Saturday, 26 January 2008

What you need to know for your first milonga - follower

Ricky and Supantheress have written a very nice guide to what a beginner follower should aim for to be nice to dance with. This post is a bit different - less about what the leader is looking for and more about what the follower needs to know for herself.

For my first milonga, this was what I needed to know:

  1. How to walk backwards with my feet in a straight line so I didn't go from side to side. (That took a bit of work - but practising it forwards works, and practising walking down the stairs without looking works really well).
  2. If my foot met his foot, to make contact and then step over (assuming the lead is going that way, sometimes it doesn't but they still want you to do this - let them sort that out).
  3. How to just stand there and look puzzled when I didn't understand what to do. This is difficult, it takes determination. But any other action is counterproductive. You move together or not at all. Give him a chance to make it clearer.
  4. The way to get danced with is to stand near the edge of the dance floor, smile, and fidget slightly in time to the music. At least, this was the first thing I tried, it worked, and it still does.
  5. What to wear. I think that deserves a seperate post, but anything nice you can move in will do, and nothing that can catch on his clothing.
  6. Not to rush. (This is a hard one).
  7. Not to talk. You need the concentration, and so does he.
  8. Not to apologise. It just drives everybody round the bend. If you find this one tricky, decide in advance that when you feel the urge to say "sorry", you will giggle instead.
  9. Not to say "thank you" until he does, or the end of the set. This is very difficult and takes even more concentration than standing still, because you're genuinely grateful to be danced with, it's a completely natural thing to say in the pauses between tracks, and it just seems wrong and impossible not to say it. But it has a special meaning in this context which is not what you have in mind at all. So here's a technique: allow your mouth to open, then say something else instead. It doesn't matter how inane - prepare something in advance. Try "what a nice piece of music that is," or "Isn't it hot?" It worked for me.

Some of this I had been told, some of it I rapidly worked out for myself, and happily someone managed to communicate (2) in two words during the dancing, and I went "oh!" and it all made sense. So you can afford to wing it a bit.

You should actively avoid learning or remembering any sequences. It will only confuse you, and if it makes you anticipate it will confuse the leaders even more. Tango is an improvised dance and you cannot make any assumptions at all about what's going to happen next. (Of course, that's more true with some leaders than others, and if you get to dance with someone of whom it's really true, dance with him as often as you possibly can). If in doubt, just stand there and don't change weight. If someone seems to expect you to remember a sequence, ignore him. And it doesn't matter if you never dance with him again. You have identified a wally.

Useful supplementary information includes:

  1. Lechers have an incentive to work hard on their dancing, and are always kind and very useful to the learner. They will politely lose interest when they conclude that they are not going to get into your knickers, but this does not matter, since by that time you will be getting other dances too. They are perfectly harmless, and the contents of their imaginations are Not Your Problem.
  2. If you think a man is making strange faces at you and you are wondering why, it's possible he is inviting you to dance. Try smiling at him, and if he intended to ask you, he will wander over and look at you sideways. At this point, stand up, and he will offer you his hand. Off you go; no common language required. Very few men do this where I dance in London, but those who do are usually good dancers, so go for it. It's traditional. Don't question it or worry about it for now. And it's unlikely to happen at your first milonga unless the man is your teacher or someone else you already know.
  3. It's going to be stressful and someone will try to teach you on the dance floor. Just smile and pretend you can't hear what he's saying over the music. Promise yourself that you will never, ever, do that to anyone. Wear reliable waterproof mascara, in case it gets you down.

But mainly, just do the best you can to relax and concentrate. Following is quite demanding cognitively and uses up a surprising amount of energy. Remember that you're trying to feel it, not infer it, and that means you have to be willing to be wrong and not worry about it. It could be anything, and you're not psychic, so for all you know, it was what he meant after all. But this is all harder than it sounds, and you will probably not be able to do it at first unless they keep it simple, and not all leaders have enough imagination and confidence to be able to keep it simple. So don't get annoyed with yourself.

Oh yes, and you don't need to worry about your handbag. You can just leave it on a table, it's a small world, people are there to dance, and the chances of anyone touching it are exceedingly remote. But it's a good idea to take a very small one - you only need your keys, your train ticket home, and the money to get in and for one or two drinks.

