Thursday, December 14, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 18: The tango couple

Learning tango with your mate will take
patience, humility and a sense of humour.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I've learned through this dance that sparked the cliché "It takes two to tango."

Lesson No. 18. Tango can be hard on couples.
When you say tango, people conjure up images of roses, romance and passion, and tango lessons seem like a great activity to take up as a couple. So you sign up for some classes and instead of the expected romance and passion you find awkwardness, frustration, defensiveness or jealousy. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.

In our years in tango together, my partner and I have seen just about every issue that can come up in a couple, and we even lived some ourselves in our early years. There are many possible scenarios, each with its own challenges. Just understand this: Tango does not cause relationship issues, but it can amplify existing ones.

Some friends and I were talking about this phenomenon a while ago and we came up with the slogan: "If your couple can survive tango, your couple can survive anything!" While I won't be making this statement my school's new marketing campaign, there is a significant element of truth to it.

Here are some common situations, some issues that arise from them and some possible solutions so that not only can you increase the chance your relationship will survive tango, but also that tango will survive your relationship.

•You take up tango together. 

Beginners dancing with beginners is the usual situation in every group class, but it is never easy.
Some of the relationship issues that are easily amplified in a beginner-leading-beginner situation include defensiveness, impatience and jealousy.
To learn tango – to learn anything – you need to be receptive. If you are defensive every time the teacher comes to you with a correction or your partner doesn't respond as you hoped you will tend to block your own capacity to learn while placing most or all of the blame on your partner.
Face it, you will probably not both pick up the dance at exactly the same pace. Either partner might be a quicker study, and if that partner is you, you're going to have to be extra patient with your partner. If your partner is the faster learner, you're going to have to be patient with yourself.
We tend to be less tolerant toward those we feel comfortable with, so when your tango partner is also your life partner, you might let yourself outwardly blame him or her for those missteps more readily than you would a stranger.
The early stages of the learning curve are often hardest for leaders, therefore they receive the brunt of the blame – from both parties. Followers with a touch of natural skill can feel they dance well pretty quickly if paired with an experienced leader. But for leaders, there is a lot to think about and understand right from the start. So both partners might feel – somewhat mistakenly – that the follower is learning faster or dancing better than her partner. Reality sets in later for followers, once they realize there should be so much more to their role than "just following." All of this is common and normal, but just try to remember to be patient and generous toward your partner, because no matter what, he or she is just learning too and probably trying his or her best. And spending a lot of time trying to figure out who is to blame is unproductive anyway. Work as a team and, with the help of your teachers, you will see that you both possess solutions.
Then there is the insecurity of suddenly seeing your loved one in the arms of someone else. Partner changes are an excellent and – in my opinion – necessary tool for improving your dance skills. But they can make novices extremely uncomfortable. This is normal, and in our classes we do not insist people change partners if they are really against the idea, but if you remain forever unwilling to dance with anyone else or to allow your mate to do so I believe it is not a great sign for your future in tango together. Remember, it is just tango (more about this below), and whether things go well or badly with another partner, you will bring some of what you learned back to your regular partnership.
Learning tango with your mate will take patience, understanding, humility and – let's not forget – a sense of humour on both sides.

•One of you already dances and introduces the other to tango.

While beginners leading beginners can be a struggle, when experience is paired with inexperience all kinds of imbalances present themselves. Issues that commonly come up in this situation are – again – impatience and jealousy, as well as inferiority/superiority complexes.
If you have less experience than your partner: Do not put your partner on a pedestal. This is one I see all the time, and it drives me a little crazy. Sure, if your partner has been dancing for a year and you just started yesterday he or she will seem like a great dancer to you. But so will almost everyone. And what you need to know is, a year is nothing in tango. Your partner surely has loads to work on still in terms of his or her technique. So try to focus on learning at your pace without comparing yourself to your partner or getting impatient with yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but idolizing your partner as a dancer will get you nowhere.
Then there is that green monster called jealousy. Especially if you are new to tango, it can be disconcerting to see the love of your life in the arms of someone else – and enjoying it. I have had more than one student come to me and say they just could not bear to watch their cherished one clearly having the time of his or her life in another person's embrace. It can take time to get into tango enough to understand that for most dancers it really is all about the dance and nothing more. The intensity, connection and abandon don't leave the dance floor. If someone is looking for more than the dance, it has nothing to do with tango; tango just may be the avenue they choose to find it. If your life partnership is strong and you trust your partner, tango won't be a problem. If your relationship is fragile and you don't trust your partner, tango may be a dangerous game to play, but it is not to blame.
If you have more experience than your partner: Do not be condescending. No partnership is truly equal (though the best ones eventually come close), so amplifying the inequalities by constantly finding ways to point them out is counterproductive and will only serve to put your partner on the defensive. And remember that you, too, still have much to learn; you're simply at a different place on the curve. As a teacher, I see condescension manifest itself in two main forms: overly encouraging attitudes and teachy behaviour.
Overly encouraging? Oh yes. Being encouraging is, in principle, a good thing, but there is a fine line between super-supportive and cloyingly condescending. Figuratively patting your partner on the head every single time he or she gets the littlest thing right is almost as annoying as criticizing every little imperfection. So give praise when you have a great dance or see real improvement, but make sure it is sincere and doesn't come from too high-and-mighty a place.
I've said it before, and here I go again: Do. Not. Correct. Your. Partner. Just because you have more experience does not make you a qualified teacher. So be the competent dance partner you know how to be, but leave the teaching to the teachers, let your partner learn at his or her pace and avoid the temptation to constantly show off how much more you know. Nobody likes a know-it-all, unsolicited advice quickly gets irritating, and constantly putting yourself above your lowly partner will probably do little to make him or her feel comfortable.
Also, if you are too comfortable in your superior place, watch out: Your more advanced dance skills are likely not a permanent state of being. There is a reasonably good chance that a year or two from now your partner's skills will have caught up to or even surpassed yours – especially if he or she keeps working hard while you remain in your haughty comfort zone.

•You both already dance tango when you get together. 

You basically have two choices here: agree to make your dancing exclusive or agree to keep dancing with other people. The key word in both situations is "agree." Whatever you decide, you have to both be on board, stick to it and allow your partner the same freedoms you expect yourself.
I, personally, would find it difficult to go from dancing with different partners and friends to suddenly shunning them all in order to dance every tango with the same partner – even if that partner was the person I love. This decision would not work for me.
However, no matter how long you have been dancing and how well you both know that tango is about the dancing, there will be times when you feel your partner had one tanda too many with a particular person or looked a little too blissful in the arms of a certain someone else. I know this because I have lived it, too. In our case tango is our full-time job so we had no choice but to learn early on to get over any emotional insecurities that came up. And we fully understand and value the benefits that changing partners brings to our dancing.
The best suggestions I can make to find a mutually agreeable solution are to keep the lines of communication open and, if necessary, to establish some ground rules. For example, I know some couples who always save the first and/or last tanda for each other. That gives them something special that belongs only to them, but allows them to keep exploring the enjoyment of other partners, expanding their skills and bringing back new experiences that probably end up nourishing their relationship.

•You dance but your mate doesn't. 

You know as well as I do that tango isn't just another social activity. But then again, it is. If you are going to keep dancing and your mate is not, your mate has to accept that you have an interest and an important pastime that does not involve him or her. But this would be true of any activity you are passionate about and dedicate significant time to, whether it's working out at the gym, singing in a choir or playing golf. Even if you don't play golf cheek to cheek and chest to chest with your fellow golfers.
To an outsider, this may sound like a rationalization, but it is not: When you are dancing with someone, you are not really dancing with the person, you are dancing with the dancer. You can connect – intensely, profoundly, passionately – with a stranger, because most of the things about that person don't matter on the dance floor: what language he speaks, what he does for a living, whether she has children, what her plans are for tomorrow. What matters is the feel of their embrace, their connection to the music, their ability to express, to listen, to follow. Overall, what matters, quite simply, is what is happening now. Tango is a shared moment – well, a shared 10 minutes – and nothing else exists during that moment, whether you are dancing with your life partner or a total stranger. Then the tanda is over and you move on to the next connection. These connections are not sexual, but at their best they are quite intimate and profound: You are connecting with something that goes beyond the man or woman in your arms, which is why many of us can derive as much pleasure from dancing with either gender, regardless of our sexual orientation.
It is, of course, possible to confuse these things and to take, or desire to take, things beyond the dance floor. But this doesn't usually happen, and if you've got someone waiting for you at home, it's up to you not to let it. If your relationship is solid and you value it, you should be able to live your passion for both tango and your non-dancing loved one to the fullest.

