Monday, 2 December 2019

Tango Traditions


Such a common word in our tango world: traditional milongas, traditional dance, traditional music... The milongueros promote the traditions, the neos break-up with them up, the dancers from Villa Urquiza abide by them and others seem to hate them because they limit their freedom. Ok, I am polarising, but how often was I called a tango-nazi, because I suggest the use certain guidelines at tango events! This post is to demonstrate how fluid the concept of traditions in tango actually is and how careful one has to be with these expressions.

What's that?

Wikipedia says: "A tradition is a belief or behaviour passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past."

I find traditions quite neat, because they provide guidelines about how to behave and put things into a larger (historical) context. Conservatives have their traditions, as have communists or anarchists. My group of friends has its traditions, e.g. meeting every year for dinner on X-Mas eve. Whenever a couple of people stay connected for a longer period, some form of tradition will appear.

The "codigos" represent an important part of tradition for a large population in tango.

But here's the problem: Tango as a dance had basically disappeared after the 50s. Milongas and dance halls closed or turned to playing new styles of music like Rock’n Roll. Only few people continued dancing tango and this was either in the sheltered environment of their families or as stage dancers. So when tango-dancing had its revival in the late 70s one could not just take up where it had stopped. There was no "unbroken tradition" of the dance and its rules of behaviour.

To specify: Over 20 years, the dance had mostly been preserved by the stage dancers who promoted a glamour version, upgraded with elements of classical and ballroom dance. So what the world was presented as tango argentino was far removed from the original social dance. Only in the late 80s and 90s, the "old milongueros" finally felt encouraged to tell their story about “the real” tango. Hurrah! Yes, but... actually most dancers of the golden era had passed and tango-culture had been suppressed in the years of dictatorship. Many of those who now emerged as connoisseurs had still been very young in the golden era and experienced it second-hand via their elders. Yes, there were also older dancers with very specific memories, but we all know the process of retroactive glorification and how little valid information actually is preserved in our minds over a stretch of 20-40 years. Right? So everyone told a different story. A lot of knowledge about how tango was danced and celebrated had been lost. Some of that is being re-discovered by serious research until day.

So, let’s be honest: the reanimation of tango culture was also a very complex re-invention and a lot of what we think we know is pure myth.

I discovered tango in 1995 and started taking it more seriously in 2000. I was lucky because my most influential german teachers (Just + Christel Kuhl) back then visited Buenos Aires on a very regular basis. They were seriously trying to grasp the real thing and felt a strong need to distinct their milongas from the many places where tango escenario or the free forms of tango nuevo were cultivated. “Authentic” milongas were still rare and ours was one of the first in Germany. If one can call it that...

Because every time my teachers visited BA, they came back with new, sometimes wild stories that painted a diverse pictures of tango culture - all of them authentic. You think that invitations in BA were always and everywhere done by mirada + cabeceo? Nope. At some milongas it was totally fine for men to ask a women directly. At others you had to get permission from her mother or husband. In other places they used early variations of mirada and cabeceo. I remember that one story when Christel had rejected a mirada of an elder milonguero and he came to their table, started jerking it up and down until he had intimidated poor Christel into dancing with him. The same goes for musical set-ups. You believe that tango was always presented in tandas and with cortinas? Far from it! One of the most renowned Argentinean djs who toured Europe in the early 2000s was Felix Picherna. As far as I remember, he did not use any cortinas, he changed the amount of tangos, milongas and valses randomly and he sometimes even mixed all three styles in one tanda. So in these years, when the authentic social dance of the porteños was being spread all around the world, it was in no way clear, what authentic actually meant.

You notice that I am still not using the term “traditional”, because back then, I did not not hear it that often. It might not even have been used in BA, because it had always been obvious, that in milongas one danced tango de salón, social tango. This differentiation from stage tango seemed to be enough to define the "what and how". The rest of the "rules" varied depending on the milonga or was vague. There was not ONE tango tradition. There were as many as milongas or at least as barrios.

This means, that when our tango community organised their first “Milongas como en Buenos Aires” to promote the “authentic tango of the porteños”,we had to make a choice about what this implied.

From what I can tell from conversations with Argentinians the same process happened in Buenos Aires, where the big influx of tango tourists and young people created a need for civilisation and specification. Unsaid guidelines had to be transferred into “reglas” and “codigos”. A common denominator had to be defined. And to implement these codigos, it helped to base them (at least virtually) on tradition. This is where the term “traditional” became important: “This is how we always did it, these are our traditions”, helped to make people respect the guidelines. Back then, I was not so much aware of this creative process, but looking back I find it amazing, how everyone helped to actually shape a common set of traditions.

So these are the "traditional" codigos that I have witnessed being implemented over the last 25 years:

Dancing in an unbroken embrace: The actual form of the embrace (parallel close, v-form, a little open...) always depended on the pre-dominant style of the alpha-dancers in a community. At encuentros milongueros, we now often find a more or less parallel close embrace, but no one will be expelled for loosening the embrace a bit once in a while.

Use of “classical” music: Around the turn of the millennium, this would include non-argentine old tangos or contemporary orchestras. In the early years of encuentros (2008-14), contemporary orchestras were pretty much undesirable and musical choices were limited to extended golden era: the late 20s to the late 50s. In recent years, the custom of using newer and contemporary orchestras has made a revival. Some djs now play exclusively 40s-60s + contemporary. This is totally a matter of personal taste and the directions that the organisers of specific events give.

