Milonga and vals class, Salem, Summer 2009

I disagree with teachers who think that new tango learners should avoid milonga and vals until their tango is in good form. Frankly, I think these two dances are more accessible than tango. The music is catchy and more cheerful, which attracts dancers from other genres (lindy, West Coast swing, contradancers, folk dancers, ballroom folk). Also, because the emphasis is on really moving to the music, beginners can let go of aiming for perfection in technique and enjoy DANCING. Too often (IMHO), tango learners and teachers forget that this is supposed to be FUN!

OK, off my soapbox, at least for a few seconds. In milonga and in vals, what I look for in a partner is: connection, ability to move me to the music, joy in dancing and (icing on the cake) good technique. Given that, we worked on learning a few moves, oldies but goodies, and spent the bulk of our time honing our musicality.

Milonga musicality

In milonga, you can focus on moving on the stressed beat of the music, without pauses or syncopation for the most part. This produces an elegant, more flowing dance (smooth milonga, or milonga lisa). This is a good starting point for the beginning milonga dance, as well as a form that can be taken to amazingly graceful heights with practice.

The "Everyready Battery Bunny" exercise is based on this style: followers step on each beat, in place, heels touching, unless moved through space by the leader. Of course, in "real life," you wouldn't be this automatic about it; but it helps to be ready to move on each beat so that the dance goes smoothly. Make sure that you are not automatically walking backwards: the leader gets to pick the direction and the step. You just help make it musical and peppy!

The other style of milonga is milonga traspie which focuses on syncopation to play with the music in a more boisterous way. I think that the dance should still be elegant, but with underlying groove so that it rocks (please, no bouncing arms). Oscar and Georgina did a milonga at Wednesday night (Norse Hall) that had most of us rooted to our chairs: it was sexy, elegant and raucous as the same time! (and then they sat down and said, "Interesting! We've never danced milonga to [cumbia] before!" Wow: brand new music AND amazing musicality.

But I digress. The traspie steps that we began belong to this style of milonga.  Traspie literally means "behind the foot", but can also mean "stumble" or "trip." This step has that tripping rhythm: BAHdum BUM, but only if you use a rebound (revolte): instead of three even counts, I think rebound, STEP. It's not about the initial step: this move stresses the step after the rebound.

Everything we did EXCEPT the vai-ven step (see step review at the bottom of this post) can be turned into a syncopated move. Other people may not agree with me, but I think this step only looks good when the timing remains slow (6 slow steps).

Milonga clips

Here are a few YouTube clips to inspire you. Oscar and Omar learned from the old milongueros. Dani IS an old milonguero. The young couple have nice style, and are repeatedly using the turning grapevine we learned: look how you can put the traspie steps in between!Elegant and sassy milonga: Oscar and Georgina

Omar Vega doing candombe milonga: outrageous and crazy!

Dani: milonguero doing a great milonga

Here's the turning grapevine step

Here's the half-grapevine/sawtooth thingie (and adornos): Graciela Gonzalez

Vals musicality

There are several ways to use the music in vals. Vals is in 3/4 timing (three beats per measure, with the first beat stressed). There is nothing wrong with sticking to moving on the first beat of each measure, but if you want to play with the music, practice each of these separately, walking and later dancing moves. Then, put them together. The BLOB exercise we did focused on playing around with all the rhythms, while moving through space. I find singing along (Dah DEE Dah dum DAH DAH DAH dum . . .) helps, but then again, I was trained as a singer before getting into dancing.

Normal possibilities

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 . . . (accent on the first beat of each measure; this is used the most)

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 . . . (accent on the first and last beat of each measure; this is also used a lot)

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 . . . (accent on the first and second beat of each measure; equally cool, but used less)

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 . . . (all three beats of the measure used; avoid using this as a default, oh my ballroom dancing tangueros!)

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3 . . . (pauses of . . . whatever length; not used as much in vals as in tango, but useful)

Places to mess around with this:

  • walks (corridas, or little runs of QQS)
  • turns (remember, some steps of the turn are traditionally quicker): on the back and next side step, try different variations.
  • walking to the cross: "maybe yes cross" can be done in many different timings; play around! New folks this session: we didn't do this step, so don't worry about this)
  • turning grapevine: perfect place to play
  • traspie: usually done in syncopated timing anyway, but play with 1 3 1 and 12 1 timing.

Abnormal possibilities

Musically inclined leaders who have advanced tango skills and advanced music skills, tend to go off the beaten path with vals. I find myself led into moves such as "1 . . . 2 3 . . 3 1" simply because the leader thinks it's fun to make me dance on the off beats. Leaders: this MESSES with follower's brains; only do this when you know the follower will enjoy the geekiness of the variations (most will NOT enjoy it because it detracts from the flow of the dance). As a tango geek, I can appreciate strangeness IF IT IS LED WELL.

Folks who lead this well: Evan (now of NYC); Alex (Pland); Charles (Eugene) and Noah (Eugene). I'm sure there are more, but these guys understand the music on a deep level. Even after fourteen years of leading tango, I personally don't like to lead these strange variations, except with one or two stellar followers who purr, giggle and verbally express appreciation of the silliness.

Vals clips on Youtube

After a week with Oscar and Georgina, so few folks look good out there on YouTube (yes, I know I am biased, but after all, that's why I organize for them! They are amazing). I couldn't find a vals with them dancing, but here's another couple who taught me a lot about vals musicality in their classes in Buenos Aires:

Tete y Silvia: remember the "walk and turn" exercise we did? I learned that in Tete y Silvia's classes in Buenos Aires. As long as you are clear about what direction you are heading, it's easy for the follower to keep up.

