Leader Diagnostics, Public Dances, and Private Lessons

This blog post is in reference to a heart-breaking email I received from a follower who frequently feels like one leader in particular is constantly grading her "performance" at the milonga, assessing her skill level, and letting her know, through subtle and not so subtle ways, when he's disappointed by what she's able, or not able, to do. This person isn't her teacher or a steady dance partner. Just someone who is frequently attending the milongas.

Assessment is not what social tango at the milongas should be about.

MsHedgehog wrote a terrific post, Called "Diagnostics" about leaders who perform a sort of diagnostic as they dance, trying (usually just 1 or 2) different movements and gauging their follower's responses. In this way the leader is able to determine her skill level, and comfort level, and meet her where she is in her dance. I also tried to explain something similar in a post called "Leading from the Bottom Up".

Leaders, if you can do this subtly, by which I mean undetectably, this is a wonderful tool. It's a process that shows you care about the dance you're giving your partner. That gentle, subtle technique is not always the case, I'm sad to say. I frequently "feel" a leader running through a checklist like a sort of pop quiz I haven't studied for. Here's how it feels to me, and to the woman who wrote the email I referenced:

Can she do this? No.
How about this? Nope.
*deep, exasperated sigh*
lather . rinse . repeat

I'm not sure this is common knowledge amongst leaders, but when leaders let out a disappointed sigh or make some sound of disapproval, I hear it. When you frown after I've missed a lead, or let your frustration show in your breathing, I feel it. And when I feel those things, I don't always mean to, but I often shut down my connection to you. (Which of course makes my following even rockier - see the spiral here?) I do this because when you apply a checklist and conspicuously grade my dancing in a social setting, you're hurting me.

I understand that some or even most of that frustration may not be directed at me, but it feels directed at me. And it felt directed at the author of that email. This process of assessing the follower, is not the same as meeting her where she is in her dancing with empathy, or "Dialing In" to her , or understanding what she's comfortable with. This dance process becomes about the leader's dance, how the leader looks and how the leader feels.

For me, social tango when it's at its best, leader and follower are working together to express and play within the music. So it's not about what leaders are able to make their followers do. It's about what we can express together. When we're dancing socially, for fun (remember that fun bit?), there are no mistakes (unless someone gets hurt or is disrespectful - that's different than what I'm trying to address). It's not a test. It's our time to play in the music together. Some things work, other things won't. Social tango is an art, and aiming for some sort of perfection, is the opposite of the expression of that art.

It's different in classes, lessons and practicas. In my lesson with Grisha and other teachers, a diagnostic checklist is in essence what I am paying for. It's what I was there to get. I expect to be tested more, get feedback, address weak points. Those are the places for that kind of thing.

Lesson with Grisha, Part II - Hips, Feet and the Quest for the Free Leg

It's all in the hips . . .

Well, all in my *right* hip - the trouble, that is. I suffered a labral tear in dance class many, many years ago and even though my hip rolled back into place fairly quickly, the damage stuck around for quite awhile. Since I started tango, I've had to learn how to dance on a hip that doesn't pivot right and locks whenever I place my balance over it. When I started doing the physical therapy exercises I remembered from way-back-when, I thought the locking was mostly a case of "guarding behavior' - favoring and protecting the hip that was injured. But as I've tried to work on it, it isn't a matter of just loosening up, or not actively locking the hip - it's a matter of relearning how to move on that hip. Right now I can't do the exercise in tango-blog.com's side step exercise (see video) without my right hip locking. I can unlock it/loosen it when I notice it, but it takes time and attention.

When dancing, I've mostly ignored it and either stepped through to the next movement to get to a more comfortable position (what I do 95% of the time) which often gets me ahead of my leader, or having to rely on my leader to stabilize me (as briefly as possible) until he leads the next movement. Sorry guys. I didn't know how to fix it until now. And even with the information and exercises I have, it's going take a while.

At least now I have a better understanding of my limited range of motion on side steps, especially in molinetes, to my right - as well as balance issues on colgadas that require weight and pivot on my right leg. My hip doesn't hurt at all during those, though sometimes it pops, but it does lock and limit my motion a bit.

Stepping in Style?

I've written before about how strange it is for me to hear that my foot work looks good or that my walk is graceful. I don't know if or when I'll really internalize that information, but it is nice to hear - if only because I work so hard at it. Grisha made favorable comments about my walk, and about having developed my own style.

When I look at my walk, when it's at its best, I see the combination of two teachers, Mardi Brown and Daniela Arcuri. I can't yet call anything I do in this dance "my style" because I can trace nearly everything to a teacher (by which I mean someone who has taught me something important in the dance - not necessarily a teacher in the traditional sense). I don't remember which aspect came from which teacher, but I took what worked from both of their teachings, and have tried to create something that works for me. I work on it constantly and I probably always will. Just as I always concentrate on my embrace. Everything I ever want to do or think about doing in this dance, relies on those two aspects to work.

Here's where I owe Alex Long an apology. I gave him hell over a post where I thought he was being overly critical of followers at a milonga. Alex simply "noticed most of the followers were "stepping". On their toes. With heels elevated."

I wasn't mad because he was wrong, I was mad because he was critiquing at the milonga - even though he really was trying to be helpful. Even as irritated as I was, I couldn't help focusing a little (okay, a lot) more on my steps. Side steps, aside from the hip thing, were pretty good. Forward steps, thanks to Darryl Gaston (Dallas), were coming along nicely. Back steps however, were quite another story. Awkward, sickling under, and stepping with heel elevated. Alex was right - it was making my steps not just look uneven and wobbly, but feel uneven and wobbly to my leaders.

So I practiced in my kitchen with a full length mirror back and forth, and back and forth. I practiced in the stacks of my medical records department. I practiced at the grocery store. You get the idea.

I've also been practicing battement tendu, a ballet training exercise for improving turn-out of the foot. Not only has this smoothed out my strides a great deal, but it also relieves cramping in my, coincidentally right, foot.