Presentation of music in tandas and with cortinas: Tandas seemed to used quite early, at least as far as I can think back. It also makes sense to imagine them in golden age milongas, where the orchestras played shorts sets of similar music, but this is pure speculation. The introduction of short cortinas took definitely longer. See below.

Constant movement in the ronda and certain guidelines on how to do so: It took many years to fine tune the system. When I started teaching in 2001, it was e.g, still ok to overtake other couples in the ronda and we practised it in classes. Nowadays you won't see anyone doing it. If it is a good ronda.

Invitation by mirada and cabeceo: The concept of mirada and cabeceo itself developed hugely from “guy getting up and instead of asking verbally, just nodding from a short distance” over “guy looking and nodding, but staying seated” to a bidirectional process in which partners choose actively. And to take advantage of this form of invitation you needed a specific set-up of the location. In our home milonga e.g. the dance floor was on one side of the room and everyone was seated at tables on the other facing in all directions. To allow for better m+c, we changed the seating so that a central dance floor with tables around it was created. Now everyone could potentially make eye-contact with everyone else without having to get up or break their necks. As you can see, I don't see this specific seating arrangement as a tradition, more a necessity to allow for one.

Leaving the pista after a tanda to be free to dance with another person and to allow for mirada and cabeceo: At some moment, it became more common to change partners frequently and not to stick too long with one partner. This was also when cortinas had to implemented, because the organisers had to make sure, that everyone cleared the floor at the same time. A
mongst porteños, a cortina might not have been necessary, because everyone knew the orchestras and therefore knew when to sit down again. That is, when the dj even played tandas. 

Apart from the quite common codigos, other "traditions" where typical for certain sub-groups amongst the social dancers or certain milongas:

Separate seating: This set-up is used in some milongas in BA, only very few outside of BA and some more - but by far not all - encuentros milongueros. Please note that the first encuentros (Raduno Milonguero in Impruneta, YSM in Crema, Les Cigales, then the FCA) were very social gatherings where no-one would have thought of separating men and women. This developed later, when fans of milongas like the Cachirulo in BA started organising encuentros. It is in now way universal in the "traditional" tango world.

Elegant attire: I guess that was always very much depending on where and when you lived. A lot of milongueros in BA will be proud to dress very neatly as do most Italians dancers. But just go to an encuentro or so-called "traditional milonga" anywhere else and you'll find all kinds of clothing styles, including jeans and flat shoes for women. Sometimes there will be one "elegant milonga" during an encuentro, but even then the term will be interpreted very individually. We stopped announcing the gala milonga on Saturday evening of our FCA after several people complained about Detlef's too casual outfit. Yup...

There is one other "tradition" that for me actually is a non-tradition, but that I need to discuss here, because it has become relevant in recent discussions on social media:

Mandatory gender-typical dance roles:
Myth has it that tango in the olden days was danced among men and you can also find vintage pictures with women dancing together. But as far as I can tell, dancing the non-gender-typical role was never very common, so one could call the dance of men with women a tradition in most couple dances.
Yet in my tango-world, this vague tradition never resulted in the declaration of a codigo.
My first teacher in 1995 was a leading women as well as the second. It did not strike me in any way weird, because it was obvious that women would be more interested in dancing and become engaged in it. When I discovered “authentic” tango, I for the first time met a few people who opposed the idea of leading women, but even my conservative teachers would not forbid it at their milongas. As long as only a small number of women would lead and almost no men follow, it was never a big deal. I soon started leading a bit - it was the logical thing to do, in particular as I started teaching in 2001. Why would one only want to see one side of the medal? And I was not the only one, wherever I went in the next 19 years - at every festival, milonga (traditional or not) or encuentro milonguero - I met leading ladies and - much more seldom - following men.
The same goes for BA. Yes, dancing the unconventional roles seems still to be frowned upon in a majority of the conventional milongas, but it still exists and always did. I remember one special occasion: Detlef and I had given a demo in the conservative “A Puro Tango” milonga in Salon Canning. I think it was in 2007. In spite of the intimidating setting, I decided to lead a young lady. Coming from the dance floor we got stopped by an older women. Instead of criticising, she complimented us and next invited my friend for the a tanda - by the way verbally. I then went on dancing with male milongueros who did not shun me for having lead. I had expected problems - there were none.
But that has changed in recent years: A strong need to restrict dancers to the gender-typical roles has developed alongside and because of the fact, that more and more people started changing roles. The increased role-fluidity applies not only to "non-traditional" queer-tango or open-role-events. Many of the "traditional" events like encuentros milongueros invite dancers to register as followers, leaders and double-rolers to create a role- rather than a gender-balance. You can now even see men dancing together at the oldest existing encuentro in Italy. This would not have been imaginable when it started in 2008.
But this is starting to bug a part of the community. I think that what we are experiencing is a formerly marginal phenomenon that expands into mainstream and thereby causes a radicalisation of those who had before just mildly rejected it. They become hyper-traditional and react accordingly, e.g. by organising events in which the dance in a gender-a-typical role is not only frowned upon but actually forbidden. I find this regrettable but also understand it as a natural course of human behaviour as we can see in all other fields of society and politics. I hope it will - after a period of friction - dissolve in a new, freer handling of this specific question.

