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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Embrace me like you really want to dance tango

Tango is music and we can dance to it, but without an embrace, I’m not dancing tango – I’m doing something else. I make my connection with the music, with my partner, with the floor through the embrace. It’s my medium of communication – I propose a movement to my partner, she responds, I follow – our bodies communicate this through the embrace. Of course, I’m talking close embrace, and when I’m in Buenos Aires in particular, that means chest to belly contact – then we dance as one.

Taking up the embrace with a new partner is a defining moment. I take up the embrace with very clear intent. I want my partner to know that I feel confident with her, to reassure her that I know how to dance well, that I will keep her safe as she is led into the unknown, to create a feeling of trust. At the same time, my partner will communicate a lot to me when she takes up my embrace: I will be able to sense her love of tango, the strength of her frame (if she presents a weak right arm, then the dance may be compromised immediately), her willingness to surrender (entregarse). We are exchanging knowledge about each other - a lot of information flows back and forth at that moment, and almost immediately we create expectations and sense how we are going to approach the dance.

With a good embrace, I can lead one step then pause - we are able to wait-feel-listen while being transported by the music. With a good embrace, I feel confident that we can improvise and navigate regardless of the crowd. With a good embrace there is an intimacy, with energy flowing continuously between my partner, me and the music. Only with a good embrace can I dance tango.

Much has been written about the embrace and the following quotes encapsulate its essence for me:

  • Mari in her tango diaries says: “Hold me like it’s personal”. She also writes about the ‘entrega’ mentioned above.
  • Stephanie in her blog writes: “the embrace is about who you are and your ability to communicate that to another”
  • Finally, Johanna in her blog ‘I’m so easy to please’ gets to the heart of the matter with a piece of fundamental advice: “Just embrace me like you mean it.”

And for those searching for the perfect embrace, a starting point could be the advice (at 2m30s) from one of our favourite couples, Melina & Detlef - men, give your partner a genuine hug, then take up her right hand.

Just do it.

So what do you want from the embrace?


Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Advice to tangueras

In a previous post I praised the tangueras who are patient and taking a long-term view of tango, as a way of cultivating a strong pool of male dancers in their community. Remembering, of course, that the ladies also have to work hard on their own skills, too, so that the dance will be mutually enjoyable.

As well as those all important techniques to develop, tangueras have so many other things things on their minds, such as How to get more dances at a milonga; What is their role in a dance which appears to be male-dominated; and dare I say it, What to wear?

Tangocherie and Maleva share their thoughts, often quite humorously, on these and other tango topics. So why should I reinvent the wheel, when their advice is gold? Thanks Keith Elshaw, for your thoughts, too!

The lady's role is a significant one in what appears to be a male-dominated dance:
There are certainly some effective ways to present yourself at a milonga, and there are some others which I would not recommend. Take a look:
What do you think?
Feel free to share any favourite links on these topics.


Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Tangueras investing in the long term

Let's face it, men take a lead role in this improvised partner dance. As a consequence, they have to master a lot of skills before they can begin to dance with confidence and improvise effectively. In broad terms, they must develop a high level of body awareness & control, navigational skills and musicality - not something you pick up in just a few lessons. The men who achieve this are focussed and determined.

Despite this, there are women in the tango scene who are heard to complain that they ....
  • want to dance more often at milongas, and preferably with the more experienced dancers, or
  • expect their partners to employ a variety of showy figures to make their dance more enjoyable, or
  • only enjoy dancing with men who lead well and respond sensitively to the music.

Men, on the other hand, are known to lament that they ....

  • fear that their dance partners will become bored with their limited repertoire of figures, or
  • lack the confidence to dance in the milonga, because of the challenges of navigation and being watched by others, or
  • need their partners to be more balanced, controlled and patient, rather than anticipating.

Sound familiar? Does this apply to your tango community?

Speaking from a woman's perspective, I'd like to think that wise tangueras are patient - they are, after all, mostly in it for the long haul. They know that a leader needs a lot of time and practice to develop funfamental skills, as well as the confidence to dance well with them in the milonga. They also realise that their own road is a long one too. For a woman in tango, responding with sensitivity, good musicality, skill and confidence requires hours of focussed practice as well.

Basically, these ladies understand that it's vital to learn to walk before trying to run. So they don't expect to be entertained with elaborate performance figures. They have long since realised that trying get them to jump through these hoops will only lead men to throwing in the towel altogether (and where would that leave the ladies?), or see them wrestling with those figures (and their partners) because they lack the necessary foundations.

On closer inspection, those patient and wise tangueras need not be the selfless creatures they seem. They're strategic & far-sighted, and are working towards developing the local pool of competent and confident male dancers, who will bring them hours of pleasure on the dance-floor for years to come.


Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Stories from the barrio

A while ago, some rousing music by Anibal Troilo was playing at a milonga, when an argentine fellow asked if I knew what the tango was about. He'd grown up with tangos playing at home, so he knew all the words. This piece was called Una Carta (a letter). At that stage my Spanish was not good enough to understand the lyrics, so he enlightened me: A man is writing to his mother from prison, asking if it's true that his wife has found another man. Only then did I understand the energy in the music. It reflected his frustration, pain and anger. Since then, dancing to this tango has been a totally different experience for me.

And so it is with other tangos, valses and milongas. Fundamentally, most are stories set in a working class background. Often the poetry of the letras (lyrics) is exquisite and multi-layered. On top of that, the emotional impact of their universal themes is amplified by superb singers and the music played by great tango orchestras. So nowadays I make a point of finding out the meaning of my favourites. To help with this, there are even a few websites with some translations in English.

Here are a few gems to read, listen to and view:

In Al Compas de un tango the singer wisely advises us to go dancing in the milonga in order to forget the painful demise of a relationship (Note how the two singers evoke somewhat different feelings), while El encopao seeks solace in the bottle. Some pitfalls of machismo feature in Gloria and Patotero sentimental (I found a stunning video of this one, too). Suerte loca deals with gambling, while Volver and Adios arrabal remind us of the powerful influence of one's past.

Do you listen to the lyrics? What are your favourites?


Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Short tango films

Tango music and dance have featured in many movies – sometimes as the major focus, e.g The Tango Lesson, Tango (Saura), Tango Bar, or as a strong thread, e.g. Assassination Tango, or incidentally as in Scent of a Woman, Volver, Frida.

