Saturday 26 June 2010

Weekender Packing List - Lessons Learned

Ever been to a tango weekender? Or thought about it, and wondered what to take?

Here's what I learned from my four days in the south of France. Men might simplify things a bit by taking a suit, which would deal with all of the evening milongas, but then you have to puzzle out the shirts and ties. And for the daytime milongas people wore all sorts. Polo shirts and chinos are a pretty safe bet, but I had lovely dances with guys in cargo shorts and flipflops.

Key: Final packing list, comments on return.

The Brief: 5 nights, 4 milongas, unfamiliar Mediterranean climate. 18-22C, possibly windy. Might want to do tourist things. Actually there were 7 milongas! I hadn't understood the programme.

Dancing Shoes 1 (pink tone) I only wore these once, with dress 1, and they're a bit tight for a long milonga. I should order a half-size up in this brand.
Dancing Shoes 2 (silver tone) Wore them all the time - these are the half size up. Winner.
Dress 1 (attention-getting and folds up to nothing) That worked.
Dress 2 (also folds up to nothing - very pretty - quieter though. Could conceivably be worn as daywear, if not too windy) That didn't work. Put it on and it just felt wrong. Something about the climate and fabric and proportions. Felt sweaty. Didn't wear it.
2-piece outfit 1 (relatively casual but bright and cheerful, super-pretty, both parts recycle as daywear) Winner, wore the sweet little Audrey-Hepburn Capri trousers for 2 milongas and as daywear for 2 days.
2-piece outfit 2 (relatively warm in case of unexpected weather, top recycles as daywear, dark colour) This took care of one of the milongas I hadn't counted in the planning. But the skirt is a bit too big and rides down - requires an anti-static slip.
2-piece outfit 3 (relatively formal - cheerful colour - top recycles as daywear) This covered for the failure of Dress 2.
Little Black Dress as backup in case I've totally missed the tone. Didn't need it, but don't grudge the space to proper risk management.
Underwear as required by above.
Knee length zip-up over-dress to wear over outfits when walking to and from the venue. Very glad I put this in at the last minute, otherwise wouldn't have worn Dress 1.

There's 2 outfits redundancy there, but that's because I'm not familiar with the climate or the venue and I don't know exactly who's going or how they dress or whether there's aircon or fans, or whether Dress 1 might be out-of-place. Redundancy and flexibility, luckily.

Both pairs of shoes are comfortable rather than demanding; long nights. Good call. My feet hurt up to the knees at the end of day 1. Any of my other shoes would have been disastrous.

Denim skirt Did the job well but could have either gone without it, or worn it instead of the tourist trousers and avoided the attention of security at King's Cross - I forgot that if you have visible pockets on loose garments, they always search you. Pencil skirt again next time.
Various cotton tops used one for one of the uncounted milongas and 2 things to cover the shoulders only needed the one that matches Dress 1 
Spare light hot-weather skirt, folds up to nothing. Took care of another milonga - good call.
Factor 50 sun cream essential
Beach towel didn't need it
Foldable kitbag didn't need it
Bag with all bits for doing hair, legs, face. Decanted shampoo, conditioner. Bobby pins.
Daywear flat sandals. Wore them all the time and danced in them twice.

Will wear tourist trousers on train with ankle-covering canvas shoes and socks, and hoodie; those will do for any off-road walking. Perfect - took me up the telepherique, hoodie took care of cool evenings.

Camera essential
Adapter for chargers
2x spare SD cards for camera

Document wallet with all booking references, train tickets, and passport.

Small bag with book, money, cards, and knitting.

The only thing I had to buy was sticking plasters for my feet.

Thursday 24 June 2010


It is utterly, absolutely extraordinary that for about a fiver I can buy a book of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings.

They're the most wonderful work; it's not simply their beauty, they go far beyond that, his drawings of the skeleton are are the most explanatory pictures I've ever seen. The bones of the forearm, he shows me, cross one another like this as you rotate your wrist. The pelvis is this shape, and the bone of the thigh fits into the socket in this way. The spine is attached like so, and the ribs to the vertebrae like this, and this is what a skull is like, here is how it joins the neck and shoulders, this is how the shoulder moves. You can clearly see exactly how it works.

