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.

"I was up dancing tango"

I'm dragging today. Another Tuesday night milonga means a late night before and early morning work day. I go through this every week. And I don't plan to change a thing. It's worth it. It's worth every yawn, worth every "could you repeat what you just said? My brain wandered off." It's worth every, "you look kinda tired today."

"I was up dancing tango." (I try to stifle the glee I feel every time I tell someone at work that.)

So many great things about last night's milonga. A tanguero finding *his* tango. Dancing the heck out of a milonga - I mean *flying* the milonga. Lovely. New people. Old friends. Tanguera bonding. Putting down roots in this amazing community of warm, kind, big-hearted tango dancers. What could be more welcome than a solid, weekly milonga venue with good friends, good food and live music from Glover? I can't think of thing.

No se pierdan ni un compás de este tango
que va cautivando rebelde y dulzón.
Entre vueltas y requiebros galantes
imaginemos hoy vivir el tiempo de antes;
ese tiempo feliz
del chambergo bien gris,
el piropo locuaz
y el farol de arrabal.
No se pierdan ni un compás de este tango...
Así, al escucharlo, ¡qué lindo es bailar!

Don't miss a single beat of this tango
captivating, rebellious and overly sweet.
In between turns and gallant compliments
let's imagine today living in a foregone time;
that happy time
of the real gray broad-brimmed soft hat,
the loquacious compliment
and the suburb’s lamppost.
Don’t miss a single beat of this tango…
So, in listening to it, how nice it is to dance!

---Muchachos, comienza la ronda (Hey guys, the round begins!)
Music by: Luis Porcell
Lyrics by: Leopoldo Diaz Velez

More Workshops from Daniela Arcuri

I made it through almost two of Daniela Arcuri's classes before my ankle gave out. It wasn't too bad - sore and weak - but if I continued dancing on it, especially through milonga class, I'd be unable to dance later. So I gave up 2/3 of the way through molinete class. The molinete class *alone* was worth the price of all three workshops! Daniela taught everyone (leaders and followers) how to lead molinetes three ways, as well as how to follow them. She emphasized recognizing where and when the lead is felt and how to position feet to lead it more smoothly. While this made me appreciate more how much is involved in leading the step, it also made me very grateful to be a follower. I thought my brain was going to melt from too much information.

Daniela's first class of the day, a yoga inspired tango exercise class (which I had already taken twice!), still makes me feel like totally inept Daniel Larusso at the beginning of Karate Kid. I caught myself wondering if I was going to have to stand in a modified tango/yoga eagle pose on fence post after class. This class will make you sweat! We all held the instructed position while she walked from person to person checking alignment and posture. I was so grateful that the class was small because it took less time to check on each one of us. By the time she finished with the last person in the row and returned to the center of the room, no matter what position I was in, I was quivering from exertion to maintain it. At the end of that class I was already getting tired, but my muscles were warm and relaxed. If you can only go to one of the series of three workshops Daniela does on the occasional Saturdays - do that one. It makes everything else so much easier. I was still feeling the effect of the stretching at the milonga 7 hours later.

Unfortunately, thanks to my ankle, I missed the milonga class (which would have been my second milonga class from Daniela.) My milonga, I'm told, has already improved a bit since the last workshop (and additional class from Esquina Tango's Monica Caivano and Gustavo Simplis) - which is a relief. It's probably due, in large part, to the fact that I don't dance milongas in a state of abject terror. I'm sure that's helpful. Panicky milongas aren't fun for anyone. Weirdly, I've been told by three partners on 3 different nights that I'm much more natural and "on the music" during milongas than I during a lot of the tango tandas I dance. I have no explanation for that. Maybe I just don't have time to over-think everything? Anyway, even though I still have butterflies when I'm asked to dance milongas, I at least get out there and do my level best, rather than becoming suddenly obsessed with my shoe strap avoiding anyone's cabeceo.

Now I'm off to practice ochos with my printer.

What to expect from an 8 month old (tango) baby

I just passed the 8th month mark of my tango life. If I were an 8 month old baby, this is how my world would look:

Some of the major milestones for the 8 month old include:

* Crawling backward and forward. (Well it certainly can feel like crawling. Trying to walk while remembering to tighten my core, relax my hips, stay in line with my feet, lower my shoulders and breathe . . and of course, relax.)

* Babbling and recognizing some words. (My painful attempts at castellano.)

* Loving to imitate people they know. (helloooooo YouTube!)

* Being very curious, and exploring everything. (Classes, workshops, books, practicas. If only I could give up sleeping and eating, I would have more time for tango! Also, see above: YouTube.)

* Being frightened by new experiences, new people, and being upset when left behind. (oh yes....tango anxiety. The internal dialogue of: why can't I remember to collect! Why didn't so-and-so ask me to dance? What if no one asks me to dance? What if someone new asks me to dance?)

"Baby may sit up on her own for longer periods. Baby can reach for things without falling because she doesn't need to prop herself up with her hands. Baby's neck and back are getting stronger, so she sits up straighter, too."

Well, my back and neck certainly seem stronger . . . And I'm still working on that "reaching for a high shelf" posture reminder. As far as reaching for things without falling . . well, all I can say is that if I do fall, I try to do it in time to the music.

Practicas and Milonga Etiquette

(Disclaimer for the record, again - I am not a teacher - only dancer, and still a pretty new one at that. These are simply my opinions and not meant to be taken as the gospel truth about anything. What follows gets a bit ranty and occasionally preachy. Please feel free to rant/preach/bitch generally, back to me in the comments. I'm a glutton for punishment - so fire when ready.)

I've emphasized how much milongas are the core of my tango addiction. They are the safe haven of my hectic world - the place I go to see my friends, enjoy the music, and dance until I practically fall down. Milongas are a sanctuary. Milongas feel safe, and comfortable, and welcoming. They feel this way because milongas are not practicas. They aren't classes. They aren't workshops. The beautiful feeling of a milonga can be shattered by dancers consistently experimenting with new moves they haven't learned well on unsuspecting, and unwilling partners. (Let me stress that I learn a ton at milongas - just about every minute that I'm there. I think we all do. My focus for the purpose of this post is on "practicing" new stuff there.)

Many times we point to the leaders trying out new fancy moves they just learned in that day's workshop - but followers do it as well. I've done it. I saw a pretty way to execute an ocho from a teacher - and tried to practice it at the milonga that same night. After all - I wasn't leading anything. I was just changing the way I stepped through the move. Except that I struggled with it. I couldn't keep my axis and make it pretty. I was affecting my leader's axis at the same time. I learned quickly when I felt the frustration and confusion from my partner. I screwed up. I waited until the next practica the following week, and worked on it there.

Here's the key to all of it - to the source of so many things that go wrong in our dancing: When we have to focus on something else (a new move, because it's not part of our "muscle memory" yet) during the dance - we are taking at least some of the focus away from our partner. That total connection between dancers is what we're all here for. Giving the best dance to our partner - giving everything we've got - which has everything to do with focus, and next to nothing to do with the step in our repertoire.

Practicas are the most important part of building my tango skill. Practicas are where a technique goes from being something I "learned in my head" - to something body knows how to do well. It's where I first learned to "feel for the cross lead" rather than to follow it on every second outside step, for example.

When I learn in a class or workshop, which can, as others have said, be very inspiring - I am learning somewhat in a vacuum. Everyone is learning the same thing in the class - so both partners get a bit of "help" from each other completing new things since everyone knows the move. At practicas, I can practice what I'm working on with strangers/dancers that weren't the same class/beginners etc. to really see if I know my stuff.

The trick is, there have to be enough practicas for dancers to work on the things they're learning. Without enough practicas - the milongas become the place to "practice". Also, if the expectations of the practicas and milongas are not made clear, both events can be opportunities lost as dancers simply "social dance" at the practicas, and then practice at the milongas. We all, dancers, organizers, teachers, have a role in making sure that (especially new dancers) know how to make best use of these venues.

