Why tango teachers ask you to imagine things
Think about the last tango class you went to. There is a fair chance that at some point the teacher said: “Now, imagine that...”, followed by a mental image. Maybe it was directly related to tango culture (“imagine wearing a very tight skirt”) or to something generally familiar (“imagine a balloon held gently between your and your partner’s chests”). The teacher then asked you to move with that image in mind, to “embody” it. You might remember how your movement suddenly changed in all of its aspects. By becoming the image you allowed the image to become you and the movement you were trying to do suddenly worked in a different way.
Imagery is a didactic and choreographic tool used in virtually any dance. But why? What makes images so powerfully effective? Which images work for tango and which don’t? How can you use images effectively in your practice as a student, dancer or teacher?
When teaching or learning to dance, we rely on four modes of conveying the movement: a visual example, a kinaesthetic or sensory example, functional explanations and imagery. Visual examples are given when the teachers perform the movement in front of you. The kinaesthetic quality of a movement can be felt in another person’s body through the embrace or in your own body with the teacher’s guidance. Functional explanations are verbal descriptions of various mechanical details, a breakdown of movement into parts: positions, use of muscle groups, postural alignment, applied force and so on. Imagery is used to represent a composite concept deeply associated with the movement.
Ideally, during a tango class a teacher operates in all the above modes, providing you with as much information as possible from as many angles as possible. Sometimes a teacher has a preference or a particularly developed competence in one of the modes. However, using only one mode is not enough. If a teacher shows the movement but is unable to explain how it is done or to provide useful imagery, we say: “s/he is a very good dancer but unfortunately has no didactic skills”. Visual and sensory aspects are the RESULTS of the biomechanics. We also need to know HOW TO GET THERE. Of course, a lot of information is already contained within the example: directions, dynamics, positions, speed and so forth. The more a student is experienced, the less explanation s/he will need to copy a movement skillfully. However, in order to reproduce a movement in all its deeper aspects, the student needs to conceptualise it in the same way as the teacher. This conceptualisation is where it all starts. By looking at how a person moves, an experienced teacher can immediately tell what CONCEPTION of a particular movement this person has in his/her body and mind. This conception is always an image and often it is unconscious. The next stage is to make the person aware of the current conception and to start changing it by offering different images.
This explains why you can never learn tango by only watching YouTube videos, what you are seeing are just the results of the dancers’ understanding of the movement. The most important bodywork in dance is invisible. While you are mesmerized watching the free leg draw an intricate adorno, it is the standing leg and the dancer’s core that are making the effort of keeping the dancer in balance. If you are advanced, a video could be sufficient to make you learn a new sequence or to improve a certain alignment. A beginner, however, will need a live person to show and explain how a movement works, over and over and over again.
Functional explanation of movement is a very valuable tool. It often demonstrates the degree of the teacher’s biomechanical and anatomical knowledge. Yet, functional explanation has one important drawback: it works algorithmically, emphasizing the order of things, charging the mind with too many details and conditions to remember, giving multiple tasks and engaging our slower, verbal, analytical way of thinking. If I were to tell you in a detailed way how to do a cross step in terms of all relevant parameters, I could talk for an hour and at the end you would be so loaded with information, you would stay frozen in your tracks. Our bodies do not move because we give them rational verbal orders. Also, humans can only hold a tiny number of conditions in mind at once to perform a task. Following a purely functional explanation leads to robotic movement, devoid of expression and musicality, this is why functional explanations are never enough to make people dance. Our bodies are not machines. We are living creatures and we move, literally, in mysterious ways.
A visual example shows you the result; a sensory example makes you feel the result; a functional explanation makes you understand how the body parts work together to create the result, exposing the underlying programming and hardware; imagery, however, does something entirely different. An effective image contains at once an explanation and a result. This explanation, or more precisely, the included understanding of a movement is visual, sensory, immediate and intuitive. Do not let the word “image” fool you: it is not only about how something looks, it is about how something looks and feels and happens, at once. Images make you grasp, holistically, the essence of a movement by associating it with something you know. If images are used effectively in dance training, the students will not necessarily require all the mechanical and anatomical details, although in my experience tango students do appreciate this kind of information. Adults often possess some anatomical knowledge and like to understand their bodies intellectually. Yet, after a long explanation on biomechanics, it is always an image that sparks that final understanding and makes the movement work.
So, what are the parameters of an effective image?
