Please follow me there 🙂
Please follow me there 🙂
Like with any learning process, there’s something particularly satisfying to the ego when your mastery of a particular activity or skill reaches a certain point that it’s recognised and appreciated by others. A compliment here. An applause there. A request to perform. An invitation to assist with a lesson. Maybe even an invitation to substitute for a teacher.
External acknowledgement can come in many forms, but the truly interesting part is what you do with it. Some people interpret even a minimal amount of it as a sign that they’ve earned themselves the title of ‘expert’ and decide to devote themselves more seriously to teaching, performing or a combination thereof. After all, that’s what an expert does, no? They show others how it’s done. But in my eyes there is a danger in this transition, particularly if it’s premature in one’s evolution of tango skills.
If you bestow upon yourself the authority that comes with expertise, you have to preserve it constantly. People’s tolerance for your mistakes goes down when you enter the ‘experts’ circle.’ After all, who will want to learn from you or see you dance if you’re fail to live up to the occasion, even if it’s during a social dance at a milonga?
You become more self-conscious of your body as you feel other’s eyes scrutinising your every move. You don’t want to embarrass yourself, so you practice tried and true moves that will meet those expectations. But in becoming concerned with other people’s judgments, you are more likely to stay within your comfort zone and avoid doing in public anything that you don’t know well enough to deliver them as they should. You don’t challenge yourself with variety, which implies risk. You become a [insert orchestra name] kind of person, dancing only to songs that match that particular style or sentiment. You may not even dance with as many people as before for fear that they might not be at the ‘right’ level to make you look good.
And because you’re already acting as an expert, your mind will catch up with it and start to become self-righteous and close itself off to possibilities. You’ll believe that enlightenment comes only from certain maestros or styles and that nobody else can have anything valuable for you to learn. In becoming the expert, you’re likely to lose Shoshin, the mental openness that student has when learning a subject, especially as a beginner.
Does this always happen? Of course not always. There are many people who truly know tango and the pedagogy of teaching it and don’t act like arrogant know-it alls. Neither do they stop pushing their skill level and are humble about always being on a learning curve. And by ‘teaching’ I don’t mean helping people out at practicas, sharing tips, or even giving friends the introductory lesson. By teaching I mean building a whole business around it. I’ve also come across people who have rushed to establish themselves as ‘teachers’, with negative consequences for themselves and the community.
They suffer because their growth stalls and they become isolated in a time capsule as the need to look good at all times prevents them from trying anything even remotely risky. Even worse, the community as a whole suffers because these people, while pleasurable to dance with, don’t necessarily have strong technique. Even if they do, it doesn’t meant that they’re able to break down movements in all their components as well as the order in which they occur, so that someone else can replicate it correctly. When they attempt to correct mistakes in other people, they focus on symptoms rather than causes. As a result, gets filled with people who start their tango journey with the same bad habits that their so-called teachers didn’t have the awareness to get eliminate back when they still could.
These bad habits are like an infectious disease and if one really believes that a big source of pleasure in tango comes from freedom of movement, then it doesn’t’ make sense to start teaching without being completely clean of them yourself. If you love tango, you owe it to the art itself to not spread it in a tainted form to other people who, not having been exposed to anything else, consider you to be the ultimate source of truth.
‘Experts’ and ‘beginners’ aside, let’s not forget that tango is about the intimacy of the embrace with another human being. And the most intense and beautiful embraces can come from anyone, regardless of where they are in their tango journey.
My love for tango is sometimes fraught with negative emotions. I’ve been dancing for a little over 2.5 years now, which in the grand scheme of things is very little but to me it feels like an eternity. I have to confess I’m not very good at cutting myself slack and allowing my body time to process what it is learning. The same way that I want to produce high quality work while I’m in the office during the day, I want to have good lines and move well during my spare time when I practice or dance. But it’s not easy to deal with these high expectations. I give myself goals to achieve and when I don’t, I get frustrated, angry or self-critical.
I know these negative thoughts are transient but I definitely don’t want them to sabotage my motivation to keep doing what I love. There’s no way I can avoid them, however. The more you invest in something, the more you give up for it, and the more important it becomes. I’ve said no to countless catchups with friends on Saturday afternoons because I don’t want to pike my usual practice time for me and my dance partner, and by doing so I’m raising the stakes. ‘I’d better make this time count’, I tell myself and when I feel like I haven’t made progress, it feels like I’ve wasted my time. For someone with a high internal locus of control like me, it is frustrating when what you do doesn’t translate immediately into results. If you don’t do well, it’s because you aren’t putting enough into it, or because you just aren’t good enough.
