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Experimenting to popularize Tango

Sven Elze and Pedram Shahyar, Tango Kollektiv

The challenge facing every tango professional is how to attract new dancers. We all have lots of ideas, and we know that most of them don’t work. If we had more students, the teachers wouldn’t need to compete, and most of our tango wars would go away.

Sven and Pedram have some ideas, which are working here in Berlin. Maybe you want to try?

This interview was conducted at Milonga Popular in mid-2016 and has been edited and reorganized. All the words are theirs.

It’s a private party

This was a first idea, to be known by word of mouth. No advertising. This creates a special atmosphere. It’s like a private party. Not so public. It breaks the anonymity. People who come here know someone who is here.

It also save costs.

Our approach to tango is we are not tango tango. For us tango is a media of the power between people. It’s the power for you, how you feel when you dance, between you and your partner, and the social power of the space.

Sven has a lot of other influence, from tai chi, from his artistic work with percussion and other things. Pedram has a lot of impulse from my work as a social movement activist. So these things come together in our concept.

We crossed the line of being just tango. We want to popularize tango and connect tango with other subcultural streams in the city. In the afterhour party, we were experimenting how we can bring something else than tango. We started to having nontango music and people started to dance.

Our personal freedom is key to making it feel like a party. We party ourselves. In the beginning we tore down our own expectations or fears of how we should dance.

Get off the Posh

There was a festival that collapsed because it wanted to be so posh and high class. And I and a lot of people had problems with the atmosphere at milongas that was not so integrative for new people. The posh festival was not the way. When the festival collapsed after the guests had arrived, it spontaneously turned to be something very alternative, very improvised.

That’s when we met. That was the first discussion night. The main thing that we discussed was how to create a space for tango that is integrative for people coming new to tango and also people who are in tango but don’t feel home in a lot of milongas. As we met, we had a critical approach to what tango is.

The milonga is traditional. It’s full. It’s about the power of the space, with a lot of people. It’s not about your individual moves.

We have the concept of a social tanda. Breaking the idea of the cultural hierarchy at the milonga. Usually people are searching to dance with the best dancers. If you dance with lower dancers you lose credibility. This is something we really reject and we try from the beginning to break. Social tanda means you are responsible for everyone, for the whole milonga, not only for your own joy. If Someone is sitting for one hour, take 10 minutes and dance with them. If everyone does one social tanda, non one is sitting the whole night.

Tango is expensive in Europe. If you are a student or creative or precarious it’s hard. We wanted to change this, to make tango very cheap. It was donation-based. We let people choose their own price and through that we had more people, so we had more money. We made more money with cheap classes. It’s offline crowd-funding. Give what you want but go en masse.

We have respect from the organizers in town because we were creating a new crowd, bringing in new people. Even though we dropped the price. It was bold.

To make it cheaper we had to make it simple. For a long time we didn’t have a DJ. We couldn’t afford €100 for a DJ. So we erased this. We did the music with CDs. People hated us for that. We used playlists from Salon Canning. We have 40 CDs with ready tandas and cortinas, We listened to all the music and chose 3 CDs for the night. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t critical about the music. We choose the music very wisely. And now we can afford DJs.

We had a bright room at first. We constantly dimmed down the light and the choice of colors was important. We had a disco ball but it destablized people. To dim the light was crucial especially to allow people to show more intensity in their expression. They didn’t feel so watched. The class is not very bright anyway, but it’s already more dim than other classes. We try to have it already cozy.

A collective attitude

One thing we emphasized a lot is that it is a collective. It’s not a collective in a strict sense, because Pedram and I are the organizers. It’s not a group. But we have a fb page for our Collective. We involved people into practical work in creating an atmosphere “This is your place. Do it. If you have ideas, music, if you want to perform. We have impromptu dance, live music. For the artists, the visitors.

We continued building that by taking people on spontaneous trips. We visited a milonga in Leipzig. We started cooperation with an organizer from Prague in Kemnitz. We went for a trip to a house on the lake.

Bar actions. Someone wanted to make a long drink in afterhours. People offering their favorite drinks, they bring the stuff and we pay them. They make suggestions. To make it a collective we try to communicate that it’s your place, you can be creative here, not only consuming the offer we make. Every person comes here getting the feeling that it’s his place or her place. It’s coming here and being part of a milieu. This is one thing that is very core of our culture.

