Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Twenty tango lessons: Part 20: The greatest job in the world

DJing is just one unexpected bonus part of my work.
Here is the last instalment in my series on 20 lessons I have learned in 20 years of tango.

Lesson No. 20. I have the best job I could have.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an actress, a dancer and a writer. The path of my life has by no means been a straight one, and what I thought those things would mean was quite different from what it turned out to be, but almost half a century later I realize that the job I have now means I get to be all those things and more.

Through my tango school I wear the hats of dance teacher, studio owner, milonga organizer, performer, show producer, DJ and, of course, blogger. All this means I work pretty hard most of the time, but since I love what I do, a lot of the time it doesn't actually feel that much like work.

As I mentioned in a recent post, the tango business is not always easy. But I count myself lucky to do what I do, because my days are filled with:

Dancing. As I said, I always wanted to be a dancer. I took my first ballet class at 4 years old, and while I gave up the ballerina dream and eventually ballet altogether in my teenage years, I have not stopped dancing since. The fact I get to dance every day keeps me happy and healthy, body and soul.

Teaching. I grew up with an intense fear of public speaking and in my youth I never, ever imagined I would become a teacher. I began teaching through my previous career in journalism. I was the main newsroom trainer on new technologies at the newspaper I worked at and for years I taught a university course on newspaper design. This was all terrifying to me at first, but I grew to love teaching – and people kept telling me I was good at it. Teaching is both challenging and rewarding and I can truly say I am passionate about it. Once I started teaching tango, well, I really knew I was onto something.

Connecting with people. Beyond the dance itself, this is what tango is all about. I love people, all kinds of people, and tango is full of human connections that are varied, often intense, fascinating and satisfying.

Building a community. My partner and I didn't necessarily plan this one when we were launching our little tango school, but we realized pretty early on that we were not just teaching people to dance, we were building a community and therefore facilitating the creation of all kinds of relationships. I love seeing friendships and partnerships forming around me and – partly – thanks to me.

Throwing parties. Through my teens and 20s I loved to throw parties. It was pretty straightforward to me: provide a table full of food, lots of loud dance music and invite everyone I could think of. I loved planning the food, preparing the music and building the guest list. So I guess it makes perfect sense that I enjoy hosting and DJing milongas every weekend.

Performing and producing shows. Had I started tango and plunged into it full time at a younger age, I would probably have done more of this. Despite my shyness I do love to perform, and the experience of producing shows with all the creativity and backstage excitement involved is absolutely exhilarating.

DJing. This is another unexpected bonus of my job. From mix tapes to CDs to iTunes playlists, I have always loved to put music together, whether it was to work out to, to play in the car or – especially – to get people dancing at a party. Now I find myself spending hours researching tango music – classic or alternative – and building tandas.

Working for myself. Again, not always easy, but so satisfying. It would be hard for me to go back to working for someone else at this point. It's not that I like being the boss so much – I don't think I'm very boss-like at all – but I sure like being the boss of me.

Working on myself. I have always been active. Tango helps keep me fit and mobile, and keeps me aware of my posture and the effect everything I do has on my partners. But it takes more than tango to keep in shape – for dance and for life. Besides my lifetime of dancing I have run regularly for 25 years. (I keep trying to give it up because combined with all the tango it's too hard on my battered feet. But it's hard to give it up; I just don't feel the same when I'm not getting that intense cardio!) Meanwhile, one of the most life-changing by-products of my tango career has been the discovery of yoga. I took it up a few years ago to try to increase my flexibility, and I quickly gained not just flexibility, but improved strength and balance as well as a whole new understanding of posture, alignment and my own body and self. I have since delved ever deeper into yoga, exploring the aspects that go beyond the physical poses and, earlier this year, obtaining my teaching certification.

