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.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Meditango

Many dancers say they enter a meditative state when they tango.
Lots of people say – and I, myself, have said – that tango is a form of meditation. But is it really?

I know more about meditation than I once did, and I'm not so sure this dance can be considered actual meditation, but I do believe it shares many of the same qualities and benefits.

•Meditation has been proven time and time again, study after study, to reduce stress and anxiety. Physical activity, dance in particular and tango even more specifically are also well-documented stress and anxiety reducers. (I even once gave a presentation to a group of educators on tango for stress reduction.)

•Meditation improves concentration. The practice of mindfulness meditation begins with concentration exercises, which may lead eventually to a meditative state. In the practice of yoga, there are eight limbs, or steps. The physical poses (asanas) are third, while concentration (sixth) comes before meditation (seventh). Tango, too, is an exercise in focus and concentration. We have many tools – music, movement and a partner – at our disposal to help us. Many meditation techniques also use tools: a voice to guide us, a sound (such as a chant) or our own breath to help us focus.

•Meditation has been shown to increase happiness, ultimately improving practitioners' self-image and outlook on life. If you dance tango, I don't need to tell you that it, too, can bring new joy to your life. The socialization aspect, the enjoyment of the music and the sense of accomplishment as we improve our skills are all proven mood-boosters.

•Both meditation and tango increase self-awareness. I wrote a whole blog post on the subject of tango and body awareness a couple of years ago. Developing an awareness of our bodies in turn develops our overall self-awareness.

•The two practices have been shown to slow the aging process. Meditation can reduce age-related memory loss, while tango is increasingly used as a therapy for people with such diseases as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Partner dancing improves the ability to multi-task or do two things at once – such as navigating in space while remaining in sync with your partner. Research – including a recent study by the Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill University on tango for people with Parkinson's disease – has shown that Argentine tango offers particular benefits for the brain, probably due to its improvised nature.

•On a psycho-emotional level, meditation and tango have much in common. Being a good tango dancer and attentive partner involves some letting go of the ego, which is an important concept in meditation. Tango dancers also need to be able to let go of the plan – another concept present in the process of meditation (and another topic I have touched on in my blog). And have you ever taken a tango class in which the teachers didn't mention the need to be present? In the moment, in your body, for your partner. Meditation, too, is an exercise in presence.

Anecdotally, people who compare tango to meditation all say the same thing: It allows us to let go of our thoughts, worries and stresses and to live completely in the moment. This is one of the things that drew me to dance and to Argentine tango. I have an overly busy brain – the kind that loves to wake me up at 3 a.m. or to distract me from the task at hand – and tango is one of the only activities that is pretty much guaranteed to still my mind and make me fully, truly present. Meditation attracts me for the same reasons, though the work there is more challenging without the music, movement and human contact to help.

I cannot write about meditation and tango without encompassing yoga. Yoga is not a synonym for meditation – you can do the physical part of yoga without practicing meditation and you can practice meditation without yoga. But in my personal experience as a yoga practitioner (and now a teacher), the two are inseparable. Real yoga is much more than downward dog and sun salutations, and meditation is an integral part of it. If we add the benefits of the yoga poses to those of the meditative process, the similarities with tango only multiply. Both yoga and tango require and improve our posture, alignment, strength, mobility, balance and cardiovascular health. In yoga, the physical poses come before meditation because if we are not able to be well aligned and well positioned we will be uncomfortable and have difficulty meditating. In tango, if we are not well aligned and well positioned we will have difficulty dancing because we and our partners will be uncomfortable.

My partner once said to me "what yoga is to fitness tango is to dance," meaning yoga and tango both require an awareness of body and self that is not as present, or at least not often taught, in many other forms of exercise or social dance.

Even the advice I read about learning meditation resembles that which I give my students:
  • Consistent practice matters more than long practice. Better a few short sessions a week than just one long one.
  • If your mind wanders, that's OK and maybe even a good thing. In meditation we want to notice what is happening in our minds and redirect our thoughts back to the focus of our practice. If your mind wanders, it doesn't mean you are not meditating. And if your mind wanders while you're dancing, it means you're not overthinking and you're dancing what you feel, using your instinct rather than your conscious mind.
  • Avoid striving for perfection. Even long-time practitioners find meditation challenging. And even professional maestros find tango challenging. Both are life-long, life-enhancing practices that are about reaping the benefits of the journey rather than trying to reach a final destination.
So how is tango not like meditation?

Of course, tango is a social activity, which is probably the biggest difference with meditation, a pretty solitary pursuit. However, meditation is centred around the connection to oneself, and, as mentioned above, we also have to connect to ourselves if we want to improve our dancing.

In tango you are using tools – music and movement – that help channel your concentration and distract you from your busy mind and the outside world. My yoga teacher might argue that this is not true meditation, because distractions are, well, distracting us from the process. However, tango is certainly a type of concentration exercise, and, again, concentration is a step on the path to meditation.

A couple of years ago I went on a meditation retreat and along with the many hours of silent, seated meditation we practiced what is called walking meditation, where we would walk through the woods in silence, trying to be present and fully focused on our movements, surroundings and sensations. Sounds a lot like tango, doesn't it? Minus the music and partner, of course.

So I guess tango, while not meditation, could be said to be meditative. In any case, it benefits us in a lot of the same ways.

Other reading:
While researching this topic I read an interesting article by McGill's Patricia McKinley on the many benefits of Argentine tango.
I also came across a book (which I have not read) called Tango Zen : Walking Dance Meditation.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Twenty tango lessons: Part 20: The greatest job in the world

DJing is just one unexpected bonus part of my work.
Here is the last instalment in my series on 20 lessons I have learned in 20 years of tango.

Lesson No. 20. I have the best job I could have.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an actress, a dancer and a writer. The path of my life has by no means been a straight one, and what I thought those things would mean was quite different from what it turned out to be, but almost half a century later I realize that the job I have now means I get to be all those things and more.

