As I begin this page 2 of "Lessons Learned" I have been studying and dancing tango for 5
months. I am still taking group classes with Alex Krebs at Beretin, Bill Alsup at The
Viscount Studios SW, and Robert Hauk/Maija Wells at the Viscount Studios SW.
SUDDENLY I SEE SOME TANGO DANCERS DIFFERENTLY
Near Total Immersion To Learn Tango - Blessing or Curse
I don't know when it happened but I started to realize that my tango dancing skill level has
passed many dancers who have been dancing much longer than me. Some have been dancing tango
years longer than me. Almost as though I am seeing from different eyes I look at many of the
men dancing who I previously held in awe and their dancing now seems pretty basic. Much to my
surprise much of their dancing seems to be without any inspired musicality. Many also lack
style, fluidity of movement and assertiveness. I DO NOT take pleasure in this observation.
One of the women that I have enjoyed dancing with who has been dancing for a few years
didn't even know what musicality was and had never heard of it before. I now find that
many of the women that I dance with are unfamiliar with many of the intermediate and
advanced turns and patterns. I can now tell that many women who I have been dancing with
from the start of my learning tango have problems with the cross, the back ocho, the
forward ocho, and other basics. It is also much more obvious to me when I am dancing with
a woman who is not responding to my movement/lead and failing to move her leg back quickly
enough or far enough. ...leading her backward motion with her body instead of her leg. Then
there are a few who have no clue what I am leading when I lead an ocho cotada ...or leading
a step over ...or gancho ...so they jump around and do whatever comes to mind.
The problem is that many people took two or three tango lessons and have not advanced beyond
that. Others have had intermediate and even some advance lessons but either skipped or have
forgotten the basics of the cross, forward ocho, etc. Since I enjoy dancing with these
women I have the choice of sharing with them what I have learned or just keep my dancing to
the basic level that they know.
I have become a little gun shy about talking about improving our dance while dancing after
one woman got her a_s on their shoulders but I am happy to say that most of my dance
partners are thrilled to learn new stuff and to chat about improving our dancing together
and improving our connection. Once we work it out the dance experience is enhanced for us
Above all I am really happy to see a lot of my dance friends starting to take more classes.
It's going to be so much more exciting at dances to have more women that I am able to dance
patterns like ganchos, planeos, secadas, boleos and others, etc. etc. etc.
THE DANCE FLOOR IS NO PLACE FOR RUDENESS
Leave ugliness and personal problems at home or at your job
I was in a class and heard a woman dancer talking about how she would stop dancing and storm
off the dance floor if she didn't like the fact that her dance partner was trying to tell her
something about her dancing or attempting to teach her something. Well ...even if he is right
or wrong, misguided, just guilty or poor timing or not asking permission POLITENESS
should ALWAYS BE THE RULE! Do not be rude on the dance floor or at the dance. Be
polite. Say nothing. Say "Thank you". Say "let's talk about it later". But be polite and try
to finish the dance. You don't have to accept another dance with that person if you are that
annoyed. Most women do not have problems like this. Do a little self examination if you cannot
openly discuss something about a dancing pattern. Personally I crave feedback that will help
me dance better with each and every dance partner.
Bring your manners and gentility
I also heard an instructor telling a class that it is okay to stop dancing and walk off the
dance floor. My first response is that there is barely any woman over the age of 14 who needs
a man to tell them how to handle men. It is a survival skill women start to learn from the
day they are born. ...and women don't need encouragement in the direction of intolerance and
rudeness. My second response is what I said above. Handle all situations opting for manners,
politeness, gentility, good social communication ...and try to enjoy and finish the dance
or the series of dances...and say "Thank you for the help ...or the info."
HOWEVER if you are not that good of a dancer yet (and even if you think you are!), you
might benefit from at least listening and trying to figure out if there is anything of value
being said. It is to your benefit to be able to dance well with all levels and styles of
dancing. If you close your mind to the idea that you could improve or connect better with
certain dancers you may become small minded, limited and mediocre. The best dancers in the
world are constantly learning from each other and "EVERYONE" they dance with. They not
only learn new patterns, new movements, new interpretations of music's rhythm and beats from
the better dancers but they strengthen their sensitivity, communication and connection
skills when dancing with those of lesser skills. The whole of dance is a communication
...and how you react whether the social communication is verbal or a dance step or pattern
measures your social skills as well as your dance skills. Those who have spoiled or rotten
personalities in life will be spoiled and rotten on the dance floor no matter how good their
I STILL HAVE A LOT TO LEARN - EVEN THE BASICS
I have taken over 10 beginning tango classes from nearly all the local instructors. Some of
them are repeated classes with the same instructor. I have had several people ask me why
I take beginning classes at this stage of my dancing. I tell them that you are never to good
to take a beginning class. The better you are at the fundamentals the better dance you will
be. Just recently in Alex's class we were practicing the going from the basic walk to the
quick time "corrida (little run)." I had done this dozens of times while dancing. Alex came
over to me and showed me that I was bending over and losing my body integration just before
starting the quick time forward.
