Ever take a tango class or workshop, and feel that you’re keeping up just fine? Of course.
And have you ever taken a class where it feels as though everyone else knows what they’re doing… except you? Most likely (definitely a “yes” for me).
The latter situation is often embarrassing, and results in a lot of self-criticism that gets overblown pretty quickly. It can even feel so bad that we may even consider quitting. Before we’re tempted to go on a bender to console ourselves, here are two items to consider.
: Certain steps will be easier for us than others. What comes easily for us might be more difficult for another student, or vice versa.
Second: In tango, there’s no universal, objective mechanism that determines the “correct” pace of learning for everyone. Just because we don’t get something right away – or even over the duration of the class – doesn’t mean we’re problematic students or bad dancers.
Let’s focus on getting the step right instead of getting it quickly. By the time we’re proficient with a new step, it won’t feel all that new anymore. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
When learning a step in our tango classes, our teachers show us their way of doing it. Emulating them is a good starting point. But once we’re able to comfortably do so, we shouldn’t just repeat the figure a few times, say, “Ok, I got it” to ourselves, then rush on to the next thing.
Chances are, the step we just picked up only scratches the surface when it comes to learning. We have to go further, and question the step. Why does it work the way it does? How does our movement affect our partner’s? What do we need to remember about timing, body position, and floorcraft in order to get the step to work?
And another big question: With this step, what else can we create?
We won’t reach our full potential as tango dancers if we do only what’s taught in class. We’re meant to experiment with the lesson material because, in most cases, our teachers simply don’t have the time to show us the full range of possibilities that a particular figure or step has to offer.
So in the midst of practice, have fun and experiment. We get excited about steps by first doing it the teacher’s way. But we remember them more easily and grow as dancers when we’re able to pull it off our way.
Since childhood, we’ve been conditioned to categorize ourselves according to some sort of external hierarchy. In high school and college, we’re “upper classmen” vs “under classmen.” In the workplace, we’re categorized by job title, ranked according to seniority, “paygrade,” or some other method.
It’s human nature to categorize most things, and it’s generally useful. And when we join a community of tango dancers of varying abilities, it’s no surprise when we bring this way of thinking onto the dance floor. However, it’s in this environment when our categorization instincts may hurt us.
Although some dancers may be more experienced than we are, let’s not buy into the idea that we are “lesser” dancers aspiring to some day be inducted into some “elite” group. Inviting comparisons between us and others can lead to all kinds of unnecessary drama and fun-spoiling BS.
Our goals to learn and improve – our individual tango stories – should focus more on enjoyment of the journey itself.
Don’t get me wrong. Fitting in and being accepted by experienced tangueros and tangueras whom we admire is a great feeling. But it should be a consequence of us having fun with tango, not the central motivation.
We’ve invested a lot of money and time into our tango. To maintain our level of dancing, it’s true that we should spend a lot of time dancing with those who are at a similar level; they’re the ones most likely to both challenge and keep up with us.
With this idea in mind, it’s perfectly reasonable to be selective about our partners.
But at the same time, we need to understand that we’re part of a community. Taking the time to spare a few tandas with motivated beginners might encourage them to stick around. Chances are, advanced dancers helped us when we were first starting, right? And if those beginners end up investing the same kind of time and effort into tango that we once did, the whole community stands to grow and benefit.
But spending too much time encouraging beginners can take time away from our own development. As advanced dancers, we should be neither too self-interested nor too altruistic. No one benefits from either extreme. So focus more on being good, instead of being too nice.
Improving our tango is a constant challenge. It’s a never-ending journey that involves stumbling, understanding, refining, and practice.
Generally, there are two ways to address our progress.
One way (the easy way) is to judge other dancers, either silently or out loud. We don’t do this maliciously, because our criticism of others is a reflection of how tough we are on ourselves. We’re serious about advancing, so we blame less experienced dancers, or our partners’ flaws, for holding us back from our learning. Now it’s true that inconsiderate, clueless partners do exist and they definitely create miserable tango experiences. And every now and then, it’s okay to point that out.
But if not kept in check, the act of noticing other people’s faults can become a nasty habit. Maybe it helps us feel better about ourselves, but tearing other people down – even when justified – adds nothing to our own dancing.
The other way to improve, although less juicy, is to simply continue building our skills in spite of elements that stand in our way. It isn’t always easy. And some days we’ll feel as though we’re not learning fast enough. But in time, the more constructive path is more rewarding.
Focus more time on building up, and less on tearing down.
