Monday, 9 July 2012

Dancing together, without big decorations

'I really like dancing with you but I want to do those big decorations I learned in the class. I never seem to have time to do them...'
...said the newcomer. Oh dear...
I explain tango fantasia, choreographed right down to the decorations, and 'real-world' tango, the social dance of the milongas, improvised and spontaneous because it's on a dance floor with other people. My partner can't see what lies ahead and I can't see her feet; if I have to change direction, she could trip over herself. (I've seen it happen.) Only if we dance at arms' length is it possible for a partner to insert big decorations safely, since we can look down and see all our feet are up to, but if you're looking down your balance isn't great, and you don't look great either, two people dancing at arms length and looking at their feet. It might be fun, but it's hardly elegant, and anyway I should be watching out for the other dancers around us. It's possible to decorate in close embrace dance, but decorations have to be very skilful, small and quick, not huge gestures meant to be applauded from the back stalls of a theatre. Less is definitely more.
'So why do we have classes where these big decorations are taught?'
& I want to say: just relax! But it's not so easy just to let go, and anyway, if my lead is clear and confident, then my partner will relax. The partners I regularly dance with know what I'm doing and what I'm probably going to do: unless I'm aware, lead and follow can go on auto-pilot, and the whole thing becomes just faintly boring. I have to make sure I really am leading every movement: no good just sticking my left leg out sideways without leading from the torso to put some energy, compulsion, some weight, into the lead. It's with a newcomer you discover how well you really lead.
Like many of his generation, the late Tete was a marvellously assured leader: there are stories of how he could take a complete beginner, one who moved clumsily even, and get her through a dance with him. He taught leading by getting you to lead him: if your lead wasn't absolutely clear he would find a way of doing exactly the opposite to what you hoped you were leading. I guess that's how he learned to lead. It was like trying to lead water if you weren't confident and exact.
Classes can teach you too much to think about, when the essence of dancing is a kind of surrender. Perhaps that's why dance can feel like making love: you just let the flow of pleasure take over. At the same time, the bodies that walk in off the street desiring to dance tango may well need to go through a period of attunement. If there's a shortage of marvellously assured leaders, they might need help with things that ought to be simple, like posture, like walking not only with the beat but also with the flow of the music too. In daily life we can be quite oblivious of our bodies, and when we come to dance our walk is likely to be stiff and awkward. Dance is a great way to become bodily aware, aware of balance and movement, but it takes work. & it takes realising that that work needs to be done. (Unless, that is, you happened to grow up in a porteño family in the 1940s...)
The newcomer's young adult daughter was with her one evening, just watching, entranced. 'It's so wonderful to see men and women really dancing together' she said. 'I mean, most of the dancing these days...' That actually made me very happy. & I'm happy to say that, yes, the men and women in the room actually were dancing together, perhaps imperfectly by the highest standards, but together. Without big decorations.


Chris said...

Great article, TC.

Indeed, Tete would teach by having you lead him (as well as by leading you).

Before I met Tete, I'd been warned by some dissatisfied past students "Tete is not really a teacher". What I found was completely the opposite... for anyone like me who understands teaching to be the facilitation of learning. A tango teacher who is a good dancer facilitates learning through dancing.

What Tete certainly was not was an instructor, in the fashion of what now, a decade later, is most sold (and bought) as tango teaching.

Instruction is telling another what to do. For tango dancing it obstruct more than it facilitates. It's what has given so many classgoers (instructors included) the notion that Argentine tango dancing is actually supposed to be hard. Goodness, if it was thathard, how many Argentines would bother to do it?? :)

It's sad the UK doesn't have more teachers like Tete.

Cinderella said...

TC said: "Classes can teach you too much to think about, when the essence of dancing is a kind of surrender. Perhaps that's why dance can feel like making love: you just let the flow of pleasure take over."
Wonderful, TC. Very well said! There's nothing like tango when it comes to surrendering. Knowing that there are others who have similar thoughts and feelings about dancing makes me just so happy. :)

Anonymous said...

How many classes did you have to learn to walk? As a child I mean.

And how many to nod your head to music, and tap your feet? As a teenager.

And how many to hold a woman, to make love? As a man.

None? I hope.


Tangocommuter said...

