For Yelizaveta Nersesova teaching is a process of learning, finding ways to express and describe verbally the abstract, internal experience of tango. Her classes like laboratories where everyone come together to discover, explore and create forms in space.
Tango music is an acquired taste. The first few times I found myself at a milonga I noticed that I could not really tell one song from another, they all sounded the same. The first time I heard the words "OMG I love this song!" from a partner, the question that followed in my mind was "why?" as in, "this music is so uninteresting, what is there to like?" I remember feeling my preference for alternative, pop music when I danced. I felt more free in it, I could understand it better, it was more fun. Over the years though something began to change, and I found myself experiencing unexpected bursts of emotion when certain tangos played. Suddenly I would be transported to a very specific place and time, to a very specific memory and the song would move me as if I myself wrote it.
My first concrete attempt at understanding tango music happened a couple of years ago when I attended a musicality workshop with Alex Krebs in Portland. I remember many brilliant things about that weekend, but the overpowering feeling that I was left with at the end was something that resembled a combination of bewilderment and confusion.I saw and understood that there was a way of hearing and expressing the music in the dance that illuminated and made visible the individuality and uniqueness of each orchestra, but I had absolutely no idea how...
Being an educator I am always fascinated by the process of journeying from a place of not knowing to a place of knowing. So in my musical conundrum I saw a perfect opportunity to study myself, my own mind, my own processes of learning. My goal was straightforward - to develop the ability to distinguish between orchestras in order to know what and how my body wants to express the music. I quickly learned what did not work for me. Anything to do with memorizing, making notes, lists, or reading about the songs, reading the lyrics... basically anything language-based did not help me, it only frustrated me. But then I did stumble upon a very simple, very effective, and pleasurable process that has made the study of tango musicality a pure joy.
The process revealed itself suddenly one night at the start of my 6-month stay in Buenos Aires in 2015. I was having one of those sublime cosmic dances in the darkly lit La Viruta. With my eyes closed I was aware of the blue light shining from the left and the deafeningly loud music blaring from the corner speaker. Suddenly I was transported to a different place and time, I was a glamorous 1930s Jean Harlow type running after my lover (Clark Gable maybe?) through an opulent palace. Everything in my movement was the emotion of the inner drama I felt. The song was a whole lifetime and it was alive through my body. As I opened my eyes after it ended, I was completely disoriented and walked away from my partner in the opposite direction of where we were supposed to go. The process found me - imagination.
I began to approach each song as if it were a soundtrack to a movie I was starring in. I let my imagination take over and I noticed my mind would embellish more and more the drama of the songs I was hearing. These dramas have become more specific and unique. With Fresedo I might be in a sweet silent film with Charlie Chaplain, while in some late DiSarli I am in a 1950s epic hollywood film. My imagination takes me to places of deep, mysterious emotions with Pugliese, reminding me of ancient tragedies. But with Canaro, there is rarely anything but sweetness and nostalgia, like memories of childhood. Sometimes I feel youthful and innocent other times I am full of rage and passion. Now dancing tango for me is not just about choreographing specific steps in a visually pleasing way. There is another dimension where every movement, every gesture arises from the emotional dialogue I have with the orchestra I am hearing.
The obvious reward of this exploration is the feeling of satisfaction I get when I realize that I now do recognize a lot of the orchestras that I am dancing to. There are few things more satisfying than setting a goal for yourself and then actually achieving it. But what is more interesting to me is the fact that I was able to initiate a learning process of something I did not understand, without any guidance from anyone else, without spending time researching or studying. I learned from my own body, by observing and studying my own mind, constantly coming back to the pleasure of the dance and what I was seeking revealed itself so simply and so gracefully. There was no difficulty, there was no struggle there was no enduring of something for a while before you get the rewards... I simple went from not knowing into a place of knowing and the path of pleasure proved to be the best shortcut.
