Impeccable with my word.

Be impeccable with your word - Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

"To really master being impeccable will require that you heighten your awareness not just to the words you say, but also to the emotions you express, your attitude, your actions, and where you express the power of your belief. You will need to develop a discipline of mindfulness to be impeccable in these expressions through out the day." Gary van Warmerdam,

I have been lazy lately. Lazy in my thoughts and lazy in my words. Lazy in the things I expressed, and in the things I chose not to say. I did not speak up when I should have, and lashed out carelessly when I should have been more thoughtful. The worst part is that kind of thoughtlessness can spread and ripples can pass from person to person creating a feeling of criticism and judgment where none is warranted. When that happens, thoughts about creating solutions are stifled, and criticism gets more and more personal.

The Problem

It started out of frustration, as it usually does. I wanted to address a disturbing problem I saw but I didn't do it constructively. I complained, as did others, to the people who weren't the problem instead of addressing it at the time to the people actually involved.

During what was an exceptionally beautiful event called YoLaTango here in Austin, I observed behavior that well and truly pissed me off.  Here is what I posted on Facebook (which is a different problem to be addressed in a separate post.)

"I did not get kicked or bumped at all while I was *dancing* at the milonga tonight. However, I did get stepped on (three times) and kicked (twice) while I was sitting in my damned seat!! A girl a few chairs away from me almost got kicked in the head(!!!) as she reached under her chair to get something from her purse! WTF??? One guy got a stiletto heel stabbed into the top of his foot while he was sitting down.

"I know teachers teach dancers to do their fancy moves in the corners, but if there are people sitting in the corners keep your effing feet on the floor. Worst of all, the offenders were people who've been dancing well long enough know better. Another thing - if you do something like that, don't laugh and shrug - damned well apologize.

"This was a very, very nice venue, with fantastic music and I had so many beautiful tandas, but the times I did sit and watch the floor, it was so disheartening. There was no reason at all for that. To the leaders who worked so hard to keep their partners safe (including me) - thank you so very much. You guys rock my socks off. To the followers who kept their feet low even when their leaders led them huge moves - thank you for having the presence of mind to look out for others."

Two dancers told me that the cut short their visit to our festival because they could not relax and feel safe on our dance floor. I was heartbroken to hear that. How did things get so bad? Murat Erdemsel, during one of the milongas, even spoke about etiquette on the pista. It seemed to last about an hour. People commented that they were afraid to sit in the chairs along the dance floor because they were getting stepped on or kicked.

Austin, and Austin's tango community has, for many years, enjoyed a reputation for being friendly and welcoming. We cannot be friendly and welcoming if dancers are afraid of getting hurt in our milongas. One visitor who complained to me said it just validates what he's always heard about Austin Tango - "The people are wonderful and friendly, but the floorcraft is crap." Is this what we want people to think about dancing here?  (I should note that several of the 'hazardous' dancers were not from Austin, but the overall feeling many dancers got was that the milongas ware a kind of free-for-all even though many dancers were working very hard to keep things calm and sane on the pista.)

People came to me to complain who knew about my blog, and my posts on Facebook, so I let loose in person and online my opinions on the matter.  My criticism was not constructive - it was bitter. It was also, as I noted above, not directed at the people actually causing the issue. Normally I am against giving criticism on the dance floor, however when safety is at stake, I think it's warranted.

There are constructive ways to address the behavior without getting personal, without putting people on the defensive, without being disruptive or ugly - but those ways require good timing, tact and forethought.  I was lacking in all three. I just bitched rather generally and than sat and stewed about it some more. Neither of those actions helped the situation, helped other dancers, or helped the organizers of what was truly a wonderfully put together event.

So I am reacquainting myself with Don Miguel Ruiz's First Agreement - Be impeccable with your word.

When I speak, particularly when I am criticizing something, am I speaking from a place of truly wanting to help or am I just bitching?  Am I addressing the behavior or getting personal and making character judgments? Am I just looking for validation of my opinion? Is my attitude projecting kindness and helpfulness - or close-mindedness?

A Different Solution

What I would have done differently if given the chance?

 - Talk to the organizers at the time that it was happening. I didn't because I felt they were busy enough already and I didn't want to bother them. I justified it further by thinking they probably wouldn't want to say anything that would cause hard feelings. But if I had been organizing the event, I would have wanted to be bothered with it.

