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).


7 mayo 2008

Ah, Zivals. Such great service. I ordered a batch of cds there last Friday and they arrived on Tuesday. That's crazy fast from Argentina. Usually it takes exactly a week, which is fast enough. But four days, weekend included? Dang! Props also to DHL. Thanks guys.

In the spirit of my growing collection and also inspired by Alex's blog, I've decided to share some lists of current favorites. Alex proposed a Top 10 Golden Age tango list but I think that's kind of impossible. Instead, today is dedicated to the singers. Who are my favorites right now? I know I'm going to leave out some biggies, both on purpose and inadvertently, but in no particular order:

Carlos Gardel - No explanation needed. He is the king, always will be. Current favorites: Melodia de Arrabal, Canchero.

Angel Vargas - The golden tone of his voice, the expression, the confidence. No singer has done more for an orchestra than Vargas did for D'Agostino. Try listening to a D'Agostino without him and see if it grabs you in the same way. For me, at this moment, it just doesn't. Some current favorites: Como El Hornero, No Vendrá.

Raúl Berón - To me, he is the master of subtlety. He can sing very softly but never loses richness, and his dynamic range makes his strong passages that much more effective. His control can make other fine singers with the same orchestra seem relatively coarse and sloppy (compare his work with Demare alongside that of Horacio Quintana). Some current favorites: Tarareando (with Caló), Una Emoción (with Demare).

Julio Martel - I'm not a big fan of De Angelis and with the notable exception of his valses I tend not to dance when I hear his music come on. But I have to admit, he had a good ear for singers, and my favorite of his group is Martel. There is a kind of unabashed romanticism and earnestness about his voice that moves me. Check out his control with his vibrato and the way he rolls his r's. Some current favorites: Acordes Porteños, La Vida Me Engaño.

Alberto Podesta - I remember very clearly "discovering" Podesta one night at Salon Canning and Nido Gaucho began a tanda. I'm sure I had heard the song many times before but somehow it was as if I'd never really heard it at all until that moment. Such longing! The very next day I went out and bought the cd, and listening to it through I couldn't believe I had somehow missed out on his genius for so long. Until then, I had mostly thought of Di Sarli in terms of his instrumentals. I see him and Berón as musical brothers. It's interesting to compare their renditions of the same song, ie. Al Compás del Corazón. Some current favorites: Lloran Las Campanas (with Di Sarli), Paisaje (with Laurenz).

Ricardo Ruíz - A truly unique voice in tango--sweet, utterly refined, with a kind of eerie, almost androgynous quality. I find that here, in the SF Bay Area, he tends to get passed over on dj playlists in favor of his Fresedian brother Roberto Ray, but it was his voice and the way it complemented the "old movie soundtrack" orchestration that initially drew me to Fresedo. Some current favorites: Buscándote, Volveras.

Well, that does it for now. Next time: The pianists.


4 mayo 2008

Have been feeling a bit out of sorts lately, a kind of mild occasional vertigo that happens for no discernible reason. Apparently, I'm not alone in this as other people I've talked to have mentioned the same thing. It is clear there is only one possible explanation.

The earth is wobbling on its axis.

Of course, the collective governments of the world along with the elite scientific community have been very hushed about this as not to create a global panic, but we dancers can feel it under our feet. When we do a giro and feel ourselves tilting, or when we try to hold steady during a parada/pasada and feel our planted leg undulating underneath us to keep us upright. It must be the tectonic plates far below the hardwood floors of the milongas shifting in their continuing currents away from Pangaea, haphazardly churning into disarray due to the unsteady spin of the planet, which is swaying and shuddering like a decelerating top.

Are we doomed?

Perhaps the earth just needs a little adjustment. First off, we need to remind her to keep her core solid but flexible and clearly dissociate the energy--feel the energy projecting upward through her spine and out the top of her head, and down from her lower lumbar through her legs and into the ground. Keep her chin and shoulders down, chest and neck up, ribs and pelvis tucked in. Have a little flexion in her legs for stability and agility, and spread her weight evenly across her feet or perhaps skewing a bit towards the front. And remind her to always take care of her own axis; she can't depend on the sun to always do it for her (maybe sometimes his lead is going to be bad and in those cases she doesn't want to sacrifice herself).

Then again, maybe there's just a bug going around, or the weather that's making us all wonky. Or that I've been drinking too much coffee and/or maté lately.