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Argentine Tango starts with Respect: An interview with Cecilia Gonzalez

posted Aug 6, 2019, 11:55 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Aug 11, 2019, 11:25 PM ]

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Interview with Cecilia Gonzalez
By Donna Sue Robson 
Published November 22, 2016 

Argentine Tango Starts With Respect

Cecilia Gonzalez spoke to Donna Robson about Tango connection, its manners and her favourite Tango cities of the world. Most interesting was her well-considered perspective on 'lead and follow': Cecilia believes that it is the actual words that cause strife and struggle in the West. Argentine Tango, she explains with ease, is not built on great 'leads' and 'follows' and unravelling the unreal expectations that those labels imply, but more about the very natural relationship between 'man' and 'woman'. 

Cecilia resounds wisdom gained from her world teaching tours and travels: 'just find what is unique about you and forget about how you think you should behave. Respect yourself, your partner and Tango roles because then you have dance that not only works, but a connection that is truly Tango. Just let it happen.'

What makes you want to 'connect' when you dance the Tango?

I want to connect with people whom I like. Tango is such a profound yet subtle way to get to know a person without talking too much. You can feel their emotion through body language. If I like a person or find them interesting, I am comfortable to open myself to being read. If I like someone, I want to read them too. If I don't like someone, I prefer to say 'No' to a dance because I think it is more respectful.

You do say 'No' to some dance invitations?

Yes, I do say 'No'. Some people may be offended but it would be worse if I danced with them if I didn't want to - worse for them and me.

Do you go by a gut feeling or are there reasons why you would not like someone immediately and refuse a dance?

There are many reasons but it starts with the way I am approached. If they invite me 'with an open window' I can say 'No' and that is respectful. If they ask with authority, in a way that I cannot refuse - then I do refuse because I want to be given an option. Yes, sometimes it is because they don't understand, but it is not so difficult to know if someone wants to dance with you or not.

It goes back to how well you 'read-the-play'?

Yes. I also don't like dancing with someone who doesn't notice who I am. You know, dance like they don't care and treat me like an 'imaginary person'. It makes me feel lonely. Through dance, I can know how the person is and what is going on: I also know when they are not interested in knowing me. If that is the way they feel, why are they dancing with me? There are people who like dancing for reasons other than connection but that doesn't interest me.

Yes, you can pick it. It's interesting to hear you talk about your right to refuse because I have been taught not to refuse unless there is a very good reason.

No, no, no, not me! Every woman has the right to refuse. Otherwise, why would we be asked? There is space - so I take it.

Your relationship with Tango sounds very honest. It sounds, too, that you hate pretending…

We will always pretend, but if I don't feel like playing the game, I will not go to a Milonga. I respect that too. Sometimes I go because it is a part of my work but it doesn't mean that I am going to dance with everyone. I am not difficult, but I think we have to respect ourselves. If you do not, then it can create problems.

What has Tango taught you about yourself?

Well, I think many things. It is more about finding the possibilities inside myself. In the body, in the movement, in the music: but again, it comes down to self-respect and respecting another person.

Has all of your dancing taught you respect or is that lesson specific to Tango?

I think the lesson is a bigger part of Tango than in other dances. Just because you want something, it doesn't mean that is more important than what other people want. We all have our desires, wishes and expectations but we have to understand that it may not happen and that should be OK. It is part of the game - you can win and you can lose. That is what we all have to learn in life too.

That is so central to Tango - there are so many things beyond your control, but you can always be responsible for what you do and how you behave.

Yes, but there are many people who want something and then complain because they don't get what they want. I was discussing this with an American girl: I think culture makes them believe that they all deserve the same and they believe that we get what we deserve. You have to pull yourself together to get what you want, not just pay an entrance fee and sit there. It's difficult and true: we 'deserve' certain things but it doesn't really work like that.

Suppose I want to go out and dance with someone whom I like: if that doesn't happen, I still may have a good time just chatting. You may have another kind of moment with someone else. Tango is just about being a part of it all.

Is it important for any Tango dancer to go to Buenos Aires?

Yes, I think so because it is different from any other place and it forces you to understand things. Buenos Aires is so big and the Tango community is huge: there are so many different people and the city gives you choice. Tango is more natural. In other places, it is more elitist. In Buenos Aires, there are Milongas that are traditional, those that are more chic, younger crowds, older crowds, mixtures- there is more variety. You don't have to deal with situations that you do not like. You just move on.

What other Tango cities do you like and why?

Montreal because it is a big city that has many Milongas. There are differences between groups but they collaborate and support each other's events. I also like Milongas and Tango communities in small towns like Darwin or North California because the people compromise: every person is valued and contribute to make something happen. In the bigger cities, it is left to just a few people to do all the work. If you just act as a visitor, there is no commitment. 

I also like Turkey and Turkish people because they have a very nice quality to their dancing. There is something very special in the way that they relate to the dance.

Is there something that they inherently understand about Tango?

Yes. They are elegant and natural. The men have some real talent. But there is something else - talent alone is not enough.

What do you think 'that something' is? It is such an old culture…

I think it is something about how they relate to women. There are some things that they do not ask themselves, they don't have issues. They don't ask, 'What a 'man' is?' and how they should behave, they just know and do it. In some cultures, people don't know and are not comfortable in their roles.

Both men and women?

Yes, both - they ask too many things about it. The main problem I think is the English word, 'follower'. In Argentina, we don't have the problem because we use 'man' and 'woman'. If you have 'leader' and a 'follower', you have 'one-on-top-of-the-other'. But 'woman' doesn't mean that - so the translation is wrong.

The word and role 'follower' can be interpreted in so many different ways …

Yes, and then everything starts to go wrong. Women do not feel comfortable in that position. Why do we have these words? A 'man' has to do certain things and a 'woman' also has a certain role. It is for getting an agreement so that you can get things done together, not 'me obeying him' or 'me doing what you want'- No! 'Man' gives me an energy and I act. With that energy, I get it flowing so that there is kind of a fluidity in motion. It is not about one person saying what to do and the other giving him what he wants. No! I don't feel comfortable with that!

It seems like it is a problem with the language and a culture that has translated it in that way.

