Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 14: Be kind

Respect your partner, respect yourself.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned about and through this dance that is so wonderful, but that can be quite daunting to newcomers.

Lesson No. 14. It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the codigos.

A while back I wrote a post called It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice. Interestingly, it is by far my most popular blog post yet. Which indicates people don't necessarily perceive their fellow tango dancers as the most sympathetic bunch.

On revisiting this topic, though, I feel the need to make a distinction between being "nice" and being "kind."

Those who are overly concerned with being nice are often motivated by the need for approval and validation by other people. At the same time, they might overlook their own wellbeing in order to accommodate others.

The motivation to be kind, however, is more internal. People who aim for kindness are less concerned about what others might think and more interested in doing the right thing. Yet their respect for others is balanced by their own self-respect.

In tango, "nice" people accept dances with anyone and everyone because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or be perceived as rude or snobby. Of course it is a good thing not to want to hurt people, but if your previous experience with a person was highly unpleasant, you should not feel obligated to repeat it to your own detriment.

"Kind" dancers, on the other hand, might reserve a few tandas for hardworking dancers of a lower level as well as for the lonely newcomer who hasn't danced all night, but they still know when to say no.

I used to be an overly "nice" person – in life and in dance – so I sometimes let people walk all over me and I felt guilty every time I had to say no to someone. This kind of personality doesn't work so well in either parenting or business, so as I grew up I learned that I can still be a kind person without necessarily always being nice.

If you want to be truly kind in tango, I believe you need to occasionally dance with beginners. That being said, it's important to point out what several readers have mentioned in comments on past posts: A beginner is not the same as a bad dancer who has not attempted to make any improvement in a decade. So if I know someone still takes classes and works hard, I am happy to dance with him or her regardless of current level. But someone who thinks he's really good simply because he's been dancing for 15 years but still zigzags all over the dance floor and corrects his partners when they don't execute the move he tried to lead will receive my polite refusal.

I personally believe that teaching should be done through encouragement and positive reinforcement. That means I make sure to tell students not just what they are doing wrong, but what they are doing right. For me, that is the easy part. Early on it was actually hard for me to point out people's misalignments and postural flaws to them, especially when they were blatantly unaware and it meant I basically had to burst their bubble. But students come to me to learn and most of them appreciate a little candour. Besides, I have discovered that most people have a thicker skin than I thought. In any case, a good teacher can make students aware of what they are doing wrong and what needs to be improved without diminishing or criticizing them in a negative or hurtful way.

As I stated in my last post, I firmly believe that following the codigos of the milonga is important and will ultimately improve everyone's experience. I also believe that injecting our milonga-going selves with some generosity will go a long way toward the greater good. And the two are not mutually exclusive. For example, I fully support the use of the cabeceo, but I don't reject invitations on principle just because they were done verbally. If I am happy to dance with you, I'll accept your invitation, silent or verbal, as long as it is respectful.

On the dance floor, the nicest dancers to tango with are those who let go of their egos and dance with generosity. Of course skill level plays a part, but with or without stellar technique, if your partner makes you feel he or she is taking care of you, you will feel pretty good.

Here's how you can take care of your partners:
  • Dance to their level thus making them feel good about their dancing, rather than concerning yourself with showing off all your best moves or adornos.
  • Do everything in your power to avoid collisions on the dance floor. If an accident does happen, make sure no one is hurt and apologize to all concerned; don't get on the defensive and look to place blame.
  • Ignore or laugh off any mistakes or miscommunications. Accept that errors are part of tango, and whatever you do, do not instruct, correct or otherwise comment on your partners' dancing when things don't go as planned.
Do all this and those you dance with will keep coming back for more. People with a generous spirit put others before themselves; tango dancers with a generous spirit put their partners’ enjoyment first – without sacrificing their own wellbeing. If both partners do this, then both will feel safe, connected and at ease. They might find they don't want the tanda to end, and certainly will seek out another one later.

We get very little out of being egotistical, which blocks our empathy as well as our own capacity to learn. Be kind and generous and you will ultimately contribute to the growth and improvement of others, of yourself and of the community as a whole.

Previously: Lesson No. 13: The milonga has rules and we should follow them.

Next: Lesson No. 15: Working hard and having fun are not mutually exclusive.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 13: The milonga has rules, and we should follow them

To achieve a ronda that flows smoothly, we must treat the other couples on the
floor not as obstacles to be avoided, but as an integral part of our dancing.

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned about and through this dance that encompasses a whole unique universe, full of its own traditions and customs.