Constantly working to improve and evolve is an important value in my life, especially relevant when it comes to things I care about. And I don’t mind it. I know many high caliber professional dancers who have gotten where they are because they’ve put in many hours a day. Natural talent can only take you so far in tango. The rest is hard work. But how can you inject ‘hard work’ into something that you do in your leisure time? How could someone practice tango with the intensity that only an upcoming performance brings, and yet staunchly insist that they would never turn it into a profession? Hard work is not the problem, if it’s accompanied by the satisfaction of achieving something good. I love dancing tango and want it to be the best it can be for the same reason that a foodie would prefer an elegant home-cooked meal over a microwaveable one. The problem is those nagging ‘shoulds’ about what constitute a good class or practice session. They focus on specific outcomes and distract from the experience of getting there.
Everything I ever did before tango belonged to the realm of the mind, which, over the years, I’ve trained hard to perform and achieve. I thought I could do the same thing with the movements my body produces but I’ve failed. My body does not something that responds right away and the changes from practice to practice are only incremental. Over time, I slowly approximate to the right version, the type of movement that I’m trying to produce, but while I’m learning, I can’t tell what the effect is. Looking back at how I handled my classes in Buenos Aires, I realise that one of the best things I did was to tape myself dancing with Sebastian Achával at the end of each lesson I took with him and Roxana. Each day, I’d watch the videos and cringe, immersing myself in a puddle of self-loathing. But now that some time has passed, I compare myself in the first and last video, which have only three weeks of practice in between, and I can see the difference. Here are the videos, for your reference.
First dance, 10 December 2010
Last dance, 28 December 2010
When looking back at the types of technical issues that characterized my stay in Buenos Aires, I could summarise them in one word: ‘axis’. Until then, I wasn’t aware of this fundamental concept that allows the body to be free to move and respond. While there, I spent hours drilling on the most basic things, such as making sure to reach my axis at every point during the dance, from a back step, into a cross, into the first step of the giro, and so on. Everything else was framed in terms of this concept, for example, the shifting position of my left hand on the man’s back was a direct consequence of me needing to be on my own axis.
Now I realise that I’ve evolved in terms of the technical challenges that I face. I am naturally on my axis and can immediately spot when I’m on or off it, as well as what is truly causing it. I’ve also become better at distinguishing between the effect of what I am doing as opposed to what my partner is doing and seeing how the two interact to contribute to a particular physical outcome. Now my main focus is to generate movement from the right muscles of the body (and unlearning some ways that I find no longer helpful). For example, one problem that I’m trying to control the hip of the free leg so it doesn’t move slightly forward or backward when I’m walking. It might seem like splitting hair but the difference in the quality of connection in the upper part of the body is huge, and it is responsible for that millisecond that pulls the body away from the partner quicker than what it needs to be, therefore ‘losing’ him.
While I’m practicing, I start to throw a few swearwords around, feeling incapable of even putting one leg in front of the other the right way. But when I take a step back and compare my levels of insight and my dancing to even six months ago, I know I’ve made progress. Ultimately, I’m realising more and more that, for me, the journey of learning tango for me is as much a journey of self-acceptance as it is a journey of learning the dance itself. And there is no final destination.
It’s been six months since I returned from Buenos Aires and I’ve definitely been writing less, dancing more and of course, working long hours at the office. I’ve had some time to think about my tango philosophy, which to me is just as important as my dancing or my technique. As a result, I’ve compiled a list of things about tango that in my experience are myths, and that I wanted to share with my readers. These are my myths, just like this is my tango journey. Yours may be different but, of course, I’m keen to hear what you think. Here we go.
It’s a myth that the man ‘leads’ and the woman ‘follows’. The man needs to ‘listen’ just as much as he ‘speaks’ and the woman is equally responsible in responding to craft the story that is created through the dance, rather than passively ‘nodding’ to whatever the man is ‘saying’. The man is not responsible for making the woman move, therefore he doesn’t need to exert force or nor worry about where she will go. He just needs to make sure he is doing what it is that he needs to do well and give her the time and space to respond. If she doesn’t, it’s a matter of her needing further training, not a matter of him overcompensating to the point of getting both the woman and himself into bad habits that are very hard to get rid of once they’re imprinted in muscle memory.