Whatever your partner situation in tango, you're doing it to have fun and to add something positive to your life. To continue to do both these things, remember:
•To seek solutions, not blame.
•To laugh off mistakes.
•That tango is about what happens on the dance floor, not beyond.

In the end, relationship issues might be the thing that makes you decide that tango is not for you. You might even blame tango for the seemingly new issues that have come up in your relationship. Or you might end up using tango to work through some of your issues and your relationship will end up stronger for it.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this one. Have you lived through similar challenges? How did you resolve them?

Next: Lesson No. 19. Tango is a voyage of self-discovery.

Previously: Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 17: Is tango for you?

Tango: It's not as easy as it looks.

To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I've learned thorough this dance that can be as frustrating as it is fulfilling.

Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone. In two decades of dancing, more than 15 years of teaching and almost 10 years running my own studio I have seen more people drop out of tango than stick with it.

On my school's website I state that tango is for everyone and that "If you can walk, you can dance." I stand by those statements: You can take up tango whether you are 25 or 65, male or female, single or in a couple, shy or extroverted and the list goes on. But, of course, just because you can walk doesn't mean you will dance tango like a pro and also doesn't mean you will love tango. And to keep dancing tango, you've got to love it. Because while the concept is simple, the dance is not so easy.

As a tango-lover and tango teacher, I certainly think it would be great if everyone at least gave tango a try. You might like it, love it, stick with it and get really good at it. Or you might not.

Tango might not be for you if:

•You only stick with things that come easy. Beginners soon realize that if they are going to dance this dance they will have to dedicate a significant amount of time to it. One class a week is not sufficient, and you're probably not going to feel like you're really dancing in less than a year.
You won't stick with tango beyond a few weeks of classes if you don't develop a desire to really work on your dancing, which means working on yourself.
Tango, as all experienced dancers know, is about much more than memorizing a few steps or sequences. It is about connection and communication, posture and a smooth walk, musicality and improvisation. And those things take months – no, years – to develop and – maybe, just maybe – master.
If all this sounds unpleasantly daunting to you, maybe you're on the wrong track. If it sounds more like an exciting challenge, keep going.

•You expect tango to be just another series of dance steps. First, if you are coming to tango from other social dances – ballroom or Latin, for example – don't expect to skip the beginner levels because of your past experience. Every dance is different, Argentine tango is unique, and you sure aren't going to pick it up in some kind of 10-dances-in-10-weeks format.
Past dance experience might help you learn faster – you may have developed your body awareness, sense of rhythm and lead/follow skills – but you still need to learn the basics. And you might also have to unlearn some of your other dance technique – turned-out knees, loose hips or lifted elbows, for example.
Learning tango is like learning a new language. If you already speak two languages or more, you will likely pick up other languages with increasing ease, yet it doesn't mean you will skip right to advanced-level Russian because you already speak English and Italian.
Again, learning tango is about developing technique as you integrate a whole new vocabulary into your body. It is the discovery of a world all its own and like no other. The steps and sequences are but a small part of what it is all about. If you are ready and willing to discover that, you're heading down the right path.

•You have very fragile self-esteem. I recently wrote a whole blog post about how you need a thick skin to dance tango. If your self-esteem is in a fragile state, tango may not be the boost you need right now.
Take up tango and you will discover that you that you have to re-learn how to walk, that your posture needs work and that you don't really know how to embrace someone. So it will probably break you down before it builds you up.
And then there is the social aspect. Everyone has bad nights when we don't get the dances we hoped for, and it can be a struggle not to let such a night leave us feeling deflated, undesirable or resentful.
Some of us are crushed by these kinds of challenges, but some are inspired by and driven to overcome them.

•Tango is your romanticized idea of a date-night activity with your sweetheart. Of course a session of tango lessons seems like a great idea to inject a little extra passion into your relationship. And I'm not saying that it's not. But people conjure up these rose-filled clichés about tango – that it's all passion and sexiness, and that it will magically bring those things into their lives and their relationship.
Ok. Eventually, it might. But not in the ways you imagine, and not without you putting in some serious time, dedication and hard work in the process.
Also, I hate to admit it, but tango can actually be quite hard on a couple, which I will discuss in detail in my next blog post. The whole partnering thing can be complicated in so many ways, whether you take up tango on your own or with your significant other.
To make a long story short, learning tango together will take patience, understanding, a sense of humour and a good dose of humility on both sides. On the up side, if you are able to work on all these things, it will not only be fun and romantic, it might even make your relationship stronger.

•You are signing up for tango lessons in the hopes of meeting a mate. Sure it happens. I met my partner through tango and my own brother met his wife in a tango class, but in both cases it was years in.
If you are going to stick with tango long enough to get good at it, you need to love the dance enough to spend a lot of time and effort working on it. Speed dating, tango is not.
Sure you might meet that special someone through tango. Accept it if it happens, but don't expect it to happen.
When my school offers free trial classes for newcomers, we can immediately spot the ones who are there with a clear ulterior motive, and they rarely last long. The dance will just take too much work if dating is the real goal.
Of course, it takes all kinds to make a (tango) world, so there are a few long-time dancers in every community who both love the dance itself and at the same time use it as a way to get up close and personal with those they see as potential mates.
All this being said, if you are signing up for tango lessons as a way to meet people, it might be among the best things you can do. In tango classes and at tango events you will meet all kinds of fascinating folks, all of whom have a significant common interest. Moreso than a couple activity, tango is a social activity, so you will most certainly make friends and become part of a whole new circle.

•You really don't have room in your life for an all-consuming pursuit. If you want to dance tango, you have to let tango in. Once a week is not enough. Twice a week is not even enough. And if you grow to love this dance, three, four, five times a week may not feel like enough. Tango has a tendency to take over people's lives, at least for a time, and it almost has to, at least for a time, if you're going to get good at it. Tango is often referred to as an obsession, an addiction, a drug. Because tango dancers live, breathe and consume their passion. If you take up this dance in a serious way, you are letting it into your life. Which will affect your calendar, your bank balance, your social life and your soul.

So tango may totally be for you, if you are not afraid of a few years of hard work and the occasional humbling experience, if you want to make new friends and to discover something challenging, profound and potentially revealing about yourself or your relationship. Or tango may not be for you. You won't know for sure unless you give it a try and see where it leads.

Next: Lesson No. 18. Tango can be hard on couples.

Previously: Lesson No. 16. The tango business and the tango community don't always coexist seamlessly.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 16: Business meets community

Isn't it more fun when more dancers come together?

To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through dancing this dance, teaching this art and running this business.

Lesson No. 16. The tango business and the tango community don't always coexist seamlessly.

I have been considering writing this one for a while now, and it's going to be tricky.

As a business owner, I have many thoughts and feelings on this matter, which are obviously not completely unbiased. I want to address this issue because I think the general community could use some awareness of it. And maybe it's time to have an open conversation about it.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, 20 years ago when I was a beginner in tango you could already dance seven nights a week in Montreal. The thing is, most nights there was only one place to dance, so people knew where their friends would be and most of the community came together at most milongas.

Also, all the milongas were run by tango schools. Which meant, among other things, that the hardworking school owners could count on a decent supplement to their teaching income to help pay their rent.

This all started to change about a decade ago. First, it was around that time that Montreal's tango scene started to spread beyond the city's central core. While all the milongas were once in or near the Plateau-to-Downtown area, new schools – including mine – started to sprout up in less central neighbourhoods and suburbs. This meant that those who lived outside the city centre suddenly had more choices. The rationale was that we wouldn't have much effect on the existing schools and milongas because we were geographically distant from them, but the reality was that of course we had an effect on them. At the same time, since we were bringing tango classes into new neighbourhoods, we were also creating new interest in tango and bringing new dancers into the community, thus helping it to grow.

Then began the "neutral" events: milongas not connected to any particular school. Many dancers loved this new concept, because it meant that people from all the different schools and milongas could come together in one place, meeting new people and discovering new dancers. But business-wise it was not so positive for the schools. Since all the nights were already taken by school-run milongas, these events run by independent organizers had a serious impact on whomever's regular events fell on those nights.

