As someone who has been constant over the last almost 9 years in my lack of interest in any tango that is choreographed – it really is interesting to start this personal journey now.
The initial lessons for me are really powerful, and I suppose if you have been choreographed before then they are obvious – but I never have been.
Some highlights for me as I make the first hesitant steps on this journey:
It is fundamentally liberating for the follower to actually know what’s coming next. It really changes everything for her.
If we are serious about learning Tango we all want to push boundaries and break down barriers.
In a choreographed world for the follower so many things are now ‘enabled‘ and ‘allowed‘ – she can get the most out of every moment, and move her body in way that would carry an unacceptable risk in social dancing.
I can already sense as a leader that new links to the music are opening up, in a very precise and different way from improvised dancing. This is exciting – some more elaborate, choreographed moments can certainly be brought back to the world of improvised tango that I love so much.
More elaborate footwork – for example – will not disturb her as she quite rightly has little knowledge of what embellishments a leader’s feet are doing.
Thinking about an audience is another perspective – I have cared for a while now about aesthetics – but not in this way.
In a way though it brings back a whole new anxiety – as a leader in a social dancing world I can be in the moment – move from node to node, improvise my way through the dance – and that place took a lot of effort to occupy with some confidence.
Now I am anxious that I might forget what’s next.
And in a way that makes me a follower – in that I have that mindset that I need to push beyond – am I about to make a mistake?
We need to stay in the present to enjoy the magic of Tango.
Follower’s anxiety drags us into the future.
So – I think – does choregraphy.
But it is yet another layer in this unlimited journey – and that of course is just fascinating.
I am writing this at the end of May 2020, and so we have been without our Lewes Milonga for 4 months – as we cancelled our early March event. While some organisers and teachers continued for some weeks – basically our community has lost the chance to dance and practise Tango for 3 months.
And realistically there is no end in sight.
I imagine that larger local milongas like Lewes with 60 dancers will not be permitted until the end of the year – as social distancing is a sensible precaution long after the worse is behind us – but social distancing and larger tango events are of course completely incompatible.
I worry that this might have put the validity of the Brighton / Sussex community at serious risk.
I have been so fortunate that I have been able to work really hard throughout these times, practising hard and using videos to help replace the eyes of our teachers – and now to help them work with us through online reviews. I have personally never worked so hard at Tango – and in terms of learning and continuing to develop I miss only the physical presence of my teachers and mentors.
But for the majority of our tango community this is not the case and – apart from solo work and support through online sessions – our dancers will have been deprived of the chance to dance, study and improve.
Tango of course is a difficult dance and requires constant practise and study to retain your confidence. Many of our community were already inexperienced – with less than 5 years of Tango – what kind of impact will this hiatus have on their abilities, confidence and therefore pleasure in Tango?
What percentage will we have lost? I don’t know the answer – I am just concerned.
Will we have lost any local teachers that have been working in the community for so many years? It is almost impossible to earn a living by teaching in a local community but this consistency is what a true community needs. Our teachers will have been under extreme financial stress for perhaps almost a year – if this causes anyone to give up I think we would all completely understand.
What can more experienced dancers, organisers and teachers do to make the transition back to this world as easy as possible – to retain as many as we can of what in my personal opinion was already a fragile community? How could we build it back up again? How can we make sure that there really is a well thought out series of opportunities for new dancers to develop their skills with confidence and enjoyment?
At this time we still have a long way to go – but perhaps we could consider ideas and try to be coordinated, thoughtful and ready when tango becomes possible again.
Some of my thoughts are :
Really market the excitement of Tango to new dancers coming out of a world with limited physical contact in social events for so long. Try to create a genuine opportunity for attracting new dancers that might be receptive to new social activities as life returns to some kind of normality.
Take the opportunity to look for suitable venues while they are still empty.
Start really inspiring and friendly guided practicas in smaller locations – ideally not at the weekends to avoid clashes with any of the first larger events – if they do start up again.
Support our teachers by attending their classes when they need more experienced dancers to help
As Tango DJs perhaps we could make sure that we play a higher percentage of less challenging music – suitable for less experienced people lower on confidence? A dancer low on confidence only needs a few bad experiences to be extremely discouraged.
We should all make our events as interesting and exciting as possible – even more so than before.
