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.
Patience: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.
Trust: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.
Presence: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?)