On the crest of the wave

I think it's arguable to say that the visibility of tango outside of Argentina has reached a point not seen in recent memory, perhaps even not since the heady early days of the last century when it first took Europe by storm and made Valentino a star. The recent declaration by UNESCO validating tango's prominence in world culture, the explosion of non-Argentine milongas, teachers, festivals and commerce, the increasing use of tango in marketing (from television commercials to the publishing industry), the burgeoning number of tourists making trips to Buenos Aires... all seem to point to one thing: tango is in.

So I don't think it's particularly surprising that I am having a negative reaction to all the attention. I admit it's certainly a common response when a niche movement moves into the popular arena, the early adherents vocally lamenting the "selling-out" of what was once pure. While I hope that my perspective isn't coming from such a bratty backlash, I will say I am wary of three things: exploitation, misrepresentation, and mediocritization. A good illustration of what I mean can be found in this clip of b-boy culture, particularly starting at around the 4:30 mark:

I feel as if I'm already seeing this in tango, and I can say personally that I've been getting more and more disinterested. A lot of what I see is pretty meh, and even with dancers who I consider skilled there is often a lack of a unique style, which makes the dance seem like something I think it was never meant to be--codified and regimented. What was once a process of discovery and invention has crossed over into something packaged and bought. On the social scene, I almost never go out to milongas anymore except for community service purposes, although there are reasons beyond--or maybe I should say, behind--my lack of interest that I may expound upon in another post. As for the exploitation, I can't tell you how sick I am, for example, of these memoirs and "fact-based" novels about middle-aged women going to Argentina and "discovering" tango. Even as they purport to present the culture as something profound, in truth they tend to utilize it merely as a hook to promote themselves. And as a very respected colleague of mine noted, all the books tell the same story, which is particularly puzzling and frustrating given that in the richness of the culture there is so much more that can be explored than this superficial journey of female self-discovery. "Eat, Tango, Love," so to speak, over and over again.

Now, it's hard to say at what state of a movement one is in. Perhaps this is just the beginning. Perhaps nothing will come of it. Or perhaps something will come along to really shake things up and reinvigorate the progression of the dance and the culture, which currently appears to be shallowing as it spreads.

But then again, who am I to say that the culture isn't evolving, pushing forward, growing and mutating to reflect the times? Could it be that I'm just too immersed to see it? Going back to the b-boy reference, I recall that by the time I moved on from the culture it seemed we had pretty much exhausted the possibilities. It was around the time in the video clip, where as the great Ken Swift remarked, it started to get ugly. And if I am to be honest, I was perhaps part of the problem. Being a young kid from a California suburb I didn't really have the means to really know what the culture was about or understand its history and influences. I just wanted to do something that was fun and looked cool. And though I did develop into a fairly skilled dancer for the time, for me it was never really so much about creation and innovation as simply imitation. So when b-boying was declared passé and the popular culture turned its attention elsewhere, I moved on as well (though in my defense, I didn't let go easily--one friend remarked that I was "lost in an era" since everyone else had already dropped it while I soldiered feebly on). Many years passed before I came across it again, and what I saw astounded me. In the time I was away, the dance had taken in influences from places I never would have thought to look. The technique and athleticism was far beyond anything I was familiar with, and the sheer imagination and creativity, the breadth of dance vocabulary, not to mention an adherence to musicality that had been neglected previously, was truly inspiring. But mixed in with that feeling of awe and pride at how far the dance had come was a quiet regret, almost a sense of shame, that I had written it off and walked away. That I had missed being a witness to the evolution as it was happening.

I suppose if I had learned anything from that experience it would be to trust the art. Have faith in it, even as it appears to be floundering. And to try to see the big picture. While on a day to day basis it may appear to be like the same thing over and over, when you look back on the tango scene just five years ago, and then five years before that, many things have changed significantly, and much of it for the better in my opinion. Teaching methods have much improved in terms of explaining technique, there is more awareness of certain códigos, and the knowledge and availability of the music is far greater. Even the current wariness I am experiencing may be a sign of progress, at least for me, in that five years ago I may not have even been aware of the things I am scrutinizing now.

So I suppose it would be foolhardy to be concerned about the welfare of tango in regards to the effects of popularity and mass commercialization, or to lament the apparent stagnation of the dance.

Then again... writing this now just reminded me of something that a couple of friends of mine, truly traditional-minded milongueros, once said regarding innovation. I had once asked them about the dilemma of making tango relevant in a modern context, with modern influences, rather than merely being an exercise in nostalgia. Their response was that back then, people didn't feel things differently than we do now. Love, hate, jealousy, joy, pain, humor... these things are ageless. People felt them the same a thousand years ago as they will a thousand years from now (assuming we're still around that long). The tango came about as a response to and a reflection of these feelings, and in its classic form is a very successful concoction. So is it really so urgent to come up with new things all the time? As long as the feeling is true and well presented, that is what is most important. I think this is something I truly need to remember, lest I fall into the misguided allure for novelty, as it seems I may have when I began this post. And as for mediocrity and exploitation, there has always been bad tango, and distorted tango. Bad music, bad dancers. Probably a lot more bad than good. But there has always been good as well, and it's the good we remember and which inspires us, the good which is the root from which we want to grow. And there is good tango now--a lot of good tango, indeed. This is something not to be taken for granted, as perhaps I have.


The Rise of the Know-It-All

For some time now I've been somewhat bemused by the growing onslaught of self-appointed experts in the field of tango. You may know the ones I'm talking about. The ones who, hearing the first strains of Dime Mi Amor, start giving lectures about how Maure is a poor substitute for Echagüe. The ones who, watching the milonga from the rock star seats (most milongas have them), lament about how much it sucks compared to Sunderland. Et al. Usually their unsolicited expertise comes in the guise of a weary complaint or as a dutiful correction of someone else's ignorance. Sometimes you'll see two of them go head to head trying to one up each other. It's kind of like watching that scene from Good Will Hunting where the snobby Harvard guy gets his comeuppance by the more knowledgeable main character--but with both the tango guys being the Harvard guy.

I suppose it's understandable. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so the saying goes. Once someone gets hooked into tango it's natural to develop an appetite for facts and figures, and since information is so readily available nowadays it's not hard to research. I guess what I find a little annoying is just how susceptible so many people are to feeling like big shots so quickly, and with no more than the discovery of Todotango.com. Or perhaps from a trip to Buenos Aires, which automatically imbues them with expertise. Among the most annoying of this ilk are some of the lucky souls who have the means to relocate down south for extended periods of time. The ones who seem to have the attitude that their living in tango mecca trumps everything else and so they lord it over anyone who ever has a different opinion. "I've lived in Buenos Aires so I know..." Entire books have been written by some of these people.

Specific to the dance front, this supposed prowess often comes as a result of having studied with such-and-such and so-and-so. Or with the sheer amount of time one has spent with tango. Neither of which necessarily means anything. One question that I'm sick of hearing when meeting someone new is, "How long have you been dancing?" Though it may appear innocuous, it's a question with loaded expectations, and I often get the sense that there is an evaluation being made depending on the response. But everyone knows people who have been dancing for a good amount of time but who still, to put it mildly, kind of suck. Of course, some of these people feel that they've put in the hours and have earned their degree, and become "teachers" in some form. Either by actually holding classes, or more informally by instructing people they meet in the milongas and/or prácticas.

I wonder if it ever occurs to them that considering themselves authorities with such relatively little time, effort and/or ability actually diminishes their subject of supposed mastery? That, if they are experts already, it must mean that the history and culture of tango really isn't all that rich and complex, or that the dance isn't all that exacting?

Personally, I'm happy to consider myself a relative child in tango. Knowing there's so much more to learn is a big factor in keeping me interested and pushing me forward. When you're already a master, where else is there to go? What else to discover? (Hint: if your answer is "a lot" then guess what--you're not a master).


On the lack of desire in United States tango

A friend of mine once told me about the time she first met a brilliant dancer when he just arrived in town. They danced close and by her account it was a really lovely dance. Not too long afterwards, this dancer began to strictly utilize an open embrace approach. Curious, my friend asked him why he never danced close anymore, and his reply was that with all the dancing that he would do, dancing close embrace all the time was too emotionally intense. By using open embrace he could protect himself from that intensity without sacrificing the amount of dancing he liked to get.