When I danced with Grisha during our lesson I knew he would be running down a sort of checklist. That's what I was there for - a kind of diagnostic tune-up. After addressing my locking hip in the side step, he walked me around the room. First short, quick steps, then longer and longer, and longer, steps; then slower steps, and finally a few ocho cortados. When we stopped, he looked down and smiled broadly at me. "Good, I was checking your walk," he'd been watching in the mirror behind me, "you walk well. Very nice style - good!"

I think I managed to gibber something or other, and blush. That's it.

Realizing I wasn't going to contribute anything useful verbally, he embraced me again and started on the rest of the check list (which he explained only after we were done dancing). The rest of the list wasn't as positive, but that's what I was there to work on. (I have a separate post coming about the idea of the "leader's checklist".)

And then the dreaded free leg issue. . .

As it turns out my free leg still hasn't been truly emancipated. I can relax it with leaders I know well, and at milongas I'm very comfortable in - but more than half the time I'm still keeping the free leg tensed. The ironic thing is that I tend to want to keep control of that leg so that I don't accidentally get led (and then follow) something that ends up being dangerous on the dance floor. Yet keeping my left softer, more yielding, makes it easier to pull in movements that there's suddenly no room for. With that leg tense, nearly every sacada turns into a swinging out of my leg, when it could have been a smaller, frequently prettier, leg wrap, for example. When I did manage to free up my free leg, I noticed three things right away.

1.) I got more stable, when I was afraid I would be less stable,
2.) I got fast. I mean really fast. No hesitating, translating, guessing. I actually felt the transition of really giving Grisha control of my free leg.
3.) My movements got smaller and more flexible, not bigger.

So what to do to increase the "free-ness"? Miles on the pista. That's it. I can do wall ochos and the like, but it's just going to take the conscious effort of relaxing (though not completely limp - just more yielding) the leg with every leader I dance with.

So much to work on and that's still not everything we covered in the lesson. I'm so glad I took notes. The lesson was in a residence and the light was poor, so I didn't get to record any of it. Maybe next time.

The Leader's Hand and Sharing a Secret

"Everyone, when they take the embrace, it would be like telling a secret to the person you are dancing with." -- Carlos Gavito, Un tal Gavito

Somewhere, at some point, there was a debate about the leader's left hand position. Some of the older posts on the subject are on Alex Tango Fuego's blog and on TangriLa's blog - more about the thumb position actually, but it ties in. Really, it does. I can't find the more recent post that actually got me thinking about it, but if someone knows where it is, I'd really love to find it again.

In the classes I attended early on, leaders were told to have their left hand somewhat facing their own face. At first it reminded me a bit of this:

(David Tennant as Hamlet. Really this was just an excuse to have a picture of Tennant in my blog.)

How was that supposed to be comfortable? And recently the discussion, that I can't seem to locate now, is about that very thing. That the nearly "wrist-to-wrist" connection of the dancer's hands are more of an uncomfortable affectation, rather than a natural part of the tango embrace. And whenever a leader presented that embrace to me, my hand would sort of sink a bit in his with my fingers actually connecting to the palm, or where his wrist joins his hand. But I couldn't help noticing how beautiful images like this were:

(New York Times 2008)

And then of course, looking at Gavito's videos and pictures, I saw it again:

Photo courtesy of phototango.net.
And this one, from Tangoteca:

I must admit, though my mind was opening up a little bit to it, I still wasn't sure what the benefit was. I mean really, how big of a difference can it make?

And then Gavito actually talked about it specifically in the DVD I was watching. He mentioned that the sensation of feeling each other's pulse in the wrist added to the connection in the dance. No one had mentioned that before.

At the next milonga, when gentlemen (though only a few actually lead that particular hand position) offered that, I accepted fully, instead of dropping my hand slightly. If it was offered, I laid my wrist against my leader's wrist. It sounds silly doesn't it? Even overly dramatic, maybe?

But when I felt it - someone else's pulse against my wrist, it changed how thought of the embrace. It felt like sharing a secret language. No one can here it or see it. It's just a tiny thing - not even as strong as feeling my leader's heart beat against mine. But there it is. A whisper between us.

Lesson with Gregory "Grisha" Nisnevich - Part I

Part I - A Very Long Diversion into the Embrace..

The tango embrace is my greatest source of pleasure from this dance. It is also my greatest frustration. Every leader is different, and so is every teacher. My most negative experience in a tango workshop was being told in front of an entire class that my embrace was (in much harsher terms than this) unacceptable. Even as I was being corrected and told to keep my hand on the leader's right shoulder blade, I felt like the corrected embrace was not very comfortable for me, especially as my partner at the time was shorter than I was. But I did what I was told. In that embrace I had the option of my elbow jutting out (creating a gap between the bend of my elbow and my leader's shoulder) or pulling my elbow in and down, thereby restricting the movement of my leader's right arm. I kept as light as I could, so that I wouldn't weigh his arm down, but I still felt a little more disconnected and like I was constantly lagging behind the lead.

This is an example of the embrace I was taught in that workshop (by different teachers then those below): pictured here Daniel Nacucchio and Cristina Sosa (from Zazzle.com) of the shoulder blade contact, with elbow down. It's beautiful, but feels so awkward for me with several of the leaders I dance with most regularly.
With other leaders the shoulder blade embrace worked a little better - especially if the leader was taller and broad through the shoulders. But for the majority of my leaders, it's hard to feel the connection all the way through my left arm.

