Friday, 31 July 2015

Leading FAQ

As these actually are, unlike most "FAQs", somewhat FA, I thought I might as well write down my current answers.

Why do you lead?
I like good dancing, I enjoy working on my dance, and I want to dance with the women as well. They're great. I was also really curious to find out what it felt like.

Do you find you keep trying to go the wrong way and do everything the wrong way round?
Yes, at first, but it wears off quickly. Having other people around seems to sort it out. Doing the mirror-image of whatever I was trying to do, also seems to be less common with time. The more I practice, the better I can visualise whatever it is I want to do.

Do you have a hard time remembering to keep your eyes open?
Yes, at first! But this also wears off very quickly.

How does it affect your following?
It's made it better. The very first thing it did, the first time I tried it, was tune me into the music a bit differently. The next thing was to give me confidence as a follower, because you discover what you've been doing right, especially just how magic it feels if you follow well and move well. When I started doing it more seriously, it improved my technique, making me stronger and better grounded. After a bit more practice, I started to learn how good the women are, and what that actually means, and what it feels like when they really start to get into it, which is enchanting. And I also find it improves my concentration and frees me from the pressure to do too much and try too hard as a follower; I usually feel in myself that I am dancing better just after I've been leading.

That's so brave!?
If you're already a good follower, and then you start leading and taking it seriously, you just have to accept that you're going to go back to not being very good for a while. You had the privilege of learning to follow first, which saves a lot of work. But it's still a lot of work; so if you want to do it, and you have the opportunity, you do it, and if you don't specially want to do it, you don't bother. The men seem to manage it.

How do the men react?
I have yet to encounter any negative reaction from anyone, male or female. The men I regularly dance with as a follower have without exception been enthusiastically encouraging, and they are often interested to hear my perspective and experiences as well as share their own. I have also found it's a real and particular pleasure to share the floor amicably with someone as a fellow leader and then later dance with him for the first time. Sometimes - often - they make some pleasant remark about having seen me leading.

How do you find the floorcraft?
Some places are obviously much harder than others. It does take practice, especially to avoid getting too close to the couple in front. I started out at emptier times and places.  It takes miles on the clock to be able to deal with the cognitive load of leading, responding to the follower, and keeping track of where other couples are and how they are moving. That's one reason why there is always so much you can do in practice that you can't do in the milonga. If the floor is chaotic and stressful and generally hard to deal with, my technique will be weaker and I'll make a lot more errors, my improvisation will be much more repetitive, and I'll deal with it much less gracefully if I accidentally do something I didn't know how to do.

In some places, it's very difficult, and in others it's easy, but I find I can deal with it; better or worse depending on the difficulty level.

Do you always lead?
No, it depends on the situation. To some milongas I go to to lead, to some milongas I go to follow, to some milongas I go to do both. In that case, I usually start the milonga leading, then switch, and sometimes at that point I will change my 'look' in more than just the shoes. Sometimes I decide when I get there.

Which do you prefer?
Supposing other things to be equal, I usually say that I prefer following because I'm much better at it. I don't think I have enough experience at leading to say whether one is more fun that the other under ideal conditions. I'm finding leading very addictive, perhaps because I've had less experience, and therefore improvement with work is so much more noticeable. The process of discovery is also fun in itself. And the social side is fascinating. At the moment, I'd say that they are very different states of mind and it is a bit like saying whether I prefer steak or icecream. It depends on so many things. Equality is not equivalence.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Sir John Taylor's Top Hat

When we lived in Manchester in the 80s, my Dad was a partner in a law firm called John Taylor & Co. The firm's founder, John Taylor, had written the definitive technical book about contracts for buying woven cloth. He gave many lectures on the subject, and was knighted "for political and public services in Blackburn" (Supplement to the London Gazette, 11 May 1937). In case you are wondering, that is the same Blackburn, Lancashire as in the song, and that's where John Taylor was from, and where he originally started the firm. He had an original approach to practice development, arranging to work on the morning shift in a textile mill before going into the office, which is why he understood things like how many faults per square inch you could customarily have before cloth became 'seconds'. He died in his 90s, without retiring, perhaps a decade before Dad joined the firm.

As the textile industry completed its decline, the firm merged with another one and the offices of John Taylor & Co were cleared out. My Dad felt very sad about the loss of the firm's history and brand, which had been very well known and respected for generations. He rescued some things that would otherwise have been thrown away; a few documents, I think, that didn't mean much any more, and Sir John Taylor's top hat.

It still lives in its original box.

The leather box is in very good condition; the largest strap is worn and flaking, and the handle is worn, but all the buckles undo quite easily with no stiffness.

The box is lined with deep pink velvet, and the hat has some tissue paper inside.

