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Wellington Tango - An Interview

Wellington Tango
A written Interview with Tango Dancer, Geoff Nicholls by Chris Watson, September 2014
Geoff&Beth cropped.jpg

CW: Thanks for taking time to talk about tango in Wellington, Geoff. Firstly, could you explain why you think tango is so special in Wellington?
GN: I think the main reason that tango here is so good is a combination of Kiwis' love of travel and the direct flights that existed between Buenos Aires and Auckland for years (but have now gone). This means that at any local Milonga more than half of all the dancers have been to Buenos Aires at least once and many of them have been many times. Each of those people brought back a small piece of Buenos Aires with them, and all of it has added to the local scene. Now that there are no more direct flights from Auckland it can be more expensive to get there, which may slow down what was at one time a constant “conveyer belt” between Wellington and Buenos Aires.

Another element in the slowdown was that the rising standard of tango in Wellington resulted in people expecting too much of their Buenos Aires tango holiday and returning disappointed. They passed comment on to others and the drive to go there declined somewhat.

My concern is that the slowdown will result in people relying on their development from visiting stage tango dancers, and the local standard will decline to that of most other places in the world.
My advice to people is to not expect a tango paradise in Buenos Aires but to enjoy the non-stop tango-tourist lifestyle for what it is. And buy great shoes!



CW: Tango was started by porteños (“people of the port”) who migrated from Europe to Mariposas in Buenos Aires in the 1890s. How has tango evolved in recent times?
GN: After the revival of tango in the early 1990s a number of professional dancers entered it and established themselves quickly as stars but without the history of social dancing behind them that was tango's roots. Consequently a quick YouTube search will find teaching footage from the mid 90s of dancers  who were and are big names, however it's clear that they had been dancing tango only a very short time at the time the videos were made, but had found a potentially lucrative bandwagon.

These dancers set the stage for a number of blind alleys in my own dance career for which I'm still surprisingly ungrateful. The best advice that I can give new dancers is, if they love tango and want to improve, to go to Buenos Aires for at least a month and experience it first hand.

The experience of a trip to BA for intermediate level dancers can be profound. I've seen nice men dancing almost apologetically prior to their trip. They appear certain that their dancing is crap but they feel that they're doing their limited best against an unknown standard which they are sure must be astronomical. Their dancing, on their return was markedly changed. They had been to the “Promised Land” and realized that they weren't the worst dancer in the world because they had seen him in BA! Consequently they were more relaxed, stood taller and danced with a quiet confidence.

I had a similar experience. One of the greatest gifts that one can provide oneself as a dancer is the perspective that "Oh my god! I'm not crap!"


CW: For those of us who have never been to Buenos Aires, please would you describe the milonga halls in the Argentine Capital?
GN:  It's quite a surprise for most Wellington dancers on their first trip to BA. On the way to the milongas, or around town, I don't think anything prepares you for the taxi drivers and they're still a thrill for me each time that I go there. They rocket down the avenidas, moving in and out of the traffic flow like fish in a school. I've never seen accidents there but it feels like you're on the verge of one at all times.
But I digress.

The Milonga halls are very different in that the lighting is, almost without exception, bright glaring white. They don't use mood lighting because dancers ask each other to dance by catching their eye and nodding discreetly towards the floor, rather than walking up to ask directly. This head nod is known as cabeceo.  This causes me much amusement in other countries when dancers want mood lighting but try to use cabeceo as well. Men and women peer through the gloom, agonizing over whether the other person is noticing their interest or is ignoring them.


CW: So, would the ideal milonga venue illuminate faces of those people sitting, while leaving the dancing area dark?
Perhaps, but I don't notice the lighting when I dance. I'm more focused on the music and my partner. It's a dance of total commitment and men can only think of one thing at a time, so...


CW: Please go on about the Milonga halls in Buenos Aires.

The floors in Buenos Aires are usually marble or timber and almost always good for dancing. This is not accidental. Many organizers around the world accept the floor as it is, often resulting in sticky slow floors with dancers usually accepting the situation because there is nowhere else to go that night. That doesn't happen in Buenos Aires because there are many events each night and and a poor dance floor would mean lost business, so the floors are generally very good.

Similarly regarding ventilation, Milonga venues without air conditioning have multiple large fans located around the room, because if they don't provide comfortable dance conditions then dancers will go elsewhere. Contrast this with events in NZ's mid-summer where many events are sweat baths, with dancers congratulating themselves, "Oh well, I bet that it's hotter than this in BA!" Well, guess again.
Regarding dance floor conditions, I read a lot of websites and hear a lot of stories that mention arcane phenomena that I've never seen eg perfect lines of dance, no collisions, people moving in lanes, la Ronda, the floor moving like a single organism... Well, I've been going there since 2004 and danced in many different milongas and I can't say I've seen any of this. Perhaps before 2004?