The problem began when we started switching the roles - for example, when I lead as a woman, they didn't want to call me a 'man'. But when I starting leading I didn't have that problem because the man does certain things and I was in the role of a man. I didn't say to myself, 'I am not comfortable being called a man'. I was in that role, so I did what was expected as a man and it was clear. I am playing the role like it is a character. Other cultures did have a problem with it so they start saying 'leader and follower' not 'man and woman'.

Are you talking specifically about Western cultures?

Well, I first experienced it in the United States, but I think it translates to every place. I am Argentinean and I don't care: the man does this and the woman does that. But I went to a Queer Tango Festival and they did have a problem with gender and called it 'lead and follow' which I thought made it worse. We could just make-up a word that translates differently or more closely to what 'man and woman' means, for example, Yin and Yang. 'Leader and follower' is farther away from 'man and woman'.

Yin and Yang would be closer because it has a masculine and a feminine energy within it: when you say 'lead and follow', it takes the energy out of it.

Yes, but the main problem for people is 'gender': for me, it doesn't really matter who is kicking the ball and who is catching the ball - it is the game, not the role that you take. It is very difficult - we need to find a way to understand what is going on to balance the couple and not to think that one is following the other. We get together, have different roles and these roles should be respected. That's what makes it Tango.

About Cecilia
Cecilia González is an exquisite dancer who, since 1995, has worked with some of the most renowned Argentinean dancers of her generation, such as Fabian Salas, Chicho Frumboli, Julio Balmaceda, to name a few. Due to her extensive teaching experience she is known as a 'Teacher of Teachers'!

Cecilia's dancing is characterised by her technical precision, the fluidity and elegance of her movements, and a remarkable capacity to improvise. 

Cecilia effortlessly shares her extensive knowledge and passion with her students. She is regularly invited to international Argentine tango festivals and teaches workshops around the world. Cecilia also frequently gives workshops alone, as she both leads and follows in her teaching.

For more details on Cecilia's upcoming workshops in Sydney (August 16 - 18) and videos of Cecilia performing -  go here.
For the original article go here.

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How Can You Be a Feminist and Like Tango?

posted Mar 8, 2019, 7:55 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Mar 10, 2019, 4:13 AM ]

tango feminism sydney teachers
Sasha Cagen

Given that yesterday was International Women's Day, it feels timely to share this post by Buenos Aires-based writer and life coach Sasha Cagen1. It explores the role and attitudes towards women / followers in tango. 

It also reveals how dance, just like music and other art forms, reflects the culture of its origins and the culture in which it exists. To quote Sasha: 'Tango reflects society, and brings up many of the familiar struggles of womanhood.'

For me tango dancing, at its best, is like a healthy relationship: two people communing with each other, expressing themselves freely with attentiveness and respect, without restricting the freedom of the other. That's the tango I teach and choose to dance!

How Can You Be a Feminist and Like Tango? (17 min read)
By Sasha Cagen, June 2017

You’re not getting the lead,” he tells me. Gruff, mid-fifties, beady eyes, a ponytail dwindling halfway down his back, Ponytail Man chose me as his partner for this advanced tango class at Floreal, a traditional milonga in Buenos Aires. It’s nice to be chosen, but now I’m not sure. Two famous teachers, Los Totis, are teaching an unusual sequence. We’ve danced three songs and aren’t getting it. (A milonga, for those who do not dance, is the sacred place where where people gather to dance tango.)

“You have a vicio (a bad habit) with your elbow that is breaking the lead,” he barks, clearly blaming me. I narrow my eyes and stay silent to keep the peace.

After two songs I escape his clutches and try the move with the teacher. No problem. I try the sequence with another man, a sweet twentysomething in a gray suit with a pink handkerchief who is trying with all the women in the room. With him the move works fluidly.

Ratty Ponytail Man, standing in the corner, beckons me to try again.

“I will try if it’s in the spirit of being partners,” I tell him. “I got it fine with the others.” This time I’m not letting him walk all over me.

Time stops, and the room goes fuzzy.

“You don’t want me to tell you things?” he says, his eyes incredulous. “You need to know you are in tango and tango is machista. Tango is the creation of men, that’s the way it is and you need to accept it, you are in Buenos Aires.” He looks around the room, as if I don’t know where I am. “You can go to milongas with the pibes (boys) where it’s 50-50 but in a traditional milonga it’s machista and that’s the way it is.”

To be “macho” could be a male aspiration, to be manly, strong, protective, and even nurturing. But in Argentina machista has come to mean “chauvinist,” a male desire for control and domination.

“So what does that mean? I don’t get a voice?” I ask in disbelief.

“If you want to become a professional dancer then you can have something to say. You need to work on your turns.”

“Oh, right. My turns. So I need to be a professional to say something. I’m here to enjoy myself.”

He extends his hand to me. Does he really think I’m going to dance with him now? Is blatant sexism attractive to other women?

“You tire me. I’m tired,” I say.

He stalks off. I sink into a chair on the periphery and watch him invite his new partner. . . err, victim. His bluntness shocks me. This is a man’s world so shut up and accept it? Really? I grew up in Rhode Island in the 80s listening to Annie and Free to Be You and Me, believing that the world belonged equally to all of us.

The milonga starts. I join three friends over a bottle of Malbec. My three friends and I met in 2012 at Dinzel Studio, a hippie tango school that teaches the dance as a dialogue between equals. I tell them about Ponytail’s comments as I pour myself a glass of wine.

Elyse, a French physicist who switched careers to become a tango teacher, says, “You should have recorded it. It’s such a caricature.”

Linda, a physical therapist from Idaho, tells me, “He’s a jerk, let it go.”

I can’t seem to let it go. I change out of my tango shoes and into street shoes and on the way out I pass the male Toti smoking a cigarette in the vestibule. I tell him what happened.

He says, “You shouldn’t put up with that.”

“I tried and got a machista speech.”

Mala suerte (bad luck),” he says with sympathetic eyes that say, “Move on.”

