Most social close-embrace dancers will tell you that they don’t know any steps and that they improvise freely. But everyone who watches from an objective perspective knows that this is rarely true.
I agree: Milongueros (no matter if they come from Argentina, Europe or elsewhere) usually dance movements that are well adapted to a crowded dance-floor. Milonguero steps very often are less complex than the figures that are memorised by dancers of other styles. They don’t require an opening of the embrace, they are easy to memorise and to combine with other short sequences in order to create a nice flow and to navigate. Milongueros won’t block the space because they have to finish a huge giro with boleo and they don’t run into the other couples because they have memorised a back step at the beginning of each pattern. This is super!
But - let’s face it - Milongueros still dance steps.
A Milonguero might not have learned the 8-count-basic, but he will dance the Ocho Cortado and not vary it beyond a certain point. Try to get him to execute it on the left side or - even worse - without the typical quick-quick-slow in the traspié-positions. Or ask him to change into the crossed system without doing a side-step to the left or a quick-quick without the follower on the outer lane. Or challenge him to accelerate the walk with the right font step.
95% of the experienced leaders will have difficulties doing that kind of stuff, because they are as caught up in steps as anyone else. I encounter these patterns and habits of close-embrace leaders during each class I teach and many of the tandas at Encuentros or traditional Milongas.
And don’t think that “followers” are free of automatisms: Try inviting an experienced Milonguera to do a front step with her right leg into your space in the parallel system. Try inviting her to walk a 1231 in Vals instead of a 12_1. Two years ago, we’ve been visiting the one European capital that is famous for its beautiful women with great embraces. The one where you can find more close-embrace social dancers than in the other European capitals. I had visited this city and some of its Milongas earlier, so my expectations where realistic. But poor Detlef almost started crying, because many of those elegant, beautiful ladies weren’t even capable of standing on their left foot for more than one second without having to change to their right one automatically. They were obviously not used to standing on their left foot!
So, let’s please admit: Milongueros dance steps and their partners are used to these patterns.
It this so bad?
Of course not.
Apart from the fact, that certain steps are an important part of tango-tradition, behavioural and movement-related patterns are helpful in all circumstances of life. They will allow you to cope with stressful or new situations, like navigating in a crowded ronda - provided they are danceable on a small scale. But Milonguero steps usually fit this requirement. In general, patterns offer security because they are predictable. A lot of people need that kind of security.
We, Detlef and I, aren’t free of safety blankets either. Despite our 15-year-long work with basic principles and improvisation, we have still been socialised with traditional tango-steps. And it is hard to de-programme all of them. But this is ok, because there are moments, when we need to access them. They e.g. help us to function whilst doing a demo. We have of course never danced a choreography and Detlef knows in advance, which tangos I choose for theses occasion. But still: we rarely improvise, when a hundred eyes are staring at us. Not what I call improvisation at least. On the social dance-floor, I don’t know what will happen next, when Detlef invites me to pivot to the left on my right foot in the crossed system. In a demo, the chances are quite high, that an ocho or turn will follow. Detlef’s improvisational and communicative capacities in these moments are as limited as are my perceptive capabilities. Sure, there are demos during which we are super relaxed, invent stuff and communicate on a high level, but mostly we rely on field-tested movements. This is when some steps come in handy. And lots of walking of course... ;-)
Learning figures can also help to work on general principles: The 8-count-basic e.g. might teach you how to combine a lateral with a front- or back-step in a precise manner. The Ocho Cortado is great for practising the counter-body-movement. Steps as examples of how to link or communicate the basic elements can be helpful.
And there is another special reason, why female dancers (maybe unconsciously) like fixed patterns: they allow followers to decorate their steps without communicating actively. Because she can rely on her partner to suggest a movement with a specific timing, many a follower feels free to add an adorno. I rarely see (even very experienced ladies) decorating their steps when dancing with Detlef, as they are much too busy guessing what he will do in the next second. Not every woman likes this, but I am not particularly interested in adornos. When I do them, it is usually a sign, that I can (too) easily predict the movements of my partner.
