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 26, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. The New Year is fast approaching, and you know what that means. That's right, it's time to make a bunch of New Year's resolutions that we'll probably end up not keeping, but know our lives would be oh so much better, if only we could!

High on my personal wish list for 2014 is to become a better Tango teacher. For Pat and me this means trying really hard to give our students (that would be you, of course) less of what they want, and more of what they actually need in their quest to improve as Tango dancers. The challenge we'll be facing is to somehow convince them (yes, I mean you!) that the step-by-step learning process is the one true means of really getting better -- as opposed to the far more enticing -- but ultimately unproductive -- endless pursuit of complicated stage figures.

This is a difficult challenge both for Pat and me and for our students. We would love it, of course, if everyone we teach could become an accomplished social dancer in just a few short lessons. And we know that the majority of you are impatient to be doing the kinds of figures you see the pros handle with such apparent ease.

But in our hearts we all know that we have to crawl before we can walk, and we have to walk before we can run.

Our hope for the New Year is that some of you -- maybe even just a few -- will decide you really do want to become better Tango dancers. Our hope is that you will finally accept the challenge of step-by-step learning, and that you will put the "I want it all now" attitude aside for the time being.

Whatever you ultimately choose to do, Pat and I hope above everything else that you have a wonderful New Year, with nothing but happiness in 2014!

 

December 19, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. How do your feet connect to the floor, when you dance Tango? One of the special techniques that makes Tango different from American/European progressive ballroom dancing is the manner in which Tango dancers' feet address the floor. The unique way in which Tango dancers move through space -- and the way they come to rest -- has a defining effect on how they look (aesthetics) as well as how they achieve optimum balance at the end of every step they take (functionality).

When we walk down the street, most of us plod along more or less unconsciously, not aware of the physical impact our movements are having against the surface we're walking on. If we're on a marble or wood floor, for example, and wearing shoes with leather bottoms, we can hear ourselves clattering along as we take each step.

This changes -- or should change -- when we dance Tango. I have often heard teachers suggesting that Tango dancers look "like cats sneaking along the floor." This seems to me to be an excellent metaphor for what we actually do during Tango movement. With each step we take, we address the floor as carefully and quietly as possible, actually trying to put as little weight on the surface as we can. One teacher of mine suggested treating the floor as if it were rice paper that we had to attempt not to disturb in any way as we moved. When we address the floor in this way, our individual steps become far more controlled and elegant -- which gives us the characteristic look of Tango. Furthermore, by taking such complete physical control over our steps, we tend to achieve far more accurate balance at the end of each movement -- which is a crucial component of high-level Tango movement.

Of course, the way of moving/balancing that I'm describing here calls for major skill development over a long period of time. Most beginning Tango students are appropriately focused on so many preliminary dance skills that they simply aren't ready to concentrate on such an undertaking. Nonetheless, the time will come -- perhaps the time is now -- for you to consider taking up the challenge of improving the functional and aesthetic integrity of your individual Tango movements.

This will eventually enable you to achieve a whole new level of Tango dance excellence.

 

December 12, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we talked about inertia as an important consideration in dancing Tango. The general idea behind inertia is that a body at rest tends to remain at rest, while a body in motion tends to remain in motion.

Tango is a dance in which movement and stillness are equally important (in contrast to dances of continuous movement -- such as American Foxtrot and Waltz). In American progressive dancing (Foxtrot, Waltz, Quickstep, Peabody, Viennese Waltz, "American" Tango), we use inertia routinely in order to begin and continue our dance. The leader sets both himself and his follower into motion; thereafter, the dance progresses more or less without stopping until the music comes to an end. During any individual dance, the leader will often invite changes of direction as well as of rhythm (what teachers refer to as "slows" and "quicks").

With Tango, on the other hand, we're always aware of the potential need to overcome the effect of inertia in completing every step we take. In fact, stopping at the end of every step is a crucial skill which followers must learn in order to make it possible for their partners to lead effectively. (For a more detailed exploration of the concept of inertia, go to the Firehouse Tango archive and read what I wrote in the Tango Tip for December 5, 2013.)

Today, I'd like to discuss a concept which is related to inertia. It's called impetus. As it applies to dance, let's define the creation of impetus as the act of setting a body (in this case, the follower) into vigorous motion with the intention that she will then continue moving by herself for a limited duration.

The role of impetus in progressive social dance in America is virtually non-existent (although in competitive dancing the technique is used to a limited extent. There is actually a movement called an impetus turn, which is utilized in some of the progressive dances.). For the most part, however, once the two partners are in motion in social progressive dance, they almost always remain in motion, precisely mirroring each other's movement. Where impetus does play a significant role in American social dance is in what we call "spot" dancing. With "latin" and rhythm dances impetus is used as a matter of course in order to produce aggressively motivated but unaccompanied movement by the follower -- figures such as double turns, special releases to or from closed or open position, jumps, slides, and so forth.

The basic linear movement of traditional social Tango -- which comprises elements such as forward, backward, to the side, in place and pause -- does not use impetus at all. This includes simple forward and backward ochos as well as molinete. As discussed in last week's Tango Tip, these elements rely exclusively on inertial movement -- in particular, the overcoming of inertia in motion (the whole idea of movement and stillness) in order to give them their special "Tango-like" character.

However, impetus is used in social Tango in a very selective way. First, there are certain choices the leader may make in accompanying his follower's molinetes in which he is unable to use the movement of his torso to effectively direct her rotation. In cases where the leader is either stepping around her axis during a turn, or creating a sacada, for example, he simply cannot lead her with the front of his chest -- because the nature of the accompaniment dictates that the follower actually precede his center line momentarily. In such instances, the leader uses impetus to send his follower past his front for one or two steps. As he rotates himself (in accompanying her movement), the leader eventually catches up to her, and the equilibrium of the couple's normal front-to-front relationship resumes.

A second instance in which impetus is almost always used is in the creation of boleo. This very common Tango technique involves the follower having a rotation in one direction changed abruptly by the leader to a counter-rotation in the opposite direction. Such a change in direction can, of course be led slowly. However, more often than not, a leader will create a sense of drama by "snapping" his follower from one direction to the other. (This action will often suggest an adornment of some kind from the follower.) In boleo, the leader can create impetus in the follower by aggressively rotating his own torso, first to produce the primary rotation, then suddenly in the opposite direction. The follower's response is to rotate quickly in one direction, and then be literally pulled into a counter rotation.

There are other examples in which impetus can be used in traditional social Tango. However, those addressed above should give you a sense of what I'm talking about. In working with your instructor (you do have one of those, don't you?), you can greatly improve your Tango by skillfully employing the use of inertia as described last week, and impetus as we've been discussing today. These are essential techniques which literally define the mechanics of Tango as a dance.

Any questions?

 

December 5, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Most students I know tell me that Argentine Tango is the most difficult dance they've ever tried to learn. Even highly skilled dancers with lots of experience in other social and competitive dance disciplines say that Tango is the one dance they're not sure they'll ever be able to master. Many students might infer here that it must be the steps which are so difficult. Yes, there are indeed many Tango figures that pose problems even to the best dancers. Today, however, I'd like to talk about what I believe is a far more critical challenge in learning Tango -- the challenge of overcoming inertia and achieving balance.

Yes, that's right. Fasten those seat belts, ladies and gentlemen. This is going to be a Physics class!

In America, we are exposed to two types of partner dance movement -- progressive and in-place or "spot." With progressive dancing -- Foxtrot, Slow and Viennese Waltz, Quickstep, Peabody, and what we call "American" Tango -- dancers move more or less continuously around a line of direction. Once they start, they don't stop moving until the dance is over and the music has come to a halt. With in-place or spot dances -- Salsa/Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, Merengue, Rumba, Samba, Paso Doble, Bachata, all the various Swing dances, Hustle, and what I'll call "Disco" dancing -- participants remain more or less in a fixed place or spot on the floor, and employ a combination of predetermined and improvised steps in place, accompanied by specialized body movement in order to create their dance.

In each of the types of partner dance movement referred to above, the challenge of inertia -- and therefore of balance -- is solved for dancers in simple and very specific ways. In progressive dancing, the dancers keep moving -- a body in motion tends to remain in motion. The only time they stop is either when the dance is over, or perhaps when some kind of obstruction prevents them from continuing. In spot dancing, the partners deal with the challenge of inertia by not moving at all -- well, by not moving through space at any rate -- a body at rest tends to remain at rest. (Of course, I confess that I'm not being quite accurate here. Whereas leaders tend to remain more or less at rest during contemporary spot dancing, followers usually end up moving constantly from one side of the leader to the other, or spinning like tops until at the end of the dance, when they stagger dizzily off the floor for a well-earned -- often mandatory -- moment or two of rest and rehabilitation.)

Now, we come to Argentine Tango.

Those of you who attend my classes and workshops have often heard me say that "Tango is a dance of movement and stillness." Ultimately, what I mean by this is that in Tango the solution to the challenge of inertia is quite different from -- and far more complex than -- the solutions we bring to bear in either progressive or spot dancing. Any individual step (forward, backward, or to the side) and/or any rotational element (among which we include such techniques as ocho, boleo, calicita, and colgada) can segue into another movement -- or can stop completely at its end.

For leaders, this means developing two related skills that would not be necessary either in progressive or spot dancing. First, the leader needs to carefully define each individual step through his lead so that his follower can feel that he intends to continue at the end of any given element. (In progressive dancing this would be a given, but in Tango it is always optional). Second, the leader needs to learn how to slow any individual step down during its progression -- if that is what he wants -- so that it ends comfortably in a stop without confusing the follower or compromising her balance. (Once again, this skill is not necessary in progressive dancing, but is crucial in Tango.)

For followers, things are a little more straight-forward, at least in theory. A follower needs to develop the skill of coming to a complete stop at the end of every step she takes! The reason for this is that she has no idea from one moment to the next what the leader has in mind. And because she doesn't know what he wants, she can't anticipate that he will invite her to take another step. Her job is to end each step in balance, and wait for the next invitation. In progressive dancing she would know that her leader intended to continue, that there would be an unbroken inertial flow. But in Tango this is not so.

If you've been asking yourself why Tango is so difficult to master, I believe that the main reason has far more to do with facing the challenges posed by the fundamental movement and stillness of the dance. Individual figures may seem to be the problem, but they're not. If you want your Tango to improve, consider focusing on developing the skills you need to achieve more consistent balance in your dance by becoming a better leader or follower, and stop chasing figures and adornments -- at least for the time being.

 

November 21, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you were at the Firehouse this Thursday, you know that I focused on Argentine Waltz, usually called vals, vals criolla, or sometimes valsita. Waltz is one of the three types of music played at Argentine social dance events (which are generally called milongas), the other two being tango and milonga.

 

Because I concentrate almost exclusively on tango in the dance lessons I teach at the Firehouse, many students assume that when I switch to a lesson in Waltz, they'll be learning a whole different vocabulary of patterns. The reason for this no doubt is that in this country we think of any given dance as consisting of a series of discrete steps or figures which are specific to that particular dance. This well-ingrained predisposition has been an integral part of our social dance tradition as far back as any of us remember -- and for good or ill it has been strongly encouraged and amplified by dance teachers and dance schools at least as far back as Vernon and Irene Castle.

 

In Argentina, however, the social dance tradition is different. One of the first admonitions I was given, when I started studying tango, was "In tango there are no steps."

 

"What? How can anybody dance without steps?"

 

The Argentine answer to this question is that leaders learn to move, using a series of simple elements (forward, backward, to the side, in place, pause, and pivot). These elements enable them to create (or improvise) an entire dance -- a dance which belongs exclusively to each individual dancer -- without having to memorize any preordained vocabulary. In this way, leaders and followers can focus on the music, on the rhythm, and on the intimacy between them rather then on the abstract and severely limiting components of fixed dance figures.

 

Of course, right now you may be asking yourself "Why, then, do I learn figures in virtually every lesson I take?" My answer to this is "Oops, you found us out." Every dance teacher I've ever encountered - myself included -- teaches steps. As much as we might like our dancing to be pure in-the-moment improvisation, we all invent material in a calculated way so that we can repeat it whenever it suits the moment. Or we "borrow" figures we like from other dancers (not to mention YouTube). All the great milongueros had a repertoire of steps that they claimed belonged exclusively to them. And even if these figures were originally created in the context, let's say, of vals, it doesn't mean that they can't be transported over to tango or milonga, if you think it will work in that other dance.

 

When I teach vals -- as you learned on Thursday evening at the Firehouse -- I don't come up with a special vocabulary of figures which are found in that dance alone. Pretty much any series of movements I or any other dance teacher might offer can generally be part of vals, in tango, or in milonga. I say "generally," because the one crucial factor that does come into play with each of the three Argentine social dances is speed.

 

You may have discovered for yourself by this time that some of the movements you've learned (or made up on your own) just don't work, when the music is too fast. A very obvious example of this is a double-time figure or traspie. When the music is slow or even medium tempo, you have no trouble executing the figure -- but with music that is very fast, it suddenly becomes virtually impossible. If you're relatively new to dancing, you may have assumed that you don't yet have the skill level necessary to perform such figures at high speed. But this isn't the reason. It's the music itself!

 

What I hope you will take away from this Tango Tip is that Argentine Dancing is a very special way of responding to music and moving improvisationally with a partner. It is not a series of specific patterns which you can codify into a separate vocabulary for tango, for vals, and for milonga -- as students seem to do in contemporary American dancing. I recommend that you spend your time attempting to master the skill of leading and following along with assimilating the unique stylistic character of each dance through a better understanding of and feeling for the music -- rather than endlessly memorizing one abstract dance figure after another.

 

Asi se baila el tango!

 

 

November 14, 2013

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Recently, at my Saturday practica in New York City, I met a married couple, Helen and Jack, who used to study Tango with me some years ago. Two years ago, they moved out of the New York area, because Jack's company transferred him to Washington, D.C. As yet, they told me, they hadn't decided on a new teacher. In fact, they were actually pretty much convinced that they didn't really need one. Jack was very pleased to report that they had been frequenting the milongas in the D.C. area, and were now quite comfortable with both their dancing and their new surroundings.

"One small problem we seem to be having," Helen mentioned to me, "is that sometimes my balance is a bit off. Jack says it feels fine to him, but I just wish I could be a little more stable on the dance floor,"

I agreed to take a quick look at what they were doing. "Just dance together a little, and I'll see whether I spot something that might be worth working on."

As they formed the embrace, Helen rose up on the balls of her feet, leaned forward, placing her upper body against Jack's chest, and reached well around his neck with her left arm. At the same time, Jack complemented what Helen was doing by closing his right arm firmly around her back, thereby drawing her even further forward, and lifting her slightly so that she was virtually ready to dance on her toes.

"Before you get into the dance," I offered, holding up my hand to put on the brakes, "could we talk a little about your embrace."

Helen and Jack both rolled their eyes, as if to say, "Here comes the lecture."

"Do you remember how we formed the embrace, when we first started?" I said, feeling a bit like a first-grade teacher.

Jack was the first to pounce. "That was for beginners, right? Nobody in the real world actually dances that way. I need to have Helen close to me -- it's all about the connection."

Now, it was Helen's turn. "All the really good women are up on the balls of their feet," she assured me. "That's the way people dance now. Even the teachers are dancing that way! As Jack said, we're trying to create a more solid connection with our partners these days by going chest to chest with our left arm further around his neck than you taught us."

It was hard to argue with such passionate conviction.

"Well ...," I offered sheepishly, "When you were dancing with your feet flat on the floor, and you weren't leaning forward toward Jack, and when your left arm wasn't wrapped so much around his neck, do you remember whether your balance was any better?"

"Well ...,"said Helen.

"But what about the connection?!" retorted Jack.

"And when the two of you are dancing by continually pushing your chests toward one another," I pressed, "do you think this has an effect on your balance as individuals?"

"It's all about the connection!" blurted Jack.

