Feeling like my tango has finally levelled-up – after a very long plateau

One of the challenges in tango is that it’s really hard to be happy where we are. We always want to be at the next level, whatever that may mean to each of us. Even for me, an avowed ‘journey not the destination’ guy, it’s tough.

Tango is also never a straight line. It’s the very definition of two steps forward, one step back – and sometimes feels like the other way around …

Relatively minor setbacks – sometimes very minor ones – can significantly dent our confidence. On the flip side, we can sometimes get an inflated idea of our dance. Objectivity is very, very hard to achieve. (Privates help a lot, obviously, but even there, there’s always a big difference between a lesson and a milonga.)

My tango plateau

I’ve of course had many stages of development during my tango journey to date, and there’s often a spiral to them – revisiting the exact same thing, but at the next level.

One benefit of my blog is that I get to capture all these points in time. I can look back at where I was, and contrast it to where I am now – and there is always progress.

But …

At the same time, I feel like fundamentally I’ve been stuck on a tango plateau for a long time.

I’ve known for a a very long time that, for me, tango is about the how, not the what. That I don’t care about sequences, and do care about how a single movement feels to me and to my follower. Sometimes I watch someone like Diego dancing socially. He does the simplest things, but ask a follower how it felt, and they’ll tell you it feels wonderful.

That’s been my long-term goal. To get there. To develop my technique to this point. And for all the work I’ve done, and all the amazing help I’ve had, it’s felt to me like the difference between <insert arbitrary point here> and now has always been small.

Perhaps that’s the nature of the scale. If I’m comparing myself to teachers, then I shouldn’t be surprised if I feel like my own technical progress has been from 5% to 7%. And it’s for sure the nature of any learning process that huge leaps forward are rare; that mostly, it’s just a series of small things.

At the same time, every now and then, there is something so big that it’s neither arbitrary nor subjective. Like the point, at around 18 months in, when I realised that I could Just Dance. I was no longer thinking about figures, but truly improvising.

I now feel like I’ve had another of those definite shifts in level, and it’s down to two things: embrace, and musical immersion.

The Argentine embrace

I’m aware that my previous posts referencing the Argentine embrace have been rather lengthy – some might say rambling. So let me do my best to describe it as succinctly as possible …

A fully enclosed embrace, where the leader’s right hand reaches as far around the follower as possible (almost under her right armpit, for a slim follower), and where the left hand faces inward toward the right one, to create a rounded feeling. The embrace can still have flexibility when the follower needs space to pivot, but the leader opens only as much as that follower needs, and returns to the fully-closed embrace immediately afterwards. While from the outside it can look like the leader is clamping the follower tightly, this isn’t the case: the containment comes from the crook of the elbow, while the right arm and hand can be relaxed.

As soon as I started using it, I almost immediately couldn’t understand how I could ever have been dancing in any other type of embrace. What I thought before was ‘close embrace’ now feels vague and incomplete, almost child-like.

The Argentine embrace has changed everything for me. From the practical perspective of allowing a much more precise lead, to a completely different feeling in my partner’s embrace. But it’s taken a return to London dancing to gain an appreciation of how different it feels to followers – most notably at the Argentine ambassador’s ball on Sunday.

This has always been a joyful milonga for me, but never more so than this time. The music was just beautiful. There was a perfect mix of known and unknown followers. The floorcraft was as good as it gets in London. Almost everyone I spoke with seemed to be having a wonderful time. I danced easily 90% of the time, from my arrival at 6pm to being forced by exhaustion to leave at 9.30pm!

I had multiple spontaneous compliments on my embrace. With most improvements in my dance, if I get one spontaneous comment on it, I’m very happy; if I get two, it’s clear that it’s a big change. But this … It was very, very apparent that it isn’t just different for me.

This feels as big a step up as being able to Just Dance. For the first time in a long time, I feel like my technique has really reached the next level. Not just because the embrace feels great, but because the greater precision means I can lead more, with less input. With skilled followers, it astonishes me how little movement is needed on my part to lead a significant movement for her.

I saw that often, in BsAs – the leader barely moving, the follower doing a lot – and wondered how much that was the lead, and how much simply allowing space for the follower’s dance. The answer, I’m sure, is a mix of the two, but I got to experience for myself how much it is possible to lead with subtle signals.

The level of connection I felt with my followers was a whole– Er, the degree of connection I felt with followers was on a whole new level.

Musical immersion

But that wasn’t all. I also got to experience how a mix of a deliberate plan, and spending another month in BsAs, had also transformed my dance in another way.

