Getting better at tango technique leads to us developing muscle memory. Not surprisingly, this makes the dance feel more comfortable over time.
But muscle memory is a tricky thing. In tango, we often utilize muscle memory the same way we would when doing everyday tasks such as tying our shoes, putting away the dishes, or locking the front door after leaving home.
In other words, we may associate muscle memory with using less brain power.
But while letting muscle memory do its thing during tango, what happens when we keep our brains active? Do we notice the minute movements in our core and legs through every step? Are we really tuned in to the way our partners are moving? Are we communicating our movements clearly, even when executing a figure we’ve done a thousand times?
Unlike more mundane activities in our daily lives, developing muscle memory in tango invites us to think more, not less.
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We’ve been doing something wrong this whole time!
Maybe it was a sacada, a gancho, the way we’ve been walking, or maybe a detail in our embrace. The good news is, we caught the problem and were shown how to correct it. The new knowledge makes a huge difference.
But applying the correction is tough, especially if the change is really important for improving our tango. We often slip back into the previous bad habit, and if we don’t catch ourselves, our instructors quickly do. Altering the muscle memory requires intense focus, like walking a tightrope with a glass of beer in each hand while being told not to spill a single drop.
For a time, implementing change feels like an impossible task. We question if we’re able to maintain such a high level of concentration, and that’s when it becomes tempting to question our abilities. It’s also at this moment when many find excuses to quit.
But by pressing on, we gradually adapt. Concentration becomes less mentally exhausting, and the new habit finally becomes second nature. To learn tango is to push our brains into achieving what we once thought impossible. It’s a tiring – and sometimes excruciating – process, but our brains were designed to handle it.
One of the challenges of learning is trying to remember everything being taught. It’s hard keeping so many details straight in our heads: Posture, keeping the shoulders relaxed, disassociating when pivoting, staying on balance, keeping track of where our partners are stepping, knowing when and where to step, listening to the music, keeping the line of dance, etc…
It’s impossible to consciously do everything we’re supposed to. But we don’t need to. Remembering a few key items, or even one, is a good place to start. Once our muscle memory starts becoming accustomed to a few of the “right” dance techniques, more tend to follow in a chain reaction-like effect.
It takes a while to trust and “delegate” certain tasks to muscle memory, but it’s easier on the brain than trying to juggle dozens of details at once.
Learning to drive.
Learning to put in contact lenses.
Learning multiplication tables.
Learning our way around the local grocery store.
Finding our way around a new town after arriving.
What once required a lot of concentration and effort is now a matter of rote memorization.
And while learning tango, coordinating our brains and bodies to move with music is challenging at first. Although the technical process of figuring out those first steps does become second nature over time, let’s be careful not to treat tango as just another series of mental checklists. Tango deserves more brainpower than memorizing multiplication tables, or knowing the shortest route while commuting to the office.
Can you feel the finer details, such as the nuances of your lead/follow and the embrace of your partner? During the next tanda, listen to the layers in the music. Can you pick out each individual instrument?
What happens when we choose to be more, not less, mentally focused as we gain dance experience? Does the increase in brain activity stress or burn us out? Or does a conscious effort to be in the moment, to absorb every detail of the dance, help explain why we’re so in love with tango in the first place?