Las Rosas del Tango


The Wall

Learning to dance tango is always also a learning process about yourself. How could it not be? You’re busy with a whole plethora of potentially transformative skills: deepening your body awareness and sensitivity; gravity and grace; co-ordination, proprioception; musical expression, improvisation; floor-craft. Deepening body awareness brings deeper self-awareness. Deeper self-awareness brings its own rewards, and at some point also a head-on confrontation with the personal flaws that we’d much rather forget.


For some students this is an explicit part of their learning process, a motivating factor which inspires them. For others it’s a background process, sometimes more conscious, sometimes less so.


I took a decision early on when I started teaching to give my students the freedom to choose how deeply they wanted to go. Teaching conversations revolve around human nature as well as technique and musicality, but it’s up to each person to reflect further, to choose the extent to which they want to gaze into the mirror that tango offers.


The thing is, sooner or later, everyone hits a wall. Mostly the wall looks like insurmountable frustration. Every now and then it looks like boredom, which is a nicely upside-down manoeuvre to avoid the frustration! You can’t seriously tell me that the most fascinating, complex, unfathomable dance known to humankind is boring, can you?


Frustration (or boredom) is a junction: either you find the energy and humility to go further, or you get stuck, turn back, maybe stop altogether.


Essentially I see frustration as a good sign: it signals that you have drive, that you really want to achieve your goal. My not-so-comforting observation is that we mostly experience our greatest frustrations just before a breakthrough, although it never feels like that as we metaphorically bash our heads against a wall. Time and experience at the ‘wall’ have taught me that great things are born out of frustration. If we can move beyond the ‘stuck’ place we often discover a whole field of creativity that we didn’t even know existed.


But, like all shades of anger, frustration can easily leave us feeling blocked, defensive, lashing out to blame our partner, or anyone else in range. The body’s response to anger is literally to feel less, to numb sensation, to organise legs to run and arms to fight, to narrow our focus of attention: none of which will help us to dance!


So how to vault the wall (or sneak around the boredom attack) and go further?


To state the obvious: break the spell. Stop doing what you’re doing and take a few deep breaths. Have a water break. Eat something. Look around to see what other people are doing, and how they are solving the ‘problem’ that’s driving you crazy. Try dancing something else that is well within your abilities and that gives you pleasure. Basically move the blocked, frustrated energy around until you feel less tense. A wise teacher once pointed out to me that pushing at the same thing just increases the frustration. Sometimes we need to back off and take a good look at the wall that’s blocking our way.


Slow down. Muscles learn via slow movements. Speed and dexterity are built up by starting slowly and feeling each component of a movement. Complex movements require co-ordination and sequencing, so break them down and practise (slowly!) each element before trying to ‘re-assemble’ the whole movement. Take your time to feel at home with a movement before playing with variations of tempo.


Have faith. It helps to view frustration as a temporary setback, rather than the final insult to your sense of self-worth. There’s some interesting research about how people do or don’t learn from their mistakes. ’Open’ learners believe in the possibility of change and see their mistakes and frustrations as a normal part of any learning process. ’Closed’ learners see their mistakes as a personal failure, and have less faith in the idea that they can change. Time and again I see the open learners succeeding in reaching their dream, not necessarily because they have more intrinsic talent, but simply because they enjoy the learning process more, which helps them to stay motivated.


Take a reality check. The worthwhile things in life—and tango is certainly one of them—are never quick or easy. Placing an unrealistic timetable on your expected progress is a sure-fire way to disillusion. The body has its own timetable and its own wisdom, not fathomable to our busy, restless minds. If you think you’re not progressing fast enough (or at all) make films of yourself practising at regular intervals and check whether your perceptions are correct. Or ask your partner - or teacher - for a reality check.


And it sounds counter-intuitive, but sometimes it’s also good not to stop. By which I mean not to stop and correct yourself each time you make a mistake, but just to carry on and make something of it. This is about having faith that you’re creative and fast-witted enough to find another solution, to go with the flow, to see where it takes you.


Finally, do a little solo practice. The minefield of potential conflicts in tango is exponentially greater because it’s a partner dance. The person opposite us who is struggling with their balance, co-ordination, faulty memory, or inability to hear the beat, is also the one that we rely on as we try to improve our own dancing. And vice versa. So at the moment when you feel your index finger itching to wag, and your tongue sharpening to deliver a well-chosen retort, step back, take a breath, and instead mumble something plausible about needing a little time to exercise on your own.


Sometimes your teacher will save your back by asking everyone to switch partners, but you can’t always rely on that strategy, so you’ll need to save yourself (and your partner!) at times. Solo practice is great. There are fewer variables, less to think about and co-ordinate. Time to take care of your own half of the dance, and to free your partner to be responsible for their half.


And may I gently point out that nagging your partner is not a successful didactic method, with absolutely no proven results to recommend it? I put my own hand up to this one. But it doesn’t work, no matter how often one tries it!


It would be great if we could all let go of our demands and expectations. Liberating if we could leave the space between ourselves and our partners neutral and free of judgements and criticism. If we could be patient and kind with each other. Easier said than done, but not impossible.


Allow me to share one personal regret. When I got married and started to teach with my husband of course we went through every permutation of the partner conundrum. We’re both strong-willed, stubborn people. You can imagine. After some time bashing our heads on the proverbial wall we worked things out, found our way, and arrived at a harmonious co-operation which brought us a lot of freedom and joy. At the same time my husband started to suffer from the symptoms which would eventually land him in a wheelchair and put an end to his dancing career. Crunch.


Could we have got smart faster? I doubt it. But it certainly put my previous frustrations into perspective.


I know I can’t spare my students their frustrations. I can only offer the hope that by taking a different perspective on our frustrations that we might reduce the amount of time spent in the shadow of the wall, and increase the amount of time in the sunny garden on the other side.


Photograph: Banksy Balloon Girl, There is always hope.  Location?



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reaction from Unni Hermansen --- 12-May-2017 15:36

Beautiful,beautiful and wise‚ô°

reaction from Aloys --- 17-May-2017 14:10

One big smile of recognition!!

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