Archive for the ‘Learning tango’ Category

My newbie years

January 8, 2019

Most topics posted recently on the Argentine Tango section of Dance Forum relate to newbies and beginners.  I want to share memories of my beginning steps and introduction into the world of tango.

I had the advantage of dance classes and piano lessons from a young age, so dance and music were second nature for me.  My parents were ballroom dancers who had a collection of tango recordings by American orchestras in the 1950s.  My sister and I were learning tango at home and dancing in the living room.

I started taking social dance classes at a Chicago studio in 1988.  There was a small group of Argentine tango enthusiasts who studied with local teacher who had been to Buenos Aires.  A man from that group who also had been to Buenos Aires offered to teach me what he learned.  We met regularly at my apartment building clubhouse to practice sequences for performance.  We watched videos by Gloria & Eduardo and Los Dinzel.  There was no connection to the music or my partner.  This version of tango focused on sequences.  After only six months of practice, we performed at a dance studio.

In 1992, I heard there was an Argentine couple on sabbatical in Chicago who were giving classes.  I signed up for private and group lessons.  I thought I was learning the tango danced in Buenos Aires milongas, but it was tango de salon for exhibition.

In 1993, I attended a Tango Week at Stanford University where Juan Carlos Copes taught his choreography for stage.  I added tango to my social dance classes at community education classes and park districts.

I thought that Chicago should have a tango week like Stanford, so I started planning it with Northwestern University for June 1995.  The teachers invited were not milongueros, so classes had nothing to do with social tango. The week was a success, but a disaster as far as learning social tango in the embrace.

International Argentine Tango Congress teachers – Chicago 1995

Finally, in March 1996, I went to Buenos Aires to see the tango in the milongas for myself.  I was still too brainwashed by all the classes over five years to immediately notice the differences.  The crowded floors were something I hadn’t seen before.

In February 1999, I moved to Buenos Aires.  It was a slow learning process that took years of development.  I didn’t grow up on tango music from the 1940s like the milongueros.  I couldn’t tell one orchestra from another.  I had to work my way up from the bottom of the barrel, dancing with horrible dancers, and recognizing the difference.  I knew I had come to the right place when I felt tango when embraced by the milongueros.

Tango is not something anyone learns quickly.  You need to know the music and that takes years of listening.  It takes time being comfortable in your own body as an adult who never danced as a teenager like the milongueros did.  They had time to practice, and time to create their own personal style.  There’s no hurry when you’re young.  Today adults who want to learn tango have no self-confidence and very little patience.  They expect proficiency in a short time.

Take it from a one-time newbie who had to start over from the beginning after learning performance tango for years — give yourself a break, take your time, feel the music, forget about your feet, and let your dance come out of you.  Don’t think tango, feel it.


January 19, 2018

There are those who get tango, and those who will never get tango.  This isn’t to say that only Argentinians get tango, and all foreigners don’t get what tango is.  It makes a difference when one grew up on tango in Buenos Aires and learned the dance early in life.  It’s in their blood.

Taking classes with many teachers is no guarantee that one gets tango.  Some Argentine teachers don’t get tango, so how can they inspire others with the music, lyrics, and orquestas.  They teach choreography and call it tango.

I was enjoying the music from my table when a foreigner made an overt, almost horizontal pose to get my attention for the tanda.  My standard advice to foreign visitors is: refuse to dance with men who approach your table; the worst dancers prey upon newcomers.  I don’t usually accept an , but I did this time and didn’t expect much.

Things didn’t get off to a good start.  My hair was in his face and he brushed it away with his hand, commanding that I do something to relieve his discomfort.  I did, but that would have been the perfect excuse to avoid the tanda with him.   My cheek rested on his sweaty face and my arm on his wet shirt from perspiration.  I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable.

I knew after the first few steps on the floor that I was with a man who danced for himself, not for his partner.  He danced memorized sequences and didn’t hear the music.  There is nothing I hate more than a dancer with no connection to the music.  Another is expecting a partner to automatically follow when there is no lead.  He had no awareness of me, only his own dancing.

After the first dance, I asked him where he is from.  He told me, and then added he’s been living in Buenos Aires for six years.  That proves that people don’t get tango even while living here.

After the second dance, I asked him if he heard about the cabeceo for inviting someone to dance.  He said he couldn’t see very far.  I suggested wearing glasses,  but he said they don’t help him.  Later I saw him wearing glasses.  All the women were 20 feet away across the floor. If he didn’t use the cabeceo, he wasn’t going to dance.

This tangoman has a lot to learn.

