Dirty Dancing

Sloppy tango technique comes in two basic varieties: Full time, and part time. Full time is ingrained. It means habitually dancing in ways that inhibit your ability to move, lead, and express the music. Part time dirty dancing, on the other hand, happens when good habits temporarily break down. This is usually caused by trying to dance too fast, over-reaching for unnatural moves, or by being uncomfortable in crowded conditions.

We've already discussed problems with the arms and upper body in the first part of the chapter, so we'll limit our discussion here to dirty things that happen below the waist. Here's a list of a dirty half dozen:

1. Creeping — stepping onto a bent leg
2. Shuffling — not picking up the foot and stepping sharply into the floor
3. Duck walking — not bringing the feet together
4. Bouncing — bending and straightening the legs at the wrong time
5. Reaching — stepping without having the body's weight over the leg
6. Asymmetry — stepping differently with one leg than the other  

Developing clean, relaxed tango technique is hard—and losing bad habits is even harder. I know, because in the beginning I picked up lots of bad habits by taking too many classes and memorizing too many steps. Eventually, though, I threw everything out, and fell back on something that had always worked for me in the past. The solution turned out to be... drills.

The Case for Drills

I know... drills don't sound like much fun. "Drill" is a word we usually associate with going to the dentist or marching around with a rifle. But if you're serious about getting better, the right tango drills can really help. And the best thing is that it gives me another chance to talk about sports. So here comes a ski story:

In the Western U.S. there are mountains where snow stays on the ski slopes all year, and many racers go there in the summer to work on technique. There are lots of different training camps, and many of them are similar to the tango workshops that attract students by bringing in known performers and teaching dramatic steps. These camps set up a course, bring in a well-known ski racer, and demonstrate the latest tips for cutting through the gates. The kids love it, because they get a chance to copy their hero, and pick up some of the latest tricks they've seen on the World Cup. Many of them end up skiing faster at the end of the camp—but the problem is that these camps don't really identify and correct the small technical flaws that limit every racer. And many of the students leave with bad habits even more deeply ingrained.

My friend Olle also runs summer ski camps, but he has a different approach. His athletes rarely run the racecourses, and they don't practice knocking down gates. Instead, they spend their time doing drills. Olle studies video of the world's fastest skiers, breaks their skiing down into discrete movements, and then he develops drills to practice each movement. The idea is to pick one or two basic elements, and practice them over and over in an exaggerated way. When they become easy, then you work on something else. Slowly, you begin to combine the elements, and you become accustomed to moving in the right way.

Some of the drills look silly, because they greatly exaggerate body positions and ways of moving, and at first people ridiculed them. But over time, they turned out to be so effective that they're now used regularly at all levels of skiing. Young athletes use them to learn, and the best World Cup racers use them to return to good form when bad habits begin to creep in during a season of racing.

Obviously skiing and tango are different, and motivated semi-professional athletes are very different than social tango dancers. I'm not sure if drills will work for social tango dancers, but let's try one anyway.

There are several keys to making a drill work. First you need to identify bad biomechanical movements (like the 6 we listed above). Then, you need to identify one or two good elements, and do them in a very exaggerated way to replace the bad habits. They should be so exaggerated in the drill that doing them normally under stress on a racecourse (or in a milonga), becomes easy. Here's an example of a side step drill.


First, we'll identify some bad habits. Here are a couple from the last page:

Bouncing and reaching—problems 4 and 5 from the list.


The above video includes improper leg bending and straightening (problem #4 from our list), and reaching without having weight over the leg (problem #5).


Now let's add some more:

Classic dirty dancing.


You may need to look closely to see the problems in the video above, because I didn't exaggerate them. First, notice that I'm stepping onto legs that are slightly bent (problem #1). Also, if you look closely at the trailing leg, you'll see that I don't pick it up, and return it cleanly to the floor. It follows the lead leg by sort of dragging along behind (problem #2). Finally, you'll see that by picking up the lead leg, and shuffling with the following one, I'm stepping asymmetrically (#6 from the list).

