Thursday, August 06, 2020

The limits of freedom

Leaders and followers have lots of freedom
in the dance – within limits.

There has been a lot of talk about freedom lately. What we are free to do and not do, what we are free to wear and not wear, where we are free to go and not go.

I am a great believer in freedom. Freedom of choice, of expression, of religion. But freedom in a civilized society does not mean we get to do whatever we want. Society has rules and laws that we are obliged to follow or we suffer the consequences. We are “free,” yes, but within limits. We are not free to kill people. We are not free to physically assault people. We are not free to steal from others. We are not free to drive erratically at any speed we please, to smoke anywhere we want or to throw our kids in the back of the car with no safety seats or belts. Generally, people accept these kinds of limits. Sometimes some of us see certain limits as unjust and fight for change. That is how women earned the right to vote and homosexuals earned the right to marry, for example. But even when we see certain limits as wrong, most of us accept that it is normal to have some limits put on our freedoms. Being free does not mean we can do absolutely anything, because just about everything we do affects those around us.

In tango, the idea of freedom – or lack thereof – comes up a lot, particularly in the follower role. Tango observers and novices often see the dance as a dominant-submissive or active-passive relationship, but this is a misconception. Part of the misconception comes from the very terms “leader” and “follower,” which are misleading and problematic labels, in my opinion. (You can read more about this in my Troublesome Terminology post.) The most obvious limits to the follower’s liberty are those established by the leader, but the follower role is far from passive and, in fact, the more skilled we followers become the more we realize that in fact we are quite free inside the structure established by our partner, the music and the space in which we are dancing. If we just throw our legs around randomly and express the music however it moves us with little attention to what our partner is suggesting we may feel free, but we are not dancing within a partnership, therefore we are not really dancing tango. Finding our freedom inside the structure imposed on us is in fact one of the fun and rewarding challenges of the follower role in tango.

Leaders also have limits. They, too, must follow and adapt to their partners as well as the music and the flow of the dance-floor traffic. If they just lead anything they want, ignoring the readiness of their partner, the particularities of the music or the presence of the other dancers, they could call that an expression of their freedom, but it would also be inconsiderate to and unpleasant for everyone else involved.

Is it an infringement on our freedom for us to be expected to limit our moves to those that respect our partners, the music and the other dancers? Or are those expectations reasonable if we are all to be part of the society that is a milonga?

I believe that often when dancers feel limited or confined by such factors as rhythm, flow or partner it is not really a question of freedom or lack thereof, it is a question of difficulty and resistance to working on something that is, quite frankly, hard. Especially for leaders, learning to follow the flow of the dance floor, which includes staying in your lane, maintaining a consistent distance from the couple ahead of you and adapting to constantly changing situations, is one of the most difficult parts of learning to tango. You’ve finally figured out how to string some moves together and lead them clearly to a partner, then you go to your first milonga and can’t do half of them because you are constantly having to stop, slow down and change your plan according to what is happening all around you. It’s frustrating, for sure, but it’s a necessary part of the learning process. It’s not about freedom, it’s about respect. Tango is a social dance, which means we are not dancing alone and we are not dancing uniquely for our own personal pleasure. In a class, a práctica or a milonga we are part of a society, so we cannot be overly individualistic, disregarding what effect our actions might have on those around us.

It’s an over-used comparison, but when you are driving on the highway do you back up against traffic, lane change without looking first, drive at any speed you please and zigzag back and forth every time there’s a car ahead of you? Probably – hopefully – not. And you probably don’t complain that it’s an infringement on your freedom to avoid doing those things. You accept that in order to have the privilege of being allowed to drive you have to take on the responsibility of following the rules of the road. Similarly, learning to dance within tango society is difficult, but don’t use your personal freedom as an excuse for not tackling the tough part of the job.

When dancers roll their eyes impatiently if teachers insist that they listen to and follow the beat of the music, are they really protesting a lack of liberty to dance how they want and just execute their fancy moves, or is it an excuse because it is difficult to learn musicality if it doesn’t come naturally?