What is it? We started separately, one milonga and one practica. Our energies together, we needed to discuss what we were aiming to do. Before it was a very thoughtful concept. It included a strong social aspect, to integrate people, a collective aspect. People come and say “can I do this?” There’s a guy who offered to DJ the second floor, and we trust his musical sense.

We took the collective members to other places to party, to clubs, on holiday, so a lot of people became very good friends. This affects the social. We have a core group of people that already push the envelope.

We sit with our core group and ask them what they think. If people are happy you’re on the right way. People come and say what they like and that they feel at home. People really like the atmosphere. People who came more often had more critical issues. For example, about the light. And we incorporate a lot of people in the background, they organize stuff, bring drinks, put the candles.

the red visionary couch

Popular - 24.11.2014 - 0042Very essential for everything, we always went back to our red visionary couch. We also went back and discussed every night the detail of the night, what worked what didn’t. And we changed some small aspects. The main aspect is talking. We talk every night. It’s very critical for us. We still do. Especially if something went well, we kept it, but we were critical about it.

The evening is divided in so many parts, and we’re critical about all the subparts. It became like a menu. It’s less focusing on one dish. It’s focusing on creating an energetic course of the night and being very conscious about that. Details about where the candles are. A lot of things then need to stabilize themselves.

We talk after the night what worked and didn’t work and future concepts. It doesn’t just feel like a milonga, but like a longer journey. This milonga we’re running now is a vehicle. We try to see ourselves a little bit like boheme gourmand or something. A lot of stuff that people have to fear, we don’t have to fear so much. Like losing the place and moving.

From the beginners class into the milonga!

What we started to change was the power of the milonga was developed in the class before. We wanted to bring people very fast to enjoying tango in the milonga. Learn fast to have fun later tonight in the party. It’s not a class where you learn a step but it prepares people for the whole thing. So immediately after the class they learn how to deal with the milonga.

What happened then was the class gets very big. We started with 25 students and we went to 40. This was the main crowd of the milonga. Maybe 80-100 people. Since the main crowd of the milonga was created in the class, it’s already feelng like a milonga when the first people arrive. There were lots of beginners and fresh people. Experienced people like to get to know new people.

The question is how to keep beginners in the milonga. The class ends dancing in the milonga. They are the milonga. Then the more advanced people come and dance with the new people. So this is the core group who come and dance with the beginners , give them good experience, and then they stay long.

What we did by passive aggression was to break the attitude of dancing only with good dancers. We were pushing people to dance with each other. This was essential for attracting a new scene to tango. We were both very critical to other milongas and to dancers’ attitudes.

And also an atmosphere that people are open to each other. Not just staying in the clique, but the social power of the space. This is what we work on. This was very essential in our milonga, and we discussed this also with the people in the collective. If someone is sitting too much, we were very harsh on this, with our close friends and students “if she’s sitting too long, go dance with her.”

A lot of DJs play music that is just for good/experienced dancers. They neglect a little the beginners. Beginners cannot dance to really fast music. We don’t care about what is academic on the standard of DJing. We play music that is beautiful for most of the people, and is easy to dance, music that makes you fall in love with tango.

Now we also have a second dance floor. It developed as a moment of getting bigger. Sometimes it was too crowded. Some people like to have more space, and to have other music. We started introducing a nontango floor here at the milonga. It’s nice for people to chill. It’s also a party floor. People who don’t necessarily dance tango can go there and enjoy.. Music people would play in their home. Neo, non-tango, and party music.

The afterparty

Usually the milonga ends, people go home. So we started having free drinks In the beginning it was a bottle of vodka and 8 people telling jokes. This evolved into more people staying and disco music. We knew musicians playing live, flamenco and salsa. We went crazy. Ballet dancers swirling around.

The milonga is finished, the traditional way of tanda cortina stops. Now drink vodka, get drunk. And it was free. We thought that was a good investment. Getting drunk a little, and losing a little the tight frame of the traditional milonga. Dance with the milonga, roll on the floor, lifting the partner. Spontaneous, impromptu.

Then we started to change the concept of cortina. For us it’s not something you play to get to next tango. For us cortina is an element of the night. I spend a lot of time finding cortinas –  songs people know that come from clubs and parties, electronic and hiphop. This creates an atmosphere that’s not just tango. It’s tango plus other atmosphere. We play t he cortina 2 minutes or sometimes all the way through. People dance to the cortina. We always try to cross the line that’s not only tango tango but connecting tango with other kind of dances and music. But not to lose the frame of a traditional milonga. We keep the frame of a traditional milonga but it’s connected to different cultural expressions.

