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.
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!
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.
I was approached at a dance last week by a guy who was ecstatic to see me. He said still remembered a dance we shared 8 years ago; he even recalled the exact song. Later that night, I was reminded by a friend that he too has never forgotten the first dance he had with me. He remembers all the details of that dance even though it was ten years ago. It still sticks with him.
I was baffled. Why did these memories stick with these guys after all these years? This is when I realized that sometimes a dance isn’t just a dance. Sometimes it’s an experience. And we don’t forget experiences. We forget events, encounters, conversations and situations – but an experience sticks with you.
So I began teasing apart what makes a dance an experience – and not just another dance…
- Being fully engaged in the relationship with my partner (every song evokes a relationship dynamic)
- Building a rich, dynamic and captivating story
- Jointly channelling the energy of the music and merging with my partner in doing so
- Unconditionally embracing and enjoying my partner throughout the entire song
- Showing that we are “in this together” – We are sharing responsibility for the entire dance, protecting each other, seamlessly covering for each other’s mistakes, etc.
- Being raw and authentic; letting them see what I really feel in my soul (and experiencing what is in theirs)
- Actively listening to each other, honoring each person’s contributions to the conversation and building upon them. Dancing is about communication, not just movement and personal expression.
Basically, it’s about connecting in ways that go beyond what occurs in a typical dance. I don’t think anyone wants to be forgettable. And yet, most of what we do in life has become easily dismissed from history of our lives. Why? I think it’s because we hesitate to truly connect on anything beyond a superficial level. We play it safe – but nothing interesting ever happens in that arena.
A lot of us struggle to connect at the deeper levels in dancing. Sustaining eye contact in a dance can be extremely uncomfortable for most people, so that level of connection doesn’t get experienced for many dancers. Emotional connection and storytelling is generally avoided unless you are performing – and even then, it is oftentimes so phony that it feels utterly vapid. The richness of real connection is crucial! Watch professional dancers perform; they look at each other with intense and raw emotion. It’s part of what makes the dance so captivating and connected.
I don’t want to be forgettable. Not every dance will be an amazing experience because that depends on how richly both dancers are willing to connect. It depends a lot on how vulnerable we are willing to be with one another. But when the potential is there, I aspire to immerse myself fully in order to create experiences that people (including me) will never forget. That’s why I dance. I dance to evoke connection that touches the heart and soul.
But this doesn’t stop with dancing. I can apply these very same principles in all my relationships, endeavors and interactions. Being fully engaged, actively listening and unconditionally embracing what is before me are principles I can apply throughout my life. But dancing lets me do practice these secrets of life to amazing music in the arms of dear friends. 🙂