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Why is leading so difficult to learn? Some men struggle with it even after years of dancing. Their dance may look decent, but actually the women they are dancing with have to keep guessing what they want. They may also be slow in picking up new patterns, even simple variations of the ones that they already know. An important but often overlooked reason is that they cannot see their partners’ movement in their mind. In other words, they are dancing blind.
Let’s think about driving for a moment. When we drive, we look ahead to see where the car is going. We turn the steering wheel according to what we see. Although the steering wheel is what we use to maneuver the car, we seldom if ever look at it. If we focus on the wheel instead of the road ahead, for sure we will crash the car.
We also need feedback when we dance. We need to know where our partner is and what she is doing at all times. The more we know the more we can lead her to do what we want. Visualizing our partner allows us to lead with clarity and precision.
So how do we visualize our partner? The first thing we need to see is her landing. That means when she takes a step, exactly when and where her foot touches the floor. A dance is made up of a chain of steps. We need to see the timing and position of each of her steps in this chain. Without seeing her steps our lead will not be exact, and the chain will be easily broken.
As leaders we often plan a few steps ahead. But when we lead we have to do it one step at a time. We can only tell her about the next step after she has landed the current one. If we see the timing of each of her landings in our mind, we can sync our lead with her movement perfectly. She will find it much easier to understand what we want.
Besides the timing, we also need to know the geometry of her movement. In any given step, we may expect our partner to land at a certain location. But in reality, she often does not arrive at exactly where we want. In order to move with her in unison, and to lead her with precision, we need to know her actual landing spots.
So how do we detect the timing and position of her landing? We are in an embrace so we cannot look down at her feet. Not being able to use our eyes makes us feel blind. In tango we need to use our sense of touch to “see.” We feel her landing through the embrace, and create a picture with this information in our mind. If we practice enough, we will be able to perceive her clearly as if we are using our eyes.
The second thing we need to visualize is her embrace. Imagine you are walking across a room while holding a tray. On top of the tray sits a glass full of champagne. In order not to spill the champagne, you have to make sure the tray is horizontal and the surface of the champagne is calm.
That is also how we should treat the woman’s balance. She is standing on one leg, on high heels, and performing difficult movements that she does not expect. Understandably her balance is fragile. Let’s imagine a horizontal plane passing through the bottom of her rib cage. When this plane tilts she feels she is going to fall. Her upper body will tense up to regain balance. We need to help her to avoid this uncomfortable situation as much as we can.
We visualize the base plane of her embrace and make sure it remains horizontal, like we are holding a tray. Certainly we should not disturb the balance of this plane by our own careless movement. Especially when we lead her to rotate, we cannot turn her whichever way we want. We have to make sure our turning motion will keep this plane horizontal. Then she will not be disturbed by our lead.
The third thing we need to see are her hips. Imagining two dots, one on each side of her hips. When she dances, how do these two dots move? In translational movement they move together. In pivots they travel in opposite directions. One dot moves a lot more than the other.
The purpose of our lead is to guide these two dots to move along their respective paths. The dots tell us whether her hips are properly aligned for the movement that we want. Seeing these two dots allows us to lead rotational movement with precision.
In a side-to-side ocho, the pivot is not finished until one dot is right in front of us and the other is on the far side of her body. Only until then can she take her next step comfortably. If she under pivots, her next step will be very uncomfortable.
Can you see how these two dots move when she does a giro? Can you see them in her back, side, front, and side steps? If you can see the dots, the structure of her giro will become crystal clear. Leading her and moving together with her will become much easier.
Her landing, the base plane of her embrace, and the dots on the side of her hips form a simple and complete model. Seeing it in our mind clarifies her movement a great deal. We can understand her dance without knowing all the details of her anatomy. We can apply it to women of different body types and dance styles, and adapt our lead to each of them. Learning new patterns will become easier because we have a clear picture of what our partner needs to do. There are more sophisticated ways to visualize your partner, but this model is a good and simple way to start.
Some men naturally visualize the movement of their partner, some men do not. That is why some learn tango much faster than others. In milongas, there are men whose body technique is not so outstanding. Yet they manage to become popular because they dance by visualization.
This skill, like any other skill, can be attained through training and practice. Developing it will drastically improve your dance. It is independent of how well you use your body. Dancing blind takes away our confidence. I hope you can see your partner clearly from now on.