22 January 2010

Dancing the silences and pauses

This is a follow-up to my post, "Navigation... Where it all comes together." In one of the comments, tangocherie had mentioned, "You are totally correct. But don't forget the pauses...dancing the silences. You don't have to keep up perpetual motion. Women love to pause." 

This caused me to remember one of the things my teacher taught me...

Mistaken impressions of "Perpetual motion"
When I was in my early tango days, I was under the (mistaken) impression that when you dance, you dance ALL THE TIME. Meaning, you were constantly stepping, stepping, stepping.

In retrospect, I looked like a hamster (the rodent) in a wheel. I kept going, and going, and going and buzzed around the floor. It must have been a "not so pleasant" tango experience for my partner. I apologize. I had no idea that, not only was it not good for my partner, but, it also did NOT look good. My first tango teacher called my attention...

"Stops are steps"
According to my first tango teacher, one should not barrel through the dance. I just did not get this concept. I REALLY thought that dancing meant constantly moving... like Disco.

I "Got it" when he said two things:

  • "You need to listen to the music. You move when it does, you stop when it does. Accelerate, and slow down to the flow and nuances of the music."
  • "Stops are steps." Pauses, hesitations, just not moving if appropriate count as steps
Realizing the significance, I went "Aha!" I've been doing that ever since. Of course, I've refined the technique over time.

Building tension for hesitations, stops, and pauses
First and foremost, I've learned to really listen to tango music. There are distinct silences and pauses interspersed in lots of tango music. 

Second, I've learned to build muscular tension smoothly to be in tune with the music. When the music starts to slow, I stiffen myself enough to smoothly interrupt what I was leading a split-second earlier. I do this for hesitations, stops or pauses. This gives my partner clear signals that tell her that we are changing pace. All she has to do is wait, then she knows what to follow. When we do come to a full stop, my tension releases—Like taking your foot off the car's break pedal. Which in turn is the signal for your partner that your about to move again.

Its a very, very subtle thing. Most especially when you dance in close embrace in a packed milonga. However, according to my partners, when I (occasionally) get it right, the lead for these hesitations, stops, and pauses are so clear. I've been told they like it.

An added bonus
Taking a second (or two) to hesitate, stop, and pause allows your partner the perfect opportunity to do adornos (a.k.a. embellishments) without disrupting the rhythm of the dance!

Moving is nice. Dancing the silences and the pauses are just as nice.

- – — – -

For illustrative purposes, I've included a clip of Jennifer Bratt and Ney Mello dancing to "Poema." Listen to the music, as there are very distinctive pauses and silences in this piece. Observe Ney as he hestates, slows, and stops to the changing rhythm of the music. Observe where and WHEN Jennifer does most of her adornos—During Ney's...

Note that this is a performance. His pauses will be readily apparent. Had this been in milonga, it would be very "Intensely silent."

17 January 2010

Seattle tango topographies

I have read (and heard) many say that tango is like a metaphor for life. In this case, tango in Seattle took some twists and turns and evolved into (what I think), is one of the best tango communities in the world.

In the late eighties, tango was introduced to Seattle by Sonny Newman. He was the one who first started teaching Argentine Tango. His classes would start a core group of people who would build, influence, and expand what the Seattle tango community is today. Inspirational, vibrant, elegant, and ever evolving, albeit small.

Growing pains
As in any art form, the initial introduction of this medium produced a cadre who had a common thread—Argentine tango. However, their preferences in tango varied from the intimately close to the full blown show stuff. Like rhizomes emanating from the central root node, they branched out and created nodes of their own. The foundations of Seattle tango had "taken root."

  • The styles

Imagine these tango rhizomes and nodes growing within the same root-barricaded plot. Imagine the network thriving and growing. There would be one inevitable result from this crowding... conflict.

The nuevo following flourished into a large group of dancers who emulated their heroes. They danced beautifully, showy, flashy, large, and with panáche. It was wonderful to watch.

The salon people, thanks to the very influential efforts of a small and dedicated caucus of purist, traditionalist, tango dancers, evolved into Seattle's milonguero crowd. Elegant, meditative, intimate, passionate was their hallmark.

Both of these disciplines deserve commendation as (1) it got people excited, and kept expanding the following; (2) it covered and catered to the Seattle tango demographic which spanned from teens to octogenarians. It made people happy.

  • Traffic and congestion
Seattle's tango evolution can be compared to it's road and hi-way system. The community quickly outgrew its capacity to manage its volume. It resulted in (tango) grid lock.

Both styles are beautiful. Both have their place in the world. However, as the numbers of both following grew, it forced tango dancers to dance in tighter and tighter spaces. This (just like a congested freeway) caused complications.

Collisions, lane disruptions, stiletto heel impaling and slashing, toe crushing, kicking, etc. became common place. Cliques abounded. Tensions within the milongas were high between the practitioners of the divergent tango styles.

  • Cultivating expertise
The burgeoning Seattle tango following provided impetus for inspired members of the tango community. They furthered the art of tango by importing big name and (quite a few) world renowned tango teachers. Not only was the Seattle tango community growing, but getting better—Much better.

It was inevitable for diversification to happen. Having fervent nuevo and milonguero styles dancing in close proximity was complicated. The ever tightening milongas were getting in the way of everyone's fun. Something was bound to happen... and it did.

  • Emergence of the nuevo (open-embrace) venue
The most common desire of the practitioners of the nuevo style tango was their need to express themselves. This necessitates space and freedom of movement. Having to dance in packed milonguero crowds caused challenges in navigation, and floor etiquette.

