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Choreography or not? (a beginner's guide)

I recently got drawn into a tango blog discussion as to whether a tango demo was a video or not. They said it was improv, I disagreed, and suddenly I was called upon to justify my view with evidence and tempers were starting to flare. A bit of an over-reaction but that's the world of tango blogs for you. People care about this stuff. A lot.

Rather than publish it there I thought that I'd publish my beginners guide here, instead.

At the outset I probably need to say that I don't like watching demos, although I appreciate that they're great as a means of drawing new people into tango, and motivating people to improve. However I was sidetracked for a few years by perceiving demos as examples of good dancing.  I see many dancers here and overseas in the same situation, so I now see demos as simply a diversion.  A bit like ballet, another dance that doesn't push my button.

I also won’t be linking to any demo videos as I don’t want to pick on anyone in particular as you’ll see what I’m talking about in most videos.

I never expect to see improvisation in a tango demo although it does pop up from time to time. To illustrate that point...
A well-respected Argentine teacher-friend told me that if he doesn't have a current partner when preparing for a tour then he just finds a ballet or contemporary dancer who is interested in tango. He said that ballet dancers learn the necessary choreos much faster than tango dancers and then it's just (?) a matter of teaching the ballet dancer to follow. He saw this approach as simpler than to teach a tango dancer the required choreography.

Many professionals insert short choreos into their performances at specific points in the music. This gives them a repeatable map for their performances, which ensures that they do something appropriately spectacular at those points so that their audience doesn't fall asleep. They could map out the entire song but it's not always necessary, as the bits between can look nice enough with fairly simple walking, a sacada here, a boleo there.  It's possible to over-choreo the demo so that it becomes an endless string of fancy tricks, all flash and no substance.
As an analogy, a rally-driving dancer might describe the walking bits as the 'transport section’ (on public roads) between the 'special stages' (on closed roads) where the real action happens.

The most obvious and common indicators of choreo in a performance are:
- when the two dancers' feet are landing out of sync with each other, or when the follower is extending her leg so far in the step that the leader is drawn off-balance and/or his posture crumbles.
- when the leader makes an obvious signal to the follower prior to a complex move. My favorite example is when a visiting teacher stretched his leg out forward, nodded at his partner, she then stretched her leg out backward, they carefully did a cross at the same time (click!), and then he hurtled backwards in a front-cross traspie with her trying to keep up, madly changing weight on her own. Laugh? I nearly dropped my fan!

The next most obvious is outrageously fast, lightning-fast, complex steps (see above). Lead/follow can only accomplish so much in a short span of time, even with a razor thin axis, amazing connection and relaxed legs.  It's tempting to bow at the feet of Dance Gods, trusting in their fabulosity, but they are only human after all.

Many times when I see 'improv' performances it's often a series of 5-step-or-so choreos that are stitched together on the spot. It may look like an improv performance but the breaks are usually there to be seen. You have to look pretty closely, and it helps if you have led a number of professional dancers so that you know what you're looking for.
The way that I notice it in demo videos is in a hesitation by the follower as she tries to decide which sequence is intended, then a surge forward to catch up to the music and make it look good. It's easier felt as a leader than seen, but once felt then it's relatively easy to see.

To close, I'd like to quote a local lady, a very good follower: "Before I learnt to lead I could never tell whether a performance was choreography or not. Now I can tell the difference straight away!"
Learn to dance both lead and follow and you will, too.


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