Why we are told to dance with our hearts
One day a new student came for a private class and said to me: “You know, I have taken classes with all these wonderful teachers. I am a beginner, so of course I struggle, and I keep being told that I have to dance like a macho. But I am not a macho. I don’t want to be a macho. I really dislike machos. Does this mean I can never dance tango?”
In my years as a teacher I have heard many examples of students being profoundly marked by something a teacher said to them. These words stay with people for a long time. Some are revealing, consciousness-shifting experiences. Others can leave the student deeply confused, even traumatised. I believe it is important to understand how we convey dance with words, how we talk to our students and our dance partners, what terminology we use to give feedback, to correct and to inspire. Each body discipline has developed its own vocabulary, which does not only name the specific movements, but also reflects, on a deeper level, the discipline’s underlying philosophy. Tango is no exception.
Let’s consider some of the body disciplines that tango people often exercise besides tango. If we analyse the fitness vocabulary, we will encounter what I would call a “fighter’s mindset”. The moves are called kicks, punches, crunches, pushups, the person is encouraged to overcome the body: to push, to destroy in order to rebuild, to go beyond its limits with power and determination, to focus on better results. Burn that booty! Crunch those abs! It works when it hurts!
Yoga, on the other hand, reflects a very different philosophy. It has developed for many centuries as a spiritual practice so there we find a poetic reflection of life’s basic unity. There is a rich imagery full of animals: swans, cobras, dogs, cats, cows, but also warriors, babies, trees, the sun, the moon and so forth. When clarifying the poses, yoga teachers would invite their students to “grow roots into the earth”, “reach for the sky” and “open their hearts”. It is a practice directed at developing a profound conscious presence while doing physically demanding exercises.
Body practices such as Pilates, Floor Barre or Gyrotonics have a more neutral, to-the-point terminology. These disciplines were developed for professional dancers originally and are rooted in anatomical knowledge. A movement’s name is meant to convey how it is done: leg scissors, swimming, roll up, shoulder bridge. Gyrotonic is possibly the most poetic of the three, with nature-related names such as “dolphin” and “wave”. Teachers of these disciplines talk to their students about “navel to spine”, “pelvis tuck” and “the spine lengthening”. This bodywork aims at creating a better alignment, more flexibility and a stronger, healthier body.
Classical ballet talks to its students in French. If you do not speak French, ballet classes feel like a bizarre mystical cult, yet in itself ballet vocabulary is surprisingly straightforward. You will find knee bends, leg circles, kicks and jumps, plus some historical words, reminiscent of the French royal court: crowns, arabesques, curtsies. Modern and contemporary dance use a mix of classical and more recent dance vocabulary, depending on the style. In dance the mastery of movement serves artistic expression, so dance terminology is always a mix of biomechanics (push, stretch, extend, point) and expressive imagery (reach, grow, slide, caress, expand, explode).
Tango terminology reflects its philosophy as a couple dance based on a very close connection, but also its spontaneous development. Many of the tango moves we dance today originated in a misstep. The dancers would say “hey, that’s interesting”, elaborate it into a new move and give it a name that came to mind. Movement labelling in tango is both straightforward (walk, turns, embrace) as well as imagery-based (eight, halfmoon, hook, merry-go-round, a-thing-that-flies). The way teachers explain movement to the students reflect biomechanics but also the connection to the partner, or what I call the “human factor”. For biomechanics tango teachers often borrow terminology from other body disciplines, depending on personal experience. The connection, however, is something quite specific to tango. And this is where it becomes really tricky. The moment we start talking about the human factor, things become, well... personal.
It is one thing to learn what to do with different body parts and another thing to be told how to relate to another being. Human factor is the kind of information that allows you to move better and to sustain connection. It is, paradoxically, also a technique, meaning that it can be improved with effective guidance. Just like a dancer can be taught to stretch the leg, s/he can be taught to embrace with feeling, to be more present in the dance, to be giving and reactive. But these things are more difficult to explain than legs stretches, they are more subtle and the result of an INTENTION rather than a direct action. Therefore they demand an intention-based terminology. Tango has always struggled to find such terminology. These struggles gave us the well-known “dance with your heart” mantra, “dance as if no one is watching”, “abandon yourself to the lead” and “dance as if you were living a three-minutes long love story”.
