Monday 31 December 2012

The Gormlets get their own blog

The Gormlets have their own blog now. [Edit: updated the URL because they've emigrated to Wordpress].

Gormlets at my desk

This blog (the mainly tango one) has been a really big help to me in learning to dance well. Just the process of finding something to say and saying it has been a great way at different times to get out of my comfort zone, explore, and think carefully about what's important.

When I was young I had an obvious talent for drawing, but I had no idea at all what to do with it. It seemed like something I might be able to go back to, one day, in some hard-to-imagine situation, but all it did at the time was get me banned from playing "Squiggle" at school.* is for drawings, paintings, and any other artwork it occurs to me to make. I'll probably put some knitted things there, too, as well as here. The idea is not to work towards a specific goal, but just to do something, see where I get to, do something else that seems to make sense given the results, and repeat. There are two pages of posts already, so you can go and click around.

That approach has served me extremely well for tango. It's probably going to be harder with the drawings, because I'm not too sure yet how to identify small goals, work on it regularly, or get meaningful feedback. But blogging them will help me to keep track of what I have done, and gives me some chance of developing ideas.

* Squiggle is a game in which you divide the blackboard, and the class, into two halves. Someone draws an identical meaningless squiggle on each half of the blackboard. A volunteer from each half of the class, has thirty seconds or a minute to turn the squiggle into something. The class as a whole then judges and declares a winner. A problem with this game is that if one student is good at it, it stops being fun for anyone else.

Monday 24 December 2012

Happy Winter Solstice Fire Festival of Your Choice

I am likely to be offline till after Christmas now. If you have enjoyed this blog, in this or previous years, please consider a donation to Centrepoint, which provides safe, warm housing, support, and advocacy to the homeless and disregarded young. You can make a one-off donation, or you can sponsor a room, and they will send you encouraging little letters about who is living in it.


Monday 17 December 2012

What's my process?

Wisden India on England bowler Monty Panesar:

When selected for the second Test, Panesar admitted he felt the pressure. “I knew I had to be at my best, so my self-belief had to be high. I had to have that mindset where I don’t take things for granted but I commit to my processes,” said Panesar. “For instance, when I bowled that ball to Sachin (Tendulkar) which bowled him, the previous ball was a short ball, so when I was walking back I was thinking: ‘Get my mind right. How is my breathing?’ All these things are on the checklist in my mind I was ticking off. It was like I was doing a service on me.”

I find this quite a helpful way to think about following in a social dance. It can very easily seem as though the leader is the only person with any real control over what's happening. But in fact, even with very little experience, you do have a lot of control over your own dance. You can deliberately cultivate things like calm, balance, a good axis, and a good level of concentration, right from the start, and they can make the dance go a lot better even if the leader is all at sea.

For instance. I remember, oh about four years ago, dancing with a young man who had just learned that he could do fast and complicated stuff with his feet. So overexcited did he become, that he tripped himself up, and almost threw us both into the DJ. I gained a lot of confidence from the discovery that I could rescue that situation - in high heels - and keep both of us upright and dancing, hardly missing a beat, although he would have made two of me sideways. It must have looked hilarious, but it's most unlikely anyone noticed.

As you get better at it, and you lose stiffness and improve your connection, things like tension or balance problems or miscellaneous off-ness from your partner tend to affect you more rather than less - they become a lot more painful and disturbing - and mostly you just avoid those situations, which wouldn't have bothered you before. But I still benefit from finding ways to make sure that I dance well, even when the partnership isn't quite working as intended.

At the festival I went to last week, I actually thought about the interview with Monty, and when I was having minor troubles I said to myself "what's my process?" Straighten the neck, breathe, plug the mind in. Commit to my processes, and don't worry about the other stuff. Virtually all the dances I had were great. And the one or two that gave me problems, didn't mess up the next one. So that went well.

Cricket information for Americans and others:
A short ball, in this context, is one that went a bit wrong. In other situations, a short ball might be right.
The ball to Tendulkar went perfectly. To bowl Sachin Tendulkar is a thing to be wished.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Tapas in Barcelona

I was at a festival in Barcelona. One night I was a bit stressed out, alone, and looking for dinner. I looked into this tapas bar and there were only women visible: the lady behind the bar spoke French much better than I can manage in Spanish, so we understood each other fairly well. A lot of the menus there are only written in Catalan and English anyway. I accepted her recommendation of a dish the name of which I didn't understand at all, and it was delicious, even though it turned out to be prawns and I don't usually like them.

I loved her bar.

The festival had some excellent features (superb floor, high and fairly consistent quality of dance, delightful company, some very nice small touches on the details of hospitality) and some that didn't suit me so well (DJing style, seating approach as combined with lighting and DJing, scale bigger than my preference, some episodes of bumpiness). But Barcelona is awesome and I had some beautiful dances.

This was my breakfast. That thing on the left is hot liquid chocolate. The things on the right are porras, which are a sort of extended linear doughnut. You dunk them in the chocolate. At least, I do.


Saturday 15 December 2012

On Spouting Proverbs

When spouting proverbs at someone in emotional distress, be sure to  include a catastrophic spelling error, such as "cease life!" when you meant "sieze life!". It neutralises your otherwise-offensive posture of superior wisdom.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Lab Notes - self-knowledge

I should never, ever allow myself to get into the frame of mind of persistently trying to dance with specific people at a festival - or even at an ordinary milonga. All it does, is make me distracted and indecisive, so that I miss out on other opportunities.

Thinking like that can work for you if you have the right kind of focus, but it totally distracts me and takes me out of the moment.

The only way to plan ahead that works is agreeing with a friend in advance that we want to dance something specific that we know is coming. I don't like it when I feel someone is chasing me, even when I would happily have danced with them otherwise, so it makes no sense to do it myself. And they know perfectly well where I am, and will come and get me. I should always look around open-minded for the tanda.

At large festivals - more than 200 people - I'm not in danger of making this mistake because I can't keep track of where people are that precisely anyway.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Coolest Sixty Symbols Yet

I watch these all the time, as soon as they come out, but this is possibly the coolest yet. The one where Ed visits the Large Hadron Collider is also pretty good, and "Confessions of a Tetris Addict" is great too, but this one, together with the extended version linked from it, goes straight up there.

I like James. I like men who are totally unselfconsciously enthusiastic.

Thursday 29 November 2012

How to give a compliment

I was taught, I forget by whom, but I think it was in a book I've forgotten the name of, that a compliment should be:

something else with three syllables that I never could remember
sincerely meant,
and true.

It drives me mad that I never can remember what the other thing was.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Any shoes to dancing shoes

Dancing shoes are a big investment for the beginner. This post may, if you are lucky, help you postpone that investment until you are sure you want to make it.

But the reason I'm doing it now is this: nobody sells nice, women's shoes, that are good for leading. Women's tango practice shoes are designed for following, but not for wearing with a dress. Alternatives are either too delicate (ballet shoes) or just horrible (dance trainers or Greek sandals). It is possible to lead in heels, but difficult. They create mechanical issues that aren't such a problem in following, especially with the knees, and the angles between hips and shoulders.

What I ideally want for leading is a fully flat, feminine dance shoe. And there aren't any. I'm not exactly sure why not, but none of the brands has come anywhere close to acknowledging the possibility of a woman dancing in flat shoes; although women very commonly lead some of the time, socially and in classes*.

These, however, are nearly perfect. They're extremely comfortable, with flexible soles and a not-too-tight elastic band holding them onto the foot. They look nice and are very reasonably priced, too, from Clarks. You can get this style for under £30 in the sale, if you're lucky, and there are several colours and variations.

Lovely soft flexible shoe, well held on the foot

The only problem is the soles. They are rubber, which is far too grippy for dancing. Try to dance tango in these, lead or follow, and you'll do some damage to your knees or ankles very quickly. This is the problem with most sporty shoes.

Rubber soles are too grippy for dancing

Here is the solution. A roll of stick-on fabric bandage, and a small pair of scissors. What kind of bandage you use, is not that crucial - a flesh colour would be better than white, but I couldn't find any. You don't want any padding, though, just a plain fabric bandage.

