Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tango Teachers-Only Forum?

The question on a for-tango-teachers-only Facebook page was:  "How do you teach a beginner to walk?  What is the first thing that you start with?"  This is an advanced question.  The starting off question for a teachers-only Facebook page might better be:  "What makes a teacher a great teacher?"  Or, "should I really even be a teacher?"

But being a good student, I will try to answer the question about walking, and how to teach it -- but I say this as only as a customer (I am not a teacher):

I practice walking still more than any other thing.  So, I would recommend teaching students  to walk by themselves for a long time and practice it outdoors as often as possible. We give lip service to how walking is taught for years before anything else in Buenos Aires, but then we start with a figure, calling it the "basic step."  Walking is the basic step.

Secondly, I would suggest teaching them to walk in close embrace as much as possible.  Always teaching in open embrace with a partner will inculcate that open is the natural embrace and easier when in fact showing intention is more difficult at the more advanced levels when there is less connection.  

Tip: You can even start with a pillow between body-phobic students (Americans), but teach connectedness!  If they don't want to embrace a stranger, suggest therapy before taking up this wonderful dance.  In therapy they can work out their body issues and perhaps unresolved traumas.  Maybe explain to your students that open embrace is for people who wish to do advanced moves and to dance for others (our best marketing for bringing people to tango).  Closed embrace is to dance for one person -- your partner (a great way for people to STAY with tango).

I will address the more basic question "why I am not a teacher" (some ideas for unqualified teachers) and "what makes a teacher great" (a great business plan for good teachers) in my next posts.  ¿Nos vemos?  ¡Hasta entonces!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween 2010: Witchcraft vs Floorcraft

Halloween WARNING: This post includes some pretty scary things:  The dangers of witchcraft, references to nightmare-inducing mythical creatures, and images of US Marines in a combat zone.

Mythical Creature:
Every village has a its own mythical creature.  Every milonga has someone who stands out in a crowd in the wrong way.  Dressing up cannot hide this creature.  You can identify their distinctive sound:  A bump in the night.  Sometime these creatures are chameleon like.  Sometimes they appear like innocent beginners, but more often they hide in the disguise of "one of the best dancers in the community" costume.  Bump in the nigh reveals who they really are.  (Elvis sang about them: "Whole lota bumping going on.")  The Burro-Mariposa is not like the tooth fairy, this creature really does exist.  The so-called mythical being, the Burro-Mariposa (a donkey-butterfly), has been spotted at many milongas flitting about the dance floor like a butterfly but with a certain amount of weight uncharacteristic to butterflies.  The horror is too much for me to detail further.

Now for the horror of the battlefield:
US Marines are a hard breed of men and women.  But friendly fire is sometimes the biggest danger in combat or the dance floor.  Please do not watch this before bed.

Video clip thanks to by Alex:  Love it!

Send this video link to your own burro-butterfly, with the hope of bringing him or her into a more social way to dance.  One less jackass-butterfly on the dance floor will make the world a much better and safer place.

Happy Halloween, Tangueros / Tangueras!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tango Vals: "Perfect Time"

First, please watch this video clip (below) of the great masters, Gavito and Durán.  This entry today is all about the rhythm of tango vals (waltz), which plays with the time like no other waltz.  That is, one can play with the rhythm, and I would argue make the dance truly what tango is at its best:  Improvisation in movement for two.  You will need to watch this video clip more than once, so just this first time, look for the normal down beat (ONE two three).

In music history, 3/4 (the waltz) was called "perfect time."  4/4 time was called, and still is called, "common time."  At the start of a piece a "C" is written for "common time," and is still often used to denote 4/4 time by today's composers.  The word "Common" is used in this sense as "less than perfect" or "vulgar" (in the Latin meaning of that word).  The theology of the Trinity and the huge influence of three on Christianity out of Stoicism influenced this idea of "perfect time."  Is it really "perfect"?  Absolutely!

So let's indulge in the myth of "perfect time."  Vals is the perfect time in which to dance.  Musically speaking we have some interesting things that can be done with the tango vals (waltz), and this video clip is a great example.

Gavito clearly thinks in larger phrases, the smallest of which is 12 beats long (4 measures of 3/4).  The common dancer dances on ONE(2,3), FOUR(5,6), SEVEN (8,9) TEN (11,12), which is the downbeat of each 3/4 phrase.  Since Gavito knows where these are, it does not confuse him to dance on every second beat of the 12-beat phrase (2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12), or the second beat of the normal downbeat (2, 5, 8, and 11), for example, which he does at the outset of the video clip.  His partner and any woman with a few tango courses could follow him on this because he is exactly on these beats and they make sense.  His steps on the first half of this clip are mostly on 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 of the 12-beat phrase.  Then he comes home to the power of the downbeat and resolves with intense pauses.

