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.
October 19, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Have you been studying Tango for a year or more, and you wish you could start improving more quickly? Even if you’ve been taking dance lessons on a regular basis, by this time you may have come to believe that real improvement is just never going to happen.
Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone. Learning anything at all can be a very difficult task, (especially as we get older — sorry about that). And learning Argentine Tango can often feel like nothing short of an insurmountable challenge. With that in mind, I’d like to offer two ideas, which might help you in your quest to get better faster. The first will suggest an alternative approach to your studies; the second (which we’ll actually talk about next week) will involve taking a vacation.
Okay, here we go with your Tango lessons.
By the way: if you’re NOT taking regular lessons, you might as well save yourself the trouble of reading the rest of this Tango Tip. Take a deep breath, and face the fact that you’re NOT serious about learning Tango. That’s no biggie. Just start considering other options. Binge eating, all-night TV marathons, parcheesi — you’ve got lots of exciting possibilities available to you for endless thrills and chills.
Now, back to serious people who are committed to taking dance lessons. Here’s the deal. Your teacher introduces a concept — let’s say, executing a single, integrated, balanced step forward. What??? Taking a step forward? “C’mon, anybody can do that,” you snort. “Let’s get to the good stuff.”
Beeeeeep! You have just failed the learning process test. The two evil dragons of impatience and arrogance have made it impossible for you to move forward in your Tango studies. Don’t worry. Parcheesi can really be fun, if you apply yourself.
All right, let’s start again. Your teacher lays the forward step concept on you. You roll your eyes. But you’ve decided to trust that the teacher has a purpose in proposing this apparently innocuous, consummately trifling task. You do what the teacher asks. After maybe a few unsuccessful attempts, it works. IT WORKS! The teacher smiles, awards you a gold star, and exclaims, “Okay, let’s move ahead.”
No beep. You have now passed the learning process test. You have allowed a crucial, foundational increment of the process to find its way into your system, into your muscle memory, into your life. Secretly, you wish such step-by-arduous-step drudgery was not necessary; but you have come to recognize that you absolutely need this (yes, I know, I know) mind-numbing torture in order to eventually reach the promised land.
You sigh; you swear off YouTube; you reluctantly accede to suffering the endless rigors of the no-kidding-around learning process. And what happens? You begin to learn stuff. Whoa! I mean, you find out that the process actually works. Look, ma, I got this!
Meanwhile, others around you (lots and lots of them) have eschewed all this mishegas. They have cut to the chase. And the result? Well, what do you know — it seems they can’t dance. Check these lost, misguided souls out. They can’t dance! Not now, not ever. They will continually be caught in the vortex of beeeeeeeeep! And until they figure out how to escape this hell-on-earth standstill dead end (reread the above epiphany about the process), nothing will change.
Nothing will change.
But not you, my friend. You’re in the process. You’re convinced. Nirvana is within touching and tasting range. And trust me, you will learn how to dance Tango.
Next week, we’ll talk about taking that well-earned vacation.
October 12, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Here’s a question you might not expect to hear in the context of a Tango Tip: Do you really want to learn how to dance Tango? Seems like a silly question, right? Let’s say that you’re currently involved in some kind of Tango activity — a basic class, an occasional private lesson, a workshop or two, a little collection of YouTube links; maybe you come regularly to our Firehouse pre-party class — we should be able to assume that you have at least a passing interest in learning Tango.
Does that sound about right?
If you’re like most people, however, you’re having a tough time getting anywhere with what now seems like a very difficult project. You might even feel that when it comes down to it, you’re actually going nowhere fast. (In fact, one of the most common questions students ask Pat and me is: “Why is Tango the hardest dance I’ve ever tried to learn?”)
I’d like to offer one of the reasons you feel this way. It’s by no means the only reason, by the way, but it’s a singular fact that you need to face right now: It may be that you really don’t want to learn how to dance Tango.
That’s right. What you really want is to know how to dance Tango.
You see people on the dance floor making these really exciting moves, and you want to be able to do those things yourself. “Show me that step,” you say. “Oh, and that one, too. I mean, they can do it; why not me?”
You go to a basic class. The teacher is talking about walking. “No, no, no,” you think. “I want steps. Let’s cut to the chase, and get to the good stuff. I can figure out the walking part later. I’ll just skip the basic, boring class and opt for the advanced moves. That’s what I want.”
Do you recognize yourself in this picture? Yes, that’s you! Do you get the idea? You want to know how to dance Tango. But you really don’t want to learn.
The problem here is that you’re trying to find a shortcut. (Oh, how we all love shortcuts.) In your very, very optimistic fantasy scenario, you have yourself comfortably convinced that you can just “pick up” the material without first dealing with the underlying skills and techniques that make it work. People say it’s not possible, but you know better. Unlike the rest of the world, you’ve got what it takes to fast-track your way past the small stuff.
Except, of course, that you don’t.
Knowing Tango — which is the goal — happens by means of learning Tango. Knowing is the end result (for most of us somewhere in the distant future). Learning is the very specific, very intense process by which we hope to eventually get there.
So … we come back to the question we asked at the beginning: Do you really want to learn how to dance Tango? The next time you blow off a chance to come into a basic class, and choose the advanced class instead, ask yourself that question. Really ask yourself: “Do I want to know, or do I want to learn?”
And while you’re at it, take a deep breath and try to remember: If you learn, you can eventually arrive at knowing. If you opt for knowing without learning, you might as well eat, drink and be merry, brothers and sisters — because there’s no Tango for you tomorrow.
October 5, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we talked about one of the principal difficulties that follower encounter, when dancing Tango — what I referred to as “anticipation.” Today, I’m going to address what I think is an almost universal problem for leaders — what I’ll call “assumption.”
Assumption is the expectation on the part of the leader — almost always completely unconscious — that a he has properly lead a Tango movement or sequence, when, in fact, he hasn’t.
For example: The leader decides to launch himself and his partner into an elaborate sequence he recently (more or less) memorized from YouTube. As he makes his first move, his follower freezes, then bravely does her best to determine what he’s asking her to do. She stumbles. He shoves. The sequence falls apart. He starts berating her about what he says she’s “supposed to be doing.” Somehow, she thinks the entire disastrous encounter must be her fault.
Does all this sound familiar? Followers, none of this has been your fault at all. The real culprit has been the leader’s assumption that you know exactly what he wants you to do in advance, when, in fact, you don’t.
How could you?
Leaders, let me ask you the question: How could she know? Can she read your mind? I don’t think so. Could it be that you didn’t give her the appropriate lead to execute what you wanted her to do? That you made the unconscious assumption she’d naturally be able to do whatever you wanted by some act of magic?
Yes, I think that may be the answer to our dilemma. In fact, the problem of “assumption” is so prevalent among leaders of social Tango — at least, here in this country — that it seems to be practically chronic. The leader knows what he wants; why shouldn’t his follower?
Let’s cut to the chase. The way for a leader to overcome the problem of assumption is to finally bite the bullet, and learn how to lead. Proper application of the lead/follow mechanism is the magic formula, which makes it possible for the follower to know pretty much exactly what the leader wants her to do from moment to moment in the dance.
The major stumbling block here is, of course, that learning how to lead isn’t easy. It takes lots of time, effort, and commitment to accomplish. And, to tell you the truth, it feels kind of, dare I say, boring. There’s no instant gratification involved. Just what amounts to often tedious, repetitive hard work and meticulous practice over a fairly long period of time.
Who wants that?
Well, let me be the first to tell you: the one and only way you’re going to eventually be a decent Tango dancer is to do whatever it takes to become a skilled leader. Nothing else will eliminate the problem of assumption — not wishful thinking, not accumulating hundreds of fancy figures, and certainly not asking your follower to read you mind every time you want her to execute a dance step.
Lead/follow expertise is the answer. Please make up your mind to start learning lead/follow now.
Anyone remember me saying that in the past? A million times or so?
September 28, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we introduced the idea that there are certain problems in dancing social Tango, which are specific to one of the two partners, but not necessarily the other. In the case of followers, a typical problem of this type is anticipation.
Anticipation can be defined as initiating, or attempting to initiate, a movement, which hasn’t been led. Most followers experience this difficulty in their dancing from time to time. Usually, it goes like this: A follower experiences the overwhelming intuition/expectation that her leader is about to invite a specific movement in the dance. It might be a traveling step, a weight change in place, a pivot — it could be anything at all. The situation often involves something, which flows logically out of what has come immediately before. If the follower is a relative beginner — or even if she’s a seasoned dancer, but anxious or distracted — she may succumb to anticipating a movement, which the leader had no intention of inviting. This might involve a momentary extension (and then apologetic retraction) of her leg. It might even involve a complete, un-led step.
Let’s assume for the moment that the leader is not in some unconscious (or thoughtless) way provoking the follower’s anticipated movement. The way for her to overcome the problem of anticipation in her dance begins with becoming fully aware of the complimentary roles played in social dance lead/follow:
The leader knows in advance what’s coming next; the follower literally has no idea what’s about to happen.
One might conclude that this puts the follower at a distinct disadvantage in the social Tango relationship. Yes, I think this would certainly be true, if the leader has no clue about his role in creating the conditions of movement from moment to moment. However, for now at least, we’re making the assumption that he does indeed know how to lead, and has complete respect for his follower’s skill in responding appropriately.
If we take the above as a given, I believe that there are several complimentary qualities/skills, which the follower needs to develop in order to minimize any inclination to move on her own.
The first of these elements is confidence. By building a strong sense of confidence within herself over time that she does indeed possess the necessary proficiency to dance Tango, she opens the door to minimizing anxiety and actually being able to consistently execute at a high level.
In my opinion, developing such confidence comes directly from study, practice, plus the right kind of encouragement.
Balance at rest — stasis
The next element of importance involves the follower’s ability to recognize the crucial moment of balanced, unimpeded “stasis” in her dance. “Am I standing in a comfortable place (almost certainly on one foot) with the potential to easily execute any possible single movement, which the leader might choose to invite?”
I think of this as “the moment of truth” in social Tango —the moment in which the follower is ready for whatever may be invited in the next instant, because she is not being pressured by her leader to do anything at all.
With these qualities/skills at her disposal, the follower is now in an ideal position to respond appropriately to a legitimate invitation — while ignoring, or at least fighting hard against, any sudden urges she might have to move on her own. Because her confidence is high, and her starting point is a powerful sense of balance at rest, she is now fully prepared to apply the indispensable element of concentration to the lead/follow situation.
Social Tango — you must realize this by now — is a very intense lead/follow experience. There is simply no way to half-consciously wander through the motions. As a follower, you cannot hang on passively to your partner, and expect to be carried along as if in a dream. You might wish for such a thing to occur in a romanticized misinterpretation of the actual Tango relationship, but things just don’t work that way.
In theory, the experienced, highly skilled leader (your partner) is working very, very hard to provide you with everything you need during any given moment to respond to his invitations, to achieve balance, and to set up the appropriate conditions for his next invitation. Should you be blessed with having such a leader as your partner, it now becomes your job to fully commit to the intense, ongoing concentration necessary to complete the conditions of this complimentary relationship moment by moment.
If you can do this, I’m certain that anticipating movement will soon become a thing of the past in your dancing.
week, we’ll turn to some of the difficulties leaders encounter on a regular
September 21, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If I ask leaders what they consider their number one problem on the social dance floor, most would immediately respond: “Followers who can’t follow!” If I ask followers the same question, they would usually counter with — you guessed it — “Leaders who can’t lead!”
He said, she said.
Although, personally, I would never be so quick to blame my partner for problems we experience in dancing together, most leaders seem to feel no compunction whatever in blaming their follower for anything and everything that goes wrong. At the same time — sadly — most followers tend to make the a priori assumption that somehow they must be to blame. And the result is that on dance floors all over America today, one witnesses men imperiously pointing out to women what they’re doing wrong (usually beginning their admonitions with phrases such as “You were supposed to …”), while women stand by sheepishly, nodding in silent acquiescence.
