Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tango: Balm or Addiction?

I am Addicted to Air,Water and Tango

I am addicted to air.
I try not to breathe but I just cannot seem to stop.
I am addicted to tango.
She and I synchronize our breathing.
We find a breath that defines the music as us.
This breathing addiction consumes me.

I am addicted to water.
I can go for about a day, but I give up.
I am addicted to tango.
The fluidity of movement washes over my soul.
I feel like I am truly alive and this fluidity purifies me.
My addiction to fluidity of motion consumes me.

I am addicted to food.
I can go without food during a fast, but I become weak.
I am addicted to tango.
The community of tangueros and tangueras nourishes me.
I realize how much I am hungry for connection.
My tango-fast cannot last.  I am am addicted.

I am addicted to shelter.
I try to be out in the open and rely just on myself,
But I become cold and wet or too hot, and give up my quest.
I am addicted to tango.
The world pelts me with cold rain or I wilt under its stress.
I try to be just myself, but I find myself once again seeking shelter
In her embrace.  I admit it -- pure addiction.

The embrace is my air -- call it an obsession if you wish.
The musical fluidity of movement is my water, truly my weakness.
The community of dancers my nourishment -- my addiction, I guess.
Tango's gestalt is my fortress, in the great hall we dance.
I am addicted, you might say...

But I say I am surviving life -- if joy be "survival."
Join me in my "addiction."
Come get your fix.

Photo credit:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Healing Embrace

Tango can be just a dance.  It can be much more.

West End Library Practica
When I am present, I feel a transfer of information.  More than just a transfer, I feel an understanding, an empathy.  But it's only when I am present. Listening.

I have experienced this myself, but it has been validated in movement therapy (tango therapy).  When I was working with a combat veteran and his wife, using the therapy protocol I am developing.  We worked on two psychological traumas.  One was with his father's abuse and the other nearly dying in combat.  In the first case, she felt the hatred leave his body.  "His body vibrated, and I knew that he had forgiven him," she said.  Immediately he felt sorry for his father who never got to know three grandchildren and his amazing wife.  In the combat trauma resolution, he felt that his wife fully understood his experience.  That is what many vets NEVER feel -- they do not feel anyone could understand them, especially their partners.

I feel this transfer of information only when I am listening for it.  It makes sense, right?  If someone is talking to you, and you are not listening, what do you hear?  Even if you half-way hear what they are saying, there will be misunderstandings.  So try listening.  I find it easy to forget to listen.  So I practice!  Non-auditory communication is an art, whether it is in "listening" for visual body communication or "listening" through the embrace.

Let me give you an important personal example:  A while ago when I got a new job, I organized a farewell luncheon at a salsa lounge, which provided a fajita buffet for us.  A semi-professional dance friend of mine came and taught my colleagues how to salsa, and we demonstrated a tango, a vals and a milonga.  After eating, I danced with many colleagues, but when nearly everyone was gone, I got a chance to dance with a person at work whom I did not trust -- a chance to dance with the enemy.  My work colleague was once a dance instructor.  We had endured a long difficult relationship, but after everyone had left and I was about to get in my car to leave on a 3-day drive to my new job, she suggested we dance a salsa.  I suggested a tango.  We danced well, although she had never danced tango.

The dance was very healing for me -- I think for both of us.  Dancing with her had a lasting effect on me because much was forgiven through our embrace.  It was as if I knew how she felt.  Immediately I felt an enemy had been destroyed through mutual compassion.

I cannot speak for her, but for me a lot of animosity melted at that moment.

Some say that tango is only a dance.  It can be much more.

Photo credit:  Eddie Arrossi, photographer and tanguero, Washington, DC

For friends in DC, here is Eddie's link to that event -- the anniversary practica celebration:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

In favor of bad technique

Ladies, you will need technique classes to wear these.
But why would you?

How important is technique?  As Dieter, a tango teacher in Germany once said, "In Tango, Technik ist alles. Alles!"  We would never say technique is everything for art or for making love, and so such a statement does not work in tango either.  The technique-is-everything notion is doubly erroneous for tango.  Isn't tango a combination of art and making love?

Maybe the question about technique's importance should not be how but rather why:
So why is technique important?  Technique as expressed in ballet and stage tango is for the wrong reasons and is a dead end.  Technique, I believe, is a way to enjoy our art throughout our lives.  Sure, without technique, a dancer or any artist becomes limited in their own expression, but if given a choice, I am in favor of bad technique over a lack of artistic expression or passion for the divine spark within one's partner.

