Monday 28 September 2009

Side note on getting dances

On a side note: I remember a very wierd transitional period of about three or four months. Before it, I regarded every dance I got as a bonus, accepting all offers with equal curiosity, while they slowly increased in quality and number. I organised my evening to maximise my chances of being asked, avoiding only people I had danced with at least once and verified as hopeless.

Afterwards, I never got five minutes to sit down, and I organised my evening in whatever way I could to get some kind of control over it. In between there was a strange period where I got fewer and sometimes worse dances than before and I wondered if there was any actual point in improving at all. The switch between getting no dances and getting more than I could handle was unbelievably sudden and I still don't know why exactly it happened when it did. Maybe I fixed something, I still don't know what; or maybe it was processing time, while people changed their minds about how I fitted in.

I've had other transitions since then, and now it all works completely differently. So that was an aside. But it was strange.

Friday 25 September 2009

Mosaic Jersey - Finished!!!!!!!!

No longer a UFO! It's done! Thanks and hugs to Romney for taking the pictures.

Mosaic Jersey finished
This is the most ambitious garment I've ever made, and I've been knitting it since February, on and off. I really learnt a lot. The pattern is vintage, from 1947 if I remember correctly.

I didn't adapt the shape at all, I just went with the pattern. The only change I made was to the colourwork. In the original, the all-over colour pattern, different from the one I've used, is in Fair Isle. I didn't want to do that because:

  • The result would be unwearably hot
  • The pattern is knitted flat, and there are very good reasons why Fair Isle is usually knitted in the round
  • The pattern given is a risky one for Fair Isle, with very long floats
  • Fair Isle is very difficult to keep smooth and even at the best of times, and I don't think I can do it with floats that long.
Instead I chose this very beautiful pattern from the Mosaic chapter of Barbara C. Walker's Charted Knitting Designs. Mosaic knitting is a slipped-stitch technique, such that you are only ever working with one colour at a time. You construct each row in two passes, one with each colour. It's explained in the book, it's very easy to do, and it's very easy to keep both even and correct, but the downside is that each row gets done twice. So it's probably slower than Fair Isle - though perhaps not by much, as Fair Isle is so fiddly and you have to spend so much time untangling.

The material is Jamiesons' Shetland Spindrift, which is pretty thin, a bit like sock wool. The brooch is from the vintage counter at John Lewis Oxford Street.

Things I learned include:

Increases and decreases in mosaic knitting

Detail of sleeve endIt's very simple. It works fine if you just ignore one of the colours. If you do the increases and decreases only in the light rows, the dark rows don't count when you're deciding when the next one comes. And don't worry about the colour of the stitch you're increasing or decreasing, just do it close to the edge, take whatever comes up, and let the pattern correct itself over the next couple of rows. The problem vanishes into the seam. Also, the back of the fabric has regular two-by-two stripes, and these make it very easy to count rows.

Change of gauge for shaping

This pattern uses changes of gauge - by taking a smaller needle for a while - for the inward shaping to the waist and for the wrists. This is an extremely elegant solution, I'll certainly use it in my own designs. In a colour pattern like this, it's neatly simple, and it occurs to me that it's also visually slimming at those points because the pattern gets slightly smaller and recedes visually.

Flat colourwork

If you knit a colour pattern flat, you can match it up exactly at the seams and have it look as though the diamonds are coming out of either side of a mirror. This is very pleasing.

Sewing together

Don't bother trying to sew it together with the Shetland Spindrift. It sticks together too much and hasn't got the tensile strength to pull and make an invisible seam. Get some superwash sock wool and use that for the seams. It works.


At a first approximation - sample of one - the default size for patterns of this period seems to be a pretty good fit for me. My gauge is slightly looser than specified, but the result is still a very tight fit, as designed - in the picture I've vaguely imitated the pose of the lady on the front of the pattern. I am a dress size 10 UK, or sometimes an 8, depending on the retailer (that might be a 6 or 4 American size.)


The small gauge is scary, but the effect is stunning.

Didn't realise that would happen

A high neckline and detailed all-over pattern makes my boobs look bigger.