What, may I ask, ladies and gentlemen, is all this about?
In any event — without pointing the finger at either leaders or followers — I think that the vast majority of difficulties people encounter in social Tango today can be directly attributed to a misuse of the lead/follow mechanism. Which means that the idea of “she can’t lead, he can’t follow” is relevant, but not as an occasion for gratuitous ad hominem attacks emanating from either camp.
I’m not going to redefine the entire lead/follow mechanism right here — an essential skill set you MUST, MUST, MUST discover, understand, and master through the ongoing expert guidance of your knowledgeable, indispensable, enlightened teacher. However, I would like to enumerate specific difficulties, which are more likely to be found among one group rather than the other.
A very specific stumbling block for followers is what we’ll refer to as anticipation — initiating, or attempting to initiate, a movement, which hasn’t been led.
For leaders, a major difficulty is assumption, the conviction that something has indeed been properly led, when, in fact, it hasn’t.
We’re going to begin exploring these problems next week. And, of course, we’ll also be discussing a challenge, which both leaders and followers have in common: balance.
In the meantime, please try to stop casting blame for difficulties, which occur on the dance floor. Social Tango, as you no doubt realize by now, calls for a difficult, demanding, and often-illusive discipline in order to make it work. Only when leaders start to focus on their own problems, and let follows worry about theirs can we all start to feel better about taking this complex — but ultimately very rewarding — journey of discovery together.
More next week.
September 14, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. A couple of things happened this week, which I thought would be worth talking about today. The first is that Pat and I actually went out dancing. With our work schedule, this is something of a rarity for us these days, but we were very glad for the chance to put together some time for ourselves.
The second thing that happened was that we spent an extensive amount of time, sharing floor space with other Tango teachers at a few different venues in New York — as we worked with our respective private students.
Here is what Pat and I came away with.
When we were out social dancing, both of us were singularly overwhelmed (shocked, dismayed, disgusted, blown away) by the complete lack of floor craft and the utter absence of adherence to the line of dance that we encountered — among people, by the way, whom we had come to believe were “good” Tango dancers. Every time we found ourselves on the dance floor, it felt like a total free for all — with everyone trying to carve out space for themselves, apparently oblivious to other people on the dance floor.
As to our time, sharing floor space with other professionals, not once in any of the sessions did we observe any of our peers talking even obliquely about the concept of floor craft. All — and we mean ALL — the teaching was about what we’ll call stage-oriented movement and technique. In fact, neither the teachers nor their students seemed to feel any inclination whatever in maintaining their own space in the room. Most routinely encroached on the small area in which we were trying to conduct our own lessons, sometimes actually bumping into us or into our students.
More total free for all!
What’s going on here? I can understand this kind of behavior happening with beginning students. They have so many things to think about in trying to work on their fundamentals that it’s never surprising, when they neglect to notice other people on the dance floor. But, of course, their teachers are right there, constantly reminding them that they’re sharing the floor with others. Isn’t that true? Their teachers are continually stressing the crucial importance of floor craft. Right? Their teachers would be absolutely mortified to allow their students on the floor without a solid foundation of social sensitivity. Could anything be more important?
It turns out, at least in my experience with my (often very well known, highly respected) peers, that what’s important is not floor craft at all — not even for a second! The focus of every lesson Pat and I witnessed was on way-over-the-top, look-at-me-folks technique and movement. Who’s the best dancer in the room? I am! Who’s the only dancer in the room? Me, me, me, a thousand times, me!
I realize full well that we dance teachers need to earn a living. And I’m well aware that our students are going to be constantly pushing us to work on things they’ve seen on YouTube or in stage performances. The last thing students are ever going to think about by themselves is “How do I interact with other people on the dance floor?” But, ladies and gentlemen of the teaching community, the time is long past for us to sit up and recognize that things have gotten way, way out of hand. Dance floors have more or less routinely devolved into war zones. And it’s not the students’ fault.
Please, please, please, let’s all agree to spend at least a little time, convincing our students to maintain appropriate lines of dance, to recognize that they’re sharing the floor with everybody else, that they’re not the stars of the show with everyone else playing the role as extras. Our students are participants in a potentially enjoyable — but at the same time potentially uncomfortably, possibly even dangerous — social encounter.
And when, as dedicated Tango students, we come across teachers who are not focusing on these critically important skill sets, let’s report them immediately to the National Association of Tango Excellence as people who should be strenuously censured for their self-serving, professionally unsupportable behavior.
Oh, there’s no such organization? Gee whiz, what options do we have?
Think about it, folks. Tango is your dance. Behavior on the floor is your behavior. And in the limited availability of enlightened teachers, I guess the responsibility of doing the right thing is yours, too.
Let’s get with it.
September 7, 2017
August 31, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. “Tango is the hardest dance I’ve ever tried to learn.” This is a sentiment that I hear from students all the time -- and not just beginners. People who have been involved with other ballroom/social dances for many years at what could be considered an “advanced” level still seem to find Tango extremely difficult to grasp.
Why this is so? What makes Tango so different from other dances? In my experience — both as a student myself and as a long-time teacher of Tango — I think I can offer at least a possible answer to these questions.
Right from the moment a student begins the study of Tango, he/she is faced with two very difficult challenges. The first of these arises from the very strong expectation that the learning process will be similar to the process he/she has undergone with other dance disciplines. Accordingly, Tango — like other social dances — must therefore consist of a finite (albeit complex) vocabulary of definable dance steps — which can be identified, learned over time, and practiced until mastery is achieved. This expectation, we will find, is simply not true — yet it produces the unfortunate effect of misdirecting the entire learning process quite significantly.
The second challenge comes from the extreme resistance on the part of students to accepting the fact that the entire basis for social Tango lies in the difficult-to-learn skill set I call the “lead/follow mechanism.” The overwhelming majority of students I have ever taught have tried their best to either completely avoid approaching this skill set — or at least to put it off until some time in the very distant future.
“It’s too hard and too boring,” they complain. “We want those neat steps we see on YouTube. We’ll get to the lead/follow stuff some other time.”
The result of these two major misconceptions is that most students end up literally rejecting the real path to learning Tango in favor of a fantasy-world road to nowhere, which they pursue over and over without ever mastering — much less actually learning — anything at all.
Let’s talk about the notion of Tango as a series of dance steps. Contemporary “ballroom” dance — as taught in dance schools today — consists of a carefully constructed syllabus of memorized steps, which are designed to reflect the students’ level of mastery. (Quite often, these levels are designated “beginner,” “intermediate,” and “advanced.” Alternatively. They may be called “bronze,” “silver,” and “gold.”) The important concept in this equation is the word “memorized.” The student leader is not taught to interact with a follower, using a specialized body language with which to indicate what is desired from one individual element to the next. Rather, both partners memorize a figure, and repeat it over and over within the class environment until it seems to work efficiently. The assumption of this process is that things will work the same way on the dance floor. However, anyone who has ever gone through this kind of “learning” has quickly recognized that, although it works great in class, it doesn’t work at all on the dance floor — except with the class partner. If a leader tries to reproduce the memorized figure with a new partner — perhaps one who hasn’t been in the class — things quickly fall apart. The only solution to the quandary ends up being something like, “Do you know the (box step, progressive basic, double reverse spin, grapevine, open left turn, twinkle — or whatever) that people learn as part of this syllabus? Here are the steps; let’s try it together. I’ll give you the count.”
Memorize or die.
Let’s say that a good teacher (or a bolt of lightning) is able to get the student past this first predisposition/misconception/utterly nonsensical fantasy that Tango is a series of memorized figures (“Oh, I haven’t danced for a while; I forget all the steps!”) — no, no, no, it’s all improvised — we make it up as we go along. …. Really.
Now, we move on to the second challenge. And this is much harder to get past than accepting the reality that, seriously, there are no steps in Tango. This is where students decide that instead of waiting to embrace the lead/follow mechanism until, let’s say, doomsday, they’ll bite the bullet and invest themselves in learning it right now (okay not really now, because it takes most of us a l-o-n-g time to integrate this very difficult skill set into our bodies), they make the non-negotiable commitment now to stick it out until they learn it — even if it takes more than ten minutes! (The average learning trajectory is maybe six months to a year.)
“Are you kidding me? I don’t have that kind of time to devote to learning a boring skill that nobody will ever see. I need steps, and I need them now!”
Okay, great. Do what you want. But if you don’t get beyond the dancing-as-memorizing-steps syndrome, and if you don’t face the music and master lead/follow once and for all, you will forever be paralyzed by the all-too-common lament we echoed right in the beginning of this Tango Tip: “Tango is the hardest dance I’ve ever tried to learn.”Make things easier on yourself. Open some doors. Do the right thing.
August 24, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In our last Tango Tip, we focused on some of ways in which leaders and followers in this country manage to get themselves together for a dance. As we pointed out (with a touch or two of humor), this process can sometimes be problematic for both potential partners — particularly in the context of today’s rapidly evolving cultural conventions.
Moving from our environment to that of Argentina, we see immediately that things are very different in the highly traditional, rigorously prescribed authentic world of Tango. In Buenos Aires, for example, everything about the social dance environment is carefully structured to ensure that the process of initiating the dance encounter is as free of potential embarrassment as possible for both leader and follower.
Let’s see for ourselves what happens at a typical milonga (social dance event) in Buenos Aires. The first thing we notice as we survey the room is that couples are seated together by the event’s host, and that “singles” are strategically situated on alternative sides of the dance floor — men on one side, women on the other. This carefully prescribed placement is designed to ensure that couples dance together, while unaccompanied singles are in plain view of one another in order to facilitate the highly specific process of invitation and acceptance. (If a man and woman enter the milonga as a couple, but have elected to dance with people other than each other, they will inform the host that they wish to be seated as singles rather than together.)
An unaccompanied man and woman make contact at the milonga through an elaborate, extremely formal, well-entrenched ritual known generally as el cabeceo. In sharp contrast with the way we interact in America, a man never approaches a woman directly in Argentina. In fact, if he were to do so, she and her disapproving friends would either ignore him completely, or even angrily berate him for his insulting breach of acceptable behavior. As for a woman approaching a man, such conduct would be absolutely unheard-of in the traditional milongas of Buenos Aires.
When a man wants to dance with a particular woman, he attempts to make eye contact with her by staring at her intently. If the woman wishes to dance with him, she stares back. The man then nods to her as if to say “I would like to dance with you.” This action on his part is what is called el cabeceo, the nodding of the head. At this point, the agreement to dance together has been made, and the man and woman rise to meet on the dance floor.
By tradition, the couple remains together for the duration of what is called a tanda, a continuous group of three to four Tangos, Milongas, or Valses. Once the tanda is finished, a fragment of non-traditional music is played. This is called a cortina, and it signals that the tanda is complete. Now, the man escorts the woman back to her seat, after which he once more initiates the process of seeking out a new partner.
Should a woman not wish to dance with a man who is making eye contact with her, she averts her gaze as he stares in her direction. This is all it takes to indicate to the man that she prefers not to dance with him at this time. No obvious public refusal in necessary; no embarrassment of any kind to either the man or the woman.
Most people in the local Tango communities of Argentina know each other, or have at least seen one another more or less regularly at the milongas. It is, therefore, a matter of course that men will consistently invite their favorite partners to dance on a regular basis. From time to time, they may also decide to take a chance with a woman they might like to get to know as a dance partner. In such cases, a man may “hedge his bets” by offering el cabeceo toward the end of the tanda, perhaps before the beginning of the third or forth dance. This enables him to limit his involvement with that particular woman in the event she proves for one reason or another to be an undesirable partner.