Before the technique nuts hunt me down, torture me with high-flying boleos and gancho me to death, hear my story:

As a musician I was a technique nut.  My teacher was a technique nut.  Ron Falter was a clinician for Ludwig Drum company, and he would go all over the country giving drum clinics on technique.  So I was his disciple -- probably his most devoted disciple.  We were like Gnostic musicians, he and I.  The only portal into the Truth of Music was through technique.

The end of Gnostic-Musicianship
As a young teen, I was always hanging out on the university campus where I took music lessons.  One day, I walked into the University band room, and a cohort musician, Brian, was there playing very well with the varsity University Jazz Band.  I realized something at that moment.  His teacher was a learn-by-doing teacher.  Technique was secondary to playing a lot.  This was the moment of my musical enlightenment, my epiphany.  I was no longer a technique Gnostic.   I slowly broke away from my teacher.  I played with a lot of musicians.  That is where I really learned to be a musician and not a technician.

I moved to San Francisco, and joined the Eddie Money Band.  Everyone in Eddie's band took lessons.  It was the assumption.  At the time, I thought I had graduated from music lessons; so this was an important moment in the art school of life -- always have a coach.  Eddie's outgoing drummer recommended Chuck Brown, who was the most renowned teacher in the Bay Area.  But Chuck Brown seemed to be more of a technique freak than my first music guru.  However, since Chuck was sought out by famous drummers, I was resigned to believe technique-Gnosticism was a fact of life. 

However, unlike all the other students I knew, Chuck Brown did not have me focusing on technique so long.  I am not sure why.  His technique was remarkably different than Ron Falter's.  I was not eclectic.  I fully learned to devote myself to play with Chuck's powerful method.  But soon we went on to other things in fusion and jazz music.  Along the way, however I learned something about technique that I had never realized:  It is not to play faster or be more awesome; technique is to help with endurance and avoid injury.   I remembered that the drummer who had recommended Chuck Brown to me had told me said that he would have had to give up playing had he not learned Chuck's technique.  This was the essential lesson on technique!

Technique was indeed essential, but why!?  What I learned about music from him transformed the way I played.  I believe that Chuck Brown's influence may have made me the close embrace tanguero that I am.  Before Chuck Brown, I had double basses, flipped my sticks high into the air.  I had seven tom-toms and 6 cymbals.  I was a show drummer from a show-drummer gambling casino town.  After my lessons with him, I most often was playing on a small drum set -- both in size and the number of drums.  Through technique, I had a large sound but on small drums.  My transformation was towards music and less towards show, and I no longer had back pain.  I played powerfully, without pain and with endurance.

I still have the show-drummer in me.  And I sometimes feel like a racehorse inside of the milonguero outward covering.  But being "tasty" and going small takes discipline and a reverence for the music.  From Chuck, I learned that no note (or step) should be taken without it being essential.  Count Basie would say, "It is not what you play, man; it's what you don't play."

To a ballerina who has become a great tango dancer, she would define technique and "bad" technique differently than someone with no ballet background.  She gets her accolades from the moves most unlike tango and most like ballet and gymnastics.  But remember that as gymnast or a ballerina she must retire early because she will be broken by her technique for show.  The toe shoes must come off.  To me, tango is about life-long artistry and social connection, not about being awesome while you are young and able.

I learned that technique life long artistry until we die from Chuck Brown.  But even if technique helps us to preserve ourselves, that is not everything either!  Art and passion and making love always come first to the milonguero.

Sure, I have the highest value for technique.  But I am fully aware that "Technik ist nicht alles.  Nicht Alles!"

Photo credit for ballet tango stilletos -- yes ladies these shoes are for sale.  Buy them here but wear them only at home or over at his place. NEVER walk in them, okay?  ;-)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wanted: Tango Percussionists

One example of using one's feet for percussion.

The word tangolike he word milonga, can mean several things.   Tango once meant a drum or a place where blacks would meet and dance to the drum beat.  Tango is still that.  But where are the percussionists now?  Every instrument in tango is used as a percussion instrument.  Name one that is not!

Okay, give up?  Every instrument is used at times in a tango orchestra to slap out a rhythm.  The string section tends to use the handle or back of their bow to do it.  Everyone else uses their hands except the pianist to tap on their instruments.  The piano itself is, of course, a percussion instrument because the strings are struck with hammers.  That accounts for all the percussionists, right?  No!

