Thursday, August 06, 2020

The limits of freedom

Leaders and followers have lots of freedom
in the dance – within limits.

There has been a lot of talk about freedom lately. What we are free to do and not do, what we are free to wear and not wear, where we are free to go and not go.

I am a great believer in freedom. Freedom of choice, of expression, of religion. But freedom in a civilized society does not mean we get to do whatever we want. Society has rules and laws that we are obliged to follow or we suffer the consequences. We are “free,” yes, but within limits. We are not free to kill people. We are not free to physically assault people. We are not free to steal from others. We are not free to drive erratically at any speed we please, to smoke anywhere we want or to throw our kids in the back of the car with no safety seats or belts. Generally, people accept these kinds of limits. Sometimes some of us see certain limits as unjust and fight for change. That is how women earned the right to vote and homosexuals earned the right to marry, for example. But even when we see certain limits as wrong, most of us accept that it is normal to have some limits put on our freedoms. Being free does not mean we can do absolutely anything, because just about everything we do affects those around us.

In tango, the idea of freedom – or lack thereof – comes up a lot, particularly in the follower role. Tango observers and novices often see the dance as a dominant-submissive or active-passive relationship, but this is a misconception. Part of the misconception comes from the very terms “leader” and “follower,” which are misleading and problematic labels, in my opinion. (You can read more about this in my Troublesome Terminology post.) The most obvious limits to the follower’s liberty are those established by the leader, but the follower role is far from passive and, in fact, the more skilled we followers become the more we realize that in fact we are quite free inside the structure established by our partner, the music and the space in which we are dancing. If we just throw our legs around randomly and express the music however it moves us with little attention to what our partner is suggesting we may feel free, but we are not dancing within a partnership, therefore we are not really dancing tango. Finding our freedom inside the structure imposed on us is in fact one of the fun and rewarding challenges of the follower role in tango.

Leaders also have limits. They, too, must follow and adapt to their partners as well as the music and the flow of the dance-floor traffic. If they just lead anything they want, ignoring the readiness of their partner, the particularities of the music or the presence of the other dancers, they could call that an expression of their freedom, but it would also be inconsiderate to and unpleasant for everyone else involved.

Is it an infringement on our freedom for us to be expected to limit our moves to those that respect our partners, the music and the other dancers? Or are those expectations reasonable if we are all to be part of the society that is a milonga?

I believe that often when dancers feel limited or confined by such factors as rhythm, flow or partner it is not really a question of freedom or lack thereof, it is a question of difficulty and resistance to working on something that is, quite frankly, hard. Especially for leaders, learning to follow the flow of the dance floor, which includes staying in your lane, maintaining a consistent distance from the couple ahead of you and adapting to constantly changing situations, is one of the most difficult parts of learning to tango. You’ve finally figured out how to string some moves together and lead them clearly to a partner, then you go to your first milonga and can’t do half of them because you are constantly having to stop, slow down and change your plan according to what is happening all around you. It’s frustrating, for sure, but it’s a necessary part of the learning process. It’s not about freedom, it’s about respect. Tango is a social dance, which means we are not dancing alone and we are not dancing uniquely for our own personal pleasure. In a class, a práctica or a milonga we are part of a society, so we cannot be overly individualistic, disregarding what effect our actions might have on those around us.

It’s an over-used comparison, but when you are driving on the highway do you back up against traffic, lane change without looking first, drive at any speed you please and zigzag back and forth every time there’s a car ahead of you? Probably – hopefully – not. And you probably don’t complain that it’s an infringement on your freedom to avoid doing those things. You accept that in order to have the privilege of being allowed to drive you have to take on the responsibility of following the rules of the road. Similarly, learning to dance within tango society is difficult, but don’t use your personal freedom as an excuse for not tackling the tough part of the job.

When dancers roll their eyes impatiently if teachers insist that they listen to and follow the beat of the music, are they really protesting a lack of liberty to dance how they want and just execute their fancy moves, or is it an excuse because it is difficult to learn musicality if it doesn’t come naturally?

Liberty has limits. Sometimes those limits are annoying. I know I was annoyed when I had to wait six months and pay hundreds of dollars for a permit to change the balcony railings on my house. “It’s my house and I should be able to do what I want with it!” I said in frustration more than once. While I maintain that the long wait and hefty fees were out of proportion with such a minor change, the need to apply for permits does exist for good reason. Should I be allowed to build up my house so it blocks the view and sunlight of all my neighbours? Or install a giant pornographic statue on my front lawn? Limits to our freedom are normal, because my freedom should not create great discomfort or danger to you. When we are part of a collective whole, and we are, it’s just selfish, immature and naïve to think that liberty means the right to just do whatever we want. Sure some limits are unfair, and we can and should work to change them when they are outright wrong or outdated. But to make sure the big issues get taken seriously, we should make sure we are not just reacting in frustration to our own minor inconveniences when we cry freedom.

Another issue that is currently front and centre both inside and outside tango is personal hygiene.

Going back to pre-COVID times, people were certainly free not to wash their hands after using the toilet. They wouldn’t be arrested for not doing it. But I think most dancers would agree that it’s unhygienic, disrespectful and, well, gross not to, especially in tango, where you’re going to hold countless other dancers’ hands with your germy ones. People are also free not to brush their teeth or wear deodorant. But in tango society, where its members spend most of their time in very close contact with each other, hand-washing, teeth-brushing and deodorant-wearing are really the bare minimum in terms of acts of respect when it comes to hygiene habits.

Now, in COVID times, there are stricter hygienic measures in place everywhere for much more urgent health reasons. Everyone is being told to wash their hands more thoroughly and often than ever and to wear masks to help protect not the comfort but the health and safety of those around us. And a surprising number of people are getting up in arms about this being an infringement on their freedom. Well, yes it is. Just like other safety regulations like not smoking in offices and restaurants, wearing a seatbelt in your car and not bringing weapons into a school or an airplane. These are all infringements on our personal freedoms, but they are for the health and safety of everyone.

I remember a few years ago a dancer I knew had decided to drastically change his lifestyle. He gave up his house and his career to follow a path of yoga, meditation and nomadic living. We didn’t see him for many months and then one day he showed up at tango barefoot and bushy-bearded in a tank top, his hairy and, frankly, very strong-smelling armpits on full display. “People’s odours don’t offend me,” he mentioned at some point. (Perhaps he had overheard someone comment on his?) Truly, I respect that. I am more non-conformist than conformist and I sure believe people should pretty much be allowed to dress how they like and choose not to wear deodorant if they don’t want to. But what about at a milonga? He danced with a couple of women who then complained to my partner and me about his smell and we were torn: Do we ask him to leave for the comfort of others or do we respect his freedom to wash and dress as he pleases? In the end he didn’t stay long anyway and we haven’t seen him since, so we never did have to tackle that particular dilemma.

In tango we get really close to others. People’s odours do offend a lot of people, and if you’re going to dance in close embrace with other people, most of those people probably don’t want to smell your three-day-old sweat and feel your damp body hair glued against their skin. If you refuse to take other people’s comfort into consideration, while you may be expressing your own freedom of choice, you are also disregarding the freedom of those around you to enjoy a pleasant environment.

Having to follow our partner, time our steps to the music and respect the space of the other dancers all inhibit our freedom of choice and movement on the dance floor. But if we don’t do those things we are disregarding everyone else on the floor as well as the dance itself. And if we go too far, the managers of the establishment should feel free to ask us to leave.

Tango society is always a reflection of society at large, and the aforementioned parallels regarding freedom within confines have been standing out to me lately. In tango as in life we are free to move and to express ourselves, but that freedom is limited by a structure that we must respect or we will not have tango, we will have chaos.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

What tango means to each of us

How long can technique classes and masked prácticas stand in for the tango that once was?

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Of all the activities that have been affected by the current COVID pandemic, social events have been the hardest hit, including tango.

