I’ve wanted to try tango for quite a long time, and this only intensified when one of my closest friends started taking tango… and then quitting her job and ended up teaching tango. Several years later, she’s performing in addition to teaching. At the beginning of the month, she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. And so, I am now taking tango lessons. And as of my second lesson, the studio has a guest teacher teaching the lead part who is an international tango star.
I don’t particularly believe things happen for a reason, but I do like to acknowledge and respect serendipitous messages and lessons from The Universe as they present themselves. Tango seems to be presenting me with a number of relevant and timely considerations, and I thought it would be good for me to capture them for myself, and in the event that anyone else may benefit, do it here. With those thoughts as an introduction, let us proceed.
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The first lesson was mostly me saying ‘hello, I’m very new!’ Beginner’s mind. Finding, again, that sense of being a stranger in a new community and being accepted and encouraged with, literally, open arms. In time, I think I might have more to say about this – there are a lot of things codified in tango culture, especially in the invitation and acceptance of a dance that I have yet to learn. But for now, it was a good reminder that there will always be people willing to not only allow me to be part of a community, but will help me find my way. Mr. Rogers always said, “look for the helpers” – they are there.
Sure, there are a few leads that I give me the sense that they might rather dance with someone else, but they were new once too. So, eh. We are all terrible in the beginning when we’re learning (and we’re always learning), and I learn fast. I have both the benefit and disadvantage of coming in with significant movement experience. I learn fast, but I have some things to unlearn that others don’t (thank you, ballet, for the duck feet, and precisely intentional mechanical steps rather than allowing the movement to flow… but I am a fast learner, so we’re getting there!).
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In no particular order except that I must take another step, another lesson is about connection. For those of you who don’t know, connection, integrity, and order are my top three personal values. Me writing about this is me making sense of, and establishing order to, my experience, to be meta-analytical for a moment… Tango is about connecting.
Connection to the floor through the feet – a grounding, if you will – is at the priority level of being a safety issue, it helps you keep a sense of what’s around you, if you extend your leg to step, and bump into another foot or a wall or etc, you replace your feet to avoid collision. In this way, connection is an antenna of what’s around you and grounds you. It is the first connection we must make to stand on our own two feet – find the floor, the ground beneath you.
There is connection through your core, and tied to your intuition. As a follow for an improvised dance, the cues from the lead can be as subtle as a slight weight change. You can learn the choreography, but to recognize it in the moment of improvisation requires an almost intuitive recognition of the cues. This I recognize as connection to self. I may have more to say about connection to self when I start figuring out the lead pieces as well – much like you learn a whole new level of information when you teach something, as a dancer, you learn a whole new level when you move between following and leading. People who can do both are stronger in each role than those who can only perform one role.
There is connection to your partner. I am finding it very interesting to see how different my movement is from lead to lead. There are leads for whom I must be exactly right for them to feel like they can move without needing to “correct” me, and then only somewhat tentatively. They can be hard to read, but are often also kind, and I think they offer their corrections in the spirit of trying to help me figure this dance out. There are leads who are so focused on doing the movement that I’m not sure *we* are connecting at all, but the movement flows out in such a way that it shows that even if we barely speak, the required connection is made through the intent of specific movement. I am torn between the two – there is kind human connection, but the movement doesn’t flow as easily from one, and there is the almost mechanical execution of the second that lacks in human warmth what it makes up for in technical accuracy. But it also feels less safe to err because error is poorly tolerated in machinery. AND but because the intent is clear, it is easier not to err. I may actually prefer the technical and mechanical latter as I get the macro details down, to the leads who are trying to micromanage the tension in my shoulders in practice arms. But regardless – I learn things from each despite my preference for one or the other.
There is also connection to the spirit of tango, and the heart of the dance itself. I have been told tango is a dance of the present, and the present is connected to the past. The lead, in particular is moving into the present from their past. The follower must lean into and know the past that the lead is moving from in order to intuitively experience the present. That said, the dance is not about the past. It is about being fully present in the NOW. To fully experience the now, you must know the past, no one comes to the present as a tabula rasa, and it doesn’t need to be an acceptance or rejection or understanding of the past, just the knowledge of the past. Whether that past is having known your partner for years, or whether that past is the split second of past that informs you of the intention of movement in any direction – it is past and eventually will inform the pattern of movement that leads us into the future, but the Now is the moment in which you exist.
