Category Archives: Dance
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.
I decided to venture outside of my usual stomping grounds to attend a milonga known for attracting great dancers. I barely had my shoes on before I was approached for a dance.
The dance begins. I soften into his embrace. I notice the people sitting alongside the floor. I see them watching me. I’m new here; they don’t know me nor whether I can dance. I feel proud of my long strides and extensions on my walk. And then this happened.
My lead began doing moves that he hadn’t fully learned yet. One move pulled me way off axis and left me teetering. Another caused me to make an awkward stumble that almost led to a fall.
The faux pas was not that he led moves not yet mastered. The greater sin was creating a situation that made me look bad and feel awkward*. I felt embarrassed by our mistakes. I looked like I had no idea what I was doing. For me, this was the worst possible first impression to make at a new milonga as other men were watching (probably to decide whether to cabeceo me later).
In the lindyhop world, mistakes happen and people laugh and forget about it. In the tango world, people seem to watch other dancers intently. They might watch you for hours, weeks, even months before deciding to ask for a dance (or accept an invitation). When I first started, I would go to a milonga and pay $15 to sit and be eyed suspiciously for 3 hours. Tango dancers can be hesitant to dance with you until they see that you are legit and can dance well.
If a good lead thinks you are a sloppy, unskilled follower, he will probably pass you over in favor of those who don’t stumble their way through a tanda. What I’ve learned is that looking bad can cost you tandas with other dancers. And good tandas are precious!
Tango is an elegant dance. So, please do the classy thing and make your partner look good. Take advantage of practicas for experimenting and practicing moves. When you can execute a move solidly with a variety of people, then bring it into the milonga.
The guy mentioned above made mistakes throughout the entire tanda that led to many awkward moments for me. Not only was it embarrassing, but it left me feeling very uncomfortable as I observed others watching this fiasco with amusement. That’s not how we take care of our partner. If we are going to do a partner dance, we need to act like a partner.
Great partners make each other look good. They don’t show off at the expense of their partner. They cover for one another’s mistakes when needed. They highlight what the other person does well. They play to their strengths and skills. They work within the scope of their partner’s boundaries. And most importantly, making someone look good guarantees that they walk off the floor feeling good. And that’s a level of connection we all need more of these days.
* Not all mistakes are equal! It’s one thing for a move to not go as intended or led, it’s another for the move to be so poorly executed that the dancers appear to be awkwardly stumbling through it. And I’m perfectly fine doing an entire tanda of basic moves that are solidly led!
I’m in San Diego for a dance event, but I feel incredibly sad. These weekends are supposed to be inspirational, energizing and rejuvenating. Sure enough, I find myself profoundly inspired by a tango performance that is the epitome of what I hope to become; it’s magical in every way.
However, my failure to find a skilled, dedicated partner has me feeling especially ungrounded. I’m suddenly feeling the angst of unfulfilled potential. I feel incomplete. I feel unchallenged and bored. I thought I had something unique to build upon; something that would attract an amazing partner who shares my aspirations. But right now, I feel that my “magic” is gone and I’m losing hope. I feel lost in the crowd. It hits me hard today and the confluence of all this has me nearly in tears.
I have time to kill, so I seek a place for lunch. I find myself at Café Gratitude; by the name alone, I know I will be at home here. I order a green drink and a black bean burger. The waitress brings the drink first. “You are complete,” she says as she places it before me with a reassuring, loving smile.
I’m a bit startled until I realize that “Complete” was the name of the drink I had ordered. The irony of this flashes through my mind as I take a sip. I don’t feel remotely “complete”, so I quickly distract myself with my phone until my food arrives.
And then it arrives. I turn from my phone to see a waiter holding my veggie burger before me. “You are magical,” he says with a powerful gaze into my eyes. He says this as if it were an indisputable truth. He says it as though he is commanding it to the universe. He says it like he intuitively knew that I’ve written myself off.
That’s when I got it. I ordered precisely what I needed to hear. I needed to be reminded that I AM complete – even without a partner. Perhaps my magic hasn’t worn off just yet – maybe I still have a shot at being a captivating dancer and living my potential after all. At Gratitude, everything on the menu is named with a word (i.e., worthy, extraordinary, brave) that is then used to present the customer with an affirmation.
I went to Café Gratitude for lunch. Yes, I got fed. But in a most unusual way, I also got validated. I felt that my soul got the hug it needed. I got reassuring whispers from angels and encouraging nudges to keep going. I heard the very things that I felt the greatest doubt about.
They could have just served me lunch and left me with a great impression of an amazing plant-based menu, awesome ambiance and flawless service. But I felt touched by their business model. I felt impacted by the experience. I felt re-centered and grounded by their thoughtfulness. One waiter, Rowan, talked about the company and menu names with such conviction and passion that I teared up.
