Wednesday 28 October 2015

Great Expectations

Today, I am celebrating my 20-years-tango anniversary. 

This seems like a good opportunity to check, if I am happy with what I achieved in my tango life. At least this is how my post will start, but I could not prevent it from ending up in my usual rant. So, if you are looking for an unconditional praise of tango, better don't hold your breath. ;-)

On October, 28th in the year of 1995 - last century - a much younger Melina and her partner started participating in a tango practica, that a dancer from Berlin had started in their home town. Unfortunately this first encounter with tango was quite unsatisfying. Showing someone a step and then letting the students fool around, did not meet my expectations of learning a dance. Also back then, there weren‘t any milongas, so the whole thing was kind of pointless. Which is why after a year of dabbling, we stopped going to that practica.

But we did not forget Tango, went on practising our steps once in a while, somehow knowing that there must be more to it. Dreaming of something better...

In January 2000 we found that a small tango-community had developed without us noticing. Now there was a real school with milongas and workshops. So much better than before, although the classes still consisted of memorising steps. But now they were presented in a more professional way. Luckily we soon discovered another school in a neighbouring town. They danced in a close embrace, used Cabeceo and Cortinas, taught some tango technique (before showing the new step) and were friendly and welcoming. We had found our tango home.

You all know what happened soon: I got to know Detlef, we started danced together, we were asked to teach a pre-milonga class in another city, then more... We started giving regular classes in several towns, travelling a little, then more, gave up our normal professions, started working internationally... Our story is not unique, but I am quite proud with what we achieved. 

I had never fantasised about being a tango teacher. In the beginning, just wanted to dance nicely. After starting to teach, I just aimed to do a good job. Nothing more or less. And therefore all my expectations were exceeded in every possible way: Although we were neither argentine, nor young and attractive, although our dance is quite plainly, we not only managed to make a living from being tango professionals, but so much more. We have grown a solid reputation for our technical, musical and pedagogic approach and for organising or promoting quality events. We have even had a part in building an international community of close embrace dancers and friends. Without having to fake anything or to compromise our philosophy. Quality, reliability and authenticity have been my main guidelines in these last years. And I am really content with the outcome. When I go to a tango event nowadays, there is such an good chance, that I get nice dances in a pleasant environment. 

I am also happy about what I learned by teaching and organising. From my students, from the exchange with other dancers, in recent years through the research of music, our Tango-Teacher-Training (TTT) and the work on our book+DVD. I feel as if have been given a great gift: a profession in which I can help people to widen their horizons and offer them the opportunity to discover the joy of embracing to the music. It is wonderful to see the concentrated and happy faces in a class or a milonga. I don‘t need everyone to be a world champion or an image of myself, but if people after a class walk a little nicer or pay more attention to their partners and to the music, that‘s already a lot gained. I do my best, but I cannot produce miracles. 

The problem is: with my general approach of wanting to do everything as good as possible, I might have involuntarily contributed to a rise of expectations, that have gotten quite out of hand.

First of all, let me explain, that I am no perfectionist. By saying "I try to do everything as good as possible" you should pay attention to the second part of the sentence. "As good as possible" means: subject to one‘s capabilities, limitations and resources.
My job as a tango organiser/teacher/dj/manager/author requires that I complete a lot of different tasks in a limited time with very limited resources. When I write a promotional e-mail in 3-4 languages, my aim is to inform my customers about an upcoming even, not to gain a nobel price for literature. When doing a demo, I try to embody our pedagogical and philosophical principles, but I don‘t want to earn a championship. When organising an event, I want people to have a good time, but I don‘t promise a weekend in a luxury resort. When teaching a class, I do the same as any teacher at university or in another professional context should do, but I am neither a genius, not do I have a master degree in music, medicine or classical dance. I try to do as good as possible
In order to be perfect, I would need more time, help, intellect, talent, financial resources... and even then, I would fail, because nothing can ever be perfect. Mistakes or shortcomings will eventually happen. Usually they can be corrected or they are minor. But they will happen. 

The problem is: nowadays, many people expect everything to be perfect. And this is why great undertakings can fail completely in the eyes of the consumers. It is a well-known phenomenon. Which is why in politics, campaign managers aim to lower expectations for their candidates before a public discussion, so that they will be able to exceed them in reality. (Or at least that is what I learned from watching "Westwing".) In the world of finance, perfectly good winnings of a firm can result in a catastrophic fall of the stocks, because the market expected them to be even higher. 

