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.
June 6, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the week. If you read our post last week, you may now be aware that becoming a better Tango dancer takes quite a bit of time, patience and concentration. I often suggest very specific practice goals to my students in order to help move this process along, and I’d like to begin sharing some of them with you.
Today, we’re going to focus on feet. Notwithstanding the employment of adornments, I believe that there are fundamentally only two foot positions in Tango: together and apart. When you move forward, backward, or to the side, your feet are apart. Otherwise, they’re together.
When I was first learning to dance, I remember my teachers telling me that “neat feet” were crucial in looking appropriate, when dancing Tango. What they didn’t say — but what is also of paramount importance — is that when your feet are together, your balance is secure. When they’re apart, your balance can be severely compromised.
Let’s talk about what I mean, when I say together.
Heels and toes completely together
Stand in one place, and gently bring your heels and toes completely together — with one foot carrying your weight, and the other along the ground, but not bearing any weight at all. Notice how solid your balance is. This was the way people created what we’ll refer to as the “together position” during Tango’s early years.
Heels together, toes apart
Now, stand in one place, and bring only your heels together, allowing your toes to remain slightly apart — maybe an inch or so. This will create a slight V-shape. Once again, make sure that one foot is bearing your weight, and the other is along the ground, but free. Notice that you have the same reliable balance that you experienced a moment ago, but the “style” is a bit different. This is the way many people dance today — a minor evolution of the earlier style in which the feet were completely together.
Heels together but offset, toes apart
Finally, stand in one place, and gently bring one foot up to the other, setting the heel of the free foot very slightly to the rear of the weight-bearing foot, and leaving the toes apart as before. This is a further evolution of the “together position,” probably introduced originally by performers — but widely used today among social dancers who want their feet to appear particularly special.
Any of these “together positions” are fine for dancing Tango. They all promote “neat feet,” and offer the advantage of solid upright balance.
Unfortunately, lots of students never really bring their feet together, when they dance. It is common to see even so-called “advanced” social dancers moving along the floor, never bringing their feet together in between traveling movements. Whether you’re a leader or follower, your immediate goal should be to concentrate on starting your dance with your feet nicely together — always bringing your feet together between steps.
In order to make this happen, it’s going to be important for you to slow your dancing down. If, as a leader, for example, you’re constantly running your partner around the dance floor, she’ll never have an opportunity to bring her feet together between steps, and neither will you.
Starting today, please S-L-O-W D-O-W-N!
As you discover better foot styling along with greatly improved balance by concentrating on bringing your feet together, you’ll prepare the way for other changes that will improve your dancing. We’ll continue talking more about these next week.
May 30, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Would you like to become a better Tango dancer? If so, there are several important changes you can make, starting right now, which will really help speed up the process of achieving that goal.
Change your learning process
The very best thing you can do for yourself, if you want to become a better, more accomplished dancer is to invest in private lessons with a competent teacher. Yes, I know —such a commitment is expensive, but this is undoubtedly the biggest and most important change you can make. Classes, workshops and on-line resources certainly have their place in your learning process, but nothing works more effectively than regular private lessons. The hands-on, one-to-one focus you receive in working with your very own teacher will get you to your goal much faster and far more effectively than anything else you could possibly do.
Change your work/play habits
How often do you dance – maybe once or twice a week? Starting today, put more dancing on your calendar. In Argentina, the best dancers (milongueros) spend pretty much all their time in the milongas. You probably don’t have time for that (what with the pesky need to earn a living or maybe raise a family), but try to carve out a little more time each week to dance. Start by adding one new venue to your schedule, and work yourself up to two or three more, if-as-and-when time and circumstances permit. You’ll end up having more fun in your week — and your dancing ability will go up, up, up!
Change your focus
us start off a typical dance encounter by more or less unconsciously moving
around with a partner without really thinking at all about what we’re doing. If
we focus at all, it’s probably on some fancy figure or special adornment from a
class, workshop or YouTube fantasy that we‘d like to impress our
Instead, start sweating the small stuff — those crucial foundational skills that will eventually enable you to make even the most complex movements and sequences easy. Yes, I’m talking about the individual elements of lead/follow: Forward steps, backward steps, side steps, weight changes in place, pauses and pivots. These are the essential building blocks of social Tango. As you’ve heard me say over and over in these posts, you just cannot get enough practice in fine-tuning these movements in your interactions with a partner. The more you work on lead/follow skills (as long as you know what you doing), the better you get. It’s a direct correlation, folks. And, of course, the less you work on them … well, you know where I’m going here.
Do you dance with the same person all the time? If so, it’s not uncommon to fall into a kind of dance rut — by which I mean forming potentially bad habits with one another, or unconsciously compensating for each other’s faults on the floor. If possible, a very important change in your ongoing dance/practice habit from now on should be to dance with someone new for at least part of your time on the floor. This will enable you to treat the dance encounter as a brand new challenge between you and your new partner, opening the door to a more consciously focused lead/follow experience.
Change your life
Making these changes in your ongoing learning process will unquestionably kick your social Tango up a huge notch. And as your Tango gets better, your fun level will increase; your life will be more fulfilled; and, yes, the world will become a better place — all because you did the right thing, and made a few simple changes.
Wow! You couldn’t ask for more than that.
May 23, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. How many people do you know who can lay claim to being the “Mashed Potato Champion of the Someplace Else Bar in Roosevelt, Long Island?” Royalty, my friends, nothing short of royalty. Okay, to be absolutely honest, my actual reign of terpsichorean glory only lasted a couple of weeks, but hey.
Today, I’m going to continue unveiling my personnel pilgrimage toward achieving total social dance mastery as I trip the light fantastic from Lindy to Mashed Potato to Mambo, Foxtrot, Peabody, and beyond. Without delving too deeply into extraneous detail, I began my odyssey by steeping myself in the available dance culture of day. (And at that time — the 1950s — there was plenty of it.) I had the opportunity to spend lots of quality time at the Roseland Ballroom, at the New York Palladium, and at so many of the popular dance venues in the New York area. At each of these legendary locations I did the one crucial thing that was necessary to discover the secrets of dance expertise.
I sat and watched.
I spent countless hours at Roseland, scoping out the best of the best as they glided effortless around the “track” (which was what the Roseland dance floor was called back then). I stood mesmerized behind the railing at the Palladium, marveling with envious attention as the “Mamboniks” tore up the dance floor night after fabulous night. Eventually, I tentatively tried to imitate what I was seeing in these and the other dance clubs by inflicting myself on potential partners. In the beginning — truth to tell — I was pretty terrible; but over the course of time (along with lots of trial and error, if you must know), I gradually managed to get better.
What’s important to grasp here is that during those years, there was a very robust dance culture in New York — not only in the city, but also in the boroughs and suburbs. Everybody loved dancing. It was absolutely the thing to do!
Today, of course, everything is different. In the first place, the world of social dance has shrunk down to next to nothing — not only here in New York, but in what was once the capital of Argentine Tango, yes, I mean Buenos Aires! If you ask someone on the street in BA where the Tango venues are, they reply: “What Tango venues? What are you talking about?” The social dance community has shriveled over time to less than one tenth of one per cent of the population. This is shameful, but it’s the way things are.
The down side for people who want to learn how to dance here in this country is that there’s really no place left to go where one can just sit, watch, absorb, and emulate. What we’re left with throughout the U.S.A. are dance schools and dance teachers. I remember vividly being told at the New York Palladium not to waste my time watching the dance teachers and their students. “These people aren’t dancing Mambo,” a skilled practitioner assured me. “They’re just regurgitating a bunch of choreographed flashy steps.” This was true then, and, regrettably, it’s true more than ever right now.
