Sunday, 22 March 2009

Raising expectations

Yesterday I went to the Crypt earlier than I usually would because it was Adrian and Amanda Costa, and I wanted to take the class. Unfortunately I still missed the first third, partly because of the rugby, but mainly because I'd forgotten my Tube route was partially down for some scheduled repairs. It would have been rude to join at that point, and it was also extremely full (good thing, too) so I just watched and listened with a cup of tea. But I was told this:

Adrian had started the class by explaining and demonstrating the rhythmic distinction between milonga, tango, and tango-vals, and how to tell the difference.

And I am pretty sure of this:

This simple, necessary information was new to a large proportion of the students, most of whose faces were not new to me, and most of whom had been dancing for more than one year. And important parts of it would have been new to me, too, if I hadn't happened to take that class with Joaquín Amenábar.

Which — is a scandal. And here I cut two paragraphs of rant: but I think it's a scandal and I don't really give a bugger what the excuses are.

So, back to the class. Adrian gives pretty good quotes and I really wished I had a dictaphone, but in running for my train I had neglected to bring even a pencil and paper. So paraphrases of what stuck are the best I can do.

"If the traspié it is there in the music I can choose, to do it or not to do it. If it is not there I cannot do it."
(The class was working with a tango here, not a milonga, and by traspié he meant what is usually called "double-time" in English, in the sense of double the number of steps, each of them in half the time.)

The class was asked to dance doing whatever they liked, but mostly just walking, and always doing the double-time only when it was there in the music, not always then, and not otherwise.

And the women were expected to listen, too! Amanda assumed that we could figure out ourselves how to do whatever ornament we liked, and told us to do one for the traspié if and only if the traspié was there but the man didn't put a step in himself. The women were not treated as being there to serve, nor were we treated as lawn ornaments, studying to look as nearly as possible like a tasteful display of identical plastic flamingos. It was assumed without apology or discussion that we were there to learn to dance well, for our own pride and enjoyment; that this was a possible goal; that it was worth attaining, without other justification; that we were capable of attaining it, with some work; and that we wanted to do so. Yay!

Towards the end Adrian made the class stand still and listen again to the entire tango, pointing out that it repeated the same pattern, with the double-time in the same place each time, and a suspension (opposite of a double-time) also in the same place each time, and if you missed it the first time, the ability to count to seven and find the start of the musical phrase gave you numerous other chances. He pointed out that this is very common in tango. There are repetitions following some structure that you can understand and predict with fair reliability if you can count to eight and listen as you do. Yay!!

The class concluded with a rather long lecture, and hardly anybody dropped out. They all appeared to be listening carefully. All of it would, if applied, make anyone who heard it dance better. Yay again!!!
"There are two kinds of dancers, dancers and movers. If I don't know why I am doing what I am doing, I am just moving. If I hear it and I choose to do it, I am dancing, even if I am like this [contortions, posture of an old man]. If I choose not to do it, I am still dancing."
That last one reminded me of the class they gave on Friday at Conway Hall, which was about floorcraft, and nothing else.
"If I am this close to him [too close to the man in front] I cannot go here, because he is there. I cannot go here, because the woman is there, and I cannot see. I cannot go this way, because it is a backward step and I cannot see. I have no possibility at all. But if I am this close [leaving a metre of space] I have many possibilities."
Yes! It was made explicit that you do not step into the blind spot. You do not step backwards. You leave space, just like on the motorway. You look where you are going, not at the steering wheel. You do not weave from lane to lane. Whenever you learn a new figure, said Adrian, before you make use of it in the milonga, you have to practice it; and when you do that, you find out which way you'll be facing when it ends. If it's any way other than forwards in the line of dance, or if the figure means that you change lanes, step backwards, or step into the blind spot, it's your responsibility to work out how to start it or adapt it so that you don't have to do those things. You can make your salida diagonal so you don't have to cross lanes sideways into traffic. Women were given advice about posture and footwork that helped to keep everything straight and the couple to move with confidence and safety and control.

I know!! Shocking!!!