"Yes, it is," I agreed. "But the connection doesn't consist of two people constantly falling on top of one another -- although there's no question that lots of people today are indeed dancing that way." (Yes, here comes the lecture.) "But that doesn't make it right. It just means that lots of dancers (students by and large) are busy imitating other dancers, hoping to look the same as their friends or their peers."

"Hmmm," said Helen.

"Harumph," coughed Jack.

"With highly skilled dancers," I went on, sensing the optimistic possibility of enlightenment, "the so-called connection consists of a recurring ebb and flow with balance in between. A skilled leader creates a moment of connection by providing his follower with a compelling invitation to do something through his lead. This might be called the flow. Then, he allows her the opportunity to do it. As she executes the movement, he leaves her alone, so that she is unencumbered by him while she's doing her part. "As my friend Carlos Gavito used to say,"I lead -- then I follow." We might refer to this as the ebb. Between one lead and the next, both partners individually arrive at a place of balance.

Helen and Jack nodded with what I took to be a hint of reluctance.

"All I ask," I suggested, "is that you try it. Try dancing without leaning on each other, without continually pushing your chests together. Try to build individual balance into your movements as the goal of every step you take.

"I told you that's what he'd say," said Helen.

Jack shrugged.

As they left the practica, I wondered whether Helen and Jack would really try to get themselves back to what I taught them originally. Ultimately, I decided that they probably wouldn't. There's just too much peer pressure on students today to fight current trends without a good teacher continually encouraging them to do the right thing, even though most people around them are doing anything but.

On the other hand, Pat and I are around you. When we teach, we try our best to give you what we think is the right information, the right way to dance Tango. And we repeat these things again and again so that you won't forget, and so that you'll have a counterpoint to all the noise you're hearing from other sources.

If you think we have what you need, try to listen to what we say, and practice every chance you get. When the time is right, maybe I'll be able to invite my former students from Washington, D.C., to come on up for a visit to the Firehouse -- to see for themselves just how it should be done.

 

November 7, 2013

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the week. Last night, Pat and I went out Salsa dancing. Yes, that's right -- Salsa! In case you're wondering, we had a terrific time from start to finish. And both of us noticed a very sharp contrast between our experience with Salsa and the people of that community on the one hand, and the Tango community on the other. Today, I'd like to share some of our observations with you.

As some of you may know, Salsa -- or what used to be called "Mambo" -- was the first dance I became deeply involved in as a young adult. (Actually, you could say that Lindy was my first dance, but since I was about 11 years old at the time, I don't really remember much about that very early experience.) During my years of dancing Salsa, I formed a good many friendships in that community, and last night Pat and I must have met at least thirty people whom I remembered fondly from those days, and who remembered me.

What Pat and I were both impressed by is the fact that the Salsa community is so openly friendly and so welcoming -- not just to us, but to everybody! The music was lively; the dancing was great fun. And our overall impression was that people were either smiling, or about to smile all night long.

By contrast, the Tango community in the Tri-State area can often be anything but friendly, as many of us have noticed with confusion and a sense of regret. I'm not talking about the Firehouse, of course, in which people are always very warm and very welcoming, thanks in no small measure to Sue and Joe Dallon's lead. But as I'm sure you're aware, this is unusual in the Tango community at large. Most venues -- I hate to say this -- tend to be cliquish and elitist, and often make newcomers feel they really shouldn't be there. Women won't dance with anyone but their small circle of intimates. Men are constantly teaching (well, no great surprise there, I suppose). And the people who run most Tango events make no attempt whatever to encourage people to interact in a friendly way.

Why is this? Frankly, I don't get it. I know that Tango is difficult to learn. I also know that some people feel that if they themselves have made the intense effort necessary to get somewhere in

Tango, everybody else should make the same effort -- and that those who don't are somehow lesser beings. Okay, as a dance teacher, I would love it if my students were all as committed as I am to this unique dance. But if they're not, I'm not going to start being mean to them. I'm not going to shun them as if they were somehow unworthy. This kind of antisocial behavior is, in my opinion, nothing short of reprehensible. And yet, so many people in the Tango community treat their peers this way as a matter of course.

What can any of us do about this depressing situation? I'm not really sure. I think it may start at the top, with people who run Tango events actively discouraging this kind of behavior. In my practica on Saturdays, for example, I tell people that if I catch them mistreating anyone, I'll kick them out of the room. I will, too, and I have. It may start with dance teachers, bringing this behavior to the attention of their students, and admonishing them to monitor their own behavior toward others.

In the log run, though, I think it's up to you. Ultimately, you have to decide what kind of Tango community you want to be a part of, and to insist everywhere you go that you're not willing to put up with anything short of common decency among your peers.This will take courage on your part, and perseverance, and a very strong commitment to human values.

But I know you can do it.

 

October 31, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Recently, a student of mine asked me about people bumping into one another on the dance floor. She was interested in problems that occur with international competitive dancing. In answering her, it occurred to me that the same difficulties apply to Argentine Tango, when leaders think of this dance as a series of figures rather than as lead/follow. With that in mind, I’m going to share with you what I wrote to her. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

Here we go.

One of the most difficult subjects to deal with in any discussion of social dance is the whole area of couples bumping into each other on the dance floor. It seems to me that anytime you have two couples dancing today, they'll find a way to crash into one another -- even if the floor is the size of a football field. This may sound a bit cynical, nonetheless it seems to happen with considerable regularity. And in my opinion the very nature of contemporary competitive ballroom dancing of all types (more about this later) greatly exacerbates the problem (although even if we were to limit our discussion to Argentine Tango -- particularly in this country -- I would be of the same opinion).

When I was growing up during the 1940's and '50's, social dancing was commonplace in this country as a form of recreation and social interaction. In general, the way people learned how to dance was to go to dance venues, get pushed out onto the floor by well-meaning friends or relatives, and either sink or swim. If a male dancer (leader) had an instinct for dance, he'd eventually learn a few steps by imitating others who were more skilled than he, and along the way he'd also learn not to bump into other people. No one would teach him this skill; he'd just "pick it up" over an extended period of time. Men who had no particular knack for dancing would not pick up either a vocabulary of appropriate steps or the skill of avoiding collisions, and were routinely looked upon by the better dancers as lesser mortals. Over a period of several years, a decent male dancer would get much better at maintaining his own space on the dance floor, even in progressive dances such as Foxtrot, Waltz, and Peabody, where everyone was more or less vying for the same real estate.

As with men, women learned to dance by actually doing it rather than by being formally trained. There was very little -- if any -- formal training available in any case. Furthermore, most women seemed to "take to" dancing far more than most men did. The result of this -- coupled with what I am ultimately persuaded is the superior ability of women to learn pretty much anything -- was that for the most part women were able to learn how to dance far more quickly than men. In my own experience, this seems to remain true today with few exceptions. In fact, in the man-centered universe of that time, women were simply expected to be good followers as a matter of course --not to mention a few other skills such as cooking, cleaning, raising children, and only speaking when spoken to.

In today's social dance universe, things have changed rather substantially. The overall population of social dance enthusiasts has shrunk significantly due in part to the fact that dance venues have become impossible to sustain financially, and, perhaps more importantly, social dance itself has gradually been replaced by other more man-friendly pastimes -- such as bowling in the 1950's, watching sports on television while eating popcorn in the 1960's and beyond, and playing with electronic toys such as Blackberries and cell phones today.

In my opinion, another very important factor in the decline of social dance -- a decline which actually began in the 1950's -- is the more or less exclusive reliance on dance teachers in our efforts to learn anything at all about this rapidly disappearing social art form. Because there isn't a vibrant, knowledgeable dance population to provide a reality check, dance teachers now represent the only game in town. Want to learn how to dance? You can't go to the local dancehall anymore. You've got to find yourself a dance teacher.

Okay, what's the problem here? Theoretically, the upside of learning from an expert teacher is that you can get exposed to a great deal of information and dance technique quickly and in one place. You don't have to spend thirty years, going from one dance venue to another in order to get the material you want and need. And, of course, there are very few dance venues left to go to even if you wanted to. With a good teacher, you can learn fundamentals (the most important part of learning how to dance) accurately and efficiently -- rather than having to go through years of trial and error. In principle, these are major advantages in learning the complex skill of social dancing.

Which brings us to the down side. From what I've seen over the years, the overwhelming majority of dance teachers simply do not know the first thing about social dancing. And even if they are aware of what actually constitutes social dance, they consciously choose to teach something completely different instead -- often, trying to convince their students that what I would call social dance is actually bad for them!

What am I talking about here, and how dare I say this?!

I think the story begins with a nice, married couple who either don't know how to dance at all, or are unsatisfied with what they're currently doing on the dance floor. Maybe there's another couple they know who seem to be so much more skilled, more graceful, more polished -- and they seem to know lots of really neat steps. "Why can't we be as good as they are? Why can't we be better?"

Along come Vernon and Irene Castle.

The whole "dance teachers know everything, students know nothing" thing really began in earnest in America with the huge popularity of Vernon and Irene Castle in the early part of the last century. Now, before I go any further, let me state categorically that I really admire the Castles. Vernon was a tall, ungainly-looking man who weighed next to nothing. And, frankly, he danced in a kind of amateurish way that professionals today would characterize as, shall we say, less than perfect. But I absolutely love going to YouTube and watching the Castles dance. I mean, this is the history of American dance here! If you haven't seen them yet, you should stop reading right now, and go check them out.

Getting back to our nice, unskilled couple, they saw at what Vernon and Irene were doing, and they thought, "If we could do that stuff, we'd really look like good dancers! Right?

Well, actually, wrong, but I'm just reporting what they thought.

In fact, the Castles convinced many nice couples that as dance professionals they (the Castles) were indeed possessed of a better way to dance -- which, of course they felt (or maybe it was their accountants who felt) we should all learn. What they were teaching (or perhaps the better word might be "selling") was for the most part overly florid, somewhat obsequious, and unquestionably unfit for the limitations of the social dance floor. For these reasons, the majority of seasoned social dancers didn't really buy it -- but beginners -- like our nice, unskilled couple -- sincerely believed that learning the Castle style would enable them to dance just like the pros. And so they signed up for lessons in droves.

That's when serious bumping on dance floors all over America began.

Over the years following the success of the Castles, other self-appointed dance experts entered the social dance arena. The most famous of these were the Arthur Murray Organization, the Fred Astaire Organization, and, of course, the biggest franchise of them all -- the huge and immensely profitable world of International competition. These organizations ignored the way social dance was actually being done in the ballrooms, and created a new paradigm which transformed what had been a skill that was relatively easy to learn into a highly complex, extremely stylized, and very difficult to learn form of performance-oriented, competition "dancesport." Over time, simple social dancing became less and less popular on the dance floors, and these more elaborate excursions into fantasy dancing -- which most dancers found very difficult, if not impossible, to master -- ultimately became the norm.

The result of all this was that bumping has been permanently replaced by take-no-prisoners crashing.

The nature of competitive "modern" (read: progressive) international dancing is that the couple generally moves along fixed travel lines. Furthermore, the leader specifically trains to execute fixed figures and amalgamations (sequences of figures) along any given wall. A truly expert leader with many yeas of experience can sometimes alter his trajectory during a planned sequence in order to avoid dangerous situations. But ninety-nine per cent of the dancers you and I will ever meet simply do not have the requisite skill to do this effectively. And so, lots of accidents happen all the time. Even in international competitions, the banging and crashing is rampant. Oh, and by the way, in that world, nobody ever apologizes.

Are there any practical solutions to this dilemma we find ourselves mired in as a result of choosing competitive over social ballroom dancing? For one thing, I think it might help just to be aware that we're trying to do something that very few people can do well. Competitive dancing is truly for experts, not mere mortals (like most of us). If we want to try our hand at this very demanding skill, we might consider doing so out of harm's way -- meaning somewhere other than a so-called "social" dance floor. Rent some space, and practice your figures and techniques with just yourself and your partner in the room. Such a decision calls for a substantial dose of humility, but it's a very good solution. Other than that, I would suggest learning how to dance socially. There are a few (very few, unfortunately) teachers who can bring you up to speed with social dance forms of all kinds. Then, you can have lots of fun on the dance floor, and not risk being the cause of dangerous collisions with other dancers. That's what Pat and I do. (But don't forget to watch out for those other dancers -- you know, the ones who have decided not to take my advice.)

If you absolutely insist on competing, put in the time to become an expert -- before you inflict yourself on the rest of the world. The work is very difficult, progress is extremely slow, but you can do it, if that's your ultimate goal.

Good luck.

 

October 24, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Two of the complaints that seem to come up again and again in the Tango community are:

1.     Men are always teaching.

2.     Women are always taking the blame for things that go wrong.

In the first place, neither of these statements is always true. There are certainly many men who don't make it a habit to teach their partners on the dance floor, and not every follower rushes to take the blame every time something goes wrong in the lead/follow collaboration. However, there is little doubt that the behavior remains pervasive.

To be sure, these somewhat knee-jerk reactions to problems on the dance floor can often be attributed to longstanding cultural imbalances between the sexes within our culture, which unfortunately linger even now.  Men still tend to think of themselves as dominant in the male/female relationship, while women are all too often willing to take a back seat. This has been changing in (some, but decidedly not all) parts of this country, since women got the vote. However, remnants of this archaic but well-entrenched stance persist nonetheless. Personally, I don't know how to solve the overall cultural situation -- except to try my best not to engage in this kind of behavior myself -- and to teach my students to be sensitive to their partners.

Another thing that can be explored here is to examine a more finite, technical cause for the behavior, a cause which might just be inherent in the roles played by each of the partners within the dance relationship.

Here's what I mean. When a leader (usually the man) attempts to lead his partner to take a step, he knows in advance what he wants her to do, and he maintains the confident -- albeit sometimes misguided -- expectation that her response will be to execute that particular step. If that does not happen -- and he's a skilled leader -- he'll almost surely ask himself "What did I do wrong to mislead her." And he'll try the lead again. On the other hand, if he really doesn't yet know how to lead, he'll probably wonder "What did she do wrong." (It's not fair, but it is what happens.) What then occurs all to often is that the leader will decide to "teach" her what to do -- rather than try the lead again, and see whether he can make it work.

Now, let's look at this situation from the follower's perspective. First of all, she has no idea what her leader wants her to do before he invites a step through his lead. Once he asks for something, she has to interpret the lead, and then execute the movement. If she's a skilled follower - and if he gives her a good lead -- she will, in all likelihood, respond by taking the step. But she might not, if the lead can possibly be interpreted in more than one way, or if, let's say, she becomes momentarily distracted. So, even in the best of circumstances, things may go wrong. If she's a skilled follower, she'll realize in this moment that all she can do from a practical standpoint is wait for another -- maybe better -- lead. But if she's not so skilled - and if her partner is either giving her the evil eye or is pleading with his eyes for her to do something, anything -- she'll either try a step on her own (always a bad idea!), or become completely paralyzed. In any event, she'll definitely end up taking the blame for whatever seemed to go wrong.

What's the solution to all this?

For leaders, the answer is to learn how to lead, and then to recognize that even the best leads don't always work. When things go wrong, don't resort to teaching. Bite your tongue, and try your lead again. If all else fails, find a teacher who can help you solve the problem. If you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that she really is at fault for something that has gone wrong, you might gently suggest -- if she asks -- that a lesson or two with a professional might be a good idea. But that's it! Keep your impulse to teach to yourself.

For followers, stop blaming yourself immediately. If a leader insists on explaining to you what you're doing wrong, find another leader. (I know, I know. If you're married to the guy, this can be a problem.) If the same problem recurs with several different leaders, consider finding a good teacher who can help you fix the problem.

Ultimately, dancing Tango is supposed to be fun -- not an exercise in dominance/submission. Let's all try to keep that clearly in mind the next time we step out onto the dance floor.

 

October 17, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you've been in my classes, you've heard me say that Tango is a dance which consists of movement and stillness. To put it another way, when we dance Tango, we do a lot of starting and stopping.

What does this mean? Why is it important to understand?

