I am in a group class, secretly feeling pretty cocky because I just nailed the pattern the instructor taught. I continue practicing it on my own until I see the instructor making a beeline for me.
He stops me. And inside 30 seconds, tells me the 5 things I was doing completely wrong. To be fair, he conveyed this kindly as “corrections and adjustments”, but I immediately realized I had made some serious assumptions regarding how well I was doing that move.
Lesson learned: There’s a huge difference between doing a move and doing it correctly.
Truly learning a move means that I can do it with correct technique so it feels good to my partner and is properly executed. It means doing it while sustaining correct posture, body mechanics, balance, timing, connection, aesthetics and lead/follow technique. It means it doesn’t fall apart when I add expression, musicality and a room of dancers around me. It also means I can lead/follow it with a variety of body types/sizes, skill levels and abilities.
That’s a hell of a lot stuff.
Until I started learning technique, I had no idea how detailed it truly is. There is a huge difference between the “technique” taught in the group class and the TECHNIQUE I am learning in private lessons. It also explains why I never look like the instructor when I do the move.
My delusions of technique used to lead to me proudly proclaim, “I can follow anything!”. Being able to “follow” versus “dance as a follower” is like the difference between, “I can walk!” and being able to walk on a tightrope while knitting.
It is not the same skill set.
For me, it means the difference between being able to “dance” and being able to dance tango (or west coast swing, blues, etc.). Technique is what empowers me to do a specific dance correctly, effectively and * ahem * – enjoyably for my partner.
As a follower, I can’t be a passive participant. I can’t expect the lead to do all the work. And I know leads who take every class and still get turned down by good dancers. Don’t hate me for saying this but… it’s more than going through the motions of the pattern and expecting our partner to “do their part”.
Both roles must actively contribute more than just the surface level motions. There are underlying mechanics that make a huge difference in our dancing.
I knew an instructor who ended every class with, “If you liked the moves we taught today and want to learn the technique necessary to do this on the social floor, talk to us about private lessons or come join us at our practica”.
They emphasized that the class was only the start of learning a move. There is still much more to learn before taking it the social floor.
We rarely realize how much we don’t know. We often assume we are at a higher level than we truly are. If you are sitting more than you think you should be, consider that there just might be more to learn.
My former teacher had a student who confessed she was feeling frustrated at milongas. She said she wasn’t getting the dances she wanted – or thought she deserved. There weren’t enough dancers at her level to dance with. There were too many beginners and dancers with bad habits that made them undesirable. On top of that, she wished some of the leads were more exciting to dance with.
So he asked her, “Why do you REALLY go to the Milonga?”. She stumbled through various explanations.
“I go to dance with my favorite dancers… and to get good dances.”
“I go to practice my moves and show off my skills.”
“I go to have fun… and socialize… and it’s good exercise too.”
She was going to milongas with the intention of “getting” something. She was going to the milonga with the expectation of having a good time, getting amazing tandas and scoring compliments for her beautiful footwork, elegant outfit and fabulous new Comme Il Faut shoes. She expected to be sought after all night because she believed she had developed some skills.
Instead, she found herself sitting out tandas, feeling frustrated, waiting for a cabeceo that would excite her.
Meanwhile we see men looking frustrated as they scan the room looking for the followers they desire… the ones who are excited to dance with them, who appreciate them and are fun to dance with (i.e., kindly forgiving of their imperfections). They might be looking to try out some new moves. Or perhaps just have a good time.
But a milonga is not just a place to find a good time and great dances. A milonga is where we go to find ourselves. We find ourselves in others, oftentimes in those who are like us in some way.
We may dance with a beginner and be reminded our own journey and struggles. That beginner may elicit kindness and compassion – the kind that builds and sustains communities of warmth and growth. They may remind us what it’s like to dance without ego… to simply be happy in another’s embrace moving to music that is new and exciting.
In beginners, we may find a part of ourselves that we lost touch with long ago.
We may dance with someone more advanced and discover something in them that is just beginning to bloom within us… Perhaps they emulate vulnerability or expression that we ache to embrace in ourselves. We may see our own future in that dancer and become inspired to deepen our development.
A dancer may evoke parts of ourselves to come out to play… expressions and abilities we didn’t know existed or were capable of executing. That same person may trigger insecurity or anxiety. Finding those emotions gives us direction on what to work on next (i.e., staying calm, building confidence, or simply enjoying the dance).
And some nights, we may find ourselves sitting alone. Waiting and expecting. Wondering why we are invisible as others overlook us. We can find ourselves in those moments too. Finding oneself in an undesired state is a nudge to change something.
Perhaps we need to circulate more… walk the room and greet everyone we know in the room. Spark conversation with a new person, perhaps someone we wouldn’t normally engage with. You never know what part of yourself you will find in another. When we are truly being authentic, we will find some part of ourselves in every person.
Sometimes it’s as simple as being open to the moment without any expectation. When we stop going to the milonga with an expectation of getting something specific, we change our entire experience. Instead of seeking the “perfect tanda”, seek to find yourself in every moment, with every person in every dance.
Pay attention to what each person elicits in you; joy, inspiration, insecurity, anxiety, playfulness, vulnerability, artistry, sensuality, fear, hesitation, perhaps envy! Challenge yourself to surrender fully to whatever you feel, and allow yourself to feel the rawness of that emotion into your dance.
Remember the dancer who wished the leads were more exciting to dance with? Perhaps what she REALLY wanted was to experience more dynamic and playfulness in her own dancing.
Instead of seeking to “get” what we need from others, perhaps it’s time we find what’s missing in ourselves – and build it within.
Written in collaboration with Marcos Questas @ marcosrutatango.com.
I once had a boss who was highly regarded as a great manager. Her team of three employees were reliable, honest, and did impressive work. Everyone got along and collaborated easily on projects. Life was good.
Then she hired an employee from hell. Lisa did not have the skills she professed. Her work quality was egregiously bad and she brought total chaos to every project she touched. She quickly violated trust with everyone of the team.
So the team looked to the manager to address the problem of Lisa. The manager met with Lisa. Repeatedly. Nothing changed. The team quickly lost their respect and faith in the manager.
The situation baffled everyone. This idolized leader seemed incapable of managing Lisa. This manager, who also taught leadership classes, didn’t seem able to execute the very skills she trained others on. Why?
This manager was an amazing leader only when her team was low maintenance and high performing. Anyone can lead a team of perfect employees. Only a truly skilled manager can lead a team through messy situations.
How do you develop leadership skills? By managing situations that throw you off. You learn how to handle performance issues by having employees who do poor quality work. You learn how to have awkward conversations by having an employee who reeks of strange odors. You learn how to manage a compulsive liar by having one on your team. You learn clear communication from having a direct report who misunderstands everything.
You’d be surprised at how much you’ll learn from a renegade, two-faced, lazy, incompetent employee who lies in meetings, undermines projects, harasses the FedEx guy and is suspected of spiking her coffee each morning.
If you never have any of these situations, how will you ever develop the skill to handle difficult situations when they do occur? You don’t learn in in a 4 hour class; you master it over years of experiencing a lot of wonky stuff. And this goes for pretty much every skill in life.
The employee from hell is the best training you will ever have. So don’t forget to silently thank them when you finally boot them out the door. Your worst employee might just be your best teacher.
Related: Delusions of Competence
* In a previous lifetime, I worked in Human Resources for ten years where I advised managers on employee relations issues.