Mental model of follower’s axis for leg wraps

Mathematicians and scientists often employ simplified, idealized models of the real world as a way to understand complex concepts, processes, and systems.

A piece of string with a binder clip at each end

Click the picture for a movie showing movement of follower’s axis during leg wrap.

As I was awakening this morning I thought again about the question you raised at the practica, of how to lead a leg wrap to the closed side.

(You were already in good shape with leg wraps to the open side, both in parallel and promenade positions. Many things come easier on the open side where there is more room to maneuver.)

A mental model for the follower’s axis came to my mind, and it seemed useful. See if you find it any help. Take a piece of string of, oh, say about 12 inches. Put a simple overhand knot at each end and fasten a binder clip over each knot. Now hold the string in the middle, with the binder clips dangling down.

Where you are holding the string in the middle represents the follower’s pelvis, and the binder clips represent their feet and leg weight.

If you hold one “foot” in place, representing the follower’s standing leg, and then raise the “pelvis” directly over it, you’ll see that the free leg collects to the standing leg. If you “pivot” the follower on their own axis (by twirling thumb and finger) the legs and feet stay collected.

But now, while still holding the standing foot in place, moving the pelvis to the side and forward toward you, you see that the free leg swings away from the standing leg. And if someone else’s standing leg – yours! – is in the way, the swinging leg will wrap around it.

Now here is a detail that gets glossed over during some instruction. The leader may have to make one or more small adjustments to the position of their own feet during the move in order to gain a position that will allow the tilting of the follower’s axis. A tiny side step right – as you pivot the follower in a back boleo about their axis – gives you position for the second part of the movement, to bring their axis to the side, opening the legs. Then as you “swing” them forward and around YOUR axis a tiny back step on the left tilts their axis forward. It’s a miniature volcada.

Two additional points. When you start the follower’s back rotation for the boleo you are rotating YOUR torso about THEIR axis – keeping their axis vertical. Then in the next part where you swing forward you are rotating YOUR torso about YOUR standing leg, the left back one. This leads the follower’s torso to rotate about your axis. The second point is that it helps to create a spiral, going from a lower elevation in the boleo to a raised torso at the height of the leg wrap, to give the follower the idea of lifting the leg as it wraps.

But two actions by the follower can thwart all of this. If they, consciously or not, resist the movement by breaking at the hips, allowing the hips to come forward while the upper body stays back, it causes two problems. First, the leader’s movements can’t be transmitted from the torso down to the legs because it gets lost at the hips, and second, it causes the follower’s axis to tilt down toward the floor, having the effect of making them heavier, instead of forward to the leader. Also, if the follower can’t give up control of their free leg, allowing it to swing freely, but instead holds tension, such as bending the knee or keeping it collected, then the leg won’t swing away from the follower’s body regardless of how well it’s led.

There is a big element of trust involved. Any time the leader tilts the follower off axis, the follower must feel that they are secure and safe in committing to this leader. Likewise, with a follower’s leg wrapping around the leader, or with either partner’s leg intruding into the space between one’s legs, they must feel that they are being treated respectfully.

Perhaps you, dear Reader, have a good different way of thinking about this, or perhaps you can offer clarification or correction. Please join me in the Comments section below.

Felices caminar,

Advice I wish I was given when I started learning Argentine tango

Spotify radio stations - Argentine tango

Regularly listen to Argentine tango music

Listen to the music regularly and repeatedly. Plug “Argentine tango” into your Spotify, Pandora, or other radio, and let it play in the background.

The pulse of the music matters. Learn to recognize and step on the strong beats of the music. When you can do this reliably then you can begin experimenting with taking one, two, three or more beats to complete a movement.

Attend milongas regularly and watch. Identify people, both leaders and followers, whose movement and style you admire.

Know that what you admire in tango dancing now may change as you mature in your understanding of the music and the dance.

After you’ve gained some sense of the people in your tango community, and early on, seek a mentor, both a leader mentor and a follower mentor. These friends could be some of the most valuable help you receive for progressing rapidly in your understanding of Argentine tango.

Make everyone a friend. It’s a hard process to learn Argentine tango, and many times a friendly, supportive comment from others will be all that keeps you going.

