Improvisation, Sequences & the Basic Eight

Imagine a recent beginner Leader about to start a dance.  I’m going to refer to “Him” because most Leaders are male.  His mind will be bombarded with a large number of ideas, feelings, stimuli and requirements, all shouting for his attention.  No wonder our minds go blank.  So easy to retreat into a set routine to give our brains a break and to get dancing as soon as possible with something that’s at least a bit like Tango.

And herein lies a fatal trap that many dancers and teachers fall into and some never recover.

As for Lady Leaders they are often at an advantage.  Usually they already dance Tango as Followers so they are used to the movements.  And as Leaders, they already know what it is they are trying to lead.  With a bit of luck and good guidance they may avoid the sequence trap.

The challenge of improving as a Tango dancer requires perseverance and work.  This work is done as much in the mind as in the body.

Put simply, we take on new information in the front of the brain, which then decides what to do with it.  This part of the brain is very good at sorting new information, but it has to concentrate.  It’s quite hard work and it can easily get overloaded. We often joke about men and multi-tasking, but the reality is that in Tango we are being asked to focus our attention on several highly complex and demanding tasks at once.

How do you eat an elephant?  – A bite at a time
We need to select small, digestible chunks and practise them repeatedly until we can “digest” them.  This involves forming new pathways in our brains so that we become capable of doing some things on auto-pilot, managed intuitively from the back of the brain, freeing the front to focus on something else.

Most of us already know all of this, so why do we leave it until we are in the hot seat before thinking about it?  The secret, especially for Leaders, is to have done a much of this work as possible beforehand.  Manage the degree of demand we are going to have thrown at us.

Attention please
We need to be able to choose what we are paying attention to.  The order and priority will probably change as we become more experienced.  I have been dancing Tango for about fifteen years; typically my attention priorities look something like this.

  1. What style of music and hence what sort of dance am I expecting to have?
  2. My partner? Do I already know her?  Her level of experience?  How she moves?
    How much and what sort of lead will be best for her?
    (If we haven’t danced before this process of discovery will continue well into the dance)
  3. La Ronda, the other dancers, floorcraft. What is needed for this particular situation?
  4. My technique, posture and connection. Double check I’m setting myself up for success
  5. What are my options for this dance, given all the above?
  6. Can I create a theme and variations?
  7. Improvisation – options, choices and choice points?
  8. What steps / movements to do?

In reality the process is much more fluid than the sequential list shown here – this shows my priorities as well as something of the order.

I once had the privilege to work with David Emery, the Olympic hurdler.  He said that  as he stood on the podium to receive his Gold Medal, all he could think of was “Why me?” given that, at least on paper, he was the slowest man in the final.

This question became so dominant in his thinking, that he decided to devote his future work to coaching.  At that time the conventional wisdom for hurdlers was to focus on the take off.  But David realised that time in the air is lost time.  He shifted his attention to landing as quickly as possible.  With that subtle shift he gained the extra time that resulted in his world beating achievement.

There are so many examples of this.  High board divers have been trained to slow down time in their minds.  In practice this gives them extra time in the air to make micro adjustments to achieve a perfect entry into the water.

One of the reasons for the success of British cyclists has been to focus on lots of one percent improvements.  All of these require individual attention to each detail in turn.

Of course, most of us dance for pleasure, and perhaps we do not want to go to such extreme lengths of dedication of commitment to improve.  But many of us did not even start learning tango until a certain age.  If our available time is limited, and we still want to improve, isn’t it a good idea to find ways to learn and improve as quickly and as efficiently as possible?

Work smarter, not harder. Most of our improvement will be achieved by using our minds, not by tiring our bodies.

If you have been to any of our classes, you will know how much I encourage everyone, but especially the leaders, to use visualisation to work on their dance by themselves, away from the dance floor and their partners.  An adrenalin-free environment is particularly valuable for this work.

The Basic Eight
It took me one lesson to learn the Basic Eight.  It took me at least a year to un-learn it.  It has taken several more years to develop the flexibility of the process described above, and in reality it still is, and will always be, work in progress.

In this age of instant gratification, reduced attention span and impatience of epidemic proportions, it is a big ask to suggest abandoning the easy road for an improvised approach.  It’s vital to genuinely enjoy the journey – after all, there is no destination.

In today’s culture, the seductive attractions of “Tango Lite” using sequences like the Basic Eight are clear. It is quick and easy, and there are all the “Psychological” advantages described above. But therein also lay the traps.

The first trap is, literally, the first step.  The dreaded backwards first step (for the leader), which is very dangerous on a crowded floor, and even more dangerous if you are doing it mechanically on auto-pilot.  You may well end up stepping on the Achilles heel of the lady behind – a painful and potentially serious injury.

Once the pattern is drilled in, and is being driven automatically from the rear of the brain, the leader is highly unlikely to focus on a number of things which are vital for dancing an improvised, Salon-style Tango.  If you both know what’s going to happen, there is no need to communicate, so leading / following are not practiced.  As the sequence is seen as one whole unit, we pay no attention to the individual choice points at each step along the way.

