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Adornments. One of my all time favourite things.

Of course, there are many, many things I love about tango - it would be too difficult to choose a favourite. The spine-tingling music, the enveloping embrace, the feeling of being swept away by my partner and into another world. Adornments are just part of that story. Yet, for me adornments add another dimension to tango and somehow complete the picture.

Often referred to as decorations, embellishments or “adornos” (from the Spanish), what are adornments? How, when and where do I use them? And finally SHOULD I use them?

What Are They?


Look up the word “adornment” in the dictionary and you’ll find a somewhat simplistic definition:

adornment[uh-dawrn-muh nt]
noun
something that adds attractiveness

Not much help if you’re trying to explain to someone what a tango adornment is! So I’ll take the plunge and make my own attempt at a tango definition:

tango adornment[uh-dawrn-muh nt]
noun
a movement executed by either the leader or follower in tango, independent of the lead, to add attractiveness, interpret the music, play or connect with one’s partner and to generally express oneself.

The most important defining feature of an adornment is that it is not part of the lead in tango. Accordingly, either the leader or follower can choose to do an adornment at any time he/she feels like it, provided it doesn’t interrupt the lead or connection in a negative way.

Why Do Them?


Tango is unique for the feeling of connection with our partner that it gives us. Much emphasis is placed on this when we learn. And rightly so because it is a very special thing and without it, the heart of tango is lost.

But tango is not exclusively about connection. It is a dance. Every human being is born with an innate urge to express themselves when they hear music that moves them to dance. Also important is how we choose to move and express ourselves in tango and that we exist as individuals, not just as somebody’s partner.

In particular, adornments for followers - who do not have control over any of the movements in the dance - create a unique opportunity to add personality and creativity to the dance. Indeed, it is only through adornments that the follower can contribute to the musicality of the dance.

However adornments don’t necessarily break or detract from connection. Adornments allow the follower to express to their partners how they are feeling and how they hear the music, so creating more of a two-way “conversation”. Ultimately in my experience, adornments can enhance the couple’s connection.

How Do We Learn Them?


When I first started to learn tango, I was told by several teachers that adornments could not be taught. I was told that they had to be felt, that they just somehow happened once you’d been dancing tango for many years. And that was the end of the conversation.

I felt a little bit dubious about this. Everyone learns in different ways, but I felt that if I wasn’t shown how to do them, I would be waiting more than a lifetime before they just spontaneously came to me! Besides, adornments are simply movements. What was it that couldn’t be taught about them?

What perhaps is difficult to teach about adornments is how to use them creatively and expressively. But this is not something that is unique to adornments. It is the challenge we face in any art, whether movement-based or otherwise. Techniques may be taught but then it is up to the individual to create.

Take the leader in tango, for example. He will be taught the “tools” - steps, techniques, principles - but then it is up to him to make the dance his own, by listening to the music and working creatively.

It may not be possible to teach creativity in the most conventional sense, but it can certainly be encouraged and harnessed by a good teacher. In our classes, we try first to explain the technique of a movement and then we try to inspire our students to use it creatively. I’m always excited when I see my students using adornments I’ve taught them musically or in ways I’ve never myself used them. That’s when I know I’ve done my job!

The Challenge


One of the greatest challenges of adornments is spotting the right moment to do them, without interrupting the dance or kicking yourself/your partner in the shins (unfortunately, we’ve all been there!).

This is more difficult for the follower than for the leader as she doesn’t know in any one moment what the leader will do next. The follower needs to be able to judge two things:

1) where to add an adornment and,

2) whether there is time for the adornment.

I often jokingly tell my students that the time they have to do an adornment is roughly the time it takes to think: “Shall I do it?”. But actually there is quite a lot of truth in that - the time we have is fleeting and we need to be decisive!

Three Stages to Learning Adornments


1) Master the Movement

It is a significantly more difficult to do an adornment during a tango if you haven’t yet mastered the movement itself. And you may be biting off more than you can chew.

Take time on your own - either in a class or at home (or in the supermarket, who’s judging!) to practice the movement. Repeat it so that your body knows it and it is no longer too taxing for you to execute it. Producing the movement in the right place and at the right time will then become much less of a challenge.

2) Put It into Practice

A lot of followers say that they find it difficult to know WHERE to do adornments. The best way to get started is - like most things in life - step by step.

