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.
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.
I want to share a personal story about dance spirit.
This weekend I received an unsolicited, catty remark from a “professional” about my tango dancing. Had I been a total beginner, that remark would have left an ugly slash in my motivation and interest in continuing with tango.
Sadly, the remark had it’s intended impact and left me struggling to find the confidence I have been steadily building. I felt deflated and I questioned whether I truly have what tango requires of me.
Saturday night I was at a milonga and a favorite nuevo song came on. I turned to the first man I saw and anxiously asked, “Do you like nuevo?” to which he wordlessly swept me onto the floor in an embrace that honestly, left me nearly breathless. Apparently, I had asked a lead who was a true rockstar milonguero.
I remember making a stumble during that dance. I immediately apologized for my sloppiness – to which he murmured a warm reassurance that lifted my confidence back into flight.
This man, Mahmoud, exuded class. He slipped away before I could thank him not only for such a lovely tanda, but also for being such a gentleman. This man appeared when my dance spirit was feeling a bit broken. His kindness and willingness to embrace me unconditionally for where I am in my dance journey restored my faith that I am part of a community with a warm heart…. and not just self-righteous egos of superiority.
Tonight, I returned to my weekly practica with Marcos and Ruta, whose support and generous guidance flood me with inspiration every week. I feel them looking at me with excitement, seeing my potential, gently pulling it out of me… these two can see within me. They see butterflies of potential beginning to break from their silky cocoons. They see the birth of magic which I have yet to imagine is possible for me.
Tango, being such a profoundly intense and complex dance, has one inherent weakness. It can create a tremendously vulnerable dance spirit, which can be easily broken. It’s why people commit to and quit tango over and over and over.
The delicacy of one’s dance spirit should not be forgotten. – Karen Leigh Kaye
The scene leaders in our tango community have an unfortunate power that bears great responsibility. They can nurture ones dance spirit – or poison it to an untimely death. Sadly, I see too many cases where dance spirits are broken or mangled by behaviors driven by insecurity, sheer meanness, exclusion, self-righteousness or delusions of superiority.
Perhaps the true masters of tango have conquered the greatest challenge tango confronts us with – the challenge to be true gentleman and women of grace and class – to everyone seeking the heart of tango.
When beckoned to choose between throwing dirt and judgement – or casting light and love, choose wisely. For this may be where the true future of tango lies.
I have a friend who picked up dancing and immediately jumped into taking as many classes as he could. He was at the studio five nights a week, taking 2-3 classes a night. He wanted to learn as much as he could in six months.
Six months later, despite taking many intermediate and advanced classes, he still could not execute the basic movements cleanly. He only had a few moves that he remembered and could lead. His posture and body organization was a mess. At the end of six months, he had a beginner skillset with an intermediate ego.
This guy didn’t need more classes. He needed feedback. He needed to practice what he had learned. He needed feedback from his partners and perhaps guidance from professionals hosting practice sessions. He needed active discussion with honest practice partners.*
This is exactly what I crave in my dance community because I need all those things too. I don’t want more classes and workshops. I need time to work on what I already know. I need to work on the things I learned in my private lessons but haven’t integrated or refined in my social dancing.
We don’t need more classes. We need more practicas with active discussion and feedback between partners.
People can only absorb so much information at a time. Information overload is fatal to effective learning. If you can’t retain it or execute it, it’s useless. In some cases, we create delusions of learning where people only retain information on a very shallow level. They can recite what they learned, but can’t execute it smoothly for 10 minutes on the dance floor with a variety of partners.
I fully believe that the true learning doesn’t happen in a class; it happens on the social floor. It happens when you are practicing with a partner. It happens during your experimentation and exploration.
We don’t learn by listening to a lecture. We learn by taking things into our own hands and practicing… and discovering what feels best to us… and adjusting based on the result we get from that experimentation. And with a partner, you get the benefit of direct feedback.
The best practices of learning apply whether you are learning how to tackle an opponent, design a logo or do the mambo. Learn new information. Then dedicate time to playing with it, experimenting with it and integrating it. Seek out feedback, make adjustments and experiment some more.
And as any learning professional can tell you, that is where the true magic, the big epiphanies, and the real learning happens.
* Feedback and discussion isn’t one-way teaching. Regardless of skill level, both people should seek feedback from others in any learning environment. Make no assumptions!
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.