dancers in the dark (13 dic 2008)

So what exactly is the deal with the low lighting at milongas? I don't know where the consensus happened but apparently the standard here (in SF, and perhaps the states in general) is for milongas to be lit as if by candlelight. Personally, I don't like it. For one thing, it exacerbates the difficulty of the subtle, non-verbal invitations to dance (a topic recently touched on by Alex in his blog.) But the thing I mostly dislike about it is that it makes it more difficult to dance, and it does this in two ways: first, obviously it decreases visibility and so makes it harder for me as a leader to be attuned to my surroundings. Secondly, and I suspect this is part of why people like dim lighting, it makes dancers feel more inclined to be self-obsessed--dancing in their own world, so to speak--thereby making them even less concerned about their surroundings or the impact they are having on the social floor.

When I've asked others why they like dim lighting the response is always about ambience. Some say that with the lights on it feels more like a práctica than a milonga. I don't know about that. I like being able to see everybody dance, and as long as no one is stopping in place or working out a particular difficulty--in short, if the ronda is flowing--then what's the problem? I can think of a few solutions to eliminate the práctica vs. milonga issue. First off, if people would dress up a little at a milonga it will make it feel less casual. Second, people should stop treating prácticas as milongas but rather as places to work out the dance--that pretty much means there doesn't really need to be any semblance of a ronda, or dancing in tandas. You can claim your spot and start working on specific things, stop whenever and discuss, not worry about holding up the line of dance, etc.

One woman told me that women like it darker because they are neurotic about their appearance and the dim light softens things and makes them look better. A concern which seems kind of pointless to me since I'm not looking at a woman when I'm dancing with her but feeling her presence--sorry to tell you this, but darkness does nothing to physically improve a figure. Also, what good does it do for a woman to dress up and make herself look good if I can barely see her? It's a shame all the thought that goes into color coordination that inevitably turns into shades of grey, all the money spent on glorious CIFs that disappear into the shadows. I suppose one thing to take into account is that followers don't have the same sense of responsibility concerning floorcraft, so they don't tend to take the inherent difficulties into account. But I would assume that of primary importance is for a woman to feel safe when she is dancing, and of perhaps lesser importance but nonetheless valuable is that a woman craves a lead that is clear and dynamic. As a leader, all of these qualities are compromised in a darker room because the floor is less controlled and consequently riskier, and as a result I as a leader dance more tentatively and conservatively.

Another thing about dim lighting that I've noticed is that, particularly for late night milongas, dimmer lighting lowers the energy level as the night wears on. It's natural--darkness signals the body to prepare for sleep.

I'm not advocating floodlights all over the place, but there needs to be a balance struck between atmosphere and practicality, and I think most places tend to err on the side of atmosphere. Thoughts?


Elementary Tango Physics (22 nov 2008)

In the many lessons I've taken in the course of my tango studies, one recurring concept I've heard is the active use of the energy from the ground. In other words, to think of the ground as containing a vast amount of potential energy that you draw from in order to power your dance and communicate with your partner. Not being a physics student, I always thought of this as being a useful visualization method but having no real world basis. Turns out that it does, in a very literal manner. I realize that I'm a Johnny Come Lately on this one, but it was only very recently that I came across the concept of the normal force. In a nutshell, the normal force is the energy that works counter to forces such as gravity for objects on a surface, I suppose to create equilibrium. However, normal force is variable, while gravity isn't. So I think the trick, for tango dancers, is to take that energy and manipulate it to amplify it and channel it in a specific way. A very direct example of this is in propelling the walk. One digs into the ground in a way that increases the normal force, then uses their muscles to oppose this force, which consequently sends a more substantial sense of weight transference to the partner. Thus, a clearer and stronger communication.

In turn, if I understand correctly, varying the amount of normal force energy stored and released plays a key role in the dynamic of the dance. As such, a dance at a constant velocity will essentially flatten out the normal force, since the constancy allows the normal force to come to a neutral balance against the opposing energy, and the result (when done well) is a kind of floating sensation. Conversely, a dance with varied velocity keeps the normal force shifting and thereby gives the dancers more of a sense of active engagement with their weight, and the result (when done well) is like being on a well designed roller coaster. It's kind of like standing on a train; when the train starts to move there is a sudden instability which requires active compensation to maintain balance (dynamic force), but when it gets to a constant speed it becomes much easier (flat force).

In the past my problem was, I'm guessing, an excessive flattening of this force (which is why, I surmise, teachers often reiterated that I use the ground more). The risk in this is that the partner doesn't feel the intention as clearly as she should. As one person put it, borrowing a phrase from Gertrude Stein, "There's no there there." My tendency was, and perhaps still is, to bring the energy up rather than down. The result is a decrease in normal force, which then translates to less of a sensation of weight to transfer, and so the partner feels less drive. And as a leader, clarity of intention is one of the two main qualities I strive for (the other being mutual comfort). I'd much rather a follower say positive things about my clarity than, say, the number of tricks I know.

Anyway, since I found out about this concept this is how I've been mulling it over. I guess it's not the most romantic way of conceptualizing the dance but I think cold analysis has its uses, as long as we don't get lost in them and forget why we dance in the first place.


Mate? (12 nov 2008)

The other day I was searching around on the web for information about yerba mate and I came across some troubling news. We all know that for a long time the herb has been touted as a kind of wonder food, full of nutrients and anti-oxidants, and has been rising in popularity in this country as an attractive, healthy alternative to coffee as an energy booster. But apparently, there are some sources that are increasingly making the claim that regular mate ingestion significantly increases the risk of certain cancers, particularly that of the mouth and throat. Proponents of the yerba argue that any statistical rise in throat cancer among mate drinkers is more likely due to excessively hot temperature rather than in the yerba itself. But at least one study that did some chemical analysis on several different brands of yerba claims that, though the figures vary widely from brand to brand, the yerba contains a significant amount of certain chemical compounds known as PAHs, which are carcinogenic.

At this point I figure the data is still pretty sketchy, but I think it's a good idea to be aware of the potential for risk and keep attuned as more research is done, and in the meantime enjoy mate in moderation, which is no problem for me. While I like mate very much, I wouldn't describe myself as a habitual drinker. I'll make a batch only a few times a week, and only drink about two to three infusions at a time. I suppose that's well within the range of safety.

As long as I'm on the subject, I'd like to mention some of the yerbas I've tried over the years. My overall favorite is the special blend variety of Rosamonte, which is a brand known for its particularly strong flavor. The special blend has a kind of velvety undertone that almost makes me think of dark chocolate. Another one that I've really liked is Taragui without stems, which has a richer flavor than the stemmed variety. There's a heartiness about it that reminds me a little of fresh baked bread. However, for some reason it seems that Taragui sometimes doesn't agree with my system too well, so I'm starting to shy away from the brand for a while. Most recently, I bought a bag of Amanda. I've only made one batch so far but my initial impression is that it tastes similar to Taragui but softer. It's a very easy one to drink, so I'm happy with it. I've definitely had some that I wasn't so crazy about. One in particular, which I can't remember the name of, was an organic brand that I got for free. I just remember it came in a white bag and tasted terrible, like someone had pulled weeds from their backyard and ground it into yerba.

Anyway, if anyone wants to share some of their thoughts on mate, I'd be interested in hearing about it :)


Tango Recession (8 nov 2008)

The past few months the tango scene in SF seems to be mirroring the economy as far as milongas are concerned. Almost across the board I'm seeing unusually light attendance. I've spoken with some people about it and we can't figure out exactly what is going on, although there is a tentative consensus on two possible factors. First, that it is indeed a byproduct of the economic crisis, and second, that perhaps the community is getting diluted from having too many options.

The tango community in the Bay Area has ebbed and flowed, growing and shrinking in waves (though generally progressing in the growth direction) but in the last year the number of events has spiked sharply upward. When I look at the calendar on Tango Mango I can't imagine how all the milongas and classes can sustain themselves, although perhaps that's not the point. Maybe the point is to see what ends up working and what doesn't (in the true spirit of a free market, I suppose). I think this is generally how it works in BsAs, where the community is larger but still can't ensure success for all of the numerous tango events going on. I have found that there it is always a back and forth and from week to week the hot venue often changes depending on the circumstances. Competition requires booking a popular act to draw the crowd. In the SF scene, that's a relative rarity. More often than not, there is no dance performance in the middle of a milonga nor live music. The only usual promotion comes from booking a guest dj. While that can affect the energy and flow, overall I think its ability to create the feeling of an "event" is limited. Certainly, the dj factor is not as overt a reason for coming as the promise of a show, and even a great dj can only do so much to combat the sense of sameness in a long running or familiar milonga.

The same can be said for classes. So many teachers, so many different styles. And yet, the menu is generally the same. How does teacher A attract students for his sacada workshop when teacher B ran that subject all last month? Even on the subject of style, though the differences can be fairly marked, the nature of the social dance and the lead and follow requirements necessitate that the distinctions are a matter of degree and not of kind. So it's not too difficult to feel burnt out after a while. And I guess that during this time of cold nights and (inter)national anxiety, it's understandable that people might choose to stay in and watch new episodes of Heroes rather than head out to a class or milonga and dish out precious bucks for more of the same old.

