Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Infinity Engine

It's the first workshop of 2017 and Solares participants have officially surprised me.

I've never had the luxury of laying down such a comprehensive foundation before (three years in March) and there had been hints, through questions asked and connections made, that we were on the cusp of a critical advance.

Last night we began with a "slowandslow" warm-up; which functioned as a recap for those who had attended the week before, and a chance for me to bring those whom hadn't up to speed. By the third song, after some minor remediation of foot 'turnout' to free up the hips, everyone displayed a smooth rhythmic flowing joint cascade from ball of foot to hips.

I thought I'd 'risk it, biscuit'

The Infinity Engine
I paused the music and asked everyone to extend the joint cascade "upward to the floating ribs and across into the (solar) plexus".

Although bio-mechanically inaccurate since the floating ribs can't be articulated in a manner in-line with the cascade, the learning point still manages to encourage lateral movement of the torso using the lower back. The 'floating rib-plexus' learning point:
  • elevates the part of the body calibrated to the beat from the foot to the torso;
  • enables the torso's rhythmic articulation to function as the master clock, distributing timing to the extremities;
  • activates a kinaesthetic unit (i.e. torso) which is universal (i.e. involved in all movement activity) and congruent with the perceived seat of emotion (i.e. heart), laying the foundation for linking the feeling of movement with the feeling of emotion (i.e. how we move affects how we feel); and,
  • promotes earlier foot-placement in preparation for transfer of weight, subconsciously, rendering the dancer less perturbable to partner vibration due to the earlier traction event.
When the music resumed, I could see each and every one pulling the rhythm up from the floor like a long pair of socks, up to their ribs. A little learning intervention was involved where I performed the practice with each participant behind me, his/her palms pressed to either side of my rib cage.

As their lateral torso movement came under improved control, the rounded hip action (due to torque from the joint cascade) began filtering through. The result was a lower-torso or 'floating rib' action which described on the horizontal plane a symmetrical infinity symbol ∞. This was how it was described by one of the participants, and I think it's a snazzy description (for those with a maths/physics background) for the Cuban son engine.

At the end of the exercise, I asked for their feedback. It was seismic. Everyone felt a greater response to, and a heightened engagement with the music. Dancers whom considered themselves extremity-centric or internally silent discovered themselves transformed, alive with a new palpable feeling of rhythm at the centre of their being.

The big leap for me was that, in the past, I would have to teach the infinity engine deliberately; which was not always the best solution - the results would look forced, and it would always take more work to make it look natural. This route, with the right building blocks in place, resulted in the natural generation of the infinity engine. "At last!" I thought to myself.

The discussion bounced back and forth with passionate energy. One observed that the infinity engine was unforced compared to the rumba engine. Another wondered if her hips were moving too much. Then someone asked, "how do we translate Tuesdays (workshop material) into Saturdays (dance nights)?" There were nods of agreement.

Giddy with success, I risked another biscuit... (see following post)


Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Yesterday's Solares fell in that 'no man's land' between Christmas and New Year. With some regulars being away or unavailable during the festive season, I was presented with a double-length session; an opportunity which I was all to happy to take advantage of.

The circumstances demanded a programme of content which was:
  • varied or simple-but-challenging enough to avoid learner saturation;
  • non-core so as not to penalise those who couldn't attend; and yet,
  • of meaningful importance to benefit those who'd committed to attend.
Tricky. Very tricky.

I briefed them that this workshop was going to be all about elevating the quality of what they already had.

Warm Up: Simple embodiment transitions, with maracas
Solo, to music. Playing maraca rhythm. Lower body moving between the Caribbean sway, marking rhythm on the spot, walking forward.

Warming up with the maracas exercise was the cornerstone to the workshop's design because: it allowed me to assess the quality of participants' dance 'slows' as transited through Caribbean sway to walks; and, it opened up an alternative route in the workshop narrative - back to maracas development - should participants become learning saturated with the primary activity.

