Grrl Power - the Good Stuff

Once again I'm inspired inspired by Stephanie over at J'ai mal aux pieds, and her article about The Myth of Women Competition (http://jaimalauxpieds.blogspot.com/2009/12/myth-of-women-competition-or-my.html). I've heard similar rumors from other communities about women competing for dances, for prime tables and seating etc. etc. - an overall atmosphere that women must compete with one another for dances.

"Milongas are for dancing, not socializing."
"There's never enough men!"
"Men always want to dance with... dancers younger than me/older than me/beginners/advanced dancers . . ."

I can't tell you how grateful I am to have never encountered this attitude. I've never known so many beautifully talented, brilliant, gorgeous women as I have in tango. Women who have encouraged me to come out when I was feeling to blue, too tired, too sore - whatever. As much as I talk (well, write) about experiences dancing making my milonga - so many times, it's my experiences with my girl friends that have made my night. We learn from each other. Share secrets. Trade stories. Occasionally covet each other's shoes!

From the woman who's been dancing longer than any of us, to the one who started lessons last week, we gather during the milongas, scoot together at the tables, share wine and stories - occasionally practicing our cabeceo on each other. We laugh at the fact that we're so lucky that it's hard to finish a conversation since we're each getting up to dance so much. And we laugh when we get to catch up and actually finish a story. Maybe because it's still new for me to have so many friends outside of my work, that bonding with my girl friends is every bit as rewarding as the most blissful tanda. Every bit of it is "the good stuff" of the milonga.

Entrega soup

After reading Alex's response to my last post, I found my response getting too long to leave in the comments.

He wrote:, "There are many tango communities where the overwhelming majority of followers prefer (demand?) this style..."

Alex - your choice of words is appropriate - I do find myself just on the edge of "demanding" estilo milonguero - though I don't mean to. I want to adapt to my partners - to match their styles and preferences. However my preferences show through whether I mean them to or not. In open embrace, with a more nuevo-style dancer, I have experienced entrega one time. With milonguero and apilado dancers, I experience entrega frequently. So I find myself playing the odds. Who wouldn't? (And when a typically open embrace dancer pulls me close to him, whether to execute a step or maybe to experiment, I wonder if he can feel the "thank you for this" in my embrace?)

Regarding your wonderful posts about surrender (found here and here), I had one thing to add that I think plays a very important role in a woman's ability to surrender to the lead - the venue. I have had several opportunities where I have wanted to offer so much more to my partner, and to our dance, but I couldn't because we were dancing at Tazza Fresca. The venue itself is wonderful - warm and inviting, friendly. But the experience on the pista can be utter chaos which leaves me feeling too intimidated, too nervous, to let go. At Esquina on the other hand, the floor can be so packed that I can hear the quick inhale of the follower behind me, and still surrender to the embrace of my leader.

It's not about the sophistication of my partner's lead, or his repertoire of steps - though it is very much about his experience of the music - almost more than my experience of it. If he feels nothing for the music - I can't find my way to him through the music. Yet my experience of a piece of music has been transformed by my partner's love of it.

The possibility of entrega emerges from this mixture of things - my leader's connection to the music, the feeling of relative safety in the venue - and another thing that is hard for me to describe. He has to want it. There are men I've danced with who feel, to me anyway, that they would prefer not to feel responsible for the surrender of their follower. It feels like it would be unwelcome. It's too much. We come to tango for different reasons and some dancers want to enjoy the dance and the music a different way than I want to. That's life.

So many things fall into place to create that moment - and it passes too quickly. In our culture it's amazing we have this experience at all - let alone an avenue to recreate it. It humbles me to think about it.

Hold me like you mean it.






“The great living experience for every man is his adventure into the woman. The man embraces in the woman all that is not himself, and from that one resultant, from that embrace, comes every new action.” -- D. H. Lawrence

(Photo credit: New York Times article "Argentine Nights" by Denny Lee back on March 16, 2008.)


Over at J'ai mal aux pied, Stephanie has written a thought-provoking entry asking readers what it is that they most want to feel in an embrace. Johanna, at Tangrila, author of The Tao of Tango, sums up what does it for her with her post, "I'm so easy to please."

What feels best to you? How do you want to be embraced? Is it different with different partners? Different music?

The picture above, from Tejastango.com shows the most obvious characteristics of my favorite embrace. I like to feel the man's right arm all the way around my back - and I like it pretty firm compared to some followers I've talked to. One woman who shares my love of that sensation describes it as, "hold me like you mean it." Good description. In a way it doesn't matter how you hold me in the mechanical sense - but hold me like you mean it. Hold me like it's personal. That's not to say that I don't want the leader's arm doesn't move, or lift, or slide as we move, as we change our positions to accommodate the dance itself. And I'm not fond of the boa constrictor embrace - I do like to be able to breathe. The embrace can feel slightly fluid, but it always comes back to that all encompassing feeling of safety and warmth.

How do you like to be embraced?

A tango story . . .

This experience I'm about to relate sounds like such a tango cliche. . .

A small group of dancers from out of town visited a local milonga. The oldest of the group, a man in perhaps his late 60's or early 70's invited me to dance after quite a smoldering cabeceo. I had never seen him before, but as I'd only been dancing a few months, I wasn't especially surprised by that fact. He didn't say a word as we walked to an empty space on the edge of the floor - only nodded and smiled very slightly. I was nervous and tried not to show it. He held out his left hand and as I took it, I wrapped my left arm around his shoulder. His embrace took me completely by surprise.

He embraced me as if he'd known me for ages - as if we had history. No hesitation, no fear. His arm reached around me, his fingertips applying soft pressure to the right side of my ribcage. He waited - the music had started, but he hadn't moved - he was just waiting. How can it feel like he's waiting and yet not hesitant? I can't explain. A question waited on his fingertips - are you going to let me give you this embrace? Was I going to fall into the abrazo - or maintain pressure against his arm?

I leaned in. Fell in. I took a deep breath against his chest. His hand flexed slightly against my side and we took off with the next phrase in the music. I don't know what he led or if I followed it all correctly. If mistakes were made he just worked with it and moved on. I felt him breathe in and out with the music. Between phrases occasionally he would take in a deep breath and his arm would lift slightly, settling back in as he exhaled and propelled me down the line of dance.

I don't think we said more than a few words to each other between songs or at the end of the tanda. And I don't remember what those words were. I forgot them instantly. At the end, he let go of me as one lets go of the past, of paths never taken. I let go of him the way I let go of a daydream - shaking off wisps of imagined futures. I don't know his name or where he was from. Asking seemed at once irrelevant and at the same time, too personal. I haven't seen him since.

We aren't precisely ourselves when we dance - or not only ourselves. We are all of the things we need each other to be in those few moments. At once strangers, whole new worlds, to each other and yet infinitely known, recognized. In the perfect embrace of our imperfect souls, we can feel all the possibilities in our past and our future.

So, I'll ask you the same question with my fingertips resting on your back - will you let me give you this embrace?


Tango Moments of WIN - "IMMT"

"It Made My Tanda/Milonga"

You may have seen the very funny website, "It Made My Day" (http://itmademyday.com/) - or "IMMD". People post something they overheard or saw that made them laugh (or sometimes just feel good). I have frequently caught myself thinking that one particular thing made the tanda wonderful, or even my whole evening at a milonga. Sometimes something funny happened and took the pressure off.

So how about you? Can you think of something that made your tanda? Or your whole milonga?

Here are a couple of mine . . .

I was dancing with one of my favorite partners when the beautiful song "Malena" came on. My partner hummed softly to the beginning, and then very quietly sang along - in Spanish. And then in English. IMMM

Just as I was about to leave a particularly rough milonga, a very sweet tanguero asked me to dance. I told him I was so tired and not dancing well, and he said "that's okay, we'll just walk." And we did. It was the most soothing, beautiful dance all night. IMMM

Addendum

I had so many more to add, I had to wait until I got home to write them up!

After a challenging and exhilarating Biagi tanda, the music stopped and I was still breathless. Instead of letting go of me, my leader hugged me closer for just a moment before walking me to my table. IMMT

She was the first person to greet me at my first milonga (I was literally shaking I was so nervous) and when I said goodbye, she hugged me like she'd known me for years. IMMM

When this particular tanguero (with whom I took vals classes) looks for me during a vals tanda - It Makes My Tanda.

When I realized that the talented leader I'd just had a lovely dance with was the same tanguero I had been corresponding with online (neither of us had any idea who the other was) - It Made My Tango Festival.

Generally speaking, when I can feel my leader being moved, physically and emotionally, by the music - IMMT - often, it IMMM.

Okay, I have to stop now or I'll be at this all night. So many moments like these...

