Something keeps surprising me in the Youtube statistics for the videos I've uploaded over time to my archive channel: the classroom reviews of simple figure combinations that Jeremias Massera taught with me in April 2010 have collected a rather high number of views - one of them well over 14,000! - with no marketing, just the demo I had archived there for my students. This tells me that tango people are hungry to learn figures!
Various colleagues of mine have full series of videos posted on Youtube about how to improvise tango. In each video they demonstrate repeatedly a single figure, or a smoothly combined sequence of figures that can be danced in a milonga. Each offers many dozens of figures and sequences to learn.
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 in my tango school 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.
My Italian 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. 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 reasons such as one or both partners having 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!
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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 exhilaration 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, sure . . . 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. Men, including my virtual students, confide in me through our work together on their tango, and the more I get to know them, the more I believe in men's desire and capacity for deep connection.
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 imperfectly 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
Our video of the week below shows a performance of what I feel is an exemplary social tango. I explain why below.
Tango Mojo Video of the Week
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:
Here Jorge uses 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. (They brought me to tears too.) I'm surmising that this is a milonga "despedida" (farewell) for the Disparis, before one of their teaching tours abroad, which I believe is partly why Marita cries after they've danced to "Adios Buenos Aires", recorded by Orchestra Tipica Victor, with Angel Vargas singing.
Would you like to dance like that?
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please comment below!