If you have a sense of the American progressive social dance tradition as exemplified in, let's say, Foxtrot or Peabody, you're aware that when we dance either of these quintessential American styles (among others), we start moving with the music, and the structure of our dance basically consists of stringing steps and/or sequences together one after another in combinations that occur to us in the moment.

Most importantly, we don't stop moving until the song is over.

In Tango -- at least in the classic form of Tango as personified in the "Golden Age" tradition -- the kind of movement I described above doesn't necessarily happen. Instead, people tend to take a few steps, stop, take a few more steps, stop again, maybe throw in a learned sequence or two, come to another stop ... the idea of continuous movement just isn't part of what they do. (Of course, I'm talking here about people whom I consider to be among the "better" dancers in Argentina. To be sure, there are lots of folks even in Buenos Aires who plod along from step to step in the same way we often see unsophisticated dance students doing in this country.)

To be able to dance in the Argentine way, both leaders and followers who come from what I'll refer to as the "American tradition" have to learn right from the beginning that being able to stop after any given step or sequence is an essential skill. In Argentina, the tradition of movement and stillness is so ingrained among even the most basic-level dancers that people seem to take it for granted as the appropriate way to dance. Here in America, however, it literally goes against our prevalent tradition of dance movement. If an American student simply learns to walk continuously -- as is often the case in dance classes -- this tends to strongly reinforce the inappropriate habit of movement inertia -- of not stopping.

In my own view, nothing is more important for the beginning student than to discover, first, that being able to stop voluntarily after any given step is important, and, second, how to make this skill a priority in their learning process. If you have not yet had the opportunity to explore this crucial Tango skill, now is definitely the time to start. Getting better at this single aspect of skill development will greatly enhance your balance, improve your ability to respond creatively to music, and make you a far more sophisticated dancer of Tango.

 

October 10, 2013

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. A question students invariably ask me within the first hour of taking Tango lessons is: How big should the steps be? I usually answer with a straight face that it's 13.45 inches. This usually gets a laugh, and humorously sets up the idea that there isn't really a good answer for this very important question. 

But what is the answer? How big should the steps be?

The real answer is that it depends on what your partner is doing during the dance. If both partners are relative beginners, the steps will probably be somewhat small - in part, at least, because neither partner wants to take the chance of stepping on the other partner. Once the couple has been dancing together for a while, both partners will start getting used to the movements of the other person, and the steps will begin to stretch out a bit. Side steps will be the easiest to gauge, since both people are moving laterally. (It's very obvious when one person steps very small, and the other very big.) With forward and back steps it will take a little more time to adjust to one another, but eventually most people manage to figure out a workable compromise that makes dancing more comfortable.

The fun starts when the partners have been dancing for, let's say, a year or more together. By this time, the leader has learned that he has a choice with any given steps or series of steps to move small, medium or large, depending on what he wants the dance to feel like to his partner. At the same time, she is learning to respond to the energy of his movements in the moment. If he gives her minimal energy, she takes a small step. For medium energy she responds with a medium-sized step. A high-energy lead produces a longer, more robust movement. As to the length of the steps, by this time both partners have "gotten used" to one another, and their steps together have begun to feel quite natural.

Of course, everything changes when people change partners. The learning process more or less starts again with the two people getting used to someone else. With time and practice, however, such changes of partner become easier to manage.

The best advice I can offer here is to pay close attention to your partner's movements - whether you're the leader or the follower. Try to stay in front of one another in steps to the side, and with forward or backward steps, recognize that you'll have to continually compromise the length of your steps in order to accommodate what your partner is doing.

And remember: if all else fails, you can always fall back to 11.45 inches. Who knows? Maybe that's a good idea after all.

Just kidding.

October 3, 2013

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Question: What’s the difference between dancing and a dance lesson? Answer: At least two months of concentrated, informed practice.

Most of us think about dancing Tango (and other dances) as building repertoire. We see other people out on the dance floor doing things we’d like to be able to do ourselves, and we focus our energies on grabbing those elements from wherever we can get them as quickly as possible. For leaders, this usually means gathering up complex figures. For followers, it means copying adornments. Where do most of us get all this instant expertise? That’s right – YouTube!

Okay, okay. I steal as much stuff from YouTube as anyone else. I think it’s a great way of finding out about things I might not otherwise have exposure to. I also use videos from many different sources, and if I see a dancer I admire doing something I want, I watch like a hawk to see whether he does it again so that I can try to grab it.

But here’s the thing. Once I have a good idea about how a figure is done, I take it to the practice floor, and work on it for up to two months. It usually takes me at least that long to start feeling comfortable with being able to execute a complex figure in balance in a crowd – without fear of making an idiot of myself, and, more important, confident that I won’t be a danger to other dancers.

Another very important factor is that I already know how to dance Tango. I’ve been doing it for 27 years. My fundamental skills are strong. This means that I can pick up complex material pretty quickly. And I can easily recognize when a given figure will take me an extended length of time to learn. Many of you reading this now are not in the same position. You want the material as much as I do, but you don’t yet have the requisite skills to assimilate the material quickly – or for that matter, accurately.

What all this means is that in order to learn something complex, you first have to build fundamental skills – not by watching YouTube, but by studying the dance with a competent teacher. Only then will you be truly ready to start grabbing material simply by watching it on a video or live medium. Then, you’ll take your newly acquired figure to the practice floor, work on it with one or more partners for at least two months.

And only then will you be ready to introduce your new figure to the dance floor.

 

September 26, 2013

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, Pat gave us a detailed and very insightful account of what it’s like to lead from her point of view; i.e., from someone who generally dances as a follower. This week, I’m going to talk about what it feels like to follow from the standpoint of someone who is generally a leader.

When I’m teaching a couple in a private lesson, I’ll often ask the leader to dance with me so that I can feel how he’s leading his follower in a particular movement or series of movements. Here are a few things I notice in most leaders:

1.     Their embraces are either extremely tense and rigid or completely loose and disconnected. Rarely do I encounter a student leader who creates a viable connection which remains comfortable throughout a given sequence of elements.

2.     Some leaders simply don’t lead at all. They just stand there, waiting for their follower to read their minds. They may do something with their legs, when asked, for example, to take a step; but they have no idea about what to do with their upper bodies – so they do nothing. In such cases the follower may feel his legs moving, but she has no idea what he wants, so the appropriate response is to do nothing.

3.     Many leaders push with their left arm while pulling with their right -- rather than keeping both arms in a neutral place.

4.     New leaders almost always try to throw their upper bodies forward in order to lead a follower’s back step.

5.     As they complete a forward step they end up far too forward on their balance, pushing their follower into another back step which was not intended. (Then, of course, they blame her for taking an extra step!)

6.     Conversely, they lean aggressively away from her, when attempting to lead her forward step, and, at the same time, they pull – often violently – with their right arm, thereby causing her to fall off balance as she ends up in a forward lunge.

7.     When leading side steps, many leaders pull their followers off balance, when moving to the right. They also fail to distinguish side steps from weight changes in place.

8.     They lead forward and backward ochos as lateral shoves rather than two-part movements consisting of a rotation and then a walk.

9.     They lead molinetes as continuous shoves done far too quickly in whatever direction they want her to go with no apparent regard for the difficulty of this complex sequence of interlocking elements.

There are other things leaders do which make the lead/follow connection virtually impossible for the follower to maintain. But the ones I’ve mentioned above are those which I’ve experienced most often, when being led by a student in a lesson.

In my opinion, the experience of being led by someone who really doesn’t know how to lead can be a real eye opener for the student leader. You get a practical opportunity to feel for yourself what it’s like, when you’re not being given the information you need to execute the movements appropriately. If this doesn’t encourage you to focus on learning how to lead with precision, nothing will.

 

September 19, 2013

Hello everyone, Pat here. This week and next, Fran and I are going to talk about a subject that is becoming more and more prevalent in Tango –reversal of traditional roles; i.e., women leading and men following. For various reasons, the former is far more commonly found these days, than the latter. However, there is wide agreement that when leaders learn to follow it makes them better leaders. The question is: does learning to lead help a follower become better at her traditional role?

When a follower decides that she wants to learn to lead, she very quickly finds out how many things a leader has to do at the same time. Her first thought may be that this is difficult! So many differences, so many choices.  Our new leader must form the embrace in the opposite way, she must think about how comfortable it is for her follower, make sure both she and her partner are in balance, decide which foot will start the dance, make sure her follower is weighted appropriately, and finally move into her follower’s space – hoping the lead will be appropriately received, and that the partnership will be balanced at the end of each step.

This is a lot to think about!

If a follower decides to continue learning to lead, and single step movement gradually turns into a more fluid dance, leading doesn’t get easier, it actually gets harder. The constant awareness of your space on the dance floor as a couple, how this affects what you can lead at any given moment, choosing what to lead throughout the dance, reacting to other couples nearby who may not be aware and may suddenly take an unexpected sidestep into your space.  Not to mention the need to be thinking of what your follower is doing, and how comfortable she is.

Despite all of the above challenges, there are many positive aspects for the follower in learning how to lead. She can experience, through a wide range of partners, what actually happens to the leader when a follower has some of the bad habits that we have discussed in former tango tips. For instance, what it actually feels like when a follower drapes herself over the leader, leans, anticipates the next move, takes tiny steps, gets her toes bumped into and stepped on, is out of balance and falling to both feet all the time. It can be next to impossible for such followers to be properly led -- and it’s not the leader’s fault!

A follower who leads has almost certainly experienced these situations, and it can be of great help in examining her own dance as a follower, making sure that she is working on her balance and her movement, and is listening to her leader. Conversely, when our new leader dances with a good follower, the difference is dramatic and leading seems effortless. I have experienced all of the above as a leader, and find that the mental agility required to lead definitely takes some getting used to! It is a completely different mindset from that of the follower, who must not be thinking at all, but must be ready and waiting for the next lead.

When followers lead, does it make a better follower? I would say yes, for the reasons I have described above. For myself I have always been more comfortable as a follower, but one of the most wonderful things about Tango is that you can choose!! Be a follower, be a leader, or do both.

 

September 12, 2013

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In my Tango Tip last week I discussed how important it is for the leader to base his dance on what his follower actually does in response to his leads for individual steps within any given sequence. This week, I want to follow that up by describing a common sequence of steps, how most leaders handle it, and what they should be doing instead.

Let’s take a typical beginning of a dance in the classic Tango de salon style. We start with a salida to cruzada, then a forward ocho. After that, we start something else. Before launching themselves and their partners into this sequence, most leaders would probably form a quick picture of it in their minds in the following way: “I step to the left side, I take two steps forward, I close, I lead ocho, ocho, and out. If the music is slow, I go slow; if the music is fast, I go fast.”

If I were leading this sequence, I would probably think this way, too. It answers the question “What do I do in this sequence?” But I would also take my thinking a giant step further, and create a detailed picture of what my follow does with the sequence. And this is the side of the equation that most leaders simply don’t consider: What does the follower do, and what impact does it have on how I lead what I lead?

With that in mind, here’s another way for the leader to think about the above sequence:

1.     Taking a side step to the left, I invite my follower to take a side step in the same direction. Since I will almost certainly finish this step before she does, I wait for her to come into balance before continuing. In fact, since I will now be traveling outside partner to my left (her right) – and because this will tend to take us both slightly out of front-to-front balance, I consider pausing here, taking a breath, and making absolutely certain that we’re both ready for the next series of movements.

2.     Now I lead three continuous, balanced steps to the cross. I make these steps continuous, because it feels quite uncomfortable to pause, when we’re not in the front-to-front position.

3.     Here, I pause again in order to give my follower the opportunity to settle herself comfortably into this somewhat difficult crossover position.

4.     I gently unwind her from the cross by inviting her to turn counterclockwise.

5.     As she brings her feet together I lead the forward walk to my right side.

6.     As she completes her walk by turning to align herself to me, I continue turning her clockwise in order to set up the final walking movement.

7.     I lead her final walk, which completes her ocho.

8.     I wait for her to complete her counterclockwise turn at the end of her walk (which aligns her front-to-front with me). I check to make certain that she’s completely balanced.

9.     Then, and only then, do I consider leading the next step.

This is a far cry from “side, forward, forward, close, ocho, ocho, and out.” But what I describe above is exactly what good leaders do, when leading any sequence. They carefully, meticulously consider what their follower is being invited to do, and they wait for her to finish and balance herself before leading the next movement.

Do you think this way as a leader? Are you paying careful attention to your follower every step of this way? If not, now’s a very good time to start.

 

September 5, 2013

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the concepts which truly revolutionized my Tango was passed along to me by my friend, the late Carlos Gavito. Pat, Carlos and I were having dinner together one evening. In conversation, Carlos offered the suggestion that in Tango “the leader invites his follower to move, and then he follows her.”

 

It took me a while to digest and understand what Carlos meant by this, because at the time it didn’t fit in with my “ballroom” view of dancing. But as I learned more and more about the unique technique of lead/follow as it applies to Tango, I realized what he was talking about, and now I want to pass it along to you.

 

As you may recall hearing me say in my classes on lead/follow, every individual movement in Tango is generated by the leader. He offers his follower a specific piece of body language (the lead) for each of the six fundamental elements (forward, backward, in-place, to the side, pivot, and pause); she responds by executing the movement asked for, and then she waits for the next lead.

 

Before I understood what Maestro Gavito explained to Pat and me that night at dinner, I assumed that in leading a given movement, the leader automatically moved in tandem with his follower – and that this single element was almost always the beginning of a continuous sequence of several steps (just like American Foxtrot or Waltz, for example).

 

Not true.

 

“The leader invites his follower to move, and then he follows her.”

 

What Carlos said has two crucial implications, both of which separate Tango movement from anything we might do in the “ballroom” discipline. First, when the leader provides the body language for a specific movement – and his follower responds by making that movement – both partners are at that moment independent of one another, not interdependent as they would be in ballroom dancing. What this means is that as she moves, the leader chooses to accompany her – or not. If he accompanies her, he moves independently of her. He doesn’t assist her through the movement itself. This may seem to be a subtle difference between Tango and ballroom, but it is quite profound. In fact, it changes the entire dynamic of the dance.

 

The second implication of what Carlos said is that, in following his follower , the leader allows her to complete each movement – to bring herself comfortably and completely into balance – before inviting any subsequent movement. A leader who has an agenda in mind (a sequence of steps, for example, which he has learned from a teacher, from a DVD, or from – heaven help us!—YouTube), must resist the impulse to dance his agenda without regard for his follower’s ability to complete each element of that sequence comfortably before continuing with the next element. Furthermore, a leader cannot – must not! – rigidly tie any given sequence to a specific timing in the music, if his follower isn’t comfortably able to keep the pace.

 

Ultimately, the leader’s entire dance depends upon his follower’s dance. He gives her something to do; she does it; then he gives her something else to do. He never gives her the next thing to do before she’s ready. This is very bad dance practice.

 

And yet this is what we see constantly on the dance floor.

 

Leaders, please read this Tango Tip again and again. Listen to my friend, Carlos Gavito, and start paying careful attention to your follower. Her movement – and particularly her balance at the end of each movement – will tell you exactly when she’s ready to continue. This will revolutionize your dancing, as it did mine.

 

 

August 29, 2013

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I discussed the idea that upper body tension was one of the principal impediments to an effective lead/follow collaboration. (See this week’s “letters to the editor” section for an important addendum by my colleague Daniel Singer.) This week, I want to talk about two elements which generally go hand in hand with tension, and may indeed be, at least in part, the cause of this common problem: confusion and panic.

Dance teachers like to create the illusion that partner dancing is quite easy. Two people form an embrace and have fun moving around a dance floor together in time with a piece of music. Could anything be simpler? Well, it turns out that, yes, pretty much anything at all could be simpler -- brain surgery, beating the stock market, navigating New Jersey traffic during the rush hour …

You come to the Firehouse because you like the idea of dancing. As a teacher I want you to learn and enjoy dancing. But easy? Fuggedaboudit.

