Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Contratiempo Rueda: Breaking Open Basic Combinations

Warm Up
Two-couple square formations. No partnership hold. 'Enchufla-Dame-Dile Que No' stacked calls. Federated calling. To music. We began this double-session where we left off. This was a chance for me to assess the level of retention of last session's content. In general this was good, but a gentle reminder to emphasise availability in the 'pockets of synchronisation' was necessary.

Educator's Note
Last session, I'd thought to introduce a mid-session contrasting activity in the form of an ethnomusicological briefing. Although all participants agreed that it was informative, I felt that it lacked flow, and caused bodies already warmed up to cool off. This made it more challenging to resume flow.

I resolved to front-load the briefings as part of the warm-up, and use physical contrasting activities as necessary in the latter phases of the session.

Concept: Line of Dance
Social ballroom dances of European origin which are progressive in nature proceed around the dance floor in an anti-clockwise manner. Rueda de casino is no different.
  1. Progressive movement anti-clockwise around the floor is described as moving "along the line of dance" and, its converse, clockwise around the floor is "against the line of dance".
  2. Orientation along the anti-clockwise circle is "facing down or along the line of dance" and, its converse, clockwise around the floor is "facing up or against the line of dance".
Hence the 'arriba' ['up'] call modifier in rueda de casino. I used the analogy of kayaking - moving or facing downstream or upstream - to drive the point home.

Exercise One: Line of Dance Orientation in Contratiempo Rueda de Casino
Two-couple square formations. No partnership hold. 'Enchufla-Dame-Dile Que No' stacked calls. Federated calling. To music. This was identical to the warm up, except participants were asked to take note of their orientations and movement relative to the line of dance.

Concept: Relative Direction, Ensemble versus Individual
I asked participants "On which side are you stepping on when you make the ¡Oye! alert call?" They all came back with individual-relative directions: 'left' and 'right'. I introduced them to the idea of ensemble-relative directions: 'inside' and 'outside' of the rueda de casino circle.

Exercise Two: Ensemble-Relative Direction in Contratiempo Rueda de Casino
Two-couple square formations. No partnership hold. 'Enchufla-Dame-Dile Que No' stacked calls. Federated calling. To music. This was identical to the warm up, except participants were asked to:
  1. take note of their orientations and movement relative to the line of dance; and,
  2. pay attention to when they were alerting and issuing calls, in ensemble-relative terms.
At the end of the exercise, participants observed that:
  • using individual-relative direction, calls issued changed between left and right when dance orientation reversed; whereas,
  • using ensemble-relative direction, calls issued remained the same - inside or outside - despite reversals in dance orientation.
This phenomenon of calls remaining consistently unchanged when using ensemble-relative direction is central to the meaning of the next exercise.

Exercise Three: Disassembled Enchufla Combination, Interleaved Elements
Two-couple square formations. No partnership hold. 'Enchufla-Dame-Dile Que No' un-stacked calls. Federated calling. To music. This exercise was identical to the previous ones except for one very important thing. Callers were asked to call each element individually, unconcatenated. This would give rise to:
'enchulfa' - Caribbean Sway basic - 'dame' - Caribbean Sway basic - 'dile que no' - Caribbean Sway basic - (repeat)
The pedagogic objectives were two-fold:
  • call-orientation flexibility - calling on a different foot (individual-relative) yet same foot (ensemble-relative) direction; and,
  • clear feedback on movement quality - providing clear definition between elements, thus rendering transparent the quality in execution of change-of-place elements.
The stringency made clear:
  • any differences in call timings (in transpired that a participant was calling one beat too early);
  • the need for close and consistent partnership distance (to maintain connection and mirror neurone stimulus);
  • the levels of drive needed to get into a good position in the change-of-place; and,
  • began to establish connections between dancers of the same role i.e. follower-follower and leader-leader.

Concluding Point: Redirecting the Stamp
I'd observed that a habit had spread to all participants - they were all accenting with their feet (almost stamping) the 'tok' (beats 4&8). I understood that this was deployed as an overt means of inter-member synchronisation.

The emphasis, while rhythmically correct, introduced a vibration perturbation to their lower body which prevented the hip from settling in the immediately following '-y'. Whatismore, it indicated that energy was being lost through sound and friction-generated heat on the floor - energy which would be better harnessed as mechanical leverage.

I drew their attention to their accent, and asked them to redirect the accent:
"Instead of stamping the sound on the 'tok',  try redirecting the accent sideways through the hip."
It took a couple of tries, then an exclamation rang out: "there's so much power!"

My work tonight was done.

Loo Yen

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Contratiempo Rueda: Enchufla Is A Combination

Knowing in advance that this Solares was a double session, I chose to plan this as a substantial two plus hour masterclass; something I could afford to do based on the premise that all the attendees would have had significant prior experience.

There were two learning objectives, broad enough enough to be considered contexts:
  1. the continued performance of dance using contratiempo phrasing to the bongó's martillo - this would serve to ingrain the phrasing to the same naturalised extent as atiempo; and,
  2. to investigate, in both 'big picture' and fine detail, the structure of one of rueda de casino's most basic pieces of vocabulary: the 'enchulfa' - as a basis for identifying and executing essential dance skills.

Rationale: Learning Group configuration
The learning group was set up into:
  1. a membership of three: two leaders, one follower, and one virtual follower; and consequently,
  2. into a rueda de casino square of two pairs; and,
  3. partnerships without hold.
For leaders, the alternation between real and virtual followers would test, clarify and validate their spatial positioning. The square configuration of two pairs would create the most demanding angles in the performance of rueda de casino. If they could cope with this, every other configuration would be easy. The requirement for good visualisation would be laid bare through negating the use of the arms.

