Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Nature of Non-profit Incubators

As the Tango Center fills with dozens of projects, approaching six events a day and a thousand people a week, it's worth looking at what it took to incubate all these inventive, educational, popular, autonomous, self-funding, non-profit community projects.

Making Space,
Making Suggestions,
Making Sacrifices

There's an important distinction to keep in mind -- the incubator doesn't make the projects, it makes space for the projects. It provides opportunities, it organizes resources, and it makes suggestions. But any newly incubated project will only exist if the people doing the project really want it to succeed. [Note: a 'project' might be independent, and only renting the incubator's space, or it might be within the institutional umbrella].

If the project is suggested repeatedly by community members, then the incubator will try to organize it, by passing the suggestion to the larger community, over and over again, until it succeeds -- eventually, that means the right people, who really like the idea, or some variation on it, will volunteer to make sacrifices.

The infrastructure of mutual aid:
shared resources
& systemic facilities

A successful incubator needs the right resources for new and existing projects to survive. A resource is typically built by one project during its gestation, sometimes with the help of other projects that would also benefit. Often, the resource is simply too large to be launched by projects in a start-up stage, so the incubator needs to bring the larger community together, to help out, "barn-raising" style.

Infrastructure consists of physical structure, regular volunteer work, regular staff work, organizational relationships etc. These are the real pieces of furniture, in the house of mutual aid.

At the Tango Center, we had to build all of this from scratch, or repair it, and maintain it: the dance floor, the ceiling restoration, the ever-growing sound system, the public Mac computer and its music library, the broadband connection and wifi, the public linux machine and printer, the office supplies, the whiteboards, the tables, the chairs, the couches, the bulletin boards, the website, the community-projects software that runs the website, the facebook group, the e-mail lists, the tool library, the materials room, storage, the lost & found, the lighting system, the security system, the copy machine, the fax machine, the bathrooms, the kitchen supplies, the microwave, the fridge, the water cooler, the mailing address and mailbox, the street windows and poster displays, the exhibition equipment, the music directors, the calendar manager, the event managers, the instructor pool, the organizer pool, the visiting instructors, the site manager, the general manager, our 8,000 ft space, our tax-exempt fiscal sponsorship, our ability to sponsor visas, our non-profit status, our legal and accounting help, our one-call center of dance opportunities, our advertising, our media relationships, our referral network, the decorations, the paintings, the poster collections, the murals, the sheet music collections, the piano, the music stands, clips, lights and mikes, the heating systems, the online "creative commons license" graphic, photo and video library, the live music digitizer, the tango store and preview system, etc, etc.

And none of this could have come about, were it not for the work that came before the incubator was even considered ...

Happily, almost all the incubator's projects benefit from improvements to the multiple levels of infrastructure. In fact, it is these "systemic facilities", which positively influence the whole, that are most likely to happen.

Even better -- the fact that the quantity of projects is increasing itself helps the whole, by offering diverse exciting opportunities to the community, holding its interest and swelling its numbers. The more the merrier.

How it happens

If you listen, you can hear the ideas bubble up.

Some are contentious -- especially when they threaten to replace something that's well-loved. But those tend to die off, and that's almost always for the best, probably. Improvements should be incremental, preserving, respecting and enhancing the good things that already exist.

Most good ideas develop momentum on their own. Sometimes, people with a reputation for doing something good, on the outside, want to do their work inside the center. More often, people develop a good reputation for fixing or improving things inside, and so it's easier to get community help for their next project.

Initiation happens in a number of ways, with people playing some combination of inventor, project evangelist, community advocate, problem solver, recruiter, facilitator, and worker. Usually everyone who wanted to do the project, works on it. If the incubator is over-staffed, or if the staff is too self-sacrificing, it often makes the mistake of doing all the projects that are suggested, rather than advertising the ideas and facilitating their exposure to the community talent pool and body politic.

How it fails

Projects fail to start, fail to maintain, or fail to finish, for so many reasons, that it's important, for the incubator, not to become too attached to any one project in particular. However -- keep records. The specific lessons can be very useful for the next generation.


If there is one thing that the incubator can help with, it is longevity. A project can succeed with the public, be loved by the community, and still die from attrition -- people move on.

The incubator staff needs to learn how to tap much larger institutions: governments, school, utilities, corporations, communities etc. In that way, it can create or collaborate with institutional programs that feed the incubator's projects for years. Maintaining these institutional relationships becomes one of the major roles an incubator can play in the long term.

Of course, the incubator itself is an institution, and its longevity needs regular attention, in the same way that its projects do. It needs to join in larger coalitions with other institutions to maintain viability on the larger scene.

