Sunday, July 1, 2012

June 1-30

June 8-10, 2012
Lady's Tango Festival in London, UK.
I had been looking forward to this festival for weeks, after seeing that Alejandra Mantinian was teaching. I've wanted to take lessons with her for years, but wasn't able to in BsAs (she was always travelling, except the one time where I was going to take a workshop, but it got cancelled at the last minute). Since London is relatively easy to get to from NYC and there were plenty of flights where I could use miles (only 60,000, not bad for an international trip), I decided to go for it.  Lodgings via made this a somewhat affordable one-week jaunt.  Plus the facility was only 10 minutes away from my office, so that made things convenient and easy, especially on the first day when I was still trying to get my bearings.

I’ve decided to keep my detailed notes private.  So if you are interested in seeing what the Lady’s Tango Festival is all about, you will just have to attend one yourself.  Seeing how fantastic the Maestras are, I highly recommend them, especially if you are from a community where there are no regular Followers’ Technique classes or drop-in workshops.

Friday, June 8, 2012
Lady’s Tango Festival in London
Alejandra Mantinian - Front and Back Sacadas in open and close embrace.
It was a good class, done in Buenos Aires style, with Maestra demonstrating the class concepts, and then the students drilling them while she went around giving individual feedback.

Saturday, June 9, 2012
Lady’s Tango Festival in London
Johana Copes – Technique, dissociation and energies of pivots
Alejandra Mantinian - Control of the energy and quality of the movement. 
Alejandra Mantinian – Decorations, “adornos”

The milonga was crowded.  There was a fashion show from 3-4 different designers, the models of whom were tangueras and tangueros from the local community.  I left early since I was tired.

Sunday, June 10, 2012
Lady’s Tango Festival in London
Milena Plebs – Pure technique
Johana Copes – decorations, “adornos”
Master Class: Johana Copes, Milena Plebs, Alejandra Mantinian & Martin Ojeda
This was a discussion class to consider the different points of view of the Maestras.  Maestro Martin Ojeda was the moderator of the panel.  This was not a practice class.  The point was to listen.

Question: What is the perfect embrace?
Alejandra: It should be comfortable. The intention of two people to be comfortable.
Johana: Similar to Alejandra, the embrace should be comfortable and soft. A soft embrace is like a life embrace.  The man shouldn’t dig his fingers into the Follower’s back.
Milena: The embrace should be clear and organic, not weird or strange, close embrace and be able to release the embrace, but not abruptly and not with any big changes. 
Alejandra: She doesn’t like it when the Leader makes “use” of her, or talks incessantly.  Do you want to talk to me or dance with me?

Milena: regarding the dialog in tango, the Leader doesn’t have to stop to let the Follower play.
Johana: Doesn’t’ want to lose her personality when she dances. Thus, it is important that the dancers respect each other.

Question: Who chooses the embrace?
Milena: Can change head position.
Alejandra: If he Leader is not clear with the embrace, the Follower will choose the embrace.
Milena: If you dance with someone you don’t know, then it depends on the Leader.
Johana: The Leader needs to be clear.
Milena: Some Leaders are shy.
Martin: Because tango is a dialog, the Leader is supposed to give the Follower the space/time to embellish.
Alejandra: Understand what happens in the middle of the beat, the arc of the music.  Do not cut the music.

Question: What does a good/active Follower mean?  How much rhythm do we give or take?
Milena: The Leader needs to be aware of what’s happening to the Follower’s body.
(more discussion back and forth among the Maestras/Maestro, but at this point my second glass of wine started to kick in….)

Question: What bothers Leaders?
Smells bad or uses perfume.  
When she embellishes but forgets the Leader.
When she uses the Leader as a barre for her embellishments at the milonga.
The milonga is not the place/moment to practice.
The Leader’s work is to make the Follower happy.
In the couple, the most important thing is the Follower, and for the Leader to take care of her.

Tango is a social dance.

A student commented that the floor crafting at the prior night’s milonga was terrible and that she saw some Leaders dancing with their eyes closed.  Martin said that Leaders should never close their eyes while dancing tango.  Alejandra noted that women are like horses with blinders on their eyes.  They can close their eyes or look down, because if she sees all the chaos going on all around the couple, she will get tense.