It’s a myth that there’s only one kind of ‘real tango’. Beauty can be found in many different styles and many different dancers. I tend to gravitate my favourite dancers but that doesn’t mean I can’t pick things I like from others. If Gavito had been alive when I was in Buenos Aires, I would have taken classes from him because I love how he interprets the music, and especially pauses. I took almost all of my private classes from salon dancers such as Sebastian Achával, Roxana Suarez, and Gabriel Angió but it doesn’t mean I stopped going dancing to my favourite milongas at El Beso, where the floor was so crowded that I could have never ‘practiced’ the long steps and the giros I’d learn during the day. Labels such as ‘milonguero’, ‘stage’ or ‘salon’ are useful only to a certain extent because this is a fluid art form and they all use elements from each other. Ultimately, I know tango when I see it. They’re never good when they’re used in a judgmental way.
It’s a myth that you can only have a connection in close embrace, with your chests touching each other. It feels much better than an open embrace and achieving a connection in the latter requires a lot of technique and effort but it is possible and it is the result of a number of things, some of which I can’t put into words. Again, you know connection when you see it, and sometimes, you can’t even see it because only the two people dancing will know. Moreover, it’s not true that close embrace is achievable only during a milonguero style or that in order to do fancier steps you have to break it. See one of my favourite couples for an example of how you can do this well.
It’s a myth that social tango is an internal experience only for you and your partner. While the main characteristic of it is that you create a dialogue between yourself, your partner and the music, by the very definition of ‘social’, you are dancing with other people. Every man on the floor dances with other men as well, in the sense that they are spatially aware of each other and collaborate to create that beautiful flow that seen from up above makes the dance floor on the milonga so appealing to the eye. To varying extents, every dancer on the floor knows that they’re being watched, and therefore there’s an element of exhibitionism in every dance. You want to look good to your dance prospects so you have better chances of being picked or picking later. Since its beginnings, the dance floor at a milonga has been where dancers from different gangs or neighbourhoods would show off their skills to each other, in a bid to attract the best ladies. So while I agree that beautiful tango doesn’t need to be about fancy footwork or complicated steps, there’s nothing wrong with performing complicated steps in perfect sync with the music and where appropriate.
It’s a myth that salon tango displays are not real tango because they’re rehearsed. The purpose of these displays is to delight, inspire, and showcase the skills of the dancers. They work hard at what they do and they want to please their audiences and also stand out from the myriad other dancers that operate in the very tough and competitive environment that is professional tango. This is why they add extra ingredients to make things more interesting. While they’re rehearsed, they’re still improvised. If they danced like they’d dance in a milonga, they probably wouldn’t get much recognition nor many students or festival invitations. The crowds demand a show and a show is what they get. But just because they go fast or do many steps, doesn’t mean these steps are alien. In fact, if you watch carefully any standard salon tango performance you can see that they’re using elements from an existing repertoire of moves, the same way as you’d construct complex sentences in a particular language. Just because the sentence is complex, doesn’t mean it’s foreign.
It’s a myth that you have to dance with the best dancers to have an enjoyable time or even to improve. Dancing with those old men at El Beso, who recycled the same three steps during the whole tanda or weren’t particularly comfortable in their embrace, taught me valuable things that I couldn’t learn from dancing with slick professionals at the break of dawn at La Viruta. Class isn’t always about beautiful enrosques. Making a woman feel wanted isn’t always about squeezing her and dancing isn’t always about stepping to the beat. It’s the old guys that taught me to take my time and enjoy the waiting pauses, and I’m thankful for that. Similarly, dancing with less experienced dancers can be a wonderful experience if you stop thinking about how they’re falling short and try to find at least one thing that they do well.
