Leader Diagnostics, Public Dances, and Private Lessons

This blog post is in reference to a heart-breaking email I received from a follower who frequently feels like one leader in particular is constantly grading her "performance" at the milonga, assessing her skill level, and letting her know, through subtle and not so subtle ways, when he's disappointed by what she's able, or not able, to do. This person isn't her teacher or a steady dance partner. Just someone who is frequently attending the milongas.

Assessment is not what social tango at the milongas should be about.

MsHedgehog wrote a terrific post, Called "Diagnostics" about leaders who perform a sort of diagnostic as they dance, trying (usually just 1 or 2) different movements and gauging their follower's responses. In this way the leader is able to determine her skill level, and comfort level, and meet her where she is in her dance. I also tried to explain something similar in a post called "Leading from the Bottom Up".

Leaders, if you can do this subtly, by which I mean undetectably, this is a wonderful tool. It's a process that shows you care about the dance you're giving your partner. That gentle, subtle technique is not always the case, I'm sad to say. I frequently "feel" a leader running through a checklist like a sort of pop quiz I haven't studied for. Here's how it feels to me, and to the woman who wrote the email I referenced:

Can she do this? No.
How about this? Nope.
*deep, exasperated sigh*
lather . rinse . repeat

I'm not sure this is common knowledge amongst leaders, but when leaders let out a disappointed sigh or make some sound of disapproval, I hear it. When you frown after I've missed a lead, or let your frustration show in your breathing, I feel it. And when I feel those things, I don't always mean to, but I often shut down my connection to you. (Which of course makes my following even rockier - see the spiral here?) I do this because when you apply a checklist and conspicuously grade my dancing in a social setting, you're hurting me.

I understand that some or even most of that frustration may not be directed at me, but it feels directed at me. And it felt directed at the author of that email. This process of assessing the follower, is not the same as meeting her where she is in her dancing with empathy, or "Dialing In" to her , or understanding what she's comfortable with. This dance process becomes about the leader's dance, how the leader looks and how the leader feels.

For me, social tango when it's at its best, leader and follower are working together to express and play within the music. So it's not about what leaders are able to make their followers do. It's about what we can express together. When we're dancing socially, for fun (remember that fun bit?), there are no mistakes (unless someone gets hurt or is disrespectful - that's different than what I'm trying to address). It's not a test. It's our time to play in the music together. Some things work, other things won't. Social tango is an art, and aiming for some sort of perfection, is the opposite of the expression of that art.

It's different in classes, lessons and practicas. In my lesson with Grisha and other teachers, a diagnostic checklist is in essence what I am paying for. It's what I was there to get. I expect to be tested more, get feedback, address weak points. Those are the places for that kind of thing.


thewailer said...

it has to go back to the feel of the music and rhythm. and the basics.

Frances R said...

If we are talking tests, why is it "He tried that, and I failed?"
How about "He tried to lead X, and HE failed?" :)
Perhaps you should stop assuming the position of a victim in cases like that. If some leaders want to play evaluation games instead of dancing sincerely, it's their problem, and their loss.

Anonymous said...

From the sound of it, the guy is being a bit of a jerk and she should just stop dancing with him immediately. There are plenty others who won't do that.
And as Frances said, if he tried something and didn't get the right result, well, I bet you anything that he isn't leading it right.
I'd only been dancing for about 6 months when someone, who would always try and teach on the dancefloor, said to me that I didn't have any style. What an idiot. I never danced with him again and he has asked me many times. Now after quite a few years, I wouldn't dance with him even if he apologised, not because I don't like him, I don't like his style. :)

Mari said...

Thank you everyone for your comments.

While my first thought was to agree that this leader was being a jerk - I think it's very possible he doesn't realize he's being so obvious (I know I frown very dramatically when I'm just thinking about something), and that his disappointment may truly be about what he's doing and not her at all.

The problem I see is the mindset in both partners - which I'm not sure I was all that clear about. Social dancing is for relieving stress, not creating more of it. And if leaders, or followers, go in to a milonga with skill assessment on their mind, they're missing the point of the dance entirely. I know - I did, and sometimes still do it, too.

Frances R said...

Mari, you are absolutely right about that. Only, you cannot choose to change others' mind set, only your own, and believe me, that's plenty!

Tango Therapist said...

Critical people are usually self-critical beyond help. Dieter in Germany was so critical of one of his private students that she was shaking when I had the first dance with her. Dieter has created many critical women, so much so, that Kaiserslautern women got a reputation for being critical. Fathers, mothers, teachers, spouses... it all should be left at the door. Dancing the moment. But it sometimes in not that easy. Forgiving, forgetting is also a way to give up being critical at a milonga. It's soul work. That is what I try for. That is what tango is for me: Soul work.

Elizabeth Brinton said...

Diagnostics are for cars, not for women.

Mari said...

Tango Therapist - You're so right, tango is soul work.

Elizabeth - in the context of social dancing diagnostics shouldn't be for men or women. Of course when I want to get feedback during a lesson, then a "diagnostic" of what's working, why something's uncomfortable, what's not going quite right makes sense. At the milonga though, we are most certainly not cars. (Despite some of the zooming going on lol) :)

Anonymous said...

PS- even if it is not being directed at you.

Anonymous said...

When you are being held so closely by another, criticism occurs by osmosis. It is very hard to not take personally.