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Another Awkward Year in Tango

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.

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Please don’t do this at a 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!

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