I was recently asked about a video containing a series of exercises intended to help followers learn or improve their boleos. If you’re not sure what a boleo is, it’s the flick you see in the lower leg of a follower during rapid changes of direction or speed. They can be small and subtle or high and snappy, but if the leg responds to movement with a flick then it’s a boleo. They are related to ganchos, the ‘hook’ where one partner’s leg hooks and rapidly unhooks again from the other partner’s leg, but in general a boleo happens without something to hook around.
The video I was sent was a good example of a very traditional way of learning tango. It showed someone going through a series of exercises and positions like you were viewing it in stop-motion, and instructed you to repeat these positions until they felt natural. This would be fine for a choreographed routine, but tango is supposed to be improvised. Learning in that way tells you nothing about how a boleo actually works or what the interaction between the leader and the follower must be to make it happen. And if you want to understand a boleo or anything else in tango, you have to start with that interaction.
Tango is a dynamic dance of lead and follow. Everything that the follower does - with the obvious exception of adornos which are optional - is a result of the lead she is given. That lead comes from the chest, the upper body connection, the frame, and the embrace; it doesn’t come from the legs, or from the follower picking up on visual clues as to the leader’s intentions.
Learning to create the shape of a boleo with your legs teaches you nothing about how a boleo is actually created. Instead, it teaches you that a boleo is an adorno, something the follower chooses to do whenever she feels like she has a spare moment. Yes, you can add in boleo adornos at times, and adornos can be created from any muscle group you like as you are initiating them and you are controlling them. But led boleos (and ganchos) are not adornos, they are reactions to a lead (the upper-body twist) and an interruption (a change in direction, a sudden stop, or a leg being in the way).
In theory the follower has no knowledge at all that a boleo or gancho is about to happen until after it is already in progress; it is simply a consequence of taking a normal step and finding that something changes before you have managed to transfer the weight. So with a boleo, the follower is led into (for example) a back ocho, but before it completes she is returned to a collected face-on position. Inertia in the lower leg creates a whiplash effect, so the foot and calf take a fraction longer to return to the neutral position than the rest of the follower, and this becomes the boleo. A gancho is similar, in that energy is applied to move the body, but the follower’s leg encounters an obstruction and the top part of the leg stops immediately but the lower part carries on for a bit.
At an advanced level, a follower will detect that inertia is causing her leg to do something and add a little energy into it herself. That creates the faster flicks and kicks you see on the stage, but that only works once you no longer have to think about the underlying cause and effect of the boleo itself. Initially it’s much better to have low boleos and ganchos but a fast and responsive *upper* leg movement that reacts to the lead, and only when you get that happening naturally should you worry about speeding up the flick itself.
Everything in tango is a consequence of upper body (specifically chest) connection and movement, so how does that relate to practising lower leg lifts with no chest movement to lead it? Personally I’m not sure that it does. Yes, you learn the shape, but you never learn how to create that shape in the first place. It becomes an adorno, not a reaction, and that’s not the same thing at all. Boleos and ganchos are supposed to be *grounded* and come from the free-leg’s relationship with - and sudden disconnection from - the floor as much as anything else. To make that happen you need energy put into the movement from outside; you can’t achieve the same thing by calmly lifting your foot whilst standing in a static turned position.
For me, the thing to practise if you want to improve your boleos and ganchos is body spiral. This is the disconnection between upper and lower body that means the free lower leg reacts slightly slower to a turn than the hips, and the hips react slightly slower than the chest. This creates the tension in the dance and makes boleos pretty much unavoidable. They are no longer something you have to practise separately, but a natural consequence of your whole tango movement.
I’ll talk more about spiral in the next post but for now the best way to start to practise it is to stand with your feet together and the weight on your left leg, then begin to dissociate your upper body, turning your shoulders to the left initially without moving your hips then allowing them to catch up a moment later. When you’ve done that a few times repeat it on the other leg and going the other way.
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