Monday, May 11, 2020

Learning to slow down

Having the time to slow down and smell the flowers
is just one potential benefit of these difficult times.

The COVID-19 outbreak has infected us all with fear and frustration, but it has also provided us with a potential learning opportunity. I know it has reminded me of some valuable life lessons that reflect those I have learned and in turn taught in tango.

Slow down

This is a hard one for many, including myself. Even decades ago, before I had a business to run and a family to raise I was addicted to staying busy. In my 20s I had a full-time career with crazy hours to which I added freelance writing and a university teaching gig. Then I took up social dancing, first salsa then tango, which meant on pretty much every evening off I was in the clubs until all hours. Eventually it also meant that I would add tango teaching to my work schedule. I’m not complaining: No one told me to be chronically active and busy and I guess I like it that way, always feeling I have a sense of purpose and something fulfilling to do. And when I do relax, whether that means a good book or some Netflix after dinner or our annual two-week family vacation in the middle of nowhere, I feel like I truly deserve it. I don’t slow down often, but whenever I do I immediately feel the benefits, whether it’s those of getting more sleep, having more quality time with my kids, home-cooked meals, time to stimulate my mind and creativity with reading and writing or just sitting and soaking up some sunshine. And then I inevitably think I should find a way to have more downtime in my daily life. I don’t always manage to find it, but at least I remember that it’s good for me and I know I will seek it out again when I can. So now here I am and here many of us are being forced to slow down while we wait for our jobs and our social activities to resume. It’s a perfect time to remind ourselves of the benefits of a slower-paced life.

On the dance floor what does it mean to slow down? Well, it could mean to focus on quality rather than quantity in your dancing. For example, lead fewer figures and focus more on the connections – to the music, your partner and the dancers around you. We teachers say this all the time, but it’s often hard for us to get the message across that there is more pleasure to be found in something simple done with care than in big, seemingly impressive moves that may be led roughly or invade the space of other dancing couples. There is also a strange phenomenon of impatience to constantly move forward in the ronda. This leads to a lot of zigzagging, cutting in front of people and general frustration on the dance floor. What I often ask is: “What’s the rush?” We tango dancers are literally going around and around in circles, so there is no destination and absolutely no advantage to moving ahead over staying in one spot – as long as you are following the general flow of the dancers ahead of you.

Live in the moment

We are living a stressful time for sure, and I am as anxious about what the future holds as anyone else. I wrote a whole post about my anxiety a few weeks ago. The uncertainty about the future is real and the worries are normal, but they aren’t particularly helpful. If we’re constantly guessing and obsessing about the future we aren’t in a state where we can be receptive to the lessons we could be learning right now from what is happening … such as the importance of family time or the benefits of learning to slow down.

The ability to be fully and completely in the present is a very valuable quality for a tango dancer to have. If we are constantly thinking about what’s coming up, working our way toward the next impressive move or wondering what our leader is going to do next, we are not truly present, and our connection will be lacking. One of the things I love most about dancing tango is that I can abandon myself to the dance, no matter what happened before or what might come later. I have mentioned before that I sometimes enter a meditative state when I am dancing tango. It’s one of the reasons I love it. People who have a natural knack for living in the moment may take quite easily to tango. For those who don’t, they may find that tango can help them learn to relax and let go a little.

Appreciate simple pleasures

When life slows down it offers us time to stop and smell the flowers. What are those of us who have been forced to slow down doing? Baking bread. Knitting. Planting flowers. Going for long walks. Phoning our friends just to chat. I know that for me, now that I have adapted to the pace and routine of my new normal, I am loving the fact that I have time to cook and take long walks every day, and when I go back to the life I am of course still missing I know I will miss having all this time to smell the flowers and bake bread. So I am being sure to appreciate these simple pleasures while I have the time.

