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.
They are not special skills, they aren’t even special steps
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
Practicing walking takes a good deal of concentration. Finding good posture and keeping it may be difficult enough. But something that can be overlooked is extension. Extension in every direction. Pushing into the ground, extending upward through the spine and extending outward with our body and our trailing or leading foot. Extending outward from our line of gravity creates stability, balance and presence in the walk and in the embrace. Extension prepares you for the molinette because extension is the way to finding internal spiral.
The molinette is walking in a circle
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.
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.
Nothing works well without good posture.
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.