Tag Archives: learning

Change partners, change roles

Women dancing Argentine tango together

Change roles dancers have twice the fun [public domain image via Wikipedia]

You know these are favorite topics of mine, so it will be no surprise that I heartily approve, where in Daniela Borgialli’s Tango Workbook she says that her university students are expected to routinely change partners and change roles during classes.


In my mind the time to practice with your regular or preferred or ideal partners is in private practice time or a private lesson. Group class is a way to review and expose yourself to new concepts, new figures, and new partners. If at milongas you never change partners then no one is going to force you to change in class, but if you expect to dance with various people, learn to dance with various people. (Teachers: please do it in a routine, defined way, not haphazardly or at your whim.)


Despite its macho origins, it seems to me that Argentine tango, more so than other bailes de sala, is a wonderfully egalitarian art form. Aside from a few niceties of style and adornments, the whole gamut of tango technique is accessible to and useful to both partners.

You think followers don’t need “intention”? Consider this advice — Make a statement, not a question. FOLLOWER: “Ok, I’m here and I’m on my axis (or on you, if that’s what we’re doing); I’m ready.” NOT, “Um, was this what you had in mind; oops, I’m falling into another step, I hope it’s what you intended?” [Thank you, Arjay Centeno at the 2015 Austin Swing Championships for a funny presentation of this and other good ideas — an example of how dances do have things in common when you get down to basics.)

You think leaders don’t need ochos and molinetes and cruzadas? Even if it is only in an abbreviated form — swiveling your feet to align them properly, stepping molinete fashion around your partner to align with them, crossing to give your partner room for a step — you are doing the same actions.

To open up the full range of possibilities in the dance, both partners need comfortable access to all the tango technique, and more than from just a technique class or class warm up, they want a working knowledge in both roles.

P.S. While looking for an image to illustrate this article I find that Daniel Trenner was advocating for Change Role teaching back in 1998!

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.

Shoulder-in exercise

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

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

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

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

Damian Thompson – The Walking Drill, Argentine Tango

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpted from the book:

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

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

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


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

Tango foundations – the supporting leg

Practice session notes on mirror with dry erase marker.

Practice session notes on mirror with dry erase marker.

Notes from a solo practice session with three people.

Play a song with a strong, slow beat. Step on every other beat (or half time or double-time or any timing that respects the beat) in any direction, moving around the room as you feel moved by the music, cataloging anything you observe about the movements. Conclude by reviewing together what you observed.

A key feature of tango is standing on one leg – the supporting leg, with the other leg relaxed and hanging freely – the free leg, under our hip. (Yes, at advanced levels we see weight split between legs for special purposes.) A foundational skill for us is to move from a supporting leg, in a large or small movement in any direction across the floor, projecting our body onto and over the new standing leg. Imagine moving across a stream onto small stepping stones big enough for just one foot.

With a strong foundation of moving and rooting to the floor with each step, we can build many capabilities.

Three tango tips **

#1. Our “infinite axis” is like a guitar string that extends through our bodies, down through the central mass of our standing leg down into the earth to the center, and up through our head into the sky.

Imagine the inside of the front of your rib cage over your big toe. Upper body regally, proudly erect, head upright and chin tucked. Lower body supple and feeling heavy into the floor.

Body settles into hip on supporting leg side, creating slight curve into that direction.

Body settles into hip on supporting leg side, creating slight curve into that direction.

#2. Our free leg might be visualized as two long cylinders, the calf hooked into the thigh and the thigh hooked into the hips, with free swinging hooks. This creates a leg that is loose and supple, fully relaxed, without muscles holding it straight or in any position. It is simply hanging below our hip. This has the effect of causing us to sink into the hip of the standing leg, so that seen from the front or back, the whole body forms a slight “C” shape into that hip, bringing the body mass into balance over the standing foot.

#3. Our muscular-neural wiring connects our elbow and the free leg on that side. Our elbows want to be relaxed downward into the ground, AND positioned in front of our hips. Try this experiment. Stand on one leg with relaxed hip, the free leg hanging down. With your elbow on the side of the free leg pointing down and in front of your hip, circle it, move it to and fro. Do you find that your hanging leg seems to want to follow the movement of the elbow?

This time apply these tips as you move to the music in any direction over the floor. Conclude by reviewing what we observed this time.

Our bodies are built for going forward. Our “stand” – the feet – has more projection in front of us than behind us. Nature expects us to lean forward into the walk, and this is true even when going backward! We don’t lead with our back or else we’ll tend to tip over in short clunky steps. Instead we maintain our forward lean, release and reach backward with the free leg, then push off with the standing leg to land fully over the new standing leg.

Mindful Practice principles

o Immediate corrections

When you observe that a movement does not finish as you intended, back up to the beginning of the movement, or even the preceding movement. Analyze what went wrong, or try it different ways until you discover what produces the desired result. Repeat the good way several times to lock it in.

o Spaced repetition

Rather than a singe practice session each week, a number of shorter sessions, even it it’s less total time, will yield greater results. Studies suggest that ten minutes between three shorter practice sessions yield more results than one long session.

