When I travel for work, I always try to hit a tango practica (practice session). After the last day of a language teachers’ conference in the Northeast, I powered up on espresso then went in search of a neighborhood church for “Milo’s Practica” as advertised on the local tango association’s website.
The group, a very international one at that, was warming up–a few people were dancing, someone had brought some pizza. Milo, the group host, came up and introduced himself, hugged me, kissed my hand and asked me to dance. His posture and steadiness clearly expressed that he was a dance teacher and he took me on a test drive to see what I could do. These kinds of dances are necessary with those who teach—Milo was reading what I could and couldn’t do, my ability to follow, my posture and axis, foot placement, my embrace. He had plenty to say afterwards…this is usually the case with me. I love the dance, but I’m not very good–and certainly not as good as I should be for having danced tango for seven years. He began to tell me about the dance, about the importance of connection…this is probably the hardest critique to take. If he has to tell me about connection it means that he doesn’t sense me as being present in the dance. He was a good teacher though; he wanted me to work on my close embrace. He told me: “Hug me like you mean it.” I hugged him…I thought I had hugged him. He stood back and looked at me sternly. “Okay, now hug me like you mean it.” I smiled sheepishly, “I’m sorry, but I was raised by white people.” He raised an eyebrow, “hug like I’m family or a good friend–your husband.” I tried again. “Yes, good–this is how you hug. I envelope you; you envelope me.” He was very good about expressing and explaining this: arms all the way around, chin here, face this way, keep your hips facing mine, knees soft, ass out a little. We took some steps. “Do you do a lot of close embrace or open?” he asked. “People in my group do both,” I said, “so I do both, but probably more open embrace–some things you can do in open and some are better in close.” “Hmm,” he pressed his lips together,” well, that’s debatable.” I wasn’t giving very good answers here. It’s always like koan practice for me with this dance, always a Zen riddle pulling the rug out from under me.
We moved on with our lesson, and I was surprised that he was spending so much time with me, and also a little worried. He told me about placing my foot, “lick the floor with your feet.” He had me lead him for a few steps and he clomped his way through my lead. “How did that feel?” he asked. “Clunky.” “Why? Lead me again–figure out why.” I led some more, but couldn’t totally figure it out. “Now try,” he said. This time I led and he stepped smoothly and lightly. His point was to show me what it felt like to dance with me. He wasn’t mean about it, inductive, but not mean. Milo admitted that I could actually dance to some extent (tango is a bit like martial arts, you can’t expect praise from the sensei for at least the first 20 years). “Let me give you some feedback from the follower’s perspective,” he said. “Now, I know I’ve been leading you, but I have also danced as a follower–and I’ve done it in heels and skirt, so I just want you to know that I’m trying to speak to the follower’s role from that place.” I nodded–you have to be impressed when a man can do this in heels and a skirt. So now it was clear to me: He loves this dance, and, he’s theater people. He looked me in the eye, “You’ve got a choice: You can be the old gray mare or the young stallion, which would you like to be?” The last time I checked I was more of a Shetland pony–a little on the short side and wide in the hips, but I answered correctly this time: “The young stallion.” “Yes, you want to be light, but connected–and active. You don’t want to cut off your partner’s energy–make sure you put your arm here, or here.” We tried some different embraces and practiced a few more steps. “Yes,” he said, encouragingly, “that felt good–much better.”
I love this dance, but it makes me humble every time I step onto a dance floor. I don’t exactly impress anyone with my skill or ability–but I do try to pay attention, and I try to express my understanding of the importance of connection. One can dance simply, but with great feeling. Unfortunately, I was apparently doing neither. I was glad to have had this private lesson, but also feeling rather vulnerable. This happens every time with a new teacher–one gets a whole new set of rules: watch the feet, manage your embrace, your arms, take longer steps, but keep your feet on the floor, bring the feet together so you can shift weight, watch your posture, and the list goes on. Here comes thinking mind. Milo was ready to spend some time with others in the practice session and he introduced me to some of the other men. The next dance was with Leonard, a portly Ukrainian man who was an experienced lead. My mind was now anything but centered as it spun around trying to practice everything Milo had told me. We danced a tanda (a set of three dances), and Leonard was kind, but he had that grin at the end of each dance that said, “My dear, I am so embarrassed for you.” We all have our cross to bear and he bore me around the dance floor without wincing–I wasn’t too ashamed until he asked the deal breaker question: So, how long have you been dancing? The expected answer here for someone like Leonard is that I’ve been dancing a year or less. I told him the truth and he gave a nervous laugh.