Anonymous, you've said that before (if you are the same Anonymous) so I'll repeat my reply:

'Nice rhetoric. But if you walk in a milonga as you walk in the streets, if your idea of dancing is limited to keeping the beat, if your embrace in dancing in any way resembles that of making love, then I suspect you'll have some difficulty in milongas.

'& perhaps it should be pointed out that over 50% of people at milongas do not even walk forwards: most of the time they step backwards, which isn't normal in any streets I'm familiar with.'

To which I'd like to add: you aren't seriously suggesting we should walk in a milonga as we walked as children, are you?

& to put Tete's teaching into perspective: of the twenty or more hours I spent with him and Silvia (including group classes) perhaps I spent 15 minutes trying to lead him, and that was because Silvia was tired that day. The rest of the time was spent teaching choreographies, literally. & he would lead me, briefly, to demonstrate something. I made a note of some of the choreographies in December 2008. But the choreographies, figuras, were only a small part of what I learned from classes with Tete. His comments on my walking, my dancing; my perception of the intense way he embraced Silvia even when they were demonstrating steps, his constant laughter and warmth were among the many other things I learned from them.

On their own, I don't think classes and 'figuras' are the problem: it's the lack of that warmth and that lifetime of experience that creates a superficial tango, the idea that tango is nothing more than figuras. As I've said before, learning that superficial tango is like trying to live on sugar. Tete's teaching was meat, bread, vegetables, wine. Wish I could practice it better!

Chris said...

"you aren't seriously suggesting we should walk in a milonga as we walked as children, are you?"

TC, you omitted a key word from the original - Anonymous is suggesting we learn to walk in a milonga as we learn to walk as children. I.e. by doing it, rather than being told how to do it.

Mind you, probably somewhere there is someone trying to sell walking classes for children... :)

Tango Salon Adelaide said...

This may sound "ageist", but the vast majority of people wanting to learn to dance tango are not young people, let alone young children, whose brains are like sponges when it comes to learning. This mature cohort of learners tends to want some direction and explicit instruction when it comes to acquiring new skills.

Moving in a reasonably disciplined fashion around a social dance-floor in an embrace is challenging. Mostly these people don't want to lose precious time learning solely by trial and error. That's why they seek regular guidance from teachers. One only hopes that the teachers they choose are the right ones to help them with their journey.

Chris said...

I believe age makes far less of a difference than you suggest. Else for example an adult learning to ride a bicycle would be doing it evening classes to, as you put it, avoid "losing precious time learning solely by trial and error". The right kind of trial and error is the fastest and easiest way for a body to learn to do something based on autonomic reflex, as are cycling and tango dancing.

Most people who believe they need instruction do so because they have not yet had a dance which shows them how much dance ability they have already. That's often because they have danced only with others suffering the same instruction-fostered hadicaps and phobias (usually their classmates), rather than with accomplished dancers.

Then inevitably yes there are some who can't learn to dance tango without what you call "explicit instruction", but I have to say in my experience these are almost entirely those who can't learn to dance tango even with it. This is why so many of the instructed have been taking instruction for so long - instruction is a way to feed committed non-dancers (sorry to be "dancist") with material that substitutes for dancing. This should not be mistaken for learning to dance Argentine tango.

Tango Salon Adelaide said...

Chris, given a choice between dancing with a man who muddles through trying to work out how to lead, and a man who has learned from a skilled dancer, I know which I would choose.

BTW, those wonderful old milongueros I've danced with also had teachers. Perhaps not in today's sense. Their teachers were often older fellows in their neighbourhood, but they were teachers nonetheless. Once those younger men had achieved an acceptable skill level, then they were permitted to dance at the milongas.

The slightly younger generation of excellent male dancers at BsAs milongas such as El Maipu, Lujos, etc. also had teachers. They happily talked about them when I asked.

However, I will concede that perhaps in some other parts of the world tango might be learned effectively by osmosis.


Chris said...

"Chris, given a choice between dancing with a man who muddles through trying to work out how to lead, and a man who has learned from a skilled dancer, I know which I would choose."

Me too. I'll pass on the guy who muddled through trying to lead from an instructor's show and tell.

