Thursday 29 April 2010

Tango South London

The Tango South London Ball is on every last Sunday of the month. It's at the Dulwich Constitutional Club, 33 East Dulwich Grove, SE22 8PW [Update: this is the right postcode - according to the Post Office and to my physical check. The map and route correspond to what's on the ground.] It starts at 20:30 and ends at about 23:15.

The Class: I didn't plan to be there for the class but I arrived earlier than I meant to and came in ten minutes before it ended, so I sat down to watch. Claire Loewe and Luis Rodriguez were teaching a class on how to dance milonga socially in a civilised way. It included some simple elements, feasible musicality, and a lot of encouragement to respect one anothers' space, refrain from rushing, and use the corners of the floor properly. A lot of the results looked pretty good. Both of them sometimes teach with other people too. You'll see them dancing socially with plenty of people at various places in London.

Layout and Atmosphere: It's a longish rectangular room like a large school hall or the kind of place the local drama society might put on plays. You come in at one end of one long side, and the stage is at the other end to your right. In the corner facing you is a booth for the DJ. Around three sides of the dance floor, facing it, are lots of tables with pretty gauzy tablecloths, and chairs behind. They form a nearly-solid barrier with spaces here and there. There are twinkly LEDs draped along the front of the stage on the fourth side, and tealights on the tables. The tables were far enough in to leave two or three feet between seated people and wall; I almost never had to step onto the dancefloor except to dance. This is a blessing and helps the flow a lot; the only problem is people leaving their stuff scattered all over the place. The floor was more than big enough. There were slightly too few chairs for everyone to sit down during the concert. Lighting is good - I could get the nod (albeit a very spelled-out one) from right across the room. The loos are through the door to the left of the stage.Through doors on the other side of the room is a large comfortable bar, very roomy and quiet, with muzak. There was also a bit of smooth floor in there which someone used to review with a friend what had been done in the class.  Basically it's a community hall, the same sort of thing as the Welsh Centre, but nicer. The room was quite warm, but not excessively. It was a very warm evening.

The atmosphere all evening was calm, civilised and cheerful. From what I saw, I felt that had been consciously encouraged by the content and presentation of the class, and my impression from other people is that, if so, they've been fairly consistent about this for long enough that it's positively affected who goes and how they behave. It had a nice family feeling which I felt welcomed into. It felt as though the general idea was to have fun and permit other people to do the same.

Hospitality: Good. My single G&T with an ice cube and slice of lemon was £2.40 from the members bar, served by venue staff. I was also served an orange juice and a large glass of tap water for £1.25. There is a coat rack in the bar, which I and some others made use of, but many people left their things on chairs. It's probably a good idea to bring a kitbag. There were two or three club members in the bar (ignore the 'members only' signs - they don't count on tango night) and I felt that my stuff was perfectly safe. The Ladies' sprang a leak during the class and was put out of action - this was dealt with by a series of emergency announcements which converted the Gents' into the Ladies' and opened a different Gents' downstairs. So I can report, unusually, that the Gents is roomy and clean and dry with good light, but has a broken lock.

Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: They had live music, a young bandoneonist, Carlos Becu. He played two sets, each consisting of a concert part and a dancing part. He was fine, he played what he played, you could dance to it, and people did, including me. He likes Pugliese. I wouldn't have minded dispensing with at least one of the non-danceable sets, but it's always exciting to dance to live music. You can form your own opinion from his MySpace page.

What I thought of the DJing: Marek Szotkowski DJ'd. I've seen him before, and again he did a professional job; tandas of four, cortinas, relaxed upbeat stuff to start with and keeping the more challenging pieces for later although in this case that it was mostly supplanted by the live music. 100% traditional, 0% alternative. Even the valses and milongas were tandas of four. I think there was the classic proportion of valses and milongas, which is significantly more than most people play. He doesn't seem to mind people dancing to the cortinas, which are rock and salsa, sometimes a full track so you can do it properly. The tandas made sense to me and didn't do any silly attention-seeking or make me go "what??".

Getting in: £10 including the class, £7 later according to the website (I was charged even less, by a person temporarily on the desk near the end of the class, so I think that must have been a mistake). Bargain either way.

