Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Fuertes Raíces tango kata - mkII

I've just recorded a new and much improved version of my Fuertes Raíces ('strong roots') tango kata, developed just over 2 months ago.

I hope you enjoy it. In any case, I'd love to know your thoughts on it, including constructive critique.

Why have I made this kata? The motivation is to have a training tool, for myself and my students, which will assist the development of strong technique for a wide range of tango movements and improve balance, posture, timing, coordination and physical conditioning. Katas are commonly used in martial-arts (which I have a background in) for the same purposes. I do not know of any other tango katas currently existing, but so far I've been practicing and teaching this new version to my students for the last 6 weeks to good effect.

Here are the videos, front and side view (but can you spot the differences? :) )

There will be further parts, and additional katas for pair work.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

What you can expect on the 22nd April Technique Booster


I hope you had a great weekend.

Just a short one this time :) I'm giving a tango workshop on 22nd April, next Sunday. What can you expect from it?

The basic idea is to pack a lot of learning into an afternoon, for maximum value and maximum fun, whether you're a beginner or a more experienced tango dancer.

We'll look specifically at 3 key areas of tango: pivoting, the free leg and the embrace. Starting with an (re)introduction to the basic principles, we'll move on to exploring some interesting, creative and musical applications of the basic techniques. These will include a range of leader and follower secadas and ganchos, boleos and more.

Who's it for?

The workshop will be structured for dancers with a broad range of experience. Different options for steps will be taught for different experience levels, ensuring everyone is appropriately challenged.

For the beginner tango dancer this will be a chance to start playing with ideas you'll develop more over the coming months and years, while refining the core technique you've learnt on the beginner course.

For the more experienced, improver or intermediate dancer you'll have the chance to get to grips with some fun new possibilities (and invent you're own), while improving the basic technique that makes them possible.

The details

The workshop starts at 1pm and runs on until 5:30pm, with food and tea breaks. From 5:30-6:30pm there will then be a free practica, so you can start to use what you've learnt in your dancing straight away. The workshop will take place at the usual venue, the Povey's Dance Centre, 159 Shirley Road, Southampton.

The cost is £32 per person. (For those who have done a tango workshop with a similar format and amount of teaching to this before, you'll be used to paying closer to £45. My hope is that the lower price of this workshop will enable more people to attend. If you'd like to attend but this is still too much for you to afford, please get in touch, and I may be able to give you a discount.)

No partner required, but you're welcome to bring one.

If you'd like to come, please book now. The link to do that:

Any questions, just ask!


ps. If you know someone who might enjoy doing this workshop, please forward the above to them!

Monday, 9 April 2012

The rationale of a free sharing teachers symposium

I've been thinking about the 'teachers symposium' that I'm organizing for sometime in late April, May or June. The basic idea is spelled out here: but I've been wondering about which teachers might be attracted to it and the practicalities of attending, in the context of how being a professional tango teacher actually works.

Unsurprisingly, in fitting with most businesses in our society, it seems that tango teachers tend to organize their business on the principles of competition and guarding of knowledge (with exceptions of course). This isn't meant as a criticism, it is simply my impression. In contemplation it's easy to be idealistic, but when taking action to pay the bills it's wise to be pragmatic.

If you're trying to earn a living teaching tango, it's natural enough to want to protect your income source, your students, and also the knowledge you've spent lots of time and money building, which allows you to be competitive in offering students a good learning experience. If you go about openly sharing your deepest insights, teaching methods and signature techniques, maybe that will put you at a disadvantage, especially if what others share in a free exchange has less commercially transformable value for you?

The above is essentially what I've been pondering - how to make sense of participating in an event like this if you're a professional teacher?

I think whether it makes sense boils down to whether there is trust between attendees. If there is trust that people will be honest, with their sharing but also with giving credit and not plagiarizing others work then there is less at risk, and more up side.

The question of what idea is original anyway is interesting (see the video But if someone has put a lot of effort into developing some knowledge, for someone else to then take that knowledge and profit from it, by claiming it as their own, or not giving any credit for the inspiration, is clearly unfair.

However, if people do give credit for the source of their inspiration then that source benefits. This works in the same way word of mouth recommendations work. Obviously you can invite other teachers who inspire you to do guest sessions at your school, but you can also recommend to your students that they take a class with a particular teacher when they have the chance, and acknowledge that you've learnt something valuable from them yourself.

