28 mar 2008

Wednesday night @ Cellspace turned out to be a great evening, which was a blessing considering some of the difficulties that arose in the last minute. The evening before, my computer started having a glitch where it wouldn't send a signal through the audio output for some reason. I think it's shorting out somewhere and I'm going to have to take it to the shop.

Side note: Funny thing about these Macbooks, they always start acting all wonky immediately after the warranty expires. My previous Macbook had a complete meltdown of the motherboard about a month past the warranty which would have cost around 800 bucks to fix, which is why I bought the current one. Now I am a month past the current warranty and this happens. I know Macs have some true believers out there and I have always been a Mac user myself, but this is not only a drag but seems to show a pattern of unreliability...

Anyway, I ended up having to DJ through my iPod by syncing my playlists in the durations when my co-DJ Sabrina was on. She turned out to be the star of the night music-wise, drawing a bunch of people to our table to ask, "What was that last song?" I, on the other hand, feel like I was the solid backup player, kind of like the person who plays bass. You don't really notice them but they are the ones really laying down the foundation. And in retrospect I think that was the role I played by leaning heavily towards strong traditional tango tandas. I feel like we had a good mix and kept the energy moving really well. We had the seats pretty empty the whole night, and when we were done we had folks beaming at us and presenting us with high praise. It's a great feeling to know you are keeping the dancers happy. It's not a responsibility I take lightly.


Before the milonga I watched the classes--one beginner and one intermediate/advanced proceeding concurrently--and it occurred to me that there seemed to be a noticeable gap between them. That is, the beginner class seemed to cater to absolute newbies, while the intermediate/advanced class catered to people who should have pretty solid basic technique. But in the i/a class there wasn't really anybody who was at the level at which I think the instructors intended when they created their lesson plan. They began with a simple warm up where the leaders were to exercise their back ochos--not leading the ocho but performing it themselves. But when they commenced I couldn't see anyone who could do it properly. This isn't really all that surprising since in action it is pretty rare for leaders to do back ochos. But it is such a basic element of the dance that the technique should be present regardless. And this is where the gap in level seems to be. Many (not all) of the people taking the i/a class were clearly beyond what was happening in the beginner class and it is understandable that they would want to study something more challenging and unfamiliar to broaden their realm of possibility. Yet it takes time to really solidify even those primary concepts that are introduced during our initiation into tango.

I think this is an issue that I often see in classes here. Maybe it's because the classes tend to be too short in duration, but what seems to get neglected is some significant time to work solely on technical exercises. In many classes I see instructors allowing a brief warm up--usually consisting of a free dance for one song--and then immediately begin with the class topic. In Argentina I felt there was a lot more focus on technique, especially during the warm up, and what I have observed in other dances it is the same thing--particularly in classic dances, like ballet. Now, I don't have a beef with people who are casual dancers and aren't interested in investing the time and work into bringing their tango to a certain level. As a dance of the people I welcome those who are just looking to have a good time. These people are really the meat of the community. But for those who have higher aspirations it needs to be made clear that this is not a dance you can take for granted and think you can achieve success. Tango is d i f f i c u l t. Even for people who have danced their whole lives. And there are no shortcuts. Progress takes time and a lot of hard work, some of it tedious and frustrating and potentially painful physically, mentally, and emotionally. But this is what all the dancers we admire have gone through. To think you can get there without the same kind of struggle is basically to dis those who have worked so hard to get to where they are.


26 mar 2008

Quick post: I'm scheduled to DJ at Cellspace tonight, and wanted to give a heads up regarding something I may play as an experiment. So if you hear a tanda beginning with "Vi Luz y Subí" by Libedinsky/Narcotango, be aware that it will be a mixed tanda and there will be NO SPACES between the songs.


21 mar 2008

Tonight my friend Mariana is leading a workshop for women's technique. In disclosing the focus of the workshop she has made an emphatic statement that she will not teach adornments, and in the promotional materials she says, "You don't need adornments to be pretty, you are pretty." So why does she seem to have such a strong aversion to adornments?

