Monday, June 30, 2008

Inside Our Russian Stacking Doll: Tango At the De Young Museum


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Over the past year and a half the only thing that has boomed more in SF than the price of gas is tango. When I switched to tango a year & 9 months ago there were usually a couple of tango events going on each night. I just took a quick look at & in the Bay area today there are twelve tango events (classes, practicas and milongas). This boom was very evident Friday night as the tango community descended upon the De Young Museum for a great milonga organized by Terence Clarke and Beatrice Bowles (great job, Terry, Bea and the De Young team!).

I was hoping there would be enough dancers there to give the milonga a party feel. I need not have worried--the De Young was packed! The dance floor felt more like bumper cars at times, but it was well worth it. Not only was the De Young packed with tango dancers, but our milonga turned into a live work of art as the museum-goers lined two and three deep to watch everyone tango. Even the main stair case was packed with kids and adults watching in fun. I finished one tango and a lovely couple came up to my partner and me and said "you both look so happy!". Well, that's because we were. We encouraged the couple to try a tango, but they just wanted to watch.

And then it was time for an excellent tango performance by Nora Dinzelbacher and Ed Neale. It was during their performance I realized that the milonga felt like we were living inside a never-ending Russian stacking doll (you know, one of those Babooshka nesting things) because there was one work of art inside another. Here we were in the incomparable San Francisco and inside her the green forests of the Golden Gate Park and inside her the shocking copper beauty of the De Young Museum and inside her our joyful milonga where Nora and Ed were tangoing passionately in front of Richter's wild piece, Strontium (seen in the photo above).

Strontium, by the way, is a chemical element that can be combustible. Pretty much sums up Friday's milonga at the De Young.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Cortina: Why I Have A Crush On J.K. Rowling

Part 1 from J.K. Rowling's Commencement Speech at Harvard (June, 2008):

Part 2:

Yes, this is a tango blog, but please indulge me today, since I feel compelled to confess my new crush on J.K. Rowling. So, can we just consider today's post a cortina?

Let me start at the beginning. My Mom had an exchange student (Chi Hai) from Beijing live with her for a year back in 1998 when he was in high school. He quickly became part of our family and we've become good friends with his parents, too. Well, Chi Hai just graduated from business school, so we all went to his graduation earlier this month at Harvard.

The commencement speaker this year was J.K. Rowling, the famed author of the Harry Potter books. When I heard she was going to be speaking I thought to myself "Well, this should be fun. She'll tell a lot of Harry Potter jokes, talk about her success and give us a few of her favorite 'life lessons learned', all of which will be forgotten by days end."

Not quite.

I sensed something was different about J.K. as I watched her facial expressions and body language while she was being introduced (I can use her first name, can't I, given that I have a crush on her or is that presumptious?). She seemed genuinely nervous sitting there waiting her turn, but who wouldn't be given all eyes were on her and the pageantry of Harvard's graduation ceremonies. There were many men wearing top hats and tails, the school band came marching through playing joyfully, and school songs were sung. It was great fun for all of us in the audience. But now J.K. was supposed to stand up and say something memorable. Just as her introduction was nearly finished I caught another glimpse of J.K. and she looked anxious.

After Harvard's President (Drew Faust--a very impressive woman) finished introducing her, J.K. walked to the podium and said "The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I've experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world's best-educated Harry Potter convention." Her joke about 'fear and nausea" seemed quite sincere. And that was a very funny Harry Potter reference. I'm sure it's one of a dozen to come. So, now she'll start with the the predictable philosophy-lite given by most commencement speakers, right?


J.K. followed with the bravest, most personal and memorable commencement speech I've ever heard. In fact, it was one of the best speeches I've heard in my life. Her intellect, sense of humor, modesty and humanity were all on full display.

J.K. talked about the importance of failure in life, relieving poverty and the need to improve human rights worldwide. But what made it so powerful was that she talked about her personal experience of growing up poor and being poor again after her divorce. She said she was 'as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.'

Likewise, when she spoke about improving human rights, she didn't do it with platitudes, but by describing some of the horrors she heard personally while working for Amnesty International.

And towards the end when she could have coasted home to an easy ending, she instead threw down the gauntlet towards all of us:

"The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden. If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better."

