Saturday, 5 January 2019

Je déteste les démos - and why I still do them!

It is Saturday evening and you are visiting a tango festival or a workshop weekend. You know what is going to happen around midnight: the teacher's performance!

What will you do?

Secure a good seat, because you are looking forward to it? 
Do you even prepare your camera or phone to video the demo?
Or do you start making preparations for leaving the event because you hate performances?
Maybe you'll just go to the bar or have a smoke or use the opportunity to go to the bathroom.

In Buenos Aires performances are an important part of tango culture. Foreign teachers, local heroes and heroines, stars, birthday celebrants and most honoured seniors perform at all milongas. There are actually few milongas without demos and the performers usually get loud cheers during and compliments after the shows. Everyone wants to show, that they liked the dance.

But in Europe, this is often very different. Apart from cultural differences (e.g. Germans and Finns e.g. not being overly extrovert and therefore not cheering a lot), one can detect a general lack of interest in watching performances. Wanting to avoid shows are after all one of the main reasons why Encuentros and Marathons have developed. There you can dance without interruptions.

Where does this aversion come from?
Is the tango community still traumatised from the festivals of the 90's with 4 performing couples that forced you to sit and watch for an hour? I don't think so, because many people now dancing tango started much later. And weren't these the exceptions anyway? Most demos usually last 3-4 songs - the length of a tanda. And honestly: do you dance all tandas? What is the big deal of sitting one out and watching someone else dance? Don't you do that during the milonga, don't you even like watching your fellow dancers? Why is it different, when there is only one couple on the dance-floor? Do you assume that this is a fake show, even if they are "performing" social tango? Is it "evil" because it is about promotion and making money? Does it pollute the purity of social tango?

I don't have the answers, but I do have my personal experiences with this facet of tango life.

Let me tell you a story from 2007:
It was one of our first engagements outside our home region. We were giving classes in Lyon, France and the workshops were nicely filled with dancers from near and far. After this weekend, word of mouth caused a multitude of invitations from other French tango clubs. This weekend was a game-changer in our "career".
But still I think of it with very mixed feelings. Because of the demo. (See video below.)
It was a couple of minutes before the performance and I was speaking to a dancer, with whom we had dined just a few hours earlier. He seemed friendly enough, but now he was sitting outside the hall and pulling a face. Willingly, he told me why: "Je déteste les démos." I hate demos. 
Thanks a lot. I was about to step onto the empty floor and have 150 strangers watch me dance and this was really not helping.
Before this evening, I could not even imagine, that tango dancers would have such strong aversions against tango demos. Sure, one would not like a particular performance because of the style, execution or other specific reasons. I myself was quite critical, but up until then most of my tango friends also liked tango demos. And why not? Sure, we were nervous when we had to perform, but not devastatingly so and even our first performances in Buenos Aires and New York had been a very positive experiences.
So this one sentence from a french milonguero shattered my fragile self-confidence for the evening and changed my perception of performances for ever. Where others thinking the same? As I later discovered: yes, I have heard many similar comments ever since - usually in a more general context and not directed to me personally. But still, if you are a teacher, performing is part of your job and such words will affect you - in particular when they come from friends and/or clients. (And amongst my students/friends/clients there is a high probability to encounter this aversion against demos, because so many of them are regular Encuentro visitors.)
So even now, when I perform, I often first notice the people who don't like demos. In order to get into a better place, I consciously have to concentrate on a benevolent person or group. Sometimes a very welcoming audience will make me forget my doubts. (See 2 videos below.) But often not.

And this fear of annoying people is boosted by who we are and what we do.

Please understand:
We (my partner Detlef and I) are no artists. We are social dancers, teachers, organisers, book authors, djs and whatnot. We don't do choreographies. We don't practise figures or poses. My absolute focus is on maintaining a high quality of teaching and events. Therefore 80-90% of my work therefore takes place at my desk preparing the content of classes and teacher-trainings, organising events and tango-holidays, communicating with clients, making publicity, managing spread sheets and lots of other things.
How would I find the time to prepare demos and choreographies and practise many hours? We don't even choose the music for demos together, because it used to take up much-needed rest-time between classes and the milonga and usually led to arguments. So nowadays, I do that on my own and Detlef will be surprised by my choice. Like in any tanda.

But even without the "unwilling spectators" or our special priorities, I find it difficult to make social tango* look interesting for others. Our focus is not on how tango looks from the outside, but how it feels in the couple. Can you make this visible without actually affecting the feeling and therefore having to fake it? This is why for us, our demos will always feel like a compromise between authenticity and wanting to show something appealing. This does not create an ideal mind-set and is particularly disturbing, when you perform at a festival with everyone else showing the big moves. (See video below.)

The result of these inhibitors: we will only rarely dance as nicely as we'd do in a milonga. Our demos will usually be less musical, less connected, less varied and not half as elegant as in the ronda. Therefore, we are seldom pleased with the videos. Also: The more experienced we get as teachers, the more we become aware of our own weaknesses. In the years, 2016-17, we only uploaded very few videos, because we were not content with the majority of our performances. In 2018, we did a bunch of fine demos, but who knows how long this lucky stretch will hold? It remains scary!
So honestly: for me, performing is often more tedious than managing the pizza-oder-list for our encuentro and only a little less upsetting than doing the tax returns.

