Let the Artist In

10 06 2012

Something rather remarkable happened in my dance last night.  I danced a tanda with one of my favorite local partners at a level that I didn’t think was possible for me.    It’s as if something become magically unlocked in my body and released in my dance — apparently because I finally was able to empty my head, listen to my body and let the artist in.

It’s not that I haven’t been told that many times before and have been working on it for years.  But in the past, each time I’ve felt that I’d arrived, it ended step being nothing more than a baby step and I realized (in my mind) that I had a long ways to go.  So while my mind is useful from time to time helping me understand what’s going on in my dance, it’s only when I let it go that I seem to move forward to places I’ve never been.

I do watch videos from time to time.  Other dancers inspire me — Carlitos Espinoza is one of my favorites — I have come to realize that it’s not by looking out at others, but by looking in at myself (or should I say not looking in) — giving myself permission to just be and listen to my body — that good things happen.  As with many things tango, what is most remarkable to me is that when I let it go and don’t focus on it, it happens — whatever “it” is.    But when I  focus on “it” nothing happens.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say.  I’m not saying that focusing on elements of technique doesn’t help.   Some of you may have read about a discovery I recently had by understanding the principles of barefoot running and applying that to tango.  I’m now able to carry my core properly and step lightly with spring in my feet in important ways that have improved my dance.   And applying the same principles improved my snow skiing last winter and my bicycling this spring — go figure!

When I started studying with Susana Miller a few years ago, I recall her telling that she will be helping me improve my dance by taking things out of my body and not by putting more things in.  She said that I already had enough in my body — or should I say too much — too many things in my body that were getting in the way.   And while I wasn’t always sure what was happening, I let it go and trusted her to get me back on the right path.

I took classes with Susana in April of this year, and then again six weeks later this June which provided me two opportunities to move forward.   And just when she told me to quit thinking and to quit focusing on steps, the steps happened.   It wasn’t easy for me to do or should I say ‘let happen’ … comments like “quiet the mind”,  “lose your thoughts”, “walk with an innocent (idiot) look” and “let your body speak to you” seems so simple to me, but it’s not easy.   But for the moment, it is working for me in good ways.


Should Beginners Dance Tango in Close Embrace?

22 01 2013

The discussion in this post is used with permission of ‘Terpsichoral Tangoaddict’ who initiated the topic on facebook. Terpsichoral also maintains a blog with stimulating posts about relevant subjects related to tango social dancing. That blog can be found at: http://tangoaddiction.wordpress.com)

The topic “Should Beginner’s Dancing in Close Embrace” is close to my heart as I believe close embrace encompasses so much of the essence of tango, it is part and parcel of the tango dance that I love, recognizing that opinions vary widely on the subject.  Some tango teachers may choose to wait weeks, months or even years to teach close embrace, if they teach it at all.   I ask my beginning students to dance in close embrace beginning with the first class, although it requires more technical precision than alternatives.  As a result students learn how important technique is from day one — not just steps —  and I argue, are less likely to plateau after a few years and wonder why they can’t progress any further in dance — when part of the problem is that they have not been required to learn the precise technique required for that embrace.

Take a look at the discussion below and click-through to facebook or Terpsichoral’s blog to join in on the discussions. If you like what you read, give Terpsi the kudos she deserves for her engaging discussions of tango. Enjoy!


Terpsichoral Tangoaddict

It’s time for a grumpy status update. On more than one occasion, on my US trip, I saw a class full of beginners gripping each other’s arms awkwardly and holding each other at a distance, not able to walk in close, or even close-ish embrace and being taught ganchos, funky boleos, complicated sequences, etc. So yesterday I called one of the teachers on it (they haven’t responded yet). “Why were you teaching them those complicated boleo variations when they aren’t able to embrace each other yet?” I asked (me and my big mouth). Being able to walk in close embrace — not perfectly, of course, since mastering it takes a long time, but being actually able to do it more or less — seems to me to be absolutely fundamental. If you *cannot* move in close embrace, you instantly mark yourself out as a beginner, no matter how many fancy moves you attempt. And, while it might be OK in the context of a specific lesson or práctica, to dance in open embraces, if you ever go to a real milonga or want to dance with any more advanced dancers, you’ll find in 99.99% of cases that the first thing they will do is take you in their arms into a close embrace and if you push them away they are likely to feel disappointed and awkward. I really feel that if you want your students to ever graduate from only being able to dance with each other in the lesson or in their own beginners’ práctica; if, as their teacher, you want them to grow up into the kind of people *you yourself* would enjoy dancing with; you’ve got to teach them how to embrace each other and dance in close embrace. Yes, they might find it very awkward at first. But it will be much easier than trying to change their entire dance later, after years of walking holding each other at arms’ length.

