Monthly Archives: June 2014

How long have you been dancing?

Partner: “How long have you been dancing?” Me: “Uh… all my life.”

That question on the dance floor throws me. If someone had asked at a time when I wasn’t happy with my dancing—I’ll never be satisfied—I would have understood the subtext, “Well of course, you poor thing (and why are you dancing with me?)” shading over time into, “Oh dear Lord, you poor thing. Give it up!”

I started having more of the good dances, where the music, my partner, and I clicked. Looking happy, they would ask the question, then respond to the answer with something like, “That’s really good!” A form of compliment and sign of progress, maybe, but sometimes I’d feel like a fraud. “Yes, but if you knew how much time I’ve spent in classes, workshops, practicing, milongas, …”

Recently, after 3.5 years into my new dance, I got the response, “Well that explains it.” “It?!” They looked well pleased, so I took “it” to mean that, “With that much experience I’m not surprised that you’re a nice dancer.” Sometimes I still feel like a fraud. “Yes, but you should see me all those times when I’m off my game.”

Now I fear that day when (in the distant future, I hope) the subtext becomes, “Well what have you been doing with yourself in all that time?”

The question feels as if, even if unconsciously, it is about making an assessment, “Let me be the judge of whether you’ve spent your time well.” Instead of a pure expression of pleasure. “That was so musical!” “How inventive!” “I’m so happy right now!” Or displeasure, “Thank you.”

I know it’s not meant in an unkind or judgmental or prying way, but there are probably more resourceful and meaningful ways to respond to a partner.

  • How you yourself feel: “After that tanda I feel like I could leave this milonga fully satisfied.” (Wow. If only.)
  • What you liked about the dance: “That felt so connected with the music.”
  • Chuckling, giggling, sighing, taking a deep breath, or squeezing at the right moment.
  • An open-ended question (but these are more suitable for between tanda discussions at the tables):
    What is important to you about tango?
    How did you become involved in tango?
    What do you enjoy about your tango community?
    What are you working on in your tango these days?

Don’t get me wrong! I’ll take compliments, even ambiguous ones, any way and any time I can. The compliments give helpful little lifts along life’s and tango’s journey.

Lead, Follow … err?

Adding to the overarching purpose of promoting creativity, resourcefulness, and excellence in teachers of Argentine tango, Two big themes played out at the Tango Teacher Coop (TTC) Minnesota Tango Camp http://tangoteachercoop.org/ this past June 12-15, 2014. (I see these themes also receiving a lot of attention in the Swing and Blues dance communities.)

The first big idea was that tango dancers, regardless of their preferred role, should learn to both lead and follow from the beginning.

Advanced students understand the value of having a good facility in both roles as an aid to learning. In this way you can directly fee what kind of inputs, from either role, provoke useful responses or awareness in your partner. Furthermore, Anything you can do, I can do better, as the song lyric goes. Though it may be stylized differently in each role, everything in tango is fair game for either role. That’s one of the things that makes Argentine tango such a richly creative ballroom dance.

Mitra Martin, a principal of Oxygen Tango School of Los Angeles http://oxygentango.com/, where they teach students both the lead and follow role from the beginning, made a highly effective case for this in her workshop session. We held brief mock “debates” on the propositions that “Leaders shouldn’t learn to follow” and “Followers shouldn’t learn to lead.” The principal non-silly pro argument was that these would slow everyone down and possibly confuse them. The con arguments (i.e., yes, teach both roles to everyone) involved learning faster and better, gaining creative options, and gaining empathy for your partner’s role. Mitra reported that at their school this approach doesn’t slow down the learning process, as everyone is learning faster even though they are learning both sides of the embrace.

The second big idea, closely related to the first one, was to give followers a bigger voice in the dance.

In today’s world of striving for equality, lots of followers and leaders feel that the notion of the follower submitting themselves to the will of the leader is antiquated and stifles creativity. One way of addressing this concern indirectly is for teachers to get away from role stereotypes, such as the gender-biased he and she, or even leader-follower, supposedly gender neutral but charged with the notions of controller and one being controlled.

