Monday, October 16, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 13: The milonga has rules, and we should follow them

To achieve a ronda that flows smoothly, we must treat the other couples on the
floor not as obstacles to be avoided, but as an integral part of our dancing.

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned about and through this dance that encompasses a whole unique universe, full of its own traditions and customs.

Lesson No. 13. The codigos exist for good reason

I believe more firmly in tango's codigos (codes of conduct) every day, and I reinforce them more and more in my teaching. The reason for these rules of etiquette is not to limit or restrict people's freedom or enjoyment, but, on the contrary, to ensure that a pleasurable time can be had by all.

In addition to the universal rules of courtesy and good manners, there are some that apply specifically to social dancing and even more specifically to Argentine tango.

I wrote a longer post on this topic a couple of years ago. This is an updated version that I hope will serve as both a guide for beginners going to their first milongas and a friendly reminder for those who have been dancing a while.

CROSSING THE DANCE FLOOR

When you enter a milonga, or need to cross from one side of the dance floor to the other, always go around the floor, not through the middle.

THE MIRADA-CABECEO INVITATION SYSTEM

I am an increasingly strong supporter of the mirada-cabeceo invitation system. Mirada means "look," cabeceo means "nod," and together they make up the traditional, non-verbal and most widely accepted way of inviting and getting invited to dance tango. Basically, leader and follower look directly at the person they wish to dance with and, hopefully, catch each other's eye. Then the leader nods or motions with his/her head and the follower nods or smiles his/her acceptance.

It's worth practicing it because it works.

As a follower, it means you're not sitting around passively waiting to be chosen by whomever decides to walk up to you and ask. And to accept or not to accept becomes a non-issue. Because you have to make eye contact in order to invite or be invited, if you don’t want to dance with someone, you just don’t make eye contact. No need to outright refuse or make up excuses. I believe the technique actually empowers women. There are still people out there who frown upon women doing the inviting, but with the cabeceo, the line between inviter and invitee is blurred. After all, if I want to dance with him, I am the one who has to look him in the eye … then he nods and I smile, or was it me who smiled and then he nodded?

As a leader you're not asking directly and risking outright rejection or maybe getting a reluctant "yes" from someone who doesn't really want to dance with you but doesn't want to hurt your feelings either.

So this system means each dance is a mutual agreement. This subtle assertiveness may not always be easy for shy types, but if you master the technique, who knows? You may actually overcome some of your shyness at the same time. And the mirada-cabeceo system is assertive on both sides. You need to look directly at the person you want to dance with and he or she needs to look right back. Then the nod and you're off, both having chosen each other.

Of course, nothing is fool-proof. The one drawback here is the risk of confusion. If the room is large or dark or very crowded, it can be hard to tell who is looking at whom, so when someone nods toward your table, it may be hard to discern the target. If you nod at someone and the wrong person accepts, the kind and polite thing to do is to dance the tanda with your unintended, and hope you are more on target next time.

In any case, this all should take place after the tanda starts and not during the cortina (though feel free to plan ahead and be ready). Why? Because you are supposed to choose your dancers and the music in relation to one another. In my case, there are some dancers I like very much dancing tango with, but not so much quick, rhythmic milongas. I save most waltzes for a few specific partners and dramatic Puglieses for others. Sure, there are dancers I will happily dance anything with – my own partner for one – but they are the exception. Connection is just as much about the music as the person in your arms, and when the two fit well together it can be magical.

The verbal invitation: While I encourage the use of the cabeceo, there are instances in which it is just fine to verbally invite someone. If you happen to be standing right next to someone and want to dance with them, it makes sense to use words. If you are having a conversation with someone and a great tanda starts up, of course you would ask the person verbally.

Whom to dance with: I generally don’t avoid or refuse people based on skill level but rather on attitude and dance floor etiquette. Leaders I avoid are those who push, pull and generally manhandle me so I have to spend every second fighting for my balance. I also try to steer clear of those who show a complete disregard for the other dancers on the floor. Leaders who use their partners like shields or weapons on the dance floor are really stressful, because their followers spend all their focus looking over their shoulders trying to do the leader's job of avoiding collisions. Also, dancers who correct or teach their partners on the dance floor are high on my list of those to avoid. 

As advanced dancers, if we are sure to accept at least a few dancers regardless of skill level, we will help beginners to improve their dancing. Meanwhile, if we reject based on bad behaviour, we may help some dancers to work on that.

In terms of enjoyment as a follower, and therefore likelihood I will accept or seek out future invitations, things I personally look for are: connection to me; attention to dance-floor flow and safety; musicality. Creative figures and fun moves are on the list, but not if they get in the way of the aforementioned items.

Cutting in: Nope. Not during a song, not in between songs. It is not even good manners to grab someone during the cortina when he or she hasn’t yet left the dance floor after the previous dance. You just aren't supposed to invite someone who’s already on the dance floor.

Entering the dance floor: Please do not forget this second, equally important use of the cabeceo. When entering the line of dance with your partner, you must be conscious of oncoming traffic and avoid cutting right in front of an approaching couple. Unless you can easily merge leaving several paces free in front of the next couple, make eye contact with the leader before you merge and wait for his/her acknowledgement. When you are dancing, be aware of the dance floor's entry points and allow other couples to merge as needed.

ON THE DANCE FLOOR

The tanda: Tandas are sets of three or four songs by one orchestra or of a similar style. Tandas are separated by cortinas, short clips of non-tango music. Normally we are meant to finish a full tanda with the same partner. Being left partway through a tanda feels bad. So, barring exceptional circumstances, remember that a tanda lasts but 9-12 minutes of your life. Even if it is unpleasant, you can probably grin and bear it. However, there are three instances in which it is acceptable to stop dancing partway through a tanda:
  1. Both partners came to a mutual agreement before the dance began.
  2. An injury or other emergency occurs during the dance.
  3. The partner’s behaviour is so rude or disrespectful as to merit their being offended or embarrassed by being abandoned mid-tanda.

Respect the ronda: Leaders, follow the ronda, or line of dance. This means not weaving randomly from one line or lane to another and not speeding around the floor cutting in front of all the other couples. Ideally, every couple should finish each song positioned ahead of and behind the same couple as when it started. Also, always look ahead of you rather than down in order to avoid collisions, and back up infrequently and with care. All this is probably one of the most difficult parts of learning to lead, but I think it is a little less difficult when we see the other couples on the floor not simply as obstacles to be avoided, but as an integral part of our dancing. We should dance with the other couples, not against or despite them. Imagine the whole dance floor moving as one, each couple unique, but together. What a flow there would be.

Followers, stay within the space your partner creates for you and avoid kicking up your feet unless you are sure it is safe. This means that if you dance with your eyes closed, you really shouldn't ever be kicking your feet up behind you. Meanwhile, if your eyes are open, it's OK to stop your partner from taking that step backward if it means avoiding a collision.

Less talk, more dancing: As anyone who has read my blog post on the subject knows, this is a big one for me: Please avoid teaching or correcting your partner. Dance to the level of your partner, and when something isn't working, try to improve your own technique. Corrections are the job of teachers, and should be saved for class time. In general, just save the conversation for when the music stops. Constant apologies for every misstep are almost as distracting as corrections. And if you want to chat about the weather or discuss your day, have a seat at the bar.

Quality, not quantity: It's the connection that counts. Limit your large movements, especially when the dance floor is full. And, once again, don't lead or execute any off-the-floor boleos without first ensuring you have plenty of room to do so.

It has been said that the tanguero who dances non-stop for three hours straight doesn’t really love tango, he just needs to keep moving: that a “real” dancer chooses his music and his partners discerningly – as mentioned earlier, often one as a consequence of the other. I think there is definitely room for both types of dancer in every milonga, but try not to get discouraged or bitter if you didn't get as many tandas as you hoped. Some nights are like that, and one great tanda is sometimes enough to make your night.

No hit and runs! Accidents happen. Never mind whose fault it was; it's just good manners to say sorry, make sure the other person is OK and be more careful next time.

If this all sounds like a lot to think about, it is at first. But with practice it will become as integral a part of your dancing as walking, embracing your partner and following the rhythm. After all, when you learn to drive a car, operating the vehicle is just a small part of the package. On the road you have to follow the flow of traffic, be aware and respectful of everyone else around you and avoid collisions. Shouldn't it be the same on the dance floor?

Previously: Lesson No. 12: Be good to your feet

Next: Lesson No. 14: It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the codigos

Friday, October 06, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 12: Proper foot care is a big step in the right direction

Two decades of tango have been tough on my feet, so this next lesson has been partly learned the hard way.

