Lesson with Alejandro Gée and his partner, Joujou

From Alejandro Gée's studio - more pictures and info from his website here: http://tangoalejandrogee.com/

The Lesson with Alejandro and Joujou - Technique and Posture

(Note: My explanations of things I was told may not be accurate. They are what made sense to me at the time, and given the visual and tactile nature of the instruction, may not translate well to the written page. Whenever possible, I asked for clarification from Alejandro to get as accurate and clear an explanation as possible.)

1.) Sink into the standing knee first instead of stepping/falling straight back into the back step. (I've heard that before - not sure why I can't seem to remember to do that.)
According to Alejandro, basically the sequence would be:

1. Sink the weight into the floor through the standing leg (here’s where the knee bends slightly in order to be able to push the weight of the body back in the next step), while straight,  free leg extends backwards  caressing the floor with no weight on it and torso reaches towards the partner.  The standing hip is strong and grounded, the free hip is relaxed and opening backwards as a natural continuation of the leg. The knee is straight.
2.  Weight transfer: heel of the leg extended backwards goes into the floor and the same hip starts traveling backwards until it is on top of the foot. This leg stays straight from the moment the leg extended backwards until the whole weight is on top of it. In the weight transfer the belly button pushes the spine backwards (that is, the abs sustain the whole movement). The transfer is not just in the legs, but mainly in the core.
3. Free leg (which was the front /standing leg until now and is about to extend next) softly collects with a relaxed knee. The standing leg starts step one.

2.) Connect at the solar plexus. (I've heard this before, but I've heard other variations as well. It's comfortable with Alejandro, but with some of my taller leaders, I'm not sure how to make that work.) This was something I asked for further explanation on, and this was Alejandro’s answer:

“The connection at the solar plexus is key.  The solar plexus should be open like a window. It actually works with everyone, it does not depend on the size of the person.  The connection at the solar plexus happens in the context of the right posture, which should not accommodate to body sizes. It does not mean the two solar plexus have to touch, just that you concentrate your energy, in the movement, in this area.  Where the solar plexus reaches in the other person’s body, varies. You do not lose your posture and your focus on this area, same for the other part.”

3.) Relax shoulders (Had no idea they were tense, but wasn't surprised. It's an old habit resurfacing.)
Alejandro’s clarification, “Shoulders should be down and relaxed. Usually they tense because they are compensating some area that is not engaged in the body, many times it is the core, or because the hips and knees are too forward and down.”

4.) Relax head slightly forward (not exactly forward – but just instead of pulling it back and tensing my neck, which I was doing. When did I start doing that??)  It turns out that what felt slightly forward wasn’t actually forward. I looked at video of my dancing later and realized when I thought my head was in a “neutral” position, it was actually very clearly pulled back. Not only does this cause me to tense my neck, but also pulls my shoulder blades together. Until I saw, I didn’t realize I was doing it.

Alejandro explained later, “The head needs to be aligned with the rest of the elongated, flexible yet active spine, neck to tailbone. The head is heavy and breaks the axis easily if misaligned.”

5.) What I originally understood as stay on the balls of the feet (instead of falling back onto my heels) was not actually the whole story (I got further elaboration later).  This has been a source of great confusion for me because about half my teachers say keep forward and heel off the floor and about half say to use/land my heel. Not enough to be 'back-weighted', but enough to be stable and keep the heel on the floor. Enriqueta Kleinman in particular was strong on that point. Using my heel feels far more stable to me but the risk of back-weighting is very high.)

Later Alejandro explained further, “You should definitely use your heels but do not put more weight on them than on the rest of the foot, because that means your torso is too far back or your core is inactive and sinking in the hip.  The weight is distributed but more of it is above the ball of the foot. I absolutely do not mean going up on your toes/ball of foot but shifting the weight of whole body forward even when your heel is firmly on the floor.”

