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.
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!