We had a talk a while back about this. I once asked her which women dancers she admired. One of the names she mentioned was Lucia Mazer, and her reasoning for this was because Lucia never wastes energy with extraneous movements. That was an attitude that Mariana strongly agrees with. We got on the subject of adornments and embellishments and she seemed to feel that they take away from the unity of the couple. This was a view that was heightened the more she practiced the leaders' role and would find that the followers' embellishments tended to interfere with her intentions. Beyond that, she apparently thought they spoiled the aesthetic of the dance.

Now, Mariana, if you don't know her, is an exceptional dancer. She's one of the few followers I've met who truly seems to enjoy and excel at *every* approach that a leader provides her, from the absolute beginner to the elite and from the most strictly traditional to the wildly experimental. She seems to have an uncanny knack to adapt instantaneously to whoever she dances with. I have always loved watching her dance but until we had this discussion I never even noticed that she doesn't use adornments. And yet she is absolutely compelling. Why?

Regarding adornments, the current trend for followers seems to be the more, the better. It's as if followers are looking forward to and/or paying a large amount of attention to every space between the leaders' marks for the opportunity to make a display. Aside from aesthetic, it seems to be an exhibition of skill for women to decorate their transitions. In my opinion, perhaps the single biggest influence to this current aesthetic is the dancing of Geraldin Rojas de Paludi, particularly during her time with Javier Rodriguez. Now, I'm sure they are no strangers to anybody who may be reading this and that my singling them out is fairly obvious. But I wonder if many followers are missing something about her dancing, something more vital and bewitching about her dance than her obvious skill with ornamentation. And it is something that she and Mariana, despite their different approaches to the dance, both have in common. That is their complete investment--emotional and physical--in the leader. It's not about technique, it's all about attitude.

"A woman, totally connected with her man," Mariana said, "what could be more beautiful?"

As a leader, I am fairly neutral when it comes to adornments. I utilize them in my dance but don't make them an emphasis, and as far as leading a woman who uses them it generally doesn't bother me. I will say that despite the claims of some, who say that you can make them essentially invisible as far as the partner is concerned, they always affect the mechanism of the dance. Even when the movement is masked by a very skilled dancer, there is always something transmitted even if it's only subconsciously. And when I dance with someone who I know uses a lot of them I tend to limit my dance in order to indulge their interpretation, but also to keep from tripping them over their own feet. I still enjoy these dances, but in a sense I feel that they aren't really all my dances. Like in a way I was just providing a vehicle for the follower to make her statements. And as a leader, that's not the most satisfying feeling. Not to say there shouldn't be give and take, a sharing of expression. But dancing with a follower who places excessive emphasis on adornments is kind of like having a conversation with someone who won't shut up and give you a chance to interject, or like someone who you feel isn't really listening to what you say but is just waiting for the next opportunity to get her two cents in.


17 mar 2008

Well, hot on the heels of yesterday's post, I got a heads up to this article in the NY Times about foreigners flocking to BsAs and setting up shop, which I find a bit troubling. I knew this was coming but watching it in progress kind of makes me want to cringe. Being a foreigner myself I suppose I don't really have any say as to what is right for BsAs, and in truth I am a part of that very same influx that is bringing an outside influence to the city just by virtue of being a tourist. Still, it would break my heart if the city's cultural identity was changed by a bunch of spoiled, non-native, exploitative hipsters with pretensions to being "artists."

I can't help but feel it is a remarkable coincidence--or maybe just really good timing--that this very subject was touched upon by the cartoon King of the Hill recently, where one of Hank's Mexican friends gets dismayed when his neighborhood is overrun by hipsters drawn to its ethnic culture, who inevitably begin to subvert that culture to meet their whims (bad diy music, salmon in the fish tacos) and as a side result cause housing prices to skyrocket, making it unaffordable for the longtime residents.

