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.


In this discussion and on this website Tango Milonguero is defined by an unchanging embrace or hug, with elbows floating around the level of the shoulders and pointing out rather than down. The constraints on the dancing are the posture, the embrace, the music, and the changing momentary situation on the dancing floor. The dance is an improvised variation on the walk consisting mostly of turns but not swivels. It is possible to have a mental image of the walk either as a movement 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 the use of space, and the transmission of lead and follow, and the range of options for improvised movement.

When you look at dancers from the third-person perspective you only see the movement in space. Once you have experience of the vertical long-spine mental image you should be able to distinguish the two types of movement generated by each type of mental image and how that affects the dancing. In the videos discussed all the dancers are putatively demonstrating tango milonguero. However, there is a difference in the partnering technique due to the different type of walking and mental image. In the first set of videos we’ll look at the horizontal approach that you see among teachers of tango: its visible elements, how it affects the movement and the use of space. Then we’ll move onto videos that exemplify the vertical mental image. I accept that from a purely third-person perspective any number of different interpretations and judgements of the movement are equally possible and plausible. 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 tango milonguero

In these instructional videos Tete is demonstrating the tango milonguero embrace and movement. It has many of the elements of efficient tango milonguero movement. But when you look at the walk 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 Milonguero vs Salon Style demo

This video attempts to demonstrate the difference between Tango Milonguero and Salon Style Tango, but the instructors import the horizontal image into tango milonguero. A clear sign of a horizontal mental image is the woman’s embrace which is around the man’s upper arm which prevents him from communicating movement prior to moving forward or back in the horizontal dimension. 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 most probably the reason why many dancers who identify as dancing “close embrace” do a flexible or in-out approach, dancing close embrace and then opening up when the want to “do moves”.

While the technique of crossing rather than pivoting is typical of tango milonguero you will notice that when the dancers transition between the styles they change the steps from rhythmic to smooth. But dancing in this rhythmic fashion clearly takes up space, 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 tango milonguero as this sort of rhythmic walking. It is more accurate to say that tango milonguero facilitates rhythmic dancing but this is not always required or efficient (eg., you wouldn’t dance this way to Pugliese), and so will create a misconception about tango milonguero. It clearly contradicts the smooth movement of Tete in Video Example 1 or of many other Tango Milonguero type dancers thus creating further confusion.


Example 3: Tango Vagabundo

This is a very common approach which basically imports most aspects of salon style resulting in inefficient and restricted movement that requires opening up. Elbows are pointing down and the woman uses a salon style type frame which pushes his leading upper arm down. This is a sure sign that the leading is push-pull. While there is some crossing footwork (as opposed to swivelling) characteristic of tango milonguero, the ochos are done by swivelling and the woman needs to open up so that they’re in an armpit embrace and next to each other rather than chest to chest and directly in front of each other. The result is a dance lacking in dynamism or freedom of movement and gives people a completely false impression of tango milonguero. It is more accurately viewed as close embrace salon style tango rather than tango milonguero as I define it.


Example 4: Sara Torricelli & Gianni Loppi demo

This is exemplary of many of the aspects of competent tango milonguero 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 feet seem to move along the floor, when you pause the video you can see that actually the man anticipates horizontal movement by pulling up with heels. 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.

Notice that here the pulling up of the heel is not merely the purely decorative boleos that you see in salon style tango (see Beauty or kitsch) that are non-functional because the embrace does not allow for this movement to be transmitted to the partner. The structure of tango milonguero embrace, with connection at the chest and woman’s arm on top of the man’s shoulder means that this movement is directly communicated to the follower and is therefore functional. 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 might notice is that there is much less of an effort to flow smoothly along the floor and there is a more pronounced pulling up of the knee and heel. Again, these are not decorative boleos but are functionally integral in dynamic and efficient dancing in Tango Milonguero. 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).


Example 6: Ricardo Vidort

Probably the ideal exemplar of tango milonguero technique that I describe here is the posture, embrace and walking movement of Ricardo Vidort. 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 floating of the heel and the knee upwards 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. 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. Also, 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 tango milonguero 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 he 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 Salon Style Tango and also in some tango milonguero lessons to extend the free leg backwards when walking. But when the mental image is vertical the technique for walking in tango milonguero 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. 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, 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.

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).

See also

Walking and the principle of reversibility

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.

Keypoint

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.

Keypoint

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.

Keypoint

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.[1] 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.

touchingfingers

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.[2]

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).

Keypoint

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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes

[1]  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.

[2] 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.

Turning without swivelling

In Tango Estilo Milonguero turning by spinning or swivelling on one foot and swerving the hips to power the spin is not viable because

  1. this twists the spine causing the tension to be projected to the shoulders which then upsets the embrace, and
  2. the tension created by this motion is difficult to maintain under control causing further tension and loss of efficiency of movement.

