After I wrote An Awkward First Year in Tango, I realized there was much more to say. Here are a few more things I realized.
#1. My heels were too high. Don’t buy the first pair of 3.5 inch heels you find – that height may not be the right height for you. I spent 2 years dancing in heels that were actually too high for me. It wasn’t until I bought a pair of lower heels for a “practice shoe” that an instructor mentioned they were the perfect height for me based on how they positioned my body for tango. Tango is way easier now that I’m in the right shoes for my body.
#2. Posture matters. This isn’t just about standing tall and looking nice from the outside. It’s about what you are doing internally with your entire core. A professional will tell you all the secrets on what good dancers do with their body – on the outside and inside to make the dance work effectively and beautifully. Concave bodies aren’t easy or fun to dance with. Bad posture can also be painful and incredibly awkward for your partner.
#3. Learn the rhythms. Timing is the one thing that keeps partners on the same page. I was late to the game on learning rhythms of tango music. This is an easy thing to gloss over especially for ladies who depend on leads to direct the show. But knowing when to step is a huge factor for being desirable to dance with. If you are chronically off time, it can throw the lead off or make him work harder to adjust for your wanton disregard of musical structure.
#4. Forget moves; just learn how to walk. Tango is a walking dance, so… learn how to walk. Yes, this will take years to refine. But I truly believe that if you can’t do a basic tango walk, I’d venture to say you can’t dance tango. In just learning how to walk, you’ll get to work on timing, posture and a ton of technique that you’ll apply to virtually everything else you do. Learning how to walk gives you a transferable skill that is immeasurable and widely applicable. I would have spent a lot more time working on my walk before trying to learn styling and moves.
#5. There will be egos and insecurity. And I don’t just mean yours – I mean from other people. Some people may not be friendly or welcoming and you’ll have no idea why. You may come onto the scene and be dismissed as the “flavor of the week”. Some ladies may view you as the reason they are sitting out all night. If you are a high potential dancer with a drive to be the next rockstar, some people may feel threatened. Even guys have told me that they experience coldness from other men.
#6. You’ll be critiqued. You show up at a milonga. There are tables surrounding the dance floor with people sitting at them… watching the dance floor… perhaps with guarded expressions. Men are trying to determine who to cabeceo next. Ladies are making mental notes of who to avoid – and who to mirada. Someone is probably watching the floor and muttering, “No one here can dance“. I had to learn to get comfortable with feeling insecure – which tango will do to you. We need thick skin for tango.
#7. It’s truly a partner dance. Tango isn’t like Lindy where people happily dance with anyone and everyone. Some people stick primarily with their partner or a select few. You will quickly realize that you will want practice partners and friends to attend classes, workshops and milongas with (or at least a few who get excited when you show up). If you start to feel like everyone is always paired up while you are politely sitting out, this may be why.
#8. Learn from the best instructor you can afford. Some teachers may simply parrot what they learned from their tango gurus – but parroting is not teaching. Good teachers have years of being able to 1) diagnose what to correct (and in what order and when), 2) break down complex concepts and 3) explain concepts in a variety of ways. If you are going to spend money; spend it wisely with someone who is truly a master instructor (not just a great stage dancer).
#9. Practicas are a must. If you can’t afford private lessons, take advantage of practicas where a pro will provide some guidance and everyone is encouraged to share feedback. If you are serious about your dancing, you don’t want to learn years later that everyone you’ve been dancing with has been secretly miserable about how you crush their hand or crouch over them. Actively seek – and insist upon – honest feedback.
#10. Don’t forget the pedicure. Those sexy, skimpy tango shoes show off the entire foot. Your feet can easily be a focal point when you are dancing. And some photographers like to focus shots on dancer’s shoes. Tango is an elegant dance; from head to toe – so don’t neglect the toes.
In the last few years, I’ve watched many people get totally turned off, madly frustrated or emotionally wounded by their tango experience. Tango isn’t for everyone. We need to do the boring, gritty work. We need thick skin. Tango demands hard work, humbleness and total surrender to the learning process. But if you can survive the first few years, I guarantee you’ll find it’s all worth it.
I’m in a room filled with enthusiastic dancers and one self-righteous critic. She leans in close and mutters, “No one here can dance”. I smile politely but cringe inside.