As things stand today, we longer have a thriving dance culture here in this country. Our once-precious social dance culture has been all but completely lost — all but totally replaced by a largely inflexible, uncreative dance school/dance teacher-driven paradigm of “regurgitating a bunch of choreographed flashy steps.”
This pains me tremendously. There’s simply nowhere left to go to simply sit and watch.
The good news is that in Argentina the dance culture is still alive — although, to be sure, it has greatly diminished since its heyday in what is often referred to as la epoca de oro, the golden age. And there’s no doubt that the purity of the social Tango traditions are slowly but surely being systematically eroded by the bane of commercial considerations
Nonetheless, the advice I always give my students is that if they’re serious about learning to dance Tango, they absolutely must, must, must make a trip to Buenos Aires as soon as possible. They must visit every milonga (dance venue) they can find, and they must spend their time sitting and watching.
Don’t dance. Don’t take lessons. Do what I did way back when: Sit and watch. There’s simply no better way to learn, and you have the chance to do it right now. Buy your ticket today!
May 16, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the questions people often ask me is: “Hey, Fran, how did you learn how to dance?” They assume that like today’s would-be dance enthusiasts I took a bunch of lessons, and practiced a lot. But this isn’t the way things went down. In fact, my own process was similar to the way people (well, men, to be more specific) have traditionally learned to dance Tango in Argentina.
Here’s what happened. I started in the seventh grade at church venues in which the good sisters forced me (and all the other boys) to dance with — eeeewwww! — “girls!” At that time, being told to hold hands with one of these alien creatures, having to place my right hand around her waste, and then trying to move from one foot to the other, stepping all over her feet in the process, was something I definitely did not want to do!
Baseball, yes; girls, no!
Things changed quite suddenly, when I realized somewhere around age thirteen that “girls” were actually more interesting to me than baseball. (Of course, I couldn’t tell this to my friends, because it would be a breach of our highly exclusive code of conduct. Little did I know that my friends were all feeling the same way.)
In any case, one of the curious corollaries of my personal pro-feminine epiphany — some might refer to this as pubescence — was the awareness that girls like to dance.
Weird, but true.
It didn’t take much to figure out that, if I learned this peculiar skill set, it might open the door to all manner of co-ed possibilities, although at that tender age, I have to confess that I wasn’t at all certain of what these might be.
My initial foray into the world of dance prowess occurred in the basement of a trusted friend (no names, here, folks — it remains, of course, crucial even now to protect the reputation of my co-conspirator). In this secret venue, I learned the basic step of what was called “the Lindy.” My friend had obtained this magical formula from his older sister, and was covertly passing it along to me as an enticement both of us might subsequently be able to utilize in plying our newly found interest in female interaction.
How could I know at that time that I was emulating more or less precisely the traditional Argentine way of learning by dancing with another man — well okay, boy?
I was able to unveil my recently acquired expertise at a school dance the following month. While other boys idled listlessly in the dark recesses of the room, my friend and I caused a sensation by burning the floor with pretty much every girl in the place. We were nothing short of spectacular, if I do say so myself. And because we were also both tall, we did not risk the potential recriminations of those envious lesser mortals who were not yet in possession of our consummate skill.
What I mean is that we didn’t get beat up in the schoolyard after the dance.
After that life-changing experience, I was pumped, my friends! I wanted more. Shall I share with you the next phase of my dance odyssey? Tune in next week, when I reveal my momentous ascendancy to the throne of “Mashed Potato” Champion at the Someplace Else bar in Roosevelt, Long Island.
How does all this nonsense help us learn how to dance? Stick around, folks, and find out.
May 9, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. As many of you know, Pat and I teach a 2-hour Tango class every Wednesday at the Argentine Consulate in New York City. I’m very proud of the fact that this year marks my fifteenth year of conducting this class. (Pat came aboard as co-teacher several years ago after she retired from her full-time job.)
Recently, a new student (let’s call her Maria) joined our group. She came into the room a bit late (we start at noon, and Maria arrived a half hour later). I could tell at a glance that Maria was feeling completely intimidated by the other students. In fact, when I asked her name, she very quietly told me that she’s never danced social Tango before, and was feeling afraid that we’d all think she was terrible.
I assured Maria that all of us had been through this ourselves, and that we understood exactly how she was feeling.
“But what can I do,” she asked. “I don’t know anything.”
As the other students were practicing a sequence Pat and I had just demonstrated, I took Maria aside, and gave her the following assignment:
“Your job for today, Maria, is to begin by trying to move forward, backward, and to the side — along with changing from one foot to the other in place. You’ll begin by doing this by yourself. After each of these movements, you’re going to try finding nice, comfortable balance on one foot (the one that just traveled).”
I let Maria work on this solo “assignment” for about fifteen minutes, while Pat and I continued the class. Next, I asked one of my more experienced leaders (we’ll call him Jeff) to gently hold hands with Maria, and invite each of the fundamental movements she had been practicing by herself. I told Jeff that when he felt she seemed comfortable enough, he could try the interaction, using the embrace.
By the end of our 2-hour class, Maria was nothing short of ecstatic. She said, “I can’t wait to come back for my next lesson.!” At the same time, Jeff was thrilled. “This was great. I had to concentrate my brains out! It was a real test of my leading skills.”
I suggested that it might a good idea, if Maria were able to practice what she was learning with Jeff during the week. In fact, I recommended that they contact one another, and set up some time together. When she demurred, I said, “You don’t have to get married; just practice a few times together. By next week, I guarantee that both of you will have improved.”
“Won’t Jeff get bored?” She asked.
“Definitely not,” I said. “Jeff knows that this lead/follow practice is exactly what both of you need. As I always tell all my students, this kind of concentrated practice is absolutely the key to becoming a good social Tango dancer.”
It has now been a few months since we first met Maria. She and Jeff have actually been practicing together a few times a week, and both are showing signs of marked improvement in their dancing. Maria is getting very adept at allowing all her partners lead every individual movement she makes, patiently waiting in balance until she’s invited to take another step.
And Jeff, who always used to constantly badger Pat and me for new “fancy” steps, is coming to realize just how satisfying it is to forget the focus on performance-based fantasies, and simply improvise effortlessly from one movement to the next — as he uses the lead/follow mechanism with steadily increasing skill.
To my way of thinking, when two people can find this kind of dance relationship, this is a great success story. It takes a lot of work, but it can definitely be done, if both partners make a commitment to the process.
How about you? Are you ready to do what it takes to become a better social Tango dancer? If “yes” is your answer, you might want to begin by setting up a few practice dates with a good leader/follower on a regular basis, and start tracking your progress.
I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised.
May 2, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Why is Tango such a difficult dance to understand, much less to learn? This is a question we all ask ourselves as we try our best to grasp the essence of this complex — often exasperating — social dance expression. Today, I’d like to concentrate on what I consider to be the unique dynamic of social Tango — the physical manner in which experienced leaders and followers in Argentina interact with one another on the dance floor — and how this very particular tradition developed over time.
In Argentina, the customs and conventions of social Tango among seasoned dancers in the milongas seem to reach back to the late nineteenth century, and to the way social dance culture existed at that time. (I’m not talking here about the actual origins of Tango, which are somewhat controversial, and go considerably farther back in the country’s history.)
The learning process for becoming a skilled social Tango dancer during the 1880’s and 90’s was quite different for men from what it was for women. Most male newcomers learned to dance Tango in the isolated environment of the social club (men only!) by physically serving as followers to the older, more experienced leaders. Once it was determined that a given “student” was up to the task, he would be elevated to the role of leader. As such, he would then have to spend many hours practicing his newly acquired skill before being considered ready to attend the milongas, and actually interact with women. (There is also some speculation that many men honed their skills dancing Tango in the brothels, but we’ll be gentile today, and place them politely in the social clubs.)
