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.