Take every opportunity to make honest and earnest comments about specific improvements or accomplishments you observe in a person’s dancing, or the questions they ask, or the help they give, or . . .

Help out whenever you can. It takes active and involved participants to keep a tango community going and growing. Working with others will help you build friendly relationships.

Meet the milonga DJs. Thank them for their valuable, thoughtful service and get to know them. They are a wonderful source of information on Argentine tango music, orchestras, and songs. They have been a central part of the scene for years.

Take notes in class. Videos of didactic (or mostly, actually, non-didactic) demos are fine, but that is a passive activity. How often do you actually go back to videos to study them, understand them, and practice them? Notes should be an active process. You can’t take down every word. You can only afford the time to write key concept words and phrases in terms that make sense to you, and to sketch.

Practice sketching. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, only that you understand what it means.

Review and recast your notes. It’s when you attempt to explain something to someone else (even if that someone else is your permanent notes) that you begin to gain a real understanding.

Argentine tango reduced to geometry is all about circles and triangles on the floor (and even in the air). Your partner (or you) move in a circle either about your own axis (or sometimes in a tangent to the circle) or in a smaller circle about their axis. The two of your feet and one of your partner (or vice-versa) form a triangle that creates a stable base on the floor. Learn how movements go into or out of what specific configurations, and then you will have a deeper understanding for how to do this movement and variants of it.

In Argentine tango, sequences of moves have no intrinsic value (setting aside historical significance and utility as a learning vehicle) in and of themselves. You may on occasion be able to use an entire sequence intact, but you’re much more likely to find it useful to break apart and understand the elements of a sequence. The teacher will most typically show you one way to start and one way to exit a sequence, but you want to learn, and explore for yourself: what are all the different ways I can get into or get out of this sequence; which of those ways feels easier, relates to other things I know, or is more “organic”; what are the atomic movements that make up the sequence; how can they be recombined differently; can it be done to both the open or closed side of the embrace; how can I relate these movements to the music?

Leading or following: The reason you practice a movement to an actual tango song is not so that you can mindlessly repeat the sequence over and over and over again. It is so you can fit the movement naturally into your dance. (Understanding that there are exceptions while you both work out the kinks.) Do not push and pull to put yourselves into the same starting sequence each time. Instead, dance into the sequence from all the different ways that make sense. Dance out of it in all the different ways that make sense. Explore the pieces of it. Explore doing pieces to opposite sides or directions.

Don’t bother saying, “Sorry” for anything except for running your partner into something or someone (where you may owe multiple expressions of “Sorry”). It’s an imperfect world, and this tango can make it seem more so at times. Mistakes will be made. Your partner will know, or may not know but won’t care in either case, why you are temporizing in the face of traffic, or the sudden grab to prevent a collision. If your partner says “Sorry” to you, a comforting squeeze or a murmured “Not at all” can be nice.

Learn to both lead and follow. A lovely aspect to Argentine tango is that all the movements are available and useful to both leader and follower. It helps tremendously to understand all the issues involved by experiencing the dance from both sides of the embrace.

Know that your fellow dancers, whether leader or follower, and whether novice or experienced, may have the much the same anxieties, doubts, and fears that you do. We’re all in it to support each other, learn, and enjoy ourselves with each other.

The best you can be, whether following, leading, or learning, is calm and confident, even and especially if you don’t know what you are doing. Calm and confident that your leader will give you a good dance (even when they don’t). Calm and confident that you will satisfactorily show yourself as a leader (even when you don’t). Calm and confident that you will understand what is going on, even when you don’t right now.

Have the confidence to step out of a lesson and only observe when you feel that it is beyond your current understandings.

Have the confidence to feel that you can learn a difficult movement, with patience from yourself and your partner, an attitude of exploration and helpfulness, and with help from the teacher.

Have the confidence, when the teacher isn’t available, to ask for help from someone else that seems to be getting it.

It is difficult to give constructive, useful feedback. Try this formula, When I do this, what I’m feeling is this, and what I think I’m wanting is this. What do I need to understand differently?

