Sisyphus Tangos? Quantity, Quality, and the Tango Questions I Always Dodge

When I am called to answer questions such as "are you dancing much these days" or "where do you dance" and so on, there's a little panicky part of me that feels cross-examined. Maybe this is the influence of law school and too many years of the "Socratic" (well Socrates was kind of a jerk, but at least with him, he'd actually answer all his own questions and really just require you to say "It would appear so" a whole lot, which is better than being on the spot for a perfectly worded holding or counter-argument at a second's notice... but I digress). But I suspect there is more to it than merely the litigious environment from whence I've sprung or my inherent caginess.

My pat answer is unwaiveringly "Not as often as I'd like" or "when I can" slurred from my citadel of abstruseness. It's technically accurate. In an ideal world, I would dance tango every night and much of the day at festivals all around the world - of course in that ideal world I would also dance blues every night, compete professionally in ballroom (with a shockingly unorange tan and only a slight resemblance to a drag queen when I put my full kit on) sing in a chorus, take sewing lessons, learn aerials, AND spend plenty of quality time with my family and loved ones while building my career ALL at once because I would be indefatigable and wealthy beyond my wildest dreams.

Honestly, in the real world of limited resources and current optionsm I don't dance all that much and I am frequently fine with this. The dirty truth: I haven't taken a tango workshop or regular class in over a year. I teach and I have practice partners, but very casually. I go out maybe once a week and sometimes less. Don't get me started about the dry-spell that was my law school career. And I have to admit, just writing that pains me, but not because I wish I were getting out more exactly. I've seen the same pain in the faces of others bravely admitting the same thing to me.


I suspect that part of this panic stems from the fact that the tango community is a distinct sub-culture in which there are complex rules and rituals to define belonging. Within that subculture, there are inevitably hierarchies of belonging. Admitting less than full investment is in some regards admitting "otherness" into the conversation. I won't tell you the shudders I anticipate when I admit to having studied (deep breath) AmericanTango (AAAAAAHHH) and liking it!

And of course, it isn't a mere hierarchy of belonging, but of ordinal standing of various compenents within a community that is being pre-evaluated by such questions. The way we judge people stems from how we choose to frame our perceptions prior to the actual experience. If a middling dancer convincingly proclaims competence, those inclined to take people at their word (a surprising percentage of the population) will make strident subconscious efforts to see only the competant moments gleaming from the dust of incompetency. And vice versa - if we take a competent person at her word that she is less than comeptent, we will be far more prone to see every flaw, and attribute each happenstance misstep to poor ability instead of circumstance.

It's a fair measuring stick - there is some undeniable correlation between practice, performance and mastery. I see my ballroom teacher move and my body spasms in faint conniptions of envy, simultaneously believing that it can and never could move in such an effortless and exquisite fashion. The dissonance causes distress until I recall that he spends hours every day honing his skill on top of teaching, and I spend a few hours a week lazily drilling the technique we've covered while waiting for my toast. It would be sort of a wash if my body could do all the things that so many more hours and gruel-and-grind earns and sanity demands.



And yet, it bears remembering that as we get closer and closer the the margins of human ability, we fall increasingly into the world of diminishing marginal returns. I am the first to admit that due to life-balance issues, I have sacrificed the practice time necessary to attain a solid advanced-dancer status, but I am constantly surprised at how much less of a decline I've had in my abilities due to the previous two years.This runs true to all dancing. While I've done much less of it, the basic habits remain in my body and some strengths have survived through sheer will power or tended to by other physical pursuits during that time.

Beyond diminishing returns, there is the land of negative returns. I know in running, over-training is considered a significant issue. The key is to push right to the peak of one's physical capacity, but no further. It's not an intuitive concept, exactly, but is easy to grasp once one gives it a little though: If Sisyphus were to stop and prop up against his boulder for a breather, he could actually find himself closer to the top of the hill than if he had kept pushing. I think I found when I was very serious about ballet and later ballroom - that the greatest leaps of improvement may come only after I did take a break. Our body learns in repose and improves while repairing. Too much mental or physical stimulation and the improvement part is impossible. And because inevitably physical learning follows cycles of learning many habits that must be unlearned and relearned correctly along the way, there is a particularly Sisyphean element to the dance world - two steps forward, one crusada back?

