Friday, November 1, 2013

Tiger & Tango

Why is golf on television so popular?  Golf on television is the greatest inducement to an afternoon nap yet devised.  One guy after another hitting a ball with a stick to the hushed voices of the announcers is like counting sheep to a Brahms' lullaby.  So why the great interest?  People can relate and connect with their heroes.  Just like the kid shooting a basket and pretending he just won the championship game, adults like to imagine similar things. 

 As adults it is hard to connect with many sports heroes because one cannot relate to their activity.  Few of us will ever have the vertical leap to jam over Lebron, and even fewer have any desire or ability to run a football into the jaws of an NFL defense.  But many of us can go out on a golf course and feel that we are experiencing the same sensation as Tiger Woods.  Likewise, tango dancers are less likely to connect to ballet dancers because it is an activity that few can or want to do, but tangueros can relate to their heroes in the tango world because like the weekend duffer vis-à-vis Tiger Woods, the only difference between the new tango dancer and the top level performer is the quality of execution. 

 I suspect most golfers would jump at the opportunity to play a round with Tiger, just as most tangueros would love the opportunity to dance with their favorite dancer.  This is a story about one such night.

The Moment

As she settled into my arms, she comfortably moved into a close embrace, turned her head to the right and placed her cheek next to mine.  The connection was light but felt like it could not be broken.  The music started to flow into me and my body responded with slow movements, but something was different.  As I moved, she moved in perfect synchronicity with me, or should I say, with the music.  It was as though we were each being moved by the music and feeling the emotions of the composer.  I realized immediately that there was no feeling out period required with this woman.  We were straight into the dance and moments away from the zone.  As we moved I gave up all thoughts of steps, patterns or leads and let the music take over as the flow began.  I was aware of the texture of her skin on my face, her muscles contracting and relaxing, her breathing.  Normally when this close I can feel the woman’s heartbeat because it is usually racing, but this time I was only aware of one beating heart.  Had we just synched up so thoroughly?   I felt and sensed her in many ways; but the change started happening.  My vision blurred into an amber haze and I had no need to look where I am going because the floor had emptied, so we could just focus on the music and the dance.  I am not sure if my eyes were open or closed because I had sunk so deep into my mind that my only awareness was how she felt and the way she moved in my arms.  This woman is an artist.  While her technique is impeccable, what makes her an artist is that she has learned how to connect on another level.  Dancing with her is like being enveloped in a spirit that just moves with you like a shadow and imbues you with energy and allows your mind to free up and get in the flow and move into the zone where one can find the moment. 

When our brief dance was over, the room was going crazy with applause but we just looked at each other for a brief moment with that spaced out look that lovers share in afterglow.  Here we were in an old American Legion building, surrounded by pictures of young men getting ready to go off to wars long past, listening to music of Argentine composers long deceased, and it all came together for us for just a few moments, and yet those moments are what I live for.   Moments of connection.


The Back Story

About a year and a half ago I was teaching in Reno and “Forever Tango” came to town to perform at the Nugget for a week.  Being a poor tango teacher, I was not able to afford the ticket price, so I figured I would just have to hear about the great dancing from the rest of the tango community.  A group of locals decided to go to the show together and they announced that after the show they were going to try to go backstage and invite the cast to an impromptu milonga at the local American Legion Hall.  Like Cinderella, I figured I would not be going to that ball, so I went off to work knowing that classes would be pretty small since so many of my students were at the show.  I taught my classes and then hung around the studio feeling a bit low since classes were small and income was negligible.  It was about 11 pm when I left the studio for home.  Since the American Legion Hall was only a few blocks from my house I figured I would stop by and see if the locals had any luck getting some members of the cast to stop by, and if not maybe they would be dancing anyway and I might get a tanda or two.   

As I drove up to the hall there seemed to be light, so I figured I would stop in and see what was going on and at least hear about the show I could not see.  I walked in and was in for a couple of surprises.  A few fold up tables were put together length-wise and seated around the table on one side were about a dozen cast members and on the other side were the local dancers, and what were they doing?  Eating pizza and chatting. 

