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.

11 November 2015

Musicality: description or empathy?

“It’s Mickey Mousing.”

I’ve always been provoked by this tango slang term. “Mickey Mousing” was coined to mean mimicking the music while dancing, but in a superficial and automatised way. But I never understood how dancing to the music could be a problem. For me, this has more or less from the beginning been the only way to truly be together in the dance: it gives meaning to what the leader does, and it’s a great tool to use for the follower to influence and colour the dance. I always believed that a good dancer is one that knows the music.

But then I had this weirdly eye-opening tanda. It was with a leader who obviously knew the music really well - the phrasing was right, every “important” pause was there. Everything was by the book. The tanda had all the stuff one would expect to learn in musicality classes. Yet the dance seemed strangely empty. It matched the music, but it was like everything was pre-programmed. I could have been dancing with a robot.

So I’ve started questioning my own dance. Which feelings do I transmit? Am I just describing the music through my dance? Do I want to show that I know the song, or do I want to show how the song makes me feel?
(continues below the picture)

Let’s look at an example: a tango with some nice staccato parts. We want to express this staccato. This is a technical thing. In addition, we might hear that in this particular tango, the staccato has a light quality, which can be interpreted as “happy”. So we try to put this into the dance. This is also a technical thing. You can go to a musicality class and learn how to dance a staccato and happy quality and repeat it in other songs.

But I believe that it’s perfectly possible to dance a happy feeling without actually feeling happy. Oppositely, music can make you feel happy even if you haven’t taken a musicality class in your life, because this is a different thing: the ability to get emotionally involved in something outside yourself. It’s a kind of “musical empathy”. And I think that the musical empathy is the core. It’s what makes us truly musical dancers: the ability to interpret musical emotions as human emotions.

Dont’ worry, though! All the musicality classes you’ve taken, all the hours you’ve spent watching Noelia and Carlitos videos for musical inspiration aren’t wasted. In addition to our musical empathy, we need technical skills and musical knowledge. They are the tools we use to integrate our emotions in the dance.

So how to do this? For me, it was enough to acknowledge that I was missing something. I wanted to be more emotional in my dance, so I decided I would allow myself to be something other than a “musical describer”. It’s possible that the change isn’t noticeable. As with all communication: I may feel something myself, but this in itself doesn’t mean that I’m communicating it to my partner. And the communication also depends on which leader is on the receiving end. I feel different myself, though. Maybe that's enough?

1 September 2015

In search of the joyful body

Follower friend: “I LOVE twisting.”


Some time ago, I went to an event and got a girl crush. You know, like when you were ten and there was a new girl in school who was almost twelve and who was super pretty and seemed super nice and super fun and had the coolest clothes and you wanted so much to be like her. My girl crush is probably both nice and fun, but so are many tangueras. The reason why I noticed her was something else: she seemed to have so much fun when she was dancing.

Obviously, it was not the first time I had seen dancers enjoying themselves on the pista. But when people smile, it’s often because we are enjoying our partner: a comfortable embrace, smooth following, or nice musical interpretation. What I noticed in the case of my girl crush, however, was that she looked like she enjoyed her own dancing. She had this rubbery, twisty, cat-like technique with a very intuitive expression, very physical and very effortless and not styled in any way, yet oh so pretty. Her dance was communicating “My body can do this, and it’s totally like the coolest thing ever” And she was smiling. Her partner was also smiling. Watching her, I suddenly felt that I’m missing out on something vital, literally speaking.

So I’ve been thinking about my own dance. When am I having fun? Obviously when my partner is connected to the music and I get to contribute with my own interpretation - in other words when we’re communicationg about the music. And I also think it’s fun when my technique is improving. But in many cases, I’m still hindered by my technique - and I’m also hindered because I’m thinking of my technique. And because of this, I’m not really enjoying the physical aspects of the dance the way I think my girl crush does. The idea that technique itself can be something enjoyable has not been conveyed to me. Technique has always been taught as a necessary tool for dancing, which actually is a bit odd when you think of it, because technique IS dancing, isn’t it?

I'm sure we'll become better dancers if we find a good connection not only with our partner and the music, but also with our own bodies. I’m not saying we should stop enjoying our partner, or stop communicating, or stop leading and following, or stop listening to the music. But maybe all these aspects of the dance would become even better if we allowed ourselves to be happy within our own dancing bodies.

In short: Let’s have more fun twisting.

22 June 2015

Dancing in the dark

Event organiser: “People don’t want light milonga venues. One girl said that if it’s light, everybody will see it if she makes mistakes.”


Dancing at a milonga never felt scary to me. It’s just a room filled with amateurs dancing with other amateurs. We all make various amounts of “mistakes”. I do understand that if one feels insecure about one’s own dancing, one might feel more exposed or vulnerable in a brightly lit room. You probably feel like there’s a huge spotlight directed at you and that everybody sees your clumsy ochos in glorious detail. The rational argument is unfortunately that even in semi-darkness, we can see your clumsy ochos. And we don't mind clumsy ochos. Really. But I guess that this has a lot to do with feelings, which we should respect! I’d still like to mention a couple of reasons why dancing in a light room could be worth trying.

