Saturday, 26 December 2015

Salad Dressing

If you just put oil and vinegar in a jar, and you don't shake it, you do not get salad dressing.

You have to put energy in.

Supermarkets think very, very carefully about what things they put on the shelves that are under your hand while you queue for the checkout. Milongas should think just as carefully about what the room looks like when you enter it; about who is coming, and who is already there; about how the people in it see themselves, see each other, and try to make themselves comfortable. Humans are social, extremely sensitive to all kinds of complex signals, and you cannot expect them to put them aside, especially as most of them are processed unconsciously.

The information they need to form a community - however briefly - can be exchanged with time, or it can be provided, within certain limits, by leadership and proper shaking of the jar.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Just watch the whole thing (Falcon 9)

Stayed awake to watch it, as I knew it was coming and couldn't have gone to sleep.

Summary: the Falcon 9 first stage rocket, which is 70m tall, delivers the second stage to 80km altitude (and, much more importantly for the purposes of spaceflight, a speed of approximately 6,000 kph). The first stage then detacheds from the second, relights 3 of its 9 engines, flips over, slows itself down from 6,000kph in a controlled manner, extends four enormous legs, and lands with a thump  upright on its legs on a concrete square a few thousand metres from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. And then it just stands there while everyone finishes screaming.

The 2nd stage continues under its own power to orbital speed of about 26,000kph, delivers 11 relatively mundane truck-tracking satellites to their planned positions, then gracefully deorbits itself to burn up in the atmosphere (vaporisation of space junk comes for free with the atmosphere if you can slow it down just enough from 26,000 kph).

As famously explained by xkcd, space is not "up". Space is fast sideways. Go straight up to the altitude of the ISS and you'll just come straight down again. The astronauts in the ISS float not because they have escaped gravity, but because they are in freefall. The point is that they are going so fast sideways that every time they fall towards the earth, they miss. That's what orbit means; it means missing, in the same way that every half-year the earth falls towards the sun, misses, turns round, and falls again, still downwards, but in the other direction. Nice thought for a solstice.

Review: Caminar Abrazados - Instructional Book and DVD

Disclosure: Melina is a good friend. On the other hand, I'd bought my own copy before she offered to send me one.

This is a new thing; a properly thought out instructional work for social dancing of Argentine Tango, which aims to give a comprehensive basic course. As far as I know, there isn't any other work that attempts the same thing with anywhere near the same ambition. I was looking forward to this book with some interest, since Melina and Detlef's regular students are reliably easy and fun to dance with, sometimes exceptionally musical, and always individual.

I like the book, and I like the DVD. It's suitable for all levels. Beginners will find an excellent guide to basic technique, musicality, and social dancing. Non-beginners will find the same, and a structured troubleshooting manual. Professionals will find well-tested effective teaching ideas.

For beginners: I suggest you start with the DVD and watch the whole thing. A few unfamiliar words will appear without being introduced, but it doesn't matter. You're likely to have questions: at that point, refer to the book, which will answer them in lots of detail.

Non-beginners: either do the same, or you might like to start by looking up in the book whatever interests you most. Then watch the first hour of the DVD, then go back to the beginning and work through the whole thing using them together.

The fundamental usefulness of this work is that it embodies a practical, progressive, thought-out plan  for learning to dance well. You start with posture, embrace, and communication. You go on to walking, changes of lane, then changes of system, and pivots, in that order, all with detailed instructions and exercises to make sure you have control of what you are doing, and freedom to improvise. The technique guide in chapters 1-14 is logically arranged and progressive, so that spending time on the earlier parts will be rewarded later and you can tell where to go back to if you get stuck.

At this point I would suggest flipping forward to chapter 20, which is devoted to the broader, less technical aspects of following and the follower's full role in the dance. I think many beginners would find it encouraging as well as helpful and important, and I would have put it at the end of the technique section instead of near the end of the book.

Next comes an introduction to the structure and characteristics of tango music, with chapters on rhythmic diversity, phrasing, and musical exercises to make your dance - in either role - more interesting.

The chapters of tips and experiences for social dancing and community-building would be as useful and time-saving for teachers and organisers as for students of the dance. Finally, there are tips on practicing and making the best use of teachers. And there's a very handy troubleshooting checklist hidden on page 156.

The diagrams and photos are clearly printed and of high quality, and looking closely at the drawings sometimes reveals an idea not spelled out in the text. The presentantion in general is not super-slick looking, but it does the job.

It is comprehensive, in the sense that if you can manage the techniques and have a reasonable grasp of the rest of it, you are well equipped for social dancing anywhere you want to go. For certain situations you'll need some extra techniques, but, to be honest, I rarely actually use anything that isn't either in here, or just a more complex application of the same ideas that requires more practice and physical skill. The only thing I use somewhat regularly that isn't covered is an open or fluid social embrace, which many people never use at all. Depending on where you are, this may or may not be a problem.

It stops before explicitly discussing turns. But it does cover all the techniques you need to do various kinds of turns, and it's very reasonable to assume that you'll be taking classes as well as using the book, especially if you are a beginner. In that case you'll discover how to apply the techniques to turns, and if you're not a beginner it will be obvious anyway.

It's very, very difficult to explain dance movements clearly in words, and it is all the harder in a dance where there are no real rules and very few conventions. Overall, Melina and Detlef do an outstandingly good job of it.

I recommend reading slowly. The English is perfectly fluent and clear, with excellent pronunciation on the DVD, but not native. Errors of word choice are minor; 'harmonic' instead of 'harmonious', Latin plurals for parts of the body, surprising mid-sentence changes of register, and a few invented-but-obvious or correct-but-obsolete words. None of this matters in speech, and non-native readers of English will probably not even notice them in writing. The only one that I think really needs fixing is the brain-bending "down-over-up", which sounds like some sort of quantum tunnelling. They mean down, sideways, and up. Not a problem on the DVD, where you can clearly see what is happening, so if you watch the DVD first, it won't puzzle you. There's an errata page to clear this up, along with couple of errors in diagrams and on the DVD.

The writing is clear, but not always concise. They give detailed reasons for every single statement of advice. This is a good thing, but mixing instruction and explanation in the same paragraph makes the instructions seem longer than they really are. If you simply note what you are being told to do and then do it, you will find that the instructions are easy to follow, practical, and reliable, and will give you a good, natural basic technique that minimises stress on the body and works well in a very wide range of situations. This is why their regular students dance very individually while being reliably easy to lead and follow. 

It also means that much more detail is provided than most people will need. Extra detail sections are provided for those who like them. You will know if that is you or not.

The great thing about having a book is that you can use the material in the way you learn best. As an adult who has taken classes, you probably know what format works for you. My natural approach to each chapter is to read the how-to, read the exercises, glance at the introduction to check how it all fits in, and finally look at the detail section to see if there's anything there that I like. Then I go back to the exercises and note in my own words what I am being asked to do, which can usually be very brief, and try whatever it is in my weekly practice session. So far, I've always had satisfying results.

I found the explanation of how to lead pivots exceptionally helpful - just having it clearer in my head produced an immediate improvement in clarity, in confidence, and in the range of movements I could improvise successfully. The explanation of how, physically, to pivot as follower or leader without hurting yourself or throwing yourself off balance is outstanding. This is an important topic, as it's very easy to get injured when trying to practice on your own. I also think my leading will benefit a lot from the exercises on musicality.

The DVD picture is not high definition, but it's well lit and well filmed. You can see a small excerpt on Melina's recent blog post about posture. The sound of the recorded voices is a little echoey at times; not enough to be a serious problem, but it is a bit annoying and detracts from the impression of quality given by the rather beautiful studio. There are quite a few sight gags in the DVD, in a style that will be very familiar to Melina and Detlef's regular students, but I don't think there are any Easter eggs. Tell me if you find one.

Overall, I think the book and DVD together are extremely valuable as a structured guide to fundamental techniques, and as a reference and troubleshooting manual for study and practice alone, with a partner, or in a group.  