Now let me paint this picture.  As I entered the entire room went silent and stared at me like I was a homeless guy who stumbled into a posh party.  The cast was gorgeous with most still in stage makeup, and the locals were all dressed to the nines having been out for a big night on the town.  I on the other hand looked especially scruffy.  I have never been known for dressing up for class as I consider it an athletic activity, so I was wearing my usual work out pants and a shirt that was well wrinkled from a night of teaching ballet and tango.  So I was not only uncomfortable for being late to the party and dressed inappropriately, but the table was completely full and there were no open seats.  I quietly said hello to the table at large and skulked over to the refreshment table for a glass of much needed wine. 

As I stood by the refreshment table trying to blend in with the walls I noticed something strange.  I was in a room with wood floors, music playing, a table full of professional and amateur lovers of tango, and NO ONE WAS DANCING!  The cast members were pretty much chatting among themselves, as were the locals.  I suspect none of the locals wanted to be dancing in front of this group of Argentines, and for their part, the Argentines had just finished dancing a couple of shows and probably were not feeling a big need to get out and dance.  At this point in the evening I figured I had already embarrassed myself by showing up, and since I had no place to sit, I figured I would ask one of the local ladies to dance with the hope that people might start dancing and I would not feel so noticeably out of place.

 We started dancing and on the next song a few more of the locals started dancing, and then a few of the Argentines started dancing with each other.  So now people were dancing and things were looking up, but I noticed a funny thing.  Tango segregation.  The locals would only dance with the other locals and the Argentines with the Argentines.  I have never supported segregation!  Something had to be done so I did it.  I walked over to one of the beautiful Argentine women (as if they weren't all beautiful!) and asked her if she would like to dance, to which she assented.  That first dance is what is written about above and we went on to have a few more dances before the evening was over.  The Argentine couples began to strut their stuff, much to the delight of all, and it kind of turned into the “after show, show.”  It also opened up the dancing and the night turned into a great milonga.  In the end, not only did I get to see a show, but in my own way I managed to be a part of the show.   This is why tango is similar to golf.  Kind of like a golfer going out for a round and being joined at the last minute by Tiger Woods, the dancers in Reno that night had their moment of a round with Tiger, and it will no doubt be remembered and cherished by all who were there.

By the way, a couple of days later I found out that beautiful Argentine woman I had been dancing with was Marcela Duran!

You can see her dancing with Carlos Gavito on the video page of this blog.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Composer

We dance in our partner’s embrace and all too often our thoughts are of steps, patterns, leads, follows, dodge this couple, “is that what he wanted?”, “is she getting bored?”   Thoughts going through our mind, and while we are so cerebrally engaged, the true genius of the dance world is all around us, tempting us to follow him on an emotional journey that takes us from the mundane to the sublime.

That genius of course, is the composer and the music he or she creates.  That person who spends much of life alone, playing with sounds and discovering how sounds can be arranged and tweaked to provoke an emotional response in the listener.  It becomes a vocabulary to the composer that reaches out through time and space and speaks to us long after they are gone.  It is amazing to think that symbols and marks on paper can be translated by the talented musician into sounds that reach into our souls, and it can be repeated anywhere, anytime by the person with the talent to convert symbols to sound and emotion.  Just as musicians have the talent to convert symbols to emotion, dancers have an opportunity to convert those sounds into movement that reaches into our souls and plays with our emotions, and this is what I always seek in dancing.  Those brief, fleeting moments that occur far too infrequently in life.  Unfortunately, far too few dancers avail themselves of the gift that they have been given, and far too many move as though it makes no difference what the music is saying.  

Perhaps the main reason I love the tango above all others is it allows the dancer to interact personally with geniuses from other times and places and to express their music with few structural constraints.  A great tanda is when the music reaches into me and I am with a partner who feels the same and together we explore the music.   Steps are irrelevant.  The music tells you what to do if you listen.  As Carlos Gavito said, "When you dance with a partner you are close and the dance is very suggestive, but it is not personal… Close is what the music inspire you to become. The embrace looks personal, but what we are actually embracing is the music.”

Music is the universal language that speaks to all, and we need to understand its language. All too often dancers approach music as a metronome that simply gives us beats to be accounted for.  Music is not just a series of counts or beats that have equal weight, texture and importance, but rather a flowing of sounds that carry us along, evoking an emotional response that only music can.  These composers are taking us to a vision they have and we need to follow them.  This is what we, as tango dancers have to learn if we are going to honor the composer and musicians and as a result, elevate our own experience.

