Interview with Scott G. G. Haller: Cellist, Sound Editor, and Uncle of Dozens of Tango Dancers

For years, Scott G. G. Haller has contributed time, energy, creativity, and love to class after class of Tango Challengers. Dozens of newcomers to Tango have been warmly supported by Scott, who has gone above and beyond what's normal or necessary to nurture the next generation of Tango dancers in his role as a volunteer Assistant Facilitator of the Tango Challenge. So many wonderful people who are now active Tango dancers have been touched by Scott's encouragement, humor, and kindness in their first few months of Tango. We wanted you to meet Scott and hear his perspectives on Tango and his community work. 

Photo By SubbusClicks from tango slumber party

Photo By SubbusClicks from tango slumber party

How did you get involved in Tango?

I didn’t start social dancing until my 30s. A cousin got into swing dancing and convinced me to take lessons with her so that she’d always have someone to dance with. After doing Jitterbug, Lindy Hop, and Balboa for a number of years I stumbled onto Moti Buchboot’s Sunday night outdoor milongas at Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade and started taking lessons from him because I was drawn to being able to move in a more relaxed way connecting to music which was closer to the classical music I’d grown up with playing ‘cello. You can put my tango “birthday” at January 3, 2006, since I wrote Moti a check for my very first lesson and my accounting software provides specific evidence of my first steps. I always admired his experimenting with possible ways to move. (“Now that we’ve done this to the right, can we do the same thing to the left?”)

How did you get involved in Oxygen Tango? 

I had started expanding my tango exploration with Linda Valentino’s classes in Hollywood and Yolando Rossi’s Culver City milonga when I found out that “Mar Vista Tango,” as it was originally called, was opening up in my neighborhood. I started hanging out there because having weekly prácticas nearby to work things out at was very appealing.

How did you get involved in The Tango Challenge?

Frankly I was unaware of the intensive beginner program until early Challenge student Katya Kosarenko asked me to be her practice/recital partner. I was more worried that the required 40 minutes of practicing together would bore her than I was nervous about the final recital.

What has been your role(s) in the Tango Challenge? 

In the Spring of 2012, Mitra asked me to help her with the Challenge. She wanted administrative help and felt that the coursework could use some polish. As the son of English professors and a graduate of a fine liberal arts school I worked over the written material for greater clarity and even got some chances to present ideas of my own. The first team I assisted with was The Lucky 7 -- the fifth semester of the program. Besides providing hands on coaching and another perspective in class discussions, I also took pictures and the “before” videos at the start of the term, then used my film school skills to cut together the recital videos for the clearest presentation of how far the students had progressed. Since my professional work has ramped up on the other side of town on top of the class schedule shifting from periodic Sundays to early Wednesday evenings every week it’s been difficult to give the same level of personal attention.

PHOTO BY ANDREI ANDREEV

PHOTO BY ANDREI ANDREEV

What do you get out of this work?

It’s been fascinating being an “Uncle” to an expanding family of graduates who frequently find their niche in the Los Angeles tango community. (Of course, some are never heard from again.) I think it’s very true that you learn something much better when you have to figure out how to teach someone else to do it. While it’s easy to stress out when learning something new – I’m always reminded that in the intimate connection inherent to tango it’s important to cultivate calmness so that you can put your focus where it needs to be: on your partner. I also want to make sure that beginners don’t forget that dancing can be fun & playful; they don’t have to rely on patterns and can just go step by step -- and especially with a walking dance there’s nothing wrong with taking one’s time. I quickly figured out that the best sign off I could put on e-mails to the cohort was to “keep breathing” to encourage them not to stress & rush all of the time.

What are some treasured memories from your experiences as an Assistant Facilitator?  

PHOTO BY SUBBUSCLICKS FROM TANGO SLUMBER PARTY

PHOTO BY SUBBUSCLICKS FROM TANGO SLUMBER PARTY

There’s always a thrill seeing the light bulb go on over people’s heads along with the smiles when things start falling into place. My personal goal is to make sure that beginning dancers don’t forget to connect to the music as well as have fun moving around. I was thrilled when one student led me by collecting, pausing with a breath, and waited for the right moment to take a step. Another time I was striving to convince a Challenger to keep her free leg connected to the floor and visualize drawing on the surface with embellishments; eventually I experimented with putting colorful sand on the floor for her to tangibly “draw” on – the idea got through and she was very excited about the possibilities. Shooting ideas back and forth with one experimenting Challenger led to making Velcro vests and Spandex “tubetops for two” to provide solid connections and lots of laughs.

