Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A blog message for Anne of SheEweKnits

The following is a message for Ms. Anne Featonby of SheEweKnits, master knitter and proprietor of "SheEweKnits", a webstore selling traditional Shetland yarn based in Milton, Ontario. I wanted to let her know that I finally finished knitting the sweater from the yarn that I bought from her - but alas, her old email address does not work anymore. Luckily she has a blog - I'm leaving a comment for her on her blog so that she can check out the message I have for her here. For our other dear readers: Treat this as a little update on what I've been up to - other than tango!

Dear Anne,

I'm not sure if you remember me, because the last time we spoke was at least 5 years ago - it's Irene from Toronto who was knitting the Alice Starmore "Mary Tudor"!

Well, I FINALLY got it finished just two weeks ago - and guess what, I graduated with an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto just days before finishing the sweater. I'm posting photos of the finished sweater here, so that you wouldn't ever need to wonder "Whatever happened to that Mary Tudor yarn kit that I sold in 2004?" Well, it took me five long years - but both the degree and the sweater are completed! It seemed like yesterday that I was buying the yarn kit from you and telling you that I was going back to school to do my M.A.

Studying for my M.A. part-time while working full-time during the day (I'm not sure if you remember, but I'm also a practicing lawyer) was tough. All the spare time I had in the evenings (and on lunch breaks during work!) would be devoted to studying for my courses. But I guess since I eventually finished the sweater I never really stopped knitting.... I was just knitting really, really, really, excruciatingly, slowly.

Meanwhile we have also been dancing the Argentine Tango a lot during these five years, so much so I've learned Spanish and we've traveled down to Buenos Aires three times already. Man Yung is quite a pro now! We also started writing this blog about all the things we've encountered through Tango - and we've met some truly wonderful people through Tango, and had some amazing (and sometimes absurd) experiences.

I've also picked up the needles again (or perhaps I've never dropped them) and started on a very simple vest for Man Yung. If you can believe it, he complains that all the fancy fair-isles and arans I've made him aren't warm enough, so I'm just knitting with a chunky yarn on a tight gauge to see if this would be better. One day I would like to knit a fisherman's gansey - but who knows, if the courses I'm planning on taking starting September at the U of T School of Continuing Studies are too demanding, it may take me another five years to produce the next sweater!

By the way I looked for your old website and couldn't find it. I found your blog instead and I'm sorry to hear that you are considering shutting SheEweKnits down. Without SheEweKnits it wouldn't have been possible for me to knit some of the most stunning fairisle sweaters ever. No matter what your decision, I just want to say again thank you for all your kind advice and support and the wonderful Shetland yarn and patterns you brought to Canada through your store.

We will continue to follow your blog for your latest news! Please give all our best to your family (and to the ever lovely Daisy), and have a lovely summer,

Irene (and Man Yung)

Oscar Hector and Teresita Brandon

Just saw this wonderful video of Oscar Hector performing with Teresita Brandon, his partner from the show "Milonguisimo" on Youtube. Oscar Hector is the the producer and a performer of "Milonguisimo" and other tango shows showcasing dancing by milongueros and also the organizer of the long-running milonga on Saturday nights at Glorias Argentinas and the great huge milonga at Salon Sur on Thursday nights. It seems to use that Oscar Hector is involved in a million tango events all at once - we don't know how he gets the energy! And he has been at it for DECADES. If you watch some of the tango videos of the older generation of tango greats available on Youtube like Lampazo and Carmencita Calderon, you will find that they are performing at Glorias Argentinas - and that Oscar Hector is the emcee!

Oscar Hector is a great host and we always get a warm welcome when we go to his milonga at Glorias Argentinas. In fact, our earliest encounter with him was the first day we arrived in Buenos Aires. It was Irene's first telephone conversation in Spanish with someone other than Martha and Manolo - and believe me, Irene's Spanish was not so great, but Oscar Hector very patiently spent five minutes giving us detailed directions on how to get to Glorias Argentinas way out there in Mataderos. Not that Irene was able to understand or retain any of the directions - all she could muster was "Si.... si.... claro.... si" - because if we actually let on that we had no clue what was being said, Oscar Hector would spend the next HALF HOUR explaining how to get to his milonga, that was how nice he was.

