I used to be a pole dancer. In my early days of swing dancing, after I got confident in my movement and musicality, I was guilty of treating the lead like he was a pole… Just something for me to hold onto while I did whatever I felt in the music. I remember a guy once saying (with a bit of awe), “But I didn’t lead any of that”. I smiled knowingly and said, “I know….” So I was a pole dancer AND a brat.
Well, karma found me last week and nipped me on my little pink butt.
I was approached by an advanced guy in another scene who I’d seen around but had never danced with. Pickings must have been low that night because he hit me up for a dance.
He started the dance in open position. Which was a red flag because this particular dance nearly always starts in a close, intimate embrace.
Pole dancers love being in open because it gives them the maximum freedom to do whatever they want, which usually means showing off fancy footwork, styling and at times, solo movements. Which he did. Repeatedly.
I shouldn’t have encouraged him, but I felt compelled to keep saying things like, “Wow” and “Check you out…” because this guy put on quite a show.
Turns out not only was he a pole dancer, but he was a peacock too. He dominated the dance by showcasing two decades of styling mastery into a three minute song, leaving me do do nothing more than go, “Okay, okay… I get it – you are clearly the superior human”.
I don’t know whether he was trying to impress me (or the four people totally not watching us), school me or use me to show off. What I do know is that he needed me to give him the counterbalance needed to pull off some of those moves.
The dance wasn’t about me and it sure wasn’t about us. It was all about him.
Based on his skill level, I thought that dance was going to be more than “just a dance”. Instead I sat down feeling confused, a bit annoyed and very used. One might say… the antithesis of a tangasm.
Dancing is about connection. We connect in ways that are physical, musical, emotional and energetic. Great dancers employ multiple levels of connection.
Ego isn’t one of them.
Just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you should.
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.
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 night I was cast last minute to pose as a nude statue at Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, CA, where classic works of art are recreated using live models. When I arrived, they showed me my costume. It was a g-string and a wrist cuff that was used to tether my wrist to the stand I was posed against. The remainder of my costume was a bucket of bronze paint.
My job for the evening was simple. I was to hold a pose for 90 seconds on stage. But this isn’t a typical show. An audience of 3000 people would have all eyes on me; and most of them would have binoculars so they could study me closely in my pose. I’m 41. What 40 year old woman wants 3000 people studying her naked body with binoculars?
Well, I did. This has been a dream of mine for several years and I finally got called. I wanted to do it because it was such a unique experience. Especially at my age. The other nude models are usually in their 20s. But I got to do this at a point in my life when most women would say, “Oh hell no” and hang up.
But certain things had to happen in order for me to have this experience.
Obviously, I had to fit the part. Nude statues typically have to be lean models. Here a strict diet and exercise paid off for me. It awarded me an opportunity I wouldn’t otherwise have had. As we age, we get tempted to “let ourselves go”. Letting ourself go can mean letting go of opportunities. I’m trying to stay youthful, strong and adventurous enough so I can live life fully – whether it means doing crazy acroyoga poses, hiking Machu Picchu, or shamelessly dance-walking.
When I heard they needed someone to fill in, I jumped on it. I called them and offered to sub. Opportunities oftentimes have very small windows. You gotta act fast when the window opens (or inspiration hits).
Lastly, I didn’t care what others thought. I didn’t care about my body being judged through binoculars. I didn’t care what others thought about me flaunting my little naked body on stage – because it doesn’t matter to me. I’m in charge of my life; your opinions and judgements don’t derail me from doing what feels good to me. I don’t give others that much power over me.
Therefore, when I got the call back asking me to perform as Bubble Dancer, I said yes. I said yes to checking a box on my bucket list. I could have said no due to fear, insecurity or judgement, but that would have been letting ego control me.
When I stood posed naked behind the curtain, waiting for it to open, I remember being struck by how perfectly calm and and solid I felt in my skin. In that moment, I understood what it felt like to be vulnerable, and yet free of ego and fear. And THAT was the truly phenomenal, unique experience of my evening.