So... traditions... a difficult concept in tango!

As a dancer, organiser, teacher and even blogger I have not only seen them evolve, put into a logical context and specified, I have actually consciously participated in this process of "traditionalisation". This is why I am also critical towards the over-usage of the word. It could be understood in a broader sense, because there have always been guidelines to bring order into the chaos of our tango world. But they have not been carved in stone by some tango god in the epoca d'oro and were never universal. They always varied in different communities and are constantly being adapted to the needs of each new generation of dancers. Some codigos are very recent developments.

I am now using mirada and cabeceo for invitations. But who knows, what the future will bring? Most likely a special app for the phone. I will surely be amongst the first who try it out.

Because tango is no anachronistic role-playing game. It is real life. 

A more personal note:
People always assume that we are very old fashioned aka "traditional" because we dance a rather unspectacular social dance in a close embrace and promote the usage of the main codigos at our events. But already from what I've written above, you can see, that you have to be careful with labels. If you then take into consideration, that we use tango nuevo as a teaching method, that I dance both roles, that we teach beginners both roles consequently from the beginning, that we change roles as teachers constantly, that at our events, there is always a large number of double-rolers... well? And there is no separate seating at our events. Won't be before hell freezes over! So... yup traditional... One does not need to do high voleos and open the embrace or cut the ronda to live in the modern world!

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Reflections of a tango professional

This post contains boring, disenchanting or even disturbing details about the life of a tango professional. 

I have long pondered whether I can actually publish this, because it might be severely misunderstood. This is why I have to prepend the following:

This article is in no way meant as a complaint about my situation. I really like my job and find it rewarding to help grow an international tango community, meet lots of interesting people and bring joy by promoting such a wonderful dance. I also cannot deny, that I savour the attention, positive feedback and respect for my work. Ah... and dancing with a lovely person who has absorbed some of our principles into his or her dance! I get to reap the harvest of our endeavours directly in the milongas or encuentros. I have actively chosen tango over the career as a psychologist and am glad I did.

But as you know, I am a very realistic and rather prosaic person and a lot of my tango friends, students and clients do not seem to know what my profession actually consists of or implies. Their romantic misconceptions often leave me speechless. At first. Then I try to explain and get carried away. That can be quite annoying for the person whom I am talking to because they were just making polite small-talk. This post is so that I can say: read my blog. 

Here are the facts about my life as a tango teacher, dj and organiser.

1. Job description
My main activity is not dancing or being at milongas. It is not even teaching. 
What I do mostly is to sit in my office (or elsewhere) in front of my computer. This is where I spend 80-90% of my work hours with: event-, class- and travel organisation, preparing local team meetings, building and updating several websites, analysing or preparing music for classes or milongas, updating client data, editing videos, preparing class-content, writing and sending out class material, communicating with students, organisers or team members, writing invoices and bills of delivery, advertising in several languages and much more. A huge part of this involves spreadsheets, online forms and lists and is as exciting as the work of an accountant. Luckily I don't mind such tasks. But add some more annoying work like buying provisions for events or teacher-trainings, cleaning the studio or setting up venues and you'll understand my typical work day. Yes, there are the days during which I teach or dance, but even then the overhead work does not go anywhere. It still has to be done. 
In general I can say: My most important tools aren't dance shoes but the computer and my most important body parts aren't my legs but my brain. I could very easily do most of my work with a broken leg, but basically nothing without my computer.
When I am at home, I get up early in the morning and spend my day in front of the screen until dinner. I try to make a break around noon for a workout and breakfast. In the evenings, I watch a series or movie with my non-tango-sweetheart and go to bed around 11. I usually read 1/2 hour before I fall asleep. 
On rare days, I retire to my sofa in the afternoon because I started work before 6 in the morning. But as I take my computer with me, I usually end up working again. Like now. 
I do not take holidays and I will answer your e-mails within a day (usually within the hour) even on X-Mas or my birthday. 

2. Business travels
How come that everyone wishes me "have fun" when I am travelling to someplace for workshops? Would you say the same to an executive or engineer going to a business conference? Apart from the very few times per year that I go to an encuentro just to dance, travelling stands for a series of very challenging days with only few hours of sleep. Apart from classes, demos and dj-gigs, I squeeze in all the duties described above in the hours free of the payed work. Again, I love my work, but it is still work and I'd rather hear "I wish you lots of energy or success" than "have fun" as if I were going on a holiday. 
On business trips, I don't have time for sightseeing. Although I travel to many exciting places, I seldom see anything apart the tango venues, hotels, airports, train-stations and restaurants. And no, it does usually not make sense to stay a few days longer. I just spent some time in Austria with friends prior to an engagement in Slovenia. It was lovely, but the two extra days of group activities meant that I arrived less well rested than usual for work and overhead tasks piled up. I cannot allow myself to do this very often.
On days of traveling from A to B, I have some more time to read a book, because working whilst driving a car or sitting in a plane does not function well for me. If a train is not too full, I sometimes manage a few tasks on my computer, but I usually do not get a lot done because of the iffy internet. Traveling itself can take up two entire days per week. Judging by the actual work-output, you could call these holidays, but considering the amount of fatigue and stress, I am not sure if I can agree with this interpretation. 
In the past, we traveled up to 46 week(ends) per year. Now we are at home more often because of two encuentros, a 4-module tango-teacher-training, as well as workshops and classes in our studio. Less travel reduces my general stress level but increases the overhead-workload. How so? Well, when we give workshops at a festival or local school, the organisers will manage the client-bookings and payments, a huge part of the advertising and all local logistics. When we offer a workshop in our hometown, all of this is my job. 

