Saturday, 2 July 2011


Every now and again an interesting conversation starts in the comments and seems worth expanding into a post. I recently posted on 'lead and follow' and made some brief comments on technique in the last para. It was clear to me that I was talking about the kind of technique taught in 'women's technique' workshops: the eight different kinds of ornaments to clutter up your dance with, the five subtle ways to trip up your partner when he leads ochos... I exaggerate: 'I'm sorry, the jokes could have been better', to quote Bogart. The problem with writing is that it's usually clear to the writer what is meant, but misunderstandings are always possible.

Technique. A ballet dancer can't function without a lot of technique. Interestingly, I've heard it said that Nureyev's technique was relatively poor since he began dancing rather late, but he made up for it by his passion, expressiveness and musicality. 'He seemed to inhabit the music with his body' it was said. If he had been an amazing technician and no more, we probably wouldn't remember him.

How much technique do we need to dance tango? I quoted Ney Melo recently: 'You do not learn tango; you develop your tango'. So does 'learning technique', as against developing it in practice, have any value? After all, what we discover for ourselves is part of us. Of course, the requirements for lead and follow are generally different. As to musicality there's an excellent account by Terpischoral here.

Leonard Krause, an American who claims a background of ballet and contemporary dance, and thus a trained dancer's awareness of the body in movement, wrote a fascinating description of the late 'Tete' Rusconi teaching:

'During one advanced class, there were not enough women to partner with the men. So Tete ordered an assistant to round up some women in the hall. One of the women dragged in was about five foot seven in height, and appeared to weigh nearly four-hundred pounds. I danced with her, and her lack of self-confidence was evident...

'Tete said that leads should adjust, and that what he was demonstrating (and all of his dance, for that matter) is independent of whom he dances with. He started pulling women randomly from the class into the center, and started dancing with them. He looked over in the direction of the large women and signalled her to join him. She gave him a sheepish look and came slowly toward him... As she was walking toward him, I could see that he was paying attention to how she was walking. When they joined together in the abrazo, the first thing that Tete did was to slowly lead her in a slide-step to the side, permitting him to get a feeling of her center. From there, Tete could lead her in all of the steps that he had been demonstrating in the class...'

So, that inexperienced beginner could dance an advanced class adequately with no real technique lesson. OK, yes, she needed Tete to lead her...

Krause has three conclusions: '...a good lead can dance with someone with little-to-no Tango experience... and make the woman feel connected, successful at dancing Tango, and loved in a deeply spiritual way.

'The second conclusion is that Tango classes have jaded many leads and follows into thinking that Tango is about being marched through the paces: from ocho to boleo, to sacada and so on... Tete explains that such thinking detracts from the true experience of Tango...

'The third conclusion is that most group Tango classes for follows tend to be a waste of time. If a sequence is properly led by the leader, a follow will 'get it' and follow. The ones who really need to learn the sequences are the leads, first by learning how it feels to be led in it.'

(It's the most insightful account of Tete's teaching I've read, and it was good to remember just how fine a teacher he was.)

Melina Sedo said in a comment that there's often plenty that women can do to make it easier for them and their partners to enjoy their dance. They can work on posture, balance, maintaining axis. Essential stuff. This kind of technique class teaches what you need: that, and a good lead.

By contrast, I recently danced again with a partner who has taken too many 'group Tango classes for follows' to heart. It was a dispiriting and potentially dangerous experience. She twists away from me when I'm trying to lead a turn, because there is some esoteric ornament she's trying to insert. She paid for those classes, she believes in them, but it's made her stiff and unresponsive. Looks are prioritised over feeling, a flashy display is preferred to an intimate conversation although I, as her partner, actually cannot watch what she's doing. One thing this partner, and perhaps many others, didn't take away from those classes is that the home of these ornaments is choreographed stage tango, and that social tango is a different world.

I was glad I had danced earlier with a partner who enjoyed a few moments of intimacy, and who found time to add a bit to the dance, without disrupting the flow of the music.

An Argentine (I don't know who) said that if you can feel your partner's heart beat, that's tango.


Anonymous said...

Problem is also that people find the useful classes really boring. How do you get over that? The teachers can only say so much before losing pupils .. perhaps we need to accept that not everyone taking classes is a tanguero/a?

Chris said...

Thanks for that insightful post, TC.

