A Very Un-British Workshop, and trying a new milonga


Saturday was the monthly Tango Space workshop. This is usually in Farringdon, but this month was at Browns, Covent Garden, and with a guest teacher from Argentina.

The guest was Pepa Palazón, who organises the Viva la Pepa milonga in Buenos Aires and also runs the excellent Pregunta para vos website featuring interviews with famous tango dancers – thankfully with English subtitles …

The two-hour workshop was all about the connection:

  • The embrace
  • Connection, tonicity, aptitude
  • How to improve listening to your partner
  • Circularity of the movement to anticipate the lead

I wondered whether Pepa had ever met any Englishmen when she explained an exercise where we would walk around the room, wait for her to call ‘now’ and then catch someone’s eye, approach them slowly while making eye contact throughout, stand in front of them just looking into their eyes, then move closer and continue looking into their eyes, and finally give them a hug and thank them.

I was quite amused that it felt somewhat embarrassing even with women I’ve had in my arms many times. But it did make sense, the idea of maintaining eye contact from the cabeceo to the embrace, even if the somewhat artificial setup made it feel more intimate than that.

There was an even more embarrassing exercise later, where the leader had to stand behind the follower and hug her from behind, changing her weight. Pepa demonstrated this with Pablo, wrapping her arms around his body, her hands on his chest. Which is fine that way around, but I’m not sure she’d thought through the finer points of that particular embrace when it was a man embracing a woman … I did wrap my arms around my partner, but positioned my hands rather carefully on her opposite shoulder and upper arm.

The amusements aside, it was a truly excellent workshop. One exercise was the follower dancing on her own with her eyes closed, while the leader’s job was to keep her safe. To do this, we were only allowed the lightest of touches to block movement in a particular direction. That was challenging with quite a busy room, and having to predict where your follower might go while also being aware of everyone else moving around you! We also swapped roles, so we both got to experience it the other way around. We both successfully protected each other.

We did a lot of no-contact dancing, the leader having to communicate their intent very clearly so that the follower could move in synch without any physical contact, and that was a huge amount of fun. I was surprised how easy it turned out to be. We were supposed to keep it simple by only leading one type of step each round (eg. a side-step), but as it was working really well with all my followers, I was mixing-and-matching steps – and even led a no-contact ocho. It was a great demonstration of the principle of moving my own body rather than trying to move my follower.

We then did a very long-range version, followers about 15 feet away, which meant that as everyone moved around the room, we were having to cope with limited line-of-sight. Again, great fun.

The lessons I drew from this were very much the same ones I’d drawn from my taste of following. As ever, there’s a significant gap between theory and practice so far. I know what I should be doing, but put me in a crowded milonga with all the usual competing demands on my limited tango brain, and I only manage some percentage of it. But I’m getting there slowly, and the stuff we did today was more really useful reference material.

The milonga

I said recently that as I was now feeling comfortable in the Tuesday night milonga, the next step would be to see how it felt in another one with some familiar faces. Saturday should have provided the perfect opportunity, as the workshop led into the Saturday night milonga, and I assumed many of the students would stay for that.

This turned out not to be the case. As far as I could see, only a couple of followers from the class stayed.

I was chatting with one, a woman I hadn’t met before and doesn’t do the regular classes, but was just there for the workshop. We were having a good conversation, in which I learned she’d been dancing for some years, but been out of it for a while, and was a little lacking in confidence. Under the circumstances, I guessed a basic dance would be welcome enough, so wanted to invite her.

I hit my usual problem with having no idea how to cabeceo someone with whom I’m chatting. I’ve established with a few regular followers that it’s ok to verbally invite each other, but didn’t want to risk that with someone I’d just met.

In the end, I opted for an approach which lacked subtlety but still gave her the option of not interpreting it as an invitation if she didn’t wish to. I said that I never knew how to cabeceo someone I was chatting to, at which point she said ‘Oh, I think it’s ok to just ask them then.’ So I did, and she immediately accepted.

Between songs, she kindly told me that I was doing very well for someone six months in. She could also tell I was being a little tentative, and said after the next one that if a leader just makes it clear where and when he wants a follower to move, she’ll be happy. I turned up my intention dial, and she responded well.

After the tanda, I sat and watched for a while, looking for two quite different things: leaders from whom I could learn things, and followers who appeared to be happy with leaders who were keeping things simple. The general standard of dancing appeared to me to be very high, so I didn’t see much that was accessible enough to learn from, but I did spot a follower who was smiling with what seemed a very basic lead, so I cabeceo’d her afterwards. She was clearly about the same level as me, so I was able to relax and enjoy the dance – well, as relaxed as was possible given how crowded it was!

The couple ahead of us took absolutely ages to stop chatting and start dancing each song. The sensible thing to do in those circumstances would be to chat to my follower until they moved into the embrace, but I’m really terrible at small-talk, so ended up doing some side-steps and ochos while I waited for them to move. Maybe I should look for workshops on small-talk.

Afterwards, watching a milonga with some really impressive dancing, I remarked to the woman next to me that I was in awe of people who could dance well to milonga. When the next tanda began, she verbally invited me. I’m at the stage where I’ll take all the invitations I can get, so that was just fine with me. Having no clue to her level, I warned her I was only six months in, and she said that was no problem. Again, another very simple dance, but everything seemed to work, so I was happy and she appeared to be too.

I risked a few giros, and while they all worked, they were all with followers who clearly knew their steps, so I can’t really take too much credit there.

As the overall level of dance was so high, I wasn’t going to risk inviting anyone else I didn’t know, and was happy with my tandas and my next step in milongahood, so decided to call it a night.

Tomorrow, I’ve arranged to meet a few Tango Space friends at the Spitalfields outdoor milonga, so another new milonga with the aid of some familiar faces. Fingers crossed that too will be a success …

Image: Shutterstock

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