Briefing: The "slowandslow" vocalisation
Even though the "quick, quick, slow" vocalisation (of last session) makes sense, there is a fundamental flaw in the vocalisation - the word "slow" is only one syllable long. Dancers using the vocalisation will time their movements to the rhythm of the vocalisation, instead of the logic of the vocalisation i.e. they will dance three quick movements instead of two quick and one slower.

To achieve the desired slow movement, the vocalisation needs to be changed such that the 'slow' is rhythmically longer yet still logical. The ballroom adaptation is useful to know, and highly successful. The vocalisation is: "quick, quick, slowandslow".

Exercise One: "slowandslow" with long nails
Solo, without music. Long nails practice synchronous with the "slowandslow" (beats 3&4) vocalisation.

Exercise Two: "quick, quick, slowandslow" with long nails
Solo, without music. Complete embodiment rhythm, on the spot. Long nails practice synchronous with the "slowandslow" (beats 3&4) vocalisation. I danced with each participant to provide a movement archetype as reference.

Exercise Three: "quick, quick, slowandslow" with long nails
Solo, to music. Complete embodiment rhythm, on the spot. Long nails practice synchronous with the "slowandslow" (beats 3&4) vocalisation.

Participants reported feeling a deeper quality of relationship with the floor, almost adhesive and elastic. Once acquired they found it challenging to revert to their customary more superficial relationship with the floor. I introduced them to the concept of 'quality of movement' and labelled what they were experiencing as "deep movement" and "light movement" respectively.

Exercise Four: Relationship of qualities of movement with music
As the participants became accustomed to the exercise, freeing up cognitive headroom, I asked them:
  1. "Does quality of movement affect your relationship with the music?"
  2. "Which instruments do you have a stronger relationship with using light movement?"
  3. "Which instruments do you have a stronger relationship with using deep movement?"
  4. "Are there any instrument-relationships which do not change?"
The answer came back a resounding "yes". How you move affects how you listen. One song demonstrated this clearly: Los Hermanos Lebron's updated "La Temperatura" from their 40th Anniversary album, vol.2. (2009).

At this point, after multiple iterations, participants were comfortable with individual practice. It seemed prudent to provide them with a broader more relevant context, and introduce an additional variable.

Exercise Five: "quick, quick, slowandslow" in the rueda de casino context
Partnered, without music. Rueda de casino basic step, attenuated partner hold.

The basic step involved a small back step on the circumference side and a small forward step on the axial side on the quicks, and a close step (not a guapea side step) in-between on the slows.

I demonstrated how the basic step could be derived from the Caribbean sway by: contracting the width of the side step until a close step; and, converting the axial step from a small back step to a similarly-sized forward step.

The attenuated hold avoided the overtly expansive arm-cycling on the circumference side, and maintained contact between palms on the axial side throughout.

By silencing the consciously-induced noise from the arms, participants were able to feel how movement born of the upward joint cascade flowed into the partnership frame. Participants found this revelatory; how the torque built up from the floor manifested itself in articulations of the contredanse hold, as natural resultant movements - the same movements which are commonly overtly 'simulated' by dancers without those skills.

This is the difference between derivative movement (former), and prescriptive movement (latter).

At this point, the two hours where up. In the excitement of discovering the relevance of "slowandslow"-sponsored movement quality in the rueda basic, I think participants' overlooking of the 'big picture' difference between derived and prescribed movement can be forgiven. It gives me something to dedicate a Solares workshop to in the future.

Loo Yeo

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Dancing The Slows

Salsa's basic embodiment rhythm may be interpreted in two ways:
  1. three steps and a pause, all for of which are of equal duration, or
  2. three steps of which two are 'quick' and one is 'slow' where a 'slow' equals two 'quicks'.
Previously in Solares, participants have been unconsciously using the former. This is a by-product of coming from a count-based convention "1,2,3;5.6.7".

Execution of the 'slow' can be achieved via:
  1. increasing the distance the limb needs to travel by 100% while maintaining limb-joint speed, or
  2. decreasing the limb-joint speed by 50% while maintaining distance to be travelled.
That Solares participants encountered difficulty in the transition from the Caribbean sway to on-the-spot movement last session indicated that they were reliant on travel distance as their rhythm-governor, and not proficient with control over their joint speed.

