When you see representations of Argentine Tango say, in movies, you usually see intricate movements, legs somehow wrapping onto other legs, jumps, poses, quick movements, etc. Rarely does one see people struggling to learn a simple walk… and yet, many good dancers do spend a significant amount of time polishing their walk.
Walking is the base the dance
Walking is without a doubt one of the most important building blocks of the dance. However, as a teacher, I often find myself often having to justify and advocate on the importance of the walk when I see that students are eager to learn volcadas or ganchos or any other “fancy-looking” movement. In fact, whenever organising special teaching events, the most selling lessons are always about colgadas, back sacadas or ganchos, while the walking lessons are often lacking enough students. While learning these other movements is certainly interesting, fun and challenging, the truth is: one reason those other fancy looking movements don’t work, is often the lack of proper walking technique. This is because the majority of the figures can be simply described as different combinations of steps and pivots. Because of this, if you focus on the walk, that is, in how you take theses steps you will definitely improve your chances to perform other movements successfully.
Walking: developing a conscious practice
But how to work on your walk? Since walking is something we do everyday, we take for granted that we know how to do it, but the walk in tango - though we want to make it as naturally as possible - is essentially different than the everyday walk because we need to do it in connection with another person. Moreover, for the followers, walking is mostly happening backwards, which is definitely not “natural” (otherwise we would have eyes in the back of our head too!).
A good walking practice is conscious: we try to be present, as we move we want to become aware of how we are moving our bodies in the walk, how you are using your joints, how you are distributing the weight in each foot, are you stepping first with the heel or with the ball of the feet? how are you using your toes? how about your hips? are the hips moving at all?
I’ve been lately talking about this topic with friends and colleagues. Some of us have had the opportunity to attend practicas or lessons in Buenos Aires or other cities in Latin America, where the first part of the lesson was actually just about walking alone. Why alone? As much as we want to develop connection, sometimes when we practice with a partner we lose the focus in our on bodies and the need to communicate with the other might make us develop some bad habits. So walking by yourself is actually an excellent way to maintain the focus in your own body technique while moving. With conscious repetition, you can start to develop a “muscle memory” that you can then translate to the couple dance. I would also advise you to take this practice outside of the dance studio to other instances where you are walking. Pay attention to how you do it, try to follow the directions of your teacher as you walk on the street, in the shopping centre, etc.
Focus on “how”
The objective of a walking practice is to be able to control not the step itself but HOW we do it. So, a good starting point is to search for different ways to walk and you can begin by varying 2 factors: distance and time.
Distance: Different sizes of steps
Start finding your “standard” size that is, whatever size of the step that feels comfortable for you. From there, find a small version and a large version. With your partner, practice to lead and follow these different versions. In this kind of practice, it would be a very good idea to sometimes change the role in order to understand better what you are doing. For solo followers looking for a practice partner: this is a good thing to practice with another follower, while changing roles. When you already have 3 sizes and can clearly lead and follow them with your partner try this kind of variation in some of the steps of simple figures you do often: the basic step, the sandwich, back ocho, etc. In the back ocho, for instance, you can vary the size of the steps in each ocho making one small, the other normal and the next long.
Time: Different tempos in the steps
To find variations of the time factor, we can start by simply walking in the beat. This is of course, the most basic thing that every dancer should begin with. I often make following metaphor (which works very well in Finland!): The beat is like a trail in the woods.You want to know where it is and more often than not you want to walk in it, but if you see something that you want to explore it’s ok to go out of the trail for that which inspires you, as long as you always know where the trail is and are able to return to it so you don’t get lost.
So, start by walking in the beat of the music. Then try to walk slower so that the process of changing weight from one leg to the other takes 2 beats instead of one (this is different than taking one step in the beat and then taking another beat to collect the step). You can play with this a bit: make it last 4 beats and even 8 (this might be a bit too much for the dance floor, but for the practice is great as it forces you to have excellent control of the process). Then go a bit faster, make 1 double beat and then return to walk on the beat. Make 2 double beats in a row and return to the beat, etc.
Eventually, you can start mixing the different things: walk slow and short steps or slow and long, or fast and short, etc. And from then you can takes these ideas to simple combinations that you know: back ocho, basic step, ocho milonguero, etc.
The art of walking: connect with the music and enjoy
When we start dancing, it often feels that all the movements are “borrowed” or foreign. It doesn’t feel like they belong to you. A good way to overcome this is by focusing on the walk. I always recommend to start the practices simply by walking before you go into practice any specific patterns. This is good to warm up your body but also to start connecting with your body, with the partner and with the music. When you do this take more than one song, perhaps a first song can be a simple warm up. The next one you try to walk every other beat. Then next one you walk and try to find different rhythms and distances. Dance exploring the different possibilities of the walk (slow/fast, small/long; parallel system/cross system; inside/outside, etc).
The more you practice the walk and try to find different variations in it, the more it will become second nature and then it will be easier to find ways to connect with the music and enjoy. From here, you will be able to find more control and ownership of the movement first in simple patterns and then also in more complex ones. In the end, most patterns are just that: different kinds of combinations of steps and pivots.