This week, I made a joke about having a long-term marriage with tango, complete with ups, downs, dry spells, and long arguments. Then I started thinking about it: my relationship with tango has been very much like a marriage.
Tango and I started as an infatuation. In one short weekend, in December 1995, I fell in love at first sight. I started practicing three days a week with the one, and then two people in town who knew tango and were interested in getting better. I posted the "You know you are addicted to Argentine tango if..." checklist on my office door at the university, and set about solidying my habit.
As the infatuation turned into a new love affair, tango took precedence over many other parts of my life. I switched from a PhD program studying the Balkans, to a MA program in cultural anthropology, and wrote my thesis on Argentine tango. I started studying Spanish. I saved all my money and went to Argentina three years in a row (as a graduate student!), with the excuse that I needed to do research. If I hadn't switch my thesis focus to tango, I am pretty sure that I would have failed out of graduate school.
I started teaching tango because I was desperate to have tango partners to share my obsession. I initially taught tango as part of my advanced ballroom class at the University of Oregon in 1996. I came in and announced to my class, "I have started learning Argentine Tango. I don't know very much about it, but I will teach you all I know." I started hosting a weekly practica, as well as organizing workshops with traveling teachers. I convinced the dance department to start offering tango classes for credit. After all, this was my big love, and I wanted everyone to share it! The daily routine of married life, of schedules, going out on special dates, cultivating mutual friends, creating a shared history--this was what I was doing.
As with most newlyweds, I thought that my love for tango would stay at a fever pitch forever. I remember chatting with Jose Garafolo, one of my earliest teachers, and asking him why he didn't go out to the milongas in Buenos Aires. When he told me he had already been teaching for ten years, and after work, didn't feel like going out dancing, I thought he was crazy. I could not imagine feeling that way about tango. After all, I was in LOVE. How could one not want to dance as many hours a day as possible? How could teaching get in the way of dancing?
Like a long-term marriage, what is fabulous and exciting at the beginning, becomes more comfortable, more predictable over time. Now, after dancing tango for eighteen years, and teaching for seventeen years (I don't recommend this quick path to anyone, but back then, we were desperate for teachers), I understand Jose's point of view. When I have taught six or seven hours of tango in a day, I have to force myself to go to the milonga to dance. I still love dancing and I love seeing my friends of many years, but my love affair has become my job. I am married to tango.
And yet, there are those moments from time to time that are even more exciting than at the beginning, because now I understand the movement, the music, the lyrics, the cultural details--there are richer, more moving tandas, that I would not have appreciated when in my lovestruck mode. This is why I keep going back to Buenos Aires, going to the milongas in Portland, practicing drills and combinations at home, and teaching. I wouldn't give this up for the world. So even though I "cheat" on tango by dancing West Coast Swing or going to the salsa club, I am married for life to tango. 'Til death do us part, baby, 'til death do us part.
Today, one of my students said that he has urges to show off when folks are watching, and asked me how to stop being aware of others watching him dance. I know that that the tango politically correct answer would be something like, "You should just focus on your partner, and not pay attention to the others in the room, except to navigate." After all, this is a social dance between two persons.
However, my first thought was, "Hmm, I know exactly what you are talking about!" We are all human and imperfect: I feel the urge to show off whenever I am passing one of my teachers at a table at a milonga, or when I know that a really good dancer is watching me. I want to impress that person, so that they want to dance with me, or are proud of my progress, or just to show off--and I am a self-conscious, shy person in general, who prefers to remain more in the background in most situations. Imagine if you are more outgoing!
So why is it a problem that we want to show off? After all, can't we also show our partner off and make them look good to attract other dance partners for them? This doesn't have to be a purely selfish action. If we acknowledge that most of us can't stay only in the moment, focusing on only one thing/person for even a tanda, why does it matter if we think about a little showing off?
I think that the problem is that, usually, we mess up when we try harder. We get nervous about something, and our bodies tighten up. How many times have you thought, "Oh, [x] is watching, so I'll try something cool/fancy/harder," only to screw it up WHILE that person is watching? How embarrassing! I find myself thinking things like, "OK, just relax! Do NOT try to show off, just be cool. After all, this is about dancing with the partner I have right now and focusing on them. Focus! Do the right thing! Oops, I just messed up..."
