Leveling Up

I forced myself to wait for quite awhile before posting this. As it turns out, time isn't making me less annoyed, so here goes.

For some reason (or maybe many reasons), I am simply infuriated by this:

From Sherpal1 on Tango-L,

"[To Michael] ...you are absolutely correct...woman show no sense of taste or discrimination...and it perpetuates the existence of clowns in a community...women need to know it is better not to dance than to dance poorly...i know of no other commodity that is consumed endlessly regardless of taste, excellence, value, expertise, effectiveness besides dance...woman just want to dance and they accept any old bone....women need to bring their sense of consumerism to the dance floor and only accept the dance of a man that is their equal or better....practicas are where a woman can assist an inferior dancer to be better. I do not want to seem harsh here, only to encourage women to stop rewarding bad leads with a dance...."

There are so many problems with this, I don't know where to begin.

1.) How would one determine, without previously dancing with a particular dancer, what his or her skill level is? Should you only dance with people you know so as not to take the chance?

2.) How do you know that a previously "inferior dancer" is still inferior?

3.) Maybe those things that you might judge as inferior are more about your dance, than their dance. How can you be completely sure it's not at least in part, you?

4.) and most difficult to ascertain - how do you judge inferiority? Inferior in what way? Vocabulary (which is meaningless to me in most cases, presuming you can manage your way around the the pista)? Musicality - isn't that a matter of interpretation? Connection? Navigation? What? What if you are great at musicality, but his gift is navigation and connection? What then? Is he still "inferior"?

The only dancers I turn down are the ones who have hurt me, or gotten me hurt, on the dance floor. Even then, I'll keep an eye on them, work with them at practicas, and give them a try later, if they are so inclined.

What I have always seen to be true at least in my community, is that you just never know. That awkward, hesitant gentleman who may have started tango two months ago, may have a sense of the music that knocks followers' socks off. The rest will come. If the "more experienced" dancers never dance with the less experienced dancers in a milonga where they can really learn how to behave in context of social dancing, how will they ever grow? Practicas are awesome and I don't think it's possible to have too many, honestly. But they're not milongas and eventually dancers have to be tested, and put their miles in, there.

Speaking from my own experience, which of course is limited and not completely comparable, I would rather spend my time dancing with those gentlemen who have invested in my dancing from the very beginning - men who started with me, those that started after me, and those who were far more advanced. I would rather dance with those dancers who stuck with me through my brilliant moments, and my immense suckage, who invested not only in me - but also invested in the community.

For me, because as usual, I can only really speak for myself, dancing is not about leveling up. It's about community. When I dance with my partner, we are both also dancing with everyone else on the pista. When we behave in a way that feels as though we are all looking out for one another, instead of trying to out step/run/gancho/boleo each other, there is no better feeling I know of. To embrace, and be embraced by, a community is not a default state. You have to work at it. All . the . time . The work never stops.

The lovely dancers, leaders and followers, in my community who mentored me (and continue to mentor me), have always stressed that if you don't invest your time and energy helping and building the community, that's absolutely your prerogative. No one will make you. But don't complain later that the community doesn't meet your expectations.

I'll tuck my soap box back under the bed now. Thank you as always, for reading.

15 comments:

Robert Withers said...

There are guys I see week after week and it's really painful to watch them. No attempt to dance to the music, muscling their partners around instead of leading or inviting, attempting wildly complicated moves that they can't really do. Yet they get partners to go along with this stuff. I can't figure it out.

Jane Prusakova said...

The original quote includes a reasonable, if limited, idea - it's good for followers to be selective.

But the "their equal or better" idea enforces a linearity to the dance - dancer X is better than dancer Y, and dancer Y is worse, case closed. Social dancing isn't a competition with its first, second and last place. In social dancing everyone is different, and the difference goes beyond a flat better-worse scale.

It maybe wise to turn down a dance with a dancer who
1) is not ready, having done a single beginner drop-in lesson just before the milonga (although accepting a dance in this case may convert a curious passer-by into a dancer, and therefore be well worth the trouble), or
2) a bad dancer who is bad for reasons having nothing to do with the length of time s/he spent learning to dance, or
3) simply someone you can't seem to connect with.

But "equal or better" filter makes no sense...

Mari Johnson said...

