Learning from a class beyond my abilities

intermediate class.jpg

I’d mentioned on a tango Facebook group that I was looking for tips to help me avoid leading with my arms. I got lots of helpful responses, and Mark Phoenix also suggested I join the Strictly Practica event they were running on Sunday so he and Nozomi could offer some help.

The afternoon began with a class from a visiting teacher, Martin Ojeda. The phrase ‘visiting teacher’ is normally code for ‘stuff way too advanced for me,’ so my plan had been to attend the practica only, but Mark promised Nozomi would work with me on simpler versions, so I took a deep breath …

The practica takes place at Columba, which is a really lovely space by virtue of glass walls on all four sides. Albeit a bit less lovely in 24C temperatures. But they had the windows open and two fans on, so it was less greenhouse-like than I was expecting.

The class figure

Martin demonstrated the figure he was going to teach, and it was very definitely an intermediate level thing. Here’s what I think it was: side-step into a cross-walk into a cross, pivoting the follower out of it, leading her to take a forward step to the leader’s right, then the leader doing a sacada behind the follower’s rear foot, then <something>, the leader changing weight and doing a barrida to sweep the follower’s right foot to the opposite side, then a sacada on the outside of the follower’s foot and <something> that then allows you to repeat the whole thing.

There wasn’t the slightest chance of me doing it, not helped by the fact that Martin’s commentary included things like ‘this is position 4, then we go to position 5, but on the opposite side, and now position 6.’ I had no clue what any of those numbers might mean, whichever side they were on! (I learned later that they are a reference to Mingo Turns, a method of teaching giros.)

Nozomi took me under her wing, albeit initially imagining that additional instruction might have me leading the figure. We settled on her trying to teach me the first part, with me pivoting her to collect after the sacada, and I did eventually get a vague version of that.

Nozomi wasn’t done, though, and then went on to work me through the barrida part, with less success, as my step memory was already full before we got that far. She did manage to get me doing that part on its own.

Three useful take-outs from a figure beyond my ability

I was initially wondering whether this was a worthwhile use of the time, as there wasn’t the smallest chance I would ever be attempting this in real life – and I hadn’t gone there to learn steps. However, it turned out to be useful for three reasons.

First, the cross into a pivot was a useful additional piece of vocabulary for me. It’s a neat way to turn a walk into a circular movement. So that’s definitely another piece of the ‘dancing in small spaces’ puzzle for me.

Second, while I wouldn’t risk the sacada part at present, it is a really nice movement when it works. Even with the experienced dancers, Martin was saying quite a few of the leaders were putting their foot forward but not actually stepping until the follower was gone. He said that was fine for a beginner, but he wanted them to actually step forward at the same time they lead the follower’s step. When I tried that, it is quite scary because you begin stepping into a space that doesn’t yet exist, so you feel like you’re going to walk into your follower, but if you lead it correctly, then she’s gone just in time and it’s an extremely satisfying feeling! That’s something I could work on in a future private lesson.

Third, I think the hardest type of movement for me to lead is either where I’m remaining where I am but need to lead my follower to do something, or where I move in one way while leading my follower to do something very different. An ocho cortado is an example of the former, a giro an example of the latter. So the more experience I can get at both, the better – and this gave me new examples of each.

Dancing with Nozomi

Nozomi had read my post and my blog, though, so knew why I was there, and spent more time with me during the practica. She had me just dance with her for a couple of songs, and she was a dream follower – incredibly light and responsive, and able to smoothly compensate for my errors. Afterwards we tried a range of different embraces.

The first was right hand as usual but my left hand just lightly resting on her shoulder. This meant there was no way I could lead with that arm. It was a very effective tool in emphasising the way the lead needs to come from the torso.

Second, we danced in the reverse embrace – me taking the follower’s hold – but still with me leading. That felt very odd! But again meant there was no way I could lead with my arms.

Third, Nozomi had her elbows down, hands up, and I cupped her elbows from beneath. Anytime I tried to move my hand round to the outside of the elbow, Nozomi stopped me and had me keep my hands directly beneath her elbows. That again meant there wasn’t any way to push, only to guide.

She then followed this by offering some specific guidance on which muscles should be engaged and which relaxed – echoing what Bridgitta told me one time – and suggested that a broom handle held in the crook of my elbows would be the best solo exercise.

Dancing with others in the practica

The followers in the practica were mostly practicing what they’d just learned, so I was rather apologetic in not being able to do so. Several followers took this as a challenge, and tried to teach me the steps, which was very sweet of them. Although it wasn’t what I was after, it was still useful for all the reasons stated.

Others were happy to just dance. Almost all were at a much higher level than me, but were forgiving of my errors. Because they knew how to do things I didn’t, I inadvertently led things I didn’t actually know, which again gave me more experience of just trying to follow them. Since I didn’t actually know what they were doing, that was with mixed success, and quite often had to be resolved with a pause and a weight change to get us back in sync, but no injuries resulted – and I did get more comfortable with pivots of unknown provenance.

I had a bit of a ‘doh!’ moment when I realised I hadn’t been asking most of my followers for feedback afterwards, so that was a big missed opportunity. But the one I did ask gave useful input about my left arm getting ahead of us, and when we danced again afterwards she said it was much better.

There was one follower who I just couldn’t seem to lead. I wasn’t sure why, but she often didn’t seem to change weight, and a few times kind of did her own thing without any conscious lead on my part. I took it as challenge and tried again later, trying to make my lead clearer, but with no more luck. Guess you can’t win ’em all!

So, all in all, an educational afternoon, despite having found myself in an intermediate class.

Image: Shutterstock

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