Thinking about what my student asked made me realize why I prefer to dance in Buenos Aires instead of in my home community. I like the anonymity: no one knows I am a teacher; no one cares if I have status. I get to dance more than at home, because I am just some tourist. I can blend in, with my dark hair and medium height and clothing bought in Buenos Aires.
What is really silly about this, is that I know folks are watching me dance in Buenos Aires as well. Women touch me on the shoulder and say, "Pretty feet!" after a good tanda. Men obviously watch, because new people invite me to dance. But I don't feel the pressure to show off, and I don't feel as self-conscious. This may only be my experience, but I feel more permission both to relax, and to screw up, outside of my home community.
As a result, I have more memorable tandas in Buenos Aires; tandas that I will always remember, even if I can't remember the guy's name. Last year, there was that tanda with Hector (who I have only met once) at Sala Siranoush. The year before, it was a tango tanda (and a rocking chacarera) with Guillermo, my tango crush of the year. There was the great tanda with Juan the year before that, when we talked about life and how there are rocks in the road, in between sweet dances.
What does that say about showing off? When I am more relaxed, I show off less. When I show off less, I invest more in my tandas. When I invest more in my tandas, I get more memorable tandas. Focusing on my partner, instead of showing off, makes for better tangos. If I dance for my partner, instead of for the tables, I will have a good time, and dance better. Showing off is human, but resisting the urge makes for stellar tango.
Many women I work with notice that they are learning to lead much faster than beginning male dancers. Why is this?
First, you already know the moves in tango. For example, if you have followed walking to the cross (the cruzada) five thousand times, it is not a new step. Even if you have trouble turning steps around in your head, the fact that you have been on the receiving end of the cruzada means that you already have data to plug into that move as a leader.
Second, you know what you DON'T like in a leader. If it annoys you that leaders push with their left hand, or don't use a solid marca to help you do the step they have in their mind, you are less likely to attempt to lead a step that way. Furthermore, you know what moves don't feel comfortable for the follower, and you can avoid those steps as a leader, even if they are fun for the leader; that triple boleo leg wrap thing is out! You have a checklist in your head of what a good leader does that you can follow as you learn to lead.
Third, you have prior experience dancing to the music. You already have favorite orchestras, or favorite songs. You are not building an understanding of the music from scratch, as a new leader would who does not have tango following experience. This seems to be true for milonga and vals especially, since many women admit to me that they are learning to lead so that they don't have to sit out milonga and vals tandas :-)
Fourth, you already know the other ladies at the milongas. Unlike a beginning male leader, you have friends who are willing to dance with you because they are your friends, right from the start. You have already done your "wait until they can recognize you" time in the community. Because many women start leading when they are advanced intermediate or advanced dancers, they already know the more advanced followers; this also speeds up learning time, as dancing with beginners is just harder.
Three out of four of these conditions were ALSO met for men, back when my teachers such as Tete (we miss him!) learned to dance. In an interview, he told me about learning to dance with the other boys, and following for about a year and a half (the time changed the different times he told me this story) until he got tired of it and insisted on being allowed to lead.
The Argentine men who learned to dance this way, already knew what the move felt like as a follower. They had an understanding of what felt good (or didn't feel good) as a follower. They knew the music from growing up around it. They didn't have instant access to lots of good followers, however: their friends had to beg dances as favors from the more advanced women, or they had to do the long wait for acceptance by the women in the community--until they were acknowledged to be a good dancer.
That means that a woman learning to lead today (unless she is starting both roles as a beginner, as I did), has many advantages. And, guys, perhaps you might consider working more on your following skills, right from the beginning: it may speed up your learning process! We can't be Argentine, but we can be good tango leaders!
I have taught Argentine tango since 1996, and taught in Portland, Oregon since 2008. During that time, I have addressed many issues that arose in my community's dance technique. Each time I have focused on something that seems lacking in our dance, that weak spot has either disappeared, or at the very least, started to improve.
I began to teach my Body Dynamics class two years ago. I realized that we needed to focus more on technique, and less on combinations, if we wanted to have a better level of dancing in Portland. With stretching and drills--instead of combinations--that class has helped my students arrive at a higher level of dance, faster than their peers, no matter what level of my other classes they attend.