Now, I'm not sure I can relate to this sense of emotional overload, although to be fair I dance a lot less than this guy. But it makes me wonder if a common factor for people who dance strictly in an open "nuevo" style is something along the lines of this kind of self-protection. A way to excise emotion--or specifically, desire--from the equation. Incidentally, I've noticed that many people who really excel at this style strike me as highly intelligent, left-brain types--people in the medical field, or law, or engineering. I wonder if the pleasure they derive is from the logical construction of figures, as if it's the playing with structure that fascinates them. Like solving puzzles in order to build new puzzles of increasing complexity. The fact that there is someone attractive opposite them who is assisting in the figure creation is, while perhaps a nice bonus, ultimately beside the point.

Then there are those who do dance close, even exclusively so, in a style they consider more "traditional," yet who still somehow create an emotional distance between themselves and their partner. While their bodies are in proximity, their embrace (if you could call it that) is cold and unfeeling. Perhaps it just hovers there, forming the outside boundary to the functional cylinder of the couple. It is well-meaning, intended to be unobtrusive and efficient, to grant freedom of movement to the other and to the self. Perhaps also to best serve as the conduit of communication between the partners. I think there are more than a few teachers and dancers who encourage this, perhaps as a reaction against the amateur tendency to hold too tightly and to compromise movement and function. But to me, it is akin to the wire monkey with the baby bottle--yes, it provides a necessity, but does it comfort or nurture?

Certainly, freedom--of movement, of intention--is very important in this dance. It provides the means to the greatest degree of expression. But is this freedom all-important? What do we sacrifice, or are we willing to sacrifice, when we prize this freedom above all else?

Finding an ideal middle ground is something my partner and I seem to work on with some regularity. While it is important to me to try to communicate affection, I have a tendency for far too much tension in my embrace. It's a problem I have been trying to address for a long time and which occurs without conscious awareness--even though I'm not aware of it and when it happens I'm not engaging my muscles nearly to their maximum it still transmits to her and in the long run is fatiguing for both of us. While I know it's getting better it still has room for improvement in order to make my dance maximally efficient and comfortable. But sometimes when I am specifically focusing on this my embrace gets a little too soft, which makes it feel absent to my partner.

"Relax," she says, "but don't stop holding me."

To hold, and to be held--isn't that the point? And if not, why not? Can you really call it tango without it? Or like Geraldine said, is that mistakenly thinking of it as a dance and not a feeling that is danced?

Maybe that's exactly what we Americans as a culture--much of which is derived from staid British restraint (no offense)--tend to find uncomfortable, the insinuation of feeling. Perhaps we don't want to come across as creepy or lecherous, or needy. We don't want to give the wrong impression. We want to make sure the other knows it's nothing personal. That it is, after all, just a dance. Maybe there's the concern that the expression of affection in tango necessarily portends something more, something that exists outside of the dance, that isn't left on the floor when the tanda is done and the thank yous have been exchanged.

As ever, I really don't know the answer, or even if it's a valid question. Am I totally missing something?


On the lack of dynamic in United States tango

Some friends and I were having a conversation on tango the other day and the subject drifted toward the manner of dance here in the states, in particular, what seems to be a common tendency among highly skilled dancers and professionals. To specify, I'm fairly certain it was in reference to many who dance in the style generally referred to or understood as "neo" or "nuevo," which quite frankly seems to comprise many of the well known professionals. Anyway, my friend was saying how she finds that most people she has danced with in this style who are from this country have a curious lack of dynamic compared to people from Europe or Argentina. By "dynamic," we mean the manner in which energy is shared between partners; the give and take of force. For example, how the leader can mark a propulsion in the follower and then use the energy from her subsequent inertia to power his own movement. (This can also work the other way, where the follower uses the leader's energy.)

One thought that we had regarding this tendency has to do with what is perceived as "advanced" technique in this country. That is, when beginners dance there is a tendency to muscle the lead and follow in a manner that is rough and inelegant. So perhaps among more experienced dancers here, the reaction against that "amateurishness" is to move away from muscularity as much as possible, the result being on the other extreme, where the lead/follow become so much of a subtle suggestion that it is almost non-existent, and there is very little actually felt in the exchange. It is this lack of feeling that my friend finds unsatisfying. If I understood her correctly, she feels it's as if each dancer is expected to bear responsibility for their own energy without tapping into or feeding the others', and that makes her feel separated from her partner.

Perhaps it has something to do with an exaggerated sense of diplomacy. Inherent in the give and take of energy is a kind of aggressive / submissive implication that maybe some people aren't comfortable with. So instead they utilize a very p.c. approach where it is encouraged that neither partner encroach on the others' self-sufficiency, at least to the degree to which it is possible to be unobtrusive. I think this may stem from our cultural ideal of individuality and self-reliance. And also, perhaps a heightened sensitivity to the notion of equality of the sexes and a subsequent aversion to well-defined "masculine" and "feminine" roles. And that aversion also seems to imply an aversion to the emotional character of the dance, the desire between man and woman (or between same sexes for those with that inclination), which results in a dance that may certainly be expressive and beautiful, but emotionally inert. But perhaps this is a line of thought that is veering off on a tangent from the topic of this post.

Anyway, I'd be curious to hear from others on this.


Hit it and quit it -- The promiscuity factor

Does the approach to social dance reveal the manner in which someone approaches mating, and is the milonga itself a metaphor for the dating pool?

When people dread the position of not dancing, is it that they are not feeling validated for their worth? The same kind of dread that some people have of growing old alone and not having anything to show for their lives when they die? And in the metaphor, is the dance the DNA we want to share, the bit of ourselves we want to pass on to exist beyond us thereby immortalizing ourselves in some small way? Do the seconds on the clock ticking towards the end of the milonga represent the days of our lives, and does every dance represent the loves -- or at least, the couplings -- we will have? Consequently, does a milonga devoid of dancing represent a life devoid of companionship, and the dances we did not share signify the increased likelihood that all that is ourselves ends with us?

For those who are selective about their dances or who seemingly feel less compulsion to dance than others, does that indicate that they are at a contented place in the balance of companionship and non-companionship? Are they more secure in their solitude? Or secure in their perception that they can get the dances they want when they want them; that they are only interested in sharing their dance/DNA where it will have the most benefit? Or does their restraint say something about their lack of libido/virility? For those on the extreme end who rarely choose to dance at all, are they, or at least are they seen as, "tango frigid" or "tango impotent," and does that perception seemingly point to their manner outside of tango as well?

Then there is the other side of the equation. There are those leaders, we'll call them "tango satyrs," who seem determined to dance with every woman in the room. And of course, there are the followers, whom we'll call "tango nymphomaniacs," who want the same thing from every guy -- although, here it is important to make a distinction: the tango nymphomaniacs are those who genuinely have that hunger for dance partners as opposed to the followers who "do their duty," so to speak, from a sense of obligation to be social and to maintain their appearance as viable dance partners.

For the tango satyrs and nymphomaniacs, do they even care or notice what they are giving up of themselves, or is it all about taking for them? Is it a chip on the shoulder that they have something to prove? Or is it about being at a buffet and constantly filling their plate so they haven't missed anything? Is the dance such an inconsequential thing that they have no issues with hopping from one partner to another in rapid succession, either discarding the previous dances as over and done or cataloging them as notches in a belt or items in a to-do list that they can cross off? Or is it possible that every dance really is something special, and if so how is that possible, that the volume itself doesn't dilute the well of experience (can the person who has bedded over a hundred different people feel as strongly for each partner as the person who has bedded only ten)? Or is it something they simply can't help of themselves, something obsessive-compulsive that drives them to constantly seek the euphoria of the fresh dance?

On another level, for those looking for casual hookups, is it a good indicator that the tango satyrs and nymphomaniacs will be both easier to hookup with and more reliably un-clingy in the aftermath? For those looking for a more committed relationship, do the more selective dancers seem to indicate better qualities of fidelity?

I'm not arguing for one thing or another, that one approach is better or worse or that tango satyriasis/nymphomania is necessarily a bad thing. Because honestly, when it comes down to it, what is tango for most people but promiscuity, in a sense? I am hard pressed to think of anyone anywhere who dances only with one person. As with everything, it's a matter of degree, no? Let's face it: monogamy is not human nature. It is in the best interest of our biological imperative to fool around with a lot of partners, hopefully partners with qualities that will benefit us in the long run. I'm just wondering if these are some of the possible multitude of ways in which the manner that one approaches tango reveals more about their character than they necessarily intend or perhaps would even want.