When I started taking classes with Mardi and Stephen from Georgetown Tango, and then when she arrived, Daniela Arcuri, I found an embrace I was really comfortable with, which is my left arm across more of my leader's back and/or shoulders. My lesson with Gregory "Grisha" Nisnevich this Sunday, confirmed what felt right to my body, my left further around my leader's back or shoulders (depending on our height). I was actually relieved when he corrected me (I was keeping my hand on his shoulder blade). It was like a great reassurance that what felt most comfortable for my body really was an acceptable, even desirable, way of doing things (at least for him). What feels comfortable to me looks a little more like this (though she is more offset than I generally am led to be, and lately I tend to have my head turned more toward my partner than over his shoulder):

photo by Jan La Salle, http://www.lasalleshoot.com/

For me, this embrace make it easier to keep my ribcage lifted, and keeps me from accidentally weighing on, or restricting, my partner's right arm.

But every teacher is different and every leader is different. I adjust my embrace as much as I can according to the preference of my leader. And the best advice I've gotten regarding which embrace is better is "whatever your teacher says it is for the duration of the class." After that, you have to negotiate it with each partner. Both Daniela and Grisha emphasize that the embrace is also not a static thing - but a dynamic structure that adapts to what the movement and music requires.

The plane, the plane...

And then there's that "invisible plane between dancers" thing . . .

Were a lot of people told that there was a sort of inviolable invisible plane between leader and follower, equidistant between the the two partners regardless of the type of the embrace? I was. Repeatedly. The couple on the bottom left sort of exemplify what I'm talking about:

(from Ian Kath: iankath.com/page/2/)

Several teachers, and leaders, have emphasized that we never get into, or violate each other's space in that regard. Whatever the distance is, set by the leader, it's divided in half and neither one moves into, or collapses, into the other. When I was taught this, it certainly did seem logical enough. It was just hard to maintain, and I was constantly getting reminded by my teacher at the time to maintain it. Not only did this become somewhat less relevant in milonguero style embrace that I learned later, but it also didn't seem to hold completely true for me in other embraces with other dancers. There seemed to be plenty of times when that "plane" was not maintained to be able to do more dynamic movements. In fact maintaining the rigidity of that plane sometimes made the dance uncomfortable for me. It felt like it was putting pressure on my shoulder blades and the middle of my back - depending on who I was dancing with.

On the other hand, I noticed that when I danced with a few leaders who very slightly kept my hand just a little bit more into "their space" - I was much more comfortable. The pressure was relieved on my shoulders - but I never felt "pulled" into their space. It's a very slight difference, but it feels much more comfortable. When I had my lesson with Grisha, I noticed that his embrace, and where he kept my right hand, made my back feel less tense almost immediately.

Grisha was able to explain this very clearly for me (probably far more clearly than I will be able to recount it). In the embrace, whether in the "v" embrace, milonguero or open, he kept my right arm just slightly into his space. I'm still responsible for maintaining the distance or structure he creates by not collapsing that arm, but that embrace rounded out my back just slightly, keeping me from pulling my shoulder blades together (which can pull me upright and away from my partner) and makes it easier to feel small directional and energy changes. This picture shows the embrace somewhat (it appears from the picture to be a little exaggerated), but I was unable to find a more clear example, so this will have to do:

From - http://www.gren-music.com/tango/index.html

The Leader's Back

I had tried to explain something I felt in a blog post back in October 2009 , when I first experimented with laying my arm more broadly across a leader's back. What happened was not only was I able to feel my partner's lead more clearly in his torso, but I was also able to feel the muscles in his back engage. In a sense, I was getting information from both sides of the man in front of me. It was incredibly difficult to describe then, and not much easier now. But during my lesson with Grisha, it was something he pointed out and emphasized. Every where that our bodies are connected, we are getting important information. And while we always feel for the lead and intention through the torso as the leader moves forward, each leader engages the muscles in his back and shoulders differently. It's not that I can explain what the muscle movement means - or how I need to interpret that movement, it's just an awareness that helps me build a picture of the way he moves.

No matter how many times I read that last bit, it doesn't seem to get at what I'm trying to say. I'll just leave it for now and work on it later. I welcome, as always, any thoughts on the subject.

Anyway that's probably enough for now. Time to decipher more of my notes.

Tonight I remembered

As unrelated to tango as anything can ever really be in my life. Which is to say, still a little related.

Tonight I remembered why I stopped trying for so long.
I remembered when you told me,
after listening to me prattle about my day at school so many years ago,
"you know I really don't care about this right?"
I knew then it was always going to be about your way.
I shut my mouth.

You told me to always ask questions, but not to question you.
I learned that we couldn't just disagree, I could just be wrong.
You want my knowledge for your tool box, but you still dismiss me,
In my own home.
I'm still going to try. I'm still going to give you what you've asked for.
But now I remember the price.

There's something to it, what people say about the dance.
That often we're looking for something we missed in our past,
in the partners we dance with.

Maybe it's just an illusion of the embrace,
an enchantment of the music...
but it feels so shatteringly real.
To hear and be heard,
To hold and be held,
To love and be loved unconditionally,
for 10 minutes at a time.

"Proper" Tango Shoes

Periodically someone, usually a man, will be bring up the topic of "proper tango shoes." If he's referring to the problem (and dangers) of trying to dance in flip-flops, or mules, or platform shoes etc., those are definitely valid, and very helpful points to be made. The likelihood of damaging your feet is very high without the proper support of high quality shoes. My problem comes with the idea that the *only* proper tango shoes have 4" stiletto heels on them and fetish-worthy embellishments. (Okay, I'm pretty keen on the embellishments myself.)

"goofy ballroomy shoes are a turnoff... get rid of them..." - Alex Tango Fuego (granted this is from 2007), http://alextangofuego.blogspot.com/2007/10/to-dance-or-not-to-dancebrutally.html

And, in the comments on a blog post, Anonymous said... "This is a controversial one. If a follower isn't wearing tango shoes then it's usually a good sign she's not particularly good." From Ms. Hedgehog's post, "Diagonostics" http://mshedgehog.blogspot.com/2010/05/diagnostics.html

So let's talk about shoes.