How has the Tango Challenge changed over time? 

I come from a way of thinking of less talk, more action: learn by doing. Using the graduating student feedback to nudge for the private sessions to be actual mini dance lessons instead of talk therapy has been a good step.

Of course, when the teacher changes – the experience of the program comes to reflect that leader’s experience and perspective.

What would you like to see more of in the Tango world? 

Too many people learn sequences of steps and get comfortable using them over and over when there’s this interesting music which we’re supposed to be dancing to. It’s better to shape the steps and pause periodically to match the shapes of the sounds filling the air. Musicality shouldn’t be a technique put off for later. It’s pretty easy to use very basic steps and vary the way they’re done to more closely match what’s going on in the music.

Photo by kenneth wei

Photo by kenneth wei

Another problem with so many classes based on sequences is that too many dancers don’t connect – they’re struggling to move the way they’re “supposed” to instead of engaging with each other and moving together.

There’s also the stereotype that all tango music – or at least the “true” tango music – is sad & dramatic. Like classical music, there’s a range of emotions in the arrangements & performances and it’s so limiting to ignore what doesn’t fit the melodramatic reputation.

And there’s the weird ghettoization of more modern and alternative music. When I started dancing a decade ago the DJs would provide a range of music and the dancers happily embraced whatever was played. Now there’s a fundamentalism of only playing Golden Age music and the eclectic material can mostly be found at specialized milongas or afternoon sessions at festivals. The thing is, of course, that back in the day the milongas in Buenos Aires had live bands – so the whole concept of tandas and “traditional” cycles is a more recent development. The bottom line is that plenty of dancers get excited when they hear something “extra-ordinary” to dance to.

What is your work outside of Tango? 

I cut sound for motion pictures. More accurately, I do the sonic equivalent of Photoshop for the dialogue recordings captured along with the visuals. It’s a stealthy ninja-like job where if I do it right – no one knows I was there.

What role does Tango play in your life? 

It’s a chance to play. Like many people, I sit in front of a computer all day – so moving around (and still being able to move around) is something to celebrate. Also, dancing is a chance to perform: to create little mini-movies to an ever changing soundtrack weaving across the floor. In the end, if I can make someone else smile through sharing what I hear in the music… it’s a good day.

What is important to you, as a person, in your life: what qualities do you seek/strive to cultivate? 

Joie de vivre should not be a foreign concept. Everyone should create a little happiness around them.

Many things are possible if you can deconstruct them to their most basic elements and build up bit by bit.

Interview with Diane Yoon! Care Bear, Extrovert, and Tango Addict!

Photo Courtesy Xiaomin Jiang

Photo Courtesy Xiaomin Jiang

In this interview, Diane Yoon shares some tips on how to break-in to festivals and milongas in new cities, find new friendships through Tango, and overcome barriers like low confidence. A dancer of many dances, Diane reveals what is special about Tango, why it’s addictive, and what she especially loves about it.

What drew you to Tango?

I’ve always been attracted to the aesthetic of Tango. I’ve been dancing since I was a little girl and I’ve done either a little or a lot of most dances out there. But I had never found a place that would teach me Tango the way I wanted to be taught, as an actual improvised experience. It’s hard to learn Tango without a concentrated syllabus, because there is no basic step. I loved the twistiness and sinuousness of the dance. I very quickly learned about the Tango connection, which was one of the things that really drew me – this instant intimacy.

How is Tango different from other forms of dance that you know?

I think the learning process of Tango is different from any other dance; it’s a very deep language, and there are very few dances that have so much to explore yet no set vocabulary. I mean, Tango does have some vocabulary, but a lot more opens up with some analysis. Also, I think learning to be so close to another person, right there chest-to-chest, touching your head, is definitely a skill to learn with Tango.

What are the challenges you face in Tango?

Photo Courtesy Oscar Chang

Photo Courtesy Oscar Chang

There are so many. I think Tango is conceptually one of the most challenging dances I’ve done, if not aerobically challenging. It’s actually a fairly low-impact dance, compared to ballet. There is a bigger learning curve for leaders—understanding the music, floorcraft, vocabulary, and then trying to translate that into something the follower will understand. And for the follower, the technique can be a lot to integrate into your body; for example, as humans, we are not used to walking backward. Just learning to feel the floor under you and using it to pivot and step can be hard, and using your alignment to get the disassociation going, too. Tango goes so deep; you can’t finish Tango ever. Not that you can finish any of the other dances, like ballet or tap or salsa or swing, but it feels like Tango will always have the same degree of challenges forever.