I have hesitated to expand my new style of teaching into my other classes because I was afraid that folks would say, "But that's not how a tango class is supposed to be!" However, I cannot ignore how much faster the Body Dynamics students improve. Even if this is not the "traditional" way to teach tango, I need to push my comfort envelope as a teacher, and apply what I've learned the past few years to my classes.
I find it difficult to find enough time to revamp all of my lesson plans! Somehow, teaching 25 hours a week and being a mom of a child who needs an alternative school, medical visits, occupational therapy, a personal trainer for social skills, etc. does not leave a lot of time to plan. However, my new session that is starting this week (and early next week for my more advanced classes) will be a bit different.
What is changing:
I am practicing each day myself, and reviewing videos of my personal lessons from Oscar and Georgina. If my students see how hard I am working, I think they will feel empowered to work hard, too. After all, with Argentine tango, you will never get bored, because you can never dance perfectly: there is always more you can learn/practice/do in the dance. For me, that is why I am still doing this dance.
Top Ten Tango Moves (Fundamentals)
I don't have a dedicated "beginner" tango class because we ALL need to work on our tango fundamentals. My class usually has some complete beginners, as well as intermediates reviewing, and folks learning "the other role" who already are advanced at leading or following. Class is at the Om (14 NE 10th in Portland) on Thursdays at 7 PM.
This class covers (depending on the level of the folks who show up):
Next 10 Tango Moves
This class is aimed at intermediate dancers, and is more fluid in content. Most people who take it have danced at least six months, up to about three years. However, some folks have danced for many years, but like to take a class Thursdays before the milonga that is a block away. Class is at the Om (14 NE 10th, Portland) at 8 PM on Thursdays.
The plan for the next few months:
Take It To The Next Level (advanced, minimum 2+ years dancing)
My advanced class is a one-room schoolhouse, with dancers who have done Argentine tango for anywhere between two and ten years. Many of them have come to me from other styles of tango, and are re-learning/polishing/adjusting their dance, as well as moving up to an advanced level. This class has an extremely varied range of topics during the course of the year. Luckily, many people take Body Dynamics for the hour before class, so many are already warmed up by the time class starts (Mondays at 8 PM at the Om, 14 NE 10th in Portland).
Most of what I teach in my advanced class comes out of Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas' repertoire, as they have been my main teachers since 2000. However, I also draw on Chicho Frumboli's teacher training classes for tango; Omar Vega's milonga traspie classes; and Tete Rusconi's vals classes, all of which I took in Buenos Aires over the years.
For the next chunk of time, here is the plan:
Body Dynamics is not changing: this class is designed the way I would like to have ALL of my tango levels! Class is Mondays at 7 PM at the Om, 14 NE 10th in Portland. Here is the current setup:
Hope to see some of you there!
When I started Argentine Tango in 1995, my first teacher told us that we didn't need to use our arms and hands to lead, just the chest. He demonstrated by dancing around without using an embrace. We took this to heart, and copied him.
When I first went to Argentina in 1999, I noticed that a lot of the older milongueros DID use their hands and arms to lead me. When I asked some of the nuevo tango folks with whom I was studying whether this was right, they said the older guys didn't have good technique--and that's why they used their hands to help lead. I enjoyed following the older guys, and switched to going to afternoon milongas on my third visit to Buenos Aires, in order to dance with the older generation, but I didn't change much about how I led. It's funny that I didn't make any connection between the ease of following them and their technique!
I started studying with Oscar Mandagaran in 2000 while in Buenos Aires. He advocated an embrace that used chest, arms and hands as a unit, the "marca," to lead ("la marca" means "the lead"). However, it wasn't until 2008 that I converted to teaching people how to use the entire body to lead, not just the chest. When I organized for him and Georgina Vargas in the USA, he took me aside and demonstrated how much easier it was to follow complex moves if he helped me with a clear marca, rather than just moving his chest. The difference was so clear that I had to start relearning tango to dance better.
As a follower, I am sold on this precision that allows me to "let myself be led" rather than trying to figure out what the leader MIGHT want me to do. As a leader, I like having the ability to help the follower arrive at the same place I do, with less work. To quote Oscar, "You don't want to use your hands and arms? Fine! Keep doing your four or five moves! If you want to do more, you need to help the woman understand what you want her to do!" There is a delicacy and a sublety about this way of leading that appeals to me, because it allows the fine details of tango music to come out, along with the improved connection between the dancers.
