It doesn’t matter if you’ve only started tango a year, a month, a week, or even a day ago. Go to practicas and milongas as soon as you can, and start putting whatever skills you have to the test.
Focus on gaining experience, and if you’re a novice, don’t worry if you know only a few steps.
Building experience feels scary at first. And after those first few shaky tandas, you’ll feel as though you need to take more lessons before you’re “ready” to hop onto the dance floor again. Don’t give in to that thinking; don’t wait until after your next class.
Yes, lessons are important (I have to say that because I’m a teacher), but nothing moves your dancing forward like experience, practice, and the act of doing.
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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.
It takes a lot of drive to go from being a novice to an intermediate tango dancer. But once we get to a point where we’re competent, we need to put forth even more effort in order to keep improving. This can be hard, because it’s tempting to just coast along. Here are 3 reasons why seeking new challenges is tough, but ultimately worth it: 1. It’s humbling: Intentionally making the effort to learn new stuff isn’t easy because it’s disruptive. Leaving our comfort zones feels scary, and the worst part is we might feel like beginners all over again! Who wants that? Why it’s worth it: By moving up to the next level, we can catch and stop bad habits, hone technique, and in time, become stronger dancers. Although we might feel like beginners for a while, which isn’t so great, we’ll once again experience the confidence boost that comes after overcoming new challenges. Being able to say, “I did it” never gets old. 2. It can push us to our limits: There’s the possibility that going up to a new level feel so difficult, that we doubt our ability to be able to get through it. We may ask, “Should I even continue tango?” Why it’s worth it: This has less to do with learning the new figure than it has to do with learning about ourselves. We find out pretty quickly whether or not we have a quitter mentality. And in the case of tango, the challenge at least occurs on our schedule. If we choose to keep pushing ourselves and moving forward, the experience results in greater mental fortitude. This can only prepare us for future, non-tango related challenges that don’t align with our timetables. Tango is an escape from life that also prepares us for life. Convenient, right? 3. It takes patience: The good news is, we’re highly motivated. But understanding a new figure conceptually is one thing, while working the information from our brains to our bodies is something else. And no matter what kind of body we have, that process simply takes time. And it’s difficult not to get angry or frustrated with ourselves. Why it’s worth it: There aren’t too many circumstances where having patience is a negative quality. As far as tango goes, there’s no instant gratification and no overnight successes, so patience is crucial. Patience forces us to slow down and take things as they come. This is not meant to frustrate us. Patience gives us insight to discover why it’s important to communicate clearly with our partners. It gets us to appreciate the intricacies of the lead-follow dynamic, to gain better body awareness, and a chance to live for the moment while so much in our busy lives demand that we always be thinking ahead. As we know, tango is relaxing and refreshing. But it’s counterproductive to get too comfortable with where we are. It’s worth it to push ourselves every now and then, because the more we move forward, the more we’ll have to look forward to.
When did tango first start feeling like dancing? For many, if not all of us, it was the moment we tried out the embrace.
But as we start learning more figures, we tend to get so busy dancing that the embrace slips down on our list of priorities. It’s not until after we’ve gained some experience when we start recognizing its importance. This isn’t a fault so much as it is a natural process of learning, so don’t feel bad.
So before we go jaunting off on too many tango adventures, here are some reasons why it’s worth making an effort to revisit this seemingly fundamental element:
It’s always there: Physically, it’s the most obvious way of connecting with our partners. Our minds might be occupied with doing figures correctly and remembering technique. Figures and sequences have a clear beginning and end, but the embrace is constantly happening. And since it’s always there, we have endless opportunities to refine it. Let’s make the most of those opportunities.
It’s a rich source of information: We get a clearer sense of how a partner moves, what his/her comfort level is, and even a sense of his/her personality. It’s through the embrace where we feel the nuances of the figures, and depending on the partner, even the music as well.
