I know a girl who treats leads like they are amusement park rides. She wants the lead to entertain her with a bunch of flashy moves… lifts, dips, drops. If the dance isn’t exciting enough for her, she will throw herself into a dramatic dip or drop – and expect the guy to catch her.
Not only is that incredibly dangerous, but it’s rude to the lead. It treats him like he is there solely to serve her. Leads shouldn’t feel used for the follower’s enjoyment.
It amazes me how many times I hear this complaint from leaders… Feeling like his job is to give ladies a magical, exciting dance – despite the fact that she may not have the technical skills to execute it on her end.
I don’t expect the lead to show me off and make me feel beautiful, sexy and talented. That is MY job – and I shouldn’t rely on a lead for that. Great followers look amazing with anyone they dance with because of their skills – not the leads.
Therefore, I’m studying technique – so I can be an equal contributor. A lead doesn’t want to exhaust himself compensating for things we aren’t willing to learn to do correctly (i.e., maintaining our own balance, staying on time, or sustaining proper frame and connection). He’s there to have fun too – not just work his ass off trying to keep us upright and beaming.
The most unforgettable dance I’ve witnessed was a tango couple in Denver; he led nothing but forward steps and side steps. The woman, with gorgeous footwork and brilliant musicality, spun those movements into pure magic.
She showed me that with amazing technique, we can make simple dances look and feel utterly captivating.
For me, partner dancing is about giving. I don’t seek out leads based on what I can get, I seek out leads based on what I feel we can give one another. I want the lead to sincerely enjoy dancing with me – and for the right reasons.
Ideally, I want to give perfect balance, solid connection and flawless timing (have patience; it is a work in progress). I want to inspire him with my musicality and entertain him with beautiful, creative styling. I want him to feel that moving with me is effortless so he can be in his heart and not in his headspace. And since that is the gift I want to give my lead, I am actively building those skills.
Ultimately, I want to be the follower who makes the dance fun for my lead. Because in partner dancing, it’s not all about me. It’s all about us.
If you just want to “use” a lead to make you feel beautiful and talented, at least drop $20 in his pocket when the song starts and say, “Entertain me!” so he knows what hell he just entered into. He will need it for physical therapy / medical bills when you throw yourself into a dip he didn’t lead.
When people really get into tango, it becomes fairly evident that group classes and a few private lessons aren’t really enough. Tango is a technique driven dance. Without solid technique, people spend a lot of time sitting out, complaining about the snobby people who won’t dance with them.
When people get serious about learning tango, they embrace technique. Learning technique isn’t quick or cheap. It means finding a master-level teacher and studying regularly with them for months or years. Therefore, many instructors offer packages of 10, 25, 50 private lessons. Consequently, serious dancers usually drop big money on private lessons.
Would you spend $2500 on photography classes to learn how to use your high-end Nikon and then go out to take photos with an iPhone? Probably not, because most of the stuff you learned with the camera can’t be practiced or applied with an iPhone. Sure, you’ll get some good shots, but you’ll feel unfulfilled, knowing that you have the ability of doing much better work with equipment that supports your new knowledge and skills.
Most dancers aren’t snobby – they simply want to use what they paid to learn.* They are seeking a return on their investment because they spent a big chunk of hard-earned money learning it.
Learning has a catch: Use it or lose it. To truly learn it, you gotta use it.
What’s the point of learning new things if I spend my evening adjusting for (or struggling through) other’s wonky technique instead of practicing what I paid to learn? Some people invest thousands of dollars so they can do amazing things with other skilled dancers – not so they can do basic moves with people who think technique is overrated.
Tango is a technique driven dance that isn’t for everyone (depending on your expectations). I don’t say that to be elitist; I say that to be honest. If you are sitting out a lot or getting passed over by people who you want to dance with, find a pro with extensive expertise in correcting and teaching technique.
If you won’t work on your own technique, then stop complaining about what other people “should” be doing (i.e., asking you to dance anyway or learning how to lead/follow better). If you refuse to rise up then get used to sitting down.
If we want to dance with better dancers, let’s get serious about our art and become better dancers… develop the skills under the right pro and people will seek YOU out. We all have to earn it – just like the “snobby” people did.
* There is a difference between seeking to dance at one’s level versus being overtly rude or denying others of basic courtesies. Honestly, I have found nearly everyone I have met to be incredibly warm and kind upon getting to know them a bit. And please don’t mistake shyness, introversion or intimidation as snobbery or rudeness. Give the benefit of the doubt and get to know people first.
