Friday, April 30, 2021
Thursday, April 08, 2021
I wave my hand to get a drink and take a sip
You lift your glass, I lift my gaze and our eyes meet
I look away, breathe in and out, look back again
My stare intent as if I weren’t feeling shaky
You nod your head, my lips curl up and you walk over
I stand, hold out my hand and let you take me
To the floor we walk together, then pause a moment
Your arms embrace me, my eyes close and we begin
I feel I know you as you send your rhythm through me
You pull me close and I can feel you from within
Your steps are clear, your timing perfect, I am smitten
As we glide around the room like lifelong mates
But your moves have much more meaning than your history
There’s only present, there’s no past, it isn’t fate
The set is over, we say thanks and maybe later
You hold my arm as you escort me to my chair
Another sip, another scan, another target
There you are, so cool and graceful over there
I sit tall, I look your way, but you won’t see me
And then you're off with someone else to take a spin
I’m disappointed but I smile and look around me
At the gestures so like mine we could be kin
This is the game, this is why we come together
To make eyes, to make connections and to dance
So I smooth my dress and stand up nonchalantly
Then I hone in, hoping this time I’ll catch your glance
Friday, April 02, 2021
Your face intense, hers passive
Your eyes on her, hers averted
Over there, her face in ecstasy
As you pull her close
And others pass by, oblivious
Lost in their own throes
Of touch, sound and feel
In their world among the rest
I see your smiles and I smile
At the pleasure you can’t hide
As the rhythm plays through you
I feel how you love his touch
While he's proud of his prowess
Both of you so happy with him
You are here, he is not
You feel his very presence
He’s forgotten you are even there
A moment of abandon
A collision. A passing apology
Tension dispersed by the beat
A thousand different steps
Expressing a single song
Countless souls sharing one passion
So unique, all of you
Engaged in a single pursuit
Two by two in the ambient light
The damp air is full
Of your sweat and devotion
I breathe it in too
Often, I am among you
Sharing your floor and your fire
But sometimes, I just like to watch
Friday, January 01, 2021
Goodbye and good riddance! I will not miss you, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn anything from you.
You were difficult, stressful, fattening and frustrating. You were full of loss, loneliness, conflict, controversy and drama. You drove a wedge between many of us as we put our feelings and opinions about you on full display. Thanks to you and with a little help from social media we publicly shared our views about politics and science, often angrily exposing thoughts and feelings like never before with friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
However, people learn a lot from adversity and I am no different. So, what did you teach me? What did I accomplish with you and thanks to you?
I learned to slow down. This was one of the hardest lessons for me. Instead of jamming as many hours of teaching, practicing, planning, publicizing, managing and running errands as possible into each day I took long walks and did long yoga practices, I read books and watched shows and movies, I cooked and gardened and spent more time with my family and my pets. Sure, I still worked, adapting my business to the new reality as it unfolded and evolved as best I could, but even with online teaching (and a brief but blessed return to in-person teaching) and managing the task of keeping our tango school afloat (staying in touch with our dancers, raising funds and applying for financial aid) the pace of my daily life dropped considerably. Slowing down is not easy for someone like me who needs to feel useful and productive constantly, but I know that it has been good for me. (Now I even wonder how I will go back to working 10-12 hour days five or often six days a week when the time comes.)
I learned to be patient and adaptable. In March 2020 I had never taught an online lesson. Nine months later I have taught about 100 of them. In March I could not imagine wearing a face mask every time I went into a public place, let alone teaching or dancing with one. Now I've done all of that countless times and hardly give it a second thought. (Do I like it? No, of course not. But I'd rather wear a mask and be able to socialize a little than stay cooped up any more than I am.) I got used to standing in line, giving a wide berth when passing people in the street and refraining from hugging my friends. Our family has adapted to the weirdness of our daughter's high school year and to all of us being home and in each other's space way, way more than we ever used to be.
I learned just how generous people can be. My partner and I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for our tango school, MonTango. There have been so many messages of encouragement and financial donations from our community during this near-total shutdown of social dance activities. In March we hoped to reopen in May, then June, then July. We did open partially in July, but it was extremely limited and quite short-lived. We had hope for a return to normal by January, but here we are on Jan. 1, shut down more completely than ever with Covid numbers worse than ever. Who knows when we will reopen at all, not to mention in any way resembling "normal?" We would not have survived this long without the support of our friends, students and dancers and we are deeply touched and humbled by that knowledge.
I learned to appreciate the little things. If nothing else, last year was a reminder to take the time to stop and smell the flowers and to take nothing for granted. I found myself regularly gaining new appreciation for my health, human touch, a tasty meal, a conversation with a dear friend, good weather, nature, the ability to walk, the presence of my family and so much more.
I learned to live for the moment more than ever. I have always believed this to be one of my qualities, but this year reinforced for me that you've really got to seize the day, because tomorrow you might not have the chance. Life is short, fragile and unpredictable. So I didn't wait when I needed a haircut or a massage, when I had the chance to teach a class or visit a friend in person, when that book-writing challenge came around, when we had the chance to spend a few days at the lake or in the mountains.
I learned to let go. Of intolerance and judgement over other people's ways of thinking, of frustration over government decisions, of impatience over everything from waiting for the end of this pandemic to waiting in endless grocery store lineups. Anger, frustration, worry, impatience: They're natural emotions, but so unproductive, even counter-productive, so it's a good exercise to notice them, avoid getting too wrapped up in them and let them go.
I learned acceptance. Similar to the previous lesson, this one manifested itself in accepting my friends and relatives both despite and because of our differences of opinion as well as accepting the reality of the day no matter how unpleasant or unbelievable. It all contributes to keeping us open-minded, flexible and, ultimately, more generous.
I learned new computer skills. More downtime meant time to learn new skills. So I taught myself to use a new DJing computer program, which I had been meaning to do for years, and, along with the rest of the planet, I learned how to Zoom.
