Review: Bramshaw Bodyshop

5th June 2009

Date: Sun 31st May 2009

Location: Bramshaw Village Hall, Bramshaw (Hampshire).

Organisers: Steve and Debbie Morrall of Tango UK.

Introduction

(Also see David's review of the Tango Practica / Milonga on the previous day)

Five months along the tango road and I'm learning to walk all over again...

While most people were out presumably enjoying the warm sunshine on the last Sunday in May, I spent the day in an often darkened village hall in the New Forest relearning how to put one foot in front of the other.

This was the Bodyshop - part of Steve and Debbie Morrall's holistic approach to learning tango. For ten years now, Steve and Debbie have run Tango UK (www.tangouk.co.uk), based in Southampton and among the trees and ponies of Bramshaw, a quiet, quaint village on the fringes of the New Forest.

The Bodyshop is part of their carefully structured tango programme. Along with weekly classes in Southampton, they host regular tea dances and milongas in Bramshaw, which is also the base for their workshops, starting with the Toolkit for beginners, and graduating via the Tangkademy for improvers and intermediates, to the super-charged Super Tangk (for which, like a certain website/Facebook group organiser, you might even have to audition).

Their Bodyshops slot in between the other workshops and at their core is the intimidating prospect of having your efforts filmed and shown larger-than-life-size on a massive screen.

Does my bum look big in this? Er, yes!

Four play

The day is split into four modules, and you work at all times with the same partner so it helps to book with someone. It's not essential though. You can register your interest individually and Steve and Debbie will match you with a partner of around the same experience. My Bodyshop was 'fully booked' with 11 couples.

After coffee and biscuits, Steve introduced the day's theme: proprioception, our 'sixth sense'. Proprioception means, literally, our sense of self. On his website Steve defines it as 'an awareness of existence through information coming from senses in the body telling us where it is and what it is doing.'

The simplest way of understanding how we apply it in everyday life is eating: the knife and fork become extensions of our hands and we know without thinking exactly how much pressure to exert to cut food or spear that runaway pea.

'In tango,' says Steve, 'we need to extend our sense of self to be aware of our partner. Each dancer needs to be proprioceptive about the other. To be one dancer with four legs we need to be self-aware and know where the other person is and what they are doing. Tango is fundamentally about the continual communication of axis by both dancers.' Read more at www.tangouk.co.uk/proprioception.htm.

Walking the walk

On to the first exercise: walking.

It's almost a tango cliche that you are constantly working on your walk, but it's so true. And we went right back to the very start: taking the first steps, as we examined how as both leaders and followers we effect a fluid transition from one axis to the other. Steve used various visualisation techniques to help us to think about how we achieved this, including thinking of a huge tent pole being pushed vertical. Being on axis was the crucial factor. As we practised, deliberately slowly, so we could really feel the transition, Steve and Debbie spent time working with each couple - for even as couples we each have our own individual stuff we need to work on - before we paraded v-e-r-y slowly along a marked-out line in front of his camera.

When the results were played back, actually it wasn't so bad. I didn't look at myself and think 'I'm crap but everyone else is good.' The immediate thing that struck me was that everyone simply walked differently. You can get so hung up on trying to do it 'right' yourself that you forget that. However, I now know I've got to work on maintaining contact with the floor as I extend my leading leg, and not let it hover a fraction off the surface. 'Love the ground,' said Steve. I learnt, too, about the counter-balancing effect of moving the opposite shoulder forward, and that I need to soften the knee of my supporting leg, which aids my balance and eases me smoothly from axis to axis, without a rush of chesty completion that can feel suddenly overwhelming to my partner and can also almost carry me beyond the new axis to a toppling point. Arriving more smoothly means I can feel when I've arrived on axis, and stand securely upright, free leg liberated, rather than get there but not have the control to stop. It's about completing one step before starting another.