Concept: Revealing "enchufla" as a combination
The group was shown how the "enchulfa" move comprises three sequential change-of-place components of enchulfa, dame, and dile que no where:
  1. enchufla is a simple change of place clockwise, incorporating a follower's left turn;
  2. dame is a simple change of place clockwise, ending with a 90 degree change of orientation - followers to the right, leaders to the left - to acquire new partner;
  3. dile que no is a simple change of place anti-clockwise.
As a result of component 2 (dame), there is a net group rotation of 90 degrees clockwise.

Warm Up
Partnered, without hold, to music. Calls used were "dame" and "enchufla-dame-dile que no". Calling was federated. The group was given time to get their bearings with the new orientation angles. It took two songs.

Exercise One: Pockets of Synchronisation
Dancers were asked to focus on their 'pockets of synchronisation' - phases in their dance where they were most available for synchronisation - corresponding to their martillo vocalisation of "toc-y-tik-y". The application of this point was most easily observed in the leaders when with their virtual follower. When asked at the end of this exercise, all dancers responded that they positively felt more 'in tune' with each other.

Exercise Two: Dame Pocket of Synchronisation 
I drew participants' attention to their movement ensuing from the 'dame' call, indicating that it lacked completion. Both followers and leaders, especially the latter, needed to end their movement not just oriented to their new partner, but finishing in a manner which made them available to be synchronised with. I called this the acquisition phase.

This stimulated a useful discussion about the moment preceding acquisition, when there was a tapered ending with the current partner before a smooth beginning with the new partner. I likened it to the use of a clutch in a car when changing gears.

Concept: Change-of-Place
Participants had exposed to the idea of change-of-place previously in our merengue sessions. The major difference between that then, compared to the change-of-place from the Caribbean Sway, is that the latter requires the places to be traded in two steps, not three. The first step of the Caribbean Sway is behind into close third position, which only leaves the second and third steps for movement.

The first step into reverse close third position 'loads up' the body and prepares it for movement through stacked torque curves in an upward cascade through the joints. This provides the drive of the second step taken, not directly into, but slightly diagonal of the partner.

Followers are led to trace a route of an asymmetrical "V": longer and shallower angled on the second step; shorter and more steeply angled on the third step. Leaders move themselves through the counterpart route around the partnership's axis of symmetry. Both routes together result in an oblique parallelogram, or offset diamond. The symmetry of the routes is indicative of the equal effort contributed by both partners to the movement.

This still holds true if either partner is executing a turn.

Exercise Three: Change-of-Place
The change-of-place movement was practised in partnership, first without music, then to martillo, then to music. The learning points provided were:
  • "aim for your partner's shoulder" (on the passing side); and,
  • "skimming around/almost brushing the turning partner's back with your chest".

Exercise Four: Caribbean Sway with Major Turn
I introduced a variant of the Caribbean Sway incorporating a major turn - turn in the same direction as the stepping leg (i.e. if stepping onto the right leg, then a rightward turn, or a leftward turn if stepping onto the left leg) - commencing on the second step. The rotation continues through the third step during the 'tok-y-tik', completing on the final '-y'. The turn is distributed across two bearings, created by the balls of both feet on the floor, and thus changes from a major turn in step two, to a minor turn in step three.

This is a common movement in rueda de casino, performed for example by the follower during enchufla.

Briefing: The Transnational Martillo
I was keen, with this being an extended session, to maintain participants' touch with music. And so, I took the opportunity to put my ethnomusicologist hat on, and provide some background to the existence, history, evolution and importance of the martillo rhythm in Caribbean music. I used 90 as the magic number, and began with two occurrences:
  • 1990 as the date of release of "Bachata Rosa" by Juan Luis Guerra, the album which brought bachata to international prominence; and,
  • 1890 as the beginning of Cuba's struggle for independence, which resulted in Sindo Garay's flight from Cuba to Dominica.
The discussion touched on the turbulent history of Haiti and Dominican Republic, the whitening of the latter, and how it impacted the interpretation and performance of its music and dance. The emphasis was on the shared origins of itinerant Cuban son and Dominican música de guitarra.

The Main Practice Session
All these elements were incorporated into rueda de casino practice, in square format, using only the elements of enchufla, dame, and dile que no, to federated calls. Music alternated between slow-tempo son and bachata, to up-tempo son montuno and salsa. Slower music emphasised control and primed movement, quicker music brought excitement and forced assimilation.

By the session's end, all participants had reached learning saturation and were physically tired, but enough practice had been done for the major points to be assimilated - ready for another double-session next week.

Loo Yen Yeo

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ensemble Activity: Laid Back, a little bit

Two weeks ago I introduced the percussion concept of 'laid back', where an instrument sounds late to very late relative to the central the beat. In truth some participants had already achieved this, albeit inadvertently, last month (see: http://salsadiary.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/ensemble-activity-strictly-in-pocket.html Exercise One, Result 2).

Although they'd become comfortable with the practice format, the ability of play late on the beat as a synchronised ensemble still eluded them. Whenever the 'laid back' call was issued from a well-synchronised 'in the pocket', the unit dissolved quickly into a mish-mash of lates.

I can only put that down to different individual offsets.

Offset: A physiological phenomenon
If a motor signal is issued from the brain to the arms and legs at the same time, the arms will move before the legs will. This is because:

  1. the signal path lengths are shorter to arms than to legs; and,
  2. arms have lower mass than legs and so can accelerate more quickly.