From: InScenes Tango Milonga Dance Etiquette

"Trying to show a new move at a milonga is one of the most obvious marks of very poor dance etiquette. I'm constantly amazed at how often this phenomenon occurs during milongas in North America. It almost always is initiated by men and many times by those who should know better. In the more then ten trips I have made Buenos Aires, I don't recall ever seeing this happen at a Milonga."

The problem of social dancing at practicas, and practicing (or worse, teaching) at the milongas is pervasive from what I've been told. Much of this could be alleviated simply with education - organizers and teachers have to commit to explaining the etiquette thoroughly and consistently. Every single milonga and every single practica. Every comunity has to decide from its own dancers how many practicas are needed. I'm of the opinion there can never be too many. But time and money constraints are just a fact of life.

If you have learned a new step or pattern that you're just dying to try out at the milonga, ask yourself these questions:

1.) "Have I led/executed this successfully consistently in practica, with several partners?" (Preferably partners that were not in the same class in which you learned the step.)

2.) "Do I thoroughly understand my partner's role and requirements for this step?"
For followers, do you understand how this embellishment/change of embrace/interpretation will feel and affect your leader and what he wants to lead? For leaders, do you thoroughly understand how to prepare your follower for the move you want to lead? How this move will affect her axis?

3.) "Can I lead this step/execute this embellishment/interpretation consistently with the music?" If you don't know, you're probably not ready to lead it.

Consistency is the key - can you lead it/perform it:

- consistently with different partners (and not the ones from your class),
- consistently within the music
- consistently respecting the line of dance and other dancers.

The only way to know if we're at that level of consistency is to practice it over and over and over at practica. How much time does it take to learn something sufficiently - no one can answer that question for someone else. When the move/embrace/step/embellishment feels natural (to you and your partner, and in the music) - then it's ready to be performed. When in doubt - don't try it. A milonga is not practice space.

Exceptions - of course there are some. If you are dancing with your regular dance partner, or another class member and you've both agreed in advance that it's acceptable and desirable to practice a bit, so be it - provided you don't interfere with anyone else's dancing on the milonga floor. If you're practicing something that requires interrupting the line of dance - move off the main floor to work on it. Be discreet.

Warning: Now that I've had my little rant, I want to make one warning.. Just because we can't see what a couple is practicing (they may look like they're social dancing at the practica for instance) doesn't mean they aren't working on something. And just because we may hear one partner giving "instructional feedback" to their partner, doesn't mean it's unwelcome to that partner. We don't know what's happening between to dancers from watching them. Only they know. Just because I, for example, have strong feelings about milonga/practica expectations - doesn't make me the tango police.

For the comfort and enjoyment of your partner, at the milonga, keep your focus on your partner and dance what you know.

Stuck: A Letter to my 16 year old self

This a picture of me from my high school yearbook.

Despite what I see in the mirror, or reflected in other people's eyes, frequently this is what I see in my own mind's eye when I think of "me". Part of me is stuck there in time - awkward, anxious, and (what I thought at the time) unpopular, inept. Despite how far I've come, she still lives in me. Her fears, her troubles.

Sometimes I bring her to the milonga - or rather she brings me. My confidence wanes. Instead of being a grown woman at a milonga, I'm a 17 year old at prom. I can't seem to connect to people with her in the way. She's too strong an influence at those insecure times for me to just push her out of my mind. I have to deal with her.

All of that brings to mind a meme that's going around right now on Facebook and other places. What would you tell your teenage (I think 16 is the age given in the survey/meme) self? If you could go back in time and sit down with yourself at that age - what would you tell them about the future - about your future?

(What started all of this was Stephen Fry's Letter to Himself: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/30/stephen-fry-letter-gay-rights)

So here it is. Me talking to myself . . .


It seems like such a bad time right now, such a dark time. I know it seems like none of this going to get better and it's your fault. But it's not your fault, and it does get better. It isn't easy, the road ahead. But there are so many people coming to help you on the road you're traveling - and people that need you, too. You're going to meet people from all over the world. You're going to be a writer and an artist and do so many of things you dream about - and some things you can't even imagine right now.

The world is so amazing where I am. New troubles of course - different challenges, some of them huge. But so many amazing things I don't even know where to begin to tell you.

In the future these people that you think are so much better than you, will tell you that you made a difference for them. Listen to McArthur - he's right about the things you're going to be able to accomplish. Don't lose track of your friends - you'll kick your self later.

Don't get lost in all of this bad stuff going on right now. You're valued and you're loved, even if some of the people can't tell you that yet. Love is everything - love will save your life.

It gets
so much better than this . . .

And you won't believe this . .

in the future,
. . . you're a dancer.

abrazos y besos (you'll just have to look that up) from the future you . . .

Ouch, my ego!

"Love and dignity cannot share the same abode." -- Ovid

Lately a different version of this rings in my mind. "Tango and dignity cannot share the same abode." I am only speculating, but I think the "dignity" meant above, is more like "pride". To be open to the connection, we must be open to the truth. And the truth may be that we're clumsy tonight, or we were insensitive to our partner, that we were wrong, that we were judgmental, that we hurt someone.

In my last post, I emphasized the importance of letting our partner know what we need. To be honest, but never mean or ugly. To make it about the action, and not about the person.

I can't keep up if we dance so quickly to this orchestra. (Rather than, 'you're motorboating me through the line of dance.')

I'm not comfortable holding a conversation when dancing. (Rather than, 'I
can't hear the music over your constant chatter.')

May we open the embrace a little so that I straighten my sore back. (Instead of,
'you're pulling me down like an anvil!')

The door opens both ways. We must also create a space that's safe for our partners to tell us what they need.

So who are you really mad at?

Mr. Lovelywalk and I were dancing and, as usual, I was enjoying the strength and musicality of his walk. I was immersed in it. And then, abruptly, I wasn't. He opened the embrace. He gently explained that he needed to lighten the embrace - it was hurting his back for him to dance with me that way.


It was a simple thing - completely acceptable in the request and in his delivery of it. It wasn't personal - he wasn't criticising me or my dance. So why did it sting a little?

In actuality, I wasn't hurt by what he asked for. I was irritated with myself for not realizing that my embrace was painful to him. I took pride in my embrace and my sensitivity to my partner. There's the word - the source of the sting. My pride. The truth is there might be no daylight between my partner and me, but we could be miles apart in how we are experiencing the same dance. I feel connected - he feels weighted down. I feel light and musical - he feels like he's dancing alone.

(There's an excellent post called, "Are we talking about the same thing" - over at Virtualapiz.)

That's why it is so important not only to be open with our partner, but also to allow them to be open with us.

Second Chance Tango: Part 2

So the question remained. If the situation with the previous leader could be turned around so radically - how could I affect change in my dances with other leaders that I had found troubling in one way or another? Would there really be a change? Is it my place to even try? After all, I'm not a teacher - and if I try to take on that role, I become rather a hypocrite. I looked at what had happened previously and decided, as quickly as I could, what I needed to do. (It had to be quick because neither of these leaders used the cabaceo and approached me without much warning.)

Mr. Ballroomdancer-armpullerbackwrencher: My last dance with this gentleman left me running for the bus home. Instead of letting him know that his method of leading was, at first uncomfortable, then finally downright painful, I stayed silent. First, because I thought I was just following badly. Second, because I was embarrassed to be in pain. For many, probably most, people that second thing will make no sense. Why be embarrassed? People with chronic pain conditions (people with all sorts of chronic conditions actually) expend a lot of effort throughout their day trying very hard to be normal. To not be a bother to anyone. To not draw attention. It's a habit - in some cases a dangerous habit. Even when it puts us in more pain - it's more comfortable to stay silent.

He approached. He asked. I accepted. I smiled and told him the truth.

"Would it be okay if we took it a bit easy this tanda? I'm tired and a little sore - so I'm not as quick in my following as I'd like," I said.

"Oh sure, of course- no problem," he answered. Was that relief in his face?

His lead was 180 degrees from out last dance. He was gentle, smooth - most importantly, more patient. We still had bumps and challenges - his dance is a bit flashier and faster than I'm used to so there were several things he led that I didn't "get". But we mostly stayed connected and enjoyed the music.

