Over the recent bank holiday weekend (25th - 28th May 2018) we had the privilege of being involved with the England International Tango Festival, organised by Tango Boot Camp. After a number of years of it being based in Ardingly, and then one year where they relocated to Brighton as a new venue was being agreed, this year it was held in the magnificent buildings and grounds of Tonbridge School in the heart of Kent. The school itself is around 500 years old, with most of the buildings you can see today dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and this formed a stunning backdrop to an amazing weekend of tango.
Our role in the festival was a technical one, providing sound equipment, lighting, and making sure that everything worked seamlessly for the workshops, practice sessions, and milongas throughout the weekend. We began our set up on Friday evening, installing lighting in the main milonga hall, and a full sound system in the second milonga room. That evening the school was still in use for an end of term function, so we had to set up the daytime practice room and the workshop area (one space that could be split into two) on Saturday morning before the events started.
Throughout the three days of the event there were a number of configuration changes that needed to be made, including two sets of live musicians in the second milonga room (one on Saturday and one on Sunday), a variety of DJs playing in the various rooms at times throughout the weekend, and a repositioning of connections to allow teachers to play music from the dance floor rather than the DJ station. The event itself ran from around 10am on Saturday morning to 7pm on Monday evening, finishing at 3am on Saturday and Sunday nights. And then when it was all over we took the equipment down again, packed it away, and took it home!
So that was the technical side of things. But it was a tango festival, so what about the tango?
It is not often that you get to attend a tango workshop weekend with such an impressive line-up of world-class, world-renown teachers. Teaching at the festival were Homer Ladas & Cristina Ladas, Vanessa Vilalba & Facundo Piñero, Sebastian Achaval & Roxana Suarez, and Marcela Guevara & Stefano Guidice, and they taught 38 workshops between them at a variety of levels from beginner to advanced. All the couples performed a number of routines at the grand milongas on Saturday and Sunday night, and frequently made themselves available to dance with people in each of the milonga rooms.
The workshops were all paced well, and the detail and explanation they gave was just right for the levels they were aimed at. Each workshop lasted around 90 minutes, apart from a couple of 'masterclass' workshops which were double-length at three hours. We managed to get along to a few of the classes (including the 3-hour Nuevo Masterclass run by Homer & Cristina) and hopefully we will be filtering much of what we learned into our own classes over the next few weeks.
But all of that technical description of who was there and what they did cannot do justice to the atmosphere of the event as a whole, the truly immersive experience it was to be there and to sit on the grass outside the Cafe Bailar (the daytime milonga room) listening to the tango music whilst watching the school team play cricket, or walking between the buildings in the evening hearing nuevo tracks being played behind you, live music off to one side, and traditional Pugliese on the other. This was not just about learning tango or dancing tango, it was about experiencing tango in its pure form, a way to step out of the world for a few hours or days and enter that strange and mysterious dimension where tango is more than just a dance.
There was something for everyone. If, like us, you like your tango to be nuevo or modern then you could head for the Cafe Bailar and hear Homer Ladas or Adrian Newell playing their set in the evening. For lovers of the traditional music you could choose from Michael Lavocah, Paulita, Diego Doigneau, or Warren in one of the other rooms. And if you like your music to be live then that was there for you as well.
The England International Tango Festival is a one-of-a-kind event, and you can be sure that I've put next year's dates in my diary already.
When preparing for a tango class or an event, the music the DJ chooses to play throughout the evening is probably the most important thing there is to decide. It doesn't matter if you provide a bar, free food, a fabulously ornate building with a perfect dance floor, or even a view across the Serengeti for the dancers to enjoy between tracks, if the music isn't danceable then you might as well not have bothered. But therein lies a big problem, as whilst for some people the music is just there to provide a background for the dancing, others consider tango (the dance) and tango (the music) to be inextricably linked and intertwined. If it isn't the right music, it isn't tango.
