Remembering The Figures
by Bruce Spear
Yesterday I fired up my tiny digital camera and showed a non-dancing colleague a short video from my dance lesson, and she was astonished, asking: “how do you remember all that complex stuff?” I laughed, of course, because mostly I don’t remember, much of the time feel like a complete klutz, and I certainly try the patience of my teachers. But her question stayed with me, and the more I thought about it the more wonderful and wonderfully complex the question of remembering became. I’ve come up with a list of the different ways I remember, there’s …
Muscle memory. When you learn a new figure, movement, or way of holding yourself and practice it a lot, your muscles and nervous system grow to support it: all these efforts, this will to do a thing a certain way, actually builds and trains muscles and nerves and brain. For example, it now seems natural for me to …
stand on one foot while letting the other hang. When cooking or cleaning or moving things around, instead of stepping around I twist, and when I’m on a slippery surface I twist and notice my twisting. I skip down stairs to various rhythms. And the perhaps oddest, most delightful thing is that when I’m in the spooky places that I like to photograph and am standing on broken glass on a hard floor in my boots I twist on that glass — large camera and tripod and all my other gear slung over my shoulders — standing knee bent, free leg swinging in an arc, drawing a nice curve in the crunchy glass: a free, lyrical gesture amid discarded ruins. And so on. In this way, the dance is literally built into your body over time.
Your partner. There is a wonderful ritual quality to stepping onto the dance floor and presenting yourself to a partner. I always take a breath, take a moment, and concentrating on this moment I feel the rest of the day and all my little troubles melt away, like when a stage curtain is drawn and there is a hush as a performance is about to begin, and I get my head, and body, into the dance, and I am drawn back into many of the other times I have danced and start remembering things. It is like being drawn into a parallel universe.
It is also often quite specific. With each partner there are certain things that we love to do together. For example, with one partner we once did the “molinetta”, where we spin around each other in a clockwise direction, and instead of stopping and turning back, I twisted clockwise again, spinning her around, about twelve times until we were both completely dizzy and silly, the room spinning, we had to hold on to each other not to fall, and since then, whenever we do this figure even once she gives me this certain look of expectation and terror and delight, and nine times out of ten I play the innocent, but on that tenth time we do it again: it is a game, one we’ve played many times, with a wonderful combination of predictability and surprise, and it goes fast, and “mistake” means we end up falling over each other laughing. With each partner there are these little things we do: our partners help us remember.
The music. Tango music is often wonderfully complex because it has developed over 100 years from a kind of folk music played in bordellos into a very complex thing branching out into a number of directions, given big band and middle class legitimacy in the Golden Era of the 1940s, and so on. The great bands of the 30’s and 40s where very competitive and developed a variety of styles. With Pugliese there is all this modernist stuff that cuts through the rhythms, like old African drummers daring the dancers to dance. With Piazzolla all sorts of classical and jazz influences are intertwined, are legitimated as tango, and so the genre opened up. With advanced recording and performance technologies, bands got smaller and greater subtleties and complexity could be more easily conveyed; nowadays, such as in the new Bajo Fondo album, Mardulce, one hears whispers with behind the major rhythms and melodies, adding great dimension. With the great expansion of tango in the 1980s came new audiences, composers, and performers, including classical conductors and musicians like Gidon Kremer, Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma. Among my favorites are the recordings Piazzolla made with Gary Burton and the Kronos Quartet. Burton, who I heard in Boston in 1973 or 1974, fully matured, appreciated by the master and driven by him at Monterey to new heights: simply exhilerating! Kronos: polishing and making even more complex and exquisite Piazzolla’s last and maybe best quartet, lending great dignity and concert hall perfection to works drafted and matured in smoky clubs. Much of the jazz you don’t dance to, and that’s just fine because many dancers listen all the time and train the ear in listening, but the jazz is a the proving ground for the dancing pieces, such as this fabulous performance by Pablo and Dana to Piazzolla’s Biyuya.
Like the memory of partners, the music can be powerfully provocative, eliciting responses, including recognition of things that you have associated with at one or another time before but almost always offering new things that you can address and build on. A year ago I was lucky to have done a little workshop with Pablo and Dana here in Berlin — these completely gentle, good-humored, loving people, who respect beginning and intermediate dancers such as myself by giving us a taste of what can be done in their way (and even had my one minute of paradise dancing with Dana), I was left with a very distinct memory of how they interpret the music, how they add their peculiar “swing” to it, as you see in the video. So, the music helps us remember: it reminds us of some encounter in its quality and the responses it evokes, speaking to us, and if we are open to this invitation we follow, walking in the footsteps of suggestion and interpretation, and build on it to make it our own: so wonderful is this music!
The other dancers. My eyes are mostly open, and following them I see what they are doing and imitate, add to, and depart from what they are doing. You see this at the beginning, as people hear the first notes: they look up and then around to the others: the dance is to begin, and we do this together. Since many of us change partners all the time, the dancers are a kind of “company”: the person you are about to run into might well be someone you danced with before, or one of the many, many others you know “from sight”, even though you may never dance with them. When finally we do dance or chat with others from the scene that you’ve been a part of, and for me that now means for some a knowing from a distance of now three years or so and since I was just starting out, there can be this very sweet mutual respect: something like, yes, I’ve seen you dedicated to the art now for years, you have grown into it: you are one of us.