For the serious dancers: there is no harm in taking care of your own needs first. Just remember to reach back and help someone else along the way (just as others likely did for you). Community and karma matter in this world.
When someone expresses an interest in learning tango, I often hesitate. I know tango looks fun, sexy and beautiful, but it can be a serious commitment. It’s a hardcore pursuit. Yes, some people casually dance tango as a hobby. But here’s the reality: tango is like a vampire that bites into your heart and changes your soul forever. Once it bites you, you will be seduced into an endless quest that steals your time, money, mind – and your heart. Therefore, be warned…
You better LOVE technique. If you have a passion for nitty gritty, detailed technique that teaches nuances of movement, leading/following, connection, posture and body organization, then you will be captivated by tango. The amount of technique to learn will deeply humble you. If you just want to have fun, remember that your partner’s idea of having fun is usually based on doing this skillfully. Most tango dancers don’t just “play around”. Technique is what makes the dance feel amazing to your partner. If you care about that, awesome! If you don’t, maybe partner dancing isn’t for you….
It takes money. If you aren’t investing in truly learning tango, you probably won’t be dancing much or enjoying it when you do. Private lessons, workshops, tango shoes, milongas, practicas, outfits – it adds up quickly and it’s quite addicting. You’ll drop serious money on private lessons. I know a guy who blew his annual tango budget by February. Tango is like a heroin habit. Only death and paralysis can stop it.
It’s a long commitment. Tango is not a dance that gets mastered in six months or five years. It’s not a “once a week” kind of a dance. There’s no “low hanging fruit” in tango. This is a multi-layered skill that endlessly unfolds for those who seek its elusive mastery. You’ll think you learned a move – and then you’ll spend years learning how to do it correctly. Ochos are only easy when you’re doing them wrong.
And it’s intimate. A good dance for me goes like this. “Hi, I’m Karen”. Seconds later, I have melted into his body and my lips are barely inches from his. It’s four legs and one heart – and we are slowly stripped into total vulnerability as we unveil ourselves through a 9-minute exploration of one another’s skills, potential and expression.
By the end, we know each other in ways we may only intuitively understand. I know if he embraces a woman with tenderness, command or caution. I sense whether he seeks the heart, mind or body of a woman first. I know whether he thinks or feels more. I feel where he is confident, where he is shy and where he is selfish. I sense what he hungers for and what he fears. I know whether he sees me as a conquest, a collaborator or an executor of his command. I know if he is a risk-taker, an explorer or an inventor. I know if he approaches tango as an artist, an engineer or an architect. I know if he is a witty conversationalist or a curious listener. I discover what makes him sexy, beautiful and profoundly captivating – even when all he is doing is “just dancing”.
Tango can be insanely difficult. Expensive. Toilsome. Humbling. And deeply unmasking.
It’s not for everyone. For some people, it’s not for them “right now”.
When I began, I was told that I didn’t find tango. Tango found me.
Let tango find you. And be ready when it does, for tango is a relentless thief. It will gently swipe away your time, money and perhaps your ego – if you have the courage to surrender it. Tango unmasks our true character, our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses and our magical unwrapped talents. But only for those willing – and able – to give tango what it asks of us first.
It was a dance instructor’s nightmare. At the top of the class, 50% of the class raised their hands to indicate that they were not rotating – they wanted to stay with their intended partner for the entire class.
Unfortunately, that left 7 extra ladies with one hesitant man to rotate to.
The next day, I got smart and asked someone to partner with me for the class. Upon arriving, I saw that EVERYONE had a partner this time. Except for one girl…. I saw her shyly fade off to the fringe of the room to reluctantly “just watch” the class – which isn’t what she paid for when she signed up.
I didn’t know the girl very well, but I sensed that she really wanted to take the class. When I saw that she didn’t have a partner, I ran over and invited her to join me. I suggested that we share my partner, switching on and off.
Imagine how different the previous day would have been if couples had “adopted” a single person and rotated between the three of them. The instructor wouldn’t be managing a nightmare and the entire class would have gone home happy.
I understand why couples don’t want to rotate and I fully respect that choice. Sharing a partner honors the wish to stay together and enables pairs to be good community members.
