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First principles and learning at the end of the world

This blog arose following an exchange with a new friend who lives in a small city in the US. He's struggling with learning this amazing dance and is frustrated by being so far from good teachers.

I put together the following advice for him, which I have found to be consistently true in a range of countries.

You may feel that you are at the end of the world, tangoically speaking, however if we can become good dancers in New Zealand then you can certainly do it from Smallville, USA.

Private lessons are the only way to learn, group classes simply don't work. Our first trip to BA had us doing 30 days of 2 x 2-3 hour group classes each day, followed by hours of dancing every night. We took classes from a range of teachers of different ages and styles. None of them covered the essentials of posture, connection and movement.

We kissed a lot of frogs before we found our prince, and we have been focused on private lessons ever since.

You also need to be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs, as far as teachers go. Theres no avoiding it. The more that you learn then the more discerning you will become. And NOTHING will help sort the wheat from the chaff more than learning to both lead and follow.

Many websites that talk about tango technique are definitely over-thinking what is a very straightforward dance. Perhaps the writers come from highly technical dance backgrounds and are surrounded by people who don't dance very well? It can take years for them to improve in that situation (I've been there) and many people never overcome it.

All this talk about when to weight shift, how to get your partner to weight shift, contra body movement...all very worthy but it's very low-value teaching. A favorite line from Christine Denniston's excellent tango book (get it from Amazon ) is 'there's a reason that the basic technique of tango spread like wildfire throughout BA during the 15-year Golden Age. Not because there was an influential teacher teaching a standard range of steps or signals, but just works." Keep that line in your mind, 'it just works', it's very reliable as a compass when trying to find your way.

My advice, which I have to say works pretty much anywhere in the world, lines up with the concept of first principles. First principles for tango go something like this:

Tango was born in a crowded dance environment so people had to dance plastered up against each other. For some people that's enough but if you want to DANCE then...

1/ How do you perform a turn in the smallest possible space?

- Probably by a chest connection, because a tummy or diaphragm connection would lead to a wider radius turn. Try them and see for yourself.

2/ How do you dance with spontaneity eg be able to quickly change direction to avoid incoming wild dancers?

- Probably by the leader controlling exactly where the followers feet land, which means that the leader needs to think of them as an extension of his chest, which means that the follower cannot control them, which means...relaxed leg.

3/ How do you dance smoothly without bobbing up and down, which would feel silly for the other partner?

- How about prioritizing constant shoulder height relative to your partner? That would move your awareness out of your own feet, and the concept of steps, and prioritize the relationship with your partner and the concept of always being there for them. It also means that your legs will relax without even thinking about it.

4/ How do you ensure that you stay with your partner moment by moment, not step by step? How do you glue yourselves together so that there are no surprises.

- What about using toe pressure to push lightly against your partner at all times? Some teachers teach followers to use their hand to press on their leader's back to maintain connection, but this just gives me a pain between the shoulder blades and means that we can't go easily into colgada. It's one more thing that the follower has to get let go of in order that the leader can lead.

5/ How do you provide the clearest possible lead or follow for your partner?

- Try standing up tall and leading by penduluming forward in a chest-first manner, like a toppling tree. Then try slumping like a pudding and sticking your foot out first.

- So if the forward step while standing tall is clearer, why is that? Is it because the axis is better defined for your partner?

- Change weight while standing up tall and then try it as a pudding. Is standing tall better at transmitting the weight shift?

And I'm NOT talking about lifting the follower 'up over and down', here, which is only necessary if the leader and follower have no posture worth a damn.

6/ What happens if you define your axis better on every step? How would you do that?

- Perhaps by letting your legs pendulum together on every step (relaxed leg, remember) so that your ankles and knees always come together in a natural, flowing movement, but always through a 'base position', ankle to ankle, knee to knee, which is stable and neutral for the follower.

All of this works just as well for open frame, by the way. The follower even gets to make themselves lighter and the connection more positive by attaching their shoulder blade to the leader's right hand, and thence to his axis and feet.

If there's any discomfort when dancing tango then either you or your partner are trying too hard or doing it wrong. Trying too hard is the usual reason.

The result that you're looking for is to contact your partner with your chest. In the old days i.e. 10 years ago, we were told to lean forward to get our chest out there, placing our weight on the balls of our feet (and thereby approaching instability, but our teachers didn't know any better).

This is why I say no more than 2 inches of chest projection, it's easy to over reach if your partner doesn't project her chest as well and then your back WILL get sore. You need to be comfortable enough to dance all night and overdoing things won't work. Everyone tries too hard because they think that tango is harder than it actually is.

Similarly with the constant height thing for shoulders: practice with a partner. Dance open if it stops you worrying about stepping on her feet and just tell her that you'd like to work on being smoother for her. This is a popular line! The key is to get your head out of your feet and to start thinking about hers. Always dance with the follower's feet, not yours.

Regarding how the walk works. Think of a tree falling, which is a kind of pendulum. All that happens is that you stand up tall, project your chest a little and then tip forward like a toppling tree. Where to step? How far? Oh no!! If you are worrying about these questions then imagine how the follower is worrying! Once again...constant shoulder height. You want your shoulders to glide at a constant height (you can vary the height later) so the tip forward isn't huge, it's just to start moving her feet out of the way so that you don't step on them. Your legs really are just a means of keeping your chest area at a constant height to make it easier for your partner to follow. It's always about her!

The dance relationship boils down very simply to two broomsticks (your axis and hers) connected together and floating about the floor at various speeds but always together. Any decisions that she makes on her own will disconnect you both, any sudden moves by you will disconnect you both, so the key is smoooooooth.


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