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.
The first time I ever saw Argentine Tango being danced socially was at a Modern Jive and Blues event in Winchester Guild Hall. Most people were sticking to the standard dance styles for those sorts of music, but there were a few people on the floor who were dancing the tango. And it looked amazing. Their ability to connect with each other and interpret the music was incredible, and I immediately knew I wanted to learn how to do that. So when a couple of months later a friend (who up to then I’d only known as a modern jiver) offered to take me along to her tango class, I jumped at the chance. My tango journey was under way.
Or perhaps I should say my “neotango” journey, although at the time I had no idea that there was even such a thing. For me, tango was a dance that you could do wherever and whenever you liked, and to whatever music you wanted. It was defined by its mechanics, the connection between the two dancers, the shape, the way you move. It certainly wasn’t defined by a particular genre of music, or the environment where it was to be danced. And as luck would have it, the first few classes I found had the same opinion.
My work relocated and I had to find a new class closer to home, and suddenly I was introduced to the concept of “traditional tango”. At first I assumed that the teacher just preferred the sound of traditional music, and whilst it was certainly not my favourite way to dance tango, there was nothing wrong with it at all. For the first twelve weeks of that class we learned a variety of steps and techniques, and it was all making perfect sense to me. Yes, the hold they taught was a little more open than I’d encountered before, and there seemed to be slightly less ‘fun’ in the classes than I’d like, but it was still the same tango that I’d known from everywhere else, so all was good.
On the thirteenth week, I arrived at the class expecting to carry on from where we had left off at the end of the previous week, but the teacher had us all stand around the small speaker whilst he played us a new piece of music and asked us to say what was different about it. After a slightly awkward silence, he told us that until then we had only been dancing to music by Francisco Canaro, and that this new piece was by Juan d’Arienzo. There was another awkward silence as he let this sink in, and then he said that since the music was completely different, we would now be going back to the beginning to learn all the same stuff that we had done so far, but with d’Arienzo in the background as “obviously it would all be completely different.”
The reception from the class to this news was mixed. Some people just went with it, but some people left at the end of that evening never to return. I stayed there for another few weeks to try to understand what he was on about, but after having been taken back to absolute basics and being told that everything was different because it was a new orchestral style - hold, connection, frame, timing, projection… everything - and finding out that at the end of the next twelve week block we would be doing it all again with a third orchestra, I left.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was my first encounter with tango traditionalism. Over the next few weeks of looking for classes in my area I saw references to d’Arienzo, Pugliese, and many more of the traditional orchestras, but no-one was talking about anything modern. I started asking around, and it soon became clear that many people linked the dance of tango with a particular era and style of traditional tango music. What I liked to dance was apparently known as “neotango” - tango steps and techniques with modern non-tango music, but they made it clear that this was often thought of as not “real tango”, or in some cases not even tango at all.
This confused me, but being relatively new to the dance I wasn’t really sure what to make of this information. Since then though I have got a better understanding of the history of tango, and now I can say for sure that to me this restriction on what is and what is not considered “tango” makes no sense. Tango is a dance that has been evolving continuously since it first appeared in South America in the mid-1800s. The exact timeline of how it began and when it evolved is unclear and there are many different versions of what happened when, but what is well known is that the tango of the 1960s was very different to what people would have been dancing in the late 1800s, and that every local region around Buenos Aires and Montevideo developed its own variation. Evolution was - and has remained - continuous, with “Nuevo Tango” (the “new” tango) popping up every few years as musical styles developed, new teaching and descriptive techniques arriving with Gustavo Naveira, and countless approaches to the dance appearing as a result.
With all the changes that tango has been through, with it evolving over multiple parallel timelines and taking influence from at least three continents, how does it make sense to point at one tiny snapshot of a handful of clubs in Buenos Aires in the 1940s and 50s and say “This is true tango”? What makes that version of tango any more “correct” than any other? With the geographic variations in the dance that developed even in the regions close around Buenos Aires itself, it is highly likely that even many dancers contemporary with that chosen age would never have seen tango danced in the particular way we now call “traditional”, as their region did it differently.