Qué lástima. But there are some exciting things on the horizon--not the least of which is the hope of a new direction for the country--and we'll see how that affects the tango scene.

Side note: I was attending David and Mariana's advanced class on election night, and though it was assumed there would be light attendance for obvious reasons, it turned out the opposite was true. Perhaps it was because of a shared nervousness that made many people need a distraction. At any rate, when the race was called for Obama there was a collective cheer, and at the end of the class David brought out a bottle of champagne which we all shared, each taking no more than a sip as there wasn't enough to go around. David commented that it was a shame there were no McCain supporters as it would have been nice to extend a hand in conciliation. We were all a happy, relieved blue, oh well. I've said it before, the SF Bay Area is probably one of two places I can live here in the states.


Tango ADD (12 oct 2008)

This past week I have had a peculiar difficulty focusing on my dance. I just can't seem to get into a serious mindset and so every dance ends up becoming this silly, goofy mess. I don't know why I'm in this state, if I'm just so bored with my dance or with the dance in general, or if I'm just mentally fried from concentrating on my form so much that something has broken down and I go the opposite way of dancing as sloppy and immature as I can. I suppose this is useful in its way, though. I explained my situation to Homer and he remarked that it was good to see that someone was finding a place for humor in tango. I have always thought of tango as being far more encompassing than the Discepolian "sad thought" or the generic "vertical expression..." so it's good to practice what I preach. Certainly, some of my favorite dancers have been exhibitors of humor in tango, from Omar Vega to Cappussi/Flores to Los Hermanos Macana. One has to make the important disclaimer that underlying all of their antics is a strong foundation in solid technique and a proper reverence for the culture and traditions. I have seen dancers who utilize humor in their performances but partially to disguise their technical flaws. And of course, there are those whose humor is unintended. Or in a social setting, those who dance with great joy but look--and I surmise, feel--like shit.

I don't mean to disparage anyone's approach but I tend to dislike (unintentional) sloppy dancing both as a dancer and an observer, so my recent predicament has me mildly concerned. Not the least of my worries is that my poor technique is carrying over to my partner and may be causing some bad habits on her part to compensate. One thing for sure is that I have been very lax in my discipline for some months now regarding the technique exercises and drills that I used to practice regularly. I think it's time I get back to that. Hopefully, that will help to sharpen my skills and focus, and also do something to shake off this general malaise and apathy I've been mired in. All week I had been planning to attend Nora's Saturday milonga in order to meet and study with Graciela Gonzalez but tonight I ultimately couldn't even find the wherewithal to leave the house. Pretty pathetic. So far it's been a totally wasted weekend but I still have a chance to catch her in the afternoon for a men's technique workshop so perhaps I'll meet her then.


It takes more than two to make a milonga (30 sep 2008)

This past weekend had a peculiar slow energy in the Bay Area tango community, at least as far as the milongas were concerned, and I'm not entirely certain why, although I surmise that Luciana Valle's workshops may have had something to do with it. Her all-day workshops are very popular (rightly so) and also demanding, so I'm sure some folks have been conserving their energies to focus on them and/or are exhausted after attending. The All-Nighter at the Beat had a relatively light attendance despite having the wonderful Ney Melo as a guest teacher for the pre-milonga class and also being the closing event of the Tango Insomnia triptych. But I have been hearing from a lot of people lately that they have been feeling unusually fatigued and my sense is that there is something happening climate-wise that is affecting all of our energy somehow. Either that or the world is just getting more stressful in a way that we don't quite register on a conscious level.

Toward the end of the milonga when there were only about three or four couples dancing on the floor I was preparing to put up the dividing wall that splits the room in half but was admonished by a colleague and we got into a discussion about it. My position was that when you have too big of a space for the number of dancers it diffuses the energy of the milonga. Her argument was that the bigger the space the better as it gave the dancers more freedom. I have to say, her stance didn't convince me as even with half the room there was more than enough space for the number of couples to move with great freedom. This isn't to say that I think that milongas need to be crowded to feel cozy or anything like that, in fact, I don't much care for dance spaces where I have to significantly throttle my energy and expression. But it goes back to my perspective that when you dance at a milonga you are dancing with everybody at the milonga. And the way I interpreted her perspective is that she was really only dancing for herself and her partner. I feel if that's your motivation it would be better for you to dance only as a part of a show, or get a studio space of your own.

Even though it's not a big deal, just a difference of opinion, I was and am inordinately adamant and resentful about her position and I'm not completely sure why I feel as strongly as I do. Certainly, there is a petty ego thing about it where I feel she just doesn't "get it," that she's not really a milonguera because she doesn't understand these things. It's the same when I discuss music with people who say traditional/golden age is "boring" and want a lot of "alternative" stuff. But with the former at least, I think part of it is that I get really tired of selfish dancers on the floor, and also that one of the things I miss about the (good) milongas in BsAs is the beauty of watching or being a part of an entire room moving as one harmonious unit.

If anyone would care to share their thoughts on space vs. community on the dance floor, I'd like to hear other perspectives.


cicatrices (25 sep 2008)

Since I don't have any original thoughts of my own I am once again inspired to write on a topic introduced by a buddy, who is presently encumbered by a dance related injury. So far, I've been pretty lucky as I haven't suffered anything terribly debilitating. The worst I get are the occasional corns from ill fitting shoes, which are easy enough to remedy although it generally takes at least a couple weeks of treatment. The only other ailment I've had which has impacted my ability to dance was a back strain incurred outside of dance which had me sidelined for a number of weeks. Also, I sometimes get shoulder problems from embrace issues, although through modification it has eased greatly.

Most other dancers I know who have been doing it a while have had their share of injury and are more than happy to impart their experience and the hard gained wisdom afterward. We tend to want to steer others away from our mistakes. Yes, injuries are bummers, but pain is a damn good teacher. Also, I like to think of it this way: if I wasn't a dancer, I wouldn't have these injuries, so the fact that I do means I am a dancer. And defining myself as a dancer feels good.

I think it's sometimes easy to take that for granted, but I can remember back before I started when I would regard dancers with awe and respect, and beyond that I would regard them as somehow separate from me, almost like a different class of person. Better, in a way, insofar that they had the wherewithal to pursue this manner of expression which was utterly foreign to me for much of my life. Not that I hadn't had exposure to dance, but growing up, social dancing was always a peripheral thing for me. Something to be admired from afar, even initiated, nurtured and sustained (as a hip hop/freestyle dj in high school). But never to be an actual participant, due primarily to the influence of one particular "friend" who in retrospect was something of a bully with a penchant for cutting down and poking fun whenever I made an effort to learn the popular social dances of the day (which was in a way ironic, since I was one of the more admired b-boys in the area when I was even younger). It was a pretty long road to go from those childhood insecurities to the point where I was confident enough to venture, alone, into the world of social dance, and the one I chose was tango. (Or, I suppose, tango chose me ;P. Sorry.)

So, at least in my case, while tango may be the source of certain kinds of injuries--injuries which, by the way, I carry with pride, like battle scars--it has also proven to be the actualization of a longtime healing process. This is not to say, of course, that tango can't bring about other kinds of difficulties. It is, after all, a dance (and culture) that encompasses all range of experience and emotion and tends to magnify them. But if one is to get ill, better it be from overindulgence in a feast rather than from starvation, that's what I think.


19 sep 2008

A quick post to remember the wonderful dancer Omar Vega...

I only met him a few times, the first in BsAs at the milonga 444 Maipú. My good friends Negracha and Diego were performing that night and he was one of the few attendees that weekday evening. He seemed very quiet and reserved and sat by himself, but N & D told me that he was a different character once you get to know him. We watched him on the floor and marvelled at his ability to play with the rhythms, all the tiny syncopations he could insert between the follower's even steps without disturbing her in the least. It was like skipping stones over water without making ripples. They introduced me to him but I couldn't say much because of my severely limited castellano. So I sat silently, trying to be present but unobtrusive as they bantered and gossiped back and forth. After the milonga we went to a café where they continued to joke and talk smack about other characters they knew at different milongas. At this point Omar was pretty animated, making rude comments and talking in duck voice as they munched on sweet medialunas and coffee. I was feeling kind of like a wet rag so I wished them a good night and headed home. I was glad to have met him but didn't think I'd made much of an impression.

Some weeks later, I saw him again at La Viruta. I doubted he'd remember me at all so I didn't want to trouble him, but when he saw me he approached me and shook my hand. That was one of the really special moments I remember from that trip. Along with the rest of the tango community I will miss his presence and his influence on all of us who are followers of the dance and the culture, but am so grateful to have made his acquaintance, to have seen him dance, and to have had the opportunity to study with him.


17 sep 2008

Prompted by a recent post by a buddy who was lamenting the necessity of getting some "ugly ass" practice shoes, I started thinking about apparel and its relation to dance.

I've gone on the record as being unswayed by the manner of ones appearance insofar as fashion is concerned. This, undoubtedly, is due to a large part because I am male. Not that I can't appreciate someone who has obviously gone to pains to make themselves well presentable. But as far as tango is concerned, there are certain possible repercussions from putting dress first.

