Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a community and people. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.




January 22, 2016

From Steps to Feelings


How tango is danced in Buenos Aires

Many Europeans and Americans dance tango differently from the Argentinians. For years I tried to find a video to show how tango is danced in Buenos Aires in order to change people's perception. But I couldn't find a satisfying clip because tango videos are mostly shot by people interested only in their version of tango. A few that reflect the truth are poorly made, often with annoying nonsense. Perhaps even in Buenos Aires most milongas are not up to the standard since foreigners are always heavily involved, making it difficult to capture a truly porteno milonga. Only recently I came across this video made by Paul Holman, which I found is representative of a milonga that I can call home.


I like this video not only because of its clarity, lighting, color and cinematography but also because of the producer's unique perspective. Paul Holman understood that tango is mainly about the embrace, music and feelings, that steps and footwork are secondary, that the milonga codes play a crucial role, and that he needs to capture the entirety of all the essentials and avoid the misleading trifles to let the viewers understand what a good milonga is. I watch this video often lately just to enjoy that soulful scene and remind myself of how one should behave and dance in the milongas.


How tango is danced in Europe and North America

In Europe and North America, people have a quite different perception. Here is how they dance tango in the milongas.


They dance tango not to enjoy the music, intimacy and feelings, but to practice steps and show off skills. I believe the majority of them understood that tango is a soulful dance and that they come to dance because they want to taste that apple. But for some hypocritical reasons they don't feel comfortable enough to be intimate with the opposite sex, thus they use an open dance hold to replace the embrace, keep a bashful distance from each other, and focus on the steps instead.

To be fair, this is not the worst case. One can tell it's a growing tango community. A number of dancers danced in the milonguero style, some are fair to good dancers. But the majority are still novices who don't know how to embrace. They relied on the arms and hands to lead and follow. Some were practicing what they recently learned. Most were emotionally detached. Very few actually were dancing to the music. The milonga codes were poorly complied, as attested by the use of verbal invitation, blocking the traffic, remaining on the dance floor during the cortina, wearing ornaments that would rub the partner's body, loud background noises and a lot of talking. The music, although traditional, was not very engaging. The whole scene was quite chaotic. Towards the end there were few better dances. But overall, I don't think this milonga is very attractive and satisfying. Unfortunately, this is a typical tango scene in Europe and North America.


Another common Euro-American tango scene 

Common among our young people is another kind of tango scene showing below.


Young people seem need to discharge their youthful energy and to prove their ability to do things unconventional. Dancing in open hand hold rather than embrace, they can do fancy steps and showy figures. Some even attained certain degree of skillfulness in what they are doing. Nevertheless, there is no fundamental difference between this kind of tango and other sport dances. Personally I don't see how such way of dancing tango is even enjoyable in comparison to the feeling-oriented milonguero style. I wish there were better reasons why some people insist on doing this when there is clearly a better way other than they need to release energy, show off, have obstacles, or don't know better. As far as comfort, soulfulness, indulgence and gratification are concerned, there is really no comparison between the two styles.

It may be characteristic for young people to act rebelliously, but being obsessed with the stereotype or wanting to show that they are different from older people is childish and naive. Older people are once young and rebellious, too. In fact, many milongueros can do Nuevo steps better than most young people today. They quit doing that because they become wiser after tried everything that young people with their limited experience cannot even imagine. Most young people learned tango from their peers, who learned from their peers, and they simply don't know another way to dance tango. Once they experienced the milonguero way, most will renounce theirs and follow suit. (See The Styles of Tango.)


This is how milongueros emerge

Three decades of trial and error since 1983 eventually lead some tango dancers in Europe and North America to move away from exhibitionism and pay more attention to the embrace, music and feelings. As a result, scenes like this start to appear in Europe and North America in recent years.


Their embrace and connection become closer and more intimate. Their dance becomes more feeling-oriented. Their steps become simpler, more musical and elegant. Their milonga becomes better organized. Antisocial behaviors are less seen. While showy footwork still occurs, the embrace still brakes sometimes, the hand use still remains habitual for some, the music selections are still more dramatic than sentimental, the hastiness is still common, the dresses are still too casual, the skill levels are uneven, progress nevertheless is evident in comparison to the previous two scenes. Such transformation certainly would not come without pain, given the strong Western tradition of individualism, liberalism and feminism. But the dancers in this example proved that they can change. It is a reassurance that there is really a lot of hope in tango, in humanity, and in our ability to adapt.


