The Upper Body Counter-positioning
By Jean-Pierre Sighé
The fundamental elements in Tango that every student will become acquainted with are all rooted in the Walking. One could truly summarize or characterize Tango dancing as a “Walking Dance”. Those who are familiar with Salsa will quickly grasp this essential notion, as Salsa retains a lot of the “Walking” essence, while at the same time incorporating other mechanisms the human body can display. Another popular dance that could qualify for the “Walking” category is Zouk, although it would have to be treated in a different context, because of its strong rhythmic component that goes hand in hand with the walking. The juxtaposition of Tango, Salsa, Zouk alongside other dances such as Swing, Soukous or Jazz, clearly brings out the different mechanisms the body would invoke and it also shows how the “Walking” is essential to the first category mentioned. But my attention will be limited to Tango in the present context.
When we walk, going about our daily occupations, we don’t have to be aware of what our body is doing, in order for us to go from point A to point B. The truth is that our body executes a series of automatic movements to maintain us balanced, so that we can walk and not fall down, between our successive steps. A slow motion mode movie of us walking would reveal one important thing the body does: the “Counter-positioning” of the upper body, in symmetrical alignment with the lower part of the body.
Because Tango dancing is not the automatic walking of our daily routines, but rather a precise and willful exercise of walking, it becomes necessary to consciously create the same series of things the body would do in our “unconscious” walking.
Let’s visualize ourselves standing on both feet, with our weight equally supported by both feet. If we want to execute a step forward, with our right leg, the first thing we would do, would be to free it (the right leg) from any weight. The bending of the right knee would accomplish that immediately. As we now have all our weight (almost all of it) on the left leg our first challenge presents itself: how do we keep ourselves balanced on one leg or one foot?
This is where the Upper Body Counter-positioning comes in action. We must turn the upper body to the opposite side where the weight is (that is, to the right), in order to ensure proper balance. We must counter-position our upper body, thus creating a new re-alignment around our gravity center. It’s like rotating our body around an imaginary axis that passes through our head and into a point somewhere between our feet. The same process would have to be repeated for every step we take, either going forward or going backwards or stepping to the side. The golden rule is to always satisfy the Upper Body Counter-positioning for every step we take.
This is what makes the gigantic difference between a good Tango dancer and the struggling one. Forget the figures! (at least for a while, UNTIL the proper walking has been reached). First, let’s work on acquiring good balance. It implies good control of one’s steps; the rewarding cookie here is to become acutely aware of one’s walking as we are truly the designer of our step. We should even design how we look, once the step is completed. The joy and the beauty of walking on the music becomes reality as we are solidly planted and balanced. The main difficulty of understanding the Upper Body Counter-positioning resides in the fact that it is almost impossible to see it when a dancer is performing, unless one knows about it. The perfect illusion drives the average observer to look at the foot work, not realizing that the foot-work is merely the logical progression of something that started well sooner, in the upper body.
It would be useful to remind ourselves that unless each partner has the body balance under control, there cannot be the pleasure of dancing Tango. The woman and the man are each properly balanced in their own “world” and they come together to share a very delicate point of equilibrium, formed by the new entity they both constitute: the couple. The lack of balance on either side frustrates the dance and distracts from the beauty and the poetry of the music. No amount of figures will ever excuse the lack of balance. Pushing and pulling the partner, because we are executing a Sacada or an Enrosque only tells how poor of a dancer we are. On the other hand, walking with poise, confidence and balance will always convey a graceful experience to the partner, even without a single Sacada or any other fancy Tango move. We can confidently affirm that no Tango move is conceived outside of the “Walking”, as I explained earlier. I must add that asserting that Tango dancing is just like walking, is not enough. It is incomplete information if the statement does not come with a precise exercise or technique to understand the meaning, or to discover it. Such technique exists and every student of Tango should inquire about it. If the instruction is only focused on some patterns to memorize and does not inform on the technique for the balance and good “Walking”, the student should run away as fast as possible, from that school. It is far better to take the time to find good instruction than to acquire bad habits that would soon require an incredible amount of energy (not counting frustration), to get rid of. I have seen people struggle with it and it’s not agreeable to witness.
Several implications will proceed from the proper walking, such as the ability for the man to “wait” for the lady; the space for more “coquetterie” or playfulness on the part of the woman; the better understanding of the different body positions in curved or circular contexts; the ability of the man to quickly adjust and create new situations, hence, making the lady dance. Quite frankly, a continuous training or exercising alone, with the Upper Body Counter-positioning as explained here, will naturally lead to the creation of Tango moves and figures, which is why great teachers always encourage understanding the moves rather than just mimicking them.
Incidentally, it is interesting to notice how close Tango and Salsa are in reality, despite what average dancers on both sides believe. When the Upper Body Counter-positioning is understood, the gap between Salsa and Tango is bridged, almost by enchantment. Those who have been dancing both dancers for some few years will quickly understand this to be the case. I wish them all, great experimentations. It’s truly worth it.
The accessibility of Tango is granted to anyone who can walk. Such accessibility is more and more appreciated as we re-discover the beauty of walking, through our awareness of its process. As they say in many places in Africa: “if you can walk, you can dance”. To walk with a partner, moving as a balanced entity, in unison, inscribing each step and move into the enchantment of the embrace and to let the music talk to the hearts of the two and to the soul of the one (the couple), constitutes the magical recipe for the dance of the Angels on earth…Tango!
© December 2007