Category Archives: dancing

Joy of learning

Sometimes I think it´s not the tango itself I´m enjoying, but the experience of learning something new.

Learning can be frustrating, and confusing. And I´m often bad at giving myself credit for the progress I make – once I can do something, I have a tendency to dismiss it as easy. But there´s a very special pleasure in being able to do something that you know couldn´t do before. Particularly if you couldn´t do it so recently that you remember vividly how impossible it once seemed!

Last week if I tried to do a 360 degree spin on one foot my balance was dreadful and I could only stay upright by sticking out a foot in an out of control direction. But I got some good advice, practiced it, experimented, tried to be systematic about what was going wrong (OK, I keep falling forwards… wonder why… what if I… OK: now I keep falling backwards… too much… now that´s a bit better, let´s try that again… OK, why did I just go sideways?), had a few little breakthrough moments….

And today, I found that I was now capable of spinning through 360degrees under control and in balance, and finishing neatly. Not all the time – but more often than not.

It´s not earth shattering in itself. Indeed because tango´s based on the embrace you very rarely do full spins in tango, and even partial turns are led by the partner (who´s there for a quick correction if needed too!). But maintaining your own balance is definitely a fundamental part of tango, and being able to do full spins is a tangible sign that my balance and my awareness of my body has improved…

It´s hard to capture just how good that feels. There´s a sense of amazement each time I manage to complete a sucessful spin, like throwing a six again and again and again. But there´s the additional satisfaction of knowing that it´s not luck… that all that practice has loaded the dice!

Soon I will start to take this, too, for granted. Hopefully by then I´ll be focussing on learning something new! I love tango, but passions and opportunities come and go, so I can´t be sure how long I will continue to dance tango. But I know I want to be learning every day of my life, because it brings a unique pleasure.

Edit – Just to add, this morning I was in a class where we were asked to do 720degree spins… the other good thing about learning is that there´s always something new to be learnt!

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Tips for a first tango visit to Buenos Aires

When I was first planning this trip to Buenos Aires, I looked around for some suggestions on what to take, where to go and how to make the most of my time. I didn´t find the sort of thing I was looking for, so I thought it might be helpful to future travellers if I set down what I learnt, whether by getting it right or getting it wrong!

  1. Look after your feet! For most people a tango holiday will be the most demanding thing they´ve ever asked their feet to do, so it really pays to take care of them. There are few things more frustrating than feeling energised to dance and knowing that there are dozens of milongas you want to go to, but ending up sitting at home to rest feet that are too sore even to walk on comfortably! Bring massage oil to give yourself foot massages. Soaking feet in warmish water helps (I´ve heard adding sodium bicarbonate makes it even better), as does lying on your back with your legs in the air, walking around the house barefoot and rolling your foot about on a tennis ball (obviously not simultaneously!). Also think about your footwear and how you get about.
  2. Shoes. First of all, bring your most comfortable, springy, flat-heeled and supportive shoes for walking around the city. Once here, if you´re female, allow a generous budget for shoe shopping because the tango shoes are not just beautiful but the most comfortable high heels you´ll ever find! (Do try to discipline yourself not to buy shoes which are gorgeous but uncomfortable – there´s bound to be another shop which has a gorgeous and comfortable pair waiting for you!)

    But constant spinning and stepping in even the most comfortable high heels inevitably takes its toll. So if you plan to do several classes a day, I strongly recommend that your first purchase is a pair of tango practice shoes – basically trainers (with a flat or small heel) which have a sole that spins easily. I bought a pair of practice shoes half way through and it made a huge difference to the amount of dancing I was able to do.

  3. Getting around the city – for similar reasons, try to limit the amount of walking you do (get to know the bus and subte routes, or even hire a bike!), and walk smoothly so as not to make your feet hurt more!
  4. Choosing classes. I´m not going to make specific recommendations about which classes to go for as everyone has different priorities. All I would say is to try to make sure that you have enough time to do some shopping around, as the quality and style of teaching varies a lot. Look for dancers who can teach as well as impress you with their dancing! If you get conflicting advice, as you often will, try both to see which works best in your body, and watch the teachers to see what looks best. Seeking specific clarification can really help – e.g. I got very confused about whether to keep my hips level or allow them to move into alignment with my axis, until a teacher explained that keeping the hips level is the ideal but for more extreme moves (e.g. leg lifts) you may need to shift the weighted hip into line to help maintain your balance. Obviously if you get the same comments from different teachers, that´s a really good sign you need to work on that!

    Perhaps more important than which teacher you go to, though, is working out what you most need to learn, and finding classes that help you do that. What are the weaknesses in your dancing that you would like to improve? What style interests you most, milonguero, salon or show? In addition, solo women, solo men and couples all have different needs. As a woman here on my own, what I found most helpful was doing lots of technique classes (to work on posture and balance), and going to lots of milongas to experience being led by as many good dancers as possible. I tried to stay away from classes where the main purpose was to learn a sequence of steps that I could only reproduce with a leader that knew those steps.

