Tango Tips by Fran

 

As most of you know, Fran and his partner, Pat Altman, have been with Firehouse Tango since we started and are a major reason for our success. 

 

Fran is one of the most highly regarded Argentine Tango teachers in New York City. He teaches at Dance Manhattan and the Argentine Consulate and is dance director and emcee for Stardust Dance Productions.  He is a also very successful freelance writer, who even takes over this newsletter when I’m out.


December 19, 2009

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. This Week's Tip was suggested to me by our good friend and Firehouse regular, Steve Turi.

One of the things we talk about quite often at the Firehouse is what we call the line of dance. As I'm sure you know, this refers to a path, which travels in a counter-clockwise direction around the outside of the dance floor. When dancing Tango, we generally try to maintain this path throughout the dance. As you've heard me say many times, it's very important for leaders not to cut across the center of the floor, and not to travel the wrong way around the floor.

Steve Turi takes my Tango Tips seriously (Thank you, Steve!), and in trying to maintain the line of dance in the way I've been describing it, he's been noticing that quite often at the Firehouse before he's successfully navigated a few feet or so he comes up against one or another couple who is planted across two or three traveling "lanes," executing (or attempting to execute) a seemingly endless macro-sequence of elaborate circular movements. In such instances, all dance traffic comes to a complete halt, and everyone behind such a couple has to decide whether to simply remain where they are, waiting for the couple in front to end their virtuoso performance and move on -- or to find a highly questionable way around them, sometimes sending themselves so completely away from the lane of dance as to impede progressive movement on the other side of the floor! The result here is that even if one is trying to maintain the line of dance, it becomes impossible to do so, because of people hogging the entire traveling path around perimeter of the floor.

I often talk about Tango as a dance of movement and stillness. I think it's important for leaders to be aware that they don't have to be racing around the room all the time. However, at the best Milongas in Buenos Aires it is expected not only that leaders respect the line of dance in ways I often describe - but that they take great care to avoid impeding the flow of the dance around the floor. The idea here is that if there is a tendency for most people to travel continually around the floor, one couple can't suddenly bring everything to a crashing halt, because they feel like doing some series of figuras in place. This would be considered at the very least impolite, and at most ground for ejection from the Milonga.

If the dance floor is sparsely populated - or if during a particular dance it's obvious that traffic is moving in a consistent stop-start fashion - it might be all right to halt one's general progression momentarily and do a few things in place. But even then, one would never co-opt all traveling lanes of the floor, thereby offering other dancers no opportunity to pass, if they wish.

So Steve Turi's observation is a good one. In maintaining the line of dance, we have to add another skill to our repertoire; that is, we have to make every attempt to enable the flow (if there is one) to continue uninterrupted by any action we might decide to take in our dance. This is what good dancers do as a matter of routine, and what will promote a far richer overall experience for all of us.

Thanks, Steve, for your excellent suggestion. Happy Holidays, everyone from Pat and me!

December 12, 2009

Hello everyone, Pat here. In Fran's Tango tip of two weeks ago, he addressed the issue of leaders who create a climate during the dance that interferes with the follower's ability to keep her balance. This week, I will put this into perspective from the follower's point of view.

It has been my experience that followers will be able to pick out their favorite leaders on the dance floor, and marvel at "how good a dancer he is"....quite often never having danced with the guy at all. I would say to them:  Well, how do you know how good he is? They will reply: "Oh, but he looks so good." Followers, please don't be fooled!! Leaders whom you may think "look so good" on the dance floor can be the most awful leaders. In the case of some who have been pointed out to me--and whom I have danced with--I know for a fact they are downright dangerous to dance with, because they are pulling their followers off balance with every step.

Because I have been dancing tango for 16 years, I have learned how to protect my balance with such leaders, but followers who are still learning are reduced to hanging on for dear life! The leader might swirl you around in a molinete that gives you no opportunity to take your steps in balance. He might swoop forward and to the side and you are literally clinging to his arm as your body tilts like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Or he might begin to move in a pattern he's just learned--but that you haven't ... he can't lead it, but he pulls you through it and you'll likely trip on some foot he suddenly sticks out in front of you.

Ladies, losing your balance under these circumstances is not your fault! What to do? Well, it's difficult because as the follower, you are at the mercy of your leader during the dance. However, when it's over (and hopefully you are both still standing) you can make a decision not to dance with that person again (until he learns how to dance), and to be thankful you survived intact.

December 5, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Here’s a question for leaders: Why do followers often seem to have so much trouble keeping their balance while dancing Tango?

One possible answer could be that many of the individual movements which comprise this complex dance are inherently difficult, and, if a follower hasn’t practiced and isn’t concentrating, she will certainly find balance elusive. Another answer – the one we’re going to discuss today – is that quite often leaders don’t give followers the opportunity to come into balance between individual steps. Thus, some followers almost never have an opportunity to balance from the time a dance begins until it finally comes to an end.

I often hear leaders talking about how their followers just doesn’t seem to be able to move quickly enough, how they can’t keep up with the movements in a given sequence. The only way to maintain the pre-planned timing of the sequence, such leaders might suggest, is to physically drag their follows through it. (And this is exactly what they do all too often.)

At this point we have to ask a very important question: Is it appropriate in social dancing to adhere to a pre-determined rhythm for any given sequence? It is certainly true that we want to dance rhythmically. Skilled leaders routinely use such devices as pauses and traspies to enhance the rhythmic character of their movements. But when it comes to more elaborate sequences – such as those learned in class – precise timing of the individual movements must be tempered by social considerations such as one’s partner’s response time and comfort level. (This would not be the case in choreographic or performance dancing, in which individual elements of any given sequence have most likely been pre-set to the beats of a musical passage.)

The inherent nature of social dancing is improvisation – not choreography. In social dancing, sequences develop in the moment. They haven’t been practiced for many hours. If a leader wants a sequence within his improvisation to succeed, it is crucial that he allow his follower the necessary time to read and respond to his lead for each of the individual components of the planned sequence – before continuing with other elements of the figure. Any pre-conceived notion of how he wanted or expected the timing to occur simply must take a back seat to the follower’s balance and readiness.

A suggestion I often make to leaders is to try dancing everything in slow motion – I mean really slowly. This, of course, is very difficult, but it teaches a leader to pay careful attention to his own balances, while enabling him to actually feel that his partner is ready for the next movement within a sequence before he leads it. Try this and see whether it helps your dancing. I’ll bet it will.

November 21, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Here's a question for leaders: Why do followers often seem to have so much trouble keeping their balance while dancing Tango?

One possible answer could be that many of the individual movements which comprise this complex dance are inherently difficult, and, if a follower hasn't practiced and isn't concentrating, she will certainly find balance elusive. Another answer - the one we're going to discuss today - is that quite often leaders don't give followers the opportunity to come into balance between individual steps. Thus, some followers almost never have an opportunity to balance from the time a dance begins until it finally comes to an end.

I often hear leaders talking about how their followers just doesn't seem to be able to move quickly enough, how they can't keep up with the movements in a given sequence. The only way to maintain the pre-planned timing of the sequence, such leaders might suggest, is to physically drag their follows through it. (And this is exactly what they do all too often.)

At this point we have to ask a very important question: Is it appropriate in social dancing to adhere to a pre-determined rhythm for any given sequence? It is certainly true that we want to dance rhythmically. Skilled leaders routinely use such devices as pauses and traspies to enhance the rhythmic character of their movements. But when it comes to more elaborate sequences - such as those learned in class - precise timing of the individual movements must be tempered by social considerations such as one's partner's response time and comfort level. (This would not be the case in choreographic or performance dancing, in which individual elements of any given sequence have most likely been pre-set to the beats of a musical passage.)

The inherent nature of social dancing is improvisation - not choreography. In social dancing, sequences develop in the moment. They haven't been practiced for many hours. If a leader wants a sequence within his improvisation to succeed, it is crucial that he allow his follower the necessary time to read and respond to his lead for each of the individual components of the planned sequence - before continuing with other elements of the figure. Any pre-conceived notion of how he wanted or expected the timing to occur simply must take a back seat to the follower's balance and readiness.

A suggestion I often make to leaders is to try dancing everything in slow motion - I mean really slowly. This, of course, is very difficult, but it teaches a leader to pay careful attention to his own balances, while enabling him to actually feel that his partner is ready for the next movement within a sequence before he leads it. Try this and see whether it helps your dancing. I'll bet it will.

November 14, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. An important part of social dancing is spontaneous creativity. A big part of the fun in dancing Tango is the chance to make one's own personal statement. For leaders there are many active ways to be creative while dancing Tango. They can choose movements or combinations of movements spontaneously. They can improvise rhythmically. They can navigate the dance floor in a way, which maximizes the opportunity to execute movements of their choice, while avoiding conflicts with other dancers. In short, leaders have a large palette of creativity at his disposal.

Followers, on the other hand, are quite limited in their ability to create in Tango. They don't have the opportunity to lead figures. They have to go along with the leader's rhythm choices. Navigating the dance floor is his job.

Not much room for spontaneous creativity.

In fact, for followers there is only one outlet for creativity in Tango. The Argentines call it adorno.

Adorno might be characterized as the art of embellishing fundamental Tango movement through the use of a vocabulary of learned actions - coupled with spontaneous actions of the follower's own choice in the moment. Watch any fine Tango couple, and you'll see the follower interjecting little taps, circles, darting movements, and other actions in any given dance whenever she chooses. In performance, such actions can be quite expansive and obvious, while in the social dance they're generally small and subtle.

In order to enable a follower to adorn or embellish, the leader has to give her the chance to do these things - by slowing down or stopping his movements for short durations during the dance. There are many places to stop or slow down. For example: The leader can stop after any forward, side, or backward step. He can slow down or stop while leading his follower's rotation during forward or backward ochos. He can pause in la cruzada. Any of these temporary suspensions of movement will give the follower an opportunity to embellish, if she decides to do so.

What happens, when a leader doesn't slow down or pause during a Tango? The answer is obvious. His follower doesn't get to be creative. With this opportunity lost, the dance is no longer collaborative - as it should be. Instead, it belongs entirely to the leader.

It is important for leaders to incorporate pauses into the dance whether the follower chooses to use them as occasions to adorn or not. In fact, when I teach Tango, I characterize it a dance of motion and stillness. If you're one of those leaders who moves continuously from the beginning of a dance all the way to its end, try stopping and slowing down occasionally - so that your follower can adorn, if she wants to do so.

That way, both you and your follower will have the opportunity to be creative during the Tango.

November 7, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I discussed the fundamental techniques of leading and following in some detail. (I hope that for some of you your dancing has now become more comfortable as a result.) This week, I want to talk about applying these techniques in leading learned figures.

When a beginner learns a Tango figure from a teacher, from a dance video, or from a place such as YouTube, his primary concern is "What am I supposed to be doing." So he dutifully memorizes his part, and fully expects his follower to do the same thing. In most classroom situations this is usually exactly what happens. By the end of the class the couples seem to be executing the figure correctly - simply because they've memorized their parts. But when these beginner leaders try the figure with new partners - maybe followers who didn't take that particular class - the figure completely falls apart. Why? Because our leaders didn't learn how to actually lead the elements of the figure.

Now let's go back to the learning of a figure and see how a more advanced leader approaches the process. This leader's primary concern is not what he's supposed to be doing - but what his follower needs to do. He pays careful attention to her part from beginning to end memorizing exactly what she does. Then he analyzes how he is going to use his skill as a leader to invite her through each step in the figure. Only then does he concern himself with his own part - his accompaniment of her figure.

Today, I want to focus on the second aspect of this process - the leader's analysis of how he's going to invite or lead the follower through a figure. Let's choose a figure that's very common in Tango. Say, for example, that our leader wants to take his follower to a cross (cruzada) by using a simple salida in parallel, then ask for a forward ocho, and finally finish with a resolution. This is the kind of figure one might be exposed to within the first few weeks of a basic Tango class.

Here is a general description of the individual elements of the lead: (What the leader has to realize here is that nothing happens by itself. Everything needs to be led.)

Using the techniques described in last week's Newsletter, the leader invites the initial side movement, followed by the walk (three individual steps) to the cross. At the cross he pauses in order to allow his follower to solidify her balance. Next, he gives her a lead for a counter-clockwise pivot in order to "unwind" her from the crossed-over position. After this, he invites a walk to his right. Thereafter, he invites a clockwise pivot, then a walk to his left. He allows his follower to balance at the end of the ocho; then he invites her backward step, her side step, and finally her closing step -which completes the figure.

The important thing to notice here is that each individual movement has to be carefully led, and that the leader needs to be sure his follower receives and executes each movement before he moves on to the next one. The leader can't take it for granted that his follower "knows" the figure, and will be able to execute it herself without his guidance.

This process is quite complex. There is nothing simple about leading. But as you do it continue to do it correctly, it starts to feel somewhat easier over time. Eventually, it becomes second nature. And then everyone wants to dance with you.

Leaders: Whenever you want to lead any figure (series of steps), you have to come up with a plan to invite each individual element.. Then you have to carry it off, making your follower feel comfortable and cared for throughout the process.

Followers: Whenever you're following a figure, if something isn't specifically led, come to a stop and wait for the lead - even if you know from experience what's probably supposed to happen next.

If you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to ask Pat or me about it the next time you see us.

October 31, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. This week, I'm going to reveal a couple of little-known technique secrets that could potentially have far-reaching impact upon both leaders and followers. I have no doubt that after reading the information below - plus a little practice, of course --your Tango will soar to a new level of excellence, your acquaintances will begin to revere your very presence, crowds will part deferentially as you walk by, a plaque will be raised in your honor ... okay, maybe I'll gilding the lily a bit. Anyway, let's get on with it.

Teachers (like me, for example) are forever telling leaders that they have to give their followers an effective lead in order to induce movement of any kind. At the same time, they tell followers to wait for this mysterious lead before taking a step in the dance. But the question remains: What exactly is the lead? Most leaders couldn't define it with any precision, and most followers don't really know what it is they're supposed to be waiting for.

Let's assume that the leader has a relatively comfortable, balanced connection with his follower. (I realize that this is a huge assumption, but we have to start somewhere.) Fundamentally, there are five movements he could lead:

1.      A backward walking step

2.      A forward walking step

3.      A step to the side

4.      A weight change in place

5.      A pivot

Pat and I have discussed leading the pivot at great length in the past (check the Tango Tip archives to read all about it); so today I'm going to deal exclusively with the other four.

