Saturday, 28 February 2009

Keeping your feet together, or not

Digging in the drafts file - I never got around to posting a small but interesting thing that happened in the walking class with Ezequiel and Geraldine Paludi.

Leaders were instructed to do a couple of walking steps, and then send the woman to their left in a somewhat open, diagonal backward step which was then followed by a turn. It wasn't complicated, but it immediately shook out an interesting technical issue.

In a lot of cases this setup didn't work. Geraldine called a halt and said that the reason it wasn't working was that most of the followers were trying much too hard to step in a straight line. She showed us again, emphasising that this was a backward-but-open step, and told us we were nearly all trying far too hard to keep our feet together.

Ezequiel then told the leaders not to contort themselves trying to walk to one side and the other of the woman. Instead they should walk in a straight line and move the woman from side to side.

This won't work, of course, unless you can trust the woman to move sideways when you lead her to do so. Now we understood what we were seeing and we tried it again.

My partner for the class observed that he hadn't actually been leading that. As soon as he did - quite easily, once it was pointed out - I did in fact automatically do the right thing, and based on other experience I thought I probably would have followed it correctly anyway even if I hadn't been forewarned. But it was difficult to know.

However, it did strike me as very important and something I should make a special effort to remember. Because trying too hard to snap your feet together and walk on rails, in defiance of what's actually being led, is a bad habit it would be very easy to get into, especially if you took a lot of classes. It's one of those rules-of-thumb that people tend to repeat a lot because it's very useful in its place (I've found it a big help in learning to keep my balance in turns). But the women students can easily give such things an importance they don't deserve, because in most beginner and intermediate classes we are pretty much having to scrabble about in the dirt for any tiny crumb of useful information addressed to us at all. So anything we do find can easily be elevated and overanalysed into an absolute rule. Of course that means you quickly collect a lot of conflicting rules. So those who don't give up in confused frustration very quickly work out that most of what they're hearing only applies provisionally and in context.

I also happen to think that when there is any information for us, it's harmful almost as often as it's helpful, and if you could measure it, it's quite possible you would find that the classes where the women are hardly spoken to at all are the ones which tend to produce better dancers. Certainly compared to the kind of class that adorns a pointless move with even more pointless ornaments. We just feel ripped off and neglected. Of course it could be self-selection, rather than cause and effect; those women who take complete responsibility for the quality of their own dancing are probably using the class as a practice session anyway, and might choose one that isn't going to patronise them with twiddles.

My partner tested the same movement in social dancing later and found that the other followers he danced with did not seem to know what to do with the same lead; it seemed to be a fairly common problem he had not been aware of.


Game Cat said...

Ms H,

You're right that context is all important in helping one decide when and how to apply the "rules of thumb". I think it can help one decide if one understands the rationale behind why the teacher is emphasising it so much in the first place. For "keeping feet together", I think it's to teach dancers to move their centre of gravity through their supporting leg so as to improve balance (e.g. when doing turns, as you said). Once you understand this, you'll try to do it whenever it makes sense, but no longer slavishly. The "rule" is a lie to help one understand the truth.

Re what Geraldine said....take a look at this vid of her sister Samantha dancing with Andres. Around 0.54 - 0.58, she walks back. Notice how her moving foot crosses just behind her supporting foot before extending back into the "right" line as Andres advances his step. When he lands his foot, both of their feet (e.g. his L and her R) are "in line" again.

Just my opinion but I think this helps her 1) keep her balance yet 2) get enough extension so he doesn't trod on her toes (he is half a head taller at least). Furthermore, it's easier for him to do more stuff - e.g. sacada her inside leg, or shift her onto a parallel track a la Ezequiel. It also looks imo very very cool :)

I can feel when a lady does this or not. And when she does, I feel connected to her moving foot through our torsos. It gives me lots of confidence as I know where and how far her foot is all the time. And we can do a lot with that foot.

Interestingly to get this right implies she needs to do something "extra" with her hips when walking. I've only ever heard this explained once, but don't get the impression it is often taught. Quel dommage.

msHedgehog said...

Well, yes - the point I had in mind was that the rationale is generally something we have to work it out for ourselves by trial and error.

Andreas said...

Guten Tag, Frau Igel!
My comment on this: whenever you are taught something, don't just ask "How?" but also "Why?". Always. Usually that will provide exactly the context you mention, plus it will explain a thousand other things. Ideally you arrive at the universal tango formula that explains everything...

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is when you learn mostly with your head and less with your body.

You're more like to get stuck slavishly to rules... "I must step like this" .... You start to believe there are absolute and correct ways to move rather than learning to feel that there are many ways to step but a few that are more stable, efficient, requiring less physical effort and that as a result actually feel good.

And I totally agree with Ms Hedgehog that the only way to work this out is through trial and error.

And as well as maybe asking "why" rather than "how" you might ask how should this step sequence feel. Turns were a real eye opener for me in this regard.

Game Cat said...

I agree with what Andreas and Anon said. I'd add to that with 2 observations:

1) Sometimes the best way to do something (feels good, efficient, looks good, etc.) can be counter-intuitive. It would be difficult to derive from reason alone, and one may also not consider trying it to realise it "feels" right.

2) Sometimes the "best way" may feel uncomfortable only because it is unfamiliar and the body is not accustomed to it.

Therefore, it could be a good idea for dancers to build some experimentation into our own self-learning. It would help us think about why things work/ don't work, and yield some interesting solutions.

msHedgehog said...

Hi Andreas - nice to hear from you! It's nice that you're reading. And a very sensible suggestion, if not common in practice.

There aren't exactly regular world shortages of bullshit on this subject. So it's true that repeated experiment is the only answer. You can't get there by reasoning or authority alone for the same reason you can't ever find reliable answers on any subject by reasoning or authority alone. But if you don't think, you won't have anything to test.