3. Financial aspects of tango dj-ing
To dj does not generate an income to speak of, but is rather a very expensive and time-consuming hobby. A well known tango-dj can earn between 100€ and 250€ per gig plus expenses. (A local non-tango-dj in a disco earns a minimum of 500€.) Taking into consideration that you will have to buy lots of music and expensive equipment, the profit will be around zero, if not a loss. Some popular djs who live in an area with many regular milongas might be able to make a modest income, but usually even they have day jobs to pay the rent. When I am invited to dj at an encuentro, I see it as a great opportunity to play music for nice dancers, to get into an event for free and have my travel-expenses covered. My salary will most likely be spent on meals during the weekend. 

4. Financial aspects of organising events
Organising events or milongas will usually not be profitable. Sure, if you've got a regular milonga with more than 100 visitors in your own studio and you don't pay an external dj... But most local milongas just cover the expenses or make a loss. Our local milongas often are within the deficit range, but we see them as important service for our students and the community. 
Events like encuentros can generate a profit. But please note that the biggest part of the income will still go into the venue, djs, other staff, equipment, catering, insurances and taxes. Sure, if the organisers are smart, an event with 200 visitors can make an income of 1000-5000€. Sounds a lot? Not if you consider the work hours that go into organising it. 
Please be aware that the only ways of making an appropriate income with events would be:
- Reducing the expenses and therefore the quality and/or exploiting djs and helpers. Which would be evil and stupid!
- Raising prices. That would be the sensible thing to do, but tangueros will complain when the event costs 120€ instead of 85€. Considering that the entrance fee is the smallest expense over a weekend... well... 

5. Financial aspects of teaching
The only activity that can generate a decent income in tango is teaching. But even then, I do not know any tango teacher who could be considered as wealthy by normal standards. 
I live from tango since 2006 and cannot complain. Actually I think that we are better off than many other tango teachers (see note below *):
We have (a little) above average per hour prices and therefore generate an appropriate income. Our lifestyle is acceptable: we never had to hunger, we rent nice apartments and I can afford to buy a new Macbook and iPhone every 5 years. Or books and videos. Or invite a friend for dinner in a restaurant and give money to family needy members. But I do not own a house, our car is old and I do not have a pension plan. Why is that?
- Because of the disadvantageous proportion of classes (payed work) to overhead (not payed work). I will usually not teach more than 6-10 hours per week, sometimes less, because we do not travel all the time. 
But teaching is my only income to speak of. So why don't we teach more? Well, even if there were more engagements, I would not have the time to actually take on more classes because of the overhead workload and the traveling from A to B. When we started traveling for workshop weekends, we decided to give up our regular classes in three cities. It would have been just too much.
The ratio of payed/not-payed work is better during tango-holidays (14-20 teaching hours per week) and teacher trainings (25-30).  
- We do only seldom take on privates during workshop weekends or festivals, because we have to preserve our energy for group classes for which the organiser carries the financial risk. We also do not charge for demos - unless it is during a festival where the other teachers also get payed for their shows.
- Because in spite of a good turnover, work-related expenses are quite high and we spend a considerable part of our income in tango again: travel to encuentros as paying customers, buy tango music, software, online services, ads in tango magazines, studio rent, equipment, paying staff, inviting clients for dinner... yes, I also buy shoes and dresses - but from what I can tell, much less than most dancers.
- We often give substantial reductions to people with a low income, in rare cases up to 100%. Sometimes, I even offer free classes or seminars for entire groups because I want the tango community to develop. In tango, one cannot just take, one has to give as well to keep the system running. 
Had I pursued my career as a psychologist, things would look very different.

6. Expiration date of tango careers
Unless you are an "old Argentine maestro or milonguero", who will still be invited for classes abroad and highly respected in Buenos Aires, please do not expect to make a great living from tango once that you've passed a certain age. Younger, better dancers are constantly popping up and the memories of customers are surprisingly short. No matter how impressive your résumé as a teacher or how much you have perfected pedagogical skills, you will eventually be discharged. 
And even if not: can you imagine how the above described workload will feel when you're 75? Would you really want to travel that much, live out of your suitcase, often staying at tango people's homes without any privacy at an advanced age? I actually pity the "old ones" who still have to go on tour. 
Successful local teachers in big cities will have better prospects, but only if they play their cards well and integrate young talent. 
Rigorose diet and exercise (or just good genes) as well as plastic surgery might also help, but Detlef and I have now both passed the 50s-demarcation and I stopped colouring my hair recently. We're not young anymore and one can see it.
This last consideration may sound particularly harsh and bitter, but I am just being realistic. I have been teaching tango and expanding my business for 18 years. I do not regret having chosen this path, but I'd better start working on a backup plan. 

The life of a tango teacher, organiser and dj is not in the least bit as glamorous as you imagine. Sure, there might be the few top-notch "maestros" who do not prepare their classes, are so famous that they do not need to take care of publicity, will answer mails with a delay of weeks and can spend their retirement on the beach. But I guess that these are rare exceptions. And even then: these artists might spend hours per day practising or preparing choreographies. That's maybe a little bit more exciting than managing the pizza-list for our encuentro, but it is also hard work. I guess.