How social tango should be danced

It is worth your time to watch Holman's video again and compare it to your own tango dancing. The following is a better edited version. This time please pay attention to how the milongueros and milongueras follow the milonga codes, from seating, making eye contact, doing cabeceo, dancing to sending the woman back to her seat. If you wonder what kind of steps they use to make their dance so coherent and concordant, you can watch those who dance in the background. But nothing fancy really. Their dance is not about the steps. (See The Conceptional Beauty of Tango.)


As you can see, they concentrated entirely on the music and feelings as if the steps were irrelevant. Dancing tango to them was to enjoy the sentiment and intimacy, not to do gymnastics. They danced with complete relaxation, unhurried pace, subtle movements and tasteful suspensions. Their steps were small and simple, totally void of flaunt, and used only to remain united with the partner in the dance. The beauty of their tango lies in the oneness of the union rather than the performance of the individual. In their dance nothing was ornate, but everything was exquisite and elegant. Even the music selections were more sentimental and intriguing than ours, fitting perfectly to the mood of their dance.

Please also pay attention to the woman. Her ability to remain coherent with the man is amazing. She rests comfortably in his arms, intimately leans on him with her arm around his shoulder to allow herself to enjoy the caress of his chest. Her eyes are dreamily closed so she can focus inwardly on the feelings. Her inconspicuous footwork magically keeps her body moving in unison with him no matter how he turns, permitting her to tune to the soft whispers of his chest and enjoy his attentive ride. (See Driving and Synchronization.)

To tango is to indulge yourself, not to impress others. On a crowded dance floor who cares about your footwork anyway. The only thing that matters is the emotions and feelings you experience. This is why performance tango doesn't make good sense in the milongas. I hope Holman's video will inspire more people to learn the milonguero style of tango and accelerate the transformation of our tango from a step-oriented dance to a feeling-oriented dance. (See Social Tango and Performence Tango.)


P.S.

I received several comments on my video selections and now understand a little better how political correctness becomes a necessity in our culture. Please be aware that the clips I selected for this post are used only to illustrate a phenomenon, not to reflect the whole picture of any community or event.

January 14, 2016

Women's Walk in Tango


Tango walk is done by two partners chest against chest in the embrace. The man walks forward, the woman walks backward, and they must walk with matched posture, pace, alignment, CBM, dissociation, lilt, rhythm, etc. in perfect coordination, balance, harmony and elegance. Many students cannot walk well because they don't have the needed muscles, flexibility and techniques, their legs and feet are too weak to maintain balance and stability, their postures and habits are not up to the standard of tango, and their personal praxes conflict with each other, causing disharmony and instability in the walk.

There are more exercises in tango designed for women than for men, just like there are more fashions, shoes, jewelry and cosmetics designed for women than for men. Which is not surprising given the importance of beauty to women and the fact that, while the man leads the woman in tango, it's the woman who beautifies the dance. (See The Gender Roles in Tango.) How women walk, therefore, matters more than how men walk in tango.


Muscle development

In order to walk well, you first need to develop muscles that enable your feet to suck the floor and stay very grounded in the walk. Dancing a lot certainly helps. Exercise and workout can also be beneficial. One exercise that I found particularly helpful is demonstrated by Vanessa Gauch in the following video.


When done in slow motion, this exercise can effectively build foot muscles and improve stability and elegance in women's walk. The exercise can be summed up in six steps to help you memorize the sequence: (1) Stand on one leg and stretch the other leg forward. (2) Transfer the weight forward until you stand on the heel of the front foot and the toes of the back foot. (3) Change weight back and forth a few times in that position. (4) Transfer the weight to the front leg completely. (5) Start the next step by swiveling the hips and using the hip to move the leg - this will give women's walk a feminine look. (6) Repeat the sequence with the other leg.


Walk backwards

In tango, women mostly walk backwards, which is difficult because that is not how they normally walk. To learn to walk backwards, you almost need to start from toddle. The following video, demonstrated also by Vanessa Gauch, can help you understand how it should be done.



Walk in leaning position

It is important to point out that the embrace affects the walk significantly. Walking in an A-shaped frame is very different from walking in an H-shaped frame. A women using open hand hold in the dance cannot stretch her leg back far enough, because without leaning on the man it is hard to keep balance on one leg while outstretching the other leg. Here is an example.

