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The 3 Responsibilities for Tango Leaders & Followers

posted Jan 15, 2019, 11:03 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Jan 30, 2019, 12:55 PM ]

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Glorietta - a popular outdoor milonga in Buenos Aires - pic taken by Paul Warren

Here's an excerpt from a blog post on tango leader / follower responsibilities (blog post by David Phillips in Tangolio). 

It's a concise breakdown of the tango fundamentals that dictate every move in tango and are essential to good tango dancing.

  1. Care for the safety and comfort of your partner and other dancers.
  2. Know at all times which leg your partner has free (the one that didn’t step last).
  3. Give your partner time to respond to your movement suggestions.
  1. Care for the safety and comfort of your partner and other dancers.
  2. Keep your weight clearly over your last step, with your other leg free to move.
  3. Give your partner time to make their movement suggestions known to you.

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How to practice without a partner (for leaders)

posted Aug 14, 2017, 9:35 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Aug 15, 2017, 9:51 PM ]

The dancer in this video certainly has a novel dance partner!  But it's not just a 'party trick'. I  once knew a dancer who practiced his tango for many hours with two sticks in the absence of, and as a supplement to, a female practice partner. 

Practicing one's walk can be done solo, and in fact it's very useful to practice walking on your own, as well as with a partner. But a leader also needs to develop a very good understanding of  the geometry of the follower's moves in relation to his own. The broomsticks can help with this.

There are limitations with this practice - the obvious one being that, unlike a piece of wood, a tango dancer's upper and lower body frequently twists and disassociates. This can't be replicated by a piece of wood that only moves as one block! 

However, if  a leader lacks a practice partner to work on this, teaming up with a pair of broom sticks is definitely better than nothing! 

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Should dance be taught conditionally or absolutely?

posted Jun 2, 2017, 2:04 AM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Jun 19, 2017, 4:11 PM ]

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source: spreadshirt

Sharing this thought provoking article by Stanford University social dance teacher Richard Powers - here reproduced in in its entirety (as links can get lost over time) - with some of the key messages highlighted for those who like to skim read! It pretty much sums up SoTango's approach to teaching tango.

"In order for the absolute-authority dance teachers to give their students the illusion of certainty, the teachers must intentionally misrepresent the immense diversity of social dance into a predictable set of rules and patterns. As a result, their students are ill-prepared when they dance with the 99% of the world that hasn't learned their one style of dance"

Conditional vs. Absolute Learning: The Power of Uncertainty

How you're first presented a dance has a tremendous impact on how you later dance it, as well as how much you enjoy it. But the specifics of this may surprise you, perhaps being the opposite of what you might expect.

Many dancers believe that the best first exposure to a dance form, as well as the best continuing instruction, comes from the most highly specified, detailed, technical "correct" teaching. We believe this because teachers constantly tell us this. They tell us that they are the experts, that there is only one correct way to do the dance, and they know all of the exacting details of that One Way. To learn otherwise, they say, will "engender bad habits." This sounds convincing, doesn't it? Those teachers know that this approach sells, because that's what most people want to hear. (You'll see why soon.)

You already know that the One-Way-Only part of that pitch is flawed, when it comes to truly social dancing. That's easy to dismiss. You know that each of your dance partners is different, in a wide variety of ways... different shapes and sizes, different ways of moving, different levels of dance experience, different paces of learning, each having learned from different teachers, or from no teacher – just picking it up on the fly from their friends. Social dancing is for enjoyment, so you respect and even admire that each of their different backgrounds is valid, and you enjoy adapting to their differences. See more about that here.

However there are some dancers and teachers who will disagree with the validity of individuality and personal preference. They feel very strongly that theirs is the one and only Correct way to dance, and that all of the other versions are wrong. They will force their dance partners to dance in exactly their own preferred style, or they'll criticize their dancing as "incorrect." See the "Sketchy Guys" page here.

But the main thrust of this page is something new, and more fundamental.

New research shows that when we're presented with any facts as absolute truths, even math and science, we tend to use them thoughtlessly, often making bad, inappropriate or limited decisions. But when we're presented with the same information in a conditional way ("Maybe it's so, but maybe it's also this other way."), we process the information, and we use the information, in smarter, more effective, and more creative ways.

