Become a Beginner Again
Even if it’s terrifying. It’s worth it.
Over the weekend I attended a jaw-dropping, mind blowing, sexy as hell, Tango festival for the first time in my life. Illuminating doesn’t begin to do it justice.
I have been dancing for 22 years and teaching for 15+ years. But when I go into close embrace with a Tango aficionado, I struggle not to feel like a total beginner. And I’ve even taught Argentine Tango?! Albeit on a beginner level. This weekend made me feel I’ve only just dipped the tip of my high heel into this beautiful culture. I was fighting insecurities and riding the highs and lows all weekend.
For those who don’t know, Argentine Tango is considered more than a dance. Many view it as a way of life. Part of why I didn’t dive in sooner is because I was waiting until I could move to Argentina and devote myself to this art form. (Alas, Life had other plans for me.) But, as a dance teacher, I had to “learn” the dances my students requested. Let me tell ya’, there’s a Huge difference between knowing steps and knowing a dance.
Partner dance is a tricky muse. Most people expect it to be easy — and usually overestimate their skill level. Free tip: leave your ego at home. It doesn’t serve on the dance floor.
In truth, I believe dance to be the most complex sport/movement endeavor one can engage in. On top of the usual requirements for sport: stamina, strength, agility, etc — you must have total control of your body (mastering muscles you didn’t know you had). Then, you must listen to (on a deeper level than you’ve probably ever attempted) and respond to another body. Don’t forget the other couples on the floor you must gracefully avoid. And if that list isn’t long enough, dance further requests, “Now do all of that to a specific rhythm.” (Where the music often throws in surprises.)
No other physical challenge I’m aware of asks so much from people.
Nor, in my book, is any other physical challenge soooo rewarding. (Imagine a plethora of love emojis here:)
So there I was, learning from Masters of Tango, giddy to the point of blushing. I was very confident in classes with solo movement. After all, there shouldn’t be many concepts I haven’t already practiced at some point in my 20yr journey. But when it came to partnering, the nerves crept in like mold festering behind drywall.
I often tell my students: your skill level is not defined by who you’re dancing with. Boy did I eat my words this weekend:) When I was with a pro — I could relax into the clarity of his/her lead and trust in my ability to follow — even on the scarier moves where he traps or pushes my foot. (Please understand, as a dancer, I like to have full control of my feet:) But when I was with someone newer…try as I might to bring out the best in both of us, sometimes it was a mess. Thankfully we usually laughed about that mess. But it still needed cleaning.
One of the things I love about Tango is you’re considered a beginner for the first 3–5 years. In other dances, I’ve noticed people often consider themselves intermediate after six months. I routinely have to break down the math for students who are frustrated they haven’t gotten further, faster. What they consider dancing for “six months” really comes down to about 1.5hrs per week. Even if we double that, it comes out to ~72 hours total. How good are you at something you’ve done for 72 hours? Especially something as intricate and demanding as partner dancing?
So dancers, both present and future, think like martial artists. Having your black belt doesn’t mean you’re a master. Achieving your black belt means you’ve become a student. (More love emojis:)
This weekend, I relished being a student again. Though, perhaps less so during the nightly milongas (Tango parties). Tango has this accepted nonverbal way of asking someone to dance. Usually, a leader makes eye contact with a follow and nods toward the dance floor. The follow accepts with a slight nod, then waits for the leader to come to where she’s seated to escort her onto the floor. This is called a cabeceo. (Just another gauntlet thrown down by Tango: many moves are in a language I don’t speak!)
Before I get into the vast insecurities a cabeceo may dredge up, let me confess: this process is completely counterintuitive to my personality. First, I don’t really like waiting. (Who does?) I’m more a “seize the moment!” kinda gal. So to wait to be asked to dance is challenging enough for me. Over the years, I’ve wasted many a song waiting on the sidelines and I hate it. I’ve unofficially vowed not to do it. (For the record, I did not succeed in waiting in Tango either. Of course, a follow can initiate a cabeceo, but more on that later.)
Second, once I’ve been asked to dance, I don’t want to wait for him to come to me. (Often cabeceos are done from across the room.) I want to jump up and meet him in the middle so we can get to dancing sooner.
Third, I’m curious by nature. When I have questions — such as, “Would you like to dance?” — I prefer to voice them. That way, everybody’s on the same page. After all, how do you know the gentleman giving you the eye isn’t looking at the smoking hot woman behind you?
And finally, I tend to look people in the eye and smile in general. During a milonga, this comes across as eager and/or needy. Doh! No one wants to dance with that girl. You’ve gotta be cool. Almost aloof. Suffice to say, neither are my strong suits.
Now onto the raging insecurities playing at the edges of my mind each night. Like I said, a woman can initiate a cabeceo. But Damn! When you look at someone and they look away so fast they might get whiplash…it’s not the best feeling.
Am I not cute enough? Not young/thin enough? Even worse: is my dancing not good enough for you?! It’s a total trip. I had to pull out all my self-help strategies to reassure myself: I am worthy of dancing Tango. It’s not personal. I’ll never know why he looked away and that has to be okay. Breathe in for three. Breathe out for three.
You’re all dying to go Tango dancing now aren’t you?;p
I hope so. No, it’s not “easy”. It is an act of bravery — rewarded by transporting you completely. When you’re in someone’s arms: listening, lifting, extending — the world (and all its strife) melts away. In fact, I danced with my eyes closed most of the time. The better to hear him with.❤
And while you will have some challenging moments, as in life, you’ll be better for them. I tried to catch a guy’s eye the first night and it seemed he was looking at everyone but me. The next day, we partnered once in class and before it was over he asked me if I wanted to share a private lesson from the pros with him?! What a gesture! He did like dancing with me. So much so, he was willing to invite me to an hour with world class Tango dancers. Of course I said yes:) And it was spectacular!
The whole weekend was enlightening! (Far beyond what I learned in the lessons.)
The private lesson made me realize how nerve-racking it is to dance while pros are watching. I ask my students to do that every day?!
The moment in a group class when you want to ask, or answer, a question but realize doing so may shine a spotlight on your ignorance in front of allll those eyes. As a teacher I have to take care of people courageous enough to speak up in class. Perhaps I’ve been too capricious in the past. (If so, I’m sorry.)
The rejection on the dance floor forced me to be resilient and clarify what I wanted out of the evening. The first night, I set a goal to complete a cabeceo. And I did!
The second night, I wanted to dance more. Cabeceos or not. And I did:)
The third night, I sought out dancers who looked really fun to dance with, went up to them, explained they were way out of my league but I would love to dance with them. They accepted. We danced. They were kind and even complimentary. I was floating:)
Which is why I recommend becoming a beginner again — in whatever it is that peeks your curiosity. It challenges you on so many levels. You become ignited again. Eager to learn, yet scared. You feel so very alive and engaged in that moment. Isn’t that what a lot of us are missing?
There’s so much more to say but I’ll save it for my next article: how we change the lives of beginners around us — for better or worse — with our words and actions. See you on the hardwood.❤