As I have pointed out in the article “Mental imagery in movement learning” there are different ways in which a movement can be elicited, including demonstration, mental imagery or visualisation, and improvisation or exploration, each with different results. Probably the most common way found in dancing classes is demonstration. The teacher demonstrates either the position or the movement and this provides the visual image that the learners use to replicate it. Another way that is found in movement exploration and improvisation practices is by way of a mental image or visualisation that the learner is verbally instructed to generate himself. The image can be a limitation or an exploration, and it is an idea that the instructor has found generates the required movement pattern or technique without a need for direct demonstration.
The reason for using an indirect approach such as a mental image or an exploration that what we see when we look at a movement is more often than not misleading and tends to focus on merely superficial aspects of movement rather than its actual internal organisation. A person reaching for a cup is doing something different than a person imitating a person reaching for a cup of tea. If I instruct you to pick up a cup that is different than if I instruct you to do some specific sort of movement. Similarly, people who are dancing are not thereby doing some specific movements, but dancing lessons tend to proceed by imitating some specific movements, much as if picking up a cup was some specific movement. The intentional description of the action is wrong.
This is the situation in the teaching of probably the most important aspect of tango dancing: the technique for partnering, that is, for leading and following. The visual image is highly misleading in terms of what actually happens in efficient partnering. The teacher demonstrates the movement and what the students see is movement in space that is horizontal. The teacher moves forward or back into and through space horizontally. Tango dancers are said to move like a cat and this is essentially the image of horizontal movement. The cat extends its paws forward and glides along and similarly the dancer extends the foot and pushes into the space. Indeed the whole idea that in tango we walk reinforces this image (but consider the image of walking up a ladder).
This analysis of tango movement seems plausible if we look at dancers moving together through space. What are considered good or competent dancers seem to glide along the floor smoothly and effortlessly. Furthermore, it is easy enough to get students to practice this sort of movement individually walking up and down or around the room pushing into space. It gives them the feeling that they’re learning to dance and takes up class time. It’s a good way to start the class as a warmup to some tango music and satisfies several requirements of conducting a tango dancing class.
Let me briefly go on a tangent into education theory and quickly explain three approaches to designing a teaching program or syllabus. Syllabus designs can be categorised as (a) teaching centred, (b) learner centred, and (c) learning centred. A teaching centred syllabus is built around the teacher’s credentials and the need to conduct lessons and teach something rather than on any actual outcomes of the teaching. Success or failure is evaluated in terms of whether a class has been taught. The teacher has to teach a class and so he teaches something whether the students feel that they’re learning something or not, and whether they are actually learning something or not. A learner centred syllabus focuses on whether students feel that they are learning something, and whether they feel that they are “getting it”. They might not be learning anything useful at all, but they feel that they got a lesson in something and could execute some task, even if it was a completely useless or meaningless task for which they will never have any use outside of that lesson. Alternatively, the demands of the lesson are so low as to provide no substantial progress. Finally, a learning centred syllabus is one that focuses on achieving certain specifiable and tangible outcomes and places such demands on the learners as to move them some way towards actual competence in some field of knowledge or skill
Each type of syllabus will be sensitive to different sorts of criteria of success or failure. If the teacher need to teach a class in dancing Argentine tango he proceeds to do so and is successful so long as it was a class in Agentine tango and not say salsa or swing. Students might not be getting it and there might be no actual further goals achieved, such as a skill in dancing social Argentine tango, but the class has been successful given these criteria. A learner centred syllabus will focus on keeping it simple enough for students to feel that they got the material. Again, this says nothing about any tangible outcome in terms of future social dancing completence. Only the learning centred syllabus is focused on getting student from A to B where B is some specifiable competence. Clearly it has to be (a) teachable, and (b) learnable, but the criteria of success is some measurable competence such that if outcomes are not reached the syllabus needs to be changed.
Now, although the practice of walking individually might satisfy the need to teach something (ie., teaching), the outcome of this should be that this walking technique should then provide the basis for walking with a partner (ie., a requirement of social dancing). But this is where problems arise. Pushing horizontally into space might work in individual practice, but when you’re with a partner there is now a person in front of you. The man can’t just step forward. The man has to first indicate to the woman his intention or the direction of the movement, and then the woman has to receive that information and initiate her movement so that they move together. There are several ways this can be communicated. One way is through the hands. So some teachers teach a push-pull technique in which the lead-follow is transmitted through the hands. Alternatively teachers advocate leading with the chest where the man moves his chest around and the woman focuses on following the chest with minimal use of the hands.
The problem is that starting with the visual image of horizontal movement we end up with a highly inefficient technique for partnering. The man has to plan and signal his step through either the hands or, which is even worse, chest. The idea is that with enough practice and skill the planning, signalling and reception become instantaneous. While this might make sense in theory what we actually find is that so long as dancers hold on to the idea of horizontal movement the partnering is inefficient and cumbersome.