There is no comparison

January 10, 2018

I danced for the first time with Jose Mario about two months ago in El Maipu.  I remember how much I enjoyed a tanda with him.  I was hoping to catch his attention yesterday in Nuevo Chique.  There were only a few dancers left at 22 hs.  I was about to call it a night and change my shoes.  Then Jose Mario caught my eye and invited me for the Pugliese tanda that began with Recuerdos.  I accepted even though I don’t usually dance the Pugliese tanda.

From the second I entered his embrace, I surrendered to the music and closed my eyes.  There were no more than five couples on the floor.  I rarely close my eyes while dancing, but I let it happen naturally.  It was magical.  It was feeling, not steps.  We moved together in harmony like we’ve danced together for years.

I had danced earlier with men from Germany, Australia, and England, including a very young Argentine who has learned for two years.

The German tried to get my attention from the other side of the room, but I ignored him because he is too tall for me.  He approached my table, and I accepted.  It was the Biaggi tanda.  He started like a racehorse out of the gate with long steps.  I said, slow down.  He was dancing for himself, not for me. Later he commented, “the music has energy so you have to put energy into the dance.”  This wasn’t his first visit to Buenos Aires.  I couldn’t feel the lead from his upper body.  I had to concentrate on his steps and try to follow.  A few times I didn’t follow along because there was no lead.  He didn’t notice.  He was dancing for himself.

The Australian and I danced together at the same milonga a day after his arrival.  He invited me for the Rodriguez tanda yesterday.  [I haven’t heard this orquesta in a very long time. Thanks to Daniel Borelli, who I consider the best DJ in Buenos Aires, for including it yesterday.]  He’s here for a month to dance and take classes — two privates and eight group classes each week.  He said he’s here to learn the milonguero style.  I offered free private sessions, but he has a full agenda. It’s no wonder that he’s still thinking tango, not feeling it.

Foreigners are in a hurry; the milongueros take their time.  Foreigners focus on the steps; the milongueros focus on the woman in their embrace.  There is no comparison.  One is exercise, the other is a feeling.  If I need exercise, I go for a walk or practice Pilates.  When a man shares what he feels in the music, I melt.  And I did last night with Jose Mario.

Tango is losing its role models

January 6, 2018

Making the journey to the home of tango is no guarantee that one will find good role models for social dancing. You need to sift through so many styles and venues to find the real thing.

Group classes rarely produce good social dancers. After so many years in Buenos Aires, I feel that tango is best learned in the culture it was born. Those who come to dance in the milongas reap the benefits. It’s where they learn the codes and customs which are basically ignored in their local communities. Dancers may call it tango, but they are adding their local flavor; Buenos Aires isn’t an ingredient.

My approach to teaching today is entirely different from when I began in 1993 in Chicago. I could teach what I learned from others, which had no resemblance to the social style of the Buenos Aires milongas. My eyes were opened in 1996 in Buenos Aires, and it took years to understand what is so different about tango there.

Now I offer a free three-hour weekly session to anyone who is interested in social tango. We begin with exercises to prepare the body. I talk about the rhythms and feeling the music, not about steps. The milonga codes and customs are part of each class from the start. I record during the class for self-criticism and improvement. The goal is to dance well with a stranger at a milonga. I’ve learned so much from the milongueros viejos who are no longer around and want to pass it on to keep social tango alive and well. Tango is losing its role models. Performers aren’t doing social tango any good.

[My comment posted on Tango High and Low, May 12, 2017]

Stepping out of your comfort zone

October 5, 2017

That’s what we do when we decide to learn tango, whether we knew that fact or not.  It’s true.

Getting close to a stranger of the opposite sex is the first step outside your comfort zone, unless you are someone who gives hugs to everyone.  It’s a step worth taking, and the only way you’ll discover the intimacy and feeling of tango.  It is difficult at first, but once you get used to it, your comfort zone will expand.

Tango offers a social setting in which we step out of our comfort zone by meeting new people.  We’re not introduced or engaged in conversation.  We get to know them through the embrace.  The conversation is a silent communication with our hearts.  We can feel who they are without any words.  It’s the music that allows for us to communicate to each other.

Tango was born in Buenos Aires.  It’s a foreign culture to most people who are learning and dancing tango in the world.  Taking classes with Argentine tango teachers in Europe doesn’t mean you’re getting the tango of Buenos Aires as they danced here in the golden age during the 1940s.

Immersion in the culture of tango in Buenos Aires is the best way to understand what tango means to the milongueros and how it is so much a part of daily life.  A visit to the city milongas is essential to knowing tango.  It’s another step out of your comfort zone in a new city with a different language, where there is respect for the unwritten milonga codes.  There is no milonga anywhere in the world like those in Buenos Aires.

