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 11, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Quite often, when I'm teaching a specific sequence of followers' steps, one or more leaders will immediately raise their hands to ask, "What's my part here?" or "What am I supposed to do while she's doing her part?"
The implication of such questions - although I'm sure the people asking aren't consciously aware of this -- is that in order to lead/invite a follower to execute any given sequence of movement, the leader must also be moving in a certain memorized way. Certainly, any leader with even the most cursory experience in our western tradition of learning how to dance socially would operate in this way. The same thing must, therefore, be true of Tango.
Except that it's not.
What has become the norm in teaching ballroom dance (including Latin and swing dance forms) -- particularly in the context of commercial dance studios in America -- is that leaders memorize their parts, followers memorize their parts; then they come together to try them out. At the end of any given class hour, students (who, after all, are spending their hard-earned money to learn as quickly as possible) can expect to pocket two, three, even four complex sequences -- money in the bank -- which they can then take right out onto the dance floor.
Look, ma, no learning process.
The fact that this teaching method doesn't work, never did work, and never will work doesn't seem to bother anybody. That's how things are done, and always will be (at least in our "studio" system). What happens, when you're on the dance floor with a partner who didn't take the class? Don't ask.
In Argentina, up until recently, at least, people didn't learn to dance by memorizing figures. "In Tango, there are no steps," exclaimed the great maestros of Tango's "golden age." (Regrettably, that seems to be changing as purveyors of Tango from Argentina find that altering their teaching methods to accommodate American and European students increases their ability to earn a living. But that. as they say. is another story.)
The traditional way a leader learned to dance Tango in Argentina was to serve as a follower to more experienced dancers, and to gradually take on the role of leader once he possessed the skill and experience to do so. The effect of this way of learning was that leaders would never even think of asking the question, "What am I supposed to be doing?" The focus instead was totally on "What am I asking my follower to do, and how am I going to lead her to do it?"
Getting back to my class ... when I demonstrate a follower's sequence, what I want leaders to be asking, when they raise their hands, is, "How do I use my leading skills in order to invite this particular sequence of movement?" In other words, my goal is to shift the focus from leader to follower, where it belongs, in the very complex social dance lead/follow relationship. Only after this way of thinking is firmly in place can we even begin to start talking about what the leader can do by way of accompaniment. If you as an emerging leader can make this very important change in approaching your personal learning process, your Tango will improve dramatically -- almost immediately!
Please give this seismic shift a try. The sooner the better.
December 4, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I'd like to share with you what for me was a truly "eureka" moment -- one which enabled me to begin dancing Tango more like people do in Argentina -- and which I hope might be useful to you in your own dancing, whether you're a leader or a follower.
In order to fully explain what I'm talking about here, we'll need to begin with a little history. (Now, come on, don't start yawning; I promise to keep it short.)
In the late nineteenth century in Argentina, Tango was a newly evolving social dance. There is evidence that it originated from various influences in its distant past. However, what is important to us right now is that this unique dance form was being further refined primarily by working-class men in the social clubs where they met regularly after their day's work. In this environment, men who were skilled at the intricacies of Tango often introduced neophytes to the dance by actually having these newcomers serve as followers. Once a man had built a solid foundation by learning how to follow, he was eventually "promoted" to the role of leader, and then had to prove his skill as such before being deemed ready for the dancehall.
For the most part, women -- at least "respectable" women -- were largely not involved in this process. Instead, they were leading sheltered lives, surrounded by protective relatives who inevitably felt a moral obligation to keep them quite separated from these rough-and-tumble males -- no doubt in order to preserve their innocence and virtue.
One of the few venues in which a man stood even the slimmest chance of being able to meet and interact with one of these highly protected women was la milonga -- the social dance. Here, a man had to go through an arduous ritual of being introduced to a woman by first being approved by her parents, her duenna, her brothers and sisters, her cousins once removed ... you name it. And when the highly scrutinized couple finally found themselves together on the dance floor at long last, it became instantly obvious that she had absolutely no idea how to dance Tango.
The man's job, therefore, was to bring the skill he had developed in the social clubs to bear in order to show her what to do, right then and there on the dance floor! Not by telling her, "This is what you're supposed to do," but by gently and expertly guiding her through every single movement of the dance, and allowing her to finish one thing before inviting another. At the same time, the woman was well aware that, because she had no idea what was going to happen from one step to the next, her role was to follow each step that was led, and then wait for the next lead -- rather than attempting to outguess what her partner might want from moment to moment.
Thus, we have here the birth of a very specific social dancing skill set: he leads, she follows -- one step at a time. This tradition was quite different from the prevailing European convention of the time -- in which steps were demonstrated by a "dance master," and then memorized by a couple for more or less instant application on the dance floor. (Our own American ballroom dance tradition has largely maintained this manner of learning how to dance. Men on one side of the room, women on the other; here are the steps; take a partner, you're ready to dance -- that'll be 100 bucks, please.)
This was the tradition I grew up in -- the powerful belief system that, in fact, formed the basis for my entire professional dance experience: Learning to dance equals memorizing figures and applying technique -- period! Then, suddenly in 1986, I was slowly dragged kicking and screaming toward the possibility of another way. For me, it began when I started to realize the import of what my Argentine-born teachers had been saying, "There are no steps in Tango." What they meant by this somewhat cryptic declaration, of course, was that there are no memorized steps in social Tango, that the Argentine tradition is rooted in moment-to-moment improvisation.
What? You make it up as you go along? Someone please wake me up. My Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire teachers are apoplectic. My students think I've been lying to them all these years. Life as I know it is over! Get me an aspirin!
Anyway, this was my "eureka" moment: he leads, she follows -- one step at a time.
If you take Tango lessons with me right now, you know that we spend a lot of time trying to learn the dance through this unique, lead/follow perspective. I don't go so far as to tell you that there are no memorized steps in this very complex dance. You and I both know that there are lots of them -- particularly if you want to pursue a stage career. But my ongoing focus is to convince you that as a social dancer, memorized figures should be addressed some time in the distant future. The important thing right now is for you to learn how to dance -- how to lead and how to follow -- just like those folks in the social clubs and milongas of Buenos Aires.
If you're a leader, I'd be very pleased to see you try to approach each dance as an opportunity to gently and slowly guide your follower through every individual step, waiting for her to balance at the end of each movement before proceeding to the next. If you're a follower, I believe that it would change your dance completely, if you could start thinking of each step you're led to take as an opportunity to bring yourself comfortably into balance at its completion -- without attempting or being forced to take one or more additional steps on your own.
As the song says, asi se baila el tango. This is how Tango is danced. Once you get this more authentic way of approaching Tango into your system, I'm confident -- well, at least hopeful -- that, like me, you just won't want to dance any other way.
November 20, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Many of the students I've come to know over my years of teaching Tango have, at one time or another, confided in me with the following -- virtually always disconsolate -- lament: "Tango," they sigh wistfully with lowered, slowly shaking head, " is the hardest dance I've ever tried to learn."
Does this sound familiar? Is it possible that you may have from time to time formulated this same thought yourself? I generally respond to such tortured ululations with soothing murmurs of gentle encouragement. "I know, I know," I offer. "Just give it time. You'll get it sooner or later."
Well, of course, that's what I'm supposed to say, right? After all, I'm a teacher. I teach; I encourage; I soothe. The problem is ... take a breath ... the problem is that notwithstanding my efforts -- or anybody else's for that matter -- I mean, let's face it! -- you may, in fact, not get it after all.
"What???? Me, not be able to learn Tango? I got all A's in school, all right maybe one or two B's. I was an honor student. I ... I ... " Okay, okay, calm down. Let me explain.
Learning Tango is kind of like climbing a hill, while carrying a very heavy backpack that's loaded with stones. The heavier the load you're carrying, the harder it is to get to the top. Here are a few of the stones you may or may not be carrying in your bag:
· Were you born in Argentina, and do you come from a family of Tango dancers? Good, remove one stone.
· Do you have an innate talent for dancing? Take out another stone.
· Do you keep yourself in good physical shape? You know, less time at the fridge, more time on the dance floor? (Add a stone for fridge; chuck one for dance floor.)
· Are you willing to work your butt off to learn, or do you maybe want it all right now -- without having to break a serious sweat? Come on, don't lie to me; for working your tush off, relieve yourself of several stones; if long hours and hard work aren't your thing, add a big pile of really heavy boulders.
· Are you committed to inhaling as many stage Tango steps or hot-shot adornments as you can, because you think this is the road to riches? Let me hand you another backpack, twice as heavy as the one you're toting right now.
· Do you think that lead/follow is the crucial link between you and being a skilled Tango dancer? This is a loaded question: A "yes" answer means you can take off the backpack and scamper right up that hill. "No" means you should consider bowling.
Get the idea? Learning to dance Tango isn't a deep mystery. The mechanics are very straightforward. It starts with learning how to lead and how to follow. This is the really hard part -- which is why so many people decide not to do it -- and you need to know this cold before you can go for the glitzy stuff. If you're having trouble right now, I can virtually guarantee that it's because you decided you'd worry about lead/follow later -- and never quite got to it.
It's not too late, of course. Yes, Tango is tough to learn -- especially if you begin in the wrong way, and let things get worse everyday -- because you've gotten yourself lost in the glittery world of "hey, ma, look at me." Stone after stone stuffed into your back pack, and the hill just seems to keep getting steeper.
On the other hand, you can change everything tomorrow, if you want. No kidding. Start by finding a good teacher. (It'll probably help, if performing is not their main focus.) Put yourself in their capable hands, and listen carefully to what they have to say. The rest will pretty much take care of itself.
Let's dump that bag of stones once and for all.
November 13, 2014
everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the things that
makes social Tango a very simple dance -- I mean, a very difficult dance -- No,
I mean a simple -- difficult -- oh, forget it. What I'm trying to say here is
that in social Tango, individual elements are led and followed one at a time
from beginning to end. A step, a weight change, a pivot -- any of these
elements, to mention only a few, is carefully isolated and lovingly implemented
through the precise lead/follow mechanism -- before any other element is
attempted. In other words, we get to the end of one thing before we
even think about trying another.
Right? This is the way you dance, right?
You don't just start running around the room like a house on fire, when the music starts -- without thinking about what you're doing. As a leader, you don't pay attention exclusively to that complicated YouTube. or other performance-oriented figure you're trying to get yourself through,
Keeping your follower constantly off balance
Convincing her that she just might not manage to finish this dance without falling down.
As a follower, you don't take two, three or four steps, when his lead is telling you that he's just asked for one.
And neither of you ever leans on or clings to the other for any reason.
Of course not. Both of you are accomplished social tango dancers. You take Tango very seriously, and treat it with the utmost approbation. You're working diligently in your classes, your crucial private lessons (with that knowledgeable teacher), and your focused practice sessions to make even the most discerning milonguero/a in Buenos Aires proud of your efforts. And perhaps more importantly, you bring all your developing skills -- not to mention, your ongoing respect -- to your partner in every dance, your partner who -- you can be completely confident -- is, without question, working on the same things you are, and with whom you can therefore share the mutual realization of this wonderful social art form.
It may come as a shock to you ... take a deep breath ... but I happen to know that there are people out there, people in our "community," who do not treat their involvement in Tango in this way. (Yes, I know: One is so very reluctant to believe, to accept, even to contemplate such an unpleasant possibility. And yet we must face the inevitable fact that, ultimately, it is true.) With my own eyes, I have borne witness to leaders who have never bothered to learn the fundamental principles of leading. I have been exposed to followers who apparently feel that following is an attempt to out-think their leaders rather than responding skillfully to a precisely-honed lead. I have seen that there are in our midst leaders who -- perish the very thought -- do not invite their hapless followers to limit themselves to one movement at a time!!
I will not dignify this gentle missive with further expurgation on the unsavory deportment I have personally beheld. (No doubt, you have as well.) Suffice it to say, there is in the final analysis but one word to describe such aberrant conduct. And that word, dear friends, is ...
Yes, oy! How else can one respond?
Do you know someone who's Tango may tend to elicit such comment among the cognoscenti? Can you imagine the feeling of utter disgrace they must be experiencing? Make it your responsibility -- yes, your mission -- to tell them immediately -- after all, these people are your friends -- that they simply must take whatever measures may be necessary in order to alter their behavior right now before things get any worse.
Please muster the courage to take action without delay. We're all depending on you.
Saturdays with Fran and Pat at Pearl Studios
Since 2002, Fran and Pat have been holding a Tango
practica at Dance Manhattan every Saturday from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. This
Saturday will be our last event at Dance Manhattan, because, as many of you
know, Dance Manhattan is closing its doors. Starting November 29th, our Practica
will be at Pearl Studios, 500 8th Avenue (between 35th and
36th Streets. It will still be from 2-4pm and the cost for will
remain $10 per person. (Bringing a partner isn't necessary.) Fran and Pat will
be on hand as always to answer any questions you may have about your dancing,
and to help you with material you're working on. If you’d like a private lesson,
call Fran directly at
or email him at
For the practice, all you have to do is arrive with $10 and your dance shoes in
November 6, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip
of the Week. Did you know that my students have to force me to teach them the
basics of Tango? When I take on a new dancer, the first thing I tell them is,
"You don't need to go through all that boring beginner stuff. We're going to cut
to the really advanced material right now, so that you can be dancing like the
stars almost immediately." But they always tell me, "No, Fran, I may want the
fancy stuff some day; however, right now, please do whatever it takes to teach
me how to dance -- because I know that if I try things I'm not ready for, I'll
just look like an idiot."
Then, of course, I wake up.
Students almost always put up a fight, when it comes to learning the basics. I know I did, when I was a student. "Just show me the good stuff now," was my idea. "I'll learn all that technique garbage later."
The problem, of course, is that this strategy just doesn't work. It never did, and it never will. As an example of the wrong way to go about the learning process, I know a couple who have been dancing Tango for many years. Since they're very well off financially, they decided early on to throw lots of money at a teacher who was happy to provide them with choreography rather than technique. (Yes, it's true: some of us will do anything to pay the rent.) Within a relatively short time, this couple had amassed enough bought-and-paid-for material that they actually began performing at local dance venues. (The chutzpah some of us have, my friends, is staggering.)
Their dancing was -- to put it mildly -- horrible. But they kept on shelling out the loot, and building their repertoire of stage-dance material, and all their friends kept telling them how great they were -- at least, to their faces.
Eventually, something or someone got to this couple, and they finally began to turn their Tango around. They abruptly dropped the stage dancing, threw out the memorized routines -- yes, they even eliminated the lifts -- and started actually learning how to move with fairly decent technique. Now, after spending enough money to buy their own island, they seem to be back to square one and on the right track. Good for them!
Most of us take a similar -- if not quite as costly -- road to learning Tango. We're impressed by something we see on stage or on YouTube, and we try to find a way to learn that particular thing, because we want to be able to look like those people. If our path is blocked by a teacher who tells us we need to learn how to dance first, we set out to find another teacher. If we're really unfortunate -- as was the couple I described above -- we find someone who's willing to take our money, and keep feeding us junk food dancing until we choke on it. If we're lucky and can only find teachers who have integrity, we either get dragged kicking and screaming into learning the basics (before we embark upon our performance career) -- or we take up something easier like brain surgery instead.
Tango is a difficult dance to learn. In fact, any kind of social dance is tough -- if you really want to learn how to dance rather than simply memorize a bunch of prefabricated dance steps. Alex Trepp, a fine dance teacher whom I had the good fortune to know many years ago, told me about the way his dance school, the John Philips Studio, used to approach the process. "We had 10-week courses for everything," Alex said. "At the end of every course, the student had to dance with the teacher in order to demonstrate that they had really learned the material with good technique. If they passed, they were able to move on to the next level. If not, they had to take that particular 10-week course again. Some students ended up taking any given course three or four times. But they learned."
All I can say about that is, "Wow!" And thank you, Alex Trepp, for being a role model to all of us teachers who are trying our best to do the right thing!
What are your feelings about all this? Would you be willing to make that kind of commitment to your Tango? If so, I know at least one teacher who can't wait to have you as a student.
Just give me a call.
October 30, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. The other day, I was pointing out to one of my student leaders that I thought he was trying to move his follower much too quickly through her molinete (You remember, don't you? That's the grapevine-like sequence often used in Tango, when the follower moves around the leader).
His response was: "I had to lead her that fast so she'd keep up with the music."
"Do you think that at her current level of skill she actually has the ability to move that fast?"
"I don't know. I never thought about it. Everyone tells me that it's the music that counts. She's just supposed to make it work, right?"
Or at least it's wrong in my opinion. I've been studying Argentine Tango since 1986, and teaching it for 21 years. One thing that virtually all my teachers from Argentina would do (I'm sure most of them still do this right now) is that when they'd walk into a room to teach a class or a private lesson, they would invariably turn on the music immediately.
"There is no Tango without the music," they would say.
"Moving to the music is the most important thing."
Hmm. I agree completely -- once you've been dancing Tango for, let's say, thirty years or so. But if you can't walk, can't balance, can't lead, can't follow, and generally don't know which way is up ... moving to the music in Tango can be a bit of a problem.
So when I walk into a room to teach a class or private lesson, I do not automatically turn on the music -- especially when I'm working with beginners (these are people who've been dancing Tango for less than maybe 10 years). For people like this, moving to the music -- as important as it will become in the future -- is, generally speaking, impossible.
