There is more to walking than walking in a straight line.
In a recent article, ‘Practicing in high heels will make you a better man’, I emphasized the importance of practicing the molinette, particularly in heels. While that article focused on the additional effort and precision required of dancing well in heels, this article is about the importance of practicing your walk. I recognize the importance of walking in a straight line and how it’s simplicity can enable learning musicality and expression in ways that doing more complex moves actually inhibit. Some dancers perceive complex movements and steps as the definition of dancing, a view which can cause expression of the music to be lost. The impression that steps and moves are dancing can hold back a potential dancer from actually dancing for a very long time. I encourage practicing tango as a walk. An expressive walk, a walk where every step can express something in the music. But there is more to walking than walking in a straight line. There is great importance in learning to walk in a circle. It seems that many people that come to tango, and many tango veterans think that practicing your walk is to walk in a straight line forwards or backwards. In truth, that is only a part of the walk required in tango. The other half of the dance is spent walking in a circle around your partner. In actual practice this form of walking could be significantly more than half of the dance. Further, if a dancer were able to dance expressively in both a straight line and a circle all those fancy moves would just happen. Complex movements are born of simple dancing, as a consequence of smooth, solid, expressive movement. Linear movement, circular movement, changes of direction and perhaps the most important movement of all, standing in one place while extending outward. Doing just those things leaves plenty of room for musical interpretation and expression as well as awareness of our partner which leads to actual dancing.
Names have Power. Don’t let them have power over your learning.
Mostly, we only give names to movements as a point of reference and only grudgingly reveal the names to our students after they have already learned them. These are movements like Sacada, boleo, ocho, ocho cortado, and gancho. Giving these movements names makes them special and gives them power. They become skills to be acquired rather than a fundamental part of the dance. They color the way teachers title their classes, and they change the way many people approach learning the dance. Acquiring new movements becomes the goal, rather than learning the fundamental movement that creates them. These movements have names therefore they must require some special skill to be able to do them.
In truth there is nothing special about a sacada, boleo, ocho or ocho cortado. They are not special skills, they aren’t even special steps, it could be argued that they don’t even exist. They are are fundamental skills and can be learned by learning to walk in a circle. At the very least, walking in a circle is the prerequisite to any circular movement you may wish to learn whether you are in the circle’s center or walking around the perimeter. Learning to walk means walking in a straight line, forward back and sideways. It also means walking in a uniform circle around a point while integrating both front and back pivots. This movement has a name; it is a giro or molinette. I don’t mind telling anyone who will listen that they need to learn the molinette and learn it well. This complex movement has a name and it is powerful. It is not a poser like the sacada, boleo or ocho. It is walking in a circle and it is very important to learn properly and do well if anyone wants to dance Argentine tango. Every basic posture required of average, everyday, nothing special dancing of Argentine tango is embodied in the molinette. The majority of special poser moves with powerful names are also embodied in the molinette.
Any lead that causes the follower to move around a leader is a posture from the molinette.
Maybe you are a guy, and you think leaders don’t need to be able to do a molinette around their partner. The truth is that any lead that causes the follower to move around a leader is a posture from the molinette. Imagine that every step is 10,000 moments. A full molinette which is often more than a full circle takes 4 steps on average. That is 40,000 moments. Take a snapshot of where a leader is when properly leading a follower in a forward step around the leader. The leader can be on either foot, it doesn’t matter. The snapshot of that step, and every snapshot of the moments in that step can be found in the molinette. Any time one person is moving around the other both people are doing some part of the molinette. You may look at some leader and think “He hardly moved and she is already going around him”. What you can’t see is that he has taken 5000 moments of a step in the molinette and compressed them into what appears to be a very subtle change in posture. Not only is she going around him, he is also going around her. He knows what it feels like to move around his partner and he has taken that larger movement and embodied all of it in a powerful engagement with the floor which extends upward and outward through his body. You may not be able to see it, but inside the embrace there is no doubt of the direction and placement of his internal spiral and his movement around her axis which is both creating and closing space around her. The molinette is the key to how a leader opens and closes space around his partner.
Extending outward creates stability, balance and presence in the walk
The molinette is walking in a circle around a point, usually your partner. It consists of a front (cross) step, a side (open) step, a back (cross) step, and two pivots. The unseen part of the molinette is the spiral tension created from head to toe. This is the origin of power which drives the pivots. It is very important to master this spiral tension and learn to use it. In the beginning this takes a great deal of effort to do well. Do it very slowly and feel every fraction of each movement, feel as many moments as you can in each step. Extend your body around the center of the circle in a big arc. Keep your hips in line with the extension of your free leg. These are forward, back and side steps only! Step on the corners of an imaginary square which is aligned with the walls of the room. This will make it easy to keep track of where your hips are pointing. Your hips should be square with the walls. In the beginning find a teacher to help you find how the molinette should feel, as you progress work with your teacher to fine tune your technique and find the kinesthetics of the movements.