Stretch very gently, stick, and cut roughly

Cover the soles at the front with the bandage. If it is elastic, stretch it very slightly, as it will stick better that way. But not too much, or it will come off at the edges. You will probably need two bands, and I find it works better if I make the edges meet, rather than overlapping them. Cut it roughly first, then carefully fold it back and trim around the edges of the sole. There's no need to do the heel, unless you want to, as you'll lift it off the floor when you turn anyway.

Trimming in progress

Rub the bandage well into the sole. You end up with a sole that's a bit less grippy than a new suede one, but will wear to about the same grip as a somewhat worn leather one. Just replace the bandage if it comes unstuck or you're no longer happy with the grip. This stuff comes in 5-metre rolls.

The new surface

While I'm about it, I'll point out that it's totally possible to follow in these. When I do, I take care to get my heels down. Men who follow well never mince about on tiptoes. Like leading in heels, I think it's harder, it's tricky to maintain the right sort of forward energy, but that's all.

Of course, you can also do this with heeled shoes. If you have a pair of flexible, comfortable, well-balanced heels that would be perfect if they weren't too grippy, you can adapt them for dancing in the same way.

Conversely, if you want to wear your beautiful dancing shoes to a party, the same trick works in reverse and protects their soles against the floor. Within reason.

Thanks to Blaz and Samar for teaching me this tip!

*  As an aside, although it's much less usual for men to follow socially, men's dance shoes are available with disguised heels well into the range of what is comfortable for following. But I don't know whether anyone chooses that kind and wears them for that purpose.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Praise of Other Women

Sometimes, men open their mouths and innocently say things like who they really, really like dancing with, and occasionally - very rarely - why.

Sometimes they even do this where you, madam, can hear it. And sometimes it's the case that you are not that person - someone else is.

Let me give my point of view about this somewhat unusual situation. I have always thought this was obvious, and indisputable, but it's not.

This information is gold dust. It is actionable intelligence.  

You should treasure it and you should be all, discreetly, politely, in moderation, ears. It would have been delightful, if it had been about you, but it is much more interesting and useful when it isn't.

But if you throw it away, like a soft-headed lady and not a woman of sense with a genuine respect for her own role in the dance, you deserve to stay where you are and go nowhere.

Anyone who's done more than a few weeks of tango classes at an intermediate level knows just how difficult it is to learn anything at all about what makes a good (as opposed to competent) follower. How impossible it seems to progress any further, to guess what's out there or what the next step might be, or to get any feedback that isn't misleading, useless, or irrelevant. Because there are so many little things and big things, subtle and hard to describe, and the people you dance with in classes have rarely experienced any of them.

Who wants - really, spontaneously, wants - to dance with you is the most reliable feedback you have about your own progress, and your only route to improvement. Going around chasing dances that don't specially want you, or getting offended at offhand praise of someone else, is logically equivalent to wiping your bottom with cash.

Rant over.

Okay, reality check. I realise that everyone's human. I don't really blame anyone for feeling a bit dashed or unconsidered by thoughtless or ill-timed praise of somebody else. It's destructive to be hard on yourself just for feeling anything. It's what you do with it that counts.

I'm also totally against *asking* for any kind of feedback in a social dancing situation. I just think that's super rude - it puts people in a very awkward position. Exceptions only for personal relationships that allow it. Asking for information about other people is a darkish-grey area, and generally speaking, I wouldn't do it unless I was sure the person I was talking to wanted to tell me whatever it was.

I also wouldn't blame anyone for making an rule for him or herself never to answer such a question or make any such remark - or never to do so in certain contexts, like at a milonga. You might decide that it's one of those practica-only things, or one of those things that you'll never volunteer. There's nothing wrong with that.

But sometimes we just have to notice how we think and feel, and not let it get in the way of our actual desires.

Monday 12 November 2012

A Connection

Because I was meeting an out-of-town friend, I went to my regular milonga straight from work, with just a pause for food. I got off the Tube train and realised I was early.

Rather than sit in a cold room all dolled up at the milonga, I sat down on the platform seat for a minute to finish watching a video in my ipod - it happened to be the one below.

A young lady sat down next to me and politely attracted my attention. What sort of dancing was that? Was it Argentinian tango? It's a milonga, but, yes, yes it is. She had had her first tango lesson this week. Oh, who were the teachers? She didn't remember their names - what did they look like? Er, quite small ... didn't recognise their description, but she thought they did a lot of ballroom as well. Well, what had she been taught? To focus here and walk backwards with the feet brushing. She never walked forwards at all, not like in this. Well, it sounded OK for a first lesson, she hadn't been taught anything bad, even if they were ballroom. That video looked wonderful. Really wonderful. They hadn't done anything like that, not even walked forwards once. Well, you have to work at tango, you start simple and then go on. Could I do that? Yes. I can. I had some more in here, here was another one. I have people in my ipod ... Oh, her hand in this second video was different. In the lesson it was like this, and were told to give a bit of resistance with this arm, for the turns. Oh, there is a lot of variation in how people do it, don't worry about it. There really are a lot of differences, it's not too important. In this one they don't need to do that because she's getting all the information, here. Can you dance tango and not be in contact? You can, people do, in my opinion there's not much point. Who are these ... and these other two? She would try to remember their names. But the lesson was such a nice experience. It felt like ... as though you fancied them, but not actually. It's not surprising straight men like it, is it! Yes, that's one of the best bits, you get to do this and it's so much fun you feel like you should get arrested, and then nothing bad happens. Actually, I have a video in here of two men dancing together as well. If you like that feeling, totally stick with it. I was going out dancing now, she could come with me, if she liked. She couldn't, she was meeting her sister. But one day. Definitely.

We didn't ask each other names - in my tango frame of mind, it just didn't occur to me. But if it was you, drop me a line, address top right. Here is the video, and here is another that I really like.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Last Tanda in Holborn

And the single women say:

That's not my sock.

This is my sock. Whose sock is that?

I don't know whose sock that is.

Are you walking to the train?

Monday 29 October 2012

More general looping

My friend Carole the Photographer is going to loop-the-loop in a small plane, with two aims in mind. Motivating her to scare herself witless in this eye-catching manner, rather than by one of her more regularly extreme activities, is a collection for a children's cancer charity - basically it provides bicycles, adapted tricycles and tandems to sick children. Cycling is often possible when walking and running are not, and it gives them mobility and exercise, which helps recovery. You are, obviously, invited to donate some modest sum. I have.

There's also a remote theoretical possibility that the company who made her breast replacement (after surgery for breast cancer) might give her some money for proving experimentally that it doesn't explode at 4G. Which apparently no-one has done before, can't think why. Perhaps I'll tell you who they are afterwards, assuming she survives. Follow her adventures at Going Tits Up.

Saturday 20 October 2012

I really miss it

That feeling when I've spent all weekend dancing - 24 hours of dancing and about half that of sleep. And never a bad one. I do so much less; I try so much less; the temptation to do too much, disappears. I have more time in every step. Smooth and powerful, focused and totally into it. Better connection, totally relaxed. Tanda after tanda with no sensation that I missed a lead. Suspension and road-holding for the fieriest milonga with as many missed leads as you need. That blurring of sensation, such that quite a big part of my brain no longer knows whether I'm dancing or not.

I lose it over time, I grieve for it, I miss it as it wears off. It can last a couple of weeks, if I'm careful. My partners, when I get back home, can certainly feel it on me. I avoid those who won't notice it. I'm careful. I want to let it fade, if it must, slowly and naturally. Like trying not to knock the eyelash extensions off.


Sometimes it seems to me, that the life of a well-educated single woman, with a decent job, a good salary but not enough to make her fortune, with no children, in good health, approaching middle age, in a reasonably orderly liberal democracy, in the first or second decade of the twenty-first century as they are commonly counted these days, is possibly the most enviable life that there has ever been for a human in the world. And perhaps the most enviable life that there ever will be (I've always been the sort to feel disaster is just around the corner, even as a little girl).

