"Why Would They Want To Dance With ME?"

“She only dances with advanced dancers,” I think to myself. I don’t even bother looking her way, adamant about not letting anyone know about my desire which I am sure will not be fulfilled. There is no shortage to men who are eager to hold her in their arms. Her beauty is striking and she moves across the floor with the grace of a swan.

It is a unique experience for me. After all, I have been dancing as a follower for years and have gotten used to being the receiver of someone’s advances. To suddenly feel the other side of the coin, to be the one who has to initiate the invitation, to face the possible rejection...? 

“Fish out of water.”

Photo courtesy of A. Mohamed Photography

Photo courtesy of A. Mohamed Photography

I don’t blame her for not wanting to dance with me. I have all of five moves up my sleeve even after years of working on my lead, and my experience leading is equivalent to kindergarten.  So to avoid the certain rejection and embarrassment coming my way I don’t bother to look her way and casually walk off the floor for some air. 

As I walk back up the stairs after my break I hear one of my all-time favorite songs. I pass her standing in the doorway and go to the bench to my right.

“God I want to dance this!” But there is nobody around, everyone is already dancing. Everyone except her. 

Before I lose the little courage and recklessness that D’Arienzo’s song might have inspired in me, in an act of pure self-destruction, I walk over to catch her eye to invite her to dance. 

“Oh my god I have been trying to dance with you forever!!” She exclaims with hurt in her eyes, voice shaking. 

I am stunned, mouth ajar, I stand there for what seems like an eternity, paralyzed. The intensity of that moment, the depth of the gaze, the sudden stillness... it was transcendent, alchemical even. 

“Do you want to dance... now?” I finally say with a spontaneous grin stretching across my face. 

We take the embrace, my mind still racing from the dizzying turn of reality. She wants to dance with me? Despite my limited vocabulary and lack of experience? 

The meaning of this shook me to the core as the self-imposed limiting beliefs that kept me from feeling good about myself as a dancer began to crumble. I danced like I had never danced before. Something fundamental had shifted as I confronted the fact that I could stop chasing after some utopian perfection and savor the dance that was already in my body. 

After that experience I committed to not let fear and insecurity drive my decisions. If I am really nervous to ask someone to dance, I challenge myself to do it anyway. Frequently I get what I want, and sometimes I get rejected. But it really doesn’t matter. The reality is everyone has their own preferences, there are people who want to dance with me and those who do not. I think of it as a process of spontaneous curation, or chemical reactions. Some substances attract and others repel each other. So I’m grateful when I get rejected because I know that it has nothing to do with me being a good or bad dancer, it’s just chemistry. 

Tango Is Not Hard

Impatience, judgement, self-doubt - those are the things that make tango learning pretty unbearable in my experience. Learning tango is like growing a bonsai tree, but instead of a plant it’s your body you are shaping. You can do a lot to optimize the growth of your plant -add fertilizer, provide optimal sunlight, calibrate moisture levels - but in the end you have to yield to the leisurely pace of nature. You introduce changes, learn new things, make adjustments, recalibrate things, and then you wait and watch. This latter part of the process is so essential! You learn what worked and what didn’t, you get inspired to do new things, try different approaches based on your observations. Then you launch into the next phase of adjustments and the whole process starts all over again. This cyclical nature of growth is common to every art and discipline and it definitely applies to tango. 

Personally I have made the most progress and achieved the most satisfaction from my dancing when I began to yield to this ebb and flow. The hardest part of yielding was to not succumb to the self-judgement and doubt that are so ready to plague the mind the moment I feel too tired. “You have to work harder. You have to practice more. You are supposed to know more. Your vocabulary/technique/lines are not good enough, and on and on...” This preoccupation with being and doing more than what I am doing and being in this moment has driven the first thirty years of my life. Tango was hard because I was a slave to this “not good enough.” 

Photo Courtesy of Emma Bogren

Photo Courtesy of Emma Bogren

So I had lists upon lists and volumes of notes on all the things that I need to be correcting. When I was dancing I was constantly keeping track of my movements, mentally judging the imperfections. But no matter how hard I worked, I was still not satisfied. Other people complimented my dancing and I would think “oh they are just being nice.” It all came to a head during my last trip to Buenos Aires when I had a meltdown in the middle of a private session.

