Learning in the street, and the cross


Understanding the physics of the tango walk

Walking to tonight’s Tango Space lesson, it occurred to me that I could use ordinary walking as practice. Not a full-on tango walk through Waterloo (though I have been known to do that on an empty DLR platform, which I’m sure amused someone on the other end of a CCTV feed), but just practicing really pushing into the ground. And in doing so, I solved a mystery that had been bugging me for a while.

The first time I ever really got that part of the walk right, Steph could instantly feel it, and Mariano could immediately see it. Yet I couldn’t figure out how that could be. How could something that happened purely inside my own body be not only felt but seen … ?

I tried it with Bridgitta on Saturday – first with the push, then without it. She almost jumped out of the embrace the second time. “Don’t do that walk again!” But she still couldn’t tell me why. (Her explanation of the difference between the two involved partnered activities of another variety, and was an effective metaphor but still failed to explain the physics.)

So clearly the difference was dramatic, but I still wanted to understand the biomechanics of it. Focusing on it while walking down the street, it was suddenly obvious. It’s not so much the pushing down into the ground part, it’s the fact that as I step forward that forceful downward energy gets converted into a strong forward movement. And that’s what followers feel.

Which is blindingly obvious in hindsight, but it took concentrating on walking in the street to figure it out.

A small music breakthrough

When I first embarked upon this mad journey, one of the great challenges was the music. I didn’t particularly like it; couldn’t tell the difference between a tango, vals and milonga; couldn’t hear the phrasing in the more complex songs; sometimes couldn’t even hear the beat. At a milonga, there were many tandas I wouldn’t even attempt.

Since then, I’ve been listening to lots and lots and lots of tango music. I’m glad I use Spotify for tango and Apple Music for everything else, otherwise my Apple Music preferences algorithm would have been completely destroyed. Spotify recommends tango, the whole tango and nothing but the tango.

I can now mostly tell the difference between tango, vals and milonga within the first ten seconds or so. (For those needing an explanation, you’ll find it in this piece.) Milonga is very obvious when the syncopated beat is front and centre. Vals I identify more by the circular feel than by actually hearing the difference between 2/4 or 4/4 and 3/4, but that method still works pretty reliably.

But listening to a tango playlist on the way to the lesson, I realised something else. Mala Pinta was playing, and I found that the structure and phrasing was making sense to me even though it’s a really playful piece that would have left me totally lost at an earlier stage. I was able to make sense of it because enough of the structure of a tango song has filtered into my subconscious even though I couldn’t yet properly describe it to anyone.

And during the lesson, I was much happier with unfamiliar music. I can’t pretend that I knew what was coming, but I felt able to respond to it reasonably well. So I’m definitely seeing progress here.

Of course, I have much more work to do on this. To which end, I have four books lined up:

None of them are exactly light, bedside reading – especially as I’ve had zero musical education. The first two need to be read while listening to the accompanying tracks, and all require concentration, so I shan’t be reading them at my usual pace – but setting a goal is step one in achieving it, right?

A breakthrough with the walk too

One thing I’d been struggling with a bit was switching between the close embrace used in lessons with Mariano, Maeve and Bridgitta, and the various levels of open/practice embrace used in group classes. I felt like I could get that chest-led walk in close embrace, but wasn’t sure how to achieve it in open or practice embrace.

Bridgitta said ‘just do it – give the same amount of intention and it will work.’ Which it did when I tested it with her. But it was still bugging me that I couldn’t figure out how or why. But now that I finally understood it, I felt confident in doing it in any embrace – even the palm-to-palm one used in some beginner exercises. And sure enough, in tonight’s lesson, it wasn’t ever an issue.

I knew that for sure when Federico came over to give me some feedback during the lesson. He has been really eagle-eyed when it came to my walk, but this time he said that it was really nice – and his feedback was on something else.

Oh, and the cross

Finally we get to the actual topic of tonight’s lesson: the cross. Tango Space restarted their 12-week beginner syllabus for the new year, which meant I was repeating a lesson I’d taken previously, but it’s something for which I needed a lot more practice, so I was more than happy to do it again.

I was particularly pleased to do this one, because it also gave me practice in outside walking – something I actively wanted. By the end of the lesson and 30-minute practica I felt really comfortable with this. We did a mix of the cross and switching back into inside walking, and that too felt comfortable.

Which is not to say I have come anywhere close to mastering it. The dissociation on the entry mostly worked really well, though I did inadvertently lead a front ocho a couple of times by over-doing it. The dissociation (reassociation, perhaps!) for the cross is an area where I still need more practice, as my followers weren’t always clear whether or not I was leading one.

I’ve mentioned before the benefits of dancing with lots of partners, and that’s especially true of dancing with fellow beginners. Experienced followers can compensate for a lot of a leader’s failings; beginners don’t. So if I want to really know how clear my lead is, dancing with another beginner is a great way to find out.

I also really like the fact that Federico encourages students to talk to each other during the exercises when something isn’t working. I was able to ask my followers to match the tension when they felt floppy, and they were able to tell me why my lead for the cross wasn’t working when it failed.

That turned out to be one of two things. Either I wasn’t fully straightening my chest, or I wasn’t giving them enough room, which was solved by making the final step into the cross a little shorter.

So, I want to practice this more, but my guess at the moment is that I can probably switch between inside and outside walk in a milonga, and maybe manage an occasional cross. Which is ok as my sense is it probably should be occasional.

We have theatre tomorrow and a residents’ association meeting on Thursday, so this will be my only Tango Space lesson this week, but there’s also a workshop on Saturday on … the three rhythms of tango! So I’m looking forward to some more tips on how to adapt my dance to a vals. So far, I do some tight circular walking, more rebounds and more ochos. I want to try the medio giro and giro in dance with Steph before I attempt to deploy it on an innocent victim at a milonga. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to do that later this week.

But for now, today was an Officially Good Day!

Photo: Shutterstock

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