Corrective feedback and experiential aesthetics

My very first tango teacher once looked at a performing couple from Argentina and said: “They’re making a mistake”. He didn’t say what specifically he was referring to, or whether the whole thing that they were doing was a mistake. Since the couple looked great this at least gave me the idea that a couple could look great and yet could be making some sort of a grave mistake.

It’s difficult to talk about correctness in the context of social dancing, or anything for that matter. Whatever you’re teaching you have to make some sort of a decision about what is correct and what is not. This often seems either (a) arbitrary, or (b) authoritarian. Who am I to say what is the “correct” way to dance, speak a language, or play an instrument? Isn’t this a matter of personal expression?

Since a lot of teachers are politically on the left we can be sure that every attempt has been made to get away from correcting students and to give them the maximum autonomy in learning. These sorts of educational experiments have been around since at least the 1960s if not longer and have consistently failed. Students expect corrective feedback and without it become confused and demotivated.

The only conclusion is that providing corrective feedback is the burden of being a teacher. On the other hand, correction which is excessive, poorly targeted or doesn’t lead to visible progress won’t work either. For correction to work it needs to be targeted, justified and lead to tangible progress in short order. The teacher needs to explain why a particular technique is the correct way even if he can’t explain everything as this would take too much of valuable classroom time.

Ultimately in teaching the proof of the pudding is in the eating and if the eating isn’t there then the students drop out or act up. A sure sign of a teacher who fails in this regard is the heavy reliance on marketing instead of word of mouth. Good teachers have successful students and don’t need heavy marketing to attract more students.

So we need to look at two things that provide the context for technical correction: (a) a relatively specific set of goals or outcomes that the technique is supposed to produce; and (b) some sort of a understanding or theory of the functioning of whatever systems responsible for producing these outcomes.

Let’s consider the example of Starting Strength. This is a training system designed to make you stronger as defined by the amount of weight you’re able to move. Someone who squats 150kg and deadlifts 200kg is stronger than someone who squats 100kg and deadlifts 130kg. The outcome of the Starting Strength program is to get the trainee to move from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

Starting Strength achieves this by getting the trainee to add weight to the barbell at each training session on the theory that (a) the body adapts to the heavier weight, and (b) the heaviest weight can be moved only by movements like the squat, the deadlift and the press. The body does not adapt to more repetitions, or doing more specific exercises, only to the heaviest weight that can be lifted right now. The more weight you can push the stronger you are.

All systems of teaching need to either explicitly or implicitly follow some such schema. If progress is slowed down this may be due to some problem with technique. In the case of strength training and dancing this would be either (a) the position or (b) the movement.

The effectiveness of the corrective feedback about the position or the movement should be experienced either immediately or within a short period of time. For example, if the trainee’s progress in the squat hits a plateau, then effective corrective feedback should restore the expected progress and he sees himself adding more weight to the bar at every workout once again.

So it is necessary to specify the outcomes of dancing instruction and the systems that are functional in the production of these outcomes. What is it that competent dancers can do that novices can’t do and want to be able to do? My assumption is that they want to (a) be able to move in sync with their partner and with the music, and (b) they want to be able to enjoy this movement.

The key assumption is that the movement is enjoyable, because we’re not talking about performance dancing, we’re talking about social dancing. So the aesthetics of the dancing are experiential, they’re the experience of the dancers themselves, not people looking at them from a distance.

Steve Paxton’s Material for the Spine

So then we need to ask, what systems are responsible for the production of experientially enjoyable movement to music with a partner? The movement modality that deals with experientially enjoyable movement is Somatics, which includes the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, Contact Improvisation and Steve Paxton’s Material for the Spine.

Somatics assumes that movement which is efficient is thereby also experienced as aesthetically pleasing, whether we’re dealing with ordinary movement like walking or standing up, sports performance like running or lifting weights, or dancing. Efficiency of movement is defined as movement which follows structural or anatomical principles of body and movement functioning (see eg., Posture and the head-neck relation, Tango milonguero embrace).