An unteachable lesson

A lot of people seem to approach a milonga as if it is imperative to get as much dancing as possible, or that they should brave a dance on a perilously crowded or dangerous floor because even a compromised dance is better than none at all.

My outlook, on the other hand, is that I would rather drive an hour to a milonga and wait through the end until the energy on the floor was right for me, and leave without ever having danced if that time never comes, than to force myself onto the floor just because I made the trip and paid the cover, or need to get my tango "fix". Will I feel it was a waste? In some ways, certainly. But there is always the foreknowledge that it could have been much worse if I had gone against my better judgment.

Certainly, the call to dance can be strong, and it can be difficult to resist. The dj plays an orchestra that I love, and a favorite dance partner is available. But if the dance conditions aren't within a certain workable parameter, ultimately it becomes a questionable endeavor. When I dance with someone, I always want to give them my best dance. Of course, that doesn't happen very often -- quite rarely in fact. Though that's the ideal, I would be satisfied at least with a good representation of my expression and feel. Where I come away with the sense that my partner has an accurate idea of how I heard and interpreted the music and the moment. So even if the music is great and the partner is willing, if the floor conditions aren't right then I can't really express myself anyway, so to what end would I be dancing? In fact, in that situation the frustration can be even more profound because the schism between what is felt and what can be actualized can be so much greater.

Anyway, my point being, there is one lesson that I think is of importance but cannot be taught, and that is how to know when not to dance. Of course, this is a very subjective thing; everybody has their own perception on what conditions are acceptable to them and what in the dance brings them satisfaction. Naturally, when dancing socially there is always some degree of compromise (at least there should be -- if this sounds alien to you I'd say it is more likely that you are a hazard to others on the floor). The prime dancing time, then, is a matter of gauging the zone of probable compromise on the floor at a given moment.

So how do I assess the conditions for myself? Well, barring partner compatibility considerations:

  • If I watch the floor and can't discern a clear flow, that's a bad sign. I'm sure we've all experienced the milonga that more resembles a pot of boiling water than something with a current. Perhaps acceptable for salsa or club dancing, but pointless for tango.
  • I will not dance when doing so places my partner beyond a certain degree of risk. If it seems that the majority of the dance will be spent on the defensive, trying to keep my partner out of harms way, that is too much of a compromise on my expression for me or my partner to enjoy. Similarly, if the floor is overly crowded and the traffic causes undue congestion I prefer to wait it out. Just as in driving a car, I can't stand the stop and go thing.
  • If I'm not feeling the music or don't care for the orchestra, I will wait for the next tanda. Or, if the djing is particularly not to my liking, I may not dance at all. (side note: I don't relate to those who invite dances during cortinas, before they even know what will be played next. I'm guessing the music doesn't matter so much to them and they love dancing for dancing's sake. In a way, I suppose that makes me more limited of a dancer than they as I can only dance honestly when I am compelled, and not everything compels me.)
  • If for unknown reasons I have been dancing in a way I feel is unsatisfactory, I will take some time away from the floor to relax and recalibrate, rather than dive right back in with the intention of fixing whatever isn't working. If the problem persists, I call it a night, knowing that it happens and therefore not getting down about it.
  • I generally dislike dancing milonga, and to a lesser degree vals, as my first dance, as it sets me up with an energy that can be hard to come down from.

I have become quite good at heeding my intuition and refraining from dances when I don't feel the conditions are suitable. Naturally, I have encountered people who were dubious about my reservations, wondering if I was making up some excuse not to dance with them. But what I have found is that as more people get to know me and my outlook, the more I develop a kind of reputation for being fastidious and they come to realize it's okay for them not to take it personally. And as a kind of bonus, some people have told me they consider it something of a treat to dance with me because they know I'm so damn picky. So, while I may not dance nearly as much as many in the community, I have found that being true to myself in being discerning has served me well. Quality for quantity -- I consider it a fair trade off.


Quejas de Blogdoneon, or, Writing/Tango = Dancing/Architecture?

Since this blog is not nor has ever been about chronicling the days and nights of tango life in detail, it is prone to these periods of inactivity. I always feel obligated to have a particular topic or thread of thought before I begin to write, yet I don't want to force something into existence just for the sake of updates.

That being said, sometimes I wonder just what it is that brings me to write in this public forum. For my own personal use I keep a private journal with thoughts and observances, notes on things to work on and such. These are things that specifically address my own issues with the dance, primarily technical issues, and as such are of little use to anyone but myself. The utility of this blog, as what has seemed to happen without conscious intention on my part, has been to raise questions without clear cut answers and gather responses from others. Although oftentimes I don't really see what I am presenting to the world that adds to it in any genuinely practical way. Or perhaps, to put it another way, there is a preponderance of tango blogs out there and the issues that pop up always seem to be the same ones--authenticity, floorcraft, new vs. old, finding ones place in the community, etc. So what am I asking--indeed, what can I ask of practical and common relevance--that hasn't been asked before or will be asked again? And has anything really been resolved? Or is it just about finding comfort bitching to the world from our lofty idealistic viewpoints of what should be, and that is all we bloggers can hope to take from our scribbles?

Also, in writing about tango--at least, in writing about the dancing of tango--I'm wondering if it's a misguided attempt at correlation and a practice that directly contradicts what I referenced in my last post regarding the overanalysis of tango. What am I doing here but analyzing the dance and the culture, often with considerations that may be far removed from anything truly relevant about tango or with no basis in anything that actually exists outside of my imagination? And do I share these considerations which may be deliberately peculiar as an effort to inject something different in the tango blogosphere? As a means to distinguish this blog from all the others? And to what end?

As has been the case especially of late, this entry is a meandering one. My apologies.


Consequences of globalization?

I watched this video last night and, aside from marveling at the beautiful performance, I was particularly struck by the audience reaction at the end. Back in those days, it seems that Javier and Geraldine were the torchbearers for the new generation of dancers who were carrying the traditional ideals of the dance, in particular the dance of Villa Urquiza. You can see it in the way the crowd praises them. That's not merely appreciation for a great performance, that's pride. Pride for a couple who are representing their culture with excellence.

But with their subsequent success, the flavor of Villa Urquiza has now spread throughout the world (thanks, in a large part, to the universal posting of videos such as the one above), and given that it has become more commonly seen I wonder if perhaps the flavor has become less of a treat in a sense. Not that it's become bland or banal, but that it has lost some of its freshness. And it just makes me wonder if it's possible nowadays to sincerely elicit the kind of reaction the Sunderland crowd gave their native son and daughter in this video.

I am just using the Villa Urquiza style as an example, since the video captures it so well in its own neighborhood. I could just as well be speaking of all tango, in its various incarnations. As the globalization of tango marches on, does the idea of tango as representative of the cultures of the various barrios of Buenos Aires, or of Buenos Aires and Argentina itself, become increasingly moot or dated?

To this day, one of the highest compliments I receive is when I am told I dance like a porteño. While that still gives me pride, I wonder about the implications of what is said. As if what is of highest value is to be true to the manner of dance in BsAs. From a personal level, I don't question that. I would not second guess the hundred years of development that the culture underwent in its homeland, and quite frankly it's the approach that makes sense to me and which I like the best. But then, does that somehow limit the possibility for the dance to take on the flavors of some of its adopted places? That there's somehow less value in a tango with a San Francisco flavor, or Berlin, Toronto, Paris, Taipei, or that being tainted by these cultural influences makes it less truly "tango"? Is it traitorous to expand the definition of tango from being an "Argentine" dance to being a "World" dance?

Or is it a matter of degree? For example, no offense to the ballroom dancers but I don't consider what they call "tango" to be anywhere near what I call tango. Though I surmise that their tango is somehow based on it.

Also, I think about the effect that a singularly exceptional dancer or couple has on tango. How, as they develop fame, their style ripples outward and attracts adherents, and soon you see more and more people dancing with their particular signature. Does that somehow make the originators less special? And though understandable, is it ultimately a good thing that people want to emulate an example of excellence rather than trying to come up with their own example?

