Saturday 28 February 2009

Keeping your feet together, or not

Digging in the drafts file - I never got around to posting a small but interesting thing that happened in the walking class with Ezequiel and Geraldine Paludi.

Leaders were instructed to do a couple of walking steps, and then send the woman to their left in a somewhat open, diagonal backward step which was then followed by a turn. It wasn't complicated, but it immediately shook out an interesting technical issue.

In a lot of cases this setup didn't work. Geraldine called a halt and said that the reason it wasn't working was that most of the followers were trying much too hard to step in a straight line. She showed us again, emphasising that this was a backward-but-open step, and told us we were nearly all trying far too hard to keep our feet together.

Ezequiel then told the leaders not to contort themselves trying to walk to one side and the other of the woman. Instead they should walk in a straight line and move the woman from side to side.

This won't work, of course, unless you can trust the woman to move sideways when you lead her to do so. Now we understood what we were seeing and we tried it again.

My partner for the class observed that he hadn't actually been leading that. As soon as he did - quite easily, once it was pointed out - I did in fact automatically do the right thing, and based on other experience I thought I probably would have followed it correctly anyway even if I hadn't been forewarned. But it was difficult to know.

However, it did strike me as very important and something I should make a special effort to remember. Because trying too hard to snap your feet together and walk on rails, in defiance of what's actually being led, is a bad habit it would be very easy to get into, especially if you took a lot of classes. It's one of those rules-of-thumb that people tend to repeat a lot because it's very useful in its place (I've found it a big help in learning to keep my balance in turns). But the women students can easily give such things an importance they don't deserve, because in most beginner and intermediate classes we are pretty much having to scrabble about in the dirt for any tiny crumb of useful information addressed to us at all. So anything we do find can easily be elevated and overanalysed into an absolute rule. Of course that means you quickly collect a lot of conflicting rules. So those who don't give up in confused frustration very quickly work out that most of what they're hearing only applies provisionally and in context.

I also happen to think that when there is any information for us, it's harmful almost as often as it's helpful, and if you could measure it, it's quite possible you would find that the classes where the women are hardly spoken to at all are the ones which tend to produce better dancers. Certainly compared to the kind of class that adorns a pointless move with even more pointless ornaments. We just feel ripped off and neglected. Of course it could be self-selection, rather than cause and effect; those women who take complete responsibility for the quality of their own dancing are probably using the class as a practice session anyway, and might choose one that isn't going to patronise them with twiddles.

My partner tested the same movement in social dancing later and found that the other followers he danced with did not seem to know what to do with the same lead; it seemed to be a fairly common problem he had not been aware of.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Ent Tango with Subtitles

The sidebar on YouTube explains that this is a take-home summary of important points for the students of a basic technique class.

It happens to be in French, a language I used to speak quite well, but haven't practiced recently enough for it to feel natural. The language makes a sufficient space between me and the (valuable, clearly-presented) content of this class that I can see how completely hilarious it would look to someone who didn't speak French and didn't dance tango. My favourites are the little bits of interpretive-dance that Detlef can't resist doing to reinforce Melina's points, and the bit where they make rainbows side by side. So, my knitting friends and various relations: enjoy.

For those who do dance tango, I have written out full subtitles below. A few time checks are included. The metaphor of the roots makes me imagine Ents dancing tango, hence the title. Detlef has been kind enough to review my translation, and I've incorporated his corrections. [Edit: couple of further corrections in purple - they affect the meaning.]

MELINA: Ok, let's start with the most important thing, our posture. As always - we close our feet and put ourselves forward a little bit on the front of the foot. Not too much, just a little bit. The heels are free of weight.

DETLEF: and the toes, inside the shoes, stay flexible. So there isn't weight on the toes. That would be too much.

M: and a bit further up, the knees stay relaxed, we want to be able to move them, but we won't dance with bent knees, the legs should be straight, but relaxed. A bit further up again, the pelvis rests in a natural position, it's also relaxed. The pelvis is the heaviest part of the body and that should be relaxed and sinking towards the ground.