This is a classic example of dirty dancing. Nothing is grossly apparent, but the result is a sort of weak, non-tango way of moving. (I could have made it even worse by adding #3 from the list, and not bringing my feet together at the end of the step). These problems can be caused by generally sloppy dancing, but they can also appear temporarily when people are thinking about doing complicated patterns, or trying to step too quickly. Their technique breaks down, and instead of picking up their feet and stepping sharply onto a straight leg, they shuffle on bent knees.


Now, we'll try a drill that accentuates keeping the legs straight, tipping into the step with the upper body, picking up the feet, and landing crisply with the weight over a straight leg:


This is only a drill.


Concentrate and try to be very precise. Stand perfectly straight and balanced like a tree, and then begin your tip. Do nothing for a moment, and then quickly snap your leg straight. If you get used to the way this feels, it should help you notice when your technique begins to slip away. As soon as you start to bounce and reach, or shuffle to the side on bent legs, the memory of this drill should cause a small alarm to go off.

By the way, this is also a great balance and timing drill. You need to time it so you land exactly as your leg locks straight, with just enough momentum to carry you back up to the balance point over the other leg. Then you hesitate for a moment, and begin to tip back the other way. It's difficult, and you'll need to experiment a little to get the length of the side step just right so you can rise up high and balanced, and then tip back. (You can make it even more difficult by eventually trying to do it so that you land right on a strong beat of the compás. I was going to try to demo it with music, but... I've never been able to do it.)

You don't need to do this drill a lot. In fact, don't do it at all if you don't like it. The key to making drills work is to find and exaggerate different elements of good technique, and really focus and do them right a few times. Then put them away and come back again when you're fresh.

Quick and Dirty

Clean technique often breaks down in a side step in the middle of complicated figures, but it's even more common for technique to break down because of speed. In tango, hitting a weak beat means stepping cleanly more than two times a second, and a fast vals can require stepping more than three times per second. Here's what usually happens:


In the first walk from right to left, I take the quick step onto a bent knee.
The second walk, from left to right, shows a shuffling quick step.


We're doing two different walks in the demo above. In the first walk from right to left, the quick step is taken onto a bent knee. Then, in the second walk returning from left to right, we do a quick-step shuffle.

In the first walk, you can see that my leg isn’t quite straight as my foot lands for the quick step, while the second walk from the left to right is a little like the side step shuffle demonstrated above. The trailing leg drags weakly behind the leading leg, and the foot slides in for a soft landing. It has a weak look, almost like a slight limp. The first walk shows creeping, the second shuffling, and both demonstrate problem #6 from the list—stepping asymmetrically.

Both problems result from stepping quickly. As our feet move faster, we naturally want to lower our center balance and keep our feet close to the floor, so we tend to bend our knees and shuffle. Staying low and keeping the feet close to the floor is actually a very efficient way to move quickly, and it's great technique for many sports. There are drills in basketball and football where athletes practice it all the time.

The way to clean up a sloppy quick step is to slow down, and then exaggerate good technique. In the drill below, we'll try to take a clean leading step, with weight solidly over the leg, and we'll make sure our knee straightens just as our foot contacts the floor. Then we'll try to mirror it with our quick step, by picking up the trailing leg, and stepping sharply onto a locked knee:


In this drill, we slow down and pick up our feet. It's important to step sharply,
and to lock the knee when the foot contacts the floor on the quick step.


The key is to do each step slowly and precisely with each leg—and there's a secret. Try thinking of both knees locking exactly when the foot contacts the floor. Instead of counting the quick as "strong...weak...strong" or "one...two...three", you might try this: Start with a good walk, and then say "lock...lock...lock", so that both knees straighten and lock completely with each step of the corridita. Do it slowly, and also think about consciously raising the knee before and after the quick, so that both feet come down for a clean landing. Then, gradually increase the speed, until you can do it in the compás. It's almost inevitable that your technique will break down a little during quick steps, but the more you practice, the cleaner your dancing will become.