There are some percussionists who are often not recognized in the orchestra:

You are that percussionist in the tango orchestra!  A dancer is a percussionist, and the floor and partner is his or her instrument.  I do not mean this in a poetic way.  This is literally true.  Anyone striking any object to create or play along with music is a percussionist.

I invite you to stop dancing and join the tango orchestra as a musician!

A good place to start is to stop taking classes on musicality -- well, not quite.  How about at least thinking about these classes as musicianship classes?   Musicality classes are for people who are trying to understand music as outsiders.  How about being a musician?  Be an insider -- a musician, not a dancer hoping to understand music from the outside!

Musicianship is not for advanced dancers.  It is for everyone, because in reality you and I are not "just" dancers if we are tangueros/-as.  I think it is too easy to be a sloppy musician if we do not really join the band.  Don't leave it up to the pianist or bandoneónista to be musical!  It's your job too!  That is, it's your job to be musical if you have dedicated yourself to join the orchestra as a tango percussionist.  Maybe it is not a conscious thing, but I think the best social dancers are percussionists.

As a jazz drummer, I played many different objects with both feet and hands (see the photo above).  As a tanguero, I use only my feet and legs.  I sweep (barridas), make grace notes (toe taps), and establish clear rhythms in synchronization to the music.  Besides the floor, there is my tanguera.  She bushes me, taps the side of my foot, scadas me, ganchos me.  We are the cello and violin playing each other.  As instruments of music, I am hers and she in mine as living, breathing instruments.

When I embrace another tango percussionist on the dance floor (a tanguera), I hope our goal will be to join the orchestra as musicians and not as dancers.  Anyone can get up and move, but can we embody the music as musicians?  I imagine that she and I have joined the orchestra as percussionists in the orquesta que no es típica.  The floor is our percussion instrument.  We do not dance to the music, we play in the orchestra.  

Won't you join the orchestra?  When we all join the orchestra, we become the community tango orchestra.  All the milonga spirits -- African diaspora slave musicians, European immigrant tango musicians and composers -- will be smiling.  If you have joined the orchestra, then you have come home to what tango started as.  Tango is a drum.  Be a tango percussionist and join the orchestra.

Photo credit:

Next blog:  As tango percussionists, we will explore why "percussion" technique has nothing to do with how good you look or how awesome you play.

Also planned:  Legato percussion -- tango percussion plays with and stretches time one moment and establishes the beat at another. This is what I call "time keeping" vs "lyrical percussion." It is important to know when to make these transitions within a song. And it is easy. It is not just the woman's job to be lyrical or the man's job to be the time keeper.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A-Theist Tanda

What is more powerful than an embrace?

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

The vals played.  I always wonder what makes the vals feel so divine.  She snuggled up.  A familiar embrace.  I felt a difference.  We danced.  The first song ended.  I usually do not talk much between songs, but I asked, "Something is on your mind," I can feel it in your body.

"My good friend died in a car wreck."

"Oh no!  I am so sorry to hear that."

"And we were in an argument before she died. . . . I feel terrible . . . .  and I wish I could have told her that I loved her before she died.  I keep having nightmares about her."  She paused and then began to cry.

"Did you know her family?" I asked. 

"Yes, very well.  We lived near each other.  They are like second parents to me."

We danced again.  I held her now in a different way.  I danced in the simplest way I knew possible and embodied the music.  She cried in my arms.

vals stopped.

"How well do you know her character?"

"She was like a sister."

"Then you know what her character would say to you now, is that right?"

"She would say that she loves me, and to go on with my life."

"Can you do that?"

"I don't know."

We danced again.  I held her again, leaving room for her friend's character to speak with her.  Her balance was sometimes a bit off, although that never happens with her.  I knew she was having a conversation.  The music stopped.

"Can you do what you know she is asking you to do -- to love her and go on with your life?"


"I suggest you pray for her parents.  It's harder for them than for you, I think."

"I know it is hard for them.  But you know I am an atheist."

"Of course I know that.  But that is the best prayer.  If you ask that God to be with her parents, God will hear your pray perhaps more than anyone who is a believer."

"How's that?"

"Because I have an idea that God tires of having so many friends who want his riches and eternal life.  God might feel like the rich kid on the block.  Everyone loves him because they want something from him.   If you don't want these things, I think your prayer goes on top of the pile to be answered.  Your friend would like this too."

"Yes, she would."

We danced.