Blogging. As I said, I always wanted to be a writer. English was my best and favourite subject through high school, and my post-secondary studies were all related to languages and literature. I studied translation for a while and worked as a copy editor for several years. In that time I did some writing, but nothing regular. Three years ago I realized that with all my observations about tango and all the analytical thinking I did about it, I should probably start writing some of it down. So I took the plunge and wrote my first blog post, and now I actually have a following! This blog forces me to write regularly, and people read my stuff. Cool!

So, being a small business owner is not always easy. And the tango business, because it is so close to my heart, can be tough emotionally as well as financially. But the rewards of doing what I love make up for the fact I work long, late hours and don't make much money.

When I was contemplating leaving my career to start a tango school, my mother and my financial advisor told me not to do it. I had young children, benefits, a pension plan and debt, and opening a small dance school as I was pushing 40 was not a sensible choice. So I did it. The tears I had shed and the aching, empty pit in my stomach I felt once I had decided not to go for what was probably my last opportunity to follow my lifelong dreams could not be ignored. I had the full support of my partner and a year's worth of money to make a go of it, so we held hands and we jumped, taking our young family with us.

In just a couple of months, our tango school will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Difficult and demanding though it has been at times, I have never regretted the plunge I took a decade ago, but I know with absolute certainty that had I not taken it I would be regretting it every day.

And when I am compiling tandas for an upcoming milonga, laughing with students as I help them  execute a difficult move or mingling with dancers at a milonga I am hosting I still can't get over how lucky I am to do what I do.

The lesson I leave you with is this: If you have a passion, follow it. And don't let fear hold you back.

Previously: Lesson No. 19. Tango is a voyage of self-discovery.

Read the series from the beginning.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Twenty tango lessons: Part 19: Getting to know yourself

The tango dance floor is one of the few places where I can truly let go.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I've learned through this dance, many of which are about myself.

Lesson No. 19. Tango is a voyage of self-discovery. 
Just as we learn a lot about others through the way they dance, we can also learn a lot about ourselves.

Studying dance is as much about developing awareness as developing specific skills; we discover our bodies as we work with them and we also discover ourselves.

Body awareness is the ability to understand how our bodies move and where they are in space. Such physical disciplines as dance both require and improve our proprioception, which is the sense that allows us to control our body parts without looking at them.

Self-awareness is having a clear perception of our personality, including strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation and emotions, and then taking control of them. Tango can help us build this understanding as well.

So, to improve in tango we need to know not only what our physical strengths, weaknesses and tendencies are, but also our psycho-emotional ones: Am I receptive? Reactive? Defensive? Passive? Impatient? Is it easy for me to assert myself? To let go?

