The Selfish Dancer

“We all have different perspectives to life. We all do take different decisions in life each day based on our convictions. We may take wrong or right decisions knowingly and or unknowingly. We may regard the decisions of others as right or wrong. We may have a right or wrong reasons to judge others. We have a choice to condemn or uplift others regardless of their situation. May we, instead of finding reasons to condemn, find reasons to uplift others.” ― Ernest Agyemang Yeboah
There are blog posts, Facebook posts and comments I've read lately (and for years, really) that attempt to lay the blame of a poor social dance experience in a community (in many dances, not just tango) at the feet of the social dancers who "just don't improve." These dancers that have been dancing years and years but just don't get any better. They don't "evolve." They don't "grow". Or any number of other vague and subjective terms.

The assumption seems to be that many of these dancers just don't care to improve. They're not trying. They're coasting. They get the dances they want, so they don't feel they need to work as hard as other dancers at improving the overall skill level of the community. They're selfish. They're not serious. Or most broadly, they just don't care about the community. 

It's obvious, right? They don't go to classes. They don't go to practicas. They just show up and dance socially. There could be reasons for that though, no? Well, the answer comes, it's not just that. It's the attitude. They think they're good. They think they're advanced dancers. They think they don't need classes. It's all in the attitude.

A leader in a dance community, someone who has been around since the very beginning of that city's dance community, once told me that followers just don't take the dance as seriously as leaders because they don't show up for the advanced workshops. And let's be clear - by followers, he meant women. Strictly women. They just don't come out and support these teachers and workshops enough. Women can just sit back on our feminine wiles to get dances.

**blinkblink** What the actual f*ck?  (Said me, only in my head.)

Imagine how that comment felt coming from a leader in the community. Imagine now why I might not share the reasons why I don't take a class or workshop. 

(The real reason so many women had passed on these particular workshops was that they were back-breaking. The teachers were teaching off-axis movements far more advanced than most of the dancers in the class would be able to perform without hurting their partners. And the followers knew it. They were voting with their feet. As I irate as I was at his comments, I simply told him never to repeat that [nonsense] to anyone else, ever.  He apologized. A month or so later, he made exactly the opposite statement in a workshop where very few leaders had turned up. His comments then, and before, were made out of a moment's frustration and not truly meant - but could the dancers who overheard him know that?)

That's just one example of a judgment passed on a group of dancers. There are so many others. These are things I have actually been told by organizers and/or teachers:

  • Dancers who only chose to learn and dance one role aren't as serious or valuable to their communities as dancers who dance both roles.
  • Conversely, followers who learn to lead will ruin their following. (I can't believe there are still people who believe this. smh)
  • Followers only want to dance with advanced leaders, regardless of appearance.
  • Leaders only want to dance with pretty, young dancers, regardless of skill.
  • Dancers who are choosing to sit at a milonga, rather than dance (ignoring cabeceos or not actively inviting others to dance) are snobs who think they are too good for the dancers in the room.
  • Dancers who only dance with their friends are "cliquish". 

All of those statements can appear to be true, at least superficially. They can also be completely wrong.

No one can know what someone else is truly thinking. Or experiencing.  Frankly, it's no one's business why someone else doesnn't go to an event. Or chooses not to learn the other role. Or doesn't dance with an unknown dancer. Even if you're right and that is their attitude - there's nothing you can do about it. So how are you helping them - or yourself? 
More importantly, how are you helping those other dancers that overhear you, or read your comment, who now think they must at every point prove themselves worthy of your consideration?

What gives any dancer the right to pass judgment on the motives, "seriousness" or passion for the dance, for the music, or for the community, of another dancer? How do you really know the burden another dancer carries? What their capabilities actually are - physically, financially, emotionally or otherwise? Is it so easy to forget that all dancers are just people, human beings with lives outside of the dance? Circumstances outside of the dance? No dancer should have to justify their level of commitment or passion to another dancer to avoid being somehow shamed.  

Here is my personal reality. (I hate, with a distaste I can't even properly voice, having to write this. But if I don't, who will?)

I will likely never improve as a dancer. 
At least not in any way that another dancer would likely be able to detect.

