Monday, July 25, 2011

Developing Originality

There's nothing new under the sun?  There is you!  Wondrously unique.

A philosophical and somewhat cynical view of the world says that "originality is dead" and that there is nothing new under the sun.  Well, that is a cranky-old-man view of the universe.  Once we start getting older, we too easily can intone what the stoic biblical writer said:

“That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes

The same writer said that there was a season for everything:  A season for war and a season for peace, as season for tango. . . well, not tango, but the other things.  You see, tango is new and original!

This is your season to be original.  

You have learned what the masters have done, but now it's your turn to be more of who you are and not just copy greatness.  If you are a young person at heart, everything is new from your perspective.  And isn't that the perspective that should be central -- not what others have done or said, but what you are discovering all for yourself?  Just because someone else has been to  Laguna Arenál in the Cloud Forest in Costa Rica, does that mean that you shouldn't discover it all for yourself?

My earlier post on the insight I got from a conversation with an artist friend has had immediate results to help me understand my own path in tango as an art.

The day after I posted The Unbalanced Tango Faculty, I was dancing at the "Milonga de Los Santos," in Washington DC, and a few new insights about originality in tango came to light.  In Friday's blog on the "unbalanced tango faculty," I imagined a fictitious university called "The University of World Art," and I imagined that tango had its own college -- "The School of Tango."   I was thinking that my expression of tango was mostly in the area of recognizing and valuing the social aspect of tango.  I mentioned that I was a small-time teacher in this fictitious university.  I portrayed myself only interested in the social tango and the connected tango walk insofar that a simple expression of tango would help me as a trauma therapist (using tango therapy).

However on Saturday night, a tanguera friend, Carol, commented that I do a lot of "steps" that no one else does.  She had said this before, but this time I was more aware of the value of originality from my conversation with my friend, Alex.  As a trained artist, a painter, Alex had mentioned "originality" as one of the three things that art instructors obsessed on.  The other two were skill and the expression of some social theme or value.

Why Originality is Natural
Think snowflake.  Original. Unique.  Each brain, each soul, each person is unique.  Therefore we should fully expect that we all have the innate ability to develop originality.  But there are obstacles to this natural fact.  I think I know why originality is sometimes stunted -- not only in tango or any art but also in much of how we think:

We copy too much. 

I have discovered this all by mistake in tango.  If I had a lot more money, I would be taking private lessons and more group lessons so I could copy the masters.  However, at the moment I hardly can pay for milongas; so dancing with others has been my "School of Tango."  The "faculty" consists of teachers like:
  •  Classic tango composers, such as Biagi and di Sarli,
  •  Lots of tangueras, with their own unique response to my attempt at accompanying them on the wooden path,
  • Watching others dance live or on film clips.    

Picasso's work you may have never seen:
He knew the basics first.  
Don't get me wrong; I have had some very important teachers, and I mention them in my meager, low-budget Tango Résumé.  I value teachers because I learned this from being a musician and a late-blooming athlete.  Great musicians and great athletes often continue getting coaching throughout their lives.  Both Pablo Picasso and Tiger Woods learned from their talented fathers, learning the basics from the start.  Without coaching, surely both would not have done well with originality and a higher development than their initial coaches, and then later their continued growth with truly great coaches.  Especially for people like me who have less talent, we need more time with the masters.   I know that I have a deficit in having good coaching, but also, it has unwittingly pushed me to listen better to the tangueras with whom I dance.  Often they have danced with great tangueros, and they respond in different ways than I expect.  Because of this, for example, I have learned to do a triple volcada and other "1000-dollar moves" because I am paying attention to how these ladies respond.  Also, even a beginner tanguera can allow something that I would have never thought of without her.  What a great "School of Tango"!