Never make excuses for or object to feedback, questions, suggestions. Do insist, if need be, on your right to be treated with dignity and respect. Otherwise, comebacks serve to cut off or minimize future, possibly very useful input. They also serve to minimize in your mind the value of input before you’ve even had a chance to understand it. Do question the other person as necessary to feel that you understand the point they are making. Then let it rest inside you, quietly observed. With a little calm patience you may well come to feel that you can tease out a little or even a lot of useful understanding from it.

Remember the people who help you. You will want to repay their kindnesses. Be kind in turn to other new dancers. Help bring them into the community.

Above all, know that if you are doing for yourself, you are doing it for good.

(I wrote this after reading the article that Mari Johnson referred me to: Offbeat Advice I Wish I Was Given In School.)

How are you feeling?

I am following Memoto, a project by Swedish entrepreneurs to develop a wearable camera that would take a picture every 30 seconds, then upload and organize all that, producing a visual log of your life.

Graphs and charts showing performance

Lifelogging example

In a guest blog post by Dave Asprey, an inveterate biohacker and lifelogger, he asserts in “5 Self-tracking tips” that, “how you are feeling is the most important data point to consider at the end of the day.”

This suggests a useful adjunct to Rebecca Brightly’s “The Dance Practice Blueprint” of a post-practice, post-practica, post-milonga practice: that of logging how you are feeling about what just transpired. Whether, post-event, you are elated or depressed (or some combination) by the proceedings, you could profitably ask yourself — and log the answers to — three questions:

1. How am I feeling about my dancing at this event?
2. What, specifically, of that is within my control?
3. What, specifically, can I do to have more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff?

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.)


Learning from web videos

So I downloaded my lesson from (an online tango school
by Sebastian Arce y Mariana Montes), a 12 minute web video that presents and explains how to do an elegant, close embrace change of direction sequence. (In your browser extension store you can find ways to download varieties of formats from YouTube and elsewhere. Make a comment to this blog post if you’d like help with something. Fair use only! Observe copyrights.) The Chrome browser extension Vimeo Download Videos let me grab the material, and then in Windows Live Movie Maker I can quickly scan the whole thing, snip out the few brief bits I want to focus on, and then save it in a more compact format. What was 240 MB shrank to 8 MB!

The interesting thing I noticed in this process was that the key learning concept may boil down to a single element. For example, this was an elegant looking change of direction that can easily be done entirely in close embrace and which takes little space to do. I’ll describe the entire sequence and highlight the key concept.

From an ocho cortado, he steps around her to his right, causing her to make a tiny step forward and pivot on her front-crossed (L) foot. He steps backwards and around with left leg, leading her to uncross and step into him on his right, the closed side. This is #3 of the eight-count basic, but going backwards. Key concept: That step back uses inertia to step-pivot counter-clockwise the entire couple as a unit. Instead of dissociating, he moves as a unit, intending to immediately pivot his right side (and her) around to the left on stepping. He is leading her to pivot backwards as a unit. (Both keeping their thighs tight!) He finishes the pivot by bringing right leg back to close, while she does a molinete to end just left of him in perpendicular position. He gives her parada with left leg. She steps over, then pivots back to end square in front of him.

Not to minimize the importance of a good beginning and ending to a sequence that, like the punctuation of a sentence, give it a resolution. But they do tend to obscure key concepts that introduce a new movement and understanding of axes.

Por ejemplo, could this pivot also be done in the clockwise direction toward her? Well why not try it! Now suppose we continue our exercises by trying all possible combinations:

  • Direction of step: he stepping forward or he stepping backward
  • Direction of pivot: clockwise or counter-clockwise
  • Side of embrace: he on open side or he on closed side

Notice, too, that this is a cross-step pattern so far. That is, he back-crossed with her forward-crossed or vice-versa. Would these sorts of pivots be possible in an open-step? What does that do to the couple’s alignment if they step together and pivot? Does it help or hinder for him to step longer or shorter than her? What if he steps across her path after (or before!) she steps? Ah, that looks like a sacada.

This is the sort of exploratory play that I am wanting to do at practicas and in my home gym/dance space. In the past I haven’t much gone to practicas because they always seemed to work just like a milonga, with everybody “practicing” what they already know and do. I want to discover the things I don’t know, as well as structured couples practice to enhance the quality of things I do (or should) know.

