Learning to question in order to learn

To teach well is to question thoroughly

Yesterday, a lovely and inspiring woman, Sasha Cagen, from the San Francisco area wrote us, inquiring about our ways of teaching tango movement after having attended TangoBreath when she visited Asheville this summer.  I was perplexed at first about how to respond.  Explaining how to teach is a giant step from actually teaching.  There are so many subtle ways in which our teaching, and learning, has evolved in TangoBreath, from a word we might use to a way in which we physically adjust people.  And there is so much, still, for us to learn.

In responding, I did realize one thing: to teach is to question.  To teach well is to question thoroughly, and come to one’s own understanding and value of a subject.  To teach best is to enable your students to ask questions, to come to their own understanding, to be their own teachers. Learning to question is at the heart of it all, and learning to question may be the hardest thing to learn.

In the beginning of developing TangoBreath, We spent a ton of time going over our TangoBreath movements with a fine toothed comb.  We asked a lot of questions. We tried to get to the root of why we use certain techniques, and the impact it has eventually on the dance, with a partner.  Most of the descriptions we use have gone through a heavy filtering process. That process allowed us to come to an even deeper understanding of how and why we use certain techniques in the dance. In turn, our own dancing improved remarkably.

Evaluate instruction for clarity and a direct connection to posture and movement.

One thing that we did, and I would encourage everyone to do, is to write down every “technique” or visualization you ever learned from a teacher (or if you were like us, you probably already have them written down).  Evaluate each of these for clarity and a direct connection to posture and movement.  Some will be vague or disconnected from what actually happens in your body, but they may lead to more precise ideas.

For us, the first thing that we eliminated from our vocabulary was “grounding” or “ground yourself”.   It has too much meaning, and to be fully sure that someone is on the same page, it would require at least an hour of explanation, practice, and dialogue.

Are descriptions of movement the principle thing that is allowing you to move correctly, or are they a symptom?

On the other hand, getting rid of those words made us think more precisely about what does happen when someone “grounds”.  Descriptions of those individual components are part of what we teach in TangoBreath.   “Collection” and “lead from the chest” are two other terms that we threw out completely.  We feel that in most cases, from our observations of beginning tango students, those descriptions create ideas which are harmful to a student’s posture and movement.

Examining your original list will give you a different list of ideas and techniques. Take those, and while moving either linearly or circularly, try to isolate those techniques. The challenge is to find out how they fit into the overall movement of the body. Are they the principle thing that is allowing you to move correctly, or are they a symptom (leading from the chest, grounding, loose leg, collecting) of something else that is happening in your body?  Is the technique described in the way that it looks from the outside, or the way that it actually feels?

Instruction that has been given to us in the past hasn’t necessarily been wrong, but it has been misleading.

Some examples of questions we asked ourselves, based on common descriptions, were: Do our legs really start at our ribcage?  How does “grounding” work?  Does our standing leg only engage when we train it to, or is there something else that we do in our bodies that causes it to engage automatically?  Is the “loose leg” really loose?  What is a loose leg and what causes it?  Where is our “tango core” and is that a good term?  What does it mean to have “presence” or “forward intention” or “to fill your back”?

We have found that a lot of the instruction that has been given to us in the past hasn’t necessarily been wrong, but it has been misleading. The only way we came to that understanding was to ask why and to deeply explore the origins of movement in our body. Of course, some of the instruction we have received has been spot on, but we only started to understand it once we began asking questions.

We also referenced other sources for better understanding of movement. If this is something you are interested in, we suggest Eric Franklin’s book,  Dynamic Movement Through Imagery. (Thank you to our friend, Deborah Iole, for introducing us to Eric Franklin!)

Principles that guide us in the way we conceptualize movement

To give our exploration a framework, we also identified some principles that guide us in the way we conceptualize movement, identify technique, and describe how we use our bodies. We ask three questions when we are repeating movements or working on the dance.  These are particularly useful because we can both observe them and feel them:

  1. Is movement that is happening in my body connected to my center of gravity/core? For example, if we are moving our leg around in circles and using our outer hip, leg, and gluteus muscles only, we aren’t doing it right.  We should be able to feel that there is movement in our pelvis that is the source of all other movement.

  2. Is there dynamic tension or pressure in this movement/stance? We should always seek to align ourselves in a way that builds and releases energy.  This means that our posture has to be correct and stretched so that every joint and muscle are connected and our body can be responsive.  A slack guitar string doesn’t make a nice sound, or any sound.

  3. Lastly, and probably most importantly, where does the movement feel/become natural and healthy for our bodies?  We don’t mind “pain” when we are correcting our posture and our back muscles get sore because they aren’t used to being engaged.  But we never want to contort our bodies.  Having an awareness that we might think we are doing something correctly, but in fact, are not, helps us observe our bodies from different angles and eventually find the place where it “feels” right and moves in harmony.

Associated with the last principle, one of our priorities is to always guide movement in a way that protects vulnerable joints, mainly the knees and the lower back or sacrum.  As students of the dance, we can be aware of this as well, taking responsibility for our health.  Hips should always be square to the knees/direction of movement, or else you can really run the risk of twisting and injuring them.

With the lower back, it’s important to make sure that you aren’t thrusting your hips forward, or sticking your derriere out.  I ask students to put their hands right where their hips meet the top of their thighs, and ask them to rotate their pelvis forward slightly (like you are sticking your tailbone up a little bit).  I then ask them to pull their coccyx toward the center of their bodies, imagining that it is releasing toward the floor. The first tilt makes the lower back feel slightly compressed, and the second tilt brings the top of the pelvis back into alignment above the bottom of the pelvis — this allows a natural curvature of the spine, but makes you engage your lower abdominals and pelvic floor,  bringing your posture upright again.  I feel that this, along with lifting from the diaphragm, to elongate your torso and spine, are the most distilled and important parts of achieving correct posture.

The best thing that any of us who are students of tango can do is to become our own teachers

We have come to believe, through our own journey, that if you are going to teach movement, the best thing is to come to your own way of explaining it, from your heart and your physical knowledge, rather than relying on regurgitated descriptions. The same is true for learning. The best thing that any of us who are students of tango can do is to become our own teachers, keeping an open heart and an open mind, while we question, observe, and question again.

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