Here are a few things I have learned or confirmed about myself over the years, with a little help from tango:
  • I enjoy intensity. I am quite sure this is one of the principle qualities that attracts me to tango. Not much of a lukewarm kind of person, I enjoy rich food, strong coffee, robust wine, scary movies, loud music, hot showers and demanding workouts. I also like intense human connections: While I'm not big on small talk, I love deep conversation – or a profoundly connected tanda. Tango dancers are such an eclectic bunch and I have often wondered if one of the common threads that weave us together is a desire for intense sensations or connections.
  • Tango allows me to let go. This is one of the other main attractions of the dance for me. Stillness of my mind doesn't come easy. I am a busy person whose busy brain can keep me awake at night for hours. And I worry and I stress – until I hit the dance floor, where the music, movement and human contact all combine to create my great escape. Out on the floor in the arms of a dancer to the beat of a beautiful soundtrack everything disappears but the here and now. Not only is it so completely enjoyable, it is also, I believe, tremendously therapeutic.
  • I go with the flow. I have always loved surprises and am quite able to take the situation I am given and run with it. I roll with the punches, so to speak. This makes me a natural follower, because I don't overthink what's happening and I'm pretty good at accepting what comes, no matter how unexpected. I think all this all makes me a patient leader, as well, because I'm not overly attached to the past or the previous plan.
  • So I may be a patient leader, but it took time for me to become a confident one. As I mentioned in my blog post on assertiveness, it's important to have clear intentions, in life and in tango. Know what you want, say what you want, go after what you want. None of these are skills that come naturally to me, but tango and teaching have helped me develop them. Besides, I did go after what I wanted when my partner and I opened our school, MonTango, a decade ago, and it has since grown into one of the city's main tango spots. This has taught me that dreams are worth pursuing.
  • I don't always fit in. I think one of the reasons I like to be the host, the teacher, the DJ is because if I'm just another participant I sometimes feel like a bit of a misfit. And I've always felt this way: throughout school and in my previous career I was never part of the "in" crowd or the cool clique. I never knew how to pretend to be just like everybody else, or to act a certain way or say the "right" things to get into the "right" crowd. Don't get me wrong: I had friends – a small group of very close ones – and I always got along with most people; while I was a bit of an outsider, I was never an outcast. Sometimes I wonder if this isn't another common thread in tango – this world is so full of odd (and wonderful) characters that it sometimes feels like a reunion of misfits. But then again, there are cliques in tango. I'm just not a part of them and they don't thrive at my milongas. I think what I've figured out is that in tango as in life I always prefer inclusivity to exclusivity.
  • My limits exist to be pushed. Sometimes I think I would like to live a simpler, quieter life. But every time I go for something simple I end up taking it further than intended. This has been evident in my tango journey: not content to just dance, I began to teach; not content to just teach, I opened my own school; not content with teaching and running a school, I also perform and produce shows, DJ, blog … And, of course, I have continued my own dance, movement and teacher training, taking privates whenever possible, learning to lead and getting certified as a fitness instructor and now a yoga instructor. I don't know what my next big step will be, but I know once I get comfortable where I am I won't stay there for long.
  • I will never believe I am enough. I think the continued desire to learn, advance and grow is a good thing, but in my case it's also a sign that I never feel I do enough or that I'm good enough at anything I do. For example, I will never be the dancer I want to be. This is both a good and bad thing. It means I get very down on myself at times – especially after watching myself perform. But it also means I push myself harder every time and therefore – I can admit it – I improve.
  • I love teaching. I may not feel I've become the dancer I strive to be, but I do know that I am a good teacher, and that is because I am as passionate about teaching as I am about dancing. I think I am twice (or more) the teacher now that I was when I started out, and I plan to continue my growth. All the lessons I have mentioned here – and more – have taught me how to better teach others. 

So, what have you learned through tango? Has it helped you grow and evolve as a person as well as a dancer? Has it opened your eyes to something you didn't know about yourself before?

Next: Lesson No. 20. I have the best job in the world.

Previously: Lesson No. 18. Tango can be hard on couples.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 18: The tango couple

Learning tango with your mate will take
patience, humility and a sense of humour.
To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I've learned through this dance that sparked the cliché "It takes two to tango."

Lesson No. 18. Tango can be hard on couples.
When you say tango, people conjure up images of roses, romance and passion, and tango lessons seem like a great activity to take up as a couple. So you sign up for some classes and instead of the expected romance and passion you find awkwardness, frustration, defensiveness or jealousy. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.

In our years in tango together, my partner and I have seen just about every issue that can come up in a couple, and we even lived some ourselves in our early years. There are many possible scenarios, each with its own challenges. Just understand this: Tango does not cause relationship issues, but it can amplify existing ones.

Some friends and I were talking about this phenomenon a while ago and we came up with the slogan: "If your couple can survive tango, your couple can survive anything!" While I won't be making this statement my school's new marketing campaign, there is a significant element of truth to it.

Here are some common situations, some issues that arise from them and some possible solutions so that not only can you increase the chance your relationship will survive tango, but also that tango will survive your relationship.

•You take up tango together. 