The American philosopher Richard Shusterman coined the term “somaesthetics” to refer to practicing somatic care “through intelligently disciplined body work aimed at somatic self-improvement (whether in a representational, experiential, or performative mode)”. While Shusterman’s project is a complex and broad philosophical one, my main interest is in the narrow sense of developing practices that eventuate in movement and posture that is experientially more efficient, pleasant and fluent.

On this definition, the correction of technique is based not in some arbitrary cultural understanding (see cultural aesthetics), eg., how it’s done in some part of Buenos Aires, but in an understanding of how the body functions as this relates to movement with partner to music. The goal of training understood in this way is movement which fluent rather than strained, which allows the dancer to connect and express the music, and to connect their movement to that of their partner.

So in the narrowest sense, the variables involved: (a) movement, (b) music, and (c) partner. An effective training program needs to move the learner in a relatively linear progression toward being able to move with their partner in sync with the music in a way that is experientially pleasant.

If the learner is stuck because he or she is unable to lead or follow or to respond to the music, and they are practicing regularly, then there is something with either their position or movement that needs to be corrected. The correction should result immediately or in short order with the ability to connect with the partner and the music in a way that is enjoyable.

If this doesn’t happen this may be due to either (a) the teacher, or (b) the program. It may be that the teacher is not competently following the program or system. Then they need to find another teacher who is more competent in this. Alternatively, the program or system of teaching does not produce the outcomes that it claims to do, or there is a mismatch between the program and the expected outcomes. In tango this is most often the case, as it is falsely assumed that visually appealing choreography (visual aesthetics) is experientially pleasant (experiential aesthetics or somaesthetics) in a social dancing context.

In my experience, the program is the main variable in determining success or failure in achieving the desired outcomes. An effective program, if it is written down with clear instructions, illustrations, videos and audio, if it explains how and why it works and gives the specific procedures and movements, can be be self administered in a way that leads toward the desired outcomes such as competent dancing.

A teacher or coach who is competent in administering the teaching or training program is most necessary with complete beginners to the form, eg., people who’ve never danced anything, and also can make progress faster and more pleasant with fewer mistakes. But if the program is effectively designed, so that it’s not overly complicated, focuses on relatively narrow well-defined objectives and clear instructions, can provide the basis for self-correction.

On the other hand, having a teacher will make little or no difference if the program is not effectively designed to reach the required goals because it fails to connect the outcomes (aesthetically pleasant movement) with body systems and functioning that are responsible for producing them. Sure, the student will pick up something simply by virtue of the fact that he or she is moving with a partner to music. But progress will soon stall and the ultimate goal of proficient dancing which is fluent, effortless and fluent will remain out of reach.

Introduction to technique

This is an approach to Argentine Tango technique that draws on insights from somatic movement practices. It takes as a starting point the idea that tango is an improvised form and that, as argued by Steve Paxton (the creator of Contact Improvisation) you can’t learn improvised dancing by learning set patterns, steps, or movements. Investigating into the foundational skills for improvisation in tango dancing my proposal is that you should begin by learning the basic concepts of integrated movement as it relates to tango dancing. This is what Steve Paxton proposes for Contact Improvisation training and following him it is what I propose for Tango Estilo Milonguero/Tango Romantico. The foundational training (which I call the ABCD Method, see below) consists of explorations or ‘movement puzzles’ that reveal the underlying structure of movement that enables you to discover movements or “steps” experientially through improvisation.

