Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dancing on a Dime with Tinker Bell

Every once in a while, when I have self-doubts about my path as a milonguero-style dancer,  I have to go back to a favorite video clip of Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt, "Dancing Tango in a Small Space."

I admit it.  I have cool tango moves envy of the guys who can do all sorts of cool and showy moves that take up three acres of floor space to do.  Last night as I was dancing at a crowed, huge house party in Washington DC, there were a few guys who were doing all the coolest moves in the world near or next to me.  I see them in other milongas, and many have something in common:  They cause havoc on the social dance floor around them.  It is not fun to be near them, but they get a lot of attention from those who are watching.

I then have a bout of "cool tango moves envy."  I tell myself:  "I wish I could dance like that."  But anytime I open up the embrace, I am reminded that dancing for show may have a feeling of mastery but not the feeling of the connection to my partner as close embrace has.  A walking embrace allows for little nuances of the music to be felt between partners, and that disappears when I open up.

I knew very few people at that house party, and it was as crowed as ever.  So I stayed nearly the entire evening with the one partner. I know she could dance on a dime.  She doesn't pull me in directions I don't want to go when space is limited.  She closes her eyes, which in that sort of environment could be dangerous.  But because she is so intuitive and trusts my "protection" we scoot around without her getting hurt or stabbed by boleos from homicidal tangueras.  Although she is short we have a remarkable connection that allows us to dance in the tiniest places.  Also, because she is short I have no blind spots.  I usually prefer the tall ladies, but dancing with "Tinker Bell" has its advantages.

The super-cool tangueros were obviously frustrated last night that they didn't have lots of room at the height of the evening, when we had 20 square centimeters each to dance on.  Dancing in a little bitty place is not their forte, and everything that was cool was no longer possible.  But Tinker Bell and I, with the help of her tiny wings, whirred around like angles on a head of a pin.  I wonder now if the super-cool tangueros have "dancing-on-a-dime" envy.  But I doubt it.

Super-Cool Tourists in Buenos Aires, I have heard, are gently "reprimanded"  by the locals with something like:  "You two dance like your are on stage!"  This is a nice way of saying, "You are dancing irresponsibly."  But these same tourists think of that as a compliment because they wish they were just like their stage tango instructors, who are making a good living in America.

Just Kuhl, a great salón-style dancer from Germany, has been going to Buenos Aires for decades.  During my last trip to Germany, he told me that he never plans to go back.  "It's no longer the Buenos Aires I once knew.  It is full of tango touristas," he said. Just Kuhl is an incredible teacher and dancer to watch, but he dances to fit the space and always maintains a connection.  He doesn't bring his ability to perform to a tight social dance floor.  But now he must share the dance floor in Buenos Aires with those who only know how to dance as if the spot light were on them.  Of course there are those tourists who respect the norms of a social dance floor, but more and more hot-shots from around the world come to Buenos Aires to prove to themselves what they already know rather prove to themselves how much they could learn.
Just Kuhl and some friends in Kaiserslautern, Germany

Tango has a wide spectrum of expression, and stage tango is an important part of that.  It brings new life to tango from people who would not have ever started dancing without being enamored by the magic of how it all looks.  And so it was with me!  But then I started to listen to people who knew a few things about what tango is at its best.

One day, I was chatting with a psychiatrist from Buenos Aires who worked at the hospital I was at.  I showed her a video of a super-cool tanguero couple, doing all sorts of wonderful moves.  I had only been dancing for a few months, and she told me:  "No es tango argentino verdadero."     I did not understand for years what she meant that was not the "real" tango from Argentina.  Of course it is real.  But it is not the expression that she knew, which was a walking embrace, totally cued into what the music was suggesting.

Over and over conversations, like this one with my colleague from Argentina, shock my tango reality -- my sense of what tango is.   These moments keep bringing me back to the idea that tango argentino is at center an embrace and a dance between two people, a dance with nuances that others cannot see, a dance that may look even boring to those watching, but is full of magic for the two who are experiencing the beauty of the music.  Just Kuhl was one of my first teachers who felt that the essence of tango was the embrace, but at that time I felt he was wrong.  Actually, he was right on the money.

Slowly but surely I discovered what others were talking about.  Sure, I still sometimes have super-cool-tango-moves envy, but I get over it when I go back to the embrace.  Dancing on a dime with Tinker Bell last night was an example of the reaffirmation that I am on the right path -- the tango of nuance and feeling rather than visual appeal.

I grabbed Tinker Bell's hand and asked her to go upstairs to dance some salsa at the house party, and as we were leaving the dance floor, a French woman stopped us and asked us how long we had been dancing together.  "You two must have been dancing for years together," she said.  She said that she sat mesmerized by tiny precision we shared.  The reality was that we have danced perhaps five or six times together.  Perhaps the way of dancing just for one's partner has some visual appeal too!  But that is why I take my glasses off.  I don't want to see what people are looking at.   I don't want to be worrying about what people think.

I try to "dance as if no one were watching," so that I don't lose the magic of what we are feeling -- just the two of us --  Tinker Bell and I, dancing on a dime.

Another great "small spaces" video clip:

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