Can you Learn Tango from Videos?

Behind the Scenes of Gone with the Wind. Rhett dances with Scarlett

As a tango teacher I occasionally come across people who are trying out ‘a move’ they’ve seen on {insert your favourite internet video service here}, or they ask me to teach them ‘that move where I do this and she does that. It’s on {insert your favourite internet… you get the idea}’.

Hmm… well for one thing, strangely enough I haven’t watched every tango video on the internet and committed them to memory. Maybe a task for later πŸ™‚

But also, where I have looked at tango videos, I’ve discovered quite a lot of stuff which is of variable quality as far as educational value is concerned. Some of it can be very good, but other ‘teaching’ videos can be quite bad from a learning point of view – they are really just marketing videos.

So to come back to the main question I would say my answer is a very heavily qualified yes. Here’s some qualification…

Choreography

Video is a reasonable medium for learning choreography, providing the dancers on the video know what they are doing and perform a movement well.

However, you need good production quality to make sure the camera picks up all the nuances such as, for example, where leaders/followers feet are in relation to each other. I’m not just taking about HD vs standard resolution here. I’m talking about camera angles, lighting, even down to the clothing the dancers wear, and so on. I once took a video on my not so brilliant camera phone of a couple of teachers demonstrating what had just been taught in the class. The lighting wasn’t brilliant and both of them had dark flared trousers on which totally obscured the choreography when displayed on a 2 dimensional screen. If I hadn’t been at the class the video wouldn’t have been much use to me.

Leading and Following

Understanding how a figure is led or followed is a whole lot more tricky when viewing a video. The more complex a figure is, the more technique will be used to make it look smooth and effortless, so unless you already know these techniques, it may not be possible to see the subtleties of a technique like ‘body lead’ or dissociation on a video. Just copying the movement you see in the video will not guarantee you will be able to dance the figure with every partner.

So to find a tango video useful, it would imply you are not a beginner/improver and that you’ve already developed enough skills in leading/following to be able to super-impose that knowledge onto the choreography that you see.

Styling videos

There are a number of ladies styling videos out there which do show some elegant decorations, foot shaping, boleos etc., so yes ladies, you can pick up some hints and tips from these, but please remember that the dancer in the video is not being led. She knows what’s coming next!

In the real world a follower may not be given time to do the fancy footwork they want to try out, so they have to be prepared to take the next step at any given moment. You might want to try these adornments out in practise first, and possibly with a trusted leader who will give you time to complete them, so you can test out the difficulties in using them to different music, speeds etc.

So in conclusion, yes, it is possible to pick up new material from watching a video, but you would still have to test it out in a practica first to make sure you were leading/following correctly. Even if you did seem to be performing the movement correctly’, there is still a chance that you are not performing it in the most efficient/effective way.

This would imply seeking out a tango teacher who had the skills to teach you the ‘correct way’ of doing things.

However, please give them half a chance and show them the video you’re referring to rather than saying ‘it’s that one on the internet…’ πŸ™‚

The Anatomy of the Tango Embrace

Rudolf Valentino in an embraceEl Abrazo – The Embrace. Even the name conjures up nice, warm, comfortable feelings πŸ™‚

It is an important aspect of Argentine tango. It is the channel through which a leader communicates intent, silently, with their partner. Many tango teachers and dancers will talk about ‘connection’. Sometimes they refer to the physical connection, and sometimes they will refer to being ‘in tune’ with your partner. It is a complex mix of physical, musical, and emotional elements. Get it right and you can achieve that sublime feeling when you feel fully in tune with your partner and at the end both agree that you had a ‘perfect’ dance.

However the embrace must still start with the physical connection, without which the non physical aspects are difficult if not impossible to achieve, so here are a few tips to enhance your embrace.

1. The embrace should be flexible and able to open/close as the dance dictates. Since the leader is creating the broad structure of the dance the decision to open/close the embrace will mainly be down to them.

  • A closed embrace is good for walking. The feedback between leader and follower is virtually instant.
  • An open embrace is good for figures where the legs need room to move.

In any given dance the embrace will be moving from closed to open and back again as the leader invites the follower to move.

2. When placing hands on followers back, or on leaders shoulder blades etc. it is useful to have a slight pressure there. In this way, when the leader stops moving the follower will feel slight extra pressure on her back and a slight extra pressure in her hand on leaders shoulder blade. When leader moves again it will be the other way round, a slight relief of pressure (in a walk for example). This will add one more avenue of feedback, as well as visual, and other body contact feedback.

3. No squeezing hard please! Leaders, do not grab your follower in a bear hug. They have to be able to breathe to dance. Followers, do not clamp the leaders arm tightly under yours especially in open embrace. This will restrict the leaders ability to lead and you will miss out on all that potential tango goodness.

