Wednesday 30 April 2008

Three Cheers

Hooray! I went out this evening and had a really nice evening. I'll be shattered tomorrow, is the only problem. I won't be able to go to sleep for at least another hour. But I feel like dancing again and I feel much more cheerful about myself and my dancing in several ways.

Something happened that will amuse people who know me. I roused on* someone who had inattentively broken a promise to me. With an exact description of what he had done, lively gestures, and feedback including a loud PING! like they do on game shows when you get the answer right, I induced him to emit the words "I'm sorry," and reasonable relations resumed. We had a nice dance, later.

The nice lady, a stranger, who I had been chatting to a moment before politely paid no attention to this exchange. But at the end of the evening, she approached me, and, referring to it, said:

"That was great. Straight for the jugular - it was beautiful."

I do something well.

*Can you say "rouse on" in American? I've never seen it written on the internet.

Sunday 27 April 2008

Adrian and Amanda Costa - Milonga

I'm trying to get myself back in the mood by watching some videos that make me want to dance. This one is nice for itself, very happy and very musical and full of interesting little details, but it also reminds me of something it took me longer to learn than it should have.

I did a workshop with this couple once, in Spring 2007. It was really good, and I did OK, but I was still a very recent beginner. Watching this clip I remembered that when he wanted to show me something, I wasn't sure what to do with my left hand in relation to his hairstyle. There's just so much of it, thick and glossy. I was standing there thinking "how can I possibly go under, and if I go over, how can I hold on?" Now I would know that it doesn't matter because you don't really use that hand to hold on. It just seems like it. When you're in close embrace you actually get the connection from your left underarm and the top of your torso being in contact with his right shoulder and chest. The hand isn't doing anything, you just drape it somewhere so it's comfortable and doesn't restrict him or put you off balance. I've even known it to be used for gently fending off overexcited competitors for the same piece of floor.

I also really like their tango at the same event, especially the way it starts, with a musical walk almost right round the floor. It's just a great way to start a tango.

Friday 25 April 2008

Pedro and his Mum

While I'm on my holiday from tango -

Pedro Almodovar helps his mother with her knitting.

Hat-tip to Tanguerita on Tangobaby's blog.

Sunday 20 April 2008

What to work on next

I try to improve my dancing one or two things at a time. It keeps me interested. I decide what they're going to be, based on my experiences dancing, and I change them as I go along. Here's what I'm working on now.


This week I am working on my attitude. This is an emergency diversion because I've had a dodgy few weeks. I planned to go out this evening, but just didn't want to. Most of the time, when that happens, I go anyway, and once I'm in the water's lovely. But I've been having this sinking feeling far too much lately. The outer corners of my eyes turn down in a very pitiful way when I'm sad or anxious, and that certainly doesn't help me get dances. So this week I've decided to have a rest, and see if that helps. It has before. It doesn't count towards my two things, but it's a priority because until it gets better I won't be able to fix anything else.


It works well for me and adapts to different shapes and sizes. I almost always succeed in getting and keeping a good connection. But I want to improve the way it feels for the leader, and the scope of what it allows me to do. I don't know exactly how to do this, but at the moment I'm trying a mental checklist when I start a dance, to make myself consistent. Then I'll have something to work on.

(Relax the) neck
(Relax the) shoulders
Breathe into the lower ribcage
Right elbow pointing down
Feel the floor
Ready to Go
That takes a few moments, so I'm struggling if the leader is one who just grabs you and zooms off without a moment to get set. It's bound to get faster as I practice it more. I think I should add "find the right position for my head" (it varies because it depends on the height of the man, whether he keeps his head straight, and whether he wears glasses). I'm not sure where it should go - probably at number 3.


I've got some little exercises for this. I found a book written by a lady who teaches belly dancing, and thought oooooh - these are just what I need, and not a huge bore like exercises usually are. I'm not stiff - but I want more physical freedom and control so I can express myself more. And they help with relaxing the shoulders, too. (No, gentlemen, you do not get to watch.)


I feel that there's something I should work on here, but I haven't quite decided what it is yet, so it's in the queue for when my attitude has improved. However, I think the belly-dancing exercises will apply to this as well.