We’ve been working hard at tango, and notice that beginners are starting to come to us for help. Others have helped us along the way, and now we have an opportunity to do the same for a fresh batch of newcomers.
At a práctica, it’s great that we want to help beginners. We want them to be as excited about tango as we are, plus our efforts can go a long way in growing our tango communities. But our enthusiasm and desire to be helpful can also create situations which unintentionally scare beginners away.
Here are 3 things we want to avoid doing:
TOO MUCH INFORMATION: When we start dancing with beginners, we’ll notice dozens of things, both small and large, that we’ll want to correct (posture, too much tension in the shoulders, steps that are too big or small, looking down at the floor, etc). We might be right, factually speaking, in pointing out all these rookie mistakes.
But for the newbie, this is mentally overwhelming because it makes tango seem way more complicated than it really is. And when that happens they’ll often make a beeline for the door, never to return. Better to correct one or two things at a time. We’re often told to be patient with our own learning, but the same applies while we’re guiding others.
INTRODUCING TOO MUCH NEW MATERIAL: It’s great that we want to share all the fun steps we know, especially if we’re able to explain them. But like giving too much information, throwing a bunch of new steps at a beginner in a short amount of time is also overwhelming. As experienced dancers, we’ll always be ready to move forward before the beginners. Stick to just a few figures. Even something simple, such as getting comfortable walking in time to music, is satisfying and productive for the novice.
BEING A DRILL SERGEANT: It’s smart not to coddle or spoon-feed beginners. They don’t need their egos stroked. Although some constructive criticism is necessary to help beginners grow, constant criticism is not.
That little perfectionist inside your brain? Tango novices have similar little perfectionists living in theirs, too. This eliminates the need for us to psychologically project our own inner critics onto them, because their inner critics are already hard at work. Someone who has the motivation to start tango lessons in the first place won’t need a lot of extra pushing.
At the end of the day (or night), tango is supposed to be fun rather than stressful. So let’s remember to smile every once in awhile, and maybe even say an encouraging word or two.
There’s no monster under the bed, no snake in the toilet, and nothing lurking in the basement when the lights are off. But as we outgrow certain irrational fears as children, we seem to develop others in adulthood.
As tango dancers, here are a few things we probably said to ourselves out of fear, and why they don’t make any sense:
I’LL NEVER BE A GOOD DANCER (after only a few months of lessons): Like anything deeply meaningful, learning tango takes time. Generally, it takes a lot longer to tango comfortably than it does to figure out how to use a smartphone, an email app, or public transportation. Let’s not beat ourselves up too much when becoming a good dancer doesn’t happen instantly. Everyone struggles. If we’re committed to improving, our dancing will inevitably move forward. Maybe not as quickly as we (often unrealistically) imagine, but it will get better.
EVERYONE AT THIS MILONGA MUST THINK I’M HORRIBLE AT TANGO: This is not true because A) Almost everyone at the milonga is too concerned with their own self-image to be worrying about yours, and B) Everyone else is probably thinking the same thing about themselves.
EVERYONE HERE IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN I AM: Really? Is that objectively true? How would we know for sure? And even if that were true, who’s going to care? Are we being graded? Is someone going to alert the Tango Police? And if, for the sake of argument, we were the least capable dancers at the milonga or práctica, then haven’t we come to the ideal place for gaining experience?
EVERYONE CAN JUST SEE HOW LITTLE EXPERIENCE I HAVE AND THEY MUST BE JUDGING ME: Of all the people attending the event, why would everyone go through the trouble of singling us out…for the sole purpose of keeping track of our mistakes (and no one else’s)? What exactly would be the point of all this? Is everyone carrying a little notebook and secretly jotting down all the instances when we don’t do every step perfectly? Will they get together later, and show a Powerpoint presentation on everything we did wrong? That would be ridiculous. And the intense fear of being judged isn’t any more plausible.
I’M GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES AND NO ONE WILL WANT TO DANCE WITH ME AGAIN: Every possible mistake we’ve made (or could make) has already been made by someone else. No one will curse you if you don’t properly follow or lead the occasional cross.
Instead of pushing away or suppressing our tango fears, let’s try thinking about them for a few moments. If we use a bit of critical thinking, and take those fears to their logical conclusions, we quickly discover that they’re not rooted in any sort of reality.
Those fears exist only in our imaginations, and are no more real than leprechauns or talking rabbits. Best to focus all that nervous energy elsewhere, such as anticipating the very real possibility of having fun.