Why the slows?
Control of 'joint-speed' or 'rate of flexion/extension' allows for the space in-between beats to be filled with movement according to the conscious will of the dancer. This is could be for partnership comfort and creative aims, for example. The skill facilitates the use of more complex rhythm structures, and effective execution of the 'Human Dance Recorder' practice.

The 'Long Nails' Practice
Participants were asked to pretend that there was a long nail beneath the raised heel, and to imagine driving the nail into the floor by standing on it. The speed of descent could be slowed by imagining that the floor was made out of denser but still yielding material. Targeting the heel in the learning metaphor addresses control the knee, ball of foot and ankle.

Exercise One: Just the 'slows'
Solo, without music, on the spot. Participants were asked to use the 'long nails' practice under each heel in alternation, moving only during the 'slow'. I provided the vocalisation of "quick (beat 1), quick (beat 2), slow (beats 3&4)", and participants were encouraged to vocalise as well.

Exercise Two: Just the 'slows', to music
As Exercise One (above), to music.

Exercise Three: Complete embodiment rhythm, on-the-spot
Solo, to music, Participants were asked to embody the full rhythm, in place, using the vocalisation "quick, quick, slow" with special attention to the long nails on the 'slows'.

Exercise Four: Caribbean sway and on-the-spot embodiment transitions
Solo, to music, on the spot. Lower body moving between the Caribbean sway and keeping rhythm on the spot. This exercise was the 'acid test', to observe whether the participant could produce 'slows' based on increased travel distance and decreased joint-speed respectively.

All participants made good attempts. Responses to the practice were within the standard range, with no positive nor negative outliers. I will have to make room for this practice in ensuing sessions until proficiency is attained.

What was very welcome was the quality of personal observation-based feedback from the participants:
  • One noted how his accustomed posture was inclined too much forward, which compromised his ability to apply smooth pressure on the 'nail', which he consequently remedied with a change to a more upright position.
  • One realised that his foot-placement was late, which curtailed the duration of his 'slows'. He'd spent a greater proportion of the exercise time, addressing foot placement (necessarily), instead of 'pressing on nails'.
  • One noticed that her pelvis was 'bobbing up' on the vertical plane, as she tried to get more weight on top of the imaginary nail. She observed this bobbing in her reflection in a night-time window, and corrected it by keeping her pelvis at the same vertical distance to the floor throughout the 'long nail' exercise. This 'bobbing up' is a common fault and can be remedied through observation of a reflection or, if one isn't available, a palm-to-palm practice with a stationary partner to provide the kinesthetic feedback.
    For more, see Item 2 under 'Learning Tips' in:
It's a credit to them that they were not only able to observe issues with their movement, but to understand the cause, devise a solution, and implement it independently. Moreover, during our wrap-up discussion, they actively talked about how they saw the skill as being useful to them in their future dance development.

I could not be more pleased.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Human Dance Recorder

This workshop attends to the aspects of physical communication in partnered dance. It takes a method developed by psychotherapist Carl Rogers in 1951 and applies it to dance. A relevant synopsis may be found in:

"A Rogerian Approach To Perfect Communications" in "An Introduction to Organisational Behaviour for Managers and Engineers: A Group and Multicultural Approach" by Duncan Kitchin (2010) pp.176-177, UK: Routledge.

The exercise described by Kitchin (a former colleague) is well-suited to translation into social partnered dance, and it stimulates each participant broadly to ask:
  • Is that what I wanted my partner to feel?
  • Has my partner understood what I feel about ritmo (dance and music alike)?
Exercise One: Building the rich picture
Partnered, to music. Caribbean sway basic, to Caribbean partnered hold.
  1. "Pay attention to how your partner moves: the qualities of movement, the timing."
  2. "Use what you're seeing and feeling to construct a mental image of your partner as you dance."
  3. "You may find it useful to do this with your eyes open and shut."
  4. "Build as rich a picture of your partner as you possibly can."
Note: Solares participants were able to perform this task easily because they had become accustomed to higher cognitive load; through dancing while playing maracas. Not having to play maracas gave them the greater cognitive capacity to engage successfully with the exercise.