I remember a TV programme in which an experienced heart surgeon said that out of interest he had studied Leonardo's drawings of the heart; and his depiction of the way the blood flowed had inspired the surgeon to ask "Is it really just like that?" and to invent a better way of fitting replacement heart valves.

And for less than the price of lunch I can have this in my house. What extraordinary times we live in.

Saturday 19 June 2010


Bocca di lupo

cousin, cousin's man, mspigeon
I have no idea what was happening on my plate but it all tasted amazing
The pig's blood and chocolate thing is strange, but nice, the bergamot ice thing with meringue is even stranger
soho bar

Fruit cocktail (non-alcoholic)
3 more bottles of prosecco
Round of tea
cocktails and finishing off the prosecco
I'm on coffee now

Thursday 17 June 2010

Lessons for beginners

It may help the beginner to know that there are, broadly, two approaches you're likely to encounter in a beginner's class. In reality, everyone uses some more-or-less-successful mixture of these two approaches, I don't know anyone at all who keeps absolutely to one or the other, that would probably be silly. But in most classes, one or the the other is very much dominant. I'm going to describe what the two extremes are, tell you my opinions about them, and hope that it helps you get what you need out of your classes.

Top-down: Learn some steps by heart, do them, and then work out how to lead and follow them. Break them up into simpler parts and recombine them. Repeat this without limit, looking at technique wherever it comes up, and then at some point later maybe go on to how to actually dance if you are interested or have talent. Very common in my experience.

Bottom-up: Learn how to move to the music and connect with your partner, start dancing in response to the music in a very basic way more or less immediately, and grow the steps from there. Work on technique as necessary. Get better at it over time. Add more complex skills if and only if they appeal to you. I've seen this only rarely around here, but it does happen.

The advantage of  top-down is that you get a map of where you're going, which is reassuring and gives you a sense of progress. The danger of this approach is that you get a map of where you're going which reduces a real landscape to a two-dimensional drawing, and makes you think things that aren't true, so that your sense of progress might be false.

The advantage of bottom-up is that you quickly get a view of the landscape, which is vast, awe-inspiring, and full of possibilities. The danger of bottom-up is that you quickly get a view of the landscape, which is vast, terrifying, and a bit short of signage.

Limerick has a great post on why that landscape appeals to him, and apparently looked good to George Bernard Shaw.

Practical advantages of top-down include that it's traditional and widely used, and it seems to be normally used to teach professional performers, so they feel very comfortable with it. Anyone with previous dance experience will probably also feel comfortable with it. It's also very good for bringing out points of physical technique, and introducing new techniques and ideas.

However, in my view it is very poor and slow at producing social dancers who anyone else would really want to dance with. The problem is that with non-professional students, the vital last few steps very often never happen - the procedure never gets broken down into re-usable elements, and even if it does, the student never actually gets to move to the music and develop their own dance.

Another problem is that the way a moves-based class has to work, spending 80% of the time on leader problems and then trying to compensate for that in various ways, it tends to seperate rather than integrate the leader's (man's) part and the follower's (woman's) part, so that the dance is a to-and-fro rather than a joint production.

Practical advantages of bottom-up include that it's (in my limited experience) about 1,000% more efficient at producing people who dance well, both more of them and much faster. This is a major advantage for the teacher who is primarily a social dancer and wishes to dance with his or her students. Another advantage is that leader and follower can get something much closer to equal time, because of the attention paid to creating and keeping connection, and to musical movement. That means the women can be more challenged and contributing more equally right from the start, which makes for less stress and soul-searching for everybody, as well as a better dance. It doesn't always happen, but it's much more possible.

However, it's demanding on the communication skills and curiosity of teacher and student. It also requires a much smaller number of lessons; the dancer can continue to improve at his or her own pace with relatively little help, a lot of it in the form of mentoring from peers and/or professionals, and just personal discovery, rather than actual teaching. Lessons will be fewer, more interesting, and more focused. So it only makes sense where the goals of both teacher and student are primarily to do with social dancing, rather than lessons as such.