I recall one instance where in the middle of a dance my lovely partner whispered a request that I press her close and limit my movement. Was she feeling particularly affectionate and wishing to be a bit more intimate? Nice to think so, but no--in fact, she was having a bit of a wardrobe issue as her strapless dress was beginning to succumb to gravity.

I see instances with some frequency--almost always with women--where the clothes become a liability. Heels getting caught in flowing pant legs or dresses, excessively tight skirts restraining the extension of steps, spaghetti straps which constantly fall off the shoulder. Other factors, such as hair, can cause problems as well. I have danced with women who put their hair up in such a way that it impaired my range of vision.

Then there are the shoes. Oh, how women lurve their tango shoes! But I sometimes wonder if that can turn out to be a hindrance to their progress, especially if they make the investment in some high quality, high fashion (re: expensive) tango shoes very early in their stage of learning. I'm just thinking, if it were me and the only dance shoes I had cost me a couple hundred bucks, I don't know how willing I'd be to put them through the brutal paces that working on the dance demands. I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this, but I wonder, for example, if dancing in beautiful new shoes makes you less willing to pass through a tight collect position for fear of scuffing them, or reticent to propel yourself strongly for fear of wearing out the heel or loosening the support. In a nutshell, I wonder whether the concern for the welfare of the shoes outweighs the concern of the mechanism of the dance, at least initially (when the shoes are sparkling new).

Another thing I wonder about is how one weighs priorities when choosing shoes. Of course, comfort, balance and utility are priorities when making one's considerations, but how much is one willing to compromise for shoes that dazzle them on a sheer aesthetic level? Or by sheer status level? By that I admit, I am thinking specifically of Comme Il Fauts, which are considered the epitome of tango fashion. Not to knock them, I think they well deserve their reputation. But it seems that plenty of newbies will not consider anything but the CIFs, partly because of their name. Granted, it's understandable that given the fact that quality tango shoes aren't cheap one would want to spend their money wisely, and if you're going to have only one or two pairs might as well get "the best." But from what I understand, CIFs aren't really ideal for all approaches to the dance. Indeed, my (very limited) perspective is that they are great for elegant salon styles that emphasize walking movements, but seem as if they'd be something of a hindrance to more dynamic approaches given the trademark height of the heels. And seeing that plenty of dancers--particularly young dancers--like using a lot of energetic movements, it would appear that CIFs wouldn't be the most versatile choice of footwear in a milonga.

(Of course I could be completely wrong on this--and of course, good dancers can dance in anything).

I may have mentioned this before, but since I seem to have a habit of repeating ideas in posts I'll say it again... I've found that many, if not most, of the really advanced followers I know tend to prefer a shorter heel. It's exactly the opposite of what I remember hearing when I was still new to tango, that in BsAs the locals could tell the tourists at a milonga by the size of their heels; that is to say, real porteñas--real experienced tango dancers--wore their heels sky high. I wonder if women new to the dance sometimes want to assert their "belonging" to the dance by wearing the highest heels they can find, as if to prove they really are tangueras. Whereas women who have more experience with the dance and are well established in "the scene" no longer feel the need to prove themselves to anybody and are more concerned with shoes that afford them the most freedom of motion and will accommodate the greatest range of dancing styles.

Looking over what I've written so far, I realize that I am being very gender specific in my ruminations. Perhaps that's unfair. Certainly, I have seen men who have made curious selections regarding wardrobe, but it's a lot less common. Guys, being guys, typically go for comfort. We tend to be a lazy lot, and as long as we are clean and unoffensive to the olfaction we trust, and appreciate, you beautiful women to tolerate us. At any rate, I'd lurve to hear other thoughts on this...


14 sep 2008

Haven't had much to write about lately. Think I'm riding a downswing in tango enthusiasm. For the most part, right now I feel that what keeps me active and in the loop is that I enjoy the community and just hanging out with all the people who now comprise my most familiar circle of friends. Practice is good, social dancing is good. One thing that's been missing is the drive toward progression. I just don't care all that much to get better or to learn new things or explore possibilities. This lethargy will most likely pass, as it always has, but I'm not really all that concerned whether it does or not. Maybe part of that is because I know I'm a pretty good dancer as I am--good enough, at least. And good enough is good enough for me (for now).

From time to time I wonder exactly what it is that drives me to get better or to learn more. The most simple answer to that is sheer curiosity. And maybe that's the only answer. Since I don't necessarily have the ambition to perform or teach, what other reason can there be? I think my present issue is that a good amount of what is possible is no longer a big mystery to me. Which is not to say I know how to do everything or that I know how everything works. But for much of the movements that are popularly performed I can generally parse the mechanisms at work, and so the magic--so to speak--is lost. Kind of like how knowing too much about special effects production takes the fun out of a movie.

This is also problematic when it comes to watching performances. I don't get very excited about watching performances anymore, and speaking with some colleagues I find there is a common consensus about the cooling of interest (YouTube definitely has had an effect regarding this). While my disinterest is certainly not true in all cases, I can say that stage tango or fantasia pretty much leaves me cold, perhaps because it seems to try too hard to wow me. So what do I like to see? I thought about it a bit and I think there are two main things that capture my attention, and if a performance has at least one of these qualities I can be enthralled. The first is quality of movement/attention to detail. I much prefer watching a couple who dances simply and pristinely over a couple who dances with great complexity but with rough edges. I think it's because real elegance and refinement is more of a rarity these days than arsenals of acrobatics. (Of course, some dancers are gifted with both).

The second is harder to define, but let me put it this way: if it seems that a couple's main priority is to project something externally, I lose interest. But if it seems that a couple's main priority is something meant primarily for each other and that the external projection comes about as a consequence of that, then it draws me in. I suppose as a viewer, I enjoy being a voyeur over being an spectator.

Anyway, these are some of the thoughts I've been mulling over.


another one...

Palin: Nothing gets done in the senate.

McCain = Arizona Senator.

"Apilado style sucks. Gavito is the greatest."

quick thought....

Giuliani: Change is not a destination.

Palin: If you want change, vote McCain.

Republicans would probably be lousy tango djs.


1 sep 2008

So. Very. Tired. Without going into detail, work has been crazy busy the past few weeks. Every day I wake up physically exhausted, and today I voluntarily went in despite the holiday to which I was entitled, just to try to catch up (which I didn't). So that pretty much saps the energy to do much of anything, blogging included. Although that doesn't entirely account for the month I've been away from posting. Of course, a few weeks back the Olympics were on, and sorry, but everything else takes a back seat for me when the Olympics are on. Now, I'm really not much of a sports fan--three out of four years I couldn't care less about most of the events--but during the Olympics I'm riveted by everything. And with the miracle of modern technology you can keep up with just about all of it. It's an investment and takes some discipline, but great if you're into that kind of thing. At the end of it I felt similar to how I did after my first trip to BsAs--two weeks with little sleep. I think the games are just about the perfect length because I don't think I'd be able to keep up my enthusiasm for any longer.

Despite all the extraneous activities (which of course refers to anything not tango related) I still managed to adequately keep up with my dancing and practicing, although certainly more with the latter. And in the past couple weeks I filled in as head organizer for the all-nighter at The Beat and shared dj duties at Cellspace along with Dan Peters. The all-nighter in particular was taxing. In the experiences I've had where I was put in charge of things I find that I just can't get in the mind set to enjoy myself. I'm always trying to make sure everything is running okay and that those who are assisting me aren't doing more or less than their due share of work, although ultimately I'm not one who is especially adept at delegating authority and am more prone to want to do things myself. I suppose it's a good thing to be aware of for any future event where I'm in that kind of position. Just write it off as a night I'm not there to partake of the activities but to make sure everybody else gets the best experience. Like being the designated driver.

Similarly, it's very difficult for me to join in when I'm responsible for the music. I always want to make sure the sound quality is okay and that the people are responding well. Dj duty at Cellspace is even trickier given that you are trading off with another dj and have to play off of what they are playing to keep a logical flow to the proceedings. Adding to the difficulty is this month's "experiment" where the music switches from traditional to alternative every other tanda, and adding on to that was the extra experiment given to Dan and me to switch off between one another after every two tandas. These stipulations made it near impossible for me to get any time to dance and so I didn't bother for the most part (I gave in for one song to allow my friend, who is recently trying to practice the leader's part, the opportunity to weave me around the floor--sadly, I don't think I was the most responsive follower she's had :P) In the end, I think we pulled it off well, and several people approached me and commented that they *love* the traditional-alt format. My own opinion... well, I think I should discuss it with the organizers.

Anyway, once my workload eases up I'm looking forward to going out more socially once again. In the meantime, I'm dealing with a gnarly corn on my little toe that makes it painful just to put my shoes on. Of course it affects my ability to dance or practice and also weighs in on my decision whether I want to go out dancing or not. Hopefully, it'll be under control by the time Luciana's workshops start at the end of the month.


