Tango by the Sea: More festival heaven

Filling the tango festival gap between the November and December Feasts was a new-to-me one: Tango by the Sea, in Felixstowe. I did have to take the ‘by the sea’ part on trust, as the furthest I got from the dance floor was a cafe about 200 feet away.

Actually, they refer to it as a house-party rather than a festival, as a way of emphasising the relaxed and fun atmosphere they want people to enjoy …

If I wrote everything I have to say in this post, it would end up novel-length, and it’s already a novella, so I’ll write a follow-up in the next few days with some more general conclusions about my tango future.

TbtS is about half the size of The Feast, with around 120 dancers. It’s held at The Orwell, a hotel built in 1898, and very grand in its time. The various owners since have kept up the grandeur very well, though I do fear the heating system may also date to 1898. One thing I’ve learned about winter tango festivals: take an electric blanket!

The opening milonga was on Friday afternoon, and I had to work during the day, so opted to travel up on Thursday night. That allowed me to dive straight into dancing as soon as I finished work on the Friday.

DJ diplomacy, or lack of same

I generally choose milongas on the basis of the DJ(s). Diego recently asked me the names of my favourites. I picked up my phone and pulled up my personal DJ ranking. “Of course, you have a list,” he laughed.

Of the three TbtS DJs, Michael Cummings was the only one I had on my list – as one of my absolute favourites – though I think I may have experienced and enjoyed Graham Harrad’s DJing in Cambridge and simply forgotten to take a note.

In my blog posts, I try to be honest, but also somewhat diplomatic – meaning I’ll rave about my favourite DJs, and keep quiet about those who are not to my taste. Keeping quiet can, it turns out, sometimes be a good idea in person too.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

The third DJ was booked for the Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening. The first of her milongas was at least 90% rhythmical, which regular readers will know is not really my thing (though more on that below). So, Sunday lunchtime, a few of us were chatting in the hotel lounge about whether we’d stay for the final milonga on the Sunday evening. I said that I’d had little sleep, so would probably just dance the afternoon one – besides, I added, I’m not a great fan of the DJ for the evening milonga.

Yep, a short distance to my left, and comfortably within earshot, was the DJ in question …

I did explain myself, and I think she understood it was in no way a criticism, only about personal tastes, and I noted that she filled the dance floor, but I shall henceforth conduct a forensic examination of my surroundings before expressing DJ preferences!

While we’re on the subject of my embarrassments, I messaged a friend to suggest she and a companion join a small group of us for lunch. Or, rather, I messaged an entirely different friend of almost the same name, who was somewhat confused about me inviting her to lunch in Felixstowe in ten minutes when she lives in Milan.

So anyway …

Good setup – with slight fan confusion

The room layout was good, the DJ at one end, tables on all three sides, and a refreshment area at the back. There was a good mix of table sizes, from three chairs to eight or so, and the floor was just the right width to be able to cabeceo from one side to the other.

Walking in was amusing as I wanted to get a table for three of us, so was looking for empty ones. They all seemed to be claimed, with at least one fan on every table, so I got seats at a large table at the far end of the room – only to learn later that those fans on the tables were there as decoration!

For the evening milonga, I nipped down early to do the tango equivalent of the German beach towel: hanging my shoe bag on a chair on the best table.

Like the Feast, it was super-friendly. People happily chatted between tables, and many of us did a bit of table-hopping as we joined various chats.

Dance heaven

Again as with the Feast, I was in dance heaven! Everyone was about the music and their partner and joyous dancing. The floorcraft was excellent, and the followers a delight.

There were quite a few Feasters present, so even where I didn’t recognise faces, I did have some followers to dance with whose dance I already knew and loved. Happily, that feeling was mutual, as they came and sought me out. There were also some other favourite dancers from London there, so again I had some guaranteed beautiful dances.

But I also danced with a huge number of new followers. The size of the event, and the non-stop nature of my dancing for a couple of the milongas, meant that I think I probably danced with a majority of the followers there!

The dance level was mixed, but again no sign of snobbishness: everyone danced with everyone. The event was role-balanced, though I think there were perhaps more followers in the room at any given point. I don’t think there’s anything organisers can do to prevent this.

One thing which helped the balance was the presence of quite a few women leaders. It’s almost invariably the case that they were experienced followers first, so know both the music and how a lead should feel, meaning I always enjoy watching and learning from them. I think the laughter you generally see between two women dancing also contributes a lot to a relaxed and fun atmosphere.

My following definitely isn’t milonga-ready, so I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, but I look forward to doing so further down the road. (I caught sight of a little bit of a private lesson by Mabel Rivero with a male follower who seemed to be a little ahead of me in his following journey, and the lesson looked fantastic. I wanted to book a slot with her, but was way too late. Another time.)

Speaking of fun …

Michael Cummings is 85% DJ, 15% prankster. He loves to mess with the endings of songs, doing things like stealing the final note, or adding an extended pause before the final phrase or ‘pom-pom’ – or adding one at some random moment! It always gets a laugh, and I think is a great way to create a relaxed atmosphere. His reputation does precede him: there was one song which did actually have a very extended pause in it, and he had to work hard to convince us it wasn’t his doing!

He also puts in the work. There was one wonderful vals song I’d never heard before, so afterwards I went to ask him what it was. It was Altadena by Lino Cannavacciuolo. If you’re now listening to the opening, you may be raising an eyebrow – but skip to 33 seconds in, and it will suddenly make sense. Which was what Michael had done. He’d also cut out a section in the middle, to make it a more suitable length for a tanda.

