Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Building awareness

Developing an awareness of how you move
will allow you to start to make adjustments
that will improve your tango and that you can
carry over into everyday life.
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If we’re going to dance tango, it’s a good idea to know what we’re doing with our bodies. Sounds obvious, but it’s not a given for many people.

Often people come to their first tango class and are surprised by the type of comments they receive about their dancing. Not only do they need to learn steps and sequences and do them in sync with a partner, they need to worry about such things as bringing their feet together in between steps, adjusting the length of their steps, holding their arms and shoulders a certain way, turning the torso this way or that, looking in a particular direction, and the list goes on.

This can feel pretty overwhelming to someone who has not been trained to move with an awareness of such things. Students can easily become defensive about the teachers’ comments (“How does she know if I’m pushing the floor… and what does that even mean, anyway?”), and frustrated with what they perceive to be criticism because they’re “doing it wrong.” What’s important to understand is the goal of corrections is not (or at least should not be) to criticize the student or to get them do things “right” on the next try, but to gradually build an awareness of how they are moving and how they can adjust and improve their movements.

Unlike with highly technical dances like classical ballet or contemporary dance, most people come to tango (and other social dances) in adulthood, many in middle age or beyond and many of those with little to no previous training in dance or related disciplines. Tango attracts a lot of intellectual types and professionals, people who spend a large part of their lives in thinking pursuits rather than physical ones; in other words, people who are not necessarily “in their bodies.”

Of course we all use our bodies every day. We know that we walk by putting one foot in front of the other, but maybe we have never thought about just how we place our foot on the floor, how it rolls through each step, whether our toes are facing in or out, whether our weight is more in our heels or our toes, the inside or the outside of our feet…

One very common thing that comes up with students is when I see that someone tends to turn his or her toes inward when they walk. I can tell them 20 times to bring the heels in or send the toes out or keep the ball of the big toe on the floor, but my corrections are useless if the student does not even know that his or her toes are, in fact, turned in. I know this is the case when my comments are met with looks of confusion or bewilderment. Then what I need to do is to catch the student in mid-step and have them freeze, look down and see the position of their foot, which may very well have felt completely natural and right if that’s how they have been walking every day of their lives. Once they have seen the position they need to change, I like to get them to close their eyes and feel how it feels, then I help them reposition the foot in a more correct way and have them feel that as well. Only once they know what their default position and their goal position both feel like can they effectively work toward the latter.

I once worked with a teacher who insisted that breaking down and explaining the technique of movements was not necessary. He believed that it was sufficient to teach steps and sequences and that if students repeated the steps often enough, having seen a demonstration of how they should look in the end, their bodies would eventually adapt and execute them correctly. This method may indeed work for trained dancers and those people who are just born with body awareness and have a natural ability to reproduce a movement because they know by what it looks like what it should feel like, but in the tango world those people are a minority. This method doesn’t work for people who are not aware of the mechanics of their movements in the first place, which, again, is the case for a large percentage of tango students.

Just developing an awareness of how you move and how you want to move will allow you to start to make minor adjustments that will improve your tango and that you can carry over into everyday life. For example, if you tend to round your upper back and lift and hunch your shoulders forward, training your body to stand up straighter and hold your shoulders down will strengthen your back muscles, giving you better posture not only on the dance floor but in your daily activities.

If we understand that the important thing is not the end goal but the benefits of the work we are doing, we may eliminate some of the frustration and impatience that comes with the (never-ending) learning process.

Social tango dancers (as opposed to teachers or stage dancers) need not be concerned with the flawless execution or aesthetic appeal of every move. The good news is that although most of us don’t need to focus too hard on the visual aspect of our dancing, if we work on our technique in terms of function, the end result will be more aesthetically pleasing.

Progressing in tango is not about attaining perfection, it is about building awareness. It is not about getting it right every time, it is about knowing how it feels when you do get it right, and gradually working toward that feeling as your new normal.

So awareness is about feeling rather than thinking. We might understand intellectually how a movement or position should be, but it is another thing for the body to actually execute it, and then the body needs to repeat it over and over until the new way becomes natural and you no longer have to think much about it at all.