The incubator's strength, however, lies in its community, and continued focus upon acting on its behalf, on behalf of all its people, in the broadest possible way, will ensure a long and exciting future for everyone involved.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

No on 20-134

Since the ballots are arriving, I wanted to be clear, that if you live in Eugene, and want to save the Tango Center from the destruction of Urban Renewal, then please vote NO on Measure 20-134.

Urban Renewal is simply another government mechanism for the wealthy and powerful to profit -- at the expense of the taxpayer, the neighborhoods destroyed, and the people who may or may not inhabit the resulting construction.

The Council majority and the City planning department are not trustworthy -- they are responsible for the problems downtown. Many of us have spent years trying to get the City to spend tiny amounts of money to help fix the problems, but all the City cares about is "big projects". The reason is simple: their goal is to keep the "power players" in town happy, providing plush public projects, regardless of negative effect.

To fix this corruption, we'll need to continually to pressure the City, stop its every destructive move, and force public accountability, for years to come. This is just the first step.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Tango & downtown revitalization -- video

We're constantly fighting to save the Tango Center from senseless, wasteful, urban-renewal-style redevelopment. There was recently an opportunity to propose, to the City of Eugene, an alternative approach to downtown Eugene revitalization, and so I made a video, using the Tango Center as an example. It may be useful, if you're interested in what it took to create the Tango Center.

The downtown Eugene / Tango Center video is here. It's 11-minutes long.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Downtown Collective

Tango is about connection. So, a Tango Center needs to be about connection too. The TC is collectively run, so, naturally, we would like to see all of downtown Eugene collectively run.

Downtown Eugene is a neglected part of the City. This is why we launched the TC here -- to bring some life to the worst part of the city. But there are always "Urban Renewal" plans, attempts to destroy occupied older buildings and replace them with holes in the ground, hoping to attract private developers, to build newer empty buildings.

Our collective is pretty much tired of being threatened with destruction all the time. So we're proposing that all the tenants in the area band together to create a downtown eugene collective, whose job will be to enhance the existing organizations, and fill the empty space downtown with vibrant, substatial, and local actvity.

You can read about the Downtown Eugene Tenant's Collective proposal, which is being submitted to the City at a critical moment, here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The music of democracy

We're now using our prototype webtool to survey opinion about music ... a baby step towards actually running the whole Tango Center operation as a direct democracy, driving the original mission.

But not everyone is comfortable using the web for everything. About 5%, we've found.

So the plan is to get closer to reality -- use the Tango Center's Internet connection, wifi hotspot, and many volunteers -- to actually get people to use the webtool, to register their vote (or adjust it, or sign up) at the milongas (our eight social dances, with about 300-500 different people coming through each month).

I think that by doing this, we'll resolve many of the issues that would arise, if this tool was used to, say, run a city.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Many non-profits charge a lot for admission (the Metropolitan Opera, for example).

But The Tango Center is an all-ages, non-profit community center, hosting world-class dances for the general public in Eugene for only $5. That's our mission, so we have to make up the difference somewhere. We've started with a fundraising auction, and over a hundred people gave their time, services & hard-earned cash to make it happen.

Everyone improvised for their roles that evening: bookkeeping, registration, auctioneering, showcasing, promoting, cooking, etc. It was quite exciting and a little exhausting. Next time, with a better understanding of the undertaking, we'll prepare more in advance. But is it any surprise that Tango people can pull off a high-quality event even when they've never done it before? Isn't that the nature of what we do? Isn't that what life should be about, to some degree?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Community music machine

We needed a learning tool for Tango music, for Dj-ing etc, at The Tango Center. It seemed kind of strange that a small number of DJ's were doing all the work, collecting all the music, sorting through it, learning orchestra names, etc. So, we put together an old Mac G4, and made it part of the DJ station. Now everyone puts their playlists on one machine, so we can all listen and learn from the music in classes, practicas, milongas etc. It really works wonderfully. Highly recommended for any community project.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Both roles

We've seen that teaching people to both lead & follow, leads to better dancing. This is a somewhat controversial conclusion, but pretty easy to demonstrate.

So maybe it's true of communal roles too.

Some people took the role of cleaning the tango center, and others took the role of "being served", especially during milongas. But this isn't the idea of the Tango Center ... it's a community center. So we really need to get as many people, as possible, on volunteer clean-up teams, maybe for an hour in an evening, roaming around during the milonga, fixing & straightening & cleaning. The teams must rotate ... so everyone gets to try all roles, and becomes more responsible. This will make people poke at each other a bit, to keep the place nice. But that's part of what community's about.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Pretty flexible

We've been experimenting with three classes at once: a suite of lessons before the milonga.