Unlike ·  · Share · 3 hours ago near Buenos Aires, Distrito Federal · 

  • Mari Mabon Johnson thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!!! I’ve asked/begged/pleaded/bitched – but to no avail. Thankyou for speaking up!
    3 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Christine Tenenholtz what she ^ said.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Mari Mabon Johnson I ‘like’ your thanks. I dislike the fact that you’ve begged, pleaded and bitched to no avail!
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Catherine Vuilleumier There are so many people who try to steer you through complicated steps they cannot even lead… Thank you for speaking up! I agree wholeheartedly: the embrace is really one of most important points of the dance! And this is whether it is an open embrace or a closed one, though I personnaly mostly favour the second
    3 hours ago · Like · 3
  • Mari Mabon Johnson Terpsichoral Tangoaddict – can I give you a byline and publish your post on my blog?
  • Emma Bestall This is sooo badly the case in Johannesburg. But sometimes I think that people there don’t want to be ‘good’ they just want to ‘look good’ or ‘fancy’, to the lay observer or each other, and actually aren’t intrested in becoming better from an international perspective, or more comfortable, or more musical. Its sad indeed, but its a symptom of what seems to be an almost seperate culture of tango based on very different values.
    3 hours ago · Like · 4
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Mari Mabon Johnson Of course! Emma Bestall Do they realise how awful they look, even to intelligent lay observers? I don’t mind if people’s motivation is to look good dancing — that’s fine, as long as they understand what looking good actually entails. Catherine Vuilleumier For walking, it’s *almost* always got to be closed — otherwise you are holding the other person away from your body for no reason (well, the reason is usually technical inability to dance close embrace) and that isn’t tango. It does not feel good to want to embrace someone and to dance being pushed away. I don’t often declare that things aren’t tango, but not letting someone embrace you when it would be the natural way to move in our dance, that’s an exception.
    3 hours ago · Edited · Like · 2
  • Arik Oudemans Once the awkwardness you mention is over though, people that are used to dancing open embrace should quite easily be able to fold into dancing close embrace..
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Arik Oudemans I think it’s really possible to teach them to close up their embraces, but you can’t do that and be teaching them fancy moves at the same time.
    3 hours ago · Edited · Like · 2
  • Patrick Maasen and they wonder why we don’t ask them to dance… because it’s not tango that’s why! It’s not because you are short or tall or wide or narrow or young or old. It’s because you have bad movement and connection in close embrace and we know instantaneously or because you start your embrace open. same thing
    3 hours ago · Like · 5
  • Benjamin Drasin My wife and I took classes for three months and never were taught close embrace during that time. We thought we were doing well and had a pretty good dance “vocabulary”, then we went to a Milonga and were totally blown away at how unprepared we were. It was so traumatizing that we didn’t go again for another three months or so! I rarely go to beginner classes anymore but from what you are saying I guess this is still common.
    3 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Meric Eryilmaz “if, as their teacher, you want them to grow up into the kind of people *you yourself* would enjoy dancing with…”
    I love the fact that you automatically assumed the “teacher” would be equipped with the knowledge and taste of “a good embrace”.. Shows how optimistic you are about our world’s tango 
    Because unfortunately, all “that teacher” has is usually 3 or 4 cool(!) combinations and a huge ego that makes him/her think he/she is good/experienced/informed enough to “teach”…
    It’s sad if you think about it. Somewhere, there’s an unimaginable level of pleasure and intimacy, but those of us who get lost in the combinations will never know that level exists. Let alone get there…
    I love your post Terpsi
    3 hours ago · Like · 8
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Patrick Maasen Starting with the embrace open declares “I have been dancing tango for less than a month. I’m uncertain and wobbly but I’m going to give it a go”. Not a good statement to make right at the beginning of your dance, even if it’s true (of course, we all have to start somewhere). But if you don’t close embrace at the beginning of the dance, the other person’s heart will sink.
    3 hours ago · Like · 4
  • Benjamin Drasin Meric, I’m afraid you are right. At some point I realized how important it was to seek out the right teachers and give them my full attention during class. As an absolute beginner I’d have had no way of knowing this.
    3 hours ago · Like · 3
  • Bernhard Michaelis You mean students have to learn embrace, posture, balance and walking before they can do all this fun stuff?! But they want it all right here and now, or else they won’t take these classes and I can’t make a living. BTW, I myself the teacher, never learned this. And since they are beginners, they won’t know the difference. Just like the modern western styles of Yoga do not reflect the profound depth of that tradition, do Tango lessons go beyond the ‘learning the steps’ level. And I’m afraid it won’t change. We are a far cry from learning it on the street corner, the male teenagers first having to play the female role, and maybe, just maybe afte one year of practicing are allowed into a Milonga.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Meric Eryilmaz In one case, I demonstrated the moves with the teacher. We just automatically danced them all in close — and then the students danced them in open and I mean beginnery-2km-away-from-each-other-gripping-each-other’s-biceps open. I was surprised the teacher didn’t notice this discrepancy which felt almost painful to me.
  • Ariadne Schulz Soooo I think there’s a lot of ‘etiologies’ for this. I was taught open embrace first with the explanation that it was easier to learn and that close embrace was both more intimate and more advanced. Both of these things are correct and I myself will not introduce close embrace *right* away. I might demonstrate it on the first class and explain that they’ll eventually want to do that but it takes people a bit to warm up to it.