It’s more than a technical formality: It’s true that much of the tango embrace can be understood through technical means. Without a good embrace, for instance, a basic step like a cross or ocho can feel more like a wrestling match. Our teachers are always reminding us to relax our shoulders, avoid pushing/pulling with our arms, and exercise good posture. But beyond this technical stuff, the embrace is also a means of communicating with, and understanding, another human being. Ever get lost in tango bliss, or have a really good dance that made your evening? At the root of all that was a nice embrace.
So at the next milonga, before we try any figure regardless of complexity, let’s first make sure the embrace is working. If it is, let’s keep it looking good from the beginning of the tanda until the very end.
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.
We see people dancing tango. It looks pretty fun. We think we can do it. We’ve done harder things. And with practice, we’re sure we could be good at it. The people seem nice enough, the classes fit our schedules… ..but we hold back. Why? We’re afraid of the commitment. We’re afraid we might be missing out on something else that might interest us more. So we hold back, convinced that we’ll come across another interesting activity. The resistance to trying something new, whether it’s tango or anything else, is powerful. Getting past it is similar to fighting the sleepy grogginess every morning after the alarm goes off. But once we get out from under the cozy blankets, get dressed, and then start the morning, the sleepiness subsides. And before we know it, we’re getting through the day without any major problems. But whereas getting out of bed is mandatory because of work or school, learning tango is not. And giving in to the resistance to trying something new doesn’t carry the same consequences as ignoring life obligations in favor of going back to sleep every morning. Giving in to the resistance however, makes us content to be bystanders. Being a bystander means we’re convinced we’ll get around to doing something interesting “some day.” But once that “something else” does comes along – if at all – we’ll feel the same apprehension. And we’ll hold back…again. For the same reasons. We’re afraid of missing something better. Don’t be a bystander hanging out on the sidelines. Go try tango, or whatever else that seems interesting. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll either learn something about yourself or the experience will bring you closer to something you will enjoy. And if it ends up drawing you in – and tango can do that – it’s a good sign. And the only thing you’ll feel bad about is not having tried it sooner.
Tango is physically challenging, but the greatest obstacles are mental. Here are five common ones that can really trip us up… Failing to accurately gauge our progress: Our perception of how improvement should feel is almost never congruent with how it actually happens. If we’ve been dancing regularly, then chances are we’re improving. But the process is gradual, and we don’t notice it right away. Don’t succumb to frustration, or the belief that we must be doing something wrong if we’re not getting better in the exact way we imagined. Every now and then, we need to step back and think about how far we’ve come since our first lesson. Comparing ourselves as a way of determining how “good” we are: This is also a common issue in many non-tango activities, and it’s natural to feel insecure every once in awhile. But comparing ourselves is the wrong way to address it. For every dancer we envy, there are probably many who wish they could be like us. And the dancers we envy probably wish they could be like someone else. This rabbit-hole leads to nothing but negativity, and a distorted perspective of ourselves. Let’s avoid it. Putting too much pressure on ourselves to attempt, or remember, new figures right after learning them: Practicas are better places for trying new stuff. At a milonga, it’s best to stick to the figures we know (especially for leaders), even if they’re basic. For both leaders and followers, it’s ok if all we can remember are a few basic technique points. It’s better to do a few things well, than to be sloppily mediocre at a bunch of them. By repeating the few things we are good at, we’re solidifying a foundation for progress. Equating lack of experience with bad dancing: Of course we’re not going to glide across the floor like a professional if we’ve only had a few lessons. But hanging our heads in shame and calling ourselves bad dancers shortly after starting classes is like criticizing a 9-month old kid for being bad at walking. Let’s have some patience with ourselves! Thinking that you don’t belong: This state of mind is extremely unpleasant, and certainly feels real. But it’s not. There’s no exclusive “cool crowd” in tango. It’s worth noticing the variety of people who participate in this dance. Everyone belongs, yet no one needs to “fit in.”