And this is what happens in the tango world, at least when it comes to events, no matter if it is local Milongas or international Encuentros:
The consumer wants to dance every tanda and it has to be the snuggliest, most musical dance he or she has ever had. The floor has to be perfect, not too hard and not too soft, not too sticky and not too slippery. The lighting has do be perfect, neither too bright, nor too dark. The decoration, drinks and snacks have to be luscious. There has to be a hair dryer, deodorant and many other conveniences for your free use in the perfectly lit bathroom. The music has to come out of the most  expensive speakers arranged in the perfect manner to allow for a constant, unblemished sound experience. The DJ cannot afford to play one imperfect tanda and he will surely be a total loser, if he does not own a fancy external sound drive. Not to mention the catastrophe, if he or she - god forbid - uses MP3 instead of WAV or FLAC files. And of course: the event has to be exclusive and small, but YOU have to be admitted. If not, you are going to pout.

I could go on, but you certainly get the point. 

But it is even worse: this premium service has to come for a price not exceeding 5€ for a Milonga or 75€ for a whole Encuentro. And beware if an event is known to generate a profit at all. Shame on the organisers! They are supposed to do it for free. Out of the goodness of their hearts.

Get outta here!

What do you pay, when you go to the movies? What do you spend on a single pair of shoes? What do you pay for a weekend on the golf course? Do you begrudge your hairdresser his income? Or the pilot who flies the plane that you take to go to the Encuentro? Or the hotel owner?

Now I personally cannot complain, but most (not all) tango consumers have a much larger income than their tango teachers or organisers. I have rarely seen a tango professional with an own house, a fancy car or even with a pension plan. Those are rare animals. Most barely make a living. A tango professional can himself lucky, if he is doing ok, but he will never become rich or even well-off. At least not by european standards. So why do customers expect the luxury treatment?

Let us have a look back: When we started organising Tangokombinat Milongas, we used my old private Technics speakers that were barely powerful enough, but everyone was happy. We even used them during our first FCA during the Despedida. Later we started renting speakers for an increasing amount of money and spend hours of trying out or discussing how to set them up. Finally, Detlef bought a set of Tannoy speakers for thousands of €, because everything less fancy is regarded as stingy. And it is still not good enough for everyone. 

Another example: Because everyone hates plastic cups and what they are doing to the environment, we now use hand-painted personalised glasses. Better? Obviously not, because now but people complain about the fact, that glasses might break.

By trying to do better every year, constantly reacting to suggestions and the slightest critique of clients, we have created expectations, that we cannot fulfil any more. Because last year was top, this year has to be even better. If it is not, it is a flop.

It is not just our events. The first time that I noticed this effect, was a couple of years ago at another Festivalito. This was the second edition. The first edition was such a great success, that everyone complimented the organisers on their good work. The second time, some minor bugs had been sorted out, but the general format remained exactly the same. But now a big number of participants started complaining about the silliest things. The organiser was in tears when talking to me.

I am not an easy customer either: when I go some place, I want to get what I have payed for and what I have been promised. So, if something is called an Encuentro, I expect an equal number of followers and leaders, music in Tandas & Cortinas, a room that allows for Mirada & Cabeceo, enough seats for the majority of participants, dancers that have a general knowledge on how to move on a social dancefloor and a friendly organiser who gives the impression, that he/she likes what he/she is doing. Ok, so the floor has to be ok and one has to actually hear the music from the speakers. But that‘s it and I try to keep my expectations realistic. When I go to certain sort of French event, I usually don‘t expect a super pretty venue, because I know that they often use the free "salle polyvalente" of a village. When I go to an Italian encuentro, I don‘t expect every DJs to match my taste perfectly, because I know that many of them prefer a very energetic style. But then, I don‘t have to dance every tanda. I don‘t expect flowers on the tables, a choice of excellent wines or a crowd of tango professionals only. And when I attend a local Milonga, I don‘t expect the same conditions than at an international Encuentro. 

When I book at room at a local motel, I don‘t expect the Ritz. When I go to Mac Donald‘s I don‘t expect haute cuisine.

If I don‘t like an event because it does not meet my basic expectations and if I think that the shortcomings can be changed without too much of an effort or going against the organisers general philosophy, I might offer to give a feedback. In the USA, it will sometimes occur that an organiser asks for feedback. (We - Detlef and I - are used to asking for Feedback from day one of our tango "career".) I will in any case give an honest, but productive feedback, whilst focussing on the important things, the stuff, that really matters. If I am very unhappy with an event and I don't think that there is a chance that the setup is changed, I'd rather not go there anymore. But then I will certainly not rave about it on Facebook at the same time. (Exaggerated flattery being another annoying topic, that I won‘t go into now.) 

I behave in that way, because I know what it takes to organise an event and that not everything can be to my taste. And because I don‘t need it to be perfect. I can compromise without being unhappy all the time. And I have to say: mostly, things are good out there. Or at least much better, than they used to be. I know, because If have seen, how it started. 

Ok, now that may sound a little like: "eat your soup children, in wartime, we would have been happy to have such a feast". But we all know, that always wanting to get more for a cheaper price is one of the defining problems of modern society. As in Tango.

