Tango Tips by Fran

 

As most of you know, Fran and his partner, Pat Altman, have been with Firehouse Tango since we started and are a major reason for our success. 

 

Fran is one of the most highly regarded Argentine Tango teachers in New York City. He teaches at Dance Manhattan and the Argentine Consulate and is dance director and emcee for Stardust Dance Productions.  He is a also very successful freelance writer, who even takes over this newsletter when I’m out.

 

 

 

December 22, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I would like to introduce what I call "Square Two" of dancing social Tango. To do this, of course, I'm presupposing that you know what I mean by "Square One." So we’re going to begin with a little review.

 

In general, the first elements I believe that every student needs to address in order to begin the process of learning how to dance Tango (“Square One”) are the following:

 

1.     How to create and maintain appropriate posture.

2.     How to start using your body, your legs and your feet appropriately.

3.     How to create fundamental linear movement with a partner, using the very specific -- but often difficult to assimilate -- lead/follow mechanism.

4.     (As a leader) how to become acutely aware of exactly what your follower is actually doing as you invite and execute movement.

 

Understanding and developing these individual skill sets is quite complex, each requiring a great deal of knowledge as well as concentrated ongoing practice. I would refer to these elements collectively as "Square One" of the Tango learning process. If your own study of Tango hasn't included these subjects in great depth, I would strongly suggest that you consider finding the right teacher, and going back to "Square One," in order to start building a solid, reality-based foundation for your dance.

 

Moving forward, in the majority of social partner dance forms, the leader and follower collaborate in what we think of as a very logical way. Because the two partners face one another during the dance, as the leader moves the left leg, the follower moves the right leg. As the leader moves the right leg, the follower moves the left. In our "ballroom" dance tradition, we don't have a specific name for this kind of interaction; we accept it as a matter of course -- in fact, we consider it the only way two partners are able to coherently move together.

 

Now, we arrive at what I call “Square Two.” When we study Tango, we discover that aside from the way of moving together which I just described above, there is another way of interacting -- one which is totally different from anything we're used to. In this way of moving, both partners actually use the same leg as they execute a given step. For example, as the leader employs the left leg, the follower does the same, and vice versa; i.e., leader's right and follower's right move at the same time -- unheard of in our own tradition! To us, this is utterly alien; to an Argentine dancer, it is commonplace.

 

Because in Tango we encounter two diametrically opposed ways in which leader and follower collaborate as they move together, we must now by necessity come up with a name for our own way of moving. We now call this the parallel system -- leader's left, follower's right, etc. On the other hand, we call the opposite way of moving -- the unique Argentine way -- the crossed system.

 

Let's now take a further look at the last element of what I call "Square One":

 

As a leader, you need to become acutely aware of exactly what your follower is actually doing as you invite and execute movement.

 

When learning to lead, most students concentrate exclusively on what they themselves are doing in any given moment. What their follower might or might not be doing is simply too difficult for them to pay attention to. However, a crucial skill in achieving success with "Square One" is for the leader to develop a state of consciousness in which he/she knows precisely what the follower is doing during any given step or sequence. In fact, this consciousness on the part of the leader is absolutely essential to the ongoing continuity of the lead/follow relationship. If you don't know what your follower is doing, or what you want her to do; if you can't verify that your lead is being appropriately followed, there is simply no relationship and no dance.

 

"Square Two" involves developing the multi-faceted skill of being able to do all that we've just talked about above in the context of the crossed system. This very important next phase of learning Tango builds upon previously assimilated fundamental skill sets ("Square One"), and amplifies the leader's proficiency significantly.

 

Because of the intricate complexity of the crossed system, I'm not going to try describing it in detail here. However, I urge you to consult with your teacher at your earliest opportunity in order to begin adding this crucial skill set to your repertoire. The crossed system (what I call "Square Two") will open many important new doors to your growing Tango vocabulary, and pave the way for you to become a more accomplished Tango dancer.

 

Pat and I want to wish all our Firehouse friends a very joyous holiday season. Be merry, be safe, and be a credit to the Tango community we all love.

 

See you soon.

 

 

December 15, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. As we've been stressing throughout the past several Tango Tips -- social Tango is an improvisational dance form, in which two partners combine the skill of lead/follow with a specific "single-step" movement vocabulary in order to create their own very personal immediate dance expression within a given moment.

When two people dance social Tango, all kinds of things therefore become possible. If the partners are relatively inexperienced, they may automatically repeat a few very simple learned "figures" over and over again as they move together. On the other hand, if they've been dancing for many years, they will instead tend to create a steady stream of unique improvisations during a typical session without even thinking about it.

Skilled Tango couples would never consciously censor any individual "steps" or step patterns in creating their dance. On the contrary, they would routinely open their imaginations to virtually any improvisational possibilities -- unless such movements were somehow outside the boundaries of commonly acceptable behavior; i.e., if they simply did not comport with the general tradition of Tango practice -- what is sometimes referred to as el codigo del tango -- the "manner" in which Tango is danced.

By contrast, Ballroom Dance -- at least, ballroom dance as defined by the overwhelming majority of contemporary dance school professionals -- presents itself as an imperious set of autocratic statutes, which rigidly dictate to the would-be dancer an inflexible series of rules, regulations, prohibitions and proscriptions. If you recall my Tenth Commandment of Ballroom Dance, it reads as follows:

As one of the characters in the often riotously funny 1992 Australian film, "Strictly Ballroom," pompously declares (as his cheap hairpiece becomes hopelessly dislodged): "There are NO NEW STEPS!"

Where we allow teachers to tell us with such absolute certainty what is right and wrong in our dancing, how we are allowed -- and not allowed -- to behave, we run the dangerous risk of turning social dance into a cookie-cutter pastiche of dos and donts. Not only is the notion of "no new steps" ridiculous, it is utterly antithetical to the idea of social Tango as a collaborative creative act between two people. We must never let this idea corrupt the world of Tango in any way, shape or form.

Here is what I would encourage you to do. Make it your ongoing mission to create something new in your Tango every time you get up to dance. If an idea doesn't work, try something else. This assignment may prove difficult -- even impossible -- at first. But if you keep at it, you'll eventually begin to transform your efforts into a dance that you own exclusively, and can be very proud of. Remember: Your Tango belongs to you, not to YouTube, not to your classes and workshops, not to your dance teachers. It's yours.

Never give up.

Incidentally, since our subject here is social Tango, I'm not going to discuss other kinds of ballroom dance just now (Foxtrot, Waltz, Swing, Salsa, etc.,). However, I would argue that at some point the learning of these dance forms ought also to be re-evaluated by teachers and students alike in terms of lead/follow rather than exclusively as collections of memorized figures. Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to the fact that my own ballroom dancing improved significantly, when I consciously incorporated lead/follow into the mix. I think that the time has come for Ballroom Dance teachers to see the light. What works for Tango ought to be working for everybody.

Don't you think?

 

December 8, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If your first question in learning Tango is "What are the steps?", or "What is the basic step?", you have implicitly accepted what I call the "Ninth Commandment of Ballroom Dance":

To create a performance (the not-so-secret epitome of teacher-driven dancing), we employ the (ever-so-much-more-desirable) principle of choreography.

Students routinely encounter this principle whenever they take a dance lesson of any kind here in this country -- whether that lesson is in Tango or any other type of ballroom dance. Memorization is what we feel comfortable with. Lead/follow is alien to our acceptable way of learning. However, the result is that when students tell me, "Tango is the hardest dance I've ever tried to learn," the idea of performance/choreography is exactly what prevents them from actually learning how to dance.

Argentine master teachers would strongly contend that social Tango is not a "performance" of any kind, and that it is in no way based on the principle of choreography. In fact, most clearly assert that "there are no steps at all in Tango."

There seems to be an unbridgeable gap between those who firmly believe that social dance is based on the accumulation of memorized figures on the one hand, and those who believe that it is, in fact, based on the skill of lead/follow. To us (Americans), the idea of basing our dance on an organic collaboration between partners in the moment (the principle of lead/follow) is quite radical.

Instead, the powerful predisposition toward step accumulation is regarded as the only path to learning how to dance. It forms the bedrock of our social ballroom dance tradition. The overwhelming majority of USA-born students have no idea whatever that there might be another way to learn how to dance. Furthermore, most dance teachers currently focus almost exclusively on teaching steps and patterns during classes, private lessons, and workshops rather than lead/follow. Why? Because they know that this is what students want (and are willing to pay for).

The unfortunately result of this behavior on the part of teachers is that students are exposed to lots of complex choreography, but because they lack any real foundation for even the most basic collaborative movement, they just can't dance.

Ultimately, the only realistic solution to this dilemma would be for Tango teachers to insist that their students build a solid foundation of lead/follow skills -- rather than continuing to race down the rabbit hole of fantasy-world choreography. However, such a major change in pedagogy would only have a chance of working, if both teachers and students alike could be convinced that this is the right path for the future of social dance. 

Will this happen? I think it has a chance only when teachers stop feeding their students a bunch of unrealistic -- but money-making -- YouTube choreography. And only when students wake up, and recognize the true value of lead/follow skill as the real window into social dance expertise.

What's your opinion?

 

December 1, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Pat and I hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration, and that you're all enthusiastic about getting back to Tango. Today, we're going to continue with our look at the "Ten Commandments of Ballroom Dancing." This time, we'll focus on Number 8:

To create our own social iteration of a dance form, we employ the entrances-and-exits principle of amalgamation.

Some years ago, I embarked on a fairly in-depth study of International Foxtrot. There are many very complex and demanding technical aspects to this dance discipline; but the one I want to discuss during this Tango Tip involves the individual figures and dance strategies I was exposed to. Like virtually all contemporary Ballroom Dance instruction, my lessons in International Foxtrot consisted of learning a specific syllabus of steps. These followed the typical model in all dance schools of progressing through "bronze," silver," and "gold" levels.

International Foxtrot is by no means an improvisational dance. In fact, one might say that it is exactly the opposite. Like all other International Dance forms, International Foxtrot relies on the principle of amalgamation; i.e., selecting from a menu (syllabus) of available learned figures, and creating individual, interconnected sequences, which are designed to enable dancers to move around the circumference of a dance floor. Using these steps and sequences, which are precisely connected to one another through specific entrances and exits, dancers move from one wall of the dance floor rectangle to another, with specific cornering movements serving as transitions from one wall to the next.

Typically, a couple starts at the corner of a "long" wall, and moves through a preordained sequence of steps designed to navigate the length of that wall. As they reach the end of the wall, they execute a cornering figure, which enables them to make an effective transition to the first "short" wall. At the end of the short wall, they execute another cornering figure to get them to the next long wall.

And so it goes.

The point I want to emphasize here is that in International Dance everything is memorized. Individual steps, amalgamated sequences, corner transitions, walls ... everything fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. The concept of creating a dance as one chooses in the moment -- the idea of improvisation -- simply doesn't exist.

Which brings us back to Tango. In Argentine Tango -- at least in social Tango -- everything I just described regarding International Foxtrot is out the window. We don't have a preordained syllabus of figures. We don't utilize a memorized strategy for getting from one wall on the dance floor to another. We don't need special cornering movements. Social Tango consists of fundamental, single-step elements (forward, backward, sideward, in-place, pause and pivot), put together by a leader in a completely improvised way from one moment to the next in a musical context -- and enhanced through creative embellishment (adornment) by both leader and follower.

Over the years, American dance students have become quite used to learning how to dance, using set patterns, set transitions, and memorization. This way of learning makes us feel that we're getting tangible results quickly. In order to dance, we simply pick a step or sequence from our menu, and take it to the floor. On the other hand, Tango makes us feel as if we're going nowhere fast for a very long time before we sort of start to "get it."

Not too long ago, I had a couple (with extensive International Ballroom experience) literally run from the classroom never to return -- because of the night-and-day difference between what they were used to and what was presented as a completely alien (to them) way of approaching dance. I don't blame people for this reaction to Tango. Tango can be frightening. Tango can be very difficult to learn. For me, Tango has been the greatest dance challenge I have ever encountered. But I will never give up trying to become as good at this wonderful dance as I possibly can be. And I really hope you will choose to do the same.

Next week, more Ballroom Dance Commandments, more comparisons to Tango. See you then.

 

November 10, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When we begin a social partner dance, the very first thing we do is form a physical connection with another person. In Tango, we sometimes call this el abrazo del tango, or simply el abrazo (the embrace). Spend time at any of the milongas in Buenos Aires, and you'll quickly notice that the embrace people form on the dance floor varies widely from couple to couple. There isn't just one "approved" way to create and maintain the embrace. It all depends on how tall or short you are in contrast to your partner, what neighborhood you come from, who taught you, and what your personal preferences might be in terms of your own experience in learning how to dance.

By comparison, what we call the "dance hold" in progressive ballroom dancing (Foxtrot, Waltz, American Tango, Quickstep, etc.) is quite a different matter. You may recall that the first of my Ten Commandments of American ballroom dance is the following:

The bedrock foundation for each dance is the preliminary formation of an extremely uncomfortable (might one say comic?) structure called the "dance hold."

Nota bene:

If you're a student of ballroom dance, you might find it illuminating to trace the development of our contemporary ballroom dance hold from what it was in, let's say, the late 1930s to what it has eventually become today. To give you a quick introduction, the dance hold we currently employ in ballroom dance started out originally as something that looked pretty much like our neutral, "Golden-Age" inspired Tango embrace. However, as it became more a contrivance of the dance studio than an improvised creation of the dance hall, it gradually degenerated into the tortured, cartoon-like distortion we are now admonished to accept as written-in-stone orthodoxy.

Back to the world of Tango, we seem to have our own special problems with el abrazo. Over the past 10 to 15 years there has come about an erosion of our own embrace into what is sometimes referred to as the apilado (piled up) style. In this formation, the couple leans precariously and uncomfortably forward against one another, severely -- I would say, fatally -- compromising both balance and the ability to execute traditional movement within the dance. What is truly disturbing to me is that a good many so-called teachers of Tango -- people who perhaps should know better (but apparently don't) are actually encouraging their students to engage in this nonsense. I am hopeful that this misguided aberration from good, "forward-poise" dance practice is a temporary affectation that will ultimately be discarded in favor of the balanced, upright, comfortable paradigm which is characteristic of Tango in the epoca de oro.

Next week, we'll talk about timing in Tango. In particular, we'll address my Sixth Commandment of Ballroom Dance: Each dance form requires that we assimilate a specific, unwavering timing for each figure we learn. In the meantime, please don't lean on each other, try to stand up straight, and start experiencing the joy of balanced movement.

 

November 3, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today I want to make a few general statements about American "ballroom" dancing, and compare it a bit to the "golden-age" Argentine tradition. When Argentine dancers and teachers today disdainfully criticize American "ballroom" dancing for being the antithesis of their own far more creative manner of dancing, what they're referring to in my judgment is what I'd call the new American tradition, not the old -- which, I will assert, was actually very much akin to their own, although in contemporary times very few people remember anything about it.

During the years when I was first learning how to dance (early 1950s), there was still a very robust dance community in this country. In New York City, this community consisted largely of people who had spent much of their lives, dancing as a social pastime at venues such as Roseland, the Savoy, and the New York Palladium. These were not people who only went out dancing once in a while. They were in the dance halls several times a week, if not everyday. And they were very serious about constantly working on perfecting their expertise -- not by taking dance lessons, and not by focusing on such goals as performance (which at that time was looked down upon by "insiders" as precisely the opposite of acceptable dance practice), but rather continually striving as individuals to be the best they could be at the major skill of social dancing.

If this seems reminiscent of the traditional, "golden-age" based social dance community in Argentina, it is because there was indeed a time, when the ambiance of the two communities would have felt absolutely interchangeable to any dance aficionado, visiting either country. Without doubt, the content of Tango was quite different from that of a dance such as American Foxtrot; but the manner of dancing -- the primary focus on lead/follow and improvisation rather than memorization -- was exactly the same.

However, starting in the mid 1950s, the American tradition literally fell apart. In fact, it was quite abruptly usurped by a paradigm, which included rigid adherence to a single model of excellence, along with a severely truncated repertoire of cookie-cutter, memorized "steps" as opposed to creative, improvised movement. Why this happened might be an interesting subject for another time, but for now, I will simply maintain that it did indeed happen -- and the American dance tradition was (in my opinion, at least) fatally altered for the worse.

It is in this specific context that I offer my "Ten Commandments" of American ballroom dance. This is my way of delineating what I think ballroom dance in this country has ultimately become -- not what it once was, and not what it could have continued to be, but what it unfortunately devolved into.

Next week, I'll get back to discussing the individual "commandments" of contemporary American ballroom dancing. In the meantime, if you're curious about the way our dancing used to be, find yourself a teacher who remembers the old tradition, and can compare it with the new. If you're a real student of social dance, I think you'll be fascinated to begin exploring the difference.

 

October 27, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Take a lesson at a ballroom dance school pretty much anywhere in America, and the first thing you'll almost certainly be taught is a dance step. This will consist of a prescribed series of movements you and a partner memorize individually, and then more or less replicate together in something called the "dance frame."

Sound familiar? Dance school -- dance step, right?

At the end of your first lesson, you'll probably have added three -- maybe even four -- brand new steps to your repertoire, ready to showcase on the nearest dance floor. See that? You've just experienced for yourself what I call Ballroom Commandment #3: The process of learning how to dance consists of accumulating (memorizing) a progressive series of geometric structures, which are generally referred to as figures or steps.

Wow! Learning to dance is easy. Three or four steps in only one short hour. You can't wait to come back for your next lesson. Except, of course, that when you actually try these great new figures with someone other than your partner from the dance school, they don't seem to work the way they're supposed to, do they. In fact, maybe they don't work at all.

The problem here is that at the dance school, they somehow left out one tiny, little element in the process: They didn't teach you how to actually dance.

Oops.

Instead, they steadfastly adhered to what I call Ballroom Commandment #2: There is no need to waste time, learning precise lead/follow mechanisms in order to attain acceptable proficiency in ballroom dancing.

And, in fact, they probably did this without even thinking about it --- because the overwhelming majority of teachers at ballroom dance schools today don't recognize lead/follow as a subject worth paying any attention to. Lead/follow isn't sexy. Lead/follow is b-o-r-i-n-g. Oh yeah, and lead/follow is really hard.

I myself learned lead/follow the really hard way. Before I ever took a formal ballroom dance lesson, I spent quite a few years in clubs and dance halls all over New York, trying to figure out how to make social dance movement work -- with often very mixed results. This is how most people learned how to dance, when there was a robust, easy-to-access Ballroom-Latin-Swing dance community everywhere you looked. Like most other "street dancers," I was very proud of the fact that "I never took a dance lesson in my life." We looked down on dance schools as cookie-cutter step factories, where people who largely had no real aptitude for dancing were spoon-fed a bunch of pre-digested, "fake" nonsense in return for shelling out their money. All of us could spot a dance school student a mile away. We rolled our eyes, and hoped they'd at least avoid crashing into us, as they attempted to reproduce their robot-like interpretation of the real thing.

It wasn't until many years later that I had a personal epiphany about why dance-school dancing doesn't work. It's not the steps, I realized -- although just between us I consider a great many dance-school derived repertoire to be nothing short of ridiculous. It's the fact that dance-school students don't ever, ever, ever get the opportunity to learn how to lead and follow. I myself picked the skill up from years of trial and (lots of) error -- just the way they do in Argentina. There, the traditional way is to spend a lot of time in the milongas, watching, trying, making mistakes, trying some more, and ultimately getting better in very small increments over many years.

This is the missing link. Without learning how to lead and follow, you can certainly reproduce dance figures on cue, if you practice them over and over with a specific partner. This is what we call choreography (more about this subject at another time). But, folks, you just can't dance!

How do you learn lead/follow for Tango? Basically, there are two ways that I can recommend:

1.     Get yourself born in Buenos Aires, and spend 35 or 40 years in the milongas, picking it up moment by moment.

2.     Run -- don't walk -- to your teacher's venue, and beg her/him/them to teach you everything there is to know about lead/follow. Do it now before YouTube makes you forget.