The lioness finished and sat down to one of the longest standing ovations I've ever seen, all of which she received with great modesty, even surprise. But so often it's that way, isn't it? The brave don't realize they're being brave because they're just being who they are. All of which made J.K. even more irresistable and explains my crush.

I'm often wrong, but never in doubt. But I can't remember being more wrong about a person in the past five years. I don't know who her husband is, but he's a lucky man. And we were all lucky to hear J.K. speak for twenty shining minutes.

God bless J.K. Rowling.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

My Tango Brothers: Making Sure Every Woman Has Partners At Milongas

Guys, let's face it, we've got it good in the Bay area when it comes to tango. Most milongas we go to have more women than men, so it's easy for us to almost always have someone to dance with. And we're also lucky in that women here often ask us to dance, so an evening of tango can fly by for men with barely a break.

Many women have equally busy nights. But, unfortunately, sometimes some women don't and they might only have a couple of tandas (or, tango gods forbid--none). It's this situation I want to talk about.

To put it straight out there, men, if we see women sitting out tanda after tanda, we should make a point of asking them to dance. I've been as guilty of this as anyone--not really paying attention if certain women weren't being asked to dance because I was too wrapped up in my own tandas. At other times I've assumed that sooner or later a man would ask her to dance, only to realize later that wasn't happening.

Most men have been on the other side of this at times. I know I have and it's not fun. I did my undergrad at the University of Florida and our ratio was 52% men/48% women. As a result, it was tough at times getting dates (sure, some said it had to do with trivial factors like personality, but I found it so much easier to just blame it all on the bad ratio). And proof of that came for me the first time I spent the weekend at FSU for a football game. The ratio at FSU was the reverse--so there were 52% women. I still remember my shock when a woman come up to me at a bar and asked if she could buy me a drink. In all my years at UF that had never happened to me. I was so certain one of my friends put her up to it that I kept looking around the bar for one of my laughing friends.

But I digress.

The point I'm trying to make is how much I like it when women buy me drinks. No, no, sorry--lost my train of thought there. The point I'm trying to make is that ratios matter in life and in the Bay area tango scene that's particularly true.

So, guys, next time you see a woman sitting out numerous tandas, please ask her to dance. It's always fun making new friends and it makes milongas even better when everyone is tangoing. There are few downsides to tango, but not getting to tango much at a milonga is one of the biggest. And as many women friends have told me, all it takes is one or two good tandas to turn an average evening into a really fun one.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

My Tango Championship With Cheryl Burke

I am posing in this photo with Cheryl Burke from "Dancing With The Stars" because (see answer under my name):
A. We just won the American Nationals for Argentine Tango
B. Cheryl just accepted my marriage proposal
C. I wasn't actually in this photo with Cheryl--I Photoshopped her in
D. None of the above. I took Cheryl's first dance lesson at her club and had my photo taken with her for fun (BTW, she gave a great class & was very nice)
Answer: Obviously, D

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Tango Sin #4 For Men: Giving Unsolicited Advice To Women At A Milonga

Men, I implore you--learn from my mistakes and do not give women unsolicited advice, tips, or constructive criticism at milongas. Ever. Back before I switched to tango I used to give feedback to women often when I was at salsa clubs until finally one night my dance partner said to me "Mark, I just want to have fun. Can we just dance?"

I quickly recovered from her comment (it didn't take me more than 3 months). As difficult as it was to hear this, I knew instantly she was right. People go to dance to have fun, not be criticized by others. So, I stopped giving feedback to women that night and I've never done so at milongas. It's made milongas so much more enjoyable for my partners and me. Most of us want to get better at tango, but that's why we take classes, go to practicas & take privates. We don't go to milongas to get unsolicited feedback from other people. In fact, it's rude to do so. I've spoken to my female friends about this a lot and they rarely, if ever, ask for feedback. So, the vast majority of time men are simply offering it up on their own.

Why do men do this? In a phrase, it feels good.

It feels good to be the "expert", to "impart" one's knowledge to another person.

Why don't women like to hear the unsolicited feedback? It's for the same reason men don't like to hear "constructive criticism." In a phrase, it doesn't feel good!

Now, men, if you're raising objections at this point against my argument, then that probably means you give unsolicited feedback thinking it's wanted.

Trust me, it's not.

