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.


  1. The music. You need to like the music, the tango music. It must be said that before being a dance, the tango, is the music, the songs. You have to love this music, otherwise it's difficult for someone to stay long ...

    1. You are right! You've got to love the music. But I know dancers who didn't appreciate the music at first, especially the classics, yet grew to love it over time.

    2. I disagree!

      I've yet to really enjoy golden age music, although I'll dance to it and enjoy the dance.

      And in a big city, I can attend enough alternative events to feel truly fulfilled.

    3. Of course you don't have to love ALL the music, and if your preference is for modern or alternative music, I think you're still choosing to dance to music that (literally) moves you. Thank you for commenting!

  2. Hehe, it's my favorite high horse about music. I don't like music at large, neither classic nor modern, but I do like to dance musically and I love music which I can interpret in dance, both classic tango and alternative, and in recent years I eagerly DJ and write about tango music. But tango is a song, a union of music and lyrics, and my first inroads into tango rhythms and phrasing happened through lyrics rather than through music. To my surprise, few people dig this aspect of tango, which makes the phrasing - lines, rhymes line-pairs, stanzas, stanza-end special lines, bridges - very transparent to me.

  3. About two years ago, one of my work colleagues was a serious dancer (West Coast Swing, i believe (I live in the San Francisco area)), and I met a woman who wanted to learn tango, but couldn't fit it in her schedule. She learned salsa dancing instead. So, i spent about an hour, looking at dance styles on Youtube, and between the style of dance, and the music, decided on tango. I have taken a few dozen lessons, gone to only two milongas, am still a beginner, but enjoying it greatly. Another friend of mine started, just because I spoke about it and it piqued an interest.

  4. You listed six very relevant cases. Thank you so much.