Lesson No. 12. Be good to your feet.

Our feet support our whole bodies. They bear our weight and allow us to stand, to walk, to run, jump and, of course, dance.

So we ought to be thankful to our feet, and to do right by them with all they do for us. There is hardly a move we humans make that doesn't involve those hardworking babies at the ends of our legs.

Tango is particularly tough on our feet. If you use your feet effectively while dancing tango, you exaggerate the rolling-through motion of the foot from heel to toes when walking forward to better control your landings and gain maximum propulsion. You have no doubt heard at least one teacher say to "push the floor." When walking, transferring your weight or pivoting you need to push into the metatarsals and through the toes to generate powerful movements that your partner will feel. This is an essential part of good tango technique but it puts a lot of pressure on the balls of the feet. And if you, like most people, have spent much of your life underusing your feet, you may suddenly find yourself with tired, sore, even injured feet.

Underusing, you ask? But didn't I just say we use our feet for almost every movement we make? Interestingly, despite the fact we constantly load our feet with weight and movement, we generally underuse the intrinsic muscles of the feet because we spend so much of our lives wearing shoes and walking around on hard, flat surfaces. We don't work the strength, flexibility or even mobility of our feet thoroughly so the muscles atrophy and our feet become weak and prone to pain and injury.

Young children generally have broad soles and splayed toes. They also have better foot dexterity than adults and can do things like wiggle their toes individually. We lose this ability in adulthood, but in barefoot cultures around the world, people retain that foot dexterity into old age.

Meanwhile, many if not most knee, hip and back problems begin with the feet.

The good news is that since most foot problems are biomechanical, meaning they are caused by the way we stand and move as well as by the shoes we wear, many are avoidable or even resolvable through biomechanics as well.

Some things you can do to take care of your feet:

When you are standing, your feet should be parallel,
with equal pressure on the inner and outer edges.
•Check your foot position. How do you place your feet when you stand and walk? If you are standing, your feet should be parallel with each other, with the toes facing forward rather than turned in or out. Also, you should have equal pressure on the inner and outer edges of the feet, so you are neither pronating (rolling in) nor supinating (rolling out) when you stand or walk. When in motion it is important to mobilize your feet and ankles and to pay attention to the rolling-through process of each step, forward and backward. In tango, we generally recommend keeping a slight v-shape between the feet, so your heels are together and the fronts of your feet are slightly outward-facing. The degree, however, should be very small – this will help stabilize you without messing with your joint alignment. Your toes should not be jammed into the floor when you are standing. Your centre of gravity should be carried far enough back that your toes are free to lift and wiggle, and that centre should stay back even when you are in motion. This all brings me to my next point.

The line that passes through
your main points of alignment
should be vertical.
•Maintain correct postural alignment. This refers to how the head, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles line up with each other. Proper alignment of the body helps you achieve and maintain good posture, and it will improve your dancing. Poor alignment puts stress on the spine and other articulations, and can ultimately cause joint degeneration.

There are four main points that should be aligned when we are standing. If you drew a line through each of them, it would be completely vertical, not diagonal. Moving from the ground up, these points are:
• the lateral malleolus, or the little bone on the outside of the ankle
• the greater trochanter, or the top part of the femur (thigh bone), at the the hip joint
• the acromion, or the little bone at the top of the shoulder
• the auditory meatus, or ear hole

For more about posture and alignment, you can read my blog post on the subject, but I will wrap up this section with a note about my personal experience:

It is through yoga more than anything that I began really to understand proper alignment and to stand correctly, beginning about seven years ago. When I was younger I could never understand why I could run 10 kilometres or dance all night with relative ease, but I couldn't stand for more than 20 minutes without extreme fatigue and soreness in my feet. I eventually learned that I was carrying my centre of gravity too far forward, which put a lot of stress on my metatarsal joints (and a lot of weight on my tango partners). Whether standing, walking or dancing tango, our axis should be carried over our heels. The heel bone is the largest bone in the foot and made to support our body weight. Now that I know how to properly align myself, I can stand for much longer periods of time without pain or fatigue. Even my high heels tire my feet less. But that doesn't mean I wear them more...

While we may love our stiletto-heeled
tango shoes, they are not so good
for our bodies.
•Choose your shoes with care.

For tangueros, the main question is: Why dance shoes and not just comfy street shoes? Dance shoes have a good balance of support and flexibility. Also, they fit the shape of your foot well and the soles are neither thick nor wider than the upper part of the shoe, so you can get a good feel for the floor, your partner's feet and the movements of your own feet. Just be sure to get a good fit with enough width for your toes.

For tangueras, it's a whole other story. Most women's tango shoes have high heels. Very high heels. Very high stiletto heels. Meanwhile, I think everyone knows that high heels are not good for us. Countless articles and books have been written on this topic and studies show again and again the harm that long-term high-heel wearing does to women's bodies. It affects our feet, our knees, our hips, our backs and even our leg muscles.

There seems to be little consensus on what the ideal heel height should be for healthy feet. Some experts say the optimal height is 1-1.5 inches (2.5-4 centimetres); others say it's a totally flat heel. Still others say it varies from person to person based on the shape of their feet. Yet no one seems to recommend 3.5-inch (9-centimetre) stilettos as optimal footwear.

I have been wearing heels to dance tango for 20 years. For the first 10 I didn't feel many ill effects aside from sore feet at the end of a long night of dancing and permanent calluses (the so-called dancer's pad) under the middle of the balls of my feet. But since I opened my school and made tango my full-time job – I dance five or six days a week and can spend up to 9 hours some days teaching, practising and dancing – my feet have felt it. It's not just the shoes, of course. It's partly the sheer number of hours I spend on my feet. And I don't wear heels all the time; I probably don't wear them even half the time, especially these days. The older I get and the more I study posture, alignment and biomechanics, the less often I wear high heels.

So what's a fashion-loving tanguera to do? It just doesn't look or feel the same to dance in flats or even cute low-heeled practice shoes as it does to dance in sexy heels. The smartest choice you could make, and the safest one for the long-term health of your feet and joints, is to give up the high heels and just dance in low-heeled shoes or flats. But if, like me, you are not yet ready to give up the sexy shoes altogether I suggest the following:
  1. Vary your dance footwear and your heel heights. Change your shoes often, about every two hours if you will be on your feet longer than that. Make sure you have at least one pair of low-heeled practice shoes in your collection.
  2. As much as possible, save the high heels for the milongas. Spend much of your class and practice time in lower-heeled shoes, and don't wear high heels at all outside of tango, to give your body as much of a break as you can. Everything in life is about balance, so a few hours a week probably won't do you much harm if you're wearing sensible shoes the rest of the time. (Also avoid spending a lot of time in flip flops. They're terrible for your feet, too.) 
  3. Make sure that the high-heeled shoes you do wear fit your feet well and especially are wide enough for you. Thankfully those closed-toe pointy things are no longer in fashion. The sandal-style shoes all the tangueras wear these days at least allow the toes some space to move and spread a little.
  4. Make sure to train your body to keep properly aligned, even in your tango shoes. Hips over heels always. To facilitate this, the heel of your shoe should be placed right under the heel of your foot (not too far back) and should feel stable. 
  5. Compensate for the high-heel wearing by regularly exercising your feet and stretching your legs, especially your calves, which get shortened with repeated wearing of high heels. Read on...
•Exercise your feet to improve their strength, flexibility and mobility.
Your regular workout routine should include
exercises to stretch and strengthen your feet.
  1. Do toe workouts, including lifting your toes up while standing, spreading your toes and moving each toe individually. Many people (including me) cannot really do this last one, but with practice you can retrain the necessary little muscles and you will eventually see results. (I've been working on toe agility lately and have made slight progress.) My yoga teacher even showed me an exercise meant to realign the big toe with the inner line of the foot, to prevent or reverse the onset of bunions.
  2. Do exercises to both strengthen and stretch the soles and arches of the feet. Strengthening exercises include scrunching up a towel using your toes or picking up marbles or other small objects using the toes. You can also just scrunch up your toes without any props. A good stretch for the feet (see image) is to kneel on the floor, sitting on your heels (be sure to put a towel under your knees) with the toes tucked under and hold for 30 seconds or as long as you can bear it. 
  3. Regularly stretch your hamstrings (backs of the thighs) and your calves. Yoga, anyone?
  4. Massage the soles of your feet with a tennis ball. Doing this while standing is best, so you can put a good amount of pressure on the different parts of your feet. If your feet are too sensitive at first, you can do it sitting in a chair. This massage eventually feels great, and it somewhat mimics walking barefoot on uneven surfaces, something our long-ago ancestors did, but few of us do.
  5. Pamper those hardworking babies. Soak sore feet in cold water. Massage them with a soothing foot lotion before bed. Treat yourself to a foot massage or pedicure.
  6. Walk barefoot on the beach. Great for the soles, great for the soul.
Pain won't go away?
See a specialist.
•If you have foot pain that is acute or long-lasting, see a professional. My specialist of choice is an excellent physiotherapist who has helped me through many minor injuries over the years. You might prefer a podiatrist, osteopath or other specialist, but if you are in pain, get it looked into. Did you know that 25 per cent of our bones are in the feet and ankles? Not to mention the 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments found in the feet. That's a lot of little parts that can get injured.