Some people, those I call “doers,” learn movements in the body first, by doing them, and then they analyze them, break them down, understand and memorize them afterward. Other people, let’s call them “thinkers,” need to understand a movement intellectually first and then teach it to their bodies. Tango might come more easily to the doers, because they have an innate sense of body awareness and do things by feeling from the get-go. But the thinkers will get there, too; it just might take a little longer, especially at the beginning as they are just starting to develop that awareness. More good news: With practice we not only learn to dance, we learn to learn, so as our body awareness develops we actually learn faster and more easily. To help this process along, we can train ourselves to simply notice how our body feels as we execute movements – on and off the dance floor – and then try to reproduce some of those feelings whenever we can.

Of course, in tango we not only need to be aware of our own movements, we need to be aware of our partners’ movements. This is equally true for leaders and followers. For leaders it may be interesting to note that awareness of their partners is in fact the most important thing. The mistake many leaders make is trying too hard to control their partners’ dancing rather than simply noticing their partners’ actions and reactions and following through on those. It is up to the followers to execute their own movements and do their own dancing, while keeping a constant awareness of where their partners are, what they themselves feel and what their own bodies are doing.

We also need to be aware of how our own positions and movements affect our partners. Is my embrace pushing or pulling her off balance? Is my head position getting in the way of his comfort? Are my steps so long I am a challenge to keep up with? Once we are aware, we can start to adjust.

And then, of course, we must keep a part of our awareness on what is happening around us and the effect we may have on the other dancers. If we are aware, we will almost certainly be attentive to the flow of the dance floor. The dancers who are oblivious to others are also the biggest danger to others.

Perfection in tango (or in anything) is an unattainable goal, so it is pointless to expect it or to feel frustrated when we do not attain it. And we all have limits we need to be aware of and to respect. If we start tango at age 70 we may not progress as quickly or get as far as someone who started at age 25. If we are not naturally flexible we may not have as impressive a boleo as the girl who danced ballet from a young age and can do the splits effortlessly. We will have specific adjustments to make if we are very tall or very short, or if we have lingering injuries. But we all improve and will eventually learn enough to hold our own on the dance floor at the very least. We just need patience, desire and, above all, awareness.

Postscript: The day I had finished writing this post a dancer came to tell me she had just had a new experience: She had been out dancing the night before and for the first time felt she was able to both abandon herself to the dance and keep a real awareness of her posture and technique. She mentioned it to me because I had talked about just that in a class earlier in the week while mentioning specifically, I think, how to use the back muscles to stand tall and keep the shoulders down. She said to me that she felt she had reached a new level in her dancing and that "it's all about body awareness." Indeed it is, I said, and then told her that her comments would appear in my next blog post!

Here are some ways you can improve your body awareness:

Yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi. Yoga is my personal favourite complement to tango and it is taking a bigger and bigger place in my life, but all the mind-body disciplines build strength, balance, flexibility and most of all awareness. Like tango, yoga is not, or should not be, about "getting it right" or reaching the maximum version of every pose; it’s about getting to know your body and working with your body to improve all those things.

Private lessons. One-on-one instruction is invaluable. A good teacher will give you feedback that you can take away with you and techniques that you can apply on your own. When you take lessons and receive feedback from your teachers, especially when you hear the same comments over and over, learn to scan and coach yourself the way the teacher does. Try not to get defensive or discouraged and instead learn to become your own little reminder voice, checking up on you to see if your shoulders are lifted, your hips are too forward or your knees are too bent. Teachers repeat themselves not to nag but because once is not enough to change a lifelong habit. You can teach your own body through repetition as well.

Film yourself.
It can be hard on the ego, but watching yourself dance is a great way to become aware of how you really move and what you need or want to work on most.

Daily practice.
You don't have to dance tango every day, though you certainly could, but simply practising awareness of and then minor adjustments to your posture and your movements as you perform your daily tasks will help you develop new habits. Notice how you stand while you’re brushing your teeth, cooking dinner or standing in line at the bank. Once you are aware of your weaknesses and what the movement or alignment you are aiming for should look and feel like you just keep reminding yourself and adjusting yourself every time you think of it, whether that’s once a day or 100 times a day. Eventually the new positions will start to replace the old habits and you’ll become quicker to correct and adjust yourself, often without even giving it much thought. You will learn to dance and to live with a constant speck of awareness on your posture and body position.

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