I would add, for those who take a lot of classes and notice these things, that chapters 1 to maybe 5 or 6 of the book, and the corresponding DVD material, cover (in a lot more detail and with marginally different emphasis) the same material as Carlitos and Noelia do in their first one or two walking-and-embrace workshops of a basic set. It's explained and visualised differently, but as someone who's done both I can tell you that if you paid attention in either, in my opinion you'd end up doing the same physical thing. That's convergent evolution for you. By all means do both, if you like; they certainly won't conflict.

I am also about 60% sure that one of the stranger moments in the DVD is really an excerpt of a cutting-edge South-East-European Ex-Communist-Surrealist satirical art project. But only about 60%. They might be completely serious.

Available directly from or via Amazon (but with low 'long-tail' stock, so you're unlikely to get it any quicker, and the authors get less out of it, but it's up to you).

Monday, 21 December 2015

On sports car metaphors

Trud on a metaphor often used thoughtlessly:

The video (which up till now has been shared 500+ times) is meant for fun, yet it reminded me that it still exists, this idea that “a good follower is like a sports car”. Ok, I can see why “sports car” could sound like a compliment. I mean - quality and exclusivity and generally being the object of desire for most guys? C’mon, you’d be stupid not to want to be viewed like this. There’s just one problem with the metaphor: a car does not have a mind of its own. It doesn’t even have a brain. And for following, you need a brain.
I agree and disagree, for different reasons.

I completely concede that most women are likely to understand this metaphor as referring to an inanimate object that looks pretty, serves someone's vanity or pleasure, and has no other meaning. Because the world of sports cars - as often the case with STEM fields in general - is likely to be seen as unwelcoming to them, they will not have in mind any of what the car really represents.

But, for reasons particular to me, my default interpretation of 'sports car' is not, and never has been, a scaled-up designer handbag driven by a prat in shades. These do exist, of course, and they may well be what people have in mind when the metaphor is used. But I don't have to interpret any metaphor the way the speaker has in mind. Instead, I interpret it as a car designed for sport, that is, to win races.

Secondly, a racing car is much more than an inanimate object. It did not grow as it is, like a plant or an animal, or erode like a mountain. It is a made thing, made by people. Nor is it made to serve the driver; it is made to serve their mutual purpose of unreasonable speed. The two are made and chosen, respectively, for that alone.

If you think about what and who is really represented by that physical object, you will see something between a few hundred and several thousand people. The numerous highly skilled workers who made all the pieces, put them together and kept them in perfect working order; the enormous logistical effort; the trackside operation from the team principal, to the race engineer, to the fifteenth mechanic; and significant numbers of people with centuries' collective knowledge and experience of complex technology and critical engineering, materials science, physics, chemistry, fluid dynamics, electronics, computer science, and so on. I once briefly dated a guy who wrote scientific papers at a famous university about how the tyres worked. That's the kind of brain-power you need to put a racecar on the road, even a bad one. Driving is a skilled job, but it takes a lot more than that level of skill, dedication, or talent, to make a racecar.

I do not argue for one moment that anyone who uses this metaphor actually means it this way. I do not recommend using this metaphor. It's more likely to be understood as crushing and alienating, than not.

However, don't tell me that a racing car doesn't "have" a brain. While trivially true, it is also total nonsense. It has hundreds, and most of them are probably pretty good ones. And if someone uses this metaphor to you, I invite you to understand it my way.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

It's a very clear night

... with very little turbulence in the air. Where I live there is a little car park too small to have a light in the middle, but just big enough so you can stand in the middle and, at some angles, look up without any bright lights right in your view. The Pleiades and the nebula in Orion are really striking, even with the naked eye.

Also tonight I got the sharpest tango kick on the buttocks I have had for some time. It didn't hurt, but it was quite an unexpected punctuation in a nice tanda. Boink!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Review: Tango Negro - Film Africa Festival 2015

Dom Pedro, director of "Tango Negro - les racines
africaines du Tango"
Warning: this contains lots of spoilers. It's a documentary, it was only a single showing at the Royal African Society's annual film festival, and the chances that you'll get to see it are limited, so I think you might like to know what's in it. If you feel otherwise, stop when you get to the spoilers mark.

"Tango Negro" is directed and written by Angolan director Dom Pedro, who explained in the Q&A session that he was inspired to make this documentary by a football match in the 1990 World Cup between Argentina and Cameroon. Watching this match on TV in Paris, he asked himself why, given the football teams from Uruguay and Brazil, there were no black players for Argentina or Chile. A look at any globe tells you that this is a rather good question, by which I mean a question the answer to which is not obvious and might be very interesting. He decided to explore this question by means of music history.

The main presenter is Juan Carlos Cáceres. It was nice to hear from him, as he is responsible for this danceable tango nuevo track and for Tango Negro which gives its title to this film. We see him playing and interacting with other musicians and musicologists, black and white, in Argentina, Paris, and Uruguay. We also hear contributions from other musicians, an excellent drum band (pictured), instrument makers, cultural and family historians, cultural influencers, and so on. I'm sorry that I can't give you the names of the contributors, as they were only identified very briefly, and the film's website doesn't list them at all.

Excellent drumming band.
This is not, however, a film even mainly about music or dance. In fact, it is a mixture of musical interludes and a fascinating ramble through current cultural events and the social, political and demographic history of Argentina. I would be very interested to see a film about the music and dances of western Africa and their relationships with tango. This is an interesting film, but it's not that one.

-- Spoilers from here on. --

As a whole, the core argument is: there is a common belief among Argentinians and others that Argentina "is a white country" (as evidenced by the lived experience of actual fifth-generation black Argentinians being constantly asked if they are from Uruguay), which is in a sense mistaken, but is explained by history. A secondary argument, presented as evidence for the first, is that tango music could not have happened, and cannot be properly understood, without the African people of Argentina and Uruguay, their music, and the music and dance of the Congo region of West Africa.

The relevant history includes the active white-supremacist policies (my description, not the film's) of 19th and 20th century governments, which seem to have taken effect in three ways: a 19th century war that was pursued in such a way as to kill a disproportionate number of black men; an immigration project of mindboggling scale; and social incentives for the assimilation by marriage of the remaining black population of both sexes into white families over two centuries. The impression that I took away from the film was that these three processes reduced the visible African-ness of the population over about 150 years from perhaps sixty percent, or even more, to a level almost invisible to the eye in urban areas, while it remained clearly audible, along with other influences, in the popular music.

There are quite long sections where musicians of various backgrounds play together and music is allowed to speak for itself. These sections are really where the musical case is made, perhaps in the best way possible. But otherwise, the subject is much broader than music or dance.

The interviews take place in France, Argentina, and Uruguay, and I sometimes lost track of where we were. The camera work in some scenes is unsteady and difficult to watch. There's no linear chronology either to the history or to the discussion, there are a lot of contributors whose descriptions are hard to keep track of, the English subtitles have confusing mistakes, and the historical events aren't very clearly set out. The music for the film is mostly composed by Cáceres and the sound is good in general.

There are very few women in the film, among very numerous contributors. Two black Argentinian women make important contributions. The first speaks very touchingly about tango as a dance and about her parents, especially her father, an excellent dancer who made a living teaching tango: she was the only contributor who gave the impression of a personal attachment to the dance itself. The second was, I think, the president of a cultural association of African-descended Argentinians, and had eloquent, powerful insights about the historical stories illustrated in her own family. They were the most memorable contributors for me. A couple more women speak briefly, and another handful are unspeaking musicians or dancers.

The general absence of women otherwise - together with the absence of any discussion of characteristic instruments, melody, or social dance practices, and a reeled-off list of Uruguayan contributors to tango that didn't include Canaro - added to my feeling that the dance itself, with its history and development, was in no way a subject of the film and wasn't of much interest to the director. That's not a bad thing; you could fairly say the film is about much more important subjects; but you should bear it in mind if your personal interest is as a dancer.

As a dancer, I would have liked to hear more from the African and European musicologists who appeared only at the beginning. I wanted to know more about the Angolan and other West African partner dances that were mentioned but not shown. I wanted to know more about the word "tango" and it's meanings in various West African contexts and languages, which were mentioned, but not gone into. It's an odd sort of word, that anyone might wonder about. I wanted to hear more about candombe, the music and the dance and the events related to it; a "candombe ceremony" was mentioned as having been practiced annually and later replaced by a carnival, but it wasn't explained. It's possible that the expected audience didn't need that explanation, I don't know. The Kizomba part turned out to be only at the afterparty, which I wasn't still awake for.

