Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Building awareness

Developing an awareness of how you move
will allow you to start to make adjustments
that will improve your tango and that you can
carry over into everyday life.
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If we’re going to dance tango, it’s a good idea to know what we’re doing with our bodies. Sounds obvious, but it’s not a given for many people.

Often people come to their first tango class and are surprised by the type of comments they receive about their dancing. Not only do they need to learn steps and sequences and do them in sync with a partner, they need to worry about such things as bringing their feet together in between steps, adjusting the length of their steps, holding their arms and shoulders a certain way, turning the torso this way or that, looking in a particular direction, and the list goes on.

This can feel pretty overwhelming to someone who has not been trained to move with an awareness of such things. Students can easily become defensive about the teachers’ comments (“How does she know if I’m pushing the floor… and what does that even mean, anyway?”), and frustrated with what they perceive to be criticism because they’re “doing it wrong.” What’s important to understand is the goal of corrections is not (or at least should not be) to criticize the student or to get them do things “right” on the next try, but to gradually build an awareness of how they are moving and how they can adjust and improve their movements.

Unlike with highly technical dances like classical ballet or contemporary dance, most people come to tango (and other social dances) in adulthood, many in middle age or beyond and many of those with little to no previous training in dance or related disciplines. Tango attracts a lot of intellectual types and professionals, people who spend a large part of their lives in thinking pursuits rather than physical ones; in other words, people who are not necessarily “in their bodies.”

Of course we all use our bodies every day. We know that we walk by putting one foot in front of the other, but maybe we have never thought about just how we place our foot on the floor, how it rolls through each step, whether our toes are facing in or out, whether our weight is more in our heels or our toes, the inside or the outside of our feet…

One very common thing that comes up with students is when I see that someone tends to turn his or her toes inward when they walk. I can tell them 20 times to bring the heels in or send the toes out or keep the ball of the big toe on the floor, but my corrections are useless if the student does not even know that his or her toes are, in fact, turned in. I know this is the case when my comments are met with looks of confusion or bewilderment. Then what I need to do is to catch the student in mid-step and have them freeze, look down and see the position of their foot, which may very well have felt completely natural and right if that’s how they have been walking every day of their lives. Once they have seen the position they need to change, I like to get them to close their eyes and feel how it feels, then I help them reposition the foot in a more correct way and have them feel that as well. Only once they know what their default position and their goal position both feel like can they effectively work toward the latter.

I once worked with a teacher who insisted that breaking down and explaining the technique of movements was not necessary. He believed that it was sufficient to teach steps and sequences and that if students repeated the steps often enough, having seen a demonstration of how they should look in the end, their bodies would eventually adapt and execute them correctly. This method may indeed work for trained dancers and those people who are just born with body awareness and have a natural ability to reproduce a movement because they know by what it looks like what it should feel like, but in the tango world those people are a minority. This method doesn’t work for people who are not aware of the mechanics of their movements in the first place, which, again, is the case for a large percentage of tango students.

Just developing an awareness of how you move and how you want to move will allow you to start to make minor adjustments that will improve your tango and that you can carry over into everyday life. For example, if you tend to round your upper back and lift and hunch your shoulders forward, training your body to stand up straighter and hold your shoulders down will strengthen your back muscles, giving you better posture not only on the dance floor but in your daily activities.

If we understand that the important thing is not the end goal but the benefits of the work we are doing, we may eliminate some of the frustration and impatience that comes with the (never-ending) learning process.

Social tango dancers (as opposed to teachers or stage dancers) need not be concerned with the flawless execution or aesthetic appeal of every move. The good news is that although most of us don’t need to focus too hard on the visual aspect of our dancing, if we work on our technique in terms of function, the end result will be more aesthetically pleasing.

Progressing in tango is not about attaining perfection, it is about building awareness. It is not about getting it right every time, it is about knowing how it feels when you do get it right, and gradually working toward that feeling as your new normal.

So awareness is about feeling rather than thinking. We might understand intellectually how a movement or position should be, but it is another thing for the body to actually execute it, and then the body needs to repeat it over and over until the new way becomes natural and you no longer have to think much about it at all.

Some people, those I call “doers,” learn movements in the body first, by doing them, and then they analyze them, break them down, understand and memorize them afterward. Other people, let’s call them “thinkers,” need to understand a movement intellectually first and then teach it to their bodies. Tango might come more easily to the doers, because they have an innate sense of body awareness and do things by feeling from the get-go. But the thinkers will get there, too; it just might take a little longer, especially at the beginning as they are just starting to develop that awareness. More good news: With practice we not only learn to dance, we learn to learn, so as our body awareness develops we actually learn faster and more easily. To help this process along, we can train ourselves to simply notice how our body feels as we execute movements – on and off the dance floor – and then try to reproduce some of those feelings whenever we can.

Of course, in tango we not only need to be aware of our own movements, we need to be aware of our partners’ movements. This is equally true for leaders and followers. For leaders it may be interesting to note that awareness of their partners is in fact the most important thing. The mistake many leaders make is trying too hard to control their partners’ dancing rather than simply noticing their partners’ actions and reactions and following through on those. It is up to the followers to execute their own movements and do their own dancing, while keeping a constant awareness of where their partners are, what they themselves feel and what their own bodies are doing.

We also need to be aware of how our own positions and movements affect our partners. Is my embrace pushing or pulling her off balance? Is my head position getting in the way of his comfort? Are my steps so long I am a challenge to keep up with? Once we are aware, we can start to adjust.

And then, of course, we must keep a part of our awareness on what is happening around us and the effect we may have on the other dancers. If we are aware, we will almost certainly be attentive to the flow of the dance floor. The dancers who are oblivious to others are also the biggest danger to others.