After hearing out all the things that I am working on and imperfections that I need to correct, the teacher looked at me and said, “yes but when are you actually dancing?” I couldn’t believe it. “You mean all of this epic hard work that I am putting in is still not actually dancing?!” Over the next few days I had to let in the harsh and disappointing truth that I hadn’t gotten any closer to my goals of perfection and the more disturbing truth was that even after ten years of dancing I still had very little respect for my tango while the self-judgment had bloomed to enormous proportions. It was time to let all of my ambition crumble and allow myself to “give up.”

Little did I know that this was the act of yielding that tango required.

Tango is not hard, it is radically simple. A dance measured one step at a time, either forward, back, or side. From that simplicity arises the complexity of walking with another person, traveling in a circle. All of the learning, correcting, refining that I was so desperately trying to make happen spontaneously began to integrate as I decided to “just dance.” 

“Just Dance” to me means a state of total observation of my body - no attempt to correct, no attempt to make something new happen, no expectations. The body is the conduit for the song. This is the equivalent of the “waiting and watching” that you have to allow for in cultivating a bonsai. This is when we get to watch nature as expressed through the moving body, the nervous system creating new neural connections, the body experiencing new sensations, discovering new abilities. This in turn propels the next phase of study and active practice. In this way, tango develops your body for you and you get to enjoy the resulting unique work of art that is your dance.

The Pleasure of Saying No

Saying no to a dance is a special kind of art/torture.

You might go to any number of great lengths to avoid someone’s eyes contact only to accidentally run into them by the bathroom and face the “hey! I have been wanting to dance with you!” Now what?

Sometimes there is just enough momentum in your walk that you can brush past them while giving your best smile and an “oh how nice to see you!” Never actually saying no to the dance but not saying yes either.

“Whew, that was a close one,” you might think.

But you know that at some point you will be out of options as they walk up to your table with their hand outstretched, confident grin on their face. And you will have to either accept the offer and with a barbie fake smile politely walk onto the dance floor while seething inside (been there). OR You will have to reject their invitation and watch them walk away sulking, perhaps never to speak with you again (done that).

“Between a rock and a hard place.” Isn’t that the saying?

Both options suck but which is the lesser of two evils?

If you agree to a dance you know you are not going to enjoy you are signing up for 10-12 minutes of torture of various degrees. Sometimes it is light torture like bad breath or too much sweat. Other times it is more dramatic and involves physical pain. Why would anyone say yes to that? Well, perhaps it is a friend of yours, perhaps it is a beginner you want to help, perhaps it is someone you used to like dancing with but not anymore and you don’t know how to say no to them without hurting their feelings. So you agree to deal with and endure a short period of hell in exchange for helping someone else or maintaining a friendship or protecting someone’s feelings.

If you reject someone’s invitation you are potentially hurting their feelings forever and they will never ask you to dance again, maybe they will even think that you are a snob. You are also potentially signing up to sit for the next 10-12 minutes and watch everyone else dance. Sometimes that’s ok because you might be engaged in a conversation with someone, or maybe it’s time for a bathroom break, maybe it’s time for a smoke. There are other times you sit disappointed, wilting inside at the thought that the people you want to dance with don’t seem to have any interest in you, and you are getting passed over even though you might be the more experienced dancer.

Either way you are confronted with facing a uniquely personal form of hell, either solo or with someone else so the question becomes, which is the lesser hell?

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Personally, I have decided a few years ago to err on the side of the solo hell - no matter how much disappointment I might feel at not getting a dance, at least my body is in one piece and I smell nice. At first it felt daring and even inappropriate to reject a dance but with time I actually came to enjoy it, polishing my body language, tone of voice, facial expression (how would Sophia Loren say no? How would Marilyn Monroe say no?)

I imagine that I am being offered a dessert at a restaurant, but I am too full. “Not right now, thank you though.” Direct eye contact. A big smile.

Simple. Direct. Efficient.

Saying no can actually be a kindness to the other person because you are being honest. Saying no has a lot less to do with rejecting someone and much more with curating your experience, showing what you want and refusing what I don’t want. By saying no you free the other person to find another partner who might be a lot more excited to dance with them and you also keep yourself available for what you actually want.