I feel that when I ponder these things my line of questioning becomes tautological, only feeding on itself as I go on. And on. Perhaps it's best to keep in mind what Geraldine and Javier say in this video at 0:33, which is an observation that I like to fall back on whenever I get too thinky about anything in tango:


Open frame experiment

The past few days I've been experimenting with dancing strictly open embrace (or "open frame" as I think is more accurate). And I mean about as open as you can get, hand under the armpit type thing. There are two reasons for this: first off, the past weekend was particularly warm in the Bay Area and it was a bit more comfortable to refrain from sharing body heat and stickiness. And second, I'm just not very used to it -- haven't much danced this way socially since I was a beginner -- so I thought it would be good practice for me.

I really wasn't sure how well I would be able to pull it off but functionally it was fine. None of my partners had difficulty reading the lead, which was a relief. Anyway, my impressions to date are as follows:

--It was particularly difficult to micromanage the musicality when I wanted to make syncopated movements or play with a shifty melodic passage. Though it worked from time to time my overall percentage was much lower than when dancing close. And in general the dance took on a kind of strictly flowy quality, kind of hazy and soft, legato. It was tricky to give it edges or accents.

--It was, surprisingly to me, far less physically taxing overall than dancing close, although my legs were aching when I got home.

--There was a feeling as if I had less responsibility for my partner, especially regarding her axis, and this provided a sensation of great freedom and autonomy.

--Though enjoyable, there was something distinctly unsatisfying when it was done. Did it feel like dancing? Yes. Did it feel like tango? No. It's the difference between two people dancing with one another vs. two people embodying a dance.

--It seemed as if I had to think through the dance more than I do in close, although that could just be because I'm not as accustomed to this kind of connection.

--I found myself constantly looking down, although again that could be just because I'm not used to it.

These are what I can come up with at the moment. I plan to continue this experiment to where it does begin to feel comfortable and natural for me, and I'll see if I have any added insight then.


Are we talking about the same thing?

A woman meets a tango dancer of some renown at a milonga. She asks him for a dance--he obliges. She is confident, emotive, expressive. They are perfect together. The song ends. She gazes at him dreamily, a little flirtatious.

"How am I dancing?" she coos.

"Like shit," he replies.


This is an anecdote which I heard from the lead in the story, who will remain unnamed. And while I will say his response was fairly brutal, I have to admit I admired his frankness. At any rate, to touch on the last post regarding the difficulty of self-assessment, there is also the difficulty of assessing the quality of the dance that one shares with a partner. It's not uncommon to find oneself in a dance relationship with lopsided perspectives, where one partner loves to dance with someone because "we dance so well together," whereas perhaps the other partner feels as if they are bending over backwards to accommodate the difficulties that the first person brings to the dance. Or perhaps one person hates the musicality of the other but gives them the freedom to interpret it their way, which makes the other feel as if they are completely in sync.

Of course, it's all a matter of degree. Every dance partnership is going to be uneven at some level, but what I refer to in this post are the ones whose perceptions are so markedly different between the participants.

Examples (fictionalized):

He says, "I love the way she feels in my arms."
She says, "I hate his embrace."

She says, "I love all the cool things I can do with him."
He says, "She's not following me at all."

He says, "Volcadas with her are awesome."
She says, "My back is killing me."

She says, "We are at the same level."
He says, "If we weren't friends, I probably wouldn't bother dancing with her."

He says, "She dances with me whenever I ask, so she must be enjoying it."
She says, "I have difficulty saying no to a dance, even when I know I won't like it."

She says, "He never throws me off balance like a lot of other guys do."
He says, "I have to hold her up the whole time. And my back is killing me."

I am one to be neurotic about such things. While I am by no means a selfless dancer, when I dance I always prioritize my partner's enjoyment over my own. I have never, nor would I ever, wanted to dance at someone's expense. To get myself off at the cost of another's comfort or pleasure. Because that is actually working counter to what I enjoy most, which is to bring and share joy. But sometimes it's hard for me to tell, is she really enjoying this? Or is she just being nice?

One thing that I wish I could do is to feel my dance as a follower of myself. Then I could really tell whether or not I was projecting to/through my partner exactly what I intend. How clear my lead is. How accommodating my embrace and posture. How I fit in the fine line between a presence that is focused and nurturing and one which is domineering, or the opposite, one that is scarcely felt at all. The amount of "heads up" that I give in my lead. How well I wait for my follower, and how well I follow her through my lead. How well I breathe...

And so on, and so forth. At least then I'd know that if a follower doesn't like my lead it's not because I'm doing something I'm unaware of. She'd be hating my dance for exactly what I mean it to be--and that's fine. Well, maybe not fine, but given the considerable spectrum of human preference it's only natural that from time to time...

In other words: tastes differ.

But, in wanting this kind of self-awareness, does that make me too much of a control freak? I mean, isn't there something to be said about having some kind of mystery about yourself to yourself that someone else is privy to? Especially when a partner genuinely does love dancing with you; isn't there a kind of affirmation in knowing that they love something about you that even you can't exactly define or consciously replicate? An intangible quality, an x factor that you possess through no intention but being who you are?

And, is it a richer experience when we don't know exactly how our partner feels? Would certainty kill the drive to delight, to surprise, to build anticipation? Is it the search for connection which gives it value when we think we've found it?


Ouch! My ego!

Since it has been a fair amount of time since I began, I can't remember all the nuances of my mindset as an absolute beginner, although I think it is a good thing to try to hold on to. I know I was terribly shy (as I still am to a degree which brings about admonishment from some) and felt very out of place as a stranger not only to tango but to the ballroom environment and social dance in general. And though of course there was a ton of uncertainty--I remember how magical and mysterious certain elements (ganchos, sacadas...) seemed--there was never for me a sense that I would never "get there." There was always a faith that someday I would understand and be able to do the things that eluded me.

While I think I have remained somewhat humble, I can't say that my ego has been unaffected in the course of my development as a dancer and aficionado of tango. I suppose that's not necessarily a bad thing. Pride and ambition are great qualities to push one towards excellence. But I have always been wary of being one of the ones who jump too early, whose ambitions exceed their level of expertise, though in their minds they are likely unaware of the gap between reality and where they think they are.

That being said, it is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile reality with self-perception, and I think this is one of the most frustrating aspects as a serious student of the dance. Speaking for myself, there are times when I get comfortable with the thought that I am at a good place with my dance and that I seem to have a solid grasp on many of the details of things that I do regularly and also of things that I don't utilize but have studied. Then there are times when I seem to discover that all which I thought I had known and/or could do was wrong. In these moments there is obviously a tendency to feel exasperation at the awareness of time wasted practicing misconceptions and the foreknowledge of the difficulty of correction. But I think the real discouragement comes from the realization that I wasn't as good or as knowledgeable as I thought I was. Despite my somewhat meek bearing, in truth there is a raging egomaniac beneath the surface, and when it gets called on its weaknesses I definitely feel a sense of despair.

Perhaps it's fitting that a culture so intimately linked with heartbreak would extend that feeling to the technical aspects of its expression.

But maybe that's where the balance lies. If there was no humility then would there be the ability to admit I was wrong? Certainly there are dancers who seem to stagnate for as long as I can remember, stifled by the unwillingness to change an approach which is limited. Or worse, whose dancing seems to degenerate more and more as they extend branches of poorly executed elements to the rickety base of an unquestioned faulty foundation. I interpret that as ego unchecked, the inability or unwillingness to admit one is wrong or could do better.

On the other hand, without ego would we even try? I don't know that I would continue to practice as hard as I do if I didn't think I could get better. Not just better, but attain a real measure of excellence. That given time and hard work and good direction, I can perhaps stand among the Chichos, Javiers, Pepitos of the world. Why not? Though when my ego takes a blow, that distance between me and them sure seems long.


Songs without endings

Quick post: the other night I went to a milonga where the dj for whatever reason played a noticeably large proportion of songs that don't end with the "chan-chan" but instead have that pause followed by the looooong drawn out exit. I pretty much hate dancing to those kinds of endings, never know what to do with them. I generally just stop when the rhythm does. So I was just wondering, if anybody cares to share, what do you leaders usually do? Do you dance through it? Or as a follower, do you mind if the leader stops before the song *technically* ends, or do you prefer when a leader actually does something with those held notes? Also, do you like, dislike, or have no opinion on these types of endings?


Fatigue trumping good intentions.

