Friday 28 March 2008

Cars & Drivers

A few of you might enjoy this thread on a Scottish dance discussion board: Driven Wild or To Distraction

It's three years old and they're talking mainly about Ceroc and West Coast Jive, so don't leap in there with tango. But I think it's funny. So what sort of driver, or car, are you?

I thought of the same metaphor myself right near the beginning and quickly realised that although my partner may be steering, I am not just the car but, crucially, the aerodynamicist, all the mechanics, project leader and race engineer. So I put my mind to how to be well balanced and put the power in the right places.

One of my teachers actually used to drive racing cars, long ago, and dancing with him is very curious; there seems to be more time at the edges than there is with other people. He was teaching a milonga class and he could get me to do a whole string of ochos at milonga speed, and suddenly, in the middle, there was a double-time. I couldn't deliver this with anyone else - it was always too late by the time I thought "oops, that was a double-time, too late now". With him it had already gone from his mind to my feet by the time I thought "What was that?" Absolutely no intervention by me. It's slightly disconcerting, but it's very impressive.

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Make Me Invisible, Please

I was just in a conversation at Johanna's about how exactly you say 'no thanks' to people you just don't want to dance with because they're not fun. There is lots of good advice, some even quite realistic, but the consensus is that what we really need is the Klingon Cloaking Device, or something like it.

Is there potential for miniaturising the Ministry of Defence Invisible Shed? (Article includes photographer's impression of how the shed might look in action).

May I point out that a portable 'device' would painlessly solve the delusional dancer problem without the need for explicit conflict, of which women are generally wary. There is the problem of creeping up on people, but as long as we all have one it doesn't seem too bad.

I did, indeed, once bob right down and crouch behind two chairs at an outdoor festival, keeping very still and thinking invisible thoughts, and hiding from someone who sticks his bottom out, wiggles his arms, rubs his feet on your tights as though he'd found a nice, scratchy tree, and generally makes me go "Ewwwww". It cost me at least an extra half hour of waiting in the cold for a dance, too. I don't know which is more ridiculous, the thought of him wondering where I'd gone, or the thought of him looking at the top of my head and deciding to leave it. Anyway, it was undignified, but it worked.

In my view, research should concentrate on the bracelet-borne, on-demand, Somebody Else's Problem Field. If it could hide an upside-down Italian restaurant full of murderous alien robots in the middle of Lord's during a Test match, surely hiding a hedgehog who asks no more than a pile of warm leaves cannot be too hard. So much more useful than an iPod, which just hides everyone else.

dancetango @ Vino Latino's

Langham Court HotelUPDATE 10-July-2011: This milonga has been CANCELLED until further notice due to the venue being refurbished.

Where and When: Every Tuesday at Vino Latino's Wine Bar, downstairs at the Langham Court Hotel, Langham Street, just north of Oxford Circus. [Update 27-Jul-08: added picture.]

The Class: I skipped the class but I've taken it before. Nikki does good basic stuff with a focus on technique. Her teaching style is noisy-but-sound.

What I thought of the DJing: Nice, mildly unusual. A lot of candombe on this particular evening, which I like although not many people know how to dance to it. Roughly four-track sets, no cortinas.

Layout, Atmosphere, Floorcraft: A small, curious underground room with a bar at one side. Two-thirds of the floor is wooden and the other third tiled. They are partly divided by a huge, awkward square pillar to the left of centre, which makes it very tricky to form a sensible line of dance. The bar is not seperate, so you can trip over people socialising and trying to get served. It's also very easy for a couple, or even one person, to block the passage around the pillar. It wasn't crowded, though, so it was manageable and floorcraft was not a major problem. There is a long room off to the side where you can hide your bag, and hang your coat up, and even change your shoes if you prefer not to do that at the side of the dance floor. Plenty of comfortable chairs, pleasant and friendly atmosphere, although too many people concentrating at the bar can start to intrude on the dancing.

Hospitality and Refreshments: Fine. Bar with all kinds of drinks, reasonably priced for the location. The loos were working, supplied, and reasonably clean except for a far-too-small bin, and the taps worked properly.

Website: has recently been prettied up and includes where, when, how much, and contact email, all very easy to find, unless perhaps you turn off images.

Getting in: £8 class and milonga, £4 milonga only.

