Tag Archives: class

Dance partner rotation in class

In class we rotate practice partners as a way to learn to dance with different people, and to give everyone a good chance to learn.

  1. Find a partner and form a big circle around the edges of the room.
  2. Extra followers or leaders without an opposite role person, partner each other for now, and choose one of you as the first follower. If you are comfortable switching roles you can dance either role or switch off. If you’d rather not rotate, practice your part of the movement separately and help each other.
  3. Partners who don’t want to learn with and help others, step outside the circle when rotation time comes.
  4. Followers, this is your home base where you return at the end of every song.
  5. Leaders, look to see who is ahead of you and who is behind you. Try to keep your place, but you can dance around a stopped couple if you need to. At the end of each song go back to where you started with your current partner.
  6. At the end of every song I will announce, “Return to your home base and rotate partners!” ** After everyone returns to their home base, then the first leaders go to the next person in the line of dance (counter-clockwise) around the circle.
  7. For two followers or leaders together, the first leader moves on and the first follower becomes the new first leader for that home base.

** Other announcements you might hear:

  • Stay where you are with your current partner for now.
  • Change roles. (Stay with your current partner, where you are, but reverse roles for the purpose of the exercise.)

[Originally published as a comment to https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10152868362366289&id=406783441288 on October 26, 2014.]

My introduction to sacadas – class structures

Do you remember when you were first introduced to the concept of sacadas?

For me it was a figure starting from la cruzada, flowing in a molinete CW around your space; you tap behind before you give a X-system sacada, then a ||-sys sacada, ending in a parada, pasada. Whew!

Really!? Can’t you just imagine (or recall!) all the opportunities for creating bad habits and misunderstandings? This was in a class ranging from quite novice beginners who figure they’re smart enough and experienced enough in other dance so they can handle it (that was often me, alas, but in the absence of guidance otherwise …), to quite experienced dancers.

How could such a situation be handled so that everyone has a good chance to get started on the right foot? I have three big recommendations:

  1. Curricula with tested levels,
  2. The Montessori classroom method, and
  3. Doing hard parts first, in isolation.

1. Curricula with tested levels

Mitra Martin and her team at Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles have developed curricula and testing methods, and implement this methodology in a structured series of classes they call The Tango Challenge http://oxygentango.com/tangochallenge/. Can most, or even many other tango communities afford to implement level-restricted classes? Maybe not. But that doesn’t change the value of giving clear expectations for a student’s current level and HOW they can usefully, with good results, participate in more advanced classes. Which leads right into recommendation Two.

2. The Montessori classroom method

A key concept of the Montessori classroom is a mixture of different levels working in the same room but on different levels of activities, with the more advanced students helping the less advanced. Much like the one room school house in days of old.

I see huge resistance to this concept among tango teachers of all levels and in communities and workshops across this country and elsewhere. It often comes in the form of an explicit announcement that, “There is only ONE teacher in this class; if you have a question or problem you come to me!” This often has the chilling effect of squelching even feedback to your partner out of fear that it will be seen as ‘teaching’. So a couple muddles along or stands idly waiting for the teacher, even when the more advanced partner or some couple nearby could readily resolve a misunderstanding or missed point.

It feels to me as if teachers fear loss of authority and being held responsible for less than optimum or even outright wrong ‘instruction’. We can empathize with this viewpoint even if we don’t fully appreciate it. It seems, in a way, to hold both themselves and their students in less than high regard. Teachers can only control the direction and outcome of the class with rigid authority? Students can’t tell the difference between what some other student tells them and what comes from the master teacher?

3. Doing hard parts first, in isolation

I’m reading Guitar Playing and how it works by Peter Inglis of http://TheWholeGuitarist.com/ and that led me to Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang at http://PianoPractice.org/, where he points out that we want to start by practicing the difficult sections first. They are the hardest to learn, so they should get the most attention. (Instead of the typical procedure, where we start at the beginning of a sequence, flying or muddling through it until we hit a snag in the hard part, then repeat. The easy stuff gets the most practice, while the hard stuff gets memorized with its errors.)

We can simplify the hard parts by reducing them to just two steps: the really tricky bit – e.g., the step into the space between legs for the sacada – and the immediately preceding one. Then as we develop mastery and comfort we can build by adding steps to the beginning and end of the hard part.

This post with its strange mashup of concepts was inspired by two things. Last weekend I attended the Tango Teacher Coop (TTC) Minnesota Tango Camp http://TangoTeacherCoop.org/ where I learned interesting things about learning and teaching and thinking. Then just the other day I received an email from TangoForge http://TangoForge.com/ with their Procedural Postcard: How do to a Sacada, a simple graphic with four parts:

  1. Flex base leg’s hip and knee joints.
  2. Mark the Revel’s [Follower’s] projection perpendicular to Mark’s [Leader’s] intended step.
  3. Transfer simultaneously by extending joints of base legs.
  4. Relax embrace to arrive at new base before next pivot.

