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.



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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.