I found myself enchanted with Brigitta Winkler’s http://brigittatango.de/ suggestion of Flow (follower) and Space (leader) as alternative terms. On reflection it struck me that one could view these states or qualities as flowing and exchanging between the partners over the course of a movement or figure. For example, as one partner flows about the space of the other in the circular movement of a molinete, if you aim the flow perpendicular (tangential) to the space, then you can flow with a sacada into the space they allow between their stepping legs.

That struck me as an interesting notion, but just as cumbersome as any textual depiction of dance movement. I got to thinking about forward/backward, left/right, inside/outside (of the embrace/of the line of dance circle?) — from which partner’s viewpoint? Then it occurred to me that by using the imperative mood (commands) with 2nd person you; and 3rd person plural they (which is gender-neutral and, despite what your high school teacher may have told you, grammatically correct with a singular subject) to refer to your partner, you don’t even need to refer to role.

  1. Lead your partner to a basic cross with you also ending crossed, right behind left.
  2. Leading a molinete around you CW (clockwise) …
  3. As they step out of the cross, you may tap with right behind for an adorno, then …
  4. Lead them across your path and somewhat away from you (instead of around and near you).
  5. They step with right, and you step with right into the space under their trailing shoulder for a sacada.
  6. In your new positions your right side continues pulling around your right, to …
  7. Lead them in an open (side) step to your right across your path, as …
  8. You step with left under their trailing shoulder for a second sacada.
  9. Parada: In your new positions you end your rotation, but allow them to continue somewhat and settle back on their right leg, as …
  10. You hold them in this position as you place your right foot alongside their extended foot.
  11. Sandwich their extended foot with your other foot, then bring them forward as you step back and settle on your right leg.
  12. Pasada: Allow them to pass over your extended foot.
  13. Pivot both to face torso-to-torso.

Well now that doesn’t seem like an improvement over any other method of textual depiction. Maybe this tabular idea from Oxygen Tango is easier:
http://www.oxygentango.com/news/2013/6/11/how-to-take-notes-on-tango-turns.html.

There was so much more, of course, in all the Teacher Training, Tango Classes, Instructional and Guided Practice, Panel Discussions, and Milongas. Led by the work, knowledge, experience, and creativity of Argentine tango teachers Homer & Cristina Ladas, Nick Jones & Diana Cruz, Jason Laughlin, Melanie Klaric, Tomás Howlin, Brigitta Winkler, and Mitra Martin, and produced by Sabine Ibes and a whole host of volunteers. (Go to http://tangoteachercoop.org/about/ to get on the mailing list for future announcements.)

My introduction to sacadas – class structures

Do you remember when you were first introduced to the concept of sacadas?

For me it was a figure starting from la cruzada, flowing in a molinete CW around your space; you tap behind before you give a X-system sacada, then a ||-sys sacada, ending in a parada, pasada. Whew!

Really!? Can’t you just imagine (or recall!) all the opportunities for creating bad habits and misunderstandings? This was in a class ranging from quite novice beginners who figure they’re smart enough and experienced enough in other dance so they can handle it (that was often me, alas, but in the absence of guidance otherwise …), to quite experienced dancers.

How could such a situation be handled so that everyone has a good chance to get started on the right foot? I have three big recommendations:

  1. Curricula with tested levels,
  2. The Montessori classroom method, and
  3. Doing hard parts first, in isolation.

1. Curricula with tested levels

Mitra Martin and her team at Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles have developed curricula and testing methods, and implement this methodology in a structured series of classes they call The Tango Challenge http://oxygentango.com/tangochallenge/. Can most, or even many other tango communities afford to implement level-restricted classes? Maybe not. But that doesn’t change the value of giving clear expectations for a student’s current level and HOW they can usefully, with good results, participate in more advanced classes. Which leads right into recommendation Two.

