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.