Saturday, May 28, 2016

Myths of the Tango Walk

I remember going to a workshop some years ago and being told, "In Argentina they used to make you walk for 6 months before they let you do anything else."


And when I was a child I had to walk 6 miles to school in the snow.


Both ways.

I have danced Tango for 30 years, all over the world, with dancers who started dancing Tango as long ago as the 1940's. Not one of them ever spent 6 months "just walking" - if by "just walking" you mean pacing around the floor by yourself, in eternal search of "the perfect walk".
But Tango is a walking dance. So let's explore some of the myths of "The Tango Walk".

Myth One: "There is one Ideal Tango Walk. And we all aspire to it"

There are many different ways to walk in Tango, and none of them are the "One True Way". Here is a suggestion: google "great Argentine Tango". Watch how the couples dance. You will notice that the walking styles look very different. They use their feet and knees differently. Some walk heel-toe, while others appear to walk toe-heel. Some lean forward, or stick their chests out. Some stand straight over their feet.  Chances are you will like some more than others. That's OK. Tango leaves lots of room for personal style.

The best dancers have many different tango walks. A good dancer will modify his or her walk to fit each new partner, to fit the music, to suit the quality of the dance floor or the quality of the other dancers on the dance floor. You do not dance the same on a concrete surface as on a smooth wooden floor. You dance differently on a crowded floor than on an open floor. Even the shoes you wear can slightly change your walk.

Myth Two: "You can learn the Tango walk by yourself"

You can practice such things as finding your axis and balance, transferring your weight, forward and backward swivels, and so on by yourself. But it truly takes two to Tango, and you cannot really learn the so-called Tango Walk without doing it with a partner. Balance changes when you have to take into account the balance of your partner. Swivels feel different when done with a partner. The axis of a partnership is not exactly the same as your individual axis. Your walk does not really become a Tango  Walk until you can do it with a partner.

Myth Three: "You need to learn how to walk before you learn anything else"

OK, there is some truth here. But not the way we often think of it. Walking in Tango involves far more than just mechanically schlepping around the floor putting one foot in front of  (or behind) the other. Tango is all  about walking. Everything we do in Tango involves walking. We learn to walk to the heartbeat of the music. We learn to speed it up or slow it down. We learn to change directions. We learn to incorporate rock steps,swivels, and turns. But this is ALL walking. Everything we do in tango involves learning to walk, improving our walk, finding different ways to walk. In Tango we never stop learning to walk.

 Myth Four: "All a leader (or follower) needs to be an enjoyable partner is a good walk"

Again, yes and no. Certainly without a balanced, comfortable walk you will never be a truly enjoyable partner. But if all you know how to do is put one foot in front of the other you will NOT be an enjoyable partner, no matter how elegantly you do it.

You need a whole lot more to be a good tango dancer - things you should be learning from the very beginning. You need to be able to dance to the music, which involves listening to and understanding the music, and interpreting it with rhythm changes and pauses. You need to be able to maneuver in traffic, which involves learning how to dance in place. A"good walk" must include all these things. As a leader, you must not only be able to do these things; you must be able to lead them. And as a folllower, you need to be able to do all these things as your leader leads them.

 What you don't need is a whole lot of fancy, impressive figures. Those can be learned later, if you like. But most, while fun, are unnecessary, and indeed, are impossible to execute safely on a crowded dance floor.

A good Tango Walk is balanced, relaxed, comfortable to the partner, and done to the music. Everything else is personal style. Yes, a good walk is important. But it is less important for how it looks, than for how it nurtures the partnership connection. Because that connection is the one truly indispensable aspect of Argentine Tango.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Argentine Tango and West Coast Swing are Natural Soulmates

Whenever I travel to different cities, the first thing I do is check out the dance scenes. I look first for Argentine Tango, of course. But if there are no milongas or practicas on a given night, I check out opportunities for my next-favorite dance - West Coast Swing. And quite frequently I see the same faces dancing West Coast Swing, that I saw the previous night at a milonga. There is something about these two dances that often attract the aame people.

On the surface, West Coast Swing and Argentine Tango could not be more different. West Coast Swing is primarily danced in open position. Tango, of course, is danced in an embrace. West Coast Swing is full of underarm turns and spins. Tango - not. West Coast Swing is danced to Blues - the archetypically American music. Tango music is just as archetypically Argentine, with very few obvious similarities.

And yet, these two very different dances often attract an overlapping crowd. And when you think about it, it is not hard to understand why.

Both are Barroom dances, rather than Ballroom dances. Neither has the strictly codified styles, and the set patterns of the Ballroom dances. Both allow a great deal of individuality.

Both encourage, nay, require, improvisation. And both allow the follower to take an active role in the shaping of the dance, through decorations and added footwork.

Musical interpretation is fluid. Both dances encourage the dancers to play with the tempo, the syncopations, the pauses, in their own way and based upon their own feeling of the music.

And the music - ah, the music! Both Argentine Tango and American Blues reach out and grab the emotions - all the emotions! From pathos to playfulness, to sexy seduction.

Some years ago, as this natural pairing became more recognized, people started throwing Tango moves into their West Coast Swing and calling it Swango. Talk about the best of both worlds!