Learning lead/follow is hard, but you must, have to, gotta get it into your system. Remember (and keep telling yourself): When it comes to improvised social Tango, without well-honed lead/follow skills I just can't dance!!!!!!

 

October 20, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. If you've ever taken a class in Ballroom, Swing, or Latin dancing, you know that each dance invariably begins with what's called a basic step. In my "Ten Commandments" of American ballroom dance (which I offered in my Tango Tip of October 6, 2016) I referred to this concept as the "Forth Commandment": The learning of each dance form begins by memorizing, practicing, and perfecting what is called a basic step.

In the American/European manner of teaching ballroom dance, the basic step is allegedly designed to provide the student with an easy way to start the ball rolling. It might be a simple, repeating figure, traditionally considered a primary element of that particular dance. Or it might be an invented structure that teachers have determined over time will make the initial stages of the learning process somewhat easier for the student. All this, of course, is predicated on the principle that learning a given dance discipline consists of accumulating a progressive series of memorized figures, beginning with the basic step, and moving on from there.

In American ballroom dance this may be true. But in Tango it most definitely is not.

One of the very first admonitions I received as a beginning student in Tango from my Argentina-born teachers was the following: Not only is there no basic step in Tango; there are no steps at all. Quite to the contrary, according to my teachers, Tango is completely improvisational, depending for its content exclusively on the imagination and creativity of the individual practitioner.

To an American, this idea is absolutely alien to everything we know. It turns our process completely on its head. We base our dance on formal structures. The Argentines base their dance on individual inspiration. How could we be further apart?

Let's look a bit deeper into this difference in the two ways of learning. If I am offered a specific figure right from the beginning of my learning process, it gives me something to do right away; it provides me with an anchor, a way to act as if I can actually dance now. American dance students love this approach. It makes them feel as if they're getting to the heart of things right away. How often have I heard students say, "Just show me the steps; I'll learn the technique some other time."

Conversely, this approach virtually eliminates any possibility of creativity, which, in the Argentine sensibility is the crucial component of dancing Tango. By locking the student into a pre-determined series of rigidly prescribed movements, they say, creative choices are utterly precluded as the student attempts to navigate from one movement to the next.

Which way is "better?" The structural approach certainly yields results much more quickly. But are these results the ones we actually want in the process of learning Tango? The answer, it seems, depends upon whether we want to dance Tango “authentically”; i.e., improvisationally, or mechanically (memorized) in the manner of our contemporary ballroom tradition. Ask your teacher what he/she thinks about this. Don't have a teacher? (Exasperated sigh!!!)

Get one now.

 

October 13, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I introduced you to what I referred to as the "Ten Commandments" of American ballroom dance. My purpose was to remind those familiar with our own homegrown dance traditions about the specific manner in which we're taught to think about and practice social dancing in this country. Over the next several weeks I'm going to contrast each of these individual aspects of the American way of dancing with its counterpoint in Argentine Tango.

Last week, we addressed the notion of whether or not to end every "figure" in our repertoire in line of dance. This was what I called the "Seventh Commandment" of contemporary American ballroom dance practice. (Conclusion: Ballroom -- yes; Tango -- no. See last week's Newsletter for details.)

Today, I want to talk about the "Fifth Commandment:" Each dance we do involves continuous movement.

When we think about social dancing in this country -- when we conjure up images in our minds of what it's like -- what most of us almost certainly envision is continuous, flowing motion, especially if we're thinking about progressive dances such as Foxtrot or Waltz. Even if our thoughts turn to what we call "spot" dances -- Salsa, Swing, Hustle, etc. -- such modes of social dance suggest continuous motion in one more or less fixed place.

Tango, on the other hand, is quite different. In Tango, followers are called upon to consciously come to absolute rest at the conclusion of every individual movement -- since they have no way of knowing in advance what leaders might plan to invite in the next moment. If a leader elects to invite several elements within a continuous sequence, he has to provide a definite lead for each of the movements -- rather than assume his follower will somehow execute the sequence without his specific invitation.

This manner of dancing -- the incorporation of movement and stillness, controlled by the leader -- is the very definition of modern social Tango. Lots of contemporary social dancers certainly opt for continuous movement in their own way of dancing -- particularly when responding to the music of earlier times -- but the consensus is that every step within a given sequence needs to be actively led.

Next week, we'll discuss the "Forth Commandment" of ballroom dance: Each dance form involves memorizing, practicing, and perfecting what is called a basic step. See you then.

 

October 6, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the questions students consistently ask me is "How can I make this Tango figure that we're currently learning in class end in the line of dance?" As they're putting this question to me, I'm always reminded of the fact that what they really want to know (without realizing it) is, "How do I incorporate the skill of Argentine Tango into the contemporary American/European 'ballroom' dance tradition with which I'm already familiar?"

I'm going to talk about the answer to this question in a moment. However, the implicit thinking behind the question itself opens an important door to several crucial distinctions between the Argentine way of dancing and the American/European way. Over the next several Tango Tips, I'm going to try to point out how Tango and the American/European traditions differ significantly from one another. I believe that this may help those of us who have grown up in -- or least been exposed to -- the American tradition can start to recognize that Tango is remarkably different from the way we dance, and the way we think about dance. This, in turn, may make it somewhat more possible for us to approach Tango not as an extension of our own tradition, but as a unique skill set with its own very special attributes, assumptions, and demands.

Let me start by enumerating the Ten Commandments of what I'm going to call contemporary American ballroom dance practice. I use the term contemporary here, because I want to clearly emphasize that this is by no means how Americans used to dance. It is what has evolved over time (I actually prefer the word mutated) -- as the once very robust, diverse, dancer-driven tradition we used to enjoy has now deteriorated into a mechanical, one-size-fits-all melange of rigidly prescribed, teacher-driven rules, regulations, and restrictions. (Yeah, I know. Tell us what you really think, Fran.)

Here is my list. If you conjure up others, let me know immediately.

1.     The bedrock foundation for each dance is the preliminary formation of an extremely uncomfortable (might one say comic?) structure called the "dance hold."

2.     There is no need to waste time, learning precise lead/follow mechanisms in order to attain acceptable proficiency in ballroom dancing.

3.     The process of learning how to dance consists of accumulating (memorizing) a progressive series of geometric structures, which are generally referred to as figures or steps.

4.     The learning of each dance form begins by memorizing, practicing, and perfecting what is called a basic step.

5.     Each dance form involves continuous movement.

6.     Each dance form requires that we assimilate a specific, unwavering timing for each figure we learn.

7.     Each figure within a given dance form must end in the line of dance.

8.     To create our own social iteration of a dance form, we employ the entrances-and-exits principle of amalgamation.

9.     To create a performance (the not-so-secret epitome of teacher-driven dancing), we employ the (ever-so-much-more-desirable) principle of choreography.

10.  As one of the characters in the often riotously funny 1992 Australian film, "Strictly Ballroom," pompously declares (as his cheap hairpiece becomes hopelessly dislodged): "There are NO NEW STEPS!"

This week, I'll address the "seventh commandment" above: Each figure within a given dance form must end in the line of dance. This takes us back to my students’ questions regarding the end of every step. In Tango, this idea is absolutely false. If, in the first place, you're basing your dance on the accumulation of figures or "steps" (utterly wrong), the number of individual figures, which need to end in the line of dance is ... wait for it ... ZERO!

Okay, okay, it is certainly true that we need to recognize, and generally respect, the on-going line of direction as we progress around a dance floor. However, as we develop our Tango skills, we quickly become aware that there are many creative ways to find ourselves back facing the line of dance -- even after a complex series of improvised (good) or memorized (not so good) figures, which have somehow left us facing another direction. The fixation on shoehorning every action we take on the dance floor into a line-of-dance conclusion is, therefore, completely irrelevant.

Next week, we'll begin to discuss the other nine commandments of contemporary ballroom dance. In the meantime, if you find yourself facing backward at the end of a figure, try executing a 180-degree left rocking turn to put yourself back on course. That's all it takes to achieve line-of-dance heaven.

 

Sept 29, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Recently, I had a conversation with a student, which went something like this:

"You know, I think I've finally come to the conclusion that I must be dancing a little too fast."

"Why do you say that?"

"Well, for one thing, my partners aren't able to keep up with me. They're always losing their balance, and I have to try holding them up while we're dancing. If I don't keep a tight grip on them, they just seem to fall."

"What do you think the problem is?"

"Basically, I think they just don't have the same ability as the pros on YouTube. That's what I need."

"Have you tried dancing with the better followers you see at the milongas?"

"They don't seem to want to dance with me."

Although the conversation above went on longer than this, we'll stop here. Let me play the role of dance psychologist for a moment. Right now, this student doesn't seem to have any insight whatever about the fact that his idea of leading no doubt consists of grasping his partner in a death grip, and hauling her roughly around the dance floor. The mention of YouTube suggests that he's attempting to execute movements and sequences, which are well beyond his capabilities as a dancer. He maintains a highly inflated (make that totally unrealistic) view of his skill level, and seems to have no idea why the "better" followers might not want to put their lives in danger by attempting to partner him.

The one thin ray of light in this otherwise troubling -- but all too common -- scenario is that this student has finally decided that a possible solution might be to try slowing his movements down.

Slowing down often represents a fundamental first step in transforming what can only be characterized as a milonga menace into a reasonably acceptable social Tango dancer. It shouldn't be news to anyone that a significant number of leaders today suffer from an inability to move in any other way than fast or faster. I think this may be at least in part because these students either receive no training at all at the basic level, or because the dance lessons they are willing to engage in consist almost exclusively in amassing figures and sequences -- rather than first building a solid foundation of lead/follow skills, and moving forward from there.

When a student comes up with the idea of slowing his dancing down on his own, he's finally beginning to face the reality that he never really learned how to dance in the first place, and that he now wants to at least investigate the skill set he's going to need in order to change things. This is an important moment for the student. As much as teachers might have told him over and over again that he needed to get his dance under control, it isn't until the student reaches this conclusion for himself that his dancing will stand a chance of improving.

If you've come to a point where you think slowing down would help your dancing, think of this as a major turning point in your social Tango life, and act accordingly to get the help you need in changing your dance habits. You'll be doing yourself and everyone else in the Tango community a great service.

 

Sept 22, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. I love to watch a good Tango teacher work. When I was a student, being in the same room with someone who was able to interact with a class accurately and sensitively was very, very impressive. Following along as an inspired teacher conveyed the right information at exactly the right time was to me something almost magical.

 

I think that ultimately what I personally learned to love is the learning process itself. I truly enjoyed taking the journey from a complete lack of knowledge about a given technique to a point where I could look back with an awareness that I'd gotten somewhere, that I'd now reached a stage in which I really knew something -- guided every step of the way by a teacher whose communication skills were up to the task.

 

In my own teaching, I prefer to concentrate on process; i.e., how to dance -- rather than what steps to dance. I think it's crucially important for the student to focus on fundamental skill development: posture, smoothness of motion, finding balance at rest and at the end of individual steps, and the appropriate application of lead/follow mechanics to ensure consistently successful communication between leader and follower. In my experience, these are elements that differentiate good dancers from the rest.

 

On the other hand, the majority of students -- and unfortunately the overwhelming majority of teachers -- elect to devote themselves to the accumulation of repertoire; i.e., to the pursuit not of dance technique, but of dancefigures. Many students are deeply convinced that if only they can recreate those elaborate moves that they see the pros on YouTube handle with such apparent ease and facility, they will thereby have achieved that special something in their dancing -- even if their own execution is palpably inept to the point of embarrassment. At the same time, teachers (who above all else need to earn a living) recognize all too well that offering process and technique pays far fewer bills than promising chests of golden glitter at the end of the Tango rainbow.

 

All of this leads to an ongoing dilemma for both teachers and students alike: How does a teacher continue to square the circle of knowing what students need, when, in fact, that isn't what the students actually want? And how do students become decent dancers by insisting on pursuing the hopelessly futile illusion of achieving their goals without putting in the necessary work it takes to get there?

 

From my own observations, the solution to this dilemma that most teachers seem to have come up with is: Take the money and run. Let the students maintain their illusions; let the teachers pay their bills. But in this depressing scenario people just don't really learn how to dance Tango -- at least with any acceptable degree of proficiency.

 

Is this really what we want? And if not, what do we in the Tango community propose to do about it? I'm open to suggestions.

 

 

 

 

Sept 15, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Recently, a basic-level student complained to me that at one of the weekly milongas in New York City, he had been left standing in the middle of the floor by his partner after one dance.

"She said I didn't know enough to be an interesting partner, and just walked away."

My student had been totally demoralized by this incident. He told me bleakly that his first response was to give up Tango forever. "I'll just never be able to catch up to what everybody else can do," he said. However, after recovering somewhat, he decided that the solution to his problem was to get himself a "crash course" in "interesting" material, so that this kind of thing wouldn't happen in the future.

Nice idea, I told him, but unfortunately not the answer.

As it happened, I was acquainted with the woman who had so cavalierly mistreated my student. She herself had been dancing for only about one year; her skills we're minimal at best; and yet I knew that she liked to think of herself (inappropriately) as an accomplished dancer. In general, she always tried to curry favor with only the flashiest male dancers at any milonga (the ones who seemed to know the most steps), and she prided herself on being able to follow anybody (not true!). If my student had himself been more experienced, he would have recognized that this woman was trouble. But because of his naïveté, he was easy prey for her particular brand of unconscionable meanness.

I fully sympathize with the abject feeling of failure and incompetence that this student experienced in the situation I described above. Virtually all beginning students suffer the same difficulties, when they decide to throw themselves into the deep end of the pool prematurely. However, thinking that the answer is to quickly accumulate a lexicon of "impressive" memorized figures is precisely the wrong response. Learning to dance Tango with any degree of proficiency involves first and foremost an intensive concentration on building fundamental lead/follow skills over an appropriate period of time. Only then (in my opinion, at least), does it become in any way useful for the student to concern himself with developing an arsenal of "fancy" material.

The road to Tango expertise is paved with pitfalls and potholes. Keep moving steadfastly forward, and you'll eventually get there in your own time. Searching for a fool's paradise of false "magic bullets" and quick fix fantasies will only delay -- or even derail -- the process.

Be committed; be realistic; be strong. Success awaits!

 

Sept 8, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, we'll be taking a look at the last of your four Tango checklists. To date, we've seen "Me at Rest," Me in Motion, and "Us at Rest." These checklists are designed to offer you a definite game plan for approaching the challenge of dancing social Tango in a precise, conscious way. Once the music starts playing, once you've walked out onto the dance floor, once you've formed el abrazo del tango (the Tango embrace), you're ready to go. This fourth checklist offers you a final action focus as you contemplate taking your first steps.

We're going to call today's checklist "Us in Motion." If there's a central theme for this checklist, it is this: Your dance is her dance. What we mean by this simple -- but absolutely essential -- concept is our subject for today.

In checklist #2, "Me in Motion," we defined the three phases of an individual step:

1.     Beginning (Initiating/responding to the lead/follow mechanism)

2.     Middle (Implementing motion)

3.     End (Balance -- creating the neutral position)

How we handle each of these three elements becomes crucial, when dancing with another person. Let's discuss them, one at a time, demonstrating how each helps achieve the goal: Your dance is her dance.

Beginning: The lead/follow

Every individual step you take as a leader or follower begins with an action, which I refer to as the lead/follow mechanism. The leader initiates a movement; the follower responds by starting to take the step. As she does so, the leader verifies that she is responding appropriately, and he accompanies her action with an action of his own. This initial phase of every individual step is a very complex interaction between the leader and follower. It is the part of the step that is interdependent -- meaning that we need each other in order to make it happen.

As we've discussed many times before, in the lexicon of linear dance, there are five basic possibilities for movement: Forward, Backward, Sideward, In place, and Pause. For each of these movements, there is a specific lead. If the leader offers a lead that the follower doesn't understand, in the ideal she'll wait for a lead that is comprehensible to her. Unfortunately -- but very predictably -- many, if not most, followers feel that if such a lead is offered, it is better for them to do something, anything, in response -- so that the leader won't become upset. The result of this is that the dance simply falls apart, at least for that moment.

It is very important for you as a leader to recognize that for any action you take -- whether it is an actual lead, or perhaps nothing more than an accidental "fidget" of some kind -- your follower will almost certainly try her best to respond to it. Since you haven't offered anything we can easily respond to, she'll go immediately into her head, and try to figure out what you want. This is exactly what shouldn't happen. Her dance relies on intuitive responsiveness, not thinking her way through what your intentions are. For this reason, leaders, try to remain still unless you want your follower to do something, which might not be what you intended. Using the principle we proposed earlier (Your dance is her dance), if you move in some kind of random way, you're giving her a false lead. And what she does with that false lead is your fault, not hers. To put it another way, if you break it, you own it.

Middle: Motion

Phase two of an individual step is what happens immediately after -- and in response to -- the lead. The follower moves; the leader verifies the accuracy of her response, and accompanies her movement in a manner of his choice at that moment. In executing her step, the follower acts independently, just as the leader acts independently in executing his accompaniment. The leader does not "carry" his follower through her movement, nor should she expect to be somehow physically conveyed from one end of an individual step to the other.

In the "YouTube" world of "look-at-me-everyone" fantasy (which has, unfortunately, often supplanted good social dance practice today), leaders are at times solely intent on blundering their way through what they think is going to be a game changing, stage-oriented sequence (meant, no doubt, to impress some audience they feel is doting with rapturous attention on their every move). In this blissfully delusional universe, they are as likely as not to practically haul their unsuspecting partners around like annoying baggage from one step to the next.

Whew! I got that off my chest, didn't I ....

Leaders, when you set your partner in motion, please leave her alone, so that she can use her inner resources to get herself through the movement you asked for with your lead. Your job in this moment is to execute your accompaniment, or, if you choose, to simply stand there, and look on admiringly, as you prepare to lead your next movement.

End: The "neutral" position

As a teacher, I tell my student followers to come to rest at the conclusion of every step. Since they don't know what their leader has in mind at the end of any given movement, anything else would fall into the category of anticipating or "back leading." In coming to rest, the follower creates what I call the "neutral" position -- she becomes completely still, as she brings herself fully into balance. In this state, she is now ready for anything at all that the leader might choose to invite in the next moment.

The problem here, of course, is that an unskilled -- or perhaps uncaring -- leader (that same benighted wannabe virtuoso I just described above) is probably not paying any attention to the end of her steps. In fact, chances are, he's actually tossing her like a rag doll from one step to the next in his witless quest for YouTube glory. If you ask him why he's engaging in such behavior, he may say the music demands it, or that particular figure only works at high speed, or his follower is moving too slowly to keep up with his needs. It's also possible that he won't have any idea that he's keeping his follower constantly out of balance -- which suggests that he really has no idea what the word "leading" means.

In any case, the end of every one of the follower's steps brings us full circle back to the original theme of this Tango Tip: Your dance is her dance. It is imperative -- let's say essential -- let's say obligatory -- that the leader enable his follow to balance -- i.e., bring herself into the neutral position at the end of her steps. This isn't a choice; this isn't one of several possibilities; it's the very nature of Tango. Without balance, the follower has no viable dance, and neither, therefore, does the leader.

In going over this last checklist in your mind as a leader, try to focus on each phase of your follower's steps -- the beginning, the middle, and the end. This won't be easy, and it will involve putting your YouTube career on the back burner for a while. But I guarantee that if you pay attention to the principles outlined here, your dancing will improve significantly almost immediately.

Give it a try!

Sept 1, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, we're going to continue talking about checklists. Have you been trying to incorporate the two checklists I've offered so far to help you prepare to dance Tango? "Me at rest," and "Me in motion"? Remember that these checklists are designed to offer you a clear-cut, practical mind set in getting ready to dance -- as opposed to a largely unconscious state of "who-am-I-and-what-am-I-doing-here."

In both social and what we'll call "stage" Tango, a couple attempt to execute often highly complex movements and sequences. This process is relatively easy -- or at least straightforward -- in choreographed dancing, where the focus is on consummate athleticism plus the ability to remember what one is supposed to be doing from one element to the next. In the social dance, however, the couple is challenged to accomplish this in a completelyimprovised way. The leader actually makes it all up as he goes along, using nothing more than the lead/follow mechanism in order to accurately and comfortably convey his intentions to the follower through the dance embrace.

