Sunday, 25 November 2007

Arm steering

Steering with the arms. Of all the annoying things, I think this is number one, because it's so common, so tiresome, and so fundamental. It's a terribly easy habit to get into. It feels bad, and it destroys the connection, the timing, the fun. Following it is draining, and boring, and hard work. If you want to do an arm lead, go thou and do it properly, in salsa.

Some people manage to do it in close embrace almost as much as they do it in open. I think it comes from not having mastered how to turn your torso from the waist while leaving your hips for a moment where they were. In close embrace it could also be a logical result of not having mastered how to present your chest; if you can't do that, I suppose steering with the arms will seem necessary because you haven't got the connection you need.

I wish there was something, as a follower, I could do about it. It's on my list of things to ask. In a class, I've been instructed to take my hand out of the leader's left and put it on his shoulder to help with this, but I don't think that would work in a milonga. It might cause offence, or be misunderstood, or not be understood at all; and a I think a lot of people do this because they don't know any other way, so in that case it might cause embarrassing paralysis. So, unless I'm going to go on a personal campaign - and I don't think so - I don't think there's much I can do except whinge.

For the follower, though, and based on my personal experience; you have to have the right amount of springiness in your right arm. It sounds paradoxical but if you don't, he can end up having to use his right hand to give you useful signals that would otherwise come from his left, and that can scramble things a bit. And make sure you're happy with the other side of your embrace.

I don't know what other faults in the follower can create or encourage it. That's to ask. I wonder if we can make it happen with tall leaders by pulling them down?

It's not the same as just having hard hands. I know dancers who have a basically good body lead, but spoil it with hard hands that hurt. I think if you were trying to fix problems with the help of a teacher, it would be better to treat that seperately.

When the body lead is right, I'm hardly aware of the leader's hands except as a sort of protective circle. And my right hand that's holding, is just holding hands. There is a place for communication with that hand, but it's not where the lead is coming from.

I'm trying to list annoyances not so that it makes anyone feel bad but so that you know if you don't do any of them, and don't do any obvious unfortunate things like smell bad*, you'll be nice to dance with. Be sure you don't do this one, and you will be nicer to dance with than at least seven tenths of the dancers in London who can get round a floor without embarrassing themselves. Including a lot of people with lots of vocab and no idea.

*For the avoidance of doubt: smelling occasionally as though you'd fallen in the magic cauldron of Hugo Boss is not bad, it's just unintentionally-humorous and endearing. We all make mistakes.


Psyche said...

Ooh, steering, we hates it. It's so tiring. After a while everything aches because you have to fight for possession of your own axis. And it feels as though you're being pushed to take a step that you're simultaneously being told (by the chest) not to take. Horrible mixed messages.

And lots of vocab and no idea - yes, there are lots of those here! I always like the tango/language metaphor - these are the people who think the best conversations have as many longs words in as possible. :)

Ach, I shouldn't moan - I'm sure we have equivalent sins. Plus, leading is bloody hard.

I really wish that guys could learn the way they used to - by dancing with each other. I think the quality of leading would leap forwards, because they'd all experience how uncomfortable it is to be dragged around, or turned when you're not yet back on your axis, or squeezed at the waist so your back breaks. I expect we could learn equivalent things by trying our hand at leading.

msHedgehog said...

I know - I can only write from my own point of view, but I'd hate to have to learn to lead without following the same things first to make sense of them.

I keep wondering if there's a market for a men-only class where everybody gets to follow half the time.

Psyche said...

There is one men-only class in town, it runs once a week, I believe.

Of course it's possible that some men here might feel uncomfortable about dancing with another guy. But I do know some guys that do practice with each other now and then, and they're all excellent dancers.

msHedgehog said...

Who does the men-only class?

I do think the market would be men who are serious about getting good.

tangobaby said...

You mean you DON'T like being pushed around the floor like someone's using you as a lawnmower!?!


I agree, leading is very hard. I can't even begin to do it myself. But I do admire those men who try to learn to follow as well as lead. It does make our lives easier in the long run.

David said...

Steering is definitely a stage that all leaders go through (and some get stuck on). I think it's because we're so used to using our arms to do things rather than our bodies/torsos.

I think that the steering stage ends when the leader realises that they need to cooperate with their dance partner and dance "with them" rather than "make them" dance like a puppet.

Having tried following a few times and taken some classes I have an inkling of just how difficult it is. It definitely changed how I lead.


msHedgehog said...

The "with them" thing is interesting.

Maybe the follower can help a bit by putting plenty of energy into the steps.

It's taken me a surprisingly long time to be able to do that without throwing my balance away or stepping out of the frame, especially in turns. But if I'm a bit weedy I think it encourages arm-steering and makes it worse.

So I have to give it some welly even if it feels a bit like a wrestling match.

I really like exercises where the leader actually puts his hands behind his back. They can sort out both problems and it's always interesting and fun.