I will likely never even be as good as I was 2 years ago. Multiple Sclerosis might let me tread water awhile - if I train nearly every day as I do now. If nothing else happens. If nothing gets worse. But the worst part is I won't know how well I can dance until I'm actually in the moment dancing- and potentially putting another dancer at risk. This is a minute-by-minute disease, with sometimes very little warning between  "everything's great" and "why is the floor moving up so fast?" That's the biggest reason why I haven't been back to tango. 
Yes, I have a pair of killer 5" high heels, my "cute-spikey-death-traps".  I love them with the passion of a burning sun. No joke. On the days I can wear them, I feel magnificent. I can wear them, and walk in them very well, a few days of the month. I relish those days. But that in no way means I can still dance reliably, without wobbling, without at least occasional leaning. 
When I was at my best, still a personal trainer training myself and other dancers in stability, you could not knock me down. You could be a sumo-wrestler sized beginner with acute vertigo, and still not knock me down. I could compensate for anything, and keep us both on our feet. Heady days those were.

Those days are likely gone. The proprioceptors on my (dominant) right side are shot. Weirdly my left side is fine. I don't fall down, but I am slower in adjusting. And I can't close my eyes anymore if I want to keep my balance. I never used to rely on the visual feedback like I do now. The vision in my right eye, and hearing in my left ear - are declining. That's MS for you.

My question about returning to tango isn't "am I good enough to get dances?" but instead, "am I good enough not to hurt my potential partners if I do get dances."  Am I still okay enough at tango that anyone would want to dance with me except out of charity?

Will I need a note from my doctor to explain my absence, so that I don't get judged as not being serious enough? Committed enough? I haven't gone to classes or workshops or practicas in over a year.  I can't stand long enough to be in a class. I am limited in the sorts of movements I can do, so is it helpful for anyone for me to go to a practica only to decline the majority of invitations because I know I can't do what they need to practice? Or that in an entire practica or milonga,  I might be able to dance with only 1 or 2 leaders present - or dance for only 1 or 2 tandas before I have to go home and rest?
My own limitations are enough to dissuade me from going back. But then add to that the comments and posts I read from dancers presuming to judge the potential for improvement of other dancers they barely know. Or worse entire groups of dancers they don't know at all. Why would anyone in my position, or similar, want to face that kind of scrutiny? This is the very activity that could improve our health, and yet when tango is viewed as a meritocracy, where are dancers like me left? Maybe we should be relegated to only dancing with one another so as not to negatively impact the dance experience of the "good dancers"?

Here's the thing, though - the thing that makes me feel a little more self-conscious, but is also gets to the whole point of this post: 
I would probably get a bit of a pass. 

If I came back to my local tango scene right now, there are still enough people who remember me, know my situation, that I would still probably get a couple lovely, safe, comfortable dances. I'm lucky. My experience would likely still be positive.  From the friendly followers who guide me and introduce me to leaders who are most safe for me to dance with, to the handful of leaders who have known me, and either knew before what my situation was, or know now, and who are friendly enough to still take a chance on me. 
But what if I hadn't told anyone? What if I'd just left without a word and then come back, like some do? Or what if I had just moved here from another community with no one to "vouch" for me? What assumptions would people make? I already know what some of them think because I read their posts and comments.

I would likely get a pass because of community. Because that's what many active participants in communities do - guide and look out for others. Look for opportunities to uplift, rather than judge. Would I get danced out of pity? Maybe. I hope not. No one owes me that. And neither party really enjoys dances out of pity. But I can't eliminate that possibility. That, embarrassingly, is another reason I haven't come back. I keep trying to get a little better, eek out the tiniest improvement, so that I won't have to face that possibility. More and more I think that's foolish reasoning.

If you don't enjoy dancing with someone - that's completely normal. There are always going to be dancers who don't enjoy dancing with us, for whatever reason. There's nothing wrong with that. Don't dance with them. Explain why or don't - that's your option and no one has the right to demand an explanation. But leave it at that. 
Don't feel it is then ok to make judgments about that person's character, or commitment, or passion for the dance, passion for the music, or for the community. You don't know that - not any of it. If you think you do - you're guessing. Worse, assuming.  So leave that at the door and dance with the dancers you enjoy dancing with. If you feel like helping other dancers, then help - but without the character judgments. 

And hope that when it is your time that you cannot dance as well as you would like to, when you will need patient, generous partners - and that time will come for all of us who stay in the dance long enough - that others will not judge you for your "lack of commitment" or potential to improve.

Please, just meet every dancer where they are, without judgment, in that moment - because that moment is all we ever really have.

Michael Douglas, #metoo, and Frontier Justice

A non-tango post.

These are all just my thoughts and observations. I believe discourse - thoughtful, measured discourse, is very important in this movement. I'm not trying to force anyone to think any particular way - only to consider thinking about things from more than one way.

I can't say Hateful Eight is a movie I enjoyed, but its discourse on crime and punishment is certainly interesting.