Through my tango school I wear the hats of dance teacher, studio owner, milonga organizer, performer, show producer, DJ and, of course, blogger. All this means I work pretty hard most of the time, but since I love what I do, a lot of the time it doesn't actually feel that much like work.

As I mentioned in a recent post, the tango business is not always easy. But I count myself lucky to do what I do, because my days are filled with:

Dancing. As I said, I always wanted to be a dancer. I took my first ballet class at 4 years old, and while I gave up the ballerina dream and eventually ballet altogether in my teenage years, I have not stopped dancing since. The fact I get to dance every day keeps me happy and healthy, body and soul.

Teaching. I grew up with an intense fear of public speaking and in my youth I never, ever imagined I would become a teacher. I began teaching through my previous career in journalism. I was the main newsroom trainer on new technologies at the newspaper I worked at and for years I taught a university course on newspaper design. This was all terrifying to me at first, but I grew to love teaching – and people kept telling me I was good at it. Teaching is both challenging and rewarding and I can truly say I am passionate about it. Once I started teaching tango, well, I really knew I was onto something.

Connecting with people. Beyond the dance itself, this is what tango is all about. I love people, all kinds of people, and tango is full of human connections that are varied, often intense, fascinating and satisfying.

Building a community. My partner and I didn't necessarily plan this one when we were launching our little tango school, but we realized pretty early on that we were not just teaching people to dance, we were building a community and therefore facilitating the creation of all kinds of relationships. I love seeing friendships and partnerships forming around me and – partly – thanks to me.

Throwing parties. Through my teens and 20s I loved to throw parties. It was pretty straightforward to me: provide a table full of food, lots of loud dance music and invite everyone I could think of. I loved planning the food, preparing the music and building the guest list. So I guess it makes perfect sense that I enjoy hosting and DJing milongas every weekend.

Performing and producing shows. Had I started tango and plunged into it full time at a younger age, I would probably have done more of this. Despite my shyness I do love to perform, and the experience of producing shows with all the creativity and backstage excitement involved is absolutely exhilarating.

DJing. This is another unexpected bonus of my job. From mix tapes to CDs to iTunes playlists, I have always loved to put music together, whether it was to work out to, to play in the car or – especially – to get people dancing at a party. Now I find myself spending hours researching tango music – classic or alternative – and building tandas.

Working for myself. Again, not always easy, but so satisfying. It would be hard for me to go back to working for someone else at this point. It's not that I like being the boss so much – I don't think I'm very boss-like at all – but I sure like being the boss of me.

Working on myself. I have always been active. Tango helps keep me fit and mobile, and keeps me aware of my posture and the effect everything I do has on my partners. But it takes more than tango to keep in shape – for dance and for life. Besides my lifetime of dancing I have run regularly for 25 years. (I keep trying to give it up because combined with all the tango it's too hard on my battered feet. But it's hard to give it up; I just don't feel the same when I'm not getting that intense cardio!) Meanwhile, one of the most life-changing by-products of my tango career has been the discovery of yoga. I took it up a few years ago to try to increase my flexibility, and I quickly gained not just flexibility, but improved strength and balance as well as a whole new understanding of posture, alignment and my own body and self. I have since delved ever deeper into yoga, exploring the aspects that go beyond the physical poses and, earlier this year, obtaining my teaching certification.

Blogging. As I said, I always wanted to be a writer. English was my best and favourite subject through high school, and my post-secondary studies were all related to languages and literature. I studied translation for a while and worked as a copy editor for several years. In that time I did some writing, but nothing regular. Three years ago I realized that with all my observations about tango and all the analytical thinking I did about it, I should probably start writing some of it down. So I took the plunge and wrote my first blog post, and now I actually have a following! This blog forces me to write regularly, and people read my stuff. Cool!

So, being a small business owner is not always easy. And the tango business, because it is so close to my heart, can be tough emotionally as well as financially. But the rewards of doing what I love make up for the fact I work long, late hours and don't make much money.

When I was contemplating leaving my career to start a tango school, my mother and my financial advisor told me not to do it. I had young children, benefits, a pension plan and debt, and opening a small dance school as I was pushing 40 was not a sensible choice. So I did it. The tears I had shed and the aching, empty pit in my stomach I felt once I had decided not to go for what was probably my last opportunity to follow my lifelong dreams could not be ignored. I had the full support of my partner and a year's worth of money to make a go of it, so we held hands and we jumped, taking our young family with us.

In just a couple of months, our tango school will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Difficult and demanding though it has been at times, I have never regretted the plunge I took a decade ago, but I know with absolute certainty that had I not taken it I would be regretting it every day.

And when I am compiling tandas for an upcoming milonga, laughing with students as I help them  execute a difficult move or mingling with dancers at a milonga I am hosting I still can't get over how lucky I am to do what I do.

The lesson I leave you with is this: If you have a passion, follow it. And don't let fear hold you back.

Previously: Lesson No. 19. Tango is a voyage of self-discovery.

Read the series from the beginning.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Twenty tango lessons: Part 19: Getting to know yourself

The tango dance floor is one of the few places where I can truly let go.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I've learned through this dance, many of which are about myself.

Lesson No. 19. Tango is a voyage of self-discovery. 
Just as we learn a lot about others through the way they dance, we can also learn a lot about ourselves.

Studying dance is as much about developing awareness as developing specific skills; we discover our bodies as we work with them and we also discover ourselves.

Body awareness is the ability to understand how our bodies move and where they are in space. Such physical disciplines as dance both require and improve our proprioception, which is the sense that allows us to control our body parts without looking at them.

Self-awareness is having a clear perception of our personality, including strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation and emotions, and then taking control of them. Tango can help us build this understanding as well.

