Monday 13 July 2009

Festivalito de los Angeles, St. Wendel, Germany

This is an annual two-day festival in the picture-postcard-pretty little Baroque town of St. Wendel, which is in Saarland, Germany. It's organised by Melina Sedó and Detlef Engel, who are based in Saarbruecken, about an hour away and five minutes on the TGV past France. It's sponsored by the venue, Angel's Hotel (which I think is owned and run by a rather gorgeous lady called Manuela Angel).

The workshops are on Saturday afternoon, then you can have dinner (book a table; I shared mine with another lady), and the milonga goes from 9pm till about four in the morning or as long as people feel inspired to continue. I went to bed at 03:45, having held out, with unusual success, for a "quit while you're winning" moment. Then on the Sunday there is a "Tango-Brunch"; you roll out of bed at elevenish, have breakfast, then start dancing again from noon. At 6pm it stops, at which point some people have left to go home and the survivors are ready for their dinner, which was a whole 'nother thing - later.

The Class: The workshops were given by Fred and Caty Romero. They were in French, which was lucky for me as my French is quite a lot better than my German, approaching fluency on a good day. It was also translated into German, sometimes by Detlef and sometimes by a student volunteer. I took two of the six. (It's generally necessary to book with a partner, and I was alone, but Melina matched me up with a partnerless leader for these two and it worked out very well). The first workshop was called "the basics - walking and pivots" and the second was "harmony and slow movements". Both of them were interesting and full of really useful content, equally useful to the men and the women, and I felt they had been carefully thought out to illustrate important concepts. The second one in particular was challenging and useful for the women. There was also repeated emphasis on a line of dance, and help and advice for the students who had trouble achieving it.

I really took to Fred and Caty. They had empathy and seemed to love what they were doing; Fred chatted to me later about that and about his approach to DJing and about how he likes teaching in a different place from time to time with different students and different reactions; he seems to have a sense of adventure about it. They were lovely and I've never been gladder that I paid attention in French class and that my parents expected me to learn it properly. They don't speak any English, so otherwise I wouldn't have been able to communicate with them. Here are Fred and Caty somewhere else: [Update: new post with a video of them at St. Wendel]

Layout and Atmosphere: The hotel is pretty, an old building making very good use of natural light. It faces the cathedral. A temporary outdoor dance floor was put up at the front of the hotel; it then got a marquee roof in case of rain (there were a few spots on Sunday, but the weather was generally warm and humid with quite a lot of sun). The floor leads directly out from the hotel bar and restaurant which can be, and was, opened onto the square. There's also an indoor dance floor in another bit of the bar and both of them were full on the Saturday. The area around the dance floor, between it and the tables with umbrellas, was scattered with rose petals, and containers of orange flowers set around the edges of the dance floor. The sides of the marquee were opened and closed from time to time according to the variations of the weather. Here's a pic from Sunday afternoon, quite late, with the floor about one-third full compared to earlier.

Marquee dance floor

You can partly see from the picture that there's quite a substantial drop on three sides of the dance floor, which does focus people's minds on not doing anything reckless. You need to build trust. It made me just a little more cautious than I would otherwise have been about who I danced with on that floor rather than the other one. People danced in a civilised way, I got virtually no bumps and those I remember were just brushes from the side, I think.

Hospitality: It's a luxury hotel in a really attractive building. The service is excellent (it helps to speak reasonable German. Most of the staff don't speak English well, though some do and quite a few speak French). The food's very good. Everything's lovely. It costs quite a bit but the drinks were reasonable. Entry to the milongas is free, and you don't have to stay or eat in the hotel, so there aren't water jugs, which is OK with me if entry is free to an outdoor festival. I mostly drank coffee.

Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: The whole thing was a fascinating holiday from my point of view. On the Saturday evening, Fred and Caty gave a lovely improvised performance. Their style is a close-embrace salon style. I think they did three or perhaps four dances, and I really liked the middle one, for which Fred had chosen a beautiful piece of modern music, quite unlike anything else that got played, which obviously had a strong emotional message for him. [Update: video here.] As for other interesting things, I learned at least the following: If I thought the dancing flower was a tango pisstake, this was because I had not sufficiently experienced the presence and activities of Detlef Engel; especially when ostensibly dancing a perfectly square tango-salon, and with a perfectly straight face. Different class.

What I thought of the DJing: Melinda Sedó DJ'd on the Saturday night and Andreas Wichter on Sunday afternoon. Both of them obviously put a lot of thought into constructing tandas, both play cortinas, and everybody clears the floor for every cortina. I don't think there was a single dodgy tanda or track in twelve hours of dancing. However they both stick very strictly to a more-or-less 'golden-age' period, which is kind of the point, as far as they are concerned. Now there is absolutely oodles of good music in that period, to keep you going for as long as you like, so I have no complaints whatsoever about that. But there's no point in going if you don't like this approach, so be aware of it. I do like it: I also like some other approaches.

Getting in: Entrance to the milongas was free. If you don't live in the area you probably need to stay in the hotel. My extremely nice single deluxe room was €78 per night, including breakfast and use of the "wellness centre"; you'd only actually need to stay the one night, the Saturday. You could still do all the workshops and both milongas. I stayed three. The workshops with Fred and Caty were €22 each and I think the quality was very high, with a high proportion of really useful information, and we all got personal attention.

