Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tango Seminar with Paul Holmes

Part: Follow
Dances: Tango
Hovers: 0

A little over a week ago Jeff and I took part in a seminar hosted at Aria Ballroom for visiting coach Paul Holmes. Mr. Holmes was himself a Blackpool finalist and champion dancer, so all of us students were eager to learn from the best some ideas for taking our tango to the next level. Before the seminar, Violetta led us through a basic tango routine to give us some steps to work on in the seminar and to avoid wasting Paul's time just learning steps. Luckily for Jeff and I, the routine was almost taken directly from our own tango routine, so we hoped that meant we'd get some specific pointers on how to improve this part of our routine, which, by the way, needs a lot of work.

The seminar itself ended up being more conceptual and was less focused on particular details of each step, but it sometimes those overall concepts are just what you need to shift the way you think about executing a certain figure. He talked a lot about what he called the "triangle," which is the shape one's legs form when evenly split weight. Rather than transferring all weight suddenly and completely from foot to foot, and therefore essentially falling into each step, a dancer should allow his body to pass across his feet with an even transfer of weight, just as we do when walking. Mr. Holme's demonstration of a tango walk was quite impressive to behold; it was lightening quick, yet incredibly smooth at the same time. That dichotomy between body flight and foot speed I believe is the real difference that makes this kind of quality of movement so difficult, yet look so good when executed. While the feet move quickly and confidently from step to step, the body must float across them, without pitching forward or back to try to keep up with the foot.

He also spoke a lot about leading the lady in front of the body, rather than letting her slip behind or to the side, or pitch over, likening her to a tray of drinks that the lead is carrying. The visual image must have been effective, because when Jeff picked me up to dance the figure in question, he kept me in a good position in front of him the entire time, and didn't let me slip to the outside as so often happens in our tango. Paul also demonstrated how the fallaway reverse slip pivot is actually danced in a straight line, and showed how the rotation should work to accomplish this. The change in the way it felt for us was dramatic...dramatically improved. Jeff had been attempting, per directions, to dance the figure in kind of a curved direction, and somehow the rotation was just not working like it should and always felt bumpy.

One point he brought up is that, as a dancer, you have only two people to whom who should listen and whom you should consider your best friends: you coach, and your partner. No one else can really give you valuable information about your dancing. Your partner will tell you things about what he or she is feeling, and while it may be easy to become defensive and think the problem is on the other side, it is important to realize that these comments are made for a reason, and whether or not the problem is identified by your partner, something is going on that you need to figure out. It's not about fault finding, it's about problem solving and figuring out what is causing the feeling. Listen, listen, listen. Compared to a lot of couples we've seen practicing and training together, I think Jeff and I do a pretty good job of this. It's frustrating sometimes when you don't know what the problem is but you think it's your partner, but oftentimes it's not what you think, so listening is really important.

After the seminar, we spent some time practicing our fallaway reverse slip pivots using the new concepts and direction. Lots of things to think about, and on into the next week we had some new food for thought going into practice.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Best Basics

I'm going to break the mold a bit and do a post on my favorite basic steps in each dance because I've wanted to list them out somewhere so that I can look back later and see if the list changes. Some of these (like the running finish in quickstep) used to be least favorite, so it's interesting to see how this changes as skill level improves. There are a few very simple figures that I just love, even though they are some of the most basic and fundamental. And sometimes, they are some of the hardest steps of all to execute properly, even if they're supposedly "newcomer" or "bronze" figures.

In case anyone is wondering, we've been having some really good practices lately, I think because we're keeping them shorter, frequent, and more focused, and a seminar with visiting coach Paul Holmes gave us some really good food for thought and ideas about what to work on. I'll post more about that soon. In the mean time...

So first we have Waltz. 

I'm going to link to basic demo videos here for each dance so you can see which steps I am talking about when I give the reference points. While I do really love a number of waltz figures, the following are some of the most basic that for some reason I especially like:

  • Natural spin turn, see 0:12-0:14. One of the most fundamental figures. You find it in quickstep too, but to me it is most characteristic of waltz. The amount of rotation, momentum, and shape you can get out of this figure is quite wonderful when you get the CBM (contra-body-movement) and balance right. 
  • The Hover, see 0:21-0:24. You knew I had to go there. Not the most basic step ever, but still, one of my all time favs. It's the place for a follow to show what she's got in terms of balance and extension.
  • Back Whisk, see 0:25-0:28. Also very basic, but when the whisk step is taken just right, under the body, in perfect time, there's something so smooth about this transition to promenade that makes me happy. 
  • Outside change. Not in the video, sadly, but so simple and so good. It gets you from closed to promenade position and has a nice shape.
And then there's Tango. Tango is not the best dance for me, but I still have some favorite basics.