Perfection in tango (or in anything) is an unattainable goal, so it is pointless to expect it or to feel frustrated when we do not attain it. And we all have limits we need to be aware of and to respect. If we start tango at age 70 we may not progress as quickly or get as far as someone who started at age 25. If we are not naturally flexible we may not have as impressive a boleo as the girl who danced ballet from a young age and can do the splits effortlessly. We will have specific adjustments to make if we are very tall or very short, or if we have lingering injuries. But we all improve and will eventually learn enough to hold our own on the dance floor at the very least. We just need patience, desire and, above all, awareness.

Postscript: The day I had finished writing this post a dancer came to tell me she had just had a new experience: She had been out dancing the night before and for the first time felt she was able to both abandon herself to the dance and keep a real awareness of her posture and technique. She mentioned it to me because I had talked about just that in a class earlier in the week while mentioning specifically, I think, how to use the back muscles to stand tall and keep the shoulders down. She said to me that she felt she had reached a new level in her dancing and that "it's all about body awareness." Indeed it is, I said, and then told her that her comments would appear in my next blog post!

Here are some ways you can improve your body awareness:

Yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi. Yoga is my personal favourite complement to tango and it is taking a bigger and bigger place in my life, but all the mind-body disciplines build strength, balance, flexibility and most of all awareness. Like tango, yoga is not, or should not be, about "getting it right" or reaching the maximum version of every pose; it’s about getting to know your body and working with your body to improve all those things.

Private lessons. One-on-one instruction is invaluable. A good teacher will give you feedback that you can take away with you and techniques that you can apply on your own. When you take lessons and receive feedback from your teachers, especially when you hear the same comments over and over, learn to scan and coach yourself the way the teacher does. Try not to get defensive or discouraged and instead learn to become your own little reminder voice, checking up on you to see if your shoulders are lifted, your hips are too forward or your knees are too bent. Teachers repeat themselves not to nag but because once is not enough to change a lifelong habit. You can teach your own body through repetition as well.

Film yourself.
It can be hard on the ego, but watching yourself dance is a great way to become aware of how you really move and what you need or want to work on most.

Daily practice.
You don't have to dance tango every day, though you certainly could, but simply practising awareness of and then minor adjustments to your posture and your movements as you perform your daily tasks will help you develop new habits. Notice how you stand while you’re brushing your teeth, cooking dinner or standing in line at the bank. Once you are aware of your weaknesses and what the movement or alignment you are aiming for should look and feel like you just keep reminding yourself and adjusting yourself every time you think of it, whether that’s once a day or 100 times a day. Eventually the new positions will start to replace the old habits and you’ll become quicker to correct and adjust yourself, often without even giving it much thought. You will learn to dance and to live with a constant speck of awareness on your posture and body position.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice

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When a newcomer sits all night waiting to be invited,
the regulars might not know what they're missing.
Lately I’ve been thinking that the tango community would do well to take the above saying to heart.

A recent Facebook post by a local dancer sparked ongoing and heated discussion after he criticized organizers and dancers (particularly male dancers) for not being more open to dancing with newcomers. He was referring especially to tourists who perhaps didn’t receive as warm a welcome as they could have at a particular milonga, but the discussion expanded to include the issue of newcomers to specific milongas and then to those who feel like outsiders because they are not part of the inner “elite” of a given milonga or community. This was not the first time this particular dancer had chastised dancers for being overly exclusive in their invitations.

Many dancers responded to support or echo his viewpoint, but others pointed out that tango is a social activity we do for our enjoyment, and we therefore should not be “forced” to suffer through dances with people we don’t enjoy dancing with. I agree that if a dance or dancer is truly insufferable we have every reason and every right to stay away, but does every experience with someone who is just average, who is below our level, who is new to the game qualify as “suffering”? Some of the comments just sounded so self-centred and self-important. Yes, we dance tango to have fun and enjoy ourselves, but it is a social activity that takes place within a community, and while we are dancing there are two of us. So isn’t other people’s enjoyment, pleasure and satisfaction as important as our own?

The quote I used as the title of this blog post, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice,” has been attributed to a variety of people, most often U.S. businessman and billionaire John Templeton, one of the most generous philanthropists in history, and I think many of us could benefit from injecting our tango-going selves with a little more generosity.

At the same time, I think it is necessary to point out that lack of generosity is not only a male problem. It may feel that way to the women who sit all night waiting to be invited and it certainly can look that way in milongas where women outnumber men, which is often the case. But women can be just as selective, just as exclusive, just as self-centred or egotistical.

Recently my partner and I were giving a free mini-lesson to beginners during a free, outdoor milonga we organize every summer. There were a couple of young guys who wanted to participate, but they didn’t have partners. My partner went to ask a woman we both know who was sitting and watching whether she would help out for a few minutes by dancing with one of the beginners. Her reply: “Never!” I’m not sure whether that meant never would I help you out or never would I help out a beginner, but either way, why would you “never” be willing to help encourage a new dancer? Perhaps I should not have been so surprised, because this same woman, after a couple of years of classes, once haughtily announced, in my presence, that she doesn’t take classes anymore. So I guess now that she has apparently learned all she needs to, she is uninterested in contributing to anyone else’s learning.

This, to me, is simply an extreme example of an all-too-prevalent attitude.

Another woman who frequents our milongas once rolled her eyes at me after refusing a dance and said, “Why should I force myself?” I said nothing, just smiled politely, and I guess she realized how she had sounded, because she immediately tried to justify herself by adding, “I mean, you have to force yourself because you’re a teacher, but I don’t have to do that.”

I was unimpressed by her attitude, but I admit, she made me think. Do I sometimes force myself to dance with a student because it is in my interest to keep my students happy? Yes, I guess I do. But it is in my interest not just as a business person, but as a teacher – because I want my students to practise and to feel encouraged – and also as a person – because I try to be a nice person and I care how other people feel.

