Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Contratiempo: First Walking Steps

It was time to resume the planned course of development after being side-tracked last week. The session started off with the recap warm up exercise; a practice which has become a mainstay not just to refresh participants' memory, but also to bring those who'd been previously absent a small chance to catch up.

Warm Up: The Sequence, martillo only, then to music
Solo, to bongó martillo only, then to music. Vocalisation of martillo. Maracas interpreting pregón.
  1. Listen for the martillo, or super-impose it if not present;
  2. Vocalise "tok-tik-tuk-tik" to the martillo;
  3. Play the pregón using the maracas: "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra, and "tik" (beat 1) with the handles;
  4. Perform the Caribbean sway side step only: initiating the side-step on "tok" and completing with relaxation after "tik"; and then,
  5. Perform the full Caribbean sway.
Part-way through the warm up I noticed that one of the participants, after Stage 3 above, was performing the side step only, then the full Caribbean sway. Since was a logical intermediary stage which would further differentiate the pregón from the coro, I amended last week's sequence accordingly.

Briefing: Assuming we can walk is an unsafe assumption
Last week, we observed that while we were able to enact call-and-response phrasing in the Caribbean sway, this soon dissolved the moment we were asked to walk the embodiment rhythm. Why is that?

What makes us expect that we would be able simply to fit coro-pregón phrasing onto our walk just like that? Without prior training?

Some people are lucky, and they way they walk can be naturally phrased. Most are not, and our biomechanics make our walk repel phrasing attempts. Take, for example, individuals whom have indifferent floor relations, whom just throw their feet onto the floor: uncontrolled descents produce a staccato rhythm which limits the scope of phrasing.
Phrasing is not an overlay veneered over our walk.
Phrasing is the structure in which we learn to walk.
So how do we do it? We do so incrementally from a point where we already have phrasing: the Caribbean sway.

Exercise One: Side step on the forward diagonal
Solo, to music. Vocalisation of full martillo. Full Caribbean sway, diagonally forward side step.
Instead of taking a lateral side step, the side step is taken diagonally forward. The forward angle is small at first, and gradually increases as the body acclimatises. The objective is to achieve a forward walk while preserving call-and-response phrasing.

Participants were cautioned that rushing the process would sacrifice phrasing over forward movement. They were asked to find the critical forward angle where they would have the most forward movement while still retaining phrasing. The learning mantra being: "phrasing is king!"

The greatest challenge participants encountered was being able to get the weight fully transferred, with a straightened leg, over the foot at the end of the "slowandslow" ('tok-tik'). This difficulty presented itself as:

  • a leading bent knee generating floor pressure, slow to straighten, and a lagging hip movement, with snatched relaxation phase; and,
  • a short "slowandslow" where there was insufficient drive to move the weight transfer on time at the onset, and a lack of hip deflection through relaxation after the 'tik'.

The former was caused by too much forward angle before drive geometry could be adapted. It was solved by reducing the forward angle, and emphasising the straightening of the knee to get the hip-weight over the foot.

The latter was caused by too large a pregón step. It was solved by shortening the pregón step while emphasising a full "slowandslow" sway atcion.

Exercise Two: Diagonally forward side step, playing pregón on maracas
Solo, to music. Vocalisation of full martillo. Maracas playing pregón. Full Caribbean sway, diagonally forward side step. This exercise is identical to that of Exercise One above, except with the addition of pregón interpreted on maracas, intended to reinforce the currently-less-dynamic diagonal step with more rhythmic energy. Two participants exhibited a great example of best practice. They began with the sequence in static position before engaging the walk.

Exercise Three: Diagonally forward side step accenting coro, playing pregón on maracas
Solo, to music. Vocalisation of full martilloMaracas playing pregón. Full Caribbean sway, diagonally forward side step. This exercise is the same as the one above, with emphasis on the coro steps i.e. the back and replace steps on 'tuk' and 'tik' respectively.

I encouraged participants to tidy up their walk by ensuring that their back step was made in third position, and their 'replace' step should be taken slightly forward. This was to develop their sense of register, and to add the rhythmic counterpoint of the coro to the pregón.

