Wednesday, 18 May 2016


Sometimes people take video clips of tango events I travel to. And occasionally, like everyone else, I can see glimpses of myself dancing, in between other couples.

If I see myself leading, which is rare enough for me not to be used to it, the one thing that really hits me is how TINY I am.

Now, this could be partly in relation to my partners. I usually (not always) change into flat shoes if I want to lead, and most (not all) of the women I dance with usually (not always) wear about a 7cm heel for following. I am about 166cm tall, which when I look it up turns out to be two to four centimetres taller than average for an English woman. The women I dance with vary a lot in height, but most of the time their heels will prevent them looking much smaller than me. And I am rather lightly built, so I don't look like much of anything from a distance.

But I don't think that's what makes me look tiny. What does that is the contrast in size and bulk of us as a couple, with the other couples led by men. And that's something I simply never think about, and am never aware of, until I see it.

I am like a little dog that doesn't know what "small" is.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Red silk tango boots, 1910-1920

How did I miss this?

"These red, silk satin French-made “barrette/Tango boots” are in the collection of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto ( and date circa 1910s-1920s. Even if you do not fancy dancing, they just beckon you to have some fun, don’t they? In order to dance the Tango, the shoe needed to be well-fitted and secure. The lacing, or barrette-style straps, run up the ankle (and often the calf, as in this example) adding a provocative, sensual twist – appropriate for the dance itself."
Look at them! I don't have permission to use the image; if I can find a way of getting in touch, I will ask, and if it's ok I'll add it here. But comments are restricted, and I can't find an email.

Everything SilkDamask writes about the requirements for a tango shoe still applies; it must hold firmly to the foot, flatter the leg, look beautiful, be sensually pleasing, and fit well. They must also have a very flexible sole, on which the dancer can easily pivot. The fashion for heels is thinner, and the shoes themselves are generally less substantial.

These days we have numerous manufacturers to choose from, and they compete for the custom of serious dancers on comfort, fit, function, beauty, and to some extent price, although generally not on prompt delivery or reliable service.

I invite you to compare the Yeite glossy red by Balanceo, the Silver Ramona by Madame Pivot, and the Recoleta in purple polka dots by Regina. From the Argentine manufacturers, Fabioshoes make this rather gorgeous practice shoe. Comme Il Faut have continued to make their more extreme, colourful, elaborate and detailed designs, but are possibly collected as art objects about as often than they are used to dance in, at least nowadays in the European market.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Vague, Subjective Guide to Obvious Tango Orchestras

In no particular order, not even alphabetical, this a dump of my 100% subjective and fairly eccentric mental catalogue. In no way should this be taken as reliable or comprehensive.

Sounds the most orchestral of all orchestras - the most like a symphony orchestra. If there seems to be a lot going on, with numerous different sounds having equal prominence, and at the same time it's all rather grand and maybe wants to be part of a larger work, it's probably Troilo. Also sounds like everybody, so if you know you know it, but can't think who it is, it's probably Troilo.

Di Sarli
I can't improve on Mike Lavocah's insight: Di Sarli does everything with the violins. Recorded over a long time with huge variations of style and sound and feeling, but the violins thing is consistent. Also sounds like Fresedo with a difficult girlfriend. Some of the late stuff sounds like Di Sarli trying to be Pugliese; with results that are kind of wonderful, if you can keep a straight face.

Sounds loud, even when playing quietly. Dense texture. Had Biagi at the piano for a lot of it, and sounds like Biagi without the holes. Some of the late stuff sounds not just intense, but completely bonkers, until you compare it with Biagi. The flesh and organs of tango.

Sounds like D'Arienzo with holes in. A lighter texture, and not just intense, but genuinely eccentric. The offbeats are much more unexpected. Appears never to have recorded a bad or boring track. A truckload of amazing valses, not enough milongas. In the late recordings he doesn't fall into the trap of imitating Pugliese; he's influenced by changes of style, and grows, but remains his entirely genuine, electric, eccentric self.

Kind of the backbone of tango, including the dodgy discs and the odd hernia, gunshot splinter or missing fortune. Always sounds totally professional, brisk, and organised. Best when there's a really strong tune and Maida singing. But recorded a lot, for a long time, and is very various.

Sounds glossy and dark. Salon in a dark suit. Tbh I can't describe it very well because are only a few tracks I like all that much, and most of those remind me of the JAWS theme. The ones that are good are magnificent.

