Schools of Minutia

The big gift my first tango teacher gave me? He said 50% of my practice time should be visualizing doing the moves; the mind matters. Tango ends up being a synchronization of thinking, feeling and doing. Each one of these is easy to get a hold of on their own and was worked on in isolation for a long while before I could string them together. I was more than just overwhelmed in the beginning. Tango looks easy from the outside. It’s a lucid memory, the first time I was asked to walk across the room in a beginner tango class. Bambi on ice. Ridiculous. I am a graceful grocery cart pusher now, all steps are tango steps. Boleo! To the produce aisle!

I am a nomad right now, beginning my big year in tango; well the run up to a big year in tango abroad. I am making a practice run exploring tango while driving across the country I live in. There is tango nearly everywhere but in most places so far it’s a modest number of people keeping the love alive in double digits. Tonight I attended a twenty person milonga. Last week it was a twenty-ish person “encuentro”. The Tango Cynic stereotypes persist no matter the size of the community. I am the visitor. I came from taking the few tandas I could get to accepting the few tandas I want. I’m essentially three for three.

The community I am in this week is fractured, scattered and competitive with (what would seem) fewer students than there are teachers. Students are spending years on end with one teacher and rarely stray from their instruction. This creates bizarre twangy accents in technique, hidebound followers and dogmatic leads. Forgive me, I struggled with how to write about this environment — which everyone discusses in low voices with me, behind the back of their hands. There are apologetic confessions and defensive proclamations mixed with the pervading question, how long have you been dancing? Delivered in many forms with and without finesse or thoughtfulness. I have a quippy answer to deflect the question. Often I pretend I didn’t hear the them ask over the music, twice and the person stops prodding.

I feel the strangeness of looking picky turning down several grabaceos (from the same man) in the basement milonga of a local teacher; 11 dancers in attendance. I just watched him dip the last three woman he danced with. I mention in a gentle voice that I prefer cabaceo. He marches across the room and issues a cartoonish cabaceo, which I decline. He marches back over and says, I tried to cabaceo you. I said, I know, I declined.

Whatchagonado. We come from different schools of thought.

There are a kind of Scout-like and Girl Guide-like badges, invisible ones, that we collect as we spend time tango dancing. Survival of this, mastery of that… The bragalicious Buenos Aires badges (1 through 10), the blood stained marathon shoe badge, the rarely attempted sequins covered scenario performance badge. Travelling is the one I am working on at the moment. I am hungry for the surprises the pursuit of this has in store for me. So far so good. I continue to meet wonderful people who embrace me with an openness that seems to be global in tango. I am home, everywhere. To be continued…

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Walking the Talk

It would be easy to do a big year in tango, chasing festivals across the globe. In fact there would be heart breaking choices as wonderful festivals run at the same time in different places across the world all year-long. I have been to a few festivals already this year at home and away. At one of them my dream teachers ran workshops and performed. I bought a full pass and leashed the butterflies in my stomach to attend every single class I could squeeze in. I arrived on a cloud of hope and was slowly day by day brought back to earth. I realized I’m not fond of teachers who want to be worshipped. Even if I secretly do! Day after day these teachers exhaled yoga tips, waxed poetic and clapped grade three music theories at a group of adoring fans. Who for some bizarre reason acted like the silly children they were being treated like… miss-clapping out counts of 4?! These assuming teachers didn’t touch their students, only each other. By the end of the last day I was bored, disappointed and ready to walk out and skip the last saccharine lecture on how we were all equals, all masters of something. The bull crap was hot and wet.

I teach. Specifically I teach art – commercial (Visual Communications) and visual shorthand in fine art. This is my take on it all: we are walking, breathing, eating, shitting, and pissing balls of feeling. All we do is feel. We feel when we rest our minds, when we are alert and when we day-dream or sleep. I teach technique or the refining of technical skills. We express our own feelings with those tools, with technique, with error in technique and knowingly abandoning technique in the pursuit of invention. I will almost never tell someone in my class how to feel, they are doing that all by themselves and are masters of their own feelings. I will help them have enough tools to better express — for others and themselves — what they feel. A pumping fist can mean victory or violence and a turn of the wrist conveys which. That is an example of understanding a technique for visual communication that has little to do with feeling but how we interpret or send a message with a gesture.