Getting there and Getting Home: From Oxford Circus, walk up Great Portland or Great Titchfield Street until you reach Langham street. The Langham Court Hotel is the building brilliantly clad in black-and-white tiles, as though it were dressed up for the races in 1901. Go in by the central entrance, and straight down the stairs in front of you. Five minutes from Oxford Circus, and closes at 23:00, so getting home is not a problem.

How it went: Quite a few good dancers turned up for a short stint, and one or two recent beginners were having a pleasant time. I did OK. [Edit: Going more often lately, I've had consistently really nice evenings here, with good dancing, and nice chats with others when sitting. Recently I chatted to a lady from Philadelphia - wearing Tara shoes - who was in London for a few days on business. She had come to Vino Latino's alone, and had a nice time and good dancing.]

DJ Gilda

At the Crypt on Saturday - a DanceTango night - they had Jill Barrett ('DJ Gilda' - try getting a native Spanish speaker to pronounce 'Jill') doing the music. I really enjoyed it, I thought it was good music, intelligently put together. The vaguely reggae cortinas did the job and I even quite liked them. She sometimes DJs and gives classes at the Welsh Centre.

I spoke to her at another dance later in the week and she said she'd put a lot of thought into it and to please tell Nikki I liked it (I already had). I got the impression she'd like to do it more so if you were there and you liked it as well, why not say so.

Sunday 23 March 2008

On Liquidity and Solvency

This video is Professor Paul Krugman, of the Princeton Economics Department, talking for an hour about housing bubbles, liquidity, and solvency in the banking system. It's out of date, because it was posted before Christmas, on 14th December last year, but he doesn't say anything that isn't still true. It's just that things have moved on a bit since then. You might also know him from his columns and blog in the New York Times, which will bring you up to date.

Watch it for the sheer pleasure of sitting quietly for an hour and listening to a person who deeply understands what he is talking about, and is very, very good at explaining it, talking about something interesting and important.

I can't think what animal it is that Krugman reminds me of. Something with a hairy face and a slightly rolling gait, that looks up at you with curious eyes. Perhaps a badger.

Friday 21 March 2008

Spem in Alium

If you have been trying out the "playlist" widget [Edit: now here] down on the right hand side of this blog, you will have found that it mostly plays tangos I like.

However, sometimes it plays something else I like. I am not quite sure how it decides what order to play the playlist in, but if you are really lucky it may play you something completely different - the Tallis Scholars singing Spem in Alium.

This is not my favourite recording of this piece. I prefer the Clerkes of Oxenforde, who sing it higher, faster, and rather less securely; I think that Spem in Alium should be exciting, and a feeling of total security slightly defeats the point.

There are several competing legends about this composition. There's no evidence for any of them, really, and my favourite, which I'll get to, is probably completely made up. It's sometimes said to have been written for the 40th birthday of queen Elizabeth I, but I find the theory that it was written for her elder sister, Mary I, more plausible. Or it may have been written simply because someone else, an Italian, had written a forty-part motet, and the Duke of Norfolk asked whether an Englishman could write anything as good. We know it was written by Thomas Tallis, and you can look up his career, but that's about it.

It's written for forty voices; eight, five-part choirs. If you have the score in front of you, you can see that it makes sense for them to stand in a semicircle or horseshoe shape. The way the music flows down the page tells you that choir 1 stands on one side of the room and choir 8 on the other, with the others in between in order. You might put little gaps in to emphasise some things. You could do it differently, but it would make no sense.

It starts with one voice.

Spem in alium ...

The voices come in one by one, and then the second choir, one by one.

Spem in alium nunquam habui ...
Hope in no other have I had ...

The other voices come in, one voice at a time, working across the room and down the page. You need a strong one just here:

Praeter in te, Deus Israel ...
Save in you, God of Israel ...

This continues until there are forty, each in its own part.

Praeter in te!

After a moment, the music starts back across the room.

Qui irasceris, et propitius eris ...
Who will be angry, and again gracious ...

As it gets there, a tree breaks into blossom.

Et omnia peccata hominem ...
And all the sins of man ...

A fountain dances, a trumpet sounds ...

In tribulatione dimittis ...
In trouble, will forgive ...

The choirs take turns, calling and responding, some are silent, some sing softly ...