I sit here writing this entry as a kind of penance for missing what I was planning to do at this moment, which was to attend Felipe and Rosa's monthly Tangueria in Oakland. It's a great venue with two of the best dancers in our community and I honestly think it has potential to be one of the top milongas in the Bay Area if it ever finds its legs. As such, I really want to support it... but I find that Friday nights are difficult. The last day of the work week, and I am invariably just wiped out, mentally and physically. And, I suppose, because I'm accustomed to going out on Saturday nights, Friday nights seem like a good time to recharge in preparation.

The last time I went to the Tangueria was many months ago, though each time since I had the intention of going but ended up refraining at the last minute. And up to that last minute I was at the point of preparation--contemplating what to wear, getting ready to freshen up--when I wrestled with the decision and ultimately came to the conclusion that if I did go it was because I was forcing myself to go on principle even though I wasn't really feeling up to it, which is probably not a very good reason.

Because it's been a while since I've gone I don't know how it's faring. Back then it was still very new and hadn't quite yet found a core audience, so it was inconsistent. One month would be very lightly attended while the next would be packed. But all who I spoke with had very positive things to say. I think tonight might be a little tough, though, because there are two very popular visiting teachers in town who are at two different venues. This was another factor in me especially wanting to go, because while I welcome guests to our community and wish them success, I feel ambivalent about the impact they sometimes have on the locals.

Obviously, my will was overridden tonight by sheer exhaustion. It's been a relatively busy tango week for me--from last Saturday I've only gone one day without tango, and the past three nights were focused on tango work with my partner (one of those nights at a workshop with one of the visiting teachers). I'm sure that from a professional's point of view that seems like nothing, but I'm not a professional, and my day job is physically taxing and at night I'm still managing to regularly hit the weights at the gym, sometimes directly from practice. Being a guy whose natural constitution isn't particularly robust, it takes a lot out of me.

Ah well. I really hope tonight went well at the milonga, which by all rights it should have. Especially since they had guests Ney and Jennifer to teach the class, two of my favorite teachers and dancers anywhere. As for me, I'm about ready to hit the bed. Only 1 AM--as a tanguero I should be ashamed of myself.


Tango: Bayle Nuestro O Bayle Mío?

So... I have yet to get back to the social dancing scene. Part of the reason is that once you have broken free from the habit it can be hard to come back. It can be hard just to know when to come back. When you will be able to be in that environment and appreciate it anew, bearing no grudges against what you perceived as the things that made you withdraw in the first place. When you will feel able to embody a positive, contributing presence to the festivities.


There has been the mantra going around, apparently paraphrased from zen, about "being the tango you want to see." A fine concept, to be sure, and overall a very noble and idealistic perspective to keep in the face of circumstances beyond one's control. But whether that can be the simple solution to my finding fulfillment in tango--or at least, avoiding dissatisfaction--is something I seriously call to question.

If you are dancing only for yourself (or, by extension, only for you and your partner), then perhaps you could be content by whatever happens within that limited sphere, and only within that sphere. But if you perceive your dance as being one voice in a choir, and that the milonga is a living presence made up from the sum of its parts of which you are but one of many, then it is more of a challenge to detach yourself from the goings on around you.

Outside of the milonga setting when I am practicing with my partner, I find great satisfaction in being the only ones in the studio and being able to move without the encumbrance of others, having the freedom to play and amplify anything to whatever degree, to get sloppy if need be. In a social environment, I am far more restrained. But does this mean I resent not having the absolute freedom that I have in practice? Absolutely not. Because as we all know, the objectives in a milonga are different than in a practice session. This also means that the elements that bring joy come from a different source. The whole point is different.

Think of it like this: you are a part of a group with a perceived objective which can only be reached through a collaborative effort. You try in good faith to do your part, only to look around to see others who aren't pulling their weight. Do you shrug it off, feeling that you did your part and that's enough to keep you happy, even though the objective fails?

Again, I am speaking for myself, partly from a leader's perspective. I imagine it might be different from a follower's perspective since in either a practice or social setting the bulk of her focus is on herself and her partner and so the distinction of dancing in practice vs. milonga isn't as pronounced as it is for leaders. But I am also speaking from an observer's perspective, as someone who sits on the sidelines for much of the night, looking for the beauty of flow in la ronda and finding entitlement and obliviousness instead. Watching a floor like this is like listening to a record that's been scratched and warped to the extent that the music is unrecognizable.


Another issue I have with the mantra is that I don't like the idea of being some sort of flag bearer for what I think anybody else should be doing. Indeed, uniformity is, in my opinion, absolutely contradictory to the ideal of tango. But this is part of my lament from the last post. Looking out on the milonga floor, one doesn't see personal expression. Instead, one sees a lot of Lego pieces being put together. You can often look at a dancer and see exactly who they studied with, or where they stole their moves or style from. Usually badly. So you have both unoriginality and poor form. Even in the cases where a good dancer has strong technique and a broad dance vocabulary, it is often still a derivation of a dance already danced, of elements that have already been established, deconstructed and given names. Not to say that I'm not guilty of this myself. Everybody is, to some extent. It is such a pleasure, then, to see someone dance with a true signature that isn't a result of technical limitations but as an honest expression of who they are.

So, to the question at hand--Bayle Nuestro o Bayle Mío? I suppose there is a place for both, where "Bayle Nuestro" can be exemplified by the unity/community of la ronda, whereas "Bayle Mío" is exemplified by the unique expression that each dancer potentially carries.


I know I'm coming across as terribly negative lately, which perhaps justifies my willful self-exclusion from tango activities. I also know that ultimately the fault lies in my own perspective. There is beauty out there on the milonga floor--always--and honest expression and joy and community. It's just that my view is obstructed by an idealism which is most likely unrealistic, and I give undue attention to irritants that are relatively minor. Like looking up in the Sistine Chapel and dismissing it because of the smudges on my glasses. Meanwhile, my burnout is to a large extent feeding from the fundamental mistake that I'm bored with what I see, but of course the real joy of tango isn't derived by what is seen. That is, I'm a little sheepish to admit, a beginner's mistake (which many outgrow, but many do not).

And so I remain waiting for this to pass, which it will. It's the uncertainty of not knowing when that is somewhat disquieting.


Finding the balance - Tango vs. non-tango.

It's been about a month since I've gone out to dance recreationally. Leading up to the point when I decided to take a break was a steadily increasing unease with the social environment, a sort of restlessness with the expectations of being at a milonga as well as a fatigue from the energy that is generated by crowds. Not to mention a growing kind of boredom and/or outright dismissiveness of the bulk of dancing that I was seeing--much of it rote, of dubious technique, and disconnected in myriad senses of the word. Since that time I've gone back to catch up on some activities that I consider to be important but which had been seriously compromised from what was perhaps an overemphasis on tango during whatever free time I had. I'm finding myself taking to these old activities with relish, and that the call of tango is, for the time being at least, easily put aside. It is an apparent ease of abstinence which would be alien to so many I know in the community, who talk as if missing tango for a day or two completely discombobulates them. To be fair, I haven't completely excised tango from my life. I still dedicate three days a week on dance study and practice. The milonga scene, however, is something that I not only am feeling fine doing without, but to which I am actually feeling a pronounced aversion.

It's clear to me that I have yet to find the right balance between tango, which I would still consider my primary pursuit, and the non-tango, which is just as essential. Perhaps complicating the matter for me is the challenge of reconciling the social requirements of tango with the facets of my personality which are decidedly anti-social. As one who for the most part prefers solitude over company, I suppose the pursuit of tango is a strange fit. Or, perhaps it makes perfect sense. I recall a story Negracha told me about a silent milonguero who everyone respected but no one really knew. He would come to the milongas alone and sit alone, and every now and then he would send out a cabeceo and dance a tanda. But if the woman ever spoke or tried to compel him to, he would disengage and go back to his seat. Now, far be it from me to understand his intentions, but he strikes me as a very private man who didn't want to know or be known by anyone. The milonga setting afforded him the ability to make fleeting connections with no strings attached, and that gave him all the human contact he needed to get by. I can relate to that. But I also value the friendships I have in the community and the exchange of ideas which enhance my understanding of tango and my attunement to its ever-changing culture. Not to mention my passion for the art of tango, which--in addition to discipline and hard work--requires collaboration.