But, if it is that difficult, why do we still perform or invite others to do demos at our events?

There are at least three good reasons.

Let me start with the obvious one: attracting students
Although our demos are not as good as our dancing in milongas, they are still publicity. Hundreds of dancers have visited our classes or have invited us for workshops because they have seen our videos on Youtube. Sure, word of mouth (about quality of teaching) or us going to events and dancing with people are as important, but: a tango teacher has to be visible as a dancer.
And by my last sentences you will understand: The target audience of a demo is usually not the one in the room, but the ones watching on the internet. We were amongst the very first teachers to post dance-videos on our site - many years before Youtube. Back then, other teachers still feared that a video on the internet might allow dancers to copy their steps and therefore make classes obsolete. That was a wee bit short-sighted. For us, videos were an important trigger for our early popularity. 

And also: attracting the right students
Our initial reason to upload videos to our site in 2002 was not publicity, but to prevent people from coming with wrong expectations. Back then, social tango was still rare and most teachers were focussing on the big moves - in particular in their shows. We did not teach jumps and poses and wanted to attract only the people who were looking for what we could actually offer. Also, as beginning teachers we were not so confident in our own dancing and wanted to avoid disappointing more advanced dancers.
Today I am much more self confident and believe that even people who dance better than us can still profit from our classes, but the principle is still valid: a demo will give prospective customers an idea of what you are doing and will therefore sort out the ones, who don't like your idea of tango. Those who show up, will share some general philosophy with you and this creates good conditions for the learning/teaching process.

Last not least: Inspiration
Performances can inspire people to take up dancing, to change something in their dance, to develop, to dance better. And this applies not only to choreographed shows, but also to demos of social tango. As there are dancers who want to imitate the kicks and jumps of a show, there are others who strive to walk nicely, because they have seen it in a demo. I strongly believe that the rise of tango de salon / tango milonguero in the new millennium is very much due to showing how social tango can look like: how nice, musical, elegant it can be. Without that, we might still live in a tango world were everyone wears black and red and where it is dangerous to come near another couple on the dance-floor. And there might not be any Encuentros and Marathons today. Without demos of social tango, tango might still be very different. And let us not to forget that the tango shows in the late 70's - 90's caused a tango-renaissance all over the world. So, without performances, there might not be any tango today. 

So, here is my appeal for all the "advanced" dancers being bored by demos:
Before you criticise or yawn openly or pull a face, please think of your favourite dance-partner with the nicest embrace and musicality. She or he might not be dancing that way without being attracted by a video to a particular class. Her or his local organisers might not even have invited the teachers, because they might never have become aware of them. And the teachers whose classes influenced you in the past, might not be able to do their jobs, because no one would even notice them and therefore would not work at influencing more people to dance nicely. So: if you still want new people to be attracted by social tango or to learn important skills in classes, please be aware that this won't work without demos. Performances are part of the package and won't go away.

Deal with it.


Part of the demo in Lyon (2007) after the negative comment. Back then still with Ganchos and Voleos. I think one cannot see the nervousness, but I felt super bad.

A demo at a festival in Portland (2010). We were totally intimidated by all the other teachers impressing the audience with jumps, kicks, speed of lightning and complex moves. Because of being so nervous our repertoire was even more limited than usual. Nevertheless, no-one seemed to notice and the demo was very much complimented on because of its purism:

Performing the same song as in the previous video (Bajo el cono azul, OTV), this time for an audience, that made us feel welcome from the moment, we stepped onto the dance floor. On this evening, we even gave two encores and it was one of the performances that we uploaded (almost completely) to Youtube in 2016.

A more recent demo from Firenze, just to make the point that we always perform nicely there, because the audience is so welcoming. We have uploaded videos each year that we have worked there:

* The words social tango for me describe any tango, that could be danced in a (moderately) crowded ronda. High voleos and certain forms of ganchos are therefore tabu. Also any reliance on memorised figures, as well as followers projecting their legs into huge steps and decorating every movement will make navigation difficult and the dance less social. So please be aware, that not every teacher couple dancing in a close embrace will show social tango. Or teach it in class. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Encuentros & Festivalitos Milongueros 2019

Here I am again.

A lot of friends have asked me to post another list of event-recommendations for milongueros. 

I have hesitated for quite some time, as I still find it difficult to offer that nowadays. Why?
- The numbers of so-called milonguero-events have risen even more and I can only visit a fraction of them, as I am working most of the weekends. 
- A few events have developed in a way, that I really cannot recommend them anymore to Milongueros. 
- Some events have been stopped. One of my favourite events (Abrazos in the UK) will e.g. not take place in 2019 because of Brexit issues. 
- In general, the "milonguero" events are changing along with it's population. There is a tendency to not visit all milongas of an event - which changes the atmosphere a lot.
- The borders between marathons and encuentros are getting more and more blurry. I myself will visit a marathon in Vienna this November. Let's see how that goes.
All in all, there are many reasons to not post any recommendations.

But of course I still love going to encuentros or festivalitos milongueros, because this is where tango is danced in a way that I can relate to. I always try to keep a few weekends per year free to dance with my friends. And sometimes I am lucky to be invited to dj or teach at such an event. Then I am even happier, because I can combine the pleasure of working and dancing in the ronda! 