Finally, it’s a myth that the best dancers are worthy of your unconditional adoration. They’re people like the rest of us. They’ve got their fears, insecurities, things they’re good at, and things they’re not so good at. For some of them, tango is the only thing they know and you couldn’t imagine talking to them during a long bus ride. Moreover, it’s hard to know their motivations towards tourists. Are they friendly to you because it’s part of a carefully crafted image that is supposed to attract new business? When they ask you to dance is it because they want to dance with you or because they want to give you a taste of their honey, in the hope that you’ll go back asking for more. Of course, this is not always the case. I got to know all kinds of professionals, some of which are lovely people that I have the desire to stay in contact with. But at the end of the day, you need to dissociate (no pun intended) between their physical skills and their human skills in order to avoid disappointments.
Alejandro entered the bedroom in the dark, bumping into furniture until he found his way into the bed. He didn’t want to turn on the light in order not to wake up his wife. He didn’t know that she was lying in her bed awake. He lied down beside her and softly kissed her behind the ear. She closed her eyes and didn’t utter a sound nor moved in the slightest. He thought she was deep asleep and tried to fall asleep himself.
The next morning was a Saturday and they were supposed to start their first tango lesson together. Alejandro had always wanted to learn but never had the time to devote himself to it properly. His wife, Lillian, wasn’t particularly interested but he had insisted as an activity they could do together as a couple. He had felt the distance grow between the two over the past year, and while she seemed to do nothing to salvage their relationship, he was intent on making it work and reigniting the passion he remembered they had for each other before the children, work and other obligations got in the way.
Although they had lived in Buenos Aires all their lives, they had never tried to dance tango. It seemed as if it was something in which only tourists, professionals or old generation locals had the time or dedication to engage. Now that Alejandro was past middle age, it seemed as if money and work, which he had been relentlessly pursuing until now didn’t matter as much as getting back his connection with his wife. He looked forward to the next day, hoping it would be the beginning of change but it didn’t even cross his mind to challenge one major assumption: that the connection had always been there to begin with.
The tango teacher was a vivacious, dark haired woman in her early thirties called Maria Angeles. She started giving them an overview of how tango worked, that there were basic structures that one had to learn but that within those structures one was free to improvise to the music. Alejandro was surprised to learn that it was all improvised on the spot and that it depended on the man communicating his intention clearly, the woman reading that intention and communicating it back just as clearly so a virtuous cycle of communication was established.
‘The man has to lead,’ said Maria Angeles. ‘He is the one who can see where the couple is going when they’re moving forwards. The woman is going backwards. She can’t see so she needs to read the man properly and trust that he will not make her fall or bump into other couples. If she can trust him, she will follow. The man leads but that doesn’t mean he gets the woman to do steps she doesn’t want. He has to make her completely comfortable and protected. If you want to dance by yourself, this is not the dance for you. Tango is all about the connection between the partners, and the complicity as well. It’s a partnership. You have to work with each other and help each other in your journey. I always say the woman is as good as the man she’s dancing with and vice versa, even the best man won’t shine if his companion doesn’t accompany him well.
‘The main thing that we will focus on today, beyond basic posture and technique is el abrazo, the embrace. Alejandro, can I show this with you?’ Maria Angeles stood in front of him, perfectly straight with her ribcage projecting forward. ‘Embrace me,’ she asked him ‘as if you’d embrace a friend or lover you haven’t seen in a long time.’ He giggled like a schoolboy and felt slightly embarrassed to be doing this in front of his wife but the teacher’s professional attitude made him get over it quickly. ‘The idea is not to squeeze or suffocate, but to pretend that I’m a precious porcelain vase that you love dearly and that you’re trying to protect from the world. Your touch needs to be firm but also gentle. If you don’t hold me enough, I’ll slide off your arms, fall on the floor and break but if you hold me too tight, I’ll get crushed.’
‘From this position, we adjust the arms to the tango embrace’, the teacher said, sliding her left hand to rest on his right shoulder and her right hand to hold his in an inverted V-position. ‘Very nice’, she said. ‘Alejandro, you have a nice embrace. Now the secret is to keep this throughout the entire dance, and make sure that you never break it. You can open or close ever so slightly to accommodate the different steps that we’ll be learning but you never let her go. It’s within the space created by our arms, chests and hands that that feelings arise as you dance to the music. Hopefully you’ll get to experience it soon. Now Lilian, can you please come and take my place so you see for yourself how the embrace works?’ Maria Angeles invited her to try it out. As Lilian hesitantly walked towards Alejandro, he thought to himself. ‘How hard can this be? Dancing while holding each other close. As a couple, we should be able to do this better than most people.’
