Inside the Embrace

Commentaries on Argentine Tango and Life

Stephen and Susan Brown, Mark Anderson

and others within the tango community 




2014 Archive    


Early Buenos Aires Tango 6 July 2014 — Stephen Brown

During the 1997 Stanford Tango Week, Richard Powers (a Stanford Dance Historian) began the reconstruction and translation of "The true Argentine Tango, the one and only" as described by Nicanor Lima, Buenos Aires, circa 1914.  Richard and his team worked on the project over the next two years and came close to finishing.  Hoping to release a complete and finished product, Richard held onto the incomplete work for the next 15 years.  Now, he is releasing the incomplete translation with the hopes that crowdsourcing will help finish the work.


     Richard's reconstruction of the tango described in Lima's text shows that the current American and European forms of tango are fairly close to that described in Lima's 1914 manual, although some foreign elements may have entered European tango as the result of competitions.  Given the strong similarities between the tango described in Lima's manual and the current forms of American and European tango, Richard concludes that Europeans didn't corrupt the tango (as many Argentines believe).  Rather, tango continued to evolve in Argentina over the next 40 years as the Argentines changed their own dance.  Richard's conclusion echos his previous research on Brazilian and other forms of samba.  There have also been similar occurrences in language—where groups who lack constant contact with the country of their language's origin maintain an older form even as the language evolves in the country of its origin. The nearly complete translation of Lima's manual and Richard's reconstruction of the dance can be found on Richard's website. 


2013 Archive

   

Going
13 August 2013 — Stephen Brown

"If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together."     African Proverb    


2012 Archive    


Imagination,

1 December 2012  

"You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus."  Mark Twain   


2011 Archive    

​   

Without the Music
8 December 2011 — Tete (Pedro Rusconi)
"Without the music there is no dance, no tango, no teacher, no student.  A true teacher can only transmit the teaching the music has left him." 
    

Let's Step on the Ground
7 December 2011 — Tete (Pedro Rusconi)

"Tango can be danced in a thousand different ways, but let's step on the ground first because that is where the energy comes from.  Therefore, this is where we ought to dance to the music." 


Awaken
6 November 2011 — Stephen Brown

"Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.  Those who look outside, dream.  Those who look inside, awaken."  Carl Gustav Jung


Gloria y Eduardo: 50 Años con el Tango
3 July 2011 — Stephen Brown

Always considered among the best dancers of their generation, Gloria and Eduardo are celebrating more than 50 years in tango.  Marking the beginning of their careers in 1960, Gloria and Eduardo performed throughout the world; appeared as featured dancers with the Francisco Canaro, Osvaldo Fresedo and Florindo Sassone orchestras; appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show; and were among the original cast members of the now legendary stage show Tango Argentino.  They always maintained their social dance skills and are among the renowned teachers in tango's revival in the 1990s.Their website,
gloriayeduardo.com, contains many fantastic images from throughout their lengthy careers in tango.  To see their extensive collection of photographs, notices and other images, go to their website, gloriayeduardo.com, then click on Fotos.  The first set of images, Galeria 1, will begin showing automatically.  To see the second set of images, select Galeria 2.  It also shows automatically.


Mastering Technique 

15 June 2011 — Stephen Brown

"The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself."  La Meri


Tradition
30 May 2011 — Stephen Brown "Tradition is not the glorification of the ashes but the passing on of the fire."  Gustav Mahler


Tango de Salon or Tango Milonguero
29 May 2011 — Stephen Brown

Over at Melina's two cents, Melina Sedo considers the confusion that has developed over use of the terms "tango de salon" and "tango milonguero."  As Melina (and I) originally understood the term, "tango de salon" was danced socially by milongueros and milongueras at milongas. 

According to what Melina learned from the milongueros and milongueras that she met,
"[A]ll of them danced their personal interpretation of tango de salon, allowing for many kinds of embraces, from very close to a half open V-form.  Some of them danced complex movements with real pivots and even ganchos; some just walked to the music.  ...  Tete danced tango de salon as well as El Indio or Hernan Obispo.  ...  Tango orillero, tango del centro, tango liso, tango apilado, tango Villa Urquiza, tango milonguero [were] ... sub-styles of the tango de salon with one common idea: ... to dance socially."

Because salon-style tango (tango de salon) became synonymous with a hybrid of social tango and stage tango in the United States and parts of Europe, Susana Miller who focused on a limited set of simple movements with small steps began calling what she taught, "tango milonguero" and that term become widely applied to all forms of social tango danced in a close embrace.  Those of us who dance and/or teach other social forms of tango, find the labeling misleading and difficult to swallow.  As Melina writes, "We still dance tango de salon.  Social tango."For a related set of thoughts, see The Continuing Conflict Over Tango Styles below.


Myths About Dancing Tango
1 May 2011 — Stephen Brown
Over at Tango and Chaos, Rick McGarrey considers three myths about tango he wishes would go away.

Myth 1: "If it's crowded I dance milonguero style tango, but later in the evening, I like to dance other styles."

Rick: "I don't know any social dancers who wait for the floor to clear so they can dance some other kind of tango.  I've never seen it happen in Buenos Aires.  I also don't know any good social dancers who say they dance 'milonguero style tango'—or, for that matter, who say they dance any 'style' of tango."

Myth 2: "We dance alternative tango in a milonga with no problems.  We control our dancing, and when there's space, we get more creative."

Rick: "Translation: 'If I didn't kick you, I didn't bother you.'  This is the rationale of people who do what they want in milongas.  They may not bother anyone when it's early and there's no one on the floor, but as it begins to get more crowded, whether they know it or not, they do bother other dancers.  As far as academic dancing being more creative, I've heard this argument—but to me, it looks mostly like choreography from workshops."

Myth 3: "There is no room in tango for prejudice, discrimination, or closed minds.  Milongas should be open to everyone."

Rick: "Prejudice and discrimination apply to things like race and religion—not to the way someone decides to dance.  You can't go into a chess club and insist on playing dominoes.  And a beginning basketball player can't expect to walk into a gym and join a pick-up game with college and pro level players.  To dance in a milonga you need a certain level of competence, and you need to respect the codigos."


The Continuing Conflict Over Tango Styles
17 April 2011 — Stephen Brown

In the late 1800s and early 1900s tango split into two styles.  One style, known as "tango liso" was danced in tango salons (indoors).  Limited by space, tango liso was characterized by care to follow the line of dance, smooth movements, a lack of double-time steps and the use of relatively simple elements that would not disrupt the line of dance.  The other style, known as "tango orillero" was danced in the streets of poor outlying tenements in Buenos Aires.  Not confined by space, orillero was a rougher style with more highly rhythmic movements that did not show respect for a line of dance.

Although the two styles had similar origins in canyengue, the class distinctions between the styles created rivalry.  Because tango had its origins in working class neighborhoods and orillero seemed closer to canyengue, the more refined tango liso was denounced by some as inauthentic.  In return, tango orillero was dismissed as only suitable for individuals of dubious backgrounds.

 By the 1940s and early 50s, tango had evolved into a multiplicity of styles.  Tango liso gradually evolved into what many now call estilo Villa Urquiza, a name that reflects its onetime prominence in a northern neighborhood of Buenos Aires known as Villa Urquiza.  It was also likely that the Villa Urquiza style was known as "tango de salon" at one time.  Such a name would recognize that the style was danced in most of the salons throughout Buenos Aires, and it would distinguish the style from orillero, which evolved in the streets.

Orillero-style dancers gradually moved from the streets to small indoor clubs.  They took their rhythmic sensibilities with them, but modified the dance to fit smaller spaces.  As a result, the club and milonguero styles of tango emerged.  The club and milonguero styles are substantially similar to each other, mostly reflecting a continuum of personal differences, with club-style tango sharing some of the characteristics of the Villa Urquiza style of tango.  (See Styles of Argentine Tango.)

Although the Villa Urquiza, club and milonguero styles of tango were all eventually recognized as tango de salon, the rivalry between styles remained.  Refined women refused to dance in the neighborhood clubs where club or milonguero styles of tango were danced, or even to use the double-time steps that characterizes the two styles.  Those dancing club and milonguero tango saw themselves as dancing a style of tango that had a straight-line history to the origins of tango without the contamination of middle-class pretensions.

In the late 1940s and early 50s, some of the better dancers of estilo Villa Urquiza also began to develop their skills for tango exhibitions.  In doing so, they created tango fantasia, a style that builds on estilo Villa Urquiza but uses embellishments more extensively and adds dramatic poses, ganchos and high boleos, all of which have their roots in some part of tango's history.  The creation of tango stage productions led to the development of tango escenario, which integrated fantasia with elements from ballet and other dance forms.

[click to enlarge] Tango was mostly dormant from the late 1950s through the mid-1980s.  The tango salons were closed, and the Villa Urquiza style that may have once dominated tango in Buenos Aires was danced mostly by older couples at family gatherings.  Some milongueros continued to dance club and milonguero style tango at clubs de barrios, but the Argentine government cracked down on the milonguero life style.  Tango stage shows continued to be produced with fantasia as the dominant form in the more authentic shows.

The stage show Tango Argentino created a revival of interest in tango in the late 1980s and early 1990s, first in Europe and then North America.  An enthralled public wanted to learn what they saw in Tango Argentino, which was mostly fantasia.  The stage dancers, many of whom had limited backgrounds in the social forms of tango, began teaching what they knew to dancers in Europe and North America, mostly as memorized figures.

Perhaps trying to emphasize the refined social roots of their dance, the Argentine stage dancers frequently identified what they taught as tango de salon, which was translated to salon-style tango in English.  This identification created confusion in many tango communities where the term salon-style tango became most closely associated with fantasia and to some extent Villa Urquiza.  In Buenos Aires, tango de salon remained associated with all social styles of tango dancing.  The common style shared by the two different labels was estilo Villa Urquiza, once the dominant form of tango in Buenos Aires.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, milongueros who specialized in the club and milonguero styles of tango reemerged from the clubs de barrio.  At the same time, many foreigners began visiting Buenos Aires to dance tango.  As the two styles met on crowded dance floors, serious conflicts arose.

The conflict between the salon-style tango danced by the foreigners and the tango de salon danced by the milongueros was to some extent practical.  The memorized figures with exhibition elements didn't work in crowded venues where the milongueros danced.  The densely packed floor demanded improvisational and navigational skills which the visitors lacked.  The conditions also required the use of only those dance elements that could be executed safely with others close by, which the visitors didn't understand.

The conflict also had its roots in the social split that occurred in tango's early years.  The origin of the milonguero/club style was in orillero, while the origin of the style danced by most foreigners was in tango liso.  Many milongueros denounced what the foreigners called salon-style tango as inauthentic stage tango that was poorly danced and unsuitable for use in crowded milongas.

As tango's popularity grew, a new round of teachers emerged in the mid-1990s and early 2000s who taught tango in the styles of the milongueros.  The emergence of this group of teachers created a practical and philosophical split in many tango communities.  The milonguero-style instructors emphasized learning tango in small rhythmic elements that could be combined improvisationally.  The salon-style instructors emphasized refined movements and memorized figures.

Nuevo tango also emerged in the 1990s.  As it was originally conceived, nuevo tango was largely a pedagogic approach to tango that emphasized a structural analysis of the Villa Urquiza, fantasia and orillero styles of tango through which the connections between tango's elements could be explored and new combinations and step patterns could be found.  Some of the dancers exploring tango's possibilities gradually developed nuevo tango into a style that is danced in an open, loose or elastic embrace with a very upright posture and a great emphasis on the dancers maintaining their own axes.  Although the vocabulary was strictly tango, some of the combinations were fresh and unusual.

[click to enlarge] By the early 2000s, tango seemed to be splitting into three distinct styles that were very different when taken to their extremes.  These styles included a milonguero/club style that emphasized a close embrace, small rhythmic movements and improvisation; a fantasia-centered style, mostly known as salon-style tango outside Buenos Aires, that emphasized quality of movement and was frequently taught as memorized figures; and a nuevo style that often employed a loose embrace and emphasized the exploration of movements through the development of a structural understanding of tango's possibilities.  Although each of the styles draws deeply on tango's history, practical and philosophical conflicts emerged as each style was taken to its extreme.  (See Taking Tango Styles to Extremes.)

Aside from polarizing comments made by the adherents in each of the three stylistic groups, several other factors have added to the appearance that tango has broken into three distinct styles.  Estilo Villa Urquiza, which links the various styles through it commonalities, never recovered from tango's dormancy to regain the prominence it enjoyed in the 1940s and early 50s.  Other styles eclipsed Villa Urquiza, and it began to disappear as an older generation of porteños died.  As a result, many dancers have difficulty seeing how the diverging styles are part of tango's whole.

In addition, the differing methods for teaching each of the styles has accentuated the differences between the styles.  The many dancers whose learning is incomplete within each style have substantially different limitations in their dancing, and those limitations have been interpreted as part of each style.  Incomplete learning in milonguero/club tango typically results in dancers who plod along to the music without much quality of movement, sense of form or inventiveness.  Incomplete learning in salon-style tango typically results in dancers who execute memorized patterns without rhythm or the ability to navigate.  Incomplete learning in the nuevo style typically results in dancers who spin out of control without much rhythm as they explore tango's possibilities.  (See On Style and Styles (4), Incomplete Education and Approaches to Learning and Authenticity.)

The overall appearance in the tango world is of three seemingly conflicting styles of tango that are pulling apart because there is no central gravity strong enough to hold them together.


Nuevo Milonguero
13 April 2011 — Stephen Brown

In a recent post over at Tango Voice, the anonymous blogger considers what is meant by the term "nuevo milonguero" which he re-anoints as "tango estilo milonguero nuevo."  He reaches the conclusion that nuevo milonguero is a close-embrace variation of nuevo-style tango, which is in direct contradiction of my previously expressed view that nuevo milonguero was created by adding nuevo elements to milonguero-style tango.

His reasoning?
"With its maintained close embrace and small steps (when necessary) Tango Milonguero is designed for the high density characteristic of milonga dance floors in Buenos Aires.  Tango Nuevo is identified by its focus on the exploration of possibilities for movement, which by its very nature requires space and freedom of direction in movement.  ...  Although the addition of Tango Nuevo elements to Tango Milonguero ... creates an incompatible mix, the converse mixture is viable.  The addition of the characteristic closed embrace of Tango Milonguero to Tango Nuevo does not limit the latter's ability to improvise because the milonguero embrace is only part of the continuum of distances and variations in partner connection that are characteristically passed through in dancing Tango Nuevo."

Although I agree with Tango Voice's view that nuevo elements can be incompatible with the original purpose of milonguero-style tango (which is dancing in crowded spaces), I do not understand the substitution of logic for history.  Those who developed what has become known as "nuevo milonguero" are dancers and instructors closely associated with milonguero-style tango.  They added nuevo-inspired steps to their dancing in way that they considered compatible with the movements of milonguero-style tango, if not the unwritten codes for tango de salon in Buenos Aires.  Whether their motivation was marketing or a desire to punch up the milonguero style in the face of the nuevo onslaught, I don't know.

Either way, I see Tango Voice as paying insufficient attention to tango's history in the pursuit of his self-appointed mission "to counter the prevailing tendency to misrepresent tango argentino in North America."
 

The Dancer's Expression
9 March 2011 — Stephen Brown

"The Dancer believes that his art has something to say which cannot be expressed in words or in any other way than by dancing.  ... there are times when the simple dignity of movement can fulfill the function of a volume of words."  Doris Humphrey
 

2010 Archive    

Carlos Gavito: I Wanted to Dance
28 August 2010 — Stephen Brown

Recently published by Abrazos Books, I Wanted to Dance is an account of the life of the late Carlos Gavito, whose personal journey took him around the world to more than 90 countries and led him back to his native Buenos Aires.  It is also the story of how he evolved from a rock 'n' roll dancer to tango dancer and teacher with a unique and personal style.

Originally written by Ricardo Plazaola, I Wanted to Dance is the English-language version of Yo Quería Bailar and was translated by Karen Simon, a Montreal/Buenos Aires translator and tango teacher.


El Ultimo Bandoneón
7 August 2010 — Stephen Brown

Marina Gayotos makes a living playing the bandoneon on buses and at various pick-up gigs.  When she auditions for the tango master Rodolfo Mederos, he informs her that though she has talent, her bandoneón is too far gone to play.  But if she can find a better bandoneón, she can play in his tango orchestra.  This leads Marina to go on a quest for another instrument, one that takes her to instrument makers, dancers and an array of memorable characters from the tango world, all while searching for "the last bandoneón."El Ultimo Bandoneón is an 80 minute film in Spanish with English subtitles that can be watched online.  It is part of Doc-Debut, a series on Link TV highlighting unique international documentary films.


2009 Archive    

Pursuing Happiness
28 December 2009 — Stephen Brown

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky writes:


"If we observe genuinely happy people, we shall find that they do not just sit around being contented.  They make things happen.  They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings.  In sum, our intentional, effortful activities have a powerful effect on how happy we are, over and above the effects of our set points and the circumstances in which we find ourselves."
 

Improvising
28 December 2009 — Stephen Brown


"You can't play outside the tune until you can play the tune!"  Lee Konitz


The Commonplace and the Remarkable
28 December 2009 — Stephen Brown
"Nothing is so commonplace as the wish to be remarkable."  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
 

Keeping It in Neutral
30 April 2009 — Susan Brown

In The Personal Credibility Factor, Sandy Allgeier writes:


"Highly credible people make decisions to 'suspend judgement' when considering another person's perspective.  They do this because they are okay with being wrong—or, at a bare minimum, okay with having their opinions challenged.  This doesn't mean that they don't have passion and strong beliefs.  It simply means that their minds are open to other opinions, even if those are quite different from their own."


2008 Archive    

How We Are Together
7 November 2008 — Susan Brown


It is not about how we dance, but how we are together!
from Taboe Tango Camp
 

Egotism or Cluelessness?
26 October 2008 — Stephen Brown


A friend of mine who teaches in another city recently announced that admission to her intermediate/ advanced classes would be by invitation or audition only.  She had to take this step because she was having a problem with too many people showing up who weren't able to keep up with the class and were impeding the progress for those who were truly intermediate and advanced.  She said, "Other students in class should be your peers, not your teachers."

At (now defunct) Tangri-LÁ, Johanna Siegmann writes a similar story about another instructor who was offering an intermediate/advanced workshop:
"In the past, these workshops were attended mostly by students who had woefully over-valued their actual skills, being barely able to walk while in the Tango embrace, much less be intermediate or advanced at anything other than over-appraising their abilities. ... [A]fter being forced to devalue several intermediate/advanced workshops due to a preponderance of attendees who were neither—[the instructor] addressed the issue head-on" by reminding the students that they needed to approach learning with humility which included the instructor's appraisal of which level of classes were appropriate.

Like Johanna, my sympathies are with the instructors, who are likely risking losing many students—not only those directly excluded, but those who might stay away because of what they hear.

It's interesting to ponder why the practice of overrating oneself seems so common in tango—and elsewhere in life.  We all likely know self-anointed tango "instructors" who can barely dance themselves.

Johanna offers one explanation, "Unfortunately, there appears to be a deplorable lack of humility these days, everywhere you look.  And if you are looking at Tango, it is dismally present everywhere.  As if the learning process was demeaning and disrespectful.  As though room for improvement was a personal flaw.  Or admitting we need training wheels is somehow insulting and humiliating."  (aka egotism?)

Without disagreeing with Johanna, I would offer another explanation.  As is pointed out below, incompetent individuals fail to recognize their own inadequacy because they tend to overestimate their own level of skill and fail to recognize genuine skill in others.  (aka cluelessness?)

Either way, lack of self-awareness is the root of many evils.
 

Wanting What You Want
26 October 2008 — Susan Brown

"Remember no project is too ambitious if you crave the result enough."  Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne
 

Unskilled and Unaware
4 October 2008 — Stephen Brown

In a 1999 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Cornell psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning find that incompetent individuals fail to recognize their own inadequacy because they tend to overestimate their own level of skill and fail to recognize genuine skill in others.


Remembering
2 September 2008 — Stephen Brown

"It's so important to remember where you come from, because if you don't remember where you come from, you don't know who you are or where you're going."  Roxanne Swentzell
 

Professionalism and Creativity
1 September 2008 — Stephen Brown

"The professional photographer takes assignments from 'without'...  [T]he creative photographer...takes assignments from 'within'...  The conflict from assignments from 'without' versus those from 'within' often perplexes the serious photographer."  Ansel Adams
 

Chasing the Steps
18 May 2008 —At (now defunct) Tangri-LÁ, Johanna Siegmann writes:


"'Chasing the steps' may be one of the most perfect phrases I've ever read regarding Tango.  For me it describes the type of dancer that doesn't get 'it' or has not yet gotten 'it'. ... [A] lot of us eventually stop chasing the step in order to chase the connection."
 

Everyday Goals
8 May 2008 — According to Warren Buffett,


Benjamin Graham once expressed to a friend the thought that he hoped every day to do "something foolish, something creative, and something generous."
 