Exercise Two: Embodying the rich picture
Partnered, to music. Caribbean sway basic, to Caribbean partnered hold.
  1. "Holding the rich picture firmly in you head, dance the rich picture."
This exercise is designed to cause each participant to change their quality of movement by simulating that of their partner: by the physical manifestation of the rich picture.

Exercise Three: Validating the rich picture
New partners. Partnered, to music. Caribbean sway basic, to Caribbean partnered hold.
  1. "Holding the rich picture of your previous partner firmly in you head, embody the rich picture."
The accuracy of the rich picture embodiment was tested/validated with a different partner.
Note: this could be done because the solares participants have become familiar with each others' ritmo over the years.


The ability to characterise i.e. construct a rich picture, then embody it, varied between the participants; ranging from a lack (due to misconstruation) to accurate enough to elicit excited exclamations of "it feels like I'm dancing with *name of other participant*!"

Where the point of the exercises were misconstrued, both partners, instead of constructing a rich image of the other, each created an identical rich image hybrid of the other and themselves. In other words, instead of:
  • Partner A creating-and-embodying a rich picture of Partner B and vice versa,
  • Partner A created-and-embodied a rich picture hybrid of Partner A+B, as did Partner B.
This was a happy error, because it allowed the group the explore: the extremes of the range (characterisation of the self, or the other) and the mid-point (characterisation of the blended self plus other).

As the exercises ran through several iterations, the delight led increasingly to a distortion of the rich image into caricature - an over-emphasis of the other's traits. I cautioned that while caricature was fun and would make certain traits more obvious, this might limit the usefulness of the 'Human Dance Recorder' practice as a means of personal reflexion. Exaggeration would make it difficult for the recipient to:
  1. evaluate the qualitative extent of a trait;
  2. decide whether it should be modified; and
  3. how to prioritise its correction relative to other traits in a heirarchy of correction.
I recommended that the rich picture be more photo-real than caricature.


The session ended with three questions for reflexion.
"What is this 'Chapter: Characterisation' about?"
"What skills are needed?"
"Why is this useful?"

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Phase Changes: Symmetry Versus Asymmetry

Last night I had the participants all to myself, for a whole two hours, because my partner-in-teaching-crime had abandoned them to their fates, in favour of a blustery sojourn in England's North-East.

It was a chance to build momentum and give them something to sink their teeth into. Based on the evidence of cognitive saturation witnessed last week, I knew that I would only be able to push them with maracas-embodied rhythm practices for 45 minutes; any more and they would tip over into super-saturation, impairing their learning ability. There had to be a contrasting activity for the remainder 75 minutes.

So I decided to dedicate the first half of the double Solares session to maracas-embodiment activity, and the second half to a 'sneak peek' at an upcoming chapter for next year. The latter would contextualise more skills, allowing me to introduce them earlier than I'd planned.

When the sun shines, it's time to make hay.

Warm Up: Complete maraca rhythm, son montuno version
Solo, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. Playing the compete maraca rhythm.

After three songs, it was time to make things more interesting:

Exercise One: Caribbean sway and on-the-spot embodiment transitions, with maracas
Solo, to music. Playing maraca rhythm. Lower body moving between the Caribbean sway and marking rhythm on the spot.

Participants found it challenging to maintain steady maracas rhythm because of interference from the lower body rhythm. Once the long side-step of the Caribbean sway was denied to them (they'd been using the distance to absorb time during the 'slow'), participants were unable to absorb the time by slowing down the movement of their joints. This indicated an area of imminent attention.

Exercise Two: Simple embodiment transitions, with maracas
Solo, to music. Playing maraca rhythm. Lower body moving between the Caribbean sway, marking rhythm on the spot, walking forward.