    Especially for followers, and you know this yourself, some couples just don’t work in close embrace. Some leaders can’t do it, some heights are wrong and as much as I would agree that an enjoyable dance and maybe even a ‘correct’ dance will be in close embrace I don’t think it’s bad to have open embrace with some partners some of the time. This of course means there’s a lot of people who have to build up skill to be able to do it or … just stop inadvertently groping their partner but yeah ….

    And finally there’s the issue of bad teaching and a misunderstanding of what constitutes ability and skill in tango. There are a lot of people who try to conflate it with ballroom or don’t quite understand the improvisational bit. Those people will teach complicated steps and sequences without appreciating that they don’t actually know how to do them. You yourself cannot solve this unless you want to set up shop right next to them for a lower price and do it right. They will have to eventually come to the conclusion that they’re doing it wrong and reevaluate. In the meantime they will churn out a lot of nightmare milongueros who will eventually have to figure out themselves that they are nightmares and go to a different teacher to fix it or quit but … I don’t know that there’s anything you can do about it.

    The other thing though is I am actually a firm believer in teaching advanced “steps” early on. I might reverse my position later but the reason I have it now is kinda why it’s smart to surreptitiously keep your teenager supplied with condoms. people will see flashy cool stuff and try to imitate it. Tango is replete with moves that are very nearly optical illusions and as such imitators won’t necessarily figure out what’s going on unless someone tells them. And they’ll still try to do it. So I find that once I’m about to send them out to dance socially if I teach them all the cool stuff in detail and explain the dangers and fun of it I get a lot of responsible dancers out on the floor who don’t attempt crazy.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Ney Melo Why do you have to cause trouble??
    3 hours ago via mobile · Like · 6
  • Ney Melo Just kidding!
    3 hours ago via mobile · Like · 1
  • Loyd Vidal Sandra Bernard My absolute student class is close embrace walking together.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Candi Woods LOL! Ney…..I can relate to Terpsi! Sometimes I dance the very beginning of a tanda in open embrace….if only because I want to make sure the guy doesn’t have me in a death grip and because I’ve been awkwardly yanked around on more than one occasion. It’s easier for me to “come in” than it is for me to “go out”…However, my natural inclination is to dance close off the bat.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Ney Melo And why were you watching my “ganchos, funky boleos, and complicated combinations” beginner class?
    3 hours ago via mobile · Like · 4
  • Ilene Marder true true true true true!!
  • Ney Melo All kidding aside, i agree. The only thing i don’t like is when some people teach close embrace as just touching chests and they tell the students to forget about their arms and hands. The embrace should include all of those parts.
    3 hours ago via mobile · Like · 6
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Ariadne Schulz I disagree, but I like your comment because I do think you have a point. But to me integration is important: i.e. enabling the students in your beginners’ class to dance with someone other than each other from as soon as practicable. And Bernhard Michaelis, I do sympathise with the need to make a living. The ideal would be to make your own dance look and feel so gorgeous that students will *want* to dance like you, i.e. walking in close embrace, etc. I’m still working on that one: on looking and feeling like a goddess on the dance floor. But it’s one of the reasons that I think aesthetics are very important in our dance (not as important as musicality or feeling, but still very important) –is that we need to sell the idea that close embrace is a lovely thing. As teachers, we need to show others. Candi Woods If you’re dancing with a beginner leader who is hurting you, perhaps you need to be in open, for protection. But that’s not dancing, it’s damage limitation.
    3 hours ago · Edited · Like · 1
  • Candi Woods Damage protection….unfortunately, that’s what it’s about sometimes.
  • Emily Trites hear hear!
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Emma Bestall @andy nossel! Hi Terpsi, no I don’t think they do. I think they honestly think that anything big must represent skill and look ‘good’. They are particularly fond of the dreaded ‘lift’!
  • Ariadne Schulz Well yeah but I can’t expect them to walk confidently into a milonga after an hour of teaching them. I usually get them to try close embrace on hour three whenever that might occur.
  • Margaret Pinzone id like to play the devil’s advocate for just this one time. No, I dont think a teacher should be teaching complicated routines to beginners who havent quite yet grasped ” the walk.” On the other hand, if you stay on that walk for too long, and too long is relative to each person, a student may become frustrated and quit altogether. In my opinion, there should be “some” cool moves ( Not necessarily entire routines,) to keep the student interested, and excited. So…nothing wrong with a class involving walking and embracing, with a gancho or an intro to ochos thrown in.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Candi Woods Of course. But it’s not really what tango is about and it’s important to realise that from an early stage. Ariadne Schulz After an hour, no. But after a little while. I’d start right from the beginning, but hour three sounds very reasonable. What I object to is months or years of open embraces.Emma Bestall Oh God.
    3 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Margaret Pinzone Actually, it’s not the moves that I have a problem with in themselves. It’s the fact that no emphasis at all is placed on being able to walk in close embrace and they are absolutely unable to do it. And I don’t mean they can’t master it; I mean they can’t even attempt it in many cases. These aren’t classes on walking and embracing with a few cool moves thrown in; they are classes on cool moves with no walking or embracing whatsoever.
    2 hours ago · Edited · Like · 1
  • Ilene Marder I teach close embrace from day one. I let them open up a little if they are having difficulty but it is always back to close embrace, walking, musicality connection. No fancy steps are needed for beginners. I’ve been in business for nine years and people continue to seek me out for learning. Frankly, if a student is not interested in close embrace and just wants to learn ganchos et al…I send them to someone else.
    2 hours ago · Like · 4
  • John Su It’s ok to “not know” and dance poorly but to “know” and dance poorly is sinful.