Easy for you to say, dude, I think, as I head out to find a cab. Perhaps I’m being dramatic. Perhaps not. Perhaps this is a moment of seeing reality for what it is. Tango reflects society, and brings up many of the familiar struggles of womanhood. The older I get, the more clearly I see that sexism shapes our world. I didn’t notice sexism as much when I was younger and the beneficiary of youth’s privileges. But now I can’t deny that arrogant men will mansplain on the dance floor and there’s far more pressure on women to look decorative, young and thin than there is on men.

Why would I accept sexist rules in the world I love? I flag down a cab and get in. These are my spinning thoughts on the cab ride home, through Buenos Aires’ graffiti- and street-art-marked streets of European buildings and Latin chaos. You’re supposed to be a good girl and smile and pretend that sexism doesn’t exist. I don’t feel like pretending. When I get home I slam the cab door.

Is tango macho?
The next day I call Miles on Skype. Miles is my Argentine ex, and ever since we broke up, he’s remained a close friend and interpreter of Argentine culture and men. Miles is a sensitive Argentine man, intellectual, kind, very unlike the stereotype of the arrogant Porteño (resident of Buenos Aires). Back when we were getting to know each other in 2013, Miles would come over to drink mate–the ultimate Argentine ritual, a way of relaxing and doing nothing together–and listen to tango songs. He shared explicitly macho songs with me, like the classic “Porque Canto Asi,” “Why I Sing as I Do.” The lyrics radiate macho feeling:

And I was made in tangos
Because … Because tango is macho!
Because tango is strong!
It has something of life,
It has something of death.

After playing that song for me, Miles asked me, “How can you be a feminist and like tango?”

I laughed. Why not? “Of course I can,” I said. “Feminism is about freedom. It’s about seeing women as human beings. A feminist can enjoy dancing.”

Everyone who knows me knows I am a feminist. I have never hesitated to use the f-word to describe myself; it’s always seemed like the most common-sense thing in the world. I’m a woman, why wouldn’t I support women?

Everyone who knows me also knows I love tango. I rearranged my life to live in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of tango, back in 2012.

Nothing has ever given me more mind-cleansing pleasure (or revelation) than tango. I like being seen as a woman. and I don’t mean dresses or high heels. I mean being a woman in the deepest sense: embodying femininity, receiving a masculine energy and sending something feminine back. I love being embraced by men with puffed-out chests that invite me to puff my chest out too. I enjoy the gender play: being a woman and dancing with a man, or even, being a woman and dancing with a woman who adopts the masculine, assertive lead role.

As a tango follower, I close my eyes, surrender to the music and the moment and let go in a way that I don’t do in any other part of my life. Tango has also made me taller. In six years, tango molded me into a queen in a way no therapy or physical therapy ever could have. Tango trained me to stand up straight with a more powerful physical presence.

Why should there be any contradiction at all between tango and feminist? Tango is a lead-follow dance. Men lead. Women follow.

Do we see the dance as a dance of equals?

Do men see followers as equals?

Do we women see ourselves as equals?

After last night with Ponytail, I wonder if Miles was right. I tell him the story of Ponytail and now it’s Miles’s turn to laugh.

“Obviously your feminism is stronger than your love for tango.”

“You’re right,” I tell him. “I refuse to stay in an environment that degrades me.”

“Tango is very macho,” he said. “And Buenos Aires tango is more macho.”

“I know,” I said.

What am I supposed to do, stop dancing? If we’re honest, tango in Buenos Aires is not the only male-dominated arena. What about Congress, Uber, Fox-news, or the streets? If most of the world is male-dominated, how do women keep dancing within it?

Tango’s roots
Ponytail man was right about one thing. Tango’s origins are definitely history: the dance was born primarily among men. Tango’s roots come from Africa, the Caribbean, and the pampas (the plains of Argentina), but most agree that the dance crystallized in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina and Uruguay, in port cities among waves of immigration from Europe in the late 19th century.

In the late 19th century Buenos Aires was male-dominant. More men than women sailed from Spain and Italy to Argentina, hoping to make their fortune and return to Europe. Most stayed in Argentina and Uruguay, where there were few women. Men practiced tango together in crowded conventillos (like the teeming tenements on New York’s Lower East Side) with the hope of getting good enough to dance with a woman. Tango was the lonely man’s chance to embrace a woman. Some would say that tango was always an homage to the woman, to the mother, to the desire for a hug.

Fast forward 120 years. Tango went dark under Argentina’s repressive dictatorship and bounced back going global in Europe, the U.S., and Asia in the 90s. The gender situation has reversed. Globally and in Buenos Aires, more women than men dance.

Even though women are now the majority in tango a macho vibe persists. Sexism dies hard out of respect for the traditional codes.

The only way for a woman to escape the sexism seems to be to learn to lead. A leader, male or female, can ask anyone to dance. Women leaders are now enjoying an in-vogue status in Buenos Aires where they had to fight for respect in the past. I enjoy leading. Dancing the lead allows me to fully express my musicality. While following taught me about surrendering to the moment and pleasure, leading helps me develop qualities of decisiveness and assertion.

But my first love is undeniably following.

Finding myself as a follower
But I can’t help but ask, if tango is macho, or machista, does the feminine energy in the follower role get a fifty percent equal role in the dance?

I have been to many tango classes where tango teachers teach passivity in the female role. I’ll never forget the women’s technique class I took from a well-known Argentine woman teacher who told a group of women, “Technique is all you need. You don’t need any style. If you had a style, that would actually hurt because you would be less malleable.” I wondered if she thought a woman’s job was to be malleable off the dance floor as well as on it. She was married to her dance partner. I thought of a woman adopting all the preferences and personality of her husband. You like that wine, I love that wine. You love that neighborhood, I love that neighborhood. She was a beautiful dancer but there was something generic about her dance. It was technically perfect but soulless. Boring. She seemed too malleable.

I love the female role in tango. But I also want a voice. I want to be a full partner, not a sexy rag doll being danced by a man. Following is boring if don’t make it your own. I want to feel like I’m dancing.

After five years of dancing, my discontent with boring following welled up within me. I decided to do something about it by August 2015. I stop taking classes from that woman and return to DNI, a tango school founded by Dana Frigoli, a woman who teaches an active female role based in technical precision. If you want to be a strong woman, you need the inspiration of other strong women.

