Four lessons in a weekend, or ‘Ochos: what was all the fuss about anyway?’

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My tango torrent commenced with four lessons in a weekend, so this blog post will be a long one …

Lesson 1

The group lesson at Tango Garden again had some complete beginners, so didn’t progress beyond the walk. In most activities, redoing the very basics – starting with changing weight – would be annoying, but in tango there is so much to learn and refine even in something as simple as changing weight …

Plus Gav is great at providing individual attention to everyone and offering feedback and guidance pitched to the right level. With the walk, she had me do something Mariano did early on: imagine someone holding me back by my belt. That had made a certain amount of sense to me when the concept was first introduced, but clicked on another level now. Likewise with the idea that the top of a leg movement is just beneath the rib-cage.

I also got to make some progress with one of my aims at present: getting a better appreciation for how things feel for followers, by getting some experience walking backwards for more than a step or two.

Helping a complete beginner also showed me how much I’ve progressed since I started. Because almost all my progress is in the walk, it can be easy to lose sight of just how much I have learned, and seeing how mine compared with a total beginner walk really drove home how far I’ve come to date.

Lesson 2

Bridgitta then gave me a private lesson at home. This covered so much, I can almost certainly recall only some percentage of it, but it began with further refining my walk. I successfully communicate my intent to start and stop, but Bridgitta said that I could make life easier for beginner followers especially by ramping up and down more smoothly, essentially signalling ‘I’m about to start’ and ‘I’m about to stop’ rather than ‘I’m starting’ and ‘I’m stopping.’

Next was one of those reminders I need on a regular basis: that my job is to control my body, and trust the follower to respond. As a great demonstration that arms need play no part in this, she had me lead her without arm contact at all. Amazingly to me, this successfully communicated ‘I’m about to stop’ as well as ‘I’m about to start.’ My brain doesn’t quite understand how, but I’ve instructed it not to worry about it.

There are, of course, levels of understanding to everything in tango. Having grasped that movement starts with the chest, Mariano had moved on to explaining that it actually begins with the spine. That felt initially like a rather academic distinction – how can you move one without the other? – but Brigitta was explaining that followers can feel this movement with their left hand. And leaders, too, can sense a follower’s movement with our right hand.

She demonstrated this by having me place a hand on her spine while she picked up a pen from a table. Or, rather, didn’t. I could feel the movement in her spine before her hand even moved. With literally zero movement of her hand, the intention was perceptible.

This provided a means of answering one question I had: if a follower is decorating, and I can’t see her feet, how do I know when she has finished? It also provided a tiny glimpse into the world of tango as a two-way conversation between leader and follower.

I got a further taste of this in my still-very-approximate ochos: that the leader needs to wait for the follower to complete the pivot and weight transfer. So already in this the follower is effectively leading.

I even got a taste of actual following. Just a practice embrace, and only a few minutes, but while following remains a dark art to me, it’s a great tool for me as a leader to understand clearer and easier ways to communicate my intent.

Lesson 3

Lesson 3 was a Tango Fever workshop with Rene and Hiba on ‘moving with fluidity and ease.’ This took place in a lovely space in Camden.

It was rather beyond my level, assuming comfort with both an ocho and a cross, and aiming to smoothly blend them together. I didn’t have comfort with an ocho, and had not learned the type of cross we were doing, but Steph was confident I’d still get benefit from it, and she was absolutely right.

My ocho, still very rough-and-ready yesterday, came together in a way which – for the first time – felt smooth and controlled. (Well, aside from the exit, but I know what to do to fix that.)

A practica followed on from the workshop. Everyone had told me that, when the ocho finally clicked, I’d wonder why it had ever felt complicated. For me the real test was that I was able to use it when dancing in the practica afterwards. I’ve found there are three levels for me:

  • Movements I can practice on my own, but not smoothly perform with a partner
  • Movements I can do smoothly with a partner while practicing
  • Movements I can use while dancing

There’s often quite a gap between the latter two. While dancing, the music, the navigation and the walk take most of my attention dollar; I don’t have enough of it left to do anything which requires me to actively think through the steps. But in the course of lessons 2 and 3 this weekend, my ochos finally made it to the third bullet-point.

Lesson 4

Which was a fact Mariano quickly put to good use in my final lesson. Timings meant it could only be a 30-minute one (with Steph having the other 30 minutes for a breakthrough of her own).

Mariano and Steph jointly decided that with the ocho now part of my armoury, it was time to progress to the giro. That wasn’t going to happen in half an hour, of course, but I got the basic idea of the first half of it, entering from the back ocho. And immediately saw something I could do with that half. The notion that, in tango, everything is connected to everything else is becoming more and more real. (Steph got all enthusiastic and wanted to give me about a billion examples, and I had to warn her that my brain would explode if she did, but the principle is now a very concrete one.)

And so ended an extremely intensive, tiring but hugely satisfying and enjoyable start to my torrent of tango.

And finally …

This has been a long post, but I do have to say one final thing. The generosity of more experienced dancers in spending time dancing with a beginner is something I really appreciate. I said before that I wouldn’t name people beyond teachers, but all my partners in the workshop, along with H and S in the practica afterwards, couldn’t have been more friendly and encouraging. Thank you.

Photo: Shutterstock

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