Tuesday 30 September 2008

Rojo y Negro @ Latvian House

The Rojo y Negro milonga is on Thursday evenings at Latvian House, near Queensway.

I can't usually do weekdays but made an exception. It's easy to get to and doesn't go on too late; and I also had reason to think the music, and consequently the dancing style, would be different from what I usually prefer. And it's good to get out of my comfort zone sometimes.

The Class: There is a pre-milonga class but I skipped it, it's a weekday.

Layout and Atmosphere: The building is occupied by the Latvian Tourist Board and social club. The room itself is quite beautiful, with eggshell blue walls and a pink ceiling, white plaster squiggle-work, dark pink curtains and a great gilt mirror above the fireplace, increasing the light. Chairs around the walls. There are ledges, and the floor, to put your drink on. As you go in, there is a table with a pretty smile behind it, collecting the money and displaying CDs. At the far end are the floor-to-ceiling windows there usually are in buildings like this. The one on the right is a door and leads to a roomy balcony where you can stand, chat, cool off, and watch the empty street. The floor is very good, and big enough for at least a dozen couples. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. Bianca will resort to dancing with you herself if no-one else does.

The only problem was, it was practically empty. Not counting Bianca and her young man, there were only four couples, three of them all obviously very recent beginners, plus four odd singles - a man I hadn't seen before who left quite promptly, two women, and me. The other couple were more experienced, but danced continuously and only with each other. There were never more than two couples dancing at any one time.

Hospitality: Inconvenient, but good. For the bar, leave the room and walk all the way down the stairs to the ground floor; turn and find the next set of stairs, and follow the Latvian music down till you reach the bar. I was served an orange juice from a box, a large glass of water with lemon, and a friendly smile, for a total of 80p. There is a cloakroom on the landing, where you can hang up your things, and change your shoes. The ladies is through the cloakroom, and is much nicer than average. However, MIND THE STEP when you come out of the cloakroom. It's dark, and the step is surprising, and hard to see. I misjudged it twice, and if I had been taller or older or moving faster or wearing less-forgiving shoes I could very easily have pitched head-first down the full flight of stairs and been seriously hurt. Please be careful.

What I thought of the DJing: Almost all was what I think of as 'nuevo'. There were no milongas or valses, but I don't think this was on principle. There would have been no point, considering the dancers who were there. I thought it was decent quality music - no moron-beats, and nothing too why-bother, with some interesting variations sung in a language I didn't recognise. It doesn't really speak to me personally. But if it's your thing, and you have a friend who likes it too, there is plenty of room to dance to it. And CDs on sale.

Getting in: A very cheap £5. The front door is a bit of a puzzle, though. Luckily, while I was peering at the bells and deciding between "Guest House," "Library," and "Latvian Tourist Board," a woman with a broom opened it unasked. She knew I was there for the dancing and uttered the word "upstairs!". Assuming you solve the door problem, just walk up and you will start to hear the music.

Getting there and getting home: It's five minutes' walk from Queensway Tube. Walk left along the tree-lined main road and turn left into Queensborough Terrace. It is the building immediately after the An-Nur Hotel, and I think the pin on the website's map is too far up the road. It finishes at midnight, so you can get the train home. See also 'getting in'.

The website: Does the job, but discursively. Make sure you read all the bits. The Milonga page sometimes stays the same when the News page is telling you it's closed.

How it went: It's a lovely place and I had a perfectly pleasant evening, but the low attendance was a problem. [Update 04/05/2009: Bianca emails to say that attendance is now much better, which is good news and well-deserved.] It wouldn't have been such a problem if people had actually been dancing socially, but most seemed not to be circulating at all. I would willingly have danced with at least some of the beginners, but I don't think they understood what social dancing was, and none looked in my direction. However, I had two dances, both with women; one with Bianca and one with someone else. It did occur to me that it would have enhanced my enjoyment and that of other people if I'd had the option of being able to lead.

I succeeded in the plan to go slightly out of my comfort zone; the style of the dances I got was certainly more dramatic than my preference. It was good to dance to this style of music with leaders who like it and in a place where there's plenty of room. I find this style exhausting, but satisfying in a checking-up-on-myself kind of way.

Otherwise, I passed a pleasant couple of hours making mental notes and standing outside on the balcony enjoying the warm dark evening and chatting to people, all of them strangers, all of them pleasant, chatty and relaxed.

Sunday 28 September 2008

If Only

From xkcd.

Friday 26 September 2008

Knitted love

This made me cry - which is not very difficult, but still. Via greguerias y paraphernalia, which I discovered today. Apparently there's someone else who mixes knitting and tango in London enough to have both on a blog (the tango is just in the links). It's in Spanish. The blog, not the video. The video is in Yorkshire.