In tribulatione dimittis ...

They dance a stately figure.

Domine Deus, Domine Deus ...
Lord God ...

Turning and crossing and courtseying, they answer one another ...

Creator coeli et terrae!
Creator of heaven and earth!

There is a little, tiny pause.


In forty parts, it's spooky.

The wave streams gradually away ...

humilitatem nostram ...
upon our lowliness ...



You can hear the beat now, a great heart-beat of forty voices, every one seperate and every one dancing its own dance and a dance together, fountains twinkling, fireworks glittering in the sky ...
Respice humilitatem nostram!

And the Duke of Norfolk, in the Long Gallery at Arundel, takes the great gold chain from his own neck and puts it around the bowed head of Mr. Tallis.

I like that legend.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

Public Funding for Dance Lessons?

The BBC News website reports that a fairly small pot of public money (£5.5m) may be made available to encourage the young to dance. They don't say how, so it's not clear whether there will be grants to pay for a few lessons here and there, or just a really expensive publicity campaign.

I'm right behind that in principle, but I expect the attitude will be (as it is in that article) to treat dancing as just another sport — "Extra centres for advanced training will also be set up to support exceptionally gifted young dancers." There's nothing wrong with making the most of the gifted, but I think taking that attitude too exclusively could be a mistake. It sounds like something that would take up a very large share of the funds, and you would probably get more value out of teaching it as an alternative to sport, as a social activity, an encouragement to likeable behaviour, and also an approach to musical education and self-expression that isn't quite the same as singing or playing an instrument. I don't really feel that this is arts funding, either — dancing is not necessarily a performance for an audience. It's nice to watch good dancers dance, but social dancing is also complete and satisfying for someone who's not even faintly interested in performing or competition.

They also say that dance "is the second most popular school activity after football," but they don't say how far behind it is, how popular football is, or what they mean by "popular", so that sentence is much less interesting than it looks.

Public support for dancing is not a new idea, and wasn't in 1747 when the City Council of Aberdeen employed a dancing-master, the interesting Mr. Francis Peacock, who I blogged about before. I'll quote again from Mr. Peacock's book:

I may here observe, that there cannot be a greater proof of the utility of Dancing, than its being so universally adopted, as a material circumstance in the education of the youth of both sexes, in every civilised country. Its tendency to form their manners, and to render them agreeable, as well in public as in private; the graceful and elegant ease which it gives to the generality of those who practice it with attention, are apparent to everyone of true discernment.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

18th-Century Bluestockings

Last week I went to "Brilliant Women - 18th Century Bluestockings" at the National Portrait Gallery. There aren't many works of great artistic merit in the main part of the exhibition itself, but it tells an interesting story with some fascinating supplementary materials.

It includes a photographic work commissioned specially for the exhibition, depicting notable women in various professions. That's worth some time. From the nearby rooms, not part of this show, I took away the puzzling question of how many Judi Denches one gallery needs.

What really made my day was the possibly-Japanese young lady working in the cloakroom who had passed some quiet time turning used tickets into tiny, tiny, teeny little origami cranes.

AtchOOOoo and Wool Cotton 1

TCHOoo! I've got a horrible cold. I'm so happy that I can knit. I had to go and see a doctor about something else (not my cold) yesterday, and there's nothing better when you are waiting for doctors to catch up with their appointments schedule. Reading makes makes me anxious that I'll miss my name being called, but knitting doesn't occupy the language circuits.

I'm making a skirt in Rowan Wool Cotton. The pattern is my own design, so it may well turn out badly. That's the trouble with designing for yourself. I think it makes sense, and the shape is working as intended, but I could easily get to the end and find that it just doesn't look good.

I have a simple black bias-cut skirt that I wear to the office and use a lot for dancing. The aim of this design is to make a similar shape, but with some details that make it look interesting from the back. The fact that it's knitted makes it stretchy, the 50% cotton gives it a nice drape, and the 50% wool gives it a little bit of lightness and bounce that cotton can't deliver. The skirt is worked from the waist down. The problem with knitted skirts in general is that they sag around the hips. My current plan is to include several rows of eyelets at that level, through which I will thread a ribbon or a cord in a contrasting colour. If I get it right, the result should be reasonable structural integrity, plus horizontal stripes that work well for tango, plus the option of changing the stripes to go with the outfit.