So let's say you come and what you share goes down very well with the other teachers and gets used a lot. Assuming honest participants, you will benefit from that materially through recommendations and improved reputation, and non-materially through your contribution to the improvement of other teachers and consequently their students. Also you have the chance to refine and evolve your ideas in a respectful, constructively critical and collaborative environment - an environment you may not normally have access to. Not to mention that you might pick up some inspiring ideas from the other teachers. Then there's the prospect that if there's a net improvement in teaching (and dancing) then class sizes increase, more classes are put on and the whole community grows and benefits.

On the subject of evolving ideas, it is perhaps more normal for teachers to have their own maestros who they visit when they can for inspiration and development. What this event is offering is hopefully a complementary and possibly more accessible way to evolve, refine and inspire your tango.

Perhaps you can see the potential benefit as a professional teacher in taking part, but you have the practical challenging of fitting it in with your regular teaching commitments? No problem, the form I set up on allows you to select days you can make. (Also if you're traveling far, I may be able to arrange accommodation for you. I will also offer to personally cover your share of the hall hire cost.) If you still can't make any of those dates but are interested in taking part, please do register your interest anyway. There will be other opportunities.

From the above discussion I don't want to suggest this is in any way an 'exclusive' event, only open to commercially successful professionals. Not at all! If you're just starting out with perhaps a little group once a week, or even if you're currently teaching for free, I'd be very happy for you to come and take part in this event. The only condition I would ask is that you're passionate about teaching and dancing tango, believe you have something valuable to share, but also wish to improve and refine your skills, and are open minded to different ideas (maybe harmonious ones, maybe not).

Aside from honesty, another important point of faith in making this event appealing to teachers I think is respect. I understand the idea of presenting their understanding to other (possibly much more experienced) teachers may be daunting to some, and no-one wants to be seen as a fool, or as labouring under gross misunderstandings. However, if everyone there is respectful of everyone else, and does their bit to create a supportive environment (while allowing for potential constructive criticism) for sharing and learning then I think this worry can be allayed.

Can we all be honest and respectful? I think that's very achievable, and that if everyone comes with that intention then we'll do just fine.

If you're a teacher reading this and you're curious about the event but have some concerns I've not addressed, please get in touch!

On a personal note, I've asked myself how I would define 'success' for this event. Clearly I'd be delighted if a dozen teachers were involved. I think that would create a fantastic and very productive atmosphere. However, even with 4 or 5 people there I still see it as very worthwhile. I feel strongly that however small the crowd if the people there are enthusiastic and keen to share and contribute it will be productive for everyone - which I would count as a definite success.

If you think you might like to take part, please visit and register your interest, thank you!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Are you ready to dance in the milongas? (A trick of the mind)

So you're learning how to dance tango, enjoying it for the most part, but not yet ventured out to the milongas (the social tango dances). Or maybe you tried it, but got scared and haven't been back? Fear not, some friendly guidance is at hand!

What makes a dancer 'ready' for the milonga?

While the particular milonga or community in question can be a factor, it chiefly comes down to your own outlook.

Obviously if you're going to a place where people gather to dance tango, it helps to know a little tango - along with the basics of milonga etiquette (which is mostly common sense, like trying not to hit or obstruct other dancers) - but beyond that, your outlook is the decider.

If you're a relatively inexperienced dancer and your outlook is such that you think because you are inexperienced, other dancers will find it unpleasant to dance with you, then you are not ready for the milonga. Your fear and shame will make you stiff, self-critical and miserable, which in itself will make you hard work to dance with and will lower you chances of getting dances. Consequently you'll come away with your belief reinforced.

However, if you're just as relatively inexperienced a dancer and your outlook is such that you think while your inexperience might mean other dancers are not able to do all the movements they enjoy doing, that it is nonetheless perfectly possible for you and them to enjoy a dance, then you are ready for the milonga (providing you have the very basics of walking with the music in an embrace, while avoiding collisions with other dancers).

The deciding factor here is only your outlook.

One determining dimension of this outlook is how you hold on to feelings of guilt, fear and shame; relating to how you dance and the influence that may have on others, or the judgements they may make about you.

Another (related) dimension is how open minded and inquisitive you are about what you're learning. Can you treat your learning process as a stimulating and playful process of discovery, without obstructing and derailing yourself with judgement (rather than simple observation, which is certainly useful) and giving in to fear?

