Saturday, September 10, 2016

My first foray into Argentinian Tango

Hi all

I am an Associate Bronze level student at the Arthur Murray Cambridge Center. Joined Arthur Murray in January 2016 and have realized how intellectually stimulating and fun ballroom dancing can be in a very short span of time.

Being an Indian, I've been exposed to a lot of dancing via Bollywood movies. Hence, the Rhythm style came naturally to me. As Rhythm dances are placement dances, they are also easier to practice at home. For those who don't know, there are four Ballroom styles - Standard, Latin, Smooth and Rhythm. Standard and Latin are the international versions and Smooth and Rhythm are the American versions. One of the biggest differences between Standard and Smooth is that you have a closed position in Standard all the time and in Smooth, you can have open or closed position - which allows you to get more creative with your patterns, style and expression. From what I understand, Latin and Rhythm dance techniques are divergent (but I could be totally wrong here... this is just based on the impression/understanding I've gotten so far.) Another difference in International and American styles is that you dance the International dances with straight legs and the American styles with knees bent. But long story short, I learn the American styles and it's easier for me to do Rhythm styles. To improve my Smooth technique,  I am performing a Tango show case on 23rd October and doing a couple of Smooth dance performances (Waltz and Foxtrot) at the same event. That's my mini-project at the moment.

One of my fears has been that I wouldn't get enough practice for the event. So when a friend, Angie told me about a Tango class not far from home, I decided to check it out. It turned out to be an Argentinian Tango class. Argentinian Tango is not strictly ballroom and not the same as ballroom Tango. So the class could have gone south for me, but turned out to be a blessing instead. Today's session had two parts - first, a lesson by an Argentinian Tango World Champion Lorena Gonzales Cattaneo and her partner Gaston Camejo, and second, a Milonga.

Lorena won the 2014 Argentinian Tango World Championship with a previous partner. Her current partner, Gaston has been dancing since forever as well. They flew to Boston just today and are touring the US. The lesson with her and her partner was awesome. Everyone else in class was much more advanced than me - people who have been learning Argentinian Tango for 10 years, 12 years, 20 years etc. Btw, they all were calling it Tango and not Argentinian Tango. So in Argentina, you just call it Tango! :)

Lorena actually spent 10-15 minutes teaching me just how to do the basic Argentinian walk properly. So honored to learn from a World Champion! :) :) :) Gaston was helping the other students with their technique and the advanced patterns that he and Lorena taught us all.

Here's what I learnt from today's class and just talking to people in and after the Milonga:

1. The embrace: very informal. You use forward pose by keeping your weight more on the balls of your feet. Your heels are still on the ground, but the weight is more on the balls and the toes. This allows you to lean into your partner. Your energy is upwards all the time (same as ballroom btw) and your axis is up-forward-and-straight. You maintain the upwards energy and the axis as you move forward, backward, sideways, as you turn etc. You wrap your energy around your partner. This applies to both the lead and the follow. The forward pose here is in contrast with ballroom Tango, where you keep the weight more on your heel and your axis is tilted more to your left. The axis and energy both needing to stay up and maintained are common points in both Tango varieties though.

2. Character and Partnership: Argentinian Tango is a dance of improvisation. The lady never learns patterns. She learns to follow. The lead learns the patterns. But the dance is always improvised. He doesn't rehearse any choreography. He can change the speed, direction, or anything else about his dance at any time and she has to follow. The movements are super subtle - e.g. he might lead her to change her body weight from one foot to another. And she has to understand and do it. Even the basic walk step starts with him intending his direction of motion with his body and her reaching in the intended direction. And then them stepping together in that direction. He gives her the energy, she receives it and responds accordingly. There are instances, where he might give her energy and allow her room to get creative and decide how she wants to respond to that energy. And in that case, she might respond by doing something interesting or creative and he has to respond to that. So in that case, he's allowing her to lead and he follows. It becomes a dialog. The only other place I've heard this happen is in Latin (in Egor's documentary). Not sure if other ballroom dance styles allow for it.

3.  The Argentinian Tango Walk: The basic backwards walk can be broken down into parts:

i. Anticipation
ii. Step

Anticipation: The first part is where the lead creates the anticipation with his upper body by giving energy. She respond by what we call reaching in Ballroom. She reaches her leg from her waist down in the intended direction.