Thinking too hard

"So, pick and choose. Improvise. Hide away. Run after them. Stay still. Move at an astonishing speed. Shut up. Scream a rumor. Turn around. Go back without returning. Upside down. Let your feet do the thinking. Be comfortable in your restlessness. Tango." Tango and the Political Economy of Passion by Marta E. Savigliano

Something is up, but I don't know what. I'm restless. I'm writing, but nothing is good enough lately. Nothing comes out the way I want it to. With my friends, I'm either reaching out or pulling away, but never still. I'm dancing more because I'm having such a hard time writing. I want to dance until the buzzing in my head goes quiet. All my thoughts feel like white noise with no content - like the scrolling headlines on the news channels. It's all important, so none of it is. There's just too much.

No more excuses . . .

At least there's one more tiny victory. I no longer start every tanda with a new leader with the words, "I've only been dancing a few months . . . " I realized it ultimately doesn't matter. At first I just told myself I'd see how the first song went. If i completely embarrass myself, then I'll say I've only been dancing a few months. As soon as I stopped beginning with that statement, I started dancing better. I thought I was lowering their expectations by warning them that I was still fairly new. But I wasn't. I was lowering my own expectations. And I was, in turn, dancing to those expectations before dancing with my partner. When I stopped saying those words before the tanda started - I didn't need to say them later.

Saturday night wallflower

I was a little gloomy Saturday night at Esquina. So many people I didn't know at the milonga. At one point almost half the room was filled with people I didn't know. It's been awhile since that's happened. It was like starting over. I was nervous. This was my favorite venue - my most comfortable milonga, and I was turning into a wallflower. I tried to cabeceo a leader I've really been enjoying dancing with lately, but he was across the pista. In the low light I couldn't tell if I was cabeceo-ing him, or the bar stool next to him. (My vision really is that bad in low light - even with contacts.) Embarrassing really. Eventually he came over to me, thank goodness, and we had some lovely dances.

Angry tango

I also had a good tanda with a gentleman I always seem to be annoyed with lately. Maybe he's baiting me. You know what, I'm sure he's baiting me. He says I dance better when I'm angry because I stop thinking about dancing. There might be something to that, but it's still annoying. At practica he told me I should learn to do something some particular way (I'm sorry I should remember what that was he told me to do but I was so annoyed that I forgot it.)

Anyway, he said, when you learn to lead, you'll need to be aware of . . . ( whatever that was that I've already forgotten.)

I answered, why would I want to lead? I can barely follow - I don't want to learn to lead.

You should, he answered, all of the good ones do.

The good ones what?? Ms. Milonguera doesn't lead,
I shot back triumphantly. (Ms. Milonguera is one of the dancers I most admire not only for her dancing skill and grace, but also for her very generous spirit within our community. So I did not invoke her name lightly into this argument.)

Well, she should!!
as if that was that. Finito.

Ass. I'm so going to blog this!
Ha. I got the last word. I turned on my heel and strode to the bench.

Damn. He was so baiting me again. I could hear him laughing behind me.

Great. DH has weighed in on this argument after the fact. He thinks I should learn to lead too. It might make me a better follower, says he. I think he, along with my grandmother, have grand ideas of me becoming a tango teacher (so that I can afford my bi-annual trips to Buenos Aires that I day dream about incessantly).

Fancy Feet

The first time I watched the video of myself dancing, I thought my feet looked so terrible. Instead of being turned out a bit, walking on the inside edge, my feet were turned inward. I looked pigeon-toed and awkward. I was following what was led, not making mistakes, and I felt well connected to my partner. But I just couldn't take my eyes off my feet. So, I told myself I'd continue working on it, but ultimately what mattered most was my connection to my partner and my ability to follow what's led. After all, my leader can't see my feet. Right?

Still, I watched other dancers. I asked teachers and followers about balance and foot placement. I put into practice what Silvina Valz taught about ochos (and the various steps that can be led from that position) which was to keep the knee of the non-weighted leg slightly behind (instead of in front of) the weighted leg's knee. That makes the appearance of the swivel or pivot sharper and allows for faster and easier change of direction. (I may not be explaining this well, so if someone has a better explanation of how she teaches that, please feel free to comment on it. It was a very visual thing.) Silvina also taught a sort of helpful visualization about pivots as "drilling into the ground" as if the goal is to actually execute the pivot below the surface of the floor. The visualization is extremely helpful for creating a stable pivot and eliminating wobble.

During a workshop given by Stephen Shortnacy and Mardi Brown, I learned how to do pretty moves like leg wraps, very, very small (with the heel pointed down) so that my feet and legs could be pretty without pegging all the dancers in a three foot radius. Yet more tools for my tango toolbox. A similar demonstration to what was taught in that class can be seen here (notice how Jennifer Bratt consistently keeps her heel pointed to the floor, particularly the leg wrap at 0:30 and again at 1:09 when she steps over Ney's foot.) Jennifer also keeps her boleos very small and controlled.

Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elMyNZId4Zc

When I had my lesson with Daniela Arcuri she repeated over and over, step with the inside edge! Don't walk on the outside of the foot. (In fact, my dance shoes were already worn on the outside edges of the heels - making it that much harder to stay on the inside edge.) Here is a (very elaborate) demonstration of what Daniela was talking about. Instead of focusing on the embellishments themselves, watch the angle of her ankles and feet.

Daniela Arcuri
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLdB1h16lMI

I continued practicing ochos with my ever-loyal double oven who makes up for lack of strong leading skills by being constantly available. One of the exercises I was practicing was this (again keeping the non-weighted knee a little behind the weighted one and staying on the inside edge of my foot):

Gavito and Maria - ocho/lapiz exercises
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5bopI-8ArU

Skip ahead a few months, dancing at the milonga at Texas French Bread. I happen to open my eyes and peer over the shoulder of my partner to see restaurant diners watching the dance floor intently - a few even taking pictures. They're not taking pictures of all of us as a whole - they're taking pictures of our feet! I'm not even wearing fancy tango shoes and two women snapped pictures of my partner's and my feet. Well, I thought, they're not dancers. These are probably the same people who watch So You Think You Can Dance and think that's Argentine tango. Of course they watch the feet. For them, that's where the action is.

Now to last night's practica which had a great turn out. Again, as my partner and I were dancing past the line of seated dancers, I looked over my partner's shoulder to see the majority of them watching everyone's feet. Now these are dancers. These are, for example, leaders that I'm hoping will ask me to dance later.

Oh. Now I get it. That's why it matters what your feet look like. Generally, your leader won't know if your feet are pretty or well-positioned unless it affects your ability to follow what's led. It can, however, influence how skilled you appear on the pista - and that can affect who asks you to dance. Connection maybe king - but if you never get the chance to connect, the point is moot. The feet matter.

As I was pondering the implications of that, I started dancing with my next partner. He smiled at me and said, "I was watching in the mirror and your ochos are beautiful - very well-styled. Don't lose that."

Pardon? My ochos? Was I finally starting to get it?

I could hardly wait to tell my oven!

Important Note: Johanna just reminded of something very important that I didn't emphasize nearly enough. It's not fancy embellishments and adornments that result in more advanced leaders asking us to dance. One of the very best dancers I know does very few adornments and yet there's practically a waiting list to dance with her at milongas. Her connection, her embrace and her graceful musicality make her one of the most desirable followers in our community. So it's not so much that I needed to learn something fancy to make my feet more attractive - but I needed tools to make my execution of steps less unattractive. By not paying attention to what my feet were doing, I was looking awkward, off balance and wobbly. Keeping my heel pointed down and walking on the inside edge of my foot are simple things (though definitely not easy things) for me to work on that make me feel, and look, for stable and less awkward on the floor.

My Body's Conspiracy

Some days I feel like my body is conspiring against me.

First it was the heat . . .

Friday night in the midst of the most wonderful dances, I felt suddenly too warm. Then hot. Then very, very hot. Not the kind of hot from a warm room filled with lots of people dancing - I mean radiating hot. This after making a concerted effort to relax all of the muscles that I could - to release tension. After reading Movement invites Movement's post. I decided to try a little conservation of energy as it were. And it was working. Releasing all of that tension that was keeping my muscle taut was making me feel cooler. Of course it helped that I was dancing primarily with favorite partners to favorite music -relaxed and comfortable.

And suddenly I wasn't.

At first I thought it's much too early for it to be that and then I checked my watch. Almost midnight. Never mind. It was right on time.

(Warning: Like it wasn't bad enough that I wrote about bras and body odor - now I'm going to write about menopause. Or technically perimenopause in my case.)

Hot flashes. Fabulous. I was already flushed, but I think I deepened a shade at the thought. It's silly to be embarrassed - and mostly I'm not. Just at these inconvenient times. I excused myself and stood by a cracked open door that was letting in the night's cold air. While it felt so good, I could still hear my mother's voice saying, 'you'll catch pneumonia doing that!' I decided to take that chance. No clothes to change into I just waited it out. The heat wave didn't really stop for about an hour - but going to stand by the door helped.

