Imagery and the internal flow of movement in Argentine tango.

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.

Long after we started this process, we found great inspiration and validation in the teachings of Eric Franklin. In his guidelines to teachers he states _“Avoid phrases that are not necessarily clear to the student, such as ‘Organize yourself’ or ‘Get up on your legs’.” _In Argentine tango, the phrases “Ground yourself”, “Collect”, “Think about your standing leg”, or “Lead from your chest” are common examples of this.

Eric further states,“What is our aim when we voice such a phrase? Do we know what our specific intention is, or are we repeating what we have heard from others? Can we explain our personal kinesthesia with regard to the phrase? (Ask three people what it means, and you will get three different answers.)” These are the very questions that I have been asking myself about everything I teach and everything we learn.

We also believe, like Eric Franklin, that the way we think and what we think can either enable us, or hinder us, in our goals to create beautiful dynamic movement. In many cases, the imagery that is commonly invoked by these oft regurgitated phrases have the potential to ultimately create mind-body pathways that cause poor or contrived movement, which can prevent further growth as dancers of Argentine tango.

Avoid visualizations that are based on appearance rather than what really happens in the body.

We use a lot of visualization in our teaching of Argentine tango. Good visualisation is especially important in our TangoBreath class where being concise is very important. We have talked about the affects of bad visualization, and the creation of bad thought patterns in relation to the idea of “Collection”.

Often, visualizations or instructions are based on how a correct movement looks rather than how it happens internally. A good example of an instruction of this sort that is used is “Lead from the chest.” I do not know how wide spread the use of this visualization is, however I have heard it in other places from various people.  It could mean almost anything to anyone, and I’ve never heard anyone describe the kinesthesia required to do it.

When it comes to the internal flow of movement between partners this is one phrase that can potentially stop the flow. It is meant to create a better connection for the flow, but in actuality, can have the opposite effect. “Lead from the chest” is a visualization that, if persisted, will only hinder our growth as a dancer over time. In an ideal situation, it could cause someone to stretch their spine, square their shoulders, and use the internal tension in their torso to connect with their partner. Often, however, it causes leaders to puff up their chest, contort their bodies, and lean over their partners.

Followers can also succumb to the idea of leading or following from the chest, either through dancing with a leader that believes it, or by transference of the idea to the followers role.

One of the many things that makes Argentine tango beautiful is the way each movement travels up and down through each dancer’s whole body and through the embrace.

pushing from the chest vs. pushing from the sacrum and core.So if we are not leading or following from the chest, what are we doing? That is, after all, what tango looks like, doesn’t it? You may at first think tango does look that way, but let’s consider a movement that requires a good deal of energy that is not tango. Think of someone moving a refrigerator.  At first, they may try to push it with their upper body (figure on right), using their chest and arms. That usually turns into a shove or two. The refrigerator might wobble and shake some.  When they discover that doesn’t work, they might lower their center of gravity and their center of movement down into their hips, connecting their arms through their core, down their legs to the floor (figure on left). Perhaps they visualize the movement and force coming from their back. At this point, their whole body is involved in moving the refrigerator, which happens much more smoothly.

Thinking, now with a different perspective, about the common instruction to lead from the chest, you might find that it stops the flow of movement and creates a lead or follow that does not feel good, is unclear, and is constantly breaking the connection in the embrace, like the figure pushing the refrigerator from the arms, shoulders, and upper chest alone. When someone is leading with this visualization in mind, their lead can be pushy, jerky, and detached from their actual movement. Additionally, they are frequently disconnected from the ground and can make their partner feel as if they are being towered down upon.

This sort of lead is where followers resort to watching the leader’s feet to see fast rock steps and other movements that never make it up into the embrace. In a follower, the idea of following from the chest also breaks the connection, creates jerky movement and detachment in the embrace during turns. In both roles, this can also short circuit the spiral movement of the core, causing both leaders and followers to pivot like a plank.

Now, imagine or watch good Argentine tango dancers. I think you will agree that their movement does not initiate from the chest or anywhere near the embrace. One of the many things that makes Argentine tango beautiful is the way each movement travels up and down through each dancer’s whole body and through the embrace.

We have found that the best imagery for tango movement and posture is the imagery that you can use at any place and time throughout any day of your life.