The problem with this kind of statements is that they are too vague to give results but still feel like they make a point. They are prone to various interpretations, so people tend to believe they understand what they are being told or feel too ashamed to admit they do not. What exactly is not clear about “dancing with your heart”, right? Well, NOTHING is clear about that. It’s a poetic metaphor for showing your authentic self and making your partner feel that you love this dance, enjoy this music and appreciate him/her. See how many words I used to describe my interpretation of that metaphor? You might have understood it differently, however. For example, that dancing with your heart means thrusting your chest forward. Or, perhaps, to let the energy wash through your heart chakra.
Another problem with human factor statements is that they are often implicitly judgemental. Dancers are told things such as “You cannot be insecure now! To dance tango you have to be sure of yourself!” or things like “You have to bring out your full femininity. Be sensual, be sexy. Show him you want him.” These statements bite harshly when said in a moment of vulnerability. Telling a leader who struggles to keep his balance “Get out there and be a man!” does not make him dance better, it shatters his self-confidence. Telling a tense, panicking woman who can’t get comfortable in the embrace to “be sexy” makes her want to go home and cry.
Among the worst examples - in my opinion - are the ones that oppose one culture to another. Telling people that Argentinean men dance better because “they are not afraid to embrace a woman” achieves nothing except damage the student’s already fragile self-esteem. Saying that “no woman embraces like a Russian woman” implies that women of other cultures can pack up their shoes. We should remember that each culture has its own attitude to physical touch, its own history of gender relations, its own notion of private space, resulting in behaviour that will influence how people dance and communicate. To dismiss these differences is both ignorant and disrespectful. Does this mean a person from one culture can never dance like a person from another culture? Possibly, yes. Does this mean this person cannot dance tango? No, that’s absurd.
Except the cases in which a teacher or a dance partner enjoys feeling superior while making the other person feel diminished, the above statements are actually made with truly good intentions. They are an attempt to describe something that is very hard to describe: namely, a kind of a mental and body state that helps create a fulfilling dance. But because it is such a blurry domain, a lot of it is badly explained and frequently misunderstood. Yet we have to talk about it, to teach it, to practice it. Without human factor tango would not only be devoid of meaning, it would simply not work.
So, how to talk about human factor to another person without becoming vague and judgemental?
If we look closer into what we actually are trying to say with things such as “be sure of yourself” or “bring out your sensuality”, we will realise that they describe the RESULT of an intention but are formulated as an instruction. And this is bound to confuse people. Feeling and showing self-confidence is the result of a prior process. No one has yet become confident or sensual just because s/he was told to do so. It’s like telling a depressed person to cheer up. So what we really need is to formulate the PROCESS of getting there in neutral and precise terms. Preferably, in movement-related terms. For this the teacher (or the dance partner who is giving advice) has to understand what it is exactly s/he is asking the other person to achieve by being “sure” or “sensual”. What is it for? Confidence could lead to more decisive movements or a more upright posture. Sensuality, in some cases, could mean softening the tension in the arms, in another case it could mean moving in a more grounded way. Find an intention or an action that serves that purpose and then, when seeing the result, tell the student or the dance partner: yes, this is what I mean. Now your movement feels sensual to me, it feels confident, I feel you are fully present. It will make the other person feel good both about the result AND their personal qualities.
To the student from the beginning of the article I said approximately the following: “When teachers tell you to dance like a macho, what they are trying to say is that they would like you to be more determined in your every move. When you walk, walk with the intention to really go forward, as if you had a clear goal in mind. If you decide to do a move finish it, even if you end up messing it up. Pick up from there and move on. Being determined in your mouvements does not make you into another person, it simply brings out the more determined version of yourself. Some people might call it “macho”, I call it being sure about what you are going to do. Anyone who tells you to become someone else in order to dance tango has not understood what tango is really all about. So yes, you can dance tango. We all can. But sometimes expressing our true self in dance is the most difficult and the most terrifying part of it all.”
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