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.
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.
Windsocks. Usually seen outside car dealerships, dancing and waving in the wind to capture your attention. I’m pretty sure one of those windsocks just got off work and came out to the venue I was at and asked me to dance. It was a beautiful, evocative fusion song. But I didn’t get to do fusion to that song. Instead, I got windsocked.
The dance started off nicely enough. He pulled me in for a nice embrace and a gentle pulse. Then he broke into open position and began waving… waving his noodly arms and body as he became totally caught up in the freedom of moving his body as he channeled the music. I think his mind waved off too because he seemed totally oblivious to my ideas and invitations.
It happens in fusion. It happens in blues. It even happens in lindy. It seems to happens in dances where technique is not a dominant focus of the dance.
Have we somehow given the impression that technique isn’t necessary? Do people believe some dances are so easy that they don’t need to learn actual moves – much less how to execute them? Many classes teach moves but gloss over technique. It took me to YEARS to realize, “Oh yeah… technique. I should probably work on that.”
Yes, technique is hard and dirty work. And we dance for fun, right? Sometimes that windsock dance is fun – it’s free and playful and kind of mindless. And I get it. Some people just want to play. If they don’t like technique, they may gravitate to fusion or blues where they feel more freedom to play. But any partner dancing is a technique driven activity.
Fusion is no exception. Unfortunately, some people may not know what to do with fusion songs. Perhaps they never really learned blues movement and idioms, or the fundamentals of west coast swing, tango, jazz or general dance technique. They may lack skill in one dance, much less know how to skillfully blend dance styles or apply movement to a different music genre.
That skill and technique is what makes it fusion. Otherwise, it’s just freestyle social dancing.
For improv driven dances such as blues and fusion, having a wide vocabulary of movements to draw inspiration from (and being able to skillfully execute them) is a huge benefit. As dancers, we steal ideas and movements from other styles. Learning other styles helps you steal more.
Windsocking might be good for those who are still building their general dance skills, technique and vocabulary… and perhaps there are people who simply want to express and feel the music without taking it to other levels. That’s ok.
However, I believe there is magic in learning how to do something skillfully – especially when it involves a partner. Invest in learning various dances – technique and all. Dancing can be more than just freedom and expression. It can be absolutely magical.