26 jul 2008

I suppose it's partly because I've been with tango for as long as I have that I tend to be pretty lax about posting. I'm staying active, fitting it into an almost daily activity, and I am enjoying everything I am getting from it including the inevitable frustrations. As ever, I'm trying to work on a significant and fundamental change in the way I walk, the way I hold my carriage and the way I embrace, even though what has become comfortable seemed to have served me well enough. Progress is slow and when things manifest themselves in a positive way it is a tiny, incremental ascension, barely even noticeable except perhaps from those who are very familiar with my dance or those with well tuned sensitivities (much to my good fortune, often the qualities are shared). At any rate, nothing to get too excited about, and nothing I can honestly dress up in writing.

For the past few months I have been taking the advanced classes with the wonderful David and Mariana and am learning a lot and having a blast with the exploration and experimentation of the dynamic possibilities in some of the more recent developments in tango expression. But I have to admit, as much as I love to watch and to utilize such ("nuevo-"... "neo-"... "__"...) movements, it seems the more I study and practice them the more it heightens my awareness of how much I adore and ultimately prefer dancing with an approach that is more ("traditional"... "classic"... "__"...). I don't mean to argue sides or make claims regarding one approach or the other. I value all of the voices that stem from a place of true reverence and immersion in tango--and indeed, lately in practice I have been exploring the newer stuff probably more than anything else. I just personally prefer--at least, in social dancing--the feeling of a close and relatively consistent embrace coupled with movements that don't demand too much of me or my partner. Not saying that a more modern and dynamic approach doesn't have its place, but for me it tends to feel like I'm working the dance more (although it's a kind of work as play thing), and also I think it's more difficult to dance as a natural part of / contributor to the ronda as a whole in this manner. And I guess I just love the feeling of someone's heartbeat against mine, of being attuned to their breathing and trying to match it, and slowing down or pausing when I feel that either is getting too worked up (my tendency is to move kind of a lot and perhaps a bit on the quick side). I love the feeling where in the beginning there is a certain level of heightened attuning from the follower as she prepares to acclimate herself to my body, my embrace, and my lead, and during the course of the dance there is that feeling of gradual settling where she gets comfortable and her body relaxes and moves with mine without the need for so much mindful awareness. I love to feel a smile against my cheek, the suppleness and lack of tension in the temple indicating closed eyelids. These are details that are very subtle and I admit I can't always tell for sure if they are there, but it's a nice feeling even if I only think I feel it.

But anyway... since I haven't had much in the way of anything fresh to say or of reporting on any tango activity I thought I'd share something kind of goofy, something I came across which I may never have noticed if it wasn't for my involvement in tango.

Recently, on YouTube I looked up a Bugs Bunny cartoon--the classic "Rabbit's Kin"--that I had loved as a kid and hadn't seen for a long time. This is the one where he encounters a frantic little bunny running for his life from the hungry clutches of Pete Puma:

I probably saw this short dozens of times as a kid but it wasn't until now that I noticed the nice little touch where Pete, dressed as Mrs. Rabbit, struggles with standing in heels. It's a total throwaway detail, not really necessary to get the humor of the situation across, but I so appreciate that they put it in there. And if I wasn't acutely aware of the difficulty that certain shoes can inflict on untested feet I may have never caught it (although I'm sure it's patently obvious to women and girls everywhere). Tip of the hat to the directors and animators; fifty years on most of the stuff can't touch what you guys were doing with regularity back then. Also, I have to add that I wouldn't be surprised if much of my musicality was subconsciously developed from all the old cartoons I watched as a kid. Again, it's something I never paid attention to back then, but the way they used music and matched it with the onscreen action (and vice versa) is a really masterful choreography that adds so much enjoyment, and in such an unobtrusive manner.


15 jul 2008

I'm sure it's been said before, but I'll say it again--YouTube is a blessing and a curse for tango.

On the one hand, it's great to have instant access to clips from Gustavo and Giselle, Chicho and Juana, Javier and Andrea, Miguel Angel and Milena, Pepito and Suzuki, etc. I'm sure this is one of the major contributors to the huge acceleration in progress time for recent dancers. On the other hand, the allure of watching live performance has definitely plummeted. I remember how it was a big deal to come across a video of the CITA performances, how on special occasions a teacher would schedule a broadcast ahead of a milonga, setting up a big screen TV and some rows of chairs and everyone would gather and be awed by what they saw. Or when a show like Forever Tango came to town we would snatch up the tickets and be swept away by the production.

Now, at least for myself, it's really hard to feel excited about seeing anyone perform, with the notable exception of friends who I admire and want to cheer. The novelty of movement is pretty much gone for me. Choreography, in particular, leaves me cold. I concede that watching a performance live is a different experience from watching something prerecorded, but even so I'm generally kind of meh about it.

Maybe that's not completely accurate, though. Maybe it's not *all* performance that I'm tired of, but just the look at me! stuff. All the fancy kicks and acrobatics, the exaggerated melodrama. When I think about it, I'm often more compelled by very quiet, slow movements. I suppose it's a matter of dramatic tension. It kind of reminds me of something that my favorite pianist said; to paraphrase, it's not the fortissimos that make the biggest impression on an audience, but the silences.

Also, it's important that a performance feels honest to me. By that I mean there isn't the feeling of something that's been planned out, or of movement for movement's sake, or of manufactured emotion or connection between the partners beyond the mechanical. I suppose this is why I can be mesmerized by some performers' social dance while feeling more disinterested in their actual performance tango.

Anyway, what got me onto this subject was the Friday night milonga for Nora's Tango Week, the "Graduation Night" milonga where all the instructors put on a show midway through. They were great, as to be expected, although I felt that they were saving their "A" material for the next evening which was the final Celebration Milonga to cap the festival. And not to disrespect any of the other maestros, but to be honest the only reason I went was to see Gustavo and Giselle Ann. I have nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for this couple, but I have to admit that seeing them perform live didn't inspire me as I thought it would. Again, perhaps it was because they were saving their better performances for the following evening, or that they were tired from performances from the previous evening. But I do believe that some of the effect was diluted by the accessibility of their performances online, which I watch with some regularity.

Fortunately, they later did a bit of social dancing and it was fascinating to see how they executed in the compromised space of such an unruly dance floor. They managed to maintain a fairly high level of dynamic energy but there were also plenty of instances where they had to tone things down considerably, and in these moments there was often the sense of a lot of tiny accentuations where they were playing with complex rhythms in the music. Also, their bearing is really compelling, in part because it seems to be a combination of some directly opposing projections. On the one hand they are *super* authoritative on every movement they make--everything is done with great strength, clarity and intensity. Yet at the same time their is a casualness about the movements, almost an absentmindedness about it, as if the complex things they do are the most natural, obvious, inevitable things in the world. To go back to a piano analogy (for some reason I can't resist today), it's like how someone described meeting Horowitz and mentioning a particularly tricky passage from a Chopin concerto, to which Horowitz sat down at the piano and played the passage "as if it just tumbled from his sleeve."

Anyway, if I had a choice to go back to the days before YouTube or to have things as they are now, I'd pick the latter, even though I do feel something has been lost. I guess it's a similar feeling to when you discover something great that few others know about, but then everybody finds out about it and the thing gets hugely popular, there's that feeling that the thing that was so special for you isn't quite as special anymore. Or maybe it's just the curse of too much knowledge, where nothing is really mysterious or magic anymore. Ah well...


9 jul 2008

More Sebastián and Roxana:

Yeah, that would be nice...

After class yesterday, David was kind (?) enough to take a video clip of me and A dancing some simple walking steps. Watching it over later, it's difficult not to obsess over the things I don't like. I honestly think that A looks great, but there are some things that I do that I'd like to modify. Some of the main points are:

-I seem to linger in the open position between my steps, and this is especially prevalent and problematic in my back step.

-I tend to excessively extend my steps in the direction of movement rather than letting them fall underneath me following a strong propulsion from my core and base leg.

-I think it would help if I got used to pushing back with my lumbar more.

-There is an overall excess of rigidity in my posture.

-I'd like to utilize more "dancing" expressiveness in my legs and feet. Hell, with the whole body, really.

Perhaps most troubling, I look out of sync with the music. This is something I have difficulty understanding because internally it feels like I am attuned to the cadence and rhythm, and I definitely know the music, but seeing it from the outside it just looks off. I'm wondering if there is something mistaken with the way I conceptualize marking time from a visual perspective.

At any rate, it's always good to see yourself dancing just to compare how you see yourself as opposed to how you actually are. I wonder if they will ever become one and the same; my sense is they will not. Which is actually kind of reassuring to me because I love the work that comes with aspiration.

Anyway, Happy Argentine Independence Day :)


5 jul 2008

Planned to use the day off of work to catch up on some rest but no such luck. Was awoken by a long distance call from a friend who needed to vent and afterward couldn't get back to sleep. Spent much of the rest of the day at the computer, where I'm re-encoding my tango files at a slightly higher bit rate. Don't know how much of a difference it would make but I'd like to think that there are some nuances that will be enhanced. During the course of it I found that iTunes was doing some glitchy things in organizing the files and that took a while to clean up. By the time I was done it was already close to time to go out.