Last week, we had an "Introduction from Zero" class, a "beginning/fundamentals" class, and an Intermediate class. I adjusted the scattered eight speakers continuously, depending on whether people were dancing or talking ... it's a somewhat confusing scene, and fun.

But this week, Evan Griffiths came to teach the Intermediate class, and found the Intro class was "follows" (mostly women ...) and the intermediate class was "leads" (mostly men ... ) so he thought it would be natural to merge them, and teach an Intermediate class, with a difficult but enlightening subject, where the double challenge was to lead a beginner to do it.

Interesting idea. It worked pretty well. It also shows that it's fun to break the routine, to make connections, at any level -- part of the improvisational nature of Tango.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

How it works

In general, small groups, with grassroots support, do wonderful things. Then some massive project comes along, often building on the energy of these groups, and essentially destroys them.

I can stick to the history of Eugene, Oregon for this one.

For example, in the late seventies, there was an innovative, world-class dance, music & theatre scene. Everyone was very excited about it. Some developers decided to get the city to build a giant performance center: the "Hult Center". It sucked all the resources from the non-profit sector, and all those small groups disappeared, or moved on. It has been an albatross around the neck of the arts scene, ever since.

Another example: at the same time, some very innovative cooperative marketplaces were made out of nothing. In an old factory, a group of craftspeople created a lovely one: the Fifth Street Market. It was so successful, that some investors bought the building, kicked out the coop management, raised the rents ... the place has struggled ever since.

For years, neighborhood natural food stores thrived in Eugene. Now the imitators, the investors, the national chains, such as "Whole Foods", are moving in, and many of those small markets will disappear.

For years, non-profits have struggled to keep downtown Eugene alive, while the investors and the City did nothing. I have friends at the city, but they did nothing practical. All they did was help big projects. Not good projects. Because big projects have big advocates, who profit from them.

This system needs to change.

There's major investor-backed redevelopment in the air in Eugene, including the area occupied by the Tango Center. But community interests need to be considered, and good projects preserved. The more people talk about it, the more good can happen. "What should our city, and our downtown, be like?" That conversation is now starting, in earnest.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Linking Milongas

Reviving the flow of social dance happens when you can get milongas to nicely link, one to the next. The last few weeks have been particularly nice, with the next night's events often announced at the end of the evening. We had three events at The Tango Center, one at the Buzz cafe at the University of Oregon, one at Cafe Perugino, and two practicas at Studio B.

Continuity publications help the chaining. We have a growing e-mail list, and our new tangotimes.org, distributed in hard copy at milongas, lets people project their current joy and excitement into the future.

It's nice to see this flow. It really defines the community.

And it adds another layer to the Tango Gestalt: ... connect, creating a flow, with the earth & sky ... with your partner ... with to the music (and live musicians, if any) ... with the other couples ... with the river of people on the floor ... with the moments happening around you ... with the community ... and with the river of community gatherings.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The pit is the stage

Bringing live music back into social dance isn't easy. But when it works, when the musicians & the dancers connect, when the musicians play for the dancers, so they dance their best ... well, you'll never experience this sitting quietly in your seat, passively watching the performing arts. This is one obvious resolution to a perceived "crisis":

" ... it's hard to compete with the Internet, video games, cable television and DVDs, said Lori Kramer, sales and ticket services manager at the Portland (Ore.) Center for the Performing Arts.

" 'I think that it isn't just any one thing,' Kramer said. 'Younger people are used to more interaction, more things going on to keep their attention, other than just someone sitting in a chair playing a violin.' "

Performing arts venues, at a loss for revenue, are frantically spicing up their acts with lights & electronica. But the answer is much simpler, and harks back to when people first boogied to a rhythm: don't separate the performers from the audience. Make a community.

The sterile notion that "western civilization" resides in quiet concert halls is quite modern. Until the 19th century, even church & royal performances were not so solemn. As for "high society" performances: I have here a book from 1781 (Dr. John Moore, A View of Society & Manners in Italy, v.2, p.390) describing a night at the opera in Florence, Italy:

"The Opera at Florence is a place where the people of quality pay and receive visits, and converse as freely as at the casino ... this occasions a continual passing & repassing to and from the boxes, except in those where there is a party of cards formed; it is then looked on as a piece of ill manners to disturb the players. I was never more surprised, than when it was proposed to me to make one of a whist party, in a box which seemed to have been made for the purpose, with a little table in the middle. I hinted that it would be full as convenient to have the party somewhere else; but I was told, good music added greatly to the pleasure of a whist party; that it increased the joy of good fortune, and soothed the affliction of bad. As I thought the people of this country better aquainted than myself with the power of music, I contested the point no longer ... "

Live music ... is for life.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Men's practica

Men practice with each other lots in Argentine Tango, in Eugene, even at Milongas. Probably the most practical reason: it's an easier path to understanding the whole dance.