Let’s say, for example, you are practicing a figure in a class and that figure starts with the leader’s side step to the left. Tell yourself that for just one class you will practice a certain adornment every time you feel the leader take that side step. Yes, it will be overkill but overkill is fine when you’re in a class (you will tone it down in the milonga) and it’s all about practice, practice, practice!

You may even get to the point that the adornment after the side step becomes so automatic for you, that you have to make an effort NOT to do it!

3) Feel It!

The first two stages may appear little mechanical but it is only once we’ve incorporated a movement into our body and our dance that we can start using it to express what we feel and what we hear in the music. The movement will start to smooth itself out and feel more natural. We’ll feel less time pressured when we slot it in. This is - in brief - what we are aiming for and what will give our adornments meaning.

SHOULD I do them?


Sometimes students feel that they are not advanced enough to do adornments and should wait until they have more experience.

It is true that both leaders and followers have other very important skills to focus on that should be given priority over learning adornments. If focusing adornments is distracting you from either leading or following, then you should perhaps put them aside for now.

However, there is nothing to stop you practicing adornments on your own in preparation for the time you are more ready for them. This will give you a head start. And actually when the movement itself is very natural to you, you may find that slotting in becomes a much easier task, presenting much less risk of distracting you from your partner’s movements.

Fear Barrier


Sometimes students report being held back by the fear that we’ll get it wrong and what that entails - perhaps a sore toe or the embarrassment of stumbling a little bit.

I tell my students that they need to try to overcome the “embarassment barrier”. Again, set yourself a goal. Tell yourself you’re going to practice a certain adornment one evening. Tell yourself that you don’t care if you get it wrong. I find that it works wonders and will set you free to express yourself.

Not All That Glitters Is Gold


And finally, just as an aside, try not to feel pressure to do adornments all the time. They are lovely yes, but it is possible to go overboard. Remember stillness can have a simple elegance and exude a quiet confidence. And just as you wouldn’t wear all your jewellery at once, nor do you have to throw in every adornment under the sun in one dance.

Sometimes dancers get so drawn by adornments that they run the risk of becoming the main show for them. Decorations should be simply the icing on the cake, adding to the moment but not ever taking over the moment itself. Too much focus on adornments can lead your partner to wonder whether you are actually dancing with or for them.

To get the balance right always stay true to yourself and the music - dance from the heart and - where you’ve put the practice in - the adornments will just flow.

This Saturday (and Next), It’s All About Adornments!


David and I have dreamed up a course starting this Saturday (and next) to help you put some of this advice into action.

We’ll have drills and exercises to help get your feet adornment-ready! And we’ll be at hand as always with clear instructions to dispel any confusions you have and help give your dance a unique elegance!

Suitable for men and women (and at times the class will be split in two).

When: Saturday 16th & 23 May 2015

Time: 1 - 3 pm + free mini-practica

Where: Marshall Street Leisure Centre, 15 Marshall Street, SOHO, W1F 7EL (5 mins from Oxford Circus)

Price: £25 - 1 week; £47 - 2 weeks

Level: Improvers Upwards (we usually have a mix of Improver, Intermediate and Advanced dancers in our Saturday workshops)

For more info: click here

Places will be offered on a first come first served basis. No partner necessary. No obligation to attend both weeks! Please contact us to pre-book.

We'd love you to join us!

A beginner student of ours recently revealed that he had gone to a milonga.

For the uninitiated, the “milonga” is the club where we dance tango socially. In fact, it is what it’s all about: what we go to classes to be ready for. And there are many milongas, not just in Buenos Aires, but in London and around the world.

And in class, to a certain extent, we recreate the conditions of the milonga. We dance in an anti-clockwise direction (the line of dance), try to avoid collisions with other couples and learn to improvise so that our steps can adapt to the ever-changing shape of the dance floor. We even change partners at regular intervals - by eye contact - just like in the milonga.

A question I’m often asked is how long one should wait before going to the milonga for the first time. A question I always find tricky to answer.

The first thing to know is that there is no such thing as a “milonga licence” (like a driving licence) gaining you entry to the milonga. Anyone can turn up and dance. But whether you would want to without a bit of experience first is another matter.

