23 August 2016

The jealous tanguer@

“The guys only dance with the new girl. It's so annoying! I have danced for much longer than her.”

Picture this scenario: You are a tanguero or a tanguera who have been dancing for quite a few years. You’re enjoying a bit of admiration from the members of your tango community, and you get to dance with everybody in the local milongas. But one day, you realise that things are changing. New dancers are appearing on the scene - dancers who are becoming popular in your community. Secretly, you feel put in the back seat. Going to the milonga just isn’t as fun as it used to be.

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Good news! Great dancers are like vegetables: they’re good for us!

Here are two simple-but-important reasons why every community needs advanced dancers, even if we think they’re better than ourselves. Correction: especially if we think they’re better than ourselves.

- Advanced dancers attract other advanced dancers. While it may take only two to tango, it takes a lot more to make a community. The more good leaders in the local milongas, the more good followers will want to come out and play, and vice versa. And a community with many good dancers will also look way more attractive to the beginners, who we all know are the people we need to create the future of every tango community.

- Advanced dancers can be a great inspiration source. Whenever I have the chance, I’ll watch my favourite social dancers to see how they move and how they interpret the music. It’s a very concrete, constructive way of collecting visual input. Watching the professionals on YouTube is great, but it’s not the same when it’s in 2D on a small screen. Plus performances don’t really give a one-to-one reflection of social dancing. Whereas I do believe that performances also can be inspirational for social dancing, seeing high-level dancing that works in a social context is super valuable!

No challenges means that you can live a comfortable life in your local community. But no challenges also means that you haven’t got anyone around you to inspire you to improve. Of course, there’s always the discussion of whether it actually is necessary to improve. But if you are indeed feeling threatened by good dancers, it’s probably a sign that you DO want to be good. And if you want to be good, you need to work for it. So take all the inspiration you can get!

16 August 2016

First class

“I learn more in a private lesson than in a group class.”

In my previous blog post, I wrote about how we seem to be more interested in social dancing than in workshops (you can read the post here). I’d like to look a bit more at this topic, but from a slightly different angle this time: Why workshops can be just as useful as private lessons.

I guess many of us who live in smaller cities have followed the same learning pattern. In the beginning, we take group classes. After a while, we start taking private lessons instead because we feel that this format gives more value for our money. I also preferred private lessons for a while, but at some point I started taking group classes again. How much I get out a class varies a bit. Some teachers fit better with my way of learning, but generally, I’m noticing that I’m getting more out of each class now compared to earlier. It feels like the more you know, the easier it becomes to collect new information.

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So, based on my own experience, I’d like to promote group classes as a worthwhile option. Whereas I do believe that private lessons with good teachers are super useful, there are a number of reasons why taking group classes also may be valuable:

- Learning to learn in a group. You might find this a bit “meta”, but it could actually improve your ability to learn. In group classes, where you get less individual / personal attention, you may need to extract information from the class more actively and independently compared to what you do in a private lesson. This might make you more self-reliant the next time you're in a learning situation, and also when you practice.

- Learning how to work as a couple and how to give each other feedback and help. We all know how difficult this can be: not only understanding our own tasks but also understanding our partner’s, and on top on that handling the frustrations that may occur. But I think that having learnt something together, i.e. having the knowledge of your partner’s job in relation to your own, is very useful to bring with you afterwards, when you’re going to practice what you learnt in class.

- Learning about philosophies and ideas - important aspects that go beyond technique, like leading / following concepts, musicality, floorcraft, or cultural / historical aspects. Sometimes, important things might be said in plenum to one role that the other role also benefits from hearing. Examples could be hearing about the other role, or etiquette (like not teaching in the milonga), or why both roles should know the music. Sometimes, just one sentence can be worth the price of the class!

I’m extremely lucky to have a partner to take classes with and to practice with. I’d like to take the opportunity to give the leaders a friendly push here! There are so many followers who want to improve their dance, but who struggle to motivate the leaders in their community. Guys, get yourself off the sofa and start working. The ladies will thank you, and you’ll even thank yourself because it made you a better dancer.

11 May 2016

Back to school!

“I prefer taking private lessons and not group classes.”

***

I just attended a really nice workshop weekend. As I posted happily about my experience on Facebook, I realised something: I see lots of Facebook posts from friends having been to social dance events like marathons and encuentros, but it seems like not so many are inclined to writing the sentence “OMG I just went to this *brilliant* workshop weekend”.

If this really is so, I can think of a couple possible explanations:

1) People don’t want to write on Facebook that they take classes. Maybe we have this little voice inside telling us that “After all these years, you’re STILL taking classes? Better keep it a secret, or people will think that you are really slow.” Even though it’s not true, it could be that taking classes is still associated with lower levels. Or maybe we feel that a workshop weekend is not as glamorous as travelling to an international event. Going to the social events somehow gives the impression that we have a certain level since we’re being accepted into the event, and also that we’re on the inside of the social circles of international tango.