For those of us who work in tango, especially those who make our living from it, it means our livelihood has been taken away and our immediate financial future looks grim. Many tango professionals are rethinking their careers. Schools and milongas around the world have closed and some teachers are seeking out job training in other fields.

Social dancers, too, have spent their time away from tango re-evaluating their relationship with the dance. For many, no more social tango has meant no more social life. For all of us, it has reduced or eliminated the activity we are most passionate about. Some dancers are sitting it out until things are back to pre-COVID normal. Others are using the time to learn and practice however they can, hoping to be better dancers than ever when social events return. Still others, those who already struggled with tango's complex social side, have decided they will make this pause permanent.

During lockdown, when we could only go out to buy groceries or walk the dog (if we were lucky), the only options available in tango, pretty much planet-wide, were online. Many teachers, myself included, jumped on the Zoom bandwagon, hosting virtual classes for singles and couples. On social media, some people shunned such offerings. “That’s not tango,” some lamented. “I would rather not dance than dance without a real embrace,” others insisted. Who can blame them? Especially for those who don’t live with a tango partner, a lesson on a computer screen is no replacement for warm abrazos in a bustling milonga.

But for my partner and me, whose vocation it is not just to provide fun tango events but also to give people the tools to dance well so that when they go to the fun events they dance ever better and enjoy themselves even more, we saw it as an opportunity to get people to take time to work on their technique and up their skills.

Of course as full-time teachers and studio owners we have a different perspective from that of your average milonga-going social dancer. But then again, we teach because we believe in learning. And we believe learning is not just the means to the end that is the ability to hold your own in a milonga; we also believe working hard and improving your dance skills are rewarding in and of themselves. (You can read my blog post on the subject here.) After all, my partner and I are so passionate about tango we made it our life’s work, yet we spend a lot more time learning, practicing and teaching than we do dancing socially.

In any case, some students did join our online classes, sticking with us through our own learning curve of online teaching, in some cases until this day. Some – both solo and partnered students – found the classes extremely helpful, were motivated to practice between lessons and have made noticeable improvements. Sure, the feedback we can give through a small screen is limited and the hands-on help is nonexistent, but there’s still lots to be gained from diligent practice … with a coach to guide you through it.

Another thing I did during lockdown was to join a community of neotango DJs who set up livestreamed online “milongas.” Of course they weren’t really milongas, they were more of an Internet radio show. Is it the same to DJ for an unseen audience as it is for live dancers? Of course not. But it was pretty cool to know that people were listening to my music live all over the world, from North America to Europe to Australia. And you could chat with them as they listened, which was fun and different and allowed us to connect with tango people from other communities. Surprisingly, I saw some angry exchanges on Facebook among some of those who had been involved in the project and dedicated to the cause of keeping tango – specifically neotango – alive and those who wanted nothing to do with it. For sure those who participated in online DJing events were happy to share their music and chat about it, while giving and getting their musical fix to some extent at least. But again, for some it felt like a poor replacement, period. Why listen to tandas if you can’t dance to them? Both perspectives are understandable, for sure. What was less understandable to me was that there would be fighting and defensiveness over such an issue. Why criticize someone for offering a service just because you don’t want to use it? And why criticize someone for not wanting a service you offer?

Here in July in Montreal, the COVID curve has flattened somewhat and the city has progressively deconfined (too carelessly in my opinion, but that’s not the subject here). First, stores reopened and small outdoor gatherings were permitted. Then daycares, day camps and outdoor sports opened. Therapeutic and esthetic services, such as dentists, physiotherapists, massage therapists, manicurists and hairdressers went back to work. Restaurants and bars reopened. And, finally, gyms, indoor sports and, yes, dance studios. But.

With good reason, all of these are limited. Masks are either required or strongly recommended for most indoor activities and attendance limits and distancing guidelines are still in place. For tango, that pretty much means for now it is a couples-only activity. At our studio we have a couple of technique classes for solo dancers on offer and for the rest, people must come with their own partner and there are no partner changes in any of our classes or practices. The number of participants is also greatly reduced so we can ensure physical distance on and off the dance floor. So no more milongas with 50 or 100 people milling about. Currently our busiest activity is a short guided práctica we limit to eight couples, or 16 people, all of whom wear masks.

This makes me sad, because even though I am one of the lucky ones to have my very own very excellent tango partner, I have never seen tango as a couples’ activity. It’s a social activity. We dance it in couples, but we share it with all our tango friends. I’m pretty sure more people go to milongas as singles than couples, and even those who do show up as a pair usually change partners almost as much as anyone else. We all know that changing partners improves our lead-follow skills and keeps things fresh. I felt a pang of guilt when I announced a couples-only activity on Facebook and someone reacted with a sad face. But it’s couples-only or nothing at all and we prefer to do something than nothing. And you know what? It’s still a social activity. Everyone there is sharing their love of the music and the dance. They introduce themselves from behind their masks and have a chat – at a distance – sharing their experiences about how things were, are and will be. So while it’s not the same tango we were dancing a year ago, it is still tango and it is still a good time.

My partner and I, along with many others, fear “back to normal” will not come for a long time. Some people predict it will be a year or two before we are back in packed milongas changing partners at will. I, optimistically, estimate at least six months more of couples-only and mask-wearing. So we try to evolve with the situation and make tango what it can be for now: a set of online tandas, a technique class, a practice session for couples, a thoughtful blog post. Some dancers are happy for whatever tastes they can get and will enjoy the small pieces while they wait for the whole to return one day. Some dancers want the full package – crowded floors, a selection of partners, uncovered faces – or nothing at all.

So what is my point? That tango, for me, is not just one thing and it is not all or nothing. But if that’s what it is for you, that is your experience and it is as valid as any other. And just as I will not judge you for what you can’t bring yourself to participate in, you should not judge someone else for making tango whatever it can be for now.

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Monday, May 11, 2020

Learning to slow down

Having the time to slow down and smell the flowers
is just one potential benefit of these difficult times.

The COVID-19 outbreak has infected us all with fear and frustration, but it has also provided us with a potential learning opportunity. I know it has reminded me of some valuable life lessons that reflect those I have learned and in turn taught in tango.

Slow down

This is a hard one for many, including myself. Even decades ago, before I had a business to run and a family to raise I was addicted to staying busy. In my 20s I had a full-time career with crazy hours to which I added freelance writing and a university teaching gig. Then I took up social dancing, first salsa then tango, which meant on pretty much every evening off I was in the clubs until all hours. Eventually it also meant that I would add tango teaching to my work schedule. I’m not complaining: No one told me to be chronically active and busy and I guess I like it that way, always feeling I have a sense of purpose and something fulfilling to do. And when I do relax, whether that means a good book or some Netflix after dinner or our annual two-week family vacation in the middle of nowhere, I feel like I truly deserve it. I don’t slow down often, but whenever I do I immediately feel the benefits, whether it’s those of getting more sleep, having more quality time with my kids, home-cooked meals, time to stimulate my mind and creativity with reading and writing or just sitting and soaking up some sunshine. And then I inevitably think I should find a way to have more downtime in my daily life. I don’t always manage to find it, but at least I remember that it’s good for me and I know I will seek it out again when I can. So now here I am and here many of us are being forced to slow down while we wait for our jobs and our social activities to resume. It’s a perfect time to remind ourselves of the benefits of a slower-paced life.

On the dance floor what does it mean to slow down? Well, it could mean to focus on quality rather than quantity in your dancing. For example, lead fewer figures and focus more on the connections – to the music, your partner and the dancers around you. We teachers say this all the time, but it’s often hard for us to get the message across that there is more pleasure to be found in something simple done with care than in big, seemingly impressive moves that may be led roughly or invade the space of other dancing couples. There is also a strange phenomenon of impatience to constantly move forward in the ronda. This leads to a lot of zigzagging, cutting in front of people and general frustration on the dance floor. What I often ask is: “What’s the rush?” We tango dancers are literally going around and around in circles, so there is no destination and absolutely no advantage to moving ahead over staying in one spot – as long as you are following the general flow of the dancers ahead of you.

