I had an “Aha!” moment about walking and improvisation when a student of another teacher asked me to teach him my ‘style’. His teacher was an Argentinian guy, a newcomer to the city, who apparently graduated from the tango university (whatever that is) and was teaching the sort of long erect walking typical of Salon Style Tango, elegant and upright looking. At the time visited my practica I didn’t know what his teaching method was. I showed the guy a simple pattern which commonly goes by ocho cortado but the guy couldn’t do it. I was puzzled given that the guy was obviously studying hard with his teacher and really wanted to get my move. I found myself telling him that the step he’s taking is too long for close embrace and that he needs to make smaller steps to execute the pattern.
What he was doing is actually what is commonly taught which is powering horizontally into the step. When I visited the other teacher’s lesson soon afterwards I had my aha moment. His Argentinian teacher had the students walking around doing this sort of a power walk. I actually used to teach in exactly the same way as this is the most common practice in tango instruction but it just never occurred to me (although I probably had my suspicions by that time) that this could actually be an impediment to the close embrace tango that I was now teaching. What I realised is that pushing horizontally into the step while walking, taught directly and turned into a habit, commits the dancer to a fairly large step which is not ‘reversible’.
The issue is not that one should not take large steps while dancing, but rather that one should take a step that is as long as needed. As a rule, you learn what you practice, that is, what you practice turns into a habit. If you practice taking power steps, pushing horizontally into the step, then that becomes the habit. A student who is trained into such steps finds that they cannot take smaller steps in the inculcated belief that a tango walk is always this sort of long step. Another way of looking at this is that the teaching method teaches the view that walking is a lower body action, and not a whole body action, it’s what you do with your legs.
As a rule, you learn what you practice, that is, what you practice turns into a habit. If you practice taking power steps, pushing horizontally into the step, then that becomes the habit.
What we actually want, however, is a walking action that integrates the whole body, so that the legs adjust to what the upper body is doing. In the case of Tango Estilo Milonguero, the upper body is connected to another body, and the legs need to adjust to that. That’s why, practicing walking by yourself leads to the sort of partnering that is disjointed: we learn to move the legs and feet in a disjointed way, independently of the upper body and ultimately independently of our partner. But that is fundamentally at odds with the goal of tango training which is to move in a way that is connected to our partner.
Principle of reversibility
So the question is how or what should we practice, individually or with a partner, so that our walking is more connected. The difference between improvised and choreographed dancing is that in improvised dancing we respond in the moment. We are not committed to any sequence of two or more steps, but make or change a decision at any point in time. That means that the way we dance must allow us to stop and change direction. In fact, Moshe Feldenkrais (a student of F.M. Alexander and developer of the Feldenkrais Method) argued that a fundamental principle of freedom in movement, rather than being some sort of lack of inhibition, is this sort of reversibility defined as having the maximum number of options at any point in time:
Moshe Feldenkrais said that reversibility was a key criteria for determining whether a particular movement is done well. Reversibility basically means the capacity to stop a movement at any point and then go in the opposite direction with a minimum of hesitation. … One aspect of reversibility is that its presence implies a more general and important skill – the ability to move in any direction with a minimum of hesitation or preparation. In other words, if you can go back where you came from, you could probably go in any other direction as well. Feldenkrais considered this quality of preparedness to move anywhere as the ultimate goal of movement training, an ideal state of affairs which represents the highest level of physical organization. Bettermovement.com
In tango we have a range of options at any point in time and the principle of reversibility means that the goal of our training in tango movement is that we are able to move in a way allowing us to stop at any point and change direction.
So the question is whether the sort of training whereby we power horizontally into the step as a matter of course provides for reversibility. If we learn to walk with an elongated step projecting horizontally forward or backward, at the moment of projecting into space we are unable to reverse for the duration of that long step. The source of the problem that I see is that this sort of movement is initiated without adequate regard for what is happening at the embrace.
