Friday, 4 February 2011

Tango correctness

Back early last November, here, I was delighted to post a three-part interview with Melina Sedo, who teaches tango along with her partner, Detlef Engel. Just last week, Chris UK left a comment on it, which has set me thinking. I hope Melina and Chris won't mind if I repeat the exchange, which is preceded by something Melina said in the interview:

"There are loads of mistakes that followers can make. If that wasn’t the case, they would hardly need lessons, would they?"

Chris replied: 'Melina, girls generally don't need lessons. Take a look at the great social dancers of the BA milongas, almost none of whom took a lesson in their life. Is their dancing full of "mistakes" that need your lessons to correct? Of course not. A typical girl having an affinity for the dance needs only a guy who can dance well. She can learn all she needs to know by dancing.' (As usual, the context matters: Cassiel said he believed that when things went wrong it was the leader's fault, and Melina is replying that it's not that simple.)

'Take a look at the great social dancers of the BA milongas, almost none of whom took a lesson in their life'? This seems manifestly untrue. True, they didn't go out to classes, pair up with men they didn't know and be dragged into leg-wraps and ganchos: that kind of class hardly existed when they were young, and their mothers wouldn't have allowed it. But all the accounts (listen to them on Practimilonguero) show that tango was THE popular dance of the 1940s; it was danced at family get-togethers, at parties, at neighbourhood festivals, as well as at local milongas. So where did everyone learn? The answer seems to be: from their mothers. Many accounts by dancers who grew up in the 1940s mention mothers as the source of their dance. The basics of tango were learned to the radio around the kitchen table, while the boys who'd already learned a thing or two (from the same mothers) would be out on the street corners swapping moves with each other, and perfecting their style. 'My dad didn't care much for dancing, but my mother really loved it' is a common sentiment.

The local milongas seem to have been very formal: the men stood in the middle of the floor trying to make eye-contact with the girls sitting with their mothers around the floor. I'm rather glad I've never found myself in that situation.

So, no, you can't really say that the girls never took lessons, that all their wonderful fluency came simply from the embrace of the right guy. Romantic, but unlikely. But at the same time, is it right to say that 'There are loads of mistakes that followers can make'? 'Mistakes'? By what canon of correctness? Perhaps something has gone amiss in translation here. I can think of more or less effective ways to lead or follow: of more or less comfortable, or pleasing, or even acceptable. But 'mistakes' suggest a rigid right-and-wrong reminiscent more of ballroom, where the judges mark you down for your 'mistakes'. (A system that's sadly creeping into tango via the 'mundiales'?)

And even if we think in terms of effective, comfortable, pleasing, acceptable lead-and-follow, we're likely to end up with identical dancing. Look at the YouTube videos of Ricardo Vidort, and compare them to videos of Osvaldo Cartery. Could their dance be more different? & yet they grew up as lads together, practicing with each other on street corners, but they found what worked for them, how best they each could follow the music with a partner; they found what their partners appreciated, what didn't go down well, what felt good, and that became their tango, and it was different from each others' tango. Or from anyone else's. Perhaps there's an anti-authoritarian streak to tango.

Osvaldo y Coca Cartery in their Practimilonguero interviews talk about the increasing similarity of the tango of young dancers, and they use the word 'clones'. Perhaps that's the result of too many classes, of too much tango correctness.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Chris. Women don't need years of lessons until they can follow perfectly. That mindset only helps teachers hold on to their students for years for unnecessary technique classes. Women learn by dancing with lots of partners, and they do that in the milongas. We improve our dancing with many partners, not dancing with one teacher. Each milonguero has his own style to which a woman must adapt.

Do the milongueras make mistakes on the floor? Yes, they're human, but a milonguero feels it and makes the adjustment. Then they just tango on, and nobody notices.

The milongueras who are in their 60s and 70s went to learn tango in the clubes de barrio from an early age by dancing with the boys standing in the center of the floor. That's when the men had to prove themselves as dancers in order for anyone to dance with them. They practiced.

I'll be including more on the milongueras in my blog this year.

Anonymous said...

I think that the expression 'tango is passed from one person to another,and you can make up your own moves,of course,why not?', sums it up nicely.The old milongueros danced differently,but well,I and I think that they showed one of the atractions for tango(to me anyway).Would we all want to dance in the same way? The sad thing is,and it has always puzzled me over the years,is that I am sure that we could dance in the old ways,even now,no? Alan Jones.

Melina Sedo said...

Sure. A gifted women may follow a good dancer even without taking lessons. But if that makes every woman a god dancer automatically, I am not so sure, especially after listening to so many men complaining about their female partners to me during/after a Milonga. They complain that their partners cannot stand in their axis properly, but have to cling to them for support, that they are over-active, projecting their legs, that they are too stiff, not being able to dissociate... These ae "mistakes", that women can make.

(Although I have to explain, that in my original interview the german "Fehler" was meant to describe a "fault" or "flaw".)

Dancing at a milonga is great, but your partner will usually not give you an honest feedback, especially not in BA where the custom is to make lots of compliments.

A teacher will give the woman a feedback and there are indeed many things, that she can work on:
- how to define clear axis
- how to develop a nice embrace without pushing with the arm
- how to relax her legs in order to make them "leadable"

... and much more, that does not come naturally to most people.

Believe me, I spend many hours teaching and found as much "flaws" in the womens technique as in the mens.