This was not that film. This film addressed the question about the football match, the answer being partly "there actually are, in a sense" and partly "because policies sometimes achieve their aims". It told me a lot of things I didn't know, was touching and funny in places, and includes a lot of very enjoyable music. It wasn't a film mainly about dance, or entirely about music. But it inspired me with a lot of questions about those subjects, and if someone would like to go and make that film, I'd be happy to make a modest Patreon contribution.

Playlist and exercise for the interested reader

While waiting for my friends to arrive before the showing, I spent about thirty minutes going through the modest collection of tango music on my 'device' and making a playlist of those tracks whose titles or lyrics unambiguously say they are in some way or other about the the lives, music or culture of black people. Only half of them are milongas. All of them make some kind of musical reference beyond the lyrics, and someone who knows their music and lyrics better than me could certainly follow those musical threads to a much broader playlist. Here is what I got in half an hour, as a YouTube playlist. I'm sure many of my readers can do better, and even make tandas, so go ahead and post playlists in the comments, using any way of choosing you think is interesting, if you feel like it.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Leading and photos

I have noticed this year that the number of photos people take of me leading seems out of all proportion to the amount of time I spend leading, compared to following. I might lead only five or six tandas in a three-day festival where I hardly sat down, but four of them get photographed. At home I might lead half my tandas, but I'm still much more likely to get photographed leading. So if you looked at my facebook feed, you would have the impression that I lead much more of the time than I actually do. Why?

Obviously, almost every photograph of someone leading necessarily includes their partner as well, so I don't think it's possible that leaders as a group are more likely to be photographed than followers as a group. Nearly every picture clearly shows both. Yet, my personal chances of appearing in the pictures from a given event seem to go up suprisingly if I lead.

It's possible that I look better leading (my face is more visible and more animated), and I am therefore a more tempting subject. I certainly tend to like the pictures of me leading. If so, then, a photographer who is not trying to photograph everyone is more likely to choose me, rather than someone else, when I am leading as opposed to when I am following.

It's possible that everyone, considered as an individual, is a more tempting subject when they're leading, just because the follower's face is often hidden and the face is the most visually interesting and expressive part of any human. So that anyone who dances both roles is more likely to be photographed when leading. I think, if so, this means there should also be more multiple shots of the same leader with different partners than there are of the same follower with different partners, becaues the photographer is selecting leaders rather than followers.

It's possible that the whole thing is an illusion because I don't see all the photos of me following; some of those that don't show my face don't get identified as me, even though from the photographer's point of view they are photographs of the couple as a whole. Although nearly all the photos that show me will be seen and tagged by someone who knows me, Facebook, which is the primary tool used to communicate these things, intermittently makes it difficult to tag the back of someone's head, and people may not think it worthwhile to try.

It's possible that a woman leading seems worth photographing in itself because it's unusual. I wouldn't assume this, as it's not actually very unusual. But I would be interested to know if a man's chances of being photographed go up even more dramatically if he follows, that being so much less usual and therefore more interesting.

It could be a combination of all these, or something more complicated and subtle that affects the photographer's choices and their understanding and interpretation of what they see. Most of the people who take photographs at tango events are dancers themselves who understand very well what they are seeing, but some are not, and there may be a difference.

Any data in the comments, please. I have no problem with any of this. I just think it's intriguing.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

I love afterparties (and heels and flats)

I love afterparties - especially when everybody's almost too tired to stand up, but they still want to dance. They just want to dance. They're high as kites on dancing. Somebody DJs. Somebody has a portable speaker. Somehow a room has been found. And it just sort of happens. There's that wonderful no-obligation feeling where everything that was supposed to happen has already either happened, or not, and everything else is a bonus. If only we could bottle that feeling.

It's quite a bit easier, as a follower, to dance close-embrace tango on a bit of a heel, especially at first. To dance well in flat shoes with your feet properly down, you need pretty good posture and technique. Of course, you can do that, and a few women never wear heels at all. Others just don't feel right without heels. Others just see heels in moderation as part of the dressing-up fun, which is where I am most of the time. There are some men I prefer to wear heels for, and it's usually more a matter of dance style than height: if someone throws boleos around my axis then it works more smoothly for me in heels. I'd rather be in flats to lead, but the better the follower, the less it matters. At an afterparty, I'm going to be in flats.

But the point is, I often think flat feet are wonderfully expressive, and these ones are particularly nice, which is why I started videoing them in the first place. Try watching it with the sound off, and notice how much you can hear the music. A minute later I was dancing again.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Dancing with DJs

Dancing with DJs is fascinating. A few experiments over quite a few years:

Dance results ..... DJing results
Always on the beat, but nothing in between the beats, and no concept of the musical phrase...... Strong music, senselessly arranged.
Plain vanilla Salon, sense of emotional  engagement hard to find..... Careful, well-organised, reliable sets, if unexciting
Talented and fun, salted with a few things he can't actually do, but only occasionally..... Enjoyable set, with a couple of interesting failures.
Original, interesting, rather vague, and very difficult to follow..... 20% enchanted, 80% asleep
Good, give or take temporary obsessions with something-or-other, so that you dread it coming.
..... Good, give or take temporary obsessions with second-rank orchestras and omitting the Di Sarli tanda.
Smooth, sensual, salon with a heart, good allrounder, averts eyes from Wonderbra at the perfect moment

..... Strong, unpretentious, disciplined sets with a good connection to the floor
Totally secure in what he does. Total calm, simplicity, self-belief, and feeling.
..... Full range of top tracks, so immensely arranged that everyone present is still dancing in the 24th hour of 24 hours of dancing over three days, or so the icebreaking impetus of an opening set lasts the whole weekend, and I've seen him do this over and over again.


Monday, 12 October 2015

Ohhh what a tanda

Each of these three milongas is rather one-of-a-kind and people arrange them in various tandas with various other things and various results. Only for the first one are there any obvious choices at all. I have an idea of what I normally expect to hear after the first one. This wasn't that - it was so much better.

I think this is my favourite milonga tanda ever. I danced it this weekend. Lampis played it. I'm so glad I was dancing. I'm not saying it would work in every situation. But that day, that time - it was not wasted.

 I'll just make a playlist so you can click the Play button right in the middle, and go away. No spoilers below.

My thought process while this was played:

1. This is a good milonga, a lot of fun. I wanna dance. Ooh, you'll do. And how. Come here. Let's go.
2. What's next? Sure to be another good milonga. Oh, wow! I hadn't thought of that! Even better!
3. Now what? .... oh - my - word. You legend. My car is on fire.

In putting this playlist together, I also realised the tanda's even better if you look up the words.

Thinking about it restores me to an (approximately) vertical posture after a weekend total of 24 hours of dancing and 12 hours of sleep. I might even be able to cook a ten-minute dinner without falling down.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Death to toxic inane sexist talk

Here's a quote which my friend Trud related on Facebook (it's not on her blog) from a follower technique class. She said the class was a very good one and during it the teacher said this:

“Don’t make it easy for the leaders! If you do whatever they want, even if they’re being lazy with their lead, you’re spoiling them.”
The reason Trud quoted this is that she approves of women being encouraged to focus on the quality of their own dance in class. I agree that that's a good thing to do. I don't agree that this does it.

No. What the teacher said is sexist and inane. Saying it at all conveys an unambiguous message to the women that quality in their dance exists to serve the man's, and is not worth attention for its own sake. Which is false, and toxic.

Nobody ever says to the men "Don't heave the followers around with your arms, it will stop them learning to follow". People say "Don't heave them around, it doesn't feel nice (which is bad dancing)". They say "Don't heave them around, you might hurt them (which is bad dancing)". But "Don't heave them around, you're spoiling them so they don't have to follow"? No. Nobody thinks they need to encourage a man's efforts in working on his dance by reminding him how they will improve the quality of someone else's. That would be pointless, because quality in his dance justifies the effort by itself, and he's there to work on his own dance. Whereas the women, apparently, are unpaid class assistants, automatically qualified as such because their own dance is so trivial there is no difference between qualified and not.

