Lessons and more Lessons

Image courtesy of www.morguefile.com


In between practicing and dancing as much as I can get away with, I've also been working with some great teachers one-on-one.

Daniela Arcuri, Javier Rochwarger, Enriqueta Kleinman, Silvina Valz . . . .  I've been working, and working, and working . . .

Familiar Territory




I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing that in private lessons, I face very few surprises. I can feel my balance falter, so when my teacher comments on it, there is nothing to say but, "yep, I lost my balance there." When he or she says I'm not extending enough, or stretching through my toes, I know I'm not - I can feel it. I'm "breaking" at the waist, still - another result of not being able to hold myself stable. The list goes on and on - but almost it's always the same list. The same fundamental issues.

Strangely it sometimes takes me a little while to realize they're the same issues. Occasionally a teacher uses a very unfamiliar visualization, or is talking about a different piece of the movement (after all, we're never really static in the dance) and it suddenly seems like he or she is saying the opposite of what the last teacher told me. That's when I break it down a little bit, ask a few questions and figure out if it really is different - or just a different place in the movement. Sometimes there are language barriers. Sometimes the metaphors that worked so well with other students, just leave me scratching my head. For example, a teacher told me "We use dymanics."  ?  If I read that sentence as it's written (as it was said to me) - it makes no sense. After listening and asking more questions, I finally got the point - but it took a long while to get there. Eventually, we got back to the same problems I've been told about before - just with different words than I had heard/used before.

In a way it's reassuring because I'm getting a consistent picture of where I want to go in the dance. In other ways, it's disheartening to constantly struggle with the same thing. To have to explain to every teacher that, yes, I do understand what you're asking me to do, I just can't do it yet. You telling me how it should be done does not, unfortunately, transfer directly to my body's ability to do it. I get frustrated with teachers who simply repeat again and again what they've already said, as if that will make it happen. Either I don't understand what you're asking of me, or my body simply isn't capable of doing it yet - either way, repeating it over and over is not helping me. And of course I get frustrated with myself too. To the teacher, I usually end up saying I will try to get it a little better during this lesson, but it's going to take months of practice do what you're asking of me. Usually that's enough of an explanation so that we can move forward with the lesson.

Part of is that I still don't have enough muscle strength to hold my body as stable. You need your abdominal muscles for nearly everything from walking to turning to disassociation and on me, those muscles are still very weak. So I work, and I practice. I value most the teachers who have been able to help me "work around" the weakness while I build back the muscle. Daniela Arcuri and Enriqueta Kleinman have both been so very helpful in giving me tools to increase my balance and stability, even while my core muscles are so weak. It's a slow process, but it's starting to pay off.  My goal of technique training a couple of hours a night has worked out to more like an hour a day - but even that has shown dividends.


DVD Review - María Olivera's Follower's Technique Video


On related topic, it looks like I have to take back my blanket criticism of DVD tango tutorials.  I've never been big on trying to learn from videos. I'm not a visual learner, and so much of what we think we see in tango is really illusion. That said, I have found one DVD that has really impressed me.

A video by Maria Olivera on follower's technique (which you can find here http://www.tangosalon.com.ar/Tangosalon_Ingles/Store.html) has been incredibly helpful to me. I wish I'd found it years ago! I have a couple of issues on some of the content but the exercises have helped my balance tremendously. I recommend watching and following the exercises without any witnesses the first time. While Maria looks beautifully stable and solid doing the exercises, I looked like I was failing a road side sobriety test.

The first criticism I have is that she teaches boleo technique in isolation of the lead that should be creating, or at least co-creating, the shape, speed etc. leaving it to the follower to choose what she feels like doing. (I will often choose to follow a high-boleo lead against the floor, particularly if it's crowded on the pista - but I would never choose to follow a low, soft boleo lead with a high boleo. To me that seems too careless.)  I understand that these are exercises to build flexibility and responsiveness, but a few words on actually the role of the lead in how to follow boleos would be helpful.

She also emphasizes keeping the heel almost constantly slightly lifted, which not only runs contrary to what every other teacher has told me to do, but also contrary to my own comfort and stability. To pivot, you really do have to lift the heel, at least slightly, but beyond that I've always been taught, and feel more comfortable stepping, to keep my heels on the floor.

Other than those areas, which are very small factors in view of the entire content - the DVD has been incredibly valuable to me.   I wish I had excerpts to share, but there aren't any online that I could find. If you're comfortable with solo technique exercises - I highly recommend this one.

5 comments:

tangoaddiction said...

An hour of technique practice every day -- that's great, Mari!

As for teachers always repeating the same things: I think that happens to almost all of us, since, after tango does not have a huge number of elements to it. It's not a vastly complicated system, so the same issues tend to arise again and again. But I'm guessing that what the different teachers are trying to do is to solve the same problems using different approaches. I do this myself all the time when teaching. I use one image, description or visualisation, one solo exercise. And if that really doesn't seem to be helping I try another, since different people find different things helpful.

As for what might seem like the teachers' impatience for you to get things right in the lesson, I think I can understand what's happening there. Of course, no one expects you to do things perfectly without A LOT of practice. But what they need is to see some improvement at some point in the lesson. Even if you do the movement just a little better, just once. This is so that they can tell if the methods/approaches they are using are liable to bear fruit later, when you are practising. And it is also helpful to you as a student to get the sensation of how the movement feels when you do it right, or less wrong, so that you can seek to replicate that sensation later. So, from my perspective, that's probably what the teachers' impatience is about.

