18 October 2016

Seizing the stars: exploring musicality in tango

It’s not musicality. They’re just doing rhythms.”

I’m thinking about musicality again, trying to understand what it is. It seems we sometimes reduce it to only a reproduction of rhythmical structures. And I’m thinking that since music is more than rhythmical structures, dancing to music should be something more than that, too - like being observant of which musical ideas and elements and qualities that exist in each piece, and noticing how they all have different flavours, and understanding which choices you have in any given moment, and seizing the ideas and elements and qualities that you believe are beautiful and interesting, and recognising how they make you feel, and expressing it all clearly and precisely.

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Maybe some have more musical talent than others, but I believe that people are musical as long as they are somehow touched by music. Having musical skills is something else, though. Musical skills have to be learnt, worked with, practiced consciously. It doesn’t have to be done in class, nor do you need to have played an instrument at all - some of my favourite musical dancers tell me that they have no clue about the technicalities. But it has to be worked with.

So how do we grow our musical skills? I haven’t got all the answers, but I have some ideas. Starting with listening: not just hearing the music, but really listening to it. Listen to everything in the music, try to understand what the sounds are doing, why everything is there. It’s useful to listen a lot to tango music because it’s good to know the music you’re actually gonna dance to, but you can do the listening to all kinds of music. The idea is to practice listening.

The second thing we have to do is to revise our repertoire: Are the moves we’re doing automatised, old habits? And if so, how can we change our habits so that our repertiore can be used to serve the music instead of existing parallel to the music? And how can we be more creative with our repertiore? And, finally: even if you think that good technique isn’t necessary to be a musical dancer, keep practicing technique, too, because you’re going to discover that you cannot really express a musically rich-spectered interpretation without it. Why? Because musicality in dance doesn’t just exist in your analytic head and in your foot hitting the floor. It must be expressed through your whole body.

And in all this, let’s not forget this weird thing that we often say is undefinable, the thing that happens when the music resonates inside ourselves. The artistic expression, or the feelings, or the presence, or the passion, or whatever we try to call it because we don’t know what it really is. Maybe it’s not so mysterious, though. Maybe it’s just about believing that the musical idea you just seized is the most important and beautiful thing in the world right now, because you’re letting it seize you.

6 September 2016

Mirror, mirror on the floor

But they’re opening the embrace.”

A friend recently asked me whether I’m moving away from minimalistic dancing. With my social dance partners, I normally dance in a sustained close embrace and with very few boleos and similar, and my friend had noticed that the videos I post on Facebook are quite different from that. Although I usually never post stage tango, the performances I like are indeed different from the way I dance, with quite a lot of the bigger repertoire and often a partially open embrace (see end of post for examples).

Of course, as I’m working on my technique, I can do more difficult stuff now compared to a few years back. But that’s not necessarily so important. I don’t believe that my level or dance style has to be identical to what I’m inspired by. We can find different kinds of inspiration in a performance, even if we don’t do a one-to-one copy of it in the milonga.

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When I watch a performance, I look for different things. One thing is of course to just enjoy the skills of the dancers. It’s like going to a concert with great classical musicians. Their high level can be inspiring in itself - not because I think I’ll ever be on the same level myself, but because it generally can inspire me to improve. And if a couple for instance has a great walk, I find this a direct inspiration source for continuing to work on my own walk.

Of course, if we indeed want to improve our dance, we need also to be inspired by the things we don’t yet do well. This goes for the whole learning process: if we only do what we do perfectly, there will be no tango dancers at all outside the classes and práctica rooms. Even walking takes many years to perfect. This doesn’t mean that we should do all kinds of stuff mindlessly! We do need to take care of our partners and the social context. But we should be allowed to push our own limits.

The most important thing I look for in a performance is not technique, though - it’s the dancers’ musicality focus. Which elements of the music do they use? Which instruments do they dance to, how do they do the phrasing, when do they walk, more importantly even: when do they stop? How do they use the dynamics and textural qualities of the music? Do they take the lyrics into account? Do they use the mood of the music? If I turn off the sound, will their 1930s D’Arienzo interpretation look the same as their 1950s Pugliese interpretaion?