I learned to cook new dishes. I, too, baked much bread, not to mention cookies, cakes and pies and I tried lots and lots of new recipes, some more successful than others and many of them vegan. I've been a vegetarian and occasional vegan for several years. By the way, this month I'm joining the Veganuary movement, so no animal products at all for the next 31 days (and maybe longer)!
I learned to write again. My initial return to writing after a decade-long hiatus was six years ago in 2014, when I started writing this blog. In 2017 I set myself the ambitious goal of writing 20 blog posts in a single year – and I accomplished it. Then my writing dwindled again for a couple of years. This year saw me publish eight new blog articles and several French translations. Then, in November, I joined the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge and wrote 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. A week and another 20,000 words later I had finished my first draft and now I am 80% of the way through my first rewrite. Whether my novel will ever be published I don't know, but just finishing it is a big accomplishment of a lifelong goal, so, yay me!
So, there you have it, 2020, ten valuable lessons you taught me. Thanks for all of them and I'll surely never forget you, but it was definitely high time for us to go our separate ways.
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Arrastre. Drag. See Barrida.
Balanceo. Rock step. Useful for avoiding collisions, playing with rhythm and making direction changes in small spaces. May also refer to a subtle shifting of weight from foot to foot in place and in time with the music at the beginning of a dance. Also called Cadencia.
Baldosa. Tile. See Cuadrado.
Barrida. Sweep. One partner’s foot makes contact with the other’s foot then moves it to a new position on the floor without losing contact. Also called arrastre, or drag.
Boleo. Sometimes spelled voleo. A move where the free leg does a backward, forward or wrapping projection or kick, usually in response to a change of energy or direction, most often a change of pivot. The word probably comes from boleadoras, a type of throwing weapon made of weights on the ends of cords, once used by gauchos to capture animals by entangling their legs and now used as a percussive instrument in a type of Argentine folkloric dance. Some argue that voleo is the correct spelling, deriving from the word volear, to throw or "volley" as with a ball. Note that it is never spelled (or pronounced) “bolero,” which can refer either to an entirely different genre of Latin music and dance or to a short jacket modelled after those worn by Spanish bullfighters.
Cabeceo. Nod. From the word cabeza, meaning head. It refers to the traditional, non-verbal look-and-nod technique for selecting dance partners from a distance in milongas. Also see Mirada. For more on the cabeceo, read my post about milonga codes and etiquette.
Candombe. A type of dance originally danced by the descendants of black slaves in the Río de la Plata region and still performed in Montevideo, Uruguay. Music of African origin with a marked rhythm played on a kind of drum called a "tamboril.” It survives today as a rhythmic background to certain milongas. See a musical performance of the modern-day candombe, "Tango Negro."
Canyengue. An old style of tango from the very beginning of the 20th century. The music from this period had a faster or peppier 2/4 tempo so the dance had a rhythmic flavour similar to that of modern milonga. A very close embrace was used as well as some unique posture, embrace and footwork elements. Watch an example of canyengue dancing here.
Cortina. Literally, it means curtain, but it describes the 30-to 60-second clip of non-tango music used to break up musical tandas or sets.
Cuadrado. Square or box step. Sometimes called baldosa, or tile. A basic, six-count sequence made up of forward, backward and side steps.
Enganche. Any leg-around-leg hooking action. Similar to and often interchangeable with gancho. Also see Gancho.
Gancho. Hook. A move wherein you hook or catch your partner’s leg with your own. Note that it’s a “gancho” and not a “gaucho.” A gaucho is an Argentinian cowboy.
Giro. Turn. One partner, usually the leader, turns more or less on the spot while the follower does a molinete, or grapevine, sequence around him (or her). Also see Molinete.
Lápiz. Pencil. Circular embellishments “drawn” on the floor by either partner.
Leader. The partner dancing what was traditionally the man’s role. There has been a general movement to stop using the terms "man" and "woman" altogether within the context of tango dancing roles and to always use the gender-neutral "leader" and "follower." The problem is, the terms really do not describe what truly happens between the two partners. The much more complex process goes something like this: the "leader" invites the "follower" to execute a movement; the "follower" executes the movement he or she felt and the "leader" follows his or her partner through the completion of that movement – whether or not it was the movement he or she intended – and the whole process begins again with the next action. Interestingly, the terms "leader" and "follower" are not really used in Spanish. When referring to the partners, much of the time Spanish-speaking teachers stick to "hombre" (man) and "mujer" (woman), which, while not gender-neutral, don't restrict the partners to one active and one passive role. When referring to the action of the man or leader they say "marcar," which means to mark or indicate, not lead. The woman or follower "acompaña" (accompanies) or "se deja llevar" (lets herself be led), which implies that it is her choice and has a less passive implication. Also remember that at the beginning of the 20th century, when there were many more men than women in Argentina, men learned tango together, practicing and mastering both roles before having the privilege of dancing with a woman. Also see Follower.
Marca. Mark. The lead.
Milonga. Because this word has a triple meaning, it can be confusing for novices.
- One of the three musical genres that make up Argentine tango: tango, milonga and vals (waltz). Milonga music is in 2/4 time. (Tango music can be in 2/4 or 4/4 and vals is in 3/4.) Milonga has a very rhythmic, strongly accented beat, often contains an underlying "habanera" rhythm and is generally faster and more joyful than tango music. It has its own dancing style to go with it, in which dancers avoid pausing, mostly stay in parallel system and often use double-time steps, referred to as milonga traspié. Milonga dancing uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than many of those used in tango.
- The name given to any venue dedicated to Argentine tango, usually a dance school that also holds such dancing events as prácticas and milongas.
- The name given to Argentine tango social dancing events.