Toward the end of the evening, I encountered Mr. Hotshot.

Mr. H. had some flashy moves at the last milonga I danced with him in. He seemed to have an air about him that said, 'Let me knock your socks off!' His dance, it felt to me anyway, was all about him. His moves, his musicality. He wove in and out of the line of dance with me feeling like a puppet. I could have been anyone. I couldn't seem to find any connection to him - which didn't seem to bother him in the least.

And here he was again, asking me to dance. This wasn't an issue of letting him know that I was in pain - or that he had done something specific that embarrassed me or hurt my feelings. It was a general thing that was a matter more of my personal preference in a dance. Other followers raved about how wonderful he was. I couldn't be sure it was really him - and not me. And I certainly couldn't ask him to change some nebulous thing about his behavior. What could I do? I only had two options - turn him down or change something in my own behavior.

Last time we danced, he may have had an attitude - but so did I. After watching him dance and hearing from other followers tell me was so fantastic that they couldn't follow him (pardon??) - I approached the dance with my own negativity.

I approached the dance with, 'I am so not impressed by you.' I was defensive before we even started. Who did he think he was coming on to my turf, cutting through the line of dance just to say hello to people, not using the cabaceo, making followers feel like they were deficient in their dance? (I've been dancing less than I year - I don't have turf. I would argue that there really shouldn't be "turf" in tango. I was just defensive. But I digress.)

My attitude was beyond the "wait and see" thing previously discussed. My attitude was, "prove it." What else could he do but pull out all the stops? I don't think either one of us was consciously aware that we were sabotaging our dance.

Back the second encounter.

If I couldn't change his behavior, and I wouldn't turn him down - that leaves only one fair option. Give him my best. Do what I try to do with the leaders I already know - approach them as if they're my favorite leader - for the next 4 songs. Approach them as I would a long, lost friend.

The first thing I noticed was the he was much more relaxed. Was it the smaller venue? The more casual environment? I relaxed in response. I listened. I gave him my genuine follow. When we started, he took the time to connect to me before starting to move. When he did take the first few steps, I felt him completely in the music. I missed a few things, some leads I wasn't sure about, but instead of getting frustrated, he was almost light-hearted about it. He re-established the connection, waited for me, and started again.


He was respectful of the other dancers' space. He made me feel safe. Connected. Musical.

That's when it really dawned on me that this second chance was some generous thing I was giving him - it was something we gave to each other.

So for all of you leaders who didn't give up on me when I did idiotic things on and off the milonga floor, thank you for the second chances you gave me.

Second Chance Tango - Part 1

Just after I get done telling myself, and my readers, that I'm going to start turning down leaders that make me uncomfortable in some way, I go back on the advice... sort of.

Two leaders were at the milonga last night that I had had trouble with the last time I had danced with them (in both cases, the only time I had danced with them.) So when I saw them, I was fully prepared to avoid the cabaceo if possible, to turn them down directly if necessary.

And I really would have too, if I hadn't just had this experience.

Second chances - Part 1

I wrote about another leader recently who embarrassed me on the milonga floor by instructing in a very obvious manner in front of a table of dancers I knew somewhat well (well enough to care about their opinion) from my community. After trying unsuccessfully to dissuade him from doing this, I finished the tanda in silence.

At the next milonga I saw his teacher on the dance floor stop in the line of dance, forcing the rest of the dancers to move around him, and instruct a dancer (who was not his student - not that that should matter) loud enough for everyone in the front row of seats to hear what he was saying.

Now I understand, I thought.

The leader who had so offended me was simply mimicking his own teacher. After all, if his teacher does it, it must be the right thing to do. So when this leader appeared before me, hand extended - I took a deep breath and decided on a plan. Rejecting him outright would tell him nothing about what was wrong - especially if his teacher was doing the same thing. Instructing him on the codigos at the milonga would be breaking my own rule about teaching at the milonga. So, I simply told him the ground rules of the dance. I would accept a dance on the condition that he not attempt to instruct on the dance floor. He looked surprised.

First, he hadn't realised he'd been doing it in such a direct fashion, and second, he didn't realise anyone would take offense. He was trying to be helpful. I told him I understood, which I did - I fight the urge sometimes to "help" a dance partner that's clearly struggling with a lead. Instead, if I can, I do as much as possible to be easy to lead. Then I make a mental note to ask them about it later at practica.

After our tanda, we sat and talked for awhile, the subject of codigos came up in a very general fashion. His teacher hadn't gone into any detail about the milonga codes and this leader had little idea about the different ways to do things that were more appropriate than what he had been trying. I tried to answer his questions without negativity or criticism. Especially as it was very clear that his behavior was exactly what he had been taught (by example). It turned out to be a wonderful conversation and I actually "saw" him for the first time. Without irritation, or defensiveness. Suddenly there was a very sensitive, kind and generous leader sitting in front of me. Where did he come from?

Later we danced another tanda and instead of waiting for him to connect to me, I offered the connection first. No wait and see. 'I'll give you all I've got' - let's see what we can do together. He relaxed, and so did I.

It was like we'd never danced together before - and, at the same time, like we'd always danced together. He was a different leader from the man from the last tanda - he was relaxed, thoughtful, empathetic.

So if a second chance, done the right way, could yield such great results in this instance - how well would it work with other leaders who've made me feel uncomfortable or defensive?

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Safety dances

I attended a milonga a couple of weeks ago at a venue I liked and knew very well. In attendance were several dancers that I knew. In other words, I felt comfortable. Until my second tanda. A tanguero I had never seen before asked me to dance and I, of course, said yes.

Let me interject a little bit of advice that I was given and yet fail to follow almost every milonga - watch the dancers while you're sitting. It's not the skill level so much as the comfort level I was advised to look at. I'm still at that awkward stage where nearly everyone is a better dancer than I am, so judging skill level is a bit of a moot point for me anyway. One thing I have learned to look for is - do the followers look uncomfortable? Worried? Frustrated? Or worse, hurt? I could have avoided a few uncomfortable situations had I listened to that advice early on.

(For more details, look at Ampstertango's Post on "End Results - Her Tango Look" - http://ampstertango.blogspot.com/2009/08/she-needs-to-feel-you.html )

Back to the story, I accepted a dance from the dancer. I told him I'd only been dancing a few months and was still pretty new. At first the dance was not too bad - he was musical and his lead was fairly clear to read. Then, when I missed a couple of leads, the instruction began. "

*deep frustrated sigh from him*
You really need to learn to ....."
"It's important to........."
"We can work on this until you get it down...." (until I get it down?!?!)

I tried the usual tact, "I am working on that, thanks. May we move on?" to little effect.

By the third song of the tanda, he was getting frustrated and I was getting further and further behind his lead. So he pulled and jerked harder to get me in the right place. When the music ended I was so relieved. He didn't walk me back to my table but left me about halfway across the floor. Normally I would feel a bit of a sting, but frankly, it was fine with me at that point.

As I sat down to catch my breath. I looked around for one of my "safe partners". That's what this post is *really* about. Those tangueros, regardless of what skill level they're at in their dance, always provide a lovely, soul-soothing dance. They're the ones I look for when I first arrive at the milonga. If I want to start the evening off on a good note - it's nice to find a partner I can rely on for that warm feeling of belonging. I've heard several dancers tell me they look to the same few partners to "warm up" with when they arrive. Partners they know well, and that know them. They make all the difference and I especially appreciate them after a really rough or challenging tanda. I try, to different degrees of success I'm sure, to provide that same safe, open and warm feeling to my partners.

The whole situation of finding comfort after difficulty reminds me of a seminar on dealing with difficult people. The facilitator said, "Everyone is someone's difficult person." I try not to be the difficult partner at the milonga, but I know I have been.

I want to be a partner that feels reliably welcoming, comfortable, uplifting - like these gentlemen are for me. I will probably never be the partner that looks glamorous or exciting. Frankly, that's okay with me. I want to be known for giving a warm, comfortable embrace and a light, easy dance, that makes my partner feel valued and confident. Maybe there should be more "technique" classes on that. In the meantime, I'll just keep asking around - what is your most comfortable dance partner like?

