Monday, 15 May 2017

Of Dragons and Bad Hair

"Dragons! Ever since he was two years old he had been captivated by the pictures of the fiery beasts in The Octarine Fairy Book. His sister had told him that they didn’t really exist, and he recalled the bitter disappointment. If the world didn’t contain those beautiful creatures, he’d decided, it wasn’t half the world it ought to be."

(The Color of Magic - A novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett)

This is exactly how I always felt. And I was not only missing the dragons. What about vampires, werewolves, witches and wizards? Where were the shining queens, kings and knights? No monsters, no gods, no goblins to be seen. No resurrection, no epic battles, no magic. No magic!

Instead of Galadriel, we get a boring politician with a bad haircut, instead of Sauron a stupid liar with even worse hair. So disappointing.

But there have always existed magicians! They are the ones who take words and create worlds out of them with the pure power of their imagination. The story-tellers, authors, writers of the past and present.

I love music, dance and the fine arts. And movies! But literature for me is the highest form of art. (Please excuse my bias, my dear artist friends and even my beloved.) This is why I have been reading my whole life, why I started to study literature, why I did roleplaying-games, why I always wanted to write a novel - until a friend told me that I’d be crappy at it. Now I might be too old to complete my studies and too discouraged to write, but I can still read. So everything is fine.

But is it?

Where have all the magicians gone? 

Don’t get me wrong, I always cherished the approach of describing our world and its inhabitants in realistic or sometimes idealistic forms as done by many important authors of the 19th century: Zola, Dickens, Jane Austin, the Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell, Henry James … Today there are great writers who follow in their footsteps and there are lots of good reads lying ahead. But I was from an early age very much attracted by Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley and those others who created worlds full of mystery, monsters and magic. My true heroes are the fantastic authors of the 20th century: J.R.R. Tolkien, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, Terry Pratchett.
(I am aware that most critics would not include Pratchett in such an illustrious list, but I believe he was a master.)

The problem is: now they are all dead and I’m seriously running out of fantastic novels to read. Most newer publications have rather disenthralled me. Sure, Steven King ist still living, but after having produced masterpieces like It or The Stand he has long failed to write another comparably compelling story. 
(Again with the alliterations! I guess this is why I should not write!)

There is one magician left: Neil Gaiman. 

Neverwhere, American Gods, The Ocean at the End of the Lane… Those are books that open windows to other worlds and by this make the most poignant observations about our so-called reality, our lives and our fears. I think he’s great. Also quite cute - in spite of the funny hair. 

But I am beginning to fear that his fame might keep him from writing great books in the future. He is getting a little too popular and busy posting about his talented wife, his book signings and the TV-adaptation of American Gods. Yes, I am going to watch and like it. And yes, his latest work Norse Mythology was as illuminating as it was amusing, but dear Mr. Gaiman: I need a new world to discover.

Because the one in which we are living is getting more dreadful and boring by the hour. Someone has to help me get off the internet and read more about Brexit, Trump and the other evils in my work-free hours.

So please write another outstanding novel into which I can escape. Now?

Monday, 24 April 2017


I have not written for some time. There was nothing that seemed very important and I was too busy anyway. But yesterday, I saw a video which I - very spontaneously and in an untypical manner - criticised on Facebook. 

It is a video of a famous teacher couple demonstrating a very long and fast sequence in a master class. From what I could see and from what I know about the target audience, I had the very strong feeling, that the participants would not be up to that sequence. Therefore found it hard to understand the value of teaching such a combination in this context. I was not as diplomatic as I have could been, so I have obviously offended others. It was made clear to me, that it is not for me to criticise professionals publicly. Sorry for that, but I think that critique and open discussions are important in every context. Every public person has to deal with that and what others have written about me, my dance or teaching is far more blunt than anything I would ever say. Some of that came from famous professionals. But this is not what I want to focus on here.

The discussion ensuing after my observation is still ongoing. One main argument against my critique is that someone who signs up for a masterclass should well be prepared for a challenging move. I spend some time arguing that teachers should adapt their class content to the level of participants, no matter what the title was. This and the discussion whether teaching long sequences is sensible anyway is of course important, but whilst pondering about all that in bed, I have noticed, that this may not the main problem.

The issue is rather of how to define a particular term: master. 

Who or what is a master?

In order to make my point, I have to go back in time.

Shortly after I had started dancing tango for the second time (I began in 1995 and re-started after a short break in 2000) my partner Detlef convinced me to taking some master classes with the usual suspects. I protested because I understood myself as a beginner and found it pretty presumptuous to attend such workshops.

During these classes, I noticed that I could easily do the movements and got bored quickly. Sure, I did not have to lead them; I was young and skinny and had danced all kinds of other dances for many years. Throwing my legs into the air and running around a partner seemed easy enough at the time.

