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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.


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.

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!

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