When truly expressive women dance there is a higher order to the game. You speak with your own voice in your follower response; you make your personality apparent. This is the active follower who speaks.

I book a lesson with Vicky Cutillo, a teacher who often wears cargo pants and Converse sneakers. She doesn’t seem worried about dressing traditionally hot (after all, there’s nothing less sexy than feeling obliged to dress sexy) and when she gives performances with her husband Jose, you can see her daring and teasing him before connecting with him. She’s ridiculously sexy, never boring.

“What do you want to learn today?” Vicky asks as she queues up songs on her iPod.

“Aesthetics. I want to dance more beautifully. Expression.”

Bueníssimo,” she says with a sparkle of excitement. “Great. Learning aesthetics is the most exciting part of the learning process.”

We dance two songs. The lesson takes an unexpected turn. “The first thing to learn is how to brake the man,” Vicky explains. “This is how you show him that it’s your time. You squeeze his hand this way, at the same time grip his back put energy into your own back muscles to say, STOP. This is my moment.” I find this fascinating, and I listen to her carefully.

“It’s also important to be aware of the music at the same time,” she explains, “because you are choosing to decorate a moment. You don’t randomly stop your partner at a moment when it doesn’t make sense.”

Tomar espacio?” I ask. “To take up space?” I expected her to teach me technical things about how to make embellishments with my feet, but she is teaching me the technique of the follower’s assertion within the couple. To make our voices heard, we have to make space for them.

“Yes, to take up space.” Vicky looks delighted that I had used these words, as if she knows there is a feminist trajectory in learning tango. A beginner starts out simply following, but as you advance you learn how to express yourself too within the lead-follow dynamic.

Tango already had unlocked so many things for me: the ability to live in the moment, let go, stop thinking, feel pleasure and stand up straighter. But this lesson felt like the cherry on top of all the other lessons. In a very physical way, tango was teaching me how to shine as a woman in a male-led dance. I could use my body to speak. To use braking body language, “Mi amor, mi vida, this is my time.”

Tango lessons have always translated for me as a reference point for life off the dance floor. The world de facto tells women to take up less space: to cross our legs while men spread theirs on the subway; to diet; to smile when a man interrupts us; to slouch to make ourselves invisible on the street. Tango, by contrast, teaches a woman to be bigger. To stand tall and proud in the encounter with a man.

When I learn something through my body I remember it. Movement anchors the lesson throughout my whole body, not just in my head.

The true meaning of “it takes two to tango”
For my final session that month, I booked a session with JuanPi, one of my favorite teachers. “What do you want from this class?” he asks. “Expression,” I say. “I’m working on being more expressive.”

After the first few dances, JuanPi says, “Show me you. Be more you. I don’t feel you. You need to have confidence that what you are doing is good. You will be playing a game to see who likes that and who doesn’t. What would you say to those men who don’t want it?”

“I’m a person, too,” I say, suppressing a laugh.

The music comes on, a strong beat from Di Sarli’s “Champagne Tango.” JuanPi wraps me in an embrace and I do the same. He walks and pivots slowly, giving me the time to feel the music. I make rhythmic taps with my feet. I pause when I feel the music calls for it to heighten the drama in our connection. I caress my own leg and his with my calf and heel. Between dances we slap five. We feel like a team. JuanPi is clearly still leading, but he’s also listening—and following me. I feel a joy in tango that I had not felt in a long time because I feel like I am actually dancing

After giving JuanPi multiple hugs at the end of our lesson, I bounce down the streets of Almagro, one of the Buenos Aires’ traditional tango neighborhoods to an antique Café Notable, Nostalgia. We took a video of our final songs. I order a cortado (coffee with a bit of milk) and after I order, I press play. I am eager to see if the dance looks as it felt. In the video, I see something I have never seen from myself before: a dialogue, a woman contributing half of the conversation. Suddenly, the cliché “it takes two to tango” makes sense in a new way. The dance is better with two fully formed individuals adding their own flourishes, pauses, interjections. You don’t follow, you dance; one person inspires the other.

It’s been a year since the run-in with Ponytail. I haven’t left the milongas. I am clear about what I’m dealing with. When I go out to dance tango, I look for the men who want equal participation from women and screen out those who do not. I study only with teachers who value the female role.

Miles and I continue to talk about the uphill battle of changing a machista culture. He warns me not to have any illusions. I don’t. The macho nature of Porteño tango culture is strong. I spend time in other communities like yoga and tantra where people share more explicitly feminist values.

Men like Ponytail are still out there, as are women who want to follow passively, as are men who find those women dancers boring. What I’ve discovered as a feminist in tango is that male allies are critical. If I dance as an active follower with someone who wants passivity, we will be in a battle of the sexes. When I dance with a man who welcomes equal participation, we can dance.

Ponytail and much of his generation will never get it. But culture evolves as the dance evolves. It’s also important to work on how I see myself. It’s easy to fall into my own potholes of inferiority. Sometimes, when I’m getting ready to dance, after I spray on my perfume, I give myself a one-sentence pep talk, “I will see myself as an equal.” Then I go out to dance.

This is an abridged version of the original post which can be viewed here. You can read more about the inspiring Sasha Cagen here

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Tango and Couple Therapy - the art of being present

posted Jan 15, 2019, 10:37 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Feb 1, 2019, 11:27 PM ]

relationships dating couples therapy infidelity soulmates tango dance teachers sydney
Photo of Melbourne based tango teachers (and partners in life) Rina and Nadim Sawaya of Tango Esencia

Have recently discovered online the couples therapist and tango dancer Dr. Sue Johnson - a clinical psychologist and Research Professor at Alliant International University in San Diego, California. 

My motivation for sharing Dr Johnson's ideas here (see videos below)  is that she frequently refers to tango and dance as a metaphor for relationships. This is one of the qualities of tango that continually intrigues me, and it's makes tango so much more than a dance. 

It's clear that what applies to tango applies to relationships and vice versa. It's heartening that many couples in our classes have said that learning tango has improved their relationships.

Dr Johnson 's key messages are that: 
  • Being present and engaging with your partner is much more important than 'performance'
  • Presence and engagement are the key to great sex and a fulfilling relationship. 
  • Infidelity is the symptom of a lack of engagement and intimacy between partners.

