Monthly Archives: May 2013

How are you feeling?

I am following Memoto, a project by Swedish entrepreneurs to develop a wearable camera that would take a picture every 30 seconds, then upload and organize all that, producing a visual log of your life.

Graphs and charts showing performance

Lifelogging example

In a guest blog post by Dave Asprey, an inveterate biohacker and lifelogger, he asserts in “5 Self-tracking tips” that, “how you are feeling is the most important data point to consider at the end of the day.”

This suggests a useful adjunct to Rebecca Brightly’s “The Dance Practice Blueprint” of a post-practice, post-practica, post-milonga practice: that of logging how you are feeling about what just transpired. Whether, post-event, you are elated or depressed (or some combination) by the proceedings, you could profitably ask yourself — and log the answers to — three questions:

1. How am I feeling about my dancing at this event?
2. What, specifically, of that is within my control?
3. What, specifically, can I do to have more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff?

My lesson plan. Part 1

My, what a forthright, boldly honest appraisal in My Tango Diaries. And one that must resonate universally. It felt like it could have been me making exactly the same confessions and expressions of hope and expectations for the future. I’ve been actively wrestling with the same concerns and feelings recently, and think I may have some useful ideas. I’ve been thinking of doing a blog post myself, and perhaps you’ll let me sketch them out here as a first draft.

Approach to taking lessons

Lessons: recognize – before, during, and after – that a lesson is an artificial construct and may not fairly or completely represent how we actually dance socially. You have someone “grading” or “testing” you (we at least hope compañeros are not doing that quite so actively at a milonga), or at the very least have “expectations” for you. In the stop and start of making corrections and giving demonstrations, there is an interruption to the natural flow of a dance, a tanda, a milonga. In a lesson we are thinking and feeling about so much more than just dancing. So I give myself a break on self-evaluation, instead focusing on what I need to know to be able to self-correct when practicing or dancing.

Excuses: none, ever. Try to not even give mental voice to them. Sure, we’ve seen enough different teachers at lessons and workshops to know that they are (at least seemingly) not always consistent even with themselves or in their dancing, much less with each other. Sure, we know that we have good and valid (as well as poor and false) reasons for not performing up to the standard we hold for ourselves. None of it makes a difference. Giving voice to an excuse shuts down the other — whether it’s our own better selves or a teacher or friend.

Certainly “no excuses” is not to say that we don’t honor our own capabilities and knowledge, opinions and desires, and stand up for ourselves or others when called for. No, it says that our first duty is to seek to understand what we are experiencing. Did we hear that correctly? Did we understand them? Did they clearly say what they meant? Do we both need more information or discussion? Is there additional information outside the two of us that can be brought to bear? Does it matter?

In a vague sense it is like martial arts, where if we merely shield ourselves or block a blow we must absorb the force with a jolt. whereas if we redirect the force, examining and understanding it, then we are able to turn it into something useful, directing it to our own purposes.

To be continued . . .

(As ever, your comments and observations are most welcome. If there are not yet any comments, click the “No comments” links under this blog post to start them.)


Learning from web videos

So I downloaded my lesson from (an online tango school
by Sebastian Arce y Mariana Montes), a 12 minute web video that presents and explains how to do an elegant, close embrace change of direction sequence. (In your browser extension store you can find ways to download varieties of formats from YouTube and elsewhere. Make a comment to this blog post if you’d like help with something. Fair use only! Observe copyrights.) The Chrome browser extension Vimeo Download Videos let me grab the material, and then in Windows Live Movie Maker I can quickly scan the whole thing, snip out the few brief bits I want to focus on, and then save it in a more compact format. What was 240 MB shrank to 8 MB!

The interesting thing I noticed in this process was that the key learning concept may boil down to a single element. For example, this was an elegant looking change of direction that can easily be done entirely in close embrace and which takes little space to do. I’ll describe the entire sequence and highlight the key concept.

From an ocho cortado, he steps around her to his right, causing her to make a tiny step forward and pivot on her front-crossed (L) foot. He steps backwards and around with left leg, leading her to uncross and step into him on his right, the closed side. This is #3 of the eight-count basic, but going backwards. Key concept: That step back uses inertia to step-pivot counter-clockwise the entire couple as a unit. Instead of dissociating, he moves as a unit, intending to immediately pivot his right side (and her) around to the left on stepping. He is leading her to pivot backwards as a unit. (Both keeping their thighs tight!) He finishes the pivot by bringing right leg back to close, while she does a molinete to end just left of him in perpendicular position. He gives her parada with left leg. She steps over, then pivots back to end square in front of him.

