Javier Rochwarger's Workshops in Austin, Texas

Second class of Javier Rochwarger's Workshops at Esquina Tango, Austin
(Background: I've had classes/lessons with Javier Rochwarger for the last 3 years. He makes his annual visit to Esquina Tango here in Austin every Spring. You can read about two of my previous experiences here: Spring, 2011 and here: Summer, 2012. )

Group Classes
One of the reasons Javier is so popular is that everything he teaches in group classes is taught in the context of the social dance. The movements and the technique are intended for dancing on a populated floor, and respecting the line of dance. He talks about listening to the structure of the music and understanding movement in terms of the music's grammar. His classes have always been filled with beautiful and immediately applicable skills on the milonga floor. Javier's focus is on the quality of the embrace and of the dancer's movement - not so much on sequences, though he does use them. When he uses a sequence, it's most often to demonstrate the point of technique he is trying to make.  (Connecting turns, making use of crosses in certain places in the music, disassociation etc.)  
He is funny, and as his website says "warmly intense", but he is not timid with correction. He does not take himself too seriously, but he does take the material he teachers very seriously. He knows he has very little time so he is direct with his instructions and with his feedback.

This year I took more group classes than last year - I managed 3 out of 5 group classes and 2 shared private lessons with different partners.  Javier's group classes are about the only group classes I seek out anymore, mostly because he  really tries to give followers "equal time" when it comes to technique instruction. (In most group classes, I feel like a prop or worse, a crash test dummy, present only to give the leaders someone to practice their new moves on. I understand the importance of that, truly - but I paid for the class too. ) Javier really makes an effort to work with everyone at some point in the class and that's no easy task, especially in a large class.

At the beginning of every workshop (and private lesson), he asks the dancers to dance at least once, usually a couple of times, to get a feel for where, collectively, the students are in their dance. If necessary, he adjusts what he had planned to teach to better help the students as a group. So I can tell you he focused on embrace, collecting (and when not to collect), pauses, disassociation and turns in the classes I was in - but that may not be what he focuses on in other classes.

Private (shared) Lessons
I've written before that many dancers, myself included, rarely get truly surprising feedback in private lessons at this point. I usually have an idea of what is going wrong, I just don't know how to fix it. Every once in a while I get a, 'When did I start doing that???' moment, but thankfully not too often.

The homework list this year is, sadly (see previous post), much like last year's list.
(In no particular order.)

1. Straighten my back and stop sagging/tilting at the middle. I have less "middle" now, but I shouldn't be resting it on my partner if he's not inviting that in the embrace.

2. While we're on the subject of waiting to be invited  - wait to be invited into the leader's embrace rather than putting myself where I want to be. There is always some negotiation of the embrace but latching onto the leader, where I have not been invited to be, can feel presumptuous and limiting to the dance.

3. Continue to work on balance issues. That part was relatively new given my current  muscle issues, but I got a very clear demonstration of how it is limiting the options of my partners.
4. Get control of my weight changes and axis.This is one of those things that, because I only recently understood how to begin to affect that change, it is taking a very long time for me to work on. It's a case of different metaphors/explanations work for different people and it took a long time to find an explanation that worked for me.
5.Disassociation needs to be more clear and controlled. This one really is about my own bad habits. Here in Austin, for several reasons, most leaders open the embrace to do ochos and turns so I don't really have to disassociate as much as I do when I dance in other cities. Some of that is because it is so often taught (in open embrace) that way in Austin - but I didn't realize until I was in the group classes this weekend how few dancers (followers and leaders) can manage turns and ochos smoothly and comfortably in close embrace when directed to do so.