2. The Montessori classroom method

A key concept of the Montessori classroom is a mixture of different levels working in the same room but on different levels of activities, with the more advanced students helping the less advanced. Much like the one room school house in days of old.

I see huge resistance to this concept among tango teachers of all levels and in communities and workshops across this country and elsewhere. It often comes in the form of an explicit announcement that, “There is only ONE teacher in this class; if you have a question or problem you come to me!” This often has the chilling effect of squelching even feedback to your partner out of fear that it will be seen as ‘teaching’. So a couple muddles along or stands idly waiting for the teacher, even when the more advanced partner or some couple nearby could readily resolve a misunderstanding or missed point.

It feels to me as if teachers fear loss of authority and being held responsible for less than optimum or even outright wrong ‘instruction’. We can empathize with this viewpoint even if we don’t fully appreciate it. It seems, in a way, to hold both themselves and their students in less than high regard. Teachers can only control the direction and outcome of the class with rigid authority? Students can’t tell the difference between what some other student tells them and what comes from the master teacher?

3. Doing hard parts first, in isolation

I’m reading Guitar Playing and how it works by Peter Inglis of http://TheWholeGuitarist.com/ and that led me to Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang at http://PianoPractice.org/, where he points out that we want to start by practicing the difficult sections first. They are the hardest to learn, so they should get the most attention. (Instead of the typical procedure, where we start at the beginning of a sequence, flying or muddling through it until we hit a snag in the hard part, then repeat. The easy stuff gets the most practice, while the hard stuff gets memorized with its errors.)

We can simplify the hard parts by reducing them to just two steps: the really tricky bit – e.g., the step into the space between legs for the sacada – and the immediately preceding one. Then as we develop mastery and comfort we can build by adding steps to the beginning and end of the hard part.

This post with its strange mashup of concepts was inspired by two things. Last weekend I attended the Tango Teacher Coop (TTC) Minnesota Tango Camp http://TangoTeacherCoop.org/ where I learned interesting things about learning and teaching and thinking. Then just the other day I received an email from TangoForge http://TangoForge.com/ with their Procedural Postcard: How do to a Sacada, a simple graphic with four parts:

  1. Flex base leg’s hip and knee joints.
  2. Mark the Revel’s [Follower’s] projection perpendicular to Mark’s [Leader’s] intended step.
  3. Transfer simultaneously by extending joints of base legs.
  4. Relax embrace to arrive at new base before next pivot.

So, what kind of step do you need to start a sacada? Basically anything will do – forward, backward, side, front cross, back cross – so long as it is projected across – i.e., somewhat perpendicular to – the partner’s path. Furthermore, that projection can be created with either partner: either lead them across your path, or pivot so that your projection lies across their path.

The important considerations in my mind for a sacada involve:

  • Projecting your partner’s or your path perpendicular to each other.
  • Flexion of each partner’s support leg to create space to enter and driving force.
  • Signaling to partner, both with the projection and with “holding down or in place” so as to give time and space to enter.
  • Stepping inside the partner’s base leg, under the shoulder of that leg – an aiming point you can see without needing to look at feet.
  • Stepping with full weight onto that new base leg, displacing partner, and in effect changing places with them. I.e., your new base leg is now (approximately) where their old base leg was.
  • Flexibility in the embrace so that the partner’s slide in each other’s arms as they assume the new torso-to-torso orientation.

It seems to me that that is plenty to learn in isolation, without all the complication of entrance and exit sequences. Yes, if your class has mixed levels of experience, after covering the pure principles of the sacada, one can give easy entrances (an over-pivoted forward ocho, for example), and harder ones, such as the one that opened this article. And since you don’t have a whole class that has to learn a lengthy sequence in lock-step with each other, you can encourage and help the quicker students to explore, discovering their own ways of putting the sacada into what they already know or can invent.

That’s one of the ways I think learning should work.