Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Milonguear for women

This - recently shared on Facebook - is pretty good advice for leaders who want to "milonguear", but it barely gives the follower any hints. Point 2 is this:

"Dance with a partner who can milonguear.... I usually don’t invite a woman to dance if I’m not confident I can navigate the floor safely with her."
I think the followup post is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go beyond the obvious: refrain from silly kicks and don't stick your elbow out.  It makes it sound trivial and ignores everything behind it, which is how people normally talk about women's work. I dance as both follower and leader on a lot of full floors, at various levels of orderliness, so I'm here today to start filling in the gaps.

First the big picture, then the details. Big picture:
  1. Be very communicative, so that your partner can always feel exactly where you are and what you are doing. Communication is two-way, continuous, truthful, and uninterrupted.
  2. Be very accurate. Your movements, response and expression are at high resolution, so very little space is needed for a detailed and interesting picture.
  3. Be very steady. Your partner can rely on you to keep within your own space and your own balance, all the time. They can confidently and accurately predict where you will go in response to their own movements, within a very small margin of error.
  4. Be very musical. Your feeling is fully expressed within your movements, whatever those movements are, and regardless of their size. This means complex steps and large movements are options, not necessities. You have your own ideas about how the music makes you feel, and you are expressing them within your embrace.
The actions you would take to get these things working are mostly in common, so you don't need to prioritise them one above another.

I'm not going to talk about things like not habitually flapping your heels around like a halfwit, and not insisting on a rigid, stuck-out arm or a bent-back international ballroom hold. They are obvious, they come under the heading "have a bit of common sense," and one sentence is enough.


This depends on having a very clear, simple, and reliable relationship between the position of each of your shoulders and the position of the corresponding foot. It's usually called "having a good axis". You don't bend sideways or forward at the waist, drop the chest, push one hip out, pull it in, wriggle, lock one hip or knee, or stand with one leg tense and the foot held stiffly clear of the floor. All these things will break the line of communication. When you are doing it right, your partner can clearly sense the position of each foot in a close embrace. In effect, your  legs and feet are included in your partner's proprioception. Making this possible is 90% a follower skill and only 10% a leader skill.

You can practice and enhance your axis by standing, walking, doing solo pivots, or dancing, with a book or a heavyish bean bag balanced on your head (some dried lentils in a freezer bag are totally fine). This really helps to find the vertical line that you want to move around, feel how it moves in your body as you move, and make it thinner. Change weight, step slowly in all directions, turn gently.

Generally, you want to think about simplifying, firming and straightening your movement so it can be exactly as you mean it to be. Everything else below will also help.

Accuracy and Resolution

This means you can interpret signals for direction, size, and speed over a wide range of each, but particularly at the smaller end. And these dimensions are independent; your smaller steps can have as much colour and detail as your larger steps, and all of this colour and detail is communicated to your partner, rather than being directed outwards.

You can change weight one toe at a time, if the leader is capable of leading that. You can follow a pivot separately from a step and you don't automatically add a step just because you've pivoted. You don't mechanically stick one leg out when there's no reason to do so. You have the freedom to reverse from any point. Your feet move in close parallel lanes, not crossing each other or changing lanes unintentionally. Your free leg does not exaggerate or fly out anxiously in turns.

Get a practice partner to lead small movements, slow movements, and movements that start one way and then retract, and pivots that don't end in a step (they might just stop, or go back the other way).

You'll need to create stillness and quietness, to make a smooth space for the high level of detail. Simplify your movements. Drop any movement that you don't have a clear positive reason for doing. Don't "extend" when there's no reason to do so except stagecraft. And your partner needs to be listening to you.


You can stop, pause, go back at any point in any movement. If your partner loses their balance somehow, you can probably rescue the situation, and if not, you will still be standing there. Your partner can fall over all alone, if they truly insist.

Physically, this comes from a consistent relationship between shoulders and hips and having the position of your centre of gravity well under control. Everything already mentioned will help. You are stepping with your own intent, and not flapping about, wriggling, or putting yourself in any position you can't freeze in. It's not exactly about balance - you can balance in a position where it's easy to push you over. Groundedness is about very rarely passing through a position where it's easy to push you over.

Smooth the transitions between steps, push continuously through the step, get your legs used to the transitions in all directions, and have your feet fall wherever they need to be, under your centre of gravity.

A good (and fun) exercise with a partner is to dance normally and have someone stop the music at random moments. When it stops, you have to freeze in whatever position you are in. If you try to freeze and you have to take another step, then whatever you were doing is probably something you don't do well enough to do in the milonga yet. Both leader and follower are independently responsible for their own ability to freeze. (I am indebted to Andreas Wichter for this exercise).

A good exercise to find out how it should feel is to have someone hang on to a scarf wrapped around your hips, and give you resistance as you walk. Or you can walk in water and focus on keeping upright.

There is a fun test for this. Leaders who are poorly grounded will often lead bigger steps than they mean to, then fail to follow up with the rest of their bodies, unbalancing themselves and their partners. The effect is that the couple skitters around like a foal, and they bump into people even when they think they are leading perfectly sensible movements. Learn to notice when this is happening, and edit it by stepping within yourself and insisting on keeping yourself straight; don't rush around trying to keep up with phantom leads and nonsense. When you get it right, the leader will suddenly feel safe, because two of the animal's four feet are consistently underneath it and going where they intend to go, instead of constantly having to catch and correct. This takes some experience and decent physical condition to do successfully, but mainly you just have to know that it's possible and a good idea.

