Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Musicality with Dawn Hampton and John Dokes (Swing)

My favourite thing about this video is that the band is LIVE and both of them still dance as though they know every split second of the music. Because they understand it as dance music, and so does the band, and they're all paying attention to each other, and when you cooperate and you understand the form and what each other are doing, you don't need to know exactly what's coming next.

For example: at 00:50, the feigned surprise is funny because he completely hit that, and that's why he seemed like a leaf on the wind of sound. And at 05:05, again.

The band would appear to be The George Gee Jump, Jivin' Wailers of New York City.

I've posted this video before, in 2009. It still makes me happy - it might make you happy, too.

Sunday, 7 December 2014


This is what I ended up knitting for a friend's new granddaughter. I was in Lillehammer, in Norway, and I walked into a yarn shop looking for inspiration. They had some lovely sock-weight alpaca in soft colours, and on the ball band was a little drawing of a goofy alpaca face.

It looked a bit like this.

So I made one.

He's got a little tail, and a little fluffy hairdo, blue eyes, and a blanket with flowers on.

They also had some wooden circular needles with square cross-section, which are very nice to work with, and since I hadn't brought anything with me and needed to start right away, I got those too. I love Norwegian yarn shops.

There's another animal I made this year which you've missed out on because the photos were destroyed in an SD card disaster. Anyway, it was a pink and purple owl, and there's no other one like it anywhere.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Thirteen Tango Terms for Beginners

I have a very dear friend who wants to learn to dance tango. She will, or should, encounter some concepts to do with basic technique. But sometimes in the social complexity of classes, these ideas get lost, or disconnected from any explanation of what they mean. And these are the kinds of things you need to get working well so that you can dance easily and happily with other people, and express yourself and find your own dance without hurting yourself or anyone else. You need this information to solve whatever problems you are having, and not waste time.

So, I've collected them here for her. I've ended up putting them in alphabetical order, because they all go together, so it makes at least as much sense as anything else. I'm not going to tell you how to achieve them; you should get someone who can already do this stuff and can see you, dance with you, and give you feedback, to help you with that.

Axis means that your partner can easily find a vertical line through your body about which it is possible for you to turn without going off balance. Like the axis of the Earth. To show yourself what it means, stand with both feet on the ground but your weight on just one of them, the other leg relaxed, and get someone to twirl you around on the spot. A good 'axis' means it is easy to do this and you don't fall over. If you stick one hip out to the side and make your axis curved, you'll find it's much harder. But the line is flexible and springy, like bamboo, not rigid.

Axis is equally important for leading and following. The line is what gives the follower neutral, accurate, racing-car steering, without understeer or oversteer or pulling to one side. It makes the leader easy to follow accurately.

Connection means, for example, that if you are led to step directly into the leader, you will do so. If half a step is led and then stopped, you will follow it half way, and stop. If you are standing with your feet apart and some weight on each one, you will stay there until led to bring them together and put the weight on one of them - and you will pass through all the percentages in-between. Connection means you can be led to change weight from foot to foot, one toe at a time. It means you follow what's actually led. Sometimes that won't be what was intended, and that's fine. Connection is a really good thing. Some people say it's the essence of tango. It means that your attention is continuously with your partner and not with (for example) spectators. One of the biggest challenges for the more experienced follower is managing to avoid learning rules, habits, technical work-arounds, and catalogues of stereotypical movements that cut off other options and destroy the ability to follow what's actually led, especially anything new or unexpected.

Connection mainly comes up in relation to following, but it goes both ways - the leader needs to be listening to the follower's body too. It means paying attention to what your partner is actually doing in the moment, and being open to it, not stuck in your own mental catalogue. And all the other techniques mentioned here go towards making that possible and successful.

Dissociation means the ability to point your bottom (back or front) towards the direction of travel while still keeping your torso towards, and connected to, your partner. That means the ability and willingness to twist in the middle whenever you need to do so, just as much as necessary.

Dissociation is equally important for leader and follower. It gives you accurate steering and freedom of movement.

Embrace means you have an embrace that feels nice and works well. The basic, characteristic, close embrace for social tango has the torsos in contact and each partner within the arm of the other, rather like an affectionate hug; it can be tighter or looser, and more or less mobile, and there are lots of variations but no real rules. There are also open variations (with less contact) that some people use and others don't, either to make various things easier to do, or for practice, or just because they enjoy the feeling of bringing it in and out. The same person will often use several variations, minor or major, depending on who they are dancing with. It's not like competition ballroom dancing where there's a refined, prescribed look with specific hand positions.

Embrace is equally important for leader and follower. Whether you need a wide range of different skills, or you're only really going to use the close version, depends on your situation and your preferences.