My partner and I have had our share of foot ailments with names like hallux valgus, metatarsalgia, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures and an enchondroma. Currently I'm having ongoing pain and stiffness in my ankles, so I will be back at the physiotherapist's office next week. I also have tight, overdeveloped calves, which limit my flexibility and mobility. Whether this a result of all that ballet in my teen years, all the high heels in my tango years, simple genetics or a combination of all three I don't know, but I make a point of stretching my calf muscles almost every day now. 

I, for one, beat up my feet with my lifestyle, but more and more I make sure to take a little time each day to take care of them, too, so that they can keep taking care of me and my dancing for many years to come.


Next: Lesson No. 13. The "codigos" exist for good reason.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 11: Learning to let go of the plan

The beauty of tango lies in its unpredictability.
To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this improvised art that is never the same from one dance to the next.

Lesson No. 11. Accept that things often don't go according to plan.

When you feel disappointed and frustrated in life, it is often because something not just unpleasant, but unexpected happened. For instance, you had your heart set on going to your favourite little Italian restaurant, but arrive to find it closed. So you find a Plan B, and one of two things happens:
  1. You never really settle in, because it's noisier than the other place, or the menu isn't what you were looking forward to all day. Not only do you have trouble enjoying the meal, the ambiance or even the company, you feel some nagging resentment toward the other restaurant because it's a stupid night for them to be closed, and they should announce their hours better so this kind of thing doesn't happen to people. So your plans were foiled and your night is more or less ruined.
  2. You soak up the energy of the bustling place and decide to try a dish you have never had before. It turns out to be interesting, if not the best thing you've ever tasted. Meanwhile the appetizers and wine are delicious, and you and your friends have fun listening in on the bizarre conversation at the next table. You still plan on a visit to your intimate little Italian place in the near future, but also have a new spot to add to your list. Also, you make a mental note to call ahead next time, which will save you not only showing up to a closed door, but wait times when you arrive with no reservation.
This is an example of how you can experience the exact same events in completely different ways depending on how you perceive and react to them. Allow resentment over unexpected changes to weigh heavily and it will be hard to have a good time no matter what, but let go of the initial plan and who knows what can happen?

Dancing in a milonga is all about letting go of the plan and adapting to new, unexpected, constantly evolving situations.

Leaders learn this early on, or should, at least. A skilled leader basically has a plan all the time, but is expert at adapting to unexpected situations and changing the plan at just about any moment. Yes, sometimes the dance floor is overcrowded; sometimes it is downright chaotic. But that is the reality of tango, and if you can't accept that a huge part of dancing a totally improvised dance is learning to react and adapt to what's going on around you, it will be hard to have fun when there are other couples on the dance floor.

With your partner, mistakes will be made, and the sooner you can accept that, the more you will enjoy tango. Finding creative ways to get out of a sticky situation can even be a fun challenge. I'm sure half of the new moves that are invented first happen by accident, and a good portion of my adornos come about while I'm trying to disguise a misstep.
   
If you know me or have read my blog before, you know that I really, really don't like it when social dancers correct or instruct their partners. Leaders who correct their followers, making comments about what she was “supposed to” have done are too attached to their initial plan and unable to just adapt and move on. It's so much nicer to dance with someone who laughs off the inevitable mistakes and their weird results. The same goes for leaders who are constantly annoyed by all the dancers around them. The reality is tango is unpredictable, so why bother with frustration? In fact, the beauty of tango lies in its unpredictability. That is what keeps it fresh and new – despite the fact we dance around and around the same floor, to the same music over and over again. 

I once danced with a man who literally criticized all the dancers around us on the dance floor throughout the entire tanda. This one didn't advance enough, that one was too close behind us, people in general didn't move quickly enough. Of course his complaining made him so unpleasant to dance with I still remember it years later, but imagine going through life like that, constantly annoyed and frustrated by everything that goes on around you? I think it would be hard to get much enjoyment out of anything.

Followers often hold on too tight to their doubt and insecurity over what their leader's plan might have been: “Was that right?” “Was that what he wanted me to do?” The answer is, “It doesn’t matter.” What’s done is done, and it’s up to both partners to just take things from there. 

That's on the dance floor, but off the dance floor the unexpected can happen as well. Just like in the restaurant example above, you may not have the exact night you were looking forward to, but if you are open to what comes, you can still have a great time. Didn't dance as many tandas as you hoped? Well, maybe tonight was more about enjoying the vibe than filling your dance card. Didn't catch a cabeceo from the person you most wanted to tango with? Maybe you made someone else's night when they did catch yours.

Tango – and also yoga, but that's a topic for a future post – has really helped me realize that many of life's frustrating moments boil down to the ability to let go of the plan. That ability is directly linked to the ability to live fully in the here and now, which I wrote about in detail in my post titled Enjoy every moment.

If living in the moment and going with the flow are ideas you already live by, that part of tango may come to you with relative ease, as it did for me back when I started. But if letting go and kind of rolling with the punches are difficult for you, perhaps they will be among the life lessons tango teaches you.

Previously: Lesson No. 10: Be clear about what you want

Next: Lesson No. 11: Be good to your feet

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 10: Assert yourself

Start by sitting, standing and walking like the confident dancer you want to be.

I am halfway through this 20-part series on what I have learned through and about tango in two decades of dancing, teaching, performing, running a school and organizing events.

Lesson No. 10. Be clear about what you want.

I was a shy kid and an insecure teenager. It took me decades to learn how to be assertive, to say no, to stand up for myself and to ask for what I want. Tango – dancing and teaching – is one of the things that has both helped me along this road to decisiveness and shown me how important a quality it is – in dance and in life.

On the dance floor

The benefits of being clear about what you want seem kind of obvious when it comes to leading, but followers need to be clear, too.

Let's start with leaders. If you don't know what you want, your follower certainly won't. Hesitation breeds hesitation, so if you constantly wait to see if your partner is going to follow she will be in a constant state of doubt, and so will the dance. No one said leading is easy: You have to simultaneously wait for your partner and show her where to go next. Which means you always know where you want to go next. Of course things don't always go according to plan in tango (the topic of my next post!), but you still need to have a plan and state it clearly (with actions, not words, of course) or the dance will be sloppy rather than spontaneous.

Also, if you do not know where you want each step to land or pivot to end, be it your own or your partner's, you will have little control over your line of dance and the space you take up on the floor. This will put your partner in danger and annoy the dancers around you.

As for followers, if I have one piece of advice it is this: Do not be passive. Embrace your partner the way you want to be embraced, dance the music the way you feel it, take the time you need to complete each movement before going to the next. Own your dance and you will not only be more fulfilled by it, you will be more fulfilling to dance with.

To some, it may sound like I am saying to followers, "Do whatever you want," but that is not it at all. Everything the follower does must be within the framework created for you by your partner and the music; but within that framework there is so much room to express yourself and to dance. But you have to do just that: Dance.

Don't hesitate, wonder, question, worry. Accept each movement, each reaction and mean it. If there was a miscommunication, it's too late to fix it anyway, so just take the step and move on from there. Believe you know what to do and you will follow more, not less, because you will clear away all that worry and hesitation, allowing you to receive your leader's messages with less interference. Not only that, but if you dance assuredly, your leader will receive your messages more clearly, listen more and the tanda will be a fascinating conversation rather than a one-sided monologue.

Off the dance floor

The way you carry yourself conveys a lot. If you walk into the room with poise and determination, you will get noticed, and if you sit and stand up straight, you will look like you know how to dance before you even hit the floor. I have heard more than one maestro say that you need to be a tango dancer from the moment you step through the front door. Posture affects not only how you appear, but how you feel. Simply lifting and opening up the chest can alleviate feelings of depression, for example, so if you stand tall, you may end up feeling more confident. Basically, hold yourself like a dancer and you will look and feel like one. And you will likely receive more miradas and cabeceos as well.