Of course, some people can lead huge, fast steps without unbalancing themselves. In that case, go ahead and put your big wheels on.

If you struggle with any of this physically, the fastest way to make a noticeable difference to  everything I mention here is about 3 sessions a week for six weeks of practically any training that will strengthen your core. You can use one of those 7-minute workout apps, a samba class has worked well for me, ballet or yoga would work, press-ups, crunches, or any form of upper-body training will work, even running, if you do it right. Or you can do it how they did it in the 40s and just wash and dry all your clothes and bedding without a machine.  If your regular work is not sedentary (for example, if you are a nurse, site engineer, market trader or care worker) you probably won't need to do anything special. You don't need to be super fit or powerful, just strong enough to to be stable without effort. The result is that your partner can feel where your feet are, and the subtle changes in your body as your hips turn.


This means that you are using the full duration and shape of every movement to express your feeling about the sound. Your partner can feel this.

The aim is to make it feel as though the music is coming from inside your body, from somewhere roughly in the middle. It's not that you're hearing something and pointing it out visually for an audience; it's internal and coming out because it has to. This is the answer to the beginner question "when am I supposed to do ornaments?". Do them when you can't help it, and otherwise don't worry about them. They are supposed to come from you. Find all your favourite tango tunes on YouTube and just bop along to them however you like. Wave your arms, wiggle, dance around, make faces, whatever, until your body knows what it wants to do and has different ways of expressing that. Learning specific ornaments by heart is tedious and can have embarrassing results, so I suggest not doing it.

You can practice and enhance how this works physically in the dance with some exercises, like refusing a step. They will also improve your communication. Get your practice partner to lead something, and then just don't do it - actively refuse it in the embrace. Stop the step. Hold it up. Slow it down. Do it at different times during the step.  Backlead a little to find out how it feels. Have your partner go with your suggestion, or not. Now try it musically; have your partner choose the movements (keep it simple), but you decide how smooshy or spiky, soft or sharp or decisive, it will be. You will find out what you can do without breaking the connection, what is interesting and fun, and what causes problems or confuses you. Turn your 'musical satnav' up and down. Make as many mistakes as you need, to feel confident that you know what you are doing.

Delivering this physically takes some time, so if you are a beginner, don't let it worry you; just solve the problems in front of you, allow yourself to bop and get excited to tunes and rhythms you like, notice what you like, let your body respond, starting from the heart or centre, and it will get more coordinated with practice.

You want your body to be a window for your emotions.

Note that there are quite a lot of 'good' leaders who have no interest in the follower's musicality at all, except in terms visible to an audience; they want an obedient partner, of the highest available social status, through whom to show off, mainly to each other and themselves. The partner might as well be a car or an overpriced handbag. They are not listening to anything an audience can't see. I think it's dull and silly, but it's up to you to make your own sincere choice about what you want to do.

Mon's Legs

Finally, I give you Monique's Stupendous Legs again. They are full of music, and also apparently full of water. Watch and learn.

You don't have to be especially mobile or athletic; those things give you some extra options in the range and variety of movement, which are very good for dancing with certain people, but you're entitled to expect your partner to dial it back to what you can keep up with.

What happens

If you get it right, some curious things happen:
  • It becomes rather pointless to lead lots of steps, which makes the dance less exhausting.
  • All the possibilities of leading are still there, up to the couple's skill level, but they are now a free choice, over which you have a great deal of influence. They no longer need to be trotted out one after the other to avoid boredom, or planned in any way. 
  • Leading becomes both practically effortless and much more interesting to do.
  • The distinction between leading and following becomes somewhat beside the point.
  • You may find that you care more about who you dance with and what to.


Anonymous said...

Very useful, thanks!

David said...

Outstanding! You have covered so much ground in such a simple, clear way. I've posted a link on my Tango Tribe page on Facebook, and am specifically recommending your article to my regular practice partners.

David Phillips said...

So, two things.

One partner tried the experiment where the follower stops the leader's move or only changes the character of the move. I was thinking the exercise might help a follower with asserting their grounding and with realizing that if they could change things at any step, then they must be alert to changes from the leader. But my partner didn't like it at all, saying that it felt too much like hijacking the leader's intentions. We tried switching roles, and I couldn't make it seem useful.

Another partner said, "Well, of course, those are all good things that you or other teachers tell us at one time or another. But the question is, how do we perfect ourselves to that advice." I am always looking (Alexander Technique, Franklin Method, NLP, etc.) for good exercises, experiments, experiences, and imagery to help dancers understand. One particular challenge is in helping followers: 1) Arriving at a clear axis; 2) Waiting patiently; yet 3) Responding instantly to a clear intention; then 4) Moving themselves with good energy and clear intention; to 5) Repeat. For leaders the related challenge comes in giving that clear intention early enough, but not too early.

msHedgehog said...

@David Phillips: Interesting! which role were you dancing? It's not clear from your description. If it's the follower who doesn't like it then I would suggest just varying the style of movement for musicality and leaving it at that.

As to the second point, in my experience it's pretty rare that teachers mention any of these things at all, but of course that varies dramatically.

Delivering that stuff requires quite a bit of practice and active experimentation by the follower herself, I think.