As anticipated, participants' feedback was that they could better feel the call-and-response relationship. The call of the 'tok-tik' voiced by maracas, and the response of the 'tuk-tik' voiced by the pressure sensed through the heels of their feet on the floor.

Pedagogically the quality of the pregón step was compromised to achieve this, since attention to execution had shifted to the coro steps. However, I'd determined that it was much more important to cultivate the rhythmic relationship between pregón and coro first. (I'll address the quality of pregón in upcoming sessions.)

Rationale: Constructing the reverse walk
Although we were close to session's end, I felt it important to show - in the interests of participants' empowerment - how the reverse walk could be derived using the same principles as the forward one. The encouragement participants would have if they left the session knowing how to perform both forward and reverse walks could not be underestimated.

We began from the same point: the Caribbean sway.

Exercise Four: Side step on the reverse diagonal
Solo, to music. Vocalisation of full martillo. Full Caribbean sway, diagonally reverse side step.
Instead of taking a lateral side step, the side step is taken diagonally backward. The reverse angle is small at first, and gradually increases as the body acclimatises. The objective is to achieve a reverse walk while preserving call-and-response phrasing. Participants were asked to place the first step of the coro ('tuk') in third position, and the second step ('tik') as a proper replace. This was to develop their register.

The derivation of the reverse walk proved easier than participants had anticipated. There was occasion for brief practice before I drew Solares to a close, with the promise of revisiting it next session.

Loo

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Contratiempo Embodiment Rhythm: Pregón Troubleshooting

There are times when even the best lesson plans get deferred when unexpected-yet-important things pop up. Last night was such a time. I'd put the music on, and was playing martillo on bongó (I've been doing the latter for the past month to help participants acclimatise to the rhythm and how the instrument sounds) while participants warmed up using last week's exercise two as a recap...

Warm Up: Switching between 'coro-pregón' and 'pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway, maracas, and vocalisation
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempoMaracas playing pregón: "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tik" with the handles. Full vocalisation "tok-tik-tuk-tik" on beats 4-1-2-3 respectively. Participants alternated between 'coro-pregón' (i.e. full Caribbean sway) and 'pregón' (i.e. side step only), switching at their own choosing.

I looked up and was initially dismayed to see that, although some participants where vocalising and playing maracas correctly, their embodiment rhythm had frame-shifted such that their pregón was where the coro should have been and vice versa! I signalled a correction, which was made, and while the rest of the warm-up continued I thought on how to make use of this opportunity.

By the time the song ended, I'd decided that the best course was to adopt a masterclass approach and dissect the phenomenon.

Briefing: "Why did the error occur?"
The process began by asking participants, "why did the error occur?" to get them fully engaged. In typical form they freely chipped in, objectively, with their thoughts. It made me proud - there is no blame culture in Solares.

Then I began slicing away at the phenomenon:
  • Observation #1: the vocalisation was correct to the music and the martillo played by me.
  • Observation #2: the maracas pregón tones were correct to the vocalisation and hence to the music and martillo played by me.
Therefore, every participant's reference points of synchrony had to be correct.
  • Observation #3: the embodiment rhythm was initially incorrectly frame-shifted relative to the percussion rhythm-stream.
  • Observation #4: the embodiment rhythm was correctable upon notification of error.
Therefore, there was nothing inherently wrong with the embodiment rhythm. It had to be that the embodiment rhythm was initiated independently, without taking its cues from the vocalisation and pregón tones. The logical course to overcome this was to set up a sequence of execution.

Exercise One: The Sequence, martillo only
Solo, to bongó martillo only.
  1. Listen for the martillo, or super-impose it if not present;
  2. Vocalise "tok-tik-tuk-tik" to the martillo;
  3. Play the pregón using the maracas: "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tik" (beat 1) with the handles; and,
  4. Perform the Caribbean sway: initiating the side-step on "tok" and completing with relaxation after "tik".
Participants were asked to make each successive step of the sequence conditional upon the step preceding. They were encouraged to stop and start repeatedly until they were comfortable with the sequence.