Live in the moment

We are living a stressful time for sure, and I am as anxious about what the future holds as anyone else. I wrote a whole post about my anxiety a few weeks ago. The uncertainty about the future is real and the worries are normal, but they aren’t particularly helpful. If we’re constantly guessing and obsessing about the future we aren’t in a state where we can be receptive to the lessons we could be learning right now from what is happening … such as the importance of family time or the benefits of learning to slow down.

The ability to be fully and completely in the present is a very valuable quality for a tango dancer to have. If we are constantly thinking about what’s coming up, working our way toward the next impressive move or wondering what our leader is going to do next, we are not truly present, and our connection will be lacking. One of the things I love most about dancing tango is that I can abandon myself to the dance, no matter what happened before or what might come later. I have mentioned before that I sometimes enter a meditative state when I am dancing tango. It’s one of the reasons I love it. People who have a natural knack for living in the moment may take quite easily to tango. For those who don’t, they may find that tango can help them learn to relax and let go a little.

Appreciate simple pleasures

When life slows down it offers us time to stop and smell the flowers. What are those of us who have been forced to slow down doing? Baking bread. Knitting. Planting flowers. Going for long walks. Phoning our friends just to chat. I know that for me, now that I have adapted to the pace and routine of my new normal, I am loving the fact that I have time to cook and take long walks every day, and when I go back to the life I am of course still missing I know I will miss having all this time to smell the flowers and bake bread. So I am being sure to appreciate these simple pleasures while I have the time.

On the dance floor, leaders and followers alike often get into the habit of partner-blaming. Whether that means you’re correcting your follower every time she misses a lead or you’re feeling impatient because your partner’s lead isn’t as clear as that of the teacher, you might be missing your chance to enjoy a dance by forgetting to focus on the positive aspects of the dancer in your arms. Maybe his repertoire is limited but his embrace is a dream. Perhaps she hasn’t learned ganchos or volcadas yet but she’s light as a feather to dance with. Maybe he’s an average lead but his musicality is spot-on. Perhaps she moves a little clumsily but she loves to dance and her joy just shines through. After all, it’s the simple pleasures of tango we are all missing right now: the warm embraces, the beautiful music, the friendly conversations. Let’s remember that on the long-awaited day when we get back to the milongas.

Accept that plans change

I’ve written about this in past in the context of tango. Accepting that things usually don’t go according to plan is key to being a good tango dancer, because it means you are able to adapt to different situations on the fly – a must for any leader or follower.

Meanwhile, across the planet just about everyone has had to put plans on hold, fully abandon some projects and live daily life in ways none of us saw coming a few short weeks or months ago. If we remain stubbornly attached to the plans we were making and the life we were living then we will only face more disappointment as time moves on. Some things will certainly go back to the way they were, but we don’t know when that will be and we can’t realistically expect the world to emerge from this crisis unchanged. We need to accept that and be ready to adapt to the changes that lie ahead. Maybe some of those changes will even be for the better. (We have already seen the benefits to the environment, for example.)

Find your patience

Every time I see another grocery store lineup snaking around the block my initial reaction is to sigh, roll my eyes and immediately feel impatient. But I need groceries so I stand there like everyone else and as I wait my turn I take the opportunity to still my mind and work on my patience. Yes, it would be nice to be able to zip in and out like I used to, without keeping my distance, stopping to sanitize my hands or following the arrows on the floor. But that would be rude (not to mention dangerous) and unfair to everyone else, so I accept it and I wait my turn. The system is annoying for sure: I don’t like wearing masks, staying away from everyone and being told where I can and can’t walk. But anyone with good sense understands that these rules are in place for good reason and it’s in our interest to follow them. I’m sure we’ve all been inside stores where the directions and lineups are well-managed and others where they’re not. Which makes for a more pleasant shopping experience? The more customers who follow the guidelines, the better things flow and the better my mood at the end of the expedition.

Likewise, there can be a lot of impatience on a tango dance floor. Often, dancers are in a rush to enter the line of dance and, as mentioned above, they’re obsessed with moving forward as fast as possible. But tango is a social dance and a big part of it is – or should be – respecting the other dancers on the floor and making an effort to move with rather than against them. That’s why you’re supposed to wait your turn and merge with caution when entering the ronda and then keep to your lane and move forward keeping a consistent distance from the couple ahead of you. If you’re not used to observing these codigos when you dance, you may feel impatient at first, but it’s amazing how smooth a dance floor flow can be when everyone exercises a little patience, awareness and respect. Like in the grocery stores in these times of social distancing, it can feel like our freedom is being suppressed when we have to follow all these rules, but if just a few people don’t it doesn’t take long before chaos reigns, and then the frustration really kicks in.

Focus on the journey, not the destination

Clichés tend to lose their meaning after being repeated too many times, but they usually exist because there is much truth to them. This oft-repeated quote applies perfectly both on and off the dance floor. Sure we all have goals we spend much of our lives working toward. We have goals in tango, too. Perhaps we want to up our skills or embark on a new project like performing or attending our first festival or marathon. But what good is achieving goals if we forget to appreciate and enjoy the long, rich process of working toward them? As we have all just learned the hard way, life has a way of taking unexpected turns, so sometimes our ultimate objectives get – by no fault of our own – postponed or even fully derailed. It can be greatly disappointing, but if we learned something from and maybe even enjoyed the process then it wasn’t for nothing. In these times when “normal” life seems to be on hold and our future feels so uncertain, it makes good sense to slow down, live in the present, be grateful for what we have, learn from the journey itself and obsess a little less over where we are headed.

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The milonga has rules and we should follow them
Learning to let go of the plan
Searching for breath and balance

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Searching for breath and balance

Ever since this pandemic hit us, breathing easy feels like a thing of the past.

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So far, the posts on this blog titled “Life Is a Tango” have been reflections on tango that also apply to life.

This post is a reflection on life that also applies to tango.

One of the hardest things for me during this time of social distancing has been finding a new balance in my days and my life. Compared to those who have lost loved ones or who are totally isolated in quarantine, my hardships are minor, but still they have taken their toll on me.

First, ever since this began – since the day we decided to close the doors of our tango school just over a month ago – I have been unable to breathe quite right. I tend toward anxiety and am accustomed to having days here and there of feeling breathless or tight in the chest – like I can never quite fill my lungs – but it’s pretty clearly affected by monthly hormonal fluctuations and I usually know that I will breathe normally in a day or two so I don’t worry about it. Once last year it persisted for five days and, like now, no amount of relaxing, yoga breathing or focusing on the exhale would change it, but it did finally get better after five days.

One time, six or seven years ago, I had an outright anxiety attack, which was very scary. I think I had had a big argument with both my son and my spouse and was just beside myself with anger. I decided to clear my head by going for a run, something I did regularly, and when I had gotten about three blocks from home suddenly I just felt my lungs close up completely. I was unable to breathe beyond the tiniest wheeze, and I was terrified. I stopped, put my hands on my chest and bent over, and someone who had just happened to step out on his front porch asked if I was OK. I managed to sort of gasp that I couldn’t breathe and he sat me down on the ledge of his walkway and asked if he should call an ambulance. Once I sat down, it didn’t take long for the tension in my chest to start to release and I slowly felt I could take in air again, a little more with each breath, so I told him not to call anyone, that I didn’t live far and could walk back home. The whole episode was probably over in less than five minutes, but it felt a lot longer and I sure hope it never happens again.

Back to the present, I have been struggling with this almost constant tightness in the chest to varying degrees but pretty much every day since March 13, and I spend a good part of my mental and emotional energy trying to find both causes and solutions.

I’ve stopped drinking caffeinated beverages (let me tell you mint tisane in the morning is nowhere near as satisfying as an espresso!), I’ve tried both exercising less and exercising more (I started running again – short distances – two weeks ago and it seems to help or at least not harm) and I spend less time on social media. I also make conscious efforts to have significant down time every day.