Rather than bore you with the details of my personal pedagogical approach to teaching Tango, I'm now going to hope that some of you agree with my assessment of the situation, and I'll quickly segue back to my student leader who was racing his partner around in a molinete she couldn't possibly handle.
"Martin (that's not his real name)," I said, "when leading her in molinete, what's important right now is her level of comfort, not the music.
"Her level of comfort, Martin (still not his real name). Moving to the music comes later."
Okay, so Martin humored me, and reluctantly tried to lead Melissa (not her real name either) more slowly -- without the music playing. At first, she couldn't stop herself from racing. Then, when she calmed down a little, her molinete started to feel comfortable and balanced.
"Gee, that feels good," she exclaimed.
"Yeah," countered Martin, "but the music goes faster!"
"Give it another few years, Martin," I suggested. "It'll get better."
Grumble, grumble ... (That's Martin, waiting for me to leave the room so he can start racing her around again).
I'm here, leaders; I'm on my knees: I'm begging you to slow those molinetes down. Give it a shot. Try one whole day without whirlwind grapevines. I guarantee you that everybody will be happier.
October 23, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, we're going to discuss time zones. We're thinking big right now, so we'll divide our times zones into three major categories: the past, the present, and the future. The question we're going to be asking ourselves is this: As Tango dancers, which of these times zones do we live in?
As students of the dance, we all tend to live in the past, at least a little bit. If we do well in the movements we make as leaders or followers, we pat ourselves on the back in celebration (or breathe a big sigh of relief). If we make a mistake, we often have trouble moving on until we've spent some time beating ourselves up over our perceived errors.
Skipping over the present for a moment, the time zone we really focus on is the future. As leaders, we can't wait to get to that next movement in the dance, or if we're moving through a difficult, memorized sequence, to the completion of the figure. (The faster we get there, the less likely it is that we'll make a mistake, right?) As follower's, we often live in a state of absolute terror that we just aren't going to be up to the task of getting through the sequence our leader is asking for, so we tense up -- some of us become absolutely paralyzed -- and our following skills seem to just fall apart under the pressure.
Which brings us back a step to the present. As we said a moment ago, for most leaders the present is just a door we keep opening in order to get to the future. For followers the present goes by so quickly that we hardly notice it, since our concentration is almost exclusively riveted on what's going to happen next.
Do you get the idea? Past, present, and future? Which time zone should we be living in as good social tango dancers?
It certainly isn't the past. No matter how well -- or how badly -- your last Tango in Paris might have been, if you recognize your problems and fix them, what you do now can be completely different, completely competent and rewarding, not even a dim reflection of anything that came before.
Furthermore, it's not the future. What we do down the road may seem to be important -- especially if you're a leader and you can't quite remember what's supposed to come next in a figure -- or you're a follower who's being rushed through that same figure, because your leader is paying attention to the pattern instead of to you. But to a skilled leader or follower, the future comes sometime later, and will have to take care of itself. What is important -- what is crucial to the success of your Tango is ...
you guessed it ...
As one of the very best leaders in the room, you live absolutely in the present. You recognize that getting your follower to move comfortably from the beginning to the end of each individual step you're inviting her to execute right in this moment is what is important -- not what's going to happen next. You realize that if you invite a step too quickly, it will almost certainly send her off her balance. And if you don't allow her to finish what she's doing before you attempt to lead the next move, the same thing will most likely happen.
As one of the very best followers in the room, you, too, live in the present. You know that you have no control over the flow of the dance; but you are fully confident that your leader is going to make absolutely certain that you're balanced and ready before inviting any individual move. If he has a complex sequence in mind, he's going to lead each step with skill and patience -- so that you have as much time as you need to finish what you're doing in the moment before being asked to move on to the next thing. Because you feel absolutely safe and confident in your leader's ability, you never feel any need to anticipate your next move in any way. Your full concentration is just where it belongs -- on your balance at rest at the end of each step.
The next time you get up for a dance, think about time zones. If something goes wrong in any given moment, forget about it and move on. What has happened in the past can be useful in a dance lesson, but during a dance, you have to put it aside and do your best right now. The same is true about the future. If what you're doing now as a leader or follower isn't working, you won't be able to fix it by taking the next step.
Keep your concentration focused on the here and now. This is where we live as the best dancers -- or as dancers who strive to eventually become the best -- in any room.
October 16, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During our last Tango Tip, we discussed the confusion a follower can feel, when her leader is trying to invite something that really isn't leadable -- usually a figure he picked up on YouTube, or in a workshop of some kind.
To clarify the issue a bit, there's no doubt in my mind that the leader is almost always an innocent party in all this. He assumes that the step being "taught" is something he'll be able to lead. After all, the person teaching the figure makes it seem easy, right? The problem, of course, is that the majority of students find it very hard to differentiate between what we'll call "performance" material and leadable, social repertoire. They trust that the teacher will help them here, but sometimes the teacher really doesn't know, or doesn't care to recognize, the difference -- especially if he/she is a performer who has executed the figure in question many times choreographically, and who may be attempting to offer the students something that will favorably impress them, perhaps promoting a return visit.
Yes, I know, it's shocking, isn't it?
So, leaders, how can you tell the difference between a figure you can actually lead, and one, which may look great, but only works choreographically? What I do personally is put it to the Pat test!
What is the Pat test, you may ask? Let's say I've grabbed a special nugget from YouTube, which I'm just positive will knock everyone's socks off. First, I try to formulate a detailed idea of how I think it should be led. Next, I try to sneak it into a dance I'm having with Pat. If everything goes smoothly -- meaning if she can follow what I'm trying to lead -- I add the figure to my "can-do" list. If Pat says, "What the hell is that?" (in her refined British way, of course), the alarm bell goes off. I will probably ask her if we can try the figure again under more controlled circumstances -- making the assumption that my lead may have been faulty. But if it doesn't work this time, I start to believe the figure may be one of those glittering baubles that promise the moon, but (sigh) blow up in your face.
What I don't do is let Pat see a video of the figure, while I'm trying to get her to follow it. That would be cheating. And under no circumstances do I ever say "You were supposed to ...." An explanation of the figure would corrupt the process beyond repair.
If you have a dance partner whom you feel follows comfortably and reliably, you can impose on her generosity and patience to try out new material from time to time -- just as I do with Pat. If she seems able to follow one of your new steps without too much trouble, you can bet that it will probably be fine with other partners who are at more or less the same level of skill. On the other hand, if your partner gives you the "what the hell is that" look, you should probably keep that figure off your dance card until you've learned whether it really can be led or not.
There is so much great material in Tango that can be led and followed, there's no reason to waste your time and effort on things, which just don't work is the social context. A good way to come to a final decision about the viability of a given figure is to discuss it with your teacher. (I make the bold assumption here that, of course, you do have a teacher, right? Doesn't everyone?) A teacher who understands social Tango will be able to tell you whether a step is appropriate for the social dance floor or not. He/she will also be able to guide you in learning the right way to lead a given figure, too, if you need a little help with that.
Ultimately, try to keep in mind that it's not the number of steps you know that makes you a desirable dance partner. It's the quality of your lead/follow skill. This is what your teacher will tell you to work on. This is what Pat or I would tell you to work on. And this is what all your partners are hoping you bring to the dance.
October 9, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Ladies, when was the last time one of your partners stopped during the middle of a dance, and explained what he wanted you to do -- rather than using his leading skills to make it happen? And when such an incident occurred, did you respond why doing what he said?
Let's look at a typical interaction between a leader and follower: He makes a series of movements -- this is almost always a complicated figure he either picked up during a "hot-shot" workshop, or maybe something he recently scored from YouTube. You know he expects you to respond in some way, but you just can't figure out what that response is supposed to be. He looks at you with frustration (and maybe a touch of impatience) on his face. He describes what he expected you to do with a sentence that starts with the words "You were supposed to ...."
At this moment, big, brightly colored red flags should be exploding in your mind. You know -- you know -- that you should tell him, "I didn't feel a lead for the movement you wanted me to make." But instead, you bite the bullet, and just do what he wants.
The implication -- the thing that's hanging in the air during a scenario like this -- is that you just can't follow. It's your problem. And when you actually do what he describes, you're falling right down the rabbit hole.
Okay, we're going to look at what happened in the scenario above from a few different points of view. We'll start by opening Door Number One: He really is a highly skilled leader. He led a step or figure you should have been able to follow. But because your following skills are just not adequate, you blew it. This, of course, is what you're supposed to be thinking. But the thing is, it's almost NEVER THE CASE!!!! It turns out that -- major surprise -- most men don't put in the time or effort necessary to become good leaders. It feels too hard. So they opt for memorizing figures. And then they expect their followers to be mind readers. To make things worse, followers actually buy into this nonsense over and over again, because most women seem to have this deep-seated feeling that everything wrong must be their fault. Who told you this? Anyway, don't get me started.
Moving on to Door Number Two: You're a great follower; he just can't lead. "All I need," you keep telling your friends, "is a good leader, and I can do anything!" Well, maybe, but as much as we might wish he'd do what it takes to become a better leader, his lack of adequate leading skills may not be the root of the problem here.
Which leads us to Door Number Three. The thing he's trying to lead just isn't leadable. That's right. There are lots of figures and sequences floating around the Tango world today, which nobody can lead, and nobody can follow -- unless, of course, they make a prior agreement: "When I do this, you do that." Long-time dance partners often have a long list of such figures in their repertoire. When they execute such material, it works great. But when you try it, it doesn't seem to work at all.
The same thing is true of performers. Professional entertainers spend a great deal of time coming up with figures, which are designed to impress audiences. Sometimes, such figures are lead/follow; sometimes they're not. When these performers decide to teach one of their "special" figures during a workshop, they will often demonstrate the leader's part, then the follower's response -- without ever really talking about lead/follow. As long as you're repeating the figure over and over during the workshop, everything seems to be working just fine. But later, when you try the same figure with someone who wasn't at the workshop, it just falls apart.
Even though I earn my living as a dance teacher, I don't always know right off the bat whether a given figure can be led/followed or not. In such cases, what I do is spring the figure on a few of my more skilled students or dance partners -- without explaining in advance anything at all about it. If my lead feels right to me, and if the figure works with most of my followers, I may then choose to add it to my teaching/dancing repertoire. If it doesn't work, I discard it.
You can try this method yourself. When you're dancing with a partner you know well, particularly someone who follows well, attempt the figure or sequence in question without giving her any prior indication of what you're going to do. If it doesn't quite work, try it again later -- or maybe with another trusted partner. The moment you feel like saying, "You're supposed to ...," keep that thought to yourself, and recognize that the figure probably isn't leadable. If you'd like a second opinion, ask Pat or me. We'll be happy to help.
October 2, 2014
Tango tip of the week
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Let's talk some more about learning to dance Tango. First, we'll take a quick look at the easy way, and then we'll examine what, for the moment, we'll refer to as "the other way."
Okay, here's the easy way. It's pretty important for you to start by being born and raised in Argentina -- Buenos Aires would work nicely. Let's see, you should make sure to kick off your learning process at about 15 or so. These, after all, are the formative years. You can get a lot more done at this age than when you're overworked, overweight, stuck in a rut, and your knees are giving out. Then, of course, you have to be one of the elite 1%. In the good old U.S.A., that means you have lots of money. In Argentina, it means you're one of the very few people who actually choose to dance Tango. That's right! The vast majority of Argentine people do not dance Tango, or any other dance, for that matter. A good many of the die-hard Tango dancers -- they're sometimes called milongueros -- have not only opted to spend their time doing Tango, they've also decided to avoid doing pretty much anything else. "I did not choose Tango," they often reflect with deep conviction, "Tango chose me."
All right, so there goes that full-time job you've been hanging onto to pay the rent.
If you choose the easy way to learn Tango, it's also a very good idea to be innately talented, to have what we'll call a "proclivity" for the physical, mental, and emotional demands of being a dancer. All that helps a lot. Oh yes, and one more item. Tango dancers usually set aside somewhere in the neighborhood of, let's say, 30 to 40 years to get good.
That's a pretty accurate look at the easy way. As it turns out, I, myself, do not meet any of these qualifications. Quite by happenstance I found myself born in Brooklyn -- not too many milongas going on there in the 1940s -- and I started learning how to dance Tango at age 50 instead of 15. Bummer, right? Maybe you're more or less in the same boat.
Yes, we may have had a few good things in our lives -- Twinkies come to mind -- but up to now Tango just hasn't been among them. So what can we do? Well, first of all, quit your bellyaching. People like us just have to bite the bullet and face facts: our only practical option for learning Tango is "the other way."
Can you guess what I mean by "the other way?" No, I'm not talking about YouTube. No, I'm not talking about workshops with hot shots from "out of town." And no, I'm not talking about memorizing a bunch of fancy dance steps, which you think will make you look like you know what you're doing.
"The other way" means facing the fact (oh, no, here it comes!) that you need to do some work. In fact, you need to do several things on a very regular basis:
Find a very good teacher, and take regular lessons with him/her as often as your finances will allow. This is your lifeline to learning Tango.
Take classes as often as you can. This enables you to meet other people who are also trying to learn the dance, and gives you a good idea of how you compare to them in terms of your progress.
Dance everyday. If you can't manage that much, dance as often as you can. If possible, dance with several different partners. (Dancing with only one partner tends to foster bad habits and compromises.)
Recognize that the learning process is ongoing. You can't learn Tango right away, or in two weeks, or in two years. Start enjoying wherever you are in the process rather than constantly focusing on the end result. Remember that even the really great social dancers in Argentina have probably taken 30 to 40 years to learn their craft. And if you were to ask any one of them how they got so good, they'd almost certainly tell you, "I'm still learning."
Besides what I mentioned above as the key components of "the other way," you're also going to need very healthy dollops of courage, perseverance, humility, and an unwavering sense of humor. Try incorporating these elements into your learning process, and you'll be well on your way to success in learning Tango.
I'll bet you just can't wait to start!
September 25, 2014
Tango tip of the week
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I want to talk about RIGHT and WRONG, and the ongoing QUEST FOR CERTAINTY in Tango. That's right, pretty big stuff (which is why I used all capital letters, in case you're wondering). As students of the dance, you have no doubt been intensely focused on these huge ideas from your first lesson until now. And right now - in this Tango Tip -- all the answers you've been tirelessly and relentlessly searching for will be revealed at last!
Let's start with your quest for certainty. Okay, you decide you want to learn Tango. Tapping into your vast reserve of wisdom, you also decide that maybe a few passes at YouTube might not be quite enough to do the job. So far, you're way ahead of the game! What you need is a teacher. Pretty much any one of us will do, of course, because we all know everything, right?
This, it turns out, is your first mistake in judgement. As it happens, we don't all know everything. Don't tell anyone I let that secret out, but it's true. So the question remains: Do some of us know everything, while others are in reality no more than cheap charlatans, posing insidiously as gurus?
In fact -- take a deep breath -- not only do none of us know everything, but your quest for certainty is a fool's errand -- because there simply is no certainty! Notice that I'VE SWITCHED FROM CAPITAL LETTERS to italics to make my point. A great many of the things some of us tell you as absolute truth are, in fact, either highly debatable, or little more than wishful thinking on our part. That's right. Every really good teacher knows this. And now so do you.
So what about RIGHT and WRONG? There has to be a way of dancing Tango which we could point to and say, "this is the right way." And another way, which we could say is the wrong way. What about that?
To answer this question, I recommend that you take a trip to Buenos Aires. There's an airplane waiting right now to fly you there. When you arrive, go immediately to any afternoon or evening milonga. Then just sit and watch.
Will you find any two couples who dance the same way? I'll bet you won't. Social dancers in Argentina all seem to find their own unique ways to interpret Tango. And a lot of the things they do just don't conform to what you've heard from us teachers. Are these people RIGHT? And are your teachers WRONG? Nope. To tell the truth, there is no right, and there is no wrong. (Here I go again with the italics.)
Okay, if there's NO CERTAINTY, and if there's no RIGHT or WRONG, what do you do about learning how to dance Tango? That's a very good question. I have been trying to find the answer to that one since I started exploring this incredibly complex dance almost thirty years ago. Over time, I've managed to find some things that seem to work pretty well for me, things that have been passed down to me by dancers and teachers from Argentina, from America, from Europe -- wherever I can find information which seems to make sense. When I teach, I try to pass such ideas along to my own students -- to you -- not as absolute truths, but as guidelines for your own process of finding your way in this unique dance.
This, I think, is the best a teacher can do: Open a few doors for you to walk through with the help of your own innate curiosity, courage, patience, and humility. As you travel the path, you will come across teachers along the way who will try to convince you that they have all the answers you're looking for -- there are lots of these people around. When this happens, my suggestion to you is to run immediately in the other direction.
As for certainty, as for right and wrong, just keep studying and dancing Tango. Eventually you'll figure a few things out for yourself. And when you do, I would love it if you'd share them with me.
September 18, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the questions beginner Tango dancers ask me all the time is: "How large should my steps be?" If I'm feeling particularly diabolical at that moment, I'll immediately respond: "11.62 inches." This usually produces a blank stare of incomprehension for about one second, followed by a laugh, when they get the joke. (For anybody out there who doesn't get the joke, by the way, what I'm implying by this silliness is that nobody has the ability to consistently pace off steps, which measure exactly 11.62 inches -- or any fixed length for that matter. Not students, not teachers, not performers, nobody.)
