Today, one of my students said that he has urges to show off when folks are watching, and asked me how to stop being aware of others watching him dance. I know that that the tango politically correct answer would be somethinglike, "You should just focus on your partner, and not pay attention to the others in the room, except to navigate." After all, this is a social dance between two persons.
However, my first thought was, "Hmm, I know exactly what you are talking about!" We are all human and imperfect: I feel the urge to show off whenever I am passing one of my teachers at a table at a milonga, or when I know that a really good dancer is watching me. I want to impress that person, so that they want to dance with me, or are proud of my progress, or just to show off--and I am a self-conscious, shy person in general, who prefers to remain more in the background in most situations. Imagine if you are more outgoing!
So why is it a problem that we want to show off? After all, can't we also show our partner off and make them look good to attract other dance partners for them? This doesn't have to be a purely selfish action. If we acknowledge that most of us can't stay only in the moment, focusing on only one thing/person for even a tanda, why does it matter if we think about a little showing off?
I think that the problem is that, usually, we mess up when we try harder. We get nervous about something, and our bodies tighten up. How many times have you thought, "Oh, [x] is watching, so I'll try something cool/fancy/harder," only to screw it up WHILE that person is watching? How embarrassing! I find myself thinking things like, "OK, just relax! Do NOT try to show off, just be cool. After all, this is about dancing with the partner I have right now and focusing on them. Focus! Do the right thing! Oops, I just messed up..."
Thinking about what my student asked made me realize why I prefer to dance in Buenos Aires instead of in my home community. I like the anonymity: no one knows I am a teacher; no one cares if I have status. I get to dance more than at home, because I am just some tourist. I can blend in, with my dark hair and medium height and clothing bought in Buenos Aires.
What is really silly about this, is that I know folks are watching me dance in Buenos Aires as well. Women touch me on the shoulder and say, "Pretty feet!" after a good tanda. Men obviously watch, because new people invite me to dance. But I don't feel the pressure to show off, and I don't feel as self-conscious. This may only be my experience, but I feel more permission both to relax, and to screw up, outside of my home community.
As a result, I have more memorable tandas in Buenos Aires; tandas that I will always remember, even if I can't remember the guy's name. Last year, there was that tanda with Hector (who I have only met once) at Sala Siranoush. The year before, it was a tango tanda (and a rocking chacarera) with Guillermo, my tango crush of the year. There was the great tanda with Juan the year before that, when we talked about life and how there are rocks in the road, in between sweet dances.
What does that say about showing off? When I am more relaxed, I show off less. When I show off less, I invest more in my tandas. When I invest more in my tandas, I get more memorable tandas. Focusing on my partner, instead of showing off, makes for better tangos. If I dance for my partner, instead of for the tables, I will have a good time, and dance better. Showing off is human, but resisting the urge makes for stellar tango.