2) People have stopped taking classes and just want to enjoy the fruits of earlier years’ labour. Maybe they are genuinely happy with their current level and that they feel that they are getting a lot from tango already. It could also be that they believe that attending social events and dancing with lots of good dancers will make them improve.



Both of these explanations, if they are indeed true, make me a bit sad. I think tango might grow stronger if the interest in workshops were bigger. One way of making this happen could be to create more buzz around the workshop events. First and foremost, we need more intermediate-to-advanced dancers to swallow their pride (or their laziness) and actually get back into the classroom. And then we need the intermediate-to-advanced dancers to talk about the classes they’re attending, so more people would understand that to improve, it’s vital to get new impulses. Because at least this article here tells us that just dancing socially won’t make you improve much.

I know that not everybody has the opportunity to take classes. But if you do, I really think that attending workshops, and talking about it, will not only improve your own dance, but also help the community to blossom. Don’t get me wrong: private lessons are really important! But they don’t help build the collectiveness in a community the same way a workshop weekend might do, when dancers of all levels gather to learn from the same teachers.

And teachers, this post applies to you as well! Together with the intermediate-to-advanced dancers, you’re setting an example. So if you’re taking classes, talk about it. Show that you’re still interested in improving your own dance. If you’re not taking classes… well, you should.

9 December 2015

A shopping cart named desire

“She is like a Ferrari.”

The other day, a video popped up on Facebook of a guy dancing tango with a shopping cart in the grocery store. The text following the video is something like “What a divine follower”. The video (which up till now has been shared 500+ times) is meant for fun, yet it reminded me that it still exists, this idea that “a good follower is like a sports car”. Ok, I can see why “sports car” could sound like a compliment. I mean - quality and exclusivity and generally being the object of desire for most guys? C’mon, you’d be stupid not to want to be viewed like this. There’s just one problem with the metaphor: a car does not have a mind of its own. It doesn’t even have a brain. And for following, you need a brain.



Now I know that not everyone approves of “active following”. It often seems to be interpreted as “disagreeing with the leader’s interpretation and therefore making it difficult for the leader, thus making him look incompetent”. I also respect that there are different viewpoints on how much independence the follower should apply in the dance, even within the leader’s framework. But that’s a different discussion. The point I want to make is that all great followers are highly active dancers, because following is active by nature: it’s receiving the lead, interpreting the lead, and reacting (precisely) to this interpretation. Now try to do this without being active in some way. Even putting one foot in front of the other is something we have to first decide to do, then act on. The fact that someone asks us to to it does not make the action passive. We still need a mind and a brain of our own to actually make it happen.

And the shopping cart? Well, we can all agree it doesn’t have much of a brain. Neither does the sports car, regardless of its numerous qualities. I understand that leaders don’t want a bumpy ride and therefore will compliment great technique. But if a follower “runs smoothly”, it’s not because the factory did a good job. She runs smoothly because she’s a highly competent person who’s intelligent enough to acquire the necessary skills to do so.

Most importantly: a follower isn’t designed, built, and purchased for your enjoyment. She wants something out of the ride herself, too. And chances are that she’ll have a qualified opinion on your driving skills.

11 November 2015

Musicality: description or empathy?

“It’s Mickey Mousing.”

I’ve always been provoked by this tango slang term. “Mickey Mousing” was coined to mean mimicking the music while dancing, but in a superficial and automatised way. But I never understood how dancing to the music could be a problem. For me, this has more or less from the beginning been the only way to truly be together in the dance: it gives meaning to what the leader does, and it’s a great tool to use for the follower to influence and colour the dance. I always believed that a good dancer is one that knows the music.

But then I had this weirdly eye-opening tanda. It was with a leader who obviously knew the music really well - the phrasing was right, every “important” pause was there. Everything was by the book. The tanda had all the stuff one would expect to learn in musicality classes. Yet the dance seemed strangely empty. It matched the music, but it was like everything was pre-programmed. I could have been dancing with a robot.

So I’ve started questioning my own dance. Which feelings do I transmit? Am I just describing the music through my dance? Do I want to show that I know the song, or do I want to show how the song makes me feel?
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Let’s look at an example: a tango with some nice staccato parts. We want to express this staccato. This is a technical thing. In addition, we might hear that in this particular tango, the staccato has a light quality, which can be interpreted as “happy”. So we try to put this into the dance. This is also a technical thing. You can go to a musicality class and learn how to dance a staccato and happy quality and repeat it in other songs.

But I believe that it’s perfectly possible to dance a happy feeling without actually feeling happy. Oppositely, music can make you feel happy even if you haven’t taken a musicality class in your life, because this is a different thing: the ability to get emotionally involved in something outside yourself. It’s a kind of “musical empathy”. And I think that the musical empathy is the core. It’s what makes us truly musical dancers: the ability to interpret musical emotions as human emotions.

Dont’ worry, though! All the musicality classes you’ve taken, all the hours you’ve spent watching Noelia and Carlitos videos for musical inspiration aren’t wasted. In addition to our musical empathy, we need technical skills and musical knowledge. They are the tools we use to integrate our emotions in the dance.