Then came the propagation of festivals and marathons, which is by no means a Montreal-specific phenomenon. A couple of years ago there were three major festivals in Montreal as well as a handful of smaller ones, plus at least three marathons. That's a lot of competition for the regular events and a lot of big spending expected of the community. It was clearly more than our city could support, as many events folded after one year or a few, and this year there were just two major festivals and one full weekend marathon.

Many of the independent organizers are not teachers and are not running schools, so they are not growing the tango-dancing population the way the schools are. And for those of us whose milongas support our schools, both socially and financially, it is frustrating to work for years teaching and training dancers and sending them out into the tango world only to have someone launch a milonga the same night as ours and do everything they can to entice our students and clients to go to their event.

Not to mention the fact that commercial rents are exorbitant (you would be shocked) and Montreal was recently declared the worst city in Canada in which to run a small business.

Just this fall a well-known tango school closed its doors after a decade in business, and while there has been all kinds of speculation as to what precisely caused its downfall, the exponentially multiplying number of milongas and events was no doubt a major factor. Milongas and special events can come and go, but if the schools are forced to close their doors that will not be a good thing for the community. One of Montreal's greatest strengths, I believe, is the quality and experience of its teachers. As my partner recently said to me, social dance events are about the dancers' pleasure right now, which is important, but the schools train future dancers, ensuring the survival of the dance and the community in the long term.

With all of the extra events popping up, attendance at the schools' regular weekly milongas has suffered, becoming uneven at best. So now many of the schools have started opening new prácticas and milongas on new nights (and afternoons), some hosting as many as five dance activities per week. This means they compete more and more with each other's events and dilute the community further still. My school has been holding a weekly Friday milonga for a decade now. Usually there have been one or two other regular Friday events in town, which is not crazy on a weekend night in a top tango town. But lately I have sometimes counted as many as five events happening on a single Friday. Of course this hits me personally and financially, so from my perspective it is clearly too much, but the part of me that tries hard to be objective and to see things from the public's perspective still sees a problem. Is it really beneficial to have to choose among so many options, and to have your friends and dance partners having to make the same choices? Wouldn't it be more fun for more dancers to come together?

Obviously, a capitalist society and a free market mean the right and the freedom to do all of this. And then it boils down to survival of the fittest, and many would shrug their shoulders and say: "So be it" or "Suck it up." But does that make it right, or even good for the community, which is, again, increasingly diluted and even, some would argue, segregated.

An organizer recently justified to me the opening of his new milonga on an already saturated night by saying he was going after a "different crowd." Another organizer astutely pointed out that this was a euphemism for not just the elite-level dancers he's hoping to attract, but also the younger age group he's aiming for. Again, anyone is entitled to create a new event and to target a specific audience, but isn't tango supposed to be the dance of the people? Which to me means all the people – new and experienced, average and highly skilled, young and old.

I, personally, would like to see more young people in tango and attracting a younger crowd is a challenge many of us have been working on for years, but I don't want a segregated community where "young" dancers all stick together and everyone over 40 or 50 is seen as over the hill or undesirable. Though I was still in my 20s when I started dancing tango, one of the things that attracted me even back then was the fact that it was a dance for all ages and that I would not feel over the hill once I passed, 40, 50 or well beyond.

Part of this has to do with the size of the city as a whole and, of course, the size of the tango community itself. In a very small city with a very small tango population, the sense of community tends to be very strong and just about everyone works together in some way. In a very big city with a very large tango population – like Buenos Aires or Paris, for example – there are so many dancers that having several events on offer is inevitable, even necessary, and wouldn't have as much impact on the competition. Montreal falls somewhere in between. We're kind of big, and tango is pretty popular, but we are not a big European city with other cities and countries all around us to trade dancers with, and we are certainly not Buenos Aires. Anyway, I have heard that the proliferation of marathons and encuentros in Europe has forced some of the best-known ones to close and that even in Buenos Aires organizers are trying to find new ways to support each other in these difficult times.

One seemingly obvious solution, of course, is for the schools here to get together and come to some kind of agreement or even form some sort of association. This subject has come up in the past, and a few years ago a group of us did try to form an alliance of sorts, but it didn't work out in the long run, for all kinds of reasons.

I, personally, see the current milonga situation in Montreal as something of a free-for-all, and I'm not sure there is an easy solution. Then again, maybe it's a bigger problem from my perspective than from that of the public. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of the tango community becoming a dog-eat-dog world, because I feel the sense of community will then be lost and also, I must admit, because it makes my precious business more vulnerable. Then again, business is business, some would say, and it's up to each of us to fight for our own survival.

I would love to get your feedback on this issue. Do you even see this as a problem? And if so, do you have ideas for a solution?

Next: Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone.

Previously: Lesson No. 15. Work hard, have fun.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 15: Work hard, have fun

In tango, work and play go hand in hand.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this pleasurable and challenging dance.

Lesson No. 15. Working hard and having fun are not mutually exclusive.

Somewhere between the beginner and intermediate phases, it becomes clear to many if not most tango students that this fun social dance is harder and takes more work than they anticipated.

This realization can have wide-ranging effects on different people.

Some decide that hours of practice every week and regular blows to the ego in the form of corrections and adjustments by their teachers are not the fun date-night activity they had in mind and they drop out.

Others keep going, but stop really moving forward. They eventually have enough moves and partners to enjoy themselves at milongas so why kill the buzz with hard and boring stuff like posture and – yuck – technique? They are content where they are and don't feel driven to take things further.

Then there are those who are fuelled by the challenge of this simple-yet-complex dance and they work ever harder, feeling rewarded every time they overcome a hurdle – only to be faced with the next. For these dancers the hard work isn't just a means to an end, it in itself is a huge part of the enjoyment.

The cool thing is, the harder you work the easier it gets. As you improve your posture and alignment, strengthen your legs and develop your tango communication skills, the physical and mental effort of dancing and all the multitasking it requires decreases. So if you're feeling like you might give up sometime soon, I suggest reading on, and giving it at least one more shot.

Here are some ways you can have fun while still working hard to improve your dancing:

Focus on the important stuff. Almost every beginner dancer is impressed by the fancy moves they see in shows and on YouTube. Dancers put pressure on themselves (and their partners) to learn lots and lots of these cool moves and to execute as many of them as possible in as short a time as possible. Your teachers might even tell you that the moves are not the important thing, but this is not easy to believe at first. After all, it is difficult to grasp the importance of a caring and comfortable embrace, musical precision and a mastery of floorcraft when you haven't yet felt the pleasure that can be derived from those things. What can I say besides: "Believe us!" A few simple moves well-executed inside the framework of a comfortable and sincere embrace, precise and playful musicality and a smooth dance-floor flow are a better and less stressful goal than trying to remember and execute all the crazy moves and adornos you have seen in your tango life. Yes, you need some vocabulary, but you don't need to use all your vocabulary all the time.

Believe that hard work truly is its own reward. The process of learning and practicing doesn't have to be a means to an end. There is a lot of satisfaction to be gained from the simple act of making an effort. Nowhere is this more true than in an activity like tango. And then, of course, there will be so many rewards that automatically stem from the work, from being an increasingly sought-after tango partner to improving brain function (as more and more studies tell us) to keeping good posture and joint mobility throughout life.

Concentrate more on self-improvement than what everyone else is doing wrong. Focus on your partner's shortcomings and you will find more and more of them, guaranteed. This will lead to frustration and impatience on both sides. But focus on what you can do to make your partner more comfortable and the dance will run more smoothly for sure, even if your partner really isn't very good. Feel annoyed every time another couple cuts it a little too close and you will spend a lot of your floor time feeling annoyed. Come up with a few fun go-to solutions to these inevitable realities and you can practically turn the whole thing into a game. You have probably heard that you cannot control events, but only how you react to them. On the tango dance floor, this means you can neither control how your partner nor the couples around will react, but you do have control over how you handle your side of the equation. So when it's not going according to plan, or just not going well at all, resist the urge to make impatient sounds or to correct your partner. Instead, examine and work on your own skills: stand straighter, drop your shoulders, fully connect your legs in between steps, listen more, slow down. You will have worked to improve yourself, given your partner a more pleasurable experience and made yourself a more desirable dancer in the process.