I am a relatively recent convert to, and big supporter of, the mirada-cabeceo invitation system. Mirada means "look," cabeceo means "nod," and together they make up the traditional, non-verbal and most widely accepted way of inviting and getting invited to dance tango. Basically, leader and follower look directly at the person they hope to dance with and, hopefully, catch each other's eye. Then the leader nods or motions with his/her head and the follower nods or smiles his/her acceptance.

Find the whole idea daunting? You're not alone. Because I still have a shy, insecure person living inside me, I, too, found this one hard to master at first. OK, I still do sometimes.

Once I get on the dance floor I know how to dance like I know what I'm doing, but off the floor it's tough for me to assert myself with a direct look in someone's eyes, especially a stranger. All this to say, I get that it's not necessarily an easy system at first. But neither is tango. And if you can learn this complex dance, you can learn this simple exchange.

It's worth it because it works. It means you're not sitting around passively waiting to be chosen by whomever decides to walk up to you and ask, but you're also not hovering around making someone else uncomfortable or asking directly and risking outright rejection or maybe getting a reluctant "yes" from someone who doesn't really want to dance with you but doesn't want to hurt your feelings either.

The mirada-cabeceo system works because it is assertive on both sides. I need to look directly at the person I want to dance with and he or she needs to look right back. Then the nod (plus maybe a smile or an eyebrow wiggle) and we're off. So we both choose our dancers. This wordless and mutual agreement can be quite magical once you get the hang of it, like you established this secret accord that no one else knew about until suddenly you are on the dance floor in each other's arms, ready for an awesome tanda.

Outside the milonga

If you want to get really good at tango, you have to make that decision. I touched on this topic in my previous post, "Breaking that advanced barrier," when I named determination as one of the keys to tango success. Basically, you have to know you want it and go after it, to take decisive action in order to reach your goal.

Just this morning I watched an interesting TED talk about what makes successful people successful. It was found that the common factor that was always present was "grit," which was likened to perseverance or the determination that I mentioned. I was watching the video with my kids' education and future in mind, but when I look around at the top dancers around me, beyond their talent and years invested I see that deeper something, that drive and determination that amplifies the talent, fuels the hard work and gives them a deep-seated belief that because they want to get there they will. And they do. And so can you.

Tango has taught me much of this, and I believe I am a better dancer, teacher and business person because of it. As I said, there's still someone insecure inside me, but alongside her now is a much more confident person who knows what she wants, often goes after it and lives a more fulfilling life because of it.

Previously: Lesson No. 9: Breaking that advanced barrier

Next: Lesson No. 11: Accept that things often don't go according to plan

Friday, August 25, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Nine: Breaking that advanced barrier

Most tango dancers out there are intermediate.
So what can they do to break through to the next level?

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this long process that is full of frustrations and rewards.

Lesson No. 9. The intermediate level is the toughest, the longest lasting, and the hardest to break out of. Really, you ask? But wouldn't the beginner level be harder than the intermediate stage? Not in my opinion. There are reasons why most dancers out there are intermediate.

The beginner phase: As beginners we are in a place of pure discovery; you could call it tango innocence. This tango world is all new and somewhat magical. Sure, there is some frustration at this stage, but most dancers move along the learning curve pretty quickly at the start, going from nothing to something in quite a short time.

I would say the beginner stage lasts somewhere between six months and a year for the average tango student. As I said, this is an average; there are always exceptions. Every few years a particularly gifted student skyrockets from beginner to advanced in a year, and now and then there are students who repeat Tango 1 half a dozen times without ever really getting it. But for the most part, within a year students acquire enough skill and knowledge to move on to:

The intermediate phase: At this point, tango has lost some of that initial mystery. We still love it, we are still impressed by those who master it more than we do, but it is no longer brand new or unattainable in a way that it once was.

This stage is full of plateaus in the learning curve and just as we feel we are getting somewhere we have a crappy night and decide we don't know a thing after all. So there is frustration, lots of frustration.

At this stage, leaders tend to feel stressed out about not knowing enough moves, and get bored with themselves if they don't execute enough of them during a tanda. Followers, too, get frustrated – with their partners if they feel they are not keeping up, and with themselves as they start to understand that their role is actually about more than following. Eventually, they begin to realize that not every mistake is the leader's fault and their side of the partnership is more difficult than they expected. While this realization is a good sign, it is – again – frustrating.

Meanwhile, teachers keep saying to focus more on posture, connection, musicality and floorcraft, but most intermediate-level dancers don't yet fully grasp this. Leaders and followers can both feel in a rut at this point as they both clue in to how much more time and hard work lie ahead. Many dancers stop really moving forward at this point. They have enough moves and partners to enjoy themselves at milongas so why keep putting time, sweat and money into classes? If the goal was to socialize and dance, it has been reached, and many dancers are content here and don't feel the need to take things further.

Some, however, do want to go further, breaking through the next barrier and becoming truly "advanced." Most dancers at the high end of the intermediate phase have hovered at the cusp at least a few times when, by fluke or design, everything came together with ease: steps, balance, embrace and the perfect moment in the music. They have felt what it should be, what it could be, and they want more. These dancers need to find a way to do get there or they may eventually give up in frustration.

For all but the few and far between truly exceptional dancers, the intermediate stage lasts the longest. It begins on average at around one year and, again, for many it never ends. This is not to say there is no improvement in all this time; there will be some, maybe lots. The intermediate level is wide ranging and most dancers improve and advance at least somewhat, but actually breaking the elusive "advanced" barrier will not happen for everyone, no matter how long you keep dancing in the milongas.

The advanced phase: Once we become truly advanced there is new magic. There are all these things we heard about before but never really got, but now we do. It's like we've finally been admitted to that secret society and unlocked the codes to a new level of understanding and enlightenment. We dance with abandon, embody the music, become one with our partners. There are still and forever new discoveries to come, but they are on a whole different level.

Those years of hard work are paying off and it is so rewarding. This is when the light comes on and we understand for ourselves what our teachers have been saying all along: that technique is king and will free us to enjoy the dance on a whole new level. We see that the sequences and moves are secondary not just to technique but to musicality, connection, floorcraft. Now we really comprehend that both skill and enjoyment are about the how, not the what.

It is rare for a dancer to become truly advanced in less than five years, and, as I said before, many never really do.

I wish I had the universal, magic solution to achieving this breakthrough, but I don't. In the end, the hard work and resulting accomplishments belong to each dancer. As a teacher I can only guide and coach, I can't do the work for you. I can steer you in the right direction and even lead you along the right path, but whether you reach your destination or not is up to you. As a writer as well as a teacher, I suggest the following recipe, but you have to be the one to put it together.

The four essential ingredients to achieve that advanced breakthrough:
  1. Talent. Some people walk in the door and their teachers just know they have something special. They move right, absorb corrections almost instantly and seem to get the big picture of how it all works from the start. Maybe she had dance training all her life and developed strength, axis and body awareness early on; or maybe he just "has it in his blood": He's not a musician or a dancer (yet), but he's got rhythm in his body and moves like he was born on the dance floor. If you've got some of this talent, the rest will be easier. Then again, many people take their talent for granted and are lazy students because of it. So talent helps for sure, but alone it is no guarantee of greatness, in tango or elsewhere.
  2. Hard work. This means you will train regularly outside the milonga setting. First, you will continue to take lessons, especially private ones. I would say that every single person who has reached the advanced level has studied privately with a good teacher at some point. You will also incorporate workouts besides tango in order to improve things like posture, balance and strength. This could mean yoga classes, working with a personal trainer or something else, but body awareness, correct alignment, good posture and strong legs are essential to mastering tango. And you will remain humble enough to admit that you are never done learning. No matter how good you get, you could get better. So don't give up taking regular classes too early. There is this phenomenon in social dance whereby students stop taking classes in their local studios early on, after just a year or two in many cases. This is not the case in such disciplines as ballet or yoga, for example, in which even advanced practitioners continue to attend classes for years and years. Meanwhile, the vast majority of tango dancers take a few sessions of regular classes and then suddenly turn their noses up at the local studios' offerings, opting only for festival classes taught by travelling maestros, if they take any classes at all. Don't get me wrong, I take advantage of these opportunities, too, but they are pricey and offer no followup, so are probably less valuable as a learning tool for your average dancer than regular lessons with a quality teacher. All this being said, the cool thing is, once you have finally broken that advanced barrier, you can actually start learning a lot on your own. Since by this point you have an integral understanding of your own body and what constitutes good tango technique, you can train on your own or with a partner and improve through a certain amount of self-teaching. You can practice without the constant observations of a teacher because you are practicing right. But, as any advanced dancer knows, periodic lessons and coaching from a maestro or teaching colleague are a must. Even the best dancers have bad habits and sometimes need an outsider to point them out.
  3. Determination. You have to want it and be willing to work for it. This can't come from anyone but you. However, some people don't necessarily feel this determination early on, but one day, for whatever reason, they suddenly wake up having decided they want to "get there," and will do the hard work necessary, spurred on by its rewards rather than discouraged by its demands. This decisive action is essential.
  4. Time. Years of experience alone will not make you advanced. We all know people who have been dancing for 15 years and whose technique has not budged in the last 10. But you can't totally rush the process either. Your mind and body need time to integrate and absorb the work you do, so while practicing tango three times a week will certainly be more effective than once a week, taking 10 classes a week and dancing every single night won't necessarily accelerate your learning pace exponentially. So put in the floor time, but accept that it will also just take time. 
You need to find just the right blend of hard work, time and determination. Add to that a pinch of talent, and you're cooking.