The attitude that we shouldn’t have to “waste our time” dancing with someone who is “below our level” feels wrong to me on more than one level. First, we can improve our skills and yes, even have some fun, with someone who is “below our level.” Second, is it really a waste of time to contribute to either the enjoyment or the improvement of others?

In some tango communities, people do not dance with newcomers until they have seen them dance with someone else. You know, to make sure they’re good enough. After all, we wouldn’t want a “good,” “cool” or “in” dancer to see us dancing with someone beneath us, which might make us look bad and tarnish our reputation. This attitude just reeks of snobbishness and self-importance. Is it really more important to look good than to help a newcomer feel welcome? And what's wrong with a little risk-taking now and then? I have taken risks by accepting dancers I had not studied previously. That means that now and then I endure an uncomfortable 12 minutes. But I have also had some lovely surprises and discovered some wonderful new connections.

In the dance itself, generosity is one of the essential qualities in a good dancer, male or female, leader or follower. The nicest dancers to dance with are those who let go of themselves while dancing and put their partners first. In other words, those who let go of the ego and dance with generosity. People with a generous spirit put others before themselves; tango dancers with a generous spirit put their partners’ enjoyment and well-being before their own. And it comes back to them in the end, because a dancer with happy partners is inevitably a happy dancer.

If you really are that much better than somebody else (please keep that ego in check when self-assessing) then why not offer that person the pleasure and benefit of your experience for a few minutes? Again, I’m not saying we should force ourselves to dance with someone we find highly difficult to dance with or a generally disagreeable person, but an occasional dance with somebody new or less skilled/less experienced could have benefits that reach a long way. It may inspire them to stick with tango or to work harder on improving their dancing, so we will have contributed to growing the tango community as a whole as well as the enjoyment and the skills of that individual dancer.

Most people who dance tango at a high level take it pretty seriously. If that makes us work hard to improve our skills, it will make us better dancers and contribute to the evolution of the dance itself. But while we continue to take our art seriously it’s important not to get confused and take ourselves too seriously. Remember that we are all in it to have fun, and to share the fun.

We can get a lot out of helping someone else. And we get very little out of being egotistical. Egoism blocks our capacity to learn, while generosity goes hand-in-hand with open-mindedness, both of which allow us to welcome the learning, growth and improvement of ourselves and our partners, ultimately improving our own enjoyment.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

So, you think you’re too advanced for the room

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When you are trying to learn tango, a little self-awareness goes a long way. This applies to men and women, leaders and followers. The superiority complexes that tend to come up differ somewhat between the sexes and the roles, but they exist on all sides.

In the past year more than one female student has come to me with a complaint that goes something like this: “I think I need to be put in a higher level because I can’t follow any of the leaders in the class, but when I dance with the teacher I have no problem.”

I, personally, tend to be overly diplomatic when dealing with this type of comment. What I perhaps should do is immediately bump the student in question down a level, but instead I suppress my exasperation and find the kindest possible way to explain that, in fact, if you can only follow the teacher, it means not that you are too advanced, but that you are not advanced enough.

The teacher can lead you because the teacher can lead anyone. As teachers we are used to dancing with people of all skill levels and we know how to adjust and compensate for our partners’ shortcomings. If the only people who can lead you are the teachers, it is because you are not doing your part. You are not yet receptive enough to read anything but the most clear, most perfect signals. Or you lack the strength or balance to stand firmly on your own two feet and not depend on your partner for stability. Or you have yet to assimilate how your body should react and process the movement from contact point to torso, hips and feet… Or, most likely, all of the above.

If you can only lead the teacher, 
it is more an indication of your own level 
than that of your partners.

Leader complaints tend to be centred on the number of “moves” they think they should be learning. They, too, often flock to the easiest or most advanced followers in the group, which is normal, but again, if you can only lead the teacher, or the easiest follower in the class, it is more an indication of your own level than that of your partners.

Don’t get me wrong, these are not insults, they are things everyone needs to work on as part of the learning process, to varying degrees and at varying rates depending on the individual. But it is important to recognize that we need to work on these things ourselves, and that we can work on them, regardless of whom we are dancing with. In fact, we are forced to work harder on our own technique when we dance with weaker partners, because if our partners are really good, they do more of the work, compensate for our shortcomings and allow us to be lazier about our own technique.

So it is important to differentiate between being able to dance with certain types or levels of dancers and enjoying dancing with those dancers.

While I generally will have an easier time and enjoy myself more while dancing with a skilled partner, I can follow just about anyone, without sacrificing my own posture or technique in the process.

The more advanced you truly are,
the more able you will be 
to dance with anyone.

After 15 years of teaching tango, I can honestly say that the students who complain about the level of the other people in the class are never the most advanced students in the group. Those who already have pretty good technique, or who understand the importance of good technique, do not blame other students for their mistakes or weaknesses. They understand that it is everyone’s responsibility to improve his or her own dancing. And the more advanced you truly are, the more able you will be to dance with anyone.

It is just so easy to blame our partners. I see it every day, and everyone is guilty of partner-blaming at least once in a while.

In leaders this attitude often manifests itself in teaching or explaining unsuccessful moves to their partners instead of improving their own leading skills. In followers we find the attitude that their leaders are there to “make them dance,” which encourages passive, dependent dancing. We all need to take responsibility for our own dancing, and the best way to do this is to solidify our own foundation and practise our moves solo. If, for example, I can’t keep my balance while executing a back ocho by myself, how will I do it with a partner without hanging on for dear life? My balance, my steps, my pivots and my axis are my responsibility, not my partner’s.

