Monday 30 May 2011

Moods, surroundings and improvisation

Thinking about how people's personalities express themselves in their dance, it's very striking how different some people feel depending on their mood.

I remember dancing with someone I only get to dance with at rare intervals, on a day which had been a very good one for him; and his dance felt quite different from any previous occasion, in content and flow - more adventurous. It couldn't all be explained by my own technical improvement in the interval, so I said "You're very happy today!" and heard all about it.

And most people dance very differently when they're stressed. Chaotic floors and clownish dancing from other people have a drastic effect. There's a lot more brain available for leading when you can trust the couples in front, behind you, and beside you, to take their space and keep it and not flutter around like human-sized dragonflies. When nothing too comical is happening in your eyeline, you don't have to use so much energy shutting things out. This is why competent dancers prefer competent dancers around them. Because they can have a better dance and not be constantly struggling with other people's problems.

Then again, people whose improvisation is very free, who don't have to think about their dancing at all and can generate new stuff on the fly, can find themselves channelling something that happens in front and suddenly speeding up or doing something totally out of character, to the surprise of the follower.

The effect of flashy, athletic show-tango performances is notorious. A lot of people realise that the two to three tandas after a performance are the time to have a drink, go to the loo, brush your hair, fix your makeup, change your shirt, have a smoke if that's your thing, etc etc, because all the looney-tunes will be out and kicking, moved by the spirit to thrash around as violently as possible, even the ones who normally hide inside relatively reasonable dancers. If the performance was late, you might as well go home.

But there's still a strong effect even if it's just the person's mood. Sometimes if someone is dealing with strong emotions then the lead can get sort of 'off' as though they were having to lead themselves first, and then me. It's hard to follow, because there's less time and less information left over. In people who have a lot of options, what they actually do can even get sort of chaotic and worrying, independently of how they do it.

I don't know exactly how the same things express themselves in followers. I definitely return to any bad habits when stressed, especially at the start of a dance; if I think I'm going to get hit, or if I am anxious for any reason. So I know that I need more technique than I actually need, to compensate for this. By technique I mean the kind of physical habits that make it easier to dance well. And I also need more concentration, because worry interferes most with concentration, and following is all about that. I just try to make sure that I can be relied on to stand still and keep my balance (and occasionally my partner's as well) if we have to slam the brakes on, and concentrate on my partner and follow in any direction if evasive action's needed.

Conversely, I remember one person habituated to stress at work; he danced a particular way, which was well enough. But, just once, sheer exhaustion after a 24-hour shift produced a dance so much better, so much freer and more flowing and more grounded, that it was barely recognisable as coming from the same person. And I wondered if this was the dance and the level of musical and emotional connection he might achieve every week if only he lost his horrible job with that horrible company. Not gonna happen, though.

Turning down the stress level in any way they can is probably the biggest thing organisers can do to improve the dancing.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Higher Mathematics

I was coming home on the Tube just now, and the young man next to me, with a reddish Lenin beard, was reading Chapter 2 - Representations of the Symmetric Group - Dominance and Ordering - Specht Modules.

I almost opened my mouth to say "I bet nobody ever reads that over your shoulder."

But I did not.

On reflection, perhaps it might have appealed to a devotee of Set Theory.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

L'Oréal Double Extension Beauty Tubes - good performance

Pretty satisfactory product, suitable for tango use.
Picture from L'Oreal.
Update in my search for a satisfactory mascara. This one worked pretty well. It's double-ended  - two bottles with a double-ended brush between them. One end is a clear undercoat, then you screw that brush back in, turn it round and apply the black from the other end. The bottle is red and white, and it's mid-priced, £11.29 at Superdrug.

This is now my regular mascara, as it sticks to its post  very well. The left eye's mascara stays in place. The right eye's has consistently survived tandas pressed up against both smooth and fuzzy faces, with minimal flaking onto my cheek* and no smearing at all. It does seem to thin out a bit, but inspection by friends confirms that it doesn't look unbalanced and it doesn't spread itself offensively over my face. The few flakes (more if I overapply it, or let the undercoat dry too much) can be brushed away.

There's a bit of a trick to application. Apply the white undercoat, then pinch off any globby bits (or use an eyelash comb) and apply the black promptly, before the undercoat dries. It works much better this way and doesn't stick the lashes together much. If I let the undercoat dry, I get horrible clumps, and it doesn't stay on as well.

You remove it by holding a warm wet cloth or sponge over it for half a minute or so - then it wipes or rinses off cleanly in little tubes.