The number of milongas each night and their duration is also a major difference between Buenos Aires and the rest of the world. With so many milongas and with  many of them operating for 4-6 hours, there is a relaxed pace to them which can't be matched by the 2 or 3 hour milongas in other countries. There's no rush to get there by a particular time to eke out every last minute of dancing. There's time to pause, have a drink and watch the dancing, chat with people. It's great!

I think that one's experience of Buenos Aires is linked to one's level of dancing. I remember in 1998-1999 when people would return from Buenos Aires to Wellington and give up tango because they said the difference was simply too awful to bear. Around  2008-2009, dancers began returning to Wellington saying that it really made them appreciate Wellington tango all the more. What changed? The level of dancing has vastly improved over the past 10 years.


CW: So how did tango start and evolve in Wellington?
GN:  David Backler was the first tango teacher in Wellington and started teaching in 1991. When he moved to Melbourne in 1997, he passed the torch to Graeme Dallow and Graeme is the one remembered most as driving tango's growth here in the early days. He dropped out for a few years as he felt unappreciated and sidelined, however Beth and I pursued him and taught him to the point where he felt confident to return. He went on to become universally respected and confided to me that someone had referred to him as the “Godfather” of Wellington tango. He was very pleased!

I began dancing tango in late 1997 at which time there was only one Milonga per month at the Grand Hotel. The only other Milonga opportunity was at a fortnightly salsa party that had a lesson at the start of the evening and a 30-minute tango slot from 12-12.30 at the end. One night this small piece of tango was taken away because 'there was a great vibe going on the salsa floor!' This was so frustrating that it resulted in the first weekly dedicated (salsa-free!) tango event run by Nancy Nichols-Acevedo. This was about 1999.

Tango went through a growth spurt about that time and the number of weekly milongas and practicas has increased over the years, although sometimes held back by politics and small-mindedness. We now have sometimes 11 events per week which is astronomical for a town and dance scene of this size. People will always complain of too many (or too few) events but usually those people do little to welcome new people into the  scene, or introduce them to people, and so make their own small contribution to filling those events.


CW: You give a lot of time to teaching. What gives you the most satisfaction about seeing people enjoying their dance?
GN:  It's a very special experience helping people change their lives, which is what we often do. Many of the people that we've taught had never thought that they could be dancers, were struggling through relationship breakups, or were being challenged in some areas of their lives. Watching people blossom from a nervous beginner to a confident dancer who then helps other people into the dance scene that has given them so much...that's a special feeling.

Most people find tango a consuming passion that introduces them to warm, friendly people and inspires them to travel, hug people more often and (ahem) buy dance shoes. Lots of dance shoes. Just because. I can stop any time that I want.


CW: You and your wife, Beth, obviously teach tango for the satisfaction of giving other people the enjoyment of the dance. How does this compare with class teaching?
GN: Teaching group classes was a frustrating experience for us because while it can pay well it really isn't a very good way of learning for students. The body mechanics of tango are quite straightforward so we'd use 3- or 5-step moves to demonstrate how good posture, connection and movement made them easy to lead and follow. Some students would understand, others were searching for a teacher pill that would make them a good dancer in 3 weeks, and others were seeking step patterns. We made great friends who've become good dancers but ultimately we decided that we'd rather spend our evenings together and teach mini solos at the weekend.

The advantages of one-on-one lessons for experienced dancers are that we can focus on specifics. The advantage for newbies is that we can demonstrate good technique one on one, rather than have them struggle through a class with another beginner or helpful (but usually unhelpful) intermediate.

We can't teach a lot of students this way but it's a lot more satisfying watching them progress.



CW: What have you learned about life from your passion for tango?
GN: Look for the natural fit with people!


CW: It is referred to as the dance of seduction. How does this representation affect the dance?
GN: Tango had better not lose that association, because I use it as a key teaching metaphor! I don't think that link is familiar to most Kiwis who tend to see tango as just a dance and confuse it with ballroom tango, which I have to say is a negative association among non-dancers that I've met. Sorry about that, ballroom people, but that's my experience.

I use the metaphor of the 'dance of seduction' because the body mechanics of the dance fit the metaphor so well. For example, 'it's got to be smooth, it's got to be nice, otherwise no one goes home with anybody!' It's a very good line for getting a laugh, relaxing people and reassuring newbies who might otherwise be intimidated by rough intermediates, whether leaders or followers.