Remember that others are not to blame for your bad nights. Sometimes you will have a bad night, no matter who you are. Maybe at last week's lesson you finally felt you were moving up the learning curve but tonight you hit not just a plateau but a wall. Perhaps you arrived at the milonga dressed to the nines and ready to dance the night away, but you only got two tandas in and both felt sub-standard. Hard as it is, the best thing to do is to accept that yes, you had a disappointing night, and then move on. Don't wallow in it, blame your inadequate partner, resent your teacher or the milonga organizer or hold a grudge against all the dancers who didn't invite you. And maybe don't vent all over Facebook either. Feel how you feel, accept both the events and your thoughts about them, then do whatever you can to let it all go. But also don't let one bad night (or even two or three) crush you. Instead, use it to drive you further along that learning curve. Sign up for a private lesson, ask a teacher or admired dancer for advice, arrange to practice with a friend, make an agreement with your partner to be less critical of each other in class.

I live this work hard-play hard balance in running my business every day. Yes, I work hard. Really, really hard. Many people do, and anyone who runs a small, hand-on business does. The work sometimes overwhelms me and there are days that get me down. I worry about my injured feet, get frustrated with my own dancing, butt heads with my (equally hard-working) partner, face unfriendly competition, cringe at my bank balance … but the rewards! I am constantly surrounded by movement and music and wonderful people. I dance and teach and host parties and create playlists of my favourite music every single week. So I also have fun. So much fun. Not despite, but because of the fact I work really, really hard.

So work hard to have fun, and have fun working hard.

Next: Lesson No. 16. The tango business and the tango community don't always coexist seamlessly.

Previously: Lesson No. 14. It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the codigos.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 14: Be kind

Respect your partner, respect yourself.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned about and through this dance that is so wonderful, but that can be quite daunting to newcomers.

Lesson No. 14. It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the codigos.

A while back I wrote a post called It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice. Interestingly, it is by far my most popular blog post yet. Which indicates people don't necessarily perceive their fellow tango dancers as the most sympathetic bunch.

On revisiting this topic, though, I feel the need to make a distinction between being "nice" and being "kind."

Those who are overly concerned with being nice are often motivated by the need for approval and validation by other people. At the same time, they might overlook their own wellbeing in order to accommodate others.

The motivation to be kind, however, is more internal. People who aim for kindness are less concerned about what others might think and more interested in doing the right thing. Yet their respect for others is balanced by their own self-respect.

In tango, "nice" people accept dances with anyone and everyone because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or be perceived as rude or snobby. Of course it is a good thing not to want to hurt people, but if your previous experience with a person was highly unpleasant, you should not feel obligated to repeat it to your own detriment.

"Kind" dancers, on the other hand, might reserve a few tandas for hardworking dancers of a lower level as well as for the lonely newcomer who hasn't danced all night, but they still know when to say no.

I used to be an overly "nice" person – in life and in dance – so I sometimes let people walk all over me and I felt guilty every time I had to say no to someone. This kind of personality doesn't work so well in either parenting or business, so as I grew up I learned that I can still be a kind person without necessarily always being nice.

If you want to be truly kind in tango, I believe you need to occasionally dance with beginners. That being said, it's important to point out what several readers have mentioned in comments on past posts: A beginner is not the same as a bad dancer who has not attempted to make any improvement in a decade. So if I know someone still takes classes and works hard, I am happy to dance with him or her regardless of current level. But someone who thinks he's really good simply because he's been dancing for 15 years but still zigzags all over the dance floor and corrects his partners when they don't execute the move he tried to lead will receive my polite refusal.

I personally believe that teaching should be done through encouragement and positive reinforcement. That means I make sure to tell students not just what they are doing wrong, but what they are doing right. For me, that is the easy part. Early on it was actually hard for me to point out people's misalignments and postural flaws to them, especially when they were blatantly unaware and it meant I basically had to burst their bubble. But students come to me to learn and most of them appreciate a little candour. Besides, I have discovered that most people have a thicker skin than I thought. In any case, a good teacher can make students aware of what they are doing wrong and what needs to be improved without diminishing or criticizing them in a negative or hurtful way.

As I stated in my last post, I firmly believe that following the codigos of the milonga is important and will ultimately improve everyone's experience. I also believe that injecting our milonga-going selves with some generosity will go a long way toward the greater good. And the two are not mutually exclusive. For example, I fully support the use of the cabeceo, but I don't reject invitations on principle just because they were done verbally. If I am happy to dance with you, I'll accept your invitation, silent or verbal, as long as it is respectful.

On the dance floor, the nicest dancers to tango with are those who let go of their egos and dance with generosity. Of course skill level plays a part, but with or without stellar technique, if your partner makes you feel he or she is taking care of you, you will feel pretty good.

Here's how you can take care of your partners:
  • Dance to their level thus making them feel good about their dancing, rather than concerning yourself with showing off all your best moves or adornos.
  • Do everything in your power to avoid collisions on the dance floor. If an accident does happen, make sure no one is hurt and apologize to all concerned; don't get on the defensive and look to place blame.
  • Ignore or laugh off any mistakes or miscommunications. Accept that errors are part of tango, and whatever you do, do not instruct, correct or otherwise comment on your partners' dancing when things don't go as planned.
Do all this and those you dance with will keep coming back for more. People with a generous spirit put others before themselves; tango dancers with a generous spirit put their partners’ enjoyment first – without sacrificing their own wellbeing. If both partners do this, then both will feel safe, connected and at ease. They might find they don't want the tanda to end, and certainly will seek out another one later.

We get very little out of being egotistical, which blocks our empathy as well as our own capacity to learn. Be kind and generous and you will ultimately contribute to the growth and improvement of others, of yourself and of the community as a whole.

Previously: Lesson No. 13: The milonga has rules and we should follow them.

Next: Lesson No. 15: Working hard and having fun are not mutually exclusive.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 13: The milonga has rules, and we should follow them

To achieve a ronda that flows smoothly, we must treat the other couples on the
floor not as obstacles to be avoided, but as an integral part of our dancing.

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned about and through this dance that encompasses a whole unique universe, full of its own traditions and customs.

Lesson No. 13. The codigos exist for good reason

I believe more firmly in tango's codigos (codes of conduct) every day, and I reinforce them more and more in my teaching. The reason for these rules of etiquette is not to limit or restrict people's freedom or enjoyment, but, on the contrary, to ensure that a pleasurable time can be had by all.

In addition to the universal rules of courtesy and good manners, there are some that apply specifically to social dancing and even more specifically to Argentine tango.

I wrote a longer post on this topic a couple of years ago. This is an updated version that I hope will serve as both a guide for beginners going to their first milongas and a friendly reminder for those who have been dancing a while.

CROSSING THE DANCE FLOOR

When you enter a milonga, or need to cross from one side of the dance floor to the other, always go around the floor, not through the middle.

THE MIRADA-CABECEO INVITATION SYSTEM

I am an increasingly strong supporter of the mirada-cabeceo invitation system. Mirada means "look," cabeceo means "nod," and together they make up the traditional, non-verbal and most widely accepted way of inviting and getting invited to dance tango. Basically, leader and follower look directly at the person they wish to dance with and, hopefully, catch each other's eye. Then the leader nods or motions with his/her head and the follower nods or smiles his/her acceptance.

It's worth practicing it because it works.

As a follower, it means you're not sitting around passively waiting to be chosen by whomever decides to walk up to you and ask. And to accept or not to accept becomes a non-issue. Because you have to make eye contact in order to invite or be invited, if you don’t want to dance with someone, you just don’t make eye contact. No need to outright refuse or make up excuses. I believe the technique actually empowers women. There are still people out there who frown upon women doing the inviting, but with the cabeceo, the line between inviter and invitee is blurred. After all, if I want to dance with him, I am the one who has to look him in the eye … then he nods and I smile, or was it me who smiled and then he nodded?

As a leader you're not asking directly and risking outright rejection or maybe getting a reluctant "yes" from someone who doesn't really want to dance with you but doesn't want to hurt your feelings either.