There may be better ones out there, but this did a good job for the price on a very tough task.

*If I'm honest about it, I actually quite like the idea of it ending up on someone else's face, I just feel I oughtn't to! Anyway, I couldn't see it on theirs.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Abrazos Devon - Encuentro Milonguero UK

The first Encuentro Milonguero UK was organised by Lynn Collins and Andreas Wichter, at Dartington Hall, Devon. The name refers to a type of small-scale festival you find around Europe, strongly focused on pure social dancing, with very high quality DJing, and clear expectations as to behaviour, and aiming for a high average quality of social dance with a nice embrace. Although there may be classes (as here), there aren't always, and any teachers are chosen for their focus on the social dance and their ability to help social dancers. Melina has a handy list of similar ones going on this year. This was the first attempt to do something like this in the UK.

Disclosure: I'm very fond of Lynn and Andreas and I really wanted this to do well.

The Class: Detlef and Melina gave a couple of workshops, one of them specially for extra-crowded milongas, and Marek and Oliveira Szotkowski gave a couple of workshops. People didn't go into meltdown after them. The 'privatandas' were a nice idea, they happened in one of the practicas - effectively a short, focused private lesson while everyone else practices around you. I danced with a couple of people who'd just done one and they'd each got a couple of things to work on without being tired or overloaded, so they still wanted to talk about them and practice them on their own.

Layout and Atmosphere: Dartington hall is an ancient country house with magnificent gardens, designed by a well-known American garden designer for the couple who bought the house and restored it in the early 20th Century. The gardens deserve a post to themselves, so I'll come back to that. But the place is a centre for arts and music, and has several buildings with dance studios suitable for practice and social dancing. The daylit room in the picture on the right is in the 'hex', and this was taken during one of the practicas, from the upper row of seating on that side. You can see someone sitting on the lower step, there were three steps like this. The room is broadly hexagonal, which puzzled some people, while others enjoyed all the extra corners. As you came in to the building there was a food counter, loos, changing rooms, and somewhere to put your stuff.

The Friday milonga was this big rectangular studio shown on the left. It was my favourite venue. The room for the Saturday and Sunday milongas, which was in another building, was just a little too long and narrow, although lovely in other ways, with lots of natural light and a patio outside. The same nice tables and chairs were moved in there, but because of the shape, people tended to congregate in the end where the entrance was and block it a bit, so I found it a little harder to find my dances.

There were always enough seats for everyone to sit down, as you can see in the pictures. And people did actually sit down for the cortinas. So it was pretty straightforward.

Nobody mentioned the floor. The floors were all perfect - they're all professional dance studios. (For Londoners: similar in feel to the one at Corrientes). I encountered no slipperiness and no stickiness either.

As for the atmosphere, you can see from the pictures that it's relaxed and an attractive place, but for me it was all about the DJing and about the way you felt taken care of and even your stuff was treated with respect. I actually felt that the culture of the place was genuinely with me and behind me in expecting me to dance only if I actually wanted to - and that it was all about attracting people who would actually want to dance with each other. Genuinely and collectively behind me, and not the usual lip service. No need to fuss or talk about manners. It was lovely.

Somewhere tidy to put your street shoes!
Hospitality: Excellent. Not only were the customers treated as though they came first, even their stuff was treated with respect. The picture shows hanging cubby holes for your street shoes, which might have been dirty and otherwise would have been all over the floor just like they are everywhere else. We were encouraged to change shoes in the changing area and use these, so as to keep the floors nice and clean.

On arrival you got a welcome pack containing your wristbands for each day, a leaflet with the full schedule (and taxi firm numbers, information about food, about lifts back to B&Bs and so forth), and tourist information for the hall and the area.

There was adequate hanging space for your coat. The bar on Saturday didn't have my usual G&T, I think the glass of wine was about £3. There was a food-and-drink lady ("Van Rouge") who made sandwiches, tea, coffee, and other food during the day. I thought her food was very good, but tea was expensive at £1.20. The £7 each for the bookable afternoon meals was double what it should have been for the falafel (two falafel wraps would have been ok), especially with the queue and slow service, but about right for the very nice risotto thing. The tortilla was delicious. I also had two helpings of excellent coffee cake, and some more expensive tea, at Dartington Hall's Roundhouse Café.

Water was available on tap or in jugs at the food bar, with some soft drinks at reasonable prices. All loos were roomy and in very good condition.

Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: Both teaching couples gave fairly brief demonstrations on the Saturday, you can probably find video on YouTube. The most interesting part was where both couples did a vals together; they have strongly contrasting styles and looks. There was also a Shoe Lady who had practice shoes and tango shoes: I bought a lovely pair of very generous width in a brand I'd never seen before, for £75, a very good price for some very nice shoes.

What I thought of the DJing: Excellent, and I really noticed the fun cortinas. Music for the milongas was of course all in tandas, put together at a professional level, and the cortinas were all great, calm-and-happy music - I loved Melina's British folk songs, and the switch to Queen later in the evening. DJing for the practicas was not in tandas, it was chosen for practice instead. The only departure from purely traditional music was Enrico's bizarre substitute for La Cumparsita, which was decidedly spaced-out, but might have had 'Abrazos' in the title, and I didn't care because I honestly couldn't move another step anyway and had already opened my mouth to tell my partner so. The full line up (with links to their websites rather than the Abrazos page) was:

Friday Milonguita: Philippe Gonella (organises Cigales, Carino Tango)
Milonga Bienvenida (Friday): Melina Sedó
Saturday Milonguita: Céline Deveze (Carino Tango)
Gran Milonga (Saturday): Enrico "Il Mali" Malinverni (Yo Soy Milonguero Crema)
Milonga "El Adios" (Sunday): Uwe Willié (Tangokombinat)
Prácticas and R&R time: Jill Barrett and Dele As (Bournemouth Tango).

Getting in: The weekend pass for all day and evening milongas and practicas (not any workshops or privatandas) was £60. The daytime milongas went on about as long as milongas usually do in London, the others longer. You could also book for individual evening milongas or day-passes, but it works out more expensive. Advance booking is essential, places are limited and if you just turn up it won't be possible to let you in. I'd say the entry price was a few pounds higher than other festivals of this type, depending on the exchange rate, but very reasonable by UK standards, especially in view of the number of hours' dancing and the high quality of organisation, music, and dance. Certainly it had no problems getting fully booked, and I wouldn't expect it to next year.

Getting there and getting home: I took a train from Paddington to Totnes.You can actually walk between Totnes Station and Dartington Hall, and I did  this on the way back. It's only about two miles and it's a lovely walk, but I wouldn't recommend it if the weather looks at all dubious or if your suitcase is one with wheels rather than one like mine that travels on your back. It's mostly flat but with a hilly part near the hall. To get there, I took a taxi.

To be able to walk back to bed after the milongas, you need to be staying in the hall, which as far as accommodation goes is a sort of cross between an Oxford college and a nice conference centre. It still helps to have a torch, as part of the way is unlit, but my companion and I managed quite easily without one, it's only five minutes. The rooms are very nice, but expensive - our twin room was £99 per night. To save money, or if there is no room at the hall, you can stay at one of many bed and breakfasts in Dartington or Totnes, but then you'll need transport. One of my partners used a bicycle lent to him by his B&B, who also made him sandwiches. Others drove or got lifts with those who did. The organisers thought about the comfort of their guests - they gave detailed information about all this in advance, and made announcements to match people up with seats. If you had a spare seat you were asked to take a sticker so that someone who needed a lift could find you.

The website: Nice. All the information's there. Links are somewhat disguised - they're the bits in italics.

How it went: I had a brilliant time. My favourite milongas are always the daytime ones, where I get super-relaxed and happy and dance better. I should have had the wit to pace myself better for Saturday night, but I enjoyed it more and more as I went along and I remember my last dance with a lot of joy, even though I was practically falling over.

I was really struck by the very wide variety of individual styles within an exclusively close-embrace social tango. One of my favourites, a young stranger who I hope to dance with again, felt sort of like really good well-led nuevo in a milonguero embrace, and we had a great connection. A Frenchman (who I had met before) had a style of dance quite unique to himself, very pleasurable, but very different. A German had a brilliant, earthy milonga. A tall Scotsman had a dance full of gentlemanly warmth. The individuality of dance of all my partners was much stronger than it is at home despite London's extreme contrasts of what's usually (wrongly, in my view) called style.

Here is a little video which gives you the atmosphere and the excellent flow on the floor, better I think than I have experienced anywhere. I focused on a couple of friends, who live thousands of miles apart but have great chemistry when they dance together, and both of them told me (before agreeing that I could upload it) that this dance felt even better than it looked. She has the kind of tango face you want to bottle and take home for when you're feeling depressed, so I'm doing a public service here.

