Time for a new approach to my privates

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Scheduling challenges meant I didn’t have any private lessons last month, but now have three arranged for this month: two with Maeve while she’s in London, and resuming my regular privates with Fede and Julia toward the end of the month.

A lot changed for me in BsAs, so I realised I needed to take a fresh look at what I wanted to get out of my privates. Two elements are easy …

First, just dance, and get feedback on what’s working well and what’s not. It’s been a very long time since I danced with Maeve, and it will be my first time dancing with Julia since BsAs, so clearly it will be a good time for them to evaluate where I am now versus where I was then.

Second, I mentioned already a couple of specific figures on which I want to work: things I theoretically know how to do but don’t feel milonga-ready (the planeo and Americana). Since I already have the basic idea, it makes sense to bring them up to milonga standard, as those should be quick wins.

Coming at tango from the opposite direction

But more generally, I’m looking to move away from figures. I want to approach it from the opposite direction: focus on the smallest possible elements, and then look at what can be done with these. Different ways to use them. Different ways to connect them.

I get that, in principle, you can reach the same place from either end. You can start with figures, then introduce variations on them, then look at how to chain them together … and eventually you realise these are all just examples, just ways to get you thinking about possibilities. That will absolutely be the right approach for many people.

But I think it’s the wrong way around for me. Learning the steps takes too much of my attention, leaving too little to focus on either technique or trying to derive underlying principles. When I’m in a milonga, my vocabulary shrinks because most figures feel clunky compared to the few things I do reasonably well, and there often isn’t the space to complete a particular fixed sequence of steps. All of which means that learning sequences is, for me, mostly a waste of time.

So the right approach for me is clear: work on the smallest possible elements, and explore what can be done with them.

The need for a different goal

The bit that’s hard to put into words, though, are my objectives. So far, I’ve just been trying to edge very slowly closer to some ideal standard out there on the distant horizon. Performer standard. Teacher standard. Best-dancers-in-the-milonga standard.

But there are three problems with that. One, I would never get there. There are all kinds of qualities a dance performer or teacher has that I don’t, and which are simply not realistic for a British guy in his 50s who spends his day sitting at a desk. So the end-point is not achievable, making it a pointless ideal.

Two, the scale isn’t useful. If I’m operating on a scale of raw beginner at one end to teacher at the other, it would take months of work to get a quarter of a percent closer. It’s not a scale on which I’m ever going to see meaningful progress in any sensible timescale.

Three, there’s a massive disconnect between that ‘academic’ approach to idealised technique and what actually creates a fun dance for me and my partners in a milonga. So it’s not even the right measure for me.

All of which is a clear idea of what I don’t want, but what would make sense as an alternative goal?

A different approach to goal-setting

Everything needs to be geared to my dance in the milonga. It’s irrelevant what I can do in a lesson, or in a practica: it’s about what I can do – and choose to do – in a milonga. What matters to me in a milonga is:

  • Feeling connected with my partner
  • Having a comfortable embrace
  • Being clear in my lead
  • Being musical

So the technique side of my privates need to be geared to these four things.

With Julia and Fede, I’ve been asking Julia to say first how it felt, then asking Fede how it looked. That was the right priority, but I think – for now at least – I need to just forget the ‘looks’ part and use Fede as an expert in how to create the right feeling.

So, if Julia tells me something feels unclear, for example, I need to ask both of them for guidance on how to adjust my lead to make it clearer – and simply forget entirely about how it looks. Sure, I admire dancers who look elegant, but the dancers who make me smile when I watch them – and want to be them – are the ones where they both look like they’re having lots of fun, even if their dance looks messy.

I’m perfectly content to hear that making something feel good will often also happen to look good. In the giro, for example, both Julia and Fede draw my attention to collapsing my torso on the inside of the turn, because that feels wrong as well as looking messy.

But if there’s something that feels right, then I really don’t care how it looks. Liberating myself from that concern will make me a more relaxed dancer, and that, right now, will do more than anything else to make me a better dancer.

Finally, being more compassionate with myself

I’m a perfectionist. That makes learning new skills hard, because I set high standards for myself. That can give me a distorted – and depressing – view of my own progress.

When seeking feedback from teachers, I’ve tended to brush aside the positive feedback and be eager to hear what’s wrong, what I need to work on.

I need to listen to both. I need to actively seek feedback on what works, not just because it will make me feel better about my progress, but also because it’s important to understand the positive elements of my dance so that I nurture and build on those things too.

Image: Shutterstock

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