Glorias Argentinas is our home away from home. It was there that we met Oscar Hector, and of course our teacher Alberto Dassieu; it's where we crashed Elba Biscay's birthday party, and where Irene danced with Ruben Harymbat without having a clue who he was; it's where Man Yung won the lucky draw for 100 pesos towards a pair of shows at Artesanaal; it's where we saw Martha dance swing with Oscar Hector (and very good they were too - Oscar Hector is famous for his swing dancing, which he also teaches). Everytime we're in Buenos Aires and it's Saturday night, we head on right over to Glorias Argentinas - we have an appointment to keep with Oscar Hector and all the wonderful people at his milonga.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

(Not Quite) Naked Tango

Man Yung is always giving me lectures on how to achieve a zen like state of mind when I'm following.*

One of the pithy chinese sayings he likes to repeat ad nauseum at me is that I should dance with a state of mind in which "not a single silken thread is hanging".

Hmmmmm..... thanks Man Yung, I'll keep it in mind. However, instead of "thinking about nothing" (and paradoxically, "NOT thinking about nothing" at the same time - I told you it wasn't going to be easy), how come I am thinking "Survivor"?

Richard Hatch:
Naked and Proud of it!

I don't think that I'm quite ready for such extreme mental states of, ahem, naked-osity. In fact, I thought the trick to being nice and calm was to imagine that ALL THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU ARE NAKED, and not that you yourself are shimmying around in a milonga without so much as strategically placed band-aid.

As it is, I can hardly bring myself to accept the spectacle of people wearing pajamas in public places:

"Top o' the mornin' to you, dear!"

I'm not making this up! It is totally true! And not only in Shanghai, China (where really nice quality jammies are a status symbol - and where else better to one-up your comrades but right there in the street in full public view?), but in Toronto, Canada, as well!

In these cases, slippers are optional

If these people were wearing leather and latex sleepwear or frilly see-through negligees it may not be so disturbing - maybe they are celebrating early Hallowe'en, or perhaps they are just wacky loveable attention-seekers.

But no! They are entire families taking a walk in the park, or people eating at a restaurant, or even people going to see their accountant! Just last night we couldn't help tailing this blissful, pajama-clad couple around the meat and poultry section of T & T Supermarket at Warden and Steeles - she in a blazing "bride dowry" red silk affair with tassels, and he in a cotton cream and blue patterned set that was worn so thin that well, you really didn't have to imagine what was "flapping in the wind".

It was not that they looked kind of strange (even though they did - but hey, who are we to judge - isn't Irene and Man Yung the Tango equivalent of Toxic Waste?) that was remarkable - it was that they were TOTALLY OBLIVIOUS (or truly didn't care) that there was any standard of publicly acceptable fashion any different from their own.

Aha, I get it now. What Man Yung is trying to hint to me is that whenever we dance, we should be as oblivious as the pajama clad duo - because the most important thing is that we are holding hands and feeling real comfy (while shopping for chicken feet and fish heads)!

*Easier said than done! If it was a breeze just to "zen" out, then we'd ALL be a lot closer to Nirvana rather than Hell (now in assorted flavours!)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Martha and Manolo perform live with La Orquesta Colonizados

Martha and Manolo performing to the milonga 'La Trampera' with Colonizados

Martha and Manolo sent us the link to this video and also also sent us these photos of their performance with Colonizados, an argentine-cuban sextet who plays a repetoire that fuses Argentine Tango with Cuban Son.

Colonizados was also recently featured in the August 2008 La Milonga Argentina magazine as part of their special edition DVD.

Over 2,500 people attended the concert - you can get a taste from looking at the sea of heads, hands and camera viewfinder screens!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Zero Percent Recall - The Postscript

It's the weekend again at the best milonga in town. As they say, "the joint is rockin'" and the "music is hoppin'". My favourite Di Sarli starts playing - Man Yung and I get up to do a little test drive on the 'ronda.