Except that I don't really care for the ending, in part 2. It feels false. And I wish they could have found a better way to show just how much work there is in a piece like that, and how long it's already taken her before she gets to the part in black. It must be well over six feet long. And it's also, let me point out, well-made and beautiful.

It reminds me of that poem translated from the Irish that goes, in part:

O Donal Oge, if you go across the sea,
Bring myself with you and do not forget it;
And you will have a sweetheart for fair days and market days,
And the daughter of the King of Greece beside you at night ...

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
A ship of gold under a silver mast;
Twelve towns with a market in all of them
And a fine white court by the side of the sea ...

O Donal Oge, it is I would be better to you
Than a high, proud, spendthrift lady:
I would milk the cow; I would bring help to you;
And if you were hard pressed, I would strike a blow for you.

Of course we know that he never comes back. We can only hope no-one ever made him a proper gansey, either.

Thursday 25 September 2008

I feel mauled

I felt like he was leaning over me, bending me forcibly, wrapping around me and expecting me to do the same; it was too impertinent, too uncomfortable, I was being mauled by an octopus, and I protested.

He said I should have told him with my body, and I was very 'quiet' to dance with. I thought I'd already gone as stiff as a board without getting the message through, but he'd only just started the octopus act and there hadn't been time to do anything at all. I tried dancing louder anyway, with some success, although he still wasn't really hearing me. Perhaps I need to be physically stronger? Am I too quiet? I don't know - I haven't been dancing particularly well lately.

What does it mean to be quiet? I think I understand how to dance louder, and I think I managed it, but is being quiet a bad thing?

It's true I don't like the dramatic style that feels like a fight. Dancing with me is not like dancing with a doll. Well, I don't think so. But it's tiring to have to shout; I can't express myself at all.

And actually, I really hate people wrapping their legs around me and expecting me to create the same fake, disrespectful, tasteless drama by wrapping my legs around them. I know they think that's what you're supposed to do so that you're dancing tango, but I don't agree; I think you can do it if you both like it, but it should be kept for someone you dance with regularly and you are damn sure likes it as much as you do. Not a total stranger who's agreed to take a punt on you, when you're new here, and nobody's seen you before, at the risk of getting hurt, and embarrassed, and told how she's in the wrong by all those people who say bad dances are always the woman's fault for being the first to dance with someone she hasn't seen, and not being Mother Goddess World Police so that the men will have incentives to get better. When someone takes that risk for you, you don't have the right to use her body like that. And don't you know that other people, who dance well, will never dance with her, because she had the generosity to take that risk? And that makes her not good enough for them? Who do you think you are? What's so hard about being a bit more respectful, for the first tanda?

To be fair, I had made an important technical mistake; trying to get a milonguero/salon connection with someone who isn't transmitting it and has no idea that it's even possible. It took me a while to realise that that was the problem. I think he had a rather shoulders-forward, head-down posture, although not so much as some. I do find it very hard to get a good connection with this; I feel like washing hanging on a line. It worked much better when I broke the connection, hinged out, faced right and downwards so that my forehead was pushing against his cheekbone, watched the far side of his body, including his feet, and followed that with my eyes (along with the push from his skull). That gave me a lead - if I tried to get it from his torso it was late, vague, scrambled and scary. I wish I'd thought of it immediately and not had to say anything. But it feels like fake tango to me - as though I was acting. Once you know how to get the other kind of connection, it's hard to go back and you really wonder why you're bothering.

I feel a bit downhearted tonight.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

A better metaphor

What other people do is no business of mine, but what I am doing, on occasions when I manage to follow well, is this:


Dear Beginners: you will be amazed at how willing, and how able, some men are to take responsibility in this context. A lot more than you'd think from their behaviour in real life. (My goodness, that was heavily edited).

Give them a chance. You'll be stunned. It's like floating, really.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Oh, look - it's David and Kim

While I was looking for something on YouTube to illustrate a different post, I noticed that David Benitez and Kim Schwartz - popular teachers in London, be warned that their website, TangoMovement, makes a noise - appear to have changed their video policy.

They used to ask people not to record their performances. Maybe they still do (I haven't attended one recently), but it seems they have now got themselves a friendly videographer they are happy with, and a YouTube channel under David's name.

I applaud them for putting themselves out there and taking the risk of people like me saying whatever they think about it, like Stefano and Alexandra did with this promotion.

Not that I don't say what I think in real life, but the risk of some nobody criticising at a milonga, and the risk of being permanently blogged about, even by that very same nobody, are two quite different things. It's nice for their fans and friends that they've done this.

