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What are embellishments?
Embellishments are little flourishes that the follower does to decorate the steps that the leader gives her. In tango followers are always standing on one leg or the other, never both. The leg that the follower is standing on belongs to the leader. He put her there and it is her job to stay on it for as long as he wants her there. However, the free leg belongs to the follower and she can do whatever she wants with it as long as she is ready to step again when the leader proposes.
I like to put embellishments in 2 main categories: Stationary (ones are done during a pause) and Moving (ones that are done while moving though a step to accentuate the half beat). You could classify them further into subcategories of Rhythmic embellishments (staccato and sharp, good for faster rhythmic music) and Lyrical embellishments (slower and more flowing, good for slow dramatic music). There is perhaps another category of embellishment which some women are very good at, which is embellishments with the body (small movements of the chest, shoulder, etc.) instead of the feet and legs. These cannot be easily seen and are done just for the leader.
Why do embellishments?
Embellishments are good for ladies for many different reasons. First and most obvious is that embellishments are fun and look pretty. And everyone knows that ladies like to look pretty! They are also a way for the followers to express their musicality. A good follower never does an embellishment automatically but does one because she is inspired by the music and the man she is dancing with. If embellishments are done musically the leader can feel it in the follower's body and it makes a big difference the dance. Learning to do embellishments will help followers learn to hear the music. Learning them also helps the follower develop strong and fast legs and feet. If you can add an embellishment in the middle of a step still keep your timing and balance, then think of how easy that step will be for you if you don't do an embellishment!
How to do embellishments
When doing an embellishment always put energy down the entire leg all the ways to the tips of the toes. Often you will see followers doing embellishments with a 'loose leg' - i.e. the knee is bent when it should be straight, or the leg is energized but the foot is limp and un-poised. For stationary embellishments that are to be done with the foot touching the floor make sure you put energy down into the floor - which means light pressure. Don't let your foot dangle 1/2 an inch off the floor. Sometimes the foot doing the embellishment comes off the floor because the hip of the free leg is lifted. This will put you off balance as well as lift your foot, as the pelvis is heavy and a misalignment here will ruin your whole axis. Relax into your standing leg, settle your weight down though the hip over the standing leg and the hip over the free leg will naturally drop slightly. This will allow you to put your free foot down to the ground and make the embellishment happen there.
How NOT to do embellishments
One thing I can say is never do an embellishment half-heartedly or timidly. Following can become a too safe a place sometimes. When we just follow the leader we let him choreograph the entire dance and are afraid to put anything of ourselves out there. Don't be afraid - go for it. Do an embellishment and be proud of it, even if it doesn't come out perfectly. The only type of embellishment I think looks bad is the one that is tentative and hesitating. We ladies don't allow the men to be hesitating and unsure in their lead; don't be unsure in your dance either. Anything done with confidence and with the music is going to look great. It doesn't matter if your embellishments are imperfect -- do them with personality and gusto!
How do I find the time to do an embellishment?
Women in classes will often ask me how to find the time to do a particular embellishment, and there is one answer for this: PRACTICE. You have to try an embellishment many times before you get it right and are able to fit it smoothly into a space in the dance. First, practice it on your own. Hundreds of times. While listening to music. Then, try it when you are dancing with a guy. Do it with someone you feel comfortable with (you could even mention to him that you are trying something new). The first dozen times you do an embellishment it will probably be a bit bumpy. You may even mess up the next step or trip yourself - it's OK! When guys try new steps that they have learned on us it may be a little rough at first. We have to accept that we may make mistakes at first when trying an embellishment as well. Making mistakes is how we learn.
That said, once you become good at an embellishment it should no longer disrupt the lead in any way. You must always be ready to cut an embellishment short, even if you weren't 'finished' and move again. How do you tell when the leader is going to move again after a pause? You will be able to feel that the next step coming if you pay attention to the bodies of good leaders. Usually he will flex his knee slightly (or a lot) in preparation for the next step, or start to move his center forward. You should prepare with him, stop embellishing, and match his movement.
Sometimes leaders will wait for you to finish your embellishment before stepping again. Don't be greedy and bake a whole batch of cookies. Taking more than a couple of beats to do an embellishment looks fake and baroque and doesn't not flow with the music. Not to mention, you are stopping in the line of dance and may be causing a traffic jam behind you!
On the note of floor-craft, it is not only the leaders job to be aware of the surrounding space. The follower must also pay attention and never pick her feet high off the floor unless she is sure she is not going to stab anyone with her stilettos.
A small light tap is one of the easiest and most basic embellishments, and is a nice way for the follower to mark and express the double-time ('quick, quick') - or the 'and' count in between the beats - while the leader is leading a step on the whole beat ('slow'). A tap can be done in the middle of virtually any step - back, side, forward, ocho.
At the mid-point of the step, as your free foot brushes past your standing foot, tap your free foot against the ground. Do it with just the ball of the foot, with the foot tipped slightly towards the metatarsal/big toe edge (this poised foot placement is the common aesthetic of tango).
Make sure you still arrive into the next step led by the leader on the whole beat. Also be sure that after you tap you keep stretching your leg back straight into the next step. Do not undercut yourself and step shorter than the leader.