I bring this up because I believe that musicality in tango is the missing ingredient for many dancers trying to make the transition to being high level dancers, not the mastery of steps or patterns.  This is a hard concept for many dancers to understand.  Our lives are generally rewarded as we learn more.  Tests, reviews, competitions, achievements are predicated on learning and demonstrating knowledge and then we are rewarded and we feel accomplished.  It is no surprise that people come to tango with the same approach.  “I want to learn ten signature tango steps” or “I am going to be a gold level Argentine dancer in 3 months”, and other versions of that sentiment have been said to me many times by beginning students, and unfortunately that is the way far too many dancers approach the dance.  The music is playing a beautiful melody and you are trying to flow with the music and your partner simply has an agenda to execute certain moves with no awareness of the music.  This can be the leader who goes through a litany of steps and patterns to show his extensive mastery of these elements, or the follower who is constantly throwing in embellishments to impress her girlfriends, all the while missing the beauty of the music.  I realize this no doubt sounds pedantic because if those people have a good time together then that is a good end unto itself.  I just would like to have more people learn to enjoy a higher level of tango experience and I believe that is accomplished through the music.

Music is unique in our lives in that it evokes an emotional response in us as nothing else can.  We live our lives moving around and thinking all the time, but in an instant we can hear a song or melody and suddenly be transported to another time and place and be aware of that total sensuous experience.  Feelings, smells, emotions all rush back that we had forgotten about over time.  That is the power of music that is sadly ignored far too often.  So how to remedy that?  It is not something that is generally worked on in group classes, so I will give you my approach.

Fortunately music is organized in a way that is buried deep in our DNA and is shared by our fellow humans.  Pythagoras – yes, that Greek who was so annoying to so many math students – also played with sound and discovered that certain vibrations made us feel good, and others gave us unease.  He also discovered that when you doubled the vibrations you had a harmonic duplication.  Over time that distance has been divided into different numbers, but generally the music we listen to is divided into eight parts, or an octave.  As with many things in human history, this evolution is natural in all humans and this awareness of vibrations also evolved in Asia independently.  Why is this important?  Because it gives us map on how to listen and dance to the music, and when we do this, our partner is more likely to connect using the music as a vehicle even if they are not consciously aware.  It is a visceral desire to move in harmony with music.

Music generally starts with a theme or melody that is intended to evoke a certain emotion and therefore it dictates certain ways to move that are in harmony.  Good music, like good dance has limits.  A cacophony of sounds is discordant, as is a multitude of movements with no connection.  Just as music typically has a theme and then repeats or builds or varies a theme, any dance should find the movements that are evoked by the music and then start playing with variations on a theme.  I like to keep the movements simple, generally walking in the beginning, and listen to the music and feel it.  I do not connect with all music and sometimes I just give up and realize I am not going to feel a piece of music and wait for another.  Sometimes I sadly realize that the music will not be realized because of my partner and a failure to connect there.  But when it comes together the feelings is sublime and worth all the work to get there.  Once I feel that I have found the flow of the music it becomes simple to just let the music carry me along and it frees me from having to think about what to do. 

So the next time you are on the dance floor give a thought about what the composer is saying or feeling, and for just a few moments really listen to the music and discover new worlds through the genius of the composer.







Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Teacher

The Teacher
I have written blog posts dealing with many aspects of the tango world, tango etiquette, classroom behavior etc., so now it only seems fair to have a go at the gateway to the world of tango – the teacher.  Rather than a typical column, this will be a bullet point list of things that I look for, or avoid, in a teacher.
Ø     Does the teacher love the dance and have a deep passion to share the experience with the students?  Do not take it for granted that they do.  There are many “dance teachers” who just sell lessons.  You want tango, they go into the back room, watch a video and then teach you a few steps.  You will never discover the passion of tango from this type of teacher.
Ø     Does the teacher have a depth of knowledge? Far too many Argentine tango teachers are really just people who have learned steps and terms, and while being useful in a practica, they are not qualified to help you through the intricacies of the tango. 
Ø     Can they dance beautifully and inspire their students?  I recently went to a milonga and the class prior to the milonga was finishing and the class implored the teachers to perform a dance.  The gentleman said, prior to his dance; “we are not performer, but teachers”.   What a load of garbage.  If you are a teacher, you damn well better be able to dance in a public setting and do it in a way that inspires the students.  Inspiration is more important than the learning of steps, particularly for the beginning student.  Also a large and unappreciated part of the learning process is simply watching and imitating (which is basically how ballet dancers learn in the early years).   If a teacher does not have the comfort and technical ability to “dance the dance” they should not be your teacher.  Again, helpful people in a practica, but not for teaching.
Ø     There is a corollary to the last thought about a teacher being able to perform on a certain level, but beware the great performer who is not a great teacher, which is very common.  There is a saying in the sports world that great players never make great coaches.  The point is indisputable with a quick look at the great coaches of most sports.  It holds true for dancers as well.  Some people are born with so much talent, that they perform their sport or art from the very beginning so well, that they never have to invest much time learning the how, so they are not necessarily the best at explaining to others, how to do something.
Ø     Does your teacher step on your toes and blame you?  Poor form from a teacher.  If the teacher steps on your toes, more often than not, it is the teacher’s fault.
Ø     Does your teacher dance with you?  It does not have to be a constant thing, but I cannot get through a class without at least a moment with all the students, leads and follows.  Dance is a contact sport, after all, and sometimes you need to “feel” what your student is doing, or you may have to impart the feeling a student needs to learn, and nothing beats hands on.
Ø     Along the lines of the last point, does your teacher dance with you socially when the opportunity arises?  Dancing with my students at a milonga tells me volumes about what I need to work on with them to make them better social dancers.  Class is one thing, but the pressure of the milonga in the beginning can bring out issues that you never see in class. 
Ø     Does your teacher know everything?   I don’t think so.  I learn something new in every class I teach.  Beware the expert who thinks they have nothing left to learn.  When a traveling teacher is in town, does your teacher make a point of attending as many classes as possible?  Or is it beneath them to concede that they might be able to learn something from someone else?  Perhaps they are simply afraid of looking bad in class?  Seeing your teacher in class learning is a great way to gauge how good a dancer they are.   Trust me, tango is of such a depth that one never stops learning, if one is a true tanguero.  A good teacher is a good student.
Ø     Now here is a most important point:  Does your teacher allow you and help you feel good about your dancing?  Let me be very clear about this.  As I have said for decades, and written about in other posts; when dancing daily, I have one great day a week, one horrible day a week, and all the rest fall in between.  Therefore the best a teacher can do is to help you enjoy your good days more, and get through the bad days better.  Acknowledgement of improvement, along with corrections will help more people than ongoing criticism.   I have never been a fan of being pushed by negativity or getting angry, though there is a definite school of thought that believes in that method of teaching.  The question I ask is, “ do I feel better having attended a class, whether a good day or bad?”  If the answer is no, I don’t go back. 
Ø     Has anybody heard of the Emancipation Proclamation?  For those who have not, Abraham Lincoln was responsible for it, and it put an end to slavery in the United States.  Unfortunately, far too many dance teachers believe that they own their students.  If a teacher speaks harshly about all other teachers, and insists that you only take from them, you might want to look elsewhere.  If the studio tells you that if you go to another studio, you cannot come back, I would not be going back just because of that attitude.   Now I do firmly believe that in any form of dance, there should only be one or two primary teachers to give you your foundation, but spreading out and seeing the many styles that there are is one of the great joys of dancing; and why would a teacher want to deny their students that pleasure? 

Ø   Does your teacher respect your time?  The teacher should set the example and be ready to go at the beginning of the lesson.  For me, that means arriving early enough to prepare for the class and be ready to work hard from the very beginning.  If a teacher is late once, it might be excused since disasters do happen.  More than once is inexcusable.  Anyone who has ever worked in theater knows that curtains do not wait, and to make others wait is a sign of disrespect.  If you can be ten minutes late all of the time, you can be on time. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Practice like a Pro, Dance like a Pro

So much has been written about the etiquette of the milonga and yet there seems to be nothing out there about the classroom etiquette and the best approach to learning how to become an accomplished dancer.  With over thirty five years of experience dancing in a wide variety of venues, I would like to pass along my experience and the unwritten rules of the professional level dance class, rehearsal & performance. 