So this system means each dance is a mutual agreement. This subtle assertiveness may not always be easy for shy types, but if you master the technique, who knows? You may actually overcome some of your shyness at the same time. And the mirada-cabeceo system is assertive on both sides. You need to look directly at the person you want to dance with and he or she needs to look right back. Then the nod and you're off, both having chosen each other.

Of course, nothing is fool-proof. The one drawback here is the risk of confusion. If the room is large or dark or very crowded, it can be hard to tell who is looking at whom, so when someone nods toward your table, it may be hard to discern the target. If you nod at someone and the wrong person accepts, the kind and polite thing to do is to dance the tanda with your unintended, and hope you are more on target next time.

In any case, this all should take place after the tanda starts and not during the cortina (though feel free to plan ahead and be ready). Why? Because you are supposed to choose your dancers and the music in relation to one another. In my case, there are some dancers I like very much dancing tango with, but not so much quick, rhythmic milongas. I save most waltzes for a few specific partners and dramatic Puglieses for others. Sure, there are dancers I will happily dance anything with – my own partner for one – but they are the exception. Connection is just as much about the music as the person in your arms, and when the two fit well together it can be magical.

The verbal invitation: While I encourage the use of the cabeceo, there are instances in which it is just fine to verbally invite someone. If you happen to be standing right next to someone and want to dance with them, it makes sense to use words. If you are having a conversation with someone and a great tanda starts up, of course you would ask the person verbally.

Whom to dance with: I generally don’t avoid or refuse people based on skill level but rather on attitude and dance floor etiquette. Leaders I avoid are those who push, pull and generally manhandle me so I have to spend every second fighting for my balance. I also try to steer clear of those who show a complete disregard for the other dancers on the floor. Leaders who use their partners like shields or weapons on the dance floor are really stressful, because their followers spend all their focus looking over their shoulders trying to do the leader's job of avoiding collisions. Also, dancers who correct or teach their partners on the dance floor are high on my list of those to avoid. 

As advanced dancers, if we are sure to accept at least a few dancers regardless of skill level, we will help beginners to improve their dancing. Meanwhile, if we reject based on bad behaviour, we may help some dancers to work on that.

In terms of enjoyment as a follower, and therefore likelihood I will accept or seek out future invitations, things I personally look for are: connection to me; attention to dance-floor flow and safety; musicality. Creative figures and fun moves are on the list, but not if they get in the way of the aforementioned items.

Cutting in: Nope. Not during a song, not in between songs. It is not even good manners to grab someone during the cortina when he or she hasn’t yet left the dance floor after the previous dance. You just aren't supposed to invite someone who’s already on the dance floor.

Entering the dance floor: Please do not forget this second, equally important use of the cabeceo. When entering the line of dance with your partner, you must be conscious of oncoming traffic and avoid cutting right in front of an approaching couple. Unless you can easily merge leaving several paces free in front of the next couple, make eye contact with the leader before you merge and wait for his/her acknowledgement. When you are dancing, be aware of the dance floor's entry points and allow other couples to merge as needed.

ON THE DANCE FLOOR

The tanda: Tandas are sets of three or four songs by one orchestra or of a similar style. Tandas are separated by cortinas, short clips of non-tango music. Normally we are meant to finish a full tanda with the same partner. Being left partway through a tanda feels bad. So, barring exceptional circumstances, remember that a tanda lasts but 9-12 minutes of your life. Even if it is unpleasant, you can probably grin and bear it. However, there are three instances in which it is acceptable to stop dancing partway through a tanda:
  1. Both partners came to a mutual agreement before the dance began.
  2. An injury or other emergency occurs during the dance.
  3. The partner’s behaviour is so rude or disrespectful as to merit their being offended or embarrassed by being abandoned mid-tanda.

Respect the ronda: Leaders, follow the ronda, or line of dance. This means not weaving randomly from one line or lane to another and not speeding around the floor cutting in front of all the other couples. Ideally, every couple should finish each song positioned ahead of and behind the same couple as when it started. Also, always look ahead of you rather than down in order to avoid collisions, and back up infrequently and with care. All this is probably one of the most difficult parts of learning to lead, but I think it is a little less difficult when we see the other couples on the floor not simply as obstacles to be avoided, but as an integral part of our dancing. We should dance with the other couples, not against or despite them. Imagine the whole dance floor moving as one, each couple unique, but together. What a flow there would be.

Followers, stay within the space your partner creates for you and avoid kicking up your feet unless you are sure it is safe. This means that if you dance with your eyes closed, you really shouldn't ever be kicking your feet up behind you. Meanwhile, if your eyes are open, it's OK to stop your partner from taking that step backward if it means avoiding a collision.

Less talk, more dancing: As anyone who has read my blog post on the subject knows, this is a big one for me: Please avoid teaching or correcting your partner. Dance to the level of your partner, and when something isn't working, try to improve your own technique. Corrections are the job of teachers, and should be saved for class time. In general, just save the conversation for when the music stops. Constant apologies for every misstep are almost as distracting as corrections. And if you want to chat about the weather or discuss your day, have a seat at the bar.

Quality, not quantity: It's the connection that counts. Limit your large movements, especially when the dance floor is full. And, once again, don't lead or execute any off-the-floor boleos without first ensuring you have plenty of room to do so.

It has been said that the tanguero who dances non-stop for three hours straight doesn’t really love tango, he just needs to keep moving: that a “real” dancer chooses his music and his partners discerningly – as mentioned earlier, often one as a consequence of the other. I think there is definitely room for both types of dancer in every milonga, but try not to get discouraged or bitter if you didn't get as many tandas as you hoped. Some nights are like that, and one great tanda is sometimes enough to make your night.

No hit and runs! Accidents happen. Never mind whose fault it was; it's just good manners to say sorry, make sure the other person is OK and be more careful next time.

If this all sounds like a lot to think about, it is at first. But with practice it will become as integral a part of your dancing as walking, embracing your partner and following the rhythm. After all, when you learn to drive a car, operating the vehicle is just a small part of the package. On the road you have to follow the flow of traffic, be aware and respectful of everyone else around you and avoid collisions. Shouldn't it be the same on the dance floor?

Previously: Lesson No. 12: Be good to your feet

Next: Lesson No. 14: It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the codigos

Friday, October 06, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 12: Proper foot care is a big step in the right direction

Two decades of tango have been tough on my feet, so this next lesson has been partly learned the hard way.

Lesson No. 12. Be good to your feet.

Our feet support our whole bodies. They bear our weight and allow us to stand, to walk, to run, jump and, of course, dance.

So we ought to be thankful to our feet, and to do right by them with all they do for us. There is hardly a move we humans make that doesn't involve those hardworking babies at the ends of our legs.

Tango is particularly tough on our feet. If you use your feet effectively while dancing tango, you exaggerate the rolling-through motion of the foot from heel to toes when walking forward to better control your landings and gain maximum propulsion. You have no doubt heard at least one teacher say to "push the floor." When walking, transferring your weight or pivoting you need to push into the metatarsals and through the toes to generate powerful movements that your partner will feel. This is an essential part of good tango technique but it puts a lot of pressure on the balls of the feet. And if you, like most people, have spent much of your life underusing your feet, you may suddenly find yourself with tired, sore, even injured feet.

Underusing, you ask? But didn't I just say we use our feet for almost every movement we make? Interestingly, despite the fact we constantly load our feet with weight and movement, we generally underuse the intrinsic muscles of the feet because we spend so much of our lives wearing shoes and walking around on hard, flat surfaces. We don't work the strength, flexibility or even mobility of our feet thoroughly so the muscles atrophy and our feet become weak and prone to pain and injury.

Young children generally have broad soles and splayed toes. They also have better foot dexterity than adults and can do things like wiggle their toes individually. We lose this ability in adulthood, but in barefoot cultures around the world, people retain that foot dexterity into old age.

Meanwhile, many if not most knee, hip and back problems begin with the feet.

The good news is that since most foot problems are biomechanical, meaning they are caused by the way we stand and move as well as by the shoes we wear, many are avoidable or even resolvable through biomechanics as well.