He was surprised to feel the awkwardness of his wife’s embrace, laborious and fearful to fully take him into her arms. He felt as if he was a leper and a cold shiver ran from his chest down to the bottom of his feet. Maria Angeles wanted them to have a feel for what it was like to dance together to music so she showed them the basic step and started playing a song that they could try.
This was nothing like he had imagined. It wasn’t warm and fuzzy, nor was it smooth and elegant. The dance was boppy and uncoordinated whereas she felt like she wasn’t listening to him and was moving at her own pace. He felt like he couldn’t control what she was doing and he could only imagine how she blamed him in her head for being inadequate. When he stopped listening to his mind chatter for a minute, he paid attention to the words of the song being played and felt scared.
Despojos solamente quedan hoy,
despojos de tu amor y de mi amor.
¿Por qué has vuelto así
con las sombras del ayer,
arrastrando tu vejez junto a mí?
Mira como estoy por estar lejos de ti,
yo también envejecí de dolor.
Hoy somos los despojos, nada más,
no sé si has hecho bien en regresar.
Only remnants are left today, remnants of your love and my love.
Why have you returned like this with yesterday’s shadows, dragging with me your old age.
Look how I am for being so far away from you, I too aged because of the pain.
Today we’re just remnants, nothing else. I don’t know if you did well to return.
He felt as if those two people were him and his wife and that there was nothing left between the two and that no tango lesson was going to revive what was long dead.
The thought of it was too much to process so he tried to ignore his mind and concentrate on the present moment. The song ended.
‘How did that feel?’ the teacher asked. ‘It was hard’, Lilian said. ‘I didn’t know where to put my legs and I felt like he was pushing me in all different directions.’ ‘That’s because you wouldn’t move when I asked you to move with my body,’ Alejandro defended himself, ‘so I had to compensate by applying extra force. You were so stiff in your arms and back. You need to relax’, he told her. ‘How can I relax she said when I don’t know where you’re taking me and if I feel that you’re about to step on my feet any second now?’ Before they knew it, they had escalated the discussion from tango to other areas of their life. ‘You never give me the benefit of the doubt for anything I do,’ he accused her. ‘Nothing I ever do is good enough. I feel like I’m not man enough for you.’ ‘Why does it always have to be about you?’ she said. ‘You have to stop being so defensive all the time. The world is not out there to get you. I just have trouble following you because we both don’t know how it’s done.’ ‘This was just a taste,’ Maria Angeles intervened. ‘That’s not the actual dance. In the coming week, we’ll perfect that and you’ll see for yourself how far you’ll come.’ ‘No,’ said Alejandro in a bitter voice. ‘I think there’s a much deeper problem here. Lilian is repulsed by me. That’s why she can’t hold me properly.’
[to be continued]
He didn’t expect to see her there tonight. It had been years since he last saw her but he still recognised her immediately. When she walked into the room, his heart started palpitating and he felt that familiar constriction in his chest he used to get whenever he’d see her. He was glad they didn’t have to use words to communicate. He wouldn’t have been able to utter a single one. He felt like a teenager with his first love.
She smiled with her eyes as she waited for him to invite her to dance. Stepping onto the dance floor, they dropped behind them like old clothes their roles, obligations and preoccupations. As they followed the line of dance counter clockwise the years they had spent away from each other melted one by one and they returned, rejuvenated, to the first tango they had shared in each other’s arms. Time and distance no longer existed. The only moment that mattered was what was happening there and then and the only distance that mattered was the one in between them.
Protected inside their embrace, a dormant love awakened. He didn’t have to speak, the tango that played did all the talking for him.
No pretendo remover las cenizas del ayer
de ese ayer inolvidable
solo quiero hacerte ver
que aunque no lo quieras creer
hay amores imborrables.
‘I don’t hope to remove the ashes of yesterday, that unforgettable yesterday. I just want you to realise that even though you don’t believe it, there are some loves you can’t forget.
Despues de tanto vuelvo a hallarte
y que emoción siento al mirarte
siento un loco palpitar
en mi viejo corazón
y es que al fin te vuelvo a hallar.
After all this time, I find you again, what excitement I feel when I lay my eyes upon you. I feel a crazy palpitation in my old heart, to find you again at last.
