Sunday, October 19, 2014

The five essential connections in tango

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Dancing tango is all about connection. Connection to our partners, of course, but there are other connections to be made if we are to dance tango to our fullest potential and enjoyment. There are five entities with which we need to establish a thorough connection in order to improve our dancing and our dance experience.
photo: Jacques Guibert

Connection One: The partner. This is the most obvious and indisputable connection. The old cliché “It takes two to tango” exists for a reason. Tango is the quintessential couple dance. Without a partner there is no tango.
However, this does not mean we need a regular partner. In tango, we aim to find, create and build an intense connection in a very short time. It is part of the beauty, the allure and the challenge of tango. This can be done mostly with one regular partner or a variety of rotating ones. Or both. Maybe tonight we will dance only with each other but tomorrow night we will dance with half the dancers in the room. It doesn’t matter. During each dance, everything we do should be caused or inspired by the person we are dancing with.
For both leader and follower, if we can focus more on our partners than on ourselves we will outdo ourselves in our role. If we think of taking care of our partners, of helping them by leading or following better, of waiting for and being patient for them, we will allow our partners to dance with more ease and enjoyment. In turn, we will dance with more ease and enjoyment. The tango relationship is not linear, it is circular, a constant give and take between the two partners; so whatever we give we will get back. Which brings us to the second essential connection.

photo: Jacques Guibert
Connection Two: The self. If it’s all about our partners, why do we need a deep connection with ourselves? Well, because it’s not all about our partners. It’s about the couple, and we are 50 per cent of the couple. They say you can’t really love someone else if you don’t love yourself first. Well, you also can’t really know someone else if you don’t know yourself first.
For tango teachers, one of the hardest obstacles to overcome when working with a student is lack of body awareness. Because tango is primarily a social dance, one that is taken up in middle age by many people, some of whom have never taken a dance class in their lives, many tango students do not have a lot of body awareness when they start out.  Perhaps they have never paid attention to – let alone tried to control – the dissociations that occur in their bodies when they move; maybe they have never thought about the position of their hips in relation to their feet and their shoulders; they have probably never tried to simultaneously drop their shoulders and raise their hearts, while keeping their knees soft and their arms relaxed but in contact with another person … It’s a lot to think about at once for anyone, especially for someone to whom these concepts are entirely new. This does not mean that someone who has never danced cannot learn tango at age 50 or 60. Absolutely they can and many do. But body awareness is one more aspect that takes hard work, practice and patience to learn. (Such disciplines as yoga and Pilates are wonderful for building body awareness – as well as strength, flexibility and balance – and are excellent supplements to tango lessons.)
If we know our bodies and ourselves, we will have better balance and overall control over our own movements. We will also be more inclined to trust ourselves to lead what we intend or follow what we feel. We need to know ourselves as deeply as we know our partners. So it’s not all about our partners. It’s about ourselves and our partners, and if we know both and care for both we will be on our way to dancing as one, which is what we strive for. We could in fact role these first two connections into one entity: the couple, made up of two separate but equal parts. But while we should strive to move and breathe as one, we both bring ourselves to the dance, and it is important neither to be overly passive and to lose our own identities to the other nor to be overly dominant and to overshadow the other.

Connection Three: The music. This connection is my personal favourite. Music is literally what moves me. It is the inspiration behind my every step and every gesture.
But musicality is a funny thing in Argentine tango. Because we can improvise so widely on the music, because there are no set patterns forcing us to start something new with each new phrase or mark every strong beat with metronome-like regularity, teachers often avoid setting sequences to music in any specific way and students often ignore the music completely, saying that it’s too much to think about on top of everything else. But this is a mistake. The dance and the music cannot be treated as separate entities. If students get used to treating the music as background noise it will be difficult to later backtrack and use the rhythm as the driving force that guides their every action.
As dancers, we should be living and breathing the music as any other instrument, marking the rhythm and painting the melody. Otherwise, why choose tango music, or indeed any music at all? We dance differently to every type of music and to every orchestra – or at least we should. It is not even enough to just listen to and try to follow the music: We need to let the music into our bodies and our hearts, to lead us, to become one with us. Just like that perfect partner.

