Author Archives: David Phillips

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.

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.

Summary

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.

Tango foundations – the supporting leg

Practice session notes on mirror with dry erase marker.

Practice session notes on mirror with dry erase marker.

Notes from a solo practice session with three people.

Play a song with a strong, slow beat. Step on every other beat (or half time or double-time or any timing that respects the beat) in any direction, moving around the room as you feel moved by the music, cataloging anything you observe about the movements. Conclude by reviewing together what you observed.

A key feature of tango is standing on one leg – the supporting leg, with the other leg relaxed and hanging freely – the free leg, under our hip. (Yes, at advanced levels we see weight split between legs for special purposes.) A foundational skill for us is to move from a supporting leg, in a large or small movement in any direction across the floor, projecting our body onto and over the new standing leg. Imagine moving across a stream onto small stepping stones big enough for just one foot.

With a strong foundation of moving and rooting to the floor with each step, we can build many capabilities.

Three tango tips **

#1. Our “infinite axis” is like a guitar string that extends through our bodies, down through the central mass of our standing leg down into the earth to the center, and up through our head into the sky.

Imagine the inside of the front of your rib cage over your big toe. Upper body regally, proudly erect, head upright and chin tucked. Lower body supple and feeling heavy into the floor.

Body settles into hip on supporting leg side, creating slight curve into that direction.

Body settles into hip on supporting leg side, creating slight curve into that direction.

#2. Our free leg might be visualized as two long cylinders, the calf hooked into the thigh and the thigh hooked into the hips, with free swinging hooks. This creates a leg that is loose and supple, fully relaxed, without muscles holding it straight or in any position. It is simply hanging below our hip. This has the effect of causing us to sink into the hip of the standing leg, so that seen from the front or back, the whole body forms a slight “C” shape into that hip, bringing the body mass into balance over the standing foot.

#3. Our muscular-neural wiring connects our elbow and the free leg on that side. Our elbows want to be relaxed downward into the ground, AND positioned in front of our hips. Try this experiment. Stand on one leg with relaxed hip, the free leg hanging down. With your elbow on the side of the free leg pointing down and in front of your hip, circle it, move it to and fro. Do you find that your hanging leg seems to want to follow the movement of the elbow?

This time apply these tips as you move to the music in any direction over the floor. Conclude by reviewing what we observed this time.

Our bodies are built for going forward. Our “stand” – the feet – has more projection in front of us than behind us. Nature expects us to lean forward into the walk, and this is true even when going backward! We don’t lead with our back or else we’ll tend to tip over in short clunky steps. Instead we maintain our forward lean, release and reach backward with the free leg, then push off with the standing leg to land fully over the new standing leg.

Mindful Practice principles

o Immediate corrections

When you observe that a movement does not finish as you intended, back up to the beginning of the movement, or even the preceding movement. Analyze what went wrong, or try it different ways until you discover what produces the desired result. Repeat the good way several times to lock it in.

o Spaced repetition

Rather than a singe practice session each week, a number of shorter sessions, even it it’s less total time, will yield greater results. Studies suggest that ten minutes between three shorter practice sessions yield more results than one long session.

Incorporating practice into our daily lives. Does it make sense that during our daily going about living that we would be able to walk in a mindful way occasionally? What kind of trigger can you find in your environment – you’re letting the dog in or out, an ad comes on TV, you’re shopping (what do you care what people think; maybe you can interest someone in Argentine tango). You find a trigger that will repeatedly during the week cause you to mindfully and purposefully, fixing mistakes, PRACTICE, even if briefly.

Reviewing our observations.

Collecting the legs together is not something the free leg “needs to do” with muscle power. It happens automatically as we bring our weight to the central axis of our standing leg. When we fully arrive over our new standing leg, our freely hanging free leg will collect underneath us. (If the free leg does not follow directly to the new standing leg, it will pull you off balance.)

We must use enough energy pushing off with our supporting leg so that all of our mass arrives fully over our new supporting leg, but not so much that we go past the balance point.

Exaggerating a movement can help you appreciate all that you need to do to fully create that movement. So, for example, try pushing off with way too much energy and see how it pushes you past the balance point. Then tone it down.

Start dissociation with the shoulder NOT the arms. (Some teachers say that the rotational movement should be visualized as starting in the spine.)

