make such precise micro-movements by first making large, relatively awkward gross movements and then fine tuning them through practice. Every virtuoso musician started out by making large gross movements, no different with dancing. But if the learner is told to resist making movements along the vertical and lateral axes, they’re 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.

See also: Walking: the basic movement of tango


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.

Slow Focused Practice

A basic principle of learning a skill such as movement is to practice slowly and with focus on the process of learning itself. A major mistake and pitfall in learning a skill is to practice too fast. Granted that practicing slowly can feel boring and we want our practice to be interesting and motivating. But practicing too fast results in hitting barriers to progress early on. You are, to use Alexander’s term, end-gaining. Your attention is focused on the goal that you want to achieve and are trying to get there now or as soon as possible without taking the necessary incremental steps. You probably focus on some role model, a highly skilled dancer or maestro who is able to do complex movements to fast or challenging music and you try to emulate that.

While setting yourself a goal is useful and important, if you then focus your attention on that goal and try to emulate that without going through the less exciting process of slow focused practice you will inevitably end up frustrated and exhausted. This is because you probably lack the base skills that the skilled dancer or the maestro has at his disposal. So having set yourself a goal and decided on a role model, you then need to focus your attention on the gradual and process practicing itself. While this may be challenging at first, you will find that you are much calmer and that your motivation improves as you develop your base skills.

Focusing on the process of learning is essential to success in learning learnig well, that is, to programming our nervous system such that we have the base that allows us to exhibit the skills that we see in our role model. This may at times seem less exciting but the undeniable fact is that end-gaining and practicing too fast leads to poor technique and loss of motivation. We often get inspiration from seeing high level dancers, but constantly focusing on skilled dancing and trying emulate it is actually detrimental to learning. While we need to be challenged and push ourselves, this needs to be appropriate to our current skill level.

Keypoint Summary

  • We become inspired by seeing skilled dancing and this excited and motivates us to learn.
  • Focusing excessively on the role model that represents our dreams and goals in dancing leads to end-gaining.
  • When we are end gaining we are trying to perform at a level that is too high given our base skills.
  • To achieve a high level of dancing we need to focus on the process of developing the base skills.
  • Performance is the result of the gradual process of programming that consists of repeated slow focused practice.
  • Focused practice may seem boring to some people, but it is necessary in order to avoid early blockages to learning

Related posts:

Recommended Reading

  • Thomas Sterner The Practicing Mind

Choreography vs. emergent movement

Movement can be generated by different types of cues, which can be either direct or indirect (see Cues). A movement can be taught directly either by way of a demonstration, or by way of a verbal instruction. A movement can be generated indirectlyby way of a cue that is not directly related to the movement—an image that elicits the movement, or by verbal instruction that directs attention to something that affects the movement. Also, a movement can be acquired without any learning, whereby it emerges naturally from some technique or through improvised movement exploration.

Many movements that are taught as choreography, steps, patterns or decorations-adornments-female technique, that are taught directly, are actually emergent aspects of movement technique. That is, they have emerged through the practice of dancing tango and walking, and the improvisational exploration of the possibilities of the walking technique. Teachers and choreographers then took these naturally emergent aspects of movement and started teaching them directly. But this has fundamentally alterned their character. While it may seem that a movement such as a decoration can be taught either directly or indirectly, and that both are pathways to the same goal, in fact the quality of the movement will be different.

Generally, a movement that emerges out of improvised exploration is more natural, efficient, functional and integrated or connected. By contrast, dancers who learn these superficially similar movements directly find that they are stuck performing them mechanically even when it is not efficient or functional to perform them. Many have to go through a rather painful process of unlearning them in order to rediscover their natural movement and progress to the next level of dancing proficiency.

Adornments and women’s technique: why they are a really bad idea

Search the internet on tango technique or peruse ads for workshops on Facebook and a lot of what you find is material, mostly for women, for what to do with your feet: things like crossing your feet and various sorts of adornments that the woman (and sometimes also the man) can do in between steps. I want to convince you that you should not be learning any of this, and if you really want to explore it, leave it until you have a good amount of experience in dancing, like at least a couple of years, because only then will you have a good idea about the dance and whether you really want this.