Stepping: The second part is where they step together. This is where the common axis and hence each partner's axis moves in the intended direction.

The difference with respect to Ballroom Tango is that in Ballroom Tango you have 3 steps:
i. Reach
ii. Step
iii. Collect

After getting 10-15 minutes personal time with Lorena and further reflection, I realized that they were clubbing the second and third steps (Step and Collect) into one. Lorena gave me a lot of pointers. One of your feet is always the base foot and the other foot is always free in Argentinian Tango. Your weight is always on the base foot. So when you step, you actually push off the base foot in the intended direction by utilizing the energy that the lead gave you. As you collect, you relax your knees, but you reach upwards (i.e. your energy remains up and high) and the free foot becomes the base foot. The other foot becomes free. Relaxing your knee allows you to absorb the shock of the weight transfer without adding clunkiness (i.e. makes it smooth) to the motion. The forward pose (i.e. totally leaning into your partner) allows you to feel the speed of motion and match it.

Lorena practiced the walk with me and it became easier for me to try it out with a couple of other people. The shifting of weight from one foot to another was also easy to get. The motion is like a subtle upward hemispherical arc. (That's the only way I can put What I did not understand was the sideways sway. One of the guys tried it with me. He gave me the energy for it, so I anticipated the direction of motion, but I couldn't figure out how the step bit worked... i.e. how to translate that energy into the step. Hopefully I will figure that out in future lesson(s). One of the guys said that I would get hooked! :)

There was a lady, Jennifer, who was selling Argentinian Tango shoes there. She used to teach Argentinian Tango before and had a studio. She told me that Argentinian Tango is like meditation. You are always focused on your partner, trying to listen/feel what he's communicating and hence have to concentrate a lot. And to be honest, it did feel like meditation. I was so focused the entire time I practiced the basic walk. I had to close my eyes to feel the lead.

Lorena and Gaston taught a pattern that required him to turn her. In this again, he gave her the energy to turn and she turned. And when she turned, her entire axis remained stable. So did his. They demonstrated that. They demonstrated how it's better to turn fully rather than just turning the upper part of the body. Turning fully allowed them a better range of motion. And their arms remained stable - did not go wonky backwards or forwards. Another pointer they gave was to use their back to help with the turns. I'm not sure I got that part. The extra patterns were really hard for me to understand - me the beginner. But I could understand just as a Ballroom dancer, the core principals ruling the dance. They also said about practicing the patterns in a small space. I did not understand their explanation about using space to one's advantage tbh.

After the class, there was a Milonga, - kind of a practice party where people were practicing their Argentinian Tango moves. I practiced the basic walk with 2-3 guys. They were very kind and understanding. The hardest part was the hold. The Argentinian Embrace is not my cup of tea. Too embarrassing even with friends. So I just held their hands or on their chests. Anyways, there are 3 kinds of Argentinian Tango music:

i.  Tango
ii. Milonga
iii. Vals - has a Waltz rhythm. I recognized it in one of the songs. Jennifer told me that it was almost Viennese Waltz rhythm and I believe her. I could totally do a Viennese Waltz to that song.

Honestly, I've forgotten the difference between the first two types. I do know that the first one is the more commonly played version. The second one might be more lively. Dunno...

Anyways. Lorena and Gaston actually did two dance performances for us, which I recorded. And then... guilty pleasure - I bought a pair of Argentinian Tango Stilettos from Jennifer. :grimace: :grin-and-bear-it: :) :) :) I've added a picture!

Also here're the links to Lorena and Gaston's performances:


Hope you enjoy them! I ended the night by chatting with two of the dancers. We were comparing and contrasting Argentinian Tango vs. Ballroom - our experiences, trips to Argentina and more! Fun night!!!! :) :) :)

But more importantly, I ended it with an important realization. Argentinian Tango is the best way for me to improve my lead-follow/partnership skills. I have been agonizing over finding exercises that might help me be a better follower. In this dance, I have no choice but to follow. And as it is a dance of improvisation, I cannot anticipate my lead's next motion. I just gotta follow. Soooooo, I gotta ask my instructor to teach me Argentinian Tango! :) Happy Dancing!

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