Broken Record

(picture of Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt from La Planchadora's LOLTango.)
The Good News
Another lovely weekend of dancing with beautiful music from Li and Fil - both at Esquina and at Tapestry practica last night. In fact last night's practica was very productive. I was able to work on a pretty full range of styles - from shared weight/apilado/carpa movements to very open nuevo moves (including soltadas (yes, even soltadas), shadow leading, volcadas great and small, boleos, ganchos and leg wraps.) I'm usually up for almost anything at practica and I really enjoy the practice. It is only at milongas that I get fairly conservative. So while you may see me doing series of boleos, ganchos and leg wraps all over the place at practica, don't be surprised if you get less enthusiasm for those from me at the milonga.
Just saying...
The Not-so-Good News
"Ladies, you can blame your partner making you bump into somebody. You can also blame him when someone steps on you, but you can never blame him when you step on someone’s feet – it happens only because YOU LIFT YOUR HEEL UP when you dance, otherwise it would just be another bump." - Royce's Tango Thoughts

As if I needed another reason for that hesitance, I got a good reminder Saturday night at Esquina's crowded milonga floor. I followed a nice (and what I thought was pretty tight) ocho cortado from my partner and as I was coming back to the cross, I felt the front of my skirt get snapped down (not all the way, thankfully - but certainly enough to catch my attention.) I opened my eyes, which I should probably never closed on such a crowded floor, in time to see another follower pull her heel back from the hem of my skirt. As she looked at me sheepishly for just a moment before moving on, I'm fairly sure my expression read: "W. T. F. ???" How do you catch your heel on the front of another follower's (mid calf length) skirt?? I whispered, "what was that?" to my partner. And he answered, "She boleo'd your skirt! Are you okay?"

I answered that I was fine and we continued dancing. I'll be fixing a torn hem on my skirt tonight. I know it was very likely the leader who led the boleo that I should be blaming (and I do), but honestly I think followers share the blame as well. The leader may lead a high boleo, but we still have the option (most of the time - though sometimes the momentum is strong enough to pick up our feet, which is a different problem) to follow the boleo low to the ground.

"On the note of floor-craft, it is not only the leaders job to be aware of the surrounding space. The follower must also pay attention and never pick her feet high off the floor unless she is sure she is not going to stab anyone with her stilettos." from Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt's website.

I got that lesson very early on. After watching one of our community's more seasoned followers get speared in the leg by an errant stiletto, I overheard her (after shooting the sheepish leader a rather menacing look) tell the follower responsible, "when the floor is crowded please . keep . your . heels . on . the . floor." That moment is seared in my mind. Until that point, the only lesson constantly drilled in my head was follow what the leader leads. Period. I asked my teacher about what happened - about how to follow boleos under different floor conditions. She told me, "you always have a choice - it's your decision how high to follow it."

We all commit errors of judgment - judgment of how much room we have, how much time we have for a move etc. Tango is a partnership, and followers are not furniture. I've seen several followers peg other dancers, and then shrug and say, "he led it!" Yes, he did and he shouldn't have. But we have options in how we follow leads - how high, with how much momentum, etc. That night the floor was packed, and I clicked heels with a couple dancers - I'm pretty sure we all did. But brushing heels is quite a bit different poking a high heel into someone's skirt, or calf, or foot.

And when you do, for heaven's sakes apologize! I've knocked heels with someone, or brushed someone (as I mentioned above) and by the time I got turned around I had no idea who I'd bumped, so that's a bit different. But if you do some damage to someone, whenever possible (without endangering anyone else on the pista) own up and apologize. If you have to, wait until the tanda is over and find them. I've had to do it when I've not paid attention well enough, and accidentally bumped or kicked someone. I'd like to think I'm getting better and better about controlling my movements and being aware of my space. But pushing it off as strictly the leader's fault feels, to me anyway, like a cop-out. This is especially true when I've seen the look of horror from a leader when he sees his follower execute an unled boleo into another dancer. Led or not, he knows he's getting blamed for that move. As followers, when we execute adornos (not even unled boleos) that take our feet off the floor and hit someone - our leader still gets blamed for that. That's just another reason I look at the dance as a partnership of responsibility rather than only one person's job to keep the other safe.