So, to improve in tango we need to know not only what our physical strengths, weaknesses and tendencies are, but also our psycho-emotional ones: Am I receptive? Reactive? Defensive? Passive? Impatient? Is it easy for me to assert myself? To let go?

Here are a few things I have learned or confirmed about myself over the years, with a little help from tango:
  • I enjoy intensity. I am quite sure this is one of the principle qualities that attracts me to tango. Not much of a lukewarm kind of person, I enjoy rich food, strong coffee, robust wine, scary movies, loud music, hot showers and demanding workouts. I also like intense human connections: While I'm not big on small talk, I love deep conversation – or a profoundly connected tanda. Tango dancers are such an eclectic bunch and I have often wondered if one of the common threads that weave us together is a desire for intense sensations or connections.
  • Tango allows me to let go. This is one of the other main attractions of the dance for me. Stillness of my mind doesn't come easy. I am a busy person whose busy brain can keep me awake at night for hours. And I worry and I stress – until I hit the dance floor, where the music, movement and human contact all combine to create my great escape. Out on the floor in the arms of a dancer to the beat of a beautiful soundtrack everything disappears but the here and now. Not only is it so completely enjoyable, it is also, I believe, tremendously therapeutic.
  • I go with the flow. I have always loved surprises and am quite able to take the situation I am given and run with it. I roll with the punches, so to speak. This makes me a natural follower, because I don't overthink what's happening and I'm pretty good at accepting what comes, no matter how unexpected. I think all this all makes me a patient leader, as well, because I'm not overly attached to the past or the previous plan.
  • So I may be a patient leader, but it took time for me to become a confident one. As I mentioned in my blog post on assertiveness, it's important to have clear intentions, in life and in tango. Know what you want, say what you want, go after what you want. None of these are skills that come naturally to me, but tango and teaching have helped me develop them. Besides, I did go after what I wanted when my partner and I opened our school, MonTango, a decade ago, and it has since grown into one of the city's main tango spots. This has taught me that dreams are worth pursuing.
  • I don't always fit in. I think one of the reasons I like to be the host, the teacher, the DJ is because if I'm just another participant I sometimes feel like a bit of a misfit. And I've always felt this way: throughout school and in my previous career I was never part of the "in" crowd or the cool clique. I never knew how to pretend to be just like everybody else, or to act a certain way or say the "right" things to get into the "right" crowd. Don't get me wrong: I had friends – a small group of very close ones – and I always got along with most people; while I was a bit of an outsider, I was never an outcast. Sometimes I wonder if this isn't another common thread in tango – this world is so full of odd (and wonderful) characters that it sometimes feels like a reunion of misfits. But then again, there are cliques in tango. I'm just not a part of them and they don't thrive at my milongas. I think what I've figured out is that in tango as in life I always prefer inclusivity to exclusivity.
  • My limits exist to be pushed. Sometimes I think I would like to live a simpler, quieter life. But every time I go for something simple I end up taking it further than intended. This has been evident in my tango journey: not content to just dance, I began to teach; not content to just teach, I opened my own school; not content with teaching and running a school, I also perform and produce shows, DJ, blog … And, of course, I have continued my own dance, movement and teacher training, taking privates whenever possible, learning to lead and getting certified as a fitness instructor and now a yoga instructor. I don't know what my next big step will be, but I know once I get comfortable where I am I won't stay there for long.
  • I will never believe I am enough. I think the continued desire to learn, advance and grow is a good thing, but in my case it's also a sign that I never feel I do enough or that I'm good enough at anything I do. For example, I will never be the dancer I want to be. This is both a good and bad thing. It means I get very down on myself at times – especially after watching myself perform. But it also means I push myself harder every time and therefore – I can admit it – I improve.
  • I love teaching. I may not feel I've become the dancer I strive to be, but I do know that I am a good teacher, and that is because I am as passionate about teaching as I am about dancing. I think I am twice (or more) the teacher now that I was when I started out, and I plan to continue my growth. All the lessons I have mentioned here – and more – have taught me how to better teach others. 

So, what have you learned through tango? Has it helped you grow and evolve as a person as well as a dancer? Has it opened your eyes to something you didn't know about yourself before?

Next: Lesson No. 20. I have the best job in the world.

Previously: Lesson No. 18. Tango can be hard on couples.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 18: The tango couple

Learning tango with your mate will take
patience, humility and a sense of humour.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I've learned through this dance that sparked the cliché "It takes two to tango."

Lesson No. 18. Tango can be hard on couples.
When you say tango, people conjure up images of roses, romance and passion, and tango lessons seem like a great activity to take up as a couple. So you sign up for some classes and instead of the expected romance and passion you find awkwardness, frustration, defensiveness or jealousy. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.

In our years in tango together, my partner and I have seen just about every issue that can come up in a couple, and we even lived some ourselves in our early years. There are many possible scenarios, each with its own challenges. Just understand this: Tango does not cause relationship issues, but it can amplify existing ones.

Some friends and I were talking about this phenomenon a while ago and we came up with the slogan: "If your couple can survive tango, your couple can survive anything!" While I won't be making this statement my school's new marketing campaign, there is a significant element of truth to it.

Here are some common situations, some issues that arise from them and some possible solutions so that not only can you increase the chance your relationship will survive tango, but also that tango will survive your relationship.

•You take up tango together. 

