July 16, 2008

This Is Your Art

I remember a class with Gavito where he stopped the class right in the middle of our practicing some sequence he had shown. He cut the music, and ordered us to stop right there. Then he said something like, "Look, I'm not joking here. You want to be in this class, do the work. Be serious. I'm an artist, and tango is my art. I'm a painter, only I paint with my feet. This, right here, this is a dance floor. When you come onto this floor, whether you like it or not, you are a dancer. You are an artist. This is your art. Act like it. Or don't come onto this floor."

I'm paraphrasing from distant memory ... now about 10 years ago. But I remember the mood in the studio that afternoon, while he was talking. You could hear a pin drop. That guy could lay down some heavy vibes. He got very steamed up sometimes with frustration during teaching. He'd blow his top, then five minutes later he would go around apologizing.

Jeff Allen's interview with Gavito (In "Quickstart to Tango" 1998) quotes Gavito as saying something very similar to what he said in our class that day.

A student would say "We are not dancers". Listen lady, from the moment you step a foot, you are a dancer. That's a dance floor. If you don't feel like that, then get the hell out of here! Because if you want to put your foot there, you are insulting me, if you say your problems. Because that's a dance floor. That is not a shop, a market, a cafe, a restaurant. That's a dance floor. So from the moment you decide to put on a pair of shoes and come and put a foot there YOU ARE A DANCER. I'M GOING TO TREAT YOU LIKE A DANCER!!! And I want the same response. I want you to be a dancer!!

Posted by joegrohens at 12:51 PM | Comments (0)

July 15, 2008

The Role of the Dance Artist in Society

The artist should belong to his society, yet without feeling that he has to conform to it. He must see life fully, and then say what he feels about it. Then, although he belongs to his society, he changes it, presenting it with fresh feelings, fresh ideas. Art should be a reflection and a comment on contemporary life.
-- Anna Sokolow, "The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief"

Posted by joegrohens at 12:08 PM | Comments (0)

June 09, 2008

The Three Pillars of Tango


Tango dancing has three pillars of personal development: taking lessons, practice, and dancing at the milonga. Each area of tango activity reinforces the other. Of the three, I personally think that practice is the most important.

Improvement in tango has a simple formula: for each hour of tango practice a person gains one hour of improvement. For each month of tango practice, a person gains one month of improvement. No practice, no improvement.

Many people use classes and milongas as their only time for practice. This approach will not take a person very far very fast. During a lesson one is always learning something new, and doesn't have time to absorb it and make part of his or her unconscious movement repertoire. By "something new" I mean anything - it could be a step, a skill, a concept, a correction from the teacher. The material from lessons has to be practiced calmly and repeatedly to build it into a (good) habit. Only once you stop thinking about the movement can it become part of spontaneous improvisation.

The milonga is a place where dancers can acquire some mileage on the dance floor, and it is fun, and people improve by going to the milonga. But, however, it is a very different thing from practicing. Practicing implies that you pick some specific topic of tango study and work on it. It might be just walking while maintaining good posture. Or it might be working on a new step sequence that you learned in class. Or it might be applying a particular technique while dancing various moves. Whatever it is, a practicing dancer applies herself or himself to "learning" and "refining" that area of movement. It means internalizing the movement skill so that the you can do it w/ o having to think about it consciously. It means adjusting your habits until the move is comfortable for both partners, and successful. It means finding the way to dance on the music.

Practicing in this way, one needs time to stop and regroup, to discuss how it's going with your partners and try again, to watch oneself in a mirror ideally, and to work repeatedly on the same small thing. These options are missing from the environment of the milonga. That is why it is so important to have a simply for practicing, such as a living room with a wood floor, or an organized practica.

The milonga, on the other hand, is where dancers discover what the tango is all about. It is only at the milonga, surrounded by other dancers, caught up in the collective spirit of the night, inspired by the music and the surroundings, where dancers can experience the high points of synchrony with the rhythms and their partners. With one's own body in motion together with others, suddenly everything clicks and a person discovers a new world, a new depth to the music, a new feeling of really dancing "together" with another person, two people becoming like one. That shared moment of musical feelings and feeling like the music is in you and you in the music is what sends people back to take more lessons and to do more practicing. One quickly learns that such moments don't come all the time. They do come more often the more you practice.

Lessons, practice, and then the milonga. I think we are lucky to have ready access to class, weekly dances, and also group practicas. Every week, they are ready to hand. And tango dancers need all three.

As a dancer progresses, the milonga becomes the reason for practice - the fulfillment of the learning. But the dancers who get the most out of their tango are the ones who practice the most.

Some people will say that for each one hour of instruction a person should give three hours of practice. Others might say one hour of practice for each hour of instruction. Nobody says zero hours of practice. And nobody says just do your practicing at the milonga.

Posted by joegrohens at 03:44 PM | Comments (0)

December 08, 2007

What it's like to dance tango with an Argentine man

Tina, in her blog Things to consider - siguiendo mi corazon, talks about what she is learning about tango while she is in Buenos Aires. She starts by talking about the differences between tourist tango dancers and the native ones. And that tango dancers in Buenos Aires are not all professional dancers like the teachers we meet here in the U.S.; they are "regular people with families, jobs, normal lives, who just like to go out dancing."

Then she hits on the point-of-view of the native milonga-goer of Buenos Aires

The rest of the porteños in the milongas are people who don’t always have the extra money to pay for private lessons every week. Or perhaps they don’t feel the need because technique isn’t necessarily their main goal. A lot of times they are people who learn in the milongas and have a deep “something” inside for Tango that is hard for us to understand consciously … they are what we call milongueros.

Sure, some of them do want to challenge themselves and sign up for lessons here and there, but what I witnessed when I was in Buenos Aires and took a class with Geraldine Rojas and her husband Ezequiel, was that most of the students were foreigners. I found out that they really don’t get a lot of locals.

Next time you are lucky enough to have a lesson with one of the Tango greats down there, try to be sensitive and remember that not everybody in Buenos Aires is able spend their money on lessons with expensive teachers.

And then, here's the good part:

Why do I have a preference for dancing with the men of Buenos Aires? It’s not because they know fancy steps that they learned from a well-known teacher, and it’s not because they lead perfect turns. It’s because they dance WITH ME. They’re not dancing with me to see how well I follow, to test me, to show off, to see if I’m good enough - they are dancing with me to dance with me. They find me, they find where I am in the music, they somehow magically understand where my center of gravity is and take good care of me on the dance floor. This, my friends, does NOT come from countless private lessons with (insert hot shot teacher here). In my opinion, it comes from something else.

Posted by joegrohens at 11:57 AM

Connection vs Steps

On her blog Sallycat’s adventures, Sallycat tells the story of facing a choice between having connection or learning choreography.

The first time I danced with Carlos in April it felt like a dream come true. [...] I hadn’t cared what he had done with his feet, what his technique was like, whether he led the ‘wow’ moves… oh no, none of that. And perhaps more to the point he hadn’t cared what I had done with my feet. He was dancing with a beginner, but he never once showed me that he noticed. He never spoke a word about my tango. He just made me feel beautiful.

Posted by joegrohens at 01:02 AM | Comments (0)