I guess historically speaking, this is not exactly new. We all know that BsAs was always a city made up of foreigners. I guess what I feel may be different this time is that these foreigners are coming with the power of foreign currency, and to me it seems that by their very nature they won't stick around forever. As soon as BsAs becomes passé they will head on to the next fashionable locale. My concern is with what they will leave behind. I have already witnessed how pricing for tourists has hurt the locals with the steadily rising costs of food and housing. But how it would suck if the cultural change became so prevalent that BsAs transformed into a caricature of itself, reflected in the kaleidoscopic lenses of myriad misguided yet influential dealmakers.


16 mar 2008

Late Shift last night. Was pleasantly surprised to find that a bunch of my tango colleagues had come together to play a few songs for us. It's great to see that so many of my friends have talents beyond the dance. I'm so impressed with the people I know and meet in tango. There is something about the dance and the culture that seems to attract people who are highly intelligent, well-educated, and unusually creative and artistically inclined. I think I mentioned in a previous post how I noted that so many dancers have degrees and/or jobs in demanding fields (engineering, law, medicine, etc.) Now I'm seeing that plenty of them have also devoted a lot of energy in the humanities as well. I find it pretty humbling.

The performances were good; a little rough around the edges, perhaps a bit cautious, and there were some sound problems (notably with the keyboard) but overall with a good balance and togetherness and a solid rhythmic structure for dancing. On a few of the tunes they had the guest vocalist Nico from Córdoba (who also was a part of the Trio Garufa celebration last week) who is a *fantastic* singer but will be going back home shortly :(

The venue was a lot livelier than last week and I managed to get a few very nice dances in, although not enough for me to get completely warmed up. Felt stiff and my posture was a bit off, just slightly too forward with my legs than I'd like, but it wasn't too much of a hindrance. Missed dancing with a few people I would have like to have shared a tanda with, I suppose that's one of the risks of showing up later (I arrived a little before 1). But also, for various reasons I just have an aversion to dancing to live music, and since a significant portion of the evening was devoted to that it meant a lot of time away from the floor for me.


Going along with the subject of highly educated and well-trained people in tango, I am once again struck by the cultural differences in tango regarding Argentina and the rest of the world. Not to say that only uneducated people dance in Argentina, or that only white collar folks dance outside of it. But I feel that for those of us who are from the US, or Europe, or other "First World" nations who come to tango, it is really a privilege. First off, tango is not cheap. Lessons, milongas, shoes, music, the cost of travel--these things cost money. But perhaps more telling, we come to tango because we have gained access to it from one way or another, generally from an avenue afforded to a particular subset of cognoscenti. I can't speak for other countries, but here in the states there is virtually no value or emphasis given to any culture beyond pop culture, and especially regarding foreign culture. Only those who have been given a window to other cultures and have had a means and encouragement to nurture that interest develop a taste for it at all. And for anyone who has been fortunate enough to live in this kind of environment, it usually means they have disposable income and time. People who have been given the standard public school education, who are struggling to make ends meet, who work menial jobs--possibly several--with no spare time, who have never traveled or had much ambition or encouragement to travel, to try new things... these are generally not people you would find in tango here, or even who would know what it is. (El Pulpo once told me of a guy he met at a bar in the Midwest who, upon hearing what he did for a living, replied, "Tango? What's that?")

In contrast, for Argentines tango is such a big part of the national identity that it's not something that needs to be sought out. Everybody knows about it. And as such, almost anybody can pursue it. Also, from what I'm told, in Argentina there is a lot of charity in the community for the locals. Some places have different covers for locals and tourists, and I've heard at least one organizer who said he would routinely allow about half of the people who showed up at his milonga free entrance because they couldn't pay that week.

