A lesson too far, but one new turn and three old thoughts

tea

My temporary tango routine continues with the Wednesday and Sunday Juan Martin and Steffie classes.

I thought this blog post would be short, as I was hardly able to do anything in last night’s intermediate class. But I turned out to be very, very wrong about that. So grab a cup of tea and make yourself comfortable …

Beginner/improver class

The first class had some complete beginners, and started with walking and side-steps, before we all did a 6-step box pattern. It’s the first time I’ve seen tango introduced with a pattern like this, and while I can see the benefit – it has people very quickly feel like they ‘know some steps’ – I also saw, and felt, a huge drawback. Because the followers know what’s coming, it’s very easy for them to do their thing without any reference to the lead.

I experienced that with a couple of the first-time followers. The music started with a clear and even beat, then slowed. But they were off on their pattern at the rhythm they’d practiced, and it was like a wrestling match trying to actually lead them.

The topic of the class was the calesita. I’ve done this at Tango Space, and it’s never really appealed to me. I think because it kind of feels like a more awkward and less elegant version of a planeo. It’s not the type of movement I’m going to do very often (in part because there’s rarely room in a milonga), and if I’m going to do that kind of thing occasionally, I’d rather lead a planeo.

That said, it was useful practice from a technique perspective. It calls for good balance and accurate steps on my part, while providing a good support for the follower. I did it with a variety of followers, some completely in their axis and able to decorate, others who needed a significant amount of support to keep their balance, so that was really useful. Plus JM gave me some great feedback with more general applicability, about leading the pivot with my spine.

Intermediate class

The intermediate class was on the cross. In the course of 90 minutes, it covered:

  • the basic cross
  • a succession of additional crosses
  • a very slow cross
  • an accelerating cross (starts slow then gets faster)
  • a forced cross (a leader cross with a sacada)
  • the cross in cross-system
  • a forced cross in cross-system
  • alternating inside and outside forced crosses in cross-system

The good news was that I did improve my cross technique. The bad news was … well, pretty much everything else, really! Most of it was just way beyond my abilities. I tend to avoid cross-system, as it adds a layer of complication I could do without; the forced cross only worked occasionally in parallel system, and was a non-starter in cross system; and as for the idea of alternating sides with it … there’s more chance of Boris Johnson coming up with a coherent Brexit plan.

But them’s the breaks when it comes to jumping with both feet into a class that I refer to as ‘intermediate’ to avoid the absurdity of writing about taking one which is actually billed as ‘intermediate/advanced’ …

One dual-role dancer did her very best to help me. Talking with Steph afterwards, I think the forced cross is partly a matter of confidence: it really feels like the leader is barging into the follower, and both J last night and Steph afterwards had to convince me it doesn’t feel that way. But I also had very little clue how to do it from a technique perspective, so this movement won’t be coming soon to a milonga near me.

Oh, one other interesting thing: JM explained how the cross came to be invented. He said originally there was only the parallel walk, and all turns were walking turns of one kind or another. Then someone came up with the outside walk, and the problem was that if you pivot the follower in an outside walk, you end up offset. In a crowded milonga, you might not have room to walk back into alignment, so a movement was created which essentially forced the follower to move back in front of the leader. The only way she could make this particular movement without losing her balance was to cross her feet and change weight. So the cross itself wasn’t a decoration, it was just the follower keeping herself in her axis.

Of course, like all these stories, you have to insert a disclaimer. This is one of those things that a student heard from a teacher who heard it from their teacher who heard it from … There likely isn’t anyone alive who knows first-hand. But it does make perfect sense. And Steph says sometimes she does an unled cross as a method of coming back into axis if she’s off-balance to one side, which again lends weight (sorry!) to the idea that it was a consequence rather than a goal.

Practica

I’d arranged to practice barridas with Asia, but she managed to get herself hijacked by promising one dance with another leader which then turned into a succession of same. In the meantime, I danced with a woman who’s a tango newbie (three or four lessons) but very experienced in other forms of dance and thus way better than her tango mileage would suggest.