After the milonga we have fresh air, and then we have a social phase during the free drinks. People stay and talk. No music. People talking. This also breaks the hierarchy. Also running to the bar to get a drink, getting refreshed, and sharing that moment. Then we try to feel where the power of the night would want to go. Sometimes we start with a slow song to bring music back. . Then you have to see if you can continue to see if you can get that crowd into the ecstasy of the disco. Now people have expectations and memories so they really go for it.

We try to bring it to a point where people are really free. We really push the music, Turkish music, rock songs, anything. f I think of a milonga with people in their 40s or 50s, you could try to play music they love to dance to, like disco or rock n roll classics. Music people would love to dance in the afterparty. A lot of DJs also collect stuff from other genres. So we let them try the afterhour. But it came in such a way that people became really choosey now, not only of the traditional msuic, but also of the afterparty music. If they don’t play the right music, sometimes the people yell at the DJs. So we became very critical with the afterparty music. Move the power from song to song.

And then people will slow down and feel the need to go back to tango embrace and they incorporate all their free power into a latenight tango. We also choose special tandas for that. Very intense or unheard orchestras, very intense stuff from Pugliese. We look for special tandas. How do you DJ that?

The craziness is to lose yourself, to get crazy, to allow yourself to go to the place where you would get creative from.

The pedagogy is intimacy

The class is individual. You don’t need to come with couple. It’s a dropin class for everyone. We change a lot the partners, this fluid concept of pairs. This made it much easier to participate in the class.

To start the practica, we had the principle of the circle. It was a philosophical idea to create the circle. But without knowing where we were going, this was our most important practice, to build a circle. From there everyone introduced themselves. We thought that was nice.

Then we always have a warmup to prepare people for the technical aspects. The warmup is designed out of many exercises and practices of different art forms we studied. First getting conscious of your body. It’s breaking the day’s routine. You have to take people out, take them to a healthy place with themselves. We use breath, internal stretching, already connecting with people in the group, exercises in eye contact, keeping eye contact while doing an exercise with a partner, and the whole group breathing and moving together (that’s a concept from Russian martial arts). This gives a strong identity and trust in the group and the power of the practice. And getting conscious of rhythm. Sven has trainings using beatbox for musicality.

The core is intimacy and intensity. The most basic work is the partner work. We use embrace exercises without any tango. Also in the class we work a lot in the emphasis of understanding both roles. So the follower gets fully integrated energetically and we try to get the leaders to understand we are looking forward to have a movement that’s not based on leading and following, but to find movement together.

Intimacy We emphasize a lot is breathing. We find the breathe and we call it the first movement in the body. And there we also don’t lead and follow. We don’t run away from that moment of intimacy.

There was a great saying very influential for me from Gavito. It’s also an old philosophical concept. Movement comes from stillness and stillness goes with movement. But people going from stillness and from there creating movement going back to stillness. This creates a necessity for intensity because you stay in the moment.

For us tango is the power between the people. Intimacy is to create the power between people. It’s also being open and honest, and at the same time playful and accepting.

It’s not about doing one combination and another and another. It’s like the power between the two people. This is what counts. And this is also a way of tango that you can start to enjoy very fast. You don’t need months of training to build up intimacy. This is something that for us what we enjoy in tango most. It’s also a way of dancing tango that can bring you very fast that can bring you joy, not athletic but connecting. It’s not what you do, but how you do it. The power and fusion between people.

We bring people embracing each other. We try a very deep, close embrace, that also works again with breathing. It’s basically a tantric exercise. They do it with 10 or 15 people in 20 minutes. The experience is one minute. That’s designed as well. To approach each other, go directly toward each other, create body contact, create forward power toward your partner, and from there you bring the embrace. Then feeling where you both are in your breathing, you breathe together three times. Then relax toward your partner. Very limited time. Not longer or shorter. Go out of the embrace, and say thank you with the eyes. No words spoken.

Scientifically, this length produces oxytocin. That’s a feelgood hormone. This you get from touch, especially in a city environment people don’t touch that much. So getting comfortable being touched very deeply by another human bing.

We also state that it doesn’t matter who you’re doing it with. Boy girl doesn’t matter. Creates an internal experience that goes more to becoming aware of the senses, warmth, pressure, how do I feel. Not what do they look like. You get to a totally different sensual experience.