Saturday 20 September 2008

Progress, practice, motivation

Back in May, I was looking for the next step in my dancing. I wasn't unhappy with it. Things were improving steadily with practice, but the usual kind of intermediate class had stopped making any real difference to them.

I was also very upset, and I'd be lying if I hid that. Telling the tale would bore you and anger me, but the upshot was that I found it very hard to continue with any dancing at all. I certainly had to change my habits. But I didn't want to lose this good thing from my life, so it motivated me to fight back, get around the problem, and keep going through the difficult time by pushing myself a bit more.

My first step was to stop taking group intermediate classes and dance more, socially, with people who dance better than me.

You can go a long way in group intermediate classes. As a follower you always have to be self-motivated, and to a great extent self-taught. Once you stop doing anything visibly bad, most teachers just ignore you because the leaders' problems seem more pressing. My method in group classes was to have a mental queue of improvements I should work on, and do that conscientiously with as many different leaders as possible in whatever context the class content provided. If something new came up or I found a problem, I'd work on it, make a note of it, and put it in the queue.

But there are things the follower just can't work on if the same move is being constantly repeated to the same music, or the leader has not mastered what he's trying to do. What can happen then is that you stop improving, and spend your time learning ornaments, which you repeat pointlessly, by rote. I think this is a dead end, and a distraction, and eats away at musicality. If I see an ornament I like, I'd rather puzzle out how to do it naturally. I don't want to ever do one unless I feel inspired. I think teachers put them in to make the women feel they're getting equal time, but I think it makes me dance worse.

I'm sure lots of you have encountered the same problems, and found your own solutions; share them in the comments, if you feel inclined.

So I stopped going, and I danced more. The result was a rapid improvement, especially to my embrace. And I mostly danced with people who value me as a person, who encourage, support, or praise me, who are kind to me, and who do things to make me feel better if I get hurt. Generally, I didn't find a shortage of those.

So, that's the background. I was less at a dead end than I had been, but I needed a bit more. Next: my first class as a leader, and how it went.

Lemons hit the fan

Some years ago I worked on the IT helpdesk at a telecoms company. On one particular day there were two of us and a cypher of a manager, supporting some ridiculous number of users, with queues seventeen long, and, as Paul Krugman wrote when the NYT wouldn't print version 1, "things started to go wrong". I eventually got the giggles.

This week, something a little bit like that happened to FT Alphaville. They don't have to be as serious as the real newspaper, and they get to post stuff like this:

Lemon Brothers, to the tune of American Pie
Best of the comments

Markets Live on Monday and Monday Again and Wednesday was just outstanding.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

River Tango - layout matters

River Tango is a good thing and a fun idea, but layout is a serious problem.

If you're sitting, you're stuck, and if you're dancing, you're equally stuck. It's just too difficult to get from one to the other. There are two rows of seats on three sides of the dance floor - the fourth is the stage. The corners are blocked by large display boards which also protect the speakers. The only way in or out of the second row of seats, which are locked together, is at the end, like in a theatre. The only access to the front row is from the dancefloor itself. And the only way of changing partners without sitting for too long is by negotiation and arrangement on the dancefloor. It's physically possible to climb into the seats from behind, but they are surrounded by an interested, persistent crowd.

Just turning up and getting a dance is very hard work.

You can't circulate. You can't find or speak to anyone you know, even if they're there, unless you walk right away from the dancefloor and huddle at the back of the crowd. You can't avoid any partner you like less unless you resort to hiding. You can't really gamble and dance with a stranger because there's no way of telling who knows what's happening and who's just a spectator. If you've found someone you like, you'd be crazy to let go, or both of you'll be sitting getting cold for the next two hours. You can't make eye contact because you can't find an eye in the crowd.

As a milonga I don't like it at all, but there were lots and lots of people hardier than me. The temporary floor was a good one, much better than last year. When I arrived at about half past three I saw some people I know who might have danced with me at a real milonga, but I couldn't get close enough to see the floor at all. I went into the Tate for a while, and had a coffee. Then I craned between shoulders to watch a peformance, and when some people left I climbed over the seats to sit down. I chatted with a lady from Edinburgh who was here for a couple of days; I should certainly go there, and I hope she got a dance. I found a dance by text message, and got myself handed over on the dance floor for another. But otherwise, it was just plain impractical, and as soon as I got off the floor I felt almost panicky; both isolated and trapped, claustrophobic.