By the same token, women get to choose their own favorite partners in the milongas by means of accepting or refusing invitations offered through el cabeceo. In this way, a woman is able to “maintain control over her own fate” on the dance floor. Occasionally, of course, a woman may decide to accept the invitation of a man she doesn’t know. If everything goes well during such an interaction, and she enjoys dancing with her new partner, she will probably add him to her mental list of potential favorites. However, if he proves unsuitable — particularly if he is rude or offensive in some way — she may choose to end the interaction in the middle to the tanda. Commonly, the way this is done is for the woman to stop dancing, offer a perfunctory “thank you,” and walk off the floor. This, predictably, is the ultimate insult to her partner. He has been singled out in a very public way as someone undesirable as a dance partner. His only recourse will be to quit the dance floor as quickly as possible, maybe even leave the milonga completely, never to return. This action on the woman’s part is, therefore, an option, which an experienced woman will exercise only under the most uncomfortable of circumstances. However, if it has to be done, it has to be done.
The almost ritualistic practice of cabeceo may seem to outsiders like ourselves a bit too rigid for our taste, since — as described in last week’s Tango Tip — we take a far less formal approach toward asking someone for a dance. However, the tradition remains alive and well in Argentina as the only option for inviting and/or accepting a dance. With this in mind, therefore, if and when you find yourself in the milongas of Buenos Aires, make sure you’ve first become very familiar with how things are done there. That way, your dance interactions will be appropriate, and your visit will go smoothly.
As we say at the Firehouse, vamos a bailer el tango!
August 17, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When a man wants to ask a woman to dance in this country, we have a long-standing tradition in which he approaches his prospective partner directly, and politely asks “May I have this dance?” Alternatively, he might say “Would you care to dance?” If he and his prospective partner are more intimately acquainted, he might make a less formal request such as “Shall we dance?”, or even “Want to do this?”
If things go according to plan in this traditional scenario (the man asks; the woman accepts; the dance ensues), everyone is blissfully happy and satisfied. Well, sort of. The man retains what he feels is his rightful “power” to control his choices as to whom he will ask to dance and whom he won’t. The woman acts out her role of sitting patiently in her seat, not making a fuss, waiting for an invitation, which may (or may not) eventually come to her.
On the other hand, when things don’t go well, the woman might never get asked to dance at all, and may end up deciding to leave the dance venue in frustration, maybe never to return.
Sigh again …
Furthermore, if and when a woman is invited to dance, she might decide (and we now come to what men fear most of all in their deepest heart of hearts) not to accept.
In such a case, the man is left standing there, holding his withered pride in both shaking hands, publicly humiliated, with little recourse but to long for instant invisibility, to slink away as unobtrusively as possible — as everyone in the room stares in horror at the utter disgrace of his rejection.
At the same time, the woman who had the effrontery to reject his generous overture will automatically be branded by every other prospective partner in the room as a dangerous, man-hating harpy who henceforth needs to be studiously avoided at all costs. No one else will ask her to dance. She’ll probably end up quitting the scene — along with her never-invited-to-dance friend, and go to a movie, or hole up in her living quarters with a cup of herbal tea (maybe a spot of gin).
Therein, we bear witness to the traditional politesse of the social dance world — perhaps of the entire fabric of civilized society … shattered beyond repair.
beyond this antiquated, tradition-induced cultural avalanche, things have
evolved here in the land of the free. In these more enlightened times of
increasingly common gender equality, today’s woman has the option of taking the
initiative herself, and approaching the man for a dance, rather than posing
passively in a “here-I-am-guys-come-and-get-
brings us to the way all this plays out down south in Tango heaven. With next
week’s Tango Tip, we’ll explore what happens, when we take a quick hop — well,
an eleven-hour, mind-numbing, make-sure-you’ve-got-plenty-
August 10, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In our last Tip, we talked about what a skilled leader expects from his (skilled) follower during the dance. Today, we’ll focus on the expectations of the follower. I’m going to begin this Tip with a quote from one of my female students, who has been toiling valiantly in the Tango trenches:
“I really try my best to use the lead/follow system you teach, but most of the guys I dance with practically pick me up and run me around the floor from the beginning of the dance ’til the end; I’m hanging on for dear life, so there’s no chance at all to find balance between steps.”
Anyone out there recognize this state of affairs? I hate to have to report that this complaint is all too common among follows today. Is it because men are extremely slow to learn the elements of good lead/follow? Or possibly that they just don’t want to bother learning? Could it be that the majority of people teaching Tango today don’t teach — or don’t know how to teach — the elements of lead/follow?
I really don’t know the answer to these questions, but what I do know is that familiarity with the lead/follow mechanism seems to elude a great many leaders and followers in our Tango community.
Nonetheless, let’s identify precisely what a skilled follower expects from a skilled leader in dancing social Tango. In the first place, she knows that her leader will “construct” the mechanics of their dance by inviting her to execute six possible fundamental elements:
1. Weight changes in place
3. Side steps
4. Back steps
5. Forward steps
He will ask for these elements one at a time. When she has responded to his invitation, and finished executing one of these individual elements, the leader will take great care to let the follower bring herself into complete balance, after which he will ask for another movement, if he so chooses.
What will enable the couple to accurately communicate with one another is the lead/follow mechanism, a very precise skill set, which good leaders and followers depend on to ensure an efficient and comfortable ongoing interaction during the dance.
Between the completion of one movement and the beginning of the next, the skilled follower expects to be offered the opportunity to bring herself into a state of balance. It is from this crucial state that she will then be able to move anywhere the leader may ask of her with his next invitation. If she hasn’t been able to achieve balance, her ability to freely move in any of the six possible directions will be severely compromised, if not totally negated. (Parenthetically, it is for this reason that I teach both leaders and followers to regard balance at the end of each movement as a separate — and indispensable — component of the total lead/follow mechanism.)
In briefly summarizing what the follower expects from her leader, we could focus her expectations on three simple requests:
1. “Tell me what you want me to do (through the lead/follow mechanism).”
2. “Give me the chance to actually execute the invited movement from start to finish.”
3. “Let me bring myself into balance before you ask for something else.”
To put it another way: As a leader, I invite movement; I let her finish; I enable balance. As a follower, I execute movement from start to finish; I bring myself into balance.
Both of us realize that without balance in between individual movements, the dance simply falls apart.
If leaders could somehow incorporate these ideas into their dancing, their overall skill level would automatically increase dramatically, and their followers would be far better able to effectively produce their half of the dance equation. This would, of course call for a significant commitment on the part of leaders to actually learn how to dance rather than continuing to lose themselves in YouTube fantasies, while consistently ignoring the basic needs of their followers.
Followers, you have a right to expect these skills from your leaders. And you shouldn’t allow yourself to accept anything less. Leaders, what do you say? Your follower knows what she needs from you. Why not let her have it?
Come on, give the lady a break.
August 3, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Over the past several Tips, we’ve been focusing on both the leader’s and the follower’s responsibilities in social Tango. Today, I want to turn things around, and discuss basic expectations. What does a skilled follower expect from a skilled leader? What does a skilled leader expect from a skilled follower?
Notice that I purposely used the term skilled here. I am, of course, talking about an ideal situation — one in which both partners have actually attained a true level of expertise, which they now each bring to the dance relationship. I am NOT talking about a leader who has arbitrarily elected himself an expert without actually knowing what he’s doing. Nor am I referring to a follower who wishes she could understand and respond to leads properly, but, in reality, doesn’t have a clue.
Right now, let’s discuss what the skilled leader expects. Fundamentally, he wants his partner to be able to understand and respond to his invitations one element at a time, and to be able to bring herself into conscious balance — what I like to call “neutral” — at the end of each step she takes. To put it another way, he expects her to energetically and confidently execute each individual movement he leads, then come to a definite stop and wait for the next lead. At the same time, he expects his follower to avoid “doing her own thing;” i.e., to anticipate what she may think he wants by moving on her own.
If he’s dancing with this partner for the first time — or if he hasn’t danced with her for an extended period of time — the skilled leader recognizes that it will almost certainly take her several dances with him before she will be able to respond to his individual way of employing the lead/follow mechanism with a sense of clarity and freedom, and that he needs to be generous, patient, and forgiving during this essential one-to-one “learning” process.
At no time (this means NEVER), does the skilled leader ever, ever, ever attempt to teach his follower what to do. Over my years of teaching Tango, I’ve observed that almost the very first thing an unskilled leader does in the dance relationship is to place himself in the role of all-knowing advisor, feeling that he somehow has the right to teach his follower how to dance. In fact, this is usually a covert way (whether he’s aware of it or not) to deflect from his incompetence as a leader.
Ladies, if you ever hear a leader begin a sentence with the words “You are/were supposed to …,“ you can safely assume that he doesn’t know how to lead, and is trying to make his ineptitude your fault. And leaders, even if she doesn’t laugh in your face and walk away from you, when you try to impress her with your wit and wisdom, just remember that while she’s standing there quietly nodding acquiescence to your inspirational superiority, in reality she’s onto your game. Instead of thinking, “What a wonderful teacher you are,” she’s actually saying to herself, “Get me away from this bozo!”
Learn how to lead, my brother, and you won’t have to keep telling your partner what she’s “supposed to be doing.”
Next week, we’ll talk about the basic expectations a skilled follower has of her leader. In the meantime, remember that the three crucial parts of the equation in a successful social Tango interaction are a skilled leader, a skilled follower, and a very good teacher, who possesses the ability to help both partners achieve and maintain that level of expertise over time. I don’t know any other way for leaders and followers to get there, except, of course, to be born in Argentina, and spend about forty years, hanging out in the milongas and working on their moves. If you know another way, however, please let me in on your secret.
July 27, 2017
Hi everyone, Pat here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Those of you who have read Fran’s most recent Tango Tips are now familiar with the basic responsibilities of the leader, when dancing Tango.
It is now my pleasure to offer you what I consider to be the basic responsibilities of the follower in the dance. I think it’s important to point out right from the start that the Tango Tips Fran writes each week – and those that I occasionally write – relate solely to the social Tango dance. We are not talking about any type of performance routines or learned figures that have become so popular and prevalent in Tango today.
Social Tango is, frankly, becoming hard to find in today’s milongas. Just in case some of you are not quite sure what I’m talking about, social Tango is truly a lead/follow collaboration between the partners in a quiet, intimate, and very simple dance. That said, social Tango is danced with as much precision and technique as any other style of Tango. The focus is between the partners, and never to any type of audience.
With all this in mind, I would like to describe what I consider to be the follower’s three primary skills in the lead/follow social dance. They are used in every dance, and intertwined in various ways, depending on the leader. Without them, the follower has no dance.
This is surely one of the most important (if not the most important) skills of the follower. Without balance, it is pretty much impossible for a follower to follow leads in even the most basic movements. In Tango, balance is defined as standing on one foot with full weight, either in a pause or in movement, such as during a pivot. Balance is a skill that takes dedication and time to achieve. A follower who thinks there are shortcuts to balance will never become a credible Tango dancer. In fact, achieving good balance with any leader is something that a follower continues to work on throughout her Tango life! What makes balance so difficult is that you have to balance on one foot. Constant practice will gradually develop the muscles that will help your balance in the dance. However, the bad news is that you should plan to keep working on your balance for the duration of your Tango life…. seriously!
Say what……? (you might exclaim) Yes indeed, waiting is another of a follower’s most important duties. Tango is a dance of movement and of stillness, although you would never know it to watch most people dance today in any milonga you care to name. Stillness in Tango is a place where leader and follower can be close and communicating, even though there is no movement. It can be a time when the follower might feel like executing an adorno as an expression of the moment, and then continues to wait until the leader is ready to move forward. In fact, a good follower is prepared to wait after every single step, unless there is a lead. This may sound somewhat unreal, and, of course, it takes a long time to acquire this skill, but if a follower can achieve this level of connection she can confidently dance with any leader who asks her.