I have two pair of favorite dancing shoes. The first pair are Argentine (Flabella's) and they're incredibly sturdy. Not everyone likes Flabellas as they can feel a bit heavier than other brands. however, the padding is wonderful, and they're very stable. They're also quite plain. Black suede t-straps with a peep toe. That's it. They are almost identical (her's are closed toe) to those pictured below (it was hard for me to get a good picture off the video, so it's a little fuzzier than I'd like.)

These are real tango shoes. Yet every couple of weeks when I first started wearing them, I would get comments like, "So when are you going to get proper tango shoes?" or some such crap. The woman wearing those shoes in the picture is Marcella Duran, partner of Carlos Gavito. If they were good enough for her, they're damn well good enough for me.

My second pair of shoes are *gasp* ballroom shoes. They're Ziba's from the Elegance Company, made in USA. They are the softest suede I've ever wrapped around my feet and they're adjustable at the toe box and the ankle. They completely conform to my foot. Like most ballroom shoes, they have a suede felt-feeling bottom that goes a little too soft pretty quickly, so I had hard leather "faster" soles put on and now they're even better (and I couldn't have imagined that possibility.) When my feet get too tired or too swollen, I switch to my Zibas because they're so soft and easily adjustable.

I will never be able to wear Comme il Faut's, for example, because they simply don't fit my feet well. Too narrow in the toe box and too wide in the heel. Period. They're beautiful and well-made and just not for me. I also don't need them to be a good dancer.


What does bother me is selling 4+ inch stiletto heels to beginners who can't even complete ochos without picking up their heels from the floor. I've lost count of how many times I've been stabbed in the calf or the foot by the heel of a beginner teetering on her brand new Comme il Fauts because someone told her that she couldn't learn to be a real tango dancer without them. (I know this because I was told this by at least 3 people.) So now, while she struggles with just being able to walk backwards gracefully, she is also having to learn how to walk in probably her first pair of 4" stiletto heels. Thanks a lot for putting a weapon of mass destruction on the floor.

Meanwhile all you stiletto-tango-shoe-obsessed gentlemen can ooh and ahh over her shoes while the rest of us cringe at the waist high, out-of-control boleo she just executed, unlead.

*/end rant/*

I was talking to one of my teachers who's been teaching tango a couple of decades, and dancing far longer of course, and I asked her what she thought of the tango shoe issue. She said if you can find shoes that fit your feet very well, slide easily against the floor, are thin enough to feel the floor and are secure on your foot - it doesn't matter if they're tango shoes or not. They can come from Payless Shoes for all that matters. If they feel good to dance in, then they're good for dancing, no matter what brand they are. As far as specifically tango shoes go, I am glad to see that some tango shoe companies have pretty options in lower heels, particularly Greta Flora, Darcos, and Neotango.

So gentlemen, if you are assessing a dancer's prowess by her shoes, I feel a bit sorry for you. You're going to miss out on some gorgeous dances. Instead of looking for the most embellished, colorful, high heeled shoes - try another tactic to find the best dancers. Look for the shoes that look most worn, most loved and lived in. They may be a little faded, or scuffed, or a bit rough around the edges, but I would bet that the owner of those shoes has put on the miles on the floor.

A couple more things . . .

- Willingness to plunk down a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of tango shoes does not in anyway correlate to one's commitment to the dance. I've seen plenty of beginners get their shiny new stilettos and quit tango a month later.

- Tango shoes don't make a better dancer. Shoes that fit well and feel good dancing, do. A lot of times those are tango shoes. Sometimes they're not. You won't know until you dance with her.

Ugly, little geek.

For the first 10 or so months in my tango life, I had the unshakable, sometimes paralyzing, feeling that I was really only impersonating the woman I wanted to people to see. I was playing dress up in a real dancer's clothes. I was deeply afraid of being found out. Looking at myself in the mirror constantly reminded me I was trying to hide. I wanted so very much for others to see this person I'd made up, a confident, graceful dancer - not the woman I saw reflected back at me.

The person I saw in the mirror was, and occasionally still is, caught in the picture of a stinging childhood epithet, "ugly, little geek." Whenever I looked in the mirror at my posture, or my walk, I'd ask myself who I thought I was kidding. What did I want to accomplish so badly? The phrase kept repeating in my head as I tried to look feminine, graceful and strong. Sometimes, though rarely now, it's still in there whispering in my ear . . .


It was meant to be a playful tease, not serious at all. It was the sort of thing children, particularly boys I think, tend to say to one another. Playful insults were just that - playful. But I was a girl. And this had come from my father, from as far back as I could remember. For him it was a type of endearment like, "it's just you and me kiddo." He would come home from work, give me a hug and say, "How are ya, my ugly little geek?" I never felt that he truly believed that those words applied to me, as such. We had a lot of time where it was just him and me and he fostered a bit of an "us against the world" sort of attitude. My childhood was divided between my grandparents' house and my father's house (through his 3 marriages). We both felt at times like we were misfits. A little misunderstood. A little bit adrift in the world. A bit too smart, and bit too odd, to fit in.

I knew what he meant. It just didn't help.

I knew it was only a nickname and I would even laugh when he said it. I knew my father didn't think I was ugly. But I never felt that he thought I was pretty either. Until I got past my teens, I was underweight, frequently sick, exceedingly clumsy. Growing up, I mainly just tried to blend in. I believed that not being noticed was probably the best I could hope for. So I tried very hard to strike a balance between not wanting to stand out, and trying desperately to develop some grace, mainly in the form of dance classes in school. No matter how competent I became in my dancing, I never equated that competence with feeling graceful personally. I did get less clumsy. And I got stronger. I could "put on" gracefulness for the class, or for the performance - but it didn't really feel like me. It was a costume.