Playing the maracas rhythm while performing the salsa walk made the phase-change relationship between the instrument and the dance obvious.
  • Salsa is a symmetrical dance i.e. a different leg is used at the beginning of each bar/measure of music
  • Maracas-playing is an asymmetrical activity i.e. the same hand is used at the beginning of each bar/measure of music.
Put them both together and one bar will begin with the arm and leg of the same side, the next bar will begin the same arm with leg of the other side. For example:
left arm-left leg; left arm-right leg; left arm-left leg; left arm-right leg...
This can be read as:
in-phase; out-of-phase; in-phase; out-of-phase...
Correlating that with the brain's motor activity:
right side fires; both sides fire; right side fires; both sides fire...
Hence the brain experiences a cyclical fluctuation in co-ordinative load during the performance of the maraca-embodiment rhythm.

Based on their greater level of automation with the Caribbean sway, participants had worked out a progression for their practice: Caribbean sway > on the spot > salsa walk. When they became perturbed, they would return to the Caribbean sway instead of stopping. Likewise with their maracas: one set of double tones (4,4+); two sets of double tones (2,2+ and 4,4+); complete maracas rhythm.

It was encouraging to see them all take charge of their own practice and to manage the levels of challenge in a scalar manner.

By now, we were sailing close to the cliffs of cognitive saturation. It was time for a change. Time for 'The Human Dance Recorder'.

Loo Yen

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Complete Rhythm: Maracas, son montuno

There are two possible tracks of development in Solares after completing this chapter on the backbeat timeline. One is to proceed to a new chapter on backbeat applications, the other is to move to exploring the complementary downbeat timeline.

Logically, it made sense to continue with the applications of the downbeat timeline, to climb as high up the Blooms Taxonomy pyramid as possible, until knowledge of the downbeat timeline became a rate-limiting requirement. And this was how it had been planned.

However things changed when I asked myself, "if Solares stopped tomorrow, what would be my regrets for not having achieved?" I counter-weighted the answers by putting myself in Solares participants' shoes and asking, "what would be the earliest greatest boost to their morale?"

The answer, loud and clear, was, "being able to play the full maraca rhythm."

The confidence boost in becoming a fully-fledged instrumentalist-dancer is inestimable. And we were only one step away from achieving it, to reaching that First State of Independence - the learning sequence would require a little bit of juggling around, but the broad strokes of development would remain intact.

So this is how it went.

Warm Up: Playing the maraca backbeat rhythm
Solo, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. Macho in non-dominant hand, hembra in dominant hand. Macho tones on the backbeats (beats 4 and 2), hembra tones on the backbeat upbeats (beats 4+ and 2+); hence the basic maraca backbeat rhythm is played as macho-hembra couplets on beats 4,4+ and  2,2+.

Exercise One: Maraca backbeats call, downbeats respond
Solo, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. As per 'Warm Up' above. In addition, I provided a single shaker tone on the downbeats (beats 1 and 3). Participants were encouraged to listen to the tones as a 'coro-pregón' or 'call-and-response'; participants played the 'call', I played the 'response'.

Briefing: The complete maraca rhythm, son montuno version
Backbeats: macho-hembra couplets on beats 4,4+ and  2,2+, played close to the body.
Downbeats: macho single tones on beats 1 and 3, placed slightly further away from the body.
The rhythm begins with the macho-hembra backbeat couplet on beats 4,4+

Complete rhythm is: 4,4+; 1; 2,2+; 3; (repeat)
Complete rhythm vocalisation is: "chik-a-chik / chik-a-chik" where:
  • the first "chik" denotes the backbeats (beats 4 and 2)
  • the "a" denotes the backbeat upbeats (beats 4+ and 2+)
  • the second "chik" denotes the downbeats (beats 1 and 3)
Exercise Two: Complete maraca rhythm, son montuno version
Solo, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. Playing the compete maraca rhythm as per briefing (above).

The past two month's work paid dividends. Every solares participant succeeded in this challenging task: each dancer was able to dance an atiempo rhythm on the embodiment timeline, simultaneously playing the son montuno maraca rhythm.

