Monday 20 May 2013

Teaching Musicality - A Primary Mission

Let me start my post with a very typical situation, that Detlef and I experience almost every teaching weekend:

It is early afternoon. We have been doing one of our musicality classes. ...

(During most gigs will do at least two classes focussing on different aspects of music depending on the level of the participants or depending on how often we been teaching in that place. On a first visit, we usually offer two basic classes, like „Caminar el compás y la pausa“ or „Cadencia - dance the musical phrase“. If we go to a place repeatedly, we will chose more advanced classes on Rhythm & Syncopation, Melody, Expression & Dynamics or classes on special orchestras. And then of course there are special workshops on Vals or Milonga musicality.... 
In our musicality workshops, we listen to music, analyse it and move to it alone and with a partner. You will never learn a step, as the musical principles will always be applied in the most simple form of movement, the Caminar, to not distract from the primary goal or set additional obstacles for the dancers.
Out of the 57 pre-defined classes in our catalogue, 14 belong into the category of pure musicality classes. Almost one fourth.
Ok... you get it. We give a rather high importance to musicality. Excuse my excursion and self-praise.)


Back to that frequently occurring situation.
We have given one of our musicality classes, most likely a rather basic one, and a class participant will approach us. Very often that will be someone who took the class rather reluctantly, considering himself as an „advanced“ dancer, who does not need this kind of „beginners“ instruction. This is what he or she will say, often accompanied by a disturbed expression, sometimes with tears in the eyes: 

„Oh my god, I have been dancing Tango for 5 (insert every imaginable number up to 20) years with so many teachers and no-one has ever explained this to me! I have never had a class on different walking speeds (rhythms, syncopation, dynamics, phrasing... insert any musical topic of our canon) in my entire Tango life!“

„What? Yo have been dancing Tango for more than X years and you have never heard about these musical principles. What have you been doing in your classes?“, says I.

„Well... steps mostly...“

„Oh.“ (Me, exhibiting a sad or shocked face.)


Now we already know, that basic technique is still very much neglected in Tango classes, but musicality obviously is completely forgotten by a multitude of teachers. Or it is taught by giving instructions like: „Use these steps for D‘Arienzo, use those for Di Sarli“. Or: „Walk during the first part, start turning in part two“. Or, even worse: „This step has a quick-quick-slow in positions 6,7 and 8“. All these assignments do not explain some underlying musical principle, but just tell you to apply a rhythmical pattern or musical means of expression in a very schematic way. They will not enable a dancer to improvise in harmony with the music.

This lack of musical instruction explains what we see in Milongas everywhere: Quite virtuous dancers, who may even have a good technique or nice embrace, but often being either totally disconnected to the music or using their patterns in such a automatic way, that (having videotaped them) you could remove the audio track from the file and underlay it with another Tango of the same length and speed. It would look exactly the same.

Is this not sad and should it not motivate all Tango-instructors to focus more on musicality?

In my opinion, dancers of different levels could be taught at least the following musical basics:
  • Beginners: different walking speeds, pauses, connecting to the musical phrase in a regular Tango
  • Intermediate dancers: using different rhythmical patters (In Tango, Vals and Milonga) freely in their movements
  • Advanced dancers: different walking dynamics, connecting to the melody on a higher level, distinguishing different orchestras and general styles, irregular phrasing... 
... and there is no end to what you can do with talented and interested dancers!

My partner Detlef and I are on a constant and ongoing journey of discovery when it comes to musicality. I guess, very few dancers (who are not also full-blown Tango-musicians) will ever grasp the entire scope of musical expression in Tango. But dancing social Tango means „moving with a partner to Tango-music“. This defines the four different fields of skills that should be taught in Tango classes. It is basically about connection: How to connect to your own body, your partner, the music and the other dancers in the Ronda.  So, musicality could make at least one fourth of the teaching content. 