There were more questions and more discussion, but I couldn’t write things down fast enough and still be present to the listening.

My overall thoughts on the Lady’s Tango Festival London experience:

It was truly an amazing blessing to be able to learn from such fantastic Maestras like Alejandra Mantinian, Johana Copes, and Milena Plebs. That being said, much of what was taught I had already worked on, and have been working on for years, thanks largely to Chelsea Eng and Jennifer Bratt. I think more emphasis should have been made on the pivot and the spiral a la Luciana Valle, as well as the strength of the standing supporting leg a la Cristina Ladas and having smooth and complete weight changes a la Alicia Pons. Yes, adornos are fun and pretty, but are pretty much unexecutable without the strength and support of the standing leg and a committed weight change on top of it. OK, I will get off my soapbox now.

I didn’t dance at any of the milongas, because on the first night, no one asked me to. On the second night, one person asked me to, but I didn’t have my shoes on and I really just wanted to watch since from watching the night before, I knew there was no one I had a particular burning desire to dance with, and I am at the point where I feel I don’t need or want to rack up low-quality miles on the milonga dance floor, especially where floor crafting was unruly or lacking. On the third night I only stayed a little while as the crowd had thinned out by then with many folks leaving after the last workshop.

They had shoes for sale at the milongas. On the first night, they had Regina shoes, designed and made by Veronique, one of the London organizers. Prices were 100 pounds. Sizing was on the medium/wide side, and my sizing came in at 35 (US 5), where there were only a few styles. On the second and third day, one gal had Comme Il Fauts for sale, but ONLY in size 37 and 38!  Hrmph.

I was able to do the trip on the cheap by using miles (only cost 60,000, $180 ticketing fee, with many JFK-LHR flights to choose from), and by staying in a room nearby via (about $50 per night, shockingly cheap for London).  I also ate very simply, often just a sandwich from Tesco ($3 or less), or a Shwerma from one of the many Middle Eastern/halal places ($8 or less).  Transport was all via underground, and I had the sense to get an Oyster card so trips were even cheaper (I spent about $65 for the entire week I was there), and took the Underground from/to the airport ($8 into London, $5 to LHR). Many of the London museums are free or by donation, including my favorite, the V&A. My major expense was a truly massive clothing haul from Primark, where I bought a shocking 32 dresses (that’s not a typo), 6 shirts, 4 skirts, 1 shorts, 1 bath robe, 1 rain poncho, 2 jeggings (jeans leggings), 1 haram pants, 2 sandals, 25 unmentionable undergarments, and many accessories (belts, bracelets, necklaces, earrings). I only spent about $800 over the course of 3 trips to Primark, and all the items I bought ranged from 1 pound to 17 pounds (US$1.50 to US$25), with obviously many of the items at the lower price points. So overall, it was a very nice, happy, carefree trip, and very thankfully drama free.

Saturday, June 16, 2012
Mariela Franganillo’s La Practica @ Dance Manhattan. I got there early since I had missed the week prior during my jaunt to the other side of the pond. When I got there, there were more Leaders than Followers, many of whom are excellent dancers. So I had a very brisk time of it early on. The weather was warm and the AC hadn’t kicked in to full blast yet, so I was one hot sweaty mess in no time flat.  That being said, I was having a great time, dancing with many good to excellent Leaders, several of whom I rarely dance with (I am not on their usual list). And a very nice, kind and generous local tanguera, Linda, came to my rescue by offering me the use of her hand fan.  The milonga never got super crowded, and soon more Followers came, so we had a very good mix and balance of dancers to keep things fun and interesting.  Maestra, who is very pregnant, taught another concept class, continuing from the week prior.  Like I said, I wasn’t there, but it was the Leader walking around the Follower using all forward steps (or maybe it was using all back steps).  I didn’t participate in the lesson; I just watched.  The Leader walking around the Follower is a really fun thing to do that opens up many options for the Followers to do, although in this case the concept taught was geared towards Leaders getting the correct footwork and chest rotation down; thus Maestra did not teach any fun embellishments that the Follower could do while the Leader walked around her.

