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.


Roberto said...

Someone follows the knowlege in itself, and someone looks for knowledge as a mean to pursue some purpose.
In a working context you can learn only the technical skills needed to do your job.
Or you can learn sophisticated technical/soft skills needed to achieve quality and full customer satisfaction.
But if you want to act as a high-level professional, able to do his job and satisfy his customer even under the worst circumstances, you need to develop HIGHER technical skills.
Social dancers are NOT showmen but it does not mean that they do not need that much technical skills. They need it for a different purpose.
Technical skills are not used a mean to impress the audience, they are used as a mean to pursue the armony on the dancefloor as a whole.

msHedgehog said...

Roberto: you are correct, people pursue knowledge for more than one reason.

Personal motivations are very individual, and one of the most important components of that is who, exactly, you are trying to impress; yourself, or someone else, and the priorities of that someone. But the end the question is the same for every person; "how good - at whatever it is - do you *want* to be? And how much do you want that?".

You don't need to be very good at something if none of the people you are trying to impress knows what it is. Whether or not that includes yourself. It takes personal interest to get beyond that.

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