My 3-year appraisal: Beginning a whole new level

I’ve written a few blog posts with self appraisals of my progress. The differences between six, nine, twelve and eighteen months were dramatic! For me, the real watershed point was when I could Just Dance, without having to think about figures.

Technically, I’m now 2.8 years in, though the pandemic makes such measurements less precise. But now is clearly the right time for a slightly early three-year appraisal – this time taking a somewhat different approach …

I talked previously about the glass ceiling sensation, of feeling that I’m not good enough to cabeceo advanced followers or to attend high-level milongas. I described a friend taking me to task on this. She echoed a point that Steph has made: that I shouldn’t make assumptions, good or bad.

I shouldn’t assume that just because a dancer looks impressive, that they are enjoyable to dance with. They may have an uncomfortable embrace, they may be a selfish dancer who leaves no space for the follower, they may not be respectful, and so forth.

I also shouldn’t assume that my own level is so-so. It may be technically, but I bring to the dance things which will often be way more important to a follower (below).

I’m a Brit. My native language is irony, understatement and self-deprecation. Fortunately, I also managed to acquire Irish citizenship through careful choice of grandfather, so I shall have to have the Irish half of me write this next part.

My strengths

To get a realistic sense of my strengths, I did two things. First, thought back to the spontaneous compliments I’ve received from followers, and looked for common threads. Second, I asked a few follower friends I can trust to be honest to tell me the things they like about dancing with me.

  • A great embrace. It’s comfortable; it feels like a hug; I’m fully present with my follower; and I make them feel like there’s nowhere I’d rather be than in their arms.
  • A deep connection. That I feel I’m always dancing with them, and responding to them.
  • Musicality. My dance is always driven by the music. From walking to the beat and phrase, to dancing to the singer. This has been the one compliment I started hearing even in my very early days, and it’s the most consistent one I get today.
  • My posture. This appears in my weaknesses list too! But numerous followers compliment it. I think this may also be a way of describing actitude.
  • My walk. My early privates focused almost exclusively on this, and it really paid off. There is still nothing I love more than a great walk with a follower who shares my joy in it. It is, however, now time for the next level here – on which, more shortly.
  • Elegance. That my dance looks and feels elegant, poised, calm.
  • Emotion. That they feel me expressing the emotion in the music. ‘Romantic’ is a common word followers used, not in the relationship sense but in the romantic era sense. I use suspensions, accelerations, decelerations. I try to install feeling into my movements.
  • Respect for followers. I appreciate the enormous skill involved in following. I make them feel respected as a person, and as a dancer. I make space for their dance. I respond to their input. (With a few followers, that extends to completely collaborative dance.)
  • Generosity. Just as experienced followers were kind enough to dance with me when I was a brand-new beginner, I pay it forward – and I take care to lead in a way that makes them feel like a good dancer.
  • Respect for the codigos. I invite via cabeceo, and have good floorcraft.
  • Attitude. I’m all about enjoying it. I couldn’t care less if either one of us makes a mistake. I’m not trying to impress anyone, I’m focused on my partner.

My weaknesses

Here, I’ve taken the feedback I get consistently from teachers. Additionally, I asked follower friends to tell me their one priority for me to work on.

  • Posture. Followers compliment it, but teachers point out some really fundamental issues that still remain. My head has a tendency to tip forward, in the worst case invading the follower’s space. (I know how and why this happens, and am in the process of fixing it.) My hip can collapse in side-steps and pivots. My left arm still creeps in (not as much as it used to, but somewhat).
  • Dissociation. I don’t use emoji in my blog posts, but if I did I’d have to insert a face-palm one here. At three years in, my dissociation is still in depressingly limited and inconsistent. (Though there is some good news I’ll get to.)
  • Fading lead. When I’ve danced too much, and am tired, my lead tends to fade away into a very half-hearted version! If that happens, I need to stop dancing at that point in the evening. But as a general issue, I tend to begin the lead clearly then relax before fully completing the movement.
  • Lack of roundedness. There are times when I should be going around the follower, but I don’t – or don’t to the extent I should.
  • Giro indecisiveness. Only one follower mentioned this, but I immediately knew exactly what she meant. I think I know how to fix it.
  • Struggling with vertical movement. Teachers have often talked about giving followers a sensation of lifting and falling. It makes total sense in theory, but I’m not currently good at incorporating this in practice.
  • Fast and rhythmical dance. These were two very clear weaknesses when I first started drafting this post just a few days ago, and it would feel ridiculous to remove them after just three privates and then two milongas. But where they were before almost completely absent, now they are a side to the dance which I am rapidly developing!

Levels of lead – and teaching

Beginner leaders use their arms, so teachers tell them not to. Beginner leaders try to physically move followers, so teachers tell them just to move themselves. Beginners tend to bob up and down, so teachers tell them to stay on one level. And so on.

A lot of what we learn in the early stages of tango is about doing less.

