Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Tango Figures! What they will and won't do for you



This week something surprised me in the Youtube statistics for the videos I've uploaded over time to my archive channel: the classroom reviews of figures that Jeremias Massera taught with me in April 2010 have collected a rather high number of views - one of them well over 3,800 - with no marketing, just the demo I had archived there. This tells me that tango people are hungry to learn figures! 

A colleague of mine and his wife have a full series of videos posted on Youtube about how to improvise tango. In each episode they demonstrate repeatedly a smoothly combined sequence of figures that can be danced in a milonga. They probably have around two dozen figure sequences to learn there. 

Figures are really fun to do.  The challenge of learning to "do that move" successfully can be frustrating and delightful at the same time.  Whenever I worked with a male colleague who taught figure sequences to my classes in Italy, in demonstrating I often relished doing all those tricky moves easily, while skillfully embellishing wherever I could gracefully steal a cross-flick or a firulete (circle drawn on the floor) with my free foot. We'd give the class a challenge they could really sink their teeth into, with many components to try to master.  

Students would repeat the figure over and over.  It's the man's  responsibility to learn to lead the woman to do her part, while the woman who has good basic technique just has to follow. Since the man is intent on "getting it", he needs her to be patient with him as he tries over and over to conquer each piece of the sequence.  So she has the fun of dancing a lot, honing her skills by practicing according to her teacher's technique advice, and even of being a collaborator in her partner's learning.  

But if she is learning so she can memorize the pattern, which happens often with newer tangueras, she's going to be "dead in the water" when she's dancing improvisations, such as at the milonga. Our tanguera will be particularly in trouble with the memorization approach when someone other than her classroom partner leads her to do something similar, but not the same. Or when her classroom partner uses only a piece of the figure in an improvisation. She's likely to automatically try to complete the figure she memorized. And the man's joy of improvising falls flat, while the woman misses out on the joy of being constantly surprised!

Back to our classroom lesson, eventually the teacher comes around to check on students' progress, and our woman student gets to dance with him too, which is usually a thrill.  


So the couples have fun, if it goes well.  Or they go home frustrated, if it doesn't go so well, which can happen for many reasons, such as because one or both partners have difficulties with balance, or because the man's lead is unclear.  But even in the event that it doesn't go well, they'll probably still have fun because the teacher is nice and they were really engaged with the problem, both mentally and physically.  They got to dance and practice the figure.  Hopefully there were enough men in the class for all the women to have danced.

Homer and Christina Ladas demonstrating an "overturned gancho"

And when they go to milongas, they'll try to practice the new figure, and integrate it into their improvisations of the evening.  It's fun!

* * * * * *

In my own experience, focusing on figures is indeed lots of fun, but it's likely to keep you from experience any feelings with your partner (other than happiness if the other "gets it" and frustration if they don't).  And it's true that many people go to dance tango because they like dancing in general, without seeking deeper meaning. Such dancers may not be looking for an intimate experience with the opposite s.ex. They may not be seeking to understand themselves better through the experience of co-creating on the dance floor with a variety of partners, or with one special partner.

Figures and complex sequences are often the perfect vehicle for having fun while avoiding your feelings, as you dance in the embrace someone of the opposite s.ex. And fun is a wonderful thing to seek on the dance floor!

I know that men who want to improve in their tango skills often go to workshop after workshop to learn more figures. One concern I hear is that they think that women are expecting to be entertained by many figures, and men hope to keep them interested by building their tango figure vocabulary as big as they can grow it!

But if you ask most women at a milonga what they are mainly seeking in a tanda (set) of tangos, valses or milongas, you'll often get a thoughtful answer that includes:  a sense of the man's stability, a comfortable and protective embrace, good navigation so she doesn't get hurt as she walks backwards, a strong energetic connection and evocation of her emotions, largely through his musicality, and that includes interpreting the pauses with feeling, which we can call "meaningful phrasing". A feeling of intimacy, women will also tell you, and the sense of a special private dialog between just the two of them.  There could be figures, there could be drama, but the emotion in the dance is paramount for most women.  And it may surprise you that a sense of emotion and connection in tango is paramount for many men.

I recently danced at a milonga in another city with an Argentine professional. I had lots of fun performing all kinds of challenging figures, which he executed smoothly. He was creative and full of surprises. But in the end one thing was missing for me, even though we danced many segments in close embrace:  I got no feeling from the man. Oh, he seemed to be feeling pleasure and delight, because his improvisation was exuberant, but he was not seeking me, and I could not penetrate him with my mind nor with my heart.  It was a dialog about fun, which was fine. But I did not discover anything about the man inside the acrobat, and I got the sense that it did not occur to him to discover anything about me. That's okay, but if I remember the episode years from now, it will be only as an example of how one can execute a myriad of figures, and transmit no emotion.  

What I'll better remember from the same night was a tanda with simple walking, pausing when the orchestra paused, a handful of figures impefectly executed, but a powerful flow of feeling from the man's heart to mine. 

My point is not that figures inherently keep you from connecting with your feelings, but that focusing on them or worrying about them while you're dancing will keep you out of the zone, and out of communication with your partner! For men and for women, switching focus to the communication may force you to keep your tango more simple, but I guarantee that you will feel delightful vibrations in your mind, body and spirit as a result. 


It takes a highly skilled dancer, who deeply knows and loves  tango music, to dance many complex figures and still convey and exchange emotion with his partner on the dance floor.  I remember an experience with Claudio Villagra, who once took my breath away - not with all the things he was able to "make me do that I didn't know I could do" (I sometimes hear 1-2 year tangueras say things like that), but because he used his improvisation to convey his penetrating message of masculine interest in me for 3 minutes at a time.  The physical transmission of his presence within the embrace was palpable to me, whether the embrace was open or closed. No stage drama, just intense presence that infused his creative expression.   

In the photo above:  Claudio Villagra & Romina Levin


Here is a video with Jorge Dispari and Maria del Carmen (Marita), a favorite couple of mine who exemplifies dancing tango with elegance, feeling for the music and deep communication between them:

Click here, or copy and paste into your browser.

Here Jorge is using figures sparingly, and he does show off with them when he walks into the center of the room. After all, it's an exhibition. Marita is dynamically creating with him.  And at the end of the piece, watch the emotion between them.  How he lifts her 200 pounds into the air with that hug at the end, I don't know, but he brought her to tears with that tango. I'm surmising that this is a milonga "despedida" (farewell) for the Disparis, before some teaching tour abroad, because Marita cries after they dance to "Adios Buenos Aires", recorded by Orchestra Tipica Victor, with Angel Vargas singing.  

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.  Please comment below!

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