The band, StazzoMayor, were brilliant. As far as I can gather, they consist of Luis Stazo, who used to be in Sexteto Mayor until all the others died, and some youngsters he's apparently gathered for the purpose of continuing to make music till he sees a good reason to stop. The old have stamina, and I don't see how the young are going to say they're tired if he isn't. So they played a surprisingly long continuous set, and after that I ate a roasted corncob and went home.

Open air tango is nice. It works very well at Regent's Park; even if it rains, it's romantic, exciting, and quite comfortable. But unless you're extremely determined, layout matters. It's easy if you go with someone you want to dance with exclusively for four to eight hours. Otherwise, dress warmly, in layers, attach all valuables to your person, and good luck.

Monday 15 September 2008

A good class and a happy hedgehog

I've just been to a class that made me feel inspired and motivated all over again, so that I was thinking about what I'd learned, making notes afterwards (just like I did as a total beginner) and doing little dancey movements on the train home.

I felt happy at the end, and I know that hearing the same music again will bring the feeling back and make me want to dance. I imagine myself dancing, and there is no cloud in the picture.

It gave me a challenge, and a personal boost, and I'm already looking forward to the next one (next week). I'll tell you what the class was about and what I got out of it specifically, another time. But just for now I'll say that Leandro and Romina's unforced, infectious, confident cheerfulness is a big, big help to a saturnine creature like me. And their approach suits my cognitive style, so I don't waste too much effort processing instructions.

I feel noticeably better about the dancing thing as a whole than I did yesterday, and I think probably better than I have - except now and then - this year. Hooray!

Sunday 14 September 2008

River Tango

Everything in the festival so far has been far too expensive and too late at night, too close to my holidays, so I haven't bothered. Having been in the office all week, I still haven't managed to reset my clock properly. And my Tube station is closed this weekend for repairs. If you went to any of the classes I'd be interested to hear if they were good or well-attended; and I'd be particularly interested to hear how many people paid £25 to get into a milonga at the Bloomsbury Ballroom. I'm not saying they're wrong, I'm just saying they were never very likely to include me.

However, I will be at the dance floor outside Tate Modern this afternoon, wearing danceable street shoes, I think, and I'll stick around if I see anyone I know. It's free, and the weather looks nicer than last year. I think there are some other kinds of dance along the river so I may look at those too.

Saturday 13 September 2008


This art exhibit (in Seattle, at an event called Beatwalk) included a big piece of paper, some pens, and an invitation. Here are three youngsters, drawing. One of them is my friend's son, but it's only my phone's little video camera, so probably only his parents can tell. I don't know the other two.

The music in the background is a band, who were behind me. I didn't understand the lyrics at the time, but now I think he's singing "Yes we can, make it happen". And I really like it with these pictures.

Thursday 11 September 2008

Dance Underground, Seattle

Ok, as you know by now, I was on holiday in Seattle. I asked for directions in this post, exchanged a few emails, and went for a dance. I wasn't paying as much attention to details as I do when I'm thinking about writing a review, so this is a bit thin, but it would be a shame not to.