So, am I going to wear it?

Yes I am, when the weather gets cold. It's definitely designed for a world without central heating, so there aren't that many situations where I can wear it. But if I'm going to be outdoors in the cold and I want to look really stylish, this is the thing to wear. The Shetland wool felts beautifully, so I don't want to have to wash it too much, and I'll be very careful when I do. I'm thinking of making underarm pads to protect it. (On the other hand, I long to make a big piece of the same fabric and felt it into a beautiful handbag). It's also quite short in the body, like most patterns of this period, so there aren't all that many garments I can wear it with. But it will definitely get worn.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Two women converse about leading

A conversation with a friend, posted with her permission and slightly edited for clarity and relevance and to remove people's names.

... i will look [Sway] up on line and maybe give it a go.
i tried to lead last wed.
it was interesting

I'll have the review of Sway done in an hour or two with all the links
Leading is very illuminating

i practiced the walk like [O] explained. it did seem to work
in that the follower moved her leg back.

Which explanation was that?

but the timing is tricky and you have to be careful the follower is giving forward intention otherwise she drags you back with her before you actually want to go.
so i am going to watch I dont do that next time I dance. Do you know what I mean

the other thing i noticed
is that as [O] says:

Yes I think I know what you mean

I lead, but I accompany

i.e. you lead, she goes, then you go with her
Is that what you mean?

yes, but it is so subtle almost happens in a breath. the connection is so so important.


so these 2 things, which obviously i knew, but became very very clear after leading. so i am going to lead more.
do you lead

I took about ten beginner lessons as a leader
It helped me quite a bit
The biggest surprise was how few women grasp the concept of following

yes - you are right!! about the women.

Leading a bit made me appreciate what I do right
It actually gave me a lot of confidence as a follower

Yes, you are right

I know I've always been easy to lead but I never understood what that actually meant till I tried leading [different people]
I didn't realise how much influence the follower has on how easy or hard it is.

and when i led this girl called [J], who has been to Mango, and has learnt along the same principles as me it was delightful. We both loved each other.

I agree - people say the same - that I am easy to lead - I never believed them, just thought they were flirting or something - but [now] I know they meant it.

And also I understood why people want to lead - it feels rather magic when it works.

Yes you are right - thats why i love [O] - he just walks me and doesnt try anything but its so interesting

It is, isn't it? And it so hard to explain exactly how

yes - with [J] i did just once, a weight change and she floated along - we stopped immediately and laughed because it was so lovely it had been achieved.

And it seems so simple

i have another lesson with [O] when he gets back - i cant wait. i emailed him to ask about music. what music should i listen to in order to place my step.
he said listen to disarli, dont worry about choreography. just place my foot on the beat. so thats my mission until he comes back.

Yes. I can lend you some CDs, I have more diSarli than I want
I found leading really helped with that as well
It changed my relationship to the music and made me more precise

yes you are right about the music. i am just beginning to realise it.
must go now - may go to portland later


also one other thing i just remembered.
about the forward intention with the upper body.
its actually in reverse for the follower.
now i know i know that, but somehow, leading has actually crystallised it in my mind.

It's tricky because it's not the way your'e going is that what you mean?

because when i led [R] as he extended his leg - it was very clear that his upper body came back a bit too quick and we lost connection and he dragged me earlier than i wanted to go.
now again, i know that, and people have said in the past that i sometimes do it. but feeling it in someone else hopefully will help me to take it on board.

Yes, it makes a lot more sense

oh its all so interesting. but i must go!

see you later!

Sunday 20 September 2009

Tangology @ Sway

[Update 24th Nov 2009: The LAST milonga at Sway is tomorrow, 25th November 09. If it's not that day - don't go there expecting a milonga!]

There's a new milonga on Wednesdays by Tangology (Eleonora Simoes), at Sway bar. For the moment at least, it's free to get in. It also happens on Sundays, I haven't been yet on a Sunday so I don't know what the differences are except that it isn't free on Sunday. This is based on two Wednesday visits.

The Class: There isn't one on the Wednesday.

