Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Twenty tango lessons: Part Two: It's all about that embrace

The abrazo should contain all the elements of a good hug, including sincerity.

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To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 things I have learned in, through or about this intricate, elegant, passionate dance over the last two decades. Here is my second "lesson."

Lesson No. 2: Embrace is everything. The first thing we feel when we meet on the floor for a tanda is the embrace or abrazo. In those first seconds when we hold and are held by a partner, we discover a lot about that person as a dancer (and as a person as well, but that is a topic for another post): confident or insecure, controlling or caring, intense or reserved, focused on the steps or on the connection. We can sense the overall skill level of our partner right away, in those first fleeting moments before we even take a step.

The embrace in tango is basically synonymous with the connection, and we already know that tango is all about good connection. It is through the embrace that we feel everything, so it is what allows us to lead or to be led.

Of course, abrazo literally means embrace or hug. So our abrazo should contain all the elements of a good hug: It should wrap around our partner and hold him or her securely without being overly imposing, restrictive or otherwise uncomfortable, and it should feel sincere.

If the embrace is being used all wrong – pushing, pulling, blocking, being overly tense or completely lax – it doesn't matter how many cool figures or fancy embellishments you can come up with: Nothing will feel very good to your partner. Whereas if your embrace is just right, you won't have to do much to feel great to dance with.

On a technical level, this is how I use my own embrace and also what I tell my students these days: Use your hands more and your arms less. Your arms need to be soft and light while your joints – wrists, elbows, shoulders and shoulder blades – need to keep their mobility. But your hands  – especially the palms of your hands – should be actively holding your partner in order to feel him or her, holding beyond the surface of the clothes or even the skin, taking the form of the body part they are in contact with. And the back needs to be active, too. The upper back muscles are what will bring your shoulders and shoulder blades down, allowing your arms to relax without being limp. This technique will also help give you an adaptable embrace. Tango is very much about adaptability, and our embrace needs to adapt to each partner and each move; if our arms are soft and our joints mobile to begin with, the embrace will adapt effortlessly, all on its own. Finally, give the same energy in both hands. This is not necessarily easy because of the asymmetrical nature of the tango embrace, but equalizing the two hands can be an almost miracle solution to too much push or pull on either side.

Many teachers say, and I, too, used to say: "Keep your frame." I do not say this anymore, because I think it gives a wrong idea. First of all, in an effort to keep our frame we will have a tendency to be too stiff. Second, the specific form of the embrace is less important than the way it functions. That is why we should be able to dance in a practice embrace, close embrace, open embrace or even with one arm or no arms at all. If we get stuck on the exact form – the angle of the elbows, how high to hold the arms, the exact spot on your partner's back to place your hand – we become too focused on ourselves and our form and we ultimately block part of the messages we are trying to send or receive. Instead we must hold our partner with strong hands and soft arms, discovering just the right balance between firm and supple, receptive and communicative, using our abrazo to be with our partner and to feel him or her, not to hold ourselves up, to control, restrict or to push or pull. What I might say instead of "Keep your frame" is: "Keep your partner's frame." That way you will use your embrace to take care of your partner, allowing mobility while giving them consistent and helpful points of reference, which will allow them to keep their axis and balance as well as to lead or follow you with ease … and, most importantly, to feel good.

The embrace just might be the most important element in our dancing.

Then again, posture is really important as well.

Next: Lesson No. 3: Posture is everything.

Previously: Lesson No. 1: Tango evolves and so must we

Friday, June 23, 2017

Twenty tango lessons : Part One : Evolution

Roomy tango pants and big boleos have given way to curve-hugging skirts and close-embrace dancing.

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I took my very first tango class in 1997. It is now 2017, so that means I have been officially dancing tango for 20 years! And what a journey it has been.

So, has it all been worth it? Absolutely.

Has it been easy? Of course not.

Over the years I have learned many things. I have learned confidence and humility, I have learned to let go and to stand up for myself, to be both tougher and more understanding, to lead and to follow, to express myself and to listen, to be engaged and relaxed, to think ahead while living in the moment,  to follow the rules while thinking outside the box.

In no particular order, I have come up with 20 things I have learned in 20 years of tango. In an effort to keep my posts both shorter and more regular (it has been months since my last post!), my plan is to publish one "lesson" a week for the next 20 weeks.