So value the basics and copy the best, but then eventually develop your own style.  This is easy.  The task is philosophical and psychological.  First, we must value originality, and see it for its natural value.  The biblical writer was 90% right and 10% wrong.  And the 10% has transformed the world he knew to the one we know.  Secondly, let's face the facts!  How can we deny our own brain's uniqueness, and thereby allow this uniqueness to play itself out along with other influences from others?  I know many  musicians who did a terrible job of copying other musicians, but people liked the way they played.  Originality sometimes is the outcome of not being a very good copycat.  Technical skill along with listening to the music and your partner will bring originality to your dance.

Ultimately for everyone the the "teaching faulty" should be the music and the many tangueras/tangueros and coaches with whom you can co-discovered a new expression of art.  Has it been done before?  Who cares if it feels new and is new to you.  So try to experience originality as a child does.  "Becoming as a child" or having "the beginners mind" is the cornerstone for the artist who values originality and the wonders of life.  

Back to Carol's Comments:
After our first song of the tanda, Carol told me, "That was wild!"  I wasn't sure that "wild" was good.   She assured me that "wild" was good.   "Well, the music made me do it!" I said.  Osvaldo Pugliese made me do it.  I had very little choice in the matter.

Then during the very next dance I discovered a new turn I had never done before.  I will call it "vuelta de ochos caminandos de Carolina" (description below) because Carol inspired it.*  So originality is listening to who you are, who she is, what the music is saying and coming out with something new.  Perhaps the move might be new ONLY TO YOU, but who cares if someone else has done it if you stumbled onto it all by yourself?  Others may have seen a pristine waterfall in the Amazon, but if you stumble upon it yourself, then you too have "discovered it" just as much as Cristobal Colón "discovered" America in 1492.

At the milonga be original
unless you see this sign.
So go out and discover your own New World of originality, your own "America."   But if you do, dance with the Natives and then go home.  You don't have to take over anything or kill anyone.  It's bad tango etiquette.  If only the Spanish and Pilgrims had known tango etiquette the world would be a different place!   

*Attribution to the music and partner:
Magic moments and discoveries must be recognized and appreciated -- like blessings.  I highly suggest that you recognize the music and your partner's role in this magic if you want to develop "Good Tango Karma."   

Very obscure foot note about the move I named after Carol:  
The description of this particular move is a series of about three or four back ochos for her while the man is doing ochos caminandos.   The name "caminando" is because both are taking the same amount of steps (walking together).  The man has his right foot forward (when the turn is counter-clockwise).  A clockwise turn is difficult in close embrace but is possible and requires the man's left foot forward.  The man must over-step the last part of the ocho (on the unison fourth step) in order to make her pivot to make a full circle.  If you have any questions or want to see this, I may record this and put it on YouTube.

Light bulb photo credit:  


  1. My own personal feeling on this is that most good dancers go through a phase of copying their teachers' style very precisely. I actually think copying is a very natural way to begin learning any art form, including tango. Then, because they are different people from their teachers, I see most young dancers beginning to develop their own style, their own original tango signature and differentiating themselves from their teachers. This happens organically and naturally: they don't even have to think about it.

    However, I'm talking here about copying a style of movement. NOT about steps. Copying set steps and figures can be an easy way to get started in tango, to give you ideas to build on. Learning set figures in class can also, ironically, free up students to work on their technique, musicality, connection, etc, while not having to think about choreography, since it is provided in the set figure. (And the teacher can more easily compare and contrast their levels of skill and technique if they are all attempting the same steps, which can be very useful).

    The figure, that is, is a means to an end. But, while dancers often perform *similar* figures to their teachers, or figures inspired by them, they hardly ever copy the exact figures their teachers do, except as an occasional, slightly tongue-in-cheek homage. (One example of this is the "barrida de Carlitos Perez", an elegant little move ascribed to that legendary teacher which his students sometimes insert into their performances as a subtle tribute to the master.

  2. "My own personal feeling on this is that most good dancers go through a phase of copying their teachers' style very precisely."

    My experience is the opposite. In particular, I've found such copying is largely confined to classes, since class DIC is the method that most encourages copying, and which turns out the poorest dancers. The good dancers are generally those who've learned to dance by the traditional method i.e. through dancing. When learning that way from a teacher, there's no opportunity to copy - and no need.


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