As it happens, the lead for the first three movements (the traveling steps) is exactly the same - although the result of the invitation is a step in one of three possible directions. Okay, get ready. Here comes the secret stuff. In order to invite (lead) a step the leader has to do two very specific things:

1.      He has to lower his upper body slightly by bending at the knees.

2.      He has to lean in the direction he wants the follower to travel.

Let's look at these elements a bit more closely. As a leader you don't lower more than about 1/16 of an inch - meaning that no one can actually see the movement, but the follower can feel it through the embrace. This tells her that some kind of traveling movement is about to happen. The leaning part is what let's her know which direction she's going to travel in. (Obviously, if you lean forward, she travels backward. If you lean to the side, she travels to the side. If you lean backward she travels forward.) Immediately thereafter, both the leader and follower travel through space independently until the balance is achieved at the end of the movement. Then, if the leader wants another step, the whole thing starts all over again.

How about a weight change in place? A weight change in place doesn't travel. The partners simply shift from one side to the other. When leading this movement, a leader doesn't lower (which would signal that a traveling movement is imminent). He simply shifts his own weight to the other side, and the follower respond by shifting her weight with him.

So that's it, folks. Those are the secrets of leading and following a step in Tango. There's quite a bit more to the story, of course. I've only talked today about the invitation or the initiation of a movement. We also have to travel through space, and we have to balance at the end of each step. But an examination of those techniques is for another day.

By way of summary, leaders now know the two secrets of initiating a traveling movement: Lower and lean. This gives her all the information she needs to take a step.

A special note to followers: You now know what the leader is supposed to be doing in order to let you know he wants you to take a step. If he doesn't do these things, don't move - and stop blaming yourself for not being able to read his mind.

October 24, 2009

Hello everyone, Pat here with your Tango Tip of the Week -- which this week is for followers. Tango is a dance that happens essentially from the waist down. Yes, the upper body of each partner does play a role, of course (close but upright, no leaning, clutching, pulling etc.), but the legs and feet of a Tango dancer are where the dance is. I'm sure everyone will agree that if they are watching any kind of demonstration or performance -- or even if they are just attending a milonga -- all eyes are drawn to the legs and feet of the dancers. If you can't see these elements, you can't see the dance.

Related to this, there is a curious phenomenon that happens, when beginners learn Tango. Many students of the dance spend much of their time staring down at their feet -- as if this will somehow make learning the fundmentals easier. This compromises their whole posture, and, in time, becomes a very bad habit.  Both leaders and followers do this, of course, but I'm speaking to the followers today.

Let's talk for a minute about why you might be inclined to look down at your feet. You might mistakenly believe that it gives you a sense of security -- as if by looking at your feet you will be able to learn the movements better. This is misguided. What will happen instead is that it will become a habit, and your efforts to become a better dancer will suffer. From time to time, you may have tried to keep your head up, but the resulting strange and insecure feeling has virtually assured that your head will go down again within a few steps. On the other hand, maybe you really like the shoes your partner is wearing, or maybe he's got two different colored socks on, or possibly one pant leg is caught up in the back of his shoe. These are all very interesting - but not enough to have you staring down at the floor.

Let me tell you a few things that you can be sure of - even if you stop looking down at the floor: 1) Your feet are not going to leave the ends of your legs; and 2) When your feet receive an instruction from your brain, they will execute it whether you are looking at them or not. Furthermore, looking at your feet will not prevent you from stepping on your partner's foot, or from getting stepped on. Only good dance technique will bring these results about.

Next time you are in class or on the dance floor, take a moment to be aware of where you're looking. If it's down at your feet, you've got some remediation to do! If you're one of "those who look down", please be aware that this has nothing to do with either learning or dancing Tango. It's time to make a concerted effort to let go of those shoe straps!! Hold your head up, and see how soon you will gain confidence that your feet will respond appropriately -- even if you don't look at them. You will also notice that your whole upper body posture improves, that you can dance closer to your partner and feel the leads better, that your balance becomes more consistent, and that very quickly you will feel much more like a tango dancer.

And I wouldn't be surprised if people begin to notice how much your dancing has improved.

October 17, 2009

*Note from Sue - I cut off half of last week's Tango Tip.  Here it is in its entirety

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I talked about balance, and the need for both the leader and follower to pay close attention to one another in order to maintain this often elusive state while dancing. Today, I want to continue this discussion by asking followers a question. (Oh, by the way, leaders should be reading this very carefully.)

Let's assume, followers, that you're generally able to achieve balance, when you try a forward, backward or side step by yourself. Here's the question: Can you tell me what would be the greatest impediment to achieving balance during one of these steps, when dancing with a partner?

I'll give you a minute to make up your mind.

Tick, tock, tick, tock ....

Hint: There are two possible answers.

Okay, time's up.

Answer one: The leader is pulling me toward him with his right arm.

Even leaders with more dance experience often increase the pressure of their right arm, when they think their follower is losing her balance, or when they believe a little extra control is needed during the leading of a sequence. In Tango, such use of the right arm is almost never necessary. If a follower has a balance problem, it's up to her to fix it by herself. It's not up to the leader. (Of course, a lot of balance problems that followers may incur are, in fact, caused by inept leaders; but that's another story.)

Message to leaders: Stop pulling your follower toward you with your right arm. Give her a chance to be balanced.

Okay, back to our question - you know, the one about the greatest impediment to achieving balance during a dance. What's the other answer?

Answer two: You're leaning on the leader.

That's right! He wraps his arm gently around your back, and you melt into his embrace. Or to put it a bit less romantically, you lean on him. This is another potential difficulty with the Tango embrace. Many followers automatically lean forward against the leader's body the moment the embrace is formed. So even if he doesn't pull you forward off your balance, you do it all by yourself.

Help.

There is no more effective way to make dancing virtually impossible than to lean on your partner. All he can do is carry you around the floor for three minutes, and look forward to getting you off his chest at the end of the song. His own balance is severely compromised. He can't execute anything but the most rudimentary movements. And he'll probably end up with a sore back.

Message to followers: Stop leaning on your partner. Assuming that he doesn't knock you off balance, make every effort to maintain your own equilibrium throughout the dance.

So there we are with two excellent suggestions about achieving balance on the dance floor. Try these ideas out the next time you have a Tango. I guarantee that your comfort level - and your dancing -- will improve dramatically.

Good answer, followers! One of the potential problems with the Tango embrace is that leaders think they're supposed to "hold" the follower firmly in their arms - sort of like hugging her (or squeezing her half to death). Most beginner leaders do this automatically. They have to be told again and again by their teachers that the right arm is to be placed gently around the center of the follower's back - but without an amount of pressure that would pull her forward off her balance.

October 10, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I talked about balance, and the need for both the leader and follower to pay close attention to one another in order to maintain this often elusive state while dancing. Today, I want to continue this discussion by asking followers a question. (Oh, by the way, leaders should be reading this very carefully.)

Let's assume, followers, that you're generally able to achieve balance, when you try a forward, backward or side step by yourself. Here's the question: Can you tell me what would be the greatest impediment to achieving balance during one of these steps, when dancing with a partner?

I'll give you a minute to make up your mind.

Tick, tock, tick, tock ....

Hint: There are two possible answers.

Okay, time's up.

Answer one: The leader is pulling me toward him with his right arm.

Good answer, followers! One of the potential problems with the Tango embrace is that leaders think they're supposed to "hold" the follower firmly in their arms - sort of like hugging her (or squeezing her half to death). Most beginner leaders do this automatically. They have to be told again and again by their teachers that the right arm is to be placed gently around the center of the follower's back - but without an amount of pressure that would pull her forward off her balance.

Even leaders with more dance experience often increase the pressure of their right arm, when they think their follower is losing her balance, or when they believe a little extra control is needed during the leading of a sequence. In Tango, such use of the right arm is almost never necessary. If a follower has a balance problem, it's up to her to fix it by herself. It's not up to the leader. (Of course, a lot of balance problems that followers may incur are, in fact, caused by inept leaders; but that's another story.)

Message to leaders: Stop pulling your follower toward you with your right arm. Give her a chance to be balanced.

Okay, back to our question - you know, the one about the greatest impediment to achieving balance during a dance. What's the other answer?

Answer two: You're leaning on the leader.

That’s right! He wraps his arm gently around your back, and you melt into his embrace. Or to put it a bit less romantically, you lean on him. This is another potential difficulty with the Tango embrace. Many followers automatically lean forward against the leader’s body the moment the embrace is formed. So even if he doesn’t pull you forward off your balance, you do it all by yourself.

Help.

There is no more effective way to make dancing virtually impossible than to lean on your partner. All he can do is carry you around the floor for three minutes, and look forward to getting you off his chest at the end of the song. His own balance is severely compromised. He can’t execute anything but the most rudimentary movements. And he’ll probably end up with a sore back.

Message to followers: Stop leaning on your partner. Assuming that he doesn’t knock you off balance, make every effort to maintain your own equilibrium throughout the dance.

So there we are with two excellent suggestions about achieving balance on the dance floor. Try these ideas out the next time you have a Tango. I guarantee that your comfort level – and your dancing -- will improve dramatically.

October 3, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. At a Firehouse Tango lesson about a month ago, I asked the people in the room what they felt was the most important thing to focus on in dancing Tango. A very perceptive female student immediately responded with a single word "balance."  I don't always get the answers I'm looking for, when I ask such questions - but this was right on the money!

Without appropriate balance you can fall through space, you can careen around the room, you can lean on everyone within reach -- but you can't dance.

My Tango Tip this week isn't specifically about balance. But I have to talk a bit about balance in order to lead up to the Tip. To keep things simple, I'll describe balance as the ability to start a traveling movement perpendicular to the floor, move through space one step (forward, backward or to the side), and end up comfortably perpendicular on one leg at the end of the movement. No falling onto the other leg, no leaning on anyone or any thing. That's a pretty fair description of what'd I'd call balance.

How do you achieve balance consistently? By practicing alone. You start on one leg, walk forward one step, thinking about balancing at the end of the step as you do so - planning to be balanced, softening the end of the movement so that by the time it's over you're in a seemingly effortless state of balance. Once this starts feeling good, you try the same idea with a side step. Eventually, you tackle the more difficult back step, making sure to reach backward with the leg before taking the rest of your body back. All this takes time to get, but with enough practice and concentration, you can get a good grip on your own balance within a few weeks.

Okay, now let's talk about my Tip of the Week. I can say it in two words: Pay attention.

When both partners in a Tango couple are working on their own individual balance, noticing when they're on and when they're off, they can now start paying attention to each other in order to maintain a kind of collective balance through any given dance.

As a leader -

I have to be aware that leading involves taking myself out of balance momentarily, and at the same time asking my follower to take herself out of balance momentarily, in order for us to collectively travel through space. Bearing that in mind, here are the essential things I have to pay attention to during every movement:

·    Before I initiate any movement I have to make sure that my follower is in a state of balance -- so that's she's ready to take the step.

·    During the movement I can't pull or push her, so that she has little chance of finding her balance at the end of the step.

·    At the end of any given movement I have to allow my follower to find her balance before moving on to the next movement
in a sequence I may have planned.

If I compromise her balance during any of these moments during a given step, I have to notice it by paying careful attention to her, and try not to let it happen again. On the other hand, if I've done everything right - and she's still out of balance - I have to be aware that maybe she's not paying enough attention to her own interior balance. Not much I can do about that.

As a follower -

I have to be aware that in order to make any movement I have to surrender my balance momentarily by invitation from the leader. This enables me to go through the process of taking a forward, backward, or side step. With this in mind, here are the essential things I have to pay attention to while taking any given step:

·    Before responding to an invitation to take a step, make sure I'm in balance and ready. If the leader is rushing me, try to   hold him at bay until I'm ready. (I'm sure this will get me a lot of hate mail from leaders.)

·    During a movement, notice whether the leader is allowing me to move unencumbered by pushing or pulling.

·    At the end of a movement, make absolutely certain to come into comfortable balance - before taking the nest step, if there is one. (More hate mail from leaders here.)

·    If I lose my balance during any part of a given movement - and it's not the fault of the leader - try to regain my balance internally rather than grabbing him for support.

·    Try to notice whether a loss of balance is his fault (as it usually is, by the way) or my fault. Stop
blaming myself, when it's not my fault. (Say this twenty times each day!)

There is much more to say about all this, of course; but for today I'm going to leave it here. The really important thing for both partners is to pay very careful attention to one another, trying not to interfere with the individual balance of the other person. This will take a great deal of practice, but with perseverance you can achieve it.

September 26, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I talked about some of the important things leaders should and shouldn't be doing from the waist up, when dancing Tango, Milonga, and Vals. This week, I'd like to give followers equal time.

With followers, however, I'm going to be a bit more general. Rather than focus on problems they may have just from the waist up, I'm going to talk about their overall dancing.

Followers like to lean. I don't know whether it's bad dance lessons or a fear of not feeling the leads, but a majority of followers seem to have a strong tendency to lean on leaders. Now it's very possible that leaders are pulling them forward off their balance, and insisting that they lean (more bad dance lessons or who knows what else), but leaning on your partner is bad dance practice for anybody to engage in.

Followers like to anticipate the next step (even if there isn't one). Most "newbie" or badly trained followers just can't seem to stop by themselves at the end of a given step. Once they start moving, they need to be physically restrained, or they'll keep moving 'til the cows come home. I can't tell you how many times I've led one of these followers in a single movement, and rather than find her balance at the end of the step, she takes at least one or two additional steps before finally getting the message that I'm not going anywhere else.

Followers like to lose their balance. Actually, it's more a question of never finding it. They come to the end of a step, and even if they don't insist on taking another two or three steps without it's having been specifically led, they manage to fall unto the other leg before even noticing that they're supposed to be balanced.

Followers like to be as tense as possible. Well, of course, they don't really like this, but many followers manage to be as tense as possible more often than not. It's as if they think something really bad is about to happen to them, and they're preparing for the absolute worst. Quick note here: If you're tense, following becomes virtually impossible - because all your energy is directed toward self-preservation.