So Much More
6 May 2008 — At (now defunct) Tangri-LÁ, Johanna Siegmann writes:


"In the universe of the tango embrace, the supreme being is intimacy, not sex."
 

Taking Control of One's Own Development
2 May 2008 — Stephen Brown

At some point, most tango dancers choose not to improve because the cost of developing skills isn't paid back with a sufficient improvement in the quality of the dance experience.  A person with a greater interest in tango or lower development costs may pursue the development of their skills further, but still reaches a point where the additional cost of developing skills outweighs the gains.  In a partner dance, such as tango, the skills of one's potential partners can greatly influence how much furthering one's own skills improves the dance experience.  The return to developing one's own skills is greater when one's potential partners are skillful than when they are mediocre.

The required complementarity of skills in dance partners can lead to a situation in which an entire community remains mired in mediocrity—even though many individual dancers may wish that they and everyone else had better skills.  In an established community dominated by mediocrity, a number of individuals seemingly have stopped their development as tango dancers at a relatively low level.  High costs to developing skills could contribute to such mediocrity.  Maybe the community is mired at a low equilibrium created by group dynamics—and the view that everyone dances with everyone.   Each member of the community thinking strictly of their own enjoyment from dancing stops developing skills when their own additional enjoyment from developing those skills just offsets their own additional costs.  Each person acting individually bears their own development costs but gains only a portion of the improved dance experience.  Some of the benefits are distributed to their partners.  If self-interest dominates as might be expected, individuals don't take into account how their skills affects others and do not pursue the development of tango skills to the point that others in the community would like.  Consequently, each member of the community would like everyone in the community to develop a higher level of skills, but no one individual acting alone will do so.  In addition, highly skilled dancers may find it difficult to keep their skills honed while dancing in a community dominated by mediocre dancers—further reinforcing the mediocrity.

In many activities dominated by mediocrity, those who have the aptitude and the desire to improve often find that a strong personal drive to excel can propel them well beyond where their own community is mired.  But tango is a partner dance, and it is better to find at least one partner who is willing to work together toward the same goals of highly skilled dancing—by taking some private lessons, attending workshops in other cities and practicing a lot.  But even if an individual couple working together succeeds in boosting their skills dramatically, they could find their enjoyment diluted when they dance with others in their own community, or they could find themselves feeling isolated when they no longer want to dance with others in the community who haven't made a similar committment to develop their skills.

Perhaps a better idea is to form a small practice group of both men and women, in which everyone has similar goals, is willing to work and to create a supportive environment for each other.  In addition to practicing together, the group might want to consider organizing lessons for themselves, attending workshops in other cities as a group, etc.   Most importantly, everyone in the group must make a committment to developing a high level of skills for dancing tango.  When the group has succeeded and begins attending milongas in the community, there will be less dilution of the efforts because everyone in the group will have several potential partners from the group with whom dance at milongas.  Moreover, the group's development may act as an impetus for better dancing in the entire community because an increase in the number of better dancers in a community raises the return to improving skills, even for those were outside the group.
 

Some Thoughts about Leading
30 April 2008 — Stephen Brown

Shortly after dancing with Pablo Veron at the 1999 Santa Fe Tango Week a woman told me in a gushing, dazzled tone, "I didn't feel like he led me so much as I felt like he willed my movements."  Ever since then, what she described has been my goal as a leader—finding the balance between strength, grace and gentleness that conveys the lead in such a way that the woman doesn't feel at all pushed around, that she has a good idea what I am trying to have us accomplish, and that she is able to express her own voice.

On Tango-L, Tom Stermitz provides a list of the many ways to lead a woman's movement::
    - leader changes weight
    - follower steps on the slow beat unless prevented
    - leader shifts axis
    - leader lifts shoulder (uggh!)
    - leader bends axis
    - leader settles hips
    - leader pushes hips out
    - leader rotates (spirals)
    - leader rotates (pivots)
    - leader lifts and set down follower with arm
    - leader uses tummy to lift and set down
    - leader uses hands to move follower

Tom says that he uses all of the techniques on the list except shoulder lifts and axis bending.  He doesn't like these two for tango.  He adds, "The good leader uses multiple techniques at the same time, which can make the lead extremely subtle, yet extremely clear."  What Tom describes sounds to me a lot  like willing her movements.

I have taken a somewhat broader approach to learning how to lead, but one that is consistent with Tom's list.  As I see it, nearly all of the lead as conveyed by movement of the man's torso, regardless of style.  The man's right arm sometimes adds reinforcement as an extension of his torso's movement, but without any rigidity or sense of pushing.  Use of the hand in leading is usually reserved to signal a few of the occasions when the follower is asked not to shift her weight as the man moves.  There may be other exceptions, but nearly all uses of the hand to lead that I have seen taught are completely unnecessary and potentially unpleasant for the follower.  Dropping or lifting a shoulder or bending the axis can take away from the perceived quality of movement in tango.  The voice is not used for leading.

Whether one wants to pursue Tom's detailed list or take my broader approach as an avenue for developing leading skills, it seems appropriate to explore and be conscious about how each of the leader's movements contributes to the intended lead, and then develop a body sense for the appropriate leading movements.  Either way, I see the goal as being the same—finding the balance between strength, grace and gentleness that conveys the lead in such a way that the woman doesn't feel at all pushed around, that she has a good idea what the leader is trying to have them accomplish, and that she is able to express her own voice.
 

Gender Imbalance in Tango
24 April 2008 — Stephen Brown

In Dallas/Fort Worth area, the tango community seems to have a roughly equal balance between men and women.  In some North American cities, the gender balance in the tango communities can be quite unequal, usually with more women than men.

On Tango-L, Tom Stermitz provides some insight about why that happens:
"In the beginner classes, the gender ratios are always close to 50/50.  The problem is in the upper level classes.  I don't want to be harsh, but look at the Adv-beginner and Intermediate classes for the different teachers in one community.  Some are 50/50 some are 80/20.  In other words, the problem is methodological and intentional (or ignorant).

"Retention rates in tango are low, so the filtering process is determines the gender ratios.  Out of a new beginner class, maybe 90% quit.  If the rejection rate is unbalanced, say 90% women and 95% men, the teacher is creating double the number of women. In other words, the filtering is so drastic that very small changes in the filtering process has a huge effect down the road."Tom also offers some specific suggestions for retaining men in his Tango-L post.


It Takes Two Minds to Tango
23 April 2008 — Stephen Brown

According to Judi Neal at Edgewalkers, "[A]n edgewalker is someone who walks between two worlds."  At Boundary Crosser, Carol Ross describes a boundary crosser as someone traveling in many worlds, fitting in none.

On Boundary Crosser, Carol Ross wrote:
"To find a group of natural boundary crossers, join a community of tango dancers.

"I recently attended a friend's 50th birthday party ... What had not changed [about my friend] was his distinctive, rich voice, his engineering-oriented career, and his love of tango. ... In fact 90% of the party goers were [his] fellow tango dancers. ... The first part of the evening was spent talking to tango enthusiasts, about how they got started, where they dance, why they love it so much, and what they do when they are not dancing.  During the second half of the evening, I was the keen observer of what makes this dance so magical, from the outfits worthy of a serious whirl on the floor, to the smooth moves from plenty of experts in full body motion.  It was full immersion into another world for one evening.

"[I]t turned out most people at the party had been practicing tango, consistently, for five or more years. ...  People don't take up the dance lightly.  And like my friend, most had long-time careers in something completely different.  The woman who sat across from me at dinner ... remarked how tango dancers fall into two camps—those in the 'touchy feely' professions (e.g., musicians, massage therapists, artists, nurses) and those in analytical professions (e.g., software developers, product managers, network administrators). She explained that it takes both sides of the brain to do tango and only those who can make the leap to the 'other side' become good at it.

"The dance takes close communication between the partners. ... It turns out that alot of the communication comes through the chest. ... If this wasn't complicated enough, there is no percussion in tango music. Finding the beat can be a challenge for newbies. Other oddities I observed included full stops in the dancing--complete pauses that are timed to integrate seemlessly with the rest of the movement—and a swiveling of the female hips reminiscent of a secret handshake. ... Unlike the stereotype of tango as a movement of wild abandon, I observed it to be a thinking and sensing person's dance, one requiring whole brain thinking."
 

Being Original
22 April 2008 — Susan Brown

"Be regular and orderly in your life like bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."  Gustave Flaubert
 

Exploring Movement
22 April 2008 — Stephen Brown

"To create a space where a person can explore his or her movement in a safe place is much more important on any level of dancing than the moves or technique."  Nina Pesochinsky


Kinesthetic Sense
21 April 2008 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Nina Pesochinsky wrote:
"If someone is comfortable with his/her own body, there is nothing and no one that can 'make' this person to be uncomfortable.  What happens instead is that people ignore their discomfort in the regular life activities, move themselves out of the body and into the head, and stay there until they arrive to tango.  Tango is just a mirror of what is already there.

"Walking in Buenos Aire is good for tango, true.  But what is much better is to ride the old Mercedes buses.  If you can keep your balance without holding on to anything, and do it every day, the tango improves dramatically. :)

"That 20 year old bodies are better than 40 year old bodies.  Not true.  20 year old bodies are ignored and disconnected usually because the person is some place else.  If one has been doing something with his or her own body since the age of 20, and has been doing it for 20 years (not tango, but something that involves some consistent and purposeful cultivation of the body), his or her body will be much, much better at 40 than at 20..  The problem is that many people arrive to tango after their bodies had fossilized, and after living in their heads for decades.

"The longer I dance, the less I understand who is a beginner and who is advanced.  I believe that the problem is tango dimentia that sets in after some time of dancing—one sort of forgets the way home and it does not matter. :)

"Tango alone cannot teach a person to move and to be connected with the body.  Other things are needed.  There is a reason why people come to tango.  More often than not it is subconscious.  But each person does know what he/she needs or wants and is able to pursue it, if the conditions are right.  To create a space where a person can explore his or her movement in a safe place is much more important on any level of dancing than the moves or technique.

"When people begin to dance, something important and big has already began to happen to their psyche.  Some call it the emergence of the authentic self.  It is a process for everyone.  I believe that it is a very painful process.  All transformations are painful.

"I believe that if a tango teacher recognizes that such a transformation is taking place in his or her students, he or she can tend to the space that is needed, and the trust that gets built, and gently help them move.  It is amazing to see the incredible speed with which people learn tango in these conditions.  The role of the teacher then become that of helping a person to emerge authentic in the dance."
 

Troileana
14 April 2008 — Stephen Brown

In the liner notes for her CD Troileana, Liliana Barrios wrote:
"[Anibal] Troilo was a passionate admirer of [Carlos] Gardel and spent his life fathoming the depths of the soul that had already been mapped out by the Mute One.  For this purpose, he used his musical genius and the compass of his poets.  Troilo, whose openess and generosity was legendary, was very parsimonius in his choice of lyricists: only the best would do.  And, if truth be told, a considerable part of great Argentine poetry can be found in tango lyrics.  Poetry that in Troilo's pieces carries the power of lived experience.

"This Gardelian exploration undertaken by Troilo and his friends lights up the the Golden Age of tango-song.  Tango that is felt through the music, imagined in the lyrics and danced by our feet.  This is the tango that I wish to celebrate in Troileana.

"Troilo's repetoire is magnetic, substantial, demanding.  It is demanding on the listener because these tangos make you (almost, almost) want to slit your wrists.  It is demanding on the musician because while its technical difficulty is first of all imposing, once this has been mastered, it must be abandoned in order to reach the emotion.  And it is demanding on the singer, who must embark on a rollercoaster ride of high and low notes, rapture and silence, coarseness and tenderness.

"If anything, I have attempted to interpret these pieces with truth.  With depth of feeling.  As if they were my own veins."For more information, about Liliana Barrios and Troileana, see www.lilianabarrios.com.ar.


Close-Embrace-Style Tango at a Crossroads?
12 April 2008 — Stephen Brown

The terms used to describe styles of tango are not uniform.  What one person calls "close-embrace-style tango" another might call "milonguero-style tango"—neither term necessarily referring to the way that milongueros dance tango.  Whichever of these two term is used, what is meant is an attempt to teach a form of tango that is more suitable for dancing socially than for show.

On Tango-L, Trini de Pittsburgh (aka Trina Regaspi) wrote:
"It seems to me that we may now be at a crossroads.  The close-embrace 'movement' began as an answer to more show-style teaching methods (complicated patterns, open-embrace, etc.).  As close-embrace became better appreciated, taught, and practiced in the U.S., it started to incorporate some nuevo elements.  Both styles encouraged vocabulary that was organic.  However, the close-embrace that I see most of the time is different from the style that I see the milongueros do.  The milongueros do a lot of basic steps but add a lot of footwork for musicality.  But now that close-embrace (in whatever form) has become more of the norm, are we now interested in it becoming more showy?  I've noticed that it's the beginning women who want to do the showy steps (boleos, volcadas, leg wraps), and the men oblige them.  And I can see it heading back to where we started—show tango."For some related thoughts, see On Style and Styles (4).


On Style and Nuevo Tango
4 April 2008 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Nina Pesochinsky wrote:
"There is a huge confusion about 'styles' in tango.  Some 'styles' are nothing more than bad form, bad technique, and, on the whole, bad dancing. ... People often select a 'style' without having the technique to build it on.  Dancing in a 'style' without a technique is a lie, a cheap immitation of something that could be fabulous.

"I am all for tango nuevo in good form with technique and a lot of training. ... Gustavo, Fabian, Chicho and some others have technique that allows them to have a true style, chosen by them and not by default because they cannot do anything else.  Most of those who imitate [Gustavo, Fabian, Chicho] and call themselves 'nuevo' dancers usually do not have such technique, tend to be quite lazy in regard to mastering the dance in a technical sense because they cannot dance anything else, are usually awful to dance with, look terrible and appear to be deaf, since most of the movements tend to happen outside of the music.

"Originally, nuevo tango was something very exciting.  We all did it and worked like demons.  And loved it.  Now it is just a lot of bad dancing (with a few exceptions)."For some related thoughts, see Incomplete Education, Approaches to Learning and Authenticity, and On Style and Styles (4).


Seduced by Tango
25 March 2008 — Stephen Brown

Seduced by Tango (aka Tango Seduction) was to be a feature-length documentary hosted by Robert Duvall and intended for PBS broadcast.  The project was cancelled for lack of funding later in 2008,  What follows are my comments about the project from 25 March 2008.

Seduced by Tango follows acclaimed Tango artist Pablo Veron as he works with non-professional dancers from around the world.  Each of the dancers is from a different culture, and each has a different story to tell.  Although their differences might be profound, tango is what unites them as they work together toward a common goal: to perform tango at a milonga in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of Tango.  Along the way, the viewers come to understand the dramatic history of tango as dance, music, and a metaphor for human connection.

In the video about Seduced by Tango, the producer/director Catherine Tatge says, "Tango has spread all over the world, and the passion that people have for it is just remarkable.  I mean once you start dancing tango, it's like you can't stop."Do you dance tango socially?  Have you been seduced by tango?  Has your life been changed by your association with tango?  If so, you and your dance partner may be able to participate in the making of a feature-length documentary film, led by Emmy Award winning director Catherine Tatge.  For information about participating in the film, see the Tango Seduction or Seduced by Tango websites.  (Both sites are gone.)


Improvising
7 March 2008 — Stephen Brown

"The greatest improvisers of all time spend their effort not on improvising but on practice."  Chris Kimball (of America's Test Kitchen)


 To Dance Tango
21 February 2008 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Chris John Jordan wrote:
"To 'dance tango' is to dance the music that is tango."
For some related thoughts, see StepMeisters Abound and The Music Is Essential.
 


 

Why He Did It
06 February 2008 — Stephen Brown

In writing for this column, and in thinking about tango, I frequently find myself drawn to ideas and stories that help define artistry and mastery.

In the Winter 2007 issue of Jazz Improv magazine, Sue Terry recounts a story that was told to her by bassist Chip Jackson who had heard it from jazz pianist Billy Taylor.  The essence of the story follows.

Many years ago, when jazz pianist Billy Taylor was on an extended engagement on the West Coast and jazz pianist Art Tatum was living and playing on the West Coast, the two would hang out together in after-hours clubs, where bands often played informally all night long.

One night Taylor and Tatum were in such a club, when a European approached Tatum and introduced himself as a pianist and Tatum admirer.  He said, "With your permission, I'd like to play your version of Tiger Rag."  (Tatum was known for playing in an extremely complex style.)

The man sat down and played the difficult piece note for note, just as Tatum had recorded it.  Disinterested, Tatum sat at the bar and ordered another beer.

Taylor said to Tatum, "Ths guy is pretty good."But Tatum shook his head and responded, "He knows what I do, but not why I do it."


2007 Archive   


Blogging: Truth or Truthiness?
26 November 2007 — Stephen Brown

Does the blogosphere or online discussion groups such as Tango-L generate truth, or what Stephen Colbert calls 'truthiness,' the latter being facts or concepts one only wishes or believes to be true?

An article recently published in Public Choice (subscription required) by Michael C. Munger examines the information content of political blogs.  Munger finds that bloggers and the mainstream media face the same difficulties if they wish to rely on the blogosphere as a generator of truth.  Both bloggers and media converge on a small number of key blogs operated by elite opinion makers as sources of information.  But these elite opinion makers are highly aware of how political discourse is conducted and are likely to resist any information that doesn't conform to their existing attitudes and beliefs.  In addition, blogs and blog readers are likely to separate themselves into smaller networks of people who hold substantially similar views.  These factors tend to generate biased, polarizing views that are self-perpetuating, and people develop an us-versus-them mentality.

Munger's conclusion runs counter to a perhaps commonly held view that the blogosphere can serve as marketplace for information that approximates a parallel processing statistical estimator of the truth with nice properties as additional observers are added.  The key to a good outcome is that there is some mechanism for sharing and aggregating the information and that observers are independent rather than polarized.  In a polarized world where the additional observers replicate the information already provided by the elite opinion makers, the independence property necessary to avoid truthiness is destroyed.For some related thoughts, see Why Biased Views Are Self Perpetuating.

 

What Is a Master?
17 November 2007
At Argentine Tango Articles, Igor Polk writes:


"The more you watch the dance of a Master, the more you discover of Elements, Methods, Structure, Feel, Shape, and even History. It is a whole world in a Master's dance. It has depth, it is multidimensional, multilevel, cross-connected in time, space, and sense, developing, contrasting, balanced, and integral. And soulful. If you watch a dance of not masters - you have feeling that you've seen it all. Oh, yet another one. Want-to-look-like-Masters adorn like crazy, boleo wide. And this is it. That is not what counts.

"Unfortunately, often Masters do not care about being recognized as Masters.

"Happy are warriors: it is easy for them to find who is the best: one slash of a Master, and not-Masters lay down dead. It is not like that in dancing..

"It is difficult to recognize a Master. If you are not a Master yourself."

For some related thoughts, see Developing Mastery.
 
 


Finding Our Own Tango
6 August 2007 — Stephen Brown

It seems to me that all of us must find our own tango in our own hearts, souls and bodies.  (As I have written in these pages before, good instruction can help take the student to the door, but those who become tango dancers step through the door themselves.)

Upon finding our own tango, most of us will discover that some or much of what we were taught is useless, but that doesn't mean we didn't benefit from the instruction.  The seeming misdirection and missteps are part of the learning process.

I also think that the insights we gain in finding our own tango aren't likely to be understood by those who haven't found their own tango.  They may even be misunderstood by others who have found their own tango.For some related thoughts, see The Best Teachers, Teaching the Inner Essences of Tango, Excellent Teachers and On Style and Styles.


Tango Is Simple
1 August 2007 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Barbara Garvey wrote:
"Tango is simple, the more you know about it, the more obvious its simplicity becomes.  It is not easy, it is maybe even hard."
 

Who We Were Meant to Be
1 August 2007 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Nina Pesochinsky wrote:
"Tango is a mirror of all of the insecurities a person may have.  When  a person, any person, begins to dance tango, Tango puts a mirror in front of them and says 'Look!  These are your insecurities.  What do you want to do about them?'  If you do nothing, you will be hurt and disappointed and you will not dance.

"So people do.  Everyone.  Often unconsciously because they want the transformation that tango offers them.  This is my point that transcends cultures.  Argentine people go through this process as well.  It is a process of Tango.

"A much deeper level of transformation actually allows the true masculine and feminine power to emerge.  Once a person begins to overcome their insecurities, it begins to show not only in tango, but in the rest of their life.  In a way, struggling and loving tango helps people to become who they truly are and who they were meant to be.

"Tango is an amazing place when transformations occur.  For Argentine people who had danced for decades, tango accompanied their life and transformations.  Outside of Argentina, people come to tango differently, and so tango may be that much more powerful for them."For some related thoughts, see The Woman's Role in Tango (2).
 

The Woman's Role in Tango (2)
1 August 2007 —
On Tango-L, Nina Pesochinsky wrote:


"In the non-tango world, the issues of power between men and women are perceived in a somewhat simplistic way because, however it looks, it works for most people and they do not want to look any further.  Tango is more intuitive, more sensitive and more demanding ..., whether you want it or not.