So how to do this? For me, it was enough to acknowledge that I was missing something. I wanted to be more emotional in my dance, so I decided I would allow myself to be something other than a “musical describer”. It’s possible that the change isn’t noticeable. As with all communication: I may feel something myself, but this in itself doesn’t mean that I’m communicating it to my partner. And the communication also depends on which leader is on the receiving end. I feel different myself, though. Maybe that's enough?

1 September 2015

In search of the joyful body

Follower friend: “I LOVE twisting.”

***

Some time ago, I went to an event and got a girl crush. You know, like when you were ten and there was a new girl in school who was almost twelve and who was super pretty and seemed super nice and super fun and had the coolest clothes and you wanted so much to be like her. My girl crush is probably both nice and fun, but so are many tangueras. The reason why I noticed her was something else: she seemed to have so much fun when she was dancing.

Obviously, it was not the first time I had seen dancers enjoying themselves on the pista. But when people smile, it’s often because we are enjoying our partner: a comfortable embrace, smooth following, or nice musical interpretation. What I noticed in the case of my girl crush, however, was that she looked like she enjoyed her own dancing. She had this rubbery, twisty, cat-like technique with a very intuitive expression, very physical and very effortless and not styled in any way, yet oh so pretty. Her dance was communicating “My body can do this, and it’s totally like the coolest thing ever” And she was smiling. Her partner was also smiling. Watching her, I suddenly felt that I’m missing out on something vital, literally speaking.




So I’ve been thinking about my own dance. When am I having fun? Obviously when my partner is connected to the music and I get to contribute with my own interpretation - in other words when we’re communicationg about the music. And I also think it’s fun when my technique is improving. But in many cases, I’m still hindered by my technique - and I’m also hindered because I’m thinking of my technique. And because of this, I’m not really enjoying the physical aspects of the dance the way I think my girl crush does. The idea that technique itself can be something enjoyable has not been conveyed to me. Technique has always been taught as a necessary tool for dancing, which actually is a bit odd when you think of it, because technique IS dancing, isn’t it?

I'm sure we'll become better dancers if we find a good connection not only with our partner and the music, but also with our own bodies. I’m not saying we should stop enjoying our partner, or stop communicating, or stop leading and following, or stop listening to the music. But maybe all these aspects of the dance would become even better if we allowed ourselves to be happy within our own dancing bodies.

In short: Let’s have more fun twisting.

22 June 2015

Dancing in the dark

Event organiser: “People don’t want light milonga venues. One girl said that if it’s light, everybody will see it if she makes mistakes.”

***

Dancing at a milonga never felt scary to me. It’s just a room filled with amateurs dancing with other amateurs. We all make various amounts of “mistakes”. I do understand that if one feels insecure about one’s own dancing, one might feel more exposed or vulnerable in a brightly lit room. You probably feel like there’s a huge spotlight directed at you and that everybody sees your clumsy ochos in glorious detail. The rational argument is unfortunately that even in semi-darkness, we can see your clumsy ochos. And we don't mind clumsy ochos. Really. But I guess that this has a lot to do with feelings, which we should respect! I’d still like to mention a couple of reasons why dancing in a light room could be worth trying.

First, there’s mirada + cabeceo. Yes I know, not everybody uses it. Maybe you don’t. But there is an increasing amount of people who do, and if the room is dark, it’s really difficult. When everybody’s faces turn into grey discs with black shadows around the eyes, it’s hard to figure out which mood people are in and where they’re actually looking. You’re probably missing out on dances yourself because of this, even if you don’t use the mirada actively, because someone will always be looking around for a hopeful face.

Then there’s our general physical comfort. If you’re in a dark room for several hours in the night, you’ll probably become more tired than you would in a well-lit room, since your body believes it's bedtime and your eyes are constantly trying to adjust and focus in the dim light. It also could be that some leaders will have more trouble navigating if the room is badly lit, because it becomes more difficult to gauge distances and read the other leaders' intentions.




Organisers, you’re probably facing a bit of a dilemma regarding this. But my guess is that if you change the lighting in your milonga, people will get used to it after a while. If you’re afraid of losing your guests, you could make the adjustments gradual. This is easy to do in venues where there’s a dimmer on the lighting and you pay attention to your changes in the settings. Or you could make changes after the summer break, so the transition feels less sudden.

When I’m sitting and watching the dance floor, I see mistakes all the time. Why do I see them? Well… first and foremost because people are laughing. And you know what? It makes me kind of happy to watch this: People trying, failing a bit for a second and laughing about it before returning to their deep focus. I think mistakes are a good thing. They’re part of what keeps the milonga alive, vibrant, and human.

Plus they’re not mistakes. They’re just moments of misunderstandings.

So, shy dancer: don’t hide. You’re learning a difficult dance, and you’re dancing it in public. More than anything, I think this proves that you’re actually super brave and should be proud of yourself.