I guess that’s why it attracts nerdy people.

It does. There are so many intelligent people in Tango. There is so much analysis. It’s like doing proofs, very mathematical.

Some people, when they start Tango, stop all the other dances. Did that happen to you?

I found Oxygen, and I did the first month’s special, and I think I came every day. For the first maybe 3-6 months, I would occasionally go out to salsa once a month. But it’s basically only Tango now. It’s addictive. It’s hard to go back to other dances.

What do you love most about Tango? What makes it addictive?

I don’t think I can pinpoint one thing. One of the things, I think the most physically apparent thing, is that hugging people for that long just feels good. It feels good to be in a Tango embrace and dance while hugging. I think all Tango dancers have had that experience of going home after their first Tango high, and saying, what is this? How did this happen? And feeling on cloud nine. I remember the first time that happened to me, who I was dancing with, and even the song! Outside of that, I think the people are just wonderful. The Oxygen people are obviously fantastic and warm and welcoming. But having started to travel for festivals, I’ve found that the larger Tango community tends to be also warm and affectionate. It feels like such a safe community. Even though Tango has a lot of introverts, so it can feel cliquey or snobby, if you take the time to talk to people, everyone wants to know each other. And there are all these interesting, wonderful people to get to know.

You have become a skilled Tango dancer in a short amount of time, dancing in different cities and at national festivals. What advice would you give to new learners of Tango about breaking-in socially to the national Tango scene?

Photo Courtesy Diane Yoon

Photo Courtesy Diane Yoon

It took me 4 or 5 festivals to begin to feel comfortable at them. I think that is a whole, separate skill that is necessary in Tango—how to break into a new community, how to break into festivals. It is part of the challenge in Tango, but it’s something I’m working on.

Generally, there are going to be a couple of people who you know going. Make an effort to cultivate an extended friend group. Introduce people to each other. Maybe you can get a group together for drinks afterward, or coffee before. Especially at festivals, making plans outside of dancing can be really fun, and you get to see the city you’re in instead of just the milonga venue! Karaoke in Portland! Swimming holes in Austin! Monuments in DC! Group dinners everywhere! Also, it’s important to not feel like you have to dance all the time at milongas. If you’re sitting out, and you don’t like the tanda, then talk to the people around you. Tango is a social dance, and the social aspect doesn’t end when you walk off the dance floor.

I’m kind of an extrovert, which is apparently rare in the world of Tango. But we all have self-esteem issues: is my dance good enough? These girls are so pretty. I feel awkward here. But those things matter less than we think; people are friendly. On some level, your dance matters less at these functions than your willingness to make friends. Without the social connection, it’s not really Tango.

How has dancing Tango affected your social life?

Photo Courtesy Diane Yoon - with friends playing with Sharna fabiano's tango intention cards

Photo Courtesy Diane Yoon - with friends playing with Sharna fabiano's tango intention cards

I have this awesome new group of friends. Now it feels like I can go anywhere and spend a couple of weeks, going to milongas or classes, and have this community almost instantly, of people who I know are like-minded people. I moved to Paris in 2012 and spent 6 months trying to make friends! How do you make friends as an adult? You have to have multiple, unplanned interactions every week. Also, because Tango has this weird effect on your brain chemicals, it feels like you are instantly connected with all these people. I know that if I go to a new city, there will be people who I can make friends with quickly.

How did you become part of the Oxygen team?

Like I said, I came every day that I could. At the time, they had classes five days a week, and I came five days a week. Luckily, I started the first day that one of the Challenges started, and so I had these 8 people to work with who were being very diligent about their study, as well. Then, I started DJing and hosting the Sunday practica, because why not come to Oxygen some more? That was really fun, and forced me to learn about the music very quickly. Around that time I jumped into the role of Membership Relations Manager.

Can you describe your role at Oxygen?

Right now it’s minor. I keep up with what’s going on, and I hope to get back into “bearing” someday. There have been a lot of changes that have happened since I left. So that will be exciting to see. I love that Oxygen is so volunteer-heavy, and that the people who do volunteer get to do what they excel at. Like, I’m an operations person—that’s what I do for my normal job—like streamlining processes, that’s what I love to do and I’m efficient at it, and that’s what I love to do at Oxygen. Along with Membership Relations Manager, I was the Care Bear. I was involved with coordinating the volunteer team, and any new volunteers, figuring out what they wanted to do. Basically, whenever students had any questions, I tried to help them as best I could. I’d love to get involved with that again. I like Tango people, and I know how it is to start a new dance, and come into a new community feeling scared and alone.