In lessons, I have also had the experience of being told to puff up like a rooster, or to be like a peacock. These images did work in some way, and they did not have any bad side effects for me, but they were not lasting, or all encompassing. These images can help the dancer that lacks confidence or does not stand tall in the world. But it is not an image that most people would feel comfortable carrying with them everyday.

Since it is an image that seems to need a switch to turn it on and off at the appropriate time, the imagery, for me, went into disuse. There had to be something better. In our own experience, we have found that the best imagery for tango movement and posture is the imagery that you can use at any place and time through out any day of your life. Imagery that allows us to make wholesale changes in our patterns of movement encourages us to create healthy mind-body pathways that will improve our normal activities just as much as our tango.

An image to consider: move the origin of all movement, your center of movement, down to the top of your sacrum.

An image that we have found useful turns out to be pretty simple– move the origin of all movement, your center of movement, down to the top of your sacrum (at the top and back of your pelvis). Let all movement grow from that place. The goal is to dance with your entire body, which is a whole system, and not a sum of its parts.

The dancer’s core and the embrace then become a conduit to either send or receive all movement, which goes in both directions between leader and follower. In order for this to work well, the pelvic floor and hips must be doing their job of connecting with the floor, the tailbone should be pulling downward and the spine must be stretched upward. The upper posture cannot be collapsed, and the shoulder blades should be flat on the back. For exercises to repeat on a daily basis, try our sacrum challenges 1, 2, and 3.

Another good visualization when “sending” movement is to imagine the movement as air or water spiraling up around your spine and ribs then spreading through your back and into your embrace. Imagining air or water or even sand will give different feelings. Air feels light to me, and reminds me to breath. Water can also be very nice, it feels slower, and smoother.  Sand is very slow and a bit heavy.  All of them will help to realize different qualities of movement.

When receiving movement, imagine the opposite– the movement comes in to your body through the embrace, spreads through your back and spirals down through your core. The movement travels almost like sand in an hour glass, slowly gathering and causing the movement to grow. In each case, up or down, imagine the spiral like a tube. It has structure, and flexibility. It may carry a twist with it to create a pivot, or it may just be there to convey a single direction. The embrace relays compression, expansion and space created by and in response to movement at each dancer’s center of movement.

The internal and external flow of movement in Argentine tango

An example would be when the leader leads a back pivot and reach. This introduces spiral movement at the center of movement, which moves up through the leader’s core into the embrace, creating compression on one side and expansion on the other. This creates spiral in the follower’s core which travels slowly down the spine, a little at a time, causing her center of movement to move around her line of gravity more and more as the embrace compresses and expands in that same direction. Her movement connects with the floor through her standing hip and leg, also extending through her free hip, leg and foot.

As the spiral in her lower body increases, the spiral also moves gradually back up the spine in the form of contrabody spiral, which at the embrace, is the reverse of the initial direction given by the leader. If the movement is allowed to flow and grow through the body, the embrace will reflect and communicate that movement in a very dynamic way.

At this point, the leader can feel that she is spiraling and reaching, and maybe even that she has added an adorno if she allowed the adorno to travel back up through her core as well. She may even be “suggesting” or taking a different direction of movement, or a different amount of movement. The wonders of the embrace are many, and the idea or imagery of “leading from the chest” can short circuit all of it.

A great experiment to clarify the power of imagery is to dance with someone visualizing the movement as described above, swirling up from the sacrum through the back and into the embrace. Dance that way for a while. Then change the imagery to that of “lead from the chest”. Notice the changes in your own body’s posture and movement as well as the way the dance and your partner now feel.

As you practice this imagery while dancing, you may find that it changes your over all dance in unexpected ways. Your body will begin to work as a complete system, and your movement will become holistic.

Choose your imagery carefully and avoid concentrating on symptoms, rather than finding the origin of movement.

Certain common imagery can have many undesirable effects on our tango movement and dance, especially when the internal flow of movement is not allowed to move through our body and is instead limited to our chest and our embrace. At the very least, bad imagery does nothing for us, and at worst, it can create an uncomfortable, even painful dance that is unclear and unpleasant.

You might want to choose your imagery carefully, avoiding concentrating on symptoms of movement. Dig deeper and find its origin. Think of your body as a complete system and movement as something that involves that entire system. Find imagery that works for you at any time, and practice it in your daily life. The imagery that comes from that thought process will serve you well, and quite possibly enhance your dance in many unexpected ways. Your dancing may even become magical.

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