The role of teachers, and the "good ol' days"

There is much discussion here and on many other forums, lists and blogs about how wonderful it would be if we could all learn tango just by watching and learning with peers, going to practicas and milongas etc., just like they used to do in Buenos Aires. Mario's video here describes that very thing - learning from the people already doing it, by listening to tango on the radio and practicing etc. These sorts of posts and blog entries range from nostalgic (even by people who never had the opportunity to learn that way) to bitter teacher-bashing with insinuations that tango teachers will do anything to sucker folks into continuous lesson.
From Tangoconnections: " . . . From this POV classes are a massive success. No matter that the 1-yr drop-out rate amongst their students is around 90%. Amongst instructors it's nearer 10%, because giving classes very much works for them. Further, a large proportion of students that do graduate do so not to the milonga but back to the classroom, as the next layer of instructors in the pyramid scheme we see today. Classes are primarily a means of rewarding and creating instructors, not dancers."

And another via Tangoconnections, "So, now we come around to the whole Magilla of Professional Teaching in the dance continues to be more mystified and more complicated, all for the convenience of the that they have something to teach...well hell, why not bring ballett into it...and maybe Martha Graham and then there´s contact improv..and some colgadas, etc etc....and on and on...meanwhile, is anyone getting effective results from their classes__-well , yes if they are seeing the class as THE alternative to the Milonga...after all, the music is non stop and in a well planned class there´s no sitting out a song..plenty of partners to experience!...and then there´s Nuevo...the perfect vehicle for ´teaching´ Heck there´s no chance of running out of material there...we will be inventing new stuff every week... meanwhile, the close embrace skills will erode and be a thing of the past...check it out..."

The reason I write about this, or rather the impetus for this post, is that I truly believe that pining for the traditional way tango was learned and experienced, or complaining about the lack of different opportunities for learning and experiencing tango, takes energy and effort away from actually working to build the community we'd like to have.

I've written before about what I believe is the essential role of tango teachers in their communities, so I won't go into detail here. But I do want to address this idea that it's somehow feasible to learn tango now, as people did before in Buenos Aires during the height of tango popularity (and for sometime after). In Mario's video of Elsa and Roberto they talk about a few key things that are missing from our current culture of tango around the world

1. In most places, tango is not popular, mainstream music played on the radio. So how would when even get exposure to the music, let alone dancers who dance to it? There is one regular milonga in a public business (in our case a restaurant) in my community. There you might, if you were having dinner on the right night at the right time, get to see people dancing tango. Every other milonga is in a dance studio or school. So it's unlikely you would get any exposure to it without knowing about it in advance. And who promotes tango events like these? Usually teachers. If you took the teachers out of many (maybe most) tango communities, how would that community fair do you think?

When I learned to "club dance", I didn't go to classes for it because the music was all over the radio, there were programs and videos on TV and I had loads of friends going to clubs to dance. I learned from them. I imagine the culture was much the same for tango in the height of its popularity. But it's not mainstream here. It's not all over the TV and the radio. Most people get their first look at tango in a movie or on (*shudder*) Dancing with the Stars, or So You Think You Can Dance.

2. Outside of Argentina and Uruguay, tango is not embedded into the fabric of our culture. We are missing, until we are shown/enlightened/educated about it, the context of tango. If it were not for shows and tango teachers most of the world would have no idea about tango at all. For those most opposed to the "teacher model" of learning tango, is that somehow preferable? To not have any tango if it's "all run by teachers"? For me at least, I will never be able to express my gratitude enough to all of the teachers who have helped me not only learn this music, and dance - but to participate in a community that nourishes my soul. Which brings me to my next point . . .

3. At their best, and this is certainly not the case in all communities, teachers grow and nurture their communities. Teachers who encourage in-fighting and snobbery, do so at their own peril. Tango is social - it needs a community to thrive, and communities require solidarity to survive. Tango is it's own ecosystem. I realize I'm very lucky in my own community. Our teachers attend each other's milongas, encourage their students to go to each other's milongas, and co-host events, support local musicians and perform many varieties of public outreach (and not just in tango - but youth groups, Latino cultural events etc.) I know it isn't that way everywhere.

But it could be . . .

If our communities aren't what we'd like it to be, because of teachers or organizers or whatever, then we have to fight for it. Rather than taking shots at the teachers who aren't "up to snuff", we can be the example of the solidarity we want to see. Raise our expectations. Be the example. Be the tango we want to see in our community.

I'll put away my soapbox now. Thanks for reading this far. :)

(picture courtesy of

Old habits . . .