The lovely bottle of wine brought by another dancer may not have helped the heat, but it certainly made me feel a little better about it.

Then it was the pain . . .

I'm hoping it's just the cold weather causing ever increasing bouts of pain. I don't want to think it's a new baseline level for me. I refuse to believe it. At least it waited until the next morning to really hit me and didn't start during the milonga as it's done before. I decided to risk it and go to Saturday's milonga anyway. Often the pain gets better with dancing - or maybe I just don't feel it as much. It doesn't matter - the end result is feeling better. I didn't dance well. I kept having to change stance (in some cases shifting weight without my partner and then quickly trying to shift back - which never works) to favor parts that were hurting. My balance was suffering. The later it got the more I felt it. And the pain was getting worse, not better. Then the heat rolled in again. I wasn't even dancing when it hit.

I didn't make it to the end. I said my goodbyes and called it a night.

By the time I got home, the heat had subsided and I was freezing cold - so cold that I couldn't bear the thought of icing down my muscles and feet. I crawled into bed and dreamed of dancing. Tonight I'm missing practica so that hopefully I can dance again by Tuesday.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

To all the men I've dissed before

The emails keep coming, along with comments, and so far, one phone call. My ranty post, "Insert Rude Gesture" has generated rather a lot more feedback than I anticipated it would. I have also heard from a few of the tangueros who made the comments that inspired the post. The responses have ranged from. "I didn't mean it like that" - to "I never said that" (actually I still have your email right here, boy-o.) It doesn't really matter who said what, when. Those exact comments are all over dance forums and mailing lists.

The email that gave me the most pause was the one that said, "you promised no trash-talking on your blog." That's true. And my last post rode that line. I still reserve the right to rant and rave occasionally because it's still my blog and my soapbox. I didn't think I was getting personal but it was taken that way. I am sorry for that. However, I am not sorry for my opinions. My post may have seemed harsh - and it was certainly more caustic than my usual entries - but that doesn't change the meaning of what I wrote. However, it's almost impossible to learn when you're being defensive. And I was being very defensive.

So here is all I was trying to say: don't judge.

I don't judge another dancer's skill, commitment level, sensitivity, artistry, musicality, ability to hold their axis - based on what style of tango they prefer. I don't associate their preferences with some sort of character flaw. And just as I'm tired of hearing that estilo milonguero dancers are boring or can't maintain their own axis, nuevo dancers are tired of hearing that they're only it for the show/can't manage the space on the floor. Those are generalizations and ultimately do a disservice to our community. We're human and it's our nature to sort - in this case to divide people into "dances like we do" and "doesn't dance like we do".

Tango is personal - in your face, body-to-body, heart-to-heart personal. It's hard not to get defensive when someone else's taste in the dance/style/embrace seems so alien to us and vice versa. But if we're all respectful of each other, the floor and the music - there's room for all of us on the pista.

Insert Rude Gesture

[rant]

I don't mind dancing open embrace. I don't even mind being led nuevo moves if there's room on the floor (despite my boleo-bashing rants I occasionally post.) There are a few leaders I dance with on a regular basis that dance only open embrace and I enjoy dancing with them.

What I do mind is being told that I enjoy close embrace/estilo milonguero/apilado because:

1.) it's easier than open embrace/nuevo,
2.) I don't have to be on the music (wtf?)
3.) I don't have to support my own weight,
4.) or maintain my balance/axis,
5.) because I'm (with the rest of apilado dancers in particular) lazy. (double wtf??)

I also don't agree that I should like open embrace/nuevo because it "exposes all your mistakes and makes you a better dancer."

[/rant]

PS - I did try to come up with a classier title than "Insert Rude Gesture" but since the first working title was "Bite Me", I figured that was improvement enough.

Continuing on Slow, Slow, Slow . . . Gavito

More apilado from Gavito

This was posted on Dance Forums, referring to Gavito's Basic (as an elegant, alternative way to get the lady to cross). I can hear my inner tango dancer saying, slow down . . slow ... slow...




And to the leader who said leads who spend all their time "just walking to the cross or something" (and not doing anything more flashy) are dull - there's nothing boring about these cruzadas, baby.

Homesick - Fandango de Tango

When I had only been dancing a few months, I attended two milongas at Fiesta de Tango, held at Austin's Omni South Hotel. It was a beautiful affair. The music was wonderful and the events were well attended. I was told it would be a great opportunity to dance with new people and how exciting that would be. When I got there, all I could do was look for familiar faces. Back then, there weren't too many. I danced with a few people, tried to mingle a bit, watched the performances - but mostly I was too nervous to relax and enjoy myself. Everything felt too big - the floor, the crowd. Too overwhelming. It made me miss my regular weekend milongas. I felt homesick for familiar surroundings and familiar people.

This time, ten months into my tango life, I expected to have an easier time at Fandango de Tango, held by the same organizer, Ricardo Moncada (Learn to Dance Austin) at the same venue. When I walked in with my friend, I immediately looked for familiar faces. I was nervous already. Crowds of people I didn't know. Finally I was able to pick out dancers I knew, especially comforting were the faces of those tangueros I look for at every milonga - my "security blanket" leaders who make me feel treasured and secure on the milonga floor. I actually felt my shoulders relax a little bit.

I danced more this time. Mingled more. Met (and danced with) new people. I was especially excited to dance with a tanguero from California that I hadn't even known would be attending. It was pure luck that he asked me to dance and I recognized him from his picture online. Tango is a smaller and smaller world. Even though this time was easier than the last festival - I still couldn't relax. I forgot everything. I couldn't keep my posture in check. I couldn't keep my shoulders from tightening and pulling me away from my partner. My heels kept catching on the seams on the temporary dance floor. There were so many wonderful things in the evening - dancing to favorite songs with favorite partners - but I still felt home sick. Anxious. Self-conscious.

I'm glad I went, even though the price was steep - $45 for one milonga! The performances were beautiful. I especially loved watching Nito & Elba and Facundo & Christy. Both of those couples exemplified the kind of tango I love to see and want to dance. Graceful, musical, connected, gorgeous. Most of the other performances were beautiful too, of course - very acrobatic, athletic, dramatic - but more like watching modern dance than tango. Beautiful, but not the same. I paid the entrance fee last night mostly to see Nito and Elba and their performances were worth every penny. Watching Facundo & Christy tear up the floor for a fantastic milonga was a wonderful bonus. I wasn't at all familiar with their dancing before this and I was just awed by their talent.

The next festival for me is Austin Spring Tango Festival in March. It's being held at Dance Institute, very familiar territory at least. By then maybe I'll be more confident or at least less self-conscious. Meanwhile, I can hardly wait until Tuesday's regular milonga at Texas French Bread - cozy and relaxed.

(Thank you so much, Eduardo, for the picture and the dances!)

The Nose Knows: Part II - Odors

The Sweaty Truth

This is a tough topic for everyone. The Tango Jungle has a marvelous, and vividly descriptive post called "Something Stinky This Way Comes" that addresses the pitfalls of poor personal hygiene. Here's just a sample:

"It was a heady, complex bouquet of rotting meat, sweaty feet, rotten eggs, musty clothes, kitchen grease, and Roquefort dating back to the French Revolution. Dude. Was. Ripe. "

I'm no angel in this department - I've had my share of embarrassing experiences. First of all, I don't "glow". I wouldn't even use the word "perspire" because it sounds too classy for the state I frequently find myself in. I sweat. At one milonga last spring, the AC went out at the venue and all of the dancers, myself included, were just pouring sweat. These things happen. If you want to keep dancing, you learn how to deal. Which means I have learned that nothing, but nothing, takes the place of being scrupulously clean before I head out to the milonga.

If I'm coming directly from work I have a kit of products at my desk that help get me presentable pronto. In a pinch, you can use bath or baby wipes, then reapply deodorant, powder etc. Here's my kit, which may be a bit heavy duty for some people, but it works for me.

The biggest investment is actually DermaDoctor's MEDeTATE which are anti-perspirant towelettes that treat hyperhidrosis (over productive sweat glands). If you want to feel dry for hours and hours of dancing - this is the stuff. But at $48 a box for 30 sheets, it may not be worth that much to you. I adore it.

To freshen my hair there are two products that have very mild scent that do a great job: Jonathan's Redo Spray (especially good for dry hair, very lightly floral/almondy scent) and Oscar Blandi's Pronto Dry Shampoo Powder (better for normal to oily hair, lemon verbena scent.) This powder can also work nicely as a makeshift body powder.