Short tango movies, however, tend to make the dance the core of their stories; they’re made by professional groups, film students, animators, and many others with an interest in tango & with a camera in hand. There’s certainly a range of quality to be found on the internet, but there are some gems, covering a range of genres – documentary, drama, comedy.

La Apertura (22.11m) is a drama with Miguel Angel Zotto playing a cameo role as the boss of the tango show.

Lonely Woman Dances Tango (5.31m) – a woman’s fantasy through tango.

Perdizione Tango - La Historia De Un Ciruja (4.23m). You may remember ‘Perdizione’ which came out a few years ago, sometimes referred to as ‘supermarket’ tango. Only the trailer is now left on Youtube, but this is a spoof on the original – but with better tango technique.

En Tus Brazos (In Your Arms) (5.20m) also came out a few years ago, and is an excellent piece of animation; it carries with it a beautiful tale of love, fantasy, and tango.

New York Tango Film (8.55m) In documentary style, it shows a broad variety of every day "milongas" throughout Manhattan in unusual locations.

… and finally, a bit of comedy as well-known BsAs dancer & teacher Eduardo Saucedo hams it up in Milonga de mis amores (1.53m)

There are many more, but the quality starts to fall away, but if you add a comment to this blog and ask for more, I’ll email a list through to you.


Monday, 26 October 2009

Códigos de la milonga (milonga etiquette) - Have your say #8!

We thought we had exhausted the possible topics for this quiz, but now there are more! As in other aspects of life, tango continues to present us all with challenges. We're sure you'll recognise these situations.

Scenario 25
A fairly experienced male dancer invites quite an inexperienced lady to dance at a milonga. On the dance-floor he should:
  1. while dancing, lead her through the full range of tango figures he knows, thus giving her a sample of things to come in her tango life.
  2. start with walking and very simple figures, always remaining within a range which is comfortable and enjoyable for her.
  3. explain to her how to execute the movements he is leading as they dance, so she understands what to do.

Scenario 26
It's fairly indisputable that a DJ's role at the milonga is to provide music so that people can dance tango. A milonga convention is that the music is usually presented in brackets of 3 - 5 pieces of tango, vals or milonga (tandas) separated by a short segment of non-tango music (cortina). Should the DJ:
  1. present a range of non-tango, but danceable music to cater for the diverse tastes of the people attending the milonga?
  2. present pieces from his/her extensive library of music which aren't very popular or the most danceable, but are interesting and different?
  3. play only music which really summons dancers to the floor and is accessible for most levels of tango experience?
  4. play a somewhat educative role in his/her tango community by gradually exposing dancers to the common body of great tango music played internationally at milongas?
  5. at a milonga accept without notice, requests to play certain music without a chance to pre-listen?
What do you think?

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Musicality of The Last Compadrito

Maybe it's the Buenos Aires withdrawal symptoms, but today I found myself dipping back into Rick McGarrey & Alejandra Todaro's fabulous Tango & Chaos in BsAs website. There's a feast of anecdotes, advice and general musing. Being a visual person, I was drawn to the videos again - just to re-visit some of those traditional milongas where the music is consistently excellent and the dancing ..... well you know what I mean ...

Despite the lure of the visual, it was the affectionately told stories framing the video clips of the late Ricardo Vidort which especially stayed with me. Those tantalising glimpses of the fast-disappearing milonguero sub-culture are the stuff of tango social history ..... and the videos of him dancing socially, including one clip showing him with his old chum Osvaldo Cartery, are an absolute delight. Milongueros dancing together at a milonga is an extremely rare sight indeed, but as young men, Osvaldo learned to dance tango with Ricardo leading, being the older male.

Vidort was a master of playful musicality. According to McGarrey, the milongueros used to play a game where the first one who danced outside the compas (the music) would have to buy his mates champagne. Apparently Vidort never had to open his wallet!

"When you dance tango, you must give everything.
If you cannot do that, do not dance." Ricardo Vidort


Friday, 2 October 2009

Why do we dance tango?

Yesterday, UNESCO declared tango - the music and dance from Buenos Aires and Montevideo - a world cultural treasure. (The fact that this declaration took place in Abu Dhabi seems to me somewhat incongruous considering the nature of the dance - but that's another story.) Such recognition would appear to be good for tango in its countries of origin, as well as strengthening it internationally.

Interestingly, according to the Guardian, fears about unintended detrimental consequences of tango's international popularity had spurred Argentina and Uruguay to lodge a joint application to UNESCO: As it swells into a global phenomenon, Argentina and Uruguay want to keep its roots intact.

I have often reflected upon why so many of us dance tango, even though we have no previous link to the region or culture. (By the way, if in any doubt about the global spread of tango, just take a quick look at websites such as Torito.) In the current edition of El Tanguata, Milena Plebs gives her view:
The answer is the same everywhere I go: the embrace, the contact, the encounter. Being able to return to the feminine and masculine roles, which have been so blurred these last decades due to women's liberation, technological and industrial advances, and isolation. Tango, on the other hand, is a connection to the crude reality, it's a body-to-body encounter, it's feeling the other person's energy.

What do you think? Why do you dance tango?

Plebs also makes some interesting observations about the importance of rescuing the tradition.


Saturday, 26 September 2009

BsAs milonga observations

For any tanguero planning to travel to BsAs or simply interested in tango culture, we thought the following might be of interest:
  • We were told that attendances at milongas were down, but that only seems to be the case at milongas relying on tourists to bolster their numbers, where the world economic crisis, swine flu and winter seem to have taken their toll. As a result some milongas have been suspended. One might also speculate whether too many tourists lacking necessary navigation skills have driven locals away from some venues. Having said that, a local said recently how impressed he was with the dancing skills of many foreigners in the last few years.

  • Milongas requiring a high standard of skills such as Cachirulo, Lujos (Maipù 444), La Baldosa and Sin Rumbo are as busy as ever, despite the increase in entrance fees.

  • If attending a milonga as a single, being seated in a good location (making the cabeceo easy) by the organiser, will largely depend on how frequently you go to the milonga. Regulars get seats automatically reserved in prime locations. So persistence is required to work your way up the pecking order.