Not to minimize the importance of a good beginning and ending to a sequence that, like the punctuation of a sentence, give it a resolution. But they do tend to obscure key concepts that introduce a new movement and understanding of axes.

Por ejemplo, could this pivot also be done in the clockwise direction toward her? Well why not try it! Now suppose we continue our exercises by trying all possible combinations:

  • Direction of step: he stepping forward or he stepping backward
  • Direction of pivot: clockwise or counter-clockwise
  • Side of embrace: he on open side or he on closed side

Notice, too, that this is a cross-step pattern so far. That is, he back-crossed with her forward-crossed or vice-versa. Would these sorts of pivots be possible in an open-step? What does that do to the couple’s alignment if they step together and pivot? Does it help or hinder for him to step longer or shorter than her? What if he steps across her path after (or before!) she steps? Ah, that looks like a sacada.

This is the sort of exploratory play that I am wanting to do at practicas and in my home gym/dance space. In the past I haven’t much gone to practicas because they always seemed to work just like a milonga, with everybody “practicing” what they already know and do. I want to discover the things I don’t know, as well as structured couples practice to enhance the quality of things I do (or should) know.

If you find yourself with an opportunity to be in southwest Austin and want to explore Argentine tango, please get in touch. If we’re not friends yet, email to david at this website address can start the process.


Javier Rochwarger: A leading follower

I wrote about Daniela, a solo maestra who is an outstanding leader as well a follower, and who teaches both roles in detail for the utmost in style, elegance, and technique. And this past weekend Austin was treated to the opposite configuration of a solo maestro who is an outstanding follower as well as a leader: Javier Rochwarger.

Javier Rochwarger

Javier Rochwarger

In our first private lesson as a beginner a year ago, and reinforced every time I lead him, Javier did more for my understanding of what it really means to signal our intent to the follower, detect their readiness, and then move with confident clarity. Although Javier makes for a wonderfully comfortable, capable follower, who can and will do anything I can reasonably ask, he has an uncanny ability to remain immobile until he feels the lead intention.

What makes this technique so memorable and striking is how it in no way feels heavy, stiff, or difficult. David Turner’s book, A Passion For Tango, on page 33 has a good exercise for developing sensitivity both by follower to leader’s moment of intention, and by leader to follower’s moment of readiness to respond. Summarizing . . .

A couple stands holding hands, side-by-side. One of the two, as leader, will indicate (invite) a forward movement. The other teases by holding on as long as they want before committing to the step. The leader tries to sense the moment of commitment and the couple go together. The exercise can be done without music to increase the randomness of the response. This exercise hones the body-listening skills of both leader and follower.

With any exercise I like to play, How many different ways can we do this? Switch leader and follower, of course! Does it make a difference whether leader is on left or right side? How about backward steps; what, if anything, must the leader change in their indication? Now do the exercise facing each other, adding the possibility of side steps. Do it in practice hold. Do it with no hold. Try the exercise where you intentionally try to fake out your partner – naughty leader/follower. Now try the exercise where you seek above all else to be utterly in sync with one another. How does your movement change between the two? Certainly a partner can move too soon, but what about moving too slowly, is there a sweet spot?

Javier taught a variety of classes: basic, intermediate, and advanced, and I enjoyed and benefited from it all. Here I will report on just one night’s lesson, Villa Urquiza perl sequences. (Mari Johnson also has a report on Javier’s visit at her My Tango Diaries blog.)

Long, elegant lines characterize the Villa Urquiza style. For the follower, after they have unweighted a leg preparatory to stepping back, they step back with a straight leg, not merely moving the upper leg back and carrying the lower leg with it, but having a long leg that moves back as a whole. Same for the lead, the legs are straight as they move. Not by any means to say a stiff leg. The knees and ankles will be ever so slightly softened to absorb the forces of takeoffs and landings, yet there will be an ever so slight undulation in height of the traveling couple due to the straighter legs, versus absorbing every bit of height variation that you can with bent knees. (By the way, though takeoff and landing are my (an inactive pilot) terms and seem like useful images to me, think not of airplanes going up and down, but rather of track and field long jumpers moving horizontally across the ground.)

The style uses a close embrace throughout, though elastic enough to accommodate limitations in a couple’s dissociation. The room for the feet and legs to maneuver below is provided through apilado posture, where the couple “tents” against each other at the upper body. The embrace, from both sides, is firm and clear, to hold the couple together and to aid in producing the greater dissociation required of both partners in the close embrace.

Each of these three sequences is based on the eight-count basic. All using the styling above.