I had a weekend of beautiful dances. Friday night, though, I almost sabotaged the entire experience.

Overworked, over-stressed, and under-rested, I arrived at Uptown in a state of apology which I always think I'm done with - except apparently when I'm very, very tired. I thought maybe I shouldn't have even come to the milonga. I was caught between being afraid I was going to dance very badly, and needing to dance so very much. I hadn't even changed into my tango shoes yet, but I felt I needed to warn everyone I danced with that I was tired from a long week and afraid I wasn't going to dance well. Like putting on a verbal sign that read: "Keep your expectations low". After almost an hour and a half of that nonsense, I finally realized what I was doing and stopped. The only person complaining about my dancing was me. It turned out to be a gorgeous milonga (and just the beginning a wonderful weekend of dancing). I'm so glad I didn't miss it by listening to the "Voice of Doom" .

When will I learn?
(photo, Spanish Fan, courtesy of

The Pause

"The thing is, what we find if we're not used to sitting quietly with ourselves, not used to meditation, not used to having any inner solitude in our lives, we find that we're very threatened by nothing happening." Pema Chodron, author "When Things Fall Apart", in her interview with Bill Moyers.

Sometimes, when we do nothing, we open the door for everything to finally find space within us. We empty our cups.

In tango, in the milonga, so often it's the next step, the next step, the next step, what now? What now? . . . Then the tanda is done and where did it go? Lost in the steps.

The pause, a breath . . . the time to connect to each other, listen to each other, hear the music through each other's bodies. Suspended, floating, in the space between one moment and the next. In that space, in that moment, are all the wonders of the dance and the music - the duende, the energy. Entrega happens here. Not just the surrender to our partners, but to the moment. Entrega total.

Can you feel it?

"The secret of tango is in the moment of improvisation that happens between step and step. It is to make the impossible thing possible: to dance silence." Carlos Gavito
(Picture courtesy of

Second lesson with Gregory "Grisha" Nisnevich

(Grisha performing at Esquina Tango, Austin, TX)

Lessons with Gregory "Grisha" Nisnevich are always fun and very rewarding. My partner and I shared an hour lesson to work on basic technique, but also to learn some more versatile options for milonga and for some Biagi pieces. If you've got musicality stuff to work on, Grisha's a wonderful resource.

Not surprising, my right hip still locks through side steps and some turns, but not as much - and I can get it out more smoothly now. In fact Grisha worked with both my partner and me on releasing the tension in our hips to keep from locking them.

My balance is still an issue, though. For short movements, a few steps, maybe a molinete, not so much a problem. When Grisha led a couple molinetes in a longer sequence, however, I was not so consistent. At the end he'd lightly let go of me, and I'd tilt forward slightly before regaining my balance. (I was also "drifting" away from him in turns.) My balance is better than last month, but still lots of work to be done there. Daniela Arcuri's balance-strengthening yoga-tango moves are fantastic and have given me faster results than any other exercise I tried (and not just related to tango). It's a lot like being in physical therapy again.

Another technique that not only helps keep me from tightening and pulling my shoulder blades together (which I still occasionally do), but also seems to help with my balance, is consciously trying to spread and relax my shoulder blades (not just keep them from going up) to widen and soften my back. When I manage to do it consistently, I've been told I feel much lighter and more relaxed in my dance - and also quicker to respond to leads. This technique was later echoed by Silvina and Oliver, and I've been making an extra effort throughout the day, every day, to monitor and adjust my posture. I feel so much taller and better balanced when I do.

Milonga and Ocho Madness

We spent some time working on milonga rhythm and combinations so that we have a little more versatility in expressing the music. For me, I needed to focus on turning more tightly around my partner as there's far less time for me to get back in front of him in milongas, when I "drift" away (especially during molinetes, and even a little during ocho cortados.) Another issue that can come up with "drift" is losing the tighter connection required to execute very fast and/or more intricate movements - especially faster double-time ochos. Speaking of ochos . . .

Working on milonga can be a daunting amount of work for a leader. It's serious business. So why can't I get through one set of double-time ochos without laughing? Not to mention triple-time (at which point I thought the bottoms of my shoes might spontaneously combust). I'm working hard, really I am. While my partner is (probably) thinking something like 'rock step, turn, pause, which foot is she on?' - I'm thinking "wheeeeeeeeeeee!"

