Wednesday, 29 June 2011

What is style anyway? Styles, brands, and quality

For me, a person's style is not just their choices about what to put in and what to leave out, but much more the way that they do it, how they move, what kind of music suits them, what their natural speed is, the way they make me feel as a person. It does include their choices of what techniques to use or not use. But those technical choices aren't a big part of it. Certainly not big, compared to the differences in feel that exist between people who use exactly the same range of techniques at a similar level of skill.

In the context of social dancing, it makes sense to me to use vague descriptive terms like 'dynamic' or 'soft' or 'calm' or 'inventive' or 'spare' or 'quiet' or 'exciting' or 'busy'. I don't find it very useful to give styles names. That makes more sense if you're talking about 'style' in the sense of a brand or a product, like Vivienne Westwood, but not really for the kind of thing I have in mind.

My very favourite partners have individual styles of their own, so the whole concept is a bit meaningless. Everyone has more in common with some others, than other others. I could group them in families, like the sounds of different orchestras. Overall, they definitely tend to share certain techniques and habits, but I wouldn't really say it goes beyond what anyone needs for a good level of competence in social dancing. There's all sorts of variation in the kind of trivia people like to set up as shibboleths, naturally. But people who haven't got some compatible version of those techniques and habits, plus or minus trivia, just aren't good social dancers, so the concept of style is not much help.

What I'm saying here is, it doesn't make sense to me to put something into your dance because you think it's part of a 'style' that you're trying to cultivate. The only good and sufficient reason for doing an enrosque is that you really, really want to. If it was me, I don't think I'd bother, but if you think they're super cool, that's an adequate reason to put the work in to get them right. Otherwise there isn't one.

There is such a thing as a brand name. For example, you can associate some set of techniques and habits with some place in Buenos Aires or some set of people. That just does the mundane job that brand names do. Brand names have a function, they're there so you can identify, locate and purchase something you want. Vivienne Westwood, for example, has a style and a brand. The brand allows you to find the style, if you want it, by asking the attendant in Selfridges where it is. You'll get a product that looks a certain way and has a more-or-less-known provenance and quality. Business done, everybody's happy. But if the 'enrosque' outfit doesn't suit you and demands unfeasible underwear, you don't buy it just because it's got the label. You buy it if you know it's useful or believe it's beautiful, or both.

There's also 'style' as a euphemism for quality.

If I say that I saw a couple dancing like an arse with six legs, you could call that an antisocial style, but I may not think they even have a style - they might, or they might not, it's probably hard to tell - I just think they danced selfishly and rudely, and looked like a pair of halfwits. Calling it a 'style' seems like making an excuse.

But if you are trying to persuade someone to improve their dancing by not kicking people so much, one possible way around resistance is to present it as exploration of a new 'style' rather than an improvement in quality. It's a useful lie, a polite lie, and perhaps it's a necessary lie. It really, really does help sometimes. But it's a way of avoiding saying that they're incompetent at the thing they think they're doing, namely social dancing.

As for grouping techniques together and labelling them as style, well, I think that if we really want to talk about technique, we're better off just doing it directly. If I say that someone leads with the point of his shoulder, is a bit tippy, and has no embrace, or if I say someone else has a grip of death and poor balance, leads vaguely, and wrestles the woman around turns, I'm saying they are hard to dance with, not that I don't like their respective styles.

The most these things have to do with style is that you'll tend to catch one disease rather than another depending on what you've unsuccessfully attempted to learn, how, and who from. They are technical issues. Actually having a style in any meaningful way is not something that comes into the picture until after these issues have been fixed.

I have stood in the middle of a conversation in which my partner and the partner of the lady behind me really did start taking the piss out of each other about style, or at least about musical interpretation. But that kind of thing doesn't happen a lot.

There's style, there's branding, and there's quality. They all mean something, they're related, they quite often stand in for each other, especially when we talk about them. But they're not, in my view, the same.

[Edit: some obscure and unexpected interaction between my drafts file and Blogger has bumped this post down to a few weeks before I actually posted it ... fixing]


LimerickTango said...

[Oblique comment]

There exists a little book entitled "Things a man should know about style".

On the second last page it reads:
"If you are a tango professional, man, what on earth do you need our help for?

If you are a tango professional, please donate this book to someone less well-endowed in the style department."

ghost said...

