Friday, August 25, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Nine: Breaking that advanced barrier

Most tango dancers out there are intermediate.
So what can they do to break through to the next level?

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this long process that is full of frustrations and rewards.

Lesson No. 9. The intermediate level is the toughest, the longest lasting, and the hardest to break out of. Really, you ask? But wouldn't the beginner level be harder than the intermediate stage? Not in my opinion. There are reasons why most dancers out there are intermediate.

The beginner phase: As beginners we are in a place of pure discovery; you could call it tango innocence. This tango world is all new and somewhat magical. Sure, there is some frustration at this stage, but most dancers move along the learning curve pretty quickly at the start, going from nothing to something in quite a short time.

I would say the beginner stage lasts somewhere between six months and a year for the average tango student. As I said, this is an average; there are always exceptions. Every few years a particularly gifted student skyrockets from beginner to advanced in a year, and now and then there are students who repeat Tango 1 half a dozen times without ever really getting it. But for the most part, within a year students acquire enough skill and knowledge to move on to:

The intermediate phase: At this point, tango has lost some of that initial mystery. We still love it, we are still impressed by those who master it more than we do, but it is no longer brand new or unattainable in a way that it once was.

This stage is full of plateaus in the learning curve and just as we feel we are getting somewhere we have a crappy night and decide we don't know a thing after all. So there is frustration, lots of frustration.

At this stage, leaders tend to feel stressed out about not knowing enough moves, and get bored with themselves if they don't execute enough of them during a tanda. Followers, too, get frustrated – with their partners if they feel they are not keeping up, and with themselves as they start to understand that their role is actually about more than following. Eventually, they begin to realize that not every mistake is the leader's fault and their side of the partnership is more difficult than they expected. While this realization is a good sign, it is – again – frustrating.

Meanwhile, teachers keep saying to focus more on posture, connection, musicality and floorcraft, but most intermediate-level dancers don't yet fully grasp this. Leaders and followers can both feel in a rut at this point as they both clue in to how much more time and hard work lie ahead. Many dancers stop really moving forward at this point. They have enough moves and partners to enjoy themselves at milongas so why keep putting time, sweat and money into classes? If the goal was to socialize and dance, it has been reached, and many dancers are content here and don't feel the need to take things further.

Some, however, do want to go further, breaking through the next barrier and becoming truly "advanced." Most dancers at the high end of the intermediate phase have hovered at the cusp at least a few times when, by fluke or design, everything came together with ease: steps, balance, embrace and the perfect moment in the music. They have felt what it should be, what it could be, and they want more. These dancers need to find a way to do get there or they may eventually give up in frustration.

For all but the few and far between truly exceptional dancers, the intermediate stage lasts the longest. It begins on average at around one year and, again, for many it never ends. This is not to say there is no improvement in all this time; there will be some, maybe lots. The intermediate level is wide ranging and most dancers improve and advance at least somewhat, but actually breaking the elusive "advanced" barrier will not happen for everyone, no matter how long you keep dancing in the milongas.

The advanced phase: Once we become truly advanced there is new magic. There are all these things we heard about before but never really got, but now we do. It's like we've finally been admitted to that secret society and unlocked the codes to a new level of understanding and enlightenment. We dance with abandon, embody the music, become one with our partners. There are still and forever new discoveries to come, but they are on a whole different level.

Those years of hard work are paying off and it is so rewarding. This is when the light comes on and we understand for ourselves what our teachers have been saying all along: that technique is king and will free us to enjoy the dance on a whole new level. We see that the sequences and moves are secondary not just to technique but to musicality, connection, floorcraft. Now we really comprehend that both skill and enjoyment are about the how, not the what.

It is rare for a dancer to become truly advanced in less than five years, and, as I said before, many never really do.

I wish I had the universal, magic solution to achieving this breakthrough, but I don't. In the end, the hard work and resulting accomplishments belong to each dancer. As a teacher I can only guide and coach, I can't do the work for you. I can steer you in the right direction and even lead you along the right path, but whether you reach your destination or not is up to you. As a writer as well as a teacher, I suggest the following recipe, but you have to be the one to put it together.

