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.