Beginners dancing with beginners is the usual situation in every group class, but it is never easy.
Some of the relationship issues that are easily amplified in a beginner-leading-beginner situation include defensiveness, impatience and jealousy.
To learn tango – to learn anything – you need to be receptive. If you are defensive every time the teacher comes to you with a correction or your partner doesn't respond as you hoped you will tend to block your own capacity to learn while placing most or all of the blame on your partner.
Face it, you will probably not both pick up the dance at exactly the same pace. Either partner might be a quicker study, and if that partner is you, you're going to have to be extra patient with your partner. If your partner is the faster learner, you're going to have to be patient with yourself.
We tend to be less tolerant toward those we feel comfortable with, so when your tango partner is also your life partner, you might let yourself outwardly blame him or her for those missteps more readily than you would a stranger.
The early stages of the learning curve are often hardest for leaders, therefore they receive the brunt of the blame – from both parties. Followers with a touch of natural skill can feel they dance well pretty quickly if paired with an experienced leader. But for leaders, there is a lot to think about and understand right from the start. So both partners might feel – somewhat mistakenly – that the follower is learning faster or dancing better than her partner. Reality sets in later for followers, once they realize there should be so much more to their role than "just following." All of this is common and normal, but just try to remember to be patient and generous toward your partner, because no matter what, he or she is just learning too and probably trying his or her best. And spending a lot of time trying to figure out who is to blame is unproductive anyway. Work as a team and, with the help of your teachers, you will see that you both possess solutions.
Then there is the insecurity of suddenly seeing your loved one in the arms of someone else. Partner changes are an excellent and – in my opinion – necessary tool for improving your dance skills. But they can make novices extremely uncomfortable. This is normal, and in our classes we do not insist people change partners if they are really against the idea, but if you remain forever unwilling to dance with anyone else or to allow your mate to do so I believe it is not a great sign for your future in tango together. Remember, it is just tango (more about this below), and whether things go well or badly with another partner, you will bring some of what you learned back to your regular partnership.
Learning tango with your mate will take patience, understanding, humility and – let's not forget – a sense of humour on both sides.

•One of you already dances and introduces the other to tango.

While beginners leading beginners can be a struggle, when experience is paired with inexperience all kinds of imbalances present themselves. Issues that commonly come up in this situation are – again – impatience and jealousy, as well as inferiority/superiority complexes.
If you have less experience than your partner: Do not put your partner on a pedestal. This is one I see all the time, and it drives me a little crazy. Sure, if your partner has been dancing for a year and you just started yesterday he or she will seem like a great dancer to you. But so will almost everyone. And what you need to know is, a year is nothing in tango. Your partner surely has loads to work on still in terms of his or her technique. So try to focus on learning at your pace without comparing yourself to your partner or getting impatient with yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but idolizing your partner as a dancer will get you nowhere.
Then there is that green monster called jealousy. Especially if you are new to tango, it can be disconcerting to see the love of your life in the arms of someone else – and enjoying it. I have had more than one student come to me and say they just could not bear to watch their cherished one clearly having the time of his or her life in another person's embrace. It can take time to get into tango enough to understand that for most dancers it really is all about the dance and nothing more. The intensity, connection and abandon don't leave the dance floor. If someone is looking for more than the dance, it has nothing to do with tango; tango just may be the avenue they choose to find it. If your life partnership is strong and you trust your partner, tango won't be a problem. If your relationship is fragile and you don't trust your partner, tango may be a dangerous game to play, but it is not to blame.
If you have more experience than your partner: Do not be condescending. No partnership is truly equal (though the best ones eventually come close), so amplifying the inequalities by constantly finding ways to point them out is counterproductive and will only serve to put your partner on the defensive. And remember that you, too, still have much to learn; you're simply at a different place on the curve. As a teacher, I see condescension manifest itself in two main forms: overly encouraging attitudes and teachy behaviour.
Overly encouraging? Oh yes. Being encouraging is, in principle, a good thing, but there is a fine line between super-supportive and cloyingly condescending. Figuratively patting your partner on the head every single time he or she gets the littlest thing right is almost as annoying as criticizing every little imperfection. So give praise when you have a great dance or see real improvement, but make sure it is sincere and doesn't come from too high-and-mighty a place.
I've said it before, and here I go again: Do. Not. Correct. Your. Partner. Just because you have more experience does not make you a qualified teacher. So be the competent dance partner you know how to be, but leave the teaching to the teachers, let your partner learn at his or her pace and avoid the temptation to constantly show off how much more you know. Nobody likes a know-it-all, unsolicited advice quickly gets irritating, and constantly putting yourself above your lowly partner will probably do little to make him or her feel comfortable.
Also, if you are too comfortable in your superior place, watch out: Your more advanced dance skills are likely not a permanent state of being. There is a reasonably good chance that a year or two from now your partner's skills will have caught up to or even surpassed yours – especially if he or she keeps working hard while you remain in your haughty comfort zone.

•You both already dance tango when you get together. 

You basically have two choices here: agree to make your dancing exclusive or agree to keep dancing with other people. The key word in both situations is "agree." Whatever you decide, you have to both be on board, stick to it and allow your partner the same freedoms you expect yourself.
I, personally, would find it difficult to go from dancing with different partners and friends to suddenly shunning them all in order to dance every tango with the same partner – even if that partner was the person I love. This decision would not work for me.
However, no matter how long you have been dancing and how well you both know that tango is about the dancing, there will be times when you feel your partner had one tanda too many with a particular person or looked a little too blissful in the arms of a certain someone else. I know this because I have lived it, too. In our case tango is our full-time job so we had no choice but to learn early on to get over any emotional insecurities that came up. And we fully understand and value the benefits that changing partners brings to our dancing.
The best suggestions I can make to find a mutually agreeable solution are to keep the lines of communication open and, if necessary, to establish some ground rules. For example, I know some couples who always save the first and/or last tanda for each other. That gives them something special that belongs only to them, but allows them to keep exploring the enjoyment of other partners, expanding their skills and bringing back new experiences that probably end up nourishing their relationship.

•You dance but your mate doesn't. 