So, what kind of step do you need to start a sacada? Basically anything will do – forward, backward, side, front cross, back cross – so long as it is projected across – i.e., somewhat perpendicular to – the partner’s path. Furthermore, that projection can be created with either partner: either lead them across your path, or pivot so that your projection lies across their path.

The important considerations in my mind for a sacada involve:

  • Projecting your partner’s or your path perpendicular to each other.
  • Flexion of each partner’s support leg to create space to enter and driving force.
  • Signaling to partner, both with the projection and with “holding down or in place” so as to give time and space to enter.
  • Stepping inside the partner’s base leg, under the shoulder of that leg – an aiming point you can see without needing to look at feet.
  • Stepping with full weight onto that new base leg, displacing partner, and in effect changing places with them. I.e., your new base leg is now (approximately) where their old base leg was.
  • Flexibility in the embrace so that the partner’s slide in each other’s arms as they assume the new torso-to-torso orientation.

It seems to me that that is plenty to learn in isolation, without all the complication of entrance and exit sequences. Yes, if your class has mixed levels of experience, after covering the pure principles of the sacada, one can give easy entrances (an over-pivoted forward ocho, for example), and harder ones, such as the one that opened this article. And since you don’t have a whole class that has to learn a lengthy sequence in lock-step with each other, you can encourage and help the quicker students to explore, discovering their own ways of putting the sacada into what they already know or can invent.

That’s one of the ways I think learning should work.

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.

Posters seen at Claire School of Dance

Before class checklist for ballet students

Before class checklist for ballet students

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

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

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

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

The Concept of Movement 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pasos felices,
–David

Plateaus and periodization

At group class the other night a friend told me he felt that he had recently overcome a plateau and was really beginning to enjoy his Argentine tango. In my twenty-two months of group and private lessons, workshops, practice, and milongas I feel like I’ve enjoyed four major plateaus, each involving some mix of greater understanding of: dissociation to “associate” with my partner, moving with intention, controlling our axes, “following her lead“, understanding my dance, and dancing with the music.The-Plateau-Effect

Friend and I agreed, it actually seems more useful to think of a plateau not as the fallow flat period, but the time you get to enjoy the fruit of your various labors spent in climbing up to that level. Then after some period of capitalizing on your investment in your dancing, you begin to hunger for the next new climb up. But what is it that makes that climb out of a plateau take longer and seem harder than it should?

Shake it up, baby!” Mother Nature is lazy at heart. It likes to get maximum results from minimum efforts. The body and the mind are built to automatically develop shortcuts and routines for things that we do repeatedly. You might call these time, labor, and brain saver shortcuts for living, or you might call them ruts for things we do repeatedly. Dancing, I don’t care how creative you are, is something of a repetitive activity.

Serious athletes know that the way to shake up their neurophysiology is to confuse the mind-body. Do new things or do things in an unusual way. Make things harder. The body-mind says, “Oh, hell, now what’s going on with this stuff?” Then, in the process of figuring out a new easiest way of doing things it comes to new capabilities.

Body Building periodization

Serious athletes often plan their workout regimens in three timeframes: a microcycle of a week, a mesocycle of one to a few months (so long as a routine is producing new results), and a macrocycle that usually refers to a training season. The mesocycle period is more or less the time it takes for one’s neurophysiology to develop a groove for dealing with a new routine.

So how might this be applied to dancing? How can a dancer shake it all up without switching to a new dance? Here are some thoughts that come to my mind, and several of which I’ve used with success.

Switch to a new dance. Well, maybe not altogether, but suppose you take classes in a type of dance entirely new to you, while continuing to practice and social dance your mainstay. Ballet, tap, hip-hop, grunge, salsa, swing, Bollywood. You name it.

Switch to a different dance style: from tango salon to nuevo, for example.

Take non-dance classes: Improv comedy, circus arts, public speaking, a new language?

Do other body work: pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique.

Add contact improv, also known as ecstatic dance to your weekly schedule.

Ecstatic Dance
Dancing Together

Study martial arts: tai chi, aikido (be careful out there!).

Take a break. The mind-body integrates past learning and physical work during rest periods.

Double your practice time and halve your class time, or vice-versa.

Switch roles. Learn how to dance the opposite lead-follow role — well.

Ambidancetrous: The Blog

Restrict yourself. See, for example, the first part (and all the rest!) of these good articles.

WikiHow: Be Creative
99U: 7 Ways to Boost Your Creativity

Suppose you only allowed yourself to only walk in all your milongas for a month. How do you think that might affect your dancing? What different kinds of things might you learn and incorporate into your dancing?

Change teachers.

Travel.

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

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.)

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.

Apilado

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.)

