It was three years ago today that I opened Jivebeat and taught my first ever dance class. This was not something I’d ever imagined that I would be doing, particularly since I started dancing so much later in life than most of those who end up making a career out of it (I was 42 when I went to my first class), but I knew from the moment I clipped a radio mic to my head and started going through the fundamentals that it was something I was going to enjoy.
The story of how I got into dance teaching almost by accident, and how at some point this switched from being all about modern jive to focusing on tango has been told many times before, so I’ll let you read about that elsewhere. But I rarely talk about the ups and downs of running a dance class, and why I kept going with it even through the more difficult times. So on Jivebeat’s third birthday I want to look at what it has meant to me to be doing this.
Setting up that first class was an easy decision for me, as I knew that I loved dancing and people had told me many times before that they liked the way I taught things and explained what to do. A far harder decision was to work out where that first class would be and how to tell people that it existed, and I soon discovered that my expectations of “If you build it, they will come” were somewhat optimistic. I assumed from the start that if you put a class in a central location and advertised it well enough in the surrounding area that it would naturally gain followers. But that’s a long way from what happened, and after an initial surge of visitors from people I knew and interested locals, the numbers soon dropped to a point where from a financial perspective it made little sense to continue.
But in that period of learning and start-up I realised something important. Teaching dance was not just something I did, it was something that gave me purpose. I am an engineer by training, a quality assurance analyst by experience, and a creative designer by passion, but whilst I love all of those things and would never walk away from them, they all lack that immediacy of seeing people turn up to a dance class then leave three hours later happier and more relaxed than they were at the start. Teaching dance gives me the opportunity to work directly with people and to shine a bit of light and fun into their lives, and that made it all worthwhile.
Without the numbers turning up to the classes however, there was a real risk that the decision to continue teaching would be out of my hands. We are not a charity and anything we do has to be financially viable as well as fun, so this meant that we needed to change things around to get more people interested. We moved venues a few times and adjusted the format of the classes, and this seemed to work for a while, but it soon became obvious that there was something else missing. I had based my classes on teaching modern jive in the way that I liked to learn it: giving people the tools to understand the dance and to improvise for themselves, rather than just learning moves by rote and hoping they can string them together later on. There were a few people who wanted to learn modern jive in that way, but the majority of them would rather go to a busy venue and dance the moves they already know rather than focus on technique, and I had neither the budget nor the venue to set something like that up.
And then one day I accidentally taught a tango class. The concept of accidentally teaching anything sounds strange, but that is really how it happened. It was a quiet night, and so with no planning or preparation I asked the group if they would like to try something a bit different… maybe some tango. And they said yes. Moreover the following week they asked me to do it again. And again the next week. And things began to change.
Tango is different to modern jive in almost every way, and so I had to rapidly learn new ways of teaching to encompass this other style. I had qualified as a modern jive teacher through a formal program overseen by the UKA, but there is no equivalent for tango so I had to work it out for myself. I took the bits I found most useful from all my own teachers, blended them with teaching methods I had been given as part of my qualification, then merged it all together and began to develop my own style.
It worked. People started to come who were really interested in learning and developing their tango, and the classes became viable again. But something else happened that I had not been expecting, which was that teaching tango became even more important to me than teaching modern jive. There were a number of reasons for this. One was that it provided more of a challenge because I had no framework on which to base my teaching and had to devise it all myself. Another was that being a dance that is far more about technique and understanding than it is about memorising steps, it fitted with the way I had been trying to teach modern jive. But the main reason was, I think, that it meant more to the people learning it.
Tango touches something inside you that other dances seem to miss. It is often described as a “dance of connection”, which is generally understood to mean a connection between you and your partner as with no rules and no choreography you have to move as one if you are going to make it work. But I see it primarily as finding connection with yourself, as tango teaches you to understand your own body and how it interacts with its surroundings like nothing else I’ve ever done. Maybe contemporary ballet has the same effect, but being in my mid-fifties already I’m unlikely to ever try that myself, so for me it is tango that finds the connection.