Someone may reasonably argue, "Sure I can be flexible later, after I learn the basics of a dance. But in that first learning, I want to do it the one correct way, with all of the precise details."

And this is where Langer and others most strongly disagree. Optionality in that first exposure is especially important.

This is Ellen J. Langer of the Harvard University Department of Psychology. She specializes in the science and psychology of learning. Here are some paraphrased excerpts from her work (quoted with her permission).

Whenever we attempt to learn something, we rely on ways of learning that typically work to our detriment and virtually prevent the very goals we are trying to accomplish. The mind-sets we hold regarding learning more often than not encourage mindlessness, although learning requires mindful engagement with the material in question.

Mindfulness, as we use the term, is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context. When we are in a state of mindlessness, we act like automatons who have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present. Instead of actively drawing new distinctions, noticing new things, as we do when we are mindful, when we are mindless we are stuck in a single, fixed perspective, and we are often oblivious to alternative ways of knowing. When we are mindless, our behavior is rule and routine governed.

Experimental research, conducted over 25 years, reveals that the costs of mindlessness, and the benefits of mindfulness, are vast and often profound. Mindfulness results in an increase in competence; a decrease in accidents; an increase in memory, creativity, a decrease in stress; and an increase in health and longevity, to name a few of the benefits. And as will become clear, there is power in uncertainty, yet most of us mistakenly seek certainty.

Traditional teaching

Most teaching unintentionally fosters mindlessness. Facts are typically presented as closed packages, without attention to perspective. Most of what we learn in school, at home, from television, and from nonfiction books, we may mindlessly accept because it's given to us in an unconditional form. The information is presented from a single perspective as though it is true, independent of context. It just is.

Scientists know that research results in findings that are probably true, given the context in which the work was tested. When these findings are reported by teachers or in textbooks, they are translated from probabilities into absolute statements that hide the uncertainty. Statements of probability are not only more accurate, they are also more interesting and engaging.

It's not just scientists who do this. One of the "basic skills" of teachers, and all lecturers, is the ability to take a large quantity of information and present it in bite-size pieces to students. For those of us who teach, reducing and organizing information becomes second nature. But facts, whether derived from science or not, are not context-free; their meaning and usefulness depend on the situation. Virtually all of our facts depend on context.

When we ignore perspective, we tend to confuse the stability of our mind-sets with the stability of the phenomenon. Things are constantly changing, whether we like it or not. And at any one moment they are different from different perspectives. Yet we hold them still in our minds, as if they were constant. We want to hold them as constant ideas, and we want to believe that the phenomena are constant. This is a part of human nature — an especially unhelpful part.

Learning the basics in a rote, unthinking manner almost ensures mediocrity. It also deprives learners of maximizing their own potential for more effective performance. And for enjoyment of the activity.

Consider tennis. At tennis camp I was taught exactly how to hold my racket and toss the ball when serving. We were all taught the same way. When I later watched the U.S. Open, I noticed that none of the top players served the way I was taught, and, more important, each of them served differently. And each one varied their own technique to adjust to their different competitors. But the rules we are given to practice are based on generally accepted truths about how to perform the task, and not on our individual abilities. If we mindlessly practice these skills exactly as we are taught, it keeps the activity from becoming our own. Each difference between me and my competitors could become a problem if I take each instruction as absolute truth. If we learn the basics but do not overlearn them, we can vary them as we change, or as the situation changes.

That's a key finding of Langer's work — the importance of not overlearning a task. You can clearly see the parallel in social dance, but now adapting to partners instead of to competitors.

And whose basics are they anyway? Quoting Langer,

Perhaps the very notion of basics needs to be questioned. So-called basic skills are normatively derived. They are usually at least partially applicable for most people some of the time. They are sometimes not useful at all for some people. If they are overlearned, they are not likely to be varied, even when variation would be advantageous.

In the classroom, teaching one set of basics for everyone may appear to be easier for the teacher because the teacher needs to know less. A single routine leaves little room for disagreement and hence may foster obedience to authority.

