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A love affair with "Adornos" Wednesday, 13 May 2015 print

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Adornments. One of my all time favourite things.

Of course, there are many, many things I love about tango - it would be too difficult to choose a favourite. The spine-tingling music, the enveloping embrace, the feeling of being swept away by my partner and into another world. Adornments are just part of that story. Yet, for me adornments add another dimension to tango and somehow complete the picture.

Often referred to as decorations, embellishments or “adornos” (from the Spanish), what are adornments? How, when and where do I use them? And finally SHOULD I use them?

What Are They?

Look up the word “adornment” in the dictionary and you’ll find a somewhat simplistic definition:

adornment[uh-dawrn-muh nt]
something that adds attractiveness

Not much help if you’re trying to explain to someone what a tango adornment is! So I’ll take the plunge and make my own attempt at a tango definition:

tango adornment[uh-dawrn-muh nt]
a movement executed by either the leader or follower in tango, independent of the lead, to add attractiveness, interpret the music, play or connect with one’s partner and to generally express oneself.

The most important defining feature of an adornment is that it is not part of the lead in tango. Accordingly, either the leader or follower can choose to do an adornment at any time he/she feels like it, provided it doesn’t interrupt the lead or connection in a negative way.

Why Do Them?

Tango is unique for the feeling of connection with our partner that it gives us. Much emphasis is placed on this when we learn. And rightly so because it is a very special thing and without it, the heart of tango is lost.

But tango is not exclusively about connection. It is a dance. Every human being is born with an innate urge to express themselves when they hear music that moves them to dance. Also important is how we choose to move and express ourselves in tango and that we exist as individuals, not just as somebody’s partner.

In particular, adornments for followers - who do not have control over any of the movements in the dance - create a unique opportunity to add personality and creativity to the dance. Indeed, it is only through adornments that the follower can contribute to the musicality of the dance.

However adornments don’t necessarily break or detract from connection. Adornments allow the follower to express to their partners how they are feeling and how they hear the music, so creating more of a two-way “conversation”. Ultimately in my experience, adornments can enhance the couple’s connection.

How Do We Learn Them?

When I first started to learn tango, I was told by several teachers that adornments could not be taught. I was told that they had to be felt, that they just somehow happened once you’d been dancing tango for many years. And that was the end of the conversation.

I felt a little bit dubious about this. Everyone learns in different ways, but I felt that if I wasn’t shown how to do them, I would be waiting more than a lifetime before they just spontaneously came to me! Besides, adornments are simply movements. What was it that couldn’t be taught about them?

What perhaps is difficult to teach about adornments is how to use them creatively and expressively. But this is not something that is unique to adornments. It is the challenge we face in any art, whether movement-based or otherwise. Techniques may be taught but then it is up to the individual to create.

Take the leader in tango, for example. He will be taught the “tools” - steps, techniques, principles - but then it is up to him to make the dance his own, by listening to the music and working creatively.

It may not be possible to teach creativity in the most conventional sense, but it can certainly be encouraged and harnessed by a good teacher. In our classes, we try first to explain the technique of a movement and then we try to inspire our students to use it creatively. I’m always excited when I see my students using adornments I’ve taught them musically or in ways I’ve never myself used them. That’s when I know I’ve done my job!

The Challenge

One of the greatest challenges of adornments is spotting the right moment to do them, without interrupting the dance or kicking yourself/your partner in the shins (unfortunately, we’ve all been there!).

This is more difficult for the follower than for the leader as she doesn’t know in any one moment what the leader will do next. The follower needs to be able to judge two things:

1) where to add an adornment and,

2) whether there is time for the adornment.

I often jokingly tell my students that the time they have to do an adornment is roughly the time it takes to think: “Shall I do it?”. But actually there is quite a lot of truth in that - the time we have is fleeting and we need to be decisive!

Three Stages to Learning Adornments

1) Master the Movement

It is a significantly more difficult to do an adornment during a tango if you haven’t yet mastered the movement itself. And you may be biting off more than you can chew.

Take time on your own - either in a class or at home (or in the supermarket, who’s judging!) to practice the movement. Repeat it so that your body knows it and it is no longer too taxing for you to execute it. Producing the movement in the right place and at the right time will then become much less of a challenge.

2) Put It into Practice

A lot of followers say that they find it difficult to know WHERE to do adornments. The best way to get started is - like most things in life - step by step.

Let’s say, for example, you are practicing a figure in a class and that figure starts with the leader’s side step to the left. Tell yourself that for just one class you will practice a certain adornment every time you feel the leader take that side step. Yes, it will be overkill but overkill is fine when you’re in a class (you will tone it down in the milonga) and it’s all about practice, practice, practice!

You may even get to the point that the adornment after the side step becomes so automatic for you, that you have to make an effort NOT to do it!

3) Feel It!

The first two stages may appear little mechanical but it is only once we’ve incorporated a movement into our body and our dance that we can start using it to express what we feel and what we hear in the music. The movement will start to smooth itself out and feel more natural. We’ll feel less time pressured when we slot it in. This is - in brief - what we are aiming for and what will give our adornments meaning.

SHOULD I do them?

Sometimes students feel that they are not advanced enough to do adornments and should wait until they have more experience.

It is true that both leaders and followers have other very important skills to focus on that should be given priority over learning adornments. If focusing adornments is distracting you from either leading or following, then you should perhaps put them aside for now.

However, there is nothing to stop you practicing adornments on your own in preparation for the time you are more ready for them. This will give you a head start. And actually when the movement itself is very natural to you, you may find that slotting in becomes a much easier task, presenting much less risk of distracting you from your partner’s movements.

Fear Barrier

Sometimes students report being held back by the fear that we’ll get it wrong and what that entails - perhaps a sore toe or the embarrassment of stumbling a little bit.

I tell my students that they need to try to overcome the “embarassment barrier”. Again, set yourself a goal. Tell yourself you’re going to practice a certain adornment one evening. Tell yourself that you don’t care if you get it wrong. I find that it works wonders and will set you free to express yourself.

Not All That Glitters Is Gold

And finally, just as an aside, try not to feel pressure to do adornments all the time. They are lovely yes, but it is possible to go overboard. Remember stillness can have a simple elegance and exude a quiet confidence. And just as you wouldn’t wear all your jewellery at once, nor do you have to throw in every adornment under the sun in one dance.

Sometimes dancers get so drawn by adornments that they run the risk of becoming the main show for them. Decorations should be simply the icing on the cake, adding to the moment but not ever taking over the moment itself. Too much focus on adornments can lead your partner to wonder whether you are actually dancing with or for them.

To get the balance right always stay true to yourself and the music - dance from the heart and - where you’ve put the practice in - the adornments will just flow.

This Saturday (and Next), It’s All About Adornments!

David and I have dreamed up a course starting this Saturday (and next) to help you put some of this advice into action.

We’ll have drills and exercises to help get your feet adornment-ready! And we’ll be at hand as always with clear instructions to dispel any confusions you have and help give your dance a unique elegance!

Suitable for men and women (and at times the class will be split in two).

When: Saturday 16th & 23 May 2015

Time: 1 - 3 pm + free mini-practica

Where: Marshall Street Leisure Centre, 15 Marshall Street, SOHO, W1F 7EL (5 mins from Oxford Circus)

Price: £25 - 1 week; £47 - 2 weeks

Level: Improvers Upwards (we usually have a mix of Improver, Intermediate and Advanced dancers in our Saturday workshops)

For more info: click here

Places will be offered on a first come first served basis. No partner necessary. No obligation to attend both weeks! Please contact us to pre-book.

We'd love you to join us!

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