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. He is a also very successful freelance writer, who even takes over this newsletter when I’m out.
December 27, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Recently, Pat and I had the pleasure of being guests of honor at a special Tango event, held at the Argentine Consulate in New York City where Alicia Cruzado and I have been teaching every week for close to 18 years. (Pat joined the team several years ago after retiring from her job.)
Lots of people who have studied Tango with me over the years were on hand for the festivities. One fellow — let’s call him Ralph — made a point of coming up to let me know how much his Tango had improved. I listened intently to Ralph’s detailed description of all the things I regularly tell my students (assuming, of course, that he was crediting his improvements to my teaching). I decided that when he was finished praising my skills as a teacher, I would tell him that, on the contrary, it was really the perseverance of the student in assimilating the material and practicing diligently that made the difference.
Modesty is so attractive, don’t you think?
Then, Ralph mentioned in passing that he actually owed all his improvements to a young martial arts teacher, whom he had recently met.
What?????? I sputtered. He hadn’t even noticed all the things I had been telling him for years. His life had been suddenly (miraculously!) transformed by a non-dancer, who didn’t know anything at all about Tango.
I watched Ralph as he demonstrated his newly discovered prowess as a dancer. He was obviously very proud of his achievement, and couldn’t wait to show everyone in the room what he had accomplished.
The problem was that Ralph, who used to dance like a wild man out to stuff every possible badly-led performance sequence into his repertoire, had now replaced his previous modus operandi with a ponderous, stiff — yet somehow obsequious — overly simplified vocabulary of junk movement. (Sort of like a martial artist who was unsuccessfully trying to look like a Tango dancer.)
I briefly thought of suggesting to Ralph that he consider taking a few lessons from a qualified Tango teacher. But I was certain that he wouldn’t listen — at least not for the time being. Ralph was on a roll.
Oh well. Time to move on.
Pat and I want to wish all of you a very joyous holiday season, and a wonderful New Year, glittering with all the goodies you could possibly ask for. Oh, and by the way, if any of you would like to take a few free classes at the Argentine Consulate in New York, please join us every Wednesday at 12:00 p.m. We look forward to seeing you.
December 20, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, we’re going to conclude our discussion of the “invitation/response cycle for lead/follow,” which we’ve been talking about for the past several weeks. As you’ll remember, we defined this cycle as consisting of four distinct phases:
1. I invite an action.
2. The follower responds to my invitation by executing the action.
3. I monitor her response.
4. I become the follower as I accompany her action.
In today’s Tip, we’ll turn to the fourth and final element of the cycle: “I become the follower as I accompany her action.”
In the American/European social dance tradition, the lead/follow mechanism is quite different from what we’re talking about here. I’m not going to examine the differences in any depth during this discussion. However, the idea of the leader “becoming the follower” as he accompanies his partner’s movement is noteworthy.
According to the late Carlos Gavito, the right way to interact with the follower as she travels is to accompany — but to enable her to act independently; i.e., without the leader in any way attempting to control her movement. This means that from the moment the leader offers his invitation (the lead), he and his follower become independent of one another as she moves — all the way through her balance at the end of the step.
At that point, the cycle begins again with his next invitation.
In our American tradition, we guide or “carry” the follower through each step as she travels through space. It isn’t that we actually pick her up and move her. But we definitely exercise an element of control over what she does from the beginning to the end of any given movement.
In fact — and I say this with regret — this is actually what the majority of social Tango dancers in this country do as well. They’re not aware of lead/follow as Carlos Gavito described it. They have no idea of what an “invitation/response cycle” is. If they lead at all, they tend to simply push/shove/wrestle their followers through a YouTube-derived inappropriate performance figure.
Why is this the case? In other disciplines, people spend considerable time, learning the fundamentals before they attempt more complex elements. If you want to hit home runs, you first have to learn how to swing a bat. If you want to sing operatic arias, you first have to develop appropriate vocal production. Why is it that social Tango students think they can head for the spotlight after their first lesson?
Without harping on the reasons for this absurd behavior, I’m going to make a suggestion, folks. Take a tip from Carlos Gavito, and investigate the invitation/response cycle. If your teacher doesn’t know what that is, find one who does. This is the only way you’re going to become the Tango dancer you want to be. There just aren’t any shortcuts.
December 13, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Picking up where we left off last week, we’re going to continue our discussion of the “invitation/response cycle for lead/follow.” You’ll remember that we defined this cycle as consisting of four distinct phases:
1. I invite an action.
2. The follower responds to my invitation by executing the action.
3. I monitor her response.
4. I become the follower as I accompany her action.
Today, we turn to the third element of the cycle: “I monitor her response.”
What this means, very basically, is that the leader observes his partner’s reaction to the invitation he has just given her in order to make certain that she is actually in the process of executing the movement he has asked for. You may be thinking, “Well, of course, it goes without saying that she’s going to do what I asked.” But any skilled leader knows from experience that this isn’t necessarily the case. For example: If the lead is not quite as clear as it should be, or if the follower is distracted in the moment — she may either not react at all, or possibly do something else entirely.
For reasons such as these, monitoring her response is an absolutely crucial part of the invitation/response cycle. “Yes, she’s doing exactly what I asked for, and we can continue with my improvisation,” or, “Oops, she isn’t responding in the way I planned with my invitation, and I now have to somehow deal with the problem in communication.”
Let me stress here that this whole discussion applies specifically to the social dance, and the unique combination of skills, which make improvised movement possible. On the other hand, within the sphere of choreography — the world occupied by performers — such considerations don’t have any relevance whatever. What this boils down to is that if your teacher’s orientation is tango fantasia; i.e., performance, rather than social dance, the idea of an invitation/response cycle will almost certainly have very little meaning. If what you want is lots of fancy steps and sequences, this is fine. However, if your goal is to learn how to dance, you may eventually have to consider looking for another teacher.
December 6, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I’m going to continue with our discussion of what I am now referring to as the “invitation/response cycle for lead/follow.” (We started this thread back in the middle of November, so you might want to go back and look at the Tango Tips of November 8th and November 15th in order to bring yourself back up to speed.) As stated in those Tips, we defined this cycle as consisting of four distinct phases:
1. I invite an action.
2. The follower responds to my invitation by executing the action.
3. I monitor her response.
4. I become the follower as I accompany her action.
In the November 15th Tango Tip, we talked about phase one of the cycle: “I invite an action.” This week I want to turn to phase two: “The follower responds to my invitation by executing the action.”
Assuming that a follower understands the lead/follow mechanism (or what I’m now referring to as the invitation/response cycle), she is well aware of the body language cues, which she can expect from her leader for producing movement within the dance.
For example: If the leader lowers his torso slightly (by flexing at the knees), and immediately thereafter takes a traveling step to one side, the knowledgeable follower understands that she has been invited to join him in also moving to the side. She also understands that it is not his traveling movement that produces her side step. Rather, it is his initial indication of intention to her that a side step has been invited, which actually instigates her movement.
To be more specific, the leader does not invite her to take the action, and then proceed to carry her through that action (as might be appropriate in various American/European Ballroom disciplines). Instead, both the leader and follower fully expect that she will act on her own in executing the movement all the way through to balance — without in any way being helped or carried by the leader.
What is important to recognize here is that the follower’s response to the initial invitation (which is interdependent) belongs completely to her. It is totally independent. This does not mean that she has a choice in whether or not to response to the lead. Her job in the invitation/response cycle is to receive — and execute (respond to) — each invitation as it is offered. What it does mean is that when she receives the invitation, she is no longer under the control of the leader in delivering her response. She correctly says to herself, “okay, I know what you’re asking me to do, and I’m going to do it now.”
This idea is misunderstood by many unknowledgeable leaders and followers. For instance, a leader might offer a half-hearted or in some way inadequate invitation, and then expect his follower to wait until he actually carries her through the invited movement. On the other hand, a follower might feel the lead, but think that she needs further encouragement to take action.
Both these notions are false. Once the invitation has been given, it is up to the follower to take action no matter what. Furthermore, it is completely up to the follower to bring herself into balance at the end of any action. It is never the leader’s responsibility to provide assistance in bringing her to a stop.
In many actual dance situations, of course, many leaders constantly try to control every aspect of their followers’ movements, including their end-of-step balance. At the same time, many followers chronically lean on their partners in order to hold themselves up in the misguided idea that this is what is meant by the dance connection. Both these false notions constitute inappropriate dance practice.
Next week, we’ll discuss what the leader does as his follower is responding to his lead.
November 29, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In our last Tip, we began a discussion of what I often call the “lead/follow mechanism” — the complex skill set which determines how the leader and follower interact in order to produce a step. As you’ve heard me say many times in the past, this is in my opinion the essential foundation for dancing social Tango with a fundamental degree of skill and competence. Once this skill set has been learned (and maintained), the student will tend to have very little difficulty in assimilating more advanced Tango skills. Conversely, if the lead/follow foundation is not learned properly, dancing social Tango with a partner will always be quite uncomfortable — and taking on advanced material will always be elusive, if not virtually impossible.
As stated last week, based on a series of discussions I had some years ago with the renowned Tango dancer/teacher Carlos Gavito, I have decided to change the way I describe the lead/follow skill set from “the lead/follow mechanism” to “the invitation/response cycle.” As mentioned last week, I do this because I think this alternative terminology more accurately reflects what actually occurs between the leader and follower during the dance.
As Carlos said to me on many occasions: “I invite her [the follower] to take an action. She responds. I monitor her response; I become the follower as I accompany her action.” This expression of the lead/follow mechanism — or invitation/response cycle as I will henceforth refer to this skill set — can be characterized as four distinct phases:
1. I invite an action.
2. The follower responds to my invitation by executing the action.
3. I monitor her response.
4. I become the follower as I accompany her action.
Today, I want to address the first of these elements; i.e., “I invite an action.”
To begin with, when I teach, I like to break any individual step in social Tango down into three consecutive components:
1. Defining the action through the application of the lead/follow mechanism
2. Executing the action by the follower (accompanied by the leader)
3. Balancing at the end of the step
In this first component of the step, we have the initial phase of the invitation/response cycle; i.e., “I invite an action.” It is within this phase that the act of designating what the leader wants the follow to do occurs. Using special body language (which we’ve talked about many times in the past), the leader issues a specific invitation; e.g., “I would like you to execute a back step.” This phase of the invitation/response cycle is interdependent; i.e., the leader and follower employ physical connection in order to effect the two-way communication. The leader does not in any way insist. Rather, he uses body language to gently — and precisely — make a definite proposal. For her part, the follower receives the proposal, and — in keeping with her role in the dance — accepts this invitation by preparing to take action.
In reality, of course, this first phase of the invitation/response cycle occurs within no more than a split second. From here, the partners move into phase two of the cycle; i.e., “the follower responds to the leader’s invitation by executing the action.” This is what we’ll talk about next week.
In the meantime, if you’re a leader, try to start thinking about each lead as an invitation rather than a demand (meaning please don’t push, shove, or carry your partner into the step you want her to execute). If you’re a follower, start recognizing that a lead is a gentle call to action — one that you should certainly accept in accordance with your role as follower — but not an action, which you should compulsively rush to execute. A competent leader will know that you need a little time to respond, and will always make every effort to give you that time.
November 8, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the subjects you’ve heard me talk about again and again in these pages is what I refer to as the lead/follow mechanism. I do this, of course, because I believe that lead/follow is the essential foundation for dancing social Tango with any degree of skill and competence.
During previous Tango Tips, I have described in great detail what I believe to be the essential elements of lead/follow. Today, I want to explore a somewhat more complex characterization of this crucial skill set, one that I think will more fully embody the manner in which Argentine social dancers actually interact with one another. I base this discussion on a series of highly focused conversations/lessons I had the good fortune and privilege to engage in some years ago with the late Carlos Gavito, a close friend, Tango mentor, and principle dancer in the world-famous Tango extravaganza, “Forever Tango.”
When discussing what actually occurs between a leader and a follower during the dance, Carlos said on many occasions, “I invite her [the follower] to take an action. She responds. I monitor her response; I become the follower as I accompany her action.”
I believe that within this deceptively simple expression, we find the very essence of the lead/follow mechanism:
1. I invite an action.
2. The follower responds to my invitation by executing the action.
3. I monitor her response.
4. I become the follower as I accompany her action.
Over the next several Tango Tips, I plan to explore each of these elements individually in order to clarify what they mean, and how each contributes to the execution of each movement in the dance by a leader and follower. For purposes of this ongoing discussion, I am going to rename the words “lead” and “follow” to “invite” and “respond.” Instead of the terminology I’ve been using to date; i.e., “the lead follow mechanism,” I’m going to call this skill set “the invitation/response cycle.” As we will see, this newly coined terminology is designed to far more appropriately define what actually occurs between the leader and follower in the collaborative execution of a single step in the dance.
Please join me next week for Part 1: “I invite an action.”
November 1, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’ve been following this latest series of Tips, I’m sure you’re aware that this is the final week (Week Eight) of our look at the qualities I think you need in order to become a good Tango dancer. Here’s one more listing of these qualities:
5. A good sense of humor
6. A good teacher
8. Natural ability
Today, we’re going to talk about natural ability. You’ll notice right away that I’ve placed this quality at the bottom of my list. My reason for this is that although I think natural ability is a great asset to have, I’ve come to believe that it is far less important than any of the other qualities we’ve been discussing as prerequisites to becoming a good Tango dancer. That said, let’s take a look at what I consider to be natural ability as it relates to dancing Tango.
When I observe student behavior in one of my classes or private lessons, one of the first things I notice is whether or not they possess “natural ability.” Here’s what I mean:
Movement and balance
If I ask students with this quality to take a few forward steps, for example, they generally tend to move with what I would call “effortless grace,” and always end in comfortable balance. Students without this quality usually move quite tentatively, and often have significant difficulty with balance (at least, initially) at the end of steps.
If I play a piece of Tango music and ask students with natural ability to walk “in time,” they almost always respond by keeping virtually perfect time as they walk. Students without this quality tend to move sporadically, not keeping consistent time with the music, and, in fact, possibly not responding to the music in any rhythmically appropriate manner at all.
If I ask a couple with natural ability to move together — to take a few steps forward, backward, or to the side, for example — they will generally find a way to interact more or less comfortably with one another, even without training. On the other hand, the couple without this quality will tend to push and pull, and eventually give up trying to interact at all.
These are a few of my own criteria for observing “natural ability.” By the same token I can almost always recognize whether any given student has some sort of prior training in dance, martial arts, or athletic endeavors. In such cases, training may have enhanced natural ability, or possibly overcome an initial absence of this quality.