  • Another benefit of frequent attendance is becoming known by the other regulars. This means that more eyes will be looking your way for a dance.

  • Generally it helps to attend milongas early, if you are not a regular. This gives you the chance to get a reasonable seat, the dance-floor is not yet so congested, so others can actually see that you are competent dancer and therefore worth dancing with.

  • Lighting is generally much brighter than in Australian milongas. But at El Beso (Riobamba 416), the dim lighting and crowded seating add further dimensions to the cabeceo challenge. Even those of us with keen eyesight experience uncertainty. Was it me he was looking at? Can she see me looking her way?

  • Waiting staff at these milongas deserve recognition, too. They are an important part of the scene. Once they get to know you, they treat you like royalty.

  • El Arranque (especially on Tuesday) is a well-attended matinee milonga for locals attending as singles.

  • Some traditional milongas are largely for couples and groups, such as La Baldosa, Circulo Trovador and Sin Rumbo, have a more relaxed and uncompetitive feel.

  • A couple of years ago we were delighted that smoking had been banned from BsAs milongas, as well as restaurants, cafes, etc. But we were in for a rude shock, last Friday at Circulo Trovador, a very popular milonga just outside the city limits. It appears that the law only applies to the City of Bs As and not the provincia.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Anecdotes from Buenos Aires #1

Buenos Aires feels like a home away from home after 10 years of coming here, and each year brings new impressions:
  • the most striking difference has been the state of the footpaths - their comparative cleanliness leaps out immediately. Less litter, and more importantly, many dog owners are cleaning up after their pets; this hasn´t followed some regulation or advertising campaign, but rather remarkably, decisions made by individuals. It´s quite a treat to walk without having eyes glued to the footpath!

  • we chose this earlier time in the year to avoid the hot, humid weather that can come in by late October, and apart from a first day of 34C, it´s been mid-teens with the occasional rain; much better for getting around, and dancing, of course.

  • prices are generally up, some significantly, but not all. For example, the subway has increased from 70 centavos to 90 & now 1.10 over the past 2 years; clothes & shoes are still cheap for us - even though shoes are 50% dearer than 2 years ago, our dollar is stronger by 50%; taxis are cheap; CDs the same price (around $8 -$10); food approaching Adelaide prices in some cases, with coffee between 7 and 12 pesos ($1 = 3pesos); tango lessons up by about 50% in one year.

  • money: we´ve had no trouble getting 800 pesos out of ATMs now, in contrast to previous years when the limit was usually 300! And people don´t blink anymore if you hand over 100 peso to cafes & shops notes now.

  • politics in Argentina changes little with regular scandals & rallies in the streets, while the government is trying to give an impression of more transparancy by opening the Casa Rosada for tours all weekend, and dedicating one room to prominent Argentine women.

  • some milongas change, others remain their successful selves, but the DJs at all we have attended have been great. Entry is now 15 pesos. The afternoon milongas like El Arranque & Confiteria Ideal, which have catered for the more mature locals for a long time, are now much quieter, while Maipu 444 is full almost every night of the week with good dancers of all ages, both local & foreign. However, there was an interesting touch at Cachirulo last Saturday when Argentina played football against arch-rival Brazil. The TV was on at one end of the room, with a small group of men crowded around while the milonga carried on; even some of the dancers had their eyes on the screen as they danced past. (By the way, Brazil won 3:1, much to the dismay of the locals.) Canning on Sunday is a largely local affair, and it was shoulder-to-shoulder dancing; not much room for anything significant, but a great test of navigation while moving to the music. Sin Rumbo probably hasn´t changed much in its 40 year history, but it was busier than last year; this is a very traditional milonga that draws dancers from its local suburb - where friends meet to talk, listen, watch, and dance. Aurora Lubiz learned to dance tango here, so she was a good person to have as our companion last Friday.

  • speaking of Aurora, she is now with a handsome Brazilian, Luciano, and they dance beautifully together; they also teach together both in BsAs & in Rio, so it was great to pick up lots from them during private lessons & the women´s technique classes at the Escuela Argentina del Tango.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Tale of Two Cities & the Cabeceo

There’s been a lot of discussion generated by our milonga codes quiz, particularly the place of the cabeceo. As an exclusive interaction, the question has been rightly asked, “what about couples?” The way we attend milongas in Buenos Aires illustrates one part of the story.

Some Buenos Aires milongas are primarily for couples – Sunderland & Sin Rumbo, for example – so we enter together, sit together, dance together, and we don’t expect to encounter the cabeceo. Nor do we seek it out. The only exception would be where we already know, or are introduced, to other dancers; in this case, approaching the table, seeking the man’s approval, and inviting the woman to dance is the norm. The cabeceo, in fact, protects the couple, because single men will not approach a couple and will use the cabeceo only with unaccompanied ladies who indicate they are available to dance.

Other milongas are largely for “singles” – eg. Lo de Celia & El Beso - and the cabeceo is used almost exclusively, even between people who know each other (and may even be a couple in other circumstances), but are sitting in separate sections of the milonga. Again, the couples seated together won’t be bothered by the cabeceo. So a couple would need to have a mutual understanding about whether they planned to dance with others at that function before arriving at the milonga, as this would determine how they entered the milonga and whether they sat together or separately.

In all milongas there will also be groups of friends – couples & singles – sitting together, and invitations to dance would normally occur informally within the group. In Buenos Aires, the cabeceo is the communication tool primarily used by available “singles” for connecting from a distance with other available “singles” to dance a tanda.

By encouraging the cabeceo in Adelaide, we have tried to introduce a little more of the Buenos Aires culture to Oz. In our local tango scene, the custom of the cabeceo is less well-developed, but nevertheless used effectively by a number of tangueros and tangueras in order to dance with others. And while the reasons for using the cabeceo are fundamentally no different to those in Buenos Aires, this strategy is seen by many who employ it here in Adelaide, as an additional light-hearted and fun element at the milonga.

However, most of the dancers in the local community know one another and may consider the cabeceo unnecessary, others may feel a bit uncomfortable about seeking dances by eye contact, while others simply have no knowledge of it. An added complication is that, unlike Buenos Aires, we don’t use segregated seating in the milongas ie. no separate areas for single females, single males and couples & groups. Hence, it’s likely that a variety of approaches will be seen as acceptable – including the direct style of personally inviting a lady to dance. Regardless of the strategy, the interaction should of course, be based on sensitivity to others.