With this in mind, we're now going talk about our third checklist, which I call "Us at rest." In this checklist, we bring leader and follower together, concentrating on el abrazo del tango (the Tango embrace). This is what is often referred to as the dance connection, the crucial vehicle through which the leader and follower interact, when dancing Tango. A well-formed embrace provides the foundation for a dance, which enhances the partnership, offering the best chance that things will go well. A badly formed embrace virtually ensures the fact that the dance will be fraught with difficulty from start to finish.

What, then, are the components of an appropriate embrace for social Tango? I'm going to break them down into three areas of concentration:

1.     Posture

2.     Balance

3.     Lightness

Posture

In our very first checklist, we talked about developing the conscious habit of creating good, upright posture by oneself. Now, as leader and follower bring themselves together, this becomes more important than ever. Posture is an essential component of balance (which we'll talk about momentarily). The ability to stand on our own -- chest elevated, feet together at the heels, legs relaxed at the knees, shoulders comfortably back and down -- sets the stage for a successful dance. Compromised posture, on the other hand, makes things very difficult, if not impossible.

Balance

If a follower forms her half of the Tango embrace by leaning on me in any way, I know in advance that our dance is going to be extremely uncomfortable, if not a complete disaster. There was a time, when I'd say to myself, "Oh well, what the hell, I'll do the best I can with this unwanted weight attached to my body." Not anymore. These days, I release the embrace, and ask politely whether my partner might consider balancing on her own. I'm willing to claim advanced age, infirmity, weakness, fear of intimacy -- whatever it takes to unload the unwanted baggage. If she tells me something like "This is the way you're supposed to dance Tango," or "All the really good dancers create the connection this way," I feign illness -- apoplexy works well -- and excuse myself from further entanglement.

Leaning inappropriately on one's partner has become chronic -- sort of like the black plague -- among well meaning, but largely uninformed -- dancers today. It seems to have started out as a misinterpretation of what competent teachers sometimes refer to as "forward poise." This is a conscious decision in which both leader and follower shift their weight slightly forward toward the balls of their feet -- rather than parking themselves clumsily back on their heels. Unfortunately, the impression this may convey to the unschooled eye is that people are supposed to form the dance connection in Tango by thrusting their chests upon one another, with the follower wrapping her left arm heavily around the leader's neck and hanging on for dear life.

I teach my students very specifically not to engage in this kind of behavior. If they pick up the habit elsewhere (and there's plenty of opportunity to do so), I beg them (often on my hands and knees) not to do it while they're in my class. I know all their friends do it: I know all their peers are constantly pushing them to do it; I know I'm swimming upstream against today's very prevalent tide -- but, but, but .... Oh well, you get the idea, right?

Lightness

If I'm able to get my students to stand up straight, if I'm able to convince them not to pile themselves up on top of one another, when forming the embrace, they're almost ready to start dancing. What remains is to create the actual hands-on connection. I'm not going to get into the details of the embrace right now -- I put my hands here, you put your hands there. These individual details are of great importance, of course, and I've discussed them at great length elsewhere during our Tango Tips. What I want to draw your attention to today is the more general idea of infusing the physical connection with an overall sense of gentleness

As a leader, it's very important that you avoid subjecting your follower to the harshness of a vice-like grip -- as if she were some kind of wild animal you had to control. Try to keep in mind that it's not your arms that do the leading, it's the movement of your torso. Think of your arms encircling her as window dressing for the cameras. By the same token, as a follower, try not to grab your partner's hand tightly for stability or balance. Your individual balance is a function of your own inner core. And don't plant your left arm heavily on his arm, shoulder, or neck. This will undoubtedly compromise his ability to lead you properly, and at the same time maintain his own balance.

Next week, we're going to take a look at our fourth and final checklist, "Us in motion." This will be where we put everything we've discussed to date into a cohesive game plan, which will enable us to interact with a partner on the dance floor in a highly conscious, very precise, a very comfortable way. See you then.

August 25, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During our last Tango Tip, I introduced a series of four checklists, which are designed to help students direct their mental and physical energies, when dancing Tango. I started with checklist #1, which I call "Me at rest." This checklist is intended to create a primary focus for everything you do in social Tango. Just as a reminder, the elements of the first checklist are the following:

 

1.     Deep breath

2.     Clear mind

3.     Posture

4.     Heels together

5.     Neutral position

 

For a more detailed description of these elements, you can reread last week's Tango Tip. Be sure to integrate the elements of checklist #1 into everything you do from now on.

 

Today, we're going to talk about our second checklist, which I call "Me in motion." As with our first checklist, you can also work your way through this one at home. All you need is room enough to take a single step without bumping into the furniture. "Me in motion" means exactly that. Rather than moving in a more or less unconscious, unfocused way, you're now going to start paying very careful attention to the fundamentals of social Tango movement as they apply to you by yourself.

 

Before I list the elements of checklist #2, I'm going to itemize once again the lexicon of fundamental movements, which comprise our basic Tango vocabulary. These are the 5 basic elements of linear movement in the social dance:

 

1.     Weight changes in place

2.     Pauses

3.     Steps to the side

4.     Forward steps

5.     Backward steps

 

As I hope you remember, we've discussed in detail how to execute each of these movements many times during previous Tango Tips. For this reason, it is not my intent to provide a complete description of them here. Today, we're going to concentrate on making these movements very conscious and very deliberate -- rather than simply blundering into them and hoping for the best without thinking.

 

Here are the components of checklist #2 ("Me in motion"):

 

Define the elements of movement clearly in your mind

Every individual step you take can be thought of as comprising three elements.

We'll be talking about each one of them as we move through this checklist:

 

·      Beginning (Initiating/responding to the lead/follow mechanism)

·      Middle (Effecting motion)

·      End (Balance -- creating the neutral position)

 

Begin each step with intention

Leaders -- As you embark on any given step in Tango, it's crucial for you to remember that the beginning of your movement is the part of the step in which you invite your partner to respond by initiating a movement of her own. (We'll be talking much more about this, when we discuss our fourth checklist in two weeks.) For this reason, your beginning can't be tentative. It has to be direct and confident -- what Argentine teachers often refer to as intention.

 

Followers – For you, the beginning of each step is your response to his lead. As such, when you're practicing an individual movement by yourself, it's important to initiate each step with the same kind of intention.

 

Travel with conviction

Part 2 of any given step in Tango (the middle) is where you actually move through space -- or at least change weight from one axis to the other (as in the weight change in place). As you practice moving by yourself in any of the three traveling movements (forward, backward, to the side), resist the temptation to simply lunge from the beginning of your movement to the end, trying to get to the conclusion of the step as quickly as possible. Instead, keep very conscious of the entire span of movement as you travel through space. Slow down as much as you can, and feel the progression of the movement as it unfolds. Furthermore, as an exercise, try to make each step approximately the same length as the width of your shoulders. This will not apply to all Tango steps all the time, of course, but it's a good way to begin traveling with conviction as you practice moving by yourself.

 

Find "neutral"

Part 3 of every traveling step in Tango (The end) is where both partners finish their movement in balance. I like to place very special emphasis on this part of the step with my students, because mutually independent balance is unquestionably the foundation for any subsequent movement in the dance. If either the leader or follower is out of balance, there's no way the couple can effectively proceed to the next element within a pre-planned or improvised sequence in a comfortable way. The state in which a couple is able to create balance is what I call "neutral." It opens the door for any possible continuation.

 

A lack of balance creates exactly the opposite effect. The place to practice this balance, of course, is movement by oneself. Whether you're a leader or follower, try your best to bring every traveling movement you attempt into quiet, upright balance. If you find that you tend to fall to the other side as you complete a given movement, keep working on it until you can consistently end with your weight on the traveling leg. This development of consciousness about the end of each step will become the basis for the challenges of movement within a partnership. Please make absolutely certain to practice this part of your Tango steps everyday.

 

Are you ready to work with a partner? Next week, we'll look at checklist #3, "Us at rest," which brings leader and follower together, focusing on forming the Tango embrace, and preparing to dance. See you then.

 

 

 

August 18, 2016

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. What do you think about on the dance floor before you actually start dancing? If you're a leader, are you trying to remember what really impressive YouTube steps you're going to try? If you're a follower, are you trying to prepare yourself for the acrobatic roller coaster ride your leader might have in store for you? Are you wondering whether your dancing compares favorably with other dancers in the room? Are you worried about what your partner will think of your dancing? Do you wish you were thinner? Fatter? Taller? Shorter? Are you having a good/bad hair day?

 

Preoccupations like these are commonplace among students of Tango, but, frankly, I don't think they're very useful in setting yourself up for a successful experience on the dance floor. Over the years, I've found that it's much more useful to begin each dance session by consciously directing your attention to a few fundamental elements, which help put you in the right frame of mind, and get things started on the right track.

 

To this end, I usually offer my students four basic checklists of things I think they should be thinking about during the initial stages of the typical dance interaction. Each of these checklists can help focus your mind very specifically on bringing individual elements of your Tango technique into the forefront of your consciousness.

 

Here are the names I give to each of the four checklists:

 

1.     Me at rest

2.     Me in motion

3.     Us at rest

4.     Us in motion

 

Today, I'll concentrate on the elements of the first checklist; i.e., "Me at rest." During the next several Tango Tips, I'll move on to descriptions of the other three.

 

What does "Me at rest" mean? Well, of course, "me" refers to you, or, in fact, to anyone who's getting ready to dance Tango. This initial checklist itemizes things I believe you should have in mind before you ever even get near the dance floor. Probably the best place for putting this checklist to work is right in your own home or apartment. Pick a time, when you feel you can concentrate on the job at hand – without a lot of distractions. All you need is a chair with a straight back, and you’re ready to go.

 

Here are the elements of the "Me at rest" checklist:

 

Take a deep breath

In fact, take a few. After you inhale, hold the air in briefly, then exhale somewhat energetically -- in order to help release any tension you might be carrying at the moment. (This may sound superficial and unnecessary, but it's really very important in getting things started in the right way.)

 

Free your mind

Try to consciously free your mind of other concerns, and start thinking only about Tango. (For most of us this is not easy, given the complexity of our daily lives.)

 

Adjust your posture

Lots of people develop an unconscious habit of letting their chests sink, their shoulders sag, and their heads project forward. (Eventually, this can become very difficult -- if not impossible -- to change, if you don't start working on it now.) Here's a way to begin fixing the problem. (If you're working with a competent teacher, it's a good idea to let him/her help you with this the first few times you try it.)

 

Sit on a hard chair; sit forward so that your back doesn't touch. Pretend that there's a hook attached to the center of your chest, and that someone is gradually pulling it upward. As your chest rises, breathe in. At the same time, open your shoulders, allowing them to move backward gently. Try to move the shoulders not only out, but down (without letting them start sloping forward). Gently move your head straight back over your newly positioned shoulders. Keep your chin down rather than allowing it to elevate. Once you've found your ideal upright position while sitting, stand up, and try the same thing. Do this every time you begin a dance session. After a while, you'll find that good posture works its way into your muscle memory, and starts to become part of your dance habit.

 

Put your heels together

One of the crucial skills in learning to dance Tango is to develop "neat feet." This starts with consciously bringing your heels together at the end of every step you take. Some people like to close both ends of their feet (which is perfectly acceptable, but in contemporary Tango the toes are usually left slightly apart, creating a slight "V" shape at rest). Parenthetically, when you bring your feet together at the end of every step, you'll have to stop race-walking through the dance (what a shame!) in order to perfect this new discipline -- and you'll also have to give up looking like a gorilla as those feet spread oafishly apart. But those are the breaks, folks.

 

Create the "neutral" position

Whether you're a leader or a follower, you need to become acutely aware of the absolutely critical importance of balance at rest. Many leaders (maybe most?) rush their follows unthinkingly from one step to the next during the course of a sequence -- often throughout the course of an entire dance. By the same token (many, most?) followers alternatively hang onto their leaders for dear life, often executing two or three steps for every one that's actually led. None of this behavior is in any way acceptable in Tango, and yet it continues to plague the American Tango community.

 

The "antidote" for this behavior is to focus on the "neutral" position, which occurs (or should occur) at the end of each step in the dance. For today, we'll talk about creating and recognizing the neutral position at rest. Next week, we'll address this technique while you're in motion. Basically, the neutral position simply refers to being in resting, upright balance while on one foot. You're not falling forward, backward, or to the side. You haven't made an unconscious weight change so that you're now on two feet. You're not even thinking about whatever might theoretically happen next in the dance. You're just there, at rest, settled, finished. All things are now possible. This is the neutral position. When we get into motion next week, we'll be addressing how you form the habit of returning to this place after virtually every step you take in Tango.

 

The big question now is: Are any of these elements more important than kicking butt with your favorite YouTube fantasy figure?

 

Short answer: Yes.

 

Long answer: Yessssssss!

 

Longer answer: Yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyesssssssssssssssssssssss!!!!

 

Get the idea? Next week, we'll take a look at "Me in motion." This is where you get to put some of these principles into action by yourself, before you engage a partner. See you then.

 

 

 

 

August 11, 2016

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, I discussed how important it is for both leaders and followers to concentrate on the very immediate process of executing individual movements. I reduced the challenge of dancing social Tango to one of focusing on a simple step to the side, "constantly trying to make the movement more and more perfect every time you attempt to do it." Today, I'd like to talk about how this notion of concentrating on the execution of a single step relates to navigating effectively through -- and making your follower feel comfortable throughout -- a complex, multi-step figure.

 

For many -- if not most -- leaders, the learning process starts by firing up YouTube, finding a sequence, and then memorizing it in pieces until you can visualize the entire sequence as it progresses through its individual components. This is usually how I often begin learning a figure myself, and I agree that it's a great way to get a sequence from video (or class) into your head. The problem is that for a lot of leaders, this also represents the end of the process. The part where you figure out how to actually lead a follower through it without killing her is all too often left to another day, or another lifetime.

 

What leading a figure ultimately comes down to is not immediately attempting to create continuous flow or musical timing of some sort, but rather leading each individual step within the sequence from beginning to end. With this in mind, let's revisit the notion that any single dance movement can be broken down into three identifiable elements:

 

1.     The beginning -- both partners begin in balance (what I like to call "neutral") as the leader and follower engage the lead/follow mechanism (the leader leads; the follower follows). This process -- which is interdependent -- initiates each step.

2.     The middle -- the follower responds to the invitation to do something by going into action and taking the step (e.g., traveling through space, if the lead has been for a linear movement, or pivoting, if the lead has been for a rotation). At the same time, the leader does two things: First, he consciously and carefully monitors his follower's behavior to make certain she is actually responding to his lead in the way he intends; second, he accompanies what she's doing in an appropriate way of his choosing. This element within each step is independent on the part of the leader and the follower; i.e., both partners execute this phase on their own.

3.     The end -- Each of the partners finds upright balance. This, too, is independent; i.e., neither of the partners uses or in any way relies on the other to attain this state.

 

In developing the lead for a complex figure, the crucial first challenge in the process is to break the sequence down into its individual components -- and to learn how to lead/follow each step from beginning through its middle, and finally to its balanced end. Not only does this demand of both the leader and follower a thorough understanding of the lead/follow mechanism in order to comfortably navigate the beginning of each step; it also calls for absolute precision at the end of each movement in order to effect balance. To be a bit more specific here, the leader must make certain that he doesn't force his follower through the end of any given movement into the next, thereby compromising her ability to bring herself into balance. At the same time, of course, it is essential that the follower attempt to find her own individual balance at the end of each movement, and not unthinkingly rush or feel compelled to move from one step to the next.

 

Once the leader and follower have been able to develop this interactive sense of neutrality or balance between individual steps, only then should the leader begin to think about building transitions between movements in order to eventually create a cohesive sequence.

 

The next time you decide to work up the lead/follow for a sequence from YouTube or from a class, try to address the beginning, middle, and end of each individual step as your first goal. I guarantee that this progressive process will produce surprisingly satisfactory results for you and for your partner.

 

 

 

 

August 4, 2016

 

 

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. When you go to a Tango class, you almost certainly have the expectation -- or at least the hope -- that you're going to actually learn something by the end of the lesson. If you're like most students, you evaluate the effectiveness of any given session by the amount of information you receive. A common response to a lesson that you feel has gone well might be something like, "Boy, I really picked up a lot of material today; what a great class!"
 


 

Quantity is your ultimate measure of success.


 

As long as I've been teaching dance, the majority of my students have judged my value -- and the value of any teacher for that matter -- by this singular criterion: An easily definable end result (such as the number of steps the students have "learned" that day) is good; a narrow concentration on what students consider to be minutiae is not so good.


 

Dance schools have long recognized that the more information you present to a class during any given session, the higher they will perceive its value. This means they'll keep coming back for more, and the money will continue flowing in the desired direction. From the standpoint of marketing, therefore, the idea that "more is better" is a long-accepted and reliable strategy. The difficulty is that as a basis for actual learning, it doesn't work.


 

Real learning is a very chaotic affair. In the first place, it isn't linear: e.g., I show you a side step; you try it a couple of times; okay, you've got it; it's in the system now and forever; let's move on.


 

Most of us would really like learning to be just like that -- linear, one to one, stimulus/response; let's get this show on the road. Unfortunately, the learning process just isn't like that. Instead, I show you a side step; you lurch to the side; you lose your balance; you practically knock your partner to the floor; your feet don't come together appropriately; you make an automatic weight change to the other foot; okay we've got a lot of work to do. You come back next week, and what has happened? You've forgotten everything. Okay, let's start over. What's a side step?


 

Get the idea? The real, practical, let's-face-it learning process is very complex. If you've taken more than a single dance class in your life, you know this by now. Of course, you probably think it's all your own fault. If you'd paid more attention during the session, if you were better at learning, if you had better partners, if, if, if ....


 

No, my friend, none of that is true. The learning process is the problem, not you. If you really want to learn, let's say, a dance figure, the show-and-tell fantasy of YouTube is not -- is not, is not -- going to give you the results you're after. What you need is to make a serious commitment to the weird, circuitous -- sometimes downright scary -- learning process. Learn the figure today -- sort of, anyway -- forget half of it overnight; relearn it tomorrow; gain a little insight along the way; decide your insight was all wrong; start over, etc., etc., etc. Eventually (a loaded word that can mean next week or ten years from now), the figure meanders into your working, on-the-dance-floor vocabulary. And even then, you're finding out new things about that figure every single time you bring it out for display during a milonga or practica.


 

If you accept all this, you will eventually start becoming a real student of Tango. You will join those of us who have become acutely aware from being in the trenches everyday that quantity has nothing to do with learning. It's what you're doing right now in this finite moment that counts. And that side step we were talking about earlier is a crucial element of dance vocabulary that you're constantly trying to make more and more perfect very time you attempt to do it.


 

Do you still want to learn Tango? Start now, and get yourself on the right path. We need you on the dance floor.

 

 

 

July 28, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. One of the questions I hear from students regularly is: "Why is it so hard to learn Tango?" If they've had prior experience with learning another social dance, they find themselves comparing the relative ease with which they were able to at least learn the basic step -- while Tango feels difficult right from the beginning, and only seems to get more difficult as they go along.

With today's Tango Tip, I'd like to offer a few possible reasons why becoming even a passable Tango dancer can be a very steep, frustrating hill to climb. I'll approach what I want to talk about from two different perspectives. First, Tango is inherently difficult to learn; and second, in trying to learn Tango, our expectations of the learning process actually tend to work against us

Tango is inherently difficult to learn

Take a class in any American, European, or "Latin" social dance, and the first thing you'll learn (or at least memorize) is a basic step. As you may already know from your own experience, a basic step is a pattern of movement, which repeats itself again and again. As you learn this sequence, your partner also learns a complementary version of the same thing. When the teacher finally puts you together, it feels as if you're dancing like a pro -- pretty much within the first ten minutes of the lesson. From this auspicious beginning, learning to dance then becomes a process of memorizing one sequence after another, amassing a repertoire of what dance schools often refer to as the "bronze," the "silver," and finally the "gold" syllabus.