Liberty has limits. Sometimes those limits are annoying. I know I was annoyed when I had to wait six months and pay hundreds of dollars for a permit to change the balcony railings on my house. “It’s my house and I should be able to do what I want with it!” I said in frustration more than once. While I maintain that the long wait and hefty fees were out of proportion with such a minor change, the need to apply for permits does exist for good reason. Should I be allowed to build up my house so it blocks the view and sunlight of all my neighbours? Or install a giant pornographic statue on my front lawn? Limits to our freedom are normal, because my freedom should not create great discomfort or danger to you. When we are part of a collective whole, and we are, it’s just selfish, immature and naïve to think that liberty means the right to just do whatever we want. Sure some limits are unfair, and we can and should work to change them when they are outright wrong or outdated. But to make sure the big issues get taken seriously, we should make sure we are not just reacting in frustration to our own minor inconveniences when we cry freedom.

Another issue that is currently front and centre both inside and outside tango is personal hygiene.

Going back to pre-COVID times, people were certainly free not to wash their hands after using the toilet. They wouldn’t be arrested for not doing it. But I think most dancers would agree that it’s unhygienic, disrespectful and, well, gross not to, especially in tango, where you’re going to hold countless other dancers’ hands with your germy ones. People are also free not to brush their teeth or wear deodorant. But in tango society, where its members spend most of their time in very close contact with each other, hand-washing, teeth-brushing and deodorant-wearing are really the bare minimum in terms of acts of respect when it comes to hygiene habits.

Now, in COVID times, there are stricter hygienic measures in place everywhere for much more urgent health reasons. Everyone is being told to wash their hands more thoroughly and often than ever and to wear masks to help protect not the comfort but the health and safety of those around us. And a surprising number of people are getting up in arms about this being an infringement on their freedom. Well, yes it is. Just like other safety regulations like not smoking in offices and restaurants, wearing a seatbelt in your car and not bringing weapons into a school or an airplane. These are all infringements on our personal freedoms, but they are for the health and safety of everyone.

I remember a few years ago a dancer I knew had decided to drastically change his lifestyle. He gave up his house and his career to follow a path of yoga, meditation and nomadic living. We didn’t see him for many months and then one day he showed up at tango barefoot and bushy-bearded in a tank top, his hairy and, frankly, very strong-smelling armpits on full display. “People’s odours don’t offend me,” he mentioned at some point. (Perhaps he had overheard someone comment on his?) Truly, I respect that. I am more non-conformist than conformist and I sure believe people should pretty much be allowed to dress how they like and choose not to wear deodorant if they don’t want to. But what about at a milonga? He danced with a couple of women who then complained to my partner and me about his smell and we were torn: Do we ask him to leave for the comfort of others or do we respect his freedom to wash and dress as he pleases? In the end he didn’t stay long anyway and we haven’t seen him since, so we never did have to tackle that particular dilemma.

In tango we get really close to others. People’s odours do offend a lot of people, and if you’re going to dance in close embrace with other people, most of those people probably don’t want to smell your three-day-old sweat and feel your damp body hair glued against their skin. If you refuse to take other people’s comfort into consideration, while you may be expressing your own freedom of choice, you are also disregarding the freedom of those around you to enjoy a pleasant environment.

Having to follow our partner, time our steps to the music and respect the space of the other dancers all inhibit our freedom of choice and movement on the dance floor. But if we don’t do those things we are disregarding everyone else on the floor as well as the dance itself. And if we go too far, the managers of the establishment should feel free to ask us to leave.

Tango society is always a reflection of society at large, and the aforementioned parallels regarding freedom within confines have been standing out to me lately. In tango as in life we are free to move and to express ourselves, but that freedom is limited by a structure that we must respect or we will not have tango, we will have chaos.


  1. Beautifully expressed! ...and it applies to a lot more than tango

    1. Thank you! Yes, it applies very much in life, especially these days.