Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tango Glide de Luxe

[Foto by Alex.Tango.Fuego - from last night]

I DJ'd a live music milonga last night - The Austin Piazzolla Quintet.
They are a talented ensemble and a welcome addition to the Austin tango/music scene.

Being that I don't really do much dancing to Piazzolla (preferring to listen), I had some time on my hands. Or on my eyes, more accurately.

I've always been reluctant to critique what I see, unless it's a fedora or white shoes on a leader. But if I may, I would like to offer a tidbit that hopefully will be perceived as constructive counsel.

I noticed most of the followers were "stepping". On their toes. With heels elevated.

Now I'm not an expert by any means, and I have only taken only one "Follower Technique" class (with Luiza Paes) over the six years I've been dancing tango. But, I have taken lots and lots of classes, workshops, privates, intensivos, blah blah blah. With many different teachers. I was there when they were correcting my partner. I was paying attention to the instruction and feedback they were giving the followers.

As I recall, they all said "heels down" (but not weighted); extend (the leg, to its maximum comfortable natural step, depending on the size of the step being led); and "caress" the floor (just barely caressing - with no real scuffing or shuffling noise from sole contact with the floor). The "heels down" principle is during the step, as the foot is moving backwards, and not an ending default position only after the stepping foot has collected alongside the weighted foot - that one is an embellishment, not a fundamental truth of the tango universe.

Heel down, extend, caress. Glide. Smooth. Liso.

My primary teacher frequently used a story to illustrate/visualize this concept:

"Imagine there are little Lilliputians (from Gulliver's Travels), with ropes tied to your heels, and they are pulling your leg back, from your heel."

Using this visualization exercise, and manifesting this in real time would keep the heel down and extend the leg in a backstep to its maximum comfortable "natural" step.

There are a couple/a few reasons for this as I recall, but I'm only going to focus on one. It really applies only to close embrace - chest-to-breasts. In a more open/separated embrace, "stepping" doesn't really manifest any undesirable effects - except for the aesthetic.

In close embrace, it's a different story. "Stepping" in close embrace imparts a slight verticality to the follower's movement. It can manifest as a "bounce". Gentle-like, but still a slight vertical bounce. Some have called it a bop. At its worst, for me, with shorter followers, it manifested as the top of their head bopping into the bottom of my jaw as we walked. Whenever it happens, the thought actually pops into my head that I should have a mouth guard in my pocket. But that's my own internal tongue-in-cheek overkill twisted humor. Obviously I would never have to resort to that. But it's good for illustrating a worst-case manifestation of the issue.

As I write this, it's dawning on me that I may notice this more, because I am more of a walker in my tango. I walk every chance I get. Every time the music tells me to walk, I walk. Now that I think about it, I (think I) notice most leaders doing lots of other "stuff", but not doing much walking. Maybe this "glide vs. bounce" issue is not so much of an issue if you're not doing much walking? Hmmm.

Heels-down, extending, caressing - "gliding" - imparts a smoothness, almost like a hawk flying in a slipstream in the sky. Or paddling a stripper in the early morning light on a glassy lake. Water skiing on a snake infested cafe' au lait colored Louisiana bayou - so narrow and twisty the ski boat has to come to a complete stop to turn around and go back downstream. So narrow of a channel through the thick cypress that no wind could ever ripple the water's surface. That feeling. Smooth beyond smooth. The word glide is an understatement. Floating. Airy. Dreamy.

How can you tell if it's happening? It's noticeable in the chest-to-breasts contact - the vertical motion can be felt. It's noticeable if there's any cheek-to-cheek contact as well. Or jaw-to-forehead. One might also use a video camera for "diagnostic" purposes.

I noticed it mostly in the women I was watching last night. There were only two or three followers who actually had the caress/glide movement down pat. Two or three out of twenty or thirty. Too few.

My understanding is that followers have to retrain themselves to walk (backwards in 4cm heels), or remake, or reform their backwards movement so that almost all of the verticality is removed - manifesting a much smoother, mas liso, dance. Mucho walking backwards. Mucho practice. Mucho work to get the walk smoothed out.

I could be wrong. Please comment if I am. Share your views and experience with this. Please please purty please.

Again, I'm reluctant to offer "instructional" type posts, and reluctant to bring things up that I see in my own community, because it is so small. Some of the women I noticed this with, I dance with - others I have not had the pleasure of their company on the dance floor. Yet. I hope it doesn't blow up in my face.

This post will be one of the few times I do this. I'm doing it now because I'm selfish.

Yo quiero el tango glide de luxe.


Mari said...

Ah yes, the "stepping" - especially extending the toe, instead of fully extending the leg, to get the extra reach in the step back. I step a lot - now that I've started working on it, I'm painfully aware every time I do it, which is only slightly less than before. Better every milonga - by a tiny, tiny bit. I manage to pull it together maybe 5 or 6 times (5 or 6 steps out of an entire milonga, mind you). A work in progress. I've addressed it in a few private lessons and many classes.

Fellas, it's far harder than it seems. Forgive me, Alex if I say this, you observe it accurately, but until you're in the heels walking backwards for 2-3 hours, you don't really know how hard it is. Or the change in the mindset it requires for many of us.

It's not just extending the leg, gliding on the inside edge of the foot, directing the heel down - it starts in the hips. And while relaxing and opening the hips (which makes gliding along that inside edge, heel down, possible) is natural for most South American women (my mom lived in Brazil and can attest to their manner of walking as well) - it's not natural for many North American women. It doesn't take just a change in posture, getting it into the muscle memory, making it a habit - we have to change the way we think about our bodies - how we move, how we walk - how we want to be seen. It changes everything.

That "simple" thing - relaxing the hips, fully extending, reaching with the inside edge, keeping the heel down - is the heart and soul of the Portena walk - or at least the physical expression of it.

And just when we get it down, we finally glide along the floor smoothly - one thing, a bump, a quick loss of balance, any kind of disconnect with our leader - and we're back where we started in our comfort zone of stepping.

Be patient with us, Alex. You know tango is a long road, and both men and women work on their walk their entire tango lives. I know that at least a few of us in attendance last night are only too well aware of our stepping. You were brave to post this and while I am always grateful for feedback, no dancer likes to feel scrutinized at the milonga. You have tread very carefully, and I appreciate that.

Selfishly, I would suggest coming around practicas more, queremos volar, también.

msHedgehog said...

For me there's no cultural aspect to it whatsoever, it's just a technical thing. It gets easier with everybody if I practice it with somebody who lets me keep the connection very steady. I totally agree that the hard part is getting the hips right. Also, I have abandoned some shoes because I find they give me problems with that.

Margo Romero said...

Did you see this?

Great post and pic!


Christine--RHP said...

very good observation. One of my teachers is a total nazi about it, and the more I go to milongas and watch other followers I appreciate her tenacity. As Mari says, it's very hard to keep it up in heels for hours on the floor, with different leaders. I find this is more of a feeling/sensing in my hips that creates the correct gliding walk, and it is good to practice in flat jazz shoes as well as heels. And when I'm tired, forget it.