Wednesday, 18 December 2013

'My beautiful illness called dancing Tango' – Alberto Dassieu

There's a translation of the first part of Alberto's life story on Irene and Man Yung's blog: they knew him well. The rest of it was on his website, which unfortunately is no longer available. 

Tangoandchaos picks up the story, telling how Alberto and his childhood friend El Chino came under the influence of Luis Lemos, the patron of tango in the Villa Urquiza barrio. It's an interesting page. & it's impressive how tango drew in kids from poorer backgrounds and encouraged social skills, how it gave them a milieu, friends, partners, mentors. Music of the most extraordinary quality and feeling, the pop of their fortunate generation, rich in their everyday music.

I watch Alberto's videos and see the elegant precision of his walk, and can't help thinking how it looks as if he was drilled in it, disciplined, from an early age, made to practice until it was just so. He doesn't give the impression that he just picked up tango by watching and practicing; as if there's a voice in the past saying 'No! Do it again! Again! Otra vez!'

Perhaps it is a style, but he made it his own. Many people learn a similar style: stage dancers tend to learn 'style', many of them learn the same style and end up looking alike. It's easy to learn to look stylish, 'all style and no substance', but that's not the same as dancing well in a milonga. Too often style looks like a mannerism, something second-hand, copied. Alberto's dance has energy, it's his own way of moving.

& another thing: from start to finish his dance looks full of courtesy to his partner. It's also very dynamic; slow, then suddenly fast, compiling a dance with the music, but all the time the walk takes the feet into exactly the right place, at any moment, whoever is his partner. I don't think you can be that precise without also being incredibly aware of your partner. He had an elegant precision which isn't really like anyone else from his generation that I've watched (but I've not visited milongas outside the 'centro' much).

I came across this recently: it's very clear. There's not a moment in the dance that isn't precise and clear, yet everything is fluent and unhurried, the energy is exactly controlled. It's beautiful to watch.

It's easy enough to dance fast, and difficult to dance slow. In a crowded milonga like El Beso, Alberto appeared to dance slowly, almost cautiously, but it always looked extra intense.

When you miss someone, you think of all the questions you'll never be able to ask. Please teach me to walk, just like you learned to walk! 'No! Not like that! Again!'

Last time I saw him I asked him to teach me to dance the pauses. Sure! he said, laughing. Next time you're here...

'Dance the tango respecting the music, dance the tango respecting the people in the milongas, dance the tango with feeling' (Alberto, interview with Monica Paz.)

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Alberto Dassieu: October 13, 1936 – December 5, 2013

My Tango is Salon style. My style of dancing is elegant, subtle, with rhythm and poetry. (Mi tango es el de Salón. Mi estilo es elegante, sutil, con cadencia, con poesía.)

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Ricardo Vidort and Luisito Ferraris: videos

I came across this among MullerPatricia's clips: she didn't recognise the dancers, but anyone familiar with the informative TangoandChaos website will recognise the second part of it as film of Ricardo Vidort with Alejandra Todaro, and the first half is from the same session. However, this first part doesn't appear on the website, so it must come from the T&C private archives, which I think are very extensive, and I wonder if there's more of that available. It's just curious that the clip doesn't identify the dancers. TangoandChaos apologises on the website for the film quality, and points out that it's great to have film from when Ricardo was still energetic and in good health. I've always seen that second half as a really wonderful example of tango, and it's a treat to have the rest of it. I just can't help wishing for even more.

Jantango posted about that recent video of Luisito Ferraris on the same day as I did, and adds a link to a video I hadn't seen. She says it's also Luisito, and it does look like him, and it's his way of dancing. Once again, the clip doesn't identify the dancers, which makes it hard to find. It appears to be a commercial for something called tangoline: the website no longer seems to exist. But the dance does, and it seems very intense. In a way it doesn't matter who the dancers are.

I'm struck once again by how close the feet of the dancers are. Sadly, most of us managed to kick our longsuffering partners a few times when we were learning, and are cautious now about dancing with our feet that close. But stepping close, this very neat footwork, is a feature of social tango, something I notice in a lot of the clips. I think it's part of walking one foot in front of the other in line, which results in 'collecting' and also in a sharper stepping. If you dance in a practica with a partner who's accustomed to the dance of the BsAs milongas, she's likely to point out if you aren't stepping close and 'collecting'; similarly, a guy who's danced there all his life would notice the lack of 'collecting' in a partner who is careless about it. It adds a clarity and sharpness, as well as a kind of additional closeness to tango.