Okay, let's talk about why students -- why you -- ask this question in the first place. It comes down to the fact that in social progressive partner dancing -- I'm talking about Tango in this case -- we start right off the bat by being very close to our dance partner. There he or she is, standing directly in front of us -- the embrace makes us feel as if we're practically on top of each other --and all we can think about is that we're definitely going to step on that poor person's feet the minute we start to move. The immediate result of all this is that we know we'd better be very careful -- and our steps should probably be very, very small.
At this point, watching the teacher doesn't help. In fact, this may throw us completely for a loop, because the teacher's steps seem to be huge! I've often heard dance teachers say that the length of your step should be approximately the width of your shoulders. That's interesting, but how do you figure that out? I've also noticed that when demonstrating individual movement in the dance, many dance teachers take what I would call inappropriately large steps. Do they do this to draw attention to the material? Do they do it because they're performers, and they can't help themselves? Do they do it, because that's what their teacher did? (I wish teachers would stop taking such big steps. It would make things a lot less confusing for students.)
Now, let's get back to you. There you are, wrapped in an embrace with your partner, feeling as if your feet are dangerous weapons. Beads of sweat are forming across your forehead. If you're a beginning leader, you know in your heart that if you take steps which are too big, crunch! Ow! If you're a follower, you really don't know how to walk backward effectively yet, so your steps are almost certainly much too small. And this means that your leader is either going to step on you most of the time, or he's going to move outside your feet consciously like a circus clown so that he doesn't take the chance of crippling you for life.
It probably won't help your comfort level much, but let me just say that this is all very normal in the beginning. And after dealing with this torture for an absolute eternity -- probably two or three lessons -- you're going to start learning more. You're going to learn, for example, that when you get lucky enough to dance with more experienced leaders or followers, the problem will just seem to go away. Magically, it will seem, these partners know exactly what the size of their steps need to be in order to accommodate what you're doing. If you happen to be taking tiny steps, their steps will be tiny. If you're bounding along, using giant steps, so will they!
How do they do that? And more importantly, how will you get to a point where you can do it, too? Basically, the answer is that, if you're a leader, you'll eventually learn to infuse your communication to the follower -- your lead -- with a dynamic component it just doesn't contain in the beginning. This more sophisticated way of leading will suggest to her that not only do you want her to take a step -- you want that step to be large, medium-sized, or small. And the good news about this is that it will happen more or less automatically!
If you're a follower, you will actually begin to feel how large or small the leader's steps are going to be by the overall body language he conveys to you through his lead. In the beginning you just can't feel any of this, because you're busy trying to remember the simple fact that your partner's rudimentary lead actually means you're supposed to respond by taking a step. But eventually, you'll be able to gauge the size of each step you take -- all by the dynamic quality of his movement.
If you're brand new to Tango, you probably don't think this will ever happen. But I assure you that it will. In the meantime, just remember to make each step you take exactly 11.62 inches. Right?
September 11, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the things that makes Argentine Tango so difficult for people in this country to learn is the preconception we have that dance equals motion. Without questioning it, the overwhelming majority of us take for granted that whether we're talking about ballet, jazz, tap, modern, folk, or social partner dancing, when we dance, we move. The dance starts; we move through space. The dance is over; we stop.
Does this sound like what you think? That's what I always believed. I wouldn't say that I had a conscious idea in my head that dance equals motion -- but if someone were to ask me "What does dancing look like?" -- I would certainly have answered something like, "People moving through space."
Wouldn't you? It's a given. It's just how we perceive dancing to be -- people in motion.
Okay, so what's wrong with that? Well, nothing at all, if you're dancing, let's say, American Foxtrot. But Tango -- I mean, Argentine Tango -- is a whole different story. Do you remember hearing me say "Tango is a dance of motion and stillness" during our dance lessons? I went on to say -- and I now repeat, " In Tango, learning to stop, or to remain in la pausa is every bit as important as learning to move." (I'm sure you vividly recall that little tidbit, right?)
All right, now we're getting somewhere. Learning how to dance Tango means incorporating this unique idea into our minds. Sometimes we travel through space; sometimes we remain in place. This leads me -- and, I hope, eventually you -- to the idea that developing skill as both a leader and follower in Tango involves the proper execution of a single step. That's right, just one individual step. To be good at dancing Tango, you have to be able to:
Start each step through the complex mechanism that we call "lead/follow."
Travel through space as a result of the lead/follow invitation.
Come to a perfectly balanced stop at the end of the movement.
Notice that I didn't say that you have to be able to make a smooth transition to the next movement. I would have said that, if I were teaching Foxtrot. And I would have spelled out in detail exactly how I think you should go about the process of making a smooth transition. But we're talking about Tango here. Making a smooth transition to the next step is (in my opinion, at least) secondary to learning how to come to a balanced stop at the end of each step.
So, what can you do with this information? If you're a leader, you can start learning to come to rest at the end of each step in your dance. I'm not saying that you have to dance Tango like this forever. I'm just trying to encourage you to learn this crucial skill as a primary part of your learning process. Once you've assimilated how to come to a stop in balance, phase two is to learn how to continue by leading and accompanying one or more additional steps, each of which contains the potential for a stop at its completion.
If you're a follower, you can begin to recognize that in social Tango you have no idea from one step to the next what your leader has in mind. The implication of this is that you need to overcome the inclination to keep moving -- a very powerful inclination, as you know by now -- and assume that every step you're led to take involves coming to a balanced stop at its completion.
I teach an exercise, which I call "single-step motion," which incorporates this skill. It involves having the leader invite each movement -- forward, backward, side, and in-place -- with definite stops after each step. You may have experienced this exercise during one of our lessons. If you're like most new leaders, you may have thought to yourself, "Why is Fran wasting time with this useless exercise, when we could be working on some nice, fancy sequence like they do on YouTube?" If you're like most new followers, you might have thought, "Why do I have to learn how to stop -- nobody ever leads me to do this on the dance floor; in fact, they never stop moving."
My response to these thoughts is this. The good dancers in Argentina take the notion of coming to stops at the ends of steps absolutely for granted. In fact, I once asked a well-known teacher from Argentina how he felt about this unique idea of (at least potentially) stopping between steps. He said, "We do that as a matter of course, don't you?" Remember that unconscious mindset we have about dance equaling traveling, which I described above? The Argentine mindset seems to be exactly the opposite of ours.
The bottom line here is that if we want to learn to dance their way, we have to start by becoming aware that Argentine dancers think quite differently from the way we do, and don't realize it. Then, we have to adopt their idea of conceptualizing the way to move -- exactly what I've been talking about throughout this Tango Tip -- and learn for ourselves how to develop this skill.
Let's start now.
September 4, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Let's talk about the learning process. I've noticed that whenever Pat and I teach a class -- particularly the kind that we teach at Firehouse Tango in which we generally focus on figures -- there are always a few people who see what we're teaching, and decide to walk out of the room -- because (as we've often heard these people say), "they already showed me that step," or "I already know that one."
In our opinion, such people entirely misconceive the learning process. They think of it as a superficial accumulation of steps or figures. (Sometimes, we call these people "Step Meisters" -- or maybe more appropriately "Schlep Meisters.") Once they've seen something once, they're in a big hurry to move on to the next thing. To people like this, learning is little more than checking items off a list. "Okay, I've got that one. Yup, that one, too, Come on, what's next?"
Today, I'd like to take a nice, deep breath, and offer a different approach to the process of learning how to dance Tango. In the first place, Tango is NOT an accumulation of steps. In our own current dance culture, we tend to think of dancing as an aggregate of figures and techniques. (This, I think, has a lot to do with our unfortunate reliance on dance schools and dance teachers to learn how to dance.) By contrast, my early teachers from Argentina constantly stressed that "there ARE NO STEPS IN TANGO." Their meaning was that Tango is a way for a leader and follower to interact on a dance floor, a way to respond to a particular kind of music, a way to enjoy an intimate social experience.
When I teach Tango, any figure I offer in class or in a private lesson is actually a way for me to demonstrate -- and provide you, the student, with a practical opportunity to practice -- the art of lead/follow, and the art of balance. These are the crucially important elements in learning how to dance. Any individual figure is no more than a means to an end, not an end in itself. So when you come into my class, from now on I'd like you to try thinking about how any figure I've decided to work on with you is, in fact, a conduit to enhancing your ability to move well, to lead and follow well, to balance more precisely -- rather than to little else than memorizing another step.
In my own learning process, I have found over the years that each time I work on a particular figure, I learn more and more about how the individual movements come together, about how to more effectively lead my partner so that she's comfortable and balanced during each segment of the ongoing figure. I learn more about waiting for her to finish one thing before I lead another, and eventually I learn about the infinite number of ways in which the timing of any sequence can be managed in order to connect the figure with the music. These are the things you, too, can learn, if you can get beyond thinking of Tango figures as commodities to be put into a memory box -- and instead as opportunities to advance your own personal creativity.
August 28, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Remember the perennially popular song, "It takes two to Tango?" These words state in a nutshell exactly what happens, when two people get together to enjoy our favorite dance. As Pat described last week -- and as I addressed several weeks earlier -- it takes a highly skilled leader and a highly skilled follower to create this dance, working together in a very sophisticated collaboration. If one of the partners is inexperienced or unknowledgable, the dance just doesn't work.
When I first began to learn about Tango, most of my ballroom acquaintances (including lots of professional dance teachers) told me "Ya gotta have a steady partner for that -- the steps are weird."
Let me translate that sentiment into what I now believe to be true. I think that what these generally well-meaning people were actually saying (although neither I, nor any of them realized it, of course) is this: "We have learned to dance as a continuing sequence of memorized figures. Since we now know these individual figures, we can execute them with confidence and skill as long as we're dancing with someone who also knows them. If a leader wants to dance different ("weird") figures with a partner, both would have to first memorize, then practice these figures before they could execute them on the dance floor with any degree of competence."
In other words -- as stated above -- "Ya gotta have a partner for that."
As I moved through the often difficult process of learning how to dance Tango, I very slowly began to realize that this dance has nothing whatever to do with memorizing elaborate dance figures. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. Every series of movements which occurs between a man and a woman (or leader and follower, if you prefer) during a social Tango in Argentina is completely improvised, based on a highly sophisticated skill called lead/follow. While Argentine social dancers seem to take this for granted -- that's what they actually do on the dance floor -- to me this idea was an absolute revelation! All my early Argentine teachers had told me quite emphatically "There are no steps in Tango." But these words had meant little or nothing to me, because I was rooted in the American/European mind set of memorized figures.
Eventually, it began to dawn on me that because Argentine people learn to dance within a tradition that is so radically different from ours, they have no idea at all about our own ingrained tradition. There is, in fact, a total disconnect going on here. And because of this disconnect, it never occurs to them that they need to address the crucial difference between how they think about social dance and how we think about it. Such statements as "There are no steps in Tango" has no meaning whatever to us, when what our eyes tell us is that, in fact, Argentine social dancers consistently execute what we would call "figures," which we could quite easily memorize and then replicate.
And to make things even more confusing, most teachers from Argentina all too readily adopt our current, preferred method of teaching -- i.e., elaborate memorized figures -- when they conduct workshops here in this country, because for what I believe are largely financial considerations they've very quickly learned that this is what we like, and are willing to pay good money for.
Ultimately, I believe, the bridge between our tradition and theirs is the very complex, essential skill of lead/follow. Argentine social dancers learn to lead and follow as a primary condition of being able to dance. We don't. I think that maybe we used to way back when. But our tradition has, for various reasons, changed over almost exclusively to one of memorizing figures. (Gimme the good stuff right now!)
Pat and I spend a lot of time, trying our best to teach this skill to our students. Those who persevere learn it sooner or later, and, in our opinion, become far better dancers. Those who have no stomach for lead/follow eventually gravitate toward teachers who focus primarily on steps. We continue, however, to believe that if you want to be any good as a dancer of social Tango, you can only get there through the skill of lead/follow.
Not too long ago, I was at a milonga in Hallendale, Florida, accompanied by a close friend, who happened to be a very skilled ballroom dance teacher. He was well entrenched in the "Ya gotta have a partner" school of thought about Argentine Tango. Since I didn't know any of the women at the milonga, my friend challenged me to dance with one of them without completely embarrassing myself. In fact, he chose a partner for me, an older woman (about my age) who seemed to be conducting herself fairly well on the floor with other partners.
"Try that one," he said. "Let's see what you got."
After this woman agreed to dance with me -- I'm sure she was as apprehensive as I was, since neither of us knew whether the other person could dance Tango or not -- our first few movements were understandingly tentative. Then, we found a groove, and as our dance progressed, I was able to invite more and more elaborate sequences, some of them ridiculously "showy." Under other circumstances, I probably would have kept our interaction very social and conservative -- but I was making a point for my friend. I wanted him to see very clearly that even people who've never met can dance Tango at a highly sophisticated level, if they both understand and practice the art of lead/follow. When I returned to my seat after a complete "tanda" with this very fine partner, I asked my friend what he thought of our dancing.
After a moment, he shrugged, and said with complete conviction, "She knew the steps."
August 21, 2014
Hello everyone, Pat here. A few weeks ago, Fran discussed what a follower experiences, when she dances with a good leader. As Fran promised in that Tango Tip, I will now discuss the experience of a leader dancing with a good follower. Again, this leader has some knowledge of his role, but may have acquired a few bad habits and might never have danced with a more experienced follower.
When our leader, as described above, has the opportunity to dance with a more experienced follower, he will likely feel very nervous. This could produce one of two reactions: either he will be timid and may forget a lot of what he knows, or bravado will appear and he will bluster his way around the dance floor, trying to get the dance over as quickly as possible.
We will assume that our good follower has learned her craft over time. In taking the embrace, she will be relaxed, she will not cling or lean on her partner, but will wait on her own balance for the first lead, which might be shaky and indefinite, or it might practically knock her over. This first step will provide an important clue to the follower as to how she needs to respond to this leader.
As the dance progresses, our couple will be getting more acquainted with one another during each successive movement. Our follower has her balance under control and therefore will not be falling about or making inappropriate weight changes. She will stand up straight, and under no circumstances will she try to back lead. With each new step, the leader will begin to realize that some of those habits he has acquired in dancing with less experienced followers are not necessary anymore. He does not have to push her around. His leads miraculously seem to work. He can relax. Simple steps seem effortless.
For this leader, the experience will be eye opening – his follower is listening to him and stopping in balance, when he pauses. When he gets adventuresome and tries a molinete, he’ll probably use his typical method of leading this movement with a fast, whirling turn. He’s in the habit of thinking that this might be impressive (all too common unfortunately.) Right here, the good follower will pull out all the stops in using her technique to make each step in the turn a deliberate movement, and in the process, actually slowing her leader down. She will not allow herself to be pulled around and become off balance. The next time he leads this movement, the chances are he will move around more slowly, knowing that there’s no need to rush.
This follower has been trained in lead/follow Tango, which means that she does not anticipate, but waits for the lead. She does not try to “help” her partner in any way. She is in balance and she listens with her body. When dancing with a “step-happy” leader, the occasion may, arise when a movement causes what one might call a “derailment.” This means that the step is basically not leadable to a follower who has not learned it beforehand, and our couple might find their feet become intertwined. Let’s assume they do not fall down, that apologies are made and, hopefully, our leader returns to the improvised dance.
It is common that when a leader is still learning to lead, and has an opportunity to dance with a more experienced follower, he will be surprised at how easy the leading seemed during the dance. No wrestling matches, no “instruction” by the leader necessary, no bumping into other dancers. When the music ends and the dance is over, our leader might be lucky to have caught a glimpse of the truth about Tango: the importance of the simple dance and the connection with his follower, two people dancing together, paying attention to one another, their movements seeming effortless.
August 14, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Slow down, please. Slow down, pretty please. Slow down, pretty please with sugar on top. For cryin' out loud, slow down!
One of the things I'm constantly asking leaders to do is slow down. When they finally manage to accomplish this, their Tango begins to get better very quickly. But most leaders have a lot of trouble finding a way to put the brakes on. Let's talk about why this is, and what can be done about it.
There are several reasons why speed takes control of a leader, some conscious, some not. On a conscious level, moving quickly feels good. It feels like dancing. Continuous movement is certainly what people are used to in this country; i.e., for those who grew up dancing such progressive dances as Foxtrot, Waltz, American Tango, Quickstep, etc. Even if you've never actually learned one of these dances, you've seen them in the movies at one time or another. And what have you seen -- people moving continuously and often rather quickly.
On an unconscious level, there are lots of very compelling reasons why a leader prefers continuous movement. Right off the bat, there's inertia. A body in motion tends (wants to) remain in motion. Once you start moving, it feels better to keep going than to stop. Related to this is the idea of balance. Coming to a stop after every step -- or at least slowing down significantly -- means that you've got to find upright balance from one step to another -- rather than being able to just tilt into the next movement.
Finally, and crucially, there's your partner. If she's like you, she doesn't feel good about stopping at the end of every step either. Her tendency, like yours, is to keep on going. Yes, she may have been told by teacher after teacher that the follower's role in Tango is to take the step that's been led, then come to a stop, waiting for the next lead. But she's been dancing with so many leaders who just keep going and going non-stop that at this point she's probably into the habit of not stopping until the dance is over. So even if you try to stop or slow down at the end of your steps, she'll keep going and pull you right off balance.