While new leaders (or leaders new to using this method of leading) can sometimes feel like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, pointing several directions at once, the end result is worth waiting for! It takes a while to figure out how to use the hands and arms to HELP the torso lead, rather than to have them take over, which is NOT a good marca. For those of you who are sure I am wrong, don't knock it until you give it a fair trial!
A Facebook discussion going on about whether you should have your heels down or up for dancing tango made me decide to tell my pain-to-no-pain story about why I changed my technique to using my heels on the floor for Argentine Tango.
When I started dancing tango in 1995, no one told us what to do with our heels. Many of the teachers who came through were men who focused on teaching combinations of fancy steps. Although I was studying and taking notes every workshop I took, I have no notes on what to do with my feet from those first few years, except for Luciana Valle's advice to "lick the floor with your feet" which focused on articulating your step, but we seemed to mostly practice it walking forward, so again, I had few notes on how to walk backwards.
My first few visits to Buenos Aires in 1999-2001, I spent a few months dancing and trying different techniques. I studied with Tete and Silvia, Omar Vega, Chicho Frumboli, Gustavo and Giselle, Luciana Valle, Jose Garafolo, Chiche and Marta, the Puglieses, Graciela Gonzalez, and Oscar Mandagaran. As usual, no two teachers said exactly the same thing, as many of them danced different styles. I ended up with a lot of material to teach in terms of patterns and steps, but no clear path in terms of walking technique.
Dancing in the milongas, I learned to get my heels down, so that I didn't spike other people, and so that I had better balance. This helped cut down on the toe pain and lower back pain that I got when dancing for long periods of time. However, I didn't really start changing my technique until I brought Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas to Portland and Eugene, Oregon, for workshops in 2008.
I started my private lessons with them telling them all the things in their technique that I wasn't going to do (not a very flexible student!). They patiently took their time to explain WHY they did each thing that I had been told not to do, and to dance it with me.
One of the things they changed about my dance was how I used my feet. They had me articulate through my foot, using natural walking movement, so that I was not tensing my foot, or popping up on my heels, or rolling out, but rather moving efficiently. When you walk backwards in "real life," you roll over your heel, letting your toes relax off the floor. Not only does this give you better balance and less work for each step, it allows you to really MOVE when you step, in a much more powerful way than pushing off your poor toes.
This new approach to walking removed my foot pain on the dance floor: I can now work an 8-hour teaching day and end up with tired, but not painful, feet. When I dance at the milongas, my feet hold up better than the rest of me: I go home because I am sleepy, not sore!
Another benefit to rolling through my heels and working my feet correctly was that people immediately commented on how much better my technique looked. Now when I go dancing in Buenos Aires, women touch me on the arm on the way back to my seat, and say, "Pretty feet!" and "Who is your teacher?"
It took a grueling six months to start to retool my dance after dancing tango on a daily basis for thirteen years, but it was worth it! I constantly try to improve my dance, and study with Oscar and Georgina as much as possible, so that I can teach the technique as clearly as possible.
After trying several repair places in my neighborhood, I found that many places would not repair my stiletto heels because they "didn't have that size heel tip" available. Could I bring one with me? How frustrating!
Luckily, several of my students have found repair shops with more intelligent repair folks. I have not tried all of them yet, but so far, so good!
Corner Cobbler Shoe Repair, 608 Devine Rd., Vancouver
Hours: M-F 9-6 and Sat. 9-3
Hillsdale Shoe Repair, 6311 SW Capitol Hwy., Portland, OR
Hours: Tues.-Fri. 10-6 and Sat 10-4
JD's Shoe Repair, 728 N. Alberta St., Portland, OR
Hours: Tues.-Sat. 10-6
I will be back to posting more regularly, about the Portland community and about anatomy, posture and all my favorite topics, as soon as I get my taxes squared away!
Coming back from Buenos Aires to dance in the USA is always difficult. It's not the level of technique: in some cases, that is comparable with the dancers in Argentina. Why are dancers here different? One Argentine teacher told me that he was glad HE didn't have to teach North Americans tango every day: "They don't like touching each other!"