Please consider all this:
- when you see me or another professional being tired or not dancing a lot during a workshop weekend,
- before you complain about the costs for a class or an event,
- before you plan on taking up one of these activities professionally.

... in particular if your partner is not a tanguero. You need a very, very understanding sweetheart. Luckily, I do.

* This is just a guess, because I know of so many tango stars living in tiny flats or even entirely out of their suitcases. But maybe they are just smarter and saving money for the future. It is true that I do not see a lot of professional teachers at tango events unless they are there for work. As mentioned above: we still go to encuentros a couple of times per year and everyone knows how expensive these trips can be. I guess we could save a lot of money by not going or by participating for free and staying with local dancers. But we don't feel comfortable with such practises and we love dancing. So: spending money for tango is indispensable. Also: what would be the point of teaching a social dance and not dance yourself? Right?

P.S. Here is a link to a post from 2011. As you can see, my general perspective has not changed over the years. 

Sunday, 28 April 2019

The Tango Zone

Remember a few years ago? 

In 2010, the first year of this blog, I wrote about how our own hometown had become a tango free zone for us. And this was true for so many years:
We were traveling all over Europe and to the USA, sometimes for 46 out of 52 weeks. It was interesting and rewarding, but also exhausting and it estranged us more and more from the city in which we lived and still live. Dancers from all over the world often assumed, that we were teaching in our hometown, when in fact, the local dancers did not even know our names. There were years when our annual Encuentro with 200 participants hosted not more than 4 dancers from Saarbrücken.

Although this was normality for such a long time, it never felt quite right: having to travel far just to dance one tanda; knowing that tango here was so different from what we loved... 

But things started to change little by little: 
Once in a while, we would organise a workshop weekend in our small Tangokombinat studio and I started to offer Ladies Only seminars. Sure, most participants would come from afar, but there were always 1 or 2 locals. And sometimes, dancers from Saarbrücken would visit a workshop with us in some other town. So - although we still did not dance or teach regularly in Saarbrücken, some local dancers got to know us and our philosophy. 
But it was our teacher training that re-connected us with tango in our hometown. In order to offer an evening activity for our teacher-trainees we would organise a milonga during each module. This is where the local tangueros got to interact with so many nice dancers that had traveled from far to work with us. They (most likely) heard positive feedback about our classes and noticed that there was no kicking and jumping at our milongas.
In 2016, we then organised the first edition of Pequeña with the aim to bring together the (still) few close embrace dancers from our home region with friends from all over Europe. It was an instant success and many new bonds were forged.
But the real change happened when in 2018 all of a sudden four dancers from Saarbrücken asked to participate in our TTT. Wow! We would never have anticipated this!
All of a sudden we spent a lot more time with local dancers, exchanged views, ideas and sorrows. We actually got to know each other.

And there was one other thing: 
During the TTT, I got increasingly envious of our graduates who were giving classes in their hometowns. Regular tango classes. Teaching beginners. We had not done that for many years. Our workshop participants, even the teacher-trainees, even those who followed us around the globe were never really our students - they had discovered tango elsewhere. Sure, I am happy with what we achieved and how many dancers we could reach with our ideas. But it is still different than having your own students whom you can teach from the beginning. In the years 2002-2007, when we were giving weekly classes in Metz, Landau and St. Wendel (never in our hometown!), our pedagogical, musical and technical skills had been much less developed. Now, after so many years of teaching, learning, researching, discussing, I was eager to work with beginners from a new and improved perspective.

So I thought: It's now or never!

I wrote a mail to our local tango-friends, asking them, if they'd be interested in making tango in our hometown nicer - all of them responded positively. And with such great enthusiasm and dedication. All of a sudden, it was not only me, but Detlef, I and 9 friends! 

Everyone is helping to promote our activities, eager to participate, to develop as dancers, as djs and as hosts at milongas. Since our first meeting, we've started a bunch of activities:

  • Monthly milongas in the Tangokombinat studio,
  • Weekly classes for beginners and for those who want to improve their dance quality, 
  • A practica and milongas organised by our friends Armin and Elena, 
  • A simple couch-surfing platform for our events in Saarbrücken,
  • Outdoor dancing and much more...

Yesterday, at our monthly Minilonga - for the first time - we could integrate beginners into the fold. In their first four classes, they have learned to move in the ronda, to invite by mirada and cabeceo and to change roles! Yes, we're teaching both roles from the beginning and I think it is already showing great results. Although there was (as usual) a huge female majority at yesterday's milonga, no-one sat and moped. Everyone had fun. And I even saw a few men following. 

Not bad, eh? Guess the tango free zone is not tango free anymore!

The only downside: much more work. Building up something takes a lot of time and energy. What little was left for leisure activities and quality time with my sweetheart is now gone. Apart from my usual work organising and actually holding our international teaching-activities and events, I've now got classes during the week, meetings, fixing up the studio, workshops to form new djs for the community. Plus my new leading-practise twice a week ... sigh... anyone a youth potion? Should I by now not be preparing for retirement? But then, there's no retirement on a tango-teacher's wage anyway. So: on we go.

Friday, 29 March 2019


In this very nerdy tango-related post, I want to point out, how some common follower’s techniques or habits can make improvisation and navigation difficult and a comfortable embrace or good connection hard to achieve. 