All Tango stage shows, and countless cheesy Argentine movies from the 1940's, include a scene with men practicing with each other, in the hope that they'll dance better, and be more likely to catch a woman. These are just cartoon images of courtship ... sometimes, I guess for 'literary effect', violence is added between the men ... you know, in case anyone was worried about their machismo.

Recently a few people proposed that, if men practicing together was a good idea, then we should hold special men's practica sessions, gatherings where the main purpose is men leading men. We have lots of good women leaders, but they find men physically very hard to lead. So we'll try a few of these practicas. Hopefully it will also help lots of the new men get more comfortable with empathy.

For probably the first six months after opening, we tried hard to give everyone equal experience in both lead & follow, right from the start. This is pretty much what Elizabeth was doing at the University classes, very successfully, so it seemed like we should follow her example. I still think we should. There are also countless social advantages to blurring the gender roles. People complain that beginning men shouldn't lead beginning men. I don't believe that, but even if it were true, it's definitely good for women to lead men right from the beginning.

There's a lot of subconscious resistance to all of this by really good leaders who have not put equal time into following ...

The multiple pre-milonga class recipe ...

As demonstrated by Ev Marcel & Robert Hauk ... First we turn down the ambient Tango music.

Then we get everyone on the main floor. We quickly decide how to divide the group: beginner/intermediate, raw-beginner/beginner etc. We split up.

Ev takes the raw-beginners.

Robert takes the non-beginners.

We turn up the music, slow steady tango, no higher than "just audible". But it's always running. When a teacher is talking, we turn down the music on their side of the room. When students start dancing, we turn it up on that side. Luckily, we have two separate floors, both quite large.

The tendency is for teachers to talk through the beginning of the song on both sides, and then people dance for 2/3 of a song. Or the teacher talks through most of a song, and then the students dance the rest and the next song. SO the DJ should be ready to turn down the music a lot at the end of a song. Even though it keeps running at low volume.

The class runs about an hour. Encourage stragglers to come into the classes.

Let both teachers know, when you're two songs before the end. After those songs, stop the music.

Robert tells the non-beginners that they will go dance with the beginners now, for the first Tanda of songs in the Milonga. Ev tells the beginners the same thing.

The non-beginners merge with the beginners.

Brief announcements & group self-congratulatons.

Turn down the lights. The milonga starts with great energy.

Like magic.

After 45 minutes, to keep the beginners around, Robert Hauk & Alicia Pons do some deeply lovely performances. It worked like a charm.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Catching on

We're getting over 100 people each Saturday, even on a 'quiet weekend', that is, one without any visiting DJs, bands or instructors. We have a guest instructor from Buenos Aires next week, Alicia Pons, and I can't imagine how many people will be here ... 200?

The Shoe Center is kicked off -- Jeff the shoemaking scientist-craftsman started to take everyone's foot impressions & measurements at Saturday's milonga, and will be doing the same over the next month or so, as he determines the base lasts that he'd like to create for instigating our local Tango shoemaking workshop. The notion is that people will be able to come here and start on the process of getting the perfect custom dance shoe made -- this takes several mockup iterations to do correctly. We're trying to make inroads into the way people buy shoes. Buying local shoes, made-to-order, supports local craftspeople, and results in a better shoe for the wearer. It happens that the oldest shoes in the world are sitting in a museum in Eugene ... of course the modern running shoe was also invented here. So we're on fertile ground. Whenever you start a non-profit project, you want to build upon local strengths ...

Friday, February 18, 2005


After each milonga, I'll start uploading to this free photo service. Such a photogenic environment. It's even better-looking for moving pictures, of course, with music. We'll start regular DVD production and photo sales as soon as we can ...

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Pre-milonga Tango faire

This weekend, we had two simultaneous classes before each Milonga: An Intro to Tango, and an Intermediate class, both at 8pm. This might seem like a confusing thing to do in a single room, even a big one like ours. But Friday worked well. And Saturday worked like magic.

Ev Marcel taught the Intro, and Robert Hauk taught the Intermediates, both days, so they had an opportunity to work out the bugs. Here's the result:

1. Keep the music playing all the time. Don't pause it, even if both teachers are talking ... just turn it down.

2. If possible, have the DJ or someone who knows the system, turn the music up and down, for two sets of speakers, relative to what's going on ... so if one teacher's talking, turn their speakers down, then when they stop talking, turn them up. Only when both classes are dancing, will you go "full volume" with both sets of speakers.

3. This would be much easier if the teachers could have volume controls for speakers on their side of the hall. In the meantime, a DJ can do it. So, we could use a "fourth pair" of speakers, on the far side of the second floor, and some volume control mechanisms.

