Category Archives: Tango Learning

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Tango, Poetry and Spanish

Recently I have been trying to understand what makes Spanish tango lyrics so beautiful – when their English translations are normally less than inspiring.

I suppose there are some obvious linguistic differences –

  • Spanish has softer consonants and longer vowels, and this helps the words to flow easily.
  • Spanish requires verb conjugations, so it’s easier to create rhymes in Spanish, which makes it an ideal language for poetry and music. And for that reason when we are translating back to English we often  find it impossible to generate a rhyme in quite the same way – if at all.
  • As a descendent of Latin, Spanish also builds upon a long heritage of music, poetry, art and culture that contribute to its overall romantic essence.

To me the Spanish of Tango often seems to me to be in some way clipped – like modern Latin American fiction it often uses the rhythms of small words that leave big spaces for your mind. Spaces into which we fall, and are invited to fill with our thoughts. An english translation often feels more cluttered – and less inviting to our imagination.

And then there is the Lunfardo issue – the local prison slang of Buenos Aires full of sexual innuendos, references to drug dens and speakeasies, and melancholic verses expressing pain and destitution.

Lunfardo is a barrier to us both in the complete lack of understanding of a word – but perhaps more dangerously that we don’t understand at all what a ‘Mariposa’ [butterfly] really meant in Lunfardo – so we don’t know what we are missing. But we know we don’t get it – because it just doesn’t make sense.

Or we sort of get it  – ‘Mina’ – yes its a mine but it of course in Tango is a beautiful woman as precious as a jewel – but still as Europeans in 2018 we are not so likely to  understand the historical context and  pejorative implications.

And they can imply all of this in just one short word.

So for all these reasons – it’s not my native language, it rhymes better, it sounds easier and it is packed full of Lunfardo and historical context – I am just not going to get it and no translation that could be sung to the same music is ever going to work as a lyric for that melody.

But to me there is something else – something I feel quite strongly but I can’t easily explain.

It is to do with an emotional emphasis – that in some way the Spanish word in Tango sometimes seems to call up an emotion that explains something – whereas the English word just stops with the thing itself.

The example I often think of is the iconic Pugliese album – ‘Ausencia’ – and that amazing image of the rose on the piano because once again Pugliese was held by the authorities and so the Orchestra was playing without him.

Layers upon layers of meaning. But my point here is more basic – I can’t really find any other way to translate ‘Ausencia’ than with the English word ‘Absence’.

I cannot imagine even the most talented of British bands singing a song called ‘absence’ – I am sure someone has – but to me ‘absence’ is what gets you a bad mark at school.

I think this is a good example that brings many of these things together. Ausencia is indeed full of longer vowels and softer consonants. There are layers of meaning. Not in this case Lunfardo – just a context that it is hard to recapture.

So you are absent, in English we are inclined to write down a bad mark and move on to something more interesting – in Spanish we ask.. and desperately want to know .. why?

A contract to dance a Tanda

A phrase that perhaps we are very familiar with. This idea of the agreement. Invitation, acceptance – contract.

But a contract to do what exactly?

It is certainly not a contract to spend 10 minutes together. We can so that at a bus stop. Nor is it a contract to do what you always do – with everyone – yet again.

Surely it is an agreement to create an individual dance together.

Whatever the limitations we find in each other – we are jointly contracted to create something unique and we should share with equal commitment to that venture. Perhaps we cannot yet create what we aspire to. But with patience, focus, and listening skills we can indeed create something.

This takes so much work – it is so far from easy – just look at this image of Joâo Alves dancing this weekend at La Baldosita Milonga.

He is working so hard. Not on showing his skills to the outside world – but instead on her, the music, and what they can create together. He did this all evening – dancing noticeably differently with each follower – adjusting so many things.

In my view followers listen more than most men – if they did not they would have no idea where to move. Leaders take a while to learn to listen to the woman’s body – they have a lot of other concerns of course – navigation, safety and what to lead next to name just a few. But perhaps this is an excuse.

What I am enjoying trying to learn now is how to focus on the art. On the work that we are creating. To listen to her and then to adjust totally what I lead and how I lead it – because this is her – and this is now – and that was her response.

