Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice

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When a newcomer sits all night waiting to be invited,
the regulars might not know what they're missing.
Lately I’ve been thinking that the tango community would do well to take the above saying to heart.

A recent Facebook post by a local dancer sparked ongoing and heated discussion after he criticized organizers and dancers (particularly male dancers) for not being more open to dancing with newcomers. He was referring especially to tourists who perhaps didn’t receive as warm a welcome as they could have at a particular milonga, but the discussion expanded to include the issue of newcomers to specific milongas and then to those who feel like outsiders because they are not part of the inner “elite” of a given milonga or community. This was not the first time this particular dancer had chastised dancers for being overly exclusive in their invitations.

Many dancers responded to support or echo his viewpoint, but others pointed out that tango is a social activity we do for our enjoyment, and we therefore should not be “forced” to suffer through dances with people we don’t enjoy dancing with. I agree that if a dance or dancer is truly insufferable we have every reason and every right to stay away, but does every experience with someone who is just average, who is below our level, who is new to the game qualify as “suffering”? Some of the comments just sounded so self-centred and self-important. Yes, we dance tango to have fun and enjoy ourselves, but it is a social activity that takes place within a community, and while we are dancing there are two of us. So isn’t other people’s enjoyment, pleasure and satisfaction as important as our own?

The quote I used as the title of this blog post, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice,” has been attributed to a variety of people, most often U.S. businessman and billionaire John Templeton, one of the most generous philanthropists in history, and I think many of us could benefit from injecting our tango-going selves with a little more generosity.

At the same time, I think it is necessary to point out that lack of generosity is not only a male problem. It may feel that way to the women who sit all night waiting to be invited and it certainly can look that way in milongas where women outnumber men, which is often the case. But women can be just as selective, just as exclusive, just as self-centred or egotistical.

Recently my partner and I were giving a free mini-lesson to beginners during a free, outdoor milonga we organize every summer. There were a couple of young guys who wanted to participate, but they didn’t have partners. My partner went to ask a woman we both know who was sitting and watching whether she would help out for a few minutes by dancing with one of the beginners. Her reply: “Never!” I’m not sure whether that meant never would I help you out or never would I help out a beginner, but either way, why would you “never” be willing to help encourage a new dancer? Perhaps I should not have been so surprised, because this same woman, after a couple of years of classes, once haughtily announced, in my presence, that she doesn’t take classes anymore. So I guess now that she has apparently learned all she needs to, she is uninterested in contributing to anyone else’s learning.

This, to me, is simply an extreme example of an all-too-prevalent attitude.

Another woman who frequents our milongas once rolled her eyes at me after refusing a dance and said, “Why should I force myself?” I said nothing, just smiled politely, and I guess she realized how she had sounded, because she immediately tried to justify herself by adding, “I mean, you have to force yourself because you’re a teacher, but I don’t have to do that.”

I was unimpressed by her attitude, but I admit, she made me think. Do I sometimes force myself to dance with a student because it is in my interest to keep my students happy? Yes, I guess I do. But it is in my interest not just as a business person, but as a teacher – because I want my students to practise and to feel encouraged – and also as a person – because I try to be a nice person and I care how other people feel.

The attitude that we shouldn’t have to “waste our time” dancing with someone who is “below our level” feels wrong to me on more than one level. First, we can improve our skills and yes, even have some fun, with someone who is “below our level.” Second, is it really a waste of time to contribute to either the enjoyment or the improvement of others?

In some tango communities, people do not dance with newcomers until they have seen them dance with someone else. You know, to make sure they’re good enough. After all, we wouldn’t want a “good,” “cool” or “in” dancer to see us dancing with someone beneath us, which might make us look bad and tarnish our reputation. This attitude just reeks of snobbishness and self-importance. Is it really more important to look good than to help a newcomer feel welcome? And what's wrong with a little risk-taking now and then? I have taken risks by accepting dancers I had not studied previously. That means that now and then I endure an uncomfortable 12 minutes. But I have also had some lovely surprises and discovered some wonderful new connections.