The first and most astounding thing I notice about most attendees at an Argentine tango class is that very few  people are actually prepared physically or mentally when the class begins.  People arrive at the last minute, or late, and then start dancing.  I hate to state the obvious, but the Argentine tango is a very physical dance.  The back is twisting, the feet are pivoting, knees and legs are undergoing stresses that are not experienced in normal life, and yet, very few people actually do even the most perfunctory warm up!  The professional dancer always has a ritual to prepare for class or performance, to get the blood moving and the mind prepared.  Go to any golf course, tennis court or sport of your choice and even the most beginning person will know to do a little stretching and warm up.  Failure to be prepared increases the likelihood of injury and wastes your time and the teacher's time because you are not ready for movement.  If a class is an hour long, why do you want to spend the first 20 or 30 minutes waking up your body?  Not only does a warm up help you physically, but it also gets your mind on what you are going to be doing, and you are maximizing your time in class.  I will not even start dancing at a social event without a bit of stretching in the corner before getting on the floor.  So do yourself a favor, arrive 15 or 20 minutes early and be prepared.
So now we are in class and ready to dance, and from my perspective, I see more bad behavior that would never be tolerated in a professional setting. 

Why do you take class or milongas?  To learn something new?  All dancers are students, at least the good ones, and all should always be seeking to learn and expand their dance experience.   And yet, the things I have heard make me shake my head in bewilderment.  "I have danced in fourteen cities and have never heard of that step", was said to me by a "teacher" in a milonga, the intimation being that it must not be a step because she had not encountered it before.   "I have been declared a master by Nito because there was nothing left that he could teach me" was another quote I heard from a so called teacher.  Both of these "teachers" are representative of a mindset that is anathema to the artist and dancer.  How can anyone think that they have learned all there is to know about a dance?   For those who do not know Nito and Elba, let me tell you about them.  They are icons in the world of the Argentine tango and probably have over a hundred years of dancing between them, and yet they are still students.  At a tango convention in Las Vegas in 2002 a young couple who were friends of mine danced in the show put on by the teachers, which is pretty standard at  tango conventions.  Afterward, Nito came up to my friend, Gabriel, and asked him how he danced one of the combinations in their number, and Nito worked on it with him until he got it.  Nito, the eternal student!  And he told someone that they had learned everything and had no need of class?  I don't think so.   Learn from Nito, tangueros.  You do not know everything about tango and never will.  Keep an open mind and learn what you can from every teacher or partner.  It may be different from what you have learned before but you might like it if you try it. 

Accept corrections happily!  I cannot tell you the number of times I have received attitude or arguments about some point.  Class is not the place for disagreement.  Maybe it is contrary to what you have learned, but you might just discover something you had never thought of before.  In a professional setting I have seen dancers extremely upset after class because they had not received any corrections.  Corrections from a teacher are an indication that they care about you and your dancing and want to help you get better.  Even if you are in a bad mood or not having a good dance day, accept the correction with an open mind and a good attitude, or you might not get any further corrections, and you will find it hard to improve on your own. 

So now we are in class, a milonga or show, physically ready with an open mind and ready to dance, learn and have a great time which is guaranteed; I think not.  A word on good and bad dance days.  You will have both, and if you expect to always have a wonderful class and a great time at a milonga, you are going to be very disappointed.  Having spent years of my life dancing in class and on stage six or seven days a week, I realized a long time ago that usually I would have one great class or show a week, one lousy one a week, and the rest would fall somewhere in between.  Have realistic expectations and work through the bad days with a good attitude and an open mind and you will be on your way to dancing like a professional.

There is one other element that I find lacking in many students.  PRACTICE!  Do you really think you are going improve by attending one class a week??  Ask any music teacher, thirty minutes a day is more productive than two hours one day a week.  You are trying to learn new movements in one session a week?  Basically, all you are doing is relearning the same thing every week.  I am amazed at the number of people who have been taking lessons for years and still have not become proficient at the most basic moves.  I have heard "my balance is not good", or "I can do it if I have a partner", meaning someone to hold onto.  Unless one has a physical issue, their balance issues are generally because they do not practice.  You do not need a dance studio to practice walking, ochos or even molinetes.  To this day, I still practice walking when pushing a cart through the grocery store, and I have danced many hours in my little space while avoiding my dogs. Everyone can improve their balance with repetition and practice.

So to sum up:  Warm up, keep an open mind and good attitude, and practice.  Do these things and you will be on  your way to becoming an accomplished dancer who will always be popular in the milonga.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

For Men Only - Women Need Not Read

Ok gentlemen, now that we are alone it is time to talk about "guy" things in tango.  We all know that being the man in pursuit of the Argentine tango is very difficult, especially when first learning the dance, but I have noticed something that is holding back many men and hindering their progress, and that is what I want to address today.   I believe I have an approach that will help men become the type of dancer that women in class and milongas will always want to dance with.

