Saturday, 12 August 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Seven: Tango vs. the ego

A milonga is not only about dancing as many tandas as possible;
it is also about meeting friends, hearing the music and watching the other dancers.
To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned in, through or about this dance, some harder than others.

Lesson No. 7: You need a thick skin to dance tango. If you are reading this, you probably love tango. But you probably also know that it is not as easy as you thought and that it can be unkind to the ego.

There are some big-ego dancers out there, but this post is not about that. This post is about how tango can be hard on your ego and your self-esteem, on several different levels:

As a student of tango

Tango is a social dance, and we say it is a dance for everyone. You have most certainly heard that if you can walk, you can dance tango. That is my own school's motto, and while I stand by it I must admit that just because you can walk doesn't mean you can dance tango well. This is a fact all dancers must face if they are to improve and advance.

After a few lessons, we begin to realize that the very simplicity of tango is what makes it difficult. Tango is a delicate balance full of paradoxes and contradictions. It takes clarity and subtlety, an embrace that is both soft and firm, legs that are at once powerful and free, knees that are extended yet mobile. While social tango does not require extreme flexibility and is not an intense cardiovascular workout, it does take strength, balance and good posture. It also takes a lot of body awareness. The thing is, those who lack body awareness are often unaware of this fact, and realizing how little you know your own body can be a blow to the ego. It also takes awareness of our partner and those around us, and therefore good communication and listening skills.

Tango is the ultimate exercise in multitasking: You must coordinate your every move to the music, your partner and the couples around you on the dance floor all at once, constantly planning your next move while being ready to react and change that plan at every single moment and while making it all look and feel effortless. Sounds like a lot, and it is.

But all this is the beauty of tango, and the reason it is so rewarding when we finally start to get it and every time we grasp something new. It is also the reason you can dance tango for years and never get bored. There is always room for improvement – a better embrace, straighter posture, stronger steps and pivots. And then there is the music. There are so many layers to tango music and so many possibilities for tango dancers. As beginners, even if we love tango music, we often don't hear or appreciate the subtleties of the different orchestras, but the longer we dance and the more we listen the more we can play with the intricacies of the music. All this is why the most advanced and musically proficient dancers never tire of the Golden Age classics, because there are always new layers to play with and rediscover.

I think the key to not getting frustrated and giving up when you realize how difficult tango really is and how eternal the learning process, is to appreciate every step along the way. Reap the benefits of your hard work, and notice them: Maybe you stand straighter in your daily life or walk down the street with more self-assurance or have suddenly become better at listening to other people. And occasionnally look back and realize how far you have come; when you do catch yourself looking ahead and feeling overwhelmed by all there is left to learn, see it as a gift that you will keep on giving yourself, because it means that the rewards, too, are never-ending.

As a social dancer 

Socially, tango is about human interaction and connections. If you like tango, then you probably seek out these interactions and enjoy them on the whole. But, of course, that doesn't mean all of them are positive. It takes all kinds to make a tango world, so while every encounter will be marvellously different, not every encounter will be marvellous. Here are a couple of unpleasant phenomena you have probably already experienced and will again.

Teachy partners. This one, unfortunately, comes up a lot – on the dance floor and in my blog. If you know me or my writing, you already know that teaching on the dance floor is a pet peeve of mine. Teachy behaviour includes any type of comment or feedback on your dancing, from your embrace to your walk to a lead for a particular move you are not understanding. It also includes non-verbal adjustments to your partner's embrace or posture, placing their hand differently or pushing their shoulders down, for example. Advice, feedback, corrections – it all falls into the same category.

Teachy behaviour is all about the ego on both sides. It says a lot about the ego of the perpetrator because the perpetrator is automatically assuming that the other person is the problem. Getting over this behaviour means admitting that you are at least 50% of the problem, which is not an easy thing for your ego to accept.

Of course, being the recipient of dance-floor teaching is hard on the ego as well. You may feel angry or hurt, defensive, inferior, insecure or simply annoyed, and understandably so. Not to mention the fact that having the flow of a dance interrupted to correct you breaks any pleasant, enjoy-the-moment connection there might have been.