Let's now compare this with Tango. The first thing my Argentine-born teachers told me, when I began to study Tango seriously, was: "There are no steps in Tango!" No steps? Are you kidding? I watch people dancing, and it looks to me as if there are literally thousands of steps. How can the teacher say there are no steps? Then, to make matters worse, the teacher says, "Tango is a way to walk."

Hmmm. There are no steps in Tango, and it's a way to walk. Frankly, I have no idea what the teacher is talking about. As I watch the dance, I see very clearly that there's all this highly elaborate stuff going on. How can the teacher be making those elliptical pronouncements with a straight face? Right from the get-go, I'm completely confused; I'm frustrated; I'm paralyzed. All I want is a little basic step. Couldn't we have one of those? It would make me feel so much better.

Sorry, Charlie, no basic step for you.

Eventually, I have to face the hard fact that Tango is unlike any dance I've ever been exposed to. At this point, I either have to just give up -- and lots of people do -- or make a commitment that no matter what it takes, I'm going to find a way to get past the obvious fact that for many, many reasons Tango is inherently difficult to learn.

In trying to learn Tango, our expectations actually work against us

Social Tango is for the most part a dance based on developing the very, very sophisticated skill called lead/follow. What this means is that we don't memorize a lexicon of increasingly complex sequences, and then string them together in order to construct a dance. We lead/follow each individual moment -- each self-contained physical element -- of any multi-step sequence which a leader and a follower create and improvise together in the moment.

The concept of lead/follow is by and large totally unfamiliar to the vast majority of American dancers. It is rarely -- if ever -- taught in American dance schools, which opt instead for memorized figures that may be repeated many times during the lesson -- but somehow seem impossible to reproduce on the dance floor with a partner who happened not to have taken the class. "Gee, it worked so well before, but now...."

When I was first trying to learn Tango, it took me forever to realize that what my Argentine-born teachers actually meant by the notion that there are no steps in Tango, and at the same time that Tango is a way to walk. What they were attempting to express was the fact that everything we do is created in the moment by a leader in a completely improvised way, and followed by his partner one movement at a time. This is the manner in which Argentine social dancers interact with one another. To them, lead/follow is simply what they do as a matter of course. For this reason, they make the assumption that we understand this concept inherently -- and we don't. We try to shoehorn the movements they make happen through lead/follow into our inbred expectations of dancing as a question of memorizing everything we do.

To make a long story short, our expectations work against us -- as we insist even now on trying  to learn Tango by copying and memorizing figures from YouTube.

Ultimately, I strongly believe that the reason why we feel that Tango is so hard to learn is that we refuse to accept -- and therefore refuse to learn -- the singular mechanism that will miraculously open the door to social Tango proficiency: the art of lead/follow.

A student I've known for many years approached me recently with a personal epiphany. He said: "You know all that boring stuff you're always trying to get us to learn?"

"You mean lead/follow?"

"Yeah, turns out it's what makes Tango work."

No kidding.

 

July 21, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In teaching a class recently, I made a point of letting my students know exactly where I originally learned the sequence I was passing along to them. In this particular case, I had received my knowledge through Domingo (Mingo) Pugliese -- who had, in turn, learned the sequence from his own teacher, Carlos Estevez, whose nickname was "Petroleo."

As Tango has evolved over the years, dancers have taken great pride in developing their own individual steps and sequences. In fact, there was a time, when it was considered completely inappropriate for one dancer to "steal" another dancer's material. These days, however, it seems that a lot of this tradition is being lost as dancers routinely have ready access to the complete repertoire of anyone who has ever found their images on YouTube.

My own preference is to always try giving as much credit as possible to the generations of dancers past, without whom there would be no viable Tango tradition to build on. Whenever someone shows me a step or sequence, I attempt to find out where it originally came from. If that's not possible, I give credit to the person who taught it to me in the hope that this information will offer some provenance beyond myself. My role as a teacher is to pass elements of the tradition along as I have received them from those who have had the skill and generosity to pass them along to me.

In today's Tango environment there exists a great deal of (let's call it) "creative exploration" in an attempt to recast the traditional dance in an entirely new light, to give Tango not just an overhaul, but a completely new identity. El codigo del Tango (the manner in which Tango is danced) has been turned completely on its head as a new population of dancers have made a push to put their own personal stamp on the tradition.

In my observation, there has been a distinct break with the long-standing codes of Tango in the service of constructing a totally new entity called "Tango Nuevo" or neotango. What I dance, what I teach, what I have spent many years trying to learn and perfect, is now dismissed by a certain group of dancers and teachers as "retro." The implication of such a comment is that my dance -- and the dance of everyone who helped to build the Tango tradition up to now -- is passé and somehow unworthy of emulation by this more "elite" group, who think of themselves as progressive innovators.

I don't agree.

I admire creativity. I admire invention. I admire the heady exhilaration of discovery. I believe that the way in which a tradition stays alive and well is through an ongoing process of imaginative evolution that includes and enhances the existing traditions. What I do not subscribe to, however, is the wholesale dismissal of a body of tradition -- out with the old, in with the new -- in order to forcibly transfer ownership to oneself rather than pay respect to, build on, and find a place of ones own within an existing tradition.

When I fell in love with Tango, my goal was to try my best to become as much as possible a part of a magnificent, unique tradition of dance. If my initial exposure had been to the colorless, acrobatic, exhibitionist melange one is exposed to today, I would have stuck with Foxtrot.

Just my opinion, folks. In the long run, of course, it will be up to you to make up your own mind.

 

July 14, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Recently, I met with a new student, who told me he had a very specific agenda of what he wanted to learn. This student had identified ten figures he had found on YouTube, which he said were his "project for the next two months." If he could master this material, the student felt, his progress in Tango would be right where he wanted it to be.

Under normal circumstances, I would have immediately told a student like this that I was the wrong teacher for him, and suggest that he look elsewhere. But this student had been recommended by a close associate, so I decided to take things a bit further.

"I'm not sure I'm the right teacher for you," I told him, "but let's look at one of the figures on your wish list, and take things from there."

The student brought up YouTube on his iPhone, and showed me a highly complex, multi-part sequence originally choreographed and performed by the late Osvaldo Zotto and his then partner Lorena Ermocida. "I figure," the student told me, "that if we mark it out today, I can get it pretty much in my mind, and then work out the finer points next week."

As it happened, I knew this material very well, since I had at one time actually learned it myself, a process which had taken me about three months of intensive work. (At that time, I had been dancing Tango for approximately twenty years.)

"How long have you been dancing Tango," I asked the student.

"Oh, you know, almost a year now," he casually replied.

Sigh.

To make a long story short, I decided to try working through the figure with the student and his partner step by step to find out what their actual skill levels were, and to determine how far we'd be able to realistically get in "marking out the sequence" by the end of the lesson. What I learned during this process was that -- as I had strongly suspected -- this couple had lofty ambitions, but very little in the way of a fundamental skill foundation on which to build such a sophisticated dance sequence.

Before I continue with the story, I want to spell out what I mean by "a fundamental skill foundation." This couple wanted to incorporate the figure in question into their social dance. To do this, the very first skill set they would have required would be:

·      The development and implementation of individual dance posture at rest.

·      An in-depth understanding of -- and the ability to execute -- linear movement alone (forward, backward, to the side, in-place, and pause).

·      An in-depth understanding of -- and the ability to effectively overcome -- the crucial challenge of achieving absolute balance at the beginning and end of each individual movement.

There's a great deal of detail I'm leaving out here, because it would make this primary skill set list go on forever, but you get the idea. Can you do without these primary skills, and expect to become a credible Tango dancer? No, you can't; but lots of people -- maybe the vast majority -- don't give these things a second thought. "Let's just cut to the chase," they say. "We'll pick up that stuff some other time."

The second skill set would involve:

Fundamental linear movement with a partner. For social dance, this skill set incorporates the highly complex matrix of interconnected skills, which I usually refer to as the "lead/follow mechanism." (For stage dance, this skill is somewhat less essential, but certainly useful.) The second skill set also incorporates creating the necessary condition for balance at the beginning and end of every individual movement -- within the unique context of the dance partnership. This alone can take months -- sometimes years -- of intensive practice to accomplish.

Let's try one more level. The third fundamental skill set would focus on pivots and balance for forward and backward ocho as well as giro/molinete. The individual elements of this skill set are quite extensive, and absolutely demand concentrated, step-by-step development, followed by constant practice. During this multi-level process, simple sequences would certainly be incorporated by the teacher in order to integrate slowly developing individual skills into real-world dance situations. However, no competent teacher would even begin to think of starting the process by choosing a sequence like the one my student presented to me. This would be tantamount to fraud.

During the hour I spent with this particular dance student and his partner, it became clear to me that this individual was doing what so many Tango students routinely do in their efforts to learn this dance -- he was overreaching. He was basing his goals, not on building an actual foundation first, and then moving on. He wanted to achieve an end result immediately without putting in the time and effort to get there.

This doesn't work; it never has worked; it never will work. And yet, so many students keep banging their heads against the wall in pursuit of the fantasy -- rather than doing what's actually necessary to get there.

At the conclusion of the hour we spent together, the leader, said, "Okay, that was a good start; we can wrap it up next week, and move on to the next figure." I offered a short speech about the importance of primary skill development in advance of tackling such complex material.

The student adamantly disagreed. "That stuff is for beginners. We want to get this show on the road."

"Okay," I replied, and now said what I probably should have come out with right in the beginning. "But I'm afraid you're going to have to do it without me."

And I added, "Good luck."

 

July 7, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In last week's Tip I talked about how becoming a skilled Tango dancer depends to a large extent on developing a positive relationship with the learning process. At the end of the discussion I listed what I consider to be four crucial elements that make learning possible:

1.     Continuous, progressive work, focused in the right direction

2.     Infinite patience

3.     Humility

4.     A healthy sense of humor

Today, I'd like to talk briefly about these elements in detail:

Work

If you want to be a Tango dancer, wishing will definitely NOT make it so. You have to decide that you're going to put in a significant amount of time and effort to get the job done. This involves classes (at minimum) and, if you can afford it, ongoing private lessons with a competent teacher. It involves practicing on a regular basis in conjunction with your lessons, preferably with several different partners. And, of course, it involves dancing whenever you can. All these things are components of an integrated process, which committed dancers find not only useful, but very satisfying as they gradually progress from one skill level to the next. If you experience the learning process as painful, boring, or a necessary evil, you might want to start considering other pursuits.

Patience

There are lots of people who would like to KNOW how to dance Tango, but who really don't want to spend the time it takes to actually LEARN Tango. The learning process is not linear. You don't learn a specific skill, and move directly on to the next skill (although, to be sure, all of us wish that this were the case.)  Learning Tango is more like setting off on a journey, which takes you on a circuitous, winding road that keeps turning back on itself as you travel along. Each time you find yourself in the same place again, you realize that you've gained a little more skill, a little more insight, and a little more awareness of the enormity of what you're trying to accomplish. Continuing on such a journey demands infinite patience. People who want it all right now don't do well in this environment.

Humility

After your first year or so of studying Tango, you may find that you've actually picked up one or two rudimentary dance skills. At this point, you may start believing that you've somehow become a member of an exclusive club, that you're better than other dancers, that it's time for you to begin sharing your deep knowledge and insight with others -- by teaching everyone you meet on the dance floor what it's really all about. These thoughts and feelings are very common among beginners (people who were not born and raised in Argentina, and have been dancing Tango for less than, let's say, thirty five or forty years).

There’s only one way to handle such unproductive mental fantasies. Just don’t do it! No matter how much you’ve learned up to now, the journey even to minimal competence in Tango never ends. Stay curious; stay focused; stay humble. And please don’t teach.

Humor

I take Tango very, very seriously. I've been dancing -- and teaching -- Tango at a professional level for thirty years. Once in a while, I actually think I more or less know what I'm doing. A well executed ocho here, an impressive molinete there .... Then, I trip over my partner's feet (sorry, Pat!), or totally lose my balance during a simple walking step. Oops! I used to get embarrassed by things like this. I'm supposed to be an example to my students; I can't be seen making a mistake -- you know, all that kind of self-referential nonsense. Nowadays, when things go wrong, I just laugh. One more little thought I now make sure to pass on to my students as often as possible, and tell myself as well whenever I'm awake:

Remember, it's only dancing, folks.

Try saying that to yourself twice a day. Maybe even three times. When Tango makes you feel all dark and serious, take a deep breath, smell the coffee, and force yourself, if necessary, to engage in an extended giggle. It will do you a world of good. And somewhere along the way, all of this may help you -- as it has helped me -- to fall hopelessly in love with the learning process.

Next week, I'm going to talk about what I think of as the fundamentals of skill development in learning Tango. In the meantime, ask yourself how effectively and enthusiastically you put work, patience, humility, and humor into your own learning process. And whenever you get the opportunity, go out and dance.

 

June 30, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. I have a confession I want to make. It's a secret I want to share with you about me. Well, the fact is that anyone who knows me at all is already well aware of what I'm about to reveal to you, but here goes anyway: I love, I mean, I absolutely LOVE, the learning process!

There, I've said it.

I know, I know. This isn't big news, right? My students all know my secret. I love teaching. That's all there is to it. When I'm given the chance to show somebody something, I jump at the opportunity. I just can't get enough of teaching.

On the other side of the coin, I love learning, too. Being in the presence of an individual who's able to transmit a body of information to an audience in a way that works is for me miraculous to watch, and to participate in -- even when I already know the material they're teaching.

Wow!

There are lots of people who would like to KNOW things, but have a lot of trouble, when it comes to actually LEARNING them. Does this sound familiar? Many people are, in fact, scared to death of the learning process. They feel terribly uncomfortable, when they can't pick something up -- even a major skill like, let's say, Argentine Tango -- in five minutes or less. A little voice keeps telling them, "See, you'll never learn this: you don't have what it takes; look at everyone else; they're all getting it right away; you're the only one here who just ..." Well, you know the rest.

There was a time, when this would have described me to a tee. The thought that kept running around in my head was something like "Either you know things or you don't -- there's no way to go from ignorance to knowledge." I was completely paralyzed. And, frankly, all my attempts to learn even the simplest things failed. Either you know, or you don't.

Somehow, somewhere, I eventually found out about what I'm going to call process. To make a long story short, process is like a train you get on in order to get from point "A" (ignorance) to point "B" (knowledge). Along the way, you encounter all kinds of people, places, and things. You meet teachers, you discover learning methods, you become all-too-easily tempted by short cuts (YouTube comes immediately to mind), you immerse yourself in classes, practice, and lots of dancing (we're talking about learning Argentine Tango here, folks), and you discover the four crucial elements that make learning possible:

1.     Continuous, progressive work, focused in the right direction

2.     Infinite patience

3.     Humility

4.     A healthy sense of humor

Next week, we’ll talk about these four elements in detail. For now, I invite you to ask yourself how you feel about learning Tango. Are you in love with the process? Are you excited? Are you ready to do whatever it takes to become a Tango dancer? 

Let us know what you think.

 

June 23, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Leaders often contend that their followers don't seem to be able to do the right thing during a dance. "She just doesn't move fast enough," is one of the more common complaints. Another phrase I hear quite often is: "You were supposed to ..." followed by some elaborate explanation of a movement or sequence they somehow either forgot to lead, or provided a lead that was incomprehensible.

To this kind of all-too-familiar leader's fantasy I'd like to offer an alternative reality. Believe it or not, your follower is not a pre-programmed automaton whose mission is to react instantaneously to what may be in your head -- "I just found this really neat move on YouTube" -- but isn't in your lead. To go a step or two further, the way I'd like leaders to start thinking about the relationship between them and their followers is:

YOUR DANCE IS HER DANCE.

Let me try to clearly spell out exactly what I mean by this. Social Tango occurs in increments of one step. Not elaborate, multi-step sequences. One step. Your follower receives your lead to do something -- let's say, take a step to the side. She responds by executing that one single movement. She may respond immediately, if she's a seasoned follower (and if your lead is accurate). Or she may find herself having to process the lead a bit before taking action. Your job as a leader is to provide the lead -- and then to allow your follower the opportunity to respond to it, no matter how long it takes for her to do so. Only after her response -- which includes bringing herself into balance at the conclusion of the individual movement you just led -- should you be even thinking about what comes next.

An important part of your job as a leader is to carefully monitor how your follower responds to your lead for each movement you invite. Your subsequent actions depend entirely on the results of her present actions. Your dance is her dance.

Many leaders (maybe I should go further, and say most leaders) don't seem to get this. They may be focused on accurately remembering the components of a complex sequence; they may be thinking about getting it done at a specific speed (just the way those performers do it on stage!); they may be trying to incorporate a special movement technique while they're executing the sequence. But what they're most likely not paying attention to is how their follower is fitting into the equation. Except, of course, to lament the fact that "she's doing it all wrong," and if she were an ideal follower, she'd miraculously be able to do it right.

If you'd like to train yourself to become a competent leader of social Tango, here's where to start:

1.     Fix the idea firmly in your mind right at the outset that your follower's comfort comes first -- not the completion of a complicated sequence, and not rigidly maintaining a musical timing you may have in your head.

2.     Lead each sequence in increments of one step. Focus on producing a lead, which your follower can easily understand and execute.

3.     Monitor exactly how your follower responds to each lead. Notice in particular whether she has been able to successfully bring herself into balance at the end of each movement -- before you invite the next step.

4.     If at any time your follower seems to be in difficulty, slow things down or come to a temporary stop, if necessary -- rather than insisting on plowing ahead with your planned figure.

Try to always remember that in social Tango what your follower actually does in executing each movement is what must ultimately determine how you proceed in the dance. This is one of the most crucial considerations for a leader in making the dance work for both partners. Your actions depend upon her actions.

Your dance is her dance.

 

June 16, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. I have some breaking news for you, something you may not be aware of, something that maybe no one has ever told you before. Are you ready? Here it comes: Tango is a slow dance!

What? Tango is a slow dance? Really?

That's right, my good friends and neighbors. Slow.

S...L...O...W.

If you were born in Buenos Aires, and you learned your Tango by dancing socially in the milongas, you already know this, of course. On the other hand, if you learned here in the USA -- either in one of the dance schools, or worse, if you suffer from chronic YouTube-itis -- your Tango might currently resemble acrobatic speed walking more than real Tango.

I'm not blaming you for not realizing that Tango is a slow dance. It's not your fault. In this country, everything seems to move at a lightning pace. We walk fast, we talk fast, we eat fast, we feel the need to get it all done right now, this second, if not sooner. We multi-multi-multi-task. Why should our Tango be any different?

Okay, let's just take a minute. Let's take a nice, deep breath -- really deep -- and then let the air flow out slowly. Really. Try it right now.

Does it feel good? Do you have that ahhhhhhhhhhhh sensation? This is what your Tango should feel like. Just like the release from a long, deep breath.

One of the serious impediments to dancing Tango slowly is that we tend to think of the dance as a series of more-or-less rapid continuous steps, just like Foxtrot, or Waltz, or Salsa, or Swing. But this is not the case. Tango consists of a discrete series of individual movements, each of which has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. When you dance Tango, it's important to feel the totality of each step -- rather than just flowing from one movement to the next in an unconscious way.

I'd like you to try an exercise. Come on, humor me, okay? The next time you and your partner get up to dance, I want you to fix the following challenge clearly and firmly in your mind:

At the end of each step we take right now in this dance, we're going to come to a complete stop, and bring ourselves totally into balance.

That's the exercise. You can't take two, three, four, or five steps, and then stop. You can't fall to the other foot at the end of your step. You can't use weight changes in place as a substitute for balance. You can't do anything unconsciously. Each step has a beginning (the lead/follow), a middle (the travel), and an ending (the balance). Your job -- whether you're a leader or a follower -- is to notice each component of each step.

If you're in the habit of speed-walking your Tango, this exercise will feel really weird. It will be a technique you've never tried before -- stopping completely between one step and the next. At first, you probably won't like it at all. But very gradually -- if you persevere with the exercise -- you'll begin to discover a new kind of control over your overall movement within the dance.