The little things count so very much. Café Gratitude didn’t just serve me – they impacted me. And I really, truly, deeply needed that today.
At a recent milonga, I was captivated by one woman’s dancing… her technique, styling, body control – it was exquisite to watch! My friend, however, was completely unimpressed. “I’ve danced with her,” he says. “All she does is show off. In tango, I want to create a moment with my partner.”
Well, that explains a rather unfulfilling dance I had recently with a competitive blues dancer. He started off the dance with super-dynamic moves. He worked it pretty hard, showing off every bit of what he learned in his years of private lessons.
But it was the most disconnected dance I’ve had in years. He knew how to execute moves. He could lead. He could shape his body in dynamic ways. But it felt like he had forgotten how to connect with a partner. He was so over-connected with himself that there was no space for him to connect with me. My ideas, invitations and responses went ignored. He was just showing off.
People probably thought we looked great (he was, after all, a solid lead and dancer). But the dance didn’t feel good to me. And that should have mattered more than how we looked.
I walked away and thought, “Don’t put ego before connection”. I too have been guilty of being a “pole dancer”, treating my partner like a pole that simply held me up while I did all my fancy stuff.
Thankfully, things changed for me. I love being bound in a moment with my partner, responding to his expression, emotion and movements… unconditionally welcoming ideas and invitations. I love having a unscripted, raw, organic conversation that unfolds and blossoms in ways neither one of us could have predicted.
I used to dance with a ballroom instructor who segued into the street dances. When we danced, he simply did what he felt. Most of the dance was movements he made up on the spot based on our connection. His mastery of partner dynamics made this possible. Being unscripted made him ultra-connected and responsive to me. His focus wasn’t on thinking, it was on feeling. And it was phenomenal.
Dance WITH me, not at me.
Listen to me…. and respond to what I offer.
Show me what you feel and not what you were told to do.
In the past, I wrote about how a dance can be an “experience“. Creating a moment is the exact same thing. Experiences and “moments” stick with me. They remind me of why I love partner dancing – especially when it’s an amazing, artistic, bonding moment between two people.
A highly connected dance can be the epitome of listening. If you want to touch your partner’s heart and soul, show it to them on the dance floor by how you respond to them. Perhaps that’s how we create a moment.
Last week I jumped into a beginning tango class when I noticed they were short on followers. The first guy I rotated to looked at my fancy-schmancy tango shoes and said, “You’ve done this before”, to which I affirmed. He lit up and say, “Great – I’m in good hands then”.
I saw a slight buzz kill when I smiled and said, “Actually, I will follow exactly what you lead. Otherwise, you won’t learn anything.” I was kind – but intentionally blunt – so he understood my intention. He got it right away and smiled with understanding when I only did part of what he led. Later he thanked me and expressed how helpful that was.
Most ladies show up in a class and execute the move – regardless of what the lead does. The ladies do their part, the lead does his but they aren’t connected. They just happen independently of each other at roughly the same time so it ends up looking like a successful execution. At the end, the lead is smiling because he thinks he did it right and the girl is making a mental note to avoid this particular guy once open dancing starts.
Basically, the guy pays $15 to develop delusions of competence. And we wonder why people don’t get better despite all the classes they take.
So ladies, speak up. Tell the lead what you are feeling. Class time is feedback time. If you didn’t truly feel the lead, tell him that. Ask him to give you a stronger lead. If you don’t know what was wrong, ask him to experiment together on various adjustments.
Leads, if she didn’t execute what you expected, ASK HER what she felt. Don’t assume she just didn’t do the move correctly. Please seek to understand what she experienced especially if you’re not sure why it didn’t go right.
Did she feel the lead?
Was it clear enough?
Did she feel it was safe to execute?
Was she able to execute her part?
Followers don’t execute moves for a variety of reasons – and not just because we are confused, incompetent or thinking about unicorns. If I don’t feel safe doing it (i.e., the guy is trying to dip me but I sense he doesn’t really “have” me) I’m not going for it. Sometimes the guy has me on the wrong foot when he starts the big move. Sometimes he feels so ungrounded I’m just trying to protect myself from falling over. Sometimes he’s skipping a critical part that my movement is contingent upon. Those little things might render me “unable” to do the move.
So ladies, tell him what you need if something isn’t working. Focus on what you want or need instead of what he did wrong.
I believe in being an honest follow by following precisely what is led (yes, this will frustrate the lead, but no one said learning is easy). Being a true partner means actively contributing to both people learning the move and the technique being taught.
Remember, if the guy isn’t leading a move correctly, you aren’t able to learn the move properly either. Participate. Communicate. Help the guy figure it out with you so you both get something meaningful out of the class. Because that’s what you are both paying for. Unless you really are just seeking delusions of competence.