When I started tango, it was much the same for a long time. I still felt unattractive, incapable, ungainly. Over time, though I'm not sure exactly when, I stopped feeling like I was wearing a costume. The feeling I enjoyed dancing in the milongas started staying with me longer and longer. My coworkers told me that I walked differently, that I seemed like a different (more relaxed, more comfortable) person. I was starting to feel moments of grace and beauty at those times when I was trying least to "be" beautiful - mostly when I was in the moment of connecting, of dancing, of relaxing deeply into myself and my surroundings. I was traveling fully in my own skin - not trying to camouflage myself into the background.

I started to face myself in the mirror. My ideas of what the requirements were for being beautiful changed. I remember seeing a very advanced tango dancer at the end of a milonga laughing about a hem that had come loose at the bottom of her dress. She sat on a bench with her friend giggling over the hem, the new hole in her stockings, and with her hair down and falling a little bit over her face, she was stunningly beautiful. Radiant, almost serene, and yet laughing from the core of her body. At the end of most milongas, I can look around at the other followers who had made it to the end, and we frequently look a sight. Hair falling out of clips, matted to our foreheads, make-up mostly gone, stockings laddered, blissfully exhausted and lovely. I see those moments a lot in so many dancers, in so many milongas.

So maybe I've finally traded in my old moniker for one that really describes me.

Tango dancer.
Incipit vita nova.

Why I Love Tango Music (Part I)

“Flow is a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred…This is because flow lifts experience from the ordinary to the optimal, and it is in those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing.” - Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, from Joy in Motion

Ever since I wrote about flow on the dance floor, I've gotten emails asking me to explain what I meant by it - to elaborate further on what one type of music has related to another. It's been a bit of a mess trying to explain this well, but here goes.

I have what I think sounds like a simple idea - but for something so simple at first blush, it's gotten pretty complicated to try to articulate. So please be patient while I tug at the threads of this and see if I can unravel the thoughts in my head. I'm limited in my musical vocabulary, so there are some terms I might not be using correctly - or at least not optimally. I'm trudging through the best I can though. Please drop a line if you have suggestions, corrections, opinions etc. As always, I'm all ears. :)

Deceptively simple idea --> Music shapes the dance. The "shape" of traditional tango, is the milonga. Literally, they're made for each other. Simple right?

Take a look at the following video of Chan Park (TangoZen) during a class in Italy. Leave the sound off. If you're able to, skip ahead to about 1:35 or so and start watching from there. At about 1:45, Park lets everyone just move to the music. Not specifically dancing, just moving however the music calls them to move. At about 1:59, the music changes. People are still walking in a circle, but even with the sound off you can tell that the music is quite different. The music changes again at 2:33 - and again, the dancers' movements change.

TangoZen Workshop en Tuscania, Italia

Our bodies want to move differently to different music. Music, especially music composed for the purpose of dancing, shapes the movement of the dancers. Traditional tango dancing looks the way it looks because the music sounds the way it sounds. Clear as mud?

Here's another quote from Karin Norgard, of Joy in Motion, who often refers to flow in two contexts in her articles here - the flow or energy between individuals dancing, and the flow of a group on the dance floor. (I also refer to 'flow' in both contexts, which can be a little confusing - but I haven't really been able to find a way around it yet. In this post, I'm referring primarily to the feeling of flow in a group of dancers.)

"By nature, dance is marked by time and space. The rhythm, melody, instrumentation, and syncopations of the music make us constantly aware that dance happens in time. The size of the dance floor, the number of people that surround us, the space the partnership is able to occupy, and the personal space between us and our partners make us constantly aware that dance happens in space. We are continually cognizant of how much time and space we have available to us. We think this song is too fast or too slow, or that we have too much space or not enough space.

"In moments of flow, you feel as if your body was made to move at that particular speed. You move into and out of space with great comfort and ease. Your body no longer feels contained but rather has just enough time and space to feel free and yet not so much that you feel unsupported or unsafe. Time seems to fly by and stand still all at the same time. You move quickly and smoothly and yet it feels like slow motion. In these moments, you transcend the everyday limitations of time and space and feel uninhibited by temporal or spatial boundaries."

I've mentioned in previous posts that traditional or Golden Age tango music , because it was composed for social dancers, encourages "flow" on the dance floor. Flow meaning the conditions necessary for dancers to dance to the music on a dance floor more or less harmoniously with other dancers. For example, if a piece of music, like many of Piazzolla's works for example, has long, dramatic pauses, to express the music most dancers would recognize the pause and hold their position a little longer, or slow it down dramatically, draw it out, to be "in the music". However in a milonga setting, this causes disruption in the line of dance. Theoretically, all the dancers on the floor would recognize the same pause - but the longer or more unpredictable the pauses, the harder it is to get a group of dancers to follow the flow together. It can be done, especially if the dancers are experienced, familiar with each other, and with the music. It is, however, a communal effort, and it's not easy.

When Korey Ireland, tango composer and musician, was asked why Piazzolla was so hard to dance to, he replied, "Because it's often not written with the intention of accompanying social dancers. Because it is dynamic, and often follows a different energetic/dramatic trajectory than the classic dance music that we're used to. Tango dance is full of convention, and those conventions grew up side by side with the music culminating in the 40's. From there, we find a bit of parting of the ways between tango music, and tango social dance."

I found a couple of videos that might do a better job of explaining what I mean. The first video at Milonga Porteno y Bailarin, is a more traditional milonga. The Portland video is an alternative milonga.

Milonga Porteno y Bailarin - Buenos Aires

Compare the movement and flow of the line of dance to the one below:

Alternative Milonga Portland, 2004

There's a reason classic tango music follows a structure, has somewhat predictable patterns and phrasing and that is to make it easier to dance to, not just for the individual or the couple - but for the entire dance floor of dancers sharing a space. In other words, the environment created by the music is for the enjoyment of all the dancers together, not just for the creative expression of one couple - though each couple will always express the music in their own unique way, within that structure.