Creation is not a science. In the context of social tango it is an artistic miracle. Great art always asks questions and people respond in their own individual way..

What I am finding is that within this context limitations actually become inspiring. In my view Picasso created some of his most powerful and engaging work with a charcoal stick and an ink pen.

Constraints help us to focus on the art itself and not on the froth of the possible. If we do not have an ultramarine blue to share then we must instead use what we have – and with care and respect create this kind of image and not that one.

Of course if we are accomplished – and I am certainly not – we would value the experience of dancing with someone equally experienced and talented. But for the rest of us we can derive great pleasure from creating the best art that we can in this moment – in this contract – with this person and to this music.

So perhaps look for someone to dance with who wants to create something individual, something transient and unrepeatable. Someone who listens to you – and above all then changes how they dance because of what they hear.

When you find them – sign that contract.

And smile.

Matter over Mind – Unfortunately

I have had a few Damascus moments on my own road to learning Tango. The most notable was a few years ago when I realised the importance – and complexity – of the music.

In that one moment paths opened to me that enabled me to completely change everything in my dancing. Of course to do so needed more years of study –  a change of priority and a new awareness. But in that transformational moment I completely understood  the importance of the music – I realised that I was indeed wrong before – and so much closer to my goals in that at least I now understood what I needed to do.

I have consistently sought after and recognised great teachers. That isn’t a moment so much as a value. Who you learn from is so critically important, of course – but more like choosing the right road, once you have enough knowledge to even tell the difference.

But the latest moment is indeed another game changer – and it has come at a time to save me.  Or at least to give me a chance.

On the advice of one of my teachers about 2 weeks ago I sought advice from a dance trained physio. And yes – it turns out that my body is indeed beaten up.

So it doesn’t in fact default to a perfect tango posture – and asking it to do so just by thinking about it is just not going to work for more than a few seconds at a time. If at all.

But these things are so improvable. Just dont ask your mind to do it- because it can’t –

….in exactly the same way as it cannot in fact bend a spoon anywhere outside of hollywood.

Instead you in fact need a physical reset on your body. Pairs of opposing muscles can be treated when one side is too tense and the other too weak. Exercise programs can be set – and with your passion for Tango actually followed.

Deep tissue massage can break down blocks in the way that a million neurons cannot. Tense muscles can in fact be lengthened by someone who knows what they are doing – and what you are trying to achieve. Your pelvis can be put closer to where it should be.

And if – like me – you have been trying so hard with solo tango exercises and just getting frustrated – what a joy when it all comes together – when  your mind can play it’s role and your body takes it’s part because – finally – it can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great – I hate my Tango

‘Hate’ is a strong word.

Tango means so many different things to us all. It can be a social thing,  just one ‘interest’ amongst many others, a hobby, a way to meet people – or of course it might be an all consuming passion.

For many – almost all – the passion eventually dies. For them it now becomes  ‘just a phase’ – the game is over and they feel cynical and frustrated. They might leave completely. They might hang on to a peripheral world – watching through opaque glass and feeling lost.

Sometimes – as with anything else that is so difficult – we simply lack guidance, friendship and inspiration when we needed it so much and can just feel so lost.

Nothing is constant and all of these things can change at any time – a friend or a mentor might be an important companion for such a long time. So you trust them. You need them.

Then they leave for something more important to their own lives. Or they just can’t cope with you and all your over emphasised and completely irrational focus on what is at the end of the day just one of many, many systems of movement to music.

For me there is only one constant.

Always, always there – in a frustrating emotional landscape. The fact is that I am always completely unsatisfied with my own abilities to move in any adequate way with an experienced partner to Tango music.

So – yes – hate is a strong word. But for me this emotion has been such a constant presence and without such a consuming passion to try and try again to be better I would be forever lost exactly where I am right now – in this moment listening to De Angelis – buried so deep in the endless mire of my own mediocrity.

So I welcome that feeling – the fact that I am so unhappy with the way I dance. I embrace it. I follow it.

And then I lead it – I lead it towards a place where I can be with amazing teachers, practise partners and social dancers and just get better. I lead myself and all of my emotional baggage to this largely – but not completely – imaginary oasis.

