Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 14: Be kind

Respect your partner, respect yourself.
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To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned about and through this dance that is so wonderful, but that can be quite daunting to newcomers.

Lesson No. 14. It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the códigos.

A while back I wrote a post called It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice. Interestingly, it is by far my most popular blog post yet. Which indicates people don't necessarily perceive their fellow tango dancers as the most sympathetic bunch.

On revisiting this topic, though, I feel the need to make a distinction between being "nice" and being "kind."

Those who are overly concerned with being nice are often motivated by the need for approval and validation by other people. At the same time, they might overlook their own wellbeing in order to accommodate others.

The motivation to be kind, however, is more internal. People who aim for kindness are less concerned about what others might think and more interested in doing the right thing. Yet their respect for others is balanced by their own self-respect.

In tango, "nice" people accept dances with anyone and everyone because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings or be perceived as rude or snobby. Of course it is a good thing not to want to hurt people, but if your previous experience with a person was highly unpleasant, you should not feel obligated to repeat it to your own detriment.

"Kind" dancers, on the other hand, might reserve a few tandas for hardworking dancers of a lower level as well as for the lonely newcomer who hasn't danced all night, but they still know when to say no.

I used to be an overly "nice" person – in life and in dance – so I sometimes let people walk all over me and I felt guilty every time I had to say no to someone. This kind of personality doesn't work so well in either parenting or business, so as I grew up I learned that I can still be a kind person without necessarily always being nice.

If you want to be truly kind in tango, I believe you need to occasionally dance with beginners. That being said, it's important to point out what several readers have mentioned in comments on past posts: A beginner is not the same as a bad dancer who has not attempted to make any improvement in a decade. So if I know someone still takes classes and works hard, I am happy to dance with him or her regardless of current level. But someone who thinks he's really good simply because he's been dancing for 15 years but still zigzags all over the dance floor and corrects his partners when they don't execute the move he tried to lead will receive my polite refusal.

I personally believe that teaching should be done through encouragement and positive reinforcement. That means I make sure to tell students not just what they are doing wrong, but what they are doing right. For me, that is the easy part. Early on it was actually hard for me to point out people's misalignments and postural flaws to them, especially when they were blatantly unaware and it meant I basically had to burst their bubble. But students come to me to learn and most of them appreciate a little candour. Besides, I have discovered that most people have a thicker skin than I thought. In any case, a good teacher can make students aware of what they are doing wrong and what needs to be improved without diminishing or criticizing them in a negative or hurtful way.

As I stated in my last post, I firmly believe that following the códigos of the milonga is important and will ultimately improve everyone's experience. I also believe that injecting our milonga-going selves with some generosity will go a long way toward the greater good. And the two are not mutually exclusive. For example, I fully support the use of the cabeceo, but I don't reject invitations on principle just because they were done verbally. If I am happy to dance with you, I'll accept your invitation, silent or verbal, as long as it is respectful.

On the dance floor, the nicest dancers to tango with are those who let go of their egos and dance with generosity. Of course skill level plays a part, but with or without stellar technique, if your partner makes you feel he or she is taking care of you, you will feel pretty good.

Here's how you can take care of your partners:
  • Dance to their level thus making them feel good about their dancing, rather than concerning yourself with showing off all your best moves or adornos.
  • Do everything in your power to avoid collisions on the dance floor. If an accident does happen, make sure no one is hurt and apologize to all concerned; don't get on the defensive and look to place blame.
  • Ignore or laugh off any mistakes or miscommunications. Accept that errors are part of tango, and whatever you do, do not instruct, correct or otherwise comment on your partners' dancing when things don't go as planned.
Do all this and those you dance with will keep coming back for more. People with a generous spirit put others before themselves; tango dancers with a generous spirit put their partners’ enjoyment first – without sacrificing their own wellbeing. If both partners do this, then both will feel safe, connected and at ease. They might find they don't want the tanda to end, and certainly will seek out another one later.

We get very little out of being egotistical, which blocks our empathy as well as our own capacity to learn. Be kind and generous and you will ultimately contribute to the growth and improvement of others, of yourself and of the community as a whole.

Previously: Lesson No. 13: The milonga has rules and we should follow them.
Next: Lesson No. 15: Working hard and having fun are not mutually exclusive.


  1. then, of course, there are the people who are the rule-keepers and scour at people who aren't obeying all the rules to the letter. Its equally import to keep in mind that this is all meant to be for fun :)

  2. Yes. That's kind of what I was trying to say with this post: follow the rules, but don't be too much of a stickler, because it's just as important to help everyone else have a good time.

  3. "On revisiting this topic, though, I feel the need to make a distinction between being "nice" and being "kind." & ""Kind" dancers, on the other hand, might reserve a few tandas for hardworking dancers of a lower level as well as for the lonely newcomer who hasn't danced all night, but they still know when to say no." I loved this! Thank you Andrea!