Partner dances celebrate the act of dance - and all which that means - with another person. But sometimes doing one of these dances doesn't feel that celebratory. With self-expression there is self-exposure, and thus risk. What kind of risk? Some of the main ones that can get in the way of your enjoyment of a dance are:
- being judged negatively by yourself or someone else
- being rejected after a dance
- not having the sense that anyone (or a particular person) wants to dance with you in the first place
- being embarrassed at making a 'mistake'
- being frustrated with yourself (or someone getting frustrated with you) that the dance isn't going as hoped
- being disappointed (or thinking someone else is disappointed) with how you danced
Let's not forget, we're talking about dancing here, that fun, free-spirited, life affirming activity. Yet, still these risks - or more frequently fears about them - abound for many people, when it comes to dancing with another person. This is particularly (but non-exclusively I'm sure) the case with Argentine tango, with its intimacy and emphasis on connection.
And so it takes a brave soul to dance tango. Since the follower and leader roles of tango are usually (but definitely not always) mapped to women and men respectively, there are slightly different calls for bravery for each gender. Let's explore those.
The bravery of men
For men, the first hurdle often seems to be the very act of deciding to learn to dance.
Amongst some circles of male friends, learning to dance sets off alarm bells about your sexuality or masculinity. Although it's clearly silly, such prejudice sadly prevents many less brave men from exploring their own natural, physical creativity and musicality. Then there's the equally foolish idea that if you're a 'real man' you shouldn't have to be schooled by anyone else, and if you can't already dance, better that you just keep it quiet. For those influenced by such inhibiting ideas, consider, what super spy hero doesn't have at least rudimentary tango skills?
Beyond not enjoying the dance, another tragedy here is that I've never met or heard of one (heterosexual) woman that didn't find men who can dance attractive. Dancing with competence and confidence gives you massive sex appeal. Fact. Yet, somehow many men lose sight of that valuable information, perhaps because they're occupied with other fears, or just woefully lacking a clue about such things.
Those that do muster the courage to turn up to the first class have to live through the humbling experience of being told how to walk all over again (as this fictional account portrays with a wonderful humour).
Walking together in an embrace with another person, while looking and sounding simple, requires the development of a sensitivity and coordination, similar to what you take for granted with walking on your own. Just like walking individually, pretty much everyone can do it, it simply requires some practice. But being a bloke and publicly demonstrating that you're having to work hard at mastering a physical skill which appears simple, can be somewhat deflating. Consequently many men are cut down at this early stage by their lack of grit.
Those brave men who get a rough hang of walking in the embrace (give it a month of regular practice and decent tuition), are then faced with the three-pronged challenge of navigating safely in the line of dance, interpreting the music, and being a sensitive yet clear leader.
Yes, it's deep in multitasking territory. What's more, if you abort your mission to learn tango now it will be plain to see that you really tried but ended up failing. The old "well if I really wanted to I could easily do it, I'm just not bothered" line isn't going to fly at this late hour. But then, the truly courageous do not dwell on the prospect of failure, they have a vision and they follow it through.
Besides, the very idea of 'failure' is often short sighted. Regardless of your ultimate ability, applying yourself with an open mind to developing any creative skill, especially one as holistic as tango, will teach you valuable lessons and leave you a richer person. Furthermore, the physical and mental skills required to give a highly enjoyable dance, require no great feats of athleticism or musical genius, they are such that if you can walk you can develop them, with a little practice.
The bravery of women
What of women who dance tango? Dance, and allowing yourself to be taught a dance, is perhaps a more accepted and celebrated aspect of femininity than it is of masculinity, in modern English culture. So there are less barriers there to turning up for that first class.
But once women are there, the same self-doubts that can afflict men, obstruct the less brave woman (perhaps when it comes to blaming yourself for mistakes, even slightly more): "My balance is awful", "I can't stop doing it wrong", "I'm ruining it for my partner", "I'm just not a natural dancer" etc.
