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.

Sometimes, I want the music

Sometimes, I want the music
that lies against my skin like silk.
Cool, soft, there but not there.
I can keep moving, in fact
I have to move.
Or I want the music
that snaps sharp like canvas.
Arcs, kicks, flashes.
It moves me
like a shock.

Sometimes I want the music
that covers me like lambswool,
warm, soft and calm.
Its substance lies in the pauses.
the silence between notes,
the air between threads.
I move, but slowly.
And sometimes . . .

Sometimes I want the music
I feel in my chest,
like a clenched fist.
and like a fist,
It demands.

Back to the Shallow End

The beautiful stage and dance floor of Austin's historic Scottish Rite Temple, with chairs for the Prom King and Queen per the Prom Night Theme.

I used to love tango festivals. At some point, I hope to love them again, but I think it may be a little while.

Maybe in small, local milongas it's just that I have a little more time to (try to) remember the people I should remember. To say the things I wanted to remember to tell them, and concentrate on what they say to me. Now, I feel so much more awkward in my interactions with people - and the more people around, the worse it is.

At Austin's Yolatango milonga Saturday night, I forgot people, faces, names, and even the context of where I should have recognized them from. Did I meet them in Dallas? Albuquerque? Denver? Here? Have we ever danced? Were they a client? Was I at Albuquerque's tango festival last year, or the year before?

The venue, Austin's Scottish Rite Temple, was gorgeous, The music was fantastic. I had friends to sit and chat with.  It should have been an easy night, and it seemed to be at first. I was happy to be there, excited to see friends visiting from out of town, and at first I was really enjoying the night. But less than an hour into the night, I noticed I was forgetting things. I was losing trains of thought mid-sentence. I couldn't remember who I had just been talking to. Everything I said seemed to be the wrong thing, out of order, confused and worse, nervous-sounding.
It was nervous-sounding because I was nervous-being. The "High School / Prom Night" theme of the milonga was painfully appropriate. I felt anxious, awkward, and quickly exhausted. I couldn't keep track of where we were in the playlist - did we just have a vals tanda? Milonga? Did I remember to ask so-and-so about such-and-such. Did I remember to tell Person A "hello" from Person B, and apologies that they couldn't be there? Where was I sitting? My brain was a chaos of second-guesses.

Except when I was dancing . . .

Everything fell into place when I danced - every single time I danced. I don't mean that I danced all that well. I had my usual annoying struggles. But I felt like myself. I felt natural, calm and happy - as long as I was dancing. The fog lifted. The chaos quieted.

As soon as I stopped dancing and had to interact with people outside of an embrace, I felt like I lost my mind. Thoughts of, "why did I just say that?"  "What did he say his name was?" Then realizing I had been staring and saying absolutely nothing for several minutes while people wondered if I was annoyed at something. (The perils of Resting Bitch Face.)

Is this what large milongas are going to be like for me now? Not a happy thought. Even before I danced tango, I was used to dancing packed clubs, completely surrounded by people. I had no anxiety then - or if I did, I just danced through it and didn't notice.

What are the new rules for my MS brain? Ask me to dance, but don't ask me to talk?

For now, I am back at the shallow end of the pool. I'll go back to my smaller, calmer milongas and figure out what is going so right there -- and going so wrong elsewhere.

A New Blog - Tales of a Synesthete Dancer

I've just started a new blog (this one will continue however), called "Contact High" - my life as a synesthete dancer.

This is very different My Tango Diaries, and quite a lot more personal. I am hoping to reach out to other synesthetes and dancers who experience sensory mixing, or anyone else simply interested in the topic. As MS continues to change my senses in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, it's become more important to me to document how my senses work in dance.

It's a little bit of an experiment and I'm not entirely sure where it will go. Like everything else in dance, I'll have to see where the music takes me.


Tango Bitch Strikes Again

Tango Bitch Mode  (image courtesy of Morguefile.com.)

Warning: This post is ranty This may be due to lack of cookies and coffee or it might not. 

I want to question a few things that tango dancers have been posting on blogs, Twitter and Facebook comments, surveys etc.. There seem to be a few declarations of would-be tango community solidarity, that don't seem (to me) to be all that much about community and solidarity.

"We need to attract more dancers," when they really mean, "we need to attract more dancers that I want to dance with and who will dance with me."

What makes me think this? If a dancer posts how disappointed, even cheated, they feel when there are too many of their role at a milonga and they don't get to dance, but then rejoice when the gender/role imbalance works in their favor -- I question how badly they really mean "attract more dancers."  Attracting more dancers to the scene because it's healthy for the community is one thing. Wanting more dancers so you get to dance more is a different thing. 