 - Talk to the people in question when I saw the behavior. This is trickier. It's so tempting to get in someone's face and say, "Hey, you shouldn't do that - you could (or just) hurt someone!"  If you approach someone in a very obvious and accusatory manner, it immediately puts then in a position of defending themselves. I truly don't believe that any dancer wants to be a danger to other dancers - bumps and missteps happen in crowded milongas. The best way I have seen it done is a dancer waits until the person in question is off of the dance floor and then says (quietly) that the floor is a little rough and would they mind helping out by being a little more cautious. Basically, they tasked that dancer with the safety of the people around them. It's human nature to want to be invited to fix things - not be accused of breaking things.

 - Look at the floor and see if there are changes that could help the dance flow. If something seems helpful, suggest it to the organizers. In the case of one of the milongas, having a more marked pista would have helped even if all that meant was creating a more regular dance space with chairs and tables.

 - I would have left it off of Facebook and kept it in person. Negativity breeds negativity and that's what happened with my post.

Maybe those things would have helped - maybe not. There is a significant chance that I could have screwed it up worse - who knows? I know that I did do helped no one.

Dear readers, I would appreciate your feedback in this. What would you have done? What has worked in your community?


David Phillips said...

What a thoughtful post and brave introspection to put it out there.

A cruel irony I observe (at least for myself) is that complaining instead of constructive problem solving is so often meted out to the ones we love most.

Maybe organizers/monitors could carry yellow and red penalty flag cards to issue. :)

Juan said...

I am not fond of the Tango Police or of yellow/red cards (albeit they are used in BA milongas). I believe the solution is education. Since we are a community is everybody responsibility to keep the community safe. Teachers, organizers, established members of the community can pass the message along better that most of us. But in the end is our responsibility to create a safe environment for every body to enjoy their own personal dance. In the pass few weeks a couple of fliers with social etiquette circulated in different milongas. If we all reinforced those codes then life should be easy all of us.

Ghost said...

Having once narrowly avoided a boleo to the head while tying my shoelace whilst sitting by the dancefloor I now always change my shoes outside. I always put my bag far enough back from the dancefloor that I can reach it without risk.

Good dancers travelling in convoys can help create a calm place for them and improve the overal flow far more than you would expect in my experience.

DJs can help with their choice of music

Ultimately though I feel it is the organiser's responsibility. I'm quite happy to ghost around them for moral support while they have a word, either pretending to drink nearby while fascinated by the brickwork of a wall, or indeed dancing behind the offender but within arm's reach. It's a good compromise, I don't make the situation worse by making it seem threatening, but the organiser knows if the person does get verbally or physically violent, they've got backup. And that extra confidence can make the difference in resolving it peacefully and calmly.

But the organisers have to act. If you make an announcement about floorcraft and the effects only last an hour, then make another one. And another. Or frankly give out refunds and tell the offending people to leave. I ran a practica for several years where I collected the money at the end because I wanted the option to throw disruptive people out at any point (thankfully never needed to do so). The one time I wasn't there I told the regulars to feel free to throw out anyone who turned up and made a nuisance of themselves.

What I feel very strongly doesn't work is the polite three strikes rule - by the time you finally tell them to leave they've wrecked the night. Plus the other people now feel, rightly in my opinion, that you put the disruptive people over them.

Likewise I think it's important to think this stuff through ahead of time. What are you going to do if? Because generally speaking the stuff you come up with on the fly isn't usually that great and a lot of people end up second guessing themselves into inaction, or going about it in a way that makes the situation worse. So if you're not good with talking to people, sort out someone who is and is willing to. If you think you're going to be too busy to keep track of crazy floorcraft, delegate to the DJ to come and tell you if things are getting unacceptable, etc.

Yes, there are going to be bumps and stuff happens, but someone experienced enough to run an event should be able to weigh up a dancer reasonably quickly, especially if someone they trust has red flagged them.

The last piece of advice comes from Bill Kipp. If you gently tell a nice person that they're doing something that's upsetting other people and you want them to stop, their reaction is pretty much "OMG I'm sorry". If the reaction you get is a justification of what they're doing or an attack, most likely they're not a nice person. Act accordingly.

Marika said...

I can't believe I just saw the comments on this post! Sorry for the delay in responding!

@David - You're absolutely right - the ones closest to us get the worst of it, unfortunately.

@Juan - Agreed, education is the key - and consistency in response.

@Ghost - boleo to the head!!?? Ouch!! I have recently (as you know) decided to start taking it to the organizers (and/or teachers). And I really like Bill Kipp's advice. The response is very telling.