Exercise Two: The Sequence, to music
As Exercise One (above) but to music.

Discussion
The error in the execution of the warm-up was used as a serendipitous event (crucial to building a collaborative, supportive culture). The frame-shift of the embodiment rhythm came about because it was not contingent upon the vocalisation nor the maracas.

It made some participants realise that they had been using the dance rhythm (what they were most accustomed to using) as their entry-point to music, their vocals and instruments were entrained to it i.e. the dancing was their portal to the music, and the vocals+instruments followed. Their cognitive capacity was only sufficient for the maintenance of the vocalisation and maracas, which allowed their embodiment rhythm to drift. Customary behaviour was exposed as being susceptible to error.

The solution was to establish vocalisation as the entry-point to music, and entrain the maracas pregón, then the embodiment rhythm, as conditional steps. At the close of the session, participants acknowledged a need for 're-programming' (as one put it) and how the new sequence made for a musically immersive experience.

Loo

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Contratiempo Embodiment Rhythm: Pregón

Last week we split open a dance basic and looked inside it. We explored the relationship between the two pieces based on the martillo synchronising timeline: coro-pregón; and began to define the properties of one of the pieces: the pregón.

As is normal with new concepts, solares participants only fully appreciated the value of the early exercises after the fact. It made sense to repeat the content of last week's session since they now knew how better to approach the exercises. Slight modifications to exercise design were made to add variety and widen perceptual scope.

Briefing: Developing the pregón [call] through isolated practice
Having come to appreciate the importance of the Caribbean sway's side step as the contratiempo embodiment of the pregón, the theme of this session was to give the pregón primacy in practice; to establish it as a tangible artefact in its right.

Exercise One: Caribbean sway, maracas, and vocalisation
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempo. Maracas playing pregón: "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tik" with the handles. Full vocalisation "tok-tik-tuk-tik" on beats 4-1-2-3 respectively. The maraca accents are a proxy for the bongó's martillo tones which voice the contratiempo embodiment timeline's pregón. Participants whom encountered difficulty where first asked to play the "tok" hembra tone (beat 4) only. Once they got in the groove, they were able to introduce the "tik" handle click tone (on beat 1).

Exercise Two: Switching between 'coro-pregón' and 'pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway, maracas, and vocalisation
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempoMaracas playing pregón: "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tik" with the handles. Full vocalisation "tok-tik-tuk-tik" on beats 4-1-2-3 respectively. Participants alternated between 'coro-pregón' (i.e. full Caribbean sway) and 'pregón' (i.e. side step only), switching at their own choosing.

This was a challenging evolution from the previous exercise, since it demands independence of the embodiment rhythm - switching between coro-pregón and pregón only - from the vocalisation and maracas timelines. Participants required a few songs to get into the swing of things, but their interpretation was still mechanical (to be expected). I then reminded them of the principle the exercise: the development of call-and-response phrasing in the embodiment timeline, focusing on the call.

Briefing: What movements correspond to 'tok-tik'?
The "tok" cues the commencement of sideways movement (i.e. weight transfer) in the side step. The "tik" coincides with the instance when the hip, knee and ankle are directly vertical, but movement is still continuing. The relaxation phase, which marks the completion of the side step, occurs after the "tik".

Exercise Two (above) was repeated, this time with emphasis on the quality of the pregón in commencement, continuation, and completion.

At session's end, participants remarked that paying attention to the call-and-response phrasing using a 'triple-lock' of vocalisation, martillo, and embodiment rhythm is a more immersive learning experience. It gives them direct access into the music.

There might be plenty of room for improvement, but I've chalked that up as a win.

Loo Yen

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Contratiempo Embodiment Rhythm: An Internal Dynamic

Dance rhythms are about relationships between sets of sounds. A set might have only one or more than one tone, and it's how one set 'talks' to another which is important. That's why Cuban percussion instruments are in dialogue pairs: 'hembra' [female] conversing with 'macho' [male]. Take the bongó's martillo rhythm as an example: "tok" talks to "tuk", and the "tik"s in-between could be interjections by either. And so if we're using the martillo as a reference timeline for the dancer's contratiempo embodiment rhythm, should the latter be imbued with conversation as well?

