Lounge Tango – Tango Salon

broken tv and red dance shoes

Christine and I have been lucky enough to continue dancing tango during lock-down, albeit in a much smaller space, so I thought I’d write this post relating our experience of ‘lounge tango’ (or tango salon), just to show that with a partner, there is tango life after milonga.

What is lounge tango?

Well for us it was modifying and getting used to dancing tango in a space no bigger than 2m x 2.5 m, which doesn’t sound a lot but is enough for many things. In saying that there are of course advantages and disadvantages, with a need to modify a few things.

Advantages vs Disadvantages of Lounge tango

  1. With a partner on tap, there was no sitting out waiting to dance.
    This is an advantage, of course. Those of you who’ve been unfortunate to be in lock-down without a dance partner will know that technique, styling and conditioning exercises can only get you so far.Β  With a real live partner you can both try swapping roles for a bit of fun. Even without swapping roles, you can learn and discuss how to perform new material until you get it right. However if you have an argument about something, anything, you don’t get any tango for a while until you make up. You learn to be nice to your tango partner, which is always a good thing πŸ™‚ .
  2. We had to learn a different type of floor craft.
    Normally floor craft is mostly about not damaging yourself, your partner, other dancers or people sitting out at a milonga, and being courteous to others. With loung tango it becomes all about not destroying your possessions (stiletto through the TV screen etc.) πŸ™‚ . Other than that it is very similar in that the leader needs to be very aware of the space available (as does the follower) and probably needs to make more use of pivoting to be able to lead the follower out of the tight corner he’s boxed them into. If we ever get back to ‘normal’ milongas this will be a very useful skill.
  3. We’ve had to more or less give up ‘the tango walk’.
    Tango walking can almost be a dance in itself with marvellous rhythmical walking patterns to make moving around a dance hall a bit more interesting between tango figures. In a very small space you do maybe two or three steps in a line then have to break it to get around a corner, so not much chance to get a walking rhythm going. This also means that our tango has become more ‘figure’ centric and a lot more circular, with more rebote to bounce us back to the centre of the dance space.
  4. We’ve had to learn how to make linear tango figures circular
    In a normal milonga space there are certain tango figures which are linear and can cover a lot of space. In our lounge we have either had to forego them, or find ways of cutting them short, or making the linear figure a bit more circular. This will be an advantage if we ever get back to crowded busy milongas, but at the same time we miss having a bit of runway to unleash our linear figures onto. Oh well… πŸ™‚
  5. The leader can now step back more often
    This is both a blessing and potentially a future curse. Blessing because now I can make full use of the small space and be able to apply my damage limitation floor craft by stepping back a couple of times or more. Potential curse because I may get used to the habit, and do it at my first proper milonga in some months time, to the probable consternation of the couple behind. Hmmm…

Carpet vs lino vs wood floor

We started lock down dancing on a fairly old carpet. Thin enough and hard wearing it was OK so long as I didn’t wear my tango shoes and used some modified indoor shoes with smooth leather soles. The disadvantage was in pivoting – more resistance, so it meant we had to use pivoting technique more often or risk twisted knees and ankles (which thankfully we never experienced). However in some ways this was an advantage too because it made us use our core muscles more, which improved our conditioning. What was do-able with a little effort on a carpet, became very easy on a nice smooth wooden dance floor.

Recently, after doing every other DIY project I could think of, I finally ran out of excuses not to lay a new floor in the lounge. Its only wood effect click-board, but the surface is a lot smoother than the carpet, so now pivoting is nice and straight-forward. Will we start loosing our core strength though?

As for lino, it is better than carpet, but perhaps less good as wooden floor. Most lino tile or sheet is design with a none slip surface, when first laid. If tiles have worn smooth a little that would be better, and if it’s all you have, it’s adequate for home tango.

How your tango changes in a reduced space environment

So to review, yes your tango will change dancing at home, but sometimes in a good way and you may have to learn to be more precise in your floor craft which will stand you in good stead. Your range of ability to use figures in tight spaces, relying on extra rotation in pivots to get you out of tight spaces will should also improve too.

If you are lucky enough to live in a mansion with a large space, none of this matters to you but in any case while we are still in lock down, even if you are not learning much new, I would recommend trying to make what you already know, as precise and elegant, while improving technique as much as possible.

