Getting the last piece in my ‘simple, musical dance’ jigsaw puzzle

jigsaw puzzle

This week has been an eventful one in my tango journey!

On Monday, deciding to finally put Pablo’s actitude advice into practice, and set aside my inhibited Brit persona during dance – and immediately seeing how well this worked even in a class.

On Tuesday, verifying that I can actually do this in a milonga, albeit with some caveats. On Thursday, finally being able to drop maths from my tango syllabus. And today, a lesson with Diego which put into place the last piece in my ‘simple, musical dance’ jigsaw puzzle …

With my new approach to the dance, my range of vocabulary was no longer a concern to me. But there was one additional component I wanted, as much for the practicality of crowded milongas as for variety: a clockwise circular turn. My tight anti-clockwise walk works really well, but there are times when I need to be able to turn to the right, as that’s where the space is – and I did want just one extra thing I could do when stuck in place.

My criteria for it were straightforward: it needed to be something I could do in a tight space, and which was simple enough for me to get a rough-and-ready version of it within the space of a one-hour lesson. That, then, was Diego’s mission!

Three pieces of good news

The lesson brought three pieces of good news. First, Diego fully endorsed my approach. As with others, he said that what any follower was going to remember was not the figures, but the quality of the embrace, the clarity of the lead, the musicality, and – for an increasing number of today’s followers – the chance to bring her into dance into play.

Second, he said after we danced that I had enough options and enough technique to deliver a good dance. (Of course, he also had much to say about how to improve both my technique and my dance, but that will never not be the case.)

Third, he was indeed able to provide a clockwise turn that not only met my criteria, but exceeded them. To do this, he took a piece of vocabulary I already have, courtesy of Fausto and Stephanie: a back ocho into a sandwich and parada. He then showed how this could be abbreviated into something which could be used to turn on the spot.

The movement is:

  • put the follower’s weight on her left
  • pivot her into a back ocho (but without the usual side-step entry)
  • do the same sandwich and parada

There is some difference in execution, however, to wit: always thinking circular movement to the right. So, with the back ocho, opening my right shoulder as much as possible. When positioning my right foot for the sandwich, to be already angling it for a continued turn to the right. After moving my left foot into place, to then really open my right shoulder – and when I take the back step with my right foot, to get it further to the left than my right foot.

Two huge added bonuses

The movement came with not one but two huge added bonuses. First, it can be done either quickly or slowly – and it feels like two completely different turns.

Done quickly, pivoting on each foot to further increase the turn, it almost feels like the kind of clockwise giro with sacadas I’ve seen a lot in milongas. It’s a simpler movement, but it has the same kind of feel to me.

Done slowly, with suspensions and long drawn-out movements, it works well to really express dramatic sections in the music.

The second bonus was, in the slow version, it’s the perfect opportunity for an active follower to bring her own dance into play. Diego demonstrated how a follower could introduce her own pause into the parada; how she might playfully move back-and-forth before stepping over; how she can add decorations in the sweep around into the parada; and how, if I lead a forward ocho as the exit (as I would most of the time), she can choose the speed of this, and also decorate there. So long as I’m prepared for each of these possibilities, it’s a brilliant opportunity for collaborative dance!

Fully setting aside the ‘what’ to focus on the ‘how’

By the end, I would say I absolutely have workable versions for both fast and slow turns. There’s much refinement still to be done, as you’d expect from something new, but I’m extremely happy to have filled in what felt like the last remaining gap in my newly simplified dance.

Since I can now set aside the ‘what’ and focus fully on the ‘how,’ Diego said that I could do much more with pauses. I’d mentioned that I love Achaval’s dance, which is 90% walking, and Diego said that when you see him in a milonga, when he of course can’t do much walking, his dance is very still. Small movements, lots of pauses – but none of his followers are bored.

Granted, one could create a useful scale of tango technique that ran from me to Achaval, but the point is still a sound one. My natural tendency is to want to move throughout a phrase, pausing only at the end of it. Yes, my dance is now slower, but pauses are probably my most under-used figure. I’ll work on that. Diego also reminded me that pauses are the perfect time to run a top-to–toe embrace check. Head up, and turned to the left? Shoulders relaxed? Left hand closed and comfortable? Right hand in a comfortable position?

Perhaps mindful of how much we’d packed into the first private I ever had with Diego, he kept checking with me that there was nothing else I wanted to cover. I assured him no, this was what I’d wanted from the lesson, and devoting all the time to trying different versions of it and getting feedback on my technique was absolutely the most valuable use of the time.

Indeed, when I revisited my blog post for that first lesson, he’d said in February what it took me until July to really appreciate.

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.

Five months later, I had finally taken that on board and started putting it properly into practice.

But right at the end, I did remember one other thing where I needed the help of my tango engineer. There are times when I really want to switch between stepping on every other beat and stepping on the beat – but I’d never really led this very successfully. I’d done it in Veronica Toumanova’s workshop on Momentum in lead and follow, but that was with followers who were expecting it. The few times I’d tried to lead it spontaneously, it hasn’t worked well.

So Diego had me lead him, and immediately diagnosed the two issues. He said that I signalled the acceleration well, but then continued to take the same size steps, which made it unnecessarily difficult. When I led smaller steps for the faster ones, it was immediately easier. And the second issue was signalling the deceleration. This again had a very simple solution: continue to lead a small step when decelerating, and then you have more time to decelerate slowly.

We just did this in the last few minutes of the lesson, so there was no time to refine my technique, but this is something I can try in Monday’s practica. If it works there, then I’ll have the confidence to try it in Tuesday’s milonga.

Tomorrow, I have my fortnightly private with Julia and Fede. The original plan had been to continue working on my giro, but I’m now going to put that on hold. It’s something I can pick up at a later date. My plan for tomorrow is simply to dance and have them provide feedback and guidance on my technique for whatever I happen to use in the dance.

Image: Shutterstock

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