To pick out one singular snapshot of such a rich and varied dance style and label that as “Traditional” with everything else categorised simply as “non-Traditional” does tango a massive disservice. It is akin to describing the science of zoology as “the study of elephants and other things” and is the same fixation on a picture-postcard version of history that brought us Brexit. It misses all the good stuff - the range of expression that makes tango unique, and distills it down to “them and us”.
Dance is supposed to be fun. Unless you are entering competitions there is no need for rules and restrictions. Just go out there and enjoy it. If you like the music being played or the style being danced then stick with it, but if you fancy a change there will always be someone out there doing something a little different.
What drew me to tango in the first place was its inclusiveness. It is an immigrant dance that throughout its history has linked castles, brothels, campsites and nightclubs. It has touched the lives of millions, and joined them together with a common understanding of connection and closeness. It is not just one of its parts, but a sum of its parts, a tapestry of dance with every thread vital to the whole and contributing to its strength.
So make this year a time to celebrate the diversity of tango, the rich and varied weave of neo, salon, traditional, modern, nuevo, and anything else you might find in your local club that makes it so amazing. Tango is still evolving, and I am really looking forward to seeing where it goes next.
As 2018 comes to a close and we take the time to sit back with a mince pie, watch Die Hard, and try to remember who the weird-shaped present under the tree was supposed to be for, it might be a good moment to think about the last twelve months, and all the changes that Jivebeat and TangoSynthesis have seen. In that time we’ve changed our focus, created a new brand, and branched out into previously unexpected areas. There have been challenges, surprises, and unexpected connections, and had you asked us last Christmas for our predictions for the year, we would have got it all wrong!
Back in January, all our Jivebeat class nights were a combination of Argentine Tango and Modern Jive. Having originally formed as a purely Modern Jive club in 2016, we were as surprised as anyone when in June 2017 Argentine Tango unexpectedly became a part of our evenings. And that new format - an hour of MJ followed by an hour of AT, with combined practise at the end - had carried through into 2018.
We assumed this would be the way things would continue. But nothing ever goes quite the way you expect, and it soon became clear that there would be more Tango in our future than Modern Jive.
In March we held our first ever X-Tango Alternative Milonga. We had no idea if anyone other than us would be interested in a tango event with no traditional tango music, but Neolongas are popular on the mainland and up north, so we wanted to give it a go. And for one week only, on the Friday the 23rd March, our normal class night became our first neolonga.
It worked. People were challenged, not sure what to expect, and often surprised by the music we played, but it worked. So we decided to make X-Tango a monthly event.
This was around the same time that we realised marketing a dance club that had an increasing amount of tango on its calendar under the name “Jivebeat” was confusing, so towards the end of April we launched TangoSynthesis with new graphics, a new brand style, and a dedicated website.
We carried on with the combined Jive and Tango evenings until the summer, when during the quiet period in August we sat down to have a think about the future of Jivebeat. Marketing a combined Modern Jive and Argentine Tango evening was proving to be a bit of a challenge as people seemed unsure what exactly it was that they were coming to, and time constraints during the evening meant that we could only do combined ‘beginners & improvers’ classes so we felt we were doing neither justice. The end result of all this was that we made the difficult decision to start concentrating on just one style, and so we dropped Modern Jive classes from the calendar.
I know that this decision didn’t sit well with those of you who were coming primarily for the Modern Jive part of the evening, and for that I’m sorry. If there had been a way for us to continue with both we would certainly have done it, but we had to make the best decision for the club itself, and that was to focus on tango.
It was a difficult choice, but it was the right one. Classes are growing, our X-Tango events are bigger and better than they were when we launched, and things are definitely on the up for TangoSynthesis. We have even connected with another group in Tunbridge Wells, and Graham is now regularly teaching a class there, with Nathalie, on Monday evenings.
The coming year will bring us many new challenges. We already know that our Sevenoaks venue for the X-Tango Neolongas will be closed for refurbishment at some point in the year and that we will have to relocate to somewhere new (we have dates booked through to May, but after that we have no idea where we will be). But that won’t be the only challenge, I’m sure. We had no idea at the start of 2018 that by now we would only be teaching tango, so I’m not even going to try to guess what 2019 will bring.