Beginners dancing with beginners is the usual situation in every group class, but it is never easy.
Some of the relationship issues that are easily amplified in a beginner-leading-beginner situation include defensiveness, impatience and jealousy.
To learn tango – to learn anything – you need to be receptive. If you are defensive every time the teacher comes to you with a correction or your partner doesn't respond as you hoped you will tend to block your own capacity to learn while placing most or all of the blame on your partner.
Face it, you will probably not both pick up the dance at exactly the same pace. Either partner might be a quicker study, and if that partner is you, you're going to have to be extra patient with your partner. If your partner is the faster learner, you're going to have to be patient with yourself.
We tend to be less tolerant toward those we feel comfortable with, so when your tango partner is also your life partner, you might let yourself outwardly blame him or her for those missteps more readily than you would a stranger.
The early stages of the learning curve are often hardest for leaders, therefore they receive the brunt of the blame – from both parties. Followers with a touch of natural skill 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. So both partners might feel – somewhat mistakenly – that the follower is learning faster or dancing better than her partner. Reality sets in later for 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. And spending a lot of time trying to figure out who is to blame is unproductive anyway. Work as a team and, with the help of your teachers, you will see that you both possess solutions.
Then there is the insecurity of suddenly seeing your loved one in the arms of someone else. Partner changes are an excellent and – in my opinion – necessary tool for improving your dance skills. But they can make novices extremely uncomfortable. This is normal, and in our classes we do not insist people change partners if they are really against the idea, but if you remain forever unwilling to dance with anyone else or to allow your mate to do so I believe it is not a great sign for your future in tango together. Remember, it is just tango (more about this below), and whether things go well or badly with another partner, you will bring some of what you learned back to your regular partnership.
Learning tango with your mate will take patience, understanding, humility and – let's not forget – a sense of humour on both sides.

•One of you already dances and introduces the other to tango.

While beginners leading beginners can be a struggle, when experience is paired with inexperience all kinds of imbalances present themselves. Issues that commonly come up in this situation are – again – impatience and jealousy, as well as inferiority/superiority complexes.
If you have less experience than your partner: Do not put your partner on a pedestal. This is one I see all the time, and it drives me a little crazy. Sure, if your partner has been dancing for a year and you just started yesterday he or she will seem like a great dancer to you. But so will almost everyone. And what you need to know is, a year is nothing in tango. Your partner surely has loads to work on still in terms of his or her technique. So try to focus on learning at your pace without comparing yourself to your partner or getting impatient with yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but idolizing your partner as a dancer will get you nowhere.
Then there is that green monster called jealousy. Especially 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. I have had more than one student come to me and say they just could not bear to watch their cherished one clearly having the time of his or her life in another person's embrace. It can take time to get into tango enough to understand that for most dancers it really is all about the dance and nothing more. The intensity, connection and abandon don't leave the dance floor. If someone is looking for more than the dance, it has nothing to do with tango; tango just may be the avenue they 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.
If you have more experience than your partner: Do not be condescending. No partnership is truly equal (though the best ones eventually come close), so amplifying the inequalities by constantly finding ways to point them out is counterproductive and will only serve to put your partner on the defensive. And remember that you, too, still have much to learn; you're simply at a different place on the curve. As a teacher, I see condescension manifest itself in two main forms: overly encouraging attitudes and teachy behaviour.
Overly encouraging? Oh yes. Being encouraging is, in principle, a good thing, but there is a fine line between super-supportive and cloyingly condescending. Figuratively patting your partner on the head every single time he or she gets the littlest thing right is almost as annoying as criticizing every little imperfection. So give praise when you have a great dance or see real improvement, but make sure it is sincere and doesn't come from too high-and-mighty a place.
I've said it before, and here I go again: Do. Not. Correct. Your. Partner. Just because you have more experience does not make you a qualified teacher. So be the competent dance partner you know how to be, but leave the teaching to the teachers, let your partner learn at his or her pace and avoid the temptation to constantly show off how much more you know. Nobody likes a know-it-all, unsolicited advice quickly gets irritating, and constantly putting yourself above your lowly partner will probably do little to make him or her feel comfortable.
Also, if you are too comfortable in your superior place, watch out: Your more advanced dance skills are likely not a permanent state of being. There is a reasonably good chance that a year or two from now your partner's skills will have caught up to or even surpassed yours – especially if he or she keeps working hard while you remain in your haughty comfort zone.

