Sunday, 25 June 2017

First principles


Definition: "The basic and most important reasons for doing or believing something" Cambridge dictionary

The social tango I know and love has many facets.  The numerous posts on this blog alone attest to that.  Some posts dealing with topics such as milonga etiquette may attract controversy.  Yet, when you distil the various issues, I believe they can be traced back to three fundamental truths.

Music is the leader
The music's rhythms, melodies and emotions guide the couple's movements.  Music is the reason and basis for their dance.  Golden Age dance music provides an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Primacy of the embrace
A comfortable, trusting embrace enables a couple to share their intimate, emotional response to the music, allowing them to move as one.

Respect for others
As a social activity, all behaviour, including on the dance-floor, is moderated by its effects on others.  It follows that our behaviours shouldn't impact detrimentally on others, in fact our behaviours should enhance their experience. Hence the milonga codes, which evolved over decades, help us to negotiate the sensitivities of others.

Now, this may sound a little stern, but I believe that as social tango dancers, teachers and milonga organisers, our activities should stem from and be consistent with ALL three principles.  In social tango none can be ignored or neglected.
PP

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Peeling the tango onion


Tango means different things to different people: music, a dance, performance art, social club, business, culture, fun. And this may determine how each person approaches it.

When it comes to social tango, there appears to be a series of layers that dancers may or may not progress through - depending on their personal pursuit. Something like peeling an onion (tears and all!). Here's one way of looking at it:
  • The outer layer - the thin veneer that coats the onion. It's the initial discovery of tango - often through being dazzled by seeing others dance and thinking "I want to do that"

  • Then comes the time to take the plunge - wanting to emulate what was observed.  Numerous layers involve learning skills - posture, walk, a range of simple movement combinations useful in the milonga.  It can take years to achieve true competence.
    Can dancers be content to remain here?

  • Along with this comes further cultivation of the embrace, clear body communication, navigation, subtle leads and unhurried responses, as well as milonga etiquette.
    This begs the question: How established does the previous foundation need to be in order to progress more deeply into these layers?

  • Beneath this we have an even sweeter layer: Musicality, which means using the body memory, not the head, responding intuitively to the nuances of the music; navigation that flows and is immediately responsive to any change encountered.  The earlier layers are essential for success here, because this heralds the growth of improvisation, varied dynamics and pauses. What was once familiar now starts appearing in different forms.
    Is this the layer that many dancers see as their final goal?

  • Perhaps the core has yet to be reached.  We get closer to it when we start dancing the feeling.  Moving from the external to the internal seems a good description of where this layer takes us: where we rely on the emotions evoked by the music.
    How much better is this if we also understand the lyrics?

  • I'd suggest that there's perhaps one last layer - or the core - which involves embodying the culture of tango whenever we step into a milonga.
    Is it possible to achieve this without immersing oneself in the traditional milongas of Buenos Aires?

 

It's not difficult to imagine the unpacking of matryoshka (Russian dolls) as another metaphor for tango's challenging journey of discovery.

Bob

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Dancing the pause


The 'pause' in tango is a powerful moment - just as in conversation when room is given to contemplate what has been said, to interpret, then respond.  There's stillness, which is far from inert.

At times, the dance-floor can appear as a place of constant motion.  This is to be expected with milonga, largely so with vals, but tango often invites the pause.  If we hear changing dynamics in the music, then it follows that our dance should reflect that.  In between the changes in dynamics, there can be times when we slow down, suspend the bodies, and let the music talk to us more intimately.

Carlos Gavito: "tango isn't the dancing step but rather it's what's between one step and the next, where there's nothing, where the silences are, where the memory and the remembered things are." *

However, the pause is not easy.  Some women have said that they adore the pause. Others that they find it physically challenging.  For the men, the challenges are everywhere - physically, mentally and emotionally.  I can think of at least 4 elements needed to exploit the beauty of the pause:
  • Good balance and posture
  • Anticipation of the dynamic changes in the music - which presupposes a familiarity with the music
  • Patience - holding it until the last possible moment
  • Self-confidence - to slowly come to a pause and remain suspended for a time
The dance doesn't stop during the pauses - there is still a tiny musical movement of the body.  It is a moment when nothing else exists apart from your partner and the music.