We pick up on each other’s energy: Sonja Abadi refers to this as the fire that one feeds off of and adds to. In each of the different places there are different combinations of people, different societies or “scenes” as we say here in Berlin. Some places have lots of students or tourists and the floor can be chaotic. I’ve been to Claerchen’s Ballhaus on Tuesdays when it was packed with people who barely knew the dance and it seemed all of us were getting kicked on or stepped a dozen times, and it would have been a drag if not for the good humor of the place set up by Hagen, the DJ and organizer, and the lack of pretention. Beginners were more the welcome, and I was wonderfully amused to witness one of my favorite dancers, a man in his late 50′ like me, dancing with a whole family, from mom on down to her young teenagers: they were tourists, clearly, and he an experienced dancer, but in an ancient place: a dance hall that has the same furniture and decoration that it had when it was built around 1905 or so and when it was a great meeting place for immigrants and residence, a true social meeting place, and so open, welcoming, and there he was, finding interest in the daughter, mother, and sister: each wanting to try it out, and nodding to the father, signaling that he could pick it up, too, for the asking. I’ve been to the Salon Urqueza evening where it seemed everyone was afraid to go out on the dance floor, the leading ladies in their slinky black dresses were fierce, and I felt completely out of place … though others tell me this must have been an exception. At Tango Nou there is so much emphasis on communication and care that I feel like I am learning tai chi! And Sunday evenings at Tango Loft before it became so incredibly popular such that now, on Sundays from about seven until ten pm everyone has to dance “eng” or closes, late then, when most people had left and there was lots of room on the floor, the music would become incredibly dreamy, the dancers seemed to be floating, and I along with them. In this way I was initiated into the mysteries of late night dancing — not that I can do this often and still function the next day, but I had the chance and curiosity and stmina, and did. So, the other dancers set the tone, lead the way, and help one remember.
What your body will allow and recommends. Or, the floor. The formal lessons offered in the many schools take you through the basics, and you learn what the body can do. You almost always have one leg with weight and the other free to play with, and so movement is tied to gravity, physics, and physiology. Last night we suddenly remembered to stand up straight, pull in our stomachs and so give strength to our backs, and found ourselves 5cm taller. We worked with that, and talked about it: about how we could each feel each other’s axis and shifts of weight much, much better. And as we turned we could feel the arc of each other’s movements and try to accommodate that arc to the timing, slowing down sometimes, speeding up at others. And there were all these impulses, little wishes, hesitations, desires, etc., that added or interrupted these arcs and suggested, at their end when the next thing is to be decided on and communicated, to this complex communication. So, we don’t just remember, we listen to each other and improvise: memory is an important part, but we aren’t just rehearsing from a script: we are also creating something new.
You think about it. Each song is about 3 minutes, and there are typical beginnings and endings, and as the music changes you are aware of where you are in the piece, and there are things like “penultimate moments” near the end where there is time for just one more fancy figure before the end game needs to be played and the whole thing brought to its conclusion. Sometimes I’m more disciplined than at others, and one night when I was and had asked a very experienced dancer for the first time, I could tell from the first step that she could do lots of things, but I simply did the basic step, and every time I felt her wanting to do something else, I acknowledged it but held to that basic step and the way the music supported it, until the very end, the last eight bars, when I led her into the figure 8, and we ended facing each other. I thought, now this really is something: here she can do all this wonderful stuff, and we’ll do that in the second or third dance, but in this first dance I want us to do the perfect basic step, to connect, to be patient with each other, and at the end, if we are good, we can do the perfect “eight”, which we did, and it was wonderful. This is choreography, of course, and for me still my choreography is simple, but even at that we think about it and work with it: it gives our otherwise improvisational dance coherence.
There are moods to be addressed. And especially, there is the mood your partner conveys as she wants to be held this way or that, close or far, cuddled or set free; and as you dance with someone and get to know them there can be a building of trust and room for greater struggles and intimacies, or sometimes, when it is just not going to work out — just like in life — there is resistance and rejection: though I hasten to add, the protocols for this are generous: after three dances either partner can smile warmly and say “thank you,” and both leave the floor and each other with dignity.
The genres tell you what to do. The milonga is playful, quick, and full of surprise. The waltz is powerfully romantic, the pairs sharing a common axis, the spinning hypnotic. The tango is passion, sentimental, and with the thematics of seduction, knife fights, showing off, a search for safety, etc. I found one tango partner in my standard/ballroom lessons when, at the end of dancing rumba, I led her into a tango figure … and therein discovered that she knew tango. Since then, when dancing a tango that has rumba elements to it, we break into that other dance. Since these dances include so many different influences, and since we can often recognize even subtle elements of other forms, such recognitions can stimulate and inform the improvisation.
And so there’s Improvisation. Hearing even a fragment of tonal change presents an opportunity, and with highly emotive music like tango you can interpret a moment of joy or suffering in the way you hold yourself: wounds turning you down deep in the stomach, joy leading to breath in the lungs, the framework of the arms twists the spin which in turn stores energy that can be released in a foot as you lift the heel 2mm and so spin to the side … so that only part of the dance is about remembering the figures, a lot is invention. When everything is working well, we sometimes enter into this special state-of-mind where we lose ourselves in the dance, find ourselves responding very sensitively, and so do things we haven’t done before. I think this is the best part of memory: when we are in thrall of creativity and are not self-consciously remembering at all, but living in the present, creating something together and new, and enjoying this creation as a wondrous thing that will live in this moment and all but disappear when the dance comes to an end.