Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Finding the Embrace

I enjoyed reading Ampster's thoughts on developing his embrace, and it reminded me of my own process.

Everyone travels their own path, and mine started with this.  I have always been known as a good hugger*, and to apply my terrible spanish, it is due to Entrega: A good hug involves surrendering to your partner.  Opening your heart, listening to their body, and embracing. I have understood this part of Tango, and people have always responded positively to me. Improving my connection to the music, to the love of the dance itself, has taken time, but understanding the connection with the other person has been there.

What made this difficult? Two things:
  1. Surrendering to strangers is harder than surrendering to friends -- I still have to work on opening up with new partners.
  2. Confidence in my ability. I have been confident about hugging for a long time. Less so with Tango. It is very difficult for me to surrender when I don't feel confident in my self. I did not go social dancing for about a year after starting regular tango classes (maybe 2-3 times in that year), and this lack of confidence was reflected in a stiffer embrace, too much thought about my own motion, and not enough listening to my partner.
As my confidence improved, my ability to listen farther than my own feet grew. As I started dancing more, more dancers became my friends, and I grew better at opening myself up to strangers ... at least for 15 minutes at a time.

Beginning the Song
With the above in mind, I was doing my best at really communicating with my partner. Interpreting the music, suggesting it, listening for a response, and moving together. Then, I happened to take a workshop on starting and finishing songs, and it added a very important piece for me: the embrace (not only the physical part, but the connection between dancers) is the most important part of an enjoyable dance, at least for me. If this is so, I should spend as much time as necessary to establish a good connection!

Therefore, I now almost always begin my dances in the same way. I offer my left hand, shoulder height, for the follow to take, and then move together for the embrace.  I like to hold all the way across the back, just below the shoulders; this changes depending on the height of the follower, of course. I usually connect at the sternum or just below it; I have been losing a lot of weight recently, which has caused my point of connection to move upward!

This is the 'starting embrace', and I pause here, waiting for the music, or the right moment in it, to begin.

While paused, any adjustments necessary get made, and I like to close my eyes, to focus only on the follow. We are not moving, and may not have entered the pista yet, so I don't fear running into anything. I try to still my thoughts, until I can feel my heartbeat, and that of my follow. I try, for lack of a better description, to feel how warm the follow is, and wrap a little closer, or give more space, depending on it.

Having finished this, waited for the music, I now enter the dance. Usually with a side step. And now the real embrace is ready: somehow, despite all the above work, it is only after we take our first step in the dance that everything shakes out. We pause again, to adjust and re-affirm. Even though only one step, it lets us read whether the other person is in time with the music, and how responsive they are to a suggestion.

And then we go!

** Here is my advice for hugging:
  1. Connect with your whole front ('stomach', I often say, but it shouldn't be pushed out). Don't bend forward at the waist.
  2. Movement is not necessary -- no patting, shuffling, etc. A little rocking/rotation can be nice, but don't overdo it.
  3. You shouldn't squeeze them, but you should be able to feel the embrace. (Some people do like squeezing, but it imparts a different feel)
  4. Close your eyes.
  5. Hold the person until one of you has had enough.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Held Closely

It's still early, and the floor is empty. Lights are low, the space is warm, and we are dancing. With this song, and this partner, holding you close, carefully, listening to your every response is the dance. We are surrounded with a lush, melodic sound, lifting us around the floor on its crest.

What a great night! Ended perhaps early, but on a high note.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Nuevo and Traditional Dancing

In many areas, I am fairly evenly split between encouraging innovation, and respecting tradition. To frame my thoughts, let me define the arguments for each:

