Friday, April 30, 2010

Saying yes to myself

This post, over at the ever thought-provoking Shapely Prose, has pretty much made my month. It gets me all choked up, with every new comment that I read (and there are 400+ of them, so I haven't read all of them yet!), just to hear about how amazing people are, and to see women unabashedly celebrating themselves and their accomplishments! Even complete strangers--but also myself and my friends; we've had our own little parties going on for our fantastic selves, ever since we first read this. I love it! Any time I need a pick-me-up, I'm going to think about this!

But, surprise, surprise, I've taken a look at it from the perspective of my tango life. It's sparked some interesting new insights there as well...

First, it points out to me how competitive I am with tango. I'm pretty competitive generally; I always want to be really good at anything I do. The best, if possible. And in tango not least--and the environment of the milonga can play right into some of my deepest insecurities.

I think that as a society, we're very strongly conditioned to see achievement as a zero-sum game: There can only be one winner; another person's accomplishment detracts from my own. So in tango, I often find myself comparing myself bitterly with other women who dance well--being nasty, in my mind, to either them or myself--or hoping, when I see some cute little thing toward whom I automatically feel defensive personally, that she doesn't dance as well as me. Because at least I have that advantage over her!

These are really ugly thoughts! I am ashamed of thinking like this. And it detracts immensely from my enjoyment of a milonga.

Besides, it's a hopeless ambition, anyway: If being "the best" at tango can even be measured, really, I will probably never be it. I've only been dancing five years; what is that to a real milonguera, who's been dancing for fifty or sixty years? Get a little perspective, girl! (But that doesn't mean I can't be good for where I am.)

One of the things that I love about the comments over in Shapely Prose is that they don't play into that zero-sum thinking. Hundreds of women have refused, in that thread, to buy into that kind of jealousy and insecurity. Everyone has taken the attitude that we are all fantastic--and no one's accomplishment detracts from anyone else's. Everyone who's posted there seems genuinely proud of and happy for everyone else, as well as for themselves. Maybe being healthily proud of yourself is the only way to ever be wholeheartedly proud of others' accomplishments; I think that's what they tried to teach me in grade school...

What a radical shift in thinking! And it's one that, for me, at least, requires considerable conscious effort to maintain. But I'm going to try bringing it to the milongas this weekend, and see what happens.

Second, I've realized I let tango be my excuse, and even hold me back.

"What, Accidental Tangoiste?" you may well ask. "You've just said you're so driven to excel in tango--and your hard work at it bears this out, and has proven you very successful! You've gone places, thanks to tango, that you'd never imagined, at one time! It's helped you grow a lot! What on earth can you mean by this?"

The thing is, I've always wanted to learn to dance--lots of different styles. Swing, salsa (okay, a friend recently showed me how to fake the look of salsa--falsa, I dubbed it--and I kind of love it), two-step, even just a nice little waltz.

When I stumbled into tango, I got good at it quickly--though not without a lot of patient help from better leaders and from some excellent teachers. It came easily to me, as no other dance has ever done. (I have a few ideas as to why, but that's another topic for another time.) And when people find out I tango, they tend to be pretty impressed: "Wow, so you're a really good dancer then, huh?" And I always feel like I have to clarify, "No, I'm not; I'm only good at tango."

I've even described myself as a kind of idiot-savant of dance: Good only at this one, reputedly pretty difficult, thing, but hopeless at everything else. Unable to waltz my way out of a paper bag. (I find it really embarrassing! I cannot even waltz!) My hips too inhibited to shake. In the past, I've claimed to have been born without a groove thing, a congenital defect.

So I've contented myself, for the past few years, with just doing tango and doing it well. I sit out the salsa tandas that get played at our local milongas sometimes, even though everyone looks like they're having a fabulous time. My foot might be tapping to a zydeco band, but I will steadfastly refuse to dance, even though I'm itching to join in--or maybe I'll apologize my way through a waltz or a little two-step. Because I'm Only Good at Tango--and I don't like to let myself feel foolish in public by trying something that I'm not very good at yet.

But why have I been looking at it this way--that I can Only Do Tango? How and why have I let my ability here somehow turn into a put-down to myself in other ways? What on earth is that all about?! Why hasn't my skill at tango instead proven to me that maybe I could do other dances and get at least competent at them for social dancing? It doesn't have to be competition-level, for Pete's sake; I've learned that from tango too. How is it that I've been using tango, which I know I'm good at, to convince myself that there are so many things I'm not good at--especially when it actually provides lots of direct evidence to the contrary?

Why don't I look at it instead as, hey, I do have rhythm, I can learn patterns,* my body is not totally uncoordinated, I can follow a decent lead, I can even pick up on where to sneak in a little something fancy, and you know what? My hips do have a little attitude!

So maybe it's time to change that too.

And maybe it all has to start with this: Admitting to myself that in addition to some natural talents, I've worked hard at tango, and at other things, and, yes, I am good at them--and it is okay to take credit for my skill. Start with that. These, then, are the next steps.

*For the purposes of getting the hang of a step only, not for actual dancing, no memorized squences here, etc., etc.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

SallyCat on the Secret and the Gift

This! Yes! This Is Why!