That's about it for Luisito Ferraris on YouTube, very sadly. But there is one more video which I'd watched just part of until recently, when I discovered with pleasure that the second half of it is a milonga. I really enjoyed it: it's a kind of milonga I can relate to, and which I haven't seen much in video. The traspies are subtle, and the dance flows. Much as I love watching 'El Flaco' Dany I know I can't in any way regard him as a role model.

I'd just written this and checked to make sure there was nothing more of Luisito on YouTube... and came across this, posted just one week ago, and 15 minutes long. It seems to be the conclusion of a private workshop earlier this November, and we see Luisito dancing with his students there. He seems to be able to get people to dance, and to enjoy doing it. The text says, roughly, 'Luisito Ferraris is greatly appreciated for his dancing and teaching ability, and for being such a friendly guy'.

It brightened up a cold, dark late November afternoon.

P.S.  The original version of the second half of this is here, Adios Arrabal danced by Ricardo Vidort and Alejandra. It's better quality than the version above. I suspect the version above might have been made with a camcorder off a TV screen somewhere.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Luisito Ferraris again

Back in 2009 I re-posted sara4tango's video of Luisito Ferraris and Mirta Tiseyra, which delighted me (I still find it breathtaking) and several others, who left comments. Among the comments was one from... Luisito Ferraris, to thank us all, and he left his phone number too. He's Argentine, and I understand he was a companion of Ricardo Vidort in the milongas, and that he moved to Milan a decade or so ago. I talked on the phone to a friend of his about bringing him to London for a few days, but I wasn't in a position to make a firm offer of money, and the talks lapsed. A pity: he's hardly a 90-minute flight away.

Anyway, he resurfaced in a recent video from MullerPatricia. (Sadly, there's very little of him on YouTube.) Luisito is still on his feet, still teaching, which is wonderful, and although it's hard to make out any words, his gestures and body indicate that he's showing how to respond to the sweeping phrases of Di Sarli. & it's wonderful to watch the few moments of dance: he follows the phrases of the music with a calm, effortless elegance, nothing forced, nothing rushed, total attention to the dance. It's beautiful: so that's how you dance to Di Sarli! & how complete and relaxed the embrace is! The quality of dance, the basics of walking are instinctively there, in Luisito of course, but in the partners he dances with too.

Here's a brief quote, if Patricia Müller will permit me, slowed down slightly, and with the aspect ratio approximately corrected.

A few days later a complete tango was posted. The dance is quite active and varied, and on the small scale of social tango. 

This is Patricia Müller's website.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

'Sophisticated use of the basics.'

The great animator Richard Williams, who won two Oscars, one of them for Roger Rabbit, has compiled a massive series of 40 DVDs on animation practice: there are extracts on YouTube. They are fascinating. He talks about some of his teachers. He says that in animation literature one of them, Milton Cole, tends to be damned with faint praise: yes, he made sophisticated use of the basics. What! says Richard Williams. What else is there? What more do you need to do? Sophisticated use of the basics!

It looks as if the basics are neglected in London tango. Years of show tango classes have left their mark, as much in the mentality of thinking of dance as display as in the steps. Consequently, our milongas tend to be a bit chaotic. Very few couples actually look as if they are dancing harmoniously together. In the rush for a parody of stage tango, little time has been spent on the basics, on the walk, the embrace, on listening to the music, on the courtesy of tango. If the simplest basics, getting the walk right, are ignored, then the embrace doesn't work well, and tango hasn't begun, whatever fancy steps are tried. So I understand it, anyway.

Get the basics right, then make sophisticated use of them!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A tango dream

I dream again about tango. A group of friendly, good-natured people gather for a milonga. But first the floor has to be cleared. It's strewn with rubbish. Building rubble, waste paper, old clothes, shoes, broken furniture. Perhaps there was a phantom grand piano, I'm not sure. Maybe it was an elephant.

