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.