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.