Improvisation, initiation, following, accessible Pugliese and the perfect ending to a milonga

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I decided last time that Juan Martin and Steffi’s classes are so good that I had to take full advantage of their limited time in London, despite my determination to do fewer classes and more milongas. The classes do at least double as a way to get to know followers for the Los Angelitos milonga which follows, so I can kind of claim they are in the spirit of dancing more.

Today’s classes were again advertised as technique-focused, with ‘pivots and communication’ the theme, though interestingly that turned out to be more true of the beginner/improver class than the intermediate one …

The beginner class started with back ochos, then a short sequence which was:

  • lead back ochos
  • sacada as the follower crosses from leader’s left to right
  • pivot the follower into a cross alongside the leader
  • resolve with a forward ocho

Because the sequence was simple, there was plenty of time to focus on technique. One difference from the forward ocho sacada we’d done in the previous class is the sacada is really with the leg, not the foot. It is blocking the follower’s leg that has her need to pivot to complete the ocho.

As a sequence, it didn’t feel immediately useful in itself, but it was interesting to understand how a sacada with the leg works. I tucked that one away for future reference.

The intermediate class was very different to the Wednesday class! In that one, they’d built the sequence up very much one step at a time; today, they introduced a mildly complex sequence all in one go, and the proceeded to add to it from there.

The first part of the sequence did build on the previous class, in that it used the same back ocho sacada, but the next bit they demonstrated immediately looked complicated to me, and I wasn’t really getting it. I asked JM to show me slowly, and it did turn out to be simpler than it looked – at least, in principle. It was just that it relies on momentum, so they demonstrated it at speed. It was a way to lead a boleo, which was a new concept to me. The only thing I knew about boleos is that they are bloody dangerous in a crowded milonga …

The initial sequence was:

  • lead back ochos
  • sacada as above
  • leader remains in place
  • lead another back ocho while static, then quickly flick the follower into a forward ocho

The quick flick part is what creates the boleo – the follower’s free leg lifting from the floor and flying around behind her.

There wasn’t much time to practice this before the next part of the sequence was introduced, so I had to think it through while I was doing it, which meant I could only lead it at half time. On the plus side, that meant I wasn’t fast enough to be dangerous. But even at a slower speed, I could see that it would feel like a really nice movement for both of us once I got enough practice at it to do it well.

The final part of the sequence was to pivot the follower into an Americano and then … something. My step memory was full, and I knew there was no way in the world I was going to be able to put together the whole thing. I was briefly tempted to sit out the final part of the class, but looking around it was obvious I wasn’t the only one whose brain was hurting, so I decided instead to suggest to followers that we just do part of it.

Improvisation

I had no idea what the official resolution was from the Americano, but I had an idea and tried it, and sure enough, it worked! This was the first time I think I’ve ever come up with a truly improvised resolution on the spot to something I’d never seen before. I told my partner that wasn’t the official ending, but noted that it worked, and she agreed, saying this was what tango was supposed to be, improvised dance.

With other partners, I said I’d do part of the sequence, and all were happy with that. I mixed-and-matched the bits I could remember, and was generally having fun with it.

I’d say only about half the class stayed for the milonga, which was a lot fewer people than I’d expected; I’d assumed most would. But more people arrived, and the numbers were close to equal, I think.

Not many people seemed ready to dance the first tanda, but I danced the second tanda with a friend, and fortunately the floor was still quite empty, so we could actually walk! I’m really not used to that opportunity in milongas, so was really happy. Mostly we walked and did ochos. I might have led part of the intermediate sequence once, maybe twice, but it was a lovely slow tanda and I just really enjoyed keeping it simple.

I’d say in the course of the evening I probably danced one tanda in three. That was partly the even numbers and lots of people who knew each other, but I was also enjoying just watching, spotting the leaders whose style I liked and trying to pick up tips.

Initiation

At one point, while I was watching, a leader tried to handeceo the woman next to me. She declined, telling him she had never danced tango before and was just there to watch (she hadn’t made the lesson). She turned to me and told me she’d done salsa and ballroom tango. I said I knew nothing about either, but did know that salsa dancers picked up tango very quickly. Fast-forward a few minutes, and we were in the small lobby area letting her have a go at it.

