Sticking the End

(image courtesy of

When I was in middle school I decided to take gymnastics. I have no idea, even to this day, what possessed me. It was, as the kids say, and epic fail. I was terrible at it. My balance was always bad. I had little-to-no natural grace. I seemed to run and jump about as if I were playing dress-up in someone else's body for the day. I could never get my limbs to do what I wanted them to do, when I wanted them to do it. As painful, and occasionally absurdly ridiculous, as that experience was, I managed to take away two lessons from my year in gymnastics:

1. Do the things that scare you.
2. "Stick the end"

The first lesson is pretty self-explanatory - and it has always paid off well for me.

Sticking the end, as my coach constantly reminded me, meant ending my routine resting in a balanced, stable position. If the routine was set to music, it was also a way of respecting and acknowledging the music. It meant learning precisely how much momentum I would need to get to where I was ending - and no more. It meant being in control of my body - not just hurtling myself to the spot where I stopped. For my coach, it was the epitome of grace and precision. It was a statement in itself.

That second lesson came back to me when I started letting myself really feel the music. Some music in the milongas was familiar, but much of it was not. The more I learned, the better I could move my body with true intension, to the music. When I watched other dancers who "stuck the end" of songs, I was struck by the grace of it - and how much seemed to be required to do it. I would not only have to really learn the music, but be in control of my body while I was being led by someone else. A lot of factors to contend with when one can barely manage a molinete.

NOTE: "Sticking the end" is not synonymous with ending in a "tango pose". I find those a bit silly. They're fun for playing at in practicas ("You be Gavito, and I'll be Marcela Duran, okay?" Yeah, I love that game. So sue me.), but not something I'm comfortable with in a milonga.

The feeling I like best is simply an acknowledgment of the music and ending in a balanced, comfortable position rather than being caught off guard mid-ocho when the music stops. Daniela Arcuri made a point of saying several times that marking the end of the song, like some adornments and embellishments, need not be visible to anyone outside the couple dancing. Although I heard that months ago, I didn't truly know or appreciate it until quite recently.

I admit there is a part of me that finds being able to mark the end of the song in some visible way a little too gratifying - especially when the music is quite challenging. It's a bit like trying to prove how well I know the music, when there's no one I need to prove that to. Once I start down that path, I begin dancing for the tables, and that's not where I want to be in this dance. Every so often I have to remind myself about what my priorities are. Sticking the end is really for me - for my relationship to the music.

A story . . .

A few weeks ago, I recognized something in the dance with a couple of my partners that perhaps had always been there - but I just hadn't appreciated. I still wonder, have I been missing it all this time?

The last song of the tanda was ending. We were gaining momentum in that build-up phrase that comes before the chan-chan. It was Pugliese, so the last phrase was long, and the chan-chan coming was soft and slow. We came to rest on the first chan - and as the last note played, my leader gathered me to him, closed his eyes, smiled against my temple and sighed - marking the end of the song in gestures no one else would see.

A gift for me, not the tables.

Thank you.

Behind your Back

(Tango at a nightclub in Buenos Aires, 1924. Source:

A Scenario for Leaders:

Your favorite orquestra begins to play and the follower you enjoy most for that music is looking for your cabeceo at just the right moment. You meet at the edge of the dance floor, look for the nod from the leader behind you, and as the first few bars play, you find the most blissful embrace in each other's arms.

Just as you take your first step, another leader suddenly enters the line of dance, butt first, backing into your surprised partner. Oblivious to the run in, he takes off down the line of dance. The spell is broken and now you and your partner have to wonder if this tanda is going to be spent in "defensive driving" mode.

This scenario, or a similar one, happens at almost every milonga I attend. This is after we had a very well attended workshop discussing, in detail, how to enter the line of dance.

I've written about this before, and I've discussed it on forums, in emails, and in person. For every leader who uses the "male cabeceo" and enters the line of dance respectfully, there are 2 or 3 who don't - or don't know how. I know dancers don't mean to be rude or disrespectful on the pista. I don't believe anyone intends to be impolite and many people don't know that there is a better way to do things. I also know it can be awkward to try to make eye contact with other leaders - particularly if they ignore you, or blatantly move into the room you need to enter the dance floor.

