Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dancing in Buenos Aires

I've been down in Buenos Aires for almost two weeks now.

In fact, I'm about to head home. But I feel like I should try to capture a few thoughts before I do. Here, I'll talk about the various dances I went to, and give my impressions. [update: I'm actually finishing this post months later. I write slowly.]

Milonga de los Consegrados (Saturday Evening, 4-10 or so)
I came to this dance my very first night in Argentina (and again a week later). I was hosted by Cherie Magnus and Ruben Aybar, who were delightful. The milonga itself was gorgeous: a large open space (an old ballroom or theatre, I think), with a buttery and soft wooden floor. It's a traditional milonga -- close embrace, full of milongueros, and occasional tandas of non-tango music. A mostly older crowd (I was among the youngest at 35). I had a great time! It's semi-formal with seating (men mostly one one side, women mostly on the other), but people were both friendly and flexible, and there were many mixed groups.

El Yiete
This was a popular place for some of the young professional dancer crowd. It's a bar with two floors; while I was there (the off-season) they had salsa below and tango above, though I'm told that when more crowded, both top and bottom are full of tango dancers. There's a small set of tables around the floor, with the bar along one wall; a nonsense video is projected at one end of the room.

Getting dances here took a little while, as people were more typically socializing with friends than really focusing on dancing; but I did have quite a few lovely dances. There was also a lot of great dancing to watch. Generally salon-style dancing, but good attention paid to available space (and generally a high level of skill), so there was little trouble with collisions. Not a friendly floor for beginners so much, though.

La Catedral
This was a very different venue. Inside a crumbling old place (perhaps actually an old cathedral), the inside looked like a cross between a yard sale and a dance floor. Tables and a kitchen against one end, an altar of junk at the other, with various pieces of art up around the walls. I've heard about some fascinating pieces of performance art happening here, though I only saw dancing. Dark, intimate, and somewhat grungy feeling. The floor was soft, with divots filled in by the sawdust created by wearing the floor down.

I saw an awesome chacarera here; a sort of mixed-play dance between three people, with attention swirling between the various pairs.

Random notes: be careful on the stairs, they have some metal patches that are slick on a wet night (One friend slipped and fell). Also, there was an open wi-fi signal, which surprised me when my phone beeped at me to let me know that email had updated.

Salon Canning
El Beso
Villa Malcolm
I don't have much to add to these places, but went to each a couple of times, and highly enjoyed them. Both Canning and El Beso have a pretty 'traditional' feel, with specific seating, and lots of Cabaceo. Villa MAlcolm was more relaxed, but I didn't love the set-up of the dance floor (it is hard to see from most of the tables).

La Viruta (Almost every day)
Viruta is always the last place left open, and so people end up there often (at least, people who are addicted to tango and want one more dance for the night). It's like a cafeteria, but dark and hot. I enjoyed it, although it wasn't my favorite -- the dim lighting, and size of the venue, means that it's very hard to catch someone's gaze from across the room -- you have to look to those nearest you, or try to walk around, which I prefer not to do.

Milonga de los Madres
This had just started when we went (it might have been the opening night, or maybe the second of them), at a 'revolutionary' cafe which featured information on the 'madres', an organization of women speaking out about vanished sons. (I'm not totally clear on this history, as my spanish was not good enough to totally follow the explanation we heard). There is a red and black color scheme to the place, and it was quite visually striking.

Perhaps because it was so new, there were very few dancers; however, the organizer (Laura) was very lovely to dance with, and the orchestra they had perform was excellent. The pizza was also very good.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Struggle to Teach

I teach an occasional tango class.

This has been true for a couple of years, as friends have needed someone to fill in, or wanted help with a particular topic. However, I recently started hosting my own monthly milonga in Bellingham (with a lovely partner!), including a pre-dance lesson.

It turns out (this is not actually a surprise, I have experience teaching other things as well) that teaching i hard to get just right. Aside from all the difficulties of communicating ideas clearly, evaluating student needs and progress, and planning appropriate or helpful lessons, I find myself with an additional, specific problem:

How does one deal with a drop-in, one-off class?

The drop-in nature is tricky, because the people who show up have a wide variety of experience and skill; the one-off nature is difficult because I can't really 'build' on what has happened previously; one hour, and that's all!

I think for myself, I have answered this question by focusing on basic technique, embrace, and listening to the music.

How does anyone else manage that sort of circumstance?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Que es mas macho?

Had a new lesson last friday, and it went pretty well.

Unravelled how I was leading a cross, which was forcing a leg extension by my follows: I was coming into the last step (together for me, cross for the follow) with too much energy, sending the back leg out and around.

Eliminating that extra energy, and focusing on closing with the right shoulder after the cross, there is now a very nice little pivot possible at the end of the cross. It feels nice!

After that, though, we tried to make my dancing a little less soft. I (and, as I'm told, many Americans) dance with a very soft style. 'Soft' is probably not descriptive enough, as it includes a lot of things: precision in steps, directness of movement, machones in attitude, walking technique ... as it happens, I don't dance a lot like an (mythic or idealized) Argentinean.