The amount of material that one finds on adornments of this sort would suggest that they are somehow essential to the dance. They are only essential if one’s goal in dancing is exhibition and perhaps self-expression. They have no functional value to the basic structure of traditional social tango or to the enjoyment of the dance unless one seeks the things mentioned above, exhibition and self-expression. From a functional point of view, however, they are more often than not detrimental to the dance. So why do people believe that hooks, kicks and various decorations are so important to tango and spend a lot of time and money taking lessons and learning choreography based on them?

Perhaps there is the belief that these adornments are unique to tango and are part of its tradition. When one looks at tango movies from the 1940s one does see women performing hooks and kicks in musical stage shows. There is no question that such movements are exciting to watch and that is the primary reason they are utilised in dance performance. But as I discuss elsewhere there is the question whether performing such eye catching moves one does not venture into the realm of kitsch, of easy and inauthentic satisfactions.

There seems to be a belief that these movements are part of the expression in tango. This belief originates from a view of dancing in general as expressive and that expression is associated with movements of arms and legs. But the idea that dancing is always expressive is unfounded if one looks at such dances as classical ballet or the Viennese waltz. There is nothing inherently expressive about them, and to the contrary they are marked by restraint and control. Certainly, art is a mode of expression but we first need to connect to the expression in music and then decide on the appropriate way of expressing that in our dancing. It is not clear that doing these decorations done habitually is the appropriate way to do that. It is certainly never mentioned in a ‘technique class’ how these decorations are to be used in relation to the music.

There are a number of reasons not to do decorations. First, doing hooks and kicks looks great but is not efficient in tango estilo milonguero because (i) the dancers have to open up the embrace; (ii) it takes up space and endangers other dancers creating tension on the dancefloor, and (iii) dancers have less control over their dancing and so you lose the all-important connection. All of these are undesirable characteristics and so one does not see these movements in traditional social dancing in Buenos Aires only in floorshows where, in my view, they take away from the beauty of the performance more than anything else adding only a tacky, kitsch element.

While adornments generally look pretty they have a detrimental effect on mastering social dancing. First, to become a good social dancer you need to focus on good technique in terms of connection: leading and following and moving to the music. Spending time learning decorations is putting time and energy on an inessential aspect of the dance from that point of view.

Second, even if you are a competent dancer, performing adornments takes your attention away from the embrace and from your partner, and moves it towards the feet. All attention should be focused on the embrace and posture and there is no good reason to focus on the feet whose function is merely to take steps.

Third, performing adornments becomes a habit so that they are performed even when it is not efficient to do so, that is, when there is not enough time or the leader is not aware that the follower is performing them. That means that the decorations reduce the control that the dancers have and make the dance less enjoyable. Ultimately, we want the best possible connection and control in the dance, and anything that takes away from that is detrimental to the enjoyment.

Finally, adornments are a form of showing off, as a sort of fashion or exhibition, that leads to a competitive atmosphere on the dancefloor which takes away from the convivial and social element of tango. If what you seek is self-expression and attention from an audience then tango estilo milonguero is not the ideal way to do that. Performance tango or other types of dancing are probably better suited to those interests.

Does that mean that we never perform these movements? I am not saying that. What I am saying is that you should not learn them in a ‘technique’ class that teaches adornments or choreography. Crossing your feet is not a special technique or adornment. Instead it is part of the fundamental technique of walking and direction. When you walk you will have to change direction and you do that by initiating with the feet. You cannot do that without crossing them. As for kicks and other movements, they are movements that will naturally emerge in your dancing when you freely improvise. There is no need to learn them, and learning them directly will change them so that your dancing become less expressive and you will be like the dancers performing at tango competitions, mechanically running through their choreographed moves.