Teaching men and women alike has nothing to do with cloning or over-correctness. It assures, that both partners can participate equally active in the dance.

Tangocommuter said...

Thanks for the clarification.

Chris said...

> 'Take a look at the great social
> dancers of the BA milongas,
> almost none of whom took a
> lesson in their life'? This
> seems manifestly untrue.

I think you'll find not after dancing with only a few hundred unlessoned girls.

> So where did everyone learn? ...
> Many accounts by dancers who grew
> up in the 1940s mention mothers

Sure. And...

> So, no, you can't really say
> that the girls never took lessons

...nothing in those accounts describe the experience as a lesson or anything like it.

The key point is traditionally one learned by following a personalised lead. Not by following bulk instruction.

Chris said...

Melina, you and I have very different experiences of girls, pehaps because I have danced with a few thousand of them in milongas.

Generally, I don't find the faults you describe in dance-learnt girls. I do find them in class-learnt girls.

Those faults don't come from the girls, but from this new class method that has girls trying to learn to dance with guys that cannot, doing steps prescribed by an instructor.

So yes, I believe you when you say that in hours of teaching you find girls have many faults.

Because you're looking at the subset that suffers the faults.

Class instructors are not the cure for girls' difficulties. They are the cause.

La tanguera said...

Women not needing lessons may have been true in BsAs in the distant past, when they learnt from their mothers and started going to dance at a young age dancing with boys of similar age. That has not been true in BsAs for many years. It is certainly not true for us foreigners. I watched with interest an interview on PractiMilonguero with Myriam Pincen - a very respectable milonguera. She talks of the many, many classes she took, including classical dance lessons to help her tango. She says that she only started going to milongas after taking classes for a considerable period of time. And even so for 2 years she only went to watch, out of respect for the milonga and other dancers.

Women do need some training. Do they need less of it then men? Absolutely. They also need a very different type of training. But to say a woman can just go to a milonga and dance is a myth.

Chris said...

"I watched with interest an interview on PractiMilonguero with Myriam Pincen ... She talks of the many, many classes she took"

An interview of a class teacher conducted by a class teacher published by an organisation run by two class teachers. Well, no surprise the interview promotes class teaching.

No doubt Myriam did need those "many, many" classes including classical dance training to get to where she is now. But to suggest that's representative of dancers generally is ridiculous. Have a look at all the interviews with regular long-time dancers - they tell a different story.

Tangocommuter said...

Yes, Myriam Pincen taught classes – with Ricardo Vidort. Ricardo Vidort taught classes. I remember Ricardo Vidort teaching classes, and what an inspiration that was for many of us in London.

It seems daft to object to classes in general, and it confuses the real issue which is the type and quality of class. We don't learn tango as children so we need classes. In fact if it weren't for classes none of us would be in a position to discuss what kind of classes we think are useful. If there hadn't been any tango classes there wouldn't even be any milongas in London. So let's not knock classes, but let's have a reasonable debate about how classes can best help us all to dance better together.

Tangocommuter has fought a long and rather despairing campaign to get some of the older generation over to London to teach. They might not be skilled teachers, their teaching might be much like that of the younger generation, and (unlike Ricardo Vidort) they don't speak English, but they bring to classes a spirit which is altogether different. Myriam Pincen is from a later generation but has willingly absorbed that past. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have her at our London milongas for a while? & wouldn't Chris, UK also be at any classes she gave?

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

"Ricardo Vidort taught classes." Indeed - the best way to deliver his message to those in most need. Yes, he inspired. He inspired more people to see beyond classes that any teacher I know. Except perhaps Gavito.

You liken Myriam to Ricardo. Myriam learned in classes from stage performers notorious for drilled steps and sequences. As Ricardo would tell anyone who listened, he learned the traditional way - by dancing with friends and family.

"It seems daft to object to classes in general,"

I don't object to classes in general. I agree with you that they're essential to London milongas. Classes do a great job of siphoning the temps' money to fund the perms' dancing. And provide an ideal environment for the most anti-social dancers to do their learning and teaching safely away from the dance floor.

"and it confuses the real issue which is the type and quality of class."

The real issue is as per the comment of mine you quoted to start this discussion.

It is not type and quality of class.

It is type and quality of learning.

Tangocommuter said...

No! I did not 'liken' Myriam Pincen to Ricardo Vidort! She came from a time when tango dance was little more than a memory, and not something so many people once grew up with, but she followed her instincts to the milongas, and Ricardo chose her as a teaching partner.

The type and quality of learning depend on the type and quality of classes too, which is why I'd love to see more classes given by social dancers who have lived with respect for the music and the milongas.

Chris said...

Your idea of bringing long-time social dancers from BA is admirable. But you say it's a despairing campaign, and I think that's somewhat inevitable while they're pushed to give classes of the show-and-tell type prevalent hereabouts.

Because generally they don't want to do show. And can't do the tell, since as you say they don't speak English, and translation is very frustrating for all. And don't beleive in or understand the UK class method, having themselves learned the opposite way. And perhaps most importantly can't afford to stay here long enough to teach those who can most benefit - beginners.

The few exceptions are largely career class teachers like Myriam and, without disrespect to her, the UK's already had plenty of those, with very little success.

Perhaps you can find an alternative class model that might work better for hosting long-time BA social dancers, and hence better work for students here.

Either way, I hope you keep up your campaign and I wish it every success.