During this same time, women, on the other hand, were a highly “protected” species. It was considered indelicate — if not downright scandalous — for a woman to spend time learning how to dance Tango. Some women certainly managed to pick up a small amount of knowledge from their relatives or peers, who might have acquired some experience in the dance halls. But this process was all very clandestine — and to protect her reputation, a woman would usually profess to know little or nothing about what was looked upon as a rather tawdry, vulgar social dance.
In this context, a man would find himself at a milonga, fully prepared to guide his potential partners through the Tango as he interacted with them on the dance floor. This was — and, by the way, remains today —the essence of leading social Tango. The man improvises simple movement from one individual step to the next, and makes it easy and comfortable for his follower to move with him. At no time, would a leader even think of engaging in questionable, “flashy” behavior, which his follower might not be able to grasp. His role was then, and is now, to make her dance as pleasant and manageable as possible.
The traditional follower’s role, given the constraints of life in the nineteenth century, was to allow herself to be led from individual step to individual step, waiting patiently for each improvised movement as invited by her partner. At that time, good leaders knew their role as social dancers: Invite a step, allow their follower to execute it, monitor what she’s doing to make sure she’s able to get it done easily, comfortably and in balance; then lead another step.
End of story.
There would have been no question that a leader might suddenly launch himself into his latest YouTube fantasy, because, of course, the scourge of YouTube had not yet inflicted itself on the social dance. And there would have been no question that a follower might fear for her very life as she was being raced around the floor at breakneck speed, never being allowed to find her equilibrium — until, mercifully, the dance was finally over, and she could retreat to the safety of her family and friends.
A very important reason many of us leaders find it difficult to understand and learn social Tango today is that we don’t comprehend — or refuse to accept — the underlying tradition of the dance. The siren song of show-off performance captivates all too many leaders to the extent that they pay little or no attention to their followers’ real need; i.e., to be invited one carefully led step at a time.
We can reverse this, if we really want to. As leaders, we can (yes, I know, with great reluctance) put the fancy figures on the back burner until someone actually asks us to perform. And as followers, we can try keeping our feet together as we respond to our leaders — without feeling the constant need to pull out every adornment we were ever exposed to in those high-priced classes we’ve taken.
Let’s try to bring ourselves back to the dance tradition that was practiced during the early years of social Tango. We’ll all be so much better dancers, if we do.
April 25, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. There’s a 1970 popular song by Stephen Stills, which some of you might remember, called “Love the One You’re With.” The ongoing refrain in that song is: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Today, I want to talk about how this sentiment can apply to social Tango.
If you’ve been dancing Tango for a while, you probably have one or two favorite partners you really enjoy dancing with. For social reasons, however, we often find that it’s appropriate — at times even necessary — to dance with a variety of partners rather than exclusively with the same select few people.
Here’s where that Stephen Stills song makes very good sense. The way I’d put it is: “If you can’t always dance with the partner you prefer, do the best you can to make dancing with every other partner as pleasant and comfortable as possible.”
For leaders, this means answering several important questions that relate to the follower in front of you at the moment. Have you danced with her in the past? Do you have a good idea of what her skill level is? Are you able to treat her as a real person — rather than a foil for whatever flashy figure you’ve decided to execute? Are you allowing her to find comfortable balance with every step she takes throughout the dance? (As opposed to relentlessly running her around the floor at a speed and degree of complexity she definitely can’t handle.)
The way to answer questions like these is to pay very careful attention to your follower as you dance. Recognize that she’s a flesh and blood person with good and maybe not so good points to her dancing. Her body language will tell you everything you need to know.
If you’re a follower, you probably know by now that some leaders, whether they’re new to Tango or not, seem to expect their followers to read their minds rather than follow good solid leads. On the other hand, some leaders seem to think of leading as racing around the room, carrying their followers with them like rag dolls. As a follower, your job is to offer your leader the best following skills you can bring to bear, and hope that he tries his best to be as comfortable to dance with as your favorite partners.
Does all this work all the time? Definitely not. But we can really try to make it happen as often as possible. And if we can set our minds to doing the very best we can whenever we’re dancing with someone other than our favorite partner, Stephen Stills would be proud:
April 18, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Three of the questions I get asked again and again by students are these: “Why is dancing Tango so hard to learn?” “Will I ever be able to dance Tango?” “How long will it take me to finally say that I can dance Tango?” All these questions, of course, are basically the same. They express most students’ sense of frustration over the fact that what they thought would be a relatively straightforward process — i.e., learning to dance social Tango — would turn out to be one of the most difficult challenges they’ve ever encountered.
First of all, let me confess that when I started to learn Tango back in 1986, I felt exactly the same way. At the time, I was already a professional dance teacher, so I figured I’d be able to pick up Tango in a couple of weeks — okay, maybe a month or so at worst.
No way, Jose.
My big mistake was thinking that Tango consisted of bunch of more or less complicated dance steps. I knew I could learn steps. I already had a million of them in my back pocket from all the other dances I had learned over the years. A few more would be a piece of cake, right?
Bring ‘em on!
When I started my Tango learning process, it was with people who were principles in the famous show “Tango Argentino.” These, of course, were performers. Performers love choreography — meaning memorized material. (In this regard, by the way, they’re very similar to most ballroom dance teachers throughout the U.S.A. right now.) When they teach, most rely on presenting dance figures as structures, which can be demonstrated, memorized, and imitated.
“Just watch me do this; then try it yourself.”
The problem was/is that social Tango has nothing whatever to do with choreography. It’s completely improvised. It’s all made up on the spot, in the moment. I remember taking a class in which the teacher actually ascribed numbers to the individual steps he was teaching to a group of us dance teachers. At one point, he paused as we were all holding an uncomfortable pose, and asked: “Was that step number 27 or was it 28?”
I knew at that exact second that I could never learn to dance Tango.
My breakthrough moment came a few years later, when social dancers from Argentina came to our shores (in droves, as it turned out) in search of fame and fortune. The best of them exclaimed: “There are no steps in Tango!”
What? By that time, I had already memorized maybe a hundred or so show-stopping sequences. I was practically a performer! Nope, sorry; there are no steps in Tango. Forget everything you learned, and start over.
Please don’t tell me that!!!! But they were right. Social Tango isn’t danced choreographically. It’s all — wait for it — LEAD/FOLLOW!!!!
Oh no, how could that be? At the time — to be completely honest — I really didn’t actually know what the words “lead/follow” meant. I had learned virtually all my ballroom material as bits and pieces of memorized choreography. The idea of me leading, and my partner following, was a brand new concept. Like the Argentine performers from “Tango Argentino,” all my teachers had worked from the same familiar playbook:
“Just watch me do this; then try it yourself.”
All right, so I discovered what I refer to as the lead/follow mechanism. I became a new person. I started teaching this complex skill set to my students. I proselytized. I cajoled. I tried (I’m still trying) to convince every social dancer on the planet (you included!) to give up the idea of memorizing choreographic material, and learn how to interact with a partner through what I’ve been lately calling the invitation/response cycle.
So far, my methodology seems to be working. My students don’t spend all their time running their partners ragged around the dance floor. My students don’t rely on YouTube for material. My students are comfortable dancing with one another. They create a sense of intimacy between themselves and their partners. And yes, they invariably receive lots of compliments from like-minded dancers — “Oh, you feel so good to dance with.”
