Imagination in dancing: show dance vs. slow dance

In the last article I argued that looking has a negative effect on your ability to listen to the music, to your body and to your partner (When you’re looking you’re not listening). Still, if you look at some people dancing, even if they seem not to be looking at their feet etc, they seem to be motivated by an image of dancing that is not ideal. Generally speaking people seem to be doing too much, too fast, with the result that they end up in awkward positions.

This is the natural result of focusing on a lot of movement which is characteristic of all dancing that is intended for exhibition. Performers are in a hold but this is usually very open and attempting to execute so many large movements in a closer embrace leads to an uncomfortable dance.

Yet people are often seen attempting to execute large steps in large numbers while in a tight embrace. They want the image and feeling of intimacy, but they hold that image together with the image of much movement. These are mutually contradictory goals and something has to give if the dancing is to be, let’s say, not so wearing.

Point is, looking at tango exhibitions gives you a mental image that controls your dancing even if you’re not looking at anything at that particular moment. It’s in your memory and still controls how you dance. It will therefore inhibit the perception of music, your body and your partner. It will result in what Alexander called “end gaining” by which he meant that people tend to be focused on a task or goal at the expense of focusing on the body that needs to execute that task, leading to excess strain and poor use of the body.

Once you set out with the idea that dancing requires movement you’re set to be doing too much and to be losing the awareness and the listening that is required in order to develop a more efficient and pleasant way of moving to tango music.

The solution that I propose is to replace the mental image of the show dance that you get from the teachers/performers of tango everywhere with the image of a slow dance that is familiar from the prom night etc. I still remember slow dancing to sappy 80s tunes like “I’m Not In Love” by 10CC. The girl puts her arms on top of the guy’s shoulders and they sway from side to side in a hug.

A slow dance is a type of partner dance in which a couple dance slowly, swaying to the music. This is usually done to very slow-beat songs, namely sentimental ballads. Slow dancing can refer to any slow couple dance (such as certain ballroom dances), but is often associated with a particular, simple style of dance performed by middle school, high school, and college students.

When two partners dance together, the male partner typically holds his hands against the sides of the female partner’s hips, buttocks, or waist while the female drapes her hands on the male’s shoulders. The couple then sways back and forth with the music. Foot movement is minimal, but the pair may use their feet to slowly turn on the spot. Because the dance requires little physical concentration, participants often talk to each other while dancing. Some couples who have a close relationship may dance very closely together, in a “hug-and-sway” fashion.


Now, starting with that, you just need to add a rhythmic component to the swaying movement, a swing that goes with the habanera rhythm that is always there in tango (see Tracing the origins of Tango music to contradanza and habaneira).

Rather than putting his hands on the woman’s waist as in slow dancing, the man would embrace the woman around the upper body as in a hug. The rest is then figuring out, by way of trial-and-error, how to walk, and then walk around each other, adding the tresillo swing on a regular basis to spice things up.

The benefit of this strategy is that you bring the movement to the bare minimum to sustain a flow to the music and connection to partner, without focusing on having to be moving all the time and doing radical and exaggerated steps that you always see people do. You’re pulling it in, internalising it, keeping it simple. If you try something and it doesn’t work so well you have a base to get back to, regain composure and get back into the flow of the slow dance.

You’re connecting to music and your partner without the need to peacock with the radical moves of the clown wearing the oversize tango pants taking oversize tango steps.

When you’re looking you’re not listening

Today I had an aha moment. I’ve been working on some tango guitar pieces but I’ve been frustrated. I just couldn’t get them to sound as good as I would expect. I tried different techniques but still they sounded rather flat.

Yesterday I was working on Amurado determined to figure out why I’m not succeeding. I tried playing in different ways, with different amount of power, and different techniques.

At some point I tried to change the position of the guitar such that I wasn’t looking at the fretboard. I noticed that there was an improvement.

I noticed that I was hitting certain notes in certain ways that didn’t sound so great. I didn’t notice this before. Not looking at the fretboard made me more aware of how I was hitting particular notes that sounded good or not so good.

This morning I decided to try practicing the piece without looking at the fretboard. Bingo. It sounded great. I was actually listening to what I was playing and getting the best possible sound out of the piece. I started looking at the fretboard and again wasn’t getting good sound.

Then I realised what was happening. When I’m looking at the fretboard I’m actually not listening. I’m focused on getting my fingers in the correct position but I’m not listening to what I’m playing. The visual modality is somehow interfering with the auditory modality.

But not only that. It’s also interfering with the kinaesthetic modality because when I’m not looking directly at the fretboard I’m actually placing my fingers more effectively to get better sound. And when I’m not looking I actually have no memory for the piece. I rely on the visual image to remember.

This reminded me that actually I had exactly the same experience with dancing tango. As long as I was looking at my feet, or looking at anything, I was always frustrated with my dancing and hit a roadblock. I was struggling to follow the music, the lead-follow was clunky and the embrace was creating tension.

It’s actually what I see when I look at most people dancing on the Argentine tango scene. There’s a lot of tension there.

Then, when I decided to stop looking I was able to listen more effectively to both, the music, to my own body and to my partner. Everything worked better. I started progressing towards dancing in a way that is enjoyable.

I didn’t stop looking because it was suggested in a standard tango lesson or workshop. There was one teacher of tango milonguero who told me in a private lesson to practice with my eyes closed.

At the time I was also doing Contact Improvisation and Feldenkrais and you do much of that either with eyes closed or at least without focusing on anything in your visual field.

Vision organises movement but it also has the tendency to screen everything else out when it’s focused on something. Visual mental images of the wrong sort can also have this tendency.

I’d say that the sooner you stop depending on looking, on the visual modality, and learn to listen to the music, to your body and to your partner the faster you will progress, whereas constant dependence on looking (at your feet, at dancing performances, at the people around you or at the tables) will prevent you from reaching skilled tango milonguero dancing.

Focused connected tango movement

Focused Connected Tango Movement (FCTM) is a system of training for Argentine Tango dancing that involves performing a set of basic movements with focus and awareness.

What is FCTM like?

FCTM is like any movement training where good form, posture and ease of movement should be learned from the beginning through focused practice, including things like the following:

  • practicing yoga slowly and with focus
  • learning to play a classical instrument with a metronome
  • ‘soft’ martial arts like Aikido or Tai Chi
  • learning Chinese calligraphy
  • vocal practice in preparation for singing or speaking

How will FCTM help me learn Argentine Tango?

Doing FCTM helps to:

  • improve posture and coordination of movement
  • improve connection to your partner and the music
  • make learning tango more pleasant and efficient
  • improve creativity, improvisation skills and individual expression
  • provide corrective feedback from a teacher
  • become more independent and correct yourself

How much time investment does the FCTM require?

FCTM requires short periods of focused practice:

  • spaced practice is better than blocked practice: short periods of around 20 minutes 3 times a week are better than an hour once week
  • it is best to do the practice in a quiet place with minimal distractions
  • shake off any tension building up between exercises
  • fill out the practice sheet at the end of each practice session

Do I need a partner for this practice?

  • if you have a partner there is partner practice that you can follow
  • if you don’t have a practice partner: the individual practice will help you if you have an opportunity to work with a partner, eg., at a practica
  • you can apply these skills to learning choreography in a standard dancing lesson although you may have to adjust some movements such as walking for other styles of tango