Friday, 30 August 2013

Dancing in the light

Interesting that the two best London milongas I've been to recently are in the afternoons, which are light at this time of year. Best in terms of general dance quality, general courtesy, and the pleasure of feeling comfortable in fairly crowded rooms.

Another pleasure of these afternoon milongas is that strangers seem to chat with each other much more readily towards the end. I guess that's partly the time of day: by midnight most of us might have other priorities, but at 6pm after a lot of pleasant dances the mind opens out to other people.

So it was that I started chatting with someone I know only by sight. 'Such good dancing!' I said. 'Yes', he replied, 'it was light!' 'It does make a difference, doesn't it?' 'I've seen it myself' he replied. 'People are dancing well, and then the lights get turned down and it all falls apart. I've seen it happen!' & I agree: in fact it's something I've written about from time to time. In the worst milongas the lighting is dramatic, deep shadows, bright patches. It's much more of an effort to stay aware of the couples around you. But worse, as we agreed, there seems to be a loss of inhibitions when the light levels go down. People can't see so clearly, and become more careless. Perhaps they know they are less conspicuous. & we tend to think of dance as abandoning inhibition, letting it all hang out, but dance has to be highly controlled, physically. The formality of the Buenos Aires milongas helps maintain awareness of that control.

Of course there are other considerations. People are less likely to drink when they dance at 3pm: it's more normal to have a glass or two at 10pm. Perhaps the time of day rather than the light level is responsible. But it's true that we are all more alert when the light is good: moreover, bluish light is said to make us more alert, and reddish light to reduce alertness. Perhaps we need tango umpires with light meters! 'Bad light stopped dance.'

Joking aside, I really think it's worth looking at the possibility that upping light levels in milongas can improve the general level of dance. As far as I'm aware shady lighting is a disco/club heritage, and historically it's never been associated with any partner dance. True, some of the Buenos Aires milongas have reduced light levels, but by and large the organisers seem to accept the lighting already there in the halls they use for milongas, with no attempt to make it sexy or dim.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

'The last milonguero from Urquiza'

It's how 'El Chino Perico' Ricardo Ponce gets described, but in a wonderful Practimilongueros interview with Monica Paz he says he doesn't like being included with the wonderful dancers he's seen in his life.

I especially love his story of how when he was young his mates thought his posture wasn't that good; they tied a board to his back by ropes at the waist and neck, so every time his head flopped forward he nearly strangled himself. (Could use some of those at London practicas: in my mind's eye I saw a row of boards with ropes waiting at the entrance...) Standing straight and walking well are prerequisites, they need attention: all very well to stare at your partner's feet and twist her around so her legs fly up, like those cloth dolls they dance joke tangos with in the Buenos Aires streets. Dancing with good posture and feeling is something else altogether.

There's deep passion when he talks about tango: 'You're dancing tango and you know that you should be dancing your music with your heart... Tango is a piece of life that you can dance.' & his sense of tango as family is familiar if you go repeatedly to milongas.

I watch El Perico Chino dance and see an extraordinary attention and courtesy to his partner. This level of attention and respect as well as a total sense of the music make this a dance that seems incredibly personal, the momentary awareness of two people for each other and the music. Tango from the heart of Villa Urquiza.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Flamenco and tango

'Try to be good friends with the earth and with the sky. Feel the floor. Lift the arms very slowly, but only feeling the feet and the floor. With the whole body feel the floor.'

'When you do only one strong beat with the hand or with the feet, but just at the right moment – and there's only one right moment, you know it? – and with your whole being behind (if not, it's not enough) it can be like, like a beam of light to other people. That's true; I know it.'

'If you are healthy you can dance until you die. In flamenco we only dance because it is necessary, not because the curtain is there...'

In one of his wide-ranging monologues Pedro Sanchez said there's a flamenco influence in tango, and since then I've wanted to sit down with him to watch flamenco and find out where he saw this influence. I was reminded of this when I watched Flamenco at 5:15, an Oscar-winning short about a flamenco class taught to students at the National Ballet School of Canada. The (Spanish) teachers speak English. (It's on Openculture, along with 549 other films that are free to watch.)

The three quotes are from the teachers, and they reminded me of things tango dancers have said, or things I've watched. Tete talking about the importance of the floor, of being grounded, Cacho Dante making one precise, clear step at the end of a tango, Ricardo Vidort insisting on the urgency of dancing. If you don't dance because you must, don't dance.

It's interesting watching trained ballet students, their whole discipline based around being aerial, trying to get to grips with flamenco, which is resolutely earth-based, however much the arms reach up. I watched the Bolshoi a few weeks back: not only are their leaps phenomenal, it's the way they land, softly, as if they are as light as a feather.

