Monthly Archives: June 2013

How her belly can improve your Argentine tango

Notes from Combinography With Bahaia.

DVD cover for Combinography

“Bridging the gap between choreography and improvisation.”

Some people may see this as an odd departure. What does talk of producing a better audience presentation for belly dance have to do with social dancing Argentine tango? Everything!

I hear friends who say, “I am what I am. What you see is what you get, and I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not.” Wow. What I see is someone who doesn’t care if people see a person slouching through life. How will we ever get to our higher aspirations if we don’t start acting in accord with them. “I want to look elegant, powerful, refined, interesting, sensuous, musical.” Well guess what? If you don’t act as if you already own those qualities — as well as putting in the hard work to learn and practice the foundations of them — then they will never become a part of you.

Well, okay, but stage! and belly dance!! The first is easy to handle. Shakespeare said it, “All the world’s a stage.” And we are all actors upon it. When you wait for cabeceo do you slouch back into your seat with arms crossed, signaling I’m not happy, I’m not engaged, I may be unpleasant? Or do you look alert, bright, upright, and attentive? When you cross the room to collect your partner, so you slouch over, with a haphazard walk and a wandering gaze? Or do you project that proud, powerful, elegant, and engaged look that you want to bring to the dance about to unfold?

Okay, okay, but belly dance! It’s a poor imagination that overlooks the wonderful things we can learn about performance, creativity, learning, practice, and drive from any form of dance, sports, music, art. Paraphrasing good old Will, “All the world’s a classroom.” And we are all students in it.

These, then, are my notes from watching Combinography With Bahaia

“Bridging the gap between choreography and improvisation.”

Cheeky Girls Productions

110 min.

We cover such topics as:

Pacing your performance

Spatial awareness

Direction change

Body line

Level change

Floor patterns

Tempo change



Sequenced movements

Entering and exiting the stage (la pista)

Pace yourself. First and last impressions are key. The ones remembered.

Getting unstuck

Fear can freeze the brain. Try reversing the move you just did. Gives the body a reset and gives the mind a pause to collect itself.

Relaxing your face

Sometimes we wear our day on our face.

Say each of the vowels in an exaggerated fashion.

Say an affirmation like “I am bee-yoo-tee-full” in an exaggerated fashion.

Do a mugging face just before going on.

[Look up at the sky (even if indoors), Laugh, Breathe.]

Body line

No matter how the audience is seated, you want to control what they see and how they see it.

Use diagonals. [The audience sees a larger image than with a straight-on front/side/back view.]

Not just standing on a diagonal line on the stage, but change little elements throughout the body so that you don’t give a flat appearance to any viewer. [Think dissociation.]

Think about extended legs, arms, head, hands.

Where the head is looking?

[!] When looking down I direct my gaze as if I was looking “up and over” rather than directly down – which produces a lot of shadow and double-chin.

Straight view of the side can be a dramatic and introspective view. Make it big with extensions.

When you direct your gaze away from the audience it will automatically be seen as “inward”.

When you direct your gaze to a body part you draw attention to it.

Looking straight on at your audience is an intense, joyous, or confrontational gaze.

Turning your back to the audience can be engaging and feel somewhat voyeuristic for them.

Always keep good posture and awareness of the image you are creating in space with your body lines.

Preparing for transitions

Give yourself something to do at the end of movements to punctuate them.

Instead of dancing-dancing-dancing, give conscious thought to the moves you want to do and that there is a transition between them, where you stop or sink into your movement. [We won’t stop altogether, of course, but rather rein in and contain a building energy until it releases into the next movement.]

Use basic movement, like walking, and punctuate it with your dance moves.

You don’t want to dance full out the whole time.

[We run the risk of looking (and feeling to our partner) “flat” in our dancing if the energy is at the same level, even a high level, throughout.]

Prepare yourself mentally and physically for transitions to happen.

In that way you’re not rushed into the next movement.

[This puts me in mind that even “atomic” movements that are part of a sequence have their own life and must be given their own attention. Take a series of linked sacadas, for example, if we don’t complete the first one, letting the weight move to and settle into the new location, then the following movement is rushed and everything starts getting blurred. Try this metaphor. Do you know about sound envelopes, how any sound has an attack, sustain, and decay. Does that inform the way you move? The gathering energy, the release, the balance and settling.]

Making it art

Dance is a way to express yourself. Do you want your dance to be more like poem or like an encyclopedia? [!] A poem takes only a few words yet expresses so much. A few steps of your dance can express more about you than all of your encyclopedic collection of steps.