Well, let’s try again. My next dance was with a young Asian man named Sage. He danced very slowly and I found it hard at first to follow him. We danced in open embrace and my sense was that he did this in order to adapt the dance to my “skill” level. But he was sometimes hard to follow even though he was clearly experienced. We danced a tanda in open embrace and I practiced my foot work and my apologies. “You don’t have to say you’re sorry in tango,” he said, but he smiled nervously as he said it. It’s a smile I am used to. Still, he asked me to dance another set with him, but this time in close embrace. I did my best to relax into the dance so that I could be present. Sometimes with new partners, it can be hard to do this–if you only get the chance to do a few dances, you hardly have time to relax into it. Sage and I danced in close embrace, our cheeks touching, and it went alright, although he seemed to be working too hard. He admitted that he was working on trying to remain light in his steps and that this was hard–I agreed. One doesn’t want to feel like an elephant to one’s partner. We continued dancing, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes not. “So how long have you been dancing tango,” he asked. “Too long to have any excuses for my dancing,” I replied. He gave me the nervous smile. I sighed inwardly.
And still I went back for more…this time with Eduardo, a man who was maybe my age or younger. Hard to tell. He was a good height for me, just slightly taller, and he had an accent which I soon placed as Spanish, but Spanish from where, I did not know. “So how long have you danced tango?” he asked. Oh dear, I thought. “I really shouldn’t say,” I said. “Oh no, don’t worry–it’s fine,” he told me. “Seven years,” I confessed. “Well, but if you can’t go all the time, then it’s not so much the years, right?” Well, at least he was on my side. Eduardo’s secret was that he was from Argentina, but was still fairly new to tango–there is an assumption that all Argentineans are professional tango dancers. “We have a man in our group back home,” I said, “he’s from Argentina and just started last year.” “Exactly,” said Eduardo. We danced and tried different things. I stepped when I shouldn’t have and asked him what exactly he was leading. He tried it again–I had been interpreting his lead incorrectly, but we had a good laugh. He showed me again and I got it. We continued dancing until our tanda was finished. I sat for a moment and he sat next to me, “I’m just realizing how tired my feet are,” I said, stretching my heels. I told him about the conference I had just attended and how huge the center was–I had been walking miles inside a convention center for the past few days. “Conferences can be really exhausting,” he agreed, “I’m going to one in New Orleans soon.” Eduardo teaches comparative literature at a nearby college and will be attending the national meeting for his field…what impressive people here, I thought.
The practica was almost over and Eduardo had to leave. Milo called the last song and, buoyed by my success with Eduardo, I asked another man to dance. I did not get his name, but he was Indian, “Oh, you’re an English language teacher,” he said after we’d introduced ourselves, “that’s what I need.” He sounded like he’d grown up here. “I don’t think so, you sound like a native speaker to me” I smiled. “When I was seven we moved here and they had no ESL teachers then; it was so hard.” So this man, I now knew, was well versed in the unsettling feeling of being completely clueless–I could relate to that. We danced the last dance. He had only started dancing tango a month ago, but he was able to lead me into a cross and get me out of it–it’s very hard for leaders to do this in the beginning. He was a kind young man and I felt relieved to know that he would probably not be judging my performance too harshly.
The group began getting ready to leave and reminded me that there was more dancing down the street at another place and then an all night milonga in another part of town. “Just bring your suitcase and go to the airport from there,” Milo said with a wink. But no, with a six am flight, I knew I needed to get back to the hotel and get some sleep. Plus, while I enjoyed the dancing, I had also had something of a dose of middle school style neurosis this afternoon–now I needed a walk around this city where I could feel this hard little ball of overactive ego. Where does this come from? Why not just relax into any partner, be present, and dance? Why not be giving of myself instead of always so contracted and fearful? Don’t know. Always a koan, this dance.