"The masculine and feminine power in tango do not compete with each other.  They do not take away from each other.  Instead, the feminine can only be powerful if the masculine is powerful and the masculine cannot be powerful if the feminine is not powerful.

"But both men and women have both the masculine and the feminine.  That means that the power of the Universe is in both, not just in the women.

"So in tango, the woman is not powerful if the man is not, and the man's power is trapped, if the woman he dances with is weak in her power.  That is why the follower's technique classes are very
useful.  Women learn to connect with their bodies in the movement of tango and bring forward their powerful feminine essence.

"And the tango embrace is between the masculine and the feminine.  When the woman is in her feminine and the man is embracing her from his feminine energy, it usually does not feel good for the woman.  When a woman embraces the man from her masculine power, it usually does not feel good for the man.  If people do not take care of the embrace, they are missing an opportunity to seduce his/her partner into a tango that they may remember for the rest of their lives."

For some related thoughts, see The Woman's Role in Tango and the Yin and Yang of Tango.
 

On Perfection and Heaven
31 July 2007 — Stephen Brown


Tango is a dance in which is it easy to become obsessed with perfection.  The taste of heaven that is found within tango may encourage some to seek perfection.  Others may bring their own perfectionism to tango.  But we should never confuse heaven and perfection.  They are very different.  The path of perfectionism often leads away from heaven—as we find ourselves accompanied and driven forward by demons (aka a monkey mind) that become all too familiar.  If we pursue perfection in our practice, we are likely developing the demons that seek to keep us from effective dancing.

In tango, heaven is found through the simple gift of grace.  That comes from getting out on the dance floor with the person that happens to be right for the moment, opening one's heart and falling in love again.  The times that this happens, one is just happy to be in the arms of another at the end of the tanda.


Practicing for Effective Dancing
31 July 2007 — Stephen Brown


For most people, the goal of practice is to become more effective at dancing tango socially.  What are the elements of effective social dancing?  Such dancing cannot be reduced down to a set of mechancial skills.  The embrace, the relationship with one's partner, the relationship with others on the dance floor, and the relationship with music are the context within which we dance tango.  Practicing by oneself may help develop some mechanical skills, such as balance, familiarity with the music, knowledge of step patterns, etc., but they also remove the entire context of tango.

Practicing with a partner improves matters considerably because it is closer to dancing.  Practicing in a room full of others improves matters even more because it is even closer to dancing.  Some might go even further and claim that practicing at a milonga would be even better, but it is reasonable to recognize that social norms separate what constitutes practice and social dance.
 

The Woman's Role in Tango
26 July 2007 — On Tango-L, Rose of Portland wrote:


"Sometimes I have found that men get on these power trips about leading and neglect to acknowledge the true fact that the follower has an equal amount of influence on the dance and that it is truly a partnership.  Even the most machismo men can not deny the powerful role of the follower.

"Here are a couple of things to consider about the role of the follower and her power to influence the dance:

"1. It is the woman's choice who she dances with.  She allows herself to be approached or not, she selects whether or not to catch a man's gaze.  I would go so far as to say that most of the time it is really the woman doing the asking with her posture and eye contact and not really the other way around.

"2. The follower is in control of the dance.  Without someone who has agreed to follow you, there can be no lead.  There is nothing 'prey'-like about this and it is a completely conscious and active choice on the part of the follower.  Without her trust and response your lead means nothing.  Also, the way in which she interprets the lead is her choice, so as a leader you have to be aware of and open to the possibilities she presents.

"3. The follower has an extremely influential role in the expression of musicality.  Her timing, responsiveness, and the manner in which she executes the movements which are lead are all completely her responsibility.  Also, the spaces in between what you lead are hers to play with.

"The best dances happen when both the leader and follower are striving to make the dance delicious for the other person while confidently expressing their personal uniqueness in a warm and trusting embrace.

"Be kind to one another. Don't confuse femininity and masculinity with weak and strong or predator and prey."
 

The Embrace and Tango
24 July 2007
On Tango-L, Nina Pesochinsky wrote:
"When beginner male AT students approach me with a question, 'Do you think I can learn to dance this?', I don't tell them yes, if you can walk, you can dance.  Instead, I tell them that if they know how to hold a woman in their arms, they might be able to learn this dance."


Open or Close Embrace?
24 July 2007 —
On Tango-L, Nina Pesochinsky wrote:
"There is only one embrace.  It becomes closer or more open depending on the crowd, the music, the partner, the movement, etc.  The embrace accommodates the dance and the dancers.

"The separation of styles in terms of 'close' and 'open' embrace came from the foreigners that began trying to make sense of tango in the early 1980s.  People noticed a clear difference between the social embrace and the stage embrace when the show Tango Argentino roared through the world in the 1980s. ...

"In a real sense, what is called 'open' social embrace now, began outside of Argentina and is a result of a misunderstanding that stage tango is not social tango.  That distance between partners is much needed on stage, just like the dreaded back step.  Without the space between partners, the dancers are invisible to the audience.  On stage, everything has to be made bigger.  Without the back step, dancers would eventually fall off the stage.  So both of these elements, dreaded by many social dancers, are much needed on stage.  But on a social dance floor,  they are silly - they do not serve the purpose of an intimate exchange that social tango calls for.  What goes on between partners in a dance is a secret.  It is private and is contained by the embrace.  What goes on on stage is entertainment and is meant for public to see.

"So, open=stage, close=social.  Artistic license is allowed on stage only.

"There is another extreme called 'milonguero' style.  The word was coined by Susana Miller in the early 90's to describe the classes that she was offering, which were meant to give people a quick ability to attend milongas.  Since milongas are very crowded, many were satisfied learning just a few movements and not much technique and still be able to do something on a crowded dance floor.  I know this from a person who was there when the term was first used.  Milongueros never used that term.  Each one had developed his own style and was very proud of it.  And each one was very different from the others."

I might add that sometimes beginners dance in an open embrace out of a lack of skill or knowledge.
 

Tango Festivals and Approaches to Learning
23 July 2007 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Christopher Everett wrote:
"I see a significant movement among some of the people organizing the larger festivals in the US (like the ones in Atlanta and Denver) to bring on teachers who don't teach steps per se.  Rather, they intend to equip students with the tools needed to do anything their bodies might need to do in the dance, up to and including a good appreciation of the music, along with the the ability to respond to it in a way that's both emotional and disciplined.

"And before we get all uppity at the step merchants, it's also clear to me that once you have embedded the basics of tango movement in your muscle memory, they are extremely valuable for showing you all kinds of cool things that you never thought of.  There's always a place in the world for a some of those."


Learning the Structure of Tango
23 July 2007 — Stephen Brown

Many dancers learn to dance tango without studying a theory of its structure, but such an observation may be beside the point.  Many of the dancers from the older generation in Buenos Aires have an intuitive or subconscious understanding rather than a rational one.  The idea is that studying the structure of tango is a quicker means of learning the knowledge that the dancers of an older generation took 5+ years to master intuitively.

I'm not proposing studying structure in a book as formal knowledge as an end in itself.  One has to develop the intuitive or subconcious feel for the movements, and the only way to do so is by dancing.  The idea is to use the conscious mind to help train the intuitive mind for dancing.
 

The Structure of Tango
20 July 2007 — Stephen Brown

In numerous places throughout this website, I have written about the importance of understanding the the structure of tango without ever really defining what I mean by such a concept.

If we think of tango as being made up of individual steps and sequences of steps (step patterns), the structure of tango is the fabric from which these movements are created.  Structure is not these steps or step patterns.  Rather, it is discerned through an examination of step possibilities.

A number of tango dancers/instructors have examined tango's steps and step patterns and have created theories that can be used to describe the structure.  Two such approaches to the examination of tango's structure have been in use for a number of years.

One approach emerged from a group of dancers led by Petroleo (Carlos Estevez) and Salvador Sciana during the golden age of tango.  The group explored and developed turns.  Mingo Pugliese was one of the youngest members of the group, and he is credited for distilling the group's thinking into a systematic approach to teaching turns (giros)  The system generalizes turns into eight-count right and left turns.  The system creates a frame of reference for the creation of all turning steps including giros, molinetes, enrosques and ganchos.

Another approach emerged from a group of dancers that was led by Gustavo Naveira and included such dancers/teachers as Fabian Salas, Chicho Frumboli, and (possibly) Pablo Veron.  With contributions from his then partner, Olga Besio, and some of his compatriots, Naveira developed a systematic way for looking at nearly all the possible steps in tango.  Some of the concepts include parallel and crossed systems of walking, the weight shifts necessary to switch between the parallel and cross systems, the equivalence between cross walking and back ochos, and a generalized approach to turns with a pivot and a circumference that incorporates giros, sacadas, ochos, boleos, and other elements.  Naveira's system can serve as a frame of reference for creating nearly all tango steps.  In addition, the system helped bring into visibility some step patterns, such as overturn ochos and changes of direction in turns, that were not previously used with much frequency.

Developing an understanding and mastery of the underlying structure of tango through a system can greatly increase a tango dancer's improvisational skills.
 

Approaches to Learning and Authenticity
19 July 2007 — Stephen Brown

I find it helpful to think of  tango as having four layers of learning (from the top to the foundation).

4) Step Patterns and Choreographies
3) Structure of Tango
2) Quality of Movement
1) Rhythm and the Music - the foundation

For each layer there are levels of mastery—beginning, intermediate, advanced, etc.  Rather than identifying their classes by layer, instructors typically classify their instruction by the levels of mastery within the layer they teach, which for most instructors is step patterns.

Without sufficient mastery of the skills in the underlying layers, learning at higher layers is relatively meaningless.  In particular, learning many step patterns or mini choreographies without a knowledge of the underlying layers is like building a castle in the sky.  Students without knowledge of the underlying layers who study with the all-too abundant StepMeisters are simply buying more bricks for their imaginary castles.  The all too many of the people who take workshops year after year without ever really learning to dance tango probably fall into this category.

The style of tango is really independent of these layers; but many milonguero-style teachers emphasize rhythm and small elements of the dance.  Many salon-style teachers emphasize step patterns and the quality of movement.  Many of the nuevo-style teachers emphasize mastery of a structural knowledge, and nearly all the technique instructors emphasize the quality of movement.  A heavy reliance on instruction in any one element is likely to result in only a partial knowledge of tango, and in students who are only capable of dancing in an imitation of the same style as their instructors.  If the instructor is but an imitation of another, that makes the student an imitation of an imitation.  That may be why so many of the Argentines who teach tango claim only dead masters as being their instructors.

So I have understanding why some claim that nearly all tango instruction is worthless, and that others claim that only Argentines can be masters of tango.

For some related thoughts, see Authenticity, StepMeisters Abound, The Music Is Essential, Incomplete Education, Dancing to the Music (4), Dancing to the Music (3), Dancing to the Music (2), and Dancing to the Music.
 

Authenticity
19 July 2007 — Nina Pesochinsky

"As far as tango goes, it really works well to become more Argentine than the Argentines are." 


StepMeisters Abound
16 July 2007 — Stephen Brown

In an interview published in the May 2007 issue of  Tango Noticias, Pedro "Tete" Rusconi offered the following comments about tango dancing in the United States:
"[T]he problem ... is that organizers get anybody they can to come and teach.  But because this is a business, it's work for these dancers, they don't come to teach you tango, they come to teach you steps. ... And if you really think about it, the music is tango; it's not the steps.  Whatever style of dance you dance the music always comes first.  So what happens, if a teacher comes here and they sell you steps instead of teaching how to dance, what happens?  You don’t dance.  You learn steps because that is what you think you need to learn."

How extensively Tete's comments apply to the quality of tango dancing in entire United States is unclear to me.  The interview was conducted after Tete visited Chicago to participate in the Chicago Mini Tango Festival, and he has not yet toured in many areas of the United States.  It is clear what he thinks about teaching tango as steps.


Invierno Porteño
5 June 2007 — Stephen Brown

From Buenos Aires, Brooke Burdett writes:
"Greetings from the Southern Hemisphere, heading toward the winter solstice and the lowest tourist season in Buenos Aires.  I'm writing a note regarding the pros and cons of travelling to Buenos Aires during the South American winter for those who may be considering a trip.

Pros:
"Classes, practices and milongas are less crowded, allowing room for comfortable dancing.  What a pleasure!

"Because classes are less crowded, you are likely to get more individual attention.

"Fewer foreigners in the milongas means a higher chance you will dance with Argentines.

"The cabeceo (asking to dance with eye contact and a head gesture) works with more ease because you have  room to see people at their tables.

"You don't have to worry about getting drenched with sweat (yours or someone else's!) while dancing.

"With fewer foreigners around, you will have more opportunities to speak Spanish.

Cons:
"If you don’t like cold weather, it’s not the time to come.  It rarely gets below freezing here, but the cold is a humid one, and you feel it.

"If you prefer being part of a denser international scene in the milongas, March or April is best.

"Some people’s favorite teachers/performers are abroad, teaching in summer festivals in the United States and Europe.

Advice:
"Bring clothes for layering.  On the street you will feel cold. Your first 30 minutes at the milonga you may feel cold.  Once you start dancing you will warm up quickly.  I suggest that women bring something to keep over their shoulders while sitting at the milongas.  However, never keep your coat on inside the milonga, because it will project an air of unavailability.

"Insides of apartments can get quite cold because insulation and heating systems are different.  So bring warm clothes for inside the house."

*Brooke Burdett is an American and an Argentine tango dancer and instructor who has lived in Buenos Aires for the past ten years.  In addition to teaching workshops in North America, Brooke offers private tango lessons in Buenos Aires and guidance to the complex tango scene.  You can read more about Brooke and her activities on her webpage.
 

Otoño Porteño
12 February 2007 — Stephen Brown

From Buenos Aires, Brooke Burdett writes:
"I know that from the northern hemisphere, this sounds odd, but ... is summer almost over — so soon? ... Although the leaves still look pretty green to me, autumn is around the corner here in Buenos Aires.  The city is starting to wake up piece by piece.  People are filtering back from the beach, kids are gearing up for a new school year, and everyone hopes that the most recent heat wave will be the last one.

"For tango dancers in Buenos Aires, the changing of the seasons is always something very special.  The summer/autumn turnover in particular features two very important tango festivals, both filled with talent and mastery. In a couple of weeks (February 23 to March 4), we will have the Festival Buenos Aires Tango put on by the city government.  This is a great, non-touristy festival that makes tango very accessible to the locals.  All over the city you can find classes and performances open to the public, culminating in the not to be missed outdoor milonga that takes place on a major avenue downtown (streets are closed off).  [For more information, see the Buenos Aires Tango Festival website.]

"Then from March 11-18 we have the Congreso Internacional de Tango Argentino (CITA) put on by Fabian Salas and Cosmotango.  This Festival brings together many great and well known tango dancers and performers.  The show(s) that CITA puts on are a must-see; they are all dancing and loaded with some of today's best performers.  [For more information, see the Cosmo Tango website.]

"Besides the festivals, it's a wonderful time of year to be dancing tango in Buenos Aires.  Dressing lightly is more comfortable.  As a woman, I love to leave the panty hose behind and dance with bare legs and sandals at the milongas. Also, there are a few great venues to dance tango outside.  If you are here while it's warm, I suggest you go on a Saturday night to the milonga  'La Calesita' at the Club IMOS, Comodoro Rivadavia 1350.  Another great place to go in the early evening on Sundays is La Glorieta, 11 de Septiembre y Echeverria."*Brooke Burdett is an American and an Argentine tango dancer and instructor who has lived in Buenos Aires for the past ten years.  In addition to teaching workshops in North America, Brooke offers private tango lessons in Buenos Aires and guidance to the complex tango scene.  You can read more about Brooke and her activities on her webpage.


The Greatest Ideas
25 January 2007 — Stephen Brown

"The greatest ideas you will ever have are the ones that other people don't understand."  Craig McCaw
 

2006 Archive  

  

On Differing Styles and Overtraining
17 November 2006 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Meredith Klein writes about her recent observations in Buenos Aires:
"[I]n the [traditional] milongas (Club Gricel, Nino Bien, Salon Canning, Confiteria Ideal) ..., it's not appropriate to dance in open embrace or to throw ganchos or boleos.  In these milongas, people dance in close embrace, use fairly simple steps, and prioritize the flow of the entire dance floor. ... However, there is another set of milongas and practicas in Buenos Aires where different rules apply.  At Villa Malcolm, Practica X, Soho Tango, La Viruta, La Marshall, and many more, the dancers are younger (mostly between 18 and 40) and get bored if they have to dance in close embrace all night, doing simple steps.  They are always pushing themselves and both competing and collaborating with each other to find new possibilities in tango.  This includes creating new kinds of movements, finding new ways to put familiar movements together, and exploring new ways to interpret traditional tango music (usually at least 80% of the music played in these milongas is golden age, just like at the traditional milongas)."

For more information about the latter scene, see Andrés Amarilla's The Guide: Nuevo Tango in BA.

What happens when the young dancers change venues?

Meredith continues:
"Argentines and foreigners who know the milonga scene in Buenos Aires are very sensitive to and respectful of the rules that apply in each venue.  On Monday nights, the practica at Villa Malcolm ends earlier than on other nights, so afterwards dozens of dancers head over to Salon Canning several blocks away.  When they arrive, you wouldn't know that they were the same dancers.  The women who were wearing dance sneakers at Malcolm are now in Comme Il Fauts, and perhaps they even put on makeup and changed their clothes to better fit into the milonga environment.  People who were practicing jumps, 360-degree underarm turns and colgadas at Malcolm are now sedately and happily executing their ocho cortados.  Perhaps at 5:30 am, they'll start tearing up the floor again, but by then pretty much everyone has gone home and no one cares."

On Tango-L, the always insightful Brian Dunn adds a wonderful dimension to Meredith's observations:
"Last night, I was watching the 'midnight transition' between El Motivo/Villa Malcolm and Canning that you describe here, and another thought struck me.  These young dancers dance the small compact 'Nino Bien' stuff exquisitely!  Superb musicality, delicate intricate footwork, tiny tiny little flicks of heel, toe and ankle, just a delight to watch."

"Then I realized that by pushing themselves and each other in friendly competition at high-energy go-for-broke practicas, they are also 'overtraining' their navigation and musicality skills under these high-energy conditions, which tends to make them very expressive and solid partners when crowded floors require them to reduce the scale of their movements.

"This overtraining principle is exploited in many kinds of sports and performance training settings. ... By pushing their edge in the 'tango workout' practicas, the low-stress 'Nino Bien dancing' of these young dancers is well within their 'performance envelope,' rather than being closer to the maximum they are used to.  This leaves a lot more available brain power (and heart power) for musicality and connection.

"To achieve the same end, regardless of one's stylistic preferences in social tango, any tango dancer who values floorcraft, connection and musicality in milonga settings (as I do) might want to consider overtraining their floorcraft and movement dynamics with higher-energy "big tango" practica work."
 

Changes in the Tango Scene
9 November 2006 — Stephen Brown

On his ToTango webpage, Keith Elshaw recently offered the following comments about changes in the tango scene:
"Three big changes I have been noting for a while are currently cresting:

"1 - More awareness of social dancing imperatives as opposed to learning from/wannabe stage dancing on the intermediate level."

"2 - More 'Nuevo' devotees only wanting to learn stage-type dancing and not giving a hoot about social dancing and/or getting along on the floor."

"I see lots of both types. They are carving out their places in the spectrum and resultant divisions are affecting business patterns in the world of running milongas."

"3 - Social dancers are getting really hot for Canyengue. This is sparking a whole new interest in the oldest of the recorded orchestras and classes in the old style dancing."

In thinking about how this affects the music choices, Keith adds:
"I perceive a wave of new interest in Canaro, Lomuto, Donato and Orquesta Tipica Victor, for instance. Right now, if you are a dj, you darn well better have a good version of Canaro's Poema ready to go. It is a "new" hit.  Just like Donato's "Ella Es Así has been for 3 years now.  Oh, dear ... the Nuevo people don't want to go in this direction at all. They are asking for electronica and such."
 

What the Bleep Is Tango?
9 October 2006 — Stephen Brown

The great tango composer Enrique Santos Discepolo called tango "a sad thought that is danced."  Some people hear lonliness in tango.  For some people, tango is a shared intimacy.  For others, tango is sex on legs or the vertical expression of horizontal desire.  In many communities, tango seems to be synonomous with anger.

For me, tango is all of these emotions and none of them.  Tango connects deeply and opens the holes in our hearts that we were taught to be scared of, and whatever emotions we have stuffed into plug those holes is what pours out of us.  On those lucky occasions when tango empties out those holes and we are able to get past our emotional considerations, we know real joy and a still mind.See What the Bleep!?.


Argentine Tango: The Way You Dance It
16 June 2006 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Sergio Vandekier writes:
"Argentine culture has developed different styles of Tango (traditional, open, close, embrace, milonguero, nuevo, canyengue, etc).  They all have a common vocabulary of movements and expression in the way they are danced with some changes in technique and embrace but all those styles belong to the same generic dance.  They overlap in this regard and they are characterized by improvisation. ...

"Tango has followed in its form and content every change in Argentine evolution, the dance as well as the music and the lyrics. ...

