Michael Lavocah on Troilo, and more learning about leading through following

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Sunday’s tango-related fun kicked off with a 90-minute talk on Troilo by Michael Lavocah, author of Tango Stories, Musical Secrets.

I couldn’t even begin to do justice to the talk in a brief blog post. Lavocah clearly has an immense breadth and depth of knowledge, and boundless enthusiasm for sharing as much of it as humanly possible …

As a flavour of the man, he described commenting at a milonga to a Spanish-speaking woman about the happiness of a song, and she replied ‘with such sad lyrics.’ Lavocah had been oblivious to this, “so I decided I should learn Spanish.”

Pre-Troilo, he said, the music was generally upbeat while the lyrics were often sad. Having the musical mood match the lyrics was one of Troilo’s goals.

As another example of the interconnectedness of everything tango, Lavocah drew our attention to ‘a one-note solo’ – a single note where the music was in the phrasing of it. It immediately made me think of a suspension in dance; the concept the same.

I normally hate anyone talking over music; Lavocah did it all the time during his presentation. Telling us what to listen for, commentary on what we’d just heard, translating the lyrics, or even, on occasion, just making a passing observation. Generally, that would drive me absolutely nuts, but there was just so much to learn from him – and much of it couldn’t be done any other way – that I forgave it instantly.

A fascinating talk. I’ll definitely attend his future talks on other orchestras, and heartily recommend doing the same.

Followed by more following

The talk over-ran, and I had to duck out on time to head back for my lesson with Mariano, again on following.

It was again great to realise how much you learn about leading from even a little bit of following. Mariano demonstrated both good and bad ways to lead different movements, and there were things he’d said before that I’d understood conceptually but experiencing them as a follower made them so much more real.

A good example was rebounds, where you need to give the ‘stop’ signal early enough that the follower is ready for it. If you wait until they already thought you were leading a step, it’s really hard work for the follower to respond. Having had that physical feeling will, I think, make me much more conscious of its importance when I’m leading them myself.

Another piece of feedback I’ve had during lessons is sometimes needing to give the follower more time to complete something. Again, experiencing this as a follower was a great way of really embedding that lesson.

A really good example was Mariano explaining the follower’s technique when a front ocho is converted into a back ocho. The follower feels the block in the upper body, but still allows momentum to partially pivot the lower body before springing back. Winding into the pivot and then unwinding. That takes time. But because we generally learn only one side of the dance, leaders are just given that as information – give the follower time to make the transition – without having a real appreciation for what they are doing and why that time is needed. Having experienced that wind-unwind movement myself as a follower, I now really get it.

And with pivots generally, teachers tell leaders that they either need to be opening or blocking – one or the other – but feeling the transition from one to the other from the receiving end really drives home the problem with being wishy-washy about it. The follower is left unsure whether they are supposed to stop or go. I think, before, I was worried that a very definite stop signal would feel rough, but following it myself I realised how welcome it is.

I’m definitely going to remember how that combination of certainty and a ‘springy’ block feels. That doesn’t mean I’ll get it right as a leader every time, of course – my tango brain only being able to focus on so many things at once will come into play – but when I am focusing on it, I feel confident I’ll do a much better job of it.

I also had another experience of what happened with Maeve: not knowing what it was I was following, yet apparently successfully following it. It did reinforce what Steph had said about not stressing about variety of movements. Followers are mostly going to be aware of whether the dance is musical, and the lead clear and comfortable. Sure, an advanced dancer may want more, but those three things will satisfy many.

If I can additionally use the things I learned in the Follower’s Liberation workshop to have the dance be more of a collaborative experience for more experienced followers, then I’ll probably succeed in punching above my tango weight.

Mariano claimed I was the lightest follower he had all weekend, from which I can only conclude that his previous lessons were in the elephant pen at London Zoo. Or, more likely, that he tells that to all his students …

So, more following, more valuable lessons learned about leading. I think I’ll continue following for my next one or two private lessons, and use my group classes as a leader to see how much of that learning I can put to good use!

Image: Shutterstock

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