The weekend encuentros that are popular abroad bring dancers together for tango.  Those events try to imitate the tango culture of Buenos Aires, but they lack the most important thing that makes the milongas what they are in Buenos Aires — the milongueros.  These men learned tango as teenagers, know the orquestas and singers, and the lyrics that have meaning to them.  Life is the milonga for them.  They are married to the tango.

Many foreigners come annually to immerse themselves in the culture of tango and for the milonguero embrace.  Buenos Aires is their comfort zone.

Be choosy

June 18, 2017

If you ask any woman at a milonga if she is there to sit all night or there to dance, she’ll probably say she wants to dance.  I’ve seen women who dance every tanda all night long, like they’re at a marathon.

A few years ago, Leonora shared my table.  She was new to the milonga.  She wasn’t a familiar face, so she was sitting more than dancing.  We talked about observing how the men dance before accepting an invitation.  I told her how I preferred to sit than to suffer through ten minutes with a partner who didn’t feel the music or take care of me while we danced.  In early May, I saw her at a Saturday afternoon milonga.  She stopped by my table to thank me and let me know that she decided to take my advice about dance partners. She is content dancing fewer tandas with better dancers.

Ines heard me talk about the milongas during the three months she was coming to a weekly lesson.  She was finally ready for her first milonga.  We went with friends to Nuevo Chique.  Her first tanda was a disaster.  Her second tanda was another disaster.  She was too good with the cabeceo, but was accepting every invitation that came her way.  Then we talked.  I pointed out Jose, the best dancer in the milonga to her, a man with whom I’d enjoyed dancing many times.  He was directly across the room.  I told her to look his way.  She did. He invited her.  That was an aha moment for Ines.  She felt the difference between men who pushed her around and one who danced with her.  She said, Janis, I’m going to take your advice from now on.  I’m not going to dance with anyone until I’ve seen how he dances first.  I’ll be choosy like you.  A few weeks later, we went together to Nuevo Chique.  She was eager to dance, so I reminded her that she is choosy like I am.  She danced only three or four tandas that day, but none of them were disasters.


There is no recipe to follow in tango

May 21, 2017

I didn’t know a thing about cooking when I got married, so I relied on a Better Homes & Garden’s cookbook that I received as a wedding gift.  I remember starting with the first recipe for a meal and then working my way through the book.  I followed the steps and the results were edible.  I used recipes for everything I cooked and baked for so many years until a friend was cooking in my kitchen without a recipe.  Her kitchen skills amazed me, and eventually I got the confidence to experiment in the kitchen without a recipe.

It was almost the same when I started learning tango.  I didn’t know anything about the tango from Buenos Aires.  I met a ballroom dancer in Chicago who had been to Buenos Aires, so I asked him to share what he learned with me.  He had tango videos that we watched during our practice sessions.  I followed his lead in the steps and the results were palatable.  After years of ballroom dance classes, memorizing step sequences was normal.  I had learned basic choreography for tango.

It was years before I realized that the choreography I knew was for stage performance, and that improvised tango was in the milongas.

The annual city tango championships were held this week, and I watched the qualifying and semi-final rounds on YouTube today.  There are certain movements that are standard choreography in social tango today.  Personal style is almost lost on the social floor.  The championship has a recipe style of its own — one to please the judges.

There is no recipe to follow in tango.  It comes from the heart.


Look me up when you visit Buenos Aires

May 10, 2017

I enjoy meeting tango dancers from around the world who come to Buenos Aires for a total immersion in the culture.  It’s my pleasure share what I know about the city and tango.  I’ve met the nicest people who love tango.  In February 2016, I met Felicity who stayed at the guest house a block from my apartment.  She got around to writing a year later about her visit.