Layout and Atmosphere: The dancing is in the main bar right through the glass doors in front of you. It's a good sized squarish room with dark floor and furniture, white ceiling and details that you could reasonably describe as Art Deco - I think that applies at least to the doorhandles and concealed lighting. The bar is along the right hand side and the far side, divided from the dance floor by tall tables. When it's time for the milonga to start, they clear tables off the dance floor and stack chairs out of the way. There are also some semicircular sofas along the front and the left hand side, good for groups of friends, and very comfortable, but a little awkward for getting dances. On the other hand, they're a nice place to rest. There's enough seating for everyone who wants to sit down. Bar chairs on the edge of the floor are a hazard, but they are still tweaking the layout, and this was largely solved by my second visit.

For a lot of the time the lighting was good, but it kept being suddenly turned down really low, causing bumps, and then coming up again after a while. Maybe this will get fixed. The floor is fine, it didn't give me any problems. The sound system did, but it was adjusted and improved to an acceptable level during my second visit.

The atmosphere is nice - I danced with a visitor from San Fransisco who was finding it easy to fit in. It might be trickier for a beginner, although I like the fact that there are quite a few places you can sit to watch and be largely out of play if you want to. An odd aspect is that because it's a public bar and entry is free and it remains open, there are always a few astonished spectators. And for some reason, I'm the person they ask "what's going on?". On my first visit it was two well-built and well-informed gentlemen who turned out to be Glaswegian ballroom dancers. They carried on observing with interest right to the end. On the second it was two confused but fascinated youngsters who'd mistaken either the place or the day and had been expecting the Law Society Drinks.

It's hot and there's no aircon. The broad steps mean you can cool off outside the door without being exactly in the street. Bar staff in hotpants may be a compensation if your tastes lie that way.

Hospitality: Good, given the price and venue. On my first visit, my G&T (a double) was a surprisingly reasonable £3.60 and a pint of orange juice was £2.80. On my second, a single G&T was £4.50, but that might be because I'd arrived very early through absence of mind and the cheaper prices start after 8:30. Service was prompt and professional. Food is also available, menus here. Given that entrance is currently free, I did not think to ask for a glass of water, I'll update later on that. The loos downstairs were what you'd expect from a professional bar; nothing luxurious but clean and dry, hot and cold water, and properly supplied and working. The only problem I had was that because it's a public bar I'm not 100% happy about leaving my things on or under a sometimes-unattended table while I'm dancing. I don't worry about this at all when everyone's there just to dance. They're probably pretty safe, they have been so far, but it makes me stressed. A cloakroom would be nice - I'm not sure if there is one downstairs, I don't think so.

Anyone or anything interesting: No special event, just social dancing.

What I thought of the DJing: DJ's vary, and get announced on the Tangology mailing list. It was > 90% traditional on both nights. On my first visit it was innocuous, with quite a bit of vals and very little milonga, but it was hard to assess because of the sound problems. On my second, with a different DJ (Mehmet), I felt it was stronger. There were no cortinas on either night. On my first visit and for the first two hours of my second, they had really serious problems with the sound system; I couldn't hear the music any better than I can hear it on my ipod on the Victoria Line, and that's not really good enough to dance to (being a bit of a tightwad about technology, I haven't upgraded my earphones). After that, it got fixed or adjusted, and was pretty much fine. DJ's will probably want to prepare for a weak sound system and make sure things are digitised at the right level.

Getting in: Entry is free. It's a public bar, so it's obviously courteous to order something.

Getting there and getting home: The nearest tube is Holborn, on the Central and Piccadilly lines, with buses in all directions from nearby. It ends at midnight, which is fine for getting the tube as long as you don't dawdle. From Holborn Tube take the exit in front of you, walk left down Kingsway and cross it at the next lights. You are now facing Great Queen Street; Sway is on the left hand side just after the big hotel.

The website: Tangology. Looks nice, tells you where it is and when and how much it is to get in. The venue has its own, SwayBar.