Oswaldo Mobray: [lecturing Daisy] "John Ruth wants to take you back to Red Rock to stand trial for murder. And, if... you're found guilty, the people of Red Rock will hang you in the town square. And as the hangman, I will perform the execution. And if all those things end up taking place, that's what civilized society calls "justice". However, if the relatives and the loved ones of the person you murdered were outside that door right now. And after busting down that door, they drug you out in the snow and hung you up by the neck, that, we would be frontier justice. Now the good part about frontier justice, is it's very thirst quenching. The bad part is it's apt to wrong as right!"  --Hateful Eight, 2015

Michael Douglas has been accused of sexual misconduct. You can read his thought-provoking interview here as he tries to get ahead of the narrative. He admits to the lesser accusations of "colorful" or "raunchy" language used in front of her in conversations with other people (not directed at her.) What he denies vehemently, is masturbating in front of her.

Did he do it? I don't know. Do I automatically believe his narrative? No. But the problem is, I don't automatically believe her narrative either. There is simply not enough information to decide that. Nor do I believe that it is my personal place to decide that. I believe it should be okay to say, I really don't know. But our current environment often discourages skepticism. I am instead encouraged to believe all women. In fact, there are those who think a few innocent casualties of false accusations are an acceptable price to pay.

Should I still believe all women, when it is the woman who is accused?

If it's true, should the person be tried simply in the court of public opinion with no expectation of some kind of process?

That idea, that the accusation is enough to warrant punishment, is frontier justice. And that troubles me deeply. I absolutely agree that systems have been in place for decades, even generations, to silence women. They silenced me for years. But is this where we are now? Is this who we are? The accusation alone is enough?

The rush to judge and punish can be so thoroughly satisfying, I won't deny it. There is still a part of me - a tiny grain of rage that I can't quite let go of. That little piece that wants abusers to hurt a little. Maybe more than a little. Sometimes, I'm a little self-satisfied that men are uncomfortable right now. We've been uncomfortable for generations. Maybe it's their turn. Maybe they should all just #smilemore.

There is definitely that voice in me. But that is not who I am. That anger, that righteous indignation does not define me. Because ultimately, it's poison. It creates too many layers of bias for me to think clearly.

Our quickness to judge, to "call for blood", is not the only problem. Every movement, especially as it starts to really gain momentum, has the potential to attract opportunists. It's not like a false accusation is no big deal. We should all remember that false accusations have cost men their lives.
Are false accusations rare? Of course. Who would want to go through that? But it is still real. If we cast an attitude of indifference to the problem that creates, we are undermining the movement itself. It's not like telling our stories just lets us get closure and move on. There are real, livelihood-ending consequences.

Which brings me to another troubling thought. Maybe I'm cynical, but I don't believe companies and organizations are cutting ties with these men because they've suddenly seen the light and want to do the right thing. They are gauging popular opinion and calculating the cost vs. reward of defending the reputation of one person versus a potential reputation boost if they cut him loose. In far too many cases, it looks like popular opinion is deciding the course of action - not any kind of due process.
I'm a realist. I know there's no way to prove something that happened decades ago, likely without any witnesses around. The problem is that there is no way to disprove it, either. Yet the public clamors for action. I agree there should be action. I just think the action should focus a little more on the systems that create, tolerate and hide abuse. Silencing dissenting opinions is especially galling, when the very thing we're talking about is having been forced into silence.

Maybe just slow down. Allow people to disagree. Allow this to be what it is - messy, uncomfortable, complicated, with far too few black-and-white scenarios, and far too many shades of gray.

The Way Back, and ramblings . . .

A month ago I could do 10 push-ups. After a fall a couple of weeks ago, I could not do a single one. Yesterday, I did 2. I fell again today - but I still got to 3 push-ups.

I get up. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Or I keep thinking about dancing.

I've been watching dance movies that have moved me, some that inspired me as a kid, others as an adult. And I've been listening to music that first inspired me to dance. Trying to get myself to want to dance again. After this last movie, I realized I haven't lost the desire to dance at all. I still want to dance. Desperately, I think.

Aside: That last one was Dirty Dancing if you're interested.  I was about the same age as Baby when I saw it. I can tell you about 80% of my experiences of social dance can be summed up by her line, "I carried a watermelon." As in, I don't think I should really be here. But the other 20% of fabulous-amazing-beautiful dance experiences more than made up for that. Crazy, isn't it? What one beautiful tanda can undo . . .