Of course, I’m by no means the only social Tango teacher working in this way. There are others who’ve discovered that this is the right way to go. Bottom line: If you want to answer the questions posed at the beginning of this post, if you want to set yourself on the path to really learning how to dance social Tango just like they do in Buenos Aires, try to find yourself one of these teachers whose focus is not on flashy, crowd-pleasing choreography, but rather on the very satisfying — almost magical — process of lead/follow.
I assure you that down the road you’ll be very, very glad you did.
April 11, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In our post last week, we began a discussion of our current theme of balance — this time as it occurs in what I sometimes refer to as the “sixth fundamental element” of dancing social Tango — el pivoteo or the pivot. As mentioned in that post, the pivot enables dancers to execute many of the more “advanced” figures in Tango, including ocho, molinete, boleo, calicita, along with an entire vocabulary of movements, comprising what is known as el sistema cruzado — the crossed system.
The ability to find balance during a pivot is one of the more difficult challenges in Tango. Last week, we focused on working toward this goal on your own. Today, we’ll talk about how to approach finding balance in the pivot with a partner.
El pivoteo (The pivot)
Before we break down the individual elements involved in leading/following the pivot, I want to remind you about an important ongoing principle of the lead/follow mechanism: A lead in Tango involves a very direct — but very slight — invitation, which emanates from the leader’s torso, asking his follower to execute a specific single movement. It is up to the follower to receive the individual lead, and act on this invitation. It is not the job of the leader to carry his follower through the invited movement. He invites; he allows his follower to respond; then, if all has gone well, he may or may not elect to invite something else. The entire lead/follow mechanism — or invitation/response cycle — occurs in increments of one complete step.
That said (until I’m blue in the face, it seems), let me now suggest a possible way to go about meeting the challenge of achieving balance in the pivot with a partner:
1. Begin once again by forming a comfortable embrace with your partner. Be sure that you’re both solidly balanced on two feet. As a leader, gradually shift your partner’s weight to one foot (either one is fine). You can do this by gently shifting your own weight to the side you’ve chosen for her, or by rotating your torso very slightly in the direction to which you want her to shift her weight. Personally, I prefer to keep my feet slightly apart with my weight evenly distributed here rather than on one foot. I find that this enables me to offer a clearer, more effective invitation to my partner, when I suggest the pivot. In shifting your partner’s weight to one foot, take careful note of the fact that whichever foot you’ve just asked her to balance on represents a balance axis around which you’re about to invite her to pivot. A common mistake leader’s make in the invitation to execute a pivoting action is to inadvertently move their follower off this axis — and therefore totally out of balance.
2. With all of this in mind as a leader, rotate your torso slightly in one direction or the other. As a follower, respond to this invitation by rotating your center as far as you can in the direction suggested, while keeping your head facing your partner, and your heels neatly together with your weight on the ball of the foot on which the leader has asked you to balance. This will result in your body being in a twist — with your head facing your partner and your lower body facing slightly less than 90 degrees to the left or right of the leader. Because of the inherent difficulty of maintaining balance during this movement, you as a follower may find that you need some degree of support from the leader as you pivot. However, as you become more and more experienced, you’ll find that you require less and less support in order to successfully execute the movement.
Note to followers:
Once you’ve executed this action, your pivot is complete. Normally, it would probably be followed by a lead to walk forward or backward in order to execute an ocho; however, at this moment our focus is on enabling you as a follower to achieve balance during the pivot itself as a singular element.
Note to leaders:
As with leading other movements, under no circumstances should you attempt to rush your follower into another step until you’re absolutely certain that she’s balanced and ready to continue. The follower must have the opportunity to bring herself into balance — without having to worry about what’s going to happen next.
Next week, we’ll move on to another subject. In the meantime, if you have any questions about balance (or anything else), be sure to ask Pat or me about your concerns. As always, we’re very happy to help.
April 4, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During our recent posts, we’ve been talking about the very important role of balance in social Tango. So far, we’ve addressed each of the fundamental linear elements of movement; i.e., forward, backward, side and in-places steps, plus the pause or stop. Today, we’ll begin a discussion of what I sometimes refer to as the “sixth” fundamental element of the dance: el pivoteo — the pivot.
The pivot opens the door to a seriously advanced vocabulary of elements, which include ocho, molinete, boleo, calicita, along with a whole host of movements, comprising what is known as el sistema cruzado — the crossed system.
Before we talk about the pivot as it is led and/or followed, let’s define the movement itself:
Using the ball of one foot as a fulcrum, a dancer rotates his/her body, using the muscles in his/her center in order to face another direction without moving through space. The pivot is actually a “spiraling” movement, meaning that it begins with a rotation of the center of the body, creating a twisting action from head to center as it progresses to its conclusion. The amount of rotation can range from as little as 45 degrees to upwards of 180 degrees or even more, depending upon the figure being executed.
Whether you’re a leader or a follower, a good way to familiarize yourself with the pivot is to try executing it on your own:
1. Stand in one place near a wall with your weight on both feet. Place your fingertips against the wall slightly below shoulder level.
2. Shift your weight to your right foot, and find balance.
3. With your fingertips lightly touching the wall, elevate from the heel of your right foot so that your weight is now on the ball of that foot — with the heel very slightly off the ground.
4. Engage the muscles of your center and begin rotating to the right. As your body rotates, make certain that you’re using the ball of your right foot as a fulcrum for the turn (rather than the heel). Keep your head facing the wall.
5. At approximately 45 degrees (one eighth of a turn), stop the turn, and notice that your body is in a twist.
6. Try to remain in this position, balanced on your right foot, fingertips barely touching the wall for a few seconds.
Once you’ve been able to execute the pivot 45 degrees to the right, start again, this time shifting weight to your left foot, and trying the movement in the opposite direction. As you practice the movement over and over, try increasing the amount of turn until you can pivot 90 degrees by yourself in either direction — without falling off your balance axis.
The important thing to concentrate on as you practice these exercises is to find balance on your own (aided only very slightly by your fingertips against the wall) during and after the movement. This will prepare you for what we’re going to talk about next week, which is executing the pivot and finding balance in the context of lead/follow.
March 28, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today. we’re going to complete our discussion of balance in the context of “linear” movement by talking about el paso atras (the backward step) for the leader as he accompanies the follower’s forward step.
El paso atras
Let me start by observing that the leader’s back step is one of the most dangerous moves in Tango. If a leader steps backward on a crowded dance floor without carefully checking what’s behind him first, he can inflict very serious damage on the follower to his rear. In Buenos Aires, one hardly ever sees a leader’s backward step during a social dance. Even in our country, where the dance floors are generally not as crowded, backward movement on the part of leaders must be treated with extreme caution in order to avoid problems.
Bearing this in mind, let’s talk about the specifics of inviting a follower to move forward, as the leader accompanies her with his backward step:
1. Begin once again by forming a comfortable embrace with your partner. Be sure that you’re both solidly balanced on two feet.
2. As a leader, gradually shift to one foot (either one is fine), leading your follower to also shift her weight to that side. If at the end of this movement, you’re both in balance on one foot, you’re ready for the next invitation/response.
3. As a leader, flex your knees slightly in order to lower or soften your torso — thereby indicating to your partner that you’re about to invite movement through space. Now, gently, but decisively, take a backward step. This means moving your whole self — including your torso and leg at the same time directly away from her space. Make certain that you don’t pull your follower forward with your right hand. Soften this hand as you move, and let her respond to the backward movement of your torso. If it takes a moment or two for her to get the job done, wait. There’s no rush. As with taking either a side or forward step, concentrate on bringing yourself into solid, upright balance at the end of the movement. Such conscious effort will help make certain you don’t end up falling backward or to the side as you complete your step.
