Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Good ordinary tango

It’s taken me a while to write about this video. It was filmed late in the evening in a well-lit milonga and lasts between 15 and 20 minutes. There aren’t many couples left on the floor, so it’s easy to watch the people and see how they dance. There are two tandas, the second a lively vals, starts around 10:10.

It’s a typical evening in a typical milonga, perhaps not one frequented by visiting dancers. The feeling is calm, relaxed, unhurried, but still slightly formal. They’ve been there all evening, eaten (many milongas serve meals), enjoyed a glass or two of wine, chatted with each other and friends, danced whenever they felt like it. It’s great to get such a clear view of ordinary people at the end of a regular night out dancing in Buenos Aires. I think none of the better-known tangueros are among them. The casual ordinariness of this milonga makes me nostalgic! It's a wonderful great room to spend an evening in.

Each dancer is different, but it’s what they have in common that I notice. It’s a pleasure to notice how they embrace, often with attention, carefully, tenderly. It’s never casual: it’s an important part of the dance. I remember classes with the late Tete Rusconi and Silvia: even when they demonstrated a step, even a simple side step, they took a moment to settle comfortably into the embrace.

It’s a pleasure to notice how the women step. With many there’s what looks like an almost obsessive ‘collecting’. Why is this practised so emphatically? The energy in the dance often doesn’t come from dancing fast, it comes from the way of dancing and it’s there even in slow tango. When you collect you add a complication, an extra distance for your feet to travel, which means you have to move your feet a little faster and with more determination, and that creates more energy. And, truth to tell, if women don’t collect, they might waddle! & guys too! Collecting brings the feet together at the mid-point of balance. Without it, your partner starts to lose sense of where your feet are. & of course, collecting makes a dance look good, which is important. Tango, whether fast or slow, shouldn’t look inelegant. Taking too many short cuts won’t make you look better. Collecting is the most basic, essential 'ornament'. We learn collecting early on, and it tends to get forgotten early too. If your teachers don’t insist on it, you might need to look for different teachers! It's basic tango technique.

I immediately notice how, almost without exception the men step onto a straight leg. The leg you step from is flexed, pushing the weight onto a straight leg. Watch the clip and try to find anyone who doesn’t step onto a straight leg! Again, this is practical – and it looks good. It’s practical because it makes for a firm and clear lead: a bent knee absorbs the impact of the foot coming down, so the lead is less distinct and energetic. Stepping onto a straight leg also keeps the body upright. If you step onto a bent knee, to some extent you’ll slouch around the floor. That means your upper body contact with your partner isn’t so effective, and your lead isn’t firm. & slouching doesn’t look good! I remember Cacho Dante insisting on remedying the bent knee in his classes, but it can take a long time to change bad habits.

Women are taught to reach back with a straight leg and it looks great when they do, but it’s problematic, especially if they have lower back issues. The main thing is to avoid an ordinary stepping back because it’s often not far enough for your feet to be out of the way of your partner stepping forwards. Also, if you simply step back your torso jerks backwards and down, pulling the lead forwards. The mechanics of dancing in close embrace!

& I notice how the guys stand upright, even when dancing with much shorter women. As Tete used to say, keep your head upright or you’ll get dizzy when turning. More basic technique.

We can learn and practise the basics of how these people stand, embrace and walk, and with care we can dance with the same calm, simple elegance that leaves room for intimacy. By and large it’s a calm, assured and graceful dance. Even when they dance fast in the vals tanda they never look hurried. Of course you can dance some kind of tango without getting these basics completely right, but it’ll look better, work better and feel better if you do.

The general feel of the floor is relaxed but slightly formal. Maybe Buenos Aires milongas are no longer as formal as they used to be, but there’s still a degree of formality, a kind of basic courtesy, which visitors need to take stock of. We’ve forgotten social dance as a formal occasion, and the kind of courtesy that went with it, even though in the UK it died out as recently as the 1960s. Dance to us now tends to be celebration, jumping up and down, release. Compared to Buenos Aires we have plenty to celebrate. But if the music resonates with us and if we listen to it and want to dance to it, we should make an effort to be aware of the feel of it. You don’t get tired of of the music, however many times you dance to it, do you? It’s a great expression of love, joy and sorrow, of feelings of togetherness and loss which are common to us all. It’s worth making an effort to hold on to and practise the basics of, standing, embracing and walking, as whatever your tango is it will work better, look better and feel better if you do. Getting used to a social dance that has room for a level of intimacy and a depth of shared feeling can only be a good thing.

The video is from the latitudobuenosaires channel. There are a lot of videos there, but most of the recent ones are of teachers giving demos. Helpfully there’s a playlist called Milongas de Buenos Aires. Most of the 184 videos you’ll find on that playlist are over 15 minutes long. It’s a huge archive. I spent time on this one clip because it’s so clear, but there’s a similar one from the Circulo Apollo. There’s more to be discovered, maybe even with better dancing. But what can ‘better dancing’ be? The tango in this clip is full of feeling, attention to the music, and graceful movement. Can we ever ask for more than that?

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