A couple can decide to dance just together, but it’s always possible that someone may attempt to intrude on that understanding – so, if used well, the cabeceo can provide a protective zone around the couple. However, despite sitting together, it’s not unusual for couples in Adelaide to have a simple understanding that they will use the cabeceo to seek out other dance partners during the milonga.

Wherever you may dance tango, there’s merit in knowing how to use the cabeceo and feel confident with it. You may not choose to use it all the time, or even at all. But be aware that in other cities, it may be the only way of getting a dance.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Códigos de la milonga (milonga etiquette) - Have your say #7!

Well, here's the last stage of the códigos quiz - unless of course, some other juicy scenarios are brought to our attention by observers of milonga etiquette! All in all, they are about simple good manners and respect for your partner & other couples. But they also reflect the behaviours that are the norm in the traditional milongas of Buenos Aires. Take care in BsAs, because the dancer who doesn't stick to them closely is simply regarded as a 'beginner' by locals. On the other hand, to be observed respecting the codes can bring accolades such as, 'you're not seen as a gringo in this milonga'.

So here they are:
Scenario #21
There’s a group of friends, not all couples, sharing a table at a milonga. They’ve heard a lot about the cabeceo code. Yes or no to the following:
  1. The only way they are going to dance with each other is if they use silent eye contact
  2. A lady says, “I love this piece of music, let’s dance Dave”.
  3. A man simply asks the lady next to him whether she’d like to dance.
  4. The friends are obliged to only dance with those at their table.
  5. It’s O.K. to seek a dance with someone sitting across the room using the cabeceo.
Scenario #22
A couple is following the line of dance, and occasionally moves into a vacant space closer to the centre to execute a turn, before returning into their ‘lane’. The couple behind should:
  1. Wait for them to move to the vacant space again, and pass them on the outside.
  2. Restrict the amount of room for them to return to the line of dance in order to ‘give them a message’.
  3. Pick up on their dance style & timing and blend in with their movement, while remaining behind.
  4. Speak to them in a break in the music, asking them to dance in one lane or the other.
Scenario #23
A couple agree to dance using the cabeceo. Yes or no that the woman should:
  1. Rush onto the dance floor and meet her partner half-way.
  2. Wait until he comes to her table, stand up, and go onto the dance floor with him.
  3. Once on the dance floor, put her hands out & up to shoulder level, waiting for the embrac.e
  4. Once on the dance floor, wait for the man to invite her into his embrace.
Scenario #24:
A man wants to dance with a particular lady. He should:
  1. Walk straight across the room, put out his hand, and ask her to dance.
  2. Employ the ‘cabeceo’ – actively try to catch her eye, and if she responds, invite her to dance with a small head movement.
  3. Strike up a conversation with her, and after a while, ask her to dance.
  4. Stand up, attract the woman’s attention, and casually call her over to dance with a ‘come here’ move of his finger.
What do you think?

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Every tanguera's (not so secret) desire

Once upon a time at a milonga not so far away, began a tanda of intense Pugliese tangos.

She casually looked around, and to her delight he was waiting to catch her eye. As he took her in his arms, she felt that this might become one of those delicious tango experiences. His embrace told her he knew how to dance tango, including how to look after a partner (who would be dancing backwards into the unknown for the next 12 minutes). A wave of complete trust swept over her. After the first few bars, she felt herself surrendering to the emotion of the music. And so, they let themselves be transported by the magic that is tango.

But her bliss was to be short-lived ...

Towards the end of Gallo ciego, he took swift evasive action to prevent a collision when the couple in front of them abruptly starting moving backwards against the line of dance. "Never mind" she thought, "there's more good music to come."

Resuming the embrace, their smiles expressed an unspoken understanding that the rest of the tanda would be better. Yet having travelled just half-way around the floor, an elbow jabbed her in the ribs, as the couple alongside them unexpectedly executed a large dramatic figure, somewhat akin to an aggressive martial art move. He held her closer and checked she was OK, feeling guilty he had been powerless to protect her from such thoughtless behaviour.

Dismissing the disturbance, they continued to dance, and gradually re-immersed themselves in the beauty and challenge of Pugliese. Dancing as one, they lost sight of their day-to-day concerns, gradually making their way along the perimeter of the pista (dance-floor) in the line of dance - he, ever vigilant for "loose cannons". She felt herself entering that elusive tango trance.

That night, the DJ had been playing tandas consisting of 4 tangos. And too soon, they realised they had only one tango left to enjoy together. So for that very special piece which the DJ had reserved till last, as they danced, they bared their souls.

Thud! Completely shaken, they recovered and realised what had happened. Another couple had been sitting out the tanda, but had made a last minute decision to take advantage of that final Pugliese tango. Hastily making their way onto the pista, they had caused that ugly collision.

Apologies were profferred and accepted, but it was all too late. The spell was well and truly broken. As he escorted her back to her table, disappointed and deflated, they both silently reflected on what could have been.

Postscript: "Nothing can be done about these problems of the dance-floor. It comes with the territory. We just have to live with it." you may be thinking.
But just a minute - there is another way. Interested? Take a look at some of the strategies suggested by Tom Stermitz and published on

Postpostscript: Click here for a few of videos of normal people navigating around the pistas in Buenos Aires: Porteno y bailarin, El Beso & Nino bien
Enjoy your dancing,

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Los cantores de Carlos Di Sarli

Occasionally a strange story does the rounds that traditionally, singers should not feature in the music played at a milonga, ie. that the DJ should play only instrumentals. It probably originated from, and was confused with, the reluctance of porteños to dance to recordings of the legendary singer Carlos Gardel, out of respect for him and his untimely death. Certainly the great tango orchestras who used to play nightly for the dancers in the milongas of Buenos Aires had no problem including singers – Famá (Canaro), Campos & Castillo (Tanturi), Vargas (D’Agostino), Maure (D’Arienzo), to name just a few.

At this year’s Sydney International Tango Festival, Pat realised, after DJ-ing the Saturday milonga, that most of her selection involved singers – not deliberate, but just the way she had charted the moods & energies of the evening. Yet, the music received rave reviews, including from BsAs choreographer, Mario Morales. Could it have been that it was the frequent use of singers that enhanced the tango experience for the dancers?

