27 December 2008

Musicality, a key element in Tango

Musicality is a skill all too often neglected by a lot of dancers that I observe. The beauty of applying musicality is that when you exercise it by delivering different interpretations to the same music, it creates a totally different dance experience each time.

The chosen piece is "Poema." Here are a few video clips that illustrate how musicality makes a big impact. Observe the differences in their interpretations of the same Tango piece. All of them beautiful to watch, regardless of Tango style. The people shown below are professionals and have expended many years and innumerable hours practicing and performing, thus honing their skills in musicality.

To the regular lead social dancer (such as myself), the lesson gleaned from here is that (as the lead), you have to listen to the music and dance to it. I have lost count of the number of times I've watched people dance and do "Steps." Out of tune, out of time, out of rhythm, and moving together without harmony. 

IMHO, "Musicality" is a glue that melds one's skill with that of the partner, while enveloped in the embrace of the music. You could do nothing but simply walk and syncopate it to the music, and it would be a lusciously beautiful experience.

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Jennifer Bratt & Ney Melo 

Tete Rusconi & Rosana Remón 

Chicho Frumboli and Eugenia Parilla 

Geraldine Rojas & Javier Rodrigues
(Thanks for the link,  Tina)

25 December 2008

4 Stages of Dance. What level are you at?

One part of my occupation is as a training professional. I am always on the lookout for material regarding adult learning theory. I stumbled upon this article. Its a classic learning model, but adopted to dance. 

This article was originally written with Ballroom dance in mind. However, I find it more poignant to the study of Argentine Tango as our dance is improvisational by it's very nature. This method of learning would be a disciple worth investing in for the aspiring Tango dancer.

Credit goes to: - by Dean Paton, on whose site I found the original article: http://www.nwdance.net/4_stages.html. I have made redactions to facilitate better reading in this medium.

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  • Dances and 4 Stages of Mastery
  1. Unconscious Incompetence
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence
Here perhaps is a more useful way to approach the pleasant discipline we call "learning to dance." Instead of picturing the classes you take as a linear sequence - say, progressing through four levels of Swing - imagine yourself in an evolutionary process called the learning cycle, four distinct stages through which all human beings progress whenever they learn anything new.

1) Unconscious Incompetence
In this stage you have little experience or skill. In fact, you're likely quite bad, but because you don't know how truly bad you are, you don't feel bad, and your self-esteem isn't crippled. Yet.

2) Conscious Incompetence
True damage to self-esteem (and the false confidence that coexists with the bliss of ignorance) often occurs in this second stage of learning - Conscious Incompetence. As your awareness evolves into this stage, you begin to realize how little you know. Perhaps you notice how impossible it seems for you and your partners to do much of anything smoothly. You certainly convince yourself that practically everyone at every dance or class is so talented that you'd never think of dancing with them. You may well flee the dance early, and might even avoid such terrifying places of public exhibition for weeks.A vital step in the learning cycle. For once your exaggerated sense of self-loathing finds an equilibrium, you have the chance for some valuable self-assessment -- you can begin to determine your strengths and weaknesses, and from this sense of where you really are you can begin to focus on strategies for improvement. Much learning occurs here.

As your skills get better and your body works with your mind to integrate new steps and moves into your dancing, you evolve into stage three -- Conscious Competence. 

3) Conscious Competence
This is enjoyable and exciting for most people, because they not only start seeing themselves as good dancers, they realize how much they have learned. Others tell them how enjoyable they are to dance with, now that they've reached a certain competence, so a reborn confidence repairs their self-esteem.

Nevertheless, dancers in the Conscious Competence stage spend much of each dance thinking about what move to execute next, and how to balance the effort required to choreograph the next eight bars with the excitement of connecting with their partner. Brains occasionally go on overload, and feet still get trampled, but in general Conscious Competence is an enjoyable stage. Most people spend considerably more time here than in the first two stages. It is also a plateau where many dancers choose to remain.

4) Unconscious Competence
True mastery isn't attained until this fourth stage of learning . This is the place where there is little or no difference between what the body has practiced to perfection and the mind has learned. You no longer think about your frame, or what move comes next. In fact, you don't think much (about the moves, at least). Instead, you're free to enjoy the moment and genuinely connect with your partner. Those who manage to reach this level of mastery are sought after, indeed revered on the dance floor.