Okay, so you take my dance classes every week. Maybe you also take other teachers’ classes. If you’re ambitious – and can afford it – you might even have your own private instructor. By this time you’re inundated with information about what to do and what not to do. In the ideal, the result of all this input is a comfortable, linear path to learning. But what usually happens, particularly in the first few years, is confusion and panic.

In order to go from ground zero – meaning you know nothing – to even the most rudimentary lead/follow skill level requires a tremendous amount of learning and practice. When you watch the teacher, he or she invariably makes it all look very easy. But when you try it yourself, for a long time it just doesn’t work. And even when something positive starts to happen, it’s usually very tenuous, and very unrewarding for quite a while. If you couple all this with your own impatience to get past the process of learning as quickly as can so you can just have some fun, you find yourself facing your constant enemies: confusion, panic, tension, and the overwhelming urge to quit.

Confusion, I think, comes from being handed a huge amount of complex information within a short period of time about relearning how to do something you already thought you understood; i.e., walking. Your learned instinct is telling you one thing; your teacher is telling you something completely different. Wouldn’t anyone get confused?

Add to this the idea that you’re being asked to attempt this very complicated new skill with a person standing in front of you – whom you’re being asked to lead or to follow – and you have to do it right now while everybody is watching. What happens? Well, of course, you panic.

Is it any wonder that people get tense during this learning process? And what can you do to feel a little bit better about the whole thing? First of all, stop taking it so seriously. It is, after all, only dancing -- what I like to refer to as “escapist lunacy.” Secondly, slow everything down. Don’t maintain the unrealistic expectation that the process should be easy, and that there’s something wrong with you, if you don’t get it all right away. Nobody gets it right away. Finally, don’t judge your progress by what you see around you. A lot of people in the Tango community would like you to believe they know what they’re doing, when, in fact, they definitely do not. Don’t get taken in. Make your learning process your own; decide to work diligently at it until you succeed, don’t quit under any circumstances, and try – desperately – to have fun.

Any questions?

 

August 22, 2013

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Learning to dance Tango presents many difficult challenges to both leaders and followers. Probably the hardest one to overcome is the problem of maintaining consistent balance from one step to the next. But a very common difficulty which is often overlooked – one which affects all of us at one time or another – is the problem of upper-body tension.

Since most of my students, not to mention my dance partners, are women, I am more familiar with tension among followers; however, I am told by my female colleagues that their male students experience exactly the same problem.

I don’t think that there’s any way to pinpoint exactly why tension in the upper body occurs. I would guess that there are many people who become tense at the very idea of being close to or actually touched by another person. I think it’s also true that the notion of being a leader or a follower in the context of social dancing is – initially, at least – a somewhat uncomfortable prospect. But I have also noticed a great deal of tension among more seasoned followers: Is it that they’re now dancing with “the teacher?” Or do they automatically set up a wall of tension for some kind of protection, no matter whom they’re dancing with?

When I talk to my own students about this they usually tell me -- after thinking about it for a while -- that they somehow believe they have to harden themselves; i.e., become tense, in order to better control themselves and thus avoid making mistakes. This rings true to me, since I remember doing exactly the same thing myself, when I was learning how to dance.

The problem with this is that it simply doesn’t work. If you’re tense, you’ll almost surely make even more mistakes than you might if your body were less tied up in knots. If you’re tense, you’re actually erecting a huge wall between yourself and your partner, which prevents rather than enables any kind of comfortable communication. Finally, if you’re tense, you can’t possibly be having any fun.

Okay, so stop being tense. Yeah, right – easy for me to say, hard for any of us to actually accomplish. The way I go about solving the problem with my students is first to identify that the problem actually exists – make it completely conscious, completely tactile -- and then to eliminate each of its components in a step-by-step way over time. It’s not an easy process, but I’ve had a good deal of success with most of my students if they’re willing to work on it as a regular part of their learning process.

Can you solve the problem of tension by yourself? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I think that I managed to solve my problem by myself, since I never had teachers who were knowledgeable enough to help. So I guess I would say that if you apply yourself, you can do it, too. If, however, you find that you’re not able to make your own upper-body tension go away, do yourself a tremendous favor and find a teacher who can help. I guarantee that it will absolutely revolutionize your dancing.

 

August 15, 2013

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When most of us think about learning how to dance, we automatically assume that the process will consist of memorized, continuous step patterns. First, we learn a basic step; then, we pick up a few variations – and we have ourselves a dance. This is the basis for all contemporary Ballroom, Latin, and Swing dancing in this country. Argentine Tango, however, is not like that at all. In fact, Tango is more focused on what happens between one step and another rather than on where each individual step might lead.

To use, let’s say, American Foxtrot for comparison, part of the technique we use in developing any given sequence is to create a seamless gliding action between each step within the sequence. The overall result is to end up with a sense of easy, continuous movement from the beginning of the dance all the way to the end. In Tango, the exact opposite is true. With each step we take our goal is to come to a very definite ending rather than to continue moving.

As a primary learning tool we take one step, and we stop. Then we take another step and we stop. Consciously stopping between steps is one of the most important skills that we learn in Tango. Furthermore, we do not develop memorized sequences in the way we do in other dances. New students always ask, “What’s the basic step in Argentine Tango?” Answer: There is none.

Eventually, we learn how to create the equivalent of continuous sequences in Tango. This involves taking a step, acknowledging the balance at the end of that step, then taking the next step. This is a difficult skill to learn, and for a variety of reasons a good many leaders simply never become successful at it.

For the student who comes to Tango from the American tradition of continuous movement and memorized steps, this very different process of learning can be a very frustrating experience at first. We have to learn an entirely new way to dance – one that is completely alien to everything that we might be used to. If you take a deep breath, bite the bullet, and apply yourself to mastering this radically new technique of movement (and non-movement) you will sooner or later become a skilled Tango dancer.

All you have to do is make the commitment to learn, and not settle for anything but success.

 

August 8, 2013

 

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. How close should a leader hold his follower when dancing Tango? In Argentina, the answer would invariably be "very close." In other countries with their own individual cultural, ideological and aesthetic paradigms, the answer is often quite different.

In the USA, for example, the idea that each gender should "know their place" is considered passé to members of both sexes -- particularly in major urban areas. These days, the relationship between men and women is very much a matter of professional and social equality.

In this context, if I as a leader automatically draw my partner close, and she seems uncomfortable - perhaps she actually attempts to create distance between us - it would feel quite appropriate to me to give way, and to re-establish the embrace with more space between us in an effort to accede to her obvious preference. Conversely, if a follower plants herself uncomfortably on my chest in an automatic way, leaning into me to the extent that I will have difficulty leading the movements of the dance, I would feel no discomfort in releasing the embrace, and then attempting to recreate a more equally balanced connection which will work more effectively for my lead.

Whether you're a leader or a follower, I believe that you are as important as your partner in the Tango collaboration. Since the basic connection is defined by the embrace, I think it's crucial for you to participate in its formation - rather than allowing it to be some thing that "happens to you" and over which you have no control. If it feels too far apart, try getting a little closer to your partner. If it's too close for comfort, try to create distance. If your partner makes it difficult or impossible to do this, don't be afraid to speak up.

As the roles of men and women in contemporary society become redefined - become, in fact, far more closely aligned than ever before - a question as simple as "how close should a leader hold his partner?" is no longer exclusively the preference of the leader, but now calls for consideration and negotiation by both leader and follower.

 

 

August 1, 2013

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During last week’s Tip I introduced the idea of a follower taking temporary control of the dance by inviting her leader to stop for a moment or two while she adorns her position. This is her way of increasing her own creative participation in the dance. (To learn more about this, go to the Firehouse Tango archive and read last week’s Tango Tip.) This week, I want to focus on the various ways in which the leader may choose to respond to what the follower does.

Let’s start with a principle: The traveling movements of Tango are always generated by the leader. At no time does the follower take control of individual steps or sequences in the dance. When a follower asks for temporary control of the dance (as described last week), she is simply indicating that she wants the leader to come to a stop in the moment so that she can insert an adornment of some kind – after which she will once again become available for whatever step or sequence the leader would like to invite next.

Given that principle, what does a leader do, when his follower asks him to stop moving so that she can adorn? Basically, he has two choices: He can deny the request by continuing with his lead – in which case the follower should go along with the leader’s intent, saving her request for a later time in the dance – or he can adhere to the request by coming to a stop. If he stops and allows the adornment(s), it is important that he pay attention to what his follower is doing – rather than, say, waiting impatiently for her to finish so that he can get on with his plan. Tango is a moment-to-moment collaboration between leader and follower. Whatever creative embellishments she may do should have a powerful effect on what he does thereafter. In other words, the leader may have planned to execute one particular step or sequence, but because of the follower’s creative statement through her adornment, he may change his mind completely and do something entirely different.

It is important to remember that everything I’m talking about here falls into the realm of very advanced dance practice. If you’re at a level where you’re still working to achieve good lead/follow skills, this is no time for a follower to be “high-jacking” the lead (as swing dancers call it) in order to throw in a few adornments.  But as your leading/following becomes more confident, more comfortable, and more efficient, this profound enhancement to the dance collaboration – this important next level of the dance -- is something you can look forward to for the future.

 

July 25, 2013

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Before we begin, I want to thank Carolina Jaurena very much for covering my class last week. Carolina is a wonderful dancer and teacher, and we’ve heard that everyone who took her classes last week had a terrific experience. We’re very grateful that she was able to step in and take over for. Pat and I were so sorry to have to miss a week due to my hernia operation: we missed all our Firehouse friends, and we’re delighted to be back.

And now, let’s get to our Tango Tip of the Week.

Most contemporary American, European and Latin social dancing, even at the highest levels, adheres to a principle which I would call “direct lead/follow.” Basically, this means that the leader invites a specific movement by giving a precise lead, and the follower responds by taking a specific step. In social ballroom dancing, this step would almost certainly be the beginning of a continuous sequence (multiple steps which form a figure - think of the “progressive basic” or the “box step” in Foxtrot, for example.) In social Tango at a fundamental level, “direct lead/follow” consists of a specific lead for a single movement, and doesn’t imply a continuous sequence. Once the follower responds to the lead by taking a single step, she comes to a stop, finds her balance, and waits for the next lead.

With Tango, there is – potentially, at least – a second layer of interaction between leader and follower, which goes well beyond basic lead/follow as described above. This is where Tango becomes far more collaborative between the partners – where they become virtually equal participants in the dance.

The best way for me to explain what I mean here is to describe a typical interaction at this level of the dance. A leader takes his follower to a cruzada through a salida – as is so often done at the beginning of a dance. At this point, he may have a plan in the back of his mind in which he will now invite a resolution. (If you’ve been dancing Tango for more than two weeks, you know what these words mean.) But his follower decides to play with the cruzada by employing a small traspie ro extend the movement. Right now, the leader could legitimately force his follower to adhere to his plan – not permitting her to add the adornment at the cruzada, but because he realizes that an important component of the dance relationship is to allow ancillary movements by the follower in the form of adornos or embellishments, he waits while she completes her traspie. As he is waiting for her to complete her embellishment, he changes his plan, and decides to lead an entirely different follow-up series of movements. During this ongoing, improvised exchange, whenever he feels that his follower wants to add something of her own, he either decides to allow it to happen – or, if his plan is very important to him, he denies her the adorno and continues with his leading.

Notice that even when the leader allows maximum participation by his follower, the elements of the dance continue to be generated by his motivation, by his lead. A good leader will be very sensitive to moments during which his follower seems to be indicating a desire to add something. A good follower will, at the same time, be sensitive to when the leader agrees and when he does not.

Most beginning leaders do little more than run their followers (ragged) around the floor form the beginning of the dance until the end. In such a context there is no chance for the follower to express her creativity through the use of adornment – unless she wants to turn the dance into a war.

Leaders, if you know that your follower would like to attempt a few embellishments, try waiting between steps from time to time, offering her the opportunity to collaborate at this higher, very satisfying level of the dance.

Followers, see if you can insert an adorno once and a while between individual steps. This will sometimes be enough to slow your leader down a bit, so that he gives you more room to breathe – and to create.

 

July 18, 2013

Hello everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’ve taken any of my classes at the Firehouse, you’ve no doubt heard me say on more than one occasion that Tango occurs in increments of one step at a time. When I say this, I mean it in two very specific ways. The first is functional, literal; the second is aesthetic. Let’s talk about each one.

Tango is not a dance that is taught in sequences – or what most of us call “steps.” Functionally, we learn to dance Tango one step or movement at a time. Each movement has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So, for example, the leader initiates, let’s say, a forward step by offering his follower a lead (he lowers his body by flexing slightly at the knees in order to indicate the fact that he is about to travel, and then he begins to move forward with his entire body). Next, both partners travel through space independently. Finally both partners find balance at the end of the movement, bringing their legs and feet together and stopping. This completes one element or movement. Once a single movement has been completed, the leader may or may not choose to invite an additional movement. Since the follower has no idea what’s going to happen after the completion of every element, she stops at the end of the step which has been invited and waits for whatever may happen next. Thus, Tango occurs functionally in increments of a single movement.

From an aesthetic standpoint dancers in Argentina are also thinking in terms of one step at a time. Elaborate sequences are for the stage, for performance, maybe for various kinds of Tango competition. But they have no particular place in the social dance. When an Argentine man dances with his partner, he tries to make her feel as comfortable and as cared for as possible within every step of the dance. The only way this can happen is through careful, measured, controlled movement in which the leader is paying absolute attention to what his follower is doing with each movement he leads. At the end of each element he notices whether she has achieved balance and is therefore ready for the next lead – or perhaps she takes a bit of time to finish what she’s doing, and needs him to wait a beat or two before continuing. Sometimes, it may feel appropriate to the leader to invite his follower to take several movements in continuous sequence. At other times, he will lead her to take one step at a time. It all depends on his intimate reading of her responses to his lead, and, of course, to the music and to the conditions they find on the dance floor.

If you would like to dance more in the manner of Argentine dancers, try to think of Tango as one single movement at a time. Try to lead each element with great care, making sure that your follower finishes the step you’re leading in comfortable balance before you ask for the next step. At the same time, try to avoid stagy, athletic sequences that are designed for venues other than the social dance floor. We all know that such behavior is tempting at times, but it demonstrates to those who know better that you aren’t ready for the milongas of Buenos Aires. And that’s where I want to you to be as soon as you can find the airfare.

See you in a week or so!

 

July 11, 2013

Hello everyone, Pat here. Welcome back to Firehouse after the July 4th holiday last week! Our Tango Tip this week is the third in our series of Tool Kits for followers. In this Tool Kit we will address taking the first steps in the dance. 

Note: If you’ve been reading our Tango Tips for the past several weeks, you know that both leaders and followers already have a Tool Kit for getting up to dance, and one for forming the embrace. Leaders also have one for taking the first steps. Fran and I sincerely hope that all of you have been thinking about the special ideas we have described in these Tool Kits.

As you may be aware, Tango is one of the few remaining dances that is almost completely improvised. As a result it is beneficial to both leader and follower if they have some notion of how they are going to approach dancing together. Even if the partners know each other and have danced together often, each and every tango dance should be approached as a totally new experience.

Therefore, followers, we are now in the embrace and awaiting our leader’s first move. Below are some key ideas for you to be thinking about in this moment:

1.     I will plan to stop at the end of the first and every following step, making sure I am in balance and my feet are together.

2.     I will complete each movement and will not anticipate any movement that is not led.

3.     If I do not feel a recognizable lead, I will not move.

4.     I will pay special attention to back steps and molinete and employ the appropriate technique and balance.

5.     I will pay special attention to ochos, waiting for each lead in this movement and not moving on my own.

6.     If my leader creates a barrera during an ocho, I will stop rather than automatically jumping over hi s foot.

7.     I will relax and enjoy the dance.

Followers, this Tool Kit can really help you to become good at your job. In time, you will gain increased confidence in your dance, gradually losing any fear of making a mistake, and honing your basic skills, so that you eventually become an accomplished dance partner for any leader.

