25 March 2009

My meanderings through tango music

My appreciation for tango music went through a long evolutionary process. My first preference was nuevo style music. Fast forward few years to where I am now, I listen to none but traditional tango music. Here's how that metamorphosis went...

In the beginning...
My wife and I were at one time, avid ballroom dancers and were poised to enter the competitive ballroom scene. As fate would have it, we did not bow to that madness (that's another story). We discovered tango and it became our specialty. We didn't know (at the time) that there were different types of tango! In any case, we (finally) discovered Argentine Tango and never looked back.

My view of tango music was shaped by American Ballroom Tango. The premise—In order for one to dance well, one needs to follow the beat. In ballroom tango, the musical arrangements are written to pound this into a distinctive 4/4 time march-like cadence.

Ballroom tango music

First exposure to "real" Argentine tango music...
Crossing over from ballroom, my only "real" knowledge of tango music came from the (2004) movie "Shall we dance," a remake of the original 1996 Japanese movie of the same title.
My first idea of "real" tango music (Gotan Project)

My brain was filled with a load of assumptions and presumptions on how this dance should be. I was under the misguided belief of transposing my previous dance experience and apply it to tango. I thought that this was the fastest way to be good at tango. It was (in hind sight) quite arrogant of me.

I was looking for music that had a constant, discernible, and structured beat. I was looking for music like salsa, or cha-cha. I assumed that, since Argentina was in latin America, ergo, it should be like any other latin rhythm—right? I wanted music that when you just listened to the beat, you knew what it was, and you knew what step to pick and use. Music that didn't change rhythm... just like ballroom, salsa, and cha-cha.

First frenzy...
I discovered Gotan project. Hey, it's tango music. Good enough to be in a movie I liked, its good enough for me. I get this kind of music. Good beat, modern, sleek, cool. I spent time collecting music from Otros Aires, Narcotango, Gotan Project, Bajofondo Tango Club... All the "cool" stuff. I started collecting CITA DVD's. Gotta watch the nuevo masters. I liked the moves. I was impressed and wanted to do them... Just like ballroom. It was all about the flashy-cool moves.

At this point in time, I DID NOT KNOW HOW TO DANCE Argentine tango, yet. I just thought I could do anything. I was still in "research" mode, and basing my assumptions on what I knew.

Beginning tango lessons, a rude awakening...
I enrolled with my first real Argentine tango teacher. He was very good (as a first teacher). He was very strict. He showed my technical inadequacies in no uncertain terms. The music he used used to teach his class... Old scratchy pre-World War II sounding stuff. I couldn't stand it! Why, oh why did this old man insist on his old music? Nostalgia? Ugh!

It was bad enough that my brain ached after the class trying to learn this tango thing. It didn't help that my ego got trampled every single time. All of this while the horrible old scratchy music grated at me constantly. I didn't get this music. Why didn't they use a drum? Why did it change rhythm and tempo several times in one song. It was confusing to me. I couldn't read it. Oh, did I mention it was scratchy?

A funny thing happened. I learned how to dance tango...
I had to unlearn everything I knew. I started re-learning with an open mind. Working through my frustrations, I patiently persisted. After about a year or so, my teacher told me that in the end, despite all the steps that he taught, I had to make the dance, my own. Take what he taught, string them together and make it into something distinctly mine. He said, "When you can make it flow WITH A PARTNER, regardless of how good or bad she is and make it an experience, then you know you can tango."

This resounded in my brain like a cathedral bell. The connection, the syncopated motion combined in a magical way. Suddenly, the intricacy of the old, traditional music became meaningful. I got it—I GOT IT!

The nuevo style stuff was now BORING! It did not have the character of the traditional music. It might as well be salsa or cha-cha. If you sat there and just listened, a whole evening would go by and there would be one steady cadence... It limited my musicality to the song, because I found that you were tied to a consistent rhythm.

With the traditional music, you danced to the down beat of the melody. I slowed when it slowed, I sped up when it sped up. Hesitations and pauses became intrinsic parts of my dance. I danced with the music and not to the music. It has become a zen-like experience with a partner. It's always a new experience—every time.

And so, for the last few years, my iPod and my music listening has since been dominated by traditional tango music. Of course, I still listen to nuevo stuff... But I don't dance to it anymore.