As organisers strengthen even more our cooperation – attending each others events and trying – as we have been – to never cause clashes. We could even plan to have far fewer larger Milongas until the community rebuilds.
This will mean giving more of our time to our local community, mutually supporting each other while we try to rebuild.
Personally I am particularly interested in both the marketing opportunity and in helping with practicas and classes.
Small guided practicas – if there is a theme to focus on with really great and varied music – can be a fantastic and less intimidating way to restore confidence and motivation, to welcome newer students and to help them to transition to the world of milongas and wider communities. Of course by definition they are for fewer people and tend not to be something to travel for – so perhaps we should plan to have several?
People vary in their opinions – some suggesting that new dancers should not go to a Milonga for a year or more – whatever your thoughts on this are the world of inspiring, friendly and guided practicas are a great source of motivation after the first months of classes.
Let’s make sure they exist.
Small groups of dancers in classes and practicas might – perhaps – be allowed to take place some time before larger events – in which case they could be a valuable resource for the less confident for a few valuable months.
If a Milonga was already slightly difficult for an inexperienced dancer – it is going to be even more of a challenge if they haven’t danced at all for a year..
If our community is to stand every chance of surviving and eventually to thrive – personally I think this needs thought, ideas and planning.
In the entirely separate world of my business life this time of economic turmoil has crated so many ideas, really deep changes and so much innovation in our company. If we had stayed with our old ways we would have really struggled.
In our dance world what we don’t want to happen is that in many months time, when Tango is welcomed again by society and risk free – to breathe a huge sigh of relief and then realise we have no community left and no plans to restore it.
In these difficult times we have totally changed the way that we practise. Four sessions a week – and 100% using video.
On day 1 we pick a theme – like colgadas – study our Trello Cards – focussed, labelled and categorised records of our professional teachers teaching us each sequence – and start to practise them.
We video a dance where we feature the sequences we are studying, and later on we select at least 6 things that need improvement. We also are careful to praise each other where things look good – this needs to be sustainable and focussing only on weaker areas can itself cause issues.
On day 2 we work on these identified areas – comparing our efforts to our teachers – all again using video.
We then re-record a dance and compare the first versions with the second.
This is an incredibly focussed practise routine. Here is an annotated example from last weekend.
Before the pandemic we used video only occasionally, and in a very general way. This is a new level completely.
We miss the professional input of our teachers hugely – but we have enough material and have been taught enough times that when we see errors we are confident in our ability to work through them, applying the solid foundation principles that we have been taught by them for so long.
We also practise to the more open modern music so associated with Nuevo – this may seem unusual but I find as the leader that it frees up one side of my brain, that would normally be so in tune with the complex demands of the music.
Four sessions a week is actually more work than when we were attending classes and social practise sessions, as we only practised by ourselves once a week.
The difference is the focus – and the completely different relationship we have now with the camera.
As Tango dancers we always want to be moving forwards – and this certainly is producing great results even after just the first weeks – since the lockdown started.
One either benefit is that the attention to detail and the planned nature of each session makes everything stress free, and hugely rewarding and enjoyable. We often limit each session to just 45 minutes – which flies by as we work rapidly through each area.
We so look forward to being able to dance with our friends in our small practica and to being back under the watchful eye of our experienced professionals – but this has indeed proved an outstanding way to change our learning regime to take advantage of these unexpected and unfortunate times.
All feedback welcomed – on facebook please as your thoughts will reach a wider selection of our community.
Next month it will be 8 years of throwing myself at this thing. Such an enjoyable journey, so many friends met, so many great experiences. Such deep music.
I have travelled many, many times for Tango, pushed myself, studied, studied again and sometimes – in the last year or so – actually danced with some sense of pleasure.
But despite this completely wonderful experience I do feel some disappointment, frustration and ultimately sadness. I want to work to change this.
In many ways I think that what tango is now, how it is presented, how we consume it – is fundamentally flawed.
It is the ultimate elephant in the room – where we all just ignore the presence of so much complete and utter nonsense – perhaps because everyone else does. And because we still want to believe – even though time and time again the real world knocks on our door and tells us that we are mistaken.
Trying to work this out I just want to think of some of the fundamental parts of the tango world, as I have experienced them, just one at a time.
This is an improvised dance but 90% of teachers everywhere prioritise steps with little discussion of the embrace, communication or creativity.
