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.