Usually, it is very difficult for me to tell the difference between someone who is naturally gifted and someone who has achieved a certain level of skill through a progressive learning process. This is really the important point I want to make here. Such skill sets as appropriate individual movement and balance, precise musicality, and well-developed lead/follow connections can be taught, can be learned, and can be practiced by virtually any student and/or couple — to the extent that the advantages of natural ability have become all but irrelevant. Far more essential are the first seven qualities we’ve been discussing throughout this extended series of Tango Tips.
The bottom line is that if you want to become a good Tango dancer, take a serious look at these qualities —most especially the first — commitment to the process. How much do you really want to achieve mastery of this unique social dance? How far are you willing to go to get there?
In the long run, it’s entirely up to you.
October 25, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’ve been following this latest series of Tips, you’re perhaps aware that this is Week Seven of our look at the qualities I think you need in order to become a good Tango dancer. In case you haven’t memorized the list by now, here it is again:
5. A good sense of humor
6. A good teacher
8. Natural ability
Today, we’re going to discuss money. No doubt, you’ve heard the saying, “The best things in life are free.” Well, that may be true, but the part they always leave out is, “Except for dance lessons.”
That’s right, dance lessons do indeed cost money — sometimes way too much, if you’re not careful. Regular classes can be anywhere from $25 per visit to upwards of $50 or more. Workshops usually start at $40, and can be as much as $500 (no kidding!), depending on the total length of the commitment, and who’s doing the teaching. And private lessons? These days, (at least, if you live in New York City) you can expect to pay a minimum of $100 per hour, and if you want to book a lesson with one of the superstars, the sky’s the limit!
Personally, I really don’t think you can learn how to dance Tango without taking lessons. But at the same time, I fully recognize that the idea of spending a ton of money on the process can be pretty unwelcome.
What, then, is the alternative? How can you learn this complex dance without going broke? To some extent, it depends on what your expectations are. If your goal is to become a professional Tango dancer, I’d say that that you have no viable option except to move to Buenos Aires, find the best teacher or school you can, and be prepared to break the bank for at least five years of very, very hard work. Fortunately, most of us neither want nor need that intense level of involvement in order to become credible social dancers.
What I think is needed a regular, ongoing connection with a seriously competent teacher, from whom you can obtain progressive classes and (at least occasional) private instruction. That means you ought to be prepared to spend some amount of money from week to week for your class ($20-$30 isn’t unreasonable), and maybe $60-$100 every once in a while for a private lesson. If you want to make faster progress, you can take more privates; but, of course, that ups the financial ante.
As I write this, I know deep in my heart that you — yes, I mean you — sincerely believe that you can get all you need to know about Tango without having to fork over all that moolah to some greedy, money-grubbing teacher. You can just pick up a few free classes before a milonga, watch a couple of YouTube videos, ask your friends what to do … stuff like that. In no time, you’ll be dancing up a storm.
Wrong. It just doesn’t work that way, dear sisters and brothers. Yes, you can score some superficial information about Tango. Yes, you can accumulate a catalog of dance figures (which you actually won’t be able to execute with any degree of competence). Yes, you can watch as your favorite Tango star blows your mind with all those neat adornments. But actually learn to dance? I’m afraid not.
It turns out that as far as Tango is concerned, the best things in life just aren’t free. You can beat your head against a wall, wishing it were so. You can try to fake it. You can blame all your partners for not being good enough. But in the long run, if you want to come up with the goods, you’re going to have to put some money on the table.
I know this is not what you necessarily want to hear. But the sooner you face this unpleasant reality, the sooner you’re going to learn how to dance Tango.
Next week, we’re going to wrap up this thread by talking about natural ability.
October 18, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. For those of you who’ve been following our Tango Tips, this is Week Six of our examination of the qualities I think you need in order to become a good Tango dancer. Here’s the list once more:
5. A good sense of humor
6. A good teacher
8. Natural ability
Today, we’re going to talk about teachers. We’ll discuss whether you really need a teacher at all to learn Tango. We’ll address taking a casual approach; e.g., joining a group lesson every once in a while, or maybe before a dance event. We’ll discuss the idea of multiple teachers over time — the “workshop junkie” strategy. We’ll look at the YouTube/video shortcut way of learning. Finally, we’ll talk about regular, ongoing private lessons with a single teacher.
Do you need a teacher to learn Tango?
My answer to this question would be the following: If you were born in Argentina, if you grow up in a family of dancers, if you decide to live your life spending the majority of your time in the milongas, surrounded by top-level dancers who are going to show you the ropes by example, and if you give yourself twenty to thirty years to complete your on-the-job training, you might eventually become a good dancer. The key word here is might. It’s not guaranteed by any means, but it’s possible.
On the other hand, if you’re like most of us who live in countries other than Argentina — or maybe Uruguay — some form of teaching is, I think, absolutely essential.
Can a little teaching go a long way?
Okay, you bite the bullet and decide to take a few lessons here and there. You make a commitment to join the regular group lesson before a weekly milonga. What’s the harm? You might even go as far as signing up for a class. What the heck; it’s only once a week for a month. That should do the trick, right?
Well, in fact, wrong. You might have some fun doing these things, you might get to hang out with some nice people, but actually learning how to dance Tango — maybe the most difficult, most complex social dance there is on the planet?
What about Tango workshops?
If you spend any time at all checking out Tango on the Internet, you know that there are lots (and lots) of special workshops available that you can sign up for. Pick your favorite famous Tango maestro. He or she is probably offering a workshop you can’t afford to miss in the very near future. Or a group of heavyweights has gotten together to bring you a full week of non-stop Tango immersion bliss somewhere really super-duper where you might like to spend some quality time anyway. Isn’t it a given that exposure to multiple viewpoints — by the best of the best — is the fast track to Tango mastery?
Definitely yes, if you read (and believe) the advertising. Probably no, as you may have already found out for yourself by actually engaging in this very questionable, ultimately extremely illusive — not to mention seriously expensive — way of trying to learn Tango. The big question students usually ask themselves at the end of one of these don’t-miss-it, blowout events is “Can I actually remember what I learned here?”
Now, I’m not saying that all workshops are without value. Pat and I conduct workshops ourselves from time to time. I think they’re terrific as a way to supplement your ongoing learning process. But if you think they’re a substitute for the regularity of a progressive learning process — if you’re addicted to workshops — I seriously believe that you’re kidding yourself.
Can’t I get everything I need from YouTube?
As we all know, the Internet these days is loaded with tons of in-depth information about every conceivable subject imaginable. If you “google” Argentine Tango, the stream of possibilities that you’ll see will be endless. If your idea of dancing is accumulating figures and sequences — or maybe adornments — this is absolutely the place for you. The same would be true of dance videos. Nine out of ten, nineteen out of twenty, ninety nine out of a hundred, focus more or less exclusively on pre-fabricated, choreographed, usually highly complicated dance steps. That’s what everyone wants, of course, and so that’s what sells.
The problem is that if you actually want to learn how to dance, YouTube and dance videos are all largely useless. Virtually all these things offer the same message: Here’s some really neat stuff you can do after — the operative word being after —you know how to dance.
How do you learn how to dance? After going through the casual lesson-once-in-a-while approach, after hitting the workshop junkie trail for months, maybe years, and after going on YouTube and dance videos, the challenge that remains staring you in the face is: How do you learn how to dance Tango?
What’s the best way to learn Tango?
I may be a bit prejudiced here, but in my opinion the best way to learn Tango — in fact, I think, the only viable way if you weren’t born and raised in Argentina — is to make an ongoing commitment to long-term private instruction by a single teacher whom you come to know and trust. Every other method we’ve talked about here has merit, but they’re all severely limited in terms of taking you from being someone who doesn’t know how to dance to someone who does. In the private lesson, you work closely with one teacher.
You get to know him/her. He/she gets to know you. Over time, you form an intimate relationship (I’m talking about dance here, folks!), in which you very gradually progress from ground zero to relative mastery of what (let’s call) the fundamental elements of individual movement as well as the complexities of interaction with a partner on the dance floor. This is what you really need, and I think the only way you’re going to get it is through a highly knowledgeable private teacher.
Of course, the next series of questions is: Who is the right teacher? Do all teachers have the same expertise? (Answer: No, they most definitely do not!) Do I like this teacher? Do I feel that I can learn from this teacher? And finally: When push comes to shove, do I have the stomach for engaging in what may be the most difficult challenge of my life; i.e., the process of really learning how to dance Tango?
When you’ve asked yourself all these questions, and come up with satisfactory answers, you’ll be ready to tackle the next subject on our list — the little matter of money. We’ll talk about that next week.
October 11, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. We’re into Week Five of our examination of the qualities I think you need in order to become a good Tango dancer. Check out our list below:
5. A good sense of humor
6. A good teacher
8. Natural ability
Today, we’re going to look at a quality that I believe is absolutely crucial to your learning process, and that is a good sense of humor.
Some of you may not believe this now, but dancing is fun, or at least it’s supposed to be. When people get together to dance socially, they do so because they want to enjoy themselves. I often tell my students that dancing is really what we might refer to as “escapist lunacy.” It’s a way of putting aside what can often be the serious trials and troubles of everyday life, and giving yourself a well earned break.
The problem is that some of us take the process of learning how to dance much too seriously. For such people, it becomes another job. To be honest, I sympathize with that point of view. Personally, I think of social dancing (at least at a high level) as an art form. And to get to that level of proficiency, you have to work very long and hard.
And here’s the big but. I think it’s essential that you treat the entire process with a very healthy sense of humor. While you’re learning, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. While you’re practicing, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. While you’re dancing, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. There’s just no getting around it. Mistakes are an integral, unavoidable part of getting better. I make major mistakes in my own dancing all the time. This used to make me angry with myself, with my partners, with the world. But these days — since I’ve discovered the humor that I think all of us need to apply to the process — I just laugh it off, and keep on keepin’ on.
Have you heard stories like this? A leader suddenly stops dancing with his partner in the middle of a dance, tells her she doesn’t know what she’s doing (or some other gut-wrenching insult), and walks off the floor. A follower refuses to accept a dance with a leader, because she doesn’t know whether he’s up to her level?
Really? Can you for one second believe that there are people in our Tango community who actually behave in this utterly barbaric manner? Is it possible you’ve been a victim of such vicious atrocities? Is it possible you yourself may have been a perpetrator?
There is absolutely, unequivocally, no rational justification for this kind of unmitigated meanness on the dance floor.
A potential antidote to this misanthropic nonsense is what we’ve been talking about today — a well-developed sense of humor. Take a deep breath, recognize that even though learning to dance is difficult, in the long run, folks, it’s only dancing. For most of us, life can be really hard. But dancing? Come on, everyone. Dancing is a way to kick out the blocks, and enjoy ourselves for a change. Please don’t let dancing become yet another reason to take out our frustrations on other people.
When in distress on the dance floor, loosen up those facial muscles, and smile, giggle, laugh out loud. Let your sense of humor guide your mood. You’ll be much the better for it. And so will everyone else around you.
October 4, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week For the past few weeks, we’ve been working our way through my list of the qualities I think you need to possess in order to become a skilled social Tango dancer. Just to put them in front of you again, they are:
5. A good sense of humor
6. A good teacher
8. Natural ability
Today, we’re going to talk about our fourth quality, one which unfortunately seems to be in short supply these days, and that is humility. Learning to dance Tango is very difficult. For those people who were born in Argentina, who are steeped in the traditions of Tango, and who start young, it still takes many years of hard work and day-to-day practice to reach even a basic level of competence.
So what about people like us?
In my own case, I began the process of learning Tango in 1986 after seeing the now legendary Broadway show, Tango Argentino. Since I brought an extensive background in American social dance to the table at that time, I assumed that it would take very little effort for me to “pick up” at least the basics of Tango. To tell you the truth, I actually expected the process to take no more than a few weeks. After all, I thought, I was at a stage in my social dance career when I had gained the ability to assimilate even the most complex material in Ballroom, Swing and Latin dance in a matter of hours.
Was I ever wrong!
I wasn’t entirely sure at that time whether my prior training was working against me or not. Well, in fact, today I’m actually convinced that it really was a significant hindrance to my progress. Tango just didn’t really fit into any of the ways I had learned to dance in the past, and it seemed to take me forever to figure out even the most basic elements. Most important of all is that I kept thinking to myself, “This should be easy for me. Why is it all taking so long?”
Eventually, I was (reluctantly) able to “get over myself,” and face the fact that if I wanted to learn Tango, I would have to put aside all expectations, all predispositions, all assumptions about my own competency — and start from absolute scratch.
In general, it’s very tempting to believe that we know what we’re doing. In fact, a healthy degree of confidence in our own abilities usually works very well for us in taking on difficult projects. But when it comes to a monumental challenge like learning Tango — yes, folks, monumental — I strongly recommend maintaining a profound respect for the process, which is informed by seriously humbling yourself before the task.
Humility was the key that truly helped me slowly begin the process of facing my own long-held presumptions and beliefs — my own arrogance, if you will — and approach Tango as a complete beginner, who would be willing to do whatever it took to learn. I’ve been working at my Tango now for over thirty years, and I still feel the same way.
Please think about this. Maybe a bit of humility will work for you, too.
September 27, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about the special qualities I believe every Tango student needs in order to become a skilled social Tango dancer. Just as a reminder, here’s our list:
5. A good sense of humor
6. A good teacher
8. Natural ability
To date, we’ve discussed commitment and patience. Today, we’re going to focus on a very important quality, which I think is critical to success: i.e., perseverance.
Generally speaking, the process of learning a highly complex series of interconnected skills which comprise Tango, can at first be quite daunting. Right from the beginning of the process — developing conscious individual balance, moving from one place to another by oneself, attempting to move and come into balance in concert with a partner by assuming two distinct interdependent roles; i.e., leading and following — these can be major challenges even for dancers with extensive professional training and experience, not to mention people who are more or less starting from scratch.
As teachers, most of us try our best to avoid overwhelming our students — by serving up the fundamentals of Tango in very small, somewhat easier to digest elements. Sooner or later, however, our students come to realize that they’re in for a seriously difficult journey, when they elect to continue down the path to success in learning Tango.
For this reason, lots of people — particularly leaders — eventually decide to quit.
In my own case, I absolutely threw in the towel on many different occasions. “I’m just too old to ever really become any good at Tango. I should have started, when I was much, much younger.” “How can I understand Tango, when I wasn’t born in Buenos Aires.” “Tango is completely alien to everything else I’ve ever learned about social dance.” “Life is too short for this.”