I’m particularly taken with the singers that accompanied Carlos Di Sarli in the 1940s & 50s – somehow he managed to assemble a stable of consistently high quality male singers. When they sing, they often tug at the heart-strings, bringing out the romantic in me – something that allows the music to take over the dance.

Make your own judgment by listening to these five singers:
Alberto Podestá singing Nada in 1942 (he’s still performing in Buenos Aires), Roberto Rufino - Anselmo Acuña el Resero (1943), Jorge Duran - Tu Intimo Secreto ( 1945), Mario Pomar - Bailemos (1955), Roberto Florio - Porque regresas tú (1956)
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a recording by Horacio Casares on the internet, so at your next milonga, you might want to put in a request for ‘Hasta siempre amor’ (1958, among the last of Di Sarli’s recordings).

Music with these singers is also popular in dance performance, and in my opinion, the following interpretations capture the essence of dancing to Di Sarli:
Ney Melo & Jennifer Bratt - Nido Gaucho (Podestá)
Milena Plebs y José Almar - Un tango y nada mas. (Duran)
Marcela Guevara Y Stefano Giudice - Y todavia te quiero (Florio)
And those masters of control - Melina Sedo & Detlef Engel dance to Tormenta (Pomar)
Finally, because I couldn’t find a tango performance to my liking with Rufino, here are those wonderful world champions Daniel Nacucchio & Cristina Sosa dancing one of his milongas – Pena Mulata


Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Códigos de la milonga (milonga etiquette) - Have your say #6!

The material for these quizzes has come from our observation & experience both locally & elswhere, and from people talking to us about their own experiences. Sometimes the after-class pub-talk has turned to questions about the codes in the milongas of Buenos Aires, and at other times complaints about some behaviours in our local milongas.

It was out of one of these discussions that someone suggested some sort of quiz as a light-hearted way of educating dancers. We already had a ready reference in Gustavo Benzecry-Saba's book La pista del abrazo (English version: Embracing tango)which we got from him a couple of years ago.

And the result? Some people have been amused by some of the scenarios & responses, a few have engaged in the on-line debate, while others struggle with how the codes fit with our local cultural norms. We have certainly noticed a distinct change in the observance of the codes at local milongas - due also, no doubt, to the emphasis local teachers are placing on them.

So here are a few more real situations. As always, feel free to add your opinions:

Scenario #18:
Two people are in earnest conversation, and a man approaches, wanting to dance with the woman. She should:
  1. Ignore him until he goes away.
  2. After a short time, acknowledge that he’s there, and continue the conversation.
  3. Stop the conversation and get up immediately to dance.
  4. In a break in the conversation, give him some attention, but refuse the invitation because she’s tied up at the moment.

Scenario #19
The leader stops dancing, twists his follower backwards, waits, then says, Gancho, gancho! She should:

  1. Ignore him and wait for him to continue dancing.
  2. Ask him to lead it properly next time.
  3. Tell him that a gancho is inappropriate for a woman like herself in her middle years.
  4. Execute a gancho as best she can under the circumstances, regardless of how she looks.
Scenario #20:
A beginner male leader is unsure whether to limit his dancing to beginner females or to invite experienced followers to dance. He should:
  1. Stick to the beginners until he’s put in the hard work to improve his dancing to merit dancing with experienced women.
  2. Ask experienced women anyway – it’ll be good to challenge his dancing, and he might pick up a few tips.
  3. Any women can be available partners at a practica, but at a milonga, he should leave the experienced women to the leaders who can dance well.
  4. Use the cabeceo – if the experienced women want to make themselves available to him, they’ll make it obvious.
Well, what do you think?

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Dancing to the music - Poema: a case in point

A Youtube search for Poema will reveal countless dance interpretations of this much-loved, romantic tango by Francisco Canaro & Roberto Maida. A nice story I once heard, was that other orchestras didn't try to record Poema after Canaro nailed it, simply because of its perfection. But I'm sure the following more mundane explanation for the absence of other versions is closer to the truth. Carlos Puente of the Buenos Aires Tango Club set me straight one day when he explained it was all to do with commercial imperatives. Put simply, the recording companies determined what was to be put on disc and what wasn't. However, I reckon perfection still figures in there somewhere, because tangueros of all ages love to dance to it!

Watching the popular couple Coca & Osvaldo Cartery dance to it a few years ago in the milonga La Nacional genuinely brought tears to my eyes. For me it's a tango begging to be danced with love, even if it is for an audience. Alongside the typical strong Canaro rhythms, at various points Maida's voice and the violin demand a "gentle" approach - advance & suspension, light & shade.

Performances for an audience, although a form of entertainment, need to do justice to the music and its moods, too. This principle shouldn't just apply to social dancing. For my tastes, some performers stretch the idea of entertainment a little too far, where their skillful moves begin to look somewhat gratuitous and incongruous, some might even say gimmicky. But instead of focussing on what I don't like, here are a few favourites of mine:

Just came across another blog comparing 11 "Poemas". What are your favourites?


Thursday, 11 June 2009

Códigos de la milonga (milonga etiquette) - Have your say #5!

The debate continues worldwide over milonga codes, particularly the use of the cabeceo. In some countries, and some cities in Australia, the cabeceo is almost non-existent, making it harder for out-of-towners to get dances. Some would argue that it is an anachronism - with no part to play in modern societies, while others talk about it protecting dancers from unwelcome partners or from music they don't want to dance to.
However, we don't hear much dispute about the importance of codes like keeping the line-of-dance, leading & executing figures which are safe in the circumstances, and treating partners with respect. These are all about ensuring that everyone at the milonga has a chance to enjoy the dance.
Scenario #15:
A woman approaches a man to ask him to dance. He should:
  1. Accept, even if he doesn’t want to, and dance the tanda with little connection.
  2. Politely decline, because, in truth, the music isn’t the type he can connect with.
  3. Accept, make the best of the music & partner, and strike up a light discussion about the fun & value of the ‘cabeceo’ at the end of the tanda.
  4. As soon as he spots her coming, dash into the toilet.
Scenario #16:
A man is leading large open figures which take up a lot of space, intruding into the line of dance, and encouraging his partner to execute moves which are dangerous to other couples. Another couple should:
  1. Put up with it and keep well out of their way
  2. Approach the couple in a break in the music and suggest they dance in the middle, not in the dance lanes
  3. Speak to the milonga organiser and point out that their dancing is affecting other couples negatively
  4. Try doing the same, since the other couple seems to be having fun dancing this way.
Scenario #17:
A woman is being taught on the dance floor during a milonga because she’s apparently not following what her partner wants her to do, and she doesn’t appreciate it. She should:
  1. At the next break in the music, suggest to the leader that he find someone who already knows what he wants, thank him, and return to her seat.
  2. Tell the leader that she’s simply following what he appears to be leading.
  3. Put up with it for the tanda, but make a mental note not to dance with him again.
  4. Tell him that she isn’t able to concentrate on following while he insists on talking.
What would you do?