If I had my druthers I would have stayed in, but last night at the milonga I met up with a friend who asked me to come to her milonga tonight. When I got there I noticed it was unusually taxing for my legs when I ascended the stairway to the ballroom. I sat for a while and watched, and after a time my friend sat next to me and we chatted for a bit. When a vals set came on she proposed a dance, and something very unfamiliar to me happened. I arose from my chair and my legs buckled a bit. I recovered quickly and we danced some nice sets together, but throughout I felt very unsteady. When we were done I took a seat to rest for a while and watch the dancing, but soon I found myself fighting to keep my eyes open. I ended up dancing one last tanda with someone I didn't know which was nice but fairly rudimentary, then headed home. Now I'm going to have a quick late snack before I hit the hay.

Bonus: here are a couple of clips from the last night of SFTX where Dan and Pier arranged a hilarious impromptu rendition of the key scenes in Sally Potter's The Tango Lesson, with Nick Jones playing Gustavo, Evan Griffiths playing Fabian, Carlos Moreno playing Sally, and Tova Moreno playing Pablo. Disfruta!


4 julio 2008

"If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it." --Ignacy Jan Paderewski

Since SFTX it's been a fairly constant stream of tango. Watching all the wonderful dancers reawakened something in me and got me to thinking that I could be--and should be--a lot better than I am. And so I'm making the effort, and so far it seems to be paying off. I still don't dance as much as some people, perhaps even most people. But the regularity of it appears to have had several positive effects on my dancing. It takes me less time to get warmed up, I feel a bit more comfortable navigating in a social environment, I'm adjusting easier to different partners, and I bounce back quickly after a dance that is less than ideal (and happily, even those dances haven't been that bad at all).

There is so much tango activity in the Bay Area this summer it's ridonculous. After SFTX, among other things, I took a fantastic class on boleos taught by visiting instructor Dani Tuero, checked out Trio Garufa live at Ashkenaz, assisted at the All-nighter in Berkeley, cheered on my friends at the Union Square milonga, did my weekly study at David and Mariana's advanced class, dj'd at CELLspace, and tonight I'm just getting back in from the kick-off milonga for Nora's Tango Week. Aside from the world class instructors at Nora's, other recent and upcoming guest teachers are Omar Vega, Jorge Torres, Donato Juarez, Tete and Silvia, Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas, Gato and Andrea... and of course, this is on top of all the great local teachers.

It's really an embarrassment of riches lately and I'm trying to take in as much as I can. Needless to say, I'm pretty exhausted already. But I'm finding that the barrage of tango is keeping my instrument in tune to a degree that is kind of new to me. I guess the question is how long I can keep this up.


25 jun 2008

Still recovering from SFTX. As I've said before, I'm not really one for festivals, but I have to admit I had fun. Didn't do much dancing, but met some really nice people and got a fill of eye candy. Although, to call it eye candy is to minimize something which was more substantial than that. Maybe it would be more apt to call it an "eye meal" or something. "Eye dinner". A lot of good dancers from around the country and beyond, converged on my home turf. Pretty humbling, especially considering that a fair number have danced tango for significantly less time than I have. Depressing, in a way, yes. But inspiring as well. One thing it tells me is that if I want my dance to progress at a greater rate I'm just going to have to grit my teeth and dance a lot more often with more people in different environments. It seems to me that the people who are prone to attend festivals are more likely to have better adaptability under varied dance conditions.

And that's not to say I didn't dance at all. I snuck in a few here and there, the good ones were wonderful, the lesser ones were my fault (under the conditions) but I enjoyed them nonetheless.

Now I feel the bug coming on again. Time to show these whippersnappers what's what ;P--I'm ready to work.


20 jun 2008

SFTX kickoff at The Beat tonight (as opposed to the preliminary at CELLspace last night). Packed to the gills and stiflingly hot. Folks regularly stumbling out of the ballroom to get some respite in the fresh night air, appearing mushy and worn like steamed carrots. Got a few dances, tried to keep a light attitude but knew I was off my game. My entire dance completely falls apart in social situations, and the degree to which it crumbles is directly proportional to how packed the dance floor is, how uneven the flow is, and how familiar or unfamiliar my partner is. For many reasons I just tend to lose composure. I sometimes feel that for those who know my dance when I'm feeling relaxed and free I become a complete stranger when I get uncomfortable. It's that profound. I guess it's kind of the Cindy Brady syndrome, where she froze up in the game show when the "on air" light was on. At one point I stepped on someone in a back step. Felt bad about that but really did try to minimize the weight, and at least I was wearing my practice shoes with the foamy heels. Think I've developed a bad habit of taking a back step too often. Even though by all rights I should have the space if the couple behind me is respecting their distance, I shouldn't expect it as a matter of course, especially when the floor gets full. I'll try to keep this in mind.

Side note: I found an interesting article in Scientific American regarding dance and brain evolution, where they mapped out specific points of brain activity among tango dancers. It's probably best to read the article because I won't be able to summarize it justly. Also, in the print edition there is a fascinating side snippet regarding studies done with people with Parkinson's Disease who began dancing tango. Reading about it reminded me of the great Gavito, who danced wonderfully despite being afflicted with PD (the only real giveaway is his left hand). And also in the print edition there's a nice little picture with one of my favorite dancers (apparently, it's a pretty old picture because her partner is one she split from a while back).


19 jun 2008

I hate to keep returning to this show, but I have to say it's getting harder and harder to stay objective about what they are promoting.

Tonight I was, I suppose, fortunate in that I missed the segment where the couple dances "Argentine Tango." At the end of the show I saw a snippet, and it contained the same exact "back of the head boleo" as this clip from Nuit's blog, which was a few seasons back. Later, I went to IMDB to read the recap and apparently one of the judges suggested that the woman "could have been a bit sleazier, which is what the dance calls for." I sincerely hope that the recap is some kind of misquote, although my gut tells me it's probably not.

I don't need to tell you guys, that makes me pretty sick.

Later in the show another couple danced a "salsa" routine. The woman happened to be Cuban and had salsa in her blood but was noticeably uncomfortable during the learning phase with the choreography she was presented with. At one point in the routine she was to stand on her hands and do a kind of stag split position. Her reaction to that was that it seemed like something out of Cirque du Soleil, which is certainly a reasonable reaction given her perspective. Subsequently, she was having a lot of difficulty learning the routine and the choreographer made the comment that "she's not a real salsa dancer, she dances street salsa."

To me, that comment in itself fairly screams of the incompetence of the speaker. In my mind, this guy doesn't demonstrate a genuine, visceral knowledge of dance, at least in what has been shown. He demonstrates a knowledge of flash and movement, if anything. But to dismiss the roots of a dance is to misunderstand the dance completely.

Incidentally, this was the same guy who choreographed the "Argentine Tango" as well. His name is Alex Da Silva and word needs to get out that there are some of us who believe he's a fraud, at least in what he is passing himself off as an authority on this show.


Meanwhile, the SFTX kicked off with the preliminary milonga at CELLspace, which was as packed as I've ever seen it. I showed up to get my participation kit, said hi to some friends, ate a cookie...and went back home. There wasn't much room to move on the dance floor, and besides I didn't bring my shoes anyway. Wanted to save my energy for the rest of the week. I have to say, I loved some of the cortinas I heard--I think they were from Suba. I caught few bits of M.I.A. and the theme from Once Upon a Time in China (it sounded westernized so I'm guessing it was from the sequel set in Nevada).

Not entirely sure what to expect from the exchanges and not sure I'll have anything of worth to contribute. I feel that so much of what I know in the dance is just an "at this point" kind of thing and as such I have reticence in making a confident statement about anything. Oh well, guess we'll see how it goes.


16 jun 2008

Sebastián Achaval and Roxana Suarez are among my favorite dancers of the younger generation. They tend to keep things relatively simple and don't really break much new ground, but there is clearly a lot of focus on quality of movement that I admire. There is always such fluidity in the way they dance. Sebastián kind of reminds me of Finito in this regard. Those who know my dance can probably see how they have inspired me. I think that most people tend to be more interested in exploring the different types of movements that are possible, and while I also enjoy studying and watching that emphasis, I find that at this point it's hard to get surprised or enchanted by watching anything new or supposedly new. (Chicho is one of the consistent exceptions). So when I see dancers who have clearly worked hard on squeezing out every detail of basic elements, making the simple things beautiful and making more complex things seem simple and combining it all into an expression of connection and emotion unfettered by technical obstacles, that I find refreshing, and something that speaks to me.


11 jun 2008

Wow... did that choreographer on SYTYCD just say it took *weeks* to learn tango?

Well, uh, with all due respect I'm afraid I have to dis-- oh wait. You mean that "tango." Okay, never mind.

Kidding aside, it can be really easy for us aficionados to take these things to heart and get all huffy and defensive about it, but I figure that the tango we know and love doesn't really need to be defended. It's been around a lot longer than any of us have so I'm pretty sure it can take care of itself.

Still, it got me to thinking about people who just don't seem to "get it," and in particular people who do run in tango circles, are a part of the community and are no strangers to milongas or prácticas yet still somehow come across as missing the point somehow.

My immediate thought is that perhaps many of these people mistakenly limit their perception of tango as a dance and approach it with that strict focus in mind, rather than taking into account that tango is, in fact, an entire culture, and the dance is ultimately a projection of how the culture affects the dancer. In other words, if a dancer doesn't have the culture embedded inside of them, the dance will be a hollow expression rooted in nothing. I posit that this is why even dancers of great skill can somehow seem incongruous, while dancers with lesser techniques can project a sense of belonging. And why a show like SYTYCD can't possibly portray anything that will ring true to any milonguero or tanguero.