Only those women who can suspend self-judgement for a while will give themselves a chance to learn; how to connect and flow with themselves, the music and their partner at the same time, and thus taste the true beauty of tango. Doing this naturally requires a little courage. What if it doesn't work? Well, then you be patient and kind with yourself and try again until it does. Just like leading, following is something that if you can walk then you'll be fine with it, given some practice.
For those women who have the basics more or less under their belts and are dancing socially, inevitably they come up against the leader shortage (for all the above reasons), which affects the majority of milongas in the UK (and many other places, apparently even Buenos Aires now). When there are less leaders, more followers spend more time not dancing, there is more competition - which can lead the less brave women to feel uncomfortable - and more opportunity for feeling miserable because you're not being asked to dance. Bummer.
What can be done about that? Women who stick it out take the initiative and a positive attitude. They work on their technique and find a teacher who helps them move forward, they learn to lead as well as follow (something that is supported in Tango Lingua courses), they become a skilled practitioner of the cabeceo (the non-verbal invite to dance), they make an extra effort to befriend the leaders they enjoy dancing with, they plan ahead with their social dancing and go ahead and break the ice with leaders they don't know, and they strongly and warmly encourage their male friends to learn tango.
No one likes to be a wallflower, but by taking the initiative as above that needn't be your lot. Of course it takes guts to stick your neck out, to do things that are perhaps a little unconventional, which might raise a few eyebrows in some places (such as leading - although objections are becoming rare), or to be slightly more pro-active and assertive in getting to know people and initiating an invitation. But then, especially in tango, fortune really does favor the brave.
Then as a woman, once you've started doing what you need to, to get the dances you want, there can remain the challenge of openness. Of course, this is a challenge that can be present from the very beginning - and to an extent with men too - of allowing someone else to guide you, completely receptive to their physical movements (while keeping good posture). Allowing this requires a degree of trust and can feel like quite a revealing and vulnerable state to be in for a while, especially with the physical proximity and sensuality of tango.
With practice though, this openness or receptiveness becomes a physical skill, and a habit which feels as natural and enjoyable as a warm hug or a conversation with a friend. But once again, a little courage can be required to reach that point.
Recognition, whether to set out, and beyond bravery
So, for both men and women, I think a considerable amount of courage is called for to become a dancer of tango, and that deserves recognition. We've not even discussed personal issues with physical contact or closeness that some people may be trying to overcome (and tango is certainly good for doing that), or setting out learning tango as a couple, or the challenges of one half of a relationship dancing and the other not.
If you're reading this as someone contemplating learning tango, or you're just starting, do you have what a takes? Can your mettle withstand the pressure? Well, while it's true that tango is not everyone's dance, if you find yourself drawn to it, enjoy learning and are prepared for a challenge or two, then you'll almost certainly do just fine.
Many of the challenges faced in tango, which call for our courage, are actually manifested by our own thinking. What then lies beyond 'the bravery of dancing tango'? Without meaning to get too esoteric, I think a kind of serenity than comes from a deeper understanding of people, most of all yourself. But that it's the being brave that gets you to that understanding.
Some of this understanding can come from the experience you accumulate dancing tango, which teaches you how dancers and milongas can change from day to day, how any number of factors can be in play - of which you are only one - and how practice, patience and kindness are your friends. It's a familiarity and peace with the many uncertainties and ups and downs of engaging with this language of movement, and an experiential acceptance that all does not rest on you.
Other parts of this understanding conducive to a more serene enjoyment of tango come more generally from self-inquiry and maturing as a person. Specifically, the empowering recognition that one, the responsibility for your feelings - and changing them - lies squarely with you, and two, that critical (or complementary) judgement always comes with choices. The choice to make that judgement or not, if you're at the point of making it, or where someone else seems to be doing the judging, the choice of whether to take that on as part of your reality, or to (often more constructively) look behind it to the underlying feelings and needs of that person.
So then with the benefit of these understandings you don't need to be so brave, since most of the risks that were perceived dissolve once you have a different relationship with judgement and empower yourself to take charge of your inner state. Then, dancing tango can once again become more about just having fun and opening your heart to playful, creative and musical connections.