We see about ten times as many women's technique classes offered as men's. Is this because women need to learn ten times as much technique as men? I don't think so. It's because about ten times as many couple classes have an excess of women as of men. Women's technique classes are a response to this new business opportunity.

Many teachers are telling women that technique classes are beneficial and even essential, but I've found them generally detrimental, as TC describes. His "She twists away from me when I'm trying to lead a turn" is a common case in point. This comes from her being taught to train using a wall as her partner. When she then dances with a man, she gives back the unpleasant feeling of using her partner as a wall.

The girls with whom I most like to dance are those whose only technique is a natural feeling for their body, grown through dancing in the arms of caring and respectful guys. It comes from within.

Tangocommuter said...

'...using her partner as a wall' - that's exactly what it felt like!

Anonymous said...

I am going to be a dissenting voice here, as I think technique classes are incredibly important, for both men and women. I do an hour's solo technique practice every day and I think it is absolutely crucial. For leaders as well as followers. I can't stress this enough. I write about my technique practice here:

I don't see decorations, by the way, as being part of technique, as such. For me, decorations are a way of expressing subtleties in the music which cannot easily be led or followed. And I don't think anyone should be adding decorations until they are a very confident dancer.

Nor have I ever taken a technique class which involved using a wall as a partner! That's crazy.

What technique class ideally does is allows you to gain confidence, balance and develop muscle memory, so that you get used to such things as dancing an ocho in a dissociated way or changing weight in a soft and controlled manner or not falling away from your partner when you are walking backwards (practising walking backwards on your own helps with this a LOT).

Good technique is not a substitute for dancing. Nor is it an end in itself. But it frees you up to think about more artistic elements of the dance when you are actually dancing. Since I don't have to worry about how to step, how to respond to an ocho lead, etc., I can focus on things like connecting with my partner and listening to the music instead.

I'm in London at the moment and see so many leaders not dissociating, moving their bodies in a block. If they had practised moving and turning in a dissociated manner in technique exercises and incorporated that into their natural movement, their dancing would be so much better. Because, you see, I don't believe there is such a thing as "women's technique" and "men's technique". There are some moves that women do more often than men -- such as walking backwards or boleos -- and others that men do more often than women -- such as enrosques and planeos. But men and women do the same basic types of movement in tango. One of the big problems here in London is that the leaders move as in a stiff block, like robots, and expect the followers to dissociate, pivot, twist, etc -- i.e. only the woman is actually dancing tango. They need technique lessons. And urgently.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the long comment. It was a cri de coeur.

And thanks for what you say about the issue on Musicality. I'm glad you liked it.

Chris said...

Terpsichoral said " I think technique classes are incredibly important, for both men and women."

May I ask what experience forms the basis of that conclusion? Buenos Aires for example demonstrates the opposite - the average milonguero has never taken a technique class in his life.

"I'm in London at the moment and see so many leaders not dissociating, moving their bodies in a block."

Do try dancing with their partners. The typical London class-goer girl has lost so much of her natural balance that her guy is forced into that block-like stance in order to hold her from falling over.

Anonymous said...

@Chris The older milongueros probably haven't taken technique classes as such. But some of those I have asked have told me they practise walking etc. solo, which seems to me like a fair equivalent.

No doubt some geniuses are just naturals at tango movement and don't need solo practice. I can only tell you that I do and so do many of the men I enjoy dancing with (some of them professional dancers).

No doubt also some beginner dancers are just compensating for each other's problems. But dissociation is an integral part of tango movement. Dancing like a robot in a block is not tango. And it doesn't help you to support the follower if you are not with her, if you are not connected with her through the embrace, if you are not initiating your movements in the upper body. If you are deliberating disconnecting from the follower, you will not find it easier to support her weight (supposing that you need to).

Good dancers dissociate even when dancing with beginners. It's the way they are accustomed to moving their bodies. They have incorporated the twisty, dissociated, corkscrewing style of turns which are characteristic of tango, because they are tango dancers. In most cases, this is because they have practised moving their bodies that way. And that brings me back to my point. Practice may not be necessary for everyone. But it's necessary and important for me. And I suspect for many others too.

Anonymous said...

That should read "deliberately disconnecting". Dancing badly on purpose seems utterly perverse to me. If the follower is so terrible you believe you cannot dance anything resembling tango with her, maybe you should pick a different dance partner. Or take her with you to some technique classes. But I don't really buy that argument, since I see those guys dancing in a block with everyone they dance with. They are simply used to dancing that way. Dissociation takes practice.

