Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tango Stereotypes

               One thing I love about tango is the diversity of its participants. Through this dance I have met people from all over the world: Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, Siberia, France, Morocco, Argentina, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, Liberia and many more places. Sometimes I feel as if I have met a person from every country on the planet.
               It is important that we treat everyone as individuals but it is easy to see similar character traits in people from the same culture. Here is what I've found:

               Only the Argentines love tango more than the Russians. Both countries are hard places to live and both peoples love hard with bear hugs and painful kisses that come at you so fast they bruise your cheeks.
               I have never met people more sensitive than those from Germany or Japan. Both cultures are big on etiquette and procedures so make sure you are mindful of these things when you are dancing with them.
               No one will love you more than the Irish or the Italians. They are great lovers so don’t fight them when they are giving it out, just take it and be glad.
               You will not find a more understanding person to dance with than someone from Indonesia. I don’t know what’s going on in that country but whatever it is we should be teaching it here.
               No one speaks more passionately than the French.
               And finally, you will not meet a person more polite than someone from Charleston, South Carolina.
               The nice thing about tango is that it takes you beyond the stereotype, beyond our biases and preconceived notions. Through the embrace we discover the individual stripped of the filters we use to view them from afar. As we move to the music as one person, we can escape all our prejudices and see someone as if for the first time.

                It is here that we get to view the person we are dancing with for what she or he really is: a person; one who has feelings, who is passionionate; a creature that is capable of love and therefore special in the universe.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Hold Me Just A Little Bit Longer

              The end of a song is a critical moment in the lives tango dancers. Just how important is difficult for leaders to understand. It is here that we are graded. This is the point in time where the woman decides to save what happened as a memory or to forget it entirely. It is here that the differences between men and women are most profound.
               Men tally their performance by rating how well each set of maneuvers was carried out throughout the dance. They might score themselves on musicality or balance or choreography. Each man has his own set of criteria with which to measure his feat.
               I think a woman rates her experience by how she feels. Her emotional state at the moment she loses contact with her partner is when her body will decide whether or not to create a mental record of the encounter and if it was pleasant or unpleasant.
               For years I was under the impression that the end of the tanda was the moment when the music stopped playing. At this time I would abruptly disconnect from my partner and look into her face for some sign of approval. I was often disappointed by what I saw.
               The reason for my poor performance lay in my attitude towards women. I believed it was disrespectful to touch them beyond the sound of the melody. I think many ladies found the suddenness of my release to be an emotional downer.
               Lately I have been experimenting with how I disengage from my partner at the end of a song with very favorable results.
               There is a point somewhere after the two second marker where the woman’s body seems to say, “I am ready to let go.” 
               It is as if I can see the vibrations of the sound of the song disappearing into the walls when I feel her body lift and prepare for departure. At this time I release her from my grasp.

               This brief, music-free embrace can seem like an eternity…if you are lucky. Enjoy it. I think she will too.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Remembering Joe Dallon: Tango DJ at Firehouse Milonga

                A man I knew passed away this past week. He was the DJ at the Firehouse Milonga in Maywood, NJ, the place where I began my tango education. I did not know him well but Joe Dallon is a permanent part of my tango memories.
               Memories are strange things. Most people do not know that they are generated by emotions. We do not remember an event if it has no emotional effect on us. If people come into our lives and have no emotional impact then it is as if they had never existed. Joe certainly did exist and lives on in the minds of all the people he affected with his tango playlists.
               Dancing tango is all about creating memories and Joe helped many people make some good ones, including me.
               I have two memories of Joe, one of relief and the other of happiness.
               My first impression of this man was one of apprehension. Standing behind the DJ table in the dim light at Firehouse Milonga, Joe seemed like a maniacal wizard busy casting spells upon the crowd from his laptop.
               I was new to tango back then. Every time I had an incredible dance experience I would ask Joe for the name of the song that just played. I was apprehensive in approaching him at first but he was quite happy to share his music selections with me. This was a big relief and the beginning of my extensive tango library.
               Joe played what I would come to accept as standard milonga fare: a blend of the classics, nuevo and alternative music which were all new to me at the time. I went to the Thursday milonga in Maywood every week for a year and these songs were burned into my brain as what a milonga is supposed to sound like. Eight years later, if I hear a song from Joe’s playlist I can’t keep myself from humming along.
                My second memory of Joe is of his birthday dance with Walter Monteblanco, probably six years ago. Joe was leading and Walter was hamming it up with the embellishments executed with surprising perfection. The whole building was cheering for them and we all left there with an unforgettably happy experience. Their performance was a gift for all who attended.
                If you ever find yourself in Maywood, New Jersey on a Thursday night, stop in to the Firehouse Milonga. Joe won’t be spinning records but he’s still there in the memories of the dancers. I’m sure they’re all just like me, humming along to the songs that they first heard from that wonderful DJ, Joe Dallon.