  5. Level – If you´re not a beginner, it can get frustrating to always be in classes full of beginners – some schools have more of a problem with this than others. I found that the best classes seemed to be held at times when Argentinians could participate, i.e. lunchtimes and evenings.
  6. Information. The most useful resource I found was the tango map and its associated guide – a streetmap with milongas, subte stations and tango shops marked on it. Helpfully it also includes the times and days of the main milongas.  El Tangauta and BA Tango are also crucial for updates on events and classes.
  7. Language. Lots of tango classes are in English, but it helps to have at least some idea of basic spanish so you get all the explanation, as some teachers give much shorter explanations in English! I´ve put together my own list of terms that I find very helpful for tango at the bottom of this post.
  8. Where to stay. Obviously a personal choice, but for me the size and luxury of the room were far less important than other factors. In particular, location is crucial – it´s handy to be near a subte (metro station). Having a practice space with a mirror and reasonable floor can reduce the cost of private lessons. I also found that it was really useful to have space for private practice to help my body absorb what I had been taught.
  9. Food. The food is fantastic, and with all this dancing I found I had a huge appetite. But to save time (service is often slow) and keep costs from spiralling out of control I found it really helpful to have a small kitchen where I could prepare most of my meals, then splash out in between. Cooking at home probably offset the cost of at least one pair of tango shoes 😉
  10. Going to milongas. How easy it is for you to dance at a milonga depends entirely on your gender, standard and age. As a reasonably young and attractive female who had a reasonable grasp on the basics, I really enjoyed going to milongas on my own, was regularly invited to dance and learnt a lot from it. It´s much more daunting for a man, who has to invite women to dance and lead well enough to keep them happy – going with women from your dance classes can help to overcome this problem. It´s also, unfairly, frustrating for older female dancers, who may be very good but aren´t invited to show off their skills – here paying for a taxi dancer can be a real help! But even if you never venture onto the dance floor, there´s a huge amount to be learnt from watching good dancers! (Here´s a nice summary of milonga etiquette that you may find helpful)
     
  11. Listen to the music. Take the opportunity to get lots of CDs too! For me the music is the heart of tango. I found that, if I was moving with the music, I could get away with all sorts of errors in my following – my partners seemed to appreciate that I was trying to follow the spirit of the tango even if I wasn´t always following them very welll Similarly I´d far rather dance with a leader that does simple steps that go with the music than someone doing complicated stuff and paying no attention beat. There´s some great background information on the music (and many other interesting points about tango technique and spirit) at Rick McGarrey´s excellent site Tango and Chaos.

    Reading some tango lyrics can be a revelation… of all the tango songs I know, I know only one (El dia que me quieras) which is happy – most of them have melancholy, pain and/or anger running somewhere in their words. (e.g see my earlier post Naranjo en Flor).Once I realised this, it definitely changed the way I danced tango. 

  12. Pace yourself! The sheer number of classes, practices and milongas out there is quite overwhelming, and you can only do a fraction of everything on offer. It´s tempting to rush in and devour everything, or feel frustrated at everything you´re not doing, particularly if you´re just here for a short time. But you´ll have an easier time if you´re realistic, listen to your body and mood and choose your activities carefully to make the most of your time and energy. Oh, and have some fun “non tango” activities planned for those moments when you feel you´ll scream if you hear another chord on the bandoneon!
  13. Have fun! Even if you´re struggling with something, remember that you´re here to enjoy it. Not only does tension make it harder to dance, it also makes it more pleasant for your partner to dance with someone who´s having fun, even if with patchy competence, than someone who´s stressed and tense by trying to get everything right.

Anyway, these are my personal suggestions. I hope you find them useful – if so, or if you disagree or think I´ve missed things out, please add them in the comments below! 

Useful spanish for tango lessons

directions:

adelante – forward
atras – backward
derecho – right
izquierda – left
arriba – up
subir – to rise (generally, “no subes” i.e. don´t rise!)
abajo – down
bajar – to go down

Parts of the body

pie – foot
metatarsal – ball of the foot
talon – heel
tobillo – ankle
rodilla – knee
pierna – leg
cadera – hip
cintura – waist
espalda – back
hombros – shoulders
brazos – arms
abrazo – hug, but also the tango embrace
eje – axis, and especially the alignment of the body above the weight bearing foot

verbs

pisar – to step
no pisar – literally, don´t step – often means place the foot without transferring the weight
cambiar el peso – change the weight from one foot to another
girar – turn
pivotear – pivot
cruzar – to cross
llevar – to lead
dejarse llevar – allow yourself to be led – I heard this a lot!
flexionar – to bend
estirar – to stretch
soltar (infinitive) and suelta (imperative) – to release, i.e. relax a limb

Abrazo

Something in the reaching out of arms,
Or the hands´ trajectory to a mutual safe landing

Something in the lean of bodies
Squeezing to nothing the space between them

Something of the youness of you and the meness of me
Linked by the brief bridge of a song.

I close my eyes
and in the stillness of our embrace
the dance begins.

Walking

How do people walk where you live, and what does that say about the city and its citizens? How do you walk, and what does that say about you?