I also use L'Occitane's Mint Verbena Icy Powdered Foot Gel (before and after dancing) and Verbena Ice Hand Cream Gel - both feel cool to the touch and leave a soft powder feel. I do have a thing for lemon verbena, so I'm sure I'm guilty of smelling like lemons, but when I've asked, I've been told it's barely noticeable after application. (Local blog readers, please tell me if you notice otherwise!) :-)


Wardrobe Malfunctions

Unlike the gentlemen, in general we ladies can't just run to the loo and change outfits. Our clothes have to make it the duration - though there are a few things we can change if we need to (and since I usually wear skirts, I do occasionally bring a spare tank top). However, bringing a spare dress is not really practical. Gentlemen, you do have the option of changing shirts and for your comfort if nothing else, I can certainly recommend it. Frankly, sweat doesn't bother me and I can't help being a teensy bit suspicious of tango dancers that never seem to perspire. Have they been dancing in the same room I've been dancing in?

Over at Ask Arlene, there are some great resources and suggestions about clothes (and fabric considerations) for tango and she also has an excellent post on hygiene that I highly recommend.


Food Borne Stink-ogens

I love garlic. I love curry. I love to cook Indian and Italian and my kitchen will smell like rogan josh for days when I prepare it. Unfortunately, so will I. Pungent spices, particularly when cooked in oil, stay in your skin, your hair, your clothes - everywhere. Did I give up my favorite foods for tango? Nope. I just relegate those to early in the week so that I can get it out of my system before the milonga.

In other words, right before the milonga is not a good time for shrimp scampi, people. I force myself to pass on the chorizo empanadas for sale at the milonga even though they smell so good. Likewise I pass on the garlic-herb crackers at the snack table. (Seriously - who brings stuff like that to the milonga??? Why don't we top off those crackers with some bleu cheese and pepperoni. yeeesh...)


Dragon Breath

Speaking of food . . . our skin might not be the only thing that's freshness-challenged. I've become nearly obsessive about oral hygiene. Part of this is because I generally have a dry mouth and so I am prone to less-then-stellar breath if I'm not careful. One particularly honest tanguero asked me, as delicately as he could, which is to say not very delicately at all, if maybe my oral hygiene routine could use some upgrading.

Yikes. Excuse me while I try very, very hard not to exhale and find some mints in my purse. I was beyond embarrassed. But at least he told me - and he did it in a mostly polite sort of way that thankfully no one else overheard. Still, the point was made. This stuff matters and people notice.

Which reminds me of the very best advice I've received on the subject - when someone offers you a mint or gum - never turn it down. Maybe they're being nice - or maybe they're trying to tell you something. Take it and say thank you.

Before the milonga I brush my teeth (and my tongue), floss and use mouthwash. Because I drink wine and occasionally eat something while I'm at the milonga I have little GoSmile Brush Ampoules that whiten teeth and freshen breath. (And keep the wine from staining my teeth.) Also, those little Listerine strips are fabulous. My dentist would be so proud. If you want a less costly alternative, check out Oral-B's Brush Ups.

The Nose Knows - Hygiene, fragrances and the milonga

Just when you thought I couldn't pick a more embarrassing, personal topic than bras - I go and bring up hygiene and beauty habits. Let's face it - it's bound to come up. We're packed in like sardines, embracing one another - it's hot, there are empanadas to be had. These things happen. Some of this post comes from my dozen (or so *cough*) years in the beauty industry schlepping perfume - and some of it comes from embarrassing experiences of my own. Since this is a fairly big topic (that seems to be coming up a lot in coversation lately), I'm going to break this up into a few posts.

Part I: Fragrances (as opposed to odors)
Part II: Odors, or why you should never turn down a mint.
Part III: Tricks, tips and handy little helpers.


Part I - Perfume and Cologne

Here are the basic rules about fragrances:

Fragrance Fatigue: If you've been wearing the same fragrance regularly for awhile - you can no longer accurately gauge how strong it smells on you. I promise I'm not making that up. Your nose becomes accustomed to the scent and it becomes a "baseline". A rule of thumb, whatever amount you think you should wear for a night at the milonga - wear less.

In Your Face Part I: This one is tricky because of the aftershave issue but generally speaking, don't wear fragrances on your neck if you're going to be dancing close-embrace. Your partner is going to have their schnoz right there at your neck and if that particular fragrance isn't their cup of tea, it can make for a pretty uncomfortable dance. Pointer for ladies - your cosmetics frequently have fragrance too. I had to stop wearing my Lancome foundation and powder because the rose fragrance of the products were too strong for my husband. Just something to keep in mind.

In Your Face Part II: Gentlemen, with regards to aftershave which of course goes on the beard line, you have a choice to make. The same thing applies - your partner is going to have her nose right against your jaw. If the cologne you're wearing is not a hit with her - it could make for a pretty long tanda. My advice, get the least scented product that you can live with. Use as little as you can to do the job. That's not to say I don't appreciate a nicely scented man - I do. The problem is I may love your cologne, but the next follower may hate it. If you wear cologne, you're going to have to play the odds.

Product Layering: Have you been told about the features and benefits of layering your fragrance products to benefit your skin and prolong the wear of the scent (or some such schpeel)? Forget it. We (beauty salespeople) told you that mostly to sell you products and less because it was true. It's not a lie - it's just not entirely necessary. In the case of dancing close embrace in a steamy milonga - less is definitely more. In fact, if I use scented products at all, I use lotion or powder instead of perfume, eau de parfum or eau de toilet. And I apply it mostly to my legs and feet - nowhere close to my (or more importantly my partner's) face.

And think about all of the products you wear before going out to the milonga - deodorant, body lotion, cosmetics, hair products - and then you add cologne or perfume to the mix. When you have the choice, I strongly recommend defaulting to the least fragranced products that you can.

Smoke gets in your eyes: Smokers, and I speak from first hand experience here, dosing up on the fragrance after you have a cigarette does not cover the smell of smoke. Now you just smell like smoke and perfume. Another pitfall - depending on how long you've been smoking, you've done some (temporary) damage to your ability to smell. Which means you won't be able to adequately judge how strong your cologne is when you do put it on. So again, use less than you think you need. Obviously it would be better not to smoke at all - or at least during the milonga.

Two final thoughts

My biggest pet peeve about fragrance is when a dancer has on so much cologne that I still smell like him when we're done dancing. Or worse, if I still smell like him at the end of the night! It really doesn't matter how much I like the cologne at that point - I don't want to be wearing it. I had to wonder if every one I danced with after that dancer thought I was in the habit of wearing men's cologne! I've also danced with leaders who still smelled like the last follower they danced with. I can tell you they weren't pleased with that situation.

Using perfume or cologne does not make up for the lack of a shower. Being clean and being fragranced are not the same thing. You don't smell cleaner - you just smell stronger. I've been guilty of going from a practica, then going out to eat and going directly to the milonga - no time to clean up. I danced about half an hour and then went to "powder my nose". When I got to the ladies room and actually got a whiff of myself, well... let's just say I'm glad for deodorant towelettes. Even though I was able to clean up a little bit, I was incredibly self conscious and barely danced after that. If it had been an option, I would have just called it a night and gone home.

So look for the next installment coming soon, Part II - Odors, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Altoids

To Practice Relaxing

Freeing the Free Leg

Almost no one changed partners at last night's practica so I worked a great deal with one gentleman in particular, which turned out to be a great opportunity. This gentleman tends to lead a lot of movements that count on the follower's free leg truly being free - displacements, small and fluid volcadas and the like - so I got to really work on that aspect that's been so hard for me. After the second song I was finally able to relax my unweighted leg by default instead of trying to relax it when I realized the lead required it to be relaxed. The more I was able to relax that free leg - the easier it was for me to then work on an even harder technique issue . . .

Relaxing my hips . .

The trick with relaxing my hips is that they don't generally feel tense or tight. I've even caught myself saying, 'they are relaxed!' when a leader or teacher has tried to work with me on that. It wasn't until I started working with Daniela Arcuri in her workshops and then during a private, that I experienced *really* relaxing my hips. It actually takes me focusing on relaxing everything from my knees to my hips to really release that tension. And while I'm trying to keep my hips relaxed, which is just about as hard as making them relax in the first place, I have to remember to keep my core/abdominals strong and somewhat tight. It's not a natural feeling at first. But if I don't keep my core strong, I start to use momentum to finish turns and changes of direction creating a sort of unsteady rocking/tilting sensation. Essentially, I lose control of the movement and just count on the momentum to carry it.

Note: For an idea of just how dangerous it can be to count on momentum to finish movements and steps (instead of controlled motions) - it was using momentum to carry my leg through a fan kick (many, many years ago) that dislocated my hip. Obviously an extreme example that's not likely to turn up in tango, but I try not to forget that lesson.

So last night at practica, I practiced and practiced and practiced . . . relaxing. Thank you Mr. B. for working with me so much on that and being so patient.

Conflict Management and Tango Flow

Something changed in me, in my dancing and in my goals, when I realized that the milonga experience was more important to me than my individual dance experience. When I decided that I was a part of a community, I couldn't just "take my ball and go home" if I didn't like something. I became committed, not just to tango, but to a group of people and experiences. I started looking for ways to have that "tango flow" milonga-bliss experience more consistently - paying more attention to the factors and actions (mine and others) that generated that feeling - and those factors that caused it to fall apart.