 

Jun 27, 2013

 

Hello everyone, Pat here. Last week, I talked about a special ‘Tool Kit’ for followers as they are getting up to dance. I hope that during the past week, followers have been thinking about the five points I made as they approach their partner on the dance floor.

This week, we will talk about ideas for forming the embrace. I will assume that followers will have already prepared themselves through Tool Kit #1. Forming the embrace is a very important moment and should never be rushed. It calls for as much technique and styling as any other movement in tango, and sets up both partners appropriately for making their first move.  Never underestimate the importance of forming the embrace.

With all of this in mind, here is Followers Took Kit #2 – forming the embrace:

1.     You should be standing directly in front of your partner, having already observed the pointers from Took Kit #1 - upright posture, shoulders down, balance, legs and feet together.

2.     As your leader places his arm around the center of your back, place your left arm gently on his shoulder, upper back, upper arm – wherever is the most comfortable -- given the height differential between you. Under no circumstances should you drape yourself around him, or in any way lean on him!

3.     As your leader offers his left hand carefully place your right hand in his, palm to palm. The position can be adjusted by the leader in order to be comfortable for both partners. Your hand should be resting lightly in his – this is never a tight grip, followers! If you are in balance (as you should be) it will never be necessary to use your leader’s hand and arm for support.

4.     At this point, make sure both your elbows are down and have not risen up into an exaggerated position. Also, make a quick check of your overall posture and balance – body weight is up, and poised towards the balls of your feet – without rising off the heels.

5.     You are now ready for your leader to move in whatever direction he chooses! Clear your mind of any thoughts about what he might do. Be calm and just listen with your body.

It should be said that the preparation described above should be observed no matter what your level of tango expertise. Forming the embrace is as much a part of dancing tango as moving through space – in fact, it sets up the whole character of the dance you are about to do, as well as the all-important first connection with your partner. So, take your time and enjoy it!

Next week, we will discuss taking the first steps in the dance.

 

Jun 20, 2013

Hello everyone, Pat here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For the past three weeks, Fran has been putting together some Tool Kits for leaders to help them focus when they get up to dance, when they take dance position, and when they lead their first steps. I am now going to provide similar Tool Kits for followers. It is our hope that by providing a specific list of preparatory ideas, we can help both leaders and followers prepare themselves to start their dance in an appropriate manner.

Followers, imagine for a moment that you are at a Milonga, sitting at a table on the edge of the dance floor. You are hoping that someone will come up and ask you to dance. When this happens, and you get up and assume the dance position, what do you do and what are your thoughts?

If you have danced with this person before, and you know exactly what he’s going to lead and how he will treat you – do you just go into autopilot and move around the floor hardly thinking what’s happening? On the other hand, if you have not danced with the person before, are you nervous and do you drape yourself around him so he can do whatever he wants and just carry you around the floor?

Neither of these scenarios has anything to do with what your actions should be when someone asks you to dance. Instead, here are five things for a follower to think about as she gets up to dance:

1. Posture:
I am going to stand straight up with my weight on both feet, keeping my shoulders back and down and my chin in.

 

2. Following the lead:
I will resolve to follow my leader to the best of my ability. I will wait for each lead and will not anticipate what he’s going to do next. 

 

3. Balance:
At the end of each step I will come onto my own balance and bring my feet together.

 

4. No leaning!
I will maintain my own upright balance throughout the dance, and will not lean, cling or drape myself around my leader.

 

5. When things go wrong …
I will not immediately think it’s my fault. I will try to help rectify the situation and hope that my leader feels the same way.

This 5-point Followers Tool Kit #1 should help any follower feel more confident as she gets up to dance. If used on a regular basis, you will find that your following becomes more accurate and the dance more enjoyable for both yourself and your leader.

Next week, I’ll talk about the Followers Took Kit #2: Forming the embrace.

 

 

Jun 13, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During the past two weeks, I’ve been discussing what I called a leader’s “tool kit” for Tango. The idea behind this is to provide you with a strong focus for how to conduct yourself as a leader when preparing to dance and when forming the actual embrace. Today, we’re going to talk about the last in our series of leader’s tool kits – “first steps.” (If you haven’t read the previous two Tango Tips, I’d suggest that in preparation for this one you take a look at them in our Firehouse archives.)

The point at which we’ll begin this week is that you’ve walked onto the dance floor with your partner and formed the embrace. If you’ve used the “tool kit” suggestions up to now, you’re ready to start dancing. Let’s talk about what to think about, when inviting your first steps:

1.     Focus on dancing with your partner in increments of one step at a time rather than in a multi-step sequence. This will ensure that you concentrate on what is actually going on within each step in terms of her response to your lead rather than the theoretical construction of the figure.

2.     Virtually every figure you might want to lead in Tango consists of some combination of six basic elements: pause, in-place, side, forward, backward, and pivot Be sure to invite each of these elements by precisely employing specific leads, which you generate from your torso through the dance connection. (f you don’t know what these leads are, ask your teacher to work with you in building a solid skill set for leading.)

3.     After inviting any individual movement, pay careful attention to whether your partner has received and is executing the step you asked for – and allow her to complete this element by bringing herself into reasonable balance before you ask for another step.

4.     Be extra careful when inviting women’s backward movements. It’s very easy for her to lose her balance and fall into a subsequent additional back step unless you make absolutely certain that you allow her to find her balance at the end of each step.

5.     Be extra careful when inviting a molinete. Remember that you are in the center of the circle in a rotating sequence and that your partner is way out on the circumference. This means that she has to take very large steps to keep up with you, if you’re turning your torso too quickly. SLOW DOWN!!!

6.     Be extra careful when inviting a forward or backward ocho. Remember that each of these figures consists of two distinct leads – a pivot and a walk. Don’t simply shove your partner to one side and hope that she understands what you want her to do. If you’re not sure how to effectively lead an ocho, talk to your teacher.

7.     A good final idea might be to be extra careful when leading anything and everything.

Okay, there’s your leader’s “tool kit” for inviting your first steps (and all subsequent steps) within the dance. As with the material we discussed during the past two weeks this should all be quite familiar to you by now, if you’ve been taking regular dance instruction with a competent teacher.

Next week, Pat will begin building a “tool kit” for followers.

 

Jun 6, 2013

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we talked about developing a kind of practical “tool kit” for leaders – a very powerful group of ideas that you start thinking about as you walk out onto the dance floor. This “tool kit” will enable you to focus your mind on exactly what you’re going to be doing on your own and with your partner both before and during the actual dance. If you’d like to read about why I think it’s a good idea to do this, take a look at last week’s Firehouse Tango Tip . You’ll find it in the archives on our Web site.

Have you re-read the elements of your leader’s pre-Tango tool kit? I’m not going to repeat them here, so if you haven’t committed them to memory, now’s a good time to do so.

Ready to continue? Good. Today, we’re going to discuss forming the embrace from the leader’s standpoint. For the time being, we’re going to assume that our partner understands her role -- but in a few weeks, Pat will more thoroughly discuss how the follower forms her half of the embrace.

Leaders, when creating the embrace with your partner, here is your “embrace tool kit”:

1.     Stand in front of your partner so that you are exactly facing one another, center to center.

2.     Check your posture to make sure you’re standing up straight.

3.     Make certain your legs and feet are together, and that you’re maintaining solid, upright balance.

4.     Place your right arm gently around her waist and connect it to the center of her back without in any way pulling her towards you. Remember, both partners remain in balance independently. (This may mean that you have to shuffle a little closer to her so that you’re not tilted uncomfortably forward.)

5.     Take your partner’s right hand in your own left hand, palm to palm. Try to have your hand at the level of your nose. If she’s considerably shorter than you, compromise by having your hand between your nose and hers. Never push or pull with your left hand or arm.

6.     Don’t allow the elbows of either arm to be elevated unnaturally.

7.     Shift your weight slightly forward onto the front part of your feet. This means that your weight centers in the balls of the feet while still remaining in the front part of your heels. Don’t lean on your partner.

Okay, there’s your leader’s “embrace tool kit.” You’re ready to make your first move. If you’ve been taking lessons on a regular basis, all this should seem quite familiar. This is no more than a memory aid. If for some reason these elements are a surprise to you, it’s time to consider taking Tango lessons with a competent teacher.

Next week, we’ll talk about taking your first steps in the dance.

 

May 30, 2013

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Before most of us start the actual process of learning how to dance, we probably conjure up a vision of getting out on a dance floor and moving around gracefully to music – and having a great time with our friend or loved one without any particular effort. In the abstract, dancing seems like a kind of harmless activity in which we can forget all about our worries and cares, and just have some fun.

Then, of course, we give it a try, and find out that what we assumed was going to be easy is, in fact, a high-precision skill which demands literally years of patient development in order to get us anywhere. At that point, we either decide to change course and take up something less demanding, or bite the bullet and continue.

Let’s say you’re a male dancer who has made the decision to give Tango your best shot. You’re currently taking regular lessons of some kind (preferably privates, but I won’t quibble), and you practice your dancing at least twice each week. If you’re like I was when I was at that stage of development, you get out on the dance floor with a partner, take her in your arms, and your plan (if you have one at all) is to sort of passively see what happens. Sometimes, things work, sometimes they don’t. Okay, I’d better take more lessons.

Right now, I’m going to offer you an alternative plan for when you get up to dance. Let’s call it a pre-Tango “tool kit” which you’re going to mentally carry with you every time you head for the dance floor. Today, we’re going to talk about things you’re going to make sure you have in hand before you actually take you partner in the embrace. (Next week, we’ll make a checklist for forming the embrace in preparation for movement, and the following week we’ll build a tool kit for actually conducting the dance itself.

All right, you’re walking out to the floor with your partner. Maybe it’s someone you’ve never danced with before, maybe it’s a long-time partner. Right now, that doesn’t matter. The following is what you’re going to think about:

1.     I’m going to adjust my posture so that I’m standing up straight with my chest up, my shoulders down and out, and my head over my spine.

2.     I’m going to remember precisely how to comfortably lead all fundamental movements, include pauses, in-place changes of weight, side forward and back steps, and pivots.

3.     I’m going to make it a general rule to maintain solid, upright balance between steps, and to always bring my legs and feet together before making my next movement.

4.     I’m never going to lean on my partner in any way during the dance.

5.     If and when things go wrong during the dance, I’m going to take responsibility for them, and continually try to make things better for my partner – without blaming her.

6.     I’m going to try to have fun!

Okay, there’s your leader’s pre-Tango “tool kit.” By now, my hope is that you’ve addressed each one of these elements in your lessons, and that you understand what they mean. If not, consult with your teacher to bring your tool kit up to speed. This will give you a very solid foundation from which to begin the process of dancing with any partner.

Next week, we’ll talk about the embrace.

 

May 23, 2013

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In learning how to dance Tango it’s most often not a question of what you don’t know that’s the major challenge -- it’s what you think you already do know that gets in your way.

Let me explain. When I ask a potential new leader to describe what he thinks he’ll be doing in dancing with his partner in Tango, he almost always replies with words like this:

“I hold her in my arms firmly, and push (carry) her from step to step.”

What if she doesn’t respond the way you want her to?

“Push harder.”

What if she begins to lose her balance?

“Hold her tighter.”

On the other side of the equation, when I ask a potential new follower to describe what she thinks is going to happen, she usually responds in this way:

“He’ll take me in his arms, and direct me around the floor.”

How much control will you have yourself?

“None.”

What if you don’t understand what he’s asking you to do?

“Just try something and see if it works.”

These are real responses that I’ve received many times from new dancers. Men thins they’re supposed to hold their partner very tightly and push them through the movements. Women think they’re supposed to fall into their partners’ arms and allow themselves to be carried around the floor. If I ask these same questions again after these students have been studying Tango for a while, they’ve probably learned that the answers they originally gave are wrong – and so they no longer respond in the same way. But they still do the same thing when they dance.

No wonder learning Tango is so hard! Over the years that I’ve been teaching Tango I have found that the hardest part of the process is to help these new students overcome their predispositions about what’s going to happen during the dance.

In a private lesson, in which I’m working one-on-one with a leader or follower, I can demonstrate very clearly what the lead/follow mechanism is supposed to feel like. If the student works diligently at the process, he or she will eventually begin to use their bodies in the appropriate way. On the other hand, in the class situation in which beginner leaders and beginner followers are thrown together (by necessity), the problems I alluded to above tend to be exacerbated rather than brought under control.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you really want to learn how to dance Tango, you need to consider putting private lessons on your to-do list. I believe you’ve heard me say these words before, but I truly hope that this time you’ll finally hear them.

 

May 16, 2013

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. What is the appropriate protocol at your Tango venue? How do you ask people to dance? Who does the asking? What else do you have to know to avoid doing the “wrong” thing? Here are a few things to consider.

In Buenos Aires, men ask women to dance – in a very special way that I’ll describe in a moment. Women never ask men to dance under any circumstances. If you go to a milonga as a couple, you and your partner sit together, sometimes at your own small table, and sometimes sharing a four-seat table with another couple whom you may not know. You and your partner dance exclusively together. It would be considered rude for a single man to ask your partner to dance. It does happen occasionally, but the accepted response to such overtures is to simply ignore the inappropriate supplicant until he goes away.

Single men and women sit at separate tables, usually on opposite sides of the dance floor (so that they can see each other clearly). Both men and women constantly watch people with whom they want to dance, trying to make eye contact. If a man decides that he wants to dance with a woman, he nods his head in her direction. This is known generally as “cabeceo.” If the woman wants to dance with him (and sees his nod), see nods back. (If she does not want to dance with him she averts her eyes, looking away at the moment he nods in her direction.) Once there is a tacit agreement to dance together, both people rise and move toward one another. Alternatively, she may rise and remain in place while he makes the journey across the floor to meet with her.

An agreement to dance is an agreement to remain together for the duration of one “tanda” or group of from three to four songs of a particular type (Tango, Milonga or Vals). At the end of the tanda, the leader escorts his partner back to her seat, and the  ritual of finding another dance partner begins again. If the partnership is less than desirable, a chivalrous leader will generally “tough it out,” remaining with his partner until the end of the tanda. On the other hand, if the woman feels that she cannot continue with this partner at the end of the first song (or sometimes even in the middle of the first song!), she can end the partnership abruptly by saying “Thank you,” and walking away. To an Argentine man, this is the height of insult, and, once he recovers from this consummate embarrassment, he will almost certainly never dance with that particular woman again. But, of course, that is her intent.

In order to accommodate this highly structured behavior, the music is also structured in tandas; i.e., groups of three or four songs within one category (Tango, Milonga, or Vals), followed by a brief musical interlude called a “Cortina” (literally curtain). This interlude consists of music from some other genre. It might be swing, jazz, rock, Latin – anything that clearly indicates a place of change in the dance continuum. This cortina, as mentioned above, is where people finish their collaborations, and move on to instigate the ritualistic search for new partners.

In this country, let’s say, at the Firehouse, things are quite different. Our dee-jays do indeed tend to adhere to the tanda structure in their music (although in my practica at Dance Manhattan in New York City I do not). However, in our culture both men and women may ask partners to dance – without being considered rude or out of place. Furthermore, they may do so by approaching their prospective partner’s table and making a direct request. Yes, women, you can ask him to dance. Times have changed, and so should you. And you don’t have to adhere to the tanda structure. If you finish one or two dances, and feel like sitting down, you can make your excuses and end the collaboration without anyone being insulted. In other words, “Thank You” means thank you, not “I never want to dance with you again.”

The potential fly in the ointment here is that at some venues in and around our area, people have made an agreement that they’re going to imitate the Argentine manner as I described it above. In such cases, it’s up to you to learn what the “rules” are, and to try your best to follow them. In this way, you’ll avoid embarrassing yourself, and possibly making one of your partners feel insulted.

Buena suerte!

 

 

May 9, 2013

 

Hi everybody, Pat here. Last week, Fran posed two key questions about learning and dancing Tango. Question One: What is the greatest difficulty leaders have to deal with in dancing Tango? Question Two: What is the greatest difficulty followers have to deal with in dancing Tango? For this week’s Tango Tip I’m going to address the second of these questions.

