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 29, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I discussed the idea of bringing your legs (feet) together at the end of each step you take. A companion idea -- which is specific to leaders – is to develop the ability to create a pause between steps. As you probably know by now, Tango is a dance in which balance plays a crucial role. One way in which we control balance is by pausing between movements. Even a very brief pause enables you as a leader to feel in far more complete control over your dance than continuous steps without any pause whatever.

 

In order to develop the skill of pausing between steps, start by becoming conscious of the end of each step you take. Notice the precise moment when your legs come together and you’re ready to move into the next step. This is the moment for the pause. But in order to create a pause in this moment, you have to begin slowing down your inertia slightly before, or your pause will be too abrupt. Furthermore if you don’t slow down in this way, you’ll mislead your follower into taking an additional step without you.

 

Most well informed teachers of Tango call it a dance of “movement and stillness.” Fine Tango dancers are able to create stillness at any time, and are never caught up by movement inertia to the extent that they’re unable to stop any given movement at will. What I’ve just described above will help you develop the critical skill of attaining stillness in your dance.

 

Pat and I want to wish all of you a wonderful holiday season. We’ll see you all next week at the Firehouse, and on into the new year.

 

 

December 22, 2011

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I discussed the idea of bringing your legs (feet) together at the end of each step you take. A companion idea -- which is specific to leaders - is to develop the ability to create a pause between steps. As you probably know by now, Tango is a dance in which balance plays a crucial role. One way in which we control balance is by pausing between movements. Even a very brief pause enables you as a leader to feel in far more complete control over your dance than continuous steps without any pause whatever.

 

In order to develop the skill of pausing between steps, start by becoming conscious of the end of each step you take. Notice the precise moment when your legs come together and you're ready to move into the next step. This is the moment for the pause. But in order to create a pause in this moment, you have to begin slowing down your inertia slightly before, or your pause will be too abrupt. Furthermore if you don't slow down in this way, you'll mislead your follower into taking an additional step without you.

 

Most well informed teachers of Tango call it a dance of "movement and stillness." Fine Tango dancers are able to create stillness at any time, and are never caught up by movement inertia to the extent that they're unable to stop any given movement at will. What I've just described above will help you develop the critical skill of attaining stillness in your dance.

 

Pat and I want to wish all of you a wonderful holiday season. We'll see you all next week at the Firehouse, and on into the new year.

 

December 15, 2011

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. There are many individual skills, which need to be mastered in learning to dance Tango. Today, I want to address one of the simplest, yet most important elements, which you’ve all heard me say over and over right from day one: bringing your feet (legs) together at the end of each movement.

 

A step is a transfer of weight from one side of yourself to the other side. In Tango, you can step forward, backward, to the side, or in place. When beginners take a traveling step (forward, backward, or to the side), they usually fail to bring there legs together at the end of the movement. They may leave the legs wide apart, they may actually begin another step, or they may change weight in place to the other leg, which enables them to secure common balance.

 

Here’s what you should do at the end of each step: Bring the legs together, making sure that your heels are touching (it’s fine, if your toes are a bit apart), and do not transfer weight in any way to the other leg. This completes your step – at which time you’re ready to pause, or to take another step with the other leg.

 

Each time you do this, you’re bringing your body into balance. Whether you’re a leader or a follower, you’re creating a condition of perfect neutrality from which you can then take any step you want (or are led to take, if you’re a follower).

 

When people say that learning to dance Tango is difficult, this is what they’re talking about. It’s not at all easy to bring your legs together and come to a complete stop at the end of each movement you make. And yet this is the unique skill that separates Tango from any other dance. When you lean on your partner while dancing, there is no way you can execute this crucial skill. In my opinion, people who actually teach their students to lean on one another are doing a major disservice to these dancers.

 

I highly recommend that you focus regularly on this important skill of bringing your legs together at the end of each step throughout each practice, and throughout each social dance. When both partners do this your Tango will become far more manageable and comfortable than when one or both partners are out of balance.

 

 

 

 

December 8, 2011

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Most men who become involved in learning Argentine Tango are attracted by the lure of executing complex patterns with which they would hope to impress both the woman they may be currently partnering, and everyone else in the room. They see a performer tossing off a heady, choreographed sequence, and they think: “I could do that!”

 

Really.

 

From there, they form a basic concept of their preferred learning process:

 

1)    Memorize the pattern.

2)    Take it to the floor.

 

Simple, direct, and, of course, irrational. In the meantime, good teachers try their best to influence men to put these grandiose schemes on hold, and instead, learn how to dance. Nonetheless, most men persist in this pattern-oriented notion of dancing.

 

Okay, okay, so there’s nothing I can do to convince you to give up on memorizing patterns. You believe in your heart that this is the road to dancing excellence. I’m flexible. I can work with that. Let me suggest a strategy that will make pattern dancing as successful as possible for you and your partner.

 

First, count the number of steps in the pattern from your (leader’s) point of view.

 

Second, count the number of steps from her (follower’s) point of view.

 

Third, notice how each step that you take accompanies a step that she takes, thereby serving as a lead for that step. If she takes more steps than you (as is often the case in Tango), figure out what your leads have to be, when you’re not actually accompanying her step with one of your own.

 

So far, so good? Now, you’re ready to try the memorized sequence. (I’m assuming here that you’ve memorized the leader’s part, and that you know what you want her to do – but that she has not memorized her part. That way, you actually have to lead it.) At this point, you might think that all you have to do is execute your part, and she’ll automatically execute hers. This is where you’d be wrong.

 

Here comes the secret. Each step has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This means that when you lead your partner to take the first step of the sequence, you have to wait for her to complete the invited action before giving her the next lead. Then, when you lead the second step, the same thing happens. You have to wait for her to get to the end of that movement before going on to the next one. Not that you have to come to a complete stop at the end of each step; you simply have to make a judgment that she’s balanced and ready for the next movement. If you don’t think she’s quite ready, wait.

 

The bottom line is that in executing memorized patterns, once you’ve mapped it out and figured out your leads, you have two challenges: The first is to invite each step individually, and the second is to allow her to respond before continuing.

 

Any questions?

 

 

December 1, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been carefully observing how the people who come to my Saturday Practica interact with one another. (Many of these people know one another – at least by sight – because they take classes together at Dance Manhattan on a regular basis.) What seems to happen a lot is that men come and scan the room, looking for their favorite partners, and then spend the entire two hours going back and forth among two or three women. On the other side of the coin, women size up the situation, quickly assess that there are only two or three men they want to dance with, and end up spending a lot of time holding up the furniture.

 

Not very social, not a barrel of fun, I’d say.

 

Although it’s certainly a good idea to practice our growing skills in order to ultimately become better as Tango dancers, in my opinion it’s far more important in a social context to cultivate and enjoy the company of the other people who are in the room at any given time. For this reason I would like to encourage all my Tango friends and students to open yourselves up a bit more, when the music begins to play. Rather than always seeking out those special people, try asking someone you don’t know for a dance. Ask I newbie, a beginner, someone you’ve never seen before. The worst thing that can happen is that the dance feels a bit awkward, slightly uncomfortable. So what? It’s far more likely that you’ll end up making a new Tango friend.

 

Most of us feel a little reticent about opening ourselves up to new acquaintances. We tend to favor the known, the tried and true, rather moving toward the unknown. And the only way to overcome this discomfort is to bravely take the plunge and see what happens.

 

Ask a stranger to dance tonight, tomorrow, or the next time you have the chance. Let me know how it works out. I really want to know.

 

 

November 17, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Let’s talk about the myth and the reality of learning how to dance. The myth is that learning to dance is easy.  You grab a partner, head for the dance floor, and do your thing. End of story. Maybe you watch a few experts just to get the hang of it. But basically, it’s one, two, three, tear it up.

 

Has anyone tried that? Did it work? If so stop reading now. I want you to teach me how you did it!

 

For most of us, that scenario does not apply. After a few unsuccessful stabs at dancing by the seats of our pants, we start to realize that learning to dance is going to take some time and effort. In that context, a teacher like me comes along and says that you’ve got to learn to walk first – by which I mean learning how to lead and follow the five basic movements (in-place, forward, side, back, pause). Furthermore, I tell you that it’s probably going to take you up to a year or more to learn these things. You yawn …. Couldn’t we just learn a few more exciting moves first? We can buckle down to the boring work later. Right now, we want to have some fun!

 

And there’s the problem in a nutshell with learning how to dance. When it comes down to it, there are very few people who really have the stomach for learning from “Square One.” We want to start at “Square Two,” or maybe even at “Square Ten.” We promise we’ll come back to “Square One,” when we have a spare minute or two – but that never seems to occur. And so we never, ever, ever learn how to dance.

 

A very select few people I know – and I single out those very few from the entire population of the known universe – have decided they really want to learn how to dance. These people are like me – they’ll do whatever it takes to learn; they’ll spend whatever effort is necessary; they’ll develop the right skills no matter how long it takes; they’ll practice the same movements over and over again. For these people, it doesn’t really matter how long the process takes. What’s important for them is being in the process, and working the skills. Eventually, this will pay off big dividends. Eventually, these people will know how to dance.

 

And when they finally achieve a level of skill that surpasses what the majority of would-be dancers have achieved, these people will know that even then there’s much more to learn – because the process goes on forever.

 

This is the reality of learning how to dance. Is it for you?

 

 

 

November 10, 2011

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the main reasons lead/follow dancing can be difficult is that someone in the dance couple inadvertently gets him- or herself on the wrong foot. This puts the couple out of sync with one another, and the dance tends to fall apart. Below, I’m going to describe an exercise you can try that will help you consistently maintain the correct parallel relationship with your partner.

 

From the follower’s standpoint: Your leader will be asking you to change weight from one foot to the other. At the end of each change your job is to remain on that foot until he invites you to change to the other. This may sound simple, but quite often a follower will make an invited weight change -- and then without being invited – make another. During our exercise (and then for the rest of your dance career) please try to avoid this error.

 

From the leader’s standpoint: The exercise begins with you creating the Tango embrace. Get comfortable with your own weight on both feet. Make certain that you’re not pulling your follower off balance by tightening you right arm on her back.

 

The first exercise is to lead your follower to make weight changes in place to either side. You do this by using your lead skills (which we’ve described in great detail elsewhere). As you lead her to make a weight change in place to one side, note carefully whether she is responding appropriately to your invitation. The key to success here is for you to be aware of how she is responding – by paying carefully attention to her during each lead.  Come to a full stop at the end of the movement, and note whether she feels to you as if she is now in balance. Next, try to lead her in place to the other side, again paying close attention to how she responds.

 

When this exercise has proven consistently successful, you’re ready to try it with side steps; then with leader’s forward steps; and finally with leader’s back steps. Once you can confidently lead each individual movement, it’s time for a comprehensive exercise, using all the movements in an improvisational way.

 

Do this exercise slowly, coming to a complete stop (on one foot) at the end of each movement. If you practice this exercise often enough, you will eventually be able to execute it perfectly, and you’ll be well on your way to completely eliminating the problem of getting on the wrong foot.

 

 

November 3, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In my Argentine Tango classes, I encourage both leaders and followers to talk to each other about their experiences in the dance. By this I mean that I tell leaders to actually ask followers whether they are receiving and understanding the invitations that are being given, At the same time, I ask followers to question leaders whenever they feel that any given lead is confusing or incomprehensible to them.

