Saturday, 22 December 2012


So... I prophesied the world wouldn't end last night, and I was right! I'm encouraged to try my vision again – and I predict that 2013 will be an excellent year for UK social tango, for London tango in particular.

I'm basing this optimism on two very recent events. A milonga has just started at which the Argentine codigos are observed. Just a year ago, even six months ago, that would have seemed a very distant dream. OK, it happens in north Italy and the south of France, yes, but in the UK?

& between 27 and 30 December, Eton Tango is putting on an event, an 'Etonathon', two milongas each day, one in the afternoon, and then again in the evening. Almost too good to be true! I know it happens yearly in Nimes in the south of France, and it's very successful: people come from all over for the week. I've always been envious, and wanted to get down there -- and now it's happening just 30 or so miles from London. Eight milongas in four days. I believe it's the first time: obviously the organisers have confidence and enthusiasm. Very, very good luck to them, and I hope it will be the huge success it should be. It's always been depressing that the tango community vanishes into the darkness each midwinter, but of course everyone deserves a holiday. At last someone's had the courage (and energy!) to step out and arrange what's really a great festival. It will lighten the midwinter gloom far better than TV re-runs and seasonal fare! I don't usually look forward to the midwinter break...

Here's to 2013!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Is tango macho?

I've heard it said a few times that tango is macho. Recently there was a post on Paul Yang's blog which argued that male-led tango reflects the macho culture of Argentina. I've never been really convinced. For a start, the practice of the man leading the dance isn't Argentine in origin, any more than the Argentines themselves are Argentine in origin: both are European. An old peasant dance, partly close-hold, like something in a Breughal painting, came to court with the servants, and worked it's way up into the ballroom where it encountered a three-beat music and became the waltz. Or so it's said. Most early dances were choreographed patterns, but once people danced close, someone had to say which way they were going, and in Europe it was the men. I've read that vals and other European dances were the popular social dances in Buenos Aires throughout the 19th century.

Perhaps we use the word 'macho' in English because we don't have a word of our own for the attitude. I don't think this means that there is no such thing as a macho attitude and behaviour here. The lack of our own word suggests we've been unaware of the attitude, whereas in Spain there was such an awareness, and a word for it. If you have a word for it you can talk about it, object to it, deal with it. If you ignore the attitude it's much harder to make it part of a dialogue. 

So was tango macho in Argentina? Many of the older dancers tell how at their first (local) milongas they, the guys, would have to stand in the middle of the floor, while the girls and their mothers would be seated around the perimeter, inspecting them. The guys would endeavour to contact the girls by cabaceo, and if they failed would have to slink off the floor when the dancing started. I can't help thinking that nothing could be calculated to be more deflating to a macho attitude. Maybe that was the thinking.

& to this day no guy gets a dance at a traditional BsAs milonga unless a woman looks at him and meets his gaze. In the UK we still have the remnants of an older social dance culture, which might not be exactly macho but reflects an older social order: it's up to the guy to initiate the dance by asking the woman. In theory, of course, she can say no, but the 'invitation' can seem like an order, can even be an intimidation. & women are still reluctant to ask men to dance in the UK, whereas in BsAs a woman can look quite fixedly at a man, clearly signalling that she wants to dance with him. So which is macho, the social dance of BsAs or London?

(Interesting how a new pattern has emerged at milongas here. Women and men declare their interest in dancing by standing in an open space near the floor, where they then meet each other more or less by eye contact. No one has planned this or agreed it, it's just happened like this.)

No, I don't think that tango is particularly macho. Yes, guys usually lead. If two people dance close, they can't both lead unless they are dancing contact improvisation, a fascinating dialogue in itself. Tango could be led in a macho way, but would the leader be popular? Whereas if his lead is soft, clear and musical, if he gives his partners what they enjoy, he might get to dance a lot. & if he gives his partners what they enjoy, what they want, arguably it's the women calling the shots.

P.S. For a much more nuanced and detailed study of gender in tango and in Buenos Aires, part of Dancing Soul's thesis on the topic is  available on her blog.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Fox Trot anyone?

I was curious, having heard recordings of Canaro playing foxtrot. & of course we know from the old-timers that it used to be a popular dance in Buenos Aires alongside tango. YouTube found me this:

Fascinating! First off, I checked the British Pathe site, and the film is early 1920s, so it is silent. The soundtrack has been added, but it seems to fit the dance well enough to give an idea of the musicality.

So it's an upright and close-embrace dance! Quite unlike the ballroom version. & doesn't it look as if it could be an improvised dance? It's a walking dance with a traspie to the front and side, the sort of thing you could improvise as the music played, especially since the embrace is close: as in tango, the leader's torso would signal movements. Of course, the partner would be listening to the music too, and would know what to expect. It doesn't look like it needs to be a choreographed dance.