4. End the classes on the same song. Wind up the Intermediate class first. At the end of the Intermediate class, tell the dancers "we want to build the tango community, so let's go and join the beginners, ask them to dance, dance a tanda with them."

5. At the same time, prep the beginners, tell them that the intermediate class is coming over, and that they must dance the first Tanda -- a tradition at the Tango Center.

6. Bring the Intermediate group to the beginning group. Quick announcements. Introductions. Start the milonga. Gradually turn some lights down.

This was a very successful experiment. I can't tell you how magical it was. You had to be there. Or ... come next time!

One thing -- it was kind of like a Tango educational faire. I could easily imagine four floors of instruction running at the same time, a bell goes off at 9pm, and everyone comes to the main floor and we start the milonga.

Filo described "La Viruta" in Buenos Aires as a bit like this. They probably don't try to get everyone to dance with each other across classes ... but here, that's part of the reason we do this.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

That's more like it

We've had two very big Saturdays in a row, 150 people or so. Last night, we were visited by a bevy of fine dancers from all over the west coast: Christopher, Caroline, Alex, Jaimes, Homer, Charity, Anna, Andrew, Stefan, Mitra, Greg, Stephen, Jane, Alejandro, et al: the usual suspects at any Tangofest in the country. They came to support our community effort. Very nice!

We have not held Tango Festivals here, because we've focussed on our major goal, which is to build the local community. To do that, we've been working on creating the highest-quality regular Milongas. Despite our success, I think that, to become a community institution, we need to get 200 local people here each Friday & Saturday night. The visiting dancers & musicians help the local community meet that goal, by adding to the excitement. Very gestalt, and very Tango.

With all those visitors, and a dance that lasted until 3am (!) it became obvious that we really need to finish building the Tango hostel upstairs. Homer mentioned that itinerant Tango people will pay for even a cot to sleep on. But we'd like to do much better than that.

So much to do! So exciting!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Connecting to the outside

Carpenter & bassist Marty Jones finishes the Tango Center sign/mailbox, his collaboration with Demetrius Gonzalez, Olga Volchkova & myself. It's a practical public art project, in the tradition of Guimard's Metro Stations in Paris. It's a moral issue -- art shouldn't just be for galleries & private collections. It should be part of everyday life, on display for everyone to enjoy.

In this case, it's also part of our public service, to blur the boundary between the community center, and the community outside. This works pretty well already at night, when everyone can see people dancing inside. But during the day, unfortunately, there's no visibility, because we have tinted windows. So it's hard to see what the Tango Center's about. This should help. It also helps the poor postman, who had no place to put our mail.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Self-selecting seats

It would be obvious to any cafe owner.

After you have something good going on, one of the simplest ways to increase the number of regular visitors is to add tables & chairs ... and couches and other little nooks & niches, into which people can adapt, fit, hang out.

People don't come back if a place is empty all the time. People also don't come back if they can't find a place to sit, each time they visit. So ... make sure the place is always packed, and have extra seating available.

Inspiring musicians

One of the goals of the Tango Center is to create a vibrant Tango dance music scene in Eugene. So, we need to find a way to inspire musicians. Before we opened the place, Mood Area 52 had already taken the initiative and created a Tango band with a very nice, unusual, but definitely tango sound. Then, in late 2003, Argentine Tango & jazz pianist Claudio Mendez came to visit us, with the phenomenal guitarist Daniel Gomez, in a tour organized by Bandoneonist Bertram Levy from Port Townsend, Washington. This visit inspired pianist Evan Griffiths, who's a superb dancer, to start a Tango band made up of members from the dance community. It's an amateur band, in the best sense, and now we have two regular Tango bands.

On their current tour, we had Mendez/Gomez/Levy play dance Tango at the Milonga, and it was a gigantic hit. The next day they held a workshop, and probably, it wasn't attended well enough to spark another band.

Most of the professional musicians I know say the primary factor in starting a music scene is money. If they feel it's possible to make a living playing Tango for dancers, they will. It's that simple. That's where the Golden Age of Tango in Buenos Aires came from ... hoards of dancers. On the other hand, they started dancing more when some superb bands emerged. We're lucky that we can get lots of dancers here, just by playing recordings of Tangos ... but that's not going to make a new movement. People really want to hear it live.

Claudio tells me that unfortunately he can't make a living playing Tango for dancers in Buenos Aires. There are so many tango musicians, and duets & trios & sextets, that dancehalls pay very little, and then only if you contract to play milongas at one place every night of the week.