Those have been a few of my personal reasons for walking out the door on Tango, and heading for hills. Why I kept on going, why I’m continuing to discover Tango today, why I’m dancing Tango today, why I’m teaching Tango today — sometimes I really don’t know. But something inside me kept saying, “persevere.” And so I did.
I feel truly happy that I didn’t give up on my own Tango learning process. Even now, I sometimes become frustrated with Tango, depressed, disillusioned, hopeless — you name it. But at the same time I find myself feeling exhilarated, euphoric, delighted, and optimistic.
All because I kept on going. Because I persevered.
Do you remember John Mitchell’s famous quote: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going?” Do you recall Nike’s advertising slogan: “Just do it?” By now, you know that learning Tango is definitely tough.
So? Anything worth having is worth fighting for. And, believe me, when you finally look at yourself in the mirror, and say, “Now, I can dance Tango,” you’re going to be very, very pleased with yourself, and your signature accomplishment.
Make it happen. Persevere.
September 20, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week Last week, I gave you a list of the attributes I think you need to possess in order to become a skilled social Tango dancer. Here they are again:
5. A good sense of humor
6. A good teacher
8. Natural ability
Today, we’re going to talk about patience.
One of the questions I hear quite often from students is “How long will it take me to learn Tango?” They’ve seen people dancing, maybe some of their friends. It looks like fun. They want to dance, too. They want to dance now. Right now if possible. If I tell them it will take more than 10 minutes to learn, they start heading for the door.
Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But what is very true these days is that more and more people are so focused on end results and immediate gratification that they can’t imagine a learning process that may drag out for days, much less weeks, months, or — heaven help us — years!
Social Tango is a major skill. Learning to dance Tango involves not only a life-long commitment (as we discussed last week), but also a degree of patience, which many people just don’t believe they can handle.
We often hear stories from professional Tango dancers that they spent the first three to four years of their training just learning how to walk. And, yes, these people aren’t kidding!
On a personal note, I’ve been learning, dancing, and teaching Tango for over 30 years. I have found, and continue to find, that I actually learn something new about Tango every single day. The very last thing I would ever even think of saying is: “Yes, I’ve now learned how to dance Tango.”
What I have learned is to accept the process of learning Tango. Based on my own experience, I sincerely believe that if you can give yourself over to the process of becoming a Tango dancer — an open-ended process which involves studying, practicing, and dancing as often as possible — if you can acknowledge that this process will take its own good time to unfold its gifts to you — if you can stop asking yourself when or how long, but how can I give myself as much as possible over to the process — in other words, if you can take a deep breath and be really, really patient, Tango will eventually come to you. And it will keep bringing you its special surprises, if you give it every chance.
Patience is the key.
September 13, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. As you probably know by now, learning Tango isn’t easy. Any person who believes he or she can master this complex discipline by wishful thinking, by watching other people on the dance floor, or by taking a few classes here and there is simply never — I mean NEVER — going to get anywhere with Tango.
What does it take, then, to really learn how to dance Tango— beyond accumulating a lexicon of steps and techniques over time? Let’s talk about the specific qualities I believe you need to possess in order to be a successful Tango student. Here’s a list:
5. A good teacher
7. Natural ability
8. A good sense of humor
Today, I’m going to talk about the first of these qualities; i.e., commitment.
One of the serious fallacies about social dancing of any kind — and perhaps Tango in particular — is that it’s simple to learn. Students watch other people dance, and think, “Sure, I could do that. It looks pretty easy.” At the same time, dance schools are all too eager to perpetrate the completely erroneous notion that learning to social dance is a piece of cake. I remember years ago Katharine Murray (Arthur Murray’s wife) exclaiming week after week on the nationally broadcast TV show: “Learning to dance is easy. Anyone can do it.”
Even as a relatively inexperienced dance student, I used to yell back at the TV: “You’re lying, Katharine! That’s not true.” Of course, (sigh) neither she nor Arthur ever listened to me.
I believe that social dancing is actually one of the most difficult things you can possibly undertake to learn. I’m not talking about the kind of choreographed, cookie-cutter nonsense that’s routinely taught in dance schools, where students memorize their individual parts, and then reproduce these preset figures like robots. Katharine was right. That stuff really is easy to learn, and, yes, anyone can do it.
On the other hand, real social dancing involves two people executing an improvised series of movements together, creating the illusion that they’re, in fact, ONE PERSON — and they do all this on a dance floor that is crowded with other people, who are all trying to do that same thing.
To learn how to do this, you need to make a very serious commitment to the task. You need to recognize that because dancing social Tango is a major, major, major skill, a one-hour class once a week after you’ve had a few drinks, or while you’re waiting for dinner to be served just isn’t going to get the job done. You need to say to yourself, “I’m really going to learn how to do this,” which means you’re going to do whatever it takes to get better and better at this unique skill set over whatever period of time you need.
Learning social dance is one of the most satisfying achievements of my life. It took me many years of often seriously frustrating trial and (lots of) error to accomplish. Now, being able to get up on a dance floor, and move with another person (like my wonderfully talented wife, Pat) is nothing short of thrilling.
You have it in you to achieve the same thing. You can become a first-rate social dancer. And the first thing you need to do to bring it about is to make a commitment to the process.
Make that commitment now. I guarantee that you won’t be sorry.
September 6, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I’d like to talk about dancing Tango at an advanced level. If I were to ask you what your criteria would be for advanced Tango, what would you say? I’ll bet most leaders would tell me that it all depends on how many steps you know, and how complicated they are. Followers might say it’s how many adornos you can execute.
When people come into one of my fundamentals classes, many of them tell me they can’t wait for the day they can join my intermediate and advanced classes. Here’s what I tell my students. Here’s what I really want you to know about advanced Tango.
My late friend Carlos Gavito (You might remember him as the star of the original version of Forever Tango) used to say, “Tango is a way to walk; a way of moving with a partner.” Carlos was, of course, referring to social Tango rather than Tango for performance. The implication of this somewhat deceptively simple assertion is that the very best dancers are those who are able to interact with one another in the most comfortable, most efficient way possible — not the ones who know (or think they know) the most figures or embellishments.
Beginning student leaders almost invariably harbor the belief that if they can somehow learn to execute complicated, “stagy” figures and sequences (no matter how badly), they’ll be regarded as advanced dancers. All too many beginning student followers believe that if they display a vocabulary of flashy adornments, everyone will think of them as advanced dancers. These students are wrong. They’re absolutely wasting their time and money, focusing entirely on the wrong things. Unfortunately, these students are aided and abetted all too often by “teachers,” who are happy to show them anything they want in return for you know what.
As most of you know, what I concentrate on in my classes and private lessons is how a leader leads, and how a follower follows. This is embodied in a very complex skill set, which I call the “lead/follow mechanism.” In my judgment, this is the essential foundation of advanced social Tango. Leading and following are complementary techniques, which enable a well-versed dance couple to interact as if they are one person. The better the leader is at lead/follow, the more advance a dancer he is. The more adept the follower is at reading and executing a good lead, the more advanced she is as a follower.
Steps, YouTube-derived figures and sequences, ostentatious adornments, firuletes and embellishments — I know, I know, these things that you crave like drugs — are not only irrelevant, they’re actually preventing you from becoming an advanced social Tango dancer.
Learn and diligently practice how to lead, learn and diligently practice how to follow. It will take time, but I assure you, these crucial skills will insure that you are, in fact, the most advanced, most desirable dancer in any milonga, in any practica, in any venue whatever.
I guarantee it!
August 30, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we began a discussion of giro or molinete in Tango. As described in last week’s Tip, this is a complex sequence of interconnected movements in which pivots play an important role. To recap my detailed version of the individual elements within this sequence as they occur from la cruzada:
1. The first pivot (in preparation for the forward step)
2. The forward walk
3. The first pivot to alignment
4. The first side step
5. The second pivot (in preparation for the backward step)
6. The backward walk
7. The second pivot to alignment
8. The second side step
The first question one might ask about this sequence is: “Why does it exist at all?” The function of molinete is to enable the follower to move in a tight circle around the leader. Why couldn’t she accomplish this by simply walking forward or backward or even using side steps with in-place weight changes in between (as in Merengue from the Dominican Republic)? The answer — as any milonguero would immediately explain — is asi se baila el tango. “That’s the way Tango is danced.” In other words, like la cruzada, molinete is a sequence, which is part of the customary or established way of moving in Tango.
The implication here is that the individual elements of molinete are not led - they’re assumed. When the leader invites the follow to travel around him, he initiates the sequence by asking her to execute a forward or backward ocho. As he continues to rotate his body in one direction, she responds by applying the accepted formula for molinete in order to continue moving around him.
Now, let’s look at what actually happens between the leader and follower as the molinete occurs. In keeping with our detailed description above, we’ll assume that the leader has taken his follower to la cruzada either from la salida or from a walk, and has decided to invite molinete to his right:
The first pivot
The leader invites the follower to “unwind” herself from la cruzada by rotating his upper body slightly counterclockwise. The follower responds by pivoting counterclockwise, releasing her leg from the crossed-over position as she turns, and bringing her heels together. In this moment she is in a “twisted” position in which her upper body is facing the leader, and her lower body is facing the leader’s right — in preparation for a forward walk across his front. The follower makes certain here that she has aligned her body so that in her forward walk (which will occur as the next element), she will not be “closing the circle” with her leader, but rather maintaining an appropriate distance from him as she goes.
The forward walk
The leader now rotates his upper body slightly clockwise in order to invite the follower to walk forward across his front. The follower responds by executing a forward step with her right leg, moving to the leader’s right with her body in the “twisted” position. As she moves, the follower chooses a direction, which takes her on a circumferential path around the leader — neither opening nor closing the distance between them as he goes.
The first pivot to alignment
As the follower comes to the end of her forward walk, she brings her heels together left to right, and pivots clockwise just enough to release her lower body from its twisted position. This enables her to align herself front-to-front with the leader. She does this on her own; i.e., without being specifically invited to do so by the leader. (The basis for this unled action is that part of the follower’s role in Tango is to consistently maintain a front-to-front relationship with her leader at all times. Anytime she finds herself facing another direction, she pivots enough to rectify this lack of alignment.) These first three elements, taken together comprise a forward ocho.
The first side step
As the follower brings herself into alignment with the leader, he has many options. In order to sustain the molinete sequence to his right, however, he now elects to continue rotating his upper body in a clockwise direction. The follower responds to this by executing a side step to the leader’s right with her left leg. As she travels, she maintains the circumferential path around the leader. At the end of the side step, the follower brings her heels together.
The second pivot
The leader now continues rotating his upper body clockwise — once again sustaining the molinete sequence to his right. In response to this, the follower now pivots clockwise in preparation for a backward walk. Her pivot at this point is quite profound (at least 90 degrees), which enables her to set up a traveling direction that neither moves away from her leader nor “closes the circle.” There is no need here for the leader to specifically indicate which direction her pivot needs to take. The follower’s choice of rotating direction for this pivot maintains the customary formula for molinete; i.e., forward ocho, side step, backward ocho, side step. As she executes this pivot, the follower once again creates a “twisted” position as she did during her first pivot.
The backward walk
The leader once again continues to rotate his upper body clockwise. In response to this, the follower executes a backward walk around the leader, maintaining the “twisted” position with her body as she goes, moving around the leader without either increasing or decreasing the distance between herself and her leader.
The second pivot to alignment
As the follower comes to the end of her backward walk, she brings her heels together left to right, and pivots counterclockwise just enough to release her lower body from its twisted position. This enables her to align herself front-to-front with the leader. Once again, the follower does this on her own; i.e., without being specifically invited to do so by the leader. These three elements, taken together — the pivot, the walk, and the alignment — comprise the backward ocho.
The second side step
The leader elects to sustain the molinete by continuing to rotate his body clockwise. The follower responds to this by executing a side step to the leader’s right with her left leg. As she travels, she maintains the circumferential path around the leader. At the end of this side step, the follower once again brings her heels together.
I hope that this rather elaborate description of the individual elements of molinete (as I perceive them) serves as an indicator of just how complex this sequence is. It requires an intense level of continued communication between the leader and follower — which can only be achieved through a great deal of skill development and practice over time. If you want to master the art of molinete, you would do well to work closely with your teacher in a one-to-one situation, engaging in a serious study of, and commitment to, this fascinating aspect of Tango.
August 23, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we talked about pivots, and how they apply to what we call ocho. Today, we’re going to begin a discussion of how pivots work in the context of one of the more complex and difficult sequences in Tango — giro, otherwise known as molinete.
In Spanish, the word giro means “turn.” In general, the word molinete alludes to a turning action in which something moves around a center. This might be a child’s pinwheel; it could be a merry-go-round. In the case of Tango, molinete refers to a connected series of individual elements executed by the follower as she creates a circular path while traveling around her leader. These elements consist of pivots, forward and backward walks, side steps, and alignments — all in a very specific order — and in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction— depending on how and when the leader initiates the sequence. (Some people suggest that the entire group of elements should take the follower approximately 360 degrees to accomplish. Whereas I’m sure this is generally true in performance, I don’t think it matters in the social dance. It all depends on the lead and the energy and size of the follower’s movements.)
Molinete actually comprises an exact formula. Here is a detailed description of the individual elements as they might occur in the context of the follower having first been “taken” to la cruzada in what is sometimes called el paso basico — the “basic” step — or la salida:
1. Pivot (in preparation for a forward step)
2. Forward step
3. Pivot to alignment
4. Side step
5. Pivot (in preparation for a backward step)
6. Backward step
7. Pivot to alignment
8. Side step
We could also look at this series of elements in a more abbreviated way; thus:
1. Forward ocho
3. Backward ocho
4. Side step
In my opinion, it is crucial to define each of the individual elements within the sequence as it actually occurs —in order to account for all possible lead/follow considerations. This is why I break molinete down in the more detailed way I’ve offered above. Your own teacher may not do this. For all I know, your teacher may not break it down at all. But you all know by now how exacting I get in these things (obsessive, some people might suggest? Perish the thought!)
If we look at this series of movements as a continuum, the formula might be initiated by the leader at any point within the series — and might contain only a partial iteration of the entire formula. For example, the leader might invite the follower to begin with a side step, then invite a back ocho, alignment, side step, and finally forward ocho with a finishing alignment. Such a limited group of elements might then be called a media vuelta, media luna or half turn, since it would generally take the follower approximately 180 degrees to accomplish.
In Tango Fantasia; i.e., performance, a couple might execute several complete molinetes in a row as a way of entertaining an audience. In social Tango, however, even a single complete iteration of the molinete sequence might be considered dangerous on a crowded dance floor.
Next week, we’ll discuss the reason why molinete exists at all in Tango, and get into how this complex sequence is led/followed in the social dance.