Lesson No. 13. The codigos exist for good reason

I believe more firmly in tango's codigos (codes of conduct) every day, and I reinforce them more and more in my teaching. The reason for these rules of etiquette is not to limit or restrict people's freedom or enjoyment, but, on the contrary, to ensure that a pleasurable time can be had by all.

In addition to the universal rules of courtesy and good manners, there are some that apply specifically to social dancing and even more specifically to Argentine tango.

I wrote a longer post on this topic a couple of years ago. This is an updated version that I hope will serve as both a guide for beginners going to their first milongas and a friendly reminder for those who have been dancing a while.

CROSSING THE DANCE FLOOR

When you enter a milonga, or need to cross from one side of the dance floor to the other, always go around the floor, not through the middle.

THE MIRADA-CABECEO INVITATION SYSTEM

I am an increasingly strong supporter of the mirada-cabeceo invitation system. Mirada means "look," cabeceo means "nod," and together they make up the traditional, non-verbal and most widely accepted way of inviting and getting invited to dance tango. Basically, leader and follower look directly at the person they wish to dance with and, hopefully, catch each other's eye. Then the leader nods or motions with his/her head and the follower nods or smiles his/her acceptance.

It's worth practicing it because it works.

As a follower, it means you're not sitting around passively waiting to be chosen by whomever decides to walk up to you and ask. And to accept or not to accept becomes a non-issue. Because you have to make eye contact in order to invite or be invited, if you don’t want to dance with someone, you just don’t make eye contact. No need to outright refuse or make up excuses. I believe the technique actually empowers women. There are still people out there who frown upon women doing the inviting, but with the cabeceo, the line between inviter and invitee is blurred. After all, if I want to dance with him, I am the one who has to look him in the eye … then he nods and I smile, or was it me who smiled and then he nodded?

As a leader you're not asking directly and risking outright rejection or maybe getting a reluctant "yes" from someone who doesn't really want to dance with you but doesn't want to hurt your feelings either.

So this system means each dance is a mutual agreement. This subtle assertiveness may not always be easy for shy types, but if you master the technique, who knows? You may actually overcome some of your shyness at the same time. And the mirada-cabeceo system is assertive on both sides. You need to look directly at the person you want to dance with and he or she needs to look right back. Then the nod and you're off, both having chosen each other.

Of course, nothing is fool-proof. The one drawback here is the risk of confusion. If the room is large or dark or very crowded, it can be hard to tell who is looking at whom, so when someone nods toward your table, it may be hard to discern the target. If you nod at someone and the wrong person accepts, the kind and polite thing to do is to dance the tanda with your unintended, and hope you are more on target next time.

In any case, this all should take place after the tanda starts and not during the cortina (though feel free to plan ahead and be ready). Why? Because you are supposed to choose your dancers and the music in relation to one another. In my case, there are some dancers I like very much dancing tango with, but not so much quick, rhythmic milongas. I save most waltzes for a few specific partners and dramatic Puglieses for others. Sure, there are dancers I will happily dance anything with – my own partner for one – but they are the exception. Connection is just as much about the music as the person in your arms, and when the two fit well together it can be magical.

The verbal invitation: While I encourage the use of the cabeceo, there are instances in which it is just fine to verbally invite someone. If you happen to be standing right next to someone and want to dance with them, it makes sense to use words. If you are having a conversation with someone and a great tanda starts up, of course you would ask the person verbally.

Whom to dance with: I generally don’t avoid or refuse people based on skill level but rather on attitude and dance floor etiquette. Leaders I avoid are those who push, pull and generally manhandle me so I have to spend every second fighting for my balance. I also try to steer clear of those who show a complete disregard for the other dancers on the floor. Leaders who use their partners like shields or weapons on the dance floor are really stressful, because their followers spend all their focus looking over their shoulders trying to do the leader's job of avoiding collisions. Also, dancers who correct or teach their partners on the dance floor are high on my list of those to avoid. 

As advanced dancers, if we are sure to accept at least a few dancers regardless of skill level, we will help beginners to improve their dancing. Meanwhile, if we reject based on bad behaviour, we may help some dancers to work on that.

In terms of enjoyment as a follower, and therefore likelihood I will accept or seek out future invitations, things I personally look for are: connection to me; attention to dance-floor flow and safety; musicality. Creative figures and fun moves are on the list, but not if they get in the way of the aforementioned items.

Cutting in: Nope. Not during a song, not in between songs. It is not even good manners to grab someone during the cortina when he or she hasn’t yet left the dance floor after the previous dance. You just aren't supposed to invite someone who’s already on the dance floor.