Choosing a Teacher: Part 3 - Warning Signs - What matters most, and what doesn't ...

Disclaimer - I am not claiming to be an expert about anything. This article is the result of several conversations with students and teachers in my own tango community and other communities around the US, and the world. This advice is subjective, most likely biased and certainly incomplete.

Warning signs:

Negativity: They publicly insult or ridicule other teachers or students. In fact if they publicly bad mouth anybody (or other styles of tango) it's not a good sign. I emphasize publicly because everyone, even teachers, have the right to their opinions. A good teacher knows that learning tango needs to involve learning from more than one teacher - either through festivals, visiting teachers, workshops, or simply visiting other schools. Almost all teachers have something valuable to teach you - even if it's only that their style doesn't appeal to you. Anything that helps you know yourself better will contribute to your dance.

Isolation: Are they they teaching in a vacuum - with little or no community involvement or activity in other communities like festivals, workshops, inviting visiting teachers etc. If they are teaching without any outside influences, their style, technique and methods may get stale. A dancer never stops learning tango - especially if they're teaching.

Uninvited Instruction at the milonga (as opposed to practicas): This is tricky because, without knowing it was against the codigos, I put two teachers in the position of instructing me at a milonga (on two separate occasions) by asking for help with a step that I was not able to follow. There are exceptions to the "no teaching" rule and certainly more discreet ways of handling questions. However, milongas are social events. Even the teachers need time to relax, just enjoy dancing and not be "on the job."

Questionable credibility: Teachers that consistently draw on their non-Argentine tango experience. The key word is consistently. We all use our background experiences to learn new information - we have to in order to make sense of new things. But if a teacher consistently emphasizes their non-tango education and experience over their Argentine tango education, I would be a little concerned.

Things that don't matter to me -

- The first class is free. I may get some negative responses to this but I think it's a teacher's right to make a living at their job. I have a very hard time affording the classes I want to take, let alone the workshops, so I understand the appeal. I'm all for free classes whenever possible (before milongas, through community centers or schools.) But if the local teacher doesn't do the free first class thing - it shouldn't be a mark against them. Tango instruction is worth paying for.

- Ballroom background - In some communities, the word "ballroom" is almost a four letter word. Think about it - would you want to be judged negatively by something you were doing 5 years ago? By the same token, 20 years as a ballroom teach/dancer/performer/champion isn't necessarily a positive thing either. It could contribute positive things (musicality, grace) just as easily as negative things (rigid movements, stiff frame, too much focus on choreography over connection.) What matters is now.

I prefer tango teachers that focus on tango. It's personal and certainly not a requirement. But Argentine Tango is hugely demanding and teaching it as a "side course" to something else doesn't appeal to me. (I should clarify, I don't mean the studio in general doesn't teach anything else. Most teachers teach out of a dance studio that teaches lots of different dances.)

- A beautiful stage or exhibition performance. How a teacher performs on stage can tell you a lot of things - musicality, grace, athleticism. But it can't tell you how they dance in social situations. Watch your teachers at the milongas. Do they follow the line of dance? Do they respect their partner and the other dancers? Are they musical and creative within the small spaces of a crowded milonga floor? Do they dance with other people besides their regular dance partner - particularly do they dance with their students?

Even though this a lengthy diatribe, it's just the tip of the iceberg and I'm sure everyone has loads of advice about choosing teachers (which I encourage them to post in the comments) - and some of my guidelines might not work for some people. So the usual caveat applies regarding the above criteria:

Your mileage may vary.

For some more guidance, check out this article from Alex Long, a tango teacher here in Central Texas: http://tangoteacherreviews.blogspot.com/2009/06/important-notes-on--teachers.html..

Additional Notes from comments on Tango Connections

Comment by Trini y Sean PATangoS on October 16, 2009
Interesting series, Mari. In my experience as a teacher, the most important influence in where one first studies tango is simply a question of scheduling. Either a teacher's classes fits into a potential student's schedule or it doesn't. The issues you bring up are good for those who are really serious about tango, are considering privates lessons, or who have a choice about who to study with. It can also take a great deal of time to figure out what's really going on. It's easy for someone to think that a teacher who has been to BsAs would be more qualified to teach than someone who has not, for example.

Comment by Mari You're right unfortunately, about scheduling. So much of how we choose what teacher to study with (in the beginning especially) has more to do with availability than anything else. I've also heard from many dancers that, in their city, there's pretty much only one teacher or school in town. If they want to expand their learning, they have to travel to other cities or festivals to do that. In so many ways, that's why I'm glad to see communities like Tango Connections sharing so much information and resources with dancers who may not otherwise have access to such input.


An email I just received suggested I should clarify something, in case I convey the wrong idea - I don't mean students should jump around from teacher to teacher, or get a second and third opinion if you just don't like the opinion you're getting. I know a student who changed teachers because the first teacher didn't want to put them in a more advanced class and the teacher was, in my opinion at least, correct in her decision. Unless a student is made very uncomfortable, either physically or emotionally, it's better to go through a few classes to determine if it's a good "match".

Choosing a Teacher: Part 2 - Some Guidelines

The How-to for Choosing a Teacher

Disclaimer - I am not claiming to be an expert about anything. This article is the result of several conversations with students and teachers in my own tango community and other communities around the US, and the world. This advice is subjective, most likely biased and certainly incomplete.

Research the local teachers: I'm not just talking about asking around - because sometimes that yields good results and sometimes not. You have to do both. Do your homework. How long has this teacher been teaching Argentine tango? How about dancing tango? From which teachers or tango maestros did they learn? Do they go to workshops and festivals themselves? Do they bring in visiting teachers? There is no strict guideline of how many years a teacher has been teaching to be good - or how often (or even if) they go to Buenos Aires, or that sort of thing. What's important is that the information is readily available and/or their comfortable answering your questions - in detail.

Watch them dance at milongas: Do you like how they dance? Does it appear that their partners like it? Are they respectful? Do they even go to milongas? If they go to other milongas do they interact with the community or only visit with/dance with students from their own classes, or only go to their own milongas?

Observe their involvement in their community: This is extra-big-double-hugely important to me. Teachers build the community. Whether we like it or not, they create dancers and communities in their own image. Are they active with other teachers/dancers/festivals/charities? Do they make an effort to collaborate with other teachers and organizers when scheduling events to avoid conflicts. (This isn't always possible, but it is a sign of good will.) Do they focus on building tango in their community as well as their own business? In other words, do they give tango a good name or do they only promote their studio and classes?

Context: Are they teaching not just the dance, but the music? Do they give background of the styles, the culture, the environment of the tango? It's possible to learn tango without knowing about the history. But I do think it is a huge disservice to students to teach something as rich as tango outside of the context in which it was born. Is what's being taught appropriate to lead (or follow) in a milonga?

Class Content: This is something you'll have to find out from other students or simply observe in a class.
Do the teachers educate their students about:
- different styles of tango (salon, milonguero, nuevo etc.),
- floor craft,
- milonga codes (codigos),
- musicality in tango, vals, milonga and different orchestras through the tango decades,
Do they emphasize connection, musicality, authentic leading/following rather than memorizing patterns and steps?

Milonga traditions: If they host milongas, do they follow milongo structure with tandas, cortinas, etc.

Choosing a Teacher: Part 1 - Know Yourself First

(Reposting my article series from Tango Connections.)

Disclaimer - I am not claiming to be an expert about anything. This article is the result of several conversations with students and teachers in my own tango community and other communities around the US, and the world. This advice is subjective, most likely biased and certainly incomplete.

With that in mind, fire when ready . . .

How do you choose a tango teacher?

This question is almost a permanent topic on dance forums, blogs and certainly Tango-L's newsgroup. It seems simple enough when someone approaches you at a milonga, or some other social occasion, and asks, "Who's the best teacher in the area." But of course it isn't nearly that simple. There are ways to find the best teacher for you - at this time. Beyond that, it's an impossible question to answer for someone else - though some people may try, usually with a great deal of bias.