Tango, although being quite technical and difficult to master, is also far more accessible than modern jive, as it is low impact and the basic step is simply walking. Modern jive requires much less energy and fitness than its traditional counterpart, but it is still a bouncy and energetic way to spend an evening and a good part of your weekly cardio workout. Tango however can be as slow and as calm as you want. There is no requirement to dance on every beat, there is no bounce, and you generally won’t feel like you need to improve your fitness regime in order to survive a class. This really does mean that it’s a dance that is open to everyone. Young and old, fit or out of condition, if you can walk (or even - with a bit of adjustment - use a wheelchair) then you can get something out of tango.
Jivebeat had evolved, and with all the tango we were doing we needed a new name. I tried “Tango Synthesis” as I was hoping to convey the link between our modern jive background and our tango future, but I soon realised that the name itself had a better meaning, and I merged the words together. “Tangosynthesis” was born; just as plants need photosynthesis to thrive and grow, so we need something to find our connection to ourselves and to our surroundings, and for me that was tango. Tangosynthesis… growth through tango.
So here’s to the first three years of Jivebeat, now Tangosynthesis, and may there be many more to come. A lot has changed from that first evening, but I’m enjoying teaching even more now than I did then.
For those of you not familiar with the traditional tango way of doing things, tandas are groups of tracks played together that share a common rhythmic structure, orchestra, or style. It is usual for people to dance together for the duration of a tanda, then swap partners at the end of the tanda which is signified by a 'cortina' (curtain) of so-called "undanceable" music. This is the way that most traditional milongas are organised and the only way that a lot of tango dancers have ever experienced tango. At milongas that follow the rules of tango to the letter, you are supposed to only dance with someone for one tanda per event or else you may be considered to be a fixed couple, and breaking a tanda in the middle to dance with someone else is out of the question.
But there is another way of doing things, and many Neolongas (milongas based around neotango and alternative tango music) are eschewing the concept of tandas altogether and playing track after track without a break.
For dancers who have come to tango from other styles such as Salsa, Kizomba, or LeRoc, this is completely normal. No salsa DJ would consider clearing the floor every three or four tracks just so they can change the tone of the music or play something at a different speed. They seamlessly blend the music together, working with the mood of the dancers to choose tracks that will lift and inspire them throughout the evening, until everyone eventually goes home at the end, exhausted and happy. It makes sense; you come to a dance evening to dance, not to listen to music that exists purely to hurry you off the dance floor . So why not do this in tango too?
There really is no good reason, but for dancers that come from a traditional background this can be confusing. They are so used to basing their dance plans around tandas that they feel out of their depth when faced with a complete evening of music with no breaks and no structure. You hear dancers say that they have no idea how long they should continue to dance with someone, that they don't know when it's okay to ask someone new, and that they can feel 'stuck' on the dance floor as there is no cortina to tell them when to come off.
I do sort of get this, as if you have spent your entire tango life working in one way and then you walk into a venue that does things completely differently it might mess with your mind a bit. But a lot of tango dancers also dance other styles, and yet you rarely hear anyone say that what Salsa (for example) really needs is tandas. They instinctively know that other styles work best with a continuous flow of music throughout the evening. So why can't it be the same for tango?
I came to tango through a very non-traditional route, so tandas were something I discovered a long way into my tango journey and something that never really made sense to me. All I want from a dance evening is for the DJ or band to play a selection of music that I like or that challenges me, and to get as much or as little dancing in as I feel like at the time. I don't want the evening parcelled up into neat little packages, as the chance that the cortinas will happen at the exact time I want breaks is basically zero. I want to dance - or not dance - to my schedule, and to be able to enter and leave the floor whenever I like, and I know that a lot of people who come to tango without all the traditional background feel the same. So that's what I do.
So if you come to one of my events, don't expect to hear any cortinas. Just dance for as much or as little of the evening as you want, and choose the tracks you want to dance to based on whether you and your chosen partner like them individually, not just because they are part of a group of similar stuff that you may or may not like. It's liberating.
Tango can be bouncy and fun! Yes, there, I've said it. Tango, the dance style that so many people seem to think of as old fashioned or slow, can be just as full of energy and bounce as salsa or modern jive. And no, I've not gone crazy, I'm talking about milonga rhythm, the often-missed brother to tango that follows most of the same rules as its better known sibling, but with simpler faster steps, movement on every beat, and syncopation which adds to the musicality.