So, what's the message here? Followers, don't lean - ever. There may be times when the leader takes you into what's called a puente or carpa. Then you have no choice in the matter. Other than that, however, don't lean.

Tango occurs in increments of one step. If your leader doesn't lead a second step, come to a stop and wait - period.

A workable partnership demands that both partners maintain their own individual balance throughout the dance. At the end of every step it's crucial that you as a follower bring yourself into balance - without having to be assisted in any way by your leader. And certainly without having to lean on him. Instead of worrying about what's going to happen next, focus exclusively on finding the end of every step you take, coming into comfortable and sustainable balance. The leader will take care of the next movement.

From the moment you embrace your partner until the end of the dance find a way to ease the potential tension in your muscles. It doesn't mean becoming flaccid or droopy; just try and make yourself feel as if you're just exhaled after a very deep breath. In fact, try taking a deep breath and then exhaling. It's hard to be tense, when you're breathing out like this. Transfer that feeling to your entire dance. And when you feel yourself tensing up, take another breath.

I'm well aware that a lot of the problems followers have come from things that leaders inflict on them. I'm equally aware that leaders have problems that come about a direct result of what their followers are doing. Unfortunately, I can't control other people. The only person I can control is myself. Followers, try to think about the potential problems I described above, and concentrate on removing them from your dancing. You may find that with these things under control, your dance partnerships improve significantly - almost overnight!

September 19, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Let's talk about what leaders should be doing from the waist up, when dancing Tango, Milonga, or Vals. I have a short answer (can you guess what it is?), but first I'd like to describe some of the things they actually do.

Leaders like to pump their arms up and down, while dancing. I suppose it's a way of keeping time with the music, or leading the orchestra, or possibly testing the muscular strength of their partner's right arm. I'm reminded of the locomotive engineer, pulling the rope on the whistle to warn everybody that there's a train coming through.

Leaders like to sway from side to side - especially in Milonga. Aside from perhaps suffering from an unfortunate physical disability, which might impel them to walk this way, I'm can only speculate that these leaders think it's somehow stylish to keep leaning left, then right, then ... well, you know what I mean. If I watch these people long enough, I begin to experience the onset of seasickness.

Leaders like to bend over toward their partners, making their chests concave, thrusting their heads into their partners' faces, or even past their shoulders. Again, this may stem from a chronic physical impairment brought on by years of habitually inappropriate posture. Or ... it's possible that these leaders somehow believe they're creating greater intimacy between themselves and their partners through this grotesque misalignment of their upper bodies.

Help.

Leaders like to talk. The music begins. They start to dance. And suddenly they're yakking away a mile-a-minute. This may involve passing the time of day, discussing current events, sharing a recipe for their favorite chili, or - reprehensively - teaching their partner how to dance. Such compulsive chatter generally denotes what is euphemistically referred to as a "characterological problem" which is best handled by a professional.

Of course, there are other things leaders love to do, too, which we can describe in very simple language: grab, squeeze, push, pull, suffocate. Have any followers reading this ever experienced any of these beauties? Do I hear the resounding roar of affirmation?

Okay, okay, enough complaining. Getting back to the premise - what should leaders be doing from the waist up, when dancing Tango, Milonga, or Vals?

Drum roll ... answer ...  that's right, you guessed it - NOTHING!

Don't pump your arms; don't sway from side to side; don't jut your head forward into her

space; and keep your mouth closed. And as for grabbing, squeezing (ouch!), pushing, pulling, and suffocating - come on guys, give it a rest.

Leaders, once you've managed to divest yourself of all that upper-body flotsam and jetsam, you'll find that your dancing improves, followers begin to seek you out, people start asking your advice on a variety of issues, food tastes tastier, and the world becomes a better place.

 

September 12, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you're a regular attendee at Firehouse Tango, you know that we're in the middle of a four-week workshop in Milonga. With that I mind, this week's Tango Tip focuses on an important idea for leaders, when dancing this brisk, energetic dance.

Because Milonga is generally quite fast in tempo, leaders often get caught in the trap of trying to travel too aggressively down the line of dance -- in an attempt to keep up with the rhythm of the music. To put it another way, they find themselves running! When this happens, the couple may lose complete control of their dance within a few beats, they may collide with another couple, they actually may fall down. At minimum, they may find that they have to stop in order to get back into synch before continuing.

To stop this potential problem before it starts, I recommend (as I'm doing right now in our workshop) that leaders stop thinking about Milonga as a constantly traveling dance, and begin to view it as a dance which uses in-place time-keeping as its basis - with very short bursts of traveling in between.

To be more specific, I suggest that the couple move in place, keeping time with the beats of the music as a kind of "neutral" basis for movement. From time to time, they can then take one traveling step in any of three directions (forward, backward or to the side), returning to the "neutral" in-place position for a brief rest before traveling again. In this way, traveling is limited to a single step at a time -- with lots of movement in-place before another traveling movement is taken.

As the couple progresses in lead-follow skill, I might begin to increase the number of traveling steps they can take in a given sequence. But with the exception of exhibition dancing I would never recommend that any couple take more than three or four traveling movements before returning for at least a brief time to the "neutral" position. This ensures the comfort and safety not only of the couple, but of all their very good friends and neighbors on the dance floor.

Try this way of dancing Milonga, and see if it works for you.

September 5, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the most important concepts in dancing Argentine Tango is the idea of both partners remaining directly in front of one another. The Argentines sometimes use the terms frente a frente or corazon a corazon to describe this fundamental characteristic of the dance. To us it means aligning our centers to each other as precisely as possible, and attempting to stay this way for the duration of the dance.

Unlike contemporary ballroom practice, the leader does not offset himself slightly to the left of his partner in order to enable his feet to track outside left and inside right. Instead, he remains center-line to center-line in front of her. When he moves his legs, both move toward her center. (Using this technique, a leader will often make superficial contact with the inside of each of his partner's feet, while traveling forward.)

Maintaining this front-to-front relationship is challenging enough while moving forward, backward or to the side during in-line sequences. But it often becomes extremely difficult during movements which involve either the left or right outside-partner juxtaposition. In moving forward to a cruzada, for example, leaders often find their centers facing to the left of their partners. In order to correct this, both partners have to twist slightly toward one another in order to bring their centers in line. (In ballroom dance we often refer to this as contra-body or counter-body position. 

Perhaps the most difficult sequence in which to maintain the front-to-front relationship is during turns. When inviting molinete, leaders often overturn their upper bodies, sometimes finding themselves 90 degrees or even more away from their partners' center lines. This completely negates the concept of remaining front to front, while at the same time making it virtually impossible for followers to effectively follow the leads. A good leader, on the other hand, turns his body very slightly in whatever direction he wants to invite her to follow - and continually monitors the extent of his turn in order to make certain the follower is responding to his lead comfortably throughout the molinete or ocho sequence.

Maintaining the front-to-front relationship is the mutual responsibility of both the leader and the follower. Whenever you dance Tango, try to remember this simple idea (simple, but by no means easy!) - try to stay directly in front of your partner at all times. Do whatever is necessary to achieve this crucial connection. This alone will make you a better dancer, and will make the partnership feel far more comfortable.

August 29, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When we dance, we typically do so, because there's music playing and we want to move to it. In dancing, we create a definite relationship with the music in the form of rhythmic accompaniment.

Some dances are quite specific in their rhythmic requirements. They call for what we call "basic" steps. In salsa, for example, we continuously take three steps in sequence, pause, and take three more steps in sequence. In fast swing, we step in a regular rhythm of slow-slow-quick-quick. In slow waltz we move continuously in a count of one-two-three, one-two-three.

Tango is somewhat different from most other social ballroom dances. It doesn't have a regular, repeating basic step. In fact, there isn't a regular rhythm of any kind in dancing Tango. It's entirely up to the leader to form an improvised rhythmic relationship with the music. (The follower's responsibility is to respond to the leader's rhythm.) To form such a relationship, the leader has what we might call a rhythmic pallet available from which to choose.

1.      First, he/she can move to every "beat" of the music (every half note).

2.      Second, he/she can move to every other beat. Putting these first two ideas together, the leader can improvise combinations of every beat and every other beat.

3.      Third, the leader can take extended pauses of more than two beats.

4.      Finally, the leader can employ the use of "traspie" or double-time movements to punctuate the rhythm of the music.

Using these four fundamental rhythmic ideas, a leader can create all kinds of complex rhythmic accompaniments to any Tango. Milonga, or Vals. But there's another component of responding to the rhythm of the music that the leader can't forget: If the music speeds up or slows down, the leader must respond in kind. Many Tangos maintain a very regular rhythm. But there are some that don't. When a song changes rhythm by temporarily accelerating or slowing down, the leader can't simply plunge ahead without acknowledging these changes in tempo. He/she has to stay with the music. Otherwise the feeling of connection with the music becomes fuzzy - oftentimes even completely lost.

Most dancers in Argentina have heard the entire repertoire of traditional Tangos over and over for most of their lives, so they know exactly when rhythmic changes in any given song are going to occur. Since we're not as well versed in the music here in the USA, we have to rely on our ears to help us perceive these rhythmic changes, so that we can respond appropriately.

In other words, we have to listen.

The next time you dance Tango, try to listen carefully for any rhythmic changes in every song that's played. If and when changes take place, speed up your dance, or slow it down to keep pace with the music. This will automatically make you a better leader, a better dancer, a better human being, and people from far and wide will ask for your autograph.

See you on the dance floor

August 22, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During the past two weeks Pat and I have been talking about what we feel constitutes good - and bad - behavior on the dance floor. I'd like to conclude this thread by discussing a very special disease, which seems to afflict a great many people who take up dancing Tango. This virulent epidemic is seen far more often in men than in women, but occasionally one finds a follower or two who have succumbed to it.

Can you guess what this disease is - this infectious blight that can devastate a dance community?

It's known as teacheritis.

T-E-A-C-H-E-R-I-T-I-S.

Yes, folks, it's the dreaded teaching disease. People who have it just can't seem to stop themselves from teaching other people what to do on the dance floor. Most feel they're being helpful to their partners. They feel magnanimous -- pillars of the Tango community. Teaching gives them a sense of fulfillment. Maybe even a feeling of power. Teaching makes them feel good all over ...  and isn't that the idea? To have a good time? To enjoy life?

Well, yes and no.

For those of you who are afflicted with the teaching disease, let me assure you that although you may be having a grand old time pontificating left and right, your partners are rolling their eyes, waiting patiently and politely for you to shut up and dance. They may seem to be hanging on your every word, drinking in the great wisdom of your vast experience - but my guess is that secretly they're wishing they could be someplace else - anyplace else but in your crosshairs.

If you're someone who has the teaching disease, you don't notice any of this, of course, because the disease has you convinced that people are interested in what you have to say.

I used to believe that just by bringing the disease to the attention of those afflicted would be enough to get them to stop. But I've changed my mind about this. I see that most of these people just never stop no matter what the consequences. So I think those of us who from time to time become targets of people with teaching disease need to develop a strategy for dealing with them.

The moment they start teaching us, we have to nip it in the bud. "Excuse me, but I'm due in brain surgery" is always a good ploy. Or how about "you should ask the teacher if you can take his/her place for the lesson. That way, we could all enjoy the benefit of your profound wisdom." Or perhaps, "sorry, I'm deaf, I can't hear a thing. Let's just dance. I'll try to follow your lead." Be creative. Maybe you'll get through to one or two of them.

All of us who love Tango have to band together to combat this terrible epidemic before it consumes us. Be vigilant. Be strong. Be decisive. Don't put up with one second of teaching from anyone - anyone - except your legitimate teaching professional.

Remember:  Only you can prevent the spread of teacheritis.

August 15, 2009

Note from Sue** We ARE the FRIENDLY Milonga, it's in our DNA; so I am both astonished and profoundly disturbed to have to read last week's and this week's Tango Tips. I have neither experienced nor heard anything like this before about Firehouse Tango, and I expect that the two gentlemen Fran refers to will learn from the rest of us. 

Note from Jean** I feel the same.  Human connections are what we're about.  From the minute people walk in our door, we want them to feel welcome and comfortable.  This, not fancy footwork, has been and will continue to be our goal at Firehouse Tango.

Hello everyone, Pat here. This week, I would like to talk a bit more about the issue Fran discussed last week -- from the follower's point of view. (In case you didn't read last week's Tango Tip, it addressed leaders - of whom we hope there are very few at the Firehouse -- who not only teach inappropriately on the dance floor, but who unfortunately sometimes sink to the level of blatant insults directed towards their partners.)

Imagine for a moment that you are a follower, and a relative newcomer to Tango. You have been taking classes on a regular basis, and really want to be able to learn the dance that has so taken your fancy. As with any new endeavor, and especially Tango, you quickly realize that you are required to contribute not only whatever skills you may have, but also a good deal of your emotional well being. After all, Tango is all about the physical and emotional connection you will have with your partner--not to mention what effect that wonderful music may have.

So, you begin to accept that Tango requires a follower to give a substantial part of herself to every dance she has. This is not always easy at first, but after a while it begins to happen. You start to attend some milongas, feeling very nervous and fragile. You watch the leaders on the floor, and maybe see some that you would love to dance with...they look so alluring and experienced.

And one day, it happens. You are asked to dance by one of these "tangueros." You are suddenly weak with nerves, almost trembling. And soon the nightmare begins. You stumble over his feet, you and he seems to get out of synch, he steps on your toe, you can't understand his leads....and, of course, you think it just has to be all your fault -- he must know what he's doing -- and, naturally, you don't.

The dance seems to go on forever. He seems to be gripping you more and more tightly. Then he speaks! The personal insults coming out of his mouth are your worst nightmare; you want to disappear, to go through the floor, to be anywhere but at this milonga, on the floor with this man. Your fragile sense of achievement is crippled. All that you have learned so far seems pointless, and you never want to dance again.

Such arrogant and cruel insensitivity from a leader can damage a follower for a good long time. Sometimes, she will actually be left in the middle of the floor -- in the middle of a dance. 

One can only hope that she has a caring teacher who can support her through this truly shattering experience.

Leaders who behave this way -- leaders who are pompous and self-centered -- are usually not good dancers at all. They have probably spent very little time honing their own tango skills, and instead spend their time parading around the dance floor, showing off badly learned patterns. To take a beginner onto the floor and insult her in the way described above betrays their own insecurity, and inability to adjust their dance for any level of follower.