Milonguero/Milonguera. A dancer who frequents milongas (as opposed to a stage dancer, for example). Generally this label is reserved for dancers of a certain level. Milonguero can also refer to an old style of tango dancing wherein the couple held such a close embrace that the follower couldn't really turn her hips, which gave birth to figures in which pivoted ochos are replaced by crosses, such as the ocho cortado and ocho milonguero.
Mirada. Look. Paired with the cabeceo it completes the traditional look-and-nod system for selecting dance partners in the milonga. Also see Cabeceo. For more on the cabeceo and mirada, read my post about milonga codes and etiquette.
- Ocho adelante. Forward figure-eight.
- Ocho atrás. Backward figure-eight.
- Ocho cortado. Cut figure-eight. The forward pivot is interrupted to produce an abrupt sideways rock step followed by a direct return to the cross.
Paso básico. Basic step. While the real basic step in Argentine tango is generally considered to be the walk, this eight-count structure has been used as a basic teaching sequence for decades. It is a remarkably controversial little sequence. Still used by many instructors, it is shunned by others. Supporters believe it is a useful pedagogical tool that contains essential elements including forward, back and side steps as well as the cross; detractors say it is pointless to teach a “basic step” that dancers will either not use as-is in real-life social dancing or upon which they might become dependent, thus never learning to improvise properly.
Práctica. Practice. A tango-dancing event that is much less formal than a milonga. Floorcraft and following the ronda are generally less strictly adhered to or enforced during prácticas, so dancers can work on their moves and technique, and talking while dancing is tolerated. It is usually suggested that tango students attend prácticas for a while before moving on to milongas. During a práctica, teachers may or may not be present and may or may not lead the practice by suggesting or teaching exercises or figures.
Rebote. Rebound. A rock step wherein the dancers rewind a step by pushing against the floor to go back to the previous position.
Ronda. Literally, it means round. In tango, it is what we usually call the “line of dance” in English. The ronda in tango always circulates in a counter-clockwise direction around the dance floor. Couples are expected to follow the general flow of the dancers ahead of them, resisting the urge to cut ahead of slower-moving dancers or to stay in one spot blocking traffic while the others keep moving forward. On larger dance floors there can be several rondas at a time, one at the outer edge of the floor, generally reserved for more experienced and disciplined dancers, and up to three more smaller rounds inside, like lanes on a racetrack. It is bad form to zigzag haphazardly from one ronda to the next; lane changes should be made sparingly and with caution. For more about the ronda, read my post about milonga codes and etiquette.
Sacada. From the verb "sacar," which means to remove. In tango, one partner steps right into his or her partner’s space, seemingly forcing the partner to switch places and sometimes provoking an embellishment by the other person if there was contact with the recipient's free leg.
Sistema cruzado. Cross system. Refers to the walking relationship between the two partners. When the leader walks in line with his partner, we call it "parallel system" – basically just the normal walking system with the partners in step with each other, but on opposite legs: leader's left to follower's right or vice-versa. In cross system, the two partners are in fact stepping with the same leg – left to left or right to right. At least 50 percent of figures use the cross system. Ochos, for example, most often take place in cross system. Also see Sistema paralelo.
Tanda. A set of songs for dancing. Generally, tandas are three or four songs long. (They used to sometimes be as long as five, but that is rare these days.) They will be of one particular genre (tango, milonga or vals) and are most often all by the same orchestra from the same decade (or even the same year) and perhaps even with the same singer. Tandas can also be compiled of songs by different orchestras with a similar sound and feel. In a milonga, the format is generally as follows: two tandas of tango, one tanda of vals, two tandas of tango, one tanda of milonga and repeat.
Tango. The music and accompanying dance that originated in Río de la Plata more than a century ago. Also see Argentine tango.
Vals. One of the three musical genres that make up Argentine tango: tango, milonga and vals (waltz). Vals music is played in 3/4 time. (Milonga is in 2/4, while tango music can be in 2/4 or 4/4.) Dancers use the same steps and technique in vals as in tango, but tend to select quicker, more rhythmic figures that flow, rock and turn in order to express both the feeling and rhythmic structure of the music. They use the first beat in the measure as their basic walking beat, adding accelerated steps or adornos on the second and/or third beats as they wish. See an example of vals dancing here.
Voleo. See Boleo.
Thursday, August 06, 2020
|Leaders and followers have lots of freedom |
in the dance – within limits.
I am a great believer in freedom. Freedom of choice, of expression, of religion. But freedom in a civilized society does not mean we get to do whatever we want. Society has rules and laws that we are obliged to follow or we suffer the consequences. We are “free,” yes, but within limits. We are not free to kill people. We are not free to physically assault people. We are not free to steal from others. We are not free to drive erratically at any speed we please, to smoke anywhere we want or to throw our kids in the back of the car with no safety seats or belts. Generally, people accept these kinds of limits. Sometimes some of us see certain limits as unjust and fight for change. That is how women earned the right to vote and homosexuals earned the right to marry, for example. But even when we see certain limits as wrong, most of us accept that it is normal to have some limits put on our freedoms. Being free does not mean we can do absolutely anything, because just about everything we do affects those around us.
In tango, the idea of freedom – or lack thereof – comes up a lot, particularly in the follower role. Tango observers and novices often see the dance as a dominant-submissive or active-passive relationship, but this is a misconception. Part of the misconception comes from the very terms “leader” and “follower,” which are misleading and problematic labels, in my opinion. (You can read more about this in my Troublesome Terminology post.) The most obvious limits to the follower’s liberty are those established by the leader, but the follower role is far from passive and, in fact, the more skilled we followers become the more we realize that in fact we are quite free inside the structure established by our partner, the music and the space in which we are dancing. If we just throw our legs around randomly and express the music however it moves us with little attention to what our partner is suggesting we may feel free, but we are not dancing within a partnership, therefore we are not really dancing tango. Finding our freedom inside the structure imposed on us is in fact one of the fun and rewarding challenges of the follower role in tango.