I have therefore decided to post another choice of events that:
1. ask participants to pre-register for the whole event,
2. use role or gender-balance to ensure that everyone gets to dance,
3. will take at least 3 days and have separate Milongas,
4. use traditional music in tandas & with cortinas,
5. encourage cabeceo & mirada, in particular by placing seats consequently around the dance floor and installing enough light to actually be able to see across the room,
6. encourage dancers to leave the dance-floor after one tanda to find a new partner,
7. are meant to attract people who want to dance in a close embrace in a civilised ronda.
Events, that have these features are in general called Encuentros or Festivalitos Milongueros (see note below). Festivalitos might include a short demo as well as some classes that focus on social tango. There will nevertheless be no live-music or extended shows at these events. The Milongas are reserved for dancing. So they could be called Encuentros+. Please note that separate seating is no necessary condition of a milonguero-event. In fact, I do better in a mixed-seating environment.

So, here goes:

EVENTS, that I organise or where I dj or/and give classes in 2019:
La Colmena, Copenhagen, Denmark - April 19-21
Pequeña (Tangokombinat), Saarbrücken, Germany, June  21-23 (Festivalito)
Embrace Norway, Lillehammer, Norway - July 5-7 (Festivalito)
Festivalito Rural, Verzej, Slovenia, August 23-25 (Festivalito) 
FCA (Tangokombinat), Saarbrücken, Germany, Oktober 12-14 (private event) 

EVENTS that I have visited in the past:
Pasionaria Milonguera, Nice, France (Date uncertain)
Yo soy Milonguero, Crema, Italy, April 19-22 
Rendez-Vous Milonguero, near Lyon (formerly SJMM), France, May 3-5 (private event)
*Les Cigales, France, May 30 - June 2
Ensueños, Porto, Lisbon, October (Date to be announced)
*TangoAGoGo, Lago di maggiore, Italy, October (Date to be announced)
Tres Besos, Basel, Switzerland (Date to be announced)
*Te quiero Lisboa, Lisbon. Portugal, November (Date to be announced)
Abrazame, Barcelona, Spain, early December (marathon-encuentro mixer)
(I will try to go to 1-2 of them in 2019. But some do not meet to my personal preferences, so I would not visit all of them again. The events with * use separate seating of leaders/followers.)

EVENTS that I have not yet been to, but that get good feedback by many milongueros, depending on their preferences:  

Noches de Invierno, Reichenau an der Rax, Austria, January 4-5
Juntos, France, February 1-3
A Promotora, Portugal, March 1-4
Ronda de primavera, Kehl, Germany, April 8-14 (privat event)
Bomboncito, Basel, Switzerland, springtime (private event)
Encuentro Porteño, Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 2-5
Encuentro de Brujas, Bruges, Belgium, May 16-19
Noches de PrimaveraReichenau an der Rax, Austria, May 10-12
Avventura Milonguera Peace & Love, Nocy, Italy (around June)
Noches de Verano, Reichenau an der Rax, Austria, August 9-11
La Franteña, France, August 15-18
La Parada Milonguera, Treviso, Italy, October
Yupie, France, October 18-20
Paquita, Sarrebourg, France, around New Year (private event)
(Many of the events on this part of the list use separate seating. Please check in advance, if this is of any importance for you.)

And last, not least - the UK EVENTS:
These are events of which the future is uncertain, mostly because of Brexit. If they do take place again, I will certainly go there. 
Abrazos (Tangokombinat), Dartington, Devon (May): Took place from 2011-17 and then went on hold for one year. But then came Brexit, so our colleagues suspended it again. Might come back, if there is no hard Brexit or if the situation in the UK will not deteriorate completely. I am not holding my breath though. Very sadly.
Sueño de Escocia, Linlithgow, Scotland: one of my absolute favourites 2018, but who knows what happens next year. Even without Brexit - it was a first-timer and it is uncertain, whether the lovely organisers will do it again. But the pressure on them is definitely high. Everyone loved it!

That's it for the moment. I might update the list as soon as I get more info. Please also write to me, if you discover a mistake. 

Please note again: 
This is a very personal list of recommendations. It is subjective, but all the events on my list are suited for dancers with a milonguero philosophy. There are many more Encuentros, that I either don't know or know to be fakes. And there are many small, more local events as well. I am here sticking to events that are well-established and that aim to attract an international crowd. For a complete listing, please visit this site

General note on Encuentros and Marathons:
Nowadays, some Marathons seem to have the same or most of the features as described in my 7-point list above. But as I have not been to any of them, I cannot vouch for that. Things are constantly on the move in the tango community and these two terms might not exist in 10 years anymore. But in this article, I am speaking from my perspective for the year 2019. 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Photos and Films at Tango Events - how it affects all of us!

From May 25 on, the GDPR (general data protection rule) will come into direct effect in all EU countries. The law is meant to prevent the misuse of personal data - in particular by the big firms who make money by processing and/or selling data.

But the law will also affect every single person living or working in the EU and it will have a huge impact on the tango community - that has become very dependant on the exchange of digital data via e-mails, online forms, websites, youtube and social media. A lot of tools and commodities that we have been using or enjoying on a daily basis will have to be re-structured or even abandoned. And although the law certainly is of noble intent, a lot of its outcomes might be quite devastating.