By the way: predictability and dependance on patterns does not correlate with the level of dancing. Even a brilliant tango-professional can be predictable. Some of his steps might be challenging out of technical reasons or I might not know the particular movement he is suggesting, so the level of stress might be higher at the start of a tanda with him. But I will usually be able to recognise recurring patterns after the first tango and therefore adapt my reactions - even if his leading is not quite as perfect as his elegance. With at typical Milonguero, the process of adaptation to unknown patterns (if there are any) will require even less time. This can be very reassuring and relaxing. I will close my eyes, get into a flow and cherish the embrace - if it is a nice one. ;-)
But: what I find really interesting, is dancing with someone who has got a beautiful embrace, dances socially and cannot be easily predicted, even if I know him or her very well. This applies to quite some of our students, in particular our Tango-Treacher-Trainees. Last Friday, Ramona surprised me by leading a cross on the other side. An hour later, Saso suggested a shift of weight in a turn instead of the usual side-step - amongst lots of other things with which he makes me smile. These people are real smart, so they might have discovered all of that without our help. But the fact is that we’ve been encouraging them for years to break up all patterns, to constantly better their communicative skills and to - in the rare cases when we analysed a step - try it on the other side and dance it with all kinds of rhythmic and movement-related variations. This is why these Milongueros really improvise in a Milonga. Which makes me proud. And as I am used to this level of improvisation, it does not create any stress. On the contrary: It strengthens the connection to my partners - even more when they are open to the suggestions that I make. A real conversation without patterns requires so much more sensitivity and empathy from both partners. For me, this is more rewarding than dancing the fanciest step.
But there is more to improvisation. It is about dancing to the music.
Most dancers - no matter if they are Milongueros, Villa-Urquiza-adepts or Millennium-Style-Nuevoists - memorise each step with a specific timing. I earlier mentioned the typical quick-quick-slows in the traspié-positions of the Ocho Cortado. Most Milongueros will even continue doing these, when I ask them to dance the movement in normal speed without any accelerations. They just don’t notice and I have to point it out to them.
But how can you dance musically if you’ve got such strong automatisms? In very simple tangos, these habits will not do a lot of harm. Ok, you might dance an automatic 123_ in a moment that the music suggests 1_34. But as you can hear all 4 beats in the bass section of the orchestra, this is not a grave mistake. But in some tangos this might be just plain wrong, because (certain of) the 4 beats are not played by any instrument: So, will you dance an quick-quick-slow (123_) when the melody requires a triplet, syncopation, a 332 or a plain deceleration at the end of the phrase? Are you free to adapt your movement in such a moment? Will you make your partner laugh out of joy, because you shift weight from one foot to the other together in perfect harmony to the music? Or are you stuck in a pattern?
So, these are my two cents:
Test, if you are really free from limiting patterns. Check, if some steps help you or if they inhibit the connection to your partner or to the music. And if you want to dance or teach steps - I recommend to memorise them bare of any fixed rhythms. Only then, you’re free to dance to the music. And is this not what we all aspire to?
Now … if you are offended, because I have hurt your Milonguero pride, please read all the positive things I wrote about close-embrace social dancers in this and many other posts. But also try to understand: For me, social tango poses such extraordinary capacities to interpret music, to express feelings and to experience connection. I constantly update myself in a process of learning and fixed patterns just limit my pleasure on the long run. Sure, you might say, that's because I do that professionally. But I don't perceive myself as an artist or even as an exceptionally talented dancer. I believe that by breaking up steps and analysing habits, everyone can deepen his or her pleasure in this beautiful dance. This is why I teach, write books, produce DVDs, write this article and have been sticking to Tango for 20 years - despite the sleepless nights, the lack of retirement provisions and the fact that I haven’t had a holiday in years.
Because it is worth it. ;-)
Because it is worth it. ;-)