The gentle art of dancing in small spaces

small spaces.jpg

After loving Diego Bado’s teaching in the Follower’s Liberation class, I knew I had to get a private lesson with him before he left London.

It’s amazing how much a good teacher can pack into a one-hour lesson! But let’s start at the beginning …

We started, of course, with the walk. Diego said this was very good for someone five months in, so Mariano can take a bow here; Federico too. We worked very briefly on acceleration and deceleration, but our technique work was otherwise focused on pivots rather than walking.

I outlined last time the specific problem I wanted to address.

My frustration at the gap between the theory of tango as a walking dance, and the reality of London milongas: lots of people doing static figures and turning endlessly in circles on the spot. Which may be lovely for them, but I just don’t have the vocabulary yet to do it, so end up walking in small circles or doing endless rebounds plus some medio-giros.

Essentially I felt like my current vocabulary was too limited to do much that was interesting when unable to walk. Even more so when very tightly hemmed in on a busy floor.

The how, not the what

Diego said that it helps to remember that there are only four elements in tango: steps, pivots, changes of weight and pauses. What makes the dance interesting or not is not what we do, but how we do it. It’s perfectly possible to take only the simplest of the things I can do, and to do them in a way that is so expressive of the music that it will engage a follower.

He illustrated this by showing one very boring change of weight – just back and forth to the beat – and another drawn-out one which could be done to another instrument. Similarly, a simple pivot can be just a turn, or it can really express something in the music.

Since musicality is already my strongest suit, I should be well-placed to develop an ability to transform being stuck in place from a problem to an opportunity.

Diego also showed me how to change the direction of an ocho, another very simple thing that takes no space – and also didn’t involve anything I didn’t know how to do: it’s simply leading a pivot on the spot.

Pivot technique

When Diego asked me what vocabulary I was able to use, I said that I had for the first time yesterday been able to lead giros in a milonga, but I felt they were very rough-and-ready – the exits in particular.

So we worked on my technique here. My difficulty ending them was quickly explained. He said that with a giro the lead needs to be either communicating ‘keep going, keep going, keep going!’ or ‘and now … stop!’. I was better at the former than the latter. He also recommended exiting on the follower’s forward step rather on her side-step, as it’s easier to move smoothly back into the close embrace. We tried this, and it was night-and-day difference!

There are, of course, just as many things to refine in a pivot as there are in a walk, and I have plenty of issues at present! I have a tendency to drop my head, which I think is me subconsciously trying to sneak a look at our feet. “Don’t worry about your feet, your feet are fine.”

I can also drop my shoulder during a pivot, or collapse my hip.

I think my solo practice sessions now need to switch focus from walking to pivoting. Both Mariano and Diego have shown me pivot exercises I can practice on my own. I do about 15-20 minutes solo practice each morning, so my new regime – for the foreseeable future – will be 5 minutes walking, the rest of the time pivoting.

I also think I need a mirror for this, so will have to investigate options here.

Diego said this is another benefit of pauses: I can use them as an opportunity to run through my mental checklist. Is my head up? Are we well connected? Is the embrace comfortable? Am I thinking upward spiral when pivoting?

He also showed how linear movements can be transformed into circular ones. One of my earliest solutions when trapped in a small space was using rebounds to turn slowly in place – effectively turning a linear movement (a step) into a circular one. Diego showed how the same thing could be done with an ocho. Instead of stepping to the side, I can lead an ocho while I pivot, so the whole thing almost happens on the spot.

I tried that, and then once I’d got the basic idea, Diego switched into Maeve-style sergeant-major mode! Every time an element wasn’t right, he would stop us, point out the issue, and then I’d start again.

Side-step. ‘Stop! The way you’re changing weight, it isn’t clear that I shouldn’t do the same. Let’s do it again.’ Ok. ‘No, still not clear, again.’ Again. ‘Ok, good, that was clear, now start opening space.’ Ok. ‘No! You need to be clear that all you’re doing right now is opening space, if I step now I’ll be stepping here, not where you want me, because you haven’t finished creating the space, so don’t let me step.’ Ok. ‘Good! That was good. Now I know where to go.’

He apologised at one point for all the stops, and I said, no, it’s perfect! This is exactly how I learn. I do need to know the whole sequence first, but once I do, then it’s time to focus on the technique, centimetre by centimetre.

A solution for my endless ocho problem

One of my challenges with ochos has been ending them. One teacher said you end them simply by not leading another one – but sometimes a follower seems to be on auto-pilot, or I have inadvertently led another one without intending to.

Diego showed me a way to definitively end a forward ocho: predict where my follower will be after her next step and move toward that space such that we’ll end up in close embrace. She won’t be able to continue ochos because there will be a Ben in the way.

He also said it’s hard to end back ochos cleanly, so the simplest method is to convert it to a forward ocho first.

Resolving apparent contradictions

Working with a number of different teachers is great for getting exposed to different perspectives, but it can occasionally be confusing if you get contradictory – or seemingly contradictory – messages. For example, with ochos in yesterday’s class, Hamdi was emphasising starting to lead the pivot during the side-step, while Diego’s advice was the opposite: to ensure that the follower is 100% clear by having each element be discrete. ‘Now we’re doing a side-step. Now you’re pivoting. Now you’re leading a forward step.’

But what I took from this is that I need to work on clarity when leading pivots, and so for now it’s helpful for me to think of each element individually. Once I have 100% clarity in my lead, then I can move on to focusing on the flow between the different elements.

The bleedin’ obvious

Sometimes with tango there are so many different things to think about that I lose track of the bleedin’ obvious. Even when I’ve been told it by at least two different teachers.

One of those was: if I’m not 100% certain where my follower’s weight is, lead a weight change – then I’ll know where it is because I put it there. So make that at least three different teachers.

Finally, pragmatic sacrilege

Diego said in Monday’s class that our legs are in service to our axis. Today, he expanded on that with something I’m sure many will consider sacrilege.

I think the very first thing anyone ever learns in tango is that our weight is always on one foot, never both. But he said that if I ever feel unbalanced, it’s fine to put the weight on both feet if that’s what it takes to achieve stability. You just need to then lead a clear weight change to continue.

In a way, this is a kind of extreme version of the advice to worry much less about what my feet are doing, and focus instead on how I want my follower to move. Putting weight briefly on both feet may not be ideal, but it’s better than losing balance.

And all of that was, believe it or not, a single one-hour lesson! It really was fantastic value. I’ve asked Diego to let me know when he’s next over, and I’ll definitely be booking another lesson or two, as well as signing up for whatever group classes he runs. If you get a chance to have a lesson with him, do!

Image: Shutterstock

20 thoughts on “The gentle art of dancing in small spaces”

  1. “Ending a back ocho cleanly.” Much as with the advice on ending the forward ocho, it’s all about where we step. So with the back ocho I simply don’t step quite as far as I normally would to ideally “frame” my partner’s axis. When they arrive in position where they are backing the line of dance, I am in position to step in an outside lane, either right-outside-position (i.e., we are both right side to right side) to the hand-side of the embrace, or left-outside-position to the arm-side.

    Regarding mirrors, yes, they can certainly help, however, they can also hinder as we turn to try to keep watching our image while pivoting. Better is to review a video. Pretty easy to do with a smartphone. For the Tango Tribe studio I purchased a car phone holder and mounted it in a corner to take in the broadest view. Students can easily pop their phone in to capture their work. Makes for powerful feedback.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I did take the plunge and did that! Had a look at your website and love that you teach both leader and follower roles from the start; I really think everyone should do that.


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