 

If this sharing of information is carried on in a constructive way, both partners can benefit significantly from it. Leaders can verify that the skills they’re developing are actually working, and follows can build the confidence that they’re correctly reading what their leaders are asking of them.

 

Potentially, of course there can be a problem, when egos get in the way. For example, if a leader erroneously believes that his leading skills are up to par – but his follower is simply not responding according to his wishes – instead of questioning his own skill, he may be tempted to categorically blame his follower as incompetent. The same can occur, when a follower erroneously believes that as long as she receives what she perceives as a “good lead” she can effectively follow anything asked of her. In such a case, the follower may reject the leader’s attempts to invite movement, comparing his skills unfavorably to those of her teacher or to some idealized leader who doesn’t exist.

 

Tango is an act of collaboration between two people. The ultimate objective of any given dance is to make it work as comfortably as possible, and have some fun in the process. Because most of us aren’t perfect (or even close to it), we have to compromise to a greater or lesser extent, whenever we engage in a partnership with another person. Because the majority of us are in the learning stages of dancing, I think it is very useful to share our questions with each other both on and off the dance floor. This will help us to learn what’s working, and what needs work.

 

Try this with someone you like and trust. If you keep and open mind and exercise a strong dose of humility, I have every confidence that you’ll learn some important lessons, and in the process make a friend with whom you can enable your dance experience to grow.

 

 

October 27, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. To those of you who are relatively new to Tango, your initial thought was probably that becoming involved in this exotic dance would be something fun and exciting to do. Then, after several group or private lessons, your eyes almost certainly opened wide to the fact that Tango is actually a rather difficult dance to learn. This put you at a crossroads. Do you want to invest the time, money and energy that would be necessary to really master Tango? Or do you prefer to simply dabble a bit here and there, trying to enjoy yourselves as you go along, and never really making much of a breakthrough in learning?

 

Over the years that I’ve been teaching ballroom dancing (including the smooth American/European dances, Latin dances, Swing dances, and Argentine dances), I’ve observed that approximately 10% of my students are what I would call “naturals.” This includes both leaders and followers, and it means that these people seem to have an inborn ability to dance. They “get” things fairly quickly, and they retain them, not really requiring very much in the way of intensive instruction. Then come another 15% of students who “sort of get it.” These people need a bit more work, but they show positive signs of learning, and if they spend enough time practicing what they’ve been learning, they can become adequate – and sometimes even very good – at dancing. That leaves 75% of would-be leaders and followers – these people almost always require extensive, one-to-one training in order to learn even the fundamentals of dance movement.

 

Dance teachers may quibble at the percentages I’ve expressed here, but most would certainly agree that this is a reasonable categorical breakdown of the student population. I know that some teachers would even suggest that there is a small percentage who demonstrate very little, if any, ability to learn dancing (maybe 10% to 15% of potential students), and that these people should be encouraged to try their hand at another, more potentially rewarding activity. Personally, I do not agree with this thinking. My experience tells me that anyone who really wants to dance -- and has the physical and mental resources to work tirelessly at it – can eventually learn it. He or she may not become expert, but he or she can attain a level that is certainly fun and rewarding.

 

When I teach a class, I focus not on those who are “naturals.” These people can take care of themselves. My concentration is on the 15% of people who “sort of get it” and the 75% who would like to learn, but have major difficulty in doing so. I really want these people to get something out of my classes, and I work very hard at giving them as much as I can. My feeling is that if they give back to me in effort what I give to them, something good is bound to happen sooner or later.

 

If you identify yourself as someone who has difficulty learning this very complex dance, please believe that I’m on your side. I want you to learn, and I’m going to continue to do everything I can to help you. All I ask from you is that you take the learning process seriously, and above all, keep trying.

 

None of us can ask for more than that.

 

 

 

October 20, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Since we’ve been exploring Milonga for the past few weeks, I wanted to offer a Tip on how to make this rather brisk dance work more effectively.

 

Because of its speed, it’s easy for Milonga to get completely out of hand, especially if you’re relatively new to it. For that reason, the first thing I teach in any Milonga class is what I call “neutral” or “idling.” This simply refers to keeping time to the music while changing weight in place rather than moving through space.

 

Once students have learned how to move in place, we then continue with such elements as “single step” movement, “ ”four-part movement, “six-part” movement, and so forth. “Neutral” or in-place movement becomes a kind of home base to which we return at any time for various reasons:

 

 

In such cases “neutral” movement enables us to regroup, as well as to prepare ourselves and our partners for whatever we plan to do next. In the Milongas of Buenos Aires, I found that this in-place movement idea became my best friend, when dancing Milonga, particularly because of the significant congestion on the dance floors. In America, such crowding is generally not as much of a problem; however, losing control of the dance due to a lack of experience, and/or getting out of sync with one’s partner can have potentially dangerous consequences. Thus, our “neutral” or “idling” movement becomes very important in enabling us to continue keeping time with the music while creating a safety net during problematic moments which may occur during any given dance.

 

Many inexperienced students think of changing weight in place as a kind of “training wheels” phase of dancing Milonga. In my opinion, it is one of your most useful and important tools for creating a Milonga that works effectively.

 

Fran Chesleigh has been writing weekly Tango Tips for Firehouse since 2006.  You'll  find them all archived on our website at www.firehousetango.com under Tango Tips.

 

 

 

October 13, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. I often stress the importance of balance in these Tips. In fact, mastering balance is one of the crucial skills in Argentine Tango. However, right from the moment we assume the Tango embrace, we find ourselves doing something, which tends to work against achieving balance.

 

When we embrace someone, we instinctively hold that person (that’s what an embrace is, after all!). We become interconnected, thereby momentarily, at least, giving up our individual balance.  We find ourselves relying upon that other person for some measure of support – until we release the embrace.

 

When we dance, those of us who are untrained do exactly the same thing: We literally hold onto the other person; we lean on the other person; we surrender our individuality in order to become interconnected. In this way, the embrace itself becomes the culprit in our temporary loss of balance.

 

The trained dancer, on the other hand, understands that the dance embrace is quite different from the embrace of friendship. It is a specific tool that one uses in order to communicate information between the two partners in the dance relationship. As such, this embrace does not involve any surrender of individual balance. Instead, both partners maintain a state of what I sometimes call “neutrality” throughout the dance. This simply means that at no time are either of the two partners leaning upon or in any way interfering with the balance of the other.

 

Because we know how easily the embrace can be misused in Tango – to impede balance rather than promote it – both leaders and followers must monitor their embrace while dancing. Am I leaning on my partner? Am I pushing or pulling? Am I in any way preventing my partner from maintaining absolute upright balance? These are the questions we must constantly ask ourselves during the course of a dance.

 

One of the great paradoxes of Tango is that the two partners appear to be enveloping one another, locked into a close embrace within which they have become one – while, in fact, each person within the partnership maintains complete individual integrity; i.e., balance.

 

It takes some people many years to finally begin using the embrace appropriately. You can get started right now.

 

 

October 6, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Whenever I teach a class in Tango, Milonga or Vals to a group of American students at the foundational level, I know that sooner or later several, if not all, of the leaders are going to wonder:

 

“Where are the steps?”

 

This is a very predictable question in light of the fact that virtually all social dancing in this country is taught from the perspective of pre-determined mechanical sequences (dance steps). My guess is that originally, at least, this way of teaching arose as a way of keeping impatient male students interested, with the actual teaching happening “between the cracks” as it were. Eventually, teachers realized that that the way to keep money flowing into their pockets was to focus more or less exclusively on figures, and restricting the actual teaching of dance to the environment of the private lesson – which has always been the choice of the dedicated student.

 

Because success in the Argentine dances depends so completely on knowing how to move effectively with a partner, I spend a great deal of time in the beginning, trying to teach people how to move together. I know it’s not what people want, but I’m also aware that without acquiring this skill the rest of the dance is impossible. I am well aware that many students who have been indoctrinated in contemporary American/European teaching methods become quickly bored with what is going on during these classes -- sometimes even leaving the room – until such time as I finally start teaching what they came for, which is a repertoire of steps they can quickly memorize (they hope) and take more or less immediately to the dance floor.

 

What I ask of students – what I ask of you who are reading this – is to trust that I know what you need to become skilled dancers. As much as it would be nice to be able to “start at the top” and just memorize a bunch of complex figures, it wouldn’t be dancing, and I wouldn’t be doing my job as a teacher. Nor, I will add, would you be doing your job as students, which is to accumulate a body of knowledge in a progressive way.

 

I look forward to our exploration of Milonga with you, and I know we’re going to have lots of fun together.

 

September 29, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Why is it so difficult to learn how to dance Tango? I’m glad you asked! Here, I think, is part of the answer:

 

Students are usually attracted to Tango, when they see a performance of some kind – either a live show or perhaps something on YouTube. What they’re witnessing in such cases is actually a choreographed caricature of Tango, not the social dance. Nonetheless, this is what impresses them, and becomes the paradigm of what they want to be able to do. They imagine themselves executing elaborate, often acrobatic movements with a highly skilled partner – and being the envy of all their friends as they “burn the floor” with a Tango the likes of which has never been seen before.

 

Then, they take a dance lesson. The teacher has them slowly moving in place, stepping to the side, forward, backward … wait a minute! What does this have to do with all that exciting stuff I’ve been watching on YouTube? I know you have to walk before you can run, but come on!!!

 

And so the journey begins. Or maybe not. Most beginning students of Tango, especially men, tend to become disillusioned with the learning process very quickly. Learning how to move their bodies in balance seems consummately boring to most people. They keep thinking about all that fancy material they want to try, and the teacher keeps saying walk, walk, walk …

 

Meanwhile the teacher knows that learning how to move with a partner is literally the hardest part of Tango. Just being able to take the simplest steps with another person, maintaining a sense of togetherness, balance, energy, and coordination – can literally take years to perfect. In fact, people who dance Tango at a high level work on partnering all the time, even if they’ve been dancing for years and years. And this is what a student has to learn right from the get-go!

 

So we have a student who wants an end result, and he or she wants it NOW!! -- without having to go through the journey, and even if he or she does manage to make even a tentative commitment to learning, the process itself is so inherently difficult that many fall by the wayside long before they begin to make breakthroughs in learning. If we couple this with the notion that we’re trying to incorporate an art form that derives from a culture with which we are almost completely unfamiliar, we are faced with a mountain that for most of us becomes all but impossible to climb.

 

This is why Tango is so hard.

 

And yet, some people – myself included -- continue to be drawn to the allure of this most beautiful of all dance forms. We persist in wanting to make it a part of ourselves. And we’ll do whatever we have to in order to get it. Are you one of those people, too?

 

Oich! Misery loves company.

 

 

September 22, 2011

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. At Dance Manhattan, where I teach regular dance classes, we offer an ongoing series of Argentine tango workshops, special intensive seminars, crash courses and advanced programs – taught by many well-known Tango performance luminaries from around the world -- all designed to fulfill the sophisticated needs of highly skilled dancers. If you call any of the dance schools in the tri-state area, they be happy to let you know about all the celebrities they host on a very regular basis, who are ready to deliver the real thing, straight from Buenos Aires.