Wikipedia is the next port of call. Why is it called Fox Trot? Because the basic walk is danced with the feet along a straight line: the prints of a fox's paws in the snow are in a straight line. (The prints of a dog show two lines.) Fascinating! Especially since that's the effect of 'collecting'. I find 'collecting' hard to remember and practice, but think of it as stepping in exactly the place your partner's foot has just left and it makes sense, to me anyway. It's a very neat, tidy walk, stepping right under your partner. Watch any video of Osvaldo and Coca...

The Foxtrot was picked up around 1912 by Vernon Castle, from an 'exclusive coloured club' where it had been danced for some years. Vernon and his wife Irene were prominent US dance teachers and enthusiasts for Afro-American music. It was to become the most popular of social dances; most dance records up until the 1950s were foxtrot.

Two curious facts: when the Castles first introduced it they called it the 'Bunny hug' -- and then decided better. & when Decca released Rock around the Clock they didn't know what to call this kind of music, so they called it a Foxtrot. Rock around the Clock was the best-selling foxtrot of all time.

Couldn't the foxtrot make a come-back? Not the (rather absurd) choreographed ballroom version, but the neat, elegant version of this film, which I'd assume is much closer to the original? Alongside tango, vals, milonga? It seems to belong to that family of dances, even if the music is different.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

London tango: Bernhard Gehberger at Carablanca

The days when the music was live might have been extraordinary and memorable... which doesn't mean we can't have some great nights with music from CDs and laptops...

I find it remarkable how London tango has changed – improved immensely I think – really over the past two years. It's said that tango in the smaller milongas outside London is better than in the city, but maybe that's changing. A couple of nights ago the Austrian DJ Bernhard Gehberger was at Carablanca milonga in London: the dancing started at 8pm and went on till 2 am, breaking with the regular schedule of a class and a shorter milonga. & it was busy from start to finish, while in the middle it seemed that people poured onto the floor from all directions as each tanda started. It wasn't a party night: no star guests and performers, just a good DJ, a good floor, food and drink. There were a lot of unfamiliar faces: Bernard has a great reputation, and I guess that many people were there for his music. That's probably the first sign of change: people now recognise and welcome a good evening of music. For several years now, the quality of the DJ has been a regular topic of conversation.

To dance as well as I can I need to pause and take breaks, which give me the opportunity to watch. Inevitably I watched the line of dance, which was unbroken throughout most of the evening, and the line of dance was almost exclusively close embrace. (That may not have been the case for the rest of the floor which I couldn't see much.) & when I was actually in the line of dance I had few problems: it was packed, but well-behaved. I can't help wondering where this new and very welcome enthusiasm for close embrace has sprung from: it's as if people feel they've come home, and really enjoy the experience. & a lot of people have developed the skill of dancing on a busy floor. All the demonstrations of visiting teachers I've glimpsed have shown a tango of close and open embrace, but that's not what I watched on the floor. & the overall look of the floor is no longer the confused jumble of movements that (to remember a good friend's remark) resembles clothes in a washing machine. 'Tango nuevo' seems long ago.

Not that the dance has the smooth gravity of the BsAs dance. 'Gravity' is the right word, but I don't want to suggest that the dance of BsAs is 'grave' in any way, just that it's not light, it has a sense of gravity. Maybe dancers here still need to listen to Pedro Sanchez, who has just two phrases of advice in English: 'Take it easy!' and 'Listen to the music!' & what else does he need to say! & even if it is tango in close embrace a really full frontal embrace still isn't to everyone's taste. Having said that, I saw tango – some – that I thought was good by any standards.

As to the music, it was really excellent. A good DJ makes you want to dance every tanda: even if you need to sit out a tanda or two you still feel that if the right partner was there you'd be on your feet. There seemed to be a coherence to it, so at the end of the evening you feel as if you've been on a musical journey. & the cortinas fascinated everyone: 'You can hardly tell them from the tandas!' several people remarked. I happen to have the Orquesta Tipica Viktor 1931-1932 CD 'Viejo Arrabal' (ORQ316 from the Buenos Aires Tango Club) which has a mix of music, so I guessed pretty fast: this cheerful lively music everyone found so fascinating was the 'other music' that the bands we think of as tango orquestas recorded, the foxtrots, the rancheras, the paso dobles, the polkas, the shimmys, the tarantellas, the jazz numbers. It's music that's rarely heard, and such a great idea to use it for cortinas. It fits perfectly.

Here's a curiosity that a quick YouTube search threw up, a Canaro 78 released in 1932. Nine minutes of music, so about 4:30 each side of a 78, unusual but not impossible. (I've got a couple of Canaro tracks from about the same time that go on for over five minutes each, undanceable, I think, kind of symphonic tango.) Anyway, the point of this disc is that it's Canaro's orquesta playing eight one-minute extracts, a medley of tango, foxtrot, pasodoble and ranchera. Hence '8 en 1'.

So, credit to Bernard, and thanks and credit also to those who run Carablanca: it was a ten-hour day/night for them. I hope it seemed worth it to create an event like that. All I can wish for now is a weekly milonga like that in London...