D: That is, you leave the pelvis in a natural position, you don't do things like this, you leave the pelvis parallel with the ground, and keep the whole of the lower body very relaxed.

M: all of the lower body is very heavy and anchored in the ground, we imagine as though we had little roots between the earth and the soles of our feet. 01:19 The upper body is going to do something different, with the upper body we're going to elongate ourselves upwards, we make ourselves a little bit bigger than usual, we open the chest, and we try to create a space around ourselves.

D: And like that, starting from the posture of the bus stop, we try to construct the tango posture. And this point, {taps breastbone} now, is in front of the pelvis and not behind.

01:55 M: Imagine, as always, that you are a king, or a queen, and this is the internal posture that helps us communicate with our partner. Now, when you approach the partner, you try to keep this volume, this posture, we want to approach our partners and not abandon our own posture.

02:20 D: so, you take care of yourself first, that's always the fundamental thing. We embrace - it's an embrace like at the airport - and the only thing we change is these two arms. And that's basically all. In this position, we'll later dance.

M: But, for the moment, we're going to show you things in a practice hold so that you can see better.

03:00 M: Ok, now let's start with the first element of tango, the change of weight in place. It's a very small movement from one leg to the other, basically it's a horizontal movement, not up-and-down.

D: Yes, because it's a movement of our axis from here to there, that's to say the weight of our body is moved in a horizontal direction. But to make it clearer that we want to stay in the closed position, we add some information.

M: We'll add a third dimension.

D: The third dimension. You can see it better when we dance like this. The basic movement is horizontal, the shoulders stay parallel with the ground and the the heads stay at the same level. And what we'll do now is enlarge the presence, and we arrive on the other foot as though breathing out. We increase the volume in the chest and we reduce it. We do it like crossing over a little bridge, to go from one foot to the other. And we add that to the horizontal movement to make it clearer that the position stays closed.

M: Now let's distinguish between the change of weight in place and an open step.

D: A sideways step.

M: We're going to use the third dimension again for this movement. 04:45

D: the change of weight, it was, going up over the bridge, arriving here. And when we move from one place to another, we do it by descending to the basement. And we arrive on the ground floor again. And the basement again, and the ground floor, and the first floor makes another change of weight. 05:20 Ground floor, first floor, ground floor, basement, ground floor.

05:29 M: and this technique helps us to communicate with our partner, because what we're going to do in tango is not just lead and follow but communicate. The person who's leading will make a proposal to the person who's following, will sense whether the person who is following accepts that proposition, and then he, the person who's leading, follows the person who's following.

D: In other words, in a step in place, you propose this enlargement of presence, and look how the partners arrive together here in complete synchronisation. And when we do a lateral step, we move together to the basement and arrive at the same time and in the same place. The proposition - you can see. I could make the proposition - she has accepted, but I haven't followed her. So what we want to happen is this: 06:35 I propose - I notice that she is going to accept, and I adapt myself to her movement, and that keeps us in front of each other.

06:50M: we're going to do steps forwards and backwards, and we're going to work on that with another circular movement, the natural counter-movement of the upper body. What does that mean? The countermovement, it's to show, by the movement of your upper body, the movement of your legs. 07:16 A countermovement is when, for example, my right leg comes forward, and the left side of my upper body comes forward with it. The countermovement of our body.

D: Always in opposition. That is, when I want to walk forward with my right leg I'm going to pull back the right shoulder and the left shoulder goes forward a little bit and you can see this torsion in the body. And when you walk, like that, it creates a countermovement.

M: and this countermovement of the body helps us to keep balanced ... D: in equilibrium ... M: and helps us to communicate, because it's with the countermovement that he makes the proposal, and that initiates my step.

D: You can see it here. We've done the change of weight, with this circular movement, and I'm going to propose a backward step to her , by turning. 08:15. And I didn't follow then, but I can - by following her at the same time. But the proposal, which was also the lead for my own leg, was created by the torsion.