6.) Don't lose the forward intention/presence of the hip bone. (This one is trickier to explain. I tend to break at the waist and my hips tilt back, bowing my back slightly. When that happens, for lack of a better way to put it, I lose the energy of the leader's lead. It just kind of evaporates and I make my legs do whatever I think it was he wanted me to do. No bueno.)

“The main principle of balance is that if something pulls in a direction, something else needs to pull in the opposite direction with the same energy. The hips are not one compact piece. The right hip is part of the right leg and the left hip is a part of the left leg. As you know, in tango we say that the legs start underneath the torso, not underneath the hip. When one leg is strong, that same hip is strong while the other one is free. The hip bone needs to be engaged (pushing forward) as you hold the weight in the standing leg to allow the free leg to move in the opposite direction.”

7.) When the back leg is extended, keep heel (by angling the foot) against the floor as much as possible. In other words, extend through the Achilles tendon rather than through the toes which points the heel upward. This is kind of a visual thing and hard to explain. Again, about half my teachers have told me to extend my foot, pointing my toe down into the floor, and the other half have said to extend through the arch and lengthening the Achilles tendon. To me, the second one feels and looks better - but every time I get used to doing it that way, another teacher tells me to switch back again.)

Alejandro’s excellent explanation, ” Extending through the Achilles tendon keeps you more grounded and elongates the spine and you don’t risk a) stabbing someone with your heel or b) making a step longer that it needs to be (thus breaking your lower back).”

8.) Walk in two tracks instead of pulling my extended leg directly behind my standing leg (leading me to almost cross myself or do shallow ochos.) Again, this is something I had heard before and used to do, then had another teacher tell me to walk in a single track, one foot directly behind the other. Another habit to break. Walking in two tracks feels more stable for certain. 

From Alejandro, “Walking in two tracks is more natural, so it gives natural stability. The walk, and everything else, should be comfortable and as natural as possible.”

That last sentence just about sums up my experience of tango in Buenos Aires - everything comes together to be as comfortable and natural as possible. Nothing felt contrived, unnatural, or forced. The more I relaxed, the easier it was to feel that.


LeadingLady said...

Really big thanks for posting this! I have been searching this kind of information about follower movements. Well written too!

David said...

What a lovely, lovely series. So interesting and helpful. Thank you!

"... can't seem to remember to do that." Oh how many times I've said or thought this. I've come to realize that I can rely on my conscious ("remembering") mind only for learning and practicing (and, yes, reminding), but what I really want is to reach a level of unconscious competence through mindful practice. Mirrors, videos, sensitive practice partners, and teachers all help with this.

In a milonga one might apply the Ben Franklin technique. Where he concentrated on one of his 13 virtues each four weeks, the tanguera/o might focus on a particular aspect of their dancing for that night.

Ooh! Just remembered a technique I've got to try. I use this in skiing and teaching others to ski but haven't previously thought of its application to dancing. The idea is that a behavior we want is probably on some continuum from optimal to absent. (E.g., weighting the tip of the ski (ball of the foot) versus the tail of the ski (heel).) We get worried and tense while trying to achieve the optimal, and we judge ourselves when we realize we've messed up the behavior. Better, is to merely observe and report (internally) on the behavior in a detached way.

One way to achieve this is to measure the behavior, say on a scale from 0 (doesn't seem to have been there at all) to 10 (felt terrific). Without worrying at all about the scores, one simply allows themselves to observe a reading with each step.

The mind is an automatic goal seeking instrument, and it will allow the body to pursue the optimal course over time, so long as it is aware of (the rating) what the body wants. Plus, having the conscious mind observe the reading (I like to think of it as an old timey needle gauge, like an applause meter), occupies the monkey mind so that it doesn't get in the way with unhelpful judgements and comments.

Sorry my comments are so long. It's just that I find your posts so thought provoking.

Mari Johnson said...

LeadingLady - Thank you so much for your comment - I'm glad it was useful!

David - Thank you for reading and commenting - and thank you for your suggestions. I will try them out and let you know how it goes.

Edmund said...

Thanks for sharing what you learned in your lesson! I'm going to have to read this post again in detail just to digest everything.