The value of doubt and uncertainty

The key to this better way of teaching is based on an appreciation of the conditional nature of the world and the value of uncertainty. Teaching skills and facts in a conditional way sets the stage for doubt, and an awareness of how different situations may call for subtle differences in what we bring to them.

Here's a quote from Gilda Radner, as she was dealing with cancer:

"I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity."

Valuing doubt and uncertainty does not mean disbelieving what others tell us. It's not saying "No." We aim to understand what others tell us, but with a deeper, not superficial, understanding. We can say "Yes," but it's smarter to think "Yes - but..." Or "Yes - and...", considering alternative scenarios.

I've been teaching dance conditionally, not absolutely, for decades. But not because of Langer's research. That's new. It's because conditional uncertainty is the greater truth of social dance.

I've always presented social dance as, "This can work, but another way can also work," because that's the essential truth. The lesson I give my students in their very first week is, "If it doesn't work out one way, it will work out some other way." It's only recently that I've come across Langer's research that shows that conditional teaching also helps people learn better, use information more effectively, and creatively, with fewer mistakes, and enjoy it more. opposed to what they want...

Langer points out that many people don't like not knowing with certainty. All of their school-learning has trained them to expect certainty, and to be told what the facts mean. So people are often affronted if they don't get the pre-digested form they expect. Especially if they've just spent almost a decade of their life learning under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, where their teacher's priorities have been to "teach to the test." As a result, many students have come to believe that (1) There is only one correct answer to any question, and (2) Someone else will give them that answer – they can't come up with it on their own. Then in their first week of learning swing, they discover that if a swing move doesn't work out in their expected way, it will work out in another cool way. And they can come up with those ways themselves. It's often a double revelation.

Self confidence

This approach also leads to increased self-confidence. Dance taught me that. Arthur Murray also said that dance taught him self-confidence, back when he was a shy uncertain young man.

Do you ever lie awake at night worrying that things won't work out the one way that you believe they must? Or oppositely, do you know that if it doesn't work out one way, it will work out some other way, and you get a good night's sleep? This way you worry less, and you're open to new paths when they present themselves. This is a significant part of self-confidence — knowing that you can make things work out for yourself and friends, one way or another.

This also helps us look at life freshly, as it is, and as it's always changing. And optimistically, as possibilities.

To quote Helen Keller, " When one door of happiness closes, another opens - but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us."

It's not hard to retrain ourselves to welcome chance intrusions into our expectations.  It also makes us more creative, and much happier.
And beyond dancing, wanting life to go exactly as you wish it, and wanting people to behave just as you want them to, is violating a basic tenet of life. If you have that response, you will find yourself fighting losing battles all of your life. People are going to be the way they are. Do you want to spend your life fighting that? Or you can find ways to appreciate and enjoy the great varieties that people present to you.

Langer's experiments:

Ellen Langer and her colleagues taught a sport to research subjects. To eliminate the advantage of previous learning, participants were instructed in how to play a new game they invented: Smack-It Ball. The game is similar to squash except that a small racket – that fits like a baseball mitt – is worn on both hands. Two control groups were instructed in how to use the rackets — either in conditional or absolute language. For example, "one way to hold your hand might be ..." with language that suggested variation and perspective. Versus "this is the correct way to hold your hand." After practicing the game, they surreptitiously changed the ball to one that was heavier and thus required different body movements. Those who were taught absolutely not only dropped the ball, literally, they often became angry that something had been changed from the one correct way they had learned.
I've often seen this same reaction in ballroom dancers who have been taught dance absolutely — anger and frustration when they don't experience the only partnering they've been taught to expect.

Langer went on to say, "Given the way most people are taught to practice, the idea that 'practice makes perfect' is questionable."

To which I would add: "Unless you practice being spontaneously flexible." And we do that in my Stanford Dance Division classes — constantly practicing being flexible, always open to unexpected possibilities, every day.