Photo: Jacques Guibert

Connection Four: The floor. This one sounds obvious, yet it is amazing how many people have trouble keeping both feet on the floor. Sure, we all know we must touch the floor when we walk; we don’t have much of a choice. But it is more than that in tango. We need to be fully aware of the ground and our connection to it. The ground, well, grounds us. It supports us, stabilizes us and gives us power.
It supports us best when we work with gravity, letting it soften our knees and weigh down our feet, hips and shoulders, so that we can stand straight and tall, lengthening the spine and lifting the heart for both balance and elegance. In yoga, when they do a tree pose they talk about the roots – a tree’s connection to the ground – being what allow it to stand so tall and not fall over. It is the same for a tango dancer.
The floor stabilizes us when we have both feet in connection with it as often as possible, the supporting leg grounding our axis and the free leg widening our base of support and providing an anchor. Think of how a tree’s roots spread out beyond the base of its trunk.
The floor gives us power when we use our supporting leg to propel our movements, both steps and pivots. This power provides ease of movement and a clear message to our partners.
Teachers talk about caressing the floor, licking the floor (with our feet, of course!), painting on the floor, being friends with the floor and knowing the floor intimately, including every crack, bulge and dent. Do all of these things: be one with the floor and it will help you be one with yourself, your partner and the music.

Connection Five: The world around us. The last connection is by no means the least important. Many dancers neglect this one, though.
We often say that when things are just right with our partner the rest of the world disappears. It is like we are dancing in a bubble. While this is true, our bubble must be transparent so that we don’t collide with or entirely pop other couples’ bubbles mid-tanda. So we need to dance respectfully, limiting backward steps, refraining from tailgating or abruptly cutting in front of others and not taking up too much space on a crowded floor.
But instead of just dancing around all the other couples and treating them like obstacles, we should try to dance with them. If everyone did this, the flow in the milongas would be so fluid, pleasant and, in the end, easy to navigate. Tango salón is a social dance, so all those other dancers are an integral part of our art and our experience. We need to accept that, and accept that our dancing plans and patterns need to constantly change and evolve because of what is happening around us. Not easy, perhaps, but imagine the whole room moving as one, to the same music, on the same floor, each in a different body and with a different partner, but in harmony. It would be tango bliss.

Every now and then, all five connections will fall into place at once: Our bodies will move with ease and confidence, melding at once with our partners and the music, fully connected to and supported by the floor and in harmony with those around us for that perfect dance that transports us and reminds us why we so love tango.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

No teaching on the dance floor

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Teaching on the dance floor is my Number One pet peeve, and I say this as a teacher, a milonga organizer and a dancer.

For everyone, leaders and followers alike, being taught or corrected by our dance partners always makes us feel bad in some way or other. First, it interrupts the flow of the conversation that is the dance, leaving little chance we will be left with that wonderful feeling we have after a particularly connected tanda. Second, it puts the “instructor” in a position of authority or superiority, deserved or not – let’s assume not. Consequently, the instructee will tend to feel inferior, so the idea of an equal partnership is destroyed. Third, the act of instructing our partners immediately assigns blame for any miscommunication, inviting feelings of defensiveness or inadequacy. These negative feelings may be fleeting, in the case of a dancer who has a certain amount of experience and self-confidence, but sometimes they can linger, putting a damper on the whole evening, or even the entire tango experience.

More understanding needed

As a teacher I disapprove of self-appointed dance-floor instructors for many reasons, not the least of which is that they undermine the work that real teachers do. We have training and experience and expertise (the good ones do, at least). We have a method we have spent years developing. We have technique as dancers and as teachers. And we understand both roles. Different teachers will have a different level of mastery of the “other” role, but any decent one will have developed at least a solid competency and, even more importantly, an understanding of both experiences. So we are able to see both sides of the situation and figure out a solution, ideally one that does not assign blame but that involves a tweak or improvement on both sides. Any experienced dancer may be able to see what the mistake itself is, but it is unlikely anyone but a teacher will be able to figure out the underlying reason for it.

Let’s say a couple is dancing and the follower loses her alignment and therefore her balance whenever she pivots a certain way. Her leader may notice her “mistake” – i.e. her lopsided posture at the moment of pivot – so he might tell her not to lean over or not to push on his hand. But that leader might not realize that he is in fact throwing her off balance by changing the position of his arm, abruptly changing her points of reference and making it difficult for her to stay straight. At the same time, a follower in this same situation might blame her leader for throwing off her pivots, while there are in fact many adjustments she herself can make – keeping both feet on the floor, pointing the toes slightly outward, not allowing the pelvis to swing forward – to stay straight and balanced regardless of her leader’s technique.

In our classes we actively discourage instruction and correction among dancers even during class time. It is the behaviour we receive the most complaints about, from singles who want to switch partners (or drop out altogether), and from couples whose uncomfortable conflicts on the floor might follow them home after class. (My teaching partner and I often feel that the work we do is in part couples therapy.)

Even teachers should refrain from doing their job on the milonga dance floor. The rules of etiquette apply to us, too. In fact, we should set the example. When we are dancing we are not teachers, we are dancers. We teach those who come to us for lessons, but just because we can teach doesn’t mean we should make it our mission to offer unsolicited advice to anyone who will listen, or to modify the style or technique of every dancer we touch. Anyway, we deserve to take off our teacher hats and just relax and enjoy the dance in our off hours!