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict John Su I’d expect everyone to dance poorly at first, whatever they are doing. But I’d like them to be on the right track.
  • John Su I agree, it’s the people who have been dancing for years and had many instructors and still dance the way they dance is what irks me. I actually have to look away because it feels like pins in my eyes and poison in my soul.
    2 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Richard DeSousa I think it’s a cultural thing… many people in the US need to have a lot of space between themselves, particularly when they don’t know each other. I think it’s the influence from the mother country, the UK. I remember about a decade ago when I was in the UK there was a comedy play still making the rounds there called “No Sex Please, We’re British.” The US was initially settled by the Puritans, who were a puritanical sect of Protestant Calvinism, and that probably bred into the culture of the US.
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Richard DeSousa Maybe. Though I do think that in most cases it’s technical inability. The leaders need to walk hip first, the followers fall onto their back steps and both parties are looking down at their feet all the time. These are natural problems and behaviours when you’ve just started dancing, but walking in practice frames all the time allows you to continue dancing that way for a long time. And you definitely shouldn’t be doing ganchos if that’s how you walk.
  • Mim Tango Aaaaaaaaamen
  • Mim Tango Richard, we tried to be politically correct and give our students a choice about embracing close. We quickly learned that if you gave them a choice, they would not embrace close. So we ditched that idea and started telling them to just do it… and they did so happily (and we’re in North America with the cultural issues with being close).
    2 hours ago · Edited · Like · 6
  • Astrid Lehner I couldn’t agree more!
    2 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Jimini Hignett My 17 year old son dances tango. At the lessons he follows there’s quite a lot of open dancing, and lots of steps (and some tricks) taught. Recently he asked the teacher to teach him some more tricks, ones he’d seen. To her credit (and at the risk of losing him in class) she refused, insisting that first he had to learn to dance what he’d already learned, better, closer, more rhythmically. To his credit, he agreed, and seems to be enjoying the classes more than ever. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go to dance socially at milongas because (here in the Netherlands) all the women are much older – for him even a twenty-year old (of which there are as good as none) is like waaaay too old. I just hope that enjoyment of improving his dancing will keep him at it until the age gap narrows enough for him to enjoy sharing it with someone other than his regular dance partner.
    2 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Mors Crucio A little update on this: people are also greatly responsible: my school chooses a theme every month. Following walks, giros and ochos, this month is ‘connection’.
    Although this is probably the most needed thing now the classes were significantly reduces. Teachers can push boundaries but ultimately the its the students minds that shape the classes. (of course, teachers can shape minds too ~ but that’s another history)
  • Lupe Almeida Sandoval When I first started tango I couldn’t wait to learn boleos,ganchos etc. I thought that was the way to dance tango. I was frustrated when I found I could only dance with people in the class who knew the patterns . It took years to finally come across teachers who emphasised the importance of the embrace,the walk,and the line of dance. For the most part I no longer like ganchos , boleos etc. On a social dance floor,unless of course there is a lot of room or you find yourself performing for family and friends
  • Steve Morgan My wife and I were fortunate to have teachers who patiently taught us to walk. We practised walking, then we walked. After that we walked some more. Today after three years we continue to explore the subtleties and pleasures of just walking.
  • Stephanie Godderidge As an aside – this inability to embrace properly is not limited to tango. I also dance blues, which has a very similar connection, and one of the very first things the teacher did in my first beginner lesson was to demonstrate different kinds of embraces in a jokey way, ranging from ‘Italian’ (think octopus wrap – he’s Italian himself by the way) to ‘English’ – arms locked straight ahead pushing partner away. And then he said: pick the one you like, but if you’re not willing to dance close, I personally won’t dance with you socially.
    Nevertheless, a good (male) friend of mine is always complaining about how a lot of the followers just feel stiff and uncomfortable in his arms (and he’s a good-looking bloke!)
  • Sam Moore I think a teacher should be judged by the quality of their students dancing. Here in London UK there are several milongas where only the more experienced dancers dance in close embrace. There is however one milonga where even beginners from the pre milonga class join in and are usually not a hazard to others. Considering the high number of beginners on the dance floor, it also has one of the most respected lines of dance with very few collisions. The teachers mostly teach “social” dancing, simple movements, close embrace, they point out if a man is making the woman uncomfortable and simple musicality.
    These “simple” things – when they become the subject of a class are suddenly anything but.
    Maybe there is a connection between the teaching and resulting dancefloor.
  • Eddy Ardell sad, isn’t it…sounds like you were visiting my city
  • Richard Miller Maybe I can be a little abrupt, but I introduce beginners to close embrace about 45 minutes into their first class. I give them some leeway, but it seems to work for about 90% of the class. If someone seems to be freaking out, I tell them that if they don’t like to connect physically, that maybe tango isn’t the dance for them and they should try something else. I’ve had beginners seek me out and thank me for teaching the technique they need, instead of just “the step of the week” without the underlying foundation — which they found frustrating. A quote that summarizes things nicely for me: “The fundamental failure of most design (read ‘Tango’) is its insistence on serving the God of “looking-good” rather than the God of “being-good”. ~Richard Saul Wurman
(The discussion thread above is used with permission of  ‘Terpsichoral Tangoaddict’ who initiated this discussion on facebook.   Terpsichoral also maintains a blog with stimulating posts about relevant subjects related to tango social dancing.   That blog can be found at: http://tangoaddiction.wordpress.com)