Here is another of Langer's experiments:

In one study, novice piano players were introduced to a simple C major scale under two conditions, explicitly mindful or traditional practice. All subjects were given essentially the same instruction in piano, with the following variations. Members of group 1, the mindful instruction group, were told to be creative and to vary their playing as much as possible. These subjects were told: " Try to keep learning new things about your piano playing. Try to change your style every few minutes, and not lock into one particular pattern. While you practice, attend to the context, which may include very subtle variations or any feelings, sensations, or thoughts you are having." Then the specific lesson was given, and subjects spent twenty minutes practicing it. The control group was taught to practice in the traditional, memorization-through-repetition of one correct technique. The piano playing was taped for evaluation. Musicians who had extensive keyboard and compositional experience rated the playing. In addition, the subjects were asked how well they liked the lessons. The findings of this study confirmed our hypotheses. In comparison with the control group, the subjects given mindful instruction were rated as more competent and more creative, and they also expressed more enjoyment of the activity.

A contrast in enjoyment:

I found another clear example in one our class essays. One student wrote about her trip home during Thanksgiving break. She had just learned the waltz and she loved it, especially Cross-Step waltz. She was excited to show it to her boyfriend during the break. However he had just learned the ballroom Box Step Waltz, taught in the absolute manner. When she showed him the waltz she loved, he immediately set about correcting her. "NO, your left hand has to be here. No... here. No, you must begin on the heel then transfer weight to the ball of the foot on the half-count. No, your posture must be in counter-body sway. No, your have to lean farther back, and look sharply to your left. No, more!" After a half-hour of being roundly criticized, she still hadn't made it to the 6th step of the box. She was in tears. But here's the interesting part: He admitted that he didn't even like the waltz. But he had learned how to do it "correctly." Langer would attribute his lack of enjoyment in dancing the waltz, compared to her great pleasure, to his absolute process of learning it.

Another student wrote an essay about paying attention. She said that she had been told to pay attention in class all of her life — a one-way flow of information from books into her brain. But here, in social dance, she experienced something quite different: paying attention to a dance partner who is paying attention to her, with each constantly adapting to the other. She said that the dancing that results from that two-way dynamic was so much more engaging, involving and enjoyable.
That goes back to Langer's definition of mindful learning, as "a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context."

"...conditional learning is important in any field...But... doubly effective when applied to social dancing, because the topic itself is so conditional, with situations and partners constantly changing."

In conclusion...

1) Unfortunately, human nature wants to believe that the world, and the facts about any given topic, are absolute and certain. But that view of the world usually isn't true.

In order for the absolute-authority dance teachers to give their students the illusion of certainty, the teachers must intentionally misrepresent the immense diversity of social dance into a predictable set of rules and patterns. As a result, their students are ill-prepared when they dance with the 99% of the world that hasn't learned their one style of dance, and thus tend to become frustrated, disapproving and angry. (That's especially ironic if they learned such an antisocial attitude in a class entitled Social Dance.)

2) With conditional learning we learn better... use information more effectively... with fewer mistakes. To let Langer conclude in her own words:

As we saw, the concept of mindfulness revolves around certain states that are really different versions of the same thing: (1) openness to novelty; (2) sensitivity to different contexts; and (3) implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives. Each leads to the others and back to itself. Learning a subject or skill with an openness to novelty — and actively noticing different contexts and perspectives — makes us receptive to changes in an ongoing situation. In such a state of mind, basic skills and information help guide our behavior in the present, rather than run it, like a computer program.

3) Research shows that we enjoy something more when we learn it conditionally.

4) Ellen Langer demonstrated that conditional learning is important in any field, even math and science. But conditional learning is doubly effective when applied to social dancing, because the topic itself is so conditional, with situations and partners constantly changing.

An absolute attitude can't function (at least not sociably) in such a conditional environment. How can a hard-and-fast approach, to a dynamic that isn't hard-and-fast, possibly be true? The truth of social dance is conditional, and furthermore Langer's work has shown that when we learn something as being conditional, we use the information in smarter, more effective, more creative and more enjoyable ways.
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7 reasons why tango leaders should learn to follow

posted May 15, 2017, 5:29 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Jan 15, 2019, 9:14 PM ]

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Sharing two post that confirm the merits of following for tango leaders.

The first is by Rik Panganiban, blogger, social dance teacher and digital designer. His reference to lindy hop could just as easily refer to tango or any partner dance. The second is by Elizabeth Wartluft - a tango teacher, blogger and cultural anthropologist. Both are US based.

