Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 10: Assert yourself

Start by sitting, standing and walking like the confident dancer you want to be.

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I am halfway through this 20-part series on what I have learned through and about tango in two decades of dancing, teaching, performing, running a school and organizing events.

Lesson No. 10. Be clear about what you want.

I was a shy kid and an insecure teenager. It took me decades to learn how to be assertive, to say no, to stand up for myself and to ask for what I want. Tango – dancing and teaching – is one of the things that has both helped me along this road to decisiveness and shown me how important a quality it is – in dance and in life.

On the dance floor

The benefits of being clear about what you want seem kind of obvious when it comes to leading, but followers need to be clear, too.

Let's start with leaders. If you don't know what you want, your follower certainly won't. Hesitation breeds hesitation, so if you constantly wait to see if your partner is going to follow she will be in a constant state of doubt, and so will the dance. No one said leading is easy: You have to simultaneously wait for your partner and show her where to go next. Which means you always know where you want to go next. Of course things don't always go according to plan in tango (the topic of my next post!), but you still need to have a plan and state it clearly (with actions, not words, of course) or the dance will be sloppy rather than spontaneous.

Also, if you do not know where you want each step to land or pivot to end, be it your own or your partner's, you will have little control over your line of dance and the space you take up on the floor. This will put your partner in danger and annoy the dancers around you.

As for followers, if I have one piece of advice it is this: Do not be passive. Embrace your partner the way you want to be embraced, dance the music the way you feel it, take the time you need to complete each movement before going to the next. Own your dance and you will not only be more fulfilled by it, you will be more fulfilling to dance with.

To some, it may sound like I am saying to followers, "Do whatever you want," but that is not it at all. Everything the follower does must be within the framework created for you by your partner and the music; but within that framework there is so much room to express yourself and to dance. But you have to do just that: Dance.

Don't hesitate, wonder, question, worry. Accept each movement, each reaction and mean it. If there was a miscommunication, it's too late to fix it anyway, so just take the step and move on from there. Believe you know what to do and you will follow more, not less, because you will clear away all that worry and hesitation, allowing you to receive your leader's messages with less interference. Not only that, but if you dance assuredly, your leader will receive your messages more clearly, listen more and the tanda will be a fascinating conversation rather than a one-sided monologue.

Off the dance floor

The way you carry yourself conveys a lot. If you walk into the room with poise and determination, you will get noticed, and if you sit and stand up straight, you will look like you know how to dance before you even hit the floor. I have heard more than one maestro say that you need to be a tango dancer from the moment you step through the front door. Posture affects not only how you appear, but how you feel. Simply lifting and opening up the chest can alleviate feelings of depression, for example, so if you stand tall, you may end up feeling more confident. Basically, hold yourself like a dancer and you will look and feel like one. And you will likely receive more miradas and cabeceos as well.

I am a relatively recent convert to, and big supporter of, the mirada-cabeceo invitation system. Mirada means "look," cabeceo means "nod," and together they make up the traditional, non-verbal and most widely accepted way of inviting and getting invited to dance tango. Basically, leader and follower look directly at the person they hope to dance with and, hopefully, catch each other's eye. Then the leader nods or motions with his/her head and the follower nods or smiles his/her acceptance.

Find the whole idea daunting? You're not alone. Because I still have a shy, insecure person living inside me, I, too, found this one hard to master at first. OK, I still do sometimes.

Once I get on the dance floor I know how to dance like I know what I'm doing, but off the floor it's tough for me to assert myself with a direct look in someone's eyes, especially a stranger. All this to say, I get that it's not necessarily an easy system at first. But neither is tango. And if you can learn this complex dance, you can learn this simple exchange.

It's worth it because it works. It means you're not sitting around passively waiting to be chosen by whomever decides to walk up to you and ask, but you're also not hovering around making someone else uncomfortable or asking directly and risking outright rejection or maybe getting a reluctant "yes" from someone who doesn't really want to dance with you but doesn't want to hurt your feelings either.

The mirada-cabeceo system works because it is assertive on both sides. I need to look directly at the person I want to dance with and he or she needs to look right back. Then the nod (plus maybe a smile or an eyebrow wiggle) and we're off. So we both choose our dancers. This wordless and mutual agreement can be quite magical once you get the hang of it, like you established this secret accord that no one else knew about until suddenly you are on the dance floor in each other's arms, ready for an awesome tanda.

Outside the milonga

If you want to get really good at tango, you have to make that decision. I touched on this topic in my previous post, "Breaking that advanced barrier," when I named determination as one of the keys to tango success. Basically, you have to know you want it and go after it, to take decisive action in order to reach your goal.

Just this morning I watched an interesting TED talk about what makes successful people successful. It was found that the common factor that was always present was "grit," which was likened to perseverance or the determination that I mentioned. I was watching the video with my kids' education and future in mind, but when I look around at the top dancers around me, beyond their talent and years invested I see that deeper something, that drive and determination that amplifies the talent, fuels the hard work and gives them a deep-seated belief that because they want to get there they will. And they do. And so can you.

Tango has taught me much of this, and I believe I am a better dancer, teacher and business person because of it. As I said, there's still someone insecure inside me, but alongside her now is a much more confident person who knows what she wants, often goes after it and lives a more fulfilling life because of it.

Previously: Lesson No. 9: Breaking that advanced barrier

Next: Lesson No. 11: Accept that things often don't go according to plan


  1. How true Andrea! I found this out after dancing around three years and let me tell you it changes everything and actually the leader has to be very sensitive toward the lady's movements, give her the time to finish her moves!! yes !...that's my experience, thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank YOU, for taking the time to give feedback. Glad you enjoyed. :)