Entering the dance floor: Please do not forget this second, equally important use of the cabeceo. When entering the line of dance with your partner, you must be conscious of oncoming traffic and avoid cutting right in front of an approaching couple. Unless you can easily merge leaving several paces free in front of the next couple, make eye contact with the leader before you merge and wait for his/her acknowledgement. When you are dancing, be aware of the dance floor's entry points and allow other couples to merge as needed.

ON THE DANCE FLOOR

The tanda: Tandas are sets of three or four songs by one orchestra or of a similar style. Tandas are separated by cortinas, short clips of non-tango music. Normally we are meant to finish a full tanda with the same partner. Being left partway through a tanda feels bad. So, barring exceptional circumstances, remember that a tanda lasts but 9-12 minutes of your life. Even if it is unpleasant, you can probably grin and bear it. However, there are three instances in which it is acceptable to stop dancing partway through a tanda:
  1. Both partners came to a mutual agreement before the dance began.
  2. An injury or other emergency occurs during the dance.
  3. The partner’s behaviour is so rude or disrespectful as to merit their being offended or embarrassed by being abandoned mid-tanda.

Respect the ronda: Leaders, follow the ronda, or line of dance. This means not weaving randomly from one line or lane to another and not speeding around the floor cutting in front of all the other couples. Ideally, every couple should finish each song positioned ahead of and behind the same couple as when it started. Also, always look ahead of you rather than down in order to avoid collisions, and back up infrequently and with care. All this is probably one of the most difficult parts of learning to lead, but I think it is a little less difficult when we see the other couples on the floor not simply as obstacles to be avoided, but as an integral part of our dancing. We should dance with the other couples, not against or despite them. Imagine the whole dance floor moving as one, each couple unique, but together. What a flow there would be.

Followers, stay within the space your partner creates for you and avoid kicking up your feet unless you are sure it is safe. This means that if you dance with your eyes closed, you really shouldn't ever be kicking your feet up behind you. Meanwhile, if your eyes are open, it's OK to stop your partner from taking that step backward if it means avoiding a collision.

Less talk, more dancing: As anyone who has read my blog post on the subject knows, this is a big one for me: Please avoid teaching or correcting your partner. Dance to the level of your partner, and when something isn't working, try to improve your own technique. Corrections are the job of teachers, and should be saved for class time. In general, just save the conversation for when the music stops. Constant apologies for every misstep are almost as distracting as corrections. And if you want to chat about the weather or discuss your day, have a seat at the bar.

Quality, not quantity: It's the connection that counts. Limit your large movements, especially when the dance floor is full. And, once again, don't lead or execute any off-the-floor boleos without first ensuring you have plenty of room to do so.

It has been said that the tanguero who dances non-stop for three hours straight doesn’t really love tango, he just needs to keep moving: that a “real” dancer chooses his music and his partners discerningly – as mentioned earlier, often one as a consequence of the other. I think there is definitely room for both types of dancer in every milonga, but try not to get discouraged or bitter if you didn't get as many tandas as you hoped. Some nights are like that, and one great tanda is sometimes enough to make your night.

No hit and runs! Accidents happen. Never mind whose fault it was; it's just good manners to say sorry, make sure the other person is OK and be more careful next time.

If this all sounds like a lot to think about, it is at first. But with practice it will become as integral a part of your dancing as walking, embracing your partner and following the rhythm. After all, when you learn to drive a car, operating the vehicle is just a small part of the package. On the road you have to follow the flow of traffic, be aware and respectful of everyone else around you and avoid collisions. Shouldn't it be the same on the dance floor?

Previously: Lesson No. 12: Be good to your feet

Next: Lesson No. 14: It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the codigos

Friday, October 06, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 12: Proper foot care is a big step in the right direction

Two decades of tango have been tough on my feet, so this next lesson has been partly learned the hard way.

Lesson No. 12. Be good to your feet.

Our feet support our whole bodies. They bear our weight and allow us to stand, to walk, to run, jump and, of course, dance.

So we ought to be thankful to our feet, and to do right by them with all they do for us. There is hardly a move we humans make that doesn't involve those hardworking babies at the ends of our legs.

Tango is particularly tough on our feet. If you use your feet effectively while dancing tango, you exaggerate the rolling-through motion of the foot from heel to toes when walking forward to better control your landings and gain maximum propulsion. You have no doubt heard at least one teacher say to "push the floor." When walking, transferring your weight or pivoting you need to push into the metatarsals and through the toes to generate powerful movements that your partner will feel. This is an essential part of good tango technique but it puts a lot of pressure on the balls of the feet. And if you, like most people, have spent much of your life underusing your feet, you may suddenly find yourself with tired, sore, even injured feet.

