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Janet Lott’s Alexander Technique for Tango Dancers

If you missed Janet Lott’s great workshop for tango dancers, Dancing with Gravity, here is an overview that might be helpful. You can take her next workshop coming up, April 28, 2012.

Janet has an MFA from the California Institute of Art, has directed her own dance troupe, and is a skilled practitioner of Alexander Technique. Janet focused on issues of balance and avoiding injury by understanding what she calls tensegrity of the body.

To help us understand tensegrity and the body we inhabit (one hopes), Janet held up a small model that resembled Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. It was a simple, symbolic model of the body’s muscle anatomy. The bones (pencil-sized wooden sticks) and muscles (elastic bands), surrounded by air, touched only where they inserted, at joints, but never lay on top of each other. They rested, suspended on their own ability or tensegrity.

Janet explained that we have red and white muscles. Athletes who train know these as slow-twitch (white) and  fast-twitch (white) muscles. White muscle is what endurance athletes and marathoners use. Red muscle, which fatigues faster than the white, is what short-distance runners, who quickly become anaerobic (exhaust their air) use.

From Janet who teaches tango and the Alexander technique:

Regarding what I am calling red and white muscles: Think of a chicken’s dark and white meat.  Dark is the legs and thighs, chickens can walk around all day.

Those are the deep muscles that support our bones.  The white is the wings and breast. Chickens can fly in spurts but not very far or for very long.  Those are our larger muscles on the outside (generally) of our bodies that we use for larger movements. These muscle groups can be trained to take over the work of the other, but, generally we desire to enhance the strength of the red muscles because they have greater strength in the long run. We use all these groups all day.  What gets us in trouble (one thing) is using the white muscles to support the bones instead of the letting the red muscles do that.  Using the white muscles to do the work of the red causes the red to loose tone and, therefore, strength.  The good news is that that is reversible. Over use of white muscles is tension and lack of flexibility.  We are not able to move smoothly and easily.

For the most part in tango, we use white muscle. Although, it does look like some of those fancy stage tango moves require fast-twitch muscle. That’s a discussion for another time.

Janet had us lie on the floor and do almost nothing but lie there with our knees bent. We were letting gravity do the work. I had just read that this position is great for that much-touted muscle called the psoas, which connects our spines to our femurs. It’s big and deep inside of us. Lying down on our backs, we give the psoas a chance to rest and recharge.

Next we played with our range of motion. We broke into partners, one person lying still (corpse-pose-like). The other person started at the person’s head, gently rolling that bowling ball on its neck stem joints, with no help from the head’s owner. She then moved to the arms and legs,  doing the same rotation of joints. My partner had a hard time letting go and letting me do the work. For me, this exercise in surrender was very relaxing although my partner never even approached my range-of-motion limit. In tango, we don’t need a wide range of motion for most limbs/joints. The exception is the spinal twist as we call it in yoga. Spinal twist is what you do when you allow your upper body to rotate in opposition to your lower body, as we do in ochos, forward and back. It is a good idea to get agile and smooth at this motion. You will use it numerous times. Imagine that your spine is the axis we allude to. Come on, let’s twist again, like we did last summer . . .

Janet quizzed us on where we think the skull connects to our bodies. We all failed. Let Janet tell you where those important coordinates are in her next workshop. She asked us to touch where our hips (that ball and socket of a joint) originate. Some got it wrong, but I know my hips well from years of yoga hip openers. In tango, we say we move from the hips, although you will repeatedly hear that you shouldn’t sway your hips, as in salsa or other Latin dances, say. This is true, you can check with Janet on this. I would add that the whole body is engaged in tango walking. I fall back on my panther example: That feline may move just a paw or talon at a time, but watch the way her muscles ripple and support that one tiny move even. Total engagement whether it’s white or red muscle, fast or slow-twitch, from the breath to the toes to the crown of your head, all is alive.

Once we knew where our heads connected to our bodies and our hips originated, Janet had us do a lot dancing to music, some of it alone, some in partners. She studied the way we moved and came around helping us to optimize our dance. People in the class who announced that they had balance concerns were quite pleased by the end of the class.