This isn't to say that if you sometimes feel bad about your dancing and judge yourself harshly you have no place in the milongas (otherwise they'd be empty), or that you need to already be 'happy' to go out and dance tango. The point is simply that in order to get and give the most enjoyment in a milonga, having a positive, relaxed and open minded outlook relating to your dance and your partner is the overriding factor.

Even with the most modest amount of tango experience, with the above kind of outlook you can have a delightful time at a milonga.

Actually, drawing on personal experience here, outlook and attitude is so fundamental to the quality of your milonga experience that even for fairly seasoned tango dancers, if the way you're relating to your own dance (or that of your partner's) is getting crowded with criticism or doubt on a particular occasion, you'll have a hard time having a good night.

The freedom and the trap of technique

What you learn in class (at least from some teachers) is technique focused. Martha Graham (a central figure in the development of modern dance) said: "Freedom to a dancer means discipline.That is what technique is for – liberation." In other words, technique is the dancers freedom. But she also said: "Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion."

It can be easy to become self-critical and think "I'm just not good enough" or "I'll never get it right", when you're very focused on technique - in combination with a certain kind of outlook. But this does not help you, firstly in absorbing the technique and gaining the freedom it offers, and secondly in expressing your passion and joy in movement with the music and your partner.

A vicious cycle can develop where you just go to classes and think "I need more confidence first before I go the milongas - and better technique will give me that" but your present outlook is reinforcing itself in your technique focused classes - especially if your being introduced to a technique that has some subtlety to it and takes time and much practice to really absorb.

Remember, a technique applied without a sense of fun, passion or playfulness can hardly make up a dance, and dancing tango is what presumably you're aiming to do. So try to enjoy even your mistakes; by smiling and focusing on the stimulating process of learning and discovering new possibilities.

You probably guessed by now that part of breaking this cycle of thinking you're never quite good enough to dance in the milongas, is to get out and just do it. Going to milongas, really, is part of learning to dance tango.

Yes, perhaps you'll be one of the least experienced dancers there, for a while, and at times that may feel daunting. (There may even be the very occasional, odd person there who turns their nose up or says something discouraging. Although most communities are pretty friendly if you come with a positive attitude). But providing you can maintain a constructive, learning-friendly outlook, you will soon find your feet. In fact, as much as anything, I've found that the less experienced dancers who have that outlook are admired by other dancers for their bravery for showing up and diving in, and they are encouraged and supported.

This previous post discusses the bravery of those men and women who dance tango (and related issues, such as 'not being good enough', or dealing with rejection).

As an aside, you may notice when you are at a milonga that some of the people look very serious when they're dancing, austere of forbidding even. You may find the sight of this makes it hard for you to just relax and enjoy the dance. However when you realize why they're doing that, it may not concern you any more. For perhaps most of them, the serious look is merely a sign of concentration or focus (which the tango experience can benefit from to a degree), nothing more. For the rest, I think, they just see the others looking that way, assume that's how you're supposed to look when dancing, and so copy them. But you don't have to.

Milonga survival kit

Here's some quick tips for those just on the brink of going to milongas, and perhaps lacking a little confidence.
  • Check your outlook. Review the above content, and remember as a beginner what makes the difference between a pleasant dance and a slightly fraught one, is how relaxed, positive and open minded you are. To a large extent it really does come down to a trick of the mind. When at a milonga, get off to a good start by smiling, being friendly and starting conversations.

    Also, consider the flip-side of being a beginner or near beginner; many more experienced dancers enjoy dancing with beginners (who have reasonable balance) because they are: fresh, enthusiastic, easy to please/no high expectations, open minded etc. If you can manifest those qualities you will more easily be a pleasure to dance with, even with little experience.
  • Keep it simple (obviously) and play with the known. Once you know how to walk to the music in an embrace and perhaps do some crosses and ochos you have a veritable ocean teeming with all manner of possibilities. In fact, when you start to unravel what you can really do with just walking, crosses and ochos it can be overwhelming. So simplify it further.

    For instance, for leaders just focus on walking for most of a song, but really hitting the beat, being grounded and confident in each step and then perhaps seeing if you can alter the character of your steps depending on whether the music is soft or hard in its character, or varying the step length. As an experiment, compare how many warm smiles and hugs you get from your partners doing just that, with how many you get attempting more complex moves you don't quite understand yet.

