This is a question I first asked myself so long ago that I can’t even find the blog post to link to: How far do I want to go in my tango journey?
Dancing a lot less than I was, I was finding that my weekly privates (alternating between Emma and Diego) were too much: I simply wasn’t doing enough dancing to put the work into practice in milongas …
Pausing my privates
In the old days, I was having fortnightly privates, and would typically dance in 6-8 milongas between them, so lots of time to see how things worked in real life. But when I’m dancing in one milonga between lessons, I’m getting input faster than I can use it. For that reason, I’ve put my privates on hold for the moment.
Doing so leads me to revisit the question: How far do I want my tango journey to take me? Or, to put it another way, how good a dancer do I want to be? Which is a more complex question than it might appear.
My scale of tango competence
I think my scale of tango competence to date has gone like this …
1. Dependent on kindness/investment
When you’re a beginner, there are two types of followers who will dance with you. The first are the kind ones, who remember when they were beginners, and want to pay it forward. The second are those who see sufficient potential in your dance that they see you as an investment: dance with me now, and I’ll dance with you later. (Which totally works, by the way.)
We could talk in-between levels, but I’d say the next major milestone is …
2: Good enough to dance as much as I like
This is the level at which, in most milongas, I was able to dance every tanda if I wanted to.
In truth, before the pandemic, this was a pretty low bar for leaders. The role imbalance meant that there were followers of my own level plus enough more advanced followers who’d rather dance at my level than not dance. So I think I hit this level somewhere around the 9-12 months point.
Post-pandemic, the imbalance has lessened, and the competence needed to hit the level is somewhat higher, but I’d still say it’s not that high a bar.
3. Cabeceo accepted by far better dancers
At level two, I was already getting a lot of dances with much better followers than me, but there was still a level beyond which I was too intimidated to cabeceo.
Diego told me it’s what I needed to do to advance my dance, and I was surprised to find just who would dance with me.
4. Being sought out by far better dancers
I give 100% credit to this to my early introduction to collaborative dance. There are many advanced followers who would rather have a tanda with a 3-year dancer who makes space for them, than a 20-year one who doesn’t. Or, at least, wants to mix-and-match the two during the course of a milonga.
But this was definitely a virtuous circle. As soon as I made a habit of daring to cabeceo much better dancers, I would subsequently find that they were cabeceoing me.
I think the first time I noticed this was when a very experienced and popular follower came and sat a couple of seats from me while I was putting on my shoes, and cabeceo’d me the moment I had. I think this was because she intended to work up from me, but hey, I was still very flattered.
But where it really sank in was in BsAs. Tango is a small world even there, so I ran into the same followers multiple times – and once we’d danced, many super-skilled ones cabeceo’d me consistently at other milongas.
Again, the remaining role imbalance of course plays a role, but I know from feedback I’m confident was genuine (ie. beyond the standard follower flattery level) that dancing with me is fun because they are free to express themselves.
But now what?
I said that the question of how far I want to take my tango is more complex than it might seem, and that’s for a bunch of reasons.
First, I don’t know what the levels are beyond where I am now.
Second, even if I did, I don’t know the rewards and costs of each.
Third, I don’t know far I could go. As previously discussed, I’m a middle-aged English bloke in a sedentary occupation who didn’t take up dance until relatively late in life. Even if I devoted my every waking moment to lessons and practice, there’s a upper limit to what’s possible from this point.
Fourth, I know from highly experienced dancers that there is not just a law of diminishing returns – where each additional rung gets you a smaller and smaller benefit – but it’s worse than this.
The better you get, the smaller the pool of dancers who can give you a truly satisfying dance. So there’s a level beyond which you have less enjoyment, not more. Where the return is not just diminishing, it’s negative.
So when I do resume privates, what is my goal, and what sort of schedule would be appropriate?
Right now, I don’t have an answer to that question.
What do I know?
One thing I do know is that I’m not going to permanently cease lessons.
There are not a few leaders who cease lessons at level two. As soon as they can reliably get all the dances they want, they are happy that their dance is good enough, and they needn’t put in any more work.
I’m not passing judgement on anyone else’s decisions, but I do know that you can reach that level and still be very much a compromise option for followers. Your embrace may not be as comfortable as they’d like, or your lead as clear, or any one of a dozen other issues which means followers are dancing with you under some degree of sufferance. I know from follower friends that sometimes a follower will put up with a lot if the alternative is an extended period of sitting.
I don’t want to be one of those leaders.
I’m also of the view that it’s pretty easy to pick up bad habits in tango, so if you’re not getting regular feedback from teachers, your dance probably gets worse over time, not better.
Finally, I know that it’s not just about levels, however we define them. I’ve increasingly found that I have real lightbulb moments in my privates, and one of those can transform my dance.
For now, no decisions
I’m one of life’s natural planners. Set goals, figure out steps to achieve them, create to-do lists, schedule the necessary work.
To give you an idea of the extent of this tendency, when I wrote a novel, I planned every scene. The total word count of my planning notes was 10% of the final length of the novel.
I have nine colour-coded calendars in my scheduling app, and my days are generally time-tabled to within an inch of their lives.
But a couple of things have changed that, at least for now. First, that month in BsAs. Anyone who has spent any time there will know that Argentina and planning are barely nodding acquaintances. I rarely made milonga decisions more than a day ahead, and by the final two weeks that was more commonly an hour or two ahead. That laid-back attitude seems to have survived my return to London.
Second, as friends will know, I recently ended a long-term relationship, which has given me a whole new world of freedom! I’m determined to make the most of that, and again, making fewer plans and more spontaneous decisions is very much in line with that.
I’m writing this en-route to The Feast. I probably won’t be able to resist a blog post about that, but in general, expect there to be significant gaps between them.