Lesson No. 1: Tango evolves and so must we. Tango has changed in the 20 years since I was a beginner. The dance has changed, the trends and customs have changed, my city has changed and of course I have changed. Back then, tango learning was all about the steps. By the time I had finished Tango 2 I think I had learned ganchos and boleos, barridas and sacadas. Teachers were not really talking about following the line of dance, or the ronda -- beyond mentioning the fact that things moved in a generally counter-clockwise direction on the dance floor -- most local DJs did not play cortinas to separate the tandas and nobody used the cabeceo. The Broadway show Forever Tango was touring the world while Sally Potter's movie The Tango Lesson and Carlos Saura's Tango were just being released. All around us were showy moves and dramatic music. Pugliese instrumentals and show soundtracks were played everywhere. In a couple of years, this new group called Gotan Project would bring an entirely new, equally dramatic and thoroughly modern sound that would be a big sign of things to come. Meanwhile, tango shoes from Argentina were not yet readily available so we all danced in whatever kind of dance shoes we could find. Montreal was already a major player on the North American tango scene, and you could dance seven nights a week even then, but each night there was one milonga on offer, so the whole community knew where to go, came together and most events were a guaranteed success.

Ten years later, Gotan Project's brand of electronica-tango fusion music was all the rage and was being reinvented by Bajofondo, Narcotango and countless others. Along with the "nuevo" music came a limits-pushing style of dance most people also called tango nuevo, with its signature elastic embrace, experimental off-axis figures and big, huge boleos executed by flexible young tangueras in funky, comfy tango pants. Traffic on many dance floors was a bit of a nightmare. A couple of local studios were selling Comme Il Faut and Neo Tango shoes from Argentina, and all the best dancers' feet were decked out in colourful, glittery fabrics, open toes and stiletto heels. Paradoxically, cortinas were now being played in most milongas, but so was a huge dose of modern, experimental tango music, from Gotan and Otros Aires to alternative musical choices from The Beatles to Edith Piaf. Montreal's tango scene had begun to expand beyond the central Plateau and downtown areas further east, west and even out to an off-island suburb or two.

Soon after came a strong backlash against any form of "nuevo" tango music as well as dance styles that take up more than their share of space on the floor. The music of the Golden Age has made a quick and powerful comeback in the last decade, along with close-embrace, line-of-dance-friendly, milonguero-style dancing. Now, no DJ foregoes cortinas and just about all teachers and high-level dancers are pushing the use of the cabeceo and the respect of the ronda on the dance floor. Many brands of those high-end, limited-edition tango shoes imported from Argentina and Europe are sold in just about all tango studios everywhere. And tango-specific clothes are everywhere too, also made in limited edition by small designers. But roomy pants are out and curve-hugging, knee-length skirts are in. Because no one is kicking up their legs anymore anyway, at least not in the milongas. Montreal is still a great tango city (read the Quebec edition of Modern Tango World to find out more), but countless other cities in North America and around the world have caught on, caught up and even surpassed us. Tango has gone totally global, thanks in large part of course to YouTube, Facebook and other social media as well as the prevalence of global travel. Trends in music and dancing travel along with the dancers, so we are influenced more and more by the style and moves of maestros from Argentina, Europe and around the world. Here in Montreal, milongas have been sprouting up like mushrooms in recent years, within and well beyond the city limits. There can be up to five tango events on offer some nights, which means there's lots of choice for dancers, but organizers are by no means ensured success.

Some people who have been dancing for as long as I have or longer are nostalgic for the old days when things were supposedly simpler, friendlier and more carefree. But I believe that in tango as in life, many people view the past through rose-coloured glasses. Maybe nobody was cutting into our fun by nagging us about the line of dance, but careless navigation was rampant and there were plenty of collisions on the dance floor. Maybe nobody was pushing us to learn how to use the awkward cabeceo, but then there were all those awkward moments of rejections, embarrassing refusals and sorry excuses. Maybe the tango business was easier and it was a cinch to find your friends at that one event on Friday night, but there were fewer choices, and isn't variety the spice of life? In any case, the way it was is the way it was, and the way it is is the way it is … until the next evolution, which is, of course, in motion already.
What is next? Well, the trend among teachers continues to move away from complex sequences and impressive moves and toward posture, musicality, technique and embrace while enforcing respect for the line of dance and use of the cabeceo (Yay!). At the same time, in terms of the music, I have been witnessing a backlash against the backlash, with many dancers demanding DJs step ouside the box and think beyond the Golden Age once again. Beyond that, I can only wait and see like everybody else. And I look forward to it!

Next: Lesson No. 2: Embrace is everything