Three songs later, Asia was still lost to the other leader. They don’t do tandas in the practica, just continuous play, and I think that’s one of the reasons people don’t tend to swap partner during it: there isn’t an obvious time to do so, and it kind of feels like breaking tanda if you stop arbitrarily.

Fortunately M was there, so I was still able to carry out my plan. She’s very relaxing to dance with, and we did a mix of pure dance and practice that was both fun and useful.

I wanted to try a turn I’d seen Pablo do in a video. The leader does a back-step with the left foot, then pivots quickly to the leader’s right while leading a large diagonal step for the follower. This is, of course, an example of what JM said all tango turns were originally: a walking turn.

It took a few tries to figure out how it worked, but once we did, it worked well. It requires some speed, and the confidence to lead it at the speed it needs, but we were fairly quickly making it work. With more practice, I think that would be a very useful option in a milonga.

M wondered initially if I was referring the The Boston Turn (as it shall henceforth be known), which is another form of walking turn, so we ended up practicing that too. I said the times I’ve tried it, the follower always ended up doing the turn in two steps rather than one. She was sure that hadn’t been true for her when we tried it before, and we did actually manage it in one step. I said I wasn’t remotely convinced I was actually leading it – convinced it only worked with her because she knew it – but M insisted she couldn’t remember how it worked, so I was leading it.

There was another walking turn I’d seen Pablo do in the same video, but I couldn’t remember that one at the time. I’ll watch the video again and have a go at that next time.

I also tried out with M the barrida-into-planeo sequence I’d learned on Sunday. While my technique needs much work, that experience demonstrated that I was able to lead it with a follower who hadn’t been in the class.

Thoughts

Three things struck me from the evening. None of them are new thoughts, more reinforcing existing ones, but then much of tango is about re-learning the same things.

The cross

Having worked long and hard on having a comfortable lead, I’m very wary of anything that might feel rough or uncomfortable. The cross is one of those movements that has always felt to me like I’m kind of manhandling the follower. But both M and Steph have told me that it feels like a nice movement, and usually the problem for followers is very much the other way around: that the lead is too subtle to be sure what’s going on. So in terms of making a follower feel good, more is generally better in terms of the lead.

Part of my issue with that may be that I’ve danced with such a variety of followers, from advanced to complete beginners. Very experienced followers need only a hint, and I think I’ve been afraid of kind of insulting them with a beginner-type exaggerated lead. But for most followers, making it super-obvious is the more comfortable thing, so I need to be willing to err on that side.

One thing that really helped was the very slow cross. I’d always thought of it as a movement that requires some momentum, like you’re snapping the follower into it. But – at least with followers who were expecting it – it actually worked slowly too. Steph also said it can be nice to play with that slow-cross movement, not letting the follower get as far as transferring her weight, pivoting her in and out of the cross to the music. Playing with that definitely sounds like fun, and a brief solo practice whetted my appetite for trying it.

I’m going to stop being scared of crosses and make them part of my core tango vocabulary.

Finding my dance

Some types of movement feel more natural to me than others. In terms of being able to dance well in a milonga, it makes sense to focus my efforts on the former.

Now, sure, I could second-guess myself here. I could take the view that unfamiliar things may feel unnatural, and if you do them enough times, the unfamiliar becomes familiar – so just put in the work and get on with it. I could say that the more of those unfamiliar things I can make familiar, the more options I’ll have. And all of that is true.

But it’s like driving. I used to do a lot of track driving back in the day. There are drivers who wrestle their cars around, tail hanging out, their arms a blur on the wheel, entering bends right on the edge of control. My style wasn’t that. I was a very smooth driver – a big fan of the ‘slow in, fast out’ approach to bends. Get all your braking done prior to the entry, then accelerate through the bend. Sure, I’d slide the car around fast bends, but with all four wheels sliding rather than a tail-out position. It felt calm and collected even taking fast bends at three-figure speeds.

There’s no right and wrong about it. Sometimes smooth is faster, sometimes ragged is. And when you’re doing it for fun, not trophies, that doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is an enjoyable drive, and feeling at one with the car and the track.