* * * * * *

I probably would not have gone to Buenos Aires if it weren’t for Janis of Tango Chamuyo. Two almost misable remarks got me there. How significant the small things can be, even from people we do not know.  The first though was from Chris and happened in chat about music and dance:
F: I do mind them dancing tango to non tango tracks!
C: Well, I never have that problem. Because if I see them dancing non-tango, by definition they are not dancing tango.
F: 🙂 You’re such a literal guy. Do you not ever feel you make the world fit your view of it!?
C: Get thee to BA.
F: No way!
C: Fair enough, but then keep in mind that you and I are not viewing the same world.
F: Don’t harry me! It would be lonely & scary & very likely demoralising & unsuccessful. I’m not ready. Let’s not talk about it.
C: Sorry. I was not really suggesting, more making a point. Because it really is an important one. To people who really dance tango, those people “dancing tango to non-tango” are not dancing tango, even badly. They are dancing non-tango.
That conversation and others related to Buenos Aires dogged me for over a year, though I forgot about the “I was not really suggesting”.
The second was something Janis said later in a reply to a comment of mine in her blog. It was something like “When you come and dance with the milongueros in Buenos Aires…” The remark just assumed I really would in a way I had not considered. It was after that I decided, despite all the misgivings and the obstacles that I should go and soon, while there still were the milongueros Janis wrote about.  Without Janis and her blog I probably would not have gone to Buenos Aires, or at least, not then.
But I did not know Janis except via her blog and I did not want to presume anything by contacting her and asking for advice. I remember that came up later, when I was there about something or other, I forget what:
– But you didn’t ask! she said.
– I didn’t like to! I said.
– I was expecting you to! she said
She is that ready to help.
This is how I got in touch with her. Once I had virtually decided to go to Buenos Aires Chris was the obvious person to ask for advice:
F: Have you advice about the trip, the stay, anything? 
C: Top priority is security. 
F: From mugging/street attack? 
C: And the rest.
F: Is that common? 
C: Yes, very. 
F: Everywhere? I remember reading that Janis walks about at night. 
C: Second priority is: ask Janis’ advice. Esp. on good (inc. safe) accommodation. I would stay with an English speaker who understands [about security].
F: Do you know anyone? 
C: Janis is the one to ask. 
I had confidence in Chris and he, who is careful, had it in Janis. So I did. Still, I did not really expect her to answer a stranger, just as when eighteen months previously I hadn’t really expected Chris to reply, when a year after first wondering where to find a copy of a foxtrot some guy had mentioned on the internet I finally contacted him to ask. I could not have been more wrong about either of them..
Janis when I met her was a force of nature. She is tiny, very petite and it was astonishing how much strength of mind, personality and will could fit in such a small frame. She was interested in everything and everyone related to Buenos Aires. She chatted to lots of people on the street, in shops, in the neighbourhood. She talked to babies. But she did not talk much in the milongas.  There, she listened, she watched, she danced. In fact, though she might catch up for a few minutes with a friend here or there, she did not seem to like much chat in the milongas. Sometimes she introduced me to people or made an advisory remark.
Janis’s blog is about other people. It celebrates other people. In her apartment she had lovely photos of her parents and I thought she should tell that story. She had an attractive collection of small objects. I think they were stones with words on them which were meaningful to her but I could see they also related to tango and to life and I thought that would make a lovely post. She seemed to see that too but she shied away. I don’t really talk about myself in the blog was as much as she would say. And that is true. But there is no false modesty – she appears in photos with her friends, but her posts are about the city, the concerts, events, the milongas and the milongueros.
I cannot begin to say how kind and helpful Janis was. She told me so many useful things before I went to Buenos Aires I could not say them all here. She arranged for me to be picked up at the airport by a well-known milonguero and came too.  She showed me around the neighbourhood, lent me cash til I could get some and came with me to get money – luckily, as the place had moved. She went with me to the milongas in my first week, even showed me where the ones she didn’t plan on going to were.
I already knew from the blog that she spoke her mind but I think many people admire and respect Janis for telling it straight, for saying what they would not necessarily dare to, for standing up for the manners and mores of the traditional milongas, for alerting foreigners to these and for keeping them up to date with the people and places they love to meet and to visit.  The posts about the changes in the milonga Lo de Celia after the sad death of Celia are a case in point.  It is well-known how much Janis loved that milonga. It was the first one she took me to. We went three times in five days. Some of her posts talk about it like home and family but when it changed and became unrecognizable from what it had been, she moved on. She said she adjusted “faster than it took to walk from LdC to Obelisco. I put the past behind me and embraced a new tango home.”
When we went out to the milongas, she always looked top dollar and she did it all on a shoestring.
Janis gave advice, told stories, answered questions and took me on an excellent walking tour incorporating history, tango and architecture. She kind of just said one day that was what we were doing and I am so grateful we did.  She is knowledgeable about many aspects of Buenos Aires as well as about the milongas and the dancers.
She had thought I would blog every day about the trip but I said probably not, that I liked things to settle though even I did not expect it to take a year. I notice it is a year to the week since I went. She offered as soon as I arrived to arrange for me to dance with a famous milonguero in a private lesson. I did not want to offend her nor foreclose wonderful opportunities but I had to explain that these days tuition in tango was “against my religion”.
I dreaded explaining this though I should have realised straight-talking Janis probably respected honesty. I felt if I gave in on that, even with a famous milonguero I would be faking everything I danced with him, withholding myself from the dance and lying about any enthusiasm or interest I showed. I would hate myself for that and it would be disrespectful to him. It had to be a real dance in the milongas or nothing. I didn’t say any of that but Janis seemed to understand. She proposed something else with him instead, which was fine with me. She knew on this and other things, like her, I had my own way. She just accepted it and let those things be.
I am not sure now if I would do the same again. Some men teach and make you “think dance” and you don’t learn but some men just dance with you and you do learn. There is a big difference. But I still have a problem with paying someone for something that is about feeling between you. If you pay them it is necessarily going to be fake. On the other hand, I felt there is something wrong with a western tourist turning up expecting to learn for free from a milonguero in Buenos Aires. I am not sure I thought things through like like this at the time but I did feel things would get sorted out in the milongas.
Recently I told Janis I was going to write finally about the house I stayed in on Chile.  A friend writing a book about tango was in Buenos Aires and it was bringing it all back. I asked Janis if I could mention her in the blog. She said “By all means, tell people that I live a block away and am available for walking tours, etc. I started a free and open tango class on Thursday from noon to 3:30 for anyone who wants to join me.  I had understood it was a class for women and asked for clarification.  She said, What started out as a women’s only class is changing.  We need men who want to learn. One woman asked if a friend can join us, and I said of course.  I’m inviting friends who already dance to give the women practice.”