The two teachers are competent dancers, I believe, but the H-shaped frame they used in the exercise hampered their performance. In comparison, walking in close embrace, or an A-shaped frame, is much more stable, balanced and elegant, as illustrated in the following video by Jennifer Bratt and Ney Melo.


Notice that Jennifer leans on Ney with an increased gradient. She bends her standing leg and uses a little bit dissociation - turning her hips slightly upwards and downwards to allow the leg to reach back farther. Notice also that when her hips are turned, she uses the thumb rather than the toes of the foot to reach the floor. Also notice that her leg is swayed by the hip slightly sideways in contrast to the forward walk in which the leg is swayed by the hip towards the center, as demonstrated by Vanessa Gauch in the first video. All these add a feminine touch to her walk.


Hip sway

Good tangueras all use the hip to move the leg, without exception. Here is another excellent example, danced by Mariana Montes with Sebastian Arce.


Their style is too exhibitionist to suit the milonga, especially on the leader's part, in my humble opinion, but the opening walk (0:15 - 0:28) is absolutely gorgeous, appropriate in social dancing, and worth watching again and again. The walk is done in close embrace that enables Mariana to stretch her leg out farther. Her beautiful hip sway, combined with a subtle dissociation and a very straight leg line, all contribute to the unequivocal beauty and elegance of her walk. Notice that her leg is also swayed slightly sideways as a result of using the hip to move the leg.


Keeping your own balance is the key to be weightless

As comfortable as it is to lean on your partner, you need to keep yourself light and not become his burden. This means you have to keep your own balance by bending your standing leg when you outstretch your free leg, as explained by Vanessa and illustrated by Jennifer and Mariana, so that most of your weight is carried by your standing leg rather than on him. This will also allow you to outstretch your free leg farther. Personally I found that when a woman leans lightly with her chest rather than heavily with her stomach on me, she becomes lighter.


Pushing with your standing leg

You stretch your free leg back until the thumb of the foot touches the floor. At that point you should not just wait there for the man to push you. Rather, you transfer weight to that leg by pushing with your standing leg. Failure to do that is the reason why some women are heavy in the walk. Be careful, though, not to self-propel so hard as to lose the torso connection with the man. You only push with enough force to make yourself lighter, but remain your leaning position and hence the connection with him. The following clip illustrates the correct way of doing it.



Walking with straight knees

Walking with bent knees is inelegant, which is a common problem for beginners. Although you need to bend your standing leg down a little bit in order to outstretch your free leg farther, the free leg must remain straight until the transfer of weight to that leg is completed. In order to do that you should not use the thigh to move the leg, which is the cause of the curved leg. Rather, you should lift the hip and use the hip to swing the leg so the leg remains straight, and you should keep the leg straight as you transfer weight to it. Keeping the knees straight makes the dance look more elegant, as this video shows.


Alignment

When walk in parallel system, the free leg should move back in line with the hip and not cross over the standing leg. Walking with a distorted line is the cause of instability, which is a common problem for beginners. When walking in cross system, you should rotate your hips before you outstretch your free leg, and the free leg must still move in line with the hip. You should not cross the free leg over the standing leg without rotating the hips. However, unlike in back ocho, the rotation of the hips does not need to be huge since you are just walking along the line of dance in cross system.



Synchronization

Tango walk is synchronous. The two partners walk not as two independent individuals but as a whole. Their legs must start, move and arrive together with exactly the same timing, speed and pace. It is important for the woman to constantly feel and mirror every inch of the man's movement and not land her foot too soon before he completes his step. A common problem is that she walks on her own and lands her foot on the floor before he finishes his step, causing him to step on her toes. The correct way is to hold her free leg outstretched in the air and allow him to push her, with the push of her own standing leg, so the two free legs may land on the floor at the same time and with the same pace.


Improving your walk is the key to improve your dance

One's walk defines one's tango, as demonstrated by my favorite tango couple Noelia Hurtado and Carlos Espinoza in the following dance. Pay attention to Noelia's walk and see how it relates to her dance. Walk is not only an important part of tango, but also the foundation of the dance because other steps are but variations of walk. For a woman, beautiful walk is a guaranteed eye catcher and proof of her ability. By learning to walk elegantly, your tango can be improved in more ways than you can imagine. (See Walk.)