Dancing with an instructor during a workshop, class or private is like tracing when we are learning to draw. It builds skill far faster than fumbling around on the blank page. Not touching students? Well, my big lesson, those aren’t the kind of teachers I want. I also don’t need to pay someone to tell me how a song is meant to make me feel. It will feel to me one way, the leader I am with another, to you the reader another way altogether. Music is personal. Dance is personal. Expressing feelings is personal. Art and our interpretation of it is personal. What we can have conversations about, with as little confusion or muddled metaphor as possible is technique. The physics of a turn, foot placement that will help us sync quicker or with better balance. We learn very quickly that each partner’s height, weight, style and skill vary into an infinite number of combinations. A teacher’s corrections through touch are crucial. My mistake or misunderstanding maybe nothing like the learning curve of the woman to my left or to my right. A weight change is felt in embrace and often not visible from three feet away (or from a high tower). And what if both leader and follower are slightly off on the weight change? We do the move but we muscle through the entire thing, exhausting one another. If a teacher embraces their students in a workshop; errors can be brought to light almost instantly. Then blaming our practice partner (aloud or internally) vanishes; we become a team in practice. Hands-on teachers are invaluable. Tango is about the embrace. Tango is about touching and listening to one another. Teachers on a pedestal? I don’t care if they climbed up there themselves or students are keen to put them there, it just doesn’t work in tango — for me.

I came out of the workshops with a clear set of criteria for myself and what I want out of visiting teachers. I want to share space. Righteous teachers who don’t touch their students? Who expect to be treated like high-born royals with special gifts the common folk will never know? Meh, pass.

Signals

There can be a recognizable wardrobe for both leaders and followers in tango; beyond the pleated pants and spandex dip-hem skirts. When traveling for festivals and events where there are hundreds even a thousand plus dancers there are ways to speculate who might be an exquisite dancer. Is that leader over there a silent storm milonguero or the showy dancer who prefers an open embrace? A white belt can speak volumes. Certain shoes tell me a leader might be a devotee of Godoy’s style or Converse, a soccer jersey and jeans can project a radical rookie or apathetic maestro. A cotton dress and shrug let men know either she doesn’t sweat or she’s new to this. Chances are they are thinking the later. Low, fat heels? There’s no justice, they scream beginner.

I can make an estimated guess watching people dance on how they might feel, how we might work together but the proof is in the pudding. Music is the third person in the relationship I can’t argue with, I can’t change the expressive state of a song or force rhythmic to turn lyrical… A DJ with a playlist I can’t get into? It can feel like emotional abuse. Actually it feels like neglect. Some nights I have to remind myself to put the little bitch away. That’s the whining crybaby that shows up in my head and believes criticism is contribution. I like to keep little bitch on ice. She does have use, but not in social settings. She’s spectacular when I am procrastinating. I take her out, let her get all worked up then I think, well? Whatchagonnadoaboutit?! And let her rip. I get out a pen and pad and then follow through with change. At a Milonga she’s about as useful as a paper cut dipped in salt.

I’m still figuring out the way I send out signals. At midnight if I haven’t danced I am sure I am throwing up the gang sign for desperate. Last night at a Milonga a man arrived late and quietly changed into his dance shoes. He wore a snug floral dress shirt, grey tango pants and Regina shoes. He didn’t make eye contact with anyone. He simply walked over to the floor and stood at the side and watched. I can tell you every fiber of me believed he would be a very good dancer — and he was. Aside from the beautiful, slender, sexy, stiletto wearing women who smell like candy and are a type of wish-fulfillment for reserved men who come into their power at a Milonga… Beyond that, I know there is something in the way a woman casts out a line that is as specific as that man I watched last night. Looks are not necessarily a part of her allure. Part costume, part airs and part cat? I’m not sure; I’m not there yet, in proof or posture. How to stand out as a visitor at an out-of-town Milonga can be the difference between a beautiful weekend away and resentfully calculating how much two dances cost.

There is no hiding from myself in tango. A strategic outfit might muster some magical thinking but ultimately there I am. Faking confidence at a Milonga is like faking a Kung Fu kata before a fight, shits going to get real, fast. I keep working with me, keeping little bitch on lock down and letting the ronda suspend reality whether I am in it or alongside. Pack a gift for the DJ?

