Posture and balance exercises: We did a "stretching" elongating exercise for the lower back. Place the palm of the right hand just beneath the breastbone and use it to mentally direct your energy up and back at that point, and place the back of the left hand on your tailbone directing the energy forward and down. The idea is to minimize the curvature in, and elongate the spinal column, in the lower back. Try to use only the muscles necessary to do this; relax everything else, especially your shoulders and any other muscles that have no direct role. The pelvis should be level or nearly so (with bad posture the pelvis usually tends to tilt forward, with the butt sticking out too much). Take about thirty seconds to build to maximum intensity; hold it there for about twelve seconds or so, then take about thirty seconds to gradually relax. It's a similar feeling to lying on your back on a flat hard surface and trying to "press your back" against or into that hard surface (like the floor). Doing this exercise (twice in a row) every day will go a long way to alleviating lower back problems, at least from bad posture and dancing. All these types of exercises are "isometric". The idea with an isometric exercise is to maximize effort for about ten to fifteen seconds. The more intensity you can generate for that ten or so second period, the better. The first couple times you do this exercise do not give it your all; give your body a chance to adapt a little before going "all out". That's it.
We then did another isometric, actually two, these being "twisting" exercises. All the above principles described in the previous paragraph doing the first isometric also apply here. Stand loosely on the balls of your feet with the left foot forward, right back. Leaving your feet to pivot on the balls of your feet, pivot left as far as you can with your entire body and then stand flat footed. Leaving your pelvis twisted to the left, twist from the chest to the right as far as you can, twisting at the waist between the pelvis and chest. Leaving the chest rotated to the right, pelvis twisted to the left, feet flat on the floor, twist the shoulders (independent of the chest, you can do it) as much as you can to the left. Holding everything in that position, then, rotate your head as far as you can to the right. Hold, making it as intense as you can, concentrating on the pelvis, chest, shoulders, and head twisted in their respective directions. After completing this exercise twice (be sure you take enough time to slowly "come out of it") do the mirror image of this exercise (twice). Doing this will improve your mobility, regenerate muscles seldom used but needed in the tango, will help especially with the leader leading with the chest and the follower responding with her hips.
For the time invested, the return for faithfully doing isometrics is pretty amazing. Doing these isometrics, plus a couple more we'll learn, will be like getting a "make over" in terms of how you look and feel dancing. It will be the difference between moving with confidence and having presence, working easily with your partner, moving gracefully, naturally, and just effortlessly looking really good, and a mechanical, labored, plodding self-consciousness in moving from one position to the next. I have been blown away how people can transform themselves in a few weeks, simply as a result of doing these exercises. From looking like Joe or Mary Schmoe, recently from off the turnup truck, they become this very natural but incredibly superb dancer for whom people line up to dance with. The more you can do in the way of exercises "outside the dance" in preparation for the dance, especially in terms of basics, the more fun you can have, and the more you can "not think", while doing the dance. The reason many, even supposedly good, dancers look so stilted dancing, is that they are thinking the whole time. These isometrics are prime examples of being able to do "more with less". "Bang for the buck", it doesn't get any better. But while they take little time, to be effective they have to be done every day.
We did a "balance exercise", actually four of them, where we stood on either foot, supporting knee slightly flexed, and rotated ninety degrees at a time in one direction. The non-supporting foot is tucked behind the supporting one. The challenge is to see how many times you can pivot (on the ball of the supporting foot), ninety degrees at a time without totally loosing your balance and having to remove the non-supporting foot from it's position, or hopping on the supporting one in order to maintain balance. You are, however, in this "game" allowed to use "body english". Fifty times is very good; a hundred times is excellent. Repeat exercise on the same foot but rotating in the opposite direction. Change feet and repeat above exercises. If it should get to be easy you can try these variations: close one eye; close both eyes; pivot 120, 180, or 360 degrees with each pivot. Wearing cement boots is unfair.