I know for some people the challenge in isolation is to find things to do. But in my case, I am far from isolated: I’m not in quarantine so I get out to run or walk every day, I live with three other family members and several animals so there is plenty of life and interaction to be had in my daily life. We grocery shop for my parents and my uncle, which takes up a day a week and allows us to see them, too – briefly and from a couple of metres away, of course – and I speak to friends by phone, email and videoconference. Wolf, my partner, and I teach some classes online so we still see some of the community we miss, albeit not in the flesh.

I don’t lack for projects. As I said, we’ve been teaching a little, and it takes up time to prepare, organize and teach classes in this new way. (I definitely prefer real-life teaching to onscreen!) I also DJ online once a week, which meant installing, setting up and learning a new DJing program. And at home there’s plenty of cleaning to do and lots of mouths to feed and cook for, not to mention rooms we’d like to repaint and other fun stuff like income taxes.

I’ve been meaning to use this newfound “free time” to start writing seriously, but this rambling blog post is my first serious attempt. My mind has felt full and kind of jumbled through these weeks so it’s been hard to find the mental space to gather ideas and get creative. So usually I watch Netflix when I don’t have the energy to do anything else.

All this to say, boredom and confinement are not likely the underlying roots of my breathing issues.

This morning as I walked the dog I thought that maybe my inability to find balance is the problem. As a small-business owner of course my work/life scale is always heavier on the work side, but that imbalance is balanced by the fact that I am passionate about what I do and get great pleasure from most aspects of my work. The thing is, I am so used to being 10 times busier than I am now, to knowing I will finish every day with an even longer to-do list, to having an extreme, driving sense of purpose every single day, that I think I don’t know how to both slow down and retain my sense of purpose. I give myself permission to take a break on Sundays: no projects, no media. But on Monday, the tightness in my chest is as bad as ever.

Then, of course, there’s the persistence of this laboured breathing that in itself makes me anxious. At first I couldn’t help but think: “Maybe I have COVID-19!” Silly, really, and I knew it – no other signs of illness, I’ve felt like this before and it’s gone on too long – but whose mind is rational when lying awake at 3 a.m.? Mostly, though, it’s just hard to relax and enjoy my newfound free time when I’m constantly making an effort to either breathe properly or ignore the fact that I can’t.

I know the uncertainty about the future is weighing heavily on me (classic anxiety definition, I guess). I wonder when and how an activity like tango will be able to resume. Our type of business will most certainly be among the last to reopen and when it does, will things pick up where they left off? Will dancers embrace or fear the abrazos they so miss? Will society come out of this more reluctant to get close to strangers? Will an economic downturn mean people have less money to spend on things like tango lessons and milongas?

And while I understand that this is as new and difficult for our leaders as it is for us (and overall they’re doing a good job), I have found some of the vague and conflicting information we receive from them frustrating. Last week, our provincial and federal leaders both gave forward-looking speeches that, in my opinion, were full of contradictions: Normal life will not return until after Christmas (i.e. until there’s a vaccine), one said, but some things will return to normal! Okay, well that’s clear. Here in Quebec, we are about to reach our peak, the other said. This is considered good news, and so we will soon be able to reopen businesses – as long as we keep respecting the two-metre rule. What businesses, then? Certainly not tango. Or gyms. Or hair salons. Or bars. And how can we be thinking of reopening businesses soon when the number of confirmed cases in this province is 700 times higher than it was when businesses closed? And what about schools? My teenage daughter is home from school, supposedly until May 1. I cannot imagine schools will reopen in two weeks, but we haven’t had a peep from either our governments or the educational institutions since they closed. Will classes resume this school year or not? If kids can’t go to school, tangueros sure can’t go to tango school.

So yes, the future feels very unsure and yes, that bothers me. But intellectually I’m actually not that worried. I have confidence we – my family, my business and my country – will pull through, even if we don’t know exactly when or how just yet. So I don’t know if taking in the uncertainty is what’s limiting my ability to inhale.

What does all this teach us – or me – about tango? Well, first of all, it reminds me of the healing properties of tango. I’ve written about some of them before, notably in my post comparing tango to meditation, and I once gave a conference on tango for stress relief. In short, one of the things that draws me to tango is the fact it’s one of the few activities in which I can truly let go. When the music and the connection are just right it takes no effort to just abandon myself and let all my worries evaporate. It is wonderful – and wonderfully therapeutic.

These days, no matter how much I might relax I am always able to think and to remain aware of the fact I can’t breathe with ease. Yoga should help, and I do it every single day, but the problem is, in yoga we are focused on our breath most of the time, so while I can and do work on my breathing in many different ways, I remain aware of the struggle. Some distractions help: an intense episode of “La Casa de Papel,” a satisfying teaching session and a good night’s sleep all offer temporary relief, but nothing quite removes me from day to day realities and stress factors the way a great dance does.

And back to the idea of balance – or my current lack thereof – well, while balance is an essential ingredient in tango, tango is clearly an essential ingredient for balance in my life.

Postscript: Now that I’m writing again, I am reminded of its therapeutic powers: I have been working on this post for three days and since yesterday I am breathing easier. Could these two things be related?

Related articles:

Monday, March 30, 2020

Teacher vs. dancer

It's really important to distinguish between these two "hats" or roles.
Lire en français.

Recently I had an interesting exchange with a student in a class I was teaching. He is someone I dance socially with quite often. As he is not a regular student of mine, I had rarely danced with him in a teacher-student situation before.

He had asked me a question about why the move he was learning was not working to his satisfaction, so I got him to try it with me. At some point I felt the moment where his lead needed some improvement, so I resisted a little, stopped him and asked him to try it again, suggesting a correction or two. He looked at me somewhat taken aback and said, "But you're normally much easier to lead than that! That's not what it usually feels like to dance with you."

"That's because I'm not usually wearing my teacher hat when I dance with you," I replied.

As these things do, the exchange stayed with me and got me thinking.

What I said to him was very true: When I am wearing my teacher hat, I am focused on improving the quality of the other person's dancing. When I am wearing my dancer hat, I am focused on the quality of my own dancing. I think it's really important to respect that dividing line.

When I am, for example, teaching a private lesson, I do my absolute best not to compensate for my leader or follower's flaws but to pinpoint them and find ways to correct them. But when I am dancing in a milonga I do the exact opposite. I, in fact, pay little attention to my partner's shortcomings, purposely ignoring the most blatant ones and not even noticing the minor ones as I concentrate instead on just being the best follower (or leader, as the case may be) I can be, enjoying my partner's best qualities, the music and the moment.

Why do I think it's important to distinguish between the two "hats?" Because the primary goal of dancing socially is enjoyment and connection. If I start focusing on my partners' flaws I will necessarily diminish my own enjoyment as well as that of my partner. And I will also break the connection between us every time I begin to speak. The partner in my arms in a milonga is not there to receive instruction, whether he or she is my student or even knows I'm a teacher or not.

In a class there might be moments when I let go for a couple of minutes and just dance and enjoy – an overall good sign for the student I am dancing with – but "relax and enjoy" are not my primary goals in that situation. My objective, and the reason the other person is paying me, is to pinpoint their mistakes and help them find ways to fix them. That is my job. It takes a lot of focus, concentration and energy, both mental and physical, to teach, especially private lessons. While it is incredibly rewarding work, why would I want to do that job in my leisure time, during moments when I am allowed to just let go and have fun?

That's why I might feel different to dance with when I'm just dancing than when I'm teaching and that's why only teachers should teach – but never in a milonga.

Related post:

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A message of thanks to the community

Thank you for your collective hug of support.

Lire en français

In these difficult times, the tango community has shown itself to be just that: a true community.

Here in Montreal, tango activities, along with every other social activity, have been shut down over the last few days in line with our government's social distancing orders and recommendations to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus that is taking over and turning over our lives. We, of course, are not alone. Countless cities around the world preceded us and others will follow.