What on earth is the point of this? If we do manage to keep learning for more than a few years then we as students have to fight so hard for even more years to escape from the collateral damage these teachers inflicted on us.
Learning patterns so you can pretend you can get through an improvised dance when a clueless person is watching has nothing to do with the beauty of feeling Tango. Yet that is what we so often get.
So many possibilities – yet the reality for most people is an immensely unoptimised experience. Dire music, miserable environments, beautiful women who have made such an effort sitting on chairs for 90% of the evening praying that there might by a miracle be at least one leader in the room that knows something about the essence, music and beauty of tango.
And that they might possibly ask them – because it is apparently OK that they can’t ask but leaders can.
What on earth is the point of these things? A succession of smiling choreographed professionals show us they can memorise lots of impossible things to do very quickly in 12 minutes.
Of course they can, they don’t have anything else to do and they spend months and months trying.
Who cares? Even if they made a mistake we wouldn’t notice because we have no idea what their predetermined sequence that they just forgot was ..
Choreographed performances, speeches and announcements, and through all of this beautiful women who have made such an effort are now sitting on chairs for 3 days on end rather than just 4 hours
The gender imbalanced world of Tango means that once men know a few meaningless patterns and are not completely torturing followers they can keep getting dances and just stop learning because they don’t need to learn to meet their own limited ambitions.
Although of course this is understandable it is such a disaster for an intelligent, fascinating, difficult and improvised partner dance. But it is the reality. Especially – I think – in England.
This one I just don’t get. And I care about it so much. Because I want to practise.
If we love tango – and we want to work at it – because Tango has no valid shortcuts and we want to be better – why on earth doesn’t everyone I meet talk about how to practise, who you are practising with, where to practise – how to work, how to learn. How to sweat, listen, try, create – to make something. How to create something true to themselves.
How to break down any muscle memory of steps until they have completely gone. How to take yourself to where you have never been before. How to creatively exit in 3 different ways from this node. How to get in a zone but stay with the music. How to converse with each other. How to connect and stay connected and never ever lose it.
But they never do. They might talk about lessons, teachers, other dancers, sometimes Milongas and often festivals. They say they want to be so good at something so challenging – yet they don’t prioritise practise. They don’t work together – helping each other.
This I don’t get and I don’t think I ever will. It as if the Tango world pulled a colossal blanket over all of our eyes. It’s like a perfect conspiracy.
The perfect tango conspiracy
1 It is an improvised dance – ignore that just learn these wholly irrelevant steps instead.
2 It is hard – ignore that and don’t practise
3 It is the world’s most beautiful music – full of so many emotions that you can dance to – ignore that and have no understanding what orchestra this is, who the singer is and have no idea what they are saying – that’s just fine.
I am going to find people who really do want to work at this thing. Great work, effort filled work. Sweat, frustration and joy – as obstacles of communication are overcome..
Practise – the thing we all should be doing but mostly aren’t. From now on I am going to chase this down – somewhere in the world there has just got to be a group of hard working people who see through the tango myth that surrounds them and want to actually work hard and get better at an improvised dance?
I would get on planes to find them. And I suspect that is exactly what I will have to do.
I have always been thrilled to watch the great performers being able to improvise and leverage the individual track they are dancing to.
It’s like they know every note.
In one of those moments we all get in Tango I now realise that this is because they actually do. They really do know every note. They aren’t pretending they do. They really do.
And this took a heck of a lot of focussed listening. It isn’t some freaky genetic gift or super hero talent – they put the work in.
They can improvise with such great speed, inspired creativity and heightened enjoyment precisely because they really do know exactly what is coming – their focus is free to emotionally respond to it – and how to express that with their partner.
So I am starting this journey. I guess that I will need to listen to each track 500 times to be anywhere near where I need to be. And to avoid going crazy I decided to work on this with 3 different songs.
Based on the songs I have chosen that is already going to take 8:34 * 500 which is 70 hours of listening. If I can be disciplined I can do this 6 days a week – we all have off days – and on those days I listen to them all 3 times. That is mathematically fairly neat – it is going to take 6 months of effort.
So – now to the songs.
Criteria for selection :
They get played in Milongas. We all want the chance to show off a bit after so much effort – don’t we?
They are emotionally complex.