Underusing, you ask? But didn't I just say we use our feet for almost every movement we make? Interestingly, despite the fact we constantly load our feet with weight and movement, we generally underuse the intrinsic muscles of the feet because we spend so much of our lives wearing shoes and walking around on hard, flat surfaces. We don't work the strength, flexibility or even mobility of our feet thoroughly so the muscles atrophy and our feet become weak and prone to pain and injury.

Young children generally have broad soles and splayed toes. They also have better foot dexterity than adults and can do things like wiggle their toes individually. We lose this ability in adulthood, but in barefoot cultures around the world, people retain that foot dexterity into old age.

Meanwhile, many if not most knee, hip and back problems begin with the feet.

The good news is that since most foot problems are biomechanical, meaning they are caused by the way we stand and move as well as by the shoes we wear, many are avoidable or even resolvable through biomechanics as well.

Some things you can do to take care of your feet:

When you are standing, your feet should be parallel,
with equal pressure on the inner and outer edges.
•Check your foot position. How do you place your feet when you stand and walk? If you are standing, your feet should be parallel with each other, with the toes facing forward rather than turned in or out. Also, you should have equal pressure on the inner and outer edges of the feet, so you are neither pronating (rolling in) nor supinating (rolling out) when you stand or walk. When in motion it is important to mobilize your feet and ankles and to pay attention to the rolling-through process of each step, forward and backward. In tango, we generally recommend keeping a slight v-shape between the feet, so your heels are together and the fronts of your feet are slightly outward-facing. The degree, however, should be very small – this will help stabilize you without messing with your joint alignment. Your toes should not be jammed into the floor when you are standing. Your centre of gravity should be carried far enough back that your toes are free to lift and wiggle, and that centre should stay back even when you are in motion. This all brings me to my next point.

The line that passes through
your main points of alignment
should be vertical.
•Maintain correct postural alignment. This refers to how the head, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles line up with each other. Proper alignment of the body helps you achieve and maintain good posture, and it will improve your dancing. Poor alignment puts stress on the spine and other articulations, and can ultimately cause joint degeneration.

There are four main points that should be aligned when we are standing. If you drew a line through each of them, it would be completely vertical, not diagonal. Moving from the ground up, these points are:
• the lateral malleolus, or the little bone on the outside of the ankle
• the greater trochanter, or the top part of the femur (thigh bone), at the the hip joint
• the acromion, or the little bone at the top of the shoulder
• the auditory meatus, or ear hole

For more about posture and alignment, you can read my blog post on the subject, but I will wrap up this section with a note about my personal experience:

It is through yoga more than anything that I began really to understand proper alignment and to stand correctly, beginning about seven years ago. When I was younger I could never understand why I could run 10 kilometres or dance all night with relative ease, but I couldn't stand for more than 20 minutes without extreme fatigue and soreness in my feet. I eventually learned that I was carrying my centre of gravity too far forward, which put a lot of stress on my metatarsal joints (and a lot of weight on my tango partners). Whether standing, walking or dancing tango, our axis should be carried over our heels. The heel bone is the largest bone in the foot and made to support our body weight. Now that I know how to properly align myself, I can stand for much longer periods of time without pain or fatigue. Even my high heels tire my feet less. But that doesn't mean I wear them more...

While we may love our stiletto-heeled
tango shoes, they are not so good
for our bodies.
•Choose your shoes with care.

For tangueros, the main question is: Why dance shoes and not just comfy street shoes? Dance shoes have a good balance of support and flexibility. Also, they fit the shape of your foot well and the soles are neither thick nor wider than the upper part of the shoe, so you can get a good feel for the floor, your partner's feet and the movements of your own feet. Just be sure to get a good fit with enough width for your toes.

For tangueras, it's a whole other story. Most women's tango shoes have high heels. Very high heels. Very high stiletto heels. Meanwhile, I think everyone knows that high heels are not good for us. Countless articles and books have been written on this topic and studies show again and again the harm that long-term high-heel wearing does to women's bodies. It affects our feet, our knees, our hips, our backs and even our leg muscles.

There seems to be little consensus on what the ideal heel height should be for healthy feet. Some experts say the optimal height is 1-1.5 inches (2.5-4 centimetres); others say it's a totally flat heel. Still others say it varies from person to person based on the shape of their feet. Yet no one seems to recommend 3.5-inch (9-centimetre) stilettos as optimal footwear.