By the way, I think we probably had a good format for visiting Tango musicians, who have a tendency to need to play something else too. At 7pm Saturday, we started a one-hour concert of whatever they wanted to play. At 8pm, we had our traditional pre-milonga lesson. Then they played Tango for dancing. I think this will work better when we have the beginning class and intermediate classes simultaneously ... the advanced dancers were kind of antsy during the concert, but they were really antsy during the introduction lesson. An intermediate lesson would have been just the ticket.

We're going to try that starting mid-February ... Ev Marcel will teach an Intro lesson on the main floor, and Robert Hauk will teach an intermediate lesson on the Parquet. I saw this work at Cellspace in San Francisco ... the trick is to have traditional tango running at about half-volume continuously in the background. Works like a charm.

Back to Claudio's comment on the scene in BAs ... it suggests that perhaps we should go down to BAs to hunt for Tango musicians to bring up here every week. A two-week tour, they can sell CD's, make more money than in BAs, and hold workshops with local Tango musicians. It's a traditional model in the world music scene ... Peter Gabriel hunted for talent this way to great effect, for example. If done right, it's good for everyone.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Micro-loans & scrip

There are two kinds of loan programs we need to use to grow the tango center. One helps us with capital expense and the other with inventory.

When you run a store with predictable sales, and you need more inventory, it's quite safe to borrow in order to get more inventory. But when you need capital for infrastructure, loans can come in the form of "scrip", useable for future use of the facility.

Again, the reason for soliciting loans is to allow more participation by the community in the growth of a center, without personal loss. Projects can also solicit donor pledges, and it's a useful experiment to see which is most effective.

We have a simple first test of the loan program: the Tango Store. CD's, books, and other items, cost money to buy. We can sell tangoscrip, and take loans, for inventory. We can keep track of inventory & loan repayments. This is the first online tool we need. Once we have it, it can apply to any sub-project of the Tango Center, or any other community center.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


There are many ways in which I'd like the Tango center to be like San Francisco's exploratorium. I don't want to lose any of the tango qualities, or the peer-to-peer learning, but I'd like to re-inforce them with more kinds educational tools.

Display of Song / Orchestra / Album
Music is very important, so we want to display the name of the song, the album, the orchestra ... But unless this information is digital, it will be difficult. We could also organize a team of volunteers to sift through cards and put them on display, of course. Eventually, we need a set of people putting together song translations and subtitles too. Classes in Spanish, Russian, Finnish etc. based on Tango lyrics would of course be useful. It might even result in new songs.

Giant pendulum, weak magnet
At the exploritorium, there's a giant concrete pendulum which you have to 'lead' back and forwards by a very tenuous magnet. I was with someone who didn't have the patience to do this with such little detectable force, and I believe that means she wouldn't be able to do Tango. At least, not without certain advances in her philosophy and sensitivity. I think having this pendulum, or similar self-educating aids, could help people a great deal.

Infrared camera
In one sense, it would just be cool to have an infrared display, in front of a back corner of the parquet, or in the far back, so people could watch themselves dancing (a mirror elsewhere would also be useful ... and perhaps a video camera & screen. Just not on the social dance floor.)

Another use would be several cameras so you could look at your posuture in motion. For all cameras, a capture button, so people don't look at themselves while dancing, would be very helpful.

The bird's eye view
This is an idea basically from the event/density studies ... I get it sort of from William Whyte of "Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" ... make a map of the floor & tables 7 lounge of the tango center. Point several infrared cameras down on the crowd, and stitch the pictures together onn a map, to get a sense of the flow on the floor etc.

A time lapse camera would also be nice. And a web cam, as long as you couldn't identify people (people don't want to be that clearly seen, live).

Kinesiology of walking
Basically models that deal with physical timing issues, especially of various moves. Kind of a tango animatronic, which you could stop, and watch go backwards ... modelled on the best dancers.

Sculpture & sketching
There still needs to be some way to encourage people to come to the Tango Center to sketch, sculpt and paint. The best way, of course, would be to have a gallery, where these items could be sold (handmade posters too). We could have public competitions to see which are best (most alive), and most prominently displayed. Children's classes too.

Instructors board
Before any of this, you want a big, visible board with the schedule of classes, instructors, tango events, at the center and elsewhere. At the moment, the front desk is serving this purpose, but it needs to be re-inforced.

Pattern constructor, sequence exhibits
Which describes what I'm doing here ... find the patterns in music, floorcraft, dance, lyricism, public spaces, interior-shaping, etc. Name them, describe them. Show coherent things built from them (like, a display of good dancers making something from a song, or a DJ's evening ... the music combined with the time-lapse & bird's-eye view).