 

Many students whom I know personally have confided that they no longer take regular classes at all, instead saving their money for the real thing; i.e., for the arrival of the great masters whom they’re certain will provide them with the most authentic, most advanced, most sophisticated material available at any given moment.

 

Workshops, seminars and other special programs are big, big business for dance schools. Celebrity attracts students like flies to honey. As you read this Tango Tip you may actually be planning to attend one of the many such events now available. They’re fun, lots of people in attendance, brush elbows with the stars; what could be more exciting!

 

There is one thing about all these spectacular galas that I wonder about, and that is, do the students actually learn anything from them? Perhaps even more to the point: Are the students ready for these highly advanced techniques, or are most of the attendees just kidding themselves?

 

I’m sure you can guess what I think. In my experience over the years I’ve been teaching Tango, I’ve noticed again and again that people seem quite willing to pay large sums of money for a chance to peer in the window at what they’ll probably never be able to achieve – but, in general, they‘re loath to spend a nickel on what will actually help them get better.

 

This is why I keep banging away relentlessly at the fundamentals of Tango in my classes. My feeling is that if I can convince one, maybe two, out of ten people that these are the skills that make dancing Tango possible, eventually, the number people who can really dance – as opposed to the wannabe stars who’ll never learn – will gradually increase.

 

Are you one of those people who are willing to bite the bullet, and learn to dance? Or are you always in search of the special magic that you think will instantly transform your dancing to an other-worldly place without having to do the work? Whichever you are, I hope you’ll continue to pursue Tango; but if you really want to learn by embracing the basics, I welcome you to the fold.

 

 

September 15, 2011

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When you watch a couple dance Tango, what it is that makes you think, "They're good."  All of us might come up with different answers to that question; but I'm going to tell you what mine is, and you can judge whether it coincides with your own.

 

Let's say I notice this couple just as they form the embrace before beginning to dance. I see that he approaches his partner gently, encircling the center of her back with his right arm and taking her right hand in his without pulling her off balance, and that they seem well connected while maintaining necessary independence for maximum efficiency of movement. As they take their first step in the dance, it is as if one person were moving; it has grace, elegance, and ends in perfect balance. As they continue their dance, they move with simplicity, intimacy, and with an obvious connection to the music. Their entire dance together seems effortless. Nothing is forced. Nothing appears recently lifted from YouTube. Nothing is "false."

 

No one can do what I've just described without a lot of concentration, serious practice, lessons, and time on the dance floor. And even then, it may happen once or twice during the course of an evening of dancing. But when it happens, it's like magic.

 

A question you might now ask is: "How can I begin to find these qualities in my dancing?"

 

To this I would answer that the first thing to concentrate on is upright posture. Next is balance between individual steps - the sense of finishing each movement as if it is the end of the dance. When we form the connection, it must be comfortable and balanced, with each of us maintaining full independence. Finally, when we begin to move together, it must be with a mastery of lead/follow skills, along with complete concentration on each other in order to create the illusion of moving as one person.

 

Would you like to try this? It starts with your first step in every dance, with every partner. And it moves on from there.

 

 

Tango tip of the week - 9-08-11 - Tribute to Bert Stanger

 

Fran's tango tip this week is so poignant and heartfelt that it deserves a separate message.  It made me cry.  I will send this week's newsletter later tonight.   

 

 

Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. As many of you know, Bert Stanger, husband of Estelle, father of Elana, Firehouse regular, and our very good friend, died of cancer recently. I want to pass along to you, his fellow Tango dancers at the Firehouse, what Bert taught me about dancing Tango.

 

In 2002, I began holding my weekly Saturday practica at Dance Manhattan. Initially, we had somewhere between 10 and 15 people in attendance. Since many of them were my students, I spent the bulk of the 2 hours solving dance problems and giving pointers in order to help these students get better.

 

One Saturday, a "real" dancer came to the practica. "What is this guy doing here?" I thought. His rhythm was superb; he moved effortlessly around the floor; he danced with all the women; he seemed truly at home with Tango. I assumed he was from Argentina.

 

At some point, I decided to ask his name - I wondered whether I should try speaking to him in Spanish - but opted instead for English for fear of embarrassing myself by saying the wrong thing. To tell you the truth, I was slightly intimidated by the quality of his dance craft - I mean, he made it all look so easy!

 

Our conversation went something like this:

 

"Hi, I'm Fran Chesleigh; I host this practica. Are you from Argentina?"

 

Big smile.

 

"No, actually I'm from the Bronx."

 

Stunned.

 

"Really! What's your name, if I may ask."

 

"Bert."

 

I was nothing short of nonplussed. I asked Bert how he learned to dance Tango so well. He told me he hadn't learned Tango yet - he was just starting out.

 

"You're kidding right?"

 

"No, seriously."

 

 I stammered something about how great he was for someone who was a beginning dancer. He insisted that he had no idea what he was doing, and that he was just imitating what he saw other people doing. Then, he asked:

 

"Could you watch me from time to time, and tell me what I'm doing wrong?"

 

Stifling the urge to choke, I muttered something about, well, yes, of course, I'll be happy to give you a few pointers once in a while .... But what I was thinking was that Bert looked like he had been dancing Tango all his life, and anything I might say could possibly ruin a good thing. My inclination was to shut up and enjoy the show.

 

Over the years that I've known Bert, I've watched his dancing a lot. Because I'm a teacher, our interactions regarding dance have revolved principally around my dispensing steps, and Bert joining classes, trying to figure out how to make these things his own.  He didn't particularly like this process. He often told me that he felt a bit dyslexic, and did everything backwards.

 

I always said: "You just keep doing what you do and don't worry about dance steps."

 

Bert was a natural. He had grace; he had rhythm; he had timing; he had a sense of the floor - meaning that he rarely collided with other dancers. Two other qualities that I saw in Bert, qualities that I will forever try to emulate in my own dancing: Bert had boundless humility and joy. These qualities defined Bert's life in general, of course. At his funeral, and then at his shiva, anyone who spoke about Bert commented again and again about these laudable qualities. And to see them reflected in his dancing was something wondrous.

 

If Bert were still with us, I know he'd shrug off all this praise with a comment like:

 

"Oh, well..."

 

But I won't let him get away with that. By the way he danced - and by the way Bert lived his all too short life - he taught me, and I guess many other people, a profound lesson in not only how to dance, but how to be on this earth.

 

I will never forget Bert Stanger. I will miss his presence in my life, and I will try my very best to emulate what he taught me.

 

 

 

September 1, 2011

 

Hello everyone, Pat here. I am delighted to be bringing you our Tango Tip this week! The subject is one of the most important, and yet most difficult fundamental movements in Tango - the follower's back step.

 

It is surprising to us how many followers - even those who are not complete beginners -- have never learned this essential technique. They take a back step that is hardly longer than the length of their foot, bending at the knee and falling backward onto their other foot. So what happens? They don't look at all as if they're dancing Tango, and they get stepped on!!

 

Of course, correct backward movement requires continual practice after learning how to do it properly, each and every time the follower gets up to dance, and possibly this is a commitment that many followers are just not prepared for, or willing to undertake. Nevertheless, in the interests of making every effort to help you improve your dance, followers, (and this will pay back big time!) here is a detailed guide on the correct technique for the followers' back step.

 

Let's assume that you are in a Tango embrace with your leader. He has already shifted your weight onto one foot; you are balanced and about to start the dance with a back step. I am now going to break down your back step technique into 3 parts, as if in slow-motion:

 

1.    Keeping your upper body in place with your weight slightly forward on you axis, upper body and head straight up, extend your free leg backwards from the hip joint - trying to keep your leg straight without actually locking the knee -- and point your foot, so that your toe is resting lightly on the floor. Keep all your weight where your leader has placed it and do not move your upper body! This motion should engage the muscles in your lower back, hip and upper leg. If you do not feel these muscles working, you are not doing this technique correctly.

 

2.    Still keeping your upper body in position, smoothly roll your weight onto the extended leg, through the toe and the rest of the foot until all your weight is on this leg and you are balanced.

 

3.    Bring your feet together, ankle to ankle, and wait for the next lead.

 

As you can tell, there is crucial technique happening in all three parts of this movement. Balance plays a pivotal role, so if you get your leg extended correctly and your toe in position, you cannot just fall onto the foot. You must continue to employ fundamental balance as you roll your weight onto the foot, and bring your feet together to complete the movement.

 

In the beginning, followers, you may find that using this technique for your back steps creates a somewhat jerky movement, but if you practice enough it will soon smooth out and you will look much more like a real Tango dancer. And, imagine the best benefit of all--you should never get stepped on again!

 

 

August 25, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. I have a question for followers:

 

 How do you finish an ocho?

 

Let’s think it through together. We’ll pretend we’re being asked to execute a forward ocho:

 

To initiate the movement, the leader invites the follower to pivot. As she is completing her pivot, the leader gives her the lead for a forward walk. Now, if he wants the follower to “complete” the ocho, he leads another pivot, and then another walk. This brings her back to her original position.

 

We generally think of ocho as consisting of two pivots and two walking movements (as described above) to make a complete “figure 8” movement. With this in mind then, the answer to my question might be that the follower finishes her ocho by completing her second pivot and walk.

 

Now, I want followers to rethink the movement. If a leader asks you to execute only the first pivot and the first walk – and then leads something else – it’s still an ocho. Even though you weren’t asked to “complete” the “figure 8” sequence. An obvious example of this would be a molinete. In molinete, a leader might initiate the first half of a forward ocho, then a side step, then the first half of a backward ocho, and finally a side step in order to invite what could be called a “complete” molinete circuit. Each of those ochos would still be considered an ocho, even though both halves weren’t completed.

 

So, when we think of ocho, what we’re really talking about is a pivot and a walk. (To be precise, when the follower executes this sequence of movements, her upper body is turned toward her leader from beginning to end.) If this, then, is ocho, I’ll ask the question again:

 

How do we finish an ocho?

 

The answer is that we pivot the lower half of our body to face the leader. The upper half is already facing him. We complete the action by realigning our lower half to face him, too. As followers, we do this on our own; i.e., we don’t have to be invited by the leader to finish the movement. It’s an automatic realignment, based on the principal that the leader and follower always attempt to face one another in the dance.

 

A beginning follower doesn’t know to do this. After each walking movement within an ocho, she will wait to be invited by the leader to turn herself to face him. (Eventually, she’ll learn to turn on her own.) And, in fact, when an experienced follower turns herself to face a beginning leader at the end of such a movement, the neophyte leader will sometimes inappropriately scold her by saying: “I didn’t lead that!” Of course, he didn’t. He wasn’t supposed to lead it. That was her job, and she knows it.

 

The bottom line here is that each of the walking movements within an ocho finishes with the follower rotating her lower half to face the leader. If the leader then wants to continue the ocho, he enhances her rotation by offering an invitation to continue pivoting, which then aligns the follower to execute the next walk in the ocho.

 

 

August 18, 2011

 

 

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the things that makes dancing Tango difficult for beginners (and for lots of people who consider themselves advanced as well) is that much of the techniques we use are counterintuitive. By this I mean that your common sense or instinct often tells you something should be one way, and yet it turns out to be the complete opposite.

 

Let me start with some typical followers’ technique.

