All In

For tango and for life:

From Brene Brown, on Every Day Courage

"the people who matter the most are the ones right in front of us.
. . .
It means not glancing over someone's shoulder to see if someone more important or interesting has walked in.

It means connecting.

It means vulnerability and engagement.

I'm here and I'm all in. You matter to me. Our connection matters to me. It's why we are here."

What Women Want: Part II

"I know a leader that has been dancing only 10 months. He likes to walk and do close embrace or traspie. But his steps are straight forward without much figures. Many very experienced followers give him compliments for his dancing which is emotionally passionate. They are taken by his emotionality and the confidence of his lead.

"Recently, he danced with a female dancer that was a teacher, danced for seven years, had been very close friends with Fabian, Gustavo and Chico, so she had danced many times with the best. Yet she told him that she enjoyed dancing with him because he was so present with her. So, I encourage all you simple, beginner leaders to concentrate on your own emotional attention to the music and the woman you are holding. That will take you farther with your dancer partner than all the complex patterns you could lead."  -- from Naomi Bennett, Tango-L

The Bad News:

Leaders, this first fact will probably bring you no comfort at all, and for that I'm sorry. Followers are different. We all like different things and the perfect embrace for one follower will bring complaints from the next. Tanguera A can't get enough volcadas, Tanguera B hates them. It's frustrating trying to learn and re-learn what followers want.

It's true for followers too, if that's any comfort. Some leaders don't feel like they've had a good dance unless the follower really contributes her own voice to the dance. Other leaders consider the slightest adornment to be an interference with his dance. We have only a few songs to listen to each other, learn from each other and adjust. Sometimes it happens and we connect, sometimes it doesn't.

That said, I still wanted to find out what seems to work out the most often. Of all the emails I get, the ones I get most are from leaders asking what it is that sets the most popular leaders apart. What do women want? It's a fool's errand, I'm sure, but I couldn't help wondering too. Is there any kind of a common denominator? (By the way, here's a result of a short survey over at In Search of Tango)

Back to my leaders' questions, primarily:

What is that the most popular leaders do that women love so much?
What did the followers like about their dancing?

The Good News:

I did get some consistent answers.

First, I tried to determine who the most popular leaders were. Easy enough - I just asked around. A lot. After about 30 followers, I noticed the same few names kept coming up (as well as the same 10 or so characteristics of those leaders' dancing) so I started compiling my list. I emailed the leaders on my list to find out what sort of things they do to please their partners? What advice would they give leaders in pleasing women? I asked them to think about their dance, and what they thought they did that pleased followers most.

Here is the advice from a few of the most popular leaders in my community (in no particular order) as well as some pretty sound advice from around the Tango Web community.

1. Don't assume anything. Listen to her body (and be present.) AmpsterTango called it Dialing In.
"Whatever she does, I adapt, and dial in my settings for my lead to match her level of follow. That way, regardless of what and how she follows, by dialing in, I can try to make everything flow into that magic called tango."
This ties directly with what followers told me they liked. Their favorite leaders are present, in the moment, listening to them and to the music.

2. Wait for her. Take your time/don't rush. This ties quite a bit to the previous advice, but moves forward in the dance, and gets a little more specific. Complete the movement, and make sure she has completed the movement, before moving to the next thing. Relax and be calm, and she will be too. If you rush, you lose her, and lose the connection.

Here's a great quote from Firehouse Tango,
"Here comes the secret. Each step has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This means that when you lead your partner to take the first step of the sequence, you have to wait for her to complete the invited action before giving her the next lead. Then, when you lead the second step, the same thing happens. You have to wait for her to get to the end of that movement before going on to the next one. Not that you have to come to a complete stop at the end of each step; you simply have to make a judgment that she’s balanced and ready for the next movement. If you don’t think she’s quite ready, wait."

3. Do less. Keep it simple. If she constantly has to worry about what crazy thing you're going to spring on her next, she won't be able to relax and really connect to you (and to the music.) For an excellent take on the subject, have a look at In Search of Tango's Simple is Beautiful.