But something's up with Man Yung. Missed cadences. Weird moments of pushing n' pulling. Strange flappy up and down leading arms. It's a miracle that I can keep my balance and dance so well!

"What's wrong with you?" Man Yung asks. "You're so heavy and your wrists are all loose. I can't lead you at all!"

HEY, WAIT A MOMENT. I'm pretty sure my dancing is grade A++ excellent tonight. A short recap:

- I'm not dancing in outrageously (or even moderately) high Comme Il Fauts: CHECK
- I'm not thinking about doing adornments: CHECK
- I'm not thinking about NOT doing adornments: CHECK
- I'm not even thinking about Wal-Mart (Yippee! We've already got enough toilet paper to last for the next six months!): CHECK
- Stiletto heels are on the floor and not hovering in pre-gouging/stomping mid-air positions: CHECK
- Smooth long back steps: CHECK
- Nice round giros: CHECK
- Strong responsive frame: CHECK

I look at Man Yung suspiciously. "Hey man, from my quick assessment, I'm dancing pretty damn good. What are you complaining about?"

"Nice checklist you have there," said Man Yung. "You are obviously quite busy with your doctorate thesis on 'how well you are dancing' ........ rather than ACTUALLY DANCING."

I should have known better. In IreneandManYung World, the sun is always shining, the whisky flows freely, Man Yung always knows best..... and for Irene the Tango follower, it is always LOSE-LOSE!*

* As Man Yung always says: "You have to learn how to LOSE before you can WIN."**
** By that logic, I'm definitely a WINNER!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Zero Percent Recall

The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber by Louis Cha.
By the way, Man Yung is actually ancient enough to have bought the
first editions of all of Louis Cha's novels when they just came out!

Here's Man Yung's recollection of a part of the plot he remembers from Louis Cha's famous Wuxia (Martial arts and Chivalry) novel The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber:

The hero protagonist Zhang Wuji and his sifu (kung fu teacher) Zhang Sanfeng, the mythical creator of Tai Chi Chuan, were surrounded by their mortal enemies. Zhang Sanfeng, moreover, was gravely wounded. Neither Zhang Wuji or any other of the disciples of Zhang Sanfeng had sufficient power or skill to withstand the enemy onslaught. What were they to do?

Even though Zhang Wuji was young and inexperienced not yet ready, Zhang Sanfeng had no choice but to teach him the highest level of martial arts - the newly invented Tai Chi Chuan - so that they could at least have a chance of holding back the enemy. Thus, Zhang Sanfeng immediately imparted his knowledge and Zhang Wuji started to train intensively.

After a few hours, Zhang Sanfeng asked Zhang Wuji, "How is your training coming along?"

Zhang Wuji replied, "Well, master - I recall about eighty percent of what you taught me."

Zhang Sanfeng nodded his head sagely. "Good, good, you are making progress, keep on going."

A little later, Zhang Sanfeng asked Zhang Wuji, "How is your training coming along now?"

Zhang Wuji replied, "I find that even though I am training so hard, I can only recall about forty percent!"

Zhang Sanfeng nodded his head again. "Good, good, all is well, you are doing better than I have anticipated - keep on going."

Still a little later, Zhang Sanfeng asked Zhang Wuji, "How is your training coming along now?"

Zhang Wuji remarked in utter surprise, "Sifu, I find that I can't recall anything that you taught me at all!"

Zhang Sanfeng nodded his head and smiled. "You are ready to face the enemy - now go!"

The training process enabled Zhang Wuji to attain the martial arts skills he needed to defeat (or in colloquial terms, "beat the crap out of") the enemy and save the day.

Before you dismiss this snippet as typical Irene and Man Yung chinese kung fu looney-bin fantasy, there's something to be relished about Zero Percent Recall in Tango*.

When we started to learn Tango, it was a big deal for us to be able to remember and regurgitate at least ten steps, and then twenty, and then thirty, and then forty. "If we can only recall one hundred steps [or one thousand, for the truly ambitious], we've got it made in Tango!" we would naively think.

