Thursday, September 23, 2010

Once upon a time in milonga

Once upon a time in Toronto there was an entire group of tango students who couldn't dance milonga. In fact, nobody who took classes with the same instructor could dance milonga. Whenever a milonga played in the milonga, all of the students of this particular instructor would sit down.

"This is sooooooo embarrassing," they would remark to each other as the whole group would make a beeline, en masse, to their seats - while everyone else in Toronto Tango merrily milonga'd away the next ten to twelve minutes.

Now, their young energetic instructor could dance milonga - kind of. He was young and fleet-footed and quick enough to be able hit all the beats with his steps. No-one realized that his milonga was the "Tango, but much faster" kind of milonga dancing (this was in the days before Youtube), so all the students were all fascinated and awed that El Maestro could dance milonga.

Just by watching El Maestro's frantic yet elegant movements, the students were misled into thinking that milonga must be some kind of special divine skill-set unattainable by ordinary mortal tango students. El Maestro was really and truly the yummiest, bestest Tango dancer they had ever seen (as I said, this really was in the days before Youtube). Unfortunately, it was also glaringly obvious: almost everyone in Toronto who hadn't taken classes exclusively with El Maestro could dance milonga - but they, who had, couldn't.

Toronto Tango laughed at the entire group behind their backs and in front of their faces, chortling as they whipped by in the ronda. Frustrated and angry, they asked El Maestro - "Why couldn't we dance milonga? You are one of the best dancers and teachers in Toronto!" But El Maestro was truly mystified why he could do it but his students couldn't. As far as he was concerned, milonga was really just the same as tango - but faster. He didn't understand that many of his students were old and creaky and can't speed up their movements like the fast forward button of the VCR.

El Maestro tried to show them that it was easy. During a Practica one day, instead of playing tangos - he played milongas! He pulled, dragged and shoved his faithful students (some were clinging to their seats with their nails and teeth) onto the dance floor. "Faster! Faster! FASTER!" he yelled. The students tripped over their own feet trying to chase the tempo. They were like a bunch of breathless, raggedy old nags in an obstacle course - spurred on to go faster but colliding catastrophically into the beats instead of leaping gracefully over them.

"Is there a happy ending to this story?" asked Man Yung.

"No." I replied. "In fact, six years later, dancing milonga for some of these students is still like flogging a dead horse."

They tried to dance milonga

Moral(s) of this story:

1. Milonga is not "Tango, but faster". Tango steps on the whole require more time to execute than what is permissible under milonga tempo. You must get yourself a milonga repetoire to enable you to express yourself, milonga-style.

2.  Ditto for Vals.  Vals is NOT "Tango, but medium faster".

3.  We reiterate: You are not supposed to dance Tango to Milonga or to Vals.  That means try not to do movements that make you pause and skip beats!  Doing this will make you look like you are miming underwater exploration in the middle of a fast-moving current.

4. This is not the Tango Hell of the eighties.  If you can't make it to Buenos Aires, there are instructional tapes and DVDS.  We also have Youtube.  If you are not sure how Milonga or Vals is danced, or if you suspect that you have been hoodwinked to think that the weird looking local thing is the "real deal", I suggest that you check out the following dancers for the fidelity of their dancing and their steps to the compas of milonga or vals (not an exhaustive list, but the ones we consider the best examples):

For Milonga:  Pepito Avellaneda, and Martha Anton and Manolo "El Gallego" are legends.  Osvaldo and Coca Cartery also do a very fine milonga. For Milonga Traspie, El Flaco Dany, and El Pibe Sarandi with Elina Roldan. 

For Vals:  Tete, Alberto Dassieu, Julio Balmaceda.  Osvaldo and Coca Cartery also do a very fine vals (Yes, they can do it all!) They are the best.  Don't even think of arguing with me - unless you want to keep doing your wishy-washy, underwater miming tango thing masquerading as vals.

We recommend the above because you can't go wrong in understanding the milonga and vals compas by watching these dancers. As for some of the other examples available on Youtube - including some of those who give "internet classes" on milonga and vals - all we can say is, the internet is a dangerous place.  All that "structured", oh-so-clear (and in English! you say) instruction may be mis-leading you right back to the same glue factory also known as "Tango, but faster"....