Graham Harrad is another DJ who succeeds in playing something for everyone, keeping everyone on the dance floor with a good mix of rhythmical and lyrical. I went to thank him when the 4th or 5th tanda was a beautiful melodic Pugliese, saying that far too many DJs left those until the last hour or so.

I was chatting with another of his admirers, and she was saying that some DJs play for themselves – either their own tastes, or trying to ‘educate’ the dancers – while others, like those at TbtS, play what fills the floor.

Finally, while I hadn’t found my rhythmical legs by the Aysel Deniz’s Saturday afternoon milonga, she was certainly every bit as popular!

Corina Piatti

Saturday evening had a live set by the wonderful Corina Piatti. She sang a number of favourites, plus a couple of her own tango compositions.

It can be hard, I think, for a solo singer, accompanied only by her own guitar, to provide enough depth for dance, especially when singing tango. But she totally succeeded.

I used to be mystified by why I adore dancing to live music. After all, more and more I’ve discovered that one of the absolute keys to tango is familiarity with the songs – and fresh arrangements, especially performed live, are the very opposite of this. They are always unpredictable.

But this was a mystery I solved long ago. With music I know well, I have high expectations of myself when it comes to expressing it; with live music, those expectations aren’t there.

know I’ll just have to adapt on the fly, and be playing catch-up. That neither surprises nor disappoints me. So while recorded music is 95% pleasure tinged with 5% kicking myself when I miss something I feel I should have caught, live music is just 100% pleasure.

I was in dance heaven throughout the weekend, but never more so than during the live set.

The only drawback of live music is you generally have no cortinas, or equivalent, so it always feels like I’m at risk of offending a partner by thanking them after three or four songs. In the course of around 45 minutes, I danced with four or five partners, and all were wonderful.

A (new) rhythmical breakthrough

Of course, having decided I wasn’t going to stay for a milonga that was likely to be rhythmical heavy, and accidentally insulted a DJ over it, the tango gods conspired to teach me a lesson.

I was getting a lift home with Tina and Lily, and all three of us were feeling tired. I always find it impossible to sleep for the first couple of hours after a really great milonga, with too much adrenaline, but somehow at 1am on Sunday morning, two hours became five, and it was 6am by the time I fell asleep. I woke at 11am feeling much as you might expect.

With Tina and Lily not feeling much livelier, we decided to stay for the first couple of hours or so of the afternoon milonga, then head home. (Returning by train wasn’t an appealing alternative as a bus replacement service meant that a 90-minute outward journey would become a 3-hour return one.)

The afternoon milonga was another Michael Cummings one. He plays a really good mixture of rhythmical and lyrical tandas, but there’s more of the latter earlier one, and more of the latter in the final couple of hours. Since we were leaving early, that meant if I wanted to make the most of the remaining time, I was going to have to dive into the rhythmical stuff!

Some context here. I’ve had rhythmical breakthroughs before, but I think the better I feel my lyrical dance gets, the higher the bar I set myself for rhythmical tandas – so the gap never narrows.

But four things happened here …

Vals leading the way

I’ve tended to worry a little that my vals is too simple, but the number of compliments and hugs I got at the end of vals tandas here left me in no doubt that this is a non-issue. That had me feel that the same could be true of rhythmical tango tandas if I approached them in the same relaxed way.

Much is possible with skilled followers

The high standard of the followers also gave me the confidence to be a bit more ambitious. With vals, the phrasing is so core that I never want to risk something which might result in the follower getting a little behind, but with the skilled followers here there was no danger of this. I could lead fast pivots and double-time steps without issue.

I also find it challenging to switch speeds, but again here it mostly wasn’t a problem. In some rhythmic songs, I was successfully switching between half-time, single-time and double-time – again due to the skill of the followers.

Let the followers do the clever stuff!

I could also let them do the clever double-time stuff! A fair bit of the time, I led nothing more than a direction – often no more than a 45-degree pivot and back – while followers did intricate steps in that space.

A lot of rhythmical tangos have melodic layers

Listening to the opening of a rhythmical song, it can sound like it’s all about the beat. But what I noticed during that milonga is that the songs Michael were playing were layered ones, with melodic elements. That alleviated my biggest concern with rhythmical dance – that it would be too boring – because there was still the opportunity for lyrical dance too.

So the net result of all this was that I danced almost every tanda, however beat-orientated the opening song sounded. I had a dreamy time doing so, and was so tired by the time Tina wanted to leave that I would have had to leave soon anyway!

Dancer tested positive for COVID

One of the leaders tested positive for COVID after the Saturday milongas, and went home. TbtS organiser Madeline of course handled this completely responsibly, putting a notice at the door informing everyone, so people could make their own decisions about what to do.

My personal view was two-fold. First, the risk was no greater on the Sunday than the Saturday (indeed, reduced as the infected person was no longer there ). Second, that in any random group of 120 people, there’s a statistical likelihood of an infection, and you’re just as likely to catch it on the tube or anywhere else.

So personally it didn’t concern me: I just made a note to test myself on Tuesday and Wednesday, three and four days later, to allow time for the infection to show up. I’ve just done the day 3 test, which is negative, so all good so far.

Most other people seemed to have reached the same conclusion, as the Sunday seemed as busy as the Saturday.

More to follow

I’ll add a follow-up post in the next few days. In the meantime, I can definitely add Tango by the Sea to my (so far short!) list of recommended events.

Photo: Hector Espinosa (from the May edition of TbtS – November photos to follow)

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