A really fun private, addressing one element of my tangistential crisis

I talked last time about my tango existential crisis, a phrase which clearly demands an abbreviated form.

Part of it was how, as the space in milongas gets squeezed, so too does my vocabulary. I had one theory about the reason for that, but in tonight’s private, Filippo came up with a second one – and a fun/sadistic way forward …

Theory 1: Attention dollar and muscle-memory

My theory was that it’s about attention dollar, and muscle-memory.

In a private lesson, the whole of the floor space is mine to use as I wish. I can do anything I like in any direction I like (though there is a pillar which has a habit of jumping out in front of me). I can do big things and small things. I’m also not concerned about making mistakes, because that’s what a lesson is for – finding out what I can’t do, and trying to fix it. I don’t have to worry about losing balance or failing to accurately control the direction because there’s room to compensate and correct.

In a crowded milonga, it’s the opposite. The space I have available to me is constrained. Not only is the available space small, but it’s constantly changing. I can begin moving into a space which then gets blocked by another couple. I also want to avoid mistakes as far as I can, because I want my follower to be able to relax into the dance, and because I might not have the space needed to correct them.

The navigational challenges of a crowded milonga take maybe 50 cents of my attention-dollar. Another 25 cents for my follower and the same again for the music, and that’s my dollar spent. There’s no change left over for thinking about steps.

So the things I lead are the things I don’t have to think about – the things long embedded into muscle-memory.

Theory 2: Ability to instantly adapt

Filippo’s theory is that it’s not just about muscle memory in terms of the movements themselves – it’s also about knowing I always have a plan B on tap. With my most-core vocabulary, I can always improvise an instant change. I can turn back ochos into forward ochos and vice-versa. I can end a giro at any point. I can turn a step into a rebound. I can lead a pause at any point.

No matter how I get blocked, no matter how I might need to suddenly change my plan, I know I’ll be able to instantly resolve it, without having to consciously figure out how.

There was plenty of this at Nacimiento! I would say that 25% of the time at least, I had to abandon the next step I planned to take, and instead do something else in a different direction. I was able to comfortably do that with my most-core vocabulary.

But that isn’t the case with second column in my vocabulary table – the things that I can comfortably lead but do less often. If any of those things are interrupted, if I have to rapidly change plan, change direction, I’m not instantly able to do so.

And that’s a Catch-22. If I don’t use them enough in milongas, then I don’t get experience of having them interrupted, so I don’t figure out alternative resolutions, so I don’t feel comfortable using them in crowded milongas.

I think we’re both right. Both theories apply, and the solution to both is the same: practice the column two stuff, and in particular practice variations.

A fun/sadistic exercise

So, Filippo had an exercise for me … I would dance, while Filippo got in my way!

We chose the ocho cortado to work with, as that is firmly in the second column. I’m totally comfortable leading it, and have a couple of different versions – one ideal for smaller spaces – but it’s not yet a core part of my crowded milonga vocabulary. I danced it with Janet while Filippo circled us and kept stepping into the space I was about to use. I then had to figure out a plan B.

In a milonga, that would be stressful, but here it was a fun game – and I think that reframing of it, viewing it as a challenge rather than a problem, is key.

And guess what? It wasn’t a problem. There were maybe a couple of times when he blocked the initial side-step, but if I haven’t even taken the first step, that’s no problem at all, I can just rotate us and then begin. When he blocked another part of the ocho cortado movement, in most cases I was able to complete it simply by making it smaller. A few times I had to do something different, but if I switched mental models from ‘How do I modify the ocho cortado?’ to ‘We’re here, this is where there is space, what can we do now?’ then the answer was usually obvious. It was back to thinking of it as just steps and pivots.

I was also delighted with the feedback Janet gave: she hadn’t even been aware of Filippo’s blocking movements. She didn’t know there had been a change of plan – which is the standard I aim for, both with blocked moves and when the follower doesn’t do what I expected her to do.

Filippo also threw in another option: continue to pivot and lift, to uncross the follower, then I can lead a side-step around me. I then realised this could be continued into a giro, which is not only a great way to keep us within our own space, but also a really nice-feeling sequence.

This is exciting stuff! The proof will be in the pudding, but I do feel that if I play with interrupting and modifying one thing at a time from the second column, then that is the key to expanding my crowded milonga vocab.

Calesita technique

We’d initially planned to do the exercise with the calesita, but as soon as we started on this, Filippo jumped in with technique feedback for each of us. That was too useful to derail, so about half the class was devoted to this.

I usually open the embrace for the calesita, but Filippo had us try it in close embrace. This is much harder! But a great exercise, as it really highlights the technique weaknesses.

The challenge for me in close embrace is keeping the follower in her axis. Depending on your perspective, Janet makes this easier or harder … She remains poised even when I take her out of axis, so I wasn’t sure I could identify when I was disturbing her axis. However, I came up with an exercise of my own: slowing it right down and telling her when I thought I was, and in which direction. I proved accurate at this, so that was one element in place – knowing when I’m messing up.

Filippo also introduced a tool for sharpening up the end of my calesitas. Stepping around the follower with my right foot, and simply transferring my weight while pivoting back to neutral. That provided a nice ‘spring’ for the follower to come back in front of me.

Calesita exits

Filippo also noted I had a standard way of exiting, so we tried a couple of ones, again to give me more options in a crowded milonga. This was great! The first is my default, and the others new ones we tried:

  • Lead a boleo to my left and right, and exit in a forward ocho
  • Continue to pivot to my right, then lead the follower into a back ocho around my left side
  • Again, this can be turned into a giro
  • Cross-system cross (I step outside with my left, then re-associate with my right step)

There was another thing I loved about this. Regular readers will know that cross-system is my nemesis, always confusing me. But having very clearly transferred my weight to my right, the only possible way I can walk straight out is with my left foot, so the only thing I have to remember is to lead the cross on the second (right) step.

Theory into practice

Tomorrow is Tango Terra, so we’ll see how well this translates into practice!

My feeling is I need to practice a little more with the calesita exits (and practice a lot more with the close-embrace version!), but I think the ocho cortado variations are milonga-ready. Let’s see!

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