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There is a lesson about improvisation, intuition, and the Now. I’ve spoken a bit about these three already, but there is a specific lesson around planning, prioritizing, and practicing. I am a person who likes to be prepared. I like to have a sense of what needs to happen as well as what is going to happen. I have observed the things we do to practice without partners in class and brought them home and done them in my living room. We practice particular forms in class. And then when they say, ok, now practice what you learned today, I have a new small vocabulary of movement to work from. Tango is entirely improvised in the milonga, and in many performances as well. While I’m building a vocabulary now, and I suspect my partners are thinking it might just be best to walk me backwards in circles until I can ‘walk’ (which is a Thing in and of itself in tango), when it comes to Now and ‘dancing from/into the past’, all of the planning, preparation, anticipation, and practice must integrate seamlessly into what happens in *this* moment. Whether it is all jettisoned as you launch into the improvisation, whether it all builds upon itself in order to release you to the liberation and total freedom of intuition, the Now consists of taking the step that is asked of you by the tango.
Likewise, in daily life, you can plan, prepare, anticipate, and practice right up to the meeting, the event, the encounter, and then, in the Now, you must take the step that is asked of you by the Now. Not to say that you can’t make missteps in the Now, because you certainly can, and not to say that all that planning, preparing, anticipation, and practice won’t help you to be able to better shift in the moment to where Now takes you because it certainly may. But there will also be times when Now will tell you that the only correct step is one that you could not have planned, prepared, anticipated, or practiced for.
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The final lesson that has struck me to date is “attitude”. “There is a saying! Dance me! I learned to dance with old women at the milonga [“and old men!” chimes in the woman teaching the follow parts]. I would ask them to dance and they would say dance me, or I will leave you in the middle of the dance floor. [Leads], when you ask a [follow] to dance, ask because you want to dance with them. [Follows], when you accept, you must be 100% in. You commit to the dance. And you accept with attitude and ownership.” There was more to that particular instruction, but the gist was – there is no giggling coyness on the part of either party. It is direct.
In tango, the follow has the option to say no, with no repercussion including getting questioned or insulted on the decision. Lead, no means no, and that’s that – move on, find a different partner, do not ask why, do not plead, do not insult, just move on. You will never know why the follow said no and it’s not necessary for you to know either. And follow, if you say yes, you commit. Your actions must also be direct, take the lead’s hand and find your dance position with confidence. Dance me. You want to dance? Bring it. Prove it. Show me. Dance me.
There are studies that show people do not respond to competence, they respond to confidence. If you seem tentative, exploratory, or anything less than committed, they read that as a lack of confidence and make assumptions about competence tied to that. The origins of the verb “to con” was originally confidence. A con man was a ‘confidence man’ – someone who, through being able to gain people’s confidence, would then swindle them. I think this ties back to what I said above too, about how a physical connection can be established through the mechanistic confidence of intent and how in order to navigate the “macro” skills of knowing where and when to step it becomes more clear when the lead moves with confidence even if they have not established all levels of “perfect” connection. And issuing an invite, responding to the invite, then leading, and following, all require confidence, attitude, for the full expression of the dance.
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So, those are some initial thoughts, three classes in. It is hard to believe that Tuesday will mark four classes. Someone my first class suggested that I mark the date of my first class in my calendar, or in my diary (for the record, it was 8/2/16), or somewhere because then I could look back and say, “that is the very day it all started.” Perhaps I will say that. Perhaps I will recognize the past that led me to that particular expression of Now as I dance from the past in the present. I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility that this is a momentary flash in the pan, the Universe offering me lessons that once learned, I’ll move on from. But for now, I recognize and acknowledge these serendipitous opportunities to learn, and thank the Universe and the Eternal Now for presenting them in such a lovely format.