I began writing this post a couple of months ago after an exchange with a student who expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of the course she was taking. First, I was surprised by her comments because she was among the followers in the group who struggled hardest with such technical points as balance, strength and dissociation. As an example of things she needed to work on, I pointed out a specific technical error that I had corrected more than once over several weeks, and she claimed that she had done it correctly in the past but had regressed because of one or more leaders in the group. This partner-blaming – and subsequent denial that that’s what it was – continued for weeks, and it was of course not the first time I had encountered such an attitude.

It’s OK to be content with where we are, 
as long as we don’t let our egos 
get ahead of our dancing skills.

Then there are those dancers who think they have nothing left to learn. It is one thing to take a break from classes or even to decide that you don’t want to go any farther in your tango learning. It is quite another thing to think you pretty much know it all and that further classes would be a waste of your time. In sports and in the arts it is the professionals who train the hardest, always striving to improve or perfect their skills, so how could further learning be a waste of time for an amateur? Tango dancers who keep dancing but stop learning somewhere between an intermediate and an advanced level generally underestimate the importance of good technique. They get to a point where a fair number of dancers will dance with them, so they have fun at milongas and don’t feel the need to go any further in their learning. Indeed, there is some learning to be done on the milonga dance floor in terms of developing versatility, adaptability and navigational skills. And it’s also OK to be content with where we are, as long as we remain aware of where we really are, and don’t let our egos get ahead of our dancing skills.

The more we strengthen our own dancing, the less a partner’s technical shortcomings will affect us. Followers who hold their own on the dance floor improve their own experience by not allowing themselves to be dragged around by rough leaders, but they also make things easier for their leaders and are therefore enjoyable to dance with. Meanwhile, they won’t require a forceful lead, so they will encourage their leaders to become subtler, softer … and more enjoyable to dance with. Technically strong leaders who don’t over-lead encourage their followers to respond to subtler signals, in turn encouraging other leaders to dance that way. And so it goes: In improving our own technique, we encourage our partners to improve theirs, and everyone becomes more pleasant to dance with, receives more invitations or acceptances, and has a better time dancing tango!

Before we overestimate ourselves – thereby underestimating our partners – we should always look at what we can improve on. If both sides do this, we will both hold our own, and meet in the middle to enjoy the connection, the music and the conversation that is tango. Remember, we dance with good dancers to enjoy them, not to depend on them.

Finally, if our partners are not responsible for our mistakes, they also are not responsible for our accomplishments. So we can pat ourselves on the back and feel proud of ourselves when we know we have danced well.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A guide to milonga etiquette

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If you are going to write about tango, at some point you have to write a guide to tango etiquette. So here is mine.

There is a right way to enter the milonga, to invite someone and to join the dance-floor traffic flow. 


The universal rules of courtesy and good manners apply to milongas. The reason for codes of conduct is not to limit or restrict people, but, on the contrary, to ensure that a pleasurable time can be had by all and not just a select few. Beyond the universal rules of courtesy, respect and good manners, there are some rules that apply specifically to social dancing and even more specifically to Argentine tango dancing.
New dancers can use this list as a guide to their first milongas. Others can use it as a reminder, or as a starting point for discussion if there are points about which you feel strongly one way or the other. I certainly did not invent these codes of conduct, but I stand by them. Well, most of them. I have included some “rules” that I don’t wholeheartedly support, and have of course included my reasons why. As always, feel free to give me your feedback!


When you enter a milonga, or need to cross from one side of the dance floor to the other, always go around, not through, the dance floor.

Photo: Jacques Guibert
Whom to invite? And how?


The cabeceo:
I am only now mastering the art of this traditional method of inviting, which involves nothing more than eye contact and a nod. In Buenos Aires, pretty much everyone uses it, but not here in North America. It was not really used in Montreal when I started tango back in the late 1990s, so it is a relatively recent discovery for me. That being said, I think the cabeceo is wonderful and has many advantages, as well as a couple of drawbacks.
In terms of advantages for leaders, there is none of that embarrassment of crossing the room to be rejected for all to see.
For followers, avoiding eye contact is an easy way to say no without having to actually say no … or make up excuses (see below for more on this). I believe the technique also empowers women. Some people still frown upon women doing the inviting, but with the subtlety of the cabeceo, it is sometimes hard to tell the inviter from the invitee. After all, if I want him to invite me, I am the one who has to look him in the eye... then he nods and I smile, or was it me who smiled and then he nodded? It all feels much more like mutual agreement. This subtle assertiveness is not always easy for us shy types, but if we master the technique, we may actually overcome some of our shyness at the same time.
Of course, nothing is fool-proof. The one major drawback to the cabeceo is the risk of confusion. If the room is large or dark or very crowded, it can be hard to tell who is looking at whom, so when someone nods toward your table, it may be hard to discern the target. Guys, if you nod at someone and the wrong person accepts, the polite or gentlemanly thing to do is to dance the tanda with your unintended, and hope you are more on target next time.

The verbal invitation: While I encourage the increasing use of the cabeceo, I believe there are many instances in which it is just fine to verbally invite someone. If you happen to be standing right next to someone and want to dance with them, it makes sense to use words. If you are having a conversation with someone and a great tanda starts up, of course you would ask the person verbally. And, because the cabeceo is not an ingrained custom in Montreal or the rest of North America the way it is in Buenos Aires, not everyone knows how to use it, so it’s hard to use it with everyone.