First, there’s mirada + cabeceo. Yes I know, not everybody uses it. Maybe you don’t. But there is an increasing amount of people who do, and if the room is dark, it’s really difficult. When everybody’s faces turn into grey discs with black shadows around the eyes, it’s hard to figure out which mood people are in and where they’re actually looking. You’re probably missing out on dances yourself because of this, even if you don’t use the mirada actively, because someone will always be looking around for a hopeful face.

Then there’s our general physical comfort. If you’re in a dark room for several hours in the night, you’ll probably become more tired than you would in a well-lit room, since your body believes it's bedtime and your eyes are constantly trying to adjust and focus in the dim light. It also could be that some leaders will have more trouble navigating if the room is badly lit, because it becomes more difficult to gauge distances and read the other leaders' intentions.

Organisers, you’re probably facing a bit of a dilemma regarding this. But my guess is that if you change the lighting in your milonga, people will get used to it after a while. If you’re afraid of losing your guests, you could make the adjustments gradual. This is easy to do in venues where there’s a dimmer on the lighting and you pay attention to your changes in the settings. Or you could make changes after the summer break, so the transition feels less sudden.

When I’m sitting and watching the dance floor, I see mistakes all the time. Why do I see them? Well… first and foremost because people are laughing. And you know what? It makes me kind of happy to watch this: People trying, failing a bit for a second and laughing about it before returning to their deep focus. I think mistakes are a good thing. They’re part of what keeps the milonga alive, vibrant, and human.

Plus they’re not mistakes. They’re just moments of misunderstandings.

So, shy dancer: don’t hide. You’re learning a difficult dance, and you’re dancing it in public. More than anything, I think this proves that you’re actually super brave and should be proud of yourself.

23 April 2015

The tango dancer: designer or preserver?

The more I try to get on the inside of tango, the more I realise that I’m on the outside. The more I try to learn, the more I understand my lack of understanding. And I’m wondering which rights we have to owning tango, especially in an individual-centered culture where everybody - myself being no exception - claims the right to design “the tango that fits me”.

What is tango? Is it the steps? Is it the music? Is it the lyrics, written in a language that so many of us don’t even bother to learn? Is it the history?

I’m a modern European girl borrowing a culture and wondering about this: How much can we take away from tango before it’s not tango anymore?

And if it becomes something else and isn't tango anymore, does it matter?

10 March 2015

A Short Guide To The Unreturned Mirada

Recently, a lady told me that she had been approached and reprimanded by a guy at an event because she hadn’t returned his mirada. It’s not the first time I’ve heard about cases like this: a guy cornering a girl, questioning her about why she didn’t dance with him. It has happened to me as well. Thankfully, I’ve never been reprimanded, but I have been informed by guys that I’ve been difficult/impossible to cabeceo, and awkward moments have been had.

Frankly, writing this post makes me a bit grumpy, because in a community where you’d expect a certain level of manners, a post about this topic really shouldn’t be necessary. But it keeps getting proved that it is indeed necessary. So on behalf of all girls (and guys as well) who have found themselves in a similar situation, I present: A Short Guide To The Unreturned Mirada.

Let’s start with listing a few possible theories as to why your mirada and cabeceo don’t yield the result you desire:

A) She doesn’t want to to dance.

B) She doesn’t want to dance with you.

C) You’re not good at mirada and cabeceo.

D) She’s not good at mirada and cabeceo.

Now let’s elaborate our theories a bit:

A) It’s a myth that all girls want to dance all the time. There are many valid reasons why some of us dance fewer tandas at times and might not prioritize you - which brings us neatly to B).

B) is a bit more hurtful to the ego. But everybody - including yourself - makes choices about dance partners, and our choices are based on all kinds of different reasons: anything from techniques not being compatible to differing musical interpretation or an excessive use of perfumed products. Very few people get to dance with everybody they want to dance with. Even if we are allowed to get disappointed sometimes, we need to be pragmatic about this, or we’re only going to make both ourselves and others unhappy.

C) If this is the reason you can’t get dances, the solution is simple: practice your cabeceo, not your eloquence.

D) Finally: if you believe the reason you’re unable to invite her is her inexperience with mirada and cabeceo, try a bit more. If you’re good at it and she wants to dance (with you), you’ll succeed. Otherwise, leave it. It’s not your place to educate people at social events. Cabeceo takes practice, and if she doesn't master it, she probably already knows that she needs to work on it. And unless you can rule out A), B), and C) - which you can't, unless you're clairvoyant - you really cannot draw any conclusions about D).

You may mean well with your direct approach, but it won’t necessarily be interpreted like this. When you tell her that you “couldn’t cabeceo her”, you might sound like you think she is the one who is being difficult, and that she is the one to blame for your lack of success. And maybe it also sounds a teensy little bit like you think you have the right to dance with her.

Mirada-cabeceo doesn’t work like online shopping. The concept isn’t intended as a way for us to order dances. It’s meant as a system where everybody can decide who to dance with.

Which I guess is the exact reason why you’re in favour of it in the first place.

