Hearing through my Partner - a Confession

The Friday night milonga a couple of weeks ago was both incredibly beautiful and, at times, intensely frustrating.

I had several amazing, connected dances Friday with wonderfully patient and generous gentlemen. La Tazza Fresca has a wonderful vibe that keeps people coming back despite the hard, concrete floor that's murder on the knees.  The sound system is a bit rough but the food and atmosphere are fantastic.

The rough sound system plus the number of loud conversations along the side of the dance space made it impossible at times for me to hear anything but the strong rhythm of the music. The problem is, only part of the frustration is the result of the venue. Most of it is me. I've yet to write about it, and have talked about it very rarely, because as a dancer I'm still embarrassed. I know better, but the little voice always comes back . . .

If leaders know I can't hear - no one will dance with me.

I have congenital Sensorineural Hearing Loss (when I was diagnosed as a child, it was simply called nerve deafness.)  It's worse in my left ear than my right (and my eyesight is worse in my right eye than my left - which was very disorienting growing up.) SNHL isn't quite like other forms of deafness. I can still hear sounds fairly well - in some cases very well.  Mostly I have problems differentiating sounds - s's, sh's, j's, and th's for instance. (Which makes Castellano challenging for me.)  High pitched sounds are tough. Voices are the hardest - especially if I'm trying to follow a conversation when there are lots of other conversations going on in the background.  And yet I'm very sensitive to loud noises - go figure. So it isn't that I can't hear the sound, it's that if there is background noise especially, I have a hard time hearing the smaller variations within the sound.

My hearing issues sometimes give me a bit of anxiety - which is why I haven't talked about it much. When I can't hear something, it's like I'm immediately transported to grade school, struggling to hear the teacher among talking students. Or understand dialogue in movies. I hate talking on the phone because it makes the s/sh/th/j thing so much worse. And I don't have the benefit of having the person's face to watch.

 . . . but back to Friday night . . .

Wonderful music, warm, comforting leaders - yet I became increasingly frustrated and anxious with my dancing because I couldn't hear the softer components of the music. Tango music is beautiful to dance to because there is so much going on in each song. Shifting melodies, pauses - decorations to the music, that I can only hear when the ambient noise is very low. (And let's face it - that's pretty rare.)

Hearing Through my Leader

Between songs in a tanda, I had to have a mental reset. There is a way I cope with my hearing in dancing tango. It's one of the biggest reasons I love the dance so much. The trouble is it requires even a little more trust than I normally give to my partner. I have to let go a little bit of my interpretation of the music. I want to contribute and not just be moved around on the pista, but if I can't hear the music well, I have another option. I can let my partner provide the piece(s) that are missing.

It does make me feel a little guilty. Like I'm making him do all of the work. I am still listening to the music - I'm just listening through him. That night I felt like I needed to explain since I was sure my partner could feel my frustration - and I was so afraid he would think it was him causing the stress. He understood my situation, and what I was trying to do to remedy it. As usual, this tanguero was extremely supportive and I felt the weight lift a bit.

My experiences in tango somewhat echo Terpsichoral's post here (I highly recommend reading the whole thing, as well as the informative comments): .

The author writes, "When the leader is musical enough, you can tune your body to respond to the tiny changes in the way he prepares physically for each movement and read in advance the exact cadence of his step."

That has been my experience. I also rely on this when my interpretation of the a piece is profoundly different from my partner's. At that point, because I am following and not leading, I make an effort to turn down my interpretation, and tune in more to his body's response. I can feel the details in changes in my partner's breathing, the flexing or relaxing of his hand on my back, how hard he pushes into the ground with each step, the muscles tightening or relaxing across his shoulders and back. All of that creates a picture of the music overlaying my own. At times that Friday night, his picture was all I had.


Juan said...

This come to a surprise to me. I dance a few times with you and really enjoy your dance and your musicality. I always got told that guys can't hear the music and most woman have to adjust to their partner lack of musicality. Back to my prior life, I even knew a guy that was tone deft. He danced open and new tango so he could get away with his hearing problem. His partner is a musician so she does work with him so that in the end you don't notice the problem. So I can understand the concept of dancing trough your partners ears.

Again, it is always a pleasure to dance with you.


Ghost said...

It's worth bearing in mind that this actually cuts both ways.

Years ago I was about to dance with a friend to a piece of nuevo and there was so much going on all at once I actually had to say to her "Ok statistically there's no way we're both going to choose the same thing to dance to in this, which rhythm do you want me to use?" She was a musician and a skilled singer and so had too much choice!

And it's not unusual even in classical tango for the music to give equal billing to two instruments. But different people hear things differently so I may feel the rhythmic bandoneon is more pronounced and go with that, while she feels the melodic violin is more pronounced and is surprised when instead of taking a long slooooooow step, I do several sharp, punchy steps. And this may be surprise in a WTF?! way rather than a good way if she is deeply moved by the violins.

So I'd argue for a follower not being able to hear the music and instead listening through the leader can have equal benefits overall.

Marika said...

Juan - thank you for your comments. I've listened a great deal through you since you arrived in Texas. :)

Long-winded tangent follows: The biggest thing that helps my struggling musicality honestly is how much I listen to tango music every day. (I have a long commute, so I get a good couple of hours a day listening to tango.) When I can't hear a song well, if it's one I know - I can fill in the gaps a little bit from memory. That's tricky though since the same song from different orquestras (or same orquestra, but different years) can have significant differences. Teachers Murat and Michelle, and Stephen Shortnacy and Mardi Brown, also instilled in me a clearer sense of the structure of the music. So even when a piece is unfamiliar, there are ways to listen for what's coming in the song. (Though not always.)

Marika said...

Ghost - You bring up great points. There a few partners I started dancing with regularly some time ago that definitely hear the rhythmic aspect of the music more strongly than I do (in pieces where I am pulled more to the melodic aspects of the piece). At first it was a contest of wills and not at all pleasant. My teacher at that time, Daniela Arcuri, taught me ways to both tune in to the interpretation of my leader, and still express the melody I'm feeling (while working within the structure the leader is creating.)

This is definitely where a case can be made for increasing the follower's vocabulary of possible movements and the variety of ways we can perform the movement.

Thank you again for your comment!

Ghost said...


If it's not a complete nightmare to describe in text, could you explain

" and still express the melody I'm feeling (while working within the structure the leader is creating.) "

Marika said...

Ghost - I promise I'm working on a reply/post to your question:

"If it's not a complete nightmare to describe in text, could you explain

"'and still express the melody I'm feeling (while working within the structure the leader is creating.)'"

It's just taking a bit longer than I thought to write it all out.