Quiet balance between steps. You may even start adding this newly discovered technique to your normal Tango repertoire. And if so, you'll be dancing much more closely to the way they do in Buenos Aires. Wouldn't that be worthwhile?

Try the exercise. I think you'll like it.

 

June 9, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today I'm going to discuss a few of the important elements of behavior you should be aware of -- and that you should definitely put into practice -- in order to fit in well on the dance floors of Buenos Aires.

Getting the ball rolling

It is customary for milonga patrons to reserve a table in advance before attending an event. This can easily be handled by your hotel. If you arrive at a milonga without a reservation -- or even if you have one -- wait for your host to seat you. Never simply try to find a seat by yourself.

If you as a woman arrive at the milonga with your partner, and sit with each other, don't expect anyone else in the room to ask you for a dance. Argentine men will always avoid making contact with an accompanied woman out of respect. The current (long-standing) tradition at the milonga is that unaccompanied people dance with one another; couples dance only with each other.

If you're a woman, and a man approaches you directly, recognize that this is considered insulting in Argentina. Your appropriate response to such behavior is to simply ignore that person entirely, or say "No gracias" and then turn away.

On the other side of this equation -- as a man, the custom in Argentina is to use el cabeceo whenever you want to invite a woman to dance. Never approach a woman directly.

In the USA it is fast becoming more common -- and more acceptable -- for a woman to invite a man to dance (although many women in this country still feel uncomfortable about this practice). In Argentina, however, women never invite men to dance. This behavior may change in time, but as of now, it is the accepted practice.

Rules of the road

These are a few tips for men (leaders), when dancing Tango. They absolutely apply at the milongas of Argentina, and fall under the heading of "best practices" when dancing anywhere:

When entering the la pista (dance floor) before dancing begins, you can place yourself and your partner anywhere there's room. On the other hand, when entering while a dance is in progress, always try to position yourself on a corner, if it is practical. This helps to insure that you disrupt the flow of movement as little as possible.

Your first step as you begin dancing should almost always be to the side (rather than forward or backward). Milongas in Argentina are routinely very crowded, and a step to the side is the least potentially dangerous move a leader can make.

In starting a dance, never -- never, never -- begin by stepping backward. This puts everyone behind you in serious danger. Furthermore, as the dance progresses, avoid backward steps except in extreme circumstances. If you must step backward for any reason, it is not your partner's responsibility to prevent you from stepping backward without thinking. Always -- always, always -- be absolutely certain to look behind you first to make sure you won't risk colliding with other dancers.

Always pay careful attention to couples in front of you and your partner. Try your best to notice their habits while they dance. If one or more of the leaders ahead of you is dancing dangerously, give him and his partner a wide berth.

If your dance is based on improvising one step at a time, your chances of avoiding accidents will be greatly reduced. On their other hand, if you're constantly trying to remember and execute memorized sequences you picked up in your dance lessons, the chances of crashing into other people is significantly increased. Your job is to avoid sending your own partner crashing into the woman in front of you on the dance floor at all costs. And at times, even under ideal circumstances, this can be very tricky.

When accidents occur -- and, believe me when I tell you that they absolutely will -- always try your best to acknowledge them by saying "sorry," "disculpe," "lo siento," or something appropriate (here's where those Spanish lessons will pay off) in order to diffuse the potential anger which might be caused by such occurrences. You should do this whether or not you were the cause of the incident. Never simply ignore a problem that occurs, or, worse, glare at the other couple as if to blame them for their obviously inappropriate behavior.

The flow of movement on the dance floors of Argentina is counterclockwise, just as it is here in the USA. Because the dance floors are generally very crowded, it is common for there to be not one, but two -- and sometimes three -- concentric lines of dance. Once you've chosen the outside, middle, or inside line -- or had it chosen for you by circumstances -- stick to it throughout the dance. Don't weave between one line of dance and another, even if you notice that others seem to be doing this. This is inappropriate behavior.

Traditionally, Argentine people dance very simply. The overall objective of a given dance is to enjoy an intimate experience with one's chosen partner for the duration of a complete tanda -- not to showcase your latest YouTube-derived stage-Tango material. Unless you're suddenly invited to perform (which, trust me on this, you won't be), please don't try anything "fancy." This kind of behavior marks you not as a superstar, but as a menace.

As mentioned last week, don't start dancing to individual songs within the tanda just as the music begins -- as we tend to do in the USA. In Argentina, it is customary to wait 15 to 20 seconds before beginning a new dance. During this time, you're supposed to chat amiably about inconsequential frivolities (or whatever). Here again is where those intensive Spanish lessons will come in handy. Otherwise, smile and nod politely, and this should to the trick. If you're not used to the practice of waiting to start the new dance, watch what others around you are doing, and eventually you'll get the hang of it.

Endgame

At the conclusion of a tanda (usually four Tangos, three Valses, or three Milongas), it is customary for the man to politely escort his current partner back to her table. (If you're a couple, you will, of course, return to your seats together.) It is looked upon as rude to simply walk away, leaving one's partner stranded in the middle of the floor.

Sometimes, a woman may find it necessary to abandon a partner during the middle of a tanda. There are, of course, many possible reasons for this, but once in a while, ladies, you gotta do what you gotta do -- in order to get yourself away from an offensive partner as quickly as possible. Bear in mind here that this is the ultimate insult to an Argentine man, and you should try not to walk away just because his tie is on crooked. But if he causes serious offense, you owe it to yourself to be brave, and walk away. If this results in him leaving the milonga in great embarrassment -- as he almost certainly will -- you've done the rest of the women in the room a real favor.

As a man, on the other hand, it is not chivalrous, and never appropriate to abandon a woman in the middle of a tanda. Even if she turns out to be a nightmare as a dancer, you made your choice, and now it's up to you to fulfill your responsibility. Grin and bear it, my friend. You only have two or, at most, three dances left before you can head for the bar, and get yourself a stiff drink.

Oh yes, and one more thing: Don't ever -- ever, ever -- teach on the dance floor. Not in Argentina, not in the USA, not anywhere. Never, ever.

Whew. I feel so much better now.

 

June 2, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, we're going to talk about tandas. In general, the Spanish word tanda refers to a "group" or "bunch" of things. In the case of Tango, the word refers to a group of songs. (In English, we might call such a group a "set.") When you attend most milongas in Argentina today, the DJ (or in very rare instances the live orchestra) will probably offer three or four revolving tanda cycles for you to dance to:

First tanda

The first tanda will consist of four Tangos, usually at a more or less specific tempo (speed), usually by a single composer or orchestra.

Second tanda (optional)

Following this, there will often be a second tanda of four Tangos, this time by a different composer or orchestra, played at a different tempo.

Third tanda

The third tanda will consist of three (or, less often, four) Valses, usually at the same general tempo, and by the same orchestra or composer.

Fourth tanda

Finally, the DJ will offer a tanda of three (or very rarely, four) Milongas, once again generally showcasing a single tempo, as well as a single orchestra, and/or composer.

La cortina

Between each tanda the DJ will insert what is called a cortina. The word itself means "curtain," in English, and refers to a short (25- to 30-second) snippet of non-Tango music, which is designed to announce the end of the tanda.

How tandas keep things going at the milonga

At the milonga, people adhere to the structure described above in the following way:

As the first tanda begins, a man invites a woman to dance, using el cabeceo. (For a detailed description of this highly idiosyncratic practice, please go to the Firehouse Tango Web site, and read our Tango Tip of May 12, 2016 in the archives). If all goes well with the couple, they remain together for the entire duration of the tanda. Between individual songs, they chat amiably about matters of interest to them at the time. As is the custom in Argentina, their conversation actually extends through the beginning of each new song, and the couple starts to dance about 15 to 20 seconds into the song. Tourists are often confused by this practice, and begin to dance right at the beginning of each song. But they learn quickly that the observance of local protocol dictates a slight delay in the action.

At the conclusion of each tanda -- as the brief cortina is playing -- the man thanks the woman for her company, and escorts her back to her seat. He then either returns to his own place, or uses the cabeceo once again in order to invite another woman to dance.

If a man is uncertain about the ability of a potential partner, he may opt to invite her to dance after the beginning of the tanda, perhaps at the start of the second -- or even the third -- song. In this way, he limits his liability, if she proves to be a difficult partner for him. On the other side of the coin, if a woman is dancing with a man she absolutely can't stand, she may opt to thank him abruptly at any time during their partnership, and walk off the floor. As discussed in a previous Tango Tip, this is the ultimate insult a man can receive at the milonga, and, should such a thing occur, he will most probably feel compelled to leave the building immediately.

The rest interval

At some point during the evening, usually after the end of a full cycle of tandas, the DJ may choose to play a Swing, a Latin dance such as Salsa, Cha Cha Cha, or Merengue, or some other piece of music, which has nothing to do with Tango, Vals, or Milonga. The purpose of this practice is to give people a longer break between tandas. During this interval, some people dance, while others sit and relax, visit the bathroom, or go outside for a cigarette.

Chacarera!

Knowledgeable dancers from Argentina love to get together and participate in a type of folk tradition called Chacarera. This is basically a memorized series of connected sequences vaguely comparable to English Country Dance, Israeli Hora, or American line dancing. DJs occasionally offer Chacareras during an evening of dancing as rest intervals -- but, as you'll see for yourself the next time you visit Argentina, a Chacarera is anything but "rest."  It's a time to kick out the blocks, hoop and holler, spin and jump, and generally have an absolutely wild time. Teachers here in the U.S.A. sometimes offer classes in this wonderful Argentine folk dance to prepare you for trying out your newly learned skill, when the DJ decides to play a Chacarera at a milonga in Buenos Aires -- if you have the courage, of course.

Next week, we'll talk about several important elements of behavior on the dance floor you should know about in order to fit in well on the dance floors of Buenos Aires. See you then.

 

May 26, 2016

 

Hi everyone, Pat here. When last we heard from our heroine on her first trip to Buenos Aires, she was climbing the stairs to El Beso Milonga – the moment of truth was at hand …

As you emerge into the milonga, the music and the atmosphere are overwhelming. Your group checks in, and makes its way over to a table near the edge of the dance floor. The couples on the floor look so good – dancing together to the music all in a general movement around the floor.  There is so much to take in; you hardly hear the group leader saying that if you want to dance, you must go and sit in the area where the other ladies are waiting … for the cabeceo.

Getting Seated 

You follow the others in your group. One of them, who has taken this tour before, says that because it’s your first time, you should sit somewhat apart from them – otherwise the milongueros who know them will only dance with them and not you. What? That’s not fair, is it? “Fair” is not a part of this game. Unfortunately, these guys will always opt for someone whom they know can dance, rather than take a chance on someone new.

Alone 

You move to a seat that is separated from your group, feeling apprehensive.  The music starts a new tanda, and across the room you see the cabeceo in action – a silent communication from afar. Ladies all around you are getting up and walking towards the dance floor. You forget that you are supposed to stare across the room and look for the nod … you are watching the women and the meetings on the dance floor …. And then the music starts and you are sitting alone. Your eyes were all over the place, and now they are down.

Complete failure.

Ladies Room

You get up and go to the Ladies Room to pull yourself together. You practice your stare in the mirror – no, not a deer in the headlights. Try a look of confidence. That’s more like it.

Is it me?!!

Back out to your seat. You try to breathe evenly. The tanda is coming to an end. Stop blinking. Don’t let your head turn or move about. DO NOT LOOK DOWN. Look across the room …. Oh, my goodness, is that man looking at you??? You’re not sure, but keep looking his way. You see him nod and it has to be you. You nod to him. He starts walking over towards your seat, and as he nears, you see he’s looking at the woman behind you …. Oh no, you are frozen, not breathing. You watch as they go onto the dance floor. They both look good. They must know each other.

Ladies Room II

Another escape. You try to relax. It’s OK, only the first cabeceo you’ve failed. Practice your stare again. RELAX. Imagine you’ve been doing this for years. Back out to your seat.

Getting the hang of this …

OK, the tanda has ended, and dancers are returning to their seats. You are relaxed, your breathing is normal, you are staring across the room (yes, you’ve been doing this for years…) You see someone – a nod – you nod back. As you are watching him cross the room towards you, you notice another milonguero who also seems to be approaching you. The first milonguero is now offering his hand. You take it, while glancing at the second man who hesitates for only a moment before continuing on towards the men’s room.

Reality!

Your milonguero starts talking to you as you both move onto the dance floor – you do not understand him, but smile and laugh a lot. Soon, he takes you in the dance embrace, and merges with the other dancers – you have little time to think, and you just move with him around the floor. Somehow, everything you’ve been learning in your lessons is far away. At the end of each song, everyone on the floor stays and chats until the music starts again. You smile and laugh, nod your head, and dancing commences once more. There are no fancy steps, just dancing – very close -- to the music. When the tanda is over, and you are escorted back to your seat, it could definitely be said that you are on cloud 9!!

No longer alone

You feel like joining your group again – this experience has been pretty overwhelming and more than enough for one night. Things will never be the same now. You have come through the rapids, and are safely in calmer waters. You have met and overcome a unique challenge, which you never need to worry about again.

This trip is going to be great!

 

May 19, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we talked about the way in which men invite women to dance at the milongas in Argentina. It is most often called el cabeceo. If you're not familiar with this technique, go to the Firehouse Tango archives, and read last week's Tango Tip (May 12, 2016) for a full description of how this long-standing traditional way of doing things works.

What I described last week is, in fact, the only acceptable way for a man to ask a woman for a dance in Argentina. Any other invitation (such as approaching her table directly the way we might do in the USA, for example)) would be considered insulting, and you would immediately be rebuffed (at least by a knowledgeable follower).

Although el cabeceo generally functions very effectively in getting two people together on the dance floor, there are times when things don't quite go according to plan. Here are a few of the pitfalls you need to be aware of:

You can't see what's going on across the room

I know, I know, wearing glasses doesn't necessarily create the ideal Mr. Macho appearance at the milonga. But seeing what's going on across a room is crucial to the process of getting a dance! If you need glasses for distance, be absolutely sure to wear them. Otherwise you won't know whom to nod to, and whether or not the woman you've chosen is responding by giving you the nod back that she's ready to dance.

Eyes down means "no thank you"

If you're staring hard at a women, giving her your best cabeceo, but she's not staring back -- in fact, her eyes are down -- it either means she's asleep in her chair (just kidding), or she doesn't want you to approach her. Stare at someone else. You can give her another cabeceo later.

The two-woman dilemma

Occasionally, two women sitting near one another both respond to your cabeceo at the same time. Each one thinks you're giving her the nod, and each nods back at you. As you walk across the room, they both stand in expectation. You choose the woman you've actually been nodding at, and the other is left standing there, no doubt feeling that everyone in the room has witnessed the mix-up. No matter how much you try to apologize to her, she's almost certainly going to feel very unhappy in that moment. Be sure to try giving her the nod for the very next tanda, although, truth to tell, she may never look at you again (sigh).

The two-man dilemma

This situation is exactly the opposite of what I just described. You draw a bead on a woman, using your best cabeceo; she responds; you walk across the room to greet her ... and suddenly she walks right past you directly into the arms of the man who was sitting next to you moments ago. Oops! That's right; he gave her the nod at the same time, and she was actually responding to him rather than to you. There's only one thing you can do right now. Walk past her using your best nonchalant attitude, head for the men's room, refresh yourself, come back with a confident smile, and try, try again.

Disaster!

There are times when a woman may decide right in the middle of a tanda that she just doesn't want to continue dancing with you. It could happen after your first dance together. It might even occur in the middle of a dance. She abruptly stops, says "thank you," and walks off the dance floor. There could be many reasons such a situation might happen. But it doesn't matter. This is considered by Argentine men to be the very worst insult possible at the milonga. There you are, standing in the middle of the dance floor, and everyone has just seen your dance partner abandon you. At times like this, a typical Argentine man would not try to regroup by making a visit to the men's room. Instead, he would almost certainly leave the milonga and go home to lick his wounds while drinking a mate (or something stronger). What you choose to do, of course, is entirely up to you.

Next week, Pat will discuss dance floor issues like these from the follower's point of view. See you then.

May 12, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. During our last Tip, Pat treated us to her perspective regarding how a single woman arrives at a typical milonga and prepares herself for an evening of dancing. Today, we're going to talk about what happens next -- specifically, how a man and woman interact in the milonga environment in order to dance together.

Everything begins through a well-established, very practical ritual called el cabeceo.

El cabeceo -- the nodding of the head.

Before describing this somewhat complex convention in detail, let's back up for a moment. If a man approaches a woman directly at a milonga, let's say, by going over to her table and asking her to dance, such behavior is looked upon as an affront and an insult. Her mandatory response in such an instance will be nothing other than "no, thank you," followed by looking away in order to avoid any further contact. (Sometimes, predatory men may inflict themselves in this way on a foreign women who isn't familiar with the codes in the milonga; but they would never think of engaging in such impropriety toward an Argentine woman.)

In the USA, of course, our mode of behavior is precisely the opposite. If you want to invite a woman to dance, you approach her directly and say "may I have this dance?" or "would you care to dance?" If she consents, you make your way to the dance floor and enjoy at least one dance together. If for any reason she refuses your invitation, you walk back to your own seat, trying not to feel hurt or insulted by her very public rejection.

In Argentina, by contrast, this potentially uncomfortable -- to an Argentine man, often disastrous --moment just doesn't happen -- due entirely to the face-saving convention of el cabeceo.

Here is a description of how it works. In Argentina, generally speaking, single men and women are seated on opposite sides of the dance floor. When a man is interested in dancing with a particular woman, he attempts to make eye contact with her across the floor by staring at her. If she is interested in dancing with him, she stares back. (In this case, staring is not considered impolite as it might be here in America, but is actually essential to the process.) If she is not interested, she looks away, or simply avoids eye contact.

Once eye contact has clearly been established, the man nods at his potential partner. She nods back. This is el cabeceo. It consists of a very slight movement of the head (la cabeza) in order to indicate agreement and acceptance of the invitation.

Having successfully established contact, the man and woman come together on the dance floor, and -- if all goes well -- enjoy a series of dances, after which the man returns his partner to her table, thanks her politely, and the same ritual begins again in the search for the man's next potential partner.

What I've just described is what occurs, when everything goes according to plan. However, things occasionally don't work out quite that way. Next week, I'll discuss some of the things that can go wrong, sometimes resulting in very unintended consequences. In the meantime, give el cabeceo a try during your next milonga or practica. Maybe this traditional Argentine technique of choosing a partner will work well for you.

See you next week.

 

May 5, 2016

Hi everybody, Pat here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, Fran gave us a look at some long-standing Tango customs and traditions in Argentina. Today, we’re going to discuss the same ideas from a woman’s point of view.

Who are you?

You are a 40-something single female who has been learning to dance Tango for approximately 2 years. Tango is definitely taking over your life and you have saved for 6 months so that you can join a small group of women who are organizing a trip to Buenos Aires. You have planned your clothing several times, and are taking some new tango shoes that you have ordered online. You’ve worn them once and they make you feel quite different to the way you felt in your old ballroom shoes. You try to imagine what it will be like to actually dance with a real “milonguero.”  The fantasy fills almost every waking moment as you wait for the date of your departure.

In Buenos Aires

The day arrives; you meet your group and get on the plane.  You now have roughly 11 hours overnight flying straight as a die south, crossing the equator and on to the magic that you know awaits. You can’t sleep, and the flight seems endless. Morning comes and you are walking with your group through the airport to your transportation for the 45-minute ride to your hotel in an area called Recoleta. The hotel is small and quaint; the area bustling and decent.

So far, so good.

The Codigos (Codes

Your group meets in the hotel lounge to discuss plans for the evening – the milonga at El Beso has been chosen as your first stop. Certain traditions that are observed at milongas in Buenos Aires are discussed. Many of them apply to the leader, but the ones you have heard most about are that women sit on one side, men sit on the other. A man asks a woman to dance using el cabeceo – catching her eye from a relative distance and nodding. She nods back, if she accepts his invitation. They both arise together and walk towards one another, meeting on the dance floor.

