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.”
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.