After the practica I was starved, as there were no usual bagels and coffee as the place that usually supplies it has apparently shut down.  So I made my way over to Qdoba on 23rd St, noticing that it was right next door to a Starbucks.  My plan for the day was to stay in NYC since I really wanted to go to Nocturne that night.  But that meant I had 7 hours to kill in between.

My plan for those 7 hours was to work on writing the notes from the Lady's Tango Festival and to study. So I had a meal at Qdoba (I like this place because it has Dr. Pepper -- though sadly not diet -- as a fountain drink and because Starbucks is right next door) and parked myself there for about 2 hours to work on the notes and nosh away. It was very pleasant. I tried to see if I could get on the internet from the Starbucks next door and surprisingly, I could not despite the very close proximity.

After my meal and excellent progress with the notes, I went to the Starbucks next door, since I needed juice for the 'puter.  But I noticed that all the electrical outlets had been covered up!  So I made my way to the Starbucks on 6th and 24th.  There, the outlets were not covered up, but the one I've used in the past was not working.  Frustrated, I did a Google search about the Starbucks electricity situation in New York and lo and behold there was a posting about mid-last year about many of them slowly but surely cutting off their juice.  Then I moved to another seat at that Starbucks with two outlets nearby; thankfully, at least one was working.  So I was back in the business.

So in between studying, I got a chance to check my email, watch a few YouTube videos, check the news, etc.

Robin Thomas’s Nocturne @ Dancesport. Tomas Howlin and Shorey Myers were teaching, and I wanted to show my support.  The lesson was good and focused on the Follower’s boleo.

We began with some body movement exercises of leg extensions, to the side, forward and back, and across our body to the opposite leg.  We did the Peter Pan exercise in partnership.  Then here is where the lesson got really interesting…
We were to do a pivot and then a boleo, only the Follower would back-lead it, and the Leader would “follow" it, rotating his chest and his weight going to his opposite foot, so that he felt and got his body into position to where it needed to be to “produce” the Follower’s boleo. 

In our next exercise, the Follower does a small forward extension or enrosque.  The Leader “follows” it, accompanies her with his “lead” in the same direction, with his weight shifting to the other leg.

Next, we were to put this in the dance, with the Leader now leading it, just leading the back boleo and walking.

The concept of the triangle was discussed.

The Leader steps around the Follower to lead the Follower’s boleo, and can lead a back boleo directly into a forward boleo.  The Leader’s right foot steps front cross and he rotates his chest to lead the Follower’s forward boleo of her left foot, and then rewinds back to step out.  The Follower’s hips need to face away from the Leader before lifting her knees at the front boleo (or enrosque).  Do not lift.  As soon as  you lift, the supporting leg doesn’t pivot.

The Follower’s hips are at a right angle to the Leader at the point of the boleo.  The Follower’s pivot starts at the top and then goes down (spiral energy), so she can pivot completely before her feet leave the floor. 

Maestros demo’d in close embrace.

The Follower uncrosses her feet as soon as she starts to pivot back, so you are square with the Leader when you face him. 

Applied in a different way, the Leader sandwiches and then walks the Follower directly into a forward boleo.  Then we changed this from parallel to cross system.  And then as opposed to doing a sandwich, we did a drag of his right foot to her left foot.  The Follower’s boleo is soft and small and on the floor, it has a lovely sweet energy to it.

Happily, Cristobal y Susana showed up to the milonga, and I was sure to get their contact info so we could practice and do our LV Invenstivo homework! The milonga itself got very crowded, and as usual, I escaped to the respite of the back room, perched on the large upholstered chair.  I was dog tired from the afternoon of dancing, typing out my Lady’s Tango Festival notes, and studying.  Still, I did my obligatory dances, some OK, some not quite.  I did meet the president of a local tango club at an East Coast university, who is an excellent dancer.  I asked him who some of his teachers were, and he mentioned Homer and Cristina.  So then I mentioned the tangostudent blog, which he knew of right off the top of his head. So he was tickled that he met me and that we danced.  It was a kick.