Walk Like a Child

2 01 2012

So Uncle Rich,” my adult nephew asked me over the holidays, “Have you learned how to walk?,

I’m still working on it,” I replied, “but I’m closer than before,

though I didn’t tell him at the time that the further I got into the book I was reading, the more questions I had  about walking.   That book is Born to Run by Christopher McDougall*, the book that was the basis of the New York Times Magazine article “The Once and Future Way to Run” that I referred to in my earlier blog post and had mentioned to my family a few days earlier.

So with this post, I have now finished reading the book that has provided some amazing insights about running (walking). tango and life.    But first, I’d like to try to clean up my last post a bit with some specifics about what it has meant for me and tango social dancing.

(1) Here’s what’s been most helpful for me:

  • Be quick, light and springy below the waist, while keeping the body quiet above the waist (leads and follows)
  • Land lightly on your forefeet (leads and follows)
  • Balance, elasticity, stability in mid-stance and cadence is important for every step. (leads and follows)
  • Keep your feet underneath you.  Step with you knee, not your feet.

(2)  It’s been difficult for me to change my posture, but some of the changes I’ve made have reaped dividends.   I spent way too many years flexing at bit at my waist (tilting forward from the waist) — because I thought that was the right thing to do.  And the harder I tried to fix my posture, the more aches and pains I got in my lower back and below.   Now, I’m starting to learning how wrong I was and what I need to do differently to fix posture, although I still have a long ways to go.  Most of the aches and pains in my lower back have disappeared (and I was able to ski again this winter) without any adverse effects.