Previously: Lesson No. 8: Leading and following are not so different.

Next: Lesson No. 10: You've got to be clear about what you want.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Eight: Every dancer should lead and follow

There is a myth among some male leaders that women
who learn to lead damage their following skills. I don't buy it.

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this game of give and take, express and listen, lead and follow.

Lesson No. 8. Leading and following are not so different.
One of the best things you can do for your dancing is to learn both roles. Those who do, regardless of their initial or preferred role, are those who know best how to both express and listen, to give and take – and therefore connect more completely to their partner.

Technique is technique, connection is connection. While there is some difference in the mental process of the two roles – leaders need to plan and navigate and have a certain understanding of their partner's steps in a way that followers do not – in the physical body, there is little to no difference.

One piece of advice I would give to anyone trying to learn the other role is: Don't try to change your technique when you change roles. By all means improve your posture, your embrace, your musicality and anything else you need to work on, but whatever you improve will apply whichever role you are dancing.

Some people are afraid they will hinder their dancing by exploring the other role. I think this is rare, and those who do are probably too hung up on the "leader" vs. "follower" terminology to begin with. I think the terms "leader and follower" are limiting, problematic, even detrimental. I believe that these simple words are one of the main reasons some dancers are resistant to learning the other role. The words do not convey what the two roles are really about or how much they actually have in common. For more on this subject you can read my blog post on troublesome terminology. In short, leading and following each contain a good dose of the other already, and the best dancers use both to their advantage. The best leaders are receptive and the strongest followers are expressive. Working on both qualities will likely add one more great aspect to your dancing: playfulness.

A potential solution, of course, is for teachers to teach both roles to everyone from the start. There are teachers who do this, and I think it is an interesting approach. It is not my approach, for a variety of reasons, including the fact most students who come through the door don't want to learn both – yet. Also it would mean revamping my entire teaching structure to an extent I am not ready for – yet. Finally, I'm not convinced teaching both roles from the get-go is necessarily better than the traditional one-role-at-a-time system; both methods most certainly have their strong points, and, as with all methods, neither is ideal for everyone.

In any case, I think it is generally accepted by most that learning to follow improves leading skills. How could it not? Since leaders need to understand their partners' steps and movements, it makes sense for them to learn them. To paraphrase a well-known saying, the best way to experience someone else's reality is to walk a mile in their shoes.

The reverse – that followers will improve by learning to lead – is not so generally accepted. There is a myth among some male leaders that women who learn to lead damage their following skills. Men who believe this even claim to have anecdotal evidence to back up their beliefs. Sorry guys, but I don't buy it. First of all, in general, teachers are among the most highly skilled dancers, lead or follow, and most if not all of them dance both roles. I know that learning to lead has contributed greatly to my overall dance skills, and therefore to my following skills. However, learning a new role, like learning any new technique within the dance, takes work and mental effort. While we are in the process of learning and perfecting something new a big part of our focus is devoted to the new skill, and sometimes our connection suffers because we are mentally distracted by the new thing we are working on. But this is temporary. It is exactly what all beginner leaders go through: They're too busy figuring out the steps and trying to deal with navigating the floor to be really connected or really dancing. Once the basics of the role are solid and, perhaps more importantly, once the dancer believes that he or she knows what (s)he is doing, (s)he can let go and think about his or her partner.

Female leaders also receive criticism for their navigational skills, with some male leaders saying that women are hazardous "drivers." Again, part of that comes down to where they are on the leading learning curve. And sure, there are female leaders who are dangerous and don't respect the ronda, but there are plenty of erratic male "drivers" as well; they just don't stand out as much because they blend in with the majority. I guess this is a good place to remind everyone that floorcraft and line of dance should not be an afterthought; they are just as important as dance moves and musicality. When we learn to drive a car, how to follow the flow of traffic and make safe turns and lane changes are as important as learning how the vehicle itself functions; the same should be true on the dance floor. Regardless of your gender, I say to all leaders: Build your navigational skills and dance with respect for those around you.

All this being said, some people love dancing both roles, while some have a strong preference for one or the other. I, myself, enjoy leading and have worked hard to build strong leading skills over the years, but I still don't experience the same bliss leading as I do when I follow. I relish the sense of abandon in my primary role; when I lead I am much more in my head, and I get enough of that in my daily life, I guess!

So I am not saying that everyone must master both roles or dance them equally, but I do think we all should experiment at some point, to develop at least a minimal understanding of what our partners feel and need. And who knows, if you try it, you might be surprised at how much you like it.

Previously: Lesson No. 7: You need a thick skin to dance tango.

Next: Lesson No. 9: The intermediate level is the hardest to break out of.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Seven: Tango vs. the ego

A milonga is not only about dancing as many tandas as possible;
it is also about meeting friends, hearing the music and watching the other dancers.
To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned in, through or about this dance, some harder than others.

Lesson No. 7: You need a thick skin to dance tango. If you are reading this, you probably love tango. But you probably also know that it is not as easy as you thought and that it can be unkind to the ego.

There are some big-ego dancers out there, but this post is not about that. This post is about how tango can be hard on your ego and your self-esteem, on several different levels:

As a student of tango

Tango is a social dance, and we say it is a dance for everyone. You have most certainly heard that if you can walk, you can dance tango. That is my own school's motto, and while I stand by it I must admit that just because you can walk doesn't mean you can dance tango well. This is a fact all dancers must face if they are to improve and advance.

After a few lessons, we begin to realize that the very simplicity of tango is what makes it difficult. Tango is a delicate balance full of paradoxes and contradictions. It takes clarity and subtlety, an embrace that is both soft and firm, legs that are at once powerful and free, knees that are extended yet mobile. While social tango does not require extreme flexibility and is not an intense cardiovascular workout, it does take strength, balance and good posture. It also takes a lot of body awareness. The thing is, those who lack body awareness are often unaware of this fact, and realizing how little you know your own body can be a blow to the ego. It also takes awareness of our partner and those around us, and therefore good communication and listening skills.

Tango is the ultimate exercise in multitasking: You must coordinate your every move to the music, your partner and the couples around you on the dance floor all at once, constantly planning your next move while being ready to react and change that plan at every single moment and while making it all look and feel effortless. Sounds like a lot, and it is.

But all this is the beauty of tango, and the reason it is so rewarding when we finally start to get it and every time we grasp something new. It is also the reason you can dance tango for years and never get bored. There is always room for improvement – a better embrace, straighter posture, stronger steps and pivots. And then there is the music. There are so many layers to tango music and so many possibilities for tango dancers. As beginners, even if we love tango music, we often don't hear or appreciate the subtleties of the different orchestras, but the longer we dance and the more we listen the more we can play with the intricacies of the music. All this is why the most advanced and musically proficient dancers never tire of the Golden Age classics, because there are always new layers to play with and rediscover.

I think the key to not getting frustrated and giving up when you realize how difficult tango really is and how eternal the learning process, is to appreciate every step along the way. Reap the benefits of your hard work, and notice them: Maybe you stand straighter in your daily life or walk down the street with more self-assurance or have suddenly become better at listening to other people. And occasionnally look back and realize how far you have come; when you do catch yourself looking ahead and feeling overwhelmed by all there is left to learn, see it as a gift that you will keep on giving yourself, because it means that the rewards, too, are never-ending.

As a social dancer 

Socially, tango is about human interaction and connections. If you like tango, then you probably seek out these interactions and enjoy them on the whole. But, of course, that doesn't mean all of them are positive. It takes all kinds to make a tango world, so while every encounter will be marvellously different, not every encounter will be marvellous. Here are a couple of unpleasant phenomena you have probably already experienced and will again.