Pushing off with the supporting leg requires that the core muscles be activated.

A final movement practice, then conclude with a review of what we’ve learned.

Using checklists. Evaluate only the “meters” NOT yourself. You are simply a learning being who starts at any given point and who gradually or quickly, easily or with much practice, steadily or in fits and starts, you learn in the way that best suits who you are.

You seek to keep the meters at their optimum setting, and when you notice you are off you make corrections to bring them back into line.

The only judgement that serves you is when you find the performance of a particular movement didn’t meeting your expectations, you immediately review what was going on just prior to that movement. What can you change about the lead up to your movement that will produce a higher quality result?

Trust your body’s native intelligence. Trust your body’s muscle memory. If you are not yet able to do a thing, it can mean either that you haven’t given your body enough time to learn it through mindful practice, or perhaps your mental processes are interfering.

An observation is not a criticism. Sometimes we can discover things for ourselves, and other times we can benefit from an outside view.

Ideas and new learning take root, in a small way, and grow as they are tended.

Let it flow, calmly. It is good to make a judgement about how well a movement matched your target. It is BAD to make judgements about your body’s ability to learn or how fast it learns.

Tiny victories count. They add up. Focus on and build on the successes not the failures.

Trust the body’s native intelligence to grow the seedlings you are planting.

[** Although Helaine Treitman’s websites http://helainetreitmantango.com/ may have a whiff of salacious low-brow marketing, her free “9 Surprising Tango Tips for Men” {useful for leader AND follower, actually} is worth signing up for.]

Act as if

Milonga de Apertura - Centro De Exposiciones - Tango Buenos Aires Festival y Mundial

On returning home from two and a half weeks in Buenos Aires – a sort of celebration of the second anniversary of my new “career” in Argentine tango, I’ve received sweet, kind compliments (even if sometimes sounding, justifiably, somewhat backhanded) from lovely dance partners. You feel like you’re dancing more like your true self. You’re dancing so much better; you must have learned a lot in Buenos Aires.

That last one got me thinking. Well, yes, I did take some wonderful classes at Escula DNI Tango, and the Tango Milonguero workshop with Susana Miller in Houston shortly before leaving was valuable preparation. But what did I really learn in Buenos Aires that seemed to create a dramatic difference, enough so that people would want to comment on it.

I feel that it was at the Buenos Aires milongas where I learned to start trusting myself and enjoying myself more. There, I was an unknown quantity, taken as is  for a fresh evaluation. Now, as an experienced dancer with lots of lessons and miles under my feet, I was no longer the awkward, hesitant, unsure beginner who tormented followers in Austin who had light-years more experience and skills. I’ll be forever grateful to the followers who can relax into making every tanda a pleasant one, even with a bumbling beginner. That kept me going.

The people at Buenos Aires milongas were looking for and expecting to enjoy a deliciously warm embrace while moving to the music in a delightful way. And for my part, I sought to act as if I was just the person to give them the best of what they were hoping for. Happily, oh so happily, we all achieved our desires not only rarely, or even just a few times, but many times, most of the time. I met women from around the world, and porteñas, where it felt like I’d been dancing with them my entire life.

Tragedy-Comedy masks

I have a dear friend – who, alas, slouches — bad posture. One time I suggested that they act as if they were a military officer, carrying themselves with a proud, erect bearing. They said, no, they couldn’t do that because it would seem fake; they wanted to present their true selves. Well what are we doing if not acting throughout our lives? The difference is that some choose better roles, juicier parts with more chance to shine.

As the NLP presuppositions tell us, you cannot not communicate. So do we choose a role that says I’m large and in charge, or do we default to a bit part that says I’m small, and I don’t care what you think about how I look.

Now sure, we may not have all the technical tools, understandings, and experience to truly and fully occupy our chosen role. But if we are working diligently on acquiring those things, and we observe outstanding models of what we want to be, then we use our sense of empathy to feel inside the way those examples make us feel. Today’s Internet world gives us so many good opportunities to explore, find, and observe role models.

How do we go about modeling a master tanguero? Setting aside technical issues of pattern, movement, placement, and timing — things we look to our teachers and classes for, then what do we have? Well clearly they are in charge, masters of the situation, with no hesitancy or doubt about what they want to achieve. Every step has clear intention behind it. Every moment has connection paramount in importance. They know who they are and they know their partner knows.

