The first time I watched the video of myself dancing, I thought my feet looked so terrible. Instead of being turned out a bit, walking on the inside edge, my feet were turned inward. I looked pigeon-toed and awkward. I was following what was led, not making mistakes, and I felt well connected to my partner. But I just couldn't take my eyes off my feet. So, I told myself I'd continue working on it, but ultimately what mattered most was my connection to my partner and my ability to follow what's led. After all, my leader can't see my feet. Right?
Still, I watched other dancers. I asked teachers and followers about balance and foot placement. I put into practice what Silvina Valz taught about ochos (and the various steps that can be led from that position) which was to keep the knee of the non-weighted leg slightly behind (instead of in front of) the weighted leg's knee. That makes the appearance of the swivel or pivot sharper and allows for faster and easier change of direction. (I may not be explaining this well, so if someone has a better explanation of how she teaches that, please feel free to comment on it. It was a very visual thing.) Silvina also taught a sort of helpful visualization about pivots as "drilling into the ground" as if the goal is to actually execute the pivot below the surface of the floor. The visualization is extremely helpful for creating a stable pivot and eliminating wobble.
During a workshop given by Stephen Shortnacy and Mardi Brown, I learned how to do pretty moves like leg wraps, very, very small (with the heel pointed down) so that my feet and legs could be pretty without pegging all the dancers in a three foot radius. Yet more tools for my tango toolbox. A similar demonstration to what was taught in that class can be seen here (notice how Jennifer Bratt consistently keeps her heel pointed to the floor, particularly the leg wrap at 0:30 and again at 1:09 when she steps over Ney's foot.) Jennifer also keeps her boleos very small and controlled.
Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt
When I had my lesson with Daniela Arcuri she repeated over and over, step with the inside edge! Don't walk on the outside of the foot. (In fact, my dance shoes were already worn on the outside edges of the heels - making it that much harder to stay on the inside edge.) Here is a (very elaborate) demonstration of what Daniela was talking about. Instead of focusing on the embellishments themselves, watch the angle of her ankles and feet.
I continued practicing ochos with my ever-loyal double oven who makes up for lack of strong leading skills by being constantly available. One of the exercises I was practicing was this (again keeping the non-weighted knee a little behind the weighted one and staying on the inside edge of my foot):
Gavito and Maria - ocho/lapiz exercises
Skip ahead a few months, dancing at the milonga at Texas French Bread. I happen to open my eyes and peer over the shoulder of my partner to see restaurant diners watching the dance floor intently - a few even taking pictures. They're not taking pictures of all of us as a whole - they're taking pictures of our feet! I'm not even wearing fancy tango shoes and two women snapped pictures of my partner's and my feet. Well, I thought, they're not dancers. These are probably the same people who watch So You Think You Can Dance and think that's Argentine tango. Of course they watch the feet. For them, that's where the action is.
Now to last night's practica which had a great turn out. Again, as my partner and I were dancing past the line of seated dancers, I looked over my partner's shoulder to see the majority of them watching everyone's feet. Now these are dancers. These are, for example, leaders that I'm hoping will ask me to dance later.
Oh. Now I get it. That's why it matters what your feet look like. Generally, your leader won't know if your feet are pretty or well-positioned unless it affects your ability to follow what's led. It can, however, influence how skilled you appear on the pista - and that can affect who asks you to dance. Connection maybe king - but if you never get the chance to connect, the point is moot. The feet matter.
As I was pondering the implications of that, I started dancing with my next partner. He smiled at me and said, "I was watching in the mirror and your ochos are beautiful - very well-styled. Don't lose that."
Pardon? My ochos? Was I finally starting to get it?
I could hardly wait to tell my oven!
Important Note: Johanna just reminded of something very important that I didn't emphasize nearly enough. It's not fancy embellishments and adornments that result in more advanced leaders asking us to dance. One of the very best dancers I know does very few adornments and yet there's practically a waiting list to dance with her at milongas. Her connection, her embrace and her graceful musicality make her one of the most desirable followers in our community. So it's not so much that I needed to learn something fancy to make my feet more attractive - but I needed tools to make my execution of steps less unattractive. By not paying attention to what my feet were doing, I was looking awkward, off balance and wobbly. Keeping my heel pointed down and walking on the inside edge of my foot are simple things (though definitely not easy things) for me to work on that make me feel, and look, for stable and less awkward on the floor.