α-motorneurones have a nerve conduction velocity range of between 80-120 metres per second. That sounds really quick, but if there is a half-metre difference in signal path length between arms and legs, there would be a lag of at least 4/1,000s of a second (by simple calculation) and that's the best-case scenario. It might not sound like much, but that's the difference between an 'in the pocket' and a 'slightly late' attack. In practice, I see offsets in the order of tens of thousands.

So, if two concurrently-timed signals are issued from the brain to the arms and legs, and the arms play the maracas very late on the beat, the legs will step off-time. This is the challenge of playing and dancing late: there has to be near-zero offset.

Near-zero offset can only be achieved by sending impulses to the legs BEFORE impulses to the arms.

A mish-mash of lates
The phenomenon of everyone playing different interpretations of 'late' is unsurprising given the factors stacked against them, different perceptions of beat; signal path lengths; limb masses; and conduction rates.

The efforts where valiant, and occasionally successful. However at the third session of asking it was time to change tack. Instead of going the whole hog, as we did with the push, I started using the cues "slightly late of pocket" and "a little later". My scientific self wrinkled its nose at the arbitrary terms (how late is slightly late?) but the change worked. It got participants to play later synchronously.

We'll have to inch our way to the back of the bus.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Opening the Timba chapter

"What is timba?" has become a recurring question in Solares. So much so that I knew the time had come to address it, because deflecting the matter further risked frustrating inquisitiveness (a damaging prospect) and allowing blurred narratives a chance to take root.

The timing of it couldn't have been better, I've been scouting out different themes for use as a contrasting activity alongside to the chapter on percussive attack. But the challenge lay in how to address the question of timba through the experiences of a dancer. Conventional approaches tackle the topic through its layers of percussion - explained by drummers for drummers. How can timba be understood by a dancer with a limited base of percussion experience to draw upon?

THAT's the sort of challenge I love to sink my teeth into.

Given the misconception, here in the UK, that rueda de casino should ideally be danced to timba, I think it would be useful to use rueda de casino as a lens through which timba can be examined, to reveal 'truths' and misconceptions.

Exercise One: Rueda de casino, federated calling
Partnered ensemble, to music. Vocabulary restricted to: 'dame'; 'enchufla-dame'; 'enchufla-dile que no'; 'enchufla con mambo'; and, the 'pa'rriba' modifier. Calling was devolved to all members of the group, each call was preceded by the 'oyé' aural cue with the simultaneous raise of the free arm as a corroborating visual cue. Conflicts where resolved by eye contact. This is the equivalent to co-operative musicianship observed in African music performance.

Four iterations of this exercise were required until a good level of proficiency was attained. According to all participants, the dynamism of the rueda was elevated to a plane not experienced before. They where no longer passively engaged in the interpretation of one person's call. Instead, they had to open their eyes and ears for calls emanating from around the circle, and decide upon the next appropriate call and issue it.

Participants also came to realise the importance of the timing of the 'oyé' cue with its concomitant raised arm visual cue. The energy of discovery from the federated calling exercise was perfect, necessary even, for what was to follow.

Briefing: "What does rueda mean?"
Gathering everyone into a circle, I asked, "what does rueda mean?" I received the well-intentioned published responses such as "it means 'a wheel'".

"Yes, that's right on a literal level" I said, "but what does it mean when we're arranged in a circle?"
Puzzled looks abounded. "The circle in this case, and also in rumba, represents the Circle of Creation; and that is what we're celebrating." You could have heard a pin drop. I launched into a short story on one of sub-Saharan Africa's many concepts of creation, Oyá, before and including its embodiment as a Yoruban Orisha.

Exercise Two: Rueda de casino, visualising the Circle of Creation
Partnered ensemble, to music. Federated calling. Vocabulary restricted to: 'dame'; 'enchufla-dame'; 'enchufla-dile que no'; 'enchufla con mambo'; and, the 'pa'rriba' modifier. Participants were asked to visualise the circle of creation while dancing rueda.

The outcome of this exercise was not as I'd expected. Although it possessed energy, that energy came from the practice of federated calling, but it lacked the textural quality which combined visualisation achieves. It turned out to be the case. I'd made the mistake of assuming that participants were (a learning point for me) already familiar with the relevant imagery.

Briefing: Oyá as the storm of creation
Participants encountered difficulty because they were visualising the Cycle of Creation - birth through death - and hence could not see its relevance in the exercise. I re-pitched the visualisation as the storm at the birth of Creation, immediately when the sky and sea where sundered.

Exercise Two (modified): Rueda de casino, visualising the Storm of Creation
The outcome was as I'd hoped: and ensemble performance of dynamism with a quality of emotional depth. I decided to stack on another layer of skill to assess participants' levels of naturalisation.

Exercise Three: Rueda de casino, visualising the Storm of Creation, attack 'in the pocket'
The refinement of an 'in the pocket' attack was introduced, intended: to create a powerful inexorability to the performance; and, to introduce a counterpointing element of restraint to the energy of federated calling. In this, no participants were successful.

I decided not to prosecute the contextualisation of learned skills further. Instead, I decided to work with what was successful this session: the use of metaphor.

Exercise Four: Rueda de casino, visualising the self as an Agent of Creation
In keeping with the concept of Oyá as a powerful event and the creation of the first land which followed, two sub-metaphors: 'drawing thunder' (with each arm-raise) and 'creating earth' (with each step) were introduced, helping participants visualise their equal roles as agents during the Act of Creation.

Power, cohesion, emotional commitment. These were present in the rueda performance at unprecedented levels. Such is the potency of understanding dance as moving metaphors.

