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.

Efficiency of movement vs. aesthetics

Two common questions people learning tango ask about learning a movement:


(i) Do they do that in Argentina?

(ii) I saw a video in which the dancers do X. It looks very cool/pretty.


The idea behind the first question is that the reason to dance a certain way is that this is how people dance in Argentina. The problem with this is that there is really no one way in which people dance in Argentina (see Styles). Even within a single style of Argentine Tango there will be considerable variation between individual dancers, and so one has to distinguish between what is essential to the dance and what is an individual expression.

The idea behind the second question is that the reason to dance a certain way is that it is visually attractive. The problem with this is that visual attractiveness is not a good reason to learn something if one is learning social tango. It is only useful if one is learning tango in order to do tango performances. Strangely enough, many people seem not to realise that what one sees in a tango performance is completely different from social dancing for a number of reasons:

(1) In a tango floor show the couple usually has plenty of floor space to themselves;

(2) A show couple practice the routine with a particular partner;

(3) The primary purpose of a floor show is to entertain an audience;

None of these factors operate in social tango dancing. Tango is often danced in crowded conditions where the large movements, kicks and lifts done by show couples are completely impractical. In social tango we dance with different partners of different ability and size, which renders most difficult choreography of no use. Finally, traditional social tango is not intended to either entertain or compete and show off one’s cool moves. The essence of tango is for partners to share a beautiful moment.

So these considerations inform how we can decide whether a given movement or technique is useful to learn from the point of view of social tango dancing.

RULE FOR LEARNING A MOVEMENT OF TECHNIQUE

A movement or technique is useful to learn for social tango dancing when it is efficient in terms of movement, connection and space. Conversely, any movement or technique that is not efficient in these terms should not be learned.

Lets have a look at these three aspects of efficiency in more detail:

Efficient movement

Whereas in show dancing the pleasure is on the part of the viewers of the couple whereas it is not necessary that the couple themselves enjoy the experience since it is a job they get paid for, in social dancing the main purpose is the enoyment of the dancing by the social dancers themselves. Part of the enjoyment should be the actual movement itself. It is recognised that movement which is enjoyable is also efficient movement. Efficient movement is a relatively technical matter and it defined roughly as follows:

Efficient Movement = movement that exemplifies an efficient use of the neuromusculoskeletal system, that is, a use of the system that requires the least amount of effort, tension or strain in order to perform it.

The study of efficient movement is called Somatics, and it was created by F. M. Alexander and Moshe Feldenkrais. They discovered that when we are too focused on a goal (called end-gaining) we lose awareness of our body position and this leads to an inefficient use of the body, that is, excessive tension and strain. Efficient movement is gracefull, requires less effort, and is more pleasant.

One way to ascertain whether we are moving efficiently is to bring your awareness to your breathing and to see whether you can easily take a deep breath while executing the movement. If you are in a stationary position you can also close your eyes and see whether you feel that you’re standing or sitting in a comfortable position. In dancing we can ascertain that we are moving efficiently by asking whether we can execute the movement will little tension and without losing our posture and alignment (see Posture and Alignment).

Efficient connection

Here we mean a strong connection to the partner and to the music. It is this connection to partner and music that is strong and yet requires little strain or tension that provides the primary source of enjoyment in tango. If we are moving but the connection to the music and your partner is not efficient, that is, is loose or sloppy, then the dance is not very enjoyable. It then becomes a mere physical activity. On the other hand, improving in tango dancing is primarily measured in terms of the tightness or strength of that connection. The more connected you are the better your dancing. That is why we want to reduce the number of elements that may complicate the movement and thus make connection.

Rule 1: The goal of learning and improving in social tango dancing is to improve the connection to the partner and the music. The better the connection the better the dancing.

Rule 2: We want to simplify the elements to the most essential elements in order to improve the connection. We want to avoid unnecessary cimplications that can reduce the connection.

Efficient use of space

Watching people dancing we rarely consider the dynamic context of social dancing. If it’s a performance or demonstration we focus on the couple which dances on an empty dancefloor. Sometimes we watch couples dancing when there is relatively few people dancing and so there is a lot of space. But it is not reasonable to expect that these are the normal conditions. It is more reasonable to expect that the dancefloor is quite crowded and then we find that the style of dancing that looked so beautiful and graceful is completely impractical.