The law is applied a differently in the EU countries, but in Germany, there is no extra regulation, so the GDPR regulations will have to be interpreted by model lawsuits. Depending on which country you live or work in, that might be the same or comparable because of a very strict interpretation in the country affected. Everyone will have to check whether and how exactly the regulation apply to him or her.

Because of this, my life as a tango teacher and organiser has again become more complex, costly and work-intensive. In the last few weeks, I have spent many hours and quite a few Euros to update five websites and several online forms as well as restructure my general way of data collection and processing. One of the sad outcomes is, that there won't be anymore comments on this blog. I have disabled all further comments in every single blog post - separately, because there is no option to do that for the entire blog in general. ARGH! All that work to in order to make the business GDPR compliant. Not being a lawyer or even interested in that kind of stuff made it even harder for me.

Ok. That does sound so bad and so far, the extra work and costs just affected us (and every other European organiser and teachers who takes his or her job seriously). Obviously it of no big interest to the consumers, the event- and class-participants. 

Unfortunately, affected tango organisers and teachers will have to - sooner or later - adapt their fees for classes or events in order to compensate for huge amount of extra work and costs. That’s already quite inconvenient, isn’t it?

But, money aside, there will be other (more immediate and sad) effects on our tango experience.

It concerns all tango photography as well as videos taken during events.

This is the law:

The GDPR says that every collection of data has to be agreed upon by the person whose data is collected. Digital photos and videos as well as their processing is considered as processing data after Article 2, Paragraph 1, GDPR.
Therefore every photographer, film-maker or event organiser will have to ask for permission after Article 6, Paragraph 1 GDPR before any photos or videos are taken. The object has the right to withhold this permission or to withdraw consent after Article 7, Paragraph 3 GDPR at any moment.

How is this different from the previous practise?

Although you had to ask for consent to take a photo before GDPR, there were quite a few exceptions that allowed tango photographers to take nice pictures and post them on facebook or exhibit them in another form: 
  • Declaring the photos/films as art,
  • Only asking the person in focus for permission. People not in the focus (e.g. seen from behind or taking a only a small space in the picture) could be declared as accessories and therefore did not have to consent.
  • Define the event as private and posting it only to those who have attended.
  • Defining the event as public.
  • ...
And let’s be honest: most people love tango photos or did not care so much, as long as the photographer did his/her job in a discreet manner and was willing to take down photos which one did not like after publishing them.

Now the law requires, that everyone who will recognisable in a picture (also if it is just by a haircut, tattoo or figure) has to consent before any film or photo is made at all forms of events - e.g. weddings. Also the form of storing and publishing of the material has to be informed about and agreed with. The photographers or organisers have to be prepared to produce this written permission upon request of the subject or of a regulatory authority. They will have to face potentially huge fines, if not complying to the law.

What does this practically mean?

It will be almost impossible to spontaneously take a nice photo or film the ronda or crowd. In any case, you will have to get permission before. That might create more or less difficulties. Check out some different cases:
  • As long as it is a very small crowd - like our Tangokombinat Minilonga with 30 people or so - all that might not be such a huge effort - just annoying, because everyone has to sign a paper form at the entrance of the milonga. This means that you actually have to have someone sitting at an entrance desk, not just a desk with a money-box. Why: because the filled-out form itself is an information about somebody - data that has to be protected from misuse. The cashier has to make sure that no-one else reads it. One person more to pay or compensate for or "bye-bye" dancing for the organiser!
  • At an encuentro or marathon, you can ask people to agree upon registration, but they can revoke their permission at any given moment. So it is already a lot more work beforehand. And then imagine, you’ve got 200 participants, 20 of them not agreeing and the photographer or film maker might not know everyone personally - in particular if he/she is not a dancer. He/she will have to check before every photo or film, if anyone within sight did not comply. Most likely with the help of a list and someone actually knowing all participants by name. This will be the organiser, who is already busy with lots of other things or who might want to dance as well. Sure, there is the possibility to give the non-compliant participants badges to wear, but checking for them in a crowd will also take time and honestly - who wants to wear a stupid badge? Or force someone to wear it? For me, that opens up quite another box of Pandora.
  • An open Milonga or a Tango Festival, where people show up spontaneously at the door is even more complicated. You will have to make them sign paper forms (see above). Just imagine how long a check-in might then take. And then let's hope that you can actually spot the non-compliants in the crowd.
  • A last example: taking a video of a demo or a class summary. Apart from the potentially huge effort of asking permission, the camera will be moving, so it even  harder to control who you are filming at any given moment. You can of course invite everyone who did not comply to move out of the camera angle. And then you just have to hope that no-one stays seated in a visible spot and complains or even sues later. Who will risk filming under such circumstances? Sure, in some countries making such clips just for personal usage might still be allowed - but how many of them end up on Youtube?

Imagine what all of this does to the artistic spontaneity or expression of a photographer or film-maker. It kills it. Plus the additional work! Apart from the preparation by getting people to consent, the complete raw-material has to be carefully checked before further processing and deleted in case it shows someone who was filmed by accident or someone who revoked consent after the event.
So from now on every photographer/film-maker/organiser will think about if having a few nice photos is still worth the effort. And every serious professional will have to increase prics. 