I am so glad that this young woman looks like she might be OK.

[Although a pile of free money is always good in theory, in practice it's hard to show how it could reliably make me much happier, at least for long. In moderation it does have advantages, but they are not all that easy to make use of.]

Thursday 11 October 2012

Unrecommended books

There are such things as books about how I.T. ('Information Technology') ought to be done in ordinary companies. This genre is known as "ITIL", and you don't need to care what that stands for. I have even attempted to read one or two: as a genre, they are inane, with diagrams worse than the text.

It came into my head today that one of them, to which I had been foolish enough to refer after reading the title, was so entirely useless and unrelated to how anything actually happens, that it seemed to have been written by someone from Mars.

But no; this is nonsense. A person from the planet Mars would have written a much better book, because they couldn't have based it on anything but observation of reality.

Anyway, I'm off now for another long weekend, and very happy to be out of the office. I had one colleague - a database administrator - who wrote his out of office message in the form of a rhyming couplet. I didn't manage that today.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Smirking survey

Hello, I'm Linda from T.N.T. Research, we're doing a survey about smirking and brand awareness, would you be able to answer a few questions? 

... From what, sorry?

I'm from T.N.T. Research. We're doing a small survey about smirking, and brand awareness?

Smirking? As in ... a small smile? And what, sorry?

Er, smirking, as in smirking cigarettes. 

Oh! Smoking. Er - I don't smoke, I'm sorry.

Is there anyone in the household who smirks?

Er, no, sorry. No, thank you. [Puts phone down].

I don't even know anyone who smokes, any more! Extra points if you can tell me where Linda was from. And I honestly wasn't taking the piss out of her accent - my brain was a bit tired, and without any context I just couldn't rearrange the sounds into anything I recognised from life.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

People in my ipod - Noelia Hurtado

Recently, I worked out (with a couple of false starts) how to download videos from YouTube and put them in my ipod to watch on the train. So I put in, among other things, some dancing people that I just like to watch.

I love Noelia Hurtado. She's so, so into it, she's such an animal. Her feet stick to the floor, and release, as though with a magnetism created by the varying electric current that crackles through her in the musical field. I feel like, if Carlitos put his arm all the way round, he might get a minor shock.

Even when she whips her feet up, which does happen, it never seems like the strained and artificial showing-off that it normally does, even from some of the best. It seems like a direct, uncontrolled expression of joy, wonder, even of exhaustion. I also feel like she's not afraid to make mistakes.

And, watching her with Carlitos is just exciting, like watching a classic Test Match. Warne vs Pietersen. Imran Khan vs Viv Richards. Ian McKellen v Christopher Lee. Two "beings of similar power", testing each other's limits in what is fundamentally a cooperative endeavour for their own mutual entertainment and everyone else's, striking off sparks, making something sublime. I spend half the time just giggling when I watch this stuff. (I totally understand if you hate the music in this last one - I love it, for some reason).

That said, I'd probably watch Noelia shear sheep. Watching her makes me braver and more confident in my dance. And she dances with her mouth open, so there.

Monday 17 September 2012


I was in Andalusia. The tapas were a bit ordinary, but I liked the sherry, and I quite liked the chocolate con churros. I also liked the street art.

Here's my favourite Andalusian street message.

As far as I can tell, it reads "Freedom is wriggling in the guts of time".

This little chap was all over the place, but this was the only example I saw with a caption. I would translate it "Sieze the street, sieze the square, sieze your life!".

(Not 'take' because I think that would be a really bad translation of the last part - the normal meaning of 'take your life' would be 'commit suicide' and I don't think that sense exists in the Spanish, as far as I know. It wouldn't make a lot of sense in context, anyway.)

I think this is my second favourite. The entire wall of a building, where its neighbour had been knocked down, was painted in this bright ochre. This was just one corner.

The wall, door-frame and door of an art school are painted like this:

Nearby is a puzzled little cloud, the only cloud I saw during my stay, apart from a few wisps of cirrus.

Sunday 16 September 2012


You know what my favourite thing about having a smartphone is so far? The ability to read John Hempton in bed. Or watch Periodic Videos. Both jobs it does better than my laptop - silently and coolly, without annoying interruptions.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Out of Office Message

I'm going on two short holidays in quick succession. Back the week after next, and briefly in between. I have a smartphone now, so it's not impossible that I'll post while I'm away; usually, though, I try to do something else, and I almost certainly won't get round to moderating the comments, sorry.

La Milonga Conexion, Guildford

This is a monthly milonga on Saturday evenings at Onslow Village Hall, Wilderness Road, Guildford GU2 7QR, organised by Marek and Olivera (Tango Conexion).

The Class: There's no class. (Marek teaches the beginners' course in alternate months at Carablanca, with Ewa, and also runs a regular practica just for leaders, and teaches technique boot-camps and various other classes with Olivera at other locations, all listed on the website. But there isn't a class at this milonga.)

View of roomLayout and Atmosphere: The room is practically perfect for the job. It's another traditional village hall, a simple rectangular room with an entrance lobby, a kitchen, white walls, a high pitched roof, a wooden floor and a stage at one end. And miscellaneous notices about what not to stick to the walls, and whatnot. It's well lit, with lots of tables and chairs around all four sides - two rows of small round ones at the stage end, with pink-and-white cloths. All the refreshments are in a seperate, roomy kitchen at the opposite end to the stage. You never have to sit with your feet on the dancefloor, or stand, there are plenty of chairs. Visibility and lines of sight are good; cabeceo is the normal practice, and easy to do. I was a bit tired and not feeling super descriptive, so I've added a picture taken from my seat. (It's small because I prefer to leave people alone - cameras in milongas are annoying - and with a small one you still get an impression of the hall, but you can only identify people you already know).

Hospitality: Very good. Help yourself from the big jugs of water with lemon, selection of teas, coffee, biscuits and cakes in the giant kitchen, all included. Write your name or symbol on your plastic cup. The loos are standard village-hall, very well-lit, clean, and moderately roomy, with everything supplied and working and likely to remain so as long as everybody obeys all the notices and doesn't do anything silly. Generally the place feels comfortable. The floor is good, smooth and not especially slippery, sticky, or hard on the feet.

Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: They have little gimmick which I think is subversive genius. Each month (or most months) they arrange for a different couple they know, social dancers who dance really nicely, to give a one-track 'performance', just dancing as they normally do. Then they get flowers and champagne. It's never announced in advance who it will be. The resulting 'peformances' are very short, and make me go "aaaahhh", and I love the idea of putting good social dancing up there as something acknowledged, admired and to be realistically aspired to, and expected of onesself. Have a look at the Facebook Group for videos. You might have to ask to join, I'm not sure what the settings are.

What I thought of the DJing: Marek Szotkowski DJ's. He's reliable, I wanted to dance, my partners were happy to dance, I felt relaxed when I wasn't dancing. He has one eccentricity; he always plays milongas and valses in 4's instead of 3's. It was late summer, it was far too hot, and I personally prefer to have those (especially the valses) as shorter lower-risk tandas to experiment with if I feel like it. But your preference may be different.

Getting in: £9 £10, refreshments included.

Getting there and getting home: You pretty much have to drive, although you could get a taxi from the station. If you did that, you'd be fine as long as you're not trying to get back to anywhere north of the river. I got a South London friend to pick me up from Wimbledon tube, and return me there. That drive took about 30 minutes.

The website: Tends to lose the link back to the home page, but is in other respects all perfectly reasonable. Tells you where it is, when it is, how much it is to get in, and gives you an accurate idea of what they're trying to achieve.