Not to talk about it. Not to understand it. Just to work hard and to dance better.

Yay.

When it’s all worth it

We work so hard at Tango.

Sometimes we can get a bit lost, feel that it isn’t worth it – that nothing should be this hard.

 

But then you dance with someone and you both just smile.

Tango is often such a wistful, sad and yearning experience. But inside so much of it is a wonderful chance to experiment, to play and just to enjoy yourself and the way you are both moving so freely to wonderful music and to each other.

In these tandas we absolutely understand why we do this thing. We do it for this. To celebrate our acquired skills. To enjoy the miracle of moving as one.

 

To dance.

Dancing with a Goddess – part I

Last weekend I had the chance to dance a tanda with a goddess – someone so far advanced of me in every aspect of tango that we do indeed inhabit different realms.

And true to the tango leader wimpiness that is alas so very common – even though she told me days in advance that at this milonga she wanted to dance with me – I still did not have the courage to actually ask her. I am such a mortal.

Fortunately for me in the end she gave up waiting and cast a mirada in my direction that made it very clear that if I didn’t actually dance with her this second I was very likely to be vaporized. Or worse.

 

 

This was not my best moment – goddesses like to be worshipped and for her to have to initiate the invitation was more than a little inappropriate.

After this hopeless start I am pleased to say that for me this tanda was a whole new experience.

During the sleepless nights I had had before the milonga I had thought of what to do – how to approach this opportunity.

I made some fairly sensible plans and approaches ..

1. Do not pretend to be something I am not

Legends are full of people imitating gods, venturing too close to the sun and to their domain – and coming to gruesome ends.

Unfortunately being in the arms of a goddess does not make you a god – just terrified.

Be quiet, still and as confident as you can be – and never rush anything. In fact what you think of as fast is painfully slow to a goddess – just as what you think of as slow is kind of average. They are physically so adept that you are best to move at a pace that is the most appropriate for you – do try to vary the emotional landscape using musicality, compression and step length but stay in your executable zone as much as you can so that your lines are clean.

Goddesses don’t like messy lines – they are a sign of mortality.

2. Concentrate on the music

I have thought for a while now that the conversations people describe in tango are often not between the leader and the follower but instead between the follower and the music.

When you are with a goddess you have insufficient shared  vocabulary to say anything other than the dancing equivalent of “Hello – what’s your name?”.

But she has an almost unlimited way to talk to the music in the most complex and sophisticated ways – so try to give them space and to stay out of their way.  Then listen like you have never listened before. Listen with everything you have – apart from letting the music in your ears are nothing to do with it.

Listening to the way a goddess expresses the emotions of tango is a powerful shot of understanding. Don’t miss out.

3.  Don’t be too simple

Many well meaning teachers explain to us student leaders that a good follower will enjoy a beautiful walk more than a poorly executed complex figure.

This is true – the problem when you are with a goddess is that ‘beautiful’ has just been radically redefined. Me leading a goddess to walk for even one whole bar is quite likely to result in her conjuring up a taxi to rescue her from such a painful experience.

So find the middle ground. Of course a mortal should never try to back sacada a goddess – but if you love your close embrace volcadas you shouldn’t shy away from them just because they are off axis. The sensitivity and control in the axis of a goddess and their ability to suddenly become virtually weightless in your arms are a complete joy to experience – so don’t miss out by safely sticking to a true beginners vocabulary.

4. Allow her to look like a goddess

Remember that she is actually taking a risk here.

If I don’t give her her axis, if am not musical – if I block her from moving how she wants to then she is going to look mortal – and that for her is hell.

So above all let her be feminine elegant and beautiful – let her move in the way that only a goddess can.

5. Try to remember to breathe


Life after a tanda with Her

There are risks of course. Every tanda ends and once you have danced with a goddess dancing with mortals is always going to feel different.

The optimist in me tries to think of this as progress. The realist sees a narrowing corridor down which i must progress – with fewer and fewer possibilities.