The trick is in the getting there. Anyone who manages to take most of the classes offered is pretty much guaranteed to reach stage three -- Conscious Competence. After a year or so of Walter, Julie, or any other instructor, drilling you with new steps and old jokes, you'll dance comfortably with most partners and have a good time.

To achieve mastery, however, you may well have to abandon the linear approach -- give up the convenient notion that simply by progressing through a prescribed sequence of classes you'll end up a great dancer. When we think linearly, we tend to think in terms of quantity instead of quality, or we make alienating comparisons: I want to learn more slick moves; I'll only dance with partners at my level; she's better than I am (or I'm better than him). The trap here is that you risk becoming a dance snob, a stylized technician with the moves of Fred or Ginger, but the heart and soul of Schwarzenegger's Terminator.

When you dance with someone who has achieved mastery, you know it within a few seconds. These partners allow you to look and feel grand, not better than you are, but as good as you can be. You connect. You'll dance with them again and again. Such mastery is an art form, a gift they give to each of their partners. You can choose mastery, just as you can choose to stay at stage three. Both options are valid.

If you opt for mastery, however, part of the prescription is to start seeing each Living Traditions class not as a step in a finite sequence but as a timeless opportunity for learning. So what if you've taken Slow Waltz 2 twice, or Foxtrot 2 three times? Go back and take Slow Waltz 1 again. And again and again. Plunge back into Foxtrot 1, or Swing 2, or try role reversal. What you learn will not necessarily be a published part of the curriculum, but as you guide a less experienced dancer toward new confidence and grace, as you forget about your own footwork and simply enjoy moving with your partner to a new level of competence, your own dancing will transport you to a place of uncommon joy, and you will learn far more than you ever learned the first time through. About dancing, and about yourself.

That's the real magic of any dance class. No matter how many times you take it.

"The Walk" in Argentine Tango

A lot of people who have really become proficient at Argentine Tango has ruminated about "The Walk." It is the beginning, basis, and foundation of how good dancers look on the milonga floor.

All this time I've been dancing Tango, I decided to just watch the dancers. I was astonished at my own observations of who looked good, and who didn't. Regardless of style, it boiled down to two types. Those who could, and those who could not walk.

Those who could walk:
  • It looked like they were on rollers... smooth
  • They were always sure footed. No awkwardness, any imbalance was instantly and smoothly compensated for
  • They looked to be in perfect synch with their partners
  • They didn't talk
  • They had their "Tango Faces" on
  • They were into each other
  • They were moving "as one"
  • They did not look like they were thinking of their steps. It just happened
  • They were elegant and fun to watch. You could see the connection happening
Those who could NOT walk:
  • Tried too hard to look good
  • Moved with an excess of motion
  • Tried too hard to make the steps work
  • Awkward and out of balance, axis, center...
  • Talked too much on the floor. Some were even trying to lecture
  • Bad posture
  • Choppy motion
  • Out of synch with the music
  • Painful to watch. Especially those who felt the need to do overly embellished things
  • Movements were out of synch with each other
  • The connection was clearly not there. Everything they did looked mechanical
These are just my general observations. It looked like the majority of "non-walkers" decided to go straight to the advanced, flashy, showy stuff, without first learning how to "Walk." Thinking (perhaps) that flashy steps and patters made you a tango dancer...

Why some women are not asked to dance

My personal observations on why some men do not ask some women to dance. Compiled observations from different milongas I go to

• Intimidation
Some women are not asked to dance because the men who are in the milongas are totally intimidated by how good you look, and how good you move

• Wasn't impressed
Opposite of number one (see above). They saw you dance before and were not impressed by how you moved or looked

• Nobody knows you
People normaly go with the familiar. If you're a stranger, it will probably be harder for someone to drum up courage to ask you. Coupled with the other factors, things could get worse

• The Cliques
Some people in cliques will only dance within that group. If you happened to be in a milonga that was pervaded, then you'd probably end up not being asked. 

• The way you look
Be as beautiful as you can be, and match the crowds "Persona" Dress "Hip," or "Casual" if you're in a milonga frequeted by the Nuevo. Dress "Elegant" if you're in a milonga frequented by the Vieja

• Body Language
Sometimes, the way one projects oneself on a chair discourages men from approaching you

• Women sit together (Strength in numbers) 
Some men would not ask you to dance because all the women are sitting in a big bunch. They don't want to offend the others by homing in on you to dance. So, to save the others' feelings, they won't ask you, until you break away (i.e. get a drink, get a snack, come back from the lady's room, etc.

