Thursday, September 30, 2010

Victims of my Snobbery, part III

Here is an edition of Victims that is not written by Jaimito. This post was inspired by my experience at a recent regional tango festival. It was, in general, a lot of fun, with a set of really good teachers, nice venues and a great all-nighter. As everything in life is though, the milongas were occasionally marred by little annoyances. You know, how someone will occasionally do something dumb that will upset you, taking away a little bit of the enjoyment out of the milonga. I’m sure every one of us has experienced something like that. Well, this has made me think of a few kinds of people who are victims of my snobbery.

The hypocrite:
So the Friday night milonga was in a smaller room. Generally, this would not be a problem, except that it was a free for all. You know those milongas, where the floorcraft is horrendous: people weaving in and out, bumping is rampant, and there some people in the center just going everywhere. It was tough to navigate, and in that big jumble I fell into the trap of being part of this free for all. Now, don’t go off on me! I did keep in the line of dance, I did not bump into any other couple (honestly, not once!), but I disregarded one piece of etiquette that I generally adhere to. 

Generally, before entering the ronda, I try to catch the eye of the guy I’m cutting in front of and to get his acknowledgement. In this particular case, and in this big free for all, I held my partner and I spotted a gap in the ronda, I dived in.  Again I didn’t bump into anyone and I didn’t feel that I in particular disturbed the (non)flow of that milonga. At the end of the the song, I had one of the “organizers”, a tall, physically imposing guy berating me about how I should have let him know that I was entering in front of him. I’m generally not the kind of person who shies away from a bully, but in this case, I figured that I was in the wrong, and defused the situation. I wonder if he was going around yelling at people for bad floorcraft. If he was, then I don’t think anyone was paying attention to him. Also, there are much nicer ways to establish good floorcraft. The most important of which is to advise your local dancers of proper floorcraft and make sure they lead by example.

The hilarious part was at the milonga the following night. That milonga did have better floorcraft, and which I did take extra care to establish eye contact with leaders I was entering in front of. That same leader who went off on me about how I didn’t let him know I was entering in front of him, was a few couples in front me, embraced his partner with his back to the ronda and stepped into the gap! I’ll refrain from further comments, and leave that to our dear readers.

The wanderer:
He’s the guy who can’t sit if he’s not dancing. Nothing wrong with that per se, but realize that when there is a lot of space behind the chairs and the tables, the organizer meant to have people walk on the outside of the pista. It actually works! You walk on the outside, and everyone on the pista dances. It’s a win-win situation!

That guy I’m referring to, walked in front of me once entering the pista, another time exiting, and then he crossed in front of someone else, walked across the pista and stopped, on the inside of the pista, in front of one of the table, talking to this friend. This situation was solved pretty quickly, when I paused, tapped him on the shoulder and nodded my head to signal him off the floor. This was done with a smile (or was it a smirk?) and a thank-you when he was off the floor. And I don’t recall seeing him on the pista again, while not dancing.

See? There’s a nice way of correcting bad floorcraft. Don’t be an asshole unless you’re ready for someone who might be ready to take it outside.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

If you had to choose one step that should die, what would it be ?

This question is separate from the whole traditional vs. Nuevo style debate. Also, it doesn’t apply to stage tango. As we have already established, stage tango (escenario), done nicely, and on a stage, is a thing of beauty. It’s supposed to dazzle the audience. Wow them with intricate steps. With fishnetted legs tangled with trousered ones, suggesting something just a little bit more than just dance. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the milonga, where you are supposed to dissolve into the ronda and become invisible. Once you’re there, you get to become one with the music and with your partner, and you (should) dance for your partner.

So, for those of you who would like to eliminate quintessential Nuevo moves, like the colgada and volcada, I would urge you to reconsider on the following grounds. Yes, I would say that those steps don’t belong in a traditional setting and I don’t do them myself. But, they do provide an interesting sensation for the woman. It’s different, and if she’s into these moves, she would enjoy them. While I personally don’t like colgadas and volcadas that much,  I would say that they have some redeeming value residing outside of their showiness, namely that they do in fact provide a feeling for the lady.