Tangocommuter said...

Many thanks for the cri de coeur, Terpischoral. But I don't hear a dissenting voice there: the technique classes I was complaining about were the same ones that you dismiss as 'crazy', and I think the kind of technique classes that 'allow you to gain confidence, balance and develop muscle memory', the kind of classes that Melina and Detlef give, are useful. They help you to dance, rather than giving you techniques that get in the way of dancing.

As to how much practice you need, I suspect that depends on how often you get to dance. I don't get to dance often enough, and I find it helpful to walk (a walking exercise I got from Cacho Dante, it's here for a tanda or two each day. At least it keeps me focused, and helps to preserve the posture and balance I need to dance comfortably. But if I was at a milonga three or four nights a week, I wouldn't bother.

My understanding is that if both partners can turn (dissociate) enough they can dance anything perfectly comfortably in apilado, but both partners need to be able to turn. That's my (limited) experience too. Sadly, there has been very little apilado teaching in London, but it's not that difficult to do once you get the idea, and there are good London dancers.

As for the comments Chris made... Ah, I feel another post coming on.

Patricia said...

I'm also a great fan of technique classes (for both men and women). The walk, axis control, dissociation, to mention some key tango basics, do not come intuitively to most people. Just watch the average person walking down the street! Most folk need to develop their body awareness and control to be able to walk in the embrace. In the Escuela Argentina de Tango (BsAs), Aurora Lubiz runs excellent well-attended technique classes that are by frequented by women and men who are serious about improving their own tango experience, as well as that of their dance partners.

Anonymous said...

“Do not look at my finger, look at where my finger is pointing”

Practicing adornments on a rockstep or ocho teaches the follower the importance of being fully on her axis for example.

First learn to get things right against a wall, then progress to doing it without touching anything. Gotta learn to walk before you can fly!

Sure a lot of guys go through a phase of wanting to learn all the “moves” and a lot of women go through a phase of wanting to learn adornments and boleos. It’s what happens after that which is important (though I'll grant you some people never get beyond a certain stage for a variety of reasons).

Pretty much all you’re doing is moaning at ducklings because they’re not beautiful swans yet. And to compound matters, you’re advising them not to do what may very well help them become swans! Look at the women’s blogs (who actually follow!) and you’ll see a rather different point of view to yours.

Anonymous said...

I have to second Anonymous's comment. I apologise for focusing on the shortcomings of the leaders' dancing in my previous comment, but it mostly reflected my frustration at what I've noticed is a widespread belief here in London that only followers need technique practice.

Of course, I think technique practice is important for followers as well. It's not easy balancing in heels and if you can do ochos, planeos, etc. confidently, smoothly and on axis on your own it will help you enormously to keep your own balance when dancing with a man.

There are people who have successfully learnt to become really good followers just by being out on the dance floor. But most of us -- men and women -- could really do with a little extra help in the form of solo technique practice. I don't see many people dancing at a high standard here in London. In fact, I am disappointed by how low the level of dancing is. Of course, if people are enjoying themselves dancing socially that's great. But I have the heart and soul of a tango geek. That's why I'm searching for reasons for the poor general quality of the dancing here and possible solutions, because I really care about the quality of people's tango for its own sake.

And, yes, anonymous has a point, maybe people do need to use the wall at first. I stand corrected. But as soon as you can you should progress to doing your ochos, enrosques, etc. unsupported. Even if you wobble a bit at first. (We all do).

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by dancing "apilado". But I think solo technique practice is beneficial whether you as a leader prefer to dance salon, milonguero, nuevo, or any mixture of the above.

Anonymous said...

PS I'm not a doctor, but I suspect that if you can feel the leader's heart beat as a follower he probably has a very large heart indeed or dextrocardia.

Tangocommuter said...

'Apilado' just means 'stacked together', and I think it's pretty much the castellano for 'close hold'. If that's how you dance I'm surprised you've never felt your partner's heart beat. There's one partner I used to dance with whose heart often seemed louder than the music, and I'm sure she's in perfect health! The quote comes from some older people talking about tango in, I think, Tango: Nuestro Baile. Of course, it only works with partners of the right height...

Anonymous said...

