Friday 29 March 2019


In this very nerdy tango-related post, I want to point out, how some common follower’s techniques or habits can make improvisation and navigation difficult and a comfortable embrace or good connection hard to achieve. 

I know that this post might antagonise female dancers - as much as my last blog was popular amongst women. Please be assured, that I do not write to insult or criticise, but to help create more awareness about the outcome of specific tango techniques. 

I am here not speaking about beginners who are struggling with their posture and actually might not yet have a technique. This is why I will not comment on issues that are considered as "mistakes", no matter what approach you follow: bad posture, a general lack of control over tension and relaxation, not carrying the weight of your arms, hanging on your leader or pushing too hard against him/her, stepping away from your partner, not knowing the music, not actively taking spaces...
Let’s assume that a dancer with some experience has sorted out most of those issues or is as least aware of them.

I am explicitly addressing "advanced" followers. You will dance at Milongas, Encuentros and Marathons. You look super elegant and do the most complex moves with ease. You might even be a successful teacher or performer. But that does not mean that your techniques are universal or helpful in all situations or with all partners. 

Don’t get me wrong: I do not think, that followers should have to adapt to every technique of any leader. On the contrary, that is the leaders job as well. I will, e.g. not pivot when not being given the space to build up my top-to-down spiral. But I will usually find a way to make the movement happen without having to compromise my ideas. Or I will not do so, being aware that this leader might not want to dance with me again. It is my choice. But I assume, that very few followers consciously want to hurt their partners or block movements. This is why I will describe advantages and disadvantages of techniques and habits.

I am aware that how I useful I find a technique, is defined by my priorities. Let me point them out:
  • A soft embrace and deep connection
  • Organic and comfortable movements
  • Real improvisation
  • Musicality
  • Social dancing
As I have written before: for me as a social dancer, it is about how it feels from the inside and not how it looks from the outside. Elegance is a plus, but no top priority. And my priorities determine the techniques and concepts that I use and teach.

Other teachers or dancers have different priorities and will therefore use differing concepts and techniques. So when I am disappointed by someone’s technique, another leader might be perfectly happy dancing with the same person.

Before shrugging off my blog as the quirky ideas of a mediocre dancer, please remember that I have been teaching for 18 years all over Europe and the USA. Therefore: If a follower’s techniques are incompatible with mine, they might be incompatible with others as well. Not least with the ones of my teaching partner. How often do you think that Detlef is disappointed by how uncomfortable a dance was and by how little he could improvise? I still remember when he came back from a milonga in Rome, almost having cried on the dance floor, because none of the women was willing to do a shift of weight to their right foot.

In this blog, I am mainly writing from the perspective of a leader. Let me comment on that as well:
As a teacher, it was alway my standard to understand whatever we do in class from the perspective of both roles and be capable of leading it. This is why all of the following observations have been confirmed in the class context as well as on the social dance floor. In a crowded ronda, in a close embrace, I usually stick to simpler movements than in class: variations of the walk, milonguero ochos, simple turns… The more disappointing it is, when some of these very basic moves will absolutely not function.

Sure, I (like any other leader, also Detlef) make mistakes, but please be assured, that after so many years of in-detail analysis, I will always be able to tell, why a movement did not function in a given moment. So when I could not step out to the right lane, I might not have prepared this properly by turning my leg in the hip and by this opening a space. But it might also have been the follower’s doing, because she did not open her left side due to her asymmetric embrace. In this complex dance and communication, both partners contribute to the successes and failures. This post is about the follower’s part in the interaction.

My dear friend Ms Hedgehog has recently written a great blog on what it takes to be a good social dancer. She focusses on the positive aspects and I agree with everything she writes. But because of being my usual critical self, I will rather present a list of techniques and habits that can make the dance less agreeable or even limit improvisation significantly. 

The order below is coincidental.

