The art of improvisation   Leave a comment

Dancing on a crowded floor

Over the years, it has become natural to find dancing opportunities all over the world. For those who travel, it is an extra benefit to be able to connect with a local tango community at almost any destination, whether it is in the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and even Buenos Aires.

The experience varies whether the travelers are a couple, or single men and women. Couples have a slight advantage in terms of dancing, because if anything else fails, they have each other, so they can dance to their hearts content. Single men have to deal with an unknown group of women, and their experiences will vary according to their social skills, and to a certain extent, their ability to dance with any stranger. Single women fair the hardest task, since they have to deal with the idiosyncrasies and protocols of the local community, having to balance their desire to dance with the uncertainties of how to meet their objectives.

Our experience has taught us that being schooled in the improvisational aspect of the Argentine tango is a major plus to be able to dance as a “single” or as a couple at any place and with anybody on the spur of the moment, under any floor conditions, and to any selections being played by the local music person.

The benefits of improvisation

Improvising a meal is a feat that most people relish when on a short notice a bunch of friends or associates drop by to visit. Imagine how difficult it would be to improvise a meal if upon opening the kitchen cabinets you were to find them empty or containing only a box of instant mashed potatoes.

By definition, to improvise is to invent on the spur of the moment.

Similar to being able to improvise a great meal by making good use of a very well stocked cupboard, the tango dancer can improvise a great dance by putting to good use a comprehensive set of navigational patterns.

“What has navigation to do with tango dancing?” some people might think. “Just give me the gancho. Show me how to swing the leg. If you can lead it, I can follow.”

Indeed, there is a lot of confusion after more than 15 years and thousands of hours of classes at every possible level and location. The concept of tango improvisation and how it relates to circulation on the dance floor is overlooked because of the insatiable appetite of those who continue to accumulate figures and steps out of context, for the sake of keeping their interest in dancing alive. Step collecting is the hobby of the “lead and follow” set.

In its simplest form, the Argentine tango has kept generation after generation of tango dancers interested by the mere fact of spending hour after hour, three minutes at a time, holding each other close while navigating the dance floor to the sound of the music.

In its most complex form, the Argentine tango continues to keep generation after generation of tango dancers interested by the simple reason of holding each other close while circulating on the dance floor at the sound of the music.

Given the choice of knowing lots of steps and patterns and recognizing lots of tangos and orchestras, the tango dancer always chooses the latter, because the nature of the music dictates the kind of tango that will be danced. The symphonic renditions of Osvaldo Pugliese may call for deliberate pauses to smell the roses, to blend the inhaling and exhaling of life from our lungs with the invisible sway of bodies in place. The precise beat of Carlos Di Sarli may invite for window shopping, brief side trips through softly lit back alleys before returning to the main road for a happy stroll under the stars.

To improvise on the dance floor men and women must be aware of what is required from each of them individually, and what are the elements that each must contribute to make the improvisation a shared experience, and a great one at that. The universality of these requirements and elements would make it possible for men and women to dance at ease with anybody on any crowded dance floor anywhere in the world.

The mans’ role

The primary responsibility for the man is to carry the woman in his embrace in a comfortable and safe way around the floor. He must be aware of the motion of other dancers, the conditions of the dance floor, and the particular music being played. To circulate around the floor he must have complete control of the woman’s movements. He must be ready to react to sudden interruptions in the flow of the line of dance in front and behind him. He must be ready to handle unexpected changes of direction dictated by the presence of obstacles, or by the actions of other dancers. If this sound much like what a driver has to be aware of to go from point A to point B, it is because navigating the dance floor is similar to moving in heavy traffic. However, while you may drive an automobile and take good care of arriving at your destination without any scratches or bumps to the shiny metal, tango dancing for the man is about taking care of a precious human being that has trusted her safety and movements to him.

As the couple in the embrace, imagine the two of you carrying a tray loaded with a priceless crystal set. The four extremities that support the precious cargo become critical to insure a smooth journey and an enjoyable ride. Dancing with our bodies becomes natural as we concentrate on the embrace and let our legs follow our bodies providing at all times the proper support and the shock absorbing effect that makes our bodies move in a smooth, elegant, sensual, and playful way.

It is the man’s responsibility to know how to move his partner with clear weight changes to insure that at least three feet are on the ground at all times, except on those situations when one of dancers stands on one leg (support) in order to embellish with the other (free) leg. For the man this includes flicks, back displacements, kicks and hooks. Before engaging in the execution of any of these figures, he must insure that his partner is solidly grounded with her legs open and both feet on the ground.

To be able to move his partner, the man must be solidly grounded, that is, his weight must be allowed to rest on the support leg. Moving your partner does not mean pushing and shoving with your arms or chest like you would a shopping cart. It is the motion of the upper body around the support hip that creates the necessary torque to bring the woman off balance from one leg to the other one, provoking her displacement from her initial balanced position to a new balanced state at the end of the displacement. Standing firmly on his axis, the man should be able to provoke a movement of his partner forward, backwards or laterally in a circular manner making her dance around him. When the dance floor really gets crowded, this skill is priceless because it allows for great dancing in short circular trajectories while still being able to improvise all kinds of patterns in heavy traffic, without banging your partner against objects or other dancers around you.

The woman’s role

The concept of the role of the woman in the tango is perhaps the most difficult to define and the hardest to grasp because it is haunted by contradictions. On the average, every woman has had a “bad man” in their lives, or know somebody who has. The way society is structured, women are at a disadvantage in that they need to try twice as hard to obtain half of the benefits that men get in just about every aspect of life. To make things worse, just about every other form of partner dancing requires that a woman follow, that she be on her proverbial toes to follow, that she allows to be dehumanized and called a follow, that she be stripped of a full participation in the dance, and that she considers herself proud to be a follower, and a good one at it.

Not so in the Argentine tango where equality and mutual respect are fundamental. In tango we trust. The first thing a woman must trust is herself. She must acquire posture and balance in order to allow her partner to have total control of her movements, while she uses her technique to respond to motion with clear weight changes finishing each displacement comfortably balanced on her axis.

Her upper body must be quiet and relaxed to be able to receive the changes of direction marked by her partner. Her waist must be loose so her legs don’t fly in response to alignments of the upper body. Her legs must be firmly on the ground at all times except when her partner puts her on one leg in anticipation of a leg flick, a hook, a sweep, etc. She needs to understand that her free leg moves in response to the man’s actions, so therefore she must complete all weigh changes in such a way that her upper body can rotate on the grounded hip. The free leg moves in a relaxed way in response to the rotation of the hip, much as a protractor that has a pointed needle that pierces the paper which allows for a rotation on the axis of the needle to provoke a smooth drawing by the pencil attached at the other end.

These concepts grouped under the heading of essential techniques for men and women are the subject of our Tango Barre and Tango Bar sessions for women and men respectively, and embedded in every workshop we teach around the country.They are thoroughly discussed and explained in our best selling book and DVD GOTTA TANGO. It is embedded in every class, lesson and workshop we have been teaching since 1996.

As masters of tango improvisation, our goal is to empower women and men to dance with freedom, on the spur of the moment, anywhere, at any time, with any partner. For that, you have to be there when we do it.

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Posted February 13, 2011 by Alberto & Valorie in Gotta Tango

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