Seven Reasons Why Men Should Follow in Social Dancing* 
by Rik Panganiban

1. It will make you a better leader. This is important. As a beginner leader, you can learn all sorts of bad habits that are hard to correct. If you start out learning how to both lead and follow, you will never "stir the pot" or yank a follower's arm once you have had that done to you. 

2. It will make you a better dancer in general. Like all things, after awhile you get into patterns and comfortable positions when dancing. Dancing the opposition role goes against your muscle memory and forces you to re-learn a step from a different perspective. This helps keep you nimble and intentional with your movement, instead of stiff and formal. 

3. It will make you a better teacher. Being able to show a follow how to do a move with your own body and from your own experience is so much better than imagining what following might be like. 

4. You will more attention on the dance floor. How many times have you watched a crowded dance floor and then seen two guys dancing together and couldn't stop watching them? Or a guy following a gal? When done even moderately well, it's really eye-catching because it goes against what you expect to see. That's one of the reasons why this video of Max and Thomas dancing together is so popular. 

5. It's only gay if you want it to be gay. You can follow in a "masculine" manner or femme-y way. It's up to you. You can even do the traditionally guy chest bump at the end to prove that it was just heterosexual fun. 

6. We aren't in the 1940s anymore. Social dancing was invented in eras when gender roles were much more proscribed and rigid than our modern times. If lindy hop and other social dances are to survive into succeeding generations, it should be adaptable to new mores and values. Nowadays a woman can be a soldier and a man can be a nurse without shame. So they should be able to dance whatever damn role they want. 

7. It's fun! Following is a completely different kind of fun than leading! I find it feels good to let go a bit more and allow myself to be led, and to learn how to take advantage of the moments that the leader offers me. Why should the ladies be the only ones to enjoy that part of the dance? 

I'm sure I've missed a few reasons. But hopefully I have made a sufficiently strong case that men should consider learning to follow as well as to lead. A word of warning: you might prefer it!

*Note: This is an excerpt of the original post which can be found here.

Learning to lead is easier if you know how to follow tango
by Elizabeth Wartluft
original post: Dancing Soul

Many women I work with notice that they are learning to lead much faster than beginning male dancers. Why is this?

First, you already know the moves in tango. For example, if you have followed walking to the cross (the cruzada) five thousand times, it is not a new step. Even if you have trouble turning steps around in your head, the fact that you have been on the receiving end of the cruzada means that you already have data to plug into that move as a leader.

Second, you know what you DON'T like in a leader. If it annoys you that leaders push with their left hand, or don't use a solid marca to help you do the step they have in their mind, you are less likely to attempt to lead a step that way. Furthermore, you know what moves don't feel comfortable for the follower, and you can avoid those steps as a leader, even if they are fun for the leader; that triple boleo leg wrap thing is out! You have a checklist in your head of what a good leader does that you can follow as you learn to lead.

Third, you have prior experience dancing to the music. You already have favorite orchestras, or favorite songs. You are not building an understanding of the music from scratch, as a new leader would who does not have tango following experience. This seems to be true for milonga and vals especially, since many women admit to me that they are learning to lead so that they don't have to sit out milonga and vals tandas :-)

Fourth, you already know the other ladies at the milongas. Unlike a beginning male leader, you have friends who are willing to dance with you because they are your friends, right from the start. You have already done your "wait until they can recognize you" time in the community. Because many women start leading when they are advanced intermediate or advanced dancers, they already know the more advanced followers; this also speeds up learning time, as dancing with beginners is just harder.

Three out of four of these conditions were ALSO met for men, back when my teachers such as Tete (we miss him!) learned to dance. In an interview, he told me about learning to dance with the other boys, and following for about a year and a half (the time changed the different times he told me this story) until he got tired of it and insisted on being allowed to lead.

The Argentine men who learned to dance this way, already knew what the move felt like as a follower. They had an understanding of what felt good (or didn't feel good) as a follower. They knew the music from growing up around it. They didn't have instant access to lots of good followers, however: their friends had to beg dances as favors from the more advanced women, or they had to do the long wait for acceptance by the women in the community--until they were acknowledged to be a good dancer.