Sunday, June 17, 2012
Roko milonga.  I only danced two and half tandas, but I must have made an impression because a new tanguera came up to me and complimented my adornos, and asked how she could learn to do them.  I told her to take as many Followers’ Technique classes that she can. She wanted recommendations, but I didn’t know of any off the top of my head and just recommended that she do a Google search for ones in NYC. I also jotted down a few YouTube channels for her to check out (Bewitching Black Lotus being the obvious one).  We didn’t have a lot of time to discuss it, since she was on her way out.

But later on, as I thought about it more, I wanted to tell her that there is so much more to what a Follower does in tango to be beautiful than just adornos.

So, dear readers, I am going to try to articulate it here…

Adornos are great, they’re beautiful and fun.  But they have to be within the timing of the music, so to do them well and to do them appropriately, it works best if you know the music you are dancing to. And to do that, you have to listen to A LOT of tango music.  If you don’t understand musical structure, or have never been in a band, orchestra, or choir before, maybe you should take a music appreciation class.

Regarding tango music, it’s kind of easy to learn a lot of tango music in a relatively short about of time since most milongas only play 75-100 songs during the entire night.  And I would guess that probably about a third of those songs are played at every single milonga. Most milongas play music from the Golden Age of tango, and the body of tango music has only grown slowly since then.  There is no current Billboard Top 40’s for new releases of tango songs.  So the amount of music to familiarize yourself with is somewhat static, mostly finite.  Sure, there are some alt milongas, but those are few and far between in NYC, and most of the alt tango songs played there are the usual ones (Gotan Project, Narcotango, etc.), unless the DJ gets all Pulpo and starts busting out some Rolling Stones (although there is a Rolling Stones tango CD, and a Beatles one too, for that matter).

Most DJs go by the structure of tango-tango-vals-tango-tango-milonga, etc.  So you know there will be twice as many tangos as valses and milongas.  And you also know that if you’ve just danced a tango tanda, that another one will come next and after that will be either a vals tanda or a milonga tanda.  For the milonga tandas, most DJs will play the slow Canaro ones, so pick up a CD on Canaro milongas.  Or ask your DJ for the names and get them off of itunes.  Then for the tango tandas, you can be sure there will be at least one but usually two or more diSarli tandas, at least one Rodriguez tanda, at least one D’Arienzo tanda, etc.

As a proportion of tango music, in the US, the DJs play a lot more instrumental tangos than the DJs do in Buenos Aires, which I think is unfortunate since the lyrics are such an important part of tango music.  It’s also helpful to listen to the lyrics to work on our musical phrasing.  That being said, it’s also important to understand that not all music – including tangos – were meant to be danced to. Some were meant more to be listened to (a la Frank Sinatra or Tom Petty or even some of the story telling Bruce Springsteen songs).  you will also probably never hear any Carlos Gardel (so you can skip his CDs unless you have a fondness for his signing) or sadly any Salgan :o( (at least not in the US). Anyway, just chat the DJ up for some recommended “best of” songs/tandas that are commonly heard at the milonga and I am sure he will oblige with some recommendations.

Since being within the music is so important when doing adornos, I also recommend going to every musicality class that you can, especially the ones taught by musicians. In tango, training your ears is just as important as training your body, in my opinion.   

Now, back to adornos, or more importantly, Follower’s Technique. 

In my opinion, it’s best to go to a Followers' Technique class at least once a week (more if you can) over a period of time (many months at least).  It’s also good to supplement a regular FT class with all of the one-off classes given by local and visiting Maestras, as everyone has some little different nugget of wisdom (or some really great, unique adorno).  TAKE NOTES of what you learned in class, what tips were given out. PRACTICE THEM!  Do the homework!  You don’t need a fancy dance studio space with gorgeous mirrors, hardwood floor, and ballet barre. A lot of what is taught in Followers' Technique classes can be worked on anywhere—at home, at the bus stop, in front of the microwave, behind the sofa, against a wall, using a chair for support, on the floor, etc.  Really, there is no excuse!

You didn’t ask, but even now, I STILL work on my Followers’ Technique – admittedly at a fancy schmancy dance studio space with gorgeous mirrors and hardwood floor, but no ballet barre, which is OK because it forces me to be on balance no matter what. And I still get new insights, and am still working on new concepts like what I learned from Alejandra Mantinian in London, still trying to coax my body to move in different, new ways, and even now, YEARS into working on Followers’ Technique, I still get new insights! It’s really amazing what you can do on your own [not hanging onto a Leader for balance], what new knowledge of how your body moves, what new mastering of your muscles, what coaxing of expression you can get out of your body, legs and feet.