Ocho grapevine exercise with "calesita". We reviewed the "ocho grapevine" exercise, described in class four notes (especially, see diagram). We then modified it to include a calesita whenever the leader felt like leading it (but fairly often). She has to be on her right foot to do a calesita (in this exercise, she can also calesita on her left). Important to go slowly. Try to identify with your partner, leader especially with the follower. Follower focus on axis, connection, balance especially during the brush thru (see below, "checklist for the follower")
Variations on the salida. We showed how to rotate the "tango close" CCW coming out of the cruzada. Main point was for the leader to establish a "pivot point" by stepping between her feet with his left foot as she is stepping back on her right. You can thus pivot ninety or even 180 degrees (as a couple).
We then showed a "cross step" salida ("salida" means exit, presumably you must "exit" the real world in order to get into the tango world; in any case here we use "salida" to refer to the first several steps of the dance, ending in the cruzada). See the first four steps in the box figure, notated in the first class notes. This would be a "parallel step" salida. "Parallel" here means partners are stepping on opposite feet (e.g. man's left, lady's right). "Cross pattern" feet means they are stepping on the same foot (e.g. man's left, lady's left). When you face your partner and are moving on opposite feet, the "normal" mode for most dances, the feet look as if they are moving "in parallel"; and when you are moving on the same foot with and facing your partner your right foot and her right foot are on the opposite side giving a "cross" pattern look. The definition of the terms "cross" and "parallel" here are traditional, arbitrary and unscientific, don't look for any deep logical significance here. Just know what they mean. We'll have more to say about "cross" and "parallel" footwork later.
Finally we taught a pattern called "Media Vuelta" ("half turn") (Note: the first step described ("step 0") is merely a preparatory step and for purposes of notation is not to be considered a part of the sequence. Also I'm not formatting this into a table or in columns because people have complained that in some instances it gets garbled in copying or downloading it):
Note: for the leader steps 1 thru 6 all progress in one straight (or slightly curved) line. Usually that line is one moving in line of direction. The media vuelta is an excellent opportunity to practice "leader's chest, follower's hips connection" in leading and following. Stay focused on and move with partner thruout this figure.
This concludes notes on the fifth class, per se. The following expands on, and generally summarizes many of the ideas on basic technique presented in previous class notes, and presents some new ideas as well. Even if you feel comfortable with everything so far, I think you'll find this worth your while to read. Even knowing something, reading a different account can sometimes offer additional perspective and insights.
Checkpoints for the follower:
Frame: In the "normal" frame, the follower's left shoulder and the leader's right shoulder are much closer than on the other side (leaders left and follower's right). If she is not feeling enough support in this position, the leader may have his right arm and hand positioned too low; his right hand should be about at the level and in the vicinity of her shoulder blade. She can also intensify the connection by moving her left arm and hand downward (on his back) and move slightly toward him more on her left side. You want to feel the connection where your arms cross, on or above his biceps and about the same for her. The tango frame is a "semi-embrace".
When "giving weight to your partner", you want to be careful that you are not giving more weight than he is asking for. Follower offers weight, leader accepts; she must be physically and mentally receptive to the leader adjusting the amount of weight she is giving him (and keeps giving until he realizes he must offer some weight, in the form of support, also). She gives about what she feels is appropriate and necessary; he fine tunes it, depending on his tastes and on what he plans to do next. Connection consists of frame, giving of weight and mutual balance. In a tango sense you are only to the extent that your connection is; if your connection is lacking or nonexistent, so are you, tangowise.
In giving or offering weight to your partner, followers, be aware of your own support (from the floor) and your own axis. You have to maintain your own structural integrity, being neither too stiff nor too relaxed. Check out "refrigerator" metaphor in class four notes.
Extremely important is to keep supporting knee slightly bent, weight on the ball of the foot; when you are brushing thru both knees are slightly bent; and when you commit yourself for the subsequent step the knee that was supporting you then straightens releasing weight as the other leg bends taking weight. This all lowers the followers center of gravity, increases her stability, dramatically smooths out her movement and carriage, prevents her from simply "falling" from one position to another, but rather actively "gliding"or "stretching" to her next position. This empowers her, making her a participant instead of a mere object, in the dance. Having determined his lead (from the likely possibilities), the follower takes an active role at that point, dramatically (or not) with absolute self-possession asserting herself. It's kind of like when an overzealous parent tries to do something for their child and the child objects: "no, I can do it". Relax. Wait for the lead (an indicator, a request, not a command), but then you can do it. You may even want to include a half dozen embellishments in the process; push the envelope. This is very different than merely being passively shoved around by the leader.