Current self-assessment

I'm easy to lead and comfortable to dance with. I'm competent in quite a range of styles and can deal with almost all of what gets thrown at me in social dancing - including quite a lot of things that most people don't do, and give or take a couple of things I simply, sincerely, don't like. I'm fairly confident I have no serious bad habits. I'm naturally musical and respond well to musicality in the leader, at least when I'm feeling good and not anxious. But I'm not exactly exciting.

Observable Facts

Some good dancers seem to quite like me, they're asking me more often than they used to, and average dancers quite often say I'm really good.

Leandro Palou and Romina Godoy @ Crypt

Quick class review: I went along to this pre-milonga guest-class on Saturday because Leandro and Romina's one on Wednesdays has been recommended to me by several different people.

The class was very large - at least forty people - and of very mixed ability. They managed that well, with presence and management rather than shouting. It began with a warm-up in the form of a simple technique drill, walking forwards and backwards. Then they showed us a sequence which was not especially difficult, but was carefully thought out so that people at very different levels could all get something out of it. They added a bit of extra spice with a gancho, but emphasised that if you were not comfortable with the plain version you should not attempt the gancho; I think this is a good approach to the problem we were discussing here.

They sought questions and both responded to them well, answering the question that the person would have asked, had he or she already understood the answer.

Romina gave lots of time and attention to followers' technique, her advice was clear and useful, and she made sure that everyone got a good view of what she was doing. Her demonstrations with Leandro also included some ornaments that were a little different each time, but were not made into a distraction.

A lot of time was spent on the leader's and the follower's steps seperately. I know some leaders find this very helpful because it makes it easier to understand what is being demonstrated. It's also good for me as a technique and balance drill. But I always worry that this method can be taken the wrong way by some followers, who end up doing the same thing regardless of what is led. However, at different times both Leandro and Romina did spell out that you shouldn't do this. I have no reason to think that anyone did get the wrong idea.

I've heard good things about Leandro and Romina's teaching from many different sources. I thought this class was well pitched, well presented, well put together, and very professional, and I was told that the content and the presentation were typical of their regular classes. I wouldn't hesitate to take their Wednesday class, especially because of the attention to followers' technique. However, all the drills and repeated calesitas made the class quite tiring before a milonga, and I was glad to go home before my last train.

Their website is and you can see some didactic demos from their regular classes here.

The performance was very enjoyable, and her dress was stupendous. I know someone filmed it, so it may pop up on YouTube in time.

Friday 18 April 2008

UNIX Hedgehog

I got my employer to send me on a UNIX course this week - three days of finding your way around and two days of shell scripting.

I love this kind of thing - it's as good as a holiday. The last part will only be mildly useful at work, but it's great fun, if your mind likes to work that way. I already know that telling the computer what to do is just an amusing interactive mind-puzzle. The hard part is working out what you want it to do in the first place, as this man explained in 1986. That hasn't changed, and it's not going to, ever.

I shall return to work refreshed.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

text gestures

Most of us know how to transmit a hug by text. You just write the person's name (or alias, or initial) with multiple balanced brackets around it. So if you wanted to hug me, but were too far away to do so, you would transmit this to my phone or email, or put it in the Comments:


Or if you thought I needed a stronger hug, or you were feeling particularly huggy, you might do this:

This gesture-by-text is widely understood, and has the effect of making the person feel hugged, so that one appropriate response is 'thank you'.

I think it's interesting that it has a personal object, not just the recipient as such, as is the case with a smiley, but a particular person specified by name. So, supposing my sister N had lost her phone, but is in the pub with a friend, it would be possible for me to transmit a hug by texting her friend as follows:
Please hand this to N: ((((N))))

which would probably result in the friend handing over the phone. Or if I merely sent this:

the friend might do the same, but would also have the option of physically hugging N on my behalf, although they would probably still show her the phone.

Here's a question: in cultures where it is usual to bow, or to put one's hands together, are there ways of transmitting these gestures textually? How, if so?