So where do you start? Know yourself.

First, ask yourself why you want to dance and why you want to dance tango.

Be honest because it's going to show as soon as you start dancing with someone. If you're telling everyone (including yourself) that you want to dance to appreciate the culture and history of Argentina and you're really out to pick up women, it's going to be painfully obvious to everyone. It really is okay to start tango because it's sexy and increases your attractiveness to the opposite sex. (According to the Sydney Morning Herald, dancing apparently does lead to sex: http://www.smh.com.au/news/science/its-true-dancing-does-lead-to-sex/2005/12/22/1135032135891.html ... .)

It's also okay to start because the music speaks to you, or because you just need exercise that isn't boring. There are as many reasons to start tango as people who dance it. We can make broad generalizations about categories - but it's really up to you.

Also realize that those goals are likely to change as you begin your tango life.

Part of the reason I started tango was because I wanted to feel strong, beautiful and graceful - things I felt profoundly lacking in myself. In three months, maybe less, my goals changed. Not because my goals were suddenly met, but because tango made me, and many other people, recognize that we were strong and beautiful and graceful when we got here. We just needed to remember.

(Also check out "The Beginner's Questionnaire" on Ms. Hedgehog's blog...good in evaluating teachers... http://mshedgehog.blogspot.com/2008/10/beginners-questionnaire.html - thx Alex for the link.)

Tears and Laughter: A Tango Puzzle

Tango has brought many puzzles to my life but the one I'm pondering now is one I don't think I can actively do anything about.

Tango makes me sentimental, sometimes melancholy, sometimes just contemplative.

Dancing, nearly any kind of dancing, makes me buoyant, usually requiring me to stifle giggles to be able to do it all.

In dancing tango, my brain gets confused.

Take for example, dancing to Malena (or Volver, or Sur), whose lyrics I've posted before. Very melancholy song. The music makes me sad, almost overwhelmingly so. Being able to dance to it with milonguero-style dancer - makes me irrepressibly happy. Having the lyrics sung to me in Spanish - also brings a ridiculously silly grin to my face. But it's a terribly sad song! Which leaves my brain wondering, 'is this happy or sad?' I end up teary-eyed and giggling at the same time.

What kind of tango dancer laughs during Malena, I ask you?

Tango Transparency

The first time I got feedback from a blog post of mine in person, from a local dancer, was a little disorienting.

Now that I have readers that I see (and dance with locally), when I have a tough time at a milonga, or a rough class, I can't just shut down and wait until I get home to blog about my frustration. I can't hide in the anonymity of my writing. It's irresponsible. Who would want to find out via a blog entry that they've inadvertantly hurt someone's feelings and they're the last person to find out about it? Nor should I only tell my blog and anonymous, remote readers, that someone, some dancer or teacher, has changed how I view my tango world forever.

At the other extreme, naming names is also irresponsible - and for the purposes of this blog, unnecessary. Tango is personal. The feelings/experiences/dreams/disasters can be universal but the specifics are private.

Just as I don't need to know your name travel on this tango road with you for a time - neither does anyone else need to know.

I write here to, I hope, encourage other people to start the tango journey - and if they already have, to stay on it. If I have an experience that I think might help someone else to read about - then I have a responsibility to deal with that experience then and there, before documenting it here. What can be learned from an event if all I did was escape from it and blog about it? Writing for readers local to me, as well as scattered to the four corners, is teaching me to deal with things as they happen. To stay engaged, in person and in the moment.

I have run to this blog before - instead of letting people know at the time that there was something going on. There are situations and people that I avoided dealing with when I became uncomfortable, rather telling them at the time. I was embarrassed. In some cases, my feelings were hurt. None of those instances were intentional. They would probably have been cleared up quickly and easily had I said something. Instead some of those uncomfortable situations remain even now - months later. As I am able, I am going back to those people and those situations, and sorting things out. In some cases we're renegotiating terms with each other.

I'll still misstep. Trip. Fall. Do the wrong thing or do the right thing at the wrong time. Write too much or not enough.

Like everything else in tango, I'll try to at least keep it in the moment and on the music.

On not Dancing to Gardel

"Yes, no doubt, to talk about tango is to say Gardel, el zorzal criollo, and we have to repeat until boredom, he sings better each day..." Alfonso Laso Bermeo

I knew that Gardel's voice only very rarely graced milongas I had been to. I didn't realize that, generally speaking, his voice shouldn't be danced to at all. When I've asked before, I always got a sort of shrug and sigh, and "he's too hard to dance to." "I can't find the rhythm through his voice." So I thought it was an issue of dancibililty.

I can certainly understand that. I have a tendency, when Gardel makes his way around my mp3 player, to stop what I'm doing. I still feel like moving to it - but it's not precisely that I want to dance. It's hard to think about anything else. I multitask all the time, but I can't do it when Gardel sings. It's a good thing I don't drive or I'd be pulling over every 20 songs or so. It's powerful stuff - that voice.

I should have known it is also out of respect that one does not dance to Gardel's voice. His tragic death in an airplane crash at the height of his career devastated an entire country - well, two countries really - Argentina and Uruguay, not to mention his devoted fans all over the world. So when Gardel sings, we take a seat.

EDIT: Speaking of fans, here's a link to the dubious "celebrating" Carlos Gardel in Scotland: http://www.buteman.co.uk/news/Statue-show-catches-eye-in.5617068.jp (Thanks for the bit of fun, B - I'll get you next time.)

Further Reading:

After reading this post: http://ireneandmanyung.blogspot.com/2008/05/why-one-does-not-dance-to-gardel.html I gained a better understanding of "not dancing to Gardel."

And Alberto Paz's post about the same can be found here: http://www.gardelweb.com/not-dancing-to-gardel.htm

(Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Accidental Milonga

Technically the milonga wasn't accidental - my attendance was. I had every intention of going to the UT practica and practicing any and all of the wonderful things I learned in my lessons. I went to the building and everything! As I walked up to the Student Union with another tango dancer - a fire alarm was set off. The building was evacuated and no one was allowed back in.

Obviously the tango gods did not want to me to go to the practica.

So we all climbed into various vehicles (thank you A.P.!) and caravaned over to the Texas French Bread milonga (which was already enjoying a pretty nice turnout.) Once we filed in, the number increased by another third or so which made for a very festive atmosphere.

Even though, in my excitement, I forgot nearly everything I learned in my lessons - it was an absolutely amazing milonga. I need practice, I really do - but in the middle of the week, when the next (weekend) milonga seems so very far away, I think I need this milonga more. So, for me it's back to one practica every other week, and three milongas almost every week.

In lieu of feedback from practicas, I wish milongas could have a sort "exit questionaire" to hand out at the end of the night - like the ones you get when you quit a job. The form would have questions like:

"On a scale of 1 to 10, how were Mari's ochos?"
"Mari is making progress on maintaining connection through the embrace. True or False?"

Okay, maybe not . . .

Milongueras, Tangueras and Changes in the Journey

Courtesy of Tange e vita: http://users.telenet.be/Tango-E-Vita/tangoiste/terminology.htm

Tanguero (feminine; Tanguera) Refers to anyone who is deeply and seriously passionate about any part of tango, such as its history, music, lyrics, etc. In Argentina most tangueros are scholars, of lunfardo, music, orchestrations, Gardel, etc. One can be a tanguero without being a milonguero and a milonguero without being a tanguero (very few milongueros would be referred to as tangueros). And of course one can be an extremely good tango dancer without being either, such as stage dancers, who are quite disdained by real milongueros and tangueros, unless they go the extra distance and become milongueros by going to the milongas, and/or tangueros as well. An aficionado.

Milonguero (feminine; Milonguera) Refers to those frequenting the milongas from the early 1900s to the present who were or are tango fanatics. A person whose life revolves around dancing tango and the philosophy of tango. A title given by other tango dancers to a man (woman) who has mastered the tango dance and embodies the essence of tango.

