When tripping over each other’s feet is a good thing

tripping up.jpg

Tonight’s Tango Space lesson was on the medio-giro, and with no class on Easter Monday, it was straight into the improver’s class.

But I felt comfortable with the beginner’s version from last time, and it’s something I use a lot in milongas, so didn’t mind jumping in at the deep end this evening …

The improver’s version wasn’t actually complicated: it was entered directly from the outside walk, rather than the side-step entry I knew, and there was a sacada during the turn.

As always with Hamdi and Amy, they spent plenty of time on the basics first. We practiced moving in and out of the outside walk, and leading a follower-only side-step. When it came time to try the figure itself, we used a mix of practice embrace and open embrace to get the idea and then finally progressed to close embrace.

Close embrace was hard! It needed a lot of dissociation on the part of the leader, and also required that the follower be very accurate in following the size of steps lead.

With one follower, we weren’t really managing it, so I cheated and opened the embrace enough that it was working again. Amy noticed this and said that it was better to keep working at it in close embrace, and just not worry if we tripped over each other, as that was the only way we’d be able to get to grips with it.

So we resumed close embrace, tried again and … it pretty much worked! We then promptly fell over each other’s feet the very next attempt! But I could see the sense in it. It can be hard with a follower I don’t know well, as I really don’t want to tread on her feet or trip her up; I’d be more relaxed with one of my regulars. But with permission to trip up, it takes the stress out of it.

I would need a lot of practice to be able to do it in close embrace, but used it a number of times in the milonga afterwards in my cheat’s version – opening the embrace enough to make it safe – and that was working well far more often than not.

I didn’t want to stay too late, so needed to choose between staying for the beginner’s class afterwards, and dancing in the milonga. I decided that the milonga was the better option – partly because I need as much practice as possible at real-life dancing, and partly because it’s more fun.

The milonga

Last week, I’d taken Y out for her first ever tanda in a milonga. I must have made a decent job of it as she claimed the first tanda again this week. It’s a novelty for me to be dancing with someone with a smaller vocabulary than mine, and interesting to get a sense of how more experienced leaders need to tailor their dance to less experienced followers.

It also takes all the pressure away when it’s obvious she’s just thrilled to be dancing in a milonga, so all I need do is offer a nice embrace, a clear and comfortable lead, and a basic level of musicality.

The first tanda follows straight on from the intermediate class, and I usually feel a bit intimidated about heading straight out, but this time decided to forget what my dance might look like in more elevated company, and just focus on how it feels. It was a good decision because the floor was relatively uncrowded – or perhaps anything feels spacious after yesterday! We had a simple but very enjoyable tanda.

Y did the classic beginner thing of thanking me after the first dance of the tanda, but I knew that wasn’t what she meant! I said I’d explain afterwards what that means in a milonga, and had the fun experience of introducing her to the weird and wonderful world of tango etiquette. I realised it all felt reasonably natural now, but could still remember how odd it all seemed at first. You don’t ask someone to dance. You don’t thank them after a dance. The guys think they do the inviting, but it’s the woman who initiates it and he just gets to say yea or nay. Tango is its own world.

Not many people from the improver’s class had stayed on for the milonga, and as the two others I’d spotted were both dancing, I had another tanda with Y. Again, very nice, and again navigation mostly felt easy.

I’m very gradually realising how nice a drawn-out suspension can feel. For example, there was one time when I was briefly trapped between a couple ahead doing a series of giros and a couple very close behind me likewise doing something static. I didn’t have room for anything much, so did a half-time side-step with a drawn-out continuous suspension into the same back again. It couldn’t have been a simpler movement, but to the music and with that feeling of ‘we’re slowing, now we’re about to go the other way, now we’re starting to go, now we’re going,’ it felt really enjoyable.

The next tanda was with M2 (but just M this time as M1 wasn’t there). M is a significantly better dancer than me, but we’re friends so I don’t feel any pressure to do more than I can comfortably manage in a milonga. Again, very relaxed and very enjoyable. There were a couple of times I tried to lead something that didn’t work, and I could feel M’s unspoken ‘Uh-uh, that ain’t gonna work, bud’ smile.

With M, I was able to offer her space in the pivots to improvise, and I feel like I’m starting to get a basic sense of when and how to hand the baton back and forth.

I was working hard on not leading with my arms, and it was immediately noticeable with M – as with Steph yesterday – that opening my shoulder really is all it takes to lead a pivot. Give an experienced follower the space, and they take it. I have much more work to do on that, but I’m very slowly getting there.

The final tanda was with J, a follower who is at a similar level to me. She has a really nice presence in the embrace, and with her I feel able to do my best impersonation of a milonguero walk since she matches the level of weight and energy offered.

Again, a really enjoyable tanda with no challenges I can recall. With her, I managed a closer-embrace version of the medio-giro. There’s definitely still a threshold involved: fully-close embrace is still beyond me, but where I can count on a consistent matching within the embrace, less space is needed.

Tribes and cliques

There’s a discussion in a tango Facebook group I’m in about the friendliness or otherwise of London milongas, with a fair amount of talk about a feeling of cliquishness.

Much of that feeling seemed to relate to people who don’t want to dance with those they consider beneath their level – or unknown dancers who might turn out to be.

I’m just an observer in the conversation since I have very limited experience of milongas, London or otherwise, but it did strike me that perhaps there’s an innocent explanation for at least part of the phenomenon. Not the above bit, but the more general issue of people dancing with people they know, and being less comfortable inviting those they don’t.

I’ve said before that Tango Space feels like my tribe. I think Pablo and Anne have created something quite remarkable in terms of a sense of community. I happily start conversations with anyone I meet in classes, and everyone has always been friendly.

And within that community, I’m finding the people I connect with in lessons and socially. There are followers with whom things generally work well, and when they don’t, we laugh about it. There are followers I like as people, and know that even if I had an utterly disastrous dance with them, we’d just find it funny. So it’s natural to gravitate toward those followers in the Tuesday milongas.

That doesn’t mean I’m not open to dancing with others; just that the safe option is what I know works.

Of course, in my case, any concerns about dance level are the other way around: I don’t want to inadvertently invite a far more experienced dancer who might find my limited vocabulary boring or my technique lacking. The latter a bigger issue than the former, I’m now realising.

So I get that there can be snobbishness and arrogance; but perhaps some of what seems so is merely the comfort and safety of the familiar?

Image: Shutterstock

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