For me, there was another element. Because of my particular introduction to tango – via a highly experienced follower – I already knew that you start big, with fellow beginners, and make the lead more subtle for an experienced one.

This, I think, is part of what led to my faded lead phenomenon. I felt that part of my progression was to make my lead more subtle, so that’s what I tried to do.

But there comes a point when the worst bad habits have been trained out of us, and we find that teachers have been telling lies to children. Once we stop using our arms to lead, then a teacher can safely introduce the concept of the supplementary role that arms can play in the lead. Once we understand that our primary job is to move our own bodies, then a teacher can safely introduce concepts like blocks. Once our walk is on one level, then teachers can safely introduce additional elements like changes of height.

So now I find myself in the position of working on making my lead bigger again! It’s not about force, but about distance, momentum, intention.

And the fact that teacher are now having me work on this is actually a real compliment. They now trust me not to overdo it, not to misdirect it.

I’m entering the next level in my dance

A bunch of things seem to be happening at the same time. I see six next steps …

First, doing as much rhythmical dance as lyrical. It would be no exaggeration to say that I’ve been utterly astonished by my sudden progress in this. Previously I would aim to dance all the lyrical tandas, a few vals ones, a milonga – while rhythmical tango tandas were my ‘filler’ ones. The tandas I’d dance if my feet were itching or there were more followers on my dance card than there were lyrical tandas. Now, though, all that is changing!

Second, working on making my dance bigger. Bigger preparation for a movement, bigger steps, bigger dissociation. So my lyrical dance is also going to get an, er, big boost.

Third, the idea of increasing my dissociation does, for the very first time, feel like a real possibility. I’ve known forever that this is something I need to do, but it always felt like my body doesn’t have the flexibility for this – and that my attention dollar was fully spent on basic posture, the music, staying fully with my partner, navigation and figuring out what I should do next. There just wasn’t anything left for thinking about how much I was dissociating.

Now that I can Just Dance, however, I have more attention dollar to spare. On the flexibility front, I’m going to be religious about doing daily dissociation exercises at home, as well as giving Gyrotonic a try (my first session is on Thursday). As I said to a friend:

I think before, progress with dissociation was so ridiculously, painfully slow that it seemed pointless – I was never going to be David or Diego. But now I really understand that if a month of five minutes a day every day gets me a single extra millimetre, followers will feel it. And another millimetre next month.

She agreed completely. (Ok, technically she said ‘FFS, I’ve been telling you this for the last six months!’ but I prefer my paraphrase.) So now it’s two songs a day of mixed dissociation exercises.

Getting more dissociation would be amazing, but more than this, just being consistent about using the amount of dissociation I have available to me at present would completely transform my dance.

Fourth, incorporating vertical movement. I understand intellectually how to do this, and the main thing lacking has been enough spare attention dollar to include it. I’m going to make this the focus of my next private on Tuesday.

Fifth, drilling. I’ve also known forever that the only way I’ll get certain things into muscle-memory is by doing them over and over again. Like an hour of repeating one thing. But that’s too tedious to ask a follower friend to do with me. I’ve now found a teaching assistant for this, and also begin this on Tuesday.

Finally, courage. We all know the tango journey isn’t a linear one. There are ups and downs, advances and setbacks. There are times when I feel like my dance has deteriorated rather than improved. I’ve accepted that as an unavoidable part of the deal, but I’ve resisted anything which I’ve felt is going to hinder before it helps.

Now, though, I’m willing to take that chance. For example, my walk is one of my strengths, so I’ve been very reluctant to mess with it. When a teacher has suggested trying to add more dissociation into the walk, I’ve tried it, felt like I had completely lost the ability to walk, and abandoned that effort. Now, I’m willing to have my walk get worse before it gets better, because I know the payoff will be worth it. (I will, however, try to limit that to lessons and practice, rather than milongas!)

Also on the courage front, after the incredible Negracha experience, and the equally magical embassy one (where I didn’t worry for a moment about a follower’s level before cabeceoing her), I’m now going to sample other milongas I haven’t been to. And in familiar ones, I will cabeceo widely!

The tango gods have been extraordinarily kind

If there’s one thing any tango dancer knows, it’s that the tango gods are fickle. Some days, everything works; other days, nothing does. Some days, dancing feels effortless; other days, the simplest thing feels like a struggle. Some days, we can do no wrong; other days, we can do no right.

I’m currently enjoying a massive tango high, and could easily find it’s rapidly followed by a tango crash.

But that thought doesn’t dim the excitement I feel. If I crash, I crash. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. I’ve emerged on the other side each time, and I’ll do so next time.

But right now, the tango gods are smiling on me. Six months in, I could never have imagined how I’d feel at nine months. Nine months in, I couldn’t have hoped to be where I was at eighteen months. And 18 months in, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me where I’d be before my third tango anniversary. The gods have truly been kind.

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