An image, contrary to functional explanation, must convey not only the mechanics of a movement, but most of all its basic INTENTION. Intention is a directional desire that can be expressed by a verb. Intention is the deeper energetic impulse from which the movement derives its shape. If we tell the students: “imagine you are a waiter in an expensive restaurant presenting an exquisite dish to your customer”, this image will have an immediate and very similar response in most people. Each person will straighten up, slightly lift the chin, assume a proud, somewhat arrogant posture and then perform the “presenting” gesture of the arm with a sense of emphasized decorum. Instead, if you say “imagine a proud posture”, this will not have the same immediate and uniform result. It would lead to approximative, caricatural notions of what “a proud posture” means to every single student and, most of all, it will remain STATIC.
An image must be PRECISE. It must describe a very specific and familiar situation or sensation in order for the student to INSTANTLY identify with it. When teachers tell things such as “imagine you are a macho” or “imagine dancing with your heart”, most students will have problems identifying themselves with something at once so general and so prone to diverse interpretations. If the image makes you ask more questions than it answers, if it leaves you with a foggy feeling, it means that the image is not precise or not familiar to you. Unfortunately, a great many tango teachers bedazzle students with all kinds of unskillful imagery, leading to confusion about the most basic biomechanics. For example, consider the often used image of “separating your upper body from your lower body”. It seems to be very precise and to give a clear intention. Yet, this results in people inflating their ribcages, thrusting the chest up, holding in the breath and stiffening in various parts of the body: the opposite of a good dance posture. The term “separating” describes the result, it does not tell HOW to get there. An effective image offers a specific directional vector and a PROCESS. Now, consider the suggestion to “imagine zipping up a pair of very tight pants”. The students will ground their feet on the floor, straighten their legs, suck in the lower abdominals, bring the pelvic area slightly backwards. At the same time they will straighten the torso upward through the spine and open the chest somewhat forward and up. Now we have a result much closer to what we are looking for in dance posture - and everybody is still breathing.
An image has to speak to people, to come from their own experience. You can only tell someone to “put down his feet softly like a panther” if this person is familiar with panthers. This is where cultural differences play a crucial role. I have heard of an Argentinian teacher telling her students to put down their feet as if crushing an ex-lover who had been mean to them at every step. To me, with my cultural background and experience, such an image is too violent. A more neutral image of “gradually pushing a button into the floor as you arrive on your foot” works better for most of my students. The image of “dancing with the woman as if you wished to have sex with her later” might be comfortably appropriate in one culture yet may block all movement in someone from a different culture.
Ideally, an image should activate a reflex, bypassing all mental effort. Impersonating characters and animals works to a certain extent, provided the students are familiar with what you are talking about. Moods can work well (such as “imagine feeling bouncy, like a Sunday walk, lazily strolling, relaxing in the sun”), as long as they indicate a specific behavior. An image does not necessarily always serve a movement, it can also serve a general attitude in dance, such as “I hold myself proudly like a queen” or “I project my energy into the space in all directions at once”. When your students come to your evening class exhausted from work, do a warming up exercise asking them to jump up and down like children and then to let the tension softly melt through their feet into the ground. Their faces will relax and they will start smiling, letting the energy circulate more freely through their bodies. If you want to learn more about useful dance imagery, I highly recommend books and videos by Eric Franklin.
Yet even the most effective images do not necessarily work for everyone, for various reasons. If you feel a pang of recognition and your movement instantly acquires a specific quality that you were looking for, then the image worked. You should keep it in mind for later practice and dancing. If an image did not work for you, simply find a different one. Each movement can be “imaged” in a myriad of ways. Mystically, images sometimes have an expiry date, they might stop working after a while. This can mean that you have integrated the movement into your system and the image is no longer recognised as fresh. Although each image emphasizes one particular aspect of a movement, at the same time, and this is truly wonderful, it involves your WHOLE BODY in the totality of the given movement. This is also what makes images so powerful: by concentrating on one single intention your body suddenly organises itself around it in a very intelligent and extremely efficient way.
It may happen that images do not work for you at all or only occasionally. Instead you learn best from visual and sensory examples or with detailed functional explanation. In this case simply tell the teacher that all these “soft panther paws”, “balloons stuck to the chest” and “crushing the brains of your exes” are not doing the job for you. Ask to give you the information in a way that makes you feel the “click” and improves your movement. We all have imagination yet our brains are not all wired in the same way. This is why it is important to find teachers who speak your “language” in terms of learning and to become such a teacher to yourself. Remember that our movements are governed by a system far more complex and intricate than anything we can understand and it is always a combination of things that makes us move in delicious ways, feeling at once light and powerful, spontaneous yet in control, free to express ourselves in dance. Images are often the only gateways leading you to this freedom.
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