Hardly seems fair, does it?

To think I used to be absolutely terrified of milonga tandas!

As far as Biagi goes, that was mostly a matter of experimenting with different elements in the pieces of music - rather than focusing on just the beat. As he told my partner, we don't need to necessarily follow a particular line in the music, but can add a complementary "line" with our interpretation. There's a lot to work with in Biagi's music - a lot of fun to be had. I think we just needed permission (and a few ideas of how) to play with it a little more and be more adventurous.
Now back to the grindstone - and practice, practice, practice!

The Blogging Life

"If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, "When you're ready." Black Swan Green, David Mitchell

After much thoughtful discourse around the blogosphere about what should and should not be expressed in someone's blog, I wanted to take a few minutes to share my thoughts, and maybe clarify my position on a couple of things.

On blogging generally . . .

This is a blog, which is (or was) short for "web log". That is to say, a diary on the web.

I have written frequently that these posts are my opinion - and only my opinion. I write about things I like and things I don't like. I babble about random things that I haven't had a chance to form an opinion about yet. I'll like one thing at one point, and hate it 6 months later, and vice versa. This is what many people have blogs for - working things out, getting discussions going, occasionally ranting and raving, more than occasionally expressing joy, wonder and blissful experiences. It's all in here. Contradictions, non-sensical blatherings, occasional insight. Okay, lately very occasional insight.

When you read someone's blog, they've invited you into their lives like they would their home, albeit more publicly. They're reaching out and inviting people into their experience. Maybe you don't care for their 37 velvet Elvis paintings they've hung everywhere, but it's their home. You don't have to go back if you don't want to. If they ask your opinion, by all means, give it. But telling people how to decorate their own home, or what they should or shouldn't write in their own blog, is going beyond expressing your disagreement. More than that, making personal comments based on how you interpret what they've written, is inappropriate. As an anonymous comment, it's a little cowardly.

In case you're unsure - that's another opinion there.

There are strong opinions all over the blogging world, including the tango blogging world . One blogger believes that a follower having her right hand too low on the leader's back, especially with the fingers spread, is somehow disrespectful to tango. I think that's pretty extreme, but hey - it's his blog. To plagiarize Voltaire, I may not approve of your blog post, but I'll defend your right to post it. If you find that your opinion isn't well represented around the blogosphere, start your own blog and have at it! There's plenty of room for more opinions on just about anything - even tango.


Comments on my blog are moderated because of spam issues, not because of criticism, dissenting opinions, or general bitchiness on my part. I even allow anonymous comments - though I strongly (see above) discourage that practice. Local dancers know me, and know that I blog here. I am as transparent as I know how to be, for better or worse. This doesn't work well for everyone, and I respect that completely. There are definitely risks involved with that choice. I've gotten an earful of opinions at practicas and classes (and occasionally milongas) over something I wrote - and for the most part, I welcome that. I'm happy to have these conversations. It's what I write for. For me, it's too complicated to keep things anonymous and I'm lazy, so I don't.

On Tango Blogging Specifically

Tango dancers are a passionate bunch. In general, we're tenacious, strong-willed, and and a little more free with our emotions - because tango often demands that of us. We feel strongly about tango (else why would we go through this much trouble?), and we tend to express our opinions quite strongly as well. That's the nature of tango, and the nature of writing. Join the conversation, start something new, jump on the soap box, and have your say. Just please be courteous when commenting on someone else's blog.

“And the problem is, when you don’t risk anything, you risk even more,” said Erica Jong.
(photo courtesy of

Leaning into the Sharp Points - Part II

Lesson with Oliver and Silvina - Part II

Down to business

Oliver and Silvina greeted us very warmly and asked us what we wanted to focus on. We really wanted to focus on very basic things, since asking to learn a pattern for example, if our walk was falling apart, would be a waste of time and money. So we danced for them and let them pick it apart.

My partner and I are close-embrace, often shared-weight, dancers, So we lean into each other when we dance. In that type of embrace, we sacrifice a certain amount of vocabulary, to enjoy a very comfortable, and solid, connection. We knew that Silvina and Oliver were very much (more upright) Salon Tango teachers - stressing independent axes, and a more fluid embrace. We were taking a lesson with them to become more adaptable - especially since the majority of dancers in our community are Salon, rather than milonguero, dancers.