Leaders also have limits. They, too, must follow and adapt to their partners as well as the music and the flow of the dance-floor traffic. If they just lead anything they want, ignoring the readiness of their partner, the particularities of the music or the presence of the other dancers, they could call that an expression of their freedom, but it would also be inconsiderate to and unpleasant for everyone else involved.
Is it an infringement on our freedom for us to be expected to limit our moves to those that respect our partners, the music and the other dancers? Or are those expectations reasonable if we are all to be part of the society that is a milonga?
I believe that often when dancers feel limited or confined by such factors as rhythm, flow or partner it is not really a question of freedom or lack thereof, it is a question of difficulty and resistance to working on something that is, quite frankly, hard. Especially for leaders, learning to follow the flow of the dance floor, which includes staying in your lane, maintaining a consistent distance from the couple ahead of you and adapting to constantly changing situations, is one of the most difficult parts of learning to tango. You’ve finally figured out how to string some moves together and lead them clearly to a partner, then you go to your first milonga and can’t do half of them because you are constantly having to stop, slow down and change your plan according to what is happening all around you. It’s frustrating, for sure, but it’s a necessary part of the learning process. It’s not about freedom, it’s about respect. Tango is a social dance, which means we are not dancing alone and we are not dancing uniquely for our own personal pleasure. In a class, a práctica or a milonga we are part of a society, so we cannot be overly individualistic, disregarding what effect our actions might have on those around us.
It’s an over-used comparison, but when you are driving on the highway do you back up against traffic, lane change without looking first, drive at any speed you please and zigzag back and forth every time there’s a car ahead of you? Probably – hopefully – not. And you probably don’t complain that it’s an infringement on your freedom to avoid doing those things. You accept that in order to have the privilege of being allowed to drive you have to take on the responsibility of following the rules of the road. Similarly, learning to dance within tango society is difficult, but don’t use your personal freedom as an excuse for not tackling the tough part of the job.
When dancers roll their eyes impatiently if teachers insist that they listen to and follow the beat of the music, are they really protesting a lack of liberty to dance how they want and just execute their fancy moves, or is it an excuse because it is difficult to learn musicality if it doesn’t come naturally?
Liberty has limits. Sometimes those limits are annoying. I know I was annoyed when I had to wait six months and pay hundreds of dollars for a permit to change the balcony railings on my house. “It’s my house and I should be able to do what I want with it!” I said in frustration more than once. While I maintain that the long wait and hefty fees were out of proportion with such a minor change, the need to apply for permits does exist for good reason. Should I be allowed to build up my house so it blocks the view and sunlight of all my neighbours? Or install a giant pornographic statue on my front lawn? Limits to our freedom are normal, because my freedom should not create great discomfort or danger to you. When we are part of a collective whole, and we are, it’s just selfish, immature and naïve to think that liberty means the right to just do whatever we want. Sure some limits are unfair, and we can and should work to change them when they are outright wrong or outdated. But to make sure the big issues get taken seriously, we should make sure we are not just reacting in frustration to our own minor inconveniences when we cry freedom.
Another issue that is currently front and centre both inside and outside tango is personal hygiene.
Going back to pre-COVID times, people were certainly free not to wash their hands after using the toilet. They wouldn’t be arrested for not doing it. But I think most dancers would agree that it’s unhygienic, disrespectful and, well, gross not to, especially in tango, where you’re going to hold countless other dancers’ hands with your germy ones. People are also free not to brush their teeth or wear deodorant. But in tango society, where its members spend most of their time in very close contact with each other, hand-washing, teeth-brushing and deodorant-wearing are really the bare minimum in terms of acts of respect when it comes to hygiene habits.
Now, in COVID times, there are stricter hygienic measures in place everywhere for much more urgent health reasons. Everyone is being told to wash their hands more thoroughly and often than ever and to wear masks to help protect not the comfort but the health and safety of those around us. And a surprising number of people are getting up in arms about this being an infringement on their freedom. Well, yes it is. Just like other safety regulations like not smoking in offices and restaurants, wearing a seatbelt in your car and not bringing weapons into a school or an airplane. These are all infringements on our personal freedoms, but they are for the health and safety of everyone.
I remember a few years ago a dancer I knew had decided to drastically change his lifestyle. He gave up his house and his career to follow a path of yoga, meditation and nomadic living. We didn’t see him for many months and then one day he showed up at tango barefoot and bushy-bearded in a tank top, his hairy and, frankly, very strong-smelling armpits on full display. “People’s odours don’t offend me,” he mentioned at some point. (Perhaps he had overheard someone comment on his?) Truly, I respect that. I am more non-conformist than conformist and I sure believe people should pretty much be allowed to dress how they like and choose not to wear deodorant if they don’t want to. But what about at a milonga? He danced with a couple of women who then complained to my partner and me about his smell and we were torn: Do we ask him to leave for the comfort of others or do we respect his freedom to wash and dress as he pleases? In the end he didn’t stay long anyway and we haven’t seen him since, so we never did have to tackle that particular dilemma.
In tango we get really close to others. People’s odours do offend a lot of people, and if you’re going to dance in close embrace with other people, most of those people probably don’t want to smell your three-day-old sweat and feel your damp body hair glued against their skin. If you refuse to take other people’s comfort into consideration, while you may be expressing your own freedom of choice, you are also disregarding the freedom of those around you to enjoy a pleasant environment.
Having to follow our partner, time our steps to the music and respect the space of the other dancers all inhibit our freedom of choice and movement on the dance floor. But if we don’t do those things we are disregarding everyone else on the floor as well as the dance itself. And if we go too far, the managers of the establishment should feel free to ask us to leave.
Tango society is always a reflection of society at large, and the aforementioned parallels regarding freedom within confines have been standing out to me lately. In tango as in life we are free to move and to express ourselves, but that freedom is limited by a structure that we must respect or we will not have tango, we will have chaos.
