Sunday, 8 August 2010

Learning tango

All tangobloggers write at some point about learning tango. Here goes...

I've just read Arlene's post admitting her difficulty in remembering sequences, choreographies. Me too! Some people have an amazing facility for remembering, many of us don't. But I've learned a lot from video, and successfully worked out on the floor what I've watched. When I watch on screen I find it easier to break a sequence down into individual steps I'm familiar with. I don't think there are that many different steps in tango, but it's extraordinary how they can be combined and recombined. (By 'step' I mean one single step, not a sequence.)

For instance, in an ordinary salida the guy leads his partner by moving his weight to the left, then steps sideways with the left foot. Now here we reach the same position as in an ocho cortado. This must mean that we could continue an ocho cortado as if it was a salida, and vice-versa. I guess we've been drilled in salida patterns and ocho cortado patterns in classes, so this might not be immediately obvious, but it offers a simple way of giving our partners unexpected variety; a salida that ends in a cross, an ocho cortado that turns into a walk. The dynamic and the rhythm of salida and ocho cortado might be different, but the positions are identical.

This suggests a different way of teaching and learning. A few teachers sometimes offer puzzles to be solved in class: how many ways can you think of to step out from the cruzada? Can you invent more, what other possibilities are there? This seems a really useful exercise because it's an improvisational approach. Stringing memorised sequences, choreographies, together is a clumsy approach to learning an improvised dance: it's probably the cause of a good many collisions too.

A while back I assumed that the late Ricardo Vidort had cracked it. He claimed that to dance tango all you needed was eight lessons with him. I thought he might have identified eight basic positions, with an infinity of switches between them. & then I was told, yes, but he also said three classes with him, so I guess the next day it might have been six or ten! Dancing in general, rather than specific movements, must have been in his mind.

Laura, a milonguera from Buenos Aires, was in London recently, and it was a wonderful opportunity to dance with her for a while. 'What giros do you have?' she asked, then: 'I'd like to give you a giro': I liked the language a lot. The teaching method is familiar: it's as if a giro is a thing that can be passed on in its entirety. In an effort to simplify learning, the possibilities of alternatives at any step of the giro are ignored. However, this means that the giro is likely to become a brief, inflexible sequence of steps, whereas it is really a sequence of single steps each of which, I think, could lead in a different direction.

Laura talked of 'an old milonguero' who can dance only two (or was it three?) sequences, and yet he's the one all the women look forward to dancing with. (Ismael Heljalil maybe?) Of course, she still taught us new sequences, but the simple, practical advice she gave about leading, about making intention clearer, was certainly as useful as the giros she 'gave' me, and which I treasure. The classes in Buenos Aires I really valued were those where I got nuts-and-bolts observations about walking and body position. You can improvise sequences or if, like me, you're not that quick, you can work them out from YouTube or from classes, but feedback from an experienced dancer is gold dust. That's why I valued Cacho Dante's classes so highly: he took the trouble to watch me closely, and made valuable comments about the way I walked, and I think his advice was more useful than the sequences I was taught by other teachers. After all, what he told me applies to every step of every tango.

Tango teaching probably can't do without fixed sequences. However, if there is a small number of distinct positions vis-a-vis your partner, then a system based on memorising and recognising them might be useful. Memorise them so they are recognised when they occur, and learn some of the different ways to lead away from each distinct position. In theory this could lead to a more flexible kind of leading that can adapt more fluently to changes on the floor. Perhaps, after all, there are just eight distinct positions. Has anybody counted them?


Game Cat said...

Interesting post.

Here's my crack at the core minimum number of steps (your "8"). Nearly everything else is a variation thereof:

1) Walk (forward and back)
2) Side step
3) Pause
4) Pivot
5) Check (balanceo?)

