I was going to say it was less than a month ago when I described my tangostential crisis, but as I caught a lurgy and was out of action for half of it, it was actually four milongas ago that I wrote:
I’m now at a somewhat odd stage in my tango – and I’m not quite sure what to do about it […] I feel simultaneously delighted with where I am, and frustrated with where I’m not.
Every problem in tango turns out to be either far simpler, or far more complex, than I imagined. Fortunately in this case it was the former …
I said that the good news was that I could happily Just Dance, even in crowded milongas. The bad news was that my dance in these circumstances is very limited, and I didn’t feel my technique was good enough for uber-simple dance to be enough to give more advanced followers an amazing tanda.
There was a lot more to it, of course. I was incredibly caught up in detailed technique work which only seemed to be exposing the gulf between where I was and where I wanted to be.
Frankly, I blame my teachers for being too good, and showing me levels I didn’t even know existed in terms of technique, and believing that I can get there. Without that, I could have been one of those leaders who gets just good enough to consistently get dances in milongas, and lived a blissful tango life as what Iona Italia refers to as long-term beginners.
But of course, once you hold out a vision of the kind of dancer I could be, I want it; I need it.
It’s like that first tangasm. If you’d never experienced one, you could just decide tango is too difficult and walk away. But once you’ve tasted the drug …
I had no idea how to solve my crisis, but with the help of Diego and Filippo, was able to figure out what was going on – and how to solve it.
Solution: Part 1
Half of the solution was simply to get over myself.
Almost non-stop dancing in a series of milongas reminded me that, whatever my own perception of my dance, I’m a popular leader. There are of course a whole bunch of reasons for that, one of which is that the role imbalance means leaders generally are in demand. Some of the other reasons are more about me as a person than me as a dancer.
But in the real world, you can’t separate them like that. As Asia reminded me, who I am as a person has a huge impact on the experience of dancing with me, and things I take utterly for granted about myself are not universally true. Laughing off stumbles, for example – usually literally. Indeed, quite a few of the strengths I identified in my three-year appraisal show the intertwined nature of who I am as a person and a dancer. I knew the value of that for dancers of my own level, but I’m also now regularly getting repeat dances with followers well above my tango pay-grade, likely for the same reasons.
Sure, the technique deficiencies I’m conscious of are real and present, but that doesn’t stop anyone enjoying dancing with me – even an advanced follower.
So back to the thing I manage in almost every other aspect of my life: enjoy the journey, not the destination. Stop wanting to magically transform myself from a three-year dancer into a ten-year one, continue to put in the work, and accept that the tango journey is one of small steps, some of which are back-steps.
Solution: Part 2
The second was the way my vocabulary shrinks in crowded milongas.
Filippo and I had two theories about this. Mine was that it was about embedding more types of movement into muscle-memory. Filippo agreed, but thought there was a bit more to it than that:
Filippo’s theory is that it’s not just about muscle memory in terms of the movements themselves – it’s also about knowing I always have a plan B on tap. With my most-core vocabulary, I can always improvise an instant change. I can turn back ochos into forward ochos and vice-versa. I can end a giro at any point. I can turn a step into a rebound. I can lead a pause at any point.
That made immediate sense to me, and we had a really fun lesson working on this with the ocho cortado, with Filippo blocking me from all angles!
So I’m working on this, one piece of vocabulary at a time. My current focus is the four variations of the calesita – switching between them as required, quickly ending them, and exploring different exit options.
Four milongas ended my tangostential crisis (for now)
I was rather wary of using this claim, either as a blog title or a subhead. We all know the roller-coaster nature of tango, and the way we can go suddenly from a high to a low, and vice-versa. I’m adding a ‘for now’ rider in the hope that it will appease the tango gods.
I don’t want to talk too much about my perceptions of different milongas, as that’s an entire topic in itself, and is highly subjective, so it’s something that would need to be addressed carefully. But I will just say that, for me personally, the sequence of the four milongas in question happened to match my own perceptions of what I’ll call the intimidation factor.
Tango Terra came first. Terra is my second home. It’s super-relaxed, totally informal, lots of my friends go there, there’s a proper bar, the live music is huge fun, Stuart’s beautiful lighting turns it into a fantasy palace, everyone dances with everyone … Terra has zero intimidation factor for me.
I talked last time about the progress I made there.
From very early on, the Tuesday milonga that followed the class felt like home to me. Because we would move straight from the class to the milonga, we had a bunch of friends on tap, and lots of us were at the same level, so technique deficiencies and mistakes weren’t really a concern.
The Saturday edition, however, felt like a much higher level, more serious affair! And when things restarted, it seemed to be mostly the Saturday crowd who returned, on both the Tuesdays and Saturdays.
So I hadn’t had the happiest of experiences there since the restart. I knew very few of the dancers, there seemed to be a lot of people socialising only within their groups, the level of dancing was high … overall, the intimidation level was relatively high, and I struggled to get many dances because hardly anyone knew me. I’d pretty much written it off for now.