M: That means that the movement always starts with the upper body, with the countermovement.

08:40 D: We set up our posture again. There's less distance up here than down there. Change of weight - and we try to walk in a straight line. I invite her - for example here with a change of weight - and I invite her also in a step forward for her.

09:04 M: and I take this space in front of me actively, I don't let myself be pulled.

09:15 D: and the roots in the ground make us always synchronised, that means that the roots of each foot, you have to pull them out and push them in to the earth with each step. She doesn't close her feet as quickly as possible, the roots down there and the roots of my foot have to be pulled through the ground by the countermovement. And that gives us the ability to move together, even very slowly, in a very synchronised way.


Melina and Detlef also teach in German and in English.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Corporate Life

Last week I was invited to familiarise myself with my employer's horizontal service portfolio offerings. Just in case anyone asks me.

Isn't this something we should get Chennai to do? I swear they wrote the manual, or something.

They could have put "distributed" in there, and nobody would have noticed.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Bit quiet

Sorry it's been a bit quiet here - my computer turned itself into a very expensive brick just after my "where the tango was" post, and I don't like using my work machine much, especially when I'm tired of work.

I've thought about posting some videos I like, with a bit more analysis or discussion than people usually do. But the whole notion seems a bit dull, I seem a bit unqualified, and I can't convince myself. I'm not sure what the angle is. Maybe I'll come back to that.

I've been to see the new Gallery of Nebamun, at the British Museum. It's in Room 61 - go up the stairs at the right-hand end of Egypt. But you can have a reasonable look with the lovely interactive animation on the website. Use the menu buttons on the left, which work better than the animation itself - and you get a "translate hieroglyphs" option which isn't available in the room. The paintings are fascinating artistically, even more than they are historically, I think.

I decided to replace the computer, which was never a very good buy, but the new one probably won't come for another week. I'll try and write anyway.


Wednesday 18 February 2009

Enough winter

I wish I was in Antigua, the largest of the isles downwind, where it is 28°C and sunny, watching the cricket, with my knitting, the sweet little Chinese parasol I bought for a summer that never happened, and a radio.

I'm going to end up as Miss Marple. Actually, that wouldn't be bad. The Joan Hickson version, of course, not the other one.

The Guardian O-B-O, in the 11th over, has the Beard Liberation Front's official statement on Stanford's dodgy tache.

Monday 16 February 2009

Joaquín, I don't get it

I'm returning to page 49-50 of JA's book about tango music. It's quite a short book, and I'm in chapter 9, which is about the form and structure of tango music - how to distinguish the musical phrases in each piece, and how they are arranged and repeated in relation to each other.

It says this:

“Listen to Audio 2.9, where you will hear Phrase 1 answered by Phrase 2, and Phrase 3 answered by Phrase 4. You will hear the whole part at the beginning and then each question-answer seperately.”
I listen. This is fine, perfectly clear. You cannot miss the relationships. Next:

“Sometimes, the answer to Phrase 1 is Phrase 4 and the answer to Phrase 2 is Phrase 3.”
OK, fine. I think this means that the musical phrases, having been established in one relationship to each other, may be repeated in a different order. No problem. Like bellringing, or something.

But then:

“Listen to Audio 3.9, where you will hear the model 1-4 and 2-3. First you will hear the whole part and then the isolated phrases.”
Now, I listen to Audio 3.9, and none of the phrases is the same as any of the the ones in 2.9. It's from a different piece. And they're only played once each; they're not 1-2-3-4 then 1-4-2-3. It just happens once.

So my immediate question is - how did they get the numbers? Why would we say that it's 1 followed by 4, then 2 followed by 3, if I've only heard them in the order they're played here?

Is it because they were played in a different order somewhere else? Digging a bit, I find that 3.9 is part of Shusheta, which is provided in full on the DVD in mp3format, presumably so the student can sort out just this kind of problem.

