Workshop Roulette

Workshops are one of my favorite forms of dance-study, second to private lessons. At their best, they have a carnivalesque quality and offer an utter constellation of revelations and ideas, all of which serve to re-energize my dance and give me fodder for the next two or three months of practice. All the while, they require less commitment than group classes, with a little bit more bang for your inflated dollar, since there isn't the inevitable period of readjusting in each class period. Granted, they have the potential for being an utter waste of time if notes are not taken, lessons are not applied to practice, or too many workshops cause brain-freeze. I've taken to limiting myself to one or two at a time, unless I am at a festival and I have the ulterior motive of meeting potential partners for later milongas and indulging in a little teacher tapas. I try to follow at least a quick notation of what we've covered - really what stuck out to me as new and game-changing - at the end of each workshop. More useful to me is trying to walk myself back through what we covered shortly after the lesson and then again a day or two afterwards. If I do this, usually the lesson material remains on tap for future practice. If I don't, it may all well evaporate until the next time similar material is covered and it all comes rushing back!!

Then, Santa's Elves come and tinker
with you and suddenly you're
the world's best dancer!!
Regular group lessons offer a great shot at consistency - given that students are structured into a routine that reinforces skills from the week before and builds on these progressively with partners who are similarly building (this assumes that you have partners who also can acquire skills at a relatively similar rate to yourself, but we'll assume this for the sake of this paragraph). And I would say that they offer this consistency at a slightly higher rate of efficiency than private lessons, due to the fact that individualized attention may not be optimalized per second but at a certain frequency received between privates and groups.

I do think that private lessons have a point of diminishing marginal returns and this is partially dependent on variables outside of personal control. For my ballroom, I focus almost exclusively on private lessons for the simple fact that there are no local leads who dance at the level that I wish to study. As much as anything, I am paying to practice with a lead who leads the way I need to learn to follow; this is not social leading and the skills I learn there cannot readily be applied to social dancing without hurting most of my leads.

Um, excuse me miss, I seem to have acquired
your leg?

Tango may not have such a dividing line between "social" and what would be more "advanced" and inevitably performance based, but one's ability to progress through practice will be limited by the ability of one's available partners - two to tango and all that rot. I know in tango that I am always a few steps shy of fully committing to moves that require throwing myself into momentum with the use of my partner for the unimpeachable reason that most of my partners wouldn't be able to handle the extra weight and I've acquired bad habits of mimicry over momentum to soften the blow.

When divorced from the partner problem (ooooh did I just think of a great new ad line for my family law practice?? Yeah, I guess not really), I think that private lessons can only improve dance as quickly as the body can adjust to new information. Sometimes I have absolutely all of the feedback I can receive about a certain technique or move and merely need some time to sit with it, let it filter through the various neural corridors and insinuate the habits into my muscles. A private lesson at those points may be no more useful than a long session of personal practice or even a good nap. I've seen this with my own lessons from time to time, as well as with my students. Sometimes walls are hit and breaks or changes of trajectory are needed. Another time when workshops may reintroduce themselves as viable alternatives or supplements.

But, weighing the positives and negatives, I really enjoy workshops as a sporadically placed way to pep up my dance and expose myself to new ideas/partners/teachers/and challenges.

This is my winding up to say that I took advantage of Andrew's weekend-before-finals to treat myself a little bit and take some workshops with Carlos Barrionueva and Mayte Valdes at China Harbor. I had never studied with them, before and some of my local compatriots had expressed less enthusiasm about them. This honestly surprises me in hindsight. I admit to being less drawn to their performance style than some others, but as teachers they are top notch and as human beings, they are awfully attractive (physically and personally).

We totally covered this move!
Also, Mayte has really cute short hair now
I particularly appreciated - as may be expected of me and my rabid need to drill baby drill - our first class, which focused on lead/follow technique by splitting up leads and follows and kicking our respective asses with five inch stilettos. To illustrate the sort of class we were in for: we began without shoes and did a series of exercises I'll admit to recognizing as modified ballet exercises - relevees, plies and battements in various speeds and levels of turn out, with hints of some pilates exercises.

I knew I was at the right place in that despite the fact that I was having far fewer struggles with balance etc. than most of the people in the circle, Mayte still looked at me and told me to point more strongly. Later during some leg work, she came up and twisted my foot even further out and more pointed until every muscle in my foot was cramping. There is nothing more gratifying than certain tweaks from a teacher. I have a natural instinct for avoiding being noticed or inviting critique, but I also have the insane drive to improve myself and the understanding that this requires receiving that critique. I also consider it a sign of respect when a teacher offers it to somebody on a finer point (har har, get it, POINT) and from my years in ballet I feel antsy without some kind of input. If Nate starts only giving positive feedback, I secretly feel that he has gauged my abilities to my performance that day and has deemed me no longer worth pushing...