August 16, 2018
Of course, there are many other possibilities here as well. Next week, we’ll talk about what occurs between the two partners as they work their way through a typical molinete.
August 9, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Back in May, I began to share with you my own personal pedagogy for teaching social Tango. I took readers through Parts 1 and 2 of my system — both focusing on what I call “linear movement.” This included fundamental elements such as forward, backward, and sideward steps as well as weight changes in place and pauses. We also talked about what is referred to as the “crossed system,” which involves both partners moving with the same foot as they dance — as opposed to the “parallel system” in which the partners move with opposite feet.
For the months of June and July, I got involved in an extensive tangential discussion of how large or small one’s steps should be, when dancing Tango. While this thread was. I think, quite valuable, it was a departure from my intended goal of describing in detail how I teach, and what I feel is essential to learning Tango. Today, therefore, I’m going to return to that examination by introducing “Part 3” of my system, which is devoted entirely to the pivot.
I often refer to the pivot as the sixth element of the fundamental dance. Just to recap, these six elements are the following:
· Forward steps
· Backward steps
· Sideward steps
· Weight changes in place
Both leaders and follows must address each of these elements individually as primary components of the lead/follow learning process. As we’ve discussed extensively in the past, each of these elements is led/followed, using its own specifically defined physical mechanism, and must be learned as such before proceeding to more complex skill development.
We talked about the pivot back on May 31, during our discussion of the crossed system, and I briefly mentioned this essential movement even earlier (May 3, 2018), noting its crucial role as the basis for much of the more complex repertoire in Tango — including ocho, molinete, calicita, boleo, colgada, volcada, etc. While the leads/follows for the first five fundamental elements involve varying degrees of difficulty, the pivot presents students with a far more complex challenge.
Let’s define what the follower actually does in executing a pivot. She stands in place with her feet together and her weight on one foot. Using the ball of this standing or weight-bearing foot as a fulcrum, she now brings the muscles of her center into play in order to rotate her body to the left or right (depending on the lead). This might be Part 1 of a forward or backward ocho, or possibly the beginning of a boleo, a calicita, or some other complex sequence of movements.
Now, let’s talk about the leader’s role in initiating and accompanying the pivot. First, the leader makes certain that the follower is carrying her weight on one foot — presumably, the one he has selected for her in setting up the pivot (or any other element in the dance). Next, he rotates his upper body slightly in the direction in which he wants his follower to rotate hers. As the follower feels this invitation through the dance connection, she pivots in the direction indicated, turning her body with conviction and energy anywhere from a few degrees to upwards of 180 degrees — depending on the specific lead.
Generally speaking, it is important for both partners to be aware that the lead is going to be far smaller than the resulting pivot. The leader’s job — just as with other elements of the dance — is to offer an invitation, not to aggressively carry the follower from its beginning to its ultimate conclusion.
A final note: It is crucial for the follower to recognize that the pivot is a complete element in and of itself. One of the most common errors that a follower can make in dancing Tango is to assume that at the end of a pivot she must of necessity take a traveling step. This is not true. Just as the follower must pause at the end of any other linear element — waiting for the next lead — she must also wait for the leader to invite her next move at the end of the pivot.
Next week, we’ll continue this discussion of pivots by defining the primary applications of this element in dancing social Tango; i.e., ochos and molinetes.
August 2, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I offered my recollections about the beginnings what is called Tango Nuevo, “Neo Tango,” “Alternative Tango,” or just plain “Alt.” As I’m sure you know by now, Tango Nuevo is both a style of music, and a way of dancing. Some people love it other hate it. In this Tango Tip I’ll tell you what I think.
As I mentioned last week, when event promoters were first exposed to Tango Nuevo in the milongas and practicas, it was commonplace for them to eject practitioners of the new way of dancing from their events, vehemently demanding that they never return. However, as time went on and Nuevo Tango actually began to gain in popularity (almost exclusively among younger people) — promoters attempted to at least sequester them from other dancers by designating special rooms for them to dance in. Eventually though, this tactic proved unworkable for a variety of reasons, and Nuevo dancers were reluctantly assimilated into the mainstream.
As things stand today, the Tango world — particularly here in the United States — has been turned on its head. Various forms of Tango Nuevo have literally taken our dance scene by storm, relegating what is now somewhat snidely dismissed as “Traditional” or “Retro” Tango to secondary status. There remain some venues, which retain their “traditional” identity (such as Firehouse Tango), but these are slowly facing redundancy as more and more young people pour into milongas and practicas throughout the Tango community.
Can anything be done about this? Should anything be done? This is the burning question.
My own feeling is that any form of dancing is better than no dancing. I believe people have every right to decide what they like, how they want to behave, and what they want to do with their time. In other words, I subscribe to the age-old notion of “live and let live.” Who am I, who are any of us, to tell others what they can and can’t do?
That said, I would add a significant qualifier to this position, which is: “As long as it doesn’t impinge on or interfere with the rights of other people to live their lives.”
Traditional Tango — which adheres to the long-standing values of the epoca de oro or “Golden Age” of social dancing in Argentina— focuses on the intimate relationship between two partners as they move around a predictable line of dance, always being meticulously respectful of other people in the space through the consensual insistence on what we usually call “floor craft.” In my opinion, this is a paradigm of the Social Contract, which must exist between people, if they are to live together. It seems to me that Traditional Tango is, in fact, the very definition of “live and let live.”
On the other hand, Tango Nuevo is precisely the opposite. I don’t for a minute question that this way of dancing can be exciting to do. Its highly complex, often gymnastic movements and balances are extremely difficult to execute — and therefore very rewarding to pull off successfully between two well-practiced partners. Of course, I wouldn’t characterize it as “intimate.” On the contrary, by its nature, Tango Nuevo is absolutely exhibitionistic. Its pleasures derive primarily from the accolades and wonderment of an external audience. (Would people really choose to do this stuff, if nobody ever got to see it? Come on, tell the truth ….)
The big difficulty with Tango Nuevo, however, is not its external vs. internal nature. It is the perceived danger so many of its movements cause other people in the room to feel at any given moment. A nuevo couple might assert with great confidence, “Don’t worry, we know what we’re doing, we’ve practiced these moves a thousand times.” But such assurances of safety will have no calming effect on a couple nearby, who feel they’re being assailed by a barrage of flying legs, acrobatic off-axis lurches, and floor-hogging sequences. “Live and let live” just doesn’t apply here; the Social Contract falls right to pieces.
On a purely personal note: When I was first exposed to Tango in 1986 by attending the Broadway show, Tango Argentino, I was utterly overwhelmed by what I thought was the most beautiful expression of partner dancing I had ever seen. I just could not wait to learn how these figures and sequences were done. I knew immediately that I would spare no expense or effort — I simply could not wait to actually dance Tango. If what I had witnessed those many years ago had not been Traditional Tango, but rather anything even close to Tango Nuevo, I can say with absolute certainty that I would have just stuck with my first love, the Mambo.
I sincerely want people who are captivated by Tango Nuevo to gorge themselves on its sumptuous enticements during every waking moment of their lives. I just don’t want to be anywhere near them, when they do. If that means we need to occupy different rooms, I’m all for it. If it means different planets, even better.
Thanks for listening.
July 26, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of our Firehouse regulars recently asked me to comment on a currently popular way of dancing to Tango music, called “Tango Nuevo.” This is a subject I’m often asked about by students, so I’ll take this opportunity to put my thoughts into print.
Tango Nuevo or “Neo Tango” as it is sometimes called (along with “Alternative Tango” or simply “Alt”) is both a style of music, and a manner of dancing in partnership to such music (although practitioners seem to prefer to dance this “style” to more traditional Tango music as well). As a dance, Tango Nuevo involves a way of interacting between a leader and follower, which is significantly different from traditional social Tango — or, for that matter, even Tango Fantasia (performance Tango). In Tango Nuevo, the dance connection takes on far more of an active push/pull character than that of Golden Age social Tango. This profoundly altered connection enables dancers to execute an elaborate repertoire of physically demanding movements, which are often acrobatic, off-axis, and distinctly theatrical in nature.
From what I’m able to gather in my own research, Tango Nuevo most likely began its existence during the late 1990s from experiments in stretching the physical and creative boundaries of Tango by Gustavo Naveira and a group of his students — namely, Fabian Salas, Pablo Veron, and Mariano “Chico” Frumboli. Young people — ever eager to change anything and everything in order to establish a unique identity for themselves — enthusiastically embraced Gustavo’s ideas, and very quickly generated a radically different manner of dancing, which turned traditional social Tango on its ear.
“This is not the Tango of our elders,” they proclaimed. “This is our way!”
When Tango Nuevo first appeared in the milongas and practicas of New York City during the early 2000s, its few practitioners were routinely ejected from every venue they attended. This strange way of dancing was not only repellent to the Tango community at large, but considered to be quite dangerous, when attempted on a floor filled with traditional social dancers. Gradually, however, over a two to three year period of gestation, more and more young people began to adopt Tango Nuevo as their preferred manner of dancing — in sharp contrast to what they thought of as the rather stodgy traditional approach more or less forced on them by the older generation.
Tango Nuevo had indeed become their way.
As this new wave of dancing gained more and more popularity (almost exclusively among young people, it must be said), many of the promoters who hosted milongas and practicas both in Argentina and around the world, actually defined separate spaces for the two kinds of Tango — one room for traditional, and another room for Nuevo. Ultimately, however, such arrangements became impractical, and for better or worse Tango Nuevo took its place in the main arena.
Have any of you now reading this Tango Tip ever attended CITA (El congreso international de Tango Argentino)? This is a very elaborate annual Tango teaching event, which is hosted by Fabian Salas, and held every year year in Buenos Aires. Pat and I have access to the videos, which CITA makes available at the end of each year. What we’ve observed is that when CITA first started, all the teachers on the videos were dressed quite formally, and were clearly teaching traditional Tango. However, over a period of about two years, everything suddenly changed. As Tango Nuevo became the Holy Grail coveted by young people (the folks who spend the most money, as it happens), participating teachers quickly altered their manner of dress — ripped jeans, sneakers, and tee shirts replaced suits and ties — as well as the material they taught. What young people often refer to as “retro” Tango (help!) was summarily replaced by nuevo figures in order to give the paying customers what they were willing to pay for.
Authenticity? Purity? Integrity? Tradition? These values seemed to conveniently fly right out the window, when dollars and cents were on the table. Oh well.
In any event, Tango Nuevo seems to be here to stay. As a person involved in Tango, you may have your own opinions about this way of dancing. I certainly have mine. And next week, I’m going to share those views with you.
July 19, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’ve been reading these Tips during the past several weeks, you know that we’ve been discussing how large or small the follower’s steps should be in her dance. In particular, we’ve identified a special technique (which I call “step-and-slide”) that enables either partner to vary the overall length of their individual steps to suit the demands of any given moment.
Today, we’re going to talk about how this all applies to forward and backward ochos. The unique challenge a follower faces in executing an ocho is significantly more complex than in executing a simple forward, backward, or side step. Not only does she need to determine the size of her step as she moves — she also has to choose the right direction of that step relative to the position of her partner.
Right now, we’re going to talk about this in detail as we describe a follower’s forward ocho. Before we do, however, let’s first review the fact that in taking simple linear steps the follower moves laterally with her partner (in taking a side step), directly away from him (in taking a backward step), or directly toward him (in taking a forward step). In each case, she maintains a consistent, comfortable, balanced axis-to-axis relationship with her partner. Her challenge in forward, backward, or side steps, therefore, is to determine the size of her step only. As we’ve discussed during previous Tango Tips, she does this through the use of the “step-and-slide” technique.
Now, we come to the follower’s forward ocho. Instead of stepping toward the leader, away from him, or laterally with him as he goes, the follower is now moving around her partner. We sometimes say that the leader represents the center of a circle, and that the follower moves around that center along an invisible line, which we might call the circumference of the circle.
The implication of this is that during the execution of an ocho the follower is not guided by a leader who is actually moving with her — offering her the stability of a consistent axis-to-axis relationship. In the ocho, she has to choose not only the size of her step, but also the line of travel in order to maintain a consistent distance from her partner as she moves around him.
To further complicate things, as she executes her ocho, the follower needs to move in a highly compromised, twisted body position. This uncomfortable position — in which the follower can often find it extremely difficult to maintain balance — is initiated as the leader rotates her out of the cross in preparation for her forward (or backward) walk, and doesn’t resolve itself until she completes her traveling movement by aligning herself (squaring off) with her partner.
Here is a somewhat detailed description of the interaction between an experienced leader and follower during the execution of a follower’s forward ocho from la cruzada:
1. After walking the follower to the cross and making certain that she is in a balanced, comfortable position, the leader gently unwinds her from her crossed-over position through the use of a rotational invitation.
2. The follower responds to this lead by pivoting counterclockwise on the ball of her left (weight-bearing) foot, bringing her feet together as she pivots, maintaining her weight on her pivoting foot.
3. The leader now invites her forward walk to his right through the use of another rotational lead.
4. The follower responds to this by walking forward around the leader with her right leg, her body in a twist with her upper half facing the leader and her lower half facing the direction of her movement. In this difficult position, she travels a specific distance along an invisible circumference, which his position and accompanying movement determines.
5. This is where the follower’s challenge occurs, and it is the moment where well developed lead/follow skills matter. As the leader invites her walking movement, the follower moves forward, targeting her leader’s right shoulder as he continues his body rotation to his right. This enables her to find the precise step size, which will allow her to end her forward movement directly in front of him — as she completes her step by bringing her feet together and rotating just enough to “untwist,” thereby aligning herself to her leader.
Note: It is quite commonplace for an inexperienced follower to close the gap with her partner as she attempts to negotiate a forward ocho, sometimes seriously compromising his balance. Parenthetically, it is equally commonplace for a follower to expand this distance during the execution of a backward ocho by not pivoting enough before following the lead for her step.
Just to recap a bit … when executing a well-led forward ocho, followers must meet the challenge of choosing the appropriate step size (through the manner described above), and maintaining a consistent distance between herself and her partner as she travels. This is, to say the least, not easy, and requires a great deal of practice.
Next week, we’ll move on to a different subject; but I hope that what we’ve been talking about for the past several Tango Tips provides followers with a comprehensive — albeit lengthy —answer to the question: How big a step should I take?
July 12, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the fears people have when they move together in partnership is that the person moving forward may accidentally step on his/her partner’s feet. For this reason the person stepping forward will often take small, shuffling steps in an effort to avoid this potential danger. This, of course, is unacceptable in dancing Tango — but it’s quite difficult to convince people that they can move forward into their partner’s space without creating problems.
