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'.
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.