This has resulted in putting all the tango teachers out of work and we're pretty nervous about our financial survival, not to mention our fears over the virus itself. Most of us don't make oodles of money to begin with, so we're not sitting on months or even weeks worth of savings. For tango school owners (like my partner and me) who have a permanent space, the situation is even scarier, because, in addition to our personal living and housing expenses we have to keep paying our commercial rent and expenses every month.

There are people who think our work is just a fun hobby for us. Indeed we are lucky enough to dedicate ourselves full time to our great passion and our work is often a lot of fun. I get to dance and socialize every day and I absolutely love teaching and DJing and hosting milongas. But I work every weekend and most evenings, the constant physical work means I'm always battling some injury or other and then there are all the behind-the-scenes parts of the job that are less fun: the finances, data entry, constant marketing and publicity, non-stop checking and answering of emails and phone messages, scheduling, managing the partner balance (and compatibility!) in classes, keeping the space clean, stocked and in good repair and the list goes on. Hey, it's a job and not even the best job in the world is all fun and games. There are times when my partner and I think people have no idea how hard we work, how many unpaid hours we put in and how financially challenging it is to run a school. But, in fact, many people do have an idea. Some students thank us and voice their appreciation or recognition regularly and some make it clear simply by making a conscious, continued effort to support and attend our classes and activities. 

And now, when we need their support the most, when we have no clue how many weeks or months we might have to tough this out, we are being blown away by just how much the community is showing that it cares about, appreciates and wants to support us. The "us" I refer to now extends beyond me, my partner and my school to all the tango teachers and schools, because we are united in our struggle and have in fact been reaching out to each other for moral support and advice.

Dancers have sent so many messages of support, have prepaid lessons to be taken "post-apocalypse," have donated funds and rallied to encourage others to make donations to the schools so we can survive this period of unemployment and business shutdowns. Whether small or large, every donation has inched MonTango, our school, toward a longer survival period, but more than that, each one has left us feeling loved, supported and incredibly thankful. 

Six days ago (it feels like much longer already), when there were still just a handful of COVID-19 cases in our city and the government had not yet enacted emergency measures, we put out a message saying we were not ready to close our doors but would follow government directives closely and make changes as necessary. The very next day, as the number of cases jumped and large events were cancelled one by one we put out a new message announcing we were shutting our doors after all, effective immediately. In the interim, many dancers and students had sent messages of support, encouragement and understanding, making it clear they could see our dilemma and respected our decision to stay open, but there were also a few who were not so kind, who publicly condemned us and others like us for being so selfish as to worry about such trivialities as bankruptcy or feeding our families. When we read those messages we felt hurt and insulted and stopped feeling the love for a short time, but then, as always, we soon saw how much the kind and empathetic outnumbered the judgemental. In any case, within 24 hours we had decided to close anyway and in yet another 24 hours businesses like ours were being ordered to shut their doors.

Through all of this, overall, the tango dancers around us have shown themselves to be warm, caring, thoughtful and community-minded, leaving us feeling humbled and hopeful. And all while you are living your own fears and challenges because of this outbreak.

I thank you, my wonderful tango community, for the big, huge hug of support you have collectively offered to your teachers and organizers and I hope it's not too long before I can once again share some real abrazos with you.

Stay healthy meanwhile.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

(No more) tango in the time of coronavirus

Lire en français

Updated on Thursday, March 12, 2020

Yesterday, we promised we would evolve with the coronavirus situation, and it didn't take long for us to have to do so.

MonTango has decided to suspend all group classes, practices and milongas starting today, Thursday, March 12. We will reassess in a week and keep everyone informed.

Some of you will rejoice, some will say we are jumping the gun. While even we feel this decision may be premature, we prefer to err on the side of caution.

The factors that led us to this decision, quite different from the one we announced yesterday, include:

  • The almost 50% increase in cases in the province of Quebec since yesterday, from 9 to 13 overnight.
  • The cancellation of our local St. Patrick's Day Parade, not to mention the cancelled sporting events and concerts all over North America.
  • The emergency measures announced today by Quebec Premier François Legault including ordering that all travellers and sick people quarantine themselves for two weeks and that events involving more than 250 people be cancelled.
  • The fact Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in self-quarantine, because his wife came home unwell from a trip abroad. (We do not yet know if either of them have COVID-19.)
  • The cancellation yesterday of all milongas in Buenos Aires for two weeks. That city has a comparable number of COVID-19 cases to ours.
  • The decision by one of the few other full-time tango schools in Montreal to cancel their events for two weeks. (We have been in discussion since yesterday and definitely feel we should be united in this decision.)

We will reassess the situation on a week-to-week basis and keep our students and members informed as to start dates for the spring session and the restarting of weekend activities.

This was an extremely difficult decision to make, but we feel it is the right one.

Once again, stay healthy, everyone.


Original post:

Tango in the time of coronavirus

Today, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially classified the novel coronavirus COVID-19 a global pandemic.

The tango community (indeed any social dance community) is a perfect potential breeding ground for such a contagious virus. Tango dancers spend an awful lot of time wrapped in the arms of person after person, holding hands, rubbing cheeks and exchanging sweat and probably even saliva particles. Not to mention all those surfaces in the milongas that have been touched by so many, from doorknobs to table tops, chairs and faucets.

Everyone is talking about this virus and many are asking us what we as organizers are doing about it. I am not the first tango organizer to publish my thoughts and recommendations on the outbreak, but as a teacher and milonga organizer who facilitates large gatherings of people with lots of physical contact, I feel it is my duty to speak out and share both what I know, what I recommend and what measures my partner and I as studio owners will take to protect people.

First: What does it mean that COVID-19 is now considered a pandemic?
Epidemic refers to a sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease that is actively spreading, affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.

Pandemic refers to the geographic spread of a disease. A pandemic is an epidemic that has crossed borders, spreading over several countries or continents, also usually affecting an especially large number of people.

Here are the WHO's recommendations for slowing the spread of the disease (stopping it is no longer deemed possible):
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or, if not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • If you sneeze or cough, cover your mouth with a disposable tissue. If not available, use your elbow.
  • Avoid contact with anyone displaying symptoms of fever or cough.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care, but call before you head to a clinic or emergency room. (The number to call in Quebec is Info-Santé at 8-1-1.)
In the context of the tango community, those recommendations would translate to:
  • Wash or sanitize your hands thoroughly before and after every lesson and every tanda.
  • If you are experiencing any cold or flu symptoms, don't take a chance with other people's health: Stay home.
  • If you recently travelled to such highly affected areas as China, Iran, Italy or South Korea, stay away from classes and milongas for two full weeks.

What we at MonTango as milonga organizers will do:
  • Provide soap and hand sanitizer. This is not new! We have always kept our bathrooms clean and provided hand soap as well as sanitizer. (Several people have written to ask if I have "considered" providing hand sanitizer, but for years we have kept a bottle of it right next to our water station. We will probably add a couple more bottles now, such as at the welcome table and around the dance floor.)
  • We ask you, our dancers, to stay home if you are sick and we will do the same. This may eventually mean cancelled lessons or classes taught by one rather than two instructors, but lowering all risk of transmission must, of course, be our priority.
  • Cancel events if it becomes necessary. Here in Quebec, as of today there are only 8 known cases of COVID-19 and as far as we know there have been no cases of it in our tango milieu. At this time we do not feel it is necessary to cancel our classes or milongas, but if official recommendations to the contrary come out, of if we suddenly feel it would be the right course of action, we will absolutely do so. 
Luckily for us we are living a very different reality from many dancers in Europe, Asia and even the United States. The virus has not yet hit our tango community and in fact has barely touched our city.

Today, we are counting ourselves lucky and, again, my partner and I don't yet feel that drastic measures are necessary. But with this virus, things could change by next week … or perhaps even tomorrow. We will keep ourselves up to date and as the official recommendations change, so will our response. If schools and public gatherings are closed, our milonga will close as well.