2 February 2015

The good, the bad, and Demare's violins

A few days ago, I wrote a status on Facebook about how I had gotten Demare on my brain. As I have songs on my brain all the time, it’s normally not something I write about on Facebook. But there’s this thing with Demare: I get him on my brain even though I don’t like him so much. It’s the violins that make me ambivalent about him: the sound is kind of wild, and the accenting is jarring. I find Demare’s violins really uncomfortable.

What I tried - and maybe failed - to communicate in the Facebook status, was that *even though* I don’t like Demare’s violins, I *still* think it’s good music. So on a deeper level, the post wasn’t actually about Demare’s violins. It’s about what we expect from music.

"Skrik" - Edvard Munch

I'll explain. It’s not the same as beginning to like something you didn’t like before, because you got used to it. It’s not quite the same as my Troilo project either, where I started liking Troilo after a period of self-education. There’s another layer to this: Liking something even if you still dislike it. As I thought more about it, I started wondering about the word “like”. It’s a very quick word, easy to use without reflection or elaboration, the same way we so often like music without reflection or elaboration. Nowhere is it easier to like music than in our modern world, or dislike it, or disregard it in a second.

I’m going to venture the opinion that our society’s relationship with music is deeply disturbed. Very often, music is used for something else than music itself:

- It’s used to manipulate our feelings. Music is used, even designed, to make us buy stuff: in commercials, in shops, even on the street outside the shops. It’s used to make visual impressions stronger in movies, steering us towards an interpretation.

- It’s designed so you should buy it. There are “recipes” on how to write a hit. There are data programs that analyse existing hits in pop music to find which parameters make up a hit, and these data programs can be used to estimate how many of these parameters are present in new artists’ songs - all to see whether a song has hit potential, i.e. to see if the music has economic value.

- It’s used by ourselves to improve our lives. We use music to protect ourselves against noise, both when we work and when we rest. We even use music to protect ourselves from other people’s music. We use it as a backdrop for all kinds of activities, like housework and excersise, homework even, to make us more motivated. We use it to get to sleep (and because we keep it on our devices, the music will continue playing all night).

Since music is a commercial product, or related to a commercial product, does it change the way we evaluate music? Does it mean that we regard it more as entertainment than communication, and that we expect or even demand immediate pleasure from it? And if we are surrounded, and surround ourselves, with music all the time, for secondary reasons, do we listen differently to it? Do we listen at all?

To me, liking something because it’s pleasing isn’t the only way of liking something. My personal experience - both from my music education and from tango - is that I have the deepest relationships with music that isn’t “pretty”. This is why I think we need to acknowledge the uncomfortable. It makes us stop and listen, to understand, to explain, and to think differently. It allows for the idea that music can be good even when it challenges you, and that it’s possible to like it even if you dislike it.

It’s ugly, and I’ll take the ugliness and make it mine and use it to create something.

The tango I had on my brain was ‘Canta, pajarito’ (recorded 1943 with Raúl Berón). 

14 January 2015

Códigos: rules or tools?

Los códigos. The rules. We find them on the websites of most encuentros and "milonguero" events these days: point-by-point specifications of how the organisers want us to behave at their event. The phenomenon has spurred hefty discussions. Basically, the marathon people think that encuentro people are a bunch of reactionary tyrants that are denying people the right to a free will and a free leg, whereas the encuentro people think that the marathoners are all mad hooligans whose main goal in life is to kick yo' ass, literally speaking. And as the discussion keeps repeating itself, I'm wondering why the rules generate so much noise. Since the encuentro concept is comparatively new in Europe, many of us are socialised into the marathon concept, so one would think that it’s only sensible and practical to inform people that the encuentros are different.

But do the encuentros *have* to be different? Can't we just do everything like we're used to and just have marathons? And why can't I do whatever I like?

Maybe the discussion isn’t only about marathons versus encuentros. Maybe these events are just handy personifications of different ways of thinking. It could be that the popularity of the European encuentro is making visible a growing crowd of people who want something else in tango in general - not necessarily because it’s how it’s done in Buenos Aires, but because the rules represent alternative solutions to what we have now. If so, maybe we should take a look at how we use them in our tango life. Can we make the rules become well thought through personal habits instead of just rules, and can we use them as tools to improve our community and even our communal mindset?

Cabeceo gives girls and guys equal possibilities to decide, provides a way of dealing with bullies, and gives shy people an alternative way of asking for dances. If we dance one tanda only, more people have the chance to dance more often, and we can get rid of the silent ranking system connected to how many consecutive tandas we grant each other. Paying more attention to the tandas in general might make us more aware of the music. Learning about floorcraft will obviously give better dance experiences for more dancers, both leaders and followers.

The rules are not good or bad in themselves. It’s all a question of how we understand them. It’s fully possible to use the rules only for selfish purposes: to use mirada and cabeceo to carefully ignore all dancers we think are less advanced than ourselves; or to follow the one-tanda-rule yet still only dance with people inside our circle of favourite dancers. But if we as dancers make an active choice to use the rules to make the tango community more open and our milongas and events easier to navigate, I think they can be very useful.

In the end, it’s about finding a healthy balance between “me” and “us”.