The leader benefits from this also. Having her be active rather than merely passive in the dance takes away some of the pressure. The dance becomes a cooperative effort, a partnership, as it were. The best leads are minimal and intuitive. She is a feather, a shadow. The connection, while absolutely solid, is also minimal, almost telepathic. Leader and follower are one. Lead, follow, giving of weight, the connection, all tend asymptotically toward the infintessimal, toward (but never) zero. As I've said, and will continue to say, on many occasions: "Less is more, unless it is not enough".
As you step to the next position, try, by default, to maintain a constant distance away from him. You gauge this distance not by looking down at your and his feet but by "feeling" it; intuition is a valuable tool; use it. His chest and breastbone are a good indication of his center; focus on it, if you need something to focus on. You want to step close enough to him so that you don't pull him (and push yourself) off balance, but not so close that you are either pushing your own weight away from him and consequently pulling him toward you, or pushing both of you backwards. Typical is not extending (non-supporting leg) and bending (supporting leg) sufficiently when he is backing you up (Have you noticed that when you start the dance you (should) have great position and balance, but by the time, four steps later, you get to the cruzada, his feet are way too close and you are both pushing each other (and falling) backwards?) The other common error is in the back ocho. It is often difficult for the follower to twist back far enough for the foot she is ochoing onto to end up being the same distance from the leader's center as her other foot. Try. Twist at the waist like a crazy person, attempting to keep your chest toward the leader while twisting your hips in the direction you are going. The position of the follower's two feet, in going around him, should be equidistant from his center of balance.
The more the follower can be aware of the leader (she focusing on him focusing on herself), the better. The one thing the follower needs to be aware of is the leaders balance and axis and try not to pull him off balance (generally--there will be times when the leader uses her weight, deliberately leading her to be off balance so that she then pulls him in a certain direction, but this is a special case).
While by default she tries to maintain a constant distance, the leader can and will vary that distance depending on what types of moves and figures he intends to lead next. As the leader moves closer or away from her to create a closer or more open frame the follower should let her left hand and arm slide easily on a line extending from the back of his neck, to his shoulder blade and back of his shoulder to his triceps. Her left hand should generally not be on top of or against the front of the man's shoulder, or on his biceps.
When you take weight on any step and are brushing thru you want to be solidly on your axis (and on the ball of the foot with weight offered to the leader) ready for any lead. It's a little like stepping from one rock to another crossing a stream; you want to step to the next rock in a fashion such that when you arrive at and take full weight on that rock (completing the step), you are not off balance falling one way or another (into the stream), so that you can then rotate to face toward, and prepare to step to, the next rock. Too often the followers I dance with think we are doing some figure, have already decided where they're going the next five steps and hence are not remotely stable at the brush thru position. Hence she is unleadable except in the most crude, brute strength, fashion. It is good for followers to anticipate the various possibilities for the next step; but don't anticipate the step itself, because you don't know what the next step is yet. Wait for the lead. Balance, frame, foot position, connection, posture, awareness of partner: all are critical and interdependent. I know; you've heard it all before, at least I hope you have.
For the leader and follower:
Leaders, the big thing for you is to be as aware as you can of what your partner is feeling and doing. Anything you can do to empathize with her, to "dance in her shoes", to identify with her, will make an amazing difference. You should, at the very least, know her steps and technique (above). Any figure we teach, you need to learn her steps as well as, or better than, your own. Practicing by yourself: (a) dance with a phantom follower imagining what she feels and looks like from a vantage point of about ten feet behind her; (b) dance as the follower with a phantom leader; focus on "him" focusing on and leading you. It is an awesome mental experience to get to the point where you are simultaneously aware of both yourself and your partner in a "first person" sense; you feel as if you are two people at the same time--extreme multitasking. At first any progress in identifying thus with your partner will seem impossible. But if you practice, even for a short time, everyday, you'll start to see results, and with continued and consistent practice those results will compound and will make all the difference not only in how well you lead and dance, but in how much fun you have doing it. More than any single element in the dance, this can prove to be the most interesting and addictive. The follower, from her perspective doing all of the above, can experience similar benefit. She can even go beyond that by "focusing on him focusing on her". It all makes for a remarkable experience and process, one you'll never get tired of.
