Three years in, learning to stand, walk and turn

Being a tango teacher must take a special kind of patience. Learning to dance takes so long that the only way it will ever happen is via shortcuts. Things that are good enough to work, to get people to the stage where they can dance.

Along the way, they have to turn a temporary blind eye to really fundamental technique issues that will need to be addressed further down the road. Things like learning to stand, walk and turn …

So, as I approach my three-year anniversary, that’s what I’ve been doing this week.

Battersea Spanish

The week kicked off with a fun experience on Monday. Emma and Diego were running a tango taster evening for beginners, and they wanted help from some friends. First, to dance with beginners: a song or two each for changes of weight, steps and rebounds. Second, for a flashmob during the drinks part of the evening!

I was partnered with a salsa dancer. Salsa followers always pick up the basics of tango following really quickly, and she was no exception. Within a few songs, I was able to really start mixing-and-matching the movements, and we really were dancing. She was very excited, and it was also great for me, as leading a complete beginner is always a fantastic way to test your lead.

Then when we moved through to the bar for drinks, Emma and Diego did a performance for one song, and then in the second song Asia and I joined in, and every 20-30 seconds another couple would join the floor until we had a real mini-milonga going. There were more leaders than followers, so Asia switched to another leader for the third song, and I invited ‘my’ beginner to join, so she went from zero to a milonga experience in one evening!

Private with Diego: Learning to turn

My private with Diego was focused on pivot technique.

There are certain basics in tango we revisit time and time again, and hope that they eventually sink in! One of these is the beachball model of the embrace. To think of embracing a beachball, and aim to create that rounded feeling, and to keep the arms within that circle – never straight out, and certainly never an elbow behind my shoulder.

Our mental model for a movement can have a real impact on the physical movement itself – certainly on how it feels to our partner. There are many different ways to think about leading a pivot. One is to think about turning our torso. A subtly different way is to think about turning our shoulders. Another way is to think about twisting from the spine.

Today, Diego introduced yet another one: pulling from the shoulder blades. To think of this as the primary lead for the follower. This model really clicked for me, as dissociation comes more naturally.

I mentioned last time that Diego is implicitly demonstrating that I have reached a certain level in my dance.

There comes a point when the worst bad habits have been trained out of us, and we find that teachers have been telling lies to children. Once we stop using our arms to lead, then a teacher can safely introduce the concept of the supplementary role that arms can play in the lead. Once we understand that our primary job is to move our own bodies, then a teacher can safely introduce concepts like blocks […] So now I find myself in the position of working on making my lead bigger again! It’s not about force, but about distance, momentum, intention.

No teacher would ever dream of telling a beginner leader that they need to push and pull, because of course they would interpret that as being about about force, about physically manhandling their follower. But now, it’s safe to introduce these concepts.

Diego talked of push and pull in ochos, for example. But of course, he doesn’t mean shoving followers around, he means pulling from my shoulder blade, and ‘pushing’ in terms of providing that springboard, that invitation.

Similarly, in giros. One follower friend told me she wanted more momentum in the turn, and also a clearer signal to stop. Working with Diego on this, it suddenly started falling into place. The momentum is delivered by me strongly pulling my own shoulder blade around. That then transmits through my arm, so that there is some sense for the follower of being pulled from her hand – but in a way that keeps her in her own axis. Around, not toward or away.

When I was doing that, then not only did it provide greater momentum, but also the stop signal is completely obvious, because that pull is converted into a push back against the follower’s hand. I’m still working on the timing of that, but I now understand my goal: to cease the pull as soon as the follower has taken the preceding step, and to decelerate to a halt in the following one.

Diego kept pointing to my tendency to lean in toward the follower, which would take her off axis. He said I should instead lean out, and then I had a blinding flash of realisation: a giro is a form of colgada! A very gentle one, but it still needs that slight outward lean. If I think like that, then the risk of me leaning in should, in principle, be eliminated.

Guided practice with Madalina: Learning to stand

With the interrupted steps, I really felt like I needed to drill them: practice nothing else for an hour, so that I embedded the lead into my muscle memory.

I asked Filippo if he could recommend a teaching assistant for this, and he recommended Madalina. My plan was literally to do nothing but interrupted steps for an hour, and to have her tell me what worked and what didn’t.