"Overall, they definitely tend to share certain techniques and habits, "

Providing it's not a nightmare to put into text, what are these?

Terpsichoral said...

MsHedgehog, it's interesting what you say about style. I have noticed that in Buenos Aires, people see tango as a tradition and leaders are happy to identify with a particular style of tango: whether it be milonguero, salon or tango nuevo. But in Europe people are very resistant to having their dancing labelled as being part of a particular style, even though, to my eyes, the European dancers can be grouped easily into the three main categories of milonguero, salon and nuevo -- just as easily as the Argentines can. Of course, I am talking about competent dancers here. Not dissociating, or pushing and pulling with your arms, or hunching over the woman, or kicking other people are not styles -- they are just bad dancing.

You might find it interesting to compare my views on this with yours. I'd love to hear your feedback. I write about the three styles here: and about European attitudes towards this question in the first half of this post:

I don't believe that being part of a style is necessarily something that stifles creativity. I see a lot of wonderfully creative dancing within all three stylistic tendencies. On the contrary, I think creativity thrives on restrictions (think of sonnet form, for example, and Shakespeare's wonderful sonnets which gain, not lose, from the constraints of the genre). And I think it is important to have a coherent dance and not just do a little bit of everything, but nothing very well.

Terpsichoral said...

As far as enrosques, in particular, are concerned, I don't think they are something you "do". The leader in the centre of a giro needs to turn in a dissociated way, of course, with the upper body turning first and the feet pivoting afterwards. Enrosques and planeos and two natural things that happen with the legs when you initiate a turn in the upper body and allow action in the legs and feet to be delayed.

There's a little exercise that demonstrates this. It's not tango as such. I'll do my best to describe it. Bear with me. Stand with feet apart and legs relaxed. Transfering your weight to your right foot, twist your upper body round to your right. Keep your legs where they are with the feet facing forward till the very last moment and leave them completely relaxed and floppy. Turn 180 degrees with your upper body. At some point, your feet will naturally start to turn and, if your legs are relaxed, you will end up with the left leg crossed behind the right leg. Keep turning. If your left leg is still totally relaxed, with all your weight on your right, you'll find the left foot starts sliding in towards the centre until you end up with both feet under you and the left foot tucked behind the right, in a position similar to cross. That's where the enrosque comes from. It's a natural thing that happens to your feet in a dissociated turn. It's not a decoration, it's taking something that is natural for the body and using it to make an elegant movement in tango.

msHedgehog said...

@Terpichoral: People identify very happily and regularly with those 'styles' in Europe, as well. But in practice, I think any meaning that has is overwhelmed by the other senses of 'style'.

It's a matter of scale. If you have really large numbers of good dancers in the same place and everybody has more or less the same understanding of what constitutes good dancing, that's a very different situation, in which you can more fruitfully talk about style in the sense that you mean. Here, it's not at all the case.

Good dancers don't have any problem developing coherent styles. That's part of what it means to dance well - you don't just thrash about at random. And you would have no problem at all classifying the good dancers in your own way if you wanted to.

Yeah, you can certainly do that as a natural movement. Or you can do it as an add-on that you think you have to do when you're nowhere close to being able to accomplish it physically in context, which is much more common. In that case I think it's better to get on with sorting out your technique.

msHedgehog said...

Also, I don't think that I said anything about style stifling creativity. I would say that style is the result of successful creativity within some preexisting context. Unless you're talking about samey brand-name performances. But that's not really what I think of as style.

Terpsichoral said...

Ms Hedgehog, I didn't mean to imply you did say something about style stifling creativity. It was more of a general musing on my part. Since I'm visiting from Buenos Aires at the moment, I naturally spend a fair amount of time thinking about the differences between tango as it is danced there and here in London.

msHedgehog said...

@Terpsichoral - I see what you mean now, having looked at your post about your adventures in Dublin.

I don't think these 'nuevo', 'salon', 'milonguero' notions are altogether meaningless, that's the kind of thing I mean when I talk about thinking of people's dance as belonging to various overlapping but somewhat distinct 'families'.

I just feel that when discussing such things, we often go too far in that direction, trying to classify things in a very artificial and arbitrary way that has little relation to real life. So I wanted to write a post that went in the opposite direction. :)

Terpsichoral said...

Ah, I see. Fair enough. Whereas I was struck by people's reluctant to categorise, having just come from BA, where everyone is keen to belong to a particular 'style'.