With this in mind, I often conduct the following demonstration with my students: I call out the tallest leader in the class, and ask him to lead me in a close practice embrace, moving aggressively forward as he invites me to move backward. I tell him that his challenge is going to be to step on my feet. I say that no matter how hard he tries, he won’t be able to do it.
Usually, the student starts by taking tentative, small steps. “Come one, you can do better than that,” I dare him. “Really try to step on my feet. I guarantee that you won’t succeed.” Eventually, he throws caution to the winds, and tries his best to step on my feet. But no matter how long a step he takes, my feet elude his attempts.
How is this possible? What’s the secret? It’s the special way I move backward as I move. In fact, I use the special technique we’ve been talking about for the last several Tango Tips. That’s right, folks — “step-and-slide.”
Here’s how it works. We’ve already discussed how to move forward and backward, using the technique by yourself. (Read the previous two Tango Tips, if you want to review.) In moving with a partner, the way in which the person going backward can assure that he/she won’t get stepped on is simply to keep the body straight (rather than falling back), and continue to slide the end of the backward movement until his/her partner has committed their weight to the floor.
Essentially, that’s the secret. If you’re not falling backward, and you’re still moving when your partner commits his/her weight, there’s just no way you’re going to get stepped on. I don’t care how tall your partner is. I don’t care how long his/her legs are. If you control your backward movement in this way, you’ll find that getting stepped on is a thing of the past. It’s not the size of your steps that counts — it’s a question of timing your weight commitment so that your partner lands first.
Of course, it goes without saying that making this work isn’t easy. You have to actually feel your partner committing his/her weight as he/she moves into your space. With practice (lots of practice!), this will become possible through your dance connection. Eventually, you’ll find that once you reach full natural extension, you’ll be able to continue sliding backward until your partner hits the floor, and only then will you allow yourself to complete your step by committing your own weight.
Next week, we’ll wrap up this rather lengthy thread by talking about how large or small the follower’s steps should be, when executing forward and backward ochos. In the meantime, remember: Practice makes perfect. Yes, that means at least 500 times, please.
More, if you can handle it.
July 5, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During our last three Tango Tips, we’ve been discussing how large or small social Tango steps should be. Last week, we talked about forward movement, using a special technique, which I refer to as “step-and-slide.” Today, I’d like to describe how this technique works in taking backward steps.
Backward steps are somewhat different for leaders and followers. For this reason, I’ll address how each of the partners uses the technique.
The leader’s backward movement technique
We’ll start with the leader. Let’s assume he initiates the movement with his right foot. As with moving forward or to the side, he moves backward with his upper body and his leg at the same time — but without tilting his body backward as he goes. He gently slides the toe of his foot backward along the floor until he reaches the end of his “natural” extension. Then, he continues to move his upper body backward, sliding his foot another two to three inches before finally allowing himself to commit the weight of his foot to the floor. Having committed his weight, he then closes his left foot to his right very slowly, ultimately bringing himself into quiet balance.
This brings us to the conclusion of the leader’s backward step.
The follower’s backward movement technique
Now, we’ll discuss how the follower uses the “step-and-slide” technique during the backward step. As with the leader, let’s assume that she initiates the movement with her right foot. As a follower, she receives the lead to move backward by first extending her leg back, and then continuing by bringing her body over the leg — rather than moving both her leg and body at the same time. As she reaches the end of her “natural” extension — and now begins to move her body over the leg — she slides her foot another two to three inches backward before finally allowing herself to commit the weight of her foot to the floor. Having committed her weight, she then closes her left foot to her right very slowly, ultimately bringing herself into quite balance.
This represents the conclusion of the follower’s backward step.
As with learning to move forward or to the side, it’s important to practice this alone before attempting it with a partner. If possible, try to practice this movement at least 500 times — preferably under the expert guidance of your teacher. I can’t stress enough that trying this on your own (without your teacher’s help) can easily result in the formation of seriously bad habits, which, as mentioned earlier, can be very difficult to break.
Next week, we’ll talk about using the “step-and-slide” technique as we combine the forward and backward steps in moving together.
June 28, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During our last two Tango Tips, we’ve been discussing the question of how large or small an individual social Tango step should be. This, of course, is one of the most frequently asked questions among students at every skill level.
Last week, I described an exercise, which I usually refer to as the “step and slide” technique. Just to recap, this technique involves each of the two partners extending their working legs along the dance floor as they move their upper bodies through space, using what I call a “natural extension” — which means one that is comfortable without stretching too far. At the end of this extension, the upper bodies of each partner continue to move, as they slide their feet along the floor a few inches more before committing their weight in order to finish the step in balance.
You’ll remember that we listed four distinct moments in the dance, during which this technique can be used:
· Side steps
· Forward steps
· Backward steps
· Forward and backward ochos
In our last Tip, we talked about how this technique can be brought to bear during side steps. Today, I’m going to focus on the way our step-and-slide technique can be used by both the leader and the follower, when executing forward steps.
Today, we’ll discuss the way to move forward by yourself. (This description will apply to both leaders and followers.) Let’s start with a forward movement, using your left foot. As with moving to the side, you’re going to begin by initiating the movement with your upper body and your leg at the same time. As you begin to move, don’t pick your foot up off the floor. Instead, gently slide the ball of your left foot forward along the floor until you reach the end of what we’ll call your “natural” extension. At this point, continue your upper body moving forward, and slide another two to three inches before ultimately allowing yourself to commit the weight of your foot to the floor. After committing your weight, close your right foot to your left very slowly, bringing yourself into quiet balance.
This will be the conclusion of your forward step. As with learning to move to the side, it’s very important to practice this alone before attempting it with a partner. If you remember my recommendation about practicing your side step, 500 times should do the trick — assuming, of course, that you execute the movement under the expert guidance of your teacher. Trying this on your own can be very risky in that it’s quite easy to develop bad habits, which, once formed, can often be very difficult to break.
Next week, we’ll talk about how to move, using the back step. Essentially, your technique will be the same as it was for the forward step — with a couple of significant exceptions.
June 21, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During our last Tango Tip, we talked about the question of how large or small an individual social Tango step should be. As I said in that Tip, this is really a very difficult question to answer. In fact, it turns out to be more a process between two individual dancers of getting to know one another on the dance floor, and eventually reaching a consensus together on the size of their collective steps.
The implication of this, of course, is that this consensus will be different for each set of partners. What works with one partner will not necessarily work with the next. Tango, as I mentioned, involves building an individual relationship with one person. When you change partners, the process begins again.
This said, there is a way of moving with a partner, which can make reaching a consensus on the size of individual steps somewhat more consistent — although certainly not easier. Let’s call it using the “step and slide method.”
Basically, this method involves extending your leg as you move your upper body in the process of initiating an individual step. At the end of this extension, you slide along the floor a few inches more in order to complete the step. With practice and concentration, you’ll be able to apply this method to each of four movements in the dance:
1. Side steps
2. Forward steps
3. Backward steps
4. Forward and backward ochos
Today, I’m going to describe the way this method works in the context of side steps. (In future Tango Tips, we’ll talk about how it works in the other listed movements).
To become familiar with the movement, you’ll first try it alone. Let’s start by discussing the way most people execute a side step to the left. When asked to take this step, they pick the left foot up off the ground, fall through space to one side, then plop that foot back down with a thud. Voila! The side step. From now on, this will be precisely what you will not be doing when taking your side step.
Here’s what I’d like you to try. First, picture in your mind an easy, gentle extension of your leg to one side. This extension shouldn’t be any longer than what feels very comfortable to you right now. Bear in mind that many people take steps that are far too big — often by way of emulating their dance teachers. Please don’t do this.
Now, you’re going to move through space to the left. Begin by initiating the movement with your upper body and your leg at the same time. As you begin to move, don’t pick your foot up off the floor. Instead, gently slide the inside of the ball of your left foot along the floor until you reach the end of what we’ll call your “natural” extension. At this point, continue your upper body moving to the left, and slide another two to three inches with your left foot before ultimately allowing yourself to commit the weight of your left foot to the floor. As you do commit your weight, bring your right foot together with your left very slowly, bringing yourself into quiet balance. This will be the conclusion of the step.
Now, reread the above paragraph, and practice the movement 500 times by yourself.
No, I’m not kidding. If you’re not certain of how it works, ask your regular teacher for guidance.
Once you’re confident that you're executing with the right mechanics, try the side step with a partner — who has been doing the same thing by him/herself. That’s right, none of this stuff works unless both partners understand and can execute the movement alone.
When moving with a partner, the leader initiates the lead/follow as we’ve described many times in these pages by flexing the knees in order to slightly lower the torso (thereby indicating that a traveling movement is about to be invited); then continuing with movement of the upper body — in this case to the leader’s left side. The object, of course, is to monitor each other’s movement in order to act together as much as possible.
It is particularly important not to commit your weight to the end of the step too soon. Make sure that once you reach full natural extension, you continue sliding to the leader’s left a few inches. In the beginning, you may experience a great deal of difficulty doing this. But with practice — yes, that’s right — 500 times with this partner, please — you’ll eventually be able to move together in a surprising precise way.
And at least with the side step, you’ll never again need to ask the question: “How big a step do I take?
Next week, we’ll take a look at now this special technique applies to a leader’s forward step, as he accompanies a follower’s backward step.
June 14, 2018
June 7, 2018
May 31, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we learned one of the ways in which a couple can enter the crossed system in Tango. If you’d like to review that before continuing with this week’s Tip, feel free to do so now.
(I’ll be right here, when you get back.)
Remember now? Changing from the parallel to the crossed system (and back to parallel) is one of the skills that is unique to Tango. Today, we’re going to talk about moving, once you’re in the tossed system.
Moving in the crossed system
As with other linear elements of social Tango, each action while moving within the crossed system should at first be led/followed individually with a full stop at the end — before initiating the next element.
In fact, there are many possible directions in which a couple can travel within the crossed system. For the sake of our discussion, I’m going to choose movement down the line of dance.)
1. Beginning in the crossed system (both leader and follower have their weight on the right leg), the leader initiates a forward movement with his left leg at a slight diagonal to his left. The follower responds by moving backward with her left leg in a small diagonal (ocho), which has been set up, when the couple entered the crossed system.
2. At the conclusion of this movement, both leader and follower (each of whom is now balanced solidly on the left leg) realign themselves to face one another — rather than continuing to face slightly to the leader’s left. This action is quite small, but crucial to this sequence, and should be executed consciously by each member of the couple without the need for a specific lead.
3. Now, the leader rotates his upper body slightly to the right in order to initiate a small clockwise pivot by his follower. (As she pivots, the follower recognizes that at the end of this movement she will stop rather than automatically continuing into a walk.)
4. The leader now initiates a forward movement with his right leg at a slight diagonal to his right. The follower responds by moving backward in the same slight diagonal (ocho) with her right leg.
5. As before, at the conclusion of this movement, both leader and follower (each of whom is now solidly balanced on the right leg) realign themselves to face one another, and come to a complete stop.
This is a somewhat detailed description of left and right leg movement down the line of dance within the crossed system. To recap, the “formula” for this action is the following:
· Rotate (pivot) — initiated by the leader
· Walk on a diagonal — initiated by the leader
· Align — executed individually without a lead
· Repeat on the opposite side (with the other leg)
When first learning this crossed system sequence, it is essential that both the leader and follower come to a complete stop in balance at the end of each element. Quite often, I see couples more or less race-walking, when moving in the crossed system. The follower feels the initial lead for her pivot and assumes that this is a mandate for her to take the bull by the horns and execute a continuous series of out-of-balance backward ochos — as her partner helplessly chases her down the dance floor. This always reminds me of a kind of mini-avalanche, and almost always ends badly. Executing each element within the sequence as an individual movement with a beginning, middle and balanced end will help insure that this doesn’t happen.
Eventually, the leader will begin to create a continuous sequence of the above elements in order to move down the line of dance with his partner. But it’s very important to bear in mind that “continuous” does not mean automatic or un-led. The follower always waits until she feels the appropriate lead for each element — even though she may “know” what is going to happen next. At no time does she execute any element on her own. This is what is often referred to as “back-leading,” and has no place in Tango.
Next in my teaching pedagogy is what I call the “sixth” element of the dance — the pivot. Initially, I’ve introduced the pivot as one of the elements needed to lead/follow movement within the crossed system. As I briefly mentioned in an earlier Tango Tip (May 3, 2018), this essential movement — which is the focal point of “Part 3” of my teaching system — will eventually become the basis for much of the more complex repertoire in Tango — ocho, molinete, calicita, boleo, colgada, volcada, etc.
We’ll start discussing this next week.
May 24, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’ve been reading these Tips lately, you know that for the past several weeks I’ve been concentrating on my own pedagogy for teaching social Tango. I’m doing this in order to show you as clearly as I can how very complex this dance is, and how important it is for you as a student to work with a good teacher, if you really want to learn.
As mentioned last week, “Part 2” of my method focuses exclusively on what is known as the “crossed system” of movement. In this system, both leader and follower move with the same legat any given time — rather than with opposite legs (as in the “parallel system.”)
My general approach to teaching the crossed system involves the following elements:
· General introduction to the crossed system
· Elements of the crossed system
· Special use of the “small” pivot within the crossed system
· Definition of single step movement within the crossed system
· “Sequencing” (limited continuous movement) within the crossed system
As always, what makes the crossed system in social Tango possible is a thorough mastery of the lead/follow mechanism. Right now, I’m going to begin describing in as much detail as I can what needs to happen in order to enter, to move in, and to exit the crossed system. My hope here is that this description will clearly demonstrate how important it is for you as a student to develop this absolutely essential lead/follow skill set.
This week, I’ll describe how to enter the crossed system. During subsequent Tango Tips, we’ll focus on how to move within the system, and ultimately how to exit back into the parallel system.
Entering the crossed system
(There are actually many ways to enter and exit the crossed system. I’m choosing what]
might be considered to be the most direct way for the sake of this discussion.)
1. Using the parallel system, the leader first insures that his follower is positioned with her weight on her left leg and that he is positioned with his weight on his right leg. One effective way for him to do this is to make one or two gentle changes of weight, communicating his lead through lateral movement of his torso, making sure his follower moves in place with him by monitoring her actions in response to his lead.
2. Next, the leader invites the follower to step backward with her right leg as he steps forward with his left leg. As you may remember, he does this by lowering his torso slightly through a small softening or bending of his knees in order to communicate to her that he is about to travel through space, followed immediately by his actual forward traveling step. As the leader lowers his torso, the follower reads this as an intention to move, and as he takes his forward step into her space she responds by executing a backward step.