That was the theme of last night's Solares: the basic embodiment rhythm can be interpreted as a call-and-response timeline, thus introducing a rich internal dynamic and powerful possibilities in phrasing.

Warm up: Caribbean sway, maracas, and vocalisation
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempo. Maracas playing "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tuk" with the macho. Full vocalisation "tok-tik-tuk-tik" on beats 4-1-2-3 respectively.

Briefing: Contratiempo call-and-response embodiment to the martillo
Call-and-response is a common feature in Caribbean music derived from the African aesthetic. In Spanish, it is known as 'coro-pregón' where the 'coro' is the respondent and the 'pregón' is the caller.

With respect to the bongó's martillo:
  • the pregón or call spans "tok-tik" (beats 4 and 1)
  • the coro or response spans "tuk-tik" (beats 2 and 3)
This means that in the Caribbean sway:
  • the pregón cues the side step with the "slowandslow" transfer of weight; and,
  • the coro cues the back step and replace step, both with "quick" transfers of weight.

Exercise One: 'coro-pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). This exercise is a light introduction to the idea that the embodiment rhythm and the basic step are fractionable. Participants begin to understand:
  1. the idea of movement groups, and
  2. the possible relationships between them, in this case, call-and-response.

Exercise Two: 'coro-pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway, partnered
Partnered practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). This exercise provided the opportunity for participants to compare and contrast their own call-and-response phrasing to that of someone else's. Participants noted the breadth of variation in articulation of phrasing, interpretation of rhythm, and quality of movement.

This spurred a flurry of formative discussion, not on what was "right" (they were all doing it right), but what kind of "right" they preferred.

Briefing: Contratiempo call-without-response embodiment to the martillo
Call-without-response, or call-only, is a phenomenon where its judicious use as 'an insistent question unanswered' creates rhythmic tension.

Exercise Three: 'pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway
Solo practice. Performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). Caribbean sway side step only, executed 'slowandslow'. The vocalisation was necessary to provide the placeholder vocal response to the physical pregón. Without the vocalisation, participants found it difficult to maintain their place in the contratiempo timeline.

Exercise Four: Switching between 'coro-pregón' and 'pregón' phrasing in Caribbean sway
Solo practice. Performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). Participants alternated between 'coro-pregón' (i.e. full Caribbean sway) and 'pregón' (i.e. side step only), switching at their own choosing. This exercise was designed for two purposes:
  1. to make clearer the distinction between the 'pregón' grouping and the 'coro' grouping; and,
  2. to demonstrate the necessity of the vocalised timeline as a stabilising component of the compound rhythm stream.

Exercise Five: Switching between 'coro-pregón' and 'pregón', partnered
Partnered practice. Performed contratiempo. Vocalisation phrased as "tok-tik" (beats 4-1) and "tuk-tik" (beats 2-3). Switching between call only and call-and-response states was left entirely to each participant's discretion, and neither partner was required to follow suit. Some participants expected anarchy, and were surprised when they didn't encounter it.

This exercise highlighted the 'pregón' as the crucial synchronising movement between partners; and that the better (smoother, better-controlled, stronger, granular) the quality of execution, the easier it was to achieve synchrony.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Contratiempo: A Bigger Picture With Rueda Contratiempo

I was looking to mix things up a bit.

The past few solares sessions had been dedicated to laying down the rhythmic foundations of: recognising tones, and vocalising/playing them; understanding what the sounds mean, and the movements they cue. It's been two-thirds individual and one-third partnered at a guess, and all based on the Caribbean sway.

This session, I wanted to use it to regain touch with why we were all dancing - music, movement, laughter, people. Along the way, I wanted to give them a sense of what dancing contratiempo was about. Think of it as a session-long contrasting activity in the long arc of the contratiempo chapter.