Followers, please do not blame yourself for everything that goes wrong on the dance floor!

Even if some arrogant, misguided leader is trying to shift the blame for a mistake to you, remember that problems in leading are far more likely to be the cause.

Leaders, try to realize that a skilled leader can dance with any follower, being courteous and thoughtful about her experience, and finding pleasure in the simple lead/follow collaboration. This is what we should all aspire to. If you don't possess these skills yet, practice, take lessons, and dance your way to getting them. And no matter what takes place on the dance floor, under no circumstances should you ever - ever - insult, criticize or instruct your follower.

August 8, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango tip of the Week. Last Thursday, as I was walking through the bar area of the KofC, I noticed one of our Firehouse dancers, sitting alone on one of the stools, looking a little downcast. I stopped and asked her if everything was all right. She stammered a bit, at first. Then, she said she'd just been told in no uncertain terms by one of our leaders that she probably didn't have what it takes to be a good Tango dancer. Another leader had complained she was trying to use too much "ballroom" technique in her dancing. "In fact," she said,  "a lot of the men seem to spend most of their time 'teaching,' and not enough time leading."

Frankly, I didn't know what to say to this woman. This is absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear about our Firehouse people. I know these things happen at a good many other Tango venues. I understand that men who can't dance very well often try to shift the blame to their partners by telling them what they should be doing - instead of developing the requisite skills necessary to actually lead them to do it. I'm aware that meanness often takes the place of kindness in milongas around the New York-New Jersey area - probably in most other areas of the world, too.

But up until last week I thought that our Firehouse leaders were better than that. Actually, to tell you the truth, I still think most of us are - but it seems we have a few bad apples among us.

Before I continue here, let me say this: If you're a leader who is always nice to your followers, a leader who always attempts to use your budding skills to really lead Tango movements, a leader who always takes full responsibility for errors (even if your follower may have also played a part in them), a leader who absolutely never criticizes a follower or attempts to teach her on the dance floor under any circumstances ,,,

... you can stop reading this Tango Tip right now. You're the kind of leader we need at the Firehouse.

Still reading? Okay, let me tell you what my experience is on the dance floor. I never - NEVER - say anything to my follower other than a) "Would you like to dance?", and b) "That was very nice, thank you."

That's it.

Because I'm a teacher (a real teacher, that is), women I dance with sometimes ask me whether I might make a few suggestions for them to improve their dancing. I almost always tell them that I try not to comment on people's dancing in the social context. If they want a dance lesson, the time for that is in the classroom - not on the dance floor.

If a woman makes a mistake of some kind while she's dancing with me, I try as best I can to help her through the problem, and make her feel comfortable. I never draw attention of any kind to the error. And if I make an error myself - which I certainly do from time to time -- I say something like, "Oops, sorry, " or "that was my fault," - so that she knows she wasn't to blame.

Do you get the idea? I want her to have a nice time while she's dancing with me. I don't care if she's a great dancer or not. And if she's not, it's none of my business to tell her so.

Let's make a couple of little informal guidelines, okay? When you dance with someone, don't be critical - ever. Don't try to teach - ever. Don't offer advice - ever.

Is that clear enough?

When some sort of problem occurs, and your mouth opens - shut it. That way you'll never be tempted to blurt out sentences that begin with "You were supposed to ..." or "you should have ..." or worse.

Dancing is a way of having fun. Please let's not turn it into another way to be unkind to other people. There's enough of that going on elsewhere in life, isn't there?

(Next week, Pat is going to talk about this problem from the woman's point of view.)

August 1, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango tip of the Week. Last week, I talked about the idea of leaders trying to dance without the use of figures. The response was that lots of people asked me to get real. "Come on," they moaned, "I mean, without figures what is there?" Okay, okay. I'll get specific.

Here goes.

First, there's the embrace - the dance connection, the gentle intertwining of bodies - interdependent, yet completely independent at the same time - (ah, the paradox of Tango) -- which enables the leader and follower to communicate. We could spend hours, talking about - and physically practicing -- the Tango embrace. In fact, if you look back at some of our Tango Tips in the past few years (just go to the Firehouse Web site and start reading), we've devoted a great many pages to the art of this very special connection. If your idea of the embrace is grabbing your partner in a strangle hold and pushing her around the floor, for example, you might want to consider exploring the intricacies of the Tango embrace a little more judiciously (with your teacher, of course.) If you think following is draping yourself over your leader and having him carry you around the dance floor, you're in the same boat as the benighted leader above.

Next, there are the simple elements of movement. In Tango, we can move forward, backward, to the side; we can move in place, and we can pause. Each of these elements has to be mastered alone, and then in collaboration with our partner - whether we're leaders or followers.

Once we feel comfortable with the individual elements of movement, we then begin putting them together improvisationally in order to create our Tango. First, we move with our partner one step at a time. Then, we create sequences of one or more (up to three) steps one after another, We practice combining single steps with sequences in developing our dance.

Then, there's the art of balance. Balancing involves overcoming inertia - the inclination of our bodies to remain in motion once we've put them in motion. At the end of every step we take, we need to be completely balanced in an upright way. This entails bringing our feet together, elegantly coming to a stop, and then preparing to move on. Learning to balance properly takes most people years of effort - and it has to be worked on all the time, if you're going to remain good at it.

When the music comes on, we're faced with the problem of appropriately moving to its cadences in some way. This opens a big, complex door that is sometimes referred to as "musicality" or Tango timing. For the sake of brevity, let's reduce timing to four general categories:

You can dance to every pulse or beat of the music (these are what musicians would refer to as "half notes").

You can dance to every other pulse or beat of the music (what musicians would call "whole notes").

You can pause for extended periods of time, whenever you want.

You can employ the use of traspie. Traspie is the art of doubling the time in various ways. (Your teacher can come in really handy here.)

Notice that up to now I haven't mentioned figures. All this stuff, and no figures. How could that happen?

And here's the thing. If you were able to skillfully execute everything I've talked about above - no figures at all -- you could go to Buenos Aires tomorrow and be among the best dancers in any milonga. So, in answer to your question - without figures, what is there? - that's what there is. It's called learning how to dance.

Give it a try.

July 25, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When most leaders approach learning Tango in this country, they do so with the question: What are the steps I need in order to dance Tango? What do I do?

In Argentina, the focus is quite different. It's not what you do; but how you do it that counts. I remember asking one of my first Tango teachers (a man from Argentina) what steps I needed in order to look good quickly in Tango. He said to me: "There are no steps in Tango. You just execute simple movements with a great deal of feeling."

At the time he told me this, my unstated response was: "Yeah, right. I'll just ask someone else." But as I learned more and more about this dance, I came to realize that he telling me something absolutely true. I didn't believe him at the time - just as I'll bet many of you leaders won't believe me now. But the simple truth about Tango is that it isn't a bunch of fancy stage movements, executed in some kind of elaborate sequence. It's the simple act of moving in one of six fundamental ways (forward, back, side, in-place, pause and pivot) with a partner in a creatively rhythmic way to Tango music. For followers it's even more basic: Just wait and see what happens. When he asks for any of those fundamental movements, make the movement, come to a stop with your feet together, and start waiting again.

Yes, I know; that's not what people do on stage. But we're not on stage; we're on the social dance floor. Furthermore, I know that I'm understating the difficulty of those six simple movements. The point I'm trying to make here is that to dance Tango, you don't have to have a whole bunch of memorized steps in your back pocket. In fact, memorized steps often get in the way of good dancing.

So here's my proposal. Pick a dance during the course of any Tango evening. In that particular dance, completely shut off the figures faucet. I mean forget about figures altogether. Just use simple elements, and try to move in some kind of rhythm with the music. Use a lot of pauses, and a lot of sequences containing no more than two or three movements in succession before a pause. See how it feels. Get over the feeling that your partner will be bored, because you're not flying through space at breakneck speed, making daredevil, hairpin turns at every opportunity. That stuff is vastly overrated. Try to keep it really, really simple. At the end of the dance, ask your partner how it felt to her. I can almost guarantee that she will be completely positive about the experience. If you do this, you'll finally discover what it's like to truly dance - free, improvised, unfettered by the boundaries of cookie-cutter steps. I think you'll like the way it feels.

And maybe, just maybe, you'll decide to try it again.

July 18, 2009

Hello everyone, Pat here. Our Tango Tip this week is actually a statement -- or maybe you could call it a tango declaration -- for followers. LEADERS: PLEASE READ THIS!

Here is the "statement/declaration":

 "You do not need to let you leader twist your hand into a pretzel!"

When your leader asks you to dance, and you embrace, occasionally you will find that instead offering his hand -- palm facing towards you with his elbow down and the hand at about the height of his nose -some leaders will lift their arms way up and curl their hands over so that they create an exaggerated hooked position almost above your head.

I have seen this strange affectation, and have experienced it many times. What does this mean for the follower? Well, if your hand started out in a palm-to-palm position, it would now be carried up, over and around, so that in order to avoid breaking your wrist, you would have to make the best of this incredibly uncomfortable position by allowing the only possible solution--you have to hold your leader's THUMB!!!!

What is this? This is not a Tango embrace. It feels terribly uncomfortable to the follower, and makes it much more difficult for her to feel what the leader is (hopefully) transmitting to her through his embrace. Why do leaders do this? Do they think it looks very "Tango," and that they're onto some kind of authentic styling? Have they seen performers doing it? Or pictures of what they think of as "hot-shot" tango dancers who appear to be doing that? Do these leaders notice for one moment how uncomfortable this is for their followers? And do they realize that you are only holding their thumb?

Every time this happens to me, I gently but firmly move my hand into the palm-to-palm position, politely saying, "I'm sorry, that's uncomfortable to me."

Followers, you can do this, too! Be aware of how your leader is holding your hand. If he's got your arm twisted into a pretzel, and you're forced to hold his thumb, assert your Tango Declaration -- and change the position yourself. Most leaders will have no problem with this little act of self-defense on your part. And if a given leader doesn't like it when you try to make yourself more comfortable, it's possible that you might be better off not dancing with him.

And one more thing, please: On a related subject, another oddity that some leaders adopt is a handhold in which, instead of closing their fingers around the follower's hand, they stick them straight up into the air. Although this is not really uncomfortable for followers, it is most definitely not a Tango handhold, and truly looks bizarre. Leaders who do this should be encouraged to wean themselves off this unsightly habit. Their fingers should close (gently!) around the follower's hand. Remember: Part of the intimacy of the Tango embrace is the simple act of holding hands.

July 11, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. What's the single hardest thing to do, when you're dancing Tango? I asked that question last week at one of our Firehouse Tango introductory dance lessons. I got the answer I was looking for almost immediately: balance.

Balance

If I asked you to stand up right where you are right now, and take a single step forward, backward or to the side, I'll bet you could do it without any problem. I'm guessing you wouldn't have any problem with balance at all. But if I put you in a Tango embrace with a partner - even a good one - and asked you to do the same thing ... well, here's where things would probably start to get weird. Just because there's another person in front of you, it would become much harder to balance at the end of virtually any step that you took.

Have you noticed this in your dancing? It's a very common occurrence. The moment we start dancing with a partner, balance becomes more than an individual issue - it becomes an integral part of our dance relationship. If I balance, you can balance - if you balance, then I can balance; but you may not - or I may not ... so then we'll have a mutual balance problem.

There are lots of reasons why any of us might lose our balance. But there's only one solution. If you begin to lose your balance at any time during a dance, you have to find your own personal balance inside yourself. You can't rely on your partner to help you. You can't use each other in any way to make balance possible. It all has to come from inside.

This is part of the paradox of Tango. Two people come together. They embrace. They're as close physically in this moment as two people can be. They appear to be intertwined, interdependent. And yet - they absolutely must act as two separate, independent individuals, if they're going to be able to get through any Tango without falling over.

You have an opportunity, starting right this minute, to be a well-balanced Tango dancer. You have to make a firm and ongoing commitment to yourself that no matter what happens between you and your partner on the dance floor you are going to ultimately rely only on yourself for balance. You have to decide that from now on at the end of every single step you take in Tango, you're going to find interior balance - before you move on to the next step. If you're dancing with someone who's constantly pulling you off balance, consider not dancing with that person at more until they get some help in fixing their problem.

If you do these things, you will become a better dancer over the course of time. If you don't ... you won't. It's that simple.

July 4, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For the last few weeks we've been emphasizing the fact that leaders should always try as best they can to maintain the line of direction (line of dance), when navigating the dance floor.

Briefly, this means staying on the outside of the space with your partner, and moving more or less in concert with other dancers as everyone progresses in an orderly fashion counterclockwise around the dance floor. If a case arises where you feel the need to pass a couple, you can move around them to the inside or to the outside, depending upon where they are on the line of dance.

Once you start passing people, it can easily become somewhat habitual, of course, and you may find yourself enjoying the relative freedom of being in the middle of the room. This however, is exactly what you should not do. After you've passed someone, the idea is to move back into the line, continuing as before (moving along the outside of the room).

Today, I want to explain why it's important to do this. Dancing social Tango is not a solo experience. It can be, of course, if you're the only person in the room. Generally, however, Tango is danced within a community of other people. They key word here is community. Dancing Tango offers an opportunity for people to gather together, and enjoy a wonderful communal activity. This activity involves, the full spectrum of social interaction - eating, drinking, socializing - and dancing.

When we dance, our objective should not be to carve out our own territory on the dance floor, and jealously guard it so that no one else can get near us. Or to get angry because everyone seems to be in our way - the only solution being to get past them as quickly as possible. An important part of the Tango experience is to fit comfortably within the flow of the communal dance. This means among other things that when you can't progress around the floor as freely as you might like, try to find things to do in place rather than looking for an exit strategy. Then when the flow happens again, you can comfortably move with it. This is the way people dance in Argentina.

Maintaining the line of dance is a way of acting appropriately in the milonga. Constantly cutting to the middle of the floor, rushing around the room, and generally making a nuisance of yourself is the opposite. It's also very visible. Everyone notices that you're the one who's always getting in people's way. You develop an unsavory reputation. I write your name down in my little book of Tango menaces to society. (Just kidding.)