On removing the paper, I discover that Sir John's bow-tie has also been preserved. My Dad thinks that a top-hat and bow tie may have been required wear at the Cotton Exchange, so it would make perfect sense for Sir John to keep them at the office. And when he eventually died, there they stayed. The Cotton Exchange was where the weavers and spinners went to make deals with the Liverpool merchants, and was probably the reason why the firm opened an office in Manchester after beginning in Blackburn.

The maker's label reads:
Hatters to H.M. the King
1 Old Bond Street, W.

However, in the top, not only Scotts' name is given, but also the name of Alfred Pellett Ltd of Manchester. So perhaps Sir John was measured for the hat in Manchester by Pellett, and the hat ordered from London, or even manufactured or finished in Manchester by Pellett as some sort of licensee for the Scotts brand. Of course he could have ordered the hat in London - we know for sure that he went there at least once, to be knighted - but in that case I don't see why it would have Pellett's name. At any rate, the initials JT have been added, proudly embossed in gold. I suppose Scotts offered some personalisation as part of their service.

I also don't see any dates here. Scotts as a company existed at least from 1890 to 1963, and the words "The King" only make sense between January 1901, when Queen Victoria died, and the present Queen's coronation in 1953.

Finally, I lift out the hat.

I suppose that the material is silk velvet. I'm curious about how it's made. I particularly admire the top; the circular nap seems to have grown that way, like the crown of an animal's head. There are no visible seams.

The raised edges of the brim are beautifully done. In this picture you can also see the only sign of damage. The hat has certainly been worn a fair amount, but perhaps it was reserved for special business - remembering that it was left in the firm's offices, not at Sir John's home.

I also admire the box, and how it's perfectly adapted to the shape of the hat.

The only thing I have done is gently lift off a little dust with a microfibre cloth. Otherwise I have touched it as little as possible and put it back in the box.

If you know anything about the manufacture of top hats in London or Manchester by Scotts, Pellett, or anyone else, I'd be interested to hear it in the comments or by email at the usual address.
1 This is probably the right citation: "The KING has been graciously pleased, on the occasion of His Majesty's Coronation, to signify his intention of conferring the Honour of Knighthood upon the following: — ... John Taylor, Esq. For political and public services in Blackburn." That's a bit vague, I was expecting "services to the textile industry". I'm curious as to what the 'political services' were - it might or might not mean that he served in some public office in Blackburn, perhaps as a councillor. In the next issue, 15th June 1937, we see him travelling to Buckingham Palace to receive his honour. The Gazette search is pretty good once you get the hang of it.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Go outside and look now

Look towards the sunset right now and just above the roofline of a house as far away as the other side of a car park there are Venus (big) and Jupiter very close together (small, higher, to the left - or lower and to the right, if you are in the Southern Hemisphere - no, wait - it seems like that should work but I am not sure there is anywhere you could actually see them from). My binoculars are not achromatic, and my eyes are not perfect either, but in the twilight I can see one, maybe two moons of Jupiter; and convince myself that Venus is a fat crescent, like the lady in Midsummer Night's Dream, with her belly toward the Sun.


    Set your heart at rest:
    The fairy land buys not the child of me.
    His mother was a votaress of my order:
    And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
    Full often hath she gossip'd by my side,
    And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
    Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
    When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
    And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
    Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
    Following,--her womb then rich with my young squire,--
    Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
    To fetch me trifles, and return again,
    As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
    But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
    And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
    And for her sake I will not part with him.

A passage the context of which had made little impression on me as a youngster. The speech was much stronger when I looked it up just now, compared to what I remembered.

Update: most readers will have missed that because it took me so long to fix the formatting, but the bright thing at at 3 o'clock from the Moon right now (or 9 o'clock if you are the other way up) is Saturn, and in my binoculars it is an oval blob, not a circular blob like Jupiter is.

Monday, 22 June 2015

58, crore, and 27

This is brilliant. I've known about crores and lakhs since about 2001, although I always have to look up what they are (one lakh is a hundred thousand, written "1,00,000"; one crore is a hundred hundred thousand - or ten thousand thousand, or ten million, written "1,00,00,000"). If you don't know them already, you will meet them a lot if you start reading articles about bribery and corruption in cricket. But this video gets way better than that. My favourite part:

"and I think that's one of the best things about linguistics, about being human, about all of this, someone on the other side of the world, something that they will consider absolutely normal, will completely blow your mind".

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Travels of Tuneage - Dark Eyes

It appears that the words of the song known as "Dark Eyes" were written by a Ukranian poet called Yevhen Pavlovych Hrebinka, who published a Russian version in 1843, possibly as a compliment to the woman he later married. It was then set - it doesn't seem clear by whom or when - to a waltz written, probably in Russia, perhaps as early as the 1810s, by a German (or possibly French) composer called Florian or Feodor Hermann.

