Since posting an article about my interview with Alex Krebs at Tangofest in 2008, I have received several requests to publish the fully transcribed interview. It is finally here in two parts (due to length). Revisiting this interview was a great experience; Alex is an excellent dancer, musician, teacher, and thinker with a great perspective on the dance. This first part covers how Alex discovered tango as well as his reflections on connection and flow. Part 2 covers his approach to musicality and his unique experiences with forming a tango orchestra and learning the bandoneón.
In case you’re not already familiar with Alex Krebs – or even if you are – here is a video of him dancing with Jennifer Olson. Watch the video, then dive into the interview. Enjoy!
So to give everyone a background, tell me how long you’ve been dancing, how you got started, and when you knew you wanted tango to be a serious part of your life.
So I had never danced before; I’m a musician by education. It was after my first year at Reed College. I was at my dad’s house in California over summer break. I was cooking, and I remember on NPR they had a segment on Carlos Gardel and my ears kind of perked up. Whenever I hear something interesting like that I go after it, so I bought a tape of Gardel. Actually I gave it to my dad for his birthday but then I ended up stealing it and listening to it for about a year. And I thought that was the extent of Argentine tango; I thought it was Carlos Gardel. I didn’t really know there was a dance per se, and if there was I wasn’t really interested at that time.
Then I took a ballroom class at Reed College, and out of all the dances I liked ballroom tango. And then after summer break I went to my mom’s place and was looking for ballroom tango because I thought that was the only tango there was. I called this guy from a newspaper or website and he said they taught Argentine tango and that it’s a very different music, a very different dance, so I would have to come and start all over. I took that first lesson and never did ballroom again. I did three months in the Bay area with Gary Weinberg and Nirmala Dillner – great teachers, great people. Then when I went back to Reed in the fall I hooked up with the local community which was really in its infancy there. It was run by Clay Nelson who is a ballroom teacher who got interested in tango and kind of converted his ballroom space for tango. I think we had about fifteen people a week. There was a weekly milonga on Sundays or on Tuesdays. I would always ride my bike out there and dress up in a suit. And a lot of us are still dancing today.
After about a year of dancing in Portland I went down to Argentina for the summer break of my junior year, which was ‘97 or ’98, and spent two months in Buenos Aires. At that time you could only dance once a week in Portland and the dancers were relatively new. So I went to Buenos Aires and I was dancing ten hours a day. I would wake up at 6 p.m., eat a big plate of pasta, go to a three-hour class from 8 to 11 or 9 to midnight and then go straight to the milonga from midnight until 6 a.m. And I did that for two months straight.
When I came back you can imagine how much growth I had made. And that’s when people started saying I should teach private lessons. I never even contemplated teaching the dance; for me I just love doing it. But people seemed interested, so I started a práctica over at Reed every Friday, and at first we had fifteen or twenty people. Then the portlandtango.com website went up, which was in ’98, and it advertised this weekly práctica, and then I started getting fifty people a week which was literally everyone in the community.
And I felt that I really loved teaching. I taught snowboarding and I was a tutor in high school, so I’ve always kind of taken these teaching roles, but I never really found that was my calling or what I did really well until I got this feedback from people that they were interested in what I was doing. And I really loved doing it. I think I started charging a two-dollar donation for an hour class and three-hour práctica. And then the following year I went down to Buenos Aires for three months after I graduated. I planned to stay for a year but ended up staying three months. I took classes with as many different teachers as possible to get teaching ideas; I wanted to learn different approaches to the dance.
So when I came back I had my 68 VW bug and no money. I set up shop. I started a milonga every first and third Saturday, which still runs nine or ten years later. I started teaching group classes and private lessons, then two years later bought my studio. Around 2000 or 2001 I started travelling. Anchorage was actually one of my first places. And then shortly after that, I think in 2001, I started teaching in Europe. Someone asked me to teach in Germany and also in Italy. From there other teachers would take my classes and then they would invite me, so it kind of exploded. I ended up teaching in Germany, Sweden, England, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. And then all over the states here in the U.S. I don’t even know now all the cities but pretty much every major city, every major festival, for the last eight years or so. I started playing the bandoneón five years ago, started the band around that time, got two CDs out. I also did a solo project – an electronic tango album – and I called the group Orquesta Electronica Berretín, but I was the orquesta in that case. It was just kind of an experiment, something fun to do; I didn’t take it too seriously. Now I do arrangements for Orquesta Típica and the Tango Sextet. The studio is still running, but I’m traveling less now because I have a kid.
So the music really captured you first. What was it about the dance that made you think you really wanted to pursue it? Was there something in particular about it, or an experience you had?
