Monthly Archives: May 2014

You can’t always get what you want

Mauricio Castro in Tango Discovery ** #12 had interesting things to say. This was a women’s technique exercise (suitable for both roles) where one partner holds up their hands palms out. The working partner matches hands closely but without touching, then does back ochos (or forward ochos). NO using the free leg to help balance or to get around. The pivot comes from the hips.

As the working partner gains stability and ability to hold their hands quietly in position, the helping partner can increase the exercise difficulty by asking the working partner to take longer steps, by moving slowly forward, or moving backward (harder, as the working partner must over turn their back ochos to move forward), and then for even more fun, start moving the target hands they are matching to wider, narrower, one up and one down, etc.

Helping partner: keep the exercises at a level where they can succeed, otherwise you are training them to fail. (But we have to recognize that growth comes from failures. I’ve read that you want a training range of succeeding 80% of the time, failing 20% [the good old Pareto Principle rule of thumb]. We learn from mistakes. We hone skills from successful repetition.)

Then he said something that made me think about how dancing  with beginners all the time can harm your sensitivity, while dancing with experts helps develop it. (Nevertheless, we want to dance with beginners some of the time both to bring along the tango community and to practice our adaptability.) We have an adaptive nervous system, always working to make things less painful, less difficult, easier for us. We grow accustomed to pressures such that they no longer register as strongly.

If in this practice the working partners is moving their hands all about instead of keeping them steadily in place, that represents pressure they would be putting on their partner to help support them. We would start to lose sensitivity. But what we really want is hypersensitivity. In either role we want the ability to read a touch as light as a feather. At this level of skill the dance looks like an unseen magical connection between partners.

He concludes with this worthwhile thought, that leading is not about getting 100% of what you want. You move and test, move and test (from both sides of the embrace) to comply with your partner. This is the game, to do it together, and that’s when it feels very, very good.

** Please don’t hold the unsavory website banner image and marketing copy against him. Mauricio has some really solid training materials

Shoulder-in exercise

Recent reading and discussion suggested that both Dressage and Martial Arts, being organized sports that originated centuries before Argentine tango — horsesport was introduced to the Ancient Olympic Games in 680 BC, and martial arts in China has a history more than 4,000 years old — have a richer, deeper, more organized body of training knowledge.

More than just learning how to dance Argentine tango, I’m also interested in meta-learning, learning about how to learn. To begin exploring these other schools of teaching I bought Jane Savioie’s DRESSAGE 101. (My wife, a dog trainer and competitor, tells me that Jane’s book That Winning Feeling!: Program Your Mind for Peak Performance is highly regarded in competitive sports circles of any type.)

This 453 page book, beautifully illustrated with diagrams and fine photos, filled with highly organized, crystal clear writing, describing concepts, exercises, imagery, and procedures to bring you and your horse to a state of exquisite connection, is all a bit overwhelming to try and summarize its value for gaining insights into tango training. So I’ll begin with one illustrative exercise, and likely draw on this outstanding book as a source for interesting material for some time to come.

But first, to whet your appetite for the material, here’s a nice traditional technique video:

Damian Thompson – The Walking Drill, Argentine Tango

You could do Damian’s walking exercise solo — and you certainly should! — and with a partner.

As a solo exercise, the Shoulder-In Exercise in DRESSAGE 101 is straightforward. Where it is safe to do so, walking in a straight line alongside a wall, fence, curb or other boundary you can observe, using it to keep a constant distance, rotate your upper torso to face the boundary, hands in front of you, palm-in-palm, palms facing you. Continue walking along the boundary in a straight line with your lower body as your upper body continues facing to the side. When you come to the end of the line, repeat in the reverse direction, reversing the twist. Now the same thing backwards. Careful you don’t trip! (Of course, in our tango context the term shoulder-in would more properly be torso-in.)

As you walk internally observe yourself for such things as collecting your knees as they pass, feet turned out, knee flexion that maintains a constant top line height, upright torso, moving with torso intention, reaching from the hip not the knee.

How about practicing the same thing as a couple with a partner? Now you might think of rider and horse as having a relationship similar to leader and follower in a dance couple. There’s a lot of wisdom in this book about the quiet communication that goes back and forth. But for this purpose I’m thinking of the couple as a strangely built animal where the leader is whichever partner is going forward at the moment. (Clearly the traditional leader role can lead this walking exercise going forward or backwards, in a straight line or circle, and inside, parallel, or outside partner.)You could think of this as a weird horse that has its front knees facing backwards. The main consideration is that with four feet we have the possibilities of two, three, or four tracks of travel. Parallel-system walking in front of each other is two tracks, parallel- or cross-system sufficiently offset is four tracks, and cross-system, where the middle legs line up (like a three-legged race, with one partner facing backwards) is three tracks.

For purposes of the shoulder-in exercise with a partner we’ll use cross-system, though I suppose it could be done in parallel-system.

Excerpted from the book:

  • Shoulder-in is a suppling, straightening, strengthening as well as an “increasing self-carriage” exercise.
  • It stretches and loosens the muscles and ligaments of the inside leg (the side the torso is facing).
  • It strengthens and improves self-carriage because with each step you move the inside leg underneath the body, under the center of gravity.
  • The inside leg gets stronger because it has to carry additional weight.
  • Also, in order to move the inside leg in this way you must lower that hip, which contributes to the development of self-carriage.
  • Be sure to do the shoulder-in with the same amount of angle in both directions; you want to develop evenly in both directions.
  • Essentially, a shoulder-in is a first step of a small circle but repeated on a straight line.
  • You can also practice on a circle. Here, the lead (going forward) partner legs stay on the line of the circle while the other partner legs are brought to the inside, to describe a slightly smaller circle.
  • Keep your tempo constant. Don’t let the new demands cause you to lose impulsion and slow down or get worried and rush off.

Interesting variants for “schooling”. (In Jane’s parlance, these would be figures not used in competition {or at the milonga, perhaps} but useful nevertheless for developing suppleness and strength.)

  • Shoulder-out where, say, the follower is on a larger circle track, leader on the inside.
  • Haunches-in where the lower carriage is facing in (or alternatively, out) while the upper body continues straight.


Add this to your walking exercises! Solo or with a partner. In a straight line or on a circle. Going forwards and going backwards. (Be careful!) Inside, parallel, or outside partner. Parallel- or cross-system. Torso facing inside or outside line of travel. Hips facing inside or outside line of travel. In an embrace position with upper body facing one direction and lower body continuing in the line of dance (or vice-versa), now walk.