First, here's the playlist link for this post, in case you want to open it in another window and just let it play.

The title of this waltz is given by Wikipedia and others in French as "valse hommage", but this pianist, Alexander Zlatkovski of Alaska,  calls it "Recollection", which seems to me like a reasonable translation. His research has found one account saying it started out as a march and was changed to a waltz by the composer, which is interesting in relation to what happens later, although he's not at all convinced.

The result - perhaps with a minor rewrite adding some gloomier words, since Hrebinka and the young lady seem to have got on fine - was the song popularised by the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. The title Очи чёрные is written in several ways in Roman letters, but most often as "ochi chornye". A similar version is played by violinist Albert Sandler in this Pathé clip (not on the Youtube playlist).

At about the same time - 1915 to 1920 - it seems to have been rewritten with English words by an British Italian composer, Adalgiso Ferraris. He made one big change; the rhythm. Here's Al Bowlly singing. Rhythmically and melodically, and minus the over-drastic changes of speed towards the end, this would be a sweet tango, a bit like Rafael Canaro's French ones. It doesn't have enough oomph for me, and it's too dominated by the vocalist, but it's quite nice.

Ferraris is also the credited on this '78 by Harry Parry and his radio sextet; but they're taking it in a totally different direction, dancewise.

Toto, I don't think we are waltzing any more.

Nor, apparently, did Louis Armstrong, or his percussionist:

That's the one that started me making this little collection, when Deborah Segantini posted it on Facebook.

 So, we get lots of different versions, each artist adding their own riffs to complement the simple and memorable tune.

Django Reinhardt called it "Les Yeux Noirs".

This French movie version of Les Yeux Noirs, is a waltz again, with accordion. But only until the end of the vocal line. Then it changes at 1:50 and goes for the 'gypsy' sound.

This bombastic performance by the Red Army Choir does the same thing. Eventually.

There's also a German waltz version which seems to be just a translation - Schwartze Augen - of Chaliapin's hit, and, in my opinion, need not detain us, not even on the playlist. I far prefer the drunk-sounding jazz one from the soundtrack of Das Boot.

Chet Atkins' version follows Les Yeux Noirs in starting out as a waltz and then changing after the first minute and doing something else.

I can't really compare all these very different styles of music. But of all the ways this melody gets extended and enhanced, I think Francisco Canaro's B-tune in Ojos Negros is exceptionally good. Instead of brilliant variations on the tune and rhythm, this beautiful tango - with Roberto Maida singing the Spanish words - adds a second melody the equal of the first. As far as I know, the second melody is original to this piece - if anyone knows otherwise, do put it in the comments.

Now, let's meet a totally different sound world. This one was written in Sundanese (the language of the western part of Java) by an Indonesian composer Ismael Marzuki in honour of his wife, who was from round there.

It actually reminds me, a bit, of the more lyrical kizombas (kizomba is the "angolan tango" that I sometimes play at work to drown my colleagues' wittering - check it out on YouTube. It varies a lot).

 Panon Hideung comes in a Karaoke version, with dancing. Go on, click.

You may already be wondering what this song is called in Japanese.

It's called Dark Eyes. The title is written 黒い瞳 and pronounced Kuroi Hitomi. Embedding is disabled on this version by popular 50's crooner Frank Nagai, whose singing I must say is lovely. I thought I had the wrong thing at first, but then realised it does the reverse of what Canaro does: the words have their own, different melody, and Dark Eyes doesn't come in till 1:38, with the instrumental section. There's a very regular ballroom tango beat.

Once you know how to copy/paste the title, you can quickly find versions with the "Dark Eyes" melody sung. Here's a Karaoke one. I notice "J. Iglesias" is mentioned in the opening credits. Investigating Julio Iglesias' involvement with this particular tune is left as an exercise for the reader. there are probably lots more directions we could go in.

I will sign off for the night, however, with this indescribably sweet Japanese choral take. It's a waltz to begin with, then changes, like Les Yeux Noirs. It seems a lot of mid-twentieth-century French songs have versions in Japanese, and that may well be where this came from.

Special thanks go to Deborah Segantini for the idea and to Hidemi Asano for her Japanese research.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Guess the winner

Here's a bit of fun. The Campeonato de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (City Championship) is different from the Mundial (World Championship) and in my opinion a bit more watchable.

Here are the tango, vals, and milonga finals. The same couple won all three, which apparently isn't what usually happens. Why not watch them and see if you can guess which one it was? I don't know if I would have guessed right or not, because I happened to see who had won before I found these videos (so will you, if you Google it, so don't if you want to play).