Okay so I've only got "5". However I think this should cover 95% of time you'll spend on the floor in a milonga. I've ignored volcadas, voleos, colgadas, etc. as the opportunities to use them TO the music AND in a meaningful way are few. Use them too often and they lose their significance. But that % is a matter of taste.

The 5 can be in parallel or cross, half/ single/ double time. An ocho is a Walk led with a slight twist of the upper body and angle of step. Any giro is a combination of Walks, Ochos and Pivots. A sacada is just another Walk, but with light contact.

"Sequences" (a string of steps) are useful in illustrate fundamental principles, or as self-contained playing scales or tennis drills.

So how much time do people spend mastering the 5 (assuming it's true)? And how much time is spent mastering the good posture and technique that's required to do the 5 well?

ghost said...

I'm trying to work this out in The Tango of Zero so I'll be interested to see what develops here. Does anyone actually have a description of the fabled 8 lessons?

To tweak Gamecat's list slightly

1) Walk - forward
2) Walk - back
3) Side step - left
4) Side step - right
5) Pause
6) Pivot - CW
7) Pivot - ACW
8) Check (balanceo?)
And my addition
9) Cross
10) Collect

and probably
11) Open the embrace more (while dancing)
12) Close the embrace more (while dancing)

Put another way, take someone who's done no tango whatsoever and I don't think you'd be able to lead any of the above Properly on them (so that you could go into any other of the above, or use different timings, dynamics etc).

I think the 8 count basic and giro pattern contain pretty much everything (or can do if you add in pauses and checks)

I'd go one step further though. Most classes teach sequences based on either the 8 count basic or a giro as the beginning and ending. So these tend to get ingrained in women's muscle memory pretty quickly. Guys tend to dance sequence when they're intermediates so this further ingrains them into the women. Because of this, although you can lead an infinite number of variations on the above, in practice with an intermediate or above follower, I believe you'll find that sticking to the transitions in the giro and 8 count basic will work much better (NB I'm not saying you do endless eight count basics. You can cut and paste as much as you like.) Add in different step lengths, timings, dynamics, heights etc and you've still got more than enough for social dancing.

ghost said...

13) Weight transfer - follower
14) Weight transfer - leader
15) Adornments

Anything in here that I've missed?

Anonymous said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head- needing to break down steps. People who have a natural talent for dancing really know inately how to move. People like me with no such talent and poor spatial awareness need things broken down to understand how the movement works to achieve fluidity and good technique. When switching and learing to lead I have found I also need tips about what makes the lead work and what the impact of my move on the follower is. Talented dancers are more likely to know this automatically- perhaps the rest of us need more such information in classes-without overload of course. Let's get back to the basics of teaching perhaps: know your students and convey the information in a way they will understand to best achieve their potential.

I think when you start it's important to have some tangible structures- humans learn better this way and it helps to build their confidence. I think this is very important to enable them to flourish and for everyone to have the best chance of a good dancing experience. I can't see what's wrong with structures in the beginning as long as you make it clear and subsequently reinforce the fact that Tango is improvised.

I agree it's also good to brainstorm different ways of entering and leaving steps to reinforce the idea of improvisation and also good floorcraft, in particular keeping to the line of dance.

Mix this all in with thoughts on musicality of course.

Tango can of course be an intensely emotional dance. Some people will achieve fantastic experiences quicker than other people. For most of us ordinary members of the public though we need a good skill base and lots of support to achieve this. The musicality and feeling will come through once we have absorbed the technique and skills- it's just the same as learning a musical instrument. We need the experts' information though.

Anonymous said...

i think its like a language- to start you have to have a few stock phrases but you need to discard those as soon as you get better. Real tango is like learning a real language - some vocab, grammar and true self expression not mimicking.

Tangocommuter said...

That's a fascinating range of feedback. Many thanks.

First, I think I'm right in saying that learning tango goes back a more than a century, but organised tango teaching is very recent: I believe there were some classes from the late 1940s, but by and large teaching has developed over the last 20 years. Perhaps it hasn't had a lot of time to develop suitable methods.