Leaders, if you think it's awkward trying to make eye contact and get "permission" to enter the dance floor, take a look at it from your partner's point of view.

Behind your Back

Here's what happens from my perspective when my leader barges into the line of dance.

My leader's back is turned so he doesn't get to see the expression on the other leader's face - I do. When my leader cuts off another leader in the line of dance, I have to, with my facial expression and the look in my eyes, apologize for my leader's behavior and acknowledge the space the other leader has had to give up for us. Even when it is completely accidental and both couples simply misjudged the room they had, which happens quite often, the follower and the leader behind, frequently acknowledge each other with a mutually apologetic nod - just as when you brush or bump another couple. It happens - but there are ways to minimize that, and courteous ways to handle it when it does happen. I've been rightfully chided when I've broken the rules and those lessons have been more important to me than much of the material I learned in my classes.

The reality is that followers should be every bit as responsible for following proper etiquette on the dancer floor and when a leader charges on to the pista, she often, though not always, has an opportunity to "suggest" that her leader at least acknowledge the gentleman behind him. Followers also have the responsibility to respect the line of dance and not jump in front of a couple themselves.

How we enter the line of dance sets the tone for that tanda. It affects not only us, but the couple behind us. That chain reaction of acknowledgment, or lack of acknowledgment, sets the mood of the entire pista.

Something that does still baffle me, is that it took visiting teachers to bring this point of floor craft to everyone's attention. This isn't a new concept - it's published all over the web (there are 3 examples below). This should be a fundamental part of any tango curriculum. When it's not, it shows. It's exasperating to see the same behavior again and again.

When Murat and Michelle brought up in the class, followers practically cheered out loud because leaders, if you think you're uncomfortable making eye contact with other leaders - how uncomfortable do you think we are having to look at the angry face of the leader you just cut off?

More resources about floor craft:


"Leaders when entering the line of dance, make eye contact with the on coming traffic of leaders and acknowledge that you’d like to enter the line of dance and ONLY enter when you have consented acknowledgment of the leader next in the lane of dance. This also means do NOT allow your follower to jump onto the floor or into the flow of dance. YOU as a leader are responsible for her. However if there is an open gap in the line of dance, you MAY be able to slip in, but that gap should be several partners wide. Don’t think a few feet here, but rather YARDS of space."
From Tango Colorado

"Entering the Line of Dance: Please be aware that the line of dance is moving on the outside lane as you step into the line. Wait for a slight break in the line and be courteous to the couple coming up behind you. Frequently there are only one or two places where couples enter the dance floor so be aware of everyone around you."

From Niko Salgado:
"When entering an already active floor even if it's the beginning of the song in the middle of a tanda, it is effective to visually catch the attention of the leader dancing in the outside lane to let them know you are entering. It's like asking permission. Being cut off in line or in traffic is very annoying. This respects the flow of the dance floor. Sometimes you have to wait for the next one if the leader is not paying attention. Do not just jump in, that's for the beginning of the tanda."

It's a Wonderful Life

Sometimes my mind goes down such useless roads.
When things are going badly, it seems so easy to get lost in thorny tangles of what if I had?
What if they had?
What if I never?

Maybe I would have finished college.
Maybe I wouldn't live my life in pieces at a time.
Maybe I would look further ahead than the end of the month.
Maybe I wouldn't feel so raw so often.


But if the bad things hadn't happened . . .
If better things had.
If my route had changed . . .
and my life changed . . .

I wouldn't have met my husband . . .
or his family that became my family . . .
I wouldn't know the people I know
who care so much for me and for whom I care so deeply.

and tango . . .

my life, all the ugliness and beauty, pain and elation, brought me to tango.
So I've got to shake this off - this useless interrogation of the past.

La vida es una milonga y hay que saberla bailar,
Life is a milonga,
you gotta dance to how it goes . . .

So let's just dance
Let your body tell me your tales,
and I'll let mine do the same.
Our feet can trace out
our battle scars in the dust on the floor,
and our hearts can whisper secrets
to each other in their beats.

