Tango isn’t just a leisure activity, or something we do in our spare time. It’s something we actively make time for.
It presents goals, then challenges us to realize them. We learn about how to deal with mental, rather than physical obstacles. The lessons are about ourselves just as much as they are about learning the figures. At times they can be harsh, and sometimes encouraging. Either way, we grow.
Tango allows us to reveal who we really are. Regardless of whether or not we have a loud or quiet personality, the dance will suit us. There’s no regimented sequence of steps that we have to memorize. It is constructive and improvisational; every dance is an opportunity to create something that never existed before.
Regularly attending lessons and events is more than just a way to spend an evening. It becomes part of who we are.
It becomes a lifestyle.
The simple act of showing up regularly to dance might not seem all that exciting, but it’s instrumental to becoming good at tango. Here are a few reasons why.
It increases the chances of having that “good dance”
Wayne Gretzky, Mia Hamm, and Pelé are remembered as top goal scorers in their respective sports. But in order to achieve the numbers they got, it means they probably missed more shots than other players, too. We don’t immediately think of that, but it’s worth pondering.
Venturing out to a milonga is not a guarantee that every dance will be good. In fact, some will definitely not be good. But the more we put ourselves out there, the better the odds of us “scoring” that memorable dance or tanda. The most important element is the willingness to try…and to do so again and again.
In the long run, it trumps talent
Not a gifted dancer? Not a natural?
Most of us aren’t. But consistent lessons, practice, and dancing does add up. It’s an uphill climb, and we almost never progress as quickly as we’d like. But every improvement counts, no matter how small. Over time, it definitely pays off.
It greatly reduces the (irrational) fear of dancing in public
Showing up at a milonga is scary the first few times. Although feeling self-conscious is normal, the fear of looking bad hurts our focus and adversely affects our dancing. But repeatedly putting ourselves out there on the dance floor works to cut that anxiety down, and eventually helps us feel more at home while at a milonga. That sense of familiarity tends to stay with us, even when we visit different venues for the first time. When we’re more at ease, we can concentrate on enjoying ourselves. And everyone dances better when they’re having fun.
Like doing a step correctly, being consistent is a habit that needs to be practiced. The idea is simple, not all that exciting, and there’s certainly no magic involved. But for success in tango, it’s the closest thing to a magic bullet that we’re going to find.
As we improve our tango and grow out of the Beginner stage, we enter an awkward “in-between” phase. Dancing at a milonga is not the struggle it once was, but at the same time, the moves still don’t come easily. We’re concentrating really hard to keep composure, and with each dance we feel there’s a 50/50 chance of either getting through it…or messing up.
During many steps, especially sacadas (either leading or following them), there’s a tendency for the torso to bob around in reaction to the movement of the legs. This sets off a chain reaction starting with instability, which adversely affects our balance. Then, the infamous tense shoulders appear as we grab onto our dance partners. At that point, tango ceases to be fun, and feels more like struggling on a treadmill that’s been turned up too high. The degree to which this happens largely determines whether we’ll “get it” or “mess up.”
Here’s one thing that increases our chances of having a good dance: Keep the entire torso, or core, steady and upright regardless of the footwork we’re following or leading.
At this stage, it’s easy for our minds get bogged down with all the technical elements we learned in class. Unfortunately, at a milonga where everything is happening in the heat of the moment, we aren’t going to remember them all.
But making a conscious effort to keep the torso steady, to prevent bobbing around, leaning back, or hunching forward, will make for smoother dancing. During this growth phase from Beginner to Intermediate, this clear, simple strategy proves much easier on the brain than trying to recall a dozen technique tips at once. With the abdominal muscles engaged and shoulders level, the core becomes stable. And as a result, we become easier to lead or follow.
Eventually, of course, we will have to juggle all those technique points in our heads. But that comes later with more experience. As we complete the current transition, focusing on core stability lays the foundation for that next stage of growth.