As a follower, you should start learning technique in your very first Tango lesson with your very first Tango steps – simple to begin with, but crucial to the dance that you will develop. Every movement has an appropriate technique that should be used in its execution, and practiced over and over again, so that your legs and feet get used to the feel of doing it correctly. At its highest level, appropriate and well-executed technique – in balance – will allow you to dance with confidence, no matter what is led. Again, you just have to put in the time and effort to get good at what you’re learning, and you have to practice.
The above three skills form the foundation of Tango for every follower, and we have only just scratched the surface (it would take pages to cover them in depth.) They should be learned from the start, and practiced all the time. They do not require speed, they do not require special leads or special music. If a follower is really serious about becoming a Tango dancer, she must continue to practice these fundamental skills… FOREVER!!
There’s a lot more to talk about, and in subsequent Tango Tips for followers, I’ll discuss topics such as understanding and executing the lead/follow mechanism, including styling; knowing the conventions; some common bad habits; and some more useful tips to help make you a better follower!.
July 20, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’ve been following our latest group of Tango Tips, you know that for the past several weeks we’ve been talking about the leader’s responsibilities in social Tango.
So far, we’ve discussed the following elements:
• Building a solid repertoire of figures and sequences
• Acquiring and maintaining total mastery of lead/follow skills
• Achieving expertise in navigating the dance floor
Today, we’re going to focus on yet another of the leader’s many responsibilities — that of moving himself and his partner in time with the music. In this regard, let me suggest three ideas for leaders to keep in mind:
1. The leader’s response to the music is completely improvised rather than predetermined.
2. It is NOT necessary to move to every beat.
3. In any given sequence the follower’s comfort takes absolute precedence over the demands of the music.
Let’s address these issues one at a time.
In virtually all of our dances here in the U.SA., we use a predetermined foot pattern accompanied by a fixed rhythm. We refer to this as a “basic step.” As a student progresses, the pattern may vary slightly; however, even at advanced levels the timing is generally “set in stone.” With social Tango the leader improvises both the step pattern and the rhythm with which it is danced — right from the beginning of his studies. There is no “basic step,” and no set rhythm. As my Argentine teachers always told me, “There are no steps in Tango.” This often makes the initial learning process somewhat confusing for the leader who is accustomed to a more predictable step-by-step approach. However, once he gets past the need to rely on memorized timing and patterns (which can sometimes take quite a bit of time), the freedom of “real” dancing becomes quite satisfying.
Moving to every “beat”
Our next consideration is which beats the leader steps on in moving to the music. Some students are under the mistaken impression that it’s necessary to respond mechanically to every beat (what a musician would call the “half notes”). Whereas this way of addressing the music is relatively easy (after a great deal of practice), it just isn’t the way a skilled Argentine dancer functions. In Tango, rhythmic movement is based entirely on the leader’s choices in any given moment during the dance. He decides when to start or stop; he chooses whether the couple moves quickly or slowly; he creates a personal rhythmic response to every moment in the music. Moving in a predictable, robotic way might provide the beginning student with a preliminary introduction to rhythmic movement, but he soon has to learn the art of creative variation. In this regard, it goes without saying, of course, that since the follower plays no role in choosing when and where to step, the leader needs to employ great skill in motivating his partner to synchronize her movements with his during this improvisational process.
All too often, I hear the following complaint from certain leaders: “I just don’t know what’s the matter with her — I’m trying to move to the music, and she just can’t seem to keep up.” In other words, such leaders are rigidly adhering to the notion that the follower must at all costs respond instantly and accurately to their musical whims, or they’re somehow blameworthy for their ineptitude.
This is utter nonsense. Despite what many leaders believe — and despite what is all too often promoted by “teachers” who themselves ought to know better — a truly skilled leader invariably puts his follower’s comfort and balance first, and the perceived demands of the music second. If, at the end of any given step or figure, for example, the follower is not yet ready to proceed — perhaps she’s slightly off balance, or hasn’t quite completed her movement — the leader must (must, MUST) wait for her to get herself ready to continue before continuing his musical improvisation. If one is dancing choreographically, in which every moment is rehearsed by the partners over and over before taking the dance to the floor, precise moment-to-moment timing is, of course, essential. In social dance, however, this kind of behavior is at best unrealistic, and, at worst, potentially dangerous.
The bottom line here is that for the leader taking meticulous care of his partner is absolutely paramount. This is the crucial ingredient, which creates the intimate experience we call Tango.
Next week, Pat will offer her insights into the follower’s responsibilities in dancing social Tango.
July 13, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about the leader’s multiple responsibilities in social Tango. So far, we’ve looked at the need for the leader to build a repertoire of figures and sequences, which he can bring to bear in supplementing his improvisational skills. We’ve also discussed the essential importance of acquiring and maintaining a mastery of the complex lead/follow mechanism, which is designed to provide the follower with everything she needs to dance with comfort and confidence.
Today, we’re going to acknowledge another important responsibility on the leader’s list; i.e., expertise in navigation. Getting around a dance floor safely and efficiently presents virtually any leader with a major challenge. This is certainly true in Argentina, where the milongas are almost always extremely crowded — especially during the evening hours. And with the increased popularity of Tango in this country, we now see a great many of our own dance venues filling to capacity.
In social Tango, many couples occupy the dance floor at any given time, each attempting to navigate a very finite space. This situation can often result in uncomfortable — even potentially dangerous — conditions for dancers. Under such circumstances, a leader’s obligation is, first, to observe the general rule of moving counterclockwise around the “line of dance,” keeping himself and his partner on the outside of the room as much as possible. In fact, in most Argentine milongas, there are usually two and sometimes three concentric lines of direction on a given dance floor. A good leader will choose one of them for his partner and himself, maintaining this travel line throughout a given dance. Rarely, if ever, will he change to another line. This requires great skill, patience, and a healthy sense of humor.
The leader also has to master the skill of “floor craft.” This means dealing with unexpected crises, which may arise suddenly — such as another couple moving into the line of travel, or actually bumping into the leader or his partner. In dealing with such instances, the leader’s responsibility involves exercising great restraint and tact. For example, I always recommend that every leader actively acknowledge any accident which may occur by saying “Sorry” or (in Spanish) “Lo siento” — whether he is at fault or not for the mishap. Such behavior generally preempts the possibility of tempers flaring, or worse.
Finally, the leader has to be very careful not to “take over the floor” by executing elaborate or acrobatic sequences, which cause him and his partner to encroach on the space of other dancers. Unfortunately, we see this all too often in practicas and milongas here in this country, and all of us need to recognize that such hostile behavior is offensive and antisocial in the extreme.
Next week, we’ll address the leader’s final responsibility — that of maintaining an accurate and creative connection to the music. In the meantime, take a very deep breath, consult your checklist of multiple responsibilities to yourself, your partner, and your peers on the dance floor, and try to continue doing the right thing. It’s not easy, but I know you’re up to the task.
July 6, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we opened a discussion of the many responsibilities a leader needs to assume in dancing social Tango. Since many — if not most — people believe that learning to dance is primarily a process of memorizing steps, we decided to begin our enumeration of the leader’s responsibilities with the challenge of building repertoire. For a review of what we talked about, feel free to reread last week’s Tango Tip.
Today, we’re going to focus on what I regard as the most important of the leader’s responsibilities; i.e., expertly employing the lead/follow mechanism. In order to accomplish anything at all in Tango beyond simply standing in one place, a leader simply must be able to appropriately invite the six basic elements of movement — forward steps, backward steps, side steps, weight changes in place, pauses (stops), and pivots. Once the leader masters this crucial skill set, he/she thereby becomes able to guide his/her partner effortlessly through virtually any improvised or learned sequence in the dance — assuming, of course, that the follower is also adept at lead/follow.
Since we’ve described the lead/follow mechanism many times and in great detail within these pages, it is not my intention to re-examine it once again here. However, what I feel is important to address is why so many students and teachers seem to ignore lead/follow as an essential area of concentration in learning how to dance Tango.
Here are a few of the reasons I’ve been given for this lack of specific attention to lead/follow.
· I want to learn the steps, not get bogged down in details.
· I thought learning social dance was supposed to be easy; lead/follow is too hard.
· Learning lead/follow is so boring.
· Everybody figures out their own way to lead and follow anyway.
· What’s lead/follow? My teacher doesn’t talk about it.
· Students learn how to incorporate lead/follow as they go along; it’s very obvious.
· If the student memorizes the steps, the lead/follow is automatic.
· If absolutely necessary, I might talk about lead/follow during the private lesson rather than the class situation.
· If I focus too much on the details, I’ll lose all my students.
· What exactly do you mean by “lead/follow?”
When I was studying “ballroom” dance, the widely accepted teaching process was to put the men on one side of the room and the women on the other. The teacher would demonstrate each part of a given figure, and then put the couples together. Almost everyone in the class would be able to execute the figure without any problem almost immediately. Both teacher and student left the class with a warm, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment.
The problem was that if you tried the figure with someone who wasn’t in the class, it usually didn’t work. You quite naturally blamed yourself for just not being good enough as a student (obviously, you needed more lessons, right?).
The real problem, of course, was that the teacher didn’t show you how to lead and follow each element of the step — usually, I’m sorry to say, because that teacher never learned the crucial importance of this aspect of teaching social dance. Nor did the teacher who taught the teacher.
And so the story goes. Choreography is all you need; lead/follow is irrelevant.
When we teach social Tango the way it’s taught in Argentina, most of us adopt the idea that Tango is improvisational rather than choreographed, and that our students should therefore be focusing their concentration on one step at a time rather than on learned figures. As my Argentine teachers said to me again and again “There are no steps in Tango” — meaning, of course, no memorized sequences.
The problem is that even though most of us have moved past teaching set sequences as in typical ballroom dance pedagogy, we’re still not teaching our students how to actually lead and/or follow. For example, one so-called teacher I know has his leaders initiate a follower’s back step by moving his leg into hers, and pushing it along the floor.
To me, this is unbelievable; but it clearly demonstrates that this teacher at least has no idea what lead/follow is.
Furthermore, when a student comes to us with a YouTube video of some hotshot executing a fancy sequence, and says, “Come on, just show me this one figure. I have to have it,” how many of us have the stones to say, “No, that’s not the way social Tango is supposed to be taught,” or some other self-righteous proclamation that the student clearly won’t accept?
The bottom line here is that until teachers bite the bullet and starting putting lead/follow front and center as a primary skill set — and until students accept the need to concentrate on lead/follow as a crucial part of their training (even thought it’s so boring) — nobody, I mean, nobody is going to learn how to dance social Tango.
means you, my brother/sister/teacher/
Whew, I’m so glad I got that off my chest! Next week, more of the leader’s multiple responsibilities in dancing social Tango.
June 29, 2017
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Learning to dance Tango is a very complex process. Before you began your studies, you may have believed that it would be a question of memorizing an unfamiliar group of steps — much as you might do in the majority of American/European dances (at least the way they’re generally taught today).
By now you’ve probably become aware that there is much more to Tango than this. Over the next several Tango Tips, we’re going to examine some of the many additional responsibilities a leader and a follower both need to address — beyond the fundamental challenge of “where do I put my feet?”
Today, we’re going to talk about building a solid leader’s repertoire. Most Argentine practitioners and teachers of Tango adamantly insist that “there are no steps in the dance.” When I first encountered this idea, I was completely confused. It was obvious to me that there were hundreds — maybe thousands — of steps, figures, and sequences in Tango. Were my senses deceiving me?
Over time, it gradually became somewhat clear to me that what is meant by this proscription is that there are no learned or memorized figures, that everything is done in the moment, that the entire dance is improvised on the spot. Well okay, I hear that. But let’s face it, this idea, although, pure in its intent, is just not true. In fact, there are perhaps more carefully constructed figures and sequences in Tango than in any other social dance I have ever been exposed to.