Changes in the Journey

I started on this road as a tanguera-wanna-be. I'd listened to tango music for ages without having any desire to learn the dance. I didn't associate tango music with any dancing I had previously done (all of the forms of dance I had learned required no partner.) So my love of tango was, more or less, academic. I loved the stories around the music and in the music - of the musicians, the poets, the writers.

Last February a number of factors seemed to come together that made me rethink my stance on learning the dance. A friend at work had developed an interest (unfortunately for me, she was later seduced by the world of salsa), another associate whose opinion I valued told me he was also a tango dancer - and, the last star to align in this constellation - free tango classes at the university where I work. Obviously, the tango gods wanted me to dance.

So I started with my academic, though enthusiastic, approach to the music - which initially helped not at all. In fact, as I started dancing, I experienced a sort of disconnect while I re-learned how to listen to the music. How to associate the sound with movement. I've never had that much trouble learning to dance to any kind of music. Yet, I had, without meaning to, invested so much time experiencing tango music as a solitary, isolated event. It was a break from people, not a connection to people. Now I needed to connect to the music via movement, and connect to my partner - and- connect to the other dancers on the floor. It was a whole new world.

I can't place when the change happened. How slow or how fast. Though the change in my relationship to the music wasn't at all sudden - my realization of the change was like a bolt of lightening. When I realized it wasn't just the music I was addicted to, or even just the dancing (in isolation of everything else) - it was the milonga. Somewhere there had been a fork in the road and I had chosen a path without even realizing it.

And now there's no going back.

I'm still a tango baby. Almost 8 months old. Yet my life, all the things I need to do/plan/manage, revolves around the milonga schedule. Even my poor, patient husband has to check with my tango calendar to see when I'm available for non-tango events. I couldn't have started this path without his support and encouragement. He's been with me, though not dancing, every step of the way.

My relationship with the music has changed the most. When a tango plays (or a vals, or a milonga) it's so hard to sit still. The movement feels built into melody. How did I ever sit still for this? This isn't to say I have an easy time being on, or dancing on, the music. The quicker the tempo. the worse I am at it. But I'm trying. I'm learning.

The most unexpected transformation is how listening to the music by myself has changed. Listening to tango alone, even though I still enjoy it, feels lonelier. Or, maybe I'm more aware of the fact that I'm listening to it by myself. It's every bit as beautiful and moving, and I listen to it every single day - frequently by myself. But part of me is always thinking, I'd rather be listening to this at the milonga.

I'd rather be dancing.

I am not a milonguera. Not yet. It will be a very, very long time before I earn the right to call myself that. But when I grow up in this tango world, and I'm no longer a tango baby, I want to be a milonguera.

Listening to the embrace

I had one of those ... hm... I was going to say "aha!" moments (in my tango lesson), but it was actually even more than that. It was foundational. It changed everything.

My instructor asked me why I kept my hand on her shoulder blade when she led me. I told her that I was told that was the best place to "read" the lead. She answered, matter-of-factly (as she always does), 'what if I lead from lower in my body - or higher, from my upper back? You need to adjust the embrace not just for the shape of your leader, but from where in his body he's leading.'

I adjusted for height, for comfort, for larger steps led - but I never consciously tried to feel where my partner was leading from in his torso. That would mean getting connected more quickly - really opening to his lead more quickly.

Johanna over at Tangrila wrote about a similar predicament here: http://tangrila.blogspot.com/2009/10/wait-and-see.html. I always dance in the "wait and see" mode. I hold back a little bit and wait for my partner to give first. I told myself I was just "waiting for the lead", but that's not really true. I wanted my partner to take the step first - to trust first.

What if I gave everything I had up front? Felt where the connection, and where the lead, came from in my partner before he starts to move. That in itself was a big surprise. You can feel the lead, or the intention of the lead, before he actually moves. Did everyone else know that already? I had no idea.

But to open up first. To start listening first. To trust first. Could I do that?

I gave it my best shot the same night. I still waited until a leader I was more familiar with asked me to dance. I couldn't start with a completely blank slate. I was too self-conscious. So Mr. Polished got the first attempt.

I curled up into his embrace and laid my arm a little more broadly across his back than I usually do. We listened to the music and then I felt a sort of lifting in his lower back before he took a breath and moved. I felt the lead in his back and through his chest. Is this making any kind of sense? It sounds bizarre as I reread that sentence. He led lower in his torso than I had been keeping my arm. Keeping my arm angled slightly lower made it so much easier to feel the lead. Wow. After the tanda was over, my first thought was 'I can hardly wait to do that again!'

I couldn't manage it with everyone. There's still a comfort thing to deal with. I have to know and feel comfortable with my partner before I can go into the dance in that open state, trusting completely in my partner and the dance. Be comfortable before I get comfortable? That hardly makes sense. Even so, that's the way it is so far. But I keep trying.

I try to listen . . . without waiting to be heard.

PS - I almost forgot to include this - which is a beautiful post from Tina Tangos (when I grow up I want to be like her): http://tinatangos.com/blog/seattle/embracing-the-person/

These (shoes) were made for walkin' . . .

“Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.” Henry David Thoreau

Last Saturday, the milonga at Esquina had a few more beginners than usual. This is always exciting of course - we love to see new addicts, err, I mean, faces. It does make the floor a little rougher though. The line of dance is more uncertain, the pace of dancers doesn't come together as easily. So those that were comfortable enough to do so, tended to dance milonguero. This, of course, was wonderful for me.

A tanguero whose dancing I enjoy very much, asked me to dance. It wasn't until he said something in between the first and second song of the tanda, that I noticed he had been "only" walking. This particular dancer does know quite a few fancy moves, and enjoys leading them. He leads them carefully, deliberately - and he waits. Even if I have no idea in advance how to follow the step, he guides me through it. Tonight he was keeping it simple, closer.

He said simply that the floor was a little chaotic and this was a good time to dance milonguero and mostly walk. He didn't quite sound apologetic. But I think he wondered if I was somehow expecting more. I told him what I tell any tanguero who asks me - walking is everything. I love to be walked - not marched - but walked, musically, warmly, with connection and emotion. I can't ever seem to convey what I mean - or I suppose, how much I mean it.

We're lucky in our community to have several really great walkers. They make my evening. I've written before about my love of a good tango walk. Most recently on Dance Forums when Mr. Walker asked if anyone had spend a milonga walking: http://www.dance-forums.com/showthread.php?t=34225&page=2

Walking is the heart beat. With a great walk, everything is easier. The connection is stronger, I can feel the music through my partner, not just hear it around him.

In an only somewhat related note, I was sitting with a few people who had come to hear our local tango composer, Glover Gill, play, who were not dancers. They listened to Glover, watched the floor of dancers thoughtfully. And then one of them said, "I thought tango would be more exciting. This is kind of dull."

I answered, "it's only dull because you're not dancing. Tango, I mean the addictive tango that keeps me coming to the milongas even when I'm dead tired - that tango - is for the dancers, not for the audience. You should really give a try sometime. If you think love Glover's music now, just wait until you dance to it."

“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

Private lessons

I have had three private lessons in the last month, from four different teachers (one lesson was with a couple - which I highly recommend.) Each lesson gave me tremendous insight into my posture, my body, and my dance. Of course now every time I dance I think too much.

Shoulders down.
Lower elbow.
Tummy in.
Relax hips.
Walk on the inside of my foot.
Lead with my big toe.
Drop my hip.
Bend knees.
Relax shoulder blades.
Don't lean back.
Cross deeper to make more room.
Be more compact.

Relax and breathe...
relax ... relax ... relax

Saturday night I tried to put it all into motion. So many things to remember at once. I was so tired after lessons during the day - and still sore from the milonga the night before. I bandaged my toes and braced my knee, took some advil and headed out. I had to go dancing. I had to work the new information into my muscles while it was still fresh. I made it til midnight. Not bad for the shape I was in.

Was I any better? I don't really know. I felt better. My dances felt better. I'm going to start going to Tuesday's class and practica instead of the milonga I like so much. I need practice and feedback. It's less relaxing, but ultimately better for my dance.

At least I hope so.

Balance and Tango Addiction

Recently I wrote an article for another blog about balancing my life with my tango addiction. It was a difficult post to write. My life is not in balance. And truthfully, at times, I don't want to balance it.