With this argument, I would like to propose the following criteria for the nomination of the one step that should die: That the said move has no redeeming value outside of its showiness. In other words, that it provides no further fun or interesting sensations for the follower than another similar step, and that it is done solely for the pleasure of the leader. Leaders doing showy moves for their own pleasure, or worse, for the pleasure of the audience, are completely missing the point. To those leaders I would say: What is wrong with you? You have a wonderful lady in your arms, you listening to fantastic music and you are surrounded by great people who share your passion. You don’t need anything more. You don’t need the self-satisfaction of doing something “difficult”. Leading nicely and take care of your follower is difficult enough. Savor that and enjoy doing it well.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my choice for the step that should die in milongas: The man’s back sacada. It has no redeeming value. It provides no interesting feeling that a normal forward or side sacada can’t provide. It takes up way more space, and men who do it, do it just for the self-satifaction (The “oooh, look at me, I just did a back sacada” feeling). It is selfish, and if I were I asked to choose the one move that should die in social tango, I would, without hesitation, say: The man’s back sacada.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Victims of my snobbery, part II

What, you thought because I made two non-snobbery related posts after Part I that my snobbery had softened? Yeah, right!
I remember I was at a workshop with a visiting couple when a guy arrived about 20 minutes late. He politely asked me if I could fill him in as to what had been taught so far. I told him that so far we had been doing warm up exercises on balance, flexibility, and walking. What he replied stuck in my head because it almost made me slap him. He said something along the lines of "Good. I came at just the right time to learn the moves." Here is the epitome of this edition's victim:

The move collector
The move collector is most prevalent in outcome oriented societies, where what has been done counts for more than how it has been done. Indeed, watching the move collector dance is like somebody at a job interview reciting his curriculum vitae, desperately establishing his credentials. It's almost endearing, but not really. It just looks pathetic how he's trying to prove himself worthy to the follower by demonstrating how much time he's spent looking at videos and making half-assed imitations of their idols. He goes through all the list of things he can do, with no regard to the music, and more often than not with no regard to space available. He is very easily identified in milongas because he's mostly in the middle of the dance floor where he has more space, and can be seen doing weird crap like huge volcadas during a fast D'Arienzo milonga. More importantly, his technique is god-awful. He has spent so much time learning volcadas, saltos, barridas, boleos, contra-boleos, re-contra-boleos, and every imaginable combination that he has completely neglected the most important things: caminata y abrazo.
It hurts to watch them dance because in some cases you see potential. You can see that their dancing would become so much better if they fixed their walking, if they paid much more attention to the embrace, if they realized that a good, solid, comfortable embrace, and a porteno walk with determination is all it takes to give a woman a good tanda, so they could just stop going over their whole repertoire with every partner. Then maybe they could start listening to the music, and then start feeling it in their heart.
Please don't be a move collector.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Displays of territoriality - macho culture in the milonga

A lot of 20th century Latin American literature has knife fights and similar displays of male bravado as a recurring theme. Some of it has permeated to tango lyrics - Mandria and La Cicatriz come to mind. I'm not an expert in human behavior, biologically or sociologically, but some of the observations I've made in milongas make me believe these instances of male to male aggression are more than simple displays of their manliness. Without going too deep into history or geopolitics (admittedly because I don't know enough about it to go into too much detail), most human conflict can be traced back in some way to competition over resources perceived to be scarce, or actually scarce. In the milonga context from the male point of view by far the two 'sources' most competed for are space and women. Men fighting over women (and vice versa) seems to be universal, encompassing all cultures and historical times... from the Trojan War in Greek mythology to basically every other cheesy Latin American telenovelas.
The attitude over space seems to be more specific to each community and each culture. It is said in Buenos Aires that different styles of dance were born depending on the availability of space, with downtown tango giving birth to tango milonguero, and suburban tango giving birth to tango salon. And maybe this is why tango nuevo is so dominant in the US, in general terms being one of the most sparsely populated nations in the developed world (but it doesn't explain why oh why tango escenario is so popular in Japan and London... there's probably a myriad of other factors I'm overlooking). Indeed, back when I lived in small town America, the milongas were so huge and the attendance so small that you essentially had a whole stage for yourself to experiment. The line of dance was merely a fictitious concept talked about in class, only existent in parallel dimensions where milonga real estate was a big issue. The idea of a couple dancing less than 1 meter in front of you and another less than 1 meter behind you was an alien one, almost inconceivable.
Argentina is one of the two biggest powerhouses of Latin America and has been known to periodically exercise their power over their neighbors. In addition, culturally Argentines are notorious for their arrogance, their ingrained belief that they are somehow superior to the rest of South America because they have a higher proportion of European blood in them. My theory is that these two elements combine together to give Argentine milongueros a profound sense of territoriality, and it gives them not the right but the obligation to react in a potentially aggressive way to any trespassing of their personal space. In fact, a visiting Argentine teaching couple said that disrespecting another man's personal space in the milonga by not following the line of dance or otherwise was about the gravest insult you could give to his honor.
On the other hand, the undisclosed nation I reside in at the moment, while doing better than Argentina economically, historically is a weakling in the region and has been subject to constant bullying from neighboring powerhouses all through its history (I think one of these days a smart ass blog reader will collect enough hints about this 'undisclosed' country and community to not only figure out what country I'm talking about, but who I am and who all the people I'm talking about are... and I'll be in some shit). Given such historical precedents, I suspect people here might be displeased by invasions of their territory, but in a way used to it, and as such may be reluctant to do anything about it. This past weekend, however, there was an exception where a fight almost broke out because of a clash between two couples. I don't know the exact details because I only heard one side of the story, but I later saw the two men walk outside the milonga, and I was expecting an old school knife fight to happen, or if not a fist fight at the very least... It turns out they talked it over. Lame. But anyway, nearly everyone saw the incident. Maybe because of that, leaders were more careful that day in LOD and space issues. It was one of the best milongas I've been to in that sense. People should be wary of territoriality at all times in a milonga without the need of such an incident to break out.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The place of society in tango