"Will this session change the way I dance?" asked one participant before the session started.
I thought for a while before answering, "yes."
I heard another snort in disbelief. He wasn't sniggering now.

Instead I got, "how does this fit with learning what timba is?"

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ensemble Activity: Strictly in the Pocket, Musically in the Pocket

The phenomenon of participants being unable to return to their original preferred attack after 'pushing' is indicative of a lack of conscious control/determination: their preferred attack was subconsciously determined instead of consciously selected. This is not unusual; just like everyone has a natural cadence when they walk, everyone has a preferred attack when perform a rhythmic activity.

The original intention was to explore the limits (early and late attacks) of the beat boundary to engender the realisation at the beat, instead of being a small slice of time, is actually expansive. However, having participants being able to return reliably to a central position is more valuable for developing their sensitivity to what different attack positions feels like - in this case, 'pushed' and 'in the pocket'.

To help participants understand the 'in the pocket' attack without using a metronome (which can be a musical straight-jacket) I needed a metaphor...

Learning Metaphor
"Imagine you're dancing with someone whose timing is all over the place: early, late; and (s)he is hopping around unpredictably. We've all been there right? (nods of agreement). Imagine that you wanted to provide strict time to your partner, 'command time' if you will, telling your partner exactly and clearly where the beat is."

Exercise One: Dancing and playing maracas with the learning metaphor
Solo practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. The maracas where played with the learning metaphor in mind; in strict middle attack as if indicating to an imaginary partner where the precise centre of the beat was.

The outcome of the exercise could be divided into two groups:
  1. one group of participants interpreted the exercise correctly played their maracas 'in the pocket'; and,
  2. the other group interpreted the learning metaphor as if they where to accommodate their less-proficient imaginary partner as much as possible. They adjusted their attack to 'late' in order to do so.
While the latter was interesting and will be useful in a few sessions' time, it was the former group which was chosen to provide the group activity bench-mark. The difference between the two, put bluntly, is "dictating to your partner what to do" and "accommodating your partner as much as possible".

All participants, being socially-astute, observed that they would be disinclined to dictate timing to their dance partner in the former manner - it felt selfish and arrogant. I agreed, but indicated that there might be some conditions e.g. in rueda de casino performances when it would be appropriate.

The session was fortunate to have two participants whom played two variations of 'in the pocket': 'strictly in the pocket' (rigidly metronomic) and 'musically in the pocket' (flexibly metronomic). Both of them where used as benchmark references during the ensemble activity.

Exercise Two
Group practice in circle, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants began in ensemble until they were synchronised. Three roles where specified, with responsibilities similar to those in the previous session with some minor changes (underlined):
  • 'Director'
    cues the playing of maracas on or off while embodiment rhythm was maintained;
  • 'Producer'
    indicates the attack and its quality of implementation using the cues 'push' and 'in the pocket'; and,
  • 'Synchroniser'
    cues the ensemble to 'synchronise', and to reduce the 'offset' between maracas attack and embodiment attack.
The roles where made non-exclusive i.e. the selected participant had general responsibility for the allocated functions, but others could intervene when they felt appropriate. This was pitched as a maximisation of learning opportunities within the group.

The 'in the pocket' benchmarks succeeded in neutralising the forward creep of the middle attack when the ensemble moved between 'push' and 'in the pocket' attacks. (Observed last week.)

Rendering the roles non-exclusive stimulated playful exploration, eliminating defensive behaviour and uncertainty. (Observed last week.) This aspect was hyper-corrected: all participants keenly engaged with the exploration, leaving none of them with a strong sense of what each role entailed. This will have to be addressed in a later session.

Participants observed that the two flavours of 'in the pocket' was bench-marked as: tightly synchronous on the maraca tone marking the quarter beats (vocalised as 'chik'); and loosely synchronous on the maraca tone marking the eighth beats (vocalised as 'a').

Most participants observed that the 'in the pocket' attack was marginally earlier than their preferred/default attack. This will be the focus of further exploration in an upcoming session.

Issues noted in the previous session have been resolved. However, the roles have dissolved and will need to be coalesced for the sake of future activity. The number of roles will be increased, and the functions of each will be expanded in future workshops, to establish a broader palette of elements which participants may create from. In keeping with this trajectory, the 'late' attack will have to be addressed imminently.

Loo Yeo

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"This is the path creativity takes"

Creativity is the hallmark of Mastery. Eminent educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom recognised it as such and manifested it in different guises at the pinnacle of his taxonomies.

Another property of creativity is its ability, and requirement even, to disrupt. It's our curiosity to explore the side-streets off the main learning avenue which good teachers plan to accommodate, keeping learners in tune with their inventive minds. But in the realms of social dance (and the martial arts) a traditional lesson structure is commonly deployed; illuminating only the one main thoroughfare, leaving learners with the impression that only one route exists. And yet these learners are expected become creative at some juncture.

When should learners be encouraged to be creative?
Can educators tolerate, let alone accommodate, the kind of disruption creative expression causes?
Worse yet, have Michelangelos and Artemisias of dance been overlooked, because tradition has driven them elsewhere?