And take the man who learned direct by dancing with the skilled dancer. That's the traditional way of the milongueros that's alive and well in practicas and milongas all over the world today.

"those wonderful old milongueros I've danced with also had teachers."

Well, though one does hears that a lot from instructors such as yourself, one hears the opposite from the milongueros themselves: "In those days there were no teachers."

Likewise from authoritative researchers e.g. Christine Denniston:

“There was no such thing as a Tango teacher and no such thing as a beginners’ Tango class before the Tango revival began in the mid 1980s.”

It comes down to what the word teacher means... and what class-selling instructors would like it to mean.

Janis said...

The latest post from Tango Voice says all that needs to be said on the subject of "decorations" (aka embellishments, adornos) in tango.

I wish women knew they are wasting their time and money on something unnecessary in social tango.

Anonymous said...

Mentor, yes. But save me from instructive teachers.

Bob said...

What use tango instruction? Well, I began learning tango 15 years ago, and my first 4 years of weekly instruction proved to be dysfunctional due to inappropriate teaching. My annual jaunts to Buenos Aires began within 6 months, and during those first 4 years I simply couldn’t dance effectively in the milongas, nor could my partner. The next 3 years saw the influence of a new teacher, who taught me enough small moves to allow me to start enjoying the BsAs milongas – but still only daring to dance with my partner. Unfortunately, there was also time spent during this period on extravagant figures that were inappropriate for social tango, and I was acutely aware of posture problems, a walk that lacked masculinity, & poor balance. This teacher did nothing about any of this – I suspect he didn’t know what to suggest.

Finally, I found teachers who were truly tango teachers – able to diagnose & correct problem areas, help me master simple figures that are useful in responding with good musicality in the milonga, and induct me into the meaning of tango. Where did I find them? In Buenos Aires. Hugo Daniel spent hours with me until my walk no longer resembled that of a shaky old man, and now reflects confidence, balance, and intent. The great Aurora Lubiz taught me how to dance in the milonga – her influence on me & my partner over the past 6 years, along with the countless other people who have worked with her, is immense. And our friend & great milonguero, Pedro Sanchez, after many discussions, has taught us to dance from the heart.

I suspect the writer, Chris, had a bad experience with his early teachers, just like me, but rather than pushing on and searching for the key to unlocking the tango that’s inside us all, he seems to have become bitter – I felt the same in those early, frustrating years. But my partner and I kept looking for the right teachers and found them.

Where are we now ? – still spending a month every year in the milongas of Buenos Aires, and getting dances with some of the best local dancers in the best traditional milongas …. using the cabeceo of course – the only real test that you have earned your stripes there.

There are many people out there just like us who appreciate the contribution made by their teachers – here’s a quote from one on a website that Chris has recommended on his Argentine Tango Page:
“Thank you for the instruction, the company, the friendship, and the sheer joy of Tango. Thames Valley Tango has given me so much more than I pay for”

Tango Salon Adelaide said...

Totally agree with you, TC & Janis. Ladies desperately trying to decorate, rather than surrendering to the social dance, just don't know what they're missing.

On the other hand, as you mentioned TC, ladies need the secure embrace of a competent partner to relax and surrender.


Chris said...

Bob wrote:
"my first 4 years of weekly instruction proved to be dysfunctional .... The next 3 years saw the influence of a new teacher"

Reminds me of Woody Allen. :)

"I suspect the writer, Chris, had a bad experience with his early teachers, just like me, but rather than pushing on..."

I experienced many instructors encouraging students to "push on" with classes. But fortunately I also found teachers like Carlos Gavito who explained that people don't learn to dance social tango in classes, and explained the reasons, and the solution.

"here’s a quote from one on a website that Chris has recommended"

Please don't misrepresent me Bob. I recommended a milonga - not the organiser's web site or classes. And I would not recommend anonymous testimonials. The writer could be one of those people who's done 4 years of instruction and still not learned to dance...

Paul said...

Thanks, Janis, for that useful reference to Tango Voice's post. With its many YouTube-linked examples, it gives comprehensive coverage of the topic while pointing out how dancing can come to ressemble more a fussy floor exercise than a walking embrace.

Less academic perhaps in tone but pithily eloquent and speaking from the heart is this valuable anecdote of your own.