I grew up watching contemporary ballet and street dancers performing to everything from Rachmaninov to Run DMC, and so the concept of there being a 'right' sort of music to dance to was completely alien to me. I loved watching the ways they chose to express the different styles of music in their medium of dance, and how some of them would effortlessly switch from classical orchestral music to soaring metal power ballads in the same dance without missing a beat. The music was there as a framework that reflected their moods, their intent, and their own musical preferences; it was not something that was locked to a particular style, and there was no-one saying what could and could not be danced to a particular piece of music. For years I was just an observer, someone who sat on the sidelines and watched other people do something that I longed to be able to do myself (which is a whole different blog post), but I loved the near infinite variety of music and soundscapes that people used as a foundation for their dancing, and I loved the scope that gave them for expressing joy, anger, passion, confusion, revelation, mystery...
I became an active participant in dance a little later in life than most, and started - as many do - with Modern Jive. The first venue I went to was a little restricted in their music choice (even now, every time I hear "Titanium" by David Guetta I am back in that room in Dartford where it all began!), but when I started dancing in other places I soon found a huge variety of music that covered everything from slow ballads to bhangra and the scope that gave to our dancing was something quite special. The same was true for tango, as when I was first introduced to tango in a small studio just outside Southampton, the music the teacher played was diverse. So long as it had a beat or cadence that matched what he was trying to teach, he played it. This seemed logical, and when I started to encounter people dancing tango to the slower tracks at modern jive events it made perfect sense to me: if you know this amazing expressive dance form then why not dance it to some of the most amazing and expressive music that modern musicians can produce?
But then I changed location and had to switch tango classes, and that was where I first encountered this whole idea that there is a "right" music for tango. There seemed to be very few classes around that taught using anything other than traditional tango music from South America in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The teacher in my new class would go through a move or a sequence with a piece of Canaro playing in the background, and then put on the same piece played by Pizarro and get us to dance it again whilst he explained how this made it a completely different set of steps. I went to another tango class instead, but after six months of learning the basics he announced that from the following week we would be starting again from the beginning but this time with music from a different orchestra because obviously it would all be different and we needed to learn "the other way of doing things".
I had, however, watched people dancing tango to absolutely everything for as long as I could remember, so I still basically assumed that the teachers I had found simply preferred teaching it that way. The choice of music for tango must surely be down to a matter of personal taste.
After a series of somewhat surprising events, I ended up running my own tango classes and dances. From the first day I played blues, slow rock, jazz, and similar sorts of tracks in the classes and the practice time afterwards. I played what I enjoyed listening to and dancing to, and so for me that ruled out the majority of traditional tango music. The classes were well received, and although I knew I was basically making it up as I went along (my introduction to teaching tango was a complete accident, so I had little time to prepare), the people who came loved the choice of music. We even started to get people who came along purely because our choice of music was non-traditional.
But then I discovered a whole new aspect to tango that I was not expecting. I began to encounter people who described what I was doing as "risky" or "daring". They tried to tell me that it "wasn't allowed" to call it tango if it wasn't danced to the "proper music", although it was unclear who it was they thought would enforce the prohibition (the tango re-education police, perhaps?). Tango, they said, was only tango if danced to "proper" tango music that had been written specifically for tango. They disagreed amongst each other as to whether that included modern Nuevo Tango music or not (and even the definition of Nuevo was a bit variable), but they all agreed it was "daring", "risky", or just plain "wrong" to play anything not written with tango in mind.
Now hang on a minute... what we do is neither "risky" nor "daring". "Risky" is changing a light switch without turning the power off first; "Daring" is skinny-dipping in your neighbours pool whilst they're having a barbecue. What we do is play music we like as a way to enjoy a dance we love, and there is nothing risky or daring about that.
Tango is a dance that has been evolving ever since it began. From its origins as a dance-off challenge between two men, it changed when women started dancing it too as a way of attracting customers into brothels, something which resulted in it being banned in many places because of its associations with the sex industry. But then it evolved again when European dancers brought it over from South America and turned it into the first version of the tango we know today. The competitive ballroom dancing scene attempted to codify it, first with ballroom tango, and then with ballroom Argentine tango, but even these styles have changed and updated over the years, and many of the things they added have filtered back to the place where it all began. Meanwhile in South America there were multiple traditions of tango popping up, with Villa Urquiza, Salon, Fantasia, Milonguero, Club, and Nuevo (to name but a few) all appearing in different regions and at different times. The music changed as the pace slowed down and enabled dancers to be more open and expressive as there was more time for the larger moves. Even the connection between the dancers has adapted and changed as people have tried open, closed, open-V, offset, and adaptive holds to suit their particular style. In other words, there is nothing that has not changed at some point during the evolution of tango.