As I type this, I am considering heading to a milonga tonight. While the idea strikes me as unappealing and I can think of no one in particular with whom I'd like to dance right now, I'm also aware of how perspectives can change once you are in the environment. Kind of like resisting going to the gym but coming away from it refreshed and with the fulfilling sense of having had a great workout. Hm... I'll hit the shower and see where it leads me.


Romanticization of Tango--A Pragmatic Inquiry

On Sunday I went to see a tango show where much of the focus was on educating the audience on the history and culture of tango. At one point, the narrator spoke of some of the opinions on tango during its formative years, and to paraphrase, he said that no one had a perspective that was blasé or half-hearted. Emotions ran high both for and against it. It seems that it's fairly rare for someone to be objective. But it's precisely a perspective that I've been mulling over lately. Maybe it's because tango has lost some of its magic for me--it's like the stage of a relationship where the giddiness of infatuation has faded and much of the mystery is gone, but there is a comfortable familiarity. Yet, when I speak of tango to my non-tango friends, it's difficult to convey exactly what my investment is. They ask me if I teach--I do not. They ask me if I perform--I don't. Then when they refer to it as a hobby I get a little indignant, because it seems like more than that. But I can't explain why it is more. So it forces me to step back a little and consider that maybe it is just a hobby.

Why is it that we hold tango in such high reverence? The comparisons are familiar refrains; tango is a drug, an obsession, a religion. Tango isn't a dance, it is a feeling (which is to suggest that it taps into some deeper instinctual, biological programming, the essential needs of the reptilian parts of the brain rather than the more whimsical pretenses of the higher cortex). When someone refers to it as "just a dance" or "just music" our blood starts to rise a little. But is it indeed so much more?

Aside from the considerations of the beauty of the dance, music, culture and community, I've broken down the allure of tango into two basic factions. First, for structurally minded, obsessive-compulsive types, it is the elegant logic of tango which fascinates. The way the steps work. The communication of lead and follow. The architecture and geometry of two bodies in motion relative to one another. Examining the possibilities and investigating in depth just how things function provides near limitless opportunities for discovery.

The other faction is emotional, the distinctly affecting quality that tango has. The key to this is the embrace, and it is in this where I believe the old comparisons have a literal, concrete truth to them. To get technical, there have been studies that show that when people embrace one another, it causes the brain to release oxytocin, which is a hormone that, among other things, fosters sexual arousal as well as bonding instincts between people, and heightens tendencies towards generosity and feelings of trust. Some studies suggest that the effects of MDMA (ecstasy) stem from the drug's stimulation of oxytocin activity in the brain. So it can be argued that the embrace, and by extension tango, is a natural substitute for MDMA and therefore truly is a drug, in a manner of speaking.

Yet, I suspect, putting science to the equation may be off-putting to some. Like tampering with the spiritual, something that isn't meant to be dissected in that way. Perhaps in considering tango a "feeling" it extends to question the makeup of feelings--love and hate merely the result of chemical processes or as a consequence of sentience and free will. Then to the question of whether we are divine beings composed of extra-physical, mystical qualities, or that all we are is made up merely of complex systems of amino acids and cellular networks.

Okay, backing off. Getting back to the subject, maybe we elevate tango because of what drew many of us to it in the first place--the exoticism. I wonder, if tango wasn't such a relatively obscure culture and community, would we feel the same? If EVERYBODY was into tango, would we still hold it so dear and consider it so special? Certainly, there is an appeal in defining oneself as a "tango dancer." Mention tango to a non-aficionado and it conjures images of passion, sensuality/sexuality, drama and mystery. Then when they they talk about their impressions, it can be so gratifying to tell them how much more there is, and how most people don't know the real tango, how Hollywood always gets it wrong, etc. This is part of the tango snobbery, and I know this must be a factor. For someone to elevate themselves by association, the glory in whose reflection they are basking must be bright, indeed. And it doesn't hurt to be a part of a fairly exclusive group, either. Even within the community there is a tendency to compartmentalize, ie. those who haven't gone to BsAs and those who have, and then by frequency and duration. Or who one has studied with. It seems some of us are always chasing the keys to some ever elevating executive washroom.

I should mention that, in general, I don't have a problem with romanticization. I do it all the time. But I suppose I get wary when people start taking it places where I would be fine if it didn't go. Like when people start getting all new-agey and touchy-feely. Talking about tango in relation to spirituality and the like. To me, that's like trying to raise tango to the heavens. Whereas tango--as we tangueros all know ;-)--is rooted firmly to the earth. Flor de fango.


Festival rant on sleep dep.

February 14th weekend, and we all know what that means...

Been thinking lately about why I'm not much for festivals. Everyone else seems to love them, so why not me? Don't I love tango? Hasn't my life come to revolve around it as much as any of these other festival deadheads?

Well, maybe. Maybe not. But I certainly won't be racking up any frequent flyer miles anytime soon.

I suppose I wonder, what exactly is it that these people are chasing? Is it that their hunger for dancing can no longer be sated in their own backyard? That they need to constantly replenish the affirmation of dancing with new partners ("Hey, works with this person, too!")?

I've said it before: I don't dance much socially. That's not something that would be likely to change in a different locale with different or more people to choose from. So why would I go through the trouble and expense just to sit and watch, which is what I mostly do?

Besides, on the occasion that I do dance, it's still my dance. Doesn't matter who I partner with, I'm still calling most of the shots. And to be honest, it doesn't make all that much difference who I dance with, sorry to say. It's all a degree of the partner's ability to follow (and compensate, if need be) and mutual chemistry. A good match is fantastic, but I don't necessarily feel the need to seek it out. I already know dancers with whom I share a good connection. That's good enough for me. In a sense, it almost feels as if looking to dance with new partners cheapens the good dance relationships I already have. Not that I only want to dance with the same people all the time. But there's already so many good dancers locally who I have yet to dance with, and others with whom I enjoy dancing but have not yet explored in depth many dynamic possibilities and developed the chemistry to its potential. It just doesn't seem worth it to go elsewhere to seek something out, especially in the case of a festival where any potential for development with new dancers is limited to time constraints. And as far as dancing with friends, I can do that in my home community. Why go away just to dance with the same people?

Perhaps you could say that I'm depriving the festival circuit of my singular approach to tango, arguing how every dancer is distinct and has something special to offer. But quite frankly, there's not much unique about my dance and I'm not doing anything that no one else is doing at least as well, so I don't feel like I'm neglecting some civic duty to the global community.

Granted, I think it must be a different story for followers, and I can understand the allure for them--every lead really is different. (Not to say all followers are the same, or even that all followers with whom I share good chemistry are similar. But then, neither variety nor consistency are primary considerations for me).

Then I hear the stories about overcrowded floors, the formation of cliques and hierarchies (deliberately or not), the planchadores/as who actually can and want to dance but are being shut out through sheer lack of recognition, and of course the festival mentality which brings out the worst exhibitionistic tendencies in some people. Plus all the schmoozing and networking. Ick. I'm not one who's looking to fill my yearbook with signatures (or boost the quantity of my Facebook friendship queue).

Another thing that bugs me, and this is strictly a personal beef, is how the festival mentality affects the local community. Here in the SF Tango scene there are so many festival freaks that the milongas feel noticeably drained during mass migrations out of town. Perhaps it's partly because of the relative wealth and travel accessibility among the dance population here. I don't know... to me, it feels almost like a dis of the hometown scene. I understand there are some professionals that have to make appearances, whether they are booked as teachers/performers/musicians/djs, or simply to promote themselves abroad as participants. But non-professionals who jet off to every festival they can... I don't know. Sometimes I think, they can go away and stay away. If the home community isn't good enough for them then to hell with them. I don't know why, but there's something about it that strikes me as kind of phony for some reason. It goes along with the tendency of some to trumpet their "obsession" or "addiction" to tango, to go out of their way to show others just how ravenous their appetite for tango is.

(I once had this conversation with a very respected figure in the tango scene, questioning out loud if my interest in the culture is so much less than these others who demonstrate--and talk up--their obsession. She replied, "I think that people just like being obsessed." As a state of being, something that defines them. Or, as I take it, at least they like talking about how obsessed they are. It's like some kind of one-upmanship. "This week I went to eight different milongas, had five privates and two workshops and only got two hours of sleep every night!" Fine--I fold, you win.)

Pah, whatever. As long as people are having fun, I suppose. Meanwhile, I need to get my grumpy ass some sleep.