Monday 14 April 2008

Promotional Vids on YouTube

Here is a mildly funny advert for Alexandra Wood and Stefano Fava: it's here because I'd like to applaud their cluefulness in making and posting it as a promotion for their workshops in Hove in a couple of weeks. I've never taken one of their classes, but I've heard they teach well and are very nice. They organised the workshop with Miguel Angel Zotto that I wrote about last month.

There are several vids of their performances on YouTube, which you can go ahead and watch if you feel inclined. I applaud their willingness to put themselves out there like this, and take their chances with the YouTube comments and people like me.

Apropos, I think this is the same dress Alexandra wore to perform at the Zotto milonga - I recognise the flower, which fell off, and was picked up and thrown in the Zotto direction by Stefano at the end. A dancer's life, retrieving plastic flowers and sewing them back on for the next show.

Sunday 13 April 2008

O Hedgehog, thou art translated!

Someone got here by searching for "shut up and dance". (Two page views!)

I didn't realise until I clicked through that offers to translate me into French.

The result is a glorious gibberish. Sometimes the sense survives in part, sometimes it doesn't. Mostly, my prose style throws it half way through the sentence. But I'm charmed with the intermittent translation of followers as adeptes (that would be "follower" in the cult sense), and I'm tempted to relabel my "annoyances" as "ennuis".

Saturday 12 April 2008


I've just re-appeared two posts further down that I de-published because I was very disappointed and couldn't look at them calmly. Now that I read them again I realise they don't make me look as foolish as I felt, and I'd really still value your input on this one especially, even though I'm not going to use it any time soon.

And this blog sort of ceases to make sense in a way that's very confusing and troublesome for me if I ignore events that are important to me.

It's about teaching and learning in a beginners' class. Please have a look and respond if you've got anything to say. It would really cheer me up. :)


Tuesday 8 April 2008

Roman Colour

For Tangobaby: a picture I took some years ago in Rome.

If I remember correctly, this is in the Piazza di Spagna on the left hand side of the steps as you look down.

On the right hand side is a place called Babbington's Tea Rooms. I didn't go in, but I couldn't help imagining that when Patrick O'Brian's Mr. William Babbington retired from the sea, he and Mrs Wray (or by that time, Mrs Babbington, presumably) went to Rome and opened a tea room at the bottom of the Spanish Steps.

I just can't help it. They'd have had such fun.

I haven't read "21", and can't quite bear to, so please don't tell me if anything happens in there that means this can't.

Monday 7 April 2008

How to say "shut up and dance"?

Promoted from Comments at Johanna's. I think what I'm going to say also makes sense if you are a man and it is a woman committing the outrageous gaffe of unsolicited instruction on the dancefloor. But no doubt the ball-carrying bloggers will give their own advice.

Tassili said: I have in mind a particular leader who always "instructs" his partners - as a result, we all tend to dread the experience. I don't know if there is way to convey "please, stop intructing, just dance" gracefully?

This is the number one situation in which my prickles go up, and they go up super sharp. How do you say "Shut up and dance?".

I think there's no point in trying too hard to be graceful. When someone is is foolish enough to do this, it is an emergency, and clarity comes first.

This is how I raise the prickles:

  1. Complete, strict, silence. Immediate radical change of expression. Total disappearance of smile and facial response. Verge-of-tears look, if it comes naturally. This will usually cause him to stop talking and lead something else, in which case, fine.

  2. If he continues talking when you're standing still, or actually stops dancing so he can instruct you, say: "I beg your pardon?" to the tune of "did you really just instruct a lady on the dancefloor? I can't believe that a man of your age and intelligence would so far forget himself as to do such a thing. I must have misheard."

  3. If it continues, calmly remark "I don't respond well to advice while I'm dancing socially." This step is optional. Only use it if it fits you. It will sometimes elicit "I'm only trying to give a little help", in which case, say "I would prefer it if you didn't." I prefix this with "Nevertheless," but that might be taking it a little far.

  4. If it still continues, say: "Shall we go on?" to the tune of "if I'm not good enough for you, you can opt out right now and I shan't be offended", and clarifying with gestures towards the seating if you have to. Of course this bit only makes sense mid-tanda. If it's the end, just say thank-you and sit down.