These are the very questions driving the revision of my pedagogical system, structure and style:
  • to preserve, stimulate, and develop creativity from the onset;
  • to provide a learning structure which can flex to accommodate creative disruption; and,
  • to establish a place where creativity and artistry can be recognised in oneself and in one another.
To that end I've adopted a two-pronged approach:
  1. The first is the 'sticking plaster' of illuminating the side-streets and accommodating their exploration. I consider this a sticking plaster because creativity is more accommodated than it is integrated - an adaptation of a conventional approach.
  2. The second, still being articulated, brings creative decision-making into the core, where all routes are potentially valid - a paradigm shift. To provide the requisite structure (staving off learning anarchy), possibly two or more recommended routes will be explored as serving suggestions.
For the creative approach to succeed, the manner of delivery must be person-centred and it must stimulate artistic thought. The latter is the focus of current endeavour, and I am helped by a wonderful discovery: Will Gompertz's 'Think Like an Artist' (2015) (reviewed in a later post). There is one particularly apt observation:
"Passion - enthusiasm if you prefer - is the spur that makes us want to know more. It provides the impulse for the thoughtful enquiry that generates the knowledge, which fires our imagination to come up with ideas. These lead to the experiments that eventually result in the production of a realized concept. This is the path creativity takes."
From that one simple paragraph a taxonomy in the creativity domain might be created:
  1. Passion,
  2. Thoughtful enquiry,
  3. Knowledge curation,
  4. Imagination,
  5. Realisation.
It might not be refined, but it already presents itself as a workable premise on which to hang principles and practices.

Loo Yen Yeo

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Ensemble Activity: Early Attack, Middle Attack

Today began the laying of the foundations for a true learning ensemble. Unlike previous group work where a participant might learning from oneself or one other per exercise, the group exercise (there was only one) was configured specifically for opportunities to learn from everyone simultaneously, accelerating the pace of development yet further.

Exercise One
Group practice in circle, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants began in ensemble until they were synchronised. Three roles where specified, the:
  1. 'Director'
    cues the playing of maracas on or off while embodiment rhythm was maintained;
  2. 'Producer'
    indicates the attack and its quality of implementation using the cues 'push' and 'return'; and,
  3. 'Synchroniser'
    assesses whether ensemble synchronisation is maintained or lost, and cues the group accordingly.
Multiple iterations were performed, with the roles being switched from person to person so that everyone had a go.

The exercise, for all its simplicity, proved highly successful. The ensemble underwent continuous improvement because participants: had to observe actively, and observe critically; experienced personal discovery through juxtaposition; and interacted constructively.

The latter, constructive interaction, was less successful because each designated person had assumed that their role was exclusive - possibly a custom imported from rueda de casino calling. Others where reluctant to intrude even if it was for the greater good, and there was a small measure of defensiveness from the role-holder when there was an intrusion. This will have to be addressed during an upcoming session. An example of this was when a Producer thought that the ensemble was pushing at the limit of the beat, when in fact there was room to push earlier, and a non-Producer was aware of this, yet was not comfortable to say so.

Some individuals had a better natural feel for one role over another. It leads me to think of potential talent being overlooked in rueda de casino where only one role - the caller - is prevalent.

A participant astutely observed that the role of 'Producer', whose responsibility is quality of implementation, should be a federated role i.e. that all dancers of the ensemble should assume that responsibility. I agreed completely, noting that the first step to doing so was to render participants aware of this role before rolling it out.

As for the attack itself, participants had improved since the last session. They understood the concept of 'push' and where able to mobilise themselves into the front part of the beat. However, that distorted their perception of where the 'return' (their original attack in the middle of the beat) was; their 'return' was earlier than when they began the exercise - and they where aware of this phenomenon. This will be addressed in an upcoming session.

By distributing various simple responsibilities across the ensemble, a heightened engagement was realised. This has led to a more involving learning experience, improved performance, yielded a better sense of musical self, a clearer understanding of others' abilities, and endowed the group with independence and a new coalescence.

Loo Yeo

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Benchmarking The Push

The previous session had me questioning whether I'd pushed solares participants too hard. An instructor can tell when people are at their learning limits by observing the quality of inconsistency: the larger the swings, the closer the limit. Last week the percussionist-dancers at Solares where at cliff's edge.

I was inclined to ease up on the development pace, but because we'd been working together for a long while, I felt it important that participants able to feed back their thoughts and experiences to me. So i consulted each of them in turn, in private conversation. They were all of similar mind:
  • Yes, they found it hard at first to grasp the concepts. That made it difficult for them to know how to perform the exercises. But they all felt that, now they know what was required, continued reiterations of the exercises would improve them.
  • None of them wanted the pace to be slowed.
  • All of them wanted more exercises in ensemble.
  • Every one of them felt they understood the importance, relevance, and desirability of the skills being developed.
  • Each of them wanted me to stick with this theme and develop it to its fullest possible extent.
It seemed to me that the most appropriate solution was to concentrate on one attack position until consistent fluency was achieved, before moving on to the next - a process which I estimate will take more than a month per position. Ordered from easiest to most challenging, it would be 'pushed', 'laid back', then 'in the pocket'. I would provide the benchmark attack against pre-recorded studio tracks as reference.

So that's how last night's session panned out. Just one exercise, reiterated:

Exercise One: Benchmarking to music, 'pushed' attack
Group practice in circle, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants began in ensemble until they were synchronised. I then joined the ensemble, providing the benchmark through playing the maracas in the early 'pushed' attack position.


The ensemble's attack kept slipping towards a later position whenever the benchmark was absent.
This was because the consciously-played maracas 'pushed' attack was being pulled back by the subconsciously-played embodiment 'in the pocket' attack. There are two possible solutions to this, either: fully-decouple one attack from the other (very challenging), or fully align the maracas and embodiment attacks (slightly less challenging). We went for the latter.