So you can see what my opinion is. I think the bottom-up approach is better overall, but top-down is very useful for certain tasks and it never really makes sense to seperate them completely. Any teacher you choose will probably use some mixture, but with one approach predominant. Some will switch approaches if they realise you have a preference. And if you are informed, you can understand what is going on, and look for the useful bits.

OK, this is one of what I hope will be a series of posts intended to help out the beginner who has had either rather few lessons in tango, or no lessons at all. I'm not claiming any special authority, but I think help from peers is quite important. It is to me. And it's a confusing world. It's a common thing to take someone new under your wing as best you can; this is too important to be left to people who make their living out of it. If you are a beginner you don't need to assume I'm right, but I hope what I say will be useful to you; comments from prospective and recent beginners are particularly welcome. The next one I have in mind is a discussion of styles, and whether that concept means anything or is even slightly useful.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

I agree with the Shaman

I quite agree about photoshopping Gillian Tett. So unnecessary! Anyone who'd fancy the real you gets wierded out, and anyone who'd fancy the photoshopped you is going to be disappointed. What's the point?

On his other observations I have nothing to say.

Monday 14 June 2010

Total Connection (Salon Swing)

Connection - this is it. Miss Dawn Hampton, and John Dokes, again. Each other, and the music.

The Need for Agony Granddads

Once upon a time, one of those men's magazines hired a team of over-80 males to be an advice column; someone left his on the train, and I perused some very entertaining letters and replies, less detailed and more direct than the feminine form of this genre, including an exchange which ended - "If you don't like her, why are you with her? Stop wasting her time!" I don't know if it lasted, and I don't remember what the magazine was, but I thought it was a great idea.

That's the kind of conversation that has to happen for there to be a real, living, fully functioning community. There has to be enough respect and self-respect that one adult male, who has and deserves respect, can say to another: you are doing the wrong thing.

Because it isn't enough for the women to do it. To do that, we have to be in a heavily biased seller's market. And, hello, reality! We're not. Let me take a sad but rather mundane, indeed universal, example from ordinary life:

What he says:

I wouldn't want to hurt you.

What it sounds like it means:

I'm going to think about how I behave towards you, and take care not to hurt you, and if I hurt you accidentally, I'll do something to make it better.

What it really means:

I'd feel quite inconvenienced if you seemed hurt, so will you please be invulnerable; when you fail, I'll look embarrassed and disappear.

And it isn't really something the woman can fix, because she's too directly concerned. She can avoid hurt, by sacrificing joy, but she can't make him behave better, because while she hides her hurts he'll consider them as nothing, and when she shows them, he'll become nothing. The only way it changes, is if he changes his mind about what to do, and we already know her attractions are not adequate to cause that, unless you have Jane Austen write the script. You wouldn't bother making a movie out of it, unless you had her in the credits. It's just too dull.

I daresay it happens the other way round. It's only an illustration of the logic. Over-poetic, perhaps.

In the same way, women complaining about getting hurt will never produce better dancing. Only the fear of looking bad and incompetent in the eyes of confident and effectually dominant rival males will actually do that, in my view.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Minor Injury, with picture

Now, this is a very minor injury, and a very common one, but it hurt a lot for quite a while. It had more or less already healed by the time I took this picture. It happens all the time, and it's caused by one couple invading another couple's space to such a degree that one woman's heel passes across the other woman's instep. If this happens, and you caused it, it probably means you were tailgating. Don't.

It's difficult in London because the standard of dancing is generally low and varies wildly from place to place and night to night, but it's not rocket science.

There's a comment on Arlene's blog today which appears to say (I cannot believe it sincerely means this, that's just too bizarre) that the writer suffers from a psychological problem that prevents him having good floorcraft, no matter how hard he tries. If this is you - what entitles you to take out your psychological problem with violence on women's bodies, or indeed men's, is exactly nothing. Intentional or otherwise. Seek appropriate professional treatment; if it is ineffective and your illness means you can't dance, it means you can't dance, it doesn't mean you have a right to come and batter me. I am sorry for you, and I hope you get better soon, but that doesn't mean I should put up with being battered and say that it's OK. Nope. It's not OK to come dancing if you have the measles, either, or a streaming cold. That's what it means to be an adult human being.