In no other dance I've done would this amount of self-analysis of the simplest, most basic of steps seem totally normal - or even necessary. I've known the walk is fundamental - it's what everyone goes on about all the time. But, almost for the first time, I'm actually grasping how I can really apply this for myself. At the next practica, I'll be the tent pole moving slowly round the room, two steps at a time.

Figures of eight

Exercise two: here's one for the ladies. The ocho. For my partner this was a delightful revelation. Henceforth, Steve announced, we were not leaders and followers, but partners, collaborators. The ocho is the woman's moment, a sinuous movement of curves and beautifully dissociated pivots. What man would not want to soak up that vision. Leaders: why then do we rob our partners of that moment? Why do we try to dictate the pace of the ocho, when we should be simply giving them the space and inviting them to go when they're ready, to fill it with their expressions of musicality. Some teachers will impress upon us the need to be assertive leaders, and of course, we do set the tone: we choose the moves we'll lead, we give our partners the signal. They follow.

But here, Steve was inviting us to be the kind of leader who knows when to relinquish the male power and simply let the woman in his arms express her creativity. It was a wonderful exercise - and again I found I had learnt something crucially counter-intuitive about initiating an ocho. You don't have to present the woman with an already open door. Invite her and as she moves, the door opens. So simple. Why the hell hadn't anyone told me that before? Of course, maybe they did, but I was probably too busy beetling my brow as I tried not to arm lead...

And... rest

Lunch: bring your own (or raid the fridge for scraps from the previous day's Toolkit; whatever works for you). Stagger blinking into the daylight and sit in the sun for an hour.

What siesta?

When your advancing years reach a certain point, you might like a nap after lunch. At work your eyes might feel heavy and you are getting sleepy... Steve's antidote: milonga!

I love milonga. I don't know how to do it properly, but I love its playfulness after the intensity of a few tango tandas. Just by remembering to step on alternate feet in a boxy pattern, I've had some fun, synchronised moments. What I hadn't been taught (actually, I hadn't really been taught any milonga, just a timing rhythm suggested by a partner to get us round) was ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. We started slowly, by ourselves, tapping out the rhythm and worked up to dancing it, varying it with some one-two stepping as well. One exercise involved two couples working together with the second leader standing behind the first and exerting downward pressure on his shoulders 'like a sack of coal' and the second follower doing likewise with the first. When the weight was literally lifted from your shoulders you danced lighter.

There was something mentioned about a plan B, which I think involved stepping on the ONE and holding while the next two (or was it three?) beats played or dancing three and holding for the fourth. But I didn't grasp that and will stick to plan A for now. Something else to practice!

Final exercise: a graceful forward ocho/curved side-step/back ocho/curved side-step giro, with a lot of pivoting and which allowed you to potentially exit at any point and in any direction. Something to dance in a phone box, apparently.

Actually, by this point, I was starting to wane. My brain was already full of stuff I needed to work on. This one I think I'll save for another day.

What the critics said...

A fabulous workshop, taught by creative, supportive and totally encouraging teachers. At the previous night's Bramshaw milonga there were many, many accomplished, happy dancers. If they've learnt the Tango UK way, I'm not surprised...

A couple of weeks after the workshop Steve will send us a personal collection of our clips, along with his 'notes' of what we need to work on. These clips, he told us, should not be perfect 'how-to-do' moments. Rather they should highlight how we can improve - for as with all workshops the best work will hopefully be done in the days and weeks that follow as we each continue our personal tango journeys. (If my partner had written this piece, it would have doubtless had many differences, as we all take our own learning from such an experience.)

I was given an analogy that works for me: you may have already heard it. Learning tango is like creating a sculpture. You start with a block of marble or wood from which a rough shape first emerges (that's me, now). Then you start to define that shape, to create the lines that give it true form. But this is one sculpture you never complete. You never stop shaving here, polishing there. Whenever you start it, tango is a life's work.

- Roger Fulton, 5th June 2009

More details: www.tangouk.co.uk

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