Tangocommuter, our hearts are usually on the left-hand side of the chest. You have to be in a very close embrace and the physical configurations of bodies have to be just right to feel the follower's heart beat. The follower, even in milonguero style, is slightly more open on the left-hand side, just because of the asymmetry of the embrace. As most men don't have their hearts on the right, we can't often hear the leader's heart beat.

I know what apilado means, as I am completely fluent in Spanish and I live in BA. But Argentines usually use it to refer to a leaning style (such as is used in canyengue and some earlier dance forms, for example). (Although there is dispute about how exactly to define the different tango terms). Even in milonguero style, most people dance with each partner on their own axis, not in a slight volcada. Close embrace is usually translated as "abrazo cerrado". Most dancers, of whatever persuasion, walk and perform simple moves in close embrace. Milonguero-style dancers use a "two-tit embrace" and do not open it throughout the dance. Salon dancers open the embrace for giros, in particular, and nuevo dancers, as and when required.

When you say 'apilado' do you mean milonguero style?

I have written more about the three main styles of tango here:

and about tango salon, in particular (my personal favourite) here:

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Tangocommuter,

I agree with you on the unpleasantness of dancing with a follower with a case of "adornments on the brain" - I went through a stage of rabid adornation myself and I was an absolute terror to dance with - yes, the twisting and doing intricate tap dances around your poor, unsuspecting partner applies!

The best I can say about my experience with practicing adornments and taking technique classes is that my balance may have improved - but then I used to be in martial arts (lots of standing on one leg and kicking) so I had pretty good balance to begin with. For ladies who have poor balance and muscle control I could see some benefits, but the exercises/practice must be on a regular/daily basis. But of course, not to the extent where the exercises interfere with the natural lead and follow of the dance!

When a follower has good balance and basic technique already, I prefer the "less is more" approach. I'm working on being conscious of absolutely nothing...not the people around me, nor what my feet should or should not be doing, nor what I think my partner is trying to do/is going to do...Makes for a sublime dance experience and more impossible feats of following than if I was actually "trying" or "doing my best" to follow.


Anonymous said...

Irene, I think you have the right idea with the "less is more" approach. But I do think decorations can add something, express subtleties in the music which are hard to lead and follow and, most importantly, give the leader a lot of pleasure. But, for me personally, it's best if the decorations are always inspired by something in the music.

Ideally, the point of technique exercises is precisely so that you can internalise and incorporate certain tango-specific ways of moving to the extent that, when you are dancing, you don't have to think about them at all and can simply concentrate on the dance.

If you have good balance already, I'm sure you are at an advantage. But I've taught tango technique to classical ballet dancers and some of them had problems balancing in some of the tango movements, although their general balance was superb -- because their bodies simply weren't used to the very specific movements of tango. (Also, I challenged them a bit more than normal, knowing what their capabilities were).

Tangocommuter said...

Dear Irene

Many thanks for your comments. I didn't know you're a reformed rabid adornator! Well, well, well. &, of course, glad to hear it! & a martial arts rabid adornator too: a real terror!

'Sin pensamiento' Tete kept saying. He'd call out in the middle of a phrase; 'You're thinking! Stop thinking!' I assume your 'thought-less' approach was what he had in mind. If you think about what you are doing, you are slower than if you just do it. When I've enjoyed adornos they've been little flicks, hardly anything to notice and quite probably involuntary, but they suddenly say how much the woman is enjoying the music and the lead. & elegant too, in an effortless way.

I suddenly realised your BsAs posts are only up to 2009! Looking forward to more of it.

Chris said...

"the walk, axis control, dissociation, to mention some key tango basics, do not come intuitively to most people. Just watch the average person walking down the street!"

I have done, and I see that those qualities do come naturally to most. If people were as lacking as so many class teachers are fond of claiming, the pavements would be jam-packed with prone bodies.

Tango dance class teachers have an unduly negative judgement of natural ability because their judgement is based on the classgoers they most teach. Like a driving instructor basing his judgement of general driving ability on the people he most teaches.

Patricia writes of the special school in BA "frequented by women and men who are serious about improving their own tango experience". Well yes, there will always be such schools because there will always always be people who think they can't improve except through classes. This in no way means that the average dancer should be made to feel the same about him/herself.

Anonymous said...

I guess classes as for those of us who are really ambitious, who want to teach, perform or just dance at as high a level as we can. There's nothing wrong with just being a social dancer.