Getting there and getting home: I got a train to Brixton and walked around the corner to take a bus at Lambeth Town Hall. If you take the 37 from there, get off at next stop after Dulwich Community Hospital; walk a few steps in the same direction the bus was going, cross at the zebra crossing, and you're there. The stop going the other way is directly outside the hall.  You can stay to the end and just make it back onto the Tube network in time for the last train, but I cut it very very fine because my bus did not appear and I had to wait an extra fifteen minutes for the next one. I saw many other buses a short distance away on the main road, and East Dulwich station is within 10 minutes' walk. The buses are given on the website. Check your route carefully - remember it's Sunday, and everything closes earlier.

The website: - it tells you when, where, and how much it is to get in, but not all of the pages get updated. The News page, which does, is here. [Update: Watch out for mixed up postcodes. If it doesn't make sense to you, ask.]

How it went: Very well. I had a very nice evening. I knew quite a few of the women there, but hardly any of the men, so I just took the first dance that presented itself to start myself off; my dances ranged from the harmless to the excellent and included more than one new partner I would be delighted to dance with again. I got very few bumps, and they were very trivial, nothing more than gentle contact - everyone could, and did, pull out in time. I noticed that there was quite a lot of variation in style on the floor, in the sense of fairly recognisable and distinct flavours of embrace, technique, and content of dance, and I danced more than one of them myself, but there wasn't a lot of zigzagging wildly about at high speed, or grabbing huge amounts of space, so the variations didn't seem to be creating stress. At least, there was nothing serious and persistent enough to affect the atmosphere so that it became noticeable to me.

I had an evening that made me happier than I had been when I set out, at a very moderate price, with the music and dancing well above average. I might even make this journey in the winter. It's a pity that I have to leave before the end to get home in less than an hour and a half. If I was in South London there'd be no question at all, every time.

[Update: added postcode and journey planner. Journey planner messes up the layout.]

Monday 26 April 2010

Different dresses

Someone asked me today to explain "the thinking behind" an outfit I had worn, and I might give you an edited version of that later. I don't know why he wanted to know yet, maybe just because it was very different from someone else's in the same context. But in looking up a reference (I wanted to point him to a picture that Anne Hollander had used as an illustration somewhere) I rediscovered this:

Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits:

It had first become clear in the early part of the nineteenth century that when all men wear a white tie and a black tailcoat in the evening, the individual character of each man is made more important, not less; and a curious effect then occurs in mixed company. If each woman at the ball is carefully wearing something different, the different costumes are what you see first across the room, making a variable scene; but consequently the faces might as well be all the same, just as if the same doll were dressed in many different ways. When two women wear the same dress, however, the first thing you see is how different the actual women really look.
I agree - nowadays, of course, the effect is reduced by men dressing more differently from one another.

Later in the same chapter, she continues:
... in fact the appeal of the modern suit in our period is still its combined look of comfort and crispness, with its neat collar and tie that perpetually defy the forces of hot weather, hard work and high anxiety, its uruffled tailored envelope suggesting an invincible physical aplomb, including sexual. No sweat-suits, cycling gear or wrinkled khakis can hope to convey such a superior level of ease.
And here in the margin I seem to have written, in pencil, "Roger Federer".

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Joy and the shoemaker

A friend sent me this, which is about someone she knows - he makes shoes, and dances tango. (From what we can see, he dances very nicely. We can't hear the music because the sound is doing something else then, and the video is not about tango, but it looks good.)

Leather and Wood from Francis Reynolds on Vimeo.

I like to work with my hands from time to time, and I like to seek relative perfection in what I produce. The process of paying attention to the quality of my dance, and gradually improving it, is quite similar in some of the satisfactions it brings. The process of learning and problem solving that he describes is even quite familiar from my various efforts at computer programming, so I suppose it's universal.

It's not about perfectionism, or trying to get to any particular point, or surpassing anyone else*. It's just that the progress from any degree of lesser to greater perfection in something you wish to do, is one of the simplest and most universally accessible joys there is; a process so joyous that to hurry would be ridiculous.

That's how I see it; and that means that I like to improve one small thing at a time, one after another, without quarelling with whatever I have now. As someone-or-other said in a tennis manual (I think), you don't criticise the seed for not having leaves or the sapling for being slim or the bud for not being a flower.

Of course, pursuing this joy requires that the thing being done should be interesting, and open-ended; that the possibilities for improvement should not have too-close or obvious limits.

And I feel it's also a requirement that there should be some product along the way - that the subject matter should have a point and a value of its own, independent of the learning process.