If you have a good embrace and there is good connection you can to take longer steps with good control in a way that is reversible. If you instead learn to walk by taking power steps, practicing this individually and making that your normal way to walk, this is likely to make it more difficult to respond to situations where small steps are required, which is actually the normal situation in a social dancing context. Your movement will have a lot of power and will probably look great, but you will have little control or flexibility. At the end of a power step you will have to ‘land’ which will require a long ‘runway’. Your dancing will be like the action of a large jumbo jet which will be impressive but not very nimble. Great for the floor show in eating up all that empty studio floorspace but pretty useless in limited cafe spaces where good floorskills are of the essence.
The sort of training that gets students to walk around powering into the step will lead to habitual movement of a particular type which will require a minimum amount of dancing space. If you have access to studio spaces where each couple can have a space of 2 meters or so in diameter then power steps might be viable. In most large cities, however, such spaces come at a premium at the door. So when you undertake this type of training you should bear in mind that there is a longer term cost attached extending beyond the price of the class itself. There are other reasons to prefer a more efficient movement as well, including access to partners, the range of music you can dance to, and the amount of effort involved in your dancing.
When you undertake this type of training you should bear in mind that there is a longer term cost attached extending beyond the price of the class itself. There are other reasons to prefer a more efficient movement as well, including access to partners, the range of music you can dance to, and the amount of effort involved in your dancing.
Tango power walk and goal focus
The principle of reversibility is a development of Alexander’s distinction between end-gaining vs. means-whereby (what I call goal focus vs. process focus). Alexander held that by excessively focusing on a goal we create tension which prevents us from using our neuromuscular system efficiently in accordance with its natural design. Feldenkrais further develops this idea in terms of the notion that a mark of this sort of efficiency is reversibility. Also, he held, as did Alexander, that it is this sort of reversibility, rather than self-expression and lack of inhibition, is actually the mark of freedom and spontaneity.
As with choreography instruction in general, taking power steps is a sign of a goal focus. Some aspects of dancing are more conspicuous than others. Those aspects that are highly visible tend to be the most impressive to the uninformed beginner who is then apt to be misled into identifying them as the markers competent dancing to aim for (see Beauty or kitsch). The learner is then apt to attempt to emulate them or to be encouraged by his teacher to do so. They become the goal of his practice. Unfortunately for the learner, seeking to emulate what he considers the mark of good dancing he is merely imitating what are in fact very superficial aspects of dancing that are actually well beyond his current level of ability (see Training vs. demonstration of skill).
A tango show can be viewed as a collection of visually impressive clichés taken from what can be seen in the actions of some competent social dancers, collected into a single choreography and magnified with stage dancing technique. While they began life as emergent aspects of natural dancing technique (see Emergent movement), applied directly in movement training they become fixed choreography. They are visually impressive, which in the context of social dancing offers the dancers the idea that they are performing but at the same time takes away the satisfaction inherent in movement that is natural, spontaneous, and connected, and ultimately also stifles their development.
A tango show can be viewed as a collection of visually impressive clichés which, originally emergent aspects of natural dancing technique, applied directly in movement training become fixed choreography. They are visually impressive, which in the context of social dancing offers the dancers the idea that they are performing but at the same time takes away the satisfaction inherent in movement that is natural, spontaneous and connected, and ultimately also stifles their development.
Partnering practice: the fingertip exploration
It is common to analyse the traditional tango walking as powering horizontally into the step. In scientific analyses such subjective perceptual judgements should be gauged against universal principles. If we take the relevant universal principle to be the principle of reversibility then an interpretation of circular motion initiated vertically is more plausible. You can test this yourself with a simple partnering exercise. When two partners connect at any point on the body, then the most efficient or reversible interaction between them is not linear or horizontal, but circular.
To test this yourself you can try the fingertip exploration which is a basic movement exploration in Contact Improvisation. In this exercise two partners touch at the tip of an index finger of one hand. It is sometimes better to do this exercise with your eyes closed. The purpose of this exercise is to explore movements while maintaining the pressure and connection between the two fingers. To those inexperienced at this it will be a bit challenging to begin with. Probably one partner should initiate and the other partner should listen or follow. The purpose of this exercise is to learn how the two partners need to participate in order to maintain the connection while moving together.