That means that a woman learning to lead today (unless she is starting both roles as a beginner, as I did), has many advantages. And, guys, perhaps you might consider working more on your following skills, right from the beginning: it may speed up your learning process! We can't be Argentine, but we can be good tango leaders!

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When performance gets in the way of improving

posted May 4, 2017, 2:52 AM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Jun 20, 2017, 1:38 AM ]

This TED talk has so much relevance to learning tango!

According to the speaker the secret to improving any skill is to alternate between the learning and performing zones. Both are required for improvement. The problem is that most people spend too long in the performance zone when they really should be in the learning zone. I see this often when teaching at tango class when a student fears getting a move wrong.

Does this sound familiar?

In class stay in the learning zone. Be comfortable with experimenting and making mistakes. The the performance zone is for when you go to a milongas (social dances) - and even then it's ok to make mistakes!

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Why there is so little dance in people dancing tango

posted Jan 8, 2017, 2:14 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated May 4, 2017, 1:03 AM ]

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Sharing another great article by one of my favourite writers on tango - Veronica Toumanova - a Russian born dancer now teaching in Paris. You can see the original article here.*

I love what Veronica says in this article, and particularly her term of 'aware abandonment'. 
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In one of my articles I wrote that the most difficult thing for a tango teacher is not teaching the correct movement, it is getting people to dance. So what is it that we teachers (and dancers) find so difficult? Common dictionaries define dance as “moving rhythmically to music, typically following a set sequence of steps”. On the surface this definition is correct and according to it every single person on the dancefloor is dancing. But soldiers marching to a military song are also moving rhythmically to music. Intuitively you always recognise people who are dancing and who are just “moving rhythmically” when you are in a milonga. You will always prefer to watch those who dance. 

So what is it you like watching? What is dance? Let’s first see what it is not.

Dance is not technique. You don’t need the perfect technique to dance, it is actually the other way around. You need to dance to build a skill. Dance does not come from the understanding of shapes, balance and dynamics, nor from the physical ability to create those shapes, balance and dynamics. You need the technique to make your dance effortless and expressive, but even a small child can already dance. In great artists you admire the technique, but it is the dance that touches you emotionally. 
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Dance is not physical movement. Or, to be precise, it is not ONLY physical movement. A purely physical exercise is common in sports, for sports are about getting a result. Dance does not strive for a result, it strives for expression. Like pushing piano keys is not necessarily music, so moving in space is not necessarily dance. Dance is not effort, either, it is effortlessness, which simply means effort that is adequate to the task. 

Dance is not the embrace, the embrace is where dance is created. Tango is known as “the dance of passion” and historically shows a sensual play between a man and a woman. Sensual or sexual tension is not necessarily present between the dancers, it is merely expressed. A common confusion in tango is that this sensual connection, or in simpler terms a flirty attitude is the source of the dance. However, embracing a man or a woman sensually will not create a dance. The connection in tango goes much deeper than a sexual connection between a man and a woman, it is a profoundly human connection. Sensuality can enrich the dance, but not replace it. This is why tango is possible between two men or two women or between a female leader and a male follower.

Dance is not your connection to the music, either, although your musicality is an important factor in creating a dance. Whether you are able to translate the way you hear the music into movement depends on many things, but like the embrace, music is only one of the ingredients for the creation of a dance.

Dance is about your energy using your body to express feelings and ideas that originate in how you hear the music, associated with a specific movement vocabulary and in connection to your partner’s movement. Every creative act, from cooking to telling a story, needs ideas, energy and ways of expression. In dance the way of expression is your body. Therefore dance is not something you DO, it is something you must BECOME. 

So, why is there often so little dance in people dancing tango? 
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The specifics of tango is that it has two equally important components: the need to move yourself and the need to communicate with your partner (impulse exchange, or leading/following). You can work on your own movement, but for tango this is only half of the story. You need to spend almost as much time learning to communicate with your partner by very subtle, practically invisible movements and intentions. You dance embracing each other and even the slightest movement of your body is felt clearly by your partner. The embrace in tango is an extremely sensitive environment and can be a source of huge discomfort or profound joy. 