•You both already dance tango when you get together. 

You basically have two choices here: agree to make your dancing exclusive or agree to keep dancing with other people. The key word in both situations is "agree." Whatever you decide, you have to both be on board, stick to it and allow your partner the same freedoms you expect yourself.
I, personally, would find it difficult to go from dancing with different partners and friends to suddenly shunning them all in order to dance every tango with the same partner – even if that partner was the person I love. This decision would not work for me.
However, no matter how long you have been dancing and how well you both know that tango is about the dancing, there will be times when you feel your partner had one tanda too many with a particular person or looked a little too blissful in the arms of a certain someone else. I know this because I have lived it, too. In our case tango is our full-time job so we had no choice but to learn early on to get over any emotional insecurities that came up. And we fully understand and value the benefits that changing partners brings to our dancing.
The best suggestions I can make to find a mutually agreeable solution are to keep the lines of communication open and, if necessary, to establish some ground rules. For example, I know some couples who always save the first and/or last tanda for each other. That gives them something special that belongs only to them, but allows them to keep exploring the enjoyment of other partners, expanding their skills and bringing back new experiences that probably end up nourishing their relationship.

•You dance but your mate doesn't. 

You know as well as I do that tango isn't just another social activity. But then again, it is. If you are going to keep dancing and your mate is not, your mate has to accept that you have an interest and an important pastime that does not involve him or her. But this would be true of any activity you are passionate about and dedicate significant time to, whether it's working out at the gym, singing in a choir or playing golf. Even if you don't play golf cheek to cheek and chest to chest with your fellow golfers.
To an outsider, this may sound like a rationalization, but it is not: When you are dancing with someone, you are not really dancing with the person, you are dancing with the dancer. You can connect – intensely, profoundly, passionately – with a stranger, because most of the things about that person don't matter on the dance floor: what language he speaks, what he does for a living, whether she has children, what her plans are for tomorrow. What matters is the feel of their embrace, their connection to the music, their ability to express, to listen, to follow. Overall, what matters, quite simply, is what is happening now. Tango is a shared moment – well, a shared 10 minutes – and nothing else exists during that moment, whether you are dancing with your life partner or a total stranger. Then the tanda is over and you move on to the next connection. These connections are not sexual, but at their best they are quite intimate and profound: You are connecting with something that goes beyond the man or woman in your arms, which is why many of us can derive as much pleasure from dancing with either gender, regardless of our sexual orientation.
It is, of course, possible to confuse these things and to take, or desire to take, things beyond the dance floor. But this doesn't usually happen, and if you've got someone waiting for you at home, it's up to you not to let it. If your relationship is solid and you value it, you should be able to live your passion for both tango and your non-dancing loved one to the fullest.

Whatever your partner situation in tango, you're doing it to have fun and to add something positive to your life. To continue to do both these things, remember:
•To seek solutions, not blame.
•To laugh off mistakes.
•That tango is about what happens on the dance floor, not beyond.

In the end, relationship issues might be the thing that makes you decide that tango is not for you. You might even blame tango for the seemingly new issues that have come up in your relationship. Or you might end up using tango to work through some of your issues and your relationship will end up stronger for it.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this one. Have you lived through similar challenges? How did you resolve them?

Next: Lesson No. 19. Tango is a voyage of self-discovery.

Previously: Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 17: Is tango for you?

Tango: It's not as easy as it looks.

To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I've learned thorough this dance that can be as frustrating as it is fulfilling.

Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone. In two decades of dancing, more than 15 years of teaching and almost 10 years running my own studio I have seen more people drop out of tango than stick with it.

On my school's website I state that tango is for everyone and that "If you can walk, you can dance." I stand by those statements: You can take up tango whether you are 25 or 65, male or female, single or in a couple, shy or extroverted and the list goes on. But, of course, just because you can walk doesn't mean you will dance tango like a pro and also doesn't mean you will love tango. And to keep dancing tango, you've got to love it. Because while the concept is simple, the dance is not so easy.