And the point was this: if everybody follows these rules, it does not matter at all what style you dance — you can do whatever the hell you want, whatever you think is right for the music, whatever appeals to you, because everybody is respecting each other and giving each other enough space and not taking more than their fair share. Everybody gets to share the love. Everybody gets to see what you create. Nobody has to feel restricted. Again, I wish I'd had a dictaphone, because that's what I heard rather than what he said, but you can ask anyone.

The whole class was made, through various exercises, to follow these rules for one dance, and it was a revelation. Everybody had space; the whole room was dancing together, each couple doing its thing, not a chaotic mess of predators competing for territory, but a large gathering of consenting adults there to have fun.

It only lasted five minutes and it instantly fell apart when we tried to do something else as well, but I can only hope those five minutes left an impression on the participants that the skills of basic respect for your fellow dancers were skills worth aspiring to, worth giving some attention, and worth encouraging in other people. And I at least had fewer bumps for the rest of the evening than I usually do there. I think the total was one and a bit.

And since those little rules of thumb sound more complicated than they are, here is a diagram of Adrian and Amanda, with the green arrows showing safe directions and the red dotted line showing the contrary. Suppose that the couple are in the outside lane, the wall or seating is to the right, and the boundary with the inside lane is about where the arrow marked 'line of dance' is. (For example, you can see that they could rotate a little bit to the right about their centre, and walk straight; or they could go the way they're already pointing and zigzag, pivoting at the boundary; or if they took one step in that direction they could then quite safely do a clockwise turn about the woman's axis).


I don't think A&A are coming here again till October, but I hope they do because this sort of teaching, and the sort of dancing they do, raises people's expectations of themselves, of their teachers, and of each other. More, please.

xx Very Stroppy Phase of Moon Hedgehog


Anonymous said...

Ah yes, tailgating. Which I must admit to being guilty of partially out of a fear of holding up the line of dance.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it amazing how simple it really is AND how quickly it all goes to hell in a handbasket?

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms Hedgehog
Missed Sat's lesson but listened to Friday's and absolutely agree with what A&A said and you've repeated there.
In this instance, common sense and care for other dancers make the most of this piece of education, and it's surprising how many dancers have little care for others. Could tango be a dance favorised by the selfish?
But although not everyone took this lesson through back home, I'm sure some dancers did, and every little bit of improvement helps, doesn't it?

Game Cat said...

Ms H - I attended the Costas' Fri class at Conway hall, and agree with your observations.

I suspect they decided to teach floorcraft, cleverly disguised initially as a refresher of the salida, after they watched everyone dance one tango at the start of the class (and were appalled at the floorcraft on display).

Incidently, this is the second time in a fortnight I've seen guest teachers at a pre-milonga "intermediate" class in London teach floorcraft after witnessing the first tango. I think this is regretful, but better late than never.

I'm actually more alarmed by your observation on Sat that many people could not differentiate the different rhythmic patterns of the 3 types of tango music. This ISN'T EVEN Musicality 101!! What were people listening to / dancing to before they knew this?!

msHedgehog said...

Hi Sophie - I don't think London dancers are selfish in general, though of course some individuals are, I just don't think they have good information or high expectations. I think it's up to me and you and the rest of us to think up ways of creating those experiences and the desire for them as best we can. I don't think we can realistically expect this from commerical operators or teachers. I think it's something the community has to do - perhaps by some means along the lines of "First Friday". (I should have thought of getting Gamecat to introduce us).

Hi Gamecat
I think it was planned because he did ask us to dance that first tango with special attention to floorcraft - but a lot of people didn't understand because he didn't know the word "floorcraft" so he said "the ballroom". People weren't expecting that word in that context, and thought they hadn't heard right or didn't grasp what he meant. It would have amused you to hear the crowd at the Crypt trying to teach him the word "goosepimples".

The information that milonga is defined by a specific rhythm, and which one, was not divulged to me at any time in two years of dancing tango, during which I calculate that I must have taken about eighty or ninety classes including a six-week milonga course. Maybe people think that if you don't percieve what the rule is telepathically and by magic, you will never understand it at all; or maybe they think something different. As I said, I don't really care any more what the excuses are. It didn't stop me dancing milonga fairly well, because my animal response to music is fairly strong, but it did prevent me dancing it as well, or enjoying it as much, or progressing as quickly, as I could have. And that, to be honest, annoys me.