So we worked on posture - and I mean we worked, and worked, and worked. Then we walked, and walked some more. And got reminded of posture things again. And again. Next, some extremely useful and highly musical variations on the ocho cortado (which I love). Then more walking, more posture checks to make sure we were being consistent. With those tools starting to come together, changes in weight-sharing (or lack thereof) become more precise, and more seamless at the same time.

It's all about options

I've found that for me at least, the more I dance one style (such as apilado - or pronounced weight-sharing), the harder it gets for me to transition to other styles with other partners. It also tends to make me frame certain techniques (like posture and embrace) as existing in only three separate settings - apilado, salon and nuevo. In my mind that meant only 3 possibilities: more shared axis, independent axis, or more off-axis moves respectively. It can be a limited view of things. Studying with Silvina and Oliver gave an opportunity to expand my view and learn more options.

The first thing Silvina had me do was stand completely flush against the wall (like when you're getting your height measured) and to pull in/back my hips so that the curve of my lower back was straightened out. That was the posture she wanted me to maintain - completely upright. The first thing I noticed was that this put my weight on my heels. Wasn't I supposed to keep my weight over the balls of my feet, I asked? No - that is an illusion, she answered. Keep your weight on your heels. I asked her to repeat that, since I was sure I must have misunderstood. Nope, I heard correctly. Keep my weight on my heels. Umm.. Ok. Rule number 1 - the teacher is always right, while you're in their class. I would just have to see how that played out later.

Next Silvina and Oliver told us both to focus on keeping our chests wide and open, not just lifted and tall, while keeping our arms relaxed and light. This complemented much of what Gregory "Grisha" Nisnevich taught in our last lesson with him, which was surprisingly reassuring.

With Silvina's help, I started to fine tune degrees of shared to independent axis. I stopped "defaulting" to an anticipated position. More importantly, the precision and control of axis they taught keeps me from using my partner as a stabilizer - especially when I haven't been invited to share weight. It's one thing to lean when I'm invited to lean, it's another to lean because I can't maintain my balance. I was starting to feel like I had control of my axis, and degree of lean, through nearly any movement. The technique some teachers describe as pushing into the ground with your lower body, and pushing up straight through your head, lengthening your torso and abdomen, does accurately describe the feeling.

We spent the rest of our time in the lesson refining the technique and gaining consistency. Oliver and Silvina taught well as a team, and switched with my partner and I frequently to gauge how well we were understanding what they were explaining. They were also very encouraging - noting the things that we were already doing well, while strengthening the areas that we were having trouble with. It was a very intense lesson as Oliver and Silvina are very focused and stay on track. There was no trace of the negativity exhibited in the class I took last year. For my partner and for me, it was time and money very well spent.

On a personal note, with Silvina's technique help, later in the weekend I was able to successfully perform more of the movements I had trouble with in the past, including the infamous soltadas. This time I had no problem keeping my axis, but still didn't enjoy such jarring (for me anyway) breaks in the embrace in the middle of a song. It was especially awkward on the exceedingly crowded floor at both Friday and Saturday's milongas. At least now it was little bit more a matter of preference, than a matter of ability.

Working out the kinks

After our lesson, we thanked Silvina and Oliver for their time, and their flexibility in scheduling our lesson. We sat down in Esquina to recuperate for a little while - and cool off. Then, while Monica and Gustavo's class was going on the dance floor, my partner and I practiced in Esquina's kitchen. I cannot stress enough how important it is to practice what you've learned as quickly as possible after a lesson - if possible, immediately. It's astonishing how fast you start to lose the information. I feel like it's a race to get the new information into my muscles before I forget everything.

Once the milonga started, we relaxed, employed the things we could use right away, "put away" the stuff that wasn't coming together yet and just had fun. With each new leader, I tried to be more aware of my axis control and posture, and adapt a little more smoothly to different embraces. It was easier to implement what I'd learned than I thought it would be, though being weighted on my heels feels pretty unnatural about 95% of the time. It is useful in moves where my balance might be compromised, either by the step itself, or by trouble my partner might be having with his balance, to weight my heel and stabilize us momentarily. But staying weighted on my heel feels like it pulls me away from my partner. This might be one of those things where, even though we're using the same words (keeping weight on the heels), we might be envisioning something different. Time will tell. Meanwhile, where it works, I use it, where it doesn't, I don't.