Your WOW step

Your movement that makes the audience (partner) go “Wow!” It could be something requiring a great deal of technical skill or strength or flexibility. [Or be unusual, or unexpected – in a pleasant way, or a perfect accompaniment to the music.] Don’t do them too much or it becomes like the magician giving away the secrets to their trick. Save them for just the right moment. Ration them out in small portions so that they maintain their magnetism.

Increasing your repetoire

Begin by making a list of all the dance steps you know. You’ll probably be surprised at how long it is. Categorize them by: stationary, traveling, filler, and embellishment. Filler is something like walking and turns. Embellishments are things you can do with your [legs and feet].

Floor patterns

Again, make a list of all the steps you know, but now categorize by geometric shapes. Movements forward, backward, diagonal, to the side. Movements linear and circular. Box, zig-zag, triangle. Bigger and smaller versions of a pattern. Qualities a pattern can have: Aggressive (straight to audience), Introspective (away from audience), Energetic (on the diagonal).


Exercise: intensity can vary from no or low to high. [And, as noted earlier, any intensity level maintained without variety with look flat and become boring.] Imagine yourself moving in the dance through different substances:

Clouds = no intensity

Water = low intensity, requiring more muscle

Honey = medium intensity, requiring even more muscle to push through

A pool of sand = high intensity, requiring great effort to move through

Using your imagination can help engage your muscles in your movement. [Mind games, such as this one and The Storyteller, where you make up a story that goes with the music, then dance to express that story; these mind games are not only a great way to enrich your dance, but also, and just as good, as a way to distract the chattering, judgmental Monkey Mind.

For an exercise, have a guide call out different intensity levels that they group shifts to in their dance. For personal practice, play a song and intentionally attach different intensity levels to your interpretation of the music. Dance that!]


Keep them quiet. They’re often too busy. But you do want energy in the arms. [You want them toned but not tense. Think of soft skin.] Imagine a [bungee] cord from your sternum to each wrist. [Is this a useful image for the legs? Maybe an elastic cord between the knees? And perhaps from the sternum to the knees for backward movements, from the mid-back to the knees for forward movement?] [Even though we don’t use arms freely in the way that a belly dancer does, this image of an elastic cord from sternum to each wrist has the useful mind-body imagery of “packing” the shoulders with the muscles of the latissimus dorsi muscles.]

Awareness in movement

Transitions and fluidity: it comes from knowing exactly where you are at every point in your step. Exercise: for any particular low level movement, such as shifting weight from one foot to another, or rotating the torso in dissociation preparatory to a pivot, imagine you are on a ruler, with zero being the neutral point, and +12 (and possibly -12) being the extents of the movement. Now move from one limit to the other in increments of one. Focus. Experience the sensations of where your legs, hips, torso are in space. Move from one end of the scale to the other and back again. Repeat. Then repeat again at slightly faster speed. Then repeat again even faster, and continue until you get to full performance speed [and beyond, in practice]. You will develop a greater understanding of where your weight is and how your body parts are arranged, and this will give you greater fluidity in moving between steps.

The art of walking

You need different walks that you can use over the course of your performance. A basic walk, a walk with an accent, and a different kind of walk. [I mostly see people practicing long, slow walking and their “normal” walking. What about long-quick, short-slow, long-short-long, short-long-short, staccato, legato, mixtures, lopsided, funny. Not all the things you can possibly think of to try will be directly usable, but they will surely all be useful.] Step, step, some rather simple accent move, such as contracting your core and elevating your body. A fundamental change to the walk, such as walking in plié or relevé [or apilado].


When you strike a pose do you think of something static? Let’s make it more organic, such as by sinking into a pose and growing out of it. Poses should take time and preparation to get into and out of. [Akin to the sound envelop attack, sustain, decay energy contour that we mentioned earlier.]

Weight transfer

Do you sometimes find yourself glued to the stage, weighed down, not knowing where to go? Try this weight transfer exercise. Roll your weight around on your feel moving it all around the edges of each foot and transferring from foot to foot. Rock side to side, rock front to back, roll in a circle around the edges, switch directions, half circles to the front, half circles to the back, ankle rolls.