You know as well as I do that tango isn't just another social activity. But then again, it is. If you are going to keep dancing and your mate is not, your mate has to accept that you have an interest and an important pastime that does not involve him or her. But this would be true of any activity you are passionate about and dedicate significant time to, whether it's working out at the gym, singing in a choir or playing golf. Even if you don't play golf cheek to cheek and chest to chest with your fellow golfers.
To an outsider, this may sound like a rationalization, but it is not: When you are dancing with someone, you are not really dancing with the person, you are dancing with the dancer. You can connect – intensely, profoundly, passionately – with a stranger, because most of the things about that person don't matter on the dance floor: what language he speaks, what he does for a living, whether she has children, what her plans are for tomorrow. What matters is the feel of their embrace, their connection to the music, their ability to express, to listen, to follow. Overall, what matters, quite simply, is what is happening now. Tango is a shared moment – well, a shared 10 minutes – and nothing else exists during that moment, whether you are dancing with your life partner or a total stranger. Then the tanda is over and you move on to the next connection. These connections are not sexual, but at their best they are quite intimate and profound: You are connecting with something that goes beyond the man or woman in your arms, which is why many of us can derive as much pleasure from dancing with either gender, regardless of our sexual orientation.
It is, of course, possible to confuse these things and to take, or desire to take, things beyond the dance floor. But this doesn't usually happen, and if you've got someone waiting for you at home, it's up to you not to let it. If your relationship is solid and you value it, you should be able to live your passion for both tango and your non-dancing loved one to the fullest.

Whatever your partner situation in tango, you're doing it to have fun and to add something positive to your life. To continue to do both these things, remember:
•To seek solutions, not blame.
•To laugh off mistakes.
•That tango is about what happens on the dance floor, not beyond.

In the end, relationship issues might be the thing that makes you decide that tango is not for you. You might even blame tango for the seemingly new issues that have come up in your relationship. Or you might end up using tango to work through some of your issues and your relationship will end up stronger for it.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this one. Have you lived through similar challenges? How did you resolve them?

Next: Lesson No. 19. Tango is a voyage of self-discovery.

Previously: Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 17: Is tango for you?

Tango: It's not as easy as it looks.

To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I've learned thorough this dance that can be as frustrating as it is fulfilling.

Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone. In two decades of dancing, more than 15 years of teaching and almost 10 years running my own studio I have seen more people drop out of tango than stick with it.

On my school's website I state that tango is for everyone and that "If you can walk, you can dance." I stand by those statements: You can take up tango whether you are 25 or 65, male or female, single or in a couple, shy or extroverted and the list goes on. But, of course, just because you can walk doesn't mean you will dance tango like a pro and also doesn't mean you will love tango. And to keep dancing tango, you've got to love it. Because while the concept is simple, the dance is not so easy.

As a tango-lover and tango teacher, I certainly think it would be great if everyone at least gave tango a try. You might like it, love it, stick with it and get really good at it. Or you might not.

Tango might not be for you if:

•You only stick with things that come easy. Beginners soon realize that if they are going to dance this dance they will have to dedicate a significant amount of time to it. One class a week is not sufficient, and you're probably not going to feel like you're really dancing in less than a year.
You won't stick with tango beyond a few weeks of classes if you don't develop a desire to really work on your dancing, which means working on yourself.
Tango, as all experienced dancers know, is about much more than memorizing a few steps or sequences. It is about connection and communication, posture and a smooth walk, musicality and improvisation. And those things take months – no, years – to develop and – maybe, just maybe – master.
If all this sounds unpleasantly daunting to you, maybe you're on the wrong track. If it sounds more like an exciting challenge, keep going.

•You expect tango to be just another series of dance steps. First, if you are coming to tango from other social dances – ballroom or Latin, for example – don't expect to skip the beginner levels because of your past experience. Every dance is different, Argentine tango is unique, and you sure aren't going to pick it up in some kind of 10-dances-in-10-weeks format.
Past dance experience might help you learn faster – you may have developed your body awareness, sense of rhythm and lead/follow skills – but you still need to learn the basics. And you might also have to unlearn some of your other dance technique – turned-out knees, loose hips or lifted elbows, for example.
Learning tango is like learning a new language. If you already speak two languages or more, you will likely pick up other languages with increasing ease, yet it doesn't mean you will skip right to advanced-level Russian because you already speak English and Italian.
Again, learning tango is about developing technique as you integrate a whole new vocabulary into your body. It is the discovery of a world all its own and like no other. The steps and sequences are but a small part of what it is all about. If you are ready and willing to discover that, you're heading down the right path.

•You have very fragile self-esteem. I recently wrote a whole blog post about how you need a thick skin to dance tango. If your self-esteem is in a fragile state, tango may not be the boost you need right now.
Take up tango and you will discover that you that you have to re-learn how to walk, that your posture needs work and that you don't really know how to embrace someone. So it will probably break you down before it builds you up.
And then there is the social aspect. Everyone has bad nights when we don't get the dances we hoped for, and it can be a struggle not to let such a night leave us feeling deflated, undesirable or resentful.
Some of us are crushed by these kinds of challenges, but some are inspired by and driven to overcome them.

•Tango is your romanticized idea of a date-night activity with your sweetheart. Of course a session of tango lessons seems like a great idea to inject a little extra passion into your relationship. And I'm not saying that it's not. But people conjure up these rose-filled clichés about tango – that it's all passion and sexiness, and that it will magically bring those things into their lives and their relationship.
Ok. Eventually, it might. But not in the ways you imagine, and not without you putting in some serious time, dedication and hard work in the process.
Also, I hate to admit it, but tango can actually be quite hard on a couple, which I will discuss in detail in my next blog post. The whole partnering thing can be complicated in so many ways, whether you take up tango on your own or with your significant other.
To make a long story short, learning tango together will take patience, understanding, a sense of humour and a good dose of humility on both sides. On the up side, if you are able to work on all these things, it will not only be fun and romantic, it might even make your relationship stronger.