The history of somatic movement can be traced to F.M. Alexander who discovered that the primary control in posture and thereby in all efficient movement is the head-neck relation. He found that poor posture due to tension in the neck negatively affects all movement and bodily functioning. Subsequently Moshe Feldenkrais extended this insight to the central operation of the spine in integrated movement. The Feldenkrais Method has been utilised in movement training for dance and Steve Paxton extended these ideas as a basis for improvised dancing in Contact Improvisation.*

The idea behind these approaches is that there are basic principles that underlie all efficient movement. These insights can be applied to any activity that requires the efficient operation of the body and its movements (ie., the deployment of the skeletal structure, the neuromuscular system and the fascia) such as sports, vocal performance, playing a musical instrument, or dancing. Failure to utilise these principles will result in inefficient use of the body and therefore in less power, speed and accuracy; poor breathing and digestion; and tension, fatigue and overuse injuries. By contrast efficient movement is inherently healthy, is experienced as pleasant and graceful, and is an expression of freedom and spontaneity. It is inherently more satisfying. Because you are dealing with fundamental principles of body use it is impossible to move effectively without applying these principles whether you discover them by trial-and-error or learn them systematically.

Here we must define what we mean by dancing well. When you look at movement you typically perceive its outward appearance which more often than not conceals its inner organisation. Movement which looks aesthetically pleasing is not necessarily good movement from a somatic perspective of integrated movement. Not all movement which appears pleasing to the eye is efficient movement. The dancer performing the movement may be using his body in ways which are suboptimal and may or may not be enjoying the movement. Somatic practices take an experiential perspective on movement. This means that to judge whether a movement is good you have to experience it yourself from the first-person perspective through a process of exploration, discovery and comparison, instead of judging it from the third-person perspective in terms of external or visual aesthetic aspect by using a visual image and then attempting to replicate it with the use of a studio mirror or a video recording.

So the claim is that these principles are universal to all movement that is experientially pleasant and that is also objectively efficient, healthy and spontaneous. Movement that is pleasant is an aesthetic experience that is an integral part of a fulfilling living and an antidote to a mechanical unconnected and unnatural use of the body and the mind. Using the body-mind in an integrated way is necessary to constituting the whole person. While the health aspects of applying these principles is an objective fact the psychological benefits are to be judged experientially.

So the goal of this practice is not improvisation for its own sake but rather for the sake of enhanced tango experience and also improved performance (faster learning, more efficient and skilled movement). Tango is usually taught using formulaic patterns of steps and so-called “technique” which comprises of mechanics of partnering, etc. The assumption is that these are the means of reaching improvisational dancing skills. In fact what you find is that dancers rarely get beyond dancing such set patterns and instead pile on more of them without really reaching the creativity, spontaneity and sensibility that you see in traditional dancing in Buenos Aires.

Some argue that the reason for this is a lack of cultural understanding and so if you want to move beyond such set patterns you should learn more about the culture of tango. While it is certainly true that you are well advised to learn more about the traditional culture of the tango in Buenos Aires, I take the view that the source of the problem is the use of set patterns in teaching and you also find this in tango lessons in Buenos Aires. The need to run formal dancing lessons always results in piling on ever more patterns, figures and techniques. I propose instead that a systematic approach to learning tango should begin with structured movement explorations that provide the basis for partnering and improvised walking.

The ABCD Method

The movement explorations in Focused Connected Tango Movement are divided into the following parts:

  • Alignment
  • Back Release
  • Coordination
  • Direction

Alignment

These are basic practices that you can always use to connect to the space and to the body. In ordinary living we are in the mode of end-gaining, a term used by F. M. Alexander to refer to the fact that we tend to focus on a task or a goal without paying adequate attention to the body that needs to execute that task. For example, it is common for people to strain their back by lifting a heavy object with poor form. What happens is that you focus on what it is that you want to achieve, which is lifting the heavy object and moving it somewhere but due to hastiness or lack of awareness you tend to fail to take into account what is required to complete the task effectively and without injury. You might not know that we should extend our back when lifting a heavy object, or you might know this but forget to do so, or perhaps misjudge how heavy the object is and apply excessive force. So you need know all of these to execute the task: the correct form, the requirements of the task, and attention to execute the task with the correct form and force.