What is the outcome?

The best outcome: Having pictures or films made at tango events will become more expensive and these extra costs will be payed by the consumer's fees. 
The worst-case scenario: There won’t be any pictures or videos. Knowing the community and its mechanisms, I predict that many event organisers will just save on the expense or effort.
And would this not be incredibly sad? Don’t you all love the (moving) pictures of dancers in a nice embrace or of your favourite performers during their spectacular demo? And now think of what kind of damage this does to the artists or teachers who depend on videos or photos for promotion. 
No problem for Tango Escenario by the way, if it is exhibited on a stage without showing the audience.
All of this might have a huge impact of how tango is perceived from the outside or what kind of tango will be popular in the future. Tango as a world heritage, in particular the social tango we love could become much poorer and ultimately might face a decline because of this reduced exposure.
You think that I am exaggerating? Let’s hope so, but let’s not count on it.

How does this affect us?

By us, I mean Melina Sedó & Detlef Engel as well as the Tangokombinat-headquarter. Our UK section might not have these problems after the Brexit - maybe the one reason to looking forward to it. 
We love to have pictures taken during ours events. What would an encuentro be without the photos of happy people in lovely embraces to remember it by? We would like to preserve this!
Also there are a lot of people who enjoy watching videos of our demos - which have been crucial in our advertising for the last 17 years. We were amongst the first tango dancers to upload dance-videos onto the web - long before Youtube or Facebook! A lot of people invited us or came to our classes because of a video they had seen. Without the videos - we would not be were we are now.

What will we do?

1. We will ask every visitor of our events to allow us to take pictures or videos of him/her. We will do so upon registration or with the help of an extra form or with a paper form to sign upon entering a milonga. 
2. If there are too many (more than 10% of all visitors) not consenting, then there will simply not be any pictures or films of this event. The efforts and risks involved are just too high.
3. Because of the ambiguity of the law - we are not yet sure who will be liable, if a law is broken - we cannot officially authorise third parties to film or take photos. You will have to do so on your own risk.
4. We will ask for consent before videotaping any of our demos or class summaries - no matter who the organiser of the event is. 
5. In cases of filming outside of the EU or when filming in dark light settings, this might not always be necessary and we might additionally blur the film around the edges to make extra sure. Also some EU countries (e.g. Sweden) have taken extra measures to create own regulations that overrule the GDPR and might ease the situation. Therefore we might sometimes be able to film a demo without the written consent of the spectators at a local event. But what happens at a Festival in Sweden, with visitors from all over the EU? Do I need a written consent of a German or Greek dancer? Or do I need the consent in general because the laws of my home-country applies when posting a video on the internet via a german server? So many people give different answers. This is quite confusing.

I am not a lawyer and I seriously hope that some of the regulations might turn out to be interpreted more liberally as I now have to assume. But many of the questions have yet to be answered in courtrooms. This might take years and until then, a lot of lawsuits will cost a lot of money. We definitely won't take any risks.

I know that this was a really boring post, but one that I hope many tango organisers, teachers and dancers will read. You seriously have to form an opinion and take care of stuff ...

... before someone gets hurt! Or cries because of a huge fine. 

Friday, 27 April 2018

GDPR compliance

Hello everybody.

In order to make my blog secure, I have taken the following measures:
- I have activated SSL.
- I have disabled the "followers" field. My followers will not be visible to others anymore.
- I have added a site with legal details and my data privacy policy.
- I will from now on disable comments on new posts. (This is really unfortunate, but as long as I don't find a possibility to add an opt-in box to the comment function, I cannot take this risk. You can discuss my posts with me on my Facebook profile.)
- I disabled commenting in all past posts. Single-handedly for every one of them. Phew!

I am still researching, if I have to take additional measures, so if you can think of anything, let me know.

Have a good day,


Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Confusing Kisses and Embraces

Many years ago, when I started dancing tango for a second time, I felt quite uncomfortable in the tango community.

This had nothing to do with the dance or the music - I liked all that from the start.

But the many mannerisms in the tango world did not fit my rather plain and outspoken manners. This applied in particular to the typical greeting customs. The kisses between almost-strangers, two or three, sometimes even four on the cheek, often combined with loud exclamations of joy, as if you were greeting a long-lost family member! I am - after all - mostly German, and have not imbibed such habits culturally. The only people I would kiss were lovers and close gay friends, not even family. By the way, my Catalan relatives were quite reserved as well - you'd have to search hard for a more effusive Mediterranean element in my upbringing. Hence the instinctive rejection of everything over the top. Detlef - who did not know me personally yet - apparently used to call me "the woman who never smiles".

Naturally over time, I came to terms with the besitos, bisoux and baci. Most of you will know, what I mean: you suddenly find it normal to kiss 50 strangers at a milonga and have to pay attention to not greet your postman the same way. You don't even have to like it - but the sheer force of habit! In the first years, I completely freaked out my friends, who were either used to a very brief hug or just a nod and hello. For them, the kissing felt totally phoney. Luckily they told me so and we got back to our normal forms of greeting.