Dancing was a way of getting into the music more initially. Just listening to the music wasn’t enough. I had to become more part of the music. But I didn’t really know about the bandoneón or how to get a hold of one. So playing the music wasn’t really an option; I played saxophone, which didn’t fit in too well. So I started the dance, and then I found this sense of connection. I remember dancing with this follower after I’d been dancing about eight months, and after that night I couldn’t sleep. I was literally lying awake, thinking about what it was, trying to figure it out because I had never really felt something like that. It transcended an attraction. It was something deeper, something beyond that. It sounds kind of cheesy, but moving as one, time slows down, etc., etc. Because I didn’t even know that was part of the dance until I was dancing eight months.
So now there’s just different facets: there’s listening to the music, there’s playing the music, there’s hosting the dances. I love hosting parties in general, so it’s nice to have this tango connection. Then the creative aspect of it, finding combinations. It’s still very engaging for me. Finding new possibilities, or watching someone dance and being inspired. There are so many different ways to dance this dance. Just when you’ve sort of figured one way out, there are a hundred other ways to do it, to try on different suits. I’m definitely not bored with it. It keeps me very engaged on many different levels.
So for you, what qualities make someone an enjoyable dancer?
For me I’m only interested in the social dance. I appreciate, but I’m not interested in, show tango or tango for stage. I’m called on to perform and I enjoy performing, but I don’t study that at all. I’m more interested in connection, lead and follow, improvisation, musicality…
What makes an enjoyable dancer? If I’m dancing with a follower, of course a connection, but that’s kind of a very general word. So on a physical level that there’s consistent pressure. Consistency is the word. When dancing with another person you always have to adjust, but once you’ve adjusted it’s nice to know that things kind of stay certain. If the connection is noisy, if there’s more pressure or less, in every step you’re not really sure where the follower is going to end up, so you have to adjust on every step as opposed to just adjusting initially and then kind of relaxing.
Do you think that’s more a matter of technique for the follower, or do you think it’s a matter of being present?
On a physical level it’s a technical thing. It’s about keeping your weight on the ball of your foot, the things you learn in classes… You have to give your dance consistency so that the other connections can come through. And the other connections… Well, we talk about presence, which is also a little vague. I guess one thing would be focus, which is a type of presence. There’s a difference between letting go and spacing out in the dance, and it’s a very fine line between the two. Letting go and being present is to relax and move together and to be there, and spacing out is to relax and move but not to really be there on a mental level.
There are also levels of connection. With some followers I’ll connect with them really well on a musical level. The whole dance is about sort of one-upping each other on a musical level. I know that she knows the music and she knows that I know the music, so if there’s a big accent with most followers I would have taken a huge step but because I knew she was expecting that I would do a complete pause. But this is also a very advanced or deeper level. With most followers I dance what’s most obvious in the music.
Just last night I was just thinking of the whole game of the dance; it’s kind of like this game of musical chess that I was going through with this follower and she was trying with me. So we were dancing on a level that wasn’t about steps, or style, or close or open. We had a good connection, but I think that’s because we both have our technique down pretty solid, so we could connect on a different level. Then there are these dances like the one I had after dancing eight months, these sort of transcendental dances in which almost nothing exists except you and your partner. Even the music doesn’t really exist. You don’t try to be ultra-musical. You just sort of float together and forget that you’re leading and following, and it’s just two bodies moving as one.
I ran cross country in high school and that was kind of a similar experience, where after training daily it becomes sort of a meditation. You’d get to a point where you’d be running for two hours nonstop but you don’t really realize you’re running. You don’t get tired; you end up thinking about other things or the quality of the foot on the pavement or dirt or whatever. The running happens by itself.
And so in the dance it kind of happens by itself. Other dances are about the steps and combining things in a creative way and it’s a challenge, a puzzle. It’s more about the creative nature rather than the musical nature or the transcendental nature. So I think there are different types of connection, but the thing that’s nice when it happens is that you connect on the same level. It doesn’t matter what level, whether you’re going for transcendental or something else, but that you are both trying to dance with each other for the same reason. If one person really wants to have a trance dance with you but you’re more interested in being savvy with the music, you don’t have a good connection. You might both be technically great, but you have to have the same end result of what the dance should be. So it’s a matter of adjusting that. If I dance with a follower and the way she embraces me or moves indicates that she wants it to be about the music then I’ll try to adjust to that immediately, and I’m sure followers do that with leaders as well. It’s figuring out what the dance is going to be about, and it’s different with every follower. That first dance is about finding that, finding the connection, which is much more than just moving together – you know, she goes forward and I go backward. That’s sort of very entry-level connection, but there are many more layers to that. And I’m sure there are many other different types of connection. I think it’s about that, trying to dance on the same page as your partner.
So the question was about what makes an enjoyable dancer… When I watch good leaders dance, it’s the elegance, smoothness, musicality, and connection with the partner. It’s really hard to fake musicality. You can learn the steps and the lines and even the connection fairly quickly. But there is so much music out there that the longer you dance and the more you dance, the more musical you become. It’s very obvious if someone has danced a lot or has focused on musicality, or if they haven’t. In six months you can’t be a super musical dancer. You can be a good entry-level dancer and you can be on the right path, but it takes years to achieve that.