I want to revel in the milongas and avoid the world outside for as long as I can - the world of money problems, job stress, health issues. When times are tough economically (especially in our work relationships) it can become an "every man for himself" atmosphere and you feel that no one "has your back." Turning on the news is no help at all. There's so much uncertainty in our lives. The milonga is refuge from that. When the rest of my life makes me feel exhausted, like I'm barely able to tread water, the milonga feels like a life raft I can rest in for awhile. It's hard to give that up when the time comes, and go back to the outside world.

To balance that, I have to remember the treasures I have outside. My husband, my family, my friends (amazingly, I still have some non-tango friends. I can't believe it either.) What would I be doing to help my relationships if I didn't have tango to buoy myself?

I would reach out to people close to me - and to people I've let drift away. I would look for ways to make new connections. I would expand my world with new people, new perspectives, new places. That still has to happen. In order for my life to be in balance, I have to bring the color and light and comfort of my tango world, to the other parts of my life. Not by forcing tango on everyone (would that I could!) but by helping other people find their own path to comfort and renewal.

For example, my husband finds comfort in good company and good food - maybe some jazz. Or maybe a movie out with friends. Tango is never going to be his comfort zone. But I can help him enjoy those activities that *are* his comfort zone. Finding balance is reminding myself to connect to people on their terms, not feeling dejected that they can't connect with me on mine.

(That's me and my DH having fun at a party that had nothing to do with tango. :) )

If you can't play nice together . . .

Now the question circulating Tango-L is this: If traditional tango dancers and nuevo tango dancers can't get along on the milonga floor - should they hold separate milongas?
In some communities this is already done. In my community it's a bit different with every milonga. As far as the music goes most of the milongas play some alternative/neotango/nuevo tango tandas toward the end of the night. Some of the more traditional dancers (not very many) prefer to sit those out. The rest of dancers either a.) dance their regular tango steps to the alternative music, or b.) dance nuevo style steps or just dance a little bigger/more open than they would to traditional music.

If someone wants to dance "bigger" steps or more in the nuevo style during the traditional music, they usually move toward the middle of the floor where there's more space. That's not always the case, but most of the time it is - and it's certainly encouraged, to keep the line of dance moving smoothly. However there have been instances where the number of bigger-steps dancers were so numerous that those who wanted to dance more traditionally had a hard time finding safe space on the floor. There was literally one couple in the center dancing swing and pushing other couples further and further out. This was a small venue so there was really nowhere to go. I believe that the organizer should have said something - and I'm not sure that she didn't. But nothing changed until they decided to leave later in the night. With money tight for everyone, I'm sure venue/milonga organizers don't want to discourage anyone's business. So is the answer separate milongas? Would you go to an all-traditional or all-alternative milonga?

While I don't mind a little alternative music (and I like some pieces quite a lot) interspersed with traditional music, I would be disappointed after an entire night of alternative music. Whereas if I go an entire milonga without hearing any alternative tandas, I hardly notice. As far as nuevo dancers and dancers that just prefer to perform larger steps - that's where it gets tricky. Some venues are better than others. Dance Institute and Uptown Dance, two of our local studio venues, have loads of room for that sort of thing, so as long as the dancers look out for others and the line of dance, it's much easier on everyone. At Esquina Tango and Tazza Fresca (a local coffee shop), nuevo moves and large patterns wreak havoc on other dancers because the floor is much smaller. In the case of Tazza Fresca, it's also an irregularly shaped floor. In those venues, executing larger moves like boleos, volcadas, leg wraps and ganchos can be done, but they have to be led very carefully and very small or else they're disruptive to other dancers. It's been my impression that either some of the leaders can't lead them small, or the followers don't know how to execute them small. I've been kicked, hit and stabbed in the leg with a stiletto heel at Tazza Fresca - not to mention the usual mild bumping that happens in a tight, awkwardly shaped space.

Even with that all that in mind, I think separating people is almost always a bad idea. I think more focus on the part of organizers and teachers on floor craft and codigos would go a long way in helping everyone share the space better. When you start dividing people, it can become difficult to bring them together again. A cohesive, strong, and supportive community is in everyone's best interest.

So what do you think? Can we all just get along? Or is time to separate the milongas so both groups can have the milonga they want most?

(Pictured above, milonga at Tazza Fresca.)

and the ugly . . .

Do I write about this? I said I would talk about everything - wouldn't leave out the ugly bits or the embarrassing bits. I'll probably edit this a dozen times before I decide one way or another.

Tuesday's milonga at Texas French Bread.

A small but lovely crowd. I was only three tandas into the evening when the muscles under my right shoulder blade started seizing. It's annoying but not the end of the world. I made it to the end of the tanda, thanked my leader and sat down. Changing shoes I thought - can I wait it out?

It might still relax on its own. . . As I bent down to put my shoes in the bag, the pain spread all the way down to my hip. It wasn't the worst it's ever been. I thought, it's manageable if I can get out of the restaurant and get on the bus, it'll be fine. I said my goodbyes to the few people sitting, and wondered one more time if it might go away on its own. I hesitated while I made my excuses to my friend. It wasn't stopping.

As I got out the door to the street corner, the muscles along my rib cage cramped and tightened like ropes. I knew where this was going. If the muscles don't relax in the next few minutes, the tremors will start. I needed to get to the bus stop before the tremors kicked in. At least my legs worked. I walked the four blocks to the bus stop and called my husband to let him know I was coming home.

Those of you not familiar with Austin's mass transit system may wonder why I didn't call my husband to come get me. The timing was such that it would have taken him longer to come get me than to get on the bus and get home. Plus, I didn't want to wait somewhere. I wanted to feel like I progressing on my way home. No one knows me on the bus, if I had tremors it wouldn't matter. They turn off lights once we're on the highway anyway.

I hung up with DH just as the bus was pulling up. I fished for my ID in my purse and had a hard time gripping it to pull it out of the pocket it's in. The tremors had started. The driver saw my hand shaking. What must he think? It doesn't matter. He doesn't know me. I put the ID away and take a seat, holding my hand under my bags in my lap.

I focused. I thought about each muscle and tried to imagine it relaxing, smoothing out. We were on MoPac before that started to work. The tremors stopped first. The ropes around my rib cage loosened up a tiny bit. Once I could start breathing deeply the muscles went from seizing, to cramped, to sore. A far more manageable state.

I'm still embarrassed about bolting out of a restaurant milonga. Not saying goodbye to everyone I'd wanted to, not giving any kind of explanation. Just running away. This is not the advice I give people. Here I am trying to convince others that tango, and the community that surrounds it, is the perfect place to cope with pain conditions.

I tell them that dancing helps the body but also helps the spirit.

I tell them they won't need to feel self-conscious or afraid.

I tell them tango accepts you for who you are in the moment - not just you "at your best".

So what did I do? I ran. Old habits die hard.

So I'm coming clean. I regret leaving when I did without explanation and mostly because I left out of fear. There was no reason for it.

Stay in the game. Stay engaged. Reach out instead of closing off. Leave for the right reasons (to get home, get rest, get help) but not out of fear.

Tango Identity and Authenticity

The battle rages once again on Tango-L and Dance-Forums about the ownership and identity of tango. For better or worse, I'm jumping into the fray.

With stories like these:

- Unesco grants tango World Heritage status: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/music/story/2009/01/25/tango-unesco.html

- Remains Found of Cafe de Hansen -- Famed Birthplace of Argentine Tango: http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=324238&CategoryId=14093#

all eyes turn to the Rio de la Plata.

Such attention is great for tango in both countries - and for the tango communities all over the world, but it also sparks the usual debates. Is there an "authentic" tango? If there is, what is it? Who dances it?

There are also other specific questions that divide participants in these discussions. To be a good dancer/teacher of Argentine tango, do you have to study in Buenos Aires? Can milongas outside of Argentina and Uruguay ever be anything like the milongas of BsAs and Montevideo?