I know that this post might antagonise female dancers - as much as my last blog was popular amongst women. Please be assured, that I do not write to insult or criticise, but to help create more awareness about the outcome of specific tango techniques. 

I am here not speaking about beginners who are struggling with their posture and actually might not yet have a technique. This is why I will not comment on issues that are considered as "mistakes", no matter what approach you follow: bad posture, a general lack of control over tension and relaxation, not carrying the weight of your arms, hanging on your leader or pushing too hard against him/her, stepping away from your partner, not knowing the music, not actively taking spaces...
Let’s assume that a dancer with some experience has sorted out most of those issues or is as least aware of them.

I am explicitly addressing "advanced" followers. You will dance at Milongas, Encuentros and Marathons. You look super elegant and do the most complex moves with ease. You might even be a successful teacher or performer. But that does not mean that your techniques are universal or helpful in all situations or with all partners. 

Don’t get me wrong: I do not think, that followers should have to adapt to every technique of any leader. On the contrary, that is the leaders job as well. I will, e.g. not pivot when not being given the space to build up my top-to-down spiral. But I will usually find a way to make the movement happen without having to compromise my ideas. Or I will not do so, being aware that this leader might not want to dance with me again. It is my choice. But I assume, that very few followers consciously want to hurt their partners or block movements. This is why I will describe advantages and disadvantages of techniques and habits.

I am aware that how I useful I find a technique, is defined by my priorities. Let me point them out:
  • A soft embrace and deep connection
  • Organic and comfortable movements
  • Real improvisation
  • Musicality
  • Social dancing
As I have written before: for me as a social dancer, it is about how it feels from the inside and not how it looks from the outside. Elegance is a plus, but no top priority. And my priorities determine the techniques and concepts that I use and teach.

Other teachers or dancers have different priorities and will therefore use differing concepts and techniques. So when I am disappointed by someone’s technique, another leader might be perfectly happy dancing with the same person.

Before shrugging off my blog as the quirky ideas of a mediocre dancer, please remember that I have been teaching for 18 years all over Europe and the USA. Therefore: If a follower’s techniques are incompatible with mine, they might be incompatible with others as well. Not least with the ones of my teaching partner. How often do you think that Detlef is disappointed by how uncomfortable a dance was and by how little he could improvise? I still remember when he came back from a milonga in Rome, almost having cried on the dance floor, because none of the women was willing to do a shift of weight to their right foot.

In this blog, I am mainly writing from the perspective of a leader. Let me comment on that as well:
As a teacher, it was alway my standard to understand whatever we do in class from the perspective of both roles and be capable of leading it. This is why all of the following observations have been confirmed in the class context as well as on the social dance floor. In a crowded ronda, in a close embrace, I usually stick to simpler movements than in class: variations of the walk, milonguero ochos, simple turns… The more disappointing it is, when some of these very basic moves will absolutely not function.

Sure, I (like any other leader, also Detlef) make mistakes, but please be assured, that after so many years of in-detail analysis, I will always be able to tell, why a movement did not function in a given moment. So when I could not step out to the right lane, I might not have prepared this properly by turning my leg in the hip and by this opening a space. But it might also have been the follower’s doing, because she did not open her left side due to her asymmetric embrace. In this complex dance and communication, both partners contribute to the successes and failures. This post is about the follower’s part in the interaction.

My dear friend Ms Hedgehog has recently written a great blog on what it takes to be a good social dancer. She focusses on the positive aspects and I agree with everything she writes. But because of being my usual critical self, I will rather present a list of techniques and habits that can make the dance less agreeable or even limit improvisation significantly. 

The order below is coincidental.

1. Projection of the free leg
This is commonly taught by teachers with the idea of "making space for the leader’s front step". With the tiniest invitation, the follower will project her free leg to an extended position using a significant amount of muscular control in this leg. 
Advantages of this technique:
  • Lazy leaders get super results. They just hint at something and the follower will terminate the whole move on her own.
  • Looks very elegant because the legs are nicely extended.
Disadvantages of this technique: 
  • The leg is not really free and lead-able. Changing the length or speed of a step, as well as re-directing or stoping the movement is much harder, because the leg is already on a trajectory towards an anticipated direction. Therefore improvisation and musicality will be limited. 
  • Often, this technique inhibits small steps altogether, because the leg will be extended into a long step on principle. This will endanger navigation on the social dance floor. It is not always the fault of the leader when a follower runs into other dancers and hurts them by stepping down with a lot of energy. 
  • Loss of connection. When dancing with a follower who uses this technique, I will only feel connected in the initial moment of the movement, but during the transfer the connection is lost because her leg moves independently from her gravity centre. I would like to feel connected on every inch of the transfer.
What we teach: We concentrate on pushing from the supporting leg and letting the free leg move with the gravity centre like a pendulum. It is relaxed and has roots in the floor. Thanks to this approach, we also never have to think where to put this leg. Agreed: It looks less elegant.

2. Closing the position as quickly as possible
This technique is often connected to the projection of the leg and has the same advantages and disadvantages. In particular traspiés (or rock-steps) are difficult to communicate because they happen in the open position and leaders often have to stop those followers with their arms in order to prevent an automatic closing.
What we teach: a closing will eventually happen by a complete transfer of axis onto the new supporting leg and coming back (up) to a straight leg.