I highly recommend Janet’s workshop, especially for beginning tango dancers. Contact Janet for more info or to reserve 415.272.4811

What Felipe Martinez, one of the Bay Area’s most respected tango teachers, says of Janet Lott: In my experience, the Alexander Technique is very effective for cultivating body/self awareness and release of tension, both essential for tango. Janet Lott knows what she is doing.

Mirabai Goes For TV

Tango Express, February, 2012

While we’re on the topic of brave tango dancers, consider Mirabai Deranja’s quest. The Bay Area tanguera teacher, and performer set her sights high—on the TV show, “So You Think You Dance.” She enlisted the help of tanguero Diego Lanau, to help her, showcasing her skill and talent for the audition on February 22 in Salt Lake City. They won’t know the results-whether Mirabai advances to the next stage in Las Vegas until Saturday, February 25.

If you were lucky you would have caught Mirabai and Diego’s performance at one of the local Bay Area milongas where they practiced their routine before some of the toughest judges in the tango world. They performed two numbers, a salon style tango to Canaro’s La Poema and a riveting stage, or fantasía tango to Pugliese’s La Cachila. If you missed them, watch them here on YouTube.

Mirabai says that in addition to proving her excellence in  tango, she will need to also show that she can dance many other dance forms, including foxtrot, disco, break dancing, quickstep, jive, swing (whew), and all those dances that tangueros forsake once tango enters their lives.

In case you are wondering, Diego is not actually auditioning for the show. He is helping Mirabai audition. “He’s been awesome,” she says, “giving me a helping hand with this.”

Once she gets the desired call back, it’s lots of rigorous work from there on. Our fingers and toes are all crossed that she gets that call back this Saturday.  For more about Mirabai or Diego, check out their websites: or

Open Tango Forum

Continued from Tango Express:

Share your views here:

Tell us what you do for “tangovers.”

Is it good or bad form to inquire of a tanguero/a about how another partner of theirs dances?

Is tango really a vertical position for horizontal desire?

Silvano’s Dance of Internal Conflict

From Tango Express newsletter (February 2012)

Silvano Colombano is  a pioneer worthy of our admiration. Last year,  he braved the first Argentine Tango USA Championship. He agreed to share some high–and low–points of his experience.

I have always been ambivalent about the idea of artistic competitions, mainly because of the inherent subjectivity in the judgment of peers and even “experts” in any human activity that is not quantifiable either in terms of scores or times, as in competitive sports.

So, one of the attractive features of Argentine Tango was precisely the fact that there seemed to be less emphasis on competition, favoring instead connection and individual style, whereas ballroom folks seemed to be always preparing for the next competition, and working on style and steps for that purpose.

On the other hand, I soon came to realize that Tango is very much about competition but not the official kind, instead the constant underlying competition for the acceptance of our respective followers and leaders. So, last year I jumped at the chance of finally exposing my dance to the critical eye of experts.

Well, my first loss in a tango competition hit me much harder than I had envisioned and in ways that I found analogous to the five stages of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s “Death and Dying”(denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). However, I found seven phases in this type of loss:

Denial: 1. After the final qualifier run, they announced the couples that were advancing to the semifinals. These were the longest two minutes I have ever experienced. There must have been a mistake! We had coaching for this event. We were ready. Am I having a bad dream? At this point I actually performed my lucid dreaming “test” to see if I was dreaming or awake.

2. Anger: These judges are crazy! What are they looking for? I can’t believe they picked Couple #-over us!

3. Depression: Note that I’m skipping the “bargaining” step that accompanies actual dying. That seems appropriate only in the contest of possibility still being open. But, man, depression hit me like a ton of bricks. I sat there stunned while the milonga got going. I was holding back my tears. I did a perfunctory dance with a friend I had invited to come and enjoy the event then went off to find my partner.

4. Drama: I’ll never set foot on a dance floor again. I’m tired of the tango scene. I’m going back to Europe. I’m definitely not coming back tomorrow.

