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.


Anonymous said...

I cannot sufficiently thank you for writing this post. The description of each style's attractions also explains their differences in a very positive way. When I say I prefer close embrace because I feel more, proponents of open embrace interpret that sentiment to mean their style preferences are "less than". This is not the case at all. I just prefer the internal, mystical experience of close embrace.

Anonymous said...

I am sooooo glad you learned the close embrace. I love your honesty when explaining your feelings.
It is true that in open embrace it is more about the moves than the feeling.
I have always preferred to dance with the feeling and why I adore the close embrace.
Less is more as they say!

Game Cat said...

Hi Ampster,

That's a really really good post. I think you've articulated the different feel of nuevo vs salon very well. I can sympathise with the journey - I came from a competitive ballroom background when I was much younger. Although I had always loved the old tango music, I had never wanted to put it into dance till recently. By the time I came to it, I was very sure it was close-embrace salon that I wanted to do, to share my feelings of the music with someone.

However I could take a lot from ballroom - such as an appreciation of good technique, disciplined practice, and a structured way of breaking down what was happening to diagnose and improve the dance. Without that, my learning curve of tango would be much flatter.

n a n c y said...

I have posted a link on my Facebook page ( LaReina Tanguera). Thanks for the description of your journey - one we also made many years ago. May you have multiple tangasms for all the days of your life.

Sallycat said...

Hi from BsAs.

Parts of this resonated with me - mucho.
Love how you described your journey. I've been thinking about writing once more about my own journey in tango - have avoided doing so for a while, for some fear of just not being able to explain it well - but your honest post has got me thinking again to try.

Thanks so much, SC

AmpsterTango said...

Johanna, londontango, Game Cat, n a n c y, Sallycat—Thank you so much for your empathy. I find both styles beautiful, when done well. However, as I navigate through this voyage of discovery, I find the close embrace magic most preferable.

It is, as n a n c y describes it... A "tangasm"

AlexTangoFuego said...

Great post ampster! When I'm at a milonga, it saddens me to see all the folks who dance exclusively open embrace. It saddens me that they don't "get" close embrace, that they may never feel what tango is truly all about.

But then I get over it, and dance.

Keep up the good work. I'm going to post this one on facebook as well.

Take care,


Deby N. said...

Nice post. Interesting that you say you now dance for the woman. Here in Buenos Aires we dance for the music. I am always interested to read about the experiences of others.

AmpsterTango said...

Thank you. I think it has something to do with maturity (not necessarily age). The more mature a person gets, a transition from gratification based on flash, gets replaced by a deeper desire to connect viscerally with another human being

AmpsterTango said...

Yes, I dance for the woman. She is my inspiration and reason to dance. The music is the vehicle I use to interweave our movements

El Loco said...

I think for me it has always been about the connection with one's partner aand the music; the form; milonguero, salon, nuevo makes no difference; closeness is not just about physical proximity its about being open, vulnerable, senstive, accepting; playful

Mari said...

What a fantastic post. Thank you for sharing your journey.

I remember the first time I was held in close embrace (which was not in class, nor in practica - it was on the milonga floor like for you) I was stunned. I had explained to my more experienced partner that I was very much a beginner and he replied, excellent! And off we went.

My God, I thought, I could have been doing *this* all along?! He was so much easier to follow - so much more comfortable moving across the floor. And he walked, and walked beautifully. Nothing fancier than a couple of crosses. I was mesmerized.

He is still one of my very favorite leaders, though now he can do a *few* fancy things with me. :)

Mari said...

Oh, I forgot this:

"Yes, I dance for the woman. She is my inspiration and reason to dance. The music is the vehicle I use to interweave our movements."

That's such a lovely way of describing how and why you dance.

Sly said...

SallyCat said, "There was an honest-to-goodness writing about one's tango journey."

That was beautiful to read, Ampster. Thank you for sharing. In the end, I personally feel close embrace is the 'way to be'.

I love doing both, but I'll always lean towards close embrace to feel my partner and the music.

Sly :-D

Sallycat said...

Hi again!

Just wanted to say I shared you with my readers yesterday, as this great post in part inspired me to write a little update on my own tango journey.
Hope that was ok,

Un abrazo, Sallycat

Tina said...

Hey, loved reading this. I like your tango journey, and I've liked watching it from the outside as well. Probably see you tonight!

AmpsterTango said...

Ampster's Responses:

Dancing with you after such a long time was beautiful. It's nice to know someone like you.

That's very ok. I am honored and flattered.

Thank you, and I share your sentiments.

Thank you, I find that this attidue/philosophy enriches my tango experience, one tanda at a time.

El Loco,
I agree. It's "all and everything" that makes this tango thing really great