And then teachers who constantly remind the women how they can help the men "too", telling themselve they're just mentioning it as a kind of icing on the cake, wonder why the women dance like mice. Because you told them to, and you're contradicting yourself when you tell them to dance like tigers. The message you're not conscious of, that tells us what your beliefs are about our place in the world, will always come through more strongly, because unconcious messages are the ones people really believe. Otherwise they wouldn't give them. Because, by definition, they're not giving them on purpose.

By all means, actively and consciously recognise that women are often brought up to believe that they are there to serve and that every goal and effort must be justified and excused in terms of how it serves someone else. By all means bear this in mind, and how it drains effort and quashes ambition. But challenge it, don't affirm and reinforce it.

Tell the women to dance well. Tell them how to dance well. Tell them to make it a personal ambition, and not to betray it. Treat following as dancing. Take it seriously as something difficult and rewarding that can be done well or badly. Take it for granted that dancing well, by definition, serves everyone it is supposed to serve, and principally the dancer. Talk as though you believe that dancing the best you can is a valid, satisfying and worthy goal for anyone, an adequate justification for persistent effort, that can be allowed to stand alone. Do that by allowing it to stand alone. Refrain from talking as though you don't believe it.

People say this sort of thing all the time, it's persistent and pervasive, it has always annoyed me, from day one, and I ... would like to ask that teachers stop it.

When you hear yourself saying "Don't anticipate or guess, because it's bad dancing and it doesn't do the leaders any good either", just stop after the "dancing". Or, if the sentence still feels somehow painfully incomplete, forgive yourself for feeling like that, and then replace the missing part with something useful, and say "Don't anticipate or guess, because it's bad dancing and you are here to improve your dance, so concentrate hard on whatever happens and do exactly what you feel every time. Pay attention to small differences, which will make you get better. If you don't know what to do, ask for help."

Forgive yourself for having the stupid, toxic assumptions culture and society have put on you. Then kill them.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A very short film of hope and loss

A filmlet by Matthew Cooper, whose work you should no longer be deprived of. Featuring Andreas going "the wrong way", it's one minute and one second of humanity adrift in a Vorticist world.

If you have the privilege of following Matthew on Facebook you will know that stuff just happens in front of him; he quite often films it; and he has a genius for investing it with humour, meaning, and suspense.

The one below is a response to my post "Balloons", where I said:

When I've had a really lovely dance, it seems like the little girl inside, the little girl who didn't have to go to school yet and was full of joy, is smiling and holding a balloon.
I should have posted it before.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Not-boring stage tango!

Here's a thing. The performance beginning at 13 minutes in this video is the very first time I've ever seen [professional] tango escenario (stage tango or tango-ballet) done as though it were being done sincerely as expressive dance, rather than just an athletic display or pose-fest. Her dress is designed to place the action in time; they make bold use of a simple prop to tell a touching story; it corresponds with the lyrics; they even act. The dancing mostly serves it. Acting is so much better when you've got something to say. The embed should start from 13:00.

They are couple number 546, Juan Pablo Bulich and Rocio Garcia Liedo.

They didn't win; they placed second. The winning performance comes at 11:19 in section 3, by Camila Alegre and Ezequiel Jesus Lopez. I think this one is also better than the others. I watched it without feeling bored, because it's another coherent performance with the dancing appearing to serve a sincerely-held idea that corresponds with the music, as opposed to a mess of conventional tropes serving as excuses for poses. It didn't grab me as much as the one above, but it might be better technique-wise. The second embed shows the winning performance from 1:15, with the presentations before that.

All the others are much of a muchness, to me, give or take some business with clothing, and I don't have any reason to suggest you watch them, except in order to find out if you agree or not. You can find all the relevant videos at the bottom of this playlist or at Aires de Milonga.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Empathy in teachers

Sometimes you notice that someone is following their true vocation.

The ability to detect how people are feeling in themselves, independently of what they express, makes you a better teacher. It's not the same as the ability to explain things clearly. Instead, it allows you to go straight to the heart of whatever problem the student is having with understanding or execution. If you tell them how they are feeling, they will tell you what the problem is. It allows you to remove obstacles, easily, that would prevent someone else's just-as-clear explanation being any use at all.

Empathy, an unfeigned interest in other people, gets things done.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Leading FAQ

As these actually are, unlike most "FAQs", somewhat FA, I thought I might as well write down my current answers.

Why do you lead?
I like good dancing, I enjoy working on my dance, and I want to dance with the women as well. They're great. I was also really curious to find out what it felt like.

Do you find you keep trying to go the wrong way and do everything the wrong way round?
Yes, at first, but it wears off quickly. Having other people around seems to sort it out. Doing the mirror-image of whatever I was trying to do, also seems to be less common with time. The more I practice, the better I can visualise whatever it is I want to do.

Do you have a hard time remembering to keep your eyes open?
Yes, at first! But this also wears off very quickly.

How does it affect your following?
It's made it better. The very first thing it did, the first time I tried it, was tune me into the music a bit differently. The next thing was to give me confidence as a follower, because you discover what you've been doing right, especially just how magic it feels if you follow well and move well. When I started doing it more seriously, it improved my technique, making me stronger and better grounded. After a bit more practice, I started to learn how good the women are, and what that actually means, and what it feels like when they really start to get into it, which is enchanting. And I also find it improves my concentration and frees me from the pressure to do too much and try too hard as a follower; I usually feel in myself that I am dancing better just after I've been leading.

That's so brave!?
If you're already a good follower, and then you start leading and taking it seriously, you just have to accept that you're going to go back to not being very good for a while. You had the privilege of learning to follow first, which saves a lot of work. But it's still a lot of work; so if you want to do it, and you have the opportunity, you do it, and if you don't specially want to do it, you don't bother. The men seem to manage it.

How do the men react?
I have yet to encounter any negative reaction from anyone, male or female. The men I regularly dance with as a follower have without exception been enthusiastically encouraging, and they are often interested to hear my perspective and experiences as well as share their own. I have also found it's a real and particular pleasure to share the floor amicably with someone as a fellow leader and then later dance with him for the first time. Sometimes - often - they make some pleasant remark about having seen me leading.

How do you find the floorcraft?
Some places are obviously much harder than others. It does take practice, especially to avoid getting too close to the couple in front. I started out at emptier times and places.  It takes miles on the clock to be able to deal with the cognitive load of leading, responding to the follower, and keeping track of where other couples are and how they are moving. That's one reason why there is always so much you can do in practice that you can't do in the milonga. If the floor is chaotic and stressful and generally hard to deal with, my technique will be weaker and I'll make a lot more errors, my improvisation will be much more repetitive, and I'll deal with it much less gracefully if I accidentally do something I didn't know how to do.

In some places, it's very difficult, and in others it's easy, but I find I can deal with it; better or worse depending on the difficulty level.

Do you always lead?
No, it depends on the situation. To some milongas I go to to lead, to some milongas I go to follow, to some milongas I go to do both. In that case, I usually start the milonga leading, then switch, and sometimes at that point I will change my 'look' in more than just the shoes. Sometimes I decide when I get there.

Which do you prefer?
Supposing other things to be equal, I usually say that I prefer following because I'm much better at it. I don't think I have enough experience at leading to say whether one is more fun that the other under ideal conditions. I'm finding leading very addictive, perhaps because I've had less experience, and therefore improvement with work is so much more noticeable. The process of discovery is also fun in itself. And the social side is fascinating. At the moment, I'd say that they are very different states of mind and it is a bit like saying whether I prefer steak or icecream. It depends on so many things. Equality is not equivalence.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Sir John Taylor's Top Hat

When we lived in Manchester in the 80s, my Dad was a partner in a law firm called John Taylor & Co. The firm's founder, John Taylor, had written the definitive technical book about contracts for buying woven cloth. He gave many lectures on the subject, and was knighted "for political and public services in Blackburn" (Supplement to the London Gazette, 11 May 1937). In case you are wondering, that is the same Blackburn, Lancashire as in the song, and that's where John Taylor was from, and where he originally started the firm. He had an original approach to practice development, arranging to work on the morning shift in a textile mill before going into the office, which is why he understood things like how many faults per square inch you could customarily have before cloth became 'seconds'. He died in his 90s, without retiring, perhaps a decade before Dad joined the firm.