5. Embarrassment  There is no such feeling in Kübler Ross’s stages, but it was strong here, at least for me. I had announced the contest on Facebook! And I had added that it was part of a celebration of my upcoming birthday. Got lots of support and wishes, and congratulations for participating. This is far worse than having been turned down by one of the followers I admire. Not only that, but if one of them was present she would see her dismissal of me reinforced and confirmed by the “official” judges: It’s now official. Silvano can’t dance!

6. Rationalization: OK, so I needed to calm down and step back. First, the contest was in strict Tango Salon, therefore no ganchos, high voleos, leg wraps or any moves that take a foot more than a few inches off the floor were not allowed.  That put us in a situation we were not used to, and a leg being too high at any point could have cost us points. We accepted being part of the game. How we were being judged depended only in part on how we “normally” dance Tango.

Second, we, along with other participants, had the courage to put ourselves out there in front of everybody and fight the butterflies in our stomach. People will only remember the winners (who really did deserve to win!) and the fact that we took part. Whether we made it to the first or second round or whatever, is something that loomed gigantic only in our own minds. As a friend of mine aptly put it “nobody cares” and nobody really should. We took our participation seriously, with extra lessons and some extra practice to adapt our dance to the requirements of the competition, but we didn’t go overboard, and we were fully ready concede that there would be many other couples that would do better than we.

7. Acceptance: I still went home determined not to return the next day. I felt I needed at least a day away from the scene in order to “detox.” Well, by 6 pm next day, I called my partner. “I’m ready to go back,” I told her. I was ready to be there to support and cheer on our friends who had moved up. We were all on the same team and we had put on a show together. Now somebody would go on to win and they deserved our friendship, support and rejoicing. “It’s all about spreading happiness,” I had been saying prior to the contest. “Either we win and we’ll be happy, or somebody else will win and they will be happy, and we can be happy with them.”

To my own surprise, at first I found this harder to do than I had expected, but I got there, and I hugged everybody and the new winners, and I danced the night away.

A year after Silvano’s day in the limelight, we asked him for some more insight of his on the competiton experience.

La Pista: What did you like about the competition?

Silvano: I liked having a chance to measure myself against some possibly objective dance standards, and I liked the motivation it provided to take a deeper look at my movement and how I connected with my partner.

LP: Do you feel you got enough helpful information ahead of time?

S: Not really. It remained unclear what “tango salon” really meant. We were simply told “no ganchos”,  “no voleos” etc.  I understood that flying legs couldn’t be part of salon, but there was no reason why low voleos and low gancho/leg-wraps shouldn’t be allowed. In fact several couples who advanced included these in their repertoire. I think I ended up following the “rules” too rigidly  and I handicapped myself. It wasn’t clear how, say, a voleo, would affect your score. Would you be disqualified? Lose points (however point might be given…)? Ignored if graceful and small?  I still don’t know.

LP: What did you not like about the competition? Were there any unpleasant — or pleasant—surprises?

S: Didn’t like the lack of clarity mentioned above.  A couple that missed something as basic as moving with the flow and thus blocked everybody (we were told NOT to pass) was still allowed to advance, so, again, it wasn’t clear what the consequences were of violating “rules”.

LP: What tips would you offer people entering the contest this year?

S: Relax,  do your best, enjoy and accept whatever happens.

LP: In the end, regardless of outcome, was it a rewarding experience?

S: Yes, it was. I was disappointed by our results, but still proud of “our dance” no matter how it was judged. I was also impressed by the sense of comradery  among the contestants and the feeling that we were all in it together and “putting on a show.”

USA Tango Championships

From Tango Express, February, 2012

Dance Like a Star (or With Stars in Your Eyes)

So you think you can tango? Then get ready for the 2012 Argentine Tango USA Championship, April 5-8, at the San Francisco Airport Marriott. The contest, officially sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture of Buenos Aires, is only in its second year in the U.S.

Andrea Monti and Hugo Valdez, master tango teachers and performers, have spearheaded the effort to bring the championships to the United States. In October, 2009, when UNESCO declared Argentine tango as part of the world’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” the couple decided it was time to bring the prestigious competition to the United States. And they did just that last year. Read More.Andrea and Hugo, ardent lovers of tango who met in 1998, teach their salon style to people in the Bay Area and around the world. They’ve been dancing tango for many years-16 for Andrea and 26 for Hugo. “Tango, it’s everything, the love of my life,” says Andre, “Once tango enters your life you can’t leave it.

