Tuesday evenings are straight into the improver’s class, as that precedes the beginner’s one. After a warm-up dance, we started with outside walking and then moved onto the cross.
I hadn’t been happy with my lead of the cross. It felt sloppy, and followers often ended up in a kind of half-hearted one. But tonight it clicked into place, and the key was fairly obvious in retrospect …
As is common with beginner leaders (and probably followers too), I think I’m dissociating more than I really am. The reality was a small amount of dissociation and re-association, thus an unclear lead. As soon as I started doing something that felt, to me, really exaggerated, it started working well.
It really did feel over the top, and I kept checking with followers whether they felt I was turning them too much, but they all said no, it was both clear and comfortable.
So I think I can probably now add the cross to something I’ll be able to use in a milonga. I’ll find out next time.
The improver figure
We then moved onto the figure, which was, as usual, a different one to the Monday version. Tonight, the leader crosses with the follower, doing an immediate weight transfer to the right foot. Then pivot left a little to uncross the follower, then pivot right more to invite her to step to our right. Then a sacada (stepping between her feet) with the left foot (freed by the change of weight) and follow her around to the right.
I’d never done a leader cross before, other than to end a song, and was fairly incompetent at doing the accompanying weight-change. I was also finding it hard to keep my balance while leading the initial pivot to the left.
On the plus side, I was, within a few attempts, at least following the steps, and at an earlier stage in the class than with yesterday’s version. Given that my initial forays into the improver’s class had found me unable to even get the steps, I chalked that up as a victory.
I guess I tried it about 30 or so times with three different followers. Of those, a few felt kind of okay; a few fell apart; most were basically there with the movements, just with zero technique. But, as I say, that’s a whole notch above where I’ve been before with this kind of sequence.
The other good news was, when Hamdi and Amy demonstrated it in dance at the end of the class, I realised it was one half of something I’ve seen experienced dancers do a lot in milongas, as it allows you to be expressive in a small space. So although I’m a very long way from being able to do it competently, it is a definite step toward something that will be key when I’m eventually able to do it.
Executing my plan
I wrote recently about my plan to expand my Minimal Comfort Zone.
I think I need to set myself a kind of milonga resolution: each tanda, if not each dance, I will use one thing I don’t normally do. I don’t mean shoe-horning something in that doesn’t fit the music, but rather finding a moment in the music that provides an opportunity for something from level 2. The Tuesday milongas are perfect for that as people are very often visibly practicing things they’ve just learned, and nobody minds if it’s very rough-and-ready. In this way, I can gradually expand my real-life vocabulary, promoting things from level 2 to level 3.
I put this into practice in the milonga after tonight’s lesson. I chose the ocho cortado, and was able to successfully include this in my dance. In doing so, I had a major realisation …
A major realisation
I’ve written several times about my milonga vocabulary being a small subset of what I’ve been taught. Some things, like tonight’s improver figure, are so far from milonga standard I’d never dream of attempting them. Others require too much attention dollar to use while I’m dealing with navigation challenges and musicality. Others, I can use if I actively think of them, but again, there are a lot of things competing for that attention dollar, so there aren’t too many cents available to think ‘Oh, hey, I could do this now.’
But I realised tonight there’s another massive factor. Everyone who has ever given me that now-familiar backhanded compliment ‘One day you’re going to be a really nice dancer’ has been basing it on two things. I have a nice embrace, and I’m musical.
I realised that, given those are the two things I have going for me, I didn’t want to put the second one at risk by doing things which are less controllable/predictable.
Here’s what I mean by that …
If I’m just walking, and the song has an 8-beat phrase, I can walk for seven beats and do a weight-change on the eighth. Or I can do a rebound on the 7th to return on the 8th. It’s as basic as can be, but it feels nice.
Anything else, I have to know how many beats it will take to complete in order to finish it at the end of a phrase. Take an ocho cortado, for example. Forward step, rebound, pivot, back into cross. That can be done in four beats. Since the follower could use a moment to uncross to go back into the walk, that works really well as the last four beats of a phrase. So to do that musically, I need to start planning it from the beginning of the phase, figuring out which foot to start with to be ready to execute the four-beat figure.
If I can pull that off, I retain my musicality and all is good. But if I mess up by starting on the wrong foot, or beginning it a beat late, it’s no longer a musical dance. I’d then be losing the main reason anyone might want to dance with me.
And the more complex the figure, the less chance I have of getting it timed to the phrase because I’m having to (a) work out how many beats it will take from start to finish, and (b) count back from there to figure out where in a phrase I need to begin it. And which foot I need to be on at the beginning. Doing that maths while also dealing with navigation, technique and everything else. No wonder I haven’t felt comfortable attempting much in a milonga!
Now, I don’t necessarily need to do it to the beat. I could follow the violins, for example. But, certainly for a beginner, dancing to the beat is clear. It feels good. And, as I’ve discovered, that’s even true if they’re not particularly aware of the music and don’t know why it feels good. One follower told me ‘I don’t know why, but it always feels nice to dance with you.’ I’ve had fellow beginners who’ve been surprised and delighted when I end a song nicely, because they were too busy concentrating on following the lead and executing their own steps to listen to the music.
But if I dance instead to the violins, they may not pick up on that. It may just feel to them like I’ve lost the beat.
And even if I’m dancing with someone who’ll recognise what I’m doing, phrases are more predictable than the melody. For a musical dance to the melody, I have to know the song well. I’m slowly getting there with a few Pugliese songs, but I need to know each individual song really well to pull it off. And that’s not happening in a milonga.
So given that the embrace and musicality are my only real tango powers at present, I don’t want to sacrifice one of them on the altar of Doing More Things.
I’m not sure what the solution to this is, but the first step in solving a problem is defining it, right?
A bold plan
After discussing my Six Month Appraisal thoughts with Steph and a few tango friends, I sought their counsel on whether now might be the right time to try my hand at following. Not to actually be able to dance both roles, but to understand how it feels to be led in order to inform my own lead.
The answer was a qualified yes. I also mentioned it to Pablo, who said it would help my lead so long as it didn’t confuse me.
So, the plan is this. I have a two-hour private with Maeve on Saturday, and a 90-minute one with Mariano the following Sunday (Steph won’t be around, so I get the whole 90 minutes to myself). I’m going to spend the lesson with Maeve working on following. If neither of us ends up on crutches, and we both feel we’re getting somewhere, I’ll do the same with the lesson with Mariano. Then I’ll review.
The idea is that if it seems like a few hours of following might be enough to get me to some ‘aha!’ moments, I’ll continue that to reach that point. If it confuses me, or feels like it would take many, many hours to reach that point, I’ll revert to leading in my privates.
This feels like a bold plan, at a time when I’m still at a pretty basic stage with my lead. But it also feels like an experiment worth conducting.