It's more than just "being the tango you want to see in the world". Because, let's face it - some dancers are exactly the tango they want to see in the world, and they're the ones kicking folks on the pista. When the experience of the community took priority over everything else, I became more aware of my effect on other dancers on the floor - the effect of my partner on other dancers - and their effect on me. I felt, and wanted to be, more responsible - and responsive. This was especially the case after I saw the effects of one poorly handled confrontation ripple out over the dancers who witnessed it.

One night I experienced two rough collisions. Both times it was another leader taking two (or more) steps backward against the line of dance. The first time, my leader let go of me, spun around and berated the dancer that backed into him. The other dancer was immediately defensive, both the other follower and I were mortified by the attention this exchange was generating and we tried to pull our partners back into the dance. My partner then asked if I was okay, and spent the better part of the tanda grousing about poor leading skills and bad floor craft. He said he needed to make an example of this kind of behavior. His point was more important to him than the relationships in the moment. I couldn't wait to sit down.

The second time, almost exactly the same circumstances resulted in a crash with a dancer that has a reputation for banging into people. This partner turned, still holding me in the crook of his right arm, asked if I was okay, then asked the other follower (and then the leader) if they were okay also, and emphasized to the other leader how important it was that we all look out for each other. The other leader stated bluntly that my partner needed to be more careful. To which my leader answered, we all need to be careful - especially when moving against the line of dance with one's back turned. He never got ugly - he kept his voice low and gentle. He never let go of me. Will that interaction change the behavior of the other leader? Very doubtful. But that conversation didn't cause an entire group of people to feel uncomfortable, either.

We're never going to eliminate collisions and the like from milongas. These things happen. We can only choose how we deal with them when they do happen. We all have different priorities and goals when we dance. Sometimes we have to choose what's more important - the point we're trying to make, or maintaining relationships that strengthen an entire community.

I get defensive too. Not everyone is interested in taking in the milonga as a whole. They're there to relax, and dance - and enjoy a more individual (well, coupled really) experience of music and movement. They'd rather not worry about the 30 dancers on the floor and their experience. It's not their problem. It's just another view of things. It's hard for me a good portion of the time to accept that and just let it be without trying to evangelize and rattle on about the "tango flow" and the beauty of a group of dancers moving together in respect for each other and the music. Okay, it's *very* hard.

My grandmother gave me a piece of advice years ago when I had spent an hour complaining that I just couldn't get my husband to see something-or-other my way. She just asked me, 'would you rather be right, or rather be happy?' Sometimes you don't get to have both. You can demonstrate your point - be the example of your point, but you can't make someone else agree with you.

No more apologizing

A wonderful weekend of tango - three days of lovely dances. Saturday I was so tired that I kicked off my shoes and danced three tandas in my stockings - which is quite a liberating experience. And I must admit that tangueros in socks are quite endearing. For the most part my weekend of dancing was one of warm embraces, fantastic take offs and landings, newly discovered comforts, and deep enjoyment of the wonderful tango community have found myself immersed in. It was also time to let go of the biggest obstacle in my enjoyment and growth as a dancer.

I am finally starting to let go of "dancing in a state of apology" - that constant feeling of not being good enough - not following well enough. Thanks to the words one of my favorite local leader's on his own blog, Tango Beat (http://tango-beat.blogspot.com), I am trying to dance in a state of joy. I am trying simply to be happy in being able to do this as often as I can for as long as I can. I am through apologizing for the things I don't know or haven't yet mastered. All that does is take away from giving all I've got to the moment, to the dance, and to my partner. It's still a struggle. I still catch that inner voice of doom telling me I've missed yet another gancho lead. Or leg wrap lead. Or whatever.

The truth is apologizing constantly is exhausting me and I don't have the energy for it anymore. I'm tired of apologizing for my core muscles not being strong enough. For not having the resources to go to the fantastic workshops that are coming up this week. For not having the stamina I wish I could have. For not being able to dance as much or as often as I would like. No more apologizing.

So tangueros, you get what you get in this moment - and that's everything I've got to give. Tomorrow, I may have more. I am constantly working, trying to improve. But in this moment all that I have to give will have to be enough.

Slow down

The mantra from my partners used to be "wait . . . wait . . . wait" - now it's "slow . . . slow down . . ." It's hard to say if that's an improvement or just a new variation on an old problem.

One of my partners last week worked with me for a tanda on this, advising me to stop trying to be on the music for the time being, but actually try to be a little behind it. Behind? Behind the music? Isn't that bad? But I tried it despite my scepticism.

It took effort and practice to keep myself from rushing to be on the music - esepcially during molinetes when it's "my job" to keep myself on the music. When I did manage to wait, to get "behind" the beat, I realized why he had suggested it. While I waited for the music - he actually got the opportunity to lead me to the music - instead of me getting there on my own. I was so excited by that development I started rushing again - so we had to start over. Every turn, every sacada - "slow . . . slow . . ." Wait to be led.

The challenge of slowing down and waiting is trusting - trusting my leader, trusting myself to be responsive. Slowing down makes me listen more carefully - to the music, to my partner. Hopefully I'll be able remember this lesson as I dance with other partners.

Hazardous floor pt II

Something that did surprise me about last weekend's hazardous milonga, is that one dancer, who usually dances larger, more nuevo style steps, was one of the dancers that kept me safest on the floor. I danced with him toward the end of the night when I was already a bit battered and anxious. He was perfectly calm, held me in close embrace and made me feel incredibly safe. He danced to the floor conditions and to the music. Even when I was flinching and "eek!"-ing all over the place (at other dancers, not at anything my partner was doing) - I could actually close my eyes for a few seconds at a time. He didn't bump me into anyone. I never felt anyone's heel hit me.

So my homework for the week - to be repeated as necessary:

I will not make assumptions about nuevo dancers.
I will not make assumptions about nuevo dancers.
I will not make assumptions about nuevo dancers.

Hazardous floor - Pt I

In terms of milongas, there are chaotic floors, and then there are hazardous floors. Last week's milonga at a local coffee shop, which is usually a challenging venue anyway, was downright dangerous. Several followers, myself included, ended up bruised and scraped, not only from errant stiletto heels but from men performing their own adornments on a floor that had no room for it. At certain venues, you will always brush up against other couples - it's almost impossible not to. In those situations, for the sake of everyone's shins and calves, leaders and followers should both try to keep their feet on the floor.

That night also taught me that I need to be more selective about accepting dances when the floor gets perilous. Normally I try very hard to adapt to the style of my partner. If a leader always wants to dance open embrace, I try to accommodate. However if everyone on the floor is dancing close embrace because there's no room to dance otherwise, I have a decision to make when an open-embrace dancer asks me to dance. Last weekend, when asked by one such dancer, I accepted the invitation and attempted to dance open embrace. I mentioned the lack of room but close embrace causes more problems for this leader in terms of navigation. We both had a difficult time on the floor as a result.

Knowing when to sit out requires a large degree of self-knowledge, of knowing what you're good at and what you're comfortable with on the part of the follower as well as the leader. It also requires observing the floor and the other dancers - not just the ones directly in front of you. I should have considered my decision more carefully.

An instructor and follower reminded me of another important consideration. One very basic rule of self-preservation for followers on a crowded pista: if your leader is having trouble navigating on the floor, keep your eyes open. My problem is that with my lack of depth perception, even when the floor isn't busy, when the light is very low (as it was at this venue) I can't judge how far away anyone really is from me. So I keep my eyes closed to keep from constantly flinching. Friday night I was dancing with two partners who had some trouble navigating the floor and I kept closing my eyes so that I would be able to dance at all. That ended up being the wrong thing to do. If my partner can't keep me safe for whatever reason, and I can't help him by keeping my eyes open - I should have taken a pass and sat down.

I like this particular venue, and I'm sure that I'll continue to go to milongas there. But I think in the future, I'll be more willing to sit out when the floor conditions get too rough.

Useful tool or Over-the-top Stage Move?

In an effort to keep my "energy directed upward" and "be tall" in my torso while dancing, I've been watching dozens of YouTube videos and studying posture and technique. (Of course I'm not just using this as an excuse to watch tango on YouTube all day - how dare you suggest such thing! This is research!) Anyway, I noticed several tangueras reach their arm over (and behind) their leader's head before they settle into the embrace. Sometimes it's clear they're doing it because the leader's much taller than she is. Other times though, it looks as though this movement puts her torso int he optimum positon.

I always thought that the arm lifting thing was a dramatic affectation - since I saw it in so many performances. Now, I'm wondering it might be a valuable technique to try. Does anyone have any experience with this?

Not surprisingly, I found a video of Maria Plazaola reaching up very dramatically over Carlos Gavito's head.