Leaders, what you need to know:
There are an increasing number of women out there who are what one might call cabeceo snobs, meaning they will reject an invitation for the sole reason it was done “incorrectly,” as in verbally. Also, if you are going to go the verbal invite route, there are definitely some rules, and some instances in which you should just not go there:

  • She is deeply involved in a conversation with someone. She is clearly having a tête-à-tête, or holding hands, or sitting on somebody’s lap. It seems obvious that this would not be the right moment to invite her, but what seems obvious to some...
  • She seems to be purposely avoiding your gaze. No matter what you do, you cannot attract her attention. Why risk it? If it looks a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck...
  • The shoes are off. This means her feet are tired and she’s either taking a break or done for the evening. Or she wants you or someone else to think her feet are tired and she’s taking a break. Either way, ask at your own risk.
Whatever you do, don’t hover. If, despite any or all of the above signs, you are determined to try and dance with this person, just go ahead and ask. Don’t stand in the periphery of your target’s vision, shifting your weight around, being distracting and making everyone feel awkward.
And please, always give your invitee a choice, and accept that choice. While I thoroughly support the cabeceo, I wholeheartedly discourage what another teacher once described as the "grabeceo." It is unfair to just grab someone by the arm and pull her on to the dance floor without asking her first. It is also bad form to accost someone on the dance floor just as she is finishing a tanda with someone else. If you ask and she says no, accept her answer with grace; don't pester or demand an explanation. That just makes everyone uncomfortable – and will definitely not up the chances of her accepting next time.

Followers, to accept or not to accept: This is basically a non-issue when the cabeceo is used, which is one of its biggest advantages. Because you have to make eye contact in order to invite or be invited, if you don’t want to dance with someone, just don’t make eye contact.
But in my view, just because someone makes a faux-pas does not mean he or she doesn’t merit a minimum amount of respect. Women who say it’s the cabeceo or nothing say the guy who goes the verbal route deserves to be rejected because he’s asking the wrong way. I think it is unfair to outright punish dancers for using the less-favoured technique. Inviting verbally is a faux-pas in Buenos Aires, but here it is not, at least not yet. And even if it were, is it an unpardonable one?
In any case, if you choose to accept an invitation, as a woman or man, leader or follower, you accept and move on to the next step: the dance floor (see below).
If you choose to reject, there is an etiquette to that, too. My best advice is two-fold: First, be nice about it. Rejection is hard to take, and there is rarely a good reason to be unkind. Second, (and I admittedly don’t always follow this one myself) don’t lie. Whatever your reasons for the rejection, you are not obliged to provide them; a simple “No, thank you,” should suffice. It’s not always easy to be that candid, however. Most of us do care about other people’s feelings, so we like to soften the blow of rejection with a reason – tired feet or some such thing. That’s OK if it’s true, but common decency requires you to stand by your excuse and sit out the rest of the tanda, even if the best dancer in the room, the one you have been waiting weeks to dance with, asks you.
And then comes the question of whom to accept or reject. Of course, we all dance in order to have a good time, and we all ultimately have the right not to dance with whomever we choose. But I have some views and suggestions on the matter.
For me, the choice comes down to personality and attitude more than skill level or strict adherence to code.
I am a big supporter of dancing with beginners. After all, we were all beginners once, and we all get better when we occasionally get to dance with more advanced dancers. I don’t like the attitude that advanced dancers are somehow above dancing with beginners.
I generally don’t refuse people based on skill level but rather on attitude and dance floor etiquette. Leaders I avoid are those who push, pull and generally manhandle me so I have to spend every second fighting for my balance. I also try to steer clear of those who show a complete disregard for the other dancers on the floor. Leaders who use their partners like shields or weapons on the dance floor are really, really stressful and impossible to connect with, because their followers spend all their time and focus looking over their shoulders trying to do the leader's job of avoiding collisions. Also, dancers who correct or teach their partners on the dance floor are high on my list of those to avoid, as anyone who read my blog post on the subject knows well.
As advanced dancers, if we accept regardless of skill level, we will help beginners to work on their skills. Meanwhile, if we reject based on bad behaviour, we may help some dancers to work on that.
In terms of enjoyment as a follower, and therefore likelihood I will accept or seek out future invitations, things I look for, in this order, are: connection to me; attention to dance-floor flow and safety; musicality – with a basic sense of rhythm being enough and anything more a treat. Creative figures and fun moves are definitely on the list, but not if they get in the way of the aforementioned items.
I hear there is an attitude in some milongas that we should not dance with people we don’t know until we have seen them dance with someone else. You know, to make sure they’re good enough for us. After all, we wouldn’t want one of the “good,” “cool” or “in” dancers to see us dancing with someone beneath us, who might make us look bad and tarnish our reputation. I hope you can read the irony in my words, because this is an attitude I find outright ridiculous. It just reeks of snobbishness and self-importance, and I am proud to say the opposite phenomenon occurs at my milonga, where newcomers are welcomed with a smile and, before long, an abrazo.
I have taken risks by accepting dancers I had not studied previously. Now and then I suffer for it, for 12 minutes. But I have also had some lovely rewards and discovered some wonderful new connections.

Women inviting: Is it done? Yes. Is everyone comfortable with the evolving roles and women doing the asking? No. But it’s up to you to decide what you are comfortable with.

Cutting in: Just no. Certainly not during a song, or even in between songs. As mentioned earlier, it is not even good manners to grab someone during the cortina when he or she hasn’t yet left the dance floor after the previous dance. You just can’t invite someone who’s already on the dance floor. Period.

Asking third-party permission: When you approach a dating or married couple, is it necessary to ask permission of the other when you want to ask one of them to dance? Many would say yes, but I say no. Maybe it's the feminist in me talking, but I don't like to feel I need permission from my man to dance with someone or to do anything else. However, I do feel it is important to acknowledge the other person – and this applies not only to couples but to anyone sitting at the table. Say hello or even just smile. No one likes to feel invisible or ignored. And, as mentioned above, if the couple in question is obviously enjoying a "couple" moment, it's better to wait. Tango dancers need to be good at reading body language both off and on the floor.


When entering the line of dance with your partner be careful not to cut right in front of an approaching couple. Unless you can easily merge leaving several paces free in front of the next couple, make eye contact with the approaching leader before you merge.