How it went: I had a really nice time despite being a bit sleepy with the heat. I think the attendance level varies - regulars told me that the night of my visit was about normal. It filled up a bit more than is shown in the picture, but remained just as orderly with a medium-strength eccentric or two causing nobody any problems. Quite a few friends were there so I didn't have to try very hard, I can't easily assess what it's like if you don't know anyone; however, they are really nice people and the atmosphere follows that. It was a hot night, and with all the doors and windows wide open I was still very glad I'd brought a change of top, even more so that the change was one of my stay-dry sports tops. People went outside and steamed, rather than smoked. But that's only going to happen once or twice a year. It's a bit too far for me to go regularly, especially taking the journey home into account, and that the milonga is a short one. But there are some lovely dances to be had and I certainly would if I lived in the area.

Monday 3 September 2012

Music, time, passion

Music is a thing of time, a worldly thing, a mortal thing, a thing of suffering in the physical world as it is.

It has a present, a past and a future. It has a story that you can be in. Theme A does its thing, departs, is replaced by theme B, then returns wearing a different hat. They go off together and disappear into memory. When no-one remembers them any more, they are gone completely.

Detachment from the passions seems inappropriate to me, when dancing. On the other hand, there is a home for passions in music external to yourself, which does help to banish them from the inside, where they can trouble the insect more than they deserve to.

Friday 31 August 2012

RSC's African Caesar

Last week I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Julius Caesar. It's in London till the 15th September, then it goes on tour. It's a great production. See it if you possibly can.

The play works completely naturally in its modern African setting, which obviates the need for anything pretentious or complicated, or any of the usual silly and distracting things productions think they have to do to make Shakespeare's world recognisable to a modern audience. The play works directly - set in a foreign country, but a foreign country in our world, not really any more foreign than, simply, Rome - without any alteration for the distance of time, because everything that matters is exactly the same.

It's a complicated play, fast moving, with no real hero, full of complicated and totally real and individual characters, each of them with great lines that you knew, and didn't know you knew. I was fascinated by the different moral and political universe each several character lives in, and how they overlap with each other, but don't coincide.

Brutus, obsessed with his notions of nobility and aristocracy, his own birth-equality with Caesar, knows as a fact that the mob matters politically, but it never really crosses his mind that they might not agree with him about the collective-and-equal preeminence of a high-born class being self-evidently better than a  monarchy. What is convincing to him must be convincing to everyone else. Cassius, interestingly, only thinks that anything convincing to Brutus must be convincing to other Senators. He is more intelligent.

Mark Antony is of entirely different stuff. Politically, he at least realises that the mob has members, who are quite possibly better off with a king than a feudal aristocracy, or at least who may think so. For himself, he doesn't care; his manipulation of the mob is quite cynical; but he must avenge his friend. He believes, or at least appears to, that Brutus thought he was doing the right thing. He just doesn't consider that relevant to his duty of revenge. He believes no such thing about Cassius. Cassius, he says, was just jealous. But who has never heard that, from one friend rationalising another's behaviour, when they don't really care to know? It's no more convincing.

We don't know whether he's right. Cassius, apart from being much brighter than Brutus, and unashamed to lie, doesn't tell us. We don't really know why he thinks this is all so urgent. Maybe Antony is right, but jealousy seems far too simple for the complex character played. We really don't get to see inside Cassius' head.

We just get to see how crazy it is to assume that what is self-evident to us seems the same way to other people, or that we can see inside anybody's head. I don't think Shakespeare was making that point. I just think he knew it and took it as read, and it was part of what made him such a wonderful writer.

Caesar, we know, is a man of real virtues, certainly vain, certainly brave, certainly feeling Brutus' betrayal. He's a grand, overweening, self-dramatising, convincing centre, believably beloved.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

I had quibbles about some of the diction, but in terms of character the whole thing is extremely well played. I really want to see the same Mark Antony and the same Octavian sail straight on down the Nile and do Antony and Cleopatra as a sequel. It'd be fab.

There's also quite a bit of dancing and live music from a specially-created on stage band. You can catch them at the bar after every show. And maybe this post is just an excuse to tell you that they're called The Vibes of March.

Friday 24 August 2012

DJ Questionnaire - maintenant disponible en Francais

Ben, d' El Recodo Tango (Bordeaux, Web, Facebook), a traduisé en Francais mon article "Was that good? DJ Questionnaire". Il écrit:

Le ton léger et délicieusement sarcastique sert ici parfaitement le but qu'elle s'est fixée : générer une prise de conscience sur le boulot de DJ, et le rôle prédominant qu'à celui-ci sur l'ambiance d'une soirée.
Pour peu que vous soyez déjà allé danser dans une poignée de milongas, cet article vous parlera, j'en suis certain, et vous aidera à mettre des mots sur des situations que vous avez sans aucun doute déjà vécues.
Mots: maintenant disponible en Francais.

And for my Anglophone readers: Ben, of El Recodo Tango (in Bordeaux, Web, Facebook), has been kind enough to like my post "Was that good? DJ Questionnaire" so much that he had to make a French translation.

If you liked the post, and you'd like to make a translation into another language, I'll almost certainly be happy for you to do so, as long as it's of good quality and you tell me about it and make the source clear, as Ben did. You can look at what he's done for a good format. If it's a language I can't read well (or at all), I will want to find someone else to review it for me, if possible. Please email me at the usual address, top right.

Edit: "Good quality" means that if you're not ready to make a very good attempt at translating my writing style, including all of the jokes, then you do not have my permission to make a translation. The style and quality of my writing is very important to me. You'd do better to take the basic idea and adapt it to your own audience, using your own style, and your own priorities.

Friday 17 August 2012

Obituaries in the Telegraph

It was a great pleasure to be directed, yesterday, to this superb obituary in the Telegraph of Rear-Admiral Steve Ritchie, who died this May at the age of 97.

"While Ritchie was lying up by day in the undergrowth above the Bay of Bomba, some Italian troops took refuge from the sun in his bush without detecting him. ...

... he took Challenger on a circumnavigation of the world during which, using echo sounding, he measured the Challenger Deep, in the Pacific Ocean. Modern science has not been able to improve on Ritchie’s accuracy. ...
... 19th Hydrographer of the Navy ... The survey methods which Ritchie had used as a young man had barely changed in two centuries, but now he began the widespread introduction of computers and — despite opposition from “The Friends of the Fathom”, led by AP Herbert — the metrication of charts. ...
... Prince Rainier wrote on the back of a menu a new law giving Ritchie permission to wash his boules in any fountain of the principality. Ritchie later introduced boules to Scotland ...

... in 1971, shortly after his retirement from the Navy, Ritchie returned to the island [of Trinidad] to enjoy the carnival once more. He dressed up as an exotic butterfly and paraded through the streets of Port of Spain while waving a bottle of rum and accompanying calypso-champion Edmond Hart’s steel band. ...

... At his grandson’s wedding a year ago Ritchie was one of the most active dancers at the ceilidh, continuing even when many younger people had chosen to withdraw, exhausted. ..."

A newspaper obituary is like the Roman gravestones that say "Stop, Traveller! and listen to my story!". It should be entertaining, amusing, engaging, a proper memorial. It should send little arrows in different directions. Notice, for example, that Edmond Hart is named, and that (if you wish) you can verify that 'Butterflies and Moths' was indeed his Carnival theme in 1971. Also named is AP Herbert, an opponent worth mentioning. Those who don't know who he was, and are interested, can look him up and enjoy some choice quotations. The parts about Challenger and Naval Hydrography could be followed up for days.

And then there are the bush and the boules. And the editorial modesty that doesn't even say, as far as I can see, who wrote this.

I also suggest you read Piper Bill Millin - Piper of D-Day and Registered Mental Nurse.

Sunday 5 August 2012

Go Gladys!

This is Gladys Tejeda, who was born to a family of subsistence farmers, two and a half miles above sea level in the Andes of Peru. Today she completed the Olympic Marathon.

Gladys Tejeda with the Museum of London in the background

She finished in 43rd place, in a personal best time of 2:32:07, nine minutes behind the winner and totally unnoticed by the cameras. I was standing at 33.7km when I took this picture. I wanted to know what would happen to her when I saw her carrying the flag in the opening ceremony.

