Wednesday 30 December 2009

Happy New Year

To me, the turn of the year really happens at Christmas, which in my family is an entirely traditional feast-day with no religious side. We rejoice in those we love, we create warmth and light, we spread it around as we feel inspired, and after this, the days get longer.

When I get home I'll upload a picture of the family table [Done - on left], with a goose properly stuffed and cooked by my sister (with help from my father and me) potatoes, carrots, and parsnips all roasted in goose fat, sprouts sautéed with pepper and bacon, gravy and fine Australian wine, to be followed by a Christmas pudding prepared by my mother and me and containing an apple, a carrot, the candied peel of several kinds of citrus fruits, the rind and juice of a lemon, grapes preserved in three seperate ways, breadcrumbs, a little flour, brown sugar, almonds, marmalade, beef suet, eggs, a small glass of stout, a sherry glass of brandy, and four kinds of spice. Then you steam it for six hours, mature it for up to a year, steam it for two more hours, then set fire to a ladleful of brandy and pour it over the top.

If you have enjoyed my blog, and have not finished all of your giving this winter, please consider a donation to Centrepoint. I contribute £12 a month to the upkeep of a room at Centrepoint. On the inside of my front door is a photo of the young woman who lives in it for the time being. She was homeless, and alone, in danger from those who ought to have cared for her as my parents still care for me, and now she has a safe place to start, a room of her own, with a bed and a bathroom and a quiet place to study. But they can make good use of one-off donations, too.

Tango stuff:

This year all I did with my tango was work on musicality, musical understanding, and posture and embrace. I did get noticeable improvements in all those things. Two six-hour small-group workshops (with Andreas Wichter) for technique, and some private lessons (with Tango en el Cielo) for technique and musicality gave me a lot to work with. I took the occasional group class, but mostly on tango music. I'm ok with where my dancing is, I'm only willing to give it a certain amount of time and priority, but it's important to me to be a good social dancer, not less good than I should be, and it's probably time for some more work in the new year. I tend to develop random, bizarre little quirks at a fairly constant rate, so I need checkups and feedback from time to time. It might also be time to step out of my comfort zone a little bit and look for some new partners.

I learned that it's possible for women to have a significant influence on how men dance, and how they think about their dance, simply by the way we dance. More than I thought. It matters if he can weight-change you a toe at a time. It matters whether you have or haven't got a default step length. It makes a real difference if you know how to vary the way you move to express your personal impression of the music.

A couple of people emailed me or spoke to me to say they liked the blog or found it useful. A couple of women found the reviews helpful when going out dancing on their own for the first few times. And that was the idea, with the reviews, so I like that. Commenters added a lot - you know who you are. As for the friends and relations and silent readers, you know who you are too, even if I don't.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you a happy New Year.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Out of Office Message

I'll be on holiday for a few more days. I hope your Christmas, if you are somewhere they do Christmas, was as nice as mine.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Actually Good

The thing that really hits me, watching this again, is the ludicrous contrast between Miss Hampton and Mr. Dokes, and all the other dancers you can see. Is he doing anything particularly fancy, fast or physically demanding? No, I don't think so, and neither would you if the lady were 80 years old. But they seem to be in a completely different world from everyone else visible — except the band. Especially towards the end, from about 04:30, where the youngsters seem to be thrashing around more and more like ‘brute beasts that have no understanding’, while everything Dokes and Hampton do is there for a reason.

It gets more and more revelatory to me every time I watch someone Actually Good.

Of course Mr. Dokes can dance more energetically: here he is again, with a plainly delighted young lady (Denise See). But he still always knows when it's time to stop one thing and do something else, or just stop.

Dance is playing Air-Sax, Air-Drums, or Air-Bandoneón with your whole body, each instrument infinitely mutable in shape and function, but keeping its sound.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Around the blogs in Winter

The solstice has passed; the days will grow longer. I'm tidying up some of the links on the right, and perhaps I'll put one of those blog-watcher things. While I get on with that, a few good things you might have missed.

Tangocommuter, in case you hadn't noticed, is back in Buenos Aires and his posts are even more interesting than last time. Today, he's getting very good advice from Cacho Dante, and noticing that lots of the students are very young. He's also going to Porteno y Bailarin. Also, art.

Mari is writing beautifully about the embrace, about Tango Moments of WIN, and about Entrega Soup and the impossibility of doing any such thing on a chaotic floor.

Simba has written a fab article about what to listen for in tango with proper examples, written out as well as made available for playback. In November he finished reading Anne Hollander's book on the history of the male suit, and wrote a great post on suits, skirts, and the modernity of tango.