In the abstract, we have to accept the fact that Tango is a dance which does not involve continuous motion. Of course, when we watch performers doing their thing, we see lots of extravagant, flowing, fast-moving choreography. That's what impresses audiences. But social dancing is completely different. If you've ever been to Buenos Aires for example, you know that the dance floors are absolutely packed with dancers. This means that any kind of elaborate, continuous movement would be impossible. Dancing Tango one step at a time, therefore, is a practical reality.
In the good old U.S.A., of course, we've got lots of room on the dance floors. Even on relatively crowded floors there always just enough space to do that new combination we just grabbed off YouTube. Okay, maybe we accidentally bump into a few people. But they're all busy doing the same thing; so it's all good, right? No, it's not all right. It's mayhem.
Okay, this is the problem. How do we fix it?
The short answer is that we slow down. We stop acting as if Tango were a series of fast, continuous movements. Instead, we recognize that each individual step has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning of each step contains the lead and the follow. The middle contains the actual movement or travel. And the end contains the balance, the return to stasis. In Tango -- even when we're moving sequentially; i.e., using a "continuous" series of steps strung together -- we acknowledge the end of each individual movement before embarking upon the next one. And in order to do this, we have no choice but to -- you guessed it -- slow down.
One other thing you can do is to shift your focus from moving accurately and quickly through any given memorized sequence (in the same way a performer might do), and instead concentrate on the comfort level of your partner at the end of each individual movement within that sequence.
Try slowing your Tango down, and see how your dancing improves almost immediately. You'll feel better, your partners will line up to dance with you, and I'll breathe a sigh of relief that there's one less speed demon racing out of control around the dance floor.
August 7, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. As students of Tango, we have a lot to think about whether we're leading or following. Today, I want to focus briefly on two crucial areas of concentration for each side of the Tango partnership. These are skills which we simply must begin to develop as quickly as possible in order to make our Tango viable.
First, we'll discuss the big two skills for leaders. Number One is to make your follower feel as comfortable as possible at all times. This means that it's important to always give her a precise and easily readable lead at the beginning of each step, and allow her the time she needs to complete whatever element you're leading before embarking on the next element. All too often, leaders have an agenda in mind (a figure they've memorized, for example), and all they can think about are the individual components of that figure. The result of this narrow and entirely mis-directed mindset is that they hardly think about their follower at all. If you shift your concentration to her -- to her comfort throughout each step -- your chances of creating a truly collaborative partnership will increase in a major way.
Number Two for leaders is our old friend balance. As a leader, it is absolutely mandatory that you maintain your own balance throughout the dance. Never lean on your partner for any reason, and, if you happen to lose your balance during a figure, don't use her to steady yourself. Find a way to regain your balance within yourself.
Parenthetically, I had this problem in my own dancing for many years. I was always leaning on my partner -- completely unconsciously. Even when my teacher told me that I was leaning on her, I couldn't believe it. Who, me? I finally managed to overcome the problem through a lot of concentration and hard work. You can, too.
Now, let's identify the two big skills for followers. The first is to make a commitment to yourself never again to take a step that isn't led. What is sometimes called "anticipation" or "back-leading" occurs, when you as a follower make a movement which your leader hasn't physically invited her to make. The result is that the leader ends up literally chasing you into the next step.
Your job as a follower is to respond to each lead by taking whatever individual step is invited, then come to a complete stop and wait for the next lead before making another move. If you're a relative beginner, if you're a bit nervous, if you're distracted, or if his lead is inconsistent, stopping at the end of every step can often be very challenging. But that's the job, and ultimately as a follower you simply must find a way to get it done.
Number Two for followers is -- you guessed it! -- balance. Everything I just said about the leader applies to the follower. No leaning, no hanging on, and no correcting a loss of your balance during or at the end of any given step by using the leader as something to grab onto, should things go wrong. Making this job even more difficult is the fact that there has been a very popular -- and to my mind, insidious -- fad in Tango over the past several years in which the follower is actually told that she's supposed to lean on her leader. My opinion is that this is very bad dance practice, and you should avoid it. If a leader tries to pull you forward at the beginning of the dance, pull back onto your own balance, and stay there. If he insists, excuse yourself, and find someone else to dance with. Another problem is that a great many leaders seem to have no conception of your need to find balance at the end of every step. The result of this is that they spend most of the dance literally throwing you around the room, never allowing you to find a moment in which you can get your balance together. Once again, your only recourse in such an instance may be to walk away, and find someone else to dance with -- at least until this partner learns how to make you feel comfortable.
If you can practice the "Big Two" skills I've described above for leaders and followers, I guarantee that your Tango will improve significantly, and you'll find that you're finally beginning to enjoy dancing, rather than finding it an experience you don't look forward to.
July 31, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned one of the ways in which a good leader can help make sure he takes care of his follower on the dance floor. I called it "overcoming step static."
Here's what I said during that Tango Tip:
The easiest way to completely forget about using good lead/follow technique is to walk onto the floor with a head full of memorized dance steps. If you're like most leaders, you'll find yourself concentrating far too intently on getting your own steps right -- and you'll totally neglect what you need to lead your partner to do to make each figure work. I'm going to call this "step static." The only way to overcome this dreaded disease is to carefully break every memorized figure down into its individual elements -- in advance -- and make certain that you lead your partner through each movement during your execution of the figure, waiting for her to be ready to continue before you proceed to the net element within the figure. The result might not look like it did on stage, but at least you and your partner will live through the experience.
Several leaders asked if I would explain this a bit further, and I'm very happy to do so.
If my focus as a leader is on what we'll call "pure improvisation," this means that I focus on leading my follower to take one step at a time. To describe this briefly -- I decide which of the basic individual elements I'm going to invite (forward, backward, side, in-place, pause, or pivot). Next, I apply my specific knowledge of leading technique in order to invite the movement I decide upon. As she travels through space, I accompany her with a movement of my own choosing. At the same time, I monitor her response to my lead in order to make certain that she's doing what I've asked of her, and that she's comfortable and in balance while executing the step. At the end of each step, I begin the process again by selecting another movement, and leading it in the same way as above.
In this way, I create what we might call "figures" -- not by prior design, but rather "in the moment." In fact, as I go through this process, I may be completely unconscious of the end result as a structured figure, because I'm totally absorbed with the success of each element.
Now, what happens when my concentration is elsewhere? What happens when my goal is to replicate a complex, learned sequence? Maybe it's something I just picked up in a dance class. Or perhaps I grabbed it from a teaching video, or possibly from YouTube. Here's where I may easily be overcome by "step static." Instead of focusing on good leading technique, all I can think about is getting myself through a memorized step sequence. I hardly even notice what my follower is supposed to do -- somehow she'll know, won't she? If I've "learned" the figure in a dance class, all the followers did their jobs beautifully, didn't they? (Well, of course they did --these followers memorized the figure right along with me. There was absolutely no lead/follow necessary!)
When I take my newly memorized figure to the dance floor, and try it with a follower who wasn't in the class, the thing just falls apart -- or maybe I try to "muscle" her through the figure, and end up making her feel as if she's been through a war.
The antidote to this dreaded Tango disease is to translate your figure into a lead/follow challenge in your own mind -- remember "pure improvisation? Then, try to carefully lead your follower through each element of the sequence, one step at a time. In this way, you'll be returning to basic lead/follow technique -- and letting the figure take care of itself.
Give it a try. Let us know if this helps in the execution of your favorite figures.
July 24, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. "It takes two to Tango." Most of us are well aware of this tried and true adage. It's often used to share the blame between two people for doing something they shouldn't. When something bad happens, it's not my fault: it's not your fault: it's our fault.
If we apply the sentiment of this wise old maxim to actual Tango dancing, we could say that it takes two people who share a very specific skill set to form and maintain the collaboration needed to lead and follow this complex, intricate dance. I'm talking, of course, about the ability to lead and to follow. If one person in the partnership doesn't know what s/he is doing, the thing just doesn't work.
In past Tango Tips, we've discussed at length what Pat and I believe constitute good lead/follow skills. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, search back in our Firehouse Tango archives, and find the Tips that tell you what we mean by "lead/follow." If you have no time to read, and you want to take a shortcut, just ask us.) Today, I'm going to describe to good followers what I think happens, when you dance with a good leader. (During a future Tip, Pat will discuss what a good follower feels like to good leaders.)
During my classes, I'll often pick out a female student to help me demonstrate a figure or movement that I'm currently teaching. Almost invariably, these women are initially very tense in my arms. No doubt, they're feeling "on the spot" in front of their peers; they're uncomfortable about the fact that they're dancing "with the teacher;" and they're scared that they'll make a terrible mistake. Before we begin our demonstration, I always try to assure these followers in a quiet way that I'm not going rush them into anything, that my lead will be very clear and easy for them to read, and that they're going to have all the time in the world to complete each individual movement I invite. Sometimes (not always, of course), my assurances help these followers to get through our demonstration without too much trauma. But they're always very glad, when we're done, that they can slip back into greatly relieved anonymity as just another member of the class.
This interaction offers us a very good example of what happens, when a follower begins to dance with a leader, particularly one she hasn't danced with before. Let's make the assumption for the moment that she has had some experience with what it's like to collaborate with a skilled leader. (I know, I know; that might be a very optimistic assumption.)
The first thing she notices is that his embrace is solid and confident, but at the same time gentle and "roomy," and that he enables her to easily maintain her own balance. There's no suggestion that he's going to attempt to "control" her movements.
When he invites a step, his lead is clear -- very specific to one of the six basic elements of Tango. He asks for her to execute a back step, a forward step, a side step, a weight change in place, a pivot, or (by not leading anything)) a pause. He may have a particular sequence in mind, but the follower experiences only a single, direct, crystal-clear lead in which she's being invited to execute one movement.
After she has completed each individual step, which her leader has invited -- or as she is finishing a step by bringing herself into balance -- she feels her leader inviting the next element on his agenda. What may be obvious to the follower here is that her leader is waiting for her to be ready before he offers his next lead. If she's somewhat experienced, she may find herself at this point contrasting how this leader makes her feel as opposed to someone who rushes her from one movement to another with no apparent regard for where she is at any given moment. I sometimes talk about this as letting her dance determine the continuity of your dance -- rather than being driven by an abstract agenda (such as a memorized pattern), which completely isolates you (the leader) from what's she doing. In last week's Tango Tip, I referred to this as "step static."
The follower notices that this leader never -- ever -- gives her instruction or advice. If his lead doesn't do the job, he tries it again. If it continues not to work, he moves on to something else. Period, end of story. She may also be aware that although the music to which she and her partner are dancing may be fast or slow, his leads are always focused on her readiness to take the next step, rather than to an unrelenting adherence to the tempo of the song.
Throughout the dance, the follower feels that everything is easy, and that she can trust this leader to take good care of her from moment to moment. I don't mean this in a pejorative or condescending way; this is just appropriate dance practice.
What I've tried to describe above is a general overview of how a follower should be feeling, when she dances. Not tense, not afraid of making a mistake, not under the constant scrutiny of a critical leader. She should feel relaxed and comfortable, cared for, and optimistically ready for anything he leads, knowing that it's all going to be handed to her as if on a silver platter.
Do you feel this way as a follower, when you dance Tango? If so, it probably means that you know something about being a good follower, and that you've managed to find a good leader or two in your dance life. If not, it might be a good idea to find out why.
July 17, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the week. "How do I learn to dance Tango?" For the past several weeks, we've been exploring multiple responses to this question. On June 12, we suggested one possible answer -- to imitate our favorite dancers. On June 19, we examined the importance of becoming a good student. On June 26, we looked at how getting the right information is crucial to the learning process. On July 3, we discussed the role of getting a good teacher. And last week, July 10, Pat talked about the need to spend time on the dance floor from the follower's point of view. (If you'd like to read the full text of these Tips, you'll find them in our Tango Tip of the Week archives on the Firehouse Tango Web site.)
Today, I'm going to wrap up this "How do I learn to dance Tango" series by once again stressing the need to practice your developing skills on the dance floor, this time from the point of view of the leader. There's little doubt that a leader can increase his general skill level just by spending as much time as possible on the floor with one follower after another, trying again and again to "do the right thing." Unfortunately, what this means for most leaders is that they elect to concentrate more or less exclusively on memorized, stage-oriented sequences -- which have been derived from YouTube, from so-called "teaching" DVDs, or from dance school classes and private lessons. I certainly agree whole-heartedly that practicing these kinds of things can be fun -- and that they can fulfill our lust to move up a little higher on the competitive food chain. But at the same time, I believe that it is crucially important to continuously work on becoming a better dancer. To this end, I recommend that some part -- maybe even most -- of the leader's practice regimen be devoted to the precise skills necessary to achieve this goal.
The following, therefore, is a checklist of the kind of things I'm talking about. These activities may not provide instant gratification, but they'll go a long way toward taking your overall skill as a Tango dancer to a significantly higher level than it might be right now.
Practice basic lead/follow.
This is a really big deal! Most leaders (and followers) either have no idea -- or at best a misguided idea -- of what constitutes the most comfortable, most effective way to collaborate with a dance partner. In my observation, what currently tends to pass for lead/follow is little more than one form or another of wrestling. Find a teacher who understands the lead/follow mechanism, learn once and for all what you're supposed to do, then practice it forever! This is the one focus that will absolutely make you a better dancer and a more desirable leader.
Focus on balancing at the end of every step.
One of the hardest parts of dancing Tango is to find your own individual balance between steps. This difficulty can come from your own misconceptions about how to achieve such balance in the first place -- or it can derive from problems which your partner may be having -- either her fault or yours! -- which may pull you off balance. Solving the balance issue is, of course, part of learning basic lead/follow; but I think it needs to be addressed as a separate element with your teacher in the process of learning the art of interacting with a partner.
Employ good floor craft.
Yes, it's true -- there are other people on the dance floor. And everybody is vying for the same space. Try not to think of these people as the enemy, but instead as your friendly neighbors, who have just as much right to be on the floor as you. As a leader, don't send your partner careening into the couple behind her. And whenever you need to move backward (the single most dangerous step in Tango!), check out who's there before you commit to that backward step. If and when you accidentally bump into another couple, say you're sorry -- no kidding -- say you're sorry -- even if you think it was their fault.
Overcome "step static."
The easiest way to completely forget about using good lead/follow technique is to walk onto the floor with a head full of memorized dance steps. If you're like most leaders, you'll find yourself concentrating far too intently on getting your own steps right -- and you'll totally neglect what you need to lead your partner to do to make each figure work. I'm going to call this "step static." The only way to overcome this dreaded disease is to carefully break every memorized figure down into its individual elements -- in advance -- and make certain that you lead your partner through each movement during your execution of the figure, waiting for her to be ready to continue before you proceed to the net element within the figure. The result might not look like it did on stage, but at least you and your partner will live through the experience.
Stop worrying about always moving with the music.
One of the common problems that inexperienced leaders have is believing that every move in tango must inevitably be rigidly dictated by the music. They'll do anything to stay on the musical grid, having heard from teachers, friends, and would-be dance experts that keeping in time with the music is paramount in Tango. This is just not true. What is true is that after you've been dancing for ten or fifteen years, you'll find it more possible to maintain a precise connection with the music; it will tend to come quite naturally as a result of becoming more experienced as a dancer. But for now, your primary concentration needs to be on the comfort and well being of your partner. Don't try to force her into a step she's not ready for. Let her get her balance together at the end of each element within whatever figure you're attempting to lead, and only then invite the next part. Does this sort of sound like overcoming "step static?" It should, because they're both part of the same thing -- dance skill.
There seem to be a lot of people in the Tango community who are just plain not nice. Have you noticed this weird phenomenon? I don't know why it is, but I see leaders bullying -- or arrogantly attempting to teach -- their followers on the dance floor. I see followers humiliating inexperienced leaders for their (temporary) ineptitude. I see cliques which exclude rather include. I see all kinds of mean, antisocial behavior that has no place in any society, much less in an environment which should be open and welcoming. Do you see things like this? Are you part of the problem? There's nothing you as an individual can do about other people who are like that. But you don't have to be that way. And if enough people decide individually that they don't want this cancer in their community -- and that they won't put up with it -- the community will ultimately evolve in a more socially acceptable direction.
It all starts with you. Take the first step. Be a leader. Be nice.
July 10, 2014
Hi everybody, Pat here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For the past several weeks, Fran has been covering some of the fundamental answers to the question, “How do I learn to dance Tango?” If you have missed some or all of these discussions, I urge you to go to the Firehouse website and look them up.
This week, I would like to talk about something that is critical to your dance, but is also a terrifying experience – at least in the beginning, and sometimes later on, too. I’m referring to “Getting time on the dance floor.”
I think it would be true to say that almost ALL beginner tango students (and would-be dancers) find the prospect of actually going out onto the dance floor with their newly found obsession and a few lessons under their belt, a truly frightening idea. I have known many students who just don’t do it, and instead spend all their time in class.
I believe that the fundamental purpose of learning Tango is to dance with a partner on the dance floor. Amassing steps and figures, technique and style does not make a Tango dancer. Yes, you might be very good at all these elements, but a classroom setting is limited in its ability to teach a student how to use all this knowledge on the dance floor.
I myself remember what it was like to dance as a fledgling Tango student for the first time at a milonga. I sat looking at all the other people dancing, and they all seemed to be so good. I was sure that no one would ask me to dance, and in fact I wished they wouldn’t – this would let me off the hook… but soon enough, a guy I knew from class came over. As we started to dance, I suddenly felt that I knew nothing, that my steps were awkward, that I kept missing the lead, and that everyone was looking and thinking how awful I was. Somehow, the dance was over, and I was back sitting on my own again. I thought I would never get used to it.