People who routinely lift heavy objects such as powerlifters practice these elements and are therefore less likely to suffer injuries due to poor form. In novices poor form and not lack of power is the primary source of injuries. Now, you might not view dancing as a source of injuries as in sport but poor form or inefficient movement patterns in social dancing have minor but chronic and nagging effects such as poor breathing, poor digestion and muscular wearing that makes you tired and lowers your mood. When you drop your head down during dancing you don’t just have poor posture to people looking on from the tables but your breathing is shallow and you are wearing yourself out. You will have poor connection to your partner and struggle to follow the music in a way that is natural and satisfying. It is therefore useful to ‘check in’ with your body and the space and that means that we should shift our attention away from the ordinary goal-oriented or end-gaining activity and reconnect with your natural posture of being ‘at ease’.

Back Release

When tension builds up in the body there is a tendency to shorten whereas releasing tension leads to lengthening. The state of efficient posture and movement  is experienced as a natural lengthening of the spine that comes with a release of tension. The natural movement of the body allows for easy rotation of the spine around its axis. You can return to this natural release state of posture and movement through simple explorations of the range of motion around the spine. Through these explorations you can also develop better awareness of the natural dynamic connection between the upper and lower extremities through a released spine. It will allow you to utilise the complete range of motion when moving with your partner so that you don’t need to use excess force or tension but instead to utilise the energy and dynamics naturally stored and available within your body. Tapping into this source of natural movement means that dancing will feel more spontaneous and natural. It will provide the basis for entering a state of flow in your dance.

Coordination

Learning dancing technique is ideally learning to execute complex movements without generating excess tension. You are learning to coordinate different parts of the body in new ways and thus developing new neural pathways for efficient coordinated movement. You do this by way of focused exercises that explore the connection between upper body where you are connected to your partner and the lower body where you are connected to the ground. The improvisational possibilities in tango are the result of the different possibilities of coordination. Exploring the different options for movement that are possible in a slow, focused practice brings these possibilities to awareness and makes them available when you need them in dancing.

Direction

Partnering that is efficient and satisfying requires the ability to clearly communicate the direction of movement in real time while improvising. The Principle of Reversibility means that you are able to stop and change direction at any moment. That means that while dancing you are constantly in the process of signalling and reading the direction of movement. Both partners are signalling and reading movement in real time. This coordination of directed movement creates the experience of flow in dancing and failure of this coordination results in failure to achieve flow and poor dancing experience.

Dancing in which you power or muscle through moves in leading or following does not create flow because this type of coordination is too clunky, too slow and creates too much tension, and so does not allow for the efficient coordination of directed movement between partners. By contrast, efficient partner coordination and flow is effected by directed movement that is communicated from a directed movement of the feet that is integrated with upper body movement through the awareness skills developed in the Back Release and Coordination exercises. The action of the feet creates momentary tension in the spine communicated to the upper body that is felt by the partner and released in the transfer of weight. In order to develop the basic movement skills you practice basic walking in different directions in order to discover the possibilities of movement that this affords.

Notes

*Moshe Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement; Steve Paxton Material for the Spine (see Reading recommendations)

Video analysis of inefficient and efficient movement in Tango Estilo Milonguero

This analysis of videos of people dancing tango will make much more sense after doing the ABCD Method foundational practice a couple of times rather than relying on the visual image alone even with the explanation provided. Experiencing the way in which the upper body connects to the action of the feet is likely to provide much more insight and understanding of what you’re looking at. I will use SST for Salon Style Tango and TEM for Tango Estilo Milonguero.


Tango Estilo Milonguero (TEM) is defined by an unchanging embrace or hug, with elbows floating around the level of the shoulders and pointing out rather than down (see Embrace: the essence of tango). The constraints on the dancing are the posture, the embrace, the music, and the changing momentary situation on the dancefloor. The dance is an improvised variation on the walk.