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
|How long can technique classes and masked prácticas stand in for the tango that once was?|
Of all the activities that have been affected by the current COVID pandemic, social events have been the hardest hit, including tango.
For those of us who work in tango, especially those who make our living from it, it means our livelihood has been taken away and our immediate financial future looks grim. Many tango professionals are rethinking their careers. Schools and milongas around the world have closed and some teachers are seeking out job training in other fields.
Social dancers, too, have spent their time away from tango re-evaluating their relationship with the dance. For many, no more social tango has meant no more social life. For all of us, it has reduced or eliminated the activity we are most passionate about. Some dancers are sitting it out until things are back to pre-COVID normal. Others are using the time to learn and practice however they can, hoping to be better dancers than ever when social events return. Still others, those who already struggled with tango's complex social side, have decided they will make this pause permanent.
During lockdown, when we could only go out to buy groceries or walk the dog (if we were lucky), the only options available in tango, pretty much planet-wide, were online. Many teachers, myself included, jumped on the Zoom bandwagon, hosting virtual classes for singles and couples. On social media, some people shunned such offerings. “That’s not tango,” some lamented. “I would rather not dance than dance without a real embrace,” others insisted. Who can blame them? Especially for those who don’t live with a tango partner, a lesson on a computer screen is no replacement for warm abrazos in a bustling milonga.
But for my partner and me, whose vocation it is not just to provide fun tango events but also to give people the tools to dance well so that when they go to the fun events they dance ever better and enjoy themselves even more, we saw it as an opportunity to get people to take time to work on their technique and up their skills.
Of course as full-time teachers and studio owners we have a different perspective from that of your average milonga-going social dancer. But then again, we teach because we believe in learning. And we believe learning is not just the means to the end that is the ability to hold your own in a milonga; we also believe working hard and improving your dance skills are rewarding in and of themselves. (You can read my blog post on the subject here.) After all, my partner and I are so passionate about tango we made it our life’s work, yet we spend a lot more time learning, practicing and teaching than we do dancing socially.
In any case, some students did join our online classes, sticking with us through our own learning curve of online teaching, in some cases until this day. Some – both solo and partnered students – found the classes extremely helpful, were motivated to practice between lessons and have made noticeable improvements. Sure, the feedback we can give through a small screen is limited and the hands-on help is nonexistent, but there’s still lots to be gained from diligent practice … with a coach to guide you through it.
Another thing I did during lockdown was to join a community of neotango DJs who set up livestreamed online “milongas.” Of course they weren’t really milongas, they were more of an Internet radio show. Is it the same to DJ for an unseen audience as it is for live dancers? Of course not. But it was pretty cool to know that people were listening to my music live all over the world, from North America to Europe to Australia. And you could chat with them as they listened, which was fun and different and allowed us to connect with tango people from other communities. Surprisingly, I saw some angry exchanges on Facebook among some of those who had been involved in the project and dedicated to the cause of keeping tango – specifically neotango – alive and those who wanted nothing to do with it. For sure those who participated in online DJing events were happy to share their music and chat about it, while giving and getting their musical fix to some extent at least. But again, for some it felt like a poor replacement, period. Why listen to tandas if you can’t dance to them? Both perspectives are understandable, for sure. What was less understandable to me was that there would be fighting and defensiveness over such an issue. Why criticize someone for offering a service just because you don’t want to use it? And why criticize someone for not wanting a service you offer?
Here in July in Montreal, the COVID curve has flattened somewhat and the city has progressively deconfined (too carelessly in my opinion, but that’s not the subject here). First, stores reopened and small outdoor gatherings were permitted. Then daycares, day camps and outdoor sports opened. Therapeutic and esthetic services, such as dentists, physiotherapists, massage therapists, manicurists and hairdressers went back to work. Restaurants and bars reopened. And, finally, gyms, indoor sports and, yes, dance studios. But.
With good reason, all of these are limited. Masks are either required or strongly recommended for most indoor activities and attendance limits and distancing guidelines are still in place. For tango, that pretty much means for now it is a couples-only activity. At our studio we have a couple of technique classes for solo dancers on offer and for the rest, people must come with their own partner and there are no partner changes in any of our classes or practices. The number of participants is also greatly reduced so we can ensure physical distance on and off the dance floor. So no more milongas with 50 or 100 people milling about. Currently our busiest activity is a short guided práctica we limit to eight couples, or 16 people, all of whom wear masks.
This makes me sad, because even though I am one of the lucky ones to have my very own very excellent tango partner, I have never seen tango as a couples’ activity. It’s a social activity. We dance it in couples, but we share it with all our tango friends. I’m pretty sure more people go to milongas as singles than couples, and even those who do show up as a pair usually change partners almost as much as anyone else. We all know that changing partners improves our lead-follow skills and keeps things fresh. I felt a pang of guilt when I announced a couples-only activity on Facebook and someone reacted with a sad face. But it’s couples-only or nothing at all and we prefer to do something than nothing. And you know what? It’s still a social activity. Everyone there is sharing their love of the music and the dance. They introduce themselves from behind their masks and have a chat – at a distance – sharing their experiences about how things were, are and will be. So while it’s not the same tango we were dancing a year ago, it is still tango and it is still a good time.
My partner and I, along with many others, fear “back to normal” will not come for a long time. Some people predict it will be a year or two before we are back in packed milongas changing partners at will. I, optimistically, estimate at least six months more of couples-only and mask-wearing. So we try to evolve with the situation and make tango what it can be for now: a set of online tandas, a technique class, a practice session for couples, a thoughtful blog post. Some dancers are happy for whatever tastes they can get and will enjoy the small pieces while they wait for the whole to return one day. Some dancers want the full package – crowded floors, a selection of partners, uncovered faces – or nothing at all.