Nobody thinks you did it on purpose, and nobody cares. We just want you to stop hurting and embarrassing us. Just stop it. Do whatever you need to do. Print this out and take it to your therapist, or your tango instructor, if that would help.

This injury is not the fault of the woman whose heel did it: she is keeping her heels down near the floor, or this wouldn't even be possible. And she doesn't have eyes in the back of her head.

I got this on my first Friday back after Les Cigales. At Cigales I did seven milongas, all as long or twice as long as a normal London one, without a single injury of any kind.

Thursday 10 June 2010


From 9 till midnight on Monday evenings at Avalon, Shoreditch High Street. [Update: I have a really nice time there, and they promptly go for a summer break. I'd say check tango-uk for announcements but actually it seems you need to sign up to the Tango@33 mailing list to know whether it's on or not, and you have to check your mail again an hour before it's supposed to start.]

The Class: The organisers, Alex and Silvia, offer a basic beginners and improvers' class from 7:30 to 9:00. From what I read before on the tangoat33 website, they start beginners off in close embrace straight away, and as far as I know they are the only people in London who attempt this.

Layout and Atmosphere: Unobtrusive from the outside, you come in and and it's all red and black and silver, very new-looking. There's a cloakroom and there may or may not be someone at the desk; anyway you can collect your thoughts and remove your rain gear before walking past the screen into the bar. Comfy red and silver sofas and chairs and square squashy seats. The bar is on the left and the dancefloor on the right. There is also a downstairs, but it's being knocked out and rebuilt at the moment. To me it felt glamorous and cosy.

The floor is small, rectangular, and more or less a seperate room from the seating area, with an opening in the wall between. The DJ has a large booth facing the opening. If there were more people the layout would be awkward, but at the moment it doesn't matter at all, especially since they play cortinas. The floor, however, is very dark, except for wild spinning flying-insect brightly-coloured nightclub lights. About which it's probably not possible to do much. Not really a problem for me, as the seating area is well lit and they play tandas and  cortinas, so there's no problem finding a partner, and I can dance with my eyes shut. But if you lead and you have any tendency to motion sickness, or suffer from epilepsy, you might want to bring pills. The flying light-midges - well, some people like them. They are very pretty, and an upside is that they don't encourage you to dance for the look of the thing, as nobody can see you, but they make me feel a bit strange. I think the lighting machine can do all kinds of patterns so it might be completely different when you go. Little zigzags, squares, or butterflies or something. Anyway, consider not wearing black.

The sound was good, not over-loud, and the surface gave me no problems.

Hospitality: Good. It feels like what it is (so far), which is a small group of friends starting their own milonga in a venue they like, and they know me so I could hardly fail to feel welcome. The loos are clean and dry, smart-looking and quite roomy, with a 3/4 length mirror. You could easily fix your hair, makeup and outfit in there. They have glamorous giant pin-up pictures on the wall. I ordered a single G&T as it was a weeknight and it was £2.65. I felt like a cheapskate for ordering a single and that's probably why I forgot to ask for water. It's a bar and it's free to get in for now. They do cocktails, too, of course.

Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: Just social dancing. I had a peek downstairs at the rebuilding, though, and that looks quite interesting.

What I thought of the DJing: Almost all traditional, with nice music, no show tunes or showing-off tunes, and one tanda of alternative just before I left - beautiful lyrical danceable music, no moron-beats. Short pop cortinas, long enough for the small floor. Sylvia mostly DJ'd, I think, Alex took over for the alternative tanda, but it seems to be a joint effort.

Getting in: Currently free. It's a small nightclub so obviously it's polite to order a drink or two. I don't think there was anyone there, apart from staff, who wasn't there to dance, which was nice. I'm not crazy about having a baffled audience.