Your signature step

Ever feel yourself stuck in a move that you repeat over and over? Sometimes called a “safety step”, it can be a default move that you tend to go to when you don’t have a better idea. That can be positive, giving you that safety, or it can be negative if it locks you into something that gets repeated to the point of boredom. Try putting another spin on it by calling it your “Signature Step”. It’s one you know you can confidently pull off anywhere and anytime, and it is one that you can do a million things with. You want it to be something that has weight change and movement. Take that movement and explore how you can change its character: change direction, timing, level, expression, size, linear, circular, pauses, layering of variations.

Repetitions and sequenced movement

Repetition can be a good thing, and it can be frustrating. Maybe you’re boring the audience or your partner or yourself. But be aware that your audience’s perception of time is different that your own. Your audience may not be even be aware of what the repetition is the first few times it comes around. Listen to the music and you will find repetitions and patterns. [The ABA’CA” and various alternative phrasings of tango music, for example.] Use that. It makes sense for your steps to have a similar pattern.

Traveling combinations

It’s all about movement through space. [This article does a nice job talking about and cataloging elements to combine.]

Combinations, patterns, sequences, whatever you call them — like ideas — are a dime a dozen. See YouTube, for example. What matters is how well a combination fits you, your partner, the music, and the room, and how well it’s performed. When you can put together all the elements, from the most elemental, like, pause, weight change, step, pivot, and combinations of steps, and embellishments, and phrases. Then you will really be creating your own dance.

Pasos felices,


Plateaus and periodization

At group class the other night a friend told me he felt that he had recently overcome a plateau and was really beginning to enjoy his Argentine tango. In my twenty-two months of group and private lessons, workshops, practice, and milongas I feel like I’ve enjoyed four major plateaus, each involving some mix of greater understanding of: dissociation to “associate” with my partner, moving with intention, controlling our axes, “following her lead“, understanding my dance, and dancing with the music.The-Plateau-Effect

Friend and I agreed, it actually seems more useful to think of a plateau not as the fallow flat period, but the time you get to enjoy the fruit of your various labors spent in climbing up to that level. Then after some period of capitalizing on your investment in your dancing, you begin to hunger for the next new climb up. But what is it that makes that climb out of a plateau take longer and seem harder than it should?

Shake it up, baby!” Mother Nature is lazy at heart. It likes to get maximum results from minimum efforts. The body and the mind are built to automatically develop shortcuts and routines for things that we do repeatedly. You might call these time, labor, and brain saver shortcuts for living, or you might call them ruts for things we do repeatedly. Dancing, I don’t care how creative you are, is something of a repetitive activity.

Serious athletes know that the way to shake up their neurophysiology is to confuse the mind-body. Do new things or do things in an unusual way. Make things harder. The body-mind says, “Oh, hell, now what’s going on with this stuff?” Then, in the process of figuring out a new easiest way of doing things it comes to new capabilities.

Body Building periodization

Serious athletes often plan their workout regimens in three timeframes: a microcycle of a week, a mesocycle of one to a few months (so long as a routine is producing new results), and a macrocycle that usually refers to a training season. The mesocycle period is more or less the time it takes for one’s neurophysiology to develop a groove for dealing with a new routine.

So how might this be applied to dancing? How can a dancer shake it all up without switching to a new dance? Here are some thoughts that come to my mind, and several of which I’ve used with success.

Switch to a new dance. Well, maybe not altogether, but suppose you take classes in a type of dance entirely new to you, while continuing to practice and social dance your mainstay. Ballet, tap, hip-hop, grunge, salsa, swing, Bollywood. You name it.

Switch to a different dance style: from tango salon to nuevo, for example.

Take non-dance classes: Improv comedy, circus arts, public speaking, a new language?

Do other body work: pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique.

Add contact improv, also known as ecstatic dance to your weekly schedule.

Ecstatic Dance
Dancing Together

Study martial arts: tai chi, aikido (be careful out there!).

Take a break. The mind-body integrates past learning and physical work during rest periods.

Double your practice time and halve your class time, or vice-versa.

Switch roles. Learn how to dance the opposite lead-follow role — well.

Ambidancetrous: The Blog

Restrict yourself. See, for example, the first part (and all the rest!) of these good articles.

WikiHow: Be Creative
99U: 7 Ways to Boost Your Creativity

Suppose you only allowed yourself to only walk in all your milongas for a month. How do you think that might affect your dancing? What different kinds of things might you learn and incorporate into your dancing?

Change teachers.


So now, What do you do to shake yourself up?

Mental model of follower’s axis for leg wraps

Mathematicians and scientists often employ simplified, idealized models of the real world as a way to understand complex concepts, processes, and systems.

