12. Tango, part 2

Last week I traced the development of the making of a championship Tango from its embryonic stage of first principles, through the acquisition of a solid grounding in the technical aspects of Tango styling. (This period was with Cis Bryers, my pre-war partner, and Beatrice Lewis, the partner with whom I won my first British Open Amateur Champion¬ship in 1949).

Further development – now with Doreen Casey – passed through the consecutive stages of a deeper probing into the realms of characterisation and the develop¬ment of ‘feel’ – the emotional aspect of dancing – right up to the final stage of ‘personalisation’ in selecting the content and presentation of each dance.
Before moving on to more advanced principles, there is a point about Tango Stance which might be of value to dancers and teachers of dance. It has been found that the description of the Stance as having a “right shoulder lead” gives rise to a plethora of misconceptions. Many students, when asked to demonstrate this, twist themselves into an awkward corkscrew position; the shoulders turning more than the hips, the hips turning more than the feet. All three should be lined up!

A very simple teaching aid will achieve the correct position. Ask students / pupils to stand with the insides of the feet touching and parallel, facing the line of dance (if opening with a Reverse figure) or facing the Wall (if opening with a Promenade figure), body poised in the same stretched stance as for the other standard dances. Now tell them to compress the knees slightly and pivot on the balls of both feet about 1/8th of a turn to the left, turning the whole body by this amount. On checking, you will find that the toe of the right foot is now slightly back, adjacent to the big toe joint of the left foot, with the right knee tucked in just behind the left kneecap.

The body is now not twisted. The shoulder / arm line is vertically parallel with the hip line and both are lined up squarely across the feet. But there is – correctly – a right side lead which will result in every Left Foot step forward (and Right Foot back) being in CBMP and every Right Foot step forward being with Right side leading. (Left Foot back with left side leading.)

In lining up the partnership, the girl, having taken up a matching Stance, turns to face the man and they take up the Hold. With their bodies horizontally parallel to each other, ask them to step into forward and backward rocks on the spot. This should put them in the ideal Tango partnership position, with an unbroken back line for the man and a comfortable settled- into-the-man position for the lady.

Moving to more advanced concepts, what I call ‘feel’ might need further explanation. The acquisition of new figures for championship use had to meet strict criteria on suitability for our partnership. A new idea or figuration might seem to have the potential of fitting both into the ‘persona’ of our partnership and our perception of Tango ‘character’. Learning the steps was the least of our worries. The important thing was to get the ‘feel’ of the new figure. The questions would be “What are we trying to achieve with this?” ‘Where should we place the accents, the highlight?” “Does this harmonise with the specific Tango characterisation we are trying to express?’

Only by dancing the figure repeatedly over a two or three week period, would we begin to get a fee/’of the emotional content which might be extracted from this group of steps. Having given it a fair trial, if we could not get this ‘feel’ for the variation, emotionally as well as physically, it would be rejected, jettisoned, put out of our lives, no matter how trendy or popular with the majority of competitors.

(This ‘selectivity’ process was evolved at a very advanced stage in our professional career. In earlier years of study and as amateur competitors, obedience to the teacher was the golden rule.)

To finalise on this point, if the feel’ came right, the group would then be worked up and polished for about three months before being allowed into our competition groupings. Yes, three months! For the making of a champion a new variation needs to be practised many hundreds of times so that every detail is committed to instinct and muscle-memory. (This is why it is so important to have a comprehensive knowledge of the technique. If technique is flawed the dancer is ingraining faults into the subconscious mind, which will be ever more difficult to correct.) The paramount conscious thought during the actual championship should be of ‘rising to the occasion’, i.e. dancing better than one has ever done before.

The dancer who is still unsure and going over the figure when the first round of the competition is about to start is much too late – at least for this day’s event.
Concentrate on all the nuances of whatever Tango music the bandleader might have chosen. Classical, characterisation tunes like ‘La Cumparsita’ would be greeted as a godsend. However, in-vogue numbers, not written as Tangos, but adapted by the bandleader’s arranger to a Tango rhythm are harder work. A prayer to bandleaders: “Please do not make life more difficult for competitors. Tunes like “Pretty Woman” are not characteristic Tangos.”