Anyway ... let's all act like part of a happy, healthy Tango community. Step one: Maintain the line of dance.

Please!

June 27, 2009

This is a repeat because I (Sue) wanted to get the newsletter out tonight, and I haven't yet received this week's Tango Tip.   

I'd like to take this opportunity to talk about one of my favorite subjects - line of dance. This is a very important concept, especially since we have such a large number of people coming to our milonga each week. Line of dance - sometimes called line of direction -- is an invisible oval or circle that defines the lane of travel counterclockwise around the dance space.

When we dance, as good dancers we try as much as possible to move along this line, passing either inside or outside, when appropriate, and moving toward the center of the floor, when we need to stop or pause during our trip. Good floor craft - or dance etiquette - means dancing not only with our current partner, but with everyone in the room, making sure not to disturb their individual space as we negotiate the floor. On a crowded floor, this can sometimes be pretty difficult, but it's a crucial component of our social interaction with others on the dance floor.

Everyone who takes our lessons before our milonga has been reminded again and again that moving along the line of dance is part of what makes it possible for a large group such as we entertain each week to have fun without worrying about people suddenly coming out of nowhere and bumping into them. Let's all of us try really hard to maintain the line of dance during every trip around the floor. If you find that there are people who consistently flout this important convention, please let me or Sue know about it, and we'll do our best to make sure it doesn't continue. We all love to dance; that's one of the reasons we come to the Firehouse every Thursday. Let's make sure it's fun for everyone.   

Send ideas about line of dance

We have rejected the ideas of putting cones in the middle of the floor to keep folks from cutting across and having a version of musical chairs where the folks in the middle sit down when the music stops.  We're open to other ideas: bad or good.  We know that Tango Police don't cut it, but please guys, follow the line of dance.  It makes it so much more pleasant for everyone.

June 20, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Did you ever get bumped into on the dance floor by a couple that seemed unaware that you were even there? Maybe you got pushed, kicked, or stepped on - or worse.

This happens to us all at one time or another, because on a crowded floor accidents do tend to happen. Unfortunately, there's really no way to completely avoid being the victim of such mishaps  - unless you decide either not to dance at all, or to dance only when there's no one else on the floor (like at 4:00 a.m.). However, there is something you can do to help ensure that you and your partner aren't the cause of accidents to others.

Dance small.

That's it in two words Here it is again:  D-A-N-C-E   S-M-A-L-L ! ! !

Virtually everything you know in Tango can be danced in a big, obnoxious way (as in "Look at me, everybody I'm the only person in the room!). Or it can be danced small (as in "I want to execute this complex sequence; but I want to be absolutely certain that I don't become a menace to society.").

In Buenos Aires most good dancers don't do very much in the way of fancy movements. They seem to take great pride in dancing simply, elegantly and intimately with their partners. Their principle focus seems to be on maintaining a comfortable connection with one another, and in the employment of interesting rhythmic improvisations within any given piece of music. From time to time a leader may decide to do something complex with his partner - always precisely with the music, of course - but even the most complex figure will almost always be completely contained within a very small space, so that there's no possible chance that either of the partners will bump into another couple.

How does you behavior measure up to that of good dancers in Buenos Aires? Do you attempt to keep everything you do carefully contained within the smallest possible space? Maybe you really haven't thought about it up until now. Okay, that was then; this is now. Why not make a conscious effort to keep yourself and your partner very compact on the dance floor. I think you'll find that it's not such a great sacrifice to make in order to help ensure the well being of everyone else on the floor.

I also think your dancing will improve significantly - because you're going to find out that when you dance small, your balance and control automatically become much better. Those should be pretty good incentives to start dancing small right now. Let me know whether there's any way Pat or I can help.

Line of Dance and Tango Etiquette (Yes, Again)

No matter what your level or what you see other folks doing, please take the time to learn the "rules of the road" and put them into action.

Another bad idea about the line of dance

Last week we rejected the idea of putting cones in the middle of the floor to keep folks from cutting across.  This week's rejected idea is a version of musical chairs where the folks in the middle sit down when the music stops.  OK, so Tango Police don't cut it, but please guys, follow the line of dance.  It makes it so much more pleasant for everyone.

 Here, again, is an interesting web site that you can go to for more information about the line of dance and dance floor etiquette.

  http://www.inscenes.com/etiquette.htm

June 13, 2009

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Over the past few years there's been a lot of discussion about the idea of leaning on one's partner in Tango.

"When I learned to dance," I heard one dancer say, "I learned to share the axis with my partner. It is the sharing of the axis, which produces the connection - and therefore the leaning effect -- between the partners."

I often tell my students that I sometimes think there are as many ways to dance Tango as there are people dancing this wonderful dance. My firm belief is that it's not up to me (or anybody else) to dictate how people should dance - even if I feel that what they're doing is dead wrong.

However, if these same people become my students, I then feel it's my responsibility to give them the best information possible - as I have learned it from my own teachers. And since many of you reading this Tango Tip of the Week are my students, I feel that's it's important for me to share my thoughts about this crucial subject with you.

To lean or not to lean - that is the dilemma.

Let's start by talking about the concept of "sharing the axis." During the Golden Age of Tango people remained very close together for the most part while they were dancing socially. They maintained a very definite, very intimate connection. But they never leaned on one another.

These dancers were always extremely close. But they maintained their respective balances at all times. This gave both people complete freedom of movement within the partnership. It enabled the leader full range of movement, and the ability to select from the widest possible spectrum of material in leading his partner through any given dance. At the same time, it enabled the follower to respond comfortably to every lead offered, and to easily come into independent balance at the end of every step she took.

All of this was (and in my opinion, continues to be) an important part of the magnificent paradox of Tango - to appear interdependent, intertwined, inter-connected, "sharing the axis" -- but ultimately to maintain absolute independence.

When people lean on one another, I believe that the dance becomes so focused on holding each other up that it's almost impossible to lead any of the traditional movements associated with Tango. In fact, over the past seven years or so, a whole new vocabulary has actually been developed by dancers, who prefer to lean on each other- a vocabulary which doesn't even vaguely resemble what was danced during the Golden Age. It's as if Tango as we know it had to be reinvented in order to accommodate what I consider to be a misinterpretation of "sharing the axis."

Ultimately, you have to choose for yourself whether to lean or not. Today, lots of people are doing it. Do you want to jump on the bandwagon? It's not for me to say whether you should or shouldn't. But to me the dilemma can be stated very simply: Do you want to lean - or do you want to dance.

You decide.

June 6, 2009

Hello everyone, Pat here with your Tango Tip for this week. The following narrative is intended as an alternate point of view on a well-known issue that unfortunately is all too common at many milongas today.

I would like followers to imagine that you are at a milonga, dressed to the nines, favorite dress, maybe new shoes, new stockings. You are hoping to be asked for a dance...and soon, along comes a partner, holding out his hand to you. You embrace, listening to the wonderful music, and creating a connection (hopefully) with your leader. 

The dance begins. Things are going well, you're feeling his leads and responding, walking backwards with him in unison. The pace quickens, and soon you seem to be turning around -- as if there were a corner ahead. And then, bonk!! Oh dear...you have bumped into another couple! It's not your fault. You had your back to them. They are surprised, but your leader apologizes and no one is injured.

You're not sure if your leader understands why this happened, since he just keeps going as if this incident were some curious magnetic force beyond anyone's control.

The dance continues. You are listening with your body, and are prepared to stop at any moment, but your leader doesn't stop at all. In fact, you realize that he is moving you along even faster, big steps, changes of direction...was that a gancho he asked for?  You did one anyway and almost caught someone's flowing dress in your heel. Oh goodness, you wish he'd be kind and just pause for a few seconds, but no -- you're into a whirlwind molinette, and then you're crossing the floor in steps that are testing the limits of your hip joints.

Then suddenly, ooooouch! The pain stops you in your tracks and sucks the breath out of your lungs. Another follower's 4-inch spike heel has just gouged its way into your ankle. Your expensive glittery stockings are in tatters. As you are trying to get control, the other follower is very apologetic. And what are the leaders doing? Both are looking sheepish but, amazingly, not guilty!!

By now, it should be obvious what is going on during this dance. That's right, LINE OF DANCE IS BEING IGNORED. Will you dance with this guy again?  I certainly hope not, and please, send him a bill for the stitches and the stockings.

P.S. Leaders, there is no exaggeration above. The responsibility for keeping the line of dance is squarely on your shoulders. On a crowded dance floor, you must always make the effort to move in a counter-clockwise path around the edges of the floor. If your way is blocked, please, use your skill to dance in place until the way is clear to move forward again - IN THE LINE OF DANCE! Dancing around in different directions is discourteous and puts everyone on the floor at risk.

May 30, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I introduced the idea of inertia into your Tango vocabulary. Today, I'd like to focus on how this notion specifically relates to followers. One of the primary challenges a follower has to deal with is coming to a stop after every step she takes in the dance. That's right. The follower stops at the end of every single step. This is, in fact, one of the special characteristics of Tango. In American dancing, once we start, we don't stop until the dance is over. In Tango, the end of every step represents at least a potential place to stop.

So, if you as a follower know this, why might you not stop at the end of a given step? There are several reasons, some good, others not so good.

1.      You might continue moving, because your leader has made it clear to you that he is leading a continuing sequence of steps, and expects you to follow his lead. This would be a good reason not to stop at the end of a given step.

2.      You might continue moving, because you lose your balance at the end of step one, and sort of fall into step two involuntarily. This is a bad reason to continue moving.

3.      You might continue moving, because the last time your leader invited step one, he followed up with step two - and you're guessing that he'll lead step two this time as well. This is another bad reason for continuing. Sometimes, we call this "anticipating the movement." Bad.

4.      Finally, you might continue moving, because once you start moving, it just feels really good to continue moving. Here we are at the inertia crossroads. A body in motion tends to continue in motion. Continuing in motion makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. You take a few steps. Your leader chases after you Then maybe he eventually drags you to a stop.

            Really bad.

Overcoming inertia - the urge to continue moving at the end of a step - is possibly the most important skill a follower can learn in Tango. It takes some followers years to achieve an appropriate level of expertise at stopping. Some followers never achieve it. But you only begin to dance Tango, when this skill has become second nature to you. Not before.

May 23, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I'd like to talk about inertia.

Inertia.

What does that word mean to you? Most of us think of "being inert" -- not moving, or not being able to move. A slug.

Well, that's half the story. It's the part we're referring to, when we say that inertia is the inclination of a body at rest to remain at rest. In order to move we have to get ourselves in gear - we have to overcome inertia.

The other half of the inertia story is that a body in motion is inclined to remain in motion. When we're in motion it's not that easy to stop. In order to do so we also have to overcome inertia.

Dancing Tango at a high level involves overcoming inertia all the time. As many of you have heard by now, Tango is a dance, which combines movement with stillness. Sometimes we move. Sometimes we don't. Unfortunately, many beginning Tango dancers hardly ever overcome inertia in their dancing. In fact, most do it only once in the dance - when they begin moving at the start of the dance. From there they just keep trucking along until the dance is over. Only then do they stop.

Why does this happen? Probably for at least two reasons:

1) It's much easier for beginners to keep moving than to stop skillfully at a moment's notice.

2) When followers aren't going to stop anyway, it's more comfortable for a leader to just keep going - than to deal effectively with an out-of-control partner.

Case in point: At tonight's Firehouse event, I spent the entire evening talking about inertia. I mentioned it enough times - and in enough detail - that it would seem at least plausible that some of the people in the room would have introduced this concept into their dance during the later part of the evening.

But it didn't happen. Virtually every leader in the room continued to race around the floor during every dance, and virtually every follower continued to move without any semblance of fundamental control. Of course, there were one or two couples that were using the principles of inertia in their dancing. But one? Or two? It should have been practically the whole group.

Let's make a deal. Think about today's lesson. Think about inertia. Think about overcoming inertia. Try overcoming inertia (by which I mean stopping occasionally between steps) in one very special dance - just one - during the course of an evening. You can race your brains out for the rest of the time, if you really want to; but try out this important fundamental Tango skill in just one dance. That's all I ask. I guarantee that if you can find a way to overcome inertia in dancing, you'll get better. And I also guarantee that if you can't bring yourself to overcome inertia as part of your dance, you won't get better - ever.

Which do you prefer?

May 16, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Do any of you subscribe to a long-standing Yahoo news group called "Tango-L?" For those who don't, it's an ongoing global forum, which gives Tango dancers all over the world (mostly Tango students, I take it) the opportunity to discuss a wide variety of subjects having to do with their favorite subject --Tango.

Recently, Tango-L contained a fairly lengthy discussion on the number of steps you need in order to dance effectively in Buenos Aires. I think it began, when one subscriber posed the question: "How many figures do you need to dance like a milonguero in Buenos Aires?" Most respondents engaged in a serious listing of what they felt were the important movements you had to have at your disposal at a milonga. Some of the elements mentioned were la cruzada, forward and backward ochos, the molinete, the resolution, a few variations of la salida - things like that.

If I asked you that question, what would you come up with? Think about it for a minute. Then, read on.

Ready to continue reading? Okay, let me tell you what a typical Argentine leader would say about this question. He (and once in a great while, she) would say that this whole notion of a step list is laughable. He would say that you don't need any figures at all. In fact, he would probably say that there are no figures in Tango. What you do need, he would undoubtedly say, is to know how to hold your partner, how to move yourself, and how to offer her the leads she needs to move with you. Figures, he would say, are irrelevant. (He would probably choose saltier language than that, but you get the idea.)

In America today (and throughout Europe) most of us learn to dance by memorizing a bunch of pre-fabricated figures -- figures which dance teachers assure us represent the essence of the dances we're trying to learn. (This is not necessarily true, but what do we know; we're just dance students, right?) When we dance, we attempt to string these figures together in ongoing sequences, which produce the effect of making us look more or less like we know how to dance.

With this sort of background, it's little wonder that we think in terms of step lists, when contemplating the notion of trying to dance tango like a porteño.

But Argentines simply don't think that way. As I mentioned above, they think about the "connection" between the leader and the follower. They think about fundamental movement. They think about floor craft (maintaining one's own space on a crowded dance floor without interfering with others). And they think about the intricacies of moving creatively to the rhythm of the music.

