The Selfish Dancer

“We all have different perspectives to life. We all do take different decisions in life each day based on our convictions. We may take wrong or right decisions knowingly and or unknowingly. We may regard the decisions of others as right or wrong. We may have a right or wrong reasons to judge others. We have a choice to condemn or uplift others regardless of their situation. May we, instead of finding reasons to condemn, find reasons to uplift others.” ― Ernest Agyemang Yeboah
There are blog posts, Facebook posts and comments I've read lately (and for years, really) that attempt to lay the blame of a poor social dance experience in a community (in many dances, not just tango) at the feet of the social dancers who "just don't improve." These dancers that have been dancing years and years but just don't get any better. They don't "evolve." They don't "grow". Or any number of other vague and subjective terms.

The assumption seems to be that many of these dancers just don't care to improve. They're not trying. They're coasting. They get the dances they want, so they don't feel they need to work as hard as other dancers at improving the overall skill level of the community. They're selfish. They're not serious. Or most broadly, they just don't care about the community. 

It's obvious, right? They don't go to classes. They don't go to practicas. They just show up and dance socially. There could be reasons for that though, no? Well, the answer comes, it's not just that. It's the attitude. They think they're good. They think they're advanced dancers. They think they don't need classes. It's all in the attitude.

A leader in a dance community, someone who has been around since the very beginning of that city's dance community, once told me that followers just don't take the dance as seriously as leaders because they don't show up for the advanced workshops. And let's be clear - by followers, he meant women. Strictly women. They just don't come out and support these teachers and workshops enough. Women can just sit back on our feminine wiles to get dances.

**blinkblink** What the actual f*ck?  (Said me, only in my head.)

Imagine how that comment felt coming from a leader in the community. Imagine now why I might not share the reasons why I don't take a class or workshop. 

(The real reason so many women had passed on these particular workshops was that they were back-breaking. The teachers were teaching off-axis movements far more advanced than most of the dancers in the class would be able to perform without hurting their partners. And the followers knew it. They were voting with their feet. As I irate as I was at his comments, I simply told him never to repeat that [nonsense] to anyone else, ever.  He apologized. A month or so later, he made exactly the opposite statement in a workshop where very few leaders had turned up. His comments then, and before, were made out of a moment's frustration and not truly meant - but could the dancers who overheard him know that?)

That's just one example of a judgment passed on a group of dancers. There are so many others. These are things I have actually been told by organizers and/or teachers:

  • Dancers who only chose to learn and dance one role aren't as serious or valuable to their communities as dancers who dance both roles.
  • Conversely, followers who learn to lead will ruin their following. (I can't believe there are still people who believe this. smh)
  • Followers only want to dance with advanced leaders, regardless of appearance.
  • Leaders only want to dance with pretty, young dancers, regardless of skill.
  • Dancers who are choosing to sit at a milonga, rather than dance (ignoring cabeceos or not actively inviting others to dance) are snobs who think they are too good for the dancers in the room.
  • Dancers who only dance with their friends are "cliquish". 

All of those statements can appear to be true, at least superficially. They can also be completely wrong.

No one can know what someone else is truly thinking. Or experiencing.  Frankly, it's no one's business why someone else doesnn't go to an event. Or chooses not to learn the other role. Or doesn't dance with an unknown dancer. Even if you're right and that is their attitude - there's nothing you can do about it. So how are you helping them - or yourself? 
More importantly, how are you helping those other dancers that overhear you, or read your comment, who now think they must at every point prove themselves worthy of your consideration?

What gives any dancer the right to pass judgment on the motives, "seriousness" or passion for the dance, for the music, or for the community, of another dancer? How do you really know the burden another dancer carries? What their capabilities actually are - physically, financially, emotionally or otherwise? Is it so easy to forget that all dancers are just people, human beings with lives outside of the dance? Circumstances outside of the dance? No dancer should have to justify their level of commitment or passion to another dancer to avoid being somehow shamed.  

Here is my personal reality. (I hate, with a distaste I can't even properly voice, having to write this. But if I don't, who will?)

I will likely never improve as a dancer. 
At least not in any way that another dancer would likely be able to detect.