As I have travelled the country teaching and dancing, there is one constant that I have seen in class, practicas and even milongas; men telling women what to do.  The irony is that most of the time I have noticed that they are telling them to do things incorrectly.  I have witnessed men in my class who are  beginners, telling women who are fairly accomplished dancers how to do something, and the advice they are giving them is completely wrong, and the women sigh and try to accomodate the man.  I then step in, show that the woman is doing the move correctly and point out that the problem is the man.  Why is the man assuming the woman is the problem such a constant?  Here are my thoughts.

Men believe that when it comes to a physical endeavours, they are superior to women predicated on testosterone.  Let's face it, men are usually bigger, faster, and stronger when it comes to doing athletic activities than women.  As boys, we are always striving to run faster, jump higher, throw farther and kick harder and because of this, we believe we are superior to women when embarking on a physical venture.  Well guys, I am here to disabuse you of this misconception.  Pound for pound, my experience has taught me that women are in fact, stronger and better coordinated than most men, and there is a reason why this applies particularly to dancing.  While men are much better at kicking, hitting, throwing and lifting, dance is an area where proprioception (detection of body movement and placement) or the subtle use of force, "touch" in athletic parlance, is more important than brute force, and this is an area where women excel.  Before I go further, let me give you a bit of my background as to why I believe I am qualified to talk about this.

Having danced with ballet companies over a period of 25 years, I gained a lot of experience with many ballerinas, and partnering was my specialty.  A friend once told me that in medical school you see people gravitating toward the specialty that matches their personality and skills as they get further into their studies.  Well, the same thing happens in dance.  You can see a dancer who has the body and disposition to be a classical dancer and excels in the classical roles.  Another dancer with a more athletic body and wild personality moves into the sexy jazz styles.  There are the guys who can spin like tops and have the ability to jump high in the air while executing unbelievable moves and they excel in the tour de force of athletic solos.  Early on, I gravitated toward the art of  pas-de-deux or partnering and I excelled at that area of dance, and companies would hire me specifically to partner their ballerinas.  Often a company would have a beautiful dancer who was a bit larger than average and she was not able to dance roles that would be perfect for her because their other men were not capable of lifting and supporting her.  That is where I came in, and it kept me employed for years.  I now want to pass along some of the things I learned, to help you achieve your goals in tango.

If I asked you to shoot a basketball from the foul line, you would try, make adjustments, try again, make more adjustments and on and on.  Well, by yourself, you only have to make the adjustments with your own body.  In learning a move in tango with another body the process is far more complicated, and frequently frustrating, which starts bringing out phrases like "you have to do this"  "you have to move this way" etc.  Well, I am going to give you a few magical phrases that are far more effective in achieving your desired end.  Words like "How does it feel for you?"  "What would help you feel more comfortable?".  And then there is the most powerful of all "we will get it, let's just try it again".  This is especially important to remember when dancing with different women because every woman is different and moves differently, so repetition is a necessary part of adjusting to any woman.  Frustration always brings on tension, and tension is the biggest enemy of good dancing.  Most of the time repetition is the only way to become comfortable dancing with a new partner, so patience and practice is necessary, and making it fun and relaxing will get you what you want much faster.  Even if it is something the woman is doing wrong, it is a wiser man who keeps it to himself.  I have never told a woman after a performance that she had done something wrong.  The strongest admonition I ever would say is, "we had a couple of rough spots, but we will get it fixed for the next time".  Guys, leave the corrections to the teacher.  More often than not, it is easier for the teacher to see the problem since he or she has a better view of what you are doing, and it is always a wiser course, than telling a woman she has done something wrong, not to mention, there is a better than average chance, that you did more things wrong than she did.

There is another phrase that is so powerful men, that we have to keep it to ourselves.  So I am going to pass it along, but don't let the women know that you have learned this secret phrase here.  It is............."I'm sorry", or "that was my bad lead".  Even when it is the womans' fault, or especially when it is the womans' fault, it is the kind of phrase that will have a woman enjoying her time dancing with you more than anything else and isn't that what is the most important thing?.  I have heard women complaining that a man has stomped her foot and then berated her for getting her foot under his!  Guys, dancing is a very complex endeavour and we all make mistakes, yes men, we make mistakes, so owning up to it is the true mark of a gentleman, and will make you the tanguero that the women will be longing to dance a tanda or two with, and thereby giving you the experience you need to become a better dancer, because, let's face it guys, it is much more enjoyable to learn tango with a woman in your arms than to watch videos and practice with a blow up doll.