"Foreign personal styles and gender roles may leave authenticity behind. This means that when you dissociate a tango style from its native culture it loses its pristine form and content and could become something else.

"[T]his does not mean that a tango that lost authenticity is a bad tango, ..."Tango (the way you dance it) represents society codes, gender roles and also your personality."


Finding Self Expression and Freedom in Argentine Tango
16 June 2006 — Stephen Brown

The dancer who wants to own tango cannot rely purely on instruction.  The dancer who is seeking self expression and freedom in their own dancing needs to look past the limitations that are inherent in any pedagogy.  In that regard, good teaching facilitates self-discovery and self-learning.  Perhaps taking such a philosophy to an extreme in the few lessons and classes that he taught, jazz pianist Bill Evans refused to show his students the chord voicings and progressions for which he was renown because he did not want to deprive them of the opportunity to discover the knowledge on their own.


North American Tango Festival Update
14 June 2006 — Stephen Brown

The number of tango festivals in North America is growing, with the number announced having topped 40.  The organizers for at least one festival held for the first time in late 2005 have yet to announce whether they will reprise the event in 2006.  Additional festivals may be announced as the year progresses.

Some of the festivals emphasize dancing, and some feature big-name instructors.  Either way, a good festival offers many hours of dancing, an extensive class schedule with quality instruction, and an opportunity to meet and dance with tango dancers from all over.  Many of the events are surprisingly affordable.

The list has been deleted.  For a current worldwide list of tango festivals, see Tango Festivals and Other Events on this website.  Another resource for festival information is Tobias Conradi's festivals.tango.info.For some thoughts about dancing at tango festivals, see Dancing at Tango Festivals (23 May 2004), More on Dancing at Tango Festivals (25 May 2004), More on Dancing at Tango Festivals (2) (25 May 2004), and More on Dancing at Tango Festivals (3) (28 May 2004).


Evolution
8 June 2006 — Stephen Brown

At Evolution Tango, George and Jairelbhi Furlong have the following story:

There was a master swordsman who had a student that could mimick all of his moves perfectly.  The student off course, was proud of his accomplishment.

After years of study, the master told the student, "Go and practice everything I have taught you, and do not come back for three years!"

The student did as the master said and returned after three years: "Master, I am frustrated.  I practiced everything as you taught me, and a third of the form does not feel like what you showed me."

"No good," the master says, "Leave again and do not come back for another three years!"

Once again the students leaves and practices continously for three years.  After that time he seeks out his master:  "Master, I do not understand.  I feel that I am getting worse!  Two thirds of the form feels different from what you taught me!"

"No good!" the master says, "Leave and do not come back for another three years!"

For the third time the student leaves and for the third time after practicing for three years, returns to his master: "Master, I have failed.  Everything you have taught me is gone.  The form feels nothing like what you showed me."The master smiles at his student, "Good, now the form is no longer mine, but your own!"


Becoming an Expert
6 March 2006 — Stephen Brown

At Creating Passionate Users, Kathy Sierra writes:
"'When you're done with square one, pick it up and take it with you.'  Horse trainer Linda Parelli says that, and her take on amateurs-vs.-experts is that the amateurs forget the fundamentals. ...

"[P]erhaps that's one more thing the superior performers do better than the rest of us—they keep practicing the fundamentals.

"For the superior performer the goal isn't just repeating the same thing again and again but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That's why they don't find practice boring.  Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time. ...

"Most of us want to practice the things we're already good at, and avoid the things we suck at. We stay average or intermediate amateurs forever."

For the complete text, see Don't forget square one... and How to be an expert at Creating Passionate Users.


Destiny
14 February 2006 — Stephen Brown

"What destiny does not do is home visits.  You have to go for it."
        – Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind.
 

Knowledge and Wisdom
1 February 2006 — Stephen Brown

"To attain knowledge, add things every day.  To attain wisdom, remove things every day."  Lao Tse
 

Tango Workers or Dancers?
10 January 2006 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Barbara Garvey writes:
"!Caray¡  I am constantly amazed by the overanalyzing of technique ..."

On Tango-L, Lucia responds:
"So very true.  If it is not technical analysis then they are into partner psychoanalysis.  No wonder that there are many more tango workers than dancers.  So admirable and rare are the couples who dance for the  pleasure of it, without giving a damn about perfect technique.  They share their pleasure with anyone seeing them."

For some related thoughts, see The Joys of Simple Tango.
 

2005 Archive    


Are Disagreeable People Entertaining?
30 December 2005 — Stephen Brown

The interactions between disagreeable (but sometimes loveable) people is a very common way of creating drama and comedy on television.  Are disagreeable people really entertaining?  The secret of television is in keeping disagreeable people a passive form of entertainment rather than an particiapatory form of entertainment.  Maybe we can do the same in our every day lives.

Does that suggest that watching television is good preparation for every day life?  Such a thought probably takes the idea too far.  For one thing, television oversimplifies complex human interaction.
 

Will Your Dreams Come True in Buenos Aires?
21 December 2005 — Stephen Brown

At Zapatos Rojos, Desiree Vittorio writes:
"Thousands of tango dancers take a pilgrimage to the birthplace of tango every year in hopes of bringing their dreams to life.  Most dancers have their first trip perfectly planned to fit their utmost tango desires.  The mythical creature that tango has become for American tango dancers is fascinating, surreal, and bazaar.  By explaining a night at the milongas of Buenos Aires, your dreams will either come true, be falsified, or new desires will arise.

"It is eleven o’clock and time to arrive at our first milonga of the night.  My friend and I are dressed with our stereotypical tango dresses on, are lips are red and our eyelashes are long and black.  The men we have on our arms plan to waltz us onto a perfect night of dancing.  This night after all is what we have been talking about for quite a while. ..."

Continue Will Your Dreams Come True? on the Zapatos Rojos website.
 

Dancing Tango Boosts Brain Function
21 November 2005 — Stephen Brown

Argentine Tango not only keeps the aging body in shape, it may also help sharpen the aging brain more than simple exercise, according to a recent study.  The study, presented by Patrica McKinely at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, adds to a growing body of evidence that finds challenging leisure activities may offer a boost in brainpower that could offset the declines that can come with old age.  Previous studies had shown that exercise improves brain function, but tango proved to do more.

For the study, McKinley and her team recruited 30 seniors ages 68 to 91.  Half the group got tango lessons, and the other half were assigned to a walking group.  After 10 weeks, the team found that both walkers and dancers had improved memory scores.  The tango group also showed improved balance, posture and motor coordination, as well as cognitive gains.  These skills are useful in dancing and other aspects of everyday life.


Familiarity Breeds Comfort
21 November 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Kace Ong writes:
"After a month of checking out milongas in Buenos Aires, I must have heard the same songs more than 50 times, but I have to agree there is still a lot of individual variation in the dancing that result from a combination of the two people in each couple, the size and dimension of the room, the density of the crowd, and even which other famous couples are dancing.

"For most of the regulars I have observed, they often dance in a consistent way, not to every song, but perhaps to the same few familiar favourites.  The theme of milongas is after all, more a social mixer than a workout session.

"I have also become adept at spotting the tourists and nuevo dancers.  They are usually the ones blocking the path of line of dance, eyes fixed on the floor, trying to back sacada and gancho through every trick they know in the three minutes.

"Variations may be exciting, but familiarity breeds comfort.  When holding a stranger in your embrace, you need to start with comfort!"
 

The Music Is Essential
21 November 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Hyla Dickinson writes:
"For me and the people with whom I adore to dance, the music is absolutely key, essential, absolutely impossible to separate from the dance itself.  It's not just some initial inspiration; the intricacies and interplay within the music itself are the whole lifeblood of the dance.  You are not just using the music as a background to your movement, or a structure to embellish on.  You are responding to the music, becoming involved in the music, making choices every second about which parts of the music you wish to highlight or play down or even contradict.  Sometimes it is as if your feet or your heart or the movement of your body becomes another instrument, adding a little more music.  Perhaps another rhythm with the feet, perhaps a deepening of the sweetness of the melody with the way you move your leg or torso...

"As a dancer, I am answering and expanding the music into the spatial and visual dimensions.  I am also expanding the connection that I have with my partner into the music, and expanding the connection with the music to include my partner."

For some related thoughts on connection, see Hidden Tango Conversations.
 

Dancing to the Classics
21 November 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Hyla Dickinson writes:
"The reason the classics are classics is because they have a depth and complexity such that the more that you listen and play with the music, the more you find in it.  Someone recently mentioned to me that after a while you have all the music memorized, but I don't actually find that is so.  About three years ago I was sure that I had that classic early instrumental D'Arienzo stuff down cold, at least the ones that were in heavy rotation where I dance.  Then I danced with some visitor from out of town and realized I had so much to learn; he was dancing to things in the music I had never thought to listen for.  Since then, I've found more and more and more in those same D'Arienzo tunes that I used to think I had down cold, and I am not sure any more that I will ever come to the end of it.

"Because if I ever finally do get the whole entire thing memorized, every rhythm of every instrument, each pause and syncopation and change in mood, intensity, instrumental balance etc., well, even then, I'll have lots of time to get creative with which aspects I wish to highlight at this particular moment of this particular dance with this particular person. I'm not just talking about highlighting rhythmically, but with the density/lightness of my movement, the dynamics of entering or leaving each weight change.  So, in effect, I can become one or two new instruments in the music, and for that moment in time and that particular partner, I can create a new music that has never been experienced before and will never be experienced again."

For some related thoughts about dancing to classic tangos, see Why Goldern Age Music Still Dominates Milongas.
 

Is Argentine Tango Changing?
21 November 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Ruddy Zelaya writes:
"Argentine Tango is by all accounts a complex dance that defies definition.  Tango practicioners may spend years studying it and mastering the vocabulary of the dance only to discover new possibilities at every turn.  There are so many variables involved—music, steps, skills, etc.—that from the surface it seems as if the Tango indeed is an 'infinite possibility.'  Yet, we are always striving to preserve it; to be true to its traditions and accepted principles.  This presents an interesting problem.  For Argentine Tango to remain an infinite possibility it must change.  But if it changes then, what are we preserving?

"Complex systems show certain common behaviors.  We can think of those behaviors as characteristics of complex systems.  One would think that by studying those characteristics we could eventually understand and master the system.  Alas, the time honored scientific approach of reductionism—taking the thing apart into its smallest components to see how it works—doesn't work with complex systems because the interesting behavior seems to arise from the spontaneous interaction of the components.  Argentine Tango is a product of music, dance steps, skill, history, and culture.  Any single one of these components leads to a different field of study.  The Argentine Tango dance arises only when you combine all of them.

"The answer to the question: is Argentine Tango changing? is in my opinion a resounding yes.  All of its components continue to change individually.  And that is precisely how it should be for AT to remain alive.  Complex systems seem to strike a balance between the need for order and the imperative to change.  Complex systems tend to locate themselves at a place called 'the edge of chaos.'  This is a place where there is enough innovation to keep the system vibrant, and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy.  It is a zone of conflict and upheaval, where the old and the new are constantly at war.

"Finding the balance point is a delicate matter—if a complex system drifts too close it risks falling over into incoherence and dissolution; but if the system moves too far away from the edge, it becomes rigid, frozen, totalitarian.  Both conditions lead to extinction.  Too much change is as destructive as too little.  Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish.  This place, I believe, is where we find the Argentine Tango."
 

The Joys of Simple Tango
9 November 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Barbara Garvey writes:
"I believe that dancing simple tango well is a lofty goal for anyone.  Achieving mastery in only that will take as long as it takes, probably years.  It requires precision, practice and devotion, and is infinitely more satisfying than keeping up with every latest fad/technique.  That said, it's ever so much easier to do barridas, ganchos, leans and back sacadas to impress the populace."If a simple tango is all that one aspires to dance, why does it require more practice to develop precison?  Barbara responds, "The emotions that tango releases cannot be realized until one's body relaxes into the movements, implying an internalized precise knowledge."  Such a mastery requires practice.


Finding the Best Style of Tango
2 November 2005 — Stephen Brown

In a recent Email, Florencia Taccetti writes:
"Being young doesn't make you a tango nuevo dancer, just as being older doesn't make you a milonguero dancer.  And to tell the truth, none of these styles really exist except for marketing.  The only difference is made by the amount of work you put in and the honesty with which you approach finding your own personality as a dancer.  Don't try to become a tango clone.  There are no limits to the art of dance except for those that you create yourself."

For some other thoughts on this subject, see Incomplete Education, On Style and Styles (4), On Style and Styles (3), On Style and Styles (2), and On Style and Styles.

Developing Skills for Social Dancing
12 August 2005 — Stephen Brown

I someitmes wonder how much the differing perspectives on what succeeds as instruction for social dancing is the result of masters from one culture teaching beginners from another.  Such a relationship is bound to lead to very different expectations on the two sides.

Many beginners take up tango as a diversion from their daily lives.  If they are taught in step patterns, they don't know enough to get inside the big figures and take them apart and make them their own.  They simply collect step patterns thinking that they are learning to dance tango.  They are also unlikely to know enough to ask the instructor to teach tango as small elements or in any other way that might facilitate a quicker mastery of rudimentary social dance skills.  Moreover, if they were attracted by a tango show, such as Forever Tango or Boccatango, they may want to be taught those steamy stage moves without realizing that social tango is somewhat different.

If beginners are taught tango in small elements and are told that they are learning the only authentic way of social dancing, they are unlikely to realize that other approaches may develop a better sense of how to put the elements together in an interesting way.  If they are taught tango in a structural framework, they are unlikely to know that other approaches may help develop form and the ability to dance in the available space to the rhythm of the music.

At the same time, the big-name instructors would be shocked to learn that they have been brought to town to teach people who haven't a clue about tango and may never develop a clue.  The big-name instructors got inside tango themselves and made it their own—likely without formal instruction or with instruction that was limited to a single approach.  It doesn't likely occur to them that it might be easier for the students to learn tango through combined teaching methods  If it did occur to them, they might consider such instruction as depriving the student the opportunity of finding their own insights in tango and compromising the quality of what they are teaching.

If North Americans are to dance Argentine tango socially with some semblance of authenticity or skill (as defined by the way tango is danced socially in Buenos Aires), they must either find their own insights and overcome the limited perspective of a single approach to teaching, find an instructor who can offer a variety of approaches to learning tango, or work with several instructors, each of whom has a different approach to learning tango.  (For some additional thoughts on this subject, see Incomplete Education and On Style and Styles (4).)
 

On Style and Styles (4)
12 August 2005 — Stephen Brown

In some ways, tango has divided into three stylistic camps.  (See Taking Tango Styles to Extremes.)  The milonguero-style dancers maintain that their style is the only authentic form of social dancing, and other teachers are teaching what amounts to stage tango.  The salon-style dancers claim that their style is danced and taught by the best of the big-name dancers.  The nuevo-style dancers claims that their style is the direction in which tango is evolving.

Yet across these styles, bigger differences are found in the methods of teaching and in the ways beginners dance than in those who have developed mastery.  The first group emphasizes small elements, and the beginners plod along to the music without much quality of movement, sense of form or inventiveness.  The second emphasizes step patterns, and the beginners attempt to execute complex step patterns without regard to the music or the ronda.  The third emphasizes the underlying structure of tango, and the beginners spin wildly across the dance floor without seeming regard for others.  In examining the pathologies of how the beginners in each group dance, we frequently mistake the shortcomings of the instructional methods for the characteristics of each style of dance.

With persistent work, many people break through the limitations of the method by which they learned tango, but I think it is much easier to develop a well-rounded mastery by pursuing all three methods of learning.  Only local teachers can develop a consistent program of teaching that embraces all three approaches to learning.  Absent such programs, dancers must find their own insights or work with several instructors.

For some additional thoughts on this subject, see On Style and Styles (3), On Style and Styles (2), and On Style and Styles.
 

The Dance
10 August 2005 — Stephen Brown "Maybe you can live with your conscience, but can you dance with it?"  James Stone


On Style and Styles (3)
10 August 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Sergio Vandekier distinguishes between the salon and nuevo styles as they are danced well and are danced poorly:
"The problem with using Salon open embrace or Nuevo as a social dance form comes from ignorance and lack of skills."

The source of that ignorance and lack of skill is likely the result of teaching that conveys tango as complex step patterns executed in an open embrace while 1950s Di Sarli instrumentals or frilly unrhythmic tangos play in the background.  In Buenos Aires, tango is so ingrained in the culture that porteños come to the tango with an implicit knowledge of its essential elements.  For them, instruction in steps and figures may be sufficient to develop the ability to dance tango with skill.

Those of us who learn tango outside its cultural frame of reference are dependent upon our instructors to a degree that is unfathomable to most Argentines, including those Argentines who regularly teach tango to foreigners.  The genius of those who originated the teaching of milonguero-style tango was to recognize and create a pedagogy that compensated for that dependence.  By teaching tango as small rhythmic elements, the milonguero-style instructors succeeded in developing the social dance skills of their students.

In the bargain, the milonguero-style instructors packaged a largely personal style of tango with their pedagogy.  Fortunately, a particular style of tango is not essential to the pedagogy.  Adapting the pedagogy to the teaching of other styles or that is independent of style is completely possible.

 

On Style and Styles (2)
9 August 2005 — Stephen Brown

There has been continuing controversy over the various styles of dancing tango, principally between milonguero, salon and nuevo.  (See Taking Tango Styles to Extremes.)  Interestingly enough, some of the controversy over tango styles has been in confusing instructional methods with the characteristics of the dance styles themselves.

The development of navigational and rhythmic skills is is facilitated by teaching tango as small rhythmic elements.  In addition, a close embrace, a good connection, rhythmic movement and good navigation are the characteristics of skillful social dancing.

The genius of milonguero-style teaching has been in conveying tango as small rhythmic elements that are executed in a close embrace.  Consequently, teaching in this style facilitates the development of skills that are useful for social dancing.

In contrast, much of the teaching of salon-style tango relies on complex step patterns executed in a open embrace while 1950s Di Sarli instrumentals or frilly unrhythmic tangos play in the background.  Such an approach doesn't faciliate the development of skills that are useful for social dancing.  Salon-style tango itself is not characterized by an open embrace nor the execution of complex patterns without regard to the music, but the most commonly used instructional methods misrepresent it as so.  If salon-style instructors are going to succeed in preparing dancers with skills for dancing socially, they must learn to teach tango as small rhythmic elements in a close, but flexible embrace.

My preference would be that instructors learn to teach tango independently of any particular style, and that style remain an individual choice.For some additional thoughts on this subject, see On Style and Styles.


On Style and Styles
8 August 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Nancy Ingle wrote:
"I have asked probably 100 men in Bueno Aires what they call their style and you know what they answer?  They say, 'Es el mio' (It is mine).  Or, they might say, 'Es de mi padre/barrio/liso/simple,' but they never say 'close-embrace milonguero style.'"

Jazz pianist Bill Evans offered the following comments about teaching and learning style:
"When you begin to teach jazz, the most dangerous thing is that you tend to teach style. ... [I]f you are going to try to teach jazz ... you must abstract the principles of music that have nothing to do with style, and this is exceedingly difficult. ... It ends up where the jazz player, ultimately, if he is going to be a serious jazz player, teaches himself."

Of course, tango is not jazz, but at some point anyone who is going to become a tango dancer must take responsibility for their own dancing.  Teachers can facilitate that independent self discovery by teaching tango skills that stand independently of a specific style and by providing an encouragement for dancers to find and develop their own styles.
 

Seduction or Imposition? (3)
27 July 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Tine Herreman responds to Hyla Dickinson's comments:
"[J]ust to put things in perspective, I find the majority of men to be gentlemen on the dance floor.  Yes, there is an occasional lecher who will try to force a leg wrap, and if your resist by just keeping your legs down, will persistently stay put and try to hoist you not just once more but 4 more times before giving up and moving on. I am not making this up, it happened just the other day.  But most of the time there is just dancing, friendly but without extras whether unilateral or bilateral."

On Tango-L, Hyla offers her reply:
"You are right. ... Most of the guys I dance with are nice, most are more interested in dancing, and to be honest even the ones who cross the line don't usually go nearly as far as all that.  But that dance with the posing and soulful gazing into the eyes is a real honest to gosh live specimen, not only did I not make it up, it's happened with several guys.  Most of them only last a year or less on the scene.  Maybe some bold woman used Sergio's line [found below] and ruined their best shirts.  Luckily I have learned to spot and avoid them, and if I am so unlucky as to be caught, I have no fear of being rude, I just get out fast."
 

Seduction or Imposition? (2)
27 July 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Sergio Vandekier responds to Hyla Dickinson's comments:

"A [man imposing himself on a woman is a] problem that should not exist if the milonga codes were to be followed.  People, or most people in Argentina go to the milonga not to socialize, not to drink, not to pick up women, but to dance, just to dance tango.  The transient relationship between a man and a woman is one of mutual respect.

"The woman and the man surrender to each other because they  know beforehand that as soon as the music stops everything returns to normal, there are no consequences of that moment of intimacy.  This certainty allows the experience to be repeated again and again.  Everybody likes dancing with certain partners and they do it every week.  In order to be able to do so both, the man and the woman must be perceived as being unattached.