Anonymous said...

I really think many teachers are not confident in teaching or explaining the rhythm or music.

disclaimer: I may be biased or incensed. I've just come from YET another class where a sequence was counted in numbers and students were encouraged to think in terms of how many side-steps did the sequence have, or how many back steps in total. Sigh. Seep deep sigh.

Anonymous said...

"I think it's up to me and you and the rest of us to think up ways of creating those experiences and the desire for them as best we can. I don't think we can realistically expect this from commerical operators or teachers."
- of course not, they're in competition with each other. And, a lot of them are prima donnas who have simply fallen out with each other over some petty issue or other.

There'd have to be an overriding commercial imperative for them to actively collaborate at any level beyond allowing competitor flyers at milongas. Hell, there aren't even any relevant links from their websites on the most part.

"I think it's something the community has to do - perhaps by some means along the lines of "First Friday". "
- of course, you realize we've copyrighted that? ;)

But I don't either see much community-building going on in the London AT scene.

For example, one thing I suggested before was a single, authoritative, collaboratively-produced "London venues / reviews / maps" site, which anyone could contribute to, using Google Maps or similar. But no one wants to surrender control enough to do that, whilst still assuming responsibility for moderating it... Community-building involves collaboration, compromise, diplomacy and all that stuff. Or so I've heard.

Blimey, this was going to be a short comment originally...

Oh, and:
"my animal response to music is fairly strong" - ooer missus.

msHedgehog said...

I don't actually think that collaborative websites are an effective technical solution; Google solves the same problem much better. And all you have to do to be Googleable is do a reasonable job of keeping your own house in order. I do think the calendar is useful, but it's patently impossible to keep a calendar of any events other than one's own correct for more than five minutes.

The lack of a central listing is not necessarily because people haven't frequently tried it, they have, or because people are unwilling to cooperate, as such - it's more that there are frankly too many such attempts and nobody has time to read them or try to keep track of them. Nobody has time for that; it's just not reasonable to expect people to update any website but their own.

I personally would never ever rely on any collaborative website any more than I would on Wikipedia - because I think the basic idea guarantees wrongness.

Anonymous said...

"The lack of a central listing is not necessarily because people haven't frequently tried it, they have, or because people are unwilling to cooperate, as such - it's more that there are frankly too many such attempts and nobody has time to read them or try to keep track of them."
All of those attempts are one-person bands, though, right? They don't attempt to build in a community effort from the start.

Both LGTN ("First Friday") and Jivetango are collaborative ventures; whilst largely driven by Ken and myself respectively, they seem to work OK as group ventures.

"Nobody has time for that; it's just not reasonable to expect people to update any website but their own."
- Why not? I contribute to many forums, none of which belong to me. If updating an entry were as easy as posting on a forum, what would be the problem?

"I personally would never ever rely on any collaborative website any more than I would on Wikipedia - because I think the basic idea guarantees wrongness."
- So why complain about the lack of collaboration and community-building, if you don't want to, umm, collaborate in building a community?

How would you propose building a community venture without collaborative input of some kind?

David The Confused.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms Hedgehog
Your post is perfect and explained perfectly what he was trying to get across...And yes Johanna and yes it did go to hell in a handbasket? after 5 minutes.But i believe things will change this is the 3rd time i've attend a class based on these subjects...floorcraft..line of dance...and musicality...And like all things some people heard and some were just deaf or selfish sometimes i think both...trying to put back the social part in tango dancing is going to be hard work let us be the bold few who take on this message....i also discovered i was a

Tangocommuter said...

“...if everybody follows these rules, it does not matter at all what style you dance — you can do whatever the hell you want, whatever you think is right for the music, whatever appeals to you...”. That must be a big 'if', and dancers who do whatever the hell they want, by definition don't follow these rules. It's not so much the kicks as the random lateral movements of nuevo that makes it a problem in a crowded milonga: that kind of dancing simply takes a lot more space than good social dancing.

