remember her, the scandalous dancer of the early 1900s, as renowned for her unconventional lifestyle as for her scantily–clad, mould-breaking dance form? At one stage in her dramatic and tragic life, (1887-1927) she was the lover of Paris Singer, the scion of the famous sewing machine empire. Paris Singer remodelled the family pile down in Devon...
and that’s where this tango tale begins, and sadly, ends.
Bring on an unlikely new player, Fernando Guidi: five years ago, this young, Argentine dancer teacher based in Exeter, organized the first tango weekend in the grand but getting grungy surrounds of Oldway Mansion. He called it Tango Feast, never imagining, I suspect, what a terpsichorean treat these long weekends would become. And not just for UK dancers.
Now when I say grand
surroundings, please think Versailles – Singer modelled Oldway on the Sun King’s opulent palace. It features a double, sweeping alabaster staircase, painted ceilings, ornate mouldings and a balcony in the ballroom. A massive painting (or nowadays, copy thereof) above the staircases, shows the coronation of Napoleon’s empress, Josephine. The building’s eastern elevation with its rows of columns, is reminiscent of the Place de la Concorde. There is also a rotunda with built-in pool where the Singers used to exercise their horses, parlours with impressive fireplaces and 20ft-high French window opening onto sweeping lawns, a knot garden, a grotto with waterfall, and a gallery resembling Versailles's Hall of Mirrors.
Ahh, that gallery! I have a cherished memory of being transported to tango heaven here by one of my tango gods, David Benitez, who happened to hear a tune he wanted to dance to just as I was passing. Bliss in Bloch trainers.
Tango Feast is that
kind of place. The usual hierarchy of don’t–even-think-about-cabaceo-ing-me-cos-I’m a-professional, doesn’t seem to apply. In fact, the difference in level between professionals and punters is not enormous here, as almost everyone is an experienced dancer. Better still, they all have a lot of heart. Tango Feast dancers are generous, on and off the floor. It’s the only place I’ve been to where people sit down and talk to one another, forming relationships which are cemented at every event, until Feastueros, as Fernando calls us, feel like family.
home of the Tango Feast is no more (Fernando has another two venues he uses regularly.) The Torbay district council has sold the spectacular mansion and its grounds for development into retirement flats. The mansion itself is to become a luxury hotel. Records show that the Singer family sold it to the council for the knockdown price of £45 000 in 1946, on the understanding that it would be for public use. Does an expensive hotel and spa constitute public use? Perhaps, but I doubt the new proprietors will rent out this grandiose facility at a plebian price. Certainly not at one the tango community could afford.
Oldway Mansion is (was
, SOB !
) my favourite place to dance in the UK. I have felt decadent gliding around it in broad daylight; I have felt glamorous at night under the chandeliers, clandestine on the moonlit terrace, the soft air of the English Rivera wafting around my shoulders like Isadora’s silk scarf. (This fatally long accessory caused her death by catching in the open spoke wheel of the sports car she was in. It wrapped around the rear axle and broke her neck.)
Traspie-ing in Isadora’s Duncan’s footsteps at Oldway Mansion has been a dream, but it was real and I have pictures to prove it, courtesy of David Prime. I also have David to thank for the fact that my feet still haven’t forgiven me for dancing them to death. Every time my soles shrieked for rest, this merciless DJ played another irresistible tanda.
So, adios Oldway. My gratitude for the extraordinary memories go to Fernando Guidi and his team of helpers and guest teachers. Fortunately Vida de Tango
uses other venues for other Feasts - these take place quarterly, so one needn't go too long without a Feastueros family reunion. Nevertheless, we shall miss Oldway; it was the stuff that tango dreams are made of.
Thanks to David Prime for the Oldway Mansion images used here.
Reflection on the Tango Zen workshop suite
It is not usual to go through a 3-day tango workshop with dancers of all abilities, literally from absolute beginner to experienced, in which one constantly swaps partners as well as lead and follow roles, without once feeling frustrated or disempowered. It is even more unusual to end the long weekend feeling buoyed, rather than exhausted, to feel a buzz, as if one has been to a spa where mind and body have been aligned and gently plugged into some greater energy source.
This is my feeling about the Tango Zen workshop series offered by Korean-born Chan Park, Zen enthusiast, meditator, documentary film maker and adopted tango son of some of the famous milongueros of Buenos Aires.
The weekend began with a showing of Chan Park’s documentary, ‘Tango Your Life
‘ which alerted participants to the fact that these classes would be about feeling, not flashy moves. We would be walking towards surrendering ourselves to our partners and to the music, just as the wise milongueros in the movie exhorted us to.
And indeed, the first workshop was designed to show participants that they could walk to music; any music, in full-time, half-time, even one-eighth time. The next workshop demonstrated the ease with which one could do this alongside a partner. Lead and follow roles where swapped, with everyone taking several turns to experience being led via hand, forearm, shoulder, back, mostly with eyes closed. Throughout, Park said little, giving his students space and time to make the discoveries about trust and connection, for themselves.
The next day, participants stood face to face and through a series of what educationalists would call constructively aligned learning activities (that is, activities whose learning outcome matches that of the learning objective for the whole course) discovered the importance of committing one’s weight 100% to the left or right foot. I was leading at this stage, and for me it was a revelation to see how smooth the following became when I grounded myself instantly on my left or right leg, instead of hedging my bets between the two. If there is only one thing I’m able to retain from this workshop, I hope it will be that. The energy generated by a fully grounded supporting leg permeates the entire body, lifting the hearts of the couple. I’ve never grasped that before.
Was that what Park and his mentors meant by dancing with the heart, I wondered? It turns out that Park’s hypothesis is more prosaic than that. He had us tune into our pulse rate and attempt to walk in time to our individual heartbeats. He
may be able to do it, but I’m a long way from mastering it.
