Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Climbing the Walls of Tango

                Understanding that people have invisible walls that must be broached before a tango connection can be established is an equation that is just as hard to solve as any mathematical formula.
               As a person who has many walls of his own, I know that the most difficult problem is acknowledging their existence.
               My biggest wall was my fear of arousal. I took it down by convincing myself that tango would never lead to any close encounters of the sexual kind. It was almost like a vow of celibacy.
               Some walls have to be torn down by the occupant behind the wall. Some walls have to be taken down by the intruder.
               I have to imagine that performance anxiety is the most common barrier encountered by partners in this dance. It can be surmounted by letting a person know that he/she can never make a mistake; that you are completely aware that this engagement is an attempt to choreograph movement to a song spontaneously and that turbulence is to be expected.
               It takes two to tango. If you want to dance, it is imperative that you let someone else into your space: physical, mental and emotional. You must leave your expectations for success and your fear of failure behind. In tango, there are no penalties or rewards; there is only the music and the next step.     


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tango Blossoms in Viroqua

               There was no tango in Madison this weekend, so I decided to go to Minnesota to buy a canoe. On the way, I recalled a tanguera mentioning that there was a tango workshop and a milonga being held somewhere in the Wisconsin Hill Country, which is where I just happened to be.
               I went to http://www.madisontango.org/ and found the workshop was being held in a town called Viroqua. I made a detour and attended a terrific class on the fundamentals of tango taught by a pair of excellent teachers: Craig Rypstat and Catherine Young of http://tangohouseofmadison.com/.
               My arrival provided a perfect gender-balance to this group of twenty students. 
               Viroqua is a small town of seven thousand people located in southwestern Wisconsin. It is separated from the Mississippi River by a small mountain range twenty miles wide. It’s an incredibly beautiful area that is full of Native American landmarks and Norwegian-heritage gift shops.
               Going to different tango events is always a learning experience inside and outside of the classroom. I learned that here the hills aren’t called mountains, they are called bluffs; and the valleys in between are called coulees but they all looked like mountains and valleys to me.
               The class was conducted in a Masonic Lodge meeting room. After the lesson, there was a milonga at a nearby winery that provided vino, crackers and samples of Wisconsin cheeses that would make a Frenchman jealous.
               In the interaction between qualified tango instructors there is often a dynamic that provides a very important lesson. So it was here in every demonstration of the seemingly simple movements that we studied. 
                With each of Catherine’s rudimentary exhibitions, she sent a powerful message about the follower’s role in this endeavor. With her demeanor, she conveyed the intense concentration necessary to read Craig’s body language. 
                This is almost always lost on the beginners because they are so focused on learning patterns. I too was oblivious to it during my entire first year, yet it was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome before I could truly dance tango.
               The couple’s ability to listen to each other with total absorption is what gives this dance its legendary mystique. To the untrained eye, the exchange between two competent tango dancers can appear to be one of intense passion, often mistaken for anger or lust.
               Within their embrace, however, there is only the music and the next step; there is no room for anything else. The spontaneous choreography of a song by two persons while each maintains a separate balance is a demanding task.
               To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find such an authentic tango experience this weekend but I did. I danced with women I had never met and connected with them through the music in a way that I found satisfying, recuperative and edifying. 
               I left there with the same feeling I have after a night of good tango dancing. I felt refreshed and my mind raced with memories of all the wonderful encounters I had on the dance floor.
               The seasons changed that day. Winter finally conceded to Spring amidst the bluffs and coulees of southwestern Wisconsin. The music played and the people danced as tango blossomed once more in a place where before there had been none.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Women and the Tango Question

               Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the question in tango. Once again, I remember Mariela Franganillo’s short lecture/lesson on that subject one Saturday afternoon at Dance Manhattan in New York City.
               “Do you hear the question?” she asked as she demonstrated a seemingly simple pivot which I found impossible to replicate with my partner.
               I kept waiting for her to say something about the answer but she never did. I found that frustrating and that is probably why it is still on my mind three years later, here in Wisconsin, where Winter refuses to yield to Spring.
               Men and women are different, especially where questions are concerned.
               Men rarely inquire, we simply do. This is not always a good thing.  
               Women are always asking questions, “Do you think I’m pretty? Where are we going? Do you love me?”
               When a man asks a woman a question, her response is not always an answer. If he doesn’t pose it properly, she may not do anything. How he asks is everything.
               I think this is why Mariela did not talk about the answer, because there doesn’t have to be one, there only needs to be a response and the response can be anything, even silence.
               This is a woman’s prerogative. This is yet another reason that some find tango so addicting. It is a dance where a woman can be a woman and react to what she hears instead of what her partner thinks he is saying.
               I can see that this would be heady stuff for a lady of the 21st Century. It must feel very liberating, especially after a hard week of work.
               Over the course of seven years, I’ve seen many women give tango a whirl. For most it is a flirtation but there are those few who fall into it as if gravity had pulled them into its orbit.
               A woman’s first real tango dance is her best for a long while. I can imagine her profound confusion and absolute delight when she asks, “What do you mean, ‘I can never make a mistake’?”
               Once she begins her education, it is a downhill slide for a very long time. At first, she finds her fear of falling overwhelming as she careens downward. Instinctively, she carves a turn on the floor to slow her momentum and maintain her own balance. She suddenly realizes that this is exactly what she was supposed to do!
               Just as gravity is a force of nature, so too is her movement as a woman. In tango, she is a skier on the unpredictable slope of a man’s intentions, responding to his musical inquiries in a spontaneous and instinctive manner.
               I wonder how it feels for her to be with a man who is finally asking questions. He is not just asking a question, he is asking all sorts of questions: silly, serious and serendipitous, to the rhythm and to the melody.
               It is my guess that tango is a woman's insight into a part of men that is purposefully hidden from her. Here, she can see all the possible other halves of herself that could be.

               As her tango education progresses, she nears the bottom of the hill and hits the gas to carry her up and over the next incline. She delights in the freedom it gives her to connect with her true nature, to hear the question as it really is and to respond to it in whatever manner she feels is best.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Tango Workshop Orgasms

               It happened again….so good, so long, so nice, it lasted all the way home to Wisconsin and beyond. It was a journey just getting there but it was worth it.  
               When we are totally exhausted, that is when we are most open to new frontiers: physical, emotional, spiritual and more.
               The object of torture is to wear down the victim to the point where he will believe anything. It is an Oriental art that the Argentines have perfected.
               Tango workshops often border on that fine line between art and torture.
               When a tango instructor takes us on a painstaking analysis of a maddeningly simple and fundamental concept, it is a struggle to keep up. If we do, we are usually rewarded with an unexpected pleasure that I am calling the Tango Workshop Orgasm.
               It occurs halfway through the first class of the second day of the seminar. We are given one further piece of the puzzle and, instead of the same two songs that have been playing over and over, we are exposed to a new one, an unfamiliar piece of music that the instructor, our interrogator, finds personally appealing.
               That’s when it happens.
               The music resonates with a chord being struck somewhere deep inside us, in our subconscious, or on a cosmic level or who knows where, but it is profound and moving. Fatigue leaves us and we submit to the arcane-ness of the lesson, that we will be exploring this simple movement forever.
               The Tango Workshop Orgasm is not a few moments of spasm followed by a messy release of body fluids. It is a soul-searing, slow-motion explosion that lasts for several days, past the point where you leave the classroom and begin, once again, to interact with ordinary humans.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Guillermo Cerneaz and Marina Kenny: The World's Best Tango Instructors!