Zero Bubble

Most of my memorable dances to date have been with women leaders. There is a sea of minutia in the art of a good leader that I won’t pretend to understand. However I know what I feel. Being a sophomore in tango I deeply appreciate when leaders keep it simple. Having slightly better balance these days can get me in a bit of a pickle where a leader has decided I can follow a whole lot more than I can, or want in the corner space of a crowded Milonga floor. When this happens it can convert the joy of “don’t think” dancing into red alert incoming missiles EVASIVE MANEUVERS Flip the chicken switches, emergency blow! ATON!? ATON!?

Women, we’ve been known to talk amongst ourselves. For some of us it’s a real pleasure at a Milonga to rap about dancing and what we love and who we like to dance with. I’ve been told by women leaders that how they lead is grown out of what they want for themselves as a follow. If I miss something, a woman leader will reassure me with a little friendship squeeze. I don’t really know how to explain this to my male friends who lead but if you could master the energy of the encouragement women give each other in a little hand or hip squeeze? You’d be king of my world —instead of tensing up after a kerfuffle I completely relax into you. Where I am at right now? Accommodating to a near fault and momentarily destroyed when I am reprimanded by way of sigh or shove for not following properly. My disappointing someone can really put a funk on things. I deal with my ego. My busy little inner critic like the Great Gazoo telling me, ‘just follow dumb dumb’ in a hoity accent. I chuck him in a fast-moving river and watch him be swept away and over a water fall. I know me.

‘We’re in this together.’ That is the phrase a woman said to me after our first song dancing to a magnificent Miguel Calo tanda. She held my hand while we spoke between songs. The woman who held my hand also asked me not to be such a good little girl and resist her a bit more. So far, that playfulness is something I have only been encouraged to explore by teachers.  Where was my need to be an obedient follow clipped and pruned? I have been stopped mid song and had a man look me in the face, put his lips together and puff out the beat “bah bah bah” like I can’t hear it. Then tell me to ‘just follow, nothing else, just follow’. That’s not playful… [sad face]

I have read and heard of tango being compared to meditation. In the beginning I tried this fascinator on. I grew up in a Sōtō Zen Priory. My life for nearly a score was zazen and the here and now. A large part of Zen practice is sitting upright and self-receiving using Samadhi. Tango isn’t usually done in isolation, in the back of a cave of an unnamed mountain; I’m being cheeky here, monks aren’t typically made in a grotto. Tango as opposed to zazen has an awful lot of accoutrement, which I enjoy. The dance is largely a moving negotiation of walking done while hugging another person, to expressive music, often in a crowded room in the hive mind of a ronda’s ever changing impetus and élan. There’s also the beehive of technique I won’t tussle with at the moment. Dancing is different than me plunking my butt down on a circle cushion in a stark room for a bit of shikantaza. I may never turn into a great dancer. Tango keeps changing so right now I am just accepting that whatever I feel today might not mean a whole lot tomorrow. The here and now bit certainly applies across both disciplines as does suffering the self and all its Gidan (疑團).

Phronemophobia

I have a first tango teacher. I believe that the first teacher isn’t always the first person someone takes a class with; or the first maestro someone lives and breathes to train with in person. My first teacher is the first person I bonded with and took me into their care. It happened five hard months into learning tango. I had struggled up to that point to pick things up or get noticed in group classes when I needed a bit of extra help. There are so many women attending classes. I have a friend who is one of those terrifically talented students. He is loved and favored in nearly every class, workshop or joined private we attend. The way he talks about his first teacher is significantly different than me. He was selected he says without his consent. He was taken on by the first teachers he started classes with and favored, considerably. I guess when you have a knack or natural talent that’s a struggle one faces. I haven’t had a tango teacher proudly put their arm around me at a Milonga and exclaim, “This is my student” beaming with delight.

Women outnumber men and women tend to take more classes. In this partnered pursuit some women rarely get a turn on the ronda; when they do, they aren’t lead to their potential. I watched this disparity when I first started tango and still, if I look for it — so I tend not to. If I let it creep in it can eat a hole in my hope and sink it. What women deserve and what we get are in great disharmony.