Last week, Fran talked about an important stage of Tango which both leaders and followers typically reach after they have become familiar with the basic elements of the dance. It is the moment when they feel that they can now move “forward” in learning pre-ordained steps and memorized figures.

There are many Tango teachers who can’t wait to get these students into a class which features fancy choreography, primarily because choreography is easy to teach. In the case of followers, it leads them into a way of dancing that is antithetical to social Tango. Followers who “dance from their heads” after being exposed to this kind of “teaching” do not, by definition, listen to their leaders. Instead, they cannot wait to find an opportunity to put their newly found choreographic knowledge into practice. The result, of course, is a discordant partnering that looks and feels very awkward.

A frequent example of this type of follower is one who has learned a few new embellishments and thinks that each of them must be put into every dance. You can almost see her thinking which one to do with each next step, or after each ocho. Of course, the timing and choice of movement are almost never appropriate, and instead of looking as if she knows something, this follower looks like an amateur -- because she is always rushing ahead of herself – and paying little or no attention to her leader.

Note: If you’ve learned some embellishments, try to put only ONE into a dance. This is a difficult thing to do. You may go several dances without getting it done. It doesn’t matter. Just enjoy the dance anyway. And keep in mind, you can only incorporate embellishments with a leader who gives you the time to do so!

Another very common occurrence is a follower who has decided that a certain idiosyncratic posture is the one to adopt. It may be draping herself around and leaning on her leader, or perhaps bending her knees too much, extending her posterior, or hunching her shoulders. When these followers take up their pre-conceived dance position, their leader must then try to execute his leads while accommodating his follower’s rigid and ill-conceived posture -- probably not the amazing 3-minute Tango experience everyone is looking for!

So followers, here are some tips that I hope will help you to be a good follower and not to dance from your head:

·      Practice your basic movement and balance – I cannot emphasize this enough

·      Posture! Stand up straight, shoulders down, chin held in

·      Relax! Take a simple, balanced dance position and just wait – don’t think, don’t expect, don’t plan

·      Clear your head and pay attention to the lead – if you don’t feel a lead, don’t move!

·      Listen to your leader with your body…just let it move with him.

This may all sound like simple stuff, but that’s exactly what social Tango should be, with the occasional flash of “something” added – well executed and well placed! This amazingly wonderful dance should be a time of enjoyment between you and your partner – not a display of classroom pyrotechnics!

 

 

May 2, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Question One: What is the greatest difficulty leaders have to deal with in dancing Tango? Question Two: What is the greatest difficulty followers have to deal with in dancing Tango? For this week’s Tango Tip I’m going to address the first of these questions. Next week, Pat will tackle Question Two.

Let’s assume that a leader has learned how to lead/invite the fundamental elements of Tango – forward, backward, side, and in-place movements as well as pauses. Let’s assume further that he has learned how to lead pivots -- which enables him to invite forward and backward ochos as well as molinetes in either direction.

If he spends time practicing these elements accurately again and again – preferably with several partners -- he will eventually be able to dance what we’ll call basic-level or social Tango with considerable skill.

But … if he chooses instead to memorize pre-ordained figures, learned from a class, from a video, or from YouTube -- and then to try imposing these movements on his followers as a substitute for good leading practice – he will be succumbing to the greatest difficulty a leader can have in learning to dance Tango.

When I first started to learn Tango from teachers who were skilled in social dance, every one of them said over and over that “there are no steps in Tango.”  What they meant by this was that one doesn’t dance from the head. One doesn’t simply walk onto the dance floor with a notebook filled with memorized figures, and robotically carry out a pre-planned agenda, hoping that one’s follower will somehow be able to do her job without knowing what’s going on. In choreographed dancing, of course – dancing for the stage or for competition, for example -- this is essentially what happens, but in such cases both leader and follower know the steps in advance, and mechanically practice them together until they achieve the appropriate amount of fluidity and drama.

Dancing from the head in this way is bad social dance practice. It is, of course, very seductive, because it makes the offender half believe that he actually looks as if he knows what he’s doing (almost never true!), and that his followers will think he’s a skilled dancer (absolutely never true!!).

On the other hand, if the leader can temporarily put aside his burning desire to go too far too fast, and concentrate on fundamental elements as described above, his dancing will definitely improve over the course of time, and he will find himself in demand as a partner by most followers.

Who could possibly ask for more than that?

 

 

April 25, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. What do you mean when you say, “I want to learn how to dance?” Do you mean, “I want to learn that fancy step I saw those professional dancers do on TV?” Or do you mean, “I want to put in the necessary commitment in time and energy to actually learn the complex skill of moving comfortably and elegantly with another person in a social context?”

What motivates most of us to want to learn how to dance is the former. We see some exciting move on YouTube or in a show somewhere, and we want to be able to do it ourselves -- and, of course, we want it NOW!

That’s exactly what happened to me. I happened to see the wonderful show “Tango Argentino” on Broadway in the mid 1980’s, and immediately decided that I just had to be able to dance the way those fabulous people were doing it on stage. I had already been teaching ballroom dancing for many years. and I was considered an expert in all three general styles (Ballroom, Latin and Swing). It would be easy, I thought, to add one more style to my repertoire.

Let’s see, it’s now 28 years later, and I’m beginning to think I might be starting to get it.

Argentine social dancing is radically different from the American/European paradigm, which I spent so many years learning. If you look at it from the outside in a superficial way – as I initially did -- Tango might seem to be the same. You have a partner in an embrace, and you move together to the music. You might be forgiven for thinking that the only thing different is that you’re moving to the music of Tango rather than that of, say, Foxtrot or Waltz. But, of course, you’d be dead wrong.

For one thing, American/European progressive dancing is based on a tradition of continuous motion. Tango is based on stillness, or at least the possibility of stillness at the end of every single step you take. This is very big – in fact, a crucial -- difference, and learning this took me the better part of ten years. Not because I’m particularly dense, but because no one ever mentioned it to me during the hundreds of lessons I took from Argentine dancers and teachers. Why didn’t they mention it? Because they assumed everyone danced the way they did, that there simply wasn’t another way of moving.

Duh …

I describe this to you, because I think it’s very important for you to be aware that learning a new dance – like learning a new language, let’s say – is by no means a straight-forward, linear project which has a predictable learning curve. If you try to do it by yourself – or even if you have a teacher who isn’t quite up to the task – you’re eventually going to end up with the feeling that you’re falling down a deep well.

Yikes, isn’t that depressing! Anyway, let’s get back to the question of the day. Is it going to be “Dancing with the Stars,” or acquiring a real skill that you want? Or maybe you just want to be able to get up with a partner and move around the floor a little without bumping into other people. (This, by the way, is a very realistic goal, and one that you can achieve pretty quickly.)

Do yourself a favor, and think about this. If it’s just moving around the floor a little that you’ll be satisfied with, take a few classes to get the hang of it, and head for the dance floor. Don’t get jealous of people who look better than you do – remember, they’re probably working a lot harder at Tango than you are.

If you want to become a skilled social dancer, take lessons – mostly private ones. Yes, they’re costly, but you’ll get much better, and it won’t take all that long.

If instead of these options you want to just focus your energy on a few of those “Dancing with the Stars” moves -- without building the necessary skills first -- go and be well.

Preferably somewhere that I don’t have to watch.

 

April 18, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. As beginning students, when we take forward, backward and side movements, most of us can't wait to get to the end of our steps. Our balance is usually a bit shaky, and we really don't feel at all comfortable, moving through space. However, after dancing Tango for a while we start to feel somewhat more confident with traveling through space. At this point it's time to add a sense of openness and continuity to each of these movements. And that's what this Tango Tip is about.

Whether we're moving forward, backward or to the side, there are three fundamental elements contained in each step we take:

·      First, there's the initiation of the movement. That's where you go from a standing, balanced position to the onset of motion. Your body begins to move in the direction of the step, and your leg starts to extend itself in the appropriate direction.

·      Second, you actually travel through space, taking a step, which more or less matches that of your partner. As you do this, you maintain slight contact with the floor (rather than picking your foot up off the ground, and then replacing it back on the floor at the end of the movement).

·      Third, you reach the end of the movement, place full weight on the traveling leg, and bring yourself into balance.

With a skilled dancer, these elements occur as an unfolding sequence of events. If you watch carefully, you can actually see as the step begins, then appears to move effortlessly through space, and culminates in the final balance - where everything comes gently to a stop, or where a new step begins. On the other hand, unskilled students will often lurch through the movement in an effort to get to the end as quickly as possible. They tend to go from the beginning to the end of the step without allowing the center of the movement - the traveling part - to take place. Certainly, these students are moving through space, but they're doing so in a kind of panic mode, hurrying to get to the end so that they can get their feet - sometimes both feet - safely on the ground.

This problem is compounded in the lead/follow collaboration. If I'm leading a woman who is rushing to the end of her movements, it will pull me off balance with every step we take together. If a skilled follower is dancing with a leader who is rushing to reach the end of his steps, she, too, will find her balance severely compromised.

So, what can we do about this very common problem?

As a leader, I can begin to recognize that once I initiate a movement, this is only the beginning of the step . I then have to travel some distance through space, allowing this part of the step to unfold, and finally bring myself to the end in which I'll find balance. I have to notice each part of the total movement, and not rush to the end. Furthermore, I have to notice whether my partner is doing the same thing - or whether she's rushing her own movement and therefore pulling me off balance. If she is, there really isn't anything I can do about it (this is her dance teacher's job!), but at least I'll have the awareness that my balance is being compromised by someone other than me.

As a follower, my step begins when the leader initiates the movement. I can't get panicky at this point and immediately allow myself to race to the end of the step. I have to recognize that the movement is just beginning at this moment. I take up his invitation to move, and gently travel through space in the direction indicated, allowing my step to unfold and expand as I go. As I reach the point at which the traveling part is complete, I bring myself consciously into balance with my legs and feet together, and wait for the next invitation. As I do all this, I try to notice whether my balance is being compromised by a leader, who may be rushing his step, and therefore not giving me the opportunity to execute my own movement in the way I know it should be done. If this is indeed happening, there isn't a thing I can do about it. But I can feel confident that it isn't my fault. And the proof will be that when I dance with a skilled leader, none of this will happen.

If I had to put all this information into a concise thought, it would be: Don't rush; let your movements breathe; balance. Hmmmmm. I can't wait to try that myself.

 

 

April 11, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If I had to give followers a single piece of advice in dancing Tango, it would be this:

Followers, it’s your second step that counts.

Huh? Second step? What’s Fran talking about? Okay, let’s discuss what this somewhat vague statement means.

Tango de salon -- social Tango -- is a dance that focuses on lead/follow skills rather than choreography; i.e., unless you’re a professional performer. This means that as a follower in social Tango your job is to receive a lead from your partner, and execute it to the best of your ability. So, with that in mind, the music starts and your partner invites the first step. If he’s a skilled leader, he makes it very obvious what he wants. Most likely, it will be one of the basic four movements: forward, backward, to the side, or in-place. You read the lead and take the step.

Now what?

Here is where a skilled follower knows exactly what to do, and an unskilled follower falls on her face.

What do you do at the end of that first step?

The answer of course, is nothing. As a skilled follower you know that Tango is led – and therefore followed – in increments of one step. This means that at the end of that first step, you bring yourself into balance on the leg that just traveled, and you stop, waiting in balance for the next lead.

Everything in Tango – the entire dance – hinges on this moment – waiting for the second step, and the third, and all the rest which will come after that first movement. It often happens that the unskilled follower continues to move at the end of this first step. She takes a second or third step without being invited to do so. Even if she doesn’t actually take an uninvited step or two, she loses her balance and literally falls into an additional movement. (Teachers sometimes refer to this kind of behavior as “anticipation” or “back leading.”) During a dance, a good leader can compensate for this kind of inappropriate practice by a follower. But he shouldn’t have to. It all depends on the follower knowing what to do about that very important second step.

To make certain that you dance like a skilled follower, here is what to do when asked to take a step:

1.     Follow the lead by executing whatever single movement is invited.

2.     As you near the end of the step, concentrate exclusively on bringing yourself into an upright position, still in balance.

3.     Don’t allow yourself to think about what your leader might have in mind for the next step.

4.     When you’re at rest and in balance, just wait. He may invite a succeeding step, and, then again, he might not. You have no way of knowing what he’ll do, so your job is to do nothing.

Followers, if you can do all this at the end of every step you take in Tango, you will have overcome the greatest obstacle to skilled dancing that you can possibly face. Almost everything else in the dance will become quite simple.

It all depends on that second step.

 

April 4, 2013

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you've a leader who's been learning to dance Argentine Tango by studying with a knowledgeable teacher, you know by now that Tango is not taught as a series of memorized figures - the way that most other Ballroom, Latin and Swing dances are currently presented. Instead, we teach you how to lead and follow fundamental movements - forward, backward, sideward and in-place weight changes along with pauses - and then help you in the process of creating your own dance by improvising your way through various combinations of these core steps.

In theory, this pedagogical approach eliminates the problem of limiting your personal   creativity - as is invariably the case with a system which involves pre-ordained, teacher-derived figures. Put in another way, if the teacher shows you a figure and says, "here's the basic step," your virtually automatic response will be to stop thinking, memorize the figure, and ask what's next. If, on the other hand, the teacher shows you five rudimentary elements, and challenges you to make up your own figures, the stage has been set for maximum creativity.

Get the idea?

The problem is this. The moment you put together two or three fundamental movements to create a figure, a habit is born. Every time you piece together a few movements that feel comfortable, a big part of you will say, "oh, boy, let's do this one again ... and again ... and again."

Habit.

Is there anything monumentally wrong with forming habits? Aren't you personalizing your dance making it your own? Well, yes, in a way, but at the same time you're also producing your own limitations, and all your partners can guess what you're going to do before you do it. Yikes!

So what's the antidote to habit formation?

I'm glad you asked. It's quite simple ... but not easy. You can approach the potential problem from two sides:

1.     What figure have I just completed

2.      What figure am I planning to lead

Let's say you've just finished a sequence that worked reasonably well between you and your partner, and you're now momentarily at rest. Ask yourself, "Have I ever done that figure before?" "Do I do that figure over and over?" If the answer to either of those questions is, "yes," try to figure out a way to alter the sequence the next time you do it. If you can't come up with a way to change it in some workable way, try to leave it out of your repertoire for the rest of that dance ... or maybe even for the rest of the evening. Do this even if you really like that particular sequence. Don't worry. You can bring it back soon - (but not too often).

Now, let's talk about sequences you haven't done in this dance, but are planning to throw in. Ask yourself the same questions. "Have I ever done this sequence before?" "Do I like to repeat this sequence over and over?" Are you nodding, "yes?" Take it out of the program. Save it for your next partner. Or maybe for the next evening.

By starting to pay more attention to what you're doing on the dance floor, and therefore by minimizing habitual actions, you'll be opening the door to creative possibilities that might not otherwise have presented themselves to you. At the same time, you'll be making yourself a less predictable, more exciting partner to dance with.

Give it a try.

 

 

March 28, 2013

 

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Many years ago - let's say, during the 1940's in the U.S.A. -- when social dance was pretty much everywhere, the most common means of learning how to dance was to simply go to a dance venue in your community, watch what people were doing, and try it yourself. Sooner or later, you'd begin to get the hang of it, friends and acquaintances would show you a few steps, and you'd be on your way.

Back then, everyone had their own particular style of interpreting any given dance, so you had a wide range of moves to choose from in creating your own version of whatever dance you were interested in. From time to time you might see some hotshot doing a special step you lusted after, and you'd eyeball him or her until they repeated the pattern enough times that you could finally grab it and make it your own.

That was then.

Today, the heyday of social dance is long gone. The number of people involved in dancing is very, very small. And instead of attempting to learn how to dance by just heading for the nearest dance hall and taking your chances, your only viable option these days is to find yourself a teacher . Want to learn foxtrot, waltz, salsa, swing? Sure, you could go to a dance, and try to pick up a few things, but the people you'd be watching today would be mostly students, not seasoned dancers. The experts are now doing the assisted living thing someplace warm like Florida. Their dancing days are way behind them. It's a shame, but that's the way things are.

