Monday 28 January 2013

The Upside-Down Moon

I was listening to the excellent Naked Astronomy Podcast, and they alluded to something that had never ever occurred to me:

If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, the Moon is the other way up, because the Moon is exactly as it is here, but YOU are the other way up. So when it is a D-shape here, it is a C-shape there. And if you are at the Equator, it is a boat, or a canopy, or a pair of horns pointing upwards or down, and all the shapes on it are the other way up, so the mark that looks like a mouth, is more like eyebrows.

It had never ever crossed my mind. But I think it must be true.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Hung Over

I dance better when I'm recovering from a hangover. It stops my brain getting in the way.

I think Beto's empanadas are about equivalent to a bacon sandwich.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Trousers Too Big 1925

The main peril is, of course, accidentally looking like a clown.

But there is also this, if you accidentally order your trousers a little too wide. By David Louis Ghilchick, 1925.

"Perils of the Dance - The terror of the Oxford trousers" - David Louis Ghilchick, Punch, 1925
I think this is a less lively depiction of dancing than the drawings of Lewis Baumer in the previous two posts; perhaps Ghilchick was less interested in dancing, or perhaps it just isn't the point of this cartoon.

But there is a fashion among tangueros for rather wideish trousers, which certainly do look very nice in motion, if you get it right, and especially if you dance well; they drape a little, they flow a little, and the way the toes peep out, in their soft, pleasingly stitched and coloured dancing shoes, is charming. If you overdo it, you can look like a traffic cone. If you are not so young and you really overdo it, you can look like a Vampire. And if you dance badly you just look foolish.

And, this can happen.

But risks are the whole point of difficult garments. Seeking to answer the question "can I carry off this possibly ill-advised style?" correctly is a rather basic part of being a human whose immediate needs are met. It exercises the artistic sense, and teaches modesty and wisdom. Enjoy your trousers. Beauty is always dangerous.

Sunday 20 January 2013

It's cold outside

If you see someone sleeping rough, in London (boroughs of Westminster, Ealing and Southwark), or in Bristol, or Reading, you can email St Mungo's Street Concern or fill in their form with a description and they will try to make contact - or call the number at No Second Night Out.

Thursday 17 January 2013

All Things To All Ranks - Punch 1925

My second Punch cartoon is from 1925. The cartoonist is Lewis Baumer, again. He seems to have been interested in dancing. His drawings are very lively and believable.

My photograph of the book is pretty poor, here, but I think you can get the gist. The title reads:

ALL THINGS TO ALL RANKS - How to dance with ...

And the captions are, in ascending order of officer seniority:  top left, "A Subaltern", top right "A Captain", bottom left "A Major", and bottom right "A Colonel". The same young woman is shown dancing with each.

All Things To All Ranks - Punch, 1925
A lot of the social context and humour is lost to time in this one, but what interests me is that the dancing technique shown generally looks very much more similar to well-known variations of what I know as tango than it does to the vase-of-flowers embrace in what is now usually called 'ballroom' dancing. The exception is the bottom left picture, where the frame they've adopted looks much more like West Coast Swing, but the footwork doesn't.

There are four quite different frames or embraces here. The woman has a practical and adaptable range of skills for social following - perhaps exaggerated, since that's the point of the cartoon. Of course, she's generally adapting her posture and behaviour in relation to which of the men could be regarded as possible mates, but a big part of how that manifests itself is the couple's choice of dance technique. (My impressions are that the subaltern is a plausible mate of her own age; the captain is not impossible, but competence and acquitting herself well are the main concerns; an certain modesty is required with the major, who is not suitable; but the colonel is senior enough that a daughterly or granddaughterly affection is wholly appropriate). [Update: see comments for some interesting remarks on expectations of behaviour for the men, by an anonymous commenter described as an active army officer.]

There's nothing to tell me whether these four pictures represent different 'dances' - likely to be chosen by military officers of different seniority to dance with such a young lady - or not. But I take this cartoon as evidence that this practical and adaptable range of skills was quite widespread in the level of society accustomed to read Punch. I wonder whether the technique and the content of specific dances for specific kinds of music were so strongly differentiated in 1925 as they later became.

Monday 14 January 2013

Tango in Punch in 1913

Happy New Year. It's only as I started writing this that I realised; 1913, that's a hundred years ago. During my family Christmas, I spent an hour or so leafing through a book that belongs to my sister, containing a few hundred cartoons from Punch, the well-known and long-lived, but now long-dead, satirical magazine.

I found three representations of social dancing, and I'll post them all. Interestingly, although only this first one specifically mentions "tango" in the caption, all three of them resemble what I know as tango in some way. The cartoonist in this one is Lewis Baumer, and the date is 1913. I'll make it as large as I can, but you can click on it to make it a little bit larger. Text below.

The Tango in the Ball-Room - Punch, 1913
The title reads "THE TANGO IN THE BALL-ROOM".
The bottom picture caption: "AND AS WE HAVE ACTUALLY SEEN IT".

Obvious notable facts include that this is twenty years before the 'golden age' of tango recordings. Recorded music from this era doesn't survive, as far as I know [see comments for information on what does], so we - or, rather, I - know little of what it sounded like.

Here's another one. The bottom picture - "As we have actually seen it" - could be half the cast at any London milonga in any given week, a century later. It's very accurate and convincing representation of what tango looks like when danced badly, with that particular combination of tenacity and incompetence. You could easily point out the couple in the middle, and probably the ones on the right. And, actually, the ones on the left. I saw them on Friday.

