Expressing music or dancing for tables?

Too much of a good thing?

As sort of a follow-up to my thoughts on technique, I've run into a little snag I'd like some feedback.

When I get compliments about my embrace, I'm absolutely elated. When someone compliments the way my walk feels, I feel accomplished. Compliments about my musicality - ditto.

When I start getting lots of compliments about my foot work, however - I get worried. I shouldn't right? A compliment is a compliment, and should be taken graciously. It's certainly meant as a positive thing. It's a good thing if a dancer's feet are pretty - why else would everyone wear those silly, yet gorgeous, shoes? But like Richard Dreyfuss staring down his plate of mash potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I can't help thinking it means something.

Something not good.

I don't mean like a backhanded compliment - but more like a fear that my priorities have unintentionally shifted. Maybe it's a community thing. Online I very often read leaders' complaints about followers' adornments and suggestions that women who adorn are "dancing for the tables", or secretly want to lead etc. etc. Yet, when I'm dancing in the milongas here, I've noticed that my increased effort on foot work has resulted in a greater number of invitations to dance. (Of course I'm very aware that how you look can get you that first tanda with a dancer - but how you feel determines if you get any invitations after that.)

So at the last several practicas, I've been asking leaders - how do I feel? Am I too "noisy" in the dance? Do I feel like I'm disconnecting? I asked leaders who I knew would be freer with criticism of my dancing and got a lot of good feedback - which was reassuring. I still felt connected, some leaders said I felt even more so lately. My walk was still strong, grounded and mostly smooth (which is pretty much par for the course.) Okay, so that's a bit of a relief.

And then more questions.

So I experimented a bit (again at practicas - not in the milongas.) I tried "turning off" the embellishments and particular foot placements, but found it much harder to do than I thought it would be. Even when I dance very, very quietly, I'm careful and deliberate in how I place my feet. Deliberately not moving my feet that way felt like I was sucking the life out of the music - and not really answering my partner's musicality.

One leader told me that when he could feel something that could be categorized as an embellishment, it didn't feel like something I was doing on my own, but an answer to what he was doing - which is how it felt to me. So what about the leaders who say when a follower embellishes, she's dancing by herself? Where is the line? Is it just something that varies from leader to leader, which would be understandable, or are there really some embellishments and adornments that leaders find noisy generally?

And where is the line between an embellishment and simply how someone moves? I was told that an embellishment or adornment was anything a follower does that is not led by the leader. Which sort of makes sense, and sort of doesn't. After all, the leader leads me to walk - but not exactly how to walk. He leads the length and speed of the step, but how I place my foot is up to me. I choose according to the music and the style he is leading. And choose is really the wrong word here. I'm not weighing my options and choosing the best one. I'm responding to what I feel from my leader and how he moves. If he moves softly and smoothly, I try to move softly and smoothly in return. If the next leader dances more sharply and rhythmically, with sharp collections and taps, and I adjust accordingly - when am I embellishing, and when am I simply following?

For example, the partner that I quoted above and I were dancing to a milonga. One thing that I do that had received compliments (and bear with me, it's difficult to describe) was rather than just collecting my feet, if the music was right for it, I would slow my foot down as I collected almost like building momentum and then at the last moment on the sharp beat, snap my feet closed. When done at the same time as my leader, who collects in a similar way during that particular milonga, it creates a great connectedness when marking the end of the phrase. It just plain feels good to do it. When I didn't do it, it felt sort of flat to him and to me - like I was muffling the music and the lead.

I'm sure there are lots of very strong feelings on the subject (pulling on my asbestos knickers) - and I look forward hearing some feedback (really). What I would like to avoid however are blanket, black and white judgments about the character or motivations of dancers who adorn or don't. Those kinds of statements, like the ones I quoted above, don't really further the discussion. I'm much more interested in hearing from dancers about when or how adornments add or take something away from the dance experience. What makes a dancer (leader or follower) feel "noisy"? Where do you draw the line with interpreting the music? When it's a problem - is the problem with the adornment, or could it be an issue of poor technique while executing the adornment?

I do still allow anonymous comments, so should any local dancers like to weigh in on this, I strongly encourage you to do so. (Even if the feedback is, "damn chica, you've been going too nuts with the feet lately.") Try not to swear too much since my grandmother reads this blog. :)


happyseaurchin said...

No sweating here heheh. As usually, a genuine and indeed ingenious attempt to delicately separate the nuances of tango.

As a blanket statement, I generally don't like adornments because they confuse the hell out of me. Apart from when there is deliberate separation and we are dancing as if apart. But in the middle of tango, when we are one, adornments confuse me. The energy for them has to come from somewhere and if they end up in some adornment, the energy is lost. I can't help think that my partner is bored.