               He will be missed.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Kayak Hombre Christmas

               It is Christmas and I am alone. I am never really alone because I am a father and the lives of my children touch me wherever I go. This year has been a year of milestones for me. The biggest has been the graduations of my daughters from college. It took us 25 years to reach that marker but we did it. My oldest got her master’s degree just last Saturday.
               More importantly, both my girls are working. The economy is improving but it is still a tough place to find a good-paying job. They are making the world a better place so I no longer have to do it on my own. Thank God! That is a great load off my shoulders.
               And I am working. I am nearly penniless but I have reliable transportation, I am in good health and I have a nice apartment a block from the Ohio River with a nice desk from which to write. I haven't had a desk since I rented out my house four years ago. Life is good!
               I also passed a milestone in my career. With this current contract, I have successfully navigated the Great Recession and transitioned from cellular networks based on the T-1 Carrier system to an IP-based cellular network.
               I end this year looking forward to a new one with lots of possibilities. This year, my life is like a good tango and a good tango is always full of possibilities.
               It wasn’t easy getting here. I had to make a tough decision on where I would go as my last contract ended. I am thankful that I at least had choices to make. I had no choice in leaving Durango and that was extremely hard. It broke my heart to find such a wonderful place and not be able to stay. Not so with Fargo. Wisconsin was a difficult place to leave as well but I could not stay.
               I think I can stay here, though, in Wheeling, West Virginia. Maybe I won’t be in Wheeling but I’m certain I can find work in the Pittsburgh area because it is a big city and the economy here is booming. There are rivers here, great rivers with lots of character, and there is lots of tango.
               Lots of tango. Yes, that is very important. As I look back on the last four years as I worked my way around the country, I realize that in each tango community that I was a part of, there were women there who needed me as a dance partner. It is nice to be needed. In fact, being needed is a primary ingredient in the soup of life. It adds flavor; without it there is just water with stuff floating around in it.
               The best dances are with people you enjoy dancing with who also enjoy dancing with you. There is definitely the possibility for some of that for me here in Pittsburgh. Also, I’m not too far from Cleveland or Washington, D.C., and tango adventures are on my agenda for the coming year.
               River running is also on the menu. The Potomac River near Cumberland, Maryland, has enormous possibilities as a place to meet my youngest daughter for some canoe camping trips. I have a funny little boat called the Spanish Fly. It is a C-1, which means it is a one-person canoe but it is more like a whitewater playboat. Lately I have been experiencing a strong urge to take it out on the river. I had thought I was too old for this kind of stuff but I think that my hiking excursions to Ohiopyle State Park, home of the famous Youghigheny River, has rekindled my desire to challenge the whitewater rapids once more.
               Finally, I have been given the gift of writing another book called The Tango Doctor. It will be my third book and a chance to show readers that I can give them something good to sit down with for a whole weekend and escape into another world, a world that I created. 
               Writing a book is a funny thing. Once you realize that you have enough material to put together a whole story and start writing, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
                Okay, I am ready to set my goals for the new year.
               #1 on the list are more camping trips with my daughters. Next, I’ve got to prepare my body for a ride through the cold rapids without a boat. I have grown fat these last four years and I am in no shape to bail out and take a swim in a strong current full of rocks and who knows what. Thirdly, I will dance some awesome tango with the wonderful women I’ve met in Pittsburgh.
               This will be the year I finally get my Cisco router certification. And finally, I will finish my book, The Tango Doctor.
               There you have it, a Kayak Hombre Christmas. I am alone but full of the joy of the season. I am thankful for all that I have, missing all that I have left behind and looking forward to all that lies ahead.