3. Overactive rotation of the hips and automatic pivoting
A lot of teachers stress that the hips most be rotated as quickly as possible in order to allow for speedy pivots with a big angle. 
  • Leaders, who don’t want to dissociate get super results.
  • Pivots and ochos remain a follower’s movement and nothing in the leader’s body will distract from it. (Or this is what a famous teacher once told me.)
  • Basically the same as in 1, because improvisation and connection are inhibited. Ever tried to lead a milonguero ocho (without pivots) with such a follower? Or just change the angle of rotation in a pivot? Impossible, because she will automatically rotate her hips to a maximum. Or try rotating your upper body towards your partner to compensate for an offset of feet: she will most likely pivot a little and therefore the next step might go into a different direction than intended. Walking in crossed system is often impossible and unintended crosses happen. 
What we teach: Lazy hips. A rotation will only happen when it is communicated by an opening of space around the axis of the follower, so that she can create a spiral in her body from top to down. No opening equals no pivot.

4. Step on one line
A lot of teachers ask followers to walk on a virtual line, therefore they will position one leg behind the other when walking backwards or forwards. 
  • This is elegant because the position will always look closed. Leaders who change direction with almost every step, might never notice the disadvantages of this technique.
  • Try walking front-to-front with such a follower’s technique for more than 2 steps. It feels very weird, because she will aways position her free leg directly where you want to go with your next step. You constantly have to compensate by opening your position laterally. Later have her walk on two lines and follow her free leg. That will feel completely different.
What we teach: Step on two neighboured lines.

5. Have musical automatisms
A lot of followers will automatically double the speed in a number of movements: the Ocho Cortado, the cross, the back and side step of the molinette structure… This comes from teaching steps linked to fixed rhythmical patterns and I cannot find any advantages in this approach.
Just imagine: I want to lead a turn in normal speed to slow music, starting with the back step of the follower - I invite her to pivot and - whooosh - she’s already finished the turn. ARGH!
Also the contrary is a problem: you might want to speed up for a longer time because the melody says 12341234 (think D’Arienzo), but she slows down after the second step (123_), because she is used to quick-quick-slow patterns. It will be impossible to interpret the melodic rhythm.
What we teach: Adapt the movement to the music. Don’t ever memorise a rhythmical pattern with a figure. Learn any step/figure in a default variation (normal of half speed). Then practise changing speed in every possible position.

6. Have movement automatisms
The result of traditional step learning is that followers (and leaders) will develop very strong preferences for certain movements and are often incapable of dancing variations. 
I mentioned above how Detlef often does not succeed in inviting followers to do a simple shift of weight to the right foot because they block the movement. No problems changing to the left.
Sorry, but I cannot think of any advantage in creating these strong habits, so I am just going to point out some of the typical habits:
  • Dancing a cross only on the usual side and expecting to be "forced" into a cross with the right left in front of the left leg instead of just reacting to the same leading mechanism on the other side.
  • Being used to stepping forward with the left food in the "8-count-basic", but blocking any front-to-front forward movement with the right foot. Walking forward with the right leg on the outer lane in an ocho cortado might still work, but stepping forward into the space of the leader just will not function. Trying to prepare this step forward, I had followers change leg, turn their hips or even fall onto me, because they rather do a volcada than stepping forward with their right leg. Ask Detlef to tell you his story of that very tall and heavy follower doing a volcada instead of a front step. His back was hurting for days!
  • Cross or uncross automatically. Do you know, how many variations there might be around the traditional cross - apart from doing it on the other side as mentioned above? And did you know that you might prevent a leader to walk on the outside lane for a longer period, because you cross automatically after 2 steps? Are you expecting him to "block" the crossing?
  • Automatically projecting your leg into a back step after a pivot because you expect an ocho to happen. What if the leader takes the pivot back?
  • Automatically rotating the hip to a neutral position after a back or front step in a turned movement, because you expect a side step to happen. This result of lifelong molinette practise will prevent any variation in turns.
The list is endless. Unfortunately, these automatisms prevent everything that goes away from the traditional patterns as well as any real improvisation without fixed patterns, based on freely linking the smallest elements.
Sure, if you dance with a leader who repeats patterns without actually communicating them, it helps to know them in order to make the dance work. But do you really want to be so unflexibel?
What we teach: Be prepared for any movement in any given moment. Also: Relax the free leg and let it fall towards the floor with its own weight, so that your body is also physically prepared to react naturally to unusual and/or subtle movements. 
A note: Yes, dancing with leaders who really improvise can be challenging and might feel stressful. Even I sometimes enjoy dancing with someone more predictable, in particular when I am tired. But I would not always want to dance that way.
A second note: Dancing with very creative leaders requires much more focus on the communication, so there won’t be much capacity left for decorations. You either have to ask more actively for the time/space to decorate or skip decorations altogether. Which is what I do. And you won’t see a lot of followers who are dancing with Detlef do a lot of firuletes either.
A third note: Yes, even Detlef has these automatisms because he learned tango based on steps before we started teaching and breaking up these patterns. In the first years, we also taught more figures but nowadays, we seldom teach steps anymore. And if we do so, we will vary them in manifold ways to prevent automatisms. This is why some of our students dance much more freely than we do. 