As a tango-lover and tango teacher, I certainly think it would be great if everyone at least gave tango a try. You might like it, love it, stick with it and get really good at it. Or you might not.

Tango might not be for you if:

•You only stick with things that come easy. Beginners soon realize that if they are going to dance this dance they will have to dedicate a significant amount of time to it. One class a week is not sufficient, and you're probably not going to feel like you're really dancing in less than a year.
You won't stick with tango beyond a few weeks of classes if you don't develop a desire to really work on your dancing, which means working on yourself.
Tango, as all experienced dancers know, is about much more than memorizing a few steps or sequences. It is about connection and communication, posture and a smooth walk, musicality and improvisation. And those things take months – no, years – to develop and – maybe, just maybe – master.
If all this sounds unpleasantly daunting to you, maybe you're on the wrong track. If it sounds more like an exciting challenge, keep going.

•You expect tango to be just another series of dance steps. First, if you are coming to tango from other social dances – ballroom or Latin, for example – don't expect to skip the beginner levels because of your past experience. Every dance is different, Argentine tango is unique, and you sure aren't going to pick it up in some kind of 10-dances-in-10-weeks format.
Past dance experience might help you learn faster – you may have developed your body awareness, sense of rhythm and lead/follow skills – but you still need to learn the basics. And you might also have to unlearn some of your other dance technique – turned-out knees, loose hips or lifted elbows, for example.
Learning tango is like learning a new language. If you already speak two languages or more, you will likely pick up other languages with increasing ease, yet it doesn't mean you will skip right to advanced-level Russian because you already speak English and Italian.
Again, learning tango is about developing technique as you integrate a whole new vocabulary into your body. It is the discovery of a world all its own and like no other. The steps and sequences are but a small part of what it is all about. If you are ready and willing to discover that, you're heading down the right path.

•You have very fragile self-esteem. I recently wrote a whole blog post about how you need a thick skin to dance tango. If your self-esteem is in a fragile state, tango may not be the boost you need right now.
Take up tango and you will discover that you that you have to re-learn how to walk, that your posture needs work and that you don't really know how to embrace someone. So it will probably break you down before it builds you up.
And then there is the social aspect. Everyone has bad nights when we don't get the dances we hoped for, and it can be a struggle not to let such a night leave us feeling deflated, undesirable or resentful.
Some of us are crushed by these kinds of challenges, but some are inspired by and driven to overcome them.

•Tango is your romanticized idea of a date-night activity with your sweetheart. Of course a session of tango lessons seems like a great idea to inject a little extra passion into your relationship. And I'm not saying that it's not. But people conjure up these rose-filled clichés about tango – that it's all passion and sexiness, and that it will magically bring those things into their lives and their relationship.
Ok. Eventually, it might. But not in the ways you imagine, and not without you putting in some serious time, dedication and hard work in the process.
Also, I hate to admit it, but tango can actually be quite hard on a couple, which I will discuss in detail in my next blog post. The whole partnering thing can be complicated in so many ways, whether you take up tango on your own or with your significant other.
To make a long story short, learning tango together will take patience, understanding, a sense of humour and a good dose of humility on both sides. On the up side, if you are able to work on all these things, it will not only be fun and romantic, it might even make your relationship stronger.

•You are signing up for tango lessons in the hopes of meeting a mate. Sure it happens. I met my partner through tango and my own brother met his wife in a tango class, but in both cases it was years in.
If you are going to stick with tango long enough to get good at it, you need to love the dance enough to spend a lot of time and effort working on it. Speed dating, tango is not.
Sure you might meet that special someone through tango. Accept it if it happens, but don't expect it to happen.
When my school offers free trial classes for newcomers, we can immediately spot the ones who are there with a clear ulterior motive, and they rarely last long. The dance will just take too much work if dating is the real goal.
Of course, it takes all kinds to make a (tango) world, so there are a few long-time dancers in every community who both love the dance itself and at the same time use it as a way to get up close and personal with those they see as potential mates.
All this being said, if you are signing up for tango lessons as a way to meet people, it might be among the best things you can do. In tango classes and at tango events you will meet all kinds of fascinating folks, all of whom have a significant common interest. Moreso than a couple activity, tango is a social activity, so you will most certainly make friends and become part of a whole new circle.

