Category Archives: Class notes

Giving and Receiving Feedback With Your Practice Partner (including Yourself!)

Giving and Receiving Feedback With Your Practice Partner (including Yourself!)
by David Phillips and Stephen Shortnacy, April 6, 2015

Ideal feedback—the hot stove. Immediate, Unambiguous, Consistent, No value judgement.

Master skills to drive your own learning.
Get feedback—Defending, Attacking, Withdrawing versus mining for the gold.
Give feedback—Blaming, Complaining, Theorizing versus giving the real good.
Both giving and receiving feedback take practice to do well.

Yes, make feedback:

  • immediate
  • observation
  • clear
  • simple
  • focused on the solution
  • test immediately
  • test from the same place!
  • reflect on later

NO, don’t make feedback:
focused on the error
continue as you were
evaluated and discussed

Receiving: Defending, Attacking, Withdrawing versus mining for the gold.
Giving: Blaming, Complaining, Theorizing versus giving the real good.

GAME: Calibration.
True observations, false observations, judgements.

GAME: Skill development: seizing your axis with every step.
Make feedback fast and frequent. Reset for each trial. Apply feedback immediately.

TIME OUT: I’m feeling (overwhelmed, confused, tired, irritable, distracted, hungry). Let’s put a hold on feedback for now. Or, Let’s wait for the teacher.


Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg

Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen

Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, Katie Yezzi

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 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.]

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.

My lesson plan. Part 1

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

Approach to taking lessons

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

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

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

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

To be continued . . .

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


Javier Rochwarger: A leading follower

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

Javier Rochwarger

Javier Rochwarger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Linked forward sacadas to back ochos

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

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

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

Left, right sacada to barrida

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

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


Learn By Doing: The experiential learning model

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

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

Depiction of the five step Experiential Learning Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changes of direction

To my taste in tango, “simple” changes of direction can be some of the more interesting and elegant things we do. I’m talking about changes of direction within the framework of stepping, whether in the context of walking, mostly, or even any step within a figure. The benefits are the variety of feeling and direction they give, they way they facilitate moving into and out of spaces on the floor, and the opportunity they give to observe the space around the couple.

Changes of direction can be simple not only in apparent effect, but also more simple in execution, without needing an advanced understanding of physics, geometry, and timing that things like sacada, colgada, volcado, and gancho require. But the effect can still leave an observer wondering, “What just happened with their feet?” Furthermore, changes of direction can be done all in close embrace, and they are safer than moves with flying limbs.

A step — the moment a foot commits to the floor — is a wonderful kind of thing. Sure, there are lots of things to think about, appreciate, and do in the moments leading up to a step and departing from a step, but in that moment of contact, arrived at with some amount of inertial energy to be managed, there are so many interesting possibilities.

One can conserve the energy, letting it continue in the same direction, or the energy can serve to load the muscles and make them rebound, sending the energy back in a direction from which it came.  The linear energy across the floor can be converted into rotary energy in the form of a pivot that can be either over-rotated or under-rotated, depending on the desired effect and navigation across la pista. (I learned a great deal about managing inertia from Luciano Brigante and Alejandra Orozco. The bad follower exercise was a lot of fun.)

Imagine, or better yet, grab a partner and try, all the possibilities that can flow out of the 8-count basic. (So much, even, as to make it unrecognizable as an 8-count basic.)

  • To begin with, the Count #1 side open starting step can be taken in practically 360° of different direction. Indeed, as a starting point for your experimentation, put on some music and under or over turn every single step of the 8-count basic as you perform the pattern repeatedly. After a pivot you can also include a rebound, where you collect the energy of a step, using part of it to pivot, and part of it to help push off in a new direction.
  • You can place yourself outside, in front of, or inside your partner.
  • Parallel or cross-system stepping.
  • Parallel or cross-system direction. Cross-system direction is where you send the follower in one direction while you move in a different direction.

Now here is one technical detail to be aware of. In many situations you may both be pivoting in parallel by the same amount, with no special consideration required. But in many other instances one of you will be orbiting about the other partner. The partner inside the circle — sometimes the leader, sometimes the follower — will be like the axle, and the circling partner will be like the wheel laid flat on the floor. The axle must make a tighter, smaller turn than the wheel. If you are the axle it may mean that your step is a hook behind the standing leg to minimize the distance you cover, or even only a pivot on the standing leg. Whereas when you are the wheel on the outside of the circle, you may need to step beyond the follower so that you keep them in the center of the wheel.