Our hard won miles brought us here
to this music,
this tanda,
this moment . . .

There is no time,
for what if I had,
what if I hadn't.
Just this - right now.

La vida es una milonga y hay que saberla bailar,
que en la pista está sobrando el que pierde su compás.

Life is a milonga—
you gotta dance to how it goes;
it'll leave you behind on the floor
if you're one to lose the beat.

(Translation courtesy of TangoDC and photo courtesy of . )

Putting all the Meat on the Fire - Part II

We've danced before - though not often. He visits rarely, and I'm always a little nervous when we dance. He is one of a very few dancers I know with who grew up with tango music. He was not always a dancer - but the music is his heritage and I can feel it. On those rare occasions when he visits Austin, and asks me to dance, I silently pray to the tango gods that every song in the tanda will be one that I know well. Though I know it is the leader's job to shape the interpretation of the music, when I don't know the piece, it feels like he can tell. (Now, this little panic is entirely my own making, as he's never said or done anything to make me think he was being the least bit critical of me - exactly the opposite, in fact.)

Despite my case of nerves, I was very pleased to see his cabeceo. As I accepted with a nod and stood by my table, I noticed the dance floor was so empty. I suddenly felt very visible. I was even more nervous than before. My partner for the last tanda, with whom I dance often, and I were just out on the pista relaxing, playing with the music, trying new things - even the slightly more dramatic things like volcadas that we almost never have room for. Where was that daring woman now? The "Daring Me" must have locked herself in the loo and left the "Timid Me" there standing in her shoes.

It wouldn't be so bad except that he knows when I'm nervous. He adapts, reassures, calms - he always makes it work beautifully. I almost never know whether I've made a mistake in following something because he transitions to something else so quickly and smoothly, I barely register it. What makes me nervous is being so transparent.

He always feels every change in my face, every tiny hesitation - and manages to shape the dance around how I react to what. It's not a critical scrutiny, rather an intense awareness of how I am feeling generally, how I'm feeling the music and his lead. It's weirdly reassuring and unnerving at the same time.

The first song went by in a flash. I don't know what he led or what I followed. It flowed and I relaxed, finally.

In the middle of the second song of the tanda, he led a small volcada, inviting me to lean, and I stepped forward - out of the invitation. I don't know why. I was just doing these in the last tanda for heaven's sakes. There was practically acres of room. I knew I could trust his lead. I knew he could support me. I can't fathom why I walked out of it. It would have fit the music beautifully. I was annoyed with myself. I could feel his eyebrow rise against my temple, yet his smile never left his face. He worked with my step forward smoothly and moved on as if it was what he had intended all along.

Later in the song, very gently, he invited me to a slight lean again and though I didn't step forward that time, I hesitated to release my axis, and almost as soon as I did, I crossed and stepped down before he'd led me to step. He just smiled. A partial victory? Was I was getting braver in small increments? As he led me in such beautiful, musical steps, making me feel like such an accomplished dancer, I felt like an anxious beginner on the inside.

At the start of the last song of the tanda, I wondered to myself if I'd been only paying lip service to entrega all this time. I was still nervously holding back. I could give myself to the experience with people I danced with often and knew well, but for the ones I didn't know well - it was so hard to trust, no matter how wonderful their reputation. No matter how beautiful their dancing. I remembered the words of a friend who has danced tango for many years. He told me the ability to surrender to the experience, to the lead, to the music, to your own emotions, within the embrace of a stranger is (for some at least) the beauty of tango.

What was the worst that could happen if I truly let go? Screw up the step? Hardly fatal. It was time to stop holding back. It was time to put all the meat on the fire.

The last song played, and I could hear another place for a volcada coming in the music. I could feel the shape of it in the phrase (does that even make sense? feeling a shape?), and I wondered if he would try one more time. I hadn't given him much reason to but I wished I could let him know that I was ready this time. So, I did the only thing I could. I shut up the inner voice, stopped "trying to dance", and just danced.

Did he know? Did he feel a change in me - or just guess?

I still have no idea. I felt it in his breathing and his chest - he was going to give it another try. I felt his invitation and without hesitation, I surrendered my axis as he took me into a quick, sweeping arc. I felt weightless and graceful. I was flying . . . He smiled against my cheek, and I smiled back.