I had one experience that I feel really opened my eyes to this dichotomy. It was my second trip to BsAs which was with a relatively large tour group, somewhere in the number of 30 to 40 people. Many, if not most, of these people were tango newbies, folks who had been dancing for a year or less. One of the first items on the itinerary was to go shoe shopping. We inundated Flabella's and raided their inventory. They brought out their flashiest designs and we gobbled them up. It was almost like we were competing with one another as to who could buy the most and the fanciest pairs. Later on, we went to a milonga. It was then that I noticed that we were almost the only ones wearing new shoes. The locals had shoes that were well worn and beaten, oftentimes not even shoes specifically designed for tango. Yet they were the ones who were dancing with elegance, patience and emotion, following la ronda and respecting the floor, while some among our group stood out with their awkwardness, their ignorance of etiquette and general cluelessness. I really felt ashamed then, felt bad about flaunting these fancy shoes and having bought several pairs when the locals couldn't even afford one pair despite having obviously been a part of tango for a long time. I remember thinking, shoes mean nothing--they don't make you a better dancer or make you a tanguero just because they are on your feet.

And who was a part of that tour? Doctors, lawyers... Anybody who flipped burgers or mopped floors? Of course not. (Although to be honest, I'm probably not that far removed from that).


13 mar 2008

Forever Tango was one of the reasons I started taking regular classes. I remember that even as I was sitting in the audience watching the show I was thinking, these are the women I want to dance with, and this is the way I want to dance with them. Before that I had no couples dance experience whatsoever, with the exception of some very rare occasions engaging in the awkward social dances of high school (many of them MC Hammer-based--I know, I'm dating myself). Besides that, I had some b-boy experience when I was a kid but that is a completely different animal. Anyway, since that time when I was so profoundly affected by FT I have been curious as to how I would react to it now that I have studied tango for a while. I knew it wouldn't be the same, but would I still find something to inspire me?

Last night, I watched the broadcast on public television... and I was bored. I found myself paying more attention to the food I was eating than on the performances. Everything seemed stale, overwrought and mannered yet strangely apathetic. This is not to dis the skill of the performers. It was apparent they had strong technique and had worked hard to get to the level they were at. I have read that the audition process is extremely competitive so it's clear that these dancers beat a lot of others to be on that stage. I think I would be more curious to see how these dancers perform outside of the context of this show, as spotlight performers at a milonga or something where they didn't have to meet outside demands. Or, how they dance socially (if they do at all--some performers don't).

Granted, to see something on television is a lot different from seeing it live. I think that cameramen and editors often miss the point when filming tango. As a walking dance I think it's most effective to keep some distance from the performers and keep the camera fairly steady instead of following them around everywhere, to get a better sense of the way they are moving around the floor. Also, there is so much going on in the entire body with counter movements and the like that something is lost when focusing only on one part.

Anyway, as far as watching tango shows I feel that I've lost something that I can never recover. It's not that I can no longer feel exhilarated watching a performance. But the mystery, the exoticism, the rejuvenation of being in the presence of something I have never experienced, all this is gone. Watching these performances now, I can break them down into their component parts: parallel walk, cross system walk, giros with sacadas, gancho, barrida, etc... It reminds me of how a classmate in the writing program at SF State mentioned that after taking all these courses on lit theory and creative technique he could no longer read a story without being aware of all the mechanisms in place: setting, character development, foreshadowing, objective correlative... I remember watching these dancers and not having a clue as to what was going on with their bodies, their legs weaving in and out as I would shake my head in disbelief, astounded by the complexity of it all.

Still, all is not lost. I still scratch my head watching folks like Gustavo and Giselle doing their thang, and it's not uncommon that I cry "Eso!" when I see something surprising and delightful on the floor. This dance never loses its capacity for the unexpected, and that's one of the great joys of it. As for FT, well, I'll always appreciate how it seduced me into this world.

Side note: most of the performers were unknown to me but it was good to see Marcela Duran again. Her partner in the show was fine, but no substitute for the great Gavito. I seem to recall seeing Gavito and Duran when I saw the show live. I remember at the time not being that impressed by them even though I knew they were pretty much the headliners of the show. I was more into the athleticism and extroversion of the other young couples on the stage. Shows how little I knew. Acrobatics are fine, but no one--and I mean no one--could convey the kind of dramatic tension in moments of stillness that Gavito could. I never met the guy, but somehow I still feel his absence.


