Lessons from tango – how to do things well

During a very turbulent time for me when student protests, moving and other things came my way, I slowly became aware that tango has not only been having a more and more profound impact on my life in many ways, but it had become the one good constant; an example and comparison, in fact, of how I could do everything else. This awareness grew to the point of happy bemusement (sometimes bordering on irritability): while all my conscious attempts to improve various aspects of myself and my life have been processes with their highs and (oh so many) lows, tango started great and, without any seeming intervention on my part, only became better. I thought about why this was so, and one of the things I came up with is a concrete list of the circumstances that I had in tango which made it all possible:

First of all, from the first steps I made, tango has been something I love doing, pretty much to the point of obsession. No matter which form I experienced tango in, I enjoyed it immensely: practicing in the great classes at our school, shifting my weight around while waiting for the bus, hopping down the street to the rhythm in my head, listening to the music when my feet hurt so much I couldn’t make another step… it got to the point where I would literally, the moment I wake up, stretch my arms out and suddenly become aware that, as the music started involuntarily between my ears, I had put them in the embrace position. And, of course, all of this led to the most important and wonderful thing – that embrace with another person on the dance floor, where we express ourselves through the music, together with the other dancers, with no two dances ever the same… I might not be able to express in words why I love it, but I intimately and intuitively understand why, and that is all that matters.

So, tango has slowly invaded most of my waking hours – and it wouldn’t be so without the teachers in my school. They are wonderful people, and from the first moment I could see that they had a superb teaching/dancing system and philosophy. Their enthusiasm for dancing and sharing tango is visible from a mile off and, as can be seen, dangerously contagious.

Having this in mind, while dancing at the milonga (the place/social event where tango is danced) is what, in one way, tango is all about, as I said I also enjoy the many hours of practice in classes – and when I say many hours, I do mean it. I get a lot of comments on how well I dance after only this many months, but what needs to be taken in account is that I practice at least three to four times as much as an average dancer per week. Our classes are 90 minutes long and I attend at least 4 weekly, sometimes racking up to 13-14 hours per week, compared to some 2-3 hours for most people. I wouldn’t be able to attend so many classes if our teachers didn’t offer such an opportunity to all of those who want to practice more.

I also wouldn’t be able to practice so much, no matter how much I loved tango or how good our teachers’ system is, if I myself didn’t have the right approach to practice, and here’s one place where I can give myself credit. When I was starting tango I wanted to see if I could apply all of my thoughts on education and how different things are learnt in a specific, most appropriate way. So, from the start I consciously tried to model my approach to learning tango: First of all, I would trust my teachers and follow their instructions, both in the general approach, the philosophy of tango if you will, and in a particular exercise, as much as I could. I would always try to be present in the moment, to concentrate on thinking through my body, so to speak, on trying to feel every exercise through whatever I felt (or was told was) appropriate, juggling between my feet, my legs, my chest, my back, my head, my mind… This might seem obvious to some, but I think a lot of people often (me included, though less and less because I’m constantly working on it) easily slip into an unconscious sort of mere physical repetition of some exercise, without either feeling what is going on or reflecting on why it is important, how it fits into the greater picture. At the times when I wouldn’t feel like doing anything, even going to tango classes, I would still force myself to go and I would always learn something new and be happy that I didn’t stay slouching at home.

I could see the results of all of this constantly – in the quality of my own dance and in the dancing of others. So, there was practically instant feedback to whatever it was I would do/think/practice. This doesn’t mean that I am always evaluating myself, because I’m not, but when I do, the results are not hidden, vague and so on – and I do it either through my personal reflection or through discussions with my fellow tango addicts.

And yes, apart from my personal process, there’s also the tribe element, so to speak: all of us tango dancers who understand each other and spend a lot of time dancing and talking about all things tango, supporting and strengthening each other’s addiction – sort of the opposite of an AA meeting. I became good friends with several people from my school, and even though we have a lot of subjects to talk about, sooner or later we either start comparing them to tango or switch back to talking solely about tango.

So, to summarize:

I love dancing tango and I know why I love doing it. I also enjoy the many hours of purposeful practice, under an excellent system by great teachers who support our passion by inspiring us, encouraging us and giving us an opportunity to practice even more. I can always see the results of my practice. I have a big group of people around me who share and strengthen my passion for tango, and with whom I explore the greatness of tango and how it relates to the rest of the world.

The one place where I very consciously tried applying this was in my exam preparation. My department and the exams it comes up with are a mess in many ways, so I knew full well that I could only apply a few elements out of the perfect tango equation:

First I found a good teacher of Japanese who has been through my department’s ridiculous exam system, and thus she understood it well and devised an appropriate method of preparation. With her I clearly defined the exercises I needed to do, I accepted their purpose (helps in passing the exam, not in learning real-life Japanese) and I did them as often and as consciously as I could. I talked with other people who were preparing (or have already been through) the exam to get encouragement, important tips, fresh ideas etc. Even though the exercises I did weren’t anywhere near interesting, I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment when I completed them, as well as the visible progress after several days of practise, which in turn increased my overall motivation.

I not only passed the exam on my first try (a lot of people spend a year or two and half a dozen attempts, which was also my case with another exam before this one), but I’m confident I’ll easily pass the next and final one in line, even though it’s as frustratingly ridiculously pointless as the previous ones.

Another important lesson here is that, of course, it’s not that I found the tango checklist somewhere on the internet and applied it on Section C2 of my life – I defined it on my own based on my intense personal experience with tango and with all the other things I did in my life. Only then, with a clear feeling in my head of what it feels like to be privileged to stumble into doing something you love in the best possible circumstances, could I apply it to other things. Even if, for whatever reason, the circumstances worsen or I even end up unable to dance tango, I can still use this list to guide me in other aspects of my life – and hopefully you can use it too.

So, think of all the things you’re doing right now, and see if it has these elements:

– Do you love doing it? Why? Why not?

– Do you have the right environment? Does it motivate you to work?

– Do you have a good system and/or a teacher to guide you?

– Are there clearly defined goals and benchmarks for the daily work?

– Are you putting in enough hours?

– Can you easily see and enjoy the results of your effort?

– Do you have people around you who are doing the same thing with whom you can share ideas and find motivation and support?

There’s more, of course, but basically it all boils down to these questions.

So, ask them, and keep asking them.  And do tell me what you come up with.

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