Tango: my life as a not-so-good leader

And you thought that YOU were the worst dancer in the world ?

Thursday, January 29, 2004

A sardine in a can

What was I doing on the dance floor? The couple in front of me was blocked, the guy behind me kept pushing forward, at my right the chairs and tables had all kinds of pointy corners ready to hurt me.
My partner was glued to me like a remora to its shark. I was stuck. Impossible to walk in any direction; the only conceivable move was an endless giro. How could something like this have happened to me?
I had just been sitting at some table, waiting for the midnight demo by some argentine milonguero. Becoming thirsty, I made the mistake to stand up, in order to go to the bar for a beer. Got immediately captured by a classmate follower whom I hadn't noticed. And never reached the bar. It took me three snail-speed tangos to come back to my chair. There I began to chat with an argentine couple of teachers sitting at the next table.
"- Quite crowded here tonight, isn't it?"
"- Oh, nothing special compared to the Buenos Ayres milongas; For us it's almost empty here."

Damn. My trip to CITA, in March, is already booked but maybe I should reconsider.

posted by Pablo  # 2:25 AM (0) comments

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Test of time

Last saturday I took a class with the teacher with whom I had done my first steps. One year ago, in a 8-hour workshop (No, we were no stakhanovists; these 8 hours were dispatched into 3 consecutive sundays), she hadn't
taught a single pattern to the group, yet she had made us familiar with some useful concepts such as the perception of partner's weight changes, the listening of the music beat, the line of dance, and so on.
Despite the fact that the ones who then continued with tango chose other teachers (mostly because, on intermediate levels, she teaches milonguero style) , about half of the group were there, one year later. Nice.

The class was about "silence and pauses", and I thought it would be a piece of cake for me. What on earth can be easier than making a pause? Maybe, this time, in the end, a tango session would go easily for me. But no. The problem is that you can't just pause at the very first beginning. You have
to make some steps before, and only then try to find an appropriate moment for a dramatic pause. And this preliminary step (a "two" of the 8CB) proved much trickier than it seemed. Because after the usual "two" comes a "three", while this time, after the "two", there was nothing. (You can call it a dramatic pause, an intense moment of connection, whatever you want, but basically you just do nothing). So, I was supposed to end the "two" without the slightiest trace of momentum, and without leading a static pivot (which is my usual way to annihilate the previous kinetics). And even the pause itself was not that easy: I had to keep the woman "up" (this is the way to let her know that I'm leading a pause), but without standing on my toes, nor using my arms and shoulders. "Use your chest", the teacher said. Yes, the same chest
which, in an ideal world, leads ochos, walks, cruzadas...anything.

So, I kept struggling, like in any other tango class with any teacher. Yet I noticed some progress since the last time I had taken a lesson with this teacher, about one year ago. Not in technique, or musicality.
No, the progress came from the fact that the women now, after my first year in the tango community, know me somehow. They know they can't expect very much from me, they know they'll have to compensate my losses of balance, to guess my lead, and so on. Twelve months ago they were beginners, now they're prepared for me. So the dance goes almost smoothly.

Thanks, myladies, I one year I made no real progress, but you sure did.

posted by Pablo  # 8:20 AM (0) comments

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Secret codes

When I first saw people dancing argentine tango, I couldn't understand how it worked. How on earth could the woman know that she had to step backward with her left foot, without even looking at her partner's right foot stepping forward. "There must be some secret codes", I thought, or maybe, he's discretely whispering to her where she's supposed to step next time.
After weeks of classes, I became more acquainted with subtle concepts such as "leading" and "following".
Yet, it doesn't take long to realize that there indeed are secret codes in tango. For instance:

Wearing a large ring on your thumb is the sign you're an admirer of Chicho's.

Two quick pressures with left hand's fingers on follower's right hand warns her that a double side-step on the left will follow, and she'll have to make a double side-step on her right. Without the code, she would go into ochos (or maybe she would fall).

After a barrida, a pressure with the right hand on follower's waist means you want her to make a counter-barrida.