In class Robert and Maija also caught me bending over forward somewhat while dancing in close
embrace with a tango friend, Julia. I am sure it occurs when I am dancing with a woman who I
want to cuddle with but I will have to resist the urge to do that. It is important to keep
my posture straight up and not lose my "body integration".
Claiming your space
It may sound like a small thing but it is important to "claim your space" while dancing. This
is done by the lead extending his left hand that holds follower's hand sufficiently to his
left. The elbows must still be down. Maija made me awary that I was neglecting to do claim my
space. You don't want a ballroom look but you do want to avoid letting other dancers on a
crowded dance floor occupy the space you will need to manuever.
So ...there's always something that you can improve on and occasional relapses do happen.
The addition of these sophisticated movements to your dance patterns adds beauty,
excitement and fun.
Alex's class on ganchos, boleos and secadas adds a new dimension to
my dancing. I am happy that a lot of my favorite dance partners are taking the class too
because these moves require familiarity and the skill of both the lead and the follow. They
cannot "properly" be executed if the follow does not know what the lead is doing.
ABOUT THE GANCHO
The most likely mistake that the lead will make in leading the gancho is failing to step/place
his foot the follower's foot. He must also not put weight on that lead foot and should bend
his knee to position himself closer to the follower.
The follower should execute the front gancho according to the timing and movement of the lead.
It is lead all the way through. The mistake that followers will usually make is doing the
front gancho all the way through to completion without waiting for the timing of the lead at
each phase of the movement. The wrap of the leads leg is done when lead initiates it with a
turn/opening of his shoulders. The release of the wrap/gancho is also led. So the follower
should wait and be sensitive to the timing of the wrap/gancho and the release of the
gancho/wrap. If the lead is close to the follower and bends his knee slightly with no weight
on his lead foot it makes it easier for the follower to correctly wrap the upper part of the
The back gancho should be done with quickness and energy when kicking the leg up and back
down to the floor. There is no pause. It is done in continuous motion up then down. Alex says
that the follow's back kick/back gancho should be aimed as though she is aiming for the
lead's back pocket ...and that her foot comes up behind as though she is looking to see if
there is something on her shoe sole. So the back kick/back gancho is between the leads legs
aimed up towards the lead's pocket and with the foot coming up as thought the follow
is trying to see what's on the shoe sole.
ABOUT THE SECADA
Whereas the gancho can only be properly done from the open embrace, the secada can be done
from either open or closed embrase. In closed embrase thigh to thigh contact can be added to
make the movement more connected. If it is done in open embrace the contact is foot to foot.
Alex said that the secada lead from a close embrace may be a little confusing for the follower
because it may be harder to distinguish it from a gancho lead. So in the close embrace if in
doubt she can lift her leg over the lead's leg and avoid the decision.
ABOUT THE BOLEO
In Alex's class I finally got to learn the boleo. On the previous page of "Lessons Learned"
I talked about "Taking Advanced Tango Classes Before You Are Ready." I mentioned the workshop
that I took with Felip and Kat. The workshop was "Strictly Advanced: Fooling Around With The
Axis." Having the skill to do the boleo was key to getting the most from the workshop. I will
be ready next time.
I have never noticed such a variety of class responses to a new pattern before. One very
experienced lead was very frustrated after the class and said that he never got past the
first two steps to the side which starts the boleo.
One of the followers that I was practing with seemed to being doing it correctly but she was
convinced that something she was doing was wrong until Alex tried it with her and said it was
okay. One of the leads asked how to avoid being kicked by the followers foot during the boleo.
Prior to teaching the class Alex told us that it was a difficult pattern to learn. During the
class he said we were the best boleo class that he had ever had.
Personally I found the counter movement of the "ghost pivot" simultaneous with the lead
stepping behind the follower with his outside foot was intricate but easy.
I enjoyed the movement and did not find it difficult. There is a tendency to forget to pivot
the follower in the opposite direction to which I am stepping.
The follower's kick should aim for the leads outer pants pocket or his pants leg seam and
then the foot whips a line back down to the floor.
