Turning

In tango milonguero turning by spinning or swiveling on one foot by swerving the hips is not viable because this twists the spine and (a) the tension is projected to the shoulders which then upsets the embrace; and (b) the tension created by this motion is difficult to maintain under control. Given that you don’t dance tango by walking in a straight line, how do we perform changes in direction and turns?

To understand this we 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 separate. In that case, you’d 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 fact 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 tracktion 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 jump. 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 are difficult to find or maintain so we need chalk; 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 spine/swivel without falling over and this of course requires a lot of lessons and training.

So eliminating spinning/swiveling from your dancing you basically eliminate all of the time, money and mental energy costs associated with these things. 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 spinning, 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.

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Focused Tango Movement (FTM)

FTM is a system of training for Argentine Tango dancing that involves performing a set of basic movements with focus and awareness.

What is FTM like?

FTM is like any movement training where good form, posture and ease of movement should be learned from the beginning through focused practice, including things like the following:

  • practicing yoga slowly and with focus
  • learning to play a classical instrument with a metronome
  • ‘soft’ martial arts like Aikido or Tai Chi
  • learning Chinese calligraphy
  • vocal practice in preparation for singing or speaking

How will FTM help me learn Argentine Tango?

Doing FTM helps to:

  • improve posture and coordination of movement
  • improve connection to your partner and the music
  • make learning more pleasant and efficient
  • improve creativity, improvisation skills and individual expression
  • help the teacher provide you with corrective feedback
  • helps you become more independent and correct yourself

How much time investment does the FTM require?

FTM requires short periods of focused practice:

  • spaced practice is better than blocked practice: short periods of around 20 minutes 3 times a week are better than an hour once week
  • it is best to do the practice in a quiet place with minimal distractions
  • shake off any tension building up between exercises
  • fill out the practice sheet at the end of each practice session

Do I need a partner for this practice?

  • if you have a partner there is partner practice that you can follow
  • if you don’t have a practice partner: the individual practice will help you if you have an opportunity to work with a partner, eg., at a practica
  • you can apply these skills to learning choreography in a standard dancing lesson although you may have to adjust some movements such as walking for other styles of tango

 

Clock

Our body follows certain control points. In the typical case, the movement follows the direction of the gaze. If we focus on something this elicits an orienting response starting at the head that then moves down through the neck down the spine, and we tend to move in that direction. The main difficulty in dancing tango is that we canno use these primary controlling mechanisms that operate in our daily life: we don’t always walk forward but often backwards or around; we have a partner in front of us; and we can’t look at the feet so that we risk stepping or kicking our partner. We have to therefore learn to move in a completely different way, using a different set of directing mechanisms. In particular the eyes are of no use in dancing tango and looking at the feet in order to figure out where to step is detrimental to the embrace and so we have to learn to orient ourselves without using the eyes.

The solution to the problem is that in tango we orient ourselves with the feet. The feet movements that are these days considered mere decorative are actually functionally orienting movements and need to be learned as such. In some dances and styles of tango feet point more or less forward. In order to turn then it is necesssary to swivel. Swiveling is not an efficient way to move or turn. While it looks aesthetically pleasing and allows for large expressive movements with large hip movement, this 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 that could be sustained without fatigue for long periods of time. Moreover, it is completely at odds with the requirements of the sustained close embrace.

So because we don’t want to swivel and we want the hips to remain relatively square to the shoulders and always facing the partner, we need to free up the feet. The feet have to open up and the differing angle between the feet orients the body. Whereas in the normal case, the gaze orients the head and body towards the point of focus, in tango the direction of the free foot orients the body in a new direction as we move into that foot and put weight on it. This information is then transferred to our 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 our movement so that we learn, as with learning to drive a car or steer a boat, how our foot movement affects the direction of the movement of the whole couple. Moreover, we need to learn to do this without looking at the feet.

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

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

Base

Beginner level students fall into two categories that affect the rate of progress:

1. True beginners have no dancing experience of any sort at all. The whole dancing thing is completely new to them and so really they are just getting into the world of dancing and movement.

2. False beginners have done some dancing before, whether tango or some other dance, and have some foundational skills, what we might call a ‘base’, which will allow them to progress at a much faster rate.