•You are signing up for tango lessons in the hopes of meeting a mate. Sure it happens. I met my partner through tango and my own brother met his wife in a tango class, but in both cases it was years in.
If you are going to stick with tango long enough to get good at it, you need to love the dance enough to spend a lot of time and effort working on it. Speed dating, tango is not.
Sure you might meet that special someone through tango. Accept it if it happens, but don't expect it to happen.
When my school offers free trial classes for newcomers, we can immediately spot the ones who are there with a clear ulterior motive, and they rarely last long. The dance will just take too much work if dating is the real goal.
Of course, it takes all kinds to make a (tango) world, so there are a few long-time dancers in every community who both love the dance itself and at the same time use it as a way to get up close and personal with those they see as potential mates.
All this being said, if you are signing up for tango lessons as a way to meet people, it might be among the best things you can do. In tango classes and at tango events you will meet all kinds of fascinating folks, all of whom have a significant common interest. Moreso than a couple activity, tango is a social activity, so you will most certainly make friends and become part of a whole new circle.

•You really don't have room in your life for an all-consuming pursuit. If you want to dance tango, you have to let tango in. Once a week is not enough. Twice a week is not even enough. And if you grow to love this dance, three, four, five times a week may not feel like enough. Tango has a tendency to take over people's lives, at least for a time, and it almost has to, at least for a time, if you're going to get good at it. Tango is often referred to as an obsession, an addiction, a drug. Because tango dancers live, breathe and consume their passion. If you take up this dance in a serious way, you are letting it into your life. Which will affect your calendar, your bank balance, your social life and your soul.

So tango may totally be for you, if you are not afraid of a few years of hard work and the occasional humbling experience, if you want to make new friends and to discover something challenging, profound and potentially revealing about yourself or your relationship. Or tango may not be for you. You won't know for sure unless you give it a try and see where it leads.

Next: Lesson No. 18. Tango can be hard on couples.

Previously: Lesson No. 16. The tango business and the tango community don't always coexist seamlessly.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 16: Business meets community

Isn't it more fun when more dancers come together?

To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through dancing this dance, teaching this art and running this business.

Lesson No. 16. The tango business and the tango community don't always coexist seamlessly.

I have been considering writing this one for a while now, and it's going to be tricky.

As a business owner, I have many thoughts and feelings on this matter, which are obviously not completely unbiased. I want to address this issue because I think the general community could use some awareness of it. And maybe it's time to have an open conversation about it.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, 20 years ago when I was a beginner in tango you could already dance seven nights a week in Montreal. The thing is, most nights there was only one place to dance, so people knew where their friends would be and most of the community came together at most milongas.

Also, all the milongas were run by tango schools. Which meant, among other things, that the hardworking school owners could count on a decent supplement to their teaching income to help pay their rent.

This all started to change about a decade ago. First, it was around that time that Montreal's tango scene started to spread beyond the city's central core. While all the milongas were once in or near the Plateau-to-Downtown area, new schools – including mine – started to sprout up in less central neighbourhoods and suburbs. This meant that those who lived outside the city centre suddenly had more choices. The rationale was that we wouldn't have much effect on the existing schools and milongas because we were geographically distant from them, but the reality was that of course we had an effect on them. At the same time, since we were bringing tango classes into new neighbourhoods, we were also creating new interest in tango and bringing new dancers into the community, thus helping it to grow.

Then began the "neutral" events: milongas not connected to any particular school. Many dancers loved this new concept, because it meant that people from all the different schools and milongas could come together in one place, meeting new people and discovering new dancers. But business-wise it was not so positive for the schools. Since all the nights were already taken by school-run milongas, these events run by independent organizers had a serious impact on whomever's regular events fell on those nights.

Then came the propagation of festivals and marathons, which is by no means a Montreal-specific phenomenon. A couple of years ago there were three major festivals in Montreal as well as a handful of smaller ones, plus at least three marathons. That's a lot of competition for the regular events and a lot of big spending expected of the community. It was clearly more than our city could support, as many events folded after one year or a few, and this year there were just two major festivals and one full weekend marathon.

Many of the independent organizers are not teachers and are not running schools, so they are not growing the tango-dancing population the way the schools are. And for those of us whose milongas support our schools, both socially and financially, it is frustrating to work for years teaching and training dancers and sending them out into the tango world only to have someone launch a milonga the same night as ours and do everything they can to entice our students and clients to go to their event.

Not to mention the fact that commercial rents are exorbitant (you would be shocked) and Montreal was recently declared the worst city in Canada in which to run a small business.

Just this fall a well-known tango school closed its doors after a decade in business, and while there has been all kinds of speculation as to what precisely caused its downfall, the exponentially multiplying number of milongas and events was no doubt a major factor. Milongas and special events can come and go, but if the schools are forced to close their doors that will not be a good thing for the community. One of Montreal's greatest strengths, I believe, is the quality and experience of its teachers. As my partner recently said to me, social dance events are about the dancers' pleasure right now, which is important, but the schools train future dancers, ensuring the survival of the dance and the community in the long term.

With all of the extra events popping up, attendance at the schools' regular weekly milongas has suffered, becoming uneven at best. So now many of the schools have started opening new prácticas and milongas on new nights (and afternoons), some hosting as many as five dance activities per week. This means they compete more and more with each other's events and dilute the community further still. My school has been holding a weekly Friday milonga for a decade now. Usually there have been one or two other regular Friday events in town, which is not crazy on a weekend night in a top tango town. But lately I have sometimes counted as many as five events happening on a single Friday. Of course this hits me personally and financially, so from my perspective it is clearly too much, but the part of me that tries hard to be objective and to see things from the public's perspective still sees a problem. Is it really beneficial to have to choose among so many options, and to have your friends and dance partners having to make the same choices? Wouldn't it be more fun for more dancers to come together?

Obviously, a capitalist society and a free market mean the right and the freedom to do all of this. And then it boils down to survival of the fittest, and many would shrug their shoulders and say: "So be it" or "Suck it up." But does that make it right, or even good for the community, which is, again, increasingly diluted and even, some would argue, segregated.