This time I held her and a certain energy went between us.  I cannot explain it.  But I have an idea that her prayer had a lot of power that night.  No adoration. No riches.  No request for eternal life as a special favor for believing in God's holy Awesomeness.  Just "be with her parents, God, will you?"

And I said the atheist prayer too:  "No special bargains, God.  Be with these bereaved parents!  Be with my friend!  And if you won't be, I will be with them in my heart . . . b
ecause this is the way you made me and put room in my heart."


Afterword:  Events and details are changed to protect the identity of this person and her grief.  I cannot tell you if the parents felt God's presence, but the nightmares stopped.

The miracle is the embrace, the music, and the walk that embodies the music.  If these do not lead to peace and the miracle of life, I am not dancing tango.  Thich Naht Hanh said it so well.  Tangueros and tangueras know of the miracle and joy of life better than many.

This story appears today on Veterans' Day for a special reason.  The person who died was a young veteran.  The risk of death and serious injury of veterans is 10 times the risk than in a combat zone during the first six months after they return.  The price of war is far greater than what the general public knows.  And if we did know, I believe we would all be fierce Warriors for Peace.

Happy Veterans' Day.

Photo credit link.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Do not walk away! (poem)

Do not walk away from her.
Turn back! Ask her to dance!

You promised her you'd find her.
Yes, it took so long -- a whole life.

But if you hold her, she won't need her cane,
And you will drop yours.

The bandoneón will play
And restore the lost years.

Do not walk away.
Turn back! Ask her to dance!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Music Workshop: Thinking in Six

J.S. Bach:  Handing over a minuet to Anibal Troilo
to add the cruzado.  See the smirk on his face?

Today's workshop is on the vals.  [Translated into German here.]

Our goal in this workshop is to improve our ability to improvise away from the pulse in three, and understand the African cross rhythm (cruzado) that makes the tango waltz (vals cruzado) so unique and fun for dancers.

A waltz or "vals" in Spanish has 3 beats per phrase, right?

Well, that is the smallest view of what the vals is.

Six better describes the vals.

If we were to compare vals to a language, then a word is 3 beats, a phrase is 6 and a sentence is 12 beats.  Just like in language, when you first went to school and learned about words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, you were already practicing these things without knowing what they were.  Similarly, you may be doing very complex steps in your vals, but perhaps it will be helpful now that you are more advanced to understand more about what you are doing.  The more long-range goal is for tango dancers to construct poems and short stories that delight their partners via knowing musical phrasing.

So let's get started.

I am going to start with an example out of  Europe to help demonstrate thinking in six, but the objective is not praise the huge and known influence of Europe but to uncover the African "cruzado" rhythm (via Peru).  On our way to Argentina, we are going to start in Europe, go to Africa and then use the trade-winds to ultimately land in Buenos Aires.

The vals cruzado is a waltz within a waltz from Africa (3 beats against six), but Europe had a similar phenomena that did not make it to Argentina: The Baroque dance and music (below) is also in six-beat phrases. In the following example, if one thinks in 6, notice what happens on 2 and 6!  This is a common form of Baroque dancing in which dancers bob down on the beats 2 and 6 of each phrase--clear six beat phrases!

As I mentioned earlier, if you count in six, they are bobbing slightly down on 2 and 6.  That is the typical cross rhythm of their dance.  The "cruzado" (meaning cross) is a sub-rhythm of the Argentine vals that at times is found also in Baroque, but Baroque was not the "cruzado" (cross rhythm) influence -- Africa brought that influence.  In Latin percussion we call this counter rhythm the "trecillo" -- a part of the Afro-clave rhythm of nearly all of the forms of music in Latin America, including tango.  The cruzado started in 6/8 sacred rhythms in Africa.  I will write more about that later in a blog in which I will demonstrate the African influence with instruments and the Afro-clave in other forms of Latin American music as it relates to tango.

Many people, including musicians, are not aware intellectually of this sub-rhythm; so let me explain:  The vals cruzado has a waltz within a waltz.  Sometimes it is very explicit, sometimes subtle, the cruzado (cross rhythm) is always there, and is the distinctive element of what makes the vals the "tango waltz" --  also called the vals criollo from its African roots.   To be sure, many musicians do not seem to know this, but it is nonetheless the fact.  They often feel it, but are not aware of its origins.