How it went: The location is so central and easy to reach that it makes a weekday milonga feasible for me, which makes me happy. On both my visits the line of dance was observed well for quite a while, then it got a bit complicated, then it thinned out towards the end. I danced mainly, but not exclusively, with people I knew. My impression from the people who came (discounting those who were there because the Dome was closed) is that people will tend to dance salon-style, consistently close embrace here [Update: I'm probably wrong about this]. Which is nice if it turns out to be true, because we need places where you can go and be sure of finding partners who want and can do that. The floor is relatively small but for most of the time there weren't many bumps. A moderately experienced dancer visiting from out of town wouldn't have any problems. Cortinas, a cloakroom, consistent lighting, and it would be perfect.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Wayne Explains ...

Eyeshadow for grown-ups. And the ordinary woman who wants to make an effort, but frankly wonders what she's meant to do with all that stuff.

I can't help thinking that art students might find it interesting too. If you fast-forward to 09:20 you can see the effect, then wind back to see how it's done. Or if you want to know what your lady is doing in the bathroom, just watch the whole thing.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Brain space

I cannot talk and follow at the same time.

This isn't a post about whether it's good manners or a good idea to talk while you're dancing for any reason. That depends on the context, the couple, whatever just happened, and all sorts of things.

I personally just can't do both at once.

Interestingly, though, I used to be able to do it. In my first six months of tango I could follow and say something at the same time. I felt it was distracting and just came out of nervousness, so I stopped talking, and consequently stopped dancing with people who wanted to converse. But I could do it. The nervousness thing can still happen just as I'm starting, but hardly ever, and as I tune in, it becomes impossible to continue.

Now I can't do it even if I want to, at least, not for more than a few seconds. My subjective impression is that, in the same way that my body decided to use these muscles instead of those muscles for turning the hips, so that I could do ochos without travelling backwards unless I meant to, my brain apparently decided to commandeer the language circuits for processing the music. It didn't make me an especially musical follower, but it did seem to be necessary for me.

I can make vaguely-meaningful noises and say single words; what I can't do is mentally compose a sentence. If I managed it, I feel it would come out as total scribble. Word Salad, or the dreamlike sentences that go through your mind just before you fall asleep; Thursday the canoodle wig tick, neat frumenty splitbean, whither?

When something absolutely requires me to speak, what happens is that I more or less stop, paralysed. Most of the time, anything that requires me to talk will have caused us to stop briefly anyway, or at least have to reset our embrace a bit, which covers the paralysis. But on the very rare occasions when the man I'm dancing with says something I feel I must respond to while we're dancing - I have to stop while I'm constructing a reply. I can then say the sentence while we go on dancing, in the same way that I can touch-type a sentence I've already composed in my mind while listening to someone who's asking me a different question (not all of my colleagues think that's normal, but anyway I can do it). But I can't construct a new one.

I have no idea whether this applies to anyone else, although I know it doesn't apply to everyone. I wonder if being fully fluent in more than one language makes a difference.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

The Wrong Question

Arlene (LondonTango) has an "Ask Arlene" feature where people send in the questions that are on their minds, and she gives some sort of an answer and then throws it to the floor.

The last question was "How good do I have to be for a good dancer to want to dance with me"?

The answers are ok, you can go and read them there. I started to write a comment, but it turned into an essay. So I put it here.

On one level this seems to me like a completely reasonable, natural, and practical question, and I entirely sympathise with it. On another level it seems, like most questions that are interesting at all, to be The Wrong Question.

It does work like that, up to a point. As you get better at dancing, people feel able and willing to dance with you, who weren't before. If you eliminate some quirk that makes you difficult to dance with, you're going to get more dances and they're likely to go better. The goal is to have fun, and to a certain degree it's more fun if your partner is better at it, so it makes sense to want good dancers to ask you, and it makes sense to assume that they want you to be good. It's also more fun if you are better at it, but I'll come back to that.

I feel sympathetic towards the person wondering whether it is actually feasible to make the next step up, what that step would be, how long it's likely to take, and whether, even if she does, it will do her any good at all. Is there anything on the other side of all that effort - effort to be made in an unknown direction, by unknown means - that will make it worth it?