This is the point at which many followers and leaders are so demoralized that they shy away from the dance floor. But it is exactly the point at which you must continue. Time on the dance floor is essential and with each successive dance, you will eventually feel more comfortable and confident.
I recall some years after that excruciating first experience, that I began to have some trouble dancing with leaders who were clumsy, unthinking and totally self-absorbed, without any hint of thought or care for their partner. The trouble was that I didn’t want to dance with these leaders. It was shortly after Fran and I started our beginner practica at Dance Manhattan, and many of the men were asking me to dance. I could not reasonably refuse, as a host of the practica, but it was very difficult, and for a while, I stopped coming to our practica!!
After a short break, I returned and vowed to overcome this dilemma. I turned my focus around and began to dance in a more supportive way with these leaders. In helping them to be more aware of their follower, they were able to become better leaders. Today, I will dance with anyone who asks me, without hesitation. If the guy is a race-around-the-track leader, I have discovered places in the dance where I can slow him down. If my leader is very slow, it allows me to practice my balance, my technique and my styling. I am now comfortable in my own dance, and there is benefit to be had no matter who I dance with.
So, look at it this way – your first time on the dance floor is what really starts your Tango journey. Make sure you continue this lifelong adventure with more and more time dancing. And always remember (as Fran says) to keep your patience, humility, and sense of humor in good supply.
July 3, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. "How do I learn to dance Tango?" For the past three weeks, we've been exploring multiple responses to this question. On June 12, we suggested one possible answer -- to imitate our favorite dancers. On June 19, we examined the importance of becoming a good student. And last week, June 26, we looked at how getting the right information is crucial to the learning process. (If you'd like to read the full text of these Tips, you'll find them in our Tango Tip of the Week archives on the Firehouse Tango Web site.)
Today, we're going to talk about finding a good teacher. This might, at first, appear to be a fairly easy proposition -- because there are a lot of Tango teachers out there. In fact, these days, I sometimes think that there are more teachers in our Tango community than students. If you happen to be a follower, for example, you've no doubt observed that the overwhelming majority of leaders you've encountered actually believe that they're teachers. I don't know how or why they came to this conclusion; but it's true. (We could, of course, talk about how this behavior generally reflects deep-seated insecurity and low self esteem on their part. But we'll save that as a topic for another time.)
If you decide that you want to learn how to dance Tango, and you're looking for a teacher, you probably start out with the very plausible assumption that all teachers are basically the same. We all have the same information; we all know how to teach (I mean, after all, that's our job!); we can all get you expertly and efficiently from point "A" ( not knowing how to dance Tango at all) to point "B" (becoming the greatest Tango dancer who ever lived).
The problem here is that this assumption just isn't true. A great many people teaching Tango today aren't really teachers at all. They're either people who currently dance Tango, and have decided to appoint themselves as teachers. Or they're professional performers, who are trying to supplement their income through teaching. The problem with performers tends to be that notwithstanding their admirable talent, dedication and skill as performers, nowhere in that equation do we necessarily find an ability to teach. In fact, as we've seen for ourselves so often over the years, most performers reduce the teaching of Tango to a potpourri of elaborate memorized steps. (Yeah, yeah, I know: that's exactly what most students really want.) And as to the self-appointed teachers, it's not that they don't know how to dance. It's not that they aren't nice, well-meaning pillars of the community. It's just that they really don't have either the experience or skills necessary to teach.
So, given the fact that all Tango teachers are not the same, the burden of finding the right one for your needs unfortunately lands squarely on you. How do you go about this somewhat daunting process? In my opinion, the first thing to do is watch them teach. Not perform, teach. If they're offering regular classes somewhere, try one out for a month or so. This will give you a good idea as to whether you can stand being in the same room with them week after week as a class or private student. While you're there, ask their other students what they think? Furthermore, try to determine whether the students themselves seem to be actually learning how to dance? (This won't be easy, if you're a newbie, but try anyway.)
Finally, ask yourself about your own personal commitment to learning how to dance Tango. If you just want to dip your toe in the water a bit, and have a little fun, it really doesn't matter who the teacher is. But if you actually want to learn something, if you want to build a foundation for enjoying this unique dance for the rest of your life, do your homework and find the right teacher. It will save you hours -- maybe years -- of wasted time, energy and frustration.
June 26, 2014
June 19, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. "How do I learn to dance Tango?" if you recall, I asked this question in last week's Tango Tip. During our discussion, I suggested one possible answer -- to imitate our favorite dancers. (If you'd like to read the full text of what was said, you'll find it in our Tango Tip of the Week archives on the Firehouse Tango Web site.)
Just to amplify the point I made last week, one of the very popular and effective ways in which people learn things -- particularly physical actions of any kind -- is by watching other people do them. For example, if I'm trying to teach you even a rudimentary dance movement, it might take me several paragraphs to describe it. But if I give you a physical demonstration, you'll probably say, "oh, is that what you meant!"
It seems to remain undeniably true that a picture is worth a thousand words.
When it comes to Tango, however, physical demonstration/imitation is only one -- albeit a very powerful -- component of the teaching/learning process. For the next several weeks, I’m going to discuss what I think are the elements necessary for students to maximize their chances of becoming proficient at dancing Tango. Here is a quick summary of what I believe these elements are:
1. Imitate good dancers
2. Become a good student
3. Get the right information
4. Work with a good teacher
5. Log in the appropriate amount of time on the dance floor
I've already talked at some length about the notion of imitating good dancers. Today, I'll discuss what we think it takes to become a good student.
To begin with, the process of learning -- not only Tango, but, in fact, anything at all -- can be quite distressing for many people. Lots of students believe, for example, that if they can't learn something right away, there's something wrong with them. Others become unnecessarily distraught, when they seem to keep forgetting from moment to moment what their teacher has been saying. Still others are unwilling to commit to the learning process at all, because they believe deep down that they'll ultimately be exposed as the worst students in the class, or that no matter how hard they try, they'll never be able to learn.
These are common experiences that many of us have had at some point or other during the learning process. Some of us are able to simply shrug these negative experiences off, and keep going. But sometimes such problems can be so overwhelming that they cause students to defeat themselves before they even get started. Without, I hope, sounding overly simplistic here, I think a good first step in dealing with difficulties such as these -- let's call them "head games" -- is to say to yourself that notwithstanding your prohibitions about the learning process -- no matter how scary it may at first seem -- you're just going to jump in and do it anyway. And you're going to keep at it until you learn.
If you can manage to adopt that attitude, your initial problems and fears will most likely disappear in time, or, at least, become manageable.
After recognizing and, I hope, getting past any fears you may have about the learning process, the next item on your checklist might be to assess your enthusiasm level. If you really want to be a Tango dancer, you need to be willing to do whatever it takes to become one. If your attitude is that you sort of think it might be okay as long as you don't have to actually do much to get there, you should consider trying something a bit less demanding than Tango -- like sitting in front of the TV all day, or spending your leisure time practicing the popular sport of compulsive overeating. (Just kidding.)
Becoming a good student ultimately means preparing yourself to play a very active role in the learning process. It's not by any means a question of having your teacher spoon-feed you, while you just sit back and enjoy the ride. In order to learn, you need to really want it. You need to work maybe harder than you've ever worked before. You need to be infinitely patient that you'll get there when you get there, and not a minute sooner. And as you progress, you need to swallow a huge helping of humility to keep yourself from suddenly thinking you're now better than everybody else.
Finally, you need to develop a very strong and unrelenting sense of humor. There are a whole lot of things in life that are really serious. But social dancing -- as hard as it may be to become really good at -- is not one of them. I often tell my students that they should consider any social dancing -- including Argentine Tango -- to be little more than "escapist lunacy," meaning lots of fun (I hope), but not worth getting all upset about.
If you can manage to think of social dancing in that way. I think you'll be well on your way to becoming a really good student.
June 12, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. "How do I learn to dance Tango?" This is the burning question we all ask ourselves. Does the process consist of memorizing and executing a constantly evolving lexicon of specific steps and specific "styling" (as we tend to do in learning other dances)? Or is there something more?
What are the chances of our Tango being as close to "authentic" as possible?
Okay, let's start from the beginning. As people existing outside Argentina, most of us (at least initially) see Tango as an exotic series of movements we'd love to be able to display on a dance floor. When we encounter Tango for the first time, our trigger response is "Gee, I wish I could do that!"
If we study Tango for any length of time, however, we eventually come to be aware that people from Argentina -- at least that very small percentage of the total populace whose lives are "caught up" in Tango -- think of it as far more than a dance. To those who have in the past been somewhat disparagingly referred to as -- and who at least these days proudly call themselves -- milongueros -- Tango represents an entire way of life. It involves music, a sense of their ongoing history, a special way in which certain men and women relate to one another in Argentina -- and a host of other factors which are integral to being born in and living day to day in that unique environment.
So now our question becomes: "Without all this background, how can we expect to achieve anything close to authenticity in a dance, which depends on total immersion in this very specific way of life?
Well, of course, we can't.
What we can do as people who don't bring our own inherent authenticity to Tango -- and I mean this sincerely -- is that we can pretend. My dear friend and dance mentor, the late John Lucchese, used to point out to me that every time we walk out onto the dance floor, we become actors, playing a very distinct role. If we're dancing Foxtrot, we become Fred and Ginger. If we're dancing Swing, we're Frankie Manning and Norma Miller (Don't know who they are? You have a computer. Look 'em up!). If it's Salsa, we become -- (insert your favorite salsero here).
Get the idea? We play a role.
The same thing happens, when we dance Tango. I have several personal favorite dancers whom I try to emulate, when I dance --Gustavo Naveira, Carolos Gavito, Miguel and Osvaldo Zotto, Julio Balmaceda, and a wonderful social dancer named Hector Chidichimo. I can never be these great Tango dancers. But I can try to channel their unique ways of moving into my own dance by watching them on YouTube, and by doing my best to pretend I'm one of them, right from the moment I form my embrace with a partner on the dance floor.
This is something I encourage you to try, too. Pick out your favorite dancer, and watch as many videos of him or her as you can. And every time you get set to dance, try to think of yourself as the embodiment of that dancer. The likelihood is that no one will know that you're now the spitting image of Lorena Ermocida or the late great Esther Pugliese; but they'll probably notice something new -- maybe something very special -- about the way you're moving.
About three years ago, as I was walking off the floor after a dance, someone said to me, "You were doing Gustavo, weren't you?" I could have died and gone to heaven right then and there.
Try it, and see for yourself. Let us know how it works.
June 5, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For several Tango Tips in the recent past, I've been discussing some of the important problems we all incur in attempting to maintain the line of direction while dancing. On May 8, we talked about the "gestural" -- as opposed to the "functional" -- nature of Tango. On May 15, we observed that Tango is at the same time both a "progressive" and a "spot" dance. And on May 22, we underscored the fact that modern Tango consists of movement and of stillness -- meaning that sometimes we travel, and sometimes we don't. (You can read all about these impediments to maintaining the line of direction in our Tango Tips of May 8, May 15, and May 22. Just go to the archive section of our Firehouse Web site.)
All these factors -- which are inherent to the nature of Tango -- contribute to making it quite difficult for any leader to keep the dance moving along on a predictable track. How, then, can we possibly expect to get ourselves around the dance floor in a consistent and orderly fashion? The simple (but definitely not easy) answer to this crucial question is that as leaders, we have to change focus. We have to make up our minds once and for all that we're going to stop exclusively serving our own momentary needs, and start paying attention to the needs of other people on the dance floor.
Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about here. You've been thinking about a figure that you learned in class -- or maybe that you half-learned on YouTube -- a few days/hours/minutes ago. You can't wait to take it to the dance floor. Everyone will be really impressed. People will stop and stare. You'll be a star!
Okay, suddenly, there you are right in the middle of that crowded dance floor. You're so focussed on your special figure that you can't wait to try it out. In fact, you do try it as soon as possible -- before checking to see whether it will interfere with what's going on around you. And guess what happens? It does interfere. The line of dance is completely disrupted.
You're not a star; you're a menace.
Alternate universe: You're itching to try that new figure, but your primary focus is solidly right where it should be; i.e., on the needs of the people around you. Because the floor is crowded, you recognize the fact that right at this moment trying your figure might be dangerous. So you wait until the time seems right. Maybe that time comes; maybe it doesn't. Eventually, the dance comes to an end, and -- at least in part because of your efforts -- everybody has managed to collectively negotiate the line of dance without interference from you.
Do you get the idea? I'm not saying here that you should never try out that great figure you've been working on. Just make certain that when you do, it works not only for you, but for everybody else around you as well.
If you can manage this essential change in the way you approach your social dancing, you really will start to become a true Tango star!
May 29, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. A few weeks ago, I offered a Tango Tip on lead/follow -- one of my favorite subjects -- to which Firehouse regular John Wynne responded:
"Today, you were talking about lead/follow. What you have not mentioned is, what is the leader to do if there is a miscommunication in the lead? My theory is to go with the flow until we are back in sync. Frequently my partner does not even know there was an 'oops' moment. No finger pointing, no scowling, just continue on."
First, I want to thank John very much for his response. It's nice to be reminded that my Tango Tips are not just one-way communications. Feedback like this is what makes a conversation happen. And in this case, I completely agree with his insightful observations.
As I considered the email, I started to think about the point of view that I adopt in these Tango Tips -- which is that of a dance professional, expressing how things would be in an ideal world in which everybody is always doing precisely the right thing. But quite often there's a big difference between what goes on in the dance teacher's imagination and what actually happens on the dance floor.
Nobody's dancing -- my own included -- is perfect. Mistakes in the lead and/or the follow happen all the time. Sometimes, the fault may be mine; sometimes, it may be my partner's. It might be a result of problems on the dance floor. Anything can cause a given step or figure to crash and burn. My attitude, like John's, is "no finger pointing, no scowling, just continue on."
Of course, if I'm teaching a dance lesson, I'll generally comment on what happened when a so-called mistake occurs. That's part of my job in helping my student become a better dancer. But if I'm in the middle of a social dance with somebody and things go wrong, I keep my mouth shut and as John says, "I go with the flow" and try my best to help get things back on track.
Wouldn't it be great, if all of us adopted this point of view? In my opinion, this is exactly the right attitude to take during a social dance. No harm, no foul, just fun.
May 22, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Hi, everybody, Fran here with your Tango tip of the Week. Over the past couple of weeks, we've been talking about some of the reasons why maintaining the line of dance can be a difficult challenge in Tango.
Two weeks ago, I suggested that because the movements in Tango tend to be "gestural" rather than "functional," traveling around the dance floor in a counterclockwise direction becomes a secondary -- often neglected -- focus of the leader's creative process. (Read my Tango Tip in our May 8, 2014 Firehouse Tango Newsletter.)
Last week, I discussed the conflicting "hybrid" nature of Tango as a cross between what dance professionals in this country traditionally refer to as "progressive" dancing and its opposite, what we often call "spot" dancing. (Read my Tango Tip in our May 15, 2014 Firehouse Tango Newsletter.)
Today, I'd like to briefly touch on yet another unique characteristic of contemporary Tango, which can have a profound impact on one's ability to maintain the line of dance. It is the idea that Tango often incorporates stillness or stops.
This simply means that Tango dancers don't always move continuously, as is common in other ballroom styles. With other dances -- both progressive and spot -- the legs and body tend to keep moving either through space in progressive dancing, or in place in spot dancing. Neither of these general categories of social dance routinely utilize the highly specialized technique of stopping as a defining characteristic (although it is certainly true that Swing and Latin dancing do indeed occasionally utilize momentary "rhythm" stops -- usually at a more advanced skill level.)
But Tango dancers use stops all the time. Sometimes, we stop just for a brief moment. Sometimes, we stop for a few beats. Sometimes, we stop for a protracted -- i.e., multiple-beat -- period of musical space. In the evolved Tango of the "Golden Age" and beyond, stopping has become an inherent characteristic of the dance. (Parenthetically, for those of you leaders who never stop moving, you might want to consider adding the technique of stopping to your tool kit. Not only will this one addition make you a better dancer, -- your partners will collectively breathe a deep sigh of relief.)
My friend Carlos Gavito would say to his students again and again that "Tango is a way to walk." Of course, Carlos wasn't talking just about forward steps for the leader and backward steps for the follower. He was referring to a comprehensive basic vocabulary of five "walking" (or what some teachers call "linear") elements. These include forward, backward and side steps, as well as weight changes in place (no travel) -- plus what are called pauses -- which means stops. Stops are built into the fundamental mechanics -- as well as the artistic creative soul -- of modern Tango.
If we now place this idea alongside our (previously examined) notions of "gesture vs. functionality" and the progressive/spot nature of Tango, we can in an abstract way marvel at the complex nature of Tango as a social dance. At the same time, from a purely practical standpoint, we must also become acutely aware that we're adding yet another potentially serious impediment to maintaining the line of dance.
Does this mean that we ought to simply give up trying to get ourselves around the dance floor without seriously interfering with other dancers? That we should relegate ourselves to sacrificing their comfort and safety for our own personal creativity? Of course not. We simply have to accept the fact that Tango poses very specific and ongoing challenges, which need to be recognized -- and effectively addressed -- in order to one day achieve some degree of mastery over this unique, complex social dance.
As the song says, "Asi se baila el Tango."