Teachy partners. This one, unfortunately, comes up a lot – on the dance floor and in my blog. If you know me or my writing, you already know that teaching on the dance floor is a pet peeve of mine. Teachy behaviour includes any type of comment or feedback on your dancing, from your embrace to your walk to a lead for a particular move you are not understanding. It also includes non-verbal adjustments to your partner's embrace or posture, placing their hand differently or pushing their shoulders down, for example. Advice, feedback, corrections – it all falls into the same category.

Teachy behaviour is all about the ego on both sides. It says a lot about the ego of the perpetrator because the perpetrator is automatically assuming that the other person is the problem. Getting over this behaviour means admitting that you are at least 50% of the problem, which is not an easy thing for your ego to accept.

Of course, being the recipient of dance-floor teaching is hard on the ego as well. You may feel angry or hurt, defensive, inferior, insecure or simply annoyed, and understandably so. Not to mention the fact that having the flow of a dance interrupted to correct you breaks any pleasant, enjoy-the-moment connection there might have been.

Teaching, correcting or adjusting your partner during a milonga is totally unacceptable in my book. However, you will all be confronted with it at some point. When faced with this behaviour, what can you do? I suggest remaining silent and neutral toward the first comment or adjustment. If the corrections continue, say something. Non-confrontational "I" statements usually work best, such as "I prefer not to talk when I'm dancing." If the behaviour persists further, feel free to say "thank you" after the song and end the tanda early. If your partner is offended or asks why, be direct. I can't tell you how many people have stormed out or come to me in tears after being corrected and condescended to on the dance floor, and the perpetrators need to be made aware that their behaviour is hurtful and unacceptable.
At the same time, remember that the constant need to teach or fix your partner says more about the teacher than the "teachee." In tango, as in life, when things aren't going as planned we should first look at how we can adjust ourselves to improve the situation. Just dance, accept the person in your arms as he or she is in the present moment, take advantage of their strengths and don't dwell on their weaknesses. After all, you have some too.

Also, even if you are a beginner and your partner is advanced, do not encourage this type of behaviour by asking for feedback on the milonga dance floor. Accept yourself at the level you are and realize you are allowed to just relax and enjoy, even if you are not yet "advanced." If you really think your partner is qualified to offer useful feedback, you can ask during a práctica or during a later conversation off the dance floor, but even then, unless you are speaking to an actual teacher, take any advice with a grain of salt.

Feeling rejected. Sometimes you don't get to dance much, and sometimes you don't get to dance with the person or people you were hoping to dance with.

When you get all dressed up and hyped up for the night ahead and it doesn't live up to your expections, it kind of sucks. And no matter who you are or what your level, it will happen to you sometimes. I have bad nights, too, when I feel overlooked and rejected and wonder why none of my miradas are working, and I go home deflated and grumpy wondering if I'm getting too old and unattractive or if I just suck and don't know it.

Luckily there are always good nights to balance out the bad, and I've gained enough life experience and perspective to know that often the bad nights are more about my outlook than about reality. And sometimes bad nights just happen for all kinds of reasons. Did women outnumber men? Was I tucked away in a corner or frequently absorbed in conversation?

That being said, if you feel you never get to dance with the dancers you want to, maybe you need to admit that it's time to work some more on your dance skills. Yes, I believe advanced dancers should be a little more generous at times, but I also believe it is normal to want to dance with people we enjoy dancing with. So if you want to get more miradas and cabeceos (traditional, non-verbal invitations), work on becoming a joy to dance with. I think if all of us danced keeping our partners' enjoyment in mind rather than our own, we would all receive more enjoyment in the end.

And finally, remember that a milonga is not only about dancing as many tandas as possible. It is also about meeting friends, hearing beautiful music and admiring the other dancers. If you soak up the whole atmosphere of an evening, rather than focusing on every tanda you sit out, you might have a great night even if you don't dance that much, and you might also radiate more positive energy, seem more approachable, and eventually end up dancing more.

As a couple 

This topic probably deserves a blog post all its own, because tango can be so hard on couples. For now, suffice it to say that many of the issues couples face in tango boil down to two things: jealousy and different learning paces.

I don't believe that tango causes relationship problems, but it sure can amplify existing ones.

This is definitely the case when it comes to jealousy. If you are new to tango, it can be disconcerting to see the love of your life in the arms of someone else – and enjoying it. But once you are really into tango, you understand that for most dancers it is all about the dance and nothing more. The intensity, connection and abandon don't leave the dance floor. If we are looking for more than the dance, it has nothing to do with tango; tango just may be the avenue we choose to find it. If your life partnership is strong and you trust your partner, tango won't be a problem. If your relationship is fragile and you don't trust your partner, tango may be a dangerous game to play, but it is not to blame.

Then there is the frustration that comes when we learn tango together, but we don't pick it up at the same pace, which is almost always the case. Either partner might be a quicker study, but often it is the leader who receives the brunt of the blame, impatience and frustration – from both parties. It is generally accepted that the early stages of the learning curve are hardest for leaders. Followers with a few natural following skills can feel they dance well pretty quickly if paired with an experienced leader. But for leaders, there is a lot to think about and understand right from the start, which can lead to confusion and frustration early on. So both partners feel – somewhat mistakenly – that the follower is learning faster or dancing better than her partner so both get impatient with the leader's learning pace. It is later on that reality sets in for the followers, once they realize there should be so much more to their role than "just following." All of this is common and normal, but just try to remember to be patient and generous toward your partner, because no matter what, he or she is just learning too and probably trying his or her best.

I was discussing the effect of tango on a couple with friends recently and we jokingly came up with the statement: "If your couple can survive tango, your couple can survive anything!" Not a great marketing campaign for my business, but it contains a level of truth.

If life imitates tango and vice-versa, remember that in both no matter how much you love something, it can never be all positive all the time. The hard moments are there to teach us and the great moments are there to reward us. Tango, like life, needs balance and the difficult parts actually balance out the good stuff, helping us savour it even more.

Stick to it and work hard and you will improve, perhaps even one day breaking that elusive "advanced" barrier. Along the way there will be dips and plateaus in the learning process, frustration, refusals, insecurity, jealousy, awkward moments and bad nights.

All of this still happens to me, and I still have hard days when I think maybe I should just give it all up. But of course I don't. Because tango brings so much to my life … including thickening my skin with a little tough love from time to time.

Previously: Lesson No. 6: The truth about tango is ... elusive.

Next: Lesson No. 8: Leading and following are not so different.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Six: Quest for the truth

Every tango dancer is different, each one equally convinced of the truth of his perspective.
To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 things I have learned in, through or about this dance, with all its complexities and contradictions. Here is my next "lesson."

Lesson No. 6: The truth about tango is … elusive. The truth may be out there, but I have not yet found it, and you would have a hard time convincing me anyone else has.

During my two decades of seeking the great truth about tango, I have found many small ones, some of which, on the surface, seem to contradict each other: Connection is the most important thing; technique is the most important thing. Embrace is everything, posture is everything, musicality is everything. Steps first, then technique; technique first, then steps. No sequences, just improvisation! Sequences first, then improvisation! Focus on your hands and feet and the rest will come; focus on your centre and the rest will come. The key to good posture is the position of the pelvis; the key to good posture is the position of the shoulder blades; the key to good posture is the position of the head...

Seeking the truth is like seeking the perfect teaching method. Every teacher believes he or she has the best method, meanwhile most teachers' methods evolve over time, and I can tell you from experience, at each stage of that evolution we feel we have grasped a new, great truth. But a month, a year or 10 years later those truths have transformed yet again. Does that mean we were wrong last year and now we are finally right? We probably think so, but so does the teacher across town who has just discovered his own new truth.

Some teachers are dead set against teaching any type of "basic step" or other pre-formatted sequence, while others don't believe in teaching technique, because they think students will develop good technique on their own through the repetition of movements and sequences. Is one approach better, or more "true" than the other?

In reality, while one approach might be just right for one student, it could be all wrong for another. Different people learn differently and therefore, in the end, teachers need to include different approaches in their instruction, and students need to find the teachers who best fit their own learning style.

While a visual learner might benefit most from watching the teachers demonstrate a movement several times, an auditory learner might prefer a detailed breakdown and explanation. Meanwhile a kinesthetic learner will be eager to try the steps him or herself, and will want to copy the teachers as they demonstrate rather than just watching. At the same time, detail-oriented types will pick things up differently than those who quickly see the big picture. Each will benefit from a somewhat different teaching approach, and will also probably hone their various skill sets (such as learning or remembering sequences, solid walking technique, the lead-follow connection, musicality and floorcraft) in a different order.