So what is my point? That tango, for me, is not just one thing and it is not all or nothing. But if that’s what it is for you, that is your experience and it is as valid as any other. And just as I will not judge you for what you can’t bring yourself to participate in, you should not judge someone else for making tango whatever it can be for now.
Work hard, have fun
Quest for the truth
Monday, May 11, 2020
|Having the time to slow down and smell the flowers |
is just one potential benefit of these difficult times.
This is a hard one for many, including myself. Even decades ago, before I had a business to run and a family to raise I was addicted to staying busy. In my 20s I had a full-time career with crazy hours to which I added freelance writing and a university teaching gig. Then I took up social dancing, first salsa then tango, which meant on pretty much every evening off I was in the clubs until all hours. Eventually it also meant that I would add tango teaching to my work schedule. I’m not complaining: No one told me to be chronically active and busy and I guess I like it that way, always feeling I have a sense of purpose and something fulfilling to do. And when I do relax, whether that means a good book or some Netflix after dinner or our annual two-week family vacation in the middle of nowhere, I feel like I truly deserve it. I don’t slow down often, but whenever I do I immediately feel the benefits, whether it’s those of getting more sleep, having more quality time with my kids, home-cooked meals, time to stimulate my mind and creativity with reading and writing or just sitting and soaking up some sunshine. And then I inevitably think I should find a way to have more downtime in my daily life. I don’t always manage to find it, but at least I remember that it’s good for me and I know I will seek it out again when I can. So now here I am and here many of us are being forced to slow down while we wait for our jobs and our social activities to resume. It’s a perfect time to remind ourselves of the benefits of a slower-paced life.
On the dance floor what does it mean to slow down? Well, it could mean to focus on quality rather than quantity in your dancing. For example, lead fewer figures and focus more on the connections – to the music, your partner and the dancers around you. We teachers say this all the time, but it’s often hard for us to get the message across that there is more pleasure to be found in something simple done with care than in big, seemingly impressive moves that may be led roughly or invade the space of other dancing couples. There is also a strange phenomenon of impatience to constantly move forward in the ronda. This leads to a lot of zigzagging, cutting in front of people and general frustration on the dance floor. What I often ask is: “What’s the rush?” We tango dancers are literally going around and around in circles, so there is no destination and absolutely no advantage to moving ahead over staying in one spot – as long as you are following the general flow of the dancers ahead of you.
We are living a stressful time for sure, and I am as anxious about what the future holds as anyone else. I wrote a whole post about my anxiety a few weeks ago. The uncertainty about the future is real and the worries are normal, but they aren’t particularly helpful. If we’re constantly guessing and obsessing about the future we aren’t in a state where we can be receptive to the lessons we could be learning right now from what is happening … such as the importance of family time or the benefits of learning to slow down.
The ability to be fully and completely in the present is a very valuable quality for a tango dancer to have. If we are constantly thinking about what’s coming up, working our way toward the next impressive move or wondering what our leader is going to do next, we are not truly present, and our connection will be lacking. One of the things I love most about dancing tango is that I can abandon myself to the dance, no matter what happened before or what might come later. I have mentioned before that I sometimes enter a meditative state when I am dancing tango. It’s one of the reasons I love it. People who have a natural knack for living in the moment may take quite easily to tango. For those who don’t, they may find that tango can help them learn to relax and let go a little.
When life slows down it offers us time to stop and smell the flowers. What are those of us who have been forced to slow down doing? Baking bread. Knitting. Planting flowers. Going for long walks. Phoning our friends just to chat. I know that for me, now that I have adapted to the pace and routine of my new normal, I am loving the fact that I have time to cook and take long walks every day, and when I go back to the life I am of course still missing I know I will miss having all this time to smell the flowers and bake bread. So I am being sure to appreciate these simple pleasures while I have the time.
On the dance floor, leaders and followers alike often get into the habit of partner-blaming. Whether that means you’re correcting your follower every time she misses a lead or you’re feeling impatient because your partner’s lead isn’t as clear as that of the teacher, you might be missing your chance to enjoy a dance by forgetting to focus on the positive aspects of the dancer in your arms. Maybe his repertoire is limited but his embrace is a dream. Perhaps she hasn’t learned ganchos or volcadas yet but she’s light as a feather to dance with. Maybe he’s an average lead but his musicality is spot-on. Perhaps she moves a little clumsily but she loves to dance and her joy just shines through. After all, it’s the simple pleasures of tango we are all missing right now: the warm embraces, the beautiful music, the friendly conversations. Let’s remember that on the long-awaited day when we get back to the milongas.
I’ve written about this in past in the context of tango. Accepting that things usually don’t go according to plan is key to being a good tango dancer, because it means you are able to adapt to different situations on the fly – a must for any leader or follower.
Meanwhile, across the planet just about everyone has had to put plans on hold, fully abandon some projects and live daily life in ways none of us saw coming a few short weeks or months ago. If we remain stubbornly attached to the plans we were making and the life we were living then we will only face more disappointment as time moves on. Some things will certainly go back to the way they were, but we don’t know when that will be and we can’t realistically expect the world to emerge from this crisis unchanged. We need to accept that and be ready to adapt to the changes that lie ahead. Maybe some of those changes will even be for the better. (We have already seen the benefits to the environment, for example.)
Every time I see another grocery store lineup snaking around the block my initial reaction is to sigh, roll my eyes and immediately feel impatient. But I need groceries so I stand there like everyone else and as I wait my turn I take the opportunity to still my mind and work on my patience. Yes, it would be nice to be able to zip in and out like I used to, without keeping my distance, stopping to sanitize my hands or following the arrows on the floor. But that would be rude (not to mention dangerous) and unfair to everyone else, so I accept it and I wait my turn. The system is annoying for sure: I don’t like wearing masks, staying away from everyone and being told where I can and can’t walk. But anyone with good sense understands that these rules are in place for good reason and it’s in our interest to follow them. I’m sure we’ve all been inside stores where the directions and lineups are well-managed and others where they’re not. Which makes for a more pleasant shopping experience? The more customers who follow the guidelines, the better things flow and the better my mood at the end of the expedition.