1. Projection of the free leg
This is commonly taught by teachers with the idea of "making space for the leader’s front step". With the tiniest invitation, the follower will project her free leg to an extended position using a significant amount of muscular control in this leg. 
Advantages of this technique:
  • Lazy leaders get super results. They just hint at something and the follower will terminate the whole move on her own.
  • Looks very elegant because the legs are nicely extended.
Disadvantages of this technique: 
  • The leg is not really free and lead-able. Changing the length or speed of a step, as well as re-directing or stoping the movement is much harder, because the leg is already on a trajectory towards an anticipated direction. Therefore improvisation and musicality will be limited. 
  • Often, this technique inhibits small steps altogether, because the leg will be extended into a long step on principle. This will endanger navigation on the social dance floor. It is not always the fault of the leader when a follower runs into other dancers and hurts them by stepping down with a lot of energy. 
  • Loss of connection. When dancing with a follower who uses this technique, I will only feel connected in the initial moment of the movement, but during the transfer the connection is lost because her leg moves independently from her gravity centre. I would like to feel connected on every inch of the transfer.
What we teach: We concentrate on pushing from the supporting leg and letting the free leg move with the gravity centre like a pendulum. It is relaxed and has roots in the floor. Thanks to this approach, we also never have to think where to put this leg. Agreed: It looks less elegant.

2. Closing the position as quickly as possible
This technique is often connected to the projection of the leg and has the same advantages and disadvantages. In particular traspiés (or rock-steps) are difficult to communicate because they happen in the open position and leaders often have to stop those followers with their arms in order to prevent an automatic closing.
What we teach: a closing will eventually happen by a complete transfer of axis onto the new supporting leg and coming back (up) to a straight leg.

3. Overactive rotation of the hips and automatic pivoting
A lot of teachers stress that the hips most be rotated as quickly as possible in order to allow for speedy pivots with a big angle. 
  • Leaders, who don’t want to dissociate get super results.
  • Pivots and ochos remain a follower’s movement and nothing in the leader’s body will distract from it. (Or this is what a famous teacher once told me.)
  • Basically the same as in 1, because improvisation and connection are inhibited. Ever tried to lead a milonguero ocho (without pivots) with such a follower? Or just change the angle of rotation in a pivot? Impossible, because she will automatically rotate her hips to a maximum. Or try rotating your upper body towards your partner to compensate for an offset of feet: she will most likely pivot a little and therefore the next step might go into a different direction than intended. Walking in crossed system is often impossible and unintended crosses happen. 
What we teach: Lazy hips. A rotation will only happen when it is communicated by an opening of space around the axis of the follower, so that she can create a spiral in her body from top to down. No opening equals no pivot.

4. Step on one line
A lot of teachers ask followers to walk on a virtual line, therefore they will position one leg behind the other when walking backwards or forwards. 
  • This is elegant because the position will always look closed. Leaders who change direction with almost every step, might never notice the disadvantages of this technique.
  • Try walking front-to-front with such a follower’s technique for more than 2 steps. It feels very weird, because she will aways position her free leg directly where you want to go with your next step. You constantly have to compensate by opening your position laterally. Later have her walk on two lines and follow her free leg. That will feel completely different.
What we teach: Step on two neighboured lines.

5. Have musical automatisms
A lot of followers will automatically double the speed in a number of movements: the Ocho Cortado, the cross, the back and side step of the molinette structure… This comes from teaching steps linked to fixed rhythmical patterns and I cannot find any advantages in this approach.
Just imagine: I want to lead a turn in normal speed to slow music, starting with the back step of the follower - I invite her to pivot and - whooosh - she’s already finished the turn. ARGH!
Also the contrary is a problem: you might want to speed up for a longer time because the melody says 12341234 (think D’Arienzo), but she slows down after the second step (123_), because she is used to quick-quick-slow patterns. It will be impossible to interpret the melodic rhythm.
What we teach: Adapt the movement to the music. Don’t ever memorise a rhythmical pattern with a figure. Learn any step/figure in a default variation (normal of half speed). Then practise changing speed in every possible position.