In the course of such a movement exploration it is useful to ask some questions: What do we need to do in order to sustain the pressure between the fingertips? Do we need to move the body, eg., take a step, in response to any movement? How fast should we move in order for our partner to be able to respond? How can we indicate the direction of the movement for our partner to respond? How can we respond to what our partner is doing. How is moving in a line different from moving in a circle? And so on. What we’ll find is that with repeated practice we learn the ‘rules’ of the fingertip dance and are able to initiate and respond better to our partner and also that we are able to exchange the initiating and listening roles so that the movement is ‘co-authored’ by the two partners in the moment. It will also be found that reversability of movement is essential for this to happen.
Individual practice of 3-D reversible walking
The fingertip exploration is a simple practice that can nonetheless yield a profound insight into the underlying mechanics and fundamental principles of improvisational partnered movemement. While ultimately we learn partnered movement by practicing with a partner, as with many things it is nonetheless useful to do some preparatory individual practice. You want to initiate the walking movement without being committed to movement along the horizontal axis. That means that the movement that is reversible is to be initiated along the vertical axis. Moreover, when the movement is initiated we want the movement to be circular or elliptical, with gradually increasing cycles, initiating with small cycles, each cycle initiated vertically rather than horizontally into our partner.
A cycle initiated horizontally into or away from our partner will create tension in the follower that will be detrimental to reversibility. It will turn into a power move because the follower will perceive this, at the level of a subconscious motor response, as something to resist so as to not fall over, as an essentially a defensive response. The circular oscillation of movement will be lost at that point and the dance acquires a one-dimensional push-pull character. An alternative is to move in place in two-dimensions—along the vertical axis (up-down) and the lateral axis (to the side)—before moving in the third dimension (forward or back).
A cycle initiated horizontally into or away from our partner will create tension in the follower that will be detrimental to reversibility. It will turn into a power move because the follower will perceive this, at the level of a subconscious motor response, as something to resist so as to not fall over, as an essentially a defensive response.
This type of practice is discouraged by some teachers who insist that the student not move up and down but instead cultivate a ‘smooth’ horizontal walk. Now, there is a type of up-down movement that complete beginners tend to make that is probably not useful, a sort of bobbing up and down. However, it seems that the teacher’s insistence on a smooth walk is more often purely from an external aesthetic point of view, that is, that’s what a tango dancer should look like. This, however, is the sort of goal-focus that neglects the process whereby we arrive at the smoother type of movement seen in proficient dancers.
When we look at how people move what we are seeing are the most conspicuous aspects of the movement. What is more difficult to perceive by learners are the micro-movements that dancers make in order to communicate the lead and follow. But a learner cannot be told to make precise micro-movements. We learn to make such precise micro-movements only with a lot of practice. We start out first by first making large and awkward movements. This seems to be a fairly universal aspect of learning anything. But if the learner is told to resist making movements along the vertical and lateral axes, he is basically left with the inefficient push-pull technique for partnering that we see at milongas everywhere nowadays.
The practice of teaching smooth walking, powering into the step and moving horizontally into or away from one’s partner is really part of the repertoire of the ‘choreography’ teacher, is unsuitable to improvised social dancing, and results in dancing habits that are in the long term inefficient. If we follow the universal principles of movement, improvisation and partnering, we want movement that is reversible and that means that you want to initiate the movement through elliptical movements along the vertical and lateral axes of the body and then only once synergy between partners is established do you want to move along the horizontal axis into or away from the partner. You can practice this type of movement, first individually by mindfully practicing initiating single steps with either foot, and then with your partner.
 This is more commonly known as the fingertip dance. However, it is actually an exploratory practice rather than a dance in any proper sense, so I feel that calling it a dance might be confusing. The goal is not to have any sort of a dance, but rather to discover possibilities of movement and partnering.
 It is possible to initiate a movement horizontally without moving into your partner. This is done by moving around your axis as we do in leading a boleo. This motion is actually preferable because it can be performed without moving at all and yet offers a way of initiating movement into a walk. However, it is probably better left to emerge out of the basic walk, with direct instruction only after the learner acquires some skill in basic walks. It will tend to emerge naturally when the learner masters walking outside the partner in ocho-type walking patterns.