David said...

Certainly a follower that puts energy into their steps is nicer to dance with. Completely passive followers soak up energy and are physically tiring to dance with. A follower who puts their own energy into each step they take is a delight to dance with and doesn't feel physically draining at all.

I think that there is a fine balance between putting enough energy in to cover that needed for your movements, and putting too much in and effectively "back leading" the leader. It shouldn't feel like a wrestling match (unless you've got a leader that doesn't give you the freedom to dance).

I guess it all comes down to the connection and sensitivity between leader and follower. If it's there and is strong then you can both dance to your full potential. Technique is a secondary concern and something you will be working on for as long as you dance...

Yes, I agree that the "no hands" exercises are very useful to demonstrate that you can lead and follow without using the arms as levers. I can remember getting very frustrated by those sort of exercises as a beginner leader though!

msHedgehog said...

It only feels like wrestling when you're contending with elbows that constantly straighten and bend and pull and push you around.

If the arms aren't waving about, then when you do find the right energy it feels really easy.

What made those exercises frustrating? Is it just because it's difficult to do physically, at first?

Anonymous said...

I think the best way to think about the arms and embrace is for listening to each other - but not for talking to each other. This means enough connection to keep the frame, feel the impulses and be guided in circular movements and the desired radial distance. But not for pushing or pulling. Think of it as an ear to the ground or a wall.

When people ask me "How much pressure should I put into the arms or hands?" my response is to say "Only enough to maintain communication and connection, and nothing more".

In the close embrace I think the aim is not to use the embrace to send "signals" or leads ... In the open embrace the embrace should be maintained, and if this is done you can feel the lead through it - again its "listened to" rather than "pushed".

The embrace should be "active", switched on and buzzing like a completed electric circuit .. bzzzz! As a leader I really get disappointed by a limp embrace ... !

Psyche said...

I also love those armless exercises. Great for leaders to get the chest thing, and great for followers to learn not to use the embrace to maintain their balance.

I completely agree with David about the 'make them dance/dance with them' thing. I think the problem for a lot of guys is that they think they have to make the follower step, when in fact she has to do it herself. He needs to give an invitation to step, not an order. And if she's being pulled, then she can't accept that invitation properly, because she's not being allowed to be in control of her own movements (you can't walk if you're being held off-balance!). The deal is, he agrees to propose, she agrees to accept - so if she's not being left free to accept (which must feel risky as it allows the possibility that she may refuse!) then everything falls apart. Perhaps many men resort to pulling when they find the follower not accepting their attempts at an invitation - perhaps he's not clear, or she's inexperienced - and then *because* he's pulling, she's even less able to follow him, and so he pulls harder, and the whole thing becomes a nasty downward spiral.

I recently heard Pablo Veron say that tension is usually the result of insecurity, and that certainly makes sense with regard to steering.

David said...

I think that Pyche has answered why the "no arms" exercises are frustrating initially.

I can remember doing these sorts of exercises and not being able to persuade the follower to go where I wanted. The frustration was that if I could use my arms the lead seemed to work. What I was probably doing was using my arms to reinforce my intention and direction, probably pulling the follower off balance and making it feel like she was being forced to move in a particular direction. The "no arms" exercises forced me to give intention and disassociation in the torso to produce the desired movements.

Now, I don't worry if the follower doesn't do exactly what I intended, it just takes the dance off in a different direction. As I get to understand how the follower reacts to me, I can then adjust my lead to give more or less intention and directional information to suit the sensitivity of the follower.

The problem as a beginner is that there are just too many things to think about and control, hence steering. It's difficult to break that habit...

msHedgehog said...

David, I see what you mean. And that sort of thing can go on for hours before anyone realises that the followers sometimes need it spelled out, like "pick a shirt-button to stare at, and walk wherever you have to walk to stay in front of it at a constant distance!"

One time I did those exercises and we actually started not touching at all - just using our eyes.

Psyche said...

Yes! Those basic principles, the tango laws of physics, if you like (hm, maybe I'll write a post about that) need to be the first thing a student hears! I was lucky, because I started with a beginner's workshop for just such principles, but I think a lot of people miss this, because they turn up to a drop-in class, and that class could be doing literally anything. The chances of it starting with the necessary principles are fairly small, because the teachers will be wary of boring the regular students. If you know you have a group of absolute beginners in front of you, then you can start with the usual metaphors - each partner having a light on their chest which they're trying to shine on the other, or the couple being connected by two pieces of elastic, or the woman trying to keep her heart in front of the man, or whatever takes your fancy. But often classes have a mixture of levels.

msHedgehog said...

I started with a structured absolute-beginners' course that did pay attention to the basics, and at the end of it I was in a position to benefit from the more usual kind of class. Otherwise I wouldn't have been. From what I hear, most beginners' classes just leave you stranded.