Where am I going with this? I recently took several hours of privates and workshops with visiting teachers from Argentina. These teachers took me in. What I thought I knew, unraveled. These teachers have changed how I feel the embrace, the walk, the cross… When asked how long I had been dancing I blanked and in my mind’s eye saw the bridge from me to my first teacher burst into flames.

Tears filled my eyes. I lied, “I’m just so happy…” I stopped talking.

When I confessed this lucid moment to a friend she laughed at me. Howling, “Oh that’s normal, welcome to tango.” Then she gave me a good hard slap on the back to seal her mockery. I love comedy grown out of hardship but this didn’t feel like a moment to laugh at me, or me at myself. I wanted a hug and a bigger glass of wine.

This getting better at tango can make us feel we deserve to be picky. For a woman, that’s a bit of a conundrum to put it mildly. It’s another detail I don’t want to think about.

When it comes to development of a new skill, learning is learning. Struggle is struggle. My working in tandem with another person is familiar. My being led around by some who disregards the traffic, trips me up or I fail to understand signals? Recognizable. Freedom to move developed in practice, blissful moments of serenity that are shared and are sometimes one-sided and also faked, par for the course. Good teachers, bad teachers, and teachers I worship and wish I had more time with happens over and over. We respect tango, honor its precepts and traditions, wash our hands, wear our Sunday best and take our outdoor shoes off before entering the room… The part that makes me sad is having this wonderful thing that we treat like church dumbed down to ordinary shared experiences of no significance because these things happen to all of us regularly and repeatedly. Why wouldn’t my friend look me in the eyes and say, “oh dear, I know this feeling too. It hurts, every time, this falling in and out of peoples influence.”

I think this shrugging off of feelings is like the idea that the older a person gets the harder it is to hear them cry. We don’t want to know how deep the hurt goes when it has been felt that many times. The beauty of tango is that we do know what to do with that, we take it out on the floor.

Lickin’s

For Sale: Parachute. Only used once, never opened

My feet hurt. My feet have hurt without pause for nearly a year. Everyone I know in tango who wears heels deals with the same pain. We test shoes, buy more shoes, try those other shoes, get custom shoes made to measure, lower shoes, higher shoes, take breaks, soak, rub, stretch, workout and rest our feet. Is there really anyone out there who does a sport and doesn’t know about the importance of good equipment and pain management? Am I right?! Or, that there is pain (of all kinds) when learning a new skill. Or better yet, if we aren’t uncomfortable to some degree are we even learning? This saying, it’s got teeth no? and a squirt of venom. Rather than trading regurgitated truisms let me complain for a few paragraphs.

So we are soaking our feet in a hot Epsom salt bath, a smear of arnica cream, ice for bruises and know what too much Advil will do to the liver if it’s washed down with nine ounces of Chianti. There is the power of taking off our shoes and sitting out a few tandas… I would go so far to say that all of us could rattle off two dozen healing modalities without batting an eye and which one is routine at the moment. We know what dancing in heels for hours at a time does to our feet, which we slip, strap and stuff into beautiful shoes — our feet feel the weight of us. The teachers I just spent a couple thousand dollars on over the past month both asked me for Advil before they performed on Sunday. Everyone feels the hurt. The only escape is not doing. (werd to Yoda).

If one more man tells me that I should soak my feet in salt I am going to punch him in his swollen omentum and limp away. So, being a cheeky puck, I asked the last guy that gave me this tired unsolicited advice, you mean like table salt? He shrugged and said, sure that’ll work. Derp derp. Women do it to each other too, listening to people state the obvious in tango is as tiresome as it gets and an unfortunate constant if one wants to make friends and win people over. I get bored with myself nodding my head and pretending to be surprised that good shoes are important? Really? Er mer gerd, I have never worn shoes before, ever. What are these things below my knees called again? Foit, flertins, feufts? Why do they look so much like hideous hands and good god! the thumbs on them are all wrong! [back of hand to mouth, large gasp]