When I was at school, I was very good at passing exams. But it was a rather trivial game - a game I played conscientiously, since that was the only thing anyone desired of me. There's no room for direct participation in the subject matter in the way that there's room to just dance, or just knit something. And I never had any perception of making progress in anything; indeed I did four A-Levels, 10 GCSE's and a university degree without ever having any real sense that progress, in the sense of getting better at something than I was last week, was even possible. To me, they were all just one literacy test after another, with minor variations in the contents of the text, and reading was what I did anyway to escape from boredom and bullies.

Things that don't have enough to be learned about them are boring, but learning things without room to just do them is something I've done more than enough of.

I think this might be the first post with both labels.

*Although that can be fun too, of course, under certain circumstances - mutual competition between overtly or covertly consenting individuals. Humans like a little sport when the opportunity arises, and it can keep our motivation going through hard times.

Sunday 18 April 2010

33 @ No. 5 Cavendish Place

UPDATE MAY 2010:  Don't bother reading the rest of this, they seem to have lost this venue, at least for the time being. The one time I do a review the first time I go - knew it was a bad idea! Nice evening, though. See Golondrina for the current venue.


Having been turfed out of 33 Portland Place because of a court order about planning permission (same thing as Americans call 'zoning'), and after an interlude at Pushkin House reviewed by Golondrina here, the '33' milonga has found a new venue in Cavendish Square. It's closed the weekend of publishing this, but the intention is to run it every Sunday.

The Class: Luis Rodriguez gave a class on milonga. I arrived after it ended, but the organisers have a stated policy about classes, recently telling the 400 club:

"Yes, we have changed as now in every lesson we put more emphasis on floor craft, musicality and figures / movement that you can use in a milonga without interrupting the dance, 'flowing' in the line of dance. We are also inviting more guest teachers who reflect the Salon style in their own dancing and teaching."
Layout and Atmosphere: The house itself isn't anywhere close to the 18th century Wedgwood-ceilinged battered fall-of-Rome tradgiquality of 33 - it's basically a grand Victorian do-up of a Georgian base - but it is in far, far better condition and more comfortable, clean and convenient, as Victorian versions of Georgian things generally are. It's a proper professionally run place. As you come in there is a reception desk on your left, but the money table is in front of you, and both I and the person in front of me got friendly greetings and orientation. To your left is a cloakroom (unattended, but under the desk's eye) with one or two stools, where it makes sense to change your shoes. The 'salon' room is opposite it, and it's a fine room, with red moulded ceilings, gold details, dark wood doors and panelling and chunky red velvet sofas. The dance floor is forced into an hourglass shape by awkward panels in the middle that project beyond the seating. It's fine if you keep to one lane and keep it going - but you need good awareness of the space around you and the ability to dance small and change direction without needing extra space. It's well-lit and there's quite a lot of big squishy velvet seating, and I also perched briefly on the padded rail around the fireplace. I like this room more than the one they used for this purpose at 33, because it feels more special and less camped-out, but the shape is challenging. The floor is good. The wobbly wooden statues are a little worrying.

Alternatively, you can go down the stairs past the cloakroom, and there is a three-room setup with two dancefloors and the bar in the middle. The refreshments were in the room on the right. It's possible to dance on either floor or even right through, I saw some do this and there's nothing stopping you. It's dark, with nightclub lighting, and black and white velvet-patterned wallpaper - again, all nice and professionally done and not feeling like a dive. There's lots of comfortable seating in cosy alcoves around the edges, with tables, and it would be a good place for a chat and a chillout. The carpet was sticky in places (ew), including on the stairs, but the floor is perfectly OK. I think you can expect at least some proportion of non-traditional music downstairs - and the two large sections of floor are normal shapes and there seemed to be ample space.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and had a lovely evening. I didn't get such a clear impression of downstairs as I didn't spend much time there, the partners I had in mind happened to be upstairs.

Hospitality: Very good. Refreshments in the form of water, soft drinks and plastic cups (with the usual pens to write your name on them), and nibbles, are all provided downstairs, included in entry. The cloakroom has bag shelves, and keeps your things clean and hopefully safe - I take the usual precautions of not carrying unnecessary valuables or making them easy of access, but I'm pretty confident as everyone there is there to dance, which wasn't always the case at 33. The loos are marble and prettily done, clean and dry, sensibly designed - as I said, a proper professionally run place, the kind of thing you'd expect in a classy restaurant, suitable for fixing hair and makeup. The Ladies' downstairs was under maintenance - I used the one that's through the door in front as you go in

Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: Just social dancing, but this was also their birthday party and their first night at this new venue, so there was rather good chocolate cake, and some champagne. And there was a really sweet group birthday dance, for the milonga rather than a person - all the organisers danced a vals and got people to come and cut in.