But kissing is not the only issue. If you teach tango professionally and do not have a normal "work life" anymore, the informal ways of communication in the tango community will influence other fields as well. Apart from my sweetheart and a few old friends or family-members, my contacts to non-tangueros are limited to the odd salesperson and - once in a while - a doctor, accountant or bureaucrat. This is why I am not used to displaying "grown-up", formal behaviour any more., like e.g. shaking hands with someone. And: In tango, you will mostly use first names. In real life, you only address friends and family by their first names and in Germany you will furthermore use the formal "Sie" when talking to anyone else. But after so many years, this now feels un-natural for me. And as most of my written communication is with tango organisers and clients as well, this even affects my letters to non-tangueros. I think my landlord is constantly shocked by my overly casual mails.

But there has been a further development in more recent years:

When dancing and teaching with such a constant focus on the close embrace and intimate connection, you get used to a very physical contact with other people. There is quite a risk of loosing the feeling for other people's personal space. More so, as I have many good friends in the Encuentro community, where constant hugging outside of the dance floor feels so natural, not only to greet someone. Some say, that these friendships are superficial and that you do not really know most of the people; that all is fake. But does this matter in the moment? I remember e.g. a wonderful hug with a female friend during a Di Sarli tanda. We stood silently outside the dance floor, not talking, not moving, only embracing. I felt safe, loved and very much at peace. It does not really matter, if I don't know your parents or your profession. We can still feel close and one can get addicted to that form of nearness.

So whilst I once perceived the kissing as an invasion of my personal space, I now sometimes feel rejected when someone greets me in that manner. I ask myself: why is that person so distant? Does he or she not like me? Have I done something wrong? And then I remember that not all tango people are used to the intense greeting with a heartfelt hug, in particular not newcomers, whom I don't want to affront.

This is why I now constantly have to run a mental programme when interacting with all kinds of people, tangueros and non-tangueros alike: How do I address this person? Is a kiss (or two or three or four) appropriate? How near can I stand to someone, how appropriate is it to touch this person, can I hug him or her, and if so: how long and intensely? It is a little irritating and gets even more confusing, if you take into consideration the various forms of interaction in different cultures.

But apart from that slight disturbance in my behavioural patterns: Am I not lucky to work in an environment that allows for such close connections? With there being so many lonely people in the world who are longing for the slightest physical contact, I've got embraces in abundance!

For this I thank you, my tango friends.

Do not misunderstand me. I still don't wanna hug or even kiss anyone anytime. There are still people I don't like or moments when I need my personal space. Sometimes, you'll just get a nod and hello or "Mahlzeit". But you'll know how I feel, because I will never I never be "touchy-feely Melina" who embraces the whole world in-distinctively. Neither studying psychology, nor doing Yoga could turn me into that person. Tango won't either. I still believe that a smack on the head would do some people a lot of good and - as you know - there are quite a few tango-habits that I will never get used to. So, no need to fear that "nasty Melina" has been replaced by some lovey alien. I am still me. The strong need to write this last paragraph proves it.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Making better choices - wasting less time, energy and money

Tango is an art, it is a social dance and it is a business. 

Understanding these different aspects of tango is crucial when it comes to making informed decisions about what events you go to, what teachers you choose and how you want your dance to develop. So this post is about priorities and money well spent.

When it comes to choosing tango events, many people make conscious and well-informed decisions. Since the turn of the century, the tango community has grown and diversified and there are now events for all tastes. (Check out this post from last year.) There are of course dancers who love all sorts of events, but most of us have preferences. I think that’s a good thing, because knowing what you like and where to find it will minimise the risk of being disappointed. 

But are tangueros and tangueras as careful when it comes to making general decisions about their dance and with whom they want to study. I am not so sure.

Here is a story.

We are regularly teaching in Basel (Switzerland) in the form of consecutive intensive seminars - 4 hours on a Sunday over the course of 3-4 months, 1 class each month. People will book the entire seminar, that are accompanied by a guided practica. The groups are limited to 10 couples and we drive from and back to our hometown on the same day. Six hours of driving and 4 hours of teaching on one day ist quite exhausting and we ask for an appropriate salary. So these classes are not cheap and if someone commits to such a course format and is willing to pay a considerate sum of money, you’d think that they inform themselves in advance about what to expect. But this is not always the case. 
Last Sunday was the first module of the new series - a Milonga seminar. As announced in the class description, we started with an half-hour-session of bodywork on yoga-mats. I immediately noticed a gentleman, who did not take a mat and preferred standing in the back without doing the exercises. I did of course not insist that he participate. For all I knew, he might have a health issue. 
The rest of the seminar contained - as announced - lots of musical work in the group, enough time to apply the musical concepts in the parallel walk and two simple movements, that we varied on several levels to not have the participants memorise a step. There was a lot of interaction in form of games, short discussions…
During the entire class, our special participant was obviously not willing to really commit to the class objectives. His facial and corporeal expression was defensive, if not hostile. As he was also struggling with the execution of the exercises, we of course offered feedback and help as we did with everyone else. He did not even show a positive reaction when being addressed personally in a friendly manner. 
After class he told the organiser, that he would not come back for the rest of the seminar. He did not feel cared for and would have preferred that we showed more steps which he then could have repeated, like the argentine couples do. (His words, not mine.) In addition to that, the organiser hinted that the gentleman may not be used to receiving an honest feedback as most teachers in that region usually praise without offering alternatives.