I have been wearing heels to dance tango for 20 years. For the first 10 I didn't feel many ill effects aside from sore feet at the end of a long night of dancing and permanent calluses (the so-called dancer's pad) under the middle of the balls of my feet. But since I opened my school and made tango my full-time job – I dance five or six days a week and can spend up to 9 hours some days teaching, practising and dancing – my feet have felt it. It's not just the shoes, of course. It's partly the sheer number of hours I spend on my feet. And I don't wear heels all the time; I probably don't wear them even half the time, especially these days. The older I get and the more I study posture, alignment and biomechanics, the less often I wear high heels.

So what's a fashion-loving tanguera to do? It just doesn't look or feel the same to dance in flats or even cute low-heeled practice shoes as it does to dance in sexy heels. The smartest choice you could make, and the safest one for the long-term health of your feet and joints, is to give up the high heels and just dance in low-heeled shoes or flats. But if, like me, you are not yet ready to give up the sexy shoes altogether I suggest the following:
  1. Vary your dance footwear and your heel heights. Change your shoes often, about every two hours if you will be on your feet longer than that. Make sure you have at least one pair of low-heeled practice shoes in your collection.
  2. As much as possible, save the high heels for the milongas. Spend much of your class and practice time in lower-heeled shoes, and don't wear high heels at all outside of tango, to give your body as much of a break as you can. Everything in life is about balance, so a few hours a week probably won't do you much harm if you're wearing sensible shoes the rest of the time. (Also avoid spending a lot of time in flip flops. They're terrible for your feet, too.) 
  3. Make sure that the high-heeled shoes you do wear fit your feet well and especially are wide enough for you. Thankfully those closed-toe pointy things are no longer in fashion. The sandal-style shoes all the tangueras wear these days at least allow the toes some space to move and spread a little.
  4. Make sure to train your body to keep properly aligned, even in your tango shoes. Hips over heels always. To facilitate this, the heel of your shoe should be placed right under the heel of your foot (not too far back) and should feel stable. 
  5. Compensate for the high-heel wearing by regularly exercising your feet and stretching your legs, especially your calves, which get shortened with repeated wearing of high heels. Read on...
•Exercise your feet to improve their strength, flexibility and mobility.
Your regular workout routine should include
exercises to stretch and strengthen your feet.
  1. Do toe workouts, including lifting your toes up while standing, spreading your toes and moving each toe individually. Many people (including me) cannot really do this last one, but with practice you can retrain the necessary little muscles and you will eventually see results. (I've been working on toe agility lately and have made slight progress.) My yoga teacher even showed me an exercise meant to realign the big toe with the inner line of the foot, to prevent or reverse the onset of bunions.
  2. Do exercises to both strengthen and stretch the soles and arches of the feet. Strengthening exercises include scrunching up a towel using your toes or picking up marbles or other small objects using the toes. You can also just scrunch up your toes without any props. A good stretch for the feet (see image) is to kneel on the floor, sitting on your heels (be sure to put a towel under your knees) with the toes tucked under and hold for 30 seconds or as long as you can bear it. 
  3. Regularly stretch your hamstrings (backs of the thighs) and your calves. Yoga, anyone?
  4. Massage the soles of your feet with a tennis ball. Doing this while standing is best, so you can put a good amount of pressure on the different parts of your feet. If your feet are too sensitive at first, you can do it sitting in a chair. This massage eventually feels great, and it somewhat mimics walking barefoot on uneven surfaces, something our long-ago ancestors did, but few of us do.
  5. Pamper those hardworking babies. Soak sore feet in cold water. Massage them with a soothing foot lotion before bed. Treat yourself to a foot massage or pedicure.
  6. Walk barefoot on the beach. Great for the soles, great for the soul.
Pain won't go away?
See a specialist.
•If you have foot pain that is acute or long-lasting, see a professional. My specialist of choice is an excellent physiotherapist who has helped me through many minor injuries over the years. You might prefer a podiatrist, osteopath or other specialist, but if you are in pain, get it looked into. Did you know that 25 per cent of our bones are in the feet and ankles? Not to mention the 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments found in the feet. That's a lot of little parts that can get injured.

My partner and I have had our share of foot ailments with names like hallux valgus, metatarsalgia, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures and an enchondroma. Currently I'm having ongoing pain and stiffness in my ankles, so I will be back at the physiotherapist's office next week. I also have tight, overdeveloped calves, which limit my flexibility and mobility. Whether this a result of all that ballet in my teen years, all the high heels in my tango years, simple genetics or a combination of all three I don't know, but I make a point of stretching my calf muscles almost every day now. 

I, for one, beat up my feet with my lifestyle, but more and more I make sure to take a little time each day to take care of them, too, so that they can keep taking care of me and my dancing for many years to come.


Next: Lesson No. 13. The "codigos" exist for good reason.