Rhythmical dance is bringing me back to basics in a whole new way

I wrote last time about the excitement I feel, at finally feeling like I might start to enjoy rhythmical tandas as much as lyrical ones. But there’s also the other side to this, which is why I choose the above image for this post.

There are times in my tango journey where it feels circular: Oh, this again! But it’s of course really a spiral. We learn something on one level, then we return to it later and explore it on another level. And we continually get deeper into each element – like revealing the fruit beneath the peel. (Hey, this metaphor is worth what you paid for it!)

Turning my attention now to rhythmical dancing is like revisiting everything from scratch …

The teacher-student relationship

I had a second private with Diego, and another with Filippo, which again made me think about the nature of the partnership between a teacher and a student when it comes to privates.

We could think of the potential ways to relate as a scale. At one extreme is the guru model. The teacher decides the what, when and how, and the student is a passive recipient of this wisdom. The opposite extreme is what might be termed the customer service model, where the student dictates everything and the teacher dutifully gives them what they asked for.

For me, a private is a 50/50 partnership. The student needs to communicate their goals – the things we feel we most lack, or would make the biggest difference to our dance right now. The teacher needs to see beyond the student’s current horizon, which will sometimes include things which might feel too advanced or off-topic, but which they know will actually move us forward in the direction in which we want to travel.

Sometimes it can be tricky to know when a teacher is getting too ambitious, and when they can see I’m inches away from a breakthrough and just pushing a bit harder will get me there. My usual approach is to go with it for a lesson, then review.

Two privates

My tango brain can only take in so much at any one time, so when I mentally review a lesson, I break the take-outs into three categories:

  • Focus: Things I want to focus on immediately, from my very next tanda
  • File: Things that I file away for now, intending to focus on them later
  • Forget: Things that don’t resonate with me at present

The ‘forget’ category doesn’t mean forever, but at least right now it doesn’t work for me or make sense to me.

In the follow-up private with Diego, he was pushing me into syncopation – my nemesis when it comes to rhythmical dance! It was great that he did it, as it gave me a much clearer view of where I need to get to for milonga in particular, but right now that belongs firmly in the ‘file’ category.

My focus for now needs to be on the technique needed to clearly and comfortably lead interrupted steps in normal time. Once I have decent technique here, then I can try it at the faster speed needed for syncopation.

This was underlined when dancing with Janet in our private the next day. As soon as I try to lead things at double-speed, there was hardly any lead there! I can sometimes move myself at that speed, but not signal a start and stop to a follower.

So in both privates, most of the focus was on technique for interrupted steps (aka incomplete transitions) and changes of speed, which was perfect for where I am now.

Filippo said this great thing to me, a way to think of a step. He illustrated it with the side-step, because that’s easy to see in a mirror. You can think of it like this:

  • Downward movement to signal that we’re about to step
  • Projection, until the toe just touches, with barely any weight
  • Think of that part as say 25% of the complete movement
  • There’s another 25% at the other end, collecting the now-free leg
  • Between the two is 50% of the movement with weight on both legs
  • There are an infinite number of positions in that 50% range
  • So play with them!

He said as an extreme example, you could do nothing but a single side-step for an entire song, playing with moving the weight to different positions, rebounding back and forth with both feet on the ground.

This isn’t the same thing as an interrupted step, where we will finally move the free foot past the original landing point – it’s a different way of having a similar feeling. Combining the two makes for a lot of flexibility.

Both Filippo and Janet also noticed something which immediately made sense to me: that sometimes I can begin with a clear lead, then it kind of fades before the end of the movement. More on that in my next blog post.

Another technique issue was a tendency to lean away from the direction of movement. For example, leaning right when leading a left side-step. Both he and Diego had me lean slightly into the direction of movement. Well, I say ‘slightly,’ but it felt like a lot to me! That fixed the problem, so now I just need to practice that enough to get it into muscle memory.

Key takeouts for now

Diego’s key feedback points began with reminders on elements that should be present for leading any step, but which I can do more of (points 1 and 2):

  1. Keep the standing leg slightly bent
  2. Begin any step by bending further to initiate
  3. An interrupted step should begin in exactly the same way
  4. The interruption should then feel like a surprise to the follower
  5. For the half-step, land softly, with a springy feeling, not a sharp one
  6. Eg. In a side-step, land on the toe and use it as a spring to just touch the heel
  7. Don’t be afraid to exaggerate the flex in point 2

Filippo’s key feedback also began with a reminder of the fundamentals:

  1. Grounding: always move as if need to push against the ground and against resistance
  2. Lead the complete transition – careful about the lead fading before the end
  3. In a back-step, lead from the hip, don’t lean forward
  4. Dissociate as I flex downwards, as that lets the follower know the direction of the step I’m about to take
  5. Lean into the direction of side-steps
  6. He also emphasised the point about not being afraid to exaggerate the downward movement

He gave me a couple of exercises for this. The first is simply to walk with exaggerated dissociation long enough for this start getting into muscle-memory. The second, to do the side-step and dissociation for a cross, then to walk in that frame.

Immediate payoff in my dancing

I went to the Tango Space milonga between the two privates. Although my interrupted steps technique was still rather rough-and-ready at that point, I did try it in three tandas. Briefly with two followers I didn’t know, and more with a friend, as I figured she was more likely to forgive me experimenting.

The good news was that it worked with all three.

But there was better news. Although I now have only the most rudimentary of skills to express rhythmical music, somehow the lesson with Diego had given me more confidence in dancing to it.

One of my hurdles with rhythmical dance is I find it hard to lead circular movements to the beat – I always lead those to the singer or violins. But I realised that if I can manage just a bit more variety in my rhythmical dance, it’s already a significant improvement.

I also danced a vals tanda where my only circular movements were three-rebound-turns-and-a-weight-change (perfect for a vals rhythm), and the rest was just mixing-and-matching steps and weight-changes, focusing only on the rhythm, and my follower told me at the end how much she’d enjoyed it.

The next steps

One of my next steps is obvious: practice the rhythmical stuff, and have this be the focus of more privates. But there’s another one …

My next blog post will be my 3-year appraisal. I’ll talk in that about why I feel like I’m on the verge of a real breakthrough in my tango.

Part of that is about confidence – which might sound surprising to anyone who knows me. I’m a pretty confident chap generally, and have brought a lot of that into tango. But at the same time, there’s been a sensation of a glass ceiling. I’ll confidently cabeceo followers of my own level, and some significant way beyond (a long way beyond in the case of friends), but there has been a limit.

But a good friend gave me a Talking To about this, and said that I didn’t need to be concerned about inviting advanced followers. There are stylistic preferences, of course; if someone wants to be whirled around at great speed in open embrace, and that’s all they enjoy, then I’m not a good match for them. But she said I didn’t need to feel inhibited about who I invite so long as I stick to the things I can lead well, and save the practicing new stuff for practicas and friends.

Other followers have said similar things, about not underestimating what I bring to the dance – which I’ll again discuss in the next post.

So that, then, is my other big next step: being brave enough to cabeceo advanced followers. I won’t be attempting any of my fledgling rhythmical stuff with them, but dancing my core lyrical dance – slow, simple, musical.

And to prove I mean it, I’m headed to Negracha tomorrow. My one goal for the evening is to have a great tanda with a follower I’d never normally dare to cabeceo. Wish me luck!

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