Questions like those can't be answered outside of the bigger context - the harder reality of tango's origins. Tango, and the milongas, came about as a response to cultural conditions that were specific not only those particular places - but to that particular time. The conditions that created tango in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, more importantly created the milongas, (because we frequently break down into discussing etiquette more than aesthetics) don't exist as they did - not even in Argentina. And those conditions - which equate to cultural trauma (poverty, crime, a pervasive feeling of exile, uncertainty financially and politically) never existed to that degree in this country.

Not only can milongas in Seattle, for example, never be like the ones in Buenos Aires - neither can the milongas in Buenos Aires today be like those of the 30's. We can argue all we like - and we may want to preserve those aspects of tango culture we like - but we can't truly recreate it. Especially if no one really wants to talk about why those conditions existed.

So many elements at the milonga - obviously the music and the dance itself, but also the codigos - converged to create a safe place for a group of people who were suffering uncertainty, isolation, grief, and far too often, fear. The embrace of that tango, at that time, conveyed acceptance, safety and warmth that didn't require your name, your status or your background. Tango then really was 'a feeling that is danced.' Now tango is many things to many people (it was always that way of course, now those things tend to eclipse it's origins) - an art form, a musical expression, a creative outlet. Yet, it's still that comforting 'feeling that is danced' that I seek every time I walk in to the milonga. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I can get a ghost of that feeling, a small taste - and that's what keeps me coming back.

So is one dancer's experience of tango more authentic then someone else's? How could anyone ever judge that? Tango is personal. We can judge our dance by how it affects those around us - but we can't judge another's experience of it.

Do you have to go to Buenos Aires to be a good dancer or teacher? As far as technical skill and teaching ability, I don't think so (let the hate-mail begin lol). Just as going there is no guarantee of anything. Would you be missing out on something very profound to never experience the dance as it is danced there? To never experience the people and the culture that it grew, and continues to grow, within? Absolutely I think there would be something missing. But just showing up there is no guarantee of gaining some tango epiphany.

Now I think I'll just shut up and go dance...

Head Position in the Tango Embrace

Apparently the subject of head position came up in a recent class. How do I know - since I wasn't in the class? The same way I find out everything else that happens in the most recent classes and/or workshops - someone instucts me on the milonga floor. Surprisingly, the position of my head had never bothered this particular partner before (we've been dancing together for over 5 months) but because it was addressed in class, it was now an issue.

Fine. Something else for me to be terribly self-conscious about. Have been looking bad all this time?

I normally dance with my head facing over my partner's shoulder, usually slight downward (depending on the height of my leader). Like this (that's actually me in the picture):

Apparently, it's more graceful and appealing to dance like this (from Tangoandcoffee.org):

I can definitely see the difference - it looks like a more confortable alignment for this couple. I'm trying it out more and more - but it simply doesn't work with every partner. Height is an issue - as well as comfort with that partner. With this particular leader it means resting my forehead against his jaw (giving me a very clear view of his adam's apple and very little else).

Janis Kenyon addresses the subject on "A Woman's Approach to Milonguero Style"

In the article she states that there are three acceptable head positions:

"There are three head positions for the lady:
1) your left cheek bone to his right cheek bone (for salon style)
2) your right side of face to his right side of face (for milonguero style)
3) your nose and forehead to the right side of his face (alternatepossibilty for milonguero style)"

I've been dancing 2) and this partner has said that 3) is the preferred style.

There is further exploration on this topic on Tango and Chaos's Embrace Page.

So that is my newest experiment - head position. Which style(s) do you prefer?

Malena has the sadness of the bandoneon (Tango Malena)

Tango Malena by Susana Rinaldi

Have I already written how much like leaders that hum? It's a silly thing, really. It annoys some dancers, or so I hear. I suppose it could be distracting - but I don't find it so. It doesn't matter if they're off key, if they know the words, if they even keep on the music. If they're humming, it's verification that the music is speaking to them (or has at least done so at some point). I don't at all mean to imply that if my partner is not humming then the music doesn't speak to him. That's certainly not the case. It's just that singing or humming along is, for some reason, soothing like a lullaby to me.

On to Tango Malena....

In an earlier post I wrote about occasionally getting weepy over certain songs and Malena is one of them. I'm sentimental that way. Maybe that's why Malena is one of my favorites. The version I have is not the one that played Saturday night so I was surprised by it. The beginning strains weren't immediately familiar and my leader had to tell me which song it was. Then the singing started and I finally recognized it. What could be better?


My leader sang it, very quietly of course, in my ear. In Spanish.


I probably became instantly difficult to lead at that point. I can't concentrate on dancing very well in that silly state I get in. In fact I can't remember a single thing he led. Or I followed. If I followed.

(I should give props, by the way, to our DJ, Fil, for the music he chose that night. So much wonderful music in one evening. )

"Tus ojos son oscuros como el olvido,
tus labios, apretados como el rencor,
tus manos, dos palomas que sienten frio,
tus venas tienen sangre de bandoneon.
Tus tangos son criaturas abandonadas
que cruzan sobre el barro del callejon,
cuando todas las puertas estan cerradas
y ladran los fantasmas de la cancion.
Malena canta el tango con voz quebrada;
Malena tiene pena de bandoneon. "


"Your eyes are dark like the oblivion,
your lips, pressed tight in a grimace of rancor
your hands, two doves that suffer the cold,
your veins have blood of bandoneon.
Your tangos are forsaken creatures
that walk across the mud of a back alley,
when all the doors are locked
and the spirits of the song howl.
Malena sings the tango with a choking voice,
Malena has the sadness of a bandoneon. "

Separate classes?

Every once in awhile I hear someone make the suggestion, usually casually, lightheartedly - 'leaders and followers should have separate classes.' At first I thought, how crazy would that be? How would we learn to connect - to walk? But as I continue to take lessons, and classes, and workshops - the difference in goals and methods is becoming more and more apparent between followers and leaders.

As a follower, I want to learn technique - strength, balance, connection, musicality. After all, what good is learning more patterns if I can't follow the lead. The majority (though certainly not all) of the leaders want more patterns, more steps, more variety and vocabulary to build their choreography. Of course they also want to focus on musicality - at least there's one thing we have in common.

It reminds me of my ballroom classes - what few I had, anyway. We all learned the patterns together - men on one side of the room, women on the other. We danced steps back and forth to each other from across that space - over and over and over. Then, when we finally got together, we simply did the pattern, roughly in time with the music, not really connected at all. We all had the pattern memorized, so why should they lead or I follow it?

Sometimes I think it would be better not to know what's coming. It's essential to know the things that are possible - for instance what can be done on one side of the embrace, can also usually be done on the other side. We, as followers, need to know the vocabulary that's possible, what the lead feels like, the different ways we may respond to the lead. But at a certain point, I just want to focus on following well. If I'm concentrating on learning my side of a step - am I learning to follow - or learning to parrot?


“I am watching your chest rise and fall
like the tides of my life,
and the rest of it all
and your bones have been my bedframe
and your flesh has been my pillow
I am waiting for sleep
to offer up the deep
with both hands”

--Ani Difranco (Both Hands)

"Wait" used to ring in my ears. My teachers (all three of them) constantly telling me, "wait." I was always taking off too soon. So eager to follow correctly that I was anticipating the next step - not waiting for the lead, not waiting for the music, not waiting to feel it.

Now I wait. Maybe sometimes I wait too long. I think I must feel stubborn, unmovable, occasionally. I'm only listening. Sometimes I'm thinking. So I wait until I'm sure. I wait until I know if you mean here or there, this way, or that way.

I've gotten maybe too enamored of waiting.

A tanguero asks me to dance. I still practically jump from my seat - I'm still excited over every dance. The tanguero raises his hand and I give him mine. As soon as I feel his chest against mine (sometimes even before that) he's moving.


I don't know where he is yet. I haven't connected to him - let alone connected to the music through him. I spend the first dance chasing him.

We pause for a moment between songs and now, after three minutes of being his shadow - with him, but always a little behind - we connect. I feel him. I hear the music start and feel it move through him, to me. No more chasing.

By the third dance, we're there. Four legs, one heart.