Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 4-10 (long and rambly)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Verdi Club Milonga with lecture beforehand by Robert Farris Thompson, Yale Professor and Author of Tango: The Art History of Love.

The room was packed, with not an empty chair and plenty of people standing around the perimeter of the room. It seemed nearly everyone (and their cousin) in the San Francisco Bay Area tango community was there. I got there late. The room was hot and stuffy. This lecture reminded me of one given by someone who has a PhD in music history, art history, and anthropology (and that's pretty much who Robert Farris Thompson is), because all three aspects were interwoven into the presentation. During the slide show, Professor went through some details of the history of black people in Argentina. He also spoke about the candombe rhythm impact, combined with the Moorish beats, as well as the arrastre drum rolls (a la John Santos). The slide presentation included many pictures of early (1920s-1930s) tango bands, clearly show black musicians, playing alongside white musicians and people of mixed race heritage. There were also pictures of dancers in poses that strongly suggest African and Cuban influence, and clips of the architecture showing Italian and Moorish influences. He would also play some musical clips during the slide presentation, illustrating the cowboy influences in tango music, as well as the conga drum influence from Africa, and the biggest influence of all: the Habanera beat from Havana, Cuba. He said that Puerto Rican Raggaeton has the same Habanera beat. It is the Habanera beat that we hear strongly in milonga.

He strongly suggested that if we ever come across the following CD, we should snap it up. Anibal Troilo on Bandoneon with Roberta Grela on guitar. He said it was the best milonga album ever. Facundo Posadas and Christy Cote did a brief demo to a song from the album.

Milonga is derived from the candombe beat. In Candombe, there is a lot of cross over in the footwork, and in milonga, this is also the case. When done quickly, it can be a mystic test with your life. The Follower has to be like an oscillograph to the Leader’s movements.

From milonga, tango was born.

Canyengue is a type of tango that is done down, close, and you fall into each other. In Canyengue, you fall, melt into each other, with bodies more in inverted v shape /\. Knees are bent, the butt is out, and the torso is forward. You can also make an ugly face. This profile also reemerges in the quebrada move in tango, with legs bent and torso up. So there is a touch of blackness, but the rest is European. In Canyengue, the steps are very short, and to each syllable, and with short bursts of energy.

In tango lisa, both bodies are parallel and upright with dancers having straight backs. It is smooth. The Italian women made it smooth.

Whatever you learn about tango, double check it.

He spoke a little about two black composers, Horacio Salgan and Julio De Caro. He especially said to listen to Horacio Salgan to hear the influences of black (music that sounds more black than, say, Canaro or di Sarli).

He also recommended that we read the book “Back Then” by Bernays. I didn’t write down the reason. Perhaps because it is a vivid sensual depiction of urban cultural life in the 1950s (albeit New York, not Buenos Aires), if the reviews can be believed.

The slide show concluded with some discussion of Osvaldo Pugliese. He highly recommended the album Ausencia (which means Absence).

He noted that Pugliese’s music, as well as his personal story, is all about power and luck. Pugliese was a lefty, so always had trouble with the Fascists. Peron jailed him 9 times, and the person in power after Peron (from the other party) ALSO jailed him multiple times. So it seemed he couldn’t win. Still, his band played on, even when he was incarcerated. They would put a red rose on the keyboard of the piano to signify that Maestro would not be playing that night, but that he WOULD be back.

He pointed out the influences of Stravinsky, African rhythm, and Blues, as well as suggesting the sounds of Chicago and Louisiana in the music of Pugliese.

--------------------END OF LECTURE NOTES -----------------

I thought the lecture was good. Some people complained that they couldn't hear or see it clearly (mic not loud enough, slides not big enough). I didn't have a problem with any of that, and I was in the back of the room off to the side. I did have trouble seeing the footwork of the short demos that Christy and Facundo did. Some people were also distracted or uncomfortable by the crowded conditions, so they left (which was fine with me since I was able to snag one of their vacated seats). I was really happy to see it so crowded since it meant that everyone there was interested in exploring and learning about a different facet of all that is "Tango".