This is not to say that other dances can't be danced to tango music - it certainly can. And you can use tango steps and sequences to dance to non-tango music with beautiful results. However elegant those various combinations of tango and non-tango (in music and dance) are, for me it's frequently missing my favorite part of tango - falling into that groove, into the flow, with the music, with my partner and with the other dancers on the milonga floor. The difference is the intentional feeling of the music to encourage dancers to move in harmony.

One example, Juan D'Arienzo Leader and violinist.
(December 14, 1900 – January 14, 1976)

When dancers talk about the evolution of tango music through the decades, it's pretty clear that the music has always been changing. There has always been controversy and debate over which composers are better for dancing, which songs are easier, and which are harder - or downright "undanceable".

Once you get past the ad nauseum debate over whether or not Piazzolla's work is danceable, another name tends to turn up in conversations - Juan D'Arienzo, "The King of the Beat". In the mid to late '30's tango music was changing. In the opinion of many, it was moving away from the dancers.

Contemporary tango orquestra accordionist/bandoneonist/bandleader/arranger for Mandrágora Tango, Bob Barnes, wrote, "We all fell in love with classic tango by following Piazzolla's roots. If you look down your nose at D'Arienzo and DiSarli for being too "simple", you probably should stick to playing Piazzolla at jazz clubs and coffee houses."

From TodoTango: "Tango, which had been an ostentatious, challenging almost gymnastic dance, turned one day, according to Discépolo, into a sad thought which can be danced to... It can be... The dance had become subsidiary then; but then had been displaced by lyrics and the singers, and now it is displaced by the arrangement. So: D'Arienzo gave tango back to the dancers´ feet and with that he made the tango be again of interest for the young. The "king of beat" turned into the king of dancing, and by making people dance he earned a lot of money, which is a nice way to get it."

The Future of Tango Music

So just as music shapes the dance, the dance, in turn, shapes the music. As Glover Gill told the Houston Chronicle , "The dance community and the tango musicians are a symbiotic relationship." And if changes in tango music are cyclic, it makes me wonder what the future holds for the music, and musicians, of tango.

From Korey Ireland, "Tango as music has continued to evolve and develop, but it's done so separately from tango as dance. I look forward to a happy reunion, and I see signs of it. There are challenges, economic, attitudinal, logistical, but I'm especially encouraged to see more and more dancers becoming actively involved in creating tango music, and even some musicians becoming interested in the dance."

So what about dancing to nuevo, and alternative tango? I defer to the experts, in this case, Ireland again, "we grow by dancing to this sort of music, we expand our expressive palette and then we have more to offer to the music which is already familiar." So in terms of improving our dance, nuevo and alternative music pulls us out of our comfort zones, helps us expand what Korey calls our 'dance tool kit'. Which is why I love the more challenging music at practicas in particular - so I have the chance to work outside my comfort zone. In the milonga it's, for me, a different matter. I go to the milongas to relax into the embrace of the music that (potentially) pulls all of us together.

So to answer an email I got from a reader in California, that's why traditional tango music "floats my boat".

Coming in Part II of "Why I Love Tango Music - Tango tells our stories.")

Today's Music: Llorar Por Una Mujer

Such a beautiful song, and I've had it in my head for days. Finally, I decided I need to read the full translation so that my earworm has actually meaning. Like most tangos, it's sad. It crying over a woman. To further highlight the beauty of the dancing possibilities for this one, I've also embedded a videos of the uber-fabulous Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt and Melina Sedó and Detlef Engel performing to it.

You can see another beautiful interpretation of the song by Detlef and Melina HERE.

Llorar Por Una Mujer

To cry for a woman
Music by: Enrique Rodriguez
Lyrics by: Enrique Cadicamo
Translated by:
Alberto Paz
Another translation for comparison, is available from tangoDC.com by Jake Spatz

Conozco muchos que después de criticar
se fueron a clavar en un cariño
y esos, después de reír,
los he visto sufrir
y llorar como niños...
Ahí nadie puede guapear
porque he visto aflojar
hasta el más sobrador.
Si no querés pifiar
tendrás que caminar
con cuidado en el amor.

llorar por una mujer
es quererla
y no tenerla.
Llorar por una mujer
es muy hondo padecer.
Vos, que pa'l amor
fuiste retobao,
hoy tu pena es fuerte
y te tiene arrinconcao,
y hoy que no la ves
y que la querés
se te achica el alma,
y recién sabés
lo que es:
llorar por una mujer.

Muchachos, ya lo ven,
al potro del amor
no hay gaucho domador que lo domine.
Cuando nos entra a tallar
una pena de amar,
el varón se define...
Ahí comprobamos lo que es
ese fiero revés
que nos hace llorar...
Conozco muchos que
después de criticar
los he ido a consolar.


I know many who after criticizing
ended up stuck in an romance
and them, after having laughed,
I have seen them suffering
and crying like children...
There nobody can bluff
because I have seen weakened
even the most conceited.
If you don't want to fail
you will have to thread
with care in matters of love.

To cry,
to cry for a woman
is to want her
and not to have her.
To cry,
To cry for a woman
is very deep suffering
You, who, for love
were cunning,
today your heartache is strong
and it has you cornered
and today that you can't see her
and that you want her
your soul shrinks
and now you know
what is like
To cry,
to cry for a woman.

Guys, so you see,
for the colt of love
there is no horse breaker gaucho to dominate it.
When we start being annoyed
by a heartache of love,
the man defines himself...
There we verify what it is
that fierce misfortune
that makes us cry...
I know many that
after criticizing
I have gone to console them.

and Detlef and Melina . . . .

Tango Negro - Francisco Forquera y Carolina Bonaventura

On of the most challenging songs to dance to, and one of my very favorites!

