This is an approach to teaching Argentine Tango technique that draws on insights from somatic movement disciplines. It takes as its starting point the idea that tango is an improvised form and that you cannot learn improvised dancing by learning set patterns of steps but that instead you should begin by learning posture, movement and partnering skills. You can then proceed to learning movements or ‘steps’ experientially through a process of improvisation and discovery.
F.M. Alexander was the first to discover 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 has extended these ideas as a basis for improvised dancing.*
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 running, strength training, voice work or dancing. Failure to utilise these principles will result in the use of the body which is inefficient, and therefore in
- less power and speed
- poor breathing and digestion
- more tension, fatigue and overuse injuries
Efficient movement is inherently healthy and is experienced as more pleasant, graceful and as an expression of freedom and spontaneity. It is inherently more satisfying whether this is in sport or artistic activity. Because we are dealing with fundamental principles of body use it is impossible to move effectively without applying these principles.
Here we must define what we mean by “dancing well”. When we look at something we perceive its outward appearance and not its inner nature. Movement which looks aesthetically pleasing is not necessarily good movement from a ‘somatic’ perspective. Not all movement which might appear pleasing to the eye is efficient movement. The person performing the movement may be using their body in ways which are suboptimal and may not be enjoying the movement. Somatic disciplines take an experiential perspective on movement. It means that to judge whether a movement is ‘good’ you have to experience it yourself through a process of exploration and comparison rather than judging a movement merely on the basis of its external or visual aesthetic aspect.
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 experientially pleasant, especially when it is a cultural expression such as a musical, vocal or dance performance, 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 in terms of pleasantness and aesthetics is to be judged experientially.
So the goal of this practice is not improvisation for its own sake but rather improvisation for the sake of enhanced tango experience. Tango is usually taught using formulaic patterns of steps. The assumption is that these are the means of reaching improvisational dancing skills. In fact one finds that dancers never really get beyond dancing such set patterns and instead pile on more of them without really reaching the creativity or spontaneity that one sees in traditional dancing in Buenos Aires.
Some argue that the reason for this is a lack of cultural understanding and therefore those who want to move beyond such set patterns should learn more about the culture of tango. While it is certainly true that learners of tango are well advised to learn more about the traditional culture of the tango in Buenos Aires, the view taken here is that the source of the problem is the use of set patterns in dance teaching, which is also to be found in Buenos Aires. The need to run formal dancing classes has the unfortunate result of piling on ever more patterns, figures and techniques. My proposal is that a formal practice should comprise of structured movement explorations that provide the basis for improvisation.
The movement explorations in Focused Connected Tango Movement are divided into the following parts:
A – Alignment
B- Back release
C – Coordination
D – Direction
These are basic practices that we can always use to connect to the space and to the body. In our ordinary living we are in the mode of end-gaining. This is a term used by F. M. Alexander to refer to the fact that we tend to focus on a task or a goal such that we pay no 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 we focus on the ‘what’ of the task, ie., what it is that we want to achieve, which is lifting the heavy object and moving it somewhere. But often, due to hastiness or lack of knowledge, we tend to fail to take ito account what is required to complete the task injury free. We might not know that we should extend our back when lifting a heavy object, or we might know this but forget to do so, or perhaps misjudge how heavy the object is and apply excessive force. So we need all of these to execute the task: know the correct form, evaluate the requirements of the task, and pay attention to execute the task with the correct form.
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, we 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 us tired and lowers our 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 for us to ‘check in’ with ourselves and that means that we should shift our attention away from the ordinary goal-oriented or end-gaining activity and reconnect with our natural posture of being ‘at ease’.
When we build up tension 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 with a release of tension. The natural movement of the body allows for a free rotation of the spine around its axis. We can return to this natural release state of posture and movement through simple explorations of the range of motion around this axis. Through these explorations we will develop the awareness of the natural dynamic connection between the upper and lower extremities through a released spine. It will allow us to utilise the complete range of motion when moving with a partner, so that we don’t need to excess force but utilise the energy and dynamics naturally stored and available within us. Tapping into this source of natural movement means that we don’t need to use force or tension to execute movements and our dancing will feel spontaneous and natural. It will provide the basis for entering a state of flow in our dance.
Learning dancing technique is learning to execute complex movements without generating excess tension. We are learning to coodinate different parts of the body in new ways and thus developing new neural pathways for efficient, coordinated movement. We do this by way of focused exercises that explore the connection between upper body where we’ll be connected to our partner and the lower body where we’ll be 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 brings these possibilities to awareness and makes them available when we need then in dancing.
Leading and following that is pleasurable and efficient requires the ability to clearly communicate the direction of the movement in real time, while improvising. The Principle of Reversibility means that we are able to stop and change direction at any moment. That means that we are constantly in the process of signalling and reading the direction of movement. Both partners are signalling and reading movement in real time. It is this coordination of directed movement that creates the experience of flow in dancing, and failure of this coordination results in failure to achieve flow and therefore unsatisfactory dancing experience.
Dancing in which we power or muscle through moves both in leading and following does not create flow because this type of coordination is too clunky, too slow and creates excess tension that does not allow for an efficient coordination of directed movement between partners. By contrast, efficient partner coordination and flow is effected by directed movement that is communicated from a close 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 execution of the walking step (see also Turning). In order to develop the basic movement skills we practice basic walking in different directions in order to develop the awareness of the possibilities of movement that this affords.
*Moshe Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement; Steve Paxton, Material for the Spine.