A pre-planned routine is most desirable in demonstrations and cabaret, where one has control of the choice of music, can rehearse to it and, being alone on the floor, can move freely wherever one wishes. But for the hurly-burly of championships, options should be kept wide open. In our own experience, I might instantly switch into another movement or make a directional change at any time to make best use of the ever- changing floor pattern of dancers. For instance, trying to be alert to opportunities of leading the partnership into the ‘open space’, where it would be most visible from any point in the hall. Getting boxed into a corner or involved in collisions by backtracking was certainly not, and never would have been, on my agenda.

Musically, the champion in the making should try to adapt the accenting of figures to the melodic structure of the music. If, as a practical example, this meant my holding the drag action of the Spanish Drag for an extra Slow or two, or putting more explosiveness into the ‘whip’ turn of a Big Top after fractionally delaying the preceding step, then Doreen, the most superb ‘follower’ of the ad libbed movement, would, with consummate imperturbability, exactly match my speed, switch action or musical accenting.

Some of the basic elements of Tango construction are: First principle: No body swing. This is a leg-driven dance: Second principle: No Rise & Fall: No high peeling of heels: Then:

SLOWS: ‘Strong” powerful steps, rolling through the supporting knee with a controlled degree of tension maintained in both legs. Think ‘irresistible power’ in progression. (The focal point of energy is centred in the abdominal area.)

QUICKS: These should be treated in pairs where one quick is given a more dramatic value than the other. The Basic principle is “Attack” the first quick in a pair, as in QQ for Promenades, the Chase, Stab Reverse Turn, etcetera).
Advanced QUICKS principle: Apply the “attack” whenever a dramatic, explosive movement is called for on the 2nd Quick of the pair; e.g. Progressive Link. Here the accent is on the turning of the lady into Promenade Position. The 1st Quick should be danced as though a mini contra check. The 2nd Quick, with a sharp movement of the man’s left side of the body forward, triggering an explosive ‘flick’ of the lady into Promenade Position. To repeat, this sharp turning of the lady into PP should be done by the man’s body lead, not by arm movement!

Other examples of this 2nd (of a pair) Quick “attack” are;
(i) Fallaway Reverse into Slip Pivot (perhaps followed by Pivots, Telespin, Oversway or similar). The dramatic “attack” should occur on the slip pivot body rotation. That is, on the second quick of the pair (the 4th step in bold type); QQ, QQ.
(ii) Accelerating spins to right ending Twist Turn into Promenade Position. Count QQQQ (Natural spins), Q&Q (Twist Turn to PP). On this highlighted Quick, the twist rotation should be lightning fast simultaneously whipping the girl into PP. Absolute control of braking and balance by the partnership is required at the end of the final Q. The partnership should totally freeze in Promenade Position at the end of the accented quick as though sculptured from marble. Hold for one Slow. A most dramatic effect is achieved by placing the maximum whiplash of speed in immediate juxtaposition with total stillness! Which brings me to:
c) STILLNESS IN MOTION There must be an element of “stillness” in even the most explosive flash of staccato Tango movement. This could be best achieved by thinking serenity and stillness of the Top Line (head shoulders and arms). Even the sharpest sharp turn of the head, as in the Twist Turn above, finishes with total ‘frozen’ stillness. If you have ever watched Flamenco dancing, you will know that the dancer can maintain a stylish ‘stillness’ of the upper body while the feet are tapping out the rhythm with the speed of a machine gun firing bullets.
d) PICTURE STEPS: With the exception of the Contra Check, where weight should be centred between the feet to create the ‘picture’, all other picture steps – Oversways, Lunges, Spanish Drags, Same Leg Lines, Rondes – should never be left with weight between the feet. Weight should move positively and wholly onto one foot to create the ‘picture line’ before retraction into the exit from the figure. Each shape so created should be scrupulously checked for clarity of line and artistic effect.

To sum up: The first essential is a sound basis of technique. This is the foundation to the whole -structure. Do not underestimate its value. The character of Tango styling and movement should be well studied as should the emotional feel of the figures chosen for groupings. Only use figures which suit you and your vision of Tango. Be prepared to ad lib, extemporise, improvise in accordance with the prevailing floor conditions from moment to moment and the melodic structure of the music. Keep unbroken body contact.

source: Dance News newspaper Edition No.1515
Harry Smith-Hampshire, Making of a Champion series