  • Promenade link. 0:24-0:26. This is the characteristic tango step, and when done well, just says tango like nothing else. 
  • Natural twist turn. 1:16-1:18. I just love the way this feels when you get all wound up and then have enough torque to just snap out into the next position. I prefer it though when it ends in promenade position, which it doesn't in our routine, but does in the video.
  • Back corte. 0:35-0:36 (I think, that's what it is). Basic, but a good chance for the follow to extend, with a more comfortable position from which to really extend out using counter balance. I always get a good hip flexor stretch out of this figure!
Viennese Waltz. 

Not much to say here since there are basically four figures, except that I vastly prefer natural turns to reverse turns. (Natural turns are the ones that turn to the right). This dance is basic, and I like it very much over all. It's one of our best. Our fleckrels are quite dreadful though, but for now that's okay.

Foxtrot is quite possibly my favorite dance. 

Even at the open level, basic figures form the majority of the choreography because the challenge of this dance is more in the technique and flawless execution of them. 
  • Feather step! 0:10-0:11. The most basic and fundamental step in foxtrot, but so amazing. The smoothness, silkiness, body rotation and isolation, partner connection, it all feels so good. We've been told our feather step isn't half bad...which means there is hope for our foxtrot. 
  • Hover cross. 0:34-0:38. This one is sadly not in our routine, but I love it very much, I think because to me it represents a kind of "faux" hinge line or same foot lunge (one of my very favorite open line figures) because the line is the same, although you pass through it much quicker so there is less time for extension and shape.
  • Reverse Wave. 0:54-0:58 Feels so good when it goes well, kind of like rippling water. It's the reverse of a feather step three step combination, only with the man and lady switching parts.
  • Curved Feather. 1:16-1:18. So nice; it gives a nice place to settle and check and gather momentum to come out of the figure in one smooth motion. 
  • Hesitations. 0:24-0:26, and 1:29. Of any kind, I love these. It's a great chance to give the foxtrot that characteristic check and flow. Sigh...
And finally, Quickstep. 

Possibly my weakest of the standard dances, thought it's a toss up between this and tango. I do have some favorite basics though.
  • Running finish. 0:19-0:20. I used to hate this figure because I was terrible at following it and would crash into the guy's legs every time, without fail. Now that I've figured out how the body lead works and the transition from inside to outside partner, it's quite fun. It still does require a lead who knows what he's doing though, otherwise, crashes still happen. 
  • Natural spin turn. 0:21-0:23. Again, this is more characteristic of waltz to me, but it's lots of fun in quickstep too because of the speed, so it can really feel like you're flying around a corner if you get the rotation right. Wheee!
  • Quick open reverse. 0:51-0:52. Just a fun figure because of the momentum, and I like the way it shapes to the right when the lady is going outside, like a weave. I do not appreciate ending it in a reverse pivot as we do in our routine. My reverse pivots are sadly wanting. 
  • Hesitations. 1:10. Again. But hesitations in quickstep are like the oasis in the desert; it's the chance to settle everything back into place, look pretty, and then head off to the races again refreshed and restored in confidence. Besides, the momentum you get from the figures preceding is usually enough to really give me something to work with to get more extension that usual, and I like that. I remember one particular hesitation in a corner after Jeff took me through a whirlwind of open naturals down the social floor, and I ended up with huge sway as we banked into the check. It felt pretty amazing. 
And those are my current favorite basics. Perhaps I'll do one on my least favorites as well, though a big post complaining about zig-zags and reverse outside swivels may be a bit depressing to read. We'll see. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Still Practicing and Dancing...More to Come

Just a quick note in case anyone still reads our blog these days. Jeff and I are still practicing most evenings and then social dancing on the weekends, but due to otherwise very busy schedules, the practice plans and practices have not been as well documented as of late. Still, the practices have been going very well and the dancing at the parties too, and just last weekend we had the chance to participate in a seminar with a visiting coach from England who gave us some great ideas for how to practice some of our problem areas, specifically in tango. I'll be posting more as we get into the weekend and I have some time to get caught up. :)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Surprise Practice

Part: Follow
Dances: Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, Quickstep, Nightclub 2-step
Hovers: 2