The four essential ingredients to achieve that advanced breakthrough:
  1. Talent. Some people walk in the door and their teachers just know they have something special. They move right, absorb corrections almost instantly and seem to get the big picture of how it all works from the start. Maybe she had dance training all her life and developed strength, axis and body awareness early on; or maybe he just "has it in his blood": He's not a musician or a dancer (yet), but he's got rhythm in his body and moves like he was born on the dance floor. If you've got some of this talent, the rest will be easier. Then again, many people take their talent for granted and are lazy students because of it. So talent helps for sure, but alone it is no guarantee of greatness, in tango or elsewhere.
  2. Hard work. This means you will train regularly outside the milonga setting. First, you will continue to take lessons, especially private ones. I would say that every single person who has reached the advanced level has studied privately with a good teacher at some point. You will also incorporate workouts besides tango in order to improve things like posture, balance and strength. This could mean yoga classes, working with a personal trainer or something else, but body awareness, correct alignment, good posture and strong legs are essential to mastering tango. And you will remain humble enough to admit that you are never done learning. No matter how good you get, you could get better. So don't give up taking regular classes too early. There is this phenomenon in social dance whereby students stop taking classes in their local studios early on, after just a year or two in many cases. This is not the case in such disciplines as ballet or yoga, for example, in which even advanced practitioners continue to attend classes for years and years. Meanwhile, the vast majority of tango dancers take a few sessions of regular classes and then suddenly turn their noses up at the local studios' offerings, opting only for festival classes taught by travelling maestros, if they take any classes at all. Don't get me wrong, I take advantage of these opportunities, too, but they are pricey and offer no followup, so are probably less valuable as a learning tool for your average dancer than regular lessons with a quality teacher. All this being said, the cool thing is, once you have finally broken that advanced barrier, you can actually start learning a lot on your own. Since by this point you have an integral understanding of your own body and what constitutes good tango technique, you can train on your own or with a partner and improve through a certain amount of self-teaching. You can practice without the constant observations of a teacher because you are practicing right. But, as any advanced dancer knows, periodic lessons and coaching from a maestro or teaching colleague are a must. Even the best dancers have bad habits and sometimes need an outsider to point them out.
  3. Determination. You have to want it and be willing to work for it. This can't come from anyone but you. However, some people don't necessarily feel this determination early on, but one day, for whatever reason, they suddenly wake up having decided they want to "get there," and will do the hard work necessary, spurred on by its rewards rather than discouraged by its demands. This decisive action is essential.
  4. Time. Years of experience alone will not make you advanced. We all know people who have been dancing for 15 years and whose technique has not budged in the last 10. But you can't totally rush the process either. Your mind and body need time to integrate and absorb the work you do, so while practicing tango three times a week will certainly be more effective than once a week, taking 10 classes a week and dancing every single night won't necessarily accelerate your learning pace exponentially. So put in the floor time, but accept that it will also just take time. 
You need to find just the right blend of hard work, time and determination. Add to that a pinch of talent, and you're cooking.

Previously: Lesson No. 8: Leading and following are not so different.

Next: Lesson No. 10: You've got to be clear about what you want.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Eight: Every dancer should lead and follow

There is a myth among some male leaders that women
who learn to lead damage their following skills. I don't buy it.

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this game of give and take, express and listen, lead and follow.

Lesson No. 8. Leading and following are not so different.
One of the best things you can do for your dancing is to learn both roles. Those who do, regardless of their initial or preferred role, are those who know best how to both express and listen, to give and take – and therefore connect more completely to their partner.

Technique is technique, connection is connection. While there is some difference in the mental process of the two roles – leaders need to plan and navigate and have a certain understanding of their partner's steps in a way that followers do not – in the physical body, there is little to no difference.

One piece of advice I would give to anyone trying to learn the other role is: Don't try to change your technique when you change roles. By all means improve your posture, your embrace, your musicality and anything else you need to work on, but whatever you improve will apply whichever role you are dancing.

Some people are afraid they will hinder their dancing by exploring the other role. I think this is rare, and those who do are probably too hung up on the "leader" vs. "follower" terminology to begin with. I think the terms "leader and follower" are limiting, problematic, even detrimental. I believe that these simple words are one of the main reasons some dancers are resistant to learning the other role. The words do not convey what the two roles are really about or how much they actually have in common. For more on this subject you can read my blog post on troublesome terminology. In short, leading and following each contain a good dose of the other already, and the best dancers use both to their advantage. The best leaders are receptive and the strongest followers are expressive. Working on both qualities will likely add one more great aspect to your dancing: playfulness.