Second Thoughts?

El cabeceo has been the one code of Tango that you have been worried about. If the milonga is crowded, how can you see who might be catching your eye? What if you mistake a nod to be for you, and it’s for the women next to you? (How embarrassing!)  What if no one nods at you? What if everyone on the other side of the room is a blur …. (don’t forget your glasses.) Here you are about to go to your first milonga in Buenos Aires, fulfilling your dream, and all you can think of are the worst possibilities!

Time to go to El Beso

That’s enough – your group is preparing to leave the hotel. You’ve got your new shoes in their special bag, plus a few personal items. No valuables or money. A short cab ride, and your group enters a building. You are directed upstairs to where the milonga is about to be held. The lighting is dim, the décor old-fashioned. As you climb the stairs, you feel transported into another world. You can hear the tango music. You can’t go back now. In a few more steps, you will be there.

To be continued…

 

April 28, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, we're going to begin taking a look at some long-standing Tango customs and traditions in Argentina, and discuss how these unique conventions determine the ways in which people interact with one another during a milonga.

Who are you?

Let's profile you a little bit before we continue. For today's discussion, we'll say that you're male, you've arrived at the milonga alone, and you don't have a reservation. The venue is Club Gricel, and your host for the evening, Hector Chidichimo, has sat you with one or more other single men. You've ordered una bottella de aqua con gas; i.e., a bottle of sparkling water. No wine for you tonight -- it'll interfere with your ability to dance at your peak, and you want to look especially good on the floor. 

Show time

Backing up just a tad, let's establish your arrival time for a typical evening milonga: somewhere between let's say 10:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. That's right. If you wanted supper beforehand, the restaurant you chose most likely hadn't even opened its doors until about 8:30 p.m. What had you been doing before that? If you were trying to make the most of your time in Buenos Aires, you were probably enjoying an afternoon milonga, which had started at 2:00, 3:00, or 4:00 p.m., and was scheduled to run until 9:00, 10:00, or even 11:00 p.m.! In fact, you had to tear yourself away from all the fun you were having in order to squeeze in a bite to eat before the main event.

What about the shoes?

Okay, there you are at Gricel. Do you start the ball rolling by changing into your shiny new dance shoes at the table? Definitely not! In fact, you've left those expensive shoes back at your hotel, because you've learned by now that only the tourists wear them at the milonga, and it's actually considered rude to change shoes at the table. You used to bring them with you, and change in the front before you made your way to your table; but by this time, you've gotten into the habit of opting for comfortable, snug-fitting street shoes with leather soles just like almost all the locals do.

Surveying the scene

As you look around the room, you notice that most men are wearing either suits and ties or sports jackets and dress shirts with open collar -- no blue jeans, no tee shirts, no sneakers. Women are all wearing dresses or skirts with blouses. As for seating arrangements, couples, groups who came to the milonga together, and single men have been situated on one side of the floor, while single women have been placed on the other side.

The night has begun. You're ready to initiate your first dance. Next week, Pat will talk to us about how a single woman enters a milonga and prepares herself for an evening of dancing.

See you then. 

 

April 21, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. As promised at the conclusion of last week's Tango Tip, we're about to examine Tango through the eyes of a seasoned milonguero in order to discover from his very practical point of view what we really need -- and don't need -- in order to dance Tango competently at a social level.

Our visiting maestro for today is the late, great Pupi Castello (Ernesto Norberto Castello, 1936-2007). Pupi often danced socially and performed with his pupil/dance partner Graciela Gonzalez (a fine dancer/teacher in her own right). You'll find lots of video on Pupi, performing with Graciela as well as with many guest partners on YouTube. Give yourself a treat and go there right now. I'll wait for you to come back ....

I was lucky enough to study with and talk to Pupi on a regular basis during his many visits to New York in the late 1990's and early 2000's. He became a prominent figure on the scene in NYC, and was always very generous in sharing his expertise and candid opinions with anyone who professed real interest in the subject of Tango.

Pupi maintained the refreshingly insightful position that social Tango was at heart a simple, easily accessible dance. This was in sharp contrast to the prevailing focus among teachers and students alike that Tango was an endless series of complex, difficult-to-learn figures, sequences and adornments, which could only be assimilated through years of intense dedication, not to mention consistent, heavy outlays of cash. (Just put more money in my pocket, pilgrim, and I'll show you the real secrets).

Oh yeah.

"Here's all you really need," Pupi used to tell us, "in order to dance just like a milonguero anywhere in Argentina."

"First," he would say, "you need to learn how to walk -- not just forward, backward, and to the side, but also la cadencia, and la pausa." By la cadencia, he meant the weight change in place; by la pausa, he was talking about the ability to stop in balance at any time.

"Walking is the important skill," he would say with emphasis. "Learning to dance Tango is learning to walk properly. After that, you need forward and backward ochos, and giro. The rest is window dressing."

Wait a minute here! What about gancho? What about calicita? Parada? Sacada? Boleo? What about la cruzada?

"Window dressing."

Pupi would shrug his shoulders with feigned nonchalance as he watched us all break out into a cold sweat.

"That'll be $200 please."

The room erupted in laughter.

"What's the most important thing for a follower to learn?"

"How to stop," he would say, pronouncing each word very carefully. "Every step she takes ends in a stop. Then it's up to the leader."

Pupi Castello died in 2007. Those of us who knew, respected, and learned from him try our best to carry his wisdom forward. But as I look around at our current Tango scene here in the Big Apple, I can't help but thinking, "I really, really wish Pupi were here."

Next week, we'll begin to discuss some of the long-standing conventions, which define how dancers behave in the milongas of Buenos Aires, and what effect these distinctive traditions have on us.

See you then.

 

April 14, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I'd like to share with you some of my personal recollections about how the teaching of Tango evolved over time during the late 1980's and into the early 1990's here in the USA. As I remember, our first response to the 1985 lessons we were receiving from cast members of the show "Tango Argentino" was to view them as extensions -- albeit quite exotic -- of our own well-established ballroom tradition (by this time quasi-competition oriented). What I mean by this is that we automatically made certain assumptions about Tango, which ultimately turned out not to be true. The most consequential of these were the following:

·      That Tango ultimately consisted of a finite repertoire or "syllabus"

·      That like our own indigenous ballroom dances, this syllabus either was -- or at least could be -- codified into a graduated sequence of static, learnable figures, starting with a "basic" step, and moving on from there

·      That like our progressive dances (Foxtrot, Waltz, etc.), Tango was rooted in continuous movement

In hindsight, I think we (students and dance teachers alike) made these assumptions principally because:

1.     There was a profound disconnect between the way we viewed dancing, and the way   practitioners in Argentina did

2.     Neither we nor our Argentine mentors were aware of this fundamental disconnect

3.     Due to this crucial lack of communication, our early Argentine instructors -- of whom most were themselves oriented toward performance rather than social dance -- weren't able to provide us with what we needed in order to learn properly -- and we didn't even know the right questions to ask

Eventually, through the efforts of perceptive people who recognized the differences between Tango and our own conventions here in this country, a more authentic approach to learning this unique dance tradition began to emerge. With a more social-dance oriented crop of Argentine instructors coming to the USA on a regular basis during the early 1990's (thanks to the efforts of people like Daniel Trenner), we began to hear ideas like these:

"Tango is a way of walking" 

"Women need to wait at the end of every individual step they take"

"Tango is completely improvised both in its repertoire, and in the way one responds to its music"

"There are no 'steps' in Tango"

To us, these were at first nothing short of revolutionary concepts. They absolutely defied our established ballroom dance tradition. And as it turns out, however, understanding these radical notions was utterly essential to even beginning to comprehend Tango as it is danced in Argentina.

Though some students, teachers, and schools in this country continue to resist embracing the differences between Tango and "ballroom" dancing, most of us have over time come to accept that

·      Tango does not consist of a finite syllabus of memorizable figures -- it is indeed improvised in the moment. Or, as we hear again and again from our Argentine teachers, there are no steps.

·      Unlike what has come to be commonplace in our own partner-dance tradition, there is no basic step in Tango (from which other figures derive as variants).

·      The essential skill necessary to dance social Tango is the complex -- but precise -- mechanism of lead/follow.

The fundamental basis for movement in social Tango is not the so-called 8-count basic step (which is an invention designed to consolidate various individual skills into a recognizable sequence for teaching purposes only). Rather, the basis for social Tango is a single step (forward, backward, side, in-place), which has a beginning (lead/follow), a middle (traveling through space or in place), and an ending (balance at rest).

One of the difficulties with these ideas is that they're not sexy. Many male students continue even now to prefer the acquisition of elaborate stage figures over the slow and steady development of foundational skills. (Do you recognize yourself in this description?) At the same time, many female students continue to obsessively crave the latest adornments with which they choose to clutter up their dance rather than electing to move simply, with quiet elegance, finding stillness at the conclusion of their individual steps. These distortions of what in my opinion is appropriate in fostering and maintaining the social Tango tradition are lamentable, but, regrettably, all too common in our American dance culture.

One possible antidote to this behavior is to buy a ticket to Buenos Aires as soon as you can, go to the milongas, and see for yourself what choices the milongueros make in their dancing. You will, I hope, be humbled by their simplicity, and inspired to emulate their good taste.

Next week, we'll consider the make-up, construction and practice of Tango through the eyes of a seasoned milonguero -- who's going to spell out for us what we really need -- and don't need -- in order to be a good social Tango dancer.

See you then.

 

April 7, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. In Argentina, Tango is far more than simply a type of social dance that people do. The dance is circumscribed by a self-contained, highly complex culture, which exists within the overall Argentine society, maintaining its own very specific - some might say "entrenched" -- conventions and traditions. For the majority of people in the USA and throughout the world outside Argentina, our entry point into the culture of Tango is the dance. However, as many of us have discovered more and more about Tango over time, some have chosen to embrace not only the dance itself, but many -- if not all -- of the broader aspects of Tango culture.

With this in mind, over the next several Tango Tips, I'd like to discuss some well-established Tango traditions as they exist today among the milongueros of Argentina, and perhaps as they have become -- or in some case have not become -- valued and acceptable modes of behavior for us as well.

At the top of the list for most of us is the dance. When I personally became involved in Tango in 1986, I initially perceived it as an inherently beautiful way for a social dancer to move. I just had to learn this dance!

Tango seemed to me to be a welcome alternative to an American/European "ballroom" tradition, which I felt had lost its way. I felt that over the years, it had become codified, uncreative, and focused almost exclusively on putting money into dance teachers' pockets -- rather than introducing normal people to the joys of simple social dance.

My first exposure to actually learning how to dance Tango, however, was pretty much a disaster. The studio I was working for had hired some of the cast members of "Tango Argentino" -- the seminal Broadway show, which introduced so many people to the world of Tango -- to teach us all how to dance this newly discovered way to move. Because our teachers were themselves performers, they, of course, presented us with what we were used to -- choreographed patterns. I distinctly remember our very famous performer/teacher posing the question as I was trying to maintain a difficult position with my partner: "Was that last step Number 26 or 27?"

Help.

Eventually, I learned (through insightful teacher/practitioners such as Domingo Pugliese, Gustavo Naveira, Daniel Trenner, and Eric Jorrisen) that Tango was improvisational in nature. I also discovered that this unique dance incorporated what to Americans at the time was the alien concept of pure lead/follow rather than our then prevailing ballroom tradition of fixed step patterns. To me, this was -- and remains -- the key, which unlocks the door to Tango. If people take the time to become skilled leaders and followers, Tango opens itself up like a flower. Without lead and follow, it's just another memorized ballroom dance.

More about the dance next week, as I look at how Argentine and American teachers initially approached the teaching of Tango here in the USA during the 1980's and 1990's, and how things gradually changed from there.

See you next week.

 

March 31, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I'd like to continue talking about what I consider to be the anatomy of a single Tango step. For purposes of this discussion I'm going to focus on a step to the side. Such a step should be easy for you to visualize, and contains an obvious element of travel, which I'm going to offer below as a primary component of a single step.

If you were to watch a skilled Tango couple execute a step to the side, you'd almost certainly see that step as a single element within a continuum of other movements, which might come before or after. What you would not necessarily see are the internal dynamics of that individual step -- the things that make it viable both in itself and a part of the entire dance.

Here is what I mean. I'm going to break our step to the side down into what I think of as its three distinct parts:

Beginning: Initiation of the step (lead/follow)

Middle: Execution of the step (traveling through space)

End: Balance at the conclusion of the step

The beginning

The first part of our side step is its beginning. This is the moment in which the leader communicates his/her intent o the follower, (If you're familiar with the way in which I teach the lead/follow mechanism, you're aware that after placing the follower on one balance axis, the leader flexes the knees very slightly in order to lower the torso slightly -- thereby communicating that the ensuing movement will involve travel. Immediately thereafter, he/she actually moves to the indicated side, thereby inviting the follower to do the same.)

In this initiation of the step to the side, the leader and follower must be interdependent; i.e., they need to effect a two-way communication in order for this part of the step to work. If the lead is faulty in some way, the follower won't know what the leader wants. If the follower doesn’t understand the lead, the step won't work either. In other words the two participants have collaborative, complementary roles at this point in the process. They work together, and both have to know their parts.

The middle

Once the lead/follow mechanism has been successfully implemented; i.e., both partners know what is expected to happen next, the second part of the step commences. In this phase, the follower executes the invited movement (in this case, a step to the side). What is crucial to be aware of here is that the follower does this independently of what the leader may or may not do by way of accompaniment. The leader may, for example, choose to accompany the follower by also taking a step to the side. But that same leader might have other ideas. He/she might elect to remain still -- or to pivot, or perhaps to create some kind of entrada as the follower's legs come apart during the step.

The end

The final element in the movement is the end; i.e., the conclusion of the step. This is where both partners bring themselves independently into balance. The leader doesn't suddenly curtail the follower's momentum by using his/her arms or body. The follower doesn't grab onto the leader in order to prevent herself/himself from falling. Each of the partners concentrates on achieving independent balance at the end of the step. Such balance is only possible, of course, if the leader is not forcing the follower off axis, and if the follower is not "anticipating" the next possible step in the continuum. If both partners do their jobs here, the end of the movement results in what I like to call a neutral position. By this I mean that the follower is now ready for anything by virtue of being completely in balance, and the leader can therefore invite any further step or figure he/she may want.

·      At any point in the development of a single step, problems can begin -- and often do -- with a poorly executed lead.

·      They may start, if a follower doesn't feel -- or perhaps doesn't have the experience necessary to read a good lead.

·      If a leader shoves the follower into phase two (rather than inviting the movement and allowing her/him to accept and execute the invitation), the follower may have no inner resources with which to prevent a stumble or even a fall.

·      If a follower doesn't receive the lead and move both independently and dynamically through the travel phase, everything will almost certainly come to a sputtering halt.

·      If the leader is not acutely mindful of the follower's need to be allowed to balance independently at the end of a given movement -- or (less often) if the follower is somehow distracted about the need to finish each step in balance, even the simplest step may end in disaster.

Social Tango is made up of an ongoing series of single movements. Each one has to be confidently and carefully led/followed in order to succeed. As I hope you can see from this discussion, successfully navigating a single step involves a very specific, complex process. The upside of learning how to do it right, however, is that once you can take step one with skill and confidence, step two becomes relatively easy. And step three is a piece of cake!

 

March 24, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, I'd like to begin discussing what I consider to be the anatomy of a single Tango step. My hope is that this will prove useful to you in developing your skill as a dancer.

In approaching this subject, I'm going to start by giving you some preliminary information. One of the things I regularly tell my students is that Tango is a dance of movement and of stillness. What I mean by this is that unlike most progressive social dances we may have been exposed to in our country (Foxtrot, Waltz, etc.), Tango does not necessarily consist of continuous movement from one step to another. A very important element -- in fact, I would say, a defining characteristic -- of contemporary Tango is that after any given single movement, the leader can choose to bring himself and his partner to an absolute stop. Such a stop might be for one beat of music, or it might last for several beats before the leader elects to continue.

In contrast to this idea, a very common problem today, which we see throughout our Tango community, is the leader who simply barrels along non-stop from the beginning of every dance until the end. His partners never get the opportunity to experience even a single moment of balance during a given dance; in some cases followers have reported that they actually feel in danger while one of these whirlwind dances is in progress.

Learning to stop at the end of a given step is, in my opinion, one of the crucial skills in the development of a proficient Tango dancer. I like to teach stopping right from the beginning of a student's involvement in the learning process. My reasoning for this is that if leaders develop the habit of moving continuously as a fundamental skill, introducing the idea of stopping becomes much more difficult later in the process.

In my own teaching approach, the very first subject I focus on is what I call the lead/follow mechanism. If you've taken any of my classes -- or perhaps studied with me in the context of a private lesson -- you know that I propose a very specific and precise method of communication between a leader and a follower in order to produce movement (and non-movement) during a dance. I'm not going to define the dynamics of this mechanism right now, but if you need help with lead/follow, I suggest finding a teacher who can bring you up to speed regarding this essential aspect of dancing Tango -- before you do anything else!

Once a leader and follower understand -- and have the ability to utilize -- the lead/follow mechanism, the partnership becomes ready to address the dynamics of a single dance step.

In my teaching methodology, I categorize individual "dance steps" in the following way:

1.     Weight changes in place (movement from one balance axis to another without traveling through space)

2.     Pauses (no movement)

3.     Steps to the side (traveling through space to one side)

4.     Forward steps (traveling through space with the leader moving forward as the follower moves backward)

5.     Backward steps (traveling through space with the leader moving backward as the follower moves forward)

6.     Pivots (rotating on the ball of one foot in order to produce a change of direction)

Next week, I'll define what I think any of these steps consists of. Then, I'll talk about what each of the partners needs to be aware of -- and to actually do -- in order to make a single step work.

 

March 17, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Since November 5 of last year (2015), I've been concentrating exclusively on what is often called "musicality;" i.e., responding to a piece of Tango music as a leader in a way which acknowledges the rhythm/melody in an appropriate and personal way.

In total, I've offered 16 Tango Tips devoted to this single subject. During this discussion, we've learned (I hope) that --

·      Music consists of various kinds of beats

·      These beats can be recognized, when heard by a knowledgeable dancer

·      These beats can be defined in musical terms

·      This ability may help to some degree in the process of actually dancing to a piece of music

Nonetheless, if you're new to the idea of musicality in Tango -- even if you've been following this discussion diligently -- you still may experience difficulty, when it comes to actually being able to move musically to a piece of Tango music with confidence and skill.

One possible factor in this dilemma might be your prior orientation in learning how to dance. If you've studied any of the American/European/Latin dances, for example, one of the first things you were almost certainly taught was a "basic step" -- a series of fixed, sequential movements, which consisted of a rigidly prescribed internal rhythm of some kind. Such information probably enabled you to begin moving to the music of a particular social dance form more or less immediately.

When learning Tango, on the other hand, you quickly found out that there is NO basic step to rely on, and that there is NO fixed rhythm whatever. Everything is improvised by the leader. Therefore, for those of us who come from the American/European/Latin tradition, Tango is totally alien to anything we've ever been exposed to in our experience. It is little wonder that Tango is perceived by many of us to be -- at least initially -- an almost insurmountable challenge.

Furthermore, the fact is that everything we've talked about in this somewhat lengthy and (sorry about that) technical discussion of musicality in Tango really just gets us to square one. Without a "basic step" for us to rely on, most of us start out by feeling paralyzed to move at all, at least in the beginning. Over time, however, and with the appropriate training and motivation, we can gradually adapt to the notion that our job as leaders is to make up our own individual way of interacting to the music -- that in Tango, we improvise not only the individual movements and sequences, but the rhythmic response as well.

Before I leave this topic, I want to address one other question that often comes up in discussions about musicality. Do we respond to the underlying rhythm (as I've been suggesting throughout this series of Tango Tips) or to some other aspect of the music? Some people advance the idea that at least at the highest levels, we can choose to dance to the melody, or that we can pick some specific aspect of the music -- the bandoneon, the violin, the piano, the vocal -- and move to that. From observing a great many social Tango dancers native to Argentina, I have come to the conclusion that dancing to the music of Tango is primarily a rhythmic undertaking rather than one, which is melodic. I don't mean that nobody dances to the melody; only that the majority of people I have observed over the years seem to move -- either instinctively or by choice -- to the rhythm of the music as a matter of course.