                 Argentina is having trouble again with the peso. It takes courage to be Argentinean, not just today, but ever since the country was settled by the Spanish and invaded by Italian and German immigrants in the 1800s.
               In these uncertain financial times, it takes even more bravado for Argentine tango instructors to come to this country and try to teach the fundamentals of this dance to a group of undisciplined Americans.
               With seven years of tango workshops under my belt, I have often felt the yearning of an entire room full of people, all wanting to learn the fancy moves: colgadas, volcadas, boleos, etc., and all willing to pay a high price for such an education.
               It would be easy to yield to that temptation, to teach a class that was all about the end result but not about how to get there, to take the money and go home. I have to imagine that the allure of the dollar compared to the peso makes that enticement even harder to resist.
               This would be difficult for ordinary people but Guillermo Cerneaz and Marina Kenny are not ordinary people. They are the finest tango instructors that Argentina has to offer!
               This past weekend I attended a workshop in Taos, hosted by the resident tango instructing/performing duo of Mike Malixi and Carrie Field at their studio. I came expecting a rudimentary breakdown of a particular pattern into its fundamental components. I left with the realization that it is now entirely possible for me to dance tango like a native of Buenos Aires!
               Quiet and unassuming, they were in complete control of this large group of enthusiastic students at all times. Not once did they feel the need to shush the crowd into silent obedience: very impressive!
               They started with the most basic of exercises in movement and steadily built upon them in a progressive manner until they had constructed a picture of this dance that was as solid and clear as a diamond!
               Many times have I seen native Argentineans dance in seemingly simple patterns. Whenever I tried to lead those maneuvers, I always failed. I was like the chef with all the right ingredients but none of the techniques used to combine them. I had the flour and the butter but not the knowledge to make the roux.
               By the end of the second day of classes, I knew I was on the verge of something great. With my companion, we put together all the components of the lessons into a single pattern of maneuvers. We did this together, and then to the music and, at last, to both sides of the embrace.
               I was ecstatic!
               I could see a future in which I danced around the room in seemingly simple patterns, going around my partner and leading her around me; clockwise and counter-clockwise, in open and closed embrace, in an endless combination of new patterns with each as unique in nature as a snowflake.
               It is now possible for me to believe that I will one day dance like a PorteƱo.
               It is one thing to be able to earn a living and quite another to do so with intergrity. It takes a saint, or, in this case, a pair of saints, to do what these two did. It is no wonder the Pope, Marina and Guillermo are all from the same place. It is a country that breeds exceptional people.
               Mr. Cerneaz and Ms. Kenny are the absolute best at their craft, unrivaled in excellence and certainly appreciated and loved by all who have the good fortune to be students in their workshops.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Tango is Food for the Soul

               When we think of nutrition, we narrowly assume that all the nourishment we need comes from food.  Beyond fruits and vegetables, carbs and proteins, vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids, proper maintenance of our corporeal shell must also address emotional and spiritual sustenance.
               We place too much importance on finding the right combination of groceries and not enough on the other factors affecting our health. Our body has all the elements necessary to heal itself, no matter what we eat. How else could the placebo effect be a reality?
               I’ve heard of people who live to a ripe old age on the most bizarre diets; Sarah Knauss lived to 119 years on a diet of chocolate, cashews and potato chips. Her daughter, who lived to 101, said her mother never let anything upset her and that was her key to longevity.
                Plants are dependent not just upon the most obviously tangible elements, water and dirt, but also upon something that is not so easily measured: sunshine. In fact, the rays of the sun are of utmost important. Variations in daylight are signals to begin growing, to flower and to wither.
               People are like plants. We need food and water…and love. Love is sunshine for humans and it comes in many forms, just like the plethora of food sources from which we have to choose. Love is an emotional and spiritual nutrient.
               Dancing tango is like going to a high-end grocery store that sells love in all its many forms: organic and pesticide-free. At the milonga, the place where tango is danced, we find music to feed our brains and much 'fresh produce' to sample. Here we can connect with another soul and move as one to the music.
               In the course of one night, we can sprout, flower and wither in imitation of the natural circle of life. We part unwillingly with a shopping cart brimming with warm emotions and a heart full of love. 


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tango Can Save The World

               At a milonga, a place where tango is danced, it is not polite to pass another couple while dancing. This is an important custom to observe because conforming to it teaches us a lot about how we should conduct our lives.
               As we move around the room together, as a couple in a crowd, synchronicity becomes a challenge. A pair of dancers in front of us slows down for whatever reason, to embellish or as a response to traffic before them. This is a moment for us to work on a different set of skills: moving to the music without advancing forward.
               When we do this, we become like birds in flight or fish in a school. Collectively, we achieve natural synchronicity. This is one of the greatest benefits of tango: it helps us to realize that we are part of a group and that we must move together and not alone.
               Now, turn off the music and apply this concept to ordinary living, where the general cacophony of sounds is the music to which we must dance. An obstacle is placed before us, be it an orphaned animal or a person in need of assistance; this is our chance to hone a different set of life skills, to prove who we are: callous participants bypassing the couple in front of us, or compassionate human beings who stop and care for someone, or something, that needs our attention.
               In the 21st Century, we are overwhelmed by calls for help because we have access to so much information. It is easy to become inured to everything…but don’t let that happen. If you just work on the obstacles you encounter, each and every day, the rest of the problems will take care of themselves.