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?  ;-)


  1. Aaaaaaargh! I HATE this post! :-) But then, you knew I would. (Full disclosure: Mark and I know each other as people, not just as bloggers and our disagreements are friendly, productive ones).

    Technique has nothing whatsoever to do with fancy steps, or with being a former ballet dancer. Technique begins with walking comfortably in close embrace. And it continues with walking comfortably in close embrace...basically, well, for ever. The other main element of technique is dissociated movement. Most other elements in tango (including the boleos, ganchos, etc. you mention) are built on those two basic elements and don't necessarily require separate technique as such. Jumps and a few other stage moves are an exception, but, frankly, I don't know many technique classes which focus on those.

    Technique for me is fundamentally about a) being able to internalise a way of moving so that it is fully incorporated and instinctual and when you are actually dancing you don't have to think about your technique but can focus on the music, connection with your partner, artistic expression in the widest sense, etc. This is analogous to a pianist practising scales so that when he or she is actually playing a piece they can focus on musical expression and not spend the whole time worrying "shall I play that C sharp with my little finger or my ring finger?" or "or no, my fingers are cramping up. I hate playing presto."

    And b) it's about making the tango experience a physically pleasant experience for both of you: being able to manage your own weight and axis, not gripping, leaning, squeezing, hurting.

    Most tango dancers I came across outside Buenos Aires cared about their technique way too little. They paid lip service to it, but how many of them actually practised it seriously?

    Talk is cheap. It's easy to say you prefer connection or the artistic freedom or what have you. But practising your walk every day takes discipline. And shows that you care about your tango experience and that of other people.

  2. Terpsi: I agree with everything you say in your comment. Who wrote that article on my blog? I am sure that whoever did it was trying to keep you up late at night and irritate the hell out of you! Please forgive. I have been hacked! And now the delete button fell off my computer. :-)

  3. You won't wriggle out of this that easily :-)

  4. @ Terpsi... I think my title threw you off. I was hoping to catch the eye of people who do not think technique is not important, or those who LOVE technique for the wrong reasons. You are neither of these persons. I think if you read it again, you will see that we are in agreement. Technique has a very dark side, which I know that you have seen. It can be the way to pure showmanship that is a psychological dead-end (like a person who only values themselves through their beauty). It also can be a physical dead end. A performance focus in any physical or athletic event can ADD to the risk of injury. I was arguing for the art of long-distance social dancing and its outward and inward beauty. So, read it again. You LOVE my post! You just don't know it yet. :-)

  5. Hi,
    I think of dance and music as a kind of communication. Technique is what enables you to express yourself, but most important of all is having something to say.
    In my teen-age I used to be a heavy metal guitar player, I liked much especially Randy Rhoads and Kirk Hammett. Then people like Yngwie Malmsteen came, great technicians but they had nothing to say and you hardly spot the difference between two songs of theirs. We had a big bunch of "nothing" wonderfully said.
    But, on the other hand, the richer your technique is wider are your opportunities to express yourself.
    I think the point is having something to say.

    I'm enjoying your posts, keep writing!

  6. I still disagree. What you dislike is tango escenario (stage tango). So why not just say so, rather than pretending that the debate is somehow about technique, when it's clearly not.

  7. I totally agree with Terpsi here. You are confusing the idea of technique with the idea of fancy steps.

    Technique is required, because technique is what we use to communicate with our partner. It is our language. There are a plethora of details starting with body awareness that we must be capable of. Among them we must be able to internalize movement, keep our spines stretched and our free hip free. We must know how to articulate our hips and use our tailbone for stable and fluid movement within our body. We must know how to stay on our axis and move through our line of gravity. And we must be able to relax while doing all of that and more. Ganchos, boleos, leg wraps, event collection, those are all things that just happen as a result of proper technique in walking and movement.

    If a partner is contorting themselves because of poor body awareness and technique, the dance will be unpleasant at best. If they are concentrating on "moves" rather than movement, the dance cannot be
    smooth, or fluid. It will be contrived.

    The dance should not be about who is watching you and learning moves to impress them. Moves and steps are not technique, maybe that is the confusion here.

    You did say you were a technique nut but you also said that led you to high flying sticks, and more equipment than you actually needed. Take away the external showmanship, concentrate on good technique and being in the music, and that is the drummer you became. Lots of technique there. You were just able to relax into the music, and that revealed a better drummer than the one that had big drums and high flying sticks.

    There are plenty of people that think steps and moves, are what tango is all about. There are also plenty of teachers willing to teach "Fast Food" tango, with all the shortcuts to give the impression of being able to dance, with none of the yumminess that proper technique brings.

    The dance is about communicating with your partner and being in the moment with them and the music, to the point that the outside world disappears. There is nothing to show off, nothing to prove, only your partner and the music matter. Good technique is a requirement for that to happen. And with good technique, what feels good actually looks good.

    Any "moves" that happen in this situation, are a result of the music, your partner, good technique and natural movement which makes every movement even more beautiful.

    Moves and steps are not technique, so we should try not to confuse them.

  8. Eric: Just as I agreed 100% wih Terpsi, I agree with you. I even agree with Dieter who says technique is "alles." But this reasoning is also 100% incorrect. There are great artists, musicians, theologians, people who don't have the right ingredients to be great. But they are. Some musicians don't hold their instruments correctly; singers who have gravelly voices, artists who cannot paint a great portrait, lovers who don't have the right technique or equipment to be great. But they give from the deepest part of their heart in their art. They have something that cannot be bought but can be LOST by pursuing technique. I will not give this "quality" a name because it is unnameable. Perhaps "soul" comes closest. People lose their soul by searching for technique, and sometimes people find their soul by chasing technique. You and Terpsi both have perfect reasoning and a better platform of philosophy. I was being an iconoclast here, speaking to all the people who feel they have to give up tango because they will never be as good as you or Terpsi. They do not have discipline or talent. Dancing is no longer for their soul but a performance objective. Is there some value in challenging what everyone seems to be saying in classes? Is it worth it to wonder about the money machine of tango technique? 00zog00 and I are talking about soulfulness as musicians. I stand with the iconoclasts, knowing that you are right. Join me in being wrong.

  9. "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." Pablo Picasso

  10. Thanks Señorita Anonima! What Picasso said in one sentence says what I tried to say in far too many words.

  11. Ooops, for some reason my original comment (which was on the old Tango Beat website) has disappeared. I wonder why. A technical glitch, I guess.


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