Borrowing from CrossFit, with respect to general physical fitness skills, a person is only as fit as he or she is competent within each of these skills:

Being competent in the above skills would obviously improve anyone’s tango.

Specific to Followers Technique and tango, if you can, also take yoga, pilates, ballet, gyrotonic, and any of the martial arts.  These will help you with balance, posture, strength, speed, control, understanding how to make your body move beautifully, foot strength, ankle strength, leg strength, core strength, and disassociation.

In my opinion, this is one of the most important things, if not THE most important thing about Followers’ Technique (and adornos), and gets the least amount of attention.  As my friend El Russo once said to me, “to dance tango, you must be able to pivot and remain on balance on one foot.” Such a simple statement, but so profound.  After he said that to me, I was determined to always remain on balance when pivoting.  IMHO, the only Maestra (among Maestros too!), who spends enough time on this topic is Luciana Valle.  So much sloppy Followers’ Technique comes from bad pivots, generally ones don’t rotate enough or more often, are cut short with the Follower’s foot going out before she’s completed her pivot.  Followers: Enjoy the pivot!  Milk the pivot!  Stay in pivot for as long as you can, and then go when the Leader leads you to go! And don’t fall after your pivot!

In adornos everyone is looking at what the free leg is doing, how pretty and expressive it is.  The free leg would be nothing without the strength and stability of the standing leg.  Work on having a  strong, solid standing leg and the free leg will be free to do the most beautiful, the most lightening-fast adornos ever imagined.

This needs to be worked on all the time, and can be worked on all the time. If you don’t remember the exercises you were taught in your specific Followers’ Technique classes, you can Google “foot exercises”.  Better yet, surf onto and check out Jennifer Bratt’s article on Exercises for Strong Feet. DO THEM.

Most people think they have good posture while they dance tango.  Most don’t realize how bad their posture actually is. Honestly, it takes at least a year, though more like two, of actual hard core work on posture to actually get it to the point where “good posture” comes naturally when we dance tango.  Most of us just schlump along not knowing that we are schlumping along. I’ll leave it up to you to learn what exactly good posture is.  And then actually have it while you dance.

Being able to disassociate a lot, and well, and quickly, will take you from dancing blocky to dancing with much more fluidity and grace, with more spiral energy and more pivot energy too. It will also keep you more connected to your leader as your legs are doing much more fancy moves. IMHO, all disassociation work is done solo, much while lying on the floor, though you can do it standing up too. A good Leader will not be able to coax more disassociation out of your body. Disassociation comes from you and no one else. No one can make you (or help you) disassociate.  If you are stiff as a board in the first place, well that means that you have more to work on. Many of the exercises taught in Followers’ Technique classes specifically have to do with disassociation, and the concept of disassociation can be applied to pretty much everything we do in tango, to walking, to the molinete, to ochos, etc.

Collecting means collecting.  It does not mean kinda collecting, or sorta collecting, or almost collecting. It means collecting completely and fully.  When a Follower is precise in where she steps, it allows the Leader many more different options to lead fun things for the Follower to do, and gives him stronger confidence on where and how he steps. Basically, the Follower’s precision enables the Leader to dance and lead to his maximum level of ability.

Know which leg needs to be weighted and which one needs to be free.  Know that weighted and free generally means 100% weighted or 100% free.  Know how to move the weight between the legs smoothly. 

One of the joys of tango is being able to communicate while not saying a word.  While adornos are fun, to the Leaders they can be annoying if he starts to feel you are using him as a barre as you go on and on doing all these crazy adornos for 8 bars long.

Bottom line is, if you can master all these things – posture, foot/ankle/leg strength, pivoting and remaining on balance, having a lot of disassociation and smooth and complete weight changes, and knowing tango music in your bones and in your soul, and being connected to the Leader, then the adornos come very easily and naturally.  But by then, you may not want to do them as much, as you just might realize that there is extraordinary beauty in just walking and simple weight changes and being connected to your leader and the music (dancing to the pauses!) while you dance tango.