Everybody talks about what makes men good to dance with, but hardly anyone talks about what makes women good to dance with, as opposed to merely inoffensive, and you can easily get the impression that either there's no such thing as quality for women, beyond looking good, or that it just doesn't matter very much. What it consists of is generally a mystery. You may well wonder whether it's worth sticking around, what exactly your contribution is meant to be, and what on earth you are meant to do next.

On top of that, it's very easy to waste a lot of time going down wrong tracks, so I sympathise with the writer's "When?."

If I were trying to pick apart the question, I might point out that there's no general consensus as to what "good" means. People like me and my friend tangocommuter and many others might like it if there were one, and we may sometimes write as though we think there is. And maybe there is, either at some very broad worldwide level or at some narrow local level of people who think and talk about these things, or maybe both. But among the general population of dancers in London, there just isn't. There isn't anything remotely approaching one. I'm not saying there won't be one some day, but there isn't one now.

However, if the questioner were sitting with me or with Arlene at a milonga, we might very well ask "Which good dancer?" And she might reply "That one over there." In that case, the chances are good that we'd have some practical hints. For example:

"You need to be able to do close embrace properly, and work on your connection, and do something to show that you're interested in dancing that style, like always defaulting to close instead of defaulting to open as you were taught."
"It doesn't matter, he's really shy and only dances with people he knows from class. Try chatting to him."
"You need to be able to do a V-embrace. He can't lead square-on."
"You need to be able to do a square-on embrace. He can't lead in a V."
"Try changing your clothes so he knows you want to dance that (other) style."
"You need to stop doing that 'ornament' where you rub your shoe on the man's trousers, he hates hates hates that!"
"You need to have totally neutral steering and be able to deliver everything likely to get thrown at you in social dancing."
"You need to be a safe and accurate follower, and then just chat to him, then wander off for a while and give him a chance to watch you. If it doesn't work just cross him off the list for three months and try again."
"You need to do all of the above and listen to the music more."
"Just ask him, you're a reasonable dancer and he likes to be asked, and so many good dancers ask him he doesn't need to bother."
"You're over half his age, and you don't come in a colour he likes. Forget it."

What I'm saying is, it's not a silly question.

But when I say it's the Wrong Question, I mean it's a question that's directed at a solving a problem that might be better solved by the answer to some other question. It's a Wrong Question I've asked myself more than once, but I've only ever answered it with different ones.

For example:

Is my own pride and satisfaction a sufficient reason for me to want to dance well, rather than badly?

Does this activity, as it is now, add something good to my life that I want to keep?

Because, if the answer to those is no, I am not doing myself justice and I should switch to something that does satisfy me as a person. If the answer is yes, then who asks me to dance doesn't cease to matter, but it does become something I look at in a different way.

I can use whatever motivation there is lying around to get me through difficult times when I'm doing something I want to do. If I feel inspired by someone in particular, I can try to put myself in a place where I'll truly appreciate him and be able to give him back as much fun as he gives me. There's nothing wrong with that. It's natural and it makes sense, and it's great motivation to look for improvements and try to solve the mysteries.

But I don't have control over whether he wants to dance with me. That's not up to me to decide, and I can't necessarily change it by dancing well.

If I do dance well, I'll get dances with others who dance well too. I'll be able to give and recieve more pleasure. But this is not a mechanical thing. It's not like passing some sort of exam. As I do it for longer, and the average quality goes up, another dimension starts to matter, too; those who I have known for a while now, and who also care about me.

Sunday 6 September 2009

On the Pull ...

And from the Drafts file.

When I was a teenager in the North of England, one of the most mysterious things about my world was why people wanted to go out "on the pull".

It's one of those things I don't care at all if other people do - good luck to them, have fun - as long as it's not compulsory. My own reaction has always been "eww" - undignified, pointless, depressing and dull.

