There is no final destination

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.

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6 Responses to There is no final destination

  1. terpsichoral says:

    I love this, Bora! It expresses exactly how I feel. Though, for myself, my real frustrations come when I am prevented from dancing: when I don’t have a partner to practise with or a milonga to go to. (I do my solo practice daily though, almost no matter what). But even when I’m in BA and dancing daily, I go through phases when I feel confident and am almost walking on air and others when I hate my dancing and feel despairing of ever achieving a good standard.

  2. Frank Seifart says:

    Hi Bora,
    Thank you for the little inside you gave us. As far as I can say from the videos you are dancing very good for someone who is dancing only 2,5 years. Since I am doing sports and martial arts half of my life I know exactly what you are talking about. I felt the same way very often in my life. But I would like to give you an advice. After dancing Tango for 14 years now and spending lots of hours practicing alone and with partners and beeing out nearly every single night for dancing I more and more think that you do yourself a big favour if you are careful with your expectations.
    I more and more realize that having good dances and having memorable nights at milongas has not too much to do with the technical level your partner is dancing on. Of course I like dancing with good dancers, if they can keep their axis, if the know how to transfer their weight without falling into steps, if the are able to be patient in the right moment and so on. And sometimes I love playing arround and doing crazy stuff with a good partner. If you keep working that hard you will be a very good dancer soon. But if you keep up that technical expectations you will be (or you already are) confronted with the fact that there is only few dancers who are really able to apreciate your skills. And maybe you wil end up dancing with less and less people in the milongas. I know some dancers who did the same thing and they ended up unhappy every time if their technical expectations where not fulfilled and finaly even stopped dancing Tango. What a pity.
    For me dancing Tango is also a social event where I meet friends, where I am listening to good music and having a good wine with my friends. And these parts make the time I spent in a milonga special. I really love the music and I love dancing Tango. But for beeing honest I really started enjoying it, when I stopped looking for the best dancers in a milonga but spending time with nice people and enjoying the wonderful music. In that very moment the dancing skills became less important. And my dancing skills still pay back by having very nice dances even with very unexperienced dancers. As long as the music is good in a milonga and I can find some nice people (that happens most of the time) I am having a very good time with my Tango. I am still practicing nearly every day but without the pressure I have had lots of years.
    I wish you a very nice life with your Tango.

    • tangobora says:

      What an absolutely lovely comment Frank! Thank you for sharing a little of your journey as well. I agree with everything you said. So far, I have found that I haven’t gotten frustrated with other people so much. I am much more accepting of them than I am of myself and luckily our community here has a handful of dancers that are quite good. I can see an undue focus on technique as becoming a real problem in a place where you can’t find your match…But like you, I go to the milonga to switch off from my daily life and talk to people. That aspect of tango is also very important part of the whole package.

    • terpsichoral says:

      I certainly feel some of the frustration you mention, Frank. I also enjoy dancing with only a handful of good dancers in the place I am currently visiting and I really feel the lack of a regular partner here. The frustration is the main reason why I am now based in BA. At one level, as my tango has got better I have enjoyed it more and more, but, at another, the number of people I enjoy dancing with has shrunk dramatically.

  3. Drunkard says:

    Congratulations Bora! 6 months to make that progress. Sure you are on the right track comparing to other dancers like me :). I love your journey of self-acceptance as well as the journey or learning the tango dance. Love to discuss more about using which muscles to generate body movement. Core muscles or back muscles? As well as progress in techniques vs musicality, how to balance them?
    Thanks Bora for sharing this post at this time. Wishing you always enjoying and realising things in your tango journey.

    • tangobora says:

      Thanks for your comments but I don’t know how to discuss without knowing your name? 🙂

      Also, the two videos I showed were recorded at a distance of three weeks from each other. I was just trying to show that even when I thought at the time I hadn’t improved, I actually had but that it takes some objectivity and time to assess your progress more accurately.

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