After breaking into our respective parts, we did some barre work with chairs as substitutions for something sturdier. The first exercise was a dissociation one - pivoting on one leg while varying our levels from straight to deep plie (ok, squats - we were doing heavily stylized fancy squats!). We did a few more chair exercvises, all of which were extremely challenging and vaguely reminiscent of the opening of a lap-dance burlesque or so I would imagine. I can only hope that the leads had a few breaks to enjoy the view while they tried to arm wrestle each other or whatever men-folk do while practicing away from ladies to establish their alpha-male tanguero dominance.

I hate to compare myself, but since classes are driven by the average ability, it is inevitable, and it's interesting to judge one's weaknesses and strengths. We were all flailing a bit, as will happen when the focus gets that heavy and the physical work that laser-pointedly demanding. it is fascinating to watch dancers forced out of their comfort zones through these drills. Some of the follows who looked exquisite during the warm ups were slogging and wheezing through some of the exercises. Naturally whenever you are focusing that much and overriding your own subconscious muscle memory, your natural instincts don't kick in as they should. It is also instructive that people dance to their advantage and learn to highlight their strengths both in how they choose to dance and with whom.

In general, I find that I have relatively stronger skill sets in balance, rhythm and - er - backleading??? Hopefully just kidding on that last one, but we went through a series of songs where we were supposed to "follow" an imaginary partner. This was interesting to attempt, since we were mostly moving backwards without any pair of eyes accustomed to navigating the floor. Needles to say, many lives were lost. But more interestingly was that almost without exception the other follows froze and could not do even simple steps on their own, while I danced on fairly unaffected by the absence of an actual lead. I am hoping this stems from my inclinations for choreography (and thus reverse engineering moves to try to explain) and my experience with leading, but it was amusing to me how utterly undifficult I found this exercise. I may not be the surrendering type of follow... just possibly.

My largest takeaway was that I can focus on my legwork and feet more than I am giving myself credit. There's always a thin line between beautiful professional movements and mine. Something that is difficult to articulate, but which separates the truly beautiful from the slightly awkward. In my upper body, it is often a slight slouch, downturned neck, and minor hesitance. In my lower body, it is largely that although I am pointing my feet and getting the appropriate turn to the ankle, I can do more. It's very subtle, but it makes a huge difference.

For the other classes, I found a partner for the day. This is always the peril and the promise of workshops as well as classes - both rely on rotating partners. This naturally is an important part of the learning process, as dancing with only one partner teaches you how to dance with that partner less than how to dance, period. Particularly during the early learning period, multiple partners increases learning by some sizable percentage. But, it is also a spinning roulette wheel, because abilities and availability of one role varies widely. Finding a partner for a class with whom you can work ensures - especially for the follow - no nasty yanking or hijacking by insouciant leads, a reliable partner that you can trust not to kick off your toenail as you attempt an embellishment, assurances that you will not have to sit out of a rotation due to a gender imbalance, and the possibility of having a person to meet and review with later. I never really arrange for workshop partners in advance, but am happy to have one when an early warm up dance turns out just about right. In fact, I've met some of my all time favorite partners from workshop-pair-ups. Once you've shared the vulnerability of a workshop period and made it work, I think the dancefloor is just destined to feel smooth and magical.

In this case, I met a fellow from Bellevue who had exceptionally beautiful art-nouveau glasses rims and mixed a level of serious dedication to getting his part correct with an appropriate humility. He was quite insistent on getting feedback from me, which was occasionally difficult, as I was focusing on my part to the exclusion of his lead at times, but also useful. I noticed my performance tanguero of last month was also at the class and had similarly captured a follow into pairing up for the duration of the day. It looked like they were having far more earnest discussions and less dancing, so I think I chose correctly. At the end of the day, I gave him my card (I am not over how awesome it is to do this) and we agreed to keep in touch.

I would rate the workshop an aching success, as many muscles felt the work a day and two days later - running right comfortably into the inevitable feeling-it of my private lesson with Nate yesterday and ensuring that I will always be feeling-it somehow. Definitely not an experience I'll need to repeat for a month or two, but possibly I will be ready for another seat kicker just about when Carlos and Mayte are back here again in March.
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