"If a man has an interest in a special lady he will take advantage of the brief moments between tangos to propose a secret meeting some place else, later in the night or on another day.  He will leave the milonga alone as he came and she will do the same to meet for a cup of coffee in some confiteria nearby.  Acceptance on the part of the woman means that at the very least she is interested as well.  This preserves the intimacy of their personal lives and allows them to continue dancing with the several partners of their choice.

"Now I imagine if a man plays some of the numbers described by Hyla on an Argentine woman she will stop dancing and say something such as 'Excuse me, but I got a sudden spell of nausea, I am afraid I could vomit on your shirt, so I better go and sit down.'  She will tell all her friends what happened and nobody will dance with that character again.  He will have to leave the milonga."

I would add that in a U.S. tango community, which is typically much smaller, women alerting each other to a man's inappropriate behavior is likely to drive him from the community altogether.  I have seen it happen.

Seduction or Imposition?
26 July 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, the remarkable Hyla Dickinson writes:

"[I]f a man's technique deteriorates completely and he stops dancing, losing his axis and frame and connection in order to (unmusically) rub his leg, his hands, or his groin all over his partner, is this really so seductive?  It can be done quite easily in many settings, no reason to take classes or pay the entrada to a milonga.  Most people on on this list would agree that we go dancing because we want to dance.  Any sexual whatevers that come up are bonus points. (Or sometimes beside the point).

"... [S]ex is fairly cheap and easy to come by if you go to the right bars and/or street corners.  Lower your standards enough and it could be free.  When a woman laments about all the objections to 'sexy tango,' bemoaning attempts to neuter it and take away the seductiveness that to her is the heart of tango, it doesn't seem to me that she is looking forward for a quick and dirty encounter in the bathroom stall at the next cortina.  What she seems to enjoy is the art of seduction, the suggestiveness, the satisfaction of being in the know, more worldly than the rest of the people in the room.  There is a little subtext going on between you and the man you are entwined with, it is a little secret, half hidden, half obvious, and who is to know from looking whether it is for real or just a game.  Is it a 3 minute affair, or is it just the only *visible* 3 minutes of the affair?

"When another woman objects that the connection is lost when a man's interest becomes too personal (particularly in a sexual way), rather remaining focused on the dance, it seems to me that her objections are not so much to the delightful delicious little naughtiness of shared references to private acts performed in public.  What is objectionable is those icky, inartistic, overt and clumsy gropings which are merely nasty and tasteless.  How many of us women have been subjected to those awful dances where the man's only conception of tango is that it is 'really sexy to have a woman draped all over you,' so all he does is maneuver you into some awkward and uncomfortable but suggestive pose (ignoring line of dance, the music, navigation, lead/follow etc.), then shuffle himself around and haul you into yet another uncomfortable and stupid pose, this time gazing meaningfully into your eyes, and so on with a specially dramatic pose at the end?  This is not dancing, it is not sexy, suggestive or seductive; it is gross and unpleasant and no fun at all.  Maybe with the circumspection in some countries, it never becomes an issue for some women.  But I've suffered through this more than enough.

"Some men I find extraordinarily attractive as dancers but real turn-offs sexually.  To me, if a man does not have the right scent, he can dance like a god (or Gavito), look like Adonis (or Adrian Brody), be a master of sparkling wit and sexy innuendo, and all he will ever be to me is a great dance partner.  That's how I'm wired.  As a consequence, I have never aspired to meet Mr. Right or even Mr. One Night Stand on the dance floor.  If a man is interested, he needs to figure out if it is mutual.  I object when a man assumes that the successful completion of a gancho means I'm "easy".  Many other women share my feelings in this.  Now, I can have a great time playing that seduction game when it is part of the dance, when the dance does not suffer.  But even in those rare cases when his pheromones fire up my hormones, if the guy's dance degenerates so he can play grabby games, then it's over.  All the fun is gone.

"Yeah, it is hilarious sometimes to be twining legs in very provocative positions on a public dance floor, and we've all had our share of dances when we come off the floor all flushed and breathless for reasons other than the speed of the music.  Why be ashamed of it?  It's all part of living life in the most fully human manner possible.  But there are always little signals going on within the dance that let you know how the other partner is responding to these little overtures.  The guys whose only intent is copping a feel don't pay attention to those signals, they assume things that we have not given permission for regardless of our body language or behaviors, and those of us who have been sending signals of 'Whoa, not so fast, not so far, it's just a dance'  then end up feeling used and slimy.

"When I agree to dance with a man, I agree to participate in a lovely connection with seduction or suggestiveness as possible parts of the game to a lesser or greater extent.  I do not agree to be mauled, humped or used as a masturbation post.  Now, during the course of the dance, maybe we renegotiate aspects of what we are willing to do together.  Some guys maybe I'd be more willing to be a bit more, umm, explicit? naughty? with.  Some will be encouraged into a very very open embrace.  Sometimes it is clear that we are understanding the most explicit of moves as simple physical dance challenges.  Sometimes we negotiate a sort of goof off riff doing 'sexy' or 'suggestive' moves so asexually that it becomes quite funny.  Maybe we negotiate a continuation of the game beyond the milonga.  But this all comes from that same listening and sensitivity.  We need to read one another's intentions.  Without that, it's not seduction, it's 'tango rape,' or at least 'tango harassment.'

"And here's almost the opposite: we dance very close and never do anything that would look the slightest bit sexy from outside but it feels like something very special—not from rubbing or intertwining, but from just the closeness and sharing, the tightening of the embrace at a crucial moment, the breathing together, standing still together in the most attentive way possible.  If I were to compare this to sex, I think that I would say that it is not so much like the sex act itself, but like those moments of extreme closeness that come after the act.  Or like those moments in a long and successful relationship when you feel so close to the loved one, so in harmony, that you can eat a meal together each lifting the fork or water glass in concert and people at the restaurant ask you which anniversary you are celebrating, without ever having seen anything so overt as hand-holding.  'Bread I ate with you was more than food, wine I drank with you was more than wine.'  Now, to be able to experience THAT in a three minute dance is pretty special."
  

Hidden Tango Conversations
25 July 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Hyla Dickinson writes:
"When I think of examples of a woman participating more fully in the dance, the first that spring to mind are the visually interesting items, the ones that I, as a dancer, think about and have worked on more consciously.  But when I started to think about specific answers, I asked myself 'what were the first steps I took toward participating more fully?  What did the men who danced with me do that encouraged me to keep going, to expand more of myself into the dance?'

"It began with things much more integral than foot taps or balance or exercises, things that are hidden from outside view, but central to the feel of the dance.  I think they are prerequisites for the more obvious expressions of musicality.  To do more obvious things, good solid technique is a must.  I did not do embellishments at all for at least two years, I was too insecure in my balance, technique, etc.  So I had to get all that under my belt to consciously add anything.  And it took longer yet to have confidence enough to take those additions out of the practica, to the milonga.  But I was still actively participating before I could do those things.

"When my technique was not good enough to really support add-ons or 'riffs' or taps or whatever, I was still always trying to listen to the music.  I would change my breathing, the tension or density throughout my body, the weight of my footfall.  I would alter the feel of the embrace, snuggle in or be more aloof.  Most of this was only dimly conscious, in the very back of my mind or my body; it was the response to the music that was foremost in my mind.  This is something that the more sensitive and musical leaders will always notice, even when I don't notice it myself.  It is a 'hidden' part of the conversation.

"I still do all of these things, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.  These are things that I can do with men who are not yet confident enough in their lead to support more obvious input.  They might be the only things I 'add' when dancing with someone whose musicality or interpretation are new to me, or so interesting in themselves and yet somehow inclusive of me, that I don't feel the need to add anything.  It is the basis for all the other 'riffs' or 'play' that I ever do."
 

Finding Connection (4)
25 July 2005 — Stephen Brown

Music is a pathway to finding connection, so is imagination.

On Tango-L, Hyla Dickinson writes:
"I was dancing with a man whose musicality I really respect.  It was a practica, they were playing the slow instrumental Di Sarli.  I was just starting to make the transition from thinking of Di Sarli as 'that slow, simple, boring, out of date beginner's music' but I wasn't quite there yet.  This man began leading things that made no sense to me, but as I said, I really respected his musicality.  So I started listening to find what he could possibly be hearing in the music, trying to make his lead work.  I did not want to do something to embarrass myself and lose his respect.  I began hearing things in that music that opened Di Sarli out in ways I could never have imagined.  It's not simple!  Not boring at all!  My gosh, the layers of complexity, the opportunities for subtlety and finesse!

"At the end of the tanda, this man said, 'gee, I was trying to see all through that dance if I could make you dance unmusically, and I just couldn't make you do it!'  Because I assumed that he was leading musically, I unconsciously refused to dance unmusically and thus forced him to allow me to find a musical moment to dance to.  Which in turn forced me to look for, and find, more of those moments in the depths of the music.  It worked because he was sensitive enough to me that he respected my "refusal", and sensitive enough to the music that he heard what I discovered in it.  He later remarked to several people 'You just gotta dance Di Sarli with her!'

"I'm not sure what the moral of that story is, but if there is one, follow it!  It was a fabulous experience!"

Finding Connection (3)
22 July 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Astrid responds to Carole McCurdy's comments:
"It works both ways.  The great advantage (and burden) that women have in dancing the tango is that it enables them to experience a hundred different worlds, by dancing with different men and, if they are sensitive and intuitive enough, for a while becoming that man's creation to certain extent, for better or for worse...

"It also works the other way round.  One of the best dancers has told me that he dances in a different way with every woman, because she inspires him to do certain moves.

"And the total is then always more than just the sum of it's parts.  Wish that in real life we also had some music to guide us to follow each other's steps...

Finding Connection (2)
22 July 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Carole McCurdy responds to Rose's comments:
"It was a small milonga, and as soon as I walked in I said to myself, 'Oh, well, too bad there aren't any good dancers here tonight.'  (In other words, my snotty ego was already setting me up to have a disappointing evening.)  Fortunately, I spotted Mr. P on the floor and decided I wanted to dance with him.  I hadn't thought too highly of him as a dancer ('Such an awkward, unsteady embrace he has'), but a few weeks earlier I had seen him perform as a musician and been dazzled by his talent and passion.  This was something I wanted to connect with.

"I began dancing with Mr. P and, rather than trying to connect with him merely through the physical mechanics of  the embrace, I somehow made the lucky decision to connect with him by trying to mirror (or imitate) the qualities of his own stance and movement, the intense hunch of his upper body, the slight wobble that came after each step.I tried my best to 'become' Mr. P, to reflect him back to himself.  It felt overly theatrical for the first few seconds, but, oh, how electrifying the connection between us became.  I had the (if only physical) sensation of what it might be like to *be* Mr. P.  And he blossomed in my arms, sensing the recognition and respect I was sending his way, sensing that I was trying to maximize my enjoyment of him.

"His dancing became much more confident, and (without losing his own essential qualities) he started to control his movements more and to really play with me in the dance.  Suddenly the hunched stance felt like a strong expression of gravity, and the wobble felt like the tender lingering aftereffect of each pulse of music.  What a revelation: Mr. P was beautiful dancer, and I had been a prig not to see it!

"After that tanda, I found that every man I danced with that evening had something beautiful to offer, no matter their postural eccentricites or limitations of technique. In fact, their eccentricities and limitations were something to be respected and accorded a value, something that added rich flavor to the dance.  If my partner is stiff as a board, well, it means that we begin the tanda by doing the "stiff as a board" tango, which can offer some very creative moments of shared comedy, playing close to the edge of being off-balance.  Whee-ha-ha.  Maybe by the end of the tanda our dance will have expanded into something more soft and flexible and grounded, maybe not.  The cortina has its own great value, after all.

"I left the milonga that night feeling thrilled and humbled.  How sorely I had underestimated these "bad dancers," how foolishly I had cheated myself out of the deeper pleasures of connecting in the dance.  It wan't somebody else's fat ego getting in the way of dancing, it was my own.

"That night helped me appreciate the talented leaders who use this type of 'body empathy' when they dance with me, recognizing and valuing all my own eccentricities, discovering how to enjoy them.  And I now understand why I see so many talented leaders sitting out tandas—it takes time to recover from the intensity of *truly shared* dancing, to clear one's 'psychomotor palate,' so to speak.

Finding Connection
21 July 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Rose of Portland, Oregon writes:
"[W]hen I see very good leaders they are mostly dancing with the follower's feet and do very little themselves.  You can visually see that they are connecting in a very real way to their partner's movement.

"The leaders that we do not appreciate are the ones who are dancing with their own egos. ... [I}t can be very lonely on the dance floor at times dancing with a leader who seeks only to satisfy himself.

"In all fairness I am sure that there are leaders who have a similar experience with some followers.

"... [I]n order achieve a satisfying connection with someone you have to really open yourself up in a way that many people are unwilling or afraid to do.  And at the same time that you express yourself, you
need to leave room for the other person."

Also see Rose's comments on Why We Dance Tango and Roles and Relationships in Tango.
 

Incomplete Education
19 June 2005 — Stephen Brown

There are three principal methods for teaching Argentine tango: step patterns, small elements, and structural systems.  These three approaches are analagous to three pedagogical approaches used for teaching and learning how to play jazz music.  Learning step patterns is like learning to play memorized pieces of music including complete compositions and the solos played by great jazz artists.  Learning small elements is like learning to play in short tasty phrases.  Learning structural systems are like learning scales and chord progressions.

Those aspiring to play jazz study complete compositions and the solos played by great artists, short tasty phrases and the scales and chord progressions.  No one would expect to develop sufficient skill by pursuing only one of these three approahces to learning.

In tango, however, many dancers develop most of their knowledge of the dance through only one of the three principal approaches for teaching Argentine tango.  What is the consequence?  Those who only learn step patterns often show good depth of composition and form, but find trouble with improvisation, navigation and rhythm.  Those who only learn small elements often have good navigational and rhythm skills, but the dancing can lack a sense of composition, form, style or depth of improvisation.  It's just noodling.  Those who only learn a structural system understand a complex set of possibilities, but may lack form and have trouble fitting the concepts to the available space or the rhythm of the music.

With persistent work, many people will break through the limitations of the single method by which they were taught tango, but I think it is much easier to develop a well-rounded mastery by pursuing all three methods of learning.  Some of my previous thoughts about mixing these various methods of learning Argentine tango can be found at Approaches to Teaching and Learning Tango in the 2004 archive.
 

The Invitation to Dance in Buenos Aires
11 May 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Janis Kenyon writes:
"[T]he cabeceo ... is the most common way of inviting a woman to dance.  A man makes eye contact with a woman from his table.  If she wants to dance with him, she indicates with a nod in response.  If not, she merely looks away and no one knows that she has rejected him.  There is a mutual agreement between two people.  The man knows whether or not she wants to dance and proceeds accordingly."

On Tango-L, Cherie Magnus adds:
"I am a foreign woman living in BsAs.  I learned to dance tango here 8 years ago.  When I lived in L.A. and danced around the U.S., I found the custom of inviting people to dance absolutely barbaric compared to the Codigo [social codes] here.  In the U.S. men may come to you to ask you to dance and even if you don't want to, you usually accept, because we are trained not to be rude.  I used to give many "mercy" dances during any given milonga.  And it's true, if a man walks all the way across the floor to offer himself to you for 7 minutes, it's very embarrassing for him to walk back, rejected.  Also in the States and in Europe, it is very common for the woman to run around the room, inviting men to dance.  I find it difficult to be aggressive in making a man lead me, in fact, I find it impossible.

"I LOVE the Codigo here!  I feel so empowered.  Nobody knows if I refuse someone.  I give no mercy dances.  I dance with whom I want to, to the music I want to.  I feel in control: no man can approach my table without permission.  There is none of the sitting down with you and monopolizing that often occurs in the U.S.  I LOVE IT!

"Of course I'm speaking about the traditional formal milongas here. There are many places for young people which have no codigo—and where I feel vulnerable and with less control."

On Tango-L, Nitin Kibe adds:
"I would also like to mention symmetry between the capital spent in asking and the effort spent in rejecting.  Most asymmetric scenario: Man makes long lonely visible walk across floor, woman rejects brusquely in a nanosecond.  Same outcome but better symmetry and so less bad feeling: woman spends more time, softens the blow with smiles, small talk, lets him down gently, etc. etc.  Cabeceo has good symmetry: neither party spends much capital/effort, a glance, raised eyebrow from the one; a slight yes/no nod from the other; no particularly hard feelings, no visibly bruised ego, la milonga continua."
 

Resolving Problems
11 May 2005 — Stephen Brown

In Healing Myths, Healing Magic, Donald Epstein writes:
"We cannot resolve any problem with the same consciousness that created the problem in the first place. ... Resolution can only occur when we move outside the context of the situation that troubles us."
 

Tango to Evora (Alternative Tango)
19 April 2005 — Stephen Brown

Sometimes referrred to as the Turkish tango, Tango to Evora is popular among those who like dancing Argentine tango to what is known as alternative tango music.  Three different recording artists have recorded different versions of the song under varying titles.

Loreena McKennitt — Tango to Evora
This is the original version.  It has no lyrics.  Loreena sings la, la, la, la.

Nilufer  — Cok Uzaklarda
This version has Turkish lyrics.

Haris Alexiou  — To Tango Tis Nefelis (Tango to Evora)
This version has Greek lyrics.  Haris' version seems to be the most popular with tango dancers.For more information on alternative tangos and tango fusion, see A DJ's Guide to Neo-Tango Music, Sharna Fabiano's List of Neo Tangos, and Jackie Wong's NeoTango Zone.


Why We Dance Tango
16 March 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Rose of Portland, Oregon writes:
"Tango is about a feeling, it is about the music, it is about connecting with your partner.  It is these things that can be universally understood.  When you go to Buenos Aires you begin to understand where the feeling came from.  The feeling of tango reveals itself in the streets of Buenos Aires, in the faces of the people, in the way they talk, in the stories that they tell.  It is something that many of us relate to, it is what draws us to the tango.

"And it is the recognition of this feeling that draws us to each other, one dancer to the other.  You may be from one country and I from another, but when we hear the tango, when we understand this feeling and I look at you and there is this recognition, ah yes you feel it too, and we dance together each one revealing something of themselves to the other — this is tango."
 

Cultural Values and Styles of Argentine Tango
20 February 2005 — Stephen Brown

Linking cultural stereotypes about a city to the way people dance Argentine tango in that city may be fun, but it probably doesn't reflect reality.  The average person in any given city doesn't dance Argentine tango.  Argentine tango attracts only a small minority of the population in each city where it is danced, and it seems that a higher percentage of those who dance Argentine tango in most cities have grown up somewhere else than is true of the city's general population.

Argentine tango acts as filter on the general population.  It attracts those people who are most comfortable with what the dance demands.  As the result of such sorting, tango dancers in various cities and countries around the world are likely to have more in common with each other than the average persons in these cities and countries do.

With filtering finding commonalities, how do we account for the differences in styles across communities?  To overgeneralize, I will say there are three aspects of tango—social contact, athleticism, and theatricality.  Some communities may emphasize the social contact aspects of tango.  Other communities may emphasize theatricality or athleticism.

The observed differences in styles across tango communities likely owes more to differences in the tastes or knowledge of the pioneering instructors and organizers than to the inherent characteristics of the city's general population.  Those who pioneered Argentine tango in their community provided the first filters and built a group of dancers based on what they liked/knew.  If the early instructors and organizers emphasized theatricality—as was true in many cities outside of Buenos Aires—strong aspects of that thread are likely to continue today.  Given the small percentage of people in any city who dance tango, attributing the style of tango dancing in a city to that city's culture is a bit silly, even if it does entertain us by fitting our cultural stereotypes.
 

Tango Is (Fill in the Blank)
10 February 2005 — Stephen Brown

Tango is a Magazine.
"Tango is all about love.  And relationships.  And passion and frustration.  And bliss and rage and bank accounts; whose turn it is to vacuum and whose turn it is between the sheets.  Provocative, playful, and candid, tango has couplehood covered."
See tangomag.com.

Tango is a Trucking Company.
"It just takes two--a shipper and some freight, an origin and a destination--and then it's Tango time.  Tango Transport uses a fleet of about 700 trucks, mostly owner-operated, and some 1,200 trailers to move freight all across the US.  Tango's fleet includes flatbed and cattle-hauling trailers.  The company operates from facilities in Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana."
See tangotransport.com.

Tango is a Soft Drink.
"You know when you've been Tango'd"
See tango.com.

Tango is a Software.
"Tango is a jukebox style music player that is perfect for home theater PC's, Touch Screen systems and Car PC's."
See flatironsoftware.com/tango.htm.

Tango is a Commuter Car.
"[T]he two-seat Tango ... is a glimpse into the future of commuting. Lane doubling, lane splitting, and perpendicular parking will become commonplace."
See commutercars.com.

Tango is the Tanzania Association of Non-Governmental Organizations.
"The Tanzania Association of NGOs (TANGO) is the largest and longest standing national umbrella organization serving the Tanzanian NGO community."
See tango.or.tz.
 