Note, too, how this approach could be seen to simplify musicality considerations. In essence every figure boils down to an open or cross step, a close, and a pivot (which can be zero degrees). So rather than worrying how your pattern will fit within, or multiple patterns across, a phrase, you are “merely” concerned with observing and respecting the beginning and ending of phrases, and with seeing that your step-pivots within the phrase reflect the music in some way (cadence, size, dynamics, etc.).

These class notes are what prompted me to think further on this theme . . .

April 23rd, Kara Wenham and Javier Antar completed the last week of a month of classes as guests of UT Tango In Orange. This workshop was on redirecting her steps. Any time she takes a step, if he has good position with his feet forming a triangle on the floor with her stepping foot, then he can turn that step into a pivot, including an overturned pivot, or into a rock back in the opposite direction.

First example, he leads her into back ocho to his right, and as she steps back he steps forward on his right to follow her leg from the front. He and she pivot clockwise so that he now backs line of dance. Then he rocks her to a forward cross, stepping beside him with her right leg. As she steps he collects and pivots clockwise, returning to line of dance, and finally changing weight to his right foot to prepare to walk out.

Second example, again he leads her into a back ocho to his right, but this time he steps BEHIND her, blocking her from closing and rocking her to go back forward. This was also demonstrated to the left, open side – harder, and in cadena (chained) fashion with alternating left and right figures.

Last example, starting her molinete to his left, she steps back cross, side open, forward cross. On that last, forward cross step, he steps side open and slightly forward, blocking her, then leads her back the way she came, with back cross, side open, forward to his right, while he hooks his right foot behind left to help with opening his right side to get out of her way and lead her in that direction.

The lesson also included alternate timings. Straight S, S, S timing. For example one, the reversed ocho, 1-3-1, S to enter, Q Q to exit. The molinete, Q Q S, Q Q S.

Felices caminando!

Redirecting follower steps

Uploaded on Apr 24, 2013

April 23rd, Kara Wenham and Javier Antar completed the last week of a month of classes as guests of UT Tango In Orange. This workshop was on redirecting her steps. Any time she takes a step, if he has good position with his feet forming a triangle on the floor with her stepping foot, then he can turn that step into a pivot, including an overturned pivot, or into a rock back in the opposite direction.

First example, he leads her into back ocho to his right, and as she steps back he steps forward on his right to follow her leg from the front. He and she pivot clockwise so that he now backs line of dance. Then he rocks her to a forward cross, stepping beside him with her right leg. As she steps he collects and pivots clockwise, returning to line of dance, and finally changing weight to his right foot to prepare to walk out.

Second example, again he leads her into a back ocho to his right, but this time he steps BEHIND her, blocking her from closing and rocking her to go back forward. This was also demonstrated to the left, open side – harder, and in cadena (chained) fashion with alternating left and right figures.

Last example, starting her molinete to his left, she steps back cross, side open, forward cross. On that last, forward cross step, he steps side open and slightly forward, blocking her, then leads her back the way she came, with back cross, side open, forward to his right, while he hooks his right foot behind left to help with opening his right side to get out of her way and lead her in that direction.

The lesson also included alternate timings. Straight S, S, S timing. For example one, the reversed ocho, 1-3-1, S to enter, Q Q to exit. The molinete, Q Q S, Q Q S.

Notes from Daniela Arcuri’s Master Class 4/24/2013

Tonight’s class by Daniela Arcuri covered the milonga dance space and how to move through it in a way that works with the flow of traffic while producing a dance that is varied and interesting, and reflects the music.


The dance space at a milonga is organized as one or more concentric oval tracks (much like a horse race track) running counter-clockwise around the perimeter of the dance floor bounded by the tables at the edge of the floor. A tiny space, such as a house milonga, may have only one track, but most spaces will have two tracks, one inside the other, and very large, very crowded spaces may have even more. In the very center, away from the people circulating around the room, you may find people dancing nuevo or other open patterns requiring more space. Generally the more skilled dancers will be in the outside track, nearest the tables, so they can be seen by spectators (and it gives them the longest track).

The width of the track will shrink or grow according to the size of the space and according to what other dancers are doing around you at any time, but it is roughly two or three couples across.