The milonga itself was hugely packed, since most everyone who came for the lecture also stayed for the miloga. It was also a warm night in San Francisco, so the place was sweltering, even during the first tanda. I'm glad I didn't make the sartorially idiotic decision of wearing a wool jumper, knit leggings, and knee-high combat boots. Dancewise, I had many excellent tandas, and though floorcafting was difficult, it was surprisingly not obnoxious, at least early on. I feel that we are improving as a community in that area, with more respectful dancers, less careless dancers, and more protective leaders. I had a good enough time, but decided to leave early because it was like dancing in a steam room or sauna. Plus I wanted to go easy on my feet, one of which is still a little tender at the ball of foot. I wore my bullet-proof Artisanal shoes -- one of my "perfect" shoes that is pretty yet sensible, always reliable, always comfortable, never sloshy even though there are probably hundreds of hours on them already, slightly lower heel so it feels like dancing in slippers. As always, they performed beautifully.

Friday, November 5, 2010
MUSE milonga at City Dance Annex with lesson beforehand by Mayumi Fujio.
Since the only paying customers who arrived for the lesson were men, this turned out to be a Men's Technique class. It began with exercises on disassociation, really getting the ribs up and off of sinking into the hips. Then there were more exercises on posture, with the goal of being really up in the spine, and then arching up and around down the shoulders. Then the men worked on their walk using these concepts of disassociation and uprightness in posture, all the while trying to be smooth and connected to the floor. The female volunteers present then worked with the Leaders as they worked on really controlling the pivot of the follower during ochos, and also being even in his torso rotation on both sides. Maestra said that some men tend to over-rotate the Follower on the close side of the embrace, forcing her to do more of an overturned back ocho than she is capable of or should do given the dance conditions. So we really worked on evening that out, having the same amount of Leader rotation on the close side and open side of the embrace when leading Follower ochos. Next, we worked on Leaders leading the hiro/molinete. It was an excellent class, and I think all leaders benefited from it. I was extremely surprised and very pleased with the high level of leaders who attended this class, and the enthusiasm and care with which they worked on the material. I am usually not too keen about teachers who normally follow teaching Leaders how to lead (and also not too keen on teachers who normally lead teaching Followers how to follow), but I was extremely impressed with the level of excellence in this Men's Technique class, taught by Mayumi. She gave a lot of candid, and yet precise and accurate commentary about what the Follower feels when the Leader does something wrong or strange in his lead, and clear, direct and respectful in her corrections of how to fix these things. It was truly an excellent class.

The milonga was fun. It was great to see that it is gaining momentum in terms of being more attended, both with new faces and the usual group of regulars (who, if I may say so myself, have excellent potential or are already very good or excellent dancers). Desserts were particularly fantastic. Howard the organizer made some delicious lavender creme brulee, complete with caramelized top, which he prepared right there with a blow torch. The lovely and talented Rochelle made luscious chocolate covered cream puffs (mini round eclairs??), and marbled cheesecake brownies. These desserts rounded out the usual fresh fruit, carrots and a splurge almond cookies coordinated by moi and iced tea and wine.

Saturday, November 6, 2010
Bowling at Serra Bowl.
What does bowling have to do with tango, you might wonder? Well... not much... but a lot. A lot of the physical and mental things that bowlers think about parallel the type of things tango dancers think about (though there are some who say we as dancers shouldn't be thinking at all). Going bowling reminded me of a lot of the things I used to do alone to get better. I used to spend hours practicing throwing my imaginary ball down the hallway. I used to watch Cyber Vision bowling tapes. Bowling is all about doing the same thing, thousands of times over, and making small, sometimes extremely minute adjustments to the things that aren't working, as we work to get closer to realizing the vision of the kind of bowler we want to be. Each time we don't hit the pocket or pick up a spare, we think about where our feet were in the approach, how straight we took our 5 or 7 steps, the length of our arm swing, how straight it was, and how straight our wrist was at the point of ball release. We think about the placement of our thumb and ring fingers, and how much we squeezed the ball on release to get a certain amount of hook. We think about how balanced our bodies were when we released the ball. Anyway, this stuff is not so different from thinking about the usual Follower tango fundamentals: having good posture, engaging our cores, keeping our thighs together, having our ankles meet whenever they pass near each other, having our steps around near the Leader and not floating away from the Leader during the molinete, being good, complete, and untruncated in our pivots, being smooth and precise in our weight shifts, and being able to balance and pivot on one foot, etc., etc., etc.. It's a different set of things we need to do to improve our muscle memory, but the process to get there is still the same.