The crowd all around me cheered every single runner. If they couldn't pronounce her name and didn't know the name of her country, they just shouted "Go Oooonn!! Keep Goinnnng!". And quite a lot of them, including me, stayed to cheer on the runner in 107th and last place, making as much noise for her as we could. The men in the clear-up van applauded us right back.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Was that good? DJ questionnaire

DJing well is a tremendous amount of work. Owning a lot of music is not enough; it also requires knowledge, taste, and immensely time-consuming preparation. I'm not interested in doing it, because it's far too much work, and I'd rather be dancing. It's only done well by people who really like doing it for its own sake, and who really like doing the work that's required.

Uninformed dancers with no expectations create bad DJing and help it persist, and bad DJing limits the overall quality of dancing by making social dancing much more difficult than it needs to be.

I'd like DJs to be more appreciated. This checklist aims to help the dancer, especially the beginner, think about DJing. It assumes no more musical knowledge than the ability to tell the difference between tango, milonga, and vals, but it does partly rely on tango music making some sense to you and making you want to move. Some of it is very subjective, but some of it is not. Enjoy the usual bitchy bits.

Start at 0. Add or deduct points as shown to compare DJs. You might choose more than one answer for some of the questions. If you wanted to customise it to your priorities, obviously you could change the scores. I tend to penalise bad performance on the more mechanical, measurable things, because there's no good reason for getting that stuff wrong.

Musical Basics

Was any of the music unsuitable for dancing tango socially? For example:

  • It asks you to stand still and pose, like a pillock, rather than dance
  • It is impossible to keep exactly with it unless you know the particular recording by heart
  • It strongly suggests big, fast dramatic movements and sudden changes of speed that are rude and impractical for social dancing in the space available
  • It is great dance music, but brings out the worst in the dancers who are actually there.

If in doubt, look at the room as a whole: giveaways are that the line of dance stops flowing and collapses into chaos, there are lots of crashes, and most of the actually-good dancers sit down, hide, or go for a smoke unless somebody grabs them. If that's what your place is normally like, adjust your judgement accordingly. [Edit: What you are looking for is whether the DJ, or an individual tanda, makes a difference].

  1. None of those problems happened (+10)
  2. One or two dodgy moments (-5)
  3. Several dodgy sections (-7)
  4. Tanda after tanda, I was bored, bruised or both (-10)

Were you ever caught out by a piece that did not fit in that tanda and caused difficulty, embarrassment or disappointment to you or your partner? For example:
  • A jarring change of mood or style mid-tanda, so that you felt you had to unscrew your head and screw it back on again
  • A misleading opener that meant you missed out on a tanda you would otherwise have liked
  • A weak or disappointing piece in the middle, or to finish
  • Excessively jarring changes of speed
  • A mixed-up tanda of music you would have preferred to dance with two different people - or some of it not at all.
  1. None of those problems happened (+10)
  2. Once or twice, maybe a matter of opinion (-3)
  3. More, maybe a matter of opinion (-5)
  4. Once or twice, definitely! (-7)
  5. More than that (-10)
  6. All the flipping time! (-15)
As a whole, not worrying about specific tracks, how was the sound quality?
  1. Good - I could feel the music and really get into it (+7)
  2. OK - I could hear it everywhere (+5)
  3. Poor - I couldn't hear it clearly enough to get into it properly - muffled / no detail / no depth / too quiet / loud-but-muddy / distorted / too loud because DJ is deaf (-5)
  4. Not applicable, the equipment at this venue is poor so I can't tell (0)
Were there any poor choices of specific tracks, like something much too fast, much too slow, or with unacceptable sound quality?
  1. No (+5)
  2. One or two, not sure (0)
  3. More than that (-5)
 Did the cortinas make you happy?
  1. Yes (+5)
  2. They made people happy, just not specifically me (+3)
  3. No, they were generally annoying (-3)
  4. They didn't do the job, I couldn't always tell what was a cortina or they didn't play any (-5)
  5. Not applicable - this milonga has a no-cortinas policy (0)
Basic Basics

Were there enough vals (V) and milonga (M) tandas in proportion to the tango (T), and were they played in a regular pattern so you knew where you were?
  1. About right - somewhere in the range TTVTTM or TTTTVTTTTM, whatever made sense given the length of this milonga (+5)
  2. Not enough - TTTTTTTTTTM or something (-5)
  3. Too much - TVTMTVTMTVTM DJ WTF? (-7)
  4. So chaotic that I couldn't tell - TT VV TTTTVTTTTTMTMV, or something. (-10)
  5. "Tanda" isn't the right word. (-15).
Were the cortinas long enough for you to clear the floor and find your next partner without obstructing anyone else's view, given the size of the room, and supposing there was somewhere to sit down?
  1. Yes (+3)
  2. No (-3)
Did the DJ sign off gracefully at the end with some non-tango music for people to calm down and clear up to, assuming that was possible?
  1. Yes (+4)
  2. No, they used all the time available and just stopped there (0)

Did the music have the DJ's full attention?
  1. Yes, all or almost all the time (+5)
  2. Yes, as much as necessary in the situation (+3)
  3. Less than that (-3)
  4. No, they went out for a smoke and the music stopped (-10)
  5. No, they put on a playlist/CD and buggered off (-20)
If there were any problems with the equipment, did the DJ deal with them calmly and competently?
  1. Yes, outstanding - e.g. drove home and got some better kit, found another computer (+7)
  2. Met expectations - worked around it, fixed it (+5)
  3. Drama! But dealt with it (+3)
  4. No (-5)
  5. Not applicable (0)
Did the DJ have any difficulty operating the sound equipment?
  1. No (+2)
  2. There was one cock-up (-2)
  3. There were some problems, understandable in the circumstances (0)
  4. The DJ was clearly unprepared (-7)
Did the DJ seem at any time to forget what s/he was there for? Did they, for example, follow a twenty-minute performance, in a three-hour milonga, with a five-minute jive track for just one single couple to dance to in an unofficial bonus performance, while everyone else waited around like lemons, as though for the photographs at a flipping wedding, and in the awkward position of having to pretend that they weren't at all annoyed and didn't have anything better to do than watch this vanity?
  1. No (0)
  2. Yes (-5)
  3. Yes, and that couple included him/her self or his/her spouse/partner and/or at least one of the couple who had just been performing (-10)
  4. Yes, but, I was ok with it under the circumstances (0)
If there was an interlude of country dancing, like chacharera, or some other dance like jive or salsa, was it considerately timed, not too long, and enjoyable by a reasonable number of the people who were there?
  1. Yes, it was fun, I enjoyed it / I didn't mind watching (0)
  2. No, it was a tedious mess, nobody could dance to it, or it took up the last hour before the last train! (-5)
  3. It was annoying but it was required by the guest teachers or the venue (0)
Harder Questions

Was the music:
  1. Pretentiously salted with the undanceable, the obscure or the inappropriate (-10)
  2. Thoughtlessly arranged over time, with good things spoiled by being too close together (-5)
  3. Ok, but one-paced, too much of one kind of thing (+5)
  4. Good, but with a strong DJ style that just isn't my taste (+10)
  5. Appropriately varied, with a good mixture between rhythmic and lyrical and dramatic, given the situation (+15)
  6. Brilliantly mixed, with every tanda feeling like a perfect change after the one before (+20)
How did you feel about the 'energy' in the room?
  1. Confused and chaotic. (-7)
  2. Low. I couldn't get started, or my favourite partners couldn't. (-5)
  3. A bit flat, I liked the music but somehow didn't really feel like getting going (-2)
  4. Good, it was going consistently well (+5)
  5. Beautiful, it really came together with varied good feelings (+10)
  6. Fantastic, I had a great night, everyone was buzzing, everything flowed and I was also really happy when I was sitting down (+15)
Pick three very good social dancers who were there, preferably single ones. How much did they seem to be dancing?
  1. Not at all, maybe one or two tandas with the right person (-5)
  2. A bit, same as usual really (0)
  3. More than usual (+5)
  4. All the time, and taking more risks than usual with partner choice (+10)
Subjectively, what did you think? No scores here - compare with what you got above.
  1. It was genius / it was a revelation to me / it transformed the place or situation for the better.
  2. It was very good. I was very happy with it.
  3. It was good but had some flaws, or it was well-done but not my thing.
  4. It was good and consistent, I could trust it, but maybe it wasn't inspiring.
  5. It was generally innocuous and didn't cause me any serious problems.
  6. Not good - it was weak or annoyed me a few times.
  7. It was poor. I couldn't trust it. If something good came up, I had to grab someone.
  8. It was bad - I, or my desired partners, just didn't want to dance. No point in staying.
I'd draw the "ask them back" line between 4 and 5.