Still: something was wrong. But I did not dig deeper. 

How did I continue? Well… Having done lots of jumping and kicking already, I was not very interested in that kind of moves and our focus shifted to other things. We started teaching and trying to understand what we do in order to explain it to our students. As our tango-microscopes got finer tuned, we discovered more and more details in the simplest things. A shift of weight became a very complex entity. Which is why our dancing got even more simple over the years. You become very humble, if you start understanding how things function or could work in an ideal case. 

The same with our musicality: in the beginning we performed to Pugliese. It was fun. But we knew nothing about the music. We just danced instinctively. Some of that was ok, most was awful. Today,  we know much, much more about the music and the possibilities it offers, which is why we often are intimidated by a too high degree of complexity in a song. We know that we’d need much more time to practise in order to actually apply all that we know and hear in our dance. But we don’t have the time. Because we rather spend it preparing classes or didactical methods, writing class summaries or discussing concepts with our teacher-trainees who are equally nerdy. So we keep it simple - which does not equal easy.

In 2007, we were asked to do a masterclass in a small festival. The whole thing was a little absurd, given that I did not see myself as a master.
Detlef and I prepared a small seminar on centres of rotation with pictures to show how they are applied in different standard situations. It did not enter our minds to teach a more complex step, just because the workshop was labelled was called masterclass.

Some years later, we were asked to do a special session for the practice-guides in a French town. We prepared a discussion about the organisation, self-conception and work-focus in tango clubs. The participants were delighted about the idea and a lot of good came out of it. But later they told us, that they had expected something completely different: more steps to show to the practice-participants. Huh… 

This work was actually the foundation-stone for our teacher-training and you can imagine, how this is structured: a lot of analysis of basic principles, didactical work and pedagogical concepts, bodywork, musicality… We spend so much time understanding the transfer of axis of one leg to the other, that we barely have the capacity to talk about Entradas in the last module of the 100-hour-training. 

Ok… I exaggerate a little and I know that we are extreme in our wish to comprehend the world. But I think you know what I am getting at.

For me, a master - a maestro - is first and foremost a teacher. Someone who understands very well, what he or she is doing. Someone who can explain a simple (or a difficult) context to another person. A master is someone who will grasp the complexity of a simple thing, someone who will realise the difficulties that a beginner or less advanced person has to face. Therefore a master will most likely be a humble person. I don’t know, if I am am there yet, but this is what I am aiming for.

But the word master has other definitions too:
- A master can be a boss: master and servant. But this does not help very much in the tango-context apart from the fact, that sometimes leaders and followers are understood in such an (inappropriate) manner.
- A more common interpretation for the term master is: Someone, who is very good at doing something, a champion. In particular when you come from an artistic or sportive context. 

After this lengthy discussion on Facebook I think, that this is where the issue lies: we do not agree on the definition of the term.

When I hear the word masterclass, I am prepared to deal with teachers, who want to understand a specific context better, in order to be better prepared for classes. To put it in the sportive context: for me, master equals coach. The master does not necessarily have to run super fast, but he has to know how to make his trainee perform better.
Confronting a group of teachers (having most likely very different levels of dance proficiency) with a super-long sequence that will take 1/3 of the class-duration to memorise and many months of hard training to do it perfectly does not make any sense. Unless you have a lot of time to explain the intricacies of the whole movement in order to learn something about the underlying principles. 

Others - upon reading the description masterclass - expect super dancers, the champions, the heroes. They expect the ones who can run faster, jump higher or farther. And it is perfectly valid to demand that these dancers cope with a lengthy and complex sequence and - ideally - understand what they are doing, because they have already done the research or because their teachers have prepared them well enough.

The conclusion:
After 17 years of feeling uncomfortable with masterclasses, I finally discovered, what my problem again is. Words. Understanding them. And using them correctly or in a well-defined manner. I am obviously a slow learner. 

So here is my plea for organisers and teachers: 
Please review your definition of the term masterclass and describe such a seminar according to your interpretation. Then you’ll get the right clientele and no-one has to complain. This may need some more explaining on websites or on flyers.

A last thought: 
All of this boils down to a typical tango problem. How to use words properly in order to not create confusion. Please be clear about what you mean by lines, lanes or rails. Be specific about terms like entrada, sacada, cadencia or syncopation. As teachers, musicians or dancers we may have opposing definitions - this is totally acceptable. But we should stick to one of them and make it transparent which one we are using. Because language is complex and - what makes it even harder in our international tango word - most of us have to deal with non-native languages or speakers. So we have to take extra care of what we say in which manner. As someone who teaches in four languages, I am very well aware of this problem and am constantly searching for a clear usage of terms. 

Because I want people to understand what I say.