Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The man who taught me tango musicality (video)

Happy Chanukah to our Tango Mojo family members who celebrate. Chanukah is a festival about miracles and about light - a perfect way to start the holiday season!

Now I have a story to tell you about tango musicality, and two holiday treats:  a wonderful tango video and a special holiday offer that it inspired!

Here's my story about how I became a tango musicality specialist:

Like some of my readers - maybe you, among them - I, as a developing tango dancer, always seemed to have a good, innate sense of the music, even though I had studied very little music as a kid.  At local milongas as well as in cities abroad, I'd sometimes receive compliments like, "I love how you feel the music", or "Your timing . . . it's amazing!" or "My favorite things about you are your embrace and your musicality".  

When I started to teach, it pained me to see my students focusing on their steps and not knowing what to make of the music.  I had naively expected it to come naturally to them, as it had for me. So even in my early years as a teacher, I devised a few simple systems to help my students better understand the music.  Though I was winging it back then, creating by intuition, my efforts helped many of my students.  Back then, by the way, not many people were using the word "musicality"!

Fast forward to around 2006, when my school in Italy, UmbriaTango, was maturing and had 150 students.  I consistently brought in top Argentine instructors who were traveling in Europe.  One of my students convinced me to invite Jorge Dispari and Marita (Maria del Carmen, a.k.a. "La Turca"). I knew of them, but only as the mother and stepfather of tango diva Geraldine Rojas.  

Jorge Dispari and Maria del Carmen
Jorge and Marita turned out to be wonderful teachers for my students, and models for me as a teacher.  I'd bring them to my school for a month at a time about twice each year, for a couple of years. They were so much fun to hang out with after hours, especially at long, private dinners in the homes of some of my students.  They'd keep me up talking about tango long into the night. 

I was very proud of my students, who were often admired in other tango communities, and were generally successful in local and out of town milongas.  I'd receive appreciative comments like, "Helaine, you can always tell who are your students."  However, during Jorge's first teaching week in my school, he remarked, "Your students are good, but they're missing something critical".   My ego flared up inside, because I had a lot invested in being recognized as a good teacher.  But I humbly and eagerly asked what it is.

Jorge Dispari
Jorge said, "They don't know how to dance the pauses."  My jaw fell, and I felt like a jackass.  Up to that point, I had not made pauses in the music an important element in my teaching.  I had worked with my students on phrasing, but did not identify the pauses at the end of, or sometimes in the middle of, a phrase.  I wasn't sure I could figure it out on my own.  

It hurt to hear my teaching criticized, but that criticism turned out to be one of the biggest blessings in my career.

In the weeks that Jorge and Marita were with us in Perugia, the word "musicalidad" flew around a lot.  He "dripped" bits of his precious musicality knowledge into our classes.  I was hungry to know it all.  

Finally, I took the bull by the horns and booked a private, 3-hour musicality session with Jorge, their last week in town.  I brought my tango shoes and a notebook to the home of my student who hosted them.  We all had an Umbrian country-style lunch, and then Jorge and I moved to the living room with all the furniture pushed to the walls, as it had been all month for private lessons.  

Jorge said, "No, don't change your shoes", and told me to sit on the olive-green plush sofa. He began to hold forth, standing two meters in front of me.  I received a 3-hour, private lecture, with ongoing demos in which Jorge snapped his fingers to various tangos he played on the stereo, and then tested me with "Now you do it".  I did good.  What Jorge taught me felt so right.  It immediately raised my sensitivity to precisely what the orchestra was doing.  It gave me clarity that went way beyond my innate feeling for the music!

When I went back to the U.S. in 2008, I worked with tango students in Naples, Florida and gave private musicality lessons to a few.  I started with Jorge's system, as much as he had given me in three hours. Over time I developed my own system, with Jorge's key principles as my foundation.

I grew to love watching Jorge and Marita dance, because I love their musical interpretation.  Sometimes, they strike a deep chord with me in the music. (No pun intended, really.  I mean "a deep emotional chord".) 

Here below is one such performance.  They're dancing three pieces at one of my favorite milongas in Buenos Aires, "Viva La Pepa" at Villa Malcolm.

Let me know in the comments section below how you like these two tangos and one milonga.  Watch particularly Jorge's use of pauses!  Also look at that walk - calm, grounded, and powerful.  (You might notice that sometimes Marita's feet do not glide on the floor, but she seems to lift them. That's because of the power in Jorge's "intention"!  Knocks her feet right off the ground. I've experienced it myself!)