The experience of connection

Go here for an insightful interview with Dr Johnson covering:
  • What ends relationships (it's not fights and conflict)
  • Knowing when to call it quits
  • What causes infidelity
  • Monogamy vs polyamory
  • The key to great sex

In the above interview Dr Johnson, once again, peppers her discussion with tango examples and metaphors - particularly from 14:25 onwards. Click straight  there if you're short of time, but I highly recommend viewing the whole interview if you're interested in how to improve your romantic relationship.

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You think leaders don't need ochos, giros and cruzadas?

posted Jan 15, 2019, 9:27 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Jan 15, 2019, 9:28 PM ]

Sharing an abridged version of this post by David Phillips (Tangolio). 

I agree entirely with David's encouragement for tango dancers to change partners in group classes and experience role reversal. I know from personal experience that my experience as a follower has enhanced my ability to lead. Some of the best leaders I know are also adept followers. 

role reversal tango best teachers sydney
source: Wikipeida

Change Partners, Change Roles
by David Phillips
Posted January 23, 2015

Change Partners

"In my mind the time to practice with your regular or preferred or ideal partners is in private practice time or a private lesson. Group class is a way to review and expose yourself to new concepts, new figures, and new partners. If at milongas you never change partners then no one is going to force you to change in class, but if you expect to dance with various people, learn to dance with various people. (Teachers: please do it in a routine, defined way, not haphazardly or at your whim.)

Change Roles

Despite its macho origins, it seems to me that Argentine tango, more so than other bailes de sala, is a wonderfully egalitarian art form. Aside from a few niceties of style and adornments, the whole gamut of tango technique is accessible to and useful to both partners.

You think followers don't need "intention"? Consider this advice -- Make a statement, not a question. FOLLOWER: "Ok, I'm here and I'm on my axis (or on you, if that's what we're doing); I'm ready." NOT, "Um, was this what you had in mind; oops, I'm falling into another step, I hope it's what you intended?" [Thank you, Arjay Centeno at the 2015 Austin Swing Championships for a funny presentation of this and other good ideas -- an example of how dances do have things in common when you get down to basics.)

You think leaders don't need ochos and molinetes and cruzadas? Even if it is only in an abbreviated form -- swiveling your feet to align them properly, stepping molinete fashion around your partner to align with them, crossing to give your partner room for a step -- you are doing the same actions.

To open up the full range of possibilities in the dance, both partners need comfortable access to all the tango technique, and more than from just a technique class or class warm up, they want a working knowledge in both roles."

As you can see from these related posts of mine role reversal is something I write a lot about!:
And here's a related post about changing partners:

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"Too much walking and you can't just ask someone to dance"

posted Jan 15, 2019, 6:30 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Jan 30, 2019, 12:53 PM ]

Tango vs Salsa

Recently came across a great Blog - Joy in Motion by Karin Norgard.  The Blog explores the intangible qualities shared by improvised partner dances - particularly tango, salsa and swing - all while honouring their unique differences.

About honouring the uniqueness of other dances...
In the tango world  I often hear people dissing other dances. Have been guilty of that too! When a salsa tanda comes on at a milonga (albeit an infrequent occurrence) it's not unusual to hear some groans from those still sitting.

1) "Show some respect when talking about another dancer’s savasana. Don’t insult the form that resonates with their soul." 
“Salsa is so monotonous. It’s just 1-2-3, 1-2-3, over and over,” said the Argentine tango dancer. Number of classes taken: just one.

“Too much walking,” said the swing and blues dancer about Argentine tango. “And you can’t just ask someone to dance.”

“Dancing in a slot all the time was so repetitive and boring,” said another tango dancer. “I couldn’t get past the third class.”

“Swing’s easy. It’s just rock step, triple,” said… I’m losing track.

I hear these stereotypes about “other” dances quite often. A dancer can feel passionately that the seemingly mundane in their own dance is an illusion masking complexity and depth, while simultaneously feeling that the seemingly mundane in another dance really is just mundane.

Swing dancer and teacher Jason Sager has suggested on his blog thinking of the basic as savasana, the corpse pose in yoga described by Yoga Journal as “a pose of total relaxation – making it one of the most challenging asanas.” Sager writes that “as a growing dancer, the swingout, like savasana, becomes a place to deepen practice and feel out both the holes in your dancing and the beauties in it. And as the swingout becomes ingrained, it is something you can always come back to and a place where there is almost an infinite space in which one grow and evolve for as long as you continue to dance/practice.”

Every dance has its own savasana, a core that can seem repetitive, monotonous, and even easy to the uninitiated, but that holds life, energy, power, subtlety, and endless secrets to its devotees. Different savasanas resonate with different people, but each savasana is holy and worthy of wonder for its role as “an infinite space” in the lives of a worldwide community of dancers.

So show some respect when talking about another dancer’s savasana. Don’t insult the form that resonates with their soul."  (Apr 26, 2014) 

2) "When we commit ourselves to a dance form  we are committing ourselves to a very unique world quite unlike any other. When we learn and practice our craft, we are applying our body and mind to re-create this unique world in ourselves, a kind of child to the dance form and our own nature. And in every song we dance to we have the opportunity to create a shared expression of this world with our partner in a way that has never been felt before, that will never been felt again in quite the same way. Every song is both a world in itself and part of a larger world."  (Jan 13, 2017) 

The original post has been edited slightly with reformatting and insertion of hyperlinks.

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Why leading Is *not* more difficult than following

posted Apr 20, 2018, 11:33 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Apr 21, 2018, 12:06 AM ]

role reversal tango queer argentine dance lessons

A common question that my students have asked over the years is -  which is more difficult - leading or following?  This thought provoking post from Joy in Movement posits that it is not...

I hear this statement all the time: “Leading is more difficult than following.” Sometimes apologetically, sometimes with the qualifier, “but just in the beginning and intermediate stages,” but always with the bottom line that leading intrinsically requires more skill, more thought, and more attention than following.

This might be okay if it were true, but it isn’t true, and this mistaken belief distorts the true nature of leading and following and leads to negative effects in our dance partnerships and in our communities.So why is leading actually not more difficult? If leading is not more difficult, why does it seem to be? And what can we do to restore the balance?