Anonymous said...


I'd tweak that a little for London. There are definitely social dancers who go to classes forever simply as a way to meet people to dance with after the class.

But yes, ultimately people have to decide what it is they want from tango and how best to go about doing that. For some of us that means learning good technique. For others it just means being expressive and doing what comes naturally.

My only real gripe is that people be clear what the effects of such actions are. I'd be amazed if TC or ChrisJJ get to dance with dancers who have really polished their technique. Given that neither of them apparently want to, everyone's happy. But it's an important piece of information for someone earlier in their tango path. I mean seriously you can spend a lot of time, money and energy on technique and get slightly less worse over a long period of time. Or you can just dance "naturally". Seems like a no-brainer. Unless at some point you want to be able to dance with the people who did care enough to develop good technique. Not fun to realise you've climbed the wrong mountain :(

Chris said...

"I guess classes [are] for those of us who are really ambitious, who want to teach, perform... "

Well sure wannabe class teachers need to do lots of classes, technique included. Where else could they find the stuff they'll be selling on in classes? Not in milongas, for sure.

But that is completely different from the social dancing under discussion. Terpsichoral, I think that when you tell people how "incredibly important" and "absolutely crucial" are technique classes, you ought make clear that your advice is for tango workers, not regular tango dancers. And that you yourself are a tango dance teacher, rather than a regular tango dancer.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, I have taught and performed, but it's not my main source of income. I dance primarily for pleasure. And I like to dance as well as I possibly can simply for the satisfaction of it. Because dancing tango is my passion and one of the great joys in my life and I believe that if something is worth doing it is worth doing well. Also, I enjoy dancing with very good leaders, who will not take me out o the floor if I don't have a high standard of dancing (since I am not 25, blonde and beautiful). So I personally like to dance well for its own sake. This has nothing to do with commercial considerations. That's why I do whatever I can to improve my dancing: taking classes, practising, working on technique, etc. If other people don't wish to or are unable to dedicate so much time to tango, that's their prerogative. But for me it is a priority simply because I love it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with chris

Patricia said...

Like Terpsichoral, I work on my technique simply because I love the dance. I, too, want to be invited by very good leaders. I prefer to have that choice. This forces me to articulate the experience of dancing with a leader whose technique is poor. Often this includes being taken off my axis, pushed & pulled about, driven into other dancers, etc. Some ladies may not mind that experience, but I'd rather dance with a man whose technique is at least good, if not excellent, regardless of how he developed it!

Chris said...

I have to say I really don't get this "I love dancing, that's why I do classes" stuff. In my experience, what a love of dancing makes people do is dance.

When I see "If other people don't wish to or are unable to dedicate so much time to tango..." where "tango" refers to classes/practice/training, my thought is simply that every hour spent in evening class is hour lost from dancing in the milonga.

Life's too short for that! :)

Anonymous said...

I did classes more than once a week for 4-5 years.
What a waste of time and money.
Now I just dance in milongas and it's great. I love it and as far as I can tell my partners are happy.
My dance has changed. No more sequences and forced steps. Now its much more about really dancing in the mood, in the music, with my partner, listening and responding - but all with less concious thought and stress.

Classes are a hoax. I want my ££££ back.

Anonymous said...

Chris, do you dance much in London? Do you get any 'good' dances in London at all? How does that compare to the rest of the UK and to B.A.s? What are your references, i.e., what dancers (not teachers!) do you feel your dancing is more related to?

Anonymous said...

Anyone can dance - put some music on and start dancing. Go to a rave, shake your head - you are dancing. No need for being taught. Is this your point, Chris? Totaly agree. Put some tango music, people shake your head, do some bouncing - you are dancing, plus, you are dancing to tango music.

But I wouldn't care less if you had classes, no classes or whatever. What I care is how you feel, and how I feel the music with you. If you are a shitty dancer because you had shitty classes or you are a shitty dancer because you never had classes, you are still a shitty dancer to me and I won't dance with you. There are other shitty dancers around for you to dance with. They will taste like honey to you, but to you alone. And that is perfectly fine - you found what you looked for. I follow my own tastes, you follow yours. Don't lecture me on what my own tastes should be - and yes, my tastes don't lay towards people with poor technique and much less to all-B.A.-correct-way-of-dancing-tango-knowlegeable people.