There is a generalization/stereotype that followers are looking for skill and leaders (usually men, in this instance) are looking for young women, regardless of skill level. I have not experienced that to be true generally - but it is something vocalized quite a lot. I'm sure it varies by community as well. Learning both roles addresses that to a degree - but not if men are really only looking to dance with attractive, young women. (That and women are generally far more comfortable dancing with other women, than men are dancing with other men.)

This or that community is clique-ish" when what they really mean is, "there are dancers I want to dance with who won't dance with me." 

I agree wholeheartedly with Terpsichoral Tangoaddict on this - friends who enjoy dancing together are not a clique. They enjoy dancing with each other, they're friends, this is a social activity - what's the problem?  A clique implies conscious exclusion of others - in general, that's not what's going on. For example, if you go to a party where you don't know everyone, don't you tend to gravitate to the people you do know? It's human, not an affront.

That doesn't mean that there aren't common divides in milongas - there often are.

The skill level divide:  When I was a beginner I didn't get to dance with very many dancers - particularly many leaders of high experience level. I am deeply grateful for the experienced leaders who did dance with me and traveled with me on my tango journey -- but I don't fault the leaders who didn't want to take a chance on me early on. I was painful to dance with, as many beginners of both roles can be. (I was even worse when I was a little more experienced because I thought "I knew stuff."

I also don't "punish" (by not dancing with) the leaders who didn't dance with me early on for not "being supportive." I know many dancers who do. Who is really hurt by that attitude? It's not another dancer's job to dance with people they don't want to dance with. It's wonderful when they do, and good for the community overall of course, but it's not anyone's obligation to put their comfort at risk. 

How can this be addressed? In other communities, experienced dancers (more than 5 years usually) are given free milonga or practica entrance for coming and dancing with newer/beginner dancers - or participating in beginner classes. At festivals and workshops, taxi dancers are hired outright (not only for their experience but also for gender balance.)

The age divide: I have been in milongas that were very much age divided. The twenty-somethings danced with each other and wouldn't even make eye contact with the older dancers who were trying to engage them. So the older dancers (of which I was one of course) gave up and danced with one another.  Is it disappointing when that happens? Sure. But I got to thinking about it from their perspective. Don't most twenty-somethings usually want to hang out with other twenty-somethings? (I didn't, but I was weird.) If you were new to dance, and twenty-something, how comfortable would you feel dancing with people your parents' age? It's not all that difficult to understand at that point.

What those shy newer twenty-something dancers don't realize is that dancing with older dancers - with a wide variety of embraces, experience, musicality, etc., makes one a better dancer. But it's not something you can force.

The solution? Be patient and understanding. Make the effort to be welcoming and friendly, even with the dancers who don't prefer to dance with you. When given the opportunity (for all ages and experience,) dance outside your social comfort zone.

The Teacher/School Divide: I have seen cliques form around certain teachers and their students refusing to dance with the students of other teachers. While that's sad, and certainly limiting for one's dance experience, it does offend me on some moral ground. It is what it is. I believe teachers should discourage that kind of attitude rather than encourage it -- but you can't force people to look at the bigger picture.

Other random comments that make me crazy (and bitchy):

(From leaders) I don't like the cabeceo - followers never look up.

That may be true - dancers can get very engaged in conversation. But honestly, if I'm deeply engaged in conversation, that is the reason I'm not looking up. The conversation at that point is more important to me than dancing. It's not for you to decide when someone else should be dancing.

Or, I'm sorry to say, they may be looking away for a reason. I always feel bad when a leader says "I can never catch her eye." Very likely, she sees you. I'm sorry. For whatever reason (and it may have nothing to do with you personally), she isn't looking for a dance with you right now. Maybe she's tired and she just looking for 2 or 3 of her friends to dance with before she heads home. Maybe she only dances milonga with a certain dancer, or vals or whatever. You can't know. Don't make assumptions -- just move on and try again in a few of months. Focus on the people who do want to dance with you.

What is he/she doing sitting when there are so many (dancers of the opposite role) sitting down?!

Shut it. You don't get to decide when people dance or with whom. FFS, maybe people are just tired.

She/he won't look at me - they must not know how to use the mirada/cabeceo.

Sorry, but they probably (though not always) do and are using it just fine.

He/she only likes dancing with the younger girls/older guys (or vice versa).

So? I like to dance with guys in vests, or who have beards, or who sing along with the lyrics - and I will probably dance with anyone (male or female) wearing a Doctor Who shirt if they invite me. (Fair disclosure: the Doctor Who thing only works if you actually like Doctor Who.) I danced with a guy because he smelled like lemon cake. We've all got stuff we like. So sue me.

He/she only likes dancing with the hot shot dancers.

Because wouldn't it be terrible if you only got to dance with hot shot dancers? Again, so?