Have I mentioned figures anywhere in there? No, because the truly fine dancers in Buenos Aires couldn't care less about figures. (If you don't believe me, ask them.)

Figures represent a beginning student's idea of what constitutes Tango. Students think that if they get a couple of these things under their belts they will look as if they know what they're doing - without actually having to put the time necessary on the dance floor to really learn how to dance. Figures, they think, are a short cut to mastery. Of course, in the long run they find out that this simply isn't true. They ultimately find out that it would have been much more profitable had they put in the time learning their fundamentals instead of wasting it in a frenzy of memorizing all those complicated (and largely impractical) steps.

The bottom line here is that in answer to the question - how many steps do you need for Buenos Aires?  -- the answer is none. How then do you get to look like a milonguero?

By learning how to dance.

May 9, 2009

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. I'm sending this along from Dorset, England, where Pat and I are spending a very r-e-l-a-x-i-n-g week, visiting relatives, eating fish and chips, and thinking about how to help you improve your Tango.

This week, I'd like to focus a bit on what happens (or is supposed to happen) when the body moves in a fundamental way. (This applies to both leader and follower.) Generally speaking, the body should move as the leg moves. For example, as you step forward, both your leg and body should move in a forward direction at the same time -- as one integrated unit. The same is true, when you step to the side. Everything should go at the same time. (An exception to this idea is the back step for the follower. As we've discussed quite often, in a back step the follower should be extending her leg first, following it with the movement of her body.)

I'm bringing this up, because quite often I'll notice leaders and/or followers thrusting their legs out in forward and side steps before moving their bodies - as if the legs somehow have a life of their own. This produces a movement in which the body and the legs are not acting in an integrated way. (If you're trying to follow a leader who's doing this, you probably find that it's virtually impossible to read his lead.)

Why does this happen? Well, one possible reason has to do with learning to dance through group class instruction (which is exactly how most of us learn to dance today!). Most teachers (me included sometimes) tend to focus on figures or patterns in a class situation. This means that both leaders and followers find themselves concentrating almost exclusively on what they're supposed to do with their legs, not their bodies. In trying to recreate patterns learned in class, for example, a leader will be trying to literally draw each figure along the floor, using his legs. He's unlikely to be concentrating either on how his body is supposed to move or how he's supposed to lead his follower.

What can you do about this? The antidote to getting caught up in pattern dancing (and therefore tending to use your legs inappropriately) is to focus wherever you can on fundamental movement - just as we do in our basic class every week at the Firehouse. No matter how much skill you may think you possess as a Tango dancer, spending that first hour each week working in a concentrated way on your basics will give you a golden opportunity to seriously practice these skills - which will tend to carry over into your dancing at least for the rest of the evening, and (who knows?) maybe even further.

Pat and I will be back next week, well rested and ready to resume our lessons with you. We look forward to seeing everyone, and we hope that large numbers of you will decide that it's really time to work on your basic movements by joining us in our basic 7:00 p,m. fundamentals class.

See you then.

 

May 2, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Here's a comment I overheard at my weekly Tango practica last Saturday. It came from the mouth of a leader who has been dancing Tango for about a year:

"I don't like dancing with (name withheld), because she just doesn't move fast enough for me. I need a partner who can keep up."

This isn't the first time I've heard leaders make this comment. A lot of male student dancers feel very strongly that it's up to them to set the pace of a given dance - and for their followers to keep up with them. It sounds like it makes sense, doesn't it? The leader chooses the movements. The leader sets the pace.

Not!!!!!!!!!!!

When I invite my follower to take a step, I then have to allow her time to actually complete that particular movement  - before asking for something else. There are so many factors contributing to whether my follower will respond quickly or slowly to any given lead that it's virtually impossible to predict with any kind of certainty that my follower - even if she's, let's say, a professional dancer - will respond instantly. In fact, the nature of the lead is to invite a movement, and them give the follower as much time as she needs to respond.

So I have to lead - and wait. When she completes the invited movement, I can then lead another one.

Usually, a leader who expects his follower to respond instantly to his every invitation is a leader who really isn't paying much attention to his follower at all. He may, for example, be trying to stagger through a complicated stage figure he just learned in a group class, and he really has little or no idea how to lead it. Or he might be the kind of leader who believes that moving quickly will make people think he's good.

I urge people who are reading this Tango Tip to start becoming the kind of leaders who wait for their partners to finish what they're doing before asking them to do something else. If you're dancing with someone who doesn't seem to be keeping up, try slowing down.  You may find in hindsight that you were actually rushing, and that once you slow things down a bit they work much, much better.

Pat and I will be in England next week. We'll miss all our Firehouse friends, and we'll be back the week after. Until then, practice, practice, practice. Oh yes, and have fun, too.

Cheerio!

 

April 25, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. The big question for today is:

When does the fun begin?

In case you weren't at the Firehouse tonight, I spent the entire basic lesson, working on (echh!) technique. I restricted people to fundamental movements only - forward, backward, side, in-place and pause. I told them to bring their feet consciously together at the end of each step with a distinct pause before launching into the next step. I told the leaders to pay very careful attention to their followers to make certain they didn't try to move them into the next step until the followers were balanced and ready to go. I told followers to stop anticipating steps, so that leaders wouldn't have to spend all their time holding them back from running away with the dance.

There were no fancy steps, no elaborate sequences, no little clever tricks, no showy gizmos -- just the basics. So ...

When does the fun begin?

People usually start taking dance lessons, because they've seen Tango on stage somewhere, or maybe on YouTube. They get the idea that dancing Tango would be fun. They picture themselves all dressed up, sitting at a small table in a romantic little café in Buenos Aires. There they are, sipping mate, looking way cool. The music begins. They get up to dance. All eyes are on them as they move effortlessly, sensuously, around the small floor. At the end, they get a standing ovation from everyone in the room.

What could be more perfect? All it takes is a few Tango lessons. But then they end up in my class, and I have them schlepping around the room all night, bringing their feet together. Oich!

When does the fun begin?

Lots of people (mostly men) tell me: "Look, I don't want a lot of fancy technique here; just give me a few moves, so I can look good on the dance floor." Or they say: "I just want to have a little fun. I don't have the patience for all this complicated stuff." What they really want is for the fun to begin ... now. This delayed gratification routine is for the birds.

So here's what I tell them. Take up skydiving. Or bungee jumping. Or long walks on the beach. Tango ain't for you, bub.

So really ... When does the fun begin?

Taking the first, second or even third Tango lesson can be inherently fun - just because it's a new experience. Maybe you've never done anything like it before. But after that it starts to lose its initial luster. Somehow (miraculously!) you didn't get it right away. By this time you thought you'd be ready for that little café in BA, but here's Fran, still telling you to bring your feet together at the end of every step. Double oich!

Okay, let's cut to the chase. The fun in Tango starts happening when you become excited about the process of actually learning how to do it. People who discover that they really want to learn this fabulous dance - and are willing to put in the effort over a fairly long period of time to produce results - really do have fun. On the other hand, those who are looking for instant gratification just don't get it, and after the first few lessons these people either stop having fun and quit, or decide it's okay to dance badly (as long as you're having fun).

As a teacher of this dance I want my students to have fun. I also want them to become good dancers. And my strategy is to make the learning process so much fun that they'll be able to work through the hard stuff cheerfully, and eventually get to the goodies without too much pain.

What you have to do is to meet me halfway. You have to do the work that's necessary to get from square one to a state of dance nirvana. There's just no other way. And when you can do that with enthusiasm and energy ...

That's when the real fun begins!

April 18, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week

"How big should my steps be?

This is a question that I've been asked by students hundreds of times. When beginners get together to take a Tango lesson, or to practice what they've been learning, they almost always find that their steps are inconsistent in size. Sometimes, the steps are too big, sometimes they're too small. If only there were some kind of rule to fix it. Then everything would be all right, wouldn't it?

Of course, it would be nice, if I could say "Every step should be 12.5 inches. No more, no less." That wouldn't solve anyone's problem, really == but it would make basic-level students feel that there was a definite goal they could strive for.

So, what's the answer? How big should your steps be?

The short answer to this question is - there is no short answer. Unfortunately, the long answer may not help much in the short run either - but here goes: The follower's step should be as long as the leader's step. And the leader may vary the size of his step to suit the exigencies of the moment.

Oh yeah, this really helps a lot, right?

Well, let's look at this in a little more detail. In generating any given step, a skilled leader will telegraph to his follower a certain physical momentum to each movement. For a short step, for example, he'll convey very little momentum. For a large step, he'll communicate greater momentum. The result of this is that if he's dancing with a follower with whom he has built up an intimate dance relationship, she'll probably be able to respond appropriately to every step -- no matter what size it may be.  Conversely, if he's dancing with a new partner, he'll almost surely keep his steps within a certain predictable range  - so that this new partner can learn to read his movements, and therefore develop a more intimate dance relationship. As the relationship grows, he may become more adventurous, varying the length of his steps (among other things) in order to expand the range of motion of this new partnership.

The implication of this is that in order to know what the size of your step is, you have to dance with that particular person many times. Eventually, you'll develop a sense of how big to take your steps with that one individual. When you dance with someone else, you have to start the process over, getting to know how to match your steps with theirs.

So there just isn't any hard and fast rule that will make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy. But there is the absolute certainty that if you dance with a given person enough times, you'll figure out how big your steps should be with that person. So the only realistic thing you can do here is to answer your own question by starting to form lots of lasting dance relationships. This one takes big steps. This one takes little steps. This one is unpredictable. Etc., etc.

Eventually, you'll become an expert at knowing the size of everyone's steps. And when you meet someone new, you'll look forward to the challenge of figuring them out as well. Not such a bad thing, is it?

April 11, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the virtually epidemic problems leaders have in dancing Tango is rushing their movements. There are lots of possible reasons for this, but let's not worry about the reasons right now. Let's just assume that, if you're a leader, you're probably guilty of rushing - maybe not always, but, shall we, say, often?

At the same time, the biggest problem I see with followers is that of anticipating the next step. Time after time, I notice (and so do almost all leaders) that the overwhelming majority of followers pretty much assume that once they start moving, there's just no stopping until the dance is over.

On the one hand, then, we have leaders rushing. And on the other hand, we have followers anticipating. What can be done about these two chronic problems?

I want to offer a solution that will eliminate both problems at the same time. Furthermore, the technique I'm about to introduce will enable both partners to be nicely balanced at the end of every step. And if that's not enough, this technique will make you both look like you're dancing Tango - as opposed to, for example, reeling down the street in a high wind.

Here's the solution: Bring your feet together at the end of each step.

That's it.

As you come to the end of every single movement, bring your feet together. Notice that your feet are together (and that you and your partner are in balance). Then, if you're a leader, you can invite the next single-step movement. (If you're a follower, you have to wait to be asked, right?)

As a leader, think something like "step-feet-together-feel-my-feet together" and then lead the next movement. As a follower, it's more like "feel-the-lead-step-feet-together-wait."

That's all you have to do. I guarantee that it will make you a better dancer immediately.

Students are usually in a big hurry to get better. This will give you the instant gratification you're hungry for. What's more instant than immediately?

Try this, and see whether it makes you a better dancer. Let me know how it works. See you Thursday. I expect full reports.

April 4, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Leaders, when you're in the process of learning an impressive new Tango sequence, it's quite understandable that you'd want to take that great sequence onto the dance floor as quickly as possible. But what often happens in such cases is the following: You've learned (somewhat) the mechanics of the leader's part. You try to execute the movement with a follower. She doesn't seem to be doing her part. You blame (in no particular order) the incompetence of your partner, your teacher, the figure itself, or the Tango gods. Every once in a great while, of course, an inspired leader will place the blame instead on the place where it should really lie - himself. Are you one of those people? If so, I applaud you.

Here's an idea. A new, hot sequence is like a game plan. You work out the individual components with your teacher, and then --take it to the dance floor?

No.

The smart move here is to first take it to the practice floor with several willing partners. Don't tell your followers what the sequence is. Just try to execute it with them.

Slowly.

Notice which parts they seem to get, and which ones they can't seem to figure out. If a given follower has some skill as a Tango dancer, the parts she will generally get are the parts you're leading well. And the parts she won't get are the parts you're leading badly.

Blame yourself.

Take notes, if necessary, on what seems to be working and what isn't. Consult with your teacher. Learn to actually lead the parts that aren't working well. Practice with your teacher. Then try the sequence again with several different followers.

Eventually, the sequence will become second nature to you. That's when you can expect success with it on the dance floor. But until your plan becomes an easily-executed, easily-led walk in the park, it remains nothing more than pie in the sky.

Don't try to just get by anymore. Do the work. The rewards are great.

March 28, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. As a teacher, I get to see a lot of people dancing Tango - in classes, at practices and at milongas around New York City (not to mention at the Firehouse). A few questions that keep popping up in my mind are these:  

"Why do most leaders spend most of their time on figures and movements they're just not ready for, and very little time on perfecting their fundamental Tango skills"

At the same time I notice that most followers seem to be trying very hard to concentrate on fundamental techniques - but are finding it almost impossible to do this, because their leaders (who are focused exclusively on elaborate complex maneuvers) just aren't giving them the chance to do so. At my practica in New York on Saturdays, for example, I sometimes try to count the number of leaders who are working on becoming better dancers by perfecting their basics. I usually count three or four out of the 35 or 40 men in the room. The rest are bouncing off the walls, bumping into people, and generally making their followers' lives miserable. 

Why is that?

Interesting note: Women who are learning to lead don't do this as a rule. Instead they pay careful attention to their basics, thereby making themselves far more desirable as leaders than the men do.

Why is that?  

Male leaders who have taken only a few lessons do indeed tend to concentrate on basics. But the minute they're exposed to what they perceive as "the real Tango" - meaning acrobatic ostentation - they seem drawn to it like flies to honey, and never -- I mean never -- return to their basics.  

I have heard lots of men say that if they just focus on basic skills, they think their followers will get bored with them, and will want to dance instead with those other guys who do all the fancy stuff. 

Is that true?

I have heard lots of women say that they wish men would forget about the fancy moves (which they really can't do with any degree of skill) and focus on their basics - just give the followers a nice, pleasant, comfortable dance.

So why the disconnect?