What I want to say is: You are entitled to quality, if you invest time and money for something. Every organiser or teacher should aim for it as well and keep on questioning  if what he or she is doing is still up to his standards. One should do so, because there are still a lot of things worth improvement in our tango world. But please keep your expectations realistic and don‘t ask for unachievable perfection. Because then, you'll never be happy with what you do or get.

One last thing: Why don‘t tangueros in general have the same expectations, apply the same crieria when it comes to instruction? I don't want to say, that only we know how to teach, but sometimes I get a little upset, when after years of meticulous class preparations, musical research, well-structured workshops, professional behaviour, projections and written class handouts... why have I not managed to raise expectations in this field? How can students still rave about teachers that show a fancy step and then spend the rest of their time doing moves with their partners. 20 years ago, I expected more. Why don‘t others as well? I guess I have to be even more patient and realistic. And continue offering my Tango-Teacher-Training. ;-)

So... I should stop now.

But my tango journey has not yet come to an end. I hope I live to see the next 20 years of development and won‘t be disappointed by it. I will certainly do my best to keep it on track.

The venue of our first regular Milonga in 2003:

The venue of our latest event in 2015:

Photo by Thorsten Janes

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Quo Vadis Encuentro Milonguero III

Much has been happening in the Encuentro and Festivalito world. And I have to admit, that I am not very happy with the development. Although I love that the idea of social tango and Encuentros is spreading, it actually gets harder for me to find one that I really like. 

Why is that?

As I have already referred to in an earlier post, two sorts of Encuentros are starting to drift apart: the ones who promote separate seating for men and women and the other ones who allow everyone to choose their seats freely or assign gender-mixed places. I have basically stopped attending events with separate seating, as I feel more and more uncomfortable in this setting. Therefore I have lost contact to many lovely people, because they prefer Encuentros with separate seating. I have not been to any italian or french Encuentro since early 2014. That‘s so sad!

Many of the mixed-seating encuentros nowadays attract marathon dancers and from what I hear, many marathons start displaying typical „encuentro features“, like invitation by Mirada & Cabeceo, dancing only one tanda... So the differences between the more „informal“ Encuentros and Marathons seem to disappear. That is generally good, but not entirely as many of the "maratoneros“ still use a quite different (more asymmetrical and in my opinion less cuddly) embrace and unfortunately still tend to make bigger or less foreseeable moves. I really don't want to say, that the "milongueros" are the better dancers, but most of them used to dance in a way, that was better suited for a crowded dancefloor. In an environment where everything is a little more chaotic, those skills tend to be forgotten as well. Everyone will feel more stressed. That makes the risk of getting not-so-pleasant dances at an Encuentro greater. Which is not good from my perspective.

But there is more. There are more. Encuentros, that is. It seems to me, that in 2015 dozens of new ones popped up. I hear of a new Encuentro almost every week. Some of them attract a more local crowd, which is fine, because then, the local communities profit from the development. 
But many new Encuentros are organised by people who have not been part of the „Milonguero movement“ before. They therefore attract another kind of dancer or might even just „stick“ the label „Encuentro“ to an event, that has got none of the defining features. There are even Encuentro-Marathon-Festivals! This is why you have to start doing research in order to check if you‘ll actually get an „Encuentro Milonguero“ when you sign up for one. 
Another outcome: Because of the greater competition, dancers have got more choices. That's of course good and the waiting lists get shorter. But you might end up being alone amongst people you don‘t know because all your friends are at another event. It‘s great to get to know new people, but one aspect of the Encuentros used to be to meet friends from all over the world. 
Even established organisers cannot fill up their events so easily as before and have started admitting participants who don‘t have the skills to share the space in the ronda without disturbing the other couples, without actually offering them the opportunity to acquire these skills. (Think floorcraft introductions before an Encuentro.) This is why it often feels less „safe“ on the dancefloor.

Whilst Encuentros are spreading out, the typical Festivalito (which includes teaching) becomes extinct or have been transformed into genuine Encuentros. This reflects the needs of a majority of visitors, who want to concentrate on the dancing during these events and take classes on other occasions. Unfortunately, normal workshop-weekends are also offered more seldomly, as many organisers switched to offering strictly-dancing events. So nowadays, there are actually less opportunities to learn. And as Tango means life-long-learning... What do you think happens, if people stop learning? I have already referred to the downsides of this development in another post.

Because all of these imponderabilia, I am thinking of downsizing my list of Encuentros/Festivalitos 2015 dramatically. I might only list the ones that I am visiting in 2016 (which are very few!) or have visited in the last 2 years and have actually enjoyed. But then, many organisers will feel offended. Oh dear... This is why I might even decide to not post any recommendations at all. I'll have to think about it...

Stay posted!