Internal spiral is the key to great pivots. It begins at the floor, moves through your hips and up to your shoulders and even your head. And it goes the other way too, you can think of it going from your head down to your toes. In the dance you may think of it beginning or ending in the embrace. No matter how you think of it, The key is to find the internal spiral tension in every single step, this is hard at first. If you are having difficulty try practicing the molinette with just side and forward steps to a forward pivot. Explore the movement slowly, feel as many moments in every step as you can. Find your maximum tension. Breathe and extend upward, then exhale as you maximize the tension and let it release into a forward pivot. The pivot can be thought of as stationary, it does not begin until we have fully arrived at our line of gravity and we are still in that same spot when the pivot ends. Do not pivot until you are completely centered around your line of gravity on your new foot. Let your free leg lag behind and then catch up as you swirl in upon the center of your line of gravity. If you are falling over here then something is out of alignment. When you arrive at the end of the pivot you should be able to easily go in any direction including back where you came from. Practice reversing direction in different moments of the 40,000 moments of the molinette. Breathe and be in every moment. Explore all three steps, rewind, and rewind again, then continue on. Rewind in random places. The internal spiral in the side step is the hardest to find. Look for it in every side/open step. Work slowly and keep at it. You will know when you find it because your pivots will get easier. It is especially important to let your trailing leg lag in the back pivot. Use your extended foot keep your hips from collapsing before the pivot begins, and let it trail behind adding inertia as you spiral inward around your center. Don’t get in a hurry to extend your leg backward after the pivot, let it extend smoothly from the center of your line of gravity.
Take your time in each place you become unstable. Inhale and extend upward to help your posture then extend around to create spiral tension. Use your breath to find balance, stability and extension in your posture and movement. The most common problems in the molinette are bending over or releasing a hip. Both of which destroy the spiral that would otherwise easily drive your pivot as far as you want to go. Another problem is trying to use the free leg for momentum. Let your free leg lag behind as long as you can, let the spiral in your core drive your pivots. The spiral should slowly move down through your body. If something is difficult or you are falling over, the first place to look is your posture. Nothing works well without good posture.
Practicing the molinette is hard at first. It is a process of discovery which reveals itself slowly. Practice regularly and it will not be long before you will find the technique which makes it easy. Even once you have it, practicing it can still be a workout, much harder than actually dancing which will become even easier once you have been practicing the molinette for a while. You will know you are getting it when you can begin to relax, but remain fully engaged from the floor upward. Half relaxed and half engaged, extended and powerful. This is at the heart of what makes tango difficult, seemingly contradictory conditions which we must embody simultaneously.
A huge number of movements require the ability to do the molinette
If you still aren’t convinced here are some of the things that require the ability to do a molinette, and are in fact, just steps from the molinette. This time as I use their names I will hopefully remove the spell they have over you because they are all simply part of the molinette.
- Leading a follower around you in any direction.
- Being in the center of almost any movement.
- Moving in any direction around your partner.
Leading or following any of the the following movements:
- circular boleos
- front ochos
- back ochos
- ocho cortado
If you or your partner cannot do a molinette and do it well then these named movements will be difficult or impossible. At best, they may work, but will not feel nearly as good as they should. That alone drives me to be a better dancer. I want my partner’s perception of my movement to feel as good as I can possibly make it.
Practice walking in a circle! It will improve every aspect of your dance regardless of your role.
Practice the molinette! Walking in a circle is a fundamental skill which is the prerequisite for just about any movement you can think of. The better you are at the molinette the better and easier your dancing will be! We spend far more time walking in a circle than we do in a straight line. I frequently practice it in my socks as I walk through the dining room for a cup of tea. I practice it in the grocery store while avoiding obstacles or standing in line. Practice the molinette until it becomes easy. Then practice it some more.
There is a real inequality in Argentine tango. There are almost always more women than men. How can we explain that? Despite what a lot of people say, men really have it pretty easy. Many teachers tell beginners, “all you have to do is walk.” Meanwhile, they are showing women how to do crosses, molinettes and ochos. Some men just stand there two footed, faking the lead for ochos while their partner works her bum off, staying on axis and powering through her pivots in spite of him… all in high heels, where one badly timed invasion of her axis could cause her free stilleto to slice across her big toe or impale her standing foot.
Often, our posture changes when we enter the embrace and it’s not always for the better.
We spend a lot of time here and in our classes talking about good posture and helping people become aware of their posture and where they should focus to improve it. We work extensively on individual movement and posture because when you step on the dance floor, your posture and movement are what you bring with you. But that is only the beginning.
Our tango, our life, and self perception are reflections of one another.
Tango! Life! blah, blah, blah. So many ways to relate the two. Metaphors galore! This isn’t that. This is about awareness. This is about getting feedback from your dance about your life. Tango can help you find your perception of self. Tango can tell you when your life is going right or wrong. When we begin to learn tango many of us have no idea that we are embarking on a journey to overcoming years of conditioning, belief of self, and our own perception of who we are in relation to the world. Our tango, our life, and self perception are reflections of one another. We must dance who we are.