My goal now is to find a wannabe goddess practise partner who has had the same all too brief encounter with a god and is as motivated as I am to experience it again. To find someone that that wants to work and work and work so that they can again tempt the god to spend just 12 minutes in their arms.

I don’t want to push the metaphor too hard but i have been quietly thinking how mortals have tried  to appease the gods over the millennia and how they have attracted their favours.

Unfortunately I don’t have the skill or strength to build a temple. Sacrifices are basically out of the question. I am no prophet and I lack the ability to move mountains or to part the waters.

So I am pinning my foolish mortal hopes on nice chocolates and flowers.

And that practise partner.

The Draw to Perform Experience

This is a composite video of Day 1 – what a wonderful summary of such a diverse series of performances.

This was such an interesting time for me. Meeting Jan, being around such artistic talent – experiencing something new.

Artists are all credited in the video – but from me a special thanks to Jan Rae, Ram Samocha and to Domenico Dominelli for creating such a professional summary video.

Habits

I have been thinking about habits a lot recently – so many bad things I do in Tango are habituated – I just do them without thinking. It seems crushingly hard to bring them fully back into my conscious mind so I can break them down, and either change or remove them.

So I was fascinated to read extracts from an interview with  Naval Ravikant, a polymath. Some relevant quotes : 

I think human beings are entirely creatures of habit. Young children are born with no habit loops. They’re essentially born as blank slates. Then they habituate themselves to things and they learn patterns and they get conditioned and they use that to get through everyday life. Habits are good. Habits can allow you to background process certain things so that your neocortex, your frontal lobe, stays available to solve brand new problems.

You absolutely need habits to function. You cannot solve every problem in life as if it is the first time it’s thrown at you. What we do is we accumulate all these habits. We put them in the bundle of identity, ego, ourselves, and then we get attached to that.

I’ve definitely broken habits completely. I think you can uncondition yourself. You can untrain yourself. It’s just hard. It takes work. It takes effort. Usually the big habit changes comes when there’s strong desire-motivators attached to them.

I have often thought if I could just minimise the damage – still be a victim of the habit but just try to force myself as often as possible to override it  – try to be conscious of it and cover it up in some way:

Suppression doesn’t work. When you try to suppress, that’s the mind suppressing the mind. That’s just you playing games with yourself. I think it’s a very hard problem.

So it seems that indeed to break down these habits is really tough – but to improve we have no choice. We have to be aware of them, be motivated to break them and learn new ones at the lower, physical  level of the way we naturally move.

It seems even more challenging in dance because as soon as we start this we replace something that although incorrect at least felt easy and fluid with something that just paralyses us – no-one can dance Tango while solving so many problems intellectually. Precisely why we needed the habits in the first place.

But trying to outsmart our own body is just playing games with ourselves – and fools us with the fake  havens of inorganic Tango, a lack of possibilities and the ultimately unsatisfying landscape of an intermediate dancer.

To move properly we have physically work so hard – there are no clever short cuts – we need an initial understanding from a mentor so we can understand the problem – a lot of motivation – and then a huge amount of repetitive work on solo exercises, posture – and if we are lucky enough  the chance to work with practice partners who already get this..

Then, just maybe, we can change our habits – one at a time – replacing them with new ones that create a whole new level of movement, energy and possibilities.

Leading, Following, Musicality – and Connection

Some pretty deep Tango subjects.

So I watched this .. many, many times over – along with about 15 million other people ..

And I thought…

  • Such a sense of rhythm – amazing on all levels
  • It’s all about the music – obviously
  • There is absolutely no lead and follow – they are in harmony creating something wonderful
  • The energy circulates around them, sometimes more on one than the other but always ebbing and flowing backwards and forwards between them
  • They are so on top of everything
  • They can break all the rules because of course they know how to stay within them – they can remake the idea of an acoustic guitar and change our expectations
  • She does watch him – to reference him – but that’s all
  • They aren’t even touching each other

And here’s what really, really matters to me…

  • He isn’t taking her space.
  • She hasn’t got her head stuck on him.
  • They nail the end
  • It’s bloody exciting.

Yay – please can I work so hard day after day, hour after hour – with someone to be as creative, expressive, exciting and balanced as this in Tango?