Also, lead people through sequence exhibits ... like, how to DJ. Or arrange a tango for bandoneon & guitar. Or write some poetry. Or build a display. And walk them through it ... true interactive displays should allow people to make something, to do something. Make a pair of shoes, for example, or hem a dress, or fix a heel, or darn a sock ... or stretch, do a yoga posture or program, adjust your spine, stay healthy, do experiments, stay healthy, etc.

A display of things like the three red filter demo, the 40-penny problem, the limits of conciousness demo, etc. Food for thought about tango.

I'd also like to show videos, which you could stop, forward or rollback, of plants unfolding, ontologically. And Chris Alexander's demonstration of unfolding of venice etc.

There is a neat little touchscreen display of Zebra fish development at the Exploritorium, which needs very much to be duplicated. (Note: touchscreen kiosks are available for under $2,000). It could also be good for teaching language, geography of Argentina, or Oregon ... all without being too much like a pinball parlour. Many more couches, tables & chairs should help this ...

We have to do more without looking in tango, and areas for exercising this discipline could be fascinating. A touch-typing teacher, for example. Or exercises in self-sculpting and self-drawing without the use of mirrors. There is a result that using your hand to match the angle of a mountain lets you more accurately guess an angle ... it works, and helps you see the raw advantage of getting close to reality. There are also many potential proportion and posture observation experiments.

Attractive, interesting models of downtown, and the region, and patterns and sequences, will lead people to participatate in the Community Projects initiative.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Self sustaining

A farmer needs to deal with emergencies, water, weed, and watch for problems. But when he's not doing these things ... the fruit and vegetables grow. His efforts guide natural forces of growth, towards his goals.

I was thinking recently about how much energy it takes to set up such a natural system. In community organizing, the simplest version may be the revolving fund. Money goes into creating a self-sustaining system, and as it gets paid back, more systems can be created. But administering a revolving fund is not easy, much like agriculture isn't easy. But, in some sense, it is more likely to result in self-sustaining systems than a grant is. A grant gets spent, and nothing is left but some finite improvement. But a successful revolving loan fund continues to make improvements.

This is of course the primary reason capitalism spreads. The mechanisms for sustainability, from a captial perspective, are quite advanced. However, although the mechnisms act as an engine of growth, the results are completely inequitable.

One thing that bothers me about self-sustaining communit centers, is that it isn't clear to me where the "loan" comes from. The purchase of a "tangito", our coin whose value is one Milonga entry, is a loan to the Tango Center. If we sold 1,000, we would have $5,000 for capital improvements. If we sold 10,000, we could buy the building. In a way, this is the mechanism the government uses to finance growth, through the sale of bonds which will be repaid through future income.

A typical approach, for a community center, is to sell memberships, which are in any case required of non-profits. But memberships don't quite accomplish what a loan does. They should be instead considered a way of having your voice heard within the organization.

With the new workspot.org project tool, I hope we can create something more subtle, where people can make loans to a project, like the Tango Center, which are small & immediately paid back. This is much more reasonable than asking for pledges (although we'll have that mechanism too), because it doesn't really lose anything. Assuming that the community guarantees the loans, and has incentive to make the project a success.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Structure of a non-profit community center

So, how does a Tango Center work? Well, the community makes it work. And in the end, that depends on what people do. Who are these characters? What do they do?

1. The promoters
They post flyers around town, at school, at work. They tell everyone they know about tango, and about particular events, and they bring their friends & relatives. They talk with the press about the center. They submit PSA's everywhere. They try to find sponsorships and initiate cooperative promotion partnerships. They get people in the door, so we can pay the rent.

2. The partners
They teach classes, sell coffee, repair shoes, sell CD's, sell tango-trinkets, and advertise what they do. They exchange tango coupons for something, to promote the center while it promotes them. They keeps a regular stream of new people coming.

3. The musicians
They love to play for dancers. Often, in the US, they are dancers themselves. They study the music, they ask dancers to come to rehearsals to give feedback. They try to keep it interesting. They invite others to come and play with them, both tango & non-tango musicians.They respect the recorded music, and are careful about the vibe of the evening. And when it's their turn, they play their hearts out.

4. The DJ's
They know the music, they watch the crowd, they smooth the transitions between recorded music, live music, performances, birthday dances, chacareras, lessons and breaks.

5. The Milonga Minders
They make sure that everyone knows each other, and that everyone's having a good time, They keep an eye open for potential disasters. They make sure the water cooler is full, that people clean up accidents, etc.

6. The dancers
They make each other happy. They show beginners a good time. In turn, they are shown a good time by more advanced dancers. Everyone does their best to keep things fun, to keep the floor moving.

7. The event organizers
They find good teachers to invite, arrange their housing & food and public & private lessons. They also try to get dancers & musicians to come from out-of-town.