Thanks!
  –David

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.)
DO
1) Experience the activity; “do it”.
REFLECT
2) Share what happened.
3) Process what’s important.
APPLY
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!
—David

Leader-follower pairings

Fixes for imbalance in companieros pairings

Argentine tango workshops, in my not yet two years of experience, generally have more leaders than followers, and this seems common sense, since most workshop material focuses on the leader’s role. (I’ve observed but not noted — will do so in the future — where a strong follower of a teacher-pair can make sure that the follower role gets good attention. Even then, unless it’s a follower-specific workshop, the leader role gets most of the attention.)

In Austin there is often a significant imbalance in numbers. Leaders have taken a course of sensible self-interest by recruiting their own follower for a workshop. But then they don’t share!

From the follower’s perspective, they may prefer to stay with a partner because they know and are satisfied with that person’s abilities. A tanguera told me, “I’ve paid my dues. I don’t want to be jerked around that floor by guys who don’t know what they are doing.” But then a teacher told me, “Followers want to dance with leaders, but how will they have leaders if they don’t help grow them up?”

But what about the competent dancers who haven’t found a regular partner or who prefer to switch so they can develop their lead/follow with a variety of partners? Or the person who gets stuck with a dud? (I’ve been that dud when I took a too advanced class that I should have left but stayed to complete the pairings. No fun for anyone.)

I wonder how many people would leave a workshop dissatisfied if told that everyone must change partners, versus how many who would leave dissatisfied – or simply not attend in the first place – if they knew they would either have to twiddle their thumbs or attempt to lead guys who don’t know how to follow. For those people who don’t want to switch I might ask, “Do you dance with other people at milongas? Well then you’re going to dance with others here.”

But I appreciate all points of view. What to do? My thesis is that all dancers should learn both roles, to at least some minimal level. My thinking is that you would do your secondary role primarily with your same sex, for two reasons. First, you wouldn’t get a “true” experience of being in the secondary role unless dancing with someone for whom that opposite role is primary. Second, there’s the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” thing about communication style. For example, there’s only one woman I can think of in today’s Austin community from whom I could have the experience of dancing with a strong, highly competent leader, and even then I wouldn’t have the same style of communication that I would have from a man.

Benefits of learning both lead and follow:

  • Both leaders and followers do the same adornments, even if with different styling.
  • Leaders who understand how to follow can have teachers or knowledgeable fellow tangueros lead them, to learn what the follower is supposed to feel from the lead.
  • The person leading a skilled leader, or following a skilled follower, can get invaluable mentoring feedback from a person who can reflect not only what they are feeling, but also what they do to succeed with particular maneuvers.
  • Leaders who follow can learn both from poor leads – what not to do, and good leads – what to strive to do.
  • Followers who understand something of the lead can give more useful feedback on what they need to feel and how to produce it.
  • Both leaders and followers can gain some empathy for the opposite role, while learning about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good.
  • Whether there is an excess of leads or follows, everyone can, with some measure of success, pair up.

Attracting followers:

  • Be certain that workshops, and each session of workshops, contains significant material for followers.
  • Let women attend leader focused classes for some reduced price.
  • For women that don’t want to be jerked around by novices, what about sharing yourselves among leaders you know and trust. For example, I’ve seen it work well where excess pairs of men shared one women. This was actually additionally helpful in that you had an interested observer who could offer useful feedback.
  • Have an excess of men and women door monitors. Take a census of people entering the workshop sessions as you check their credentials, then when sessions start, shuffle the volunteers as necessary to make up pairings.

Regardless of whether there is a perfect pairing of leads and follows, if there is to be *any* changing of partners, then the class leaders has a duty to ensure that it proceeds consistently and smoothly, so that everybody gets treated fairly. I would make sure in each class that there is a well known, routinely followed pattern of changing partners. (With, perhaps, some reasonableness exceptions to skip over, for example, a couple that really does only dance with each other, or the couple that is just about to “get it” and isn’t ready to switch yet.)

Just before starting the FIRST practice song I would announce:

  1. We will all be changing partners in this class, and near the end of the class we will announce and play a couple of songs for you to dance with your preferred partner.
  2. Everbody pairs up. If there is an odd person out, that is a hole that moves around the room (against line of dance) as each change happens.
  3. If there is a same sex couple where both want the same role, one of them starts as leader. At the next change the leader moves on and the follower in that same sex couple becomes the new leader for that couple slot.
  4. Followers, please see where you are standing in the room. See who is the follower to your right and the one to your left. Return to this spot with your current partner at the end of each song.
  5. Leaders, at the beginning of each song, whether I say to or not, always please thank your partner and move in the line of dance to the next follower. (The class leader should remember to say “change partners” before starting each song.)

Felices caminar!
–David

P.S. In a discussion on the Facebook page for Terpsichoral Tangoaddict about the problem of people in classes too high for their abilities, it reminded me of a situation where it really is desirable to have couple-pairings: in (truly) advanced classes. Two people as a couple probably have a better shot than a single person at assessing their skill level, and if they are under-qualified, then they are only inflicting themselves on each other.