I understand the sentiment that is being expressed in denying that there are steps in this dance. It is no doubt an attempt to counter the prevailing characterization of today’s American/European pedagogical approach as a rigidly prescribed lexicon of memorized figures and sequences, with improvisation being more or less prohibited. Unfortunately, this has become very close to the truth, primarily due to the limitations of our own home-grown dance teaching community. However, Argentine Tango is itself a combination of improvised movements and sequences as well as lots of memorized figures, which virtually everyone in the Tango community — whether they’re from countries around the world, or from Argentina — learns and eagerly adds to their constantly developing repertoire.
Focusing on the scene here in America, one of the primary fears virtually every new leader confronts is the idea of being paralyzed by a lack of impressive — possibly authentic, but that’s not mandatory — material to lead on the dance floor. “If I don’t show her that I have what it takes, she’ll never dance with me again.” Or “All these other dudes have the good stuff in their pockets; all I have is holes.” Whatever the deep-down motivation may be, each leader strives to build his/her personal repertoire of Tango movements (okay, let’s not call them “steps”) as a continuously evolving stockpile to draw upon in creating a confident and interesting dance. Do you think leaders in Argentina do that, too? You bet they do, folks.
Eventually, after, say, 35 or 40 years of continuous dancing, a leader may have so much repertoire under his/her belt that it all feels improvised in the moment. But a new leader needs all the help he can get. Whereas I would admonish him not to rely on memorized material exclusively — in other words, don’t become a total YouTube junkie — if he brings a working combination of learned figures and improvisational skills to the floor, he’s definitely on the right track.
Next week, we’ll take a look at what is without doubt the leader’s primary responsibility in social Tango — making his/her partner balanced and comfortable every step on the way through well=developed lead/follow skills.
June 22, 2017
June 15, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you want to learn how to dance Tango here in the USA today, your best option is to find a teacher or dance school that promises to fulfill your goals. As a teacher myself, I wondered how people in Argentina learned this very complex dance as it was evolving during its early history.
Here is a brief glimpse into how things were in the past. To begin with, Argentina has always had a definite love/hate relationship with Tango. During its formative years, the dance, the music, and the lifestyle were looked down upon as extremely vulgar, if not obscene by the society at large. One source I encountered described Tango as "the amusement of carriage drivers, grave diggers, and wastrels." Even today, many among the Argentine upper classes find it difficult to believe that Tango has had such universal appeal around the world, since the widely acclaimed "Tango Argentino" burst on the scene in 1985.
Notwithstanding the stigma attached to Tango right from its beginnings, the music and dance became very popular. During social occasions, a typical encounter between a man and a woman might have been something like the following:
A woman would attend a social function, accompanied by a retinue of protectors, including members of her family and perhaps a special duena whose job was to carefully scrutinize and control her interactions with strangers -- particularly those of the opposite sex. A man, possibly a laborer of some kind, would attend the same function in the hope of obtaining a formal introduction to the woman, so that ultimately he could enjoy a Tango or two with her -- under the critical Argus-eyed gaze of all her friends and relatives.
As they danced, the man would literally "teach" the woman how to respond to his lead, while the woman would engage in the difficult discipline of moving precisely to the man's invitation, remaining balanced and ready at the conclusion of each movement until and unless her leader proposed a new step.
If both man and woman played these roles with skill, the dance would be a success. If the leader wasn't able to lead, and/or if the follower wasn't able to follow, the dance would be a failure.
How did the man and the woman get to the point where they were able to play these roles appropriately? A woman's process for learning social Tango was largely limited to her experiences on the dance floor (along with quietly offered advice from friends and relatives). On the other hand, the man often went through a very demanding, almost ritualistic process, which was specifically designed to ensure that he became expert as a leader. Typically, he started his arduous dance “training” in the social club, playing role of follower, being led by more experienced milongueros. As his skill level in the follower's role increased -- and as he therefore learned exactly what was necessary to produce a credible lead -- he was eventually given the opportunity to hone his leading skills under the guidance of his teachers. (There is some evidence that in the absence of available women to dance with, some men took the opportunity to practice their skills with prostitutes in the local brothels, lending fuel to the societal proscriptions against the dance. But this is perhaps another story for another time.)
A fledging leader’s "graduation" from the rigorous -- and without doubt highly effective -- process of developing his skills ultimately involved being given the approval of his piers to begin attending dances as a leader who could be trusted to carry on the tradition of social Tango.
In contemporary times, as social prohibitions have become more relaxed, women have now moved well beyond simply playing a passive role in the social dance. Today, any woman who so desires can devote herself to developing her own individual expertise as a student of the dance.
At the same time, however, the male tradition of training intensively within a knowledgeable, highly expert pier group as a necessary condition of entry into the social milieu has largely been lost. Today, men in Argentina learn Tango in the same way the dance is learned all around the world: they find a teacher or enroll in a dance school. Will this “modern” way of developing leading skills ultimately produce the same kind of expertise that was so much a part of the earlier tradition?
I guess time will tell.
June 8, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the moments I find truly satisfying in teaching Tango is when a student looks at me, and says the words: "I get it."
If I'm working with the student at a foundational level, this may happen when he/she begins to consciously recognize how to initialize a movement in the appropriate way. It may occur, when he/she finally understands how to allow an individual movement to unfold from beginning to end in its own time without the impulse to rush. It may manifest itself in the student's ability to achieve balance at the end of a given movement, and to do so with consistency.
If the student is more advanced, the "I get it" moment may take place when he/she is able to successfully navigate the elements of a sequence we're working on with a newly discovered level of proficiency. For leaders this may involve the ability to determine precisely when the lead for any individual element within the sequence gives way to the lead for the next -- without confusing, without rushing, and without abandoning his partner as the figure progresses. For followers, it may entail being able to execute an adornment of choice at precisely the right moment with skill and confidence.
As a teacher, I can always tell right away, when a student has replaced abstract understanding with interior kinetic awareness -- when he/she has reached a moment of epiphany in his/her learning process. I can literally see it in the way he/she moves. But my own realization of this "aha" moment is irrelevant. What is important is when the studentfeels the change in his/her own body.
In learning Tango, each of us ultimately discovers the dance for ourselves. No matter how adept our teachers might be in pointing the way, it is only when we're finally able to say, "I get it," that we've successfully put ourselves on the path to creating our own Tango.
June 1, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Two Tango teachers walk into a bar:
"Don't they serve those really huge drinks here?"
"What's your problem?"
"What else? They fight tooth and nail to get you to give them exactly what they want, when they want it ..."
"I know; and they fight even harder to keep you from giving them what they really need."
"I'm going to have a double."
"Do you think they serve triples?"
(Big collective sigh.)
The majority of dance teachers I know really do want their students to learn how to dance. The problem is that today we live in what is euphemistically called "a buyer's market." Everything is upside down. In this "Alice in Wonderland" world, it's no longer the teacher who determines the lesson plan -- it's the student.
"Give us what we want, or we'll pick up, and go somewhere else."
I distinctly remember, when the first wave of teachers from Argentina came to New York as a result of the popularity of "Tango Argentino." Their almost instant assessment of students here was that what we really, really needed first and foremost was to learn how to walk. And that's exactly what they tried to focus on in teaching us. They’d say: "It took us at least three years before we could walk like Tango dancers. Let's get started right now."
We, in the other hand, wanted instant access to all those impressive figures the stars were showing us during the show. And we wanted them right now, immediately. We could learn to "walk" later ... well, maybe.
Eventually, even the most determined Argentine teachers' practical need to earn a living won out, and those that kept coming back to this country essentially decided to cave in and give us what we wanted -- even if it meant that we'd be without the foundations necessary to execute those fancy stage figures with any reasonable degree of proficiency.
In fact, that's pretty much where things are today. Recently, my attention was drawn to a promotional flier for an upcoming series of workshops being held by a famous Argentine performance couple for "everyone from beginners to advanced dancers." From the description on the flier, one could only conclude that even a mediocre student should expect to become an expert within two or three weeks. All it would cost would be something in the neighborhood of $300 to $400. What a bargain!
On the day of the first workshop, I happened to be at the venue, a dance studio where I hold a regular event of my own. In my opinion, the students arriving for the workshop were for the most part the usual delusional overachievers who had long ago drunk the "Kool Aid." But among this crowd I suddenly noticed several of my own students.
"Oh no," I wanted to shake these people by the shoulders, and say. "What are you doing here? Don't you realize that this is going to be a huge waste of time and money? Not to mention the fact that it will actually take your social Tango backwards rather than forwards?"
Fortunately, I elected to just keep my mouth shut, and simply offer them my best wishes as they headed for (what I conceive of as) the fast track to a fool's paradise. Who am I to get in the way of my students' pipe dreams and fantasies?
"If they want to learn how to dance," I thought, "I'll be there to show them the way. If they want to build castles in the air, who am I to tell them not to."
In the meantime, however, since I don't drink, I need an outlet for my frustration. And you're it. You really do want to learn how to dance social Tango, don't you? Yes, you may flirt with the dark side from time to time, but you will come back to reality, won't you?
Remember, I'm counting on you to do the right thing.
May 25, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last Sunday, Pat and I held our latest Tango Workshop in New York City. We called it "Put Your Tango Legs in the Spotlight." We're very happy to report that everyone seemed to have a wonderful time. If you were unfortunate enough to miss it, be sure to put us on your calendar for the next one.
As a part of these special workshop events, Pat and I always try to showcase several advanced techniques. This time, for example, we focused on gancho/enganche, planeo, amague, sentada, and lots of adornos for the ladies. Of course, you would be right to think that this seems to run counter to our usual regimen of basics, basics, basics. However, our feeling regarding our workshops is that Tango students absolutely love flashy material (and to tell you the truth we love the chance to accommodate them) -- plus this gives us a perfect opportunity to introduce certain important elements, which we believe our students will eventually need as they advance in their studies.
The difficulty with promoting so-called "advanced" techniques is that they tend to attract Tango students like moths to a flame. They glitter like fool's gold, and often result in having students take their eyes off the ball (which, of course, is to actually learn how to dance Tango). Realistically, we're well aware that many students become easily and (to be honest) permanently sidetracked by what we often refer to as "YouTube fantasies." This is why we were especially careful to begin our Workshop last Sunday by cautioning attendees to fully enjoy the menu of goodies we had prepared for them -- but to recognize strongly that the road to Tango expertise lies elsewhere. To be specific: developing solid lead/follow skills, building conscious body control during movement, and striving to achieve balance at the end of every individual step.
Our hope is that you, too, recognize the profound difference between the ego-massaging delusion of chasing hopelessly after "stage" Tango, and putting in the hard -- but ultimately rewarding -- effort of becoming a true expert in social dancing.
It's not easy to get there, but as the song says, you can do it, if you try.
May 18, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. What do you think about, when you dance Tango? For many followers the answer is "I hope I don't make a mistake." For many leaders, it's "What step am I going to do." Both answers are quite predictable, I think; but both are misguided, and can ultimately create problems for the dancers.
Let's talk about the follower's point of view first, because I believe it's somewhat more direct than that of the leader. As a follower, your primary focus is on your response to a good lead, and the quality of your movement during any given step.
To be more specific: Lead/follow, as you've heard me say many times before, is a very precise communication between leader and follower. A skilled follower always knows exactly what a skilled leader is asking her to do, and acts accordingly. Once the follower has initiated her movement based on the lead, she knows that her job is to execute a single step, and bring herself into accurate balance at the conclusion of the movement. She then repeats this cycle -- response to the lead, execution of the step, and balance -- with every movement she makes.
If the follower is dancing with a skilled leader, the thought of "making a mistake" never occurs to her -- because she knows that her leader is consistently and intensely focused on her and the success of her movements rather than on himself. Conversely, if she constantly fears that she's going to "make a mistake," this may mean that the leader isn't doing his job properly, or that she herself just doesn't yet have experience she needs to be confident enough to respond appropriately to a credible lead.