ABOUT THE PLANEO
For the follower it is important to remember to help support the lead while he is doing the
planeo (help hold him steady). Once the lead intiates the thrust of the planeo the follower
has the responsiblity of keeping the momentum of her rotation going all the way to completion
of the movement around the leads' axis. While doing the planeo the lead is on one foot and
off balance. He is trying to keep up his own momentum. He can not carry the follower if she
is dragging behind or not stabilizing the movement.
A WORD ABOUT YOUR SPACE
The front gancho, the planeo and the secadas allow the dancers to stay within their space.
The back gancho with the back kick goes out side of the dancer's space. You must be sure that
you have enough space around you to do it safely without kicking someone.
PERFECTING THE TANGO WALK
BE MORE GROUNDED
I Can't Believe I Still Had Work To Do On My Tango Walk
Steven Payne teaches not getting ahead of the beat of tango. He uses the analogy of a slow
hot lazy day where you just barely want to move. It is this almost lazy lag in your step that
he uses to define being grounded. Your aim and impulse is to be slight behind the music. This
in effect puts you on the correct beat and keeps you from getting ahead of the music.
Bill Alsup also worked with me to get me more grounded. He contrasted the more formal
elegant steps of ballroom dancing with the more down to earth steps of tango. He says that
no one has ever accused him of being elegant. Little did he know that my movement is
transitioning out of Latin dancing not ballroom. Nevertheless I needed a stronger connection
to the ground.
Finally in an advanced intermediate tango waltz class Robert and Maija pointed out that I
needed to hit more on my heals as I walked. You cannot imagine the stress of finding out
that after all this time my walk was still not right. I told Robert that I feel like I'm
learning to walk all over again. He said that I WAS learning to walk again. I said that I
am talking about learning to "tango" walk all over again. He said, "You are!". "It's the
next level." As we practiced in the class it felt very different to change my tango walk.
It felt very awkward to be concentrating on getting my heals down first and with more
emphasis. After quite a bit of practice I finally got it and then was able to switch my focus
to the rhythm, movements and patterns for the tango/waltz.
TO LEAD OR NOT TO LEAD THE CROSS
TO CROSS AUTOMATICALLY, TO CROSS WHEN LED OR NOT CROSS AT ALL
I have been taught both ways of going into the cross. Some instructors will say it is
always led not only by stepping outside of the follows' right side but by twisting the upper
body to the right and then straightening the upper body back to the left. Some instructors
say that it is "Code" that the follow always crosses if the lead steps outside to her right
side and continues a couple more steps forward on her right outside. Yet some will say that
although it is automatic for the follow to cross if the lead continues his steps on the
follow's right outside he does lead the cross with a small twist of the upper body to his
right and a slight straightening to his left.
I have been leading the cross for quite some time however in a recent beginning class taught
by Alex I was twisting my upper body to the right to stay parallel with the follow. Alex
pointed out that I was giving too much rotation to the right and then straightening to the
left. As such it was causing the follow to swing her cross over step wide to her right which
was a turn instead of the intended cross.
Going back to beginning classes and drilling with brand new beginning dancers will point out
sloppy technique quickly as it did in this case because these beginners will not be able to
compensate for errors in your technique. It is however excruciatingly painful to repeat
beginning classes with students who can barely put one foot in front of the other in a
coordinated way. It is amazing that some new dancers are a pleasure to dance with from day
one of their tango lessons yet others make you want to escape the class because of their
uncontrolled neurotic movements and constant state of confusion. Nevertheless with patience
and an observant instructor you will improve and learn something about your own dancing
In short the cross is an area of controversy that causes confusion. I dance with some follows
who require no lead to cross other than my walking outside her right side. Some will not
cross no matter how many steps I take on their outside right. Others get the lead if I
simply twist my upper body to my right to parallel theirs and straighten to my left. There are
however many who need a much stronger lead to know when to cross. The worst problem occurs
when followers start a cross immediately after the lead steps to her outside ...much too
early. Everytime a lead steps outside the follower does not lead to a cross. I often will
immediately step back inside to prevent the follow's left foot from coming across to cross
and then continue my walk straight ahead.
Since this IS the reality of dancing with different partners. I opt for leading the
cross. Generally by the time I have danced a minute or two with any follow I can tell if she
requires a stronger lead or not. ...and if it didn't work the first time then I have
to adjust the lead when I try it again.
MUSICALITY, RHYTHM, IMAGERY, INNOVATION AND IMPROVISATION
Two of these the terms that I will describe, imagery and improvisation", may be used
for the first time in connection with tango. You will not likely hear other instructors
teaching you about these techniques. I believe that these concepts have a place in developing
tango skills and I will explain what I mean by them below. I have found them exceptionally
helpful in other dances that I teach and they have helped me to accelerate my tango skills
thus far and to make my dancing more fun and enjoyable for my dance partners.