Floorcraft means having a good relationship with the other couples around you on the dance floor, sharing the space positively and not bumping into them. Although it's principally the leaders' job, the follower can screw it up royally by doing stupid things or being uncontrolled or difficult to steer. For the beginner leader, you already know how to walk along a crowded pavement or platform, or across a pub, mostly without bumping anyone, even in quite tricky situations. So you have two main challenges - integrating your partner into that, and avoiding learning any bad habits that cut off your perception of those around you, limit your choices of where to go next, or put you off balance or out of control. You'll also learn what situations to avoid, and how to cooperate with others.

Following pretty much means just that. It's basically the same mental process as following someone on a rapid, zigzag path through a crowded shopping centre without needing to hold their hand. It's something you decide to do; it has nothing to do with guessing what they want, and they don't even have to know you are there. You go wherever you need to go to stay with your partner, only from in front. The power do to this at a basic level whenever you want, comes for free with being a human, or indeed a duckling fresh out of the egg. In a partner dance we practice, extend, and refine it to build connection on top of it, and then do far more with it than you could reasonably have imagined was possible.

If you have taken at least one lesson, you should be able to successfully follow weight changes, walks, and sidesteps with a more experienced dancer who you've never met. If not, something has gone wrong. And nothing you do later should take away this ability.

If you mainly lead, doing some following gives you a chance to solve some problems one at a time that you'd otherwise have to tackle all at once, and also to find out which problems are most worth your attention.

Free leg
Your free leg is the leg you aren't putting weight on right now. Being 'free' means it's free to move, and perhaps swing. So that means it's relaxed where it joins to the hip, rather than being held in a particular position, give or take some friction with the floor. The consequence is that your partner can feel where that leg is through the connection with you (try it).

It's important for both partners, but it's more obvious for following, because the leader can cause it to move without the follower doing any more than allowing it - this can produce some amazing movements which you will never see on Strictly Come Dancing. The leader having a free leg is less obvious, but makes everything more stable and clear.

Grounded means you feel as though it would be very difficult to push you over. At first, you might think of this as like having "good balance" (I certainly did) but it isn't. You can balance in a position where it's easy to push you over. Being grounded is having habits in the way you move so that you don't get in such positions unless you want to.

Grounding is equally important for leader and follower, but leaders may need more of it more urgently. If you're leading and you're not grounded, you're likely to bump into other people, even if the follower has no problems. If you're following, and you're not grounded, then you may be out of control and difficult to steer. If you're well grounded, you can compensate quite a bit if your partner isn't, but it's hard work.

Heavy means it's really hard work to move you at all. It has nothing to do with your physical size, but you feel like a fridge. Your partner will get a sore back, hips, knees, ankles, arms or shoulders. It's a very bad thing, as it means dancing with you can cause significant injury. People may also say someone is 'heavy' or 'a little heavy' when they only mean the connection is not working that well for some reason. In that case it's not so dangerous.

It mostly comes up in relation to following, but it's also possible for the leader to stand or move in such a way as to hurt their partner physically. When you make changes, check.

Leading is making use of the fact that another human being has decided to follow you, in order to create a partner dance. As soon as they make that decision and start acting on it, you can already lead at a minimal level. You learn how to do it better, practice it, refine it, and find out what you can do with it. It's crazy how much you can do with it together.

If you mainly follow, doing some leading is very illuminating and helps you prioritise; it may also give you more confidence in the things you are doing right as a follower.

"Light" means you are easy to move. Being easy to move is not just being grounded and not heavy - it also has to do with connection. "Too light" means you tend to get away from your partner in an uncontrolled way. But exactly how "light" different people are varies naturally and there isn't just one perfect spot that's the same for everyone.

Lightness mostly applies to following.  But if you are leading and someone says you are too light, it might mean the follower can't detect where you are going at all.

Musicality means you are really listening and moving with the music. You have dynamics. It's not just that you follow what's led or that you move on the beat; the way you move, sharply, softly, swooshily, smoothly or not, and so on, always expresses what you are hearing and how you are feeling it. Each partner can feel the other doing this, and respond. So your attention to each other is mediated through the music, and the music is mediated into the dance through your attention to each other (and often, in the leader's case, to people around you) - they are working like one thing.

Musicality is equally important for leader and follower, but it tends to be discussed a lot more in relation to leading. This is because the leader has to decide what to do - whether the next step will be slow or quick - and learning how to do that and be on the beat takes a lot of time and attention. As a result, the women can often end up thinking that their own musicality is some sort of ornamental extra that has to be stuck on top of the leader's dance, like icing on a cake - and that it's necessary to stop moving and break the connection so they can take their turn. You can probably tell I think that's a terrible way of looking at it. You want to be on the beat, yes, but it's important to think of musicality in terms of how you move all the time, how you both do everything you are doing, and how that feels in the connection, not just when you step. That's what makes someone actually feel musical to their partner.