A potential solution, of course, is for teachers to teach both roles to everyone from the start. There are teachers who do this, and I think it is an interesting approach. It is not my approach, for a variety of reasons, including the fact most students who come through the door don't want to learn both – yet. Also it would mean revamping my entire teaching structure to an extent I am not ready for – yet. Finally, I'm not convinced teaching both roles from the get-go is necessarily better than the traditional one-role-at-a-time system; both methods most certainly have their strong points, and, as with all methods, neither is ideal for everyone.

In any case, I think it is generally accepted by most that learning to follow improves leading skills. How could it not? Since leaders need to understand their partners' steps and movements, it makes sense for them to learn them. To paraphrase a well-known saying, the best way to experience someone else's reality is to walk a mile in their shoes.

The reverse – that followers will improve by learning to lead – is not so generally accepted. There is a myth among some male leaders that women who learn to lead damage their following skills. Men who believe this even claim to have anecdotal evidence to back up their beliefs. Sorry guys, but I don't buy it. First of all, in general, teachers are among the most highly skilled dancers, lead or follow, and most if not all of them dance both roles. I know that learning to lead has contributed greatly to my overall dance skills, and therefore to my following skills. However, learning a new role, like learning any new technique within the dance, takes work and mental effort. While we are in the process of learning and perfecting something new a big part of our focus is devoted to the new skill, and sometimes our connection suffers because we are mentally distracted by the new thing we are working on. But this is temporary. It is exactly what all beginner leaders go through: They're too busy figuring out the steps and trying to deal with navigating the floor to be really connected or really dancing. Once the basics of the role are solid and, perhaps more importantly, once the dancer believes that he or she knows what (s)he is doing, (s)he can let go and think about his or her partner.

Female leaders also receive criticism for their navigational skills, with some male leaders saying that women are hazardous "drivers." Again, part of that comes down to where they are on the leading learning curve. And sure, there are female leaders who are dangerous and don't respect the ronda, but there are plenty of erratic male "drivers" as well; they just don't stand out as much because they blend in with the majority. I guess this is a good place to remind everyone that floorcraft and line of dance should not be an afterthought; they are just as important as dance moves and musicality. When we learn to drive a car, how to follow the flow of traffic and make safe turns and lane changes are as important as learning how the vehicle itself functions; the same should be true on the dance floor. Regardless of your gender, I say to all leaders: Build your navigational skills and dance with respect for those around you.

All this being said, some people love dancing both roles, while some have a strong preference for one or the other. I, myself, enjoy leading and have worked hard to build strong leading skills over the years, but I still don't experience the same bliss leading as I do when I follow. I relish the sense of abandon in my primary role; when I lead I am much more in my head, and I get enough of that in my daily life, I guess!

So I am not saying that everyone must master both roles or dance them equally, but I do think we all should experiment at some point, to develop at least a minimal understanding of what our partners feel and need. And who knows, if you try it, you might be surprised at how much you like it.

Previously: Lesson No. 7: You need a thick skin to dance tango.

Next: Lesson No. 9: The intermediate level is the hardest to break out of.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Seven: Tango vs. the ego

A milonga is not only about dancing as many tandas as possible.
It is also about meeting friends, hearing beautiful music and admiring the other dancers.
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To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned in, through or about this dance, some harder than others.

Lesson No. 7: You need a thick skin to dance tango. If you are reading this, you probably love tango. But you probably also know that it is not as easy as you thought and that it can be unkind to the ego.

There are some big-ego dancers out there, but this post is not about that. This post is about how tango can be hard on your ego and your self-esteem, on several different levels:

As a student of tango

Tango is a social dance, and we say it is a dance for everyone. You have most certainly heard that if you can walk, you can dance tango. That is my own school's motto, and while I stand by it I must admit that just because you can walk doesn't mean you can dance tango well. This is a fact all dancers must face if they are to improve and advance.