    For followers, keeping things simple and playing with the known can be understood as focusing on your core technique of mirroring the leaders intention while maintaining a strong, comfortable and grounded posture. In a sense just about every step you take as a follower can be understood as a forward, back or side step, with perhaps a pivot in-between steps. The key to seeing and feeling that simplicity is to wait and slow down a little. Be patient with yourself. The opportunity to play with these knowns comes from your groundedness. For starters you can then vary the level of presence in your embrace to alter the speed of a step, or even initiate a stop.

    As an experiment compare how many warm smiles and hugs you get from your partners by keeping a good and well balanced posture while waiting for the lead and providing a positive and confident presence in the embrace, with how many you get by going off on your own trip, racing ahead (or letting yourself be rushed) or not taking care of your own balance.

    For more tips on basic walking technique for leaders and followers see: 6 walking tips for argentine tango
  • Listen to tango music. The music is the bridge on which your own individual dances can meet and be expressed in harmony. It is a guide to your movements and the quality of your movements. Get some CDs, download some mp3, let it seep into you. You will then get to know the patterns within the music and your body will be more readily able to express them, with various combinations of simple steps in different timings.
  • Practice what you've learnt. But how can you keep things simple while at the same time practicing the new steps you learn in a lesson? It's called a practica (practice tango session). You do go to a practica don't you? If not, I suggest you do. If there isn't one close to you, then consider starting one up. For Southampton, see:
For more general ideas of how to get dances in milongas see: thoughts on getting dances.

Finally here are some canned responses or reactions you may find helpful in your early milonga days.

When invited to dance:
"Hi, thanks for asking me to dance. I've not been dancing tango long, I hope that's OK with you."

When you totally lose the music in a dance:
"Oops" *smile* then go back to the balanceo. If you're following, and you want to regain the connection you can try: "Do you mind if we go back to the balanceo for a moment, please?"

When as a follower your leader is leading in a way which confuses you:
First give yourself a bit more time to see if you could comfortably make a forward, backward or side step in the direction they're leading, or whether it's more of a pivot. If none of the above seem to fit - "I'm just beginning to learn tango and I'm feeling a bit confused. Would you be willing to have a simpler kind of tango with me?"

When as a leader you notice an uncomfortable tension or strain develop anywhere in your embrace:
Go to the balanceo (which is often used a lot in a tango dance anyway) for a  couple of beats or so, readjust and set off again. If it persists, make a note to bring it up at your next practica and with your teacher.

Well, that's it. Dive in, and good luck!

ps. Fellow tango blogger Terpsichoral Tangoaddict, posted a comment about the above blog. I thought it covered a few points very well that the above didn't mention, so I'll add it here (for anyone who doesn't spot it in the comments below):

"I would just add that, if you are unused to navigating the floor at a milonga, you might want to stay away from very crowded milongas at peak hours (go early or arrive very late). If the milonga is crowded and everyone is dancing giros on the spot (very common at some places) you will not be able to focus on walking, but will have to make most of your moves turning figures. (Some kind of simple giro or turning figure is therefore essential). I would start with a practica, or an afternoon milonga or a milonga which is less trendy and well-attended. (But my advice is really geared to BA -- in your local scene, the milongas may be less crowded). Good luck, beginner dancers!

[It's fairly rare for a milonga to be so crowded in the UK that there isn't space to walk for much of a dance. But expect the occasional stop. Knowing some simple combinations of ochos, half steps, rocking steps, and even basic giros will definitely come in handy in such situations. And if it does get a little crowded for your taste, you can spend a little time enjoying watching the more experienced dancers. - Joe]

PS And, for more formal milongas, learn how to use cabeceo beforehand, as you won't be able to ask/accept dances verbally. If you don't know how, ask your table neighbours -- most people LOVE to explain it and it's pretty simple once you get the hang of it.

[In the UK, I don't think there are that many milongas where folks seriously frown on asking people to dance verbally (although certainly some more experienced dancers often don't like to be asked this way). However, learning the cabeceo will definitely help you in milongas where people like or prefer to use it, and also in general will help you spot more often when someone is inviting you to dance. - Joe]

PPS Don't be offended if people decline to dance with you. Accept polite rejections with grace and think "well, they will dance with me later, when I am a better dancer. So I'll look forward to that then." Likewise, even though you are a beginner, you don't have to dance with just anyone. If you don't feel comfortable dancing with someone -- well, if they ask you verbally, make no apologies, just say a polite "no, thanks." And, finally, beginner leaders, in particular, a good strategy is to ask a woman to dance when the tanda is already halfway through. That way, she only commits to one or two songs with you and may be much more willing to take a chance on your dancing."