DNI appealed to me for three reasons. Of course the most important factor in choosing a teacher is that you like how they dance. I thought Pablo Villarraza and Dana Frìgoli were the most fluid, gorgeous dancers. Second, they talked about technique with more clarity and depth than any other teachers. And third, they gave equal attention to leaders and followers. I was tired of paying for classes as a follower and getting only one tiny tidbit of technique or none at all!
In Buenos Aires, DNI followers have the reputation of strength and fluidity. I observed that leaders who begin with DNI technique advance rapidly.
The thing about DNI is there is a commitment to explaining what the body needs to do, instead of just saying “look at me”. And it’s been an evolution for them, in figuring out how to make it teachable. And that’s a commitment I share, even though I’ve distilled a lot of what they are doing much further in keeping with my goal of making tango easy.
In my mind, the real controversy of DNI is the level of expectation they put on the follower. A lot of followers just want to go to milongas and get a dance with a good leader and not have to work on technique. Dana’s view is that it’s easy to dance with a good leader — the test of a good follower is if she can make a beginner leader look and feel good. But I think there is also an egalitarian dimension to the emphasis on follower’s technique, which is to demystify it. As a follower I have to listen to leaders constantly talking about how amazing followers are, saying things like “natural” and “flowing”, “like a feather”, but they can’t tell me anything about how. At DNI, the message is “we will tell you everything we can and if you work, you can be a good follower.”
“My real secret
is that I love to dance.”
“You have to believe
you can do anything
with your body.
In terms of leading, what Pablo has tried to impart through the pedagogy is the superfluity of tension in the body. If the lead is using the ground, there is no need for tension. Now, when I get a lead that only uses the hands, or when the leader puts tension into the embrace so that I can’t feel his legs, it feels superficial to me. I want to feel the ground through his body, and I use mine so that he can feel my toes in my hands. This level of relaxation and integration of the body takes some getting used to, but ultimately it makes leading much, much easier. I also believe that this method of leading is better suited to women leaders, because the strength in our bodies is in the legs, not the upper body, and an upper body lead from most women’s bodies just won’t convey the solidity that a man’s body can. When we lead from the upper body we tend to tense up to compensate for our lesser mass and strength, and this doesn’t help.
I actually believe that this is how the best leaders of any style and era do it. It’s just very hard to talk about, so teachers tend to talk about leading from the embrace. If you watch carefully, the best leaders are all leading from the ground, you can see their legs working. They are driving the chest and the embrace from the ground.
What Pablo and Dana did was explore how tango could look if dancers could eliminate tension from knees, hips, and shoulders. And the result was sublime. The feeling is so much more connected, because the dancers can feel one another’s whole bodies moving.
I stopped taking classes at DNI in October 2010. In fact, I took what was to be Pablo’s last workshop there (unbeknownst to the students). Some people say I stayed there too long, but I left when I got to the point that I felt I needed more. I have to say that my first forays to other classes were only a shocking confirmation that DNI was more serious about technique. During my 2010 trip I took two multi-day workshops with internationally famous maestros who I will name if you ask me in person, but I will not do so in the internet. Obviously I chose people whose dancing I admire and they are also very nice people. Although this is not a criterion for me, in both cases there are aspects of their dance politics which I really appreciate. I found their pedagogy in terms of how to organize a class, how to teach technique, and how to teach equally to leaders and followers was less than 1/3 of what goes on at DNI. One of the classes was about voleos, and I was hungry to learn the maestra’s methods for her simultaneously soft and crisp voleos, but she didn’t say a word about her technique — and not becuase her partner was doing all the talking. She talked, just not about that. And that’s what I so appreciate about Dana, she is trying to figure out what makes her dance so beautiful and to share it with us.
During 2011, Drawing on 8 months of daily training as a leader and follower at DNI, I worked with Sebastián Arrúa, a former DNI teacher, to reflect on and analyze the DNI pedagogy. Ultimately, drawing also on pilates training with Ali Townsend, I distilled pedagogy from DNI, Homer Ladas, and Chicho’s 2010 Buenos Aires 30-hour seminar, into The 5 Competencies.