Carlos Gavito: "if it's true that tango is a sad feeling that we dance, then that means that it's an emotion, not a movement" *

* Interview with Carlos Gavito  in La Milonga Argentina April edition, pages 8-10, with English translation.
Bob

Thursday, 4 May 2017

How big is a baldosa?


Dancing in busy milongas requires a couple of important elements: specific dance skills and a social mind-set.  Together they allow you to enjoy your dance, as well as allowing couples around you to enjoy theirs.

Nowhere is that more the case than the busy milongas of Buenos Aires, where the above elements are oftern referred to as the ability to bailar en una baldosa (dance on a tile).  Last Monday, at one of our favourite Buenos Aires milongas, they were much needed.  It is normally a busy milonga, but the public holiday (Labour Day) brought out more dancers than usual, many of whom are not regulars.

Some were good dancers, who, according to one of my dance partners, don't get out often during the week due to work commitments.  So, you might think "the more, the merrier".  However, after the first hour or two of the milonga, the floor was very busy indeed.  Couples were dancing shoulder to shoulder.  It became clear that some of those dancers who initially had looked good, weren't coping too well with conditions that they perhaps were not accustomed to.

As you read this, you might be asking yourself: How would she know?  The answer quite simply is that they were disturbing couples nearby.  It looked like they were either unable to modify their dancing to suit the conditions, or were blissfully unaware of how their dancing was disturbing those around them.  (Another unfortunate possibility might be that they didn't care).

In stark contrast, the majority of dancers were coping well with the challenging conditions.  What these dancers were doing included reducing the size of their movements, doing tight turns, making full use of the space efficiently with the man's default position facing the tables, being able to spontaneously change direction in the dance, etc., while still maintaining their musicality.  Interested in successful navigation strategies?  Take a look at the illustrations devoted to this topic in Tango and Chaos.

So, how big is a baldosa? As small as it needs to be to suit the conditions on the dance-floor!
PP

Monday, 30 January 2017

Music will make or break a milonga


I love the creative process of DJing, and watching dancers respond to the emotional journey created by the music.

But DJs take care! Music will make or break a milonga.  Nowadays, milonga attendees are increasingly sensitive to the music. Experienced dancers' tastes have developed & matured. Some prefer to attend milongas less frequently, dance less often (even though they would like to dance more), rather than tolerate poor musical selections. In Search of Tango articulates this quite strongly.

So, as a DJ, how do I know whether my musical choices are working during the milonga? What are the tell-tale signs?

Most of the people are dancing - obviously!
DJs who forget or ignore their milonga "clientele" are simply not doing their job.

For me, there are also other, perhaps less obvious, indicators of whether my DJing is hitting the mark:

Are the most experienced social dancers dancing?
If they are rarely dancing, or get up to dance only to return to their seats mid-tanda, I need to seriously reconsider my selections.

During tandas, do the dancers generally look absorbed in their dance?
If their facial expressions reflect detachment, puzzlement, boredom, etc., then the music is inappropriate.

Are the dancers moving in a fairly calm ronda? Is the dance-floor moving as a smooth stream, or is it more akin to choppy rapids?

At the end of the tandas, do the dancers appear satisfied as they return to their tables?

During the last part  of the milonga, is there still a good proportion of dancers on the floor?

I've been fortunate to be exposed to the DJing of masters such as Dany Borelli over many years attending Buenos Aires milongas, and have learned & continue to learn a great deal about what to do and what to avoid as a DJ. Aspiring DJs who are interested in learning, but who haven't been so lucky, still have good resources at their disposal via the internet. Some may also be able to consult with successful DJs in their community. They can, indeed must, do a lot of productive research and preparation before venturing out to DJ at a milonga. They shoulder a responsibility which should not be taken lightly.

Dancers deserve a quality experience, nothing less.

PP

Resources:
TangoDJ
TangoDJ fundamentals
DPP's Favourite Tandas

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Choose your partners carefully


There’s value in seeking out particular partners to dance your favourite D’Arienzo tanda, Tanturi valses, or a Di Sarli/Rufino tanda.  You know who dances these in the style you enjoy.