Incorporating practice into our daily lives. Does it make sense that during our daily going about living that we would be able to walk in a mindful way occasionally? What kind of trigger can you find in your environment – you’re letting the dog in or out, an ad comes on TV, you’re shopping (what do you care what people think; maybe you can interest someone in Argentine tango). You find a trigger that will repeatedly during the week cause you to mindfully and purposefully, fixing mistakes, PRACTICE, even if briefly.

Reviewing our observations.

Collecting the legs together is not something the free leg “needs to do” with muscle power. It happens automatically as we bring our weight to the central axis of our standing leg. When we fully arrive over our new standing leg, our freely hanging free leg will collect underneath us. (If the free leg does not follow directly to the new standing leg, it will pull you off balance.)

We must use enough energy pushing off with our supporting leg so that all of our mass arrives fully over our new supporting leg, but not so much that we go past the balance point.

Exaggerating a movement can help you appreciate all that you need to do to fully create that movement. So, for example, try pushing off with way too much energy and see how it pushes you past the balance point. Then tone it down.

Start dissociation with the shoulder NOT the arms. (Some teachers say that the rotational movement should be visualized as starting in the spine.)

Pushing off with the supporting leg requires that the core muscles be activated.

A final movement practice, then conclude with a review of what we’ve learned.

Using checklists. Evaluate only the “meters” NOT yourself. You are simply a learning being who starts at any given point and who gradually or quickly, easily or with much practice, steadily or in fits and starts, you learn in the way that best suits who you are.

You seek to keep the meters at their optimum setting, and when you notice you are off you make corrections to bring them back into line.

The only judgement that serves you is when you find the performance of a particular movement didn’t meeting your expectations, you immediately review what was going on just prior to that movement. What can you change about the lead up to your movement that will produce a higher quality result?

Trust your body’s native intelligence. Trust your body’s muscle memory. If you are not yet able to do a thing, it can mean either that you haven’t given your body enough time to learn it through mindful practice, or perhaps your mental processes are interfering.

An observation is not a criticism. Sometimes we can discover things for ourselves, and other times we can benefit from an outside view.

Ideas and new learning take root, in a small way, and grow as they are tended.

Let it flow, calmly. It is good to make a judgement about how well a movement matched your target. It is BAD to make judgements about your body’s ability to learn or how fast it learns.

Tiny victories count. They add up. Focus on and build on the successes not the failures.

Trust the body’s native intelligence to grow the seedlings you are planting.

[** Although Helaine Treitman’s websites http://helainetreitmantango.com/ may have a whiff of salacious low-brow marketing, her free “9 Surprising Tango Tips for Men” {useful for leader AND follower, actually} is worth signing up for.]

Nothing but the cross


La Cruzada

La Cruzada

Monday night at Tango In Orange, the first class of a beginner series, Avi and Marina introduced la cruzada in a way—a highly effective way—that I’ve not seen before. (Avi attributes it to Kara Wenham and Javier Antar.) It seemed to have several benefits.

After introducing and practicing weight changes, walking to/fro and side-to-side, and rocking I think, they then introduced the cross something like this, While walking forward, as the leader is takes a step with the left leg, instead of stepping directly ahead and underneath the follower, step forward and slightly left right of your left side track in a “gorilla walk” fashion, with left arm, side, and leg stepping together sideways down the left track. This is done  Then as you lead the follower to take the next step back with their left leg (your right), you bring the follower’s body — still matching and parallel to yours — back in front of you. Since you the leader previously displaced yourself slightly to your left of the follower the follower’s right leg to their left track, and since they have weight on their left right foot and can’t move it, the only way for them to line up in front of you again is to cross their left leg over the right. Then in the next step when they uncross by stepping back on the right leg, everything lines up again.

Benefits: This exercise and explanation introduces the cross as a functional movement rather than as some arbitrary part of a fixed figure, the eight count basic. I have actually heard teachers say, “This is just a rule, whenever the leader takes a second step to the outside on your right, you cross; they can take as many steps as they want on the closed side and you never cross.” Never?! Maybe that explains why some followers will actively resist crossing right over left. Why do I want to have them make a weird cross on that side? Just because I can … or should be able to. Similarly, Always?! Many followers always cross with your second step on the open side even if they are not lead to one. Perfectly legal and useful movements are foreclosed by teaching the cross as an arbitrary rule.

More benefits: Since there’s no set placement or timing of the various leaders’ use of that left step, followers aren’t developing the horrible habit of following the teacher instead of following their leader. And, leader and follower get the idea of movements as atomic units that they can creatively combine in many ways. Plus, it gets right to the essential and basic cross without the added complication of walking outside and contra body movement.

Hurray for understanding. Down with rules. Rules, especially in tango, are made to be broken.

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.


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

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.)