Category Archives: Tango Learning

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Killing Space Invaders with a Tango Goddess

I am a tango student and I travel to a distant world. And back. Every week.

It is at the opposite end of my universe from my world and is known as Walthamstow.

I go there again and again because there is a force there. Someone who is becoming a mentor to me and who has such a deep understanding of Tango that I will cross the universe every week on my crippled southern rail star fighter just to try again, and fail again – because that is what I need to do and that is where she is.

She  – more than any mortal – just tells you the truth. If you have the strength to take it – believe me it is what you need to hear.

Recently she has been killing my space invaders.

  • I invade her space when I simply stand – my left hip is too high so I tilt to my right to compensate – of course into her space because that is where she is.
  • I move around her – and over anticipating I tilt to my right – into her space.
  • My shoulders come forward – into her space.
  • She walks perfectly into my embrace and at the last moment I glance at her – unfortunately invading her space. Zap!
  • My connection is too high by about half an inch – she can never get to a perfect axis on her forward step – because – I am invading her space. Zap!

She is a goddess – she hates space invaders. They take away her ability to be her, to create. I come with an army of parasitic space invaders and they upset her. So she is helping me to destroy them – one at a time.

Lightsabers don’t actually go ‘Zap’ – they do something else. But I can’t spell it.

What she actually does for an hour and a half is to patiently take me apart, explain it, manipulate me – show me in both roles –  and help me to put it back together again in the way it should have been in the first place.

It is a painful process – and agonisingly slow. Because I am mortal.

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

So after 5 and a half years of studying Tango I am back concentrating on side steps, back steps and suspensions – and getting everything wrong.

But for 90 minutes at least a goddess is holding me and giving me the smallest glimpse of what might be – if only I can find the force within me.  And with her leading the way – perhaps I can.

Her name is Bianca Vrcan.

 

Tango – You, Her, the Music and both of your Alter egos

You have been so aware of her. There is a moment, a chance, a stillness. You ask. Your heart races. She accepts. You are scared.

She waits and then slowly walks towards you, in control of every part of her body.

She walls in your space with her eyes, stretches herself to meet you and in that singular moment offers herself to you – and you know you are both reaching for this quietly opening door that leads to a world that can  shut you out of everything mundane. Are you going to blow everything?

He is searching you with his eyes. You have been so aware of him, You sense it. You raise your eyes. He asks, and you accept. You are scared. You walk towards him, and he calmly and confidently offers himself. He lets you in and embraces you. He is so incredibly still. You feel what might be. Are you going to blow everything?

You are entering that world again. That password protected place, that all so fragile other world built on such a solid foundation of years and years of learning and hard practise.

Your partner is the key that you need to enter this other world. And that magic is a code that is written into the first long seconds of a completely silent embrace “Yes – I do understand. I am listening and I can hear you. And I am going to explore you, your dreams, myself, my dreams – and this music.”

When you try to be one with them all, with the music and  both of your dreams then everything else is silent.

Four dancers. Four songs.

Two of the dancers you can feel. Of the others one you know, one is waiting for you. Of this one you as yet have no understanding of and need to find in the silences. To liberate them all.

Your own alter ego always offers you a promise to redefine yourself. To change fundamentally what you are capable of. It wants to wake you up. This is a moment where you can see it and understand it so clearly.

You want to be there, to be suspended from time – to become the person you might have been, perhaps might yet be.

The other you is standing on a quiet shore with the person who held your eyes for a second – only to look away and offer a code to you, who embraced you and who – like you – has been working for so many years to be able to stand here with both of you on this silent beach.

They have brought their alter ego – and so have you.

No noise. Just whatever your movement and stillness create.

All four of you have earned  the right to be here. All of you have always been working for this moment. Each of you offering – negotiating – suggesting, retreating, learning, calling.

Trying.

Dreaming.

Now all of you have one hand on this door handle – and all four of you breathe in and together start to turn it.  You slowly open the door and walk together into the unknown. Into a room where perhaps all four of you can finally breathe.

In the real world this doesn’t happen.

In Tango – sometimes it does.

The Focus and Energy Balance in Tango

I often wonder.

So I thought I would ask.

If you dance Tango socially – how do you personally feel – on average – about the relative amounts of concentration, focus and energy you both put into each other, the music and the whole experience of what you are trying to create?

I do understand that remembering ‘an average’ is a tough one – but that is indeed what I am trying to understand – not the great or the terrible – but what happens normally for you.

When you dance Tango Socially - on average - do you feel you provide more concentration, energy, presence and focus than your partner?

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Many  thanks for your help!

 

 

 

Hearing not Listening in Tango

I was at Leroy’s class today and he said something that really struck a chord. He said that he hears – whereas others just listen.

I thought this was really an interesting concept. Don’t just listen to your partner -that doesn’t change anything – instead – make sure you hear them. Work harder.

Once we become a reasonable standard of course we want to listen. It is all about our shared dance – the music – and how we interpret it and communicate with each other. So we listen – of not with our ears – but with our bodies,

She – or he – may not have much to say. Or they do – but they speak very quietly. Or perhaps you aren’t the kind of person they normally show themselves to on a first date.

Or they have a lot to say – and they are saying it to you – but you really can’t hear them. How frustrating is that – I am actually trying very hard to talk to you and you can’t hear me. You are on the wrong frequency.

Or – if you can hear me you don’t take any notice. You just blunder through it all.

You listened but you didn’t hear.

Leroy was I think saying that he hears everyone. The quiet ones, the distracted ones, the loud ones, the people he doesn’t normally feel a fit for. The incoherent ones,

He listens so well that he hears them all.

And then he acts.

I am sure we can imagine a farcical situation where both tango dancers are listening so much that no-one is in fact saying anything at all. But to me this is not normal – I think reasonable Tango dancers are both trying to hear and to communicate.

But they might be listening instead.

Tune yourself to hear …  Listening is for Wimps.

Dancing in the Eye of the Biagi Storm

Students like me often respond to Biagi in mysterious ways. Ways that frankly – given our experience levels – are borderline suicidal.

I am talking here about rhythmic Biagi of course – we all know them – amazing, exciting sides like Humiliación, Indiferencia, Pura Clase and perhaps the most challenging of all – Bélgica.

As leaders the default is that we up our energy levels – we try to catch the cuts. We run and run to keep up with him.

But he is always an annoying half beat and a wry smile ahead of us – unless we have 10+ years of experience.

In our practise sessions recently we have been working on dancescapes for individual composers – especially to D’Arienzo and Biagi. And with Biagi I have been concentrating for months now on lowering the energy and finding the humour and playfulness that he offers us.

Last week we recorded this session – and I was so interested to watch it.

It seems to me that I have learned – at least a bit – to change my approach – to be patient and playful – and not to chase the cuts. Of course I can see a million errors – practise videos show all as it is – that is their value – they have no concerns with our self perceptions.

But it is calmer. So much quieter than I used to be. Simple movements – often just syncopated walking – always repeating, allowing the follower to relax more and more.

And the result of this lower energy – this calmer approach to Biagi – is that my partner Jo is able to follow this naturally, and to smile, relax and join in the game. She has time to be neat and beautiful with her feet – to laugh with me, and with Biagi, at the endless fun of improvised Tango.

And that  – surely – is what we as student leaders are striving for?  To help her to enjoy the dance.

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.