There's no question that dancing with good leaders and followers can be WONderful, especially if your local scene doesn't have them, but any seductions will always come down to good or bad choices, just as with the rest of life.


CW: People talk about the secrets whispered between dancers on the milonga. Do people dancing tango become a community?
GN:  I used to think so but now I'd say only in the loosest possible terms.  I'd prefer the term 'subculture' or 'scene' as it sidesteps the feeling of fuzzy-minded goodwill that the term 'community' suggests.

Basically it comes down to natural friendships. If new people enter a scene and find people with whom they're simpatico then they have a reason to stay, and the snowball begins to roll. If they encounter unfriendly people then they will walk away and everyone loses out. Hopefully there are more positive people than negative people in the scene otherwise it will waste away and die.


CW: You are also a keen mountain biker with a background in surfing. Aren’t they very different from tango.
GN: Well, I've been into lots of other action sports too, including windsurfing, snowboarding and motocross. Robby Naish, windsurfing god, was asked why he liked driving race cars when they were oily and smelly, whereas windsurfing was so clean and pure. He replied enthusiastically that it was the difference that was partly the appeal, but that the feeling of accomplishment from doing something well was the same for both.

That's part of it but I have to say that if I have an evening where most of my partners have been guessing steps, had no axis, were wobbling bags of jelly, had been guessing every weight shift, the music/floor was dreadful etc...the mountain bike looks pretty appealing!

Luckily that's an unusual occurrence in Wellington so tango is almost always the highest priority. It's the most inspiring and fulfilling thing that I've ever done.

CW: Why is posture and connection critical?
GN:  Good posture ( ie dancing by carrying your own weight with a defined axis) makes you as light as you can be, easy to follow or lead, and opens the door to a wider range of musical expression. Who wouldn't want that? Dancing without a defined axis is like walking in mud. You may be smooth but by god you'll be heavy and/or vague to lead or follow.

Connection between dancers is what separates tango from many other dance forms. The phrase 'one big heart with four legs' expresses it pretty clearly. Without connection in tango then all that we have is a ballet duet.


CW: What would you say are the rules of tango?
GN:  Oh dear. So many tango dancers get sidetracked by the rules, especially outside Buenos Aires where some organizers try to be more Argentine than the Argentines. New people especially get nervous about how much they don't know, and some experienced dancers like to play on that to increase their sense of importance.

One of my favourite milongas in Buenos Aires publishes their codes at the door. Most of them are common sense rules for dancing in a confined space eg don't step back, keep your heels on the floor, dance anti clockwise around the room. The lynchpin, however, is this: 'Furthermore, and very important, respect is the first card we play in the game of the milonga.'

Respect for other dancers is so important. Don't be a dick.  


CW: Some people may have seen dramatic tango on television or movies. What types of tango are danced in Wellington?
GN:  Well, when most people think of tango they either think of ballroom tango or stage Argentine tango ie lots of tricks, short skirts, leg wraps and spectacular moves, danced in open embrace ie at arms length. Wellington tango was quite like that back in the late 1990s-early 2000s, largely because the travelling teachers that came here relied on teaching sequences and patterns to keep people interested. Times have moved on and most tango dancers in Wellington dance close-hold when disparities in height don't make it unreasonable. By close-hold I mean chest-to-chest, gliding around the floor as one body to gorgeous music, while the violin does that special thing where it goes, you know, like...
Sorry. I need a sit-down and a nice cup of tea, I'm getting a little carried away.


CW: What is tango like in other countries?
GN: Travelling between Wellington and Buenos Aires is like walking next door for me, there's not a great difference from a leader's perspective (I rarely get a chance to follow in BA).

Travelling between Wellington and most other countries is like stepping into a time machine, and not in a good way.  It usually feels like it did in the late 90s in Wellington, when I started. That is, most men don't lead very well, most women don't follow very well, and there's only a distant appreciation of connection. They're still very nice people and I'm usually a popular dancer because I give of my best, but I get plenty of opportunities to think about why those differences exist. As I said earlier, I think it's because such a high proportion of Wellington dancers have been to Buenos Aires so often.


CW: What are the rhythms and instruments in tango music?
GN:  The main instruments are the double bass, violin, piano, and the signature instrument is the bandoneon. This is a kind of accordion with a more sombre tone, made in Germany and shipped to Argentina in the early days as a stand-in for church organs.
There are three main rhythms to which tangueros dance ie
  • Tango is 4/4 or 2/4 in the case of early tangos
  • Milonga is 2/4
  • Waltz is 3/4

I was taught in my early days by Argentine teachers that the three dances had different steps danced in completely different ways. Now I know better and realize that most of our teachers had only been dancing a few years at that time, what with the early 90s rediscovery of tango after it had a Near Death Experience following the deposing of Juan Peron in the 50s.