Sounds like a 30's Hollywood movie involving palm trees and pineapple hats. Tuneful, romantic, often a bit sugary. Or like Di Sarli with a nicer girlfriend and fewer violins.

Sort of buzzy. Like dancing bees. The most famous tracks have Alberto Podesta doing the operatic tenor thing. When he flies, he still comes down at the right moment. Bermudez has a darker, lower voice. But the bees are still there.

Sounds kind of like teeny-tiny Troilo for a much smaller room. Still a lot going on, but more portably.

The sound of the orchestra itself, with or without the singer, is full of love. This is music of a bigger picture, but expressed for and by two humans in one embrace that embraces a whole world.  Pugliese is never caught up in narrow emotionality; but is deeply and satisfyingly real, like a plate of egg and chips. Pugliese was so influential that all the modern orchestras seem to be trying to sound like him, which is a trap better musicians than they are have also fallen into.

Sounds like walking along very carefully, one step at a time, not stepping on the lines on the pavement, because of the bears. But either quite amiably tipsy, or, in some tracks, weeping drunk.

Sauntering, episodic, and sounds a bit pissed off, or rambling drunk. Nice to play with when you're not going anywhere in particular. On reflection, I prefer the ones where Vargas comes in early and sings his thing, and the orchestra provides a fairly brisk, minimal frame otherwise.

De Angelis
Another kind of sauntering and episodic that wanders off in no particular direction and has a giant drama while staring at some random wall. Generally a bit art-movie. History's most annoying Cumparsita, which wurbles on for what seems like twenty minutes, is instantly forgotten, and then keeps coming back in your head for days.

Probably the one that sounds most like late 19th century opera that you can dance to. Like the Pearl Fishers or Tosca. Properly entertaining music, with loads of rhythm, super tunes, and the occasional quite good joke.

Lush (Mike Lavocah again). A gooey chocolate hazelnutty sort of sound with a trace of jazz. I love it.

Daaah-dum. Dark woodwind with a distinctive ending.

OTV (Orquesta Tipica Victor)
Victor studio house band: sounds incredibly professional and picked good songs. Wants to be driving scene music for a low-dialogue film.

I usually don't hear the opening of the first track and name the orchestra in my head, unless the track is a particular favourite or has a very distinctive opening: I usually just focus on how much I like it, and who I am most interested in dancing with, based on the general feeling it gives me. When I name the orchestra it's usually later, whether I'm dancing or not. This is why I get absolutely ropeable if the DJ plays their weakest track first in the tanda, or plays inconsistent tandas that don't carry through what the first track promised. Don't do it!

Friday, 11 March 2016

Undead Tango at the Peacock, and scenes I'd like to see

So, one of the reviews said "you have to admire Cornejo’s effort to rejuvenate tango for 21st Century", and I think it would be a very good thing if somebody actually did try to reinvent the tango show for the 21st Century. So I thought I'd better go and see if it had been tried. I expected the reviewer to be mistaken, but I was open minded.

Content warning: some adult language.

It really was trying to be different. It contained things I didn't expect. They included a farthingale, a longish session of ballet pointe-work, a Disney princess and a lot of schmaltz. At least it realised it should try.

Its attempt to avoid cliché opens with "Tango de Roxane" in gold Kylie dresses. The first half continued with various slightly steampunk-themed scenes, musical solos, a wedding with a kind of Widow Twankey thing going on, then the Disney princess, an extended scene of one ballerina en pointe with six men as props, and a lot more that I don't remember. The tango was pouting, one-paced, unvarying, frenetic, kickety kickety kick.

The second half consisted mostly of what you would expect - a succession of the kind of single-couple choreographies that usually do well in the Escenario section of the Mundial. Mundane is what they certainly are. One of the couples paused twice and looked briefly at each other, rather than exclusively at the audience and into space. Then they did an endless turn through a long silence. That, and the obvious fall, were the only moves I remember.

The Widow Twankey bit came back with a clown scene all about the huge impractical costumes, which were pretty much the theme of the production as a whole. There was also the obligatory single scene of men dancing with each other, and of course they had to make it a play-fight, because two men who can actually dance, actually dancing with each other would be - well, what?

On New Year's Eve I was at a festival in France and one of the things I was privileged to see, when I wasn't too busy dancing, was two of the most truly charming and attractive men on the European tango scene dancing together socially and having fun. There's no video, because it was social dancing and it was about actually being there (although if you took video, you should TOTALLY send it right now. I won't tell). I got to dance with each of them as well, and they were both lovely.