This brings us to the leader's mindset during the dance. As I suggested earlier, many leaders are busy thinking about what they themselves are about to do -- what figure they're going to attempt to execute -- rather than what they want their follower to do. A skilled leader, on the other hand, is focused on both his own movements and those of his follower at the same time. In the first place, he, too, is well aware of maintaining the cycle of individual movement -- response to the lead, execution of the step, and balance -- with every movement he makes. When he decides that he wants to execute a sequence of specific steps, he has a mental "picture" of the elements of the sequence in his mind. But he also knows exactly what he wants his follower to do by way of executing the figure.
To put it another way, the leader's responsibility is to be thinking about what he wants to do himself, what he wants his follower to do, and how he's going to go about inviting her to do it. His focus, therefore, is on many individual aspects of movement in the same moment.
Beyond all this, of course, the leader also needs to concentrate on moving appropriately within the context of the music. Furthermore, he has to construct his dance in a way that keeps his partner and himself from encroaching on the space of other dancers. His total focus during the dance, therefore, is far more varied and complex than that of the follower. A singular concentration on "what do I want to do," would not only be inappropriate, it would border on being dangerous.
Learning to be a skilled leader and/or a skilled follower should be the focus of your study of social Tango. Amassing an "impressive" vocabulary of figures -- while certainly tempting to the unskilled dancer -- is at best a waste of time and energy. Please try to stay focused on the prize; i.e., becoming a good dancer. That is the goal. As your skill level increases, figures will be surprisingly easy.
I absolutely guarantee it.
May 11, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Just following up on last week's post, I had the opportunity to conduct an extensive survey of students who seem to have difficulty learning Tango ... well, to tell you the absolute truth, I happened to bump into one of the attendees at my Saturday practica, and I asked him a few questions. Here's how it went.
Opening statement by study subject: "I really just cannot learn this (blankety-blank) dance." (Lots of head shaking and arm waving.)
Response by interviewer (me): "Yeah, believe me, I know what you mean. Are you currently taking private lessons?"
Study subject: "My cousin's boyfriend took a few privates a couple of years ago."
Interviewer: "I was referring to yourself."
Subject: "I was thinking about it, but ..."
Interviewer: "How about regular classes?"
Subject: "Oh, sure, I come to Firehouse Tango at least once a month or so."
Interviewer: "How about weekly classes with a regular teacher?"
Subject: "I have that on my to-do list. Right now, things are really busy at work. Maybe next month."
Interviewer: "How often do you get to dance?"
Subject: "Well, I'm here today, of course. Maybe once or twice ..."
Interviewer: "Per week?"
Subject: "Per month is more like it, I guess."
Interviewer: "What about regular practice sessions with a partner?"
Subject: "Hmm ... well, I do watch YouTube sometimes. You should see the stuff they do!"
Interviewer: "So, if I hear what you're telling me, you don't take regular lessons or classes, you hardly ever dance, you don't practice --"
Subject: (Breaking in, arms waving again) "-- Well, that's not my fault, you know. I really WANT to do all that stuff, but like I said, things get in the way."
Interviewer: "I hear you. But if you don't study, if you don't get out and dance, and if you don't practice, you just can't expect to learn --"
Subject: (Breaking in yet again) "-- Other people don't seem to have any trouble. I think it's just me. Maybe I'm dense or something."
Interviewer: "Maybe if you --"
Subject: (Arms gesticulating wildly) "I really just cannot learn this dance!"
I think we've now come to the end of this extensive study. Maybe -- just maybe -- we can draw certain obvious conclusions about why this subject -- and perhaps others like him (maybe even people like you)) seem to have trouble learning Tango. I did ask one other question:
Interviewer: "Can you spell Tango?"
Subject: What? You mean, the word?"
Subject: (Hemming and hawing) "Is this a trick question?"
Interviewer: "I think I need a drink."
T-a-n-g-o. Not a trick question.
Study, dance, practice = learn Tango. Don't study, don't dance, don't practice = don't learn Tango.
Seems pretty clear to me.
May 4, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the complaints I hear from students every day is the notion that Tango is so very difficult to learn. People who have experience with "ballroom" lessons are especially prone to this perception.
"This is the hardest dance I've ever tried to pick up.
"I'll never learn how to dance Tango."
"I'm giving up on Tango."
As a teacher, I sympathize with students who feel this way. During the late 1980s, when I was trying to learn Tango, I often felt that I was banging my head against a brick wall. For years, it seemed that this would be the one social dance I'd never be able to master. Thirty plus years later, I no longer believe this to be true -- at least about my own dancing. But it took me much longer than I ever expected for me to finally "get it."
As a result of my own learning process, I think I know pretty much why students have the problems they do, when it comes to social Tango. For one thing, social Tango really is hard to grasp. Tango is an improvisational dance, which means that -- as so many of my own teachers constantly maintained -- there are no "steps;" i.e., no memorized figures to form the basis of the dance. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to our own native "ballroom" tradition, in which memorized figures absolutely define how we perceive and execute every dance we do.
Secondly, students want -- in fact, insist on -- fast results in their personal learning process. They routinely believe that such unpleasant challenges as learning how to walk or how to balance between individual steps will take care of themselves over time (which they definitely will not, by the way). What they want -- and they want it right now -- is a pocketful of flashy moves they can use to burn up the dance floor today, if not sooner. This is what they're willing to shell out their hard-earned money for, and nothing else will do.
Thirdly, Tango teachers feel a great deal of pressure from students to give them what they want -- and because they need to earn a living, many (if not most) tend to go along with misguided student demands for the superficial accumulation of showy flotsam instead of foundational building-block essentials.
So, to recap why you're having so much trouble learning social Tango, we might say it's because:
· Yes, social Tango really is inherently hard to learn.
· No, you really don't want to do what it takes to learn it.
· Your teacher -- even if he/she actually knows what he/she is doing -- is probably unwilling to force you to focus on the right stuff for fear of losing your business.
Quite a dilemma, isn't it?
Is there a solution to your very real, very common predicament? I think there is. It starts with the recognition that Tango is difficult to learn, and that you just cannot put the cart before the horse. You may be champing at the bit to sink your teeth into those tasty morsels of stage material you're jonesing to savor -- but you've got to begin facing the fact that they'll have to wait until you've gained the ability to handle them with skill.
Next, you've got to let your teacher determine your learning process, not YouTube. All the really crucial skill development happens during your early stages of learning. You simply cannot bypass it, and hope to become even reasonably good at this dance.
Finally, find yourself a teacher who understands all this, and is committed to bring the hammer down, when you try to twist his/her arm to put the gravy before the meat.
Are you willing to do what it takes to learn Tango? That's a big question. If your answer is "yes" -- I'm talking about a serious, I-really-mean-it "yes" -- you can and will eventually learn this great dance. If you keep looking for the fast track, I guarantee you that it's never, ever going to happen.
April 27, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Did you know that every time you get up and dance, there's a precise moment, when you can clearly tell for yourself whether your Tango skills are working -- or whether they're not? At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, let's call this point in time the moment of truth.
The moment of truth isn't something that's hard to find. It's not a single, isolated split-second element, hidden where it might be difficult to notice. The fact is that the moment of truth occurs very, very obviously right smack in your face very single time you take a step, every time you pause, every time you pivot.
If you've been following the last few Tango Tips (and if you haven't, please go to the Firehouse Tango archives right now and read them!), you'll remember that we've been discussing the three specific skill sets, which comprise what I call "Level 2" social Tango. This is where you really start to move with skill -- rather than just flailing around with a partner in a kind of aimless way as the music plays.
To remind you once more, those three skill sets are:
3. Progressive single-step movement
The moment of truth is what happens between the end of any given step you take in the dance, and the next step.
If we put it in terms of our three Level 2 skill sets, it's what takes place during the transition from balance to the next lead/follow interaction.
As we move in Tango, we make the transition between one step and the next by coming to the end of our balance before engaging in the subsequent lead/follow choice. To put it into plain English, we "stop and go." How many times does this occur during the dance? All you have to do is count the number of steps you take. The moment of truth is right there after every single one. (Conversely, when we dance within our own American/European tradition -- let's say Foxtrot, for example -- we do exactly the opposite. We flow smoothly from one step in the dance to the next. In fact, this seamless transition from one step to the next actually defines our tradition of dancing: continuous, uninterrupted movement.)
When Argentine people dance Tango, they don't think about a moment of truth between steps. They take this way of making transitions between steps for granted. It's their largely unspoken, largely untaught, largely unconscious tradition. It's the way they dance. Asi se baila el tango. (Look it up, language buffs.) Here in America, however, this way of moving is quite unnatural. As I said above, we do precisely the opposite. As a consequence, when we learn Tango, this idea of acknowledging "the moment of truth" becomes (or should become) a primary element of our learning process.
Sadly, most people who teach Tango don't seem to be tuned in to this idea. Their focus for the most part seems to be to feed the ever-prevailing student preoccupation with a new stage sequence every minute. This, I believe, is the main reason we continue to see so many student dancers constantly careening recklessly around the floor, literally putting their followers' health in danger. We could accuse these people of not caring about the importance of finding the end of each step before they take the next. But, frankly, I think a more accurate statement would be: As teachers, we're not doing our jobs in clearly showing our students what makes social Tango what it is, in guiding them strongly toward building fundamental skills before indulging their premature (and potentially dangerous) craving for the cotton candy of stage fantasies.
I'm counting on you teachers out there. And I'm absolutely begging students who really want to learn social Tango to search for teachers who'll keep away from the nonsense, and focus on such crucial ideas as the moment of truth.
Come on, I'm begging here.
April 20, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For this week's Tip I'm going to switch gears a bit, and shamelessly plug our next Workshop -- which (in case you haven't heard) will take place this coming Sunday, 12:30 -- 3:30, Pearl Studios, 500 Eighth Ave, (between 35th and 36th Streets).
As you know, I spend a lot of time, discussing with you in detail what I think good Tango dancing is all about. But sometimes I think you just have to kick out the jams, and have some fun! That's what this Workshop is for. Pat and I will, of course, offer you a wide variety of really useful moves, adornments, and other goodies -- as we always do at these events. (You can get additional information further down in today's Newsletter.)
The major reason we want you to be sure to join us, however, is the fun factor. People always tell us what a seriously great time they have, when they spend a Sunday afternoon with us. Once you take the plunge, and get yourself to the Big Apple by hook or crook, we think you'll definitely agree.
Sound like a plan? We look forward to the pleasure of your company.
April 13, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. This week I'm going to continue with our discussion of what I call "Level 2" Tango. As we've already established over the last three Tango Tips, this involves the use of three very specific skills, which enable a couple to collaborate with maximum effectiveness on the dance floor.
Last week, we put these three interacting skills into practical terms --
· We begin the process with the lead/follow collaboration.
· Our ultimate goal is to produce a single step.
· We end the process with balance.
Most of us are inclined to visualize partner dancing as an ongoing series of steps or figures -- which results in a continuous flow of movement. In fact, this might serve as a reasonable description of what we call "ballroom" dancing; i.e., Foxtrot, Waltz, Salsa, Swing, etc. However, this portrayal is not true of Tango. Quite to the contrary, Tango consists of a series of individual steps or movements, executed one at a time as complete, self-contained units. For each step we take, we have a beginning (lead/follow), a middle (single-step movement), and an end (balance). During the past two weeks, we've talked, first, about balance, and then about the lead/follow mechanism. This week, we'll focus on our ultimate goal: the execution of a single step.
First, let's talk about what we mean, when we say the word "step." If you travel to one side -- or if you go forward or backward, shifting your weight from one foot to the other -- any of these would be considered a step. Even if you simply shift your weight in place -- i.e., you don't actually travel through space -- we would still call this a step.
