Why we fight when practicing, especially with people we love
To improve in tango you need to practice, but practicing on your own will only improve your own movement, not your leading or following skills. To practice tango you need another person. Why do we practice? To feel better when we dance. What do we want out of practicing? Results. We want our practice to be efficient and effective. But you see, things and processes can be efficient and effective, but humans usually are not. Humans are human. They have feelings. And this is when the trouble starts.
Practicing is about development and work. Each of us has his or her own working style, influenced by what we are and what we do. We each have a particular emotional and mental state that we consider productive or creative. Some need a certain degree of frenzy to feel productive, others, on the contrary, want total calm and an undisturbed focus. Some are like fireworks, their productivity comes in bright explosions. Others are like gletchers, moving slowly but surely in a given direction. Our productive state depends not only on our temperament, activities and character, but also on what has brought us good results before. If your background is in competitive sports you will probably need some adrenaline and pressure, you will want to push yourself beyond your limits. If your background is in creative work, you will probably thrive when allowed to clear a calm space for yourself and let your mind wonder. A productive state is a state of NON-RESISTANCE. It is a state in which your “point of awareness” is allowed to flow freely, unrestricted by rigid expectations or opinions.
When two people work together in the same field, their productive states often resemble each other. In tango, scientists practice with designers, architects with doctors, public officers with beauticians, software engineers with ballerinas. In tango your productive states might not be compatible at all. Practicing together is about collaboration, and the bad news is that collaborating is a skill that does not come naturally. The good news is that this skill can be learned. Even if your working styles are different, you can still establish a process that brings satisfactory results, but it will require some work.
How can you know when you are in a productive state? It feels like things start to work out on their own, ideas come easily and have value and originality. You feel enthusiasm, excitement, challenge, joy. When you are nowhere near the productive state you feel tense, uneasy, unhappy, stressed, tired, frustrated. How to recognise if your partner is in a productive state? By looking for the indications of the same feelings. Often this is not easy. We are all different in how we express our inner life. Someone may look thoughtful and aloof, while feeling great excitement and inspiration inside. Another might be all over the place with excitement, but in reality only desperately trying to mask his or her feelings of inadequacy. You will have to know your partner a bit to know when s/he is in a productive state. And you will have to know yourself, too.
Why is practicing together in tango sometimes so difficult? First of all, working together very closely with just one person IS quite difficult. Whether it is a business you two are running together, a book you are co-writing or a house you are designing, a close collaboration always provides challenges. Tango adds an important difficulty on top of this. And no, it is not love. You can be in love, run a business together and tear each other to pieces at every business meeting, too. The additional difficulty of tango is that it is a dance. When you are writing a book or building a house you can still take a step back, look at the result and discuss its qualities independent of you as people. In dance the result is your movement and therefore your body. There is nothing more YOU in this life than your body, and so every appraisal or critique of your dance is automatically an appraisal or a critique of YOU.
There is a second bycoming difficulty. The higher the follower’s skill, the greater the leader will feel in the dance. The higher the leader’s skill, the greater the follower will feel. The quality of the dance depends on you both equally, on your technique but also on your willingness to dance together, your improvisational skills, energy and dedication. Tango, being a dance of improvisation, is highly dependent on how both partners FEEL at that moment. You have probably noticed that your dance skill seems to improve when you feel great and it tends to (sometimes dramatically) decline if you feel like crap. Why you feel great or like crap, is a different story and can have many reasons. The fact remains that the way you feel IN THAT MOMENT will greatly influence your dance.
What happens in tango practicing, especially if two people are in love, is that the slighest critique is taken very personally and is therefore extremely hurtful. Unconsiously you always want to be the best for your partner in everything, including tango. Learning that your ochos are not very good is a hard truth when coming from a teacher, but it is even harder to cope with when coming from your partner. With a teacher we accept their authority over us, but with our partner we want to be equal (unless our partner is our teacher).
Critique, no matter how carefully stated, feels like agression, even if the person is well-trained in receiving critique. This is an inbuilt mechanism that allows us to recognise potentially threatening situations and therefore trigger our “fight or flight” reflex. A partner criticising your ochos, in this sense, is no different from a tiger looming ahead of you. The perceived threat might not have the same intensity, but the reaction in your brain and body is similar. When you are tense, your movements are somewhat constricted and your balance more difficult to keep, but when you feel calm and positive your movements flow easier. There is one simple explanation for this. When the “fight or flight” reflex is triggered, your brain wants you to quickly focus on one of those two behaviors and forget all the rest - forget it LITERALLY. When there is a tiger, the last thing your brain wants you to do is beautiful ochos. This is why critique, felt as agression, will lead to defensiveness or a counter-attack, and not immediately to improved results.
Then how, you might ask, are we supposed to practice at all, if we cannot criticise what the other person is doing or, for that matter, what we ourselves are doing? How are we supposed to work on solutions if we are not allowed to mention the problem?
There is one simple method. It is not easy to implement, but this is the case with all really simple things in life. The way you can constructively discuss a problem and find satisfying solutions together is to make it not about you or your partner, but about THIS. This thing you are creating together. This dance. This connection. This move. This ocho. This step. This particular point of balance. You have to disentify who you are from what you are doing.
To achieve this, always define the problem in neutral yet very precise terms. Instead of saying “You always loose your balance, push the floor!” you should say “I think here I need you to be stronger on your standing leg so that I can finish this move in such and such way”. Make it about THIS and also, in solution terms, about US and our NEEDS. When your partner does not feel criticised or agressed, s/he will be more than happy to oblige. People are usually quite willing to give something when you ask nicely. Often it is difficult to understand which one of you contributes more to the problem. In this case the best formula is “I don’t know if it’s me or you, but I feel that here we are loosing balance. Let me try something. What do you feel now?” In any given area you will progress faster if you keep focusing on the solution instead of the problem. Ideas will come quicker and your body will find the right moves faster if you don’t identify with the problem. And you will have to be PATIENT, too. With yourself and your partner. Patient, forgiving and simply nice.
Most importantly, stop terrorizing yourself and stop terrorizing your partner. If you want results, your most important assets are a happy, collaborative self and a happy, collaborative partner. To have this, you will need to stop doing all the things that make yourself and your partner unhappy. It is that simple. Remember, the quality of your dance together depends on how you both feel. If you take the position “I need you to be perfect before I can fully express myself” then guess what: you can wait forever. Never skip an opportunity to improve yourself, even if your partner is far from being what you would like him or her to be. Praise your partner for everything you like about his or her dancing. Take the “like” button with you everywhere you go. Praise genuinely, with real feeling. The more you praise the good things, the happier your partner will be, the easier the results will come. Mutual admiration and mutual respect are keys to effective collaboration: once they are gone, it is very difficult to bring them back. This also applies to yourself. Praise yourself for everything you already like about your dance. It does not matter that your vision is still far from where you are. You are getting there, step by step. Acknowledge the steps.
Make sure every time you practice, you bring yourself in your productive state first. Do whatever it requires. Watch your favorite tango videos or your favorite cat videos, it really does not matter. Check if your partner is also in his or her productive state and then make your priority not the final result but the joy of getting there. Believe me, not only will you get there, but you will both be happier in the process.
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