This wasn't that. This was so utterly terrified of appearing remotely interesting, let alone sexy, that it threw a punch and ran for the hills. They had to bring a woman on to calm things down with the magic tits of pornobanality.

Tango is a traditional partner dance and a gender-role-play game. It's also a social dance scene in which women dancing together because they want to dance with each other is common, and normal, and often looks compelling and wonderful; and in which men dancing together because they want to dance with each other is much less common, and is also normal, and also often looks compelling and wonderful.

And I'm somehow supposed to be impressed by this on the stage at Sadler's Wells?

This production seems completely unaware that anyone, anywhere in the world, dances tango with another person because they want to. The 'tango' presented is an achingly narrow bonsai product. Irrelevant to its global practice, contemptuous of its audience.

I have no problem with anybody arranging Skyfall as a tango and dancing to it. None. I think that's a great idea. It has a pretty good tune. If you've got a good arranger and a good band, and the song says something you want to say, totally go for it. Dive right in if you think you're good enough. The more good songs get well arranged and well played as new tangos, the better; eventually some of them will be good enough to dance to, and to get there you have to experiment and practice.

I also quite liked the steampunk look. Why not? Long skirts are challenging for the cast, but if it means something to you, do it. Some of the costumes near the end reminded me of passing through Birmingham on a bus at 5am in 1997 on my way to the British Grand Prix, happy days. What they meant to the director is anyone's guess, but I have no problem with it. I just don't think it counts as innovation. Nor does ballet, and nor does rock-and-roll, especially if not very good.

There were moments of genuine emotion; the emotions were misogyny, transphobia, and the kind of sexism directed mainly by men at men which is often referred to as 'toxic masculinity'. The production seemed unconscious of these, so I can only suppose they were sincere.

I would have left the theatre indifferent, but not especially cross, if I hadn't seen the encore and read the programme notes. In the encore, they put on 80s 'fame' costumes and danced tango to 50's rock and roll. If you want to dance rock and roll in a tango show, I would like you to dance rock and roll, preferably well. As for the programme notes, I'll spare you.

It's possible that the costumes were intended to be the plot.

In fact, I'm not going to discuss the production any more. It met my expectations, which shouldn't be an excuse. Instead I'm going to discuss what a tango show should be. Let's make up some possible ground rules and just put them out there.

Ballet is not innovation. Rock and roll is not innovation. Gymnastics are not innovation, nor are they in themselves good dancing. Long skirts are not innovation. 80's timewarps are not innovation. Dancing to a Bond theme has been done rather better on Strictly Come Dancing nearly a decade ago. Same-sex dancing is not innovation. It may be striking, significant, beautiful, or even unusual on stage, but it is not new.

I would like to see innovation, ambition, and imagination in tango shows. I would like to see choreography that means something and says something. I would like to see things more like the performance that came second in the Mundial this year, which made me feel something. I've seen tango performances in the last twelve months that moved me to tears. It is totally possible.

Here are some things I would like to see in a tango show. Not all in the same show. These are just some ideas, some possible directions, in no particular order. They are not revolutionary. Most of them are extremely conservative, and would be tiny steps in relation to the format and traditions of tango shows. They're things that might give you a reason to dance tango on stage, rather than something else.

Innovation, in tango shows, would be literally anything that wasn't crap. But, how about:

  • A variety of styles and ways of dancing, chosen for the ideas they communicate. Tango is expressively rich, technically diverse, and global. Like Shakespeare.
  • A scene that tells the story of its music, in the sense of addressing its content. There are songs about gender violence, dead babies, loyal dogs, has-beens, falling in love, selfishness, poverty, crushes, breakups, second thoughts, pretentiousness, humanity adrift in a mechanical world, bad dancing, warfare, emigration, immigration, homesickness, money, church bells, and lots more. The content is sometimes difficult. Why not take it on?
  • If you're going to dance to 'Ojos Negros' as a vals, and you have a good band, a costume budget, and a talented arranger, why not tell some of the story of that tune? You could still have the Disney princess dress in there, if you wanted.
  • A scene that subverts, defies, or reimagines the content of a well-known tango, or uses it as a clever joke.
  • A scene that tells a story about travel and Europe and Japan in the history of tango. 
  • An ethnically diverse cast.
  • If (as it's clear this production does) you have total contempt for the very existence of European social tango, why not satirise it? I saw enough plastic Chichos at a small festival in France a couple of weekends ago to make anybody laugh out loud. I bet the cast could make fun of that. You could dance in vomit-green swooshpants, bare feet, a bath-ring beard and a man-bun. Hell, you could make fun of Noelichicks, Carlitoheads, Salonsters, bloggers, wielders of the Minirig, or dancing in airports. At least you wouldn't be insulting our intelligence, and it could hardly fail to be funnier than the Widow Twankey. Or show me the hilarious and touching things I don't know about that (probably) happen in Seoul and Shanghai.
  • Any scene at all that alludes to tango as it exists in the world.
  • Scenes of same-sex dancing that are more than displacement activity. Why not make it about love, or friendship, or teamwork, or learning, or solidarity, or society, or even, for fuck's sake, sex?
  • Any scene at all about about complex human feelings or the way people take care of and teach and support each other in bad situations.
  • A scene that shows someone wanting to dance with someone else. For any reason.
  • A scene about how dancing enhances people's lives. 
  • A scene that communicates how magical it feels to find that you are apparently leading because someone has decided to follow you, and how amazing that process is.
  • A scene alluding to the contemporary experience of tango tourism, from any point of view. Daring, huh?
  • A funny story about a badly-organised tango competition. Even more daring.
  • A scene alluding to the funny, complicated or stressful side of organising a social dance. 
  • A musical story that says something about the relationships between tango, jazz, blues, and rock, and shows off the versatility and knowledge of cast and musicians, without abandoning what music means to people.
  • A cast spending less time obviously out-of-breath.
  • If you're going to have a backdrop of random stars, why not have a backdrop of obviously non-random stars, with the Moon and Orion the Southern way up?

I don't think the explanation for all this is commercial. It looks commerically stupid to ignore the European tango scene. It has an absorbing hobby, it has time, and it has money. You don't have to limit yourself to standing ovations from randoms who have no idea what they've just seen. You could carry on pleasing them and still refrain from insulting the people who should be your fans and evangelists.

The show wasn't "Immortal Tango". It was undead. If you are a stage producer or choreographer and think you can revive it, please contact Sadler's Wells. Please.

[Review: Immortal Tango, Peacock Theatre, Sadler's Wells, till 19th March]

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Day-making ice skating

Apropos my ice skating reference in the previous post, thank you Detlef for sharing this absolutely beautiful performance from the European Figure Skating Championships, by Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, of France:

Gabriella PAPADAKIS & Guillaume CIZERON - 2016 European Champi...

Gabriella PAPADAKIS & Guillaume CIZERON - 2016 European Championships - FD

Posted by Ice Skating World on Thursday, 4 February 2016

Absolutely beautiful. Not a moment or a movement without meaning. Not a transition in sight. And you'll notice the commentator stops talking, after a while.

Update: I would draw your attention to this interesting interview with their coach from last year.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

What's good Argentine Tango?

What's good dancing?

Performance and Choreography - the easy part

If it's a show - a performance - that we're talking about, then this is a relatively easy question. I expect to see a whole lot of technical things that make it look good, plus something more.

For example, I want to see the really good technique, and the ease and precision of leading and following, that makes a simple walk look smooth, strong, and easy; and that makes things like voleos, wraps and ganchos (if used) look graceful, expressive, and exciting instead of forced, stiff, clumsy and pretentious. 

I also want to see the couple perfectly on the beat. I want to see comfort in their head positions, stillness in their pauses, a relaxed, comfortable, appropriate embrace, a smooth walk, and a really good connection and relationship, so that they move as one rather than appearing to take turns. The leader should not appear too dominant - this looks very ugly. Neither side should ever look anxious, stressed, or rushed. 

I want to see the couple move as one whole of two equal parts. I want to see both partners moving musically, embodying the sound, not just stepping on the beat. I want harmony, interest, and taste.

I want to see those things both in choreography and in improvisation.

If it's a choreography, I also think we should expect communicative meaning, since that's what choreography is for. And the choice of music should serve or inspire that communicative meaning. A meaning is more than a theme. Most tango choreography, though heavily themed, is meaningless, and very boring. Two exceptions are the ones I mentioned here and here.

For a choreography to get a 9 or a 10 from me, I want to see meaning, and I want to see all of the difficult stuff serving the meaning, and I also want to see an absence of difficult stuff if that serves the meaning better. I want to see the difficult stuff left out if the dancers' technique isn't up to it. It's not the difficulty that I want to see, it's the meaning.