The Class:
I don't think there was one.
Layout and Atmosphere: You go in down red stairs and it's a rather large near-square room, with a very good, smooth floor and mirrors along the near and right-hand sides. The DJ is in a sort of doorless cupboard, snacks, drinks and water at the far left hand corner, I didn't observe what drinks. There's nowhere to go away from the floor but there are quite a few round tables with cloths along the right hand side, and chairs on the other side. There are red curtains and strings of white LEDs and the atmosphere is simple but warm, cheery and not too dark.
Hospitality: Good. A table with refreshments and plenty of free water. I didn't give it enough attention but there were smiles beside it and in the general vicinity. Enough chairs for most to sit down, but not all; enough tables that it's possible to sit in a position that suggests you are resting, which is the best you can do in a room like this. Sorry, I knew my time there would be short, and I didn't get round to checking the loos as I usually do. I would have if I'd noticed that the venue website says they're a "feature ... equipped with showers". (Elizabeth - fill us in!). I was startled when the lady who did the announcements, in a pause, thought it worth mentioning that someone was here from London and pointing me out. It surprised me, but made me feel special.
What I thought of the DJing: perfectly standard, not many milongas and valses but some, nothing electronic or with a big beat that I remember, and nothing that wasn't tango music. My friends, who don't know tango music, loved it. They were cortinas, they varied, I don't remember what they were but they weren't annoying or wierd.
Getting in: US$7, my non-dancing friends got in free.
Getting there and getting home: This is the USA, they don't really do public transport (although Seattle does have a reasonable network of buses and it may well be possible to use one of those - don't know how you'd find out, it's not mentioned in the directions). As I wasn't the one driving, I can't say anything useful except that we parked in the street a few steps from the door. It's underneath a bagel place, and there is a sign with Dance Underground on it; walk downstairs towards the music.
The website: Includes the links you need on the front page, looks fine, tells you who they are, what's on, when, and how much it costs. The milonga page is here but you can get there in one click from the front page (very good). The scene in Seattle is also small enough so it's feasible for someone to publish combined listings at allseattletango.com. The venue also has its own website, which you'll need for directions.
How it went: Very well indeed, especially considering the rather awkward situation of having brought two friends who don't dance - V and her husband P. We got in, I asked which was the Party Table (following Elizabeth's directions) and the lady on the desk did indeed know what that meant. It being clear to me that the party had not started, I settled us down at the next one, swapping places with my friend who accidentally sat in front of a rather fearsome airconditioner I was glad of later on. I quietly changed my shoes and watched for a while, chatting, V guessing which ones I would want to dance with and getting it largely correct. We agreed that Orange Shirt Guy (hi!) moved very well, and could be accepted with confidence, and then we discussed the difficulty or otherwise of assessing some of the others, and how very, very foolish teacher-advertisement show-tango looks on a social dance floor. Quite soon, Elizabeth arrived and knew me from my description at once. She and Alan and their friends were very hospitable and it really helped so much with the difficulty of having to abandon my friends if I wished to dance. She instantly introduced me to Orange Shirt Guy, who was just as I had hoped (hi!), and my friends to Alan, who is a Very Nice Man and dances very like the person I was talking to here - who is also, as it happens, another Very Nice Man, and also much the same height and shape. I danced with at least two regular readers, one of whom also knits. I can't thank all of them enough for looking after us all. P said it was "like watching a foreign movie", which is almost certainly a good thing, or at least an interesting thing, and absolutely loved the music. V was quite interested to watch the dancing and how people moved and how I interacted with the different leaders. We had to leave relatively early, but not as early as I thought we would. I had some excellent dances, and left when I was winning. A good night.

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Your feet can be big red herrings swimming on the beat

What brought this to mind was a remark on a discussion board (by someone who knows who he is and might pipe up in the comments) that he'd stopped trying to 'synchronise' his walk with his partner's. Instead, he'd introduced a slight delay, so that he transferred weight slightly after her. Both of them thought it smoothed out his lead.

In the writer's case it was either an accidental discovery or a suggestion of his partner's. But more than one of the better teachers I've been to have given advice which I think adds up to the same thing.

Last year I had a workshop with Adrian and Amanda Costa, and the very first thing they said, after watching us dance to assess where we were, was about moving on the beat. The way Adrian put it was that we should push with the weight-bearing leg on the beat, put our energy on the beat, not try to land on the beat at the end of a step. He told us to dance again, making that change; and the immediate, subtle, but marked improvement in the smoothness and musicality of the dance has stayed with me ever since.

My way of putting it would be that we were walking on the beat, not treading on it like it was a dropped fiver on a windy day.

Another thing I've heard a lot in classes that improved the leads I was getting is something like "you lead, then she moves, then you move" - which sounds a lot like the discovery above. I agree that it happens in that order, although of course it happens at almost the same time, and I think the end of this (from 02:05) shows you how it works. He leads, she steps, then he can step or not, as he chooses. From her point of view, until then, it was the same.

Your experiences in the Comments, please. Also, Adrian and Amanda Costa were here while I was away, so if you took one of the classes they gave you can tell us how it went.

Sunday 7 September 2008

I'm back

Hello again!

I had a lovely time in Seattle. It's such a pretty place, all dark green hills and blue bay and a sudden spikeyness of skyscrapers under a vast wash of lavender cloud. And the continual astonishments, to my British eyes, of all the streets being at right angles, and all the houses being different from each other. And it was sunny nearly all the time and I was staying with people I love and who love me back. They fed me and housed me and drove me around with their usual generosity and joy, and I sat with my dear friend and knitted. The thing in the picture is called the Space Needle.

I got one dance in, which I will relate in more-or-less my usual format, as far as memory serves, later in the week. Elizabeth was there, with husband and friends, and just spectacularly kind and hospitable. But not now because half my brain is asleep, I have no idea what day or time it is, and I need to eat something, and it's back to work tomorrow.

Notices - Geraldine in London

For all the people who are searching for "Geraldine Rojas in London", the site you actually want is Tango in Action (that link leads straight to the class description and booking, so will probably stop working after the class). I have yet to see a single search string mentioning Ezequiel Paludi. The dates are 19th to 21st September and you have to book as a couple.

I don't think I will be taking that course, although I like the content, Tango in Action organise well, and I think the couple price for the whole course is OK, considering. I've probably got to be somewhere else that weekend.