Homer and Cristina in Oxford, 24th-26th April

Sunday, 26 April 2009 at 15:28
(For the uninitiated, I dance Argentine Tango, a lot, but not as much as I'd like. It's like a conduit of play, intimacy and joyful discovery of self and others, all in a dance)

A friend had put me onto Homer a couple of months back, and his Organic tango idea. It sounded great and I liked the way he looked in videos, but the guy spends most of his time stateside, so I thought, 'maybe next year', like so many other things I'd do today if I had the money and time. I was delighted then to hear he was doing a couple of weekend workshops in the UK. I write this after returning from the first one in Oxford.

For quite a while now, my lust for ever fresh and funkier combinations and outlandish maneuvers has been tempered with a quest to find the underlying principles of tango dance, those foundations of communication, the qualities in the embrace and 'way of engaging', that when imbibed, free the dancer up to do and create pretty much anything in the dance and have it feel musical and connected and natural. It was my time in the Netherlands that really got me thinking this way, and I was so happy to hear Homer and Cristina so strongly and clearly focus on the underlying principles.

It wasn't just the principles in the embrace and posture, it was also underlying structures in the music itself that they picked out and drilled down on. Excellent!

Their style of teaching was very relaxed, friendly and encouraging. In a busy session, everyone seemed to get useful personal attention. I made some shorthand notes on the ideas (as I understood them at least) that most interested me, which I'll expand on below.

  • Floating head - The idea that the head should (by default) be directly above the axis (and the chest above the hips) and not tilted forward. This results in the head feeling quite free on the neck - or 'floating'. This I was reminded makes a huge positive difference to balance with rotary movements, as well as allowing visual connection even in a close embrace and giving more sense of space to both dancers (although it is nice to have head contact, it's great to have the option of not having them glued together in close embrace). Another important effect is getting rid of sore necks at the end of a night's dancing.
  • Equal and opposite resistence - I couldn't help smiling when I heard this one. The penny had dropped in the Taboe camp in NL over newyears. I'd tried to bring the idea back, but it seemed quite alien to most people I tried sharing it with. Now here it was again being spread in the UK. Basically, by default through every point of contact if the leader pushes (not shoves), the follower pushes back. If the leader pulls (not hauls) the follower pulls back - both maintaining the integrity of their embrace. Before I was focused on this as really opening up counter balance movements. This time Homer and Cristina were focusing on the sensitivity and sense of connection that results from it. I've found a lot of teachers kind of touch on this principle indirectly, but few really boil it down to this level - which is a shame, because I feel it's such a fundamental and liberating one!