MUSICALITY AND RHYTHM
What Is Musicality?
What Is Rhythm?
How To Add Musicality To Your Dance?
Although I have practice musicality in Steven and Maija's classes and took Alex's "Musicality"
class, musicality and rhythm is an area of tango that I fortunately already understood. Not
only do I understand it but it is bursting out of me to the point that I have to control it
to some degree. I teach a new style of Latin dancing which I created called
"Nuevo Expresión" My musicality and rhythm is a direct carry
over from this style of Latin dancing that I dance and also
In Alex's 2 week musicality class he asked everyone for a short description of what they
thought musicality was. There were many different answers but Alex said that for the
purpose of the class "rhythm" was the correct answer ...and that we would get into some
related concepts later.
I knew the answer he wanted was "rhythm" but decided to say "imagery" instead. I am always
thinking beyond the question and since this was not an S.A.T. test I felt safe to stretch the
definition because the question was too easy for me.
So what is meant by "rhythm"?
I was talking to an older man in one of the Latin dance classes that I teach and trying to
get him to step in time with the rhythm of the music. He was a major challenge!!!! He
admitted to me that he never quite knew what was meant by rhythm. I have heard people
erroneously say that they don't have any "rhyth" but never heard someone say that they didn't
understand what it was. After I got over the shock I put the music back on and had him
listen and then move to the separate elements and separate instruments in the music. I
pointed out the underlying drumbeat and base instruments set the tempo or basic timing of the
music. I had him clap his hands and stomp his feet to this underlying pulse/beat. He began to
get it although he needed more practice and muscle control to improve his timing of clapping
his hands and stepping to the beat exactly on beat.
This under-beat often marked by percussion sounds/instruments or it is frequently the heavier
downbeat or bass notes and phrases. This underlying beat is the glue that sets and maintains the pace and timing, holds
the music together and keeps it grounded.
Now contrast that to the sounds that flow and float from the upper level instruments. Listen
to the horns and the string instruments. Listen here for the overall melody of the
music. You hear the lyrical phrases that make the music familiar. ...or as Alex says, This is
the part that you would whistle to." This part of the music may soar off into the stratosphere
and the cloud and then come back to earth. It may disappear, reappear, be thin, fat, flighty,
happy, sad, moody, mystical, bizarre, spiritual, airy, fast or slow.
When you can hear all these separate sections of the music and how they combine and play off
each other you can hear the rhythm (pulse, beat, cadence, tempo) of the music and the lyrical
phrasing. You then can step, move or pause to series of beats and contiguous phases that you
hear according to the music's feeling, melody, pace and pauses.
What do I mean by "Imagery"? ...and what does it have to do with "Musicality" and
When I start to answer this question a lot of images come into my mind. The first is an
image of grace and beauty of a man and woman dancing tango. It is a very attractive picture.
They are dressed for the tango, have a great connection and I can "SEE" poise and attitude
in their faces and posture.
Then, there is the music.
When I was a child in the early grades our class was introduced to classical music. I still
remember being told to let my mind be free, to close my eyes and to think of what "images"
the music brings to my mind. When I hear music I am able to get visual images. I may hear/see ocean waves,
birds, flowers, a marching band, a battle, a bullfighter, a tap dancer, a ballroom waltz,
a threatening storm, a beautiful tango move, a diabolical fiend, evil, angels, a foot race,
thunder, scenes from an old movie, a body posture, an attitude, etc. The images are fleeting.
I do not dwell on them in as much as the music is constantly shifting, developing and
projecting more and more.
Allowing for imagery in your musical expressiveness gives "meaning and emphasis" to
the rhythm of the music. Even without an understanding of rhythm is possible that strong
"imagery" alone could produce inspired rhythmic dancing. It "is" of course advisable to
become well grounded in "rhythm" first in order to dance well. "Imagery" takes rythm to
the next level. It leads you to dynamic changes, stronger feeling, new shapes, more power and
different messages. Overall it gives "color, substance and meaning" to your dance instead of
aimless, meaningless uninspired dance patterns.
Remember you heard it here first.
As my skill and patterns improve, my dancing will express more and more of this
Unlike other dances like salsa, swing and ballroom dances that have a basic pattern that you
follow, in tango you have no specific pattern to follow. You are dancing out your feelings,
telling a story, interpreting the music, ...so having internal yet dynamic imagery will
inspire your dancing.
INNOVATION AND IMPROVISATION
What Is Innovation and Improvisation?
This is another area of dance that is just bursting free from within me due to
Innovation is defined as originality, novelty and improvement. You hear this associated with
new ideas, new types of thinking or thought, new forms of design or art, etc.