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the imaginary boundaries between this obsessive hobby and life outside of it. A tanguera once told me that tango was just: a milonguero whose day job is driving limos is very popular in milongas solely because of his dancing, regardless of social status or income. On the other hand, this other guy who drives his Maserati to the milongas is received rather indifferently, other than maybe some organizers who might be eying sponsorship. Of course, this is nothing new. Many legendary milongueros of Buenos Aires had menial day jobs (not that there is anything wrong with that... just that hanging out with them is traditionally perceived as being something to be discouraged in some cultures), and sometimes didn't show up to the milongas because they couldn't afford the cover fee. I don't entirely agree with the claim that tango is just, but that is not the point of this post. The point is that this would imply the ideal scenario where your life outside the milonga is separate from life in the milonga, and this is unfortunately not the case.

Some brief background information: the undisclosed country I live in at the moment (for reasons also undisclosed... mainly because I don't even know) is characterized by retarded degrees of social conservatism, which, among other things, entails a strong sense of community held by traditional family values. This aspect of the culture is relevant for several reasons. The first reason is that even now, such close contact dance is considered taboo. As such, people generally don't like to make their hobby known except to close friends. The converse is not necessarily true: people sometimes seem to be way too interested in others' daily lives outside of tango. This is particularly true for the older crowd - people in their 40s and 50s. As I mentioned, this country is socially conservative in a very retarded way, so there is the whole issue about respect to older people, and in return they feel the need to be the fatherly figure to give you unsolicited advice about life, relationships, career, and whatever topic some booze can bring up in them. Um, just because you're old enough to be my father doesn't mean I'll listen to your advice... I mean, I love my father, but I often don't listen to his advice; what makes you think I'll listen to yours? Don't even bother...

Something that 2 dudes old enough to be my father told me at post-milonga drinking session stuck out, however... They told me I should be respectful to another older guy who frequents milongas, because of nothing but his social status. Apparently, he's a graduate of the most prestigious university of the nation and got a PhD at Princeton. Woo hoo! Who gives a shit? Apparently a society that values who you know and where you went to school more than who you are does. That's fine - these things won't change overnight. But don't impose them in milongas. Needless to say, I won't follow their advice and suddenly be an ass-kisser because he's "kind of a big deal" in society. Thankfully, social status ceased being of such importance in the milonga scene. Although said person seems to be quite powerful in society and is the Chairman of some tango association, most tangueras with enough experience to be picky will reject his dance invitations.

