The poetry of dance?

“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls, no poems to be printed; nothing but that fleeting moment when you feel really alive. It is not for unsteady souls.”

I’ve spent most of my working life involved in writing of some kind — books on aspects of design and craft education, and magic, articles on architecture and engineering. And I still love to write; working with words to express things clearly and simply…

But this is an occupation carried out in sedentary isolation, and therefore different from tango which relies on movement and a close connection with another human being?

Maybe not so different. Certainly in relation to my other passion: poetry. To write well you have to work with your emotions and feelings — they are your base materials. But for me the aim is to make a connection between the words and the emotions that is true, perhaps even intimate, and also simple and direct, and universal.

In tango you must listen to the music, its rhythms and emotions, and work with that and your partner in a way that is simple, direct and true.

I like simplicity, which in writing is not always easy to attain. In tango? Well, maybe if I was technically more advanced I could execute more complex steps in a way that worked with the music. Perhaps.

Isn’t there a kind of balance going on here? For me to dance properly as a leader I need to multi-task; not a skill which men are conventionally known for. I need to listen closely to the music — not just the beat but also the structure and the layers of melody and counter-melody. I need to be aware of my partner, her axis, where her weight is at any moment, and be sensitive to her tango. I must be aware of other dancers around me so I can dance without inconveniencing them, and while protecting my partner.

Finally, I must be able to use my ‘tango vocabulary’ of walks, steps, ‘moves’ — call them what you will — in a way that accommodates all the above requirements while remaining true to the tango my partner and I are sharing.

Having been dancing tango two or three times a week for a little over four years I am very much a beginner. (How I wish I’d discovered this beautiful dance years ago!) Nevertheless, it seems to me that the first three requirements outlined above are absolutely essential. If concentrating on these means that I’ve not got enough attention left to do some of the more complex things I see going on around me, then so be it.

I’d much rather stick to simple, basic stuff (which isn’t actually that simple) and work with pauses, changes of pace, and so on, and feel that I’m connecting truly with my partner and the music.

In classes and practicas I’ll contine to work with more complicated moves. And usually enjoy doing so. If nothing else, I’m learning more about how my body works — or doesn’t work — with my partner, and hopefully how to be more aware of and improve that. And also to grow to understand what works in tango for me. And as more of this moves from head-knowledge to body-understanding, then maybe some of it will start to appear in my dance. (With all the provisos listed above.)

I think in Sheffield/Leeds we’re very lucky to be able to work with teachers with a thorough grounding in traditional tango. (This is not just my opinion, but that of people with a lot more knowledge and experience than I have.) Earlier this year I went to a tango weekend at a venue in the south. The organisers were delightful, and there were some good dancers there. There were also some who seemed to have little respect for the music, their fellow dancers, and, essentially, what I’d always been taught as the basics of social, Argentine tango.

Maybe I’m in no position to criticise. I certainly make plenty of mistakes when dancing. But they are mistakes caused by momentary incompetence, not ill manners or a desire to ‘impress’ by leading wild moves which may possibly have worked in stage tango, if they had anything to do with the music, but not in the milonga.

I was kicked twice and a partner once, and on many occasions I narrowly avoided collisions by swift changes of direction. One is tempted to ask where these people are learning ‘tango’, perhaps they move from teacher to teacher just learning moves and sequences.

Argentine tango is an improvisational, interpretative dance. We all have to find ‘our own tango’. But within a structure and using a recognised ‘vocabulary’.

At milongas I love to sit and listen to the music and watch other dancers. There’s a lot to learn. I often see couples doing complicated — even, in isolation, beautiful — moves. But I can’t always see how they relate to the music. Maybe sometimes because the dancers are hearing something that I’m not. Or sometimes because they’re thinking too much about using a move they learned last week, and not enough about the music?

I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone of that from time to time. Although hopefully less so as my tango grows.

I confess I have a little test I apply in these situations. Note those who don’t seem to be paying quite enough attention to the music. Then next time there’s a tanda of milongas watch them (unless they’re amongst those who “don’t dance milonga”, hmmm). Are they dancing to the rhythm? How are their traspies…?

Think I’ll leave it there. I’ve rambled on enough, and doubtless left myself open to lots of comments and criticisms (as in my Tango Like a Porteño post some time ago). Please feel free to make them, either in person if you see me around, or preferably by clicking on the comments button above. This is a subject close to my heart, to which I’ll probably return, so I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading.

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~ by magickwords on Monday, 15 November 2010.

4 Responses to “The poetry of dance?”

  1. How very right you are; I agree totally with your most eloquently expressed viewpoint. Keep dancing!

  2. A beautiful piece of writing. I so agree with everything you have said and in partitular the emphases on simplicity. Simple things done beautifully is what matters to that lady. I see so often a bored lady hanging on to an energetic man who is running round the floor bumping everyone; or standing in one spot for half the dance so no one can get pasts. You have a wonderful way with words and clearly feel the same passion for this Dance as I do.

  3. Beautifully written, and you make many valid points. But I feel we need to remember that people dance for a multitude of reasons; not all of them will necessarily be the same as ours. Does that make us right or does it make them wrong? Not sure. Isn’t dance about happiness, a freedom of the soul, connection and of course musicality. If others are not as skilled as ourselves would we allow that to detract from something that we have invested countless hours in? Not sure. Beautifully written though.

    • Thank you for your comments. People do indeed dance for a multitude of reasons. And tango is about happiness (and sometimes sadness), freedom, connection, musicality, and many other things.

      This post wasn’t about skill levels. Quite the reverse, in a way. I was trying to put a case for simplicity. We start any dance by learning moves and sequences. But I would contend that Argentine tango (or blues, for that matter) is not about steps. In the same way that being able to write well is not about how many words you know.

      If someone’s interest in dance is centred around collecting moves, that’s fine. But that’s only part (a relatively small part I would argue) of what dancing is about.

      I wrote the above not long after attending a weekender which was marred by dancers who danced selfishly and without consideration for others. As tango is a progressive dance in which the partners move in an anti-clockwise direction around the floor, awareness on the part of the leader of what is going on around him is essential. His job is to protect his follower, to avoid leading moves which may endanger those around him, and to navigate an often crowded floor.

      What I saw there were people who were using moves from stage tango in an inappropriate situation. I love watching stage tango/tango fantasia, whatever. And spend too much time viewing demonstrations on YouTube by the tango masters. I also enjoy ballet, but I keep my grand jetes and arabesques away from the dance floor.

      But I’m probably rambling off the subject. I am passionate about Argentine tango, as you may have spotted. And the essence, for me, is the connection between two people and the music. Which, at its best, can be both simple and sublime.

      After five years I hope I’m beginning to learn to walk.

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