I think it's interesting that I've only dreamed twice in eight or nine years about tango, given that it's occupied a prominent place in my consciousness. Twice that I can remember, anyway. I wonder if it's because the activity itself, dancing, is something of a dream. In fact neither of my tango dreams has actually been about dancing. A while back I dreamed of some dreadful future in Buenos Aires in which people were trying to recreate something they called 'estilo milonguero'. I laugh and shudder at the memory.

As to the rubbish-strewn pista, to me that's specific and local. There's all kinds of rubbish I need to clear out of the way before I can dance well: perhaps the same goes for the other friendly, good-natured people too. Specifically, I would say, muscle memories of stuff that was learned by rote years back, that springs onto the dance floor partly out of memorisation rather than feeling for the music, the whole manner of using ready-made movements and attitudes, a lack of direct, immediate response. I just watched again my video of Pedro Sanchez dancing with Monica Unzaga: his lead is as supple and flowing as the music, totally instinctive and fresh throughout, and at the same time effortlessly adapted to a crowded floor.

More than a bit of clearing up to do before we get there...

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Learning from dancers

It's often said that one of the problems of learning from dancers, especially the older generation, is that although they dance wonderfully they haven't learned how to teach. & it's true. I still think you're better off with them: somewhere along the way what they're doing gets through, and what you've worked to master is yours. 

That's what came to mind after I'd watched the video of Eduardo a number of times. He's fast. He simply can't slow down to show what he's doing because he'd lose the impulse, the momentum, which is what feels right to him. You might feel more comfortable with a trained teacher who would make sure that everything was cut up in bite-sized pieces for you, but you might well be missing the vitality in the food, the vitality that's going to nourish you and your partners long-term. The impetus, the energy. The reason you dance in the first place.

There's one simple solution, slo-mo video. It seemed like a good idea to take a short piece of Patricia Muller's video and slow it down. 


& it works: the basic but effective use of the feet is clear, as is the movement of the torso. But what really came through to me was something I hadn't clearly seen at full speed, the delay on the side step Yvonne takes before her back cross, and the long step after it. Eduardo holds her there a moment so he can match a beat in the music with the emphasis of the back cross, then the energy of the turn carries her across a long side step. & to do this, of course, his feet need to move. 

There's no music playing in this piece, although it feels as if he's singing audibly as he dances. (I'm told he used to, and I've noticed his generation of dancers often sing if they are asked to demonstrate without music.) That pause, a breath, gives both of them the chance to prepare for the back cross, and makes the actual turning much more emphatic without looking rushed. Even if it is fast.

Monday, 30 September 2013

You dance with your feet; I can see you learned in London!

...Pedro Sanchez said to me a few years back. It wasn't intended scornfully: he was just trying to get through to me how tango is danced in Buenos Aires. 'Con el cuerpo!' he kept saying. With the body! It took me a while to realise that he was talking about the upper body.

I thought of this recently, sitting watching the dancing at a London milonga. Dancers who've learned in London (and elsewhere) prioritise the footwork, which can be elaborate and skilfull. But that's where the energy begins and ends. The upper bodies tend to be largely inert, and the dance looks dull and incomplete.

Poorly-trained teachers, even from Buenos Aires, have learned little more than footwork, and that's what they practice and teach. In any case it's only recently that close embrace has become widely acceptable here: if you don't contact your partner with your upper body there's not much need to use it when you dance. But once you do dance in contact with partners, everything changes. It's a whole different dance.

Another quote: as Silvia Ceriani, the late Tete Rusconi's dance partner said, 'If you want to dance, you have to move your body!'

This appeared recently: a video of the late Eduardo Aguirre, who spent the last ten years of his life in Europe, teaching with Yvonne Meissner. He passed away in 2010 and I know is greatly missed by partners he danced with. Sadly, almost inexplicably, he taught only briefly in the UK. Where do you see the energy in this dance? He's showing what the feet do, but to me that's not the important part: the energy is in the upper body. I'm sure we've all learned much more precise and fine-looking ways of using our feet in turns – but have we learned to dance, and dance with such warmth and energy? I think this clip makes quite clear that the 'cuerpo' isn't the feet! It's a very bodily way of moving, an abundantly physical dance. This is a classroom demo and might be a bit exaggerated, but it shows the movement clearly.

Towards the end of the clip he and Yvonne dance briefly with music and show how, just turning, you can follow the surges in the music. A short, great lesson in dance and musicality. Así se baila el tango! That's how tango is danced! Wonderful.