But now, 43800 hours and 200,000 km later on in our tango journey, the point is rather NOT TO RECALL STEPS.

We want to make it clear that this is not to be confused with "Deliberately not knowing/dancing any steps", because this breeds the type of leader who can't navigate and change his course to deal with any situation on the dancefloor. And not knowing any "steps" at all is akin to having a vocabulary restricted to only words like "a"/"and"/"but"/"the" - doesn't make for riveting conversation and will certainly not be sufficient to let you talk yourself out of a bind at customs or in a hostage situation!

Going back to the concept of "Not Recalling" - it will not do to wedge in steps to "fit" the music with an intellectual shoehorn, or to finish a step pattern when the music just "doesn't go" with it. The dance should flow from the music organically. "Thinking", "Performing", "Remembering", "Recalling", "Trying", "Doing" or any other conscious effort is but another barrier between the music and the dance.

For the leader, this means that no step is slave to "pattern" and every move is followed by infinite possibilities. Nothing is categorized into "Fantasy" or "Milonguero" or "Salon" or "Nuevo". No need to remember what comes next, because the dance IS the music. It is everything and nothing all at the same time.

It is by no means easy to attain this state - it takes a lot of time, a lot of practice, the right teachers and above all a mind that is open and receptive to this way of approaching the dance. And yes, it means knowing how to do a lot of steps and acquiring a substantial vocabulary in the dance - and then forgetting it all and letting it come out as a natural response to the music. It's difficult to express this concept, but we've seen it in the flesh in the example of Osvaldo Cartery. It looks like he is doing the simplest of things to the music, but the simplicity is deceptive. Just like the kung fu masters in the Wuxia novel - in Tango, Osvaldo can "wound with a falling blossom, kill with a broken twig". There are no cul-de-sacs or one-way-streets in his dancing - just vast open vistas, and just music.

Osvaldo y Coca dancing Poema at Circulo Apolo.

*For one, wouldn't it be nice if all those venerable "Tango Veterans" who started learning Tango in the mid-nineties could forget all that choreography they have ingrained in their Tango Soul and start to dance real Argentine Tango, rather choreography plus some even more choreography of the sternum stabbing, shin gouging nuevo kind just to keep "hip and up-to-date"?

And wouldn't it be doubly nice if we couldn't recall anymore the recent sight of a whole room of such "Vets" girating away contra the line of dance to disco-fied electronic Tango like it was 1999?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Katzentango: A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a time we had no cats.

“We will not get a cat,” said Man Yung. “Hear me - NO CATS!”

Then, on a cold morning on a Thanksgiving weekend, we found a tiny white and grey kitty abandoned underneath the car.

“That cat is NOT coming home with us!” said Man Yung.

Kitty mewed plaintively and blinked its big eyes.

Kitty came home with us.

“That cat is not NOT ALLOWED outside of the kitchen,” said Man Yung.

We built all these barriers made out of cardboard boxes so that kitty couldn’t crawl out of the kitchen.

We came home one evening and saw that the tiny four-inch high kitty had jumped into one of the boxes. It was only time before she would jump out of the boxes and right into the living room.

“OK, FINE,” said Man Yung. “But that cat is not going into the bedroom. NO WAY.”

That incessant scratching on the bedroom door frame at night was wrecking the paint job and keeping us awake.

Kitty got instant bedroom access.


But kitty's breakfast cannot wait. And there's no better way to get our attention but to pounce onto the pillow and swat our slumbering heads.

And that was not the end of the story. Before long, kitty was shredding our sofa, stealing our pickles, yodeling while we showered, chewing our beanie babies, scarfing down the tuna, influencing our fashion choices, alienating extended family members with allergies, popping up in our dreams speaking in Esperanto - and yes, inviting kitty friends to stay! Because as every kitty within a five kilometre radius knows, Irene and Man Yung are suckers.

We love our kitties.

Now, read the story above, but substitute "kitty" and "cat" with "Tango". You will get Irene and Man Yung's secret tango history in a nutshell. Kind of.