How do you see the school growing and expanding?

It has changed quite considerably in just the last few months, and I’m really pleased about all the changes. It makes Oxygen accessible to new students, especially in terms of cost and commitment. But the challenges allow students who want a deeper experience to have that – studying in a more structured manner. I think I’d be interested in seeing a way of helping students make that big jump to going to milongas and festivals and feeling confident. There are several of us who have made the jump. But it’s tough. Going from Oxygen, a school environment, to this big, dark, scary world of milongas, where you don’t know anybody can be tough. I would like to see more of a support system for that. Someone pointed out to me that especially the men from Oxygen who have made that leap, all have previous dance experience, which means they are used to rejection. I think that’s an underrated advantage. Dealing with rejection is always tough. That’s terrifying. I think Mitra mentioned a festival challenge at some point. I would love to see that happen. I’m huge on supportive groups.

What is your favorite orchestra?

DiSarli. I like squishy goodness.

How would you characterize your cabeceo in one word?

Eyebrow-heavy.

We Are Tango

When I interviewed Pablo Veron at an event Emily Ortiz-Gorcie and I produced at Oxygen in 2010 he acknowledged that milongas have a certain "density and complexity;" that Tango as an art form has "a certain irrationality" and yet that with perseverance and a commitment to originality, anybody of any background can become great dancer. "Tango isn't somewhere out there - Tango is the dancers who dance it."

I was reminded of the empowering words of hip hop artist Mos Def in his powerful song Fear Not of Man:

People are asking me all the time, 'Mos, where do you think hip-hop is going?' People talk about hip-hop like it's some giant living in the hillside, coming down to visit the townspeople. 

We ARE hip-hop. Hip-hop is going where we are going. So the next time you ask yourself where hip-hop is going, ask yourself 'Where am I going? How am I doing?' Then you get a clear idea.

Similarly, our own way of engaging with Tango is a window on Tango's future.

The only icky thing is halfheartedness

There is this yucky, icky feeling that starts to pervade things when a person thinks that someone else is in charge. What creeps in is halfheartedness - a sort of sad, weary, fatigued mood of judgement and irritability.

No “one” else is in charge. But sometimes our speech and actions suggest that someone is. When we ask these sad, irritable questions that suggest a weird fringe of passivity. “Why can't I get a dance around here?" “Why is Tango so sexist?” “Why is there so much prejudice against Tango teachers who aren't from Argentina?”

Those strange and hard questions - although they that can distract us with frustration and fury - are so incredibly valuable: they are pointers to our unmet needs, they are guides to inspire us to change our world until our needs can be met.

We are each in our own ways making the tender switch away from being outraged or saddened cogs in a factory wheel - into being the hip and focused awesomesauce programmer of our own lives. We were stuck medieval fiefdoms, assembly lines and later corporations for hundreds of years. We are starting to realize that we were the ones who were making those factory wheels, we can make something different.

Really committing to change means rediscovering we're all connected

When we let go of our fury that things are not they way we want them, we decide we want change and we start working for it, we start to discover that everything is hooked to everything else. We rediscover interdependence.

And interdependence is so deep. It is so deep that it dips into love for all - a daily internal and external way of taking ownership, truly believing in possibility, acting on this belief, and thus expressing love for your whole practice community.

For this to work we can't just work solo, we need to “consciously participate in the creation and evolution of holistic systems that foster general well-being.” I find value in this rubric by the NVC Academy outlining four progressive levels of interdependent being:

  • Unskilled: Rebels against or submits to structures; uses organizational structures to assert one's power or feels helpless in relationship to organizational rules. For example, "I hate cabeceo. Nobody asks me to dance. I hate Tango."
  • Awakening: Limited view, overwhelm, and/or hopelessness about effecting change toward systems that value the needs of those affected. For instance, "I tried to create a really nice milonga where everyone would feel welcome but nobody helped me and not enough people came."
  • Capable: Aware of potential for systems to be organized around universally valued needs; willingness to contribute to general well-being, with growing creativity. "If we could come up with a better system for welcoming beginners and helping them feel more comfortable, maybe Tango would grow in a nicer way."
  • Integrated: Engaging in creating and improving systems with the intention of contributing to general well-being with openness to feedback. "I am excited about the training program you started - it's pretty ambitious! What did you think of the idea I emailed you last week about changing the way we introduce the concept of roles?"

