Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Tango and Ballroom

I took up ballroom in 1961 at age of 14. I must have learned hundreds of figures over the years and forgotten nearly all of them as I split up with the partners I had learned them with and taken up with someone else who hadn’t been to that particular class.
I met my wife Mollie ballroom dancing and we took up Argentine tango in 1991 when the show “Tango Argentino” opened in London. We first learned it from British ballroom teachers who were branching out. They taught it as if it was another ballroom dance, with plenty of figures. In fact we used the Argentine figures to expand our ballroom tango repertoire.
In ballroom the highest complement you can pay your partner is “she’s very light on her feet”; in other words, you hardly know she’s there. You certainly can’t see her - you are looking away from each other. In Argentine tango you are very much aware of your partner’s proximity. Possibly following from this I find it easier/less stressful/more pleasant to dance AT with some partners than with others. Some people I cannot dance with at all. On the other hand, I can dance ballroom with anybody and the experience is pretty much the same whether my partner is a near-beginner or a national champion.
I gave up dancing for a while after my wife died, and then went back to AT, mainly because the ballroom scene round here is couples only, and the single person doesn’t really get a look in. It is only then that I really got into the improvisation idea.
I love the way you just make up the steps as you go along according to what the music is saying, rather than going through your routine of carefully rehearsed figures. Some time ago, somebody sent a post to a tango discussion list to the effect that he didn’t like modern tango music because it compelled the dancer to move in a particular manner, rather than providing a bland background against which the dancers could do whatever they like. But to me losing yourself in the music is the whole point. Victor Silvester used the same harmonies and the same arrangement on every record and succeeded in making every tune sound exactly the same; providing a sound as regular and passionless as the ticking of a metronome - a perfect background for complex ballroom figures.
Ballroom dancing involves a lot of vertical movement with its heel lead, follow-up on the ball of the foot, and final rise onto the toes. As I get older, I find I have to sit down for a bit after two foxtrots. Some ballroom figures I can’t do at all any more. A weak left knee makes the oversway and the chair impossible. In contrast AT is not tiring at all.
However, one feels pressured to go to classes. “If you don’t go to classes, you’re not serious” is not said out loud, but one hears it all the same. And what is taught in these classes? Figures. Argentine tango is becoming as precious and mannered as ballroom.
Mollie and I had always intended to go to Buenos Aires but she became ill and we never did. After she died I felt unable to go on my own, so I went to the Tangomarkkinat in Seinäjoki, Finland instead. It was then that I got involved in Finnish dancing. All the dances, not just the tango, are improvised and there are no figures whatsoever. Furthermore, the music is wonderful. The sensuous sound of someone like Arja Koriseva takes you to a different plane of existence altogether.
In ballroom one always dances to the beat. Ballroom jive, which I have heard said is a formalised version of something called the Triple Lindy, is very energetic. The same goes for the samba and the Viennese waltz. This is fine if you are a teenager with plenty of surplus energy to burn off; not so good when you are nearing sixty. With Argentine, and particularly Finnish, dancing you have the option of dancing to the melody, provided of course that your partner is prepared to cooperate. You can take her in close embrace and dance foxtrot steps to the melody of the wildest rock number and keep it up till the early hours without collapsing from exhaustion.
I do find that I am more responsive to my follower now than I was in my early ballroom days, when I tended to force her to my will as if she was a recalcitrant horse. This is a great benefit I have had from Argentine tango.
So to summarise: After 30 years ballroom, I was attracted to Argentine tango as a slinkier and sexier version of ballroom tango, but still regarded it as a formalised dance consisting of carefully choreographed figures. Later I came to appreciate the improvisation aspect, and revelled in the freedom of it, but found a tendency for it to become regimented and formalised. I then thought true free-form dancing was to be found in Finland. Actually I still do all three forms of dancing; I recently found a ballroom locale where singletons can find partners. I even tried introducing them to Arja Koriseva, but they didn’t like her. Oh well, that’s their loss.


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