Here is my provisional chart to give you the general idea if you're interested. Key below.

Thursday 13 March 2008

Tara Tango Shoes 2

Well, it seems Tara Tango Shoes have not, after all, gone out of business, and my order via Diva Boutique arrived today.

I absolutely love the way they look. I love the suede texture, the shape, the rhinestone buckle, and the platform, and I adore the little black frills. The heels are fully covered with the black suede, which is beautiful stuff. They came with a rather nice pale green satin shoe bag.

It seems that US sizing is very narrow. They say on the Tara website (which doesn't answer its email - Diva does) that Tara shoes are wider than usual, and when I gave the measurements of my feet and some of my shoes, Katherine at Diva Boutique advised me, correctly I think, to order a 7½ because it was the same length as the 7 but wider. Trying them on, I think they'll be OK with Party Feet, and the heel pads and heel grips from the same range as well, but I won't really know until I dance in them. The sideways fit is good and comfortable. I probably would have tried a 6½ first if I hadn't had advice, and those would certainly have pinched. Ask before you order. It's probably better for my feet to wear a little too big rather than too small, as long as they don't rub, and I think I may be able to prevent that.

They're not quite as well held on as I prefer for dancing, but that's probably just a consequence of ankle straps instead of a t-bar together with being a little bit too long. The ankle straps feel strange - I haven't tried them before. I think the answer to that is probably to do it up tight, get used to the strap around the joint, and let it stretch a little. There's also the option of removing the strap and using a ribbon, but I don't really want to do that yet.

The soles are extremely slippery - I can do ochos on carpet, and if I'm not very careful when I extend my leg I could easily go flying - but the heel tips are ordinary plastic, and catch. I think I should test these in a class before wearing them anywhere with a slippery floor, like the Welsh Centre for instance. Whether I'm actually going to do that is another matter.

The sole does not feel flexible and does not come with me as I point or flex my foot. However, the platform part does bend if I stand on tiptoe. Maybe they will flex more with wear. I can easily slip a finger between my arch and the arch of the shoe, but I think they are just about in contact when standing.

Fifteen minutes doing forward-side-back-side round a chair in different directions (something I ought to do more often - it's remarkable how badly I start and how quickly it gets better) suggests to me that they're probably better for dancing than they are for walking around, but I should be really careful about heeling myself because the platform means the heels are longer than I think they are. And I heel myself all the time anyway, and constantly have bruises on my instep.

The total cost including shipping amounted to £113.89, which is £20-£40 more than I would normally have spent on a dancing shoe. However, they have features I particularly like, such as the design and the platform, and I can see there's a tradeoff between the platform and flexibility. If I'd been over in the States and tried these on, I might or might not actually have bought them at the price, since the sizing doesn't suit me particularly well. However, I've got them now, I love the way they look, I don't think they're the wrong size, and they're definitely not going back. I'll see how they go.

Saturday 8 March 2008

Dance Failure

Here is a discussion thread about Dance Failure.

Sometimes I have a night when my nervous sytem just does not work very well. Dancing any kind of dance requires a lot of coordination and concentration, and sometimes I haven't got as much to spare.

The better I am, the better my bad nights will be. Even when I have a wobbly night I still dance better, or at least no worse, than I did six months ago. Even if I am not improving that much, more practice and experience makes me more consistent, so I lose less on a bad day and even if I feel awful no one else may notice.

I dance much better when I am happy. I can relax and go with the flow and decide that Everything Is Going to Be OK. And you need to be able to do that in tango, often in the face of quite strong evidence to the contrary.

It can be affected by the time of the month. There is an energy cost to ignoring that little voice of the illiterate peasant great-grandmother inside who would never be satisfied if you were a billionairess and got the Nobel Peace Prize - when another egg is wasted, she just stares at you and weeps. It takes a lot to drown her out.

I just accept it. Sometimes I have a rest and do something else, and sometimes I just drink as much coffee and eat as much chocolate as I need to get me out of the house, and go anyway, because it's better than moping.

I don't really like most aftershave smells. Why isn't there a scent for men that smells like chocolate? Proper chocolate, not like a Mars bar, that would just be vulgar.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Traffic Jams

While I'm feeling scientific, I'd love to compare this - below - with a video of a dance floor. I don't see why you couldn't do exactly the same experiment.

