A great workshop with Veronica Vazquez: axis, embrace, and a little role-swapping


Today was quite a long day. It started with a severe hangover thanks to dinner with friends on Friday night (where there was Drunk Tango), then the anti-Brexit march. It ended with an 8-10pm workshop with Veronica Vazquez.

I’ve done a number of workshops which were billed as pure technique, but many of them include step sequences which I personally find distracting. Fortunately, tonight’s one completely lived up to its billing …

This workshop will be dedicated to working on the embrace and the connection with the partner. How to be relaxed, connected, comfortable and present. How do we adapt to each other?

We will investigate different kinds, shapes and uses of the embrace. Which possibilities and limitations do they give us? How do we find the one that suits us better, or feels better?

How do we listen and communicate with our partner and create something together (not only in the moments where one is not dancing and the other does decorations)?

There was not a single sequence taught. When we tried things out, we could do whatever we liked – the steps weren’t important. That’s my idea of how all technique workshops should be.

One exercise aside, we’d be working in fixed couples, rather than rotating partners. I couldn’t find a follower friend who was both interested and available for it, but Veronica said she would find me a follower. Unbeknown to me, a friend had signed up also, and Veronica then matched us.

The friend is an experienced follower learning to lead, and she asked if I’d be willing to do some role-swapping, which I was very happy to do.

Axis is a circle, not a single point

Veronica said we often think of being in our axis as a single point, but it’s not – it’s a range. To demonstrate this, she had us each stand individually in our normal axis. Then put our weight as far forward on our feet as we could without any risk of losing balance. Then do the same as far backward as possible. Then to each side. Then to make circles within this range. In every one of those positions, we are still in our axis. So our axis is a flexible thing.

We then practiced individually walking both forwards and backwards first normally, then with our weight at the front of our axis, then with our weight at the back of our axis. She said to pay attention to how that changes our walk.

With the weight fully forward, the effect is a small projection, then a faster step and a longer collection. With the weight fully back, you get a very long projection and a delayed step which then ends quickly. Veronica said this was another tool we have for expressing the feeling of the music. Perhaps more back for slower sections, more forward for faster ones.

Different embraces, and leaders matching followers

There’s a claim made in tango which I suspect is more honoured in the breach than the observance: that the follower gets to choose the nature of the embrace.

I mean, it’s true in one sense: the follower can opt for a very close embrace, or a very open one. But once the couple begins moving, I would say it is more often the case that the follower has to adapt her embrace to the style of the lead.

We experimented with a few different styles of embrace, with the followers initiating. For example, a very high embrace versus a much lower one. The leaders then adapted to the follower, and we then did a little walking to see the difference it made to the feel. This then lead into a really fascinating and thought-provoking exercise.

Each leader had to stand with our eyes closed. Veronica then randomised the followers so each one came and embraced us in turn. Our job was to feel the way the follower was embracing us and to match their embrace.

The thing that was fascinating was just how different each embrace felt. I recognised my friend’s embrace, as I’ve danced with her a number of times. There was also one really tall woman in the class who was identifiable by her height. But I didn’t know any of the others, and had no idea who was who, even when I tried to figure it out by watching their dance. One follower had a super-snuggly embrace, and I understood what followers meant when they said what a difference this makes.

Julia has given me quite a lot of guidance on this, and after tonight’s experiment, I’m going to review what she’s said and really make that a priority.

I did mention to my friend afterwards that I feel a little inhibited about the idea of just taking time to establish the embrace before moving, as I don’t want it to feel weird to followers. I will seek some input on this from experienced followers.

But the other thing that’s really interesting to think about is whether and how I might adapt my dance to the feel of the follower’s embrace. I think right now I tend to adjust things to my habitual/preferred embrace, but the idea of instead trying to go with the follower’s embrace, and lead within that, will be a really fascinating experiment. I’m excited to try that at tomorrow’s Los Angelitos milonga.

Point of contact: theory versus reality

Just as a single point of axis is an over-simplification of the reality, so too, argued Veronica, is the chest being the point of contact. In practice, she said, it depends on the couple. Relative height, for example, could have a huge impact on where the point of contact is.

She demonstrated a way to establish this point by using a tennis ball. She took one of the followers, and they figured out where the tennis ball needed to be positioned between them such that this became the point of contact.

She she handed out a tennis ball to each couple so we could each discover our own point of contact. There was laughter during the demo as the point of contact for them was between their breasts. Having noted that, when Veronica handed the ball to me, I promptly handed it to my friend so she could do the positioning …

The point of contact between us turned out to be lower than I would have guessed. No comments on my physique and its potential influence, thank you.

Another style of embrace we tried is a V-shaped one. This brought back memories, as it’s the shape I instinctively found myself in very early on. These days, I do still have a bit of a tendency to end up slightly offset, but definitely no trace of a V shape any more. It was interesting to see the impact this has on both the walk (outside walking is easier than parallel) and pivots (they become very asymmetrical). I was very happy when that exercise was over!

We then tried a very open embrace. Followers were told their job was to really push back into the leader’s right hand, so they could feel the intent that would otherwise come from frontal contact. To test this, leaders had to place the tennis ball between hand and back. I’d never really thought about this, but once we got it, open embrace did work significantly better (though I will never be a fan).

Next up, vals. Veronica had us individually do rock steps from side to side, and to really get a pendulum feeling going. Then we had to walk forwards and backwards slightly within those rock steps. We then gradually increased the forward and back distance while reducing the side-to-side one until it was essentially a normal walk but with just a hint of the side-to-side element. The idea was to still convey that feel in the walk, to make a vals walk very different in feel to a tango one.

We danced some vals, and that made such perfect sense – I loved it!

Finally, Veronica addressed this part:

How do we listen and communicate with our partner and create something together (not only in the moments where one is not dancing and the other does decorations)?

She said that sometimes follower think they can only follow except where the leader deliberately gives them space for their own dance, the classic example being a parada. But she demonstrated how she could follow exactly the same lead, one time very neutrally, the second time really putting energy into it. So when she followed a side-step, she really pushed into the floor to give it oomph. When she did a forward ocho, she really made the pivot energetic and beautiful. But all of it was completely within what was being lead.

That too made total sense to me. It’s an idea I’m going to share with follower friends at the same kind of level as me, as that one point alone could transform not just their dance but our dance. That’s a way to have every dance feel more collaborative, more equal.

A little role-swapping, and a good tip

My friend and I did a little role-swapping. Not as much as I’d expected, as some of the things we were playing with really needed some ochos or giros to make sense of it, and I can’t follow either anything like competently. But I did some following, and it was very enjoyable.

I mentioned to Veronica at the end my perennial problem with my left arm creeping inward. She suggested this was most likely due to tension in my shoulders due to my stiff upper back, and said that rotation exercises to loosen those muscles would probably prove key. That too made great sense, so I will do this.

So, a fantastic workshop that packed a huge amount of material into two hours.

Image: Shutterstock

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