3. Now comes the actual entry into the crossed system. (There are at least four ways to make this happen, but I’ve chosen the one I think works best for American/European dance students.) The leader changes his weight in place to his right leg. Normally, as he does this, the follower would make a corresponding change to her left leg. However, in this case, the leader rotates his torso slightly counterclockwise just before he makes his weight change. A good follower will read this movement as an invitation to pivot slightly (thereby creating the beginning of a small backward ocho), using the ball of her right foot. As she pivots, her weight remains solidly on her right side, and the leader is able to successfully change his own weight to his right side without the danger of his follower attempting to change with him. If this all works out as it should, the couple now find themselves in the crossed system.
Next week, we’ll continue this detailed discussion by talking about how a couple might travel down the line of dance, using the crossed system, I hope it’s now very clear to you how important lead/follow is in executing the complex transition from parallel to crossed, and that you’ll work diligently with your teacher to make certain you eventually master this essential ability.
May 17, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Pat and I are back from our trip to England. We had a terrific time, visiting family, eating lots of fish and chips, and not dancing a single step. We’re delighted to be home, of course; we missed you all, and we’re really happy to be putting on our Tango shoes again.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been sharing with you the specific way in which I teach Tango. Two weeks ago, we talked about what I call “Part 1” of my approach. My hope is that this provides my students with a comprehensive introduction to the essentials of interactive linear movement in social Tango partnering. As you may recall, I conclude Part 1 by briefly introducing the idea of two unique systems of linear movement in Tango — parallel and crossed.
For those of us familiar with social partner dancing in the U.S.A, our way of dancing involves only employing the so-called “parallel” system. In fact, as I mentioned two weeks ago, we don’t even give this way of moving a name. In Argentina, however, the “crossed” system is integral to understanding and properly executing the dance. For this reason, Tango teachers and practitioners have invented special terms (“parallel” and “crossed”) in order to differentiate the two ways of moving.
In case you’re new to Tango, let me quickly describe each of these systems:
The Parallel System
Because the leader and follower face one another as they dance social Tango, the parallel system of movement — what we in America might think of as “the normal way of dancing” — involves the following:
• As the leader moves forward, backward, or to the side with his left leg, the follower moves with her right leg.
• As the leader moves forward, backward, or to the side with his right leg, the follower moves with her left leg.
Nota bene: All American/European dances and all tropical (“Latin”) dances adhere to this way of moving in partnership.
The Crossed System
In the crossed system, both leader and follower move together with the left leg or the right leg at the same time, depending on the leader’s invitation at any given moment in the dance. In general, no American/European dances and no tropical (“Latin”) dances adhere to this way of moving in partnership.
To my students (non-Argentines), the Crossed system introduces a completely new idea, and in my opinion needs to be treated with special care and concentration. For this reason, I devote the entirety of “Part 2” of my own teaching pedagogy to introducing and advancing this highly complex skill set.
Here is a brief outline of Part 2:
1. General introduction to the crossed system
2. Elements of the crossed system
3. Special use of the “small” pivot within the crossed system
4. Definition of single step movement within the crossed system
5. “Sequencing” (limited continuous movement) within the crossed system
Next week, we’ll begin to examine each of these elements in greater detail. Meanwhile, Pat and I want to encourage all of you to start taking your Tango to the next level. That means making a serious commitment to getting yourself a good teacher, practicing consistently, dancing as much as you can, and ultimately discovering how really great it feels to dance well.
May 3, 2018
Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Learning to dance social Tango involves building a very specific set of skills and techniques, developing a working repertoire of steps or figures, and lots of practice over a long period of time. Last week, I outlined the initial part of my own pedagogy. Today, I’m going to spell it out a bit. Just to bring you up to speed, here is a recap of what I call “Part 1” of my system:
Part 1 — “Tango is a way to walk”
1. Introduction to the lead/follow mechanism in five fundamental improvised linear interactions between lead and follower.
2. Use of lead/follow in structured and improvised start/stop walking exercises.
3. Introduction to improvised rhythmic movement.
4. Introduction to short suggested sequences and sequence choices in building improvisations.
5. Two common pre-determined fundamental Tango sequences — la cunita and la cruzada.
6. Introduction to simple pivots.
7. Introduction to the parallel and crossed systems of linear movement.
Let’s take a quick look at each of these elements:
1. The first thing I focus on with my students is what I refer to as the lead/follow mechanism. Basically, this is the way in which the leader and follower learn to interact with one another in order to produce movement of any kind. I identify five “linear” elements of movement — weight changes in place, pauses, side steps, forward steps, and backward steps. For each of these elements, I teach a very specific way for a leader to invite an appropriate response from his follower, based on common principles of human movement.
2. Once a leader and follower are able to cooperate in producing individual isolated movements for all five elements, we move on to a series of structured and improvisational exercises, designed to connect individual elements in the dance.
A typical structured exercise might be the following:
Leader steps forward, executes a pause, steps forward, executes a weight change in place; then repeats, using the opposite leg to begin the exercise.
Continuing in this way, a typical improvisational exercise might be the following:
Leader chooses from among three elements (forward, pause, weight change in place). At the end of each movement, he chooses from the same limited group for his next lead. This enables the leader and follower to begin using linear elements in creating their own individual dance.
3. Learning to dance involves learning to move to music. As my Argentine teachers have said to me again and again over the years: “Without music, there is no dance.” I begin the process of teaching my students to dance to music by introducing the idea of moving to the first beat of each musical measure. (For non-musicians, this involves first learning to identify this beat by listening to music, clapping the appropriate beats, then executing actual movement in place by themselves — and finally in the embrace with a partner). In my preliminary lead/follow exercise, leaders are restricted to forward steps only. Thereafter, they are asked to incorporate forward and side steps in concert with pauses. Eventually, we advance to doubling the time (dancing to half notes), and finally, improvising movement, using both whole note and half note movement.
A lot of leaders erroneously believe (sometimes because they’ve actually been taught) that the needs of the music come first. This is contrary to what I teach. Throughout this series of musical exercises, I stress very strongly the leader’s primary responsibility is to put the needs of his follower first; i.e., if he’s ready to move and she’s not, wait until she’s ready (meaning that she has finished what she was asked to do and is comfortably in balance).
4. Once students are able to incorporate the lead/follow mechanism in the context of rhythmic movement, we create various simple improvisations, using these developing skills in a limited group of linear elements (usually forward, in-place and pause). Such exercises introduce the idea of navigating the dance floor in an appropriate way.
5. At this juncture in the process, I usually introduce two commonly used step patterns. The first of these is the left-turning rocking movement, often referred to as la cunita. (This sequence is sometimes called el Gardelito, named after the great singer Carlos Gardel, who, whenever he danced, loved to incorporate this sequence. Be sure to check him out on YouTube!) The second step pattern I introduce here is the sequence, which ends in the follower’s traditional cross or la cruzada.
Nota bene: In my own teaching, la cruzada is executed by the follower as a consequence of the leader’s moving outside-partner on her right side (his left). The next time she’s able to use her left foot, she automatically crosses in front of her right — unless her leader does something which prevents her from doing so. I am aware, of course, of the assertion by some teachers that this movement needs to specifically led, using a special manipulation of the follower. When I myself learned to dance Tango in the 1980s, no such idea existed. I have come to believe that this imposed lead is an invention, which developed later, and I advise my own students that ultimately, they’ll have to make up their own minds about it. (I fully realize that this can create uncomfortable controversies in lead/follow interactions on the dance floor, but that’s Tango, folks!)
6. Next on my teaching schedule is what I call the “sixth” element of the dance — the pivot.) Eventually, this crucial movement will become the basis for much of the more advanced repertoire in Tango — ocho, molinete, calicita, boleo, colgada, volcada, etc.) The pivot needs to be learned by both leader and follower, although this movement is used far more often in the social dance by followers in the execution of common sequences, involving ocho and molinete. My primary focus in teaching the pivot is to train leaders in properly inviting followers to execute this movement slowly and in balance. In teaching this element, I attempt to carefully refine the leader’s skill so that his invitation is not a push or carry, and so that the follower is not operating on automatic in moving from her pivot to her walking step (in ocho or molinete), and ultimately to her alignment with the leader.
7. At the conclusion of “Part 1” in my pedagogic approach to linear movement, I briefly introduce the idea of two systems in Tango — parallel and crossed. In American/European dance, we only use the so-called “parallel” system. (In fact, we don’t even give this way of moving a name.) However, in Argentina the “crossed” system is integral to understanding and properly executing the dance. For this reason, special terms have been invented in order to differentiate the two ways of moving.
Next week, I’m going to outline and describe elements of “Part 2” of my pedagogic approach to teaching social Tango. In the meantime, I think it’s important to point out that most of what I’ve talked about today — all the preliminary skills and techniques I’ve concentrated on in this Tango Tip — are often routinely ignored in Tango classes. “Just show us the steps” is the rule. “We’ll learn that other stuff some other time.”
And that, like it or not, is the reason most people never learn to dance Tango. If you’ve been dancing Tango for many years, and still “don’t get it,” this is almost certainly why. Please don’t allow yourself to be one of those people. The basics, although difficult to master, and may seem tedious, are absolutely essential.
Pat and I will be visiting family in England next week, so we’ll see you, when we return on May 17. Happy dancing!
April 26, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I promised to offer a rationale for why I (and virtually every other Tango professional I know) teach steps to students, when we’re assured by the great maestros that, in fact, there are no steps in Tango. As we’ve all heard many times by now, social Tango is a completely improvised dance. It lives in the moment. It comes from the individual soul. Some say, Tango is actually a total way of life.
Well, at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. For those of us who were born in places other than Argentina, however, there’s just no possibility of learning how to dance Tango by hanging out for years in the milongas, and letting Tango permeate our very being. Alas, our only recourse, it seems, is to take dance lessons.
And, like it or not, dance lessons ultimately mean dance steps.
As a student, I spent many years trying my best to learn what Tango was, and in my own case how it differs from the ballroom, swing and “latin” social dance disciplines with which I was already familiar. As a teacher, I was ultimately able to develop a very specific pedagogy, which I think has been helpful in setting my students on the road to understanding this incredibly complex dance — albeit from the outside in (by which I mean analytically) rather than the way an Argentine might learn (through years and years of constant exposure).
In evolving my own approach to teaching, the two crucial questions I continue to ask myself are:
What does one actually do in dancing Tango?
How does one do it?
The easy answer to Question 1 is that (as a leader, at least) one sets about the task of memorizing lots of steps. As a follower, on the other hand, one finds oneself lucky enough to be in the arms of a skilled leader. As to Question 2, things tend to get a bit murky. If one’s goal is to be a performer, the how of Tango involves years of intensive focus on a wide spectrum of individual techniques, followed by more years of working with various partners in building flawless teamwork. As a social dancer, however, the how of Tango involves quite a different path — that of developing expertise in executing the often elusive skill set I usually refer to as the lead/follow mechanism.
Because this Tango Tip series is devoted to the art/craft of social dancing, I’m going to share with you in some depth my pedagogical approach to teaching. If you think this seems to be an effective process, you can put it work yourself in progressively increasing your Tango skills over time. However, I strongly believe that it would prove far more beneficial, if you were able to work closely and consistently with a proficient teacher in your quest for competence — and well down the road, to mastery.
Here is part of the systematic teaching approach I find myself using with the majority of my serious students. (When I encounter what I’m going to call “casual” students or perhaps people who believe that the learning process can be significantly truncated to suit their own special needs, I prefer to commend them to other teachers.) Today, I’m going to provide you with a quick outline of Part 1 of my “system:”
Part 1 — “Tango is a way to walk”
1. Introduction to the lead/follow mechanism in five fundamental improvised linear interactions between lead and follower.
2. Use of lead/follow in structured and improvised start/stop walking exercises.
3. Introduction to improvised rhythmic movement.
4. Introduction to short suggested sequences and sequence choices in building improvisations. (Here’s where “dance steps” start to enter the picture.)
5. More steps: Two common pre-determined fundamental Tango sequences — la cunita and la cruzada.
6. Introduction to simple pivots.
7. Introduction to the parallel and crossed systems of linear movement.
I sometimes come across a student who thinks of the skills and techniques I’ve just outlined as “beginner stuff.” I’ve also encountered “teachers” of Tango who feel that these skills somehow happen by themselves, and are therefore unnecessary to focus on. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, mastering this group of skills in a conscious, methodical way forms the essential foundation of what all of social Tango is built on. I firmly believe that the serious student whose goal is to learn to dance absolutely must make this an ongoing part of his/her systematic practice regimen.
Next week, we’ll begin to discuss Part 1 of my pedagogy in greater detail. In future Tango Tips, I’ll outline additional parts of my methodology, discuss the ongoing importance of dance figures as a teaching tool, and continue to spell everything out in a more in-depth way.
April 19, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we talked about the difference between the way people learn to dance in Argentina versus the way we learn here in the United States. The focus in Argentina has traditionally been on spending time (lots of time!) in the milongas, developing dance skills by means of emulation and experience. In this country, the way we learn to dance (during the present day, at least) is to take lessons, usually in a dance school, during which we concentrate exclusively on memorizing steps or figures. As I mentioned last week, our focus is on what to do rather than on how to do it.
I think it’s important to point out that that this was not always true. When I learned to dance, for example, I did so by going to clubs, bars, and dance halls — trying my best to pick up whatever dance skills I had by watching and imitating my elders and friends. No one I knew took dance lessons. In fact, we very proudly bragged that we had never taken a dance lesson in our lives. This was a badge of honor among “good dancers” at the time. People of my generation learned to dance in pretty much the same way as our counterparts in Argentina. During late 1940s and through the early 50s, we still had a somewhat robust dance culture here in the U.S.A., and if you wanted to learn how to dance, all you had to do was head for the clubs. However, as our home-grown dance culture virtually disappeared by the end of the 1950s (for a wide variety of reasons), people who wanted to learn to dance had no recourse but to rely on dance schools in order to develop their skills.
And dance schools teach steps.
Sign up for lessons with any dance school in New York today, and what you can expect right from the start is a series of prescribed figures. Most schools offer 10 easy steps for beginners, 10 more for intermediate students, and 10 for people who are (theoretically) advanced. Truth to tell, all it takes is time and money, and you can become the best dancer in your neighborhood, village, town, city, state, possibly the entire world.
Long after I had become a professional dance teacher, I discovered Tango, when that magnificent show, “Tango Argentino,” came to Broadway. I had never seen anything like it. I was nothing short of breathless. I had to, had to, had to learn this life-changing dance. Please, please, please — show me the steps!!!
“Sorry, Charlie (or in my case ‘Fran’),” admonished my teachers, “there are no steps in Tango.” And as my friend, the late Carlos Gavito used to say to his students, “Tango is a way to walk.”