Blocking the flow

As a milonga organizer I dislike those little dance-floor lessons because they block the flow of a milonga both on and off the floor. Tango is a social dance, which means we are not only dancing with our partners, we are also dancing with all the other couples on the floor. The best dance-floor flow happens when all the dancers are paying some attention to what's going on around them while trying to keep things moving in a forward direction. The couple who is standing on the spot teaching, discussing, trying to figure out a move is creating a bottleneck behind them and thus blocking the dance-floor flow.

So how does it break the flow off the floor? I can't count how many people have complained to me over the years about "teachy" partners and their condescending comments. I have seen people leave angry or on the verge of tears after a particularly unpleasant tanda because the flow or enjoyment of their evening was ruined by one insensitive partner. If one dancer has a negative experience at my milonga, the flow of the evening as a whole is affected in some way. Obviously the occasional bad experience is impossible to avoid, but there is one way every dancer can contribute positively: Don’t teach on the dance floor!

Negative feelings

As a dancer I despise being taught, corrected or commented on while I am dancing because it eliminates that state of abandon I so enjoy when there is a good connection. And then it brings up such unpleasant feelings as disappointment, self-doubt, defensiveness and resentment. Sarcastic responses play around in my head – but I’m polite and a professional so they don’t come out my mouth. I grin and bear the rest of the dance and do my best to avoid the dancer in future.

And I am lucky. I do most of my dancing at my very own milongas, so even the worst offenders don't try to teach me. But I do get the occasional condescending “muy bien” (which is well intentioned I’m sure, but feels like a pat on the head), and now and then if a tanguero tries to lead a particularly complex sequence of fancy moves and I miss something, he will try to explain what I “should have” done. Inside I am screaming: “Should have? Really? Well you should have led it properly if that’s what you wanted me to do. And by the way, try just walking a couple of steps now and then. Listen to the music and give the unending cycle of ganchos and volcadas a rest...” But outside I just smile and nod.

I was floored when a fellow teacher, a young and extremely talented tango dancer, told me that a dancer we know – one who has a reputation for rubbing people the wrong way with some of his judgemental and condescending remarks – informed her that she’s become a pretty good dancer and he would give her a 7. As in out of 10. As I said: floored.

The examples I have mentioned here are of bad leader behaviour, because I am a woman and most often a follower, so that is my experience. But women can be just as guilty of offering unwelcome advice on how to embrace, walk and lead. Men have plenty of stories to tell about women who offer such helpful little comments as, “It shows that you don’t really practice often.” Unbelievable!

About that self-doubt we feel when faced with situations like these: Next time you find yourself with a "teachy" dance partner, remember that dancers who regularly correct their partners are not among the most skilled on the floor. For leaders, it means they are attempting moves that either they or their partners are not ready for. For followers, it means their following skills are still underdeveloped. (Good followers can follow any lead, regardless of level.) Those who correct their partners do so because they don't know how to correct themselves.

Don't get me wrong, we all could improve our dancing, amateurs and professionals alike. (As a teacher I need to work harder than anyone on my technique so I can set the best example possible.) But there’s a time and a place to teach and be taught, and the milonga isn’t it.

As dancers it is not up to us to mold all our partners into the dancers we would like them to be. We shouldn’t try to adapt them to us; we should accept them as the dancers they are and adapt ourselves to them for the 12 minutes it takes. This, as always, applies to leaders and followers. If everyone tried to adapt themselves instead of each other, we would come much closer to finding that 50/50 balance that makes a dance feel just right.

Let’s try this: Instead of looking for what needs to be fixed in the dancers we dance with, let’s find something positive in each one. Maybe he has a perfect sense of rhythm or she conveys true passion. How about we all just relax and enjoy a little more, leave the lessons for the classes, keep our judgements (or scores!) to ourselves. And, as I tell my kids, if we can’t say anything nice, we’re better off saying nothing at all. (Well, we do have to say thank you.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The language of tango

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When teaching tango, studying tango or just talking about tango, we compare the dance to many things: driving, sports, architecture, relationships – but my favourite tango analogies compare tango to language. I didn’t invent the tango-language comparison, but I use it often and I feel it is the most true.

First, tango is inarguably a form of communication. It is a non-verbal conversation between two people. The leader initiates the conversation, the follower responds and the leader responds to her response. As in verbal exchanges, the best communicators are excellent listeners. It is such a pleasure to lead dancers who wait for the lead, who respond to subtle movements and who take the time and initiative to express themselves. Meanwhile, leaders who give that time to their partners, who leave them space for self-expression and who wait for them to complete a movement before suggesting the next one are a joy to dance with.