The Tango center crew is world-class at making a good Tango evening, and a good community evevning. Should the Tango Center train people ... to do what it does? Is that part of our non-profit mission? If so, is there any way to make it self-sustaining? I've been thinking about this since we started the place. But the actual reality of it eluded me somewhat.

But it's starting to make sense. All we need to do is promote the idea. And make a curriculum:

1. Building community
2. Tone: positive, open, exciting
3. Good Dj-ing
4. Good teaching
5. Good dancing
6. Connection to the outside world

Now, we don't do all these things perfectly well. Mostly, that's because we don't have enough people watching all these aspects of the Center. If we had a curriculum, it would be first for the local community.

Sunday, December 05, 2004


The Tango Center's block, in downtown Eugene, Oregon, could really be called the "non-profit project" block. Downtown Eugene is basically abandoned, and a number of non-profit projects have taken advantage of the low rents, and made it their mission to revitalize the town.

Alex Krebs, one of the top dancers & teachers in the country, came here Friday, and beforehand we walked less than a block to the non-profit project on the opposite corner, DIVA. DIVA is trying to create an art museum for the city, and in the meantime is fulfilling its mission by providing gallery space, hosting art classes, and generally trying to gather momentum & interest around painting, sculpture, photography etc.

Tango Center co-director Olga Volchkova has an art show there, of her superb cast glass sculpture. We're tryng to increase the mutual support among all the non-profit projects on the block. DIVA director Mary Unruh is taking Tango classes, and she organized a block party a few weeks ago. In turn, I'm trying to make sure that the new online tool I make will be useful in creating all the connections we need to make downtown a success.

As Alex & I sat at the nearby Broadway Market, it seemed like there were lots of people downtown. The non-profits and the private venues in this small area have struggled to create enough energy to attract people, and it's working, but on Friday probably no more than 5,000 came. In a town of 130,000, that's pretty dismal. People are mostly still sitting at home, or hanging out in the suburbs.

We need to make the town more interesting, but not just in an "entertainment" sense. We can't compete with spectacle -- movies, TV, big shows, sports ... Instead, we need to create ways for people to participate. That's why social dances like Tango, Swing & Salsa can be so marvelous. Because everyone is trying to make the evening a good one. It's like a good conversation, or a good bit of work. It doesn't work without you.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Getting close

I've created a new kind of online tool, for building community ... and it's almost ready for the world.

I tell people that I'm trying to take care of two tightly interwoven problems with community projects, which keep them from being the potent force for good they should be.

The first problem is community support. the second is effective serving of the community.

The solution in both cases is transparency (so people know what you're doing, and so can support it) and ownership (so the community can shape what is being done in their interest). To me, this needs to be done in a directly democratic manner, which is terribly uncommon these days. But it has to be coherent, and mutually supportive, or it can be a mess.

Jaimes, dancing above with Rebecca this Thursday, is about to use the tool to organize a tango center in seattle, with his colleagues Shorey & Kathryn. I'm about to use it to run the Tango Center here in Eugene. We're getting very close, I believe, to a revolutionary moment, when communities and community organizers will finally be able to easily do what they need to, to make a better world. It's exciting, so I have to get back to work. I'm dancing as fast as I can.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Doing good

Then there's the idea that Tango itself promotes social good -- patience, tolerance, community and connection. It's all about connection -- to the music, to the floor of people, to the people off the floor, to your partner, to the earth. It's an astoundingly holistic exercise.

We knew this, when Olga & I started the Tango Center as a community project. The reality of the project, impressed Tango instructors from around the world, who had not seen this exact kind of thing before. But Tango instructors, although generally a missionary bunch, are not really social activists. Well, some are.

One of them is the extraordinary young dancer above, Jaimes, who feels he should be doing more with his tango to help the world. He's coming to visit in a few days, and we're going to try to put together a plan to create non-profit Tango Centers around the planet.

I'm always very charged by people who want to do good. In this case, Jaimes, on a moment-by-moment basis, does bring quite a lot of joy to people. But the normal "gig" for a teacher at his level is to travel around and spend a few days somewhere, teaching some sequestered dancers, who are rather private and mostly dance at house parties. He'd far prefer to spend a month in a community, and help them build a public dance center dedicated to Tango. I'm putting together an online toolkit, and a unique web operation, which I'll talk about later.

The Tango Center

The Tango Center is a non-profit community center dedicated to the music and dance of Argentine Tango.

It's also an experiment in developing special-purpose community centers (versus general purpose ones).

It's also an experiment in community-driven urban revitalization (versus commercial or state-driven urban redevelopment).

It's also an experiment in rebuilding community. It's also fun.

That's a lot of experiments ... we'll publish results soon. In the meantime, here are some stories.