As the textile industry completed its decline, the firm merged with another one and the offices of John Taylor & Co were cleared out. My Dad felt very sad about the loss of the firm's history and brand, which had been very well known and respected for generations. He rescued some things that would otherwise have been thrown away; a few documents, I think, that didn't mean much any more, and Sir John Taylor's top hat.

It still lives in its original box.

The leather box is in very good condition; the largest strap is worn and flaking, and the handle is worn, but all the buckles undo quite easily with no stiffness.

The box is lined with deep pink velvet, and the hat has some tissue paper inside.

On removing the paper, I discover that Sir John's bow-tie has also been preserved. My Dad thinks that a top-hat and bow tie may have been required wear at the Cotton Exchange, so it would make perfect sense for Sir John to keep them at the office. And when he eventually died, there they stayed. The Cotton Exchange was where the weavers and spinners went to make deals with the Liverpool merchants, and was probably the reason why the firm opened an office in Manchester after beginning in Blackburn.

The maker's label reads:
Hatters to H.M. the King
1 Old Bond Street, W.

However, in the top, not only Scotts' name is given, but also the name of Alfred Pellett Ltd of Manchester. So perhaps Sir John was measured for the hat in Manchester by Pellett, and the hat ordered from London, or even manufactured or finished in Manchester by Pellett as some sort of licensee for the Scotts brand. Of course he could have ordered the hat in London - we know for sure that he went there at least once, to be knighted - but in that case I don't see why it would have Pellett's name. At any rate, the initials JT have been added, proudly embossed in gold. I suppose Scotts offered some personalisation as part of their service.

I also don't see any dates here. Scotts as a company existed at least from 1890 to 1963, and the words "The King" only make sense between January 1901, when Queen Victoria died, and the present Queen's coronation in 1953.

Finally, I lift out the hat.

I suppose that the material is silk velvet. I'm curious about how it's made. I particularly admire the top; the circular nap seems to have grown that way, like the crown of an animal's head. There are no visible seams.

The raised edges of the brim are beautifully done. In this picture you can also see the only sign of damage. The hat has certainly been worn a fair amount, but perhaps it was reserved for special business - remembering that it was left in the firm's offices, not at Sir John's home.

I also admire the box, and how it's perfectly adapted to the shape of the hat.

The only thing I have done is gently lift off a little dust with a microfibre cloth. Otherwise I have touched it as little as possible and put it back in the box.

If you know anything about the manufacture of top hats in London or Manchester by Scotts, Pellett, or anyone else, I'd be interested to hear it in the comments or by email at the usual address.
1 This is probably the right citation: "The KING has been graciously pleased, on the occasion of His Majesty's Coronation, to signify his intention of conferring the Honour of Knighthood upon the following: — ... John Taylor, Esq. For political and public services in Blackburn." That's a bit vague, I was expecting "services to the textile industry". I'm curious as to what the 'political services' were - it might or might not mean that he served in some public office in Blackburn, perhaps as a councillor. In the next issue, 15th June 1937, we see him travelling to Buckingham Palace to receive his honour. The Gazette search is pretty good once you get the hang of it.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Go outside and look now

Look towards the sunset right now and just above the roofline of a house as far away as the other side of a car park there are Venus (big) and Jupiter very close together (small, higher, to the left - or lower and to the right, if you are in the Southern Hemisphere - no, wait - it seems like that should work but I am not sure there is anywhere you could actually see them from). My binoculars are not achromatic, and my eyes are not perfect either, but in the twilight I can see one, maybe two moons of Jupiter; and convince myself that Venus is a fat crescent, like the lady in Midsummer Night's Dream, with her belly toward the Sun.


    Set your heart at rest:
    The fairy land buys not the child of me.
    His mother was a votaress of my order:
    And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
    Full often hath she gossip'd by my side,
    And sat with me on Neptune's yellow sands,
    Marking the embarked traders on the flood,
    When we have laugh'd to see the sails conceive
    And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
    Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
    Following,--her womb then rich with my young squire,--
    Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
    To fetch me trifles, and return again,
    As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
    But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
    And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
    And for her sake I will not part with him.

A passage the context of which had made little impression on me as a youngster. The speech was much stronger when I looked it up just now, compared to what I remembered.

Update: most readers will have missed that because it took me so long to fix the formatting, but the bright thing at at 3 o'clock from the Moon right now (or 9 o'clock if you are the other way up) is Saturn, and in my binoculars it is an oval blob, not a circular blob like Jupiter is.

Monday, 22 June 2015

58, crore, and 27

This is brilliant. I've known about crores and lakhs since about 2001, although I always have to look up what they are (one lakh is a hundred thousand, written "1,00,000"; one crore is a hundred hundred thousand - or ten thousand thousand, or ten million, written "1,00,00,000"). If you don't know them already, you will meet them a lot if you start reading articles about bribery and corruption in cricket. But this video gets way better than that. My favourite part:

"and I think that's one of the best things about linguistics, about being human, about all of this, someone on the other side of the world, something that they will consider absolutely normal, will completely blow your mind".

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Travels of Tuneage - Dark Eyes

It appears that the words of the song known as "Dark Eyes" were written by a Ukranian poet called Yevhen Pavlovych Hrebinka, who published a Russian version in 1843, possibly as a compliment to the woman he later married. It was then set - it doesn't seem clear by whom or when - to a waltz written, probably in Russia, perhaps as early as the 1810s, by a German (or possibly French) composer called Florian or Feodor Hermann.

First, here's the playlist link for this post, in case you want to open it in another window and just let it play.

The title of this waltz is given by Wikipedia and others in French as "valse hommage", but this pianist, Alexander Zlatkovski of Alaska,  calls it "Recollection", which seems to me like a reasonable translation. His research has found one account saying it started out as a march and was changed to a waltz by the composer, which is interesting in relation to what happens later, although he's not at all convinced.

The result - perhaps with a minor rewrite adding some gloomier words, since Hrebinka and the young lady seem to have got on fine - was the song popularised by the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. The title Очи чёрные is written in several ways in Roman letters, but most often as "ochi chornye". A similar version is played by violinist Albert Sandler in this Pathé clip (not on the Youtube playlist).

At about the same time - 1915 to 1920 - it seems to have been rewritten with English words by an British Italian composer, Adalgiso Ferraris. He made one big change; the rhythm. Here's Al Bowlly singing. Rhythmically and melodically, and minus the over-drastic changes of speed towards the end, this would be a sweet tango, a bit like Rafael Canaro's French ones. It doesn't have enough oomph for me, and it's too dominated by the vocalist, but it's quite nice.

Ferraris is also the credited on this '78 by Harry Parry and his radio sextet; but they're taking it in a totally different direction, dancewise.

Toto, I don't think we are waltzing any more.

Nor, apparently, did Louis Armstrong, or his percussionist:

That's the one that started me making this little collection, when Deborah Segantini posted it on Facebook.

 So, we get lots of different versions, each artist adding their own riffs to complement the simple and memorable tune.

Django Reinhardt called it "Les Yeux Noirs".

This French movie version of Les Yeux Noirs, is a waltz again, with accordion. But only until the end of the vocal line. Then it changes at 1:50 and goes for the 'gypsy' sound.

This bombastic performance by the Red Army Choir does the same thing. Eventually.

There's also a German waltz version which seems to be just a translation - Schwartze Augen - of Chaliapin's hit, and, in my opinion, need not detain us, not even on the playlist. I far prefer the drunk-sounding jazz one from the soundtrack of Das Boot.

Chet Atkins' version follows Les Yeux Noirs in starting out as a waltz and then changing after the first minute and doing something else.

I can't really compare all these very different styles of music. But of all the ways this melody gets extended and enhanced, I think Francisco Canaro's B-tune in Ojos Negros is exceptionally good. Instead of brilliant variations on the tune and rhythm, this beautiful tango - with Roberto Maida singing the Spanish words - adds a second melody the equal of the first. As far as I know, the second melody is original to this piece - if anyone knows otherwise, do put it in the comments.