So our guy was upset and quit. This is sad and I wonder, if we could have done anything else to improve the situation. Maybe. I will certainly analyse it in-depth to do better another time.
But I feel strongly, that there was not much that we could have done. I think we were not the right teachers for him and that he was looking for something that we would not provide. This is why I reckon, he cannot have read the class description or checked our website in advance. A purely frontal classes with step learning was not what we promise - on the contrary. So is he to blame for his disappointment?

Not entirely.

How many teachers will claim that they teach social tango and don’t show steps but rather focus on connection or musicality? Workshop description are often exciting reads. But when you visit the class, leaders and followers will have to stand on opposite sides of the room and practise complex moves independently from each other. So how can clients rely on anything that is published or even be bothered with reading it? After all, any written material ist of a promotional nature and professional teachers are trying to attract and not to put off dancers. 

Actually, believe it or not, I have to exclude ourselves. Already our first videos in 2003 were uploaded to avoid clients coming with false expectations. After all there are lots of things that we won't teach and the ones we teach, we will present in-depth. Our classes are (albeit Detlef's inclination to jokes) not geared towards entertainment, but towards serious study. This is why everything we write (and do) is meant to encourage the right clientele and discourage dancers who are looking for a different kind of tango or learning experience. Of course we do not always live up to our expectations and might even disappoint the people whom we want to attract. But having participants who are not open for our philosophy and/or methods are luckily a rare exception. This is why the recent incident made me ask:

How can we avoid such situations? How can future clients really inform themselves about the product they buy and therefore improve the chances that both students and teacher are content with the work.

From the teacher’s side, I find that quite simple: 
Please live what you teach. Don’t advertise falsely. If  you want to teach a social dance, please dance socially! If you want to teach complex and acrobatic moves, take dance classes, practise every day and make them look as perfect as possible! If you claim to be good teachers, please prepare your classes properly and constantly work on your teaching methods or skills! In any case: if you take money for a product, please take what you are doing seriously! It’s a job - for god’s sake.

My advise to all students: 
Do not rely solely on what any teacher writes. Look at what he or she does and examine the results of their work. Then make a decision based on what you want to achieve in tango. 

So this post is ultimately about defining one's priorities and then choosing appropriate products. The following is a description of the steps of such a decision-making process.

A Checking your general motivation

Ask yourself whether you really want to work on your dance and are willing to learn, maybe even change? Or are you happy with where you stand? 

If the answer to this question is:
I am happy with what I know and do; I don’t need to develop any more - this is perfectly fine. Don’t force yourself to take classes, because everyone else does or if you go, comprehend them as an entertaining activity. But do not visit any classes in which your abilities might be put into question. If you are not willing to receive an honest feedback, the result can only be frustration for both you and the teachers. Also: please do not expect to dance with all the top dancers. Unless you are already perfect (which is unlikely, because no one is ever), they might want to develop and could be looking for something different in the dance.
Although I am a teacher, I don’t think, that one has to learn and improve constantly. If you are happy with your abilities and the resulting situation then why should you? Spend your money on a nice pair of shoes! I mean it.

But if your answer is:
Yes, I am curious and there are things that I want to improve or change - then you should try to define your priorities and goals. Without knowing what you want to achieve, the hole learning process will take much longer and you are going to spend a lot of money on trial and error.

B Defining your priorities 

This is about defining how you want to dance, so please ask yourself the following questions: 
Do I want to dance elegantly or is this not my priority? Do I want to decorate my steps? Do I want to be challenged with complex movements or am I happy with simple variations of the walk? Do I want to dance tango shows, do I want to become an artist or do I want to dance socially only? Do I want to feel comfortable and want to be invited for my nice embrace? What kind of music do I like and how do I want to interpret it? What is important for me at this stage of my tango life?

Why don’t you make a list of priorities in a ranking order?

Just to give you an example, these are my priorities as a dancer: 
  • a nice embrace and deep interaction
  • an interesting musicality
  • harmonious, comfortable movements that feel "technically" right for me
  • improvisation
  • an intellectual challenge (understanding how movement and music function in order to become a better teacher and dancer)
You can see, that elegance e.g. is not one of my priorities. If elegance develops from a harmonious movement and a good technique, then I am happy. But I would not compromise general relaxation and comfort for looks. This is my personal choice. You have to make yours. If elegance is top priority for you, you will need an appropriate technical approach, e.g. working with projections to make your legs look extra long and straight. Every technique comes with advantages and disadvantages and you should choose them according to your priorities.

So, let us say that you have defined your personal priorities and goals. Most likely taking classes will (apart from serious practise) be one instrument to achieve your goals. This means choosing appropriate teachers. The next paragraph will therefore deal with sources of information and with questions to examine.