Roles and Relationships in Argentine Tango
1 February 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Rose of Portland, Oregon writes:
"It is interesting to me how people choose to understand their roles and relationship to one another within tango.

"To the women that say they have perceived following to be like stepping back in time to a gender role they no longer embrace in their normal life, consider this: Tango does not create the role we choose, we create our role in tango.  Dancing is two people meeting on a dance floor expressing themselves to one another through music and movement.  It is mutual and consensual and no two people will express themselves in the same way.

"The mechanics of two bodies moving together require that one person take the lead.  Just like when you carry a couch up a flight of stairs with one person holding each end.  If you don't want the couch to fall you have to work together and coordinate your movement (okay maybe not the most elegant analogy but it kind of works).  Beyond that though I think it is really up to the two people involved how they choose to engender their roles.  Different people have different preferences.  Some people enjoy being passive, some people enjoy being in charge, some people enjoy being equal with their partner, some people enjoy competing with their partner, some people click and some don't.

"It is a subtle negotiation I think.  And it is mostly about how you physically communicate with your partner from moment to moment.

"Men who take advantage of their roles as leaders and women who feel defensive about being led only do so out of their own insecurities."
 

Being a Follower on Axis in all Styles
18 January 2005 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Deb Sclar of Dance of the Heart in Boulder, Colorado writes:
As a follower who loves to play in and explore all possibilities and styles in tango, I would venture to clarify, at least based on my OWN experience dancing ... , that while the "push" connection is an option, the more expressive and satisfying one for me could be described more like "melting" toward my partner.  I have Tomas Howlin to thank for insisting very specifically on practicing/using this very yummy, lovely and specific element, which is attainable no matter how open or closed the embrace.  Applying [the] same to transitions between open and close is also extraordinarily powerful and makes for VERY compelling connections between partners (gracias, Tomas!).
 

Dancing to the Music (4)
1 January 2005 — Stephen Brown

Some of the basic skills for interpreting Argentine tango music while dancing are:
    1) Moving to the slow, walking beat (Rhuummmp);
    2) Moving to the staccato rhythms (Ric Tic);
    3) Working with pauses (while beats slip away);
    4) Moving with musical phrasing;
    5) Moving with musical phrasing for lyrical tangos.

Some of the more advanced skills for interpreting Argentine tango music while dancing are:
    1) Interpreting changes in tempo;
    2) Moving to syncopated rhythms (those of Troilo in particular);
    3) Dancing to the rhythms of individual instruments rather than working just with the beat;
    4) Using repitition and variation;
    5) Using movements whose rhythms play against those in the music.
 

2004 Archive    


Dancing to the Music (3)
30 December 2004 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Tom Stermitz writes:
Tango music has a characteristic suspension and surge, often expressed in the music as a rising crescendo prior to the strong beat at the start of a phrase or even leading to individual beats.  The bandoneon (resting on the player's knee) often starts to express a note BEFORE the beat; then the player slaps his foot to the ground causing a hrr-UMPPF sort of sound.  There are many other musical and rhythmic elements, but the above is most distinctive to tango, and not present with such dramatic intensity in other kinds of music, e.g. foxtrot, habanero, jazz or world music.  A tango dancer often expresses this hrr-UMPPF by surging slightly before the beat, feeling the partner engage, then arriving to a footstep ON the beat.

This is the same sound and movement that I previously described as Rhuummmp in Rhuummmp and Ric Tic.


Dancing to the Music (2)
20 December 2004 — Stephen Brown

In the past month, I have danced tango and watched tango dancers in four cities around the United States, including attending a big tango event.  One thing that I have seen in every city (including the big tango event) was more than a few leaders who otherwise seem to have reasonably good skills and a decent sense of rhythm but seem to dance exactly the same way to every piece of music and with every partner.  I am not referring to styles—milonguero vs. salon vs. nuevo—as I wouldn't necessarily expect a person to change their basic style of dancing for different pieces of music.  I mean leaders who ignored how the rhythmic signatures of their movement related to the music and forced the same step patterns onto whatever music was playing, whether it be Donato's A Media Luz, D'Arienzo's El Flete, Tanturi's Cuatro Compases, Di Sarli's Bahia Blanca, Calo's Tristezas de le Calle Corrientes, Pugliese's La Bordona or Color Tango's Zum.

Obviously, the rhythmic signatures of many tango steps are sufficiently elastic that their amplitude and frequency can be adjusted to reflect the music.  What I saw was a number of leaders who had the command of advanced steps but were not making such adjustments.  For example, I saw one leader use the same volcada with every partner to every orchestra.  The way he executed the volcada fit well with slow, dramatic music, but it didn't reflect the staccato rhythms of D'Arienzo.  I wouldn't say that he was off the rhythm, but that the movements did not well express the rhythmic elements of the music.  I saw another leader use the same staccato turn with an ocho cortado that he used with all music, even as the orchestra was taking a dramatic pause.  Again, he wasn't off the rhythm, but it was like watching a rapid-fire snare drum solo in what would have otherwise been a delicious pause.  In another case, I saw a regional teacher continually using the same change of direction turn without any adjustment to fit the cadences of the music.

Of course, dancing tango as step patterns contributes to the problem, but I am not referring to beginners or even intermediate dancers.  I think too many leaders are failing to develop their feeling for tango music.  In August, I listed Some CDs for Learning About Tango Music.  Rather than just sitting down and listening to the music, working with movement to simple Rhuummmp and Ric Tic rhythms can be a good way to get started.

Dancing to the Music
17 November 2004 — Stephen Brown

Let's consider two different tandas of vals music.  Tanda One (all played by Rodolfo Biagi): Amor y Vals, Paloma, Por Un Beso de Amor, Lagrimas y Sonrisas.  Tanda Two: Ilusion de Mi Vida by Orquesta Color Tango, Palomita Blanca by Hector Varela, Corazon de Oro by Lalo Schifrin Orquesta, Desde el Alma by Osvaldo Pugliese

Both tandas contain devastatingly wonderful vals music.  All pieces of the music are eminently suitable for dancing, but the moods of the two tandas music are considerably different.  The valses played by Biagi have a denser orchestration and more direct rhythm and romantic quality.  The valses in the second tanda have a more contemporary and spacious quality and a lighter sense of romanticism.

The embrace used to dance to these different tandas need not be different, nor am I likely to decide to dance one style of vals to Biagi and another to the more contemporary recordings in the second tanda.  We are bound to dance a little differently to these two tandas if our interpretation comes from the heart and our connections with our partner, the music and the other dancers around us.  Nonetheless, our interpretations of the music will depend to some extent on the style of dancing we gravitate toward.

Dancers who are caught up in executing complex memorized figures are unlikely to offer anything that resembles a relationship to the music.  The execution of these complex figures can severely interfere with the ability to focus on anything else.  Beginners who are dancing relatively simple elements are much more likely to connect to the differences in the music.  Those who approach tango as memorized figures are likely to leave their first tango lesson and their next 20 less able to connect and move to the music than they did when they first walked in the door.  That's not dancing.
 

Some Tango-Fusion Music to Consider
12 October 2004 — Stephen Brown

In the 21st century, we have different social venues, new technologies, new musical instruments, and continuing musical evolution.  All of these developments have inspired some of today's tango musicians to develop new approaches to tango dance music.  At the same time, tango dancers are exploring new music for dancing.  At an increasing number of milongas in Buenos Aires, Europe and North America, the DJs have expanded their playlists to include neo-tango music.  Neo-tango consists of two genres of music: tango-fusion and "alternative" tango music.  Tango fusion integerates traditional tango rhythms and instrumentation with other musical traditions, contemporary instruments and often electronica to create a modern and culturally relevant world tango music with a dance-club sound.  Alternative tango music is tango music from other traditions or non-tango music that some dancers find interesting for dancing Argentine tango steps.

I remain a skeptical about the use of non-tango music for dancing Argentine tango, but an increasing number of tango-fusion recordings have found their way onto my playlist.  I find it best to use such recordings late at night and sparingly.  Some of the tracks to consider playing at milongas are:

Carlos Libedinsky — Narcotango
    Vi Luz y Subi
    Plano Sequencia
    Otra Luna
La Chicana — Tango Agazapado
    Una Iguana y Tres Monedas
    Sopapa (milonga)
    Milonga de los Perros (milonga)
Mizrahi-Longhi — Carne Argenta
    Praga
    Youkali
Bajofondo TangoClub — Bajofondo TangoClub
    En Mi/Soledad
Bajofondo TangoClub — Supervielle
    Perfume
    Pulso
    Air Concret
    Centroja
Gotan Project — La Revancha del Tango
    Queremos Paz
    Una Musica Brutal
    Epoca
    Santa Maria
Ultratango — Astornauta
    CiteTango
    Santa Maria del Buen Ayre
Tanghetto — Emigrante
    Inmigrante
    Una Llamada
Aubade Leçons de Tango (compilation)
    El Tango (Hi Perspective)
    Naranjo en Flor (Campo)
Moulin Rouge (movie soundtrack)
    El Tango de Roxanne
Buenos Aires Ensemble — Tango Chill Out
    La Cumparsita
    Chill en Buenos Aires
Tango Project II — New Tango
    Sentimientos
    BuddySome of the tandas that I have put together from these recordings can be found in the neo-tango music section of my Annotated List of Tandas.


Becoming a Good Tango Dancer (4)
9 September 2004 — Stephen Brown

Pablo from Australia writes that Rose's comments though insightful do not answer the question about how long it takes to become a good tango dancer.  Of course, Pablo is right.  In an earlier contribution to Tango-L, Brian Dunn of Dance of the Heart in Boulder, Colorado offered some specific numbers which can be found here.  In a subsequent post to Tango-L, Robert Hauk of Portland, Oregon shifted the discussion away from specific timing with comments that can be found here.  Rose's comments are best understood as a continuing in the direction set by Robert.  I was trying to indicate a connection to the two earlier posts, but I shouldn't have introduced Rose's comments with the question: "How long does it take to become a good tango dancer?"

Yet another perspective can be found on the blog My Life As a Tango Beginner.

Becoming a Good Tango Dancer (3)
8 September 2004 — Stephen Brown

How long does it take to become a good tango dancer?  On Tango-L, Rose of Portland writes:

"For me, tango is a feeling.  It's in the music, it's in the expression of the movement, it's in the embrace.

"To learn this takes time.  I still have much learning to do.  I do not understand many of the lyrics in the songs that I dance to.  I think, how can I dance, how can I express this if I don't know what it is about.  Certainly I can express myself, but the music is something I still to learn.

"But another thing is you might as well be asking how long it takes for someone to be a good lover, a good artist, a good musician, a good listener.  These are all requirements of being a good tango dancer in my estimation.  There are probably no answers to this question.

"I once asked Graciela Gonzalez about embelishments.  She told me that they must come out of personal experiences.  She was not talking about dance experience, she was talking about experience in love, in loss, in dissapointment.  She said to me "you are young" but she said that it didn't matter that the dance changes with a person's experiences and that what I draw from now will be different in time, that I won't hear or think things in the same way as time passes.

I may be waxing philosophical now, but I think it best not to measure one's life by means of standards and proficiencies.  The joy of doing something comes from the doing.  Dancing is an art form in which nothing is created except for the experience.  If your goal is to have a good experience then your outlook can change.  You don't view people as good dancers or bad, but as potential persons with whom to connect, to share something with, to learn something about.  I don't expect that every dance that I have will be a good dance, but I dance them with the intention of making that connection."

In an earlier contribution to Tango-L, Brian Dunn of Dance of the Heart in Boulder, Colorado offered some specific numbers which can be found here.  In a subsequent post to Tango-L, Robert Hauk of Portland, Oregon shifted the discussion away from specific timing with comments that can be found here.
 

Becoming a Good Tango Dancer (2)
9 August 2004 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Robert Hauk of Portland, Oregon writes:

"In my experience as a dancer, musicality is the most important thing a dancer has to offer, leader or follower.  Good technique matters, but without musicality the dance suffers.  I have danced with women whose technique was not great, but whose musicality was so strong that they were a delight to dance with.  I don't particularly enjoy dancing with someone whose technique is great but whose musicality is weak.

"In my own dancing what it means to dance well changes with the years.  My experience of the dance is deeper and richer now after dancing tango for nearly 9 years.  Each year I seem to learn something significant that takes my dancing to another level, the last two years especially.  Each year I know the music better, and feel more layers and more subtle things.  This deeper feeling of the music changes my dancing for the better.  I hope this process never ends for me.

"Every person will progress at their own rate.  What some can do in one year, it will take others three years to do.  People can get so worried about how quickly, or not quickly they are progressing that they may forget to enjoy where they are.  There is, hopefully, no end to the learning so in the end it doesn't matter so much how quickly one learns."
 
Becoming a Good Tango Dancer
6 August 2004 — Stephen Brown

How long does it take to become a good tango dancer?  On Tango-L, Brian Dunn of Dance of the Heart in Boulder, Colorado writes:

"[H]ere's a few numbers, for what they may be worth:

"30-90 minutes — The average time in class for a 'middle-of-the-bell-curve' person to successfully demonstrate the ability to both lead and follow a subset of rudimentary tango steps safely and considerately around the floor in typical 'milonga conditions' in close and open embrace (based on our experience).

"4-6 months — the point in an aspiring tango dancer's education that several well-known Argentine instructors defined for me as the time to shift in primary focus away from 'step vocabulary' toward an intensive immersion into tango music — in the car, in the shower, at work, at home, etc.

"5 months — the typical length of time Carlos Gavito suggested it would take a reasonably talented follower, if she worked hard with good leaders, to become 'good.'

"2 years — an initial period of time at the start of the local Colorado tango community that a well-known local instructor described as 'beginners teaching each other their mistakes.'

"2 years — the length of time Mariano 'Chicho' Frumboli's current partner, Maria Eugenia, had been dancing tango before they debuted as a world-class tango teaching/performing couple.

"10 years — the typical length of time Carlos Gavito's parter Marcela Duran suggested it would take for a leader to become 'good.'"

 


Beginners Taught by Masters
7 September 2004 — Stephen Brown


Argentine tango made a comeback from near oblivion in the 1980s, but it was really the 1990s and early 2000s when Argentine tango reached its current level of participation.  With its relatively recent revival and niche market, Argentine tango has something that is relatively unique in the dance world—beginners taught by masters.  Such interactions can be difficult and lead to strained expectations on both sides.  From time to time, a relatively inexperienced dancer will offer negative comments on Tango-L or another forum about the trouble that they had while taking classes or lessons from a master whose teaching was beyond their ability to learn.  And from time to time, highly skilled dancers who are teaching Argentine tango have difficulty understanding that many of their students are learning to dance Argentine tango as a diversion from their daily lives.  Saludos to those generous teachers and apt pupils who have been able to bridge the gap.
 


Some CDs for Learning About Tango Music
23 August 2004 — Stephen Brown

The following 12 CDs provide a good introduction to the wide variety of tango music from the golden age that is played at milongas.

  1.  Juan D'Arienzo — Instrumental Vol. 1 (Solo Tango) - this CD has more of D'Arienzo's classic instrumentals than any other
  2.  Carlos Di Sarli — Instrumental Vol.1 (Solo Tango) - probably the best available CD of Di Sarli's instrumental tangos
  3.  Anibal Troilo — Instrumental (Tango Argentino BMG-RCA) - his early rhythmic instrumental classics
  4.  Troilo/Fiorentino (Solo Tango BMG-RCA) - Troilo with the great vocalist Francisco Fiorentino
  5.  Osvaldo Pugliese — Ausencia (EMI Odeon) - an outstanding collection with many of Pugliese's best recordings
  6.  Miguel Caló — Al Compás del Corazon (EMI Reliquias) - great valses, milongas and tangos with the great vocalist Raul Beron
  7.  Ricardo Tanturi/Alberto Castillo — El Tango es el Tango (Tango Argentino BMG-RCA) - the Tanturi/Castillo CD with the most classic tangos
  8.  Carlos Di Sarli — Porteño y Bailarin (Tango Argentino BMG-RCA) - with vocalist Jorge Duran
  9.  Angel D'Agostino y Angel Vargas — Tangos de Los Angeles vol. 2 (Tango Argentino BMG-RCA)
10.  Rodolfo Biagi — Solos de la Orquesta (EMI Reliquias)
11.  Alfredo DeAngelis — From Argentina to the World (EMI) - most of his instrumental classics
12.  Ricardo Tanturi/Enrique Campos — Una Emoción  (Tango Argentino  BMG RCA)With this 12 CD collection, you would have good coverage of all five styles of golden-age tango music played by the orchestras whose music is most frequently played at milongas including the hard rhyhmic tangos of Juan D'Arienzo and Rodolfo Biagi; the soft rhythmic tangos of Anibal Troilo, Anibal Troilo with Francisco Fiorentino, Ricardo Tanturi with Alberto Castillo and Angel D'Agostino with Angel Vargas; the smooth Carlos Di Sarli instrumentals, the lyrical tangos of Miguel Caló with Raul Beron, Carlos Di Sarli with Jorge Duran, Ricardo Tanturi with Enrique Campos and Anibal Troilo with Francisco Fiorentino; and the dramatic tangos of Alfredo DeAngelis and Osvaldo Pugliese.

Argentine tango made a comeback from near oblivion in the 1980s, but it was really the 1990s and early 2000s when Argentine tango reached its current level of participation.  With its relatively recent revival and niche market, Argentine tango has something that is relatively unique in the dance world—beginners taught by masters.  Such interactions can be difficult and lead to strained expectations on both sides.  From time to time, a relatively inexperienced dancer will offer negative comments on Tango-L or another forum about the trouble that they had while taking classes or lessons from a master whose teaching was beyond their ability to learn.  And from time to time, highly skilled dancers who are teaching Argentine tango have difficulty understanding that many of their students are learning to dance Argentine tango as a diversion from their daily lives.  Saludos to those generous teachers and apt pupils who have been able to bridge the gap.
 

La Yumba
20 August 2004 — Stephen Brown

La Yumba is one of the most famous tangos recorded by Osvaldo Pugliese's orchestra, but the word "Yumba" cannot be found in a Spanish-language dictionary.  In fact, Yumba is an onomatopoeiac reference to the strong rhythmic element played on the bass in that piece of music.  The sound is created by a slide on a string combined with a striking of the body of the bass.  Pugliese used this strong rhythmic element in many of his recordings, and it and became a defining characteristic of his most well-known recordings.  According to tango historian Ruben Terbalca, "Negro Thompson" pioneered this approach to the bass in 1912 to imitate African percussion while playing a style of music known as "toque canyengue."  As first used, it was a quick percussive element.  Some 30 years later, Pugliese slowed it way down to create the familiar and defining Yumba beat.
 


Becoming a Good Tango Dancer (2)
9 August 2004 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Robert Hauk of Portland, Oregon writes:

"In my experience as a dancer, musicality is the most important thing a dancer has to offer, leader or follower.  Good technique matters, but without musicality the dance suffers.  I have danced with women whose technique was not great, but whose musicality was so strong that they were a delight to dance with.  I don't particularly enjoy dancing with someone whose technique is great but whose musicality is weak.

"In my own dancing what it means to dance well changes with the years.  My experience of the dance is deeper and richer now after dancing tango for nearly 9 years.  Each year I seem to learn something significant that takes my dancing to another level, the last two years especially.  Each year I know the music better, and feel more layers and more subtle things.  This deeper feeling of the music changes my dancing for the better.  I hope this process never ends for me."Every person will progress at their own rate.  What some can do in one year, it will take others three years to do.  People can get so worried about how quickly, or not quickly they are progressing that they may forget to enjoy where they are.  There is, hopefully, no end to the learning so in the end it doesn't matter so much how quickly one learns."


Becoming a Good Tango Dancer
6 August 2004 — Stephen Brown

How long does it take to become a good tango dancer?  On Tango-L, Brian Dunn of Dance of the Heart in Boulder, Colorado writes:

"[H]ere's a few numbers, for what they may be worth:

"30-90 minutes — The average time in class for a 'middle-of-the-bell-curve' person to successfully demonstrate the ability to both lead and follow a subset of rudimentary tango steps safely and considerately around the floor in typical 'milonga conditions' in close and open embrace (based on our experience).

"4-6 months — the point in an aspiring tango dancer's education that several well-known Argentine instructors defined for me as the time to shift in primary focus away from 'step vocabulary' toward an intensive immersion into tango music — in the car, in the shower, at work, at home, etc.

"5 months — the typical length of time Carlos Gavito suggested it would take a reasonably talented follower, if she worked hard with good leaders, to become 'good.'

"2 years — an initial period of time at the start of the local Colorado tango community that a well-known local instructor described as 'beginners teaching each other their mistakes.'

"2 years — the length of time Mariano 'Chicho' Frumboli's current partner, Maria Eugenia, had been dancing tango before they debuted as a world-class tango teaching/performing couple.

"10 years — the typical length of time Carlos Gavito's parter Marcela Duran suggested it would take for a leader to become 'good.'"
 