In the dance itself, generosity is one of the essential qualities in a good dancer, male or female, leader or follower. The nicest dancers to dance with are those who let go of themselves while dancing and put their partners first. In other words, those who let go of the ego and dance with generosity. People with a generous spirit put others before themselves; tango dancers with a generous spirit put their partners’ enjoyment and well-being before their own. And it comes back to them in the end, because a dancer with happy partners is inevitably a happy dancer.

If you really are that much better than somebody else (please keep that ego in check when self-assessing) then why not offer that person the pleasure and benefit of your experience for a few minutes? Again, I’m not saying we should force ourselves to dance with someone we find highly difficult to dance with or a generally disagreeable person, but an occasional dance with somebody new or less skilled/less experienced could have benefits that reach a long way. It may inspire them to stick with tango or to work harder on improving their dancing, so we will have contributed to growing the tango community as a whole as well as the enjoyment and the skills of that individual dancer.

Most people who dance tango at a high level take it pretty seriously. If that makes us work hard to improve our skills, it will make us better dancers and contribute to the evolution of the dance itself. But while we continue to take our art seriously it’s important not to get confused and take ourselves too seriously. Remember that we are all in it to have fun, and to share the fun.

We can get a lot out of helping someone else. And we get very little out of being egotistical. Egoism blocks our capacity to learn, while generosity goes hand-in-hand with open-mindedness, both of which allow us to welcome the learning, growth and improvement of ourselves and our partners, ultimately improving our own enjoyment.

21 comments:

  1. It would be nice to see maestros dance with the people who are taking classes during a festival.
    That would encourage more "elite" dancers to be generous. The maestros look so bored sitting together during a festival anyway.

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    1. I agree, Sorin, that it would be very nice if that happened more often. At the same time, we do need to remember that often the maestros in a festival have taught many hours of classes during the day as well as performed during the milongas, so sometimes they really just want to rest and talk and socialize. I know that for me and the teachers at my school, we do dance with our students and we feel it is important to do so, but there are nights when we have literally been practising and teaching for 6 or 8 hours before the milonga even starts, so we just don't have the energy for more than a tanda or two. And sometimes if we dance with one or two students, then the ones we didn't dance with can feel left out... In short, more efforts are needed, but we can never make everyone happy.

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    2. I ATTENDED THE SAN FRANCISCO WORLD CUP FESTIVAL AND IT WAS SO NICE THAT THEY MADE AN EFFORT TO KEEP THE WORKSHOP IN balance OF LEADERS TO FOLOWERS ,They had voluteers balence out the classes.They also used volunteers at the milongas .they whore a white ribbon and were seated in area were they could be found.If u signed up without a partner,u were given tickets to dance with these leaders.They were the same volunteers that were balancing the workshops.Every follower danced at least two or tree tandas at the milonga.It was very enjoyable.
      Tangonina

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  2. Every good tanguero/a was once a beginner.....remember? Were they been neglected by experienced dancers?!

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    1. You're right. We were all beginners once, and it's important to remember that.

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  3. Dear Andrea, Thx for sharing this delicate subject. I am writing an article about this subjes right now for the Dutch tango magazine La Cadena. It covers the same issues as you mention. I also focussed on the organizers of milonga's. I hardly mentioned the etiquette and the teachers, though there is also part of the solution. I do like your title about importance & nice.
    Though I am a serious dancer, there are 'good' milonga's around the corner I hardly visit, because I don't like the individualism there.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Pieter. I would love to read your article... if ever there is a translation in English, French or Spanish.

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    2. People are always trying to re-manufacture human nature. I suppose that is due to their own human nature. The bottom line is, if women are sitting too much, they have to learn how to attract men. Perhaps not sitting is good for a start. Think like the city girls of the Golden Years of Tango. Work the room. Smile. Ask a guy to dance.