Pocas palabras vieja amiga,
Pocas palabras es mejor
ya ves el mundo sigue igual
sin nuestra union sentimental.
Pocas palabras de lo de antes
no conversemos más de amor
de aquel amor que ya pasó
pero que aun no murió.
‘Few words, old friend, it is better that way. You see the world goes on the same without our sentimental union.
Few words about what’s over, let’s not talk more about love, of that love that is now gone but that is still not dead.
He wondered if she could tell by the way he held her that he had feelings for her, like he always had. He had never risked bringing it out in the open it for fear of ruining other affections, which he realised as time passed by that they were just habits that he didn’t have the courage to break.
Neither of them said a word to each other during the entire tanda, not even during the breaks. During the cortina, they looked around, avoiding each other’s gaze although they still held hands shyly, hoping that it would go unnoticed in the crowded room.
When the tanda was over, he walked back to his seat and ordered single malt scotch. He remained seated for a few more tandas after that, regretting how late he had come to realise that he could have been truly happy had he risked the unknown of what his heart wanted rather than stayed with the known that logic dictated.
I gently embraced the young and dainty woman in my arms and I took a stride forward, hoping that I wouldn’t step on her little feet. And then another step forward. I could feel she was unsure as well, a little nervous too, but she trusted me. As she walked together, I grew more confident. I liked her energy. It felt strange. I sensed warmth emanating from her body and was acutely aware of her breathing. She was pending on my every move. It felt perturbing and empowering to be able to call the shots like that. The feeling could only be more intense if I were a man. That sensation of someone abandoning themselves in your arms could be enough reason to keep pulling you to the dance floor even when you’re tired, disappointed with your technique, or have had enough of the world. When things go smoothly and you lead her well, you feel like you’re on top of the world. But then you bump into another couple, try to hide your embarrassment behind a smile, and all your confidence goes out the window.
I found it hard to multitask. I had to step to the music, maintain a different posture, guide the woman in front of me and avoid walking into other couples on the dance floor. I watched my teacher lead one of the students into the back ocho and it looked rather straightforward. Confident, I attempted it with the girl who was my partner and I ended up stepping on her toes. I tried again and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t happening. My teacher came over and showed me that I was missing the double time in the side step, which mean that I wasn’t changing my feet quickly enough to lead the figure.
I had an advantage over the other students. I already knew how to follow. I knew how to walk to the music. Some things were simple, such as walking back and forth and doing the rock step. Others not so much. I felt like a duck leading the back ocho. I felt my posture was funny with my chest artificially sticking out and my legs awkwardly getting in the way. I felt inadequate, like I couldn’t even do anything right. I often feel like that as a follower, especially when I practice the walk by myself and find that I have problems relaxing the hip and fully shifting the weight from one leg to the other. As a leader, though, my insecurities were compounded by the fact that I had to make decisions for another person standing in front of me. At the end of the lesson as we danced the last song, I pulled another woman and started to lead her. She did nothing wrong. She actually followed. But there was something heavy about her. It was the energy emanating from her body. I could feel she doubted me and came from a place of preconceived judgment, given that I was a beginner. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. My balloon of confidence inside me quickly deflated after the first step. I messed things up and the more nervous I got about doing it wrong, the more wrong I did it. I left frustrated and feeling bad about myself. This apparently simple experience had affected me. I felt empathy for the men that were trying to learn and admiration for those that taken me on beautiful journeys on the dance floor. It has been or is incredibly difficult for them to stick to it and receive constant blows to their self-esteem as they patiently try and assimilate this technically challenging dance. I’m not suggesting that us women should allow ourselves to be manhandled on the floor or overly compensate for poor dancers who don’t’ even bother to keep learning. But I’m suggesting that we let go a little and give them the benefit of the doubt that they won’t mess up the steps or bump us into other people. They might have you finish the dance unscathed.
Next time you think of accepting a tanda for ‘charity’, don’t. He will consciously or unconsciously pick up on your judgmental energy even if you never say a bad word, and he will be affected. Accept the tanda because you truly want to share a moment with him. Even if he isn’t the best dancer, treat him as if he is. Find something about him that he does well and focus on that. Keep reminding yourself that he’s doing the best he can. Like the rest of us who are in it for love.