In the two tangos, sometimes Jorge seems to be pausing even while the bass is playing rhythm.  Yes, he's still, but he's actually observing the rhythm - by painting it with Marita's feet!  

Enjoy these two tangos and one milonga, and tell me what you observe about Jorge and Marita's musical interpretation, in the comments section below!

Jorge Dispari and Maria del Carmen (Marita) in a performance at "Viva La Pepa" milonga in Buenos Aires.

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Tangueros, would you like to dance as simply (except for some of them wicked giros), and right-on-the-money as Jorge does here?  

And, tangueras, I don't believe Jorge could do what he does without such a perfect co-pilot as Marita, who loves and knows the music as well as he does.  

In honor of Chanukah, the festival of miracles and of light, and to start off the holiday season, I have a special musicality offer today.  Would it feel like a miracle to you if in a few weeks you knew an important part of what Jorge knows? I'd like you to get the benefit of what Jorge taught me, and the way I've made it the foundation for the program I created for my students and coaching clients.  CLICK HERE for a special introductory offer

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The single most important thing I can tell you about your tango

December 11, 2014

Today is the International Day of Tango, and I have an important message about YOUR tango. But I'll approach it a bit sideways:

When I meditate, I first observe my thoughts darting around like hundreds of ping-pong balls. Then I start to focus on my breathing. When I focus in this simple way, there’s a recurring moment in which I experience a great sense of relief, regardless of any racing thoughts:  that moment is in the GAP between every exhalation and the next inhalation. 

In that one still, silent second between breaths, I become aware of a delicious sense of wellbeing, of calm, of perfection.  It doesn’t matter that it happens in the midst of active thoughts bouncing around, because in the desire to hold on to that surprising sense of perfect peace, I begin to ignore my thoughts, and they start to fall away.  The "interval" or "gap" between my breaths when I’ve emptied my lungs feels so good that I want to stay there.  

What does this have to do with tango?

Today on the International Day of Tango, I want to give you the greatest gift I have to give you.  It's just one piece of critical information.

Today I'll tell you the one thing you can do that will have the greatest impact on your dancing, your connection, and your confidence on the dance floor.  From the moment you implement this, you'll be dancing on a completely different level, and this magic will stay with you the rest of your life, whenever you dance.

Here it is:

Even if you never learn anything else, learn to master "the gap" in your tango.

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I've published a number of articles over the years in which I mention "The Gap", "The Interval", “The Micro-Pause”, and "The Split Second Difference in your Tango".  It's all the same thing!  I use the words interchangeably.

Here's how I made the discovery:

Back in the 1970's, my sculpture teacher in New York, the late George Spaventa, talked about a concept he called "the interval", or sometimes "the interstice".  He once gave an illustration that I have never forgotten, with photos in a book on early 20th century modern sculpture. Over the years, my awareness of "the interval" grew, whether I was looking at art, or in other contexts.

It finally occurred to me while teaching a tango class some years back, that “the interval” is just as critical to dancing good tango as it is to good art, music, speaking, and more. 

What do I mean by "interval" or “gap”?

I'd define it as the "breathing space" between two active parts, the space that sets them apart from each other, and in doing so gives each part more life. 

Let’s let that sink in:

The “interval” or “gap” is the breathing space between any two active, adjacent parts, the space that sets them apart from each other, and in doing so gives each part more life. 

Going back to the sculpture example:
Belvedere Torso, Vatican Museum, Rome
Belvedere Torso, Vatican Museum, Rome
If you could look closely at the “intervals” in Michelangelo’s  "Belvedere Torso" (photo above)that is, the divisions between any two adjacent forms on the figure, you'd see that they're not just lines on the surface, but rather narrow planes that act as valleys between the forms.

The intervals help to define each form, and if not for the intervals, the forms would rather blur together. Instead, each muscle-form on this famous sculpture is clearly defined and full of life. 

* * * * *
An interval is also the breath we take between phrases when we sing a song:
"Happy birthday to you. . . (breathe);
Happy birthday to you. . . (breathe)."

An interval is the punctuation in our sentences when we write.

So where is "the interval" in tango, and why is it important?