So what do you do? You get a teacher.

Sounds reasonable. Go directly to the source, right? Well ... not quite. As a potential student, you could easily be forgiven for thinking -- for hoping, at least - that every dance teacher is an expert in dance, that we all know everything there is about it, and that you'll be safe in our hands. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Most of us are, in fact, extremely narrow in focus, having slavishly assimilated an orthodox methodology from our own teachers, which we more or less mindlessly pass along to you - but which only represents a tiny sliver of what is available within the full spectrum of social dance. Most of us are hamstrung by the misguided idea of standardizing social dance -turning it into a series of severely limited movements that are rigidly prescribed -- rather than opening the doors to the full potential of this highly creative art form to our students.

Which brings me to Argentine Tango.

Because we live very far away from the culture of Tango, we simply do not have ready access to how this dance - along with Vals and Milonga -- is actually being danced in the milongas of Argentina. We absolutely must rely on our dance teachers to guide us appropriately, to invite us into the world of Tango, and to help nurture our creativity as we make these dances our own.

Let me offer you two ideas about all this. First, there is NO certainty in learning how to dance (even though I know it's what you're looking for as a beginning student). Everyone interprets Tango - and every other dance -- differently. If someone tells you it's just one thing, don't believe them. Second, if you really want to know what Tango is all about, go to Buenos Aires, watch every dancer you can find, read books, ask questions, and decide you're going to make Tango a lifelong pursuit.

That should put you on the right path. Think of it as Step One.

March 21, 2013

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In this country we think of social dancing as an ongoing series of continuous movements. Foxtrot, Waltz, American Tango - these dances begin with movement and continue uninterrupted until the end of whatever song it being played. Once the leader and follower begin, they don't stop.

When it comes to Argentine tango, however, things are completely different!

If you've been to any of my Argentine Tango classes, you've often heard me say that Argentine Tango is a dance of movement and stillness. You may also remember me saying that Tango is danced in increments of one step, or that the leader invites his follower to move one single step at a time.

These are all ways of describing primarily what the follower does in dancing Tango. To put it as clearly as possible, the follower comes to a complete stop at the end of every step she is led to take. She doesn't pause or hover in anticipation of her next move. She doesn't lean on her partner. She simply finishes her movement, entering a state of neutrality in which she is completely balanced on one leg (the last leg which has just served as her working or moving leg) - and she waits.

In this state of neutrality anything is possible. This is the end of every single step in the dance. It is the invitation to every possible movement.

If, on the other hand, she leans on him at the end of a movement, most possibilities for subsequent movement are eliminated. If she fails to come to a stop, he is forced to follow her next movement. If she doesn't find her balance, his options are severely limited.

It is only when she finishes her movement - when she achieves neutral, quiet balance - that she becomes ready for her next step in Tango.

For a follower the end of the step is as important as the step itself. Think of endings with special concentration. Plan for every ending as you begin every step. Try saying to yourself, "At the end of this step I will come to a complete stop in balance." Try not to use your leader for support, if you find yourself out of balance at the end of a step. Regain your balance from within your central core. If your leader is moving too quickly for you to feel balanced and in control, ask him to please slow down. If he won't or can't, try dancing with someone else.

Tango is a dance of movement and of stillness. If you still don't know what this means, ask Pat or me about
 


 

March 14, 2013

 

 

Hello everyone, Pat here. Today, I'm going to talk about the placement of the follower's feet when walking backwards. As Fran said last week when discussing the placement of the leader's feet, this is an extremely important part of not only dancing Tango, but looking like a Tango dancer.

Those of you followers who are new to the dance will have so much other fundamental information to process that the notion of how to place your feet will not exactly be front and center in your mind. You will be doing your best simply trying to follow the basic steps and all that goes with that. The subject of this Tango Tip may just seem to be one too many pieces of information to digest. And that's totally understandable.

However, for those of you who have been dancing for a while and are at a pre-intermediate or intermediate stage, the placement of your feet should be something that you can assimilate and focus on.

In Tango, style is of paramount importance. Followers, when walking backwards, you should never just plunk each foot down without thinking. If you are in the habit of dancing this way, it is pretty certain that not only will you get stepped on with some regularity, but it would be fair to say that you are not dancing Tango with this type of movement. Since the follower's back step is something she will be doing an awful lot of in her Tango career, she should seriously consider making it look like something!

The proper styling for the follower's back step begins with moving the whole leg back from the hip (not the knee.) When initiating this movement, as the leg moves back (and the follower keeps her body and weight poised forward), the front of the foot should slide lightly backwards, maintaining contact with the floor throughout the movement. The heel should be off the floor. The movement goes in a straight line, until the foot is at its maximum extension, and the toe of the foot is pointed. The leg should be straight but not stiff. The position of the foot should be slightly turned out so that the ball of the foot is poised to receive the initial weight change as the follower rolls onto the whole foot, including the heel. When all her weight has been transferred and she is upright and in balance, the new weight-bearing foot should still be slightly turned out.

As this movement is being executed, let's say with the right leg, the left foot begins to move back as soon as the follower starts transferring her weight, so that the feet end up - as they should - ankle to ankle, with the left foot also slightly turned out and angled slightly behind the right. The left foot should be moved back being held very close to the floor, but not actually touching, i.e. it does not slide back.

When the follower's back step is broken down for technique and styling, it sounds as if it would take quite a few moments to execute, but in the dance it all happens within one beat of the music. However, followers, you should practice your back steps very slowly so that you can understand the beginning, the middle and the end of the movement, and you can achieve good balance at the end.

The movements described above are the way Fran and I teach the follower's back step. It's possible you may have learned or heard about other stylings in the past few years. For instance, some teachers suggest that the follower should flex her foot when stepping back, with the heel down, and the foot held in the flexed position throughout the backward movement. Another school of thought says that the whole foot moves back in contact with the floor. In Tango, you should learn as much as you can about all the possibilities, try each one and decide for yourself which one you prefer and find the most comfortable

 

March 07, 2013

 

 

Hi Everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. A question that I'm asked quite often by students is: "How do I place my feet on the floor, when dancing Tango?"

 

If the student is a relative beginner, I usually suggest that because there are so many important things to concentrate on during the early stages of learning Tango, foot placement can and should wait until sometime later in the learning process. However, I'm sure that there are people reading this column who are intermediate- and higher-level dancers. With that in mind, I'll briefly discuss the topic of foot placement and foot movement.

 

The majority of Tango dancers in Argentina - both leaders and followers -- are extremely meticulous about the placement and movement of their feet. For this discussion I'm going to limit my focus this week to forward movement for men. (Next week, Pat will talk about backward movement for women.) To be sure, in Tango women also walk forward - although not as often as men, and men walk backward - though certainly nowhere nearly as often as women. Remember, for this discussion, we're limiting our focus sharply.

 

With forward movement there are fundamentally three stylistic considerations:

 

1.     Static placement of the leading foot during movement

2.     Relationship of the moving foot to the floor upon impact

3.     Placement of the trailing foot upon finishing the movement

 

Our first consideration is the static placement of the leading foot during the movement. In this regard, the dancer may choose between:

 

·      Moving with the feet perpendicular to the shoulders (straight ahead)

·      Moving with the feet angled slightly outward at the toe (about 25 to 35 degrees)

 

In the early days of Tango skilled male dancers generally moved with their feet pointing straight ahead. Why? Because it was the style of the time. Later, let's say, after the 1930's, men began to point their toes slightly outward. One could make a solid case for this latter, "more modern" way of moving as a more effective means of ensuring balance between steps. But to keep things somewhat simple for now, let's just say that men placed their feet in this new way, because they saw other men doing it, and they liked it.

 

Our second consideration is the relationship of the moving foot to the floor upon impact. We will identify four possibilities:

 

·      Heel impacts first with toe approximately 25 to 40 degrees off the floor upon impact

·      Heel impacts first with toe about one quarter to one half inch off the floor

·      Heel and toe impact together

·      Toe impacts first

 

If you were dancing American Foxtrot, the first possibility above would be appropriate. For Tango it just doesn't look right. Any of the other possibilities work fine. My personal choice is for my heel and toe to impact at the same time. You should try them all, and choose what you like best.

 

Our third consideration is the placement of the trailing foot when finishing the movement. Basically, your choice is between

 

·      Bringing the feet absolutely together with the toes pointing straight ahead or angled slightly outward.

·      Bringing the moving foot slightly behind the standing foot with the heel of the moving or closing foot approximately one inch behind that of the standing foot.

 

This is also a personal choice. Experiment with both ways of finishing the forward step, and choose the one you like best.

 

As you can easily see, there is a great deal to consider when it comes to placement and movement of the feet during the forward step. If you are in the early stages of learning, it would be best to forget all about these things and concentrate on more fundamental concepts. But if your Tango fundamentals are solid, you can start to think about such subtleties.

 

Next week, as mentioned above, Pat will address women's backward placement and movement of the feet. In the meantime, if you have any question, you have but to ask.

 

 

February 28, 2013

Hi Everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I discussed at some length the woman’s dilemma as she begins to study Argentine Tango. This week, I want to add a bit to what I said, and also talk about the beginning leader’s challenge.

Part of the message I tried to convey last week was that attempting to learn Tango through classes alone probably won’t work. If you’re a woman who is dancing exclusively with unskilled leaders, there is really no practical way for you to develop the myriad skills you need to be able to follow properly. The obvious reason for this is that your leaders simply do not know how to give you the right signals yet. It’s not that they won’t learn eventually. They just don’t know how right now. And now – in the first stages of your learning process -- is when you need it most.

The same thing is true, of course, for men. If your follower population consists of women who haven’t yet learned how to follow appropriately, you simply will not be able to form the very specific lead/follow collaboration that is so necessary to make Tango work. You may have some fun, getting together with people and trying out the steps, but the bottom line is that you’ll be creating habits that will eventually need to be broken, if you really want to become a skilled Tango dancer.

In my opinion, both leaders and followers need to consider embarking on a course of private instruction in order to form the right habits from the beginning. It is certainly predictable that I, as a dance teacher, would suggest such a thing. After all, it’s the way I earn my living. I think, however, that if you consult with virtually any student who has included private instruction in his or her learning process, you will hear exactly how important it is in learning Tango.

Many of you have heard me talk time and again about the importance of the ongoing collaboration between leader and follow. This is what makes the entire dance work effectively. In the private lesson, your teacher offers one side of this collaboration without flaw (assuming he or she is appropriately skilled, of course). This puts the focus completely on your development as a leader or follower – a development that won’t in any way be compromised by problems your partner may be having.

Private instruction, of course, is expensive. For the cost of a single private lesson, you could pay for three or more group classes. Or you could limit yourself to the kinds of free classes we offer at venues such as Firehouse Tango. In that case, classes cost you nothing.

The question is: What do you learn?

Perhaps a more important question is: What do you want to learn? If all you really want is superficial exposure to the dance, free classes and occasional group lessons are fine. But if you want to develop real skill, I suggest you bite the bullet, find the right teacher for you, and start learning the right way.

 

February 21, 2013

Hi Everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. A great many women tell me in passing that Argentine Tango is the hardest dance they have ever tried to learn. If they're not taking private lessons with me, I usually sympathize with their perception, and tell them that it just takes time to get - but that if they persevere, they'll eventually feel better about the whole thing. If, on the other hand, they're having their first private lesson, I tell them that, in fact, Tango is the easiest dance they'll ever learn.

Why do I say this? If you are a relatively new student of Tango - maybe you've taken a few classes here and there, or maybe some well-intentioned male student is trying to get you into the game - you probably find Tango to be extremely complex. You might even think by now that it's almost impossible to learn. But if we change the circumstances a bit, the process suddenly becomes truly simple.

Let's consider the following scenario: You and your partner are standing together in a comfortable dance embrace. He says to you: "Let's take a slow, easy side step to your right. You acknowledge the suggestion. Then you both move effortlessly to your right, and come to a stop. It's over. It was really easy. What a relief. Now he says, I can feel that you're ready for the next movement. Shall we try a forward step for me, accompanying a backward step for you? Again, you acknowledge the suggestion. As he moves into your space, you effortless move backward, bringing yourself into balance at the end of the movement - knowing that your partner is going to enable you to finish what your doing before inviting something else.

This is what it's like to learn and, in fact, to dance Tango in the right manner. As a follower, you receive all the information you need from your leader well in advance through what we'll call the lead/follow process. It's exactly as if he's whispering in your ear which step he wants you to take next. And at the end of every step you take he makes absolutely certain to wait for you to be balanced and ready before he attempts to lead something else. You don't have to do a thing on your own. Your responsibility is to read the lead, take the invited step, bring yourself into balance, and wait for the next thing that happens. That's all there is to it.

Of course, this is the ideal circumstance. This is the private lesson between you and your dance teacher. As you continue, and the dance becomes more and more complex, it never loses the basic idea of one step at a time. You always feel that your leader (the teacher) will provide you with exactly what you need to execute whatever it is he asks for. You never have to do it yourself. And in this ideal world, the people you will be dancing with in the social context are learning just how to be superb leaders - so that they can emulate your teacher and enable your dance to be effortless.

It is only when you venture forth into the not-so-pleasant world of unskilled leaders that you feel once again that Tango is the hardest dance you've ever attempted. Why? Because in this false context, you're suddenly being asked to do not only your own job, but his as well. In fact, you may actually have to fight him from throwing you completely off balance and tossing you around the room like a rag doll - and then telling you that you don't know what you're doing.

This is the problem for the follower in attempting to learn Tango. It's not you at all. It is what is around you. I am not suggesting that as a beginning follower you will never make a mistake. But I am saying that a good many of the errors that occur are not caused by you, and becoming aware of this simple fact should become an important part of your learning process.

 

February 14, 2013

Hi Everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’ve ever taken one of my basic Tango classes, you’ve heard me stress the importance of what I call “single-step movement.” This occurs when a leader invites a follower to take one step (forward, backward or to the side), and then bring the feet together, coming to a complete, balanced stop. In my pedagogical approach to Tango, this is a crucial skill that needs to be developed right in the beginning in order to make any sort of advancement possible. Today, I want to share with you why I think this is so.



Contemporary Argentine Tango is a dance of movement and of stillness. Sometimes we move one, two, three, or more steps in sequence; sometimes we come to a full stop at the end of a single step. A follower doesn’t know in advance whether the leader will continue after any given movement – so she learns to stop at the end of each step. This is a crucial skill for followers who want to dance Tango well.



In Tango we don’t have the same sense of implied continuity that exists in American and European ballroom dance. This means that every step must be invited individually by the leader. It also means that the leader’s job is first to invite a movement, then to allow the follower to execute that movement before continuing on to the next step. In the process of monitoring her execution of the movement, the leader may choose to accompany the follower in any one of several different ways. Under certain circumstances, he may decide not to accompany her at all, but to remain still.



In the ideal, the dynamic of each step involves at minimum the following elements:



1. The invitation by the leader.

2. The execution of the movement by the follower.

3. The monitoring of the follower’s movement by the leader.

4. The selected accompaniment by the leader.

5. The balancing by both partners at the conclusion of the movement.



All this takes place in a single step!



What I want to stress today is that once the leader has provided a credible lead, he carefully monitors what his follower actually does in response – and he gives her all the time she needs to complete the invited movement. If he plans to dance a musical phrase, for example, and his follower is for any reason not ready at the end of any given part of the planned sequence, the leader slows down or even stops, sacrificing the intended timing for her comfort in the moment. What he never does is attempt to force her through a sequence for which she isn’t prepared. How does he know whether she’s prepared or not? He pays very careful attention to her – rather than to the elements of his planned sequence. In fact, he needs to focus on both, but she comes first.