Photo: Jacques Guibert
Avoid large movements and backward kicks when the dance floor is crowded.


The tanda: Tandas are sets of three or four songs by one orchestra or of a similar style. Tandas are separated by cortinas, clips of non-tango music that last up to a minute. Normally we are meant to dance the full tanda with the same partner. Being left partway through a tanda feels bad. Period. So, barring extreme circumstances, remember, a tanda lasts 9-12 minutes of your life. Even if it is unpleasant, you can probably grin, bear it, and remember to say no next time. However, there are three instances in which it is acceptable to stop dancing partway through a tanda:
1. Both partners came to a mutual agreement before the dance began.
2. An injury or other emergency occurs during the dance.
3. The partner’s behaviour is so rude or disrespectful as to merit their being offended and publicly humiliated by being abandoned mid-tanda.
The cortina is our opportunity to change partners. While in the most traditional milongas in Buenos Aires everyone leaves the dance floor during the cortina, here in Montreal it is OK to stay on the dance floor with our partner if things are going great and we have agreed to dance another set. The cortina is also our cue to say “Thank you.” While we should always thank our partners for the dance, we should only thank them at the end of the dance. This is one of those things I hear all the time from novice dancers after their first milonga. They naively said “Thank you,” after the first song and were bewildered when their partner walked away! The cortina can also be the time to scout out your next partner. Most dancers wait to see what music will play next before actually inviting someone, but it’s a good idea to plan ahead and act fast, otherwise everyone will be taken by the time you’re ready to make your move.

No teaching on the dance floor: As anyone who read my blog post on the subject knows, this is a big one for me. Please, avoid teaching or correcting your partner. Dance to the level of your partner, and when something isn't working, try to improve your own technique. Corrections are the job of teachers, and should be saved for class time. (This applies to teachers as well.)

Less talk, more dancing: In general, just save the conversation for when the music stops. Constant apologies for every misstep are almost as annoying as corrections. And if you want to chat about the weather or discuss your day, have a seat at the bar.

Quality, not quantity! It's the connection that counts. Limit your large movements (ganchos, boleos, jumps, etc.), especially when the dance floor is full.
It has been said that the tanguero who dances non-stop for three hours straight doesn’t really love tango, he just needs to keep moving, and that a “real” dancer chooses his music and his partner – often one as a consequence of the other. I’m not sure how on board I am with this line of thinking. Sure there’s a difference between he who fills his plate with everything he can find and the discerning gourmet who wants nothing but the finest dishes, but they both love food, don’t they? Each in his own way. As long as they are following the rules of traffic flow, why shouldn’t people dance all night if that’s what they want to do?

Keep an eye on the road: Leaders, follow the line of dance, avoid weaving from one line to another, look ahead of you in order to avoid collisions, and look before you back up. Followers, stay with your partner and avoid kicking up your feet unless you know there is room. This means that if you dance with your eyes closed, you really shouldn't ever be kicking your feet up behind you. If your eyes are open, be the eyes in the back of your leader's head. It's OK to stop him from taking that step backward if it means avoiding a collision.

No hit and runs! Accidents happen. Never mind whose fault it was; it's just good manners to say sorry and make sure the other person is OK.


                  It’s tango. You are going to be in close contact with lots of people. And you probably want those people to want to be in close contact with you.
                  Some things should go without saying, but they don’t always, so here it is:
                  If you are going to be wrapping your arms around people, holding hands with them, breathing close to them and putting your face against theirs, you ought to be paying pretty close attention to your personal hygiene.
                  Shower before you go dancing. Wear a clean shirt. Wear antiperspirant or deodorant if you need to, and you should know if you do.
                  Brush your teeth before heading out the door and, if necessary chew gum or suck on a breath mint.
                  Sweat a lot? If you have to head to the washroom between tandas to dry your face, do it. If your shirts get soaked through after an hour, carry an extra or two with you and change as needed. Lots of people do this, and it is much appreciated by their dance partners.

Thank you for helping all your fellow dancers enjoy their tango experience to the fullest!

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Eight personality traits that will make you a better tango dancer

Clearly there are certain physical abilities that contribute to the ease with which we learn and dance tango (or any other dance for that matter): strength, agility, balance, coordination, body awareness, good posture and a sense of rhythm, to name a few.

But it takes two to tango, so it takes more than superb poise and impressive footwork to become the tango dancer everyone keeps lining up for: It takes partnering skills, which have as much to do with who you are as what you can do.

Here are eight personality traits that will help you on your way to becoming not just the ultimate dancer, but also the ultimate partner.


We all know that patience is a virtue – and the old cliché holds true on the dance floor. We have to be patient with ourselves in order first to learn and then to dance. Argentine tango is a challenging dance that takes a lot of focus and a lot of practice. I am the first to assert that anyone can learn it, but we all learn differently and at different speeds, so for those who struggle at all with it (which is most people), impatience – and the frustration that comes with it – is often the deal breaker.
Of course, it also doesn’t help if our partners are impatient with us. So we need to be patient not just with ourselves but also with our partners. It is just too easy to blame the other for the “mistakes” we make when we are dancing together. But before we sigh, roll our eyes or make that passive-aggressive little comment, we need to remember that not only are we dancing with someone who still has some learning to do, they are too. And this is true for all of us, forever. Sure it’s easier after 10 years than 10 weeks, but we are never done learning and improving our own skills. Patience involves an ability to let go of our plans and go with the flow, forgiving ourselves and our partners for those “mistakes” that really aren’t mistakes at all, just perfectly normal moments of miscommunication that can easily become opportunities for evolution and creativity. Patience will also make it easier for us to wait for the music, and therefore take pleasure from it, and to go with the flow on the dance floor rather than speeding around while weaving in and out of our lane and cutting off other dancers.


