As I write this, based on notes I started more than a month ago, I know I need to make two points before I start in.
1.) This post is only my opinion and observations of things. That's it. YMMV*.
2.) I haven't been bumped or kicked for the last several milongas (not since the festival). Floorcraft, even on really tight floors like Texas French Bread which was set up even tighter this week, seems to be improving.
On nearly every tango forum, blog and mailing list there are discussions and even very heated arguments about floor craft. Nuevo dancers take a large part of the criticism, partly because they're an easy target. Their dancing is considered "bigger" and their moves are more visible on the floor. But I think the blanket criticism that "nuevo (or open embrace) dancers just dance too big" not only ignores the skilled dancers who manage their space well, tightening up their use of space when the floor is crowded, but also misses what's really creating the problem. I've been kicked and bumped just as often by close embrace couples as open embrace couples. So what did they have in common, if it wasn't the embrace?
Unpredictability seemed to be the biggest factor.
When a group of dancers flow smoothly together around the pista, it's due to a certain amount of predictability. Dancers relax more when they have a better idea what's coming. Conversely, when there is a lot of unpredictability for whatever reason, lots of new dancers, out of town dancers, non-dancers moving in and around the line of dance, dancers take on a more defensive demeanor. Leaders have to constantly watch out for risks to their partner, followers take a little longer settling in and feeling safe, and all of this is going on even before anyone actually gets bumped. Things can eventually settle into sort of a routine, and as the night wears on, people get more relaxed.
There are two habits that seem to contribute most to that state of unpredictability and make dancers feel the need to be more protective. Overtaking and moving in and out of the line of dance (or frequent lane-changing).
I will admit upfront that overtaking is a pet-peeve of mine. A large percentage of the times I've been kicked or collided with, it was because someone didn't have as much room as they thought when overtaking either partner and me, or another couple close to us. But it's also that it creates a bad feeling when it's done constantly. Overtaking, especially on the right side - through the blind spot of the leader in front in the line of dance is rarely necessary. Sometimes a leader has no choice but to overtake the couple in front of him, either for the safety of his partner if the couple in front is dancing dangerously, or because another couple has stopped to do seemingly endless figures on the spot. It happens. However, being annoyed that the line of dance isn't progressing the way you think it ought to, is not a good enough reason to overtake. Someone who constantly overtakes other couples can make an entire floor of dancers feel like they have to constantly be on the look out. Then who can relax?
Overtaking on the right side should be especially avoided. The passing leader may know he has plenty of room, but he's walking into a space the leader before him can't see - or see well. That is, for the leader being overtaken, inherently unpredictable. The follower of the couple in front usually tightens up when she sees or hears the couple behind her leader coming up - which sends a signal to her leader that there's something to watch out for. As I said, sometimes that's unavoidable. When in doubt though, work the space you have.
Dancers that cut in and out of the line of dance (not overtaking couples) - moving into the center and back out again frequently are the other cause of unwelcome "suprises". Lane changing happens - sometimes it's necessary to navigate the floor safely. But you know what people think of drivers that are constantly changing lanes? That's what other dancers think about leaders zigzagging through the line of dance. Lane-changers may not be bumping anyone, but that's likely because everyone is moving away trying to avoid them. I've seen two zigzagging couples put an entire dance floor of couples on edge for two hours. And for the record, both couples were in close embrace.
In my opinion - as all of this has been, the best way to impress your dance partner - learn how to dance in this:
*"Your Mileage May Vary"
I agree - unpredictability is the biggest factor.
If the situation was translated onto a motorway, the police would swoop down on the mad lane-crossing big-swerving jerking car .. testing for alcoholic breath and doing em for unsafe driving.
Maybe we need tango police?
Our results here are similar in as far as we've been able to experiment. :)
In particular I think you are exactly right that unpredictability is far more important than style.
Layout - so that non-dancers don't have to walk on the floor - makes a big difference.
And reducing overtaking, by any means, seems to have a noticeable effect. Making the floor smaller sometimes seems to help. And when some of us tried cooperating to make a convoy, it was surprisingly effective on a small floor, because anyone who wanted to overtake was forced to overtake the entire convoy all at once.
I'm afraid overtaking is here to stay. As more people learn from poorer and poorer teachers the quality drops.
This poor quality comes back to Buenos Aires in the form of visitors, tourists see more tourists and think that it is ok.
As for overtaking on the right; that is an old milonguero trick, I see time and again baffled touristas dancing in the centre of the room with no idea how they got there.
Something that is not taught outside Buenos Aires (probably because it is not necessary) is to defend your right side, if you have no one ther you can protect the woman better.
Where space is a premium, there is no doubt in my mind the floorcraft improves, it is a matter of pure necessity.
I'm fascinated by how lane-changers and overtakers are tamed into proper dancing when they're in BA. I saw it all the time when I visited - dancers I recognize from back home, perfectly obeying the line of dance in BA. Very odd.
@Anon - unfortunately some of the self-proclaimed tango police can be just as unpredictable. :/ You're right though, thinking of it as a motorway is pretty accurate.
@msHedgehog - Making the floor smaller worked beautifully when it's been done. I'd really like to areas set up for people to walk so that they don't have to navigate the line of dance to get to the loo for instance. Oh well, baby steps...
@tangogales - I actually told two leaders about that "milonguero trick" who told me they had had trouble with being "pushed to the middle" during the last festival's milongas. I had heard from several dancers who had danced BsAs that until they got good enough to hold their own, they were constantly being pushed to the center.
@Johanna - From what I hear (tell me if I've heard wrong), if you don't "straighten up and fly right" at the milongas in BsAs you may find yourself in the above position dancing in the middle with no way back into the line of dance, or find yourself removed bodily from the milonga (I've only heard of one instance of that, thankfully.) That would certainly give me incentive to follow the rules. :D
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