 

When a leader takes you into his arms, your natural inclination may be to rise up on your toes or on the balls of your feet, and lean forward, resting on his chest (or, ahem, stomach).

 

Elevating yourself in this way and leaning on him will tend to make you feel comfortable. It will make you feel taken care of. It’s relaxing – and it’s totally wrong. In fact, what you need to do instead is exactly the opposite; i.e., stay down on your whole foot in order to afford yourself maximum stability. You also have to remain on your own balance. If you lean on him, even a little bit, it’s going to throw him completely off, and his balance will be hopelessly compromised.

 

Lots of professional female dancers dance entirely on their toes. I think it comes either from ballet training or from watching their own mentors who have been ballet trained prior to becoming involved in Tango careers. There’s even a “style” of Tango called apilado, which essentially means “piled up,” where some people actually lean on one another throughout the dance.

 

I think of these things as indicative of badly conceived technique. As my students, I hope you’ll consider trying to get them out of your dancing.

 

Now, here’s some leaders’ technique.

 

From the moment many leaders engage their partner in Tango, they literally pull her off balance; they grasp her in a vice-like bear hug; they push and pull her throughout the dance; they think of moving her around the dance floor in the same way that they might move a piece of uncooperative furniture.

 

I will readily admit that this is what our instinct tells us to do as leaders. I remember doing this myself, when I was first learning how to dance. In fact, when my teacher told me at the time that I was shoving her all over the floor, I couldn’t believe that it was true. We tend to do this unconsciously, because it just seems right. And even after we’ve finally learned the right way to lead, we tend to resort to “manhandling” whenever our partner doesn’t quite do what we want – even if we haven’t really led her to do so.

 

It’s easy for me to tell leaders “just don’t push or pull.” It’s much harder for you to  put this into practice. I personally learned to avoid “manhandling” through extensive dance lessons – by being monitored carefully by my very patient teacher, and by learning what good collaborative technique felt like. If you’re serious about becoming a good leader, I suggest that this would be an excellent way for you to accomplish it.

 

Just to wrap up: Tango may seem as if it calls for leaning on our partners; it may seem to invite aggressive controlling on the part of the leader … but when we eventually become aware that the dance is completely the opposite, we also learn how much more beautiful and fun it is to engage in.

 

 

 

August 11, 2011

 

This Week's Tango Tip - August 11, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Those of you who regularly read my Tango Tips or attend my classes have heard me say again and again that, in general, Tango is danced in discrete increments of one step at a time. The obvious corollary of this is that both leader and follower come to a definite stop, or at least pause in balance, between movements.

 

If you're currently working on acquiring this skill, you know by now how challenging it can be for each individual, and for the partnership as a collaborative unit. And to add to the challenge, there are times during the dance, when stopping between steps is actually inappropriate.

 

Just when you thought you had it figured out, it changes!

 

With the fundamental movements in the dance (forward, backward, side, and in-place), learning to stop after a single step is necessary. It doesn't mean that a leader can't choose to invite a continuous series of movement within what we'll call a "sequence." This is a common occurrence in Tango. However, the follower never knows whether this is going to happen - so she has to come to rest at the end of each step, thereby making in the job of the leader to continue offering one invitation after the next in order to produce a continuous sequence.

 

The question is: When does the follow move continuously by herself? The answer is: during molinete.

 

To invite a molinete (continuous grapevine movement around the leader), all the leader has to do (once the sequence has been initiated by leading either a forward or backward ocho to either side) is to turn his body in the direction he wants his follower to move. As long as he keeps turning, her job is to continue moving, using the molinete formula (forward, side, back, side or back, side, forward, side) - until he comes to a stop.

 

Technically, of course, the leader is still, in fact, leading - by this turning of the body. But the lead feels to the follower far more remote and disconnected than if her partner were providing her with individual movement leads as he does in any linear sequence. In the molinete she feels more or less as if she's doing everything herself.

 

Since the leader is inviting the follower to move within molinete simply by turning his body continuously, the follower doesn't take one step, then stop and wait for further invitation. She begins the sequence with either a forward or backward ocho, and then continues moving until the leader stops turning. Then, she finishes the step she is currently taking, and comes to rest.

 

Dancing molinete skillfully is an art within the art of Tango. It seems to change all the "rules." In your Tango studies, I believe that it's important to treat molinete as a separate skill, learning it as well as you can, and then integrating it in with the rest of the dance. If you have questions about this important aspect of Tango, ask Pat or me. We'll be happy to help.

 

 

August 4, 2011

 

Because Fran  left out the end of last week's tango tip, I've repeated the entire tip.

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Recently, in a class I was teaching, a woman asked me: "Why do I have so much trouble balancing myself at the end of most of my steps?" This was more or less what I replied to her:

 

First of all, it's admirable that you even notice the problem. Most dancers (both followers and leaders) don't even start to be aware of an existing problem in balance until it has been brought to their attention by a teacher. So, noticing the problem at all puts you way ahead of the game. A major reason why people don't notice a problem with balance in the first place is that our preconception of dancing in general and Tango in particular - what wethink it's going to be like - is quite different from the reality. We think that Tango consists of a continuous series of progressive movements, which start when the music starts, and end when the music ends. In other words, we think about the motion, but we don't think about the stops - as if they're going to somehow take care of themselves.

 

But, of course, they don't. Tango (you've heard me say this again and again) is a dance of movement and of stillness. We have to learn not only how to move, but how to effect stillness in order to create a Tango which incorporates all the appropriate elements.  

 

Once we become sensitized to the need for balance at the end of every step, we can try the following exercise:

 

Stand alone in the middle of a room (preferably one which doesn't have any other people in it), and slowly, one step at a time, attempt your five basic walking skills; i.e., forward steps, backward steps, side steps, in-place weight changes, and pauses. At the end of each step, concentrate on bringing yourself into balance on the leg to which you changed your weight in order to move.

 

Repeat this exercise until you're confident that you can balance without needing to "catch" yourself by falling to, or having to somehow support yourself on, the other leg.

 

Now, you're ready to try this with a partner. Here is where you may find that things change quite remarkably. Even if you've been able to move in balance by yourself with consistency, when you attempt the same movements in the context of the Tango embrace, you may find them almost impossible.

 

There could be many reasons for this. Your partner may be unconsciously pulling or pushing you off balance - maybe he or she is using you as a leaning post at the end of every step. If this is happening, you have to begin to notice that the balance problem isn't yours; it's your partner's. You may not be in a position in which you can actually tell your partner that this is occurring, but at least noticing it helps you to be aware that it isn't your fault.

 

A more general cause of the problem is that when we come into close proximity with another person - as we do in effecting the embrace -- we may have an automatic inclination to interact with one another, to make a "connection." If we don't understand precisely what the embrace is, this connection will tend to be one of leaning on or grasping the other person in some way - which will make balance difficult or simply not possible. (This is why I do not teach or in any way subscribe to the current, will-it-ever-die fad of hanging on each other in order to create a so-called "close embrace.")

 

Once you've been able to identify clearly where your balance problems come from - and most of them in my opinion come from the embrace - you, your partner, and your teacher can work together to gradually solve them. It all starts with thinking about balance, not as one of the problems in Tango, but as the problem in Tango.

 

 

 

 

 

July 28, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Can you stop after any given step you take in Tango? Can you easily put on the brakes and come to a comfortable, balanced rest? If so, you're dancing Tango the way people do in Argentina. If not ... you're not.

Tango is a dance in which impetus - or what we might describe as inertia in motion - is very rarely utilized in fundamental movement. A simple example of such impetus would be using the first step you take in order to propel yourself into the second step, or the second and third steps. With impetus, you create a sense of inevitable continuous motion, which would be quite difficult for you to stop once you get going.

 

A typical example for leaders is a continuous forward run in which you induce your follower to move backward several steps in sequence at considerable speed. When you suddenly come to a stop, she will almost certainly find it virtually impossible to halt her movement by herself.

 

For followers, a very common example of impetus occurs with molinete. You begin by dancing a forward or backward ocho, and the rest of your movement around the leader gets completely out of control. You find yourself crossing one leg over the other at great speed, and stopping becomes pretty much out of the question. (You can, of course, be more or less forced to do this by the leader; but often a follower will behave this way on her own.)

 

For those of us who engage in various forms of American ballroom dance, continuous movement is quite commonplace. This is the way we dance. But in Tango, where movement and stillness each play important roles, this kind of continuous movement defeats the aesthetic of the dance.

 

When you come to my basic class on Thursdays at the Firehouse, you may remember that I place great emphasis on what I call "single-step movement." In this class you get to practice the rather specific and somewhat difficult skill of coming to a stop after every step you take. You learn the value of movement, which has virtually no impetus; i.e., no individual step necessitates continuation into a succeeding step. Once you've begun to treat each individual step as a complete unit in and of itself, you're ready to attempt building sequences of steps. These sequences consist of two or more individual steps taken one after the other - without hurtling yourself or your partner onward - always maintaining a sense of coming to the end of one step before continuing to the next.

 

As your dance becomes more technically advanced with the addition of complex movements as ocho and molinete, these same skills of building sequences one step at a time continue to apply. And in this way, coming to a comfortable, balanced rest is always a viable option.

 

As a leader, your job is to make sure you always allow your follower to come to the end of any given step before you lead her into the next one. This doesn't mean you have to come to a dead stop between one step and another, but you do have to create a sense of completion with each movement before continuing.

 

As a follower, even if your leader is trying to get you to move too quickly, you have to attempt to find the end of each step before taking the next. This can be very challenging, if your leader is either not paying attention to your movements, or is totally focused on the completion of a memorized figure. In either case, you're going to have the feelings that you're on your own - and, in fact, in such instances I'm afraid that you are.

 

With practice and concentration, both leader and follower can effectively incorporate the skill of dancing without inappropriate impetus. When this is eventually mastered, Tango will take on a character that will feel completely different from - and far more sophisticated than -- just running around a room.

 

 

July 21, 2011

 

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. What's the most important thing to remember, when you're dancing Tango? You guessed it; you have to remember to have FUN! If you're not enjoying the experience, it's not worth doing. Period.

 

This leads me to a few thoughts about what has become a stereotypical woman's approach to the dance. A leader asks you to dance, maybe you know him; maybe you don't. The first thing most women think at this point is something like: "I hope I do well; I hope I don't make too many mistakes."

 

Your immediate mental state is defensive; you're getting yourself all ready to take the blame for anything that goes wrong in the interaction between you and your partner. You approach the dance with a feeling that it might be nice if it were fun, but there are so many chances for things to fall apart - and all of them will be your fault - that you just can't let go, and enjoy yourself.

 

Does this sound familiar? This seems to be an almost universal condition that afflicts women who dance. And even if you don't start out feeling this way, the overwhelming majority of leaders will try to convince you that when things go wrong, it's because of something that YOU did, or didn't do, or whatever.

 

The plain fact of the matter is that most problems, which occur in Tango are caused by leaders, who don't know how to lead. Assuming that you have some experience as a follower - meaning that you understand the specific leads for each type of movement - you know by this time that when you dance with a leader who gives you those leads, you can follow him pretty well. You also know by this time that if you DON'T get those leads from a leader, you're dead in the water ... except that he'll probably try to convince you that he IS leading you properly when, in fact, he's not.