So if you are a West Coast Swing dancer, looking for new frontiers, consider exploring Argentine Tango. And if you are a lover of Tango, consider exploring what West Coast Swing has to offer. You can never have too much dancing, after all.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

It Isn't Always the Leader's Fault

How many times have I heard it?

 "He arm-leads".
 "He muscles his followers".
"He overleads".

 So I want to talk about one of the main causes of overleading:

The Follower.

 There are 3 major ways that followers cause the leader to overlead:

1: The Passive Follower
 Followers, I know you have heard over and over again, "Wait for the Lead". That is excellent advice. BUT that does not mean "Make him tow you around like a broken-down car". Drive yourself. As soon as you feel where he wants you to go, GO THERE. You may be wrong. Risk it. Trust your instincts. They tend to get there faster than your brain. The more experienced you are, the less likely you are to be wrong.
When you are walking backwards, you do NOT need to wait for the lead for each step.  As long as he is not stopping, he IS leading. Just keep walking, while listening for a lead to tell you to do something else. Likewise, gyros need your own energy in order to work. Let him guide you. Do not make him push you. The lead is not a tow chain - it is a turn signal and a break light.

2: The Floppy Follower
 This applies mostly to open embrace, and isn't as big a problem in a connection where the lead comes straight to your core and not so much through the arms. If you are getting the lead through your arms, then you must maintain the integrity of your dance "frame". If you let the shape collapse, his arm will follow it, looking for connection.

3: The Unbalanced Follower
If you are not on your axis, the leader literally has to support you. This means he has to work much harder to lead almost everything. Balance exercises are, in my opinion, the absolute MOST important exercises the follower can do on her own.

First step - try to find a relaxed, natural stance. Stand up straight. Lift your head. Relax your back. Pull your hips lightly back so they are over your feet.

Do not artificially collect your feet. The position with your weight on the ball of the foot, legs glued together, is about the most difficult position there is in which to balance. We are dancing Tango, not Ballet. So let your feet collect naturally in the course of the dance, and try to spend more time with the legs apart and the heels touching the ground.

Second - learn to find your axis. Your axis is the line that passes from the top of your head through your center of gravity, straight to the floor. It can be on one or both feet. If it is on one foot, it will pass straight through the point where that foot connects with the floor. When we walk, we pass it from foot to foot. When we pivot it must be through one foot only.

Third - ground yourself. Let your standing knee be soft - not super bent, but not straight. Let them act as shock absorbers as you take your steps, bending and straightening in a natural way. Dance with your whole foot, pushing through it, using the floor for your energy. If you start to lose balance, soften the knees a bit more and find the center of your foot.

Fourth - Get off your toes. Walking on your toes is the most unbalanced way there is to walk. And tango is all about walking.

To sum up: Do not blame your leader for over leading unless you know you are not contributing to the problem. While a good leader can neutralize some of these problems, there is only so much he can do.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Use of Cabeceo In America

Mirada - the meeting of the eyes - and the cabeceo - the nod of the head - traditionally, this is how you choose your partner in Tango.

"But this is America!", we hear. "In America we just ask someone to dance. And women don't passively sit around and wait for the man to ask."

Mirada and cabeceo actually give the woman at least as much power in choosing a partner as the man. The woman initiates a mirada from her side - scanning the room to find someone she wants to dance with, meeting his eyes with a steady gaze and a small half-smile. If she does not want to dance with him her eyes bypass him and move on to a more desirable partner. If she meets his eyes, he nods, or tilts his his head toward the dance floor - the cabeceo. She can answer with her own cabeceo - a smile and nod. They have agreed to dance.

This is far from passive on the woman's part. In fact, American women often have to overcome their initial reluctance to be willing to boldly meet a man's eyes.

So how can mirada-cabeceo fit into a typical American milonga? I believe we can make use of the basic principles without necessarily being rigid about it. (Footnote: My preference is for the traditional mirada- cabeco, but I recognize that a lot of communities do not use it, and a lot of Americans do not like it)

I am specifically addressing American milongas. The rules in Argentina are much more specific. Part of the difference is that, traditionally in Buenos Aires, single men and women sit separately, and do not mingle except on the dance floor.

Men - if a woman is talking to someone, or looking down at her cell phone, or sitting rubbing her feet or holding a drink, and not looking expectantly around the room, she probably does not want to dance. So don't ask. That does not have to be the end of it. If you know her, you might say "hi" and add "save me a dance?". To which she can reply " How about this (or the next) tanda?", or the less encouraging "Maybe later". If the latter, don't ask again without some more positive indication that she is ready to dance with you.

The flip side of this for women - If you do want to dance, make it obvious. Look around the room. Sit or stand in an accessible location. Put away the phone.

Most venues in America are OK with women asking men to dance, but women should observe the spirit, at least, of mirada-cabeceo. Make eye contact. If the man ignores you, and won't meet your eyes, is looking down at his cell phone, don't ask him to dance. If he meets your eyes, YOU can make use of the cabeceo - smile, and nod toward the dance floor. Or if you know him, you can yourself say "Save me a dance?"

When you go to a new milonga, observe the customs. If it is clear that a verbal invitation is the norm, go ahead and ask. But make eye contact first if possible. Courtesy dictates that you do not force yourself on someone who does not want to dance with you. Courtesy dictates that you accept a refusal graciously. Mirada- cabeceo represents the most courteous way to accomplish this.