This is where things become really interesting. To be inspired by a musical interpretation, you don’t need to copy the repertoire that’s being used. The idea is to recognise the musical concepts and then find your own solutions that fit your skills, your partners’ skills, and the social context of where you’re dancing. Example: a performing couple is doing some beautiful phrasing with sequences that go in a line across the floor. It looks great, but you can’t copy that exact sequence because in the milonga, there will be no space to finish the phrase. So you might need to do the phrase for instance with a giro instead. This can work just as well! You can even stand still through a phrase. What’s important is that you assign a repertoire idea to the musical idea.

Finally, there’s one more thing to be inspired by besides the technical and musical elements. It’s the “je ne sais quoi”, the X factor, the certain something that brings out the goosebumps and sometimes even the tears. It’s the thing that tells us about the humanity in the interpretation. It’s the thing that may or may not be acting when we see it in a performance but still reminds us that technique is not enough, that even musicality is not enough. In the end, we must connect to our own feelings and open up to the person we’re dancing with. And if a performance can inspire me to do that, it doesn't matter which repertoire the dancers are using.


Example of "festival performance" (click here to watch) Noelia Hurtado, this time with Gaston Torelli and probably improvised throughout. Music: No mientas - Juan D’Arienzo’s orchestra with singer Alberto Echagüe (recorded 1938)

Example of stage performance (click here to watch) Hugo Mastrolorenzo y Agustina Vignau, winners of the escenario (stage) category of the 2016 Mundial competition. Music: Balada para un loco - Astor Piazzolla with singer Roberto Goyeneche.

Credit for the photo I used in my illustration: Carlos Luque. Licence: Creative Commons 2.5.

29 August 2016

Vulture season

Yes, I know I shouldn’t teach in the milonga. But the beginners are really grateful when I do.

It’s that time of the year again. The summer holidays are over, and tango season is starting. Beginner’s courses are being held, and into the milongas comes a new crowd of tango students, all eager to learn more about tango and to be included in the community.

Cue the tango vulture.

He's a special kind of bird, the tango vulture. He's dependent on a constantly renewed supplement of fresh tango meat, oops sorry, fresh tango students, because he’s being avoided by any tanguera that has danced for a while. Unwilling to do any improvement work whatsoever on his own tango skills, he gets his daily fill of admiration from those who can’t yet distinguish between an advanced dancer and a long-term beginner.

So how does the tango vulture convince the beginners of his competence? Yes, you guessed correctly. He teaches in the milonga.

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This is the deal with teaching in the milonga: It Simply Isn’t Done. It’s impolite and patronising, especially if it’s done to make oneself look good at the expense of another person. Being taught in the milonga is like moving to another country and trying to learn the new language and then being invited to a party, but every time you try to say something, no one will be listening to what you want to tell them. Instead, people will be correcting your grammar and your pronunciation - and they’ll do it openly, so it becomes even more apparent to everybody how little you know. Maybe someone will even take you to another part of the room, away from the conversation, to practice verb conjugation with you.

“Yes, but she asked for it!”

It doesn’t matter what she asked for. She’s new on the scene, she’s eager to learn fast, and maybe her teachers didn’t think of mentioning the difference between a class, a práctica, and a milonga. Yes, she’s wobbly and bandy-legged, but she’s in the milonga to dance, like everybody else. The milonga is a place where everybody should be treated as grown-ups. Yes, I agree that the milonga also is a place with some difficult moral dilemmas. But let’s not make things even more complicated. There are lots of nice guys who dance with the beginners without any hidden agendas, proving that being a gentleman really is super easy.

Here’s how it’s done:

1) Dance with the girl. Keep your leading clean and, above all, free from the creepy ganchos.
2) If she asks about something, say “Everything is fine! Let’s dance and have fun!”, then
3) shut the hell up.

The Argentine tango is one of the most personal and intimate dances that exist. It needs to be based on two things: trust and respect. The beginner girl is putting a lot of confidence in all you leaders when she says yes to dance. What she should get in return is respect. If she does not get that, she’ll notice soon. And then she’ll be moving on.