Tango feels like that to me. What matters to me is feeling at one with my partner and the music. My preferred style is smooth and comfortable. So it makes sense to adopt movements that feel that way to me – or, at least, feel like they could with some work.

The cross is an exception. There, I have to accept the follower perspective on it and get used to it. I feel like the class really helped with that, even though most of it was beyond me.

But in general my approach is going to be that if it feels natural, I’ll work on making it smooth; if it doesn’t, I’ll leave it be for now. Taking recent examples, the barrida into planeo did feel like a natural movement to me; the forced cross absolutely didn’t. I get that the two types of movement are closely related – in both cases, a sacada with the whole leg. And maybe as I get more experience with sacadas (still a new thing to me) the forced cross will start to feel more natural. But when I review all the material covered in the JM&S classes (which will take some time!), my filter will be what does and doesn’t feel natural to me.

My ideal-world approach to learning tango

In my ideal world, tango classes would begin with the walk, then introduce a pivot. Just a pivot. Really focus on the technique of leading and following a pivot.

Then show one way to use that pivot, of which an ocho is the obvious example. But again, focus on each element of an ocho, ensuring both leaders and followers reach a decent level of technique.

Then do the same thing with another pivot, perhaps a walking turn. Again, one movement, with all the focus on technique.

Building up components – what Irina Zoueva calls lego blocks. When, and only when, people have got a good feel for these individual movements, then provide examples of how they can be combined. So, when someone can do a good rebound, and a good diagonal step, and a good interruption of a pivot, and a good cross … then say ‘Hey look, you can put those four things together in sequence and you have an ocho cortado.’ The complete opposite of the current method of ‘Hey, do this sequence of these four things, and then we’ll try to help you do them properly.’

Plus it would solve my step-memory problem. Instead of struggling to get to grips with a sequence of unfamiliar things, grappling at once with the steps and the dissociation and the change of the embrace and the … it would be simply stringing together three or four movements which are already embedded into muscle-memory.

This is absolutely not a criticism of tango teachers. I completely get that people arrive at tango thinking dance is about steps, and they use these to measure progress. Last night’s first-timers arrived knowing nothing and left thinking they can do a calesita. If a teacher tried to use my approach, students wouldn’t do their first figure until who knows how many lessons down the line – a point they’d never reach because they’d quickly have grown frustrated at their lack of visible progress and headed off to the school down the road.

So I absolutely get why beginner/improver classes are run the way they are. And then by the time someone reaches intermediate/advanced level, they have an inventory of figures, so the stuff taught last night, for example, would simply be minor variations on a theme.

I get that what I want isn’t realistic. That group classes are going to focus on sequences, and the teachers will then do their best to help people work on their technique. The reality is that the only way to get what I want is in private lessons. But there are two more realities.

First, tango is a social dance, and if I turn up at a typical milonga as a stranger, I’m not going to get many dances*. People need to get to know me and my dance. So as I recognised before, pre-milonga classes are pretty much unavoidable if I want to visit more milongas and do more dancing.

*There are exceptions – the Romantica Milonguera event, for example. Huge numbers of people from all over the UK, and a significant shortage of leaders. In those sort of circumstances, I can dance as much as I want.

Second, although I’m now using group classes primarily for social reasons – with privates the focus for my learning – it’s not going to work if I make no effort to learn the sequence. I’m hardly going to be selling myself as a prospective leader in the milonga if I don’t make an effort in the class. So although I’m not personally sold on the value of learning sequences, I will still need to give them my best shot.

Plus there’s never been a class where I haven’t learnt something useful – even if it wasn’t the focus of the class. I may have been nowhere near being able to do most of the stuff in the second class last night, but I have, finally, reached the point where I’m promoting crosses to the ‘part of my core vocabulary’ list. That alone was great value.

Phew – 2,749 words! That wasn’t at all what I expected when I sat down to write. If you’re still reading, I hope your tea isn’t cold.

Image: Shutterstock

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