Some things you can do to take care of your feet:

When you are standing, your feet should be parallel,
with equal pressure on the inner and outer edges.
•Check your foot position. How do you place your feet when you stand and walk? If you are standing, your feet should be parallel with each other, with the toes facing forward rather than turned in or out. Also, you should have equal pressure on the inner and outer edges of the feet, so you are neither pronating (rolling in) nor supinating (rolling out) when you stand or walk. When in motion it is important to mobilize your feet and ankles and to pay attention to the rolling-through process of each step, forward and backward. In tango, we generally recommend keeping a slight v-shape between the feet, so your heels are together and the fronts of your feet are slightly outward-facing. The degree, however, should be very small – this will help stabilize you without messing with your joint alignment. Your toes should not be jammed into the floor when you are standing. Your centre of gravity should be carried far enough back that your toes are free to lift and wiggle, and that centre should stay back even when you are in motion. This all brings me to my next point.

The line that passes through
your main points of alignment
should be vertical.
•Maintain correct postural alignment. This refers to how the head, shoulders, spine, hips, knees and ankles line up with each other. Proper alignment of the body helps you achieve and maintain good posture, and it will improve your dancing. Poor alignment puts stress on the spine and other articulations, and can ultimately cause joint degeneration.

There are four main points that should be aligned when we are standing. If you drew a line through each of them, it would be completely vertical, not diagonal. Moving from the ground up, these points are:
• the lateral malleolus, or the little bone on the outside of the ankle
• the greater trochanter, or the top part of the femur (thigh bone), at the the hip joint
• the acromion, or the little bone at the top of the shoulder
• the auditory meatus, or ear hole

For more about posture and alignment, you can read my blog post on the subject, but I will wrap up this section with a note about my personal experience:

It is through yoga more than anything that I began really to understand proper alignment and to stand correctly, beginning about seven years ago. When I was younger I could never understand why I could run 10 kilometres or dance all night with relative ease, but I couldn't stand for more than 20 minutes without extreme fatigue and soreness in my feet. I eventually learned that I was carrying my centre of gravity too far forward, which put a lot of stress on my metatarsal joints (and a lot of weight on my tango partners). Whether standing, walking or dancing tango, our axis should be carried over our heels. The heel bone is the largest bone in the foot and made to support our body weight. Now that I know how to properly align myself, I can stand for much longer periods of time without pain or fatigue. Even my high heels tire my feet less. But that doesn't mean I wear them more...

While we may love our stiletto-heeled
tango shoes, they are not so good
for our bodies.
•Choose your shoes with care.

For tangueros, the main question is: Why dance shoes and not just comfy street shoes? Dance shoes have a good balance of support and flexibility. Also, they fit the shape of your foot well and the soles are neither thick nor wider than the upper part of the shoe, so you can get a good feel for the floor, your partner's feet and the movements of your own feet. Just be sure to get a good fit with enough width for your toes.

For tangueras, it's a whole other story. Most women's tango shoes have high heels. Very high heels. Very high stiletto heels. Meanwhile, I think everyone knows that high heels are not good for us. Countless articles and books have been written on this topic and studies show again and again the harm that long-term high-heel wearing does to women's bodies. It affects our feet, our knees, our hips, our backs and even our leg muscles.

There seems to be little consensus on what the ideal heel height should be for healthy feet. Some experts say the optimal height is 1-1.5 inches (2.5-4 centimetres); others say it's a totally flat heel. Still others say it varies from person to person based on the shape of their feet. Yet no one seems to recommend 3.5-inch (9-centimetre) stilettos as optimal footwear.

I have been wearing heels to dance tango for 20 years. For the first 10 I didn't feel many ill effects aside from sore feet at the end of a long night of dancing and permanent calluses (the so-called dancer's pad) under the middle of the balls of my feet. But since I opened my school and made tango my full-time job – I dance five or six days a week and can spend up to 9 hours some days teaching, practising and dancing – my feet have felt it. It's not just the shoes, of course. It's partly the sheer number of hours I spend on my feet. And I don't wear heels all the time; I probably don't wear them even half the time, especially these days. The older I get and the more I study posture, alignment and biomechanics, the less often I wear high heels.

So what's a fashion-loving tanguera to do? It just doesn't look or feel the same to dance in flats or even cute low-heeled practice shoes as it does to dance in sexy heels. The smartest choice you could make, and the safest one for the long-term health of your feet and joints, is to give up the high heels and just dance in low-heeled shoes or flats. But if, like me, you are not yet ready to give up the sexy shoes altogether I suggest the following:
  1. Vary your dance footwear and your heel heights. Change your shoes often, about every two hours if you will be on your feet longer than that. Make sure you have at least one pair of low-heeled practice shoes in your collection.
  2. As much as possible, save the high heels for the milongas. Spend much of your class and practice time in lower-heeled shoes, and don't wear high heels at all outside of tango, to give your body as much of a break as you can. Everything in life is about balance, so a few hours a week probably won't do you much harm if you're wearing sensible shoes the rest of the time. (Also avoid spending a lot of time in flip flops. They're terrible for your feet, too.) 
  3. Make sure that the high-heeled shoes you do wear fit your feet well and especially are wide enough for you. Thankfully those closed-toe pointy things are no longer in fashion. The sandal-style shoes all the tangueras wear these days at least allow the toes some space to move and spread a little.
  4. Make sure to train your body to keep properly aligned, even in your tango shoes. Hips over heels always. To facilitate this, the heel of your shoe should be placed right under the heel of your foot (not too far back) and should feel stable. 
  5. Compensate for the high-heel wearing by regularly exercising your feet and stretching your legs, especially your calves, which get shortened with repeated wearing of high heels. Read on...
•Exercise your feet to improve their strength, flexibility and mobility.
Your regular workout routine should include
exercises to stretch and strengthen your feet.
  1. Do toe workouts, including lifting your toes up while standing, spreading your toes and moving each toe individually. Many people (including me) cannot really do this last one, but with practice you can retrain the necessary little muscles and you will eventually see results. (I've been working on toe agility lately and have made slight progress.) My yoga teacher even showed me an exercise meant to realign the big toe with the inner line of the foot, to prevent or reverse the onset of bunions.
  2. Do exercises to both strengthen and stretch the soles and arches of the feet. Strengthening exercises include scrunching up a towel using your toes or picking up marbles or other small objects using the toes. You can also just scrunch up your toes without any props. A good stretch for the feet (see image) is to kneel on the floor, sitting on your heels (be sure to put a towel under your knees) with the toes tucked under and hold for 30 seconds or as long as you can bear it. 
  3. Regularly stretch your hamstrings (backs of the thighs) and your calves. Yoga, anyone?
  4. Massage the soles of your feet with a tennis ball. Doing this while standing is best, so you can put a good amount of pressure on the different parts of your feet. If your feet are too sensitive at first, you can do it sitting in a chair. This massage eventually feels great, and it somewhat mimics walking barefoot on uneven surfaces, something our long-ago ancestors did, but few of us do.
  5. Pamper those hardworking babies. Soak sore feet in cold water. Massage them with a soothing foot lotion before bed. Treat yourself to a foot massage or pedicure.
  6. Walk barefoot on the beach. Great for the soles, great for the soul.
Pain won't go away?
See a specialist.
•If you have foot pain that is acute or long-lasting, see a professional. My specialist of choice is an excellent physiotherapist who has helped me through many minor injuries over the years. You might prefer a podiatrist, osteopath or other specialist, but if you are in pain, get it looked into. Did you know that 25 per cent of our bones are in the feet and ankles? Not to mention the 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments found in the feet. That's a lot of little parts that can get injured.

My partner and I have had our share of foot ailments with names like hallux valgus, metatarsalgia, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures and an enchondroma. Currently I'm having ongoing pain and stiffness in my ankles, so I will be back at the physiotherapist's office next week. I also have tight, overdeveloped calves, which limit my flexibility and mobility. Whether this a result of all that ballet in my teen years, all the high heels in my tango years, simple genetics or a combination of all three I don't know, but I make a point of stretching my calf muscles almost every day now. 

I, for one, beat up my feet with my lifestyle, but more and more I make sure to take a little time each day to take care of them, too, so that they can keep taking care of me and my dancing for many years to come.


Next: Lesson No. 13. The "codigos" exist for good reason.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 11: Learning to let go of the plan

The beauty of tango lies in its unpredictability.
To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this improvised art that is never the same from one dance to the next.

Lesson No. 11. Accept that things often don't go according to plan.