Gavito is by no means the only great dancer who uses 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 or 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 in a vals.  When one is dancing on these beats, it is as if one is dancing a waltz within a waltz (instead of 1 against 3 -- the normal waltz -- one is dancing 3 steps (a waltz) per 6 beats.  Note:  You will need to clap out 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 (3 against 6 on the downbeat) or 2, 4, 6, 8 10, 12 (3 against 6 on the upbeat) while counting to 12 (over and over) to understand what he is doing.  Watch first, stop the clip, and work out the rhythm with hand clapping.  Then watch it again, and you will begin to understand his genius.  [If you are a musician, the feel is quarter note triplets here.]

Gavito may not have known what he was doing.  I discovered these things from feeling and then tried to figure out why they worked.

Have fun, and if you have questions leave a comment or email me at

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dancing at my own Funeral

Self-Reflection vs Self-Deflection:
Dancing at my own Funeral

First I must define some terms:
Did you ever hear of "Self-Deflection"?  We all know what "self-reflection" means: Thinking about ourselves all the while somewhat removed, trying to understand ourselves. But there is something that has happened a few times in my life for which self-reflection did not prepare me.  I have had to invent a word for this phenomenon:  "Self-deflection." 

Reflection returns our own image to us.  Deflection does not return to us, but our image is sent off in an unexpected direction.  A person who wishes to grow from this event, readjusts where they are standing until the deflection is once again a reflection.  The most powerful self-deflective moment in my life was when an unfaithful woman returned to me, and although I thought her return was my greatest wish the event "deflected" off my sense of the man I knew as me.  I did not rejoice.  I panicked!  "Now what will I do with her!" I asked myself.   I was like the puppy who caught up with the cat, but now was uncertain of what to do with this dangerous object of desire.  

The Funeral

A recent self-deflection allowed me to -- as it were -- dance at my own funeral. This remarkable event was in Austin, Texas. Leaving Austin was a self-deflective moment, and I have been too overwhelmed to fully understand it.  I did not have the terms or the needed level of self-reflection to understand it.  But I did not want to delay writing about it out of gratitude for the love I felt upon leaving.   I have been speechless.

Upon getting the word that I had a new job in Washington D.C., I was caught off guard by how much I realized I loved the Austin Tango Community, and how much love they gave me back.  I realized I was a true polygamist and I loved their husbands too!  (Don't read too much into that one, okay?)  I loved so many tangueras.  I knew their stories and danced with them through celebrations and hurts.  And they spoke to me about my place in their lives through conversations and private emails after I started telling them that I would be leaving.  All of these relationship have been absolutely platonic.

Especially dancing at my last milongas (Uptown and Kay's home) was like dancing at my own funeral.  In some ways my own mirror of self-reflection was set slightly off, and the deflection allowed me to be almost an outsider to my own going away. I didn't know the man that so many were fond of and I did not fully realize how fond I was of them.

The other part to being my own funeral is that I had taken the time to say my goodbyes without the dying part!  So I got to hear some pretty powerful eulogies. 
 The saddest thing about any well-planned funeral is that things are said and eulogies are intoned that the dead one really would have liked to hear.  But at a funeral or wake it is too late!  I got to hear these "eulogies" by many in the community.  Breaking tradition of funerals, however, the dead guy got up and mingled among the crowd:  I thanked others for their eulogies and outpouring of love.

Some months ago, Margret died in the Austin Tango Community and we gathered in one of the most loving memorial services I had ever seen.  People surrounded her and Vance with love.  And this is perhaps how I got my basic theme of what I said at the last milonga -- that the community was more loving than any church I had ever experienced.  

At Kay's milonga for me, I didn't have my glasses on and (as usual), and I could not find them as the music stopped, and I saw Kay saying a few words and asking me to speak.  I wanted to look people in the eye and thank them, but it was just as well that I couldn't.  One person even hid her eyes and just listened for my voice, she told me later.  I might have realized my fear of sobbing had I seen the faces and eyes of so many friends, some of whom wept during our last dances and words together. 

"I try to explain to people who do not dance or understand what I find in tango," I told the group, "...that I have a true treasure through the Austin Tango Community.  I tell those who do not dance that it is like a church, only with less in-fighting and sexual drama happening behind the scenes."  Someone said, "Amen!"  "It is a loving group of people," I continued to say, "who are not afraid to embrace each other.  Some people we get to know very well.  They come from all walks of life. . . . I may be leaving, but I will always consider myself as a part of the Austin Church of Tango."  In the middle, I mentioned how the teachers had made this possible by working together, coming to each other's milongas and supporting each other.  Austin is Austin for the great people, but without the teachers supporting the larger sense of community, Austin would not be special -- as most visiting tangueros/tangueras sense when they come to visit.

So that night I danced as if it were my own funeral.  It was my own self-deflective moment.  I was totally caught off guard by how much I realized I loved so many people, some deeply -- so deeply that each time I talk about this experience I weep.  Each time I re-read and try edit this I weep (and I am getting tired of all the weeping -- so just accept all the typos and tangents, okay?

When Deflection turns to Reflection

The larger life lesson is that I hope that I communicate my love more regularly for people who mean so much to me, because at the real event, I may not have the time to say it to each person as I did in Austin.  I may not dance at my real funeral, but I hope that my friends do.

You are awesome Austin!  ¡Les amo mucho!