Improvisation is defined as ad-libbing, inventive and creative. You hear this associated with
jazz session and acting most often.
So how does that apply to dancing tango or dancing in general?
First of all it is a change from the same old way of doing something. It is taking a movement
or dance pattern and adding, subtracting or modifying it in a way that makes it different.
...a fresh new movement or pattern. The results may be aesthetically pleasing, good or bad
but it is still "innovation."
In one of his classes Robert told us that the pattern that he had just taught us started as
a mistake. After he realized that it worked even though it was not what he intended he
realized that he had created a new move for himself and continued to use it in his dancing.
Being innovative by bringing "improvisation" into a discussion of tango.
Most explanations of tango do not consider "improvisation" in their discussion or writing.
I believe, however, that it is as important as "innovation". It is similar but not the same
as "innovation". If you came up with a new pattern or movement while dancing with little or
no prior planning it is IMPROVISATION." This is much harder to do because to be true
improvisation the variation to the steps, movement, pattern or series must be created
instantaneously or spontaneously while dancing. For a musician it is "playing by ear". For a
dancer it is "dancing by ear". In jazz it is a community experience between all the musicians.
In tango it is a spontaneous conversation between you and your tango partner. It is the high
point of the creative genius at work within you. It does not come from conscious thinking.
As in jazz "improv" where the new musical phrasing just flows out, in dance a myriad of new
movements and steps combinations will just happen if you let it.
With all the hundreds of thousands of people who have danced tango in over 100 years it is
unlikely that you have invented a new wheel. Somebody somewhere may also have discovered this
dance movement or pattern. Nevertheless it is innovative dancing if you did it on your own.
Back To Innovation
The most basic definition of innovative dancing is when you are stringing together
many different dance patterns after dance patterns and movements after movements that
your have learned ...that relate closely to the rhythm of the music and you are not having
to pre-think about which movement you are going to do next.
How To Add Innovation To Your Dance
This first begins to happen when the music rhythm and the dance enters your subconscious.
...and most of the dance patterns and movements that you learned move from your conscious
thinking to you body and muscle reflexes. The mixture of the music rhythms that you hear
and the dynamic feedback from your body as you move along with visual cues of where your
body, feet and dance partner are at any given beat-moment will overwhelmingly initiate your
If this has not happened to you yet. You need to saturate yourself with the music until it
is coming out of your ears. You also need to take more classes and hammer in dozens of
movements and patterns to the point where you have dreams about them. Then practice practice
practice. I promise you when you then get on the dance floor with your dance partner your
innovative dancing will just "take off".
THEY WERE STILL TALKING ABOUT ALCIA PON'S HARD STOP
Leading pauses for creativity of the woman
MORE FUN AND FEAR
Alex's class on opening and closing the embrace and the exchange of lead and follow
A SILENT PLACE
I find that I naturally use a lot of pauses and alternate timing in my tango dancing.
Selectively placing pauses or silent places in your dance patterns can add interest, beauty
and increased expression to your dancing. When the lead pauses it is an opportunity -if not
an invitation - for the follower to "talk" (add her own embellishments) with her unweighted
foot. It is acceptible as long as it does not impede or distract the lead and the continuity
of the dance, or the lead's timing. The options are a lot of embellishment, a little subtle
embellishment or to mirror the lead's pause. We discussed this in one of Robert and Maija's
classes. My observation was that excessive embellishment can seem to be "too much"
aesthetically. My preference most of the time is for the follower to assist me in "capturing
the moment" and to assist me in "painting the still".
Update on "How am I doing"
Almost 5 months into my tango dancing I danced with several women who came in from the coast
for a night of tango dancing at the Viscount Ballroom. They had varying skill levels from
beginner to Intermediate. They seemed to enjoy dancing with me and were chatting together
about my dancing. A couple of them told me that I should be teaching tango. Of course that
made me feel very good because it validated my dancing. For me it is "how good the
experience is that I am giving/sharing with my dance partner" that is my ultimate validation.
What those others think is secondary since I am not trying to perform for the crowd. At the
same time I still feel inadequate because I know how much more I have to learn. I also know
the areas where I need to be more consistent in my dancing. ...but I am getting there. What
do I mean by "getting there". Getting where? I mean I want to be as good as the top Argentine
Tango dancers in the US and Argentina. I like to set my goals high. Maybe too high?????
You too should set high goals in tango.
Click below for my tango poems:
The 4th Man Tango - The Last Tanguero-
The Mystery Melody of Tango
La Femme Fatale - Tango At The Café de Sal
Dance of Love
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