  • Tradition is valuable because it is already the distilled result of much innovation. Collective wisdom has already emphasized the most useful and valuable aspects, and to ignore tradition is to throw away years of innovation.
  • Innovation is valuable because there may exist a better way to do something. Although many things may have been tried before, circumstances change. Given my personal preferences, something which has traditionally not been enjoyable/possible, may be a huge improvement.
And more particularly with tango, we have some social aspects to consider:
  1. As a group activity, doing unexpected or possibly dangerous things will forcibly effect those around me. Sudden ganchos, long corridas, or changes of direction can be confusing to dancers trying to navigate with or around me. Tradition plays an important role in creating the shared framework we use to dance with each other.
  2. On a smaller level, tradition improves connection with a (new) dance partner: we can focus on a communally chosen set of signals to use in our dance, and not have to interpret sudden new movements on the fly. Some might choose this as a challenge, but not everyone will.
  3. There is social pressure to 'fit in'.  This goes both ways, of course: if the majority of a group favors a traditional style, those showing new movements will be frowned on, but the reverse is also true.
  4. Some change is necessary to keep a community alive.
There is a nice discussion of Nuevo Tango here, also, talking about some of the same area: innovation is not a new phenomenon, and established tango already includes much of what is being re-discovered, evaluated, and perhaps discarded again.

I personally have a lot of fun in trying out new ideas.  I do this usually while dancing (at a practica, and with a partner whom I know enjoys it). I don't usually take the further step of braking down the possible motion into it's components, or really understanding the body mechanics behind it, but if a motion seems particularly enjoyable (or, at least, possibly enjoyable after some more practice!) I will do so.

My actually dancing evolves only very slowly, though; I rarely incorporate things that I 'tinker' with into my dancing at a milonga. That is not to say there is no effect: my understanding of my body, how my lead is recieved, and in some cases my skill at conveying those signals are all improved by focusing on an unused aspect.

Plus, it is fun.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dancing Style and Geography

I'm in Portland this weekend. Although I did not make it out dancing, I have in the past, and it always fascinates me that the dancing is so different between Portland and Seattle.

I should probably not be surprised, as most instructors I have learned from seem to work very hard to establish a unique style. It seems to follow from this that the 'local' dancing in a city would depend a lot on the local instructors. However ... there is a fair variety of approach, even in a relatively small place like Portland, and there is also a fair amount of exchange and travel between here and Seattle. And yet, it took me quite a while (if I have yet figured it out) how to give dancer's in Portland as nice a dance as I might in Seattle.

What is the difference? I probably don't do it justice, but mainly: Portland prefers a lighter approach to leading, with a very light embrace, and the follow free to turn inside it. Seattle seems to like a little more grounded-ness, with a firmer embrace. Not everyone is the same, and each city has follows who like either style, but that is broadly what I have encountered. My dancing has probably gradually shifted somewhere in the middle of those.  I now try to feel out where my follow likes to be in that spectrum, and adjust my embrace and lead as appropriate.

I haven't danced much outside of these two cities, and I look forward to encountering new styles and habits!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Practicing at Practicas

Last night, I participated in a discussion about the Seattle tango community: where it is at; where it might be headed; where it should be headed.

Among many interesting topics and points of view, we talked about the problem of allowing for practice time. Of course, solo time is available, but generally, you may not have a floor that is good for it, or a partner to dance with, or a music system sufficient to bring across all the intricacy in the music.

Thus, a practica.

However, at least in seattle, practica's are treated as social dances instead of practice time. There is some shading of practice: people will stop and work on steps together, there may be no cortinas between tandas, and people are a little dressed down. Mostly, though, people will dance with a person, in the round, for 4 or 5 songs, thank each other, and then go look for the next social dance.

So how to run a practica that allows for and encourages a teaching atmosphere?