7. Push with the head
I don’t think that any teacher consciously instructs followers to drop their head or to push their forehead against the leaders right cheek or forehead. But a lot of advanced dancers do so because of misunderstood cuddling or the wish to imitate the aesthetics of famous dancers. 
  • Looks feminine?
  • Starts hurting after a while because of increased tension of neck-muscles. 
  • Leaders move their head into a left-bent position to get out of the way. (I once watched Detlef tilt his head more and more to the side because of the follower invading his space with her head. He looked really stupid.)
  • Inhibits movements to the so-called closed side. (See 7.)
  • Often has a negative effect on stability of axis, even without the pushing.
What we teach: Hold the head upright and in line with your spine. Search for head contact only if it is anatomically possible.

8. Push with the right arm and/or asymmetrical embrace
A high tension in the right arm of the follower is very often taught in combination with a stable v-frame. Often followers are told to give resistance so that force (or at least tension) can be applied to communicate pivots. In the v-embrace, the other side is often closed and the two shoulders will usually be much nearer than the ones on the so-called open side. I know that v-hold does not necessarily imply a pushing arm, but the problems created are comparable.
The positive effects of this technique:
  • I am not sure, but one obviously does not need dissociation. A follower can remain more passive and let herself be pushed or pulled into pivots. The strong frame might also increase stability when doing automatic pivots with a spiral starting below (see above). It is certainly easier than doing pivots actively by creating a spiral from top-to-down. 
The negative effects of the technique:
  • Any pushing or tension in the arms just feels less comfortable and starts hurting after a while. Even Detlef (who works out on a regular basis) can sometimes barely stand the pain a fragile follower causes with her strong right arm. You don’t believe me? Ask him.
  • With a right rigid arm, the follower pushes herself into an asymmetrical position. So even if a v-shape is not intended, an open and closed side are created. You can see that with many "milonguero" dancers who are starting out with a parallel chest-to-chest position, but then open to a v-hold in ochos or turns.
  • A general v-hold or pushing arm results in movements feeling uncomfortable or even being impossible into one direction. Try to walk on the right outside lane in parallel system with a follower who pushes with her right arm or brings her left shoulder so much forward that she cannot dissociate to the left anymore. You won’t succeed. Most likely it won’t even be possible to walk straight without her pulling you to the right side, because she not only opens her right side but also turns her hips with her as a result. This makes navigation really hard. And please examine your back-ocho technique: there will often a nice opening for an organic pivot on the follower’s right leg, but the pivot on her left leg is initiated by the leader pulling her with his right arm.  Or she will pivot automatically. I find it illogical to use different techniques on the two sides.
  • In general v-shape will also affect all musicality as it inhibits free change of speed and step length on both sides. (This is a huge topic!)
What we teach: Have soft arms. We want to embrace, not to have a stable "frame". We connect and exchange information in the centre. The leader opens spaces that the follower takes actively. We are therefore searching for a parallel position of the upper bodies and want to be free to execute all movements comfortably to both sides.
Note: When dancing with a leader who uses either active pushing/pulling with the arms or at least relies on the stable frame for building up a tension for a pivot, I will not compromise my priorities and start pushing, but rather find other ways to make the movement work: Either create a counter-spiral in the body or not pivot and reach the end position by doing a milonguero-ocho. My arms remain soft.

9. Dropping, lifting or swinging the hips
Sometimes this comes from the wish to look sexy and might result in a slight difficulty of taking steps back speedily. But very often such a hip movement comes from consciously or inadvertently wanting to pull the free leg to the axis in the end phase of movements. In dynamic steps the phenomenon might not occur, because the initial push is enough to transport the axis fully to the new leg, but try a very slow transport of axis in a back step of the follower. In the last moment it might feel, as if the follower is breaking away and her axis gets wobbly.
What we teach: The hips remain calm and parallel to the floor. The transfer of axis is done by the former supporting leg that pushes until the axis is above the new leg in particular in slow motion.

10. Be overactive
A lot of advanced followers seem to think, that they constantly have to do something in order to dance interestingly or musically. They will decorate, insert double steps, change weight without invitation, move, move, move. They never stand still. Being calm equals being boring. Right?
This is very handy for leaders who do not have a clear leading technique or who are un-inspired, but I think that constant activity makes it impossible to build up a more intimate connection. Sure, feel free to fill spaces, to add to the dance, to give input to the leader. But please: don’t move all the time. Can we not just stand for a second. Slow down? Enjoy the embrace? Just listen to this tiny piano fill? Just honour the end of the phrase? Does tango have to be so nervous?
When I dance with a guy who expects me to act all the time without inviting me properly, I might do so. For a short while. But then I usually get bored, because of the lack of interaction and communication. So I might just stand and embrace. You’d be surprised at what can happen then! 

So. This is it. Sorry to be a know-it-all. 

I am aware, that every dancer will make her personal choices. I always assure our students, that our techniques are just options amongst many. But I am strongly doubting that everyone actually makes conscious choices. I so wish that advanced dancers were more aware of their techniques and possible outcomes. Not only for the sake of the leaders, but for your own comfort and clarity. So that you can make better informed choices!

Some might think, that they now understand our entire technical concepts. Nothing I can do about it, apart from saying: buy our Book + DVD Caminar Abrazados and you'll how much more there is to it. Or visit one of our classes. You might be surprised. And no, I am not ashamed of self-advertising. ;-)