: It's not that I object to doing turns and ochos in open embrace - I don't mind at all as a style issue. I do mind a bit when I'm being pushed and pulled through turns because my partner has not been taught to rotate his torso separately from his (or her) hips.
6. Stop the auto-collecting and wait for the leader to actually lead me to collect. Collecting too soon, or without being led to, limits certain options for the leader. It was particularly noticeable (as an obstacle) when dancing vals.
7. While we're at it - stop auto anything. Some things you do as a default when you're first learning tango - but after awhile, damned few things in tango should be considered "automatic".
8. Continue work on hip laxity which slows down my ability to truly land my side steps. I land my foot, but my hip is still in motion or pulled slightly over the foot. This is an ongoing PT and training issue that my teacher was able to refine in terms of the dance.
9. Slow down. We disagreed at first on this topic as he believed I was anticipating the lead, but after actually testing my balance, he admitted what I had initially told him was true - I'm falling into the next step, not getting ahead. This is the most deeply frustrating part of my tango training right now. 
A couple of months ago, my balance was more solid than it had been in my entire adult life. Starting High Intensity Interval Training in the manner I did has developed my muscle tone (which is great - my body fat percentage dropped from over 32 to 28% in less than 2 months) but in very unbalanced ways (which is less great.)  I didn't combine my HIIT training with the complementary strength training that would have prevented this problem and now I'm having to retrain and do more corrective exercises to address that. (More on that in a different post.)  It gets better every week, but I'm just not where I want to be yet.
10. Get better control of my hips/balance/abdominal muscles to reduce unintentional movements in the dance, like breaking at the waist, dropping my hip, rocking to the side etc. 


More notes from my second private lesson.

1. In terms of posture and embrace, when I thought I was disassociating, I wasn't really using contrabody motion (at least not consistently), but simply breaking at the waist and dropping my hip and/or shoulder. I had to feel the "correct" way several times (by leading Javier) to feel what I needed to do with my own body. Through turns in particular, even in the ocho cortado which is very minimal pivot, I was falling slightly away from my partner.

2. Again, as above, don't be so quick to complete the "move" - slow down.

3. Match the energy my partner gives me.

4. Keep working on the balance issues - especially using the disassociation exercises. I made more progress on my balance this weekend than I have in the past two weeks simply using the suggestions Javier gave me.  I wish I could explain them here - but even when Javier explained them to me verbally, I struggled to understand. Once he showed me, as a leader and as a follower, within the embrace - I got it.

My only regret was that, once again, I forgot to record either the lesson, or a wrap up dance to review later.  :-/  My brain was too full.

For more about Javier Rochwarger, visit his webpage here: http://www.javitango.com/
Videos of his teaching/dancing can be found here: http://www.javitango.com/videos

Reality Check . . . again. . .

(I am not using the name of the teacher in this post, even though my follow-up posts will identify him, because it doesn't really matter who the teacher is for this subject - and I don't want to get distracted in defending or attacking his style of dancing/teaching etc.)

The continuing adventures of a slow learner . . .
It is deeply disheartening to have my yearly private lesson with a teacher I've studied with the last 3 years, and be corrected for the same mistakes I've been making for the same . three . years.

The first year, he was very understanding. I was still pretty new - only dancing a year. The next year he pushed a little harder and I made excuses. I said I would practice - I would work on it. This year was intensely frustrating. These were things I should have resolved by now - fundamental issues with my embrace, control of my axis, how I change weight. The foundation of tango.

Instead of becoming defensive in the lesson (and wasting my partner's time as well as our teacher's), I detached a little bit. I looked at my dance from his perspective. I tried to imagine how frustrating it must be for him. He comes every year, tells his students, usually many of the same students, the same advice year after year after year. Very little seems to change. Our embraces, generally speaking, are weak. Our control of our axes, even weaker. Our walks are rocky, uneven, falling from one step into the next. That's not true for everyone of course - but for far too many to be ignored.

In my (shared) lesson, I tried, probably out of habit, to make an excuse again - this isn't the way I usually dance. I'm not used to it. I usually dance "buttons-to-buttons", milonguero, full on close embrace. This teacher dances in close embrace but using slightly more of the "v" than I am used to. Even as I made my familiar excuse - I knew it was feeble. It's my job as a follower to adapt - to give what I get in the embrace if I agree to dance. Being able to do that is what makes certain followers so very popular - their ability to adapt easily, seamlessly to any partner they choose to dance with.

After the words came out of my mouth, I immediately regretted saying them. I let the excuse just fall to the floor. He didn't answer it, he just moved on. In fact the feedback/correction he gave me through out most of the lesson was wordless. We both knew instantly when I was slipping up, so there was no need to point out much of anything verbally. He would make corrections to my posture with his embrace and we just kept working. I knew what I needed to do - I just needed to replace the old habits with the new ones. When I needed explanation, he gave it and he gave it very clearly.