In Tango, our goal (in part, at least) is to be able to execute individual steps in partnership with someone else. We do this through the lead/follow mechanism -- rather than by pushing/pulling on the one hand, or by choreographic agreement (memorization) on the other. A unique characteristic of Tango is that at the end of every step we take, the leader and follower each find conscious balance -- independent of one another. The beginning of every step -- the lead/follow mechanism -- is interdependent; i.e., the leader invites, the follower responds. On the contrary, the balance at the end of each step, along with the actual movement itself are both independent. This simply means that the leader doesn't carry his partner through the duration of a movement nor does either partner assist the other in achieving balance.
Once balance has been achieved by both partners, the cycle of movement begins again: the lead/follow, the actual single step, and finally the balance. Of course, the follower has no idea what her partner has in mind after she has taken a single step. For this reason, she automatically brings herself into balance, and waits for the next lead. At no time does she anticipate what the leader may want in the next moment. She knows that it's her job to find the end of each self-contained cycle, and simply wait. Because the leader knows this, too, he also recognizes that it's his job to consciously invite/lead every single step he wants his partner to take -- rather than starting the ball rolling with step number one, and then letting momentum take over -- as we do (more or less) in ballroom dancing.
In my opinion, it is the conscious awareness of each element in this three-part process of movement that actually defines what social Tango is all about. Whenever you dance Tango, therefore, I encourage you to fully understand and concentrate on the appropriate execution not of some abstract pattern you may have memorized, but rather each element within the complete cycle of single-step movement as we've just been discussing during the last several Tango Tips. This is what will make you a better Tango dancer.
Try it, and you'll see for yourself that it works.
April 6, 2017
2. Lead/follow collaboration
3. Single-step movement
Last week, we discussed balance. Today, I'd like to talk about the lead/follow collaboration.During previous Tango Tips, I have defined and discussed this subject in great detail. For this reason, I'm not going to repeat myself here. My goal today is to stress the importance of lead/follow as a crucial component of the broader matrix of skill sets you need in order to become what I've been calling a "Level 2" Tango dancer.
By the way, whenever I address the issue of building a foundation, I find myself drawn irresistibly into a rant. (You may know by this time that I love to engage in rants.)
Anyway, sorry about that, but here goes. (Deep breath, please.)
As I have often remarked in the past, I find it curious (appalling, to be more precise) that students are not introduced to the mechanics of leading and following right from the start, when they study Tango with a teacher. To be sure, there is often some attempt made to advance the notion of "moving together," usually through the use of perhaps well-intended -- but in my opinion singularly ineffective -- fun and games activities. But from what I've observed, many Tango teachers don't really seem to care about or understand lead/follow themselves, and are, therefore, ill-prepared to instruct students appropriately.
Another obstacle to focusing on lead/follow right from the beginning is that the overwhelming majority of male students (you'll be shocked to learn) would much rather accumulate dance figures. Once they've mustered up the courage to finally get themselves out on the dance floor, what they really want is for someone to "show them the steps." If a well-meaning teacher now tries to steer them toward building a solid foundation for movement first, they almost invariably reject this learning trajectory out of hand, and make a beeline for the honeyed blandishments of YouTube.
Personally, I enjoy the unique luxury of teaching at the Argentine Consulate every week, where -- because the lessons are free -- I can insist that my students actually focus on learning to dance -- rather than blindly accumulating dance figures. "If you don't like it, you can leave," I find myself wanting to say (but don't).
The reality is that insisting on a mandatory foundational learning process would be difficult at best to get away with at a dance school, where the emphasis is on giving students what they want in order to keep their wallets in the active mode. In fact, I've often been advised by employers that the trick is to sneak the actual learning process in between the cracks. "Just try giving them the glitz they want, Fran, while infusing the lessons with real learning in the most painless way possible." Unfortunately, this approach just doesn't work. If at some point the student isn't exposed to real learning, they simply never learn.
Getting back now to the real (actually I mean ideal) world: If we put our three interacting skill sets into practical terms --
· Our ultimate goal is to produce a single step.
· We begin the process with the lead/follow collaboration.
· We end the process with balance.
If you can find yourself a teacher who values these elements, who knows how to teach these elements, and who will work with you to get these skill sets securely into your system, you will become a skilled social Tango dancer. If you don't, folks, trust me: you won't.
Okay, my rant for today is over. I can't tell you how much better I feel. Next week, we'll talk about the third of our foundational skill sets: single-step movement.
March 30, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When a "Level 1" student takes the plunge, and decides to pursue what I'm going to define here as "Level 2" Tango, she/he makes a commitment to becoming seriously and methodically involved in three specific, interconnected areas of study:
1. Conscious balance
2. The mechanics of lead/follow
3. The understanding and practice of progressive "single-step" movement
As we're going to learn during the next several posts, these three very specific skill sets work together to raise the quality and precision of a student's dancing significantly. In fact, they're indispensable to advancing as a social Tango dancer.
Today, we're going to talk about what I call "conscious balance." A great many dance students insist that they suffer from chronic problems with balance. Let me suggest right here and now that while such factors as age, adverse physical conditions, or inner ear problems can certainly have a negative impact on balance, I have actually come across very few people who have irreparable balance issues.
When we talk about balance in Tango, I believe that it's very important to add the word "conscious" to the equation. If you throw yourself into a movement without thinking about it, for example, the chances of "losing your balance" are much greater than if you plan in advance to achieve balance at the end of the step.
In my opinion, the main reason people experience difficulty with balance is that they really don't think about it at all. A leader, for example, may hurl himself and his unfortunate partner through space, trying to achieve his latest YouTube fantasy, and find that he ends up literally falling into his partner in the process. (Parenthetically, he will, of course, most likely blame her for the problem.) Conversely, a follower may cling to or lean on her leader either because she has developed the habit of doing so over time, or because her leader is running her around a room completely out of control. (How often does this happen on the dance floor?)
I've discussed the subject of balance at some length during previous Tango Tips, so I'm not going to repeat things we've already talked about. (You can go back into our Firehouse Tango archive to find the full discussion, if you're interested.) I do want to remind you, however, that in working with my students I place balance into four categories:
1. Individual balance at rest
2. Individual balance at the end of motion
3. Balance at rest with a partner
4. Balance at the end of motion with a partner
Developing a strong sense of consciousness with each of these types of balance will go a long way toward insuring that you find yourself able to consistently maintain equilibrium throughout a given dance.
Next week, we'll take a look at the subject of lead/follow, and see how this skill set works together with balance in putting you on the road to achieving "Level 2" competence. In the meantime, start really thinking about your balance. Start planning to achieve balance. See if that doesn't begin to make you feel steadier and more stable in your Tango.
My special thanks to Michael Ditkoff, who recently pointed out to me that my referring to Tango skill levels during previous posts as "Stage 1", "Stage 2," etc., raised an unfortunate allusion to categories often associated with cancer. For this reason, I'm henceforth changing the word "Stage" to "Level" in order to correct this impropriety
March 23, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Does the following describe your situation: You and your partner are up on the dance floor; you're moving around to the music; you're having a great time; and now you've decided that it's time for more? To put it another way: You're a "Stage One" Tango dancer, and you just can't wait to move up to "Stage Two."
For most of us, the next thing we want after we bite the bullet, and actually muster up the courage to get ourselves out on the dance floor is -- can you guess? Yes, that's right; you want "the steps."
"Okay we're here, we're ready, what do we DO?"
is, that is decidedly NOT "Stage Two" in the process of learning Tango. Before
we learn WHAT to do -- before we begin to accumulate those
1. HOW to use our bodies in moving ourselves as individuals.
2. HOW to interact as two people, learning the fine art of moving together.
This is the focus of "Stage Two" Tango.
To be more specific, what we need in order to advance from Stage One to Stage Two is to become acutely familiar with three crucial interconnected, interactive skill sets, and begin the intensely challenging process of incorporating them into our dancing. These three elements are the following:
3. "Progressive" movement
Stage Two is where the rubber really starts to meet the road in learning how to dance Tango. Without mastering these absolutely vital skill sets, a student's proficiency in Tango simply WILL NOT ADVANCE beyond the most rudimentary level. Unfortunately, this is exactly the place where so many students decide to bail out of the process.
"I'll pick this stuff up some other time, thanks. Right now, just show me the steps."
Ugh! The analogy I like to use here is that making this choice by the student is like being handed a scalpel, and saying, "okay, let's do a little brain surgery." It just doesn't work that way.
We could speculate on why students are reluctant to enthusiastically embrace the challenge of Stage Two Tango:
1. Their teachers don't know what Stage Two is (Very common)
2. Their teachers may realize its importance, but feel that it's not a money maker (I know, very cynical)
3. Students are caught up in the need for instant gratification in the form of flashy dance steps (Look at me, Mom!)
4. Students perceive Stage Two as just so hard (Yes, but so rewarding, too!)
But you're not like that. You recognize that in order to become a better -- well, in fact, a competent -- Tango dancer, you simply MUST work your way through the heavy lifting of Stage Two skill development. Congratulations! Let's get to it. Next week, we'll talk about the first component of Stage Two: Balance.
Balance. What is it? Is it necessary for dancing Tango? Do you have it? Can you really find balance in a dance partnership? I love talking about balance.
Are you ready?
March 16, 2017
March 2 & 9, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. The question students ask me most often about Tango is "How long will it take me to learn?" They're excited; they're motivated; they're pumped! They want it NOW, but okay, tomorrow or maybe next week will do, if absolutely necessary!
And you know what? I get it, really I do. I remember asking the same question myself about 30 years ago, when I first started my own Tango studies. Will it be a matter of days? Weeks? A month or two? "I pick things up pretty quickly," I thought. "If it's like most other dances I know, it'll be no more than a couple of weeks -- I mean, I'm a pro, right?"
Oh boy (sigh). Fat chance. Crash and burn.
Anyway, let's get real. I'm going to try answering the "how long" question as honestly as I can. Let's start by assessing what the word "dancing" actually means. There was a time, when "dancing" meant little more than actually being up on the floor, moving around together -- rather than sitting out every dance, because the man "didn't know how to do it." Women would feel they had to drag their husbands or boyfriends to a dance lesson, not because they wanted them to start a "Dancing with the Stars" performance career, but just because they wanted to convince them that being on the dance floor wouldn't kill them. If the dance lesson succeeded in getting his highness out on the floor, the lady of the house was in heaven.
This leads us to an answer to the big question: "How long will it take to learn Tango?" Are you and your partner able to get up on the dance floor, form the embrace in some way or other, and move from one foot to the next with the music playing? If so, you're dancing Tango. I mean, you're really dancing Tango right now. Of course, you're not dancing at what we might call a super high level. But you're out there, the music is playing, the lady is smiling .. what could be better? We'll refer to this as Stage One of knowing how to dance Tango.
How does that sound? From now on, if someone asks you the big question, feel free to tell them, "Yes, I know how to dance Tango." And you do, you do, you do. But the next question is, are you happy being limited to Stage One? If so, eat, drink, dance, and be merry! On the other hand, if you'd like to progress a little further, be sure to read next week's Tango Tip. That's when we'll talk about "knowing how to dance Tango -- Stage Two."
February 23, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Let's talk about what kind of Tango student you are. How much do you really -- I mean really -- want to learn how to dance Tango? I'm going to describe a few different categories, and ask you to be the judge as to just where you place yourself in the student spectrum.
This student eats, sleeps, and breathes Tango 24/7. He/she embraces the process of learning as a necessary condition of improving over time. She/he takes regular, ongoing private lessons with a legitimate social Tango instructor, supplements these with solid, progressive classes, and visits the available milongas at least three times per week. Although this student seeks out other dancers who are committed to the process of serious learning, he/she welcomes the opportunity to dance with anyone who's willing, because she/he recognizes that one can learn a great deal from interacting with students at every level of skill.