A piece of string with a binder clip at each end

Click the picture for a movie showing movement of follower’s axis during leg wrap.

As I was awakening this morning I thought again about the question you raised at the practica, of how to lead a leg wrap to the closed side.

(You were already in good shape with leg wraps to the open side, both in parallel and promenade positions. Many things come easier on the open side where there is more room to maneuver.)

A mental model for the follower’s axis came to my mind, and it seemed useful. See if you find it any help. Take a piece of string of, oh, say about 12 inches. Put a simple overhand knot at each end and fasten a binder clip over each knot. Now hold the string in the middle, with the binder clips dangling down.

Where you are holding the string in the middle represents the follower’s pelvis, and the binder clips represent their feet and leg weight.

If you hold one “foot” in place, representing the follower’s standing leg, and then raise the “pelvis” directly over it, you’ll see that the free leg collects to the standing leg. If you “pivot” the follower on their own axis (by twirling thumb and finger) the legs and feet stay collected.

But now, while still holding the standing foot in place, moving the pelvis to the side and forward toward you, you see that the free leg swings away from the standing leg. And if someone else’s standing leg – yours! – is in the way, the swinging leg will wrap around it.

Now here is a detail that gets glossed over during some instruction. The leader may have to make one or more small adjustments to the position of their own feet during the move in order to gain a position that will allow the tilting of the follower’s axis. A tiny side step right – as you pivot the follower in a back boleo about their axis – gives you position for the second part of the movement, to bring their axis to the side, opening the legs. Then as you “swing” them forward and around YOUR axis a tiny back step on the left tilts their axis forward. It’s a miniature volcada.

Two additional points. When you start the follower’s back rotation for the boleo you are rotating YOUR torso about THEIR axis – keeping their axis vertical. Then in the next part where you swing forward you are rotating YOUR torso about YOUR standing leg, the left back one. This leads the follower’s torso to rotate about your axis. The second point is that it helps to create a spiral, going from a lower elevation in the boleo to a raised torso at the height of the leg wrap, to give the follower the idea of lifting the leg as it wraps.

But two actions by the follower can thwart all of this. If they, consciously or not, resist the movement by breaking at the hips, allowing the hips to come forward while the upper body stays back, it causes two problems. First, the leader’s movements can’t be transmitted from the torso down to the legs because it gets lost at the hips, and second, it causes the follower’s axis to tilt down toward the floor, having the effect of making them heavier, instead of forward to the leader. Also, if the follower can’t give up control of their free leg, allowing it to swing freely, but instead holds tension, such as bending the knee or keeping it collected, then the leg won’t swing away from the follower’s body regardless of how well it’s led.

There is a big element of trust involved. Any time the leader tilts the follower off axis, the follower must feel that they are secure and safe in committing to this leader. Likewise, with a follower’s leg wrapping around the leader, or with either partner’s leg intruding into the space between one’s legs, they must feel that they are being treated respectfully.

Perhaps you, dear Reader, have a good different way of thinking about this, or perhaps you can offer clarification or correction. Please join me in the Comments section below.

Felices caminar,

Advice I wish I was given when I started learning Argentine tango

Spotify radio stations - Argentine tango

Regularly listen to Argentine tango music

Listen to the music regularly and repeatedly. Plug “Argentine tango” into your Spotify, Pandora, or other radio, and let it play in the background.

The pulse of the music matters. Learn to recognize and step on the strong beats of the music. When you can do this reliably then you can begin experimenting with taking one, two, three or more beats to complete a movement.

Attend milongas regularly and watch. Identify people, both leaders and followers, whose movement and style you admire.

Know that what you admire in tango dancing now may change as you mature in your understanding of the music and the dance.

After you’ve gained some sense of the people in your tango community, and early on, seek a mentor, both a leader mentor and a follower mentor. These friends could be some of the most valuable help you receive for progressing rapidly in your understanding of Argentine tango.

Make everyone a friend. It’s a hard process to learn Argentine tango, and many times a friendly, supportive comment from others will be all that keeps you going.

Take every opportunity to make honest and earnest comments about specific improvements or accomplishments you observe in a person’s dancing, or the questions they ask, or the help they give, or . . .

Help out whenever you can. It takes active and involved participants to keep a tango community going and growing. Working with others will help you build friendly relationships.