Now, let's meet a totally different sound world. This one was written in Sundanese (the language of the western part of Java) by an Indonesian composer Ismael Marzuki in honour of his wife, who was from round there.

It actually reminds me, a bit, of the more lyrical kizombas (kizomba is the "angolan tango" that I sometimes play at work to drown my colleagues' wittering - check it out on YouTube. It varies a lot).

 Panon Hideung comes in a Karaoke version, with dancing. Go on, click.

You may already be wondering what this song is called in Japanese.

It's called Dark Eyes. The title is written 黒い瞳 and pronounced Kuroi Hitomi. Embedding is disabled on this version by popular 50's crooner Frank Nagai, whose singing I must say is lovely. I thought I had the wrong thing at first, but then realised it does the reverse of what Canaro does: the words have their own, different melody, and Dark Eyes doesn't come in till 1:38, with the instrumental section. There's a very regular ballroom tango beat.

Once you know how to copy/paste the title, you can quickly find versions with the "Dark Eyes" melody sung. Here's a Karaoke one. I notice "J. Iglesias" is mentioned in the opening credits. Investigating Julio Iglesias' involvement with this particular tune is left as an exercise for the reader. there are probably lots more directions we could go in.

I will sign off for the night, however, with this indescribably sweet Japanese choral take. It's a waltz to begin with, then changes, like Les Yeux Noirs. It seems a lot of mid-twentieth-century French songs have versions in Japanese, and that may well be where this came from.

Special thanks go to Deborah Segantini for the idea and to Hidemi Asano for her Japanese research.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Guess the winner

Here's a bit of fun. The Campeonato de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires (City Championship) is different from the Mundial (World Championship) and in my opinion a bit more watchable.

Here are the tango, vals, and milonga finals. The same couple won all three, which apparently isn't what usually happens. Why not watch them and see if you can guess which one it was? I don't know if I would have guessed right or not, because I happened to see who had won before I found these videos (so will you, if you Google it, so don't if you want to play).

All the videos are courtesy of Aires de Milonga, and as far as I can figure out it's okay to embed them. Go ahead and visit the website, there's all sorts of interesting stuff on there. First the tango:


And Vals (this one includes the introduction of the couples - ff to 03:15 to skip that):

There's a copy of the rules and format available at - I don't know if it will remain there. The part about what the judges are looking for is headed DEL CERTAMEN (PARÁMETROS DE EVALUACIÓN).

But the reason I posted this is that I really like the result. I really, really like their dancing, and I think they look as though they are dancing for fun with each other rather than trying to show off. As though they are really surprised and delighted to be there, but not letting it get to them. In between dances they do the sorts of things that people normally do when the music stops, like looking a bit hot and out of breath, fidgeting, flapping about and bumping into their neighbours (which incurs no penalty, between tracks). They are very rhythmical and musical; they are not scared to stand still at the right moments. To find the answer you can watch the presentations: either go to Aires de Milonga and scroll down for the whole lot, or watch the first one, the vals, here (04:43 for first place) and the milonga here. Note; there are ties for fifth place in the vals and second place in the milonga. I like the presentations too. Everyone looks so pleased. It must be lovely to have someone in your life who is having such fun and wants the same thing so much.

On Following

Ok, this started in a facebook thread about a video. But it's too long. To summarise, a lot of people are very anxious to spell out that "following does not mean the woman is submissive in tango". I can see why. I can see lots of causes for people feeling bothered about the possibility that people might think that. People saying silly things on Strictly Come Dancing is only the most obvious. But I also think we often make this too complicated. And people worry sometimes about whether the terms "lead" and "follow" are the best terms.

I think that particular debate is backwards. If I were teaching this to someone else, I would use "leading" and "following" rather than any other terms; but I would point out what they actually mean, along with a couple of other things.

"Following" someone, or something, is an active process by definition. It is impossible to "follow", other than on purpose. I can "follow" you home, or along a crowded street, whether you like it or not, but under no circumstances can you "lead" me, in any context, unless I make a continuous and active choice. Leading, by definition, is acting in such a way that one or more people decide to follow you and thereby attempt something which they have now decided should happen. It is quite possible to lead accidentally, at least for a while, if someone takes it into their head to follow you. And success in leading - in any context - can only be defined in terms of other people's actions.

For me the terms are fine, and following is obviously and by definition the beginning, heart, and end of the whole process. The dance starts with one person's decision to follow another, continues with their decision to continue, and ends with their decision to stop. Leading, and everything else, is the play and fun of finding out what the couple can do with that.

The delightful 'floating' sensation of non-volition which you sometimes get when following, especially as a beginner, is not because the leader is magically making you do stuff; it's because a lot of the cognitive and physical skills you are using are ones that you're not normally conscious of at all. So you have no idea they are happening, or how unbelievably complex and powerful they are; you just use them without thinking about it or realising you've done so. You think it's happening without will, when in fact it's just happening without consciousness. It starts out as animal process, and you get better at it by refining and building on what the animal can do.

The better I get at leading, the more ability I will have to 'follow back' those followers who do it well enough that they communicate to me what their animal wants to do. This is a lot of fun.

The fact that this dance is, at the same time, a specifically gendered role-playing game, may add to the fun in many ways (at least, it certainly does for me) but it also misleads our thinking. The only reason anyone ever interprets the concept of 'following' as anything less active and self-determining than, say, a batsman hitting a good bowler for six1, is that in the evolution of this dance it is the female gendered role. If this were not the case, then "following" would be interpreted in the sense that a hunter "follows" prey.

It's not the other way around. It's not that women are assigned a passive or subordinate role. It's that the role assigned to women is therefore misinterpreted as being passive or subordinate, despite that interpretation ignoring the normal meaning of the word and completely erasing the real process of improvisation and the core of the dance itself.

You do not have to feel low-status because you are not currently deciding what specifically happens next. You can delegate responsibility for that question without feeling guilty or ashamed about it. What specifically happens next is not really where the creation happens or what the dance is all about. Any creation that happens is already in terms of you. You can also, in my view, enjoy a gender role-playing game without feeling guilty about it. Do what gives you pleasure; that is precisely what partner dances are for.

1 Not actually a bad analogy for following some difficult or overexcited professionals. You might object that bowler and batsman are adversaries, not cooperating. Of course they are cooperating. They are cooperating in a game of cricket. The only matter of dispute is who wins, which is nothing more than a factitious notion technically required to get the best out of the partnership. We know this because people climb up Kilimanjaro and sail to to Antartica specifically in order to play cricket with each other in calderas or surrounded by penguins.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Approach to Leading

Since about January 2014 I've been taking my leading more seriously. I was curious, and wanted to dance with the women as well. They're great. So that meant I needed to choose an approach to how I was going to do that.

I have had a lot of education and I know a lot about how I learn. If I take a class as a leader, with not much experience of leading, then I will spend 99% of my time and effort trying to work out what the teacher wants me to do. Physical actions that you cannot already do yourself are very difficult to comprehend visually. It takes a lot of time and repetition. Actions you can already do, intentionally not just physically, are easy to comprehend.

This is true even in high quality classes. If the class covers something I can't already do, I'll be very lucky indeed if I ever get to work on that thing in any meaningful way.

For basic classes, there's also the problem that I'll be dancing with beginners, which is fine for an enjoyable dance if you already have the skill-set for it as a leader, but is extremely inefficient for learning.

I've also already taken a lot of classes, in which I paid attention and stored the information which I'd never have been able to remember if I'd been trying to lead at the same time. Most classes are, in my experience, much more potentially useful to the followers than the leaders, even - and often, especially - the kind where they don't really talk to the followers at all. I say potentially, because you have to think about what's happening to get the best out of them. But as a follower switching partners, you get the opportunity to really listen, plus lots of great practice and reliable experimental data.

As an experienced follower learning to lead, I already know what I should be doing, what I can do, what I can't do, and what I want to learn. I also have a lot of friends who are really good followers, and who are willing to help me out, and in some cases are doing the same thing themselves, so we can swap.