If you don‘t have the necessary knowledge to teach your students how to listen to the music or express it in their dance with simple means - please take seminars with musicians, good DJs or other teachers. Do not think, that you are above advanced training, just because you know how to do a Giro with Enrosque or a perfect Colgada. All those fancy steps are worth zero, if danced in a musical void.

One last word when it comes to musicality: Many ladies seem to think, that it is exclusively the leader‘s job and all they have to do is to fill the gaps with Adornos. No, no, no! Even decorations have to be connected to the music, but if you really want to dance - and not just follow - you will have to know the music as well as your partner. In my ideal world, it is not one person leading the other into steps to the music, but the music guiding two dancers who move as one body!

Then we are in Tango heaven.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Divide And Rule

Again, I have not been writing for a couple of months. This has not been due to a shortage of topics, but for the lack of time and energy. There was just so much life happening... Good and not so good things, definitely important changes. But now I am back on track and can resume my role as a professional ranter and complainer. ;-)

This time, I want to write about a seating arrangement that is used in some traditional Milongas in Buenos Ares and that is riding the wave of the Encuentro movement in Europe.

I am talking about the separation of women and men at Milongas. In this setting, men are seated along one side of a Milonga, women on the opposite side, ideally each forming a single row of chairs and tables all facing to the dancefloor, in some cases two or three rows. Couples or groups of friends are usually placed on the shorter sides of a rectangular venue, very often in a cluster of tables. 
So, if you enter such a Milonga with a friend of the opposite sex, you will have to decide, if you want to sit with him in the couples section and therefore risk not being invited or if you split up and be seated in the women‘s and men‘s section and stare at each other from the others sides of the room.

Where does this custom come from? 
As mentioned above, it is used in some (by far not all) traditional Milongas. Some say that it is based on the assumption, that (married or engaged) couples will only want to dance with each other, whilst single men and women are open to invitation by strangers. In the past, it was obviously also considered as dishonourable to invite the woman of another men. Well.... tempus fugit, I really cannot say, if Argentine society is still attached to these ancient codes of behaviour, but they have surely survived in some Milongas. There are also other interpretations of how and when this custom was introduced, but who can really tell. It depends on who you ask when and where. ;-)

Whatever the history may be - this seating arrangement has made it‘s way to Europe and is used in some regular Milongas as well as a few (by far not all) Milonguero Encuentros. 
And as Europeans do not share this rather antique code of honour and don't have a tradition of Tango culture, the argument to adopt this custom is usually the facilitation of Mirada and Cabeceo: As all your eligible partners will be seated opposite of you, it should be easier to use the traditional form of invitation.

Only... it is not.

In the ideal setting (with only one row of seats) and for some short moments, this may be the case, but in general, the separate seating even complicates the Cabeceo.

Why so?

1. The risk of mistakes is raised. Just imagine: If a woman is seated in between two male friends, she can almost be 100% sure, that the cute guy who is looking in her direction really wants to invite her - and not her boyfriend.
If she is seated in a close row of other women... who can really tell? Especially if the room is a little bigger or if you don‘t have eagles eyes. Same situation for men: How often have I seen two men get up at the same time, because I cabeceo‘ed one of them. This does happen only very seldom in a mixed-seated environment.

2. If there are more than one rows, the people in the second or third row have got very little chance to be invited. As long as you are seated in mixed tables around the dancefloor, there will be always someone in your direct line of sight, because you can invite in all directions. If you can only look into one direction and are covered by one or two front rows... Good luck to you!

3. From the moment on, that people start dancing, you cannot see the opposite rows of seats anymore. Again: if there are eligible partners on your side of the dancefloor, an invitation by Cabeceo is still possible even after the Tanda started. But try inviting someone who is covered by moving dancers ... well... I have done it several times, but it involved not only heavy staring but also absurd swaying movements or actual gesticulating. This is not very dignified.
One result is, that people are very hectic at the start of the Tanda, as they've got only a couple of seconds to chose a partner. Spend one moment too long considering with whom you mifgt want to dance this lovely Di Sarli Tanda and you've lost.