Peace, Love and Tango

the Kayak Hombre

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dance Studio Tangueros

               Ladies, I’ll bet you are wondering who that good-looking man is at the milonga and wondering why he never asks you to dance. He is the Dance Studio Tanguero. He mostly dances with his students or prospective ones.
               This post is not meant to be insulting; I simply wish to make people aware of the role he plays in tango societies and in making tangueras better dancers. I risk offense in order to educate those who do not understand why these qualified leaders do not assume the same responsibilities of a community tanguero whose job it is to dance with all the followers, especially the newcomers.
               Also, as with everything, there are no absolutes; I am certain there are a few exceptions.
               The Dance Studio Tanguero studies the performance of his students at the milongas and makes suggestions to them during her next lesson.
               So far I have not seen the female equivalent, a Dance Studio Tanguera for leaders.
               The primary reason for this, I believe, is that men prefer to learn at group lessons and from dancing with as many women as possible. We do not, IMHO, usually employ a private instructor unless we are perfectionists but most of us are not. We are men, content to be lost as long as there is a possibility that we might figure this dance out on our own.
               Men don’t ask for directions or take advice and we sure as hell don’t take private dance instruction! We’re big babies.  We have a rattle and it is called machismo. It is a difficult toy to play with and we are always afraid of losing it so we guard it carefully. The last thing we need is to be alone in a room with another man fighting to hold onto the essence of our manliness.
               Women don’t have this same stigma. One of the many reasons they got into this dance is because they are curious about men; being alone in a room with one of them is just the kind of lesson they’d like to have.
               Until I began writing this blogpost, I believed that these guys were shirking their responsibilities but now I see it the other way. A dance with them is not a tango even if there is tango music. I have to imagine that with them there are few possibilities when they are teaching, especially for amore. Tango is all about possibilities. 
                The fundamentals of tango must come to them more easily than it does to the average dancer. I’ll bet they find it frustrating when others find the basics so difficult to comprehend. I think that, for these guys, there are only two outcomes possible: failure or success.
               So why do they do this? I do not know. I can, however, say that they are part of the scenery and definitely a positive force in the growth of any tango community. I have to believe that their reward and thus their raison d'ĂȘtre, is the satisfaction of their students and in living a life doing something that they love.

                As with any art, learning to tango is a lifelong lesson. Our goal should not necessarily be mastery of the subject but enjoyment in the pursuit of perfection. The Dance Studio Tanguero is a part of that pursuit. The lessons he teaches spread throughout the community and eventually all benefit from it. 

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

You Cannot Lie to Tango

People are natural-born liars. There are many reasons why we do this but that is not the point of my essay; what happens to those lies when we come to tango is. Dancing is like writing and the writer’s creed is “to thine own self be true.” If you bring your lies to tango, they will be exposed and this is not necessarily a bad thing; it is how tango makes you better.
Here is a good example: “I can’t dance because I am fat.”
This is the falsehood that prevents many people from getting out on the dance floor. Your physical appearance is not as important as balance and emotion. You can’t be a slob and good hygiene is extremely important but how much you weigh should not be a factor in your decision to dance.
Tango is for adventurous spirits, those persons who get great satisfaction from getting to know the true person inside the skin. I like to call them soul-seekers. They are tourists in other people’s psyches. It is not enough for them to engage another person in conversation, they need to touch you, feel your emotions and experience how you move to the music.
Our passion is something we often try to hide from others. Those of us who do this have learned that expressing our passion is unacceptable; maybe we were taught this in school, at work or at home during childhood. Whatever the source, it needs to be let out and tango gives us that outlet. We may not realize it when it first happens but eventually it becomes clear that it was necessary.
There are many other lies but the one I’d like most to expose is this one: “It’s her.”
It’s never her. The woman cannot make a mistake in tango. I’m sure you’ve all heard that this dance is all about the woman, well, it’s true. If you are the leader and the follower fails to respond in a way you had expected then you did not give her enough information.
Maybe you gave her too much information. Maybe she sensed that you were too demanding and this caused her to become nervous which then caused her to miss your cue.
This is not her fault, it is the leader’s. As the lead, it is your responsibility to keep your lady on her own balance, to figure out what moves she is comfortable with and not to lead anything that is beyond her ability......and yours!
This scenario often encompasses another lie and it is the one the woman tells to herself: “It’s me.”
I often tell women when they apologize during the dance that they cannot make a mistake. They usually laugh and deny it. That is because they think I am lying. They firmly believe they are at fault and I think it is a long journey for these ladies before they realize that it is not true.
There are no mistakes in tango. To dance tango is to attempt to choreograph a song spontaneously with a partner. It is an ATTEMPT! It is not a commandment written in stone. There is no grade or score. Success is measured by how you feel afterwards.
To err is human. It is not a sin to be human. When you come to tango, cut yourself a break and forgive yourself ahead of time. You are here to enjoy yourself so don’t be an obstacle to your own happiness.