In La Paz everyone walks slowly because of the altitude. In London people walk quickly and with their bodies closed and inwards because there are so many people and the pace of life is so fast. In many cities in the USA people seem more used to driving than walking.

Here in Buenos Aires, people walk very upright – I´ve seen remarkably few people with bad posture. And it´s interesting to me, because the tango is based around walking, and the walk of Buenos Aires is proud and elegant.

I notice I´ve changed the way I walk too – partly because after all these tango lessons I´m holding myself better and walking more smoothly. I used to be very unstable at walking in high heels but the tango has taught me not just to walk backwards and spin in heels, but also to stand on one leg and lift the other leg high to do adornments! After that, simply moving around normally in high heels seems far less threatening!

It´s also interesting that when I´m thinking about tango as I walk my body is much better presented – head up, back straight, chest open, walking with a smooth and curving step rather than my usual bouncy, energetic stride. And I notice that I get more compliments in the street when I walk that way. I think it would be much more difficult to dance tango if I didn´t feel good in my body, because this way of walking does seem to put the female form on display!

Oh, and a final consequence of all these tango lessons is that I´m also putting my feet down more gently – so as not to jar my rather over-danced feet!

An unexpected compliment…

I wrote a few months ago about slowly starting to challenge the self-perception that I’m not a good dancer. And about working through the frustration of learning new skills, particularly in areas that don’t come to me as naturally as others.

At an early stage of learning tango I was getting frustrated at the way my body was slow to respond to the music, when I knew so clearly how I wanted to respond musically. I also was very conscious of how slowly I was learning the new skills, compared to others who seemed to pick them up much more quickly. It added up to a deep need to show my teacher and dancing partners that I wasn’t slow at learning everything or insensitive to the music.

Although most of my life I’ve seen myself as a weak dancer, being a good singer is definitely part of my self-image. Over time I’ve acquired a real confidence in my ability to sing and to communicate to an audience. So I set myself to learn to sing some tangos. Partly because I knew I’d enjoy it, but also because I felt the need to make up for my lack of competence as a dancer.

And so, at a milonga last Friday, as well as dancing almost all evening, I sang three tangos that I’d learnt…

What really surprised me was that I received as many compliments for my dancing as for my singing!

I’d danced several tangos with a new partner – he was a good dancer, and we really seemed to understand each other, so I found it really easy and fun to dance with him. Not just with him, but with other dancers that evening, I really felt how much progress I’d made in the last few months. But what stunned me was that, as he led me back to my table, he commented that he didn’t know which had been better, my singing or my dancing.

Once I got over the surprise, I realised that there’s something very special about receiving a compliment that so strongly supported the hard work that I’ve done in challenging my own perceived boundaries.

The most unexpected compliments are the best!

Choreography

>
In the reunions my mind choreographs
I’m wearing that new red dress
(which flatters my figure so well)
and dancing my heart out. My feet
whirl around the axis of my heart
in the balance and joy of my return
to the centre of my self, to my confidence.
Perhaps even dancing with my new lover
(who of course has none of the flaws
of my old one.
And no flaws of his own either –
the way it is in all the best fantasies!)
Perhaps – but however gorgeous he is, it is
my own swift feet that bear me across the floor
with a sensual elegance (that in real life
they are still working on learning!)
.
And from the centre of that blissful spiral
I glimpse him again – that once-beloved,
half-forgotten face, watching, wistfully,
from the sidelines, seeing in a moment
the beauty and kindness and strength
of the woman he rejected. (Qualities that are
so vivid – how could he have failed to see them
even for a moment?).
He sees what he threw away.
But knows it’s too late. And as I dance on
there is compassion for him in my heart
even as my skirt swirls red and bright
with my happiness for myself.
(and maybe it’s just a dream –
but it’s a good dream!)

For weekend wordsmith’s prompt of “reunion”

The photo is red swing, originally uploaded to flickr by educated rabbit.

Dancing – a ghazal

Life’s music may set our arms mourning or our feet dancing
And yet whatever its melody, we are always dancing

A bright lightning flashes between the minds and hearts
Of a man and the desirable woman he espies dancing

Some may baulk, finding dancing too spontaneous or sensuous
Yet who can live freely who is hesitant when he tries dancing?

Revelling in compatibility and caressed with compliments,
Lovers smile at each other, their bright eyes dancing.

Some spin webs to trap their lovers and bind them close
Yet love is starved by conversations that are merely lies dancing.

Love has a power to give our fleeting lives
The brilliant beauty of butterflies dancing

Some walk the journey of their life, others run or crawl.
Happiest those whose words sing, who spend their lives dancing.

This is my first attempt at a ghazal, prompted by totallyoptionalprompts, on whose site you can find links to guidance on this form, and will soon be able to find examples by other poets. It’s a challenging form and I’ve not quite got the hang of it yet!

Edit – I’ve just been reading more about the Ghazal (HT to Brad) and have changed the last line, which used to be: “But the wise and happy travel through their lives, dancing”.