  5. If you get an apology or backtracking, accept it nicely, but without responding to the content of what was said.

  6. Remind yourself again that you will never, ever, instruct someone on the dance floor, no matter how terrible they are.

It's very important to this technique that you don't engage at all with the content of the instruction, even in (5). The content is not the point. The point is that whatever it is, it's out of place in social dancing. That's the idea that needs to get across, not a reaction to the content.

This doesn't happen to me very often, now - I daresay word has got about - but last Friday, (1) worked perfectly. I'd really been enjoying the dance till it happened. We both were. He immediately stopped doing it, apologised at the end of the dance, and said he'd felt the connection was so good he could talk. I said "It's not recommended. I don't respond well to it." He understood, I'm sure it won't happen again, and I'm looking forward to dancing with him more.

If you are a very recent beginner, or less in touch with your inner Lady Bracknell than I am, pretending with a smile that you can't hear what he's saying over the music does also work and is a very safe alternative. Just don't reply or ask questions, because it only encourages them.

But if dancing with someone is not fun, there's no point in killing yourself trying not to offend them. Never be abusive, but self-defence is fine.

Notes: remarks between friends may be different; two words of urgently needed information to the early beginner, delivered with a smile, may be different. But generally speaking, it's not a good idea.

Sunday 6 April 2008

It's snowing

It's snowing.

It's wet, all on the very point of melting, only lying because there's so much of it.

I've made a snow fairy on the grass:

It's Not Just Tango-L

From xkcd.

Saturday 5 April 2008

Dragging you down and wasting your money

Argentine tango is a rather difficult dance to learn, though very satisfying, and if you want to get good at it you have to be quite proactive and intelligent about your learning. You have to be realistic, and solve the problems you encounter one at a time. For example, if you are seriously pursuing actual competence as a leader or follower, there are some things that you give a high priority. They include being able to balance and rotate on one foot with your feet together, and being able to point your shoulders at least moderately in a different direction from your hips. If you are a leader they also include following occasionally; and if it bothers you to dance with another man, well, giving in to that will make you significantly less competent than you would otherwise be. Tough. Either get over that little bit of superstitious dread, or sacrifice competence to it. Your choice. You also have to deal calmly and sensibly with not getting it quite right first time.

Group classes are very good for learning a social dance because you dance with lots of different people and you have to adapt. But perhaps the most pervasive annoyance when you are learning in groups is people who can't do the things it's necessary to be able to do in order to benefit from the content of the class. The teacher can do one of two things; ignore them and let them struggle and prevent their dancing partners getting anything out of the class, or adjust the class level to the least competent person there. That drags everyone down and wastes the time and money of all the students in the class who are genuinely trying to manage their own learning intelligently.

And it is the followers who suffer most. Generally I go to every class with some idea in mind of an aspect of technique that I am going to pay attention to regardless of the specific content of the class. I may seek feedback on it or I may not; generally I'll just give it mental attention in executing whatever comes up. If something does come up in the class that's new or challenging or interesting, then I'll drop my plan and seek feedback and help, and put whatever it is on my list to work on. But I never assume that I will get the opportunity to work on the actual advertised content of the class - even if that includes anything at all directed at the followers.

Please understand that inexperience doesn't make you a bad dancer. Beginners are usually not bad at all. It takes time, ambition, and delusion to be bad in the sense I'm using it here. What it takes specifically is learning lots of things and going to lots of classes without ever solving the real problems that have to come first; posture, balance, dissociation, walk.

Very often the teachers contribute heavily to this by never spelling out what the prerequisites are, which is the least you can possibly do. I think it's rude and thoughtless that teachers don't do this. They should at least say in advance what the class is about, and what you should be able to do, as leader and follower, with confidence and competence in order to make use of it.

It's not unusual to find that teachers don't even seem to bother to tell people that they have a problem, or that the problems have a physical hierarchy (which they do) so that solving one will make it much easier to solve something else. They don't treat people like adults and say "you have a problem with your balance which is causing you to find this difficult. You should work on that for a while, and then this will be easy. Let me suggest some exercises." They don't say "fix your walk - your feet are too far apart and your posture is mistaken - try changing this one thing, and class X next week at venue Y taught by Z would be a good place to work on it." They just sigh, and let the other students, especially the women, suffer.