Would the traffic jams - if any - follow a similar mathematical rule? Specifically, would they propagate backwards at two-thirds of the average speed the dancers go at when there's no traffic?

A Paper

Alex has directed my attention to this paper:

Individualistic networks and networking individuals in Tango Argentino
Céline Kuttler and Ralf Blossey
Interdisciplinary Research Institute, c/o IEMN, Cité Scientifique - Avenue Poincaré BP69, F-59652 Villeneuve d’Ascq, France

The abstract reads:
We have performed a simulation study of the social network arising from dancing partner selection in Tango Argentino. Tango Argentino is a famous ‘intellectual’ dance which combines individualistic behaviour with consensual social rules, generating complex patterns of network behaviour in time. We quantify these patterns by time-dependent degree distributions and clustering coefficients for the network structure, and by monitoring the evolution of the individual dancers’ skill. In particular, we have investigated how successful new dancers are in entering the network under the promotion of established network members. Our approach allows us to predict the success of mentoring in a social network.

As far as I can tell from reading the thing, that means that they created a computer program which looks a bit like a milonga in Germany. After reading the document in full twice, it is completely unclear to me whether any of the model's predictions turned out to be accurate in the real world, or how you could possibly tell - or even whether the researchers considered that question relevant. Some of their assumptions seem plausible, others pretty bizarre, but it's somewhat interesting that they don't mention teachers at all.

I may be wrong, but I am pretty certain this is a paper about computer programming rather than tango. The tango just provides some data for it to play with.

But there are some interesting and amusing things to think about in there.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Miguel Angel Zotto at Tango in Action and Union Chapel Studio

Miguel Angel Zotto comes to London once a year and does this show about argentine tango. I didn't go, but a colleague of mine did. He enjoyed the dancing and even the history, but was deeply impressed by the suits and hats.

I was sufficiently curious to book myself into one of the workshops with Miguel organised by Stefano and Alexandra of Tango In Action. It was billed as a general-level class about vals, so I took along a friend (leading) who wanted some of that.

Well - live, he looks a lot more human and not nearly so desperately worried as he does in the show stills. He has a lot of presence and gives the impression of being a pleasant person with a passion for his subject and real desire that you should learn about it too.

I thought the class was intelligent, well thought out, and very useful to the social dancer. He doesn't really speak any English, which adds to the fun. [Edit: I was later told by people who have met him before that he can speak English well if he chooses, but on this occasion apparently he preferred not to.] Stefano interpreted most of it, but my smattering of relevant Spanish was quite useful. I was surprised how much I understood. It must be a like that at football clubs - given the common subject, fluency is far from crucial.

It started with some general advice about vals - dancing on the 'one', not trying to dance all three beats, and avoiding forward ochos because the pivot needed is to great and takes too much time. Then it was in three parts - an elegant turn with or without a sacada, a walking pattern using some linear back ochos and a cross, and then what I call a holding pattern, useful in heavy traffic. Taken together they added up to a really handy vals kit for the social dancer, plus some sensible advice. And all in an hour and a half - a very professional product. Not everyone there was equipped to take advantage of it, but most could get at least something.

My companion said the explanations were confusing because he kept changing things half way through, but it helped that they split the man's and woman's steps up. It makes it easier to see what's going on. I often have my doubts about that because sometimes it can give the followers the wrong idea, but I agree that it really helps visual comprehension. I was interested to find that the holding pattern was for most people the trickiest to get right. It only consisted of a long step and then three rapid weight changes, repeated in various directions; I think it would be a good practice exercise. Nobody I danced with got it exactly.

The main digression was a brief and businesslike talk about line of dance, when it became clear that some were strangers to the notion. But there was also a more interesting digression about history in which he suddenly said that the forward ocho was invented before the backward ocho. That surprised me, as it's quite difficult to avoid inventing the backward ocho accidentally in your first week of tango, but then he did a little demo resembling Canyengue, and I realised that if you invented tango by starting from something a lot more like Canyengue, which is what seems to have actually happened, a forward ocho would, indeed, present itself first. It wasn't directly relevant but it was very interesting, and he obviously loves to communicate this stuff.