This is the basic reason why most academico, ie., studio trained, dancers look so different from milonguero dancers, in particular, why their dancing looks less graceful and more forced and consumptive of space (see Naturalness in tango dancing). Furthermore, leading/following the chest is totally inefficient as there is really no way for the woman to see, or otherwise sense, the chest quickly enough to follow efficiently and fluently . How is the man to signal a simple walk with the chest unless he just starts walking? But this will startle the woman and she’ll fall behind which will create tension. Hand leading on the other hand requires sufficient tension in the arms that is also highly inefficient. You end up with the sort of push-pull partnering technique that is typical of ballroom dancing which creates tension in the body and inefficient movement.
Fig 1. In this partner walking practice we can see that the man leads by simply starting to walk forward and the woman falls behind and so that he basically walks into her, probably because there isn’t enough tension in the hands and she’s trying to follow his chest. She then “catches up” and pulls away. This lag between the leader’s signal and the follower’s reaction is the normal dynamic in the horizontal push-pull scenario. (Source: Milongas en Uruguay FB group)
It is common to notice that academico dancers (see also Naturalness in tango dancing) use space differently from milonguero dancers. Because the former visualise partnering in the horizontal dimension they always they take up more space. But in a crowded milonga you need to dance using the minimal amount of space and it appears that academico dancers are unable to use space efficiently (see The fundamental problem of global tango).
Fig 2. How do you get from A to B? Theory: you adjust what you learn in A to B. Reality: you forget what you learned in A and adapt to B. Or more typically: What you learned in A becomes a habit and prevents you from participating in B effectively. Alternative: instead of learning A, learn B directly by changing the mental image.
We also notice that the image of horizontal movement creates problems with the partnering technique for close embrace type dancing. Students are instructed to move horizontally contacting at the chest. The image is essentially the same but instead of leading through tension in the hands the dancers are required to use the pressure at the chest. But this creates exactly the same problem as in the case of partnering through the hands. The leader needs to plan-signal and the follower needs to listen-respond. If the leader needs to “change his mind” then he needs to signal to the follower to cancel the previous instruction and change direction and so on and so forth. All of this creates tension and negative feeling, and is responsible for a lot of bad dancing experience and loss of motivation.
This situation is in fact the inevitable end result of starting out with the image of dancers moving in space in the horizontal dimension. If you look at a crowded milonga like the one at Salon Canning dancers move in place around and only momentarily move horizontally in space. The situation that you get in a studio lesson with plenty of floor space is not the norm but the exception. That is, if the goal is to be able to dance in a crowded milonga, then the situation of the studio lesson cannot be taken for granted. In fact, I’ve seen many teachers, including those from Buenos Aires, who either cannot dance efficiently in a crowded milonga, or who completely changed their “style” of dancing from what they were teaching.
I think that the assumption is that when you’re learning you need to start out this way and then you will somehow adapt or figure it out for yourself. But again we find that many, perhaps most, do not figure it out. Also, isn’t the point of tango lessons that you don’t need to figure it out for yourself and that what you learn will take you to being able to dance at milongas in the most efficient way possible? Viewed in this way it seems that the teaching technique that uses the image of horizontal movement is completely counterproductive.
The alternative to the visual image of horizontal projection and smooth cat walking is the mental image of upward projection or a long spine. My contention is that you visually perceive as walking in the horizontal dimension conceals the actual mental image that drives efficient dancing which is in the vertical and upward dimension. It is the image of the spine lengthening upward. Through some experimentation and reverse engineering I have found that this mental image is best sustained through the position of the elbows, that the position of the elbows best signals the technique that underpins efficient TEM partnering. Elbows that are below shoulder level and pointing down signal push-pull partnering whereas elbows that hover at or above shoulder level and point outward signal the long spine image and partnering technique. Coordination Practice 1 Floating Foot and Elbow best exemplifies and reinforces this mental image that should be sustained throughout the dance (see Video: ABCD Method foundational practice).
The next question is how this changes the mechanics of the partnering. As I explain in Walking and the principle of reversibility we can initiate a walking movement that is elliptical in the vertical and lateral dimensions, and this movement can be transmitted (without moving horizontally in space) through the primary and secondary connections of the embrace (see Embrace: the essence of tango). This type of movement utilises the principles of efficient movement and does not require any process of planning-signalling-reception-execution. Instead, there is an immediate connection between the partners who simply need to learn the basic rules of efficient movement (see also the “finger dance” in Walking and the principle of reversibility).
The practices for Alignment, Back Release and Coordination of the ABCD Method provide the basis of the long spine image. Once this image is established Direction provides the technique for movement which takes place naturally, efficiently, instantaneously and without the need to power into the step horizontally which is highly inefficient in terms of partnering and use of space. The leader initiates with the foot then changing weight and releasing initiates an efficient transmission of the direction of movement to his partner. Because the woman is standing in a dynamic position (see Back Release Practice 2: Floating Foot) she can respond efficiently (see Coordination Practice 2: Extending, Direction Practice 1: Turning Out).