There's always more to do. But for that moment, it was a pleasure to revel in the success.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Backbeat Timeline: Maracas

Warm-up: Refinements to back-beat definitions
Solo, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. Single shaker, played to the campana-güiro backbeat rhythm (beats 4,4+ and 2,2+). The definition was augmented where:
  • the güiro backbeat variation was defined as being played by one hand, oscillating in free space; and,
  • the campana backbeat variation was defined as being played by one hand into the palm of the other.
This is because the scraper of the güiro moves in freely over the surface of the gourd, while the beater of the campana creates its sound through impact. The two approaches on the shaker are the best approximations in translation.

During early practice of the campana backbeat rhythm, some participants expressed inability to get into the groove (i.e. state of entrainment). This was because they had inadvertently 'frozen' their upper body by keeping their receiving palm rigid in space; and both elbows close to the sides of the torso.

Freedom was regained using a rhythmic clapping action where both hands were accelerated to each other, and the elbows kept a distance away from the rib cage. As the participants achieved entrainment, I pointed out how the clapping activity could be used to calibrate the rhythmic engine carried in the upper torso. I further suggested that the shaker could be impacted against the side of the thigh, like tambourine players do.

The arising of the problem and its solution was a fortunate happenstance. It made everyone aware of how physical restriction stymies rhythmic freedom, and it allowed me to pose the question,
"What is the minimum individual space needed for rhythm?"
That certainly caused a period of individual thought and experimentation. To which I then added,
"Do you allow your partner that minimum distance when you dance? For example, in Rueda (de Casino)?"
As I've come to expect (and encourage), every participant expressed her/his own preference for the variations, and feeling for the groove.

Backbeat Timeline: Maracas

Briefing: Maracas as a 'sexed-pair' instrument
Each pair comprises: a 'macho' [male] which is higher-pitched and more aggressive in tone, and an 'hembra' [female] which is lower-pitched and mellower in tone.

Briefing: How to hold maracas
The balance-point of a maraca should be slightly above the neck of the instrument. The neck is positioned between the first and second fingers of the hand, meaning that the head would tip over if uncontrolled. The first and second knuckles are the most stable in the hand, this allows for the most efficient transfer of force from the body, and the most control. Holding maracas by their necks is the shortest distance between the hands and the enclosed beads, without dampening the bead enclosure. It also allows the option for their handles to be played.

Exercise One: Playing the maraca backbeat rhythm
Solo, to music. Caribbean sway basic, atiempo embodiment rhythm. Macho in non-dominant hand, hembra in dominant hand. Macho tones on the backbeats (beats 4 and 2), hembra tones on the backbeat upbeats (beats 4+ and 2+); hence the basic maraca backbeat rhythm is played as macho-hembra couplets on beats 4,4+ and  2,2+.


Participants found the rhythm easier to play because tones are distributed across two shakers, and enjoyed the experience more. This is because:
  1. return of the beads to the shaker-bowl (and their collection) was no longer a rate-limiting factor i.e. they could initiate the upbeat tones (4+ and 2+) before the beads of the downbeat tones (4 and 2) had regrouped;
  2. the wave-length of actuation, formerly limited to the shaker to the elbow, could be extended up the upper limb into the shoulder and torso; and
  3. the greater involvement of muscle units provided more kinesthetic feedback to rhythm - participants could feel the rhythm better.
A mark of how well their rhythmic foundation was laid came with a particular question, "do we play 'swish' or 'tight' tones?" It provided clear sign of good cognitive capacity, motor articulation, self-reflexion, musicality, experimentation, synthesis, and creativity - all of which are upper-tier properties in Bloom's taxonomy.

My response was, as usual, "it depends." The two main factors were: whichever the maraquero/a felt best suited the music; and whether the style of playing would help or hinder playing at higher tempi.

This session completed the basic vocabulary of back-beat rhythms for solares participants. A landmark moment. But we're just one step away from greater things.

Loo Yeo