This is a scary time for businesses like ours. With expensive rent to pay every month, a few weeks without tango activities could have dire consequences for us and the other schools like ours. But the community's health comes first, of course.

It is hard to know what to do and whom to believe with so much different information out there and so many sharing their opinions and advice. Paranoia, fear-mongering and conspiracy theories abound, distract and annoy the heck out of me, but this disease is a very real threat and we assure you that we are taking it seriously.

I wish you all good health and will keep you posted as things change.

Further reading:

Other tango professionals I have read on the topic include Carol Horowitz, a fellow Montreal tango school owner whose very sensible recommendations you can read here and Alex Apetrei, a dancer from Zurich, Switzerland, who published a call to stop all milongas globally (while well-researched, I considered his recommendation somewhat alarmist, though I admittedly have a different perspective over on this side of the pond).

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Top five behaviours to avoid

Your unsolicited dance tips are even less welcome when they're accompanied by a big whiff of your dinner.
I think it is safe to say that most social tango dancers want to be in demand. We dance because we love to dance, but it does take two to tango, so we are generally happier when other people want to dance with us and we can thus have more dances. Even if we are the quality-over-quantity type, preferring to dance a few high-level, carefully selected tandas than to dance every single one with anyone and everyone, we feel best when we know the partners we do dance with have enjoyed themselves and are likely to come back for more.

Tango is a shared experience so it makes sense to care as much about the experience of the other as about our own. In short, we should want to be a pleasure to dance with.

There are specific things that make us enjoyable to tango with, making our partners return to us and maybe even spread the word: Solid lead-follow skills, a comfortable embrace, great musicality, nice posture, a sense of fun and an overall way of making our partners feel good about their dancing would top many a list.

And there are definitely specific things that can make us less enjoyable to dance with, things that go beyond our technique and vocabulary. As a teacher and an organizer, I get a lot of feedback from and about the dancers in my community, both positive and negative. In terms of negative feedback, the same complaints come back over and over again, session after session, milonga after milonga, year after year.

If we want to count ourselves among the pleasant, enjoyable, in-demand dancers, we should certainly continue to hone our dancing abilities but we might also want to avoid certain unpleasant and widely unappreciated behaviours.

Here are the top five behaviours dancers complain about (thus ones we all ought to avoid):

1. Teaching on the dance floor. Here it is again. It's the Number One complaint and my personal Number One pet peeve, yet it remains rampant. Believe me when I say the teachy partners in a community are notorious. Beginners may put up with this behaviour for a while, but nobody likes it and it will eventually make you the talk of the town and not in a good way. Have you ever said to someone during a tanda, "Can I offer you some tips/advice?" That is teaching on the dance floor. Do you often find yourself readjusting your partners' embraces during a dance? That is teaching on the dance floor. Do you stop to explain the move your partner didn't execute as planned? That is teaching on the dance floor. Do you find yourself saying to the teachers during class, "Can you explain to my partner how to improve his or her posture/embrace/technique?" That, too, is basically teaching on the dance floor in disguise. Have you ever had several couples pass you on the dance floor while you were stopped in conversation? Were you teaching? No? Good. But you shouldn't have been stopped in conversation either. Unless you are actually a tango teacher and are at that moment being paid to teach someone, just stop trying to fix everyone else's dancing and worry about your own. Even better, immerse yourself in the moment, listen to the music, accept the dancer in your arms as-is and save the conversation for when the music stops.

2. Unpleasant odours. This is an awkward one. It's hard to tell someone he or she has bad breath or smelly armpits. But it's also hard to dance with someone who has very bad breath or smelly armpits. And this is tied for first place among issues we as teachers get the most complaints about from students. No one wants to partner change to the guy breathing his morning and after-dinner breath combined into their faces, and everyone feels uncomfortable when it feels like they've just become the carrier of their previous partner's BO. Sure some tolerance is in order. Anyone can come to class one night after a long work day or a difficult-to-mask garlicky dinner, but I'm talking about the people with that perpetually stale smell emanating from their mouths/bodies/clothes. I know some people are more sensitive to smell than others and we don't always smell ourselves the way others might, but this is a close-contact-with-tons-of-different-people dance. In the hygiene and odour department we should all err on the side of caution.

There are three main hygiene/smell issues that come up, and some pretty easy solutions for all of them:
  1. Breath. We all need to eat and can't necessarily brush our teeth every time we put food in our mouths. But brushing after meals and flossing every day go a long way toward keeping your breath bearable. Then, when you're going to be in close contact with people like you are in tango, have a supply of gum, mints or other breath fresheners handy. Also, do not mouth-breathe when dancing: Breathe through your nose. And finally, just in case, don't talk and dance. As previously stated, it's bad enough manners to share your unsolicited advice during a tanda, but if that advice is combined with a big whiff of your evening meal it's only that much worse. Keep your mouth closed while you dance and your partner will never know you had garlic bread with dinner.
  2. Body odours. Dance for three hours in close contact with dozens or hundreds of other dancers and you will get hot and sweaty, guaranteed. And then you will share your hot sweatiness with other hot, sweaty people. So please shower before you go out and always wear freshly laundered clothes. Moisture brings out all sorts of buried aromas, so make sure whatever you're wearing smells good wet and dry. And wear deodorant. Good deodorant. Always. This being said, try not to over-compensate by overdosing on your favourite scent. Some people are sensitive or even allergic to perfume and we teachers get a lot of negative feedback about heavy-perfume wearers, too. (Also, please, please, please wash your hands after you go to the bathroom! I have witnessed not one but several milonga-goers – men and women – not doing this, which I find inconsiderate and outright gross.)
  3. Sweat. As asserted above, you will no doubt sweat while you are dancing. If you sweat more than the average person, you can plan ahead and bring an extra supply of shirts to change into during the night. I know a few dancers who do this, and it is very much appreciated by their partners. If you run out of dry clothes, but you still really want a tanda with one of your favourite dancers, try offering the option of open embrace.
3. Rude invitations. There is good reason cabeceo has become king in recent years. The non-verbal mirada-cabeceo invitation method is a mutual-agreement system that evens the playing field. Like the dance itself, it's not always easy to learn and master this part of the game, but it really helps to avoid awkward situations. In my opinion it's still OK to ask verbally sometimes, like when you're already in conversation with someone or when you want to dance with a friend or regular partner who you know enjoys dancing with you. But inviting verbally puts the invitee on the spot, so if you are going to ask outright, you should be prepared to gracefully accept an outright refusal. Remember that the dance is about the enjoyment of both partners, not just yours, so it's just as important that your partner want to dance with you as vice versa. If you are going to walk over and ask verbally, choose a moment when the person at least looks like he or she wants to dance. Not, for example when he or she is in the middle of an intense tête-à-tête with someone else. Tango is very much about reading body language, so we should be in tune to each other's both on and off the dance floor. In any case, try to avoid what a colleague of mine once referred to as the "grabeceo," i.e. grabbing a dancer by the wrist or hand and just pulling her toward the dance floor. Also avoid inflicting "shotgun" tandas on people. You know, the ones where she just walks up to you and says, "You have to dance with me tonight." This is frequently done by intermediate-level dancers who always want to dance with much more advanced partners. Students do it to my male teaching colleagues quite a bit, and the guys really don't appreciate being put on the spot like that. If thy aren't in the mood for the dance it puts them in the position of being "nice" and dancing what is unfortunately known as a "pity tanda" or else feeling or appearing mean by refusing the person – who might very well resent them for it. It's a no-win situation that leads me to the next complaint on my list:

4. Rude refusals. Some people are new to the tango social scene. Some people are shy or socially awkward. Some people might be visiting from a community where mirada-cabeceo is not widely used. There are tons of reasons why you might get an invitation you didn't really want in a way you didn't really like. But there are ways to refuse a dance without being rude or mean or making the other party feel small or stupid. "Not right now, thank you," is kinder than a cold, flat-out "No," for instance. Or if you want to make the point that you strictly adhere to the cabeceo system, you can explain it: "I would be happy to dance with you a little later, so I'll look for your mirada/cabeceo in a couple of tandas." No one should feel obliged to dance with people they dislike dancing with, but there's no reason to be snobby, hurtful or mean when you turn someone down. People can get really crushed by cruel rejection and I've known more than one to go home in tears after a rude refusal or otherwise insensitive comment. There's always a way to be kind, even to those you perceive as unworthy of a dance with you.