When people scoff at how others dance, I want to remind them that not everyone can afford to drop thousands of dollars for private lessons. Many dancers are struggling to get by as students or single parents. I started dancing when I was in grad school completing two Masters degrees. Private lessons wasn’t an option for me for many, many years. Most people would love to invest in their dancing, but it isn’t always feasible. It isn’t fair to mock people who have the passion but don’t have the financial means to do the kind of training others do.
Let’s also not forget that most of us get into dancing just to have fun. Not everyone seeks to compete or perform. Some dance to be more expressive or playful. Some are experimenting with new concepts and ideas. Not everyone wants to dance the same way or the same style. Others seek to innovate, not recreate… and let’s be honest: innovating and experimenting is a wonky looking process, and everyone deserves a safe space to explore and create their magic.
I realize that the path I’ve chosen for myself isn’t necessarily the right path for everyone else. I love private lessons and practicas and seeking feedback. And yes, I know a lot of people get exasperated by the skill level in their scene and wish their peers would train more. However, if I want to raise the level in my scene, I need to be someone who inspires and helps others, not shames them or shuts them out. Serious dancers have the power to create glass ceilings in their community and they have the power to break them.
It’s easy to get self-righteous as we progress. I know several beginners who grew very critical of others once they got serious with their training.
When I find myself falling into judgement, I know it’s ego (which is driven by insecurity) sparking that. I turn my attention inward to focus on how I can better my dancing – or how I can help support others along their journey.
Dance communities are small. So much is gained by being kind, supportive and helpful of one another. I’m less interested in judging what my peers are doing and I’m more interested in finding ways I can inspire or invite people to explore new concepts and ideas along with me.
And I love sharing what (or most importantly, who) has been helpful for me. Serious dancers and scene leaders can gently offer guidance to those who are struggling, lost or going down the wrong paths for the result they seek.
True scene leaders help each other UP the ladder, not kick them down to the ground, block the ladder or scoff at how no one knows how to climb a ladder. You never know why people are where they are and why. It’s worth staying humble and kind. ❤
We may never know what issues people are facing which make them think, act and react in certain ways. Be helpful rather than judgmental. – Mufti Ismail Menk
I was just about to leave for my first big tango festival when a message popped up on my phone. It was from a skilled dancer raving over the amazing followers and how every dance was the “best one ever”. Then he said how excited he was to dance with me that afternoon.
My excitement shifted – without a clutch – to anxiety. Was I going to be totally out of my league? I had been working on my tango but I still had much to learn. I didn’t want to disappoint any kind-hearted, unsuspecting leads who took a chance on an unknown girl. First impressions matter – especially in tango.
That weekend, I felt this anxiety pulsing through my body with every guy who asked me to dance. Sure, the dances were amazing for me, but were they amazing for my partners? Because I truly cared about that.
My focus when dancing is on giving and creating. I seek to give perfect balance, timing and responsiveness. I seek to create a moment with my partner that leaves them feeling awe over what just transpired between us and the music.
That level of giving and creating takes time and work to master. Meanwhile, I wrestle with the insecurity of knowing that I’m not there yet.
When I began tango I discovered something terribly awkward. With it’s complex technique, requisite intimacy and demand for total vulnerability, tango makes people insecure. Could I get truly comfortable with being raw, vulnerable and (gasp) – imperfect in this unforgiving dance?
I could handle being raw and vulnerable – hey, I was once naked on stage. But the idea of people politely suffering through dances with me while making mental notes to avoid me for the next decade was unacceptable.
I am secretly obsessed with how I feel to my partner. I never want a lead to feel burdened by a lack of balance, or thrown off by bad timing or wonder how to control something that doesn’t listen and moves on auto-pilot. The insecurity is a result of how much I care about how I affect my partner and what we are collaboratively seeking to do.
Insecurity drove me to action.
Therefore, I work regularly with a pro. I insist he is brutally honest when training me. I attend weekly practicas (and probably annoy the leads with how much I ask how something felt or what would make it feel better). I ask for specific feedback. I assume nothing because I’ve been surprised in the past. Insecurity has kept me open to growing. It drives me to root out and fix everything that doesn’t feel good to a partner. Insecurity drives me to take an experience and seek ways to make it better.
This all served to help build greater confidence. However….