If we want to build and sustain communities where people feel embraced and included, we need to notice the person who is reluctantly sitting out, or on the fringes, and find a way to integrate them. Especially when they are aching to be included.
This is one simple and easy way to be a “community hero” – and still stay with your partner.(Related: The Unchosen Man – The powerful impact of “choosing” someone)
Windsocks. Usually seen outside car dealerships, dancing and waving in the wind to capture your attention. I’m pretty sure one of those windsocks just got off work and came out to the venue I was at and asked me to dance. It was a beautiful, evocative fusion song. But I didn’t get to do fusion to that song. Instead, I got windsocked.
The dance started off nicely enough. He pulled me in for a nice embrace and a gentle pulse. Then he broke into open position and began waving… waving his noodly arms and body as he became totally caught up in the freedom of moving his body as he channeled the music. I think his mind waved off too because he seemed totally oblivious to my ideas and invitations.
It happens in fusion. It happens in blues. It even happens in lindy. It seems to happens in dances where technique is not a dominant focus of the dance.
Have we somehow given the impression that technique isn’t necessary? Do people believe some dances are so easy that they don’t need to learn actual moves – much less how to execute them? Many classes teach moves but gloss over technique. It took me to YEARS to realize, “Oh yeah… technique. I should probably work on that.”
Yes, technique is hard and dirty work. And we dance for fun, right? Sometimes that windsock dance is fun – it’s free and playful and kind of mindless. And I get it. Some people just want to play. If they don’t like technique, they may gravitate to fusion or blues where they feel more freedom to play. But any partner dancing is a technique driven activity.
Fusion is no exception. Unfortunately, some people may not know what to do with fusion songs. Perhaps they never really learned blues movement and idioms, or the fundamentals of west coast swing, tango, jazz or general dance technique. They may lack skill in one dance, much less know how to skillfully blend dance styles or apply movement to a different music genre.
That skill and technique is what makes it fusion. Otherwise, it’s just freestyle social dancing.
For improv driven dances such as blues and fusion, having a wide vocabulary of movements to draw inspiration from (and being able to skillfully execute them) is a huge benefit. As dancers, we steal ideas and movements from other styles. Learning other styles helps you steal more.
Windsocking might be good for those who are still building their general dance skills, technique and vocabulary… and perhaps there are people who simply want to express and feel the music without taking it to other levels. That’s ok.
However, I believe there is magic in learning how to do something skillfully – especially when it involves a partner. Invest in learning various dances – technique and all. Dancing can be more than just freedom and expression. It can be absolutely magical.
Sunday morning I found myself moved into deep silence. The recent events of the world have grown profoundly horrific and unsettling. I found myself without words.
So I went inward. I simply grew silent for most of the day. I visited gardens at a monastery. I went online and watched a talk by Michael Bernard Beckwith – over and over again. That’s because he said something “sticky”.
He said to start each day asking myself: How can I share? How can I give? How can I radiate? This is a “return to sender” universe… everything we send out comes back to us.
I thought about where in life I want to radiate, share and give. And I quickly grew passionate with the discovery of where I wanted to be a greater provider in life.
The next morning, the very first thought in my mind was, “How can I radiate, share and give today?”. I witnessed how it softened my energy. I gave my silence by not telling someone what I REALLY thought about a comment he posted online that I found disturbing. I was reminded of the power of giving silence – especially when speaking up does nothing but stir the pot or poke the bear.
I’m seeing a lot of messages telling people to choose love, not hate. Today, I paused my work and asked myself, “How I can radiate love today? What act of love and kindness can I commit?” Ironically, an opportunity had just presented itself for me to extend help to someone I deeply disliked. I found my energy toward this person softening as I spent some time reconnecting and providing guidance to someone I had never anticipated speaking to again.
I wonder how many people stop at telling others to choose love in an online post, but don’t actually DO anything meaningful to demonstrate the very choice they are promoting.
Instead of telling other people how to live, why not BE the very thing we are trying to promote? Then we can share our story of what happened when we did choose love, so others can be inspired by our action – and not just by the two words we typed.
Although the world is feeling out of control, my world isn’t. And maybe that’s because I’m going inward and taking control. I’m looking at where I can be softer and kinder in my life.
This week, I know I am choosing love because I’m doing something different than I would normally have done. I’m welcoming what I would normally shut out. I’m choosing silence over self-righteous judgement. I’m embracing a greater circle of acceptance. I may not be able to change the global world, but I certainly can change mine.