Whatever the future holds though, this coming year will be the year of dancing. This club would be nothing without you, the dancers, and we want to make it the best for you that we can.
See you next year on the dance floor!
This is something I hear from new tango dancers all the time. I tell them about our monthly milongas and the smaller practilongas to see if they are going to come along and practise what they have been learning for the last few weeks, and the most common thing I hear back is "Oh, we're not good enough for a milonga yet. We'll need a lot more lessons before we're ready to come to one of those."
But aren't milongas - tango social dances and freestyle evenings - the whole point of learning? I do understand that maybe week one or two might not be the time to attend your first milonga, but don't you come to classes to learn how to dance with other people in a social environment? And if you do, what invisible line do you think you need to cross before you can make the jump into dancing at a milonga? How good do you think you need to be before you can go?
There seems to be a belief amongst tango newcomers that milongas are for experienced dancers only, and that if you turn up only knowing how to walk a bit and can maybe pull off an ocho if your leader mutters "ocho!" in your ear at the right moment you will be completely out of your depth. That may well turn out to be the case if you decide to dance with a leader who insists on trying out every move he ever learned, or a follower that adds embellishments on every step regardless of the lead, but there are a few ways to avoid that.
Firstly, many experienced leaders and followers are more than happy to dance with beginners, and know how to pay attention to their partner's dancing needs. They remember what it was like when they first started, and are keen to pass on the passion for the dance that has hooked them into tango for so long. Look for those people on the dance floor and ask them for a dance, or if you don't know them and don't want to approach them directly then talk to the organiser before you go and see if they will introduce you to anyone who will look after you.
Alternatively, you can go to a milonga where you know there will be other beginners and dance with them to get you going. You could arrange to go with other beginners from your class, or pick a milonga based on its reputation for being beginner-friendly, but either way you will know that there will be people there who you will be comfortable with, and that you won't be the only person in the room to get cold sweats at the thought of a 'hero'*.
But why is it so important? What is wrong with waiting until you feel 'ready' to go to your first milonga? Why do you need to find ways to make that jump when it may well just happen naturally after a few weeks... or months... or years?
Classes teach you how to dance steps and sequences, but by their very nature they don't do a very good job of teaching you how to cope with improvising your way around the dance floor for a whole piece of music. You only learn that by trying it out yourself, without the structure of working through this week's set routine and with the freedom of being able to use anything you can remember. You start small with the things then add in new stuff as you get more confident. But that works best when you do it out of a class environment, and that's where milongas come in.
So take the plunge. Go to a milonga. Learn by watching the other dancers and try out anything you can remember from your classes, however many - or few - classes you've been to.
It's the best way to learn!
*You won't be the first person to think that 'giro' is spelled like that either!
We've got an app! Yes, that's right, you can now get TangoSynthesis directly on your iPhone without having to use a web browser or fiddle around with bookmarks. But why? What was the point of putting together an app, when I could publish all the same information on the website?
Firstly and most importantly, it's easier. If you want to check out the diary before heading to a class to see if anything has changed or what the theme of the week's classes might be, then it's a lot quicker and easier to open up an app and see what's going on than it is to open a web browser, find the bookmark you need or remember the URL, navigate the site menus, and eventually find the information you were after. An app is quicker to open on your phone than a web browser like Safari, and it loads the pages faster too.
But the other key reason for launching an app is reach. More and more people now are turning away from using web pages or email to keep in touch with clubs and businesses they like, and looking for apps to do the job instead. People like the immediacy of an app, the sense of being connected to something by a dedicated single-use route that will always take them to the latest information and the most recent posts. This is particularly noticeable in younger users in the 18-35 age range, with that group overwhelmingly turning away from multi-use platforms such as websites and even Facebook.
So I made an app!
It's in its early stages at the moment, so if there is something you would like to see included that I've missed then let me know and I'll see what I can do. It is only available for iPhone at the moment, with a version that's compatible with the iPad coming early next year. Unfortunately an Android version isn't planned at the moment as I have no-one to develop it, but I'll let you know if that changes.
For now though, if you have an iPhone you can find it in the app store. Just search for TangoSynthesis and download it for free.
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