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.
I was recently asked about a video containing a series of exercises intended to help followers learn or improve their boleos. If you’re not sure what a boleo is, it’s the flick you see in the lower leg of a follower during rapid changes of direction or speed. They can be small and subtle or high and snappy, but if the leg responds to movement with a flick then it’s a boleo. They are related to ganchos, the ‘hook’ where one partner’s leg hooks and rapidly unhooks again from the other partner’s leg, but in general a boleo happens without something to hook around.
The video I was sent was a good example of a very traditional way of learning tango. It showed someone going through a series of exercises and positions like you were viewing it in stop-motion, and instructed you to repeat these positions until they felt natural. This would be fine for a choreographed routine, but tango is supposed to be improvised. Learning in that way tells you nothing about how a boleo actually works or what the interaction between the leader and the follower must be to make it happen. And if you want to understand a boleo or anything else in tango, you have to start with that interaction.
Tango is a dynamic dance of lead and follow. Everything that the follower does - with the obvious exception of adornos which are optional - is a result of the lead she is given. That lead comes from the chest, the upper body connection, the frame, and the embrace; it doesn’t come from the legs, or from the follower picking up on visual clues as to the leader’s intentions.
Learning to create the shape of a boleo with your legs teaches you nothing about how a boleo is actually created. Instead, it teaches you that a boleo is an adorno, something the follower chooses to do whenever she feels like she has a spare moment. Yes, you can add in boleo adornos at times, and adornos can be created from any muscle group you like as you are initiating them and you are controlling them. But led boleos (and ganchos) are not adornos, they are reactions to a lead (the upper-body twist) and an interruption (a change in direction, a sudden stop, or a leg being in the way).
In theory the follower has no knowledge at all that a boleo or gancho is about to happen until after it is already in progress; it is simply a consequence of taking a normal step and finding that something changes before you have managed to transfer the weight. So with a boleo, the follower is led into (for example) a back ocho, but before it completes she is returned to a collected face-on position. Inertia in the lower leg creates a whiplash effect, so the foot and calf take a fraction longer to return to the neutral position than the rest of the follower, and this becomes the boleo. A gancho is similar, in that energy is applied to move the body, but the follower’s leg encounters an obstruction and the top part of the leg stops immediately but the lower part carries on for a bit.
At an advanced level, a follower will detect that inertia is causing her leg to do something and add a little energy into it herself. That creates the faster flicks and kicks you see on the stage, but that only works once you no longer have to think about the underlying cause and effect of the boleo itself. Initially it’s much better to have low boleos and ganchos but a fast and responsive *upper* leg movement that reacts to the lead, and only when you get that happening naturally should you worry about speeding up the flick itself.
Everything in tango is a consequence of upper body (specifically chest) connection and movement, so how does that relate to practising lower leg lifts with no chest movement to lead it? Personally I’m not sure that it does. Yes, you learn the shape, but you never learn how to create that shape in the first place. It becomes an adorno, not a reaction, and that’s not the same thing at all. Boleos and ganchos are supposed to be *grounded* and come from the free-leg’s relationship with - and sudden disconnection from - the floor as much as anything else. To make that happen you need energy put into the movement from outside; you can’t achieve the same thing by calmly lifting your foot whilst standing in a static turned position.
For me, the thing to practise if you want to improve your boleos and ganchos is body spiral. This is the disconnection between upper and lower body that means the free lower leg reacts slightly slower to a turn than the hips, and the hips react slightly slower than the chest. This creates the tension in the dance and makes boleos pretty much unavoidable. They are no longer something you have to practise separately, but a natural consequence of your whole tango movement.
I’ll talk more about spiral in the next post but for now the best way to start to practise it is to stand with your feet together and the weight on your left leg, then begin to dissociate your upper body, turning your shoulders to the left initially without moving your hips then allowing them to catch up a moment later. When you’ve done that a few times repeat it on the other leg and going the other way.
We hold classes every week in Sevenoaks and South Norwood, aimed at tango beginners... and when we say 'beginners', we really do mean people who have never danced tango (even those who have never danced anything at all) before.
Some of you have told us how much you love the look of tango and really want to give it a go, but your previous experiences with classes where everyone else is months ahead of you, or where you have to commit to extended courses to get you going have put you off trying. This is completely understandable; it's hard enough starting something completely new without having the added pressure of trying to keep up with everyone else, or having to attend a block of six, eight, or ten classes without missing a beat.
Our classes are different. Every beginners' class we teach starts with the absolute fundamentals and guides you through some specific aspect of tango technique that will get you dancing. There are no courses to book, and no minimum number of sessions you must attend in order to be allowed to continue. Our classes are drop-in with no need to book or commit, and we are more than happy for you to progress at your own pace.
So if you have always wanted to try Argentine Tango but have found the traditional class structure to be a bit too high pressure for your taste, give us a go. We may be just what you have been looking for.
From November I'll be back to teaching Tango in Tunbridge Wells at Learn to Tango Kent for a while. This will be on Monday evenings in the Showfields Hall, so if your week is a bit short of tango, or you just want to see your regular teacher out of his natural habitat, then pop down to Tunbridge Wells and join in. Mark is teaching the beginners' class from 7.30pm, then I will be teaching the improvers and intermediates from 8.30pm. Practice from 9.30pm-10.30pm.
The address of the hall is:
1, Rowan Tree Road
Kent. TN2 5PX
You may want to check that postcode if you're using a SatNav, as there seems to be a bit of dispute between them as to where that goes. The address is correct though.
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