At all times you are expected to maintain your position within the track (unlike a horse race) between the couple ahead of you and the couple behind you. (When you enter the dance floor with a song in progress, seek to catch the eye of the leader of the couple you want to get in front of. A savvy leader will either avoid your look if they don’t want you in front, or they will nod in agreement.) Don’t crowd the couple ahead of you, and don’t lag behind so that you create a traffic jam behind you. It helps when dancers on the floor share a musical sensibility and move similarly.

The music is composed generally of 8 count phrases, and often two 8-count phrases – a call and response – will make up longer 16 count phrases. A couple might expect to make only one complete circuit of the floor in the time of an entire song, or a quarter – one side – of the room in four 8 counts.


The couples move generally in a counter-clockwise direction around the track. This is called the line of dance. But they vary this by dancing in a zig-zag back and forth across the path, and even moving for brief times against the line of dance, or they may be somewhat stationary – momentarily – in the track as they execute some pattern, such as a parada/pasada, or they may be making a circle within the path, as for a molinete.

In all the travel: walking, pivoting, standing, circling; the leader, perhaps assisted by the follower in a very crowded or hazardous situation, must seek to ensure that the space into which they want to move is open and likely to remain open while they move into it. They are aided in this by orienting themselves initially to face outside the track towards the tables. In this way the leader has an easy 180+ degree view to the open side of the embrace. Then as they zig-zag across and along the path, and circle, they can observe and make use of spaces that become available to the sides and behind them.


Rather than facing straight down the track and moving in that direction, your force variety and give yourself better opportunities to observe traffic by moving in a zig-zag fashion across and down the track. This gives you opportunities to observe the traffic all around your couple, and opportunities to present your couple in a variety of orientations.


Even with only a basic 8-count pattern one can create dynamic angles throughout the pattern. Every step is an opportunity to pivot and reorient the couple to a greater or lesser angle from a square box pattern. The pivot can be a dynamic movement with the step using its inertia, or even a subtle shifting in place after stepping, perhaps accompanied by weight changes.


Molinetes, calesitas (carousel), colgadas, overturned pivots, walking in a circle. Use these to both the left, open side, and the right, closed side for variety and interest. Use zig-zags and all the other elements to allow you to observe and clear the space you will move into when circling right.


Use pauses, both to help express the music, and as a tool to help keep a good connection with your partner. Use a pause whenever necessary to reset your embrace, your connection with your partner, your attention to the music, your awareness of the room and its traffic — whatever. You don’t have to wait for a pause in the music to take a pause. Some elegant milongueros will reset everything with the beginning of each phrase of the music, or after a pattern.


Different altura (height, levels) of the couple, or even just one of a couple: High – fully erect with straight legs, low – bent knees, working into the floor, and in between make for more interesting variety, help express the music, and in many cases help execute a movement. For examples, in a calesita you want her high on one foot so that she has a small axis and pivots easily; a volcada starts high to unweight and free one leg, then goes lower to swing her leg forward, and finishes coming up again; a boleo might start low and end high with a leg wrap.


In very general terms, slower music can call for larger steps, while faster music may require shorter steps to keep on a beat. But in tango the step size might also be used to express some quality of the music. Perhaps a light, high sound would evoke small steps, while a booming sounds calls for a grander step. Except for milonga and vals music, which do have significant beats, the beat in a tango can be subtle and difficult to find, a singer may not follow the beat, and the tempo may increase or slow. Also, a dancer may take one, two, three, or four beats to execute a step. So the beat in tango can inform but does not dictate when to step.


Is the music loud, soft, high, low, complex, simple? Tango music is sophisticated and generally has many parts and sounds. A dancer can’t possibly express everything in the music in their body. There is too much going on. So, choose an instrument to follow for some portion of a song, or the melodic part, or the rhythmic part, then use the dynamics of your movement to express what that musical component is saying to you. Hard, soft, legato, staccato, complex, simple, fast, slow, high, low, happy, mournful, angry, sad, elegant, rough.


Using only a few simple elements, such as the cross, the tap, and the circle, experiment with where you can add these. Do they help express the music? Do they help facilitate a movement? Do they serve to give a visual lead?


Before a milonga make notes of a handful of things from the above list and any other that interests you, then before a tanda select just one of those things that you want to focus on. As you get better, and as an element becomes a natural part of your dancing, you can add additional elements.