What do you think, useful tool or over-the-top affectation?

"She should still be there!"

The second class...

I recognized a few people from the previous class as I came in. Then I noticed a few other people who seemed to be quite advanced in their dancing - at least from their warm up stretching and posture exercises. I tried to look casual. Or something that passes for casual. I was still over-dressed and I hadn't noticed right away that I still had my lanyard and badge around my neck. Nothing says sexy tango dancer like wearing your work badge and key around your neck. And I was still the oldest one in the class, but at least I'm here, I thought.

I wasn't getting quite the mileage I thought I might get from telling my coworkers about my tango classes.

"So how are the salsa classes?"
"I'm taking tango and they're going great, thanks!"

Two hours later, another coworker, "How are those samba classes going?"
"Oh, I'm not taking samba, I'm taking Argentine tango - and they're going just great." Really they are.

On my way out after work, "so how are you liking mambo?" Mambo???
"Umm. I'm taking tango actually. Liking it a lot, thanks."

I packed up my things and headed across campus. As I walked through the door of the dining hall, I tried to turn my nervous gate into more of a confident sort of saunter. I got 5 steps before I tripped slightly over one of the tiles in the floor. Oh yeah. Look at me. I'm here for the tango lessons, baby. At least that time the instructor wasn't looking. Just four of the leaders who I hoped weren't making a mental note to avoid me like the plague during practica.

Once again we were called to form a circle around our instructor and do some warm up exercises. So far so good. He then described the importance of feeling for weight changes - for leaders to know which foot their partner was on, and for followers to "feel" for the lead to know which foot to move. Most importantly, the follower should not change weight without their partner. This was so important that he repeated it three times during the class. The last time he mentioned it, he added, "if I put my partner on her right foot (pointing at the right foot of his assistant), I should be able to leave and get coffee, finish my thesis, go get more coffee, and when I come back she should still be here, waiting on her right foot.'

Both of the women on either side of me, and myself, made an audible 'humph' sound. You could almost hear the followers' eyes rolling. This was the 21st century, after all. We're not furniture. I was a feminist being told to stand on what foot indefinitely? You must be joking. Of course this is only one of many times that I would have to resolve a conflict between my feminist ideals and my tango life.

The next moment I hear another follower, one of the more advanced dancers, speak up. She was tiny Mediterranean young woman who looked both irritated and determined. First she scowled at the instructor and then she raised her hand and stepped forward. "No, I do not think that is right," she said confidently, still holding her hand up and pointing to the instructor's assistant who was now grinning broadly.

"If you leave her - she will find someone else to dance with!" Every follower in the room grinned with delight. Oh yeah, we liked her - she was on our side!

She was my new favorite person.

Our instructor nodded, opening his hands apologetically. "Of course, but you still shouldn't change weight without your leader."

At that, our defender and spokeswoman nodded curtly and stepped back in to the circle. She was in many of our classes and frequently spoke up when the follower's perspective wasn't given proper treatment. Every time I walked into the class and saw her, I felt a bit relieved. I had a tango follower advocate in the class!

More on weight change . . .

I should add here, that the instruction that I would receive later would have cleared up a lot of confusion early on. It's not that you change weight automatically when your partner changes weight. As a follower, you change weight when you are led to change weight. What I didn't know was that there are times that your leader will change your weighted foot while he stays in place. That's very tricky to teach, however - and a bit intimidating for the students.

One of my earliest rough tandas at a milonga, held the following week in the same room as our class was held, was made difficult because I believed that I needed to change weight every time my partner did. However, he was not leading me to change my weight. I hadn't learned to follow as much as I had learned to "mirror".

The leader I was trying to mirror, knowing that I was a beginner, was leading me to execute very simple steps and movements while he performed far more complex steps in such a way that would have made both of us appear very musical together. Yet despite what I was being led to do - I was trying to mirror his steps. Finally, after a great deal of frustration on my part, and near infinite patience on his - he whispered in my ear, "stay right there." I froze. He then shifted weight slightly to find out where my weight was. At just the right time in the music, he turned me 360 degrees (a calesita or "the carousel".) My first thought was, 'you can do that?' That was the first time I understood being led to change weight versus change weight to mirror my partner. It would be another 7 months before I could consistently and genuinely follow a leader without trying to mirror his every step.

Tango Bra?

Since this has come up on 4 separate occasions with fellow followers, I'm going to take the plunge (*snerk*) and address the issue in a post. Gentleman, you may find this about as interesting as watching feminine hygiene product commercials, so feel free to skip down to the blue question.

Tango bras - what you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

I called my doctor about a month ago for advice on what could be causing pain around my ribcage. At one point I had costochondritis (a type of inflammation in the ribs or cartilage around the ribs) But this felt different. So my doctor and I played 20 questions about the when's, what's, and how's. Then she asked me about dancing. What was the posture like? Oh no, I thought, it's my posture - after I'd working so hard on that. Then she asked the question I would never have thought of:

"Are you wearing and underwire bra when you dance?"
"Um, yeah."
"Then don't."
"Pardon? I mean, I think that's all I have - they're all underwire bras."
"Even simpler, don't wear a bra."
"Okay, I'm not that... I mean, I've always... That's not really a comfortable option for me."
"Then I suggest you find a comfortable bra with no underwire - that fits very well."

Great, it's not enough that I need shoes for tango, tights for tango, swishy skirts for tango (okay, I don't actually *need* the swishy skirts. I just want them really, really bad), now I need a tango bra? Oy vey.

And then I thought of something else. If the bra is making me uncomfortable (especially during milonguero and apilado embrace) - can my partner feel it too? Is my bra making my leaders uncomfortable? I mean, I'd understand if my bra was say, like this:

Madonna Cone Bra:

But it wasn't that bad. Just the usual sort of pre-formed, lightly lined or whatever they call that, cup. Nothing too crazy. But the wire - that had to go.

So leaders - here's your question: Can you feel your partner's bra against your chest? Are they ever uncomfortable?

Anyway, after sifting through drawers and closet shelves, I found that I do actually already own two wireless bras that fit very well. And I was pleasantly surprised at what a big difference they made. They are so much more comfortable. This is the model I wear now:

Wireless bra from Macy's:



Let's call the whole thing off!

You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let's call the whole thing off.

--- "Let's call the whole thing off!" by George Gershwin

You like salon, and I like apilado.
You like nuevo, and I like traditional.
You like ganchos, and I like cunitas.

So we meet in the middle. You come a little closer, and I stand a little straighter. We dance. We turn. My temple rests against your jaw. I step through your ocho cortado and feel it coming - you lead the gancho. I follow it. This time without hesitation.

Through my lowered lashes, I see you smile.
I smile back.
And I think, 'okay, I'll say potato with you.'

Back where it started . . .

Last night I went back to the beginning. I decided to go back to the beginner class and practica held at the university where I work. Climbing the steps to the building, I felt that same nervous anxiety. It was like starting all over. I can't believe I even thought about it - but I did, I considered turning around and going home.

Wow, you've come a long way, baby. Or, not.

I didn't turn around. I made myself go in.

The class was wonderful - fairly evenly matched, so I didn't have to lead. While I was practicing with people newer to tango than I was (which I almost never get to do), I realized that it was so important to be here. I don't mean just for getting over my phobic nature - but also to be working with newer leaders who might want the help. I wanted to stay, to encourage them - to help them practice. So many more advanced leaders worked with me - and still work with me (several worked with me at practica that same night!). I'm so grateful for them.

So there I was, dancing with these new leaders. The instructor comes up to offer some assistance to my partner and me, since I'm having a terrible time trying to answer the leader's questions on basically leader technique. As he explains the technique to my leader, he glances at me, and then adds, "less is more here. No need to push her or pull her. She's an experienced dancer - so a little goes a long way."

I wanted to look behind me. Surely he was talking about someone else. I can't think of myself in those terms yet - "experienced dancer." My partner's eyes widened. I stammered, "no, not really - just a few months -that's all." I blushed.

It's especially hard to think that way when nine months ago, I was here: (what follows is my journal entry about my first tango class in the same dining hall, with the same instructor.)

###

“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” --Nietzsche

Johnny:
Yo cuz, What's she doing here?
Billy: She's with me. She came with me.
Baby Houseman: I carried a watermelon.
Baby to herself: I carried a watermelon?!?
--Dirty Dancing, 1987


Dear Diary,

I've been abandoned! My friends have abandoned me for the dark side... Salsa classes... Now I'm on my own for Tango classes. So how brave am I?

The First Class - "I carried a watermelon"

I took a table in the dining hall and waited. I looked for other people, among the students and staff eating and socializing, for someone who might be a dancer. No one stood out. Will I be the only one here? A gentleman enters that I recognize from the website. He's the teacher. Okay, at least I'm in the right place. Now I can really start panicking.

Stop it.