The 'fabled eight lessons' of Ricardo Vidort: Tangoenelcielo knew him well, so I asked about this and was told that he also said that three lessons were enough: the number seems to have been variable. I had hoped that he had worked out a system of essential basics, but it seems not. I remember him teaching ocho cortado, and it would be interesting to know the sequences he regularly taught, and how he taught them. Unlike most teachers he seems to have been eager for his students to get out and explore tango for themselves, rather than insisting that they sign up to dependence on years of regular classes!

I wasn't thinking so much about how many steps there are, as about how many positions there are vis-a-vis your partner. In the salida and the ocho cortado, and for that matter the giro, you and your partner will both momentarily stand, legs apart, weight equally on both feet, and you can lead out from this position in different ways. I'm sure there must be other similar positions, which are equally easy to visualise and recognise, and easy to spot while you are actually dancing. 'Sequences' are taught because they are very useful and successful, they easily fit the kind of phrases you hear in the music but they can become rigid and predictable. Perhaps when we learn sequences we need to learn at the same time how they can be varied.

Game Cat and Ghost: that's a really useful list of steps. I was told in an early lesson that there are only six steps: forwards, side and back on the left, ditto on the right – about as basic as it gets! But I'm really wondering about actual body positions, rather than steps, and I think there's a slight difference.

Anon: I really agree with everything you say. We need sequences, but I think we need to see that they are composed of a limited number of steps. & because there's a limited number of steps there are body positions that occur in other sequences too, which means that there's some choice of direction. This doesn't mean learning new steps: it just means more fluency in the range of possible combinations. This fluency should result in easier improvisation, the music should easier to follow, and the changing situation on the floor easier to adjust to, and that's when tango becomes emotionally rewarding.

ghost said...

Considering body positions - if you look here

The First Edition gave examples of how to dance any move from a sidestep left.

The Second Edition takes this a step further. When you look at the clips you'll see that they're not sequences. There isn't a Basic 8 count in sight, or other convoluted beginnings. The leader literally just does whatever the concept is. Likewise there's no complicated endings.

Even in the longer clips where the leader does a few steps to maneuver, this is purely to get a different camera angle. There's no "sequence" involved. This means that you can get into and out of any move whenever you want, allowing you to focus on dancing rather than memorizing umpteen sequences.

In fact there's only two possible type of position for the follower to be in:

* a) With her legs apart
* b) With her legs together (in case you're wondering, "legs crossed" counts as together)

The clips show a variety of ways to get into the various concepts from both of these positions.

This means that once you can do a concept from both these positions:

* a) You can do any move from any move
* b) There's no need for sequences
* c) You don't even need to remember ways to get from one specific move to another
* d) As the "moves" themselves will also be in one these two positions at any given point in time, you can combine the moves together

So basically
1) Are your legs open or closed?
2) Are hers?
3) Where's your weight?
4) Where's hers?
5) What's your relative orientation to each other?

I'd further add that you need to consider what's happening at that moment ie where are your and her momentum going from whatever you just did?

Combine that with the transitions I mentioned and I think you can pretty much do whatever you want, whenever you want, leaving you free to dance to the music, your partner and the other people on the floor. :o)

Simba said...

To me it sounds like you are reinventing tango nuevo in this thread :-)

Gustavo speaks about open and crossed steps in different (relative) positions and combinations (both open or crossed or one open and the other crossed or vice versa)

Anonymous said...

Hi I'm back again! I think for sure we are on the same wavelength.