    If you're reading this and thinking 'well if the follower gives the same opposite force back, how do you actually move anywhere?', the answer seems to be about controling where the force is coming from (also see: building resistence through compression, below). If the leader's whole body is moving, say, backwards and their enclosing arm is drawing the follower with them, then that's a pretty clear step or volcada (depending on sense of support and lift) and it would be very hard for the follower to counter-act that. However if the leader allows some release in the enclosing arm and does not step back, at the same time as beginning to move his chest and open arm back, then this is countered by the follower to maintain balance in the couple, resulting in something like a colgada, or a pulling counter-balance that can be used well in turns. Maybe you could say, 'if you feel a force which doesn't immediately invite a step, then counter-act it'. They also make the observation that many followers like to be very light in the level of resistence they give, especially beginners, but ironically this is the hardest way to get a good sense of connection, much easier with a medium of even strong (which is probably closer to medium in reality from the leader's perspective) level of resistence. If you start with this, get that sense of constant connection and really experience what it feels like, then it can be easier to reduce the resistence in the embrace and still stay connected. 
  • Smooth resistence - really a consequence of the above point of applying equal resistence. We started with walking and looking for a totally constant feeling of resistence, so both follower and leader were fully balanced and engaged with each other, no 'hickups' of falling into a step or stalling short of one. So a big part of this is tuning your step length to each other. The follower steps too long and the resistence (and the connection) falls away and the leader feels like he's falling, or being pulled into a void. Or with a little shared axis if the leader takes too short a step there is a sense of stalling before the next step, which interrupts the flow of the dance and greatly reduces options. After walking we did a weight transfer and cross sequence to really test the smoothness of resistence through every point. I think this is a great thing to focus on in a practica context. Pick your favourite movements or combinations and make it so the resistence in the embrace is totally smooth through every point of movement - then repeat 50 times. It's worth saying there's a big difference between pushing back into someone (good - if it's intentional) and pushing down on someone (generally bad). The stability and power we need to apply smooth resistence comes from really engaging our legs with the floor, feeling and keeping our connection with it, with both feet. They observed that many followers actually project back too far when they step, leading to weakening of the connection at that point. One of the last things they said about this idea of constant equalibrium and connection from equal resistence in the embrace was that 'They knew nothing that came after, nothing that was more advanced. If you get this, you've got it all.'. Food for thought. 
  • Building resistence through compression - Sometimes the music suggests a building of tension or energy or a drawing out of movement. One very effective way of expressing that is to build the resistence in the embrace, so there is temporarily more force shared between leader and follower (which later settles down to a comfortable default) This can be achieved through compression, the leader drawing his embrace in towards the centre of the followers chest. The follower naturally opposes this to keep the integrity of her frame and posture - and so resistence is built. With elevated restance, longer, slower, more powerful looking and feeling movements can be made, as well as very rapid ones.
  • Rhythm signatures - The idea that beneath classical tango there is a very common sequence of accents. DA-da ... da-DA, or 'Kiss-me, good-night', as they put it, was the one focused on. We explored different ways of highlighting these accents in the music. Some options: small rock-steps, weight changes, side-steps, side steps with weight change in middle (very cool), or quick little ochos. They also presented the idea of selectively highlighting certain accents, like only the first, or first two, or building a sequence, like "Kiss.", "Kiss-me.", "Kiss-me, good-night." as the music progresses, etc. This sort of thing can really help bring the music to life through your feet.
  • Ways for the follower to highlight accents, even when the leader isn't - This one I loved, but as they said, it does depend of having a leader who doesn't insist on the follower always doing precisely what is lead and nothing more (like clear reflection, not adding any additional character - which can feel lovely for both dancers, but can also be a little lonely for the leader and creatively frustrating for the follower), or one who enjoys a sense of musical collaboration. The idea is to move your body in such a way that expresses the music/beat/accent, but doesn't force the leader to stop or take a step (in other words not seizing the lead - which sometimes if done well can be fun and interesting also). This can be done in so many ways, foot tapping through a step, little side steps, hip wiggles or twitches, shoulder movements (isolating from hips), even finger taps on the leaders back (love it!). It depends on the mood, but this can be such a lovely way of really engaging emotionally and musically with your partner and the music.
On the Sunday I only attended the 2nd workshop 'The Wrap'
  • Leg wraps - Later they demo'd 101 different ways to wrap, but the session was focused on the principles of what opens the possibilities up. We started with a wrap from the hero, Side, forward, side, leg goes in and wrap, back. The first cool thing was the teapot embrace (leader's right hand behind their own back), to avoid 'cheating' the movement with arm movement compensating for lack of whole body movement. They covered different options for exiting the wrap, generally favouring those that don't result in a big swinging leg that arcs out across the floor (potentially taking out couples along its travels) - plain unwraping and collecting, bouncing (raising the knee), and caressing (on exit and on way down to collection)  For safety, followers keep toes pointed on entry and exit. It's worth pointing out that if followers give a little bit of 'omph' to wrap it feels good and assists in keeping the movement going. Also by generally unwrapping with your knee inline with the direction of your hips (i.e. rotate your hips when unwrapping instead of circling the leg in isolation of the hips) you allow for cool things like a 2nd wrap on the re-bound for the same leg before it lands. :)

    For the leader, the key for the type of wraps they showed was to open the hip and project the leg with bent knee making inside thigh contact with the follower's leading leg, not the trailing one ( the trailing one is the one that's going to wrap) and to keep the rotation going (unless you want to freeze it). This lets the follower know exactly where you are and helps to share the point of rotation. It also helps (for couples with good height matches) for the leader to raise the heel of the leg-to-be-wrapped leg leaving only the ball on the floor, it makes a close, full wrap easier.

    We also did wraps from forward ochos, and from over rotated backward ochos (also known as backward ganchos). Finally before the demo they introduced 'double wraps', where the leg does a double take and wraps twice (or more) as the leader quickly reverses the movement part way, or where the follower decides it would fit nicely with the music, even if not lead (again, use good judgement according to who you're dancing with). There was a lovely game to help followers get a sense of sending the whole leg through, not just flicking at the knee, which tends not to feel as nice and more easily results in injury to the leader. The game was to stand side by side, hip to hip, arms around shoulder and waist. The 'follower' (it's good to swap roles for this) swings their whole leg back and forth with constant tempo. The 'leader' puts their inside leg behind the follower or (a little trickier) in front of the follower's standing leg, so that the swinging leg as it's swinging back from the front-most position is intercepted and wraps around the leader's leg. The high-light for me from this session was figuring out the flowing double wrap on alternate legs of the leader they did in their demo. So cool! Ask me if you're curious :)
So, in summary, highly recommeded. If you get a chance to do a workshop with this couple, do it. Besides the tango, they're also lots of fun to hang out with.

I'm sure I'm forgetting something, but I think that's most of the key tango points I picked up from the weekend. Oxford was beautiful and I had some gorgeous, playful, sensual dances with some lovely people. I was lucky enough to be put up by a friend's kind family for 2 nights, so I also got to fly a baby around a living room (narrowly avoiding getting any sick on me), sleep (for about 4 hours) on a giant self-inflating air bed, and have breakfast made for me. All in all a pretty cool weekend.

Right, back in Southampton and back to the business of getting some of my various money making, world changing projects to a point of completion...


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