(NOTE: After speaking with other students who have had privates with them, the idea might be more about placing weight over the entire foot, rather than weighting to the heel or the ball of the foot. If anyone would like to contribute their ideas on this, I'd love to read it.)

Leaning into the Sharp Points - Part I

"It seemed to me that the view behind every single talk was that we could step into uncharted territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation. The other underlying theme was dissolving the dualistic tension between us and them, this and that, good and bad, by inviting in what we usually avoid. My teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, described this as "leaning into the sharp points." When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

A woman is like a tea bag - you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water. Eleanor Roosevelt

Lesson with Oliver Kolker and Silvina Valz

A Little Context

Some readers may remember that I attended classes with Oliver Kolker and Silvina Valz last year at this time and had rather a mixed experience. A lot of what I learned I use literally every single time I dance. Their emphasis on strong technique and respect for basic structure, make them highly sought after teachers, and no one I've talked to has ever been disappointed with their instruction. There was just one thing . . .

I felt humiliated in one of their classes. For those of you who don't want to go read the post, here's the summary. My partner and I were called out to the middle of the dance floor to demonstrate what we were learning. We were having trouble with traspie/milonga steps and I had asked for help. Oliver told us to demonstrate in the middle of room (in front of everyone of course). Before we could take more than 3 steps, Oliver shouted "stop!" He strode up, pointed to my hand on my partner's shoulder and said:

"Everyone look at this! This! (as he pointed emphatically at my hand.) This is caca! This is what not to do! This is not an embrace - this is caca!"

The incident (and embrace) was henceforth known as the "caca-embrace" episode. It was more amusing, and less hurtful, as time went on - and I should emphasize that the embrace they teach (woman's left hand low on the man's right shoulder blade, rather than on the shoulder, or across the top of his shoulders) is useful for dancing the style they dance, and for the style that is mostly danced in my community. It's not the embrace I prefer now, but that's life. It's my job to adapt.

So my issue wasn't one of disagreeing with what Oliver was teaching, rather it was a matter of making a student (me) feel humiliated. It didn't just affect me. A couple of people in the class remarked later about how bad it made them feel to watch the interaction. It just left a bad feeling for me, for the duration of the class. I continued, more out of stubbornness than anything else. (I can't comment on my partner's experience because he's never really discussed it with me. He was far quicker to get up and start dancing again than I was, though.)

Fast Forward - 1 Year Later

When Monica of Esquina Tango announced that Oliver and Silvina were returning for their annual visit. I decided to take a private. For me this was a sort of compromise. I didn't want to risk being singled out (or rather "coupled out"?) and embarrassed in front of a class again, but I wanted to know what I could learn from them - to understand what everyone else was so excited about in their teaching.
That's where Chodron's "leaning into the sharp points" comes in. Any time I'm intimidated or fearful, I try to turn towards it and face it, whatever it is. Usually there's message I need to hear in the experience. (Of course, sometimes that message is 'don't pick up rattlesnakes, idiot!!' - so I don't feel the need to do *everything* I'm scared of.)

In tango, that has meant:

- taking classes from teachers that I'm intimidated by or whose style is very different from what I dance most frequently/comfortably,
- practicing with leaders (who are willing) who dance in different styles and embraces,
- learning movements and steps I'm not naturally comfortable with (like volcadas, colgadas, boleos, etc. and more recently, soltadas),
- and most fundamentally, following what I'm led to the best of my ability regardless of my feeling toward the step or movement. The only caveat to that is when I think I might injure myself or someone else in the process. Despite the occasional tone of my blog posts, I don't ignore leads, or pout, or look sullen if my partner leads something flashy. I do my best to follow authentically.

Back to the lesson with Oliver and Silvina

For all my bravery a couple of weeks before their visit, I thought I'd probably chicken out if I went to a lesson by myself. So I asked one of the leaders I've been working with a lot lately, who had mentioned he'd be open to sharing private lessons, if he'd share the lesson with me. He was willing, the time was set and a few weeks later, off we went.

When we met for the lesson, thankfully (and predictably) our visiting teachers didn't remember me a bit. I had this irrational fear that upon seeing me cross the threshold, Oliver would point at me and say, "You! You, with the caca embrace! Get lost!" Of course, even if he had remembered me, he wouldn't have said that. . . but still. . . It's like having those anxiety nightmares where you're back in high school taking a test . . . in a class you've never attended . . . and you have no number 2 pencil . . . and you're naked.