8. Orlando Paiva's "El Gato" sequence/with adornments
9. Carlos Gavito's right leg wrap
10. Osvaldo Zotto's "show-stopper" step sequence
May 15, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we talked about how the notion of Tango being primarily "gestural" in nature rather than "functional" makes the challenge of maintaining the line of dance quite complex -- even for experienced dancers. (Read about it in last week's Tango Tip.) Today, I'd like to address an additional challenge we face, which is also inherent in the dance itself. It's the fact that Tango is at the same time both a "progressive" dance, and a "spot" dance.
What am I talking about here?
When we're able to effectively maintain the line of dance in Tango, many dance professionals call what we're doing "progressing" around the floor. Therefore Argentine Tango is thought of (not necessarily by people in Argentina) as a member of a global family of dances defined as "progressive." Also included in this family would be other social dances such as Foxtrot, Waltz, American Tango, Quickstep, Viennese Waltz, Polka, Mazurka, and Peabody -- as well as the entire aggregate of International competitive "modern" dances.
In contrast to progressive dancing, there is another category, which we call "spot" dancing. Basically, this refers to dances which by and large remain in one place on the floor -- rather than continuously progressing around the line of dance. This includes all Swing/International Jive dancing, Hustle, all Latin/Caribbean dancing -- and, yes, Argentine Tango.
What? I thought you said that Argentine Tango was a progressive dance.
That's true, I did. And at times it can also be danced in a very small space, sometimes referred to as a "spot." So we can also think of Tango as a spot dance.
American/European-trained dance teachers (again, not necessarily teachers in Argentina) generally agree that Argentine Tango is a hybrid -- meaning that it is a combination of progressive and spot dancing. Sometimes Tango travels around the room; sometimes it stays in one place. Which, of course, greatly amplifies the challenge of maintaining the line of dance -- particularly for beginning dancers, I think, but ultimately for all of us.
Is there a way to combine this dual progressive/spot nature of Tango with keeping a consistent line of direction? What I see among the best social dancers in Buenos Aires is they put line of dance first, and personal creativity second. If something they might like to do in place would cause a disruption of the flow around the floor, they simply don't do it -- or perhaps they save it for another time. With dancers who are less discerning or less conscious of what is going on around their own immediate sphere, such is often not the case. These dancers tend to do whatever comes to mind in any given moment -- without any consideration of the general flow. And what we end up with is chaos on the dance floor.
Have you noticed this in the dancers around you? Maybe in your own dancing?
The obvious answer to the progressive/spot challenge, is to do whatever you want, if no one else is on the floor -- but when you're in a crowd, put the needs of the group first by paying attention to and maintaining the line of dance. You can save your special showcase moves for when they ask you to get up and do a solo.
Wouldn't that be just wonderful?
May 8, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I want to make a case for movement in Tango being primarily "gestural" in nature, and only "functional" in a very limited way. This might sound a bit abstract to you right now (no yawning, please), but please reserve judgment until I've made my point.
When we dance Tango, we often (not always) travel around a room in a counterclockwise direction in what's called a "line of dance," or "line of direction." People from Argentina call this circle or oval on the outside of the dance floor la ronda. As most of you are aware by this time, learning to consistently observe the line of dance is a very challenging skill for many of us in the Tango community here in the United States. And what I'll be talking about today might just help a bit to alleviate this all-too-prevalent problem.
Now let’s talk about the idea of Tango movement being primarily "gestural;" i.e., focused on form, rather than "functional." If you ask most leaders why they just took that last forward, backward or side step, they would probably reply, "I was trying to get from here to there, or from point A to point B." What they're telling you, in other words, is that the function of their movement was to travel through space in order to arrive at a new location on the dance floor -- to progress in a given direction.
This is the way most social dancers think; i.e., functionally.
Now, to be sure, there are times when movement is indeed functional. You may need to avoid a collision with another couple; you may need to find a new travel line in a crowd. Or, as we'll discuss below, you may need to observe the line of dance. There are all sorts of reasons for individual or sequential movements to be functional on the dance floor. However, most movement in the social dance context isn't functional at all -- it's gestural.
What do I mean by that? For the answer to this question, let's turn to other dance forms -- ballet, jazz, tap, or modern, for example. How would we categorize individual elements within these dance forms. Are the dancers trying to "get somewhere" on the dance floor, or are they making an artistic statement in which their individual gestures are creating an overall effect? It's the latter, of course. If they happen to move through space during the process, this traveling is simply one more way to enhance the overall artistic statement.
The same is true of social dancing. Traveling is what we do -- the means we use -- in order to create a statement for ourselves and for our partners -- not just to get around a room. Yes, we do indeed end up working our way around the dance floor. But, in fact, we're using a specific social dance vocabulary --which includes traveling as well as other movements -- to build our improvised social/artistic creation rather than to simply behave mindlessly like rats on a treadmill.
Gesture (form) rather than function.
"Okay, okay, I get it," you say. "Everything we do in our social dance helps us to communicate an artistic intention. So far, so good. But we still have to get around the dance floor."
Yes, we do. And herein lies the challenge. For some leaders, it's very easy to get absolutely lost in our pursuit of a creative improvisational trajectory. For others, demonstrating that complex figure we just learned from one of the "masters" totally absorbs our concentration. In either of these instances, it becomes very easy to neglect the mandate we have as social dancers to keep the flow of the dance consistent enough that we don't seriously impede collective movement around the floor.
So, what we have to do ultimately is to constantly juggle. We certainly have to focus on our own creative needs. Otherwise dancing just wouldn't be enjoyable. But at the same time we need to acknowledge and respect the "social" tradition of Tango. This means maintaining the flow -- the functionality - of the line of dance. Form within function. Or if you prefer, function within form. Either way, as a Tango dancer it's crucial to incorporate both elements whenever we get up to dance on a crowded floor. Gesture combined skillfully with function.
I suppose all this might be a really long way of saying, "Have fun, but keep things moving."
May 1, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Have you ever seen those cartoons that show someone with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other? The angel is trying to get them to do the right thing, while the devil is always pulling them in the other direction? Tango has its own version of that dynamic; it applies both to leaders and followers, and all of us have experienced its not so comical effects on the dance floor at one time or another.
In keeping with my premise above, let's call this dynamic "devil or angel."
Here's how it works. As a leader, you've no doubt heard something about using lead/follow as a way to dance social Tango at a high level. What I mean is that you've heard the words themselves; but if you're like most students dancing Tango today, you probably don't know much about this rather complex skill set. Basic -- and even intermediate -- students aren't really adept enough to be able to understand, appreciate, or apply sophisticated lead/follow techniques in their dancing with any degree of skill or consistency. And all too many teachers give the development of these skills short shrift in the classroom, either because they really don't know how to teach them, or they feel that students find lead/follow tedious and difficult -- not good for keeping those attendance numbers up!
What students do learn almost right from the beginning is how to memorize figures, which their teachers are more than happy to show them, and which these unwitting students think will make them look as if they know more about dancing Tango than they actually do. And at the same time many students -- ever in a huge hurry -- start down the road of becoming YouTube addicts, where they spend lots of time trying to increase their repertoire by memorizing more and more performance-oriented material.
So here's the angel/devil situation. On one shoulder we have the rather abstract, undeveloped, and frankly difficult-to-grasp idea of lead/follow. And on the other shoulder we have the very sexy, mouth-watering -- albeit ultimately empty -- promise of Tango ecstasy in the form of memorized dance steps. The leader's choice becomes one of:
1. Trying to skillfully lead every individual movement of every figure he wants his partner to execute --something he's really not very good at anyway.
2. Relying on an "agenda-driven" process of doing his part -- if he can remember it -- and hoping his follower will somehow figure out for herself what she's supposed to do.
Which one of these choices do you think most leaders opt for?
At the same time, the follower is also plagued by her own version of this dilemma. On one shoulder her small angel's voice is saying: "Do I Insist that my partner actually lead me every step of the way in executing any given figure? (Do I, in fact, possess the lead/follow skills even to understand what a good lead is?)" Meanwhile, on the other shoulder, her devil is either telling her to just go with the flow -- which means let herself be pushed and pulled around like a rag doll -- or try to outguess what he's trying to get her to do, thereby "anticipating" -- back-leading -- her brains out.
You can very easily figure out what my recommendation is here. Leaders need to learn how to lead; followers need to learn how to follow. If you do this, your devils will simply disappear forever. If you don't, they'll always be right there, perched on your shoulder, weighing you down, waiting to lead you inevitably down the path to disaster.
Isn't it time you dumped those devils once and for all? Learn to lead. Learn to follow. Learn to dance.
April 24, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Most of us derive our idea of Tango from right here in the United States where we live, and where we learn how to dance. We imitate what we see our fellow students doing; we memorize what our teachers tell us to memorize; we try to copy what we happen to find on YouTube.
What the majority of us don't do is to actively seek out how people really dance in, let's say, Buenos Aires, and then attempt to alter our own dance accordingly. There are many reasons for this, of course, but let's make the assumption that you think this sounds like a good idea. How do you go about the process of making your dance a more authentic version of the real thing?
When Pat and I first visited Argentina, I had been dancing -- and teaching -- Tango for more than twenty years. But when we went to our first milonga -- it was held at the currently closed "El Beso" -- I was convinced that I would be completely unmasked as someone who actually had no idea whatever how to dance Tango, and that we would both be laughed out of the place.
What I discovered, however, was that social dancing was actually very much like the dancing that I was used to in venues such as Roseland in New York City. Tango was -- and is -- a special way in which two people interact socially on the dance floor. Yes, it was certainly different from Foxtrot or American Slow Waltz, but there was none of the extreme high style or elaborate movement that we were learning from the visiting "maestros" -- virtually all of whom were, in fact, stage performers. I had heard rumors that we weren't being shown the "real" dance back home -- it was far more lucrative, apparently, to teach elaborate stage figures -- but right there in front of Pat and me was the proof. The only people who were choosing the sort of ornate, overblown stage figures people were learning in the USA were tourists!
During the mid-1990's, American teachers like Daniel Trenner and his then partner Rebecca Schulman -- along with a handful of others -- were doing their best to focus on authentic social Tango. But as I look around today at the practicas and milongas in New York, I see very little interest among younger students in social dance. With the current popularity of such mutations as "Nuevo Tango," for example, there seems to be far more enthusiasm for a very conscious obliteration of traditional style in favor of acrobatic extravagance. Now, it's not that I want to deny anyone the right to do whatever they please; but in New York, at least, the Tango of "the Golden Age" seems these days to be little more than a distant memory.
Okay, okay, enough ranting. Let me get back to my premise. What if you decided to try learning a more authentic way of dancing social Tango? Where would you go, and how would you learn?
Of course, you could head for Buenos Aires, find the traditional milongas, and spend about two months not taking lessons -- but just sitting and watching. This would be a good start. I think you'd find it a revelation. But, perish the thought, you might be one of those unfortunate people who needs to work for a living. Maybe you just can't afford to take that kind of time just now. What might you do instead to get the ball rolling?
One very good possibility is to visit a Website called "Tango and Chaos." It's actually www.tangoandchaos.org. This Website was started by Rick McGarrey from Arizona, and provides a very detailed and interesting account of his experiences in Buenos Aires. Of particular interest to us here is his wonderful collection of videos of people dancing at the milongas. This is the real thing, folks -- normal people dancing socially -- rather than either stage performances or students taking classes. As a tool for learning by imitation, I think you'll find this group of videos truly invaluable.
The next step might be to show these videos to your teacher. Tell him or her that you want to learn to dance the way they do in Buenos Aires, and that these videos represent exactly what you're talking about. This should give the teacher plenty to work with in helping you get where you want to go. Not too far in the distant future you should expect to join the ranks of those who dance "just like they do in the milongas of Buenos Aires.”
You say you don't have a teacher? I have a good idea for you: Get one now.
Addition to Tango Tip - Letter from Debbie
Hi Pat and Fran, Those points were so true to me especially when I first started ballroom dancing 10 years ago. I learned that I had to leave my ego "at the door." I would beat myself up and almost burst into tears at my private lessons. My teacher was brutal and would criticize me and wasn't too encouraging. But I learned. I think the joy and humor comes once you see a little progress and finally get it. I am so blessed to have a body that works as well as it does. Thank you both so much for playing a major part in my tango journey. Debbie
Thanks very much for your response to my Tango Tip. I sometimes think that nobody even notices that I've written this weekly column in the Newsletter. I'm sorry that you had to endure a dance teacher who was so inappropriate in his or her methodology. Unfortunately, there has always been a lot of that, especially in the ballroom world. Most of us (me included) have had our share of that kind of treatment. And there are all too many who decide to give up rather than persevere in spite of that behavior.
Thanks again for you kind words.
April 17, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For many of us, learning how to dance Tango can be a difficult -- even traumatic -- experience. If we try to do it by just showing up at a milonga, and attempting to emulate people on the dance floor, it can feel completely overwhelming. If instead, we decide to approach the challenge by taking dance classes, it can seem to take forever for us to make any progress at all -- while everyone around us may appear to be learning at a far more accelerated pace than we. Meanwhile, everyone keeps telling us how much fun learning to dance is, and how easy it is to do.
Learning Tango -- learning anything, in fact -- is difficult. We start by knowing nothing, and this mind set persists for quite a while no matter how much information we try to take in. Eventually -- if we work really hard -- we sort of start to get it. Then, if we devote ourselves to applying what we've begun to learn by correctly repeating our lessons again and again, we start to form new habits, which will tend to stay with us as long as we keep at it. If we have lapses, if we take breaks from the process for things like work or a personal life, it all begins to come apart.
That doesn't sound like fun to me. I mean, not even close.
So what does it take to hang in there, to stay the course, to give yourself the strongest opportunity to actually get somewhere in learning how to dance Tango? What I tell my students is that they have to reach deep down and cultivate four crucial inner strengths. These are patience, humility, a sense of humor, and courage.
Patience. We live during a time, when many of us wish we could have things handed to us on a silver platter -- and we want it all now. I guarantee that this will not happen with Tango. We can wish it were the case. We can get angry and beat out heads against a wall, when things don't work that way. But no matter what we do, learning Tango will take lots of time. If we can begin to accept that fact right from the onset of our learning process, everything will go much better. Otherwise, we will end up in a constant tantrum over something we just can't do anything about.
Humility. Many of us tend to overestimate our ability to learn. We may see others around us who seem to be picking things up quickly, and we want to be as good as -- or preferably better than -- they. We may actually feel entitled to be the smartest kid on the block. Unfortunately, this attitude will almost always lead us to focus on keeping our ego well massaged rather than on the job at hand -- which is to learn how to dance Tango. Humility is the more direct path.
A sense of humor. I see a lot of people in the contemporary Tango student community, taking things very, very seriously. In particular, they seem to take themselves so seriously that there just isn't any room for an openness to the profound joy of learning. I continue to be baffled by this behavior. My own feeling is that -- notwithstanding its causes -- the more profitable stance would be to lighten up, recognize that dancing Tango is an occasion for fun, and enjoy the process in a state of humorous camaraderie rather than isolating self-importance,
Courage. Getting back to where we started, we have to face the fact that learning Tango is really very difficult. Physically, Tango places demands on us that no other social dance I can think of does. Furthermore, because most of us in this country were not born in Argentina, our emotional connection to Tango has to come from inference -- from our imagination -- rather than from direct life experience. This makes the process of incorporating Tango into our creative souls extremely challenging. Ultimately, accepting the task of learning how to dance Tango -- of overcoming the profound gulf of cultural distance -- requires a great deal of courage.
Tango is one of the most enjoyable social dance experiences of our lives. Pat and I think that we need to share it as a joyous communal celebration, not another occasion for alienation and competition. I would love to hear what you think about these ideas. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Pat at email@example.com
April 10, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. I often hear students complain that Tango is "the hardest dance they've ever had to learn." Many people who have been trying for years to make headway in Tango seem ultimately to get stuck in a non-productive rut, which they can't get themselves past. Others decide suddenly to just give up after getting frustrated with feeling as if they've just been endlessly beating their heads against a wall without getting close to achieving the kind of results they've been hoping for.
Today, I'll like to take a look at why I think all this may be so -- and possibly what might be done to make learning Tango a bit more accessible.
The first thing we all need to do is to just get real.
The fact is that learning to dance at all is -- to say the very least -- a major undertaking. I remember reading an Arthur Murray booklet on learning to dance Foxtrot in about 1953. It was one of those manuals, which contained footwork diagrams. One black shoe and one white. Remember those books? The Arthur Murray idea was that dancing was easy. Anybody could do it. Just put your feet in this or that pattern and move with the arrows. That's all there is to it!
Except, of course, that this is all little more than wishful thinking. The Murray method, based on a fanciful idea called "magic steps" fostered the belief -- persistent even today -- that learning how to dance is directly equatable to memorizing footwork patterns. Sound familiar? That's because most classes in commercial dance schools are based almost exclusively on this notion right now! And let's face it -- it just doesn't work. Why then is this paradigm still the only game in town? Because it sells the illusion that learning to dance is easy. You can have it all, and you can have it right now.
As Arthur said, "anybody can do it!"
The second thing is to forget about learning steps.
Oh no, not that! Yes, that. Most leaders live to memorize steps. They sincerely believe that this is what will make them appear to know what they're doing. Unfortunately, it actually achieves precisely the opposite effect, making them look grotesque and inept.