False beginners already have some knowledge of working with movement and with a partner to music so that they are able to coordinate better and sooner than a True Beginner who has to learn a host of skills related to partner dancing. Those are therefore very different learning tracks and learning curves. However, even in false beginners it is necessary to start of with the basics and practice in a slow and deliberate manner without end-gaining. True Beginners will usually take more practice sessions in the basic skills to get these under control.

Motivation

I enjoy lifting weights and I get a lot out if doing it. I feel better, look better, have more energy and can get more done. Still, there is always the issue of motivation. I don’t always feel like doing it and if I miss a couple of workouts I find that I quit lifting for 2 or 3 months and then need to get back into it which means that I have lost some of the gains I was making. I found that to minimise this I need to design a system that minimises barriers to training. I bought a home gym set so that I don’t need to go to the trouble of going to a gym. I invested in equipment that is of adequate quality to make sure that I enjoy training on it and that I have everything at hand. It’s right there at hand and the steps needed to start training are minimal.

There is also the mental game. I find that if I focus on some distant goal of lifting some really heavy weight that is at the moment out of reach this is too distant. It does not make me feel so good about my current workout. On the other hand, if I focus on having a good workout, eg., getting through the workout, having good form on most of my worksets, and improving the amount I lift at each workout by a small amount, I find that I feel more satisfied and feel better at the end of the workout. This helps me to keep motivated to get back into it at my next scheduled workout day. I also find that imagining myself having a great beach-ready body, or if I don’t feel like lifting a heavy weight that I had to work in a laboring job I’d have not choice but to lift stuff and that’s a normal thing, these help me get through any motivational blocks.

Motivation is a function of what is immediately in front of you or present in your consciousness at a given moment in time. If the completion of an action or set of actions mentally appears too distant, requires the completion of too many complex or indeterminate steps to getting a satisfaction, then this is bad for motivation. We lose interest and look for distractions or excuses not to do it. We want to learn a language but it seems such a distant goal. Yet we find that we have sudden onsets of high motivation, eg., there’s an image that inspires me to try to learn Chinese. There are other images or situations that kill that excitement. Certain language-learning apps are fun to do and I can use them when i’m bored but moving along the learning path increases my motivation. Other times I try something else like do language exchange or take a course and I find that it’s all too complicated and my initial energy is dampened.

Psychologists usually talk about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. They find that some people are motivated by the results of learning: they want to learn English to get a better job, or to learn dancing to meet people. They are not really interested in the subject matter itself but rather what it can provide for them, the effects of the learning. Others are intrinsically interested in the subject itself. They love learning the language and meeting people in that culture, or they love dancing, etc. But this distinction is really to say that if you start rewarding a person for doing something that they would do anyway, then their motivation will tend to shift so that they lose the initial intrinsic interest and become instrumentally motivated. If you take away the reward they are no longer interested in the activity. This is often a problem in studying for the test and presents teachers with an apparently insoluble dilemma.

Its not clear whether this is a really useful way of looking at the matter because motivation seems to be quite fluid. What seems to affect motivation appears to be whatever is the most immediate to the consciousness, eg., whatever is right in front of me, or whatever is on my mind at the time for whatever reason. Recently I decided to go on holiday to Vietnam and so I had to book a flight and accommodation. I was busy with other exciting projects at the time so doing the decision-making and booking seemed like a chore which had to be done otherwise if I delayed further the prices would go up. So initially I’d say I had a purely instrumental motivation to do the booking.

So I wrote the task in my To Do list that I have on a whiteboard so that it’s clearly visible when I sit at my desk. This put this undesirable chore in front of me so that when I felt the least resistance to doing it I would put in the necessary time and effort. However, when I started searching accommodation and looking at images of my destination I got really excited about my trip and my motivation shifted. I now had a visual image that was exciting and motivating and this image kept my mind on planning the holiday throughout the next few days. This is because I could clearly visualise and anticipate the satisfaction of enjoying the culture, the food, the architecture, the people, the street markets, etc. The satisfaction of my holiday went from something that felt abstract and complicated to something immediate and exciting.