Given that you do not dance tango by walking in a straight line, the question arises how do you perform changes in direction or turns? In standard tango lessons walking patterns and turning patterns are viewed as distinct from each other: you walk some steps, then you turn, do a boleo, cross, back to walking, etc. Walking and turning are a seperate sort of movement: you either walk or turn, but not both.

To understand this you can think of movement in terms of physics and the energy generated by forward motion. It’s tempting to think of linear motion and circular motion as distinct. In that case, you would be imagining that in order to turn you first come to a dead stop. Then you would need to initiate a new movement to create motion which is circular. That would be like a car having to come to a dead stop every time it takes a turn.

First, there is no need to stop to make a turn that is gradual. The forward momentum is diverted in a new direction so long as the turn is gradual and the car is not moving too fast, otherwise attempting to turn will cause the car to lose traction and skid sideways and perhaps even flip over. You only really need to come to a stop or near-stop when doing a sharp U-turn. In tango, gradual changes of direction are like those with a wheeled vehicle, namely, they are just a continuation of the forward motion of the walk and so we are just diverting the momentum in a new direction. Gradual changes of direction are therefore continuous with walking.

However, after we walk a few steps we would normally need to stop and go in reverse. Again, it’s tempting to think that we have to go to a dead stop before initiating the movement in the opposite direction. Again, when a car stops it does not come to a dead stop instantly. When the car sharply brakes the wheels screech and the car sinks into the suspension before all the energy is dissipated and the car comes to a dead stop. Before the car comes to a deal halt all that kinetic energy is temporarily stored in the suspension and body of the car.

Kinetic energy is stored in structures such as a stretched elastic band or a bungee jumping rope at the bottom of the fall. The couple in a tango embrace can be viewed as a structure that can be characterised by tensegrity, a word which is a contraction of Tensional Integrity, coined by Buckminster Fuller who gives the following definition:

Tensegrity describes a structural relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional behaviors.” Quite a mouthful, but he also could say it in a different way, like: “…compression elements in a sea of tension…

If the couple is a structure characterised by tensegrity the kinetic energy generated by the linear motion of the walk is stored much as it is in an elastic band that is held stretched. In tango, when you walk as a couple you create the tensegrity that stores energy. Turning is converting the kinetic energy generated by linear motion in one direction, which is then stored in the tensegrity structure of the couple in the tango embrace, into energy to propel the couple either into linear motion in the opposite direction, or circular or rotational motion. You can turn around your axis by taking steps in place. While this may seem like a very static way to turn, in fact it is not and can be performed in a dynamic way. This would be like the car doing a three-point turn in a dynamic way, which can’t really be done with a car which normally has so come to a dead stop before reversing, but which can be done by a couple. The movement in the opposite direction is propelled by the stored kinetic energy.

At no point is there any need to pivot or swivel on one foot. It might seem as though there are swivels, in the sense that to an outside observer the feet are swivelling. But unlike in the standard teaching where dancers are instructed to swivel by initiating with the hips, the mental image is no different from walking. Turning is essentially continuous with walking, and not a distinct sort of movement. Indeed, in a packed milonga a couple may be turning continuously for an extended period of time but

  1. at no point will they be attempting to swivel
  2. their mental image will be that of walking

The advantage of not having to swivel is that you completely eliminate two problems associated with turns:

  1. the problem of centrifugal force that causes dancers, especially in high heels, to lose balance; and
  2. the problem of potential slipping that is inherent in having a non-sticky floor and shoes which are required for pivoting.

I call this the Principle of Linear Circularity: the possibility of converting linear motion of the walk into circular motion of the turn, which nonetheless feels like one is walking (or the mental image is that of walking, see Mental imagery in movement learning) because there is not pivoting or swivelling involved. We are turning even though we don’t feel like we are turning, and instead feel like we are walking. This has the added advantage that we don’t have to separate the practice of walking from the practice of turning: they’re one and the same practice. A turn is just a variation on the walk whereby the linear energy of the walk is converted into circular energy through the action of the feet in walking and the transference of kinetic energy through the tensegrity of the tango embrace.

As you learn this way of turning you will find that the only way you can learn the dynamics of the tensegrity structure is experientially. It’s useful to develop a better awareness of the tensegrity in your own body by

  1. performing simple movements that connect the extremities in the upper and lower body via the spine.
  2. simple partnering exercises in which you learn the tensegrity of the two connected bodies moving in unison, and how the directed action of the feet brings about the redirection of the kinetic energy of the walk.
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But why not swivel?