Try the following in your dance. Lead your follower to take a single step. Notice how she responds as you accompany her through the movement. See whether you can determine exactly when she reaches optimum balance and comes to a complete stop. Make sure that you bring yourself into balance as well. Don’t be in a hurry to take the next step.



This is the essential skill that will eventually make you a fine Tango dancer. In may take you a bit of time to get there, but with practice and perseverance I have every confidence that you can do it.

 

February 07, 2013

 

 Everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’ve ever taken one of my basic Tango classes, you’ve heard me stress the importance of what I call “single-step movement.” This occurs when a leader invites a follower to take one step (forward, backward or to the side), and then bring the feet together, coming to a complete, balanced stop. In my pedagogical approach to Tango, this is a crucial skill that needs to be developed right in the beginning in order to make any sort of advancement possible. Today, I want to share with you why I think this is so.



Contemporary Argentine Tango is a dance of movement and of stillness. Sometimes we move one, two, three, or more steps in sequence; sometimes we come to a full stop at the end of a single step. A follower doesn’t know in advance whether the leader will continue after any given movement – so she learns to stop at the end of each step. This is a crucial skill for followers who want to dance Tango well.



In Tango we don’t have the same sense of implied continuity that exists in American and European ballroom dance. This means that every step must be invited individually by the leader. It also means that the leader’s job is first to invite a movement, then to allow the follower to execute that movement before continuing on to the next step. In the process of monitoring her execution of the movement, the leader may choose to accompany the follower in any one of several different ways. Under certain circumstances, he may decide not to accompany her at all, but to remain still.



In the ideal, the dynamic of each step involves at minimum the following elements:



1. The invitation by the leader.

2. The execution of the movement by the follower.

3. The monitoring of the follower’s movement by the leader.

4. The selected accompaniment by the leader.

5. The balancing by both partners at the conclusion of the movement.



All this takes place in a single step!



What I want to stress today is that once the leader has provided a credible lead, he carefully monitors what his follower actually does in response – and he gives her all the time she needs to complete the invited movement. If he plans to dance a musical phrase, for example, and his follower is for any reason not ready at the end of any given part of the planned sequence, the leader slows down or even stops, sacrificing the intended timing for her comfort in the moment. What he never does is attempt to force her through a sequence for which she isn’t prepared. How does he know whether she’s prepared or not? He pays very careful attention to her – rather than to the elements of his planned sequence. In fact, he needs to focus on both, but she comes first.



Try the following in your dance. Lead your follower to take a single step. Notice how she responds as you accompany her through the movement. See whether you can determine exactly when she reaches optimum balance and comes to a complete stop. Make sure that you bring yourself into balance as well. Don’t be in a hurry to take the next step.



This is the essential skill that will eventually make you a fine Tango dancer. In may take you a bit of time to get there, but with practice and perseverance I have every confidence that you can do it.Hi Everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the important skills leaders have to learn in dancing Tango is the ability to move with the rhythm of the music. In Argentina, moving rhythmically is considered a far more necessary skill than the most extensive vocabulary of complex figuras. In fact, without the ability to move in rhythm, anything a leader might do on the dance floor would be thought of as nothing short of laughable.

There is, however, at least one skill which is considered significantly more important than keeping good time. It is the skill of ensuring that one’s follower is comfortable during every individual movement within the dance. For the majority of beginner- and intermediate-level leaders, this is an area which calls for meticulous skill development over an extended period of time.

It takes many leaders a great deal of time and concentration before they’re able to move with any degree of consistency to the music at all. There are so many other things to think about – technique, figuras, lead/folllow – that musicality can take a back seat for a long while. Once a leader is finally able to connect his feet to the music, he generally feels a great sense of accomplishment – as well he should! – and often believes that his followers will automatically be able to join him in his newly-found skill.

Here is where the problem occurs.

To be able to move by oneself in rhythm is not at all the same as being able to lead a follower in that rhythm. This is the part that can take literally years to develop. And for a leader to assume that his follower should be able to keep up with him more or less automatically is at best naïve and at worst utterly destructive to the integrity of the dance partnership.

Even under the best of circumstances -- i.e., a situation in which both leader and follower are highly skilled and used to dancing with one another, dancing in rhythm is always secondary to maintaining a consistent level of comfort for the follower. Any time a leader feels that his follower might not be absolutely ready for his next movement, he must of necessity slow things down – sacrificing his plan to squeeze a given sequence into, let’s say, a tight group of beats – in order to give her the room she needs to actually execute the individual movements he is leading without discomfort.

The bottom line to all this is that as a leader it is certainly important for you to work on your ability to move to the music. But as you do this, you have to pay careful attention to your follower. Is she comfortable with the movements you’re leading, or is she in distress, trying to keep up with you? If she doesn’t seem comfortable, forget the rhythm for the time being and slow down. Once you’ve learned to lead more effectively, combining rhythm with multiple beats in sequence will take care of itself.

 

January 31, 2013

Hi Everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When most leaders in Argentina begin a Tango, most start most of the time with a step to the left side. This isn't a hard and fast rule of any kind; it's just what most leaders in Argentina normally do. Let's ask ourselves why this is the unspoken - but prevailing - tradition.

There are actually two answers to this question. The first has to do with traffic management; the second with comfort. First, we'll talk about traffic.

When beginning a dance on a crowded floor - meaning virtually every dance floor in Argentina after the opening fifteen minutes of any milonga - a forward step would be potentially dangerous because of the number of couples on the floor. A backward step would be positively hazardous to your health; and neither a weight change in place nor a pause would in any way define your presence in the room among the other dancers.

The side step, on the other hand, makes it very clear to everyone around you that you and your partner are beginning your dance, but you're not acting in any sort of threatening way. With a step to the side there is usually very little chance of bumping into other dancers, particularly at the beginning of a dance. And even if you enter the floor after the dance has begun, as long as you do so at a corner of the room and begin with a side step, there is very little chance of interfering with other couples.

Now, let's talk about the second reason for beginning the dance with a step to the side: comfort.

Beginning with the pause or the change of eight in place. We'll start by saying that neither of the two non-traveling elements; i.e., pauses and changes of weight in place, contain the all-important element of movement through space. For this reason they don't give the follower enough of a sense of how the lead is going to feel throughout the dance.

Beginning with the follower's forward step . If we began by taking a backward step - aside from the potential traffic problems mentioned above -- this might tend to pull her unnaturally forward, if invited as a beginning movement. (Later in the dance, when offered as part of an ongoing series of steps, her forward movement will feel much more comfortable.)

Beginning with the follower's backward step . On a crowded dance floor there is nothing quite as uncomfortable for a follower as being sent backwards into traffic. Furthermore, although many contemporary ballroom dances routinely begin with a follower's back step; i.e., Foxtrot, Waltz, Quickstep, Viennese Waltz, and American Tango, the more common tradition in Latin and Swing dancing is to begin with a step to the side. (This point can be argued, of course, but in my experience, it is true.) As with the follower's forward movement, her backward steps are far more comfortable, when taken during the continuum of an ongoing dance.

The side step: ideal for beginning the dance . If you ask any knowledgeable follower which of the basic steps feels the most comfortable, she'll almost certainly reply that it is the step to the side. This step is generally quite easy to lead, and it ends quite definitely once taken; there is virtually no problem with anticipated continuity in which a follower might be tempted to rush into any other movement. It keeps the dancers nicely in front of one another, and it defines very clearly for the follower how the remainder of the dance is likely to feel. In short, it is the ideal beginning.

This is why I believe most dancers use the side step to begin their dance. See if you agree.

 

 

January 24,2013

 

Hello everybody, Pat here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Continuing with our discussion of specific problems that leaders and followers consistently have at the fundamental level, today we'll talk about difficulties that followers often have in responding to the lead for la cruzada -- the cross.

Follower's Problem #3:

When I take my follower to the cross, she quite often has a number of different problems.

In Tango, the 'cross' is one of the most common movements in the dance. There are different schools of thought as to whether this movement is actually lead or not, and we will not go into that debate right now! Fran and I prefer to teach la cruzada as a movement that is automatically executed by the follower when her leader goes (and stays) outside partner, on the follower's right.

When done correctly, the follower will perceive that her partner has taken a step to her right side, thus changing the front-to-front position of their torsos. If the leader remains 'outside partner' for his next two steps, the follower will cross her left foot in front of her right as soon as that foot is free (typically on the leader's 3rd step) thus producing la cruzada. Her feet and ankles will be as close together as possible, with her balance on both feet. She will wait in this position for the next lead.

But this is in the ideal - and there are many things that can go wrong! Because la cruzada is such an unusual movement, many beginner followers have trouble with it, and many intermediate level dancers have developed bad habits!

Here are some of the issues that can arise:

1.     The novice follower has not yet learned about this movement and doesn't cross.

2.     The novice follower doesn't notice that her leader is 'outside' partner, and does not cross.

3.     The moment her leader takes a step 'outside partner', the beginner follower panics and tries to cross immediately.

4.     Some followers go up on their toes when they cross...this is incorrect; the heels should be gently on the floor, with the weight slightly forward.

5.     Some followers, beginner and intermediate, will uncross their feet immediately - beginners because they're not fully familiar with the convention, and the others because they are not listening to their leader and racing to take what they think is the next step!

6.     When the leader is ready to move forward after the cross, beginners will sometimes release their left foot instead of their right, creating a very awkward movement that is guaranteed to throw everything off balance.

7.     Some more experienced followers get so used to being led around the floor at breakneck speed, they habitually will do a "quick' cross (i.e. double time) even if it is not lead. Again, this can create an uncomfortable break in the embrace and flow of dance. Followers, please be aware that it is the leader's job to lead a quick cross if that is what he wants. Otherwise, the cross is "slow", i.e. in time to the primary beat of the music.

Note to followers: Finally, here is a handy tip that should take care of the all-too-common situation in which a leader is almost on top of his follower, and there is no room as she is trying to cross her feet: followers, when going to the cross, make sure that your 3rd step - with your right foot - is a nice, BIG step, creating additional space to comfortably cross your feet.

 

January 17, 2013

Leader's Problem #5:

 Sometimes I don't know whether he wants me to cross or not, and as I'm trying to get my left leg across, I often don't have enough room.

 

Traditionally, the cross in indicated in the following way. For the sake of this discussion, we'll assume that this sequence is in the parallel system:

 

1.     The leader moves his right leg outside and forward on the follower's right side as the follower steps backward with her left leg. The moment he takes this step, the follower prepares herself for a cross in the next two steps.

2.     Each of the partners takes another step (leader forward left, follower backward right) with the leader remaining outside in the new travel line he has created with his previous step. This movement verifies for the follower that she is definitely being led to a cross. (If the leader wanted to change his mind at this point, for example, he could move back in front of the follower with this step, thereby negating the cross.)

3.     Assuming that the leader remains outside in the previous movement, with the next step the follower slides her left leg in front of her right, producing la cruzada, while the leader brings his legs together (right to left).

4.     Both partners may now pause before continuing.

 

In stating the problem from the follower's point of view, I really opened the door to two potential problems:

 

1.     The leader doesn't properly indicate that he, in fact, wants her to cross.

2.     The leader inadvertently prevents her from crossing.

 

First problem: In the parallel system it is quite easy to be clear in the first of the above steps that the leader is moving outside his follower. Even a raw newcomer will be able to feel at this point that her leader has taken a step to her right outside. The problem actually occurs in the next step. In attempting to continue in the new travel line with his left leg, an inexperienced leader will often unconsciously move toward his partner's centerline. (The reason for this is that outside partner movement is inherently difficult and uncomfortable, while in-line movement feels easy and desirable.)  By sending himself close enough to his previous in-line juxtaposition the leader now confuses his follower into believing that he is negating the cross. So she keeps walking backward instead of creating la cruzada.

Note to leaders: You can prevent this confusion from occurring by being very clear in your approach to the cross, particularly with the left-leg-forward step which immediately precedes la cruzada. Make absolutely certain that you don't move to the right toward your partner. This should insure that she knows you want her to cross.

Second problem: As the follower begins to slide her left leg in front of her right to produce la cruzada, the leader moves so close to her that he actually blocks her leg from completing the movement. So she ends up bumping into his leg, and finds herself awkwardly stuck between la cruzada and who knows what.

Note to leaders: In moving toward the cross, make certain you gradually create distance between yourself and your follower by opening your right arm slightly. This allows her to move away from you enough that at the moment of crossing there will be sufficient room for her to comfortably complete the crossing action.

If you have any questions about this, please feel free to talk to Pat or me at the Firehouse. Next week, Pat will discuss problems that the follower may bring upon herself in attempting to create la cruzada, and we'll learn what the follower can do about a leader who can't seem to ever give her enough room to cross.

 

 

 

January 10, 2013

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Over the past several weeks, we've discussed specific problems with both lead and follow in the three basic linear movements; i.e., forward steps, backward steps, and steps to the side. Today, I'm going to address difficulties which often arise in the weight change in place.

 

We could state the problem from either side of the partnership. We could call it:

 

Leader's Problem #4:

 

Every time he leads me in a sideward movement, I don't know whether he's asking for a weight change in place or a side step - I have to guess which one it is.

 

On the other hand, we could call it:

 

Follower's Problem #3:

 

Every time I invite a weight change in place she takes a step to the side, and often when I ask for a side step she makes a weight change in place.

 

These are really both manifestations of the same problem. On the one hand, the leader may be indicating what he wants with a confusing lead, forcing the follower to either stand still or to guess what she thinks he may want. On the other hand, the leader may be providing the right lead, but the follower is not reading it appropriately, and therefore is trying to read his mind instead.

 

Let's think back and remember what the actual lead is for a weight change in place:

 

The leader shifts his weight from one balance axis to the other (without taking a step to the side). In making this shift of weight, his upper body moves laterally. This lateral movement invites the follower to shift her own weight in place in order to stay with the leader. Because the leader does not lower his body in advance of the lateral movement of his upper body, he gives no indication of travel - therefore the follower knows that he has asked for a weight change in place rather than a step to the side.

 

Notice that there is a pronounced difference between the lead for a weight change in place and a step to the side. A skilled leader knows that there is no lowering in the lead for a weight change in place, but a definite lowering in the lead for a side step. A skilled follower also know this, too, and is very sensitive to the difference in reading the lead.

 

When communication problems with these two steps arise, it is almost always because one or both partners are not skilled in the lead/follow collaboration. Either they haven't had the right instruction, haven't been dancing long enough, or haven't recognized the importance of precise lead/follow concentration in their dancing.

 

The bottom line here is that if you learn correctly and practice your lead/follow skills, both you and your partner will get very good at it over time. If you don't, you won't. Which do you choose?

 

January 03, 2013

 

Hello everyone, Pat here with a problem that many followers unconsciously adopt when being led to walk forward.

 

Follower’s problem #2:

 

Every time I lead her to take a forward step, our embrace comes apart and we get totally out of sync.

 

Followers are far more used to being led to take back steps than they are forward steps. When some followers are led forward, they panic, and instead of moving directly into their leader’s space, they awkwardly step to the outside of his feet, which creates a most uncomfortable, jerky movement for both leader and follower. In addition, followers who are unskilled in walking forward in Tango, will jerk their feet forward in a manner that can completely unsettle the leader, and cause the follower to become off balance, sometimes even falling against her leader!

 

Followers, the correct technique when being led in a forward step (assuming your leader is not pulling you off balance towards him) is to create a smooth movement in which your foot and your body move forward at the same time, while keeping your balance and upright body position. Keep the stepping foot very close to the floor and move directly towards your leader. At the end of this movement, you should be completely in balance, with no need to cling to or fall into your leader. You can easily practice taking forward steps on your own, trying to achieve the best technique that you can.

 

Note to leaders: As Fran mentioned in last week’s Tango Tip, remember to avoid pulling your follower off balance with your right arm as you invite her to move forward. At the completion of each step, give your follower a chance to bring herself into balance before inviting the next movement.

 

If you have any questions about this or any of our other Tango Tips, Fran or I will be happy to help. In the meantime, please accept our best wishes for a very Happy New Year!