Few teachers make an effort to teach moves for small spaces. They usually teach giros with big saccadas at every step, but every saccada moves the axis of of the turn: suddenly the couple is dancing somewhere else, and then somewhere else again. Video of dancing in Buenos Aires milongas shows that many dancers can a) start a turn from any position, and b) turn effortlessly on the spot, which takes little extra space and gives the leader a 360-degree view. If we were taught this, we'd know how to manage crowded floors, and learning rules might not be necessary. (In an ideal world...)

Game Cat said...

Firstly, the fact that teachers they are competing commercially is not the problem. Teachers in BsAs also compete for students. The problem in London is that many students don't choose teachers on the basis of how useful their teaching is when applied to the milonga.

Secondly, I agree that the "community" has a strong incentive to improve floorcraft. It is a "public good" like clean air and water. I think a natural focal point for coordination is a milonga with a supportive operator. If one can be persuaded they will get enough regular custom on a Fri night from floorcraft-respecting dancers, they will find a way to enforce it and publicise it. Maybe "First Friday" can be a way to pilot this (not sure of details but I think I understand the concept).

Once you have a successful milonga, others may or may not follow suit. If it spreads, teachers will fall into line because that's what students will want. If it doesn't, at least all of us will know where to head to on Friday nights. ;)

msHedgehog said...

DB, I think you've hit the nail right on the head there. You and I are the sort of people who contribute to message boards - a minuscule minority of the minority who read them - because (a) we can't shut up and (b) we have total familiarity and confidence with the medium, plus the continuous or near-continuous, cheap, easy access which makes it feasible. For us there is no real boundary between that kind of socialising and socialising physically. But it's still an enormously time-consuming thing, which we do anyway from time to time for our own individual reasons. If you take a look at the websites, however, you can see that the available skills and screen time are already used up and the task is an utterly tiresome one for people who don't have those skills, that familiarity, that seamless access, and the ability to touch-type at 50wpm. (I would myself be out dancing now if it weren't essential that I get to be early today, but that's by the by. I can also touch-type one sentence while uttering a different one, on another topic, with my mouth - even my colleagues don't see that as normal).

All visits of all guest teachers are collaborative efforts - so are all festivals. So are all milongas, really. Collaboration isn't a barrier. But technology is - we can expect very basic competence in it, but we can't expect people to do things our way. The reason I think the google calendar is useful, or would be if it were a little bit easier to use, is it's the sort of thing where everyone can have their own one, so true syndication and aggregation are possible. But it has to catch on first.

Suppose you are a milonga organiser - do you update Arlene's calendar? Jill's calendar? Both? DB's as well? How do you even know which one to do? You only have time for one. Or do you just update your own and let them use it if they want to? That last option strikes me as the only one I would do. But don't take it from me, I'm only speculating - talk to them about your ideas and see what they say.

The reasons I do this blog are entirely selfish. The post above is selfish. I'm hoping to influence opinion so that I have more fun. I'm willing to do a certain amount of work for that in real space as well, but my screen time is mostly taken.

@last Anon, congratulations! Cool, isn't it? Feel free to say who taught each class, everybody likes encouragement. Maybe it will start a fashion.

@TC - nuevo doesn't have to be bad, I dance regularly with people who do that stuff and have good floorcraft. It does require a highish level of skill, otherwise one thing or the other suffers, and you have to be motivated by thinking it's necessary, but it *is* certainly possible and there's no obvious reason why people who love that music and love those movements, shouldn't demand good dancing of themselves and other people too.

Anonymous said...

Regarding efforts to maintain a listing of local events/milongas:
There is a very successful website in the Netherlands: that has managed to do all this. Most, if not all, tango dancers in the Netherlands and nearby, would probably check this website for updates/events. I don't know who created it/maintains it or what his/her secrets are, but the info is probably somewhere on the website itself.

Anonymous said...

OK, based on this discussion, I've moved my own class listings page down one level, and I've altered my "Classes" page ( to be a set of links to all of the class listings I know of.

Therefore hopefully covering all the bases.

If you know of any other listings pages, please let me know...