Also, as in verbal communication, interrupting is impolite. For leaders this would be the equivalent of not letting the follower complete one movement before leading the next. For followers it means anticipating what comes next and not waiting for the lead. If I interrupt you when you are talking to me, I am basically telling you that what you were saying either didn’t interest me or was at least less interesting that what I have to say. It is the same on the dancefloor.

The beauty of humanity is that we are all different, and therefore we all express ourselves differently. So no two conversations are alike. In the context of tango it is important not just to understand this, but also to respect it. Every follower will respond differently to a lead, and every leader will respond differently to the follower’s response. And so the conversation evolves.

Of course, a dancer’s skill level has a lot to do with the extent to which he or she is able to express him or herself. Which takes me to the second way tango is like language: the learning process. You need to learn the alphabet before you can write poetry – in English, French, Spanish or tango. When we teach or learn the dance, we generally start with a few simple phrases – a box step, an eight-count basic, forward and backward ochos within a simple structure – but ultimately dancers need to go beyond the ready-made sequences and learn to create their own. If not, they continue to merely mimic their teachers or other dancers rather than learning to express themselves. At the same time, it is really important to learn the basics correctly and not get carried away by the fancy, impressive moves (big, impressive words). If we take the time to learn and follow the rules first, then when it comes time to break some of those rules and write poetry, ours will be beautiful.

For most of us, tango is not a mother tongue; it is a second language. As with any language, when, where and how we learn tango has a lot to do with how easily we will master it. If we want to master a new language, the best way is to immerse ourselves in it. So being somewhere where we can speak the language on a regular basis with a variety of people who speak it well will help immensely. But formal study is an important component, too, so that we can understand the rules and learn to speak correctly. So taking classes, going regularly to practices and milongas and dancing with different partners will all contribute to a dancer’s advancement. Heading to Buenos Aires for your immersion is the obvious choice, but it is not necessary to go to Argentina to learn Argentine tango, just as it is not necessary to go to Spain to learn Spanish. It is only necessary to be somewhere where the language is spoken – or the tango is danced – frequently and at a high level. So Montreal, Paris, Istanbul and countless other cities around the world offer enough tango that you can learn it to the point of mastery if you want to. But studying the history, learning about the culture and visiting the birthplace will give you another level of understanding and a deeper perspective.

A note to the advanced tango-speakers about how to help newcomers who are just starting to learn our language: Leave the lessons to the teachers and the class setting. Imagine if you were having a conversation with someone, telling them about something really interesting that happened to you, and that person stopped you every few words to correct your pronunciation, suggest a different idiom, tell you a better way to phrase your thoughts. Perhaps your partner will learn something from your instructions, but it won’t be a very enjoyable conversation. All you need to do to help beginners move forward is speak – I mean dance – slowly and clearly to make sure they can understand you. They will learn from you and have fun doing it.

Often when people contact me for information about classes, if they already dance other dances – ballroom, salsa, swing – they expect that they won’t have to start at the beginner level, since they already know how to dance. But again I come back to the idea that learning tango is like learning a second language. If I already speak English and I want to learn Russian, does that mean that I should be put in an intermediate level Russian class? Of course not! However, if I already speak two or three languages there is a good chance that I will pick up a fourth one more quickly than someone who has never learned a second language before. People who dance other dances are probably coming in with a good sense of musicality, a certain amount of body awareness and a number of other skills that may accelerate the learning process, but they still need to start at the beginning.

Like with languages or indeed anything else we might want to learn, some people also just have a knack for it and will pick it up in no time, but with hard work, study and lots and lots of practice, anyone can learn to speak the language of tango. Some might go on to be poets in their own right, and others will just manage to make themselves understood.

So what does it mean to master the language of tango?

Once we have learned to walk with a partner in front of us, we are already communicating at a basic level, but we need a certain amount of vocabulary and a certain ease of expression to really say we dance tango.

At the same time, big, impressive words do not a great communicator make. It’s important to use words – or moves – that our partners can understand and follow rather than trying to impress them with vocabulary that goes right over their heads. We may know the big words, but it’s important to use them in the right context and with the right people.

So the list is long: excellent listening skills, a desire and an ability to express yourself, strong basics, a thorough understanding of the rules and also when to break them, a well-developed yet carefully chosen vocabulary, an awareness of and respect for your partner’s abilities... Mastering this language goes far beyond knowing its mechanics: We need to know the rules and the structure, but also be able to express ourselves with fluidity and eloquence; then we need to go beyond the language itself  and develop our communication skills and our creativity.

Finally, we need to remember that no matter how well we ourselves may speak – or think we speak – the language of tango, we too are still learning. No one knows all the words in the dictionary, and besides, languages evolve and so should we... which will be the topic of a future blog post.