4. As a follower, when you receive the leader’s invitation, take a confident forward step directly into his space. Don’t worry about stepping on his toes, because he’s going to get his feet out of your way. (If he doesn’t, that’s his problem, not yours. Be brave!)
5. As with other traveling movements, under no circumstances should the leader attempt to rush his follower into another step until he is absolutely certain that she’s balanced and ready to continue. To repeat something I keep saying in these posts, the follower, must have the opportunity to bring herself into balance — without having to worry about what’s going to happen next.
6. At the conclusion of your forward/backward movement, hold this balanced position as a couple for fifteen seconds. Whether you’re the leader or follower, try your best not to in any way use the other foot to help out.
With this post, we complete our discussion of the five fundamental “linear” movements; i.e., forward, backward, sideward, and in-place steps — plus the pause. Next week, we’re going to discuss the invitation/response for the pivot, which opens the door to many of Tango’s more advanced movements and figures. In keeping with our current theme, we’ll concentrate on the challenge of achieving and maintaining balance throughout this very advanced movement.
As always, if you have any questions with any of these movements, feel free to ask Pat or me. We're very happy to help.
March 21, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today. we’re going to continue our discussion of balance by talking about el paso adelante (the forward step) for the leader, as he accompanies the follower’s step backward.
El paso adelante
When a skilled leader and follower execute this forward/backward movement, it can seem effortless from the outside. However, there is without a doubt a significant amount of confidence and skill necessary to make this highly complex movement look easy. In general, the beginning leader almost always approaches this invitation/response cycle, fearing that he’s going to step on his follower’s toes; this results in his forward step being quite tentative. At the same time, the beginning follower doesn’t yet know how to extend her leg backward correctly — which usually results in a small, falling movement, virtually guaranteeing that she will, in fact, be stepped on by her leader.
Everyone’s worst fear fulfilled!
To ensure that he doesn’t step on his partner’s feet, the beginning leader will often take his steps either much too small — or diagonally left and right — rather than directly forward. This will, of course, succeed in keeping him off her toes, but in the long run it’s bad dance practice, and by no means the appropriate solution to the problem. Furthermore, until the follower learns how to move backward in a skillful way, she’ll always be in danger of being stepped on, and therefore needs to perfect this crucial movement as soon as possible.
Let’s talk about the specifics of inviting a follower to move backward, as the leader accompanies her with his forward step:
1. Begin as usual by forming a nice, comfortable embrace with your partner. Be sure that you’re both solidly balanced on two feet.
2. As a leader, gradually shift to one foot (either one is fine), leading your follower to also shift her weight to that side. If at the end of this movement, you’re both in balance on one foot, you’re ready for the next invitation/response.
3. As a leader, flex your knees slightly in order to lower or soften your torso — indicating to your partner that you’re about to invite movement through space. Now, gently, but decisively, take a forward step. This means moving your whole self — including your torso and leg at the same time directly into her space. Although I know this is asking a lot in the beginning, try not to be fearful that you’re going to step on your follower’s toes — because if and when she responds to your lead in the correct way, she’s going to be getting that leg completely out of danger.
4. Concentrate on bringing yourself into solid, upright balance at the end of the movement. Such conscious effort will help make certain you don’t end up falling forward or to the side as you complete your step.
5. As a follower, here’s where your skill in taking your back step is going to solve the problem of getting stepped on. When you feel his lead — he lowers the torso, then initiates a definite movement into your space with his upper body — your immediate response should be to move your free leg backward from your center. This will seem counter-intuitive at first. Your initial inclination will be to fall backward from your torso, catching yourself at the end with your leg. If you do this, you’ll almost always get stepped on! Instead, you’re going to maintain the slightly forward, upright position of your torso, and start your response to his lead by moving your entire leg backward from your hip joint — so that it remains nice and long as you go, sliding your toe along the floor. As you come to the end of this movement, as a secondary element, you’re then going to bring your upper body over your leg. Be sure to keep thinking, “I’m going to be balanced at the end of this movement.” If you do this, the strong likelihood is that you’ll succeed!
6. As with the step to the side, the leader should avoid trying to carry his partner through this movement. He also needs to remember that his step is going to slightly precede that of his follower. When I initiate a backward movement in my follower, I lower my torso to indicate travel, then lean slightly forward in order to tell her that I’m about to enter her space. As I feel her extending her leg backward, I then move my body through space in order to complete my forward step. Eventually, both of us will individually end up in balance. But please remember: Developing this skill takes time, patience, and lots of practice.
7. Under no circumstances should the leader attempt to rush his follower into another movement until he is absolutely certain that she’s balanced and ready to continue. As with any movement in Tango, the follower, must have the opportunity to bring herself into balance — without having to worry about what’s going to happen next. An all too common problem among most unskilled leaders is that they continually rush their followers, keeping them more or less constantly off balance. As a leader, enabling your follower to achieve balance at the end of her steps — before offering a new invitation to move — is a critical skill, which absolutely must be mastered in order to avoid having the dance fall apart.
8. At the conclusion of your forward/backward movement, hold this balanced position as a couple for fifteen seconds. Whether you’re the leader or follower, try your best not to in any way use the other foot to help out.
Next week, we’re going to discuss the leader’s backward step as he invites and accompanies his follower’s forward movement. In the meantime, if you’re finding all this overly complicated, please feel free to ask Pat or me about it.
March 14, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you’ve been reading these posts regularly, you know that for the past several weeks our focus has been on the subject of balance. Last week, we talked about achieving and maintaining balance with a partner during la pausa (standing still), and during el cambio de peso en su lugar (the weight change in place). Today, we’re going to begin moving through space!
El paso al lado (al costado)
This terminology refers to a step to one side. If you’ve been practicing moving to the side by yourself (as I sincerely hope you have over the past few weeks), you’ve discovered by now that finding balance at the end of this (or any) traveling movement can sometimes be a problem. This is due to the natural law of inertia: “A body in motion tends to remain in motion.”
The implication of this law is that when your body is at rest; it wants to remain at rest. When your body starts moving; it wants to keep moving. The challenge we face constantly as Tango dancers is to recognize clearly that bringing ourselves into balance at the end of any movement isn’t easy, and that we need to come up with a way to make this happen.
In general, my recommendation to my students is that they form a mental picture of themselves coming to a complete stop — rather than continuing to move through space. This, I think, is a powerful way to consistently achieve balance at the conclusion of any movement, be it sideways, forward, backward, or in pivoting — as we’ll be discussing in a future post.
To be more specific:
1. Begin by forming a nice, comfortable embrace with your partner. Be sure that you’re both solidly balanced on two feet.
2. As a leader, gradually shift to one foot (either one is fine) in order to start the ball rolling. (This is the cambio de peso en su lugar or weight change in place, which we described during last week’s post.) As your torso moves laterally, your follower should receive and respond to this lead by also shifting her weight in place to one side. Are you both still in balance? If so, it’s time for the next lead.
3. As a leader, flex you knees slightly in order to lower or soften your torso — thereby indicating to your partner that you’re about to invite movement through space. (I teach this as fundamental to the basic lead/follow or invitation/response skill set).
4. Now, gently, but decisively, take a step to the side. If all is going well, your partner should follow this lead by also moving to the side. Under no circumstances should you attempt to carry your follower through the movement. It is also important to recognize that as a leader, your movement is going to slightly precede that of your follower. This is because you know in advance what’s going to happen, but your follower doesn’t. As leader, you now have to allow the follower time to respond. Conversely, if you’re the follower in the partnership, you need to realize that you’re receiving an invitation, and that your job is to respond to that invitation — not to rush “in order to keep up.” Stay focused; take your time!