  1. Set it up with that expectation (the goal of this practica is for experienced dancers to work with newer dancers)
  2. Adjust incentives to encourage this: free for experienced dancers, not-free for new ones (or any other incentive scheme one could dream up. Perhaps sign-ups for the 'experienced dancers' list? With some sort of reward/ranking scheme to determine if/when they get to sign up again?)
  3. Make dancing the room impossible -- break it up into 2 or more small spaces, with plenty of room for dancing in place, working out a movement, thinking about the music, but not to be swept into a dance around the room when you hear your favorite Canaro song. (2 spaces will turn into one dance, and one practice, possibly)
  4. The music can't be too good. The songs chosen can all be good, of course, but the flow of music can not encourage runs of dancing
The focus on the music really stuck with me, and has me thinking about what songs I would pick to encourage practice, but not dancing. Depending on the particular practice goals, of course, some music will be more suitable than others. Or perhaps there could be some work on orchestra's, so all music for the first hour will be D'Arienzo, then we switch to Pugliese. Or what have you.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Watching Dancers

After choir on sunday night, I stopped by Sonny's to try and catch a couple of dances, as the milonga ended earlier. Since that dance was a practica, and only lightly attended, I ended up sitting at the side and chatting with Sonny, while 5 or 6 couples spun around the floor.

Watching others dance is something I sometimes enjoy. It is pleasant, with good music, and interesting lines and movements to see. I have only recently begun really watching people dance with an eye towards analyzing their dancing, though.

A couple weeks ago, I had a private lesson. Since I have been dancing less, I decided I needed a little direction towards where I should work on improving. We began with some preliminary dancing around, and a little work focused on technique (I let my hip out too far on one side, which is why I tend to lose balance stepping forward on the left). However, we decided that the mechanics were in general pretty good, and I already know what to work on in that regard, even if I'm lazy about actually doing so.

So instead, we turned to the question of musicality, interpretation, and what makes a dance interesting and challenging for both lead and follow. Two things we did:

  1. Watched video of dancers, but instead of just watching for technique or timing, we really focused on how the couple chose to express the music: dancing with melodic vs. rhythmic lines; choosing one instrument over another; what aspect of the song they tried to emphasize. Perhaps most interesting, how did they link the different themes of the song together? We tried to find people all dancing to the same song, so we could compare what different couples might emphasize, and how that affected their dance.
  2. Choosing a particular song (Canaro's Poema), we listened to it several times through, tracking the different instrument lines, listening to the big changes from section to section, and just trying to think about different ways the song could be danced. Who knew that there's a dirty rhythm underneath much of this sweet song?
Although I'm still working on these things (and happily, will be for the rest of my life, I suspect), I found it interesting to sit and watch these dancers last night from this perspective. They had all taken part in a class earlier, and were focused on a particular turning pattern (waltz-like). It was fun to think about where and how to turn a little swirling step into an expression of the emotion in a song.

This suggests my next project should probably be learning spanish!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Unexpectedly Delightful

I've been dancing tango for almost four years. My second and third years were pretty all-consumed with it; I was out between four and seven nights a week, and taking classes as well. As happens, my life in the last year has changed quite a bit. I have since developed a couple of new hobbies (Choir, Banjo), moved to full time work in addition to finishing my degree, and building a relationship with my special lady.

Changing from dancing all the time to dancing only sometimes has been hard in some ways. I get frustrated with a lack of progress in my dancing. I don't have enough tandas to dance with everyone I like, or to dance with people I might discover I like.

This makes an evening like last night particularly welcome. La Monita, the wednesday practica in Seattle, turned out to have delightful music, a good crowd of dancers, and I connected with several people I haven't had the chance to see lately.

This brought out the playful and creative side of my dancing (though not necessarily the smoothest technique, I must admit). I noticed a couple of new steps creeping in during songs. I was making a tighter right turn, hooking the right leg behind the left. I was playing with moving around an alternately pivoting lead foot. And I was (semi-)successfully focusing on new sections of the music for inspiration and emphasis. Maybe best of all, my follows were smiling at the end of our dances, and laughing during them.

What a lovely night!

A dream

Early this year, I had a dream.

I was hosting a party at my house (not unusual), but the music for dancing was being performed by me (on banjo) and my brother (singing). In the way of dreams, my house had extra space as needed, rooms moved about, and we had a stage in the living room, but it was still my own house.

As a result, I have been learning banjo for the last 6 months or so.  Although I am not yet close to producing tango with it, perhaps soon.

Meanwhile, here is El Choclo on (someone else's) banjo:
El Choclo