Cuartito Azul

Hi all. The repeat visitors among you may have noticed something different here. First off, I changed the address for the blog to something I think makes more sense. And since I was changing things around already I figured it might be a good time to shake things up a bit with the layout. I was never completely happy with the color scheme of the last one but for whatever reason the template only allowed limited tinkering along those lines, at least as far as I could figure out. This new template allowed for more flexibility color-wise (I think the template is called "Jellyfish," if anyone is interested).

Initially I went with a theme that was as close to the earlier site as I could get, but I didn't like where the new template placed the old photo (another fyi, that was a pic I took on my first trip to BsAs in 2003--my partner was the lovely Natalia Pastorino, a really beautiful dancer that I don't seem to hear much of nowadays but can be seen in that fantastic National Geographic issue on tango a few years back, dancing with her then partner Alejandro Nievas at El Balcón in San Telmo. Also, pictures from that article were subsequently used for current editions of Lonely Planet's Buenos Aires guides). So I removed the picture field which subsequently removed the picture, and when I set up a new picture field in a new location I decided to go with something different. The current photo should be familiar to the real trasnochandos out there. It was taken sometime in 2005 at roughly around six o'clock on a Saturday morning at La Viruta, as the room dropped into darkness before the solo violin strains of the Forever Tango interpretation of La Cumparsita began its wail over the loudspeakers, the blue lights gradually emerging to reveal the slowly rotating black silhouettes.

Given the color of the photo, I thought more of a blue theme would be more fitting. I tend to like darker colors so I kept it shadowy with the exception of the title, which I wanted to match the color of the Argentine flag.

Finally, there is the inspiration of the song, whose title I hijacked to head this blog post. It was this song which first turned me on to El Pibe de la Paternal, maestro Osvaldo Fresedo, with his distinctive singer Ricardo Ruiz.

Cuartito azul
de mi primera pasión,
vos guardarás
todo mi corazón.
Si alguna vez
volviera la que amé
vos le dirás
que nunca la olvidé.
Cuartito azul,
hoy te canto mi adiós.
Ya no abriré
tu puerta y tu balcón.

Hopefully, this new look works. I like it, but if anybody finds something they really think could be improved (ie. readability) please let me know. Thanks.


Giving vs. Taking (31 ene 2009)

In tango, as in life, these are the impetuses that color actions. Both of them fulfill, but one satisfies from the virtue of sharing while the other sates from sole personal gain. Most people are moved by some combination of the two. While I don't know of any who are only givers, there are definitely some who are strictly takers.

The purest takers are generally very poor dancers since they have no interest in really working on it or learning the culture. They don't seem to care what kind of experience they are giving any of their partners, as long as they can get them out on the floor. Oftentimes, they will be the ones who either nag, guilt, or babysit someone they have their eye on, apparently oblivious to the reticence. When you see them dancing with someone it is patently clear that the partner is going through motions, dutifully yet distractedly stepping and inwardly praying for a short tanda while the taker shuffles away, blissfully unaware and/or uncaring, often engaging in chit-chat throughout. While I try to be diplomatic and open-minded about different perspectives and incentives, I can't summon any kind of sympathy for these types. All I feel is disgust. I suppose I take offense at the gall in which they, lazy and uncaring about the culture, invite (and even demand) dances from those who work hard and take this thing seriously. To me, these people do nothing but exploit the dance and pollute the community and if I had my druthers they'd be exiled somehow.

Sometimes you get a case of a person being a taker but not really being aware that they are a taker. In these cases, it is usually someone whose view of themselves and of their dancing and knowledge of tango are far above what it actually is. They, too, will often bully a desired partner to dance, but their thinking is that once they are actually dancing they will blow the partner away with how great they are. It never occurs to them that the partner has already seen them on the floor and has reasons for their hesitance. These takers may or may not catch on to their partner's disinterest during the dance, but that won't stop them from doing what they generally do, which is to jerk the partner around and force dramatic movements and poses in some cartoonish emulation of something they've seen in a show somewhere, or perhaps even from someone they've seen on the social floor who, unbeknownst to them, is not providing a good example of appropriate behavior. In the end, if they hadn't detected their partner's unhappiness they will beam with pride, thinking they showed their partner how great they were. Or if they had detected their partner's unhappiness, they tend to blame them for being a poor dancer and/or ignorant. I suppose, in their mind, they are actually doing more in the way of giving, magnanimously compelling the unenlightened partner to dance for the partner's own benefit, which the uninitiated partner will realize once they experience firsthand the greatness of the dancing. Poor misguided fools, they. As long as they are blinded by their own ego they will never progress.

On the flip side, I don't know if it's possible for someone to be a pure giver, because that would seem to imply that they don't enjoy the dance at all but know they have an aptitude for it and that others would enjoy their interpretation and sharing of it, so they indulge. However, some people definitely have moments of pure giving. One often sees this in noble teachers who dance with beginners or those new to a community--although it can be argued that they are taking some satisfaction in the act of nurturing someone who may become a great presence in the community. And, of course, finding pleasure in the individual nuances that gives everybody a different flavor.

I think, for myself, I am heavily motivated by the giving aspect--which is not to say that I am a saint or self-sacrificing in any way. Certainly, there are the selfish, "taking" aspects of my dance. It's natural that I desire dancing with accomplished dancers, and it's nice when they are attractive in other ways as well, which they generally are (in fact, I can't presently think of an exception). I will say that it doesn't so much work the other way for me, though. That is, a gorgeous woman with poor dance skills doesn't interest me as a dance partner (if that's all I know about them).

While I don't claim to have any kind of widespread reputation, I think that those who know me will agree that I am more reticent to dance than many, if not most. I wonder if some people misconstrue that as a kind of snobbery. I will admit that, to some, it is just that. Generally, when I have that attitude it is toward someone who fits the description of either of the takers. But that attitude is held for very few. More often, my reticence is colored more by the giving aspect in the sense that I hold doubts of what I can offer. This is an insecurity which is the primary reason I refrain from asking for dances with people who I have never danced with but have seen and hold in high regard. Another manifestation of this insecurity is when I have danced with someone but am left uncertain whether it was a good experience for them. While I feel I am at a point where my dance wouldn't be terribly uncomfortable for a partner, I'm aware that everybody has preferences of style and energy and I wouldn't want to trouble someone if my flavor isn't to their taste.

This can also apply to my state of mind, state of body, or perspective to the tanda. I generally want to give everybody I dance with my best dance, so if I'm feeling off in some way I feel they'd be better off with someone who is more in the groove. And there are some orchestras that I just don't feel I dance well to, which isn't to say I don't like them. Pugliese is one example, although I feel like I may finally be starting to make peace with him. I've always loved his music but it's more a feeling that as a dancer I'm not doing him justice and that my natural demeanor doesn't really fit his drama. Other orchestras, like much of De Angelis or Demare, have signatures that I have yet to grasp and I fail to find the dancing impulse in their sound, although I may perfectly enjoy listening to them.

Curiously, I'm having difficulty recalling an instance where a desire to dance with someone was motivated purely, or even primarily, from a "taking" desire. For example, I'm not one to make notches on my belt, tabulating the number of different dance partners to some scoreboard as if that held any significance. Nor do I think that having danced with a reputable partner does anything to elevate my status. I tend to be driven by the consideration that a partner and I will have good chemistry and will provide one another with a fine interpretation of the music and the moment as well as nurture each other physically, emotionally and psychically.

On a tangent, it seems to me that the perspective from a follower may lean more heavily towards a "taking" intention than that from a leader, in that leaders have more sway over dance interpretation, posture, embrace, etc. and as such are technically (and culturally) placed more overtly in the position of "giving." Whereas followers traditionally wait to be asked to dance (although they "give" consent or dissent) and to a greater degree mould themselves to what the leaders provide them. In this sense, the feeling of variety is more pronounced for followers than for leaders since there are more aspects of leading that shape what ultimately comprises the dance experience. This being the case, the motivation of "taking" becomes more of a factor for followers since much of what becomes identified as a pleasure in tango is the feeling of different leads. Whereas for leaders, much of the pleasure is derived in finding someone who is a good receptor to what they have to give. I'm sure I must be missing much in this presumption, though.

Well, this is something that was on my mind for whatever reason but I'm not sure how to close this entry. As always, thoughts, comments, rebuttals or anecdotes are welcome. Thanks.