•You really don't have room in your life for an all-consuming pursuit. If you want to dance tango, you have to let tango in. Once a week is not enough. Twice a week is not even enough. And if you grow to love this dance, three, four, five times a week may not feel like enough. Tango has a tendency to take over people's lives, at least for a time, and it almost has to, at least for a time, if you're going to get good at it. Tango is often referred to as an obsession, an addiction, a drug. Because tango dancers live, breathe and consume their passion. If you take up this dance in a serious way, you are letting it into your life. Which will affect your calendar, your bank balance, your social life and your soul.

So tango may totally be for you, if you are not afraid of a few years of hard work and the occasional humbling experience, if you want to make new friends and to discover something challenging, profound and potentially revealing about yourself or your relationship. Or tango may not be for you. You won't know for sure unless you give it a try and see where it leads.

Next: Lesson No. 18. Tango can be hard on couples.

Previously: Lesson No. 16. The tango business and the tango community don't always coexist seamlessly.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 16: Business meets community

Isn't it more fun when more dancers come together?

To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through dancing this dance, teaching this art and running this business.

Lesson No. 16. The tango business and the tango community don't always coexist seamlessly.

I have been considering writing this one for a while now, and it's going to be tricky.

As a business owner, I have many thoughts and feelings on this matter, which are obviously not completely unbiased. I want to address this issue because I think the general community could use some awareness of it. And maybe it's time to have an open conversation about it.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, 20 years ago when I was a beginner in tango you could already dance seven nights a week in Montreal. The thing is, most nights there was only one place to dance, so people knew where their friends would be and most of the community came together at most milongas.

Also, all the milongas were run by tango schools. Which meant, among other things, that the hardworking school owners could count on a decent supplement to their teaching income to help pay their rent.

This all started to change about a decade ago. First, it was around that time that Montreal's tango scene started to spread beyond the city's central core. While all the milongas were once in or near the Plateau-to-Downtown area, new schools – including mine – started to sprout up in less central neighbourhoods and suburbs. This meant that those who lived outside the city centre suddenly had more choices. The rationale was that we wouldn't have much effect on the existing schools and milongas because we were geographically distant from them, but the reality was that of course we had an effect on them. At the same time, since we were bringing tango classes into new neighbourhoods, we were also creating new interest in tango and bringing new dancers into the community, thus helping it to grow.

Then began the "neutral" events: milongas not connected to any particular school. Many dancers loved this new concept, because it meant that people from all the different schools and milongas could come together in one place, meeting new people and discovering new dancers. But business-wise it was not so positive for the schools. Since all the nights were already taken by school-run milongas, these events run by independent organizers had a serious impact on whomever's regular events fell on those nights.

Then came the propagation of festivals and marathons, which is by no means a Montreal-specific phenomenon. A couple of years ago there were three major festivals in Montreal as well as a handful of smaller ones, plus at least three marathons. That's a lot of competition for the regular events and a lot of big spending expected of the community. It was clearly more than our city could support, as many events folded after one year or a few, and this year there were just two major festivals and one full weekend marathon.

Many of the independent organizers are not teachers and are not running schools, so they are not growing the tango-dancing population the way the schools are. And for those of us whose milongas support our schools, both socially and financially, it is frustrating to work for years teaching and training dancers and sending them out into the tango world only to have someone launch a milonga the same night as ours and do everything they can to entice our students and clients to go to their event.

Not to mention the fact that commercial rents are exorbitant (you would be shocked) and Montreal was recently declared the worst city in Canada in which to run a small business.