Except for the first part. I remember Man Yung distinctly saying:


Luckily for Man Yung, dressing like Bruno is not requisite tangowear.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Adela Galeazzi, Elba Biscay and Santiago at Salon Canning

Two reknowned milongueras and one young gentleman who not only dances well and to the music, he is neither trying to be the next Javier nor the next Chicho. What more can I say? Enjoy!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Burn after watching

BREAKING NEWS: While surreptitiously trying to destroy videotape evidence of their tango dancing with the help of a few matches and a little gasoline, Irene and Man Yung accidentally set an entire city block on fire. More details on this story to follow on News at 11.

For most (normal) people, the experience of watching oneself stumble awkwardly on video in a laughable imitation of what is commonly recognized to be "Tango Argentino" - could be summed up in one word:


We are not even talking about body dimorphic disorders - thinking one looks too fat, or too skinny, or too short, or too tall, or too hairy, or not hairy enough - that's a whole other can of (trauma) worms.

It's only natural. In order to muster enough courage to actually dance tango in public (and not be completely paralyzed with embarrassment at one's own furtive and grotesque girations) a dancer must entertain some illusions about his or her own dance abilities.

It's the confrontation with reality that occurs in self video viewing that gives rise to THE HORROR. That is, the HORROR of discovering that one does not really dance like Eugenia or Geraldine or Andrea or Roberto or Javier or Julio or Chicho or any of the the deities in the pantheon of Tango Gods - but rather, more like oneself, be it "Fred Bloggs" or "Joe the Plumber".

The cringe-worthiness of all this makes most people want to reach for the flame thrower.

So why do we try to amass as much footage as possible of our dancing and film ourselves at every available opportunity?

- Is it because we look forward to watching videos of our tango dancing with glee - and emerge from the experience fully vindicated in our belief in our tango arch-superiority?

- Or do we take pleasure in its dreadfulness, and revel in the modern tango equivalent of masochistic medieval self-flagellation?

- Or perhaps we are planning to unleash our enormous secret cache of toxic video like a tango "dirty bomb" on an unsuspecting population to further our nefarious plans to rule the (tango) universe?

The answer is none of the above.

So what is the purpose of taking and watching so many of our own home-made tango videos? Videos made during the first year of tango, when I was sporting black ballroom shoes with every outfit I was wearing and Man Yung was wearing tweedledum pants with suspenders. Videos made during our second year of tango in which we would race around on the dance floor with all limbs straight like we were doing a tango goosestep, trying to imitate the performers on Solo Tango video clips. Videos made during the month when Martha and Manolo visited Toronto in 2006, when we took all 52 hours of classes that they scheduled, and our feet hurt so much I was dancing in ugly flat shoes and Man Yung was dancing in kung-fu slippers. Videos of us doing amazing steps that we can't remember how to do anymore. Videos of us dancing badly. Videos of us dancing well. Videos of us dancing tango in our underwear. Videos of us dancing tango in down jackets and scarves. Videos of us laughing. Videos of us arguing so intensely our faces were turning all shades of white, black and red.

We didn't take months of private classes, prepare a storyboard, dress to the nines and hire a camera crew and a skillful editor - just so the bestest and the brightest bits of us would be captured for prosperity . The videos may be mundane, or boring, or stupid, or awkward, or embarrassing (and have enormous blackmail potential) - but there's one thing that they all have in common. They all contain the TRUTH.

We have learned that it's fine to be continually shocked at what we once thought was "ok" or "quite good" - indeed, we would be much more concerned if the film of yesterday did not make us squirm with embarassment today. The changes in our perception and judgment is a gauge of how far we have travelled. The videos show us in our tango evolution.

Our constant self-confrontation, self-scrutiny, and ultimately, self-acceptance is turning out to be more effective kind of "burning" than any jolly videotape bonfire. We already find that the more we film, the more the camera is starting to disappear. And one day, perhaps we ourselves, our egos will be consumed - and nothing will be left on film but "Tango" itself.

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