(No disrespect intended, but given the constraints of the show there's just no time for tango immersion.)


8 jun 2008

Random topic: concern with doing the dance "right"--

I've always had difficulty being genuinely creative, and a big part of that is because I have always approached the study of art with a preoccupation on mimicry. Of course, this is natural, as many if not most artists early in their careers produce work that has been inspired by the work of another. This tendency manifests itself across the board, whether in painting, writing, music, or of course, dance. Eventually, should the artist persevere, he has a tendency to evolve, and one of the earmarks of evolution is the finding of one's own voice. Perhaps I haven't endured long enough in my pursuits of different artistic avenues to get to that point.

Tango is no different. I find myself watching the dancers I most admire and want to emulate them. This is one of the reasons I have historically had difficulty watching myself on video as I judge myself harshly when I don't look like so-and-so when I dance. I would also find myself evaluating others on their form relative to so-and-so. Then there is the "feel" factor, where I get feedback regarding how my lead feels compared to so-and-so and I try to adjust accordingly to closer emulate that feeling.

Outside of form, there is also the desire to learn specific types of movement that others have mastered, and in pursuit of this we take specifically focused lessons and watch videos of others doing these movements--trying to enganche like Pulpo, lapiz like Farfaro, adorn like Javier, etc.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. It is the basis of tango teaching as a profession and of developing a specific tango vocabulary of defined and categorized elements for the student.

But the thing is, there is such a rich history and so many possibilities that have been developed that one can spend all their time trying to get a handle on all that has already been done, and doing them exactly how so-and-so does them. While that may in some ways be a noble goal for an individual, they will never reach the point of true evolution as an artist should they go this route. They will be so immersed in trying to reproduce the dance voices of others that they will never really develop their own. You could say that rather than being a creative artist, they will be a re-creating artist. If everybody focused their attentions thus, the dance itself would never evolve.

I'm finding that as I grow as a dancer there is a funny, seemingly paradoxical phenomenon regarding my judgment. On the one hand, my attention to detail magnifies and I get more sensitive to flaws and the level of quality in movements and expression. But on the other hand, in a way the flaws and the level of quality matter less to me than they used to.

I think it's really easy to get caught up in the mindset of rigid categorization. The mind works this way in order to make efficient definitions, thereby making the world easier to understand. There is comfort in this, but there is a consequent risk of creating a narrow perspective. We all know those people who have been in tango for a while and staunchly promote what they think is "real" and what is "right" and what is "good"--and what is not. Maybe we are one of those people. I'm sure it's the subject of a large proportion of the sideline murmurings at milongas. I myself am guilty of this at times. It makes for stimulating conversation, even if only to hear yourself toot your own horn. But I'm finding at this stage of the game for me I am getting more and more open to different means of expression, which has always been a philosophy I have valued but have not always been able to truly adhere to. I think part of it's because when you have a specific conception of a goal, it seems easier to get to that goal if you devalue all the other possible goals. And also, it's comforting to be convinced that the goal you have chosen is the one with the greatest value.

But of course, there is beauty and depth in diversity, and while everybody knows it's important to keep this in mind I think it's surprisingly easy to drift to the clique mentality of categorization. And we all know the risk of clique thinking is a pressure to conform. Then again, there is something to be said about respect for tradition and the knowledge of those who came before. It's a fine balance of carrying on a legacy and of putting a spin on it that remains true to the legacy.

Or else, you can take what you learn from the legacy and create something vastly different. Aside from being difficult it can also be particularly intimidating to go this route considering the unknown reaction from peers and the vulnerability of presenting something you have created, which makes acceptance or rejection more personal. But if it catches, what a contribution to the world of humanities you would make!

I particularly get inspired by the story of a guy named Don Campbell, who didn't seem to give a damn that he wasn't doing something "right." This is a part of his bio that I pulled from Wikipedia:

The beginning of Locking can be traced to one man, Don Campbell. In the late 1960s he put together several fad dances adding moves of his own (notably the "Lock") when performing. The original lock was created by accident: Don Campbell couldn't do a move called the Funky Chicken and stopped at a particular point. He wasn't able to perform it fluently, for he couldn't remember which step to take next. (Even the acting towards the audience was of spontaneous nature: people started laughing at Don because of his unfamiliar moves, whereas he started pointing at them.) These halts soon became popular as Don added them into his performances. The resulting dance was called Campbellocking, which was later shortened to Locking.

What I take from this is, at least sometimes, if we embrace our mistakes they might lead us to something that is a unique reflection of ourselves, and if we share that with the world maybe they might embrace that reflection as well. And that, to me, is what it means to be genuinely creative.


6 jun 2008

Practice today was kind of a mess. I'm in a transitional phase and everything is all jumbled up. It's like a Rubik's cube that I've scrambled and have to figure out how to put all the colors back into place, but I keep adding squares to it. I think I must be driving A a little nuts. Not only am I trying to incorporate some new ideas into my dance but I'm also finding it difficult to focus lately, which makes my movement and my connections inconsistent to say the least. Even fundamental elements feel very uncertain. I'm not worried about it since I'm so familiar with this part of the process, but it is one of those things where you kind of just step back and go "Huh."

A is in a transitional phase as well, and while I think it is a parallel progression with mine in practice it seems to come across as disharmonious. That is to say, pairing my growing pains with hers adds up to a collection of difficulties that seem more than the sum of their parts. But I think this, too, is normal. Even a couple who are very familiar with each other can't be expected to have exactly the same wrinkles to iron out. And in the process of reinvention the roughness of each will create cacophony together.

I have just started reading a book called Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and there are some pretty fascinating insights about the way people connect with one another which I think reveals a lot about why tango is such a powerfully spellbinding dance. I won't delve too deeply into it here, but I just wanted to mention an idea that he presents about rapport. If I understand correctly, there are specific kinds of neurons in the brain called "mirror neurons" which are of primary importance regarding our degree of empathy. These neurons fire in a manner that makes us actually feel something that is observed, ie. seeing a smile makes us happy, and even goes so far as to make us physically mimic the behavior and the physical expression in turn reinforces the feeling, ie. smiling makes us happy. Rapport, then, is determined by how effectively the mirror neurons of the people involved are attuned to one another. This can physically manifest itself in such ways as mirrored body positions, synchronized breathing, and matching speech rhythms. Now when people have a good rapport it is an energy that cycles like waves on a beach. The better the rapport, the more in sync the energy is between the parties, and like waves, the energies amplify when they converge in sync. Conversely, when the energy is not in sync the waves cancel one another out, and the rapport becomes strained.

Not to say that A's and my energies are cancelling each other out, but I will say that when I do something imprecisely in one way, and she simultaneously does something imprecise in another way, it throws that particular moment pretty far off. There were a lot of times when we were going "Whoa!" and struggling to hang on to one another. Kinda fun, actually. I think sometimes it's a good thing to allow yourself to lose control, otherwise it gets too comfortable to play it safe all the time and that's just going to keep you away from all the potentially risky but rewarding things you could be exploring. But, of course, being connected and in control is what tango is all about, and so we veer away from harmony only to try to come back again, hopefully richer for the journey.


Cellspace went well. I hadn't been there in a few months and there were a lot of faces new to me. This, I think, is one of the great things about this milonga. For so many people it is their gateway into tango. By welcoming folks in through an open, inviting community, mixing it with music which may not be so foreign, and often danced in a way that is overtly exciting, I think it is a place which has done so much to transition people in to this culture, which in its pure form can be somewhat too subtle for those without experience.

My music selections were well received, with one notable exception. I began an alternative set with a Japanese pop song and damn near cleared the floor. About three quarters of the people who were dancing the previous tanda walked off during the cortina and maybe about half of those people returned to dance this song. I was kind of surprised since I had played another very similar song by the same group at a previous evening and the crowd loved it then. I originally had planned to follow with another "alternative" song but decided to switch it literally at the last minute with something more familiar and tango-based, which promptly brought the dancers back on the floor. That was a moment I feel kind of proud about. I think it's an indication that I'm getting more experienced as a dj at reading the energy of the room and being able to get things back on course when things go awry.

One thing that I was really happy to get to play was a vals tanda by O.T.V. I don't usually play their valses because I'm not sure the few that I have go all that well together. They just seem to have different characters, different sound qualities, and for the most part different singers. But I figured at Cellspace they wouldn't be so picky, and I threw together three great songs that I can't recall hearing at a milonga--Intima (with Lafuente), Sin Rumbo Fijo (with Vargas), and for me the cherry on top, Temo (with Corrales). Just *love* that last one, probably my favorite vals right now. To me it sounds like what Fresedo (although yeah, I know, his valses are...well, not great for dancing), Donato, and Tchaikovsky might come up with if they got together to compose something. It's energetic and lively, but also has this lovely bittersweet quality and some really colorful orchestration. One of those songs that you either dance it with exactly the right person or not at all. Then again, for me, that's every song...