Saturday of last week we had kind of an unplanned practice. Between Tuesday and the weekend I had been busy every weekend with my church choir preparing and singing for the Easter weekend liturgies every evening, so we hadn't practiced in several days. I showed up for conditioning class on Saturday, but probably because it was a holiday weekend and such a gorgeous day, no one else had showed up, so they opted not to have the class. Since I had come all the way to studio, I felt I might as well get something out of it and decided to hang out and stretch since I had just worked out, and then put on my shoes and started practicing a bit on my own, working on heel turns, foxtrot movement, and extension. Since Jeff was there, he figured we might as well get some practice in, so he put his own shoes on and we ran through our dances. It ended up being a very good practice, probably because there was little distraction, we were fairly fresh since it was in the middle of the afternoon on a weekend, and we almost had the floor and the music to ourselves.

This practice, we ran through each dance and reviewed some of the problem areas a bit. Foxtrot was feeling good that day, and we were remembering how we had worked so hard on getting our movement versus our steps on the beat of the music, and how you actually step on the off beat. Jeff thinks we're doing it correctly now; I actually don't think about it so I didn't know for sure. When I'm dancing my best foxtrot, I'm usually totally focused on the lead and keeping myself with him, versus thinking about my own technique or not thinking at all. Lately, especially with foxtrot, I'm trying to think in terms of myself being a part or extension of that when this or that leg moves, mine goes too as if they were one unit, or if the body rotates or moves in a new directly, mine responds in kind. I know that's obvious, but when I think of what I'm doing in terms of what he's doing, it works much better than when I think about how I'm dancing as an independent thing. I find that my focus and the way I think as a follow has become more and more relative to the lead and less objective. I think that's good though. Anyhow, the natural turns seemed much improved and more on balance, which I attributed to our focused practice on that on Tuesday.

It was good to run through each of the dances and kind of figure out where we stood with each one. I think tango is actually the worst and probably waltz the best. Quickstep is still hard, but I think the polished look and technique in tango is still quite elusive, while I think we can fake it more convincingly in quickstep. What we really need at this point is more lessons. Hopefully, we'll be able to start up with those again in the near future.

Turning On the Heel

Part: Follow
Dances: Waltz, Foxtrot
Hovers: 2

Tuesday last week I thought we should focus on our heel turns. Heel turns are always and issue and always need work, so we warmed up with waltz and then got to work on the heel turns in foxtrot, since there are so many of them. Most of the heel turns are for me as a follow, so for me it's about staying balanced, getting my heels together, and having my weight transfers occur at the right time in the right part of the foot (no heels coming down until feet are together!). Then for Jeff, leading them is always a challenge, because he has to aim his directional energy on exactly the right plane to get me back on my heel, but still get around me without knocking me over or pulling the partnership offline. It's tough to find that spot. Turns out that we were kind of dipping to the side at the end of all of my heel turns, which kind of caused us to fall out of them and messed up the alignment. I suggested that we try practicing them completely flat, with no shape, just to see how that felt. For myself, I thought about the concepts we had worked on in ballet class with keeping both sides of the rib cage extended and keeping a balance on either side. This seemed to really help the problem.

We also worked on Jeff's heel turns, usually in the closed impetus. I asked if he could feel anything that I was doing to pull the balance off or make the turn harder to execute, but he didn't seem to think there was much of an issue. One of my biggest issues there is driving forward on my first step, since I often feel there isn't enough room between the lead's legs since he tends to cross them as he goes into the turn.

This time, cool down was the super slow Beegie Adair "Moon River" saltz. I had forgotten how truly slow that piece is, but every time it's a great exercise in balance and control.

The Flailing Fishtail

Part: Follow
Dances: Waltz, Quickstep, Nightclub 2-step
Hovers: 2

Monday of last week was so long ago now, I need to be better at keeping track of what we worked on! I think that was the day we focused on quickstep, after warming up with waltz.

Basically, I wanted to work on any "trouble-spots" we tend to have in that dance, such as the rumba crosses, six-quick run (where the timing never seems quite right), and getting it comfortable up to to speed. Most of our practice was slow; this way we could really tell where the balance was off, where I rushing, and where the shaping was wonky and throwing things off. It turns out that the fishtail bit was more of a problem than we thought; I kept tipping over for some reason. I think I might have not been patient enough with the shape, so once I was aware of the issue I think we mostly fixed it. The rumba crosses are better but still feel strained to me, so I always want to work on them.

