29 April 2009

Beautiful at any level

One of my most inspirational tango moments happened to me a few years ago. It was for me, a defining moment...

The elderly lady...
At the time, I did not consider myself good a dancer. But, then again, I wasn't a raw beginner either. I was at my usual milonga and It was still early so attendance was light. I danced as best I could while trying to figure out how to improve my leading skills. Dancing with different partners was my strategy before the good dancers came. It was fun and I think I was starting to really understand this "leading" thing.

The night wore on and the milonga was now full of wonderful dancers. Sitting across the room was a very dignified looking elderly lady intently watching the floor with a look of awe. I wondered who she was, as I had never seen her before... I kept dancing.

A few tandas had passed, and decided to take a break and sit out the current tanda (it was a milonga and I was horrible). I noticed the very dignified elderly lady once again. She seemed happy with a wispy smile on her face as she watched. The cortina came. Deciding to take the chance and ask her to dance, I stood up. I stared her way as I was trying to make a cabecéo. No luck. Doing it the old fashioned way, I walked up to her and asked. She smiled and accepted.

The tanda...
I stood up straight, waiting for her. She approached and I offered my left hand. She took it with grace. I opened my right arm, inviting her for an embrace. She accepted, and settled in. My right arm rested across her back. She nestled her cheek on mine and we settled into a comfortable close embrace, safe and warm.

I listened to the music as the strains of the bandoneon permeated the air. I relaxed, took a breath, then moved. She moved with me, albeit a tad awkwardly. I could tell that she had a dance background (perhaps ballroom) but not Argentine tango (at least, not yet).

I tried to lead a back ocho, and she does a rearward fan. I tried to lead a front ocho, then suddenly four perfect latin/rhythm forward fans in succession... Yup! Ballroom. I went with it, letting her finish, then led something as best I could to make it look and feel seamless. Her posture was a bit off with a tendency to lean backwards a bit with squared shoulders (definitely ballroom). I compensated by keeping it simple enough that flow and syncopation could be maintained even if the following was not stellar. The tanda continued, and it worked. What was important to me was that the connection was great, and it was.

*An old military technique (sic): To change your settings to compensate for the current situation*

I had to "dial her in." She had the spirit, the heart, the connection, but not necessarily the technique... at least, not tango technique. It was an exercise in reaction and adaptation. I led and she answered—not quite the answer I was looking for, but no matter. I reacted to make it flow and adapted so that it all blends into one motion after motion. So what if some of what she was doing wasn't a tango? Tango is about how it feels and I tried to make it feel good.

The end of the tanda...
I thanked my lady friend, and escorted her to her bench. I apologized for the flubs I did. She turned to me and smiled. She said "Thank you," and took her leave.

I really did make a few mistakes, and I tried to correct them as smoothly as I could. I let it go, and chalked it up as a learning experience. I made my way to the water fountain. I thirst.

The water fountain was by the exit door. I took a couple of cups and filled them with water. It was a warm night and I stepped outside for some fresh air.

I sipped my water, savoring its coolness. It was a pleasant contrast to the warm night air. I stared blankly at the road and watched the passing cars to the tango tunes of the milonga.

Feeling a gentle tap on my shoulder, I turned and discovered my elderly lady friend smiling at me. She said,

"Thank you. You were my best dance of the evening and I can go home now."

I smiled and nodded in gratitude. She turned and started walking away. After a few steps, she turned to me and said...

"You made me feel beautiful this evening."

She smiled. Then, turned away, went down the stairs to her car and drove off. Rounding the corner, I watched her disappear.

To my dear elderly lady friend, whom I had never seen before, nor since...
You made me feel a heartfelt warmth that evening. My soul soared at the thought that I made someone happy. Because of you, my sweet lady, I have promised myself that from then on, I will make every effort for any and all my tango partners (regardless of skill level) to feel beautiful.

Thank you.

08 April 2009

The intricacy of simplicity

In my post entitled, "Meanderings through tango music," I talked about my transition of musical preferences from nuevo style tango music to traditional tango renditions. Along with that change in taste in music, came a change in my dance style. The evolution of my tango style went from preferring dancing in open embrace to eventually concentrating on the close embrace exclusively.

This is a narrative of that journey...

The first lessons...
Coming from a ballroom background, I was comfortable with a tango open embrace. A ballroom close embrace is an open embrace in tango. That was an easy enough adaptation. Overlay that with the 8-count basic, and step variations, I thought I was golden. Little did I know that this was just my (Sony Newman) teacher's way of easing students in.