I'd hate for the teaching to become so prescribed like e.g ballroom that the dance becomes inflexible. I think though that the emotionality of the dance sometimes obscures the need for beginners to acquire good skills and good technique with a clear understanding of both. I remember how many confusions I had partly because I didn't have sufficient knowledge of dance in the first place to work out what was happening. However, I do think you can apply some general teaching principles to tango. I teach beginners' tango and I find the Salida is a really good place to start. It's a tangible example that students are activtely participating in of so many of the concepts behind tango e.g dancing with a partner, listening for the lead, posture/embrace/ balance, technique e.g size of steps (beginners inevitably take long steps that are too long- they soon become tangled like tight knitting and realise the importance of paying heed to this). Without overloading students you can give an overview of what's involved with the proviso that tango's improvised and the techinque is a real work in progress ie they shouldn't despair if they are not foot perfect after the first lesson! If you then for example introduce a forward ocho after this, they can clearly get an idea of improvisation- the salida is split to achieve the basic ocho. Feedback to me shows the penny really drops as a result of this.

LimerickTango said...

My own Preparatory Cycle consisted of 8 lessons taught in a cycle. It could have been 6 but that would have driven me crazy repeating myself. Right now I'm considering boiling it down to one class.

Tangocommuter said...

Ghost, thanks for the reminder about your research. I saw it when you published it, but it seemed too theoretical, too difficult, too far from dance and the dance floor. It seems like a really interesting choreographic project, but something for the studio. I've no doubt it's possible to get anywhere from anywhere, but doesn't tango as we know it disappear in the process? It seems more like a 'reinvention of nuevo', an exploration of unexpected possibilities.

Simba, I think Gustavo has always maintained he teaches and dances salon tango, which is one of the reasons why some people (tho' not the dancers themselves) saw fit to use the word 'milonguero' instead of 'salon' for ordinary close-hold tango. (Tete always objected to 'milonguero' and said that he danced salon tango.) And Gustavo's analysis of tango, and the teaching method he's based on it seem pretty useful – except that it encourages mindless (and heartless) display.

& Limerick, thanks, but what I'm suggesting really doesn't relate to preparatory classes. Until someone's familiar with the basic sequences, they can't think of cutting and pasting them.

To recap: certain body positions recur in different tango sequences, which offers us an easy way to extend our dance without learning anything new. I noticed one body position that occurs in the middle of at least three different sequences, so there are three possible conclusions that can be spliced onto any of the three beginnings. I wondered if anyone could think of any others. Do let me know if you come up with anything!

ghost said...

Take the ocho cortado from your example.

And take the cw giro as a series of reference points.

First the woman's forward step of a giro. Freeze this. You could have got into this position from forward ochos. Or by stepping outside the woman, such as the beginning of the cross section of the 8CB. Or from a giro. Or a rebound to set-up an ocho cortado. etc

So now just continue the giro into the sidestep and voila you're into the ocho cortado.

Second the woman's Sidestep. Again could have come from a giro, sidestep of a 8CB and so on. Well you're already doing the ocho cortado! Just carry on.

Woman's Backstep. Again could be backward ochos, beginnning of a sandwich, giro etc. And again just continue the giro into the sidestep and you're back into the ocho cortado.

Woman's collect. Any time you collect. Or any position she's in with her legs open just lead her to close without a weight change.

Just lead her to sidestep and once again you're into the ocho cortado.

Basically I'm just expanding your idea of there being fundamental positions and showing how by recognising and understanding them you're always in a position to do whatever it is you want.

Now granted the first logical outcome of this is a nuevo "let's explore 10,000 new possibilties". But if you then ground it with the transitions, now you're not going anywhere new. The difference is that now you're free to do whatever best suits the moment rather than planning ahead. You no longer have to "set up" an ocho cortado. You just do it.

ghost said...

PS Feel free to name any position you can get into in trad and I'll happily describe how to do an ocho cortado in the next step :o)

ghost said...

"I noticed one body position that occurs in the middle of at least three different sequences, so there are three possible conclusions that can be spliced onto any of the three beginnings. I wondered if anyone could think of any others."

Just specifically answering this.

Take each step of the 8 Count Basic, each step of a CW giro and each step of an ACW giro and you'll see quite a few common points.