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  4. We are having this very same conversation Facebook right now only we are talking about the West Coast Swing community. See Gary Jobst's post if you are interested.

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  5. Dancing with an eager and respectful beginner, aware, and eager to learn is indeed a pleasure, and I don't mind at all to be generous. It reminds me of myself as a beginner and I am imspired by this new energy. I think most people feel that way. The issue is with people who have been dancing a long time, and are not interested in getting better, and act like they deserve to dance with whomever they would like.

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  6. All I can say is that we must not forget that we were all once a beginner too.

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  7. All I can say is that we must not forget that we were all once a beginner too.

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  8. I know of one male instructor/performer tagged on this post that totally insulted a friend of mine at a milonga she is not a beginner, a nice dancer. I now look at him like an insignificant bug, come to think of it, with his eyes he looks like a bug.

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  9. I know of one male instructor/performer tagged on this post that totally insulted a friend of mine at a milonga she is not a beginner, a nice dancer. I now look at him like an insignificant bug, come to think of it, with his eyes he looks like a bug.

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  10. Those who refuse to dance with a beginner need to realize that not only were they once a beginner but they now have a new challenge to master the development, expansion and sharing.

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  11. Those who refuse to dance with a beginner need to realize that not only were they once a beginner but they now have a new challenge to master the development, expansion and sharing.

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  12. Any really high-level dancer can make anyone they dance with look and feel good. I will quote something from a friend of mine who said this to me when I danced with someone finally when they avoided me long ago when I first started. He said, "Have you ever thought that the reason they don't ask you to dance is because they don't want you to know they suck?" And I have a comment for those people who no longer take classes. This would include teachers. If you stop learning, growing, then your tango is dead. Tango is life, life is tango. People who don't understand this don't really know tango.

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  13. I think it is important to not confuse the "beginner," who is improving his/her dance, with the veteran that still dances poorly and hasn't improved in years. Dancing with beginners is investing in the future, even if it isn't always enjoyable. Dancing with long-time dancers who are still uncomfortable and have no interest in improving is simply a waste of time.

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  14. There is another aspect that isn't addressed in this article: how the "codigos" impact choice of partners, especially cabeceo and tandas.

    There are typically 5 tandas an hour. If I dance 3 hours, and dance every tanda, which I probably won't do, I will dance with at most 15 partners. Let's say I have a glass of wine, and chat with friends, so I dance 10 tandas. Normally, I have more than 10 friends in the room with whom I would like to dance, and probably have a few with whom, I must dance, like my wife, and with her I will dance first and last tanda, and probably all the milonga tandas.

    That doesn't leave a lot of free tandas for people outside my close circle of friends.

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  15. In my city, in fact in the Northeastern portion of my state, there are very few milongas, very few Argentine Tango teachers, and so very few opportunities to dance. Here we must drive an hour or more to milonga or to have a class with a new teacher.
    I can say that after a two hour drive, and a one hour class, it is very discouraging to attend the milonga and not be asked to dance at all.

    I have seen "closed" milongas leave lovely and well trained dancers sitting an hour or more because they were new, or different in some way. I am not impressed.

    Once I took new dancers to this kind of "closed" event and of course they do not want to go back.

    With elitism, I think everyone loses. In this instance, the teacher lost students, the "elite" or the "clique" lost the chance to grow their community, and new dancers were pretty discouraged.

    What harm is there in helping someone learn this dance? Argentine Tango takes time, dedication and practice. Encouragement is so meaningful. Viscous, condescending, dancers are of no benefit to the emotional, social well being of an event.

    Our little group practices kindness to newcomers and we travel to sister cites where we receive a warm welcome, companionship, encouragement, and perhaps a dance.

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  16. Tango is the only dance form that you constantly hear this complain about. I wish it was not true. I've spent so much time & money to become a good dancer & now have to travel outside my area to enjoy milongas. It was so different when l didn't know how to dance & l was awful but l dance a lot more.

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