C Choosing teachers

1. Read what they write.
Please read what teachers have to say about their methods, class-contents and their general philosophy. Do you agree? Do you share the same ideas? Good. Please proceed with the next paragraphs. If not, find other another teachers to look into. 
But be aware: there is the issue of language. We all use it differently. For someone, improvisation will mean putting together different steps, for someone else it is deciding each moment, which single element to use. "Technique" can be understood as general bodywork, posture, communication and execution of very basic elements (e.g. a pivot) or it can be understood as steps. Also: the teacher's native language may be another than your own and a third language (often english) will be used to communicate. So there is a huge potential for misunderstandings.
Additionally - as discussed above - whatever you read (class descriptions, flyers, websites, blogs - yes, also this one) is ultimately promotional material. I don’t want to imply, that all texts lie. Many teachers will surely advertise with the best intentions of describing their product and motivations properly. But even the most honest text will still not be conclusive, because it does not tell you everything you need to know. 
So written material might be helpful to exclude teachers, but you will need information from other sources to decide whether you really want to work with a particular person or not.

2. Watch dance videos.
Please ask yourself: Do I like what I see? Do these teachers dance complex steps or do they focus on seemingly simple moves? Do they dance musically? Do I perceive them as being elegant? How does their embrace and posture look, comfortable or stiff? Do I see anything at all that I would want to study?
A few hints: If you see a dancer decorating her every move and making lots of high boleos as a result to the most subtle invitation, but you currently want to focus on the embrace, better don’t go to the boleos class. If you see a couple mostly walking to the music and not executing any giros with enrosques in an open embrace, please do not expect them to teach these movements. 

3. Check out the teacher’s activities and behaviour at milongas.
Inform yourself: What is their background? Do they dance in a tango show and understand themselves as artists? Do they visit local milongas or other social tango events? Do they dance with each other or professionals only? Do they dance with "normal" dancers? How do they behave on the dance floor? Do they show off or adapt to the ronda?
A few hints: If the couple in question does not visit social dance events or will only dance with each other - don’t take their class on adapting your embrace to different partners. If they disturb the ronda with their fancy moves, don’t expect them to teach a tango that is fit for the social dance floor. But: The skilled artists might nevertheless be the perfect teachers for you to develop a complex repertoire if you are planning on performing in a theatre or if you are looking for a practise challenge.
I am no artist, so please do not expect me to teach you a lot of things that will impress an audience. But by watching me dance at a Milonga, you could come to think, that I might help you to enjoy a tanda of Biagi or Di Sarli! 
A note: many teachers (including myself) will be tired after a day of workshops and may not dance a lot during workshop engagements. So you might not want to base your decisions on the observations of one or two workshop-weekends only. And of course there are brilliant artists who are social dancers at the same time!

4. Interview other consumers.
If a couple is either teaching locally or is travelling internationally, there is the chance, that others have already taken their classes. Ask about their experiences. Did they like the class? Was it well prepared? What are the pedagogical methods of the couple in question? Do they teach frontally or do they interact? Do they show many steps or do they work on the basics? Is there additional class material? 
A hint to the decision making process: Please do not take a class of teachers that might engage you in group interaction, when you just want to receive input. 

5. Look for class summaries on the internet.
Class summaries do not only provide information about class-contents, but might also give an impression about general methods. There are e.g. no typical „end-of-workshop-dance-demos“ from Detlef and me on the internet. Why? Because we rarely show steps and will in any case rather make an extensive summary with explications in which we explain the basic concepts and then additionally send written material by e-mail. As we do not want dancers to memorise steps, we cannot just have them film the moves at the end of a class. In order to show what we do, we have uploaded two excerpts of class summaries on Youtube. They are quite old, but still give a good impression. One is in German, one is in French
Other teachers will have similar videos on the internet. Watch one or two of them before signing up for a class. If the class summary shows a long sequence of acrobatic moves, please be prepared for that kind of work in future classes. If they focus on small technical details, don’t complain if the they ask you to pay attention to those details in class.

6. Dance with the teachers and/or their students:
This is actually the most important criterion. If you don’t like what you experience, then don’t take that class. If you like their embrace, musicality, movements, navigation skills - go for it!
But, as I mentioned in section 3: You cannot base such a decision on one or two samples only. Every dancer - including a professional teacher - will have a bad moment and not every student is a key to judging the teacher’s abilities and methods. You will need a little time to get a valid impression. 
Also: you cannot expect a professional teacher to dance with every potential student, so dancing with the students will be a more likely option. And ultimately, they are even more important, as they show the results of the teaching. Even the best teachers are not always super dancers and some of them will not even use their own principles. There are e.g. teachers who promote counter-body-movement in the parallel walk, but cannot apply it in their own dance. Others oppose to it officially, but still use it unconsciously. So dancing with students who apply these teacher's principles, will tell you much more about the content and quality of their teaching.

With this, I come to one last observation:
It takes some effort to make informed decisions, but I think it is worth it in order to avoid mis-spending your hard-earned money - in particular if you plan on doing intensive seminars or tango holidays.
Nevertheless, you might not always have the capacity or motivation to go through such a decision-making process. It is totally fine to take a chance and sign up for workshop spontaneously. 
But if you do, please do not show up with strong preconceptions. If you are openminded and prepared for surprises you might learn something valuable in an unexpected context or during an exercise that you cannot see the point in at first. Sure, you may also learn that you do not agree with these teacher's ideas or that you are looking for something completely different. But this is positive too, because it helps you define (or re-define) your priorities. 

So don’t be mad but rather try to make a better choice next time.