A heavenly Nacimiento, but a tango existential crisis

Tango highs and tango lows are familiar to anyone caught up in the clutches of the dance. Days when we can do anything; others when we can do nothing. After a time, you just get relaxed about that – or at least come to accept that there’s nothing we can do about it, so there’s no point getting stressed.

But I’m now at a somewhat odd stage in my tango – and I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

Let’s start with the good news …

The good news

I’m now able to dance comfortably and enjoyably in a crowded milonga, and can just pivot, turn and step without having to think about figures. That still feels like an incredible point to have reached. I remain utterly thrilled about it. Really, I cannot over-emphasise how huge a thing that is to me.

At milongas, I’m having a succession of truly magical tango experiences. There was a uniquely intimate milonga at Negracha. A slice of Buenos Aires at the home of the Argentine ambassador. Five hours of wonderful dance at the 10th anniversary of Los Angelitos a few weeks ago. And then last night there was the inaugural Nacimiento milonga.

I’m a writer by profession, but would struggle to put into words just what an incredible night it was. The venue was spectacular. The music was divine. There was an endless supply of dancers. There were so many people there that it genuinely felt like being back in BsAs.

There’s a story that the ocho cortado was invented by accident when a couple started a clockwise giro and were then forced to abruptly reverse the movement when another couple stepped into their path. I’d always thought of it as apocryphal, but last night could almost believe it when the crowded floor forced constant changes of plans. There was a time when I would have been incredibly stressed by that, but last night I was mostly enjoying it. It was largely stress-free because I can now Just Dance, and I can figure out alternative resolutions to most of the situations in which I find myself.

Nacimiento was yet another milonga I adored, had some truly wonderful dances and felt comfortable cabeceoing followers without worrying (much) about levels. I can’t wait for the next one.

But this is tango, so there has to be a ‘but’ …

The two pieces of bad news

I do, in theory, have the luxury of not having to think while I dance. Like I say, I can walk, pause, step, pivot and turn, and that’s all there is, right?

Except that there are infinite ways to combine those things, and in my Just Dance mode, I use very few of them. If I don’t actively think about what to do, my dance comprises walking, pausing, rebound turns, back ochos, forward ochos and giros – and that’s it. So I risk boring my partners, or, perhaps worse, boring myself.

There is a possible solution to this, of course, which is to focus on the how not the what. A leader who is good enough could do nothing more than those things and their dance will feel amazing.

But that’s my second problem. Focusing on the how is mostly what I’m doing in my privates, and working so intensively on my technique has absolutely resulted in improvements, especially to my posture. But it has also done something else: made me more painfully aware than ever of the huge gulf between where I am and where I would need to be for the above to be true.

Indeed, the hard truth here is that I really don’t know whether that level – simple things that feel amazing – is even possible for a guy who took up dance after 50, sits at a desk all day and isn’t going to be spending hours a day practicing.

My teachers tell me I need to do X, Y and Z, and it all makes perfect sense. But when I focus on X, Y and Z are absent. When I focus on … well, you get the idea.

So upright posture? Ok. But then my embrace is lacking. Rounded embrace? Ok, I can manage that, with some work, but then I’m no longer focused on ensuring I lead every centimetre of the movement. Focus on that? No problem, but then what happened to my rounded embrace?

I know that, in tango, you have to consciously think about things until they become habit. So sure, my tango brain can’t cope with all the things it needs to be thinking about right now, but if I focus on one at a time, then eventually one gets fixed and I can focus on the next one. That’s harder, though, when I’m so acutely aware of how important each of them is right now.

My tango existential crisis

I am, in life generally, all about the journey, not the destination. So I can take the attitude that it really doesn’t matter where I am at any given point – just enjoy that, and then next week, next month and next year, enjoy where I am then.

But, in truth, right now, with tango, that’s difficult. I feel simultaneously delighted with where I am, and frustrated with where I’m not.

I said recently that, three years in, I was learning to stand, walk and turn. That is how it feels right now. Everything technique-related feels complicated right now. Everything feels lacking.

It’s the same with vocabulary. Almost from the start, I kept a little table. Column one was things I could comfortably do in a milonga. Column two was things I felt were good enough for a milonga, but I needed to remind myself to incorporate them. Column three was stuff I felt needed more lessons or practice or both.

If tango were a logical process, then things would gradually move right to left, and that left-hand list would get gradually longer. But that’s not, of course, how this stuff works. The more I know, the higher my standards get. Of late, the general trend is rightward, rather than leftward. Things I was happy with before, I now feel like I need to revisit from scratch.

In truth, I know my teachers are right when they tell me this level of awareness is good news, not bad. The first stage in solving any problem is being aware that it exists. But I feel like I’ve got a hell of a lot of first stages right now.

So that’s where I’m at. Delighted and frustrated, and not entirely sure what to do about it.

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