Still, my monkey brain was wild at work over-thinking and coming up with more and more excuses. Yes, I've had surgery. Yes, I've had health challenges to my muscles, my posture and my balance - but fundamentally, I just didn't give those issues in my dance attention. They aren't things that are focused on by teachers, or even many of the leaders here in Austin, so I got lazy. With few exceptions (and there are exceptions if you look for them) this is a figures-centric town. I worked on the things that were easier. Now it's clear that I cannot progress my dance until these issues are addressed. Other visiting teachers, and teachers I have sought out in other cities, have had consistently the same criticisms for me.

I've had this mentality of, well I do this, this and this pretty well, I shouldn't have to worry too much about these other things - especially if no one else is giving me negative feedback about it. The problem really is that if I know something is broken and needs work, I shouldn't need someone else to remind me that I need to fix it. It's not going away on it's own. Worse, it is impacting my ability to progress my dance. My lack of technique is impairing my ability to express the music and connect to my partners.

A visiting teacher can't fix your bad habits or mine - there isn't time and that's really not his job. It is his or her job to point out what needs work and get you going in the right direction to overcoming the obstacles. Ultimately it's my job to seek out local teachers, partners and any resources I can find to address the what needs work on my own.  I usually have every intention of doing that. But then the weeks go by and I get busy doing other things, as we all do, and I don't make it a priority. Is it any surprise then that a year later, standing in front of my teacher, I am getting the same feedback I did the year before?

Now it's finally sinking in. Having my own group practica, as well as booking my solo time in the studio, has removed any excuses I might have had left. No one is going to do this work for me and it's long overdue.

For my next post, more for my own recollection than anything else, this year's work list. Maybe by next year I can at least garner some new and interesting criticism.

Rebel, Rebel

Move along, nothing to see here . . . .
I had a 'talking to' no less than 3 times weekend before last - all by dancers I deeply respect and admire. They were each very helpful, well-reasoned arguments against what I had "taken to doing lately with a particular leader."

When it happened, I knew I'd hear about it.  Mouths turned down at the corners, eyebrows knitted and furrowed, a couple of quiet comments were made. On the milonga floor, my leader was breaking the rules, and I was not only letting him, but worse, I was also grinning madly in response.

It was a threefold milonga scandal:

1. My leader and I changed the embrace from a traditional abrazo, to what would look like an odd practice embrace - his arms over my shoulders and my arms around his ribcage (he's quite a bit taller than I am). It looked like I'd given him a big hug and we just started moving. I'll get to the reason for this in a moment - for now, just know that in my communities, as in most tango communities, it's considered inappropriate to be using a practice embrace at a milonga. Practice is for classes and practicas, not social dancing venues. Which leads me to the second point.

2. We were technically practicing. We were problem-solving - not just dancing socially. For that I do take complete responsibility. The reason was, quite simply, I was leaning on my partner and likely making him uncomfortable. Rather than stop the dance and sit me down, he changed the embrace so that we could both be comfortable and I could regain a sense of my axis. (One of the odd side effects of my training has been a sort of uneven redistribution of muscle mass. This has compromised my balance while proprioceptors figure out where all of my bits are again and retrain the weaker muscles. This particular leader has been helping me regain my coordination.)

3. We also changed roles (very briefly - I doubt it was longer than a single phrase of the music.) The strange and beautiful thing about the embrace we were using was that 'lead' and 'follow' became very blurry, fluid things. Within that embrace I had almost as much input as my leader did on the musical expression in our dance. I commented on it between songs and because I didn't mind what we were doing, we continued in that embrace through next song.

The crowd that night was very, very light and there was loads of room. To my knowledge, I can't imagine how we could have interfered with anyone else - except by the way that we looked. While I danced with this particular leader, I had a whole new understanding of communication in the embrace that I hadn't experienced before. We have danced since then, and periodically take that embrace again.

I will confess, I am a fairly crappy leader. I can manage walking, but only just - and it's not pretty. But for the first time I was able to actually try leading for a few steps in a relaxed, fairly contained, way. As I said - I loved it.
Normally all that would have caused was some raised eyebrows and a couple of comments. But the next thing that happened demonstrated exactly why dancers should resist the temptation to "practice" and/or "teach" on the dance floor. I'm told that another leader imitated what we were doing. We set the example and so it became, for at least that other couple, acceptable for them too. That was the sticking point in the conversations I had later. And I admit, especially given what happened, it's a valid point. Practicing has no place in the milonga for exactly that reason. Now that I've been appropriately chastised, this leader and I practice in that manner only in practica. 
My question is, where do you draw the line? When a couple must make modifications to the embrace for mutual comfort - at what point does it become the business of other couples?