Awareness happens thru association. In this instance, to be aware of her position and movement, practice both visualizing her, as well as "feeling" her, movement. It is the association between the "visual" and the "feeling" that is the trick, the crucial ingredient, that will make it happen, i.e. make her "real", actually make you aware of her as if you were her, which foot she is on, which way she is twisting, moving, etc. You thus lead intuitively, without thinking. The same principle obviously applies to the follower trying to identify with her leader.
Partner awareness, or identifying with one's partner, more than effectively replaces, actually supersedes, a thousand lead/follow rules--along with their exceptions--that teachers come up with to apply to any given situation. Try putting on some good tango music and combine practicing (a) and (b), above, with an "ocho-grapevine" improv exercise (see class four notes). Switching roles with a partner and letting her try to lead you is sometimes a good idea and worth trying. Better might be getting together with other leaders (or followers getting together with other followers) and taking turns leading and following (see "Addenda" in class four notes). Ask me to lead you thru any figures you have difficulty with. Followers can similarly benefit by learning the leaders role. Essential, of course, is to keep leader and follower skills mentally separate; the follower does not normally want to "back lead"; but this by itself is rarely a problem, and as such (except as noted below), I believe, has been overblown. Some of the best and most sought after followers in the 1940's were (not necessarily gay) men who, having spent years being a leader, decided then to specialize in being a follower.
I do give you a very few principles (I won't call them "rules"). See previous notes about four phases of a lead/follow. The connection between leader's chest and follower's hip, he twisting his chest and she twisting at the waist following his chest movement with her hips, is an amazing discovery and obviates a lot of arm twisting, pushing and shoving between partners. Both of the above principles only "work" if the follower is well balanced, on her axis, with a slightly flexed supporting leg, and offering the very small amount of weight to the leader necessary to maintain the connection. Otherwise they're just wasted effort. Again, consult previous notes on details of the above.
What can be a problem though, and a big one if you (the follower who's learning to lead) are not aware of it's possibility, is that the follower, in practicing leader's skills by leading other followers, can lose her ability to properly "give weight" or "proper balance" as a follower. (While the leader also gives weight, it is in a different way than the follower.) Even being aware of this potential, it can thus take a follower several minutes to effectively make the transition from leading to following. This ability to "give weight" is a very subtle and precious but ephemeral commodity. Unfortunately many, probably most, followers never even attain it in the first place; but the best improvisational followers generally do. Many have it naturally or intuitively. But even the best dancers can lose it. Having practiced and worked hard to attain skills of balancing, giving weight, and maintaining a connection as a beginner, followers subsequently tend to take those skills for granted, shifting them from the intellectual realm to the intuitive. And ironically, over months and years, the better you get at giving weight, the less weight you tend to give, "less being more" unless it's not enough; or similarly, "simplify, simplify, but don't oversimplify". Thus it gets taken for granted such that later, several years down the road, when a follower starts to learn to lead she has no idea why her ability as a follower then goes down the tubes, or at least seem to "goes flat". All things being equal, learning to lead should do the opposite, should improve one's ability to follow. Thus, the practice of a follower learning to lead gets a bad rap. To preclude this happening, followers who are learning to lead need simply to do frequent reality checks and try to maintain separate, contrasting, areas in their brain for what the follower's balance feels like as opposed to the leader's. Feeling this difference, the contrast, between the two "balances" (leader's and follower's) will actually reinforce both and will thus secure, safeguard and actually improve her balance as a follower. If the follower is thus diligent and aware, learning to lead can have a dramatically positive effect. I've not noticed any obvious problems occurring in the opposite direction, i.e. a leader learning to follow. With the above caveat in mind, it is highly desirable for a dancer to know and to be able to dance the opposite role, as either a leader or a follower.