But surprisingly, it's the opening of Shusheta. This is how the phrases are arranged the first time they appear. If you have a copy of Shusheta you can play it.

So my question is still - what makes them 1 and 4, then 2 and 3? If it comes second the first time around, why doesn't that automatically mean it's 2? How do they get the numbers, if it's not from the order of first appearance? How, exactly, does "3" exhibit threeness?

Is it something to do with the way they sound? If so, that doesn't seem like the kind of thing JA would have left unexplained.

I must have some readers who are working through this book. Has anybody worked this out? I am completely baffled, unless either Audio 3.9 is not the one that was meant to be there, or the explanation has been lost in editing. [<joyce grenfell>Ghost, I have your first answer and it doesn't address the problem. Let someone else try before you post your second, I don't mind waiting ...</joyce grenfell>]

Friday 13 February 2009

An American Expression

During the early nineties I encountered the American expression "to get your ducks in a row".

As far as I know, it means to reach a state where everything is properly organised and likely to run smoothly. I think it was uttered by an executive from Chicago during some kind of business dealing with my Dad - perhaps the same excecutive who said "Who's da guy from Central Casting?" when confronted with an English lawyer whose name I won't mention. But only when he went out of the room.

I wondered at the time what the metaphor was. I imagined that the ducks were put in a row by some US vernacular procedure, such as shooting them. But recently I discussed this with someone who had a more pleasing suggestion - that ducklings follow their parent in a neatish line.

I still wonder what the metaphor is.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Happy Birthday Mr. Darwin

“... As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Silurian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful hav been, and are being, evolved.”

Concluding paragraphs of The Origin of Species, 1859.

Retyping the above from my copy, I reflect that the sense of 'perfection' is rather specialised, and the sense of 'secure' as broad as it is possible to imagine. The use-and-disuse suggestion is not quite how it works, because genetics hadn't been discovered yet. 'Breathed' is an interesting choice; I think it is a courteous ambiguity, which probably worked for a lot of readers.

The central idea is as powerful, and the concluding sentence as magnificent, as it ever was.

[Update: Musical Protolanguage: Darwin's theory of language evolution revisited. I have wondered recently whether what your native language is has any predictable effect on how you hear the accents in a melody.]

Sunday 8 February 2009

Where the tango was

I took a class with Adrian and Amanda Costa last weekend. It was about milonga traspié, and Adrian was teaching us to listen for the beat of the bass and dance with it. There is a point where it stops, for a moment, and he wanted us to learn to respect this in our dancing.

This is a paraphrase; his English is not fluent, my memory is not perfect. But it went something like:

“I loooovve this milonga. When I was three years old my grandfather had a game, he used to make me listen to it and I would be an aeroplane [leans forward, makes aeroplane wings] with the bass. Pom, pa-pom pom [walks forward, wings moving with bass] - and it stops - the plane is falling it's falling! And here it is again! Pom, pa-pom pom Pom [wings return to rhythm] ...”

A French three-year-old, his Grandad and a record collection.

I nearly cried.

I'd like to illustrate that with Adrian and Amanda dancing milonga later the same evening, but nobody's posted that video yet, so here is one from Paris.

i want one of those

Just before Christmas I was wondering if January would be the right time to get a good digital camera, and still thinking the answer was, regrettably, no. I still hadn't seen a digital compact that I wanted to own, and a digital SLR just didn't seem right. I already have a perfectly good film SLR, which makes beautiful pictures, but film is the least of its disadvantages.

But then I was in John Lewis buying my Dad's birthday present - a thing so he can put Great Blues Men in his podlet. And I saw The One.

It seems like someone in Panasonic's office said "That bird over there has been Not Buying digital cameras since 1999. It gets my goat. I know what we'll do, we'll chill about the pixel count, chill about the zoom, put a bigger sensor in, give it a proper lens and ISO3200 at full resolution, and make it a compact. And we'll make it look so sexy she'll think she's Annie Leibowitz. Then she'll buy it."