I realize many guys will believe that this takes the "Argentine" out of Argentine tango, but this is just one dancers' approach that I believe is effective in helping a man become a better dancer.  So let's review the power phrases;  "how does it feel for you?", " what would feel more comfortable for you?", "we will get it, let's do it again"  and the most powerful of all "I'm sorry, that was a bad lead!".

So gentlemen, go forth and have a great time dancing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tango Moments - Beyond Technique

What are tango moments and how do we experience them?  This is a subjective and very personal experience rather than something that we can quantify and label, so I am going to try to relate what the experience is for me and how I seek to achieve the ever elusive tango moments.

We are primarily left brain creatures.  The left brain is the logical, intellectual side of our brain.  Our very, written language encourages the brain shift from right to left.  We are builders and problem solvers and when it comes to tango we see it as a problem to be solved by learning steps, patterns, leads and follows. We want to understand and fix problems as we see them, and then move on to the next problem and fix that. 
Our right brain processes information much faster and is where our creativity resides and as we age we generally become more left brain dominant and disconnect from our earlier creativity.  Meditation is one of the ways that we can shift our brain activity into balance and start to operate on a different level of consciousness.  It is my contention that "Tango Moments" are a result of accidentally stumbling into a brain wave shift similar to that of meditation because of a few factors. 

Zen masters have long used various techniques to affect this brain wave shift.  Repetitive chanting, concentration on conundrums, incense, drumming and  dancing are all methods used to achieve this change.  It is my belief that the combination of music, movement, perfume, textures all shift our brain waves and we go beyond our day to day consciousness and when it all comes together we get into "The Flow".  This is not just a word, but a specific brain function as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago who defines flow as being when one is so absorbed in what they are doing that a euphoric sense of clarity and purpose takes over.  When in flow you act out of an unconscious awareness that is slightly ahead of your conscious awareness.  The lower processing centers receive the information first and during flow you take action before this information goes to the higher levels of processing.*   For me, it is a feeling that I am not actually dancing, but rather the music is going through me and making the choices for me, and my partner is synched up and responding to the music on the same level as though we are one. 

Now I am not here to tell anyone to stop using their left brain.  Far from it.  I want to encourage everyone to learn certain sound techniques of movement, as well as techniques of lead and follow. What I am suggesting, is that there is a time to turn it off, stop hiding behind steps and technique, and just start dancing. Unfortunately, too often, this is where the education stops, and once a dancer has the requisite number of steps and patterns they think they are ready to get on the floor and dazzle everyone.  In the interest of full disclosure, that was the way I started,  I am after all, a left brain creature as well. 

I will never forget one night at a milonga in Las Vegas I was dancing with an Argentine woman and after a tanda she said to me "Morgan, you are a good dancer, but you know too many steps".  Well, I am pig headed, so it took me a couple of more years before I understood what she was saying and applied it.  To this day, I probably dance fewer steps than most  in a milonga, but now I strive to connect not only with the woman, but especially with the music,  

The Music.  For me this is where it all starts.  It is the energy source, the inspiration. The current coursing through my body  passing into my partner and completing the circuit that creates beautiful movement. Sometimes I can shut my eyes, get into the flow and be aware of nothing but my partner and the music and yet be perfectly on balance and aware of  our surroundings without seeing them.  The first time I actually found myself dancing with my eyes closed I was surprised that I did not need visual cues to maintain my balance, and the with no visual input, the awareness of the woman is purely through touch, smell and hearing.  A wonderful sensation.

As a final thought I would like it to be understood that the ability to experience "Tango Moments" is something that is available to anyone who embraces tango; though it is not necessarily experienced by people who have achieved a high level after many years of dancing.  There are certainly minimum requirements and a certain level of commitment is necessary.  The thing that is important is keep it simple, feel the music and connect with your partner and you can definitely get into the zone.