Okay, so full disclosure... until very recently I was no fan of milonga. I felt it was all a bit too frantic and lacked the opportunity for connection and expression that you get from a slower tango. But then I was unexpectedly thrust into a 3 1/2 hour milonga workshop with Sebastian and Roxana at the England International Tango Festival in Tonbridge ("Quick... we're short of leaders in the milonga workshop. You're on!") and something changed. Although I felt that at the end of the workshop I was no better at dancing milonga than I had been at the start, I understood more about how it worked, and had begun to see the opportunities it presented.
So I practised. And thought about it. And watched some videos. And practised again. And although I'm still not exactly good at it, I can now make it work if the music is right, and have really started to enjoy it.
For those of you reading this and thinking "Wait... I thought a milonga was a sort of tango freestyle event," you probably need a bit of background. What we group together as "tango" contains something like three distinct dance styles (there are more, but these are the main ones). There is tango, danced to the slower more flowing tracks, vals (or waltz) danced to music in 3/4 timing (or 3+1 / 4 ... but that's a whole different argument), and milonga. In this context, 'milonga' refers to a faster version of tango that uses a simplified set of steps and moves, has a change of weight on every beat, and makes strong use of repetition throughout a track. Yes, I know that the re-use of the word to mean two different things is confusing, but it's not my fault. Anyway, so I am talking about milonga rhythm (or just 'milonga') here, not the social gatherings.
Milonga has a very different feel to the slower tango rhythms. The change of weight on every beat and the utilisation of far simpler step sequences give the dance more energy, and you often hear people describe it as the more playful side of tango. It has bounce, enthusiasm, and you are far more likely to see even the most traditional of tango dancers laughing when they dance it than any other rhythm. It inspires you to experiment with new steps, as it is natural in milonga to do each step many times over before progressing to something else; you often see even experienced milonga dancers trying something that doesn't work perfectly the first time, but then it clicks for them on the second or third time through. And that's okay, because that's part of the fun of milonga.
But there is something else that starting to like milonga has shown me, and that is that with a bit of adaptation in the form of adding pauses and suspensions and mixing it in with some 'tango' style techniques, milonga can be the basis for a dance that works with a very wide range of musical genres.
Yes, that's other musical genres. Not tango. Popular stuff, like swing and jive and latin and more, which should be no surprise to anyone who has ever looked at this website or read any of my previous blog posts. I'm all about finding new things to do with tango, new music to dance it to, and new ways to get people to see what it is about this dance that I love so much. Dance is not just a goal in itself. It is something you do when you hear music you like that inspires you to get moving. People go to salsa clubs because they know the music inspires a party atmosphere and they love to party, so why not the same for tango? Because everyone 'knows' that tango music is old fashioned, and they would prefer to go somewhere that plays club music, hits, and things they know.
So watch this space. Bouncy fun tango, coming soon to a Tangosynthesis class near you!
With all the #neotango and #tangounderground branding that we are posting these days, a question I keep getting asked is "What is Neotango, and how different is it to traditional tango?" It's a fair question, given that we are trying to encourage people to make the move from traditional events and join us at a neolonga as for all they know it might be as different as salsa or LeRoc to what they know as 'tango'. Have we changed it in any way? Is it a modern version of the dance that had been 'fused' with another style to create something different? Will they even know how to do it?
The first and most important thing to get across to people new to Neotango is that it is exactly the same dance as they would learn at even the most traditional of classes. It follows all the same rules, has the same concepts and ideas as traditional, and is 100% compatible between dancers from all styles. In short, Neotango is just the same as traditional tango.
"So why call it something else? What is 'Neo' about Neotango?"
If what you like about traditional tango and its associated events are the rules and traditions then Neotango is probably not for you. A Neotango event may not have the music in tandas; there will be no cabeceos or miradas; traditional music will be rare or non-existent; anyone will ask anyone to dance. Neotango is as much about breaking down the rules and traditions around tango as it is about dancing in a different way. It's about taking the dance we know and love, and moving it into a world of modern music and modern attitudes to see where it can go next. It is a natural stage in the evolution of a dance style that has followed the changes and twists in popular dance music, from its earliest origins to the point where someone decided that "this is as far as it can go".