Okay, okay. After years of working my butt off to learn Tango, after attempting to (secretly) memorize figure after figure after figure, I finally get what they mean. Carlos was right: Tango is definitely a way to walk, and, yes, yes, I see it now: there are no steps.
Because I was not born and raised in Argentina, because I am not a seasoned milonguero who has spent most of his life in the dance halls of Buenos Aires, because I can only slavishly reproduce a poor imitation of what they do, what they know, what they feel … I humbly confess that when I dance Tango, I still rely to some extent on (yes, you’ve found me out) — steps.
Whew! I always feel so much better, when I come clean.
If you can bear with me after this embarrassing (but I hope refreshingly candid) revelation, next week, I’m going to offer a rationale for teaching/learning steps. I’m going to tell you how and why I use them in my dance, and why I teach them to my students as part of my own pedagogical approach. (Oh, and by the way, why pretty much every Tango teacher in the known universe, be they Argentine or other) happily and profitably teach steps as well!!!!)
In the meantime, gentles all, let’s kick out the blocks, and dance!
April 12, 2018
First, let’s recall how the process occurs in Argentina. As we’ve discussed before, the now more or less defunct — but extremely effective — tradition in Argentina was that men learned in their social clubs by actually dancing with other men, serving as followers until their “teachers” felt they were ready to try leading. In this way, men were exposed to essential lead/follow skills in a very practical and profound way. At the same time, women were exposed to Tango in a more passive way, by interacting with relatives and friends.
Here in the U.S.A., learning to dance has taken quite a different path. Instead of concentrating on how to dance, how to move, how to interact with a partner, our own system has focused on what people are supposed to do — in other words, the figures or steps that are arbitrarily deemed to comprise an individual dance. During the 1950’s, commercial entrepreneurs like Arthur Murray identified what they saw as signature movements and sequences, which they observed in the dance halls, and created somewhat over-simplified, mechanical versions of these “basic” steps, developing rigid syllabuses, which consisted of ”bronze,” “silver,” and “gold” variations. In theory, the purpose of this pedagogy was to enable students to learn in a progressive way. In practice, it was actually a means of enticing them to come back for more, and more, and more.
Once again, (sigh), a stellar example of capitalism in action.
For students of Tango in our country, this significant different between the Argentine way of learning and our own homegrown methodology often poses a profound dilemma. When students attend a dance class, they expect to learn right from the start what the steps are, what they’re supposed to do — not how they’re supposed to move with a partner. When I first started learning Tango, my teachers insisted that “there are no steps in Tango; Tango is a way to walk (with a partner).” In the context of such a radically different teaching/learning environment, it is no surprise that a student here in America might impatiently say “Just show me the steps; I’ll figure out the other stuff later.”
The fact is, of course, that there are thousands of identifiable sequences in Tango, which we might define as “steps.” Furthermore, teachers both from Argentina and the U.S.A. (as well as other countries, of course) have become well aware that steps are what most people (read “people’ as “men”) really want. Perhaps more to the point, steps are what they’re willing to pay for. For this reason, attend any Tango workshop — anywhere in the world — and what will you get? That’s right: STEPS.
(Another sigh, this time, one of defeat and resignation.)
With all this in mind, I personally do my best to keep my students focused on the how of Tango rather than the what. Most of the time, they repeat the complaint I mentioned earlier: “Just show me the steps, etc.” Oh well, I’ll keep trying. And the fact is that I actually think steps can be important in learning Tango. It depends on how you use them in your dance.
We’ll talk about this next week.
April 5, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Learning how to dance Tango, as I’m sure you know by now, is anything but easy. The best way to start (I’ve mentioned this a few times before in these Tango Tips) is to be born in Argentina, and then spend all your time — I mean, all your time — in the milongas. Failing that, if you happen to have been born here in the U.S.A., for example, your only viable option is to take dance lessons.
As a way to learn, dance lessons in the form of classes, workshops, privates, and ancillary vehicles such as YouTube and other video sources can certainly be useful as a way to get into the game, but in my opinion, at least, it’s important for the student to make sure that lessons of any kind are one part of a larger learning strategy — or they will ultimately have very little value.
The first question people invariably ask in this country as they embark on the learning process is “What are the steps?” Most commercial dance schools are very quick to provide ready answers to this question by offering basic, intermediate, and advanced syllabuses of progressively designed figures, which they say will result in the shortest and most comprehensive route to dance expertise. In my opinion, this approach may be momentarily satisfying for the student who believes that fast answers and abstract structures are the right way to achieve competence. However, as a way to actually learn how to dance, I believe that this path has virtually no merit whatever.
The question students should be asking instead of “What are the steps” is “How do I learn to move effectively and comfortably with a partner?” This, I think, is the key to becoming a competent dancer. And the process of finding the answer to this question involves what I referred to earlier as the “larger learning strategy.”
Here is what I think you should do:
1. Instead of looking for instant satisfaction through the lure of memorized figures, bite the bullet and recognize that you’ve really got to discover how to move before figures of any kind will do you any good. Embracing this fact is the crucial moment in your learning strategy.
2. Find a teacher who also believes that learning how to dance is the right way to go. Allow that teacher to school you in the complex mechanics of lead/follow. Yes, you’ve heard me talk about this skill set many times in the past. To some students, lead/follow seems boring and unsatisfying. (These are students who will never, ever, ever learn how to dance.) Don’t be one of them. While all your friends may be spending their time memorizing fancy figures (and executing them badly, by the way), join your carefully chosen teacher in actually learning lead/follow, and becoming a good dancer.
3. Make the dance floor your second home. To learn how to dance, you absolutely have to get out there and dance. Nothing, but nothing, can take the place of spending lots of time on the dance floor. In Argentina, that special breed of totally dedicated dancers — sometimes referred to as milongueros — spend virtually all their time perfecting the art of lead/follow. Yes, they can also execute a blizzard of very, very fancy figures, when challenged. But their primary skill set is to lead and to follow with consummate expertise.
These elements comprise what I hope you’ll agree should constitute your primary learning strategy. As you begin to gain some measure of expertise in this vital area of development, you’ll find yourself ready to benefit from structured figures, which can provide creativity and diversity to your emerging dance proficiency.
We’ll talk more about this next week. In the meantime, get a teacher, get out on the floor, and practice.
March 29, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. To me, one of the really beautiful aspects of social Tango — at least at the highest level — is that it is totally improvised by the individual dancer. For leaders, there is no thought of memorized patterns. One element seems to flow into another in a completely creative manner. At the same time, followers allow themselves to be moved from one balance to the next without any consciousness of having to remember specific dance sequences. When the moment seems right, they may offer tastefully selected embellishments (adornos) to enhance their carefully led movements. All this occurs as absolutely transcendent music continuously drives a harmonious community of dancers to move along la ronda without a single mishap to mar the beauty of the experience.
What I’m trying to describe here is what I think of as “Tango heaven” — wonderful to contemplate, very difficult to achieve.
What would it take for us to find this enviable state of bliss described above? In the first place, we would have to recognize that it only exists, if we ourselves create it.
· As dancers, we would have to make certain that we really understand how to interact with one another as social dancers. This means learning, practicing, and nurturing the art of lead/follow, perhaps the most difficult — and at the same time the most neglected — aspect of Tango.
· As leaders, we would have to largely abstain from ego-driven forays into anti-social, often outright dangerous performance repertoire, opting instead for improvisational expertise, which promotes maximum flexibility within a large group of dancers.
· As followers, we would have to insist on balance at the end of every movement we make — rather than constantly putting up with being continuously thrown around the dance floor like rag dolls by leaders whose focus is on YouTube fantasies rather than on solid lead/follow improvisation.
· As participants at the milonga or practica, we would have to consider the line of dance as a primary concern. No one would have the option to travel against la ronda, or to “change lanes” haphazardly, thereby completely disrupting the ideal flow of movement.
· As DJs, we would have to stop trying to be the most knowledgeable exponents of musical arcana in the room, choosing instead to become expert in offering the most “danceable” music possible.
There are many other things we could do to make Tango heaven even more, well, heavenly. But the elements I’ve itemized above would be a great start. Let’s all make an effort to incorporate these goals into our next milonga or practica. Please.
March 22, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During last week’s Tip I talked about the dangers of substituting YouTube Tango fantasies for real learning. In my opinion, no one can learn the intricacies of complex body movement and technique simply by watching a video, no matter how well presented it may be. At the same time, however, YouTube can prove to be an extremely valuable tool in your overall learning process — especially when it comes to getting information.
Recently, I discovered a series of interviews by a woman named Pepa Palazon. In this series, Ms. Palazon conducts in-depth discussions with important Tango luminaries, which I believe anyone serious about learning Tango should see. I was particularly interested in an interview with Eduardo Arquimbau and his wife Gloria. This couple performed around the world as “Gloria y Eduardo” in the seminal show “Tango Argentino” during the mid 1980s.
I had the good fortune to meet and study with Eduardo, when he taught a series of workshops at Dance Manhattan during the 1990s. Not only is Eduardo an exemplary performer of “Tango fantasia,” he is a fine, generous teacher, and his knowledge of the social dance is nothing short of vast.
Be sure to check out the Pepa Palazon interview with this fascinating Tango couple on YouTube. Among other subjects of great interest to Tango students, you’ll learn how the two performers met and began to dance together (under the watchful eye of Gloria’s mother). You’ll get a detailed overview of the history of Tango, along with Eduardo’s illuminating description of how the Tango embrace evolved over the years. If you’ve ever been confused about the different ways of dancing social Tango — orillero, canyengue, Tango salon, fantasia, and others — Eduardo spells these unique styles out during this interview as clearly and accurately as you’ll ever hear them described.
Here’s the link for the Gloria and Eduardo interview on YouTube:
While you’re at it, don’t miss Pepa Palazon’s interviews with Juan Carlos Copes, Maria Nieves, Rodolfo and Gloria Dinzel, Nito and Elba, Miguel Zotto, Milena Plebs, los hermanos Macana, and Guillermina Quiroga, among others. And don’t forget to access Monica Paz’ interviews with many of the living legends of social Tango in Argentina today. Thanks to our own Sue Dallon, you’ll find links to these in the pages of our past newsletters.
Once you start reading and viewing the information found in these documents, I’m sure you’ll agree that they are without doubt an invaluable supplement to your knowledge and appreciation of social Tango.
March 15, 2018
March 1, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’re like most students, it’s very likely that your goal is not only to learn Tango, but to learn it as quickly as possible — so that you can get out there and dance, rather than be constantly chasing what probably feels like a very elusive and often frustrating learning process.
The question then becomes: Where are the shortcuts? How can I get up and running with this dance right away? Over the last several weeks, we’ve talked about some of the ways people learn Tango — including classes of various kinds, milongas, practicas, and private lessons. All these learning situations take time, lots of time. With that in mind, I’d like to focus on what may seem to be a very special timesaving alternative: the Tango Workshop.
If you’ve ever attended a workshop, you probably arrived with several expectations:
You’d finally find yourself in the company of a real expert — either from Argentina or at least from out of town (they’re the people who somehow know what you really need).
The workshop would be focused like a laser on material you really wanted.
In the space of two to three hours you’d pick up techniques that might otherwise take months — maybe years — for you to learn from your regular teacher.
Does this sound familiar? When I was a student, I spent many hours attending workshops offered by “the masters.” With each one, I went in with great expectations. When I finished such events, I almost always felt at first that I had really learned a lot — but then more often than not slowly came to the annoying awareness that something was missing, that although I might have been exposed to a great number of figures, sequences, and techniques, I still didn’t really know how to dance Tango.
When I was myself teaching Tango at a now-defunct New York City dance studio, we offered a special kind of workshop we called “a crash course.” In theory, such a workshop offered the beginning student the opportunity to learn the basics of Tango in just a few short hours — rather than a couple of grueling years (or a lifetime). A lot of students flocked to these workshops, sometimes repeating them several times, in an effort to learn by shortcut — read that as magic — rather than by continuous application and repetition over the course of months or years.
What I eventually concluded for myself about workshops is that most — maybe all — are really designed for people who already know how to dance, and who now want to build additional repertoire and/or special technique. When I teach a workshop, this is what I have in mind. Do I accept students who don’t yet have the fundamental skills they need to know how to dance? Sure, I do. But I try to let them know very clearly right from the outset that no amount of exposure to “advanced” material can possibly take the place of first building — and then consistently maintaining — a solid foundation of basic skill sets.
Do my students listen to me? Well, that, of course, is another story. One student recently confided in me: “I have the crash course for the basics, the big workshops for the fancy stuff, and YouTube for anything I’m missing. Who needs lessons?”
February 22, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Are you serious about learning Tango? If so, you’ve probably been asking yourself: “What is the best way for me to learn this complex dance?” Over the past several weeks, we’ve been attempting to answer that question. So far, we’ve looked at such possibilities as going to practicas and milongas, as well as attending group classes. We’ve even talked about how Argentine men and women learned to dance Tango during times past. Today, we’re going to focus on the private lesson.
As we discussed two weeks ago, the way most of us in this country go about the process of learning Tango is by attending group classes for beginners. In theory, this makes a lot of sense — if you’re a beginner, the place to start your studies is in a beginner class. The problem with this way of learning is that — in my opinion, at least — it really just doesn’t work.
I don’t mean to say that I think group classes have no value. In fact, I believe that classes at an intermediate and advanced level can be very useful for people who have a well-established foundation in Tango, and are ready to learn more. However, the bedrock skill set for social dance is a solid familiarity with the lead/follow mechanism — and in my experience this highly complex matrix of skills just cannot be learned with any degree of effectiveness, when students who have no skills are paired with other such students.
This presents beginners with a very difficult dilemma. How can they possibly prepare themselves so that group classes will ultimately be of use? In my opinion, the answer is by engaging in a limited series of private lessons.
Last week, when we talked about the traditional way young men used to learn in the social clubs of Argentina, we were actually describing private lessons in perhaps their most effective form. (Please reread last week’s Tango Tip for more detail.) The closest approximation we have to this means of learning within contemporary society is the individual private lesson.
In the private lesson, students interact directly with teachers in one-to-one relationships right from the beginning. By this means — in a relatively short time (we sincerely hope!) — the majority of beginners will find that they have gained a strong basis for starting to interact with other students — who have been following the same method of learning. As this foundational development occurs, private lessons — which by their nature are quite expensive — can be suspended, or at least reduced to a minimum.