Just this fall a well-known tango school closed its doors after a decade in business, and while there has been all kinds of speculation as to what precisely caused its downfall, the exponentially multiplying number of milongas and events was no doubt a major factor. Milongas and special events can come and go, but if the schools are forced to close their doors that will not be a good thing for the community. One of Montreal's greatest strengths, I believe, is the quality and experience of its teachers. As my partner recently said to me, social dance events are about the dancers' pleasure right now, which is important, but the schools train future dancers, ensuring the survival of the dance and the community in the long term.

With all of the extra events popping up, attendance at the schools' regular weekly milongas has suffered, becoming uneven at best. So now many of the schools have started opening new prácticas and milongas on new nights (and afternoons), some hosting as many as five dance activities per week. This means they compete more and more with each other's events and dilute the community further still. My school has been holding a weekly Friday milonga for a decade now. Usually there have been one or two other regular Friday events in town, which is not crazy on a weekend night in a top tango town. But lately I have sometimes counted as many as five events happening on a single Friday. Of course this hits me personally and financially, so from my perspective it is clearly too much, but the part of me that tries hard to be objective and to see things from the public's perspective still sees a problem. Is it really beneficial to have to choose among so many options, and to have your friends and dance partners having to make the same choices? Wouldn't it be more fun for more dancers to come together?

Obviously, a capitalist society and a free market mean the right and the freedom to do all of this. And then it boils down to survival of the fittest, and many would shrug their shoulders and say: "So be it" or "Suck it up." But does that make it right, or even good for the community, which is, again, increasingly diluted and even, some would argue, segregated.

An organizer recently justified to me the opening of his new milonga on an already saturated night by saying he was going after a "different crowd." Another organizer astutely pointed out that this was a euphemism for not just the elite-level dancers he's hoping to attract, but also the younger age group he's aiming for. Again, anyone is entitled to create a new event and to target a specific audience, but isn't tango supposed to be the dance of the people? Which to me means all the people – new and experienced, average and highly skilled, young and old.

I, personally, would like to see more young people in tango and attracting a younger crowd is a challenge many of us have been working on for years, but I don't want a segregated community where "young" dancers all stick together and everyone over 40 or 50 is seen as over the hill or undesirable. Though I was still in my 20s when I started dancing tango, one of the things that attracted me even back then was the fact that it was a dance for all ages and that I would not feel over the hill once I passed, 40, 50 or well beyond.

Part of this has to do with the size of the city as a whole and, of course, the size of the tango community itself. In a very small city with a very small tango population, the sense of community tends to be very strong and just about everyone works together in some way. In a very big city with a very large tango population – like Buenos Aires or Paris, for example – there are so many dancers that having several events on offer is inevitable, even necessary, and wouldn't have as much impact on the competition. Montreal falls somewhere in between. We're kind of big, and tango is pretty popular, but we are not a big European city with other cities and countries all around us to trade dancers with, and we are certainly not Buenos Aires. Anyway, I have heard that the proliferation of marathons and encuentros in Europe has forced some of the best-known ones to close and that even in Buenos Aires organizers are trying to find new ways to support each other in these difficult times.

One seemingly obvious solution, of course, is for the schools here to get together and come to some kind of agreement or even form some sort of association. This subject has come up in the past, and a few years ago a group of us did try to form an alliance of sorts, but it didn't work out in the long run, for all kinds of reasons.

I, personally, see the current milonga situation in Montreal as something of a free-for-all, and I'm not sure there is an easy solution. Then again, maybe it's a bigger problem from my perspective than from that of the public. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of the tango community becoming a dog-eat-dog world, because I feel the sense of community will then be lost and also, I must admit, because it makes my precious business more vulnerable. Then again, business is business, some would say, and it's up to each of us to fight for our own survival.

I would love to get your feedback on this issue. Do you even see this as a problem? And if so, do you have ideas for a solution?

Next: Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone.

Previously: Lesson No. 15. Work hard, have fun.