But it seemed that using them in a couple of milongas was already doing the trick, as within 20 minutes it was clear to both of us that they were working, and that there was nothing to be gained from another 40 minutes’ worth.

I then suggested I try some giros, to see how much of what I’d done with Diego I could put into practice. The answer was … some. But Madalina had lots to say about my posture!

We worked first on entering the embrace, aka learning to stand. Having my weight back on my heels, and lifting my pelvis (more on this shortly) to give me a more upright posture.

Madalina is very sensitive to arm height, and in working to ensure I didn’t lift her right hand above her shoulder height, it became apparent that the tendency of my arm to creep both up and in are, in fact, the very same thing. If I keep my arm out, it doesn’t move up.

The cure to both appears to be back to the beachball: if I think ’rounded embrace,’ then my arm stays where it should be.

Of course, my tango brain can only cope with so many things at once, so various elements of the dance come and go as I change my focus – but the goal of all of this stuff is to gradually change my habits, so that I won’t have to actively think about it.

What I thought was going to be a very narrowly-focused practice session turned into very fundamental work on my posture. I’ll definitely be working with Madalina again.

Private with Filippo: Learning to stand and walk

Given all this, I asked Filippo and Janet if we could have our private the next day be entirely focused on posture. That was an easy sell: It’s Janet’s own priority, and Filippo adores working on the fundamentals.

The difference was noticeable even in our two warm-up songs. Filippo videoed the second, and said it was the best posture he’s ever seen from me. I also showed it to another follower friend who said the same.

In working to refine it, Filippo started doing what a lot of tango teachers do: talking about specific muscles. He started talking about which muscles were used to lift the pelvis. I’d been laughing with a friend about how pointless this is with me, as I don’t even know which muscle they are referring to, let alone what it means to ‘engage’ it, or use it in a particular way. I quickly interrupted him to explain that he was going to need to put it into much more concrete terms for me!

Steph had given a great example. She’d struggled with the same postural issue earlier in her own tango journey, and found that pulling back with the shoulder blades helped. That immediately made sense to me. Filippo then gave me a simple exercise to identify the muscles: lay on the floor, notice the arch in my back, then flatten my back to the floor. That too made sense the moment I tried it.

Of course, having identified those muscles, and practiced using them to lift my pelvis while standing, I now haven’t the faintest idea how to do that without tensing. I’d laughed the previous week when he directed Janet to do something similar (or possibly exactly the same) while relaxing her shoulders! Like, how TF?! Now I’m faced with that same question. (Tips on a postcard, please.)

I tried asking a follower friend who has been working a lot on her own posture. ‘Don’t tense,’ she said. Right! Relax by not tensing. Why didn’t I think of that? I advised her not to give up her day job. (She is, though, going to share with me her core exercise routine. I’m told I should expect pain, and lots of it.)

I had warned both Filippo and Janet that as I focused on posture, other things were likely to fall apart. That did happen to some degree, but not quite as much as I’d expected.

Having worked on standing, we moved on to walking.

I’ve always thought about the walk coming from my chest, which is why I love a follower with lots of forward intention – so I can push against resistance to fully control the speed of each step. But with the new posture, the point of connection was a little lower, and Filippo suggested thinking of the lead coming from the hips.

We tried that, and it felt very, very strange! The embrace felt less close to both of us, and I initially felt like I had less control in the walk. Filippo had a suggestion for that, which led to a rather lengthy discussion on walking styles.

I love to accelerate and decelerate in the walk. In slower dance, I will typically decelerate as I pass through the collection point, then accelerate again. Filippo’s demonstration was more constant pace, and I would be very reluctant to give up something which I feel is a key tool for musical expression.

But we did finally succeed in separating technique from style. The key technique point Filippo wanted to communicate was to keep the weight of my standing leg on my heel right up until the push point. That is a very different way of walking! Right now it feels super-awkward, but I’m sure that’s just because it’s unfamiliar.

I don’t want to destroy my existing walk for my upcoming milongas, but this will be my next guided practice topic.

That, then, was a busy start to the week! Tonight I have my first Gyrotonic session; Negracha on Friday; and Terra on Sunday …

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