Pilgrim has been thinking about angry men (it's funny), musical women, and floorcraft.

Read them all.

Sunday 20 December 2009

The sort of thing that you might do for fun

The reason I post this video by Céline Deveze is not that there's any particularly wonderful dancing going on (though most of it looks pretty good to me and it's crowded but doesn't look bumpy), but because everyone seems to be having such fun.

The tango that appeals to me is a relatively simple, physically undemanding dance, with all of the complexity provided by the music, and it's the sort of thing that you might want to do at a party, for fun, with lots of different people, some known to you and some new, sometimes perhaps even in fancy dress.

I think we often make it too difficult and dramatic.

On the other hand, it's rather a subversive thing to do. All these people are much closer together and involved with each other than ballroom dancers, or jivers or lindyhoppers would be. They're much more intensely connected; they are varied in age and in other things, and some of them are very beautifully dressed, or wearing ears or tails or elaborate feather masks or imaginative costumes. And they really look as though they're enjoying it. Naughty, huh? Almost as outrageous as four women swiping a meeting room and knitting together for an hour at lunchtime.

Céline's next "Week-end milonguero," with fancy dress ball, is in the last week of January.

Saturday 12 December 2009

The music they had in their heads

I have always felt, without being able to specify very well, that tango music has a lot in common with 19th century opera, which I like, but with the advantage that you can dance to it. It may be simplistic, but in the same way that Argentinian Spanish sounds, to me, like Spanish spoken by an Italian, tango sounds to me like Puccini for dancing.

It makes sense, because Puccini, Verdi, and so on would have been what all those Italian musicians grew up with and had as the furniture of their minds - the sort of music that would have been performed not just professionally but for fun, as indeed it was by my grandmother's Scottish family.

Here's a well-known Puccini piece. (Man about to be executed sings about the last time he slept with his girlfriend - "e lucevan le stelle").

That's a modern operatic tenor (José Carreras, 1978) with a full orchestra. Caruso, with 1910s recording technology and taste, sounds quite different singing the same song - and perhaps the weakness of the technology makes him sound much more like those Italian immigrant musicians would have sounded. If you have time, it's worthwhile to compare:

Mix that up in your head with some of that zarzuela Domingo has always been so fond of (Spanish operetta - "pretty woman in love"):

This next one is Caruso again, in 1914, with Ruffo, singing Verdi's version of Othello. The higher voice is Caruso (Othello), the lower voice is Ruffo (Iago), persuading Othello to an unjust vengeance. I put this in because it's Verdi and he has his particular zip which I keep hearing in tangos, still without being able to tell you what the zip is.

For those who like the sheer emotion in traditional tango, here's Domingo for a second time, singing Donizetti's "una furtiva lagrima" - the pictures are out of sync with the music. The story of this song is that the woman he loves let fall a tear, and he's just realised what it means - he has her love. He could die, and ask nothing more. Domingo is just the best at this stuff.

This is the kind of thing that the golden-age musicians must have had in their heads when they set out to create their music. They weren't imitating it at all - but this, it seems to me, was what gave them their concept of what music is all about and how you use it transmit emotion.

I do have a recording of Domingo singing tangos, which I bought to find out what it sounded like, and I don't think it works. It sounds wrong, in tango terms, from start to finish, and incidentally totally undanceable. But it is very interesting to see what happens when a great singer just treats a tango as a Spanish-language art song, and here he is singing El dia que mi quieras (Carlos Gardel) with Daniel Barenboim at the piano. Fast forward to 00:48 to skip the tedious intro, I did.

You wouldn't dance to it, but you see what he's doing.

Of course it goes without saying that all the music above would probably have been familiar to Gardel's audience, too. But it's not that widely known here. It's not difficult or inaccessible music, but it's not a routine part of the popular culture in the same way that it would have been when Gardel was playing El dia que mi quieras, or even as it was when my grandmother's relations were making their own entertainment in Australia with performances of Bizet's Au fond du temple saint.

I don't really like going out when it's so cold!

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Hello Dance Today readers

Hi there!

I sent off the commisssioned article for the December issue of Dance Today and then forgot all about it. I've just received my copy in the post and noticed that the editor has put my blog address at the end in case anyone wants to look. So this is specially for you, most of all if you have not done tango before.