We all affect each other and as we know from Tango following only works when the follower has power and initiative, flow and delight, trust and joy. What structures are you following? What systems are you a member of? To what extent do you see yourself as a victim of your government, school, company or organization...vs. a creator, a contributor? Are you afraid of putting more in? Are you trying to calculate whether you’ll get enough out of it to make it worth the time you’re willing to put in?  What are you saving up for? There’s no places else to go and we’re all in this together here on Spaceship Earth. And every day and every moment works to the extent that we are wholehearted.

Tango is you. Where are you going? 

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Mitra Martin

Mitra Martin is Program Director at the Oxygen Tango where her focus is developing an interconnected community learning experience, and facilitating conversation around excellence in Tango as a portal to personal and social transformation.

Money can't buy me Tango: Community is a Life-Form that Resists Normal Price Setting

When was the last time you experienced deep human connection?

How much was it worth to you?

You can't buy connection

Our soul resists that question because it knows that love - the love between friends and partners, the love found within a community - is so natural, is our birthright, and should be freely accessible as the air we breathe.

You can't buy a tanda - or a partner - or a friend. All you can do is cultivate a life-circumstance - an intent, an attitude, an energy, a set of habits - that makes it easier for these experiences to be in your life.

Each individual's experience of community is unique

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A community is a life-form that resists traditional business categorization and business practice. In "normal" businesses, it's easy to define exactly what is being offered, and for people to agree on what it's worth in a concrete measurement like money.

But your experience of community last night was probably totally different from the person who walked in right after you. And different from what it was a month ago, and what it will be next year.

The value for you may come from the challenges you experience as much as from the moments of ease and effortlessness. From the moments of delight as from the opportunities to forgive. Or maybe from having, for the first time, a chance to serve, to be helpful, to further something you find beautiful. Your treasure may be the friends you meet who become part of your life even as you both move away from Tango or deeper into it or to another city. Or maybe it was just overhearing a conversation about a book that you go out and buy that changes your life. Or maybe you never find anything of value to you - that can happen too.

How much are those things worth? The question doesn't make sense. It's not the right question.

The question is, do you want it to continue? Do you want it to grow?

Choosing to give your creative energy to what you value

If you do want it to grow, then, what kind of energy do you choose to put into it? Financial energy, emotional energy, intellectual energy, musical energy, delicious snack energy, artistic photographic energy, code monkey energy, teaching energy - what is your choice, your contribution - your gift, your donation? What do you need to receive for that contribution to be sustainable for you? 

These are some of the reasons why Oxygen Tango has become a donation-based Tango community. We hope you will support our schedule of group classes and practicas that provide more than 50 hours per month when people can gather to explore the possibilities of connection.

A Story About Giving Up

I gave up. And then things started to work.

It was six years of pain I was at the end of all my ropes. Completely broke and in debt, we had to make massive changes to the school for it - and us - to survive.

We had read business books and hired consultants. Spent hours brainstorming and calculating, analyzing reports. Marketing. Pricing. More marketing. We changed and tinkered but our numbers never changed.

Setting prices was one of the most freakin' complicated - and, advisors told us - most important parts of running a good business. I don't know if you have every tried to make prices for Tango but it is mindbogglingly complex. I won't bore you with the grisly details but trust me it is not worth the ink that still drying on my poor sad collection of interlinked, formula-weary and overcaffeinated Google Sheets.

One morning while trying to crank around with that collection, I realized something strange. I realized that I really didn’t care what people paid us for a class or a practica. I didn’t want to think about prices and price rules at all anymore. I wanted to focus on Tango. I wanted to focus on teaching and learning, on dancing, on creativity.

I realized I had never CHOSEN to be in charge of prices. I had just starting doing it as if there was not any other way to do things. But now I saw another way: I could let our students decide to give whatever they wanted. And I realized that I actually without exception trust our community to pay whatever they think is fair for what they are experiencing through Oxygen.

So I gave up. It was an intuitive leap. Overnight we became a donation-based Tango community.

Sometimes the thing you have to give up is an assumption that is so deeply embedded that it is invisible, a worldview that distorts your view of what is possible and okay.

Sometimes all the struggle is there just to point toward freedom, toward opening our minds in ways we may never have found otherwise.

I never give up on people, on relationships, on the projects I have chosen.

But with this experience I am readier than ever to give up on any idea that is constricting my view of what's possible in this magical world.

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Mitra Martin

Mitra Martin is Program Director at the Oxygen Tango where her focus is developing an interconnected community learning experience, and facilitating conversation around excellence in Tango as a portal to personal and social transformation.