Tap right next to the standing foot.
Tap slightly to the side of the standing foot, with the knees still close together and the free leg slightly flexed and angled out from the knee down.
Tap further out to the side, with the free leg straight so the knees are further apart.
Tap with the heel instead of the toe, with your foot highly flexed.
Tap heavy into the ground with the emphasis on the downward strike.
Make the tap lighter, even letting it bounce up a little, with the emphasis on the 'up'. (Imagine that the ground is hot and you have to pull your foot away from it quickly to keep from burning it).
Try to make the move extra staccato and 'freeze' your foot for a moment in place as it taps. Hold your foot in the tap position for as long as possible before you need to move it again in order to arrive to the next beat on time.
If you are really fast, try doing a double tap in place between steps.
Exercises for Home
Walk forward and back towards and away from a mirror, with music, practicing the tap.
If you have space, walk backwards either counter-clockwise around a room or down a hallway with no obstacles, practicing the tap and making sure doing the tap does not make you change your proper posture and technique of taking back steps. Try it to slow music and to faster music. See how the music you are listening to might inform the movement your body produces.
Exercises for the Bus Stop or Grocery Line
Standing in place on one foot, tap the other foot next to it. Try doing it really fast, making sure your foot is poised. Try the different variations above, doing them repeatedly in place. Make sure your weight is settled down through your standing leg and the hip of the free leg is not lifted, but relaxed towards the floor.
Circles and Drawings
This is another very common and useful embellishment. You can draw circles on the floor with your free foot when ever the leader pauses. This is a stationary embellishment and can take one beat or many beats, depending on how long the leader stops, and can be combined with other embellishments.
When the leader pauses you on one foot (often times it will be the right foot), make sure your standing leg is straight and that you've settled your weight down through your hip. The hip over the free leg should be dropped very slightly towards the floor. Do not pull your weight up and keep this hip lifted. However, do keep your chest lifted and your center strong with your bellybutton towards your spine. This all will help with balance as you stay on one foot. Keep your weight slightly forward on the ball of your standing foot so that the leader can pivot you if he chooses and so you maintain connection.
Draw a circle on the floor with your metatarsal - the inside edge of the ball of your free foot. It is common for the circle to go counter-clockwise if you are drawing with your left foot and clock-wise if you are drawing with your right foot. But you could make the circle in either direction. Make sure you put energy down through the entire leg and foot and into the floor. Do not let the foot be limp as you draw. If there were no music, you would be able to hear the noise of the foot against the ground (unlike when you are walking, when your feet should skim the floor silently). Keep the knee facing forward; do not let the leg turn out like a ronde de jambe in ballet.
Make sure you are ready to step again even if you haven't completed the circle you are drawing. Often the leader with soften his knees and sink slightly (or a lot) before moving out of a pause. Soften your standing leg as well and prepare to step with him. You do not always have to collect your feet together again before stepping. You can step from the middle of the circle if necessary.
You can do the circle during a pause while you are on your axis, or when the leader takes you into a lean, or as he takes you into a calesita and pivots you around on your axis. You can also draw circles on the floor in front of you before you step across the leaders foot during a parada or forward ocho.
Circles are good for slow dramatic music, when the leader with likely pause more often. Try to make the circles flow with the melody of the music. If the leader adds short pauses while dancing to more rhythmic music make the circles sharper and to the beat of the music.
Make the circles medium sized; the upper leg remains fairly still, the circle happens from the knee down.
Make the circles large; this time the whole leg moves all the way from the hip socket. The leg is straight as it reaches out to the side, and then knee flexes as it passes underneath you past the standing leg.
Make the circles tiny; again these circles happen just from the knee down.
Combine circles of different sizes; make one large and then two tiny, etc.
Emphasis and Tempo:
Experiment with how you accent the movement, trying to put the emphasis on a strong beat or something you hear in the music.
As you draw on the floor, make your foot travel along the floor at the same speed all the way though the circle.
-Now start the circle with a burst of energy and then slow it down to finish.
Start the circle slowly and then finish with energy and emphasis.
-Usually the small circles look good fast and the large circles are better slow.
Combine circles of different sizes and speeds.
Using the whole straight leg from the hip socket make just a half circle arc, one way and then sweeping back the other.
-Flex your foot and draw the circles or arcs with the heel of your shoe. -Make other shapes besides circles; make a figure 8, or write your name in cursive. Write the leaders name if he pleases you...
Exercises for Home
Practice walking backwards - take one step back, pause and hold your balance, circle the free leg. Take another step, pause and circle the other leg. Repeat.
Exercises for the Bus Stop or Grocery Line
Stand on one leg and make circles with the other repeatedly. Try all the above variations. Practice until the circles always come out perfectly circular (instead of triangular or rectangular!) with either foot in both directions, especially when done really small and fast. See how fast you can make the circles.
Stand on one leg and cross the thigh of the free leg in front of the standing leg. Make small fast circles from the knee down with the toe of the free foot on the other side of the standing leg. (This can be done before stepping though during a parada or forward ocho.)