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

What can we learn from performances?

Obviously it depends on who's performing, but it also depends on what we're looking for.

Geraldine Rojas and the late Carlos Gavito gave one of those unique and "I wish I'd been there" performances a few years ago. Carlos illustrated his mantra "less is more" - that passion, timing, and giving time for his partner to improvise was far more important than what he once referred to as 'dancing like a bunch of washing machines". Geraldine shows her clear joy at dancing with one of tango's greats, but it didn't get in the way of her demonstrating her exquisite skills that complemented her partner's intensity. What can I learn from this piece? Aim to evoke sensuality from the dance and focus on musicality - but that'll mean keeping it simple.

And two dancers who do keep it relatively simple are Sebastian Achaval & Roxanna Suarez while performing this great De Angelis piece; note the word relatively. Mind you, their turns are brilliant - no chance of emulating that - but they otherwise dance small figures that would be familiar to many intermediate dancers. So what puts them on quite a different plane? Their execution is precise, balanced, and grounded for a start. Now add a generous layer of timing while they expertly link their figures seamlessly. And finally, as with the other couple, their musicality - the dance reflecting the moods & changing rhythms of the music. Again, I learned more about timing & musicality, but there's no short cut to the hours of constant practice that needs to go into it.


Monday, 18 May 2009

Códigos de la milonga (milonga etiquette) - Have your say #4!

While watching dancers at Comme il faut on Sunday, we noticed how well the milonga codes were being observed - great line of dance, invitations across the room largely using the cabeceo ... while still appreciating the appropriateness of directly asking friends to dance. One male dancer commented about the overall calmness of the evening and respect for other dancers. The codes, after all, are intended to enhance the comfort and enjoyment of everyone at the milonga

Here are a few more scenarios that are encountered now and again at milongas. How would you recommend navigating around these tricky situations?

Scenario #12

You arrive at a milonga/practica, and sit on your own. After a while, with no offers, you notice one of your regular lesson partners is free. Do you:

1. Try to catch his eye, then move toward him if he acknowledges.
2. Immediately approach him, and ask for a dance before he shoots off again.
3. Though you do wish to dance with him, simply wait for him to manage the whole thing
4. Wait for him to approach you, and if he doesn’t, give him a hard time at the end of the milonga for not dancing with you.

Scenario #13

A woman is executing flamboyant and dangerous figures and decorations which her partner has not led. Despite his attempts to contain her movements, she manages to injure another dancer with her stiletto. What’s appropriate?

1. He should apologise profusely to the injured dancer.
2. She should save her showy moves for performances rather than the milonga.
3. They should simply carry on dancing, since this is one of the hazards of the dance-floor.
4. The injured dancer should have been more observant and avoided her, so is partly to blame.
5. The man will be more judicious in his choice of dance partners in future.

Scenario #14

Despite wanting to dance with a range of partners at a milonga, a woman is being invited to dance repeatedly by one man, resulting in her being unavailable to dance with others. When he begins approaching to ask again she should:

1. Politely accept the man’s invitation, believing it would be rude to refuse.
2. Use her body language to indicate discreetly to him that she is unavailable to dance with him and employ the cabeceo to encourage invitations from other dancers.
3. Politely decline the invitation using an excuse, such as tiredness.
4. Tell him, in no uncertain terms, to leave her in peace.

You can say you think by adding a comment.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Cracking the code of the music

Some people like to start dancing each tango (vals or milonga) as soon as possible. "We're here to dance, so let's make the most of it." But I 'm rather fond of the old tradition of not dancing the moment the music starts. And I'm finding that the more I get to know the music, the more I like to tune in to the opening phrases - somewhat like savouring an appetiser before the main course.

Certainly the music of the Golden Age of tango isn't anywhere near as complex as that of the genius Astor Piazzolla. The rhythms and patterns are more predictable, so social dancers can easily connect and respond to them. Yet the great musicians of that era were no slouches. The large number of dancers at that time had very high expectations. So in the first 10 - 20 seconds of a piece, the artistry of the arrangement and brilliance of the musicians were able to create the mood for the dance. This is the time for the body to absorb the music, indeed surrender to it. And later, when the singer comes in, especially if you understand some of the lyrics, that's another treat! (Sometimes I get goose-bumps.)

Those interested in music could easily spend an hour or two on Rick McGarrey's brilliant website where he looks at some fabulous pieces of tango music in Cracking the code. It will feel like peeling away the many layers of an onion - tears and all! After this, Golden Age tango music will never seem the same.


Sunday, 26 April 2009

Códigos de la milonga (milonga etiquette) – Have your say! #3

It's fair to say that if rules, regulations, codes no longer have a practical purpose, then perhaps they should be allowed to die. The milonga codes developed gradually over a significant period of time, in response to local conditions in Buenos Aires, in order to help make the milonga experience enjoyable for everyone. How relevant are they to our local setting, in this day and age, one might ask?

Interestingly, much of the material for this series of postings on codes has come from talking to Adelaide tango dancers over a drink, listening to their stories, and sharing our experiences as they seek answers to dilemmas on the local dance-floor. You are invited to forward a comment to any of these (see the bottom of the post) and to send in other milonga scenarios that you'd like raised.
Scenario #6
A woman likes the concept of the cabeceo, but is not sure how to use it without feeling uncomfortable. Music is playing which she wants to dance to.
  1. She should simply stare at the man she wants to dance with.
  2. She should chat with the person next to her and hope he will ask her to dance.
  3. She should chat casually with her neighbour, but also look around from time to time to indicate her interest in dancing.
  4. She should scan the milonga in the direction of the man/men she is interested in dancing with. If he wants to dance with her, he’ll be doing the same. He catches her eye, tilts his head in invitation, she indicates agreement, he approaches her.

