Saturday, December 4, 2010

Be alive in the moment

I recently followed the Line by Line opinionator blog series on the New York Times website. [Sidebar: the opinionator articles are pretty awesome] In it, the author, James McMullan, addresses learning drawing. He refers to drawing as the phantom skill, which we all relish when are kids and then lose once we grow up. The series is aimed at trying to get people to regain this skill by looking at the world differently. The first few articles, punctuated with illustrations and photographs, present ideas and concepts like roundedness, light and shading, and perspective. The next couple of articles focus on capturing the essence of objects (e.g., how drawing an elephant is different from drawing a grasshopper, and not just because of the size or the shape, but also the function) and composing drawings. It gets really interesting when he starts talking about drawing the human form.

While faces and caricatures are interesting enough, it’s when he introduced the chain of energy that I really got intrigued. The main concept is that when are you drawing a human model, you shouldn’t just focus on the form of the body parts, but rather you should try to capture the relationship between these body parts. You should, if possible, capture the vitality of a pose – the pressure areas that stabilize the body and the dynamic areas that give a pose its drama. This approach, to quote the author, “celebrates how much the forms are moving back and forth in space, and implying, in the moment after our drawing is finished, that the model will move again.”

You can see this concept in action if you go watch this video:
(I wanted to embed this, but it wasn’t possible. I encourage you to watch it; it’s only a few minutes long)

The one statement that stood out to me was this: “Drawing is so open-ended, so much a thing of the artist being alive to the moment, and not seeing drawing as a procedure that you follow time and time again.” In one case, the artist allowed himself to be moved by the model, and altered his approach to the drawing based on, essentially, the look in the model’s eyes.

When I first started following this series, I didn’t imagine it would have anything to do with tango; I was just interested in picking up a new perspective on sketching. This changed when he started talking about the chain of energy, and the importance of visualizing energy and motion, instead of just form.

You can easily imagine that instead of trying to capture shapes while we dance, we are trying to capture the music in some shape or another. And it’s not just the man who is trying to do that, even though the heavier burden is on him to not ruin a great song, but the woman is also responsible for capturing the music. She has to be on the music in giros, for example, when the man is just standing (I grossly oversimplify of course; the man never should just stand) while she goes around him. Additionally, you should not just try to capture a form. It’s not about the salida or the giro, or even the rhythm or the phrase. You should try to capture a mood, to really let the music move you.

That’s why tango is so powerful; the same song can inspire you to dance in different ways based on how you’re feeling and whom you’re dancing with at that given moment. An individual song doesn’t have to feel the same all the time, just as the same model or the same pose doesn’t have to be drawn the same way. A posing model with a twinkle in her eye may inspire a completely different drawing than if she had a pensive look, even though she is the same person and has the same eyes in either pose. The same is also true of tango songs. If you listen to a different level of music than you did last time you danced the same song, then your dance should be different.

So keep an open mind (and ear, and body) when you dance. Think not of tango as a procedure that you do time and time again, but be alive in the moment, and recognize the possibilities it offers to you.


  1. I completely agree with you that you cannot live the same song exactly the same twice. Even if it's with the same follower, at the same venue, it is just impossible that the set of circumstances is the same, including your mood, your emotion, your inspiration, etc.

    I actually had this conversation with a tango organizer last Saturday night over some caipirinhas, which loosened me up and allowed me to openly criticize some DJs that used essentially the same playlist week in, week out, to the point that I was able to tell what the whole tanda was going to be based on the first 5 seconds of the first song.

    She defended them (her having been guilty of this, I suspect, before she quit DJing), saying that one cannot live a song in the same way twice. I agree with this, as I've elaborated previously. But this should not be an excuse for DJing laziness. On the one hand, I understand that DJing is not one's full time job and they have other responsibilities, as I do, but being DJ's, they should be able to construct solid tandas on the go. I strongly believe that one of the DJ's duties is educating the community on good tango music, and this is impossible if you use the exact same 4-5 hours of music every week.

    Anyway... this is off topic, but if you haven't noticed already, I like to complain.

  2. Dear Milonga para tres team,

    It's taken me this long to discover your blog and I love it! We are on different continents but definitely on the same wave-length on lots of tango issues.

    And as a DJ, I wholeheartedly agree with your views on the educative role we need to play in our communities: nurturing healthy and mature tango palates, rather than succumbing to pleas for junk-food. (Fortunately, I no longer seem to get requests for salsa, tango-fusion, etc. Maybe that's a good sign for the development of the Adelaide tango community.)

    Hope you don't mind me linking your blog to ours.

    Best wishes from South Australia,