2010 Seoul Tango Festival Grand Milonga 3rd performance - 1st of May 2010

Revisiting an Intimate Mixture

More than six months ago now, I wrote a post called An Intimate Mixture. I still occasionally get emails about it, which I admit surprises me. Time has gone by so fast, I decided it might be good to revisit the post and update a few thoughts. 
Intimate 1600–10; intim(us) a close friend (n. use of the adj.) - characterized by or involving warm friendship or a personally close or familiar association or feeling, - (of an association, knowledge, understanding, etc.) arising from close personal connection or familiar experience, - worn next to the skin, - showing a close union or combination of particles or elements: an intimate mixture, - inmost; deep within, - of, pertaining to, or characteristic of the inmost or essential nature; intrinsic, - of, pertaining to, or existing in the inmost depths of the mind,  
In the US, the word "intimate" is a loaded word. When I say I have close, intimate friends - the meaning could be innocent (itself a misleading, and loaded, word.) But if I say feel an intimate connection with my partner when we dance (especially when we talk about tango), suddenly we're talking about something else. When people watch tango from sidelines, it certainly looks like something else. The tango is about passion after all. But the passion of tango is both personal and transcendent. It's about everyone, and no one in particular. 
We try so hard to make things black and white in this country. Maybe in this entire modern world. The answer is either A or B, yes or no. You are either in the "lover" category or the "not lover" category. If you are in the "lover" category, then we are intimate and we can't be (just) friends. If you are in the "friend" category, we aren't lovers and we can't be intimate. We can be this close, but not that close. This feeling is okay, that feeling is not. 
 Tango, the tango of Rio de la Plata, the tango that sweats, sighs into our neck, whispers in our ears, sings in our blood, and aches through our limbs - is intimate. It is "worn next to our skin." Under our skin. How can it be anything else to do what it does? We long for intimacy. Our world, this modern Western marvel of civilization (particularly in America) isolates us, and strips us of pieces of our humanity. Forcing us to turn off inappropriate emotions, avert our eyes from uncomfortable scenes, push each other away, build walls. 
If we are lucky enough to encounter tango - to fall into the culture of the milonga - the transition from "outside world" to the milonga is palpable. Like changing our clothes... or our skin.. "Let me slip into something more comfortable . . ."  
Back in September I wrote, "My addiction to tango was born and lives in the milonga." Now thanks to a fellow blogger/tanguero, I no longer think of that it in quite those terms. My reliance on the milonga culture for my sense of community and well being, is the same however, if not stronger. It's also still true that if I had to, I could give up the classes, the workshops, the festivals, everything else - but I could never give up the milonga. 
Before I dance my first tanda, I can feel the effect of the milonga over my skin. Warmth. Sometimes it's sad, sometimes it's euphoric. Each milonga, each night, has a personality. Sometimes, more than sometimes, it's nostalgic. It longs for something lost. The energy is intimate - familiar, essential, deep within. 
Tango, and the milonga, gives permission to be human - to feel things, to be overwhelmed, to be nostalgic for our humanity and our connection to each other, to be intimate with strangers. To hold and be held. (Which reminds me... One of the first classes I attended, at UT's free Argentine tango classes, our wonderful instructor asked each of us to hug our previous partner before rotating in the line of dance to our next partner. So I hugged my leader warmly and as I was about to move on, he said, "wow, you give real hugs!" My first thought was, "of course - what do you give?" I think all I managed was to blink at him with my confused expression. Sadly, though possibly not surprisingly, he didn't stay in tango.  Life is too short, and time too precious, to be doling out pretend hugs.) But I digress . . .  
"This music is for you. It always had you in mind, your habits, your twitches, the tiny blood vessels bursting inside you when you hide what you feel." Enrique Fernandez, Zero Hour/Astor Piazzolla liner notes. 
At the milonga, we may not learn each other's names. But in a tanda we learn and share more than we intend to. The dance demands it. The music makes it feel safe. To connect, really and truly connect for this dance - we must stop lying. To ourselves mostly. All of those things that are so important on the outside - our jobs, our status, our possessions - mean nothing in here. If we face the truth, that these things don't matter and our connection, our intimacy, with other human beings is what really matters - how can we leave unchanged by that? 
 It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental. German Social Scientist, Max Weber

Tango Shoe Makeover

I love tango shoes with decorations, but I don't have the moolah for Greta Floras with the adorable leather flowers, or Comme il Fauts with bows and lace (even if I could find a pair that fit) so I found a vintage(ish) solution - shoe clips!! Why didn't I think of this sooner?

I love the vintage clips from "Not Just Musi Bows" on Ruby Lane - they're very nicely priced and have lots of unique styles. The backs are c-shaped (and very flat) to fit the shape of the shoe well, and priced very nicely - starting around $11. The selections are a bit limited but have lots of pizazz.

You can get new, really glitzy ones from Absolutely Audry like these, for about $25. Absolutely Audrey has a pretty impressive selection in just about any color imaginable - but the price is a bit higher. It's really a matter of what kind of look you're going for. If you need to match a particular outfit, Absolutely Audrey is probably the way to go.

(Pictured above "Juliette" in brown, $24.99)

(Note: This is not a paid advertisement for shoe clips from any particular company and I am not getting reimbursed for reviewing anyone's product.)

More from Un tal Gavito, back sacadas, and footsies

(Pictured above, Carlos Gavito and Marcela Duran, photographed by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward.)

So far I am slightly less pleased with Disc 2 of Un tal Gavito. The moves and sequences are larger in this series, and open the embrace frequently. That said, I believe this is another example of something I've noticed about many (frequently Argentine, though not always) teachers, where a sequence or step is taught with the purpose demonstrating and refining a technique rather than for the pattern itself. Far more than the previous DVD, the movements in this part of the program are focused on maintaining balance and control of one's axis (with the exception of the very first sequence, salida in carpa (or deep apilado or lean, for which Gavito is famous).

Side Note: I was very happy that he explained and demonstrated salida in carpa (led from the back ocho) because I find it so beautiful and intriguing - exemplifying, for me anyway, the power and beauty of surrendering completely to the lead. Of course the extreme depth of the position makes it inappropriate for the social floor as well - close embrace or no.

