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 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 and that led me to Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang at, 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 where I learned interesting things about learning and teaching and thinking. Then just the other day I received an email from TangoForge 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.

2 thoughts on “My introduction to sacadas – class structures

  1. David Phillips Post author

    What a wonderful response, Mari, and thank you so much for taking the time for this thoughtful detail. All of your points are right on target, and I particularly like the imagery – that I myself strive to employ – of the Buddhist philosophy of the empty cup.

    There can be no question that the teacher *is* the one authority and deserving of respect and attention at all times. (It annoys me considerably when people want to whisper to me while the teacher is talking. It distracts me and others from giving full attention, so I signal for them to desist.)

    Definitely “experienced” does not equate to “advanced” (the term I use), and moreover, just as you say, a novice can be capable of making an insightful and helpful observation.

    “Observation” is a key term in this discussion. Tango, and indeed, teaching and learning, are such deep subjects, fraught with so many layers of interpretation and understanding, that whole books may leave people confused or arguing, much more so brief thought pieces such as my article.

    So “I”-based (and eye- and feel-based) objective reality based observations from a partner or helper are the key, *not* “teaching” from anyone not in the role of teacher for each particular class.

    I feel two big things are needed in a series of on-going tango classes in a school. (Maybe not as applicable to workshop or festival classes where mixed groups come and go.)

    One. Instruct your class on how to give and receive and use feedback from a partner or helper.

    Two. Develop a curriculum based program of advancement where, as in martial arts teachings, one is expected to advance – while always remaining a learner – through a *merit* based series of higher responsibilities that include helping less advanced students, assistant teaching, and teaching.

    I am interested in developing teaching materials in both of these areas: curricula and feedback, and I welcome feedback, suggestions, questions, and references to sources of information and ideas.

    My wife and I are working on a module for “How to give and receive feedback with your dance partner.” (A great way to learn something is to teach it!) I am basing much of my thinking on the terrific book, THANKS FOR THE FEEDBACK, “The science and art of receiving feedback well, even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and, frankly, you’re not in the mood”, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.

    Mindful of the significance of your comment about giving feedback when pain or injury is imminent (my wife has a big ol’ scar as testament to the issue), here is a preview, with instructions off the top of my head that I would make sure every student heard.

    And, Thanks for the feedback!!

    If something is hurting you or feels dangerous to others around you, tell your partner immediately.

    If your partner tells you that you are hurting them or that they fear injury to others around you, stop immediately and find out what is wrong.

    If you feel confused, uncertain, or unable to perform a certain figure or movement, tell your partner where you feel the problem and ask for their ideas or to call the teacher over to help. Keep in mind that often a difficulty is caused by the *preceding* step, not the one where things seem to get stuck.

    If your partner tells you what they are feeling, or if they tell you directly what they think you should be doing, consider whether you understand what they are saying, and ask for clarification if necessary. Consider whether it makes sense in your body and with what you’ve learned in the class particularly and elsewhere in general. Acknowledge the feedback and announce your choice to: a) ignore it; b) use whatever of it makes good sense to you; or c) call for the class teacher to help.

    Example observation-based feedback:
    “I am walking my legs on a narrow track, close beside each other underneath my body, to give me better balance (and because it looks more elegant). I can feel (and in this open embrace I can see) you stepping in a wide track on either side of me, as if you are trying to avoid stepping on me. But I am reaching my feet back well away from you, giving you plenty of room to step straight ahead on the same track with my legs.”

  2. Mari

    There’s lots to think about in your post, but I have personal experience with one aspect in particular and I feel I should speak up on it: Students “helping” other students in the tango classes.

    When I started tango, I would very, very often receive guidance from other students as we rotated partners. This was the case in Austin, Houston and Dallas, for me. Some of it useful, but a lot of it unhelpful and confusing. One person in particular was (and still is) fond of pulling is partner aside and saying, “this isn’t how they do it in Buenos Aires.” Or, “This isn’t how my teachers “so-and-so-famous-tango-couple” teaches. Let me show you how to do it the “right” way.” The student often leaves the class, as I did, having missed out on valuable time trying to work on the material they took the class to learn – all so that another student could indulge in some showboating.

    In a practica setting, that would be fine. But in the class, I would like to focus on giving the teacher I am paying the benefit of the doubt, at least for the duration of the class, and learn what they are teaching, the way they are teaching it. It is a very, very fine line – and as the cliche says, a slippery slope. If a student helps another student by saying, “it might help to relax shoulders, or your free leg, to make this easier” – that’s very helpful and wouldn’t likely run counter to anything the teacher is trying to explain. However, more often the advice is contradictory or unrelated – leading to confusion and distraction.

    Also, the idea of “more experienced dancers” has very little meaning. I’ve received amazing insight from dancers who have just started but have great body awareness from other disciplines – and learned incredibly bad habits from very “experienced” dancers – habits that took me years to break.

    I am very well trained in body conditioning, kinetic chain concepts and biomechanics. Believe me, in a class I pretty much *always* think I have something useful to add or share with other participants. For the most part, unless I see someone doing something that will lead to pain, I try very hard to keep my trap shut. I’m not always successful. But whenever I have tried to be “helpful” in a group class, I end up distracting the class from the topic at hand. As a trainer and teacher, I know better than to treat another trainer or teacher that way. It’s not an intimidation issue or rigid class structure – it’s a matter of respect for the teacher’s time, education and efforts.

    In one class, I felt so strongly that what the teacher was teaching was damaging to learning tango, that I left the class. I didn’t go to other students and offer my opinion or advice. They didn’t pay me for the class. They paid that teacher. Despite the strength of feelings on the matter, it was still only my opinion. And so much of our helpful advice actually falls into that category – opinion.

    As an aside, I have been in classes where the teacher has expertly trained a few of his or her prior students to rotate and help other students. I love that idea and have always found it very helpful. The advice, critique or adjustment, is never a distraction from what the class is focused on. More students get individual help and it works well for everyone. But it is not unsolicited, unrelated, or distracting from the main topic

    The best advice I received, which goes well with the Buddhist philosophy of approaching learning, and life in general, with an empty cup – always ready to be filled: the teacher is correct for the duration of the class*. After the class, you decide what to take with you from it. And when another student offers advice to me, I acknowledge it with gratitude, and then get back on track with what the teacher is working on.

    * Caveat 1: Again, as a trainer, if I see someone doing something that could lead to pain or injury, I say something if it is appropriate.


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