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.

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