Pushing the embodiment attack earlier resulted in maracas attack being too early. This is because each individual had grown accustomed to the interval-distance between the two attacks - the offset - and subconsciously preserved it as the embodiment attack was 'pushed' earlier i.e. the same offset was maintained as the embodiment attack was pushed earlier, making the maracas attack earlier still, to the point when it was off time. The solution is to decrease the offset.

I anticipate that we will continue with the practice for a few more weeks, until participants gain a sense of: 'push' attack; how to adjust offset; and completely aligned attacks (maracas and embodiment). Along the way, we will be exploring parts of the beat which they have hitherto never explored before.

Loo Yen

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Percussion Concept: Reference-setting And Benchmarking

Exercise One: Reference-setting, embodiment+conga compound timeline
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, tumbao moderno on conga. The introduction of the conga was to provide an external timeline to which participants could combine with their embodiment timeline (external synchrony) thereby creating a compound timeline as a reference.

I called for changes in attack of the maracas timeline, moving from the extremes of 'pushed' and 'laid back' through an intermediate point labelled 'return'. 'Return' was used instead of 'in the pocket' because the inconsistency of maracas performance could not have allowed it to be located.

The primary objective was to set up a reference timeline. This was successful.
The secondary objective was to begin the performance of attack in ensemble. This was quantitatively successful in that everyone did move in the correct directions, but qualitatively needed improvement in synchrony and magnitude.

Exercise Two: Reference-setting, embodiment+maracas compound timeline
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, tumbao moderno on conga. This changed the reference timeline to an internal one; where the compound timeline is formed from the embodiment timeline and the maracas timeline (internal synchrony) autonomy, and external synchrony. They were to maintain this in ensemble at a steady pace, while I played the tumbao moderno in the three attack positions. Participants found this exercise:
  • illuminating, because they where able to experience the extent to which a relative timeline could be 'pushed' or 'laid back', and complemented 'in the pocket' relative to their reference timeline; and,
  • challenging, because their lack of stability made it easy for the conga's attack to pull their reference timeline around.
"In light of the positions of attack, what is the importance of synchrony and autonomy?"

Exercise Two(a)
Repeated as above, but this time the ensemble was arranged in a group facing inward to each other. This configuration (typical of ensemble playing) draws performers in together, promoting synchrony.

Exercise Three: Benchmarking to music
Group practice in circle, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants began in ensemble until they were synchronised. I then joined the ensemble, providing the benchmark through playing the maracas in the three attack positions. This gave participants a flavour of the extent by which attack affected perception of beat duration, providing with the scope of upcoming developments in Solares.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Percussion Concept: The Positions Of Attack

Warm up
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, without music. This exercise was to assess how participants had developed over the week with respect to the 'second state of independence' - the ability to execute both rhythms without using music as a crutch. They were much better able to do so.

However they displayed two typical traits of novices: they were not yet assessing the quality of execution from the perspective of musicality i.e. it was mechanically correct but sounded lifeless; and, the maraca rhythm relative to the embodiment rhythm was passive and languid.

Briefing: late or 'laid back' attack, early or 'pushed' attack, 'centre' or 'in the pocket' attack
I asked them to maintain a steady embodiment rhythm without maracas (using it as the reference rhythm) and played the maracas as they had done defining it as a 'late' or 'laid back' attack. I then played the maracas in a brighter, more forward musical position defining it as an 'early' or pushed' attack. Finally, I played the maracas in the time-keeping central position defining it as a 'centre' or 'in the pocket' attack.

Exercise One: Synchronising to 'laid back' and 'pushed' attacks
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, without music. A steady embodiment rhythm (as reference) was maintained by all participants in ensemble. I provided the maracas rhythm moving between pushed, laid back, and centre attacks (as benchmark) to which they synchronised their maracas rhythms.

Exercise Two: Individual practice, 'laid back' and 'pushed' attacks
Solo practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, without music. Having gained a taste for the three attack positions, participants were encouraged to replicate and manipulate attack using the maracas rhythm with their embodiment rhythm as reference. Their learning point was to play at the extremes of earliness and lateness whilst still being musical, returning to the centre as contrasting relief.

Exercise Three: Ensemble synchrony and autonomy, 'laid back' and 'pushed' attacks
Group practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, without music. A steady embodiment rhythm (as reference) was maintained by all participants in ensemble. This time, each participant was empowered to explore attack position (using their maracas) while in ensemble. The only two caveats where that synchronicity and musicality be maintained.

Exercise Four: Effect of 'laid back' and 'pushed' attacks on relationship to music
Solo practice, son montuno maracas rhythm, atiempo embodiment rhythm, to music. Participants were encouraged to discover if their relationship to instruments in a track changed when they adopted a different attack. For this exercise, a participant selected and played an attack position, then listened for which instruments (s)he had a clearer relationship with.

They all came back with a "yes".


1. The instruments you have a clear relationship with have a different attack
Let's take as an example, if the piano was 'in the pocket' and the congas were 'laid back'.
Playing maracas (or any other instrument):
  • 'in the pocket' would mask the piano, and one would experience the relationship the pianist has with the conguero;
  • 'laid back' would mask the congas, and one would experience the relationship the conguero has with the pianist; and,
  • 'pushed' would cause one to experience a qualitatively different third-party relationship with both the pianist and the conguero.
2. Percussion attack is affected by accustomed dance attack
This is particularly so with novices whom have yet to achieve 'attack independence'. If a participant is accustomed to dancing 'laid back', then the maracas attack will tend to it as well. Even if the participant intends a 'pushed' attack on maracas, early attempts will tend for it to be later than intended i.e. somewhere between 'pushed' and 'in the pocket'.