It got complicated really fast. Along with the steps, my teacher incorporated basic balancing and walking exercises that were in reality, exercises in technique —I ignored them thinking that they were only there to occupy time. He was a perfectionist. At 75 (at the time) , he was quite feisty. His lessons frustrated me and made my brain ache.

I eventually caught up with the learning curve and became proficient in open embrace tango (so I thought). I could do fancy stuff like leading over-extended front ochos, boleos, sacadas, calecitas, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I had a large répertoire of steps. I was ready to go to a milonga!

The first milongas...
Like many an arrogant newbie before me, I made a very painful and humbling self-discovery... A good student in tango class, does not a good tango dancer make. I knew all the steps, but I had the wrong frame of mind. I had the show dancer mentality. I was dancing for the adulation of the audience.

Up until then, I never really appreciated the music. I needed percussion, so I looked for nuevo music. That being said, the result was that I danced out of tune—My musicality sucked. Knowing this, I tried to get better, and struggled through the frustration and ill-perceived embarrassment. This was turning into a serious trampling to one's ego. In any case, I still loved it so much that I kept going.

I got incrementally better. I got smoother and smarter. I got more coordinated and less klutzy. Things were starting to come along. I was comfortable.

One night, my wife and I decided to investigate a different milonga and a funny thing happened that night. I asked a lady to dance and she was gracious enough to oblige me. Much to my surprise, her arm went all the way around my shoulder... Oh my! *GASP* I was enveloped in a close embrace!

I didn't know what to do and tried to control my panic and keep my composure. I couldn't move and my "stuff" was not going to work—No space. I walked the tanda and my poor partner suffered through my gawkiness.

So much for being ready. I sat out the night and watched. It turns out that the tango place we went to was a predominantly milonguero place. I saw dancers like these on my tango videos... The people I fast forwarded through because I thought they were boring.

My perspectives had suddenly and abruptly changed. I was terrified, but found it nice at the same time.

A new outlook about the tango embrace...
I told my teacher about my close embrace experience–He chuckled and explained that now, I was ready to try close embrace. I asked why he didn't teach that in the first place?

He wanted his students to experience the whole gamut of tango. His theory was that if one can dance in the open, then, one can dance in close. Simply reduce the size of what was taught, to an eighth of what it was. The tricky part is to now lead with only one's core and nothing more. He continues that once one is able to find the right mix of comfort level + expertise, one gravitates to only a few basic steps to do really, really well and just revisit the rest when the right partner comes along.

According to him, when I get to this point, is about the time I would realize that I don't need to take classes from him anymore. He smiled. He was right. I took it to heart, and eventually became acceptably competent tango dancer.

A very visceral connection...
The main difference between dancing open and close embrace was the level of connection. Dancing in the open was fun, fancy, and vigorous. Dancing in close embrace was intimate, internal, and a very visceral experience.

IMHE, when I was dancing in the open, I was concentrating on cool moves and leading them well. I was, a bit self absorbed, and I did it (really) to look good.

When I concentrated on dancing in close embrace, a different kind of magic happens. I am now dancing FOR my partner. She is the only one that matters during the tanda, I dance for her. It's all about her.

This was the one feeling I found to be so delightful. I knew I was doing a good thing because every now and then, I made someone truly happy, even for but a fleeting moment of a tanda. Every now and then, I could make the magic work.

Looks can be deceiving...
When I began tango a few years ago, I contrasted the two dichotomies. I reveled at the cool nuevo generation of tangueros. I thought the stuff that they did was marvelous. On the other hand, I glazed over the viejo. I thought they were slow, boring, and geriatric. What they did looked boring because they were just walking. "Anyone can do that," I said to myself.

When I experienced and learned close embrace, I realized that my previous opinion was so wrong. It is actually harder (for me) to dance close embrace because it is internal. It's all about the way it felt and not the way it looked. It requires more concentration. It requires more tuning into your partner. Leading used subtle muscular impulses, and used the whole body to transmit your lead messages to one's partner, almost like dance osmosis. Bizarre, beautiful.

The old cliché "looks can be deceiving," applies. When one dances in close embrace, there is so much going on between the partners. Only the acutely trained can see this interaction. It is in essence, a private conversation expressed in dance, using the tango dialect.

All of these complexities and nuances interact to produce an art form so intricate, yet so beautifully simple.