Now that you understand how it’s possible to change direction and turn without pivoting you may be wondering why is pivoting such a bad thing? Pivoting on one foot is such a major part of tango dancing these days that there is a lot of time, money and energy devoted to it: dancing floors can’t be too sticky but also too slippery and these are difficult to find or maintain. So you need chalk and instead of dancing in normal street shoes you need special dancing shoes that allow us to spin and swivel, and again there is special maintenance required to keep these in just the right level of non-stickiness and non-slipperiness that we can swivel without falling over. Special technique is required to spin/pivot/swivel without falling over and this of course requires a lot of lessons and practice, not to mention stress and worry.

So eliminating pivoting or swiveling from your dancing you basically eliminate all of the associated time, money and mental energy costs. You get normal shoes that have enough friction to prevent you from slipping. Most importantly you eliminate all the worry about your balance that is inherently associated with pivoting, especially for women wearing high heels that are inherently unstable. You thereby also eliminate the need for all of the technique classes and practice time that could be devoted to more useful things. Of course if you absolutely live for swiveling and all the moves associated with it are the main attraction in tango for you then I can’t argue with that. But otherwise you gain a lot and lose little by eliminating this technique from your dancing.

Direction: orienting with the feet

When learning any sort of physical skill like dancing it certainly helps if you understand the basic principles of movement. It is useful to view the body, an in particular the sensori-motor system that controls posture and movement, as organised so as approach, grasp and manipulate an object. To understand this lets can look at what happens when you execute a simple action of picking up an object such as an apple. Lets say you are looking for something to eat. The eyes scan and immediate environment and recognising an apple. Focusing on the apple then you will tend to face it and turn the body and move in the direction of the apple. You reach for the object and grasp it with your hand. The body braces itself anticipating the weight of the object.

The body follows the extremities: (i) the gaze and head; (ii) the arms and legs. It follows and adjusts to movement that is initiated from these extremities. While you normally use the lower extremities to connect to the ground and walk you can use them in a similar manner to arms/hands to reach and manipulate things, eg., to move objects and the body will reorganise to allow that to happen.

The main difficulty in dancing tango is that you cannot use the orienting mechanisms that operate in your ordinary life: you do not always walk forward but often backwards or around; you have a partner in front of you; and you cannot look at the feet because this is detrimental to the embrace so that you lose connection with your partner and no longer move through space as a single unit.

While show dancers can be seen to look around and move their arms to direct their movement, in tango estilo milonguero you are in a tight and unchanging embrace. Your eyes and hands are not available to initiate and orient movement. All the movement is below the waist, in the legs and feet.

So you have to learn to orient yourself without using the eyes. In that sense you are virtually blind and need to use a different mode to scan the environment. In tango, you shoul use your feet to scan and orient the direction of the movement, and also to communicate direction to your partner. Movements of the feet that many consider merely decorative choreography are actually functional scanning and orienting movements and are therefore emergent.

To orient the movement feet have to open up and the differing angle between the feet orients the body.* The direction of the free foot orients the body in a new direction as you move into that foot and put weight on it. This information is then transferred to your partner: as the man orients the foot and moves his weight onto that foot the woman will be naturally drawn in that direction, and as the woman then moves into the next foot this information is registered by the man.

The orientation of the foot is the pointing with the toe when moving forward or with the heel when moving back. The foot works a bit like a rudder in a boat: it is oriented in the requisite direction and then the whole moves in the direction. However, it is not obvious how the direction of the rudder/foot affects the direction of the movement and so some explorations help us to coordinate your movement so that you learn, as with learning to drive a car or steer a boat, how your foot movement affects the direction of the movement of the whole couple. Moreover, you need to learn to do this without looking at your feet.

One way you can do that is with the help of an imaginary clock. The centre of the clos is between the heels. The feet are the two hands of the clock. Lets say the left foot is the big hand and the right foot is the small hand. If you point both toes forward this is 12 o’clock. If you point the feet out that’s 11.05, 10.10, and 9.15 which would be like a ballet dancers turn out. Normally you will keep one foot/hand still and the other foot/hand will turn.

The normal starting position is 11.05 and so this is your point of reference. You will never be at 12 o’clock. To turn right you will move to 11.10 by drawing the heel/knee up and then dropping the foot in the new position. When you then draw up the right foot you will be in the new position and thus return to 11.05. To turn left you draw up the left heel/knee and drop it at 10.05, and then follow that with the right foot to return to the neutral position. Always practice these movements with good posture and alignment, floating your head on top of your spine.

 


Notes

*In some styles of tango feet point forward so that to turn it is necesssary to swivel. Swiveling is not an efficient way to move or turn (see Turning). While it looks aesthetically pleasing and allows for large expressive movements with large hip movement, it is inherently unstable and requires a level of strength and athleticity that is not suitable to social dancing and is not an efficient way of moving will lead to fatigue. Finally, it is completely at odds with the requirements of the sustained close embrace. So because you do not want to swivel and you want the hips to remain relatively square to the shoulders and always facing the partner, you need to free up the feet.