My intent is to let people know what others may be thinking so you can leverage that. 
WHY? Because, Ampster wants all Tangueros & Tangueras to DANCE!

24 December 2008

Dancing small, and making it your own... It's hard!

So this last month, I once again had the opportunity to try out my newly found "Dancing small" technique. It seemed to work great, and all my partners seemed to like it. I did have to mix it up with the other stuff that I like to do. Otherwise it gets boring all on it's own.

As an evolutionary process, it's one thing to be able to do something you learned. It is (IMHO) another thing to make it "Your own." I.e. Assimilate it into your repertoire, and be able to utilize it seamlessly.

Why assimilate? It keeps things fresh. It makes for more interesting delivery and musical interpretation. It makes for a memorable dance experience. It's when you ask someone, and they describe you by the way you dance. It helps build an identity. I believe that in Tango, one should have their own memorable dance persona, and not just be a "step and pattern copy cat."

My first Argentine Tango teacher (Sonny Newman) once said,

"You need to make your dance your own. I see too many people trying to be like their heros; a Gavito, a Fabian, a Frumboli, or even a Miriam... It's a shame that they limit themselves so much by being satisfied by just copying moves. The experts started just like you, and learned a lot of this stuff from others and made it their own. They developed into what you see. You should do the same."

That Tango connection

A lot of us here have mentioned, "Connection" when we dance Argentine Tango.

What is it really to you? How would you describe it? What happens to you when that magical Argentine Tango "Connection" happens?

My take on connection is this:

I have had previous experience in many other dances, but as I have experienced, it is much more unique and intense in Argentine Tango than in any other dance—Hands down! (IMHO)

When I speak of connection, there is no one else that matters other than myself and my partner, who is sometimes a total stranger. I feel her breathing and she feels mine. I think of what I want to lead, and it just happens without effort or prodding. There is a feeling of "One body, four legs."

Everything flows... The music, the movement, syncopation, footwork, intuition, improvisation, etc., all comes together to be one unique experience where one is transported into a very special place for the duration of the tanda.

It's addicting, it's intoxicating, It makes people get that look of being in a trance, it's blissful, it's magical...

Don't impress her with your fancy steps! Impress her with...

... the movement of your soul

I've recently had a leg injury. Because of that, I've had the opportunity to watch people at milongas. In the process, I once again see behavior that really rubs me wrong.

Here's the scenario:

A leader asks a [seemingly] beginner lady to dance a tanda. He then starts to lay on the fancy steps. The dance falls apart. Not because she doesn't know what to do, but rather, he leads it badly! Apparently, leader is a newbie, trying to compensate for some inadequacy. Anyway, he then tries to teach her the move that he's trying to do, in the middle of the dance floor, holding up traffic...

This makes for a very looong tanda. Not to mention, it is VERY, VERY, VERY rude to teach in a milonga. You just don't do that! A well meaning criticism can be very devastating and humiliating to a follow.

Seeing the follow, I dance with her. I keep it simple. SHE CAN DANCE! Not technically astute, but she is able to achieve that "Tango connection," which is the whole point of AT. After the tanda, she tells me "Thank you, I feel so much better with you than with that other guy."

My curiosity is piqued and I ask her, "Why?"

I embark on a small research project...

(This scenario is repeated in several milongas. There's always at least one lead who does this sort of thing)

The consistent answer is that, to the majority of ladies, it is the "Tango Connection" that makes the dance worthwhile.

Only the advanced dancers are the ones who can do (sometimes enjoy) the fancy stuff. For it to be enjoyable, you have to lead it well.

So, my conclusion is this:

Dance to the level of the follower. Don't try to push fancy steps if you can't lead it well, and if she's not comfortable with it. Keep it simple and concentrate on the connection.

Move her with your soul. Not your feet.

Basics that beginners in Tango should know

A lot of beginners ask me for advice because they want to learn Argentine Tango. Here's what I tell them.

The metaphysical stuff

The objective of Argentine Tango is not dance for the awe and appreciation of others. The objective is to achieve that connection to whomever you dance with. There will come a time when "Magic" happens––an unbelievably beautiful melding of intent and movement between two people that is marvelously intimate.

This is achieved when all of the elements of AT come together (e.g. walks, hesitations, musicality, line of dance, etc.) without you ever having to think about it. It just happens. This is achieved over time via dedication to the dance.

The technical stuff

• Make sure your teacher is an Argentine Tango specialist. Someone who REALLY dances and understands the magic of Argentine Tango. Not just someone who knows steps.