They did well, the students; quickly mastering the rhythms and movements, but in the end flamenco looked like a style of dance, without the personal urgency you see in great flamenco. The old woman who taught them could create real shock just by moving. & when they danced, their eyes looked out, as if looking for applause, for reassurance. In the best flamenco I've seen the eyes are lost, inward-looking. But they are young, still very young.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Rubén Harymbat

Regarding Rubén Harymbat, Jantango kindly sent me a link to her video of him last November in Lo de Celia: it's on this page of Tango ChamuyoJantango comments: 'See Rubén dancing at a milonga. Milongueros dance best with others on the dance floor.'

It seems to be the only YouTube clip of Rubén actually in a milonga, and it's a whole Canaro tanda, so I wanted make a new post rather than leaving it buried in the comments. It's well worth checking out. Demonstrations might give a better view of what the dancers actually do, but clips of dance in Buenos Aires milongas give us a much better sense of the feel of social tango, which is after all what matters. It's easy to understand the reluctance of dancers to be filmed in the social dance, but clips like this are really the best way to appreciate what tango is – apart from actually going there and watching. There's nothing complicated, it's simple stuff but it's done with absolute attention, and it looks great. It's also a pleasure to watch a floor that's not too crowded, and is orderly and calm.

The sensuality of the dance comes across strongly in this clip. Partly the music, of course: early Canaro often suggests a slow, sensual dance.

Wildly off the point, perhaps, but after watching this I went downstairs, where Radio 3 was on. More Wagner: it's a centenary. Not music I like, and there was a laboured interval discussion about the painful conflicts between earthly and spiritual love. Perhaps if Wagner was really such a genius at words, song and movement he would have invented tango, and saved himself a lifetime of self-inflicted agony! It seemed to me that the sensuality of tango is somewhere between the sublime and the earthy: it's not an either/or, it's both! A middle way.

Tibetan teachers told me that there's nothing wrong in enjoyment: it's grasping that creates suffering. So following their advice I continue to enjoy tango, and try not to be too attached (it's tough). Leave the conflicts of earthly and spiritual love to the imagination of others!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Nobleza de Arrabal

Something wasn't working, and it puzzled me for days. Perhaps a clue was that I'd danced with a partner I don't meet with that often, but when I do, every time, I feel her heart beat distinctly. On this occasion not only did I not feel that magic heartbeat, I realised later that I hadn't even noticed its absence while we were dancing. Something definitely wasn't working. Well, it's been hot and humid and the music was excellent, and sometimes it's just not a good idea to be on the floor nearly every tanda. After all, one simply can't be a tango machine. Tango requires a certain discipline, awareness.

Then, digging deep into chingolito2008's clips on YouTube (there's quite an archive there) I came across this from June 2008.  

It affected me in a number of ways. First, it's a fabulous piece of music by the Di Sarli orquesta. & one of Di Sarli's daughters is present, which is why Rubén Harymbat abandons his partner at the end and dashes off to kiss her. Di Sarli's last performance was in 1959 so Rubén is of an age to have heard and danced to Di Sarli live. 

Then the dance: sometimes an intense emotional charge comes through these videos, and this is certainly one, brief as it is. As if Rubén's dance is a celebration of the past and also an acknowledgement of the loss of a great musician. & Rubén's partner is Adela Galeazzi: sometimes I watch clips of her and think she's too ornamental, just because she's so good she can do it all, but here she's so much part of the dance it seems just right.

& the place! That familiar floor! The old Plaza Bohemia on Maipu: not that I was ever there that often, but it feels like as close to tango heaven as I've ever been lucky to get. Strange to see it so empty: I can only wish my first visit had been a few months earlier.

Sadly I don't recall ever watching Rubén in the milongas, and jantango's note on him partly explains that: however, her photo of him shows a face that is familiar. He was teaching until a year or so ago: I think he made several tours of the US and there are videos on YouTube of class demonstrations. I'd love to read accounts of his teaching. Jantango's post has a link to a class demonstration: tangueros of his generation could dance with style and elegance, even in trainers.

But another reason this was a revelation was that it reminded me of something dancers I've had classes with in Buenos Aires tried to knock into me: the leg that steps should be straight. I watch Rubén and see how the stepping leg is almost always straight. The other leg flexes to push the torso, but the leg that steps comes down straight and emphatic. I've found this hard to adjust to: there are so many other things to get right, in addition to actually enjoying dancing. But it's something both Myriam Pincen and Cacho Dante insisted on very seriously. Myriam would glance into the mirror and stop me if my stepping leg was bent: it was a stop-start class. 

I think I needed to be reminded that if the stepping leg is bent, the posture is weak and the connection poor. A straight leg and an upright body, and an upright body makes good connection in the region of the solar plexus. & the width of two fingers above the solar plexus is the point at which you press if you want to get someone's heart to restart.

(That sounds good, but as first aiders know CPR is unlikely to restart the heart: it keeps the blood circulating temporarily. However, the area just above the solar plexus is very close to the heart.)