The Tango of Zero: Size Matters

7th February 2010

"Two is a ridiculous number and can't exist" ~ Denison, The Gods Themselves


So, I was talking about ochos last week, as you do. And the question was posed by a follower "How big should my steps be"? The answer I provided was "It depends on your leader"; like all steps. The more the leader opens-out to lead the step, the larger the "walk-around" needed to keep your chest in line with his. Simple, really.

(That's also one of the nicer things about Tango; you can solve most such questions by going back to first principles and applying them.)

Similarly, I've been working on rocksteps and weight-changes / sidesteps for a couple of weeks, and experimenting with both of these, and I've found something similar applies here. A rockstep is not one particular size; the size of the rockstep depends on the energy provided by the leader.

Let me try to explain...

So, the Step Of Rock...

Up until recently, I had a poor habit of over-stepping my rocksteps. I'd lift my back foot off the floor, basically, which would involve more force than necessary to bring my partner back when I replaced my back foot. I was pulling her back, basically; when (for most followers) this was simply not necessary.

This habit was pointed-out to me by the lovely Unni Hermansen at a private lesson during one of the Tango Mangos last October. Unni suggested that I try to substitute simple changes-of-weight for rocksteps, to achieve the same effect (that is, the aim of staying in place with style :) ) Since then, I've been intermittently working on this, and - so long as I remember this - I think it's definitely helped me. I also now think that I can do "in place" rocksteps, with very little movement involved. So that's nice.


But when we look deeper we see there's a couple of wrinkles in this otherwise smooth tale of progression.

Turning rocksteps

Firstly, it's physically impossible to do turning rocksteps (in a full circle, at least) without lifting your back foot up - at least, not without turning your rockstep into a giro-type movement. Try it and see.

So we've now got two types of rockstep - a "pulse" used for staying in place, and (some degree of) foot-lifting when turning.


Similarly, I was watching a tango dancer at Berko last week, dnacing a sort-of-hybrid-Jive-tango thing. He used large rocksteps with weight changes and displayed the evil lifting-of-the-back-foot syndrome. But, you know, it worked? For that type of dancing and music, it worked well.

(That also may explain why I was originally doing the same thing - basically it was a habit developed from doing a similar type of dancing, but which I didn't adjust for traditional tango dancing.)

So that's three types...

Rotating with variations of axis

And yet another variation available with rotations, is where you effectively keep your axis on your front foot, but move the back foot around (lifting it off the floor). Similarly, you can rotate mainly moving your front foot around and keeping your back foot on the floor.

Three wise teachers

One of the problems with rocksteps not really being explained in classes is that leaders tend to create their own rules and interpretations.

The following is advice received from private lessons:

  • Jill Barrett: It's like trying to make a footprint in wet sand with your front foot. You also need to avoid the "nodding dog syndrome". This is where the follower is violently yanked forwards so that her head literally flops about like a nodding dog. Use your right arm as a barrier to indicate that you're going to do a rockstep. Then release the "barrier" to continue walking. You don't actually need to do this once you get the hang of it, but it does make it easier for the follower.
  • Bianca: It's the feeling of walking and someone suddenly does something dangerous in front of you as you're taking a step so you go "Oh ^@&%!" and bring her back the other way.
  • Amir Giles: Your weight changes, but it doesn't completely settle on your back foot when you rock back. If you stand as if you'd taken a forward step and rock completely forward and back from foot to foot, it takes too long. If you try to speed it up, what you'll find is that your body / axis doesn't go all the way back over your rear foot. It's more like a boxer slipping back slightly to dodge a punch and instantly coming back to counter-punch. If he were to completely step back he wouldn't be able to come forward fast enough.

Dancing with angels

What I've personally found is that small is easier. In close embrace with a strong connection between your chests you can lead tiny rocksteps. The physics makes sense. You're constantly reversing directions. The bigger the distances the faster you have to go and the greater the accelerating forces involved.

The music is your friend

Although you can do rocksteps whenever you want, it's considerably easier if

  • a) The music is also doing double time
  • b) It's obvious to the follower that the music is doing double time.

Actually b) has a few more levels. It's also helpful if it obvious to the follower that the leader knows the music has double-time. Also often when one instrument is doing double-time, another will still be doing single, so it's got to be clear to the follower which the leader is going with. It's also helpful if the leader has been dancing to the music in the previous phrase.

In real terms this means throwing in random rocksteps, even if they are on double time, is probably a bad idea.

"If a phrase starts with double-times it'll probably continue that way for a while"
"You don't have to start exactly on a phrase. You can pause and see what it does first" ~ Joaquin Amenabar

This is an eloquent solution. By pausing at the end of a phrase you make it clear to the follower that there's a good chance that you are indeed listening to the music. If it's doing a nice, strong, double-time then it's pretty safe to begin with a tiny rock-step to test the waters. Then build from there - ocho cortados, crosses, or whatever.

"Right" and "Wrong"

At this point we bring in the Denison quote at the top of this article. In other words, in the real world, something can be unique, or it can be many / infinite. There are (almost) never just two, three or even four occasions of anything in this world. Things are usually either unique or "many".

So there's no one "right" way and one "wrong" way to do rocksteps. Or any steps, for that matter. There's a number of ways, some of which are better in some circumstances than others.

Going Spanish

If we look up "cadencia" (or "balanceo" - the two terms seem to be interchangeable) in Tango terminology, we see:
Cadencia: A deep check and replace, usually led by the man as he steps forward left. Useful for avoiding collisions and making direction changes in small spaces. May also refer to a subtle shifting of weight from foot to foot in place and in time with the music done by the man before beginning a dance to give the lady the rhythm he intends to dance and to ensure that she will begin with him on the correct foot.

So "balanceo" refers to changes-of-weight and rocksteps (and now we have four types...).

It makes sense - a rockstep can be simply a forwards version of a change-of-weight - but it's not the way we normally learn these things. In fact, I'm struggling to remember a class which even taught these things to any level.

... and at the end?

Going back to basics, the size of any movement depends on the energy put into that movement.

If you provide a lot of energy then you're leading a "deep" rockstep. Which is fine in some circumstances.

If you provide a minimal amount of energy (at the extreme, simply moving your chest slightly), you're leading a tiny rockstep.

So you need to match the energy to the type of movement you want.

Sounds simple, huh?

What complicates matters is the way that energy is divided through the movement. The leader's front step takes the lion's share, whether you think of that as making a footprint in the sand or as "Oh %$@&!" .

- David Bailey & Christopher O'Shea, 7th February 2010

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