Men want pyrotechnics. Men think women want pyrotechnics. But they don't. Women want simple, comfortable dancing. But try finding men who are willing to try giving this to them. My mind boggles.

Is there a solution to this mishegoss?

Before I recommend a solution, let me point out that women do indeed like to dance with highly-skilled leaders - men (or women!) who have perfected their abilities to a level where they can adroitly execute what might be considered "fancy" moves. But that doesn't mean they like it when an unskilled leader attempts such moves, making them believe their lives may be in danger. It's not the moves, it's the leader. So if you want to do the moves, first you've got to build the skills. And the place to do that is during the private lesson with a competent teacher.  

Now for the solution: I don't for a minute think that anything I say is going to change most leaders' behavior. But leaders, here's a direction for your consideration. When you dance with a follower, tell her you're working on your basics, and ask whether she would mind if you focused on these for one or two of the several dances you're going to have with her. After the dances in which you worked on your fundamentals, ask her how she felt about what you did. Was she comfortable? Was there anything you did that she felt could have been better? See how she responds to this. See how all your followers respond to this.

My guess is that it will change your life - your Tango life, that is.

March 21, 2009

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I talked about the end of the leader's backward step (accompanied by a follower's forward step). I discussed how to make sure the leader isn't pulling the follower off balance during this movement.

Today, I want to talk about what happens when a leader steps to the side (particularly to his left side) -- and therefore leads his follower to join him in a side step of her own. Remember: our objective as always is for both the leader and the follower to be in balance at the end of this step.

The most common problem leaders have in moving to the left side is that they often tend to take a larger step than their followers. If they hold the follower too tightly here - as they almost always do - she will lose her balance to her right side. Furthermore, she will usually believe it's all her fault for not taking a large enough step (although this is almost never the case).

Let's look more closely at this common problem to see how the leader can fix it. When a leader steps to his left side, there are at least two possible reasons why he might take a larger step than his follower:

1. If he's a beginner and is moving to the open side of the embrace; i.e., the side that feels easy to navigate, because his arm isn't closed around his follower on this side. So he may take a larger step without even thinking about it.

2. If he's a somewhat more advanced leader, he may be planning to move outside partner (as in a typical salida) on the step after his left-side step, and is therefore consciously or otherwise anticipating the need to be a bit further to the left than he would be, if he were going to move into her space after the side step.

In the first instance, it's important for beginning leaders to bear in mind a fundamental principle of movement in Tango: Always try to stay in front of your partner. If he does this, he will be less likely to unconsciously take larger steps than she, and the first problem will be solved rather easily.

In the second instance (planning an outside-partner movement on the following step), it is a good idea for the leader to precede his forward outside=partner step by taking a slightly larger side step than his follower - and to do this consciously. However, in taking this larger step, he has to be sure to release or loosen up his right arm toward the end of the movement -- so that his follower doesn't fall to his left side. By taking a larger step than she, he is thereby creating distance between her balance axis and his. If he doesn't release his arm, she will be pulled to her right every time.

A good exercise in this regard is to try taking large steps to your left - while your follower takes normal steps. As you find that you're moving away from her, loosen up your embrace so that she can comfortably balance herself at the end of these movements - even though she will be further away from you at the end of the step than she was at the beginning. If she loses her balance, you haven't released your arm enough. With practice this will get better and better. Eventually, you won't be pulling your follower off balance at all.

Any questions about any of this? Ask Pat or me next time we meet. See you at the Firehouse.

March 14, 2009

 

Hello everyone, Fran with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I talked about the end of every leader’s forward step (accompanied by a follower’s back step). I discussed how to balance, how to make sure the leader isn’t pulling the follower off balance, and how to be certain the follower isn’t taking an additional – and uninvited -- step.

 

Today, I want to talk about what happens when a leader steps backward -- and therefore leads his follower to take a forward step. Remember: our objective is for both the leader and the follower to be in balance at the end of this step.

 

When a leader moves backward, he almost certainly knows in advance exactly what he is going to after he takes that particular step. He knows, for example, whether he’s going to pause, take another backward step, or maybe continue with a side step. This means that he will probably have little or no problem in balancing himself at the end of this backward step. The follower, on the other hand, has no idea what’s going to happen next. So what does she do? If she’s a skilled follower, she brings herself into balance at the end of her accompanying forward step, and waits for the next lead. However, a leader can inadvertently cause her some difficulty here, if he leads her improperly.

 

Here’s what I mean. Normally, when a person steps forward – as in a common walking movement – there’s no one standing in front of them, urging them forward. But this is precisely what happens, when a follower is invited to take a forward step in Tango. She is being drawn forward – rather than moving under her own power. This can make her quite uncomfortable. It can create the feeling that she has to stumble forward rather than walk. In order to make sure this doesn’t happen, it’s up to the leader to avoid pulling her forward as he steps backward. To be precise: As the leader begins to move backward, he gently urges her forward keeping his right hand somewhat firmly on her back in order to let her know that he wants her to proceed forward. If she moves immediately – as a skilled follower will usually do – they can both now focus on balance at the end of the movement (which I’ll get to in a moment). Conversely, if he senses that she isn’t moving as quickly as he might ideally prefer, he needs to release the right arm a bit, so that she isn’t pulled forward, and can join him comfortably and in balance in her own time. In other words, he waits for her. He does not force her to move quickly and therefore lose control over her forward balance. (Of course, this is exactly what most unskilled leaders do consistently.)

 

At the end of the movement (assuming all has gone well), it’s time for each partner to come into balance. Here it is very important for the leader not to be holding his follower too tightly and therefore pulling her forward, or she’ll actually fall into him. So at the end of the step he needs to release her slightly – just enough for her to comfortably find her perpendicular balance. Leaders have to experiment with this in order to find just the right amount of release. We don’t want her to think we’re letting her go – just that we’re giving her enough slack to be balanced well.

 

This may sound complicated on first reading, but if you read these paragraphs a few times, when try it with your follower you’ll start to get the idea. If you have any questions about it, ask me or Pat the next time you see us.

 

March 7, 2009

Hello everyone, Fran with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I want to focus on a part of the dance you may not be thinking enough about. I'm talking about the end of each step you take.

What happens at the end of any given step? If you're a follower you may encounter a balance issue in which you feel that you need to hang on to the leader to stop you from falling. Alternatively, you may find yourself moving right into the next step to help you with your balance. If you're a leader, you may also have a balance problem at the end of any given step. You might lean on your partner to help correct it, or maybe you might find that it's easier to just keep moving. If you stop at all, you might find that she doesn't stop, and you end up chasing her into the next step or two.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because these are the things that I see happening on the Firehouse dance floor every week.

Let's talk about an exercise that you can do with a partner that will help fix all this bad stuff. The exercise will only work, if both of you do it consciously. So go out and find a partner who's willing to work a bit in order to get better.

Remember: our focus is on the end of every step. We'll assume for the moment that your lead and follow are working reasonably well. This means that when you as a leader offer an invitation to move, your follower understands the lead and actually takes the step you indicated. If you're a follower, it means that when a good lead is offered, you respond appropriately with some measure of consistency. Bear in mind that the lead and the follow occur in the beginning of the step only. After the lead has been given both partners travel through space independently, and finish their steps without the aid of the other partner. And it is here at the end of every step that our special exercise takes place.

Let's think of the end of every step as a very special moment. We'll divide our step into two pieces: 1) The lead or beginning of the step, and 2) the balance or end of the step. The exercise is simply to concentrate on the end of every step, and to try your best to find a steady, comfortable balance at that moment. If you're a leader, you're going to get yourself to the end of your step without leaning into your partner, without pushing her into the next movement, without knocking her off balance, without in any way influencing her equilibrium. You're going to find this difficult at first, but with practice you'll get better and better over time. If you're a follower, you're going to be doing the same thing essentially. Don't pull your partner off balance at the end of the step; don't automatically start the next step; don't lean into your partner - and if you find yourself losing balance, find a way to bring yourself back into balance without relying on him.

Physically, what you're going to do as a partnership is to stop after every step, and feel your balance. Take note of whether it feels good, whether you're leaning on your partner, whether you fall into the next step automatically - things like that. What you're looking for is a comfortable, relaxed finish to every step. When you as a partnership can achieve this time after time, you will have reached a state in your dance that some couples never get to. And it will represent the beginning of what I'd call advanced dancing.

Try it. Let us know how it goes. If you have questions, ask us the next time we meet.

February 28, 2009

 

Hello everyone, Fran with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I’d like to discuss a very special subject: Nothing. That’s right – nothing.

 

Sounds like a joke, right? Well, let’s explore a bit deeper. I’m talking about deciding in the middle of your Tango to do … nothing. In other words, to stop, wait, listen to the music as you pause and savor the moment – and then continue moving.

 

Tango is a dance of movement AND stillness. Sometimes we move. Sometimes we remain still. In my experience with students, I’ve noticed that most new leaders tend to move non-stop. Once they get going, they just keeping running and running … as if they’re wound up like mechanized toys. The only time they stop is when the dance is over.

 

One of the unique characteristics of Tango is that as a leader you can stop pretty much any time you want – either because there’s no room to continue moving (on a crowded dance floor, for example) or simply because you feel like stopping. There’s no need to maintain some kind of basic rhythm pattern, since there aren’t any in Tango. You decide when to move and when to remain still, based on how you feel in a given moment during the dance. (Of course, you have to make sure you’re not interfering with other dancers while you do this, so it’s important to use good judgment.)

 

The ability to stop gives you a very powerful functional and aesthetic tool to use in your dance. I’d recommend that you start learning how to use stops in your dance by deciding on a general rule: Take no more than three or four traveling steps before coming to a pause. (You can even come to a pause after one ore two steps, but let’s say that for now your maximum will be four steps before you take a pause.) The musical length of the pause is entirely up to you. See how you feel once you’re in the pause. Sometimes you’ll feel like starting again right away. Sometimes you may pause for a little longer for beginning to move again.

 

In order to pause in a comfortable way, your follower needs to be very skilled. She needs to know that (potentially, at least) she has to be ready to pause after every single steps she takes. This will make it possible for you to incorporate pauses into your dance without having to hold your follower back from taking additional steps when you decide to come to a stop.

 

Try putting stops into your Tango. See how doing nothing can transform you dance into a far more exciting and aesthetically elegant experience.

 

See you next week.

 

February 21, 2009

 

Hello everyone, Pat here! In our last couple of Tango Tips, Fran discussed the benefits of more experienced leaders dancing with beginner followers. This week, I would like to talk to followers about the considerable benefits of dancing with a beginner leader.

 

First of all, it should be pointed out that this coupling includes a follower who is not a beginner herself, but at least an intermediate dancer, or above. In addition, she should have spent the years of her dancing experience continuing to study, learn and improve the basic elements of her dance.

 

So, enter the beginner leader—possibly one of the most unenviable and perplexing states in tango. He is struggling to comprehend myriad new dance responsibilities unlike anything he may have experienced before. He has so much to think about, and his dancing partners are almost entirely beginners themselves. He tries his best, but she doesn’t always respond in the right way. He feels he will never progress. He watches the more experienced dancers, and wonders how he will ever get to where they are.

 

He would love to try dancing with one of those better followers, but has probably been turned down in a most unpleasant way -- if he has ever had the nerve to ask.

 

But one night, a miracle happens. A more experienced follower accepts his invitation. He is shocked, and now definitely scared. He starts off with trepidation. He takes a few steps and, oh no, he pulls her off balance, and then, oh my god, he steps on her foot, and, oh this is terrible, he tries to lead a simple cross and bumps right into her, knocking her backwards.

 

Follower! You hold this leader’s future dancing in your hands right now. Your response may determine whether he continues with Tango—the most wonderful dance in the world—or is so demoralized that he quits. As this poor leader stumbles around the dance floor with you, be kind, be patient and most of all, find generosity in your heart.

 

And here is the best part—followers, you have a heaven-sent opportunity to improve your own dance! Your leader is going slowly, he is stopping a lot. You can practice your balance and a few simple embellishments. As he moves along, you can think about your technique and your styling. You can make your following of his uncertain lead look the best it can possibly be. You can make him feel that he’s succeeding by waiting for his next lead, and, if a mistake is made and he apologizes, you tell him it’s OK, and not to worry.

 

Please do not ever consider yourself  “above” dancing with a beginner. This is an unpleasant and pompous attitude that is all too common in many Tango communities, and is typically held by those whose dancing is of questionable quality. Beginning leaders do need to make a personal commitment to improving their dance themselves, but the benefit of dancing with followers at a higher than they cannot be underestimated.

 

February 14, 2009

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Continuing with our discussion of last week, I have just a few more things to say about the benefits of leaders dancing with beginner followers. Quite often, when a leader considers asking someone to dance, his thoughts turn to what “steps” he’s going to try to lead her to do. Will he be able to show off those fancy moves he just learned from that class or DVD? Will she admire his special skills? Will he be able to IMPRESS her? If he feels she may not like his moves, he may in the end chicken out and not ask her to dance at all. He certainly doesn’t want her to feel he’s a – gasp! – beginner.

 

On the other side of the coin, he may feel that a particular follower is just too far below him in skill, and he doesn’t want to waste his time with someone who isn’t ready for his advanced prowess.

 

In both these instances our hero is focused on all the wrong things (although these are indeed the things most leaders think about!).

 

Here’s what I would suggest. When considering asking any follower to dance, the number one question to ask yourself is: “How can I enable this follower to feel as wonderful and as desirable as possible during this dance?”

 

Wow! What do you think of that? Instead of getting all wrapped up in yourself, think about HER. It will instantly change the entire character of your dance – if every step you take is designed to make her feel good. I can almost guarantee she’ll enjoy herself … even want more.

 

And let’s say you apply this radical psychology to dancing with a beginner. A beginning follower doesn’t have the chops to be raced around like there’s a fire in the house, and thrown all over the room like a rag doll. She doesn’t have the necessary skills to keep up – even if by chance you have the requisite skills to lead her. What she will love (on the other hand) is simple, direct, elegant, comfortable movement – one step at a time, balanced, smooth, gentle … things like that.

 

So the project becomes very doable, and the reward is that you’ve given a follower a wonderful time. Not to mention what we were talking about last week: You get to practice those crucially important skills that will enable you get closer to being the kind of Tango dancer every follower will admire.