Phew. So there you have it. Ideas and thoughts about Followers’ Technique that have been rattling around in my brain.

Sunday, June 24, 2012
Roko milonga with lesson beforehand by Robin Thomas and Jesse. The lesson focused on different ways of getting into the cross. So instead of parallel system, we worked on using the cross system, and used more contrabody motion. We tried several different variations and resolutions. It was a good class.  The milonga was fun. It wasn’t super crowded, but full enough so there were plenty of dancers to mix and mingle with. I left early since I was feeling stressed out about my test the following week and wanted to get some rest.

Saturday, June 30, 2012
Mariela Franganillo’s La Práctica @ Dance Manhattan.  It was a sweltering day in NYC, and I thought really hard about trekking all the way into the city just to dance.  Still, I found myself being very inspired after working on and thinking about Followers’ Technique all month, and also needing to be physical after spending the last couple of weeks hitting the books so hard.  I was happy to see when I arrived that the windows were completely shut and the AC was on full blast.  It wasn’t super crowded when I got there, and a lot of the usual regulars weren’t there.  Happily and surprisingly, Susana arrived!  She had never been to this event before, and said she came because I recommended it.  So that made me happy.  She also had a good time as the Leaders were very warm, welcoming, and friendly toward her.  We also had a chance to dance together.  She is a very good leader, with a potential to be a great leader, so it’s a pleasure working on material with her.  I also danced with Felipe de Colorado, who is an excellent dancer.  Between the both of them, I was able to work on more overturned ocho work like sacadas, and just more Nuevo stuff in general, like more interesting volcadas and colgadas.  It had been a long time since I worked on that material as it’s just not as common in NYC.

"Fundamentales" beginner level guided Practice @ Dance Manhattan. Susana and I had such a good time at Mariela’s practica, that I suggested we stay for the next one as well.  I mentioned that it would be less crowded so we would be able to work on the material with a freer dance space.  She agreed, and we had a good time, really doing “practica” work rather than just working on the line of dance. :o)

My plan was to hang out in the city for the rest of the day and then go to the All Night Milonga @ Stepping Out as Yesim is always so kind and sweet and I wanted to show support for her event.  But, as usual, though the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak.  I hung out at a marvelous café that had excellent AC, decent food and beer, comfortable seating, juicy electrical outlets, reasonably quiet and uncrowded with gentle tunes via satellite radio.  Basically, had they had free WiFi, it would have been a completely perfect one-stop shop crash pad.  Still 6 out of 7 essential things aren’t bad. So I stayed there for hours, having a meal, having a drink and studying (actually, more napping than studying – a reflection of the material being as dry as sawdust or me just being totally burnt out on studying after testing and passing the exam the prior week).

At around 8:30 pm, I made my way over to Stepping out.  But at 31st Street, walking through the bone-sapping heat and humidity started to really get to me.  Each step became more agonizing.  I only had five more short NYC blocks to go before I made it to Stepping Out.  But then I thought about it, thought about who might be there and who I would like to dance with.  And you know what?  I had such a marvelous time that afternoon, that if my tango day ended right then and there, I would still be happy.  So I turned around and made my way back to Grand Central instead, stopping along the way at H-Mart to get some banchan and a huge Diet Coke (which I don’t normally drink, but my energy was completely gone by then and I was feeling parched in such a way that water would not satisfy my thirst).

Getting back home to Connecticut, I saw that, even at 11 pm, the temperature was 80 degrees.

* * * * *

I didn’t dance much during the latter part of the month as it was hotter than heck here on the East Coast, and I was also studying like mad to retest for an exam I passed 14 years ago!  A lot had changed in 14 years, and the content was, I kid you not, at least three times larger.  So I ended up spending a crazy amount of time hacking away at it, after coming back from my fabulous holiday in London (and doing not one second of studying while I was there).  Long and short of it is that I passed the exam, no problem. Phew.  That was a relief, and quite a joy to get this particular license back after having it lapse.  So one down, two more to go… My goal is to get these two new ones done over the next month or two at the latest. So I will still be studying away like a mad woman, at least for the next couple of months.  The studying thing is also why my June notes seem a bit discombobulated.  I was distracted and late.