What I thought of the DJing: They still don't really have proper DJs. Upstairs is 100% traditional and you mostly get cortinas, but that's not absolutely reliable. I looked in downstairs a few times and the music is still predominantly traditional, but I think I heard some interesting, danceable non-traditional music too.

Getting in: £10.

Getting there and getting home: The nearest Tube is Oxford Circus. Bond Street is also very close, and so is Great Portland Street. From Oxford Circus take Exit 4, walk up Regent Street towards the round spired portico of All Souls' Church (behind which is BBC Broadcasting House), and take the second left. You arrive in an open space with trees, much uglified by an underground car park. Turn right, the numbers are clearly marked, no. 5 is a few doors down. It will only take you a couple of minutes. On this night - in mid April - it had a rather bizarre Christmas-tree-like object outside, so maybe that's there all year. For getting home, remember that it is Sunday and everything stops an hour earlier than usual, so if you're like me and cautious you need to leave at 11:15, although you'd probably get away with 11:30. There are buses in all directions from Oxford Street, but there may be a big gap between the last Tube and the first direct night bus.

The website: The milonga has kept "33" as a brand name but the website has now been updated for the new location - and it also has a button for turning the sound off, much better. It's still Flash, though, and takes quite a bit of clicking and squinting to find out where it is, when it is, whether it's on, and how much it is to get in - I'd strongly suggest following the Facebook group and announcements on tango-uk instead. They publish a syllabus for the beginners' course, which I think is a good thing as it sets people's expectations at the right time (starts week 1 with close embrace - yay!). The venue has its own website, also Flash, which might be operable if you were willing to wait long enough.

How it went: I got a fabulous first dance, so you might have to consider the whole of this somewhat favourably biased ty that; on the other hand, I had a good impression on walking in and sat down with a smile on my face, which probably contributed to the first dance. After that I really couldn't possibly complain. The Salon Room thing could actually work here, because the layout and lighting mostly favour it (it had no chance at Pushkin House - I think it's essential to have enough seating round the floor, which wasn't possible at 33 either). The room is well lit and in very good condition. The only awkward thing is the bottleneck in the middle of the floor, but this could work out OK, since it almost forces a single lane. It was orderly for the first 45 minutes, if challenging, but went downhill quite badly later, partly due to the cake and champagne. Awareness and enforcement of orderly dancing are still patchy, although they're trying to make a feature of it, and it still works best earlier in the evening. If you feel you can contribute positively to that, and you want to, I think  it's worth turning up early. If you prefer the more edgy, darker atmosphere downstairs there's also plenty of space to do your thing.

Nice place. Not bonkers like 33, but lots of colour and personality and a nice feel.

Saturday 17 April 2010

No Contrails

As most of you probably know, a volcano has gone off in Iceland, grounding all planes in most of Northern Europe.

Apart from a lot of quite funny jokes about people trying to pronounce the volcano's name, and about sending Iceland money to turn the volcano off (let's face it those Icelanders deserve a laugh) that means eerily quiet skies over London, and this shot of the Moon and what I presume to be Venus with no contrails at all.

The ash is invisible from the ground (the problem, as I understand it, is that if you fly a jet engine into what is in effect a fine mist of ground glass at 30,000 feet, the plane may be able to make an emergency landing, but even if it does it will never fly again.) Here's Venus. I think she's sort of crescent-shaped, to a willing mind, and in the same direction as the Moon.

Friday 16 April 2010

1x1 tubular castoff (for cie, jo and maya)

Hello busybees - this is my version of techknitter's beautiful tubular castoff. Obviously it has been done many times before (you will see related videos on YouTube). This comes after the two complete rounds of double knitting, which requires going round four times, working and slipping knits and purls alternately.

It's so much easier to keep track of where you are than it is on two needles, and it's so much easier to keep the gauge consistent, that if I had two pieces to be grafted together I would consider transferring them to a single needle in order to do it this way. But maybe that would crowd the stitches too much and make it too slow and awkward.