Next week, I'm going to begin another topic, but I'd welcome any questions or thoughts you might have about the subject of musicality.

See you next week.

 

March 10, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. As promised at the conclusion of last week's discussion, we're now going to talk about what I consider to be the three basic techniques for executing traspies within Tango, Milonga, and/or Vals Cruzada. You will remember, of course, that a traspie (as I describe it) is a double-time sequence in which quarter note timing is incorporated by the leader in a brief burst of increased speed and intensity in order to add rhythmical variation to a dance. (For a more detailed examination off hat I mean by traspie, please reread last week's Tango Tip -- March 3, 2016.)

To start with, let's talk about timing. In observing seasoned milongueros in Buenos Aires as they dance, I have been able to identify four common quarter-note timing variations for traspie sequences:

·      2-beat sequences

·      3-beat sequences

·      4-beat sequences

·      5-beat sequences

The most prevalent of these in my experience is the 3-beat sequence. For this reason, when teaching traspie, I generally begin with this timing -- and I'm going to assume it as the basis for my description of what I consider to be the three fundamental traspie techniques below.

Technique #1: La cunita (rocking forward and back)

In Spanish, a cunita is a "little cradle." The action for the leader in performing la cunita involves rocking forward and backward (rock-a-bye, baby, anyone?) In English, we would generally call such a sequence of movement a "rock step." In its basic form, this rocking action consists of a three-beat (three-quarter-note) sequence. At a moment of his choosing, the leader rocks forward, then backward, and finally, forward in order to complete the three-beat sequence. One example of placing this sequence within a two-measure musical phrase might be the following:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

The underlined beats above represent the physical placement of a typical three-beat traspie. American ballroom dancers might characterize the timing of such a sequence as "quick-quick-slow." (In this case, the quicks would represent quarter notes and the slow would represent a half note.) Such a movement can start with either the left or the right foot. As mentioned earlier, la cunita as well as other types of traspie are not limited to three beats. I am describing the three-beat movement as a basic iteration of the technique.

Technique #2: La cadencia (rocking in place)

Using the same three-beat timing, a leader might choose to rock from one balance to the other with his/her feet together. Such a sequence is sometimes referred to as a cadencia -- which simply means "a beat." In terms of weight placement, the three-beat sequence would begin either with the leader's left foot or his/her right foot. Thus, the sequence would be defined as either left-right-left or right-left-right. La cadencia is almost always more difficult for a beginning student to execute than la cunita, since it involves no traveling through space. This means that the lead/follow mechanism needs to be considerably more precise.

In teaching la cadencia, I generally begin by asking the student leader to step forward alone with the left foot. This places his/her weight solidly on the left. Then, I ask the leader to rock from side to side with his/her feet together -- i.e., without traveling through space -- in the three-beat traspie. Finally, I direct the leader to again step forward with his/her left foot in order to exit the sequence. The point of this process is to ensure that the leader executes the entire three-beat cadencia as an isolated series of continuous movements in place.

After this, I ask the leader to attempt la cadencia with a partner, using the lead/follow mechanism. For most beginning students, this is far more difficult to accomplish, and takes a great deal of lead/follow repetition before it feels right between the partners.

Once the basic three-beat sequence has been mastered, the dancers can then be taught to slowly and deliberately graduate to more sophisticated variations of this very versatile technique, incorporating two-, four-, and even five-beat iterations, coupled eventually with multiple entrances and exits.

Technique #3: La corrida (the run)

The term corrida in Spanish means "run." When we're talking about Tango, running means incorporating quarter-note timing (You remember what that means by now, right?) for a short sequence of steps. As with la cunita and la cadencia, we're going to limit ourselves to a basic three-beat corrida -- what we might call a corridita or "little run."

In a typical three-beat corrida, the leader takes (yes, you guessed it) three short steps forward, at the same time leading the follower to take three short steps backward.

Nota bene: Such a deceptively simple -- but, in fact, extremely complex -- sequence is, in my opinion, very difficult to accomplish, and demands the assistance of a teacher in order to do correctly. For this reason, I'm not going to attempt to describe the special lead/follow technique necessary to execute la corrida. I will instead refer you to your teacher to help you get things started properly. Take my advice here, and don't try to learn la corrida by relying on wishful thinking, chutzpah or YouTube.

Typically, a corrida would be placed within a musical phrase in the same way as a cunita or cadencia. Take a look at last week's Tango Tip, and you'll find eight places in a typical two-measure phrase from which you as a leader can initiate any three-beat (quarter-note based) traspie sequence. Bear in mind, however, that without the right training la corrida can easily result in stepping on your partner's feet at minimum, and/or actually knocking both dancers to the floor.

Please do the right thing, and learn how to do this through a qualified teacher.

As with virtually all other Tango skills, what I'm going to call the art of traspie is discovered by Argentine milongueros through many years of dancing. Although traspie can certainly be introduced in the analytical way I'm using here, mastery of this highly complex technique in all its forms takes many years of skill development, practice and experience. If you put in the time and effort, progress will eventually result. On the other hand, if you expect it to happen automatically, you're in for nothing but disappointment and frustration.

Next week, I'm going to conclude this very fundamental introduction to musicality in Tango with a few final thoughts about the subject. In the meantime, if you have questions, observations, or complaints, I'd love to hear them.

 

March 3, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Last week, we took a little time out from our planned agenda to clarify -- specifically for our non-musician readers -- exactly what the words quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes actually mean. I hope that last week's Tango Tip served to make these concepts somewhat easier to understand. In fact, if you have a few minutes, it might make sense to reread that Tip (February 25, 2016) in order to get these ideas fresh in your mind.

Today, we're going to get back on track by taking a look at one more category of basic timing. Before we start, however, let's recap a bit. In our ongoing discussion so far, we've examined in some depth the following elements of Tango movement (defined in terms of timing):

·      Half-note movement (February 4, 2016)

·      Whole-note movement (February 11, 2016)

·      "Long-pause" movement (February 18, 2016)

These three "basic" categories of movement, used in an improvised way, enable the leader to respond rhythmically to Tango music in a precise, informed manner. He/she can, of course, choose forward, backward, side, or in-place steps as he/she applies these rhythmic elements. At a more advanced level, he/she can also opt for forward or backward ocho, molinete, boleo, sacada de la pierna, calicita, and many other elements within the Tango repertoire.

As stated previously, people from Argentina who have been dancing in the milongas for many years have usually developed such rhythmical expertise by "picking it up" over time -- i.e., by emulating other dancers -- rather than by learning in the analytic way we're attempting to incorporate here. This process, of course, takes a lifetime on the dance floor. As would-be dancers from outside the Argentine tradition, we have little choice but to rely on an analytic method of learning, at least as a means of getting things started.

To continue with our examination of basic rhythmical response to Tango music, we're now going to focus on what I think of as the fourth category of movement -- "doubling the time," sometimes referred to as traspie. The word traspie literally means stumbling or tripping. A traspie, therefore, might be considered the equivalent of what American swing dancers sometimes call a "hitch step." For this part of our discussion we're going to return to the element we defined in our Tango Tip of January 28, 2016 -- the quarter note.

You may recall that a quarter note takes its name from the fact that each measure or bar of 4/4 music contains four quarter notes; i.e., each individual note takes up one quarter of the measure. If we offer a graphic representation of this concept, showing a two-measure phrase, it might look like the following:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

The quarter notes are those, which are underlined in the graphic. Furthermore, if we now return to our representation of the signature phrase of "La Cumparsita," we have the following:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 ....

Again, the quarter notes are the ones underlined in the graphic.

When we originally talked about quarter notes, we said that if a leader tried to actually dance to these beats for any length of time, he/she would become exhausted within just a few seconds. Even during a relatively slow Tango continuous quarter notes would just be too fast to handle. However, if that same leader were to use a very small group of such beats every once in a while -- let's say, short bursts of three at a time -- this would pose little or no problem once he/she had learned, practiced, and integrated this skill.

A double-time sequence -- what I refer to as a traspie -- might be defined then as a short burst of quarter-note beats, danced occasionally by a couple within a Tango (or Vals or Milonga), in order to create a momentary variation in the ongoing cadence of the dance. A traspie might be incorporated by a leader to punctuate a specific phrase in a given piece of music, or simply because he/she feels the inclination to vary the beat at any given moment.

As mentioned above, a typical traspie might consist of three sequential quarter notes within a phrase of music. Referring back to our graphic representation of a standard two-measure phrase, we would, therefore, have the following opportunities for incorporating traspie:

All quarter notes within the phrase are underlined:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

Individual possibilities for three-beat quarter-note traspies are underlined:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 / 1 - .... (traspie extends into the next phrase)

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 / 1 - 2 - .... (traspie extends into the next phrase)

I hope it's obvious that there are actually eight opportunities within any two-measure musical phrase to create individual three-beat quarter-note traspies. Depending on which piece of music he/she is dancing to, any given leader might feel, of course, that certain of these possibilities work better than others. This would be a matter of personal choice.

Taking the idea of traspies a bit further, if a leader were to decide to incorporate multiple three-beat quarter-note traspies within a single phrase, the possibilities would increase exponentially. Below are just a few possibilities for multiple three-beat quarter-note traspies with a single two-measure phrase:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

Another consideration is the length of any given traspie. To keep things (relatively) simple, I've limited our discussion to three-beat traspies, However, it's certainly possible to extend the total number of beats within any given traspie to at least five quarter notes. Below is an example of one five-beat quarter-note traspie plus a three-beat traspie within a two-measure phrase:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 / 1 - ....

And finally, an example of two five-beat quarter-note traspies with an extended phrase:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 / 1 - 2 - 3 - ....

As a leader, it's up to you to choose a single three- or five-beat traspie, or a multiple combination within any given musical sequence. The possibilities are limited only by your sense of musicality, your own level of skill, and your personal creativity. In order to clarify exactly how traspies can be incorporated within a sophisticated, musically diverse dance, next week I'm going to discuss what I consider to be the three basic types of technique, which leaders can use in creating three- and five-beat traspies. We've talked about this before, of course, but I think it bears repeating in this context.

See you then.

 

February 25, 2016

Hi everybody Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. At the end of last week's Tip, I suggested that we would spend this week talking about "double-time" movements in Tango. However, today I want to focus instead on clearing up what I think may be a misunderstanding among non-musicians about what I mean, when I refer to quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes.

Nota bene: If you're a trained musician, this discussion will probably drive you crazy. Instead of continuing to read the rest of this Tip, you might want to consider practicing your balance, your lead/follow, or whatever else needs your attention.

Okay, here we go. One of my students (who is a non-musician), asked me recently why the terms quarter note, half note, and whole note are used to define the beats of music that we're attempting to identify and respond to as we listen to a piece of music. It sounded to him, he said, as if a whole note meant a whole beat -- and that therefore a half note meant half of a beat, and a quarter note meant one quarter of a beat. I told him that this was a misinterpretation of what I was talking about, and that I would take time to clarify what these terms mean to a musician.

In music, a basic unit of time duration is called a "measure" or "bar." When we represent music in a score, we subdivide each horizontal area into measures, divided vertically by bar lines. (If you take a look at any piece of written music, you'll be able to see this immediately.)

Each measure or bar has the potential to contain what we'll call "beats" of music. This potential is defined in advance by what is referred to as a "time signature." Look to the left of a line of any musical score, and right past the swirly "clef" sign (which we won't discuss here) you'll see fractions such as 4/4, 2/4, 3/4, 6/8, and so forth. This tells you the potential of that particular piece of music as defined by the composer or arranger. For example, the time signature 4/4 means that each measure within that piece of music has the potential to contain 4 quarter notes. If the time signature were 3/4, it would mean that each measure would have the potential to contain 3 quarter notes.

Got it? Are you still awake? I know, I know, but let's travel a little further down this rabbit hole anyway.

I'm going to break down a single measure of 4/4 time music. Remember that the potential here is for 4 quarter notes. First, we'll count from 1 to 4:

1-- 2 -- 3 -- 4.

These are the quarter notes within our musical measure. For our purposes, they represent 4 individual beats, which we can hear and respond to. Let's infer from this that each of these beats represents one quarter of the entire measure. This is what musicians mean, when they talk about quarter notes: Each individual beat refers to one quarter of the total musical duration of the measure. 

Two quarter notes equal one half note. This means that one half note takes twice as much musical duration as two quarter notes. A half note takes up exactly half of the measure. That's essentially why we call it a half note. Right here, we'll count from 1 to 2.

1 -- 2 ...

If we want to acknowledge that our quarter notes are there, too -- even though if we're counting the half notes, the quarter notes are only implied -- we might represent our half note count as:

1 . 2 . ...

In this case, we're emphasizing the half notes, but we're using the dots between our half notes in order to imply the potential existence of quarter notes.

Finally, one whole note equals 4 quarter notes (or 2 half notes) within our measure. The whole note takes up the whole measure in musical duration. It takes up the same space/time as 4 quarter notes, or 2 half notes. To represent the whole note within one measure, we would simply count it as:

1 ...

If we decide to acknowledge the half notes as well, our count would be:

1 . ...

In this case the extra dot after the number imply the existence of the other half note within the measure.

Finally, if we want to state the whole note, and at the same time imply the existence of all four quarter notes within the measure, our count would look like this:

1 . . . ...

In this case the three dots after the number represent the implied quarter notes.

Here is a graphic representation of one measure of music, with quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes precisely laid out one underneath the other:

Quarter notes:  1    2    3    4  ... 

Half notes:       1     .    2     .  ...

Whole notes:    1     .     .     .  ...

As above, the dots represent implied quarter notes.

Just to restate what I now hope is the obvious, a measure is a representation of musical duration. In 4/4 time, a quarter note represents one quarter of the total time duration of the measure. A half note represents one half of the total time duration. And a whole note represents the whole duration of the measure. That's what the words quarter, half, and whole mean.

Are we ready to move on? 

Hello?

For those of you who are still conscious, I'll see you next week.

February 18, 2016

Hello everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Are you still with me from last week, when we talked about responding to half notes in our dancing? As I mentioned at that time, there are lots of leaders both in Argentina and throughout the Tango community around the world who have essentially "solved" the challenge of musicality for themselves by simply dancing continuously to those half notes.

The dots below indicate how these leaders attempt to move to every two-measure musical phrase:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - ....

.     .      .     .

If we were to place the half notes into our two-bar phrase from "La Cumparsita," the way these dancers feel comfortable moving would plot out like this:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

.     .       .           .

Moving in this way is not necessarily a conscious decision, but rather a way in which many leaders have become accustomed to responding to music over many years of dancing in the milongas.

Nota bene: Continuous half-note dancing is, of course, actually far more complex than I'm making it seem here, since it ultimately involves lots of double-time movements, which enable leaders to bridge in and out of "parallel" and "crossed" systems during any given dance. Such dancing also includes various ways of confronting the challenges of ocho and molinete along with other more complex elements. For purposes of this discussion, I am limiting our scope to simple half notes, to whole notes (the subject of today's discussion), to what I will identify next week as "long pauses," and finally to double-time movements or traspies.

Okay, with all that said, let's talk now about whole notes. First, I'm going to plot whole notes out, using our two-measure phrase from "La Cumparsita" in the same way we've already plotted out quarter notes and half notes. Then we'll discuss it further:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

.     .       .           .

What's the difference between what we had before and what we're looking at now? Notice that I've underlined every other half note in the second line of the diagram. If one were plotting out a simple two-measure phrase using whole notes only, it would look like this:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - ....

.            .   

Responding to whole notes involves acknowledging every fourth quarter note or every other half note in the music. Put on your version of "La Cumparsita," and try to clap to the whole notes. This is what it will be:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

.             .         

Once you've clapped your way through an entire piece of music -- and therefore become somewhat familiar with the feeling of acknowledging whole notes -- try moving in place to the music instead of clapping. Finally, try to dance to the whole notes with a partner.

Most beginning students find that they feel much more comfortable with whole notes than they do with half notes, at least in their early stages of learning how to respond to music. Later, as they gain more confidence in their ability to move in a conscious, musical way, acknowledging half notes becomes more and more possible. Ultimately, the ability to move to both these essential rhythmic elements -- as well as to others we'll be talking about as we continue this discussion of musicality -- are important to becoming a knowledgeable and skilled Tango dancer.

Next week, we're going to discuss what I call "the long pause" as a rhythmic element in Tango. In the meantime, try clapping quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes -- first to "La Cumparsita," and then to as many pieces of music as you can. Finally, try to dance to the whole notes of several pieces of music with a partner. As always, if you have trouble with any of this, ask your teacher to help you.

Be brave! See you again next week.

Saturdays with Fran and Pat at Dardo Galletto Studios

Please join us for our Saturday Practica at Dardo Galletto Studios, 151 West 46th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), 11th floor; 2-4pm, $10 per person. (Bringing a partner isn't necessary.) Pat and I will both be on hand to answer any questions you may have about your dancing, and to help you with material you're working on. Plus you get a new “must-have” tango move each week! If you’d like a private lesson, you can visit our website at www.franchesleigh.com, call Fran directly at 212-662-7692, or email him at franchesleigh@mac.com Join us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/franchesleighllc

 

February 11, 2016

Hello everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Are you still with me from last week, when we talked about responding to half notes in our dancing? As I mentioned at that time, there are lots of leaders both in Argentina and throughout the Tango community around the world who have essentially "solved" the challenge of musicality for themselves by simply dancing continuously to those half notes.

The dots below indicate how these leaders attempt to move to every two-measure musical phrase:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - ....

.     .      .     .

If we were to place the half notes into our two-bar phrase from "La Cumparsita," the way these dancers feel comfortable moving would plot out like this:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

.     .       .           .

Moving in this way is not necessarily a conscious decision, but rather a way in which many leaders have become accustomed to responding to music over many years of dancing in the milongas.

Nota bene: Continuous half-note dancing is, of course, actually far more complex than I'm making it seem here, since it ultimately involves lots of double-time movements, which enable leaders to bridge in and out of "parallel" and "crossed" systems during any given dance. Such dancing also includes various ways of confronting the challenges of ocho and molinete along with other more complex elements. For purposes of this discussion, I am limiting our scope to simple half notes, to whole notes (the subject of today's discussion), to what I will identify next week as "long pauses," and finally to double-time movements or traspies.

Okay, with all that said, let's talk now about whole notes. First, I'm going to plot whole notes out, using our two-measure phrase from "La Cumparsita" in the same way we've already plotted out quarter notes and half notes. Then we'll discuss it further:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

.     .       .           .

What's the difference between what we had before and what we're looking at now? Notice that I've underlined every other half note in the second line of the diagram. If one were plotting out a simple two-measure phrase using whole notes only, it would look like this:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - ....

.            .   

Responding to whole notes involves acknowledging every fourth quarter note or every other half note in the music. Put on your version of "La Cumparsita," and try to clap to the whole notes. This is what it will be:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

.             .         

Once you've clapped your way through an entire piece of music -- and therefore become somewhat familiar with the feeling of acknowledging whole notes -- try moving in place to the music instead of clapping. Finally, try to dance to the whole notes with a partner.

Most beginning students find that they feel much more comfortable with whole notes than they do with half notes, at least in their early stages of learning how to respond to music. Later, as they gain more confidence in their ability to move in a conscious, musical way, acknowledging half notes becomes more and more possible. Ultimately, the ability to move to both these essential rhythmic elements -- as well as to others we'll be talking about as we continue this discussion of musicality -- are important to becoming a knowledgeable and skilled Tango dancer.

Next week, we're going to discuss what I call "the long pause" as a rhythmic element in Tango. In the meantime, try clapping quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes -- first to "La Cumparsita," and then to as many pieces of music as you can. Finally, try to dance to the whole notes of several pieces of music with a partner. As always, if you have trouble with any of this, ask your teacher to help you.
 

Be brave! See you again next week.