While my personal reaction is unchanged, one of the things have found as I learn to dance tango is that I think I can now imagine what kick people get out of doing the ‘Newcastle* Tango’ all night (The music's crap, and you get glandular fever, or worse, plus a headache in the morning from the beer, as though the music wouldn't have been enough. The beer is to keep you warm, instead of more clothes. Along with deep-fried Mars bars). I don't know exactly why they get the kick out of doing that specifically, but maybe I see what the kick is. I just have different demands for my kicks. And my interactions with people. As I've danced for longer, so that fewer of my partners are strangers, the revelation has faded, but I try to remember.

Perhaps I would have had the same revelation had I chosen any other social dance. But I doubt it.

*I didn't live in Newcastle. They're just more famous for it there, that they are where I was. For actual tango in Newcastle you could try here or here or here, and there's a video of social dancing here, with the lovely Oscar Acebras and Carlos Quilici playing a milonga.

Saturday 5 September 2009


No particular excuse

Krugman: How did economists get it so wrong?
Jim the Realtor: Business opportunity at Hell-Hole Canyon "had a premonition I got shot on this one, let's hope not huh"
Informed Comment: Everyone wants to do strategy and tactics, but real men do logistics
Deus ex Macchiato: HRBots and the false comfort of quantification
Limerick: Exo- and endo-skeletons in tango music

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Going Home

A jersey dress slightly above the knee, a windy night with spots of rain, a shawl around my head, crossing the road from the last train. A shout from a car pulling up at the lights, around one a.m.


What I put up with to get out and dance.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

You know what - it isn't.

I know all of this has been said a million times before. I'm not even going to search for the blog entries. But just the other day I overheard an experienced leader telling one just starting out that it's all about practice.

You know what, it is not all about practice. For perfection, perhaps yes; for competence, no.

Well, maybe it is. You have to practice to get good at anything. But practice is not the whole story.

I can think of people who've danced for a very long time, who throw me around like a frog in a blender and have such terrible posture that it causes me physical pain to dance with them. These are the bad intermediate dancers; middling skill level with giant holes in crucial places, awful results, no progress. As they practice, they stay the same or get worse.

I can also think of some pleasant young gentlemen ten years younger than me who have been dancing for less than a year or eighteen months and who are clear and gentle and reasonably decisive and have good posture and listen to the music and are fun to dance with. These are the good intermediates; basic skill level, just in the bits that really matter, good results. As they practice, they get better. (As long as they don't take too many intermediate classes full of material that's totally inappropriate to their skill level, in which case they stop getting better and start to get worse).

And when I find one of these, I try to dance with him regularly. I try to invest in him, and make the simple things feel like fun and encourage him to stick with it and have the confidence to give worthwhile skills priority over useless ones. It pays off immediately, because he is nice to dance with already, but it'll pay off even more if I'm still dancing tango when the grey exceeds the brown. He may be unexciting or make a few mistakes but I can add a little of my own excitement, and I don't care about a few mistakes.

I don't know for certain what determines which one you end up as, although my guess is that which beginners' class you take for the first five weeks of your tango career probably explains a lot. But on the basis of my observation so far, I can falsify two things:

  1. you don't need years of practice to be pretty nice to dance with, and
  2. practice is not going to help you at all if you're practicing the wrong thing.
Now you may well ask me why I dance with the bad ones at all. The answer to that turns out to be more interesting than you'd think. I don't, very often; but those I do occasionally dance with are among the people who were kind to me and danced with me regularly and took notice of me and encouraged me and supported me when I started out. If you have an adventurous spirit and you're dancing mostly open embrace, you don't notice bad posture, and being a frog in a cheerful, friendly blender is great for your sense of achievement and actually not at all bad for your technique. Anyway, their gentlemanly and considerate behaviour in simply bothering to be there back then counts for something now, and at the time, it counted for a lot.

Were there any among the actually-skilled dancers who made the same investment in me? Not many, no.

Now that might be because presentable women who dance fairly well are in oversupply and there is no incentive to bother with beginners. But it might also have something to do with beginner women not being taught until many months later - if ever at all - how to dance close embrace, or even led to think that it's usual to do so.

Which brings me to a point of good news: the practice of treating close embrace as other than a non-optional basic beginner-level skill seems to be a little less normal than it was. I think the consequences of that go a long way.