(You could also work my previous post backwards - starting from a sidestep and being able to go to each of the positions of a CW giro)

Hope that helps

Tango en el Cielo said...

@ TC - Interesting post- so many themes - wish I had more time to comment on them! So I'll just start with the first for now.
First - milongueros teaching group classes - Ricardo's fabled set of 8 or 3 classes - milongueros organising tango into analytical structures NO NO NO! Sorry you're all barking up the wrong tree here. Milongueros dance, some of them can give a good private lesson but I've never met one who knew how to teach group classes. Ricardo's idea of a group class was a session in which he'd give a mini-private lesson in turn to each couple while the others are dancing. Interspersed with a few chats and tales and anecdotes about tango and some general words of encouragement for everyone. He didn't have a set of classes to give - each class was done on the fly. When I hosted a set of 3 small workshops here with him (so as to introduce him when when he first came to London in 2003), I had spent hours talking to him and dancing with him, and I pulled out a sets of themes from those conversations so as to try to offer something identifiably different each time. It worked very well, I think (at TEEC in small groups- whereas in larger groups in pre-milonga classes it was more hit and miss), but it took a lot of shepherding to remind him of what he'd intended to talk about or show. He couldn't show the same step twice and didn't want to! Nor did he necessarily know what step he had just shown nor precisely what step the woman had done to follow him. What he gave people was much much more important- a sense of what tango is all about, the embrace, leading by energy not force, living the music, the history and culture. Those things can't be reduced to words on a screen.

On the question of analysing steps- I'm with you on thinking of positions in relation to your partner rather than listing individual steps- it's a dance for 4 legs not 2. To be continued, maybe...

Game Cat said...

Okay, turn my back and suddenly posters everywhere! ;-) But all very good stuff.

TC - could you clarify what you mean by "body positions" - is it how the partners' bodies are positioned relative to each other (which your giro comment suggested)? Or the relationship of their feet (which I think is what TEEC is referring to)?

Personally, I think the relationship of bodies to each other matters more (at least it takes up more of my mind). E.g. as a leader, you should still be able to lead a walk or giro regardless of which foot you're on. Also, changing your relative body position lets you curve a walk/ side step - tight enough, and you can turn it into a giro.

Finally, if I had to force a number, I keep in mind 5 basic positional relationships between partners. I'm sure inventive people will find more, but to use Anon's phrase, this is my "language" :-)

1) Parallel facing, feet aligned (i.e. "square on, face-to-face")
2) PF, man outside lady's R
3) PF, man outside lady's L
4) Right-angle facing, lady facing to man's L (as in a side ocho or parada)
5) RAF, lady facing man's R

...and in all 5, you can be on the same or opposite feet.

Tangocommuter said...

Many thanks to Tangoenelcielo for the wonderful recollections of Ricardo. It made me remember the one class I took with him, a lot of laughter and warmth and encouragement. It certainly encouraged me to persist, as the end product was obviously enjoyable! A more analytical approach might not have had the same effect. I was expecting too much to think that he might have left us something organised, and if he had I'm sure we'd all have heard about it by now. & thanks to everyone else for such a valuable – and enjoyable – discussion.

Game Cat, thanks for the query. Yes, by 'body position' I mean 'how the partners' bodies are positioned relative to each other'. Thank you for putting it so clearly: I take some trouble to make posts really clear, and I can only groan to find that it still takes a few days and the intervention of several online friends to get wording that really is clear beyond any ambiguity!

& thanks for the five basic positional relationships. As you say, you can reach these positional relationships in parallel or cross system, which effectively makes them different positions in terms of what you can lead. It's a useful list, and it should be possible to think in terms of being able to cut and paste regular sequences that share similar positions. I'm afraid I don't know names for most of the sequences I regularly use, which makes it hard to talk about it, but I think that watching for similar body positions (including foot positions) is a good key to the points at which something we do as a regular sequence can be varied. & I think there's a convergence here with Ghost's most recent comment too. I'm sure this cut-and-pasting is something we do instinctively from time to time, as it's a useful way to create variety from what we've already learned.

ghost said...