Teaching, correcting or adjusting your partner during a milonga is totally unacceptable in my book. However, you will all be confronted with it at some point. When faced with this behaviour, what can you do? I suggest remaining silent and neutral toward the first comment or adjustment. If the corrections continue, say something. Non-confrontational "I" statements usually work best, such as "I prefer not to talk when I'm dancing." If the behaviour persists further, feel free to say "thank you" after the song and end the tanda early. If your partner is offended or asks why, be direct. I can't tell you how many people have stormed out or come to me in tears after being corrected and condescended to on the dance floor, and the perpetrators need to be made aware that their behaviour is hurtful and unacceptable.
At the same time, remember that the constant need to teach or fix your partner says more about the teacher than the "teachee." In tango, as in life, when things aren't going as planned we should first look at how we can adjust ourselves to improve the situation. Just dance, accept the person in your arms as he or she is in the present moment, take advantage of their strengths and don't dwell on their weaknesses. After all, you have some too.

Also, even if you are a beginner and your partner is advanced, do not encourage this type of behaviour by asking for feedback on the milonga dance floor. Accept yourself at the level you are and realize you are allowed to just relax and enjoy, even if you are not yet "advanced." If you really think your partner is qualified to offer useful feedback, you can ask during a práctica or during a later conversation off the dance floor, but even then, unless you are speaking to an actual teacher, take any advice with a grain of salt.

Feeling rejected. Sometimes you don't get to dance much, and sometimes you don't get to dance with the person or people you were hoping to dance with.

When you get all dressed up and hyped up for the night ahead and it doesn't live up to your expections, it kind of sucks. And no matter who you are or what your level, it will happen to you sometimes. I have bad nights, too, when I feel overlooked and rejected and wonder why none of my miradas are working, and I go home deflated and grumpy wondering if I'm getting too old and unattractive or if I just suck and don't know it.

Luckily there are always good nights to balance out the bad, and I've gained enough life experience and perspective to know that often the bad nights are more about my outlook than about reality. And sometimes bad nights just happen for all kinds of reasons. Did women outnumber men? Was I tucked away in a corner or frequently absorbed in conversation?

That being said, if you feel you never get to dance with the dancers you want to, maybe you need to admit that it's time to work some more on your dance skills. Yes, I believe advanced dancers should be a little more generous at times, but I also believe it is normal to want to dance with people we enjoy dancing with. So if you want to get more miradas and cabeceos (traditional, non-verbal invitations), work on becoming a joy to dance with. I think if all of us danced keeping our partners' enjoyment in mind rather than our own, we would all receive more enjoyment in the end.

And finally, remember that a milonga is not only about dancing as many tandas as possible. It is also about meeting friends, hearing beautiful music and admiring the other dancers. If you soak up the whole atmosphere of an evening, rather than focusing on every tanda you sit out, you might have a great night even if you don't dance that much, and you might also radiate more positive energy, seem more approachable, and eventually end up dancing more.

As a couple 

This topic probably deserves a blog post all its own, because tango can be so hard on couples. For now, suffice it to say that many of the issues couples face in tango boil down to two things: jealousy and different learning paces.

I don't believe that tango causes relationship problems, but it sure can amplify existing ones.

This is definitely the case when it comes to jealousy. 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. But once you are really into tango, you understand that for most dancers it is all about the dance and nothing more. The intensity, connection and abandon don't leave the dance floor. If we are looking for more than the dance, it has nothing to do with tango; tango just may be the avenue we 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.

Then there is the frustration that comes when we learn tango together, but we don't pick it up at the same pace, which is almost always the case. Either partner might be a quicker study, but often it is the leader who receives the brunt of the blame, impatience and frustration – from both parties. It is generally accepted that the early stages of the learning curve are hardest for leaders. Followers with a few natural following skills 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, which can lead to confusion and frustration early on. So both partners feel – somewhat mistakenly – that the follower is learning faster or dancing better than her partner so both get impatient with the leader's learning pace. It is later on that reality sets in for the 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.

I was discussing the effect of tango on a couple with friends recently and we jokingly came up with the statement: "If your couple can survive tango, your couple can survive anything!" Not a great marketing campaign for my business, but it contains a level of truth.

If life imitates tango and vice-versa, remember that in both no matter how much you love something, it can never be all positive all the time. The hard moments are there to teach us and the great moments are there to reward us. Tango, like life, needs balance and the difficult parts actually balance out the good stuff, helping us savour it even more.

Stick to it and work hard and you will improve, perhaps even one day breaking that elusive "advanced" barrier. Along the way there will be dips and plateaus in the learning process, frustration, refusals, insecurity, jealousy, awkward moments and bad nights.

All of this still happens to me, and I still have hard days when I think maybe I should just give it all up. But of course I don't. Because tango brings so much to my life … including thickening my skin with a little tough love from time to time.

Previously: Lesson No. 6: The truth about tango is ... elusive.

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

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