Likewise, there can be a lot of impatience on a tango dance floor. Often, dancers are in a rush to enter the line of dance and, as mentioned above, they’re obsessed with moving forward as fast as possible. But tango is a social dance and a big part of it is – or should be – respecting the other dancers on the floor and making an effort to move with rather than against them. That’s why you’re supposed to wait your turn and merge with caution when entering the ronda and then keep to your lane and move forward keeping a consistent distance from the couple ahead of you. If you’re not used to observing these codigos when you dance, you may feel impatient at first, but it’s amazing how smooth a dance floor flow can be when everyone exercises a little patience, awareness and respect. Like in the grocery stores in these times of social distancing, it can feel like our freedom is being suppressed when we have to follow all these rules, but if just a few people don’t it doesn’t take long before chaos reigns, and then the frustration really kicks in.
Clichés tend to lose their meaning after being repeated too many times, but they usually exist because there is much truth to them. This oft-repeated quote applies perfectly both on and off the dance floor. Sure we all have goals we spend much of our lives working toward. We have goals in tango, too. Perhaps we want to up our skills or embark on a new project like performing or attending our first festival or marathon. But what good is achieving goals if we forget to appreciate and enjoy the long, rich process of working toward them? As we have all just learned the hard way, life has a way of taking unexpected turns, so sometimes our ultimate objectives get – by no fault of our own – postponed or even fully derailed. It can be greatly disappointing, but if we learned something from and maybe even enjoyed the process then it wasn’t for nothing. In these times when “normal” life seems to be on hold and our future feels so uncertain, it makes good sense to slow down, live in the present, be grateful for what we have, learn from the journey itself and obsess a little less over where we are headed.
Eight personality traits that will make you a better tango dancer
The milonga has rules and we should follow them
Learning to let go of the plan
Searching for breath and balance
Thursday, April 16, 2020
So far, the posts on this blog titled “Life Is a Tango” have been reflections on tango that also apply to life.
This post is a reflection on life that also applies to tango.
One of the hardest things for me during this time of social distancing has been finding a new balance in my days and my life. Compared to those who have lost loved ones or who are totally isolated in quarantine, my hardships are minor, but still they have taken their toll on me.
First, ever since this began – since the day we decided to close the doors of our tango school just over a month ago – I have been unable to breathe quite right. I tend toward anxiety and am accustomed to having days here and there of feeling breathless or tight in the chest – like I can never quite fill my lungs – but it’s pretty clearly affected by monthly hormonal fluctuations and I usually know that I will breathe normally in a day or two so I don’t worry about it. Once last year it persisted for five days and, like now, no amount of relaxing, yoga breathing or focusing on the exhale would change it, but it did finally get better after five days.
One time, six or seven years ago, I had an outright anxiety attack, which was very scary. I think I had had a big argument with both my son and my spouse and was just beside myself with anger. I decided to clear my head by going for a run, something I did regularly, and when I had gotten about three blocks from home suddenly I just felt my lungs close up completely. I was unable to breathe beyond the tiniest wheeze, and I was terrified. I stopped, put my hands on my chest and bent over, and someone who had just happened to step out on his front porch asked if I was OK. I managed to sort of gasp that I couldn’t breathe and he sat me down on the ledge of his walkway and asked if he should call an ambulance. Once I sat down, it didn’t take long for the tension in my chest to start to release and I slowly felt I could take in air again, a little more with each breath, so I told him not to call anyone, that I didn’t live far and could walk back home. The whole episode was probably over in less than five minutes, but it felt a lot longer and I sure hope it never happens again.
Back to the present, I have been struggling with this almost constant tightness in the chest to varying degrees but pretty much every day since March 13, and I spend a good part of my mental and emotional energy trying to find both causes and solutions.
I’ve stopped drinking caffeinated beverages (let me tell you mint tisane in the morning is nowhere near as satisfying as an espresso!), I’ve tried both exercising less and exercising more (I started running again – short distances – two weeks ago and it seems to help or at least not harm) and I spend less time on social media. I also make conscious efforts to have significant down time every day.
I know for some people the challenge in isolation is to find things to do. But in my case, I am far from isolated: I’m not in quarantine so I get out to run or walk every day, I live with three other family members and several animals so there is plenty of life and interaction to be had in my daily life. We grocery shop for my parents and my uncle, which takes up a day a week and allows us to see them, too – briefly and from a couple of metres away, of course – and I speak to friends by phone, email and videoconference. Wolf, my partner, and I teach some classes online so we still see some of the community we miss, albeit not in the flesh.
I don’t lack for projects. As I said, we’ve been teaching a little, and it takes up time to prepare, organize and teach classes in this new way. (I definitely prefer real-life teaching to onscreen!) I also DJ online once a week, which meant installing, setting up and learning a new DJing program. And at home there’s plenty of cleaning to do and lots of mouths to feed and cook for, not to mention rooms we’d like to repaint and other fun stuff like income taxes.
I’ve been meaning to use this newfound “free time” to start writing seriously, but this rambling blog post is my first serious attempt. My mind has felt full and kind of jumbled through these weeks so it’s been hard to find the mental space to gather ideas and get creative. So usually I watch Netflix when I don’t have the energy to do anything else.
All this to say, boredom and confinement are not likely the underlying roots of my breathing issues.
This morning as I walked the dog I thought that maybe my inability to find balance is the problem. As a small-business owner of course my work/life scale is always heavier on the work side, but that imbalance is balanced by the fact that I am passionate about what I do and get great pleasure from most aspects of my work. The thing is, I am so used to being 10 times busier than I am now, to knowing I will finish every day with an even longer to-do list, to having an extreme, driving sense of purpose every single day, that I think I don’t know how to both slow down and retain my sense of purpose. I give myself permission to take a break on Sundays: no projects, no media. But on Monday, the tightness in my chest is as bad as ever.
