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

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

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Intermediate (adj.)

Intermediate? Whazzat? Beginner/advanced, it's easy to tell: it's somebody that cannot/can dance. Up to there, things are simple. Binary logic. On/off. Good/bad. But intermediate? In my case, it's somewhere in between, but it's not at a fixed distance. It's oscillating around a medium position. Heisenberg uncertainty. Some steps work, most of them don't. With some followers everything goes smoothly, with most of them I keep fighting. And some days, even the steps that usually work, don't work. I can do a back sacada, and even lead one, but I cannot walk.

The cyber-tango site (http://www.cyber-tango.com/art/def.html) gives funny ways to identify beginners,
intermediates, intermediate-advanced (?), advanced, and professionals. Well, maybe not exactly funny, as the first three definitions are full of criticism, while the last exudes envy. And so, the author must be in the "advanced" section... The "intermediate" definitions goes:
Can walk and chew gum. Embracing arm is rigid, but partners are close enough
to perceive body lead. Embracing hand may be fixed in "fingers of death".
Clasped hand is usually relaxed, but still rotates with respect to frame. Posture is
upright, couple generally moving with following partner with her back to the LOD.
Leader knows how to maneuver in corners of dance floor, but either partner may
suddenly halt the dance to "discuss" the latest pattern just learned.
Cry: (lead) "Okay, NOW you do a back ocho..." (lead or follow) "Sorry!" (to partner)
Found: In Intermediate-Advanced classes, and stationary at any point on the floor
during the milonga or practica.

I fulfill 5 criteria out of 14:
Can walk and chew gum. No (only walk)
Embracing arm is rigid, No (flabby)
but partners are close enough to perceive body lead. No (I hate body contact, and keep my partners as far as possible.)
Embracing hand may be fixed in "fingers of death". Yes
Clasped hand is usually relaxed, Yes
but still rotates with respect to frame. No
Posture is upright, No (bent forward, hypnotized by my feet)
couple generally moving with following partner with her back to the LOD No (her back to the wall, most of the time)
Leader knows how to maneuver in corners of dance floor, Yes
but either partner may suddenly halt the dance to "discuss" the latest pattern just learned. Yes
Cry: (lead) "Okay, NOW you do a back ocho..." No ("Now, WAIT for my back sacada...")
(lead or follow) "Sorry!" (to partner) Yes
Found: In Intermediate-Advanced classes, No (beginner or pre-intermediate classes)
and stationary at any point on the floor during the milonga or practica. No (because other dancers keep pushing me)

As I see it, the difference between my present status of Intermediate Leader, as opposed to the Clumsy Beginner I was one month ago, can be seen in the behaviour of the ladies with whom I (sort of) dance. First, by now
they sometimes accept my invitations: when the alternative is "not dancing" or "dancing with Pablo", I can see them thinking for a few seconds, balancing pros and cons. Before, the "No" came at light speed (reptilian brain taking control in case of immediate danger). Second, they "just follow" more often, they don't always try to help me by doing the steps by themselves.

This morning on the city TV channel, they said it takes eight years to become a (A.T.) leader. Eight years. How depressing...

posted by Pablo  # 4:23 AM (0) comments

Friday, August 06, 2004

Deep thoughts

From Fernando and Vilma’s (teachers in Buenos Aires) website:

When you are having a bad day, a good tango will make you realise that there are always worse days.
When you are sad, a good tango - a really sad one, will make you cry and you’ll feel better.
When your heart is breaking, a good tango will make you feel that your pain is not important.
When you are in a bad mood, a good tango will make you forget everything - even your bad mood.
When you are lonely, a good tango will make you want to embrace someone - a future lover, a friend, or an enemy.
When you are tired, a good tango will get your blood flowing.
When you are afraid, a good tango will make you feel brave, tough or triumphant.
When you are hungry, have a good asado with wine: or perhaps pizza and empanadas.

This are Fernando & Vilma's nice thoughts. They are outstanding dancers. Good tangos are as natural for them as smiles for a baby. Ok, but what when you're bad ? What when you're a dancer like you and me? (ok, like me...)

Well, here it goes:
When you are having a bad day, a bad tango will make you realise that a bad day can always get worse.
When you are sad, a bad tango - a really bad one, will make you know why you're sad.
When your heart is breaking, a bad tango can't make you feel more unhappy anyway, so why should you just sit?
When you are in a bad mood, a bad tango will put your partner in a bad mood too. Dance after dance the bad mood will propagate within the milonga like a virus. Why should all these people be happy when you're in a bad mood?
When you are lonely, a bad tango is a no-risk thing. Your girfriend won't leave you because you're a bad dancer: you don't have a girlfriend.
When you are tired, a bad tango will make you think "Time to go home and have some sleep".
When you are afraid, a bad tango will make everybody afraid too: leaders to be bumped into, ladies to be invited by you.
When you are hungry, have a good asado with wine; or perhaps pizza and empanadas. And a beer, buddies, and a beer...

posted by Pablo  # 6:12 AM (0) comments

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The secret

It's summer, all the teachers are gone out of town. Either they're famous, and they got invited by festivals promoters, for performing and teaching; or they're not so famous, they have a regular job, tango is just a way to make some extra money, and right now they're sunbathing on some beach, enjoying their holidays. Sure, some prestigious tangueros from other countries may have taken advantage of this teachers shortage to come here. But no. Who knows, maybe July and August don't mean summer holiday for argentines. If I had studied Geography I would know that in Buenos-Aires it's winter by now.