I remember the bane of law-school existence being those little lights into the lives of others, and feeling so left behind as status post after email after word of mouth got back to me about the dances, workshops, and practicas that so many acquaintances were attending. As attrition roughened the edges of my sultry stilettos, I fantasized about the world of new and unusual combinations, footwork, technique I had never dared to dream of. And in the end tally, many saw some of this, but it flitted in and then out of their dance repertoire, leaving largely the same defaults as before. Some indeed studied smarter as well as harder and have attained finishing to their world-class statuses. Just as many remain rutted in the same intermediate class (down to the slightly incorrect explainations and struggles with the same steps) with absolutely no cognizable evolution to their dance.

It reminds me very much of another law-school bane: the students who spent every waking hour in the library, treading quicksand and making the rest of us feel mildly panicked and guilty to not be working so hard. To this day, despite having graduated with honors and coifs (The Order of the Coif is sort of a specially exclusive law school honor society with a fairly hilarious name), I still feel this mild edge of inferiority that I was not in the library those Sundays for those hours. Funny that. Of course in both cases, much of the difference comes down to two important considerations: (1) natural ability, about which there is little to be done other than to recognize one's own limits and make peace with that at some point, and (2) efficiency.

  Efficiency goes back to the over-training idea in running, goes through the study breaks as more important than grinding hours, and certainly spills over into my dance experiences. I suspect this means approaching learning with some strategy. I have no problem with those who dance for pure joy and make no efforts to alter, evolve, or improve that dance. For those who seek to expand the voice they are giving their soul, to increase their inner-ear for the essence of the music and partner, and just to look good... I feel that many are on the futile path using all available resources and hours stuffing themselves full of experiences they will never have time to process. The key for me is not attending as many opportunities as possible with the biggest names, but finding what works for me and identifying digestible chunks on which to focus.


Some follows probably feel a lot like this!



I generally believe in minimalism for dance and other learning curves. When I practice, I try to pick one thing that I want to focus on from my bag of physical tweaks that need tweaking. Having a teacher observe me can be very helpful, as I've repeatedly found with Nate. Although I know full well that we often have the same lesson (all technique) repeatedly over years, it is him forcing one component of that technique on my while reminding me to be mindful of the others, slowly causing habits to change and even more slowly eventually allowing them to be the defaults that I return to while dancing. I try to think about my body when I'm not dancing - how I stand, how to isolate certain muscles - and continue to correlate motions from one activity to another - pilates, running, walking, different forms of dance are all just different ways of thinking about the same physical mastery that gives the emotional and spiritual part lucidity. And it is all slow. I agree if I did more of it, the breakthroughs may come through slightly faster if I could maintain the clarity to focus on things one-at-a-time.I know at times, progress comes in lurches and and dead stops and that a blast of intense immersion sometimes has pushed me exponentially forward.

I hve recognize that I don't have the answers for myself. I don't know how heavily I could push the rock up that darned hill before it falls. I don't know when the perfect time is for an immersive festival experience that pushes my body into a metamorphosis that takes months to fully manifest. I don't know when a break is good and when other physical disciplines complement and when they detract. But I do have a sense of all these things intuitively, at least as factors.I think that there is something to be said for self-awareness in the learning process, a massive understatement if I ever made one. Mari Johnson recently posted a Marian Edelmen quote recently running along the lines of "Learn to be quiet enough to hear the genuine within yourself so that you can hear it in others." To me, this extends beyond the obvious spiritual component into the physical. When we are struggling and compensating and allowing a cacophony within our bodies and ambitions, the other is drowned out. Too much information and not enough self-listening has the same obfuscating effect to me.

Even more importantly, I want to recognize that there is more to the tango community and experience than some objective measure of aptitude. I tend to recognize "the rules" well enough to break them, but also do buy into the "us" of that community. Being with kin and sharing experiences is the ultimate affirmation of belonging and I imagine that this is as important as any evolution in a person's dance to many who simmer in the social aspect. To that extent, my personality is instinctively withdrawn from too much of that belonging. In tango, as in love, I am the sort of lover who will always need her space, her separate identity, and her girl-cave to which she can retreat. It's an obdurate individualist streak that never quite wants to cleanly fit any one category even at the most enraptured of times. But I do recognize that to others, that sense of pure assimilation is rapturous.

And so, despite any personal philosophizing I do, the question lingers every time I see a fellow tanguero or take a moment's breather during a tanda with a new partner... and I will always blush, stammer and obfuscate to answer. "Not as much as I'd like"
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