Mental imagery and partnering technique: push-pull vs long spine

As I have previously pointed out there are different ways in which a movement can be elicited, including (a) direct demonstration, (b) mental imagery, and (c) exploration, each method yielding different results. The most common method found in a group dancing lesson is demonstration: the teacher demonstrates either the position or the movement which provides the visual image that the learners use and try to replicate. An alternative to this found in certain improvised movement practices is to use 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 inwardly.

The reasoning behind the latter methods is that what we see when we look at a movement from the outside tends to be misleading and to focus on its superficial aspects that tell us little about its internal organisation. We perform movements with an intention, goal or an idea in mind. The same movement can serve different intentions and one intention can be satisfied by different physical movements. So someone reaching for a cup is not doing the same thing as someone merely imitating another reaching for a cup in some specific case. So if I instruct you to pick up a cup that is not the same as telling you to do some specific movement. Similarly, people who are dancing are not thereby necessarily doing some specific movements whereas dancing lessons tend to proceed by imitating some specific movements.

Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 8.17.49 pmThis is the situation in the teaching of probably the most important aspect of tango dancing, the technique for partnering (leading and following). The visual image is 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’s horizontal. The teacher moves forward or back into and through space horizontally. Tango dancers are said to move like a cat which 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 (falsely in my opinion) good or competent dancers seem to glide along the floor smoothly and effortlessly. Also, it’s 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.Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 8.09.44 pm

Let me briefly go on a tangent into education theory and quickly explain three approaches to designing a teaching program. 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 and not so much 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 approach to syllabus design will be responsive to different sorts of standards of success or failure. If the teacher needs to teach a class in dancing Argentine tango he proceeds to do so and is successful so long as it was a class in Argentine tango and not say LA salsa or West Coast 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 taught. Again, this says nothing about any tangible outcome in terms of future social dancing competence. Only a learning centred syllabus is focused on getting student from A to B where B is some specifiable competence. Clearly it has to be both teachable and learnable, but the criteria of success is some measurable competence such that if these outcomes are not reached the syllabus has to be changed or the classes discontinued.

Now although the practice of walking individually might satisfy the need to teach something the outcome of this should be that this walking technique should then provide the basis for walking with a partner which is a requirement of social dancing. But this is where problems arise. Pushing horizontally into space, powering into the step, 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, his 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 cat-like movement the partnering is inefficient and cumbersome. This is the basic reason most ‘academico’, ie., studio trained, dancers look so different from milonguero dancers and why they look less graceful, more forced and more consumptive of space. Also lead-follow via the chest is completely inefficient as there is really no way for the woman to see, or otherwise sense, the chest quickly enough . How is the man to signal a simple walk with his chest unless he just starts walking? But this will startle the woman and she’ll fall behind which will create tension. Then, leading through the hands 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 a lot of tension in the body, great for a workout but not necessarily a pleasant social dancing experience.

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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 use space differently from milonguero dancers. Because the former visualise partnering in the horizontal dimension they always take up at least the double the amount of 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.

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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.

The image of horizontal movement also creates problems with the partnering technique for close embrace type dancing. Students are instructed to move horizontally and connect 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. 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. If the goal is to be able to dance in a crowded milonga, then the situation of the studio lesson can’t be taken for granted. In fact, I’ve seen many teachers including those from Buenos Aires who are either unable to dance efficiently in a crowded milonga or who completely change their style of dancing from what they are teaching. The assumption seems to be that when you’re learning you need to start out this way and then you’ll 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 and 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’s the image of the spine lengthening upward. Through some experimentation and reverse engineering I’ve found that this mental image is best sustained through the position of the elbows which best signals the technique that underpins efficient tango milonguero 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 ABCD Method).

The next question is how this changes the mechanics of the partnering. As I explain in 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. 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 Reversibility). The practices for alignment, back release and coordination 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. 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).

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