 

February 7, 2009

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week.  Learning to dance Tango in a skillful way takes a considerable amount of time, money and effort. Sometimes we get stuck, and don’t know which way to turn next. It all seems so hard ….

 

Well, what if I told you that one of the most important tools for really getting good at this complex dance is available to you right now? It will make you a better Tango dancer almost from the moment you put it into practice -- and it’s absolutely FREE? Would you jump at the chance to grab it? Let me tell you what it is: It’s dancing with beginning students.

 

That’s right. Beginners.

 

Now, I’m not talking about people who have no clue about Tango, and who have no interest in becoming good Tango dancers. I’m talking about folks who have decided they want to learn, maybe they’ve taken some lessons, and they’re committed to doing what’s necessary to get better. In short, I’m talking about very special beginners.

 

I want to spell out some of the benefits of being a leader, working with a beginning follower. Next week, Pat will discuss the benefits of being a follower, working with a beginner leader.

 

The first thing to know about dancing with a beginner is that you have to keep it simple. Beginners aren’t ready for fancy, complex combinations. Even ochos and turns will be difficult for them at this point. Their exclusive focus needs to be on developing basic skills. So what can you work on with a beginner?

 

Fundamental movement – you know, forward, backward, side, in-place, and pause.

 

This gives you a great opportunity to work on these things yourself – with the insights you’ve gained from dancing them over and over in the past. You might feel self-conscious about asking a skilled follower whether she’d like to work on fundamentals. But when you’re dancing with a beginner, it’s your perfect opportunity to do so, and in the bargain to get even better at these crucial skills than you are now.

 

Let’s go a bit deeper into the individual elements you’ll be able to work on, when you dance with a beginner. With her, you’ve got to concentrate extra hard in order to offer a clear, directive invitation. She just won’t be able to read a lead that’s too wishy-washy or too subtle. So you have to go for it with every lead you give her. Furthermore, once your lead has been offered, you then have to pay close attention to your follower in order to notice whether she’s responding appropriately or not. If she gets your lead and responds accordingly, you then have to notice at what precise moment she finishes her movement. This is important, because only then will she be ready to deal with the next lead. Conversely, if she doesn’t respond to your lead, you have to figure out why, and come up with a lead, which she does understand in order to produce the desired response.

 

All too often, leaders don’t put in the requisite number of hours, working on these basic elements. They get bored quickly, and want to move ahead. The beauty of dancing with a beginner is that she just can’t handle anything beyond simple fundamentals. So it virtually forces you to do what you really need in order to develop your own leading skills. And the more beginners you dance with, the better you’re going to get over the course of time.

 

So start taking advantage of this golden opportunity: Dance with those beginning followers as often as you can. They’ll appreciate it no end, and, if you really pay close attention to what you’re doing, you’ll find that your own dancing just keep improving. You can’t ask for a better deal than that!

 

January 31, 2009

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week.  I’m back with Part 2 of this two-part series. If you didn’t read last week’s Tip, go immediately to the Firehouse Web site and give it a look.

 

Ready to continue? Okay, this week I’m going to reveal my secret weapon in teaching people how to dance Tango (or any other dance, for that matter). Can you guess what it is? Well, for starters, it’s not steps. I know thousands of figures, and combinations in Tango -- but so do most other teachers. (And, of course, there are a great many students who pick teachers whom they think are going to offer them all the very latest gizmos coming straight out of Buenos Aires … or who knows where. I’m not the right teacher for these kinds of students, and I’m happy to tell them so.)

 

Okay, so if it isn’t steps, what do I offer my students?

 

I’ll give you an example of my secret weapon in action. John and his wife Mary come to me to learn Tango. They’re going to Buenos Aires in three weeks, and they want to be good at Tango by then. What can I do for them?

 

Short answer: In three weeks -- nothing. But let me show you what I CAN do for them. Here’s a little scenario:

 

John

I just want to learn a few steps.

 

                                                       Mary

Can I learn those fancy things they do with their feet?

 

Fran

Let’s start by learning how to move together. I want the two of you to feel what it’s like to move as one person.

 

John

Then can we do some steps?

 

Fran

All in good time, John. Let’s start by facing each other. Good. Now, hold hands. Good. John why don’t you step to the side with your left foot. And Mary, see whether you can mirror John’s movement.

 

(They succeed after the third try)

 

Fran

Now let’s try the same thing in the dance embrace.

 

(They succeed on the first try)

 

Mary

This is fun!

 

Fran

Now let’s try having you step forward, John, as Mary steps backward. We’re going to move in slow motion, and Mary’s going to reach back from high up on her leg, so that you don’t step on her feet.

 

(They succeed after a few attempts)

 

Fran

That was good! How do you like it John?

 

John

It’s pretty easy. I could do this.

 

Fran

Tango is moving together, one step at a time. Every individual step is very important. Whether it’s a side step, a forward step, a back step a weight change in place, or a pause. We’re going to isolate every one of these steps, and learn exactly how to do it together.

 

John

Okay, let’s go! I’m ready.

 

 

I’m oversimplifying, of course, for the sake of making a point. But through this approach my goal is for John and Mary to become involved in the process of learning, and perhaps forget (at least for the moment) their initial request to learn “a few steps” and to “do those fancy things with their feet.” In the scenario above both have begun to grasp the idea that Tango is a special way of moving together. They like the notion of mastering the five simple movements – forward, side, backward, in-place, pause. In short, they’ve become involved in the process of learning rather than the end result.

 

This is my secret weapon – getting people involved in the process. Once students start to feel just how exciting it really is to actually be able to move beautifully with another person, they discover what dancing truly is. If I can get them to this place, the door is wide open to really being able to learn Tango. On the other hand, if they steadfastly insist on only learning memorized figures, the prognosis is almost always pretty grim.

 

How much time does it take to become proficient at Tango after you’ve come to this realization? It doesn’t matter. Like John and Mary you’ll be having so much fun learning that over time the end result will simply take care of itself.

 

Does what I’ve just described sound good to you? If so, see whether you can get your teacher to take this road in your lessons. Just tell him or her, “I want to learn to dance – not just learn steps.” A good teacher will jump at the opportunity to take you down the right path. And with dedication, I guarantee you that the rewards are great.

 

January 24, 2009

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week.  I’m going to approach today’s subject in two parts, one part this week and the conclusion next week – because it’s going to take me that long to spell out what I want to say.  So this week: The premise.

 

A question I get asked frequently by new students is: “How long will it take me to learn Argentine Tango?” Maybe they’ve just watched some of their friends dancing Tango, or seen a stage show somewhere – and they’re anxious to get in on the action -- like NOW! They have an idea that a teacher can whip them into shape in the course of one or two lessons, and they’ve already made reservations on the next plane to Buenos Aires.

 

Do you know people like this? Are you one of these people yourself? If so, I’m going to let you know how I approach this teaching challenge, what my secret weapon is in dealing with students like the ones I just described.

 

First, a little background about me: I’ve been dancing, since I was 11 years old. The way I learned the ropes was to go to dances a lot, and imitate what I saw good dancers doing on the dance floor. This is how I learned to dance Lindy, Mambo, Foxtrot, Cha Cha Cha, Merengue, Rumba, Samba, Waltz, and Peabody. By the time I took my first dance lesson (at Dale Dance Studios in Hempstead, NY), I had already been dancing for roughly seven years.

 

I was lucky enough to become interested in social dancing at what I realize now was actually the tail end of the “dance era” in New York. When I started, there were lots of places to go around the New York area to dance. There was live music, juke box music; every restaurant had a little combo playing music for dining and dancing. And a lot of my friends loved dancing as much as I did. So the process sort of happened by itself – over a long period of time.

 

Today, none of those opportunities exist. They’re gone. If you want to learn how to dance today, you have no practical choice but to find a dance teacher or dance studio. You also have to wave goodbye to most of your friends – because the overwhelming majority of them just aren’t interested in dancing, or ever will be.

 

Okay, you’ve taken the plunge. Here you are with your teacher, ready to go. Maybe you’ve brought a video camera to the session. Or a notebook. These lessons cost  MONEY, honey. And you want to make progress fast! And so you ask your teacher right at the outset: “How long is this process going to take?”

 

Let’s see. I danced for 7 years, then I started taking lessons, then years of practice, then lots of dancing … I could just tell my students: “Okay, it’ll take you about 30 years – if you’re inherently talented, highly motivated, and you dedicate yourself to learning.” Hey, where are you going?

 

New students just don’t want to hear this. Before I even finish that sentence they’d be out the door. So instead of bursting their bubble right from the get-go, I use my secret weapon to ensure that they’ll learn as quickly as they possibly can – without worrying about how long the process it going to take. And if you want to hear about my secret teaching method, you’re going to have to tune in next week, because I’ve run out of my allotted space.

 

Boy, am I mean! See you next week for Part 2.

 

January 17, 2009
 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week.  I want to add a bit to what I was talking about last week. You did read my Tango Tip last week, didn’t you? If by any slim chance you missed it, go immediately to the Firehouse Tango archives and have a look.  I’ll wait ….

 

Okay, now you’ve read last week’s Tip, and you’re up to speed. You want to give up your step list, but every other dance you’ve ever learned has been taught to you as a series of memorized figures. You’re in the habit, and it’s very hard to break. And if you use those neat steps you learned in class, it kind of makes you look like you know what you’re doing, right? (Well, of course, it really doesn’t, but that’s another story.)

 

Early on in my Tango career, I studied with a very well-known teacher/performer, memorizing tons of stagy figures, one after another. (I’m not going to mention who this particular teacher was, so don’t ask.) At some point I thought to myself, “Yeah, but how do I actually dance all this stuff?” So I asked my teacher, “How do I put all this into a dance? In Mambo, Swing and Foxtrot there are basic steps I can fall back on. What do I do in Tango?”

 

He thought about it, and replied: “You just take these figures, and put them together in a way that you come up with yourself. That’s all there is to it.”

 

“But,” I asked further, what’s the ‘glue’ that holds the dance together, when I’m not doing these learned figures?”

 

My teacher drew a blank. He shrugged his shoulders. He furrowed his brow. He asked whether I wanted to learn a new step.

 

Oh well.

 

I thought maybe if I watched him dance, I’d discover the special ‘glue’ for myself – even though he wasn’t able to articulate it. But it turned out that my teacher was doing exactly what he had told me to do. He was piecing together step after memorized step in order to make a dance. In retrospect I realize that my teacher was a stage performer. What else was he going to do, but offer me his well-practiced methodology? He actually had no idea what social dancing was. But at the time, I didn’t know that – I mean, after all, he was from Argentina! And because he couldn’t give me what I was asking for, I thought, “Well, maybe that’s all there is – step after step after step.”

Cutting to the present, it’s taken me a lot of years to finally figure out the answer to my question – to get a handle on what the special ‘glue’ is that holds Tango together as a dance. You know what I think it is? It’s those five basic elements I’m always talking about – you know: Forward, Backward, to the Side, In-place and Pause. You take those elements, and you make stuff up. You improvise. And you develop a strong, consistent connection to the rhythm of the music.

 

You come to realize that Tango is a unique collaboration between two people. You have to decide that your mission isn’t to show off to other people in the room (even in you’re actually good enough to do so) – it’s to make the collaboration between you and this partner right now as beautiful and experience as it can possibly be. And this works much better with simple movements than it does with a constant stream of acrobatics.

 

Keeping things simple takes courage. And it takes humility. Do you have what it takes to do this? I do – finally. And I wish you’d try it … even for one dance.

 

January 10, 2009

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week.  The New Year is a great time to reassess your feelings about Tango. Do you like it? Do you think you’re getting somewhere with it – I mean, like, you know, better? Have you decided to make a deeper commitment to learning the dance, or do you prefer to just hang around and keep looking in the window?

 

These are questions I ask myself from time to time. After all, I’ve only been involved with Tango for 22 years. Most of the good dancers (from Argentina, that is) have been dancing Tango for 50 years or more. One of my private students said to me recently (after working hard at her dance for about two years), “You know, I used to want to learn Tango as quickly as possible, but now I’m finally beginning to realize that I love the process of discovering the dance, and I don’t care how long it takes.”

 

What my student said to me reminded me of my own erratic journey in learning Tango. I started out thinking I could master it in about a month, maybe two – I mean, after all, I’m a professional dancer, right? Of course, I realized quite soon that Tango is not a dance one can learn quickly. So I did what any red-blooded over-achiever would do under the circumstances. I quit.

 

Eventually, I crawled back and started again. I thought, maybe I’ll give it, what the hell, six months. Well, somewhere in that six months, I began to enjoy the process of learning, just like my student. I stopped trying to get to the end of the road, and started checking out the scenery. And I liked it.

 

I think this was a major step in my development as a Tango dancer. If it happens to you, it will be a really big deal for you, too. I don’t know whether you can rush the process of getting to this place, but I’ll tell you a few things that seemed to make a difference to me.

 

First of all, let’s face it, there are five billion steps in Tango, give or take one or two. You can’t ever learn them all, so why try?

 

On the other side of the coin, if you and a partner can take a single, solitary step together in collaboration, and it feels really balanced, and comfortable and graceful – you’ve discovered the essence of the dance in a single movement. In any given instant, you can only focus on one thing anyway. If you can make a commitment to doing that one thing – say, a forward step, a side step, or any of the simple fundamentals movements in Tango – as beautifully as physically possible, making the experience as overwhelmingly wonderful for your partner as could ever be possible, you’ve nailed Tango. I mean, you’ve nailed it!

 

On other thing that made a big difference to me was learning how to move to the music. Tango is wide open. You can move very rhythmically, if you choose. Or you can almost work outside the rhythm. Both are fine. And anything in between – as long as it’s not just random movement; i.e., as long as it has a definite relationship to the music. Learning how to do this stuff takes lots of time, but it really is well worth it.

 

There you are, moving musically with a high degree of skill in concert with a partner, taking simple steps, and absolutely loving it. I promise you, it’s sooooo rewarding.

 

This New Year, why not give yourself a chance to experience Tango in this way. Get involved in the process of Tango, and put your step list aside for the time being. You can always come back to it later, if ultimately you decide that steps are really what are important to you. For now, let the process of discovering Tango carry you along for a ride. See where it takes you.

 

Let’s all have the best New Year we ever had! We’ll see you next week.