There were some notes I left off of the original post because I thought they were too tangential, but after reading Robert and Jane's comments, I think in order to be clear I should put them back in.

My main issue with the above quote is really a matter of semantics - of word choice (as you said Jane). "Skill level" in tango is such a subjective, nebulous thing to judge, that telling someone to turn down dancers that are below them can end up being a bit meaningless in practice. It sets up a dynamic that's also, to me, unwelcome - one of dancing for the tables to prove your worthiness. It also encourages a way of looking at tango as a kind of concrete skill set which is unrealistic, and I think, distracting from all that tango has to offer.

Really excellent reasons to turn down a dance often have nothing to do with skill level, and everything to do with attitude:

1. I will turn down a leader if he is a risk to my safety or of the safety of others. Period. Doesn't matter if he's brilliant musically, with an embrace that's to die for - it's not worth it. I won't feel safe, so I won't relax. I'm also impacting the safety of other dancers by rewarding inappropriate behavior. Frequently this is not a skill issue. I've seen many "advanced" dancers come to town and wreak havoc on a dance floor. This is a matter of sensitivity to one's surroundings.

2. If a dancer makes me uncomfortable I will turn him down. I've told other followers when it's come up - this point you don't have to elaborate on or justify to anybody. If another dancer makes you uncomfortable for whatever reason, do not reward them with dances. This is also not a skill issue. This isn't even about sending a message to that leader. It's a matter of comfort and safety - two things that are essential for enjoying tango and one's tango community. That discomfort is your gut trying to tell you something, listen to it.


As far as sitting on the sidelines wondering why "Terrible Leader A" is getting loads of dances even though he seems to be terrible - it's hard to say. Sometimes followers are dismissing items 1 and 2 above and dancing with a truly terrible dancer anyway. Or maybe they are actually able to connect to some people and give them a great dance - it's just hard to see that. When you're not in the embrace, it's pretty hard to know. If a dancer complains later that their partner was so awful, then that's usually going beyond a skill thing, and into a discomfort thing. See above.

Joy in Motion said...

Yep, this post is definitely not doing justice to a legitimate point. “Women need to know it is better not to dance than to dance poorly,” for example, is a very problematic statement. “Only accept the dance of a man that is their equal or better....practicas are where a woman can assist an inferior dancer to be better” is an attitude that breeds the exact kind of dancer that the poster is railing against.

Perhaps to redeem the discussion and get it back on track, the person who posted this could have started with “encourage women to stop rewarding bad leads with a dance” and elaborated on the difference between someone who is “bad” because they are learning or lacking in etiquette and someone who is “bad” because they are rude, inconsiderate, or dangerous. But this takes a great deal of consideration and discretion, not stereotyping and maligning like the words in this post.

This issue seems to be coming up more and more lately… Why do discussions so often end up in this kind of black-and-white stereotyping, reducing complex issues to simplistic, unhelpful, and potentially dangerous answers (again, the same kind of attitude that creates the kinds of dancers the poster writes about)?

AlexTangoFuego said...

Hola Mari,

Ney Melo wrote this back in 2006, about the power wielded by followers to help bring the general "level" leaders to a higher level within a tango community. Not just the power, but he alluded to it being followers' responsibility.

I think the Tango-L poster was essentially trying to say the same thing Ney did. With poor word choices and a negative slant, it may come across to the reader as "good/experienced dancers should not dance with bad/beginner dancers". But I don't think that's what he was trying to say. It's deeper than that - and to me, it is more of an overarching concept for followers/a community to be aware of.

If the "clowns" as the writer referred to, never attend classes or practicas or workshops, yet always get all the dances they desire - there is no incentive for them to improve. If they start to *not* get dances, perhaps they will either seek improvement, or move on.

I think we're talking about the worst of the worst here - tango predators, clowns, yahoos, ne'er-do-wells, all of whom are thankfully few and far between in any community - not the average beginning leader.

All that said, I think your post raises a valid concept to grow healthy tango community - more experienced dancers should mentor/coach/help/encourage the newbies as much as possible - show them what tango is really all about - and increase retention - those that "stick" ya know? My punctuation is digressing...

Here's the bit from Ney:

see next comment...

AlexTangoFuego said...

