Wednesday 29 June 2011

What is style anyway? Styles, brands, and quality

For me, a person's style is not just their choices about what to put in and what to leave out, but much more the way that they do it, how they move, what kind of music suits them, what their natural speed is, the way they make me feel as a person. It does include their choices of what techniques to use or not use. But those technical choices aren't a big part of it. Certainly not big, compared to the differences in feel that exist between people who use exactly the same range of techniques at a similar level of skill.

In the context of social dancing, it makes sense to me to use vague descriptive terms like 'dynamic' or 'soft' or 'calm' or 'inventive' or 'spare' or 'quiet' or 'exciting' or 'busy'. I don't find it very useful to give styles names. That makes more sense if you're talking about 'style' in the sense of a brand or a product, like Vivienne Westwood, but not really for the kind of thing I have in mind.

My very favourite partners have individual styles of their own, so the whole concept is a bit meaningless. Everyone has more in common with some others, than other others. I could group them in families, like the sounds of different orchestras. Overall, they definitely tend to share certain techniques and habits, but I wouldn't really say it goes beyond what anyone needs for a good level of competence in social dancing. There's all sorts of variation in the kind of trivia people like to set up as shibboleths, naturally. But people who haven't got some compatible version of those techniques and habits, plus or minus trivia, just aren't good social dancers, so the concept of style is not much help.

What I'm saying here is, it doesn't make sense to me to put something into your dance because you think it's part of a 'style' that you're trying to cultivate. The only good and sufficient reason for doing an enrosque is that you really, really want to. If it was me, I don't think I'd bother, but if you think they're super cool, that's an adequate reason to put the work in to get them right. Otherwise there isn't one.

There is such a thing as a brand name. For example, you can associate some set of techniques and habits with some place in Buenos Aires or some set of people. That just does the mundane job that brand names do. Brand names have a function, they're there so you can identify, locate and purchase something you want. Vivienne Westwood, for example, has a style and a brand. The brand allows you to find the style, if you want it, by asking the attendant in Selfridges where it is. You'll get a product that looks a certain way and has a more-or-less-known provenance and quality. Business done, everybody's happy. But if the 'enrosque' outfit doesn't suit you and demands unfeasible underwear, you don't buy it just because it's got the label. You buy it if you know it's useful or believe it's beautiful, or both.

There's also 'style' as a euphemism for quality.

If I say that I saw a couple dancing like an arse with six legs, you could call that an antisocial style, but I may not think they even have a style - they might, or they might not, it's probably hard to tell - I just think they danced selfishly and rudely, and looked like a pair of halfwits. Calling it a 'style' seems like making an excuse.

But if you are trying to persuade someone to improve their dancing by not kicking people so much, one possible way around resistance is to present it as exploration of a new 'style' rather than an improvement in quality. It's a useful lie, a polite lie, and perhaps it's a necessary lie. It really, really does help sometimes. But it's a way of avoiding saying that they're incompetent at the thing they think they're doing, namely social dancing.

As for grouping techniques together and labelling them as style, well, I think that if we really want to talk about technique, we're better off just doing it directly. If I say that someone leads with the point of his shoulder, is a bit tippy, and has no embrace, or if I say someone else has a grip of death and poor balance, leads vaguely, and wrestles the woman around turns, I'm saying they are hard to dance with, not that I don't like their respective styles.

The most these things have to do with style is that you'll tend to catch one disease rather than another depending on what you've unsuccessfully attempted to learn, how, and who from. They are technical issues. Actually having a style in any meaningful way is not something that comes into the picture until after these issues have been fixed.

I have stood in the middle of a conversation in which my partner and the partner of the lady behind me really did start taking the piss out of each other about style, or at least about musical interpretation. But that kind of thing doesn't happen a lot.

There's style, there's branding, and there's quality. They all mean something, they're related, they quite often stand in for each other, especially when we talk about them. But they're not, in my view, the same.

[Edit: some obscure and unexpected interaction between my drafts file and Blogger has bumped this post down to a few weeks before I actually posted it ... fixing]

Saturday 25 June 2011

Giro mojo

To cheer me up. I know I'll want to watch it again. Hat tip Andreas for finding this.

Fantastic. [Edit: look at 02:10-02:20]

Monday 20 June 2011

Possible Approaches to the Princess Problem

Photo from Wikimedia
For the incurably literal-minded, like me, respectable craftswomen who feel puzzled and vaguely insulted to be told to stand "like a princess", I have looked up a non-ridiculous mental image for stock.

Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan - Hans Holbein the Younger. This wonderful life-size portrait, which the photograph doesn't do justice to at all, was made as a bride-research project for King Henry VIII. Though happy to be painted, the lady is supposed to have said that if she had two heads, she would gladly lay one of them at the service of the King of England. Proving that if she didn't have two heads, she did have at least one brain.

I think my favourite paintings might all be those by artists who got spectacularly good at one thing. Holbein also designed magnificent metalwork and jewellery, but his fame is as a portraitist. All his portraits have this living presence, coming from a hundred clever technical tricks, like the close backgrounds, and careful attention to asymmetries in the faces, but surely also from a wonderful eye for people. There were others who knew the tricks, but they weren't this good. They couldn't paint a dimple in the act of appearing.

Although this lady is more like me: Anne Lovell - Lady with a Squirrell and a Starling. No doubt the capable manager of a large household, she is not used to being painted, and he has managed to paint her disconcerted awareness of his gaze: look at the squirrel's tail, so like a squirrel-hair paintbrush, tickling. What a craftsman.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Like a princess

"Imagine you're a princess, walk like a queen!"