If you're coming to tango from an interest in dance, you have probably already worked out for yourself that argentine tango is not the same thing as ballroom tango, and social tango is not necessarily similar to what Vincent and Flavia do, either (that's stage tango - some teachers make this distinction more consistently than others, but if you want to dance well I think it's helpful to keep it in mind, it makes everything a lot easier). I personally think the social form is much more expressive and interesting, though less spectacular, but I came to tango from a different perspective with no experience of dance.

Here are a blog and a website by tango dancers with previous experience of other kinds of dance:

Ampster Tango - Ampster did ballroom first and has a lot of interesting things to say about his experiences making the transition, especially the parts where he went down the wrong track.

Learning Tango - David and and Chris both started from Ceroc, and their articles about their experiences are good and there are some contributions from others and London class listings too. I don't agree with it all by any means, but it's always interesting in one way or another.

Here are all my posts that I think are likely to help tango beginners. If you're thinking of taking a class, the most useful might be the Beginners' Questionnaire.

The 'beginning' posts overlap with the longer lists I've labelled musicality and music. Not all of those are tango, but most are. Or if you want a laugh and some tango music, just watch the dancing flower. All those are fun whether you're a beginner or not.

[Edit some hours later: I hadn't read the whole magazine. For an example of candombe, which is great stuff, see part way down this post.]

And generally, there's a large and lively tango blogosphere - you can start with the links on the right, and those will take you to lots more, but Tangri-La has a really long list. On very rare occasions I contribute to Dance Forums, and there's a lively tango discussion board there. And there are lots of calendars around - here's one at Tango En El Cielo.

Have a ball! Or a milonga.

Some interesting emails

From a couple of weeks ago. Emphasis mine.

Email 1:

“Contents: This class is designed to help students understand the notion of connection in tango as a technical tool. We will teach you to dance from your centre with the whole body using your intention to connect with your partner, the music, the ground and the rest of the dancers on the dance floor.”
I don't remember that last bit being mentioned in the ad for a class at Negracha before. I could be wrong. Sounds like a good thing, anyway.

Email 2:
“n.b :We welcome all styles, and with a dance floor as large as ours we are happy this is possible. Our only request is that we respect each others space (no overtaking, stepping back into someone else's space, wild crossing into other peoples lanes etc!), making our milonga a happy social gathering, where everyone can safely and blissfully dance together!”
I don't remember reading that message before, either, but that could be because I live too far away from this particular place to think about going under normal circumstances, and didn't read that far down. Nice, though, I like it. It definitely encourages me to consider going there.

Email 3:
“we're running - for the very first time - a course on choreography. ... By the end of the course, you will not only have learnt new skills, but you should also find that your social dancing has indirectly benefited.”
What interests me about this one is that the writer felt that mentioning that possible benefit would be a good idea. It's nice to hear they have that in mind.

Monday 7 December 2009

Postcards from the Salon

[Update 25/01/10: The milonga at this venue is cancelled, probably permanently - they're looking for a new one]

I think that some people I talk to who haven't danced anywhere but London, sometimes assume that there are only two points on the continuum, London and Buenos Aires, with nothing in between. They take it for granted that the standard of dancing and the standard of experience in London must be at least normal, and they conclude that defensive driving, being frequently kicked and bumped, and continually having to master fight-or-flight in a zigzagging, jerking, braking, crashing, bouncing, incoherent, amusical, unpredictable dog's dinner of variously oblivious, incompetent, maddened, tense and frustrated people is just what comes with the tango territory.

With no experience of the real normal, as you might find, say, an hour away in Eton, or a few hours away in Scotland or Germany or the south of France, they're not convinced that any change is possible or necessary. It is, but they will only be convinced by experience, not assertion.

So I think it's important, and it makes a real difference, to create at least one space where people can experience an orderly floor and a relaxed atmosphere. They're trying to do this at 33 Portland Place with the “salon room” downstairs. They have a dedicated room, with a playlist that's trying hard, a notice on the wall and sweet little flyers with basic instructions. Their website is pure Flash so I can't copy and paste, but I've taken a screenshot which should be readable if you click on it. (I think the rather un-idiomatic English is because the first version was dictated by Adrian Costa).

So far, whenever I've gone there, it's more or less worked and delivered an orderly floor on which I could relax and dance properly at least 70 percent of the time. The first four times I went, I didn't get kicked or bumped even once - not a touch. There were people who didn't realise there were rules, and there were people who did but who had technical problems following them (more on that another time) but not enough all at once to screw it up completely.

It tends to work best for the first half of the evening.