Posture has its normal meaning. But it's what creates lightness, heaviness, axis, grounding, and a successful embrace. So it's a good place to look if you are having trouble with anything on this list.

If you are working on any of the above, directly or indirectly, then you probably aren't wasting your time in class. If you find that one of them is the reason why whatever you are trying to do doesn't work, then you have learned something useful. 

There are lots of recreational arguments in tango, but none of the above is particularly controversial. Some people talk and think about this stuff a lot; some do it occasionally; others just hate the idea of thinking about what they're doing at all.

I have not dealt with manners in social dancing. That's for another day.

What I'm aiming for is to be useful and practical for people with no previous knowledge, in a range of communities. If you can get most of this stuff working to an ok-ish level, then you can reasonably expect (at least if you also like the music) to be getting lots of practice and to be well on the way to "dancing very nicely". Then you can take it as far as you like.

Sunday, 16 November 2014


I knew I wanted one, because I'd heard them in action. Two of them chained from a laptop are plenty to fill a good-sized room and have a perfectly good pop-up milonga with twenty or thirty people or so. Which is a nice thing to think, even if you don't do it. But they come in several charming colours, and I put it off and put it off partly because they are rather expensive, but mainly because (they being so expensive) I wanted them to be perfect and I couldn't decide which colour to get.

Then they brought out these purple ones with the yellow ends, and totally made the sale.

I played with them for a while after buying them, enjoying both the sound and the purple-and-yellowness. They're not cheap. They're a bit lurid. As I smiled at them, one of those flashes of self-knowledge informed me that these have now become the thinking woman's Comme Il Faut.

I've taken one on trips a few times, and used one this Spring (turned down very quiet) for dancing outside Pisa airport. And it was enough. I thought I wouldn't get the use out of them that I should for the price, since dancing in airports doesn't happen as often as it ought, but they're so small and so good that I use them all the time. I have one constantly on the dinner table for listening to lectures and radio programmes from my tablet, and the other in the bedroom. The only annoying thing is the bright battery-status light, which I cover with blu-tack if I am playing a lullaby.

But I am just as much a sucker for a clever, expensive consumer product as anyone, so just recently I bought the gold subwoofer as well. And it sounds GREAT. Of course, it enhances any music where the bass is important - and if you were teaching a muscality class, you'd probably find it very useful. But I also like the way it enhances speaking voices, especially male.

Now it lives on the dinner table too. In the picture I'm listening to a conversation about how the Hubble Space Telescope is steered. As for playing tango music from my computer, I like all sorts of things that I didn't much enjoy listening to at home before.

Anyway, here are Richard's in the form of action most likely to interest my readers - DJing from an iPad at a party. He didn't bring a subwoofer, as it's not needed in such a small room. I really WANT the pokketmixer you can see at the front (which is unpowered and lets you plug in headphones and switch channels to prelisten) but I have absolutely no sensible reason to buy one and they're, like, 90 EUR. So I'm not going to do that. Really. Not yet, anyway. It's so cute and clever, though. Maybe I could get one for Christmas.

The Minirigs are made in England - in Bristol, I think, or at least they are designed and tested there. They all come with their own padded cases and cables, and they sell a special backpack for carrying the whole setup and turning yourself into a walking sound system, but I don't like the design for this situation - I'm visualising an adapted hard-shelled briefcase that would open, maybe slide and click, and sort of fold itself inside-out, and be ready to go. It would need pockets for up to four minirigs, the subwoofer, the pokketmixer, the cables, some headphones, the ipad perhaps - and some reading glasses, in case you forget.

You can chain together as many as you want, which is very efficient if you are having a party and several of your friends own some. Obviously, though, you pay for the portability and style, so if you want a proper sound system for a big room, two big speakers of equivalent quality are going to be much cheaper than six little ones.

No they have not given me anything, but it would be ACE if they did.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Oh, I have so much writing to do

Experience and tips on learning to follow (written with a friend in mind).
Interesting experiences of taking my leading more seriously - methods and results.
A bunch of videos that I have found helpful or inspiring for leading (given very limited time and patchy motivation), and what is interesting about them.
Comments on a fascinating article elsewhere (hope I can still find it) about the history of ballroom dancing in England, and especially its decline as a social activity; parallels and contrasts.
An market-based analysis of why something I consider bloody rude, is so very annoying.
The relationships between social dancing, teaching, followers, leaders, quality, supply, and demand.
Possibly some uninteresting rants about software and corporate workplace silliness.
Miscellaneous things I've learned this year.

And I sit down too much already!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

International Transfers for tango travellers

Ok, this is a matter of so much trouble to Brits who travel for tango purposes that it's become a perfectly genuinely Frequently Asked Question. As I've been asked it multiple times, here's the answer for people struggling to make European transfers in Euros directly from a UK bank. I've done it again today and remembered the gotchas.