Although, I think Cacho Dante probably says it most concisely on this page.

"The guys at that time had already surpassed the stage of steps. They had already passed through the filter: When they didn't really know how to dance, they did 20 steps; when the knew a bit more, they did 10; and when they really knew what they were doing, they danced five, but with real quality."

4. Dance with your whole body. This was something I hadn't thought about until recently. Leaders are so often told to lead with their chest (or worse with their shoulders) or some other very specific part of their body. While the center of leader's intention may be focused a particular place (and that can be endlessly debated elsewhere), each leader I talked to said he tried to lead from, and with, his whole body. Followers remarked that they felt their favorite leaders leads from their entire body. I don't think that's a fluke. From Beginner's Mind Tango, "Tango may well be soft, gentle, smooth, but the whole body is engaged."


5. Know the music. Listen to the music. Care about the music. Followers can feel it when you don't. There is no shortcut for this. Practice walking and listening to the music by yourself. Pay attention to what the music asks of your body. How do you feel like moving when you listen to it?

Johanna Siegmann describes the musicality of the "Magical Lead"
"Without exception, every ML uses the music!!!!! This is the single most important misunderstanding people have about Tango. Improvisation does not mean 'ignore the music'. You must find the soul of the music. If the leader follows the music, the follower has a frame of reference in which she can move as well. They are both working off the same script. When a leader randomly does fast steps, slow steps, complicated steps, and pauses, a woman has no choice but to follow robot style, since she does not have any idea when he might move again. I believe leaders who cannot hear the music are also unable to 'hear' their partner."
More from Johanna and others

6. Be sure of the steps you lead. Women don't particularly care for being practiced on like crash-test dummies at the milonga. Things don't always turn out like you planned, and moves can go wrong for any number of reasons, but keep your experimenting to an absolute minimum during a milonga. During classes and practicas, go for it, practice and experiment like crazy. If you have a regular practice partner, and have agreed that practicing is ok, that's great - don't assume others will agree to that. Some thoughts from Learning Tango, "Firstly, the Golden Rule in social dancing should be: only lead what you know how to lead properly." - and more good advice


7. Be gentle. One leader (who wanted to remain anonymous) wrote to me via email, "Contrary to popular tango images and shows, most women don't enjoy being pushed and thrown around like rag dolls. Flashy moves can get you one dance, a gentle dance can get women looking for you as soon as you walk in a milonga. It's a matter of priorities."

More advice on the matter from Alberto Gesualdi, via Tango-L, "Be gentle, hear the woman´s body, her breathing, the beating of her heart."

8. Dance for her, not for yourself. Everyone wants to look great, but if you're dancing for your own gratification, she can feel it. In the words of Cacho Dante once again, "Guys, to dance tango, you must listen to the heart of the woman."


9. Check your manners. This goes to a popular post going around Pinterest and Facebook, "If I guy is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, he's not a nice guy." A guy who's a nice dancer, but rude and insensitive to other dancers on the floor, is not a nice dancer.

10. Keep your partner safe. Keeping your follower from getting hurt needs to be your top priority - especially in a chaotic milonga. Here are some great guidelines from TangoCorazon for navigating and keeping your follower out of harm's way.

Followers and leaders, what are your thoughts observing your own community of dancers, and your experiences? 

What Women Want: Part I

Part I: What Women Don't Want (a rant)


At Weekly Milonga . . .

My partner was wobbly. I struggled to keep my balance, and his, and worked out a sort of equilibrium as long he stuck with walking. My option was to back-lead shamelessly, or give him an early thank you. I chickened out and back-led rather than risk hurting his feelings. (Lesson learned.) Basically, whenever he led something off-axis, I stepped out of it and smiled innocently. When he tried a calecita that was pushing me backwards, I walked a molinete. When he led a gancho that I had no physical way of completing (without twisting my knee painfully), he got an amague.