6. Have movement automatisms
The result of traditional step learning is that followers (and leaders) will develop very strong preferences for certain movements and are often incapable of dancing variations. 
I mentioned above how Detlef often does not succeed in inviting followers to do a simple shift of weight to the right foot because they block the movement. No problems changing to the left.
Sorry, but I cannot think of any advantage in creating these strong habits, so I am just going to point out some of the typical habits:
  • Dancing a cross only on the usual side and expecting to be "forced" into a cross with the right left in front of the left leg instead of just reacting to the same leading mechanism on the other side.
  • Being used to stepping forward with the left food in the "8-count-basic", but blocking any front-to-front forward movement with the right foot. Walking forward with the right leg on the outer lane in an ocho cortado might still work, but stepping forward into the space of the leader just will not function. Trying to prepare this step forward, I had followers change leg, turn their hips or even fall onto me, because they rather do a volcada than stepping forward with their right leg. Ask Detlef to tell you his story of that very tall and heavy follower doing a volcada instead of a front step. His back was hurting for days!
  • Cross or uncross automatically. Do you know, how many variations there might be around the traditional cross - apart from doing it on the other side as mentioned above? And did you know that you might prevent a leader to walk on the outside lane for a longer period, because you cross automatically after 2 steps? Are you expecting him to "block" the crossing?
  • Automatically projecting your leg into a back step after a pivot because you expect an ocho to happen. What if the leader takes the pivot back?
  • Automatically rotating the hip to a neutral position after a back or front step in a turned movement, because you expect a side step to happen. This result of lifelong molinette practise will prevent any variation in turns.
The list is endless. Unfortunately, these automatisms prevent everything that goes away from the traditional patterns as well as any real improvisation without fixed patterns, based on freely linking the smallest elements.
Sure, if you dance with a leader who repeats patterns without actually communicating them, it helps to know them in order to make the dance work. But do you really want to be so unflexibel?
What we teach: Be prepared for any movement in any given moment. Also: Relax the free leg and let it fall towards the floor with its own weight, so that your body is also physically prepared to react naturally to unusual and/or subtle movements. 
A note: Yes, dancing with leaders who really improvise can be challenging and might feel stressful. Even I sometimes enjoy dancing with someone more predictable, in particular when I am tired. But I would not always want to dance that way.
A second note: Dancing with very creative leaders requires much more focus on the communication, so there won’t be much capacity left for decorations. You either have to ask more actively for the time/space to decorate or skip decorations altogether. Which is what I do. And you won’t see a lot of followers who are dancing with Detlef do a lot of firuletes either.
A third note: Yes, even Detlef has these automatisms because he learned tango based on steps before we started teaching and breaking up these patterns. In the first years, we also taught more figures but nowadays, we seldom teach steps anymore. And if we do so, we will vary them in manifold ways to prevent automatisms. This is why some of our students dance much more freely than we do. 

7. Push with the head
I don’t think that any teacher consciously instructs followers to drop their head or to push their forehead against the leaders right cheek or forehead. But a lot of advanced dancers do so because of misunderstood cuddling or the wish to imitate the aesthetics of famous dancers. 
  • Looks feminine?
  • Starts hurting after a while because of increased tension of neck-muscles. 
  • Leaders move their head into a left-bent position to get out of the way. (I once watched Detlef tilt his head more and more to the side because of the follower invading his space with her head. He looked really stupid.)
  • Inhibits movements to the so-called closed side. (See 7.)
  • Often has a negative effect on stability of axis, even without the pushing.
What we teach: Hold the head upright and in line with your spine. Search for head contact only if it is anatomically possible.

