Delusions of Competence

A few years ago, I started doing Argentine Tango. While learning this highly complex dance, I found dances frustrating and unfulfilling. Until I met Joe. My dances with Joe were delightful! Each time I left his embrace feeling like the most elegant, talented dancer in the room. I thought “Wow – tango is easier than I thought!”.

My dances with Joe, a professional tango dancer, were amazing because of his skill level – not mine. A skilled dancer compensates for everything the unskilled person does wrong. When I dance with Joe, if I am off time, he gets me on time. On the wrong foot? Joe fixes that too. If my frame or connection is weak, or my musicality is off, Joe has to compensate for all that. Meanwhile, I am blissfully unaware and having a fantastic time – relishing in my delusions of competence. But Joe is having to work extra hard to make this dance tolerable / enjoyable / not a public embarrassment.

Many people think dancing with advanced dancers will make them better dancers. Really? If someone is compensating for all your mistakes, how will you ever learn anything? How will you ever learn how to stay on time, manage your own momentum, hold your own balance or weight, and maintain connection?

Want to learn how to stay on balance? Go dance a lot with a someone who constantly puts you off balance. You’ll end up mastering the skill of how to managing your balance no matter what.

THAT is a skill of an advanced dancer.

Fast forward two years: Last night I danced with a total beginner who kept apologizing each time he had me on the wrong foot or put me off balance. Later I explained that those things actually help me become a better dancer – it is good practice and skill development for me to learn how to handle those situations fluidly and with grace.

A truly advanced dancer knows how to handle awkward shifts in balance or being on the wrong foot or off time. Anybody can be a great dancer when they have a perfect partner – but for me, the skill set that truly makes them advanced is that they can dance just as well with a pro as they can with a beginner. If we are dependent on having a “good partner”, then we aren’t actually very good dancers

When I dance with a beginner, I get a chance to work on skills I rarely get to work on with a skilled lead, such as maintaining my balance and staying on axis (regardless!) and filling long pauses and empty space with styling.

The truly advanced person keeps revisiting their fundamentals because we experience them differently as we develop. Even though I’m still very much a beginner in tango, I’m trying to avoid falling into the trap of having delusions of competence. I’d rather know how to dance, than just think I do. 



About Epiphany

epiphanies on life and spiritual living as I chase wisdom - one insight at a time.

Posted on June 13, 2015, in Dance and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Great insight and blog.


  2. Something to think about.


  3. Antón Gazenbeek

    Amen! Thank you for having the courage to write what I’ve known for 2 decades, said on occasion, but no one in the “tango world” ever wanted to hear! It’s so incredibly true though; every single word!


  4. What a great point – this never really occurred to me until I read your post. I will remind myself to feel more gratitude for my dances with newer/younger dancers, and to pay more attention to what they are teaching me 🙂 thank you very much for the insight!


  5. This is one of the most evolved approaches to tango and tango writing I have ever read. Most articles I read by followers usually bring (with various levels of subtlety) a certain air of narcissistic entitlement and complaint. The energy I sense in your writing is wholesome, sincere, and self responsible…I’m just so touched, impressed, and “won over” at a very deep level. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You now have a loyal follower online, and a loyal leader should we ever meet on the dance floor!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My philosophy is that there is no such thing as a bad dancer. The only time social dancing can be “bad” is when the partners are mismatched or just not enjoying themselves for reasons other than dance prowess. If two people are mutually enjoying the experience, AT ANY LEVEL OF COMPETENCE, that’s all that matters in my book. Therefore, if one of the partners is having to compensate for the lack of compatible ability, that can be classified as a poor selection of partner, but neither one of the participants is necessarily bad or wrong.

    Social dance bliss can be achieved only when you have met your match. However, we have to accept mostly mismatching until we find those few who are synchronous with us. It’s always the journey that makes life so interesting.


    • Manuel Patino

      I beg to disagree… IMHO, there is such thing as a bad dancer. I hear a lot of comments from women who complain about some male dancers. The women say things like “they hurt me” or “they never dance to the music”, etc.
      Personally, I have danced with women that just did not follow very well if at all. It was not fun dancing with them. Are they “bad dancers”?.. Well, for me at least they are indeed bad.

      I do get your point though, even though a particular dancer might not be “good” for me or for some others, it does not mean they can be good for someone else…. In this case you could be right in saying “there is no such thing as a bad dancer”. Seems that this is a highly subjective judgement.

      Cheers, Manuel


  7. Manuel Patino

    I don’t agree with the idea that dancing with better dancers will get in the way of becoming a better dancer. Private lessons with a good dancer/instructor will benefit one’s dancing markedly.