I paid (the entrance fee) to dance, not sit all night.

No, you paid for the venue. If you'd paid to dance, you would have paid for a taxi dancer. That would be the only person financially obligated to ensure that you dance. It's great when organizers are able to facilitate this but they can't always do it.

Visiting teachers should make it a point to dance with as many people as possible at the milonga.

I thought that until I was a teacher. 

My partner and I gave a class at a high school one day and I was completely knackered by the time the milonga rolled around. When I used to give training sessions for dancers, I was useless the same night at the milongas.  I still went to the milonga because I wanted to see my friends and visit, but frequently got 'shamed' for not dancing more. Jesus people, the teachers are human beings. They're allowed to be tired and risk averse when choosing who they do dance with in that state. They likely have workshops and privates that they'll be teaching the next day. Let them have a night off. If they're not being paid to be at the milonga, they are off-duty. 

That said, yes, teachers are more likely to get more participation and more private lesson bookings if they dance - it's just not always possible. There was a teacher visiting that I had taken a couple of privates with (and all his classes) and when he didn't dance all night (except for the performance) I was disappointed of course. He came to me at the end of the night, gave me a huge hug and said he hadn't danced because the dj played almost all vocal tangos all night. This teacher far preferred the instrumentals, so he sat.  He was disappointed too. He didn't owe me, or anyone, any explanation but it was nice to hear his insight for perspective.

Final thoughts . . .

So essentially any sentence that begins with these, or similar words, irk me:

"Why does he always . . ."
"Why does she always . . "
"He never . . "
"She never . . ."

Frankly, what other people want from their dances, who they dance with, how they dance with their partners, how they dress -- it's none of our business. (Unless they kick you - then it's totally your business.) Stop guessing at other peoples' motives, intentions, preferences and attitudes, and "brighten the corner where you are," as my grandmother says. Focus on your own dance and the experience you can give to your partners. It makes for a happier night for everyone.

An Update - The Journey So Far

When people ask me why I haven't returned to tango, I answer that I've been too tired, and I've been in a lot of pain -- both of which are completely true. And yet those reasons tell the smallest part of the story. It's not just physical, but the rest is so hard to explain that I don't know where to start. 

This is my attempt to try . . .

For those of you for whom this is tl;dr - I do plan on returning to tango. It's just taking more time than I thought it would.

Warning 1: This is ridiculously long. See above.

Warning 2: What I get from tango, what I look for, what I enjoy -- is personal to me. I'm not making any claim that it's the Holy Grail/authentic/One True Tango experience. It's what I, and a few others I've found, enjoy about the culture and the dance. That's the beauty and diversity of tango - it offers many different experiences for different people. As always, your mileage may vary.

The Journey So Far

The way I dance tango, and the way I experience tango physically and emotionally has changed a great deal in the last couple of years - the last especially. There are several factors that seemed to happen in isolation at the time, yet still feel very connected to where I am now in my tango life - such that it is. These are the reasons that, even when I can make it to a milonga, I may dance very little or leave very early.

1. The Physical Stuff.

In a very practical sense, pain limits my choice of partners and therefore limits my enjoyment of events. People I loved to dance with, good dancers with embraces I've enjoyed for years are now too difficult for me to dance with through absolutely no fault of their own dancing. The biggest factor is significant height difference. Leaders who are much taller than I am had been only a slight challenge to adjust to - now it's almost impossible.  An embrace I might have once considered pleasantly firm, is now too rigid for me to dance within. I could switch to an open embrace, but I rarely have the desire to dance that way. 

I also have the fear that I won't be comfortable dance with and that friends won't want to hurt my feelings by telling me so. My balance has returned, mostly because I've been training obsessively on it - but the worry remains. (It's also why at this point I might be trying to get to more practicas than milongas.)

In terms of stamina, by the time most milongas start, I'm heading to bed. See the Spoon Theory here:  http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/.  By the end of the day, I'm simply out of spoons.

2. The Embrace

I had tried to be adaptable in the range of embrace I could offer my partners. I believed it made good sense for a follower to be highly adaptable if he or she wanted to get dances. I still believe that but my adaptability has diminished so greatly. My range of motion just doesn't support a great range of embrace any longer. It's not just physical aspect though. 

As I wrote above, I could dance in open embrace comfortably but that's not what I'm really there for most of the time. That's what it really comes down to, doesn't it? I may only have 3 or 4 tandas in me on any given night and I just don't want to spend them in open embrace. 

I've become one of those voices I always wanted to avoid being - - 'I miss the way I was danced in Buenos Aires.' Please understand what I am *not* saying. I am not saying only Buenos Aires offers the tango experience I'm looking for. I am saying it was far easier to find there. Because what I enjoy most is not so very common, the prospect of going out has become a little daunting.