This can be a tough one, but it’s also a huge one. If we are to find that true tango connection, we must trust our partners.
For leaders this means trusting that our partner is capable not just of following us, but also of dancing. Trusting in these two things means we will lead with confidence rather than hesitation, being clear while leaving it to the follower to stay with us and the music. Also, if we trust our partner to dance we will avoid the common mistake of over-leading. Remember, a leader’s job is not to take his (or her) partner from Point A to Point B, but to invite and then allow his partner to take that step.
For followers, we need to trust our partner to lead something. If I don’t trust my leader I will do what I think he (or she) meant to lead rather than what was actually led. I don’t need to know what my leader was thinking, only what my leader did.
So we have to trust the other, but it is equally important that we trust ourselves.
If leaders need to trust their followers in order to be clear, they also need to trust themselves or, again, they will hesitate – and then so will their partners.
For followers, they need to trust themselves to do what they feel and to take one step at a time. Sounds simple, but too many followers second-guess themselves constantly, wondering, “Was that right?” “What was that move we just did?” or “What’s next?” All pointless questions by the time they even come to mind. Once a step has been taken it is done and can’t be taken back. Right or wrong, intended or not, there is no point in judging it. All either partner can do is move on from here, and that is how tango is supposed to be. If we can trust that, we can worry less and dance more.


Along the same lines as trusting ourselves, self-confidence will help us lead or follow with ease and clarity and without hesitation or second-guesses. It is not always an easy trait to come by if it doesn’t come naturally, but it can come with time. We can, of course, help other dancers to gain self-confidence by, for instance, trusting and being patient with them. And of course, with practice and hard work comes increased mastery of the dance, which should lead to more self-confidence. Once we know  that we know what we are doing, that will come across to our partners and help them trust us. But we don’t need loads of vocabulary or years of training to be able to lead or follow; it is possible and helpful to be confident in the few things we do know. Self-confident dancers usually attract more partners, in turn helping them improve their skills and gain more confidence, attracting more partners still, and so on.
But beware the fine line between self-confidence and arrogance. A healthy trust that we know what we are doing does not mean we should think we are beyond fault or better than everyone else.

A sense of humour:

If we are to improve our tango dancing we need to take it seriously, but let’s not take ourselves too seriously.
Tango is an improvised dance, so not only does it not always go according to plan, it should not always go according to plan.
Almost every dancer is guilty of the occasional impatient sigh directed at our partners or ourselves, or of too many words of apology when “mistakes” are made. Some dancers are guilty of pointing out every failed move and of explaining what the result “should have” been.
Again, mistakes are often not really mistakes, so they usually don’t even need to be acknowledged. But even when a miscommunication is blatant and downright awkward, it’s tango and we’re supposedly in it for the fun of it, so why not just laugh it off? Smile, forgive your partner, forgive yourself. Then everyone can relax and move on rather than revisiting the unpleasant moment that made them uncomfortable and might very well stick with them through other dances or a whole evening that otherwise could have been more fun.


It is tango, after all. It’s unusual for someone to be lukewarm about tango yet stick with it long enough to master it. It is widely accepted that tango is the most complex of the couple dances, because of its closeness, unique embrace and improvised nature, so we need to dedicate a significant amount of time if we’re going to get anywhere approaching an advanced level. Once a week is not enough, class time must be combined with practice time as well as dancing in the milongas, and six months of experience is nothing. So if we’re going to spend a significant part of our time and, yes, money on tango, we ought to be pretty passionate about it. Besides, passion will bring a quality to our dancing that goes beyond solid technique and a good sense of rhythm. People will see it and, of course, our partners will feel it.


Skilled dancers tend to be in demand, for obvious reasons, and of course so do young, attractive dancers. But there’s another kind of dancer people keep coming back to: fun dancers. If I dance with you and I enjoy myself, I will surely seek you out again, and not only that, but I will spread the word. Lots of factors can contribute to my fun, not the least of which are skill level and musicality, but the most enjoyable dancers are those who put their partners first. Take care of our partners – by dancing to their level thus making them feel good about their dancing, by not using them as shields or battering rams on the dance floor, by shrugging or laughing off any blips – and they will keep coming back to us. People with a generous spirit put others before themselves; tango dancers with a generous spirit put their partners’ enjoyment and wellbeing before their own. And it comes back to them in the end, because a dancer with happy partners is inevitably a happy dancer.

Good listening skills:

In life and in tango, the best communicators are good listeners.
Followers are told from the start that they need to follow, or listen to, their partners. This comes easily for some, and not so easily for others. Later on, followers learn that their role is in fact about much more than following and that they also need to express themselves in the dance. That’s when the real fun begins, but those who learn in that order – listen first and then talk – become the best at what they do. Those who “talk” too much and listen little tend to guess and anticipate and lack that connection that would otherwise make them such a pleasure to dance with.
As for leaders, they are all taught to lead, but what they often don’t realize is they also need to follow. The leader invites his partner to take a step, allows her to take that step and then follows her through it, or, in other words, allows her to speak and listens to what she has to say. This way, the leader ensures he allows his partner to complete a movement before he indicates something new. Those leaders who drag their partners around, making them feel like it’s all they can do to keep up? They are the ones who aren’t listening. Attentive leaders are the ones who allow their partners to express themselves, to decorate the dance, to contribute to the musicality. They are the ones who are the most fun and rewarding to dance with, for beginners and advanced dancers alike.