Interested in learning more about tango music? Join my FREE Musicality talk on September 6th and Weekend Intensive September 9-10. Find more information here.
Another Friday night and I find myself walking down the street, past the lively restaurants, past the crowded ice cream shops, past the large groups of people gathered on corners laughing, smoking, drinking. I walk with purpose, with anticipation, with the usual butterflies in my stomach. As I turn the corner I begin to hear the familiar melodies wafting through the air, drawing me in towards the source. "A moth to a flame." Even though I have been doing this almost every night for the past six months, even though I have danced over 500 hours since I arrived in Buenos Aires, I still feel the same excitement/fear/anticipation/nervousness every time I head to a milonga. Some nights are magical, others are a complete disaster, and sometimes I oscillate between bliss and torment throughout the night. Whole lifetimes pass through me in a single night, molding me, testing me, punishing and rewarding me.
As I approach the door, I am greeted warmly with a big hug and the familiar kiss on the cheek. I look out on the dance floor, and take it all in once again - the bodies moving in unison, the long legs, the short skirts, the low cut dressed, the furrowed brows, the firm embraces. It is like stepping into another dimension or being plugged into a virtual reality of some kind (I am thinking here of Neo being plugged into the Matrix for the first time). And in this moment, all of the past nights of dancing do not count, no other milonga exists, to me it feels like this is the first time. I am in awe at how this dance is even possible. It is as if I have never danced it and as I watch I am convinced that I really can't do what the people in front of me are doing. I stroll to the back, I kiss the familiar faces, and hug the familiar bodies. I sit down, I put on my shoes, I asses, I wait. And then it happens, a subtle nod of the head, and I am walking onto the dance floor to join the others and part of me is absolutely terrified, "there is no way I can do this." Thousands of thoughts begin to push through my mind, wrestling for my attention - "don't collapse the hip, use your center, relax your shoulder, but don't drop the arm...." With my heart racing, and my body trembling with adrenalin, I guide myself to take a deep breath and bring myself into focus.
As I turn my attention and trust to my body, everything unnecessary dissolves and what rises to the surface are the few guiding insights I have gathered over the past six months of studying with teachers who have really become mentors. I see the smiling face of Mariana Dragone saying "When I move, I don't move my body, I move the world around me." As my partner embraces me, I imagine this and I feel my body grow powerful, rooting itself into the ground. I begin to receive the guidance of the lead, pushing against the world, stepping with confidence. The rhythmic beats give way to the melody, and I am invited to pivot and turn, my axis spiraling around my friend's. The calm voice of Eugenia Parilla echoes through my mind, "Let. Let free the leg, let free the arm, let free the joints." I let go of the fear of losing my balance, of not following perfectly, of misreading the lead. I tune into the essential physics and follow my body's natural momentum. The tiny fluctuations of tone throughout are like plucked strings on a guitar, delivering a perfect harmony to my partner's melody. We pulse, we sway, we spin and I experience that mysterious state where the boundaries of my physical form dissolve and it is the music itself that is moving through space. The feeling is so overwhelming that I suddenly doubt that I am really capable of experiencing it. Surely it can't be this perfect, surely my technique is not good enough yet, my experience not sufficient yet. But before that thought can even fully form in my mind, I meet the eyes of Oscar Cassas as he says to me, "Look, in the end, you must dance yourself, you cannot dance anyone else."So I continue to dare to feel this bliss, to feel good about myself, to accept my imperfect pivots, my faulty footwork, I dare to fully enjoy, to fully experience pleasure, to completely devour every moment, to really dance. The song ends and we linger in the embrace for a few more moments. As we separate, we look at each other without saying anything, just smiling, knowingly, anticipating the chords of the next song. I embrace my partner again, tuning into his body, listening, breathing. I can't help but smile as I remember another parting gift from Oscar Cassas in our last lesson. When I asked him how I could bring more form to my dance, he paused and then said, "I want you to imagine that you are a tiger..."
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