Why Leading Is Not More Difficult Than Following

When it comes to dancing skills, we tend to focus on the big four: vocabulary, musicality, improvisation, and floorcraft. But we often think of these skills in leader’s terms, ignoring the different but equally challenging skills that following requires. While leaders have to learn more skills of initiation, here are three areas where followers have to do more:

1. Followers have to master more vocabulary than leaders do.

Because leaders are responsible for deciding which vocabulary to use and when, they have to think ahead and be decisive. But it is precisely this decision-making responsibility that gives them the freedom to only lead a select set of vocabulary that they feel comfortable with. Followers, on the other hand, have to be prepared to follow a wide variety of vocabulary, a sum of the vocabulary of all of the leaders they dance with, including vocabulary they may be completely unfamiliar with.

2. Followers have more movement, balance, and timing demands.

Due to the structure of most dances, followers tend to move more and execute more pivots, turns, and spins. This, coupled with the fact that they are fulfilling someone else’s vocabulary ideas rather than generating their own, means that their balance and timing are put to much greater tests. Leaders who try or learn following tend to be amazed at how much more physically demanding this role is. The spirit if not the literal meaning of an old saying applies here: Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.

3. Followers must develop more skills of inhibition and interpretation.

Followers must artfully balance two seemingly opposing skills: the ability to actively move themselves through space to the music and the ability to inhibit many of their own movement and musical preferences, tendencies, and desires. We often translate this for followers as “Don’t think”, but leaders who take up following quickly learn that this requires highly active listening and very concrete skills. Followers must seamlessly interpret and execute another person’s ideas in time and space as if they were their own.

Why Leading Seems More Difficult

In the beginning stages of learning, leading does indeed have a steeper learning curve. We see this steeper learning curve and quickly conclude that leading is inherently more difficult. But there are three hidden reasons influencing this learning curve that have nothing to do with the inherent difficulty of leading:

1. Men are less likely to have dance experience and more likely to have insecurities about dancing.

The primary reason the learning curve for leaders is steeper is not because leading is inherently more difficult, but because it is men who primarily lead. And many men have to overcome something that women usually do not: a lifetime of cultural baggage that has discouraged, ridiculed, and/or prohibited expressive movement such as dancing in the name of “masculinity.” Countless messages, both explicit and implicit, can accumulate over a lifetime to create a significant set of physical, mental, and emotional setbacks that make learning how to dance more challenging, regardless of the role being learned. This isn’t true for everyone, of course. But it is something to consider when it comes to evaluating learning curves.

2. We have a cultural attitude that leading is more important, more involved, and more difficult than following.

In our culture being a leader is considered important and valuable, while being a follower is considered weak and undesirable. This cultural attitude inserts itself into the dance world, creating that reality: We give leaders all the focus in classes, which leads to them experiencing a disproportionate share of the worries and concerns, as well as the credit. Meanwhile, we tell followers not to worry or think, or we don’t address them at all, zapping them of the power they can bring to the dance partnership. Both of these things lead to a sense of difficulty in leading and a sense of passivity or even laziness in following. This cultural bias also contributes to the subject of the next point:
3. In classes we challenge leaders in their primary skills but don’t challenge followers in their primary skills.

Because we see leading as more difficult and more important, we teach in a way that caters to leaders. Many if not most classes focus on a single piece of vocabulary, which creates a real-world situation for the leader but not for the follower. Since followers are not being challenged in the three skill areas identified above, they appear to be far more successful in class than they actually are in the real world of social dancing, reinforcing the misconception that following is easier than leading.

The result?

Because of these three things, not only does leading seem more difficult, it becomes more difficult. Our mindset creates the reality that we see every day in our classes and communities:
  • Beginning leaders become tense and overstressed, while beginning followers become passive and understimulated.
  • Social dance partnerships become imbalanced, leading to overactive leaders and underactive followers.
  • Followers may tend to stop attending classes and developing their dance past a certain level. (Sometimes this tendency is counteracted by a surplus of women in the community, leading them to study more rather than less in order to compete for dances.)
  • There are quite a few followers who study leading seriously but very few leaders who study following seriously, leading to a great skill disparity in those who explore the opposite role.
  • Different standards exist for leaders who teach solo or are the primary teacher in a duo compared to followers who do the same. Leaders who teach are far more valued than followers who teach. Leader teachers are far less skilled in follower skills than vice versa, further reinforcing the lack of follower attention.

How to Make It True:
Balancing Instruction Between the Two Roles

Teachers have a tremendous influence on how their students, and therefore their communities, understand and experience leading and following. Here are six ways teachers can encourage a fuller and more balanced appreciation of both roles:

1. Equalize feedback for the two roles.

Pay attention to the amount and the order of feedback provided in class: Give leaders and followers equal amounts of feedback, and don’t always give leaders feedback first, as order implies greater importance or priority. Oftentimes we think that leaders need instruction first or most because they initiate, but Lindy teacher Nathan Bugh has questioned that logic:

When it comes to learning and teaching lead/follow skills, the follower’s technique is a much higher priority than the leader’s. Her dancing ability, her awareness, strength, balance, use of the floor, etc. are the elements from which spring her following ability AND the leader’s leading ability. She is the beginning of the logic in the dance. In class, the followers empower the leaders to learn. Leaders judge their progress according to the results that their partners embody. Followers are the focus of the lead/follow process, and they have to follow before the leaders can lead.

2. Balance active and passive verbs for both roles.

Balance the usual focus or tendency of each role by using more active verbs for followers and more passive verbs for leaders. In other words, emphasize the leading aspect of following and the following aspect of leading. When I balance my language this way, I notice a far greater degree of connection between partners. Some examples? In my classes, I frequently coach leaders to “follow the follower into the step.” In one tango class I took with Momo Smitt and Courtney Moore, Courtney encouraged followers to feel the leader’s lead and then “take him there.”