A lot of people run away from intimacy and use technique and a repertoire to dance tango. This is our essence. The power we create in this embrace is the power of how we teach tango. Do things with this power.

Often we don’t teach steps. We tried today, close your eyes, listen without music to the sounds in the room, listen your own breath and heartbeat. Then start the music. What to listen to, then we discuss. The music has so much depth. Integrate the vibration of the music and let yourself be moved through the music.

We are also known, and this is intended, as a very erotic milonga. This is something that is also our personal power. It’s very erotic. People think we have an affair with how we act together. This a was a challenge to build an erotic space, but that is safe. It’s erotic but it’s not macho. We taught guidelines for that. Leaders to be respectful.

We talk about culture at the milonga. We make interventions. What is eroticism in tango? What is D’Arienzo doing with the singer Mercedes? How to build an erotic space that is not macho. It’s not at the cost of the ladies. I think this works out very well. You have to be very conscious of this as well.

And because our milonga is very full, so we have to teach exercises to be sensitive to the ronda. We teach ronda every time.

Going big

11958287_1622949034637121_2695697425955608754_oWe will bring our milonga to one of the biggest clubs in Berlin, to the KitKat Club. We want to radicalize this method of bringing tango together with other cultural streams.

There’s such a massive sound system there. It’s not just loud, it actually surrounds you. You have a full body 3D impression. We hope it might move people. They’ll find the complexity and depth of tango music intriguing. A lot of people only know Piazzola, they don’t know the depths of Pugliese.

We’ll do a pilot and then a monthly series. Everybody will be welcome. People from the club scene or traditional tango people. Especially we address the dance class there. Our practica is now 80 without advertising, so we think this is key to addressing it to a larger group, because the club is so interesting and it’s a fantastic location. Massive sound system, incredible light system, outdoor pool, different floors. Tons of stuff to experience. An alternative floor, best sound system, and a class.

A key element is to make it known to the public “learn tango in KitKat club”. A lot of people are on the edge of learning a new thing. “Oh I always wanted to do that.” You just have to give them some attraction to cross that line or jump. Tango is very appealing to people. The club itself is very appealing to people. To learn something new. That would be the main thing that we address.

Horacio Godoy says this is a key principle in La Viruta. Not have the direct tango surrounding, but to address the whole city. How to make tango interesting.

Interestingly, it’s not that I have to make it interesting, but I find it in its core things that I experience in tango I find it already very interesting, deep art form that goes tot he core of what human beings love. How do you tell people about that? We call our new event “Intimacy” for KitKat. To give it a name it should be the thing we most care about it. It’s bold. I like the sound of it.

We had a master plan, a crazy master plan.

We improvised a lot.

Sven… on the future

Basically any art form is continuously evolving. For that tradition to live on, we need to be a part of the evolution, and be active parts of the evolution. The music itself needs to be presented in a proper way. Tango around the world after the nuevo phase has become more traditional. I think Gotan Project were pretty right about “La Revancha del Tango” – I also feel that there is a new revenge of the tango coming. We can create a new movement now. We feel very excited to be part of that, to live on the legacy of the beautiful music that was passed on, and the tradition of tango, and the depth of the art itself.

The codes of tango, the environment of the tango, the respect for the tango has always changed. So I feel to deliberately break with some of the rules and to open to contemporary culture and music, other art forms, can only enrich the tango. Because at its core its indestructible and universal.

I also feel it’s almost political, like if we unite as human beings and celebrate coming together, embracing, this is already a good thing in itself. This is a major point. Because if you think just in the tango you can say yes we can create new music. If you think about the possibilities of the dance, we can create new and complex dance structures.

If you think about theatrical aspects, you try to create shows that are current. Why isn’t tango played on the radio? It could gain more cultural recognition. But if you think what can we from the tango give to the world, that’s a very interesting question. If I would know the answer, I would not really be that excited about it. It’s the not-knowing is part of the creative process.

We all need more students, more dancers in our milongas, and great partners to dance with for the next few decades…

How can we Popularize Tango?

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Marketing is about Who is in the Room with You.
And Why.

With Sven Elze, Founder of the very popular Milonga Popular – Berlin, we’ve created a Thinkbook for Organizers, exploring how we can define the Tango Tribe who will resonate with each of us, find new marketing channels, craft resonant messages and images, and create experiences that make students fall in love with Tango from the first session.

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