Lifting slightly the woman tells her not to move her feet, a lean or a calesita will follow. If she doesn't understand and moves all the same, then next time, instead of a slight lift, you lift her for good, and with no feet touching the floor she's unlikely to step.

"Thank you" (by the follower) after the last tango of a tanda means she enjoyed dancing with you. Well, I supposed I would take it this way if one day this happened to me.
"Thank you" (by the follower) after the first tango of a tanda means "go away, you geek, and never, never ask me again for a dance!".
"Thank you" (by the follower) after the second tango of a tanda means another woman just entered the milonga, and your partner can't wait asking her where she found these fabulous new shoes.

posted by Pablo  # 5:20 AM (0) comments

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Big incentives

A beginner trying to find his way in the narrow and unpaved road towards the level of an acceptable dancer needs a few encouraging words from time to times. Here are some that were given to me:

Me: - Teacher, do you think I should go to milongas ?
Teacher: - Sure, go as often as you can. But, Pablo...
Me: Yes, what ?
Teacher: Please don't say you're taking classes with me.

Girlfriend: - I warn you, Pablo, I have a kinda reputation here as a good dancer, all the advanced leaders here are my friends. So ok, I'll dance with you, but at the first mistake you'll make I just stop and you go out of here.
(Needless to say, a handful of seconds and a missed giro later I was her ex-boyfriend)

Teacher X: Stay up when you do a pivot. It's impossible to do a pivot otherwise, you would lose your balance.
Teacher Y: When doing a pivot, stay as low as possible, even lower than usual. The more grounded you are, the easier the pivot will be.

(Many followers) "You're so funny to dance with, Pablo! All these leaders are about the same: they make nice steps, lead perfectly, stay on the beat, improvise creatively. But you, Pablo, you miss every step, it's so refreshing!"

Follower X: Don't be that weak, I need to feel your arms. I'm not supposed to guess what you're leading.
Follower Y: Your abrazo is much too heavy. I'll follow your chest, the last thing I want is to be pushed and pulled.

(Another possible title for this post might be "The leader is always wrong")

posted by Pablo  # 6:05 AM (0) comments

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Getting tough

An old gentleman with whom I was chatting in a milonga, (It's nice to talk with this elder generation. There aren't that many people any more who call me "young man") telling him how difficult it was for me to deal with inviting unknown women.
He smiled and answered: "You simply have to get used to refusals. Once you can get a "no, thanks!" without blushing, getting angry or bitter, then it will become very easy for you to invite dozens of women. So, you have to select the lady who is the most likely to decline. It's easy. Find the best dancer, or the most beautiful, or the one with the nicest outfit. By the way, it's often the same and one person. Another option is to pick a woman who came with her husband, and is right now talking to him. The first refusals hurt, but after a while you just don't care. Once I invited five girls sitting on a row, and got five consecutive 'No'. I found it really funny, and just kept inviting."
"-That's great", I replied, beginning to scan the most skilled/gorgeous/married women around.
"but hey, wait a minute, what if she accepts?"
His smile broadened.
"- Don't worry, young man, I saw you on the floor, this can't happen!"

posted by Pablo  # 6:03 AM (0) comments

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Rhetorical complaint

A not-so-young lady once told me in a milonga how puzzled she was, when looking at all these cute chicks getting all the dances they wanted, while she, as a more qualified dancer, should have got, at least, the same amount of invitations. She told this as a way to suggest that maybe I should invite her. We danced a while (well, ok, we went on the floor, I made my clumsy steps, and she nicely ignored the basics I was leading to replace them by the
beautiful sequences she knew. Afterwards I had another chat (When you're a beginner you don't venture that often on the dance floor, so you have time for socializing) with the local instructor, and I drove the discussion on this subject, asking him why leaders seemed to prefer attractive beginners to skilled, yet elder, ladies.
"Old doesn't mean good", he replied, adding that in most places of the world (except Buenos-Aires), tango's popularity was a somehow recent phenomenon. So while sixty-year old portenas have about 45 years of tango (and he would beg for a dance with them), the one lady with whom I chatted in this one milonga had been dancing for "only" five or six years, taking few classes and learning mainly in situ. On the opposite,
he had noticed that damzels of the younger generation had a real will to learn properly, to learn to follow, to wait, to make themselves light in the leader's arms. I objected that this was maybe an instrutor's point of view, that the way this lady danced seemed beautiful to me, and that a five-year experience was already quite much. "As opposed yo your own experience, sure it is much, but the truth is I don't like to dance with her, as she breaks my back with her weight, and reacts late to what I lead, unless I use some strength, which I don't want to as I am not getting any younger myself."