But wait! What about that last part, with those partners who knew you in the dismal days? You write a new Act is what you do. While you honor and respect the person, the dancer you were, with good and bad parts, who got you where you are now, you also recognize that this is your Second Act, where you are creating experiences of yourself with your partners, not of who you were, or even of who you are now sometimes, but rather acting as if you are already the great dancer you are becoming.

Pasos felices,
  –David

Nothing but the cross

 

La Cruzada

La Cruzada

Monday night at Tango In Orange, the first class of a beginner series, Avi and Marina introduced la cruzada in a way—a highly effective way—that I’ve not seen before. (Avi attributes it to Kara Wenham and Javier Antar.) It seemed to have several benefits.

After introducing and practicing weight changes, walking to/fro and side-to-side, and rocking I think, they then introduced the cross something like this, While walking forward, as the leader is takes a step with the left leg, instead of stepping directly ahead and underneath the follower, step forward and slightly left right of your left side track in a “gorilla walk” fashion, with left arm, side, and leg stepping together sideways down the left track. This is done  Then as you lead the follower to take the next step back with their left leg (your right), you bring the follower’s body — still matching and parallel to yours — back in front of you. Since you the leader previously displaced yourself slightly to your left of the follower the follower’s right leg to their left track, and since they have weight on their left right foot and can’t move it, the only way for them to line up in front of you again is to cross their left leg over the right. Then in the next step when they uncross by stepping back on the right leg, everything lines up again.

Benefits: This exercise and explanation introduces the cross as a functional movement rather than as some arbitrary part of a fixed figure, the eight count basic. I have actually heard teachers say, “This is just a rule, whenever the leader takes a second step to the outside on your right, you cross; they can take as many steps as they want on the closed side and you never cross.” Never?! Maybe that explains why some followers will actively resist crossing right over left. Why do I want to have them make a weird cross on that side? Just because I can … or should be able to. Similarly, Always?! Many followers always cross with your second step on the open side even if they are not lead to one. Perfectly legal and useful movements are foreclosed by teaching the cross as an arbitrary rule.

More benefits: Since there’s no set placement or timing of the various leaders’ use of that left step, followers aren’t developing the horrible habit of following the teacher instead of following their leader. And, leader and follower get the idea of movements as atomic units that they can creatively combine in many ways. Plus, it gets right to the essential and basic cross without the added complication of walking outside and contra body movement.

Hurray for understanding. Down with rules. Rules, especially in tango, are made to be broken.

Queer tango milonga

Same sex couple dancing tango

Gay Tango in San Telmo

The Tango Queer milonga in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires gave me food for thought, and I enjoyed my dances there. The composition of the dancing couples seemed to include every combination of gay, straight, male, female, lead, follow, young and old. I saw seemingly committed same-sex couples that appeared to have defined roles whenever they were dancing together, but when asked or asking to dance outside their couple, they danced both roles.

Here the traditional Argentine cabeceo — asking from a distance with a head nod — didn’t seem to be observed. So I went right up to the person who looked to me to be the best lead dancer, and coincidentally and helpfully, the tallest dancer in the room, and was pleased when he accepted my invitation without hesitation. It was my hope to find good leaders (regardless of sex) who could teach me something about the dance and musicality by feeling it from the other side.

Tangos are danced in tandas or sets of three songs for vals and milonga rhythms and four songs for tangos. We followed the formula that seemed to prevail throughout the room, where the person asking for the dance leads on the first song, then they alternate the lead with each song.

The thing that made the biggest impression on me was that everyone danced both lead and follow. Some of the dancers in nontraditional-according-to-sex roles were exceedingly good.

The experience gave strong support to my thesis that: a) Anybody, regardless of sex, should be free to pursue whatever roles they desire — of course! And b) Everyone can benefit, not only in understanding of their primary role choice, but also in understanding of others, by learning and dancing both roles.

Posters seen at Claire School of Dance

Before class checklist for ballet students

Before class checklist for ballet students

In the Susana Miller workshop on Argentine tango in the milonguero style over the July 20-21, 2013 weekend we simplified our movement patterns to the utmost for the sake of perfecting our partner connection. Then we had wonderful opportunities at house milongas to try these tight, small space movements about our partner in conditions simulating the crowding at Buenos Aires milongas.