The steps Gavito and Duran teach could be done smaller and within the line of dance, but not easily - and they aren't demonstrated that way. They are, however, beautiful, highly maneuverable sequences that can built upon one another, or even broken down further. This DVD in particular is best for dancers with more experience in adapting steps to floor conditions.

The Back Sacada

In Disc 2, Gavito and Duran demonstrate a fairly dramatic back sacada. I must admit as soon as I saw the topic title, I bristled. This is one of my least favorite steps as I've found:

1.) I'm frequently not in the place or position I should be in for it to work smoothly (frequently that's my fault), and,
2.) my partner has no idea that I'm not in the right position for it (often not my fault).

One of the worst injuries I've sustained in tango was the result of back sacada gone wrong. I had a bruised knot on the side of my knee for almost two weeks from it. The problem was simply that I wasn't waiting just that tiny hesitation to create the illusion of the displacement. I essentially moved back too quickly. I didn't know to wait. I was pretty unfamiliar with back sacadas and they hadn't been taught in my classes, (even front sacadas were a bit new at the time). The idea, as I've since been taught, with the sacada, or illusion of displacement, is that the follower needs to wait (almost more of a hesitation than a "wait") in the place that she's been led with her free leg relaxed but ready, and not step, which would prevent the sacada.
For beginner followers it's often a constant battle to wait and not move ahead to the next anticipated step or position. Gavito has an effective way to make sure his follower is where she needs to be and ready for the sacada, before leading it. I hope I can describe it accurately - I wasn't able to find a YouTube video of something similar.

He simply walks with her (in this case, outside on her right) and before he moves his back (left) foot forward, he crosses it behind him, moving it toward her and just brushes her foot (he turns slightly for this into almost, but not quite, a low boleo to his right, behind him) - not displacing her foot, just touching it, and then continuing his step. In the video, he does this 2-3 times before leading the back sacada.

This lets him know where she is, and if she's waiting for him, or taking her step ahead of his. This also lets his follower know that a sacada may be coming - or at least that she needs to keep her foot where it's led and wait until he leads her to take the step backward. If she consistently pulls ahead and doesn't wait, the leader knows not to go ahead with the back sacada. It reassures the leader and gives a little warning to the follower. Such a simple thing that would have likely prevented my injury.

Leading from the Bottom Up

And before I get the flurry of emails saying that if the follower would just wait and not anticipate the step, everything would be ducky, let me say that in theory, that's true. In reality, there are any number of factors that contribute to why a follower may not be where a leader thinks she ought to be - not just that she's anticipating or not following properly. It's rarely as simple as "he didn't lead it right" or "she didn't follow it right" - rather, it's been my experience that it's a combination of miscommunication on both parts, quick (or even unintentional) reactions to floor conditions etc. I really believe, as unfair as it might sound, it is the leader's job to verify that his partner is where she "should be" and not assume that she is - then blame the consequences of misjudgement solely on her.

Note to leaders: This falls under what I've called in the past, leading from the bottom up. When leaders take time to make sure (or Dial In ) that the follower is able to follow what he's leading. This requires gauging her skill and comfort, building slowly, and listening to her body and her responses - without judgment (preferably of her or yourself).

Playing Footsie

Another note about almost all of the sequences and movements I've seen so far on these DVDs - Gavito and Duran are in remarkably frequent contact with each other's feet. They constantly brush and caress each other's feet - particularly before more dramatic steps. More and more I'm noticing how this frequent contact is not only essential for making the dance even more musical, precise and expressive - but it also, when done lightly and softly, makes the dance feel comforting, reassuring, connected. On a more practical note, it makes the dance slightly smaller/ tighter.

The trick, particularly with beginner and early-intermediate dancers, is overcoming the almost phobic response of trying to avoid each other's feet for fear of stomping on each other. I'm still working on that - it's tough, particularly with leaders I don't have much experience with yet.

So, back sacadas still won't be my favorite of steps, but at least now I have a better understand of the mechanics - and potentially know how to "listen" for my leader giving me clues as to what's coming. And I have even more incentive to look for footsie opportunities

Divorcing Facebook

Those of you readers who are "friends" of mine on Facebook have probably noticed that I update there (http://www.facebook.com/marijohnson) quite a bit more than I update here on my blog. Facebook makes it very quick and easy to share videos, pictures and links and so I got into the habit of posting "quick" tango links and updates on my Facebook page, rather than taking the time to do it here. Not only has the Facebook habit been siphoning off my creativity and productivity, but it's come at a higher and higher cost to my privacy (as anyone who has been monitoring Facebook's changes lately can tell you).

To deal with the privacy issues, to the best of my ability, and without actually deleting my account, I've removed almost all personal information from my profile, deleted all of my "Likes" which are really just used for marketing purposes, and went through all of my privacy settings to change from the default "social" settings, to the most private setting available to me.

As far as the huge amount of tango content that I've shared on Facebook, that's been a real challenge. I have over 1,200 links shared on FB - most of them tango-related. I've gone through 50 pages of links so far pulling the best of the bunch and creating pages for them here on the blog to capture as much of the quality links and information as I can. Just below the banner of my blog, you will see additional "Pages" have been added, and will be growing, as I move over content from Facebook to this blog.

It's my hope that moving the content, or at least copying it, will not only make the resources available for my readers here that aren't following me on Facebook, but also provide a permanent, and slightly more organized, home for those links. So far the pages are Quotes, Videos and Favorite Blogs. I'm sure there will be more soon. Hopefully I'll be able to get the links a bit more organized than they are now, as well.

If you would like to be friends on Facebook, let me know by sending a message with the invitation that you're a reader of my blog, and I'll accept the invitation to connect. I will still be updating on Facebook and logging in fairly regularly. However, the time I used to spend sharing links, articles, videos etc. will be more focused back on this blog.