But mainly I took the video because I keep forgetting exactly what the path is - which leg of each stitch should be worked in which direction - if I don't do it for a while. Having watched my own hands do it on video several times over, I can now play back in my head what it looks like, and for some reason the memory problem is solved. I'm not sure that watching someone else's hands, or watching in lower quality, would have worked.

The Object being finished is another hottie woollie.

Saturday 10 April 2010

The making of a 78

Via the excellent Mike Lavocah, a beautiful film (in three parts, all three linked below the embed) depicting exactly how a record was made in the 1940s.

Part One (as above) | Part Two | Part Three

I'm just delighted with the brilliant ingenuity, the precision, and in some ways the simplicity and directness of this process, obviously the result of a long evolution yet to be continued. It's genius.

I also love the film itself, with the first-person narrative of its unseen narrator, and his innocent joy at the pure wax smoothed with flame, the electroplating, the giant glooping shellac mix machine, and the unexpected way the labels are put on. And as the sort of social-historical matter which would interest my mother, notice how the sex of the workers changes through the process. You can't draw any conclusions, as you can often only see one worker at a time, and some of the roles may well have been mixed. But it tells you something about how each job was perceived at the time.

Mike says:

What really struck me was how the finished record – being an analog process – contains an imprint of the vibrations made by the musicians at the time of the performance. In some sense, you are connected directly back to that time. This is something that digital music – especially with our attempts to “improve” the music with filtering and other kinds of post-processing – can never capture.

I'm not sure I agree that the connection is more 'direct' in any literal sense. And I'm not sure that I know what that notion of connection means or in what way whatever it means is important. But I sympathise with his sentiment about the physicality of this process, all the same. I once went to a public lecture on human biology, after which I approached the lecturer with some question or other, and was privileged to hold in my hand, briefly, a hand-axe 250,000 years old. A thing that was made by someone's hands, a quarter of a million years ago.

Thursday 8 April 2010

The 400 Club - Issue 5

They give me a mention so it's only polite to link back. Actually it's Naomi or Silvia (of 'Tango@33' - they've retained the brand without the building) who mentions in an interview my undisguised enthusiam for being allowed to dance somewhere that people agree not to body-slam me, use me as a battering ram, or act in ways that cause other people to do so.

I hadn't read the 400 Club magazine before. Other than the piece about George Bernard Shaw learning to dance tango, with a photo in which the embrace is slightly modified to accommodate his partner's hat, this is my favourite bit:

“The 400 club is an irregularly produced, amateur newsletter for the London Tango scene. ... The next issue will arrive when and if we have sufficient time and inclination to get round to doing one.”

Monday 5 April 2010

A Long-Tailed Tit without a tail

A pair of long-tailed tits ('tits' in general are similar to the small birds that Americans call 'chickadees' - the word used to be 'titmouse') in my parents' garden. This particular species generally feed in pairs. One of these has lost its tail, perhaps to some cat or fox or some accident. It doesn't seem to cause it any problems flying, that I can see.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Spring Rain - Miscellaneous and reading

I love Spring rain, cool on my face but not cold, falling on the skin more than striking it. I love to walk in it wearing a hat and a good wool coat. So cool and gentle. Short of a friend to hold your hand, it's the nearest thing I know to ice for the injured soul. There may be hailstorms, too, but in the meantime, I love Spring rain.

Wonders of the Solar System is great telly. When he went up in a fighter jet and looked at the top of the atmosphere I wanted to compose music, to sing. Good documentary telly is about the subject, never the presenter, and apart from about ten seconds of boilerplate in the first programme which I daresay was foisted on him, Professor Brian Cox entirely gets that.

The Planet Money Podcast is one of the best radio programmes ever. They've bought a toxic asset. As a pet. You can watch it die. The podcast is outstanding and includes someone saying “Dude. This is a disaster” in connection with a financial instrument.

What happens if you ask Google a full-sentence question starting with "is ...". But you can take the experiment further - follow the "is" with any single letter selected at random and you soon learn that what humans with internet access mostly want to know about the state of the world is whether other humans they have heard of are married, pregnant, homosexual, Jewish, or dead.

From the Centre for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, Medford, Massachussetts, a moving and fascinating qualitative study paper: Preachers who are Not Believers. "The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme. They have no trusted confidantes to reassure them, to reflect their own musings back to them, to provide reality checks."

I am going to be away over Easter, I am working on another project and probably won't be posting.