That kind of anxiety . . .
(to be continued . . .)

Presentation to UNESCO for Tango as Intangible Cultural Element

I'm finally done scanning and all 150 pages are viewable on the Picasa page, linked on the image below. I've made a permanent link on the blog, below the banner -"Tango UNESCO Presentation." The pictures and historical documents are wonderful and definitely worth the look. I've also embedded the video UNESCO posted on the topic, and information about professor who donated the book to University of Texas Benson Latin Library.

This book was given to Benson Latin Library by Gerard H Behague:

Professor Béhague began his career in musicology in 1966 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by teaching music history, American music, and Latin American music. He gradually moved towards increased interest in ethnomusicology, eventually starting a strong program in Latin American ethnomusicology that is currently maintained there by one of his UT students, Tom Turino.

About the Benson Latin Library: The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, a unit of the University of Texas Libraries, is a specialized research library focusing on materials from and about Latin America, and on materials relating to Latinos in the United States. Named in honor of its former director (1942-1975), the Nettie Lee Benson Collection contains over 970,000 books, periodicals, pamphlets, and microforms; 4,000 linear feet of manuscripts; 19,000 maps; 11,500 broadsides; 93,500 photographs; and 50,000 items in a variety of other media (sound recordings, drawings, video tapes and cassettes, slides, transparencies, posters, memorabilia, and electronic media). Periodical titles are estimated at over 40,000 with 8,000 currently received titles and over 3,000 newspaper titles.

Soltadas Part II - Knowing the Music

The video below is part of the reason I can't get very excited about soltadas.

Moves/patterns/steps should be appropriate to the music - not just the rhythm of the music, but the intention of the music. Unfortunately, deciphering the intention of vocal tangos requires an idea of what the lyrics are saying. (And there's a whole other case made against including vocal tangos at all by Danny Israel here.) I don't know Castellano, but I'm learning. Any time I hear a tango that moves me, or in many cases, moves the leader I'm dancing with, I look up the lyrics. If I can't find a translation, I work out a rough translation for myself. After all, would John Lennon's "Imagine" move people as deeply if they didn't understand the sentiment of the lyrics? It's a beautiful song regardless, but the lyrics tell the story.

The lyrics tell a story in this song as well . . .

One of the most tragic (and that's saying something) tangos played in milongas is Verdemar. Here are the lyrics (thank you Alberto Paz at

"Verdemar... Verdemar...
Your eyes filled with silence...
I lost you, Verdemar.
Your yellow hands... your lips without color
And the cold of the night in your heart.
You are missing... you are no longer here...
Your eyes have extinguished, Verdemar.

I met you without thinking it, and I cheered my days
forgetting the anguish of my hours.
But soon life was merciless with you
and in your lips my kisses died of cold.
And now... what course will I take?
Roads without dawn get me lost again.

You will return, Verdemar...
It’s the soul that has a premonition about your return.
You will arrive, you will arrive...
Through a white road your spirit will come
Looking for my fatigue and here you will find me.
You are missing... you are no longer here...
Your eyes have extinguished, Verdemar."

When I heard this song the first couple of times, I didn't know the lyrics, but the emotional weight of it was still palpable. In my experience, it's beautiful to dance to because it allows for very graceful and expressive pauses. So despite the intense melancholy of the song, I look foward to dancing to it whenever it comes on. Two leaders I had the opportunity to dance with early on showed such sensitivity to the piece and really took their time with it. I learned more about the song because of them and because of the way they experienced it.

To me, performing soltadas feels about as natural in Verdemar as dancing salsa moves would. I don't hear it in the feeling of the music or in the feeling conveyed by the lyrics. Of course I'm not a leader and it's not my call, so maybe it's not up to me to "hear it". I will try to follow what I'm led, but I don't really understand it.

I do want to emphasize that both of these dancers are in the music - they know the rhythm and melody very well. So it's not like they're missing the beat, walking all over the melody, or anything like that. They're respecting the structure of the music. But it's not just about keeping moves within the structure of the music that makes a beautiful dance - it's about expressing the sentiment of the song. Or at least not disrespecting it.

