Playing tango dodgems at the Clore Ballroom

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The Royal Festival Hall regularly offers free social dances in the Clore Ballroom, a wonderful open space at the back of Level 2. Tango with a live orchestra takes place every year on 27th December.

It all sounds delightfully romantic. A festive time of the year, an amazing location, a fantastic live band, lots of friendly people. And it is all of those things …

It’s also a crazily crowded dance floor with … variable standards of floorcraft. In theory, there were variously three or four lanes. In practice, these were rather fuzzily defined, and there were quite a few people who lurched randomly between them. There were also a number of voleos carried out with more enthusiasm than spatial awareness. For much of the time, it felt more like a dodgems ride than a dance.

But given that navigating crowded milongas is a core skill I need to develop, the event certainly made for excellent practice! And, I have to say, I was pleased with my achievement there. There were numerous occasions when I had to rapidly change direction to avoid a collision.

I did fail to do so twice. Once was definitely not my fault – that was a sudden lane-change on the part of the other couple. The other was, I believe, my fault: I think I wandered somewhat outside my lane just as someone took advantage of the space for a brisk walk. We only bumped shoulders, and did the traditional British thing of apologising profusely to one another while each insisting it was our fault.

Most of the time, my attention dollar was split about 50 cents each on navigation and music, so in general I wasn’t doing anything more ambitious than walking turns, lots of rebounds, a few sidesteps and a handful of ochos. Every now and then, I got space to walk for half a phrase.

On the rebound front, this will doubtless sound silly, but for some reason I mostly don’t remember to use them. However, with so little room to play, and frequent sudden changes of direction required, I had no choice. And I realised that simply including a fair sprinkling of rebounds makes my dancing feel significantly more alive.

The magical inner lane

For the final tanda, there was a fairly clear inner lane which had only a few couples in it. Often the inner part of the ronda is used by couples doing static figures, but here people were walking – a lot. I made a beeline for it, and was delighted to find it provided the opportunity to walk for entire phrases. It also reduced the navigation task sufficiently that I was able to play with the music more. It was still just walking, side-steps, rebounds and ochos, but it all seemed to flow nicely. I was also following Steph’s advice to not worry about my feet so much and focus on upper body movement. Have my attention on the desired result rather than the precise steps. That really seemed to help.

Steph’s verdict was that my dance was musical throughout the event, and she could really tell the difference on that last tanda, where it felt much more dynamic.

I absolutely loved the live music provided by Alfredo Martín Espindola and the Tango Terra Quartet. In the few milongas I’ve been to, I’ve often struggled to make sense of unfamiliar music, and there were many tandas I would never attempt for that reason. Steph said that live orchestras are often harder because they play more with the music, so are less predictable. But I actually found the opposite with this band. Despite not knowing the songs, I was able to follow the music much more easily than an unknown recorded track. I have no idea how or why. I thought it might be because they were playing more beginner-friendly music, but Steph says not. One of those tango mysteries.

Roaming cabeceo

The event was also a very beginner-friendly environment for cabeceo. The area is so large, there was no possibility of using mirada and cabeceo across the room. Instead, the practice was for the men to wander around and do a roaming cabeceo from a distance of 10-20 feet – which was very much easier.

Also, I think everyone was keen to dance, so from starting to look around to having my cabeceo accepted took no more than about 30 seconds each time. I also had one woman verbally ask me to dance, which may not be the custom, but at a stage where I’m not going to turn down any opportunity to dance, I’m fine with that.

I did witness one example of how not to do a cabeceo: a guy practically placed himself about six inches away from some poor woman and gave her a stare that would not have looked out of place in a horror movie. In general, though, it all seemed to work really well.

I danced with three other women, and enjoyed each tanda. As I say, my dancing was extremely simple, but it’s a confidence boost to successfully lead even the simplest of dance with complete strangers.

So all-in-all, a really positive experience. I would love for there to have been more room, but I was dancing to the music, able to navigate in a challenging environment – and the crowds were what unleashed my rebounds!

My next tango experience will be the polar opposite: we’ve hired the Tango Movement studio in Moorgate for two hours on Saturday evening. Just us, the music, and lots and lots of floorspace! This is for pure playtime and experimentation, and I’m really looking forward to it!

Photo: Southbank Centre

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