Since I normally see this happen to followers, this post is voiced accordingly. Sadly, there are follower vultures as well. If you’re a follower vulture, all the above applies to you.

Credit goes to Iona “Terpsi” for the expression “long-term beginner”.

23 August 2016

The jealous tanguer@

“The guys only dance with the new girl. It's so annoying! I have danced for much longer than her.”

Picture this scenario: You are a tanguero or a tanguera who have been dancing for quite a few years. You’re enjoying a bit of admiration from the members of your tango community, and you get to dance with everybody in the local milongas. But one day, you realise that things are changing. New dancers are appearing on the scene - dancers who are becoming popular in your community. Secretly, you feel put in the back seat. Going to the milonga just isn’t as fun as it used to be.

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Good news! Great dancers are like vegetables: they’re good for us!

Here are two simple-but-important reasons why every community needs advanced dancers, even if we think they’re better than ourselves. Correction: especially if we think they’re better than ourselves.

- Advanced dancers attract other advanced dancers. While it may take only two to tango, it takes a lot more to make a community. The more good leaders in the local milongas, the more good followers will want to come out and play, and vice versa. And a community with many good dancers will also look way more attractive to the beginners, who we all know are the people we need to create the future of every tango community.

- Advanced dancers can be a great inspiration source. Whenever I have the chance, I’ll watch my favourite social dancers to see how they move and how they interpret the music. It’s a very concrete, constructive way of collecting visual input. Watching the professionals on YouTube is great, but it’s not the same when it’s in 2D on a small screen. Plus performances don’t really give a one-to-one reflection of social dancing. Whereas I do believe that performances also can be inspirational for social dancing, seeing high-level dancing that works in a social context is super valuable!

No challenges means that you can live a comfortable life in your local community. But no challenges also means that you haven’t got anyone around you to inspire you to improve. Of course, there’s always the discussion of whether it actually is necessary to improve. But if you are indeed feeling threatened by good dancers, it’s probably a sign that you DO want to be good. And if you want to be good, you need to work for it. So take all the inspiration you can get!

16 August 2016

First class

“I learn more in a private lesson than in a group class.”

In my previous blog post, I wrote about how we seem to be more interested in social dancing than in workshops (you can read the post here). I’d like to look a bit more at this topic, but from a slightly different angle this time: Why workshops can be just as useful as private lessons.

I guess many of us who live in smaller cities have followed the same learning pattern. In the beginning, we take group classes. After a while, we start taking private lessons instead because we feel that this format gives more value for our money. I also preferred private lessons for a while, but at some point I started taking group classes again. How much I get out a class varies a bit. Some teachers fit better with my way of learning, but generally, I’m noticing that I’m getting more out of each class now compared to earlier. It feels like the more you know, the easier it becomes to collect new information.

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So, based on my own experience, I’d like to promote group classes as a worthwhile option. Whereas I do believe that private lessons with good teachers are super useful, there are a number of reasons why taking group classes also may be valuable:

- Learning to learn in a group. You might find this a bit “meta”, but it could actually improve your ability to learn. In group classes, where you get less individual / personal attention, you may need to extract information from the class more actively and independently compared to what you do in a private lesson. This might make you more self-reliant the next time you're in a learning situation, and also when you practice.

- Learning how to work as a couple and how to give each other feedback and help. We all know how difficult this can be: not only understanding our own tasks but also understanding our partner’s, and on top on that handling the frustrations that may occur. But I think that having learnt something together, i.e. having the knowledge of your partner’s job in relation to your own, is very useful to bring with you afterwards, when you’re going to practice what you learnt in class.

- Learning about philosophies and ideas - important aspects that go beyond technique, like leading / following concepts, musicality, floorcraft, or cultural / historical aspects. Sometimes, important things might be said in plenum to one role that the other role also benefits from hearing. Examples could be hearing about the other role, or etiquette (like not teaching in the milonga), or why both roles should know the music. Sometimes, just one sentence can be worth the price of the class!

I’m extremely lucky to have a partner to take classes with and to practice with. I’d like to take the opportunity to give the leaders a friendly push here! There are so many followers who want to improve their dance, but who struggle to motivate the leaders in their community. Guys, get yourself off the sofa and start working. The ladies will thank you, and you’ll even thank yourself because it made you a better dancer.