A couple of years ago I started getting sick, getting injured, falling. When MS started to affect me in ways that I couldn't hide, I started spending my time and energy trying to avoid feeling weaker. Denial? Maybe. . .  Probably. . .  When feeling vulnerable becomes the default setting of one's life, it's easy to get in the habit of avoiding risk. Closing everything off. MS made, and still makes, me want to distance myself from my own body's experience. As if I can limit the damage using cold objectivity, neutral observation of my physical world. I stopped letting myself feel sad, angry, anxious about the symptoms -- all to avoid the emotion I still can't escape: fear.

Partner dances, social and competitive, require vulnerability for the partnership to work - or at least to work well. Closed off and separate, we're just decorating one another's arms in time with the music. When the dance partnership works best, it feels like coming home. Like belonging. I miss that so much. Familiar and safe, even with a stranger.

We can tell whole life stories to one another, and never exchange names. I can feel old injuries, new hurts, lost loves, aches for certain refrains in the music, and so much more in a partner - when the connection is open and strong. When we're both listening. It takes both partners being willing to risk. Maybe that's why I'm weirdly comfortable sharing so much in the dance in out-of-town festivals, or even when I went to Buenos Aires. I could dance my secrets without an accountable identity. Maybe I can't tell you my name, or where I'm from - but I'll tell you all the more important things . . .

"When a body moves, it's the most revealing thing. Dance for me a minute, and I'll tell you who you are." Mikhail Baryshnikov
So who am I now? What is the story of this body now, in its new state? When I hide the pain, don't favor the hip that hurts, try to look smooth and balanced - is my body lying? Am I? Is my pain, even transient pain, who I am now? Some days. I prefer the pain (as if I had the choice) to the more mercurial weakness that turns up. Pain is nothing if not reliable. The weakness? It likes surprises - especially in the heat. There's the anxiety. The fear of falling. The fear of taking a partner down with me.

If I fall, let go of me okay? I'm getting used to picking myself up. It's really ok. Pulling someone else down too? I'm too afraid of that. Just let me fall.

That's the fear talking.

Dance has always been able to pick up where words leave me. Sometimes there's just too much to tell, but in a 12 minute tanda I can share everything. And it's usually such a relief. Like letting go of a secret that's been weighing me down. Am I the only one? Do you feel lighter, less troubled, after dancing that kind of tanda? Maybe its just me.

Can't you just dance? Does it have to be such a drama? Can't it just be fun? I've been asked these questions since I started this blog. Like there's a choice. Like I could switch it off. 
I'm a Leo, sweetie. I don't have a "just" anything. 
Why would you want my "just dance"?

Doesn't matter. I can't give that anyway. I always talk too much.
In dance, as in life, as they say . . .

I'm a writer. I have the compulsion to share stories. But there are some stories only my bones, my skin, my muscles can tell. And I've been shutting all of that off. Keeping quiet. My body has become an unreliable narrator. I don't know what stories it tells anymore. What secrets it might accidentally reveal. Some days I hardly know it at all. Am I most afraid of that? That it will reveal too much? I don't know what it says. Listening to it gets overwhelming.
Maybe that's the biggest problem.

I have to find the way back to my body's experience. Listen. Dance for myself first. Then maybe I can find my way back.

Tango for a Lifetime


I first heard tango music, and saw tango as a social dance (and performance) when I was 25 - 1997 - the same year as a lot of people. The year that Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson" came out in theaters. I was enthralled by the music and by the dancing. But I didn't feel compelled to dance myself. Not yet. I came to tango, the dance, much later, in a time of pain and transition, like so many other dancers I know.

I actually started tango in my mid 30's (I'm now in my 40's), attending informal tango club classes at the university where I worked. Tango was difficult for me - I was definitely not a 'natural follower'. I was also self-conscious about my age in a dance class with mostly people a decade my junior. Even the instructor was younger than I was. Milongas were so intimidating because I just couldn't see how anyone would want to dance with me. All I could think was, I wasn't one of the pretty, young, fit dancers who might get opportunities at least based on attractiveness. I wasn't experienced enough to get dances because I was actually any good at dancing. So where did that leave me? Ironing my dress with my butt all night, I thought. And yet . . .

I got danced. A lot.

Tango came at a time when I very much needed to belong somewhere. Miraculously, tango became where I belonged.

When I didn't dance, I made amazing friends. Friends who told me the most beautiful things about tango. That it's not about how you look. It's not about your age. It's not about how much money you make, or your professional status. It's not even about being an expert dancer (whatever that might mean). It's about what you bring of yourself to the dance, and to your partner. It's about doing your best, wherever you are right now. Tango, at it's best, can be the great equalizer. The stresses, obligations, and expectations of the outside world can just wait outside, while we dance and remember the joy of just being human.