When you feel disappointed and frustrated in life, it is often because something not just unpleasant, but unexpected happened. For instance, you had your heart set on going to your favourite little Italian restaurant, but arrive to find it closed. So you find a Plan B, and one of two things happens:
  1. You never really settle in, because it's noisier than the other place, or the menu isn't what you were looking forward to all day. Not only do you have trouble enjoying the meal, the ambiance or even the company, you feel some nagging resentment toward the other restaurant because it's a stupid night for them to be closed, and they should announce their hours better so this kind of thing doesn't happen to people. So your plans were foiled and your night is more or less ruined.
  2. You soak up the energy of the bustling place and decide to try a dish you have never had before. It turns out to be interesting, if not the best thing you've ever tasted. Meanwhile the appetizers and wine are delicious, and you and your friends have fun listening in on the bizarre conversation at the next table. You still plan on a visit to your intimate little Italian place in the near future, but also have a new spot to add to your list. Also, you make a mental note to call ahead next time, which will save you not only showing up to a closed door, but wait times when you arrive with no reservation.
This is an example of how you can experience the exact same events in completely different ways depending on how you perceive and react to them. Allow resentment over unexpected changes to weigh heavily and it will be hard to have a good time no matter what, but let go of the initial plan and who knows what can happen?

Dancing in a milonga is all about letting go of the plan and adapting to new, unexpected, constantly evolving situations.

Leaders learn this early on, or should, at least. A skilled leader basically has a plan all the time, but is expert at adapting to unexpected situations and changing the plan at just about any moment. Yes, sometimes the dance floor is overcrowded; sometimes it is downright chaotic. But that is the reality of tango, and if you can't accept that a huge part of dancing a totally improvised dance is learning to react and adapt to what's going on around you, it will be hard to have fun when there are other couples on the dance floor.

With your partner, mistakes will be made, and the sooner you can accept that, the more you will enjoy tango. Finding creative ways to get out of a sticky situation can even be a fun challenge. I'm sure half of the new moves that are invented first happen by accident, and a good portion of my adornos come about while I'm trying to disguise a misstep.
   
If you know me or have read my blog before, you know that I really, really don't like it when social dancers correct or instruct their partners. Leaders who correct their followers, making comments about what she was “supposed to” have done are too attached to their initial plan and unable to just adapt and move on. It's so much nicer to dance with someone who laughs off the inevitable mistakes and their weird results. The same goes for leaders who are constantly annoyed by all the dancers around them. The reality is tango is unpredictable, so why bother with frustration? In fact, the beauty of tango lies in its unpredictability. That is what keeps it fresh and new – despite the fact we dance around and around the same floor, to the same music over and over again. 

I once danced with a man who literally criticized all the dancers around us on the dance floor throughout the entire tanda. This one didn't advance enough, that one was too close behind us, people in general didn't move quickly enough. Of course his complaining made him so unpleasant to dance with I still remember it years later, but imagine going through life like that, constantly annoyed and frustrated by everything that goes on around you? I think it would be hard to get much enjoyment out of anything.

Followers often hold on too tight to their doubt and insecurity over what their leader's plan might have been: “Was that right?” “Was that what he wanted me to do?” The answer is, “It doesn’t matter.” What’s done is done, and it’s up to both partners to just take things from there. 

That's on the dance floor, but off the dance floor the unexpected can happen as well. Just like in the restaurant example above, you may not have the exact night you were looking forward to, but if you are open to what comes, you can still have a great time. Didn't dance as many tandas as you hoped? Well, maybe tonight was more about enjoying the vibe than filling your dance card. Didn't catch a cabeceo from the person you most wanted to tango with? Maybe you made someone else's night when they did catch yours.

Tango – and also yoga, but that's a topic for a future post – has really helped me realize that many of life's frustrating moments boil down to the ability to let go of the plan. That ability is directly linked to the ability to live fully in the here and now, which I wrote about in detail in my post titled Enjoy every moment.

If living in the moment and going with the flow are ideas you already live by, that part of tango may come to you with relative ease, as it did for me back when I started. But if letting go and kind of rolling with the punches are difficult for you, perhaps they will be among the life lessons tango teaches you.

Previously: Lesson No. 10: Be clear about what you want

Next: Lesson No. 11: Be good to your feet

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 10: Assert yourself

Start by sitting, standing and walking like the confident dancer you want to be.

I am halfway through this 20-part series on what I have learned through and about tango in two decades of dancing, teaching, performing, running a school and organizing events.

Lesson No. 10. Be clear about what you want.

I was a shy kid and an insecure teenager. It took me decades to learn how to be assertive, to say no, to stand up for myself and to ask for what I want. Tango – dancing and teaching – is one of the things that has both helped me along this road to decisiveness and shown me how important a quality it is – in dance and in life.

On the dance floor

The benefits of being clear about what you want seem kind of obvious when it comes to leading, but followers need to be clear, too.

Let's start with leaders. If you don't know what you want, your follower certainly won't. Hesitation breeds hesitation, so if you constantly wait to see if your partner is going to follow she will be in a constant state of doubt, and so will the dance. No one said leading is easy: You have to simultaneously wait for your partner and show her where to go next. Which means you always know where you want to go next. Of course things don't always go according to plan in tango (the topic of my next post!), but you still need to have a plan and state it clearly (with actions, not words, of course) or the dance will be sloppy rather than spontaneous.

Also, if you do not know where you want each step to land or pivot to end, be it your own or your partner's, you will have little control over your line of dance and the space you take up on the floor. This will put your partner in danger and annoy the dancers around you.

As for followers, if I have one piece of advice it is this: Do not be passive. Embrace your partner the way you want to be embraced, dance the music the way you feel it, take the time you need to complete each movement before going to the next. Own your dance and you will not only be more fulfilled by it, you will be more fulfilling to dance with.

To some, it may sound like I am saying to followers, "Do whatever you want," but that is not it at all. Everything the follower does must be within the framework created for you by your partner and the music; but within that framework there is so much room to express yourself and to dance. But you have to do just that: Dance.

Don't hesitate, wonder, question, worry. Accept each movement, each reaction and mean it. If there was a miscommunication, it's too late to fix it anyway, so just take the step and move on from there. Believe you know what to do and you will follow more, not less, because you will clear away all that worry and hesitation, allowing you to receive your leader's messages with less interference. Not only that, but if you dance assuredly, your leader will receive your messages more clearly, listen more and the tanda will be a fascinating conversation rather than a one-sided monologue.

Off the dance floor

The way you carry yourself conveys a lot. If you walk into the room with poise and determination, you will get noticed, and if you sit and stand up straight, you will look like you know how to dance before you even hit the floor. I have heard more than one maestro say that you need to be a tango dancer from the moment you step through the front door. Posture affects not only how you appear, but how you feel. Simply lifting and opening up the chest can alleviate feelings of depression, for example, so if you stand tall, you may end up feeling more confident. Basically, hold yourself like a dancer and you will look and feel like one. And you will likely receive more miradas and cabeceos as well.

I am a relatively recent convert to, and big supporter of, the mirada-cabeceo invitation system. Mirada means "look," cabeceo means "nod," and together they make up the traditional, non-verbal and most widely accepted way of inviting and getting invited to dance tango. Basically, leader and follower look directly at the person they hope to dance with and, hopefully, catch each other's eye. Then the leader nods or motions with his/her head and the follower nods or smiles his/her acceptance.

Find the whole idea daunting? You're not alone. Because I still have a shy, insecure person living inside me, I, too, found this one hard to master at first. OK, I still do sometimes.

Once I get on the dance floor I know how to dance like I know what I'm doing, but off the floor it's tough for me to assert myself with a direct look in someone's eyes, especially a stranger. All this to say, I get that it's not necessarily an easy system at first. But neither is tango. And if you can learn this complex dance, you can learn this simple exchange.

It's worth it because it works. It means you're not sitting around passively waiting to be chosen by whomever decides to walk up to you and ask, but you're also not hovering around making someone else uncomfortable or asking directly and risking outright rejection or maybe getting a reluctant "yes" from someone who doesn't really want to dance with you but doesn't want to hurt your feelings either.

The mirada-cabeceo system works because it is assertive on both sides. I need to look directly at the person I want to dance with and he or she needs to look right back. Then the nod (plus maybe a smile or an eyebrow wiggle) and we're off. So we both choose our dancers. This wordless and mutual agreement can be quite magical once you get the hang of it, like you established this secret accord that no one else knew about until suddenly you are on the dance floor in each other's arms, ready for an awesome tanda.