So keep practising, but try not to smash that nice Ming vase stood in the corner, with a wild voleo… πŸ™‚

To Cabeceo or not to Cabeceo…

Boris Carloff attempting cabeceoIn the world of Argentine tango, there are some milongas whose rules of engagement prohibit any form of asking a person to dance, unless it is done by ‘cabeceo’. The whole idea of cabeceo (‘the pitch’ or leaders invitation) and ‘mirada’ (‘the look’ or followers response) is that a leader can ‘ask’ a follower to dance in a semi-private way.

This communication happens silently and often over distances as large as the length of a dance hall. If the follower refuses, there is no long walk of shame back across the dance floor for the leader to contend with (we all remember those school discos that scarred us for life, but at the same time toughened us up πŸ™‚ ) , and the follower doesn’t have to accept just because a leader is stood next to them and ‘it would be rude not to’. Lots of embarrassment saved on both sides.

However, there are plenty of opportunities for misfires, as with most communication systems, so let’s first have a refresher of communications theory.

In any communications system there is at least one transmitter, one receiver, and the medium via which a message is transferred. If two way communication is required then there must be a transmitter and receiver at each end of the communication medium so that a message sent one way can be responded to by a message coming back.

So A transmits a message via the medium and B receives the message and sends an acknowledgement that the message has been received. Note, this is not a response to the sense of the message, but simply and acknowledgement of receipt. If B wishes to respond to the message then the communication happens again but initiated by B transmitting a reply to A who responds that they’ve received it.

The system can fail if any combination of transmitter, receiver, and medium fails. All very simple and logical right?

What communications components correspond to the cabeceo scenario?

The communications medium is simply line of sight between leader and follower. The transmitter is initially the leaders cabeceo – his enquiring look at the target follower. The follower is initially a receiver, to first observer the cabeceo, and then having decided to accept the invitation or not, the follower becomes a transmitter, to reply with mirada. The leader then becomes a receiver of the reply, for final interpretation of success or failure of his invitation.

So what could possibly go wrong?

The communications medium needs to be open. If the line of sight is blocked (by other dancers, pillars in the room, or other physical obstacles etc) then communication can’t take place. This is the easiest problem to fix. Both leaders and followers who want to dance just need to make it obvious, perhaps by standing up, moving to an area of the room where they can easily be seen near the edge of the dance floor, and then followers need to be receptive to a leaders Cabeceo.

The leaders transmission needs to be a clear invite. Staring blankly, or with a vaguely ‘mad axe murderer’ expression is probably not going to be successful, either for the leader or as a followers response. If you do see a person seemingly looking your way with a blank stare on their face, it might just mean they’ve zoned out, just listening to the music, and not actually ‘looking’ at anything in particular. So leaders need to smile, or nod to make sure the follower knows is definitely them the leader is wanting to communicate with. So the leader is now transmitting and the comms medium is clear.

The follower needs to make eye contact long enough for the leader to know the ‘comms line is now open’, even if the followers response is going to be a ‘no thank you’. This eye contact is the acknowledgement that the message has been received, but is not the reply to the message. Without it, the communication loop has not been established. I have observed some followers who just continually scan the room without making eye contact (or at least not making eye contact for long enough to be certain of the fact). In this case the communication loop is not complete. This type of ‘follower scanning’ seems to be saying to the audience of leaders at large ‘I am looking for one of a specific group of friends to dance with, not a stranger’.

So once the follower has caught the eye of the leader and his invitation, they can now either smile, nod etc. to accept the invitation, or do a little shake of the head, or just look away to decline the invitation. However there must be eye contact for that brief exchange, for this to be clearly interpreted by the leader.

So as long as we stick to the above basic rules of communication cabeceo works right? Well not always.

There are other cabeceo problems.

Now we need to examine a little radar theory (bear with me πŸ™‚ ). So with radar the idea is to identify moving objects from static objects, so that on a military field of battle for example, you can tell which blip on the screen is a moving enemy tank and which is just a static building. To do this a radar installation will send regular electronic pulses from two separate points and measure the reflected signal. Sending pulses from two different points allows us to establish range and location. If the position of a blip has moved since the last pulse was sent out, that is probably the tank.