Excellent Teachers
16 July 2004 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Rose of Portland, Oregon writes: "I believe that the goal of an excellent instructor is to develop each student's potential in effort to reveal what it is that each student uniquely strives to express.  A student's dance should not be the master's dance.  Each person has their own voice, their own dance.  The instructor's job is to help the person develop the skills to express themselves."  In another post, Rose adds: "How a person steps is going to make a big difference in his dancing.  The way a person dances is as individual as the way he walks.  But I think to a beginning dancer, to teach him something particular about where to place the weight on his foot is going to cause him to focus on his feet rather than on the heart where his tango should come from.  Later he can refine his walk."
 

Art as an Expression of Oneself
16 July 2004 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Rose of Portland, Oregon writes: "[A]ll art is an expression of ones self first and translated through the skills that one has second.  The skill is the tool by which you can communicate your inner feelings.  In fact, I would say ..., that the feeling develops the skill.  The very desire to learn the skill stems from a desire to express something.  Why would I learn to write, paint, dance if I had nothing to say?  This is the very reason that technique varies from one person to the next."
 
 

No Right or Wrong in Tango
3 June 2004 — Stephen Brown

On Tango-L, Antonio Cervila Junior writes, "Why do people try to say what is right and what is wrong in tango???  This is popular dance and as a popular dance there is no right or wrong.  There is a way that you feel comfortable.  That doesn't mean that is the only way or even the 'right' way.  Classical ballet has its rules and it is like that all over the world.  But you can't put rules on a dance created on the streets.  Rules limit its development.  A teacher must not be a dictator, but only show the way that he prefers.  The student is free to choose the different styles, or even better a mix of all creating his own style."
 

Intelligent Dancing
2 June 2004 — Stephen Brown

Christy Coté, a tango instructor from the San Francisco Bay Area, and Dance Vision USA have collaborated to create and disseminate a syllabus for a standardized version of Argentine tango.  Dance Vision USA is releasing an extensive series of videos in support of the syllabus, and Christy is teaching master classes for those who wish to become certified to teach from the syllabus.

Over the years, a number of different tango instructors with a background in ballroom dancing have attempted to create syllabuses for a standardized Argentine tango.  None of these syllabuses has gained widespread acceptance among Argentine tango dancers.  Of course, no syllabus has been written by an Argentine who is accepted as a master of the dance.  Perhaps more importantly, the process of standardization necessary to produce such a syllabus loses the relationship, the individual expression, improvisation and range of personal styles that are at the core of Argentine tango.   On Tango Talk over at Tango Noticias, Pichi well expresses the general attitude that most good Argentine tango dancers take toward a syllabus for a standardized Argentine tango.  She writes, "Don't we already have enough tango robots on the dance floors?"

Although we tango dancers tend to associate syllabuses with ballroom dancing, Richard Powers distinguishes between authority-based dancing and intelligent dancing in a manner that applies equally well to ballroom dancing and Argentine tango.  In his essay Intelligent Dancing, Richard writes the following comments about authority-based dancing, "Some studios would rather train their dancers to respond in only one way to a given situation—the authorized 'correct' way.  Steps and patterns are predetermined by authorities so that the dancers have very few decisions to make, if any. ... And the woman's role is doubly automatic, not only following the trainer but also her male partner.  Personal variations away from his lead are considered mistakes and are to be eliminated.  Steps and styles outside the syllabus are 'incorrect.'"

In contrast, Richard describes intelligent dancing as involving both partners being spontaneously open to the infinite possibilities of the moment, while responding to each other and the music.  The flow of the dance is a three-way communication between man, woman and music—with each contributing something.
 

Leading and Following
28 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

According to Polly McBride at Tango Quest, three attributes are mentioned most often when followers describe their favorite dance partners: feeling safe, a comfortable frame and musicality.  She says that followers are responsible for developing skills that contribute to connection, beauty and elegance.
 

More on Dancing at Tango Festivals (3)
28 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

In an email, Polly McBride of Portland, Oregon writes: "Dancers who know each other from other areas and who meet at the event to only dance at milongas, change the ambiance and interaction among dancers who have been in attendance at the workshops.  Some beginners and slightly experienced folks become resigned to the sidelines.  With no clear solution in sight, this situation will continue, and new dancers will just need to put in their time and make acquaintances with enough partners that this will not interfere with their evening."

More on Dancing at Tango Festivals (2)
25 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

In an email, Rose from Portland, Oregon offers some additional comments about dancing at crowded milongas.

I think it has less to do with level of dancing, beginning, intermediate, hot shot etc... and more to do with how conscientious the leader is to other dancers and the space around him.

I have danced with plenty of beginners who have no problem navigating because in crowded situations they know they do not have the skill to try anything fancy so they just walk when they can and rock back and forth when there's no room and never bump into anyone.

The people who cause problems are usually either so absorbed in expressing something in the music that they zoom about without regard to the disruption they may be causing.  Or they are concentrating so hard on the step they are trying to execute that they don't realize when someone is behind them or in front of them or whatever.  In either case it is unlikely they even realize they are causing a problem because they are not aware of the space around them.

When I find myself dancing with one of these leaders I tend to become rather edgy, keep my eyes open and try to avoid taking steps that will cause collisions or I take them smaller than led.

In Portland, Robert Hauk does a very good job of teaching beginning students pay attention to their partner, the music and the space around them.  In his Monday night class he stresses that taking care of his partner is a leader's number one priority.  Part of taking care of her is not leading her to step into other people.

More on Dancing at Tango Festivals
25 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

In an email, Tom Stermitz of Denver offers some helpful hints for dancing in the crowded conditions typical of festivals (and Buenos Aires).

(1) Do not step backward. Do not do a back-step against line of dance.  Do not move in a direction you cannot see.  If you learned the "8-Count Basic with Dreaded Backstep"... un-learn it because it does NOT work on a social dance floor.  If the person in front of you suddenly steps backward, put up your hand to keep them from smashing their heel onto your partner's achilles tendon.

(2) Memorized 12 and 8 step figures will not function.  You have two ways to approach improvisation.  Learn to split the figure into a different ending when you realize your first idea is leading to trouble (this requires higher level tango skills). An easier strategy is to  utilize 4 and 2 count figures (elements).  The rock-step is a good defense against a potential collision.  Drop all the hot moves you just learned in class, but haven't quite mastered.  Learn to do very tight circular moves.

(3) Social Tango in Buenos Aires is a dance around the perimeter of the room.  It is RECTANGULAR, rather than circular.  (Performance tango is the opposite, requiring you to fill the interior space of the stage).  Crowded conditions are best handled by setting up lanes.  The outer perimeter of the floor is the first lane.  When that gets too full, use the 2nd lane, and then the 3rd.  The outer lane tends to be safer, as you have potential collisions only from the inside.

(4) In order to create a rectangular floor, dance ALL the way into the corners, where you are protected on two sides, and maybe have a little room for a fancier move.  If you cut the corner, you have just eliminated a space that would have fit in 2 or 3 more couples, then the next lane knocks of a couple more... multiply times four corners, and you see this has a lot of impact.

(5) Entering a lane from the side, is like merging into traffic; don't stop and meditate on your partner's lovely embrace while the lane stalls behind you.  If there is a gap in front of you it probably means a pile up behind you. Take a few traveling steps to close the gap. When the floor is moving nicely, everyone progresses slowly and steadily around the room: a few steps forward, a couple rock-steps; a little turn to see where the next gap is; safe in the corner, do a little figure; walk into the new space; ocho cortado in place, etc

(6) Dance very close to your partner; use smaller steps; don't whap people with big-kicking boleos.  While we no longer settle collisions with a knife fight in the alley, bumping other people is not considered to be good form.  Don't zig-zag across the lanes.  At some of these festivals you see a few dancers zipping around really fast.  Avoiding collisions, they think they are pretty hot, ignoring the wake of disruption they have created by all the near-misses.(7) Meeting people at big events can be daunting as many people already have friends from multiple trips to Portland, Denver, Ann Arbor, Washington DC, Buenos Aires, etc.  The workshops are a great place to circulate as all the teachers rotate partners.  Invite your new friends out to dinner, arrange to meet them later, and promise to see them again at Labor Day in Denver or October in Portland.


Inside the Dream: Celebrating Women Who Dance Tango
24 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

The Tango Calendar Girl Project—organized by a group of women who dance Argentine tango in Dallas—is producing a 2005 calendar with photography by Candice White that celebrates women who dance tango.  According to the project's coordinators, the calendar itself is a work of art celebrating the beautiful, truthful and sometimes difficult nature of tango and how dancing changed their lives.  Each calendar will be $19.95 plus tax and shipping (if applicable).  Information about the calendar is available on the webpage for The Tango Calendar Girl Project.

Inside the Dream
24 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

"In tango, dancers search for that elusive moment when there is no longer any difference between dream and reality."  The Tango Calendar Girl Project

Dancing at Tango Festivals
23 May 2004 — Stephen BrownMany of the people who attend tango festivals go for the dancing rather than the instruction.  The tricky part is in breaking into the dancing.  At the crowded milongas associated with the big tango festivals, most people will dance with people they already know.  For those dancers who are not already well known attending the classes is a great way to meet people and break into the dancing.


The Best Teachers
23 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Over at dekay.org, Daniel Käsmayr writes: "It is essential that teachers provide ideas, concepts—not just steps and sequences.  I know many students seem to require steps, fancy steps, sequences.  And it hurts to see them waste their energy and time to master them.  At the same time this seems to be the most economic way for teachers to do so.  (As a side note: I believe the whole universe of partner dancing can easily fall into this trap of steps/sequences vs. style/feeling/expression).  Of course the student is your customer and thus deserves attention—you cannot change them, but you can give them bites of that 'more' that there is in tango.  I firmly believe that teachers always have the responsibility to get their students on their own feet, give them the tools for createing their own experience, also demand esponsibility for their own actions.   And I totally agree that a teacher who spends too much time telling about the 'meta'-tango is wasting time—or wants to impress.  A healthy balance is needed."

"If I look back at my tango life so far—the best teachers were not the ones teaching me complicated steps—but they were teachers expressing style in their own thoughts, movements.  Of course it is always fun to master a new step or fail miserably.  But what really changes you is basic technique like posture—and feeling, emotion, connection."

Strangely enough, Daniel wrote his remarks in seeming disagreement with my May 18 comments about what I see as the futility of trying too hard at Teaching the Inner Essences of Tango.  I don't see anywhere in my comments where I advocate teaching step patterns.  In fact, I am opposed to the idea of teaching or dancing tango as a collection of step patterns.  (I wonder if the teaching of step patterns is so ubiquitous that it is presumed that someone who suggests that students must find their own way through the door to the inner essences of tango is justifying/advocating teaching step patterns.)

What I am saying is the best teachers teach movement rather than spending class time talking.  I agree with Daniel that the best teachers lead their students to the door of inner knowledge and inspire their students to step through.  In the end, however, those who would become tango dancers must step through the door and find the knowledge in themselves.
 

Cliquishness at Milongas
19 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

One of the most common forms of seeming cliquishness that one can observe at milongas is dancers sorting out by teachers.  Those who have learned from one local teacher may not dance much with the students of another local teacher.  Personally, I doubt that the participants have the intention of creating exclusive cliques.  This seeming cliquishness more likely results because those who tend to dance together are more familiar with each other and have compatible dance skills.

Most people are more comfortable interacting with people they already know.  A gender imbalance compounds the issue because it is very difficult for the men to leave the women who they know and have practiced with to go dance with others.  Most men owe a considerable debt to the women who were their partners while they were learning to dance tango.

For relatively new dancers, differences in styles and teaching methods may also create incompatibilities.  One teacher may teach milonguero, another salon, another nuevo, and another fantasia.  Some teachers may emphasize lead and follow skills and improvisational techniques while others teach memorized figures.
 

Teaching the Inner Essences of Tango
18 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

In recent years, I have begun to think that teachers can easily fall into the trap of trying too hard to teach the inner essences of tango—such as, connection, musicality or improvisation.  A good pedagogy can support the development of connection, musicality, improvisation and other inner essences of tango, but the pedagogy only takes the students to the door.  The students must step through the door on their own if they are to become dancers who fully understand and appreciate how these inner essences contribute to tango.

Good teachers can be inspiring, and good pedagogy can be extremely helpful in pointing students in the right direction.  You can talk about connection and teach the mechanics of a good embrace, but the dancers have to find connection in their own hearts and souls.  You can suggest ways to interpret the music and teach rhythmic tango movement, but the dancers have to find musical expression in themselves  You can explain that tango is improvisational and teach basic tango movements and/or systems for breaking down step patterns, but the dancers still have to improvise on their own.

When a teacher uses extensive class time trying to explain their own understanding of an inner essence, they are likely to be wasting their own efforts and their students' time.  When it comes to movement, knowledge cannot be poured in a student's ear.  Dancers develop best through their own experience of movement.

What About Leading?
18 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Richard Powers writes: "The best dance partners now know that a part of great leading is following.  This means he is perceptive and responsive to her situation.  He visualizes where his partner is going, where her feet are, where her momentum is heading, which steps flow smoothly from her current step.  He knows and cares what is comfortable for her, what is pleasurable or fun.  He dances for his partner's ability and comfort.  A good lead clearly suggests an option, which is different from controlling her.  He proposes, not prescribes, a certain way of moving to his partner.  If his partner does not go with his proposal (does not 'follow'), he refrains from exerting more power to press her to accept the proposal."  See Richard Powers' further thoughts and musings on Ultimate Partnering.

The Gift of Tango
17 May 2004 — Susan Brown

Tango is an adventure people undertake because it seems so fun, passionate, sexy and thrilling.  And it is.  But it also hides a secret gift.  To dance tango, you must learn to see yourself for all you are—the good and the not so good—and be willing to dance it out in the world in the arms of someone you may or may not know.  When you dance tango beautifully, you have learned to accept the person you are.  When you dance, you may never say a single word to your partner, but if you share that experience with another person, and they share themselves with you, then you have received the gift of tango.

Following Doesn't Describe the Role
17 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Richard Powers writes: "The main reason I don't like the term following is that it doesn't accurately describe the role.  Women do not 'follow,' they interpret signals they're given, with a keen responsiveness that is not passive.  The follow role is mentally and physically active, like the flow state in sports.  We admire the football player who zigzags brilliantly through the field, completely aware of his surroundings and responding instantly to each moment, rather than the one who uses brute force to steamroller straight into the opponents, or the one who slavishly follows a game plan which is no longer working.  The nimble, intelligent player, and the woman's role in dancing, are both the flow state of relaxed responsiveness, paying highly active attention to possibilities."  See Richard Powers' further thoughts and musings on Ultimate Partnering.
    

Ultimate Partnering
14 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

According to Richard Powers, "Knowing many dance steps and figures is fun, but the true art of social dancing, and its greatest pleasures, lie in great partnering.  As the tune goes, it ain't whatcha do but the way that you do it.  The nonverbal lead-follow connection between partners is the essence of social dancing."  See Richard Powers' further thoughts and musings on Ultimate Partnering.

On Seeking Heaven Rather than Perfection
14 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

When we are dancing tango, we can have a much more interesting experience if we focus on the music and our partner rather than whether we or our partner are executing moves properly.

There is a folk song that says, "When you go through life, make this your goal; watch the donut, not the hole."  For me, watching for my mistakes or my partner's mistakes is watching the hole.

Personally, I found that some absolutely wonderful tango experiences seduced me into seeking perfection, which led me to blame myself and my partners (often without their knowledge) for "mistakes" that kept the dance short of perfection.  I have recognized my perfectionist ways and am somewhat reformed.  My own belief is that we cannot find heaven when we are seeking perfection.

Classes and practicas are the time to focus on refining technique and building knowledge.  But even in such activities, I have found through my own experience that attempting to answer the question about whose mistake it is leads to more trouble than most of us really like.

American, Argentine and International Tango
14 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

In 1985, Barbara Garvey compared three types of tango: American, Argentine and International.  She said, "American tango is when a couple is on their honeymoon—it's romantic and sexy with both on their best behaviour.  Argentine tango is the whole of the relationship—with all the passion, pain, sorrow, joy, anger, humor, of real life.  International tango is when the couple can't stand each other and stay together just for the sake of the children."

Barbara's comments were reprised in an article about Argentine tango in Smithsonian magazine in November 1993.  Offering so much insight and being so quotable, Barbara's comments have passed into the lore of Argentine tango.

What Appeals to Today's Tango Dancer
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Occasionally people look at the roles for men and women in Argentine tango as the idealized expression of courtly manners in a culture and era that is different from that found in most U.S. cities today.  Personally, I doubt that the opportunity to masquerade as an idealized man or woman is why tango speaks to people all over the world today.  Argentine tango is not an opportunity to wallow in nostalgia for an idealized era that never quite existed—when men were ideally masculine and women were ideally feminine

I doubt many of today's tango dancers would have put much effort to develop their skills in a dance that is archaic or expresses an archaic view of the world.  Tango speaks to us now because it provides a way to express oneself in the arms of another.  No more and no less.  Self expression is what appeals to today's tango dancer.

Dancing with Grace
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

In dancing and teaching tango what I observe is that dancing tango is an expression of how the person presents themselves in the world. We dance who we are.  Those who are argumentative, dance argumentatively.  Those who are aggressive, dance aggressively.  Those who lack confidence, dance without confidence.  Those who are shy, dance faintly.  Those who are verbal, dance with their mouths.  Dancing tango with observable grace calls for a balance of energies, and that balance might be called grace.


Yin and Yang of Tango
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

As in all things, dancing tango calls for the proper balance of yin (the feminine) and yang (the masculine).

Too much yang and the man is too abusive and controlling to be a good dance partner.  Too little yang, and he does not have the strength of heart to lead or create the dance.

Too much yin and the woman is too weak to contribute to the connection and interchange that is tango.  Too little yin, and she refuses to listen to the lead.

Developing Ease
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Developing ease in dancing tango is largely a matter of practice.  In fact, practice is the most essential ingredient in learning to dance tango—so much so that I find it better to think of instruction as only providing guidance about how to dance.  Through practice, dancers find tango in their own bodies, and in doing so get away from the internal voices of criticism.

Some instructors take the approach of attempting to clone students in their own particular way of dancing tango.  In taking this approach, an instructor typically supplies an external voice of criticism that works in conjunction with the student's internal voice and keeps the student away from ease.  Strangely enough the combination of internal and external criticism frequently drives the insecure student into more classes and workshops—during which the instructors offer more detailed instruction on dancing like themselves.  Frequently, such students fail to practice because practice does not offer the instructor's direction.  Yet, the lack of ease drives the student into more classes and workshops.  The consequence is a spiral away from ease.  Practice reverses the spiral, and takes the dancer toward ease.

Dancing in the Music
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

I think are at least two musical divides in dancing tango.  There is the well-recognized divide between those who dance to the rhythm of the music and those who do not.  Among those who dance to the rhythm of the music, there is another divide between those who dance doggedly to the beat and those who are interpreting other rhythmic elements in the music as well as dancing to the beat.

The latter group can be thought of as being in the third category of musicality.  Dancers in the third category exemplify the idea that it is not necessary to dance tango only to the beat.  In order to reach the third category with any degree of musicality, however, a dancer must first learn to dance to the beat.  Unfortunately, some dancers who have not yet connected with the music confuse entrance into the third category with disregarding the beat.

Dancing on the Beat
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

If we take the approach that it is strictly up to the leader to keep the follower on the beat, we immediately come up against a couple of big challenges.  First, the leader can indicate when it is time for the follower to begin her step, but he has little control of when she finishes it.  Second, on some turns—those where he is pivoting on his axis—the leader has very little control of when the follower may begin one of her steps.  Consequently, I am inclined to regard keeping the beat as a collaborative effort.  It is actually the job of the follower to step on the beat herself, and it is the job of the leader to facilitiate her efforts by marking her step at the proper moment.  Leading the follower to be on the beat requires that the leader give the follower enough advance notice about what the next step will be and what, if any, the changes in timing might be.

Open Architecture and Tango
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

The English language originated with the Norman conquest of England.  The combination of the German dialect spoken in Anglia and the French spoken by the Normans became a pidgin language spoken in England.  Eventually the English forced their language on other people in the British Isles—including the Scots, Welsh and Irish.  Despite its disreputable origins, English eventually became a world language.

During the era when England was the dominant world power, however, French, German and Spanish had more cachet as international languages.  The internationalization of English owes to the open architecture that Americans introduced into their English.  With open architecture, anyone can introduce new words.  The Japanese created the term "WalkMan."  In contrast with French, which has an academy that jealously guards what can be considered French, anything can come into usage in the internationalized American English as long as it is accepted by users.  Consequently, "American" English gained dominance with globalization. This story is similar to the domination of the PC over Apple computers.  Open architecture creates a product to which more people can contribute and more people can use.

Open and closed architecture are likely to have similar effects in social dancing.  Syllabus-restrained forms of dancing will lose their vitality over time, eventually becoming vintage dances to be reconstructed by a future dance professor.  Dances that are open to evolution will remain vital, even if they are complex.

