Finally feeling like an improver (and beginner)

small spaces.jpg

I may have mentioned once or twice <ahem> the difference between the theory of tango as a walking dance, and the reality of crowded milongas with lots of people doing endless circular movements. All good fun if you have any, not so much fun if you don’t.

I devoted not just one but both of my private lessons with Diego to this, and today’s Tango Space workshop was the perfect complement: Dancing in small spaces

The class was crowded, which in this case was a very good thing. Pablo moved in a line of chairs to reduce the width of the room, then had all of us – probably about 40 of us in all – in a single line of dance, imagining that there was another full lane next to us. That literally left us all with about one step forward or back as the only space available to us. It made for an extremely realistic facsimile of a crowded milonga.


The first point he emphasised was that you don’t have to be moving all the time. Or at least, not walking or pivoting. He reminded us of the power of the pause – or, more accurately, suspension. That so long as there is some sense of movement, which can be very subtle, it can still feel like dance.

Circular walk

Next, Pablo and Anne demonstrated the leader walking in a circle around the partner. One tight outside step, with lots of dissociation into a pivot, then a tight inside step, again into a pivot. At its tightest, those two steps could be 180 degrees each, giving a full turn on the spot in two steps. That would require superb technique, but however many steps it takes, that’s a relatively simple way to keep walking while not requiring more than a step’s worth of space in any direction.

There are definitely technique issues to work on here. For example, on the outside step, the leader’s right foot needs to be very close to the follower’s right foot, but you also need to create space at the hip. And the way to signal to the follower that this is going to be a small movement is to include a lifting motion into the step, then dropping back down at the end of it. Add in the degree of dissociation required and that’s a fair bit to think about, but it was already working pretty well, and it was clear that it wouldn’t take that much practice to have it work very well.

Small medio-giro – a breakthrough movement

Next up was a very small medio-giro. The idea of this was to have the whole thing occupy no more than the space of a single, small step.

This immediately worked. Indeed, I actually found it was easier to lead a small version than a bigger one. I’d previously opened the embrace to lead a medio-giro, but this worked very easily in close embrace. Because it took less space, it also needed less time, and one song had quite a fast pace and it was easy to keep up with the music.

With one follower, to quite fast music, we just kept going round and round, straight from one into the next, and it felt really lovely. It felt great to me, and my follower afterwards said that it had almost felt like a meditative state to her.

This was exactly the type of movement I’d seen experienced dancers do in a milonga but couldn’t do myself, so I can’t tell you how great it felt to finally feel that I too could do one version of that!

Ocho variation

Diego had taught me a circular variation on the ocho, and Pablo and Anne showed us another variation on that theme. In this one, the leader steps with the follower in one direction, but merely pivots in the other direction. The result is that the two of you basically turn on the spot, in the space of one side-step.

The key to this is lots of dissociation. In the version we did, the side-step to the left and pivot to the right, the challenging part for me was leading the change of direction from the right. But again, with some practice, this really came together.

And more

We didn’t get to try it ourselves, but Pablo and Anne demonstrated how you can do a kind of abbreviated version of an ocho cortado, where there isn’t as much movement involved, and you essentially keep it all within the space of the forward rebound. After that, you just pivot the follower to the right and then into a cross more-or-less on the spot.

I’d like to have tried it, but it made sense.

We did get the chance to try a similarly abbreviated version of the cross. Pablo was doing a version of the cross I hadn’t seen before. The version I know is:

  • side-step
  • outside walk with right foot
  • then left foot
  • then cross

Pablo was going straight from the right foot into the cross. As I hadn’t done that before, and we only did it for one song, I didn’t feel I really got the hang of that one, though it was essentially working by the last couple of goes, it just felt a bit artificial – like my follower was only crossing because she knew she was supposed to.

The value of my first lesson in following

I waxed lyrical about my lesson in following, with Maeve, and this evening’s workshop reinforced the value of even a two-hour taste of following.

When leading the ochos, for example, I had a whole new appreciation about the need to keep my right hand loose to allow my follower space to pivot within the embrace, because I’d felt it for myself.

When leading the medio-giro, I really understood the need for a strong spring-like push-back to signal the end to rotation, because I now knew that a follower will just continue without it.

One of the followers I danced with today was one I’ve danced with a lot in classes and a number of times in the Tuesday milonga, and she could really feel the difference.

More on that in a moment …

A major milestone

My experience in milongas to date has always been that I don’t yet have enough vocabulary.

There’s the phenomenon every regular reader of my blog will know by now: the gap between what I can do in a class and what I can do in a milonga, when so much of my attention is taken up with navigation and musicality. But there’s also been the sheer absence of circular vocabulary. Feeling trapped when the couple ahead of me are going round and round in circles and I want to walk but can’t.

But with the combination of Diego’s lessons and today’s workshop, something finally clicked. I do, for the first time ever in my tango journey, feel like I have enough vocabulary.

Not for every moment, and not for every dancer, for sure. But for most of the time, for most of the dancers of my level, I feel for the first time like I can muddle through.

So now my focus can be where I wanted it to be from those first early days: on doing a limited number of things well.

Finally feeling like an improver

I’ve so far felt like an interloper in improver classes. A beginner operating above my pay-grade.

But I do finally feel like I’m an improver. I’ll still be doing the beginner lessons too, but I won’t feel like a fraud in the improver classes – because that’s now what I’m aiming to do: take the things I can do, and improve upon them.

Learning to do my limited number of things well requires three things.

First, solo work on balance and dissociation. For balance, I got a couple of wobble-boards, one beginner level, one more advanced, and will work on those. For dissociation, Mariano, Diego and Dante between them have given me a bunch of pivot exercises to do.

Second, cycle two of the Tango Space classes. I’ll still be doing both beginner and improver classes, because I’m under no illusions that I’m no longer a beginner. Some of the improver sequences will still be complex for me, and given my aim is to improve what I can already do, then repeating the beginner lessons is, actually, the most effective way to be an improver. But the improver classes will stretch me, so the combination of the two is ideal. I may also try the improver lessons at Tango Garden; I’ll see what Mariano thinks.

Third, focus on making my lead both clear and comfortable. Right now, the most effective way I can do that is get more experience at being on the receiving end – which means more lessons as a follower.

I have my next lesson as a follower tomorrow, with Mariano. I’ll play it by ear as to how many of these I do before switching my private lessons back to leading, but for now, I’m totally sold on following being the best way to improve my lead,

Image: Shutterstock

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