I don't actually agree with the flyer's implication that this represents a particular style of dancing beyond the literal meaning of tango salon, that is, tango for a social dance hall as opposed to a stage. For example, I wouldn't, based on my own experience alone, contrast it to ‘nuevo’. Twenty-odd people on the First Friday of each month who have all said Yes to a Facebook page that says, among other things:

You will be expected to dance in an anti-clockwise route around the dance floor, not overtake, and dance appropriately i.e. no drops or aerials etc. Practice moves are not to be done on the dance floor but to the side out of harms way."
have in my experience actually delivered a very orderly and relaxing floor for at least the first two to three hours downstairs at Negracha, where the music is definitely ‘nuevo’. (Last Friday I could even live with a lot of the music). However, I understand why it makes sense to talk about it as an alternative ‘style’. It's easier for people to consider learning a new ‘style’ than it is to consider becoming courteous and competent - and if the result is the same, I'm willing to overlook a little therapeutic lying to smooth the transition.

I don't know about you but it's shocking how much better I dance, and for how much longer, when I'm not in physical fear.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Milonga Marina, Plymouth

The milonga is at the National Marine Aquarium, and when it's on it's a monthly event, but, sadly, this one was the last one for a while.

Disclosure: I know Andreas and Lynn, and consider them friends; they were happy to see me and since I'd come such a long way, offered me guest status; but I did not accept it, because if you do that I can't give you a writeup.

This writeup is of limited use to anyone anyway because the Aquarium is closing for refurbishment and won't open till April. No-one knows yet whether the room will be available then or not. I'm going to use my usual format anyway.

The Class: There isn't one, just the milonga.

Layout and Atmosphere: The dance floor is in the café at the very top of the National Marine Aquarium. As you come up the stairs you can see a table with a white cloth, and the floor and the DJ, with her own little floor-facing table, on the other side. Having said Hello and handed over your money, there is a space with some coat racks and chairs for metamorphosing yourself from woolly caterpillar into twinkly butterfly. This process took me several minutes, in late November at Plymouth docks, and I was glad not to be doing it on the edge of the dance floor. Then you go round a bit of wall and see a small bar where an employee of the Aquarium serves hot and cold drinks with biscuits, and then there are some tall tables and sofas.

The rest of the room is a glass-walled, curved space looking out over the quay, with fishing boats, charter boats and small sailing yachts visible far below. Around the outer wall are little round tables with white tablecloths, candles, pretty fake rose petals, and enough chairs for everyone. You will not find yourself sitting with your back to the wall and your feet on the dancefloor. The floor is small and roundish or maybe triangular. It was quite well filled with a dozen couples on it, which I think was what I counted at the peak, but the dancing was calm and orderly so more would be able to fit, dancing small. Lighting is good but not harsh. You can catch someone's eye from the other side of the fairly small room quite easily.

It is a very pretty, light and airy space, nicely set up for dancing, and I was intrigued by the idea that if you were on one of the boats outside, the dancers going gently round and round on the brightly-lit dancefloor behind glass at the top of the Aquarium would look like a school of tropical fishes. The atmosphere was gentle and civilised as though everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves.

Hospitality and comfort: Good to fair. The layout was more comfortable than I'm used to and the general look and atmosphere much nicer. I appreciated the biscuits. My single G&T was £3.15, but sabotaged because the Aquarium had run out of ice and lemon. I didn't really want it and drank tea instead at I think £1.80, which is a lot for tea, but what you'd expect from a tourist attraction like the Aquarium. Because it was cold I forgot to ask for water; bottled water was for sale at the bar. The loos are on the second floor - take the little lift down and they're on your left. They were clean, working, properly supplied and roomy, with just a few spots of water on the floor. And very well lit - I had awful panda eyes.

The cold was the only problem. The room was really quite cold, I suppose because the walls are almost entirely glass, it's open to the huge space of the stairwell, and it was very, very cold and windy outside. It might be hot in summer. Now the cold had a big upside, in that the men mostly kept their jackets on and didn't get sweaty; I had only one even slightly sweaty tanda. But if I'd known it was so cold I would have worn a different outfit. Or a bra.

Anything or anyone interesting that turned up or happened: There were Greta Flora tango shoes for sale, which I haven't seen before. They came in a variety of heel heights as well as designs and colours, and the little detachable flowers are very nice. I saw some on the dance floor too and they looked good. The two ladies who were selling them don't seem to have a website, but they're in Totnes and the first email on their flyer is annasalsa at gmail.