At #5, where follower crosses and leader collects, leader steps back on left, right once or twice to produce a clear apilado. From there leader “loads” the undercarriage, getting somewhat under follower, to step out decisively in a long, dramatic step. Normal ending from there.

Linked forward sacadas to back ochos

Following #5, the cross, instead of continuing ahead as usual, leader steps decisively (so as to be clear to follower that this is not a forward step) to the left, and as follower comes to axis on right foot, lead them to pivot right so couple is now in perpendicular position with follower facing to leader’s left.

Lead follower to step across and left-pivot to now face back to leader’s right, then lead continues across left/backwards for follower, and as they step back-left on left leg, leader gives sacada to their right to produce a voleo. Notice that the close embrace requires extreme dissociation in this position, with his legs tightly twisted against each other.

They unwind the follower’s voleo in a back ocho until follower is now backing to leader’s right, then the sequence repeats on that side. The entire sequence zig-zags left-right in front of leader, down the line of dance.

Left, right sacada to barrida

As in the previous sequence, following #5, lead follower to step sideways, then as you lead follower for a forward ocho, you step side and back cross with right leg, giving follower room to step around. As follower steps around leader’s right. Leader gives sacada with left leg to follower’s trailing back-crossed left leg. Then on follower’s side open give sacada with right leg to follower right leg. Overturn follower’s back ocho as you, too, overturn to give barrida left-to-left.

One final thing, please. Down at the bottom of this blog entry, where it says Written by David PhillipsNo comments — . . . , you should interpret that to say, click on “No comments” to give us all the benefit of your thinking on the matter! (What a poor user interface choice in the template: minimalism versus clarity. Now I’m going to have to fix that some day.)


She, he, or it?

My flamboyant mother used to say that instead of making all writing “he, he, he” with a masculine 3rd person indefinite pronoun (or the modern “with it” equivalent of making it all feminine), or using the cumbersome form “he or she”, that they should instead use a new word for she/he/it, maybe something like “sh/t”.

There exists already a perfectly good solution to this conundrum, notwithstanding what your high school English teachers tried to drum into you regarding agreement of numbers. For millennia the third person plural forms (they, them, their) have happily served this or that author to identify a person of unknown gender in their writings.

Now my language difficultly in describing dance is somewhat different. In the modern era it is not uncommon to have leading ladies and following fellows. Indeed, I support switching roles on a planned basis as part of your dance practice and exercises, because it enriches your understanding of whatever role you choose to dance.

man-woman-perpendicular-0 man-woman-perpendicular-1 man-woman-perpendicular-2 man-woman-perpendicular-3

So I’m writing dance sequence descriptions, and man! (jaja), it sure gets tedious typing – and reading – Leader and Follower spelled out everywhere. What about abbreviations? But L could also stand for left and F could stand for forward. Going beyond that, from whose orientation do you describe a movement, both? (Maybe, if there are interesting complexities involved.)

I’ve decided to move past the angst-filled hand wringing over something that probably isn’t that important to most people anyway. (A life theme: dithering in search of the ideal. It’s a wonder we ever got our house built.) I’ve decided that convention and simplicity trump gender-neutral and role-neutral descriptions. For the most part I’m going to use He as a placeholder for the person in the role of leader, and She as a placeholder for the person in the role of follower.

Furthermore, I’m going to generally describe sequences from the point of view of the leader role, only describing the follower’s counterpart where clarity calls for it. Savvy followers will know that in the effort to understand their role from the leader’s description, they will be delving even deeper into what is happening behind the words, and thereby may gain an even deeper understanding of their equally important role.

In every case, if you see something that is not clear to you (and therefore probably not clear to many others, or anyone), or if you have another take on the matter, please give us all the benefit of your comments. Down at the bottom of this blog entry, where it says Written by David Phillips — No comments — . . . , you should interpret that to say, click on “No comments” to give us all the benefit of your thinking on the matter!


Learn By Doing: The experiential learning model

At one time I held some kind of certification as an examiner for ISO 9000 (the quality standard). I thought it would be useful both for what I could learn about improving our company’s work and for use in ISO 9000 implementation at other companies using Lotus Notes for work process automation.

The basic cycle of ISO 9000 processing — Plan, Do, Check, Act, and repeat — can be found in other arenas, such as ISO 14000, the environmental quality standard, and in learning models, such as this one:

Depiction of the five step Experiential Learning Model

From “Curriculum Development for Issues Programming: A Notional Handbook for Extension Youth Development Professionals (1992).