So, when we started, we may have been going for Sally Potter:

Oh yes, in just a few more lessons, I'm sure I'll be amazing!!

 But looked a bit more like Harry Potter:
No really, this is just how it's supposed to look.

It was still ok though, because mostly people seemed happy that we showed up and were trying hard.

Yay - maybe I don't suck at this!! #Baconmakeseverythingbetter

In the beginning when I went to milongas with other dancers from my class (first from the university, and then from a local tango school), often the conversation from seasoned dancers started with how great it was to see so many new faces. That always made us feel welcome, even relieved, when we didn't feel like we had much to offer as dancers yet. As I said, we were awkward. It took ages for us to work out the etiquette and the subtleties of social interaction at the milonga. But we still felt welcome despite our fumbling, our mistakes, (and accidentally walking out on the pista with my skirt tucked into my pantyhose.) Other dancers seemed genuinely happy that we came and tried our best.

Then, after a few years, it was our turn to comment about seeing all the new faces, and try to reach out to as many as we could to make them feel welcome. It was our turn to pay it forward as often as each of us could.

New Priorities?

Recently though, the conversation seems to have changed. When new faces appear in the milongas, I hear some partners say, "look, isn't it great to see so many young dancers!" Absolutely! I am excited to see new faces, whatever their age. I helped teach tango at my old high school (there's some therapy fodder for you) and when my grandmother said they might get a tango class going at their retirement community, I wanted to help make that happen. Tango speaks to us at different points in our lives so we need to cast a very wide net. But then when my partner follows up with, "we really need to get more young dancers interested in tango" while we're dancing, how exactly am I to take that?
yeah . . . sure, okay....

One comment like that, from one partner, I could brush off. Two comments, and it caught my attention. The 3rd time from a still different partner, I was annoyed. There's that feeling in the back of my mind, do I seem like I'm too old for this now? If anything tango had kept me feeling young, healthy and enthusiastic for life and dance. Now, comment after comment, post after post of Facebook, I just feel tired.
What's happening here?

It reminds me a little too much of media's infatuation with tiny, young models as the one and only definition of female beauty - tied with the backlash, "Real women have curves."  Newsflash - we're all real women regardless of our body type. And we all have something to contribute.

We all bring something good to tango - our selves. Our experiences. Our souls. Our stories. Our love for the music and the dance. That's what builds a community - love and respect for the music, the dance, and crucially - respect for all the dancers.

When I started tango, I was encouraged, and helped, and danced, by dancers of all ages. When my fellow newbie dancers (ranging in age from just-turned-20 to over 60) would talk about our milonga experiences, the age of available partners just didn't come up. The fact that we got to dance was the topic of conversation.

So did I miss a memo? When did the conversation become so much about age? I had hoped that what I had been told about ageism not being so much an issue in tango, at least in my community, would never change.

Seeing so many people older than me dancing tango didn't make me feel apart, or different, or out of place - it made me feel like I could make a home here. I could dance for a lifetime - not just until my knees gave out. When I danced with a man in Buenos Aires over 50 years my senior, I thought, tango will always be here for me. 

I can't help thinking of tango lyrics themselves. Nostalgia, loss, regret, missed opportunities, lost love, lost homes -- it's no surprise that those kinds of songs speak to people with some miles on them. Tango music appeals to lots of people of all ages - but you can't ignore that it speaks to a certain life experience and it's going to draw people who can relate to it. Isn't that true of all music? So with that in mind, how can anyone be surprised to see an older demographic showing interest in this music? 

I'm told younger dancers want to dance with people their own age. Does that mean that one of my favorite twenty-something leaders is only dancing with me out charity? If tango is a dance for a lifetime, where does that leave them in 10 years?  Twenty years? To me, the argument doesn't make much sense. Tango is a incredibly beautiful diverse group - why on earth would you want to limit yourself to one group? To any group?

I get it - we want to dance with our friends, and we want our friends and peers to share in our enthusiasm for tango. Who doesn't?

So it would seem pretty straightforward, no?

If you want to dance tango with your friends, bring your friends to tango.
If your friends don't want to dance tango, make new friends to dance with.
Cue "Safety Dance" . .

Enthusiasm, passion, fresh ideas, vitality, are not the purview of the young, but the young at heart - which can be anyone, at any age. We all benefit by socializing with people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.  Social media makes it so easy to filter out all but the voices that are most like our own. But is that a good thing? Do we want that out in our real-live-right-here-right-now social experiences?

It's very important to encourage all the voices wanting to be heard in a community - but in raising one group's voice, we should be careful that we're not, in turn, silencing another.