I also went to the milonga in his honour on Sunday at the Union Chapel Studio. The floor there is extremely sticky, so if you ever go to the same place take a bottle of talc with you. It's very hard to pivot without wrenching your knees. Also, to get to the studio you have to walk round the back of the chapel to the left, and it's the first door on the right. They don't tell you that.

The first performance was a show by some students of Stefano and Alexandra, and was as enjoyable as amateur dramatics generally are. The second was by Stefano and Alexandra themselves, and I remember nothing of it except that part of her dress fell off and was picked up and flung in the Zotto direction by Stefano at the end*. And then later on Miguel Angel gave a performance with the same young lady he'd been teaching with. She was twenty, and very sweet and appealing, and she had endeared herself to me in the class by making the universal gesture for "please wait, I'm dizzy" after an energetic demonstration.

The performance was perfectly calculated for performers and audience. He excels at a very fast, balletic style which is not my personal favourite but is along the same lines as Stefano and Alexandra's, so it was certain to appeal to their students and fans. I thought it was an extremely professional, technically brilliant, committed performance. Afterwards he gave an emotional speech, interpreted again by Stefano, saying that performers live on applause, London was always good but this year had been better than ever, and that his partner (whose name, sadly, I did not catch) [Edit: Daiana Guspero] had a great future. Very nice.

You can see plenty of Miguel Angel on Youtube, dancing in more than one style - for example here (Gallo Ciego @ Salon Canning) and, in the stage style but with his previous partner, here. It's interesting to compare his brother Osvaldo Zotto, who is here and here (Gallo Ciego again).

Overall, I thought Miguel Angel Zotto was a complete pro, which was exactly what you would expect, and although it did not challenge me or give me anything new as a follower, I think the class was very well worth the money for a social-dancing leader at the appropriate level. He is passionate about tango and wants you to learn. I was impressed to find that the virtuosity of his commercial performances does not interfere at all with the usefulness of his classes, and if I were leading I wouldn't hesitate to go again next time he is in town.

* Paging David Attenborough ... Will Sir David Attenborough please report to the Incident Room ... Thank you.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Stocking Problem - Solved

Girlie post: my order from Tights & More, as described in The Stocking Problem, turned up within the week and was complete and correct, so I'd use them again.

Sunday 2 March 2008

Follower floorcraft

Although Ricky says here that you need floorcraft to be an advanced dancer, I don't think he means that floorcraft is an advanced-dancer skill. I danced yesterday with a six-week beginner who had good floorcraft, and he's not the only one I've noticed. It's a very high-yield investment for the beginner leader, and deserves priority - I love you if you've got the balls to just walk and do rock-steps and navigate.

But there are things the follower can do to help in a crowded dance hall.

The one everyone always repeats is, on a crowded floor, keep your heels down. If the leader insists on leading boleos and puts in a lot of momentum, keeping them down does get awkward and tiring, especially if your free-leg technique is good enough for it to matter. Mine isn't, yet (I'm working on it) so it's not really an issue for me, but anyway just do the best you can. I have had the occasional frog-in-a-blender milonga where it was really physically difficult to control the momentum - but at least I was trying and no-one got hurt.

But you can help the leader as well. If I become aware that the leader is about to back into someone, or that someone is about to bump him from behind, I give a little warning pressure on his back with my left hand. In my experience it's always understood and appreciated (except by the hopelessly delusional, who ignore it) and saves a lot of accidents, even if only by giving him the chance to soften his stance and absorb the bump without getting hurt or losing the thread completely.

Or if, for example, the leader initiates a turn that I know we won't be able to complete because of something he can't see, I was also taught to make my step smaller so that when he does see the obstruction, we can still escape. You still follow, but you can use your common sense and you don't have to take the lead too literally if you can see it's going to get you both into trouble.

Obviously I can't do those things if I have my eyes shut, and I like to shut my eyes. But I don't shut my eyes with everybody or in all situations, and I don't shut them all the time. Some people take back steps a lot more than others. Some people have more experience than others. Sometimes the leader is great, but it's a hazardous room. And sometimes I know that there are other people on the floor who think they're Michael Schumacher driving a go-kart (they're not). Shut your eyes by all means when you feel safe, or when you know there's naff-all you can do, but use your judgement.