The people represented in the lower picture are certainly having some kind of fun, but not nearly as much fun as the ones in the top picture.

And here's the most interesting thing. The top picture is clearly exaggerated. The central couple are moving much too fast to be dancing tango, with both pairs of feet off the floor. The other couples have exaggerated poses and expressions, serving the cartoonist's point; the allegedly scandalous nature of what's going on, and the improbability of that allegation. But otherwise, if you dialled it down just a little bit, it would look very, very close to tango being danced well. Technically, they don't look bad at all, just overexcited and rather insane.

And all of them are having a ridiculous amount of fun, without being properly punished by catching something or getting pregnant or arrested, at least not immediately. And that's kind of the point.

It doesn't look quite like the real thing ... but it's instantly recognisable. And you can also find some people in London doing that real thing. They're somewhere in the other half of the cast, and you have to look a little more carefully. But it's totally there, and it's a lot more common than it was when I started this blog.

So here we are. The upper drawing represents bad tango in the sense that it is imagined by someone (not necessarily the cartoonist) to be threatening to the social order. It also looks rather like good tango, in the sense of being well done and therefore extremely enjoyable in way that genuinely is, in my opinion, sort of subversive and capable of freeing people from some of the arbitrary limitations that are otherwise imposed by their ordinary lives. The lower drawing represents good tango in the sense that it is no threat to anything or anyone's role in society; and incidentally, it looks exactly like terrible dancing.

I wish I knew to what extent the cartoonist thought the same as I do. How much tango had he actually seen, what was it like, did he dance it himself, and what did he think about it? In particular, what were his real sources for each picture?

Finally, let's compare the rather vaguely-represented dress of the lady left of centre and middle-ground in the upper picture, left, with Lady Sybil's marvellous harem trousers in Downton Abbey, right, modelled on an outfit by Poiret of around 1909.

Detail of above cartoon
Downton Abbey publicity shot
I don't watch soaps, but this costume was brought to my attention. I don't wear harem trousers either, because they don't suit me. But many do, and I think she looks wonderful. Here is a discourse on Poiret from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with pictures of other works from the 1910s, which I also think is worth your attention. A lot of people go for a structured, Forties look for tango, but I prefer a softer one.

[Update: see the comments for some remarks on the nowadays-relationship with jive (and it's possible role in producing things that look like the lower picture) and  whether the fast-moving couple could be dancing quickstep. And see All Things to All Ranks for a query about the differentiation between dances in terms of content and technique in the Twenties.]

Saturday 5 January 2013

Drawing in the British Museum

Tau-Type and Psi-Type Mycenean figures, 1300-1200BC.
The best way I know of looking at things, is to draw them. It's possible to use photography the same way, but much harder: if you don't work hard at it, it becomes a substitute for looking rather than an aid.

Museums like it if you walk around drawing the things. It is almost always welcomed, as long as you don't use any materials that might make a mess. These are from Room 12b. Mycenean terracotta female figures - Tau-Type, 1300-1250BC, and (right) Psi-Type, 1300-1200BC.

Man with two dogs, Mycenean, Cyprus, 1300-1200BC
The next picture, on a Mycenean bell krater, 1300-1200BC, is one of those paintings that (if European, at least) can only be very new or very old. It's amazingly lively and dramatic. I didn't get all of the dynamism - you can really feel him pulling at these excitable little dogs.

But if you do this in the British Museum when it's full of tourists (like on New Year's Eve), you can easily find yourself becoming part of the exhibition. People are fascinated to watch someone draw, and they really appreciate the pictures. By watching someone draw, you see the object with new eyes. A simple representational drawing can seem much more informative than a photograph, because of the way the person making it selects what seems important to them, and leaves out what doesn't. Photographers can do this too - they can use lighting, composition, and all sorts of techniques - but most of those just aren't feasible in the context of visiting a great public museum.

Spout Duck, Handle Dog, and Tourist
While I was drawing the wonderful little duck on the spout, and the dog on the handle of a Basse-Yutz Flagon of 450BC,  a very polite American gentleman wanted to take a picture of me, which I agreed to: he said that he used to see people doing the same in the Louvre, before I was born. From my guess at our relative ages, I suspect he underestimated mine by a dozen years (it's rather dark in that room). After he had gone, I continued drawing, and a very sweet young lady who might have been Japanese came up, became fascinated, and also wanted to take a picture - of me, but mainly of the drawing. She had to take her time over the English, and we were so pleased that we managed to communicate.

The lady at the bottom of the page isn't her, it's a young Chinese tourist, sitting down and reflecting in the Chinese gallery, with her tour group buzzing around her. She looked a bit tired, and I totally failed to capture her thoughtful, inward, and solemn expression, which reminded me of several Buddhist figures. I wonder what she made of it all.

There's Tibetan stuff just a bit further along. They have a fairly large brass figure of a fierce-looking deity with about sixteen arms literally effing the ineffable, displayed right at puzzled-toddler height, although I didn't stick around to hear the conversation that the actual puzzled toddler near my knee was about to start. Nor did I attempt to draw it, as it's very low down and rather complicated. It symbolises the soul's pursuit of enlightenment, according to the caption. The ineffable seems to be right into it, which is certainly better than not.