I haven’t figured out how to politely escape the Tao of Tango sermon when all I said was hello, hows your night going? Last Milonga, I was dancing with a man in his 30s who began explaining music theory to me, “Tango is in counts of eight…” What does one say in such a moment? STFU? Aside from the fact that ‘5, 6, 7, 8’ is the start of every dance/musical scene ever, are you kidding me? It’s no use saying, yes I know. They just keep talking like they are doyens of dance rather than masters of the obvious. I once whispered to a woman, while touching her arm affectionately, “do you really believe I don’t know that already?” in reply to some rando-obvi-vomit she threw up. Her face looked as though I had slapped her. She defensively snapped, “I was just trying to be helpful!” — Good grief. Talking to people like they are half-wits is not being helpful it’s the opposite. Then a wash of bizarre compassion swept over me. She’s kind of slow, poor thing. Wait! Hold on a hot sweaty minute, am I the asshole for thinking that? I’m so confused. This is a koan isn’t it. Tricky little kensho! I’m just going to sit here in total silence. Yes, it is like a form of encouragement but… I don’t have anything better in mind.

By the way, I don’t need advice on how to avoid getting advice. I already attended that Mensa lecture. They still don’t know if toilet paper should go over the top or fall behind. This is just a wee rant. I am aware that chosing the topic of discussion is like heading out into the yard to cut myself a switch. I love my tango family and I want to get through the evenings without saying something rude to old Uncle Ed* who means well. We all know an Ed. He’s that 88-year-old philosopher that smells like a Big Mac left out in the sun and then dipped into the half empty can of beer that has been used as an ashtray all night. I bet you a million bucks he knows his bouquet is potent and he doesn’t give a hoot. His nose stopped working years ago and believes us whippersnappers need to toughen up. In his day milongueros danced in million degree heat, in wool suits in 100% humidity in cleats on carpet in a brothel. I should be so lucky to hear his stories while dancing in close embrace with my arm held above my head in the tight claw he calls a hand. Ed told me last week to wear sneakers because I was too tall and felt like a drag queen. Ed wears a pin that reads “I’m not lost in thought; I’m holding in a fart, you’re welcome”. It was a very small button on his lapel and he looked pleased when I squinted to read it. Scatological humor aside, Ed doesn’t take shit. I should pay attention to that.

*a rose by any other name

My Pythagorean Cup Drainith

I would imagine that most people who tango, find that there is an aspect of this multi-dimensional practice that comes easy to them. In the first year or so, these are the talents that experienced dancers will enjoy in a new dancer; like effortless musicality, nimble balance, a beautiful embrace or exceptional body memory. Personally my balance is tenuous at best but my body memory is above average. Oh, the frustration! I learn something quickly and can be lead into it without confusion… if I don’t tip over like a drunk girl at prom in her first pair of heels. I stand now when I watch TV, on a balance disk and work muscle groups with intense focus. I am determined by ego or Id to be stable.

Recently a dear friend joined me for a practica. For two hours he enlightened me to the things that let a leader know what I am capable of following. My mind was blown over and over. Oh Hubris, how I love you let me count the ways. One, one misstep, two, two missteps… Ha Ha Ha. Over and over he proved my skill. First step after embracing he led me forward with my right foot, I tripped. We reset, he led me forward with my left and I tripped. I laughed at how ridiculous this was! I step forward; I walk around all day putting one foot in front of the other. I am led forward during a tanda often (high pitch defensive voice) — just not as the very first step. Mind blow, pick it up, and stuff it back in, step into embrace. He leads me to the cross and says in a soft voice, “Ah, there you are again… I didn’t lead that. Wait.”

He led me into the cross slowly over 2 beats. He made me wait in the cross then rocked me from one foot to the other, unwound it, rewound it. I lost count of the ways he lead me into, at, paused, threw, back, forward, out of and around the cross. I didn’t just see how many ways my beginner skill at the cross was revealed I suddenly felt the ridiculous potential for being musical and playful inside the one tiny step. A single step! Not a sequence or set of moves that I have programmed into my body memory — one through eight. It was like going back to square one in a perpetual state of hesitation. However, that hesitation didn’t look like bewilderment; it looked and felt beautiful and blissfully connected to the lead… when I could hold onto that slippery bastard, my axis. Whatever inroads I had made into some sense of what my axis is and how to stay on it? Kensho on the cross, back to one.

The practica was more than I think my body smarts can hold onto but a very good reset nonetheless.  I feel like Scarlett O’Hara, stumbling through the weedy garden of dance, fist in their air. As the Tango Gods are my witness, I will never miss a step forward again!