The small, constrained, intense connect of the milonguero style made for an interesting contrast with the posters festooning the walls of the pleasant dance studio that serves the Claire School of Dance in Houston. These posters, speaking to ballet dancers, also spoke to me of creativity, and as a rich source of ideas for interpreting music.

“Schottische” and Argentine tango … really?! Yeah, some of it requires a stretch, but it’s a mean sort of imagination that doesn’t find some form of inspiration for interpretation with the incredible diversity and richness of tango music informing these concepts.

As my musicality education continues, and my familiarity with orchestras and songs increases, I’d like to revisit this and supply some examples. In the meanwhile, I’ll use it as a source of inspiration for playfulness over patterns.

The Concept of Movement 

   Locomotor
        Basic
            Walk          Slide
            Run           Skip
            Jump          Crawl
            Hop           Roll
            Leap          Etcetera
            Gallop

        Combined
            Step-hop      Schottische
            Waltz run     Jop
            Prance        Slither
            Two-step      Creep
            Grapevine     Etcetera

    Non-locomotor
        Bend            Punch         Rise
        Twist           Dodge         Sink
        Stretch         Kick          Burst
        Swing           Poke          Wiggle
        Push            Lift          Curve
        Pull            Flick         Curl
        Fall            Float         Lunge
        Melt            Glide         Stash
        Sway            Press         Dab
        Turn            Wring         Etcetera
        Spin            Shake

The Concept Of Time
    Speed
        Fast / Slow
    Rhythm
        Pulse / Pattern / Breath

The Concept Of Space
    Place
        Self space / General space
    Size
        Big / Small
        Far reach / Near reach
    Level
        High / Low
        (Transitioning upward, downward)
    Direction
        Foward / Backward
        Right / Left, Up / Down
        (Diagonal)
    Pathway
        Curved / Straight / Zigzag
    Focus
        Single focus / Multi focus
        (Intense / Soft / Unfocused)

The Concept Of Force
    Energy
        Sharp (sudden)
        Smooth (sustained)
    Weight
        Strong / Light
    Flow
        Free / Bound

The Concept of Form
    Recurring theme
        Theme in variation / Canon / Round
    ABA'
        A = one phrase, B = another phrase, A' = a variant of A
    Abstract
        Non-representational
    Narrative
        In the form of a story
    Suite
        Moderate beginning / Slow center / Fast end
    Broken form
        Unrelated ideas

The Concept of Body
    Parts
        Head (Forehead, eyes,     Spine
        ears, mouth, lips,        Pelvis
        tongue, cheeks)           Hips
        Neck                      Legs
        Shoulders                 Knees
        Arms                      Ankles
        Elbows                    Feet
        Wrists                    Toes
        Hands                     Heels
        Fingers                   Etcetera
        (Thorax, ribs, belly)
        Trunk
    Shapes
        Curved / Straight
        Angular / Twisted
        Symmetrical / Asymmetrical
        (Sharp / Dull)
    Relationships
        Body parts to body parts
        Body parts to objects
        Individuals to groups
        Individuals and groups to objects
        Near / Far / Meeting / Parting
        Alone / Connected
        Mirroring / Shadowing
        Unison / Contrast, Over / Under
        Above / Below, On / Off
        Around / Through, In / Out
        Beside / Between
        Gathering / Scattering
    Balance
        On balance / Off balance
    (Tension
        Soft / Firm / Rigid)
    (Movement
        Staccato / Legato)

(I've suggested additions in parentheses.)
Three Things a Dancer Brings to Class

Three things a dancer brings to class:
+ Attention
+ Patience
+ Courage

 

Pasos felices,
–David

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

http://cheekygirlsproductions.com

110 min.

We cover such topics as:

Pacing your performance

Spatial awareness

Direction change

Body line

Level change

Floor patterns

Tempo change

Repetition

Variation

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. http://britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/189111/envelope 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).

Intensity

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. http://buddhisma2z.com/content.php?id=274 http://find-happiness.com/monkey-mind.html.

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!]

Arms

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. http://dancemagazine.com/issues/February-2010/Break-Your-Bad-Habits-The-Shoulders http://helenavlahos.com/tips_detail.html?id=6]

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].

Poses

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 http://tejastango.com/dance_improvis.html 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,

–David

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.

Travel.

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