• Master the basics (e.g walks, basic fundamental AT parameters of movement, rules, and etiquette)

• Learn how to string the basics together in musical interpretation.

• Don't be obsessed with steps. Step memorizers make the worse AT dancers.

• Learn to lead. The art of making your partner do something in synch with you without saying anything. It is the basis of AT

• Be familiar with authentic traditional tango music (NOT ballroom adaptations). I'm talking about the old scratchy stuff. You'll understand eventually.

• Be patient. AT requires time to learn. It requires time to be good at. I have lost count of the classmates I have had who wanted to learn everything AT fast. They're all gone from the milongas.

• Treat AT as a brand new dance learning experience. Keep an open mind, don't compare it to what you know now as this will be a brand new journey.

• Be humble. There's always someone who's better than you

Start with that for now.

16 July 2008

What Argentine Tango Leaders should know...

Here is my attempt at a synopsis for the benefit of the leaders, both seasoned and new:


  • The arms are for the embrace NOT for leading
  • The arms are there to hold the connection comfortably, and not to be used steer your partner like a boat rudder
  • Granted every now and then you can use the arms for sending lead impulses. But that's an exception
  • Maintain your Tango posture
  • Stand straight, weight forward, relax, chest out, don't cave your chest, don't nuzzle
  • Lead from your chest
  • Use your chest, core, center, frame
  • Use them to direct and guide the motion of your partner
  • Leading movements in AT is an excercize in improvisation, NOT memorization
  • Get the lessons you have learned and string them together to form your interpretatation of the song
  • Don't rely on fixed patterns
  • They are boring
  • If your leading a movement, and it doesn't work, move on. DON't teach!
  • A common newbie mistake
  • Don't impress her with your fancy steps. Impress her with your simplicity
  • Keep it simple, feel the music, out of simplicity, beauty comes
  • Listen to the music. Develop your rhythmic skill
  • Dance in-tune with the music. It makes such a difference in your leading
  • Maintain your lane
  • Counterclockwise please, and maitain your lane. Don't drift
  • Dance in the appropriate size
  • If you have the space, go ahead and do your showy stuff. Dance big
  • If its a packed house, dance small, dance close to the floor and avoid the flailing leg things and the huge strides
  • Be aware of where you're at at all times
  • You are blind-sided on the right, do half turns, giros so you can see around you
  • Adjust your position to those around you
  • Don't back into traffic
  • Inconsiderate and dangerous
  • Don't stop traffic
  • Inconsiderate
  • If you must do your slow, stationary, and showy moves, move to the center
  • The outside lanes are for moving traffic and for more experienced dancers
  • The inside lanes are slower and offer more spcae for experimentation
  • If you are just getting into AT, use the inner lanes
  • If AT is new to you stay in the inner lanes. They are slower and much more forgiving
  • If you bump into someone, make eye contact and apologize-EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT the instigator
  • Gentlemanly behaviour makes for a good milonga. You will know who is at fault
  • Maintain good personal hygiene
  • You will be dancing close. VERY close. You must not stink!
  • AT music is varied, familiarize yourself, and adapt your dancing to the music
  • Depending who the composer is, AT music can have consistent rhythm, to changing rhythm several times in the same song
  • This is one element in AT that is quite difficult to get the hang of. BE PATIENT in learning to "hear" the music
  • Maintaining and dancing connected to one's partner at an etheriel level is the point of AT. NOT dancing steps and patterns
  • You'll know once it happens
  • Lots of endorphins
  • Dance for your partner. NOT for the audience
  • If you want to show off stay in the center of the floor
  • When you dance, no one else matters except your partner
  • AT is a 3 minute date
  • Don't analyze it, Dance it
  • When you are on the floor dance for the sake of the enjoyment of you and your partner
  • Don't overanalyze things. It shows in your dance and mess you up
  • Let things flow as they will
  • Things will never be perfect, so let it go and flow
  • AT is a conversation between two bodies without words
  • Your partner chose to accept your invitation and dance with you. Return the courtesy and respect her
  • Your partner is there to complete the AT equation
  • No matter how good you think you are, you are nothing without a partner
  • Adapt to your partner's level
  • Don't force your "advanced" skills on your partner
  • A talented leader will be able to dance with any partner at any level of skill, and the dance will look good
I'm sure I missed a lot more, but these are the things that jump out immediately based on our discussion and observations at a milonga.