So I have been working on this a little, and it's hard work.  I actually don't want to change entirely - many people like the softer style. I would like to have both available to me, though, as dictated by partner, mood, and music.

Lots of interesting discussion of technique, as well as videos of dancers here. As far as I know, the most comprehensive on-line source for Tango videos (well, except for youtube, perhaps) and discussion. I have tried before to walk more straight-legged, but it never seems to work quite right with my body.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Emergency and Intention

Emergency and Intention

I had a lesson the other day, focused on two main themes. First, and what I'll talk about here, was making my lead more inviting, by removing the emergency from my body during faster steps. Second, which I might talk about another time, was which exercises were going to be most helpful to continue developing my dancing and dancing technique.

I have a little of practice moving smoothly and comfortably to regular rhythmic tango passages. However, I often want to respond to or play with the music, in moments when its rhythm changes. When that happens, I frequently want to change the rhythm of my own steps, or those I ask of a partner. What I've been working on here is two fast steps together, followed by a pause (or two fast steps together following a pause). To the best of my ASCII skills, consider the following rhythms:

1. TA - - ta -- TA (Straight/Square rhythm)
2. TA ta - - ta TA (Syncopated Rhythm)
3. TA - - - -ta TA (Syncopated Rhythm, very characteristic of Milonga)

Rhythm 1 my body accepts as a completely natural motion at this point, and processes the intention I give to my partner naturally, with no real new effort from my body or mind while dancing. However, for 2 and 3, when I go to take that fast step, I tense up in warning.

Now, this tenseness doesn't make the dance suddenly terrible, or become hard to follow. But the tensing does cause two things: it weakens the connection to my partner, and because I'm tense I actually no longer step at quite the right speed, so I miss the beat just slightly.

Avoiding that tenseness has taken some practice. One help has been placing my body's emphasis on the second of the fast steps instead of the first.  If I focus on the first step, I tend to over-commit to it, or move too far with my initial step, which will break the connection when I recover too quickly to reach the second step. Second, just repition helps; I'm getting used to the faster pace required, and now that I'm more used to it, my body seems to stay more comfortable during.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Injured Shoulder

I pulled my shoulder last Sunday.

Perhaps ironically, I pulled it while stretching. I stretched a little too far, using my weight to lean into it, and I felt like I suddenly developed a little knot right under my shoulder blade. This knot persists, though I can tell it's improving -- I can now take a full breath without a twinge of pain.

It was that twinge of pain that prompted my post, though. I danced  with a friend in my kitchen after pulling it on Sunday; I haven't been out to a milonga. While dancing, I would occasionally have a spike of pain from my shoulder. This created a difficulty: every time my shoulder spiked, I was jerked out of connection, music, and embrace. Indeed, quite literally, my embrace was hurting me. It spurred two thoughts.

First -- as a result, I had to focus extra hard on re-gaining connection after each spike. I wouldn't want to use pain for it, but something similar would make for good practice, I think. Songs that stop and start randomly, having to change partners or directions without warning, etc.

Second -- I think the ability to avoid causing moments like this (in either yourself or your partner) is one important role for focusing on physical technique. Not moments of pain, necessarily, but moments where your body feels awkward for yourself, or unclear for your partner.

I  return to dancing tonight, and here's to better connection and re-connection on the dance floor.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Excitement and Frustration

I spent a great weekend at the inaugural LA Tango Marathon. I traveled with two of my friends, and we proved to be good roommates and travel partners. Many in-jokes were created, and lots of laughter accompanied the trip. The dancing was great - I danced with many new people, for hours and hours. Music was generally excellent, I don't remember ever feeling let down by it.  I also danced with people I have seen at other events, and it was fun to reconnect.

The marathon itself had one main issue: the floor of the venue was tough. It was very hard, and slightly sticky linoleum. It was also old: sunk in some places; rippled in others; generally not very nice. From about 1-inch upward, the room had been remodeled, and it was gorgeous: stained-glass-like painted panels in the ceiling, chandeliers, and high ceilings. My feet mostly lasted through the dancing, and I'm very glad I went.

While in LA, I took a private lesson. I have not done a lot of private tuition in the past; most of my learning comes from group classes, and time spent dancing. I also must admit to not a whole lot of practice time. Therefore - the lesson was hugely useful, in a technique sense. I mostly dance close, and my pivots lack a certain amount of technique or balance. They are just not something I perform very often as a lead. We also discussed some posture (always welcome) and leading changes, which I enjoyed (I might expand another time, but basically: incorporating thoughts of my belly as a leading tool). Apparently these changes were successful, as a regular partner immediately commented on them when I returned to Seattle.