So what's the order of things? I have been told that people ask me about my personal life because they want to be close friends with me. I think it should be the other way around, especially with people you meet in tango - you first establish a low key kind of non-invasive friendship before you have the privilege of asking me about my job, my income, or my sex life. Instead of telling them straight out that it's none of their business, I tell them I work for a gang, that I live off of money I steal from orphanages, and that I'm banging his wife. Yes, not very subtle... but I hope it's a good enough hint to people to back off and concentrate at enjoying the milonga for the music and the dance, not bullshit about others. I realize I've completely deviated from what I was intending this post to be about, but I needed to get this off my chest.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Victims of my snobbery, part I

In my previous post, I discussed with some detail my gradual, ongoing transformation to a tango snob. As I said, the morality (or immorality) of being a tango snob is unclear to me. But for now, I decided to embrace what I have become, in an attempt to understand the nature of the snob (or maybe it's just my excuse to be lazy and change, if you're a cynical anti-snob, which itself is, ironically, kinda snobby too). Perhaps I'm just trying to justify myself for something that might be seen as wrong, but I think, as you get in deeper into a hobby, it's inevitable to slowly become at least slightly more knowledgeable in the subject, develop stronger and stronger preferences, becoming pickier each time, and also maybe gain a little sense of entitlement given the amount of time, money, and effort invested in it. "Steve Pastor", Moderator and Feudal Lord of Dance Forums, gave me an example of his that suddenly made things clear:
"The Lion King was in town about a month ago. I'm going to Africa for a second time, and, although I've seen the film, a production in Orlando, etc, I went to see this production. Although someone in my office gave high praise, my reaction was more subdued. Someone called me on it, and it's simple. I've seem many live musicals, etc. over the years. This production of The Lion King was one of many. If you have never been to something like this, it's much more impressive."

But I digress. The point of this blog, as indicated in the title, is to directly point out who the people that irritate me at milongas are. I'm not going to include the obvious, such as people with no respect of the LOD or people who dance awfully even if they've been dancing a while. Of course, I've tried to be as decent as a self-confessed snob as possible, so I haven't been judging those who have obviously been dancing for a short time too harshly. And in the meantime, I'm just going to sit and fret over the people I will describe in a series of posts. That is, until the hypothetical day comes that I am good enough to be able to teach in order to eradicate all the things that annoy me of the tango scene, and in this way, give back to the community, as has been suggested to me. You might laud me and say that, despite my snobbishness, I still have a shred of humility left in me. But it's really an extension of my snobbery, owing to the amount of 'teachers' who have no business teaching, which seems to be proportional to the size of the tango community. Anyway, I digress again.... Without further ado, I present you:

The Escenario Barbie

I have no beef against Tango Escenario. In fact, watching the Escenario category of the Mundial is a lot of fun, especially if they fully express the drama of Pugliese, and if they can pull off Piazzolla, all power to them. But it's called Escenario because it should be saved for the stage. It is perfectly possible to do Tango Escenario on the stage, and switch back to salon/milonguero for social dancing. In fact, a couple participated in both Escenario and Salon in the Mundial, ranking 2nd and 3rd in each.

Last night, I encountered a species that I never thought I would encounter in a milonga. I'd seen her in rare occasion with her partner at a different milonga, and it was clear they were performers. A mutual friend introduced us, and my friend, in private, asked me to dance with her if it wasn't too much trouble. Apparently they are an Argentine couple who work at a local Argentine restaurant performing at shows, but for whatever reason, locals rarely ask her to dance. It became clear why (not sure if it's the same reason that others don't ask her to dance, but just to strengthen my argument, I'll imply it is, with no evidence whatsoever).

She looked pretty from a distance, but from up close, I could see the thick layers of makeup. I just thought 'oh maybe they were performing today and had to look pretty'. It was just a foreboding of things to come. As I embraced her, I have never been so convinced that somebody's boobs are not made of human tissue, but of synthetic material. It was a fitting metaphor of her tango - fake. The embrace was awfully distant. She was more concerned in looking pretty by making her legwork elegant rather than by just following, enjoying the embrace, the dance, and the music. As such, I could barely lead to a proper ocho atras without the embrace falling apart. I tried just walking, but she seemed to become bored. At every move, her torso stayed very still, hinting not so subtly that I should show her the way with the use of my hand (this became very apparent in watching her partner dance with her and other hapless women). I thought to myself "hell no, woman, my hand is for embracing you, not for moving you around like a sack of potatoes!" I guess you have to use your arms to throw your woman around in crazy saltos, ganchos, enganches, and the whole package. But yeah.... fortunately (or very unfortunately for me), I'm not yet enough of a snob, or rather I'm still an inhibited snob, so I endured the agony of the whole tandas. Di Sarli never seemed so eternally damning. From now on, every time I see them at the milonga, I'll politely say hi since we now know each other. But I'll use any excuse not to dance with her, and I will shake my head in contempt when watching them dance.

Stay tuned for the next edition of Victims of my snobbery