The distinction between theme and meaning may be rather fine, but I know it when I see it. If you are old enough to remember not only Torville and Dean, but also Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, then you know what I am talking about (even though what Torville and Dean did was obviously very technically difficult, the difference was that they managed to fill it with meaning beyond theme). It has something to do with emotional content, or point.

For an improvisation, musical expression and other kinds of appropriateness more or less replace the concept of communicative meaning. I want to see something that is honest and appropriate for the audience and purpose of the show. I want to see a certain self-confidence and individuality that is doing its own thing and not trying too hard to be like something else, or even trying too hard to be something it thinks is should be instead of having an actual reason to be there.

I want to see differences and nuances of scale, pace, and dynamics. I don't want to see a dance that's frantic, frenetic, or excessively one-paced. And I particularly want to see a couple stay away from anything they can't do sincerely, or do well.

Social dancing - a harder question

What makes good social dancing is bit more complicated.

When we get into social dancing, a lot of things really matter that are not directly physical dance skills. Roberto Finelli (in Melina's thread on facebook about this question) put it so:
A good dancer is someone who makes happy the partner AND the people dancing around.
A good dancer is someone that you WANT to dance next to you because it makes you feel better.
A good dancer is able to handle the tango-jungle with elegance.
A good dancer is able to keep relaxed and enjoy (and have fun together with the partner) even under the worst circumstances, without any need to complain.
By "dance", Roberto means full participation in a social dance event, not just the physical activity of dancing with a partner. I think he's taking it quite far in the last point, which requires some working-out, but, okay.

There are social dance events, and there are clubs where they play tango. In the latter, no one is expected to care about anyone else beyond an apeish battle for status. But if enough good social dancers turn up, by this definition, then it will turn into a genuine social dance event regardless.

Of course, your partners deserve an adequate technical level. A good dancer is easy, comfortable and enjoyable to dance with. But what exactly that means can be any combination of a huge range of things.

Let's unpack Roberto's first point. To make one's partner happy, a good social dancer (for me):
  • Is comfortable to embrace and easy to lead or follow
  • Is on the beat
  • Moves musically, embodying the sound, not just stepping on the beat
  • Has a dance that is not completely one-paced or single-scale
  • Stays away from doing things they can't do well or do honestly
  • Stays away from doing things that make it difficult for their partner (as opposed to merely challenging or exciting, which can be fine on occasion)
  • Is sensitive to their partner's movement
  • Is sensitive to their partner's state of mind (this is how you get the "exciting" thing right)
  • Is 'into it' - whatever it is, and it can be a variety of things - with that individual partner
  • Has good manners in the milonga and does not embarrass their partners or make dancing  difficult for other people.
Pretty much all of that applies to both partners. Those who lead have some opportunities to be obviously bad-mannered and incompetent that those who only follow don't have. The fancy-shoe who charged out of the middle and drove my friend's heel into me with force last Friday, looks like a good dancer, unless you watch very closely and are very demanding; or unless you share a floor with him as a leader, when he becomes very hard work very fast.
You can look the epitome of geek and be a world-class genius when it comes to social dancing - although chances are, the informed or perceptive eye will also notice a very well-managed posture and embrace, a great connection, economy of motion, and nuance to the dance.

Good social dancers quite often do, in fact, have a level of technique equal to or better than the stage professionals, especially the mediocre ones. But in practice, once they get beyond the basics, they tend to learn and focus on whatever most interests them and seems worth the work, so they dance in diverse ways and express their personalities differently, depending on personal taste, talent, physical abilities and style, and they're all good.

If your interest in social dancing is not genuine, you're likely to be a weak social dancer even if you're a good professional on the stage. Nobody gets or stays excellent at something they're not interested in. There's no substitute for actually caring.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Salad Dressing

If you just put oil and vinegar in a jar, and you don't shake it, you do not get salad dressing.

You have to put energy in.

Supermarkets think very, very carefully about what things they put on the shelves that are under your hand while you queue for the checkout. Milongas should think just as carefully about what the room looks like when you enter it; about who is coming, and who is already there; about how the people in it see themselves, see each other, and try to make themselves comfortable. Humans are social, extremely sensitive to all kinds of complex signals, and you cannot expect them to put them aside, especially as most of them are processed unconsciously.

The information they need to form a community - however briefly - can be exchanged with time, or it can be provided, within certain limits, by leadership and proper shaking of the jar.