However, what if two objects are so close that it is difficult to separate their blips on the screen? If the tank stops moving, close to the building, the blips merge and the reflected pulse can’t discriminate accurately between the two objects.

With cabeceo, this is the case when a follower thinks a leader is inviting them when in fact the target is next door, or behind. So what to do here? Well, followers can perhaps ease the situation by not bunching up, although in a crowded milonga and with typical seating arrangements this can be pretty much impossible.

The leader now has to respond to one of the followers. If there is only one response, but not the original target, the polite thing to do is to dance with the only follower who is offering to dance with you. Not all leaders are that polite… but if the leader is there to dance, why pass up an offer?

If there are two or more followers responding, then the polite thing to do would be to pick one follower but promise the other(s) the next tanda(s). Remember that this miscommunication is no ones fault, so followers shouldn’t take it personally if the leader doesn’t pick them first (as long as the leader comes back and fulfils their promise for the next tanda). Again, not all leaders will… but if leaders are there to dance then they’re sorted for the next couple of tandas, so why not?

The use of cabeceo and mirada can also be ‘abused’.

It’s true that if you’ve paid your money to enter a milonga for a night out, you want a good time and you are within your rights to pick and choose who you dance with (or even who you consider worthy enough to dance with).

It’s worth remembering though that you were once a beginner and maybe not so hot at dancing. You needed better dancers than you to invite you, or accept your invitation to dance to help you become a better dancer. If tango clubs can’t attract new people because they are too ‘cliquey’, too unfriendly, have too many ‘weird’ rules, etc. then the club may eventually wither away.

So while it’s possible to use cabeceo and mirada to exclude strangers, dancers deemed ‘not good enough’, or a myriad of other elitist reasons for exclusion, in the end it won’t be helping your tango community to grow, possibly quite the opposite.

Personally I am neither strongly for, or strongly against the cabeceo tradition. It has it’s advantages, and it’s flaws (in my case, the typical range falls outside my long vision, but not into the range where my reading glasses would help πŸ™‚ ).

However there’s no harm in giving it a go. If you’ve never tried it, stick to the basics as described above, but don’t get too despondent if it doesn’t work every time. I would also suggest to all tango dancers of all abilities, if someone verbally asks you to dance, you still have the choice of accepting or politely refusing. Is it such a big deal that someone didn’t cabeceo you, or wait to be cabeceo’d by you, instead of asking? Surely the dancing and socialising are more important than holding tight to a set of social rules imported from another country (assuming you’re not reading this in Argentina, in which case cabeceo away πŸ™‚ ).

Let’s not get too uptight about these rules, but rather help those who want to learn about them to learn, and find ways of accommodating those who don’tΒ  πŸ™‚

What are your thoughts?

When worlds (and tango dancers) collide

Worlds colliding

There you are, whizzing down the motorway and you come across a car in the outside lane doing 67 miles per hour, no more , no less. Traffic is building up behind, but the driver just does not move over. Then people start overtaking on the inside lanes, making the situation dangerous.

Or you’re passing through a variable speed limit area. Every time an overhead gantry appears the car in front brakes because while they are happy to break the speed limit between gantries, they don’t want to be caught. An example of the law of unexpected consequences, making a situation more dangerous.

Or you’re coming up to a junction, and a car cuts across from outside lane to peel off at the junction, all at high speed and within 100 yd of the junction itself. Ouch!

You get the idea. Eventually something goes out of control and… collision!

If like me, you find this sort of behaviour annoying on the motorway, its even more annoying on the tango piste! There is no need for tailgating, lane changing, dangerous braking, space grabbing behaviour in a milonga.

Everyone who goes to a milonga wants to enjoy their own dances, of course, but at the expense of everyone else around them? Some of my worst dances had nothing to do with my performance, or my partners, the music or the venue, but simply because I seemed to spend an entire tanda defending myself and my partner from getting bumped, kicked, and having to constantly cut movements short to avoid collisions.

But here is an interesting observation – it’s rarely to do with the amount of space available to dancers. I have danced in some of the most crowded milongas in the world, among good dancers who know their floor-craft. Didn’t get bumped or kicked once, and the flow of dancers around the floor was nice and steady, even when it was so crowded I only managed to travel one circuit in a tanda.