6] THE TANDA
A DJ will usually play 3 or 4 songs of the same orchestra or style followed by a one minute cortina. This "set" is called a tanda. It is only when we want to stop dancing with our partner that we say "thank you". Do not make the mistake of saying "thank you" after every tango. Try to wait until the end of the tanda. If we do not wait until the end, then we are conveying a message. Here is a quick breakdown of the "messages":
We danced 4 songs: That was nice/ I enjoyed it/ Let's do it again in the near future, etc. etc.

We danced 3 songs: It was ok/ Sorry, my feet hurt/ Yikes! My ride home is leaving, gotta go!

We danced 2 songs: I've humored you long enough/ You need to take more lessons/ I thought the first bad tango was my fault, but now I see that its your fault.

We danced 1 song: It's just not happening/ Maybe you should just sit and watch for a while/ Please don't ask me to dance at this milonga again.

I truly believe that when women start using their power of declining dances and sending messages, then that is when the leaders will start working to improve their dance. It has to be a system of checks and balances. If we allow mediocre leaders to dance with amazing followers and vice versa, then why would they want to get better? I remember an argument that a friend and I had a long time ago. She was upset because a horrible leader basically manhandled her for a whole tanda and made her look and feel bad. I witnessed the whole thing and I didn't like what this leader did, but I also didn't like that my friend was too nice not to end the carnage early!! Ladies, please use your power to say "no" to bad dances. It is better to sit all night, enjoy the music, and have a good conversation than to be dragged around the milonga floor like Hector was by Achilles after being slain in the movie "Troy". There were many times in my tango infancy that I was rejected by good followers. I never took it personally. It only served to make me better.

I'm not saying you shouldn't dance with beginners. Everyone should do a dance or two with beginners at the milonga and look at it as 'community service' and make them feel welcome. But there is a difference between a beginner, and a bad dancer who just never 'gets it'. There are a number of guys at any given milonga who have been dancing for a long time, they maul the ladies, and they never have any incentive to get better because they get all the dances they want anyway. [Ney Melo]

AlexTangoFuego said...

http://alextangofuego.blogspot.com/2008/02/ney-melo-dos-and-donts-of-inviting.html

#6 was too many characters...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mari.

I'd like to second what you said, taking apart the ridiculous notion that skill in dance advances along a straight line.

It does not. A thousand things, as you pointed out, make a dance partner enjoyable to someone. Few of them, in my opinion, are visible from the outside.

Joy in Motion said...

Interesting, Alex. Thank you for sharing. I can understand this viewpoint and actually relate to it quite a bit.

I definitely enjoy contributing to our community by dancing with beginners, but I have definitely become more comfortable with saying no when appropriate as well. I tend to choose my response based on the individual (where they are in their learning and where their confidence level is at). With brand new beginners I may put more effort into dancing with them and helping them build their confidence (both in dancing and socially). Once I feel like they are getting into the swing of the learning process, I can relax into my comfort zone more and feel okay turning someone down (mostly after a first tanda) if I'm not feeling like I want to dance to that particular music with them for whatever reason. I am always polite and gracious, and nobody has shied away from continuing to ask because they may be turned down on occasion.

I'm a bit split on this because I do think we can learn so much from dancing with partners of varying abilities and styles, not to mention just the social component. But as I am maturing in my dancing life I am releasing myself from the pressure to say yes to everyone, and becoming much more comfortable selecting my dances as a follower while continuing to reflect on how I make these choices.

I have also seen how the cabeceos I receive have changed over time, and mostly (but not completely) they have followed my skill development. I haven't taken this personally; I see it as just part of the natural order. That said, I can definitely see the difference between those who follow this natural order respectfully and from their own personal choice, and those who use the natural order as some kind of power trip.

It's an interesting topic. I will have to think on this some more. But this - to me - is really the discussion to be having, so thank you Alex for sharing Ney Melo's words. And thank you to Mari for pointing out the ways the discussion can get derailed when we're not careful!

Anonymous said...

There is an obvious difference between dancing with a beginner who is trying to find his or her Tango feet and dancing with a Partner that although they have been dancing for a considerable time, will not, or cannot dance with the music. They will through their technique physically hurt you
and do not seem to improve. Case in point at our weekly class, there are leaders who have been going since the beginning of the year and are taught close embrace, walking, connection and musicality etc. by a well thought of teacher.
At the Practilonga after the lesson they then proceed to dance open embrace, crab styley with no reference to the music and have done so all year.
But Women still accept dances with with them... WHY?