Getting there and getting home: It makes sense to stay in the hotel. There is other possible accommodation within a few minutes' walk, which might be cheaper. To get to the festival from London, I could have taken a plane. It would have saved me a lot of money, but no time. Instead I took the Eurostar to Paris, and TGV to Saarbruecken, and the local train to St. Wendel, and I knitted all the way. I left St. Pancras International at 09:01 and checked in to the hotel at about half past four, having lost an hour to the time difference, so the train journey took about six hours including adequate allowance for changes. They're not joking when they call them trains à grande vitesse. I booked the whole journey via the Deutsche Bahn website, working on advice from the man in seat 61. If I were doing it again I might use the Deutsche Bahn website to plan the journey, then book the trains seperately.

While I was changing trains on the way back, I went for a coffee in Saarbruecken and checked the location of Melina and Detlef's festival in September at the Johanneskirche, which I'll put on the map. I think you could get there in well under five hours from St. Pancras.

The website: The splash page has a real function, selecting your language. The info's all there, sometimes as JPG or PDF.

How it went: The dancing went exceptionally well. Now this was partly because I knew some of the people already, as it happened, but if I hadn't known anyone I think I would still have found it fairly straightforward to get my first dance, and after that there wouldn't have been a problem. It was a very congenial atmosphere. All levels were represented. The Saturday night was a bit intense and at one point I had to go to my room and cool my feet off, but the Sunday afternoon was very relaxed (see photo above). Those who remained at the very end mostly had dinner in a large loose group with the tables pushed together and this was in some ways my favourite part of the whole weekend; I've never been happier that I made use of the opportunities I had at school. Nobody can be selfconscious about speaking a foreign language when nobody's perfect, and some people understand and speak more than others, and you all want to understand each other, talking about things that interest and amuse you all, and there's no showing off. Just communication.

I think I should say a word about style. It costs a lot to go to a festival like this in comfort, so you need to make an informed decision about what you're going to get out of it and whether it's right for you. Woman or man, you need to know how to dance a front-on, close-embrace, continuous-connection tango, if you're going to get a lot of dances. It doesn't matter what else you know, as long as this is among your options. You need to like the Golden Age music, or there'd be no point. And if you are the bloke who I personally witnessed reversing at speed into two couples at once at Corrientes in June, please don't go because if you fall off that dance floor there'll be a broken leg, not necessarily yours. Okay?

Anyway I loved it. I had a top-class weekend.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great holiday. Do you think it would've be possible someone who can only speak English to enjoy such a holiday too?

msHedgehog said...

@Yabotil: Probably they would have been able to provide a reasonable English translation in the workshops if there were enough English-only guests to justify it. Actually, I could quite easily have translated into English, and would have volunteered to do so, at least with a couple of hours of preparation - I think I was the only native English speaker there, though. So I don't know. Detlef and Melina both speak excellent English. You'd probably manage, and quite a few people spoke English to me some of the time in conversation. I spoke English over dinner on the Saturday. You might not enjoy it as much as I did, but you'd still enjoy it, at least if you've got any experience of being somewhere you don't understand the language and you're ok with it. Waiters and hotel staff in this area, (and all over Germany in my experience), are always friendly and patient, and always make an effort to understand and help. Fred and Caty and their two preteen children managed quite well by pointing and guessing at the menus and occasionally attempting a barbarous mixture of English and German. Announcements were in German and French. If you could manage to navigate between trains and pronounce your room number I think you'd be ok, but the navigation part would be slightly tricky.

Elizabeth Brinton said...

I was going to ask the same question, since we have no French speakers in our family. But you've answered it.
The other thing that I wanted to say it how much I enjoyed seeing the very lovely dancing, and the civilized quality of the event, after having been in another city recently that touts it's wonderful tango community. Both milongas there were dark, dirty, inhospitable, bad sound, bad air, and bad dance....Made me happy to be in Seattle, but we have no one scattering rose petals for us here! And seldom a glass of champagne in a beautiful space. How perfectly lovely.
Thanks, Hedge.

msHedgehog said...

Hi E! It was lovely, and I want to communicate the fact that it's possible, so I'm glad it made you happy. The workshops were in French because that's what Fred and Caty speak (they also speak Spanish, so you would have been fine with any form of American Spanish) - another year they might be in some other mixture of languages.

It generally is possible to make your way around Europe with just English; France is probably the most difficult. I had no problems in the Czech Republic when I passed through there ten years or so ago, and I don't speak any of their languages at all, although I think German came in useful. The Deutsche Bahn call centre spoke fluent English, as did the lady who answered the hotel's phone.

Captain Jep said...

What a lovely review. And probably the first Ive seen of one of the smaller festivals in Europe. There are lots of them - I wonder why we dont have more bloggers out there who cover them?!

Lynn said...

Hello Ms H,

I really enjoyed reading your review, it was great to meet you in St. Wendel and sorry not to see you to say farewell.

Until the next time,


msHedgehog said...

Hi Lynn, I was sorry to miss you too, I must have gone to bed by the time you came back from your walk. I had such a nice time. Urgues! H

Andreas said...

"Woman or man, you need to know how to dance a front-on, close-embrace, continuous-connection tango, if you're going to get a lot of dances."
That one got me giggling until I realized it needs to be said. But then the compact version of saying the same thing is: "You have to be able to dance tango". But that is just me, the tango fascist...

msHedgehog said...

Well, yes, it does need to be said, because even among the minority (in my world) who even have a definite idea of what it means, most (in my world) are using a far vaguer definition than yours, and are not aware that there are any more precise definitions. (Or if they are, they assume that they're social divisions, or based on skill level). So if an event embodies a specific concept of tango and requires specific skills to be enjoyed, then that is basic information about that event which the possible visitor needs to know. If it is not provided, there will be embarrassing misunderstandings and disappointments. Like the lady who only knows how to dance in a V-embrace simply not realising that practically everyone there - regardless of skill - will find her hard to dance with.