Lengthy aside: I would like to counter an observation I hear often about the Buenos Aires tango experience for women. It usually goes like: "South American/Argentinean/Porteño men hold you like they want to make love to you."  At first I sort of went along with that because I could see where the observation came from. But it never felt accurate for what I experienced.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about my experience there:
 - I danced in only a few milongas in Buenos Aires.
 - I doubt I danced with anyone under 55 - most were over 70.

When I hear someone say they "dance like they want to make love to you," it makes me think of a certain level of sexual tension. That cliché of erotic-themed tango performances . . .  That's not at all what I felt from the men I danced with. The men I danced with embraced me as if they already knew me, had already held me, like I was an old flame returning to their arms. There was a deep sense of comfort, confidence and presence in these gentlemen. They didn't have anything to prove to me.  

One of my friends, a porteña, joked that of course these men hold you like they've already made love to you - they don't remember for sure that they haven't. And if they forgot a previous (porteña) lover, she would never let him live it down! It's as good a theory as any lol.

Sometimes, I think this way of dancing might be more about age, or life experiences, than about tango dancing experience. There were a couple of men I danced with who only started dancing when they retired - they weren't expert dancers. The confidence they projected wasn't about their dance ability so much as their ease and comfort in their own skin - and their ability to stay in the moment with the human being in their arms. I never had the sense of them even thinking one step ahead of the moment we were in. Which is probably why I was never led anything more complex than an ocho cortado. And that in itself was such a beautiful thing.

One dancer I greatly enjoy dancing with adjusted the clichéd sentiment by omitting the 3 words "want to make" - and gets far closer to the feeling I'm talking about. He said, "they dance as though they love you."  It's such a small change in the wording - but gets so much closer to the feeling. 

Being present in the moment, experiencing a deep sense of comfort, of being welcomed into someone's arms brings me to the third factor that changed my experience of the dance.

3. Loss

When you dance tango long enough, eventually you experience the loss of a dancer in your community. When it happened here, it wasn't a dancer I was very close with. I hadn't had the opportunity to dance with him often. But he was one of the first people to ask me to dance - to make me feel comfortable and welcome in the Austin tango scene. He was always a joy to dance with when he came out. He was a big part of my first impression of tango in Austin.

One night, after not seeing him for quite awhile, I saw him at a milonga.  He invited me to dance and, though he had always been very present and comfortable to dance with, he was especially present that night. I watched him dance all evening, holding each woman as if she were a treasure to him. He looked so very tired but seemed to be carried by the music and dancing.  Not long after that night, I learned he'd passed away. He was deeply loved in our community and the sense of loss of such a generous soul was palpable.  

Some time later I learned that one of my teachers had died very suddenly in Buenos Aires. Once, during a private lesson, she told me to hold her (while we practiced) as though she were my sister as I wasn't holding her with any real "presence." I responded, I don't have a sister. She laughed, bear-hugged me (which was quite an accomplishment as she was tinier than me), and said, "You do now!" She then laughed conspiratorially, and suggested that I go to Buenos Aires with her and she would show me the places to get decent Scotch. I wish I'd taken her up on that. 

My experience with those two people have woven a thread into every tanda I dance. I never know if this will be the last time I embrace this human being in my arms. So I remind myself every time I dance:

Show the hell up.

Be present and stay there. 

This is not the time I want to fuss over my back step, or whether I nailed the triplet in the music.  At a practica, in a lesson, or in a class - that's different. At the milonga, I want it to always be about the person in my arms first. 

Every time I try to explain this, I feel like it sounds morbid or melodramatic - but it's the opposite. It reminds me to treasure the dancer, the experience, the music and the culture that allows me to do that.

There are many dancers who believe (and they are completely entitled to) that the music is always first. The music is the leader - the music is the priority. I think I must disappoint them. I will sacrifice musicality if I have to choose between hitting the beat and staying with my partner.

In an effort to get me to return to lessons, one of my teachers once told me quite plainly that I didn't get dances because I was an especially accomplished dancer. I got dances because I was "simpatico."  That teacher is probably right and I have always appreciated very direct feedback. I work on what I can, when I can. I choose my battles. I can live with that. 

So when I can, I will return to tango and I will kick myself, I'm sure, for staying away so long. I'll wonder why I waited. I'll wonder what I thought I was doing with my time that was more important than tango. I always do. I always have. This time though, my body gets the deciding vote.

If anyone is still left reading this far down, thank you. It was tough for me to write. I think I've been saving it up for some time.

A Little Time Off . . .

This page is on hiatus while I take care of some medical concerns. I hope to be back and updating again soon. Thank you so much for your support and patience. --M