My very, very first social dance was a milonga (in the musical sense, i.e. really fast!) - I just jumped right in at the deep end, there. Even when you've got the skills, there's a lot to be said for only dancing milonga with leaders who have a clue, and he didn't - he expected me to know a pattern and his lead was totally unclear. I was awful, but I survived it and decided not to regret displeasing him, and then I had some really good dances and a fool who thought it was OK to stop dead on the dance floor and try to lecture me.

It was hard, but I was glad I'd gone, it's exciting, and it steadily gets easier. But it stays exciting. And when it works, it feels fabulous.


Anonymous said...

Agree with your point about not panicking and hyperactively trying to catch up or making things up when you, the follower, doesn't understand the lead or is unfamiliar with a movement.

Best thing to do is to stand still, keep your weight on one foot, remain elegant and enjoy the pause ... before moving on! As if nothing happened ...

Anonymous said...

I just discovered tango and I absolutely love-luv-luuuuv it. So much that I attend 2 classes and 1 practica a week (and I would do more, but you know, life etc. ;-).
I already knew that I am not generally a relaxed girl, but tango is particularly revealing of that aspect.
Since I really love dancing tango (did I say that already?;-0), I was wondering: do you know of any trick to help relax your body, a way of breathing, concentrating...?
Thank you for the help - and by the way, that you for this very useful post on what you need for your 1st milonga!

Psyche said...

Hey Tassili! I'm not MsHedgehog, obviously, but the whole relaxation/concentration thing is something I've spent a lot of time working on, so I could share some things that I find helpful, if Ms Hedgehog doesn't mind?

Physically relaxing is helpful - check your body for tension and consciously relax any areas that are tense. The shoulders are a big one for me - make a point of relaxing them. Another area that often holds a lot of tension is the jaw and tongue. I find that just relaxing that area makes my whole body more relaxed. Breathing is good too - your outbreath is already a kind of relaxation, so you can use it to let tension go throughout your body.

Follower's mind is very zen, part concentration and part relaxation, and it's a bit like those magic eye pictures - you can't will yourself into it, you have to relax and let it come. To encourage this I find it helpful to direct my attention towards 'right brain' (as opposed to 'left brain') things - for example, the music. Focusing on the music helps me. Or bringing your attention to the space between your chest and your partner's. Or feeling the floor under your feet, and how it supports you - remembering to relax into your heels can be helpful, because often in tango we think we should always be on our toes, and that can make us tense and wobbly. Or your own axis, the way your head is balanced on your chest and your chest is balanced on your hips, with your hips heavy and grounded and your chest and head upright and upward.

Anyway, I hope some of that waffle was helpful.

msHedgehog said...

I think Psyche's advice is great. I especially agree with starting relaxation at the head. If you can relax your neck, the rest of your spine can get straight and comfortable as well.

And focusing on the music.
But I would personally recommend dropping one of the classes for a few weeks if necessary and diverting the money saved to five or six classes of Alexander Technique. If you are habitually tense, it really helps to have someone observe you, give you feedback, and teach you some simple techniques to use your body well. It is essentially what Psyche said - studying how your head is balanced on your spine, your spine is balanced on your hips, and so on, and which muscles you actually need to use to stand, walk, and sit, and which you don't. If you speak to an Alexander instructor about why you are there, they are likely to be extra helpful, but they'll cover what you need anyway and give you ways of being able to find a relaxed, upright posture. It saved me a lot of time and effort.

Anonymous said...

great advice from psche

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your advices combined, Psyche, mshedgehog!
What I find particularly difficult is to find a good balance between being relaxed, maintaing a "core" and providing enough "resistance" so that the leader can do his job. That is for the moment almost impossible for me to do the 3 things at the same time!
I will check for Alexander technique, never heard of it? I don't know where you guys live, I am in Montreal.

msHedgehog said...

Yes, it's difficult, especially if you work in an office all day. And it's not easy to teach, either - it's pretty much impossible to say anything really useful on this subject unless you know some anatomy, which you wouldn't normally expect from a dance teacher.

I remember being told that I should aim to be "upright and comfortable, in a totally natural position," and thinking "A totally natural position, in high heels? That's plain nonsense."

"Upright and comfortable" is also not a lot of help when you work in an office all day. As advice, it's more or less useless. What does it mean you should do with your body, specifically?

I had a lot of problems with my right hand at first. Then I got a massage and had one really good night with a completely pain-free right arm and shoulder, and never looked back. It still collapsed occasionally, but it got less and less frequent and it doesn't happen now unless I'm really tired or I get distracted. It wasn't expensive, and I think it's worth a try.