So motivation is very fluid but also responsive to specific sorts of stimuli. We might start with a purely instrumental reason to do or learn something: I need to go on holiday, I need a hobby, I want to meet people, I want to get fit, I want to participate in a cultural activity. As we take action in that direction, we can then shift and build that motivation by making the satisfactions associated with it immediate and palpable.

What we don’t want is to set goals that are distant and involve many complicated steps. I try not to overplan my holidays because that would require me to make all the decisions before going which would be a mental drain and I would lose interest. I try to spread the decision-making leaving options open as I go along. This might not work for others. But I feel that it’s good to have some flexibility so that things are available for you to follow an impulse. I feel that it’s good for motivation to have a fairly linear progress, but that within that you will find that there are moments when you come across obstacles, unforeseen opportunities and bursts of progress or energy. That means that you may need to rewind or de-load on some things, fastforward on others, and exploit unexpected opportunities.

The ABCD Method

I will call the foundational movement awareness training for tango the ABCD Method which stands for:

A – alignment

B – back release

C – coordination

D – direction

Alignment

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 6.28.35 PMOur practice begins with alignment. This includes our posture and an expanded chest. These exercises provide an easy way to bring awareness to the body and the correct alignment.

Back release

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 6.33.39 PMThe spine is at the centre of the body and it provides the central path for the coordination of movement. These exercises explore the range of motion that the spine allow between the head and shoulders at one and of the pine, and the pelvis and legs at the other end. This exploration fecilitates releasing and lengthening of the spine and further facilitates awareness of good alignment.

Coordination

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 6.27.18 PMGood alignment facilitates efficient and coordinated movement. These exercises help us to develop an awareness of the coordination between the upper and the lower body.

Direction

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 6.24.57 PMIn dancing we want to develop the ability to clearly communicate the direction of the movement. These exercises help us to develop the awareness of initiating and communicating the direction of movement in a coordinated way.

Naturalness

“I’m a natural dancer”

My very first tango teacher was an Argentinian who happened to also be an above average dancer. In addition to teaching he did performances in restaurants and at events. He taught in the standard way for the time: 8-step paso basico, ocho, cross, ganchos, etc. When a new tango 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 asked myself whether learning from a ‘natural dancer’ means that I will be a natural dancer as well, or whether having taken dancing lessons I’m destined to be forever ‘academico’. I reasoned that being a ‘natural’ dancer means that you don’t learn through classes but somehow just by dancing. The only thing that gave me hope was that the academico teacher seemed to do a lot of talking and explanation whereas my Argentinian teacher simply demonstrated the steps and there was not much explanation, mainly due to his limited English skills.

Anyway, you can see from my story, which I think is representative of some of the issues arising in tango teaching and learning, that there are inherent contradictions and incoherencies in the whole business of tango teaching. Structured tango classes seem have a tendency to produce rather clunky, mechanical, almost robotic, sort of dancing with little connection to the music or between the partners. Learners seem to be forever 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 that you cannot learn to dance tango in that way. You have to, they insist, learn tango by simply dancing. This of course leads to the chicken-and-egg problem: you can’t start dancing tango until you have learned some, but you can’t learn to dance tango until you’re already dancing. It raises the conundrum of how we can get started in tango without falling into some academico trap where you become a clunky tango robot.

Learning and nature

Part of the problem lies in what I think is a false assumption that learning in a class is the opposite of naturalness. Lets break this down in some detail. Most skills are picked up rather than learned, whether intentionally or through formal learning. This is therefore considered the natural way of learning something. Formal schooling, on the other hand, is viewed as the opposite of that and hence as not natural, and often is viewed as producing knowledge or skills that are merely academic but often inadequate to practical demands in the real world.

There is absolutely no question that in the end one can only learn to dance at a milonga through practical experience. However, it is not 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. There is surely room for some form of direct instruction to prepare the student, which can be more or less formal or systematic. But when people talk about learning to dance tango naturally, as my Argentinian teacher, did I don’t think they they mean merely that the process of learning was more natural, but that the outcome of that process, their dancing, is actually more natural, and the implication is that it is thereby also better.