Physical presence is essential for tango dancers. A passive leader is hard to follow, while a passive follower is boring. Dancers often talk about the “resistance” or the “pressure” that one should feel from one’s partner. I dislike both words because they imply that we should somehow block our partners or push them away. For me, the correct word here is “presence,” which correctly implies that we should be strong in our dancing, while looking for that meeting and exchange of energy with the other.
But there is another type of presence that is very helpful for tango dancers, and that is the ability to live fully and completely in the present moment. If we are guessing what comes next, working our way toward the next impressive move or judging ourselves or our partners, we are not truly present, and our connection will be lacking. One of the things I love most about dancing tango is that I can abandon myself to the dance, no matter what happened before or what might come later. I would go so far as to say (and I am not the first to say it) that I enter a meditative state when I am dancing Argentine tango. Those who have a natural knack for living in the moment may take quite easily to tango, while those who don’t may find that tango helps them learn to let go a little.

If you already possess any of the above-mentioned qualities, certain aspects of tango will come easily to you. The great thing is, tango can also help you to develop those traits that may not come so naturally, but that ultimately will help you in other aspects of your life as well.

(After all, life is a tango, is it not?)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

An alternative view of tango music

Lire en français

I love tango. I love the movement, the connection, the conversation, the abandon and, of course, the music.

I am a dancer, so I, like many, discovered tango music through the dance. Throughout my first decade of tango dancing I always did my best to be on the dance floor, whether dancing socially, teaching or performing. But since opening my own school and milonga seven years ago I have discovered an unexpected passion for DJing. I was surprised to discover just how much fun I could have sitting behind the console keeping everyone else dancing.

I love DJing during the milonga itself, but I also love the preparation. I often lose myself in collecting, researching and sorting music – when I should be attending to other, more pressing business matters. I tell myself I’m just going to look up the dates of a couple of classic Donato recordings … and three hours later I’m still absorbed in downloading, compiling, rating, categorizing and planning new tandas for my next milonga. Then comes the payoff: the satisfaction I feel when every dancer in the room is on the dance floor for that beautiful waltz tanda, or when six different people come to ask about a particularly intriguing alternative tanda.

Yes, you read me right: alternative tanda. I play alternative music and I’m not ashamed to admit it! Though sometimes I feel like I should be.

In recent months I have seen at least a couple of online discussion threads around the topic of alternative music. Two threads were started by dancers who complained that local DJs don’t play a big enough variety of music. Well, after one or two initial posts by dancers who felt the same way he does, the attacks began. What surprised me were not the differences of taste or opinion between the “traditional only” and “more nuevo” camps; different tastes are healthy and totally expected. What shocked me was the disdain shown by those with a more “purist” bent for those with alternative tastes. And also the disdain shown by some DJs for the general tango-dancing public, especially the less experienced tango-dancing public.

I have thought a lot about why that attitude bothers me so much and also about why I personally enjoy thinking and dancing outside the box from time to time.

I once read a post by a tango DJ who proudly stated she had NEVER played a song requested by a dancer. Never. I was shocked, because I actually thought that as DJs we were there for the dancers: to educate them, yes; to expand their horizons, certainly; but also, quite simply, to please them. Should a DJ play everything everyone asks for? Of course not. In my case, I have to know and like a song and be able to fit it into a tanda as well as the overall flow of the milonga, so not every request makes the cut. But some do! Sometimes they even inspire me to do something new and different, to surprise the dancers and myself. And my entire playlist is certainly not set in stone before the milonga even begins. I have a format that I follow, but even the best-laid plans can change. Doesn’t a good DJ adapt to the mood and flow of a given milonga? Isn’t that precisely why we have living, breathing DJs?

If we dance tango, we must love – or at the very least like – tango music. I love tango music passionately, but as both a dancer and a DJ I enjoy experimenting now and then with alternative rhythms, from nuevo tango music in all its incarnations to blues, pop and other genres. The thing is, I don’t only love tango music, I also just love music. As a tango dancer who loves lots of kinds of music, I have a lot of fun seeing what other types of music I can dance to yet still feel I’m dancing tango. Whatever my tastes or moods, I feel every song differently and that is what I express when I am dancing. And judging by the milongas I DJ, I am not alone.

Just as I believe every type of dancer has a role to play on the tango scene, so every type of music serves a purpose. While strong technique is the foundation on which every expert dancer is built, the fun guy with the funny moves who makes sure every woman gets to dance at least one tanda contributes something of great importance to a milonga: he makes sure a large number of people are enjoying themselves and feeling good about themselves.

The same goes for music. While some of today’s orchestrations both lack the soul of a 1930s D’Arienzo-Echagüe classic and stretch the very definition of tango, if they please the crowd and get most of the room both dancing and smiling, do they not deserve some measure of respect, along with the dancers who dance them and the DJs who dare to play them?

Whether you hate it, tolerate it or love it, modern tango music serves one undeniably important purpose: It makes tango music more accessible to the general public. From the funky fusion of such groups as Gotan Project and Otros Aires to the modern orchestrations of well-loved classics by bands like Unitango and Sexteto Milonguero, the rich sounds of today’s orquestas more easily appeal to the untrained ear of novice tango dancers than do those scratchy old classics. After 18 years of dancing Argentine tango, I know full well that our tastes change and evolve over time and that our appreciation for the subtle complexities of the Golden Age music only deepens. But that doesn’t mean that anything orchestrated after 1960 is worthy of nothing but snobbish disdain, or that the tastes of new or intermediate dancers should be cast aside.

I only love those Golden Age classics more each day and never grow tired of discovering and rediscovering them. But I also believe that modern tango music deserves to get some play in the milongas, because it is the modern musicians who keep the music evolving. Just as the best and most fun tanguero for me has a strong technical foundation but throws in the occasional surprise to challenge and amuse his partners, the best and most fun milongas are solidly based in the classics, with an occasional surprise to challenge and amuse the dancers.

Throughout history, change and evolution have met with resistance for fear they would taint the purity of what people knew and were comfortable with. But in the end, if something cannot evolve it dies. I believe we can respect and preserve the rich and beautiful history of tango while allowing it room to evolve, breathe and live on.