9 mar 2008

Call it tango karma. Last night, The Late Shift. Arrived around 1 AM. The scene was unusually light, maybe 30-40 people, tops, and leader-heavy. Got there with an itch to dance but ended up sitting the whole night. I think perhaps my reputation as a reluctant dancer is biting me in the ass. Also I could be misreading a lot of signs. Correct me if I'm wrong, but when a woman says she's "tired" I always took that to mean that she didn't want to dance right then, at least not with me. Or when I overhear someone turn down a dance invitation from someone else to say she is going to sit for a while, that means she's going to sit for a while, instead of accepting a dance the very next song. In both cases I never press the issue but that almost always ends up with me missing out. Or does it mean I end up not being the one burdening a woman with a charity dance? Whatever it is, the one thing it does mean is that I don't dance. El planchador.

Ah well. If that's one of the unfortunate consequences of my innate tendency to be finicky, so be it. I have tried it the other way--looking to dance when I'm not really moved to, with dancers I don't know or have connection issues with, to music that doesn't speak to me in the moment. Those encounters always left me with a particularly unpleasant resentment.

Maybe not exactly along the same lines, but lately I've also been struck by hearing things along the lines of, "I would like to dance with you, but only when I get better," or when I get a shocked expression when I invite someone. Bottom line, there's really nothing special about my dance, and especially when I'm dancing with someone who I'm still adjusting to (which is almost everybody) my dance is really basic. Think slow dancing at the prom basic. In fact, the only one I can really cut loose with is my regular practice partner A, and even then only under particular circumstances. So generally, I don't think that if anybody is missing out on a dance with me they're missing out on anything that they couldn't easily find elsewhere. But also the implication is that I'm considered something of a doyen in the community, which I certainly don't feel. Granted, I've been involved for longer than a lot of folks (c. 2000) but my level of involvement considering that time has been relatively light. I'm definitely not in the same league as folks like Nora, Homer & Cristina, Julian Miller, Felipe & Rosa, Rina, Marcelo & Romina... the list can go on and on. In Bay Area Tango High School, I'm probably a junior. But still, that shouldn't intimidate the freshmen and sophomores.

8 mar 2008

Trio Garufa cd release party last night at Ashkenaz. I arrived at about half past ten, surprised to find that the live music had started so soon after the dance lesson. The venue was packed to the hilt, bringing together a lot of the disparate factions of the Bay Area tango community in one place. It seems we all knew this was to be one of the big celebrations of the year for us, a coming together to support what is perhaps the one musical group who truly represents the local tango scene at the present time (although there are some burgeoning movements from other musicians in the area, which is a very welcome and encouraging phenomenon).

The fellas were *on* this evening, playing together much tighter than even the last time I saw them at El Valenciano a few short months ago. They--being talented dancers as well as musicians--proudly uphold the philosophy of playing with the dancers in mind. And the dancers responded, although perhaps a little too enthusiastically in some cases. It was one of those nights where an invitation to dance was tantamount to making an implicit agreement to be bumped, jostled, kicked, elbowed and stepped on. There was simply no avoiding it. In the first tanda I danced I got all of these, including a stiletto inside my shoe (distracting, to be sure, but at least it was from a friend who I knew was struggling along with everybody else). Yes, the floor was crowded, but this in itself didn't account for the difficulty of navigating it. Unfortunately, although not unexpectedly, there were enough hotshots to make things tough for everybody. And it doesn't take many, perhaps even as few as two couples can create significant disruption in la ronda. Now, I have to say that there are some who can cause problems but who I absolutely accept on the floor. In particular, I am thinking of beginners and inexperienced dancers who are still learning to navigate. Although some of these people can have an effect on the energy I find it hard to fault them as they are still getting accustomed to it and there is no way around it but to do it, and I encourage them to get out there provided they have at least a rudimentary understanding of dance etiquette. The ones I tend to frown upon are those who apparently have some experience with the dance, whose technique displays some familiarity and comfort but who choose to dance without regard to anybody around them. The ones who move in whatever direction suits them, who throw high boleos, kicks, lapices and lifts (yes, lifts) on a high traffic floor. These people apparently fail to realize that in a milonga you are not just dancing with your partner but with everybody else in the milonga. This is part of the beauty of tango as a social dance, unlike something like salsa where you basically claim your spot and dance within that set space. Those who approach tango with that latter intention would be better off in another dance, or at least in limiting themselves to performance and staying away from social dance floors. Because I can assure them, the only reason anybody is paying attention to them at all is to avoid them and regard them with disdain and ridicule.

