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 solid 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 my teachers, 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 don’t aspire to be a world class dancer. I want to be a captivating dancer. Watching 15 years of various styles of dance has left me wondering why some dancers are simply captivating and others are great, but… not so interesting to watch or dance with. Here are a few insights thus far.
1. We are an art form: Yes, dancing is about fun and expression, but it is also an art. The whole package – the movement, the outfit, the shoes (if you’ve seen tango done in dance sneakers you know what I mean), the hair, the body’s physique, the lines and shapes we create in our movement, even our facial expressions and attitudes. I love how ballroom, classical and modern dancers have perfected this concept. It seems that embracing dance as an art form changes how we dance – even socially. Beautiful aesthetics are always captivating for me.
At the end of the day, looks matter (that’s why they tan in Ballroom before a comp!). People flood to the ballet to see a beautiful body, in a flattering costume, moving gracefully and artistically. I don’t believe size rules out anyone here; but know how to move YOUR body and how to flatter it and showcase it beautifully in both movement and dress. People wouldn’t have cared about Jewel McGowan’s switches if she had been wearing cargo pants.
2. We are a storyteller: Some of my best dances are with guys who are actors. They understand how to tell a great story in a dance… They get into character and take me with them. Sometimes my partner eyes me like I am a morsel of buttered steak that he’s about to devour – and the next song he looks cold and furious and won’t look at me.
For me, captivating dancers are emotionally connected. And when that happens, a fascinating story begins unfolding. Whether we intend to or not, we are telling a story when we dance. Make it a good one. Make yourself vulnerable and express the energy you feel with your partner. Make eye contact. I never understand why people don’t look at each other when they dance. For me, it creates the impression of dancing together but not actually being together – so they seem disconnected from each other and the moment being shared. I use eye contact like spice; a dash here and there for emphasis. Eye contact is styling – use it!
3. We are in a relationship: The moment you say, “sure!” when someone asks you to dance, you have officially entered into a temporary relationship. So act like it. You wouldn’t enter a relationship and just do whatever you want with zero regard for the other person. In a respected relationship, no one truly wants to inflict pain, danger or embarrassment – or leave their partner feeling ignored or used. If you wouldn’t do it in a 5 year relationship, don’t do it in a 5 minute dance. We all deserve that respect, right?
I get tremendous insight in how someone operates in a relationship by how they dance. I can tell whether someone is a good communicator and a good listener by how they dance. Good partners are very in tune with what their partner is doing and expressing. They work in collaboration with one another… they assume joint responsibility for the experience. They expect nothing, but give everything. They listen more than they talk.
When the chemistry is good, my goal is to captivate my partner. I want my partner to be fascinated by the experience we are having. Sometimes a dance is not “just a dance”. We do that by fully entering the relationship and letting ourselves connect with vulnerability, openness and respect for our partner. I don’t want to be a “pole dancer” who treats my lead like he is nothing more than a pole holding me up while I do whatever I want.
What captivates me most is when I see two dancers who are utterly captivating to one another. If they are telling a fantastic, dynamic story (or conversation) in addition to being fully lost in their relationship with one another, they have won my heart. For total perfection, make the entire experience an art form with attention to all the visual details.
THEN we have a experience that captivates me at my very soul – and inspires me to pursue that in my own dancing.
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.
Years ago, there was a trend among swing and blues dancers that made everyone look like great dancers. Baggy pants. Those loose, flowy pants hid the legs and most of the feet and magically made our dancing look super clean and smooth. All was good until Bud stopped me and said, “Can you wear tighter pants next week? We can’t see what your legs or feet are doing.”
That comment changed everything for me. The following week, I did wear fitted pants. And it was like being totally unmasked on that dance floor. Tight pants meant that I couldn’t hide my mistakes. I actually had to focus on making sure my lines and movements were super clean (they weren’t). My footwork now had to be precise (it wasn’t) – otherwise, everyone would know I wasn’t really as good as I looked under those baggy pants (I wasn’t).
I became a better dancer after I stopped hiding under my outfits.
Today, I often wear tennis skirts for dancing. It’s perfect. The shorts are built in. It’s athletic wear and super comfy. AND they show off my entire leg – which means that I can’t hide anything. It motivates me to strive to dance beautifully, with precision and mindfulness because I can see exactly what I’m doing and so can everyone else.
It’s kind of like knowing that if you are going to be naked, you better look damn good, so you work harder. That’s what the tennis skirts do for me. It motivates me to look good because I have nothing to mask my mistakes or sloppiness. Which is precisely what baggy pants did for me; it allowed me to get sloppy without me realizing it. They gave me delusions of competence.
So be a little more naked. Be a little more vulnerable. Allow yourself (and others, especially if working with an instructor or are teaching) to see what you are actually doing. Personally, I was surprised and humbled. But now, I love being unmasked in this way. I’m comfortable with this vulnerability. And that alone has made a massive difference for me as a dancer.