With novices. the attack of playing will be close to the attack of dancing, but it won't be identical. Both embodiment and instrument attack will have a close, comfortable relationship. Most people find the masking effect of identical attacks to be disconcerting.

3. Attack can be used as a diagnostic method
If a participant where to play and dance at his/her accustomed attack, then his/her relationship to the instruments can be used to derive the position of his/her attack. For example if there where three instruments of different attack:
  • lead vocals 'pushed'
  • piano 'in the pocket'
  • conga 'laid back'
A strong music relationship with the conga and vocalist would indicate an attack closer to 'in the pocket'. Taking it one step further, if there where two participants, each having a strong relationship with the piano, but one with the lead vocals and the other with the conga; it would indicate a potential challenge in dancing together, especially if the leader was the former and the follower was the latter.

Yeo Loo Yen

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Synchronous Rhythm And Autonomous Rhythm In Equilibrium

Last Tuesday's solares began not quite as well as I would have liked.

It was supposed to start off with a simple warm-up of son montuno maracas rhythm, "slowandslow" embodiment rhythm variation, and infinity engine; and build from there. What I got instead was one out of three: the "slowandslow" embodiment rhythm variation. The infinity engine was a no-show. More disconcertingly the maracas strokes were played in direct correlation (1:1) with the embodiment rhythm instead of the proper twice the cycle speed.

Evidently the participants had failed to invest in themselves with practice. But at least they were honest about it. There was nothing to be gained from anything other than turning the workshop into an extended practice session. So I shelved the intended content and designed the practice session on-the-fly. For the practice session to be useful, it could not be a dry punitive exercise in drudgery; that would hardly be an incentive for later self-practice. The session needed to be interesting and challenging and rewarding.

A deeper evaluation of their proficiencies was needed, so I asked them to perform the embodiment rhythm and the son montuno maracas rhythm without music. It didn't take long to see that participants:
  • were unaccustomed to playing on their own;
  • relied on music as a crutch; and
  • had never listened critically to the musicality of their playing i.e. it was purely mechanical in sound production.
These characteristics are not uncommon in developing percussionists. Therefore what had to be done next was principally well-established: to increase the quality of execution by improving musicality. The novelty was that I would use a balance of synchrony and autonomy exercises to achieve it. Synchronous practices would help diffuse my playing expertise through the group. Autonomous practices would promote the sense of individual ownership over their playing.

Synchronous Practices

Exercise 1: Side-by-side, facing the same direction
Paired practice. No music. Caribbean sway. "quick, quick, slowandslow". son montuno maracas rhythm. Changing partners at each iteration.

I deliberately didn't specify whether to execute this in phase or not, so participants freely experimented. Participants noted that their ability to synchronise with their partners improved with each iteration. When they partnered with me, their phrasing improved and their maracas began to sound less mechanical and more musical.

Exercise 2: Side-by-side, facing the same direction, "front" cue
Paired practice. No music. Caribbean sway. "quick, quick, slowandslow". Son montuno maracas rhythm. Changing partners at each iteration. One partner designated static, the other moving.

With the "front" cue, the designated participant moves from the side position to in front of and facing their partner.
With the "side" cue, the designated participant returns to the side position.

This exercise introduces perturbation by requiring movement and the suppression of mirror neuron stimulus in the face-to-face position. With respect to the latter: all participants were dextral, and as a result, a mirror image cannot be maintained between partners' hands when they faced each other.

Participants were given the scope to explore the effect of phase under their own initiative. Again, each participant's ability to maintain synchrony with their partner improved iteration upon iteration as they 'toughened up' against the disturbances (i.e. became more autonomous).

Briefing: concordance and opposition positions
Synchronous rhythmic activities are easier in the side-by-side 'concordance' position. There is less reliance on the visual sense and, consequently, proportionally more use of the aural and kinesthetic. Confusion due to mirror neuron activity due to asymmetry is also minimised. The converse holds when partners adopt the face-to-face 'opposing' position.

Autonomous Practices

Exercise 3: Side-by-side, facing the same direction, "turn" cue
Paired practice. No music. Caribbean sway. "quick, quick, slowandslow". Son montuno maracas rhythm. Changing partners at each iteration. One partner designated static, the other moving.

With the "turn" cue, the designated participant executes a half turn on the spot.

Partners begin by establishing synchrony. Upon issuance of the "turn" cue, the moving partner executes a slow half turn away from the static partner. This has the effect of decreasing the sound volume of their maracas (i.e. increasing autonomy) over the first quarter turn; and then increasing the sound volume (i.e. decreasing autonomy) over the second quarter turn.

Some participants experienced a sensation of 'tension synchrony' as if they were pulling against elastic when they turned away, and the elastic tension dissolved when they turned back to their starting position.

Briefing: "what's autonomous?"
Participants where not clear on the property of autonomy. This was because the requirement for autonomy is fleeting with Exercise 3 when the designated partner turns away from the static partner, presenting her/his body as a sonic baffle. The presence of 'tension synchrony' may have masked the sense of autonomy. I had a more involved exercise which would clarify that...

Exercise 4: Side-by-side, facing the same direction, "turn-back-turn-front" cues
Paired practice. No music. Caribbean sway. "quick, quick, slowandslow". Son montuno maracas rhythm. Changing partners at each iteration. One partner designated static, the other moving.

With the "turn" cue, the designated participant executes a half turn on the spot, to face the opposite direction
With the "back" cue, the designated participant moves diagonally-forward into a back-to-back position with the static partner.
With the "turn" cue, the designated participant executes a half turn on the spot, to face the static partner's back.
With the "front" cue, the designated participant moves diagonally-forward to their original start position.