"In other words, Neotango is exactly the same as traditional, but with different music?"
Well... yes. And no.
The style of a dance comes as much from the music you are dancing to as it does from the steps and techniques used. Traditional tango music follows a fairly strict set of rhythms and structures, and often features the same group of instruments. The tracks used are all well known and fit under the headings of vals, milonga, or tango, and individual orchestras have known characteristics in the way they play or adapt certain pieces of music.
At a neotango event, however, you could find yourself dancing to anything. From classical to hip-hop, metal to electronica, nothing is off the table. A good neotango DJ will find music from all different genres and create a playlist or mix that will take you on a dance exploration. Tracks will work well for tango without being constrained by the traditional styles and instruments, so rather than taking your cues from the violin and the bandoneon, you may find yourself following the electric guitar and the synthesiser.
This may not sound as though it would make much of a difference to the way you dance, but small changes can have significant effects. Glenn Miller created a unique sound for his band in the 1940s by moving the clarinets to the frontline and backing them up with harmonised saxophones. It was the same instruments that everyone else had been using, but by putting them in a different order he redefined the sound of the big band and paved the way for a new generation of music.
In a similar way, tango danced to modern non-tango music is the same dance as it has always been with the same techniques and the same connection between partners. But the new music gives it something extra, a dynamic approach and flexibility that can often be missing with traditional music. Rhythms are more varied, there are as many different combinations of instruments as you can imagine, and the melody is constrained only by the composer's imagination. Your dancing can become more improvised, more 'of the moment' and less based on familiar patterns, as the musical landscape where you dance is no longer just a small subset of what is available.
So open your mind to new music and see where it takes you.
You may be very pleasantly surprised.
I've seen something very strange happen a number of times over the last few weeks, although on reflection, maybe it isn't that strange after all. Part of the job of running dance events and classes is that I spend a good part of the evening wandering around the room and talking to people. I might talk to them whilst we are dancing (yes... I know... heresy, but we are neotango after all...), over a cup of tea, or whilst they are sitting down at the side of the room between dances, but I do try to get around to as many people as possible. And one of the things I hear a lot is "You see him / her / that couple over there? I / we will never be as good as them!"
Fair enough, you might think. We can't all be experts. But then I cross the room and talk to the person or the couple that have just been pointed out, and they look back at the ones I have just been talking to and say "You see him / her / that couple over there? I / we will never be as good as them!"
So person A thinks that they will never be as good as person B, but person B thinks that person A is already unachievably better than they will ever be. Which is nuts, right?
Well maybe not. We spend so much of our lives judging ourselves against the performance of others that we lose objectivity and can no longer see how far we have progressed in something. We look at someone doing something that we cannot do, and forget that we ourselves can do many things that they have never even attempted. In the tango world we hear so often how people have particular dancers that they look up to and how those dancers look up to others that we almost start to think of the dance world as being a version of the famous Class Sketch (Frost Report, April 7th 1966) with a hierarchy of expertise and everyone on a particular level.
But reality isn't like that. Everyone learns at a different rate, but more than that, everyone learns different things at a different rate. Someone might be truly excellent at sacadas, but never quite get to grips with ganchos. Someone else might be world-class at enrosques but fail every time they attempt a volcada. It happens. We are influenced heavily by the route we have taken into tango and who has taught us over the weeks / months / years we have been doing it. Different teachers emphasise different things, and although we all end up dancing tango, the particular shape of our tango will vary widely. We learn things at different rates because we are not all identical. Some of us are tall and some of us are short; some of us have poor natural balance, whilst others can manage three complete spins on the spot without even thinking about it. These differences certainly affect our dancing, but they are more likely to affect single aspects of our dancing than everything at once, and this results in us learning some things faster than others.
So stop judging yourself against other dancers. By all means watch and learn from them (where do you think we teachers get our next classes from?), but don't fall into the trap of "I'll never be as good as them."
Because the chances are that someone else is looking at you and thinking the same.
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