8. Push with the right arm and/or asymmetrical embrace
A high tension in the right arm of the follower is very often taught in combination with a stable v-frame. Often followers are told to give resistance so that force (or at least tension) can be applied to communicate pivots. In the v-embrace, the other side is often closed and the two shoulders will usually be much nearer than the ones on the so-called open side. I know that v-hold does not necessarily imply a pushing arm, but the problems created are comparable.
The positive effects of this technique:
  • I am not sure, but one obviously does not need dissociation. A follower can remain more passive and let herself be pushed or pulled into pivots. The strong frame might also increase stability when doing automatic pivots with a spiral starting below (see above). It is certainly easier than doing pivots actively by creating a spiral from top-to-down. 
The negative effects of the technique:
  • Any pushing or tension in the arms just feels less comfortable and starts hurting after a while. Even Detlef (who works out on a regular basis) can sometimes barely stand the pain a fragile follower causes with her strong right arm. You don’t believe me? Ask him.
  • With a right rigid arm, the follower pushes herself into an asymmetrical position. So even if a v-shape is not intended, an open and closed side are created. You can see that with many "milonguero" dancers who are starting out with a parallel chest-to-chest position, but then open to a v-hold in ochos or turns.
  • A general v-hold or pushing arm results in movements feeling uncomfortable or even being impossible into one direction. Try to walk on the right outside lane in parallel system with a follower who pushes with her right arm or brings her left shoulder so much forward that she cannot dissociate to the left anymore. You won’t succeed. Most likely it won’t even be possible to walk straight without her pulling you to the right side, because she not only opens her right side but also turns her hips with her as a result. This makes navigation really hard. And please examine your back-ocho technique: there will often a nice opening for an organic pivot on the follower’s right leg, but the pivot on her left leg is initiated by the leader pulling her with his right arm.  Or she will pivot automatically. I find it illogical to use different techniques on the two sides.
  • In general v-shape will also affect all musicality as it inhibits free change of speed and step length on both sides. (This is a huge topic!)
What we teach: Have soft arms. We want to embrace, not to have a stable "frame". We connect and exchange information in the centre. The leader opens spaces that the follower takes actively. We are therefore searching for a parallel position of the upper bodies and want to be free to execute all movements comfortably to both sides.
Note: When dancing with a leader who uses either active pushing/pulling with the arms or at least relies on the stable frame for building up a tension for a pivot, I will not compromise my priorities and start pushing, but rather find other ways to make the movement work: Either create a counter-spiral in the body or not pivot and reach the end position by doing a milonguero-ocho. My arms remain soft.

9. Dropping, lifting or swinging the hips
Sometimes this comes from the wish to look sexy and might result in a slight difficulty of taking steps back speedily. But very often such a hip movement comes from consciously or inadvertently wanting to pull the free leg to the axis in the end phase of movements. In dynamic steps the phenomenon might not occur, because the initial push is enough to transport the axis fully to the new leg, but try a very slow transport of axis in a back step of the follower. In the last moment it might feel, as if the follower is breaking away and her axis gets wobbly.
What we teach: The hips remain calm and parallel to the floor. The transfer of axis is done by the former supporting leg that pushes until the axis is above the new leg in particular in slow motion.

10. Be overactive
A lot of advanced followers seem to think, that they constantly have to do something in order to dance interestingly or musically. They will decorate, insert double steps, change weight without invitation, move, move, move. They never stand still. Being calm equals being boring. Right?
This is very handy for leaders who do not have a clear leading technique or who are un-inspired, but I think that constant activity makes it impossible to build up a more intimate connection. Sure, feel free to fill spaces, to add to the dance, to give input to the leader. But please: don’t move all the time. Can we not just stand for a second. Slow down? Enjoy the embrace? Just listen to this tiny piano fill? Just honour the end of the phrase? Does tango have to be so nervous?
When I dance with a guy who expects me to act all the time without inviting me properly, I might do so. For a short while. But then I usually get bored, because of the lack of interaction and communication. So I might just stand and embrace. You’d be surprised at what can happen then! 

So. This is it. Sorry to be a know-it-all. 

I am aware, that every dancer will make her personal choices. I always assure our students, that our techniques are just options amongst many. But I am strongly doubting that everyone actually makes conscious choices. I so wish that advanced dancers were more aware of their techniques and possible outcomes. Not only for the sake of the leaders, but for your own comfort and clarity. So that you can make better informed choices!

Some might think, that they now understand our entire technical concepts. Nothing I can do about it, apart from saying: buy our Book + DVD Caminar Abrazados and you'll how much more there is to it. Or visit one of our classes. You might be surprised. And no, I am not ashamed of self-advertising. ;-)

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