Good advice (23 ene 2009)

Scene: workshop with Cecilia Gonzalez and Donato Juarez. My partner and I working on a movement which is familiar to us but with a novel execution. Cecilia approaches us and nods her head to indicate, "show me."

We do the movement, but given the constraints of space in the crowded workshop and the pressure of performing for Cecilia the execution falls below what I want it to be, and what I know it could be under different circumstances.

"Good," Cecilia says. She scrutinizes my expression for the briefest instant, then turns to my partner. "He doesn't believe me," she says, a teasing grin on her face.

Back to me. Emphatically, "I think you are looking for problems," she says. "Just enjoy it."

Just enjoy it.

Gracias, maestra.


Boredom (17 ene 2009)

I remember reading or hearing a line once--probably from some caffeine addled motivational speaker--that if you find yourself bored, it just means you are boring. I don't know how true that is, but it's enough to give me pause when I'm in this particular state. Not that I'm the only one. I hear the lament like a refrain, often from dancers I admire and respect. And as far as I can recall, they are all referring to their own dance. More often, I think, this is a problem for leads, who have the privilege of most of the interpretive control.

I find myself in this state from time to time, although on reflection it's generally not when I'm actually dancing. It's more when I'm off the floor, with the dance on my mind. I was on the subject with a tango friend who I have been seeing less of lately, who seems to be in a similar bind. For him, and for myself as well, it's not a matter of steps. Which is to say, neither of us feels that just the learning of new elements or figures is what it would take to get us fired up again. It would have to be something more elusive, deeper in the DNA of the dance, although it's difficult to say what that would be. Maybe a different perspective on how to communicate a lead, or on how to interpret music. A different feeling in the embrace, on the alignment of your body with your partner's. Or something completely new, at least to you. Something you have never seen before but is an honest expression, rather than just a gimmick.

While I feel this is a natural and healthy instinct, I think it's also very important not to neglect things that may have become familiar just because of their familiarity. It's easy to fall into the trap of "grass is always greener," or thinking that someone else's way of doing something must be better than your own. Of course, sometimes that may be true, but it's a mistake to think it must always be so.

Actually, I think one possible factor that feeds dissatisfaction of one's own dance is actually a good thing. That factor is consistency. This is the basis of any useful language. A "tree" is always a tree, and whenever the word is used it evokes the same understanding. And so is a lead always a lead and communication between you and your partner need not be encumbered by uncertainty. Of course, it is the innate creative drive that pushes us to seek new manners of expression. This inspiration, in our best moments, is what makes us poets on the floor.


On the subject of boredom, I have also been having increased difficulty watching performances. It pretty much doesn't matter who it is, I often find myself getting distracted somewhere in the middle. Usually I find myself tuning out because I am imagining what I would do at a certain point in the music, or how my overall conception would be different. Or if they get into a particular position or do an interesting figure I imagine what I could do with that position or figure, what the possible entrances and exits and expressive uses could be. Worst of all, sometimes what I'm seeing just looks like something I've seen a million times before. It is this last thing which most disturbs me. Uniformity, in my opinion, is symptomatic of fad mentality, and if we're not careful it will sink tango back into relative obscurity. Which, perhaps, is inevitable anyway. To what degree and in what matter of time is the question. And, I suppose, whether it goes down with dignity or as a caricature of its true self.

I've seen it happen before, back when I was b-boying in the '80's. The thing that killed it for us was that we thought we had seen everything. It was the most popular dance around and everybody was doing the same moves. It came to a point where we thought we had taken it as far as it could go, so we moved on. Luckily, it stayed alive in underground circles, with dancers taking influences from places we never would have thought to look, and when I see the b-boys and b-girls of today I am amazed and proud at where the dance has gone. It will be the same with tango when its cycle has run its course. Although I hope the resurgence continues to grow and expand for a good while. There's still plenty of time, and for the general populace tango is still enough of an enigma that there is a lot of untapped potential interest. I still see a healthy insurgence of newbies toddling through their first classes, eyes aground and bodies unmeshed. Actually, that never gets old to me. Witnessing the process of discovery, the aha! moments, is always something that makes me feel really good. Ah, to be a baby again, when everything is new and exciting...

But to trade in all that I have experienced and all I have gained and for which I have worked, just to see things with those new eyes? Not in a million years. Though there are always frustrations and self-criticisms and so much more work to do and, yes, the occasional boredom and fatigue, I'm happy and proud to be where I am now.


Tension (7 ene 2009)

It is the bane of my tango, something that has haunted me from the very beginning, something I have been aware of forever and still can't seem to shake. Specifically, it is a tension of the frame from my arms through to the upper back, chest, shoulders and neck. Of lesser relevance but still something I want to address is lower body tension in the toes and in the knees. I guess, really, I'm tense all over. It's one of the main reasons I tend to fatigue relatively quickly. A lot of energy is expended just in the unnecessary engagement of all these muscle groups.

There are several reasons my body tends to default to this, but the main ones stem from my conscientiousness in maintaining a certain aesthetic posture, from wanting clarity of intention to my partner, and aspiring for an embrace that feels present and, for lack of a better word, desirous of my partner.

The problems that arise, aside from the aforementioned inefficiency of the dance, mostly stem from what is transmitted (and, of course, what fails to transmit). The obvious pitfalls are a diminishing of fluidity in the movement, limitation of possibility in movement, and quicker expenditure of energy and possible joint and muscle fatigue. And the problems are amplified when a follower dutifully mirrors the tension. These are all physical detriments. But there are also social/interpersonal issues. For example, excess tension in the leader communicates an authoritarian approach to the follower. In extreme cases, this translates as a dance that feels directed rather than shared.

When working with David and Mariana Tuesday evening, David tried to emulate my approach as I followed his lead. The feeling was that of being driven by a moving wall. David described it as somewhat Frankenstein-ish. Solid, to be sure, but lacking warmth and humanity. This is certainly something I don't want to communicate to a partner. David made the astute point that this is not a feeling that is sensual, and as such my intention of communicating "intimacy" and "desire" become effectively negated.

I tried modifying my approach by consciously dropping as much muscle engagement as possible from my frame while maintaining the shape, and emphasizing more drive from my legs. My partner's response was that she felt she could roll through her steps better, although she felt that the clarity of my intention was slightly muffled, and in the end she didn't necessarily have a preference overall. Also, despite the relaxation I still had difficulty keeping my left shoulder from feeling some strain, although I'm aware it's a result of the kind of projection I like to have in my left arm, primarily for aesthetic reasons. I know I could help ease some of the tension by dropping it and keeping it closer to my body, but at the moment I prefer the visual balance of having a little bit of extension, and so choose this over the slight discomfort.

Despite all this, I'm not one to argue against all tension. Matter of fact, I think there are modern schools of thought that, to my taste, err too far in the direction of softness. My current impression is that this risks compromising clarity, as well as taking away from the intimate quality of the dance. In mentioning clarity, I don't want to give the impression that I advocate a forceful lead, one that is muscled and essentially bullied. I don't like arm or hand leads. I do, however, believe the arms and hands to be useful in shaping the direction of a lead and primarily as extensions of the back, where the directional intention should originate.

Obviously, this is an issue that I'm wrestling with and won't soon solve. I think beyond all the experiments with movement and dynamic possibility I'd like to make this priority one for the new year, with base aesthetic concerns (body positions and flow of movement) closely behind.


some nice caminadas (2 ene 2009)

It's been a bit since I've posted so I'm guilted into putting something up, although I don't really have much to say right now. Been fairly saturated with tango for the holidays and am feeling burnt, which causes my dance to suffer. I feel bad about that, because I've been lucky enough to share some tandas with some really lovely dancers but my heart just wasn't invested, and I think they deserved more.

But, as always, it'll pass, and I'll likely have some fresh perspective when my focus and energy is renewed. Usually, I'll get to working on fundamentals, which is always my fall back comfort zone. And I already have some things I'd like to polish up (COLLECT!)

Anyway, since I'm on the subject of fundamentals, I figured I'd post some examples of leaders whose walks I admire. Of course, they do a lot more than just walk, but it's in this not so small, good thing where I think they stand out. In no particular order:

Pablo Verón

Miguel Angel Zotto

Ezequiel Farfaro

Sebastián Achával

Fernando Galera

Gabriel Angio

Happy 2009 everybody!