Confidence carries an ugly risk – assumptions. Sometimes we get so comfortable or confident that we get sloppy over time without realizing it. Or we think we know more than we truly do. A “good” embrace isn’t the same as a “phenomenal” embrace. Everything can be done better with new layers of technique.
As I develop confidence in an area, I keep it on my radar to check regularly with practice partners and my pro. I’ve grown sloppy two weeks later on something I thought I had nailed down.
So perhaps a dash of insecurity is a good thing after all… something to keep me humble and driven to stay on top of my game. A few weeks ago, I travelled to a festival out of state and had a drastically different experience. I felt confident. I felt humble. And even though I felt that tinge of insecurity, this time I knew what to do with it. I embraced it.
My tango journey started the same as many before me. By being snubbed.
I started tango in a beginner friendly community. Most people were lovely. But I quickly realized that I was clearly invisible to certain people. Some were advanced dancers who made their disdain obvious. One was an instructor who overtly snubbed anyone not currently taking lessons from her. Others were friends who grew distant as they got more serious with their dancing – suddenly hesitant to say hello out of fear it would end in a dreaded invitation to dance.
In some cases, people don’t snub you for long… some start teaching or promoting. They soon realize the people they snubbed have value after all. Those people can pay cover charges, attend workshops, share posts, and build their image as a scene leader.
Hey. I’m more than a $15 cover charge and a body filling up space in a class. I am a human being worthy of basic courtesy – even if I’m not taking private lessons from you, attending your event or have rockstar dance skills. Our dance community is about connection. It’s not about opportunistically using people.
Being a good dancer doesn’t entitle you to forego being well-mannered and polite. It DOES mean that you have to get smart about how to manage your night gracefully when 90% of the room wants your time, energy and attention.
I’m far from perfect with greeting everyone – sometimes my mind is elsewhere or my introverted side trumps my desire to be social. And I’ve been guilty of writing off those who clearly want nothing to do with me. But, let’s be honest; there is always time to smile and say hello.
I get why I don’t always get that warm hello. Once I got serious with my dancing I began drawing the attention of the better leads. And that’s when I saw the difference between someone snubbing me versus someone not really noticing me. Some were simply focused on dancers who were a better match for their skill level and interests.
Not everyone goes to a dance to be social. Not everyone wants to greet everyone in the room. Some people simply focus on the people they already know, their closest friends and favorites. Some people don’t want to invite a lengthy encounter when they are simply there to dance or catch their favorite partners. I don’t take any of that personally.
However. Sometimes it IS intentional.
Sometimes being snubbed means the person has made a judgement of one’s value and acceptance. I’ve seen many cases where it left someone feeling very hurt, broadsided or even mocked. I’ve heard a lot of ugly stories. And sometimes it is a passive-aggressive method of conveying that you are less than. Unworthy. Undesired. Unwelcome.
No one wants to go where they feel snubbed. Check yourself. Check your friends. Check your venue culture. Check your scene leaders. This isn’t about dancing with everyone in the room or getting to know everyone on a personal level. It’s simply about being kind and polite.
Years ago, a guy I know wrote: “We NEVER forget the ones who snubbed us”. The dancer you snub today may be the one who blossoms in unforeseen popularity or skill. The one who becomes the most sought after dancer in the room, or your perfect match for a partner. Today, that guy holds a tango championship title. That guy had the power to make a fool out of the ones who snubbed him.
Therefore, I don’t mind being snubbed. Because I’ll be working on my dancing. Expanding the light and love I bring to the community. Challenging myself every day to be a better, more compassionate, loving human being – and hey, if things go well, a dancer who is in high demand.
So, if you’re feeling snubbed, go “make a fool out of those people”. Become the best dancer you can become. Become known for doing or being something amazing. Have a phenomenal embrace, impeccable balance, brilliant musicality, or an exquisite walk. If dancing isn’t your main forte, become known for being an extraordinary person; having a brilliant wit, the warmest heart, the best stories, profound wisdom, exceptional insight, a hilarious sense of humor or an invaluable friend.
And forget about those people. Let your gifts be their loss. And keep your focus on the many beautiful, warm and loving souls in our community.
Related: Why Tango is Snobby
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 I booked a car rental for Ireland, I did some research on what it’s like to drive on the other side of the road. Nothing could have prepared me for what it was REALLY like. Here’s what we wish we had known….
