Friday, 8 November 2013

Time to learn tango

Readers have pointed out to me that, for a tango blog, I have written relatively little about tango.
Yes, you are right. I have visited numerous tango blogs and read about a blogger's  experience at a milonga - 'the milonguero from hell', and 'the tanda from heaven'. I have to say that they leave me quite cold.
What is it they say about tango....'a feeling that is danced'? The fact is that if we could simply write about it, we wouldn't dance it. Any number of words can only give a shaded reflection of the feeling of a joyful tanda with a skilled tanguera.
So, I shall spare you the disembodied descriptions of my dances. Instead, I shall tell you a little of the fascinating and sometimes frustrating process of learning.
Having been dancing Argentine tango for six years, I consider myself a beginner. The old milongueros say that it takes a lifetime and a half to learn to dance tango, and they are right. Few if any reach a stage where they are content with their dancing, and those that have are almost certainly not worth dancing with. There is always another stage to which the tanguero should aspire to transcend.
The basis of tango is walking. For something that most of us do, this appears very problematic within the tango embrace. It is made more difficult by the fact that there is not just one way - the methods of walking seem to mirror the number of teachers and tangueros!
I will avoid the 'lead with the toe, lead with the heel' debate, and focus on the joys of tango from this visit to Buenos Aires. Let me introduce you to Hector Corona y Silvina Machado.
The sharp reader will remember that on our first visit to Buenos Aires, Stephanie and I danced with them at DNI - a famous dance school here in the Capital Federal. In those days, the directors Pablo y Dana would bring their teachers together every morning before classes started, to teach and re-inforce their particular teaching technique. Experienced tangueros can instantly recognise a DNI trained dancer by the elasticity with which they form and control movement. What results is a safe and attractive form of youthful dancing, contrasting well with the traditional milonguero style.
In the intervening six years, Hector y Silvina have moved on, and together with their friends Sebastian y Eugenia formed new dance and business partnerships, underpinned by a distinctive teaching method which is very much their own.
Many experienced dancers are quite cynical about dance teachers. A few students have had many teachers, each one insisting that 'their method' is the right way to dance, and the only way to learn tango. In truth, tango was originally never professionally taught, but handed down and developed on the floors of the milongas. At most, small groups of young men would meet to practice together before venturing to the milongas, and the girls would show and watch each other, learning the art of following a lead.
This resulted in a plethora of styles, some distinct to a bario, others to a particular milonga. Now, the better dancers can be identified to a particular teacher.
Our first lesson was with Hector. We arrived at Junin 143 just before 2.00 pm to be met by Hector in the street. The venue is a private suite of practice rooms that may be hired by the hour. Each one is equipped with the smoothest of floors and a music system. Some, like the one in Tte Gral Juan Peron, are in delightful old buildings, marble corridors leading to panelled rooms with inward opening windows to allow a fresh breeze.
Hector's approach to teaching tango is to strip from it all pretension and over-stylised movement. He reminds us that tango was from African roots, developed in the barios of Buenos Aires and Montevideo by working people who danced socially, often on courtyard flags. It later moved to the ballrooms, especially after the middle classes had embraced it, on it's return from Paris.
Hector's foundation is that of walking within the embrace. Although Oscar Casas had set me on the right path in 2007, Hector re-visited the way to walk. It involves a lead from the torso, with a following bent knee, arriving on the heel, rolling to the toe, then pushing from the ankle. Properly executed, the walk resembles that of a cat. To this, he links the importance of the collect and change of weight.
For the follower, Hector suggests that after arrival on the inside toe, weight is quickly transferred to the heel, which should always touch the floor. The hip should not open, for the key to the movement comes from the core - a set of abdominal muscles that control the backward movement of the leg from the pelvis. The result is a smooth and responsive, but deliberate backward step with a brush collect.
Turning for the giro involves an opening of the torso in the direction of the movement. He suggests that assistance can be given to build momentum through the embrace, which should be kept flexible. It is clear that for him, the two partners for excellent tango are walking and the embrace - offering stability, security and a more dynamic lead for the follower.
The result - a simple and very positive lead, but one permitting subtlety of expression. For Hector, the rest - footwork and variations - will fall into place if the lead is sufficiently clear.
Of course, the magic of Hector's walk and lead and Silvina's decorations and adornos, is yet to be mastered by us. But the foundations are clearly there, and we are moving forward slowly and surely to a new dimension of tango.