You're scared, I told myself, and that's okay. Dive in deeper. I got up and walked over to the teacher. Introduced myself. Told him how happy I am he's volunteering to teach free classes - I'd been wanting to start for so long. And the he drops the bomb. I'd already missed 2 classes - not just the one class I thought I'd missed. Two classes behind? Maybe I should just wait until next term. He reassures me that I'll be fine. There are new people in every class. He'll help me catch up.

Fine. It's okay. I'll stay. I'll be fine. I'm shaking. My shoes, plain black, high-heeled pumps, suddenly seem too wobbly for this.

More people arrive and I pray I'm not the oldest one in the class. After a few more minutes I realize I really am the oldest one. Well, what did I expect, really? It's a free class on a college campus. I took a couple of deep breaths. Still shaking. Damn.

Our instructor called everyone who was here for tango to come up and form a circle. I got up, joined the circle and tried not to fidget. I was still wearing my work clothes while everyone else was in jeans. I felt positively matronly next to these kids. Nevermind, tomorrow I will get to tell me coworkers that I've started learning tango. That will make all of this worth it.

I hope.

We started with walking to the music. Any direction, anything we wanted to do. Just try to do it to the music. I suddenly couldn't find the beat. I danced for years - how could I suddenly have no sense of rhythm? The instructor's going to think I'm completely un-musical. The shaking got worse. No chance to cut and run now.

We stopped walking thankfully, and moved on to more coordinated sequences of walking, as a group. Not too bad - I managed that without tripping over myself. Especially as we were doing it in lines as a group, there wasn't much pressure. Everyone seemed to perform it very smoothly - of course they'd learned it in last week's class. Despite what our instructor said, I was the only first-timer in the class.

He stopped our line dance and told us it was time to practice with a partner. I scanned the room for a quick head count. Six women, five men. A woman would be left out. Crap.

Our instructor clapped his hands and called everyone closer. "Okay, all of the women, stand in a circle here in the middle. Now face outward. Close your eyes. Guys, walk around the circle and choose a follower."

Okay, this was just humiliating. I took my place in the circle, and closed my eyes. I tried to think of ways to not look like someone's mother.

"Okay, open your eyes."

I opened my eyes. I looked around. There was no one in front of me. I could feel the blood rush to my cheeks. Blushing and shaking, now I really wanted to leave. I felt like the last kid picked for the softball team. Can't run away now with everyone looking. The instructor looked around at the couples situation, realized he had one left over and reached out his hand. Oh crap. Crapcrapcrap. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Dancing with the instructor?

"Can't I just sit out or something? Really, it's totally fine - I'll just take a seat over here," (on the opposite end of the room, please.) No such luck. He nodded, hand held out, inviting me like I was a fightened child. At least that's how I felt.

As we connected into the loose practice embrace, I instantly forgot what few steps we'd learned. He told everyone (by everyone I mean the leaders who he primarily addressed in the class) to work on walking all the steps, in any order. Don't just work on the box, but improvise a little bit. Mix it up. Make your follower really follow instead of following a pattern.

'Try to trick your follower."

Fabulous. Because I'm not nervous enough, obviously. I felt like I was getting a pop quiz I hadn't studied for.

We changed weight back and forth a couple of times. And then he stepped back. Back? That meant I needed to take a step forward. I don't go forward!

"I've only had a couple of classes in ballroom tango - I only know backwards!" I stammered.

"The leader can start with any step - even a back step. My choice. It's sexist. It's tango" he shrugged, with no small amount of humor. He may have been lighthearted, but I was starting to panic. I was still shaking and was having such a hard time following. Having my muscles so tense was starting to hurt. I looked around quickly to see how other couples were doing.

"Close your eyes."

"Excuse me?"

"Close your eyes. It'll be easier for you to focus. Just follow - don't try to guess what's next." He sounded sure. Confident.

I closed my eyes.

I listened. I felt his intention to move - but I didn't feel his leg move. Just the intention of movement. He was waiting. I let his intention roll through my leg - I stepped back. Only then did he step. And then another intention, another step. Ooh. That's what it feels like. The experience lasted less than a minute - the sensation of being led. Of following. Of "getting it". It was enough. I could do this.

Dance first. Think later. It's the natural order. ~Samuel Beckett

Leading women

Dancing with my instructor,
learning apilado...

"bend your knees
lower . . .
lean on me,
lean, lean, lean
. . .even more.
That's it.

I have you."

A perfect "A" frame.
Balanced, connected.
The embrace soothes my always wary,
and untrusting lizard brain.



I wrote this shortly after my apilado class. My teacher was a woman.

This topic came up in the comments on another post about women leaders. There are many fantastic female tango instructors who lead very well. There seem to be fewer that are able to create a feeling of connection, safety and comfort, however. (I say that knowing only too well that I am an absolutely terrible leader. I would dread following me. )

That said I never imagined what it would feel like to dance with a woman who was so comfortable in her skin, so grounded. It's rare enough for any of us to achieve that state I think. Relaxed into every inch of our bodies. How can you not be comfortable dancing with someone in that state? Male of female? Leader or follower?

I have no intention of learning to lead at this time. But I have a criteria for the time I do consider it. I will learn to lead when I'm comfortable enough in my own body, in my own dance, that I can focus on the experience of my partner. When I can internalize Ampster's very excellent advice - it's all about her (or him if I'm leading a man.)

Right now I can hardly extend my leg correctly, so it may be awhile.

"I'm not letting go."

I have been so busy of late evangelizing about close embrace that I missed a gift occasionally offered by some of my partners. While it's true that I enjoy being held close for tanda after tanda - there is a beautiful sensation that can come from a slightly more elastic embrace.

I noticed it when I was dancing Saturday and my partner opened the embrace a bit to make room for a step and a turn. I opened my eyes a second just long enough to notice we were indeed turning and then settled back into the embrace.

So why was I able to stay in my coveted state of entrega for that - but I got jolted out of it other times? I think it's the way the opening is handled. Well, more accurately, the way I'm handled.

When my partner opened the embrace, his arm around my back actually became firmer, more present. It was reassuring. Like a whisper in my ear, "I'm not letting go."

And then, when we closed the distance again, he held me a little closer for just a second before we settled back into our regular embrace. I never had the sense of being dropped, or let go of.

Maybe, when done just right (and not for too long), distance can make the heart grow fonder.

(I can't for the life of me figure out where I found this picture -or I'd credit it properly. Does anyone know where it comes from?)

Abrazo



Picture: "Abrazo"
Grandparents, 1956

"My grandfather was a wonderful role model.
Through him I got to know the gentle side of men."
Sarah Long

One year.

By the time I was born, my grandfather had most of his rough spots ironed out. I didn't get the short-tempered, stubborn man that my father and his siblings knew and spoke of. I got the gentle, jovial, loving man that I would adore for 37 years. In him I saw every wonderful thing a man could be. Courageous, tolerant, kind, and gregarious. He was a connector - of people, of ideas. If you needed help with anything, he always knew someone you could rely on. If you needed work, he always knew someone who needed help. His gift was talking with people - connecting with them and caring about them. His smile could disarm the angriest customer. His hugs could undo the damage of an entire bad month.

abrazos y besos, abuelo.
Te extrano mucho.

Wallflowers and Femme Fatales

But what if I don't want to be Femme Fatale or a Wallflower? What if I just want to dance?

" . . . all women who approach the milonga scene must learn, sooner or later, that every time they enter a milonga, they will do so as a wallflower. A woman's wallflower position will be tested every single night at the milonga, no matter how good a dancer she is. The events of the night, some of which are easier to predict than others, will bring her, more or less successfully, out of this position and closer to its opposite, the one of the dancing femme fatale. Dancing makes the difference. The wallflower becomes the femme fatale by dancing a sufficient quantity and quality of dances. But at the beginning of the night, unless she arrives with her set dancing partner, every woman wallflowers - and to a certain extent, do do men. Nobody enjoys it, and some are better at it than others."

"In order to move out of the wallflower positon, you must become an object of desire, more precisely, of tango dancing desire. An object of a doubly interwoven desire that includes the promise of becoming a potential vehicle for attaining the passionate tango state - that ephemeral sense of being bodily connected against all odds - as well as of generating desire on the part of those who watch the possibly sublime tango take place. For these are the femme fatale's witnesses and her future dance partners. In their arms, tango after tango, the milonguera - or aspiring milonguera - will move from wallflower to goddess of the milonga."(1)


Chapter 7, pg 109: From Wallflowers to Femme Fatales - Marta E. Savigliano
The passion of music and dance: body, gender and sexuality - By William Washabaugh

Floor Craft Question: Volcadas vs. Apilado Embrace



If we consider volcadas to be inappropriate, as some dancers do, on the social dance floor - how should we view the deep apilado embrace?

Both can take up more room on the milonga floor, though both can also be done very small. It seems volcadas are often more stationary related to the line of dance. So would the issue be more about space used - or more about impeding the line of dance by stopping/slowing down?