If I want a more loving world, I have to create it – with my own hands first.
I want to share a personal story about dance spirit.
This weekend I received an unsolicited, catty remark from a “professional” about my tango dancing. Had I been a total beginner, that remark would have left an ugly slash in my motivation and interest in continuing with tango.
Sadly, the remark had it’s intended impact and left me struggling to find the confidence I have been steadily building. I felt deflated and I questioned whether I truly have what tango requires of me.
Saturday night I was at a milonga and a favorite nuevo song came on. I turned to the first man I saw and anxiously asked, “Do you like nuevo?” to which he wordlessly swept me onto the floor in an embrace that honestly, left me nearly breathless. Apparently, I had asked a lead who was a true rockstar milonguero.
I remember making a stumble during that dance. I immediately apologized for my sloppiness – to which he murmured a warm reassurance that lifted my confidence back into flight.
This man, Mahmoud, exuded class. He slipped away before I could thank him not only for such a lovely tanda, but also for being such a gentleman. This man appeared when my dance spirit was feeling a bit broken. His kindness and willingness to embrace me unconditionally for where I am in my dance journey restored my faith that I am part of a community with a warm heart…. and not just self-righteous egos of superiority.
Tonight, I returned to my weekly practica with Marcos and Ruta, whose support and generous guidance flood me with inspiration every week. I feel them looking at me with excitement, seeing my potential, gently pulling it out of me… these two can see within me. They see butterflies of potential beginning to break from their silky cocoons. They see the birth of magic which I have yet to imagine is possible for me.
Tango, being such a profoundly intense and complex dance, has one inherent weakness. It can create a tremendously vulnerable dance spirit, which can be easily broken. It’s why people commit to and quit tango over and over and over.
The delicacy of one’s dance spirit should not be forgotten. – Karen Leigh Kaye
The scene leaders in our tango community have an unfortunate power that bears great responsibility. They can nurture ones dance spirit – or poison it to an untimely death. Sadly, I see too many cases where dance spirits are broken or mangled by behaviors driven by insecurity, sheer meanness, exclusion, self-righteousness or delusions of superiority.
Perhaps the true masters of tango have conquered the greatest challenge tango confronts us with – the challenge to be true gentleman and women of grace and class – to everyone seeking the heart of tango.
When beckoned to choose between throwing dirt and judgement – or casting light and love, choose wisely. For this may be where the true future of tango lies.
I have a friend who picked up dancing and immediately jumped into taking as many classes as he could. He was at the studio five nights a week, taking 2-3 classes a night. He wanted to learn as much as he could in six months.
Six months later, despite taking many intermediate and advanced classes, he still could not execute the basic movements cleanly. He only had a few moves that he remembered and could lead. His posture and body organization was a mess. At the end of six months, he had a beginner skillset with an intermediate ego.
This guy didn’t need more classes. He needed feedback. He needed to practice what he had learned. He needed feedback from his partners and perhaps guidance from professionals hosting practice sessions. He needed active discussion with honest practice partners.*
This is exactly what I crave in my dance community because I need all those things too. I don’t want more classes and workshops. I need time to work on what I already know. I need to work on the things I learned in my private lessons but haven’t integrated or refined in my social dancing.
We don’t need more classes. We need more practicas with active discussion and feedback between partners.
People can only absorb so much information at a time. Information overload is fatal to effective learning. If you can’t retain it or execute it, it’s useless. In some cases, we create delusions of learning where people only retain information on a very shallow level. They can recite what they learned, but can’t execute it smoothly for 10 minutes on the dance floor with a variety of partners.
I fully believe that the true learning doesn’t happen in a class; it happens on the social floor. It happens when you are practicing with a partner. It happens during your experimentation and exploration.
We don’t learn by listening to a lecture. We learn by taking things into our own hands and practicing… and discovering what feels best to us… and adjusting based on the result we get from that experimentation. And with a partner, you get the benefit of direct feedback.
The best practices of learning apply whether you are learning how to tackle an opponent, design a logo or do the mambo. Learn new information. Then dedicate time to playing with it, experimenting with it and integrating it. Seek out feedback, make adjustments and experiment some more.
And as any learning professional can tell you, that is where the true magic, the big epiphanies, and the real learning happens.
* Feedback and discussion isn’t one-way teaching. Regardless of skill level, both people should seek feedback from others in any learning environment. Make no assumptions!