I was also pleased to open my bowling bag after all these years, and see two pairs of my Linds shoes, the only ones I kept (I used to have many, many bowling shoes). My beautiful Linds shoes are blue body and gold tipped custom shoes which I unfortunately never got the metal name plates put on the back. The others are a pair of green and magenta special edition ones with power sole. In my opinion, both shoes should be in a museum. :o) But what really pleased me was opening the other pockets of my bowling bag to see that all of my usual accoutrements were still there-- bandaids, nail clippers, nail files, hair bands, napkins. This, too, isn't all that different from my closet full of tango shoes and my tango emergency kit that I bring to milongas, which include the stilletto strap hole puncher, band-aids, baby powder, shoe insoles, mints, asprin/tylenol/advil/aleve. There are some things a lot of bowlers use but which I never do, such as the wrist guard and resin bags. Quite the opposite, I needed to have skin lotion to counteract my hands from getting really dry. And this is just like why I don't have a shoe brush (actually, I did, but never used it so I gave it away), orthotics (although that might be a good idea) or some of the other things that tango dancers have in their shoe bags besides shoes.

I was thrilled to see all my pins still on my bag. My ABC league champion pin, my WIBC achievement pins. I am glad tango isn't that competitive, but I did think about those pins, and how pleased I was when I got them. How they were little pats on my back, little confirmations that I was a good bowler, at times better than the rest. Achievement pins don't exist in tango, but maybe they should. And maybe we should all get them, perhaps after the first two years that it sucks to be a Leader and after the first year that it sucks to be a Follower.

Back home later on, I looked in the garage for my old bowling balls, and was glad to see that I did keep the one that I absolutely could not part with, even though the technology is 25 years old at this point. I didn't mind that I had indeed gotten rid of the other half dozen or so of my old bowling balls. A regularly culling of the tango clothes and shoe closet is definitely a good thing, but take care not to get rid of those shoes/clothes that are truly "classic" and are "old favorites".

Going to the bowling alley was quite a new experience in that the screen even tells you how fast your ball travels down the lane. That is really cool... I wonder if we could get a measure of some sort regarding the amount of disassociation in our bodies, or uprightness of posture, and whether that number goes up or down, improving or getting worse.

Sunday, November 7, 2010
Studio Gracia Milonga. I skipped the lesson beforehand. It was a nicely attended, but not overly attended milonga. Dancers were pretty mellow and low key, with no frenzied dancing. Floorcrafting was reasonable, with just gentle bumps/stiletto skims, usually followed by apologies. The food was more ample than usual (yay pizza!), but other than that, nothing extraordinarily celebratory for this 8th anniversary. Facundo and Christy did a two-song demo, which was good. After the performance, Facundo had some words of advice for us (specifically, for the Leaders, and that is to just dance simply and not attempt to do so many poorly executed "fancy" steps), which caused many Followers to burst out in spontaneous applause, but his tone which made me feel a little ookie, since it bordered on being lectured and chastised at a celebration at which they had just performed, and during which floorcraftwise I didn't think was that bad. But that's just me being the wanna-be Emily Post/Martha Stewart party girl that I am. Speaking to El Russo a few days later confirmed that Facundo also said something similar at Verdi Club the Thursday before (the day I left early).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010
CellSpace Milonga. I did not participate in the lessons beforehand, but watched them a little bit. Pier and Dan's lesson focused on Leader back sacadas and Follower forward sacadas. It looked like a good lesson, with more Leaders than Followers. The milonga was fine. A lot of alt was played. It wasn't crowded at first, but got so later on. I got to catch up with El Russo, who was sitting things out, cast on his left foot. I asked him what had happened. He said he had a sesamoid fracture, the pain of which had been bothering him for months, but which was only recently detected via MRI, after visits to several different doctors. He'll be in a cast for a few weeks, unfortunately for the San Francisco Bay Area tango community. :o( Still, it's obvious that he has a lot of friends here, since we all stopped by to sit next to him and chat so he wouldn't get too lonely. He also said that since he was injured, a lot of other people have been opening up to him about their own injuries as well. That has also been my experience.

------ Random Thoughts -------

Someone mentioned to me the comment from one of our regular visiting maestro couples that in their opinion the San Francisco tango community seemed more fractionalized than when they were here previously earlier in the year. Her question was whether or not I agreed with that and why.