 

I want you to adopt a new attitude in your dancing. I want you to approach each dance by saying to yourself: "This is going to be fun. I'm going to enjoy myself now." Forget about setting yourself up for blame and criticism. If you can start out this new way, when you're dancing with a truly skilled leader, the dance will begin to feel effortless. Why? Because part of being a skilled leader is to MAKE YOU FEEL THAT WAY. Furthermore, if you're not tense and defensive, your senses will be wide open to be able to receive and respond to appropriate leads easily.

 

On the other hand, if your leader of the moment doesn't have the requisite skills, you'll be able to feel it right away. There won't be any question about it. "This guy cannot lead!" And when he tries to lay the blame on you, you'll know better. It might not make that particular dance feel any better, but you'll be completely aware that none of it is, in fact, your fault.

 

This new attitude will take a lot of courage, and a lot of practice. But I know you can do it. Just remember: "This is going to be fun. I'm going to enjoy myself now."

 

 

 

July 14, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For those of you who may have read my Tango Tip last week, you will remember that I compared what the average leader brings to any given partnership -- which is usually a repertoire of memorized choreography - to what the average follower brings - which is usually a sense of unease or apprehension at what is going to happen during the dance. What is missing in this equation, I asserted, is a precise and well-practiced reservoir of skill in the crucial art of lead and follow.

 

This week, I want to amplify this idea, by describing a typical interaction between leader and follower, in which the leader attempts to invite his follower to execute a backocho. I'll talk about what usually happens; then, what I believe should happen in the well-honed lead/follow collaboration.

 

In the worst-case scenario, neither the leader nor his follower understand the complex skill of leading and following - although both have been dancing Tango for a considerable length of time. In attempting to invite the back ocho, this leader neglects to pivot his follower, but rather simply twists her around, as he pushes her in the general direction of the back ocho. This sudden action sends her sharply to one side, and she extends her leg more or less behind herself in order to keep from falling off balance.

 

This is what passes for the first half of the movement. During the second half, she gets the idea of what he wants, and pivots herself without being led, and, in fact, moves awkwardly backward to complete the ocho unassisted in order to save herself from being shoved again.

 

At the conclusion of this fiasco, this leader is perfectly satisfied that he has effectively led a credible back ocho, and will repeat this inept process again and again, with many different followers.

 

In the best case scenario, both leader and follower understand the lead/follow collaboration, and are prepared, therefore, to work together in complete harmony during the leading and following of any figure. As such a leader invites a back ocho, for example, he starts by giving his follower the very small but clear lead for a pivot. He waits for her to receive the signal and execute the movement, and only then offers her the invitation to walk backward. As she comes into balance at the end of her walk, he gently but clearly invites her to pivot in the opposite direction. Again, he waits for her to execute the movement before asking for the second walk. At the end of the second walk, he waits for his follower to align her lower half with her shoulders, a task, which he knows belongs to her, and only then does he consider attempting some other movement. For her part, this follower understands that her leader is going to wait for her to complete every individual element within the figure before leading the next one, and she therefore feels complete confidence in executing each element at her own comfort level.

 

People who dance together need to have complementary lead/follow skills, in order to make the dance work. If a leader possesses the requisite skills, and the follower doesn't, they really cannot effectively dance together. If the follower has the skills, but the leader doesn't, it's even worse.

 

I urge you as a leader who wants to be a good Tango dancer, I urge you as a follower who wants to be a good Tango dancer, to learn what leading and following are, and to get really expert at these skills. Your dancing will improve tremendously, and the world will be a better place.

 

 

 

July 7, 2011

 

Typically, a leader starts out with a vague notion that he'll draw from a vocabulary of learned steps, which he currently has in his repertoire   ... or maybe he's just come from a class, and now he has a brand new figure he wants to try (which he really hasn't practiced enough to be able to execute with any degree of competence yet). In general, he most likely wants to impress his partner with what he knows in order to set himself off from the crowd, and to prevent her from becoming bored.

 

If the follower has danced with this leader before, she probably remembers to some extent what it's like to dance with him ("he makes me feel comfortable" ... or "when I dance with him, I feel like I don't know what I'm doing"). If it's the first time for her, she may become quite tense in anticipation of who knows what!

 

Does this sound accurate? Let me put it another way: The leader is operating from a base of choreography (memorized movements), and the follower is operating from a base of unease - even fear.

 

Now, let's rewind. Let's propose a different focus for both the leader and the follower, which will enable them to engage one another, and both be working on the exact same thing right from the beginning of the dance. What is it? The lead/follow collaboration.

 

In my first lesson at the Firehouse, we work on the lead/follow connection almost every week. We break it down into its very definite component parts; we explore it with a series of progressive exercises; and we take both leaders and followers to the point where with a little ongoing practice they can within a reasonable time become quite proficient at this crucial skill on the dance floor. If you've been in any of these classes, you've heard me say again and again not that the lead/follow collaboration is necessary for the dance, but that it IS the dance.

 

When you get together with a partner, and your mutual focus is to move comfortably and confidently with one another - and you both possess the knowledge and skill to accomplish this - everything in Tango becomes possible. All the doors open. On the other hand, if your focus remains on choreography and on fear, the doors stays firmly shut tight, and your dancing continues to go nowhere.

 

I'm telling you this, because I want you to be a good dancer, and I want you to enjoy dancing with a variety of partners with comfort and confidence. And because of my years of experience both as a dancer and as a teacher, I know what the right path is to getting there.

 

One of these weeks, instead of thinking to yourself, Fran's first class is just for beginners, come in and try it. You will be pleasantly surprised to find, I think, that the class is actually for very advanced dancers who want to finally make a life-changing commitment to honing their emerging skills to perfection.

 

People like you.

 

 

June 30, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Here's a little scene that happens to me time and time again. A male student approaches me and asks, "What does she do, when I do this?"  -- (followed by an elaborate footwork sequence he and his partner of the moment may have learned in a class somewhere.)

 

I could answer by simply saying "I don't know." And, in fact, this used to be the way I handled such a question. Now, I ask instead, "What would you like her to do?"

 

Underlying the student's original question is, of course, a sequence of learned choreography. It is commonplace for leaders and followers to remember all or at least part of what they learned, but completely forget what their partner is supposed to be doing at the same time. Days, weeks, or even months later, a leader may approach a teacher (as has so often happened to me), and ask the teacher to somehow recreate the entire choreography of the vaguely recalled sequence, based solely on a sketchy and usually inaccurate reiteration of the leader's part. Such inquiry is probably based on the inexperienced leader's presumption that every step a leader takes is inevitably connected to only one possible step by his follower ... or something like that.

 

The fact is that for any movement made in Tango by a leader, the follower might be invited to execute any number of possible steps. And for every movement a follower makes, the leader could accompany her in myriad ways. The result of this is that knowing one part in the equation simply does not provide enough information to piece together a learned sequence of forgotten choreography.

 

But let's get back to my answer to the inquisitive student. I say, "What would you like her to do?"

 

This is what dancing Tango is about. While it is true that contemporary American ballroom dancing is taught as a series of prefabricated bits of choreography (I do this and she does that), Tango should not even be conceived of in that way. In Tango the leader's focus should be on some simple movement that he wants his follow to execute. If we remember that from the follower's point of view Tango consists of only six fundamental elements - pause, in-place, forward, backward, side, and pivot - the leader's responsibility is to select one of these elements and invite his follower to respond by executing that element and only that element. Once this has been accomplished, he starts again with another lead for another element. Thus, Tango progresses step by inevitable step.

 

At no time does the leader search his mind for that elusive sequence of movements he learned in a class - a sequence which at that time seemed written in stone, and yet now cannot even be recalled, since there are so many other possibilities in the moment.

 

"So, what do I do with all the things I'm learning in my classes?" you might ask. My advice would be to enjoy them while you're learning them, try to put everything you have into mastering them, then forget them and focus on the process of dancing improvisationally. Eventually, all the information you're accumulating will find its way back to you in your own dance.

 

For now just keep asking yourself, "What would I like her to do now?"

 

 

 

 

June 23, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the things we constantly hear about Tango is that there are NO steps in the dance - meaning, of course, no learned figures. For American dancers, this seems to cut us off at the knees right from the beginning, since the entire pedagogy of all American/European/Latin dancing centers around amassing an ongoing series of figures -- usually in a sequential order according to degree of difficulty.

We see Tango on stage, on YouTube, etc., and we scratch our heads. How can a dance that looks to be so complex not consist of learned steps? For the answer that question, we have to talk about the concept of improvisation.

When we dance, a leader and a follower form an embrace, and move together to music on a dance floor. If we focus exclusively on WHAT they do - rather than how they do it - we can categorize their actions into three possible modes:

1.     Planned actions, either memorized or choreographed

2.     Random actions

3.     Improvised actions

In American social dancing of all kinds, our contemporary way of dancing consists entirely of planned actions. We learn figures by studying with a teacher, attempting to emulate what we see on a dance video, or perhaps by watching and learning from other dancers. The degree to which we master any given dance depends to a major extent on how thoroughly we memorize a standardized repertoire.

The beginning dancer's first question is: "What do I do?" If this question is not immediately answered by somehow providing him/her with one or more dance steps, the beginning couple may try to move randomly; i.e., without any direction whatever. This generally fails rather quickly, and when a teacher comes to the rescue with a few planned patterns of movement, the students are very much relieved that at last they know what to do. Thus, after the uncomfortable experience of attempting random actions, they hungrily welcome the rigidly structured pedagogy of planned actions.

Argentine Tango consists neither in planned patterns nor in random, unstructured movement. It is a dance that is based on improvisation. This means that the leader has an idea of the possibilities for individual movement - for example, I teach that there are six fundamental elements he can invite his follower to execute at any given time; i.e., pauses, side steps, forward steps, backward steps, in-place changes of weight, and pivots. (Of course, there are many other elements he can also bring to bear at a more advanced level.) When the leader creates an improvisation, he selects from this group of elements each time he has come to the end of any given step (single movement). In this way, the dance unfolds from beginning to end - without drawing upon memorized repertoire.

Because dancing in this way is so different from what we in this country are used to, it is quite intimidating to many, if not most, beginners. "Forget the improvisation," we say. "Just give me a couple of steps I can do." If we're in the care of a skilled, experienced teacher at this point, he or she will encourage us to continue working on improvisation rather than resorting to memorized patterns. Eventually, this will enable us to "break through" to our own individual way of improvising; i.e., to creating or own Tango. If, on the other hand, the teacher is the type who just gives the students what they want, he/she will offer us the patterns we're after - with the result that we'll learn a distorted version of Tango, rather than an authentic modality.

If you want to learn Tango, don't be satisfied with planned patterns. Don't be seduced by choreographed movements. Don't memorize anything - even though it's extremely tempting to do so, because you think you're taking the short cut to mastery. Take the longer, more traditional road by learning how to improvise, how to create your own individual dance. Then, when someone asks you "What do I do?" you'll be able to tell them, "Watch me."

 

 

June 16, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In America, we tend to think of dancing in general as continuous movement to music. We take the follower in our arms and move her around until the end of the dance. Or ... we start moving and assume she's going to move with us. (This is really what most men think dancing is.) Once we've taken a few lessons, we dimly come to realize that we actually have to lead the woman to move, or she's just going to stand there and smile at us. So we do our best to "lead" her steps, but as for our own movement, we continue to think of dancing as plodding around the room, stopping only when the music comes to an end.