    Of course, just dancing at the milongas with excellent dancers (if they will dance with you) could lead one to think that one is a better dancer than the actuality. Dancing with beginner dancers can be quite a chore from a leader role. I don’t dance the woman’s role very much but it’s probably worse being led by a beginner than leading one (of course, there are exceptions).

    I think that after one reaches a certain level of expertise, it’s imperative to dance with as many good dancers as one can. For one, it can be very pleasurable. And secondly, it can be very educational. Dancing with very inexperienced beginners can be good for them, but the only thing a good dancer learns from such activity is how to be patient and how to teach more effectively. But it certainly will not improve your own dancing much if at all.


    • I have always had the idea that dancing with others should be distributed between the skill levels in the shape of a bell shaped curve. Most of the dances will be with people at your level of skill (the central part of the bell) but you should make an effort to dance with those below and above your level to give and receive experience, skill, and energy.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting point. But check this out: we’re teaching intense seminars in Buenos Aires and Berlin in a new way that’s working really good. Check it out:


  9. I think that the key is where/why do we dance.

    When I go to a milonga, I go for enjoying my time, for sharing, for dancing. I prefer to dance with dancers my level or above: it is with them that I have my body under control and can dance freely and connected with my partner in a natural way. I do not go to a milonga to have a technique class with someone who challenges my axis and balance, who kicks me constantly, etc. I can go for it in a práctica, in a class…. but it is not my goal when I go to a milonga.

    This doesn’t mean I do not dance with more beginner dancers at all. But again, I am more incline to do it in prácticas and classes. In a milonga I do, specially when I see an evolution in the dance of the person, when I like his energy, when I like his attitude towards the partner and the dance… but still, when I dance in a milonga with a clearly more beginner dancer, for me most of the times is less “dancing” and more “excercising”, compensating, helping. It is a nice experience, enriching and useful for both of us, but it is not the reasong I would go to a milonga.


  10. In my experience as a beginner leader it’s very frustrating when I ask women for a dance and they look at you as if they were doing you a favor. It happens more times than not. Of course you can see them queuing up for the pros even though their skill is not nearly as good. This makes me have a bad time dancing since I am not comfortable with a partner that’s internally rejecting you. Now I understand the reason why there are always more women than men in the dancefloor.


  11. I keep revisiting this page again and again because it holds so much truth. I’m also fairly young in tango but now practised to the point I can now dance a “good” dance with a stranger of pretty much any level. I normally dance with a lot of beginners because I always remember how awkward it was in the beginning and because they want to have fun too, not to mention I like seeing my community grow!

    Something I’ve learnt quickly is how to read a person’s skill and adapt my dance rapidly. Some dancers can’t close embrace, others can only dance close embrace, some have no ability to do circular movements, while others have bad balance, often I have to scale my musicality to a level that the follower can dance to. I find a lot of joy in discovering the little personalities of all the followers I dance with and love being able to dance to something beautiful with whatever tools they have.

    I guess I just love a challenge and I dare say, that’s why people learn the Argentine Tango 😛


  12. Brilliant and insightful.


  13. I disagree. True – that good dancers can compensate our mistakes. But when dancing with “bad” dancers” we are learning nothing more that that – compensating our partner mistakes 🙂 You won’t learn too much musicality, being delicate but firm with your embrace, smoothenes in your moves. It’s like saying that you can learn how to be a master of guitar using the cheapest and most impossible to tune well, guitar. You can still learn how to play and you will be admired that you managed. But it’s not efficient or pleasant.


    • Hi Bessa, I agree with you on this. My intention was to convey that having SOME dances with less skilled people is good to have in the mix so we get to work on the full set of our skills. Dancing solely or mainly with those below our skill level will stagnate growth on other skills that are more advanced. Just wanted to express that there is something awesome to find in each level of dancer. 🙂


  14. Radio show episode discussing this blog:


  15. A beginning dancer will not get better by dancing with unskilled dancers. A person starting out in dance has a lot to benefit by dancing with more advanced dancers. Because the beginning dancer can feel what it means to have the right connection, or do proper weight changes at the right time, or staying on time. Dancing with a more advanced dancer doesn’t create delusions of competence because the beginning dancer will feel the huge contrast between there own dance skill and execution of the steps and technique, versus the experienced dancer. Dancing with someone who doesn’t know how what they’re doing, will never help a person improve because they will not know that they’re doing things wrong. Both partners will be on the wrong foot, not connect properly, or be off time, or stop movement when they’re supposed to continue, or transfer weight to soon, get each other off balance, etc… It is a lot more challenging to keep up with an advanced dancer than a beginning dancer. Dancing with an advanced dancer highlights every little mistake the beginning dancer does. It sticks out like a sore thumb. Hence why your inexperienced partner was constantly apologizing to you.


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