"Ah," he breathed, "I knew you could do it." I could feel him hug me just slightly tighter for a second or two.

It wasn't a "you passed the test" remark - not that feeling at all. It was more a recognition that I had overcome something important. It's a silly thing - just a volcada, I'm led (and follow) them all the time with leaders I dance with often. But if I can only surrender to the dance/to the experience/to the lead/to the music, when there is no risk - that's not really surrendering at all.

The Embrace Begins with the Eyes

He invited me into his embrace and, as I always do, I looked down
. . . and away.
It's not just with him - I do it with almost every leader.

I can finally use the cabeceo with relative ease, yet as I enter the embrace I'm still shy in making eye contact for more than a moment. The (few) previous times we've danced, he's just smiled and enveloped me.

This time he stopped.

He held me out from him for a moment or two longer and said, 'the embrace begins with the eyes.' He then smiled warmly and, in no particular hurry, invited me to settle into his embrace.

The first song went by so fast that I was almost surprised to find myself on the other side of the room. As we separated between songs, once again my eyes sought out the floor. He softly cleared his throat, waiting, and when I looked up he smiled broadly. He held my gaze a second or two longer, and the welcomed me to into his embrace again.

I'm learning.

( Image courtesy of )

Get Ready for Austin's Spring Tango Festival 2011

Early Bird Registration is open for the Austin Spring Tango Festival 2011

Create your own video slideshow at


March 25, 26, and 27

Our Master Teachers will be:

* Tomas Howlin and partner (TBA)
* Cecilia Gonzalez
* Somer Surgit
* Anabella Diaz-Hojman
* Mario Consiglieri

* 18 Classes and 3 Milongas
* Three levels of classes at all times
* Milonga every night
* Special Asada Milonga on Sunday

More Festival Observations from Fandango de Tango


At the milongas, I was very disappointed to see several "Master" teachers cut off and ignore other dancers behind them as they entered the line of dance.

The cabeceo was more consistently used by local dancers, than by visiting dancers (though there were a few much appreciated exceptions).


Over-use of the 8-count basic at the milonga was greatly reduced this year and floor craft was generally a bit better than last year. However it was a lot less crowded this year, too - making things much easier. That said, there was still far too much "teaching" on the milonga floor. As Alex wrote:

"Do not ever teach or work through 'moves' on the dance floor at a social milonga. You are embarrassing yourself, and you are embarrassing the woman you are dancing with. We are embarrassed for you, and feel sorry for her." (

Lack of food

No surprise here. Hotels, because they'd prefer you patronize their restaurants and bar, often do not serve snacks or beverages (other than water) at the milongas. If for that reason alone, hotel milongas are never quite as welcoming-feeling as those held in other venues where food and drink are more readily available - even for sale.

Two hours of Master Teachers' performances
(during the Saturday milonga.)

I know a lot of people really like the shows, but two hours is a very long time to be sitting. I think it's a difference of perspective that will probably never be resolved. Many people look at the $45 cover charge for the milonga to be worth it because there's a show. Others look at that $45 and think, why am I paying more to dance less? The big show brings the big(ger) crowd, and so theoretically more dancing. Still, I'd rather have an hour less of performances, and another hour to dance.

No Practicas

That's really a lose/lose situation. If dancers don't get a chance to practice what they've just learned in (rather expensive) classes, they'll start to lose the information pretty rapidly. I know I do. The other option is to break with the accepted etiquette and practice their moves at the milonga which will likely frustrate them - and annoy the other dancers (particularly their partners who were not in the same classes with them.) See Alex's comment above, and his post regarding ideas like a dedicated practice room.


I did, despite what I wrote above, have very good time at Fandango and had loads of wonderful dances. I enjoyed seeing people from out of town and dancing until the wee hours of the morning. Spending time with friends, at the milongas and during the day, was the highlight of the festival. But mostly, just like last year, Fandango made me miss the atmosphere of my local venues and look forward even more to Austin's Spring Tango Festival. (Registration is open now, by the way. :-) Just in case you're interested.)