There are teachers, dancers and even choreographers who don't believe in counting and only use musical cues, because they say counting makes your dancing too mechanical. Feel the music and your dancing will be musical. Makes sense. But then there are those who need to count everything. Learn to structure your dancing to the music and the "feeling" will come with time. Makes sense too. So is one way the right way?

The best approach to both teaching and dancing will probably include a little of everything: some technique and some fun steps, taught using demonstrations and explanations, and learned through lots of practice time. But even then, the balance will shift over time and with each individual.

And of course there are the divided camps when it comes to musical taste: "Everything played since 1955 is worthless!" versus "More than two Golden-Age tandas in a row is boring and repetitive!" I can tell you that both camps feel very strongly about their taste and each is pretty much convinced they are the ones who know the truth about tango music. Then I think of a dancer I know whose tastes I would generally consider very traditional (Fresedo-Ray, D'Agostino-Vargas, Laurenz, Maffia...). He knows his tango orchestras better than most, loves the Golden Age classics and rolls his eyes when something big and dramatic like Varela comes on – but then has no problem dancing to one of my totally alternative and out there tandas like Tom Waits. So whose musical taste is right?

The overall tango experience itself is not the same for everyone. I could divide tango dancers into three main groups – social dancers, performers and perpetual students.

Since tango was originally and remains primarily a social dance, social dancers are by far the predominant group. Within this group we find all sorts, but I will divide them into two groups. There are the gourmands – those for whom a successful night is one during which almost no tandas are sat out. These dancers are on the dance floor as much as possible, dancing with as many partners as possible, rarely sitting down to chat and almost never heading to the bar for a drink. This all-you-can-dance buffet type of dancer is often looked down on by the more discerning gourmet dancers. Members of this group always aim for quality over quantity. They dance to select tandas with select partners, are sticklers for the codigos and spend as much time mingling among themselves as actually dancing. They are often highly skilled and therefore pretty convinced they've got it right, but others accuse them of exclusion, snobbery and elitism.

Whoever is right, they all forget that not every tango dancer is a social dancer. Some professional dancers spend so much time training, touring and performing that they rarely ever make an appearance at milongas. And if we are talking escenario (stage) dancers, there are plenty of social dancers who dismiss what they do as not "true" tango, because it is too choreographed, flashy or acrobatic. But those show dancers have skills well beyond what the rest of us can ever hope to achieve. So who among us is the true tango dancer?

Speaking of dancers who don't go to milongas, I have students who have taken regular lessons for years (some of whom have become quite proficient along the way) but who never go out to dance socially. Perhaps their lifestyle (children, career, non-dancing life partner) doesn't lend itself to weekends and late nights spent in tango clubs, or perhaps the tango social scene just doesn't appeal to them even though they love the music and the learning process. Does that make them less of a tango dancer?

The thing is, all these dancers are tango dancers, even if their skills, goals, vision and experience of tango are vastly different.

The truth about tango, I guess, lies somewhere in the balance between simple fun and hard work, cool moves and strong technique, discipline and creativity, tradition and evolution. There may not be one great truth, but the quest will lead to many great discoveries.

Previously: Lesson No. 5: But you do need to learn steps.

Next: Lesson No. 7: You need a thick skin to dance tango.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Twenty tango lessons: Part Five: Yes, you do need moves

Teachers teach steps and sequences all the while insisting that they are secondary
to things like connection, musicality and technique. Is this a contradiction? Not really.
To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 things I have learned in, through or about this dance and the learning/teaching process that goes with it. Here is my next "lesson."

Lesson No. 5: But you do need to learn steps.
If there are no pre-defined figures or steps in Argentine tango dancing, why do most teachers teach sequences, or figures? It seems contradictory, but it is not.

If tango is a language, it's all well and good to know the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, but you can't apply any of them if you have no vocabulary to work with. This is why teachers teach steps and sequences all the while insisting that they are secondary to all the other stuff like connection, musicality, technique and so on.

When we learn a new language, we usually learn a few key phrases to start us off, such as "Hello, my name is Andrea. What is your name?" or "How much does this cost?" or "Would you like to dance?" That way we can start communicating on a basic level right away, and then we go back and learn the alphabet, the rules of grammar and syntax and so on. The ultimate goal, of course, is to be able to formulate our own sentences, and if we one day master the language, we will speak it fluidly, without even thinking about how it all works anymore. Tango is much the same. We get a few simple sequences to work with, simple structures (phrases) we can learn, practice and understand, and through those we begin to communicate, while working on the individual movements (the alphabet) and technique (grammar, syntax etc.). Eventually we may be able to create new sequences on the fly (prose), all while retaining our connection (conversation) with our partner and playing with the music (poetry!).

Once we have learned to walk with a partner in front of us, we are already communicating at a basic level, but we need a certain amount of vocabulary to really express ourselves. And just as fancy vocabulary alone doesn't make for great conversation, fancy moves alone don't a great dancer make. But cool moves are still, well, cool, and as long as you use them correctly in the right context, they are an essential – not to mention fun – part of dancing tango.

Sequences are both pedagogical tools and leading tools, and that is why I believe they are an unavoidable part of the teaching/learning process. But while teaching sequences it is important for instructors to make clear the fact that sequences are different from individual movements, and that in the end it is the mastery of the movements that counts most, not the sequences themselves. So the sequences are a means to an end, not the end itself.

Teaching a movement, such as an ocho, within the context of such a structure, gives useful points of reference to tango students. So we teach sequences in order to teach such fundamental moves as steps and pivots, which when put together become such fundamental mini-structures as walking sequences, ochos and giros, which when linked with transitional steps in order to enter or exit the move in question become what we think of as figures.

Followers don't need to remember the sequences, but they do need to learn them, understand them and practise them. Getting stuck on the idea of the sequence itself will encourage anticipation on the part of the followers, because they will be overly concerned with what comes next, but practising sequences and understanding how the individual parts fit together teaches their bodies to do what they need to do, and how it should feel when their steps are properly synchronized to their partners'.

It would be great if we could just teach improvisation from the start. If we could get beginners to see the big picture from Day One, skipping the difficult, cumbersome and often frustrating parts of the learning process. But in my experience we can't skip the early parts of the process, because learning tango is just that: a process. And it goes something like this:

1. Learn some basic moves and sequences, along with some very basic technique and leading and following tools, all of which will feel awkward and surprisingly difficult at first, and won't really feel much like dancing yet.

2. Learn some more moves and sequences while continuing to try to master the first ones as well as paying some attention to our posture, the music and a bunch of other stuff that still feels like too much to think about all at once. This often leads to much confusion and frustration for leaders, who have a tough time learning and remembering their own steps, let alone knowing what their partner is doing every step of the way, not to mention wrapping their minds and bodies around such concepts as parallel vs. cross system. Followers, meanwhile, often feel they are learning faster than their partners at this point, and start to feel they can really dance – if they get paired with a more advanced leader or their teacher. At this stage, both partners are often impatient with the leader's learning pace.

3. Leaders continue to feel stressed out about not knowing enough moves, and get bored with themselves if they don't execute every move they have ever learned within a single song. Followers start to learn that their role is actually about more than following. They begin to realize that they should be responsible for their own axis, steps and pivots, and begin to understand that not every mistake is the leader's fault. Teachers keep saying that both partners should be focusing more on posture, connection, musicality and floorcraft, but most intermediate-level dancers don't yet fully understand this or believe it. Leaders and followers can both feel in a rut at this point as they both realize how much there is to learn and that it will take more time and hard work.

4. Leaders and followers have both experienced some aha moments where, by fluke or design, everything came together with ease: steps, balance, comfy embrace and the perfect moment in the music. At this point leaders have been exposed to just about every type of move that has a name – ochos, giros, paradas, barridas, sacadas, ganchos, boleos, volcadas, colgadas – and, having spent a fair amount of time dancing in milongas, they realize that as they improve their embrace, posture and musicality things work better more often. Followers, meanwhile, stop needing to be led into endless series of impressive moves to enjoy a dance and start to derive more and more pleasure from a good embrace, creative musicality and simple steps that give them a chance to connect, embellish, play with the music and express themselves.

5. Those years of hard work are paying off and we both get that it all starts with good connections and moves on from there. The sequences and moves become tools for improvising with the music and our partners, both of whom understand that skill and enjoyment are about the how, not the what. We look back and wish we had understood sooner what it is really all about. While we have reached a stage where onlookers consider us advanced, we see that the tango learning process is an endless journey and while we derive satisfaction from knowing how far we have come, we only want to go further still.