Dedicated nuevo organizers opened their own venues. These venues were dedicated to, managed by, and frequented by this specific crowed. It provided the appropriate space and consistency needed for this group to flourish, enjoy, and dance this energetic form of tango.

A side benefit was to provide organizers a better feel for the teachers they were importing. It also trained and developed a new crop of instructors more appropriate for this demographic. They got better.

  • Bolstering the milonguero

By the nuevo crowd having their own venue, elegant and intimate milonguero dancers now had the unimpeded freedom to move in close-quarters without the fear of contact nor collision. The push now was to improve the milonguero tango standard.

Milonguero specialist teachers were imported. Floor etiquette was stressed. The result was La Garua—One of the best places to dance tango in Seattle (my personal favorite). The organizers of this marvelous milonga (in no small part) are greatly responsible for influencing Seattle's development as (IMHO) one of the best close-embrace tango communities... anywhere.

One would think that this schism would result in a permanent rift between the open and close-embrace practitioners. On the contrary. When numbers of each crew congregate (e.g. Dance Underground, Seattle Tangomagic), each has learned to compensate for each other. This allows everyone space, etiquette, and the observance of the line of dance for everyone to enjoy. It's a peculiarly Seattle oddity.

allseattletango.com: A listing of all thing tango in Seattle

04 January 2010

Navigation... Where it all comes together

When I first saw a tango floor a few years ago, I thought (as many non-tango people thought) that it was a simple dance as there was not much going on. I was so wrong.

Is there anything easy in learning Argentine Tango? It seems that things get progressively harder the more I learn, with milonga navigation being one of the biggest struggles I've had to deal with.

I've found that as a leader (in tango), this is where my brain blows up on the dance floor. Why? You have to lead your partner well (which is a lot to think of), dance well (yourself), keep  your partner safe, pay close attention to your environment, anticipate the moves of those around you, dance with (acceptable) musicality—Simultaneously MOVING across the floor in erratic heavy dance traffic!

Practice and perseverance have helped me to cope over the years. The following are what I think (I need) to take into consideration while leading my partner though the controlled chaos of a crowded milonga floor...

  • Going with the  ebbs and surges of flow

When I merge onto a milonga floor, the flow does not stay consistent. Depending on what the dancers on the floor do, the flow may ebb into a barely moving mass. Or, turn into a surge moving away and leaving me behind, which forces me to keep up the pace... only to be stopped by another ebb in flow.

This constant shifting of flow on the floor is something a leader must deal with constantly. It's not so bad when the milonga is sparsely attended, a leader will have floor space and is forgiving of mistakes. The challenge happens when I dance in a pack, much like being caught in a very tight cycling peloton where I have to be able to bring to bear, all skills and be flexible in dealing with this conundrum.

  • My partner needs to be able to trust me... Implicitly!

I dance for my partner. I try to make her look good and feel good. She needs to trust me without question, otherwise that supernatural "Tango enchantment" will not happen.

In order to achieve this level of trust, I try not get carried away and get lost in my own dance that I lose touch of the environment around me. I keep my partner away from the couple using the flailing tango stiletto heels of death. I try to keep her safe from being slashed, stepped on, kicked, cut, and impaled.

I don't use my partner as a battering ram by NOT running her into chairs, tables, walls, posts, and other people.

  • Giros, molinetes, check steps, rock steps, etceteras

Remember all of that stuff your teachers taught you in tango class? Notably, figures like giros, molinetes, check steps, ocho cortados, rock steps, and other related "stationary-possible" moves.

I talked about "Ebbs" in traffic flow. When this happens, what do you do? You stall, but, gracefully keep moving in place. You don't want to just stop, rather, you need to keep you and your partner moving   in poetic motion. This is a good time to use your "Figures."

  • Respect space, dance small

I respect my space, and the space of others. Its a common courtesy. I learned to dance in as small a space as possible. That way, when I find myself in a tightly packed floor, I can dance a small yet intensely beautiful tango—At least, I try.

I was taught that one should learn to tango in a space (roughly) 4 ft long by 4 ft wide—The size of 4 large floor tiles. Dancing this small also gives me the ability to keep my partner safe from the following:

    • Overtakers and speeders
      • Those who are in such a hurry that they feel compelled to overtake everyone in their way (*Cough* I USED to be a perpetrator... Apologies)
    • Lane-cutters
      • Those who suddenly cut in front of people (related to the over-taker)
    • Tailgaters
      • Those who follow so closely behind other couples (I'm occasionally guilty of this... Sorry)
    • Windbags
      • Those who engage in A LOT of trivial talking BEFORE they start dancing. Thus, (inconsiderately) blocking all dance traffic behind them causing a traffic jam.
    • BIG move dancers
      • Those who dance big (which is not a problem on a sparse floor) and insist on doing so when the floor is very crowded

    • I try to dance as smooth as possible

    Its easy to march, stomp, and lumber along like an elephant. It's easy to bounce up and down like a ball. All of which makes for an unpleasant experience for my partner.

    Being smooth was very difficult for me as it required me to learn to walk by adjusting my gait and how I landed and rolled my feet. I practiced walking in front of the mirror. I (briefly) did the book atop the head thing. I tried to be elegant and smooth, yet still dance manly. Oh, and I had to do all of that with a partner in close embrace... I'm still trying.

    The Lynch pin—bringing it all together

    So, after learning a lot of the nuances of tango and (trying) to make it special for my partner, it all comes together in moving across the dance floor in a crowded and packed milonga. It's a lot to think of, plan, and execute. It requires A LOT of concentration and care.

    There was no easy way to do it, and required copious amounts of practice. In the end it pays off when you get it right.