Scenario #7
A couple has danced the first track of a tanda and the second track has just started:
  1. The woman should raise her hands, ready to take the embrace.
  2. The couple should continue chatting, and get the "feeling" of the music, developing a mood and attitude towards the particular melody that’s just started to play.
  3. The man should immediately take up the embrace and start dancing.
  4. The couple should continue chatting, engaging in quite an interesting, in-depth topic, while other dancers begin to dance around them.

Scenario #8
A beginner female dancer isn’t getting much time on the dance-floor. A leader should:
  1. Ask her to dance and show her lots of his tricks – despite her clearly struggling.
  2. Ignore her – we all had to start at the bottom; leave her to the other beginners.
  3. Ask her to dance, gradually work out what she is able to do, and use this to make the dance enjoyable by connecting with the music.
  4. Ask her to dance, and teach her new things by talking her through some figures.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Give me a packed milonga!

Give me a choice of a milonga with wide open spaces or a comfortably packed dance floor, and I'll choose the latter. There's something about dancing with the other dancers - picking up on their movement, feeding off their energy, feeling like the milonga is an organism which is slowly moving around the floor.

Then there are the navigational challenges - leading my partner, responding to the rhythms of the instruments, capturing the emotion & timing of the melodies (of the orchestra or vocalist), advancing & turning with adjacent dancers, utilising tight spaces - and making it all work.

The wide open spaces in a sparsely filled milonga? - great for practising complex figures or the fun of racing around to a vals, but there's something about the essence of the milonga that's missing here.

However, there are a couple of conditions to my preferred packed floor: it should be comfortably, not tightly packed (when it can be simply difficult to dance at all), and other dancers need to respect the codes of use of the dance space. Here's an interesting and amusing article on Tango & Chaos that's worth reading on use of the dance floor.


Friday, 17 April 2009

Códigos de la milonga (milonga etiquette) – Have your say! #2

There are so many situations at the milonga where the codes not only protect one's fragile ego, but also help avoid nasty exhibitions of territoriality. You don't have to examine the códigos de la milonga too closely to see that they acknowledge and guard against all manner of human frailties. This issue has not only provoked discussion, but some dancers have contributed their own scenarios. Here are a few more familiar situations:

Scenario #3
A couple bumps into another couple on the dance-floor. The man should:
  1. Ignore it and keep on dancing - he does it all the time, and doesn't notice it anymore.
  2. Make a signal of apology to the couple and keep dancing.
  3. Stop dancing, approach the couple, and apologise on the dance-floor.
  4. Make a signal of apology to the couple, continue dancing, and approach the couple at the end of the tanda to offer apologies.
  5. Leave it to his partner to do the apologising, because it was she who made contact.

Scenario #4
You are sitting wondering who to ask to dance. You see someone you know, although she's engaged in animated conversation with another man. Do you
  1. Try to catch her eye and if you can't, then refrain?
  2. Walk up to her and ask her if she wishes to dance?
  3. Walk up to them both and engage in conversation, then at a suitable time ask her if she wishes to dance?
  4. Walk up to them both and wait patiently until they give you some attention, then ask her to dance?
A man is leading large open figures which take up a lot of space on a busy dance-floor. They are interfering with the line of dance and he's encouraging his partner to execute moves which are dangerous to couples around them. His partner should
  1. Go along with it and enjoy the ride.
  2. Tell him she feels uncomfortable because she doesn't want to collide with anyone.
  3. At the end of the song, say "Thankyou" and return to her table.
  4. Resist his leads for any dangerous moves.
  5. Dance the whole tanda, but avoid dancing with him again.

What would you do?

Bob & Pat.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Códigos de la milonga (milonga etiquette) – Have your say!

Lately, a number of dancers have been reflecting on some etiquette-related experiences at milongas. Maybe they’ve chosen to share their thoughts because we’ve written about the códigos in the past, or because maybe it’s because we seem just a tad fanatical about them. But basically, the codes are about facilitating the enjoyment of everyone at the milonga …. and often, plain good manners. Oops, here we go again!!

So following a lively discussion in the pub after class the other night, we thought it would be fun to do a somewhat provocative & progressive quiz. Just two questions this time, more to come every few days. Comments, sharing experiences, etc. are encouraged! (By the way, if you’re a little shy, comments can be posted anonymously.)

Scenario #1

A woman is invited to dance, but has already turned another man down, saying she needed a break from constant dancing. She should:

  1. Jump at the chance to dance with a man she sees as a better dancer
  2. Politely refuse, saying that she’s already turned someone down
  3. Politely refuse, saying she’d be happy to dance a tanda later.
  4. Before the man approaches, make it clear from body language, intense conversation with her neighbour, and avoidance of eye contact, that she’s not interested in dancing this tanda.

Scenario #2

A woman "misses" a lead during a figure. The man should:

  1. Continue dancing while telling her the name of the figure that she had missed.
  2. Stop dancing, and take her through the steps in the figure; rehearse them a few times on the dance floor while explaining the details to her.
  3. Ignore the ‘mistake’ and see it as an opportunity to improvise so that the dance continues without disruption.
  4. Continue dancing and at the end of the tanda, take her aside and give her tips on how she can improve her tango.

Over to you - what do you think?

Bob & Pat

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Favourite three male dancers

When I thought of my three favourite male dancers, I had little trouble - but it took some analysis to work out why those three were so prominent in my mind.

Hugo Daniel kept repeating "intention" when I spent a number of hours working with him in 2007, and when I watch him dance, I see it, and I see the intensity of feeling that he puts into every moment.

Javier Rodriguez was a great favourite of mine back in the days when he was dancing with one of Pat's favourites, Geraldine Rojas, and what impressed me about him was his speed, his turns, his creativity, and I loved his milongas.

Finally, who could go past the late, great master of tango, Ricardo Vidort, who would lead his partner with subtle, almost imperceptible movements of his body, while his feet played out the changing rhythms of the orchestra - watch his body as he dances to Chique, then play it again and just watch his feet.