I will likely never even be as good as I was 2 years ago. Multiple Sclerosis might let me tread water awhile - if I train nearly every day as I do now. If nothing else happens. If nothing gets worse. But the worst part is I won't know how well I can dance until I'm actually in the moment dancing- and potentially putting another dancer at risk. This is a minute-by-minute disease, with sometimes very little warning between  "everything's great" and "why is the floor moving up so fast?" That's the biggest reason why I haven't been back to tango. 
Yes, I have a pair of killer 5" high heels, my "cute-spikey-death-traps".  I love them with the passion of a burning sun. No joke. On the days I can wear them, I feel magnificent. I can wear them, and walk in them very well, a few days of the month. I relish those days. But that in no way means I can still dance reliably, without wobbling, without at least occasional leaning. 
When I was at my best, still a personal trainer training myself and other dancers in stability, you could not knock me down. You could be a sumo-wrestler sized beginner with acute vertigo, and still not knock me down. I could compensate for anything, and keep us both on our feet. Heady days those were.

Those days are likely gone. The proprioceptors on my (dominant) right side are shot. Weirdly my left side is fine. I don't fall down, but I am slower in adjusting. And I can't close my eyes anymore if I want to keep my balance. I never used to rely on the visual feedback like I do now. The vision in my right eye, and hearing in my left ear - are declining. That's MS for you.

My question about returning to tango isn't "am I good enough to get dances?" but instead, "am I good enough not to hurt my potential partners if I do get dances."  Am I still okay enough at tango that anyone would want to dance with me except out of charity?

Will I need a note from my doctor to explain my absence, so that I don't get judged as not being serious enough? Committed enough? I haven't gone to classes or workshops or practicas in over a year.  I can't stand long enough to be in a class. I am limited in the sorts of movements I can do, so is it helpful for anyone for me to go to a practica only to decline the majority of invitations because I know I can't do what they need to practice? Or that in an entire practica or milonga,  I might be able to dance with only 1 or 2 leaders present - or dance for only 1 or 2 tandas before I have to go home and rest?
My own limitations are enough to dissuade me from going back. But then add to that the comments and posts I read from dancers presuming to judge the potential for improvement of other dancers they barely know. Or worse entire groups of dancers they don't know at all. Why would anyone in my position, or similar, want to face that kind of scrutiny? This is the very activity that could improve our health, and yet when tango is viewed as a meritocracy, where are dancers like me left? Maybe we should be relegated to only dancing with one another so as not to negatively impact the dance experience of the "good dancers"?

Here's the thing, though - the thing that makes me feel a little more self-conscious, but is also gets to the whole point of this post: 
I would probably get a bit of a pass. 

If I came back to my local tango scene right now, there are still enough people who remember me, know my situation, that I would still probably get a couple lovely, safe, comfortable dances. I'm lucky. My experience would likely still be positive.  From the friendly followers who guide me and introduce me to leaders who are most safe for me to dance with, to the handful of leaders who have known me, and either knew before what my situation was, or know now, and who are friendly enough to still take a chance on me. 
But what if I hadn't told anyone? What if I'd just left without a word and then come back, like some do? Or what if I had just moved here from another community with no one to "vouch" for me? What assumptions would people make? I already know what some of them think because I read their posts and comments.

I would likely get a pass because of community. Because that's what many active participants in communities do - guide and look out for others. Look for opportunities to uplift, rather than judge. Would I get danced out of pity? Maybe. I hope not. No one owes me that. And neither party really enjoys dances out of pity. But I can't eliminate that possibility. That, embarrassingly, is another reason I haven't come back. I keep trying to get a little better, eek out the tiniest improvement, so that I won't have to face that possibility. More and more I think that's foolish reasoning.

If you don't enjoy dancing with someone - that's completely normal. There are always going to be dancers who don't enjoy dancing with us, for whatever reason. There's nothing wrong with that. Don't dance with them. Explain why or don't - that's your option and no one has the right to demand an explanation. But leave it at that. 
Don't feel it is then ok to make judgments about that person's character, or commitment, or passion for the dance, passion for the music, or for the community. You don't know that - not any of it. If you think you do - you're guessing. Worse, assuming.  So leave that at the door and dance with the dancers you enjoy dancing with. If you feel like helping other dancers, then help - but without the character judgments. 

And hope that when it is your time that you cannot dance as well as you would like to, when you will need patient, generous partners - and that time will come for all of us who stay in the dance long enough - that others will not judge you for your "lack of commitment" or potential to improve.

Please, just meet every dancer where they are, without judgment, in that moment - because that moment is all we ever really have.