We should ask whether the tango we are watching is ’fit for purpose’, ie., fit for dancing on a crowded dancefloor. We want to learn some beautiful piece of choreography and then find that we kick or otherwise disturb other dancers doing them. The primary goal of social dancing is to dance in harmony with other dancers and that means that we are able to dance without disturbing them in any way. Dancing styles that are designed for performances are not functional in two ways:

(i) They do not allow us to navigate efficiently around the dancefloor, so that we either block the way of others or bump into them;

(ii) They include movements which are loud and distracting and create an unpleasant competitive atmosphere.

So we want to be able to move in such a way that we can easily navigate the dancefloor, move efficiently around other dancers, moving along the line of dance at a good rate so that we don’t block the dancers behind us.. Difficulties navigating caused by a choreography that is too fixed or uses large steps and kicks, in the end leads to situations which cause tension and unpleasant feelings.

Key point summary:

  1. Students learning tango often focus on irrelevant aspects of tango because of a lack of understanding of the practical aspects of dancing.
  2. In learning social dancing we want to learn to dance efficiently in three aspects:
    • It is efficient in the sense that it is a good use of our neuromuscular system and requires the least amount of effort or tension.
    • It allows for an efficient connection between the partners and the music;
    • It allows for an efficient use of space: using less space and being able to navigate around the dancefloor.

Embrace: the essence of tango

The essence of tango is the embrace. We can define the embrace that is unique to tango simply as this: a hug. An embrace which is open or which is flexible—sometimes close and sometimes open—is not unique to tango because one sees it in other dances. The tango embrace is the sort of hug where once we start hugging we do not stop until the end of the tune. That’s what makes tango a 3 minute romance and what makes it so unique.

Everything we do in dancing Tango Estilo Milonguero is constrained by this basic fact. For example, there can be no movement from the hips up and so tango technique requires that all movement is below the hips, in the knees and feet. The hips cannot move because movement in the hips cannot be separated from the twisting in the spine which will lead to pressure in the upper body. Any movement in the hips will transfer via the spine to the trunk and the shoulders. Partners have to remain perfectly square all the way from the shoulders down to the hips throughout the dance in order to maintain the tango embrace.

Because the tango embrace is a hug at the chest, all the energy of the dance is at the chest level and that is where our focus should be at all times. We are connected at the heart and that is the primary point of focus. We are also connected by the woman’s upper arm over the man’s right shoulder, the man’s right hand on the woman’s right shoulder blade, and through the wrists. Most of the pressure should be through the heart and the other connections should be relatively light.

In combination this basic structure allows for a tight connection and an efficient transfer of lead and follow so that the woman can clearly feel the man’s lead and the man can clearly feel the woman’s centre and position (where her feet are). Just as tilting a chair you can tell without looking which leg is touching the floor, any pressure on one foot or the other should be perceptible in the upper body through the embrace with regular practice.

Because the point of focus is on the embrace, the feet have to adjust to that. In other forms of tango and other dances where the feet are a focus the upper body adjusts to the action of the feet. In Tango Estilo Milonguero it’s always the feet adjusting to the requirement of maintaining the tight embrace in the upper body. Another way of putting this is that the embrace is the constraint and the feet have to figure out what to do in order to move. So the rules are:

  1. If a foot movement requires us to change the embrace it cannot be done.
  2. Only foot movements that do not compromise the embrace are allowed.

So the foot technique in Tango Estilo Milonguero is designed specifically to meet these requirements. We cannot swivel in Tango Estilo Milonguero because it cannot be done without the turning of the hips which then puts pressure on the upper body and thus compromises the connection at the heart. For this reason we begin learning tango by simply walking forward and back and learning how to do that while constantly connected at the heart. Learning choreography before mastering this basic skill will compromise the embrace and will be therefore detrimental to the structure of the dance.

Any learning system for Tango Estilo Milonguero starts with learning and practicing to walk in the embrace. Because the basic skill is walking with a partner, practicing walking without a partner is pointless. It’s like practicing conversation in a foreign language by yourself. On the other hand, practicing a lot of choreography with a partner is also pointless because you will be compromising the embrace. So we always start learning tango by practicing walking with a partner in the embrace.

Additional study materials

 

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