4 jun 2008

Tonight I have dj duties at Cellspace and I still have no idea of what to play for the "alternative" portions of my sets. I sat in front of my computer with the intention of cobbling together a few possible tandas but instead I am procrastinating by writing this. Course, if I had my druthers it would be golden age through and through, but the Cellspace milonga being what it is there is an obligation to be true to the character of the venue.

Alternative tandas, at least for me, are so much more difficult to construct well than traditionals. The great orchestras have pretty much done all the work for us djs. "Alternative," however, particularly as it is defined by the Cellspace people, is like a crapshoot. You can go somewhat safe and play tango-based music, like tango electrónico or Cáceres, but Cellspace expects at least some music that is completely non-tango related. This gives the dj a ton of freedom but in a way it's this very freedom that is problematic. Too many options.

Now, I am of the Napster generation (back when Napster was cool), which is to say I have a taste for a pretty broad spectrum of music, although I will admit I have fallen decidedly behind on what is popular nowadays and have been thusly clueless for years now. So chances are pretty good that any tanda I put together will be unfamiliar to the majority of dancers, and their reaction to what I play simply cannot be anticipated. Part of the problem is that while I am familiar with the music and I know how I would interpret it via tango-esque dancing--

Aside: Currently, I don't consider dancing tango movements to non-tango music as legitimately "tango," which is not to invalidate it as a form of expression nor to imply that it is somehow inferior, but merely to emphasize my belief that the music is the primary defining characteristic of tango, and the dance can be considered "tango" only as a physical counterpart to that specific music.

--those who have never heard the music before may not be able to discern the patterns and the tapestry which I found to be conducive to tango-esque movements, and thereby find themselves completely lost. I have certainly found myself in this predicament as a dj more than once. Also, oftentimes a piece of music can drastically change quality based on the system it is played on and the space it is played in, so something that sounds reasonably tango-able on headphones can sound completely antithetical in a dance hall.

As of right now I don't have many ideas. Luckily, I've found the Cellspace crowd to be exceptionally open-minded, and in worse case scenarios, very forgiving. Plus, I have faith that my co-dj will have an ample supply of non-traditionals to keep the folks happy.


29 mayo 2008

A year ago at this time I was in BsAs, during a brief but refreshing stint with unemployment. I cashed out the meager pittance in my 401k, bought the cheapest ticket I could find and made my reservations for a month at a cozy family home in San Telmo. It wasn't my first visit but it was the first time I had gone on my own, a significantly different experience from the times I had gone with a group. I have no idea how a year has passed since then. When time passes by this quickly it becomes something almost terrifying. My memories are still so vivid, the people I spent time with so present to me. Some of the moments remaining on the periphery of my senses:

-The unusual cold of the winter, the air like a razor. This was the year when there was the snowfall in Cordoba, and a few weeks later in BsAs as well. I walked fast against the temperature, dodging the near-frozen dog mines in the black brick road among porteños cursing the weather, huddled and shivering and loudly bemoaning their shrunken testicles.

-Sitting in a café on Avenida de Mayo with S, my little sister in spirit, the two of us nursing recent broken hearts, swapping stories and encouraging one another in our endeavors.

-Looking out the window of an omnibus en route to Rosario, the darkening sky revealing the southern constellations to me for the first time outside the bright modernity of the metropolis. My good friend C putting me up at his house for the weekend on little notice, introducing me to the city he knew intimately. Near the river a stray dog, patchy, fur like tweed, sidling up to anyone who passed his way, his eyes alight with the hope of a home. He reminded me of that dog in those old Porky Pig cartoons, only less annoying and more pitiable.

-Sitting in an empty Il Gatto on Corrientes at 7:30 in the evening, Phil Collins sussudioing over the PA. Ordering a pizza only to be informed that they didn't have the dough prepared at that unusual dining hour.

-The subte at rush hour, late afternoon, getting swept up in the torrent of commuters and almost unwillingly vacuum packed into one of the cars. Sensing unfelt violations, sounds of things unzipping, then getting spit out at the next stop only to find my backpack pockets open, a Spanish/English Dictionary and a bottle of Advil missing. Later, back in my room, I notice a surgically precise incision along a jacket pocket, which gained the perpetrator nothing but me an anecdote.

Of course, there was tango. Milongas every night, classes every day, lessons that I still haven't processed, some that I have doubts I ever will. But that's all familiar stuff to everybody, right?

Miss that town. Much love to all my friends there, and all those I met who made me feel welcome and indulged my bad castellano.


22 mayo 2008

New season of So You Think You Can Dance? I know, I hate myself. But I have to say, anything that brings dance into the American consciousness as a form of art and culture is a good thing. For a long time dance seemed to have kind of disappeared, but now it's everywhere. Dancing with the Stars, America's Best Dance Crew, et al. DWTS I could never really get into (matter of fact, when The Metronome changed to the Cheryl Burke Studio I had to ask who she was), for two reasons. First, from what I understand it's ballroom based and that's just not my thing. But more significantly, I just didn't really see the appeal of watching non-dancers dancing.

Disclaimer: Not to dis non-professionals/aficionados of dance, who I can--and do--enjoy watching when it is done with great feeling, spontaneity and honesty. The nature of this show, however, deals with choreographed dance, which I think is intended as a visual art and exists primarily for the outside viewer, thereby necessitating, among other things, a strong technique and familiarity with the form to be effective.

SYTYCD, in contrast, actually has some really talented dancers from different disciplines. That, however, doesn't mean they can do everything well. B-boys struggle with quick step. Ballerinas struggle with krumping. This, I suppose, is part of the fun of watching. I guess it's a kind of schadenfreude in watching someone so talented in one aspect have difficulty doing something else. Personally, I don't enjoy watching when someone is clearly having a hard time, because I don't like to see their personal discomfort nor the awkwardness of the presentation. But it is great when you can see a dancer grow as the show progresses.

(Side note: we see this in tango all the time. People coming from other dances who begin tango and have the hardest time making it work. There is just something so utterly different about this dance, so contradictory to the familiar, so much the opposite of how things are supposed to be done. Tango is really the black sheep of partner dancing. Yet such a dance luminary as Martha Graham considered it the most beautiful dance in the world. Perhaps, in part, because it made its own rules?)

Watching the auditions can be a painful process. It's great when you see the ones who are really good, but I'm not a big fan of the segments where they show the rejects. I'm neither interested in watching the dance--or "dance" as the case may be--nor of watching the judges cut the performers down. One thing, it is pretty illuminating to see how common it is that lesser dancers are completely unaware of their caliber of dance. These people who claim to have studied so hard, that they have been admired so much, that they have had so much success elsewhere. And when they get the 86, how the judges don't know anything, how they were being unfairly maligned, yadda yadda.

Ego is a funny thing. Amazing how blinding it can be, how ultimately confining and isolating. And yet, paradoxically, it must be present to advance in skill and expression.

Much as I hate to watch the rejections, in a way I suppose it's a really positive thing. For one thing, art has to have standards. Otherwise, anything can pass for art. While I appreciate the diplomacy and open-mindedness of such a perception, I think I prefer to categorize art as something special, something exemplary and inspiring. And as certain prospective contestants in the show can attest, it was the rejection they received earlier that helped them to focus their attention in a way that helped their dance grow and mature.

I suppose it can be fun and a bit cathartic to imagine a similar process for certain people in the tango community, that certain problematic dancers could be called out and have their issues bluntly spelled out to them. Upon reflection, I think this would ultimately go against one of my fundamental perceptions about tango which is that it is, and should be, unique from person to person and that as long as it is communicable it is valid. The only tango that I truly disapprove of is one that is disruptive and/or dangerous, which is far more common than it should be. (Nuit's recent post is one particularly extreme and shameful example of this.)

One thing I can say that I *hate* about the show, but that I also have a car wreck fascination with, is when they put together an "Argentine Tango." On the occasion I've seen this the choreographer has been a supposed expert on latin dances, which conveniently included tango. And of course it is the most clichéd, mannered, phony conception you could possibly imagine. I can't blame the dancers because they have to do what they are given, and chances are they don't know any better. I do have a beef with the choreographer, though, for passing himself off as an authority on something he apparently doesn't know shit about. Of course I am coming from a very biased position, but I believe that Argentine Tango (and it's a shame I have to use the modifier) is probably the most misunderstood dance in the world, and to see it presented so fraudulently on such a visible stage makes my skin squirm. But I guess if people see it and like it, it has value. I'm cool with that, I guess. And we cognoscenti know what the good stuff--the real stuff--is ;P.


17 mayo 2008

I just picked up a book called "The Meaning of Tango" by Christine Denniston and I'm about seventy pages in. I like it so far, she seems to be earnest about what she's trying to impart and doesn't come off as someone trying to exploit the dance as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement. Plus, she knows what she's writing about. Although, to be honest, I haven't really read anything I didn't already know. And I could do without the obligatory how-to bits.

Side note: generally speaking, I think it's pointless to try to teach (or learn) to dance using the written word.

