Martyn Atack and Vikki Brannagan — an interview

Martyn Atack and Vikki Brannagan

Martyn and Vikki have their own Tango Studio on Auckland's North Shore, where they primarily give private lessons rather than group classes. Their passion for tango manifests itself in many ways: apart from teaching, they regularly dance socially, and have held monthly milongas, helped out at events like the annual Tango Congress, and entered tango competitions (they placed third in the Salon category of the 2008 NZ Tango Championship).

What got you into tango?

Martyn: "In the beginning" I was a dedicated Ceroc and Ballroom dancer. One day in 2000 I foolishly expressed an interest in tango to my partner at the time—and before I knew it, she had enrolled us in a beginners' class! Within 9 months tango had kicked Ceroc and Ballroom out of the nest and I've never looked back. In 2003 we went on to win the Auckland Salon Tango Championship and I started teaching.

Vikki: Unlike Martyn, I have no previous dance or musical experience. For me, it was a holiday in Buenos Aires that sealed my commitment to learn this beautiful dance. The rest, as they say, is history and—as my confidence has grown—so too has my enjoyment and love of the Tango.

What do you love about tango, or what does tango mean to you?

Martyn: The embrace in tango is as much metaphorical as it is literal. It's much more than the physical connection you assume with your partner. Tango embodies another level of connection (and communication) that I haven't experienced in other dance types. It is studded with exquisite contradictions and dichotomies, where you need to be at once focussed on all things. You dance for yourself but you have a partner. The music has structure but it's chaotic. Tango is a dance of improvisation so you dance what you feel. The conversation you have with your partner is not what the world sees... the list goes on. All these things make the tango simultaneously more challenging and more rewarding, but the real joy is private. Few things are more sublime than dancing a good tango.

Vikki: There are few things in life that can compare to a "tango moment". One of the wonderful things about being a tango-follower is that every leader you will dance with is different. Each brings his own interpretation of the music. Each has his own form of embrace. But a truly magical tango is one where your connection is complete. Then, for that dance the rest of the world slips away. It's just the two of you, in the music. I've come to appreciate that these special moments don't only happen with your favourite dance partners. You can also find them in a tango with a person you've never met before, who perhaps doesn't even speak your language ... but who shares your love of the music and its expression in the dance.

How has your relationhip with tango changed over time?

Martyn: As a tango-leader my first milongas were quite intimidating. There have been times when learning tango has been extremely challenging. For example, taking my first tentative steps on a postage stamp sized dance floor and coming away thinking "this is impossible". But, as I developed my technique so too did my level of satisfaction. Somewhere along the way I discovered musicality and in turn spontaneity, which lifted me to the next level.

Teaching tango has taken this experience to a whole new level. It's been one of the best things I've done for my own tango. Teaching has forced me to think very carefully about what I'm doing. I've had to be able to explain, firstly to myself and then to my students, what works, why it works and how it works. What's required to lead and what's required to follow. But here's the kicker... who's right?

Vikki: Learning the tango has been the most challenging—and rewarding—thing I have ever done. It has brought me out of my comfort zone, increased my personal fitness and built my confidence. It has been quite a journey. Initially it was as fundamental as understanding basic posture and learning more about how my body works. The thing about the Tango is that one is always discovering new "layers" of the dance, especially in regard to the exchange of energy, movement and communication with your partner. These days I am learning how to take part in the tango "conversation" myself. I'm learning to listen to the music, to understand what my leader is listening to and, within that, learn how as a tango-follower I can continue to grow my own musicality and creativity in the dance.

How long have you been teaching tango for?

Martyn: I started teaching beginners classes for Carl in 2003 and Nigel and Cecile's beginners shortly afterward. I started my own school in Silverdale in June 2006 and Vikki and I opened our own dedicated Studio in Rosedale in 2009.

Vikki: I wouldn't label myself a "teacher". I assist Martyn in his role as a teacher and I communicate my personal insights to our followers from our own lessons in Buenos Aires. For leaders, I assist as a follower and practice partner.

Which style(s) of tango would you say you dance and/or teach?

Martyn: I'm not keen to be pigeon-holed into a particular "style". While a certain dedication to a "style" is necessary for a more complete understanding of what that style has to offer, it's part of a larger journey and I don't want to be blinkered by where I might be at present. Unlike in Buenos Aires, here in New Zealand we're not forced to adapt to constraints such as, say, the crowded milongas that produced the milonguero style over there. We just don't have that critical mass.

When it comes to teaching, I like to help my students understand the tango within the context of the different styles. As time goes by, students come to the point where they choose for themselves the style that appeals to them the most. Thus it becomes part of their own tango journey.

Vikki: I have visited Buenos Aires to learn and dance five times over the past three years. Personally, I love watching and dancing with the older milongueros there. As my own understanding and skill has grown, so too have my opportunities to dance with some of the last-living icons of the era when people didn't learn their Tango in a dance school. Many of these leaders have been dancing for 40 or 50 years or more. They dance the way they learnt from their fathers, uncles and brothers. Their interpretation of the music, the embrace and the Tango conversation is unique. Dancing with them can be like gaining a glimpse through a curtain of the true depth of the Tango experience that awaits our discovery, as we each make our own personal journey through the Tango.

What are your classes like?

Martyn: Technique! Technique to lead, to follow and to communicate. Because tango is a dance of improvisation and because we teach for social dancing, we use figures only for demonstrating elements of technique. Did I mention technique?

For beginners this means they can connect with their partner, navigate and experiment as soon as possible without being constrained by the number of figures they know. Advanced dancers will quickly pick up new material, because they understand the elements of technique that are being applied. Learning in this way makes their tango more spontaneous, personal and enjoyable.

Vikki and I also focus on sharing the learning from our own ongoing lessons in Buenos Aires. Translating these experiences in a manner that helps our students is, in fact, also one of our most effective forms of our own personal tango development.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring tango dancers?

Martyn: Have patience. Some drugs take a little time to work but this one is absolutely worth it!

Vikki: Have confidence. Be prepared to endure the occasional set-back. It is not always smooth sailing. But once you have experienced your first "tango moment", you will never want to give it up!

Martyn Atack and Vikki Brannagan
June 2010

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