Vals at Glorias Argentinas: Although these folks don't have fabulous technique, they DO have fabulous musicality and connection. Watch how he only uses a few patterns to make a nice dance.

Nestor Ray and Silvina Vals: very much like Tete, Nestor Ray has a very turny, smooth dance.  Watch how he does lots of walking and turning--and not much else; look how nice it is!

Milonga and Vals steps from class

Given the fact that two of our leaders had never danced tango/milonga/vals before these six weeks (bravo, guys!), I stuck to basic moves that you can use in all three dances equally well. Those of you who are more advanced can look at your review sheets from the past year, and add back in other moves we've learned. Also, it never hurts to work on musicality: how many ways can you do each of these?

  1. walking forward LOD (that is, leader walking facing line-of-dance)
  2. walking backward LOD (leader)
  3. taking side-together steps: out towards the side of the dance floor, or LOD (leader's left shoulder facing LOD and leader's right shoulder facing LOD)
  4. vai-ven step (go-come): Leader's step is forward on the left, in place with the right, in place with the left; back step with the right, in place with the left, in place with the right. I like using this to bracket the turning grapevine, to find my space on the dance floor, or to finish a sequence where the music is calming down after something more vibrant. Follower's step: back on the right, in place with the left, in place with the right; forward on the left, in place with the right, in place with the left.
  5. turning grapevine (clockwise, traveling LOD):1. Leader steps forward on left, 2. forward and through with the right (like going to the cross), and then 3. steps laterally line of dance (lead faces out, follower faces in); leader 4. steps back on right, 5. back on left (leading follower forward and through to the inside), and 6. open with the right (lead facing in, follower facing out). Follower does the same steps as the leader, but in this order: 456 123. In other words, follower steps back on right, back on left, laterally (facing in) with right, LOD; then forward on left, forward and through with right, and laterally (facing out) with left, LOD; finish with a walk or whatever.
  6. Ocho cortado ("cut ocho"): Leader steps forward on left (either after salida or from walking . . . no "correct" way); then rocks back onto right foot; then steps backwards on left foot, leading the follower through to the leader's right side.  Leader then puts both feet down OR steps SLIGHTLY open with right, to lead the follower in the last three steps; finishing with feet together, ready to walk out with left foot.  Follower steps back on right, rebounds forward onto left foot, steps forward and through with right foot, then pivots slightly into a lateral step (like a side step of a turn). This step rebounds back to the follower's right foot, and then the leader pivots the follower again to close the left foot in front, as in going to the cross.  If you Google ocho cortado on YouTube, you will see what we talked about in class: EVERYONE has different ideas of how this step SHOULD be done. I've taught you what feels most comfortable for the follower, but feel free to mess around with variations ;-) ocho cortado
  7. Giros ("turns"): Remember the "rocks-in-the-stream" game? We walked, listening to the music, and then did half or full turns and then walked again. Remember that, just like water in a stream, the movement rarely stays in one spot for a long time. A lot of turns continue to travel down the dance floor while turning. Let this exercise provide some improvisation in your dance. Instead of worrying about where to start and end the turn, just walk and turn, walk and turn, as the music tells you. The follower's job is to stay with you. HOWEVER: if you are not clear about what direction your torso is pointing/moving (downstream, please), the follower will not know, either. Clarity, clarity, clarity! For those of you who prefer structure: you can turn from a side step, so that the follower's first step is a front or back cross around you. We also looked at starting turns as the leader stepped back in the vai ven.
  8. Sawtooth/half-grapevine: I'm sure there is a name for this step, but I learned it dancing with old guys in the milonga, not in a class; no one said, "Hey, let's do the x step!" To start, leader does a salida, moving LOD with the left foot, facing "out" of the space. Then, leader steps forward and through with the right (like going to the cross); and steps TOGETHER with the left; steps straight back (towards the center of the floor) with the right; and together OR open with the left. If you step together, you get a very crisp, sawtoothed pattern. If you step open, you get a "castle wall" kind of effect.  Neither is wrong, but stepping together looks more elegant and takes less room. The follower needs to be careful not to automatically do a grapevine pattern without being led. Follower steps side with the right, LOD, to start, then back diagonal with the left, still moving LOD and outwards from the dance space. After that, the follower steps in place with the right foot, and straight forward with the left foot, to begin again or exit.
  9. Traspie ("stumble, trip"): We did two versions of this: 1. sd, rebound, step forward (for leader); and 2. fd, rebound, step forward (for leader), which seems to be harder for a lot of folks. Remember that the rebound has to happen BEFORE taking the forward step. You MUST return to an on-axis, body-over-supporting-foot balanced position before continuing through for the next step. If you have Oscar and Georgina's rhythmic tango DVD, there are wonderful instructions for doing this well (as well as ocho cortado variations). I can't find it on YouTube; ah, well.

I've really enjoyed this class. I find it impressive that we have dancers who have six weeks of tango experience (really, none, since we did milonga and vals), up to four years' experience, in one class. With one exception, we covered information requested by the class: new moves; musicality; walking; milonga; and better posture, technique, etc.. Sorry that we didn't get to your boleos, Karen.

For those of you who live close enough to get to Portland, Robert Hauk and I will be collaborating on a milonga class up there this fall. Stay tuned for details!