Bad Posture

Illustration2: Showing bad posture bending or tilting forward from the waist; note the bend in the middle of the "red line ".

Good Posture      

Illustration1: Showing good posture, with the shoulder, hip and foot aligned, see the straight "yellow line".

Finally, it’s been helpful for me to get my head around the concept of “keeping my feet underneath me” and “tilting forward from the ankles” with the heel down and the feet flat on the floor. While these concepts can work independently, they can also work together as shown by Illustration 3.

Leaning Forward

Illustration 3: Tilting or leaning forward from the ankles with feet flat on the floor. The yellow lines show an example of good posture. The red line shows a wrong posture when the legs are perpendicular to the floor.

It’s been an interesting for me to discover how some of these diverse pieces seem to fit together. A number of people from different walks of life had to tell me essentially the same thing in their own way before I had my “Eureka moment.” But as all tango dancers eventually discover, a Eureka moment is just the beginning of a quest and not the end.  I’ll share more from the book later on, as they give me new insight into tango dancing.  As the book subtitle says, “A hidden tribe, superathletes, and the greatest race the world has never scene.”  That’s not unlike the path taken by most aspiring milongueros in their own personal quest.   The book is worth the read for anyone.  It is a fascinating read for those who would like to understand their dance.

*Thanks to Mike Adamle for encouraging me read the book!

Unraveling the Mystery of the Tango Walk

25 11 2011

My new tango instructor showed me how I need to adjust my body to continue to grow in my dance. I was a bit skeptical at first, since that was the first time I had heard this suggestion,  but I figured that I may as well give it a shot. It seemed to help.

Fast forward another year or so when I started getting a stabbing pain that needed relief.  When my physical therapist developed my personalized program to relieve my pain, she included  the same thing I had been shown years earlier by my tango instructor.  Now I had two totally independent sources saying the same things and I was starting to really believe.  I began using the technique not just in my own dance, but I used it in teaching some of my beginning tango classes.

Fast forward another year or so and I stumbled across this article on running   in a recent NY Times Magazine which — again — said the same thing.  More than just a provocative article on running, I realized that it really helped me unravel some more of the mystery of the tango walk that had eluded me over the years —  though not for the lack of trying!  Yes, it may be a stretch to equate centuries old running techniques with tango — but bear with me and read on.  I don’t think that you’ll be disappointed.

Think “tango”  — the tango walk for the lead or the tango walk for the follow — as you read some of these passages lifted from the article:

” .. adopting the .. whisper-soft stride”
“”.. learn to run (walk) gently”
“.. from the waist down .. quick, light and springy, like a kid swooping across a playground.”

“They wanted to land lightly on their forefeet .. but there was a disconnect between their intentions and their movements. ..  ‘Once we develop motor patterns they are difficult to unlearn, especially if you’re not sure what it is supposed to feel like.'”

I have often been told that while it takes only ten minutes to learn a  new step in tango, in takes ten years to learn how to walk.  I am now beginning to understand why.

No, I’m not suggesting that running (dancing) barefoot is the answer.   You may have a much more natural walk than I recently had.   But it is about running (dancing) as if you were barefoot or as if you were a child just learning how to walk.   “The key .. is balance, elasticity, stability in mid-stance and cadence.”  That starts sounding like some good tango advice.

While the article argues for an unorthodox style in running, that style has produced world-class runners and has had a resurgence with the recent commercial success of the new Vibram FiveFingers – a rubber foot glove with no heel cushion. or arch support. And Emil Zatopek won gold medals in the all three distance events of the 1952 Olympics while using the same technique.  And while still others are recent converts, all of this flies in the face of the commercial marketing success of Nike and others so successful at selling cushioned support in running shoes.

Over the years, I’ve sometimes struggled knowing what to do when my tango instructors told me to ‘reinvent my walk and walk like I did as a child’ — although I always believed in that advice.   And just last month, I heard how important it is to dance with our feet underneath us.

Yes, it still seems to be fragmented and incomplete, but now I understand more.  And perhaps I’m getting better at learning what to listen for.

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

6 10 2011

As we acknowledge and pay tribute to the master who has moved on — Steve Jobs, in his own words, expresses his philosophy of death elegantly:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs

The world has lost one of the great visionaries in history and the Thomas Edison of our times. Yet he continues on as in inspiration to all of us that seek innovation, perfection and success.