So it seems to be more to do with the general lack of floor-craft skills of dancers in particular dance halls. I don’t think these unruly dancers are ‘bad’ people setting out to deliberately inflict damage or be selfish (maybe one or two…). I just think that in some venues and classes not enough attention is paid to teaching people how to behave with respect for dancers around them.

I have also observed that some teachers have a different concept of floor-craft. Ducking, diving, weaving their way through dancers at their own milongas, using their obvious skill, but not bothering to teach their students how to do that safely.

This whole lack of floor-craft teaching may be because teachers, when demonstrating, or show dancing, always have the entire floor to themselves so they don’t need to think about floor-craft too much. Some like to teach movements that need a lot of space, but don’t teach how they can be modified for use in a crowded tango piste.

Presumably these teachers believe floor-craft is a skill you have to learn for yourself (and we wonder why the drop out rate for learning tango is so high when beginners and improvers find some milongas too difficult and frightening to dance at!).

An alternative point of view, which I share, is that we need to not only respect our partners, but also respect the dancers around us, so that everyone in the dance hall gets to enjoy their dances. So within this school of thought there has to be three things taught in class:-

1. How to manage your own dance so you are not impinging on dancers around you. For example the leader (or follower) can choose to cut their own movement before they force a problem on another couple. Resist the illogical urge to finish ‘a move’ even when you know you haven’t got room. Be aware of what’s going on around you by the simple act of looking around on a regular basis, and improve you’re spatial awareness, as in ‘I just left a space and I know (because I looked) there was nobody close enough to claim it, so I can move back in safely’, rather than ‘I left a space 5 seconds ago and I’m going to assume nobody has moved into it so I’ll reclaim it’.

2. How to anticipate what the dancers in front, behind and to the side may be about to do which might affect your next movement. How can you do this if you’re not a mind reader? Well, for example, if you are a leader and know how to lead well, then you can observer the dancers in front of you, and make a pretty good guess that if the leader starts to turn, his partner is going to be shortly arriving in the space just ahead of you. You can then react before the loss of space becomes an issue. Same if you intend to move backwards or sideways. Take a look first to make sure you have room. Don’t dance ‘blindly’, and assume everyone else will get out of your way.

3. How to avoid those dancers who have not had floor-craft training. You’re always going to come across dancers who haven’t (yet) been taught these simple rules. They will get in the way, they will cause chaos, and most likely be oblivious to it.

One of the things I do when dancing in a familiar environment is to simply avoid dancing near the ‘usual suspects’. Chose to dance among those leaders, and with followers, who exhibit good floor-craft awareness. In an unfamiliar venue don’t rush onto the dance floor as soon as you arrive. Wait for a tanda or two and just watch the dancers as they move around the floor. You can then spot the knowledgeable, and the unruly, and take appropriate action when you chose to join the piste.

When you are ready to join the tango piste, don’t just muscle your way into any little space that opens up (and try not to let your over-excited follower do the same πŸ™‚ ). Try to catch a leaders eye. Many will just dance past with no acknowledgement, but if you get nodded into the line, you’ve just found someone who is aware of floor-craft etiquette and can protect your back :-). Beware though – he might be wanting you to deal with the unruly couple in front :-). If you are really lucky you can sometimes find a small group of good leaders dancing together in the line, and get invited into the middle of the group.

So the followers amongst you may be thinking this is a problem just for leaders, nothing to do with you. Oooh no… Followers can help the partnership by also being aware of the space around you. Many followers like to dance with their eyes closed to really feel the connection. This is not advisable in a crowded milonga. The leader has some natural blind spots (where the followers head is, for instance) reducing the field of vision, but which the follower can see. A follower could resist, or cut a move if the leader is trying to put them into a dangerous position.

Also followers; in a crowded milonga, don’t automatically do high kicks and flicks even if the leader is trying to lead them. Keep your feet low to the ground and shorten leg extensions if necessary.

So, to conclude it is incumbent on all tango teachers to teach their students how they can enjoy their dances in the social milonga environment with respect for their partners and the dancers around them. If your tango teacher is not teaching floor-craft, seek out one who will.

If we all danced with a little more respect for each other, the tango world would be a slightly less dangerous place and more enjoyable in popular crowded venues.

Happy (and safe) dancing to you all πŸ™‚