This student feels he/she would really love to learn Tango, but can't seem to find the time or money to take ongoing lessons. Private instruction is just out of the question due to its prohibitive expense, and classes never seem to be scheduled at convenient times to fit in with her/his other commitments. He/she is too tired after work to even think about heading out to amilonga, where there's no one to dance with anyway. (Maybe tomorrow night would work.) If only she/he had a regular partner ... oh well, that's not going to happen anytime soon. Gee, if only things were different ... what's on TV tonight?
This student likes the idea of maybe knowing how to dance Tango, but when it comes to an actual commitment to learning, well, that's another story. He/she has already put in enough effort with high school and/or college -- and/or (ugh!) job training. And besides, a lot can be picked up from YouTube these days, if one really wants to put in the time, right? Life is short. Why waste it on more schooling?
Do you fit into any of these categories? Maybe you have your own special category, one which I haven't described here. In any event, right now, today, this minute, you're either learning Tango or you're coming up with reasons (dare we call them excuses?) why you just can't seem to manage it.
Let's face the bottom line. Would you like to learn Tango? In my opinion, there's only one way, sisters and brothers. You have to go Category 1 all the way, and just do it!!! (Reread the description of a Category 1 Tango hurricane, and get swept up, starting today!)
Ahhhhhh ... I can feel the breeze, starting to pick up. Maybe, that's you putting your Tango shoes on.
February 2, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the questions I get from students all the time is: "How long will it take me to learn Tango?" The other day, a student told me that she had been able to learn Salsa in "only one lesson." She followed this unlikely assertion with the suggestion that "Teachers sometimes just try to drag out the lessons so they end up making more money on students."
When I was learning how to dance -- more than (ahem) fifty years ago -- I was constantly reminded by the Arthur Murray, Fred Astaire, or Dale organizations (these were once very popular dance schools that some younger students may never have even heard of that "Learning to dance is easy!" All I had to do was memorize the patterns from Arthur's books. Or maybe take a few brush-up lessons with one of Fred's highly qualified teachers. Within a matter of months -- possibly weeks, even days! -- I'd be burning up the floor with the best of them.
It turns out that Arthur, Fred, and all the other professionals were not quite telling me the truth in their efforts to secure my ongoing patronage. Would I go so far as to say they were absolutely lying to me?
The truth is that social dancing is a major skill. Learning to interact in a collaborative, lead/follow relationship with another person in order to achieve apparently effortless harmony is an extremely difficult, complex process, one that takes many years -- if not a lifetime -- to accomplish. Parenthetically, many would-be dancers find themselves turning from lead/follow to memorized choreography, because it's just so much easier. In fact, the entire basis of virtually all dance school pedagogy is the accumulation of memorized patterns. When lead/follow is taught at all in dance schools, nobody attends the class.
Would you like the process of learning to dance to be faster than it actually is? Would you like it to be easier? No problem, my friend. Just climb aboard the magic express to success. No need to waste countless hours in the dreaded learning zone. We'll get you where you want to go right now -- today! In the door of ignorance and out the door of expertise. Some of our students actually learn all they need to know in a matter of minutes!
Oh, and while you're at it, we have a bridge you might be interested in buying.
January 26, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. You may not remember this, but there was a time, when partner dancing was considered a benign social activity in which people spent time together in a genteel, delightful way. In general, women tended to enjoy dancing more than men did -- so men sometimes had to have their arms gently twisted in order to get started. But once they took the plunge, most usually found social dancing to be more fun than they had anticipated, and everyone lived happily thereafter.
Cut to the world we now seem to inhabit:
"Every guy I try to dance with thinks he's an expert, and I'm an idiot."
"She just can't keep up with me; I have push her around to stay with the music."
"He's got his own agenda, and I'm not a part of it."
"Check out this great step I just picked up from YouTube. I need a partner who can do that."
"Sometimes, I sit here all night without anyone asking me to dance."
"She walked off the floor right in the middle of the song -- who does she think she is?"
"I just won't dance with beginners."
"If she's not up to my speed, she's not on my dance card."
"No, (bleep) you!!"
How have things come to this? Is there anybody out there who would willingly join this party, if you knew in advance what to expect? Who is to blame for this kind of behavior? Personally, I find myself utterly appalled at some of the conduct that goes on routinely in our Tango community.
What do you think of this way of acting? And more to the point, what do you think can be done to change it?
Because ultimately, it's entirely up to you. If you make a personal commitment to never, ever behave in ways like this yourself, you will become a point of light for change. If you refuse to tolerate this kind of malignancy in the people around you, they'll be forced to rethink their actions -- or find somewhere else to go. If we join hands as a group to root out such behavior, our community will eventually return to what it should have been all along -- a safe, fun environment for putting away the frustrations of daily living, and finding pleasure in the joys of social dance.
Would you like that? In the end, it's all up to you.
January 19, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In Tango, important concepts often come in groups of three. Today, we're going to focus on what happens -- or, more precisely, what we hope will happen -- during the beginning of each movement you make in the dance.
The way our mentor and good friend the late Carlos Gavito used to express it to Pat and me was: "I lead, she follows, I accompany."
Let's break this apparently simply (but, in fact, extremely complex) idea down into its individual components:
In order to initiate any of the six primary movements in social Tango (forward, backward, to the side, in-place, pause, pivot), it is necessary for the leader to offer an invitation. To do this, he makes use of the lead/follow mechanism. We've talked about how this mechanism is used many times during these Tango Tips, and therefore I won't redefine its intricacies here. Suffice it to say, the lead/follow mechanism consists of a very specific, very precise series of interrelated tools or signals, which the leader brings to bear in suggesting or inviting his follower to implement a single step.
Once the follower receives and understands the invitation offered by her leader, she responds by executing a single movement from its inception all the way to completion (balance). She does this independently of the leader, neither waiting for him to "carry" her through the step nor rushing to respond. Her action ends, when her balance is secure.
As the leader feels that the follower has understood his intention and is physically taking action, he takes a corresponding action of his own by way of accompaniment. He literally "goes with her" as an escort -- rather than, say, pushing or urging her through her response. In a way, the leader is now "following the follower" for the duration of the movement -- until eventually both partners come into balance independently by way of completing the action.
The concept of accompanying the follower as she responds to the invitation is difficult to understand in the abstract. It has to be experienced within the context of the physical lead/follow collaboration, which takes place during a given movement in the dance. A couple new to this dynamic may feel that their connection becomes momentarily lost as the leader allows his follower to execute an action on her own -- rather than physically "guiding" her through it. However, once this very important dynamic is understood, both partners will begin to recognize that not only does this facilitate ease and comfort during a step, it enables the follower to effectively find her own independent balance at the end of every movement.
From the leader's standpoint, this way of interacting with a partner -- inviting, then gently accompanying -- is the collaboration I'm referring to, when I use the phrase "your dance is her dance." You give your follower something to do, you notice that she is receiving your message and physically taking action, and you join her in a way of your own choosing until the step is over -- after which the cycle begins again for the next step.
This way of interacting is not easy to accomplish at first. It demands a great deal of skill and patience on the part of both leader and follower. However, when you as a couple finally achieve this way of moving together, you'll now be dancing social Tango in precisely the right way.
Asi se baila el tango.
January 12, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Just before the New Year, I introduced three inter-related concepts, which I suggested might actually revolutionize your Tango for the New Year and beyond:
1. Slowing Down
3. Attaining the "magic moment"
In our Tango Tip last week, we addressed the second idea: stopping. Today, we're going to talk about the third and final concept in our series: The "magic moment."
The "magic moment"
At its best, social Tango is all about possibilities. The leader begins the dance by relating to a piece of music, guiding a follower step-by-step through an improvisation which has been chosen in the moment, leading her with precision, confidence, and gentleness. The follower responds to each invitation by executing each invited movement in turn, bringing herself into balance at the conclusion of every individual step, waiting in this state of equilibrium for the next lead. When I work with a follower during a private lesson, I usually refer this action as "bringing herself into neutral."
Today, I'm going to call this the magic moment.
When a follower is allowed by her leader to finish a movement in balance; i.e., to come to rest on one leg in an upright position without feeling the need to continue moving in any direction, this is the magic moment. This is the moment in the dance, when the magic of improvisation is at its most potent, the moment when all things become possible.
There are two potential impediments to the follower being able to achieve this ideal state at the end of any given step:
1. The first is a leader who fails to enable the follower to find balance.
2. The second is the follower herself, who may simply continue to move without consciousness until she is forced to stop by the leader.
If a leader's awareness is focused exclusively on executing a memorized sequence -- in which he concentrates solely on his own movements with little or no regard for what his follower is supposed to be doing -- the follower will have no chance of bringing herself into balance during any part of the figure. The solution to this dilemma is for the leader to allow the follower to achieve balance at the end of each individual step within the figure -- before leading the next step. This requires significant skill, but it is crucial in maintaining the integrity of the dance.
On the other hand, if the follower is somehow unaware of her responsibility to bring herself into balance at every opportunity, her inclination will most likely be to treat every step she takes as a launching pad for continuous movement. Once again, the integrity of the dance is thereby compromised beyond saving. Only when the follower becomes acutely conscious of the need to find upright balance at the end of a single step or where appropriate during a complex sequence of steps will she be properly fulfilling her role in the Tango collaboration.
Slowing down during the dance, learning to consciously incorporate stops, and finding the "magic moment" at the end of every step -- these actions will almost instantaneously make you a better leader or follower. Try incorporating these elements into your Tango for the New Year, and enjoy the very positive results you'll achieve.
January 5, 2017
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During our last Tip, I introduced three inter-related concepts, which (I claimed) might possibly revolutionize your Tango for the New Year and beyond. These are the following:
1. Slow Down
3. The "magic moment"
In our Tango Tip last week, we addressed the general idea of slowing down. This alone will go a very long way toward making your dancing better. Today, we're going to talk about a highly specialized skill, which will serve to add balance and precision to your overall movement. It's called the stop.
The ability -- and therefore the option --of being able to bring yourself to a complete stop at the end of any individual forward, backward, or sideward step is (in my opinion, at least) an absolutely crucial skill for anyone who wants to dance social Tango at a high level. And yet, stopping is not only overlooked by the majority of students, it is generally rejected as a tool in the arsenal of Tango proficiency. Although it should be quite obvious to anyone observing good dance practice among Argentine social dancers, many of us (people in this country) seem utterly oblivious to its importance.
One of the assertions I hear constantly from highly skilled, professional Argentine dancers is that they have personally spent several years "learning to walk." When such individuals become teachers themselves, they often incorporate this process into their own pedagogical approach. Its purpose is no doubt to clearly focus their own students' efforts on mastering the fundamentals of the dance before undertaking more complex structures and sequences. Thus, it is very common to see students in a class, all in a single line, walking around the dance floor -- attempting to pay careful attention to such elements as posture, precise foot placement, thrust from one step to the next, etc.
With most American dance students -- as virtually all teachers find out rather quickly -- interest in and concentration on such repetitious activity generally has a lifespan of about one minute. After that, their eyes begin to roll, and they impatiently want to move on to such subjects as -- oh, I don't know, let's see -- how about a few elaborate, multi-part stage sequences. "That's what we want. We'll learn how to walk later, okay?"
Furthermore, even those enlightened students who recognize the value of such foundational training usually miss out on one of the most important elements of walking -- yes, you guessed it -- stopping. Why? Because even the most well-meaning teachers generally tend to omit this in their teaching. How could this conceivably be the case? I think it's because stopping is so inherently a part of the way dancers from Argentina move themselves that they completely take this "invisible" skill for granted. They already have this in their blood, and they assume everyone else does, too.
Except, of course, that we don't.
To remedy this situation, I urge all instructors of Tango everywhere in the world to make this the year they start bringing the stop front and center in their teaching agenda. To my way of thinking, this might possibly be the single most important concept a student of social Tango can be exposed to. And next week -- as I address part 3 of our essential skill trilogy -- "the magic moment" -- we'll find out exactly why.