After a few lessons, we begin to realize that the very simplicity of tango is what makes it difficult. Tango is a delicate balance full of paradoxes and contradictions. It takes clarity and subtlety, an embrace that is both soft and firm, legs that are at once powerful and free, knees that are extended yet mobile. While social tango does not require extreme flexibility and is not an intense cardiovascular workout, it does take strength, balance and good posture. It also takes a lot of body awareness. The thing is, those who lack body awareness are often unaware of this fact, and realizing how little you know your own body can be a blow to the ego. It also takes awareness of our partner and those around us, and therefore good communication and listening skills.

Tango is the ultimate exercise in multitasking: You must coordinate your every move to the music, your partner and the couples around you on the dance floor all at once, constantly planning your next move while being ready to react and change that plan at every single moment and while making it all look and feel effortless. Sounds like a lot, and it is.

But all this is the beauty of tango, and the reason it is so rewarding when we finally start to get it and every time we grasp something new. It is also the reason you can dance tango for years and never get bored. There is always room for improvement – a better embrace, straighter posture, stronger steps and pivots. And then there is the music. There are so many layers to tango music and so many possibilities for tango dancers. As beginners, even if we love tango music, we often don't hear or appreciate the subtleties of the different orchestras, but the longer we dance and the more we listen the more we can play with the intricacies of the music. All this is why the most advanced and musically proficient dancers never tire of the Golden Age classics, because there are always new layers to play with and rediscover.

I think the key to not getting frustrated and giving up when you realize how difficult tango really is and how eternal the learning process, is to appreciate every step along the way. Reap the benefits of your hard work, and notice them: Maybe you stand straighter in your daily life or walk down the street with more self-assurance or have suddenly become better at listening to other people. And occasionnally look back and realize how far you have come; when you do catch yourself looking ahead and feeling overwhelmed by all there is left to learn, see it as a gift that you will keep on giving yourself, because it means that the rewards, too, are never-ending.

As a social dancer

Socially, tango is about human interaction and connections. If you like tango, then you probably seek out these interactions and enjoy them on the whole. But, of course, that doesn't mean all of them are positive. It takes all kinds to make a tango world, so while every encounter will be marvellously different, not every encounter will be marvellous. Here are a couple of unpleasant phenomena you have probably already experienced and will again.

Teachy partners. This one, unfortunately, comes up a lot – on the dance floor and in my blog. If you know me or my writing, you already know that teaching on the dance floor is a pet peeve of mine. Teachy behaviour includes any type of comment or feedback on your dancing, from your embrace to your walk to a lead for a particular move you are not understanding. It also includes non-verbal adjustments to your partner's embrace or posture, placing their hand differently or pushing their shoulders down, for example. Advice, feedback, corrections – it all falls into the same category.

Teachy behaviour is all about the ego on both sides. It says a lot about the ego of the perpetrator because the perpetrator is automatically assuming that the other person is the problem. Getting over this behaviour means admitting that you are at least 50% of the problem, which is not an easy thing for your ego to accept.

Of course, being the recipient of dance-floor teaching is hard on the ego as well. You may feel angry or hurt, defensive, inferior, insecure or simply annoyed, and understandably so. Not to mention the fact that having the flow of a dance interrupted to correct you breaks any pleasant, enjoy-the-moment connection there might have been.

Teaching, correcting or adjusting your partner during a milonga is totally unacceptable in my book. However, you will all be confronted with it at some point. When faced with this behaviour, what can you do? I suggest remaining silent and neutral toward the first comment or adjustment. If the corrections continue, say something. Non-confrontational "I" statements usually work best, such as "I prefer not to talk when I'm dancing." If the behaviour persists further, feel free to say "thank you" after the song and end the tanda early. If your partner is offended or asks why, be direct. I can't tell you how many people have stormed out or come to me in tears after being corrected and condescended to on the dance floor, and the perpetrators need to be made aware that their behaviour is hurtful and unacceptable.

At the same time, remember that the constant need to teach or fix your partner says more about the teacher than the "teachee." In tango, as in life, when things aren't going as planned we should first look at how we can adjust ourselves to improve the situation. Just dance, accept the person in your arms as he or she is in the present moment, take advantage of their strengths and don't dwell on their weaknesses. After all, you have some too.

Also, even if you are a beginner and your partner is advanced, do not encourage this type of behaviour by asking for feedback on the milonga dance floor. Accept yourself at the level you are and realize you are allowed to just relax and enjoy, even if you are not yet "advanced." If you really think your partner is qualified to offer useful feedback, you can ask during a práctica or during a later conversation off the dance floor, but even then, unless you are speaking to an actual teacher, take any advice with a grain of salt.

