Leaning into the Sharp Points - Part I



"It seemed to me that the view behind every single talk was that we could step into uncharted territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation. The other underlying theme was dissolving the dualistic tension between us and them, this and that, good and bad, by inviting in what we usually avoid. My teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, described this as "leaning into the sharp points." When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

A woman is like a tea bag - you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water. Eleanor Roosevelt


Lesson with Oliver Kolker and Silvina Valz

A Little Context

Some readers may remember that I attended classes with Oliver Kolker and Silvina Valz last year at this time and had rather a mixed experience. A lot of what I learned I use literally every single time I dance. Their emphasis on strong technique and respect for basic structure, make them highly sought after teachers, and no one I've talked to has ever been disappointed with their instruction. There was just one thing . . .

I felt humiliated in one of their classes. For those of you who don't want to go read the post, here's the summary. My partner and I were called out to the middle of the dance floor to demonstrate what we were learning. We were having trouble with traspie/milonga steps and I had asked for help. Oliver told us to demonstrate in the middle of room (in front of everyone of course). Before we could take more than 3 steps, Oliver shouted "stop!" He strode up, pointed to my hand on my partner's shoulder and said:

"Everyone look at this! This! (as he pointed emphatically at my hand.) This is caca! This is what not to do! This is not an embrace - this is caca!"

The incident (and embrace) was henceforth known as the "caca-embrace" episode. It was more amusing, and less hurtful, as time went on - and I should emphasize that the embrace they teach (woman's left hand low on the man's right shoulder blade, rather than on the shoulder, or across the top of his shoulders) is useful for dancing the style they dance, and for the style that is mostly danced in my community. It's not the embrace I prefer now, but that's life. It's my job to adapt.

So my issue wasn't one of disagreeing with what Oliver was teaching, rather it was a matter of making a student (me) feel humiliated. It didn't just affect me. A couple of people in the class remarked later about how bad it made them feel to watch the interaction. It just left a bad feeling for me, for the duration of the class. I continued, more out of stubbornness than anything else. (I can't comment on my partner's experience because he's never really discussed it with me. He was far quicker to get up and start dancing again than I was, though.)

Fast Forward - 1 Year Later

When Monica of Esquina Tango announced that Oliver and Silvina were returning for their annual visit. I decided to take a private. For me this was a sort of compromise. I didn't want to risk being singled out (or rather "coupled out"?) and embarrassed in front of a class again, but I wanted to know what I could learn from them - to understand what everyone else was so excited about in their teaching.
That's where Chodron's "leaning into the sharp points" comes in. Any time I'm intimidated or fearful, I try to turn towards it and face it, whatever it is. Usually there's message I need to hear in the experience. (Of course, sometimes that message is 'don't pick up rattlesnakes, idiot!!' - so I don't feel the need to do *everything* I'm scared of.)

In tango, that has meant:

- taking classes from teachers that I'm intimidated by or whose style is very different from what I dance most frequently/comfortably,
- practicing with leaders (who are willing) who dance in different styles and embraces,
- learning movements and steps I'm not naturally comfortable with (like volcadas, colgadas, boleos, etc. and more recently, soltadas),
- and most fundamentally, following what I'm led to the best of my ability regardless of my feeling toward the step or movement. The only caveat to that is when I think I might injure myself or someone else in the process. Despite the occasional tone of my blog posts, I don't ignore leads, or pout, or look sullen if my partner leads something flashy. I do my best to follow authentically.

Back to the lesson with Oliver and Silvina

For all my bravery a couple of weeks before their visit, I thought I'd probably chicken out if I went to a lesson by myself. So I asked one of the leaders I've been working with a lot lately, who had mentioned he'd be open to sharing private lessons, if he'd share the lesson with me. He was willing, the time was set and a few weeks later, off we went.


When we met for the lesson, thankfully (and predictably) our visiting teachers didn't remember me a bit. I had this irrational fear that upon seeing me cross the threshold, Oliver would point at me and say, "You! You, with the caca embrace! Get lost!" Of course, even if he had remembered me, he wouldn't have said that. . . but still. . . It's like having those anxiety nightmares where you're back in high school taking a test . . . in a class you've never attended . . . and you have no number 2 pencil . . . and you're naked.

That kind of anxiety . . .
(to be continued . . .)

3 comments:

jantango said...

It sounds as though Oliver learned some teaching techniques from Susana Miller. She is still known for public humiliation during her workshops.

Mark Word said...

I was upset on my way to work thinking about your public humiliation. Teachers forget that their content is of small value in spiritual or material (business) worth. Value is brought to a student via motivation and inspiration to continue the pursuit of excellence. You continued this pursuit in spite of the teachers. But why do you play with rattlesnakes?

Mari Johnson said...

Jantango y Mark - I was reminded by another teacher (in a different field) that most teachers would hate to be judged on one moment of a class. I've been a trainer, and I've trained trainers - so I know it happens. You come off harder than you mean too, are too abrupt with someone who needed more careful handling. So that's why I was willing to give Oliver the benefit of the doubt. He was, after that class a year ago, apologetic in his tone after hearing that I'd only been dancing a few months. I still think that it shouldn't matter how long I had been dancing. But I tried again and I'm very glad that I did.

Jan - teachers who routinely belittle their students always find an audience for that behavior, I'm afraid. It's too bad, because I don't think it yields better dancers - or students in any field.

Mark - don't worry, they weren't really rattlesnakes. :)