Food for thought ~ Laura's comment on the milonguero only having 2 or 3 sequences.

If you cut and paste one step at a time, eg Gamecat mentions going to a giro or walk from any point, then you stop having sequences. (Unless you want a sequence or two that does a specific purpose / "trick")

Then it becomes about the way you dance each step.

To me, then you're dancing tango.

The parallel someone else made would be if you use sequences, you're using stock phrases to speak a foreign language. To really have a conversation you need to be able to speak freely and understand the grammar, nuances of pronunciation etc.

Tango en el Cielo said...

"Dance isn't something that can be explained in words. It has to be danced" Paige Arden
"No I can't explain the dance to you; if I could say it - I wouldn't have to dance it!" Isodora Duncan.
"What one has not experienced, one will never understand in print" Isodora Duncan.

Quoted in Tango Zen by Chan Park, a little book full of lots of other gems.

Tangocommuter said...

TEEC; words of wisdom! & in a way similar to Ricardo's 'teaching': nothing much is explained, and it stays with you for ever. I happen to remember the sequence he taught, but what really stayed with me was much wider.

Ghost; but a conversation doesn't have to fit the structure of music, and doesn't involve the physical limit of two bodies standing very close together. That's where ready-made sequences are useful.

& I think sequences are the basis of tango. Is tango is still tango without ochos, salidas, ocho cortados etc? They've been there all along, and we need them because we – the two people involved – know the rhythm of each sequence, and can feel ahead how it will fit in with the music, where a cross will fit a strong beat for instance. Sequences are familiar phrases, so they are useful. My interest here is in how it's possible to slip from one into another, which can give me more to work with without actually having to learn anything new. & to some extent it's something we do all the time.

'...Then it becomes about the way you dance each step. To me, then you're dancing tango.' Yes, the way you dance. & I forget who it was who said that when you feel your partner's heartbeat, that's tango...

& that video of Ismael, who could well be Laura's milonguero with only a few sequences, always amazes me. I used to watched him, night after night. He's well into his 80s, and out every night until late, always very gentle and totally musical. His partners, young and old, always look totally content, and always have time to fit in their feeling for the music. There aren't many videos of him, but you almost don't need many because there wouldn't be much difference from one to another. Of course it's not what he does, it's the way he dances. By contrast, videos of Ricardo show that he used a much wider range, fitting movements together and into the music, improvised constructions, with real passion.

ghost said...

Ultimately it's up to everyone to find there own path. For me, sequences are the beginning of the journey not the end.

Certainly if you take a freeze frame of each part of the sequences you use, you should be able to find plenty of common positions.

I suppose the obvious question is this ~ "If I dance to a song and I don't do an ocho, ocho cortado and salida at some point, are you saying I'm not dancing tango?"

NB this means I could spend the entire dance walking, pausing and doing single pivots and crosses to the music and not be doing tango. Which I do quite a lot....

There's also some confusion as to what "sequence" means. If it includes ochos, then presuambly the milonguero with only 2 or 3 sequences has to choose between ochos, ocho cortados, salida, giro and cross. I could be wrong, but I'd be surprised if this is what was meant.

Tangocommuter said...

ghost; 'when you feel your partner's heartbeat, that's tango...' I guess it means literally, and figuratively too. It's a bit corny perhaps, but I've just come across it and like it as a definition.

I wondered if tango still exists without 'figures', sequences. I mentioned a few and added 'etc.' Surely this includes walks, side steps, pauses, pivots, balanceos, cruzadas, etc. and etc. and etc., which exist freely and in combination with each other when we dance to the music? In that case, yes, tango still exists without 'figures'. & now excuse me, I want to go off and dance...