As it happens, the beginner student in question hadn’t asked me when he should go to the milonga. After 3 or 4 classes with us, he simply decided to go.

And how did it go? “It was really traumatic”, he reported smiling ruefully “I couldn’t remember anything, everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and there was this guy behind me who kept tutting at me like I was getting in his way”.

I was quite struck by his description of his experience as traumatic and it was this that inspired me to write this piece. After all, we dance tango for pleasure, therapy and as an antidote to the stresses of everyday life.

Don’t get me wrong, I know he wasn’t genuinely traumatised - but let’s just say he definitely didn’t enjoy the experience. And no doubt it knocked his confidence a little and put him off returning to the milonga for quite some time.

This is something that as a tango teacher - and we as a tango community - should definitely want to avoid. Luckily, the guy in question hasn’t let the experience put him off, has come back to classes and is working doubly hard on his tango.

So when is the best time to go to the milonga for the first time and how do we make sure it is as positive an experience as possible?

Why Is the Milonga So Different?

Theoretically, going to the milonga shouldn’t be so different to going to class. And if you can get round the dance floor in a class without too many collisions and improvise your steps, it shouldn’t be that big a deal to go the millonga …right?

As we so often find out, theory does not always translate into practice. It seems it is quite common to get a bit of “stage fright” when we go to the milonga, however irrational we know it to be. We know that everyone else there is just getting on with having a good time. We know there is no panel of judges who will be giving us the thumbs up … or the thumbs down. And yet, we can’t seem to shrug the inescapable feeling that this is the REAL THING. We don’t want to let our partner down. We don’t want to get in the way of the others on the dance floor. And are those people on the sidelines enjoying a quiet drink or are they watching us? Our palms begin to perspire …

So When to Take the Plunge?

Listen to your teacher and listen to yourself. Most students start to go to the milonga after a few months of classes. They may be encouraged to start by someone they have met in class and it may all just seem to happen naturally.

Everyone is different. I’ve had students who haven’t waited at all. I’ll never forget one happy-go-lucky guy who just threw himself into the deep end in his first week of tango without any trauma at all. But it was his nature to let very little ruffe his feathers. Another (very competent) dancer could not bring himself to go for more than a year, despite regular classes and our regular prompting. Again, it was just his personality to take a more cautious approach and he wanted to wait until he felt truly comfortable.

Illusion of Expertise

One thing most people report feeling when they go to the milonga for the first time is that everyone else seems to know what they’re doing.

I remember feeling exactly the same myself. I hadn’t been dancing tango for very long at all and I remember staring at all the couples on the dance floor, wondering how on earth they knew where to put their feet. They all seemed like experts to me.

Now, I’m not denying that there will be good dancers on the dance floor. However, in most milongas, this will not be universal. Yet, somehow our eye only sees the group as a whole and filters out those who are less experienced or even struggling a little. If you look a bit more carefully, you will spot those people and it might help you feel less conspicuous.

It is also important to realise that right now others may seem impossibly advanced to you but in a few months’ time, they will appear less so. And after a few more months still, you may seem impossibly advanced to another newcomer. Don’t believe me? I’ve seen it happen many times before!

Knowledge of the “Codigos”

It’s not the purpose of this piece to explain the “codigos” (milonga etiquette) in any detail. Most teachers will mention them in classes. And there are many articles out there on the web.

But in fact, you may find you know some of the most important ones already.

In class, you will have been dancing in an anti-clockwise direction and it is amazing how quickly this becomes entrenched. We rarely see people walking in the wrong direction even in our Absolute Beginner classes.

And a lot of the other codigos are quite logical and would apply in every day life, like for example trying not to bump into other people or if someone doesn’t accept a dance with you, not harassing them about it.

The rest you’ll be able to “learn on the job” and you’ll probably find the extent which they are applied in practice varies from milonga to milonga, so you will need to play it by ear a little.

But just to be on the safe side, here are a few definite DON’TS for the dance floor that should help smooth your way for your first time at the milonga:

1) Don’t walk across the dance floor at any time - always walk around edge of the dance floor even if the music has stopped.

2) Don’t have a chat while dancing. Wait until the music comes to an end for the small talk!

3) Don’t stay on the spot for too long. Be conscious that there will be people behind you as well as in front of you.