On Tuesday, I only went along because Corina Herrera was teaching the pre-milonga class, and she came highly recommended. The specifics of what she did in the class aren’t important (I didn’t even make any attempt to remember the sequence); for me, the benefit was in a lightbulb moment I got about a technique issue.
There have been a few times when I’ve worked on something (like the back cross) where I need to have the follower move, without moving myself. This had always felt awkward to me, like I was clumsily plonking the follower into place. But this time, when the goal was to have the follower take a side-step without me, I found that taking one or two joint side-steps before then leading the follower to take one on her own felt totally fluid and natural. So that made the class incredibly valuable for me!
Then came the milonga – where the stars aligned. The DJ was Hubert Voignier, who was amazing. Even his rhythmical tandas were ones with lots of lyrical layers. A fair number of followers I know were there. The ‘closed’ groups seemed to be mostly absent. I had my ocho cortado variations for crowded floors. But something clicked in my confidence level too, and suddenly this too felt like home territory. I danced all night, and just had the best time!
The inaugural Nacimiento had been amazing!
The venue was spectacular. The music was divine. There was an endless supply of dancers. There were so many people there that it genuinely felt like being back in BsAs.
Of course, the question created by such incredible nights is: How can any subsequent edition possibly live up to the first?
The second one was in a lot smaller venue, and with significantly fewer people – as was inevitable. It also unfortunately had a major issue with the sound, with the reflected sound from the stone walls and/or arched ceiling making it sound like the speakers were out of phase. Especially around the entrance, you got the actual beat and then, a fraction of a second later, an echo of it. At one point I danced a milonga, and it was basically impossible when you got into the worst zone. I felt really sorry for Diego and the other organisers, as it was clearly a super-stressful experience.
For that reason, I mostly stuck to the lyrical tandas, and in those I has an amazing time. Given that the average level in the room was well above mine, the intimidation factor should definitely have been a notch or three above Tango Space. And yet … I didn’t feel that.
I was happy cabeceoing higher-level followers, and was accepted by most. There was a BsAs-like vibe which somehow gave me a feeling of being at home there. An odd thing to say for a man who’s been to BsAs once for 12 days, but I think I now associate seats with tables with the friendliness and sociability I felt in the milongas there! Strange the small things which affect our perceptions.
So I had a great time! I really hope that they can find a venue without the sound reflection problem – if they do, I’ll be there for sure.
There are words that strike fear into the hearts of men – or at least, this particular one, and Corrientes was one such!
I’ve heard advanced dancers talk about it as their favourite milonga, and I knew teachers went there to dance. I’d been told it was a tough crowd, and that dancers of my sort of level didn’t have a happy time of it. When I mentioned it to friends of my own level, most of them screamed and ran away.
But … I wanted to be brave, and I wanted to experience new milongas, so I decided it had to be done!
I took a sane approach to it. First, I arranged to meet a follower friend there, so in the worst case of not being able to get any dances, we’d be able to enjoy a few tandas together before sloping off to drink away our sorrows in a nearby bar. Second, we turned up for the pre-milonga class, which is usually a good way to meet people, and for them to experience your dance.
Not so much in this case, however! The teachers, Analía and Marcelo, were fantastic – really good at their job, and very friendly. However, in common with 99% of all tango teachers, their management of partner changes was terrible! 😆 I worked with Tina for the first 15 minutes, then they announced a partner change, I got a new partner and … that was it! So I got to meet exactly one follower.
After that, it was the milonga. Things were off to a good start. Tina and I danced together, and there was another follower I know at my table. Also, it seems polite in these circumstances to invite the other follower at the same table, so that was three tandas already.
There were two other followers I knew there, so five tandas, all of them great!
At which point, three factors kicked in, I think. First, I’d been seen dancing. Second, my simple dance wasn’t at all unusual here. Gavito once said the more you know, the less you need. There does seem to be some degree of correlation between length of time dancing and simplicity of dance. Third, there’s a virtuous circle here: the more advanced the follower, the better the leader looks.
My dance was clearly looking good, as I got a mirada from a woman who was sat at one of the two VIP tables, and we had a really lovely dance. After that, I was away – there was nobody I wouldn’t cabeceo. I danced every tanda I wanted to (which was about 70% of them!), and I didn’t have a single case of my cabeceo being declined, even subtly.*
*The most diplomatic declines are when a follower sees you turn in her direction, and looks down or somewhere else before you can catch her eye! I’ve seen this a few times, but there were no examples tonight.
I absolutely loved dancing there! I couldn’t have gone there with lower expectations, and couldn’t have had a better time. A first-time visit to a high-level milonga, and I felt at home.
Of course, the tango gods are fickle. You can have a magical time one night and then, at the same milonga, a meh one the following week. I was also warned afterwards that quite a few Corrientes regulars were away at festivals in Budapest and Warwick, so next time it might have a bit of a different feel. But if next time is even remotely like this one, I just found one of my favourite milongas!
Like I say, there are highs and lows, and perhaps this high won’t last, but right now I feel like my tangistential crisis is well and truly over.