“It’s the best addiction you can have,” she says, and that seems to be the case for many of us. Whether you compete or not, she says, “The event is fabulous, you get to see people dance, perform.” The four-day event includes workshops, performances, live music and milongas. [See full schedule.]

Like tango itself , the championships are a labor of love. “It was very difficult organizing it,” says Andrea. “We had to follow all the rules from Buenos Aires. The government sent up a representative to make sure everything was in order. The judges have to follow the same criteria in scoring. But the response was very good last year. We were happy.”

Dancers can compete in either or both of two categories of tango dancing-Stage and Salon. The winners in each category move on to compete in the Tango Buenos Aires Dance World Cup (Tango Buenos Aires Mundial de Baile).

Since most of us dance tango as a social dance, the Salon category is apt to attract most entrants. Salon dancers are scored on musicality, posture, and embrace. Says Andrea, “You may be good at the steps and at technique, but if you don’t step with the music, you’re not going to win. You must dance on your axis in close embrace, too.”

She notes that salon is not milonguero style. “Salon involves opening up for the figures, while in milonguero you dance very close, almost never open. The salon embrace is more flexible, not sharing axes or weight. The head position is different-in milonguero, partners look to opposite sides. Salon couples look to same side and there is more air between partners. Steps are longer in salon-no high voleos no ganchos. Everything is done on the floor. No off-axis moves, no volcados or colgados. Embellishments are OK, but no higher than the knee. Salon style is about elegance, the posture/embrace, clean technique, and clean steps.”

Andrea and Gato are not judges this year. So they can teach their style, which has always been salon. Andrea is teaching a very advanced ladies’ technique. “You need to know my system before you can take it. It’s very difficult,” she says.

A couple of tips for the Salon category: Andrea says even the best of dancers should consider getting coaching because “everything becomes more visible on the stage or floor.” Also she advises, “It is important that people know all the orchestras that may be played, not just the popular ones. Otherwise they get nervous during the competition if it’s the first time they hear this music.”

Competing is open to everybody from an intermediate level and higher, professional and amateur. “I know many people are against competition,” says Andrea. “But the promotion and diffusion of tango through this event is very big. Last year, I noticed how the people who registered improved. Because of the challenge, they practice, work, go to privates, workshops. They learn navigation, floorcraft, get special attention to coach them. The level of dance improved in the whole community. People told me they saw it in the milongas here. This is very valuable.”

Last year’s Salon tango winners were Yuliana Basmajyan and Brian Nguyen from Los Angeles, who write, encouragingly, at their website: “We are ordinary people with problems of the common folk.” Brian and Yuliana went on to take third place in Tango Mundial 2011 Salon Category, in Bueno Aires.

So, whether you consider yourself ordinary or extraordinary, imagine yourself among the tango addicts who flock to the World Tango Championships at Luna Park, the historic arena in Buenos Aires that dates back to 1932, and where finalists compete with la crème de la crème of Argentina tango.

Tango on Virgin Redwood

By Camille Cusumano

In the eight years of my tango addiction, I have tangoed on many types of floors and surfaces, indoors and outdoors, from Paris to Prague, New York to San Francisco, Buenos Aires to Montevideo. But I have never danced on virgin redwood. Such was the case this past weekend at the lovely 124-year-old Weller House Inn (1886) in Fort Bragg (Mendocino), California. The dance salon is on the third and top floor of the inn with a high, sloping attic ceiling—also of virgin redwood!— that made the acoustic so pure, so dreamy, I kept looking around for the live acoustic performers. Every milonga has its magic, wherever two or more are gathered in its name. (I am fond of paraphrasing the Bible.) But this floor has to be one of the most superlative. I had no idea, although inkeeper and tanguera, Vivien LaMothe, has been staging events at the inn for several years now.