 

February 4, 2016

Hi everybody, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Are you reeling from last week's Tango Tip? If not, it means you probably didn't read it. Drop everything right now, and read that Tango Tip (January 28, 2016). When you're finished reading -- and reeling -- you'll be all set to continue with what we're going to work on today.

Last week, we looked at the following printed-page representation of the signature rhythm of "La Cumparsita:"

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

Using this two-measure phrase, we clapped the eight underlines as they appear in the printed phrase, while at the same time saying the words:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

Our goal with this exercise was to identify and respond to the quarter notes of this phrase. If you were able to successfully complete the exercise -- if you were able to listen to the entire song on your player, and clap a consistent quarter-note beat all the way through to the end of the piece -- you're ready to move ahead to the next part of the process.

Before we continue, I want to tell you that whereas clapping to these quarter notes is a great mental exercise, dancing to those same notes is quite another story. The fact is that these notes are really just too fast to dance to for the whole song. For example, if you as a leader were to try taking forward steps to those quarter-note beats from the beginning of the song until the end, you and your partner would most likely be completely worn out and ready to sit down after just a few repetitions of the phrase. Eventually, you're going to be able to actually dance the quarter notes in brief bursts, say three at a time, when you learn how to incorporate what are sometimes called traspie -- or double-time -- movements within your repertoire. But dancing to these beats continuously is just too strenuous, and so nobody does it.

Let's take a look at our musical phrase from "La Cumparsita" again:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

Remember that the words represent the musical phrase itself. As we've learned, the underlines represent the quarter notes within that phrase. To go somewhat deeper, the five dashes, the rest in between the two parentheses along with the two "and" words represent what we referred to last week as eighth notes. There are actually eight eighth notes within the phrase. If you wanted to acknowledge these notes within a basic eight-count musical phrase, you might say it in the following way:

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and / 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and ....

This would subdivide the two-bar phrase into 16 total counts. The numbers would represent what we've come to know as the quarter notes, and the "ands" in between each of the quarter notes would be the eighth notes. (In fact, if you were to simply count all sixteen notes in sequence, they'd all be considered to be eighth notes.)

Interesting? Maybe, but right now, these eighth notes are a bit beyond the scope of our process. For the time being, let's recognize that these notes are there, but for purposes of basic social Tango our smallest rhythmic subdivision will be our quarter notes:

1   2   3   4 / 5   6   7   8 ...

As discussed above, we can clap these quarter notes, but generally, they're too fast for us to dance to.

Right now, we're about to discover "half notes!" Let's look once more at our detailed rhythmic representation of our musical phrase from "La Cumparsita:"

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

I'm going to further refine this rhythmic representation a bit. Starting now, it's going to look like this:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

.      .        .              .

Notice that I've added dots underneath quarter note numbers 1, 3, 5 (our rest), and 7. If we were to now say our phrase out loud as we've done before, but this time clap along with only the dotted notes, we'd quickly realize that now we're physically only acknowledging every other quarter note. This new rhythmic way of interacting with our musical phrase -- of acknowledging this further subdivision -- is what we're going to call half notes.

Without the specific rhythm content of "La Cumparsita" these half notes would plot out in the following way:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - ....

.      .        .      . 

If we were to say each of the numbers, while clapping the dots, we would be acknowledging the half notes. The first thing you may notice about these half notes is that because you now have to clap to every other beat only, it's quite a bit easier than clapping to the quarter notes. Try listening to "La Cumparsita" again on your player, and clap the half notes while listening. By the end of the song, you'll probably have a good idea of what half notes feel like within the context of a piece of music. (Once again, if you have any trouble with this process, be sure to consult your teacher.)

The second thing you'll very soon come to realize is that you can actually dance these half notes with your partner without needing resuscitation after just a few steps. In fact, lots of leaders -- both in Argentina and around the world today -- respond to music by exclusively incorporating only half notes in navigating the dance floor. To tell you the truth, this would not be my own choice -- as we're going to discuss down the road. But if you spend time in the milongas of Argentina, you'll see many people for whom the challenge of musicality has been completely solved through the use of continuous half-note dancing.

Take another look at our graphic representation:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - / (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 - ....

.      .         .             .

If you've been following along, you now know that you can:

·      See and say the complete musical phrase

·      See and clap to the quarter notes

·      See, clap to -- and actually dance to -- the half notes

As complex as this process has been so far, I hope you agree that we're really getting somewhere! Next week, we're going to identify and learn how to respond to what are called "whole notes." In the meantime, listen to as much Tango music as you can, find and clap to the quarter notes as well as to the half notes; then get yourself out onto the dance floor to dance to those half notes.

See you next week.

 

January 28, 2016

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Today, we're going to revisit the concept of "musicality," which we've been discussing for the past several weeks. You may remember that the last thing we worked on (January 14, 2016 to be precise) was what I called "Exercise 5." This exercise involved using single-step movement in dancing with your partner to the music of Tango. (It would probably be a good idea to reread that Tango Tip in order to get yourself ready for what we're going to talk about today.)

In Exercise 5, I asked you to lead your partner to whatever beat or cadence was "natural"" to you; i.e., what you yourself heard as you were listening to the music you were playing. Right now, we're going to try to become a lot more precise than that. Our goal today is to learn to identify the individual types of beats as they occur in the music, and, more importantly, to learn to dance to those beats any time we want to do so. What I'm talking about here specifically are "half notes," "whole notes," and "quarter notes." If you can learn to move to these beats at will as you dance with your partner, it will enable you as a leader to attain a much higher degree of expertise and sophistication in moving creatively to a piece of Tango music.

Before we start trying to find these beats in the music, I want to offer two disclaimers to what we're about to attempt. In Argentina, most leaders who learn how to dance Tango do not go through this process. Instead, they develop their relationship with the music by getting out on the dance floor and practicing their dancing every night for, let's say, thirty years or so. Even at the end of that time, most -- with the exception of people who receive formal musical training -- have little or no idea that they may be choosing to dance to "half notes," "whole notes," or "quarter notes." By that time, these dancers have developed their own unique relationship with the music in terms of how it feels to them as they dance. I personally believe that this is a much better way to learn "musicality," and if you prefer to follow this road (we'll call it "your thirty-year crusade"), stop reading right now, move to Argentina, and start dancing every night in the milongas. Otherwise, take a deep breath, and read on.

My second disclaimer before we begin this week's quest is to share with you the fact that the process we’re about to attempt -- learning to identify and respond to musical beats without actually listening to music -- is going to be very difficult. In fact, as I began to write this Tango Tip, my first thought was "Nah, this just ain't gonna work, Fran." But then I thought, "Oh, go ahead, give it a try."

So here goes.

Well start by laying out the piece of music we're going to be working with. You won't be able to hear it, of course, due to the limitations of the printed page. But you'll be able to see it right here in front of you. Furthermore, you'll be able to imagine this piece of music in your mind, because it happens to be the most famous piece of Tango music ever created. Yes, that's right, it's "La Cumparsita."

Most arrangements of  "La Cumparsita" begin with three "descending" notes, which lead into the melody of the song itself. Let me "sing" these notes for you:

Dum ...

             Dum ...

                          Dum ...

Can you here them? No? Okay, I gave it my best shot. Let's try something else. If you're anywhere near a music player right now, fire up "La Cumparsita," and take a listen. In all probability, the first sounds you'll hear will be those three leading notes.

Dum ...

             Dum ...

                          Dum ...

These are the notes that usually start the song. After these three leading notes, we come to the melody proper. This is what we're going to be working with as we discover what I'm talking about, when I discuss "half notes," "whole notes," and "quarter notes."

The melody is actually a musical phrase whose rhythm repeats itself again and again throughout the first part of the song. I know I can't sing it for you, but what I can do is plot out the rhythm on the page. It goes like this:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 ....

That's it! This is the "signature" rhythm of the song. Go back to your music player, and listen again to what happens right after the three leading notes, and then happens again and again. It's this rhythm:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 ....

Try to say what you see on the page. In fact, this musical phrase (with melodic variation) repeats seven times in the first 14 measures of "La Cumparsita," and only then does the song move on another theme. Furthermore, before the piece is over, this same rhythmic phrase is going to return once more to take us to the end of the song.

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 ....

We're going to use this musical phrase in order to learn to identify those "half notes," "whole notes," and "quarter notes" I've been talking about.

We'll start by looking at the underlines, which occur throughout the phrase. Count them. That's right, there are eight of them in total. Notice that the underlines coincide with the first four numbers -- and then the last three numbers as well. The one underline that doesn't have a number attached to it is situated right in the middle of two parentheses. This underline represents a beat that is acknowledged in the music -- even though there is no melodic note that goes with it. (In musical terminology we call this a "rest."). The "and" words that occur between the rest and the second number 2 as well as between the second 2 and the second 3 represent eighth notes, which, though potentially important in other discussions, are outside the scope of today's focus.

Confused?

Good, let's cram a little more information into the mix here. The phrase we're working with today contains two "measures" or "bars" of 4/4 time music. Both of these words mean exactly the same thing: A measure or bar is a container of music. In this case we have two containers of 4 quarter notes each. These two measures or bars give us a two-measure (or two-bar) musical phrase. If we didn't have the unique rhythmic content of this particular phrase to account for, the phrase would plot out like this:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 / 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 ....

This represents a two-bar phrase (with the quarter notes underlined) where each measure or bar contains 4 quarter notes. When we represent the phrase, using the actual rhythm of "La Cumparsita," it ends up being exactly what we started out working with:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - (_) and 6 and 7 - 8 ....

Are you thinking right now that maybe I'm giving you more information than you could ever possibly need? You're probably right, but I'm thinking that as long as we're in this deep, we might as well get scary.

Okay, let's move ahead! The first thing we're going to do with this musical phrase is to clap the underlines. Remember, there are eight of them. If you clap these beats one after another as you think about the repeating musical phrase (which, as I've said earlier, defines the signature melody of "La Cumparsita"), you will be acknowledging and identifying for yourself the quarter notes of the melody.

Run, don't walk, back to your music player, and listen to that musical phrase again. Clap the repeating underlines. Do it again and again. When you've got it right, congratulate yourself. You've just found those up-to-now illusive quarter notes, and you can actually respond to them by clapping along in the music!

Okay, that's enough for the moment. Take a break. When you feel up to it, listen to the whole song on your player, and try to clap the quarter notes just as we've identified them through this process above. If you have any problems with this process, ask your teacher to help you out.

Next week, we're going to go further in identifying the notes in our musical piece. We'll talk about "half notes," and "whole notes," and figure out how to find and respond to them in our musical phrase From "La Cumparsita."

Are you excited? (Are you still awake at least?) Give yourself a very big pat on the back for getting through this musical tutorial. An even bigger pat, if you managed to be successful in finding and clapping to those quarter notes.

See you next week.

 

January 21, 2016

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the week. Over the past several weeks, I've been discussing what is often called "musicality" in dancing Tango. Although I have more to cover about this very complex subject, I'm going to take a brief detour from musicality today in order to introduce and comment on an article, which I think you will find to be an extremely valuable addition to your Tango knowledge and education.

We have one of our Firehouse regulars, Fred Rueck, to thank for submitting this article to Sue Dallon for publication in our weekly newsletter. The article itself was written by an unnamed author as part of an ongoing blog, which goes by the name of "The Tango Voice." It is called "Understanding Argentine Tango (with the assistance of milongueros): It's not just another ballroom dance."

When my students ask me about how to learn Argentine Tango, I tell them (with tongue firmly in cheek, of course) that it's best to start by being born and raised somewhere in Argentina, most preferably into a family of dedicated milongueros. If instead, they were forced to start by being born in Brooklyn (as I was, for example), the learning process will take a bit longer.

Needless to say, there's nothing any of us can do to change where we were born and raised; but it's somewhat unrealistic to maintain the expectation that if we watch enough videos or take enough lessons, we're ultimately going to be able to dance just like people from Argentina.

On the other hand, I strongly believe that if we start out be being inherently talented as dancers (or work our butts off to approximate that enviable condition), if we can avoid falling into the always tempting trap of chasing dance steps rather than actually learning how to dance, and if we can somehow manage to get the right kind of direction from people who actually know what they're talking about, it's possible that some of us may eventually be able to "hold our own" even in the demanding milongas of Buenos Aires.

In my opinion, the article Fred Rueck has treated us to goes a long way toward spelling out the difficulties of attempting to learn Argentine Tango as people who come to the process from other cultures. As you will soon see for yourself, this article is quite lengthy. Furthermore, as you'll also see, there are a great many links to related subjects contained therein, which I'm quite certain you'll be interested in pursuing at your leisure. I strongly recommend that you read this article carefully, taking as much time as you need to fully digest its contents.

Thanks, Fred. Great article, and a truly valuable addition to our knowledge of Argentine Tango.

https://tangovoice.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/understanding-argentine-tango-with-the-assistance-of-milongueros-its-not-just-another-ballroom-dance/

 

January 14, 2016

Hi everyone, Fran here with your Tango Tip of the Week. Since November 5, 2015, we've been talking about what is often referred to as "musicality" in dancing Tango. What this concept ultimately boils down to is how an individual leader moves with a combination of precision and creativity to the rhythm and/or melody of a piece of Tango music. Musicality is an extremely intricate skill set in Tango, and even though we've already devoted seven Tips to it over the last two months, we're only beginning to scratch the surface of this highly complex subject.

What we've done so far is to break down the fundamental challenge of achieving musicality into a series of manageable exercises. Today, we're going to start actually moving through space. If we limit ourselves (at least for the time being) to a basic linear vocabulary, moving through space will comprise five fundamental elements:

1.     Weight changes in place

2.     Pauses

3.     Steps to the side

4.     Forward steps

5.     Backward steps

When I help students develop proficiency in the essential skill of lead/follow, these are the elements I focus on in teaching them how to move together with precision and comfort. I have addressed the mechanics of lead/follow in a very detailed way many times before within these pages, and therefore I won't repeat that discussion here. I will say, however, that well developed lead/follow skill is indispensable to achieving even rudimentary musicality in Tango. If you don't understand lead/follow, stop right here, work with your teacher exclusively on learning this skill, and then come back to musicality.

Let's assume that you're able to lead your partner with ease and precision in the linear vocabulary of Tango as defined above. Let's also assume that you've been practicing what I call "single-step movement." Now we’re ready to move ahead with Exercise 5. Here's how the exercise breaks down.

Exercise 5 -- moving through space with a partner to the beat of the music:

1.     Begin by playing a piece of Tango music. (As I've mentioned in the past, be sure to choose one that's not too fast.)

2.     Form the embrace with your partner. Be certain that neither of you is in any way leaning on the other.

3.     Stand together in the embrace with your feet together and your weight distributed evenly between both legs for several moments without moving. Try to release any tension you might feel, and let the music "wash over you."

4.     Begin to concentrate on the music, trying to discern "the beat." (As we've discussed before, the way in which you personally "hear" the beat will still be completely subjective. Next week, we'll be learning to identify and move to various types of musical beat -- half notes, whole notes, quarter notes, etc.) Remember once again: As a leader, your job is to invite your follower to move to the musical beat. If you're a follower, you need to resist the impulse to "take over" and help the leader move.)

5.     Once you as a leader feel ready to begin moving to the beat, decide in your mind which of the linear movements you want to invite your follow to execute; i.e., a weight change in place, a side step, a backward step, a forward step, or a pause. While you're still in the neutral position, feel the beat of the music as clearly as you can, but for the time being don’t translate this feeling into action; i.e. don’t start moving in place in order to keep the beat physically. This is a bad habit, which many leaders form as beginners, and then have great difficulty breaking.

6.     After the movement you’d like to lead is clear in your mind, invite your partner to execute it. As you come to the end of that individual movement, bring yourself into balance, and rely on your follower to do the same. (You don't need to help her come into balance, because as a good follower, she knows that this is her job.) As both you and your partner bring yourselves into balance, it puts you as a couple back into the neutral position. Did it work? If so, you're ready to try another step! 

7.     Continue the exercise, leading the full range of linear movement -- one step at a time, with pauses in between -- all the way to the end of the music. Then, gently release the embrace and relax.

Next, put on another piece of music, and repeat the exercise. Does it seem to be working? Try the exercise with four or five different pieces of music at different tempos (slow, medium, and fast). Get to a point where you can execute Exercise 5 consistently without developing tension, and without losing the beat or the lead. As always, it is very advisable to do this exercise in the presence of your teacher. That way, you'll know absolutely whether or not your perception of the rhythm is accurate, whether you lead is working, and whether you're moving appropriately in time with the music.

Next week, we're going to start learning to identify and move to various types of musical beat -- half notes, whole notes, quarter notes, etc. This will enable you as a leader to attain a much higher degree of expertise and sophistication in moving creatively to a piece of Tango music.

 

January 7, 2016

Happy New Year, everybody, Fran here with your first Tango Tip of the Week for 2016! If you remember where we left off in our discussion of rhythmic movement in Tango, the last thing we addressed before the holiday break was what I called "Exercise 4" -- moving in place with a partner to the beat of the music. (For a detailed description of this important exercise, please reread the Tango Tip of December 17, 2015.)

Today, I want to backtrack a little in order to focus on a key -- but often overlooked -- element of moving to the rhythm. It is the idea of ending on the beat of the music.

What do I mean by that?

We could identify any movement we make in dance is an action. An action consists of a beginning, a middle, and an ending:

·      First, we initiate the action (the beginning).

·      Second, we travel through space -- or simply move from one foot to the other as in the case of a weight change in place -- (the middle).

·      Third, we commit our weight to the other foot, bringing ourselves into balance (the ending).

Most of us don't think about movement in the way I just outlined it above. Instead, we tend to think of any individual movement as an end result: "I stepped to the beat of the music." We don't even notice the fact that in order to finish a given movement on the musical beat, we had to first initiate the action (the beginning), and then we had to travel through space (the middle).

Over the years, I have occasionally had one or two students initiate their movement on the musical beat -- rather than ending it on the beat. Although this is not at all prevalent among dance students, there are enough people who respond to the beat of the music in this way that I believe it warrants further exploration.

Let's go back to an earlier exercise in accurately hearing and responding to the musical beat. In our Tango Tip of November 19, 2015, we talked about what I called Exercise 1-- finding your own way of responding to a piece of music. (You can reread that Tip, if you don't remember what it was all about.) In that preliminary exercise, one way in which we determined our ability to respond to a musical piece was to physically clap to the beat.

The action of clapping, of course, is not unlike the action of executing a dance movement:

1.     It has a beginning -- the hands start by being apart and begin to move toward one another.

2.     It has a middle -- the hands travel a short distance through space.

3.     It has an ending -- the hands actually connect with one another, thereby producing the sound of the clap.

When we engage in the clapping exercise, the sole criterion of success is to reach the end of the movement -- to make the clapping sound -- on the musical beat. In executing this exercise very few, if any, of us would think of initiating the clapping movement on the musical beat. Our "natural inclination" rather would be to clap on the beat -- i.e., to reach the ending of the clapping movement -- as the beat occurred.

In the same way, our goal in dance movement is to end the action of moving to coincide with the occurrence of the musical beat, rather than to initiate it. First, we learn to land on the beat by ourselves. Next, we further develop and refine this skill by being able to do it in the very special lead/follow mechanism in which we move in concert with a partner.

If you're one of those people who find this all very easy -- meaning that your have an “instinct” for rhythmic movement -- you might be scratching your head right now, saying "Why does Fran feel the need to spell all this out in such minute detail?" The reason is that in my experience as a teacher I've seen that not everybody possesses this "natural" ability, and my ultimate goal is to make it possible for all of us to be able to move in rhythm with confidence and comfort.

Okay, that's probably more than you ever hoped to hear about landing on the beat of the music. Next week, we're going to start moving through space. In the meantime, grab a partner and practice Exercise 4 as described in our Tango Tip of December 19, 2015, until you feel you've absolutely "got it." If there's any doubt, work with your teacher, who will be able to verify whether you're moving in rhythm or not.

Once again from Pat and me, Happy New Year, everyone! Let's make 2016 our breakthrough year for developing our Tango to its full potential.