Argentine tango has open architecture and continues to evolve.  People can combine elements from styles that were considered completely separate 10 years ago and find acceptance.  People can introduce new ways of dancing or looking at the dance—as the nuevo-style dancers have done—and those innnovations have a chance of being accepted into the dance.  Of course, someone can say, "Argentine tango isn't what it used to be,"  but such comments are a sign of vitality and not likely to be of much concern to those who are busy dancing tango and expressing themselves.

As Richard Powers says, "As a dance historian, I have seen, over and over again, a dance form dies out when it became too rigidly standardized.  The dances that thrive over time are the ones that keep evolving to incorporate aspects from current culture.  The tango underwent great changes in Buenos Aires during the 20th century because it was a healthy, living, evolving form.  Even though some groups want to kill this evolutionary process with their insistence that dancers conform to their one 'correct' style, there are enough enlightened groups out there to keep the tango alive and thriving."  (See Jackie Wong's interview of Richard Powers.)

On Language and Tango
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Tango may be more widely danced than Mandarin or English is spoken, but let's recognize that tango's coverage is quite spotty.  Given the communication that is possible through tango, it seems amazing that dancing tango would take a back seat to speaking an additional language.

Developing Mastery
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Recently when I was playing several pieces of music that I haven't really mastered on my guitar, I realized that if I put too much effort into the mechanics of my playing it took away from the feeling of my playing, but if I didn't put enough effort into the mechanics of my playing, the music deteriorated from a lack of execution.  What I recognized for myself is that mastery comes from developing a big difference between too much and too little attention to the mechanics, so that I am not sitting on the knife edge between two different types of failure.  In playing the guitar, mastery comes from practicing enough to develop what pianists often call "touch."  I think this idea of developing touch carries over to improving tango dance skills.  If we use practice to refine our mechanics, we can build our dance skills to the point where there is a big difference between too much and too little attention to the mechanics.

Dancing Their Own Style
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Most tango dancers start by learning the style(s) they are taught by their first few instructors.  The really good dancers have given themselves the freedom to express the music in their own personal way without worrying about what style they're dancing.  These dancers have gone beyond dancing someone else's style to dancing their own.

A Tender Embrace
13 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Many people who dance tango use a firm frame, and many instructors teach a firm frame.  In my experience, however, I find that a firm frame is neither necessary nor desirable for dancing tango.  Open or close, I always prefer a soft embrace (and no leading with the arms).

In saying that I prefer a softer embrace, I mean that I want the embrace to have enough softness in it to provide some flexibility for movement.  At the same time I would prefer to feel the energy of my partner in the embrace.  If we are in an open position, a little bit of energy in our arms is helpful because our chests are less able to transmit and receive the all of the energy we may choose to express, but our chests remain the primary conduits for the energy.

I would not deny the authenticity of firm or rigid embraces.  Some of the best known stage dancers use relatively strong embraces, as do many social dancers in Buenos Aires.  I am just saying that I prefer a softer, tender embrace.  I will say, however, no woman has ever asked me to make my embrace firmer and that has been many years since any woman has told me that my lead was unclear.  At the same time, the women with whom I most enjoy dancing give me the impression that our embrace is shared and voluntary—neither stiff and open like we can never really touch each other, nor clamped on tight to the point where we do not have our own spaces.

Using a softer (not limp) embrace, the lead originates in the movements of the torso/chest.  In some cases, the lead can be further transmitted by the movements of the arms and hands that go along with the torso/chest movement, but when dancing with an experienced woman, the arms and hands accompany the movement.  They are not necessary to initiate her movements in any way.  In fact, it is completely possible to lead and follow movements in an embrace that is open and in which neither partner is touching each other.

I once heard a woman describe her experience dancing with Pablo Veron.  She said that she never felt the lead and that he had willed her movements rather than led them.  To me, she described a perfect connection.  The sound of her voice and the look in her eyes gave me the same impression.

Open Embrace, Soft Embrace
12 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

I used to think of both partners dancing with relatively firm arms and separate axes in an open embrace.  I thought of the arms softening as the embrace became closer and the frame moved into the woman.  It was really the nuevo dancers/instructors—particularly Fabian Salas—who opened my eyes about the idea of using softer arms in an open embrace.  The nuevo dancers softened their arms to create more possibilities for movement.  Imagine trying to do an overturn ocho in a somewhat open embrace while keeping the arms rigid and not leading with the arms.  It may be possible, but it certainly doesn't feel that good.  So, softer arms may be a more modern approach to dancing tango in an open embrace.

Once I discovered that a nearly rigid embrace wasn't really necessary, I was no longer interested in using it for any style of tango dancing.  Interestingly enough, I found that a softer embrace makes shifting between dancing in an open and close embrace much easier.  It also allows the woman greater flexibility in initiating her own, unled movements.

Intensifying the Experience of Tango
11 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Argetine tango has at least two basic elements.  One is the relationship between a man and a woman.  The other is the expression of creativity in movement.  All styles of Argentine tango are a mixture of these two elements—and probably other elements.

Fantasia tango places a greater emphasis on the visual expression of creativity in movement, but in remaining tango, fantasia at least acknowledges the relationship between a man and a woman.  A recent modern dance performance that I saw reminded me how androgynous creative movement can be.  In comparison, fantasia is about a relationship between a man and a woman—even if it is a stylized representation.  Of course, for memorized routines, the creativity of movement is in the original choreography.

Milonguero-style tango places a strong emphasis on the relationship between a man and a woman, as does the culture of tango, but in remaining tango, milonguero-style tango still has a relatively large vocabulary for creative movement.  An embrace without movement is enough to express the relationship between a man and a woman.

The nuevo approach to tango is to increase the understanding of the vocabulary for creative movement and self expression.  As we might expect, some critics of the approach are concerned about the possibility that the nuevo approach dilutes the relationship aspects of tango.

What about dancing memorized figures in an open embrace?  Although that is how many people start in Argentine tango, such an approach is more like a memory of tango.  The use of memorized figures transfers the creativity to the person who originated the figures, and the distant embrace can dilute the relationship between the man and woman.  Intensifying the experience of Argentine tango comes through developing improvisational skills and in closing the embrace

Why Golden Age Music Still Dominates Milongas
5 May 2004 — Stephen Brown

Salsa and swing dancers use many contemporary recordings, but tango dancers mostly dance to recordings from the golden age of tango (mid-1930s through early 1950s).  This phenomenon doesn't mean that tango dancers are living in the past.  Rather, it owes to the separate evolution of  tango music and its social dance form after the golden age ended.

For the first half of the 20th century, Argentine tango music and social dancing evolved together.  The ways of moving the body and the feet in Argentine tango were expressions of the music.  From the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, however, Argentine tango music and social dancing evolved independently of each other.

In the early 1950s, the Argentine government repressed tango dancing by limiting public gatherings and cracking down on the milonguero lifestyle.  As a result, tango dancing was pushed into small neighborhood clubs and private homes where it did not evolve much, and recordings from the golden age continued to be played.  No longer playing for large dance parties, the tango orchestras shifted toward a concert sound.  Astor Piazzolla, who was the leading exponent of the new tango sound, kept tango music alive and evolving, but he was not particularly concerned about playing for seemingly invisible social dancers.

By the time the show Tango Argentino renewed public interest in tango in the mid-1980s, the contemporary tango music of the time was no longer connected to the social dance form of tango.  Stage dancers were quite happy to use Piazzolla's music and other progressive tango arrangments for their performances, but the newer music lacked the rhythmic qualities that were preferred by social dancers.  As people flocked to dance tango socially, they rediscovered the older recordings that were still in use by those who had been dancing tango in clubs and at home.  The recording companies accommodated the renewed interest in tango by reissuing many of the classics on CD.  Consequently, music from the golden age still dominates milongas—some 50-70 years after it was recorded.

New recordings are emerging, however.   A few modern orchestras, such as Color Tango and El Arranque, have begun playing music with a golden-age dance beat and somewhat more progressive arrangements.  In a way, the evolution of music for social dancing is picking up where it left off.  The body of such recordings is relatively small, however, and the sound pallette offered by these recordings is similar to what was recorded toward the end of the golden age.

In a somewhat different vein, tango-fusion music has appeared recently.  Tango-fusion integerates traditional tango rhythms and instrumentation with other musical traditions, contemporary instruments and electronica to create a modern and culturally relevant world tango music with a dance-club sound.  This music too offers a relatively narrow sound pallette, and one that can be quite monotonous if overused.

If the tango dancing remains sufficiently popular to support new recordings, the music may continue to evolve, and gradually some of the golden-age recordings will be supplanted by newer material.  Music has timeless qualities, however, and many of the recordings from the golden age will prove just too good to take off playlists.
 

Approaches to Teaching and Learning Tango
30 April 2004 — Stephen Brown

Although we may aspire to dance Argentine tango socially, I think it is inevitable that most of us are going to learn much of our Argentine tango by taking formal lessons.  Somehow through the process of that instruction and sometimes by overcoming it, we have to find our way to navigating and developing our own styles for dancing tango socially.

I think there are three major approaches to teaching tango:
    1) Memorized patterns;
    2) The Structural Approach;
    3) Small Elements.

Though styles of dancing and the approaches to teaching tango need not be linked, each of these approaches to dancing has become associated with a style of dancing.  Memorized patterns are often taught by instructors who have a stage background, teach "salon-style" tango and rely on the eight-count basic.  The structural approach is typically taught by instructors associated with nuevo tango.  Teaching tango as small elements is primarily associated with milonguero-style instructors.

I think the evidence shows that a person can find their way to improvisation, good social dancing skills and their own style through any of these three approaches to teaching.  The real questions are which methods of instruction work best for most individuals; how well can the students dance before they reach their own tango; and how many dancers will be encouraged to go on to find their own tango?

Memorized Patterns: Learning tango as memorized patterns produces dancers who cannot navigate until they break free of their patterns.  Dancing memorized patterns also can inhibit the development of rhyhmic skills.  It is also likely to be a route in which many people never find their own tango, though some obviously make it.

Structural Approach: The structural approach organizes the many elements of tango, but it often leaves people to find those elements on their own.  As such, the structural approach may work best for dancers who already know a signficant amount of tango and who have an analytical mind for learning and an intuitive mind for dancing.  The structural approach may overwhelm and discourage those with limited tango experience bcecause it gives them a huge amount of material to digest at once.  Working to develop a mastery of the structure can also delay the development of rhythmic skills.

Small Elements: Learning to dance in small elements has the great advantage of maintaining natural navigational skills from the beginning.  The small elements also allow the dancers to concentrate on developing their rhythmic skills. In both these ways, teaching in small elements probably does the most to encourage dancers to stay with tango.  The downside is that because dancers can reach mediocre acceptability with relatively little work, they may remain shallow in their dance skills and may not care if they are having a good time.

My experience learning, teaching and observing how others dance and learn makes me hesitant to offer a one-fits-all formula for teaching, but I lean toward thinking that small elements ought to be emphasized in most beginning through intermediate classes; structure should be taught gradually as dancers develop a knowledge of tango in their bodies; and teaching memorized patterns is best reserved for dancers who are capable of disassembling those patterns and making them their own.

Taking Tango Styles to Extremes

24 April 2004 — Stephen Brown

Argentine tango is danced in a multitude of individualistic styles, but these styles can be generally classified in a few broad categories — such as milonguero, salon and nuevo.  Some tango dancers grow quite attached to their own style of dancing and look askance at other approaches to Argentine tango.  Peter Bengtson of Stockholm developed the following table to explain how extremists in each of three stylistic categories see their own style and those of others.
 

Tango Styles
What milonguero extremists say What salon extremists say What nuevo extremists say
...about the milonguero style The only true tango, danced from time immemorial in the milongas of Buenos Aires.  All else is mere superficiality.  There's nothing like the intensity, the contact, and presence of tango milonguero.  Ah...! For the hoi-polloi.  What happens when space is at a premium.  It certainly isn't elegant.  They huddle up and tip-toe around with tiny steps, sacrificing the expression for the embrace.  Doesn't anybody hug these people in their daily lives? For dodderers!  A compensation for a lack of body contact.  They only like staccato music recorded before 1930.  And why must everything be as in Buenos Aires?  The tango must change and adapt to new times and places.
...about the salon style Elegant, perhaps, but aren't they really afraid of touching each other?  You can do all the figures you need with full contact.  All they want to do is glide around the hall with long strides to dramatic music like Pugliese, who is played rather sparingly in Buenos Aires anyway. The tango has never been as elegant and stylish as in the 40s.  Salon is the most all-around and expressive of all styles.  There's nothing like the intensity, the contact and the presence of tango salon.  Ah...! The root of nuevo, but they have lost themselves in a bygone time of tuxedos and cigarette holders.  We do all they do in tango salon and more — in a track suit if need be.  And there is a lot of music from other periods than just the 40s.
...about the nuevo style Unmanageable exhibitionists who kick everything in sight!  Of no use whatsoever for social tango.  And they disrupt the communication on the pista.  Also they only want to dance to impossible music which nobody in Buenos Aires would dance to, like Piazzolla.  Hrrrmph! They mostly seem to want to do awkward, "inventive" figures. Tango Lesson has done more damage than good.  Do they secretly dream of becoming stage dancers?  It's too much — we don't need all that. Nuevo is the next step in a natural process of development.  The tango will die unless it grows and changes — and there is more than just social tango.  There's nothing like the intensity, the contact and the presence of tango nuevo.  Ahh...!

Peter adds:
"Maybe it's time we open our eyes and try to see things a little differently...?  Perhaps it's time to draw up a second table listing what each style could learn from other styles.  I have one, but I thought I'd leave it as an exercise for the reader..."

Peter Bengtson is a composer, musician, teacher, programmer and a dedicated dancer of Argentine tango.  Peter's table and remarks originally appeared online at the now defunct Yumba tango communit

Rhuummmp and Ric Tic
23 April 2004 — Stephen Brown

Argentine tango music and the dance evolved together.  That's why the ways of moving the body and the feet in Argentine tango are inseperable from the music itself.  Move with the qualities expressed in Argentine tango music, and you can step, rock, wiggle or shake in any direction you want and you will still be expressing Argentine tango.  Move in Argentine tango steps without the qualities expressed in Argentine tango music, and you will not be expressing Argentine tango.  For these reasons, dancing other steps to Argentine tango music better expresses the qualities of Argentine tango than dancing Argentine tango steps to other music.

Such a conclusion may lead one to ask, "What are the qualities of movement that express Argentine tango?"

For tango music with a slow, powerful rhythm like that played by Di Sarli or Pugliese, the man's step forward involves surging with the body, without lunging or bouncing; accelerating through the half beat and then slowing to a stop on the beat, with the hips sinking slightly as the foot lands.  This movement is best accomplished by keeping the knees soft, the hips soft and over the feet, the body over the hips, and heavily caressing the floor with the feet while moving with a rhuummmp, rhuummmp, rhuummmp, rhuummmp.

For tango music with the prominent double-time (or ric-tic) rhythms like that played by D'Arienzo, the appropriate movement is better be expressed as a combination of slow rhuummmp and quicker, ric-tic movements, in a pattern such as rhuummmp, rhuummmp, ric tic, rhuummmp.  When expressing the ric-tic elements of the music, the hips and feet take a lighter quality.  For the slower rhuummmp movements, however, the hips sink and the feet heavily caress the floor in the same manner used for dancing to the slower music.

Dancing Tango in Tight Spaces
13 April 2004 — Stephen Brown

Often the discussion about navigation and dance floor etiquette makes it all sound like a bunch of restrictive rules and nothing more.  In fact, dance-floor etiquette is nothing more than common-sense guidelines so that everyone can share a crowded dance floor.  The main reason we want to share the floor is that doing so is part of the fun of dancing.  Some of my most favorite times dancing have been on very crowded floors—when dancing became an interaction with the couples around me and my partner.

In tight spaces, followers contribute to safety and courtesy by making sure they are keeping their feet under themselves, their boleos on the floor, and not taking too much space and time for embellishments.  Leaders are responsible for sharing the space with other couples on the dance floor and contribute to safety and courtesy through their interraction with the other couples.  When I see the couple ahead of me doing something that needs a little space, I give it to them.  Later, I may get the same courtesy.

The growth of tango means more crowded dance venues and raises the demands for navigational skills.  Many of the big tango festivals around the country already have crowded floors, and many people aren't dancing very well in crowds, which generates minor injuries and continued discussion about the problem.  If we work at developing our navigational skills, there is a big reward when we all get together.  We will all be able to share the dance floor and maybe 30-300 of us can experience tango heaven together.

We will always have those times of the night when there is more room and we can open up our movements.  It would be nice though if it was possible for people to dance well on a crowded floor when we all find ourselves together in the same room.  (Based on Teaching the Tango of Tight Spaces (1) and Teaching the Tango of Tight Spaces (2), two contributions to Tango-L by Robert Hauk)

Partitioning the Dance Floor to Accomodate Different Styles
12 April 2004 — Stephen Brown

Doesn't a form of partitioning occur in most communities?  Don't people mostly attend the milongas that better fit their own tastes?  It's the big tango events that have the potential to draw dancers with diverse interests—particulary if the event has a diverse mix of instructors.  Maybe for a big enough tango event with diverse instructors, simultaneous milongas might better serve differing tastes.

One of the attractions of a well attended milonga is that everyone enjoys the shared experience.  Breaking a moderately attended milonga into three smaller events isn't likely to be as much fun.

Instead of three separate milongas, what about three djs broadcasting on three channels to people wearing headsets?  One channel might feature highly rhythmic music from the golden era.  Another channel might feature a blend of smoother to dramatic music from the golden and later eras.  The third channel might feature a blend of theatrical and modern neo-tango music.

Asking someone to dance might be a bit more complicated because the couple would have to agree to which channel they should listen while dancing.  Suppose, however, that my partner and I agreed to listen to different music while dancing together—me to the rhythmic channel playing D'Arienzo's "El Flete" and my partner to another channel playing Pugliese's "La Bordona."  You can imagine the difficulty in us dancing together.  We would quickly recognize that the music provides a coordinating glue to our dancing.

To some extent the same problem would arise if each partner in a couple was listening to the same music, but the couples on the floor had selected different music.  The music provides the coordination across couples that is necessary for navigation.

Participating in an activity that requires coordination across individuals, such as dancing at a milonga, requires at least some degree of agreement (and compromise) between those individuals.  We all make some compromise in our personal tastes to participate in a shared activity such as dancing at a milonga

The Sweet Zone of Tango Rhapsody
11 April 2004 — Stephen Brown

Sometimes "Tango Rapture" seems to be used as a cover for ungracious floor craft.  With their movements, some dancers seem to be saying "Look out for (or AT) ME, I'm in tango heaven!"  Mmm...  Riiiiight...  The generosity these dancers exploit is not infinite.  Putting first things first, dancing at a milonga is a group experience.  The sweet zone of tango rhapsody is for those leaders who don't cause trouble by disrupting the flow of other dancers and who can work with the same amount space as everybody else to maintain the flow.  (Based on Rhapsodic Tango a contribution to Tango-L by Frank Williams)

Nostalgia for the Bohemian Ideal
6 April 2004 — Stephen Brown

Sometimes I look back with nostalgia to when Susan and I were first learning to dance Argentine tango in the SF Bay Area in the mid-1990s.  At that time in the SF Bay Area, Argentine tango somehow represented the Bohemian ideal of freedom, beauty, truth and love.  It was a warm and friendly atmosphere.  None of us knew much about different styles of dancing; we were struggling to learn; and yet somehow we found something in the music and dance of Argentine tango that reached deeply into our hearts and souls.

Since then, ..., the world has erupted in variations, authenticity debates, and distinctions between social and show dancing...  It is a little hard to face the loss of naivete, but also the distinctions in styles that gradually grew into dogmatic and polarizing viewpoints.  We all gradually forgot or never knew that Anibal Troilo said that there is no such thing as old and new tango, only tango well danced and poorly danced.

Like many others, I participated in the polarization—maybe not in San Francisco, where Susan and I were simply visitors—but in my own community and on various electronic forums.  I don't think that many of us deliberately acted to create polarization.  I was sure that I knew the truth because I experienced it in the tango music I heard and in the tango I danced.  Well, maybe I knew the truth because I needed to believe that I knew the truth.

The trouble is that many of us who expressed the truth we found in Argentine tango denied what we saw as half-truths, distortions and lies that others found in it and created dogmatic approaches to tango.

As Argentine tango has grown throughout the world and we dancers have gradually matured into their own styles, the excitement of participating in something new has worn off.  In many communities, the polarization and clashes about styles have emerged and continued...  Those who dance nuevo won't dance with those who dance milonguero, who won't dance those who dance salon, who won't dance with those who dance fantasia.  Maybe the styles aren't completely compatible, but the feelings of separation and animosity are much deeper.

What I am beginning to realize is that tango reveals our own truth to each of us, but it keeps secret from us the truths that it reveals to others.  Making an effort to reach across the lines of polarization and separation is important if we are to experience more than our own ideas of truth, freedom and beauty and find the love and connection that is Argentine tango

Tango Chooses You
5 April 2004 — Stephen Brown

"The tango is discovered little by little, and it chooses you.  When it does, it gives you a glimpse but it remains, as it has forever, surrounded by a halo of impregnable mystery."  Anibal Troilo