 

This is not dancing. And it is certainly not Argentine Tango.

 

If you've ever taken one of my classes at the Firehouse, you've heard me say that "Tango is a dance of movement and stillness." You know that I continually stress the idea of stopping between steps as a crucially important skill - as opposed to gliding seamlessly from one step to another. This is one of the major differences between Argentine Tango and, let's say, American ballroom dancing.

 

With our own American progressive dances - dances such as Foxtrot, Slow Waltz, Viennese Waltz and American Tango - we routinely move continuously through each step into the next. We glide across the dance floor, always in fluid motion. The more effortlessly we're able to execute this skill, the better our dance will be. However, this is not at all true, when it comes to Argentine Tango.

 

With Tango, the end of each individual step must be treated as the clearly defined end of an action. This means that both leader and follower either have to come to a full stop, or, if the leader intends to continue with one or more additional steps in a sequence he may wish to create, he has to acknowledge the end of each individual step with a slight pause or "pulse."

 

As a leader, you have to incorporate these slight pauses into the endings of each step so that your follower can feel them. As a follower, you have to come to the end of each step and bring yourself to a stop under the assumption that there will not be an additional movement. As you are stopping, if your leader wants to continue, you'll feel him "pulsing" the end of the step as he then initiates the subsequent movement.

 

With all this in mind, I always emphasize developing the skill of single-step movement between leader and follower in my fundamental teaching. Only after this skill has been learned do I move on to the creation of continuous sequences by the leader.

 

The next time you dance Tango, please try to consider that the end of every step you take as a leader is an opportunity to stop - just as much as it is also an opportunity to "pulse" the step and then continue. Don't just automatically move to the next step, and the next and ... As a follower, make sure you bring yourself to a stop at the end of every step. Don't assume there will be another step, and extend your leg without specifically being invited to do so. If leaders and followers can incorporate this skill, your Tangos will be far more authentic as well as more enjoyable for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

June 2, 2011

 

Thankfully, Fran is back and so is his tango tip.

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Let me start by saying that Pat and I are delighted to be back at the Firehouse. I've been having kidney problems, which required that I spend some time in the hospital over the past couple of weeks. Now, things are getting back on an even keel, although my energy level isn't quite back to normal yet. Many thanks to everyone who asked about me during my absence. I appreciate your kindness very much.

 

Okay, let's talk about Tango! In teaching this dance, I break things down into three fundamental components:

 

1.     Figures

2.     Mastery of movement

3.     Creativity

 

The easiest of the above components to teach is the first - figures. In focusing the lesson on something concrete to do such as going to the cross, executing an ocho cortado or molinete, the teacher can guide the student in the specific geometry of the figure, selectively ignoring (or at least temporarily suspending) any critique of how the student is accomplishing the goal. Learning a figure is also precisely what the overwhelming majority of students want from a lesson. Students almost invariably believe (erroneously) that learning steps will create the impression that they know how to dance. Beyond that, learning figures is fun.

 

Teaching the second component - mastery of movement - is extremely difficult. It requires a commitment between the teacher and the individual student to engage fully in the process of going from not knowing how to move in the special way called for in Tango to the end result of mastering the craft by achieving mastery of movement. This process calls for personal attention - which, of course, means private lessons - with a teacher who is competent. It calls for maximum patience, humility and dedication on the part of both the teacher and the student, and even the beginning of real results may take several years to reach.

 

Teaching the third component - creativity - is in my opinion almost impossible. The teacher can demonstrate creativity, can encourage creative awakening in the student, and can point out dancers who are functioning creatively. But the creative spark must ultimately come from the inner being of the student. And yet, it often does! It continues to amaze me, for example, that there are people who weren't born in Argentina, who are absolutely gifted Tango dancers. This isn't the norm, of course, but these people are out there. (You may be one of them.)

 

What I try to do at the Firehouse is concentrate on the first component of the process - figures -- with as much of a smattering the second - mastery of movement -- as I think the majority of you can stand at any given time. But I encourage those of you who truly want to achieve something closer to mastery of Tango to explore the second component in greater depth. The reward is that you will look better on the dance floor even with the simplest movements, and that all the figures you execute will be better coordinated with music and be far better balanced.

 

See you on the dance floor.

 

 

April 28, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. ON Monday of next week Pat and I are headed to Buenos Aires for a 10-day trip. So we won't be at the Firehouse on the 5th; however, we'll be back for the following Thursday. We don't have the opportunity to travel to Argentina very often; so, when we go, I like to put together a personal checklist of dance dos and don'ts to help us while we're there. It occurred to me that this list might be helpful to you, so I'm going to share it with you.

 

This is my list (in no particular order):

 

·     Plan to have fun.

·     If you're a man, dance in street shoes. Special dance shoes are for tourists. If you're a woman, change your shoes some place other than at the table where you're seated by the maitre d'. (The ladies' room is a good bet.)

·     Don't begin dancing the moment the music begins. Wait until you see others begin to move. (This is usually 20 to 30 seconds into any given song.)

·     Enter the line of dance at a corner of the room rather than in the middle of the floor.

·     Do not attempt to execute any fancy figures - ever.

·     Make sure you can quickly abort any step or direction immediately, if necessary.

·     Develop an acute sense of the general dance floor flow, and go with it.

·     Don't bump into other people.

·     When you DO bump into them anyway (or when they bump into you), say "I'm sorry." "Lo siento" works in Spanish.

·     Maintain the line of dance at all times. When there's a bottleneck hold up, do something in place - rather than trying to cut around people in front of you.

·     Protect your partner at all times.

·     Chat amiably with your partner, while standing o the dance floor between individual songs of a "tanda." It doesn't matter what you talk about. Just look very interested.

·     When actually dancing, forget about figures that require more than three sequential movements.

·     Remember that no one in the room cares about or is watching you. They're only interested in themselves. If they look at you, it's to see whether you're looking at them.

 

Since Pat and I will be dancing together as a couple, we won't be engaging in the traditional "cabeceo" ritual of signaling for partners before each dance or tanda. For people who are "flying solo" at a milonga, there is a very complex code of behavior, which needs to be observed at all times. Monica Paz will be describing this in detail during a special workshop at the Firehouse in a few weeks.

 

In any event, Pat and I will miss all of you. We hope you miss us - though not perhaps too much -- and we look forward to seeing you again in two weeks.

 

 

 

 

April 21, 2011

 

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. There is an idea of partner dancing that beginners (and lots of so-called advanced practitioners) maintain. It could be described as the "Me Tarzan, you Jane" image. The leader sweeps the follower off her feet, using his huge, muscular arms. He carries her around the floor as if she were a rag doll, and at the end of the dance he deposits her back to earth. The follower surrenders herself happily and completely to the leader's blandishments - swooning in his powerful embrace - rhapsodic over the opportunity to lose all control for a breathless few minutes.

 

Okay, now that we've gotten that out of our systems, let's talk about reality.

 

In fact, the lead/follow connection is an extremely precise relationship between two people in which one partner - traditionally the man - assumes the role of inviting movement, while the other partner - traditionally the woman - assumes the role of responder. (In contemporary dancing her in the United States women often assume the role of leader, and a few brave, enlightened men even try their hands at following.)

 

Throughout the dance, both partners maintain their own, individual balance at all times. Neither partner in any way leans on, pushes or pulls the other. The leads occur as a result of specific movements emanating from the leader's torso.

 

One of the paradoxes of Tango is that the two partners seems to be entwined in a very close, interdependent embrace - while in reality they are each completely independent of one another except for playing out their lead/follow roles.

 

In your dancing (whether you're a leader or a follower), try to pay careful attention to your own balance and to the integrity of your own position. At the same time, make absolutely certain that you're not imposing yourself on your partner either while at rest or in motion by leaning, clinging, pushing or pulling. Just becoming aware of this will make your dance much better.

 

 

 

April 14, 2011

 

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Learning exactly how to lead a follower is crucial to becoming a fine Tango dancer. But most men either don't receive the skills they need through their teachers, or they just don't put in the time necessary to achieve this goal. Instead of good leading practices, what we see quite often is what I sometimes call "indicating." This can take many different forms, but let me briefly describe the ones, which are the most common.

 

1.    The head thrust. The leader literally pushes his head forward as if this will be sufficient to give his follower the information she needs to move backward.

 

2.    The shove. Believing that he has to push his follower ahead of him, the leader uses his arms to literally shove her backward or pull her forward as he moves his own body.

 

3.    The jutting leg. The leader sends his leg in whatever direction he plans to step, somehow believing that his follower will respond to a flailing leg.

 

4.    Mind control. The leader has heard that "intention" is important is producing a good lead, so he focuses hard on what he wants his follower to do, believing that she will be able to discern his intention from this concentration.

 

5.     Teaching. When all else fails, the leader simply tells his follower what she is supposed to do, usually in a highly critical tone, which is designed to make her feel that if only she were a better follower she'd know.

 

The fact is that good leading comes from one place - the leader's torso. Sine I've talked about this many times in other contexts, I won't spell out the details of leading/following in great detail here. But as a quick reminder, these are the individual skills that need to be mastered:

 

1.    An absence of movement produces a pause or rest.

2.    A small lateral motion produces a weight change in place.

3.    A lowering action, followed immediately by a larger lateral or front/back movement produces variously a side step a forward step or a backward step.

 

Leaders - please make a commitment to learning how to use the tools of leading in order to produce movement from your follower. It will be the best investment of time and energy you could possibly make in your Tango career.

 

 

April 7, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Ladies, do you ever st-st-st-stutter, when you dance Tango? In some cases, it could help make for a more comfortable experience. Let's take an instance in which your leader takes you to la cruzada, but as you cross you feel that his body is just too close to yours, and you begin to fall backward. Of course, the leader should be aware of this problem, and should make sure it doesn't happen in the first place ... but in the real world this occurs more often than we'd like. So what can a follower do to take care of herself at a time like this?

 

Stutter!

 

Well, what I'm really talking about is a movement called traspie. This is a small, double-time action of the feet that resembles stumbling or stuttering. There are lots of different kinds of traspies that can be incorporated into your Tango, but this one is very specific. As you complete your cross, simply slide your right foot back about two inches, then quickly slide your front (left) foot against it. These two small movements will move your body far enough away from the leader so that you will now be able to balance comfortably without feeling his hot breath in your ear.

 

A similar instance is that of a sideward movement in which the leader takes a far longer step than his follower, and pulls her off balance. (This usually happens, when the leader moves to his left side.) As a follower you can be taken right off your feet in such a movement, while your leader may be completely oblivious to what he has done. To protect yourself, the stutter (or traspie) can be a big help here. As you move to the side and start to feel that his step is much longer than yours, bring your feet together and quickly extend your leading leg out to the side again. Ballroom dancers call this a chasse or side-together-side movement. You'll end up taking three short steps to his one step in order to match the length of his unpleasantly long movement, but you'll protect yourself from falling off balance.

 

Try these "tricks of the trade" and see whether they make your Tango more comfortable. If you'd like to see a demonstration, just ask Pat or me, and we'll be happy to oblige.

 

March 31, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Ladies, I have two words for you: Too Soon!

