An introduction to the world of off-axis dance

Off-axis

When David asked what we wanted to focus on in tonight’s lesson with Wai Fong, I took a deep breath and asked him how realistic it would be to tackle a volcada.

My only previous experience of one was when it was just thrown in for fun at the end of a Tango Space improver class, but it had always struck me as a lovely-looking movement …

It also felt like it would be so different to anything I’d done before that it would be a fun diversion, even if I didn’t really get very far with it. Which turned out to be accurate in both respects!

David had a great approach to the topic, building things up very gradually, but also keeping in mind my broader goal of understanding the fundamental principles of tango movements, and exploring variations on a theme.

Volcada

Step one was simply to give the follower a lifting sensation, to signal that she was to remain in place, while taking two tiny back-steps. That brings her weight onto my chest, and my job is to match that, leaning into her as she leans in to me to maintain our axis in between us.

Step two was to take a side-step to the left, then lead an over-extended back ocho. Then, as the follower pivots, I step around her, and collect.

Step three was to aim to reverse the process: side-step around her to face back into the line of dance and collect again … but instead of ending up exactly back in my original position, to make the side-step around a back-step as well (what would be a diagonal step back if all this were happening in a straight line) so that the follower ends up leaning on me. I then, of course, need to match that weight as before.

It sounds complicated to write it, and it felt complicated to do it, but after quite a few repetitions with feedback, it started to fall into place.

Step four was the actual volcada: after the follower’s weight comes forward, to then lead a cross while returning her to her axis. Which was every bit as challenging as it sounded.

David said that at an advanced level, it is nothing more than an in-breath and out-breath in a kind of n-shape to the left while taking a small forward step with my left foot to return us to our axis. That up-and-down to the left is the lead for the cross. However, when you’re learning it, you have to be willing to make it a lot less subtle!

Beginner leaders spend a great deal of time and effort trying not to lead with our arms. But David said that, at first, you have to be willing to do that – at least, with the right hand. To use the right hand to lead the up-and-down motion to the left during my forward step to signal the cross.

He had us repeat this plenty of times until it was, very vaguely and clunkily, working. My main challenge here was having the confidence to step far enough away from Wai Fong that she had room to allow her free leg to swing forward.

But rather than refine the volcada, David turned his attention to introducing me to the variations on the theme: other off-axis movements.

Colgadas

The second was a colgada. Instead of chest-together, feet-apart, a colgada is feet-together, chest-apart. The first version we tried was a sideways one. I lead the beginning of a forward ocho – just the pivot, not the step – and then we keep out feet together and both lean out. But the follower to her side, me back. Key here is to extend my right arm as far as possible around the follower so that she feels safely supported.

Third was a symmetrical colgada, facing each other. I lead a side-step to the left and parada, my right to the inside of her left. Then sandwich. From there, each lean back, aiming to have an elastic feeling in my arms. The key here is to have the lean begin with the hips, not the head, so it’s a sinking as well as outward motion.

Finally, a version where I take a side-step to the left and parada, and then do the same elastic arms thing as before, but this time I’m aiming to remain where I am while allowing the follower to lean back and in. I must confess my brain was a bit full by this point, and writing it, it doesn’t seem to make sense that we can be counter-balanced without me leaning out too. I’ll need to try that one again to fully understand what we did!

Principles, not competence, was the goal

All of this sounds like a huge amount to cover in a one-hour lesson, and it is. But the point wasn’t to get me to the stage of being able to do any of this competently, but to have me understand the principles of off-axis dance, and to see the variations on a theme that are possible.

About the only thing I was doing halfway competently by the end was being able to use the actual out-and-back colgada movements to express the music. For example, out in four small movements to the beat, and back in one sweeping movement to the violins.

But I was really delighted by the lesson. There’s a whole world out there of things I’ve seen but not understood. And now I understand the principles behind them.

A useful mistake

Finally, I made a useful mistake. In one of those moments familiar to any beginner leader, my brain was trying to remember the next two or three things I needed to do, and trying to think ahead led me to miss a step. Instead of taking a side-step to the left and then pivoting Wai Fong, I took a side-step to the left, changed my weight but not hers, and then tried to lead another side-step to the left. Which was a physical impossibility, as her weight was on her right.

I realised my error straight away, but David interrupted to show Wai Fong a way to save it. He said that in any side-step, a follower can cross her feet as a decoration – but if a leader makes the mistake I did, that also enables her to quickly change weight in order to uncross and follow the step.

Just as leaders can detect and compensate for a follower’s mistake (which may in reality be our own failure to properly lead the movement), followers can do the same with leaders.

Now the work, and play, begins!

I was right: it was fun. I was also right that I didn’t get very far with actually being able to do any of it, other than in a clunky fashion with a follower who knew what was coming. There is nothing we did tonight that I would remotely consider attempting in dance without a huge amount of work.

But having a basic understanding of the principles of off-axis dance is very exciting. I’m already thinking about the simplest possible way to apply this to my own dance.

There was a trick I found worked when I wanted more forward intention from a follower – a more apilado-style walk – which was to begin a forward step by actually coming back a little just beforehand. That brought the follower’s weight toward me, which gave me something to push against in the forward step. Some followers will immediately return to their axis, and the apilado will last for all of one step. But others will accept the invitation and maintain that sensation.

So I’m wondering about simply playing with that. To come back a little further, while maintaining forward intention, and create a volcada-like movement there, which I can use to play with the music. I’m not sure yet whether that will work, but it feels like it should. Perhaps I’ll try to rope Steph into trying it before I practice with Wai Fong at the weekend.

We’ll see …

Image: Shutterstock

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