Tango is a conversation and in order to have a conversation you need silence. To communicate by impulses with another person you need to create a quiet space so that the tiniest of intentions is transmitted. This is what makes tango such an introvert and a fulfilling dance emotionally, for we do not remember the steps, we remember the quality of the connection. We remember sensations. 

People who start learning tango are confronted with the fact that they cannot “just dance to the music”. If they do, they disconnect from the partner. Tango classes are built on two levels, teaching people to communicate by subtle movements and to move expressively themselves, so that they can match the energy of the music. This is what you see in highly skilled dancers: they look calm, natural, often unmoving in the upper bodies, locked in the embrace, yet as a whole they can create most extreme dynamics and become infused with the music. The teachers have the complex task of showing both the dynamic side and the stillness of tango. 

What does a beginner imitate? That which is most visible to the eye. When the teachers show very dynamic dancing, the students naturally copy the big movements, to the detriment of the connection in the couple. When the teachers do the “small stuff” the students copy that, with the effect that they stiffle their desire to move in order to be “quiet”. They cannot yet move freely AND lead/follow subtly at the same time. By stifling the desire to move they block their energy from flowing, with tension as a result. The embrace becomes a rigidly fixed shape. Add to this the necessity to navigate a space full of other stressed-out couples and the picture is complete. 

All over the dancefloors we see people stifling their natural desire to move, trying to remain “fixed” in this extremely sensitive environment of their jointed embrace. The desire to move is often also blocked by personal difficulties. Shyness, fear of exposure, fear of failure, fear of contact, inability to connect to the music and therefore to get the ideas and feelings to express. We also see the opposite: people letting their energy run free, moving a lot inside the embrace, which does create a sort of a dance, but the communication between partners amounts to two people shouting at each other while standing only a foot apart. 

In order to learn tango you have to do it wrong before you can do it right, which means allowing your energy to move no matter what. It does not necessarily mean move A LOT, but sometimes this is what will inevitably happen. When children or puppies learn a new skill they start moving with a simple goal in mind and do it again and again, moving too much or too little, falling over and getting up, trying this way and that, until they get the right reflexes activated and the movement is stripped of everything it does not need to be effective. But to become like a child or a puppy is a very hard thing for adults. It is challenging for people to find themselves novices at something, especially when watched and judged by other people around them. Children do not mind doing it wrong, but adults want to do it right from the start. The quickest learners in tango are those who are not afraid to move, not afraid to lose themselves in movement and music, not afraid to look ridiculous. 
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Besides, most of us come to tango after having had a largely intellectual education. We live in our heads and our computers, not our bodies. We try to process intellectually what is happening to us. This is not effective when learning movement. Your body works in ways you cannot fully fathom, let alone fully control by your mind. Do you control your digestion? Do you activate your heartbeat? Do you consciously push the blood through your veins? In your brain there are more neural connections than there are stars in our galaxy, and this is a fact, not a figure of speech. Are you controlling them? Or are they controlling you? Stiffness in a dancer is often the result of his or her conscious mind trying to understand and control every movement BEFORE it happens, which is simply not possible. Your mind is not running the show, it only helps you to understand the intention and the mechanics of the movement. This is why leaders implore their followers: “Please stop thinking!” 

To be able to “become dance” you have to allow your whole being to abandon itself to the energy that you are generating yet stay fully present and aware of what is happening. Mere abandonment will lead to automatic movement. Aware abandonment will create true dance and the true bliss that we are all looking for in tango. Dance is that special state of being called “flow”. It sounds difficult, but actually it is not. To flow is the most natural thing for a human being to do. It is what you do when you are not trying to control what happens, when you are not “efforting”. You need to become a dancer before you can become an advanced dancer, and to dance means to embody each movement fully. This way, no matter your skill, you can dance from your first tango day to the last. Isn’t it good news!

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* Copying to this site for posterity in case the original link gets lost over time.

An 'aide memoire' to help your tango

posted Jan 10, 2016, 1:16 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated May 4, 2017, 1:07 AM ]

Love this aide memoire posted by UK based tango teacher DJ Steve Morrall! It was created by one of his students.