“Learn By Doing”: The experiential learning model
(A cycle of five stations of activities under three categories.)
1) Experience the activity; “do it”.
2) Share what happened.
3) Process what’s important.
4) Generalize — the “so what”
5) Apply — the “now what”
Return to step 1 …

Although I’m well aware of the value and benefits of applying such a process to learning and improving, I don’t use it with the rigor and consistency that I’d like. That is a confession, by way of which I am expressing an intention that I want to make as clear and definite — and actual, as I want for the intention in my Argentine tango leading.

In a private lesson with Javier Rochwarger at Esquina Tango this morning, I told him that I have had trouble dancing to Biagi, feeling constrained by the stong rhythmic nature of the music, and that perhaps we could work on “musicality”. After expressing shock and dismay that I wouldn’t love Biagi, a one time and off and on most favorite of Javier’s, we went to work.

On reflecting after the lesson I realized that we went through several cycles of the experiential learning model during the lesson. Javier would feel my dancing — he is just as skilled and comfortable a follower as leader — and tell me what I really needed (share what happened). I would try to express, both verbally and in action, what that meant to me and how I could reproduce it (process), he or I would reflect on how that affected the broader context of my dance performance (generalize), finally, I would apply this new understanding to do a new dance, either refining my understanding and performance of that skill or finding the next thing to focus on. And repeat …

You can’t begin to express musicality because you are not arriving on the beat.” Not to say that my timing was off, but that the quality of my movement was muddy, unclear. We worked on arriving “nose over big toe” on the beat, with maximum energy released at that point. I reflected on how a failure to do this affects not only musicality, the dynamics of the dance, but also the clarity of the lead and the success of many movements, such as sacadas and turns.

Why are we not stopping? You are all the time going, going, going.” Contributing to a flatness and sameness in my dancing, despite a variety of movements on, around, and about the floor, was my constant motion. Javier made a clear distinction between merely pausing, with no energy, versus building a dynamic tension that is finally released. He likened it to street racers revving their engines side-by-side at a stoplight. Even though they are stopped you can see the energy building.

There were any number of other things to fix or tweak. Javier packs a lot into a lesson, and there were many big and small cycles of the experiential learning model, but the two biggies were fully arriving on my standing foot, and use of dynamic pauses. When I incorporated these into our dancing, happily, Javier observed, “You have no problem with musicality. You understand the music well. The long, the short, the rhythmical, the lyrical.” And I was becoming better able to express my understanding of the music.

Instead of another dance, I chose to conclude the lesson by reflecting on what I’d learned and how I could use it. I bemoaned not having a regular practice partner, and Javier said that unless you can dance this way by yourself, how can you hope to do it with the added complication of a partner. He said that [everyone] should use the first 30 minutes of a practica for just walking by themselves, improving the quality and dynamics of el caminar. So now that’s on my now what list of how to improve my practice to improve.

Teaching followers, too

When I wrote that teachers, with exceptions, seem to pay overwhelming attention to the leader role, I had in mind some visiting teachers and classes at festivals I’ve attended. And last Wednesday I was reminded of a local teacher who is strikingly different.

photo of Daniela Arcuri

Daniela Arcuri – Argentine tango master teacher, choreographer, performer

As a woman who respects the traditional female role as follower, but who trained to become an expert leader, Daniela Arcuri gives both roles equal attention. The irony is that Daniela is one of those who teaches that the leader leads everything to the nth degree. But it makes sense because she pays attention to the nth detail for both followers and leaders.

For Daniela it is not enough that the couple should be able to use patterns and extemporaneous movement musically, but that they should also look superb while doing it, and that each role contributes to the success of movements, from head to toe. The heads: to maintain a good connection regardless of height differences, and an elegant, functional line. The embrace: how the follower supports the leader just as well as vice-versa. The hips: their uses not only in rotation but also tilt and sway. The feet: oh my goodness, the feet. Daniela has some of the most exquisite footwork I’ve observed, and she works to impart that knowledge, appreciation, and practice in all her students, los dos leaders and followers.

In Bug’s Question of the Day I think it was, a teacher asked for ideas to overcome the unfair situation that a single man teacher, i.e., not a couple, is better able to get solo gigs, and better paying gigs, than a solo woman teacher. I’m sure Daniela has experienced that same disparity. No one thinks less of a man recruiting a follower from the local group to demonstrate, even though they are missing out on a strong follower perspective. In Austin we think nothing of Daniela calling on leaders or followers to partner with her for demonstrations, because we know we’re getting top flight training for both roles.

At last night’s milonga, between dances I observed to my partner, “I wasn’t even aware of many of your adornos but caught them in the mirror. Really lovely.” She replied, “I had the best teacher — Daniela.” Yeah, I feel the same way.