[Edit 24-08-2012: Cet article maintenant disponible en Francais. Merci, Ben de El Recodo Tango.] 

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Chinese bus mystery answers!

Awesome comments today! The Chinese bus, pictured again below, is explained.

Iain gives the following two links:

Joanna Scarratt UA Brands: Chinese Happy Backpacker

"With a bit of digging, I discovered that Ogilvy’s Beijing arm created a campaign earlier this year for Yili, the leading Chinese dairy brand and official sponsor of the Olympic Chinese Sports Delegation. It’s called “Let’s Olympic Together,” and aims to uncover ordinary Chinese people’s extraordinary stories. There are outdoor print ads, short films, TV commercials and digital engagement initiatives inspiring viewers to realise their own “Olympic” dreams by embracing a healthy lifestyle"
At ChinaSMACK, Yili lauches new campaign to coincide with Olympic hysteria includes a video of the runner shown on the bus, which is also here. He is apparently Li, a 62 year old marathon runner.

Louis independently gives the pinyin and a rough translation which agrees with the above:
"ping(2) fan(2) zhong(1) guo(2) ren(2), bu(4) ping(2) fan(2) de gu(4) shi(4). A bit rusty with my pinyin so I wasn't sure of the correct way of indicating the tone. A rough translation is: An ordinary (or common?) Chinese, an extradordinary story."
Thanks guys! It doesn't entirely explain why the ad is on a London bus outside the umbrella shop. My best guess is that it's directed mainly at a TV audience back home, via a carefully-planned campaign to get the ads on TV and talked about, partly by that very oddity. Worked on me!

Sunday 22 July 2012

Head screwed on wrong

You know when you have your head set for the wrong thing? I was all set for a quiet afternoon at the Letchmore Heath tea dance, a bit of nice dancing, a bit of sitting and catching up, working on some friendships, a little trivial gossip about people I long to talk about with sympathetic people who will talk about them without pointing that out, perhaps a few ill-advised confidences, maybe indulge in some minor histrionics, and then all these really lovely unexpected people turn up and I do nothing but dance and drink tea. It was great, but it wasn't what I had my head set for, and I ended up wanting more of everything, both thrilled and inexplicably disappointed and having a totally confusing afternoon before ending up eating an orange in bed.

Saturday 21 July 2012

O London Bus, thou art translated ...

Today, for the first time, I saw a London bus advertisement (apparently for drinking milk, or something) written entirely in a language I cannot read at all, let alone translate.

Don't misunderstand me - advertisements in languages other than English without a translation are very common in London and not at all remarkable, but they're usually small in scale, the largest being shop names saying obvious things like "POLISH FOODS" in Polish. As far as I remember, this is the first time I've seen a foreign-language ad on a bus.

O London Bus, thou art translated! Click to embiggen.
Although the shapes of the characters are of course vaguely familiar, the only one that means anything specific to me is the fifth one which I know as "rèn", a human being. Now, there are numerous languages written in Chinese characters, and I have no reliable way of knowing even which one this is, although under the circumstances Modern Standard Mandarin seems the most likely candidate, with Cantonese perhaps second favourite.

I am curious to know if the man in running shirt and glasses is 'just a man,' or someone the target audience would recognise.

I can't use Google Translate for this because I don't know how to write the characters on my computer. Can any of my readers (a) confirm the language, (b) make a pinyin transcription (c) translate the text? [Edit: Answers here]

The location, incidentally, is the corner of New Oxford Street, where the umbrella shop is.

Saturday 14 July 2012

El Flaco Dany

I was privileged to see that performance - it was extremely interesting.

Last Chance to See: Dany and Lucia are at the Crypt tomorrow (today now actually), Negracha (I think) on Monday and a couple of other places for a few more days. The tango-uk list will probably fill you in if you haven't got a flyer.

Here were the things that were in my head afterwards.

1. If you can wear a golden-beige silk suit and two-tone shoes, chew gum, and walk up to a woman exactly like that, and it all really works and you don't look like a fool, you have something very special for which there is absolutely no substitute. Call it presence, or style. Whatever it is, imitation would miss the point.

2. About half way through the second track I had a revelation about someone completely different in a totally unrelated performance; I suddenly understood what he had been trying to do, and why it hadn't really worked in performance terms, because now I could see where it came from and what was needed for it to work. An otherwise baffling memory made complete sense.

3. That same thing - the transforming thing - is very difficult to film when it's there in real life. So I'm glad I saw this live, it was very informative. (I've heard that actors with great screen presence are sometimes the other way round - it just isn't there without the camera).

4. I'm sorry I missed seeing him dancing socially, I think I was too late by a tanda or so.

Friday 13 July 2012

Flying Baby Elephant

Another dumbphone picture, sorry it's so small.

Flying Baby Elephant

We were driving back from a fabulous birthday surprise milonga in Bristol. Not only was there a baby elephant flying in the sky, it was a thundery sky generally, with intermittent rain, and for a long time every vehicle had its own individual rainbow attached to the rear wheels.

For more clouds: The Cloud Appreciation Society, fighting the banality of blue-sky thinking.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Three Pairs of Glasses

I was SO depressed at six o'clock - my work week had just been depressing and I had practically convinced myself that I was a disastrous, shameful failure with no hope of redemption. Minds like mine do that sometimes, especially when exposed to boredom and stupidity together.

And now I've had a great evening, and I was so happy on the Tube home that some woman about fifteen years younger than me, who wasn't even obviously drunk, as she was getting off, said "You look so happy! and I love the flower in your hair. Give me a high five, don't leave me hanging". So I gave her a high five and wished her a very good night.

There was a moment when I wished I had my proper camera. I only had my dumbphone, so we'll have to make do with this tiny little picture.

"When it's a good tanda, this happen!"

Beto, who was DJing, saw me spotting this, he laughed and said "When it's a good tanda, this happen!". The glasses belong to two friends, who were busy having a good tanda together, and one other person who I was convinced, a moment later, had picked up the wrong pair - but I was mistaken, it was all right.

Saturday 23 June 2012


I was in a café where they hand out those buzzing things that tell you when your order is ready, so you can come to the counter and collect it. All they do is buzz and flash little red LED lights to attract your attention, then keep buzzing till you hand them back in exchange for your meal.

A young man was chatting with his friend when the thing buzzed. Startled, he jumped up, at the same time seizing the buzzer, staring at it intently and tapping its insensible plastic face, as though half his brain knew it was time to fetch the food and the other half thought an acknowledgement would materialise it in front of him. Or at any rate, knew how to react to a rectangular hand-sized buzzing thing that wanted its attention.

Both of them fell about laughing and he entered into the joke by waving it about and lifting it to his ear.

I regularly try to wave my Oyster* card at my front door; at least half the doors and gates in my life open when you wave things at them, and it is an effort to remember that this one requires a physical key.

In my place of work there are so many doors that behave in totally different ways. There are a few normal doors that you push or pull. There are doors that you wave a card at, and they slide open. There are doors that you wave a card at, and they open on a hinge, but very, very cautiously, so that thin people go in first. There is a door consisting of two glass blades that meet in the middle, which requires you to wave a card at it, and is so very like the barriers on the Tube that I always reach for my Oyster card; except that the LED "go" or "stop" display means something totally different and contradictory.

