Following Detlef and Melina’s sold out weekend of workshops in Cambridge in April 2013 which got some of the best feedback we have ever received, I took the opportunity to have a chat with Melina and decided to record it here. You are welcome to comment.
Melina, thanks to you and Detlef for a brilliant weekend or tango workshops here in Cambridge. It is rare to see so much depth around teaching core technique and I think it will serve those who took part very well if they really think about the concepts that you explained. I have heard you say that you don’t consider yourself to be a “dancer”. This might be surprising for the people that took your workshops or who watched the demo on Saturday night. Can you explain what you mean by “dancer” and how you have become so respected for what you teach if you are not a dancer?
First and foremost let me thank you for organizing such a great event. It is always a pleasure to come to a new place and I think we managed to connect nicely to the local dancers. I know that our concepts cannot speak to everyone, but the Cambridge Tangueros worked very intensively during the classes. I hope that they appreciated our ideas.
As for being a dancer….
Well, “A DANCER” is such a huge word. Actually I am a little bit intimidated by it.
I have been dancing all my life: classical dance, modern dance, ballroom dances, Rock’n Roll, Flamenco… but I was never trained as a professional dancer and I never aspired to do so. Well, for a short period as a teen maybe. But then I noticed, that I was neither talented, nor dedicated enough to become a professional. To do so, you have to work very hard and give up everything else. I had and still have got so many other interests… I could never have given them up, to work all day on my pointe (or now boleo) technique. A dancer has to strive for perfection in his/her dance – I never had the time or aspiration to do that. In Tango, I try to apply our principles of communication and movement as good as possible, but when I dance, my biggest attention goes to the connection to the partner, the embrace and to the music. Being elegant, perfect or virtuous come in second for me.
So, A DANCER for me is someone who had a professional training as a dancer and – there comes my next argument – spends most of his time, dancing, practicing, performing…
I dance Tango, I teach Tango, I organise Tango, I write about Tango, I DJ… I really love it. I gave up my profession as a psychologist to teach Tango and I can tell you that this life “out-of-a-suitcase” is not so cheerful as it may seem… Nowadays my whole existence revolves around Tango. But if you compare the time that I actually dance (at Milongas or practice), to the time I do all the other stuff, you’ll find that dancing makes the smallest part of my life: 75% of my profession is organizing/preparing/managing/
Sure, we go dancing for fun as much as we can. We travel to Encuentros and Festivalitos and there I like dancing all night and day. But this is only 3-5 times a year, because we have to work on weekends. So: almost all my energy in Tango goes into teaching it: preparing for it, organizing it, actually doing it…. and only very little time is spent dancing. That is sometimes sad, but for me, Tango is not only the dance. It is my work, the teaching. And preparing for that as well as I can. It is the music, listening to it, preparing for my gigs as DJ. It is also a social encounter, meeting friends, TALKING to them. It is a social phenomenon, something that I like to write about. Tango is so much more than a dance – and I am a generalist.
My last argument: I get PAID for teaching. Apart from at Festivals, we do demos for free, as we comprehend them as “instructional” demos. We just want to show what we stand for, what we teach. We do not want to entertain or impress someone, and we are no artists. A DANCER is an artist. I am not. (I also wrote about that on my blog: http://melinas-two-cent.blogsp
So… I dance Tango. But I am no dancer.
Yes I see, and its refreshing that you are straight forward about what you are. You are a teacher of social tango first and a dancer second. I think perhaps that some performance artists might also be honest enough to say the reverse.
Everyone should be honest in his profession.
Do you think social tango has developed differently over the last couple of decades in Europe, I mean do you think European Milongas look different to milongas in BA?
Ok, I am no expert on Milongas in Buenos Aires, as I have been there only three times and the last time is already 2 years ago. Things change a lot in BA.
But I’d say: Sure, Milongas in BA are very different to the Milongas in Europe or the States.
Let’s have a look at a typical “traditional” Milonga, like Cachirulo. Most people who go there are regulars who meet every week or even several times per week. Those people know exactly with whom they want to dance, they have got their pre-assigned seats, they will take their coffee with their Milonguero friends… All of this is very predictable and un-agitated, if I may say so. Sure, there are the tourists, that bring in the element of surprise, but sooner or later, also they turn into regulars – who are there a little less often. 😉
Or look at Club Sunderland: people come there with their families, they eat and chat and drink. And occasionally they dance. All those social aspects create a very unique ambiance, that cannot be imitated, no matter how much some European organizers try.
Now there are many Milongas or Milonguero Encuentros in Europe who are modeled on the example of Cachirulo. These Milongas play traditional music of a certain style (very highly energetic and rhythmic), they adhere to the codigos of navigation and invitation by Mirada & Cabeceo, they even seat men and women separately… But they will still never be Cachirulo.
1. Age groups.
In BA, many Milongas are either frequented by the elder crowd OR by the youngsters. Sure, there are exceptions like the Sunderland, where all age groups are represented, but even there, the middle-aged people are somewhat rare. (Always excluding the tourists.) In Europe the group of 35-50 year olds constitutes the majority of all dancers and in general, all Milongas are very age-group mixed. The marathons may host a a little younger crowd, but even the traditional Encuentros in Europe are visited by people ranging from 20 to 80.