After my return from BsAs last year, I wrote this:

Right from the start, the one thing I had going for me was my musicality – and I spent a lot of time listening to tango music.

But what I realised in BsAs is that what made the dancing there so absolutely wonderful to watch is the way the dancers know every note. They don’t just know the songs in the way I know the most popular ones; they know them like they know their closest friend, and that’s what gives them the ability to express the music so perfectly.

I need to return to listening to tango music all the time – and doing so with a whole new level of attention. It will take years, of course. But every new element I notice in any popular song is an opportunity to enhance my dance.

Although I listened to tango music a lot, I mostly listened to the music I loved. After that trip, I decided what I needed to do was listen to the music most commonly played in milongas – whether or not it was to my taste. That way I’d be gaining familiarity with a good cross-section of the music to which I’d be dancing.

Fortunately, Clive Harrison had done half the work for me, in his book Tango 500: A suggested library of five hundred tango songs arranged into tandas for dancing. While primarily aimed at newbie tango DJs, it also told me the songs I should be listening to. At one point, he had a Spotify playlist too, but that later disappeared. I recreated a version of it which so far has all the tango songs, and to which I’ll later add the vals and milongas. I’ve been faithfully playing this ever since, and listening with a whole new level of attentiveness.

A month of dancing anywhere from three to eight hours per day in Buenos Aires was the perfect continuation of this musical immersion plan.

I hadn’t really thought of it while I was there, probably because I had little spare brain-power to think about anything, but I did notice it while dancing at the ambassador’s residence: both the breadth and depth of my musical familiarity had vastly improved! I repeatedly found myself knowing exactly what was coming to songs that I’d never listened to at home back in my ‘All Pugliese All The Time’ days.

Two immense gifts from BsAs

The combination of the two things – both gifts from BsAs – has completely transformed my dance. This is, finally, a new level.

The plateau has felt endless, and if I’m honest, part of my decision to try following* was because I was a bit bored/frustrated with mostly incremental gains in my lead. At least going back to being a complete beginner I’d experience the dividends of that initial learning-curve!

*I’m not yet sure of my current plans for privates, as I need to allow more time to fully land back in the UK.

London schools use very flattering labels for their levels. We go from ‘beginner’ to ‘improver’ in ten weeks. From ‘improver’ to ‘intermediate’ in about the same time. I noted in my first visit to BsAs that what London calls ‘intermediate’ is what DNI called ‘Beginner 2.’ I can’t recall now how the levels went beyond that, and what used to be the school is very sadly now just a tango shoe shop, so I can’t check. But whatever the labels, I feel like I just went up a level for sure.

I wondered whether I should add a third element: that latest rhythmical revelation. But really that’s an off-shoot of the embrace and musical familiarity: I feel more confident in providing a satisfying dance, and I’m better acquainted with rhythmical music.

Gonzalo has been the most under-paid of my teachers!

Photo: Simon Berger/Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Feeling like my tango has finally levelled-up – after a very long plateau”

  1. How wonderful it has been following the events of your stay in B.As during March 2023. I’m really happy for you that you have reached another turning point in your dancing journey which has allowed you to transcend the plateau and rise to higher levels.
    I feel that Tango milongas are always hit and miss for many of the reasons you have mentioned in your posts, and as a novice Tanguera this bothered me greatly, but nowadays, a dozen years later I’m viewing it differently: there is no disappointment at not experiencing exciting evenings any longer, instead I consider I only have myself to blame, so I make sure I’m more ‘present’ at the event, more sociable, more active in making miradas work and more diligent in seeking out the Leaders who know the value of the Tango Embrace.
    I hope to experience that new level of you at the Embassy Milonga next month. I have attended a few in previous months and enjoyed them, on the whole. One or two have indeed reached that Pipí Cucú standard – the 1920s costume event.
    The parts I don’t enjoy involve deterioration of the ronda protocols and floorcraft together with show-craft sequences exhibited by some egos. It seems there’s regularly an influx of a certain cohort of dancer at around 8pm who use this milonga as a ‘warm up’ before going onward to a ‘late-night’ milonga elsewhere in the city. You can see the relief on the faces of the remainers when those trendy/showy dancers leave by about 9pm. Each to their own but when it results in a nasty 3″ gash to a dancers leg resulting from the impact of a ladies heel in full swing, it is totally unforgiveable. I hope the organiser took note.
    Onwards and upwards Ben.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! Yes, London floorcraft is indeed horrendous, and the wannabe performers are the main reason in my view. I look forward to experiencing that mirada and dancing with you at the embassy. 🙂


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