5. Bad floor craft. There are dancers who outright bash into other couples without a second look; those who stay on the spot when the traffic ahead has advanced half a kilometre; those who manage not to actually have accidents but take up way, way, way more than their share of space on the floor; the lane-to-lane zigzaggers; the circus acrobats; the couple stuck in 2005's nuevo craze; the back-stepping addicts and, of course, the talkers and "advice" givers. I often think we should stop referring to tango as a couple dance and put much more emphasis on the fact it's a social dance. Learning to follow the ronda, stay in your lane and make decisions about what moves to execute based as much on what's happening around you as on the music or your in-the-moment whim are an integral part of tango. I think many teachers could emphasize these points much more, underlining their importance and making them part of the overall learning process. (It's like learning to drive; you need to learn to operate the vehicle, but it's equally important to know how to navigate in traffic and obey the rules of the road.) However, part of this boils down to individual personality. In our classes, my partner and I are forever reminding students to stay in their lane and not cut in front of each other, but there are always a couple of incessant speeders or zigzaggers who consistently ignore our instructions and cut around whoever is in front of them no matter how many times we tell them not to.

All this being said, people make mistakes. We need to accept and even embrace the fact that we are all human and therefore flawed. Sometimes an invitation will be awkward or a dance will be sweatier or chattier than we might like. If it's the exception and not the rule, try to move past it and don't be too harsh or judgemental.

But if you're not getting the dances you might like, look not only at your skills but also at your behaviour and even your hygiene. You will shine so much brighter as a dancer if you polish the whole package.

Related articles:
Codes of conduct to follow

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

I'd like to teach the world to dance in perfect harmony

Photo @Blanche
Walk into a milonga and you know you share a passion with everyone there. Dance a tanda and share a piece of yourself.

The world might be a better place if we all danced tango.

Recently I was teaching a private lesson to a beginner leader and after some explanation or other about the lead-follow exchange he exclaimed: "This is like anti-selfishness therapy!"

I laughed out loud, because it was a rare and surprising thing for a beginner to say, but also because it was so insightful and true.

In the past I have written posts about the importance of being nice, kind and generous. Besides essentials like good posture, strong technique and a nice sense of rhythm, learning to put one's partner first is an essential part of becoming a skilled dancer.

A selfish person is concerned excessively with him or herself and disregards the well-being of others. Selfish dancers, then, would be those who are more interested in impressing their partners and everyone else in the room with their big moves and fancy footwork than making sure their partners can keep up with them, all regardless of how much space they are taking up on the dance floor. While to the untrained eye they might seem cool at first, they are not really much fun to dance with and tend to annoy the other dancers on the floor.

Look up antonyms for "selfish" in the dictionary and you find words like "considerate," "generous" and "sharing." Considerate, generous dancers are those who put their partners first, dancing to their level with a caring embrace and respectful attention to traffic and flow. They are the ones who are a true joy to dance with because they care about showing their partners a good time rather than just showing off. And it's pretty hard to dance tango without sharing. Walk into any milonga and you already know you share a passion with everyone else in the room. Dance a tanda with someone and you inevitably share a piece of yourself.

I regularly feel that the world could use an injection of kindness. In the news and on social media I see the despicable behaviour of boastful, boorish leaders who seem to be taking office everywhere I look while anti-immigrant, overall anti-"other" sentiment is once again on the rise.

Meanwhile on the tango dance floor I continue to encounter a wonderful mix of interesting people and fun dancers. As we embrace each other on the floor one after another we mostly don't know or care where the person comes from or what their religion or politics are. Tango connects us to something in each other that is deeper than our thoughts or beliefs, rendering them irrelevant at least for the time we hold our abrazo, sharing our passion and a part of ourselves.

I realize how lucky I am that every time a newscast or my Facebook feed makes me feel disillusioned with the state of humanity and the world today a tango lesson or milonga is my daily antidote.

Tango makes us analyze and discover ourselves while making us hyper-aware of the experience of the person right in front of us and how every one of our actions, no matter how small, has an effect on them. And if we want to be "good" tango dancers, we have to try to make that effect as positive and enjoyable as possible.

So indeed, a tango lesson can very much double as a therapeutic session in unselfishness, while every tango encounter on or off the dance floor is a reminder of the pleasure and importance of flesh-and-blood human contact.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

That pesky comfort zone

There's no escaping the fact that to break free from that rut
you will need to put in some hours of hard work.

In recent months, the subject of the tango "comfort zone" has come up repeatedly in conversation. And not necessarily in a positive context.

A comfort zone is a normal and in many ways good thing in tango, but when "comfort zone" becomes "rut" it's not so great.

When you dance tango, for sure there will be times when you feel stuck in your comfort zone, or rut. No matter your level or years of experience, there will be moments when you feel elegant, confident and in command of your body and other moments when you feel clumsy, heavy and awkward. This is all normal, and some of it is probably in your own mind. Sometimes on days I feel are my worst, when my feet feel klutzy and I'm not able to read any of my partners the way I usually do, I will receive compliments – both from my partners and observers. And when I feel great – connected to everyone and fully in my body – no one says a word, but it doesn't matter because I feel good.

My point is that while day-to-day ups and downs are a normal part of the never-ending tango learning process, sometimes we get stuck in a long-lasting rut that dampens our overall enjoyment of the dance and might even lead us to question whether we should continue at all.

I remember recent conversations with three people – two men and a woman – who came to me concerned about being stuck or bored or unsure of how to further their progress.

One was struck when he travelled abroad to a city where the overall level of dancers is known to be very high and found himself surrounded by men whose posture, floor craft and especially musicality blew him away. He said he was consequently mostly ignored by any potential partners. He expressed his frustration and in fact he was the one to use the term "comfort zone," knowing full well that he has been in his for too long. This is a dancer who I, personally, enjoy dancing with, who has a nice embrace, an easy-to-follow lead and a good sense of rhythm. With a little work and some direction he could easily get out of his rut, but he has a busy life and his time is limited, so for now he chooses to dance in the milongas and leave study and advancement for later.

The second man came to me for private lessons because he was getting bored with tango after many years, and a friend gave him some very good advice. She told him he was in a rut and could use some private lessons. Both he and I agreed. I believe the couple of lessons he took with me helped him, at least in the short term, but I would have liked to see him continue for longer, paying more attention to detail and really going back to square one to review his basics, an idea to which many people have an aversion either because they fear it will be boring (it isn't!) or because their egos get in the way ("I already know how to do ochos.").

The third person was a woman who wrote to me for suggestions as to where to go from here. She has done the basic group levels and wants to improve her technique – a great sign. So I suggested three options for her, two of which she was enthusiastic about, but then she never showed up. Perhaps she got sick or her budget was too tight or life otherwise got in the way. It happens to us all, but I was disappointed she didn't follow through on her promising plan.

First off, it's important to note that a comfort zone is a fully normal and by no means entirely bad thing. As we continue to study tango and expand our repertoire, some movements and sequences work for us more than others.

For leaders, some figures are more useful for navigating the dance floor and some come easier to our bodies than others, so we use them more. Novice leaders attending their first milongas often express frustration at not being able to use all their moves on the floor. What they need to know is that no leader uses all his moves in a single song, tanda or even a whole evening. Leaders have a comfort zone of steps they can lead and execute without thinking too much, and that is the zone in which they can and should dance in a milonga setting, because the large part of their brain power is inevitably and necessarily being used to navigate the floor, gauge their partner's reactions and play with the music. Leaders' "comfort-zone" or milonga-dancing repertoire will always expand more slowly than their overall repertoire.