As Slate’s Farhad Manjoo writes about Jobs following his death, so too, does he characterize tango so eloquently,  “The major touchstones of the Jobs aesthetic are obvious — … he believed in elegance and minimalism.”   Steve, we will miss you … and we will tango on.

Roger Ebert on Sally Potter’s Movie “The Tango Lesson”

17 05 2011

“Most dances are for people who are falling in love. The tango is a dance for those who have survived it, and are still a little angry about having their hearts so mishandled. The Tango Lesson is a movie for people who understand that difference.”

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, film review, December 19, 1997

Some tango definitions, tango códigos & tango floor craft for beginners.

11 03 2011

This post is long overdue and my massive apologies to my faithful readers.  Here it is – a post bringing closure (for now) to my discussion of códigos and floorcraft.  And while I still believe that the  Códigos from Cachirulo that I talked about earlier on these pages, are all that is needed for experienced dancers — and yes, they remain prominently posted in multiple languages at Cachirulo’s new location at Villa Malcolm —  these same códigos  don’t necessarily work for beginners.   They leave too much open to personal interpretation.  So to compliment the simple, but effective list I already shared here, I’ve developed a separate list for beginners and the uninitiated who should be able to comfortably dance tango at any milonga simply by paying attention to the following.  No list is ever perfect, but at least this is a good place to start.

First, here are some tango definitions for beginners:

Milonga – A word used to describe two different things: (1) a tango social dance event in general, and (2) a specific style of tango music that is a lively, syncopated eight-beat rhythm (an ‘excited’ habanera). At a Milonga (tango social dance), music is usually played in tandas or sets of three or four songs. Dancers typically stay with the same partner until the tanda is finished. On the other hand, the milonga style of music is usually played along with the other two principal styles of traditional tango music — tango and vals.

Tanda – A set of tango songs — usually three or four songs — of a particular style and usually from the same orchestra and the same period, lasting 10-12 minutes. At milongas, couples typically dance a complete tanda together, before returning to their tables to prepare for the next set of songs (tanda).

Cortina – A break song or transition song of an entirely different musical style lasting at least 30 seconds that signals to the dancers that the tanda is over and the next tanda will begin shortly.  During cortinas, couples thank each other for the dance and return to their seats so they can prepare for the next dance. Cortinas can also be viewed as “palette cleansers” to help dancers transition their bodies from one style of music to another.

Códigos – Tango ‘codes of ethics’ or floorcraft guidelines for a milonga. These guidelines govern people’s behavior throughout the evening at a milonga — entering, being seated, chosing a partner, dancing, watching others dance, and leaving the dance.  Respecting the tango códigos provides some discipline on the dance floor, and allows everyone to more fully enjoy their time at the milonga.

Tango Códigos:

Typically, the man asks the women to dance, instead of the woman asking the man.

If possible, use the cabaceo method to find a partner, which helps people “save face” when choosing a dance partner.  (The cabaceo is agreeing to dance through the subtle inclination of the head, through eye-contact or a wink.)

After two people agree to dance, the man should approach the women while she remains seated. The man stops near the edge of the dance floor closest to where she is sitting, the woman stands up, approaches her partner, and they prepare to dance.

If the floor is crowded, the lead should make eye contact with the lead approaching his spot on the dance floor, before he enters the floor,  so the couple can join the line of dance with minimal disruption.

More experienced couples dance around the edge of the dance floor.  Less skilled dancers dance in the middle.

When dancing, don’t confuse the social dance floor with a stage (details below).

At the end of a tanda, the man accompanies the women to her seat, before chatting with others or returning to his seat.

Milonga Floorcraft  (or how to respect the line of dance)

All milongas have a line of dance, where couples slowly circulate around the outside of the dance floor in a counter-clockwise direction.

Everyone should stay in their lane and maintain their same position in the line of dance where they started the dance, until the end of a tanda.  No zig-zagging in and out of the line of dance.

Avoid passing the couple in front of you.  Never pass a couple on their right side.  If a couple stops in front of you or is moving slower than you’d like, dance in place with your partner until the other couples starts moving again.

Leads should not teach at a milonga, follows should not ask for tips and no one should ask for suggestions from their partner.  Milongas are social events for enjoyment and pleasure, while practicas, workshops and classes are places to learn how to dance and for tips or questions. Milongas are not places to call attention to what others are doing wrong.

During a dance, particularly on a crowded dance floor, keep your feet on the floor.  No boleos on a busy floor.  That helps avoid injuries to other dancers with a mis-directed spiked heel.