I call the interval in tango, most easily identified in tango walking, "The Split Second Difference in Your Tango".  It is a fleeting pause, during which I advise you to momentarily ground yourself on your weight-bearing leg, locking into your "infinite vertical axis" for a split second, as the foot of your free leg reaches the lowest point of its "pendulum swing".

Don't worry. It doesn't take great effort to coordinate this. You'll see that it quickly becomes natural and effortless.

The interval, if you choose to employ it, makes a huge difference in your balance and in your self confidence when you dance.  Good balance and self-confidence go hand in hand.

The interval should occur in the woman's molinete, when she walks around her partner.  She can, and should, articulate all her steps and pivots with the split-second interval in her Infinite Axis. She should repeatedly claim that split-second when she "passes through her center" between her steps around the man, rather than falling from one location to the next, which we see too frequently with not-yet-enlightened dancers!  

But not only should our tanguera employ the "Split Second Difference" during the molinete.  She should always use it, between every two steps, between every step and pivot, between every pivot and step.

Tangueros too.  Use this micro-pause!

And for both partners, creating brief or longer intervals between any two movements, rather falling from step to step through a sequence, allows you to ARTICULATE your tango, as if you were saying to each other, "I'm here. . . and I'm here . . .  and now I'm here", rather than "I'm going, I'm going, I'm going".  

The "gap" is where we tango dancers can feel most secure because it's the moment in which we're most grounded, and where we can enjoy the greatest communication with our partner.  The great tango connection happens not so much in the dynamic movements, but in the momentary silent intervals between them!

In fact, I've come to think of "the gap" as the actual dynamic moment in tango, more so than the moments of transit or pivot!  "The gap" is when we are most empowered, because it ensures our stability.

I urge you to start practicing "the gap" when you dance tango, and filling the gap with your presence.  Your tango experience will start to quickly change, and you'll notice greater appreciation from your partners.

I believe that tango novices should be taught this in their very first lesson. (Every beginner who came to my studio over the last few years acquired this skill right away.) Claiming this interval with every step, by the way, assures even beginner men that they will never step on their partner's feet, and more importantly, it will grow their confidence from the inside out, starting on their first day of tango!

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Here's a video example of using "the gap".  I've used this example other times, because the dancers make it so clear!

In the video below, with Sebastian Arce and Mariana Montes, there is a clear illustration of "the gap" or the "Split Second Difference" in tango-walking.  

In the segment between 0:17 and 0:30, the segment in which the violins are playing the melody and the bandoneons are marking the downbeat (strong beat) and the upbeat (weak beat), notice where the couple is on every upbeat.  They grab it as an interval! They each remain still, "in axis", for a fraction of a second, exactly timed with the upbeat.  

Sebastian Arce and Mariana Montes, dancing to "Buscandote", by the orchestra of Osvaldo Fresedo.

After you've observed the moments of interval between steps in the segment between 17 and 30 seconds, please notice how often Sebastian is still, when he seems to be doing nothing; he is "painting with her feet", marking the music by leading Mariana's steps.  During other intervals, Mariana paints the air with her free leg.  If there were no interval, she would have no time to beautify their tango with her very musical embellishments, which must be done while she is solidly grounded, locked in to her Infinite Axis.

(You can also enjoy some of Sebastian's wicked enrosques as the tango progresses!)

Please watch this tango a few times and see all the places where you can indentify the interval (mainly pivots, pauses, and micro-pauses)!

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Buenos Aires news:
Mastering the Gap is one important skill you'll get quickly when you study with me in Buenos Aires. I'll be making several trips in 2015, and will work privately with very few people.

If you want to know more, email us at support@tangomojo.com and my assistant can answer some of your questions. If you think you're interested in being one of the few people who work with me live in the coming year, in having me as your guide to tango life in Buenos Aires, you can ask Cindy to set up a time for us to talk and send you an application.

Rudolph Valentino and me on a noteworthy new tango blog!

November 30, 2014

I recently came across an interesting and extremely well-written tango blog  that turns out to be by one of our Tango Mojo community and online home study members! I had always enjoyed Robert's comments on my blog and his participation in my surveys, so I'm happy to see he's making much more of his gift for writing about tango.

Robert Bononno from New York City writes "Tango High-and-Low: thoughts on Tango and the learning process."  

Robert's been dancing tango only about 2 years, and I've been impressed with the path he's choosing and the progress he's making.  His thoughts about tango seem more highly evolved than one would expect from a relative novice.

