Why there is often so little dance in people dancing tango
In one of my articles I wrote that the most difficult thing for a tango teacher is not teaching the correct movement, it is getting people to dance. So what is it that we teachers (and dancers) find so difficult? Common dictionaries define dance as “moving rhythmically to music, typically following a set sequence of steps”. On the surface this definition is correct and according to it every single person on the dancefloor is dancing. But soldiers marching to a military song are also moving rhythmically to music. Intuitively you always recognise people who are dancing and who are just “moving rhythmically” when you are in a milonga. You will always prefer to watch those who dance.
So what is it you like watching? What is dance? Let’s first see what it is not.
Dance is not technique. You don’t need the perfect technique to dance, it is actually the other way around. You need to dance to build a skill. Dance does not come from the understanding of shapes, balance and dynamics, nor from the physical ability to create those shapes, balance and dynamics. You need the technique to make your dance effortless and expressive, but even a small child can already dance. In great artists you admire the technique, but it is the dance that touches you emotionally.
Dance is not physical movement. Or, to be precise, it is not ONLY physical movement. A purely physical exercise is common in sports, for sports are about getting a result. Dance does not strive for a result, it strives for expression. Like pushing piano keys is not necessarily music, so moving in space is not necessarily dance. Dance is not effort, either, it is effortlessness, which simply means effort that is adequate to the task.
Dance is not the embrace, the embrace is where dance is created. Tango is known as “the dance of passion” and historically shows a sensual play between a man and a woman. Sensual or sexual tension is not necessarily present between the dancers, it is merely expressed. A common confusion in tango is that this sensual connection, or in simpler terms a flirty attitude is the source of the dance. However, embracing a man or a woman sensually will not create a dance. The connection in tango goes much deeper than a sexual connection between a man and a woman, it is a profoundly human connection. Sensuality can enrich the dance, but not replace it. This is why tango is possible between two men or two women or between a female leader and a male follower.
Dance is not your connection to the music, either, although your musicality is an important factor in creating a dance. Whether you are able to translate the way you hear the music into movement depends on many things, but like the embrace, music is only one of the ingredients for the creation of a dance.
Dance is about your energy using your body to express feelings and ideas that originate in how you hear the music, associated with a specific movement vocabulary and in connection to your partner’s movement. Every creative act, from cooking to telling a story, needs ideas, energy and ways of expression. In dance the way of expression is your body. Therefore dance is not something you DO, it is something you must BECOME.
So, why is there often so little dance in people dancing tango?
The specifics of tango is that it has two equally important components: the need to move yourself and the need to communicate with your partner (impulse exchange, or leading/following). You can work on your own movement, but for tango this is only half of the story. You need to spend almost as much time learning to communicate with your partner by very subtle, practically invisible movements and intentions. You dance embracing each other and even the slightest movement of your body is felt clearly by your partner. The embrace in tango is an extremely sensitive environment and can be a source of huge discomfort or profound joy.
Tango is a conversation and in order to have a conversation you need silence. To communicate by impulses with another person you need to create a quiet space so that the tiniest of intentions is transmitted. This is what makes tango such an introvert and a fulfilling dance emotionally, for we do not remember the steps, we remember the quality of the connection. We remember sensations.
People who start learning tango are confronted with the fact that they cannot “just dance to the music”. If they do, they disconnect from the partner. Tango classes are built on two levels, teaching people to communicate by subtle movements and to move expressively themselves, so that they can match the energy of the music. This is what you see in highly skilled dancers: they look calm, natural, often unmoving in the upper bodies, locked in the embrace, yet as a whole they can create most extreme dynamics and become infused with the music. The teachers have the complex task of showing both the dynamic side and the stillness of tango.
What does a beginner imitate? That which is most visible to the eye. When the teachers show very dynamic dancing, the students naturally copy the big movements, to the detriment of the connection in the couple. When the teachers do the “small stuff” the students copy that, with the effect that they stiffle their desire to move in order to be “quiet”. They cannot yet move freely AND lead/follow subtly at the same time. By stiffling the desire to move they block their energy from flowing, with tension as a result. The embrace becomes a rigidly fixed shape. Add to this the necessity to navigate a space full of other stressed-out couples and the picture is complete.
All over the dancefloors we see people stiffling their natural desire to move, trying to remain “fixed” in this extremely sensitive environment of their jointed embrace. The desire to move is often also blocked by personal difficulties. Shyness, fear of exposure, fear of failure, fear of contact, inability to connect to the music and therefore to get the ideas and feelings to express. We also see the opposite: people letting their energy run free, moving a lot inside the embrace, which does create a sort of a dance, but the communication between partners amounts to two people shouting at each other while standing only a foot apart.
In order to learn tango you have to do it wrong before you can do it right, which means allowing your energy to move no matter what. It does not necessarily mean move A LOT, but sometimes this is what will inevitably happen. When children or puppies learn a new skill they start moving with a simple goal in mind and do it again and again, moving too much or too little, falling over and getting up, trying this way and that, until they get the right reflexes activated and the movement is stripped of everything it does not need to be effective. But to become like a child or a puppy is a very hard thing for adults. It is challenging for people to find themselves novices at something, especially when watched and judged by other people around them. Children do not mind doing it wrong, but adults want to do it right from the start. The quickest learners in tango are those who are not afraid to move, not afraid to loose themselves in movement and music, not afraid to look ridiculous.
Besides, most of us come to tango after having had a largely intellectual education. We live in our heads and our computers, not our bodies. We try to process intellectually what is happening to us. This is not effective when learning movement. Your body works in ways you cannot fully fathom, let alone fully control by your mind. Do you control your digestion? Do you activate your heartbeat? Do you consciously push the blood through your veins? In your brain there are more neural connections than there are stars in our galaxy, and this is a fact, not a figure of speech. Are you controlling them? Or are they controlling you? Stiffness in a dancer is often the result of his or her conscious mind trying to understand and control every movement BEFORE it happens, which is simply not possible. Your mind is not running the show, it only helps you to understand the intention and the mechanics of the movement. This is why leaders implore their followers: “Please stop thinking!”
To be able to “become dance” you have to allow your whole being to abandon itself to the energy that you are generating yet stay fully present and aware of what is happening. Mere abandonment will lead to automatic movement. Aware abandonment will create true dance and true bliss we are all looking for in tango. Dance is that special state of being called "flow". It sounds difficult, but actually it is not. To flow is the most natural thing for a human being to do. It is what you do when you are not trying to control what happens, when you are not "efforting". You need to become a dancer before you can become an advanced dancer, and to dance means to embody each movement fully. This way, no matter your skill, you can dance from your first tango day to the last. Isn’t it good news?
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