Only in the very last workshop of the weekend series did this tutor ask us to execute anything even remotely similar to what one might call a tango figure, or sequence. Normally, figures or sequences of figures are the staple teaching fodder of visiting tango teachers. I suppose they think students will not believe they’ve had their money’s worth from a guest tutor’s class unless they’ve been shown a complicated routine. Pointless, in my opinion. One has little chance of remembering it all and even less of mastering it, as a social dancer.
Park however, kept the step simple and practical. He showed a cross and demonstrated how it could be used for navigation in a crowded milonga. Eventually even beginners were doing giros, molinetes and rebotes to get out of trouble, without fear, unhampered by the intimidating knowledge that these steps require good technique. Clever.
‘No, just the power of Beginner’s Mind,’ said Park, referring to a Zen idea about the potential for success when one has no expectations. Then he quotes his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’
I‘ll try to remember that, along with the serenity I felt when dancing with Chan Park.
Gracias, maestro. Tango and Zen
I asked Chan Park what led to him making a connection between Tango and the Buddhist meditation technique of Zen. It turns out it was the expression he saw on the faces of the dancers he sat watching in milongas for years before he even took a tango step.
'After witnessing women dancing with eyes closed, I started asking about the phenomenon. I finally found the answer in Zen.'
In his book, Tango Zen: Walking Dance Meditation,
Park points out the correlation between good tango and good Zen meditation practice, namely: ‘balance, calmness, groundedness, centering, and harmony in mind and body.’ (2004: 9)
That reads like my dancing wish list.
But can one meditate while moving around rather than sitting down? Apparently walking mediation has been practiced by Buddhists since Buddha himself initiated it. Zen meditation in motion is found in sports and performing arts, so why not in the walking dance, Tango? Buddha is quoted as saying: ‘I tried it and it worked. I want you to try it for yourself.’ (Park, 2004: 58)
Mmmm, don't mind if I do.
You’ve probably seen what you believe to be Argentine tango on TV, lately in the UK’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or its US-manifestation, ‘Dancing with the Stars’. Perhaps even before that, in a stage show or a silent movie? (Remember the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ where tango-dancing Rudolph Valentino is dressed like a gaucho – muy confusing.) Argentine cowboys did not dance the tango. This dance is urban, having developed in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Buenos Aires during the previous century.
You’ve probably ‘cor-blimeyed’ or ‘gee-whizzed’ at the intricacy of the footwork, at the high flying legs of the tanguera, at the dazzling lifts and drops. That is Fantasia, or show tango, and as the label implies, it is choreographed to be seen, to be admired, by an audience. However, it is not the social dance which less than one percent of the 14-million strong population of Buenos Aires devote themselves to perfecting.
This other tango, sometimes referred to as salon, is not choreographed, you will seldom see a lifted leg in it, and from an outsider’s point-of-view, there is little to applaud. Why then do people from all walks of life, from nations around the world give up their culture, career, home and sometimes even their non-tango dancing partners to move to Buenos Aires to immerse themselves in the restricted world of a milonguero, that is, someone whose life centres around attending milongas where this social form of tango is danced every night.
It’s not something easily explained in words, though there are many worthy books on the subject: Christine Denniston’s The Meaning of Tango , Beatriz Dujovne’s In a Stranger’s Arms, Julie Taylor’s Paper Tangos to name but a few. And then there are the tango movies you may have seen, Hollywood blockbusters like ‘Scent of a Woman’ in which Al Pacino makes a good stab at showing that tango is about feeling, not flashy moves.
Currently touring tango clubs around the UK, is a documentary called ‘Tango Your Life’, filmed, directed and produced by Chan Park, a tango devotee. In it he interviews milongueros, some of whom have been dancing for 70 years, about what it is they gain from the dance. They speak of embrace, of intimate emotional conversations with partners, sometimes complete strangers, which are eloquent but wordless. They relish sharing their emotions, accumulating satisfying moments while dancing. These will sustain them for the day or the week ahead. They say they leave the problems of daily living outside the room ‘on the other side of the curtain’. (Not for nothing a curtain, ‘cortina’, hangs across the threshold of traditional milonga venues in Buenos Aires.)
Without using Zen terminology they discuss the meditative state dancing tango can induce – an abdication of ego, a calmness in body and mind. Several times these dancers talk about tango making them feel better, or well, even ‘very, very well.’
For me, this takes tango into the realm of a healing ritual similar in some respects to those I’ve come to associate with aboriginal people like the San. I think that whenever a community comes together and individual members willingly surrender themselves to music, to a rhythm, a chant; when they are prepared to open themselves to an energy mutually generated and unstintingly shared, the result will be a feeling of well-being.
It is these echoes between tango and Zen, the latter a philosophy Korean-born Chan Park has been enthusiastic about for many years, which lead him to develop a methodology for teaching the feeling of tango.
He offers dancers of all levels, from absolute beginners to the more experienced, a suite of workshops designed to soothe, smooth and seduce them into surrendering to the power of this extraordinary dance. This seemingly simple counter-clockwise perambulation around a dance floor delivers human connection at an unobtrusive but profound level.
Again, I find an African echo here, this time in Ubuntu, an indigenous philosophy which Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, explains thus: ‘…Ubuntu speaks particularly about … our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity ….‘ (Ubuntu Women Institute USA. Retrieved 2011-04-20)
Recognising the precious but flawed humanity of one’s dance partner as being akin to one’s own, results in mutual respect and connectedness on the dance floor. This is the point of real tango. For me, it’s Ubuntu, meditation and healing ... in heels.
With Archbishop Emeritus, Desmond Tutu, Cape Town, August 2011. I haven't asked suggested Ubuntu Tango, yet, but I bet he'd be game.