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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the first time in many years I find my interests turning back to Nuevo.
The focus will not be the music – but the open embrace and the creativity. And because of that – even the music will for sure need revisiting – because we need boundaries – we need to understand where we are. We need a focus.
Tango will aways surprise us – of course. But this does indeed feel strange. I have invested so much time in the music.. night after night, week after week, month after month. For so long.
And now I seem to crave the creative possibilities above all else. This has been happening for a while now in all my tango – questioning each moment – trying to find new expressions.
Is this in fact a retreat? Am I finding it all too difficult? I recently had a lesson where all of my confidence was damaged – I felt useless. Am I just seeking a way out?
It would be a strange way out – if that is what it is – because I have always felt that to dance Nuevo really well is a huge challenge. Dancing it badly doesn’t interest me. But the music is so simple and inviting isn’t it – expressive, emotional, and simple structures..
I don’t know where this is going – but I seek creativity and playfulness in Tango. And maybe Nuevo can become a welcome inspiration if I can use it well.
It might be that what this interest is telling me is that I need to totally up my game in the open embrace.
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.
After a few hours this evening musing over my memories, a well known book about black swans and some old and dusty statistical books I retrieved from the bottom of a cupboard I have a discouraging discovery to share.
… there is a 94% probability that there are actually no amateur male social tango dancers in the UK who can dance tango to an impressive enough level to really inspire the rest of us intermediate learners. Not even one …
I have basically established – through years of observation – that they just don’t exist. Tango is full of myths – and the really talented, advanced, UK male social tango dancer is apparently just another one.
I admit there is quite a wide margin of uncertainty here because I cannot precisely remember how many classes and milongas I have been to in the last almost 5 years without seeing one, and even worse I cannot find an estimate of the total male social tango population in England so I just made it up ( I guessed at 10,000 ).
I also struggled with the fact that looking at is plainly not the same as dancing with – so I might have not noticed him – but I countered this by positing that it might be equally possible to look inspiring but for this to be not reflected in the experience. So in the interest of making progress I ignored both of them.
I do accept some likely geographical impact on the data as it is totally skewed to the South of England and I am unsure of the bias implications of this. Optimistically we might dream that there is a small bevy of male dancers who can in fact actually dance tango at an advanced level hidden deep in the midlands or the north? Perhaps!
On a much more positive note leaders in the UK will therefore be immensely relieved to know that I am therefore putting my plans to spend much more time on learning to follow firmly back in the same mythical dusty cupboard as my old statistics books came from – as there doesn’t seem to be much point.