This is an approach to tango milonguero 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 of steps or movements. Steve Paxton proposes that the foundational skills for improvisation you should learn are the basic concepts of integrated movement like those taught in Feldenkrais Technique lessons or the movement puzzles in Paxton’s Material for the Spine.
This is what I propose for tango milonguero. I have adapted the ideas from these practices to develop a movement practice for tango dancing, which I call Slow Focussed Tango Movement: ABCDE Method. This foundational training consists of explorations or puzzles that reveal the underlying structure of movement as it is relevant to the practice of tango estilo milonguero. This practice, done over time on a regular basis, will enable you to discover movements or steps experientially through improvisation, in a natural way, and without creating strain or tension.
The history of somatic movement can be traced to F. Matthias 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 his student 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 and his basic movement practice, Material for the Spine.
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
- muscular tension, fatigue and overuse injuries
- feelings of tension and fatigue
- development of long-term ineffective movements habits
By contrast, efficient movement is
- inherently healthy and contributes to our vitality
- experienced as pleasant and graceful
- an expression of freedom and spontaneity, and
- provides a basis for progressive learning of movement skills
Because we are dealing with fundamental principles of body use it’s impossible to learn movement 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 when we say that a person dances well. When you look at a person’s movement what you typically perceive is their outward appearance. This, however, typically conceals the inner organisation of their movement to all but the trained observer. Movement which might look aesthetically pleasing is not necessarily good movement from a somatic perspective of integrated movement. Not all movement which appears pleasing to the eye of an average person is efficient movement. The dancer performing the movement may be using his body in ways which are sub-optimal and may or may not be enjoying the movement.
What people normally do in learning a movement is they take a visual image, typically of their teacher or from a video, and then they attempt to replicate that image themselves, often with the use of a studio mirror or a video recording. By contrast, somatic movement practices take an experiential perspective on movement. This means that to judge whether a movement is good, rather than merely using the visual image from a third-person perspective, you have to experience it yourself from the first-person perspective through a process of exploration, discovery and comparison.
It’s only when you have this first-person somatic image that you can judge the efficacy of the movement, as efficient and/or pleasant, and that you can learn it as such. Learning a movement focusing purely on the third-person image does not guarantee that the movement will be pleasant and efficient (eg., not excessively tiring). Also, according to Alexander, it will lead to something he calls “end-gaining”, that is, excessive focus on achieving a goal without sufficient attention to the mechanisms of the body that must execute the given task thereby creating excess tension.
So the claim is that these principles are universal to all movement that’s subjectively pleasant and that’s also objectively efficient, healthy and spontaneous. Movement which 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, that is, faster learning, more efficient and skilled movement. Tango is usually taught using formulaic patterns of steps and so-called “technique” which comprises of the 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 ABCDE Method
The movement explorations in Focused Connected Tango Movement are divided into the following parts:
- Back Release
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’.
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.
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.
Partnering that is efficient and satisfying requires the ability to clearly communicate the direction of movement in real time while improvising. What I call the principle of reversibility (see Walking and the principle of reversibility) says that you are able to stop and change direction at any moment. It means that while dancing both partners are constantly in the process of signalling and reading the direction of 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 therefore a 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.
The ability to improvise, that is, to create movements on your own, is a skill in itself, and it is not a skill that you can acquire by imitating other dancers. Once you have developed a feeling of the basic principles of movement in terms of Alignment, Back Release, Coordination and Direction, you can proceed to explore the possibilities of movement within that basic framework. As I argue in Improvisation: freedom or constraint it is the constraints that provide for the freedom in improvisation. The key is to show curiosity and to ask questions: what is possible within these constraints. When you are in an embrace with a partner this will add a further constraint. However, what you may find is that this additional constraint actually provides for a wider range of possibilities. Similarly with music. Practice this individually without music, individually with music, with partner without music, and then with. Again, ask questions: how does doing these movements in each situation, ie., with a partner/no music, with music/no partner, with partner and music, change how you execute these movements. Does having a partner and/or music suggest new movements, or new ways of executing movements you’ve already tried? Finally, it’s important that you spread out your practice into frequent small training sessions. 15-30 minutes several times a week is much better than 2+ hours once a week.
*Moshe Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement; Steve Paxton Material for the Spine (see Reading recommendations)