Some really good tips here. I particularly like:

"Tarry in stillness"
"An embellishing leg needs a beautifully crafted standing leg"
"The music IS the dance"
"Don't just follow - RESPOND"

Which are your favourites?
Are there any you'd add?
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Q: What's the most frustrating thing about learning Argentine Tango?

posted Dec 27, 2015, 3:51 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Jun 5, 2017, 3:48 PM ]

A: Contradictory tango techniques.

Contradictory tango techniques can be both frustrating and fascinating to tango dancers! They can certainly keep tango interesting for more experienced dancers, who through trial and error have come to understand that there are many ways to dance tango and enjoy playing and experimenting with new ways to move in tango. But these contradictions can drive other dancers crazy - especially those less experienced.  

I'd be surprised if there is any partner dance with less uniformity and agreement on style than tango. Some tango dancers (usually those relatively new to the dance) argue that there should be a uniform standard and agreement on how tango is danced, accredited teachers and the like. But that in my mind would throw the baby out with the bath water. A large part of the charm (and yes frustration at times - nothing is perfect!) is the stylistic diversity and individuality of expression within tango. That is one of the factors that makes tango unique as a partner dance. 

Terpsichoral Tango Addict's post below reminded me of how differently I now approach contradictory technique as opposed to when I first started learning tango. I remember back about fifteen years ago whilst in Buenos Aires how devastated I was to learn that Gustavo Naveira had a completely different walking technique to Cacho Dante!

Terpsi here puts it all into perspective. I hope that anyone frustrated by tango's contradictions reads this. I also hope this post encourages readers not to discard a teacher just because they differ on some technical points from their previous teachers. 

My suggestion is to try out new ways of embracing, walking, turning and see if they work for you. But also be mindful that even a small change to your technique may have consequences to other parts of your movement.  

Terpsi's post is essentially a cry out against tango dogmatism / fundamentalism. I write more about this here: Beware of tango dogmatism.

"It's surprising just how many tango concepts I have abandoned during my learning process, carelessly discarding them as misguided, misleading or old-fashioned. And now I find them cropping up again, demanding to be taken seriously, at least sometimes and in certain contexts or with certain partners or teachers. These shibboleths include resistance; leg extensions (those first two are closely related concepts); collection; moving from the hips (rather than the upper body); pressure; use of the front of the body, its surfaces, to find a physical fit with your partner in close embrace (rather than thinking of encircling them). And each time these terms and concepts reappear, rather than feeling, oh, how interesting, I think no, no, no, I'm not the kind of dancer who does that, that's not my language, that's not my world, I disagree, don't make me think that way!

I feel much the way I do when reading an articulate and intelligent essay from the other side of the political spectrum. When someone argues in favour of more guns or lower taxes for the 1% or dismantling the welfare state, I feel comfortable and happy if their arguments are fatuous or self-interested or obviously weak. It's not just that I disagree, it's that I actually do not want to be convinced, I don't *want* to read something that will change my mind. That's why I grit my teeth and read right-wing press, because I don't want to always and only stay in the comfort zone of hearing other people speak my own mind, tell me what I already believe. I know it's intellectually lazy to always listen to the sermon from my cozy choir stall. So coming across this same attitude in myself when learning tango is a bit disturbing.

I'm still holding out against certain things, such as keeping weight always over the balls of the feet or arching the back and sticking out your bottom. If I'm not (or not yet) convinced that a particular practice is useful and it causes me actual physical discomfort, I'm not going to adopt it readily. But I am having to reconsider my approach(es) plural all the time. And that is valuable in itself. Choose an approach to tango, of course. But always be aware that the opposite approach also exists and that many great dancers find it valid." 

- Terpsichoral Tango Addict, 29.12.15

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The one word I don't like to use when teaching...

posted Oct 20, 2015, 9:12 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Oct 20, 2015, 9:13 PM ]

I never like to use the word 'try' when teaching tango. I occasionally forget this as the 't' word it is so ingrained in our culture.

Will you practice today?
Can you imagine that you did it?

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Make Mistakes!

posted Mar 16, 2015, 5:22 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated May 4, 2017, 3:17 AM ]

I always say to my students 'make mistakes'. That's the way to learn!

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