(By the way: many an “old” Milonguero – also some famous ones – dance for far less than 20 years. Sure, they have grown into a culture of Tango-music, but let’s not forget, that Tango as a dance was almost non-existent in the late 1970’s. And when it was re-animated (in Europe and the USA), it was – obviously – mostly the older generation who was attracted by it in BA. Some of those people are now of quite advanced age, but do not believe every “old Milonguero” who tells you that he’s been dancing since he was a child. There are many urban legends in Tango…)
2. The reason to go to a Milonga.
As I pointed out above, going to a Milonga in BA is very often a social occasion and not always just about Tango. In Europe, most people come to a Milonga in order to dance. Not to chat, not to go out with their families, not to drink a coffee… Going to a milonga (especially a good one) is still something special, not everyday life, so people are often very exited and want to dance A LOT. This changes slowly as the Milongas and Encuentros get more numerous and the craze softens a little, but we’re not there yet.
3. Level and style
Buenos Aires Milongas are pretty much homogenous when it comes to dance-style and level. Go to El Beso and almost everyone dances the same small moves in a rhythmic way. Almost all of them will be decent social dancers who move exactly like Susanna Miller. Go to Villa Malcom and everyone (I think) dances more or less the same Villa Urquiza style. Almost all of them will be very elegant and virtuous dancers who dance exactly like Javier Rodriguez or Sebastian Achaval. These are people who follow their idols and band up with the likes of them.
A typical Milonga in Europe will host all kinds of dancers of different styles, beginners to very advanced Tangueros. Even at an Encuentro Milonguero, the attendees are very divers. Some will be a little more Milonguero-y, some Salon-y, or Nuevo-y (in a close embrace) … others dance in very unique personal ways composed of the best of every input they had in their Tango lives. They cannot follow just one teacher, who lives around the corner in BA, but they will take input from traveling teachers, will go to festivals to learn, will travel to BA… this creates a much more eclectic way of dancing. I find this actually very fascinating.
There are many more differences between Milongas in BA and Europe – you could write a thesis about it…
But, you can already tell by the way I that am arguing: When I say that Milongas in BA are different to the ones in Europe or the States, I don’t say, that they are necessarily better. There are lots of excellent Milongas in Europe and the “traditional” ones are on the uprise. The level of dancing, DJing and floorcraft are getting better by the hour and we don’t have to imitate BA. Tango is not about imitation – it is about expressing the music with the partner in a very personal way. I am very happy about the development in Europe and can say, that we have created a unique Tango culture.
… Especially when it comes to friendships. I find Milongas in Europe very often much friendlier and much less competitive than in BA. Maybe because of the fact, that the European Milongueros cannot meet their friends every week at the same place and that they have to travel far to find a good event, they are so much happier to meet finally. A very well known Argentine Milonguera had visited one of our Encuentros in 2011 and she expressed to be overwhelmed by the warmth and love with which people greet their friends and embrace each other. She had not seen alike in BA. I have to agree.
I think that you and Detlef have had a very positive impact on the general quality of dancing in those places where you have taught regularly. What “quality” gives you the most satisfaction to pass on? How do you communicate the importance of that to students that tend to be in a hurry to learn other “stuff” in a way that makes them want to make that their main priority?
The key-word is indeed quality. 😉
We want people to focus on the quality of the embrace, musicality and organic, simple movements, rather than on the quantity of steps. No-one will learn masses of complex figures in our classes. And if we get the chance, we like to focus on social aspects of the dance as well. Unfortunately, most technical or musical classes allow only for short hints on floorcraft or invitation guidelines, but we try to do special classes on that topic, whenever it seems necessary.
When we come to a certain community for the first time, we will only do our most important workshops, most of the focusing is on the walk and on music. If an organizer tries to squeeze too much complex content into our classes of a weekend, I will firmly resist.
But you, dear John chose the right classes anyway, I did not have to convince you.
Two weeks ago in Cambridge, we simply walked in 4 classes (3 of them being musical classes), did one class on pivots and ochos technique and did two classes (the last ones) where we applied the technical principles in examples, one on walking variations, one on ocho variations.
That may seem boring, but most people were really challenged by the technical difficulties and did really not complain about too little content. There were – as you know – a few people who would have wished for more exiting moves, but – alas – they will get them in other classes by other teachers.
Plus: if we come to a place repeatedly, even we may work on more complex examples of movements or advanced techniques – but only if we can be sure that the basics have been incorporated. So, when I come to a place for a second time and see people walking in a nice embrace in unison with the music… and I know we’ve contributed a little to that … this makes me so happy!
How do we communicate the importance of concentrating on quality?
Mainly by living our own principles and focusing on our strengths rather than trying to do everything that is doable in Tango.
When we do a demo or just dance at a Milonga, we focus on the simple things, we won’t try to impress people. When I dance with someone, I will embrace him nicely and communicate my sense of musicality rather than try to be as elegant and decoratey (forgive my Buffy-ism) as possible.
In class as well as on our internet-sites, we just try to be as clear as possible when it comes to describing our priorities and techniques. People need to understand WHY exactly we use a certain technique or focus on an aspect of the dance. Then they can choose to follow that path or do something different. And I am always glad, when they decide to join us on our way for some time.
There will always be people who find our dance and classes too boring and our methods too analytic. Those people will not invite us or go to other teachers. But that’s totally fine by me. I can only teach what I feel is right and will not adapt to the taste of masses just to make a living. If one day people stop coming to our classes, we’ll just earn our money outside of Tango. But we won’t make lousy compromises. I’d rather go back to my old profession as a psychologist than teach high boleos just to keep my customers.
But luckily, there are enough dancers interested in quality. And they get more numerous by the day.
Thanks Melina. We look forward to your next visit.
Detlef and Melina have agreed to come again to Cambridge on the weekend of 29th November – 1st December 2013.