Two weeks later (after the post-Christmas payday) I had to order it, because it was out of stock.

It's beautiful. It doesn't come with a case, so I'm knitting one.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Less Tired

I've just had one of those evenings when I felt less tired at the end than at the beginning.

I'm glad I went home and had an hour and a half's nap beforehand, dozing with the the cricket on the radio, just loud enough to stop me thinking about anything else.

The voice of Michael Holding is more relaxing than that of Geoff Boycott.

Speaking of Geoffrey Boycott, am I the only person who always assumed he was gay until he appeared in that court case in France after an argument with his girlfriend?

I have no idea why I thought this. I don't remember. I just did.

Because I've had a glass of wine

Because I've had a glass of wine, I'm completley unable to write this post without using inappropriate expressions or analogies I'll regret in the mroning.

So I won't.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

The Dog Whisperer

There is kind of dancing man on whom women will rest, as a butterfly rests on a south-facing wall, and follow quite calmly and happily, even if they are inexperienced and nervous and have never seen him before.

If it's your ambition to be this kind of man, you could do a lot worse than watch a few episodes of The Dog Whisperer, and just watch Cesar very carefully. Notice in particular how good he is at stillness, and how his self-command creates trust and cooperation.

Go ahead, watch a few of the clips. He's always been amazing with the dogs, but he's getting pretty damn good at the humans. Many of whom are a few stops short of Dagenham East. A wonderful teacher.

[From the drafts file 27/7/08]

Sunday 1 February 2009

Fire and Flame Ball

This happens once a year, in winter: see Brigitte's website, Paris-Tango for details. Brigitte also organises events in Paris, so you might have a look if you're going there.

The Class: Adrian and Amanda Costa taught two workshops of the highest quality before the ball. The first was on embrace and the second on milonga. They were fully equal partners in the teaching, and at least half of the time was spent teaching the followers. The first workshop was about the embrace, both open and closed, backed up by challenging and instructive practical exercises and precise explanations of why you would want to do it that way. Followers were taught to dance, not just follow, and take responsibility for their own dancing, and were given the information they needed to do so. And it wasn't lip service - everything Adrian and Amanda did was consistent with it.

The milonga workshop included work on the milonga rhythm, and getting all of us to stand still and listen properly right through the track. We were asked to dance to the rhythm of the bass alone, taking notice of where it stopped for a moment (It would be wonderful to do this with live music - it would be so much easier to tune your ear in if you could actually see the bass player. But not practical, I fear). We were advised to practice this listening at home. It was the kind of simple but challenging work that makes a big difference to the quality of your dancing and expands your choices about how to dance.

Adrian and Amanda are both citizens of France, and their entire performance - teaching and dancing - struck me as French, in the best way; passion for the subject combined with intelligence and an uncompromising, systematic concern with aesthetic values. They have a sense of humour and good class control, and the classes were fun. They teach a salon or Villa Urquiza style, and advertise themselves as such, and they point out the relationships between style and technique when it matters.

We didn't rotate. Given the content of the class, it wasn't as important as it normally is, and I had booked with a suitable partner, so it wasn't a problem. A lot of people prefer to work in couples. Speaking of couples, a glance around the room and a swift mental comparison with experience confirmed that Adrian and Amanda attract students who are serious about wanting to dance well. EU passports, too.