AlexTangoFuego said...

And that, Anon, is the $64,000 question...

Mari Johnson said...

@Joy in Motion - thank you for your points, you were far more clear in your response than I was in mine.

@Alex - I considered publishing Ney Melo's comment along with the rest of the post, but it was already getting a bit long. And his post has it's own problems as well. I've seen dancers get turned down again and again, and not once get the impression they were doing anything wrong. In fact I was informed by one leader that Austin's followers were just "unfriendly" and "obviously not very good" because they didn't appreciate his style of dancing (that he learned elsewhere). I hear women question themselves *far* more when they don't get dances, than men. Then again, men are probably a lot less likely to talk about it. So who knows. That leader's comments stick with me though, every time I hear someone say dancers will try to improve if they don't get dances. That's a pretty broad generalization.

@Anon #2 - as to why experienced, yet bad (for whatever reason) dancers get dances. For any of several reasons. Beginners will often dance with anyone because they don't know what their preferences are yet, and/or they're trying to find their way in the community.

The dancer may look like a clown but do something in the dance that's appealing. You just can't tell from the outside.

There's one dancer I see every once in awhile that careens around the dance floor and bounces in and out of the line of dance like a ping pong ball. He digs his fingers into my back and yanks me around like a rag doll. I've danced with him twice, and won't dance with him again. However, I know three followers who adore him because he leads every fancy move in the book (in rapid succession) and they feel pretty and glamorous dancing with him. *shrug*

They look at him and Chicho Frumboli. I look at him and see ass-hat. Different strokes for different folks.

Mari Johnson said...

@Joy in Motion - thank you for your points, you were far more clear in your response than I was in mine.

@Alex - I considered publishing Ney Melo's comment along with the rest of the post, but it was already getting a bit long. And his post has it's own problems as well. I've seen dancers get turned down again and again, and not once get the impression they were doing anything wrong. In fact I was informed by one leader that Austin's followers were just "unfriendly" and "obviously not very good" because they didn't appreciate his style of dancing (that he learned elsewhere). I hear women question themselves *far* more when they don't get dances, than men. Then again, men are probably a lot less likely to talk about it. So who knows. That leader's comments stick with me though, every time I hear someone say dancers will try to improve if they don't get dances. That's a pretty broad generalization.

@Anon #2 - as to why experienced, yet bad (for whatever reason) dancers get dances. For any of several reasons. Beginners will often dance with anyone because they don't know what their preferences are yet, and/or they're trying to find their way in the community.

The dancer may look like a clown but do something in the dance that's appealing. You just can't tell from the outside.

There's one dancer I see every once in awhile that careens around the dance floor and bounces in and out of the line of dance like a ping pong ball. He digs his fingers into my back and yanks me around like a rag doll. I've danced with him twice, and won't dance with him again. However, I know three followers who adore him because he leads every fancy move in the book (in rapid succession) and they feel pretty and glamorous dancing with him. *shrug*

They look at him and Chicho Frumboli. I look at him and see ass-hat. Different strokes for different folks.

Kara said...

I think all the comments here have got the idea. The quote is, I think, trying to put forth a good idea, and doing it badly.
A big problem that comes up when having discussions like these is that too many people equate inexperienced dancers with bad dancers. To me, there is a big difference between the beginner who has only been dancing a month or two, and the guy who comes to every milonga, has been for years and years, never takes lessons, never improves, and (almost always) thinks he's god's gift to women/followers. The inexperienced dancer may not be the best lead you've ever followed, but he is trying, he is learning, he is improving. The BAD dancer, on the other hand, is thinking only of himself, has no intention of ever improving, and doesn't care if he's not even doing tango. It's this second type that women should be turning down. But too often, women will just accept dances with him, even though they know how bad he is, because they are being "nice".

Kirra said...

I always think of tango as the ultimate leveler where there is no class system, where what you do for a living does not matter etc.
I also think that attitude is everything, which seems to be the thread running through these comments.
I don't think it matter how long someone has been dancing or what teacher they have taken classes with bla bla bla. If they commit to learning and are consistent they could be dancing better in one year than leads/follows who have 10 + years experience. I find that some people get to a comfortable place and want to stay there forever, like a bad 80s haircut.