However, the immediate effect was to make me feel hugely unsuccessful as a dancer: how could I think I have any ability at this, when there are so many basic, fundamental movements I still don't do well? It took me a couple of hours at the dance (and some very enjoyable dances) to shake it off. I think I feel this way in a lot of areas: when faced with an expert, I am reminded that I am not one.

A friend did tell me this, and it made me feel a lot better: "Your dance can always improve, but don't forget there are already a lot of people that love dancing with you." If you are feeling similarly down about your abilities, remember that this is likely true for you as well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Visiting other places

I spent the weekend in Bellingham, and had occasion to dance with a roomful of entirely new people.

My dancing has always been in one of two places so far: Seattle or Portland. I have become quite comfortable with the group of people I regularly dance with in each of those places. Although I certainly dance with a wide mix of people, and occasionally new people (both new to me, and new to tango), the communities both have a solid sense of style to which I have become accustomed.

Both Seattle and Portland are heavily weighted toward a close, milonguero style embrace. I favor such a style myself, and therefore get along just fine. However, when I attended a dance in Bellingham, it was largely new dancers, and mostly open embrace. I was reminded how different a completely open embrace feels, and how the technique required changes. I was also reminded of various technique (axis, balance, intention) that I have let slip.

It was a fun evening, and I learned quite a bit.  Thank you, Bellingham dancers.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Gradual Improvement

I have made a lot of time for dancing lately. With that time, I have been improving again. My balance is better, and some nuances of connection in the embrace have improved. Instead of trying to lead broadly through my whole chest, I try to put intention into the actual point of contact (sternum to sternum, sternum to ribs, belly to sternum, whatever it might be).

Visualization has a surprising effect on physical performance. In the case of playing a musical instrument, some study has been made of the neural effects of virtual practice (imagining the specific practice activity) vs physical practice. The neural growth and connection in the mind after the period of training was very similar between the two groups. (The paper is here, and a description here).

Now, this doesn't directly carry over (although looking at whether visualizing better technique would improve it fascinates me), but of late I have been focused on visualizing the connection between me and my partner. Imagining some warmth there, which passes information.

It seems to help, anyway.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Social Interaction

I spent last night in my living room, and yet it was a very satisfactory evening of tango. Two friends came by, one fresh off an airplane, and we made dinner, looked out over the city, and talked about life, tango, and the mix of the two.

I often find milongas and practicas lacking a strong social element. I'm not sure if this is particular to Seattle, but I suspect it is true to some degree everywhere. At least for me, a lot of the problem is created because I like dancing, and tango music drives me to the floor.  It's very tough to maintain a meaningful conversation in 1 minute chunks every 15 minutes.

A couple of the dances here in town maintain a stronger social atmosphere: China Harbor, and Om Culture; they have more space dedicated to non-dancing, and seating that encourages staying off the dance floor. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are also my favorite dances currently. Social atmosphere is not entirely dictated by layout, of course; other dances here have fluctuated in terms of atmosphere, attendance, music, etc.

How do you maintain social connections 5 or 15 minutes at a time?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tango and Intimacy

My girlfriend and I broke up about a month ago. In this case, a very amiable split. We still enjoy each other's company, and dance together when both present at the same dance. I am mostly reconciled -- I miss the time we spent being close, but no longer feel driven to push back toward it.

Melina Sedo wrote about sex in tango, and as I contemplate new romantic endeavors, I have been thinking about the trouble involved in dating within a community. Now, I don't think tango is unique in this instance: workplace and school are also environments where becoming involved with another community member can potentially be tricky. I imagine this is true of any reasonably small social group. Relationships of all types have trouble with dividing lives afterward, and determining new social boundaries. The smaller a group that is involved, the more interwoven relationships, expectations, and needs will be.

So, does tango present a unique problem? Informally, most people seem to think so. In talking with others, I generally hear 1 of 2 responses:
  1. (Minority) I only date tango dancers, because (not enough time, shared interests, social circle).
  2. (Majority) I never date tango dancers, because (too much time, outside interests, bad experience).
People are not as absolute as they sound when forced to make a statement, but certainly people feel very strongly that tango presents a unique problem. I think that any such uniqueness comes from two things. First, the time commitment involved with tango (and other dances). I currently spend between 10 and 20 hours a week pursuing dancing, and that is a significant portion of my free time. This means that I have a harder time meeting people outside of tango, and if I do, I will eventually struggle between giving up time with the person, or giving up time dancing.

Second, tango creates intimacy for an extended period with a group of people. This creates feelings in many cases within the community ("Tango Crushes"), and can cause problems of time/intimacy sharing across the group. Equally, it can cause trouble with a partner outside the group ("Why do you need intimacy from all these other people?")

How do you manage the barrier between communities, the level of intimacy in dance, and the various time commitments?

(Also: it strikes my analytical side that there might be an interesting paper here ... considering a group of people with some characteristics, how does the size of the group affect the forming/breaking of personal bonds? Perhaps some sort of simulation, where you have some chance of interaction ... how do you measure group function/disfunction resulting from dating/breaking up?)