Let's assume you're dancing with a competent leader. Yeah, yeah, I know, go find one. All right, enough of that. You're dancing with a competent leader, and he invites a single backward step. You take the step, and then stick your other leg out the back for what you're absolutely positive will be the next movement.

Too soon!

Your leader wants you to execute a forward ocho, so he invites the pivot. Not only do you pivot, but you walk forward, pivot again and walk forward again. All he had to do was ask for the pivot, and you executed the whole movement.

Too soon!

The leader creates a barrera at the end of a forward ocho. You practically jump over it in order to get to the other side.

Too soon!

The leader slowly moves you through a salida to a cruzada. You decide to cross quickly rather than wait for the appropriate cadence in the music.

Too soon!

These are all examples of how followers can take over the dance, usually in a misguided attempt to do the right thing. In each of these cases, the leader would have wanted the follower to execute the movements in question, but not on her own; i.e. not until he specifically led them.

The success of a Tango depends upon a precise lead/follow relationship. After inviting any movement, the expectation of a competent leader is that his follower completes the action, then brings herself into balanced rest. This way, she becomes automatically available for any movement he may ask for thereafter. If she is out of balance in any way - an this includes anticipating or actually executing the next movement - the lead/follow relationship is compromised beyond recovery.

How do you quickly overcome doing things too soon? Wait for the lead. Even if you're absolutely convinced that a given movement will be next, wait for the lead. Some leader have so become used to their followers anticipating the next movement that they don't even bother to lead them anymore.

Wait for the lead. And just maybe you'll never be too soon again.

 

March 24, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When a follower is led to dance a forward or backward ocho, two questions that may arise in her mind are: "How long a step do I take?' and "Where exactly do I go?" In executing forward ochos, for example, followers often move from one side to the other in a straight line, and in backward ochos they quite often actually move away from their leaders. As to the length of these steps - they tend to resort to guess work.

Let's try to clear the air a bit, and help followers understand their role in the direction and length of step for both these somewhat complex movements.

Ocho - whether forward of backward - is essentially a part of molinete - what we might refer to as grapevine - and as such generally moves around the leader. The leader's role is to invite a forward or backward ocho - but not to physically direct or carry his follower through the movement. It is up to the follower to understand the possibilities for ocho and to move in accordance with what she feels in the moment. I know that this may sound a bit ambiguous and abstract, so let me try to spell it out in detail.

When executing an ocho the follower tries to imagine an invisible circle surrounding her partner, and tries to remain somewhere on that circle. In forward ocho, therefore, rather than moving from side to side, she picks a spot on the circle and travels there in order to complete one leg of her ocho.

In forward ocho, the follower has to make sure not to get too close to her leader by "cutting off" or "closing" the circle. (This will tend to throw him off balance as she invades his space.) In backward ocho the follower has to be sure not to move outside this circle, which will pull the leader forward and also create significant imbalance. Moving away from the leader occurs when the follower underturns her rotation prior to taking her step.

This should give followers a better idea of where to move. Now, let's talk about how large or small a step to take in executing ocho. In inviting ocho, the leader rotates his torso in the direction he wants his follow to travel. This provides the follower with a good idea of how far to travel in her execution of the movement. The overriding principle here is that the follower's responsibility is to attempt to remain in front of her leader at all times. If he turns slowly and only slightly, her step in ocho will therefore tend to be relatively small. If he turns vigorously and with the obvious intent to produce a longer traveling movement, her step will tend to be longer.

My hope is that the above information isn't too confusing, and that it gives followers at least the beginnings of a guideline as to the appropriate execution of ocho. I think it is important to mention here that the lead in all of this is crucial. If a follower is blessed by having a skilled leader, the door is open to developing the right execution of ocho. If, on the other hand, she is cursed with a leader who's idea of leading ocho is maintaining a static torso, and shoving her to one side or the other with his arms, all bets are off. Her only recourse in such a case is to race to the nearest exit, and get herself as far away from such a brute as possible.

March 19, 2011

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. The theme of this week's Tango Tip is readiness.

Readiness for what?

Readiness to take the next step in the dance, whatever it may be. For a follower to be ready for her next movement, she has to be perfectly balanced and at rest. She can't be falling through space; she can't be finishing a previous movement; she can't be in the process of beginning a new movement - in fact, she can't even be thinking about something that may be about to happen. To be ready the follower has to be absolutely upright, completely still, and living totally in the present.

This means that it is the follower's responsibility to create this condition at the end of every step she takes. She has to make sure to bring herself to a complete stop on one leg, and wait patiently - without any expectation -- for the next movement, which is going to be led. Please note that it is not the leader's responsibility to stop her at the end of each step. This task belongs exclusively to her.

What, then, is the responsibility of the leader?

The leader has to make certain that he enables the follower to create a condition of balanced rest at the end of each step she takes. He has to be very precise with his own balance, making sure not to encroach upon the follower's space thereby pushing her off balance. He has to always give his follower the opportunity to recover her balance before moving ahead to the next step. Finally, he has to sacrifice timing with the music and completion of a learned sequence to making sure his follower is comfortable with each movement he invites her to make.

If both leader and follower are completely balanced throughout each individual movement and sequence, the dance will be successful. If either or both are out of balance, the dance will tend to fall apart. Test you own readiness the next time you dance. If you finish each movement with a feeling of quiet balance, and if your partner does the same, your readiness level is right where it should be.

If one of both of you are out of balance between steps, it might be time for a few lessons with your favorite Tango teacher.

March 12, 2011

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When dancing Tango as a leader, have you ever held your partner a bit too tightly -- maybe you were trying to make sure she kept her balance at the end of a step; or perhaps she actually started to fall, and you held her chivalrously in order to catch her?

 When dancing as a follower, have you ever clung to your partner for support - either throughout the entire dance or during the parts where you needed a little extra help in maintaining your balance - such as ochos or molinete?

I think we all do these things at some time or other during our dance career. Inexperienced dancers fall into these habits almost all the time, and even experts find themselves hanging on for dear life once in a while.

It's important to become aware that this behavior is exactly the opposite of good Tango technique. It is quite impossible for each of us to be in balance, if we're in some way leaning on each other, or using our partner for support. It is very common for a leader to want to help his follower, if he thinks she's losing her balance. But you have to force yourself to avoid doing this no matter what takes place. It's up to her to use her inner resources to find balance at the end of every step she takes. It is also very common for a follower to begin clinging to her partner right from the moment she engages him in the Tango embrace. When she does this, she has automatically sacrificed her own balance and is about to undo any chance he may have had in maintaining his balance.

 The wonderful paradox of dancing Tango is that we seem to be two people who are irrevocably intertwined moving as one individual - absolutely interconnected. And yet, we actually remain two separate individuals who move individual, and who balance individually without any support from the other partner. The one moment in which the follower relies on the leader is the beginning of each step. She allows him to offer her a lead, which initiates the movement. When he gives her that lead, she responds by taking the step - all by herself. Once she complete a given movements, she brings herself into balance, and is therefore ready for the next lead.

 Once the leader provides his follower with a lead, which she responds to, he accompanies her movement. He moves with her. He does not carry her through the movement. At the end of any given movement the leader brings himself into balance - without in any way using his partner's balance in order to do so.

Once all of this is over, the leader may choose to initiate the next step.

 Try to think of Tango as a series of individual movements, each of which has a beginning, middle and end, and each of which has to be completed in balance before the next one is begun. And the next time you have even the slightest inclination to lean on, support, or cling to your partner, think of me wagging my finger at you, and telling you not to do it.

March 5, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Let's talk about the leader's left hand. To some extent Tango is idiosyncratic. It is a highly personal expression of oneself in dance. If one looks around a dance floor in Buenos Aires, one will observe as many different ways of standing, walking and doing everything else as there are dancers.

So right from the beginning, we have to admit that there are no absolute rules of behavior and performance. However, one of the most important things a leader has to do is to make his partner feeling comfortable. And the position and carriage of his left arm and hand play a crucial role in this endeavor.

The following is a description of what I would call the "normal" position of the left hand and arm for the leader:

There are some highly skilled dancers who adopt a completely different left hand position from the one described above. Why they do this is not the subject of this Tango Tip. But inexperienced leaders (who perhaps watch YouTube too much and take too few lessons with competent Tango teachers) seem to enjoy emulating these often-contorted hand positions, probably because they think it makes them look "cool."

It doesn't.

Quite to the contrary, it makes your partner feel you couldn't care less about her comfort, and that you don't know how to dance.

Try to employ the more conventional left hand position, when you dance Tango. Your partners will be happier; I'll certainly be happier, and the world will be a better place for us all.

 

February 26, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Let's talk about the leader's left hand. To some extent Tango is idiosyncratic. It is a highly personal expression of oneself in dance. If one looks around a dance floor in Buenos Aires, one will observe as many different ways of standing, walking and doing everything else as there are dancers.

So right from the beginning, we have to admit that there are no absolute rules of behavior and performance. However, one of the most important things a leader has to do is to make his partner feeling comfortable. And the position and carriage of his left arm and hand play a crucial role in this endeavor.

The following is a description of what I would call the "normal" position of the left hand and arm for the leader:

There are some highly skilled dancers who adopt a completely different left hand position from the one described above. Why they do this is not the subject of this Tango Tip. But inexperienced leaders (who perhaps watch YouTube too much and take too few lessons with competent Tango teachers) seem to enjoy emulating these often-contorted hand positions, probably because they think it makes them look "cool."

It doesn't.

Quite to the contrary, it makes your partner feel you couldn't care less about her comfort, and that you don't know how to dance.

Try to employ the more conventional left hand position, when you dance Tango. Your partners will be happier; I'll certainly be happier, and the world will be a better place for us all.

February 19, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. How big should your steps be, when dancing Tango? This is usually one of the first questions people ask, when they start taking Tango lessons. Unfortunately, it's not an easy question to answer ... but we'll give it a try.

If you're a follower, your steps should be matched in length and energy to those of your leader. This means that if you've never danced with him before, you really won't know how large those steps need to be until you've danced with him for a while - maybe ten dances or so. At first, you'll have trouble figuring our how big or small to move; then, gradually, your steps will begin to match his. By the time you've had ten or more dances together, you will have started to feel somewhat comfortable in matching his steps.

If you're a leader, you should be able to determine the length of steps both you and your partner take simply by dancing, and having your partner match the size of your steps. But an inexperienced follower will often fail to notice that her steps are consistently longer or shorter than yours. In such cases, it would probably be a very good idea for you to compromise for the time being by moving to the size of her steps. Eventually, one hopes that she'll learn that it's your job to determine the size of the steps, and that she'll begin to alter her movement accordingly.

When two skilled dancers move together on the floor, the amount of bodily energy which emanates from the leader determines whether a given step will be small, medium or large - and, in fact, whether it will be fast, slow or medium speed. Learning how to lead and follow varying step lengths usually involves working with a competent teacher. But this advanced skill can make your dancing very satisfying.

One final note: In social dancing, steps should be kept small or medium in length. This is somewhat relative, of course. But let's say no longer than the width of the leader's shoulders. Larger than this and it starts to become a performance, and that, of course, is the antithesis of good social dance practice.