Now I think that the linkage between them is firstly the connection between leader and follower, and then the connection between the united couple and the music. That musicality defines good tango for me.


CW: Tango is danced on the terrazzo floor at Wellington Railway Station and on the marble pavement with the moon rising over the harbour at Massey memorial. How does tango dancing in the streets compare to dancing in a milonga hall?
GN:  We should be clear here that you are talking about guerrilla tango events proceeding in public spaces without prior approval by civic authorities, and I would be the last person to possibly condone such inappropriate behaviour. However I imagine that dancing to beautiful music while a full moon rises over one of the prettiest harbors in the world, with the city lights twinkling in the distance, and even a tall ship gliding past in the channel under power on a still, balmy night … I'd imagine that would be a rather treasured experience, wouldn't you?

Similarly, I'm sure that dancing in a space shared with commuters, many of whom might stop, watch and applaud, has to be a good thing for raising the profile of tango.  The atmosphere would be as much about the audience as the experience of the dancing couple, which is primarily what tango is about.


CW: What prompts people to start tango?
GN: That's a small question with a big answer! For me it was because tango was in the air at the time. The movies 'Scent of a Woman' and 'True Lies' included tango as a theme and I started looking around for more. After I had been dancing only a short time I saw 'Tango Lesson' by Sally Potter.  After that …

Beth and I met Sally and her co star Pablo Veron in London. They appeared to be having a bad night and looked a little unhappy with the world, so we went over and thanked them for making such a difference to our lives. They brightened right up, their eyes glistening, and thanked us, their evening made much happier. It was a special moment for us, too.

I've seen a surprising range of people become tightly involved with tango, I've seen it change lives many times. Taciturn Kiwi blokes and impassive Asian guys have relaxed and flowered into warm, funny popular dancers. People who've struggled after relationship breakups have found warm, supportive friendships and sometimes new relationships. People who'd never considered dancing as a possibility for them have become very good dancers and able to help others improve.

I have to say that the essential point is that they all like being close to people. It's very unlikely that people will enjoy tango if the thought of hugging other people is a turn-off. That willingness to reach out and engage with another person is central to the dance, otherwise it just turns into a collection of briskly executed step patterns.


CW: Is experience from other dance helpful?
GN:  Absolutely! Primarily because almost every dance style stresses the need for good posture, which is the entry point for good dancing in tango. It's much more difficult to teach untrained people not to slouch than to teach a ballet dancer to connect and to follow. The ballet dancer may have to overcome years of experience as a solo dancer, where connection with another dancer didn't exist, but just having an axis makes his or her journey much easier.


CW: How is tango organised in Wellington?
GN:  There are anything up to 11 events each week in Wellington, which is astounding considering its small population. These include practices and dance events, and there are a number of teachers teaching group classes and private lessons as well.

The central coordination point is the common tango calendar. I set this up back in the late nineties. It lists the events and lessons for Wellington and some other locations and allows organizers to avoid clashes for the most part. It's located at www.tangonz.org

Some teachers work together teaching group classes but most teachers and organizers work independently. I tried organizing a common marketing approach some years ago but it never went anywhere as there wasn't enough common ground. For instance, one teacher with a ballroom background and who taught step sequences suggested that all the teachers should teach the same set of signals so that followers from each school would have a common understanding of which sequence was coming up next. This was anathema to the other teachers for whom improvisation, moment by moment, step by step, was key to the whole experience.


CW: Do you have any advice for people starting tango?
GN:  I give beginners very simple advice ie "It's a dance of seduction. It has to be smooth. It has to feel nice. Otherwise no-one is going home with anyone. If it doesn't feel smooth or nice...and you're trying to make it that way...then perhaps the problem isn't that you're a newbie. Perhaps your partner doesn't really understand the dance."

I call this teaching approach Allocation of Blame. We found that it prevented new followers from being intimidated by experienced leaders who didn't actually lead very well. It helps new leaders in the same way, when dancing with experienced followers who don't actually follow well.

When people ask me for advice about workshops by visiting teachers I usually advise them to check YouTube for their demos, and if they want to dance like those teachers then why not? It's part of each dancer's journey. Some journeys are longer than others but learning discernment is part of all of them.



Bio
Chris Watson is a Wellington architect and tango dancer since 2010

Geoff Nicholls began dancing tango in 1997. He met his wife Beth on the dance floor in 2002 and they have been teaching and travelling together internationally for tango since 2003.


Tango classes and events in Wellington can be found at www.tangonz.org

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