11 May 2016

Back to school!

“I prefer taking private lessons and not group classes.”


I just attended a really nice workshop weekend. As I posted happily about my experience on Facebook, I realised something: I see lots of Facebook posts from friends having been to social dance events like marathons and encuentros, but it seems like not so many are inclined to writing the sentence “OMG I just went to this *brilliant* workshop weekend”.

If this really is so, I can think of a couple possible explanations:

1) People don’t want to write on Facebook that they take classes. Maybe we have this little voice inside telling us that “After all these years, you’re STILL taking classes? Better keep it a secret, or people will think that you are really slow.” Even though it’s not true, it could be that taking classes is still associated with lower levels. Or maybe we feel that a workshop weekend is not as glamorous as travelling to an international event. Going to the social events somehow gives the impression that we have a certain level since we’re being accepted into the event, and also that we’re on the inside of the social circles of international tango.

2) People have stopped taking classes and just want to enjoy the fruits of earlier years’ labour. Maybe they are genuinely happy with their current level and that they feel that they are getting a lot from tango already. It could also be that they believe that attending social events and dancing with lots of good dancers will make them improve.

Both of these explanations, if they are indeed true, make me a bit sad. I think tango might grow stronger if the interest in workshops were bigger. One way of making this happen could be to create more buzz around the workshop events. First and foremost, we need more intermediate-to-advanced dancers to swallow their pride (or their laziness) and actually get back into the classroom. And then we need the intermediate-to-advanced dancers to talk about the classes they’re attending, so more people would understand that to improve, it’s vital to get new impulses. Because at least this article here tells us that just dancing socially won’t make you improve much.

I know that not everybody has the opportunity to take classes. But if you do, I really think that attending workshops, and talking about it, will not only improve your own dance, but also help the community to blossom. Don’t get me wrong: private lessons are really important! But they don’t help build the collectiveness in a community the same way a workshop weekend might do, when dancers of all levels gather to learn from the same teachers.

And teachers, this post applies to you as well! Together with the intermediate-to-advanced dancers, you’re setting an example. So if you’re taking classes, talk about it. Show that you’re still interested in improving your own dance. If you’re not taking classes… well, you should.

9 December 2015

A shopping cart named desire

“She is like a Ferrari.”

The other day, a video popped up on Facebook of a guy dancing tango with a shopping cart in the grocery store. The text following the video is something like “What a divine follower”. The video (which up till now has been shared 500+ times) is meant for fun, yet it reminded me that it still exists, this idea that “a good follower is like a sports car”. Ok, I can see why “sports car” could sound like a compliment. I mean - quality and exclusivity and generally being the object of desire for most guys? C’mon, you’d be stupid not to want to be viewed like this. There’s just one problem with the metaphor: a car does not have a mind of its own. It doesn’t even have a brain. And for following, you need a brain.

Now I know that not everyone approves of “active following”. It often seems to be interpreted as “disagreeing with the leader’s interpretation and therefore making it difficult for the leader, thus making him look incompetent”. I also respect that there are different viewpoints on how much independence the follower should apply in the dance, even within the leader’s framework. But that’s a different discussion. The point I want to make is that all great followers are highly active dancers, because following is active by nature: it’s receiving the lead, interpreting the lead, and reacting (precisely) to this interpretation. Now try to do this without being active in some way. Even putting one foot in front of the other is something we have to first decide to do, then act on. The fact that someone asks us to to it does not make the action passive. We still need a mind and a brain of our own to actually make it happen.

And the shopping cart? Well, we can all agree it doesn’t have much of a brain. Neither does the sports car, regardless of its numerous qualities. I understand that leaders don’t want a bumpy ride and therefore will compliment great technique. But if a follower “runs smoothly”, it’s not because the factory did a good job. She runs smoothly because she’s a highly competent person who’s intelligent enough to acquire the necessary skills to do so.

Most importantly: a follower isn’t designed, built, and purchased for your enjoyment. She wants something out of the ride herself, too. And chances are that she’ll have a qualified opinion on your driving skills.