Pilates and Tango: Start with Breath (#1)

One of the central aspects of Pilates training is breath control- not just as a means of activating the "powerhouse" of the torso, but also as a means of altering your inner state by creating sustained, full exchanges of air in your lungs. Exhalation is used before beginning a movement in order to integrate the core and set a natural rhythm. This coordination can be tricky initially as you attempt to balance the complexity of some of the exercises with a sustained breathing pattern.

In a similar fashion, many dancers fail to integrate their breathing into their movement, inhaling before each attempt at a sequence and only surfacing for air once they have finished. This introduces unnecessary and unhelpful tension into your movement, far from the relaxation so many of us seek in dancing!

The Exercises:

The first exercise is to introduce the basic concept of controlling breath.
1. Inhale deeply through the nostrils.
2. Exhale fully from your mouth, being sure to relax your jaw open as if you were trying to fog a pane of glass (rather than pursing your lips like you were blowing out a candle).
3. Continue to breathe in this fashion and bring your focus to abdominal muscles and ribcage, feeling the natural expansion and contraction of both.

When beginning a dance, pay attention to your breathing as you make your initial weight changes with your partner. This is an excellent opportunity to find another means of connecting to a partner (though you may want to breathe through your nostrils exclusively for courtesy's sake)!


Giving Feedback

Below are two experiences that I'd like to share, though half a dozen more easily came to mind upon reflection:

Several years ago, I went to a workshop being taught by one of my favorite instructors. There were several more leaders than followers and so we traded roles when possible. Another student took it upon himself to condescend to me for the entire time we were partnered, repeatedly attempting to teach me as we worked. After several minutes of critiques and corrections, I stepped away from him and said as graciously I could muster, "I came to learn from the maestro, not you." I never danced with him again and still think of him to this day whenever I witness corrections being made from student to student.


During my trip to Las Vegas, I took part in a workshop and a partner asked me to offer my opinions on why a step wasn't working for her. I demurred and recommended that we call the teacher over to take a look at the figure. She looked at me in disbelief, "You're a teacher, aren't you?!"

"Yes, but I am not the teacher of this workshop." When I take class, I am a student like everyone else in the room. To presume otherwise would be an insult to the instructor.


I've had several students of both roles describe negative experiences where they were corrected or criticized by their partner. Unfortunately, this is a widespread practice in the tango community and one that needs to change if we are to make the community more welcoming.

1. Do not give unsolicited feedback in any context. Feel free to ask for feedback, but do not proffer it without being asked for it. Recognize that many people do not necessarily come to class to improve their dancing, but as an outlet and a means of socializing.
2. Look to your own dancing first- center comments about the dancing around your own experience  ("I didn't understand that lead" rather than "You didn't lead that properly").
3. Recognize that learning tango is difficult enough without receiving conflicting information. Acknowledge that what you might have to say to them might not be what they're prepared to hear or work on. A new dancer struggling with their axis doesn't need to have their collection criticized.

In Class:
As stated above, not everyone comes to class with the intention of learning, but even if someone is coming to class, remember that they did not come to class to learn from you. It is not only distracting to the other students in class, but disrespectful to the teacher. Imagine deciding to lecture another student during a foreign language course while the teacher is at the head of the room.

In a Practica:
While practicas are typically intended to be practice sessions, many practicas are treated as "practilongas" with a greater emphasis placed on socializing than technical work. Understand which kind you are attending. To continue the language learning metaphor- think of two different language study groups: One is an informal gathering of friends who practice a foreign language over coffee while the other gathers at the local library with textbooks on hand.

In a Milonga:
Milongas are for social dancing, not instruction. It is highly insulting to critique someone's dancing while they are out trying to enjoy themselves. If the dancing is that bad, that is why we are allowed to thank our partners and leave the floor, no explanations needed. Critiquing someone's dancing on the milonga floor would be about as egregious as correcting the grammar of a dinner date.

The Terms We Use: Variation and Syncopation

In a previous blog I wrote about the challenges of learning a kinesthetic tradition like tango. That challenge is made no less complicated when teachers don't even agree on the terms in English that are used to describe movement. I took a musicality workshop from Samantha Buckwalter, a swing dancer, and she defined two important terms in the following way, which I prefer:

Variation: A change in footwork in a combination of steps
Syncopation: A change in the timing of footwork in a combination of steps

This works pretty well in swing, where figures tend to have accepted fundamental footwork and timing, but is much harder to translate into tango where very few accepted figures exist and timing is equally variable (example: some people teach the "Basic 8" beginning with a side step rather than a backstep and the timing of the cruzada varies). I prefer not to assign specific rhythms to a figure when teaching, unless the purpose of the class is primarily accomplishing the rhythm more than the footwork.

So how do we describe timing changes in tango? Most teachers utilize the same "slow" and "quick quick" rhythms to describe timing in the same manner as other ballroom dances, with each "slow" being assigned to one of the strong beats in tango (what would typically be considered a single step).

If a figure is presented in a particular rhythm (typically one step per strong beat), then any deviation from that can be considered a "syncopation" under Samantha's definition. That includes stretching a step to last longer than a single beat or taking multiple steps or actions per strong beat.

But many tango teachers use the following terms:

Double time (doble tiempo)- performing steps twice as fast as the strong beat (quick quick)
Syncopation- dancing the sixteenth note rhythms within a single beat, dividing each strong beat into four, usually denoted by counting 1 e and a 2 e and a.

The trouble then becomes how we refer to any sort of rhythm other than standard steps, double time, or sixteenth notes. Does the freedom of timing in tango defy such short definitions?

For now, I'll probably stick to avoiding strict rhythms- it's more fun that way.