But our tango, life, and self perception is not always an ideal relationship. Finding harmony among them might be one of the keys to finding harmony within ourselves. The relationships and experiences we have had in life shape us and condition us. The question is what do we accept, and what do we deny. What defines us? We may have bad posture and movement purely as a result of our self image. The largest hurdle many of us face in learning tango is not technique or music, but that of confronting our self belief in relation to the world. The image we have of our selves can beat us down, it harms our posture and our movement. Our life image can also be positive, it can elate us, create confidence, and strength. In turn, our movement in tango becomes clear, our posture healthy.
The flow of movement between partners can appear magical.
Every week in TangoLab, we start class with some exercise to create awareness of our partners through the embrace. Our goal is to encourage dancers to create and sense movement in response to one another. Beginners, even those that come from other dance backgrounds, are always amazed at how this internal flow of movement works to create a conversation between partners. When done very subtly, it can be difficult to see any flow of movement, yet we are speaking volumes, and responding to one another. It might seem like magic.
The way we think and what we think can either enable us, or hinder us, in our goals to create beautiful dynamic movement.
Explaining what needs to happen to internalize the flow of movement is difficult, however, which is why it is so important to choose our words and imagery carefully. There are many phrases and words that are commonly and casually used when teaching or learning Argentine tango. In our teaching, we have discarded many of them because they are vague or have multiple meanings. It is a careful practice to put these things away, not use them, and find a thorough and meaningful replacement when needed.
Asking ourselves about our roles in learning and teaching Argentine tango.
Eric and I have been busy writing articles for this website and are enthusiastic about sharing our thoughts and explorations. We thought that now would be a good time to reflect on why we approach our learning and teaching in the way that we do and our goals in writing what we do.
We have been so grateful for the positive feedback from around the world and would like to thank everyone for having open hearts and open minds when reading our notes, since they are sometimes a bit unconventional. We are constantly seeking to find innovative ways of coming to a noble dance, while honoring its foundation and canon.
We also understand that some people who read our articles, but have never attended our classes or who do not know us personally, might be skeptical. We often contradict very common modes of tango instruction. Our goal in writing these articles is not to say that there is a right or wrong way of learning and teaching tango. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. We feel that being exposed to a variety of teaching approaches is crucial in becoming a well-rounded dancer. It is very likely that the synthesis of several different instructors teaching the same thing, each in different ways, finally creates the connections that a student needs to learn a concept.
“Collection” was eliminated from our tango vocabulary for many reasons.
I’ve written about collection in other articles, “Moving with your line of gravity” and “How we think affects the way we move”, so it is no secret that I don’t like what thinking about collection does to our dance. When we started developing our TangoBreath vinyasa, “collection” was one the first things we eliminated in our teaching and in our descriptions of Argentine tango movement.
We wanted to avoid “collection” for many reasons. One of them is that it is completely unnecessary. We never mention it in our TangoBreath vinyasa class, yet everyone, complete beginners and advanced dancers alike, all do what “collection” is intended to instruct. Their feet pass each other nicely in every movement. Another reason to discard “collection” is that it is mostly harmful to our development as dancers. We do mention it as something that happens as a result of well executed movement, but collection is not something to which it is necessary to give any thought. A beginning tango dancer has enough to think about already. Later on, it will be essential to think about what it means to have pretty foot movement. But that is a topic far beyond collecting.
Bad posture is a common problem.
I recently gave a weekly challenge to create awareness of our posture, “Scrunch your shoulders, fix your posture!”. The exercise is specifically targeted at slouched shoulders and a forward head posture. After posting it, I received a few emails from tango dancers and non-dancers, all thanking me for the reminder. Many said that this particular exercise is something they’ve been told to do. As I was writing this article, it came time for another body awareness challenge, so I posted “Balance your head!”, which generated even more feedback. Clearly, bad posture is a problem that many of us are struggling with.
Moving the line of gravity literally covers more ground
In the last post I described how the relationship between the center of movement and the line of gravity created internal dynamic tension which is a part of what creates presence or intention within the embrace. Moving the line of gravity literally covers more ground, but is easier to explain than the micro movements that create dynamic tension.
Any movement starts by moving our center away from our line of gravity to create dynamic tension. Our center of movement can be imagined as being a spot at the top of our sacrum in the center of our body. Standing still, the center of movement is intersected by our line of gravity.
Dynamic Tension, done well, it is what one friend calls “Jedi Tango”
There are several terms that are regularly used when teaching or learning Argentine tango that are very ambiguous and at the same time very important. “Grounding” and “Intention” are two of the hardest to comprehend or do, without some specific idea of what to do in your own body and without experiencing how they should and should not feel in a partner.