Previously: Lesson No. 4: It's all about the music

Next: Lesson No. 6: The truth about tango is ...

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Four: It's all about the music

Music is the raison d'être of dancing, and in couple dancing it is also an important synchronization tool.

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 things I have learned in, through or about this wonderful dance and its enthralling music. Here is my next "lesson."

Lesson No. 4: Musicality is everything
Musicality just may be my favourite subject. It is certainly my favourite quality in a dancer … well, perhaps tied for first place with a good embrace. Give me a nice embrace and great connection to the music and I am a happy dancer.

If only I could make beginners believe this from the start: Big, impressive moves do not a great dancer make. Musicality, on the other hand…

Musicality is probably the most underestimated aspect of tango dancing by most beginner to intermediate dancers. From Day One, just about every leader wants to learn steps, steps, steps and moves, moves, moves. While of course cool and complex steps can be fun, they are nothing if not executed in connection with the music. Better to execute something simple in perfect time to the rhythm than something seemingly complex while treating the music as simple background noise.

I think the same phenomenon appears in every social dance. I recently went out to a salsa club for the first time in over a decade, and I found that more than ever dancers are focused on moves. They turn you this way and that, executing series after series of complex figures, rarely if ever pausing to just dance. To just feel the music and move to it. In tango, as in salsa, complex sequences and difficult moves can be fun and satisfying when expertly executed, but there needs to be some simple dancing in between, and if the execution is not expert, if either partner is off the music, it's disconcerting to the other, and, frankly, barely any fun at all.

For the follower, it means you are constantly receiving two conflicting messages – one from your partner and one from the soundtrack – and you therefore constantly have to choose which of the two you are going to follow. A woman once confessed to me that when she is in this situation she feels like her brain is about to explode – and I feel the same way.

Music is pretty much the raison d'être of dancing. It is why we dance differently to different types of music.

So why oh why do so many tango dancers treat musicality as an after-thought?

I believe there are two reasons:

First, there is no basic step in tango. In most social dances there is a basic step that fits a specific rhythmic pattern and generally fits cleanly into a musical phrase. To again use salsa as an example, you have three steps, a pause, then three more steps and a pause, all of which fits perfectly into an eight-count phrase.  So the basic step is taught that way: as a pattern that starts and ends in time with each musical phrase. In tango there is no real basic step besides the walk, so you are not obliged to start a sequence on "1" or finish on "8." Even if we do use some sequences as part of our vocabulary – and some of those might even contain exactly eight steps or actions – we can change the rhythmic pattern by pausing a beat or two or dancing double-time, thereby changing the place in the music where we complete our figure. Add to that the upredictability of our partner's responses and the traffic on the dance floor, and it becomes impossible to impose any type of sequence with a specific step count or musical count.

Second, tango music is so layered that there are many ways to interpret and play with it. This makes it hard for teachers to impose a musical structure on their students, because so many other musical structures might work just as well: quick-quick-slow vs. slow-slow-slow or slow-quick-quick, not to mention adding pauses or syncopation. … But I think teachers do need to pick one pattern and impose it at first, as an exercise in awareness and discipline. We need to train students to force themselves to dance to the music, consistently keeping time with the beat. Because so many just don't. They figure they will worry about the steps first and deal with following the music later. But often that "later" never really comes; they get so used to dancing to the beat of their own drum – or ignoring it altogether – that they never learn to let the music that's playing lead them and inspire them.

There are different levels of musicality for dancers:

•The beat. This is the basic unit of time in the music. It is the rhythm you would tap your toes or clap your hands to, and in tango it is your basic walking rhythm. So a basic walk follows the regular strong, or accented beats in the music. The beat, el compás in Spanish, is like an ever-present metronome; it is the constant and consistent time that all the musicians are keeping, even as their melodies might speed up, slow down or pause. Like a heartbeat, this beat, also called a pulse, is always present, whether you hear it or not and no matter what else is going on in the music. In many other types of music this time is often played by a drum or other percussion instrument, but this is rarely the case in Argentine tango. Different instruments can play the beat at different times, which is one of the reasons it's hard for some people to even hear, or feel, the beat in tango at first. So it's a challenge for some, but it's essential for all. You can't be on the music if you can't find the beat, so find it and force yourself to stick to it before moving on to other possibilities. Some people think it is boring to teach people to dance on the beat and that we should immediately teach them to dance on the melody. I disagree. In all these years of dancing and teaching I have seen too many dancers who have trouble even hearing the beat consistently, let alone dancing to it, so I think it's important to teach this basic concept first. If you're on the beat, you will not be wrong, although you will eventually want to make things more interesting by playing with …

•Pauses and double-time. In terms of variation on the beat, pauses will come first, as you often will have no choice but to stop moving for a beat or two to get your bearings or let your partner get his or hers as well as to manage the always unpredictable dance-floor traffic. Just be sure you do pause for a beat or two or three – not some random time that ignores the music. Pause on a beat and start again on a beat. Double-time dancing, sometimes called traspie (especially in milonga) or contratiempo, means dancing twice as fast, or, in other words, doing three steps in two musical beats. This is where things get interesting … and, of course, more challenging. Just remember, if you can't yet stick to the time, you won't be able to handle double-time.

•Syncopation, phrasing and dancing the melody. These are more complex concepts. For high-level dancers they are incredibly fun, because you can get incredibly creative, but they are also quite difficult. Many dancers never get to the point where they can use these elements, and you absolutely need to fully master the previous concepts before even attempting to go further.

  • Syncopation means placing rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn't normally occur; this would generally be done in a place where the musicians are doing it, so you have to hear it, get your feet to mark it and your partner to feel it, all in the space of a fraction of a beat. 
  • Phrasing is the way the music is grouped into structures. In tango, these structures will usually be 8 or 16 counts. In tango dancing, you do not have to "start on 1" the way you do in some other dances, but the music changes between phrases, so if you are aware of the phrasing and the changes you can also change the quality of your dancing in those moments, thus being more fully connected to and expressive of the music. 
  • Dancing the melody can be done by marking the intricate rhythmic sequences of one of the instruments as well as by dancing the feeling of the music. This is what will, or should, make us dance differently to different orchestras. Clearly, different styles of music invite different styles of dance. From the time my children were very young, I noticed that I could play any genre of music and they would instinctively move in a way that closely resembles the dances we all associate with that genre: country, swing, hip hop, classical … even if they had never heard the music or seen the dance before. Each style of music automatically evokes a different feeling and a particular way of expressing it physically. If we extend this concept to tango, it means that the feeling and quality of our dancing should change with each tanda, each style, each orchestra. Obviously waltz should be danced differently from milonga, which in turn should be different from tango, but within these different styles each orchestra should be danced differently as well. If you wouldn't move the same way to Tchaikovsky as to Eminem, would you dance a 1930s rhythmic D'Arienzo the same way as a dramatic Pugliese from the '50s?

So, what about the follower's role in all of this? There is a mistaken idea that musicality is mainly the leader's job. But no, like everything else in tango, it should be 50/50.

For one thing, it is the music that will inspire the follower's embellishments. Why do I choose a tap vs. a lápiz? A series of tiny, playful steps vs. a slow caress of my partner's leg? The music, of course!
But also, sometimes it is my job to keep the time. For example, if my parter leads me a turn while he pivots on one foot, embellishing with difficult enrosques, it is up to me to mark the music with my steps, helping him to turn, keep his balance and easily keep track of where I am so he can end the turn at just the right moment.

The music has another very important role in couple dancing: It is a synchronization tool. If my partner and I are both dancing to the same music, we will more easily dance in sync with each other. When we talk about going beyond the beat to dance double-time, to syncopate or to explore other layers of rhythm and melody, it is essential for the follower to be as in tune with the music as the leader. For example, when my leader wants me to dance double-time, he gives me a lead to go faster, but what tells me exactly how fast to go? The music! My leader doesn't place my foot on the floor; I do, and I do it to the music. And if he wants me to syncopate or mark a more intricate melodic pattern? Impossible if I am not hearing it in the music myself.

If all of this sounds daunting, remember: Start with the basics, or the beat, and you will not go wrong. Little by little, as you begin to master one concept, you can attempt the next. Then maybe one day you, too, will embody the music, using your own body like one of the instruments in the orchestra, keeping time with the beat while filling the space in between with melodies full of creativity, emotion and suspense.

So musicality might just be the most important element in our dancing. But then again, you do need steps.

Next: Lesson No. 5: But you do need to learn steps

Previously: Lesson No. 3: Posture is everything