Juan D' Arienzo

22 March 2009

patience, Patience... PATIENCE!

Tango has taught me something in life... it is the virtue of patience.

Most of my life, I've indulged in endeavors that required action—Immediate, decisive, resolute, and brutally efficient methods that resulted in speedy results. Often have I taken the rational, scientific, and analytical route to get to the most optimal results in the shortest amount of time. I've broken things into steps and bullet points. This makes things understandable, organized, and easily doable.

When I first started tango, I thought I could do the ballroom thing and memorize moves and deliver them with precision. I wanted to do a lot right away. I wanted to be able to take the floor and impress. I wanted to be the best tanguero. I wanted to be like Salas, Frumboli, and dance Nuevo style and do the flashy stuff, sooner. I thought nuevo music was cooler—it sounded new and had a beat. I thought the older tangueros were boring—Geriatric. I was ready, I was willing, I was good-to-go! Now, now, now!

Fast forward a few years...

Not so for tango. The fast-track thing does not work. I have found no shortcuts. My learning of tango has become a long, frustrating, exasperating, but ultimately rewarding esoteric experience.

It is one of the few things in life that I've found worthy of truly making an investment of time, effort, and understanding to become good at. Tango is not a science. It is an art. It is the marriage of fluid movement with passion applied to beautiful and distinctive music called tango.

When I tried to expedite my tango learning, it felt life-less. When I memorized precise movement and delivery, it felt mechanical. When I scrutinized and analyzed traditional tango music, it just felt old. I went through analysis-paralysis. I wasn't getting anywhere.

I decided to just let go, assimilate and just learn and grow. That worked. I willingly went through a cycle of learning and just let things happen. I went in, and let go of any presumptions. I started my learning process as a total beginner. Then, and ONLY then, did I notice any significant progress.

Of all the things that I have done in my life, tango is one that has required a lot of patience. But, its return in the form of life enrichment has made it more than worth it.

Patience (in tango) pays.

19 March 2009

Over-analyzers and step collectors >:(

I've recently had close encounters with two types of (pseudo) tango dancers with two qualities that just irritate me:
  1. Over-analyzers
  2. Step collectors

The over-analyzers
These are the people that cannot stop themselves from scrutinizing, criticizing, and over-ANALyzing everything that everyone does. Too much lean, foot placement wrong, can't dance anything but milonguero, embrace is wrong, head too low, head too high, back not straight enough, blah-blah, blah-blah, blah-blah... They zoom in on the smallest of nuances, and loose sight of the big holistic picture of the dance. On they go and profess to tell you what is right, and how it should be. However, when you see them take the floor, they are some of the worse tango dancers around. They make my brain ache.

The step collectors
These are the people who try—TRY, to do all the fancy, funky stuff. Does it work for them? Nope. Can they lead what they're trying to do? Nope. These failings do not deter them. In their minds, they're right and their partner can't follow. They still insist on doing their flashy stuff, much to the woe of their partners (victims). They can't improvise, syncopate, nor navigate. They go under the assumption that in order to be good you have to know steps—Lots of them! 

Some things these peeps have in common 
  • They criticize a lot
  • They just started tango
  • They've been taking lessons forever but don't go to milongas
  • They never really learned to dance well—glazed over the basics
  • Lack of the fundamental tango skill of walking
  • They are unpleasant to dance with
  • They are unpleasant to watch
  • Hazards on the floor
  • They don't realize how bad they are
You'll know them when you see and/or hear them. I'm sure we all know of at least one.

Ok, I'm done ranting... Apologies

15 March 2009

Tango posture— A new epiphany

My problem

One of the biggest improvements I've made to my tango is improving my posture.

When I first started, no one ever taught me about the mechanics of what a good tango posture should be. I just basically winged it and made do. I thought I was doing pretty well until I found out for myself (ego aside), how wrong I was.

As it turns out, I was doing more of a tango judo hold, than a loving tango embrace. Head forward, shoulders high and circled, chest caved, arms around my opponent, preparing for a strike. I was ready to rumble! 

It was my wife, and photographic evidence that showed me the error of my ways. I made an effort to correct it. Again, with no formal instruction behind it. Just a lot of criticism, and anecdotal comments.