As long as I'm on the topic of floorcraft I might as well mention another thing that really bugs me, and that is the all too common occurrence of people who cut you off in order to take a space that you were creating for yourself. That is to say, as a leader, one of the ways to create dance space is simply to wait while the couple ahead of you proceeds, thus creating an opening where you can at least play a little. But more often than not, what ends up happening is the dancers behind me will cut around me to get to that space who owes its very existence to my patience. This is not floorcraft. This ultimately creates more problems because now that everybody knows that most other people are predatory in this manner they tend to be more in a rush when they dance, and also they become tailgaters which is another thing I hate.

Maybe I'm being a bit too idealistic when it comes to what a milonga *should* be like. I find that a lot of the most experienced dancers, though they understand the value of being a part of a unified whole, also know how to read a floor that will not cooperate and thus approach it with a very dominating attitude, creating a path through sheer strength of intention and clarity of direction. The difference between them and the hotshots is that they are always with la ronda and dance within a very compact cylinder and with their feet always well grounded. This is an attitude I have yet to develop. I personally prefer to sit out when I see a violent floor. Which means, I sit out a lot.

Anyway, enough with the griping. I had a good time last night, seeing a lot of friends and listening to some great music. They even managed to squeeze a quick chacarera into the mix which was messy but refreshing. My zapateos were a disaster but you know, you use it or lose it and I lost it. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see maestro Pampa Cortes, a great folk dancer, doing his thang. I'm not even sure if he actually participated. I asked him later if he did and he said, "A little." Not sure what that means. He mentioned something about being very tired after doing several performances a day. I can understand that.

Along with the Trio, Shorey had dj duties which was a particularly compromising position because her sets were short and sporadic, and also she had to work around both the Trio's repertoire and their energy. She handled it admirably, and I have to give special kudos for her starting a set with Fresedo (why is he so dissed in the Bay Area?) Also, the local all-woman troupe Tango Con *Fusion put on a fun little show.

So tonight, perhaps the Late Shift. I'll have to see how I feel around midnight.


7 mar 2008

Time off can be a very good thing. I was getting to that point where tango was feeling like an obligation, the "I told x that I'd be at The Beat tonight but if I had my druthers..." So not much dancing lately. Last Saturday I went to The Late Shift a few hours after a leg workout. Bad idea. Immediately into my first and only tanda of the evening I felt myself collapsing into simple side steps. Afterward, I decided it was a night for watching and listening. It felt like a light night attendance-wise but the energy was good and the general level of dance was high.

Since then I have not gone out to dance socially, although last night was the weekly practice with A. It was one of those nights where we didn't focus so much on form as with exploration. Many things I had worked on and forgotten through my tango history suddenly reappeared and they had a kind of alien familiarity. I was happy to welcome them back into the fold and will try not to neglect them so much in the future.

Skip back to Sunday, Shorey's music lecture and workshop at the Finnish Hall. She talked about the evolution of orchestras, mostly focusing on Di Sarli and D'Arienzo and how they changed between the 20's to about the 50's. Some fascinating information, and things I had only a vague knowledge about (like the cause of Di Sarli's eye problems, apparently from a gun accident when he was young). Anybody who has an interest in delving deeper into the music (and that should be EVERYBODY) would do well to check out these lectures. I think they will be a monthly thing.

Tonight, Trio Garufa at Ashkenaz. Should be a blast. Also, my good friends Negracha and Diego are back in town. They are elegant, classic dancers and really friendly people. If you're interested in seeing/learning a very pure form of tango check them out.