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!