The myth of "just walking"

6th December 2010

"Tango is easy - it's just walking" ~ Every tango teacher, everywhere.


(This is part of a series of "deconstructing the myth" articles - have a look at Speed: the myth of fast reactions and Grounded: the myth of balance for previous articles in this series.)

So, how difficult is it to walk? I mean, the teacher's told us it's easy...

Leaders: not totally wrong

For leaders, a "natural walk" is not a totally bad way to get started. Most people walk forwards using a controlled set of "falling-forwards-in-a-controlled manner" motions, using momentum and gravity combined with some pushing-off energy to propel them forwards.

So as a first approximation for beginners (a "lie-to-children", if you want), I don't think there's anything horrible with saying that walking is "natural". It gets leaders started, and it doesn't confuse them too much with technical issues which they're not ready to cope with yet.

Hold on a second

There is, of course, a catch.

We tend to remember the first things we learn, and hold on to them, sometimes longer than we should. So if we learn that "it's just walking" as our first lesson, we may carry that meme with us for a long time - which could inhibit our later developments. We want to keep hold of our comfort blankets when we grow up.

So, I'd definitely suggest that teachers, even at the beginner stage, emphasize that "it's just natural walking" is simply a way to get you started. It's an approximation. Don't take it too much to heart.

Followers: totally wrong

For followers, however, the "natural" concept is 100% wrong.

If you walk backwards "naturally" as a follower, you're very likely to "fall backwards in a controlled manner" - this is the most efficient way of doing this sort of movement, after all; you're using momentum and gravity to power your movements.

But if you do this, it becomes nearly impossible to dance with you - at least, not without having your knees bumped and / or toes stepped on, on a frequent basis.

In Tango, the woman must have her intention forwards - at all times:

Incorrect posture is one of the worst mistakes a follower can make - and unlike many other mistakes, it's not something that can easily be fixed by a leader; at most, leaders can compensate for the problem. And if the follower's been listening to this "it's all just walking" gumf, there's a good chance she'll naturally make exactly that mistake.

So for followers, this meme is actually worse than useless - it's dangerous.

The marching problem

Another problem with "it's just walking" is that, tpyically, people associate walking with a continuous-tempo movement. Generally, when we walk along a road, we walk at a constant pace, keeping roughly the same time with each step. Basically, we're marching.

But dancing is not marching; unless you're dancing to a simple drum beat with no variation. Dancing is "moving to the music" - and the key point to this is that the music changes.

But at some point, musicality comes into it. And if you're conditioned to march to the beat, then getting used to pausing - or double-timing - is much more difficult.

That said...

Don't get me wrong - again, for beginners, simple "walking to the beat" is a good starting point. You need to acknowledge the underlying beat of the music as a first, ahah, step. And it's not totally trivial for beginners to hear the underlying beat - so there's nothing totally wrong with starting people out by saying "for now, let's walk to the beat".

But, again, it's a question of intalling a meme; once they're lodged in your head, they're difficult to get rid of.

So, what to do?

Basically, I'd recommend avoiding teachers who keep trying to tell you "It's just walking" (the other version of this is "If you can walk, you can tango").

These teachers may well be doing so from the best motives - to encourage you, to try to give you the confidence to allow you to walk, and so on - but with such a statement, they're causing more problems than they're curing.

Like the myth of fast reactions and the myth of balance, the "just walking" meme is particularly damaging because it's so simple.

Yes, Tango steps are simple (for a certain value of "simple"), as every movement in tango can be expressed as variant on a step / change-of-weight / pivot.

But "simple" does not mean "easy".

~ David Bailey, 6th December 2010

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