The third thing is to focus on learning the right stuff.
Here is where you've really got to bite the bullet, and face the fact that learning to dance Tango is going to take a while. You just can't figure it all out in ten minutes. Yes, yes, I know you want to, but you can't. Instead, your first assignment is to concentrate on learning how to balance -- balance at rest and balance in motion -- by yourself. If that idea sounds absolutely thrilling to you, it's just possible that you can turn this thing around and learn how to dance Tango. On the other hand, if balance doesn't appeal, maybe Tango isn't your thing after all.
After you've got your balance, it's lead/follow all the way to the top.
The way in which two people interact in Tango is called the lead/follow relationship or maybe the lead/follow collaboration. Since I've spend lots of time talking about this very special relationship within these pages, I'll let you find more information in the Firehouse Tango Tip of the Week archives for yourself. What's important to know here is that this is where you're going to find the focus of your learning process for, let's say, the next year or more. And, to tell you the truth, once you make a commitment to working on lead/follow. you'll be doing it for the rest of your Tango life. Every single figure you'll ever want to learn, for example, comes directly out of a solid, ongoing foundation of good lead/follow practice.
There are a great many people who finally "discover" the benefits of lead/follow technique after beating their heads against the wall for years and years. And within a very short time after they do, their Tango begins to improve. Then they often become zealots, trying to convince everyone around them that lead/follow is the only way to go. This rarely has much affect on their peers, however, since each student really has to make the discovery for himself.
In the long run, I can only stand on the sidelines and cheer you on. In my experience, no amount of coaxing from me or from any teacher will really help until you're ready to make your own commitment. And when you do -- I can practically guarantee this -- you'll be asking me why I didn't just recommend this path to you in the first place.
April 3, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In our last Tango Tip we discussed the role of the leader's torso in providing the follower with the precise information she needs to execute each step she takes in the dance. We also talked about what the leader's arms do not do, which is to push or pull the follower through any given movement. The question then becomes: What positive role do the arms actually play in leading and following the dance?
Initially, the arms form the primary dance connection -- the embrace. The leader places his right arm around the follower's torso, gently caressing the center of her back. He takes her right hand in his left, applying virtually no forward, backward, upward, or downward pressure -- just holding her hand lightly. At the same time, the follower lays her left arm on the leader's shoulder, on his upper arm, or around his back or neck -- depending in part on the body conformation of each of the partners, and on the follower's own personal preference. Her arm remains in a neutral position. At no time does she lean on the leader or use this connection for her own balance. The follower's right hand lays gently -- notice my ongoing use of the word "gently" -- in her partner's left, applying virtually no forward, backward, upward, or downward pressure against his arm.
If then there is no pressure coming from the arms of either the leader or the follower, what is the role of the arms in the dance? Simply put, the arms serve as a conduit between the leader and the follower in communicating the leader's torso movement -- the actual center of the lead. If both the leader and follower are skilled in their specific roles (as was carefully spelled out in our last Tango Tip), it is very easy for the follower to understand and execute exactly what her leader wants her to do through this apparently neutral -- but in fact extremely powerful -- connection.
In cases where either or both partners are unskilled in lead/follow technique -- and unfortunately in my observation this represents the majority of people dancing Tango today -- both leaders and followers tend to use their arms inappropriately, pushing, pulling, leaning, and otherwise making balance before and after individual movements, which, of course, is crucial to good Tango practice, virtually impossible to maintain. In fact, it has become commonplace among ill-informed, unqualified Tango teachers to actually teach their students to engage in misguided, idiosyncratic, and ultimately destructive behavior on the dance floor.
What is to be done about this situation? Will people ever do what it takes to learn good lead/follow techniques -- rather than simply making a career of amassing figures and adornments?
Your guess is as good as mine.
March 27, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the subjects I discuss quite often in this column is lead/follow. The reason for this, of course, is that good lead/follow skills make social Tango a comfortable experience right from a couple's earliest attempts, and insures success at even the most advanced levels of the dance.
Today, I want focus on a single aspect of the lead/follow mechanism, which often gets lost in even the most detailed exploration of this crucial skill set. I'm talking about the very precise movement of the leader's torso in providing the follower with an appropriate invitation to execute a given element of the dance.
As you've heard me say before, I identify six specific movements as basic to the follower's dance:
1. The pause
2. The weight change in place
3. The forward step
4. The backward step
5. The side step
6. The pivot
Tango is a dance in which what we might call "figures" ultimately comprise combinations of individual movements selected by the leader from those enumerated above. From the follower's perspective, her ability to competently read the leader's intent and to execute each of these elements is what makes it fundamentally possible for her to dance Tango.
Most dance teachers agree that the lead comes from the torso -- rather than, say, from the arms (although I am convinced that there are times when the leader's arms do indeed enhance certain complex invitations). To begin with, let me describe the various kinds of torso movement I believe are used in creating effective leads:
1. A leader can move his torso to the left or to the right while not moving through space. He does this by making what we call a weight change in place -- shifting from one lateral balance axis to the other.
2. The leader can raise or lower his torso, usually by bending slightly at the knees.
3. The leader can move his torso through space -- forward, backward, or to the side -- by first lowering slightly, then traveling from one place to another.
4. The leader can twist his torso to one side or the other.
Now, let's talk about what I teach as the specific leads for each of the above movements, and describe the role of the leader's torso in this process.
The leader does nothing. He doesn't move at all. Therefore, his torso is still. In response, the follower also remains still.
The weight change in place.
The leader shifts his weight from one balance axis to the other. In doing this, his torso moves laterally. In response to this, the follower also shifts her weight from one side to the other.
The forward step.
The leader offers a sequential series of torso movements. First, he lowers his torso slightly in order to indicate to his follower that he is about to move. Then he takes a forward step, moving his torso through space. This tells his follower which direction he wants her to take. In response, the follower moves backward one step.
The backward step.
As with a forward step, the leader lowers his torso slightly in order to indicate movement; then he moves his torso through space, this time away from his follower. She responds by taking a single forward step.
The side step.
As above, the leader lowers his torso slightly in order to indicate travel. Then he takes a step to the side. This results in his torso moving through space to the side. The follower responds by taking a single step to the side.
The leader twists his torso to the left or to the right in order to indicate one of several possible movements on the part of his follower. He may want her to rotate (pivot) for the beginning of an ocho. If she is already facing the side, having executed a pivot, he may want her to take a single step forward or backward in order to complete an ocho. In some cases, the leader's twisting action may produce a follower's side step. It may result in molinete. It may lead to boleo or to calicita. The follower's response to the twisting action of her leader's torso will depend upon what has immediately preceded this movement. Furthermore, if a follower has taken a step across the leader's front (as in completing a forward or backward ocho or perhaps a molinete, she will pivot by herself in order to bring her body into alignment with her leader.
The movement of a leader's torso is only one part of his overall skill set in providing a viable indication to his follower about precisely what he wants her to do at any given time. However, in developing your own lead/follow expertise, I believe that it is very important to concentrate on this crucial aspect of the total lead/follow communication.
March 20, 2014
Hi, everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When we dance, our Tango begins with el abrazo, the embrace. In the ideal, this initial contact between leader and follower can set the tone for a truly delightful occasion of social dance bliss. All too often, however, a badly conceived, badly formed embrace can be the start of a very uncomfortable -- sometimes even traumatic -- four minutes from hell. In our Tango Tip today, we'll focus on how to insure that both leaders and followers understand how to form an embrace -- and how to use it properly --in order to create an intimate and fulfilling dance experience.
We'll begin by addressing a commonly held notion that in the social dance relationship the leader controls, and the follow submits. Okay, if two complete neophytes try Tango (or any other social dance) for the first time, this "Me Tarzan, You Jane" attitude might well prevail. The leader grabs his follower, pulling her close to him; she leans on him, totally off balance, and expects to be thrown around the dance floor like a rag doll. Sound like fun?
Of course, even the most rudimentary instruction by a competent teacher quickly dispels this misguided nonsense -- as the couple ultimately becomes aware that the dance collaboration is far more complex and subtle than they may first have thought. Let's now describe what two well-informed, well-trained dancers actually do in order to make certain that their embrace is the beginning of a memorable Tango experience and not a forgettable disaster.
1. He approaches his follower. (In Argentina, this process is, of course, far more elaborate and ritualistic, and steeped in a unique, well-established social tradition. But in the United States, we generally abbreviate this "coming together" to a large extent -- although by doing so, many dancers believe that the romance of this moment is thereby negated.)
2. When he is close enough to his follower, the leader encircles the center of her back with his right arm, placing his hand gently in the middle of her back. He does not draw her forward, pulling her off balance onto her toes.
3. At more or less the same time, the leader takes the follower's right hand in his left without squeezing, and without pushing or pulling in any way.
1. Having accepted his invitation to dance, the follower permits the leader to form the embrace. As he places his right arm around her back, the follower places her left arm gently on his shoulder, or around his back. In doing this, she makes certain that she maintains her own "frame," and that she does not in any way lean on the leader.
2. She takes his offered left hand in her right, again making sure that this arm maintains its own weight, and that it doesn't become necessary for him to have to hold her arm up.
3. The follower makes certain that she does not squeeze her leader's hand, or use it to maintain her balance.
Both the leader's and follower's arms and hands remain "neutral" throughout the ensuing dance. Movements are led by the raising and lowering -- and at times the twisting -- of the leader's torso. Occasionally in "advanced" figures, one or both of the leader's hands or arms may be used to enhance a complex invitation. But this does not pertain to fundamental leading skill, and therefore I won't describe it here.
The ultimate goal of what I have described above is to promote comfort and balance during the dance. In order to be a good social dancer, you should consider working on these ideas with your teacher. In the meantime, Pat or I will be very happy to answer any questions you might have on the subject.
March 13, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I'd like to talk about my favorite Tango subject -- lead/follow. This mechanism is the means through which two people are able to get around the dance floor in social Tango. When lead/follow is executed with knowledge and skill, the dance can be a very easy and comfortable experience. Conversely, when one or both of the partners does not understand how to do their jobs, the dance can be disastrous.
The common misconception about lead/follow in social dancing -- we see this all the time -- is that the follower drapes herself on her partner, who, in turn, pushes and pulls her around the floor. Thousands of social dancers today think of this as lead/follow. Leading is conceived as an aggressive, controlling act of literally carrying the follower around the dance floor. Following is thought of as a passive, submissive response to being carried. Alternatively, an unskilled and uninformed couple may sometimes view the lead/follow relationship as a battle for control in which either the physically or psychologically stronger partner will ultimately prevail.
In fact, lead/follow is neither of these crude mechanisms. Quite to the contrary, what we sometimes refer to as "the lead/follow collaboration" requires a very high degree of knowledge, skill, awareness and patience on the part of both participants in order to be successful. In Tango, the entire dance is defined by the execution of single, discrete movements -- rather than by continuous sequences. This means that both leader and follower concentrate their focus on what happens from the beginning to the end of every step -- as if each movement represented the whole dance.
To be more specific, let me break a given movement down -- we'll use the example of a step to the side -- into its three fundamental parts:
(We could break actually any given step down even further, but these three parts will suffice for our discussion of lead/follow.)
In order to initiate or lead the side step the leader employs a very specific, very "readable" bit of body language in order to communicate to his follower exactly what he wants her to do. He lowers his torso slightly by flexing at the knees, and follows this by beginning to move his body sideways through space. The lowering action tells his follower that he's about to move somewhere through space, and that he's inviting her to do the same. The direction which his body then takes tells her where he would like her to travel.
This is where the lead ends.
(There are, of course, specific leads for each basic movement in the dance, including forward and backward steps as well as weight changes in place, pauses and pivots. I have described these in other Tango Tips, and so I won't go into them here.)
Part two of the step is the traveling action. Once the follower has been invited to move, she travels through space by herself. The leader does not carry her through the movement as many couples think. Instead, he leaves her alone, and (in the case of our example) he takes a side step of his own in order to accompany her.
Part three of the step is the balancing. In our example, both leader and follower have traveled through space on their own after the lead or invitation has been offered and accepted. At the end of the step both now bring themselves into balance individually -- without in any way relying on the other to help out. This is the moment in executing the step where a very high degree of skill is necessary on the part of both leader and follower. Bringing oneself into balance at the end of a movement is difficult enough, when one is doing it alone. Balancing in the context of the embrace can be extremely challenging for the couple in collaboration.
One of the things that is important to notice in the above description is that the lead in any given movement occurs right in the beginning; i.e., in Part 1, but does not carry through to the end of the step. Once the leader has made the invitation, each of the partners executes Parts 2 and 3 of the step by themselves. You may remember that in a previous Tango Tip I quoted Carlos Gavito as having said, "I lead, then I follow." I would add, "And finally, we balance."
If you've been able to understand my somewhat lengthy and detailed explanation of what I believe occurs in the skilled lead/follow collaboration, you can easily see how this differs from the uninformed perception of people who are new to social Tango, who haven't studied sufficiently, or who have adopted one of the many idiosyncratic fads which keep cropping up in this continually evolving dance.
If you would like to experience maximum comfort and optimum flexibility in your Tango, work with your teacher on making lead/follow a priority in your studies. You'll find that once you have this unique skill under your belt, your Tango will become much closer to what you want it to be.
March 6, 2014
Hello, everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the week. In Tango, one of the most difficult concepts to assimilate is how to lead and follow. This is a crucial skill set that most dancers find to be quite illusive. In fact, I would speculate that the majority of leaders who don't lead appropriately really have no idea that they're not doing it right. Nor do followers who aren't doing their part in what I would say is the "correct" way know that they have a problem. Learning to lead and follow in the right way generally calls for months -- sometimes years -- of hands-on interaction between the teacher and student. For this reason, a great many Tango students -- even those who are involved in taking private instruction -- prefer to focus on memorized steps. They feel that steps are far easier to approach, and that if they have enough repertoire, they'll appear as if they know how to dance.
Once dancers who are willing to work hard finally find themselves in that rarified atmosphere in which they understand lead/follow, they almost always look back on their former inclination to focus on steps as largely a distraction and pretty much a waste of valuable time. When that happens, students will sometimes say to me, "Why didn't you just tell me how important lead/follow is?" That's when I feel like saying, "Let's go to the videotape. That's all I've been saying!" Instead, I smile graciously, and look forward to a stiff drink.
As I write this Tango Tip, I am well aware that talking about lead and follow -- trying to somehow articulate in words what it is and how to make it happen -- is virtually impossible. But I recently recalled something that my friend Carlos Gavito said to me years ago about the subject, and which I now want to share with you.
He said, "I invite ... then I follow."
My initial response to what I took to be a rather elliptical statement was, "Huh? What's he talking about?" It took me quite a while to figure out what Carlos was saying, because at the time I was still trying to dance Tango as if it were another ballroom dance like Foxtrot or Waltz -- in other words, an extension of the skills I already possessed.
But eventually Carlos Gavito's words began to sink in. Here's what I now think he meant. I'll break it down into two parts:
1. In the lead/follow dynamic of Tango everything occurs in a single step. I don't initiate continuous sequences the way I would in ballroom dancing. I lead -- or invite -- single, individual movements, each of which has its own beginning, middle and end. By stringing together these discrete elements, I create or improvise a dance. (In my own pedagogical approach to Tango, many of you who are reading this will know that I have developed a very specific way to invite each of six basic movements, but that is a subject for another time.)
2. Once I have led or invited a single movement, I give my follower an opportunity to execute and complete that movement -- to bring herself into balance -- so that she is therefore ready for the next invitation I might choose to give her. Rather than carrying her through this movement, I allow her to execute it by herself. In choosing to accompany what she does, I actually follow her as she travels through space, and eventually achieves balance at the end of the step.
"I invite ... then I follow."
I know that this may be difficult to grasp, but if it makes any sense to you, please do yourself a favor and give it a try. Most of us have an idea of lead and follow that is far too aggressive/submissive -- what I sometimes refer to as "Tarzan/Jane" dancing. If instead, you can start to invite and follow as a leader, if you can receive an invitation and have the chance to respond, travel, and balance as a follower, I guarantee that your dancing will enter a new and far more comfortable dimension.
If you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to ask Pat or me for help at any time.
February 27, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. A student of mine approached me at my weekly practica last Saturday with what she described as a "delicate dilemma." She told me that one or two of the leaders with whom she generally enjoys dancing had arrived wearing some sort of cologne or after-shave, which she said "reeked to high heaven."
"I just couldn't dance with them," she reported. "Whatever it was that these guys had on made my eyes hurt, and my nose run, and caused me to sneeze all the time I was anywhere near them. I felt that I couldn't find the right words to say anything to them, but to be honest, I just had to walk away."
I've heard this same complaint more than once in the past -- not only from followers, but also from leaders who were put off by their follower's perfume or other kind of scent. There are lots of people who just don't react well to lotions, powders, colognes, after-shaves, perfumes, strong deodorants, or other kinds of applied scents -- no matter how well intentioned they might be. I don't know whether it has to do with allergies, with the chemicals that are currently being used in these products, or simply with personal preferences -- but more and more of us are asking that these substances be kept away.
There's no doubt that we're all concerned with wanting to present ourselves in public as fresh, clean, and inoffensive to others. And it's certainly true that a touch of scent may seem to be appropriate in certain social situations. However, as a general rule of thumb, I would recommend limiting the use of products such as those listed above to occasions other than dancing. I know from my own experience that if I'm dancing with someone, it increases my need to breathe more deeply -- and the last thing I want at such times is to be continuously inhaling the smell of perfume, cologne or body lotion no matter how pleasant such an aroma might otherwise be during other social circumstances.
