More basics, more presence, more musicality and one more milonga

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Of course, getting the final piece in my vocabulary jigsaw puzzle doesn’t mean that I can rest on my laurels for a while. Indeed, having made the decision to stick to simple, musical dance, then that puts all the focus on my technique!

The idea of today’s private with Julia and Fede, then, was just to dance and for them to figure out the priorities for refining my technique …

The good news was that my head is now mostly in the right place, with the turn to the left to allow space for the follower’s head now feeling more natural. I do need to check myself a few times during the dance, but that was mostly very small adjustments, and Julia said it felt comfortable. Fede spotted that I seemed to have overdone the ‘head up’ part, and had me tuck my chin in more.

The bad news is that I still struggle with my left arm position, having a tendency to contract it inward toward my body, and to move it back closer to my plane than to a 50/50 position between us. Though I did at least get an explanation for the latter: when Fede positioned it visually to a 50/50 point, it looked and felt to me like it was at 70-80% toward Julia, so I need to recalibrate knowing that.

The basics. Always the basics.

One of the more depressing things about tango is how you can work forever on the basics. Most skills, you learn them, perhaps struggle with them for a while, then they click into place and you can forget about them. Take photography, for example. Once you’ve learned to focus on the closest eye in a portrait, that’s that ticked, and you never have to think about it again. Learning to drive, you struggle for a while with clutch control, then you grow smooth and then it becomes muscle-memory and it’s done.

Tango isn’t like that. Even maestros continue to work on their walk, decades into the dance. So yep, today was once more about the basics. Clear change of weight into the floor (Julia said it felt subtle, and was nice for her, but some less experienced followers would need more). Clear projection before any chest movement. Toes out. Keeping the weight on the inside of my feet, in side-steps as well as forward ones. Giving a clear push in turns as well as when walking straight.

I thought I now had a smooth walk, free from bobbing, but Julia said I still needed to smooth this out – both vertically and horizontally. I’m going to tell myself that this is now looking at my walk at a deeper level, working on removing much smaller movements …

But work on the basics does have its compensations. For example, Fede showed me a nice way to start the walk: weight on my left, weight change to the right and then use that momentum to step with the left. It feels like a lovely soft swoop to the first step.

We also worked on my circular walk, with two key refinements. First, ensuring that I opened my left shoulder in a continuous motion, so there was always an invitation to the follower to keep turning. Second, to brush my knees after pushing with my right foot. Combining these two things gave a much smoother and more circular feel to the turn, and Julia said she could feel a huge difference.

(Later, after my lesson, I watched a little as Steph had her own private with Maral, her fourth ever leading lesson, and got to see how even for a follower as experienced as Steph, she was still being reminded of the same basics in her lead.)

Give more presence to get more presence

One question I posed to them both is how to get more presence from followers. I like a lot of forward weight from the follower. It makes it so much easier to lead slow and controlled movement. Some followers give me that, and it feels wonderful. Others give that to me some of the time, or some days more than others, I wanted to know what I could do to encourage more.

There was bad news and good news there. The bad news is there’s only so much you can do. You can give presence yourself, but if the follower pulls back rather than mirroring it, then there’s nothing you can do about that.

The good news, though, is that there is an approach I can take to giving more presence that will maximise the chance of having it returned. They said to think of the lower half of my body being rooted to the floor, then to have an engaged core and breath in to lift the chest while leaning more. Steph said Mariano has expressed that same idea as your legs being like a waterfall while your upper body is like a fountain. That mix of downward and upward energy. J&F expressed it as feet pushing into the floor, head lifted by a thread.

Another musicality class

Sunday evening saw us heading over to Etnia in Camden Town for Mariano’s musicality class, then the milonga.

The class was rather advanced for me, covering quite a lot of musical theory that made sense to Steph – given her extensive familiarity with the music – but was more abstract for someone at my level. However, there were still three elements I could use right away.

The first was to listen for the two ways the musicians can play the beat itself: sustained or staccato. A staccato beat is very short, and suggests sharper movement. A sustained beat is drawn out and would suggest smoother movement.

The next could be thought of another level to this: the difference between ritmíco and legato sections. With the former, there are gaps between the notes – whether they are staccato or sustained. With the latter, they can only be sustained, and one note bleeds directly into the next, with no gap between them. Ritmíco sections might suggest walking (milonga practicalities permitting!), while legato ones might suggest circular movement.

A third is the three different ways the instruments can be playing, alone or together. Solo is a single musician playing; soli is all instruments of the same type playing the same thing (for example, all violins, or all string instruments); tuti is the whole orchestra playing. That again might suggest different things to the dancer, from a pause or very small movement to a solo through to very full-on dance to tuti.

Mariano was very careful not to be prescriptive – not to tell us how to dance to the different things we would hear in the music, only to give us ideas of what to listen out for. But some of us wanted at least examples of how we might reflect these differences in our music, and the ones I give above are those Mariano semi-reluctantly offered. I do absolutely get where he’s coming from on this – we should each be dancing our own interpretation of what we hear – but at my level, examples are helpful!