The first picture (in sepia tone) is a volcada example from Wikimedia.

The second picture is an example of apilado embrace from Igor Polk's site about Tango Apilado:

http://www.virtuar.com/tango/pics/2008/Paiva_DSC_2344.jpg




I must admit that one of the reasons I agreed to learn volcadas is because, when done small and fluidly, it's like getting a little apilado "fix" in the dance. By small and fluid I mean I hardly feel them. By the time I think, 'oh wow, was that a volcada lead?' - it's over and I'm already stepping back from the cross.

So readers, what do you think? Can we really say that volcadas are out if apilado is okay? Or is it really just about how each one is executed?

Exasperated

(rant)

At the milonga . . .

The two dancers on the milonga floor are gorgeous. They're glamorous, musical, lightening-fast and precise in the execution of their steps. Dramatic, intense - everything that audiences love to see in tango dancers (on TV).

They're also taking up three to four times more space on the dance floor as any other couple there. Dancers are giving them a wide berth because no one has any idea what they're going to do next. I sit at my table and watch the show - because that's what it certainly seems like to me - a show. I'm dismayed that this couple seems so completely absorbed in their dance, that they haven't noticed the look of panic on the dancers around them.

And then I hear the remarks.

Aren't they beautiful?
God, they're such amazing dancers!
Stunning - I wish I could dance like that.
I have just got to learn how to do (whatever move they just did).
We're so lucky to be able to watch them.
I wish that he/she would dance with me!


I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. They're pushing other dancers to the periphery of the floor. They're cutting through what little lane organization our milongas can manage. No one can relax while dancing anywhere near them. Yet leaders around me are commenting how they've just "got to" work that (whatever move) into their dance. (More acrobatics to look forward to in my next dance with them.) And more followers, unfortunately, are looking at this dance as the be-all end-all tangasm experience that their next leaders should try to aspire to.

::double face palm::

I can't believe I've gotten addicted to something that's going to make me this irritated.

Maybe I'm just overly sensitive since a couple more leaders are moving toward nuevo style/open embrace dancing. I want to understand. I really try. I learn the moves - I can follow most ganchos now. I've learned how to follow volcadas in parallel and offset. I can manage front and back boleos (but my foot won't leave the ground for a back boleo during the milonga, sorry.) These moves are novel and fun in very small quantities.

If you love the moves and the music moves you to lead them (and you can lead them well in the space available) - great! By all means I'll do my very best to follow them. But if you're leading them only because you think I expect them, or that others want to see them - you may be missing what the dance has to offer you in the moment.

(/rant)

Embracing the crowd

"Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish in the crowd." -- I Ching

I have been told now six times, by six different tangueros, that I seem to follow better on a crowded floor. The observation doesn't surprise me since I certainly feel more cozy, connected, immersed, in a crowded milonga - getting to this point, however, surprises me a lot.

The reason for improvement in my following may be as simple as less room to dance means a smaller, more limited vocabulary of steps. I can relax a little more because the chances of someone leading high boleos and such decreases dramatically. I can settle in. Tight spaces mean more walking, more turning, a closer embrace - all the things I love most in tango.

Seems straightforward enough, doesn't it?

Except this is totally new territory for me. Eight months ago I jumped at my own shadow. People approaching me from the side made me flinch. Some of that was due to very poor depth perception and an inability to judge a person's distance from me - particularly from my peripheral vision. And some of it, maybe a lot of it, came from a difficult personal history.

Crowds were the opposite of safe.

Being approached (especially abruptly) by men I didn't know, was the opposite of safe.

When I entered a room, I would skirt the edges (usually to the right side because my vision is better on the left) and take a seat as close as I could to a wall. A ritual of safety.

In the beginning, tango classes were a tremendous challenge to my comfort zone. I couldn't go to the edges of the room when the class was taking place in the middle. Nowhere to go. Surrounded by people I didn't know, I had to battle freezing up constantly. In the middle, people all around me, learning to embrace total strangers. Making mistakes. Feeling embarrassed. Exposed. Crowded. My muscles would ache from being held rigid the duration of the class.

Yet here I am. Eight months later.

I hadn't even noticed arriving at this place.

When did "the opposite of safe" become the safest feeling in the world? When did I start to prefer feeling people on all sides of me? When did I start looking for a close embrace dance as a way to remedy feeling unsafe in the world?

I know that the ability to close my eyes, itself a huge challenge, was a big step in toward my feeling safe. Seems counter intuitive doesn't it? The truth is, in tango, your eyes can give you all the wrong information. Especially with my unreliable vision telling me that I was constantly in danger of being run in to. Closing my eyes was the turning point. To close my eyes, I had to trust. I had to trust my safety, to a far larger degree than I ever had, to a stranger. And far more often than not, I was safe. For every rough incident - there were a dozen wonderful, warm, safe experiences.

So now I nestle into the crowd. Wrapped up in my partner - warm, safe.

The desert has its holiness of silence, the crowd its holiness of conversation. -- Walter Elliot

Who chooses the embrace?

Comments and emails about my last post, Breaking the Embrace, got me thinking about the 'embrace negotiation' that happens as a couple begins to dance.

I have had different teachers tell me different things - "the woman must always adapt to the man's style and embrace" "The man should accept the embrace the woman offers."

Most of the leaders locally wait for me to choose the distance - I don't know if that's what they were taught or if it's just practical. I have had a few leaders scoop me up into close embrace almost before the music starts, which is a bit startling - but since I tend to prefer that embrace, I tend to settle in eventually. When a leader actively chooses open embrace and maintains that space, I try to maintain it from my side as well - though it's hard for me. As I dance more and more in close embrace, I get out of the habit.

One leader, visiting from out of town, said Argentine teachers especially emphasize that the woman adapts to the man's preference but really, that doesn't exactly work. If the follower wants an open embrace, and the leader wants close - then he has to practically chase her around the floor because it's not natural for her to be so close.

It has always felt to me, when the preferences are different, that it's more of a negotiation for both partners' comfort. Perhaps the man does choose the embrace, but the woman has veto rights.

Gavito, Dragone, Entrega

"I remember one night at the Club Gricel, shortly before his death. Mariana, his dancing partner, leaned against him, held up by nothing more than Gavito's forehead and the tips of her own toes. It was an act of absolute surrender. The slightest error would have brought them both tumbling to the floor. That photograph has become, for me, the absolute definition of eros: I surrender to you with absolute certainty; you are my balance."

--Photographer, Pablo Corral Vega

Breaking the Embrace

Intellectually, I can get my mind around the usefulness of a fluid or dynamic embrace. It allows for more options in certain places - the opportunity to lead something a little bigger, or a little more complex. It can serve as a dramatic pause. I do sort of get it. Or at least I try to. It isn't my preference. .

There are a few dancers who open the embrace as part of their dance, for the effect of it. I'm not talking about opening the embrace because the step that the music demands is too hard to do in close embrace - sometimes that's just how it goes. I'm specifically talking about opening the embrace as the end in itself. Mostly for a dramatic pause. When I know that the leader I'm dancing with is prone to opening the embrace, I never really settle in. I'm always waiting for the warmth and comfort to be altered, or be taken away altogether.

I danced with a partner the other day who is doing this more and more. In a certain place in the music, he stops briefly, drops his right arm and lets go of me. We're connected only by our open side hands - his left to my right. I have no choice but to drop my arm as well. I stand there wondering what on earth I'm supposed to do during this dramatic pause. Am I meant to express something to the music? Wait solemnly looking lost in el duende? He steps forward and I step back, so that we don't impede the line of dance any longer than a second or two - but he still doesn't put his arm around me. We're still not connected. Does this look impressive to our tiny audience? I feel exposed. Cold.

I find myself getting irritable. This is something I associate with stage tango - the separation for effect. I'm impatient. I whispered, 'either we're dancing or we're not.' He gave me the look of mild exasperation, as if to say 'you just don't get it.' With that he put his arm around me again and we continued. I fell behind him constantly the rest of the dance - unable to stay connected. Some of it was my own stubbornness at that point - irritation. Pettiness. He led a boleo which I followed as an ocho. There was room. I could have lifted my foot off the ground for a quick arc. But I didn't. He noticed. How's that for expressing myself in the dance?

Like I said. Petty.

Other dancers can do this as part of their dance - other followers can work within that space and *do* something with it. I just can't. Maybe someday I'll be able to. I'm sure I can learn what's appropriate, and in the music, for that distance, that space. It can be a beautiful effect - expressive, emotional. A pause in the dance. But I resist learning because I don't like how it feels. I'm supposed to adapt to my partners - be flexible, versatile, accommodating.

Instead, I turn brittle. Unable to recover the suppleness I feel when I embrace my partner. I stiffen up. Close off. Our arms may have settled in around each other again, but for me, the embrace is still broken.