But first, because there was also a newly-joined participant, there was the recap warm up.

Warm Up: Caribbean sway, maracas, and vocalisation
Solo practice. Caribbean sway performed contratiempo. Maracas playing "tok" (beat 4) with the hembra and "tuk" (beat 2) with the macho. Full vocalisation "tok-tik-tuk-tik" on beats 4-1-2-3 respectively. Participants whom encountered difficulty where first asked to play the "tok" hembra tone (beat 4) only. Once they got in the groove, they were to add the "tuk" macho tone (on beat 2).

Exercise One: Contratiempo Rueda de Casino
Rueda de Casino, to music. Contratiempo embodiment rhythm. Basic and 'dame' call only. Federated calling. The rueda de casino group had an excess of one follower. I required all followers to maintain the correct partnership position and perform their steps relative to a virtual partner, NOT to face the centre and dance basic time as they were inclined to do. This was another objective: to encourage followers to take a more active role, to visualise their movements for each move called.

As expected even the simple choreography proved challenging, although participants were able to work out their solutions after five tracks. Both the followers' spatial practice and the difficulties they encountered under the new contratiempo timing, caused them to reflect on whether or not they truly knew their choreography.

Discussion
I asked them to note that dancing contratiempo is not the same as dancing son cubano. The contratiempo embodiment rhythm is a property common across genres of the son rhythm group (which includes: son, changüi, bolero, chachachá and son montuno). Put another way, the contratiempo embodiment rhythm is a defining characteristic of son cubano, but it is not the sole defining characteristic i.e. dancing contratiempo alone does not make it a son cubano.

The final point was encouragement to take the opportunity, at party nights, to dance contratiempo rueda to bachata tracks. The rate-limiting step currently, for this chapter of Solares, is the amount of contratiempo partnered practice everyone has outside of the sessions.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Way To Contratiempo

With my partner in crime away, I was regaled with a double session at Solares last night. I seized the opportunity with both paws, since we could get through more than twice the content (efficiencies of scale), to open up a new chapter: contratiempo [literally 'against time'] embodiment rhythm.

Warm Up: Martillo on maracas
Solo, to music. Vocalising 'tok-tik-tuk-tik'. Playing martillo on maracas. Full Caribbean sway, atiempo. Participants were asked to note that in the atiempo embodiment rhythm, their first and third steps coincided with the 'tik' vocalisation and click of maracas handles.

Briefing: The Way To Contratiempo
Just as with languages, contratiempo embodiment rhythm may be achieved either through acquisition (like our mother tongue) or learning (like subsequent languages). Whereas it is possible in solares to do so through acquisition, I'd opted for the learned mode. This is because nearly all contratiempo instruction delivered in the U.K is in the learned mode. By doing the same, I can outline the pitfalls which other instructions overlook, so that participants can still attend workshops by other instructors and be able to fill in the gaps.

The learning mode (for those whom already dance salsa atiempo) comprises to phases:
  1. Translation
    where the embodiment rhythm is 'frame-shifted' later by one beat. This generates the rhythm structure referred to as "dance on 2" or "power 2".
  2. African-derived Phrasing
    where instead of the count "2-3-4, 6-7-8", it is phrased to African cycle "8~1-2-3, 4~5-6-7". Phrasing is the most significant differentiator between "On2" styles and contratiempo, and this aspect is most overlooked by educators.

Exercise One: The Frameshift, side step only
Solo, to music. Vocalisations and Caribbean sway's side step. It began with the isolation of the Caribbean sway's side step during the 'tok-tik' part of the vocalisation. No movement occurred during 'tuk' nor 'tik'. Participants got used to initiation the side-ways movement on 'tik', hitting the 'tok' with the side of the hip, and relaxing shortly thereafter.

Exercise Two: The Frameshift, full Caribbean sway
Solo, to music. Vocalisations and Caribbean sway. In between Caribbean sway's side step during the 'tok-tik' part of the vocalisation, the back step and replace was introduced during 'tuk' and 'tik' respectively.