When I have access to a suitable floor and a suitable person to practice with, I want to spend 100% of my time putting in the miles and the physical effort and experimentation that's necessary to go from knowing it to doing it and understanding it. If you have a full time job and you dance socially as well, practice time with a floor and the motivation and a good follower is a scarce resource.

But I still need to decide what to do in each session.

Everybody knows that collecting moves doesn't work; the right approach is to work on skills. If you have the skills then the moves are not a problem, you just do them. If you don't have the skills then you can learn moves, but you'll be faking them and it will show. But - you work on skills by doing some particular movement. And there is absolutely no substitute for dancing in the milonga.

So, from about this time last year, I've been making sure I lead sometimes in social dancing, practicing, and studying.

Studying? Yes. Since I started dancing, there has been an explosion of high quality videos of high quality dancing. I can download the ones I find useful from YouTube using something like, put them in my secondhand tablet, and study them on the Underground on the way to and from work. I can watch people do things and try to deduce how they're done.

So, my approach is to work on a skill if I know exactly what it is that I need next, and can work on it in isolation. I always have in mind some overall idea of what skills I am currently working on; what it is that my body needs to get the hang of.

But when deciding where to start in a practice session, I can pick something from a video that I want to do and can't do, watch it over and over on the Tube and try to imagine how it functions, and when I actually have a partner in front of me I can try to do it. Normally, it won't work at the first attempt. We can then both try to find out why not, or find some part of it or some related thing that does work. Then I can go away and watch again, armed with this new information, and I will probably discover what I misunderstood or what skill was missing and has to be learned first, before whatever this is will work. Often, I find that I totally misunderstood what was happening; I've sometimes been doing a mirror-image. Then I can try it again next time I have access to a partner to practice with. Something, even if it's not what I aimed for, will click that time or next time. If not, I can work on something else and come back to it later. By repeating this process, I will almost always learn something, and whatever it was has a decent chance of staying learned.

Another thing videos are useful for is seeing different approaches to music. I might have danced a certain orchestra with someone who hears it one way, and liked it, but then find that that approach just doesn't work for me as a leader. I may find a video with an equally good one, that does. Or I may find a video with a particular orchestra that suggests a more practical, achievable or floor-friendly way of dancing it than my first instinctive response.

One thing I've really noticed is that as I learn more movements as a leader, it becomes easier to comprehend visually what other people are doing. I recognise more and more elements of what I see. I spot movements that it would not have occurred to me to make, and how they are being used. Suddenly I realise which different things are really the same, or have something in common.

Once I can already fairly easily do most things in the class, only then does it become possible to take the class without feeling that it's a complete waste of time. Most of the time, though, they aren't my best opportunity for progress.

The process is also a ton of fun. I enjoy doing it myself far too much to pay someone else to help me, beyond advice and feedback if I get stuck with technique. Although that doesn't mean I don't want to hear people's thinking and different descriptions of how they do things. I do. You can learn a lot from the differences and the common ground.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Strictly Come Dancing and the Tango World Championship

This post is here to clear up some mysteries about Argentine Tango on Strictly Come Dancing. It's going to be pretty long and it is VERY old news, that is, several years. [Update - I've just been forwarded a press release for "The Last Tango" dated 24th April 2015 repeating the claim "Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace - World Champions", so maybe not such old news after all.]

So, the mysteries. I have started from the premise that I am seeing, not a wickedness or an incompetence to be criticised, but a mystery to be explained.

If you're an SCD viewer and not particularly into tango, you may want to refer to Argentine Tango for TV Viewers. If you haven't got time, then just take it as read it's a ballroom show, and that's a totally seperate, unrelated community and practice to what I talk about on this blog.

The mysteries, in essence, are:

1.Why is it that when the Argentine Tango comes along, the celebrities usually look like perfectly decent beginners (and the men tend to look better than the women), but the professionals look awkward, stiff, effortful and disconnected? Sometimes, with good choreographies, this doesn't happen - but usually it does.
2. Why do the judges and commentators sometimes give technique advice for tango that appears to  contradict what we normally do in tango?
3. What exactly were Vincent and Flavia "World Champions" of?

It turns out, after some research, that the answer to each of these things explains the others, in reverse order. So I'll start with number 3.

What exactly were Vincent and Flavia "World Champions" of?

Here is the un-forgettable Bruce Forsyth, in an episode broadcast on 9th December 2007. At twelve seconds in, he says:
"Please welcome the two-times World Argentine Tango Show Champions, our very own Vincent and Flavia!"

Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace are a dance teaching and performance partnership who appeared on SCD for a few years. There is currently no such claim on their official site, but there is something like it on the website of their stage show,
Titles include: UK Professional Ten Dance champions 2002–2006; UK Professional Showdance champions 2003–2006; UK Argentine Tango champions 2006 (first time competition has ever been held); World Argentine Tango Show champions 2005/2006; UK Ballroom champions for several years; World and European Ten Dance and Showdance finalists 2002–2006. 2006 saw their move away from competitions, and from the fourth series onwards, into recurring roles on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.
The UK part is clear. In 2006 there was a UK feeder competition for the Tango World Championship or Mundial de Tango, held at Negracha Tango Club.  According to friends and acquaintances who were there, there were very few entrants, and not of a high standard. Vincent and Flavia did a professional job, treated the event with respect, and won. No similar event was organised again until 2014 (see mega-footnote 1).

The "World Champions" part is the mystifying one. It sounds like the next level up of the same competition; but that's not true.

 This is the performance that won the Escenario ("Stage", or "Show") category of that same tango word championship ("Mundial de Tango") in Buenos Aires in 2005. The couple were German Cornejo and María de los Angeles Trabichet, of Argentina. German Cornejo, incidentally, is the choreographer of the current Tango Fire show at the Peacock, which I reviewed here.

In 2006 it was won by a Colombian couple, Carlos Alberto Paredes and Diana Giraldo Rivera. I can't find video of the performance, but there is plenty of video of them doing later demonstrations. Here's a tango-nuevo one, the style I think they look most at home in.

Neither of those couples, obviously, is Vincent and Flavia.

The Tango World Championship, or Campeonato Mundial de Baile de Tango, has been held in Buenos Aires annually since 2003. It has two categories, Salon (which means ballroom, that is, improvised dancing suitable, at least in theory, for a sufficiently roomy social dance floor) and Escenario (which means stage, that is, choreography suitable for the stage). It's very well known. I should clarify that not everyone who dances tango is particularly crazy about either the concept or the contents. Competition isn't much of a thing in tango communities; and a lot of excellent dancers, maybe the majority, maybe even a large majority, are uninterested in the Mundial or the styles of dancing that it promotes. However, it gets entrants from all over the world who dance extremely well in those styles. Most people who dance tango have heard of it at least once. It's definitely the only tango competition of which that is true. It's difficult to win, it's definitely prestigious in a certain way, and people get substantial career benefits as teachers and performers from doing well in it.

Although the official website of the championship is unhelpful, Wikipedia has a convenient listing of the winners from 2003, when it was first held. The first few years have had  to be compiled from newspaper reports, so I included those links above.Vincent and Flavia have definitely never won it in any year. So what was Brucie on about?

The obvious path is to email Vincent and Flavia at the address given on their website, and politely ask what competition it was that they won. So I did that. I got the following reply:
Hi Flavia

Can you help me with the answer to this one, or shall I ignore it? G X X 
This is what your web site used to say
2002-2006 UK Professional Ten Dance Champions,
2003-2006 UK Professional Show Dance Champions,
2006 UK Argentine Tango Show Champions,
2005/6 World Argentine Tango Show Champions,
2002-2006 World and European Ten Dance and Showdance Finalists

(Highlighting mine). This was actually rather helpful, as otherwise I wouldn't have been sure that they'd ever made any such claim themselves. Since it seemed needless to pursue an unwelcome correspondence, when I'd stopped laughing, I did a bit more asking around, with the help of a few friends.

