My 18-month-ish appraisal: Stage One improvisation unlocked!

I’ve given myself appraisals at six, nine and twelve months. I thought another one would fall due at 18 months – but then at 16 months, the world stopped.

I tried a few video lessons, but in the end that grew too frustrating. I had a six-week break from tango before the opportunity arose for both in-person privates and practice, albeit in compromised form …

I can’t resume my lessons with Fede and Julia, which remains my ideal – getting expert feedback on both how my dance feels and looks. Instead, David can only observe. But Wai Fong is good at giving feedback on how it feels to her, and a separate weekly practice session means that I can then get a chance to put things into practice in dance.

It’s a far cry from my pre-lockdown routine of three milongas a week, so let’s just call this point 18-months-ish.

I changed my approach in 2020

I’ve said for a long time that my long-term goal with tango has been to reach the point where I can dance fluidly to the music without having to think about steps. Just two months in, I asked Anne for an honest estimate of how long it would take to reach that point. ‘Two years,’ she told me.

In January, I decided to forget sequences and to focus instead on the building blocks.

More generally, I’m looking to move away from figures. I want to approach it from the opposite direction: focus on the smallest possible elements, and then look at what can be done with these. Different ways to use them. Different ways to connect them.

When I started lessons with David, I explained that this was my goal, and what I was seeking was variations on things I already know how to do so that I could continue trying to understand the basic principles, continue working on connecting the dots.

Wai Fong had the perfect complementary goal from the follower side: she wanted to focus on just following what was being led, so for her not knowing what was coming was ideal.

So that’s what we’ve been doing. David has been throwing lots of possibilities at me, and it’s lead to some real ‘aha!’ moments. Playing with back-and-forth moments during an ocho cortado. Understanding that a volcada is just a variation on the cross, and that a planeo and voleo are are just variations on the same core movement. That a giro and contra-giro are literally the same thing in the opposite direction (I’m not sure how this rather obvious point eluded me for so long, but it absolutely did). Leading a cross with one step and my breath.

And it has really worked!

The last couple of practice sessions, I felt a whole new level of fluidity. Suddenly I was no longer thinking about a forward ocho … a giro … a back ocho … a planeo … a contra-giro … a voleo …

Instead, I was just dancing. I was using all of those elements, but I wasn’t thinking of them as discrete things to do, rather as possible forms of movement which I could intermix freely. It really was improvised dance.

Not totally. I still think of an ocho cortado as a figure, though I do now have plenty of variations for it. I still think of a cross as a figure, though I have more than one way of leading it. I still think of a calisita as a figure, though no longer something I have to set up in advance.

And, of course, there are new things which require not only thinking of them as a figure, but also demand enormous concentration – the volcada being a case in point.

This is just phase one of improvised dance.

But achieving phase one is huge! This is the point I dreamed of reaching in that second month. By either lockdown or non-lockdown timings, I’m ahead of schedule, and I can’t tell you how exciting it feels to finally be here.

What’s next?

Many things, of course.

Having a more systematic approach to our practice sessions. So far, we’ve been mostly just dancing, with a little time devoted to practicing something from our last lesson, but I think now I’ll suggest a two-part approach of specific practice first and then just dance.

They say you should never video yourself in the first two years, but each time I’ve seen video of myself, it hasn’t actually wanted to make me cry. Indeed, sometimes it’s been a pleasant surprise! So videoing our practice sessions, and studying it afterwards, will be one key next step.

In particular, I think studying video of the ‘just dance’ part will help me identify weaknesses in my technique.

Continuing to work on connecting the dots. I’ve said I don’t want to be doing figures, but of course figures are a means to an end. Familiarising myself with them, and exploring variations on them, is how I get to understand the principles behind them.

So I need to consciously relearn some of the things I’ve done in the past but never use in my dance (the Americana, for example), as well as new things like the volcada, and include them in my dance. Once I’m comfortable with them, then I can begin deconstructing them.

After that, we just need our milongas back …

Image: Shutterstock

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