5. At the end of the side step, we come to the moment of truth — the balance. The leader’s job at this crucial juncture is to bring himself into balance — and to wait patiently for the follower to complete her movement, and do the same. Here is where each of the partners has to concentrate on overcoming that pesky “at rest/in motion” law of inertia we talked about before. Neither partner should try to assist the other here. Finding balance is an individual challenge. As a leader, pay careful attention to your follower as she completes her movement. Do not — do not — do not attempt to rush her into another movement until you’re absolutely certain that she’s balanced and ready to continue. As a follower, you need to have the opportunity to bring yourself into balance — without having to worry about what’s going to happen next. If your leader doesn’t give you this opportunity, you have to recognize that your resulting lack of balance is not your fault. He’s just not doing his job. Find yourself another leader.
6. As with la pausa and el cambio de peso en su lugar, hold this balanced position for fifteen seconds. Whether you’re the leader or follower, try your best not to in any way use the other foot to help out.
I know that all this concentration on what may seem like minute detail can be somewhat mind-boggling. But I absolutely guarantee that if you take this part of your learning process seriously — and put in the work — your Tango will be light years better than if you don’t.
Next week, we’ll tackle the problem of finding balance at the end of a leader’s forward step, as he accompanies one of the single most challenging movements in Tango — the follower’s back step.
March 7, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In a post two weeks ago, I suggested that, in my opinion, the single most important skill needed for dancing Tango is balance. As I hope you’ll remember, I defined a series of very specific, graduated exercises designed to
make you more conscious, more confident — and eventually more competent —at incorporating good balance into your dance. In last week’s post, I introduced the general idea of extending these exercises, which I originally suggested that you attempt on your own — to trying them while working with a partner. This is where balance becomes absolutely critical in making social dance movement function as it should.
Today, we going to talk about the first of our exercises — the pause or stop, coupled with the change of weight in place. We’re going to examine just how this deceptively simple — but very important — exercise applies to the partnership.
Here we go …
La pausa y el cambio de peso en su lugar
1. Form the embrace with a partner. Try to be as close to your partner as possible, but don’t lean on each other.
2. Once the embrace has been formed, check your arms to make certain that you’re not pulling, pushing or squeezing. The idea is to make absolutely sure that neither of you is hanging on to the other or in any way hindering your partner’s ability to maintain balance on both feet. (By this time, of course, both of you should be very conscious of what balance in place feels like, because you’ve been working hard on developing this specific skill on your own.)
3. Stand together quietly — keeping your weight on both feet.
4. Now, if you’re the leader, gradually shift your weight to one side. This action will automatically produce a lateral movement of your torso, which will signal to your partner that you want her to respond by making a corresponding change of weight. (I’m sure you’ll remember that I’ve often described this action, when discussing the “lead/follow mechanism” or “invitation/response cycle.”) If you’re the follower, make certain you can feel this lateral movement of your leader’s upper body, so that you can appropriate receive and respond to the invitation.
5. As leader, be sure to monitor your partner’s behavior in order to make sure she receives your invitation (lead), and shifts her weight, too.
6. Hold your position as a couple with your full weight on one foot for fifteen seconds. (I know this seems as if it’s going to be easy, but — trust me — it’s not.) Are either of you in any way encroaching on your partner’s balance? Do either of you feel the need to bring your arms into play in order to maintain the position?
7. When you as a leader feel that both you and your partner have achieved balance on one side, gently shift your weight to the other foot. Once again, as follower, make absolutely sure you feel the lead.
8. As before, hold the position for fifteen seconds.
Is it working? Are both you and your partner feeling nicely balanced? If so, great! If not, try to
figure out what the problem is together, so that your can fix it. If that doesn’t work, consult your teacher for the solution. You say, you don’t have a teacher? Hmm …
Next week, we’re going to talk about achieving and maintaining balance during our first movement through space — el cambio de peso al lado (o el costado) — the side step.
Are you excited?
February 28, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Did you get a chance to try out that graduated series of exercises I outlined in our post last week? As mentioned, the idea behind each of these exercises is to make you more conscious, more confident — and eventually more competent —at implementing what I believe is the single most essential element of skilled Tango dancing; i.e., balance.
Yeah, I know, you thought the secret was how much flash you could throw down at the drop of a hat. “Watch me nail this triple molinete while executing an endless planeo with lapices, while my partner is killing it with every adorno she ever learned in her life!”
Wrong, my friend. The key to Tango excellence is balance. I know, I know, b-o-r-i-n-g. But TRUE! If your balance isn’t there, neither is your Tango.
Last week, we identified a series of exercises, which addressed each of the six essential elements of social Tango movement. I propose that you become familiar with the Spanish names for these crucial elements, which is why I’m about to throw a bunch of fancy terminology at you right here:
Standing still - la pausa
Changing weight from one side to the other — cambios de peso en su lugar
Steps to one side — pasos al lado (al costado)
Forward steps — pasos adelante
Backward steps — pasos atras
Pivots — pivoteos
These are the six basic “linear” movements you need to master in order to dance social Tango with any degree of skill. And now you’ve got their Spanish names in your pocket. Are you thrilled to receive this knowledge? When I was learning Tango, it used to bother the hell out of me that I had no idea what my Argentine-born teachers were talking about, when they routinely threw this vocabulary at me and my fellow students. Now, you can avoid that kind of confusion yourself — and possibly impress your friends with your vast knowledge of la terminologia autentica.
Moving right along …
Once you’ve become adept at finding and maintaining balance on your own, it’s time to start working with a partner. This is where the rubber really meets the road. You’re going to find out that even if you’re able to effect balance yourself — but your partner is off — everything tends to just fall apart.
Bearing that in mind, I’m going to spend the next few weeks talking about each of these basic elements in turn, discussing how each one presents its own specific balance challenges for leaders and followers alike.
To be continued.
February 21, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. “Why is Tango so hard to learn?” This is a question students ask me all the time. There are, of course, many answers, both technical and artistic; but in my opinion the most crucial challenge for people who want to learn Tango can be stated in a single word: balance.
Here’s a good series of graduated exercises that use the six basic elements of Tango movement as starting points. These exercises are guaranteed to test your individual ability to balance on your own:
La pausa y el cambio de peso en su lugar
I’m talking here about the pause or stop, and the change of weight in place. Stand still with your weight on both feet; then gradually shift your weight to one side, and raise one foot slightly off the ground. Hold that position for fifteen seconds.
Not so bad, right? You can handle that.
El paso al lado
Here comes the side step. Start the same way, both feet on the ground. Shift to one foot, and take a step to one side. At the end of the movement, try maintaining your balance on the foot that just landed — without in any way using the other foot to help you. Don’t forget to hold the position for fifteen seconds.
Slightly more difficult, but doable.
El paso adelante
This is the forward step. And yes, this is where things start to get serious. Try the same exercise, but instead of a step to one side, take a step forward. At the end of the step, don’t fall forward, don’t fall backward, and don’t fall to one side. That’s right, and hang on to that position for fifteen seconds — no use of the other foot to help maintain your balance.
You may need a little practice to get this one right, but I’m sure you’ll succeed — eventually.
El paso atras
All right, here we go with a big one — the back step. Try the same exercise, but this time take a nice, energetic step backward first, then hit that balance sweet spot. This, by the way, is a challenge we ask of followers in Tango all the time. Personally, I find this to be about ten times more difficult than stepping forward first.
Full disclosure: Every time I demonstrate this move in a teaching situation, I take a deep breath and hope for the best — sometimes finding myself teetering a bit. Give it a try, and see what you think.
Now, it’s time for the monster, otherwise known as the pivot. This time, you're going to place your weight on one foot, then use the ball of that (weight-bearing) foot as a base or fulcrum with which to rotate your body first in one direction, then in the other. Tango dancers use this element routinely in order to execute ochos, molinetes, calicitas, boleos, and other more complex Tango movement sequences. Of course, you’ll once again be maintaining your balance at the end of the movement for our mandatory fifteen seconds.