4) Don’t ask someone to dance without hearing the music first. You don’t want your first dance with the girl of your dreams to be a milonga tanda (group of three or four songs where the music is much faster!). Even if you’ve studied milonga and you’re ready for it, more experienced dancers usually wait to hear whether they like the music before asking someone to dance.

5) Don't correct your partner’s technique on the dance floor.. This is fine in a class (when done tactfully) but the milonga is the place where we simply enjoy ourselves and it is considered inappropriate to correct someone.

First Time Survival Guide

Here are just a few tips for making sure you have a positive first experience:

For Leaders

Keep it simple, stick to what you know and keep your eye on the road ahead!

Believe me, your partner will be more than happy if you simply walk with her and stop before you bump her into the couple ahead of you. Tango is in its essence a beautiful, harmonious walk. Never underestimate how lovely this is.

Your partner will be rather less happy if you try steps that you haven’t fully mastered yet. Contrary to what you may think, this will do the opposite of impressing her! Those steps are you for to experiment with and polish in class. You can think of them as still being in the “workshop”, and not yet “milonga-ready”.

Remember you have just as much right to be on the dance floor and enjoy the experience as anyone else. In fact it is often said that dancers who have just a little bit of experience can be more disruptive to the “ronda” (flow of the dance floor) than Beginners as they try and do more elaborate steps without yet having the control to do them without obstructing the dance floor.

For Followers:

It is all about the eye contact! Something that as Londoners we may not be very good at!

Like me, you may find that your first instinct is to look down as soon as someone looks your way. But although eyelashes fluttering downwards never stopped a Disney heroine getting her prince, they don’t cut it in the milonga!

It’s hard at first, but try to get used to holding someone’s gaze and not looking away. I personally must have missed so many lovely dances before the importance of this dawned on me! If you do this, it means one thing and one thing only: “I would like to dance with you. If you ask me to dance, I will accept.”

No leader enjoys being turned down for a dance and so this tiny little look could be all the encouragement he needs to ask you to dance.

For Both:

Don’t put yourself under any pressure to dance. Be happy to sit and observe. No one will know or care if you don’t get up and dance.

It can actually be a pretty fascinating (as well as instructional) experience watching others dance. It’s one of my favourite hobbies (when I’m not dancing myself of course!)

Our Nights Out

Keep an eye out on our website for our next Student Night Out, which we organise every few months. They are very sociable evenings when the whole of Tango Movement gets together, but they are also invaluable for the brave Beginners that join us. It is much easier to enjoy yourself at your first milonga if you are accompanied - and supported by - people you’ve already met (and probably already danced with) in class.

So let’s raise a glass and toast to your happy - and very untraumatic - first milonga experience!

1) You never leave the house without your tango shoes … just in case you get an unexpected chance to dance.

2) Hugging a complete stranger and nonchalantly walking off after 12 minutes is now a normal part of your daily existence.

3) You find yourself unconsciously doing little tango movements - under your desk, on the tube, in the lift. You half wonder whether it looks strange but you don't stop (you need to practice!)

4) When out with non-tango friends, you have to keep reminding yourself not to talk about tango the whole time.

5) You can no longer watch Hollywood or TV versions of tango without being filled with indignation.

6) Normal (non-tango) clubs now seem alien (and loud!) to you and you feel the absence of tango sharply.

7) You don't bother buying clothes that you can't dance tango in.

8) Most of the music on your playlist was composed before 1950.

9) You have considered getting rid of furniture to create space in your living room for practice.

10) When visiting a tango friend's house for a first time, you'll comment on the space they have to practice in

11) Small talk on a night out will usually include how sticky/slippery the floor is.

12) You know your friend won't think you're rude if you break off your conversation midway to accept an invitation to dance.

13) No one bats an eyelid if you comment on how pretty someone’s feet are.

14) Wherever you go in the world, you'll check out the local tango scene. And you're always planning your next trip to Buenos Aires.

15) The world is now divided into two: those who dance tango and those who don’t.

16) You secretly feel a bit sorry for those who don't.

17) The prospect of not dancing for more than a few days has become unthinkable.

18) You've briefly considered ignoring doctor's advice recommending that you don't dance for a while.

19) Your Facebook Newsfeed is gradually being taken over by tango-related posts, videos and events. Yes, even Facebook knows you’re an addict!

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