We can visualise or have the mental image of the walk either in the horizontal or vertical dimension (see Mental imagery and partnering technique: push-pull vs long spine). The horizontal type movement will lead to push-pull type partnering and will lead to movement which is less efficient in terms of (a) the use of space, and (b) the transmission of lead and follow, and therefore also (c) the range of options for improvised movement.

When we look at dancers we only see the movement in space. However, once we have experience of the vertical mental image (see Video: ABCD Method foundational practice) we should be getting better at identifying the two types of movement generated by the two sorts of mental image, horizontal/push-pull vs vertical/long spine, and how that affects the dancing.

In the videos discussed all the dancers are putatively demonstrating Tango Estilo Milonguero as defined by the type of embrace. However, there is a difference in the partnering technique due to the different type of walking and, as I argue, mental image that these dancers use. In the first set of videos we’ll look at the horizontal approach, it’s visible elements and how it affects the movement, use of space and movement possibilities, and then we’ll look at the vertical approach.

I admit that based purely on the visual image any number of different interpretations and judgements of the movement are equally possible and plausible and indeed this is the source of so much confusion. My commentary should be taken as an interpretation and evaluation from the vantage point of someone who has experienced tango movement generated by the long spine mental image and makes more sense when this mental image has been experienced.


Example 1: Tete Rusconi instructional video in TEM

In these instructional videos Tete is demonstrating the TEM embrace and movement. It has many of the elements of efficient TEM movement. But when you look at the walk you can see that he initiates with his chest and then falls into the leading foot. Initiating this way commits him to the step but then his step is too short and it gives the impression of the step being too short for what was intended, mainly because his partner is rather small and not extending enough to make the step larger. Overall, the walking takes much more space than would be available at a crowded milonga and would not be viable. The range of movements also seems quite constricted by this approach.


Example 2: TangoChino, TEM vs SST lesson demo

This video attempts to demonstrate the difference between TEM and SST, but the instructors import the horizontal image of SST into TEM. A clear sign of a horizontal mental image is the woman’s embrace which is around the man’s arm rather than up on the shoulder. This prevents him from communicating his intention without moving in the horizontal dimension first.

The result is that the movement is stifled and lacking in freedom and expressiveness, as if the dancers are lacking space which is typical of this approach. While you get the intimacy of close embrace you lose dynamism and expressiveness. This is probably the reason why many dancers who identify as dancing “close embrace” do an “in-out” approach, dance close embrace and then open up when the want to do some moves.

While the technique of crossing instead of pivoting is typical of TEM, you will notice that when the dancers transition from TEM to SST they change the steps from rhythmic to smooth. But dancing in this rhythmic fashion clearly takes up space and would not be efficient in a crowded milonga, and seems to be necessitated by the partnering technique in which you have to keep walking. Either way, it’s not accurate to characterise TEM as this sort of rhythmic walking. It is more accurate to say that TEM faciliates rhythmic dancing when it is required, but this is clearly not always required (eg., you couldn’t dance this way to Pugliese) nor efficient, and so will create a misconception about TEM. Moreover also clearly contradicts the smooth movement of Tete in Video Example 1, creating further confusion.


Example 3: Tango Vagabundo TEM demo

This is a very common approach to TEM which basically imports most aspects of SST into TEM and results in very inefficient and restricted movement that require opening up. Elbows are pointing down and the woman embraces the man in a SST embrace which pushes his leading arm down. That is a sign that the leading is push-pull. While there is some crossing footwork characteristic of TEM, the ochos are done by pivoting and the woman has to open up and they’re in an “armpit” embrace rather than chest to chest. The result is a dance lacking in dynamism or freedom of movement, and gives people a false impression of TEM, again, mainly because it imports movement technique from SST into a close embrace.