Executing the pivot in balance is a real challenge for almost all of us. If you find that you’re able to handle this exercise on your own — extensive ballet or other professional dance training is helpful here — try increasing the degree of difficulty by taking a step forward first, then pivoting ninety degrees, and holding the position. (This will simulate bringing yourself into alignment at the end of a movement such as an ocho.) Hint: If you flex your knees a bit, it will help.
Once you’re consistently able to find balance at the end of these movements — which for most of us takes a lot of practice — you're ready to begin applying them to the dance partnership. That’s what we’ll be talking about next week.
In the meantime, if you want to put yourself firmly on the road to becoming a good Tango dancer, you know what to do.
February 14, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When I post these Tips, I like to think of them as part of a two-way conversation between you and me. Nothing I say is written in stone, and, if you have opinions about the thoughts I express, my hope is that you’ll share them with everybody.
Last week’s post focused on some of the most common problems leaders have in dancing social Tango. I was delighted to receive the following response from a knowledgeable and experienced follower (who, by the way, asked to remain anonymous). Here is what she had to say about her own experiences on the dance floor:
Your comments in the Firehouse Newsletter could not have been more timely. At a recent venue, I danced once with someone who allowed me to stay centered over my own feet. On the other hand, Mr. Gorilla — who told me that he’s taken lessons from the “Top teachers” — carried me around like a bag of groceries. I am sure he thought this was close embrace. In my opinion, it was forced close embrace. My lower back and hips were killing me after this experience! I spent the entire time struggling to just keep my feet under me.
Then there was Mr. Cadillac. You know, the guy that hangs back like he’s driving a big car, while pulling the follower all the way forward to “simulate” close embrace. Truly painful. Whatever happened to 50-50? We meet in the middle.
I like to find my own balance in the partnership, and “choose” to follow the steps that are led. I appreciate a leader offering some stability for balance when needed as well as clear guidance with his lead. Intimacy, which Tango comes the closest to of all the dances, is communication between two consenting adults! Equal and different. Invite and choose to respond. A conversation. Unfortunately — in my opinion at least — this rarely happens.
I want to thank this follower for her astute observations, and for taking the time to share her experiences with us. In this case, of course, it verified what I had been trying to convey in my Tango Tip. I’d love to hear about your experiences — whether they agree with mine or not. What’s important is that our two-way conversation actually be two-way.
If you have an opinion, you can reach me by email through the Newsletter. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.
February 7, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In our last post, we discussed two of the most common problems followers have in attempting to respond to a lead. Today, we’re going to address the other side of the equation; i.e., ways in which leaders can — and often do — make their followers’ lives more or less miserable.
We’ve spent a great deal of time in these pages, talking about good lead/follow technique. Nonetheless, I’m sorry to report that in my observation over the years, the majority of men in this country who purport to dance Tango simply do not learn how to lead. Most focus instead on accumulating a vocabulary of extravagant quasi-stage figures and sequences, which they apparently feel will make them “look good” on the dance floor. As I watch these misguided souls attempting to execute such material, I’m often amazed that they seem totally unaware of just how ridiculous they look.
Could I possibly be talking about you?
Let’s discuss what actually happens on the dance floor, when a leader isn’t doing his job; i.e., leading. Drawing from the terminology of my Catholic upbringing, I’m going to identify two Cardinal Sins — one of omission, and one of commission.
The sin of omission is, of course, that the leader doesn’t lead at all. He knows in his mind what he wants to do; he knows in his mind what he’d like his follower to do. Yet, somehow, she’s just sort of standing there, not doing anything. What’s going on here? Didn’t she watch the YouTube demo?
Well, of course, what’s happening is that there was no lead. It all seemed so effortless on the video; but when it came to real-world execution, each individual element of the sequence needed to be attended to in order to produce the desired result — meaning that everything needed to be led in order to be followed — duh! — and that just didn’t happen. (Parenthetically, the people who made the video probably addressed the material choreographically — meaning that they memorized the elements and practiced them, let’s say, a hundred times or so, before the video ever saw the light of day.)
In any event, Cardinal Sin Number One: No lead.
And now, we move on to the Cardinal Sin of COMMISSION. We’ll refer to it as the gorilla lead.
This is the big one, boys. This is where you really make your follower want to claim that her feet hurt, feign sudden illness, or just run screaming from the room — rather than ever, ever dance with you again. Basically, the gorilla lead consists of shoving your partner around the dance floor, and making absolutely sure that she isn’t able to find any semblance of balance between individual movements from the moment you take her out onto the dance floor until the whirlwind eventually subsides — only because the music is finally over.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard the following complaint from leaders: “I don’t like dancing with her, because she just can’t keep up with the music.”
This is virtually a defining characteristic of the gorilla lead. The perpetrator feels that keeping up with the music is absolutely paramount, and that all other considerations such as his follower’s balance — or even her health and wellbeing — mean nothing whatever.
The fact is, gentle gorillas, that the insistence on maintaining an unwavering connection with the musical beat at any cost is completely absurd (Yes, I know, that’s heresy, right?) What is actually important, what is actually the key to a successful interaction with your partner, is for you to be carefully monitoring her balance during every step of the dance, and making certain that she is able to maintain a consistent level of comfort and security while you're busy doing your thing to impress the folks in the cheap seats.
Conclusion: As a leader, try your best to avoid the two Cardinal Sins; i.e., no lead on the one hand (or foot, if you will), and the gorilla lead on the other. Start today by cancelling your subscription to YouTube, and finding a teacher who will help you build a serious lead/follow skill set. Do it now!
This is what separates the gorillas from the good guys.
January 24, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. At its best, social Tango is a comfortable, efficient, sometimes artistic collaboration between a leader and a follower. At its worst — as we’ve all experienced — it can be a complete nightmare. Right now, I’d like to begin a discussion of the most common problems people experience again and again on the dance floor. In today’s segment, I’m going to address issues that followers have; next week I’ll focus on those specific to leaders.
We’ve spent a great deal of time in these Tango Tips, talking about the mechanics of lead/follow. Let’s assume for the moment that our leader has been exposed to the right training from his teachers and has put in the hours necessary to learn his craft. For the sake of this discussion — and yes, I fully recognize that this is a major stretch — we’ll take it as given that he’s now able to provide you as the follower with a credible lead.
In the best of all possible worlds, you’re standing still; you’re “in neutral;” (i.e., comfortably balanced on one leg); your posture is upright; you’re ready to receive and respond to his lead, which will motivate you to execute a single movement.
In the best of all possible worlds — there’s that expression again — you receive the lead; you execute the desired movement; you return to neutral; you wait for whatever is going to come next. What could possibly go wrong?
Let me introduce two very definite candidates for reducing a good following opportunity to total disaster. Number One: You misread the lead — or maybe don’t read it at all. Number Two: You anticipate rather than follow.
Here’s a scenario for Number One: A follower who hasn’t been adequately trained in the mechanics of lead/follow — or who is perhaps momentarily distracted for any number of reasons — will sometimes respond to a good lead by doing nothing.
This non-response is virtually guaranteed to drive leaders crazy. If they’re well trained, they’ll know to be patient and try the lead again. On the other hand, if they’re new to leading — or maybe you haven’t responded after several attempts — they may elect to either abandon you on the dance floor or go into gorilla mode, and start carrying you around instead of leading. These are, of course, less than desirable choices on the part of leaders — but we do witness such behavior as this all the time.