Sure enough, pretty much all I had to tell her was to keep her intention forward, toward me, offering resistance as I stepped toward her – and explain the push after the projection in her rear step. In literally less than five minutes, she was at a very good beginner level in the walk. “Could we try?” she asked. So we did – and she was a perfectly good dance partner! Between songs I asked if ochos were part of ballroom tango. She wasn’t sure. I tried leading forward ochos. She took an extra step, so I blocked that and she was there. Within ten minutes of her first ever experience of Argentine tango, she was dancing perfectly competently in a milonga.

I danced with a mix of followers from the class and others, and had a really nice time. I did find that there was a slight conflict between keeping the dance simple & musical, and wanting to introduce a few elements from the class. When I did the latter, they felt a bit clunky, not a seamless part of the dance – but I guess that’s inevitable. And I did manage to lead a (low, slow) boleo with a follower who hadn’t been in the class.

I used Diego’s sandwich approach to lead clockwise turns, and figured out another method on my own: if I lead a circular ocho to the right and a normal ocho to the left, that gets you turning in a slow circle. I felt very proud of this little discovery!

One thing I learned from watching is the value of simple back-and-forth movements. I use small rebounds quite a lot to fit bits of the music where there’s a kind of quiet repeated pattern before a bigger resolution, and I saw other examples of this. For example, repeated ocho cortados, crosses and kind of ‘in and out of one ocho’ step. That’s a really simple way to add variety to my dance.

Following in a milonga!

The woman who led me in the Tuesday practica at Tango Space was there, and we danced a tanda together. She asked if I wanted to try following again. Doing so in a milonga felt scarier, but I said yes … to something slow! She said to find her when there was a slow tanda, but I decided to take executive action and ask JM (who was DJing) if there was a slow tanda coming up anytime soon. He did some clicking on his laptop. I’m not 100% sure whether he’d already planned one next, or he rejigged things for me, but either way he said the next one would be.

I told Sue, and off we went, me following. She’d remembered the need to do elephant-like static changes of weight with me, so that worked well, as did parallel and outside walk. But at one point she was trying to lead something and I couldn’t work out what it was. After about four failed attempts, she told me it was a cross. She then lead it again and it made immediate sense. It was a perfectly good lead, I’d just never done one as a follower. She had to remind me to immediately change weight on crossing, and then it was easy. She lead multiple crosses, and I think I successfully followed them all. She ended the last song by leading some back ochos, which I’m sure I followed with all the grace of a learner driver attempting their first three-point turn, but I could tell that’s what she was leading and I did apply my recent back ocho practice and manage to follow them!

And following the follower

One tanda, I danced with a fairly recent beginner. She had got the hang of projection and push, but was at the stage of doing it kind of over-enthusiastically, both in steps and pivots. I’d start to lead and she was then ‘whoosh!’ – basically a big response whether my lead was small or large. But it was a Di Sarli tanda, I think (I’m still not great at reliably recognising orchestras, though I’m about 90% confident in this case), so it wasn’t difficult to simply go with the flow and match my lead to her follow. That was actually great fun!

Accessible Pugliese

Quite a while back, I’d been telling a very experienced follower that I now really loved the more accessible Pugliese songs. She was unconvinced that practicing to them was a good idea, as ‘accessible Pugliese is almost never played at milongas.’ But tonight it was! Three of my favourites, and one less familiar one. I’d actually just got a cup of tea, but put it down immediately the first song opened, and cabeceod the first free follower I could see! Fortunately my random choice was a good one and it was a really lovely tanda.

The perfect last tanda

When ‘last tanda’ was called, I initially thought I’d be out of luck. People of course want to dance with their favourite partner if available. Some followers had left before the end, and others were changing their shoes. I looked around and couldn’t spot any follower not dancing, just a few spare leaders. I walked along the side of the room to be sure, then spotted one follower sitting and still in her shoes. I cabeceod her – not anyone I’d seen before – and I couldn’t have been luckier. We had a fantastic slow tanda. There were a few glitches along the way, and we both just laughed.

The dance felt great to me, and I was pretty sure the feeling was mutual. I got confirmation while leading back ochos and saw her eyes were closed and she was smiling. I was leading mostly half-time, but there were some more energetic sections where I switched to dancing on the beat, and it felt really effortless switching between the two – something I usually feel nervous about, but here it was easy. We just felt very in sync. At the end, she said it had been ‘really lovely.’

So that was the perfect ending to the milonga.

My father is in town on Tuesday, so will miss the Tango Space milonga, but already looking forward to the next JM&S lesson on Wednesday.

Image: Shutterstock

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