But what about all of your other partners?  By this, I mean the other couples already on the floor!  It may be wise to survey the line of dance for a moment, before entering the ronda.  You probably have no desire to dance in front or behind a couple who are dancing in a dangerous fashion (high boleos, large unpredictable movements, poor body control, etc.).  And then there are the couples who are dancing to the music in a manner very different to how you would, e.g. you may prefer to dance to some Pugliese slowly, without any complex moves, whereas your neighbouring couple may be fast & furious!  This will certainly disrupt your focus on the music.  It certainly distracts me! So, look for couples who will dance in a way that complements you  ….. and men, there’s also a lot to be gained by dancing behind a very good male dancer!

When I visualise dancing at my favourite milongas, I see a crowded floor, with my dance space on the outside ronda being no more than a ‘baldosa’ – maybe one metre square.  Yet, there is rarely a bump, because the dancing reflects the music very well, and the navigation skills of most leaders allow them to incorporate their neighbours’ movements into their own.  In this milonga, despite its busyness, I can normally relax with my partners, because I trust most of the other leaders that surround me.
Bob

Monday, 9 January 2017

Music is the leader


Much is said about men as leaders, and there’s a lot of merit in “he leads, she responds, then he follows her”.  However, more fundamental to the dance is the ability of the couple to let the music lead them. Thanks Tango Therapist for articulating this concept. 
 
But it appears not everyone places such a supreme value on the music that they dance to.  This can be seen in: “I’ll dance tango to anything”, couples already on the dance floor before the music even starts, and others who carry on conversations during their tanda.  However, these are exceptions; I believe most dancers want to connect with the rhythms, emotions, and cadences of every piece that they dance.  To go some way to achieving this, some dancers even reserve a particular orchestra or a vals tanda for particular partners.

Listening is essential, and it starts with the man & woman listening to each other’s bodies at every moment, with every move, every lead and response.  Then there is a higher order skill – listening to and interpreting the music.  Higher order, because it is premised on good physical technique & control, a body memory of movements that will respond to music (rather than the dancer engaging in a thought-process), good floor-craft, a strong familiarity with the music, and a sensitivity & respect towards one’s partner.

So, is this listening to the music the man’s domain alone?   Absolutely not!  When I dance, I want my partner to hear the music, and to feel the congruence of my response to it.  I want to take her on a journey, but one that she will feel is guided by the nuances of the music.  If her total focus is ‘listening’ to my movements & responding to them, then she is not engaged with the music.

To listen to the music and be taken on this journey, a woman needs to trust her partner – trust that he will lead absolutely clearly, giving her the time she needs to respond; trust that she will be physically secure; trust that he is dancing for her, and not for himself; and trust that he is truly listening to the music.

Ladies, once you really listen to the music, you will be less likely to be surprised by any lead or timing, because it will “feel right”, and you will be more likely to respond in a way that will enhance the dance.  
Bob
 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

It's all about the milonga


What draws you to tango?
People take up tango for lots of reasons, but for me, it’s all about the milonga.  

Some people spend a lot of time & money taking lessons, going to practicas, and milongas.  Yet, some see attending milongas as the least important, and rarely put their skills ‘on the line’.  

I’m a great believer in dancers getting explicit & expert advice on the essentials: posture, embrace, tango walk, body control, body lead, rhythm.  Then, add some fundamental tools to these essentials to enable people to improvise: ochos, cross, simple turns, etc.  A good teacher will blend these essentials & tools into functional movements.  Now the dancers must practise, and a practica is the most appropriate place, as well a safe place to get constructive feedback.  

At some stage, however, the dancer needs to take the plunge: attend milongas, do a lot of watching & listening, and have the occasional dance with a trusted partner. It will be pretty obvious that the milonga is very different to a practica – intimidating is a fair description to the novice. Gradually skills & confidence develop with regular milonga attendance, just as familiarity with potential partners will grow.

Compare this with taking up a new sport. You are taught the fundamentals at training week after week, then you play practice matches before the season starts, and the main event is ‘the game’.  No-one wants to go through the season playing just the occasional match – likewise, tango dancers shouldn’t be satisfied dancing in the milonga just now and again (or never!!).

What is the magic of a good milonga that makes you want to keep coming back? 
For a start, like the sports match, it’s the real thing.  It’s a total experience - venue, music, the dancers, the etiquette, the energy - and the delicious challenge of the unexpected.   Maybe the magic is the personal connection we have with particular milongas - El Maipu and Lujos (video below) in Buenos Aires are two that come to my mind.
Bob

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