We ended, as usual with nightclub 2-step.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Could Have Danced All Night

Part: Follow
Dances: Waltz, Tango, Foxtrot, Viennese Waltz, Quickstep, Nightclub 2-step, Bolero, West Coast Swing
Hovers: 3...losing count these days!

Last week's parties, as in the last weekend of March through April 1st, were a bit of a mixed bag. Thursday and Sunday were a bit slow, but Saturday there was a great turn out. Thursday night I danced very little, may two or three times, and once was a foxtrot with Simeon because I had signed up as a student on the "dance with a teacher" list. I got to dance a few hover crosses, so I was happy about that. Again, that dance is more geared toward students in the classes who really need more opportunities and experience dancing with music and with someone who knows they're doing, and guess what? Most of these students tend to be women, so not as much opportunity for me to ask any unattached gentlemen in turn. I did, however, dance nightclub 2-step with one of them who was just learning it while Jeff was dancing with his wife, and I think he had fun giving it a whirl.

I ended up skipping salsa on Friday, but Saturday I was ready for the ballroom party! I really look forward to them each week now; there's always such a good crowd, and the music is great, and there are guys with whom to dance, and friends with whom to visit, and it's just a fun time. Jeff and I danced a lot that night, and pretty well too, I'd say. We decided that our nightclub 2-step would likely get us disqualified at a competition since Jeff has been incorporating more and more unorthodox but very cool moves from standard, American Smooth, and who knows what else. We're also getting to the point where we can attempt quickstep on the social floor, which is fun but scary. At least Aria is big enough for it! Anyhow, that night I believe we hit all of our dances except tango. Afterwards, the whole crew headed out for frozen yogurt and then happy hour afterwards because the frozen yogurt place closed first. It was a good night.

Sunday West Coast Swing didn't have much of a showing, but I took Jeff's class and then danced a little bit afterwards. I do like the dance and am enjoying the opportunity to learn more.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Inner Game of Following

Part: Follow
Dances: Waltz, Tango, Quickstep, Foxtrot
Hovers: 4?

I'm going to cheat and post about last week's practices in one post since they are running together in my head. Normally I can look at the practice plans and it all comes back to me, but Jeff vetoed various parts of the plans, or we ended up working on other things, so I still get mixed up. We practiced on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday before the practice party though.

We did some more quickstep review and really tried to solidify that routine. It's definitely more comfortable, and we're now even brave enough to take it out on the social floor and give it a run, so that's an improvement. I think because of the speed, it's the hardest one to change and mix up on the fly from a floor-crafting standpoint, so getting to the point where the pieces are interchangeable is important.

We worked on a bit of foxtrot, mostly for warm up purposes. For some reason on Thursday Jeff felt that I was rushing him and falling into my steps, which I believe was probably true. I was very tired that day and due to both muscle tiredness and lack of mental focus, I was kind of just going through the motions, rather than being truly responsive. I've been realizing that, for all my efforts to turn off my thinking and thought processes while following, it still does require a lot of mental energy and concentration, just a different kind. Muscle memory is not always reliable, as it is less open to various options since it tends to stick with known patterns, but if I can mentally focus on where the lead is and what he's doing at any given time, almost in an observatory way, I find that I follow the best. I guess you could say it's like when you're ball player and you learn to think about nothing but watching the ball, be it tennis, baseball, basketball..etc. It's the same concept. You'll naturally react better to it if you focus your energies on the ball rather than on your reaction to it. It's more when practicing on my own or strictly running routines that I really work on the quality and technique of my reactions, but when I'm following, I'd better not be thinking too much about what I'm doing or everything goes awry. Anyhow, discovering how to concentrate my mental energies while dancing as a follow was a huge breakthrough for me, though when I get tired I get lazy and the muscle memory just takes over, and I go through the motions without really following, and that's what Jeff was feeling.

We also ended up working a lot on natural turns in waltz. Jeff discovered something about his footwork that apparently wasn't quite right, according to Kora and Simeon, so we spent a bit of time working on that. Natural turns are actually very difficult, even though they are one of the most basic figures, because of the way the partners must balance each other on the rotation without pulling each other's actually much harder than it looks or sounds. Whatever Jeff changed with the footwork made it much smoother though.

Tango was the only dance we didn't really work on. I think it's gotten to the point where we feel we can't make much progress without a lesson, or as Jeff put it "professional help." I added that perhaps some tango "counseling" was in order. In any case, tango does need help.