Respect the space of others in front of you and others behind you in the line of dance. There is a small amount of space around you – perhaps a 2’ to 3’ circle – that belongs to you, while the rest of the space is shared space and access is negotiated in the moment with other dancers around you.  It is up to you to understand the difference.

Don’t disrupt the dance of others.  Your responsibility is to keep circulating without bothering other dancers on the dance floor.  If you want to stop talk or work on something, either leave the dance floor or go to the middle.

Practica – A guided tango practice session where dancers can work on new steps and where they can iron out problems with their dance. Music is usually played continuously during a Practica and someone is usually available to assist dancers, as needed.  Milongas, which are more structured, should not be confused with Practicas.

Tango Codigos – Part 2

31 08 2010

During my recent trip to Buenos Aires, I ran across a posting of tango codigos at the Saturday night milonga, Cachirulo at Maipu 444 — one of my favorite milongas in Buenos Aires. The Cachirulo codigos were posted in six languages at the entrance to the milonga. Here is the English version of the Cachirulo tango ‘codes of etiquette’ or codigos which I felt were masterfully written — written conversationally, polite but direct (like the Argentines are so good at)  with an emphasis on only those things that really matter — and with more teeth in them than I had in my earlier draft.   While not stated directly in so many words, the message is clear: mess up, and we will ask you to leave.  We respect our guests too much to let you stay, and the ‘follows‘, in particular, enjoy dancing here because of the safe and comfortable environment which is provided.

The codes in the milonga, Cachirulo

Welcome to the best milonga in Buenos Aires. Tanguero friends, please pay attention.

  • Here we dance milonguero style tango, and we learn to respect the codes of the milonga.
  • We dance with a warm, respectful and close embrace.
  • We follow the line of dance, in a counter-clockwise direction.
  • We try not to step backwards into the line of dance, always walking forward, as it should be.
  • We do not lift our feet too much from the floor; this way we avoid hitting other dancers.
  • We invite women to dance through the classic “Cabeceo del caballero”.
  • Furthemore, and “very important”, respect is the first card we play in the game of the milonga.

Much to our regret, not respecting these codes will make it impossible to dance in Cachirulo.

Don’t get hung up on Cachirulo’s use of the words “milonguero” or “close embrace”, although that is consistent with my personal bias.  It is not about only dancing a particular style of dance.  Substitute the word “traditional” for  “milonguero” or leave out the words “milonguero” and “close (embrace)”  and these tango codigos still apply.

(January 4, 2011 update).     To which I might add:   What’s the hurry?   There is no need to pass; it’s not a race!

The Gavito classes almost brought tears to my eyes

13 08 2010

The second of two Carlos Gavito classes I took yesterday with Maria Plazaola was particularly moving. Maria was Gavito’s last partner. She was in Buenos Aires teaching tango classes on the dance of Gavito at Mansión Dandi Royal for the first time since his death. Since Gavito’s death, she has taught Gavito classes before in Europe, but never before at Mansión Dandi Royal — the hall where Gavito, himself, taught tango. “I’m not Gavito,” Maria said, “I’m not trying to be Gavito. You should not focus on me, only Gavito. No one else will ever be Gavito or dance like him. I’m just trying to share some his steps with you.”

Maria is a warm, soft spoken and humble person. She spoke slowly and deliberately, although her English is excellent. She was clearly pushing through another meaningful moment as part of her own personal growth in tango. While we practiced some steps, she continued to speak of the importance of the feelings — the feelings inside the embrace, the feelings between steps, the feelings in the pauses.

Some dancers in my class had previously taken tango lessons with Gavito in the same hall in 2004 — actually down a half flight of curving stairs to another studio. They kept pointing downstairs to the studio where they studied with Gavito. They of the fact that where there had been mirrors on the walls, where there were now paintings. The memories were still vivid, although Gavito left us a number of years ago.

To Gavito, his life was tango. His life was meaningless without tango. I understand that Gavito knew that he had cancer for about his last ten years. At the time of his death, one of his lungs had already been removed. But he kept dancing and kept smoking. His last tour was to Europe — Italy, I think. He knew his time was short, cancelled the tour and flew home to Buenos Aires. He made his last public performance. He kept dancing, although he knew he was dying. Within a few weeks he was gone.

What is Tango?

9 08 2010

“Tango is the dance of feelings.”

“Tango is what happens between steps.”

“Tango is what happens when you take everything out and all you have left is feelings.”

“On earth, we are all angels with one wing. Only when we come together can we fly.”

from Milongueando 2010 “Homage de Carlos Gavito” film and book launch, La Mansión Dandi Royal, Buenos Aires — August 9, 2010.

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