I don’t aspire to be a world class dancer. I want to be a captivating dancer. Watching 15 years of various styles of dance has left me wondering why some dancers are simply captivating and others are great, but… not so interesting to watch or dance with. Here are a few insights thus far.
1. We are an art form: Yes, dancing is about fun and expression, but it is also an art. The whole package – the movement, the outfit, the shoes (if you’ve seen tango done in dance sneakers you know what I mean), the hair, the body’s physique, the lines and shapes we create in our movement, even our facial expressions and attitudes. I love how ballroom, classical and modern dancers have perfected this concept. It seems that embracing dance as an art form changes how we dance – even socially. Beautiful aesthetics are always captivating for me.
At the end of the day, looks matter (that’s why they tan in Ballroom before a comp!). People flood to the ballet to see a beautiful body, in a flattering costume, moving gracefully and artistically. I don’t believe size rules out anyone here; but know how to move YOUR body and how to flatter it and showcase it beautifully in both movement and dress. People wouldn’t have cared about Jewel McGowan’s switches if she had been wearing cargo pants.
2. We are a storyteller: Some of my best dances are with guys who are actors. They understand how to tell a great story in a dance… They get into character and take me with them. Sometimes my partner eyes me like I am a morsel of buttered steak that he’s about to devour – and the next song he looks cold and furious and won’t look at me.
For me, captivating dancers are emotionally connected. And when that happens, a fascinating story begins unfolding. Whether we intend to or not, we are telling a story when we dance. Make it a good one. Make yourself vulnerable and express the energy you feel with your partner. Make eye contact. I never understand why people don’t look at each other when they dance. For me, it creates the impression of dancing together but not actually being together – so they seem disconnected from each other and the moment being shared. I use eye contact like spice; a dash here and there for emphasis. Eye contact is styling – use it!
3. We are in a relationship: The moment you say, “sure!” when someone asks you to dance, you have officially entered into a temporary relationship. So act like it. You wouldn’t enter a relationship and just do whatever you want with zero regard for the other person. In a respected relationship, no one truly wants to inflict pain, danger or embarrassment – or leave their partner feeling ignored or used. If you wouldn’t do it in a 5 year relationship, don’t do it in a 5 minute dance. We all deserve that respect, right?
I get tremendous insight in how someone operates in a relationship by how they dance. I can tell whether someone is a good communicator and a good listener by how they dance. Good partners are very in tune with what their partner is doing and expressing. They work in collaboration with one another… they assume joint responsibility for the experience. They expect nothing, but give everything. They listen more than they talk.
When the chemistry is good, my goal is to captivate my partner. I want my partner to be fascinated by the experience we are having. Sometimes a dance is not “just a dance”. We do that by fully entering the relationship and letting ourselves connect with vulnerability, openness and respect for our partner. I don’t want to be a “pole dancer” who treats my lead like he is nothing more than a pole holding me up while I do whatever I want.
What captivates me most is when I see two dancers who are utterly captivating to one another. If they are telling a fantastic, dynamic story (or conversation) in addition to being fully lost in their relationship with one another, they have won my heart. For total perfection, make the entire experience an art form with attention to all the visual details.
THEN we have a experience that captivates me at my very soul – and inspires me to pursue that in my own dancing.
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.
Years ago, there was a trend among swing and blues dancers that made everyone look like great dancers. Baggy pants. Those loose, flowy pants hid the legs and most of the feet and magically made our dancing look super clean and smooth. All was good until Bud stopped me and said, “Can you wear tighter pants next week? We can’t see what your legs or feet are doing.”
That comment changed everything for me. The following week, I did wear fitted pants. And it was like being totally unmasked on that dance floor. Tight pants meant that I couldn’t hide my mistakes. I actually had to focus on making sure my lines and movements were super clean (they weren’t). My footwork now had to be precise (it wasn’t) – otherwise, everyone would know I wasn’t really as good as I looked under those baggy pants (I wasn’t).
I became a better dancer after I stopped hiding under my outfits.
Today, I often wear tennis skirts for dancing. It’s perfect. The shorts are built in. It’s athletic wear and super comfy. AND they show off my entire leg – which means that I can’t hide anything. It motivates me to strive to dance beautifully, with precision and mindfulness because I can see exactly what I’m doing and so can everyone else.
It’s kind of like knowing that if you are going to be naked, you better look damn good, so you work harder. That’s what the tennis skirts do for me. It motivates me to look good because I have nothing to mask my mistakes or sloppiness. Which is precisely what baggy pants did for me; it allowed me to get sloppy without me realizing it. They gave me delusions of competence.
So be a little more naked. Be a little more vulnerable. Allow yourself (and others, especially if working with an instructor or are teaching) to see what you are actually doing. Personally, I was surprised and humbled. But now, I love being unmasked in this way. I’m comfortable with this vulnerability. And that alone has made a massive difference for me as a dancer.