Dancing the exercises, and three levels of collaborative dance

Three levels

I wrote last time about my challenge with motivation. About the wonderful theory of lockdown being the perfect time to hone our technique, and the less wonderful practice of dancing feeling like such a distant dream it’s hard to maintain the motivation.

I had figured out one thing that helped a little with technique exercises …


There have been times in lessons when a teacher has wanted me to try something first without music, figuring it’s easier to focus on one thing at a time – the movement, and then fitting it to music. I see the sense in that, of course, but it’s only with the music that a movement has any purpose or meaning, so I’m always keen to add the music as quickly as possible.

I’ve found the same thing with technique exercises. Even if it’s just sitting in a chair practicing dissociation (the chair ensuring my hips remain still), music transforms it from something tedious to … well, something I do at least actually do most days.

It wasn’t so obvious an answer as it might seem because, in general, I’ve found listening to tango music during lockdown to be a depressing experience. I want to dance and I can’t. So I’d gone from listening almost exclusively to tango music to barely listening to it at all.

But what has always motivated me to practice has been the reward of dance. If I were dancing regularly, I’d be practicing religiously. And although Steph is here, our different levels, styles and musical tastes mean we have danced little.

So this was a problem I threw at my tango engineer: Diego Bado. I call him this because I’ve always used my periodic lessons with him as an opportunity to reflect on where I’m at, and what my core challenge is at the time. One time, for example, it was dancing in small spaces. Diego has always managed to come up with solutions, so now I posed this rather bigger question:

Given that I can do only a fraction of what Steph can do; that I love dancing slowly to lyrical music, and Steph loves dancing quickly while playing with the beat; that Steph is learning to lead and I’m a truly incompetent follower; and that Steph is always tempted to try to teach me (never a good idea while dancing, and especially not with a life partner) … how can we find a way to dance together in a way that is enjoyable for both of us?

It seemed like a big ask, but Diego was up to the challenge! He suggested the answer was to focus on collaborative dance, at three levels:

  1. A pause, with space for Steph to decorate
  2. A pause, and then I follow Steph’s movements, with dissociation or steps as required
  3. Steph finding her own momentary pauses in my lead to lead a change

That immediately made sense to me. It would not only make it fun to dance together, but also improve my ability to offer collaborative dance opportunities to other experienced followers when the lockdown ends. Diego said that it will also help more broadly with the quality of the connection in the dance, so a triple-win.

Video lessons are difficult when it comes to technique, because really the teachers need to be able to feel what you are doing, and demonstrate how things should feel. But there was one bonus to a remote lesson: we got Emma too. Like Fede and Julia, they make a great team.

With level one, the idea is that I just remain in the pause, a solid base for Steph. Nothing she does at this level requires me to move – unless I need to do so to remain in my axis.

With level two, Steph could move around to the side of me in a way that requires me to dissociate to stay with her, or she could keep moving around me in a way that needs me to use steps to follow her. For example, at one point Steph started walking around me using very small steps, and I turned in the centre with ‘penguin’ steps.

At level three, Steph is actively leading – and not awaiting an invitation to do so. We started with me leading forward ochos and Steph choosing a point to pause.

Another level three example we tried was again in forward ochos, with Steph choosing a point at which to move us forward – so instead of stepping at 90 degrees, she would over-pivot and step at say 120 degrees, requiring a diagonal step for me. Another was for Steph to stop a forward ocho and reverse it into a back ocho.

This was great for Steph, as it was also helping develop her leading skills, as she needed to do this exactly as she would when leading: signal a clear sequence of ‘We’re about to do this, now we’re doing it, now we’re stopping.’ It was great for me, as it was developing my nascent following skills.

There were times when Steph got a bit carried away, trying some fiddly double-time things and rapid back-and-forth changes which were beyond my ability to follow. But by the end of the lesson, the switches between forward and back ochos were working really well.

Diego said something I’ve come across before, which was that although expressing the music well is a significant waypoint in tango, the ultimate expression is to be completely in tune with our partner. He said that sometimes I needed to let go of my own interpretation of the music in order to be able to hear my partner’s interpretation. And even if I can’t understand the connection between the music and what my partner is doing, to prioritise being connected to her over being connected to the music.

I loved it. It feels like a very realistic way to connect our different dance levels, as well as to improve my own level of connection. I also think that learning to follow Steph will introduce me to new possibilities – not in the sense of figures, but just simple playful elements.

Finally, there was great news for both of us! Diego gave us a ‘no talking during dance’ rule – which would stop Steph trying to teach me, making me happy. And Diego recommended me dancing to music I didn’t know, which made Steph happy, as she would get to choose!

Of course, the test will be in whether and what happens when we do dance together; watch this space …

Image: Shutterstock

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