3. Avoid teaching invariable patterns that don’t challenge followers.

As mentioned in #3 of the previous section, many classes teach a single static piece of vocabulary, which doesn’t challenge followers to inhibit, to interpret, or to respond to different balance and timing demands. Teaching simple and manageable variations of a movement or its timing or spatial parameters is essential for followers to develop skills of inhibition and interpretation rather than anticipating. It is also a more effective way to teach leaders to truly lead. Framing variations as a challenge for followers can take the pressure off leaders and activate followers while developing valuable skills for both.

4. Use exercises where the follower determines the timing or movement.

In one of their beginner tango workshops, Homer and Cristina Ladas did an exercise where they taught followers how to do a cross with their feet on their own and then had them decide when to do it with their partner as a deliberate “mistake.” Leaders had to feel when the cross happened and adjust to accompany the follower into and out of it. When I started using this simple exercise before teaching the full cross as a led-and-followed movement, I noticed the cross was learned more quickly and effectively by both leaders and followers. Leaders listened to their followers, leading the cross more organically rather than mechanically. Followers were much more active in establishing their balance and timing within the framework given by the leader.

Exercises like this emphasize the following aspect of leading and the leading aspect of following (see #2 above) in a very physical way. They also balance the responsibility and skill required by the two roles, reducing stress on the leaders and empowering the followers while more effectively developing the skills of both.

5. Watch for common statements about power and responsibility.

Besides not being true, many common statements we hear in class or on the dance floor contribute to misconceptions about the relative difficulty and importance of the two roles:

“It’s always the leader’s fault” may seem like a gallant statement, but it implies the leader is in control and the follower has no responsibility or power.

“Don’t think, just follow” is both confusing and belittling, encouraging followers to be passive and underplaying the level of skill required to follow well. We could equally say “Don’t think, just lead,” as dancers in both roles need to develop the ability to feel and move rather than get into their heads too much. But with both roles it’s best to emphasize specific ways of developing the ability to feel and move rather than issuing vague instructions that are more confusing than enlightening.

“Leaders are responsible for floorcraft” could be more accurately stated as “Leaders are more consciously responsible for floorcraft”, as the follower’s ability to inhibit, to interpret, and to precisely control the timing, balance, size, and shape of their movement is a major factor in the couple exhibiting good floorcraft. However, while either statement could technically be true, it’s better to focus on specific skills instead of making sweeping statements that have no practical value and only serve to reinforce harmful stereotypes about the roles.

6. Demand more following skills from our leader teachers.

There is a double standard when it comes to teaching both roles: Leaders with little skill in following are completely accepted while followers with an intermediate to advanced level of skill in leading find themselves not being taken as seriously as solo teachers or as primary teachers in a duo. Followers who teach usually feel a great sense of responsibility to study the leading role, and this isn’t a bad thing. But leaders who teach need to step up and take more responsibility for studying and developing their skills in the follower role. Students also need to rethink the subconscious double standards they may hold, which may deny opportunity to teachers of a particular gender or role who may be equally effective.

Related Post

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Learner's Milonga - what's that?

posted Dec 7, 2017, 6:32 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Dec 12, 2017, 5:05 PM ]

learner's milongas sydney tango lessons beginners classes teachers best
pic by Viet Nguyen

One of my passions is bringing new people into tango. For the past eighteen years I have been dedicated to this goal. I absolutely love the way social tango dancing can be life changing and transformative; all whilst being so much fun! 

This post is being written on the eve of SoTango fifth Learner's Milonga this year! My co-teacher Pablito and I are loving how this concept is encouraging more new dancers to attend milongas around Sydney and even tango festivals out of Sydney!

SoTango students enjoying dancing at their first tango festival (Bundanoon)

So here's my thoughts on / background to our Learner's Milongas...


SoTango's Learner's Milongas are designed for people who are experiencing one or more of the following:
  • Not feeling confident about dancing at milongas
  • Sitting too long at milongas 
  • Not getting dances with the people they’d really like to dance with
The Learner's Milonga provides and ideal opportunity for people to dance with a range of dancers (from beginner to experienced dancers) to improve their tango skills and confidence.

Since its inception in 2013 SoTango has regularly arranged student outings to milongas and practicas around Sydney hosted by different tango schools and Tango Synergy (a not- for-profit association).

While some of our students enjoyed the experience, many found the experience quite daunting, opting for (or delegated to) the role of spectator over that of dancer - even at the Tango Synergy Practica which is a probably the most informal and inclusive of all Sydney's tango events.

Based on this observation, I identified the need for a tango social event that bridged the gap between taking tango lessons and dancing at milongas.

It could be argued that practicas fulfil that need and in one sense they do. Practicas or practilongas (a name we have used for quite a while) certainly help dancers practice moves that they will use in milongas. What they don't do so well is to help people fully acclimatise to the culture and codes of a milonga. Only going to a milonga can really do that. 

The catalyst
At the same time of coming to this realisation, and with beautiful synchronicity, I spotted an announcement of  a Milonga for Learners in Ashfield. The milonga was hosted by my friend  Alejandro Ibarcena of Urban Tango who (like Pablito and me) is dedicated to introducing new people into tango. Alejandro has been hosting such milongas around Sydney for some time now.

Consequently, SoTango's next student outing was to this milonga. Our students all raved about the experience and it was the first time I saw every one attending from our group dancing a lot and feeling comfortable dancing tango socially. This was a light bulb moment for me. I could see the Learner's Milonga concept worked!
Alejandro's event was thus the catalyst to the name of Learner's Milonga. Originally we were going to entitle our event as a Beginner's Milonga, but the descriptor of learner takes away the baggage and subjectivity associated with that of beginner

There really is such a divergence of opinion on what it means to be a beginner in tango. At one end of the scale there are those who (demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action) feel qualified to teach after a few months of lessons! Then at the other end of the scale there are those who modestly still call themselves beginners after many years of dedicated training and kilometres on the dance floor…it’s a very subjective title.

Essentially we who love tango are all learners - if we believe that there is always something new to learn in tango, and that there is indeed!

Here, however the Learner's Milonga is particularly dedicated, as mentioned above, to people who are already taking tango lessons but not feeling confident to attend milongas. 