Autonomy is explored:
  • symmetrically after the "back" cue when both partners are unable to hear each other; and,
  • asymmetrically after the second "turn" cue when the static partner can hear the moving partner but not vice versa.

At the end of the session, participants felt that they:
  1. were playing more musically;
  2. understood each other's music-making personality better;
  3. were more capable of synchronising to others; and
  4. had greater autonomy and thus were less perturbable.
This session served as a taster in the delicate power possible when synchronous rhythm and autonomous rhythm are held in balance.

Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the outcomes in synchrony, autonomy and self-realisation were encouraging. I foresee that solares will adopt this tack for the next few weeks, so that the good work done so far does not go to waste.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Compression Hold

A weakness of the basic contredanse hold without pelvic contact between partners is exposed when the follower is led to move directly backward.

The only lead force in that direction comes from the picture arms (lead's left, follower's right) which, extended distally from the bodies, introduces a turning moment around the vertical axis of the spine.

An equilibriating moment cannot be provided by the enclosing arms unless:
  • the palms of both dancers are able to extend to the far side of their partner's spines;
  • the follower provides 'hand brake' resistance by pushing her left hand against the ventral face of the leader's right shoulder; or,
  • the partners to maintain contact along their embracing arms as a integrated member - follower's underside, leader's topside - using friction, and resolving the turning moment via core muscles of the abdomen.
These strategies are less than ideal because they rely on the follower's core muscles' ability to resist rotation. How much resistance is enough? How would the dancer distinguish between a turning moment as a by-product of the hold, or one actually intended as a lead-information, without prior knowledge of the intended choreography?

The Compression Hold
places the follower between two gentle and equal opposing forces so that no turning moment is created when led to move backwards. This is achieved through simple modifications to the contredanse hold.

From the lead's perspective:
  1. the palm and wrist of the picture (left) arm is oriented to the follower's spine on the vertical plane;
  2. the wrist of the enclosing (right) arm is placed on the point of the follower's torso such that the lead's left palm, the follower's spine, and the lead's right wrist lie on a straight line; and,
  3. a gentle force inward to the follower's spine (vertical turning axis) is applied from each wrist, thus placing the follower under compression.
From the follower's perspective:
  1. the palm and wrist of the picture (right) arm is toned to complete the compression frame, requiring a matched resistant force against the leader's inward-squeezing force.
The remainder of the session was spent assessing the effectiveness of compression hold in linear cardinal directions; and, in rotations of the partnered-frame where the vertical turning axis was located: mid-point between the partners, through the lead's spine, and through the follower's spine.

Loo Yen

The Infinity Engine

It's the first workshop of 2017 and Solares participants have officially surprised me.

I've never had the luxury of laying down such a comprehensive foundation before (three years in March) and there had been hints, through questions asked and connections made, that we were on the cusp of a critical advance.

Last night we began with a "slowandslow" warm-up; which functioned as a recap for those who had attended the week before, and a chance for me to bring those whom hadn't up to speed. By the third song, after some minor remediation of foot 'turnout' to free up the hips, everyone displayed a smooth rhythmic flowing joint cascade from ball of foot to hips.

I thought I'd 'risk it, biscuit'

The Infinity Engine
I paused the music and asked everyone to extend the joint cascade "upward to the floating ribs and across into the (solar) plexus".

Although bio-mechanically inaccurate since the floating ribs can't be articulated in a manner in-line with the cascade, the learning point still manages to encourage lateral movement of the torso using the lower back. The 'floating rib-plexus' learning point:
  • elevates the part of the body calibrated to the beat from the foot to the torso;
  • enables the torso's rhythmic articulation to function as the master clock, distributing timing to the extremities;
  • activates a kinaesthetic unit (i.e. torso) which is universal (i.e. involved in all movement activity) and congruent with the perceived seat of emotion (i.e. heart), laying the foundation for linking the feeling of movement with the feeling of emotion (i.e. how we move affects how we feel); and,
  • promotes earlier foot-placement in preparation for transfer of weight, subconsciously, rendering the dancer less perturbable to partner vibration due to the earlier traction event.
When the music resumed, I could see each and every one pulling the rhythm up from the floor like a long pair of socks, up to their ribs. A little learning intervention was involved where I performed the practice with each participant behind me, his/her palms pressed to either side of my rib cage.

As their lateral torso movement came under improved control, the rounded hip action (due to torque from the joint cascade) began filtering through. The result was a lower-torso or 'floating rib' action which described on the horizontal plane a symmetrical infinity symbol ∞. This was how it was described by one of the participants, and I think it's a snazzy description (for those with a maths/physics background) for the Cuban son engine.

At the end of the exercise, I asked for their feedback. It was seismic. Everyone felt a greater response to, and a heightened engagement with the music. Dancers whom considered themselves extremity-centric or internally silent discovered themselves transformed, alive with a new palpable feeling of rhythm at the centre of their being.

The big leap for me was that, in the past, I would have to teach the infinity engine deliberately; which was not always the best solution - the results would look forced, and it would always take more work to make it look natural. This route, with the right building blocks in place, resulted in the natural generation of the infinity engine. "At last!" I thought to myself.

The discussion bounced back and forth with passionate energy. One observed that the infinity engine was unforced compared to the rumba engine. Another wondered if her hips were moving too much. Then someone asked, "how do we translate Tuesdays (workshop material) into Saturdays (dance nights)?" There were nods of agreement.

Giddy with success, I risked another biscuit... (see following post)