5. Your instructor may dance like a genius - or dance so-so, but sound like a genius from all his or her theorizing! If something doesn't smell right - e.g. how come everyone can dance milonga but not me?* - then don't you think it is time to take another approach?  You do not have to get stuck in a rut and embarrassed forever.  Broaden your horizons, take classes with others, even with teachers from Buenos Aires, if you could! 

*Or worse: "How come everyone in Toronto goes to the milonga, but we are still stuck in classes listening to our instructor's theories and too afraid to go to any of the local milongas to dance and it's been over 6 months/1 year/5 years!" We have dancers in Toronto who have been sucked into the black hole of various tango cults - in which students are forbidden or strongly, passive-aggressively discouraged to attend milongas, classes and events not run by their own instructors. I suspect that they have been told something like, "You are not ready" and "Dancing with those unruly people out there who haven't had my expert instruction will completely ruin your technique!" And indeed, they are not ready. When they do come out, all high and mighty from all the hierarchy climbing from within their tight little group and from all the compliments that their instructor has given them to stroke their egos and make them stay with him or her - the fact that they dance and navigate poorly, and cannot follow and lead anyone who hasn't learned the same choreography from the same instructor means that coming out to the milonga will be a traumatic experience. They usually retreat back into the safety of the "nest", where their instructor will continue to coddle them - and they can continue to pretend to "expert learners" of a tango which has no relation to reality. A vicious circle.


Unknown said...

Dear Irene,
I would like to seek your advice on dancing milonga. Since starting tango, now I'm currently at a stage where I can comfortably dance tango with anyone, but dancing milonga is a different story. I've never attended any formal milonga workshop, but have some concepts of the milonga repertoire by watching videos (mostly the milonguero ones) and I've learnt a lot from dancing with people who has very good connection with me and clear lead, those tend to be the milongas which went really well, in which I felt totally at ease and not having to think about any patterns/sequence. However, for many people I've danced with, who I don't feel a good connecting embrace, I felt I've no idea where to step, and as I have little pre-conception of the possible step combination, I can't use educated guess to help my following! My question is, is taking a workshop/private lesson on milonga helpful in improving my milonga experience? Should I be concerned that I am only able to respond well to excellent leading but not those that are less good? My worry is, if by taking lessons, I was given these possible steps, I am no longer able to follow purely (but to unconsciously try to cross-match if you know what I mean). I know lessons with maestros like marta and manolo would be immensely helpful, but where I live, there is very few visiting milongueros so I am not sure what my options are.
How did you find it when you first started dancing milonga? Any potential pitfalls I should watch out for?
Thank you for your patience, I know there's a lot of questions for you but I am very very confused and slightly frustrated:( so any suggestions would be most appreciated

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Fiona,

Thanks for sharing your frustrations in learning how to dance milonga! As you can see by our post, it took us a long time to get to grips with milonga, mostly because we did not have very good instruction with our initial teachers. Luckily Man Yung was proactive and was able to learn from watching Pepito's excellent video, and I as a follower was able to "ride on his coattails" so to speak and learn to follow milonga throughout the process, but it would be much harder for a follower without a partner.

It helped for me to take classes with Martha and Manolo but I had a great deal of confidence going to their classes in their ability to teach me. After one month with them, milonga was "suddenly" much easier for me to follow, it was like what used to be so frantic was suddenly very relaxed and easy. It could be that I was just more confident after taking the classes and that helped me SLOW DOWN to respond to the lead instead of trying to anticipate and get ahead of myself and the lead just because the music was faster and my lack of confidence in milonga made me more tense and anxious.

If you can take classes where you are and you are more or less sure that the teachers are reliable definitely do try them out - if classes can give you confidence maybe it would help in your following - at least you would not be tense like I was at the beginning.

If you can't take classes you can always dance more at milongas and I find that just by dancing more will make following more smooth. You have time on your side, you have only been dancing 8 months!

Other than that, I find that general principles apply for dancing milonga the same as in Tango - don't go faster than the leader, listen to the leader listening to the music etc. It helps to be in a relaxed state of mind.

As for your question regarding finding it easier to follow a good lead rather than a bad or a weak lead, this is the case even if you have been dancing five years, ten years, twenty years! It takes a lot of skill and experience to follow a bad or weak lead well - some great followers can truly turn some real frogs into princes on the dance floor!

Hope this is helpful!


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