#1. Request an automatic. You will need to do this in ADVANCE – when you book it. Do not wait until you arrive to request one because it may not be available. If you get a stick shift, you’ll be shifting with your left hand instead. The pedals were the same as they are in America, so that was a small blessing.
#2. Driver’s console. You aren’t just driving on the other side of the road. You’ll also have to get used to being on the other side of the car. This means that your sense of spatial distance on the left side of the car will be way off. You may find yourself getting way too close to the cars parked on the road. Driving will feel like a jousting match.
#3. Yeah; you need the insurance. There is too much at risk to not have it. We scratched up our car pretty nicely because the roads were so narrow that we were constantly hugging the scratchy bushes lining the streets. It felt like learning how to drive all over again, everything felt new and awkward and weird. The stress was intense and every day felt pregnant for an accident.
#4. Car size: You might be tempted to get the smallest, cheapest car you can get which is a great choice if you’d like to die in a tin can destroyed by an oncoming tour bus. If the area you are visiting has tiny, narrow roads, you’ll be grateful for having a tiny car. If you want some peace of mind, go midsize. It helped.
#5. Road markings: Look them up and learn them before your trip. The road markings made no sense to us whatsoever. We never did figure out what some markings and signs meant.
In the US, a double yellow line is usually the center divider and dashed white lines separate lanes of traffic going in the same direction. In Scotland, the yellow line was right next to the curb and the dashed white line was the center divider.
#6: Road Signs. In Ireland, all road signs were in both English and Gaelic/Irish. That meant I had to do a lot of reading every time we came to a sign. GPS alone wasn’t always sufficient or very helpful. Freeway signs were the same; the only difference was we were speeding by them too fast to interpret the sign and figure out what was relevant to us and what wasn’t.
#7. Narrow Roads: While driving the Ring of Kerry, we found ourselves on “two lane” roads that were as wide as two American bike lanes. It was slightly terrifying to have oncoming buses and local drivers zooming toward us at 50 mph. They are used to this. We weren’t.
#8. Visual Cues. Don’t rely on visual cues such as which way cars are facing parked along the street. In some cases, people park facing either direction. This will mess with your head when trying to figure out which side of the street you should be on. If you get nervous, just stay behind a car in front of you even if it means going slower than you’d like.
#9. Roundabouts: Learn the etiquette for roundabouts BEFORE you get on the road. If you are taking the first exit on the roundabout, stay in the outside lane. If you are taking any other exit, take the inside lane and merge over to the exit when you approach it. This took us an entire week to get comfortable with even though we were doing them constantly.
#10. You need a navigator: For us, driving was definitely a two person job. As the navigator, I had to ensure Michael stayed on the correct side of the road by directing him on which lane to be in (this wasn’t always obvious!) along with when and where to turn.
I also served as a second set of eyes, helping him merge, watching for oncoming traffic, pedestrians, cyclists and livestock wandering onto the road. Since his focus was on survival, I had to quickly interpret street signs and GPS and provide direction on what to do next. Unless you are driving 5 miles an hour, everything happens extremely fast. It can be a lot of information to process and act upon at once.
We quickly figured out that we needed specific keywords to convey commands. I kept commands short. When Michael was about to sideswipe cars on my side, I would say, “Center” to tell him to get into the center of his lane. Apparently, “OH MY GOD MOVE OVER YOU ARE GOING TO HIT THAT CAR!” didn’t work very well.
And when you freak out… You will default to what you know. Which is to drive like you do at home. And trust me, you will freak out many times because cars will come out of nowhere, drivers will get mad at you, and you’ll feel pressure to make quick decisions. You might want to avoid driving during intense times of day like rush hour or night. In general, the best thing we did was just focus on the car in front of us and follow them. You can always turn around once you find a clear place to do so.
It was definitely an adventure. It also added a lot of extra stress to the trip since we spent 6 days driving all over the southern half of Ireland and didn’t figure out how roundabouts worked until day 3.
Overall, we were glad we did it and would have done it again. It gave us freedom to explore (we saw amazing things that tour buses couldn’t get to). But be forewarned; it was far scarier than I had expected. If you just want to relax on your trip, do a tour bus or hire a driver.
But if you want a good travel adventure, I guarantee this will be a bonding experience and a source of many great stories.
Safe travels – however you may go!
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.