To me, it's not the physical touching that is lacking, but the emotional connection. Most dancers I dance with in Buenos Aires are more open. I can feel their energy open up to me, rather than block my energy. It is rare to feel that with dancers I don't know in the USA, and sometimes even with folks I know well.
I think this might be true for North America, rather than only for dancing tango. Dancing last night (West Coast Swing), I could feel my partners going through the motions, but not DANCING with me. One man kept putting my hands on his body and gyrating, but never connected in energy: it was a solo act! In fact, I was struck by the connection that was established with one dancer from Los Angeles (Latino), because all the other dancers--with the exception of my sweetie--did not connect.
There is a social component in what I experience as the connection in Buenos Aires. There, I have discussions about relationships, work, politics, love--in between dances in a tanda. In some cases, we started up conversations from the year before and continued them! When the dancing is REALLY good, we tend to talk about how good the dancing and connection feels, and often discuss the orchestra or the singer and how that is working to our advantage in the tanda. I don't experience that very much in the USA, except with established friends; and then we shy away from deep conversations, as if that would interfere with the dancing.
Is it more accepted to open to another person emotionally outside of white American culture (most of the dancers here would fit in that category). The Argentines I spoke with certainly think so, but there are cultural sterotypes about North Americans there, so perhaps that is not a valid observation.
What I try to accomplish in my teaching tango, is to establish a deep, interlaced embrace that allows for movement for both people, and allows for maximum balance and comfort. I think that aids in allowing emotional and energetic connection. That is one reason I've moved away from the square, stuck-to-your-sternum embrace I was taught years ago: if I am struggling for balance, how can I relax enough to allow a real connection to happen? When your body relaxes, your center relaxes, and you can allow energy flow to form a unified couple. It will take a bit more work to get our North American comfort zones small enough to let vulnerability in enough to really connect with others.
What do you think will help us open up to our partners and let our vulnerability out to play?
My last two nights of dancing in Buenos Aires are not happening: I caught a cold, and stayed home last night and tonight. I decided it was more important to try to get well than to squeeze more dance time out of my visit; especially as I don't like to give colds to other people!
Most people take vacations to relax. I usually come home from Buenos Aires more exhausted than when I left. Perhaps this time, I will be ready to jump back into life.
I always come home with a list of things that I want to change about my teaching, about my practica, and about the Portland tango community. As I have a young son, I don't travel much in the U.S. tango community, so I don't know whether these problems exist in other communities or not.
Maybe they are shy, or new, or lack the confidence to really accept a cabeceo (or don't know how to cabeceo!). What I've noticed this time in Buenos Aires that I never noticed before: There are nice guys here who dance with people who have been sitting down a long time. They are good dancers, but more importantly, they are GENTLEMEN. These guys don't just dance with their favorites, and they don't peacock around, showing off. They quietly make the milonga experience better, just by being nice. We could use more of this in our community.
Although the foreigners I met were obsessed with getting good dances, the Argentine women with whom I sat, danced with their friends, no matter what level they were, and they had a lot more fun. I would like to see more of this friendliness towards the men in Portland, rather than the snooty attitude that occurs when women try to demonstrate how good they are by rejecting lower-level male dancers.
There was less of a feeling of competition between women when I sat at tables of Argentine women. Instead of trying to intercept cabeceos (and yes, I sat at a table of competitive foreigners who would lean in front of others to cut off their view of the men), Argentine women chatted with me. They directed my attention to better dancers with whom I might like to dance, and my best tanda of the entire visit came out of my table partner digging me in the ribs and saying, "Hey! Look! That guy who is a really good dancer, is looking at you! Look at him!!" I am happy to see that the women in my community are starting to meet outside of tango, and to make friendships, so that there is more camaraderie at the milongas. This is a good start.
As a teacher, I feel this is part of my duty to my students, but shouldn't everyone try to expand the feeling of community by including the new people more? That person might not dance well now, but maybe they will in the future. Or, perhaps they will never dance well, but they are a wonderful person who we want to stay in our community. Or, perhaps that person will become your best friend! Someone recently told me about a very difficult time in their live, when coworkers were unsupportive, but their tango community reached out to them.
I guess my main point is: let's spread that tango love! We have a choice as to how we act, so let's start the New Year with a resolution to be better community members!