All the videos are courtesy of Aires de Milonga, and as far as I can figure out it's okay to embed them. Go ahead and visit the website, there's all sorts of interesting stuff on there. First the tango:


And Vals (this one includes the introduction of the couples - ff to 03:15 to skip that):

There's a copy of the rules and format available at - I don't know if it will remain there. The part about what the judges are looking for is headed DEL CERTAMEN (PARÁMETROS DE EVALUACIÓN).

But the reason I posted this is that I really like the result. I really, really like their dancing, and I think they look as though they are dancing for fun with each other rather than trying to show off. As though they are really surprised and delighted to be there, but not letting it get to them. In between dances they do the sorts of things that people normally do when the music stops, like looking a bit hot and out of breath, fidgeting, flapping about and bumping into their neighbours (which incurs no penalty, between tracks). They are very rhythmical and musical; they are not scared to stand still at the right moments. To find the answer you can watch the presentations: either go to Aires de Milonga and scroll down for the whole lot, or watch the first one, the vals, here (04:43 for first place) and the milonga here. Note; there are ties for fifth place in the vals and second place in the milonga. I like the presentations too. Everyone looks so pleased. It must be lovely to have someone in your life who is having such fun and wants the same thing so much.

On Following

Ok, this started in a facebook thread about a video. But it's too long. To summarise, a lot of people are very anxious to spell out that "following does not mean the woman is submissive in tango". I can see why. I can see lots of causes for people feeling bothered about the possibility that people might think that. People saying silly things on Strictly Come Dancing is only the most obvious. But I also think we often make this too complicated. And people worry sometimes about whether the terms "lead" and "follow" are the best terms.

I think that particular debate is backwards. If I were teaching this to someone else, I would use "leading" and "following" rather than any other terms; but I would point out what they actually mean, along with a couple of other things.

"Following" someone, or something, is an active process by definition. It is impossible to "follow", other than on purpose. I can "follow" you home, or along a crowded street, whether you like it or not, but under no circumstances can you "lead" me, in any context, unless I make a continuous and active choice. Leading, by definition, is acting in such a way that one or more people decide to follow you and thereby attempt something which they have now decided should happen. It is quite possible to lead accidentally, at least for a while, if someone takes it into their head to follow you. And success in leading - in any context - can only be defined in terms of other people's actions.

For me the terms are fine, and following is obviously and by definition the beginning, heart, and end of the whole process. The dance starts with one person's decision to follow another, continues with their decision to continue, and ends with their decision to stop. Leading, and everything else, is the play and fun of finding out what the couple can do with that.

The delightful 'floating' sensation of non-volition which you sometimes get when following, especially as a beginner, is not because the leader is magically making you do stuff; it's because a lot of the cognitive and physical skills you are using are ones that you're not normally conscious of at all. So you have no idea they are happening, or how unbelievably complex and powerful they are; you just use them without thinking about it or realising you've done so. You think it's happening without will, when in fact it's just happening without consciousness. It starts out as animal process, and you get better at it by refining and building on what the animal can do.

The better I get at leading, the more ability I will have to 'follow back' those followers who do it well enough that they communicate to me what their animal wants to do. This is a lot of fun.

The fact that this dance is, at the same time, a specifically gendered role-playing game, may add to the fun in many ways (at least, it certainly does for me) but it also misleads our thinking. The only reason anyone ever interprets the concept of 'following' as anything less active and self-determining than, say, a batsman hitting a good bowler for six1, is that in the evolution of this dance it is the female gendered role. If this were not the case, then "following" would be interpreted in the sense that a hunter "follows" prey.

It's not the other way around. It's not that women are assigned a passive or subordinate role. It's that the role assigned to women is therefore misinterpreted as being passive or subordinate, despite that interpretation ignoring the normal meaning of the word and completely erasing the real process of improvisation and the core of the dance itself.

You do not have to feel low-status because you are not currently deciding what specifically happens next. You can delegate responsibility for that question without feeling guilty or ashamed about it. What specifically happens next is not really where the creation happens or what the dance is all about. Any creation that happens is already in terms of you. You can also, in my view, enjoy a gender role-playing game without feeling guilty about it. Do what gives you pleasure; that is precisely what partner dances are for.

1 Not actually a bad analogy for following some difficult or overexcited professionals. You might object that bowler and batsman are adversaries, not cooperating. Of course they are cooperating. They are cooperating in a game of cricket. The only matter of dispute is who wins, which is nothing more than a factitious notion technically required to get the best out of the partnership. We know this because people climb up Kilimanjaro and sail to to Antartica specifically in order to play cricket with each other in calderas or surrounded by penguins.