Friday, 23 November 2012

The days when the music was live

Another week, another milonga... and a table with four young Argentine teachers who don't look at all bored, and who enjoy social dancing, with each other and with some of the local dancers too. I'm glad to be proved wrong, and wonder at how the thesis has provoked its own anti-thesis, its antithesis. 

Their social dance is good, but it's not altogether the social dance you see from the older dancers in Buenos Aires. It is lighter somehow, less grounded, and certainly more elaborate, more fun. It seems less firmly connected to the music too, as if the dance has become the focus, rather than the music.

I start to wonder if this is how the older dancers used to dance when they were young. It's easy when you watch them, and probably when you dance with them, to assume that they've always danced like this, but perhaps that's unlikely. I recall what Cacho Dante said about the dancers of his youth, 'When they didn’t really know how to dance, they did 20 steps; when they knew a bit more, they did 10; and when they really knew what they were doing, they danced five… but with real quality'. So the younger dancers in his day liked to be elaborate too, and as they've grown they've improved and simplified. & I wondered: in thirty years, will these young Buenos Aires teachers who dance good social tango today be dancing like the older dancers dance today? 

Only time will tell, but for what it's worth, I doubt it. Tango was and still is a passion, a passion for the music as much as for the dance, for that generation. They grew up with Troilo and Fiorentino, Pedro Laurenz, Pugliese, Los Dos Angeles, actually in front of their eyes and ears, the sound waves direct from the instruments to their ears and their skin. Imagine it: going to a milonga with no star DJ, no playlist on a laptop, but a full orquesta led by a musical giant, performing, making that music right there and then for you to dance to! Imagine the anticipation of going to a milonga knowing that Di Sarli would be there in person with his orquesta to make music for your dance! What a buzz, what an occasion it must have been, night after night, to go to a milonga! However poor or tough or sad your everyday life, for the price of a ticket you could have amazing music, even if you couldn't dance much! Nobody is ever going to grow up dancing with that again. Sadly. The CDs show us the commitment and single-mindedness that went into that wonderful musical tradition. It was serious stuff, something the musicians worked very hard for: for decades the competition was intense, driving ever better arrangements and performances.
We're lucky to have the CDs, but we've lost the intensity of live performance. It's all too easy for music on a CD to become mere background music in a way that the presence and intensity of live performers would never allow: in turn the dance becomes lighter and more trivial. That's why I'm convinced that those hard-earned visits to Buenos Aires are so important. In the milongas there you can still see and feel some of the excitement, some of the intensity of the days when the music was live. Those old guys, and the women too, aren't just dancing to the CD: they dance with the memory of hearing and dancing to that music live. The only way to get some idea of how it felt to be there when the music was live is to go to the milongas of Buenos Aires while that generation is still on its feet. I've heard people try to argue away the importance of the connection with Buenos Aires, but we all know what it's like to be in front of live music, how we anticipate it, how powerful it can be. 

Visiting Buenos Aires is a way of touching base, keeping your feet firmly planted by opening yourself to the remaining ripples in the space-time continuum of those days when the music was live. If you ignore that background radiation the dance very easily becomes trivial, as the music becomes mere wallpaper. & once that happens, tango dies. We live with entropy so it's doomed in any case: we're just lucky there's life in it yet.

(Homage and thanks to all those who've taken those long flights, sometimes repeatedly, to the city where there's still a living memory of great live tango. You've bought back an enthusiasm that transcends any mechanical teaching. I hope more people will be inspired to visit. It might not be easy, but do we really want to live with easy solutions?)

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Enjoying tango

The floor is busy with people enjoying themselves. Mostly close embrace: London tango seems to be settling into close or close-ish embrace, rather than the open-and-closed embrace of most teachers, or that late unlamented, arm's-length Todaro-inspired dance. Perhaps it's not always the smoothest or most assured tango, or the best embrace we see here; it doesn't always look comfortable or tidy, but it is reasonably social tango. & it was a really good evening, good music, people having a good time, as it should be.
Except for one couple and a few friends. They sat by themselves looking miserable and bored all evening. I didn't notice them dance at all. Why were they there? Then someone told me they had taught the class that evening! It would be a huge joke if it wasn't, really, a disgrace. Teachers, paid to teach tango when they are too bored by it to dance, people who will only dance when they have the whole floor to themselves? Why should we take them seriously? Why do organisers pay them to teach when what they teach is at odds with the way people seem to want to dance? Obviously, I wasn't at their class, so their teaching might have been excellent social tango, but that's unlikely if they don't enjoy dancing it.
It would be wonderful to have a regular flow of real social dancers here to give classes, or perhaps we should call them 'guided practicas'. Tango as a practice, rather than as a subject or a sort of advanced skill. The Argentine teachers who make it to the UK usually speak adequate English, but if social tango bores them, what's the point? Dance is taught and learned visually, and by feel: show and copy, copy and practice, the embrace, the walk, the ways walking steps are developed and connected. Language skills aren't essential. There seems to be a frequent mismatch between what is taught and what people here need when they are on the floor. There are real social dancers who've watched and danced tango all their lives and who can see by eye, or know by the feel of it, when something – posture, walk, embrace, whatever – isn't right, and can show better ways to do it. & also show by example, by being on the floor and dancing with their students who are, after all, just other dancers. It's time to turn away from these superior teachers who are just too bored to dance with us and amongst us – and if they do get on the floor usually just want to show off. No thanks!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


Full moon, I believe, in German. Probably the most memorable Pina Bausch work from the film, with a massive boulder midstage, and water everywhere. It's at Sadlers Wells 22-25 February 2013. About half sold out already, and the rest will go soon. Book now!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Tango again

There's excellent tango in Napoli: I'm told Tete used to visit to teach whenever he could, and always enjoyed the city. But I stayed in Sorrento, and the last Transvesuviana, the narrow-gauge commuter train that rattles round the bay, is around 10pm.
Flying back at dusk, London and the loop of the Thames in darkness, the Shard still catching the setting sun.
& tango again.
At the first milonga after a few weeks I arrive as usual with that strange feeling that I know nothing, that I haven't a clue what to do. & then the music starts, I find a partner, and off we go. It all makes immediate sense, music and movement. Of course I don't 'know' anything, but my body is accustomed to certain movements. & it's an evening of DJ La Rubia from Argentina, who gives the feeling that she plays a lot more music than other DJs would in the same time. 'Relentless' would suggest that it's painful, when really it's a great pleasure, tango after tango, tanda after tanda, really excellent music, a lot of great versions of familiar songs, that you've never heard before. A lot of energy in the music, you want to stay on the floor. She's based in central Europe, and this summer started to tour the south, too: Sicily, Napoli, Bari. Watch out for her visits! Her music has that familiar, good-hearted feel of music in milongas in Buenos Aires; sitting at a laptop singing along to the words of all the songs, the whole evening. Tango song and music the familiar heritage of the whole nation, even if tango dance is rather marginal.
Tango again!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Benevento 2

Main street, Benevento, late afternoon.