There is a worrying kind of glass revolving door, such that you have to wave your card at it to unlock it, then step into a little 45-degree pocket, whereupon it starts revolving, and you shuffle very slowly around to be spat out at the other side. On no account must you push anything, since if you do it will panic, freeze, and trap you like a fish in a tank, so the security guard will have to come and press buttons to let you out.

There are two variations of a subtly different kind of revolving door that does exactly the same thing, except that it starts revolving when you get close enough (there's no indication of where you have to stand, or what is going to happen). One of those has a green button nearby that looks as though it might be a "request to exit" button; if you press it, the door gets stroppy and freezes, much to the annoyance of the people outside trying to get in. There are also some old-fashioned revolving doors that you just push; so that you stand there like a lemon trying to guess what you're meant to do.

And almost all these doors behave differently depending on whether you are going out or coming in. There are many doors where you have to do something to unlock them, and then do something else to open them, such as push or pull, with all the possible confusion that entails - but not too quickly, and not too slowly. Different doors I meet in the course of my day's work require staff cards issued by two different companies, both of which I am supposed to wear in a visible way (unless I am crossing the road between buildings, in which case I am advised to conceal them). But you cannot keep these two cards in the same container, because then they stop working. Neither can you keep any of them with your Oyster card, or that will stop working, too.

I am always standing in front of doors and hunting around for the "Open, Sesame" buttons that mean "unlock, I want to get out". They all look different from each other, and they're never in the same place twice.

It's a DOOR. You're not supposed to have to read the instructions.

The world is so confusing. No wonder it makes us nervous and inexplicably vexed.

* For non-Londoners, the Oyster card is the electronic ticket card that pays for bus journeys and opens barriers on the Tube.

Monday 11 June 2012


A tango that recently got stuck in my head for twenty-four hours - Ventarrón, Orquesta Típica Victor. I would have posted a performance but I couldn't find one I liked.

I actually rang up a friend in another country in order to hum it to her: and just like me, she and the other tanguera sitting with her knew it perfectly well but couldn't think what it was called. The words are here; only the first two stanzas are actually sung, but the whole (as far as I can guess) appears to be about an aged warrior of the streets, his fame once, his loneliness and infirmity now.

I didn't know the words, which is why I couldn't remember what it was called. But one of the reasons it got stuck in my head was that this wonderfully rhythmic, fighting and plangent tune reminds me very strongly of the final scene of the first act of Tosca - specifically from where Scarpia (the villain, chief of police) comes into the church to the point where, after soliloquising of sex and violence (he's planning both, but sex is the current priority) with his back to the pious crowd, he joins, with magnificent baritone hypocrisy, in the Te Deum. That whole bit would be too long, but there are lots of versions on YouTube that just do the last bit of it, from "Tre sbirri, una carozza". This one is good and doesn't suffer from anything particularly bizarre in the sets or costumes. Scarpia's makeup is explained by this being a stage production - inevitably strange on screen.

I don't know exactly why the one reminds me of the other. Of course, there's a fairly close relationship between these two genres of music, only two generations apart. Something about the melody, something about the rhythm, something about the relationship between them.

There's a Lego Tosca on YouTube. If you look.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Dance Participation

This one took a while.

Pineapple Studios is a building in Covent Garden, London, with several floors of dance studios, changing rooms and a café. The deal is that you pay a daily entry fee to the studios, and then pay the teachers whatever they charge for whatever particular classes you take. (You can join Pineapple, and not pay the entry fee, which works out cheaper if you visit more than once a week).

At the desk, they have A4 leaflets, folded twice, printed all over in very small print with the full weekly timetable, classified into levels along the lines of "Beginner", "Elementary", "Intermediate", "General", "Advanced" and "Professional", with mixtures and variations.

I picked up the leaflet recently, and on the Tube home, I started to count the different kinds of classes, got rather interested, and thought I would make you a chart.

To create the charts below, I typed out the name of each of the 266 classes offered in the timetable, and made a fairly vague, best-guess classification, first by looking at the words in their names and then by manually classifying the ones that didn't work for. I've totally ignored Pineapple's own classification on their website.

By "World" I mean anything characterised by a specific place of origin. Those dances have nothing else in common. This includes Brazilian Samba, Irish Dance for Performance, Island (Polynesian) Rhythms, Flamenco, Salsa, Bhangra Grooves, Bollywood Dance London, Capoeira and Egyptian Dance. It would include Argentine Tango if there was any, but in this particular leaflet there isn't a class listed. So the "World" bar in the charts doesn't tell you very much. It could equally reasonably be seen as a lot of little tiny bars - all these dances appear once or twice each.

"Street" is a very, very vague classification including Break Dance, Popping, Locking, Waacking, and a few things I'm not too sure about such as "New Skool". There are also two or three wild guesses in there.

You could dispute lots of things and do the classification lots of different ways. It depends what you're trying to do. Here, the only thing I am trying to do is get a general impression of how many people every week want to take what sorts of dance class, to see if I could learn anything from that.

A lot of classes fall into more than one category, like "Commercial Jazz" and "Ballet-Based Body Conditioning". That means double-counting, and it raises the total count from 266 to 296. There was one class, Singing, that only happened once a month - this is classified under "Music/Stage" along with a couple of other classes apparently designed for people appearing in musicals.

Here's the first pass:

On a second pass, after a quick Google, it seemed to me that perhaps I should add together "Street" and "Hip-Hop", and perhaps also "House", as a broader classification of closely related (but living and rapidly evolving) styles. If you do that, something interesting happens; taken together, they almost catch up with "Jazz". If you added "Commercial" as well, they would comfortably overtake "Jazz". But I feel as though the reasons you would do "Commercial" are different from the reasons you would do "Street" or "Hip-Hop", even though they might be physically similar, or even danced to some of the same music. I could be completely wrong about that, though.

Another interesting thing: Ballet is very popular. In fact, that's what inspired me to do this. I noticed how often the word "Ballet" came up, and wondered why we don't see more of it in mainstream culture. Many, many adults and children participate in a ballet class every week. It's popular. How come it's so invisible to non-participants?

Carole tells me that a lot of adults who are mainly interested in other dance forms, do ballet for body conditioning, and also to plug themselves in to the traditional European language of dance; if you work as a dancer, it's extremely useful to know, and to have other people know that you know, what a plié is. Those things still make it very influential; it seems strange to me that it doesn't somehow come up more often as a thing that people are interested in and do. But maybe I'm wrong, and it does; I don't really watch TV.

266 classes a week, with say 10-20 people in each class, is a lot of participation. This is just one place, Pineapple Studios - albeit a rather unique place, right in London theatreland, with an extraordinarily long, easy-to-analyse class list.

But I suspect there are many, many adults all over the country who regularly dance for their own enjoyment, and not that many of them ever have any intention to perform, professionally or otherwise. Even at Pineapple, 80% of the people in my weekly samba class (about 19 out of 20 of us are usually women) probably have no such intention and are doing it purely for fun and fitness. Why, I was wondering, does dancing for its own sake not seem that mainstream, plus-or-minus Zumba? Why is dance not something that people talk about at the water cooler, much, the way they do about their Sunday-league football adventures? Strictly Come Dancing has done a certain amount to change this, but it's essentially a ballroom programme, with a mindset that sees dance mainly as a stage performance rather than a regular mainstream recreation. And only about five of the classes listed are partner dances at all.

It made me think. But I don't have any conclusions for you.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Spring and Summer

I'm working a lot of extra hours at work for a couple of weeks. I don't usually do this even for project work because it's usually not worth it, but in this case it makes a reasonable amount of sense. So I'll probably be a bit quiet (as I blog mainly in the evenings when I'm not dancing).

In the meantime here's a lovely view from outside my accommodation at Abrazos Devon, the festivalito I went to in the first week of May.

The view at Abrazos Devon - it was a bit chilly, but some marvellous cloudscapes.
I reviewed the first one last year; this year the average standard of dancing was quite a bit higher in my opinion. The floor was sometimes extremely full and slow-moving, which some people find very stimulating, but even if that wasn't your thing (and it isn't everyone's) in three days of dancing there were also lots of hours when there was plenty of space. They used the long thin daylit room for all the milongas, which had advantages and disadvantages that more or less balanced out, for me. I had a fantastic time, anyway. There was also a helium-filled remote-controlled shark about 4 feet long, at one point. It was a present for Andreas.