So, no teachers, and no tango. Time to sum up and philosophize. Time to consider my state of
mind when I took up AT.

I quickly felt it wouldn't be easy, and scanned the Web with a one, single, precise question:
how long would it take ?
But it was in vain. Many posts in AT forums, many strong opinions in personal AT sites repeated that it was much longer for an apprentice leader than for an apprentice follower. Yet how long exactly ? "It depends" is the most precise answer that I found. "It depends on your age, weight, dedication, knowledge of other dances, sociability..."
Yes, yes, but how long would it take for somebody like me, the straight, common guy, neither especially gifted nor physically challenged, with the usual free time that usual people with usual jobs have ?

It seemed that teachers knew it but were afraid to say it straight because then no male student would come to their classes. It seemed that advanced followers somehow had an idea too, but didn't want to discourage some potential future leaders. And finally, even advanced leaders seemed reluctant to just say how long it had been for them. After some vague considerations like "The beginning was hard, and I sure got my part of refusals, rebukes, despise, but after a while..." they quickly embarked on endless diggressions about how nice AT is, how skilled they are, how AT has turned them into a kindda God's Gift to women, how protective they are with (female) beginners
"Relax, don't worry about a thing. Just listen to my body, follow me, I'll take care of
everything, leave it all to me..."
It seemed they were ashamed of admitting the length of their apprenticeship.

Nowhere did I find something like "Wednesday, April 13th, 4th month of tango, tonight I learned the ocho cortado." or "Sunday, June 2nd, 6th month of tango, gone to the milonga, invited 3 women, they all declined, then I sat until closing time, just watching."

Only two guys only game me some precise info: one was a professional ballet dancer, had been dancing AT socially for three years, had gone several times to Buenos-Aires, and was an advanced dancer, almost matching the level of the local teachers. The second one had learned in NYC, and claimed he became an intermediate "after four months". This was good news, but then he added
"Four months where I found myself more often in milongas than at my office. I was attending classes every evening (plus the afternoon, on sundays), and after that I danced all the night. I lost all my friends in the process, and almost lost my job. Of course, I also made new friends, within AT community."

But for sure I could not compare with a young ballet dancer, whose daily training on balance and rythm, given by professional coaches, helped him as well for AT. Plus, the habit of learning choreographies made him sharper in AT classes. He would always grasp the one thing that makes a sequence work; even these little things that AT teachers don't explain when demonstrating something, he would notice them. Neither did I want to become a
"tango junkie" like the New-Yorker. So his four months were only a "lower value" to me.

Well, enough chit-chat, here is the big secret that nobody ever told or wrote:
With one weekly class that I attended regularly, plus various ones by other teachers that I tried and did not like (thus being roughly equivalent to two classes a week), with one milonga per month, and with almost no practise (by lack of a partner), it took me one year and an half to become an intermediate.

What helped me:
-) the vast amount of teachers in town (about one hundred), and their quality (half of them are argentines).
-) My ballroom background, which allowed me to navigate "from scratch" in crowded milongas.
-) Also, the numerous milongas. Of course I kept sitting most of the time, dancing maybe once every three milongas; but I watched the good leaders. Seated in my armchair, I followed the rythm of their feet with my own feet, paused when they paused, made dobble-times when they did. This gave me somehow the sense of what a leader has to do as the music flows.
-) My teachers gave me half-a-dozen audio CDs with selected tangos. By listening to them at home
(or, yes, at my office...) I became more familiar with the big names. Pugliese, D'Arienzo, Di Sarli, De Angelis, it seems obvious to begin with these ones, but by then I had no idea of which names were "big". The first CD I bought is "Tango", by...Julio Iglesias!

What did not help me:
-) AT community here is not welcoming for beginners, advanced people in the milongas at best ignored me (which means bumped at me like I would not have been there);
-) women want to dance, they don't want to learn, and men vastly overnumber them in classes;
-) while milongas are numerous, practicas aren't;
-) my ballroom background, which gave me some habits that turned out to be bad for AT (backward posture, rigid frame...)
-) and the (by far) most important factor: during all this year-and-an-half I lacked a practise partner.

Ideally, keeping the plusses (good teachers) and making up for the minusses (I'd have had a partner, there would have been be daily practicas, advanced people would have encouraged me...) I probably would have reached my present level after six months.
But in real world, there have been many times where I found myself in a dead-end: due to my bad level, even beginning followers were turning me off after one dance during practicas; unable to practise, I wasn't improving. Same thing during classes, each time the teachers said "Change partners!", the followers were doing their best to avoid me and try the new sequence with more skilled leaders. So the new sequence remained unknown to me, and as classes advanced, the gap between me and the other leaders grew mechanically.

One year and an half to become an intermediate. It remains to define what I mean by "intermediate", but hey, it will be for another post, this one is already getting way too long.

posted by Pablo  # 8:57 AM (0) comments


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