Meet the milonga DJs. Thank them for their valuable, thoughtful service and get to know them. They are a wonderful source of information on Argentine tango music, orchestras, and songs. They have been a central part of the scene for years.

Take notes in class. Videos of didactic (or mostly, actually, non-didactic) demos are fine, but that is a passive activity. How often do you actually go back to videos to study them, understand them, and practice them? Notes should be an active process. You can’t take down every word. You can only afford the time to write key concept words and phrases in terms that make sense to you, and to sketch.

Practice sketching. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, only that you understand what it means.

Review and recast your notes. It’s when you attempt to explain something to someone else (even if that someone else is your permanent notes) that you begin to gain a real understanding.

Argentine tango reduced to geometry is all about circles and triangles on the floor (and even in the air). Your partner (or you) move in a circle either about your own axis (or sometimes in a tangent to the circle) or in a smaller circle about their axis. The two of your feet and one of your partner (or vice-versa) form a triangle that creates a stable base on the floor. Learn how movements go into or out of what specific configurations, and then you will have a deeper understanding for how to do this movement and variants of it.

In Argentine tango, sequences of moves have no intrinsic value (setting aside historical significance and utility as a learning vehicle) in and of themselves. You may on occasion be able to use an entire sequence intact, but you’re much more likely to find it useful to break apart and understand the elements of a sequence. The teacher will most typically show you one way to start and one way to exit a sequence, but you want to learn, and explore for yourself: what are all the different ways I can get into or get out of this sequence; which of those ways feels easier, relates to other things I know, or is more “organic”; what are the atomic movements that make up the sequence; how can they be recombined differently; can it be done to both the open or closed side of the embrace; how can I relate these movements to the music?

Leading or following: The reason you practice a movement to an actual tango song is not so that you can mindlessly repeat the sequence over and over and over again. It is so you can fit the movement naturally into your dance. (Understanding that there are exceptions while you both work out the kinks.) Do not push and pull to put yourselves into the same starting sequence each time. Instead, dance into the sequence from all the different ways that make sense. Dance out of it in all the different ways that make sense. Explore the pieces of it. Explore doing pieces to opposite sides or directions.

Don’t bother saying, “Sorry” for anything except for running your partner into something or someone (where you may owe multiple expressions of “Sorry”). It’s an imperfect world, and this tango can make it seem more so at times. Mistakes will be made. Your partner will know, or may not know but won’t care in either case, why you are temporizing in the face of traffic, or the sudden grab to prevent a collision. If your partner says “Sorry” to you, a comforting squeeze or a murmured “Not at all” can be nice.

Learn to both lead and follow. A lovely aspect to Argentine tango is that all the movements are available and useful to both leader and follower. It helps tremendously to understand all the issues involved by experiencing the dance from both sides of the embrace.

Know that your fellow dancers, whether leader or follower, and whether novice or experienced, may have the much the same anxieties, doubts, and fears that you do. We’re all in it to support each other, learn, and enjoy ourselves with each other.

The best you can be, whether following, leading, or learning, is calm and confident, even and especially if you don’t know what you are doing. Calm and confident that your leader will give you a good dance (even when they don’t). Calm and confident that you will satisfactorily show yourself as a leader (even when you don’t). Calm and confident that you will understand what is going on, even when you don’t right now.

Have the confidence to step out of a lesson and only observe when you feel that it is beyond your current understandings.

Have the confidence to feel that you can learn a difficult movement, with patience from yourself and your partner, an attitude of exploration and helpfulness, and with help from the teacher.

Have the confidence, when the teacher isn’t available, to ask for help from someone else that seems to be getting it.

It is difficult to give constructive, useful feedback. Try this formula, When I do this, what I’m feeling is this, and what I think I’m wanting is this. What do I need to understand differently?

Never make excuses for or object to feedback, questions, suggestions. Do insist, if need be, on your right to be treated with dignity and respect. Otherwise, comebacks serve to cut off or minimize future, possibly very useful input. They also serve to minimize in your mind the value of input before you’ve even had a chance to understand it. Do question the other person as necessary to feel that you understand the point they are making. Then let it rest inside you, quietly observed. With a little calm patience you may well come to feel that you can tease out a little or even a lot of useful understanding from it.

Remember the people who help you. You will want to repay their kindnesses. Be kind in turn to other new dancers. Help bring them into the community.

Above all, know that if you are doing for yourself, you are doing it for good.

(I wrote this after reading the article that Mari Johnson referred me to: Offbeat Advice I Wish I Was Given In School.)