For followers the "comfort zone" manifests itself in our technique. Perhaps there are movements we continue to struggle with and execute awkwardly month after month, year after year, for example backward pivots or giros. Or perhaps we never learned to master our musicality, so musical leaders figure out quickly that they can't take us into out-of-the-ordinary rhythmic patterns and are forced to stick to a very basic beat. Our own comfort zone puts limits on what our leaders can do, so we, too, need to keep pushing ourselves to learn new and challenging things.

How do we all accept our own comfort zone as a normal and good part of tango while still working to improve on and expand it?

Where it comes from

I hate to break it to you, but I believe (and I am not alone) that getting stuck in a boring comfort zone or frustrating rut stems primarily from laziness. Fixing those nagging technical shortcomings takes hard work and repetition. We all know leaders who have been dancing for years or even decades who dance the exact same way they did when we first danced with them five, 10, 15 years ago. Same figures, same posture, same technique, same floorcraft. And there are the followers who still have the same rigid embrace or lack of balance that they did way back when, who still can't do a simple giro on beat or follow an ocho cortado on the first try.

The consensus among many teachers in my circle is that many leaders are permanently stuck in that intermediate-level comfort zone simply because they can afford to be. There are not that many truly high-level leaders, and, as usual, women outnumber men at almost every event, so many women will settle for a less-than-stellar leader if it means getting a few tandas in.

As anyone who knows me knows, I am all for dancing with beginners, giving newcomers a chance and finding the positive in every dancer. But even I lose patience with leaders who think they are much better than they are just because they have a decade or more under their belts, who never take classes, who look at the floor while dancing, take too much space, weave from line to line and use the same party tricks milonga after milonga to every style of music.

Year after year I see follower's technique classes overflowing and women lining up for private lessons while men's technique classes are abandoned due to lack of attendance and only a handful of leaders sign up for long-term private instruction. Why bother working hard when you don't have to? When half the women in the milonga will be happy to dance with you even if you haven't changed a thing in the last five years?

What it leads to

Boredom. Yes, it's normal, and it's fully OK to rest in your comfort zone for a while. For novices, just the fact that you have a comfort zone is an accomplishment, so taking some time to relish it is perfectly fine. Also, understand that everyone has a comfort zone; it's just that some are larger than others and some evolve more than others. This is the key. Evolution. Without it, you and your partners will, eventually, get bored.

Frustration. Frustrated with all those partners who don't lead/follow you properly? With the dancers around you on the floor who always seem to be in your way? With the lack of miradas or cabeceos you receive in a night? These are all signs you may have been languishing in your comfort zone too long and it's time to up your game.

How to break free

Below are my suggestions for breaking free of that comfort zone, with a word of warning: Getting out of a rut will take some work, along with a good dose of self-examination, self-awareness and humility. But you already know that tango is a humbling dance, so no problem, right?

Make time. If you really can't free up more than one night a week, you might not solve your comfort-zone problem any time soon. You need to put in some class time – with a teacher who will give you a frank dose of reality – and some practice time (see below). You can practice on your own, at home with a regular partner or at an organized práctica at a local studio. And, of course, at milongas, where you will put everything you have worked so hard at into real-world practice.

Put your ego aside. Start by remembering that in any sport, physical pursuit or performance art the professionals are the ones who practice the most and they all have teachers and coaches. So saying you don't need a coach or teacher any more or that you don't need to work on your basics is arrogant and, frankly, ridiculous. We all need outside eyes to make us aware of our bad habits and weak points. Try not to get defensive when a teacher tells you you are (yes, still) holding your head too far forward or your embrace is too tense. The first step toward improvement is awareness, and if your ego blocks that awareness you will go nowhere.

Open your mind to new approaches. Good, experienced teachers try different approaches because they want to keep you on your toes, so to speak, and stimulate your brains, bodies and imaginations. So give them the benefit of the doubt and try a new way. It may expand your horizons and even give you one of those elusive "aha" moments. I can't tell you how many times I have tried to suggest a learning or practice technique only to be met with instant resistance. "I don't know how to do that." (Um, that's why I'm trying to teach it to you.) Or "I can't learn by watching/listening/just following." (I fully respect different learning styles, but if your way isn't working, why not give mine a try?) Or "Don't bother me with musicality; let me just work on my steps." (Trust me, the music will help you if you just give it a chance.) Trying something completely new might just be the surprise boost you need. For example:
  • Private lessons. If you've never taken private lessons because you're afraid of boring technical work (see below) or you simply don't see what you would get out of them, maybe it's time to try one – or, ideally, several. Sure, they're more expensive than group lessons, but you'll get way more bang for your buck and probably get your eyes opened to what you really need to work on.
  • Choreography. Many people shy away from choreography for a variety of reasons, among them the belief that because tango is an improvised dance choreography would be useless. But in fact, learning and perfecting choreography with its sharp transitions, precise musicality and focus on aesthetic appeal could be the one thing that finally breaks you out of that comfort zone and improves your technique. I've seen it happen time and again.
  • Solo practice. I and most of the teachers I know strongly suggest spending some time practicing your technique and footwork on your own. Get a teacher to suggest some drills for you to repeat; practice the footwork from the sequence you just learned in class until you can do it ten times in a row and on beat every time; spend 15 minutes walking backward or doing ochos or giros with a wall or around a chair; sit, stand and walk with postural awareness in your daily activities; put on some tango music and play the melody with your feet. There are a lot of little ways to fit tango practice into your daily routine, and you and your partners will notice the difference.
Get over your fear of boredom. There is a lot of joy and satisfaction to be found in hard work, so learning or re-learning how to stand/walk/pivot properly is unlikely to be boring unless you come in with the preconceived idea that it will be. No one's technique is perfect and there is always room for improvement. The cliché about tango (and life) being about the journey, not the destination exists for good reason. Life and tango would both be boring if we actually arrived one day and had nowhere left to go. And, really, there is just no point in learning four new sacada sequences if you can't properly execute a basic giro.

Go to a teacher you trust, and trust your teacher. If you think your teachers have something to teach you, let them do it. Even if you don't always get what the end result of a given exercise is going to be, bear with them and see where it leads. If your teacher seems interested in your progress and has significantly more experience and better technique that you do, you will probably learn something – maybe even a lot. If you really don't trust your teacher and don't think he or she has much to offer you, go somewhere else.

What to work on

Posture. This is probably the hardest thing to work on, because changing your postural attitude means changing years of habits and putting to work muscles you didn't even know you had. But it is so worth it. Proper posture and alignment  will give you better balance, more ease of movement, especially in close embrace, and will probably improve your day-to-day life (and appearance) as well as your tango.

Musicality. This is my personal favourite quality in a dancer and I know for a fact I am not alone. If you can do the same move three different ways in the music it's as good as (maybe better than) knowing three different figures. So work on your musicality. Leader or follower, it will make you impressive and, more importantly, a pleasure to dance with.

Connection. This is the obvious one, I guess. But there are plenty of dancers out there who are much more focused on their feet or their next move than on their partners' reactions. Work on your receptivity, your lead/follow skills, your ability to be in the now and wait for what's coming next and your partners will notice.

Simple, useful vocabulary. Yes, it's fun to do cool wraps or colgadas once in a while, when they are smoothly executed. And in the end, everyone should know how to do all types of moves, from ochos and giros to sacadas, volcadas and boleos. But don't neglect the simple stuff: the little direction changes that will allow you to avoid accidents while leading something nice; the compact versions of all your beginner moves, which will allow you to dance on the most crowded dance floors; the musical variations that will keep you interesting even when there's no space to do anything fancy.

To summarize, the fact that you even have a comfort zone is a positive sign in the early stages of your tango learning, but get stuck in it too long and it becomes a rut, which will ultimately bore your partners and you. When that happens, it's probably time to swallow your pride, go back, take some lessons and break free.