So should we try to copy our favourite dancer's or teacher's style? Not at all - even if we were remotely capable of getting close. Besides, performance and social dancing are different. Our mentors can, nevertheless, give us clues on technique and tango style, but in the end, we have to develop our own style - how we can best reflect what the music says to us, within our partner's embrace.

From Hugo I take 'intention', from Javier the creative potential in milonga, and from Ricardo subtlety & musicality. But that's just the start - tango is a never-ending road, isn't it?


Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Sunday night at the Czech House

If you're in Melbourne on the second Sunday of the month, head across to the Czech House in North Melbourne where Melbourne Tango hold their monthly milonga. We had a fabulous time last Sunday, and being a long weekend it finished later than usual at 1am.

The traditional Buenos Aires style milonga is organised by a passionate group of volunteers, who really look after their guests. A free lesson with guest teachers and music by guest DJs (yours truly last Sunday) make the $10 entry a steal!

Happy dancing,

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Piazzolla and Gardel: an unexpected collaboration

Just came across this interesting gem showing an unlikely and historic connection between these two giants of tango. Piazzolla also briefly demonstrates and explains the diabolically difficult instrument of tango, the bandoneon. Those who were at one of our classes in May last year when we were joined by famous bandeonista Carel Kraayenhof will particularly appreciate this videoclip.


Saturday, 14 February 2009

Favourite five

When Bob asked me to name my favourite five tangueras, I thought ... "Easy" and started rattling them off.

But very soon, it simply got too hard, too complicated. So I returned to my initial, instinctive responses - just three names. When I tried to analyse what those women have in common, it came down to technique, musicality and personal surrender to the moment (entrega). Watch them performing - their styles are very different. Seeing them dancing socially is a particular treat. Each one dances in the considerate, rather understated manner expected in the milonga setting, yet at the same time, their sheer class and elegance draw your attention straight to them. (Sadly, video footage of their social dancing is rare.) Of course, as teachers they are also much sought after.

Who are they? Click on the links and take a look at these videos of Aurora Lubiz, Lorena Ermocida and last but certainly not least, Geraldine Rojas to see what I mean.

And here's another:

I imagine they started training in some form of dance as soon as they were old enough to walk, so I shouldn't lose heart altogether!


Friday, 30 January 2009

Improvisation - it doesn't just happen.

Ever stepped onto a milonga dance-floor, only to find that all creativity has deserted you?

Here's some advice for a start: keep it simple, focus on the music, and choose the right partner.

Let me expand on that. I recently came across a couple of references that reinforced my views on improvisation in tango, and encouraged me to keep delving into that zone where the music takes over the body.

Improvisation is not random and chaotic, says Michael Gladwell in his best-selling book, Blink. When talking about how elite basketballers train in order to play intuitively (e.g. the instant, magic pass after no more than a glance), he could be talking equally about tango dancers when he says that spontaneity is only possible after engaging in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice.

Swedish professor of psychology Anders Ericsson said that deliberate practice begins in the brain: focused, repetitive training in which the person is always monitoring their performance, correcting, experimenting, listening to immediate & constant feedback, investing a significant amount of time. For the tango dancer, that means continuing to practise tango's fundamental skills - the walk, pivots, ochos, etc., no matter how experienced the dancer is, just like concert pianists practise their scales.

Improvisation in tango appears to be under-pinned by a couple of essential elements:

1) a repertoire of well-practised movements, which could amount to no more than a good tango walk, simple ochos, changing direction, and a variety of timing to go with them, ........ or the repertoire may be more extensive.

2) an ability to really hear the music - its rhythms, melodies, moods, timing changes.

Of course, you then need to move to the next level - an ability to actually connect with the music: responding to it in a manner that reflects its rhythms & emotions, and using movements (figures or segments of figures) & timing that allow this to happen.

On the dance-floor, however, at the moment you start becoming reflective about your dance, your ability to improvise is undermined - you lose the flow. The dance then starts to take place in your head (leader's & follower's), and all creativity & the possibility of quick responses to changes in rhythm or melody are lost. For the dancer who improvises well, the responses & figures come from the body; to suddenly introduce a newly-learned, but not sufficiently practised sequence on the dance-floor, is courting failure, because introspection is bad for improvisation. Planning, calculating assessing, remembering (sequences, for example) kill improvisation. While response to music is a right-brain activity, introspection on the other hand is left-brain, and will quickly over-ride creativity. This means that thinking about or trying to remember sequences is more than just a simple distraction from the music - it actually subverts improvisation.

In other words, keep the dance simple, using well-practised movements (as opposed to 12-16 step rigid sequences), responding to the music in connection with your partner. One of the most important rules that makes improvisation possible is the idea of agreement, writes Martin Gladwell. So in tango, we probably look for partners who follow the same "rules" as us, for example in relation to embrace, lead-follow, musicality, emotional response. Is it any wonder that we may look for particular partners when a vals tanda begins, or Pugliese? Or maybe bypass a tanda that we have no feeling for?

For me, genuine improvisation will only occur when I connect with the music and I connect with my partner. From here, I'm transported into the dance by the music, with my body drawing from a relatively small bag of movements that have been embedded after several thousand uses - and only then can the experience be heightened by playing with the timing. For me, there is no other tango!

It's worth looking at videos of Buenos Aires milongueros improvising in this Tango and Chaos chapter.


Sunday, 18 January 2009

The recipe for a successful milonga?

Not sure I can put my finger on it. The people? Music? Venue? Time of the month??

Anyhow, a number of folk said that there was something special about last Friday's Comme il faut. A little magic in the air, perhaps.

If you were there, you may find your photo in our gallery.

By the way, February's milonga will be a "matinee" commencing at 3pm on Sunday 22nd.


Thursday, 8 January 2009

Extension, suspension & relaxation? Parallel & cross systems?

What does it mean to dance with extension, suspension & relaxation?
How can you capture those special moments in the music?
That's what we'll be focussing on in the Monday class in January.

What's the use of parallel and cross systems?
On Tuesdays this month, we'll be looking at how to exploit both systems.

As always, Melina and Detlef are a treat in this video. I love how they use those skills to express the romantic intensity of the Di Sarli tango, then the playful Donato vals.


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