Las Rosas del Tango


The Dilemma


I wrote this post some time ago and posted it on my Facebook page... and then forgot all about it.  Until last week when I rediscovered it and found myself nodding along as I re-read it. I wrote it in response to an email from one of my students. The subject line read "Dilemma".  I read on. 

She describes a familiar situation - her growing enthusiasm for the dance, what it brings into her life, the enjoyment of having a dance with an experienced leader at a salon or before a class. And then her dilemma, that her dance partner for lessons learns slowly, often imperfectly. She spends a lot of time trying to work out what is not working, or giving corrections, helping him, and feels that her own dancing suffers as a consequence. Recognisable, no? And yet as her teacher I see it slightly differently. I see that she learns faster but also imperfectly, that the things that are ’going wrong’ are usually a combination of factors coming from both partners, that her partner loses confidence and makes more mistakes as he starts to feel her frustration. Tricky.

I’ve experienced many versions of this dilemma, as a student, as a teacher, working with different dance partners to develop something together - a lesson, a performance, whatever. And I’ve been both sides of this dilemma: the speedy one who wants to get on, and the slower one who is finding it all a bit difficult. I sympathise with my student, but guess that at the heart of the dilemma is a secret wish: we all prefer to learn not just with someone of our own ability and experience, but in truth with someone who is better and more experienced than us.


In the drive to make our own dance better it’s easy to forget what it’s all about in the first place: connecting with our partner, working together, giving and taking.

So, how to see past our own perfectionism to a place where it’s possible to enjoy dancing even if it’s not at all perfect....

This is a part of what I wrote in answer to her:

“What do I do... ? Steer well clear of being critical of my partner while we’re working something out, or during practice time. Leave him to look after his thing and take responsibility for my thing. If I’m in the follower’s role I deliberately don’t learn the structure if that’s what is being taught. I just make sure that I’m following his lead as precisely as possible, and make sure that I’m really taking care of my part of the dance - my balance, axis, how I embrace him, the contact between us, staying with him, how I put energy into his invitation, how I ’answer’ and interpret his lead.

If it’s going wrong then I have to assume that it’s not just him or just me but a combination of what we’re both doing, so we can try to work it out together. If I feel my partner tensing up I try to help him to relax again, and I try to stay relaxed myself. If he does something nice I cheer him on. If there’s something clear that’s throwing me off my balance or which is uncomfortable then I explain what I feel without blaming him. When he feels that I’m going off course, or not responding in the way that he expected I shut my eyes and try to be quieter and more sensitive to his body, to tune into his movement with as much focus as possible. And if he just can’t remember a structure that we’re trying to practice then of course call the teacher in quickly.

Essentially what you describe IS the dilemma of partner dancing. Our differences are essential to how we relate, communicate, and move each other. It may be more or less harmonious, but it’s never easy. I see so many people giving up and stopping dancing because they can’t find their ’ideal’ partner, or because their expectations of their partner in the dance lessons are too high and block their learning. You should know that every professional dance couple that I know struggles in some way or another with exactly the same dilemma. Heaven only knows I’ve beaten my head against the perfectionist wall too often, and while I cannot claim to be ‘cured’ I can see that it doesn’t make me happier, hasn’t improved my dancing one jot, drives a wedge between me and my dance partner, and has prevented me from just enjoying what’s on offer, which with hindsight was really quite a lot.”


The lovely, funny photo that accompanies this post was taken by Remke Spijkers some years ago.  The imperfect hand hanging round the thumb of the leader?  Mine, all mine!


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