Feeling rejected. Sometimes you don't get to dance much, and sometimes you don't get to dance with the person or people you were hoping to dance with.

When you get all dressed up and hyped up for the night ahead and it doesn't live up to your expections, it kind of sucks. And no matter who you are or what your level, it will happen to you sometimes. I have bad nights, too, when I feel overlooked and rejected and wonder why none of my miradas are working, and I go home deflated and grumpy wondering if I'm getting too old and unattractive or if I just suck and don't know it.

Luckily there are always good nights to balance out the bad, and I've gained enough life experience and perspective to know that often the bad nights are more about my outlook than about reality. And sometimes bad nights just happen for all kinds of reasons. Did women outnumber men? Was I tucked away in a corner or frequently absorbed in conversation?

That being said, if you feel you never get to dance with the dancers you want to, maybe you need to admit that it's time to work some more on your dance skills. Yes, I believe advanced dancers should be a little more generous at times, but I also believe it is normal to want to dance with people we enjoy dancing with. So if you want to get more miradas and cabeceos (traditional, non-verbal invitations), work on becoming a joy to dance with. I think if all of us danced keeping our partners' enjoyment in mind rather than our own, we would all receive more enjoyment in the end.

And finally, remember that a milonga is not only about dancing as many tandas as possible. It is also about meeting friends, hearing beautiful music and admiring the other dancers. If you soak up the whole atmosphere of an evening, rather than focusing on every tanda you sit out, you might have a great night even if you don't dance that much, and you might also radiate more positive energy, seem more approachable, and eventually end up dancing more.

As a couple

This topic probably deserves a blog post all its own, because tango can be so hard on couples. For now, suffice it to say that many of the issues couples face in tango boil down to two things: jealousy and different learning paces.

I don't believe that tango causes relationship problems, but it sure can amplify existing ones.

This is definitely the case when it comes to jealousy. If you are new to tango, it can be disconcerting to see the love of your life in the arms of someone else – and enjoying it. But once you are really into tango, you understand that for most dancers it is all about the dance and nothing more. The intensity, connection and abandon don't leave the dance floor. If we are looking for more than the dance, it has nothing to do with tango; tango just may be the avenue we choose to find it. If your life partnership is strong and you trust your partner, tango won't be a problem. If your relationship is fragile and you don't trust your partner, tango may be a dangerous game to play, but it is not to blame.

Then there is the frustration that comes when we learn tango together, but we don't pick it up at the same pace, which is almost always the case. Either partner might be a quicker study, but often it is the leader who receives the brunt of the blame, impatience and frustration – from both parties. It is generally accepted that the early stages of the learning curve are hardest for leaders. Followers with a few natural following skills can feel they dance well pretty quickly if paired with an experienced leader. But for leaders, there is a lot to think about and understand right from the start, which can lead to confusion and frustration early on. So both partners feel – somewhat mistakenly – that the follower is learning faster or dancing better than her partner so both get impatient with the leader's learning pace. It is later on that reality sets in for the followers, once they realize there should be so much more to their role than "just following." All of this is common and normal, but just try to remember to be patient and generous toward your partner, because no matter what, he or she is just learning too and probably trying his or her best.

I was discussing the effect of tango on a couple with friends recently and we jokingly came up with the statement: "If your couple can survive tango, your couple can survive anything!" Not a great marketing campaign for my business, but it contains a level of truth.

If life imitates tango and vice-versa, remember that in both no matter how much you love something, it can never be all positive all the time. The hard moments are there to teach us and the great moments are there to reward us. Tango, like life, needs balance and the difficult parts actually balance out the good stuff, helping us savour it even more.

Stick to it and work hard and you will improve, perhaps even one day breaking that elusive "advanced" barrier. Along the way there will be dips and plateaus in the learning process, frustration, refusals, insecurity, jealousy, awkward moments and bad nights.

All of this still happens to me, and I still have hard days when I think maybe I should just give it all up. But of course I don't. Because tango brings so much to my life … including thickening my skin with a little tough love from time to time.

Previously: Lesson No. 6: The truth about tango is ... elusive.

Next: Lesson No. 8: Leading and following are not so different.