From what you describe, it seems to me that you follow well, and match your partner's style. I like the idea of a movement that I can feel, and thus the energy is returning. But I detest when my partner just grabs me and uses my grounding to conduct some kind of move all by herself -- apart from when this is "allowed" when we are two separate dancers.

Hmm... I think it comes down to how... much of a tango you are dancing... how deep. In your previous post you mention a heartbeat through a jacket... for that level of depth, adornments are... for what purpose?

Oh dear.... my post is nowhere near as eloquent as yours. And I hope that the comments that appear below do not fulfil any of your nightmarish expectations towards the end of your blog....

Anonymous said...

I think don't overthink this, chica! If you've received compliments lately from someone other than who you were dancing the tanda with, it may be more due to people noticing your technique is looking great while they're hanging out watching everyone during a tanda they're not dancing. We don't always get that much chance to observe each other dancing if we're all always on the floor at the same time. So I'd consider whether the compliments are coming from inside the dance (your partner) or from observers sitting out a tanda. In any case, your foot work is looking great lately, muchacha! :)

Tango Therapist said...

Mari... I am not a local dancer, but I just danced with you the other day. Does that count? Imagine if you were playing jazz. There is a thing called "taking fours" in which there is an interplay between the musicians and each takes four measures to shine. A local Austin woman told me that I gave her time to play -- a long time ago, but that influenced me. She was a veteran dancer. But adornos can take over -- even in jazz; so it's all about taste. It was very tasty stuff you were doing. Grace feels good first, and then people start noticing it. That is the Way. Saint Paul said, after all: "By grace you are saved, and not by adornos." Well that is my translation of "ergos" -- which also could be translated as "works" or "misplaced energy."

Anonymous said...

I find this to be a common misconception: "an embellishment or adornment was anything a follower does that is not led by the leader." I don't agree with it.

There are moves that the leader may intend the follow to take, but it is only an invitation, and the follower may do something that the leader did not intend. That may be due to the lead not being accurate, the follower not being skilled enough, or the follower simply having a different interpretation of the music or something like that. The leader then has to go with it, accepting responsibility for it, and pretending that is what was led.

Even beyond this scenario, I would say that despite what many leaders seem to think, the follower is not a marionette with very short strings, and the dance is not about leading and following, but it is about two people dancing together. The fact that we have a convention that there is one leader and one follower is mainly an expedient. If there is any doubt about this check out Los Hermanos Macana on YouTube.

I like a follower to express the music in any way she or he feels it, so long as it does not interrupt or block the dance of the leader. A follower who makes these kind of movements puts a lot of joy into her dance. As a leader, I can't actually see what she's doing, but I can feel that there is something going on down there that gives her a special connection to the music, and I like that.

Sure, there are some leaders out there who are egomaniacs who don't like the idea of their partner improvising, and some followers out there who put in so many extra movements that are not connected to the music or their partner, but between these extremes there is a very nice zone of creativity for the follower.

This is typically a dance for two, and leaders and followers should be dancing for each other, above all.

Anonymous said...

I apologise for repeating this comment from elsewhere, but someone asked me something very similar in my blog and here's how I feel about it:

On the one hand, I try to pay attention to how the leader is hearing the music and to adapt to that and match the cadence and style of my movements to his (which I can do much more easily if I am listening too). But there are also moments in the dance where I have the opportunity to show him how I hear things. There are moments where almost every good leader is still -- at the end of a musical phrase, for example, or, in a different kind of example, when he is waiting for the follower to pass in a parada. And those are obvious places where I can do little decorations which express how I feel the music at that point (there are many other opportunities to do this, too). My aim with these decorations is not so much to look pretty (unless I am performing when this is a factor) as to express something the music inspires me to express and to share that with the leader. Leaders often smile or laugh slightly or make little sounds of enjoyment at those points and when that happens it's almost always a good sign. However, of course, it is also possible to get carried away and overdecorate and you need to be especially wary of this temptation if the music is very dramatic. And if the leader is leading a lot of complicated steps, it's often overkill to decorate as well. It's a question of taste, judgement and experience. I write more about this here

Anonymous said...

One thing you should also bear in mind is that you can't please everyone with your tango. Some leaders like a follower who decorates a lot and others don't. It's not always possible to tell which is which. As followers, we have to strike a very delicate balance between being dance chameleons who try to adapt to every leader and finding our own personality, our own character as dancers. It's a fine line. I'd love it if you'd write a whole post about it.

Kirra said...

Into the murky waters we!

I like the idea that the Lead leads the 'what' and the follow dances the 'how'. Does that make sense?

Adornments can be beautiful jewels put right at the right moment or they can be a hot mess. Beautiful jewels = good technique.

If a Lead leads us to do something where we have a moment which neither distracts from the music nor the leader then go for it.

