Continuing on Slow, Slow, Slow . . . Gavito

More apilado from Gavito

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

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

Homesick - Fandango de Tango

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nose Knows: Part II - Odors

The Sweaty Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wardrobe Malfunctions

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

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

Food Borne Stink-ogens

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

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

Dragon Breath

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

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

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

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

The Nose Knows - Hygiene, fragrances and the milonga

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

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

Part I - Perfume and Cologne

Here are the basic rules about fragrances:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two final thoughts

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

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

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

To Practice Relaxing

Freeing the Free Leg

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

Relaxing my hips . .

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

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

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

Conflict Management and Tango Flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more apologizing

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

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

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

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

Slow down

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

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

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

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

Hazardous floor pt II

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

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

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

Hazardous floor - Pt I

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

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

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

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

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

Useful tool or Over-the-top Stage Move?

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

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

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

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

"She should still be there!"

The second class...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was my new favorite person.

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

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

More on weight change . . .

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

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

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

Let's call the whole thing off!

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

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

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

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

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

Back where it started . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Dear Diary,

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

The First Class - "I carried a watermelon"

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

Stop it.

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

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

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

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

I hope.

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

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

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

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

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

"Okay, open your eyes."

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

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

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

'Try to trick your follower."

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

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

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

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

"Close your eyes."

"Excuse me?"

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

I closed my eyes.

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

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

Leading women

Dancing with my instructor,
learning apilado...

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

I have you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm not letting go."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Picture: "Abrazo"
Grandparents, 1956

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

One year.

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

abrazos y besos, abuelo.
Te extrano mucho.

Wallflowers and Femme Fatales

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

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

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

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

Floor Craft Question: Volcadas vs. Apilado Embrace

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

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

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

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

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

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



At the milonga . . .

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

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

And then I hear the remarks.

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

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

::double face palm::

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

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

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


Embracing the crowd

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

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

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

Seems straightforward enough, doesn't it?

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

Crowds were the opposite of safe.

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

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

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

Yet here I am. Eight months later.

I hadn't even noticed arriving at this place.

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

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

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

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