February 12, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For most people who are learning to lead Tango, dancing is something, which actually takes place in the future. Inexperienced leaders think ahead to that complicated sequence they were recently exposed to in a class, or one they appropriated from YouTube. They look forward to impressing their partner - and their wider audience -- with their prowess on the dance floor. Even if their goals are somewhat modest, their concentration is on some definite dance figure, which they have in mind to execute. If we had to characterize how they approach Tango, using two words, we might ask the question: "What's next?"

In sharp contrast to this way of approaching Tango, the vast majority of skilled Argentine dancers ask another question entirely. They ask: "What's going on right now?" The focus of a skilled leader is on the present - rather than the future. The skilled leader tries to make absolutely certain that each individual moment of the dance is going as well as it possibly can - that every step is taken at the right pace, with the right balance and energy, and that every ending is clean and comfortable for the follower. The skilled leader knows that figures are irrelevant in social dance, because they have nothing to do with the creation and maintenance of intimacy between two partners. In fact, complex figures tend to be directed outward away from intimacy and toward the generation of spectacle.

To improve your Tango almost immediately, try bringing it into the present. Try to make each moment an occasion of balance and comfort for your partner. Instead to constantly thinking ahead to the next planned event, try to become acutely aware of the beginning, middle and ending of each single step you and your partner take during the dance. This is what makes Tango an intimate and rewarding social encounter.

Once you can redirect your attention to what's going on in each moment of the dance, you'll find Tango to be a far richer and deeper experience than you may have ever thought possible.

February 5, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During what is sometimes called la epoca del oro del tango - the golden age of Tango - Argentine people danced with their upper bodies facing one another. They call this dancing frente a frente - front to front. This meant that they were very careful to maintain an ongoing center of the chest to center of the chest relationship throughout the dance. No matter what kind of complex figure they might be executing, this juxtaposition was inviolate. The chests did not necessarily have to be touching (although this was often the case). However, the facing of chest to chest - or what some have called corazon a corazon - heart to heart - was strictly and carefully adhered to.

As Tango has become popular in countries other than Argentina, there has been to some extent an erosion of the ideals of the golden age. Neophyte dancer today often focus more on complex figures and less on the demands of appropriate Tango technique. One result of this is that the frente a frente relationship has become severely compromised. Two extremes, which have cropped up are:

1.    Apilado (piled up) dancing - in which the partners are leaning forward onto each other with their chests literally locked together, allowing virtually no flexibility of
      movement.

2.    Neo Tango - an acrobatic mutation of Tango in which the partners are quite far apart with very little front-to-front adherence.

In my judgment there is nothing more beautiful than a Tango couple who are standing up straight, dancing directly in front of one another, maintaining individual balance, and effortlessly moving as if they were one person. This is the Tango of the golden age. This is what drew me to want to learn this magnificent dance.

If you'd like to dance this way, whether you're a leader or a follower, one of your first considerations is this basic idea of dancing directly in front of your partner - and maintaining this relationship throughout the dance. You can start by noticing your partner's center line - the invisible line which runs from his/her chin down through to the waist. Try to position your own center exactly opposite. Then try to maintain this frente a frente juxtaposition from the beginning of the dance until the end. If you've never done this before, you may find it challenging at first, but you'll get used to it quickly. Remember that you don't have to actually touch chest to chest (although it's often perfectly appropriate to do so), just keep yourself centered in front of your partner.

Try this, and see if it doesn't make your Tango look and feel more like the real thing.

January 29, 2011

 

Fran gets a reprieve this week.  Watch for a new tango tip in next week's newsletter. As a result of inclement weather and an excessive amount of snow the milonga was cancelled.

 

January 22, 2011
 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I'd like to talk about dancing on your knees. What? Who would do that?

Of course, none of us would consciously get down on our knees on the dance floor - but some of us have a curious tendency to over-bend our knees while dancing. This produces an effect that dance professionals refer to as "dancing on your knees."

Sometimes a teacher will tell a student to flex or bend at the knees slightly, usually to help overcome the student's tendency to move with locked legs (like Frankenstein). Unfortunately, what often happens with this suggestion is that the student errs in the opposite direction by over-flexing at the knees and creating the "Groucho Marx" walk in his or her dance movement. When asked why he or she is doing this, the response is "My teacher told me to."

Normal human movement generally involves a slightly flexed knee. Locking the knees in an unnatural way produces a stiff, unpleasant quality to one's movement. On the other hand, always keeping the knees markedly bent creates an equally awkward and cumbersome gait. When dancing, try to let the legs do what "feels natural." If you don't attempt to overly control them, your legs will tend to do the right thing. They'll bend, when it's appropriate, and straighten as necessary to produce movement.

If you want to be more precise than that, think about allowing your legs to bend during movement, and straightening them during the pauses. This will enable you to dance comfortably and at the same time look like a Tango dancer.

January 15, 2011

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. The success of any Tango depends on both the leader's and follower's ability to create and maintain a comfortable, functionally efficient dance connection with their partner. Quite often, a couple who are having apparent difficulty in their dance can enjoy significant improvement simply by a few critical adjustments in posture, embrace, and how their bodies interact while in motion.  

Let's focus on the dance connection. I'm going to break it down into three components:

1.    How you hold yourself (your posture)

2.    How you interact with your partner at rest (the embrace)

3.    How you interact with your partner in motion

Stand in front of your partner with your legs and feet together, and your body straight. If your head is jutting forward, gently pull it back over your shoulders as you elevate your chest. The back of your neck should feel long and straight and your shoulders should feel down and expanding outward - rather than pulled up toward the neck. These are some of the fundamentals elements of good posture.

To create the embrace, the leader should place his right arm gently around the center of the follower's back with the palm lightly against her back as he takes her right hand in his left, and raises his hand approximately to the level of his nose. Under no circumstances should he draw his partner toward him or in any way pull her forward, creating a loss of balance. The follower should place her left arm on her partner's shoulder, on his arm, or around his back - as she allows the leader to take and hold her right hand. She should not raise herself up on her toes, and pitch herself forward into a leaning position. She should maintain her own individual balance without clinging to the leader in any way. Following these guidelines, you will be able to create a good, fundamental embrace - which embodies the paradox of Tango; i.e., two people who seem to be intertwined - but who are, in fact, completely independent.

Followers often believe that they are supposed to "melt into their leaders' arms" while dancing. At the same time, leaders often feel that they have to control their followers by steering them around with their arms during the dance. Both assumptions are incorrect. Both leaders and followers must maintain a feeling of independence and self control during the dance. The leader suggests movement through a highly specific series of directive movements called leads. The follower responds to these suggestions, moving herself through space, and, as she does so, the leader joins her with an appropriate accompaniment. At no time does the leader push and pull the follower. And at no time does she wait to be pushed or pulled.

Try some of these ideas in your dance connection, and see is they enable your dance to improve, If you'd like some help, ask Pat or me the next time we meet.

January 8, 2011

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Before we get ourselves too deep into the New Year, I want to talk with you about a situation that we might call "the student's dilemma" in learning to dance Tango.

What is "the student's dilemma?"

Let me describe what happens to most people, when they see Tango being danced, and decide they'd like to learn it. They go to a class, let's say, and begin to assimilate a body of knowledge from a teacher. So far, so good.

Then, they happen to take a class with another teacher, who tells them exactly the opposite of what they thought they had learned from the first teacher. Both teachers seem to know what they're talking about. Their students swear by them. But they're teaching two completely different skill sets, and calling them both Tango.

Now what?

This is a brief description of "the student's dilemma." How do you reconcile what these two so-called professional teachers are telling you? Is one right, and the other wrong? What's going on here?

In the ideal world, Tango would be a definite, closed body of knowledge, which could be captured sequentially through the leaning process - no matter which teacher you chose. In the ideal world, all teachers of Tango would possess the same information, and be able to pass it along to you with the same skill as every other teacher. This is, in fact, the assumption you probably made, when you started studying Tango. I know I did.

In the real world, Tango is anything but definite. Sometimes, I think that there are as many ways to dance Tango as there are dancers - well, good dancers, that is. There is widespread controversy among dancers and teachers about even the basic mechanics of the dance. Very few professionals are in agreement about how Tango should be taught. And the majority of people who teach Tango today really aren't teachers at all.

The student's dilemma. 

How, then, do you go abut learning Tango?

First, you decide that whatever you learn, and from whomever you learn it, will be just one way to do things - and that there may be many other ways to approach the dance.

Second, try to study with a teacher whom you like. If you have a personal aversion to a teacher, you're not going to be able to learn much from him or her.

Third, bring as much passion to the learning process as the teacher brings to the teaching process. Meet your teacher halfway. Work really hard to make your lessons pay off.

At some point along the way, you'll hear about other ways to dance Tango. Maybe a group of your friends will be studying with another teacher - one they think has all the right answers. Here's where you have to recognize that both teachers have something to offer - that there are many paths to the same goal.

Tango is an art, not a science. As such, it can be seen, tasted and touched. But it can't be captured, because it is constantly growing, changing, and evolving.

January 1, 2011

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango tip of the Week. Dancing Tango is fun, isn't it? Those of us who do it night after night, week after week, year after year, are having a great deal of enjoyment. Otherwise, we'd pack up our tents, and try something else.

What are your personal Tango ambitions? Do you want to be the best dancer in the room? Or do you just like having some good, social fun once or twice a week. With the coming of the New Year, I think now might be a good opportunity to access where you are, and maybe decide where you'd like to be, say, next year at this same time.

One possible choice would be to simply continue doing what you're doing right now. Maybe you have a group of friends and acquaintances with whom you dance regularly; everyone is basically at about the same skill level; and you're all having a ball.

Another choice would be to kick things up a notch or two (thank you, Emeril). If you'd like to start getting better in your dancing, now would be the perfect time to develop a workable game plan for how to accomplish that goal.

I'll give you a few specific things you might consider, if you want to improve your dancing:

1.    Find a teacher. Nothing will get you to the next level more effectively than working regularly with a good teacher, who can help to get from where you are to where you want to be in your dancing.

2.    Take classes. This is a great way to meet other dancers, and to get yourself into the dance society at large. It also gives you a way to judge your own skill level in comparison with other people.

3.    Read about Tango. You weren't born in Buenos Aires, so in order to learn about and assimilate the culture of Tango, it can be very helpful to read all you can about it. You'll find lots of Web sites on the Net, which are vast sources of information about Tango.

4.    Watch good dancers. An important part of the learning process is to "see how it's done." This comes from watching everybody on the dance floor - not just the great dancers, but everybody. Emulating skilled dancers is the way most Argentine people have been learning to dance for over a hundred years. You can do it, too.

5.    Dance, dance, dance. If you do everything else on the above list, and don't dance enough, you won't get anywhere. You have to be out there on the dance floor, practicing, perfecting, failing, succeeding. Make a schedule of dance events you want to participate in, and get yourself there. You don't have to dance every night, but it's got to be more than a once a week.

Being a dance teacher, I have a stake in helping to develop good dancing. I love watching someone who makes a commitment to getting better, and sticks to it. But at the same time, I also appreciate the value of dancing as a casual social pastime. Whichever way you decide to be involved in dance, I applaud it, I'm glad you're having fun with it, and I hope it keeps giving you pleasure in the New Year.

From Pat and me - Happy New Year, everyobody!!!!