So here is the rhetorical answer: leaders prefer to invite younger women because they dance better. As simple as that.

posted by Pablo  # 4:20 AM (0) comments

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Preparing for CITA

CITA is a one-week Buenos-Aires festival, held for the 6th time in 2004. The acronym stands for "Congress International of Tango Argentine", and is a kindda joke, as the word "cita" means rendez-vous.

Its main organizer is Fabian Salas. This last point is difficult not to notice. Not only his name can be seen on every page of the Cosmotango site, but on the previous years' DVDs, while other great masters get two performances to show their skills -and lesser gods get only one-, you'll get the privilege to see Fabian performing
four or five times.
Two months before the actual beginning (March, 14th), I have to already book the classes I intend to assist. This means selecting 20 classes out of 168. Being a beginner, I can already eliminate the "advanced", "professional" and "master" classes. Yet the choice remained difficult between all these big names. I took the advice of my local teachers, argentine too, and who for a
while had their own show in Buenos-Aires. The result:
Cecilia Gonzales: not recommanded at all
Julio Balmaceda & Corina de la Rosa: highly recommanded, "take any class you can!"
Facundo & Kely Posadas: recommanded for milonga
Nito & Elba: recommanded for giros
Chiche & Marta: not recommanded
Milena Plebs & Ezequiel Farfaro: highly recommanded
Roberto Reis & Lucila Cionci: not recommanded
El Indio & Mariana: not recommanded
Carlos Gavito: recommanded, "anything by Gavito is good", with the reserve that he talks a lot and there remains no time for exercising.

The rest: no opinion, as my teachers had no personal knowledge of the "young guard".
So, guided mainly by "lesser evil" considerations, I booked:

5 classes by Julio & Corina
2 classes by Gavito
2 classes by Javier Rodriguez & Geraldine Rojas
2 class by Nito & Elba
1 class by Los Hermanos Macana
1 class by Milena & Ezequiel
1 class by Cecilia Gonzales (!), because the choice was between her and Chiche & Marta.
1 class by Eduardo Capussi & Mariana Flores
1 class by Ezequiel Paludi & Sabrina Masso
1 class by Roberto Herrera & Natacha Poberaj
1 class by Facundo & Kely
1 class by Sergio Natario & Alejandra Arrué
1 class by an unknown teacher (unknown means "to be announced". Fabian's site isn't complete, yet I still have to book something right now!)

I was repeatedly warned not to take that many classes, as CITA is not only afternoon lessons but also all-night milongas for which some energy has to be saved, but hey, as a beginner I don't expect to dance very much anyway. I'll just be one of the numerous dummies whom you can see on DVDs, sitting around the floor while the maestros are performing.