One of the things she mentions is how the learning process has changed from the period before the dance went underground in the mid-1950s, to the way it is learned now. Back then, she writes, men always learned the woman's role first, and practiced only that for a substantial amount of time before they were allowed to try the man's role. Reading this reminded me of how illuminating it is as a leader to practice the follower part. Now, switching roles is a topic of discussion that frequently seems to make the rounds on tango blogs (as evidenced, for example, by Modern Tanguera's recent post), and while everyone agrees that practicing the follower part helps the leader improve his lead, I suddenly realized a reason *why* it helps which I hadn't considered before. The obvious benefit is that the leader gains insight in how it feels to be led and can use this awareness to hone and clarify his communication to his partner, as well as making it more comfortable for her. Another benefit is the strict technical exercise that a leader gets from following that he might not get as a leader (constant walking backwards, for example, or the fact that followers tend to pivot a lot more than leaders, not to mention the advanced dissociative dynamics of movements such as boleos or even most ochos).

Now, before I mention my little epiphany, I want to talk about an issue that I realize I sometimes have when dancing socially. On the odd occasion dancing with someone--particularly with an advanced dancer--there will be an infinitesimal little glitch in communication where she will miss an intended lead and will immediately realize what had been intended and reflexively apologize, even though the dance continues unabated and from the outside it probably will have been completely unnoticeable. Of course, it never bothers me that the intention wasn't realized. What does bother me is that, somehow, I have communicated a disruption. So how can I smooth things out so that even when the follower doesn't go where I expected her to, she will never register anything but an inevitable possibility?

And I realized that another benefit of working on the woman's role is that it will, presumably, help me get more accustomed to following my follower. This is a concept that is common among more advanced leaders, which is to say that "leaders" don't really "lead" per se, but in fact always move only after the "follower" moves. So I think that, at least in the moments where the aforementioned disruptions occur, what communicates the disruption is that I am jumping the gun a teeny bit. I jump the gun because I am making an assumption and have acted on that assumption prematurely. It is much the same as the fault leaders place on followers who can't *wait*. The ability to wait is a virtue on both ends.

Some time ago, I wrote a personal observation in my collection of tango notes which fits with this topic, and it still holds up for me so I figured I'd share it:

Tango is a dance that should be perceived with a mindset strictly set in the present, in a Zen-like state of being in the moment. The past and the future are distractions that will interfere with the connection and limit possibility. With the "present" mindset, every step feels new, and the simplest elements remain fresh and unfold organically. And since every step is approached as something new, when an opportunity arises to explore an unfamiliar possibility there is neither hesitation nor bewilderment from unmet expectations. The "past" and "future" mindset both lead to preconception. One thinks of what has happened before, and expects it to come again. This is a poor but easy—and therefore, common—substitute for true connection. (The Japanese have a Zen term, "Mushin," which means "Mind of no mind." In martial arts, achieving the state of Mushin allows one to be ready for anything. The same applies in tango.)


15 mayo 2008

At practice today A and I were having difficulty calibrating with one another. It was as if she had trouble reading my lead, or that I couldn't place her exactly where I wanted her. Our figures took on irregular shapes, with inconsistent distances between us and odd fluctuations in our axes that we seemed to be inflicting upon one another. Yet at the end of the practice we came away feeling good about the place we were in. So what gives?

It's easy to remember a time when the same experience would have left me frustrated and self-conscious, but I've been in the game long enough to recognize transitional phases for what they are. These are the times when the dance seems to get really messy and unmanageable but what is really happening is that old ideas are getting broken down and reconstructed to accommodate fresh possibilities. There is the old familiar comparison to the phoenix that is fitting, but before it can rise it must burn, and that's where I think we are. El Pollo Malevito on the tango parrilla. At this point it is always a welcome phenomenon for me because I have faith in what it portends. I see it as evidence that I still have potential to grow as a dancer, and that I am growing. I like it a lot better than that other familiar feeling, of being in a rut.

Trick is to be sure that this is truly what it means and not that you have or are accumulating poor habits. Not that I have a large readership, but I guess I'm concerned that there may be someone out there with a lot of fundamental dance issues who sees this post and thinks, "That's where I'm at, too! I'm just growing...constantly!" If you always struggle without any phase of comfort and security then you might question your technique. And if something's uncomfortable for you, chances are it's uncomfortable for your partner as well and if you're a considerate person you'd probably want to remedy that. Just a thought. Ahem.


14 mayo 2008

Have been regularly attending David and Mariana's weekly advanced workshop which has been a lot of fun. One of the things I really like about them as teachers is that they propose a lot of modern concepts but always have a deep reverence for the traditional form and try to promote an approach that keeps it all in relation to one another. And also that they are careful to mention the appropriateness of certain possibilities depending on context, and to emphasize that their main objective is not to teach steps or elements but to broaden perspectives. Nevertheless, I'm sure that I'll see some of the people in the class trying out their big piernazos and whatnots on the crowded milonga floor. It's inevitable. I hope at least they try to be considerate of the space and their neighbors.

I was speaking with a friend of mine in the class and he was asking whether I would ever do any of the flashier elements in a milonga and I responded that it all depends. I'm not one to say never, but the likelihood is pretty slim. Even as I'm becoming more familiar with these beautiful and fun possibilities, at heart what I love most are the simplest things, and doing them well. That's my personal bias, and while I'm always open to change that's where I am at this moment. To me, it's kind of like Tae Kwon Do, where there are very few fundamental movements but the point is to hone them to perfection. Other people might be more drawn to, say, some wushu style with many different types of movements, which makes a much broader palette of expression. Truth be told, I like it all, and would love to be a master of everything. But when it comes to social dancing--which is the whole point, really--I am happy keeping it easy. An old tango cohort of mine put it in a way that I loved: to paraphrase, within a tanda you have about ten minutes with a beautiful woman in your arms. Why would you want to spend that ten minutes whipping her all over the place instead of holding her close to you?


10 mayo 2008

As promised, my list of favorite musicians continues with these wizards of the 88 keys. Not to say I'm a foremost authority on the subject of tango history or music, and certainly my selections won't bring much to surprise. Nevertheless, here are my current favorite tango pianists:

Carlos Di Sarli - The one and only. His playing brought a richness to tango unmatched by any other pianist, with a tone so meaty and juicy--like a thick lomo with a bottle of malbec. I love the way he creates dramatic contrast on the extreme ends of the keyboard, and how his rolling, rumbling bass notes add such gravity to the music, as if he is rooting the dancers' feet deep into the earth with each step. If he was a classical pianist, he would be Rachmaninoff. Prime examples: La Cachila, Alma Mía, Germaine (either version).

Osmar Maderna - A very different pianist from Di Sarli, almost diametrically opposed in the approach, with the exception of their mutual perfectionism. Dubbed "The Chopin of tango," his exceptionally refined playing is most often heard in milongas in the recordings of the late 30's-early 40's with the Caló orchestra, whose signature style is one he was essential in honing (noticeably with the traditional Caló ending with the light piano chimes in the upper register). Later on, with his own orchestra he puts more emphasis on the piano, which highlights his incredible playing but makes music that is perhaps more appropriate to listen than to dance to, as the arrangements take on a broader romantic canvas and sometimes tends to submerge the underlying rhythm. If he was a classical pianist, he would be Michelangeli. Prime examples: El Vuelo del Moscardón, Lluvia de Estrellas, Sans Souci (with Caló).

Rodolfo Biagi - Spiky, startling, piquant. I recently spoke to a tango comrade who expressed a dislike because he felt that hearing Biagi was going to give him a heart attack. But this is, in a way, the quality of his that those who love him feel the way they (we) do. The peculiar way he emphasizes the "off" rhythm while maintaining the solid cadence makes his orchestra ideally suited for dancing, as beginners can easily move in time while more advanced dancers can challenge themselves by playing with the complexities of the music. (But probably not a good choice for the very beginning of a milonga--you need to be warmed up to tackle his energy). With D'Arienzo in the mid-30's his fingers found their footing, but it was with his own orchestra where he truly earns the title of "Manos brujas." If he was a classical pianist, he would be Gould. Prime examples: Lágrimas y Sonrisas, Picante, El Estribo.

Fulvio Salamanca - Another pianist of the D'Arienzo school, but I couldn't disqualify him for a little redundancy because he's just too damn good. Similarly bright in intonation but perhaps more virtuosic and powerful than Biagi, if less idiosyncratic. Nice octaves! I haven't specifically researched him much but some of the things he did with D'Arienzo have made my jaw drop. If he was a classical pianist, he would be Horowitz (or perhaps Cziffra). Prime examples: A Una Mujer, Barracas al Sud, Fuegos Artificiales.

Pablo Ziegler - Here I take a leap forward in time and style, to the jazzy riffs of this Piazzolla co-conspirator. Sure, he came relatively late to the maestro's circle and I'm sure his say must have been somewhat limited, but when he plays he sets those keys on fire, man. I can't compare him to a classical pianist because his playing seems so spontaneous (even if that's not really the case--I wouldn't know). Maybe Argerich? Prime examples: Fugata, Michelangelo '70 (with Piazzolla), Elegante canyenguito (with his quintet).

Okay, all for now. I might do a post later on bandoneonists but I really know very little about them, and from what I can tell they don't often tend to stand out as soloists, generally playing with other bandoneonists as an ensemble. Anyway, happy listening (and dancing).