Tango is a language of movement as well as connection. So then, how is that first moment of movement made, while staying connected in the embrace? How can both leader and follower stay comfortable and balanced, while being able to clearly feel and respond to how their partner is moving? Here are some pointers for walking you may find useful.
- Project your intention before moving your feet. When inviting the follower to make a backward step, for example, project your intention forward by shifting your weight from the middle of your foot to the metatarsal (the front pads of your foot just behind your toes). Doing this, your chest will naturally begin to move forward. As you do this also project your chest downward (by bending the knee slightly) toward the point you'd like the follower to step to. This is the lead for a backward step. Notice that all this happens before you move any foot forward.
Leading a forward step for the follower, can be done is a similar way. Start with your weight on the middle of your foot and move it backward toward the heel, while also bending the knees slightly so that the chest begins to travel to the point you'd like the follower to step. In this case, of course, you'll need to move your free leg foot out the way first so the follower doesn't collide with it when they're stepping forward.
A knock-on benefit of leading before you step (as a general rule), is that it's easier for the follower to feel relaxed and unrushed. If you're already gone by the time they feel the lead, then following can seem like a game of perpetual catchup, which soon gets tiring. Training this ability to lead before you step will also open up a lot of creative potential both with walking and other kinds of movements in tango.
- Indicate the step length. In the case of a forward or back step, the further you move from the middle of your foot forward (or backward, going the other way) and the
more you bend your legs as you do, the bigger the intention for the
follower to step backward (or forward, going the other way) is. For a side step, it is essentially the same process, start moving your
chest toward where you'd like the follower to step, while keeping your
shoulders level. In this case the leader's spine may curve sideways
slightly. Again, more downward and the bigger the lateral intention, the bigger the step. A visualization that may help is to think of your chest
tracing out the shape of a playground slide. Start at the top and go
down and across in a smooth, curved fashion. This helps to distinguish a
side step from a weight change, which can be thought of more as 'up
over and down' or an 'n' shape
To make it a little easier for the follower to pick up on when you are done indicating step length and are actually transferring your weight through a step, try using a little contra-posture (turning your chest to face the foot that is traveling, then turning back to centre while arriving on the new axis, and so on. Think about how your arms might swing relative to your legs when strolling in the park.) Using contra-posture will also help you balance, as well as it looking good (in moderation).
- Step while keeping your axis. Another obvious sounding statement, but easily forgotten. The trick to this is to have sufficient bend in the standing leg to allow you to project and reach forward with your free leg, without falling into the step. Once you can feel how the follower is responding to your lead, you (hopefully) have the option of projecting your free leg forward in preparation of transferring your weight through the step.
When you do this, aim for a slightly outward angle of the foot. This
not only looks good and avoids toe-to-toe collisions, it also aids
As an exercise with a partner try taking a variety of step lengths together from standing, and test whether you can stay connected, without leaning on each other. See if you are able to stop the step at any point and reverse it. (Note that you can have a strong 'presence' or pressure in the embrace without actually leaning on each other. Think 'traction with floor'. See the next couple of tips for more ideas of how to achieve that.) As always, have a slight outward angle to your extended foot, and when you walk aim for a neat straight line, with knees brushing between steps.
- Mirror the leaders intention. It could be argued that much of the art of following in tango is the art of sensing and reflecting the leaders physically expressed intention (think 'equal and opposite forces'). When listening for an invitation to step in any direction, if you feel the leader project their intention forward (by transferring their weight in that direction), for example, first mirror that intention by also moving your weight slightly forward. As you do this take the impetus that the leader is giving you and send it through your straight back into your free leg. Extend that leg backward in a straight line in preparation for a step. The result of both leader and follower (reflecting the leader's intention) projecting forward is that actually the chests hardly move, if at all. What will happen though is an increase of pressure, or presence, in the embrace.
Do not be concerned about where or when the leader is stepping (unless it's on your foot of course), simply go with the projected intention you feel from their contact. If the lead is for a straight forward step, then try to overcome any fear of walking into your partner and project your free leg precisely in that direction, straight forward, without veering a little to the side for safely. This will really help you maintain connection with forward steps. Remember, as always, to have a slightly outward angle to your extended foot.
- Keep your axis while preparing to step (then continue to keep your own balance while transferring weight). The result of mirroring the leader's intention as above is that you're actually staying on your axis while your free leg finds the point you might possibly step to. Try to delay the point that you transfer weight until your free leg foot is already at the point you're going to step. By doing this (and keeping a good, straight back posture) you are able to maintain a clear and smooth connection with your partner, and avoid falling into a step. (A slightly exception to the general rule of 'hold your axis until your foot is where you're going to step', is with especially large steps, where using your standing leg to push off from will help you get the extra reach.)
- Listen for the length of step. The
length of the step is indicated by the amount of forward projection
the leader gives and how much they are driving into the ground. More
forward intention and more driving into the ground equals a bigger
step (and a more bent standing leg for the follower); less of those things, a smaller step (and a straighter standing leg). Similarly, if the lead is slow, then it's a slow extension of the leg, fast, then a fast extension. When practicing with a partner, see if you can pick up
on all step lengths from 1cm to 1m, slow, normal and fast.
How can you tell the difference between the initial indication of step length and when the leader continues to move forward to actually transfer their weight through a step? If you are well connected in the embrace and your posture is strong then you will feel the difference. The leader using a little contra-posture will also help. (Yes, it is possible to lead a full step without the leader stepping at all, but that's a subject for another time.)
A common cause of compromised posture, aching backs and falling into steps is the leader and follower taking slightly different step lengths, and one or both partners straining as a result to try and maintain connection as they get further apart. If you think this may be happening to you, try when following to condense your step length, making it a little smaller than you think it should be (while making your free leg straight, even for small steps). Note you can still extend a straight leg, and brush those knees between steps, even when the step is small.
A key point for both leader and follower is to give yourself long enough to feel how your partner is moving, before moving yourself. Just a moment of stillness before responding, small enough that is is more felt than observable, can be a big help keeping a sense of calm and togetherness in the dance. With practice this moment will naturally become shorter and less conscious.
As leader or follower transfers weight, to help get a sense of strong balance imagine you are stepping not on the floor, but a few inches beneath it. Step into the floor and continue to press with both legs as you transfer weight. This will also help you be more agile as well as better balanced. It's slightly harder work, but your legs will get used to it.
Tomorrow's tip: 'Travel Through Water'