So what about that is "traditional"? What about that suggests that tango cannot adapt and change as fashions shift and people want to try something else? What about that diverse and ever-changing history suggests that tango is anything other than an evolving dance style that can work however you want it to work and be danced to whatever music you prefer?
And the answer is... nothing.
We dance tango. We play music that we like, and dance tango in a way that makes us happy. We advertise our X-Tango events as "Nuevo / Neo / Alternative", and the strap-line for them is "No tandas - No traditions - Just dance", either of which should be enough to suggest that the traditional way is probably not our way. We are not trying to get rid of traditional tango music or saying it should never be played. We are simply taking a dance that we love and merging it with music that we want to hear, and creating... synthesising... a new step in tango's evolution that will hopefully bring tango to people who might otherwise have been put off by the music.
We are Tango Synthesis. Our music is diverse and our tango is nuevo; we dance because it is fun and we laugh whilst we're doing it. If you are looking for a traditional Buenos Aires style milonga then we are probably not the place for you, but if traditional tango music is not your thing or you want to try something a bit different and see how tango works in an alternative environment, just drop in to one of our classes or events. Beginners are always welcome and there is no need to bring a partner.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go answer the front door... I just hope it's not the Tango Re-Education Police................
There is no getting away from it, learning tango is different to learning other dances. Other dance classes will start by teaching you some basics that can be used to take you through an entire song, which might include a few fundamental steps, some sequences that you can dance from memory, and maybe a few embellishments to add a bit of flair to the sequence. After a couple of lessons you may not be good, you may not be smooth, but the steps you have learned at those classes will look like and feel like dancing. You will usually have the shape and rhythm of the dance by then, and over the next few months you can start to concentrate on polishing up the edges and expanding your repertoire of steps.
But tango is a bit different. Tango isn't danced in sequences like some dances, and the basic step is really just walking in close connection with your partner. There are no steps to learn like there would be in ballroom dancing, and there are no equivalents to the LeRoc fundamentals that you can use to get you started. Most classes will teach movements and connections using short sequences of movement that illustrate certain parts of the connection, but the sequences themselves are not what matters. Everything about learning tango is about the connection. And that connection can be difficult to master.
This first phase can be extremely frustrating. Anyone used to other dance styles like LeRoc or Salsa can start to wonder what's wrong with them that they can't pick up the basics of tango as quickly as they did the other dances. They see more experienced people dancing around the room in effortless flowing movement and get frustrated that they can't do the same. They go to another class to see if a new environment will help, but that only adds to the confusion as no two tango teachers ever seem to teach things in the same way and they start to get confused. So how does anyone ever manage to learn tango?
Firstly, it is important that your teacher reminds you regularly that tango is hard. There is a reason that the traditional teachers in Argentina spend a year or more concentrating on little other than the walk and the basic connection before progressing anywhere near actual dancing. We walk every day, but walking in tango uses all the muscles in completely different ways to regular walking and it takes a while to learn the difference; the connection can be a very difficult concept to grasp as it is unlike anything else we see outside of tango; the combination of the two can at first seem completely alien. Terms like 'ocho', 'sacada', 'giro', and 'parada' are used in the class all the time, and even if you know Spanish it is unlikely you will be able to make sense of your teacher's terrible pronunciation. Not that it would matter if you could, as knowing that 'ocho' means 'eight' won't help you in the slightest as you are trying to work out what step you are trying to learn!
Secondly, you need to persevere. Like many other skills, tango isn't something you are going to learn in a week. It requires practice, observation, tuition, more practice... learning tango is an ongoing process that can last as long as you want it to. Every tango teacher, performer, maestro, or all-round tango god you meet will have someone they look up to and try to emulate. I won't say who mine are as they might read it and that would be embarrassing 😉, but everyone has people who inspire them, even if we know we will never get to their level as we are not fit enough or maybe a little older than we might like. But we carry on learning and dancing because we love it.