My "Posture" epiphany

Along comes Muma to Seattle (about a year ago). I had a posture epiphany! Her workshop was all about, technique, technique, and technique. She was mild mannered, spoke hardly any English, but had a very eloquent teaching partner/interpreter, and masterful in her art.

In one lesson, she gave us an exercise that changed how I danced, and made a great deal of difference in my leading (and following skills for the ladies).

Muma's Posture exercise

For both leads and follows: 
  • Stand up straight. Shoulders back and level
  • Hold your arms above your head. Like you were surrendering
  • Observe where, and how high your rib cage goes. This is how high and how far out your chest should be held
  • Lower your arms to your side, while keep your chest where it's at
  • Bend your knees slightly. Enough to unlock them
  • Move your upper whole upper body forward until your weight shifts from your heels to the balls of your feet
  • When you move forward, the lead caresses the floor with his toes, then lands the heel (toe lead) 
  • The follow rolls on the balls of her foot to extend, roll, land, extend roll, land

That's how the tango posture should look like. The difference is that, the leads walk forward, and the follows walk backward. Adopting this posture, puts both of you in the milonguero stance that resembles the letter "A." Beautiful and functional. This allows the leader's feet to move forward, without bumping knees. It looks like the both of you are leaning against each other. It's an illusion. Both of you are keeping your own balance above the balls of the feet. Each movement is then done with exceptional grace and elegance. This is what I try to deliver consistently.

*Note: This is so much easier to write about, than it is to actually do, and dance to. With enough practice, I'll get there.

10 March 2009

Make your partner feel safe, smart, and loved

A friend of mine told me about friends of her who know how to lead some great and whacky stuff. But, she would much rather feel safe.

Another friend of mine pointed my attention to someone who would lecture their partners with blow by blow commentaries. She confided that after dancing with this guy, she was almost in tears.

Another friend of mine was telling me about several leads who danced technically great, but were "Cold," making the experience, less than memorable.

As I listen to my friends, (in retrospect) I sometimes have to tell myself that at one time or another, I was also guilty of these infractions of tango lead insensitivity. Since then, I have morphed my methods into something that I try to give my follows every time I dance.

One friend of mine said to me so eloquently, what her teacher once told her: "Make your partner feel safe, smart, and loved." I could not agree more.

This is my interpretation of things:

A.  Make your partner feel safe
  1. Don't knock your partner off her axis. This will cause her distraction, breaking her connection
  2. Don't use her for a battering ram. She will not appreciate running into chairs, tables, and other people. Not to mention being kicked, stabbed, and stepped on
  3. Dance at her pace. As a lead, you should be able to feel her level of following skills. Once you've got that read, dance at her level (no matter how good you think you are)
  4. Do flow your energy through her and glide over the floor
  5. Do make her feel protected and safe in your company

B.  Make her feel smart
  1. Don't pull your fancy steps on her unless you know that you can lead them well. Doing big loud fancy stuff will cause her to think about the steps... NOT about the connection
  2. Keep it simple. Let her flow with you and the music. It becomes a cerebral experience
  3. If you lead something and it doesn't work, give it up and try something else. No one is perfect, and not everyone can follow everything all the time
  4. Flubs happen... get over it and move along
  5. Don't, don't— DO NOT LECTURE on the floor, unless feedback is asked for (or if you're in a practica)
  6. No blow-by-blow commentaries to your partner while you're dancing

C.  Make her feel loved
  1. The embrace in tango, is an embrace. It's not a (ballroom) open hold, nor a closed hold, nor a broad framed waltz pose. It is an embrace. The person you are dancing with at the time is special, and your embrace needs to reflect that.
  2. Your embrace should be gentle, firm, but not creepy
  3. Your embrace should be firm but not strangling, squeezing, or squishing
  4. Your hand around her should roughly be in and around the area of her shoulder blade, and over your heart
  5. Her shoulder blade should not be gripped and used as a steering wheel
  6. Your left arm is there for her to hold. You should not use your left arm to steer her like a boat tiller
  7. The height of your left hand should be in and around the level of her eye/nose 
  8. Lead with your center, not the arms
  9. Make sure your embrace is sincere
  10. The objective is to move to the strains of the bandoneon as one. One body four legs, swirling in that magic called tango

Combine A, B, and C to develop that magical tango connection. Remember, Tango: It's not about you. It's about HER