I don't think the community is more fractionalized than it was before. I think people are just not going out as much in general, or perhaps it appears that way since there are so many competing events on a given night. There was one Friday night recently (October 15) where there were 10 milongas in the SF Bay Area (SF+EB+SB only)! That is a huge number of competing events, especially if you generously assume that on a given night, perhaps 300 or so members of the tango community might go out dancing. Roughly speaking, that would equate to 30 people or 15 couples at each event. Again, that is a generous assumption.

I think that overall people are being much more careful about their financial expenditures, really thinking twice about even taking the premilonga lessons to any milongas they go to. Bridge tolls, mileage, time on the road and gas are also factors that many folks, including me, are now considering in evaluating which events to go to. As a consequence, this generally means that I go to mostly San Francisco events on the weekend, or an occasional South Bay event after work on Fridays. This does not mean I prefer the San Francisco (city) and South Bay tango communities over the North Bay and East Bay ones. It just means that for me, it makes more sense to go to those events. Long gone are the earlier scouting tour days when I covered a huge geographic area, without much regard to mileage or time to get there.

Personally for me, I am taking fewer lessons from visiting maestros, from local teachers, and premilonga ones. There comes a time in every tango student's life where he or she realizes that they are hearing much of the same corrections/tips/instruction over and over from different teachers. Having many different teachers tell us the same things hundreds of times, without ever changing our dance in spite of being told what our shortcomings are, is an extremely inefficient way to learn tango. It's up to us to implement it in our bodies what they tell us as quickly as we can. Admittedly, for some of our shortcomings, sometimes that can take years.

A few years back, when I was a much lesser dancer (in my opinion), two different people told me that I was taking too many lessons and that I should stop taking lessons altogether and just go to milongas. I was really surprised by that since it seemed very odd to me that anyone would be interested or would have an opinion about my dance development (other than my teachers of course). I didn't listen to either of them at the time, and kept taking lessons, and kept taking the notes that went along with the lessons. But here I am, two years later, and I am finding that I get less and less out of the lessons...that much of what is being taught, I have already heard before. Sometimes it's even hard to get motivated to write the notes since I get less enthusiastic about writing down what I've already heard before. For me as a student, what I like to write down is the new information that I haven't heard before... I've never counted how many lessons I've taken, but I am sure they number in the high several hundreds, perhaps even 1,000+, from ~200 different maestros/teaching couples. And so now, on my own volition, I am doing what they told me to do years ago... that is, stop taking so many lessons and just go out dancing at milongas.

I do believe, however, that the class experience is very important. It is important for us to learn as followers and leaders how to cooperate with each other and work on a group endeavor with a goal. It's also important for the both of us to learn how our bodies work together. It's also where we work on patience toward each other and creating a pleasant environment/experience for one another, amid the often frustrating and sometimes daunting task of learning something new that's physically and mentally challenging. For many of us, the classroom is also the place where we will meet each other before cabaceoing at the milonga. Unfortunately for some, the classes and lessons are also where it becomes glaringly obvious who the most arrogant, untalented students are, or the ones who are rude or charm school flunkies, otherwise socially inept, mentally weak and emotionally unstable (those are the ones who have tantrums or meltdowns and cry because they can't do the class material) or who are clingy and needy. Fortunately for most of the rest of us, the lessons also make it completely obvious who we should stay away from at the milongas.

And finally, there is the whole concept of how well each of us feels "community" and how inspired we are to build it, participate in it, and cultivate it. There are obviously some saints in the tango community, doing their darnedest to inspire engagement to build community, when at times it seems a very Sisyphean, sometimes thankless task. But then that also brings into consideration that person's "vision" of what and how we should be as a community.

And I can sure as heck go on about what I think are community destroyers, but that would take another thousand or so words, which I am sure you don't want to read.

So there you have it. My $0.02, worth all that you paid for it. ;o)

Come Join Me!
San Francisco Tango Marathon this weekend.
Broadway Studios Friday Night: be there or be square.
I'll be volunteering on Saturday and Sunday as well.
Full Passes are still available (which will get you into Broadway Studios).

Monday, November 15
Homer and Cristina Ladas teach at The Beat in Berkeley on a subject I recommended. :o)

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