Discussion
Participants were left to practice the frameshift. I observed that approximately half of them gravitated towards 'on2' phrasing while the others did not demonstrate any clear phrasing. When asked for their feedback, they reported a solidity to their timing, as if they were rhythmically "on rails". I attributed this to the martillo reference timeline where every tone is clear, defined and on-beat when vocalised (as compared to the tumbao moderno's every other).

I drew participants' attention to the fact that a number of them were using the back step on 'tuk' as a starting point, and that this was 'dance on 2' phrasing. They were told that this was acceptable so that they would develop a feel for 'on2' phrasing, but that they would be progressing to contratiempo phrasing in the upcoming sessions.

Participants' observations also extended to the physicalities of execution, centred especially on the performance of the side step. They noted the requirement for:

  • hip flexibility - more than one of them were asymmetrical in their side step to either direction due to lower flexibility which, left unchecked, would result in a sideways 'ratchet';
  • pull-push - the smooth transfer of weight required a 'push' with the unloading leg as well as the customary 'pull' with the loading leg; and,
  • trailing contact with the floor of the unloaded leg as an indicator of gradual weight transfer i.e. if trailing contact was absent, the weight was being transferred too quickly.

Progress had been good, and the penetrating questions asked by participants told me their comprehension, assimilation and synthesis were on track. Although we'd addressed only the translation phase, I felt it best not to court cognitive saturation, and to finish on a high.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Martillo

Solares had been using the conga's tumbao moderno as its reference rhythm for three years, since inception. Along the way the rhythm's near-ubiquity has served us well, being simple to understand, easy to pick out, and straight-forward to vocalise. We'd also added another string to our rhythmic bow: the regular son montuno rhythm interpreted on the maracas.

To progress further, the time has come to introduce another older (relative to secular Cuban music) reference timeline: the 'martillo' ['hammer'] as interpreted on the bongó. The rationale is that being able to reference the martillo allows gives participants:
  • resoluteness - the ability to synchronise to an alternative timeline should one (or more) disappear;
  • cultural depth - the possibility of exploring salsa's antecedent genres;
  • rhythmic stability - an additional component to the compound rhythm stream;
  • complementarity - a sense of how layers of rhythm fit together; and,
  • freedom of expression - a further choice of tonal cues for movement.

Vocalisation
I introduced participants to the basic martillo on bongó indicating the relevant tones and their vocalisations, using African perceptions of rhythmic cycles (not the European)
  • African beat 1: open tone on hembra (large drum) vocalised as 'tok'. (European beat 4)
  • African beat 2: closed tone on macho (small drum) vocalised as 'tik'. (European beat 1)
  • African beat 3: open tone on macho (small drum) vocalised as 'tuk'. (European beat 2)
  • African beat 4: closed tone on macho (small drum) vocalised as 'tik'. (European beat 1)
Thus the full (dancer) vocalisation is: 'tok-tik-tuk-tik-'

Maracas as proxy
The next step was to show participants how to interpret the martillo using maracas. This would free up their vocals and allow them to dance while playing. The vocalisation tones were used as a mediator:
  • 'tok' - single shake, hembra (low pitched) maraca.
  • 'tik' - single click, maraca handles.
  • 'tuk' - single shake, macho (high pitched) maraca.
  • 'tik' - single click, maraca handles.

Caribbean sway to martillo
Participants were already fluent with dancing the Caribbean sway atiempo, and playing the maracas as a proxy for conga and cowbell, as well as the son montuno maraca rhythm itself. With the solid foundation already laid, it proved a simple process to assemble the exercise through drawing on their previous experiences.
  1. Vocalise the martillo: 'tok-tik-tuk-tik-'
  2. Add a single shake of the hembra maraca on 'tok'
  3. Perform the Caribbean sway on 'tik-tuk-tik-' as a response to 'tok'
  4. Add a single shake of the macho maraca on 'tuk', coincident with the second step of the Caribbean sway
  5. Add the single clicks of the maraca handles on 'tik' 
I'm looking forward to a brave new world.

Loo