I think the music should speak to you and your footwork is an extension of your musicality (as a follow).

Jane Prusakova said...

You've opened several very deep discussions in one post.

My thoughts about adornments are that it is important to be able to do or not do them deliberately - rather than let the muscle memory take over. We dance to much familiar music, and in a rather small community. I work hard on getting away from "this how I always do this step to this music with this leader". I want to stay in the moment, and to be able to improvise - without the automatic movements getting in my way.

Adornments are a part of the dance, and while they are not directly led, they are still part of the couple's communication. Doing an adornment can be a not-so-subtle way to pull control (read: lead) for a bit or two. This can get to feel noisy or irrelevant to a leader if done too often or at inopportune moment. However, when done well it makes the dance so much more interesting for both people.

An adornment can also come from following a suggestion from the leader - a suggestion that is not as strong as a lead ("do this"), but an idea along the lines of "here's some space, do something cool". Marking the end of the phrase the same way as your leader would fall into the second category.

Marika said...

happyseaurchin: thank you as always for your comment. I understand your concerns about a follower using you to launch her own movements outside of the structure and interpretation of the music you have provided. that's exactly what I worry about. And I think, as other comments have stated, it's going to be a different situation with each leader, each piece of music etc. To answer your question, an adornment (done by either partner) when done well and in accordance with how you both hear the music, can deepen the connection between the dancers. There are all sorts of things that aren't exactly led, but aren't exactly adornments either - they are expressions of the connection, not just in accordance with it. Like taking a deep breath together that raises you both slightly, or the way you might turn your heads toward each other at the last beat of the song. How I step can create a feeling of density in music that's building, or a lightness that reflects a quick change in melody. Those are messages to my leader, hopefully, that I am listening - to him and to the music. Okay, well that didn't exactly answer your question. I just have to think on it some more.

Marika said...

Anonymous #1: I think you're right - I definitely have a tendency to over think stuff like this. But there's just *so much* there to think about. And frankly it's so frustratingly intriguing that I often can't help myself. Where the compliment comes from, and what it's specifically referring to, is important. I've gotten feedback from within, and outside of, the embrace. Some good, some less good, some neutral. It just helps me build a picture. Part of it is I don't really have any idea of how I look until I record another video, since I can't see far enough to watch myself in the mirror (when I'm dancing.) Which is probably just as well, frankly. Thank you so much for your comment and thank you for the compliment. :) :)

Marika said...

Tango Therapist, I'm glad you posted a comment. Yes, you definitely count. It was wonderful dancing with you again - you're very much missed in Austin. :) You are very often open to giving the follower time and space should she desire to express something personal to the music - and I know that's much appreciated. :)

Marika said...

Anonymous #2 - I don't agree with that definition of adornment either. And either extreme - no personal expression of the music vs. taking over the lead with your own interpretation, is trouble. We should be dancing for each other, and as such I think we have to negotiate how we express the moment and music each time we dance. Thank you so much for your comment!

Marika said...

Terpsichoral - I took your advice and addressed this further in another post. Thanks for the inspiration!

Marika said...

Kirra - your comments regarding the "what" and the "how" get right to the center of it for me. What a great analogy. I admit my thoughts on the matter are much aligned with yours. Thank you so much for posting your thoughts.

Marika said...

Jane, it's a fine line for any movement not just adornments to go from feeling natural, and feeling automatic. That was one of my concerns as well - was doing some things just "because" or out of habit. I don't think I am - it doesn't feel that way to me. But it's something that I'm mindful of. Thanks for bringing up the point.

For me some movements feel so natural in a piece of music, it's hard to leave them out when the opportunity presents itself. (Conversely, a movement can feel completely unnatural and forced - slow lapis during a fast milonga for instance - that even though you might be able to fit it somehow into the music - it doesn't seem natural there.)

Your comment reminded me of an email I got on the subject which simply said, if tango is a conversation, why is the leader the only one who gets to talk? I think that's precisely the feeling I would want to avoid.

Thank you again for commenting, Jane - I always look forward to your feedback.

Iain said...

I'm with Anonymous at 3:30 - especially the bit about two people dancing together. For me, I have different responses depending on how well the adornments are done: I mostly hate it when women steal time or are late on the beat to fit in a clumsy adornment, but if you have sufficient skill to communicate your musicality back, and the adorno fits with the phrasing of the music, I'm prepared to be delighted. And I love it when a woman can artfully drag out the spaces within a movement and still hit the beat. Your milonga step sounds just like that.

Jane Prusakova said...


even if a movement feels natural, it is not necessarily the only movement that *could* feel natural. In order to explore the possibilities a dancer needs the freedom to move deliberately.

Anonymous said...