As far as I am aware there are now at least two milongas dedicated to learners in Sydney: 
  • SoTango's in Bondi Junction, which occurs every 2 months on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. 
  • Urban Tango's Milonga for Learners occurring on the 4th Saturday night of each month in the Blue Mountains.
It's only a matter of time before more Learner's Milongas pop up around the world - as the concept gains traction!

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Do you have the courage to live a passionate life?

posted Aug 20, 2017, 6:30 AM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Aug 20, 2017, 6:30 AM ]

Sharing this great post by Marlena Rich. Read here: ' Step Into the Mystery of Argentine Tango'

north sydney bondi tango lessons classes studio

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It takes a while to recover from a tanda like that

posted Jun 26, 2017, 10:53 PM by Sophia de Lautour

The inspiration

north sydney tango lessons
Painting of El Beso - by Michael Fisher

'In the tiny fish-bowl world of El Beso, the smallest gestures can assume enormous importance. Contacts between men and women are largely reduced to, on the one hand, the subtlest of silent mimes, the cross-room eye contact, the looks and half smiles and nods as decorous and yet as fraught with meaning as the gestures of characters in a Henry James novel, hinting at passion and betrayal in the way they pass a teacup, in a seemingly innocent remark about the weather, in the way they notice a tiny crack in a bowl on a mantelpiece. The conspiratorial raised eyebrow that says "I'll be yours for this Laurenz tanda, if you'll be mine."

And then there are the strange, diametrically opposite interactions that happen between us on the dance floor. We intersperse snatches of often very trivial small talk between songs with holding each other in our arms like lovers and moving, intimately physically connected, together to the accompaniment of often passionate and romantic, intensely beautiful and moving music. There is a huge and sometimes awkward gulf between what we say to each other and how we communicate on a physical level. I often wish we didn't talk between songs, but I do it because it is expected, a convention which is so firmly established that breaking it feels like a strong statement.

And, in that tiny microcosm of a world where every gesture is magnified, sometimes magic really seems to happen. Sometimes, you don't say a word between songs because you don't want to break the spell. Sometimes, your bodies seem to fit together perfectly, conjoined twins floating in embryonic fluid, long-term lovers well past the first fervour of passion suddenly rediscovering each other and feeling your bodies infused with a long, deep history, a profound carnal knowledge. Sometimes, you are aware of the whole of the other person from their head nestled next to yours to their weight being released through to the floor at each step and the music feels physical, it's not coming through the speakers, the source is not Lucía up in her eyrie, our deus ex machina of music, nor is it Laurenz's fat phalanges dancing over the buttons, confidently familiar with each one by feel, by the way his own playing has worn them down over the years, like a beloved lipstick reapplied many times that has been moulded into the shape of a pellet that perfectly fits a pouting mouth. Our twin sets of lungs like double reeds. Our bodies twisting and rolling against each other, connected from head to lower belly. With no more need than Laurenz had to think about positions and movements and where to place ourselves, thinking only about the music, flesh made music and music made flesh in the miraculous transubstantiations of our dance.

It can take a while to recover from a tanda like that.'

posted 27 January 2015

It takes three (or four) to tango

posted Jun 26, 2017, 7:42 PM by Sophia de Lautour   [ updated Aug 21, 2017, 4:56 PM ]

north sydney bondi tango lessons classes studio

In the old cliche
'It takes two to tango" the role of the music is ignored. The music is the ultimate leader in tango.  If therefore takes three to dance tango - or four if we consider social tango dancing and the impact of others on the floor. 

To illustrate this relationship I like to use the analogy of the earth (leader) and moon (follower) revolving around the sun (music) and the space between (others dancers)

The earth and moon both orbit around the sun. 
Guided by the music the leader and follower create their movement. The music enlightens and enlivens their movement. Inspired by the energy of the music the dancers respond with their unique physical expression, but always within the parameters of the music's rhythm, melody and mood.

The earth and moon are affected by each's gravitational pull
The leader's and follower's movement is dependent on and influenced by each other:

"If the Earth and Moon did not exert a force on each other they could each move independently of the other, but because they do exert a force on each other, their velocities are changed according to the magnitude and direction of each force and their respective masses. Since each is pulled toward the other, the Earth is pulled toward the Moon and therefore a little away from the path it would otherwise follow around the Sun in the absence of the Moon, and the Moon is pulled toward the Earth and therefore a little away from the independent path it would otherwise follow around the Sun in the absence of the Earth. If one or the other did not exist, the remaining object would orbit the Sun in an orbit nearly identical to the path the pair currently follows around the Sun, but since both exist they each follow a path that is roughly the same as their imaginary independent paths, but not quite the same paths as a result of their interaction with each other." 1

In tango a leader / follower simultaneously receives two 'pulls' - the pull of the music and that of their partner. 'Pull' here refers to a force that can suggest, open up or close off movement possibilities. The partner's pull is based on their position in space, velocity and direction.

A tango dancer needs to be able to stay simultaneously connected to the the music and ones partner.  S/he must find a way to synthesise both influences. From this synthesis comes the dancer's unique self expression.  Failure to do so will lead to loss of connection (orbit) with either the music or partner. The dance will be incomplete.

As suggested earlier, in social tango dancer there is a fourth element - the other dancers on the floor - the 'space between'.  It's a very dynamic space, the presence of which can greatly impact on the dance, depending  on how many 'others' there are!  A dancer's moves will be constrained by other dancers. When there is no room to move forward the leader may suggest the circular, spatially economic move of a giro. The follower, aware of space limits, will keep her footwork as small as compact as possible avoiding any temptation for kicks and flicks! When space opens up on a crowded floor the leader may be irresistibly drawn to take a spatially indulgent 'caminata'2.  

Not wanting to get too Newtownian, this post does not intend to reduce tango to classical mechanics. Tango is so much more than objects moving in space reacting to other objects. Tango is essentially the art of connection and an act of communion. That said, to be able to dance tango soulfully and pleasurably a practical understanding of the mechanics of tango is an essential prerequisite. 

In tango there is a complex alchemical interplay between leader and follower connecting and communing with the music and the other. From this alchemy the dynamism and magic of tango is forged!

1 C Seligman online astronomy course
2 'caminata': tango walk

Related Posts
The similarity between meditating and tango dancing
Intimacy on the dance floor

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