4. Leaders, create a frame in which the follower is comfortable, but when necessary can move freely within the frame. When moving the frame, the arms and chest should be considered as one unit. If you rotate to one side or the other, the arms do not move independently of the chest (most of the time… there are always exceptions πŸ™‚ )

5. If you feel your connection is failing, then examine your embrace from a communications point of view. Every communication has a transmitter (the leader indicating intent), a communication medium (the embrace), and a receiver (the follower receiving the intent and responding correctly). A communication can fail if any of those elements break down, or even just stop performing at optimum.

The transmitter stops transmitting. This would equate to the leader not transmitting intent clearly enough. Note; ‘clearly’ does not mean forcibly. The leader is not trying to push or pull his partner into position. The leader can ‘invite without option’ by inviting the follower to step in one direction, but at the same time limiting the choice of other directions. If leaders master this technique they won’t need to pull or push.

The communications medium breaks down. In this case the embrace is not clearly transmitting the lead. This results in a lack of connection. It will more often happen in open embrace where the connection is by definition, less secure and more compromised, so leaders need to be as clear as possible, and followers need to use other senses and mechanisms for detecting the lead, more so than in close embrace.

The receiver stops receiving. The follower is not tuned in and is not receptive to the lead, even though it’s clear and the embrace is fine. In this case followers, it’s either time to wake up and tune in, or if you’re tired it’s time to stop dancing.

All of these things can happen sometime in a milonga, especially near the end after 4 or 5 hours dancing when everybody is pleasantly tired but no longer concentrating.

6. Once you have the physical connection in place you can then start to consider the musical connection. After all, you are both dancing to the same tune, and presumably hearing the same beats, melody, opportunities for syncopation, and so forth. To achieve this musical connection both dancers need to be familiar with the tune, and there is no easy way to make yourselves familiar with tango music except to listen to lots of it.

Once you both start really hearing and dancing to the tune, you will be able to add another layer onto your connection because a follower will be able to ‘anticipate’ (I know – not supposed to πŸ™‚ ) what a leader may be about to lead because of the musical phrase both dancers know is coming up next. The music tells both of you what to do! This may seem like anticipation but may simply be both dancers instinctively knowing ‘the most appropriate movement’ for that musical phrase, because of hundreds of hours dancing and listening to tango music.

7. Then we have the emotional connection. This is the hardest to achieve because emotions are personal to each dancer. This implies that to achieve an emotional connection one of you has to be perceptive, sympathetic, or empathetic to the others mood and be willing to give up your own emotional need in that time, in order to adopt a similar mood.

So to review Leaders must be skilled in how to lead the movement, and clearly transmit the intent. The embrace must be relaxed but firm enough to allow the physical movement of leading to be quickly picked up, and the follower must be attentive and tuned in (or as a bare minimum, awake πŸ™‚ ). You must both be really listening to the music, and for a dance with ’emotional cohesion’ you both must be roughly in the same mood.

It’s a lot to ask for, which is why we perhaps don’t have many (if any) ‘perfect’ dances in any single milonga, but when you get one… that’s what keeps you coming back for more πŸ™‚

So this thing called leading…

Annoyed CoupleSo this thing called ‘leading’ – it’s entirely up to the tango leader to get the follower to go where he wants when he wants, right? The leader is in charge, yes? There is also this other thing called ‘following’ where the tango follower only has to wait to be pushed around, to be given impetus and energy by the leader, correct?

Well, to observe some tango leaders and followers you might imagine this is the case, but it’s not right. I haven’t yet met a man in the whole world that can actually get a woman to do exactly what he wants her to, and it’s true in Argentine tango. Leaders can invite the follower to take a step in his favoured direction but he can’t force them to take it.

Remember that tango is a partner dance and leaders and followers dance in partnership. It really does take two to tango! πŸ™‚

So leaders; allow your followers space and time to express and make adornments. You don’t have to step on every beat, or be in constant movement across the floor. If your follower wants to do a few adornments which might take time, allow it (she might even think you’re a better dancer if you do…), and followers;

if you see that your leader is inviting you into a recognisable figure such as an ocho or giro, please get on with it (while keeping an eye on his lead just in case it’s not what you think πŸ™‚ ). For example, when a leader is stood on one foot trying to turn on the spot while leading you around in a giro, there isn’t much chance he’ll be able to give you energy and impetus as well, so you need to get on with doing the giro, while not getting too far ahead of the leader.

So to sum up, it’s a partner dance, each person has their own role and should be given assistance, space and time to carry it out. Each person is in charge of their own balance, axis and motive power and should not rely too much on the other to provide them (but there will be times… and that’s OK… occasionally…).

By working together you can make a dance seem wonderful. By working against each other, resisting a lead, not being clear in a lead, not allowing time for expression, the end of a dance can’t come soon enough…

Let’s have more wonderful dances! πŸ™‚