Then he led a soltada (an under-arm turn) by shoving me out, starting the spin and then letting go. I turned back around, faced him and said, "that's really not something I'm good at," and tried to smile sweetly. "No problem," he answered. Oh good, I thought, problem solved. (I've written my thoughts about soltadas, even well led soltadas, here.)

A phrase goes by and I got another awkward shove into my ribcage, and half a turn with my partner's hand hovering over my head. I turned back around, faced him and said, a little more sternly, "really, I don't care for soltadas."

And then he said the phrase that annoys more than almost any other, "But ALL the girls love them!"

One of the biggest pet peeves I have, when I try to let a partner know (usually during practica, but if the move is causing me pain, during a milonga) that I don't like, or can't perform, a particular move, is the response "but ALL the girls love those!"

So what am I, an apricot?

I'm a girl (well, a woman more accurately.)

If I say I would prefer not to do [move X].  Is that okay?  If it means that much to you to do that move, by all means find one of "all the girls" to do it with you. I won't be offended if you don't ask me to dance. Everyone has preferences. But don't stand there and say all the followers simply adore it, and expect me to go, "gosh, well in that case I'd better get on the ball and start loving it too."

How would you like it if I decide to take up a phrase doing adornos, preventing you from leading something you'd like to do, or maybe some completely un-led boleos - and then answer, "but all the guys love this!" ??

If I do an adornment, or if there's something about my embrace, etc., that I get the sense my partner doesn't like - I try to adapt to him. If I can't adapt comfortably, or I feel too restricted, I just make a mental note not to seek out his cabeceo next time. "No harm, no foul." I don't try to convince him he should be happy about what I'm doing, I just stop doing it.

The Dance Partner


Two years ago I had a disagreement with a valued tanguera friend about dance partners. A teacher in my city was encouraging promising dancers to form partnerships to practice more and really work on their dancing. I was opposed to the idea because I felt that limiting my dance, even a little, to one partner would hurt my dancing. I was afraid it would make me able to only follow one person well.

My fellow tanguera told me that would be true if I only danced with that one person. However, to practice a great deal, take workshops/privates/lessons etc, with a consistent partner, or even a couple of consistent partners (as long as you continue to dance socially with others) can be hugely helpful. It's useful if for no other reason than that you're more willing to make the time to practice.

I told her I just didn't see it happening for me. I couldn't imagine wanting to work that much with one person. I'm not easy to get along with - I get frustrated, tired. Bitchy. I obsess over my technique. Who would put up with that? She answered simply, that's the point.  When you find someone you actually can work with that much, it will make perfect sense to do it. Until the partner comes along - it probably won't seem natural. You can't force the partnership or it will just be painful for both people.

When I started having more pain, and more limitations on my dancing, the likelihood of wanting/finding a practice partner seemed even more remote. Not only would my partner have to deal with my personality - but with my unpredictable physical limitations. I was having a hard time making it through a single class with someone, even someone I loved dancing with, let alone practicing for an a hour or so non-stop. And I was limiting my dancing with leaders I knew would take great care of me on the floor - who were gentle, and such great pleasure to dance with. My body just wouldn't play along.

I kept needing to adjust and readjust my posture to get comfortable with almost everyone I danced with. I had to keep stopping, resting, stretching muscles threatening to cramp up. Yet I was still frustrated that I couldn't practice enough.  I practice by myself almost every day, but it's not the same.  It does help a lot and I encourage all dancers to practice on their own. It's just not enough.

The Dance Partner

Then last August I danced with a gentleman that seemed to conform completely to my body when we danced. It was like being cocooned - with no points of pressure, no hard points of contact.  He danced small, soft, quiet - like me.  We fit.