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Damian Lobato: Superb Tango Instructor

I just returned from a weekend in Pittsburgh where I attended a workshop taught by a superb tango instructor called Damian Lobato. I knew of him from Philadelphia where he has been teaching for awhile. I wasn’t aware until recently that he was available to give lessons outside of the area until I saw him perform at the Tucson Tango Festival last year.
Damian is from Argentina. No one had to tell me this, I can tell from the way he teaches. Real Argentines want people to learn how to dance tango and not fancy show-piece maneuvers.
Professors of this dance tend to focus on what they consider basic movements and always try to get their students to realize that tango is about much more than just movement; it is about the music and the expression of the participants as well.
His constant focus on the musicality of the performance and the importance of the leader/follower relationship are what makes Damian Lobato's workshops special.  
While he commands the attention and respect of his pupils with a quiet demeanor, he is not beyond adding a bit of levity to the conversation. He is a serious person who looks at tango seriously but he knows what it takes to get his students to learn.
The real mark of a great teacher is whether or not his students can replicate their knowledge beyond the classroom. I can’t say for certain if I will succeed but I feel incredibly confident that I will.
Another measure of an instructor’s impact is demand for repeat performances. I’ll just say that he has been to Pittsburgh four times and let that fact speak for itself.
Here is a rundown of how this weekend transpired:
We began on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and worked on tango for the next three hours. We started with simple displacements and worked those into reverse cruzadas by the end of the afternoon. 
Not once during the entire class did he inject his ego into the lesson by saying that he studied with Chicho or Gustavo(which he did) or impart any information other than what was necessary for us to easily grasp the concept at hand.
On Sunday we continued to study reverse cruzada until he sensed that we were all getting very tired. At this point he switched the subject matter to milonga: nothing complex but enough that we continued to learn in a way that was fun, adding more value to the lesson.
I paid $120 for classes on Saturday and Sunday and I definitely feel as if I got more than my money’s worth.
So many times have I been in classes where the instructor pontificates for thirty minutes before letting the students try a step themselves. This is not Damian. His technique was simple and very regimented. He elaborated on a topic for no more than ten minutes before asking the class to show their understanding through dance.
At this time, Damian and Sarah Chung, his most excellent assistant, would filter amongst us and offer insight into what we were doing and how we could do it better. All of their input was offered in a positive manner and I never once felt stupid or clumsy when they were talking to me.
Another attribute of great tango instructors is their handling of the music. So many times this is often fumbled for minutes at a time, leading to a lack of cohesiveness for the entire session. This was not the case here. The music was easy to dance to and the structure of the lesson easily incorporated the teacher’s three second walk back to his laptop to stop or start the music.
For my fellow classmates, the non-classical tango music was from Norah Jones’ album Come Away With Me.
By the end of the weekend I was leading reverse cruzadas like a pro as well as fine tuning my ability to lead a more interesting milonga!!!
Great job Damian and Sarah!!!
Here is another insight I’d like to offer about this workshop. Each day’s class was divided up into three segments with a short five minute break in between. Each session was comprised of movements that could be completed in eight beats or one phrase.
This is what I mean when I say that Damian focuses on musicality. If you can dance to a song in a series of phrases, I believe you will be enjoying the music more like a native of Buenos Aires. You will also be getting a whole lot more from the milongas you are attending as well as making yourself more pleasing to your partners.
For those of you responsible for bringing instructors to your own area, let me offer some information on how this community presented their teachers to its members.
The classes were offered as couples only events with a maximum of six couples per class. IMHO, the only restraint on the size of the class was the size of the room which was very small.
Damian and Sarah taught once in the morning and once in the afternoon on both Saturday and Sunday to two different groups so they could accommodate a total of 24 students. This would be a tremendous strain on more exuberant professors but I think Damian’s disciplined approach to teaching and his peaceful demeanor allowed him to give 100% to all of us.
Entrance to the building was restricted by a very annoying security system but I think this ended up being a positive attribute as there were absolutely no interruptions to the instruction.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe my entire impression of this experience is not due to the instructor but based entirely on the fact that all my partners where very skilled tangueras and Damian merely had to make a suggestion in order for these excellent people to take it to fruition. I find that extremely hard to believe but, just in case it is, keep the following links in your bookmarks for the next time Damian comes to Pittsburgh so you can see for yourself what is true and what is reality.

p.s. I absolutely LOVED Sarah’s handling of the role of assistant instructor during this workshop. This is a difficult task to accomplish in a way that enhances the experience for the pupil rather than detracts from it. Thank you, Sarah, for all your efforts. It was such a pleasure to meet you in such circumstances and I will be a better dancer for having been tutored by you.

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