Example 4: Sara Torricelli & Gianni Loppi demo

This is exemplary of many of the aspects of competent TEM dancing and the result is fluid, dynamic and efficient dancing. Although this is a floor show taking up space this can be easily adapted to dancing at a crowded milonga. To an untrained observer the walking movement is, as in the case of the previous examples, in the horizontal dimension. But the mental image here is vertical. There are two signs of this. First, the position of the elbows. Second, the action of the feet. Although in motion the feet seem to move along the floor, when you stop the movement you can see that actually the man anticipates horizontal movement by pulling up with his heels. In other words, half of the movement is up. This means that by the time he moves forward or back he’s already communicated the movement and the woman steps comfortably without any rush.

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Notice that here the pulling up of the heel is not merely the purely decorative, non-functional boleos that you see in SST (see Beauty or kitsch). In SST this movement is non-functional because the embrace does not allow for this movement to be transmitted to the partner. The structure of the TEM embrace means that this movement is directly communicated to the follower and is therefore functional in the movement technique. Also, it is not a kick to the back but rather a vertical movement of pulling the knee and the heel up in the vertical dimension rather than, as in the case of the boleo, to the back and out.


Example 5: Silvia y Tete

In this video we can see Tete dancing very differently from what we saw in Example 1. The use of space is much more efficient, there is greater variety of movements and greater fluidity, dynamism but also stability in his dancing. What you will notice is that there is much less of an effort to flow smoothly along the floor and more pronounced pulling up of the knee and heel. Again, these are not decorative boleos but are functionally integral to dynamic and efficient dancing in TEM. Also notice that when he exaggerates this movement into a decorative or expressive feature, he pulls the knee up rather than back and out as in the boleo. This is what I call emergent movement which is decorative movement that naturally arises out of functional movement technique and in contrast to purely decorative choreographed “decorations” remains functionally connected (see Choreography vs emergent movement).

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Example 6: Ricardo Vidort

Probably the pinnacle or ideal example of TEM technique that I describe here on ATH, and what I base my analysis of TEM technique on, is the posture, embrace and walking movement of Ricardo Vidort. Here it must be mentioned that I look at his dancing from the point of view of technique rather than the specific steps that he does. My focus is on the embrace, esp. the position of the elbows, and the specific way in which he walks which never commits him to a step but which is always reversible (see Walking and the principle of reversibility).

The initiation of the stepping movement with a horizonal floating of the heel and the knee is visible. There is also an instructional video in which he demonstrates and instructs on a motion in the lateral direction. My approach to teaching is slightly different. First, I don’t think that explicit instruction is the most efficient approach and that the focused movement practice in the ABCD Method is a more efficient approach. Second, I feel that explicit instruction for women to cross tends to lead to that movement becoming a habit and a step executed even when it is not led, rather than just a variation on the walk, and so I wouldn’t recommend teaching it that way, but rather as an exploration such as the Cross Walk (see Video: ABCD Method foundational practice).

The following video is a good example of the TEM embrace and also in the efficient use of floor space and reversible walking. There is hardly any movement in the horizontal direction beyond a step or two, and always in a compact and controlled manner. Visible is also the lateral movement that Ricardo uses to communicate his lead.


Example 7: Myriam Princen with Ricardo Vidort, female movement

The technique for men and women is essentially the same. Women are often taught in SST and also in some TEM lessons to extent her leg when walking. But when the mental image is vertical the technique for walking in TEM should be the same as the man. It is more difficult to see the image of the heel floating up in the woman because the high heel shoes already push the heel up but in this video we can see that Myriam Princen floats up the knee. Notice I’m not saying that she’s bending the knee. The key here is that the walking movement is initiated by floating the knee up. There is no need to throw the leg backward in the horizontal direction as is often seen in tango lessons (see screenshots in Mental imagery and partnering technique: push-pull vs long spine). In this video you will also notice all the elements of the vertical or long spine mental image in TEM, the elbows around shoulder level, lateral movement (there’s also a visible tilt) and the corresponding fluidity, freedom but also efficiency and reversibility of movement. There’s virtually no lag between the lead and follow.

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