To be a good basketball or volleyball player, it helps to be tall. To be a good sumo wrestler, it helps to be huge.
Tango doesn’t necessarily favor certain body or personality types over others. Whether it’s a physical characteristic or a personal issue, there will always be some obstacle making our tango journey challenging. We all go into this dance with some sort of handicap.
At various moments, we will have to work twice as hard as someone else. And there will be days when others will have to work twice as hard to figure out a step that we picked up easily.
No one is spared.
Every good dancer we know of has had to overcome something in order to be as skilled as they are. When the tango playing field seems hard, it helps to remember that it’s also level.
Shortly after a tango class or workshop begins, there will be occasions when we realize we’re more experienced than most of our fellow students. On the one hand, there’s a sense of relief because it means we’ll spend less time worrying about being overwhelmed. But we also can’t help but feel a little disappointed. Going over something we already know isn’t as fun as learning something new, right?
That depends on how proactive we are about our learning.
If we’ve never worked with the instructors before, pay close attention to how they teach. Are they approaching familiar material from a different perspective? How does it compare to the way we were originally taught? Are these teachers great at explaining things, or are they completely nuts? Because learning tango also involves increasing our sense of self-awareness, gaining insight into our own teaching preferences is valuable.
A class or workshop that feels like a lengthy review is also an effective test to determine if we’re really applying the basics correctly. An astute instructor will see that we’re experienced, and push us to refine our technique even more. They might give us something new to think about, or catch a bad habit or two that slipped our notice. Who knows? At the end of the class, an old step might feel new all over again. And that can’t be a bad thing.
If it turns out we’ve indeed mastered the step, confirmation from the instructors is a huge confidence booster that will have a noticeable impact on our dancing.
Until it’s over, we won’t know for sure how a class or workshop is going to turn out. But with the right mindset, even reviewing familiar material will never be a waste of time.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of maintaining the embrace in tango. What I didn’t do then – but what I’ll do here – is offer some quick but important thoughts on posture. For both leaders and followers, good posture makes the embrace easier. No big surprise there.
And the mere act of looking confident, or projecting confident body language, can lead to real confidence on the dance floor. We’ve probably heard this advice before giving a talk, presentation, or going on a date.
But while tango dancing, we’re moving around while embracing another person. That’s a different situation than standing alone in front of an audience.
Unlike a step or sequence that has a beginning and end, our posture is always being tested. It’s easy to forget about it once the music starts. But it doesn’t stay in place on its own, and requires constant attention.
If we’re not dancing as well as we’d like and starting to get flustered, posture is the first thing we should check. And when we’re feeling exhausted towards the end of the milonga, we can leave a good impression during the last tanda simply by taking the time and energy to prevent our shoulders from slumping.
When things start going right (or wrong) in tango, the explanation is rarely dramatic or mind-blowing. It can usually be traced to something as simple as remembering (or forgetting) to stand tall.
We’ve started tango, and although it’s challenging, we feel ourselves making progress. Everything’s going great, we‘re having fun…
…and then we start struggling. Either because of a new step or some aspect of technique, we encounter a frustrating slump.
When this happens, our brains do something mean by making us notice all the other dancers who are further along than we are. We start feeling bad about ourselves, and maybe even a little depressed. It’s pretty terrible to have our reality distorted. But believe me, this happens to everyone regardless of experience level. We’ll all reach a point where we question if tango is really “our thing.”
But what happens if we press on? What happens if we don’t rationalize all the excuses to stop moving forward? And what happens if we don’t bother convincing ourselves that tango might not be “our thing?”
What happens if we choose to see the slump as just a temporary situation – like a bad mood – and not an indictment of our overall abilities or character?
It’s true that some good dancers are naturally talented. But talent can only take a person so far, and none of the great tango dancers we admire possess any super powers. Nor are they more special than the rest of us. The main reason they’re so good is because when they reached the same point where most people quit, they just chose to keep going.