The crowd was about 85% from the UK, with a good number of Scots and some visitors from Ireland as well as mainland Europe (France, Germany, Flanders, Slovenia, I forget).

The third room, looking towards the balcony (behind curtains)
- enough chairs for everyone to sit on one for the demo!
Local customs: Cabeceo, obviously. And although this maybe shouldn't need saying, nobody has a problem with same-sex dancing. Although this might cause a problem with cabeceo in theory (or at least, in the imaginations of some people), in practice, it doesn't. Cabeceo is pretty flexible. Melina even got a foot massage by cabeceo, or at least a version of it. I spotted a favourite new partner of mine following really well, I like that.

There was already very good reason to think that there was a good-sized untapped UK market for a quality offering of this kind, but it was impossible to know for sure until they turned up. I'm so grateful to Andreas and Lynn for taking the risk and making it happen. There will certainly be some who could have taken or left it, but I thought it was brilliant. If those who didn't find it quite their thing give up their future places to those who do, then it'll only get better. The plan is to repeat this next year, and possibly to organise a smaller event between now and then - check the website for details. It was full up, they had as many bookings as the rooms' regulations allowed. But it's only once a year, and it's two miles from Totnes. So I think other organisers who truly want to deliver a quality-focused event, could take a lot of encouragement from this success.

Monday 9 May 2011

A perfect British queue

Abrazos Devon, Friday night: 85% UK attendees, maybe 1.5m space per couple, absolutely bloody perfect 2-lane ronda with a clear space all the way down the middle. The revolution has already happened.

Abrazos, Devon, Friday 6th May 2011 at some point between 11pm and 01:30
This happened totally naturally: nobody had to announce anything or put up any notices: nobody had think about it: everyone knew perfectly well what to do: it happened as easily as driving round a roundabout, standing on the right of the escalator and walking on the left, or forming a single queue for three automatic ticket machines. Pretty much as you ought to expect in Britain, if you thought about it.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Packing again

There's a problem with having a tango festival in the wilds of south-west England in early May: the weather. You just don't know what it's going to do. What do I pack? I have more stuff in my suitcase than I'd need for 2 weeks in the south of France, and I'll probably still be too hot or too cold, or both within five minutes of each other.

To be fair, the same would probably be true at any other time of year, so there is no point in complaining.

At least the dancing part is relatively straightforward, although I'm not convinced I have what I need even for that. My basic approach is to start with a maximum of two pairs of shoes, and have a mostly consistent colour theme. I'm also taking my running shoes, which are very bulky (Melina seems to manage, so I have no excuse not to).

Final adjustments in progress ...

Tuesday 3 May 2011

On being told what to do with our souls

It's not given to us to know what is in another person's mind. We sometimes think we do, but when any means of checking happens to occur, we turn out to be wrong as often as not.

You often get a strong impression of someone's personality by dancing with them. Somebody's dance is bound to express their personality - it isn't exactly going to express someone else's. Even if they are the sort of person who tries to imitate someone else, they'll only ever succeed in looking as though that's what they're doing; I don't really suppose it's possible to imitate the way someone else feels, unless by sheer accident. You do feel a strong sense of personality, and it may well be pretty accurate, as far as it goes. But it's never the whole story. There's a lot more to people than expresses itself in their dance.

In dance classes we sometimes get told what to do with our souls, whatever that means and whatever those are: a daft and impertinent instruction, in my view, but not necessarily useless, if you like that sort of thing.

If you're worried that you don't give your "soul", or your "whole self" or your "hundred percent" to a dance, whatever any of that is supposed to mean, and you feel a bit inadequate and as though you might be Not The Right Sort Of Person, or perhaps even Not The Right Nationality, and perhaps you should just give up and go home because you'll never ever be accepted here, or if you feel as though you're being asked to be less than yourself or to pretend to be something you're not, stop. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to create imaginary demons (still less borrow someone else's) and let them beat you up.

It might be better to ask yourself what you've got. I bring what I've got. Some of what I've got is:

A willingness (in this context) to feel the fear and do it anyway
A sense of humour
An emotional connection with the music
A strong disinclination to take any crap from anyone at all
A Bullshit detector
A lively curiosity to know what other people have got.

This seems to be, at least, a pretty good substitute for whatever some people call, soul. At any rate, it seems to be good enough for them. And perhaps it is the same thing. That's not given to us to know, about ourselves or about anybody else. Be honest and be brave, concentrate, do the best you can, be willing to make mistakes, and I reckon it'll be all right.