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!
I once had a boss who was highly regarded as a great manager. Her team of three employees were reliable, honest, and did impressive work. Everyone got along and collaborated easily on projects. Life was good.
Then she hired an employee from hell. Lisa did not have the skills she professed. Her work quality was egregiously bad and she brought total chaos to every project she touched. She quickly violated trust with everyone of the team.
So the team looked to the manager to address the problem of Lisa. The manager met with Lisa. Repeatedly. Nothing changed. The team quickly lost their respect and faith in the manager.
The situation baffled everyone. This idolized leader seemed incapable of managing Lisa. This manager, who also taught leadership classes, didn’t seem able to execute the very skills she trained others on. Why?
This manager was an amazing leader only when her team was low maintenance and high performing. Anyone can lead a team of perfect employees. Only a truly skilled manager can lead a team through messy situations.
How do you develop leadership skills? By managing situations that throw you off. You learn how to handle performance issues by having employees who do poor quality work. You learn how to have awkward conversations by having an employee who reeks of strange odors. You learn how to manage a compulsive liar by having one on your team. You learn clear communication from having a direct report who misunderstands everything.
You’d be surprised at how much you’ll learn from a renegade, two-faced, lazy, incompetent employee who lies in meetings, undermines projects, harasses the FedEx guy and is suspected of spiking her coffee each morning.
If you never have any of these situations, how will you ever develop the skill to handle difficult situations when they do occur? You don’t learn in in a 4 hour class; you master it over years of experiencing a lot of wonky stuff. And this goes for pretty much every skill in life.
The employee from hell is the best training you will ever have. So don’t forget to silently thank them when you finally boot them out the door. Your worst employee might just be your best teacher.
Related: Delusions of Competence
* In a previous lifetime, I worked in Human Resources for ten years where I advised managers on employee relations issues.
When I first got interested in tango, I would go to a milonga and pay $15 to sit and be eyed suspiciously for three hours. I knew about the cabaceo, tandas and why I shouldn’t say “thank you” at the end of every song. But there is so much more…. Here are a few things I wish I had known in my first year.
#1. Your hair style matters. Fluffy, voluminous, 80s hair isn’t going to help you get dances. It’s a dead giveaway that you are new at this. Pull your hair back or away from the right side of your face. This is due to the head positioning you will have with the lead in close embrace. He doesn’t want to visually navigate the floor through a tousled mass of your hair.
#2. Tango is not a forgiving dance. Don’t bank on being able to fake it, especially if you are coming over from another dance style. Don’t expect your partners to happily compensate for your lack of tango technique all night. Tango dancers take their dance skills very seriously and will invest tremendously in private lessons, classes and workshops. If you want to dance with good dancers, invest in classes and private lessons to get your basics down solid. People will engage you when they see your dedication and development in advancing your technique and skills. Some may pass you over until they see you making real progress.
#3. People may watch you for a while before they ask you to dance. This could be hours, weeks or years. If you’re sitting out a lot, use the time wisely; study the people on the floor. Even better; start socializing.
#4. Attitude matters. Leave entitlement at home. You are not entitled to dance with the best people in the room simply because you showed up and have a general idea of how to dance. Be gracious. Stay humble. Don’t hound people or dominate them. Don’t start off with a reputation for being aggressive, rude or desperate.
#5. The outfit matters. It’s another clue on how legit you are as a dancer. If you decide that tango is for you, invest in tango shoes. Your flats/dance sneakers/Jessica Simpson heels say you are brand new at this. While advanced dancers can get away with wearing jeans, Pumas, tiny shorts or midriff baring tops to a milonga, a beginner is probably better served by going with a more traditional, elegant look.
#6. Don’t rush into the embrace immediately upon hitting the floor. Before you embrace, engage your new friend with some light conversation. You might chat for 30 seconds before the lead initiates the embrace. What do you talk about? “Is this your first time here?” or “How are you enjoying your evening thus far?” or “I love the music tonight!”.
#7. When dancing, don’t talk. Followers, just close your eyes and be in the exquisite moment of that embrace. Immerse yourself in the dance and focus entirely on your partner (not the mirror, not the rockstar dancer 10 feet away and not your feet). This is the time to dance and connect, not entertain your partner with engaging conversation.
#8. Love nuevo? Awesome. Just dial it back at the traditional milongas. Big, showy, flashy nuevo moves will definitely get attention – namely, scowls and frowny faces. They may even get you kicked out of a traditional milonga, so don’t go there to show off your fancy stuff.
Lastly, I feel like the social environment in tango is kind of like going to a party… walk in, greet the people you know. Say hello to the host, find your table, introduce yourself to new people as appropriate. When I leave, I do my best to thank the DJ (especially if I loved the music), the host and to say good-bye to friends (old and newly met).
Treating people kindly and warmly, and with gratitude, respect and interest goes a long way – whether it’s inside or outside the milonga.