The extremely careful and detailed stats website Ultimate Strictly has the following rather different information:

  • Negracha club UK Argentine Tango Champions, 2006
  • IDO World Argentine Tango Finalists, 2005/2006 (3rd place overall - winners, Show Tango section)
  • Aha! Ultimate Strictly to the rescue. So we're talking about an Argentine Tango championship created by one of the many general dance competition organisations, in this case the International Dance Organisation, IDO. They organise loads of  competitions, for all sorts of dances, and they classify Argentine Tango along with Salsa, Merengue, and West Coast Swing, under the "Special Couple Dances Department".

    The IDO's website says this:

    "Special Couple Dances department

    Some of these dances are traditional favorites all over the world. Salsa and Argentine Tango have probably some of the largest dance communities in the world today."
    My compliments to the writer. I might have done the same if I'd been paid to write copy for the website. It allows the reader to infer, if they wish, that this competition has a connection with that large dance community, without in any way saying so. Nicely done.

    The IDO's website only has results since 2008. So I emailed them, and they were extremely helpful, just as I would have expected from a professional ballroom dance organisation. The Vice-President, Klaus Höllbacher, said that no official results were available for years before 2008, but he was able to confirm the following from his personal notes:
    They have danced for the UK in Seefeld, Austria:
    European Championship Tango Argentino 2005 = 4th Place
    World Championship Tango Argentino 2006 = 3rd Place
    Unfortunately, no detail was available on the 'tango-show' section, if any. So, to summarise:
    • It looks as though they were, in 2006, placed first in an the "Show Tango" subcategory of an Argentine Tango category of a multi-category competition organised by IDO. They placed third overall. The IDO office was unable to confirm the Show Tango part, as they have not retained detailed records from that year, but there is still such a category, so this is surely correct.
    • The IDO competition does claim to be a "World Championship". It  is certainly not the one that people have heard of, as far as tango is concerned, but it is called a world championship by the people who do it.
    • They were in 2005 placed 4th in the IDO European Championship.  I don't understand the "2005/6" thing, but my best guess is that it  refers to some progression from IDO European to IDO World Championships, not a "two-time" anything.
    • They did once enter the UK section of what would normally be referred to as the "Tango World Championship", on that night at Negracha in 2006, where they won.

    I looked for video of the IDO competition, to get an idea of it, and I found this of the "Vals" final in 2012, and this of the "Milonga" semi-final. I would describe the milonga as awkward, hurried, disconnected, stiff and clumsy flailing in the general direction of the music; some of the vals is better, and looks like you might see from some long-term students in the intermediate class at a tango-salon kind of place in London. I am less inclined to criticise the samples of show-tango from 2012; I think the first one of those is sweet, sincere, technically nice, and more meaningful, musical, and engaging than tango-shows normally allow themselves to be. As for the second, although it doesn't look quite like what you'd see in Tango Fire, I've certainly seen far worse from people who ought to know better. It's interesting to see two such different approaches. Sadly, the first couple don't seem to have been placed. But they're dancing more like Mundial-style tango-salon, so I can understand that.

    It seems only fair to mention at this point that I haven't seen Dance Till Dawn, but I'd expect it to be better than Tango Fire. Tango stage shows tend to be technically accomplished but unimaginative,  and shows that use a variety of dance styles do a better job of being entertaining.

    As for the original claim in the video - the "two-times" part is an reasonable reading of the "2005/6" thing, but it appears to be wrong. It would be equally understandable for the viewer to assume that "World Argentine Tango Show Champions" referred to the Mundial, if they were aware that it existed. But mistaken. However, I think that most Strictly viewers who were into ballroom dance would be more likely never to have heard of the Mundial, and to correctly understand it as referring to something like the IDO competition. In their case, the only misunderstanding would be the assumption that it was world-class tango, which in my opinion is also very mistaken. But they might well not make any such assumption at all.  The general public might assume that world championships in dance are the same kind of thing as world championships in sport - but that's probably not a safe assumption for any kind of dance, least of all those that have real social communities.

    2. Why do the judges and commentators give such surprising technique advice?

    Short version: If you want to win a ballroom dancing competition that has AT as an event, like the IDO one we discovered above, all the advice given on Strictly is probably pretty good. Just don't expect anyone at a milonga to think you dance well.

    Long version about how it's a bad idea to "kick! from the knee!", as advised on an ITT episode in December - edited out: if you want some better advice, Oscar Casas explains it briefly at 00:42 here. To me, the difference is huge and explains the huge difference in how everything looks; but I also think you have to know what the tango way looks and feels like, and you have to try both methods in the context of dancing as a connected couple, to appreciate what the difference is and why it matters.

    On the same show, I thought following was explained completely wrong, but talking to ex-ballroom-professionals revealed that the explanation made sense from that point of view, given the changes they have to make to adapt to tango. So this also depends where you start from and what you are trying to achieve.

    As for arguments about the embrace, tango people argue about that all the time anyway.

    3. Why do the celebs look like perfectly decent beginners, but the pros tend to look just stiff?

    The pros are generally ballroom pros who have carefully adapted their dance in way that would do well under the rules and description of Argentine Tango for the IDO competition (page 81 in the PDF). Tango dancers - social and professional - use a range of rather different techniques which it would take far too much time for a ballroom pro to learn, and which the videos suggest wouldn't benefit you in that sort of competition.

    The celebs haven't been through this training, so they look like beginners who are trying to lead and follow, which normally looks fine. And the reason why the men look better than the women is that they mostly aren't being told to "kick from the knees", or indeed kick at all, and they also aren't attempting to do anything that physically can't work. Both the beginner women and the professionals are usually trying to do things that only look good if you've got a specific, very relaxed technique that just isn't there. Doing what Oscar says at 00:42, and having it work, physically takes more than a week's or a month's practice.

    It's certainly possible to do a good job of Argentine Tango coming from a ballroom/latin background, especially with the right partner, but I would expect it to be quite a lot of effort.

    As for the question of why nobody sorted this out before, I think the answer is that nobody cares. It's taken me bloody ages, and I think these interactions, confusions and relationships are actually  interesting.

    1. The attempt to hold a UK competition was not repeated, as far as I know, until a different organisation had another go at the franchise in 2014, billing it as a "European Championship" and accepting entries from various countries, which is a whole other story. I watched the first round, and got a lot more entertainment for my £20 than I expected. There were thirteen couples, generally of a low to reasonable standard, but there was, again, one professional couple who turned up and treated the event with a great deal more respect than it deserved - for their own reasons which became clear afterwards and had to do with qualification for the actual European Championship in Turin. They were disqualified on the second night after (a) spectators had concluded they could not lose, because they really were genuinely rather good and (b) the representative from Buenos Aires pointed out that they were, in fact, not eligible to enter in the London section under the London organisers' agreement with Buenos Aires, despite the fact that the organisers had taken their (steep) entrance fee and confirmed in writing that they were, as well as so claiming in the list of eligible countries on their website (of course I have screenshots). The excuse given was that Valentin was "from the wrong part of Russia". The only sensible response to which was, "What?" followed by a lot of bemused but exciting speculation as to what could possibly really have happened, how many pissed-off Russians the tango world can handle, and how this made any sense when Russia is so hard-to-miss that even random rocks from space can find it all the time. Generally, it was the worst-organised sporting event I have ever had the privilege to see. Obviously, it was always going to start an hour late. But if you have the job of announcing the competitors' names, which are in several languages you don't know, this is what you do: you ask each of them beforehand to pronounce their own name for you two or three times, try it, get them to correct you, then write down what you said, phonetically, next to the name on your list. Then you concentrate and read it out. You do not stand there and insult the efforts of the competitors and the intelligence of the audience by foolishly simpering a mangled mess of names as you glorify your own cluelessness. And if you're going to run a sporting event certified by a governing body, you make sure you publish, and use, and stick to, a correct version of the rules. I am really not crazy about the Mundial, the dancing is boring at best, but I was embarrased at how the competitors had been treated in my country. Regardless of standard, they'd stood up and put themselves out there, and they deserved better. I was, though, happy with the result in the Escenario section, as the winner after the disqualification was in fact the performance I most enjoyed of the three total entries. It was somewhat well executed, and thoroughly sincere. I've never seen happier legs in my life. If you want to enjoy next year's edition, good luck.

    This epic footnote is in memory of Terry Pratchett.