I was at a milonga this week and one guy gave feedback to every woman I saw him dance with. I could hear his pedantic style at one point because he finished a tanda next to my table. I was amazed by his partner's patience. He kept badgering her until she finally excused herself and walked away. The crazy thing is that of all the women I saw him dance with, most of them had better technique than the guy!

If you want to focus on improving tango, focus on your own--not others.

And if you want to make someone feel good, don't focus on yourself, but focus on your partner. Compliment her on one of her tango strengths. I've danced with countless women now and every single one, including absolute beginners, has at least 2 or 3 obvious strengths (connection, musicality, elegance, body movement, technique...). I'm definitely not suggesting you say anything gratuitous. But, men, if you feel an uncontrollable urge to give unsolicited feedback, don't point out one of her areas for improvement. Mention some of her true strengths, instead.

Monday, June 23, 2008

So Sorry For My Absence: My Tango Posts Resume Tomorrow

So sorry, friends, that I haven't posted in awhile.

I've been swamped launching a new website at work & traveling (graduations & baby showers). But I do have some tales to start telling this week about tango, the greatest soccer goal of my life, and the woman I have a crush on (hint: Harry Potter's creator).

Thank you, though, for your polite emails ranging from "So, got any posts in the works?" to "What the hell, Mark?!?"

I'm resuming our tango tomorrow. Please join me.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tango Fever (Part 2): By Laila

I'm very happy to say that I just received Laila's Part 2. Take it away Laila...

Tango Fever, Part 2
From Laila

"The following Saturday morning, I enrolled in my first tango lesson.

The instructor, Nora Dinzelbacher, whose striking beauty was enhanced by glistening, long black hair, welcomed me to class. “First you must learn how to walk,” she told the class. Walk? I can do that. As Nora moved gracefully and with determination across the classroom dance floor, I attempted to model her. However, I soon realized that my walking was completely wrong and so were my shoes, which were flat and didn’t give me enough support in a forward lean. To walk properly in tango, one must stand tall, thrust the chest slightly forward, pull the hips and buttocks up and then push them out a bit and walk with the knees touching each other before each forward or backward step, as if they were fastened together with elastic bands.

So many challenges confronted me at once: standing, then walking correctly, dancing with my chest leaning forward and walking backwards in a straight line in high heels. Then I needed to learn how to dance with a partner - “breast to chest,” forming an A-frame so we could walk without knocking each others’ knees or kicking each other. With my torso pressed against my partner’s, often someone whose name I didn’t even know, I felt awkward, but sometimes comfortable, if the man and I had a good person-to-person and dance connection. When Nora reminded the men to tighten their embrace with their partners, it would cause some nervous giggling among some of the newcomers. Hands on hips, Nora would respond: “Don’t you like to embrace? Why do you think we Argentineans invented the tango?” Yes, I do like to be embraced. I do. I do.

To cope with the intricacies of learning the tango, I have adopted beginner’s mind. I have learned how to walk – and its importance. Oscar Mandagaran, a great tango dancer and instructor, explained that “When one man wants to compliment another man on his dancing, he says, ‘He walks well!”

After many months of listening to and dancing tango, I was bitten by the tango bug. For those of you unfamiliar with this condition, the melancholic chords of the bandoneon pierce the skin ever so gently, enter the bloodstream and then slowly, steadily seep into the heart where they make a home. When one person dances with another who has also been stung by this musical critter, the result can be a delightful affliction.
Several years later, I now enjoy moving in a close embrace, especially if my partner took a shower and didn’t consume too much garlic prior to the milonga. And I’m more confident doing figures such as ochos, molinetes and ganchos without putting him “out of commission.” My initial awkwardness has evolved into some level of confidence and has rewarded me with an abundance of joy. When my partner and I dance as one to the music and I feel his perspiration on my cheek and his heartbeat, I know that there is a heaven after all.

A friend expressed surprise that I could not just pick up tango. “After all,” she said, “You’re a salsa dancer.” To that I replied, “Salsa is to tango what checkers is to chess; you don’t just learn the back and forth moves. You have to learn many facets and how they interconnect. And you need a lot of patience.” I could write so much more about my tango, but I hear the bandoneon calling and I feel a warm, inviting hand in mine – and a fever coming on."