Homer and Cristina in Cambridge, 2nd-4th May

Tuesday, 5 May 2009 at 11:59

I was very impressed with the Cambridge tango scene, and once again with Homer and Cristina's workshops. I've danced in a crypt before (The Crypt, London, a little pricey for the dancing time, but highly recommended), but this was the first time I'd danced in the church, surrounded by huge stone pillars, crosses and stained glass windows. We arrived around 9pm, Saturday and the thing that struck me most when I walked in were the excellent, 'celestial butterfly' theme decorations. There must have been well over a 100 origami butterflies resting on the walls and tables, soaking in the rays from the multi-sized hanging lights arranged as if in orbit of each other.

People were thin on the ground initially, but I soon got the impression that Cambridge was one of the major tango spots outside London. There were certainly enough dancers from London (and various places around Europe) in attendance. The place was rammed by 11 and I had some great tango experiences.

Around the time it got seriously busy I found my host for the weekend. One of the kindest and most considerate guys I've met in a while. House keys, 'help yourself to anything in the fridge' (dangerous words if you know my appetite), his bike to ride around on, a decent mattress, a map for every place I might want to go, with a route already highlighted, an excellent breakfast and good company to boot.

I'd left planning the weekend late (as in 4 days before), so only got to do one workshop, but I think it was the right one for me. 'His and hers, pitter patter' – making small steps to each of those fast little beats of the syncopations, embellishments and solos in tango and milonga.

It built nicely on the Kiss-me Good-night workshop the previous week in Oxford. Sometimes these little beats, are in double time, sometimes more like quad-time, so the steps have to be small. Homer and Cristina explored several options for this foot play: the leader doing it, while the follower continued normal steps or was still, the follower doing it only, and finally both doing it at the same time (and not necessarily the same pitter-patter – I think it looks and feels pretty cool when it's different but harmonious). The keys seemed to be:

  • Isolation of the open side hand and isolation (or disconnection if not leading a step) of the closed side arm when just the leader is doing it. Imagine your hand fixed in space and the rest of your body moving around it. The 'no step' lead. Or make every point of contact give as smooth an impetus as possible for a normal step, while your feet do funky pitter patter craziness. The follower will always be able to tell something is going on down there, you just need to distinguish that awareness from the perception of a lead.

  • Slight lift (with sense of compression that results) in the embrace to invite the follower to join the leader in pitter pattering. (if you sink it seems to result in heavier (more tiring) steps.)

  • Provision of a 'safe zone' where the follower feels there is the safe space to play along side the leader. In promenade and circular forward steps are two of the easer positions for the follower to pitter patter. It's a fun exercise for the leader and follower to walk side by side ('promenade' embrace) for a track or two and interpret the music together in this way.

  • Use with discretion – some dancers (leaders or followers) will get a little freaked out if you do this. Most dancers will get a little fatigued if you do this at every opportunity. It's often nicer when it's a well executed surprise.

Obviously this is much easier if you know the track, but you can often recognize patterns in new songs and it's such fun if you just nail a solo with complete connection to the music. Homer suggested around 3 years of practice before this becomes seamless and effortless. I reckon the simpler options with just 3 or 4 little steps could be picked up to a level where it becomes fun for both dancers with a few weeks practice by the majority of dancers. Certainly by the end of the class there were a lot of people who were doing it very musically.

This workshop and the next that I watched (step-through colgadas) lead to an onslaught of ideas I wanted to try out. I love to chain steps together, ganchos, secada, baredas, they can all be chained to great effect. The one that struck me just as I was about to go to sleep, early Monday morning, was a chain of alternating secardas in a constant figure of eight colgada with each dancer face to face and the feet coming back to shoulder width apart, side by side (think of you both sitting on a high stool, facing each other with your feet in contact) between each secarda. Ask me if you want to see it. Another was the 'bouncing bareda', think feet immitating the path of a bebble as it skims across a lake.

The points I picked up from the step-through colgadas workshop were:

  • When catching the followers foot in preparation for a colgada (or at any time), do it before there is any weight on the foot you're catching with. Too often I step to just beyond the position I expect the followers foot to land. It's fine if you judge perfectly, but if they over step or you under step you end up being kicked (which even if it doesn't hurt can make the follower feel like they're not moving with grace).

  • The lead for step through colgada can be thought of as a rocking weight change, projecting forward to initiate the colgada, coming back to the far leg to counter balance then returning to the front leg as the follower steps through (maintaining the colgada until the end, not 'ka-plunking' out of it).

  • When teaching colgadas a lot of time can be taken up helping people get a good, stable, comfortable posture in counter-balance.

    I like the idea of simile and role-play in tango learning. Homer uses it well. Writing this I just had the idea of colgada being framed as the sitting movement at a well-to-do tea party. Very 'correct' posture, shoulders set back, back in straight up position, not slouched back or hips thrust forward (so uncouth) head up, knees together (some gap allowed for gentlemen), etc. So the game could be 1. 'accept invitation for tea' (embrace) 2. 'in a genteel fashion, take a seat' (the colgada). You could even 'sip the tea' with one hand to test balance. If you just say 'shoulders back, bend at the knees, don't stick bum out', more than half of the people don't really take it in. If they're are 'in role' they have a stronger mental picture to follow. The scenario is a shorthand for mechanical instructions.

On the Saturday for some reason I was particularly aware from partner to partner just what a world of difference the quality of balance and smooth feedback/ resistance in the embrace makes (perhaps because some dancers were just so incredibly balanced and sensitive) - taken to the extreme, like dancing on a smooth, flat, reflective surface that stretches seductively out before you inviting infinite possibilities, compared to dancing in the deep ridges and furrows on the back of a giant beast as it stirs, trying to topple you, or the other extreme of dancing with a frightened bird who flies away at the slightest twitch. There can be challenges and rewards to tango with all extremes, finding new heights of connection and creativity, taming the beast, calming the bird, etc. In pretty much all my dances in Cambridge I was able to find that connecting, creative space, accept maybe a few on Monday, but that was more down to my fatigue than anything.

On the Monday I noticed once again a particular, less than helpful habit I have sometimes when a good connection isn't happening. I turn away. Yup, hardly going to help, but that's what I do. My chest turns to the V embrace angle and my body shifts to the right of the follower, so it's almost like, fend-off-the-shoulder-barge-tango. I exaggerate slightly. It mainly comes down to intermittent loss of confidence I think as it happens a little more with more experienced followers, when it happens. It can be really subtle too - just a slight shift in angle and a tensing of the closed side shoulder. I remember back to my lesson with Isobella at the Taboe camp, 'turn inward to the follower, Joe, keep the embrace soft always', repeated many times. If I can just make this my default reaction to a troubled connection I'll be onto a good thing. A little more practice.

It was around 4:45am, on the Saturday, when the sun just started to creep through the stained glass windows of the church, while the few remaining die-hard tango junkies where still at it. Such a gorgeous image. Welcome to the church of tango.

Homer and Cristina I suspect won't be back to the UK for at least a couple of years. Part of me would quite like to follow them around the world on their tango sharing adventure, but I have other work to be done (more on that another time).

Since getting back, for those who know of the mission, my hurricane spin is coming on nicely.


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