Paxton’s Material for the Spine for tango milonguero

I am in the process of completing a book on movement learning for tango milonguero. I was planning to continue with a method which I based on the Feldenkrais Method. The goal of this approach was to promote a “long-spine” mental image which I thought this was preferable to the kind of movement into space that people learn when they are taught the tango walk. However, recently I was listening to a lecture by Steve Paxton at the Walker Arts Center in which he discusses the ideas that led him to develop Contact Improvisation and Material for the Spine. I found that his approach is quite different from the Feldenkrais Method and that it provides additional insights.

Like Feldenkrais, Paxton believes that efficient movement is a need that humans have as an alternative to a mechanical and static physical existence. In his view, the conscious mind does not really have sensations, and instead we experience the world through the body. He thinks that movement is a fundamental yet mostly unconscious way in which we relate to the environment. Moreover, he thinks that the unconscious mental processes are much faster than the conscious ones.

However, Paxton’s approach is influenced by his study of Aikido. He believes that Aikido has discovered a very efficient way of moving by way of a form of energy called ki or chi. This energy starts at the centre of the body in the pelvis and projects outwards by way of the underside of the arm and the hand, and then outward into infinity. He thinks that this energy can be felt in the handshake just before the hand is clasped, as well as the point of pointing at something whereby the line between the pointing finger and the thing pointed at is imaginary.

Paxton says that the ki energy provides for a more efficient way of moving by changing walking as a “leverage” operation into a “rotary” operation. Paxton develops this kind of rotary movement in terms of the image of the helix pattern, which he teaches in his Material for the Spine. In the lecture he says the following about the nature of ki and how it affects movement technique:

And it comes from the centre of mass. And this makes sense in terms of giving this arm, I guess you’d call it, leverage. Because if the arm coming like this from there (draws a line from the small of the back through the underside of the arm to the little finger) then the work of the feet and the movement of the body becomes really efficient. You’ve made movement into a rotary operation (moves around) rather than a kind of a leverage operation (shows walking forward).

This is an interesting form to work with. It supposes an arm which starts at the pelvis, and it supposes an energy form which is not about contracting and extending muscles. Aikido seems to be more related to the particular energy of pointing at objects. This is another place to naturally find what I think is a good idea of ki, which is when we point at something.

And it took me a while to describe what going on. But for one thing, your skeleton is aligning in as much of a straight line as you can toward the thing. The geometry is very clear, this part is physical. But this part here and the thing you’re pointing at (points at his pointing finger and then out) is imaginary, and I think that’s sort of the same idea.

Paxton’s approach is continuous with the Feldenkrais Method in the interest in making movement more intergrated and ultimately more efficient. Both proceed by way of the development of better awareness of the systems that provide for a more integrated movement, in particular, of the role of the spine and the pelvis. However, Paxton departs from the Feldenkrais in being less interested in anatomy and instead positing ki as an energy that moves the transition to a rotary movement pattern.

I am realising that I have been applying these principles in tango. You learn this sort of movement technique in Contact Improvisation training, but I do not recall these principles being made explicit in this way. Nonetheless, I had always felt something like this being at play. In tango, if one learns this movement technique at all, it is probably when one realises that at a busy milonga one cannot walk forward or backward more than a step, and except for brief moments all one can do is make tight turns. I can see that Paxton’s approach provides a basis of awareness of the underlying systems of efficient movement that can be utilised in dancing tango milonguero.