They vary in rhythmic and melodic sections.
They vary in emphasis between piano, strings, bandoneon and – where there is one – the singer’s voice.
I actually wanted a majority of instrumentals as I thought after a few hundred listens the words might irritate me.
There are frequent pauses and still areas.
They aren’t Pugliese tracks – I couldn’t survive listening to the same Pugliese track 500 times in a row, 6 days a week for 6 months. No one is that strong.
They are tracks I just love to dance to.
So here they are – with – just for interest – the number of times I have listened to each one at home to date ..
El Último Café – Juan D’Arienzo & Jorge Valdez (97)
Pura Clase – Biagi ( 275 )
Felicia – De Angelis ( 223 )
I am going to fall asleep to these songs. I am going to wake up to them. Eat and drink with them. Walk with them. I plan to waft around the room to them pretending to be Carlitos.
I frequently find myself a bit fed up because I finally get something in Tango and then realise that great teachers have been telling me that for years.
Why didn’t I hear them?
The problem – I now realise – is that there is no “finally” in Tango.
Especially with the big concepts – like connection, the embrace, energy, focus and musicality.
I did hear them.
And I am sure I tried to improve. But I was only at the skill level I had, so exactly the same word and even similar sentences of patient explanation – could only be interpreted by my mind according to the experienced and remembered feelings of my body.
It just isn’t possible to understand the depth of these huge concepts using words alone – exactly the same word – “connection” – just has a completely different meaning to a professional than it does for someone like me with not yet 6 years of study.
We think we understand – it is an explainable word – but we don’t. We have to crawl there day by day – and when we make a noticeable improvement we tend to think we have “got it”.
As an intermediate Tango student with 5 years of study it seems like I have already been hearing the concept of Tango conversations for forever.
I guess that for about 2 years now I have been improving my listening skills. Of course – it is critical to learning and I have great teachers. I have also been working a lot recently on focus.
But at my current skill levels it seems all I can create is not a conversation in any meaningful sense – but more like a series of alternate monologues.
I suggest that the follower pauses, they do, I give them time, they do something. I lead them out of that and then I suggest something else – or perhaps they do.
So I do something and then it just endlessly repeats like some demented game of ping pong – until the 12 minutes are up and the TJ calls time out.
I accept that this sounds like a conversation. I speak, you speak, I speak.
But it frustrates me. Real conversations – or at least good ones – evolve as they go. Things said ripple over time and impact the next statements. The conversation reaches a conclusion based on what we actually said. The mood changes. We play and interact.
We react to each other not just because it is “my turn” but based on what the other person just communicated to me. We listen and say something different based on that input.
And that is what I find is so lacking in my intermediate Tango. We all just do what we do when given a welcome chance to create something rather than just shoved about.
I kind of guess at 2 more years. Maybe by then I will find the skill to have an actual conversation that leads somewhere that is new for both of us.
As I get back into writing I have been thinking how to divide my time and attention across my company, writing, Tango, languages, photography, cooking – and my deep personal relationships and my friends.
The classic problem that faces all generalists with too many interests.
Today I happened to come across a blog that interested me at a very high level – on how to balance your time.
It was written by Mark Sisson. The original is here.
“Learn For an Hour, Create For an Hour, Move For an Hour
So how would I apply this 1:1:1 learn, create move idea in my life?
I think that although I am very fortunate with my working life – it is indeed in itself both creative and inspiring – this kind of planning should be applied to my spare time – like most folks this is evenings, weekends and time away. This is after all where we have a lot of control and can make meaningful choices.
Learn, create, move.
Learning Tango from great teachers – and practising hard – is all of them.
Writing and photography are creative, so is cooking.
Learning Spanish is firmly in the learning camp.
But of course what we all need is motivation – and sustainability. Our path has to be something that we can walk onto, enjoy, sustain and then build on. Not just another task.
And this is where it gets really interesting for me. More and more I look to travel – study Tango in Spain and learn the language. And of course when we travel we find both images and culinary inspiration.
Of course ‘Move’ in the original context of this post means exercise – not ‘get on a plane’ – but for me going international is increasingly what I need to do.
Having lived in 5 countries the modern world of remote working calls me back.
Tango in the UK is so frustrating for me personally.
Perhaps after all it is not so silly to chose to interpret ‘move’ as exactly that.