If you are a beginning Tango student who has been struggling with the learning process in classes, I strongly suggest that you take a private lesson with the teacher of your choice. Yes, I know it’s costly, but I have every confidence that you’ll experience an almost instant increase in your ability to understand this unique dance form, and to finally open the door to being able to lead/follow other dancers, who are involved in the same process. (Of course, it must be said here that no amount of lessons or training can possibly prepare you or anybody else to interact appropriately with people who have no skills, and have little interest in learning them.)
Next week, we’ll continue to address the Tango learning process, and offer other possibilities for increasing your knowledge and expertise.
February 15, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Over the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about how people actually learn to dance social Tango. My own list of potential avenues includes the following:
The social club/my friend’s sister
Today, I’d like to discuss the way many people learned Tango in Argentina during the early part of the twentieth century. In those years, the learning process was quite a different experience from what it has eventually become. Unlike today — when men and women generally learn together in classes of various kinds — most men learned to dance through their social clubs — while the majority of women either learned through their immediate family or by attending dances, and learning “on the spot.”
Typically, a young man who wanted to learn Tango was required by his social club to begin by serving an apprenticeship as a follower. By playing this role under the supervision of experienced leaders, he would gradually learn the techniques of partner interaction — what you’ve often heard me refer to as the lead/follow mechanism. When his “teachers” felt he was ready, he would be given the opportunity to prove himself as a leader within the context of the social club. Only after going through this fairly rigorous process would he “graduate” to where he was finally ready to interact with women at the milonga.
Because of rigid cultural proscriptions during that same period of time, women generally learned to dance in an entirely different way. First, a woman might be introduced to one or two “suitable” young men at a milonga under very strict supervision by her relatives. If she were permitted to actually dance with such partners, she would do so under the Argus-eyed scrutiny of her “protectors” in order to ensure that no possible breach of acceptable behavior could possibly take place.
In theory, at least, a young woman in these circumstances had little or no idea how to dance Tango, and therefore had to be gently led step-by-step by her partner through the intricacies of the dance. If the interaction between the leader and follower turned out to be successful, the young man could consider his time very well spent in the care of his mentors at the social club. The young woman who had served as his partner, on the other hand, could credit her own ability as a follower in placing her absolute faith in the skill of her leader. (Where she achieved this remarkable ability was at the time not necessarily a subject for discussion. Some women apparently had it, some didn’t.)
I believe there are far better ways for women to learn Tango than the one I just described. (We’ll begin to talk about these next week). On the other hand, I can think of no better way for a man (leader) to learn Tango than by first serving an apprenticeship as a follower under the expert guidance of his more experienced peers. This intense “hands-on” approach begins with the development of good lead/follow skills, continues with building a strong foundation of essential repertoire, and culminates with bringing all this to the milonga --only when the student is deemed ready for prime time by his teachers.
Next week, we’ll continue to discuss more alternative approaches within contemporary society for effectively learning social Tango both as leaders and as followers.
February 8, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Let’s say that I’m teaching someone how to ride a bicycle. I hand them the bike, and tell them, “Ride this bike down to the stoplight, turn left, go three blocks, and turn right.” The student asks, “But how do I ride the bike?”
I repeat the instructions:
“Ride this bike down to the stoplight, turn left, go three blocks, and turn right.”
The student repeats the question:
“But how do I ride the bike?”
I wonder why the process doesn’t seem to be working. I think to myself, “Gee, what do I do next?”
Well, of course, the answer is, I should be teaching the student how to actually ride the bike rather than prematurely mapping out a route for him/her to take. In the beginner dance class, the same thing is true. Asking students to memorize multi-step figures, and reproduce them mechanically over and over may enable them to become somewhat adept at memorization, but it simply does not teach them how to dance.
During this latest series of Tango Tips, we’ve been discussing the various ways in which people in this country learn to dance social Tango. Our list of possibilities includes:
The social club/my friend’s sister
Last week, we focused on the traditional way in which beginner classes are conducted in the U.S.A. To restate what I said, dance teachers — particularly those in dance schools — almost invariably base their pedagogy on the progressive memorization of figures. The point I hope I’ve made above is that this methodology is at best severely flawed.
An alternative approach to the beginner class is to have students focus almost exclusively on gaining command over the lead/follow mechanism. This is the all-important skill set, which enables two people to interact properly in executing each individual movement within the social dance. In my opinion, learning to lead and follow is literally synonymous with learning how to dance. Under the careful guidance of the teacher, each student is gradually instructed in how to properly lead/follow the fundamental elements of the linear and circular dance (forward, backward, sideward movement — as well as the weight change in place, the pause, and the pivot).
At the end of such highly specific training, the student is (theoretically, at least) ready to move on to progressive skills (such as specific body techniques, musicality, improvisational creativity, suggested sequences, etc.).
One of the problems with concentrating on lead/follow in the beginner class, however, is that this approach does not produce the instant gratification that most of today’s students want. In fact, the pressure to “just show me the steps” is so great in most situations that the majority of teachers — especially traveling professionals — eventually abandon their efforts to give students what they really need, and resort to giving them what they want — “just show me the steps!” — in order to keep classes and workshops full, and thereby earn a reasonable living.
Furthermore, even if teachers were to concentrate exclusively on the lead/follow mechanism, this is a difficult skill set to grasp under the best of conditions, and, frankly, very hard to achieve with any effectiveness between one unskilled student and another in the context of the beginner class.
What, then, can be done? I’m not suggesting here that teachers should all stop offering beginner classes. For casual students, such classes really offer the only viable option available. However, for more serious students, there are other possibilities well worth exploring.
We’ll begin examining these next week.
February 1, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During this latest series of Tips, we’ve been talking about the various ways in which people in this country learn to dance social Tango. To remind you of what I’ve been referring to over the past two weeks, the list of possible ways to learn consists of the following:
The social club/my friend’s sister
Last week, we discussed practicas and milongas, particularly from the standpoint of the beginning dancer. This week, we’ll focus on what I think of as the typical beginner class.
Once people get a taste of Tango and decide they’d like to learn more, their next step is almost always to sign up for a beginner class. (Over the years, I’ve taught many such classes myself.) In general, these classes take one of two possible approaches to learning Tango. The first approach, the one used more or less exclusively in American dance schools for our own ballroom, swing and Latin classes — and now for Tango — is to offer our students a highly structured pedagogy in which both leaders and followers focus more or less exclusively on memorizing a series of prescribed figures.
The advantage of this figure-oriented process is that students feel that they’re quickly accumulating real information, which they can take immediately to the dance floor. (“Look, mom, we’re dancing!”) At the same time, teachers can easily monitor their students’ progress: If students are able to effectively memorize the material and can execute the figures according to a set schedule, they have thereby achieved measurable success, and are now ready to move on to more complex figures.
When I first began to study Tango during the 1980s, this teaching method was the one used by virtually all the performing professionals who visited us from Argentina. From our ballroom lessons, this way of teaching/learning was exactly what we were used to and comfortable with. However, after many, many lessons — after memorizing figure after figure, sequence after sequence, many of us still retained the nagging feeling that we still really couldn’t actually dance Tango.
I remember vividly a conversation I had with one of my teachers:
“I really enjoy learning all these steps, but I still feel that I don’t really know how to dance.”
Teacher (Famous performing professional from Argentina):
“What are you talking about? Right now, with everything I’ve taught you, you could get out there and do a show.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to do a show; I want to dance.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll get it eventually. Now, today, we’re going to work on this new figure ….”
It turns out (in my opinion, at least) that becoming a “step machine” — memorizing and then regurgitating one figure after another — really isn’t the answer to learning how to dance. But in beginning classes all over the U.S.A. — maybe all over the world — this has become the most prevalent approach to the teaching process.
Oh well, what do we do now, folks?
Next week, we’re going to talk about the alternative approach some teachers take in conducting a beginner class. In this approach, the emphasis is on the challenge of learning how to lead and follow — rather than on memorizing figures. We’ll discuss whether this is a more appropriate way to teach beginning students. And if so, does it actually produce positive results.
See you next week.
January 25, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Did you read last week’s Tango Tip? If so, you may remember that I listed what I think are the important components of learning how to dance social Tango well. In fact, I added one today as I was writing this Tip. Over the coming weeks, I’d like to discuss each one of these elements in terms of what I believe is their relative importance to one’s overall learning process. These are the following:
• The social club/my friend’s sister
• Natural ability
• Focused workshops
• Private lessons
Today, I’m going to talk about practicas and milongas. These represent the two major opportunities people have for actually dancing socially.
One could argue that beginning students really need preliminary exposure to dancing in partnership before gaining enough practical experience to benefit from structured lessons of any kind. Such exposure is usually gained these days by attending practicas and/or milongas for some period of time in order to “try out” the social dance process to see whether one enjoys it. Of course, for experienced dancers, practicas and milongas are the venues in which they “do their stuff.” For beginners, on the other hand, these events are more like suddenly being thrown into the deep water, and told to swim your way to shore.
In fact, this is the way many people have traditionally learned to dance. One of the boasts I’ve often heard from people (I’m really talking about men here) who survive this process and continue to dance is: “I’ve never taken a lesson in my life.” The people who say this invariably do so with great pride — as if to strongly imply that the great skill they have ultimately achieved over the years is a result of their own individual efforts rather than having been shaped or influenced by so-called “teachers” — the implied equivalent of snake oil salesmen.
Although I prefer not to think of myself as a purveyor of snake oil, I do actually believe that there is merit in this shock-and-awe approach to learning, especially if you don’t mind spending 30 years or so, slowly and meticulously assimilating and honing your skills through trial and (lots of) error. But I digress ….
Here are a few facts to muse about. The overwhelming majority of women I’ve met in my life either like or more often — absolutely love — the idea of social dancing. “To be held in a romantic embrace, to be swept along the dance floor, to be mesmerized by the music …” Well, you get the idea. At the same time, men — at least the ones I’ve generally encountered — tend to think of dancing (if they think about it at all) as somewhere between a fate worse than death and a triple root canal. Sure, it may be a way to meet ladies (big plus there), but couldn’t women learn to watch sports on TV twenty-nine hours a day? Man, now we’re talking major plus!
Oh well, getting back to the real world … the practica and/or the milonga gives everybody the chance to dip their toes in the water, to check out the scene, to start the ball rolling. For most women, the practica and milonga are instant highways to heaven. For most men they’re ways to find out that learning to dance won’t be a total disaster.
Once men have been exposed to these opportunities for social dancing at a rudimentary level, some decide that they kind of like it — especially the part where their significant others are clearly over the moon. And to tell you the truth, a few men may even become vaguely motivated by the challenge. They might even decide not to just be happy with the little they can do right now on the dance floor, but to actually try to get a little better at it.
Next week, we’re going to talk about what happens, when both sides of the partnership are on board with making serious progress in learning to dance Tango. Yes, I’m talking about dancing more, I’m talking about practicing more, and I’m talking about lessons!
This is definitely where the rubber meets the road.
January 18, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Do you really want to learn how to dance Tango? Seriously, let’s think about it for a moment. In my experience, most casual students would like to know how to dance Tango, but learning? That’s another story. I remember when I first started trying to pick up different kinds of ballroom dancing during the 1950s. At that time, there were lots of places you could go to dance, to meet dancers, to practice dancing. Dancing was on people’s minds — dancing was the thing to do. We even had the Arthur Murray folks on TV every week, telling us what a lead-pipe cinch it all was. I can still hear the voice of Katherine Murray as she gazed with saccharine sincerity into the camera, and exclaimed: “Dancing is easy, anyone can do it.”
Oh yeah? Just in case you haven’t noticed by now, knowing might be nice; but with all due respect to Katherine and the Murray gang, learning social dance of any kind is really difficult. And learning Tango?
Right now, I hear dance teachers all over the country saying, “Don’t tell them this stuff.” Well, I think it’s time you started getting a little bit realistic about what you should expect, when you take on the Tango project. Nothing about it is easy. Building the initial foundation is a real bear … and then it starts to get seriously hard.
No kidding. A favorite phrase of many students is: “I’m never gonna get this thing.” And, of course, I’m talking about people who stick it out.
Are you still with me? Are you among the few, the proud, (maybe the masochistic), who are willing to stay the course, to keep the faith, to go where few have gone before?
Say “yes, Fran!” Okay, let’s get started. Here’s what it’s going to take:
· Private lessons (crucial)
· Classes (necessary)
· Focused workshops (helpful)
· Practicas (mandatory)
· Milongas (don’t be a chicken — get out there)
· Consciousness (I think about Tango all the time)
· Natural ability (a major asset, but not a game changer)
During the coming weeks, I’m going to look at each one of these elements (and maybe others as they occur to me), to assess what I think is their importance in your overall learning process.
Are you ready? Are you psyched? Fasten your seat belts, people, take a deep breath, and get yourself ready for the ride of your life!
January 11, 2018
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the questions I like to ask my students on a regular basis is: “What are you working on?” My students know exactly what I mean by this question: What is your specific plan of action for this dance? What are you trying to accomplish in the way of making sure this particular dance is in some tangible way “better” than any other dance you’ve ever done before?
The answer to this question will, of course, vary from one person to the next.
· I’m going to work on making sure that I find solid balance at the end of every step.
· I’m going to be checking my feet to make certain they come together neatly as I complete each movement.
· I’m going to see whether I can actually lead each component of a new figure I’m working on so that it all comes together.
· I’m going to add that new adornment at least once during the dance, using the appropriate technique.
These are just a few of the many things you might be concentrating on, when you and a partner walk onto the dance floor. In my opinion as a teacher, the important idea here is that as a student, one ought to be focused on something rather than nothing.
Some people balk at this suggestion. “Why do I always have to be working on something? I just want to have a nice dance.” The whole point of dancing, after all, is to find a welcome release from the worries and cares of everyday living — to kick out the blocks and just enjoy a bit of fun.
Well, yes and no. As you and your partner are “just having fun,” does he tend to neglect his lead so that you really have no idea what he’s asking you to do? (And then maybe he sort of blames you for not doing what he wants?) Does she suddenly decide to throw in a few extras steps all by herself (you didn’t lead those movements, did you?) Does he hold you in a vice-like grip so that your right hand turns white from loss of circulation? Does she routinely fall from one foot to the other at the end of her steps, putting the whole partnership totally out of sync?
Are you really “having fun?”
What you might consider is that instead of just going brain dead as you’re having that “fun” dance, treat it as a conscious experiment in what can go right — and what can go wrong — when you don’t bring a special focus to the interaction. Make a mental note of things you might like to change once you shift from “just having fun” to making the commitment to becoming a more accomplished dancer. And don’t wait for Pat and me — or your regular teacher — to put the question to you. Every time you find yourself on the dance floor, ask yourself:
“What am I working on?”