For Followers

4th August 2010

(More Getting Started articles.)

"So what's the right way to step / embrace / ochos / etc? Because one teacher told me to do it this way and another told me to do it the complete opposite way?!" ~ a typical conversation


Interestingly this "technique" type of question seems to be an issue mainly for followers rather than leaders. I suspect because followers are often told they only have to learn to follow steps (forward, side and back) and pivots (cw and acw). If they can do that with a good embrace, free leg and relaxed feet, voila.

So surely in something as technical and precise as tango there's clearly defined ways of doing these relatively simple things?

But in Modern Jive...

Contrast this with Modern Jive, Modern Jive famously has "No set footwork", yet if you watch intermediate followers, they'll all do pretty much the same footwork. But there's no "intermediate followers footwork" classes or workshops, or weekly Modern Jive technique classes - how many people do you know who've ever had a private lesson in Modern Jive, let alone monthly or weekly?

And of course everyone makes the big deal that tango is "better" / more technical than Modern Jive. If so, why is there consensus in Modern Jive, but mot in tango?

Going advanced

I think the answer can be found by looking at more advanced Modern Jive followers.

Gradually, these people develop their own styles, and their footwork becomes more personalized to them. Beyond a certain point it's no longer the "standard" intermediate footwork.

As I understand it, this is what has happened in BsAs. The milongueros who've danced tango all their lives have each developed their own distinct style. But they don't bother naming their styles, much in the same way that although you'll get plenty of women who'll copy elements of advanced women's styles, there's no "Rachel Style" or "Sparkles Style" in Modern Jive. To further complicate matters, it does seem that the points of commonality between the milongueros are pretty limited almost to the point of being non-existent. They walk differently, they embrace differently.

I don't know much about Tango, but I know what I like

It reminds me of the quote:
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it," ~ Justice Potter Stewart

Trying to define what tango is, based on what the milongueros do seems to be remarkably difficult. You largely seem to end up with hazy phrases about connection and musicality.

This is a fairly common problem among people who've "learnt" something intuitively. They tend to give advice like "Keep your ducks in a row". What does "keep your ducks in a row" actually mean?

Does it mean this?

Or this?

Or this?

I don't have any ducks. Can I use local cats and foxes instead? How about puppies?

Let's say it means "Be properly prepared" which is good advice, but what does that actually mean in practical terms when applied to tango?

Hence the problem. First you have to get the information "Get your ducks in a row". Let's say it means "Be properly prepared". Then you have to work out how to actually apply it "Make sure your have proper posture before you embrace the woman". And even then you still need to work out what "proper posture" means!

Cats and... ducks

Londo Mollari: "But this...this, this, this is like... being nibbled to death by, uh...Pah! What are those Earth creatures called? Feathers, long bill, webbed feet...go "quack".
Vir Cotto: "Cats."
Londo: "Cats! I'm being nibbled to death by cats."
~ Babylon 5

So if that wasn't hard enough, your instructions will probably be in Spanish - so you may well end up thinking you need to get your cats in a row.

Down a level

The next level down is people who've tried to make sense of what it is that actually makes tango, tango. Basically, they've rather kindly done all the above interpreting for you.

The consensus seems to be that you can't actually define this for tango as a whole, but what you can do is define this for a specific style of tango. Gavito danced a certain way. Villa Urquiza is a different style. And so on. OK, so now things are getting defined. If you want to embrace in this style, your left hand goes here, your right hand goes here, you have this much lean etc. etc....

Where the confusion about the original question arises from mainly, is going to teachers from different styles. So when one tells you to gently and silently brush your foot in contact with floor while the other tells you it's like striking a match and sound should be involved, they're both "right", within the context of their style.

The simplest answer is for you to pick one style and stick with it. There are a number of benefits to this approach. These styles have been around for quite a while so most of the bugs have been worked out by now. Also you can see what it is you're getting by watching your teacher dance socially. If you don't like the way they follow, I'd recommend finding a teacher who's following you do like.

And yet more levels

There's several levels of confusion beyond this though. Claire Loewe teaches Villa Urquiza style. Andreas Wichter is heavily influenced by Gavito. But other teachers have studied under a number of styles, milongueros and gradually created their own styles.

Do these work as well? It's a difficult question because it depends a lot on what you want tango to do.

Again my best advice is to watch the teacher dancing socially.

But what about their students? An interesting piece of advice is to watch a teacher's students dancing socially. Are they actually being taught to dance the way their teacher dances or is the teacher giving them what they want in order to keep their classes going? It's also a way of telling whether the teacher can teach.

Creating your style

Although this sounds like good advice, I'm becoming increasingly dubious that it's an effective with tango. A lot of students won't actually listen to the teacher. They'll go to other teachers, pick up a collection of ideas and try to put them together themselves. The line dreaded by tango teachers everywhere "But XYZ said you should do it this way" (Well go and learn from them then!). So to a very real extent a lot of students simply aren't representative of their teachers.

Bruce Lee is often held up as an example of someone who created their own martial art (Jeet Kune Do) at an early age. This has been used a license ever since for people to create their own martial arts with vey little actual experience. What is politely ignored is that Bruce Lee had extensive training in a traditional martial art (Wing Chun) under a Master (Yip Man) before he did this.

In the same way there's an inherent risk involved in putting together a bunch of different teachers' ideas yourself before you have a good grounding in at least one coherent way of doing it.

A simple solution

Rephrase the lightbulb moments as questions. Instead of saying "XYZ said you should feel as if a string is pulling you up" just ask "So is it like feeling as if a string is pulling you up?".

If your teacher agrees, then great, it's compatible with what they're teaching. If it's partly compatible, hopefully they'll explain the slight difference "It's more like a string is pulling your torso and head up. Your legs are more sinking into the ground". Or if it's just not compatible with what they're teaching "No" then at least you know not to apply it.

Simply put, it's much easier for a teacher to say you're wrong / correct your idea than it is to do that if you're quoting another teacher. The last thing they want is you blogging about how your teacher said that The Ocampos Are Wrong.

And a final thought

Allan Quartermain: "Aim."
Tom Sawyer: "That's easy."
Allan Quartermain: "Adjust for wind and target movement."
Tom Sawyer: "That's easy, too."
Allan Quartermain: Here's the part that's not. You have to feel the shot. Take your time with it. You have all the time you need. All the time in the world."
~ The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The beauty of tango is there's no age limit. You can spend the rest of your life dancing it. So don't be in a hurry. Take the time to learn it well and you'll reap the benefits.

 - Christopher O' Shea, 4th August 2010

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