So, even if you have not yet experienced such a seating arrangement, you can imagine, that having a good seat is crucial in such a setting, much more than in any other arrangement. In the few traditional Milongas of BA who use this seating, the organiser will assign chairs to the visitors. Very often, regulars or famous dancers get the good seats, newcomers are put in the second row or at the far ends. You can imagine that this gives the host an immense power and if that person does not like you ... you better stay at home!

I was once seated in an overflow women‘s row behind a cluster of mixed tables at Cachirulo. Mind you, there were still places in the front row on the women‘s side, but they were reserved for the habitués. Detlef and our friend Antonio (a regular at that Milonga) got the perfect seats in the men‘s row. Well obviously, Norma did not like me.... When I became aware of my situation (sometimes being a little slow on the intake), I decided to leave and would only stay after Antonio had arranged a better seat for me. I stayed, but my mood was not at it‘s best...
(Just for the record: I have been seated perfectly at other occasions at separated-seating Milongas, this post is not about me complaining of not getting the right chair.)

You can already tell, that I am no big fan of the separation of men at women at Milongas. But this comes not only from the fact, that I find it‘s application disadvantageous to invitations... no, no...

My main reason for opposing it lies much deeper: I perceive the separation of men and women as something impeding communication and social exchange at a Milonga.
When I visit an event - in particular one of the Encuentros - I will not only dance. I want to meet friends whom I don‘t meet every month, I want to communicate - not only on the dancefloor. If I am forced to be seated far from my male friends, I cannot communicate with them. And I will not communicate much with the women either, as all chairs are facing the dancefloor and everyone is just staring into one direction. For me, such Milongas transform into dance-only events. And the competition amongst women gets bigger. Do we really want this? 

I have talked to many people in the „traditional“ Tango community and the opposition against separate seating is huge. You can tell by the fact, that the „mixed“ short sides of the rooms are overflowing with dancers, both men and women and some people even boycott the arrangement by sitting on the other gender‘s side. And obviously, men and women from the separated sides also invite partners from the mixed section. So, what the hell?

And here‘s the thing: Even at the traditional Milongas in BA, this custom is undermined constantly. On our last visit in El Beso, we (Detlef, Antonio and I) were seated in the mixed section behind the row of single Milongueros. I expected to dance only with my companions. But after the Milongueros had seen me on the dancefloor, they actually turned around and invited me although I was seated with two men. Go figure!

Within the last half year, I attended three Encuentros with separated seating. I can survive in such a setting and get my share of dances, but I will never be happy or comfortable. How can I, if I just don‘t understand the reason why?
I am all for adopting the traditional codes of behaviour on the dancefloor and for invitation into our European setting. I am all for enjoying the music in a close embrace and renouncing complex, big moves... These customs make actual sense and ameliorate the Milonga experience. 
But please - do we really have to imitate EVERYTHING exactly as it is done in SOME of the Milongas in the Tango capital?

I don‘t think so.

If someone can name good reasons for separating men and women at Milongas apart from „this is how it was always done in BA“ and „it helps Cabeceo“, please feel free to present them. 

Maybe I just don‘t get it.

A short note after some reactions on Facebook and here: 
Please do not forget, that this article is about the adaptation of a special Argentine custom into an European setting. I don't try to change the customs of the traditional Milongas in BA. I go there, I adapt to their rules, I like them or I don't. But that's just not the point. This article is about whether it makes sense to have separate seating at European events, especially at the Encuentros or Festivalitos Milongueros.
This article is also not about good seating or cabeceo. I use cabeceo across huge rooms in mixed-seating Milongas all the time and it works perfectly. And: yes, also mixed-seating Milongas need their tables to be lined along the dancefloor in order to make Cabeceo possible. Get it?