Getting there and getting home: I walked from Liverpool Street station; come out of the Bishopsgate exit, turn left and walk along the same side of the road, without turning, until you get there. It took me exactly twelve minutes at the first attempt, I walk faster than average. You will pass a large wine place, and go under a bridge. It's a bit after the Crowne Plaza on the other side of the road. I left by about half past eleven but if you want to stay till midnight, you can probably still get the tube; otherwise there are many, many buses from Liverpool Street and from the roads right outside.

The website: It hasn't got one yet. Announcements on Tango-UK. The venue's is Avalon-London.

How it went: I had honest-to-goodness heart-to-heart dances inside the music. No bumps - I don't think there were ever more than three couples on the floor, and all of them were competent social dancers. The floor is small enough that it doesn't feel empty even if you're just one couple, it just felt intimate and relaxed (although on the other occasion I went there it was remarkable how the sudden appearance of just one notoriously awful leader changed my stress level - that's the trouble with small milongas).  There weren't many people there but they were lovely. In fact I had such a nice evening that I was seriously tempted to just shut up about it and keep it to myself. But that would be selfish.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

In-joke on the internet


Awesome. As good as a coffee machine on the other side of the world.

Sunday 6 June 2010

London Tango Orchestra

The London Tango Orchestra: I've just been to their second ever gig, as I happen to live in the area, and they were actually not bad at all. They're a 12-piece Orquesta Típica, the Argentine equivalent of the big band, with a pianist, double bass, cello, five violins, three bandoneons, and an singer.

The problem with an Orquesta Típica is the enormous amount of upfront investment it takes - five months of rehearsals doesn't come close to getting you an evening's repertoire, that would probably take about two years. But although they need a lot more repertoire, they know what a dance band is, and they apparently are one. I'd have been happy to dance to all the dance music they played, if there had been anyone to dance with. But there wasn't, so I quietly supped my pint and nodded my head. They played with a lot of spirit, I felt the bandoneon section could use strengthening, but it's there and it's all home-grown.

They also played a few concert pieces, so there's no knowing which way they'll go; rewards for being a dance band may be limited and concert music is usually more interesting to musicians. But all the dance stuff had the audience (non-dancers) wriggling a bit and tapping their feet.

I gather that this is the first attempt at forming an Orquesta Típica in the UK. They were greeted with interest in East London. Give them a go, if the opportunity arises.

A little bit of 'nuevo'

Now who would have thought all that practice with good dancers dancing 'milonguero' style (i.e. v intense unbroken close embrace) would transfer directly into throwing crazy nuevo in an (unbroken, rather 'apilado') v-embrace? I haven't done this for a really long time but I delivered it much better than I ever have before. And otherwise I thought I'd largely lost what I'd gained (not all of it, but a big chunk of it).

It's not the style that I feel most naturally but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy it. It's not as intense mentally, and it's a lot more physically demanding, but it's really musical when it works and I love it.

This particular partner dances very musically and we were dancing to a tanda that included "Recien", a piece I like very much, and I feel this style works well with that kind of music, so I could do it sincerely. However, few people who dance that style would choose to invite me if there were alternative partners who dance it regularly (in this case there I don't think there were).

It has practical problems in that it's big and requires a lot of space, which is one reason I really wish we had enough actually-good milongas that there could be a real 'nuevo' one where there was good music, plenty of room and not quite such a mix of styles and competencies (which makes it so much harder for the leaders). At least you need the space. It wasn't crowded, so we got away with it, but it's not ideal.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Unsatisfactory product

I have 2 mascaras. One (expensive) which transfers itself to a neat little arc on my right cheek in close embrace with a man of appropriate height. And presumably on him as well, although I didn't spot it in time and there was enough fuzz for it not to show. Another (cheap, but not waterproof) which does not.

That is all.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Observation on Fish

There are advantages and disadvantages to being a big fish in a small pond, and there are advantages and disadvantages to being a small fish in a big pond. On balance I am probably the sort of person who prefers to be a smaller fish in a nicer or at least more interesting pond, than a bigger fish in a pond that's claustrophobic or has poor water quality. Maybe that's true of most people (and that's why they build cities). But it's not necessarily what everyone would choose. It does seem to mean that, given a small pond, I'm willing to do a bit of digging to make it bigger, at least if I think the water quality could be improved or I might like some of the new fish.