And now, a scenario for Number Two. You don’t know what he’s going to ask for; your brain gets in the way of your ability to be patient and wait, wait, wait for the lead … and you decide suddenly that you have it all figured out. You just know in your gut that he’s going to invite a side step. What else could it be? And so, you throw caution to the winds and lurch to the side.
Aaaaaagghh! He gives you a confused (or maybe even a dirty) look. Yes, you’ve done the unthinkable — committed the Number Two cardinal sin — you’ve anticipated.
nothing, on the one hand, and anticipating (sometimes called back-leading) on
the other hand are the two biggest — and most common — no nos for followers.
Right in between these ever-so possible please-don’t-ever-do-that-
Poof! You’ve suddenly become a really good follower.
But you’ve got to bite the bullet, and put in the hours. And yes, you have to find a leader who’s up to the task. Which, by the way, brings us to next week’s focus; i.e., what are the two unforgivable sins leaders routinely inflict on followers.
Tune in for our next Tango Tip, and find out.
January 17, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I want to focus on goals. Well, to be more precise, Tango goals.
I’m sure it’s fair to say that if you’re currently studying Tango intensely — or even just taking a class once in a while — your overall goal is to somehow learn how to dance Tango. Okay, that’s obvious. We can safely say that learning Tango is your long-term, out-there-in-the-ether, wish-list goal. But how do you get there? What are the short-term goals that are going to enable you to reach your final destination; i.e., becoming a Tango dancer?
When I decided that I wanted to learn Tango, what I really wanted was to accumulate a working vocabulary of the figures I’d seen in the Broadway show, Tango Argentino. This was my goal. I mean, I already knew how to dance, right? (I had been a professional dancer/teacher for over 20 years by this time!) I figured that all I’d need now would be to add a bunch of new material to my repertoire. Right?
If you’re like me, you probably want to start learning fancy figures and sequences right from the get-go, too. The majority of my students want me to hand over “the good stuff” right away. They’ll worry about the boring technical foundations sometime later (usually way later, down the road (if ever). Leaders want steps; followers want adornments. Let’s cut to the chase.
Does this sound familiar?
Eventually, I began to realize that there was a serious disconnect between my long-term goal (becoming a Tango dancer), and the route I had chosen to get there — without first understanding the special skills and techniques necessary to make such figures and sequences work as they were supposed to. With great reluctance, I started to identify small, short-term goals, which I believed would put me on a path to real mastery of the material I wanted to learn — rather than inadequately superficial familiarity and largely incompetent execution.
If you’ve been following my Tango Tips over the years, you won’t be shocked to learn that my short-term goals (and I hope yours after reading this) involved first becoming as proficient as possible at primary lead/follow interactions between my partners and myself; i.e., leading/following forward, backward, sideward, and in-place movements, as well as pauses, and pivots. I supplemented this by developing specific exercises, designed to enhance balance and make partnering interactions within such material easier to master.
When I teach my highly motivated students today, I find myself applying these same principles in order to offer them the best chance of actually learning the material they want — rather than simple staggering through the motions, and never really gaining the competence they’re after.
If this all sounds good to you, I invite you — I urge you — to re-evaluate your premature pre-occupation with elaborate steps and sequences (long-term goal), and focus intensely on the short-term goal of building the essential skills and techniques that you need to ensure that you really do finally achieve true mastery of Tango.
January 10, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Some friends/students of ours are headed to Buenos Aires this week. It will be their very first visit, and our specific advice to them was to spend as much time as possible in the milongas, watching and learning.
“What about lessons?” Bob (not his real name) asked. “Where do I find shoes?” Mary (not her real name), chimed in. “Take lessons, if you want,” I responded. “Buy lots of shoes.”
“But,” I reminded them, “don’t miss this golden opportunity to watch and learn.”
We live in a kind of fantasy world here in the U.S.A. Our overall impression of Tango for the most part is that it is a flashy, splashy — look at me, everyone! — highly complex dance, brimming with fancy steps and sequences that take years (not to mention lots of money!) to learn. This overview is undoubtedly encouraged by YouTube extravaganzas, along with the majority of today’s popular teaching professionals (whose undeniable bias is firmly rooted in flamboyant performance vocabulary).
And, of course, being of a flashy, splashy nature ourselves, we love it! Even if we’ll never be able to master this form of the dance, we lust after steps, we stockpile sequences, we act as if ….
And then we make a pilgrimage to Buenos Aires. And if we’re really keen on finally opening our minds to the joys of social Tango, we watch and learn.
When Pat and I returned to New York after our first trip to Argentina, we found ourselves literally astonished at what people were doing here. Not that we weren’t doing the same things ourselves before our visit to “the homeland.” But now, our eyes were wide open, our bodies were finely tuned, our minds were changed completely. We finally understood what the (few truly inspired) teachers had been trying to tell us. We knew as if a bolt of lightning had struck us what our friend Carlos Gavito had meant, when he said, “Tango is a way to walk.”
We’re looking forward to our friends’ return from Buenos Aires. If they’ve managed to carve out some time between lessons and buying shoes, and engaged in the essential enterprise of watching and learning, we’re quite sure they’ll be wide-eyed with wonder (just as we were) at what social Tango really is. They’ll be anxious to spread the word, to immediately convert all their peers to this “way to walk.”
probably ask Pat and me why we never spelled it out for them in vivid detail, so
that they could have known the truth before they went. Like us, however, they
will have had to find out for themselves through personal, one-to-one,
Which brings us to you. Would you like to find out what social Tango really is? Pat and I try our best to explain it you every time you take a lesson with us. But nothing — I mean nothing — beats actually being there, and seeing for yourself. With that in mind, we strongly urge you to get on a plane at your earliest opportunity — how about, let’s say, tomorrow, for example — and go. Buenos Aires awaits, real social Tango awaits, your own mind-boggling epiphany awaits.
Watch and learn. And when you get back, be sure to tell us all about it.
January 3, 2019
Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In teaching our class at the Argentine Consulate this week, I happened to mention in passing that even though I’ve been dancing Tango for well over 30 years, I’m still immersed in the ongoing process of learning. Yes, learning, and proud to admit it!
One of the students shook her head in disbelief. “How can you say that you’re still learning. Aren’t you supposed to know everything there is to know about Tango by now?”
The answer, of course, is a definite no. One of the really important things I’ve discovered over the years is that the act of teaching is actually the best learning experience in the world. Every time I engage in trying to communicate to students the complex processes involved in the lead/follow collaboration, I automatically come away from the interaction with insights I didn’t have before. Every time I address a student’s question about some difficult or possibly controversial aspect of Tango, I open my own door (often very wide!) to a better understanding of whatever it is I’m talking about.
Teaching, I’ve come to realize, is learning. The more I teach, the more I learn.
This can sometimes be a difficult concept for students to grasp. I remember vividly my own early years as a student. I had no doubt in my mind that every teacher I encountered possessed a bottomless reservoir of unassailable certainty about dance, which I could never even begin to achieve.
As I slowly progressed in my own learning process over the years, however, I began to notice that many teachers — particularly the ones who professed to have all the answers — really didn’t know very much at all. They seemed to spend a lot of time protecting a small fortress of very limited knowledge — rather than engaging with their students in the mutual quest to develop real understanding and insight about the art of Tango.
The mutual quest.
I don’t know everything there is to know about Tango. But trust me when I say that I do know a lot. My personal goal for this year is to convey to you everything — I mean, everything — I’ve learned about Tango over the past 33 years. When Pat and I teach a class, we’re committed to offering you the best possible information you can get. What we ask you in return is to join us in this mutual quest to master the art of social Tango.
Pat and I welcome you to 2019. Let’s work together to make this our most successful year ever!