And as to getting the odor on my clothes ... no thank you!
What do you think about my student's "delicate dilemma?" Pat and I would love to have your opinion. You can discuss it with us in person at the next Firehouse Tango event, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, we'd be very pleased to hear from you.
February 20, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Two weeks ago, I discussed (not for the first time) the importance of maintaining a more or less consistent flow around the dance floor as a primary responsibility of being a skilled social dancer. (This is usually referred to as maintaining the line of dance, and you can read more about it in last week's Tango Tip.) Today, I want to focus on another important skill, which is related to maintaining the line of dance. It involves how we occupy space on the dance floor.
While attending a milonga recently, Pat and I encountered what I like to call a "Tango clown;" i.e., a rude, obnoxious, self-absorbed wanna-be who not only dances badly, but seems to be convinced that he's the only person in the room. The Tango clown in question had his left arm thrust out to the side like a fullback who might at any time straight-arm anyone within reach, he and his partner were dancing in a constant leaning position called a puente or carpa -- which increased their footprint by a factor of ten -- and they were barreling around the floor as if no one else had any business being on the same planet, much less the same room.
Do you recognize the description? Have you met up with people like this on the dance floor? Do we suffer from all too many of these anti-social menaces in our Tango community? As Billy Crystal would say, don't get me started.
In any event, our subject today is how to appropriately occupy space on the social dance floor. In general, this means that the leader has to keep his left arm in a position where he's not in danger of inflicting bodily harm on other dancers, he has to keep his steps down to a size that don't hurtle the couple into other people's spaces, and he has to avoid flying randomly and dangerously all over the room. At the same time, his follower -- if she likes to use adornment to punctuate her dance -- has to be acutely aware of how such movements may affect people around her. For example, elaborate planeos, amagues, and high back kicks during boleo need to be attempted only when there's plenty of space in which to incorporate them into the dance safely.
Dancing social Tango can be lots of fun. And for many of us, showing off once in a while certainly adds to the enjoyment of the overall experience. But please -- please -- no matter what happens, try to avoid becoming a Tango clown. We have too many of those people around already.
Cat’s Away Milongas and Gourmet Feasts are approaching!
Hello everyone, Pat here. As you will have seen on Thursday, the Cat's Away poster is back! That can mean only one thing – it’s time to play CHEF!! Please mark your calendars for March 20 and March 27 for the 2014 Cat’s Away Milongas. What's different this year is that there are no Cats who are away...we are all here, including Sue and Joe, and are ready to start cooking! For those of you who are new to Firehouse during the last year, these two evenings are traditionally held when our cool cats, Joe and Sue (collectively referred to as one in our title) are taking their trip to Buenos Aires, and the rest of us mice create sumptuous dishes good enough for a 4-star restaurant. This year, the trip is not happening till November, but that’s no reason not to have our special feasts—they’re just too much fun!
We will bring the poster each week from now on so there's plenty of time to consider what you will bring. We'll need appetizers, entrees, salads and desserts-- so start reviewing your best recipes and plan to join the banquet brigade! If you'd like to sign up via email, contact Fran at email@example.com, or me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
February 6, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the primary disciplines that we all absolutely must incorporate into our dancing right from the beginning is that of maintaining the line of dance. And yet, this crucially important practice seems to completely elude so many American dancers that we find ourselves talking about it again and again -- usually with very little positive result. Today, I'd like to talk about why I think this problem persists, and possibly how each of us can do our part in trying to fix it.
The concept of maintaining the line of dance is very direct in its simplest form:
Tango is traditionally defined by progressive movement; i.e., people moving counterclockwise around a dance floor more or less continuously. This well-established convention enables a group of dancers to interact predictably and comfortably while navigating a crowded room.
The problem with this concept is that in order to maintain line of dance with absolute certainty, all the leaders in the room would have to agree to do nothing more than continually walk forward, while all the followers would continually move backward, nobody would be able to stop or slow down, and giving in to any kind of individual creative impulse would be virtually impossible.
How would that way of dancing Tango work for you? It sure wouldn't work for me.
Let's say that I had been born and raised in Buenos Aires (rather than Brooklyn). Let's say that my initial introduction to Tango involved going to a social dance with family or friends. Okay, given those circumstances, it's possible that I might have been very pleased to learn the more gentle art of social dancing -- in order to do what my friends were doing. In order to be a part of the social swim. I mean, all my buddies would know that nobody in Argentina does stage stuff on the social dance floor, right? It's just unheard of. (Ahem ....)
Anyway, getting back to the ideal world, like most Americans, my first exposure to Tango was watching people dancing on stage. It just took my breath away. I fell hopelessly in love. I became instantly hooked. I thought, "I want to look like those guys. Get me a teacher now!"
So, what if my teacher had said, "Okay we're going to learn to walk around the room non-stop without ever doing any of the fancy stuff." I'm sure my response would have been, "I want another teacher." Or maybe, "Oh yeah? Well, I quit!"
Have I spelled out the dilemma I, you, we, face? Strict, one-note, robot-like, rat-in-the-maze social dancing versus the unbridled ecstasy of the stage?
Of course, this way of thinking is ridiculous. Yet many, if not most, students in America seem to find themselves caught up in this unrealistic fantasy. They approach learning Tango as an exercise in accumulating -- and dancing -- as many elaborate stage sequences as possible, while completely neglecting the less dramatic -- but crucially important -- elements of basic movement within the social dance. Because their focus is exclusively on displaying their own prowess, they tend to disrupt -- if not completely destroy -- the line of dance. Quite often, they actually place themselves and their peers in danger.
Does this describe you? I myself have certainly been guilty of such breaches of the delicate social dance contract from time to time.
Ultimately, I think that what we need on the social dance floor is compromise. Yes, of course, it's fine to get all excited about learning all that material we see on stage, on YouTube, and in lessons with the "stars." As skilled social dancers, however, we have to find a way to integrate such material into a well-practiced habit of taking care of everyone around us.
We know that the norm is to maintain a consistent line of dance. So that idea has to sit front and center in our consciousness as a primary goal, whenever we find ourselves on the dance floor. Our ongoing challenge will be to pick just the right moment, when we feel that it's safe to introduce a complex element into the mix. Sometimes, it will work. At other times, we'll have to abort a particular sequence in order to maintain our first responsibility - the comfort and safety of other people in the room.
Does this sound like a plan? Let's all try it, and see whether maintaining the line of dance as a primary goal makes things better for everyone on the dance floor.
January 30, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. You may remember that last week we began a discussion about some of the profound differences between the American/European Ballroom tradition and Argentine Tango. I want to continue that discussion today by describing what my own process on the dance floor has become over time as a result of learning and eventually emulating what I believe to be the Argentine way of dancing.
I spoke last week about the idea of reducing my concentration to a single step. What I mean by this is that when I dance Tango today, I find that I no longer think in terms of cobbling together an endless series of memorized and practiced sequences -- which, by the way, I used to do as a matter of course. Now, I try as best I can to stay absolutely in the moment, focusing on what is happening between my follower and me during every individual step we take together:
Here I am on this dance floor with these people around me, and this music playing. I'm dancing with this particular follower, whom I'm trying to provide with the optimum lead so that every single movement I ask her to make will be as easy and as comfortable as possible. I'll try leading a side step (or any of the fundamental elements of the dance). As I do this, I'll pay very close attention to her in order to make sure she's responding in the way I'm asking her to. If my lead isn't working, I'll try to figure out why, and maybe be able to fix it so that we can both continue our dance in comfort. At the end of every individual step, I'll attempt to bring myself into balance before leading the next element -- and at the same time I'll try to make sure I haven't done anything that makes it difficult or impossible for my follower to bring herself into balance as well. However, I won't try to "help" her balance by attempting to control her. I'll try to remember throughout this complex ongoing process that initiating movement is my job. Executing any individual step and balancing at the end of it belongs to each of us individually.
Whew! That's lot to chew on, isn't it? And it all happens with every step I take. Well ... most of the time, anyway.
The other side of the equation is that in order to make all this work appropriately, I have to be dancing with a follower who is trying to do the same thing I'm attempting to do. The skill of following is every bit as complex and every bit as demanding as that of leading. Ultimately, the success of my process depends on how skillfully my follower is able to do her part.
I think that a very important thing for you to try in your own dancing -- at least some of the time -- is this concentration on what happens during and at the end of a single step. I strongly believe that if you can narrow your focus to the success of each element, your dancing will improve significantly over time, and your ability to execute even the most complex sequences will be greatly enhanced.
Give it a try.
January 23, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Most of us who are involved in American Ballroom, Latin and Swing dancing today tend to think about dance movement in steps or figures; i.e., continuous multi-step sequences in which a leader guides his follower through a series of elements from beginning to end -- after which he then starts the whole process over by inviting yet another memorized sequence. This is how we approach social dance in this country. If we ask a friend to show us how it's done, he/she shows us a "step." If we take lessons in a more formal setting (a dance school, for example), we learn lots of "steps." Dancing means steps. The more steps we know, the better dancers we are.
In Tango, we try not to think this way. Well, in fact, most of us in America really do think exactly this way -- that is, until some pesky teacher comes along and tells us that unlike Ballroom dancing, Tango is a dance which occurs in increments of one step. That's right, the teacher says, one step.
Okay, what does this mean? (We're curious about this different way of thinking about dance, right? We really want to know what makes Tango unique, don't we?)
In Tango, the teacher says, we improvise rather than memorize the steps we invite as leaders. In theory, at least, this means that we make them all up as we go along. Which brings us to the idea of one step -- or maybe we could say one step at a time. In Tango, when I lead my follower to take a step to the side, for example, I don't necessarily have a predetermined game plan about what I want her to do next. I may then invite a back step, a forward step, or maybe an ocho. It might just be a pause. Instead of relying on memorized sequences, I allow my skill as a leader along with my moment-to-moment creativity to guide my choices.
Now let's pause for a little reality check. Let's ask the question: Is this the way all the great milongueros in Argentina dance? Ultimately, I think the answer is: yes and no. Every milonguero has his favorite figuras, which he likes to lead again and again. He may consider these his signature steps. Or he may repeat such figures over and over out of habit, just the way all of us tend to do. But at least part of the time -- maybe even most of the time -- the milonguero most likely improvises. That's what good Tango dancers do.
When I became aware of the profound difference which exists between American social dancing and Tango in what we'll call its purest form -- this idea of moving in small, improvised increments of one step at a time rather than stringing large, memorized sequences together -- I found that in order to accommodate what for me was an entirely new way to dance, I had to significantly overhaul my previous notions about lead and follow in social dance. Next week, I will continue this discussion by attempting to define specifically how I think about and teach lead/follow in Tango. I'll also talk more about how the individual roles of leader and follower virtually define how Tango is danced. In the meantime, I'd love hear what you think about the subject. If you'd like, you can email me at email@example.com.
See you next week.
January 16, 2014
Hello, everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Whenever you walk out onto the dance floor with your partner, what is it that you find yourself thinking about? Is your mind a blank? Or maybe you're thinking, "I'm looking forward to dancing with him/her." Or perhaps, "I can't wait to try this new step/adornment I just learned." Today. I'd like to suggest a few of the other things you might consider thinking about in your Tango dancing this year.
When we dance socially -- unless we're alone on the floor -- we take on several obligations to which we need to pay attention in order to enjoy the optimum dance experience. If you're a leader, your first responsibility, of course, is to the comfort, wellbeing and pleasure of your follower. If you're a follower, your primary obligation is to focus on and execute in a balanced way what your leader is asking you to do with each movement he invites.
But let's talk about some other important considerations. One of these is the music. When we dance -- in fact, the reason we dance -- is to move to music. The music inspires us to respond to it, and to a large extent dictates the tempo and rhythm we'll use. For some people, moving confidently and creatively with the cadence of a piece of music is very easy. For others -- usually relative beginners, but sometimes people who have been dancing for many years -- it can be very difficult. This could be your year to explore with your teacher how to finally overcome any rhythm block you might be experiencing. This will make your Tango much more enjoyable both for you and your partners.
Dancing is a social skill. The implication of this is that when we dance, we need to realize that we're actually interacting not only with our immediate partner, but with all of the other people on the dance floor. What does this mean? First of all, it means that it's crucial for you to observe the conventions of movement on the dance floor. Keep moving counterclockwise along the line of dance, shift slightly to the center, whenever you plan to do something in place in order to leave the outside lane open for those who are continuing to travel. And never back up against the line of dance -- unless a single step backward is absolutely necessary to avoid a disaster. (In such a case, make certain you're not going to step on someone who may be immediately behind you before you make that potentially dangerous move.) Beyond all this, don't bump into people, don't scare them by flamboyant movements which threaten to invade their space, and -- if there is an accident of some kind -- say you're sorry! In fact, I even apologize, when someone bumps into me. That way, we all stay friends.
Finally, let's talk about stage-oriented dance steps/adornments. All of us love to show off the latest hot stuff we've just picked up from a teacher or, heaven help us, from YouTube. The problem with such material, however, is that it necessitates shifting our concentration more or less radically to the process of getting ourselves through complex -- and potentially dangerous -- figures. Such material is almost never improvisational and therefore almost always lies well outside the realm of good social dance practice. Okay, okay, you think I'm trying to spoil all your fun. That's not my intention. I want you to incorporate a few fancy steps into your Tango. Truth to tell, many of you have learned some of these figures from Pat and me. Just keep them under control, and try to focus primarily on social dance.
Does this give you a few things to chew on? Pat and I hope so, and we look forward to helping you go as far as you want in your Tango this year.
January 9, 2014
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Do you like to learn new Tango figures? Most leaders that I know do. Just as most followers that I know just love to look for more elaborate adornments to spice up their dance. And where do we go for our inspiration? YouTube, that's where! These days, you can find pretty much anything you want in the way of Tango material on YouTube. Just pick a dancer -- or a particular style -- kick back, and watch your favorite Tango luminary deliver step after step, adornment after adornment all day and all night.
A question that comes up here, of course, is: "Can anybody actually learn anything this way?"
I spend a fair amount of time myself on YouTube, searching for various kinds of Tango figures, movements, and adornments to learn, to teach, or just to become familiar with -- because this is not only my passion, it's also the way I earn a living.
With this in mind, I want to give you a window into my own learning process with such material.
Let's say I find a figure which impresses me, and which I decide to learn. The first thing I do is just watch it unfold at least ten times to see how the sequence flows from one element to another. Next, I carefully watch the follower's movements. I want to determine here whether she's doing anything during the sequence that I feel simply cannot be led. (Since most of what we see on YouTube consists of professional performers, dancing choreographically, many of the sequences created for performance may work fine on stage, but just can't be done in an improvisational context.)
Once I've made a judgment that the follower's part of the sequence can, in fact, be led, I focus on the individual leader's techniques involved in executing the figure. Are these elements already in my own repertoire, or will I have to spend time attempting to bring myself up to speed on one or more individual skills -- before I can approach the figure as a whole.
To give you an example: When I first started trying to learn figures which involved a complex technique called enrosque, I found that I first had to spend several weeks, learning how to actually perform this very difficult movement itself -- before I could even begin to use it in the context of the figures I wanted to learn.
Once I've more or less mastered the individual skill(s) I need, I work my way through the elements of the figure I'm trying to learn. I memorize it, of course, so that I can visualize the individual movements it contains. Then, I perform my part many times, to make certain I can physically handle it. As I do this, I try to recall exactly what it is that my follower will be doing with me.
Now, comes the difficult part. As mentioned above, by this time I have a kind of outline of what my follower will be doing. At this point I have to focus on how to lead each of her individual elements so that she'll be able to perform the sequence comfortably as an improvisation -- rather than as a choreographed figure. You may remember from taking classes with me that I offer a very specific way of leading any given element of the dance (including forward, side, back, in-place, pause and pivot). I will now use these basic techniques myself in developing the components of the lead which I'll be using.
Note: A problem I might encounter here, if I were teaching my sequence in a dance class situation, is that most of the followers in the room would almost certainly be able to memorize their part very quickly. This would result in my leaders not really having to actually lead at all -- because my followers wouldn't really be following. (This is always a problem with dance classes in general.)
One of the great advantages of being a dance teacher -- here comes one of the secrets of why we get good at leading -- is that I can now practice leading the sequence with my students! What a concept! They have no idea what I'm going to do next, so I have to lead everything. This is "earn as you learn" at it’s most effective (from my perspective, that is.) Everybody wins!
Once I've been able to comfortably lead several followers in the one-on-one practice situation, the next step is to try the sequence on the dance floor -- either in a practica, or, with somewhat greater risk, during a milonga. Eventually, I'll pretty much own the sequence. It will become part of my repertoire. I know what individual elements it contains, and, more importantly, I know how to lead them effectively.
Now, my question to you is: "What process do you go through in learning an individual sequence from YouTube, or maybe some other source?" In particular, "How much time and effort do you devote to learning how to lead the sequence?" In my opinion, this is the part that really makes the difference between an accomplished dancer and one whose improvisational skills just aren't up to par. If you decide to make a commitment this year to really getting good -- and I hope you will -- your first step will be to find yourself a teacher who has the ability and the perseverance to help you get there. Your next step will be to get in there and work.
Happy New Year, and Happy Tango for 2014!