On the dance floor, leaders and followers alike often get into the habit of partner-blaming. Whether that means you’re correcting your follower every time she misses a lead or you’re feeling impatient because your partner’s lead isn’t as clear as that of the teacher, you might be missing your chance to enjoy a dance by forgetting to focus on the positive aspects of the dancer in your arms. Maybe his repertoire is limited but his embrace is a dream. Perhaps she hasn’t learned ganchos or volcadas yet but she’s light as a feather to dance with. Maybe he’s an average lead but his musicality is spot-on. Perhaps she moves a little clumsily but she loves to dance and her joy just shines through. After all, it’s the simple pleasures of tango we are all missing right now: the warm embraces, the beautiful music, the friendly conversations. Let’s remember that on the long-awaited day when we get back to the milongas.

Accept that plans change

I’ve written about this in past in the context of tango. Accepting that things usually don’t go according to plan is key to being a good tango dancer, because it means you are able to adapt to different situations on the fly – a must for any leader or follower.

Meanwhile, across the planet just about everyone has had to put plans on hold, fully abandon some projects and live daily life in ways none of us saw coming a few short weeks or months ago. If we remain stubbornly attached to the plans we were making and the life we were living then we will only face more disappointment as time moves on. Some things will certainly go back to the way they were, but we don’t know when that will be and we can’t realistically expect the world to emerge from this crisis unchanged. We need to accept that and be ready to adapt to the changes that lie ahead. Maybe some of those changes will even be for the better. (We have already seen the benefits to the environment, for example.)

Find your patience

Every time I see another grocery store lineup snaking around the block my initial reaction is to sigh, roll my eyes and immediately feel impatient. But I need groceries so I stand there like everyone else and as I wait my turn I take the opportunity to still my mind and work on my patience. Yes, it would be nice to be able to zip in and out like I used to, without keeping my distance, stopping to sanitize my hands or following the arrows on the floor. But that would be rude (not to mention dangerous) and unfair to everyone else, so I accept it and I wait my turn. The system is annoying for sure: I don’t like wearing masks, staying away from everyone and being told where I can and can’t walk. But anyone with good sense understands that these rules are in place for good reason and it’s in our interest to follow them. I’m sure we’ve all been inside stores where the directions and lineups are well-managed and others where they’re not. Which makes for a more pleasant shopping experience? The more customers who follow the guidelines, the better things flow and the better my mood at the end of the expedition.

Likewise, there can be a lot of impatience on a tango dance floor. Often, dancers are in a rush to enter the line of dance and, as mentioned above, they’re obsessed with moving forward as fast as possible. But tango is a social dance and a big part of it is – or should be – respecting the other dancers on the floor and making an effort to move with rather than against them. That’s why you’re supposed to wait your turn and merge with caution when entering the ronda and then keep to your lane and move forward keeping a consistent distance from the couple ahead of you. If you’re not used to observing these codigos when you dance, you may feel impatient at first, but it’s amazing how smooth a dance floor flow can be when everyone exercises a little patience, awareness and respect. Like in the grocery stores in these times of social distancing, it can feel like our freedom is being suppressed when we have to follow all these rules, but if just a few people don’t it doesn’t take long before chaos reigns, and then the frustration really kicks in.

Focus on the journey, not the destination

Clichés tend to lose their meaning after being repeated too many times, but they usually exist because there is much truth to them. This oft-repeated quote applies perfectly both on and off the dance floor. Sure we all have goals we spend much of our lives working toward. We have goals in tango, too. Perhaps we want to up our skills or embark on a new project like performing or attending our first festival or marathon. But what good is achieving goals if we forget to appreciate and enjoy the long, rich process of working toward them? As we have all just learned the hard way, life has a way of taking unexpected turns, so sometimes our ultimate objectives get – by no fault of our own – postponed or even fully derailed. It can be greatly disappointing, but if we learned something from and maybe even enjoyed the process then it wasn’t for nothing. In these times when “normal” life seems to be on hold and our future feels so uncertain, it makes good sense to slow down, live in the present, be grateful for what we have, learn from the journey itself and obsess a little less over where we are headed.

Eight personality traits that will make you a better tango dancer
The milonga has rules and we should follow them
Learning to let go of the plan
Searching for breath and balance

1 comment:

  1. La lecture de tes textes est toujours un grand plaisir.
    Ce matin, il a fait naître un sourire sur mon visage😌
    Merci Andrea