Learning the Basic Step

by Bruce Spear

max240 I don’t have a recording of the scene Friday evening when we learned of Georg’s death. We were all struck silent. The band then played something extraordinarily sad. I have only a photo from the memorial service two days later, Sunday, at Max und Moritz, in the room where he offered a workshop and milonga and which I remember for the smell of pork wafting in from the restaurant while one dances, the warmth of his welcome and instruction, the excellent mostly traditional tango music he played there, and the regular dancers, many his friends, who shared his warmth and style.

In this photograph from the memorial services on Sunday, we see how his friends were projecting dozens of photographs of Georg, from his childhood through his illness as more very beautiful music was played, people filed in carrying food for the buffet, some embracing, all then sitting quietly. Then the two women closest to him spoke briefly about caring for him those last months, how they felt that he died surrounded by love. It was terribly sad and terribly beautiful all at once.

On that Friday, in a room filled with maybe 150 strangers, the news was completely unexpected. The band was at the end of its first set, and the floor was thick with energetic dancers. Raphael said: “Bassa is now going to play a piece in memory of our friend Georg, who died of a brain tumor on Wednesday. He was a great friend of ours, and they will play and there will be no dancing, this is in his memory …” We all backed up to the walls, leaving the floor empty, completely empty, but for the sweaty air. The band then filled the room with sadness — all the more striking as they had been playing tango music and now suddenly these classically-trained musicians played something else, modern chamber music: it was completely sad and moving. Afterwards, for what seemed to be a very, very long time, nobody moved. There was no sound, not even of breathing. There were tears, and then Andreas said we had simply to move on. No one was in a hurry.

On Sunday, after the service, I felt empty and headed to the subway, but Margit told me I had simply to move on then, too. So I returned to the milonga.

Children, of course, are the best thing for such moments, and on Sundays Tangotanzen Macht Schön welcomes them generous with a quiet room to the side and child care, there were many, including the 11-year-old of a very nice dancer and former dance classmate. When we met to dance the daughter suddenly needed a pencil. With Mom off to find one, she checked me out, and when we were finished dancing she came right over, wanting to be introduced, and within minutes was showing me her vocabulary book in English and her math lessons and said she wanted a piece of chewing gum.


And then this wonderful thing happened: a perfornamce by Alessandro Hermida, who was in town from Argentina to give workshops. He is famous for his study of the masters and holding true to the milonguero style of the 1940s, which in respect to tango nuevo and the zillion variations of the dance being done here in Berlin these days is conservative, but also quite welcome by many, and especially, as it was in Georg’s.To appreciate why this performance (view also dance 2, dance 3) was so moving to me I must explain that I to love the modern music and dance. For months I listened to Bajofondo’s Mar Dulce just about every day so I might begin to understand it, as I have many other modern works. I’ve gotten to like the techno version that is so popular here in Berlin and elsewhere, like this. But with the Hermido performance I was brought back to the basics.

Where Mar Dulce builds complexity onto the traditional forms and seeks to develop something contemporary, the Hermida perfomance seeks essences in each of the dance’s four major dimensions.In respect to the floor, the dancers maintain a precise balance, their heads leveled, their backs precisely erect, and their feet bearing their weight with precision.

In respect to their partnership, the most notable quality is his care to insure her consensus. He gives her sufficient sufficient time to respond precisely and happily, and so predictable is his lead that she taps and caresses the floor almost at her leisure.

In respect to the music, the the dancers stay well within music’s 8-bar structure, with adventures in the middle and pauses as the music recommends.And in respect to the other dancers, as we see especially with the first piece, they walk carefully around the room, giving each of us a chance to see them close, in the middle, and from afar and so offering a balanced perspective.

The respect for floor, partner, music, and the rest of us who wanted very much to see the dance done well was just what I needed on this sad day. They spoke of tragedy and dignity.


ps: I think a “ps” is the way to look at the following comment, because a friend just left a message on my Facebook page asking if I’d seen the UNESCO recognition of the Argentinian tango, http://bit.ly/3vc5xd, and it led me to think about how the talk about “endangered languages” did little to illuminate the tremendous revival of tango (and other dances since 1985) and what this suggests about culture and cultural heritages. I directed him to this site, and wrote:

“… I talk about the death of one of my dance teachers, and on the day of a memorial service at Max und Moritz, about the performance I saw just down the street at “Tangotanzen Macht Schön”, and where I’ve linked to the video I made of a performance of an Argentinian and his German partner at the beginning of two weeks of classes led by him — a dancer who has elevated the traditional 1930s-40s “milonguero” style, to something quite elegant and modern: transformed a rather macho style into something more consensual and dignifying: notice how his respect for time allows her to execute each figure with dignity and grace. So, I would amend to UNESCO declaration to celebrate not the dance, but the generous embrace of a cultural heritage by others, and especially the Europeans, and especially the Germans, and maybe even especially the Berliners … who you see circles around the dancers in this video, observing, and if you were an intimate observer of the scene, would then see, over weeks and months, how the cultural values that this dancer conveyed were taken up in the way partners hold each other now a bit differently, set up figures maybe with a little more care … that there is a resonance here that in various contexts, especially this one (Berlin, once scene of terrible crimes, now rich cultural scene, but still a place of bureaucracies, corruption, brutalities on a smaller scale, like many other places), develop special meanings … “

Learning from other dancers is built into the business: our lessons are based on demonstrations, explanations, and training: over and over we exercise, until we learn the elements in our muscles, bones, and bodies and can do it without thinking. When dancing, we pick up the “fire” of the other dancers, so to speak, and in very practical ways: we leaders are trained to pay attention to our distance form those in front and those behind (we call them “our friends”) and to follow their lead, too, such that in especially attentive dance scenes one can observe similarities of movement that have been picked up and passed along. At Bebop, I often amuse my partners by saying, “we’re behind Karsten, we’re going to do everything he does,” which is a wonderful joke because he has been dancing 20 years and dances in a very special way and it would take me five years I would guess to even come close. Last Tuesday, one of my favorite partners, who is in fact taking a class with Karsten, said that she could see the other people in her class carrying what they learn into the weekly milonga there and remarked how the style of this scene was being “Karstenized”.

There is another wonderful comment, one I’ve heard repeated by some of the younger teachers when I’ve asked them “why tango, and why now?” They answer as if they were therapists, saying, that with this dance young people are finding an opportunity to connect with each other in a society that otherwise pits them against each other.