Outside the milonga

If you want to get really good at tango, you have to make that decision. I touched on this topic in my previous post, "Breaking that advanced barrier," when I named determination as one of the keys to tango success. Basically, you have to know you want it and go after it, to take decisive action in order to reach your goal.

Just this morning I watched an interesting TED talk about what makes successful people successful. It was found that the common factor that was always present was "grit," which was likened to perseverance or the determination that I mentioned. I was watching the video with my kids' education and future in mind, but when I look around at the top dancers around me, beyond their talent and years invested I see that deeper something, that drive and determination that amplifies the talent, fuels the hard work and gives them a deep-seated belief that because they want to get there they will. And they do. And so can you.

Tango has taught me much of this, and I believe I am a better dancer, teacher and business person because of it. As I said, there's still someone insecure inside me, but alongside her now is a much more confident person who knows what she wants, often goes after it and lives a more fulfilling life because of it.

Previously: Lesson No. 9: Breaking that advanced barrier

Next: Lesson No. 11: Accept that things often don't go according to plan

Friday, August 25, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Nine: Breaking that advanced barrier

Most tango dancers out there are intermediate.
So what can they do to break through to the next level?

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this long process that is full of frustrations and rewards.

Lesson No. 9. The intermediate level is the toughest, the longest lasting, and the hardest to break out of. Really, you ask? But wouldn't the beginner level be harder than the intermediate stage? Not in my opinion. There are reasons why most dancers out there are intermediate.

The beginner phase: As beginners we are in a place of pure discovery; you could call it tango innocence. This tango world is all new and somewhat magical. Sure, there is some frustration at this stage, but most dancers move along the learning curve pretty quickly at the start, going from nothing to something in quite a short time.

I would say the beginner stage lasts somewhere between six months and a year for the average tango student. As I said, this is an average; there are always exceptions. Every few years a particularly gifted student skyrockets from beginner to advanced in a year, and now and then there are students who repeat Tango 1 half a dozen times without ever really getting it. But for the most part, within a year students acquire enough skill and knowledge to move on to:

The intermediate phase: At this point, tango has lost some of that initial mystery. We still love it, we are still impressed by those who master it more than we do, but it is no longer brand new or unattainable in a way that it once was.

This stage is full of plateaus in the learning curve and just as we feel we are getting somewhere we have a crappy night and decide we don't know a thing after all. So there is frustration, lots of frustration.

At this stage, leaders tend to feel stressed out about not knowing enough moves, and get bored with themselves if they don't execute enough of them during a tanda. Followers, too, get frustrated – with their partners if they feel they are not keeping up, and with themselves as they start to understand that their role is actually about more than following. Eventually, they begin to realize that not every mistake is the leader's fault and their side of the partnership is more difficult than they expected. While this realization is a good sign, it is – again – frustrating.

Meanwhile, teachers keep saying to focus more on posture, connection, musicality and floorcraft, but most intermediate-level dancers don't yet fully grasp this. Leaders and followers can both feel in a rut at this point as they both clue in to how much more time and hard work lie ahead. Many dancers stop really moving forward at this point. They have enough moves and partners to enjoy themselves at milongas so why keep putting time, sweat and money into classes? If the goal was to socialize and dance, it has been reached, and many dancers are content here and don't feel the need to take things further.

Some, however, do want to go further, breaking through the next barrier and becoming truly "advanced." Most dancers at the high end of the intermediate phase have hovered at the cusp at least a few times when, by fluke or design, everything came together with ease: steps, balance, embrace and the perfect moment in the music. They have felt what it should be, what it could be, and they want more. These dancers need to find a way to do get there or they may eventually give up in frustration.

For all but the few and far between truly exceptional dancers, the intermediate stage lasts the longest. It begins on average at around one year and, again, for many it never ends. This is not to say there is no improvement in all this time; there will be some, maybe lots. The intermediate level is wide ranging and most dancers improve and advance at least somewhat, but actually breaking the elusive "advanced" barrier will not happen for everyone, no matter how long you keep dancing in the milongas.

The advanced phase: Once we become truly advanced there is new magic. There are all these things we heard about before but never really got, but now we do. It's like we've finally been admitted to that secret society and unlocked the codes to a new level of understanding and enlightenment. We dance with abandon, embody the music, become one with our partners. There are still and forever new discoveries to come, but they are on a whole different level.

Those years of hard work are paying off and it is so rewarding. This is when the light comes on and we understand for ourselves what our teachers have been saying all along: that technique is king and will free us to enjoy the dance on a whole new level. We see that the sequences and moves are secondary not just to technique but to musicality, connection, floorcraft. Now we really comprehend that both skill and enjoyment are about the how, not the what.

It is rare for a dancer to become truly advanced in less than five years, and, as I said before, many never really do.

I wish I had the universal, magic solution to achieving this breakthrough, but I don't. In the end, the hard work and resulting accomplishments belong to each dancer. As a teacher I can only guide and coach, I can't do the work for you. I can steer you in the right direction and even lead you along the right path, but whether you reach your destination or not is up to you. As a writer as well as a teacher, I suggest the following recipe, but you have to be the one to put it together.

The four essential ingredients to achieve that advanced breakthrough:
  1. Talent. Some people walk in the door and their teachers just know they have something special. They move right, absorb corrections almost instantly and seem to get the big picture of how it all works from the start. Maybe she had dance training all her life and developed strength, axis and body awareness early on; or maybe he just "has it in his blood": He's not a musician or a dancer (yet), but he's got rhythm in his body and moves like he was born on the dance floor. If you've got some of this talent, the rest will be easier. Then again, many people take their talent for granted and are lazy students because of it. So talent helps for sure, but alone it is no guarantee of greatness, in tango or elsewhere.
  2. Hard work. This means you will train regularly outside the milonga setting. First, you will continue to take lessons, especially private ones. I would say that every single person who has reached the advanced level has studied privately with a good teacher at some point. You will also incorporate workouts besides tango in order to improve things like posture, balance and strength. This could mean yoga classes, working with a personal trainer or something else, but body awareness, correct alignment, good posture and strong legs are essential to mastering tango. And you will remain humble enough to admit that you are never done learning. No matter how good you get, you could get better. So don't give up taking regular classes too early. There is this phenomenon in social dance whereby students stop taking classes in their local studios early on, after just a year or two in many cases. This is not the case in such disciplines as ballet or yoga, for example, in which even advanced practitioners continue to attend classes for years and years. Meanwhile, the vast majority of tango dancers take a few sessions of regular classes and then suddenly turn their noses up at the local studios' offerings, opting only for festival classes taught by travelling maestros, if they take any classes at all. Don't get me wrong, I take advantage of these opportunities, too, but they are pricey and offer no followup, so are probably less valuable as a learning tool for your average dancer than regular lessons with a quality teacher. All this being said, the cool thing is, once you have finally broken that advanced barrier, you can actually start learning a lot on your own. Since by this point you have an integral understanding of your own body and what constitutes good tango technique, you can train on your own or with a partner and improve through a certain amount of self-teaching. You can practice without the constant observations of a teacher because you are practicing right. But, as any advanced dancer knows, periodic lessons and coaching from a maestro or teaching colleague are a must. Even the best dancers have bad habits and sometimes need an outsider to point them out.
  3. Determination. You have to want it and be willing to work for it. This can't come from anyone but you. However, some people don't necessarily feel this determination early on, but one day, for whatever reason, they suddenly wake up having decided they want to "get there," and will do the hard work necessary, spurred on by its rewards rather than discouraged by its demands. This decisive action is essential.
  4. Time. Years of experience alone will not make you advanced. We all know people who have been dancing for 15 years and whose technique has not budged in the last 10. But you can't totally rush the process either. Your mind and body need time to integrate and absorb the work you do, so while practicing tango three times a week will certainly be more effective than once a week, taking 10 classes a week and dancing every single night won't necessarily accelerate your learning pace exponentially. So put in the floor time, but accept that it will also just take time. 
You need to find just the right blend of hard work, time and determination. Add to that a pinch of talent, and you're cooking.

Previously: Lesson No. 8: Leading and following are not so different.

Next: Lesson No. 10: You've got to be clear about what you want.