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.
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.