And finally there is the one that a lot of people seem to forget... we dance tango because it is fun. Tango is dance, it is entertainment, a release from day to day stress and routine. We go to a dance class to get away from the seriousness of life and have a laugh for a few hours. If we get it wrong on the dance floor it's not a disaster, we just laugh about it and either try again or move on. It really doesn't matter. We get the opportunity to dance to music we love with friends around us and where someone else sorts out the music, lighting and refreshments. Dance - even tango - is escapism, and we all need that in our lives.
So don't forget the fun. Don't get so caught up in the learning and the practice that you forget to smile.
And that's the key to learning tango. It may seem hard at first, but don't worry about getting it right or remembering the dozens of things your teacher told you last week that you forgot to write down (hint: chest connection... weight forward... stretch the back leg). Just enjoy the dancing and the rest will come at its own pace.
As most people probably know by now, when I started teaching tango at Jivebeat it was almost entirely by accident. A random decision to give the regulars at Sevenoaks a tango taster class one evening (you can read about that here) soon became a regular feature, and pretty soon more people were finding us because of the tango than were finding us for modern jive. This was not a problem for us as we love teaching both, but after a few months we started to realise that people were being confused by the name. Tango at Jivebeat...? Is it really tango? Is it "modern jive in a tango style"? How can modern jive and tango be even slightly compatible?
We hadn't thought of this, as since we knew what we were doing we just assumed everyone else would as well. Jive and tango are two separate classes that happen one after the other, and although the music we play varies from week to week we always try to get at least a few crossover tracks into the playlist so people can choose what they want to dance even in the same track. It made sense to us, but a couple of months ago when we were talking to people who had been actively looking for tango classes but who had skimmed over Jivebeat purely because of the name, we realised it was time to make a few changes.
And so Tango Synthesis was born.
If you already come to Jivebeat for our regular classes or X-Tango Milongas then other than a few logo changes you probably won't notice a lot of difference. Tango Synthesis is made up of all the same people as Jivebeat, with the same class format and no plans to split things up any differently to the way they are organised now. Membership, the loyalty scheme, prepayments, and everything else will continue to be run under the Jivebeat name, but advertising and branding of our tango classes and events will change.
Tango content will start to move onto the Tango Synthesis website, but for now it will continue to be on the Jivebeat site as well so Jivebeat remains the one-stop-shop for everything we do. This may change in a few months though as everyone gets used to the new branding, so if tango interests you then start finding the Tango Synthesis website, our pages on Facebook, and any other social media accounts that we may announce.
Welcome to Tango Synthesis! The new home for Jivebeat Tango.
On Friday the 23rd March 2018, we held our first X-Tango Alternative Milonga at our regular venue in Sevenoaks. This venture into the world of tango freestyle evenings - milongas - was something new for us and we had no idea how it would be received. How many people like dancing tango to modern or nuevo music? Would anyone come to a tango event run by an organisation with such a non-tango name as "Jivebeat"? Would anyone else like the music I play? But we have been promising ourselves that we would try something like this ever since we introduced tango to Jivebeat classes back in the summer of 2017, so it was about time we got on and did it.
We need not have worried. We had slightly over 40 people that turned up, and it was great to see that people had travelled from all over Kent and Sussex to come and dance with us. You can have a look at some of the photos we took during the evening at the link below...
We started the evening with a short warm-up routine and a "get you started" class for anyone new to tango. Then at around 8.45pm we dimmed the lights, turned up the music, and for the rest of the evening it was down to me as DJ to keep you all entertained. Obviously I'm not going to say anything about how good the music was as reviewing my own DJ set would be weird 😉, but everyone - including me - seemed to be enjoying themselves, so I'll count that as a win!
We'd also like to give a big thank you to Libusha of Libertas Atelier for bringing all her wonderful tango and dance fashion creations along. If you didn't get a chance to look at them properly at the venue then why not go and have a browse around her online collection. Click the link below to view her store on Etsy...
Our next X-Tango event at Sevenoaks will be on Friday the 27th April 2018, starting at 8pm as before. The warm-up class will be a little shorter next time, so the dance floor will be yours from around 8.30pm.
See you there!
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