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.
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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.


  1. Bizarre j'avais déjà laissé un commentaire. Erreur de manipulation? Voici ce que j'avais dit en anglais:
    La plupart du temps c'est la femme qui exprime à son homme son désir de danser le tango. Je me suis laissé convaincre. Nous primes des leçons. Comme toujours la femme apprend plus vite. Eventuellement les problèmes sont apparus: je ne sens pas ton guide, tu ne suis pas la musique etc. L'égo masculin s'en est trouvé baffoué d'autant plus que danseur naturel j'ai le sens du rythme. Le problème s'est attenué lorsque le prof a eu la bonne idée de nous séparer lors des leçons. De plus j'ai décidé que si cela devait continuer il fallait que je sois un couple de niveau plus élevé qu'elle. J'ai commencé à fréquenter les milongas seul et vite compris que mes erreurs n'étaient que celles que j'avais avec toutes mes partenaires. En conclusion: c'est moi maintenant qui suis "addict" du tango. Ma femme trouve que je danse bien mais n'aime généralement pas les milongas car elle n'aime pas à attendre les invitations....

  2. I was lucky enough to have already started tango before I met my sweetheart, and one of the things that I found attractive about her is that she had also started around the same time as me - a year previous. She did more tango than me. We have attended many lessons and two milongas together, and I am still navigating the role is being a leader, though less experienced , and although I don't mind if she dances with more experienced leaders, I am still concerned whether she would be jealous when I dance with other followers. I appreciate your blog, guidance and insights.