You ONLY need the following information, nothing else:

  1. IBAN, the very loooong number which starts with a country code like FR or DE. If your bank's form does not seem to understand this number when you paste it in, remove the spaces. I have no idea why the forms are too stupid to do this automatically, but for some reason they often are, and it baffles people.
  2. BIC, the Bank Identification Code, a shorter string of letters.
  3. Name of the beneficiary (person or company you are sending the money to).
That's it. You do NOT need to fill any address information, it's completely unnecessary, so leave those boxes blank if the form allows it, or repeat whatever address you have if your bank's form is so poorly designed that it doesn't. The chances are that any extra information will be ignored, and the bank's helpdesk will probably confirm this, as mine did.

There may be more than one option for how the costs are paid which can vary from bank to bank. Mine only actually provides one option, which has a totally misleading name ("shared") but nevertheless results in the correct number of Euros reaching their destination. Start by selecting whatever option lets you specify the exact amount of the bill you are trying to pay.

Alternatively, try Transferwise, which I haven't yet used myself (only because my bank's system is unusually cheap and I am used to it), but I know lots of people who've used it very successfully. It is almost certain to be cheaper and better designed than your bank's system. The only gotcha is that people fairly often misunderstand the form in such a way that they make a transfer the wrong way round, FROM the destination currency TO the source currency. This results in exchanging the money and paying all of the costs twice over, and under-paying the actual bill by as much as a tenner, so it's no longer cheaper than using the bank. Plus it's embarrassing. So try not to do this.

I hope that helps someone, because apparently it's been driving my friends round the bend. I do it multiple times a year, and it's the sort of thing you would just never have had to do even once if you weren't travelling in Europe in order to dance tango. Because all other sorts of business take credit cards, and in Argentina you just turn up with a bra full of USD.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Dance is not necessarily sport, either

Jonathan Agnew said something on the radio – during a Test Match at the end of June – about hacking, which means riding around on horses, but not competitively.

He was talking about people who ride horses in their daily life, but are not "recognised" as “participating in a sport”, and he asked them to tweet pictures of what they were doing with a hashtag, because it would (self-evidently?) be a good thing if they were.

I think Aggers is wrong to assume that they would want this. It sounds to me exactly analogous to the case of social dancing. There is nothing wrong with doing dance as a sport, and social dance has pretty similar mental, physical and social benefits to social sport. The tango-salon competitions are a whole other discussion, and a very interesting one (also sometimes farcical). Sport-dance can be a lot of fun. But conceiving ALL dance as sport would be harmful and there is no reason to assume that anyone would or should want that.

Just because some people define sport as prestigious doesn't mean everyone has to. The concept of sport isn't entitled to take over the whole world of healthy physical activity.

I could pretty much replace the word "Art" with "Sport" in this post and it would end up with virtually the same meaning. In fact, let's try some of that:

There's nothing wrong with artistic sporting dance. Lots of dance is certainly art sport. But it is wrong to talk as though dance is necessarily performance, and that non-artistic, non-performance dance is some sort of inferior 'just-for-fun' offshoot, defined as low-quality, because high-quality dance would be art win something. This belief does real harm to people who would enjoy non-art non-sport dance and be good at it, and real harm to dance communities. ...
... There should be more people dancing, more commonly, than there are, without being obliged to feel all artistic sporting about it. And without feeling that if they ever get good, they'll automatically be artists sportsmen and expected to teach or perform compete. Those are all totally different vocations and have no necessary connection with each other, or with just dancing. They're not needed to validate the quality of anyone's dance. (And they don't, incidentally).
Competition dance is necessarily standardised, because without some standardisation, fair judging is very difficult and seen-to-be-fair judging even more so. You need rules and criteria; and there’s a reason why some (or, in my opinion, most) great social dancers consider “Campeonato” style tango stupefyingly boring and artificial, despite the competition itself being great fun as a sporting event. But back to the previous post:
Being an excellent social (or indeed solo, or religious, or football-terrace) dancer is a valid and possible goal, and it's always nice to have more of them.
Why would social dancers want to be “recognised as participating in sport”? That would be poisonous – just as poisonous as being “recognised as artists”.

I'm not saying it's not tempting. If you put a lot of work into doing something well, the siren song of public or peer recognition will call to you, one way or another. But we should think properly about how to fulfil that legitimate desire in a way appropriate to the context - not blindly adopt the artistic or sporting model. And even if we occasionally organise a competition of a sporting nature, which could be huge fun, that doesn't mean we should let it take over or influence what we are doing otherwise, more than it deserves to.

It would be much better if social dance were more widely recognised as what it really is - play. And adult humans don’t need a prefabricated validating excuse – “sport” or “art” – for playing together. Or even with a horse.