Rick McGarrey writes about this on his site "Tango and Chaos",

"We sat with a couple of Argentines and watched as the couples flew and kicked their way around the floor like they were performing on steroids. I think the low point came when a very sad tango by Canaro was played. It was En Esta Tarde Gris (“On this Gray Afternoon”), and it's not just sad, it's pessimistic—bordering on dismal. (But also beautiful in its way…one of the ironies of tango, no?) Anyway, most of the dancers didn’t miss a beat. Well, actually they missed a lot of beats… but they kept leaping around with smug looks on their faces. Looks that were in sharp contrast to the faces of the watching Argentines. The Argentines were too polite to say anything (at least in English), but their faces showed what they felt—sort of a mixture of pain and pity. A suggestion: If you hear a song that begins, “Que ganas de llorar, en esta tarde gris”*, please don’t dance like you are auditioning for a Broadway production of Oklahoma. If you do, any Argentines that may be present will think you need counseling."

*Translation: How much I want to cry, in this gray afternoon."

In the little over a year I've been dancing, I've learned the lyrics to about 30 songs - and by learned, I don't mean memorized all the lyrics, my memory simply isn't that good. Rather I've learned what the song is about. Several of those I learned because of a leader's attachment or reaction to the piece. What I'm trying to say is that I don't know the lyrics to the majority of tango songs. I can make guesses from the titles or from pieces of the lyrics I can translate. (Let's face it, tango lyrics frequently contain a lot of the same vocabulary.) So I dance fairly conservatively, especially when I'm unfamiliar with a piece. I only express what I really connect to - which, if I don't know the lyrics, will only be what I feel in the mood of the music, and what I feel from my partner and his interpretation of the music.

This was all a tangent, I know. All I really wanted to say is that it's about more than finding the rhythm and the melody when creating and expressing a dance. The feeling of the music is important. The lyrics, if there are lyrics, are important. We are given so many tools, so many things to work with in tango music, but the intention of the music is for me, paramount.

I will never know all the words to all the songs, or be able to recognize all of the orquestras, but I try to connect to the music on as many levels, and in as many ways, as I can. Through my partner, through the lyrics, through the structure of the music, through the interpretation of particular orquestras - there's so much there that it will take, as they say, a lifetime and a half. (It's a beautiful feeling to know that I will never run out of things to learn and explore.)

Soltadas and Breaking the Embrace

Part I - The embrace is everything

During Spring Tango Festival this past March, I had the opportunity to dance to one of my very favorite milongas with a visiting tanguero. I should say that there are few things I love more than milongas in close embrace. The sensation of having to be completely in synch, throwing ourselves into the music and at the end, hearts pounding against each other's chests - it's like the best ride at the carnival! I was loving the milonga tanda with this stranger and so happy that I had been brave and come to the milonga, even though I had been so very intimidated beforehand.

The second song of the tanda came on, and it was another favorite song! But about half way through the song my partner started to pull away slightly. Many followers I know call this feeling "the set up" - the feeling that a move that requires some space and/or some planning is coming up. I was ready, I thought, completely in synch in his embrace. And then abruptly, I wasn't. He broke the embrace, pulled back/pushed me slightly forward and away from him, to spin me in an awkward soltada (under arm turn). I don't know if it was in the music or not, honestly, I was to busy thinking to myself, what was that for?

He took me immediately back into a close embrace, but I couldn't settle in again. Now I was constantly wondering, is he going to do that again? (He did.) Maybe I should have given him an early thank you to give him the opportunity to find a follower who was more excited by that style. I didn't think to do that at the time. After I sat down for a bit, I kept thinking if I'd wanted to do swing type moves, I'd be learning and dancing swing. For me, and I know I how much I'm in the minority I am on this, the embrace is the point of tango (after the music). Breaking the embrace for showy display moves is just really not my thing.

So when I saw an upcoming workshop on soltadas, my heart sank a little. I think I had the same reaction some leaders I know have when they see a workshop labeled, "All Levels Follower Technique Class: Sexy flicks and kicks!" A small amount of apprehension sets in. I was especially disheartened because these are teachers I really admire and have taken with in the past. I use things I learned in their classes a year ago - every single time I step out on to the pista. And I know the class makes good business sense. It will almost certainly be packed, because most people do want to learn precisely that kind of thing. It's pretty and sexy and fun, right? So why can't I get excited?

It's not just that it breaks the embrace (and not just a little, but turns me completely away from my leader), but moves like that seem to conflict with the feeling, if not the rhythm, of the music.

More rambling to follow in Part II - Knowing the Music.
(Picture above from eHow article on How to Do Underarm Turns.)