One example is the cross.  At our last count, we could list at least a dozen variations for the entry, exit and style of this particular move.  What a shame to drive on by without stopping to visit.

I have even heard teachers use the term ‘the Fifth’ as a name for the cross, which shows how deeply imbedded it has become in their thinking as part of a sequence, rather than a wonderful opportunity to improvise in its own right.

Dancing the Basic Eight on autopilot makes no demands of our posture, connection or quality of movement.  These aspects of technique are probably the hardest to develop when changing to an improvised dance based on connection and communication.

So yes, the Basic Eight is a quick and easy way of getting people dancing, but unless dancers are weaned off it fairly quickly, it can severly limit further progress.

If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got
In our classes, we often say that practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent.  What the body does, and does repeatedly, is what becomes imbedded in the muscle memory.  Anyone who has learned a musical instrument, played sport competitively or done anything else requiring high level psycho-motor skills, will appreciate the vital importance of mindful repetition.  Not blind un-thinking repetition, but intelligent, conscious and focused attention.  For this reason ‘micro training’ – individually practising the smallest units – is vital.  Why small units?  So that you can pay enough attention to them to ensure you are doing them correctly and getting them right.  Otherwise, guess what you are repeating and what the body learns . . .

We used to teach a delightful gentleman who had spent several years in the Navy.  He was incapable of doing anything that did not start by stepping off on the left foot.  Years of conditioning.  “Quick march – Left, Right, Left, Right” had left its indelible mark.  Never under-estimate the power of repetition on the body and the muscle memory.

During the years I was working professionally as a Trainer, Consultant and Coach, many clients included individuals and groups who had become set in entrenched ways of doing things.  On one occasion I was asked to coach a supervisor who had failed to achieve promotion after several attempts. His view was “ It’s not fair, I’ve had twenty years experience.  His manager’s view was, no, he’s had one year’s experience twenty times.

We come across a lot of dancers who consider themselves experienced, but who in reality have been doing nothing more than repeating the same set of routines.  It is tough for these dancers to realise that their solution has become the problem.  They are, in fact, highly experienced beginners.

I am sometimes reminded of elderly couples where the man has said the same thing so many times, over so many years, that his wife sarcastically mouths the words at the same time as they leave his lips.  Unfortunately there are too many tango couples (even young ones) who dance is like this. She does it automatically because she knows what’s coming next, so there’s no need for him to lead it either.  If that’s what they want, and are happy with, who am I to criticise?  If, however, they do want to improve, it can be very painful them to go back to the beginning and re-construct their dance from scratch.

We knew one couple – pretty good dancers to look at – who did a very nice Volcada, but unfortunately they could only access it part way through a multi-step sequence.  He needed a ‘run up’ to do the move.  This made Volcadas unavailable to him in any other context apart from his sequence.  They were stuck in their current routines and couldn’t progress further. Their comment on their first lesson with us was ”we realise we have built this wonderful house, but it’s on foundations of sand.”  They have become lovely dancers in the meantime and we are still in contact several years later.


How far do we take this thinking?  Well, for us, even an Ocho is a sequence.  It consists of a number of individual elements including pivots and steps.  As we use pivots and steps in other movements, why not learn and develop them independently, so that we can mix and match in any number of ways to create a more innovative dance.  One you can liberate your body (and even more so your mind) from having these elements cemented together, all sorts of wonderful opportunities open up.

Is it possible to learn improvisation?  Of course – Jazz musicians do it all the time.  Your basic technique needs to be strong enough that you can play with the content without having to give it too much conscious thought unless you choose to.  You need to be aware of the possible links and choice points.  You then need to create enough time and mental space to change and adapt, sometimes by choice, and sometimes out of necessity – for example if another couple cuts into your space.  Finally don’t expect to do it all at once.  Start modestly and build.

The best news of all is that in Tango you can pause – in fact, stylistically it’s much better not to move on every beat.  So, for example, you might think – OK, I’ve just done a side step. I can pause.  Our weight is on the open side of the embrace.  What options are open to me?  Choose one.  Then, remember to invite you partner to join you in what you’re going to do (NON VERBALLY of course – just in case you were in any doubt).

Nobody ever taught us any of this.  As mature students who started our tango lives with the Basic Eight approach, it took us a long time and a huge amount of work and fresh thinking to get to where we are now.

Fortunately, there were a number of things that helped us in this task.  Jennifer has a superb skill in observing and analysing movement.  This is especially useful when the cause of a particular problem is in a different part of the body from where the problem manifests itself.  I still smile when I hear little jewels of conversation like:

Dancer:   “I can’t seem to stay in balance when I pivot on my left foot.  What do I need to do with my leg?”
Jennifer:   “It’s not your leg that’s the problem, it’s your head and right shoulder”

As for me. I have had many years coaching people to make changes which ran against their intuitions and experience. I have drawn on many different techniques and approaches to help people discover what will work for them in achieving the desired change.  One size does not fit all.  However, I often come back to the basic question of where their attention is, and the need to shift their attention to something else, to open up the possibility of change.


© Tango Nomads, 2017