An organizer recently justified to me the opening of his new milonga on an already saturated night by saying he was going after a "different crowd." Another organizer astutely pointed out that this was a euphemism for not just the elite-level dancers he's hoping to attract, but also the younger age group he's aiming for. Again, anyone is entitled to create a new event and to target a specific audience, but isn't tango supposed to be the dance of the people? Which to me means all the people – new and experienced, average and highly skilled, young and old.

I, personally, would like to see more young people in tango and attracting a younger crowd is a challenge many of us have been working on for years, but I don't want a segregated community where "young" dancers all stick together and everyone over 40 or 50 is seen as over the hill or undesirable. Though I was still in my 20s when I started dancing tango, one of the things that attracted me even back then was the fact that it was a dance for all ages and that I would not feel over the hill once I passed, 40, 50 or well beyond.

Part of this has to do with the size of the city as a whole and, of course, the size of the tango community itself. In a very small city with a very small tango population, the sense of community tends to be very strong and just about everyone works together in some way. In a very big city with a very large tango population – like Buenos Aires or Paris, for example – there are so many dancers that having several events on offer is inevitable, even necessary, and wouldn't have as much impact on the competition. Montreal falls somewhere in between. We're kind of big, and tango is pretty popular, but we are not a big European city with other cities and countries all around us to trade dancers with, and we are certainly not Buenos Aires. Anyway, I have heard that the proliferation of marathons and encuentros in Europe has forced some of the best-known ones to close and that even in Buenos Aires organizers are trying to find new ways to support each other in these difficult times.

One seemingly obvious solution, of course, is for the schools here to get together and come to some kind of agreement or even form some sort of association. This subject has come up in the past, and a few years ago a group of us did try to form an alliance of sorts, but it didn't work out in the long run, for all kinds of reasons.

I, personally, see the current milonga situation in Montreal as something of a free-for-all, and I'm not sure there is an easy solution. Then again, maybe it's a bigger problem from my perspective than from that of the public. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of the tango community becoming a dog-eat-dog world, because I feel the sense of community will then be lost and also, I must admit, because it makes my precious business more vulnerable. Then again, business is business, some would say, and it's up to each of us to fight for our own survival.

I would love to get your feedback on this issue. Do you even see this as a problem? And if so, do you have ideas for a solution?

Next: Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone.

Previously: Lesson No. 15. Work hard, have fun.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 15: Work hard, have fun

In tango, work and play go hand in hand.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this pleasurable and challenging dance.

Lesson No. 15. Working hard and having fun are not mutually exclusive.

Somewhere between the beginner and intermediate phases, it becomes clear to many if not most tango students that this fun social dance is harder and takes more work than they anticipated.

This realization can have wide-ranging effects on different people.

Some decide that hours of practice every week and regular blows to the ego in the form of corrections and adjustments by their teachers are not the fun date-night activity they had in mind and they drop out.

Others keep going, but stop really moving forward. They eventually have enough moves and partners to enjoy themselves at milongas so why kill the buzz with hard and boring stuff like posture and – yuck – technique? They are content where they are and don't feel driven to take things further.

Then there are those who are fuelled by the challenge of this simple-yet-complex dance and they work ever harder, feeling rewarded every time they overcome a hurdle – only to be faced with the next. For these dancers the hard work isn't just a means to an end, it in itself is a huge part of the enjoyment.

The cool thing is, the harder you work the easier it gets. As you improve your posture and alignment, strengthen your legs and develop your tango communication skills, the physical and mental effort of dancing and all the multitasking it requires decreases. So if you're feeling like you might give up sometime soon, I suggest reading on, and giving it at least one more shot.

Here are some ways you can have fun while still working hard to improve your dancing:

Focus on the important stuff. Almost every beginner dancer is impressed by the fancy moves they see in shows and on YouTube. Dancers put pressure on themselves (and their partners) to learn lots and lots of these cool moves and to execute as many of them as possible in as short a time as possible. Your teachers might even tell you that the moves are not the important thing, but this is not easy to believe at first. After all, it is difficult to grasp the importance of a caring and comfortable embrace, musical precision and a mastery of floorcraft when you haven't yet felt the pleasure that can be derived from those things. What can I say besides: "Believe us!" A few simple moves well-executed inside the framework of a comfortable and sincere embrace, precise and playful musicality and a smooth dance-floor flow are a better and less stressful goal than trying to remember and execute all the crazy moves and adornos you have seen in your tango life. Yes, you need some vocabulary, but you don't need to use all your vocabulary all the time.

Believe that hard work truly is its own reward. The process of learning and practicing doesn't have to be a means to an end. There is a lot of satisfaction to be gained from the simple act of making an effort. Nowhere is this more true than in an activity like tango. And then, of course, there will be so many rewards that automatically stem from the work, from being an increasingly sought-after tango partner to improving brain function (as more and more studies tell us) to keeping good posture and joint mobility throughout life.

Concentrate more on self-improvement than what everyone else is doing wrong. Focus on your partner's shortcomings and you will find more and more of them, guaranteed. This will lead to frustration and impatience on both sides. But focus on what you can do to make your partner more comfortable and the dance will run more smoothly for sure, even if your partner really isn't very good. Feel annoyed every time another couple cuts it a little too close and you will spend a lot of your floor time feeling annoyed. Come up with a few fun go-to solutions to these inevitable realities and you can practically turn the whole thing into a game. You have probably heard that you cannot control events, but only how you react to them. On the tango dance floor, this means you can neither control how your partner nor the couples around will react, but you do have control over how you handle your side of the equation. So when it's not going according to plan, or just not going well at all, resist the urge to make impatient sounds or to correct your partner. Instead, examine and work on your own skills: stand straighter, drop your shoulders, fully connect your legs in between steps, listen more, slow down. You will have worked to improve yourself, given your partner a more pleasurable experience and made yourself a more desirable dancer in the process.