What drew me up to Mendocino, hallowed ground with which I’ve had an intimate relationship since 1982, was Facundo Posadas and Christy Cote‘s workshops. I am working on my lead now (heaven help you all). And no one teaches body mechanics and technique more clearly, more generously, more patiently than Christy. And Facundo—is there a more charmingly disarming milonguero from Argentina? I have thought not, since the days when I still lived in Buenos Aires and got lucky at  Sunday night’s La Milonguita, where Facundo invited me to dance.

Since about 2005, when I discovered the small tightknit tango community up north, I have been enamored of every single one of its dancers. There’s a tip for those of you who feel intimidated by our big, crowded milongas in the Bay Area. Mendocino milongueros will embrace you in more ways than one, no matter your level. When local teachers Howard & Irene moved to Santa Fe last year, they handed off the teaching to Walter & Raquel, wonderful—buenisimos—dancers, both of them. And why not stay at the Weller House Inn while up there? (see info below). Vivien has a stellar lineup of tango events each month (check her calendar).

Come the Saturday night milonga, I got lucky again, when Facundo invited me to dance to Pugliese—on that floaty virgin redwood. It was awesome and as usual very relaxing. A dancer of his stature could easily make you feel on edge. Not so with Facundo. There is something humble and earthy about him. We didn’t finish the tanda though, but for good reason. Vivien brought up a tray of her homemade flan. So we dove for the ramekins. I can report that caramelized sugar is an excellent enhancement of tango.

Had I not gotten to dance with Facundo, luck was all around for me that evening anyway. I danced with every leader (some twice and thrice) in the room before the night was over. For me, greedy tango glutton, that alone is the mark of a successful milonga.  I went to bed that evening sated, with my usual tango “facelift.”

During breaks between classes, I had a chance to chat with Ching-Ping Peng, Facundo’s partner since 2007. Facundo’s longtime previous partner, Kelly, succumbed to breast cancer a few years back. I was lucky to catch Facundo & Kelly dancing in 2005, during my first visit to Buenos Aires. Like Facundo, Ching-Ping, from Taipei, is down to earth and warm. She told me how she has lived in New York, upper West Side, for 20 years. She had been a member of Cloud Gate Dance Theater, an acclaimed modern dance troupe, when in 2007 she “suddenly fell in love with Argentine tango—and in a flash abandoned a five-continent career in Chinese dance.” Sound familiar? Read more about Facundo and Ching-Ping here.

You’ll learn that Carlos Facundo Posadas (his full name) had a maternal grandfather born in the U.S. who came to Argentina as the chauffeur of a wealthy Mendoza vintner. And that Facundo is the grandson/nephew of Don Carlos Posadas, author of more than forty tangos.

Come Sunday night, it was time to head back to San Francisco. I should have been satisfied, not just with all of the above, but with the blood-oxygenating walks at Glass Beach and MacKerricher State Park. But no. There was the Sunday night milonga in Elk, just three miles off Hwy 128 on my way home. So I hit it and again danced with every leader there, including Raquel, who is among the best. Each time I tried to leave, the DJ (irascible Walter) put on Biaggi or some music that made me turn around and stay until the end. I got on the dark road after 10 pm, but the scent of tango and the redwoods and the will to live for my next tanda saw me safely home by 1:30 am.

THE WELLER HOUSE INN – You must try a Tango Getaway. Ask Vivien about Dancer’s Dorms, for ladies and gents, $50/person if 4 per room, $65/person if 3 per room

Otherwise, weekend room rates range from $160-$210 for two, including classic hot breakfast. All guest rooms have private bath and/or shower.The added inducement about the Weller House is its location on a quiet rural street in Fort Bragg, about ten miles north of the more touristy town of Mendocino (a lovely village packed with  jaw-dropping gorgeous old Queen Annes, Victorians, and other gingerbready architecture, the legacy of the 19th-to-early-20th-century lumber barons). The Weller House is rife with romance—near the Skunk Depot (a train that goes through redwoods to Willits) and it has a room in the Water Tower with an ocean view. Just as breathtaking is the inn’s decor—from Mediterranean to French, British to Asian inspired. There are fireplaces, pressed-tin walls, stained glass windows looking out to the Victorian gardens and fountain, a Jacuzzi in one room. Contact Vivien LaMothe for reservations and information: 707-964-4415;;