It's not rude to make a gentle but matter-of-fact statement about what the problem is, especially if you then make a sensible suggestion for dealing with it. It just isn't. I think it's what you're supposed to do.

It also is not rude to say something like "Beginners please sit down now and have a rest, drinks are over there. The next class will be about Whatever and to benefit from it as a leader/follower you will need good balance and to be able to do X with confidence. It starts in five minutes." No, that's not rude - it's treating all your students with proper professional respect. You have to think carefully about what X should be, that's all.

It seems to me that I'm stating the bleeding obvious here. Am I wrong?

But I understand that some people find these situations very awkward. It gets tiresome and frustrating and it can sap the teacher's morale.

So, over to you. As a student, how have you seen this dealt with? What worked, and what didn't? If you have ever been the teacher, how do you deal with these awkward situations and how much of a struggle is it for you?

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Followers - what do you wish you'd been told?

From Monday just gone, I am being Demo Lady in the new absolute-beginners' course at the Crypt, Farringdon. Tom, who requires an extra assistant1, seems to think I'll do. [Edit: due to the awkward dates and the website being offline for nine days, I'm no longer required.]

This is quite an adventure for me. I've never done it before. My job is to dance neatly in the demonstrations, to watch the students and dance with them and encourage them and help to work out what their problems are, and I to pipe up if I have something useful to say.

I don't intend to do a lot of talking. I am not qualified to say very much, and I've been on enough conference calls and in enough rambling meetings to know the value of keeping my mouth shut. I said almost nothing on Monday, only pointing out that I was collecting my feet, but not changing weight until it was led, because you can't really see that by watching, and it seemed like the right time to say it.

I want to talk mainly to the followers. I think it's important to them that the Demo Lady talks sometimes. But I'd rather say too little than risk talking balls, because these are absolute beginners and my advice - the quality of which they have no way of evaluating - is more important to them than my experience deserves. If I'm not certain of it, I'm not going to say it at all.

Most have never ever danced before, but some have done one kind or another, such as lindyhop or jive.

So here's a question for you. What, as a follower, is the most important 'obvious' thing you really wish you'd had spelled out to you in week 1? Or what, as a leader, do you really wish had been spelled out to the followers, or repeated more? Or is there anything well-meaning and sort-of-true you were told, that set you off on the wrong track?

What I have in mind so far is:


  • Take whatever step you need to take to stay in front of him at a constant distance.

  • Stand on one foot at a time, with your feet together, but

  • Don't change weight until it's led.

  • Collect your feet when your body (centre of gravity) moves, don't rush.

  • Keep your feet close to the ground.

  • Keep calm.

Practical tips and 'homework':

  • Pick a shirt button at a convenient height and concentrate on it. (In the first few lessons the students start in practice hold, then in an open hold, while they get their balance and so on, then close embrace comes later in the course).

  • Practice standing on one leg with your feet together.

  • Practice walking with your feet close together.

  • Practice walking down the stairs without looking.
Later in the course we'll be giving lots of tips on social dancing, and I have some things in mind for that as well, but for now I just want your feedback about technique.

We started the class with a little demo dance to the lovely slow tango Tom always uses for teaching. It consisted only of elements that the students should be able to do at the end of the course. I must have felt like a little bird for the first few seconds, quivering with nerves, but I just breathed and concentrated on the music and I don't think it showed. Now I think about it, I suppose it was practically a performance. But I wasn't nearly as nervous as I had been six hours earlier, trying to eat my lunch.

1 Michiko is away for some weeks - so Diana is teaching the class with Paul. The website is offline right now - some sort of ISP issue I think - so I'll say here for anyone who needs to know that you can still come and join the beginners' class on Monday 7th April, pay for just that, and then decide whether you want to take the rest of the course. After that it's too late to join this one. The rest of the course is a further 10 weeks and £60. At the Crypt, Farringdon - map here and directions in this post.