posted by Pablo  # 2:49 AM (0) comments

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Milonguero style

Today my teachers announced to the class that we would, for the first time, try to dance "close".
They listed all the wonders that we would discover, the main one being the ability to dance on crowded floors.
Some individual exercises followed and then resounded the words that all students were fearing: "Now take a partner and try!"
For a (short) while I thought the boys were overnumbering the girls by one (myself), so I would be safe, but soon a quite small lady (and that's why I hadn't seen her in the crowd of students) came to me and leaned her chest on what should have been mine, but actually was my stomach. Not only was it embarrassing, it was ridulous too.
The "wonders" I then discovered were:
- I can't see my feet. To a certain extent, I was able to overcome this difficulty
by looking at the feet of the guy just in front of me, because all the couples were executing the same steps in the same time.
- I have no visual perception of my partner, I just feel there is something
heavy in the way when I'm walking.
- I become a two-dimensional thing, my arms, shoulders, torso, hips being in the same plan.
- Moving aside is difficult. When trying, I quite often can hear a "bump", while feeling relased of the weight that was on my stomach. I quickly understood this was caused by the little lady falling in the floor when, concentrated on pushing forward, she didn't react quickly enough when I moved.
- Moving backwards causes the same result, except the weight on my stomach, after the bump, does not disappear but is now on my feet.

Teachers said we would dance close for the next three months, before coming back to our beloved open style. I'm considering skipping this dozen of weekly classes. I hate dancing milonguero, the stomach-chest contact is utterly unpleasant, the partner's constant push makes all my moves become slow and small, we're just fighting each other.
After all, when shouldn't I dance "open", even on crowded floors? If the other couples like dancing close, well they can just dance a bit closer, it will eliberate space for me.

posted by Pablo  # 7:38 AM (0) comments

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

There is always a bigger fish

I was sitting at a table in a milonga, taking care to not cross any lady's eyes (otherwise she could think I'm trying to invite her) and staring with envy at the advanced dancers who were sailing smoothly on the floor. This is one of my usual ways of spending time in the milongas, the other is absorbing vast amounts of empanadas and beer.
Then came a guy whom I knew from the beginner's class. We began chatting, and I took advantage of beeing a much more experienced beginner than him (I've been a beginner for months, and him only for weeks) to embark on a digression on the various tango composers, and the necessity to adapt one's dance to the style of tango being played. "Right now", I examplified, "they're playing a d'Arienzo, so you're supposed to step small and quick, with double-times and without pauses, because, you know, and this will become obvious for you too once you'll have heard as many tango songs than I did, d'Arienzo has this very recognizable..."
"- By the way, it's not d'Arienzo, it's Tanturi", muttered a friend of mine that just came without my noticing him.

posted by Pablo  # 2:58 AM (0) comments

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Taking a private

This is the kind of temptation that always attracted me at the beginning of the month, when there is still money on my bank account. After all, maybe the difficulties I encountered with tango were due to bad partners. So I decided to give it a try. It's sure expensive (six times the price they charge for a collective class), but who knows, maybe it will be a revelation, I thought. And it was.

"- No!"

I had hardly moved. Indeed, I was still searching the abrazo when the teacher froze me. My right hand was not in the right place.
After ten minutes and a series of as many "No!", I still hadn't made one single step, but I least my hands, posture, chest, head, frame, shoulders were now ok. Incredible, but all these months I had been dancing with a "death grip" right hand, a weak left hand, a posture without axis nor balance, tense shoulders. Now the first move, a "two" of the salida basic. I more or less expected an approbation for skipping the "one" (back step), but here came another "No!". I had moved on my own, without "carrying" the teacher. Otra vez, and I paid great attention to my knees (flexible), my intention (clear), and my partner's feedback. Unfortunately, all my good posture got lost in the process (and my shoulders once again full of tension, and my left hand floppy, and my verticality gone west).
I didn't much prove more gifted on the "three", "four", "five" of the basic, and the one-hour class ended before we actually reached the "eight".

Well, after that all my illusions were gone with the wind (and so was my money). I knew that however bad my partners were, I still had easily surpassed them in uncompetence. The good news are that I'm now sort of the king of the 7CB (the basic without the "eight").

posted by Pablo  # 4:14 AM (0) comments

Monday, January 05, 2004

I'm the random nerd you see each day at the bus stop. About one year ago I started tango. After all this time I think I qualify as an "experienced beginner". If you have already taken up argentine tango too, well, it's too late, you're doomed. If you're still hesitating ("learning tango or collecting stamps?"), these pages may help you.

posted by Pablo  # 4:22 AM (0) comments


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