As it turned out, my first dance in the milongas was with that milonguero but I was by then so keyed up and out of practice it was disastrous in that I felt stiff and embarrassed and in the spotlight.  Though he was most courteous and invited me again later I finished it on the verge of tears at my nerves and inability to dance.  While she might have been surprised that the world did not move for me, I guess Janis was not really surprised, given that I had turned down that opportunity to dance first outside of the milongas, to get used to new things.  She is very clear-sighted.  She didn’t make a big deal of it.   I imagine when Janis, talking about her new class says friends she means or includes Argentinians so I think her project sounds interesting.   And I doubt it would be anything like a European class.  Besides, the men dance very differently to a lot of dancing in Europe and if you are anything like I was when you first arrive, especially if you are alone then it might be a good thing to have that experience before going in to the milongas.  Apart from that just meeting Argentinians is a lovely, warm, experience – and I liked meeting other tourists and expats who come again and again to experience the milongas of Buenos Aires.

Heads up

September 27, 2015


The milongas are for dancing, not for practicing and offering feedback to your partner.   Argentine men are clear on this when they enter a milonga.

Jose invited me for a vals tanda.  I looked to him because we’ve enjoyed many vals tandas together.  After the first dance, he made a suggestion that I change the my head position because, as he said, it would look nicer.  He is taller than most of the men with whom I dance, and it’s a stretch for me to see over his shoulder.  I danced with Jose as he suggested, but felt I’d lost connection with him.

Last Sunday, Luis invited me to dance.  After the first dance, he asked me to change my head.  This request came days after the first one.  Luis and I are about the same height.  He asked me to turn my head slightly to the right, placing my forehead on his, with my nose pressed against his right cheek.  I dance with my eyes open, so I was staring into his eyes and giggling about it.  Not only did it feel strange to me, but made me dizzy.  It was impossible to focus on the music while trying to adjust to this odd angle.

During our teaching days in Chicago, Carlos Favre and I gave a workshop at the Museum of Contemporary Art called, “The Art of the Embrace.”  A large number of couples with no social dance experience signed up for our tango workshop.  Carlos and I began our demonstration with a two-armed, cheek-to-cheek hug with each other and then transitioned to the dance embrace.  It was the simplest way we knew to show the tango embrace.  It was obvious to us that many couples were not big on hugging each other.  They needed help getting close for a full-body hug.

Tango is a hug between two.  I don’t even consider how I look when I hug a friend and share my energy.   It’s the same for me when I dance tango.

Anyone can dance

July 10, 2015


I met Rick and Lily only a week ago when we met for tea and a chat at Café de los Angelitos.  He asked, so where can we see tango dancing?  I recommended Lo de Celia on Wednesday.  Rick was born in Argentina, but the USA is his home for many years.  They never dance together.  The reason given was that he doesn’t have any rhythm, which I didn’t accept.  Rick watched the dancing for more than an hour.  I went to their table and mentioned that the orquesta was Carlos Di Sarli, my favorite.  Then Rick stood and invited Lily to dance to Di Sarli.  I watched with delight as they danced together in the embrace.  I was so moved, I cried.  They danced only one tango together, and it was their first.  Rick was smiling the entire time.


Later they danced a complete tanda.  I saw what I never expected that night, yet I know that it is possible for anyone to dance.  Rhythm is natural.  When we connect with the music, our dance comes out of us.   Rick and Lily proved it can be done.  And I was there to see it happen!