I think some of the leaders commenting are really talking about technical issues when it comes to decorations: being late for the beat, disrupting your own or the leader's movement, using the leader's axis, etc. are technical problems that completely disappear when you get more experienced as a follower. They quickly become total non-issues.

But the question remains of how much and when to decorate and that is a question of the follower's musicality, judgement, taste and relationship with the leader (there are some leaders who I know love me to decorate a lot and others who don't).

ghost said...

For me, the answer has changed with experience. When I started I was happy to leave space for the follower to adorn, for example at a pasada / parada. My only slight grumpiness was when the follower would mentally disconnect for a moment and do the exact same adornment every single time, regardless of the music.

Recently watching videos of Ney and Jennifer I've realised that my perspective has changed.

Tango music can have many things going on it in. For me, tango is largely about choosing which notes not to dance on, but I'm quite happy for the woman to decide that actually she would like to pick them out. Say there's a weak double time rhythm and a strong single time melody. And I decide to just lead a single time walk; I'm perfectly happy for her to adorn the double times.

Dieudonne said...

Anonymous said...July 4th at 2

... If you've received compliments lately from someone other than who you were dancing the tanda with, it may be more due to people noticing your technique is looking great while they're hanging out watching everyone...


I agree with the statement above. I have paid you a compliment lately about your footwork; I now realized that I should have talked about your technique. Something about the way your unweighted foot passes the weighted one at the collection point, in a front/back ocho for instance seems caressingly soft, light and musical at the same time. You do the same think just before you collect for a pivot. All of this happens in an instant. Difficult to describe.
As I write this, I think that it is more than technique, it is an embellishment of the technique, and you are taking it to another level.
I can see you do this when I am sitting down and watching the floor.
I also remember complaining to you about followers doing "adornos" that were taking me off my dance, and felt like a lot of things were going on "down there", and I could feel them up to my torso, with the result being that I couldn't tell what foot she was on. This is very annoying. I dance with you as much as I can, and I can guaranty that if you have ever performed an "adorno/embelishemnt" while we were dancing, I have never felt it, except when I lead them and know what to expect, and you have never taken me of the music, no my axis.
Seeing you dance lately, I realized how much you love this dance, and thought about the amount of work that I have to do to keep up with you.

happyseaurchin said...

Just a quick comment on a comment:

That's a marvelous comment, Dieudonne. Generous, gentle, precise, humble, and strong. I'd shake your hand if I was ever witness such words in person.

Will we ever have milongas where we talk in the way that this blog evokes? Then we would not only be dancing with partners, and I think the movement of the whole floor would become more... articulated.

Iain said...

Terpsichoral at 1:31 -
Yes, being late for the beat, disrupting your own or the leader's movement, using the leader's axis, etc. are technical problems. But I don't agree about them completely disappearing and quickly becoming total non-issues. If you're good, yes, but a significant fraction of dancers will never get to that point - at least that's been my experience of every community I've danced in.

I agree with you about it being each person's preference though - and I think that people having different preferences is a good thing. But I'd far rather dance with a woman that adorns well.

Marika said...

Dieudonne - (I'm taking the comments out of order to try to get my thoughts down as quickly as possible before I fall asleep at the keyboard)

I can't thank you enough for all of your comments, for your generous feedback, and for dancing with me since the beginning of my tango journey.

I just wanted to relate something that I think about nearly every time we dance. The first time I danced with you was when I could still only follow a cross lead about half the time it was led. (And back when a "cross lead" meant "leader takes two steps outside - follower crosses.") I was nervous because you read my blog and I was afraid you would be disappointed in my dancing. And I was stressed about not being able to do molinetes well, or, as I wrote above, even follow the cross lead reliably.

You embraced me, breathed deeply, and then (much to my complete and utter astonishment) led me to cross only by swaying slightly and rotating your chest what felt like a couple of centimeters. I had no idea at the time that such a thing was even possible - you hadn't even taken a step! Yet there I was, in the cross - giggling like a drunk person if I remember correctly. Once I realized I actually could follow a cross, and not by just trying to remember the sequence, I was so much more relaxed.

Anyway, that doesn't exactly relate to what you wrote - I just wanted to share that. Because it was really hugely important to my dancing. It still is. When I tell people that the most important things in tango happen between the leader's heart and mine - that's what I think of.

Anonymous said...

@Iain I should have clarified what I meant by "quickly". I meant after a few years of practice! Quick in geological terms, I suppose...

Dieudonne said...

Thank you happyseaurchin, this being such a small World, who knows, we might meet face to face one day.

Mary, you are welcome. You and a few other dancers helped me understand what is meant by "Tango is a feeling that we dance", you had "feeling" from day one, and still do. I have learned that I would rather dance with a beginner who brings feeling to the dance, than with a seasoned dancer who is totally engrossed in technique and looking good on the floor.