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?


tangocherie said...

Don't worry, Irene.
When those "electronic-disco-tango vets" get to Osvaldo's age (if they're still dancing), they won't remember or be able to do all the complicated choreography they learned so many years ago, nor be able to still kick over their heads. And they will at last have time to experience tango at it's best--the music, the embrace, elegance, sensuality, and yes, improvisation in the moment.

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Cherie,

Here in Toronto, the amazing thing is that quite a few of the "electronic-disco-tango vets" ARE OSVALDO'S AGE. And you can bet they are still able to dance "Can-Can" to the "Gotan" - because of the unexpected side effect of the physiological, psychological and mental benefits of dancing the Tango! No need to experience tango at it's best when you can still remember all the choreography and do it with the gusto of kindergarten aged schoolchildren until you are 101!

Boy does Toronto Tango have a long way to go... and raving "longevity" to match...

Thanks for your comment!

Irene and Man Yung

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