What I thought of the DJing: Lynn Collins DJ'd. It's 100% Golden-Age tango music. I remember noticing many things I liked, but not particularly things that get played all the time. It kept me interested and the time flew. The tandas are fours for tango, so you can get into it properly, or threes for milonga and vals. The cortinas made me feel cheerful and refreshed.

Getting in: £10. When you get to the Aquarium you won't see any sign that it's open or anything is on. The sign at the front says "Pedestrian Entrance" or something, with a big arrow pointing to a very small, ugly, clearly shut door. Ignore that door, but follow the arrow and the pedestrian pathway on the left right round to the back of the building - it still looks shut - until you see a lit glass door with Aquarium employees inside. Maybe this door is left open when the weather's warm. They will open the door when they see you outside it, and let you in, whereupon you hear the music and can follow it up the stairs to the top.

Getting there and getting home: Even if you live locally, I think you probably need to drive or get a taxi. The area didn't strike me as pedestrian-friendly - certainly the entrance to the Aquarium isn't - and I didn't see any buses. I think there's free parking. I was staying at the hotel across the road, and although the area felt perfectly safe I wouldn't have wanted to walk from much further away, especially afterwards. The station is really much too far.

The website: Tangokombinat. Milonga announcements appear on the News page, but it's not just about the milonga, it covers various activities, have a look around. Announcements are also usually posted on tango-uk.

How it went: there were more and less experienced dancers there, but nobody needed to open the embrace to do a turn. There was a clear line of dance all the time using the full size of the floor, sometimes with two or three couples in the middle, and people were respecting each other's space. The only thing my heel made contact with was the leg of a stray chair.

I could relax. I could dance. I could even dance well. I remembered that tango is actually good. I could hear all of the music properly all of the time. I met neither General Melée nor Major Scrum. I didn't have to sit with my back to the wall and my feet on the dancefloor, hide from anyone, watch my bag, leave my stuff in a big dusty pile in the dark, or even change seats unless I wanted to. I met congenial people. I had really good dances (much better than I would get in London) with friends and strangers to good music in a charming setting. Not getting bashed into every three seconds or having to be on guard meant I could maintain a reasonable level of dance to the end of the evening, and if anyone was unsatisfied with my dancing he didn't let me know about it. You should consider my bias, in being used to London, and in being happy to see friends. But as far as I'm concerned it was magic.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Very Girly Baby Hat

My colleague has a little son already, and is delighted to be expecting a girl.

This hat is Very Girly. The basic shape is just an octagonal hat worked from the top down, but I made it Girly with a pink wool/cotton mix sock wool, a picot cast off, and some crocheted motifs.

(It looks a strange shape because it's being modelled by a little Chinese porcelain vase from the V&A shop which just happens to be nearly the right size and shape if I stand it upside-down - when worn by a baby the ribbing would fold upwards. This is an improvised pattern, it's stretchy, I'm hoping it'll fit).

Work circularly, with dpns or magic loop.

Cast on 4 and do a little i-cord for the stalk. I like stalks on baby hats. If you don't like stalks then just use any centre-out cast-on you like.

round 1: k1, m1, 4 times.
round 2 and all even rounds: k.
round 3 and all odd rounds: m1 at 8 points around, evenly distributed, until the circumference is large enough for the intended Baby. Use a baby head size chart.

That's the end of the shaping.

Motif band: Purl 2 rows. Knit 2 rows. Purl 2 rows. Knit another 15 rows. * Purl 2 rows. Knit 2 rows. Repeat from * once more. I got a noticeable jog with this pattern - it would have been much better if I'd thought to cover it with some jogless-stripe method or other, so try it.

Switch to 1x1 rib and continue till the hat is long enough for intended Baby. Use a chart again.

Cast off with a picot cast off.

Make crochet motifs and sew them on. The flower is a completely standard Irish crochet rose - all books on crochet motifs or Irish crochet have them. Any sort of flower, knitted or crocheted, would have done. But be aware if you are in the US, or you learned to crochet from a book written in the US, facsimile books of Irish crochet lace motifs may be using the British/Irish stitch names, which are all off-by-one if you're American. I use that notation too.

The leaves I improvised as follows:

Ch of 20 for the full length of leaf plus stalk, make a picot by slip-stitching into 4th ch from hook, then work back along the chain:
1 dc, 1htr, 1tr, 4dtr, 1dtr into same ch as previous dtr, 1tr, 1htr, 1dc
3 chain - turn so that the remaining chain, which forms the stalk, passes under the 3 chain - and work back along the other side of the leaf towards the picot, exactly as above.
Sl st into the picot and fasten off leaving a long tail for sewing it on.