Finally, and again at least partly as a warning, I should mention that this mental (and physical, but we're talking about the mental here) bridge created to identify with your partner is more than just a conduit for technical information (in both directions, i.e. both from the follower to the leader and from the leader to the follower)--where his/her weight is, which direction he/she is moving, rotating, in, etc. It automatically and inevitably also becomes a bridge for emotional information as well. This "information", technical, but especially emotional, sort of "ping-pongs" back and forth, compounding in the process. This can be devastating, awesome, overwhelming, and otherwise totally unexpected. It's like a (huge) side effect, like you get a lot more than you bargained for. This emotional energy is not necessarily, but often is, romantic, can be just a very warm and wonderful platonic feeling but when it is romantic, is often very powerfully so. It can be a formidable tool (for good or ill), part of what makes this dance so fascinating, and is certainly at the center of the attraction tango has over dancers. But it also can be slightly dangerous. We are all susceptible. Being circumspect, aware, and focused, will help.
Having gained some facility in basic technique, we are now starting to learn a few figures and patterns, as well as becoming more aware of footwork possibilities in general. With this comes demands on technique and a lot more "thinking" or "left-brain" activity. Through it all it is critical to maintain and improve one's ability to "not think" or "right-brain" activity (actually, I have no idea which side of the brain does what). As mentioned and emphasized in previous notes, it is extremely important to (a) practice, and to (b) spend an equal amount of time simply moving to and feeling the music while meditating and experiencing your partners (phantom or real) presence, as it is to do specific balance, posture, patterns, and other technical exercises. To some degree these two activities (in (b) ) can be combined in the "grapevine ocho" exercise (see class four notes). You need to maintain that practice time balance, in both directions. You need the technical, but you also need the intuitive; you have to learn (and practice) to both "think" and to "not think" and although they seem very opposite, in practicing both you'll notice a very favorable synergistic effect.
It has been my experience in teaching that there is a tremendous variety in experience and talent that people bring with them. Musical experience and ability go a long way in learning to dance. Being physically fit certainly makes a big difference. Being passionate about what you do is important. Having a nimble intelligent mind likewise makes a difference (engineers, mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, are all prominent as good dancers). Some people have a natural God-given ability to empathize with fellow human beings. This ability, when combined with being naturally coordinated, can be awe-inspiring. Experience makes a difference also--facility in ballroom, folk dancing, or kung fu, for example. While all these things are obviously an advantage, I see, paradoxically, that often the people who truly excel, are those with perhaps greater than average talent, but are certainly not top drawer. People that are extremely quick from the get-go often never see the need to practice. Indeed, this person will be better for a time, but inevitably the person with a good but not great amount of talent but who practices (and knows how to practice) and is disciplined will surpass dramatically the person with extreme talent but who does not practice. Another advantage to getting better thru practicing is that you learn what works and what doesn't whereas the person who merely relies on his talent hasn't a clue. I've noticed this in music also, that the truly great performers, the ones who are truly brilliant, are those who earned it, who had to work for it. Once they reach the level of their more talented peers, they don't stop there; they've got their ticket, they know how to keep going, getting better and better and better. Merely having talent doesn't endow you with that knowledge; it can only be earn thru trial and error and hard work. Talent can help, is a gift and a blessing, but vision, desire, and hard work will win over mere talent every time.
Experience can play a role similar to talent, including some of the same pitfalls and advantages. Years of experience in ballroom can often be a huge benefit. But just as often I see someone too indoctrinated with skills that are just different enough that the person cannot make the transition. The tango frame, balance, attitude, posture, all evolved with the dance, all for very definite, good, and logical reasons. People with lots of ballroom experience often see ballroom technique as somehow scientifically derived and applying universally. It just ain't the case. (This is obvious to someone with a background in international folk dancing, which includes dances from sophisticated dance forms from cultures and traditions that have date back perhaps 800 years or more.) To give just one example: Moves in most ballroom dances are complimentary; when the man steps forward the lady steps back, etc. In (Argentine) tango (in at least the "open" variety) the leader is quite often doing something very different than what he is leading his partner to do. Without going into a lot of detail, this predisposes a very different frame and attitude, and set of circumstances.
Another way experience can impact negatively is that tango, being improvisational (thus led and followed) at a different more fundamental level than most other dances, requires more time and patience before a person really feels competent at it. The process of learning tango is not the 100 meter dash. The process itself can be enjoyable, and need to be, but it can often take years. Having learned, say, swing in a few months, a person then expecting to learn tango quickly can easily become discouraged.
Part three of these notes on the subject of Dealing with Aches and Pains has been placed in a separate link, also available from the main page. Thanks for reading,