You talked about cross country running and mentioned the concept of being in the zone or being on a high. One area I’ve done a lot of research on is the concept of flow. It’s that same idea of being in the zone. They use the term not only in sports but in the arts and other disciplines to talk about those moments when everything just comes together and it’s almost like a supernatural feeling. You know what I’m talking about. I know it’s elusive to talk about –
Yeah, you have to experience it. No words can quite capture it.
The way it’s different in dance is that you have two different people trying to create it together. So how do you think two people can cultivate that? What has to happen for two people to really contribute to that feeling?
Well, it’s a meditation. You have to be doing the movements without intellectualizing. That’s the thing. I’m sure it’s the same for any athlete or musician, whatever your discipline. If you’re a brain surgeon, the scalpel knows where to go automatically. That’s not something where you have to think: Do I cut here?
Yeah, if that’s the case, you know [laughing]… And It’s the same in the dance. If you have to think about where to put your feet, there’s no way you’re going to arrive at that. As soon as the brain kicks in, you’re toast. So for me it’s a completely non-intellectual idea. And that’s really important. How do you get to that? Well, you have to do it a lot. Repetition basically. It’s like meditation. People who meditate a lot, they also arrive at a certain flow; it’s a repetitive task. Driving, to some extent… it’s not really a high, but you’ve had times where you drive and all of a sudden you realize two miles later you’ve just driven and weren’t even really conscious of it; you weren’t intellectualizing it. It’s these repetitive tasks where it gets into your muscle memory and not your brain. It’s a place where there’s no doubt, there’s no questions, there’s no insecurity in the dance. Both people have to dance enough, I think, to… You have to be trained and at the same time you have to be able to adjust. It’s a tough question.
Do you think more advanced dancers experience flow more or less often? In the research I’ve done, one of the characteristics of flow is when challenges and skills are completely balanced. Because if there’s more challenge than skill, it’s over your head and you have to think about it too much. On the other hand, if you’re more skilled than challenged, you become bored and you may not be really engaged. But it’s when challenge and skill are balanced that the feeling of flow can happen. By that token, at any level you can experience flow if you have that balance. So how often do you get those kinds of moments where you feel that flow with someone? Do you have those experiences very often?
Fewer now, actually, than earlier on. So that’s very interesting – challenge versus skills… I can enjoy dancing with people for many different reasons but if we’re talking flow I remember the first four to five years I experienced it very often and since then… I think maybe it is that challenge versus skill. But I don’t know if it’s the challenge or just an understanding, because if I dance with a follower, if I want to connect with the music and I feel like she can connect, she can hear and understand me on whatever level, whether it’s steps or something else, it’s very freeing. They say tango is an anxious quest for freedom. It’s when you dance with someone and it feels like you have the same freedom of movement and expressivity as if you’re dancing by yourself but you’re sharing it with someone. So your partner isn’t blocking, which is a technical thing that can take you out of that feeling… I kind of like the idea of challenge versus skills. That’s an interesting way of thinking about it. But it’s harder to find now because I think I’m pickier. I want that, but it’s…
Well I’m sure the more you advance in your skill the fewer partners there are that can match you in certain respects…
Yeah, it sounds kind of cocky and egotistical, but that’s kind of it. There are fewer people that I can have that with.
So before we delve into musicality, talk about what misconceptions you think beginners often have about tango and the learning process, or about any of the concepts we’ve talked about.
Well they have to come in and approach it from a totally different mindset than most of the other social dances – at least from my experience – taking swing classes or salsa or ballroom. As a follower, don’t memorize your steps. What we’re trying to do is learn how to lead and follow. That’s the idea. And to let go. The followers always ask where they should put their feet. I say, well, wherever the leader leads them. Don’t just do the step because it’s the step. You have to learn to feel. If they take a big step you go big; if the leader takes a small step you go small. And the other way around too, to learn to adjust. It’s a very different mindset, and I think that’s the thing to convince beginners of coming in.
That, and to convince them – and I’m sure this is the same with any other discipline – to take the time to do things well. In the beginning if you pay your dues you don’t have to pay them later on. Don’t sweep technical things under the rug. Learn how to stand well, embrace well, walk well, before you learn fancier things. I know when I started I was the same way. I said teach me the steps, and I was watching videos, and everything was about steps. So I think there’s a difference sometimes of perspective. A teacher is always encouraging in class to slow down, do things well. Students want to do more. At least in Portland, most places, I don’t encounter too many people that have a lot of expectations of doing sort of a show tango thing. That’s the other thing you have to tell them: This dance is about how it feels, not how it looks. If it feels good and you move well, it’s going to look good. And the elegance comes more from a connected movement than from a pose or a certain line you’re creating. Most of the time I don’t have to deal with that, but I think people need to realize that right away. I think a lot of teachers in this dance don’t start off saying make this line, they tend to focus on the movement and the connection, and that’s what we want in this dance.