Thanks to Patricia Muller for that one.

Monday, 23 September 2013

'Tango is more than music. It is the window to collected memories...'

– attributed to Homero Expósito, author and poet, a few years younger than Troilo, with whom he wrote tangos. The quote seemed to follow on from the previous post. Their memories and our memories, different, but all our memories are present in our dance, where we share unspoken memories, become aware, wordlessly, of the memories of our partners. Listen to the memories of your partner as you dance.

YouTube led me to this video. 


It's another of those channels of music, and there are five clips from this session. I love watching these two! Never heard of either of them, but there's a wonderful synergy. Basic tango, a voice and a guitar, song and music without the complexity of orchestration, perhaps not so easy to dance to, but then you might anyway prefer to sit and listen – and watch. & it's like watching a dance, it doesn't feel like a carefully rehearsed performance. Beatriz Carró is wonderful, sings with real spirit, and seems to sing very freely: the guitar is a skillful accompanist, following, filling in, adding where necessary. The words and the chords may be fixed but the interpretation is improvised; as it happens the lead is a woman singing, and the follow is a guy with a guitar. Vida Mia is another very familiar tango. It's great to notice these were recorded just three weeks ago. This is contemporary music!

(PS. I think you only get this kind of relaxed freedom with a few performers. If you have a whole orquesta there has to be a director laying down the beat. Here the guitar effortlessly follows the beat of the singer's phrasing.)

The channel is El Pardo Tango, and the guitar is El Pardo Vieyra, so I presume it's his own channel.

I was particularly drawn to Pedacito de Cielo as it's such a well-known vals, one we've all danced to many times, and it occurred to me that I didn't know anything about the words, so I looked it up and found the original with a rough translation alongside. It's not a perfect translation, but it gives an idea of the sense. I've tweaked it a bit in an effort to make it more readable. & thanks to D for clarifying 'ojeros': I've left it as 'dark eyes' since 'dark circles under the eyes' doesn't really fit.

The lyrics of Pedacito de cielo ('A Little bit of Heaven') by Homero Expósito in the original Spanish and in rough English translation by Albert Combrink 

La casa tenía una reja – The house had a fence 
pintada con quejas y cantos de amor – painted with complaints and love songs. 
La noche llenaba de ojeras  - The night filled with dark eyes
la reja, la hiedra  y el viejo balcón – the fence, ivy and the old balcony 
Recuerdo que entonces reías  - I remember then laughed 
si yo te leía  mi verso mejor  - if I read you my best verse 
y ahora, capricho del tiempo, leyendo esos versos – and now, the whim of time, reading these verses 
lloramos los dos!  - Cried the two!

Los años de la infancia pasaron, pasaron –  The years of childhood passed, passed
La reja está dormida de tanto silencio  - The gate is asleep so quiet
y en aquel pedacito de cielo se quedó tu alegría y mi amor - and in that little piece of heaven rested your joy and my love.

Los años han pasado – The years have passed 
terribles, malvados, dejando esa esperanza que no ha de llegar – terrible, wicked, leaving that hope that hasn't arrived 
y recuerdo tu gesto travieso – and remember your mischievous gesture
después de aquel beso robado al azar - after that kiss, randomly stolen.

Tal vez se enfrió con la brisa – Maybe the breeze cooled 
tu cálida risa, tu límpida voz – your warm laughter, your clear voice
Tal vez escapó a tus ojeras – Perhaps it escaped your dark eyes
la reja, la hiedra, y el viejo balcón - the fence, ivy and the old balcony
Tus ojos de azúcar quemada – Your eyes, burnt sugar,
tenían distancias doradas al sol held distances gilded by the sun
Y hoy quieres hallar como entonces – And now you want to find like then 
la reja de bronce – the bronze gate 
temblando de amor! trembling with love.

Todotango gives 1942 as the date of Pedacito de Cielo. 

One thing leads to another... So I came across this. Same guitarist, with bandoneon this time, no singer, another well-known classic. 

& there's much more where that came from. Check it out.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

More from another world

I've been writing some notes for a friend who's visiting Buenos Aires soon. I've done this a few times and I always want to add, email and ask to be included in a tour of ESMA. It seems a cruel suggestion to someone going to enjoy a few weeks in tango paradise. & yet...

The Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, the naval engineering school, or rather the large mansion that was the officers' quarters, was one of the most notorious of the places where detainees were taken during the 1970s into the 80s. Not that there's anything at all frightening to see there: parts of it were even rebuilt so that it wouldn't agree with any accounts of the few survivors. The ESMA campus has now been taken over as a 'Space of Remembering' and they arrange tours which recount what is known about what happened there.

I remember clearly the morning I visited. It was cold and overcast, and I was tired: I'd been late at a milonga the previous night. It was a cold morning, but I came away feeling colder than I've ever felt in my life. It's my impression that we can accept the coldness of the weather but it's nothing compared to a cold human heart, which chills you mind and body, the numbing cold-heartedness of people who can decide that other people are not worthy of being treated as humans and can be played with, tortured, almost as a game. It seems that there was hardly even the excuse that they were trying to get information. The prisoners were kept in the loft in the roof of the officer's quarters, and dragged down into the basement every now and again. Then a van would come by, on Tuesday mornings if I remember right, to take the living remains of humans for a flight out over the ocean. To be close to this, close geographically but mercifully not close in time, can only make you feel colder than you've ever felt.

All of which suddenly helps to make real sense of the embrace of tango in Buenos Aires. Maybe the embrace is as it was in the golden age, but we shouldn't ignore what has happened since. Sure there's nostalgia for the golden age, and quite right too, but I don't think one can ignore a decade or more when it was risky for young people, young men in particular, men who are now in their 50s and 60s to be out in the streets, and when everyone lived through a time when it was known that people were 'disappearing', when the authorities weren't protecting but often persecuting the people, when the 5am knock on the door was always possible, and when the country was very isolated. There's one sure way of feeling warm again and that's holding someone else very, very close. It makes sense that tango became popular once democracy of some kind was restored.

So don't take the embrace lightly, it really matters. Sure, tango is fun, but if you dance there and are taken aback by the immediacy and warmth of the embrace, it's serious too; think of the background. Visit ESMA if you're there, support the Space of Remembering: if we ignore history we don't like it can creep back and take hold of us again.

It's taken me a while to make this connection, and I hope it's not fanciful, but I can't help thinking that what happened then is part of tango there now.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Report from another world

I Skype a friend visiting Buenos Aires: she's been to classes with Alicia Pons. Was it about hyperactive ankles? I joke (badly). 'No, she talked about how we must relax into the embrace of our partner'.

In a flash it occurs to me that this must be the elusive difference between the embrace of partners I've danced with in Buenos Aires, and the embrace of many dancers elsewhere, that ability for total relaxation. Really total. Not as in 'relax because we're dancing tango and that's how it should be danced', but a complete relaxation into the other. Perhaps it's the secret of the fabled 'milonguero embrace', person to person, so complete that even the awareness of dancing tango doesn't come between. It's not necessarily a matter of whether you hold your arm higher or lower, whether your weight is further forwards or back, or whether your posture is more or less upright, although these might be helpful. It's personal.

I've really felt a different embrace there, and I'm sure it must be in the quality of that relaxation, completely giving yourself to the other without hesitation or fear. Surely that's tango, not double backwards 'estilo milonguero' ochos with saccadas thrown in, or whatever the dance teachers offer. Tango is personal contact, really personal: it's as if the dance is there to enable that personal contact, not to disrupt it. & the embrace, like the dance, has no absolutely specific codified form: it's just whatever works to get two people very close so they can move together with the music. I remember what an old tanguera says in the film Tango, Nuestro Baile: tango is when you feel your partner's heartbeat.

But we know what a warm embrace is, to give yourself to someone else, even if it is just for a tanda. Tango says you can enjoy this. Perhaps not a passionate embrace, but an embrace without warmth, without any commitment (however temporary) just isn't tango. Well, this is a personal view, it's not the kind of tango I'd enjoy dancing.

(I've just noticed Patricia of Tango Adelaide wrote on this recently, and links to a lovely video of one of her – and my – favourite milongas, Lujos at the new Plaza Bohemia on Alsina. Good to see the floor busy, to see familiar faces, and to watch again that beautiful dance, surging effortlessly with the music... under good lighting too!) 

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.