Layout and Atmosphere: The Carisbrooke Hall is a convention centre belonging to the Victory Services Club. The ballroom, also called the Carisbrooke Hall, is a bit magnolia but it's a good strong shape and was perked up with glitter dust, little pink tealights, pretty shoes on the mezzanine, and strings of LEDs. You enter by coming down a zigzag of open stairs from the mezzanine, which gives you a great view of the room as well as a fun chance to make an entrance or pose on the landing half way down. There's a giant chandelier in greenish-yellow glass. On the mezzanine was the shoe shop, where Coleccion la Recoleta had brought along a generous display of Comme Il Faut shoes for women and men, a large gilt mirror, and a rug - giving the experience of trying on shoes an air of luxury. It well-lit up there all the time, so you could see what you were buying. You could also go there for a rest. Opposite the mezzanine is the stage, with the DJ box on the right hand side. There were lots of seats under the mezzanine, but it was dark and you couldn't be seen, and the arrangement of tables made it a little tricky to get into and out of that area. Other unreserved seats had around the edges had their feet on the dance floor. It was also possible to sit on the steps of the stage, which a few people did for the performance.

The ball had a dress code; “chic and elegant, no jeans, no trainers”. People dressed well. The men who usually wear just plain dark trousers and a dark, smart shirt had no need to change. Some added a jacket, or even a tie, to their usual look, or wore a lighter-coloured suit. Some of the women had gone for a little frill, a little more shine, a little more glitter or colour than usual. It was pretty, and added to the fun.

Hospitality: Good. It's a convention centre. The bar was conveniently just off the hall and had alert, professional service and some seating of its own. The bar prices were reasonable. The loos are clean and well supplied, if not well designed or built - exactly what you'd expect from a convention centre. The only thing that threw me were the reserved tables; the reservation markers looked like advertising and didn't obviously say ‘RESERVED’. I had not noticed on the website that there was more than one class of ticket, or that it was possible to reserve a table. People having to turf each other off reserved tables and chairs caused some minor embarrassments. It didn't matter much, since there were enough chairs under the mezzanine, and quite a few between tables and around the edges not covered by the reservations. You could put your drink or your bag with bar money on the floor underneath one. There was probably a cloakroom somewhere, where I could have hung my coat, but I overlooked it (put it in the comments, please, if you know where it was). Luckily, I was invited to sit down in a good spot by friends.

Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: Adrian and Amanda gave a performance of stunning musicality, elegance and grace, which started and ended well before I had to leave to make my way home, which was not true of the last pair of visiting stars whose performance I actually wanted (and had already paid) to see. The Tanguarda quartet played two sets. I thought they played very well; they were eminently danceable, with the occasional naughtiness, and they chose strong, well-known pieces to play.

What I thought of the DJing: Luis Rodriguez DJ'd. It was all good traditional stuff, more or less in tandas, though not clearly defined, but no cortinas. It didn't especially draw attention to itself. There were a lot of milongas, more than I felt was common. I like milongas, and would have appreciated this more if I hadn't been so tired from the workshops.

Getting in: The price for the ball only was £20 in advance or £25 on the door. The prices of the workshops also included the ball, and the total was £38 per person for one workshop and the ball, or £55 for both workshops and the ball. There was a small discount for booking as a couple; the couple rate for the whole lot was £105.

Getting there and getting home: At Marble Arch tube, take the exit for the north side of Oxford Street. Turn right, cross Great Cumberland Place, then turn right at Edgware Road (a main road) and cross it at the next lights. Seymour Street is the street in front of you and the Carisbrooke Hall is immediately on the left. Go in and follow the signs for the room itself, which is also called 'Carisbrooke Hall'.

The website: Brigitte's website is The design has gone for looks, and doesn't fit on my screen at work, but it's fine at home. Scroll both sideways and down on each page to find what you are looking for. Other websites: Adrian and Amanda Costa, Tanguarda, Coleccion la Recoleta (schedule currently here).

How it went: I had a good evening. It was well attended and the music was great. There were lots of people I knew, and I danced with one or two that I didn't. Although the ticket cost significantly more than I'd usually pay for a milonga, the event was special enough to justify it. I would probably go again with or without the workshops. The layout gave me a few problems finding people, and I didn't dance very well, because I'd taken both workshops and was tired as well as being rather out of practice recently. And processing information from a workshop always makes me pretty rough. I was one of the first to leave, going around midnight rather than wait for a bus in the cold, but Tanguarda were still playing and it went till 1am.