*Many of the thoughts on brain wave activity and so much more were taken from Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell M.D. and her book "The ESP Enigma - The Scientific Case for  Psychic  Phenomena". 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Argentine Tango - The Bottom Up Dance

What do I mean by "bottom up" dance?  The world of dance is divided into two different camps as I see it; bottom up and top down.
The top down dances are the majority of dances, where there is a group of educated, "experts" who dictate to the masses how they should dance.  When you dance ballroom, there is a specified, codified way to do every step.  "Experts" tell you how you have to look, move and smile.  Every couple must strive to look like the standard that the experts have decreed as being correct. If you execute your steps correctly you can win a trophy, and if you are very good, you become the standard on how everyone else is supposed to look and dance.  For many people this is great thing, and gives them something to work towards, as well as the satisfaction of accomplishment.  And whatever gets people out dancing is a good thing.  It just does not work for me.
The reason I fell in love with the Argentine Tango is that of all the social dances it is the most creative and personal dance.  While there are certain elements that are necessary for the effective movement of two bodies together, the Argentine Tango is the dance that allows individual couples to develop their own unique dance that suits their personalities and bodies.  Lets' take body styles.
I have taken classes with some teachers who are young,short and powerful and they move with great speed and precision that takes my breath away.  As much as I like their dancing, it does not work for my body, training and personality.   As I am taller, I am more comfortable dancing a smooth, lyrical style of dance that is more flowing and relaxed.  Even when I do dance in a style that is counter to my preferred style, I do not feel at home with it, and therefore do not enjoy it as much.  Also along the lines of body types, there is no one tango embrace.  How can a tall slender couple with long limbs have the same embrace as a short, stocky couple?  They cannot and should not try, and that does not mean that they cannot have a fulfilling and enjoyable dance experience. Tango is a dance where the dancers find their satisfaction in connecting with another person and the music, and when it comes together they find "tango moments" which keep them coming back for more.  It is not about winning awards or defeating other competitors or applause, but about finding a connection with another person and sharing a physical, musical experience.  More of a Zen type experience. 
Many years ago I taught for some Fred Astaire studios and learned much of their syllabus.  I worked at another Fred Astaire studio for a short time a couple of years ago and noticed the syllabus had made many changes.  Apparently the experts had decided to update steps and add patterns so all the students would have new things to work on.  That is how things change in the ballroom world.  Top down.
In the world of Argentine tango, the change comes from the dancers themselves.  You think you know Argentine tango, and then you go to a show or milonga and see people doing something you have never seen before.  They are doing similar steps, but have taken them in a whole new direction.  In fact, the history of tango is pretty much one of a constantly evolving dance and music.  From the early period of rhythmic street dancing in the barrios that evolved into the salon style of dance that has evolved into "Nuevo" style tango.  The changes come from the dancers to suit changing music and fashions.  This is what makes Argentine Tango an art form; it is always changing, evolving and morphing into something new.  The traditional does not go away, it is simply added to.  Any art must allow the artist the freedom to create what they feel and let the public decide if it is good.  Unfortunately, there are always those who want to stifle creativity and become the arbiters of what is good and  "correct".  People who want to be those at the "Top" to make the decisions (and money) on how we should dance tango.  It was done once to tango, and now there are those trying to do it again.
In the early twentieth century some Argentine dancers found their way to Europe and their dance was embraced in the salons of the fashionable.  It was made even more popular when Rudolf Valentino danced it in a couple of his movies.  It was then hijacked by "experts" who codified it, turned it into a competition event and decided how everyone should dance it, and it is now the ballroom tango that we see in the competitions.
We have the same thing going on in the Argentine tango world now.  Some people have come out with videos for bronze, silver and gold syllabus' so that we now can memorize steps and compete for trophies and acclaim for being the best tango dancer, as ordained by the experts.  It seems to me that this is anathema to what Argentine tango is about.  When someone tells me how I have to dance, what I cannot do, or what music is acceptable or not, I just shake my head.  And trust me, you will have people telling these things. Beware the tango police!
My advice; learn the basics from someone who understands the fundamentals of balance, posture, axis, and not just a teacher who doles out steps and patterns.  All those steps and patterns will do you no good in a crowded milonga anyway. Take classes from a variety of people, use what you like from different teachers, find a partner, and go invent your own dance.  Who knows, you might just start the new "nuevo tango" and at the very least, you might discover your own tango moments.
Bottom up, that is the gift of the Argentine Tango.