Hang in there! I feel exactly the same way as you do about own my technique failings and I take the same approach you do: practise, practise, practise.

As for the DVD. I haven't seen it and can't comment specifically, but I generally find solo technique exercises of all kinds helpful. Even when the techniques are ones I don't use myself (I don't generally lift my heel at all, even for pivots, personally and I keep my weight over the arch of the foot, not mostly forward on the ball of the foot, as I find it more stable that way -- but I am no expert and mine isn't the only way). It's good to be able to move the body in different ways and to understand somatically how different techniques work. And then you are also better equipped to choose the ones that work for you.

Mari Johnson said...

Tangoaddiction - thank you for your comments - they're very reassuring. The longer I dance, the more I believe in the solo technique exercises. It just makes everything so much easier and more comfortable when I dance at the milonga - and who wouldn't want that?

I'm also grateful to the teachers I've had who've been very understanding and patient with me on my journey while I try to build up my strength. Thankfully, when I manage to explain the situation (and I've regretted it deeply when I haven't explained it) than my teacher and I both get a lot further in the lesson.

David Phillips said...

Thank you for the DVD reference. I'll bet that even as a leader I can get something from it, and Jennifer might like it, too.

Like you, I often find myself in the position of wanting to say, "Well, yes, I understand that intellectually, but how do I get my body to know or perform or remember it?" I do also celebrate when I recognize that teachers aren't merely working on something I "should" already know but rather are giving me new insights, nuances, or deeper understanding. (For example, in a recent private lesson with Silvina Valz she had me do an exercise of rotating the torso while sitting, leading me to an awareness of intention originating in the solar plexus, rather than my naive thinking of "the torso" as shoulders or even breast/ribcage.)

After a (group) lesson where I asked that unresourceful question of myself, "Why am I not remembering X, Y, or Z," I created a tool for myself. As an instrument pilot I understand the value of two concepts: 1) the instrument scan in an ongoing, organized, and rigorous fashion to detect as early as possible when things are out of balance, so as to recognize the problem and begin correction; and 2) the value of a checklist as a way to ensure that the essentials of a procedure are covered. I combined the two concepts into a Leader's Checklist that I seek to run internally whenever I am dancing. I'll share it with you in a moment.

I run from the top of my head down. (A tanguero asked me why I didn't start with the feet, which he thought would be most important, and go up. Interesting, seeing people's different viewpoints.) Now I had thought to use this merely as a preparatory refresher before joining a milonga, thinking that if I tried using it as I danced that it would remove spontaneity and presence in the moment from the dance. I discovered quite the opposite, however. How often do we see when attempting to do our best at some physical activity that the active mind interferes. Rather than allow the native intelligence of the body to do its thing, the mind is busy judging everything and trying to tell the body how it really "ought" to be doing it.

What I found was that by engaging my chattering mind with the simple but significant task of monitoring performance, that it took away a big distraction from my dancing. Not only was I dancing more the way I knew I wanted to, but I felt even more spontaneous, creative, and in the moment, enjoying the flow.

In following the checklist the mind makes no judgement, and it offers no solutions; it merely makes observations. "Captain, the right shoulder is dipping below the horizon." "Captain, the undercarriage isn't collecting." "Captain, the belly isn't back."

Here, then (in a second comment, since I hit the 4K length limit), is what I have now. I expect the detail part to become maybe shorter and simpler with more practice and miles on the dance floor, and to become more sophisticated with experience and further lessons, but the simple repeated scan seems like it will always be useful.

...continued

David Phillips said...

A TANGUERO'S CHECKLIST
As I am dancing and practicing I routinely and regularly keep these feelings in body, checking in on myself repeatedly:

This is the scan while dancing:

Head
Shoulders
Arms and hands L/R
Core
Hips
Knees
Feet

These are the qualities I am scanning for:

Head upright, level, and facing her; neck long.

Shoulders upright, level, and facing her.

Left arm holding hers in a simple, attractive, comfortable position between us. Left palm pressing inwards (toward our common axis) with closed, relaxed fingers. Elbow down. Relaxed.

Right arm giving as full an enclosure as practical considering body possibilities, respectfully, without causing discomfort to her left shoulder. Fingers closed. Keeping the embrace definite but not rigid, elastic but not loose. Flexing closer/farther from heart, and sliding along her back to accommodate movements, but not breaking forward, back, or side at shoulder. Elbow down. Relaxed.

Torso upright and tall, with heart light shining out to the horizon.

Containing her within a gentle yet definite embrace between my shoulders, all the time.

Dancing in control, comfortably, and expressively. Giving pause to breathe and reconnect.

Torso dissociates from lower body easily, flexibly, and extensively. Torso rotating over stable platform or platform rotating under stable torso. Movement intention (forward, backward, sideways, rotational) originates in the solar plexus (pit of stomach ~ base of sternum).

Hips back. Legs soft.

The driving impulse, forward or backward or sideways, matches the beat (or melodic element, or instrument, or . . .). Each step, regardless of direction, size, or speed is given impetus, drive, intention from supporting leg pushing off.

Settle weight fully between steps to fully convey the lead, but continue to move thru the step.

... and repeat.

Possibly this sort of approach is adaptable for the tanguera?
--David

Terpsichoral said...

Wow, that is a lot of things to be scanning for. Personally, I might focus on those kinds of technical considerations when practising but never when dancing at the milonga when I have only two things in my mind: dancing with my partner and with the music. For leaders, of course, there is a third consideration: floorcraft.