Percussionists (tango dancers) need to know about these rhythms.  You are percussively expressing yourself, striking your instrument (the floor) as a part of the tango orchestra.  So my fellow percussionists, if you think in 3, a waltz has its emphasis on the first beat of each group of three (1**/1** etc.).  If you think in 6 beat phrases (as the above dancers above have to), the same emphasis is 1**4**/1**4**).  You will feel he musical phrasing more easily if you feel this in six.  Practice counting at times when you are listening to the vals.

Now let's add the African influence, also called the trecillo, by dancing on 1*3*5*/1*3*5*/1*3*5*/etc.*   You must feel this first before being able to eventually feel the upbeat of this (which is the true cruzado).

For those used to watching young, flashy dancers, the following clip with very few views on YouTube will not be immediate appealing.  However, this older couple are truly dancing 3 against six many times.  I found this video clip because I was looking for someone dancing to Anibal Troilo's "Un Placer."  I discovered Héctor and María Eugenia, dancing in this clear example of a very explicit cruzado rhythm in the vals.  Check this out!

Now, go back and start a little before the 1 minute 30 mark.  Here you will see how Hector does not only the cruzado against what she is doing but he has a very nice poetic pause in the middle of it all. Wonderful!  Then keep going until the end of the song which ends with the cruzado being slammed out by the orchestra throughout the whole last phrase.

Okay, one more?

Here is a wonderful example of this within a vals with "percussionists" Julio Balmaceda and Corina playing the dance floor.  Please focus again, just for this workshop, on counting in six.  If you pay attention you will observe many times when they both dance this cruzado, the cross-rhythm, together or when one does and the other stays with the bass (1**4**/1**/4**).

I recommend that you go back and look at watch him at the 56-second mark stay in the cross rhythm (1*3*5*/1*3*5*/1*3*5*/etc.) for a long while as she stays in the normal vals rhythm (1**4**/1*34**/1**4**/etc.).

This weekend, if you are out dancing, pay attention to the Saints watching over the dance floor -- all the dead musicians that have made your world of dance and music so enjoyable.  Among the many friendly spirits will see many great Argentine musicians.  Behind them you will see a guy wearing a really cheesy wig.  That's Bach.  And if you really pay attention, when he watches vals cruzado he is smiling a lot more than usual.  Among the friendly spirits, please pay attention to the African drummers who are playing the cruzado rhythm -- the three African beats playing against the six European beats of the vals cruzado!

*Musicians only:  The cruzado rhythm perhaps came to Argentina via Peru, but probably from Africa to Peru first.  This rhythm really is NOT understood by calling it a "hemiola," a European concept.  The Peruvian cruzado is an upbeat crossing rhythm 3 against 6 beats.  So the down beat cross rhythm is (1*3*5*/1*3*5*/1*3*5*/etc.) and the upbeat cross rhythm is (*2*4*6/*2*4*6).  The reason this is so danceable is that the pulse is on 1 and 4: (1**4**/1**/4**).  Extremely wonderful dance music have these elements: Reggie (exactly the same upbeat curzado).  Others are close:

  • Traditional jazz:  (1**4*6/1*4**6/1**4**/etc.).   The down beat (1) is played, but the 2nd beat is clearly in the feeling of jazz.  The above rhythm is the cymbal rhythm of the drummer. (You must count fast to get the sense of this rhythm, but start slow.)
  • Hip-hop and Kizomba are the down-beat cruzado rhythm (changed to the 4-beat feel, called the "trecillo" in Spanish.  Tango dancers know this as the 3/3/2 rhythm.

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Photo credit:

Friday, November 4, 2011

Wanted: Tango Teacher in Heaven

Photo by  Laura Peligrino

Earth and Heaven
When a tanguera is taken from our arms
We know she will be at home in heaven.
Tango friends know more than most
What heaven on earth feels like
  in our blood,
  in our sinew,
  in our feet.
The music declares order and meaning in the universe.
The embrace speaks heart to heart for those who listen.
The movement creates the musica humana.

When her family assembles to mourn her,
They will embrace each other more that day.
They will do what we do all the time.
Those who loved and honored her most
Will feel the power of the embrace to say
What a million words cannot.
They will know what we know each day.

We can only guess at the depth of their loss
But over many miles we reach out with our thoughts.
And if we could, we would embrace them and share their grief.

In heaven the angels needed a Tango Instructor
They did not ask if it were okay with us.
But we know that she will teach them well
To experience Earth-in-Heaven
As she helped so many experience
Heaven on Earth.

Mark Word
in Memory of Anne-Sophie