Remember that others are not to blame for your bad nights. Sometimes you will have a bad night, no matter who you are. Maybe at last week's lesson you finally felt you were moving up the learning curve but tonight you hit not just a plateau but a wall. Perhaps you arrived at the milonga dressed to the nines and ready to dance the night away, but you only got two tandas in and both felt sub-standard. Hard as it is, the best thing to do is to accept that yes, you had a disappointing night, and then move on. Don't wallow in it, blame your inadequate partner, resent your teacher or the milonga organizer or hold a grudge against all the dancers who didn't invite you. And maybe don't vent all over Facebook either. Feel how you feel, accept both the events and your thoughts about them, then do whatever you can to let it all go. But also don't let one bad night (or even two or three) crush you. Instead, use it to drive you further along that learning curve. Sign up for a private lesson, ask a teacher or admired dancer for advice, arrange to practice with a friend, make an agreement with your partner to be less critical of each other in class.

I live this work hard-play hard balance in running my business every day. Yes, I work hard. Really, really hard. Many people do, and anyone who runs a small, hand-on business does. The work sometimes overwhelms me and there are days that get me down. I worry about my injured feet, get frustrated with my own dancing, butt heads with my (equally hard-working) partner, face unfriendly competition, cringe at my bank balance … but the rewards! I am constantly surrounded by movement and music and wonderful people. I dance and teach and host parties and create playlists of my favourite music every single week. So I also have fun. So much fun. Not despite, but because of the fact I work really, really hard.

So work hard to have fun, and have fun working hard.

Next: Lesson No. 16. The tango business and the tango community don't always coexist seamlessly.

Previously: Lesson No. 14. It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the codigos.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 14: Be kind

Respect your partner, respect yourself.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned about and through this dance that is so wonderful, but that can be quite daunting to newcomers.

Lesson No. 14. It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the codigos.

A while back I wrote a post called It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice. Interestingly, it is by far my most popular blog post yet. Which indicates people don't necessarily perceive their fellow tango dancers as the most sympathetic bunch.

On revisiting this topic, though, I feel the need to make a distinction between being "nice" and being "kind."

Those who are overly concerned with being nice are often motivated by the need for approval and validation by other people. At the same time, they might overlook their own wellbeing in order to accommodate others.

The motivation to be kind, however, is more internal. People who aim for kindness are less concerned about what others might think and more interested in doing the right thing. Yet their respect for others is balanced by their own self-respect.

In tango, "nice" people accept dances with anyone and everyone because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or be perceived as rude or snobby. Of course it is a good thing not to want to hurt people, but if your previous experience with a person was highly unpleasant, you should not feel obligated to repeat it to your own detriment.

"Kind" dancers, on the other hand, might reserve a few tandas for hardworking dancers of a lower level as well as for the lonely newcomer who hasn't danced all night, but they still know when to say no.

I used to be an overly "nice" person – in life and in dance – so I sometimes let people walk all over me and I felt guilty every time I had to say no to someone. This kind of personality doesn't work so well in either parenting or business, so as I grew up I learned that I can still be a kind person without necessarily always being nice.

If you want to be truly kind in tango, I believe you need to occasionally dance with beginners. That being said, it's important to point out what several readers have mentioned in comments on past posts: A beginner is not the same as a bad dancer who has not attempted to make any improvement in a decade. So if I know someone still takes classes and works hard, I am happy to dance with him or her regardless of current level. But someone who thinks he's really good simply because he's been dancing for 15 years but still zigzags all over the dance floor and corrects his partners when they don't execute the move he tried to lead will receive my polite refusal.

I personally believe that teaching should be done through encouragement and positive reinforcement. That means I make sure to tell students not just what they are doing wrong, but what they are doing right. For me, that is the easy part. Early on it was actually hard for me to point out people's misalignments and postural flaws to them, especially when they were blatantly unaware and it meant I basically had to burst their bubble. But students come to me to learn and most of them appreciate a little candour. Besides, I have discovered that most people have a thicker skin than I thought. In any case, a good teacher can make students aware of what they are doing wrong and what needs to be improved without diminishing or criticizing them in a negative or hurtful way.

As I stated in my last post, I firmly believe that following the codigos of the milonga is important and will ultimately improve everyone's experience. I also believe that injecting our milonga-going selves with some generosity will go a long way toward the greater good. And the two are not mutually exclusive. For example, I fully support the use of the cabeceo, but I don't reject invitations on principle just because they were done verbally. If I am happy to dance with you, I'll accept your invitation, silent or verbal, as long as it is respectful.

On the dance floor, the nicest dancers to tango with are those who let go of their egos and dance with generosity. Of course skill level plays a part, but with or without stellar technique, if your partner makes you feel he or she is taking care of you, you will feel pretty good.

Here's how you can take care of your partners:
  • Dance to their level thus making them feel good about their dancing, rather than concerning yourself with showing off all your best moves or adornos.
  • Do everything in your power to avoid collisions on the dance floor. If an accident does happen, make sure no one is hurt and apologize to all concerned; don't get on the defensive and look to place blame.
  • Ignore or laugh off any mistakes or miscommunications. Accept that errors are part of tango, and whatever you do, do not instruct, correct or otherwise comment on your partners' dancing when things don't go as planned.
Do all this and those you dance with will keep coming back for more. People with a generous spirit put others before themselves; tango dancers with a generous spirit put their partners’ enjoyment first – without sacrificing their own wellbeing. If both partners do this, then both will feel safe, connected and at ease. They might find they don't want the tanda to end, and certainly will seek out another one later.

We get very little out of being egotistical, which blocks our empathy as well as our own capacity to learn. Be kind and generous and you will ultimately contribute to the growth and improvement of others, of yourself and of the community as a whole.

Previously: Lesson No. 13: The milonga has rules and we should follow them.

Next: Lesson No. 15: Working hard and having fun are not mutually exclusive.