But that makes sense to me because Robert is both an accomplished photographer and a professional translator. Often when an artistically and/or linguistically gifted person comes to tango, their maturity from the other arts flows into their tango experience.

Robert very intelligently shares his thoughts about his own tango studies, as well as his reflections on what he observes in the tango world.

I discovered his blog last week when I did a Google search for myself to find a certain article. There on the second page of search results I saw part of a review about my writing and teaching.  I followed the link to that article and thought, "This person knows me too well to be a stranger!  Who is it?"  What a wonderful surprise to see Robert's quickly growing blog, and how honored I felt to have been reviewed in that way.

The article features Rudolph Valentino and me, and is entitled "Safe Sex".   Read it HEREand write your thoughts in the comment section!

I hope you'll enjoy other articles on "Tango High and Low", and that you'll become a regular visitor to Robert's blog.

A lovely tango on a "baldosa" (floor tile)

November 14, 2014

This week I came across a video with a lovely presentation of what I call "Tango in a Square Meter".  Argentinos call it dancing "en una baldosa" - on a floor tile.  Here are Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas dancing on a "baldosa" to the tango "Cero al As" by Alfredo DeAngelis with Floreal Ruiz singing. They talk about the subject for two minutes, and the dancing begins around 2:05.

You'll find a couple of other dancing-on-a-baldosa videos by Oscar and Georgina on YouTube.  I think they're really nice to watch, and if you like, you can review these videos carefully and break down what Oscar is doing for your own study.

Neither in their YouTube videos in which they demonstrate, nor in their instructional dvd's, do Oscar and Georgina actually teach you how to do it.  If you want to learn how to spontaneously and creatively combine "baldosa" figures so you can dance whole tangos "on a floor tile", check out my home study program that's dedicated 100% to giving you this specific skill in a short amount of time.  CLICK HERE for details!

Tricks and Treats (at your own risk)

October 31, 2014
Ghoul evening!

Have some holiday fun watching this - probably 2006 - video I dug up of Javier Rodriguez and Geraldine Rojas dancing to "Reliquias Porteñas" (
Porteña Relics) by Francisco Canaro.  Just don't try these tricks at home!  haha.

A squeeze from
Countess Helainula

P.S. Enlarge the video to full screen.

A fun video that may surprise you: Geraldine Rojas and Sebastian Arce!

October 26, 2014

Here's a fun video that may surprise you.  It was posted to Facebook by Jorge Dispari, Geraldine's stepfather.

It's a clip from 1994 of Geraldine Rojas with Sebastian Arce, two kids who grew up in the Villa Urquiza tradition.  Did you know that they partnered for a while when they were teenagers?  

Yes, Geraldine and Sebastian are only about 13 and 14 respectively here, but notice the musicality of each one, and how grounded they both are in their axes.

Enjoy the video!

How to defend your space on a chaotic dance floor

September 27, 2014

One of our Tango Mojo tangueros wrote in a great question on an aspect of dancing in crowded milongas, and I wanted the help of an expert male colleague to answer it.  So I called on Manuel Patino in Atlanta, and today I'll pass along his advice.

Here's the question from our member in New Jersey:
"In general, I cope ok in crowded milongas.  It's just less pleasant when people start closing in on me (i.e, in an uncontrolled environment). Some of the NYC milongas can be pretty chaotic. 
"What I'd really like to learn is how to stake my ground - without being a nuisance - so that people don't move into my space.  I see advanced/professional dancers do this - perhaps something about their attitude/aura?"
Manuel responds:
"Basically my advice is to be assertive, but not aggressive. All my advice is predicated on a dancer’s being confident in himself and his partner. Take the space you want when the opening occurs. If the dancer in front of you tends to step back a lot, be careful but move in on him so he has to bump into you (not your partner) rather than step on you or kick you. Same tactic can work for a dancer that crowds you. In any case, each situation is different and sometimes discretion is the better part of valor and it's best to find another spot to dance in. Use your whole body to occupy space, do not shrink. Happy dancing and may all your pupils find friendly spaces!"

I bolded "Use your whole body to occupy space, do not shrink", because I think that's a very important concept for many of you.

Tangueros, if you tend to shrink or feel intruded upon in crowded milongas, try using Manuel's advice, and let us know how it goes!

Your comments are welcome below.

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For more help with dancing in crowded milongas, tight spaces and traffic jams, CLICK HERE