If you find yourself with an opportunity to be in southwest Austin and want to explore Argentine tango, please get in touch. If we’re not friends yet, email to david at this website address can start the process.


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.)


She, he, or it?

My flamboyant mother used to say that instead of making all writing “he, he, he” with a masculine 3rd person indefinite pronoun (or the modern “with it” equivalent of making it all feminine), or using the cumbersome form “he or she”, that they should instead use a new word for she/he/it, maybe something like “sh/t”.

There exists already a perfectly good solution to this conundrum, notwithstanding what your high school English teachers tried to drum into you regarding agreement of numbers. For millennia the third person plural forms (they, them, their) have happily served this or that author to identify a person of unknown gender in their writings.

Now my language difficultly in describing dance is somewhat different. In the modern era it is not uncommon to have leading ladies and following fellows. Indeed, I support switching roles on a planned basis as part of your dance practice and exercises, because it enriches your understanding of whatever role you choose to dance.

man-woman-perpendicular-0 man-woman-perpendicular-1 man-woman-perpendicular-2 man-woman-perpendicular-3

So I’m writing dance sequence descriptions, and man! (jaja), it sure gets tedious typing – and reading – Leader and Follower spelled out everywhere. What about abbreviations? But L could also stand for left and F could stand for forward. Going beyond that, from whose orientation do you describe a movement, both? (Maybe, if there are interesting complexities involved.)

I’ve decided to move past the angst-filled hand wringing over something that probably isn’t that important to most people anyway. (A life theme: dithering in search of the ideal. It’s a wonder we ever got our house built.) I’ve decided that convention and simplicity trump gender-neutral and role-neutral descriptions. For the most part I’m going to use He as a placeholder for the person in the role of leader, and She as a placeholder for the person in the role of follower.

Furthermore, I’m going to generally describe sequences from the point of view of the leader role, only describing the follower’s counterpart where clarity calls for it. Savvy followers will know that in the effort to understand their role from the leader’s description, they will be delving even deeper into what is happening behind the words, and thereby may gain an even deeper understanding of their equally important role.

In every case, if you see something that is not clear to you (and therefore probably not clear to many others, or anyone), or if you have another take on the matter, please give us all the benefit of your comments. Down at the bottom of this blog entry, where it says Written by David Phillips — No comments — . . . , you should interpret that to say, click on “No comments” to give us all the benefit of your thinking on the matter!


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.

Teaching followers, too

When I wrote that teachers, with exceptions, seem to pay overwhelming attention to the leader role, I had in mind some visiting teachers and classes at festivals I’ve attended. And last Wednesday I was reminded of a local teacher who is strikingly different.

photo of Daniela Arcuri

Daniela Arcuri – Argentine tango master teacher, choreographer, performer

As a woman who respects the traditional female role as follower, but who trained to become an expert leader, Daniela Arcuri gives both roles equal attention. The irony is that Daniela is one of those who teaches that the leader leads everything to the nth degree. But it makes sense because she pays attention to the nth detail for both followers and leaders.

For Daniela it is not enough that the couple should be able to use patterns and extemporaneous movement musically, but that they should also look superb while doing it, and that each role contributes to the success of movements, from head to toe. The heads: to maintain a good connection regardless of height differences, and an elegant, functional line. The embrace: how the follower supports the leader just as well as vice-versa. The hips: their uses not only in rotation but also tilt and sway. The feet: oh my goodness, the feet. Daniela has some of the most exquisite footwork I’ve observed, and she works to impart that knowledge, appreciation, and practice in all her students, los dos leaders and followers.

In Bug’s Question of the Day I think it was, a teacher asked for ideas to overcome the unfair situation that a single man teacher, i.e., not a couple, is better able to get solo gigs, and better paying gigs, than a solo woman teacher. I’m sure Daniela has experienced that same disparity. No one thinks less of a man recruiting a follower from the local group to demonstrate, even though they are missing out on a strong follower perspective. In Austin we think nothing of Daniela calling on leaders or followers to partner with her for demonstrations, because we know we’re getting top flight training for both roles.

At last night’s milonga, between dances I observed to my partner, “I wasn’t even aware of many of your adornos but caught them in the mirror. Really lovely.” She replied, “I had the best teacher — Daniela.” Yeah, I feel the same way.

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!