Then, of course, there’s the persistence of this laboured breathing that in itself makes me anxious. At first I couldn’t help but think: “Maybe I have COVID-19!” Silly, really, and I knew it – no other signs of illness, I’ve felt like this before and it’s gone on too long – but whose mind is rational when lying awake at 3 a.m.? Mostly, though, it’s just hard to relax and enjoy my newfound free time when I’m constantly making an effort to either breathe properly or ignore the fact that I can’t.
I know the uncertainty about the future is weighing heavily on me (classic anxiety definition, I guess). I wonder when and how an activity like tango will be able to resume. Our type of business will most certainly be among the last to reopen and when it does, will things pick up where they left off? Will dancers embrace or fear the abrazos they so miss? Will society come out of this more reluctant to get close to strangers? Will an economic downturn mean people have less money to spend on things like tango lessons and milongas?
And while I understand that this is as new and difficult for our leaders as it is for us (and overall they’re doing a good job), I have found some of the vague and conflicting information we receive from them frustrating. Last week, our provincial and federal leaders both gave forward-looking speeches that, in my opinion, were full of contradictions: Normal life will not return until after Christmas (i.e. until there’s a vaccine), one said, but some things will return to normal! Okay, well that’s clear. Here in Quebec, we are about to reach our peak, the other said. This is considered good news, and so we will soon be able to reopen businesses – as long as we keep respecting the two-metre rule. What businesses, then? Certainly not tango. Or gyms. Or hair salons. Or bars. And how can we be thinking of reopening businesses soon when the number of confirmed cases in this province is 700 times higher than it was when businesses closed? And what about schools? My teenage daughter is home from school, supposedly until May 1. I cannot imagine schools will reopen in two weeks, but we haven’t had a peep from either our governments or the educational institutions since they closed. Will classes resume this school year or not? If kids can’t go to school, tangueros sure can’t go to tango school.
So yes, the future feels very unsure and yes, that bothers me. But intellectually I’m actually not that worried. I have confidence we – my family, my business and my country – will pull through, even if we don’t know exactly when or how just yet. So I don’t know if taking in the uncertainty is what’s limiting my ability to inhale.
What does all this teach us – or me – about tango? Well, first of all, it reminds me of the healing properties of tango. I’ve written about some of them before, notably in my post comparing tango to meditation, and I once gave a conference on tango for stress relief. In short, one of the things that draws me to tango is the fact it’s one of the few activities in which I can truly let go. When the music and the connection are just right it takes no effort to just abandon myself and let all my worries evaporate. It is wonderful – and wonderfully therapeutic.
These days, no matter how much I might relax I am always able to think and to remain aware of the fact I can’t breathe with ease. Yoga should help, and I do it every single day, but the problem is, in yoga we are focused on our breath most of the time, so while I can and do work on my breathing in many different ways, I remain aware of the struggle. Some distractions help: an intense episode of “La Casa de Papel,” a satisfying teaching session and a good night’s sleep all offer temporary relief, but nothing quite removes me from day to day realities and stress factors the way a great dance does.
And back to the idea of balance – or my current lack thereof – well, while balance is an essential ingredient in tango, tango is clearly an essential ingredient for balance in my life.
Postscript: Now that I’m writing again, I am reminded of its therapeutic powers: I have been working on this post for three days and since yesterday I am breathing easier. Could these two things be related?
Monday, March 30, 2020
|It's really important to distinguish between these two "hats" or roles.|
Recently I had an interesting exchange with a student in a class I was teaching. He is someone I dance socially with quite often. As he is not a regular student of mine, I had rarely danced with him in a teacher-student situation before.
He had asked me a question about why the move he was learning was not working to his satisfaction, so I got him to try it with me. At some point I felt the moment where his lead needed some improvement, so I resisted a little, stopped him and asked him to try it again, suggesting a correction or two. He looked at me somewhat taken aback and said, "But you're normally much easier to lead than that! That's not what it usually feels like to dance with you."
"That's because I'm not usually wearing my teacher hat when I dance with you," I replied.
As these things do, the exchange stayed with me and got me thinking.
What I said to him was very true: When I am wearing my teacher hat, I am focused on improving the quality of the other person's dancing. When I am wearing my dancer hat, I am focused on the quality of my own dancing. I think it's really important to respect that dividing line.
When I am, for example, teaching a private lesson, I do my absolute best not to compensate for my leader or follower's flaws but to pinpoint them and find ways to correct them. But when I am dancing in a milonga I do the exact opposite. I, in fact, pay little attention to my partner's shortcomings, purposely ignoring the most blatant ones and not even noticing the minor ones as I concentrate instead on just being the best follower (or leader, as the case may be) I can be, enjoying my partner's best qualities, the music and the moment.
Why do I think it's important to distinguish between the two "hats?" Because the primary goal of dancing socially is enjoyment and connection. If I start focusing on my partners' flaws I will necessarily diminish my own enjoyment as well as that of my partner. And I will also break the connection between us every time I begin to speak. The partner in my arms in a milonga is not there to receive instruction, whether he or she is my student or even knows I'm a teacher or not.
In a class there might be moments when I let go for a couple of minutes and just dance and enjoy – an overall good sign for the student I am dancing with – but "relax and enjoy" are not my primary goals in that situation. My objective, and the reason the other person is paying me, is to pinpoint their mistakes and help them find ways to fix them. That is my job. It takes a lot of focus, concentration and energy, both mental and physical, to teach, especially private lessons. While it is incredibly rewarding work, why would I want to do that job in my leisure time, during moments when I am allowed to just let go and have fun?
That's why I might feel different to dance with when I'm just dancing than when I'm teaching and that's why only teachers should teach – but never in a milonga.