We danced at more milongas and soon my conversation with my friend came back to me  . . . .   What if I could practice with him? He had mentioned setting up practice sessions with other people where he lived before so I thought it couldn't hurt to ask.  He agreed, saying he was happy to work with anyone who wanted to practice and he was always looking for more opportunities. Soon after that discussion, we practiced in a rented space at a local studio. For over two hours straight, we worked and worked and worked. When we were done, my hair was damp and matted to my face, I was flushed, hot and tired. But, I was startled to notice, I was not in pain. Actually, the pain I'd had going into the practice session, was gone.

It doesn't seem like a long time - 2 hours. For my body, 2 hours of anything is a very long time. I constantly have to get up and move around for fear of muscles cramping and aching. Conforming my body to the same person for two hours seemed inconceivable. And yet there we were. We agreed to set up another time. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe I'd feel the effects of it tomorrow. Maybe it wouldn't work again.

But it did work. We danced together more, renting spaces around town, working on more and more challenging aspects of the dance.  Tiny, intricate moves, more steps on the closed side of the embrace, fast changes of direction. Learning to dance small, compact and yet musically, sometimes feels like building a ship in a bottle - so much exquisite detail in such a small space.

Two things happened after that, one that I didn't expect, and one that I should have.

The first, I started getting compliments on my dancing. Leaders told me I was more relaxed, more responsive, more connected, more musical. Rather than just taking the compliments and saying thank you like a normal person, I pressed for details. What had changed?  What felt different? I wanted, and still want, to get a clear picture of how my dance was changing. Everyone uses the same terms, but I still keep looking at my body trying to figure out what I'm  doing that's different. Whatever it is, it's working and I should just be happy. But I can't help wondering . . .  Especially when I was so sure that dancing with one person more than others would ruin my dance.

The second thing I should have seen coming. The not-so-nice comments  had nothing to do with my dancing, and everything to do with my 'reputation'.

A conversation.

One exchange came at the end of a milonga from a tanguero I dance with fairly often (though both of us have been dancing less lately.)  He was pleasant, but "concerned". Despite his even, more-or-less non-judging tone, I had already had similar, though far more accusatory, conversations with a few people. I was getting annoyed with repeating myself and with having to justify my dancing.

"I've noticed you've been dancing a lot with him (motioning to my partner).  More than a couple of tandas a night," he said.

"Yes, but not consecutive tandas*," I answered cheerfully, as if that would make the slightest difference in this conversation.

"People might think things about that," he warned in a low, almost paternal, voice.

I sat back and sighed. My friend was trying to be helpful, and I understood good intentions, but at the same time I was feeling a little bit pissy about the whole thing.

"Here's the deal. When I dance with him every few tandas, I can dance almost all night long. I don't know why or how - and, I'd really, really love to work that out because believe  me, I'd ask for it if I could. I'd put it on my blog, on t-shirts, and bumper stickers. 'Please do this!'"

"The truth is," I continued, "I have no idea why it works that way. When he's not here, I get maybe 4 tandas before I'm in too much pain, or too tired, to dance. It's that simple. He's my dance partner because I can dance with him more than anyone and I'm in less pain. For me, he's a walking pain-killer."

After my friend stopped gaping at me, he just smiled.

"So are we clear?" I asked.

"Yes," he smiled, "we're clear. Want to dance?"

"Yep, I really do."


My doctor sat across from me, making that face he makes when he thinks I'm not really taking what he's saying seriously.

"When you're in pain, you need to be selfish to survive. If something works, use it. You can question it if you want to, especially if the cost is high, but in the end, if it works - you use it. If something hurts, ditch it. The past and the future don't really matter in that respect. If it was great yesterday, but today it puts you in pain, then stop doing it. What matters is the here and now. Do what you have to do to keep moving, and keep dancing. So far that seems to be the only thing that's slowing down the muscle loss. Whatever you have to do to keep at it - do it and don't apologize. Do it until you can't anymore."

"What do I do when I can't anymore?"

 "Then," he shrugged, "we'll have to think of something else."

*In more conservative, traditional milongas, dancing consecutive tandas with the same partner implies a romantic relationship.