What exactly am I supposed to imagine, here?

A depressed brood mare leafing listlessly through Vogue? A silly hat? A girl in a pink plastic dress and tiara, trudging grimly back to the car park from Disneyworld? Someone for whom everything goes better on top of a horse?

I realise there are people who admire her Majesty for various personal qualities, but do they really include her walk? I hear Queen Beatrix is good on a bicycle, but I'm not sure how that helps.


I mean, what does that even mean? "Princess" isn't filed in my mind with anything useful, beautiful, or even a tiny bit interesting, that doesn't directly require the presence of at least one horse or a minimum of thirty rugby players. The only walk it's associated with, is Sarah Ferguson's when she got married, and that can't be what they're aiming for.

Communication FAIL.

I have heard worse. The "stand like you're proud of your new breasts" is the most memorably alienating and repellent tango instruction I've heard of so far, but since I wasn't actually there (it's hearsay from a friend) I won't discuss it further.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Evelyn Glennie on sound, the body, meaning, and music

Well worth paying attention to, on so many levels. If you're a dancer and you don't have 32 minutes right now, I'd suggest 05:30-07:50, in which she goes from the relationship between music and the body to a beautiful demonstration of the difference between playing music and giving it meaning. Like the difference between reciting a platitude and speaking a thought.

From the TED website:

In this soaring demonstration, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie illustrates how listening to music involves much more than simply letting sound waves hit your eardrums. Scottish percussionist and composer Evelyn Glennie lost nearly all of her hearing by age 12. Rather than isolating her, it has given her a unique connection to her music.

Hat tip C.W. who shared this on Facebook.

Monday 6 June 2011

Les Cigales 2011 - Carpentras

Okay. I absolutely had a ball at this event last year, and I raved about it, so I have to update you.

This year, I had some wonderful dances with some people that I had never seen before, and probably never would have met anywhere else. I remember some beautiful tangos, a brillliant milonga candombe, and another fantastic milonga with a lady. I felt by the end of it that I was dancing well and giving and receiving a great deal of joy.

I thought the DJig was very good. Different styles, given a high priority, all good. The sound was good.

There were enough seats. There were reasonably priced drinks, the place was clean (apart from the two tons of talcum powder) and there was a means of getting food.

I stayed in a lovely B&B of the foodie kind called a tableau d'hote. It was beautiful. The people in this area are very kind and friendly, in my experience. People helped me find the buses and the way. The young gentlemen running the kebab shop were very nice.

Torrential rain for most of the weekend was unfortunate and certainly affected the mood, so adjust your perception of the following remarks accordingly.*

The location. Carpentras left something to be desired - it was much more difficult to reach than Toulon, and as far as I discovered, much less interesting. It would have been helpful to include on the website the information that the Thursday (!) was a religious holiday in France and that transport from Avignon was more complicated and very much reduced. I was very lucky, but this could easily have left me and other people stranded with great difficulties finding accommodation or transport. It was stressful, and for some people very expensive, and it affected the mood of the whole weekend.

The numbers. There were too many people. I don't think the concept of a milonga scales up beyond 200 people in this sort of context - maybe in others, but I doubt it. Even when you know that there are many people there you want to dance with and who want to dance with you, your chances of finding any person for any tanda are just too small. For a milonga that big to work well, you need at least excellent lighting and lines of sight, which there weren't.

Technical problems. The concrete floor was alternately, simultaneously, and chaotically sticky and super-slippery. The room was too dark in the evenings, and during daylight the chairs were patchily backlit, making the chances of cabeceo very limited and even just finding anyone you wanted difficult, especially if you didn't know their face well - and dancing with faces you don't know well is kind of the point of these things.

Poor focus. There were lots of people there whose basic concepts of what tango is, were so incompatible with one another that they wouldn't really want to dance together by choice, either as partners or on the same floor. This wastes everyone's time and money. I don't know why that happened. It was fine last year.

18% women over. If you say that you are going to balance numbers, you must, in fact, do so. In particular, I most strongly advise against promising it, failing to do it, and then announcing that you've seen far worse in Buenos Aires. If in Buenos Aires they treat women's money, time, effort, and attention as worth dramatically less than men's, that is their own affair and has nothing to do with me. Making a childish excuse like that for a plainly given, plainly broken promise, just makes the women think that you have no brain and no respect. If there are too many of us, you need to tell some of us no so that we can spend our time and money on another event. If it's me that gets the no, fine. There are other events. Don't mess me about.

If it's the same venue next year, and on Ascension weekend, then I will not be going. It's too expensive and troublesome for the risk. If it's back in Toulon, or somewhere easier, with smaller numbers, the technical issues fixed, and very good reasons to believe that the focus will be better and that the women will be treated equally, then I will most likely go back. It was a great event last year, the DJs are excellent, and it could be again. But this time it was much harder work and had too many irritations, considering the cost of travel, the cost of accommodation, using up holidays, and other things I could have been doing with the time.

* I actually quite enjoyed some of the rain - there was a Bollywood-scale downpour on the Sunday afternoon, so loud we could hardly hear the music, and the sense of strange poetry was only enhanced by the circus parked outside that included a cage of real live tigers who roared, a grazing bison, and a creature that might have belonged to the llama family. And a bloke in a costume having a smoke. I do like the sound of rain. But it brings gloom with it, and sunshine would have been better, I'm sure.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Out of Office Message

Back middle of next week.