And here are some flowers, back at my place, that need no particular excuse. They have a wonderful sweet scent.

Flowers in the communal garden of some very boring, cold 80's flats.

Monday 14 May 2012

Leader interaction

I asked Rob for permission to post this photo because I really like how you can see the two men interacting. They're sharing the space, playing in a friendly way, and dancing with each other as well as with their partners.

© Photo Copyright Rob Maskell - social dancing at Abrazos 2, Dartington Hall, Devon, 4-6 May 2012
The ability and desire to do this, is a thing that all my very favourite leaders like about each other. They don't really care about styles, or, when it comes down to it, any specific movements or rules, as such. What they care about is, is he fun to dance behind, near to, in front of? Is he really aware of where other people are? Does he interact with me, take his own space, and use the space in a fun, friendly way?

Richard (on the right), says:
“I remember the moment, I was taking a step forwards and Alan was moving towards me and we both backed out, caught each others eye and smiled about it. I was quite happy to share the floor with him. He's a dominant dancer but you've just got to have confidence in both your own dancing and his. I can see why some might be nervous around him on the floor but I liked him”
Alan (on the left) says:
“but of course you can publish the photo ... I like ...
for what concerns what I felt at that moment ...
pleasure ... only absolute pleasure ..”
And from an earlier post, a friend of mine:
“I really like dancing behind M, it's like he's dancing with me as well. He's quite cheeky, he sort of takes and gives space, with permission. I really enjoy it.”
You can do a lot more when the dancers have such confidence in each other, themselves, and the situation, that they don't need to see each other as obstacles (or indeed missiles) to be avoided. Humans just work better that way. But getting there takes a lot of work from a lot of people.

Monday 7 May 2012

Carole's Dance Photography Blog

Upside-Down Isaac and the Dreamers are Carole's copyright,
used with permission for this post alone.
My friend Carole the Photographer, who quite a few of you know, has started a new blog with new and back-catalogue photographs of all kinds of dance. She's adding some words in each case about the photo - what the technical challenges were, what she was trying to achieve, anything relevant about the dance, whether she was happy with it, what the event was - the kind of thing that would be interesting to photographers and artists as well as dancers.

At the moment she's working through a series on tango, with words about how her attempts to capture it in pictures have evolved with her perception of the dance itself.

She specialises in dance, and is one of the best out there. For just the tango click here, or the home page is here. But I recommend going right from the start and just clicking "Newer Post" a lot, or clicking the classifications on the right. All images currently works better than Archive.

Her photos are all available for sale in various forms - magazines would be the usual market, but she does fine art exhibitions, too. She's working on a system for people to order prints, but for the next few weeks, if you're interested in that, just leave a comment (there, not here!). Her large-form photographs of an Australian Aboriginal dance festival that she was invited to photograph are still on display at Zero Sette near the ExCel exhibition centre. Have a look.

The one in this post (used with permission) is my personal favourite so far.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Abrazos London

This is normally on Saturday afternoons, organised by Jenny Surelia at a place called Goodenough Hall, which belongs to Goodenough College, which seems to be named after its founder. There's another milonga on Wednesday in a different room at the same place, but I haven't tried that one yet as I'm generally busy on Wednesdays. There's one on this Bank Holiday Monday as well, so this is a great time to try it, and check the website for other Bank Holidays.

The Class: Jenny usually gives a basic to general-level class before the milonga for those who want it.

Layout and Atmosphere: The hall is absolutely beautiful. To find your way in, you have to buzz the bell or shoulder-surf to get into reception, which is on the left side of the entrance, and they will direct you to the Great Hall. You just go out of the door that's behind you as you face the reception desk, turn left, go into another door which is right there and follow the music up the stairs. The hall looks as though it was built some time between, say, 1890 and 1914, with the aim to imitate and surpass the halls of Oxford and Cambridge colleges (generally built much earlier and with less light). The roof is very high, the walls are wood-panelled half way up, and above this are wide, tall, bright windows letting in the sky. Above that is a white plaster curve magnificently embellished with coloured and gilded coats of arms, and a creamy plaster cieling. Beto told me that it reminded him of a place in Buenos Aires that I don't remember the name of. The heavy wooden chairs and tables are pushed to the four sides for the milonga. If it was crowded, there wouldn't be enough room to get between the chairs, which are very substantial - but there's plenty of room for a milonga of 180 people or so.

The sound is good, the wooden walls flattering it even with small speakers. It might be more of a struggle if it were full. And the wooden floor is absolutely gorgeous - not just smooth and soft on the feet, but also quiet, sucking away the sounds of your toes.

The only problem with the hall is that the windows have been incorrectly maintained and can't be opened at the moment. The room is designed for openable windows, and on a warm day it gets hot. Dress, or bring whatever you need, accordingly.

Look for the Empire Clock at the far end of the room. There's some information in a glass case on the wall to the left of it. It is an ingenious little memorial to that short-lived seaborne empire on which the sun never set; and once you spot the silver fern you realise it's telling you what time it is in New Zealand.

Hospitality: Good, slightly overwhelmed if more people turn up than expected. A table at one end has water, plastic cups, fruit, sweets, miscellaneous cakes and chocolate-brownie-like things, all included. If there's no one at the desk when you come in, it's probably because Jenny is busy DJing - just sort yourself out and either someone will come and find you later, or you can go over and just offer them money. If the jugs run out of water, you might have to attract someone's attention to refill them. As for the loos, they are clean, roomy, and very well lit, but allow an entire tanda to get there and back. It's a rather long way. Go out of the door at the other end, down the stairs on the right, and follow signs. Don't be alarmed by surprise violinists or hot steamy laundry machines. You'll get there in the end. On the bank holiday Monday when I went, it was also possible to get a substantial student lunch and a beer in the canteen next door, and several people did.

Anyone or anything interesting that turned up or happened: Just social dancing.

What I thought of the DJing: The first time I went, Beto DJd; he's a totally reliable DJ and a favourite of mine. The second time, Jenny DJd, and she did a perfectly reasonable job. It was all nice danceable tango music played in an orderly manner. She made one mistake (dancing) and had to run back to fix it but it was all nice music and the cortinas made me happy.

Getting in: £10. Market rate for London. The class is £5 extra, if there is one.

Getting there and getting home: It's a few minutes' walk from Russell Square and doesn't end late enough for getting home to be a problem. The address is Goodenough College, London House,  Mecklenburgh Square, London WC1N 2AB. I turned right from Russell Square and more or less followed my nose until I reached a fence, then turned right again and followed the walls on my left till I got there - which results in walking round three sides of Mecklenburgh Square - and that might not actually be necessary. But I couldn't at the time see a way of getting round the other way. Try it.

The website: Scroll down for the little calendar thingie. Does the job.

How it went: I went twice before writing, once for the regular Saturday matinee and once for a Bank Holiday Special. It was very quiet on the Saturday, but I'd arranged for a friend to go as well, so it didn't matter. On the bank holiday there were quite a few people there, after a while, including some excellent choices, and I'd definitely do that again. It was still quietish, but it'll probably become more popular. It's so nice and so convenient that it's hard to see how it wouldn't. You might try something like this group to coordinate with a few friends; but it'll be ok either way. On the bank holiday Monday, it was a little wierd at first because some of the students of Goodenough Hall were still having their lunch; they did so very quietly, but totally fascinated by our activities, and it always feels a bit bizarre having an audience. A friend mistakenly invited one of the students to dance; but he's very good at dancing with beginners and actually she did totally fine, as true total absolute beginners sometimes do in response to a good lead. The dancing was very civilised; the floor wasn't full, but it was very orderly and I think the quietness and the style of the hall is really conducive to a good milonga. I had a lovely time, and it ends at just the right moment to have dinner nearby afterwards. Give it a try on Monday, if you're in town.