I think that the basic idea underlying this is that the dancing learned in a studio class where one rehearses set routines, inevitably leads to unnatural and hence inferior movement that is never going to be as good, ie., look as aesthetically pleasing and fluid, as the dancing of someone who learned tango simply by dancing. Academic learning, the argument seems to be, kills naturalness in dancing and inevitably results in dancing which is clunky, robotic and lacking in fluency or expressiveness.

Naturalness as efficiency of movement

This is interesting because in another corner of the world of dancing and movement is an area called variously Somatics, Improvisation or Movement Awareness (including practices such as the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, Contact Improvisation and 5 Rhythms) where, in relatively structured sessions, participants learn, or perhaps more accurately rediscover, naturalness in their 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 our naturalness. How is that possible?

The basic reasoning behind the somatic approach to movement was developed by F.M. Alexander. Alexander was an Australian whose occupation was to recite Shakespeare. His job depended on his voice. However, at some stage, Alexander started losing his voice. With investigation he discovered that the cause of the problem has to do with some habits that he acquires which resulted in his use of his voice that led to problems. Alexander argued that when we are vere focused on a goal we tend to do what he calls end-gaining. That is, we are so focused on the goal that we rush and perform actions with unnecessary excessive 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 efficiently.

In this scheme, our habits and use of the body are often not natural in the sense that they are not optimal given the design of the body functioning. 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 that feel normal and natural but actually wear us out and make things more difficult than they should be. Regular mindful practice of certain movements 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. For example, Alexander discovered that we tend to shorten the neck and that the head-neck relation is essential to how we use the spine and our overall movement efficiency. Doing exercises that release tension in that area and then consciously registration the new feeling of optimal head-neck relation can then carry over to a more efficient and in that sense more ‘natural’ movement patterns in our daily tasks.

Here we can see that naturalness is defined not as what is learned through practical experience as distinct from academic learning, but rather in terms of efficiency of movement that is in accordance with our biological makeup, that is, how our neuromuscular system has been designed through the process of evolution. Because a lot of our practical experience is not the same as it has been throughout our evolution, eg., nowadays we spend much more time sitting and looking at a computer or phone screen than we have for 100s of thousands of years, we develop poor movement patterns. In that case, naturalness requires us to undergo some systematic training that allows us to bring awareness to our body systems (the means-whereby) so that we execute movement in a way that does not excessively strain the body and create excess tension.

Efficiency of movement and the process of learning

This is interesting because we can see that from the point of view somatic movement awareness practices, both academico and natural dancing can be inefficient or efficient, or more accurately, both can be equally 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 and usually this demands visual feedback.

The problem is that if you keep your head up and stand completely erect, looking ahead, we 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 can’t see my or my partner’s feet. Given that most studio dance classes teach rather large steps and the embrace is usually rather open, there is a very high change of colliding with your partner, and generally without visual feedback you cannot see where your partner’s feet are. As a result there is an overwhelming tendency to look down at the feet and you can this that this is almost universal in dancers who learn patterns in studio classes, ie., academico dancers.

On the other hand, those who have learned ‘naturally’ or 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 a simple walk. So they only take steps that they can lead without kicking their partner or falling over, and only if they feel their partners position through the feedback their receive through the embrace. In other words, before taking large steps they go through a period of taking baby steps that allow them to develop good awareness of the connection with their partner without looking down. Also, when the situation becomes uncertain, they know how to pull back so that if the feedback is uncertain they can reduce the movement and don’t need to fall back on visual feedback. As a consequence, their dancing is more likely to be ‘natural’ in the second sense discussed above, namely, it is more likely to be efficient. Because dancers who learn informally also move more efficiently, these two issues are conflated so that informal learning is identified with efficient movement.

However, once we recognize that there is connection between informal learning and a more efficient dancing, but that these are actually distinct and separable issues, we can now see that it is actually possible to devise a more systematic (and so in that sense formal) system of learning which teaches efficient dancing. The key of such a system is to eliminate the practicing of walking with elongated steps and rehearsing fixed patterns of steps and figures. On the other hand, we want to teach a more natural 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, listening for feedback from one’s partner, and prevent the learner from making large movements that interfere with the embrace can make the learning process more systematic and direct, and yet promote a more natural movement in tango dancing.