Category Archives: Practice

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

What does your phantom practice partner look like?

What does your phantom practice partner look like?

Taller, shorter? How big around? Do they step big or small?

I wasted so much time and so many opportunities early in my dance career because I suffered from the notion that I needed a partner to practice my couples dancing.

There are (at least) two types of solo practice: technique and “partner”.

In technique practice you don’t concern yourself with a partner. You are working purely on posture, quality of stepping, pivoting, use of body spirals, alignment, lines, balance, specific moves (boleos to front and back, enrosques, (what do you call those tiny crossing steps to front and back?), and …).

In “partner” practice solo you are practicing dancing, without music if you are working strictly on quality of movement, with music if working on musicality, creativity, and quality of movement. In this work you “visualize” and “feel” an imaginary—but as real as your senses can make it—partner. It should be so real that an onlooking person of imagination and empathy can also visualize the imaginary partner in your embrace. You will treat this partner just as you would a real one, with the difference that you can idealize their dancing qualities.

That idealizing does not, however, mean that you can disregard what your dancing does to them. Paradoxically, you may find yourself even more aware of your movement as you expand your awareness of how your partner needs to move. For example, did you just lead that step around you, into you, or away from you? Which did you really want?

Make your phantom partner real, to you, and to onlookers. Your phantom partner is wonderful. They are always ready to work when you are, and they can keep up with you and go as long as you can. Treat them well.

Qualities on a continuous scale

Often we think of others or ourselves as either having something right or not having it. That guy’s musical or unmusical. Her embrace feels stiff or loose. My balance it good or terrible. My dancing tonight is “on” or “off”.

Old control panel with a single dial gauge and many knobs and switches

Vintage Electronic Control Panel

Rarely, it seems, do we recognize that we have a whole range of values available, and we can dial in our controls to get closer and closer to what we feel is the ideal value for the particular circumstance.

For example, stand on one leg and allow yourself to do anything that seems useful to get more and more rooted to the floor, so that nothing a partner does can upset your balance. Get creative – you have lots of parts, physical and mental, available to you. You could touch a toe of the other foot to the floor. Even put your whole foot down, or not. You could sink your hip into the standing leg so that most of your weight concentrates over that one spot. You could move your arms out like a tightrope walker’s pole.

Okay, now for fun, first maybe switch to your other foot if this one feels tired. This time, make your balance as weak as you can. Make it so you are barely balanced at all, so that the slightest thing could upset you entirely.

Ask yourself, do you ever find yourself at one extreme or the other? How often? How often do your find yourself somewhere in the middle? Have you explored what you can do in your body to move your balance in one direction – more stable – and away from another direction – less stable? Do you practice solo?

Do you practice in ways that challenge your balance? For example, in high heels, in shoes and not in shoes, in unusual positions such as with one leg lifted high in some direction, on different surfaces, while moving in different directions, on one foot for an entire song?

Here’s why that idea of a range of values is so important. If a person says to themselves, “My balance is terrible” (in effect, that they “have” no or poor balance), they are, in effect, giving themselves an excuse to not practice and to continue having poor balance. “Hey, it’s not my fault; it’s just an innate quality that I don’t have. Sorry.” Versus, “My balance isn’t yet where I’d like, but I see it improving little by little [and it’s probably more than even a little] with regular practice.”

With a continuous scale (instead of a yes/no switch), we also entertain the idea that there is always room to improve. Instead of “I am/am not what I want,” you have “I am getting ever closer to where I want to go, and it’s fun/hard work/interesting/time-consuming/amusing to do the things I need to improve, and it’s rewarding/challenging/enticing/uplifting/satisfying to see the changes over time.”

¡Felices caminando!

Delayed Continuity games

Now here are a couple of little games for your next practice with a partner that might make for a little fun and spark some new awareness.

1) Leader takes a pause, then the follower chooses what follows … which might be nothing at all!

For example, the leader gives a parada then leads the follower up to the blocking foot (DID they actually lead that?). Among many possible things the follower could do are:
a) Step back where they were.
b) Step in any possible, desired direction.
c) Pivot and sandwich the leader’s foot.
d) Step and barrida the leader’s foot.
e) Do multiple things.
f) Do nothing and wait for leader to lead.

2) Follower forces pauses on the leader at random, or possibly at *significant* moments in the dance. Once it is clear that pause has occurred, let the leader take it from there. (Do you know how to force a pause? Who can you ask? What do you do when the leader is about to run into somebody?)

1. Follower, does the exercise (either one) make you feel more inclined to wait for a lead, less so, or something else altogether?
2. Leader, what do you feel in that instant before you decide to create a pause? What do you feel as you wait for a pause to play out? What do you feel when the follower forces (asks?) you to make a pause? During the pause? After the pause?
3. Follower and leader, how long must a pause be before a follower has permission to use it? How short can a pause be and have usefulness? How long must the follower’s “inaction” be before the leader chooses to continue?
4. How do these pauses affect your balance?
5. How short must a pause be so you, your partner, onlookers still perceive a flow between movements?
6. Where, or maybe how, do you feel a difference between a pause of uncertainty and one of mastery?
7. How long must the pauses be between words you speak so that the words are still perceived as well formed? How long can the pause be before listeners think your speech pattern odd?

For further study: INDIRECT PROCEDURES: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique by Pedro De Alcantara. Page 202, Delayed Continuity.

Shoulder-in exercise

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

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

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

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

Damian Thompson – The Walking Drill, Argentine Tango

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpted from the book:

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

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

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


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