I may have coherent thoughts somewhere in my mind, about things and stuff? But right now I am blissfully lost in the memories of dancing with my own favorite partners. Because Sally gets it exactly right.

(...And to think I might never have seen it if I hadn't happened to read Mari's Tango Diaries just this very day! Clearly I need to spend more time thinking about and reading about tango in all the awesome blogs that are out there!)

(And if you read the comments on Sally's post? Yes, I giggle.)

Monday, April 26, 2010


So, my work involves sitting at a computer for eight hours most days. This means that for a good portion of my life, currently, I live right behind my eyes. The rest of my body can start to seem ... auxiliary.

Tango is one of the few times each week when I occupy my entire body. I need to use my whole physical self, head to foot--and my mind is engaged simultaneously. I become a whole person.

And not just that. When I'm dancing--definitely not while I'm sitting on the sidelines, comparing myself to other tangueras with brutal criticism (I'm working on this, okay), but while I am dancing--if it is a good dance, it can be one of the few times in my entire life when I lose all self-consciousness about my body.

Maybe someone who doesn't know me and how hard I am on myself in my mind, won't understand what a huge realization this has been for me. In those moments, I don't care who's thinner than me, whose legs are longer, who can get away with a tighter dress, a shorter skirt, who is prettier. I forget the things I don't like about my body; I don't care that my face might be red, I might be sweating, my hair might be messed up.

I forget all of that, and all the countless other things I can find to berate myself with, normally. When I'm dancing, there is only the music, my partner, and me. There is only the dance.

But I don't just forget myself when I'm dancing. As I've said before, when I'm dancing well, I feel beautiful, elegant, powerful. I actually like myself, even love myself--my whole self, however I am.

This is what I'm learning from tango.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bajofondo Tango (2009)

It is true, I cannot dance to this--not tango, at least, although maybe someone else could. The music has wrapped itself in a new sound for a new generation, and the impulse of the press of bodies around me is vertical rather than horizontal. But I think there is still tango in its soul; still the sorrow, the anger, the fierce surge of joy--the raw, throbbing heart of the city. The grit and the dirt and the sweat, and the moment of perfect clear light. The wail of the bandoneon as the musician breaks its back over his knee. This, I think, has not changed.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tango in the City

So it was Tango Time in the Big City. In the interests of sparing my feet (and getting more rest and, most of all, spending time with friends who I haven't seen in far too long), I didn't take as many classes as I might have, but it was very worthwhile--as, indeed, it has always been at this festival. I got to dance with many of my favorite partners in the country--and not just the country but some of my favorites in the whole world!

One man I had been watching for quite a while, thinking he looked like a good leader but afraid to ask him (and unable to cabeceo him), I finally got to dance with during the last workshop, about 15 minutes before the end of class, after which I had to catch my transport home. And I met other new and lovely partners from across the country. I cannot believe how far some of these people traveled for this! (Ah, but I also know I would do the same if time and budget permitted!)

That, actually, sums up my only regret about the festival: Not getting to dance with more of these wonderful partners more often. But I suppose I shouldn't complain, since I did get to dance with them at all... And, as I said, with some of my very favorite partners from way back, whom I don't get to see too often. I'm just greedy about tango, when it is that good. :)


There was one teacher whose classes I've been to several times before; I really enjoy them, and I adore dancing with him. I tease him that he makes me drunk, and this is not really far from the literal truth: dancing with him is so lovely and easy that it makes me light-headed.

He is very playful and loves to joke and tease, but the ultimate messages of his classes are always totally sound, and as far as I can tell, he has never lied to me about the important things, however laughingly he may say them. His sense of humor shows in his dance; I've danced with few others who've demonstrated such a sense of play. His energy is astounding; I wonder how much caffeine he consumes in a day (maybe mate is stronger than I know! I have not yet been brave enough to try it), or whether he's ADHD or something.

Since he is one of the headlining teachers of the weekend, I am very surprised when he comes over to ask me to dance at the Big Milonga Night, but I happily accept. Between songs, he gallantly waxes hyperbolic about dancing with me. I am not sure how much he is joking, and demur, trying to tell him that he makes it easy to follow him well. This time, he demurs. (But it is true, he does make it so easy. And I'm convinced that I'm still in a place with my dancing where I can only follow as well as I'm led. I still can't seem to compensate for a poor leader.)

"What do you think," he asks; "that I dance with you as a favor?"

Well, yes, actually, that is exactly what I'm afraid of. A new perspective on milonga manners has had me questioning my own behavior; I never want to impose myself on a partner, as I've talked about before, and I tend to compare myself very critically with other tangueras. (My friends will be shocked to hear that, I know. Shocked!) But now is not the time to air my neuroses. I just laugh and thank him again, and we get back to dancing.

And, as it always is with him, it is wonderful.


I am saying hello to another favorite partner from Another City when one of my very favorite songs (Canaro's "Poema") opens the tanda. I am so lucky to have been near this particular man just then, because he very nicely asks me to dance, and I cannot remember when I have had such an exquisite dance to that song. I feel as though together, on the crowded floor, we shine like diamonds as we dance.

If that had been the last time I'd danced that night (only about my fourth tanda the whole time), it would still have been a very good evening.