The milonga

Etnia was a little intimidating. The standard of dance looked high, and aside from Steph and one very new friend who also attended the musicality class, I didn’t know anyone there when we arrived.

But Steph did actually dance with me! For those newer to the blog, many of my tango friends think it must be fantastic to have such an experienced follower at home, and how I must have the perfect partner on tap at all times. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. There’s been such a chasm between our respective levels, that I haven’t really been able to offer Steph an enjoyable dance, and her expectations of my lead have been totally unrealistic for my level, so she also hasn’t been able to offer much appropriate feedback. We both decided to take the advice of a friend to dance together only about once a month, so that Steph would see noticeable improvement.

Steph has always tried to be encouraging on these occasions, but tonight was the first time I got a wholehearted compliment on my dancing! And I could feel that it had been an enjoyable tanda for her. That was a good feeling.

It also felt like a great example of truly collaborative dance. There have been times when I’ve done the parada-and-pause thing with Steph and she has done her stuff, but that kind of felt like cheating – that I was doing little and having her do most of the dancing. But tonight, it did feel much more like a 50/50 share, where I was leading my part of the dance, but also creating opportunities for her to do the same.

There were times when I was going to lead a pivot, but then felt Steph wanted to do other things beforehand, and I think, that what she would have felt was a ‘Ok, let’s go here and– Oh, you’re not ready, cool, go ahead.’ (Steph later confirmed that this was the case.)

The music in the next tanda didn’t appeal to me, so, mindful of the lesson from the Tuesday milonga, I sat that out and waited for music that grabbed me more. When it did, I cabeceod K. She’s a much better dancer than me, but we’d danced together in exercises in the musicality series, and she’d apparently tried to cabeceo me at one of the Tuesday milongas – which I’d entirely missed. Since she knew what I could and couldn’t offer, I felt confident extending the invitation.

We had a really lovely tanda. I again felt comfortable that, even for a dancer I have seen doing amazing things, my dance was enough. It felt connected, smooth, musical and effortless.

The couple ahead did a lot of static movements which would, even a couple of weeks ago, have had me feeling trapped, desperately wondering what else I could do without the ability to walk. But I didn’t feel that way tonight. Sure, it might have been the nth time in the tanda we’d done ochos, but they were lovely ochos. As Diego had said in our first lesson, it’s about the how, not the what.

Diego’s clockwise turn passed the milonga test: I was able to comfortably use it in real-life dancing. I couldn’t have been happier about that!

As far as the anti-clockwise walk was concerned, I didn’t feel my technique was as good as it was in the lesson, but I was definitely opening much more and creating that more circular feeling. One time I overdid the opening, and inadvertently led a giro, but recognised what had happened and went with it, even managing to exit it, so all was good!

K said afterwards it had been a very nice tanda, and I was very happy to hear it had been a mutual feeling.

Steph had several tandas with different leaders, including a milonga with Mariano, which looked to be a lot of fun! she’d spoken about finding it harder to get dances from having been out of the scene for a while, and that so much of it was just about visibility, being a familiar face, but the evidence suggests that it doesn’t take long to re-establish yourself as such.

I didn’t have that background, and in a milonga where everyone else seemed to know each other, I didn’t see much opportunity for a cabeceo – even for a version of me willing to take a chance in an environment that seemed packed full of super-advanced followers. The very few followers not dancing weren’t looking, either chatting to each other of head-down in their phones.

Poema came on, and I looked at Steph. She nodded, but she knew something I didn’t: while this song may be lovely, Canaro tangos can be rather dreary (though his milongas are fun), so the music was probably going to go downhill from there. Which it did. I did my best, as did Steph, but neither of us were feeling inspired by the rest of the music, so it wasn’t anything like our first tanda, sadly.

It did, though, again underline that Tuesday lesson: it’s all about finding music that moves me. I’m going to have to be willing to do more sitting, less dancing, in order to have the dancing be wonderful.

As an aside, Steph is far more militant than me when it comes to couples who continue chatting while everyone around them is dancing. ‘Just overtake,’ she suggested. I’m not really at the point where I feel ready to decide when to break the códigos, and as a new dancer at a new milonga, didn’t want to risk gaining the wrong kind of reputation. Another song in the tanda, she suggested dancing close behind them in the hope that they’d take the hint and enter the embrace. That felt more reasonable, but they proved oblivious. Ah well. At least I now have things I can do on the spot.

It was very hot in the room, and Steph was, unusually, feeling the heat more than me, so keen to make a move. I didn’t feel that I was likely to find other available followers, and was also hungry, having had only a sandwich since breakast, so didn’t take much persuasion to call it a night.

So, only three tandas with two followers, one of which was to mostly uninspiring music. But while I’d liked to have danced more, it was absolutely a worthwhile evening. I’d had two great tandas, and had gained further confidence that simple dance can be enough even for advanced dancers – even for the most demanding of them all!

Image: Shutterstock

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