Anxiety and tango: getting out on the dance floor

During the past few weeks, I have watched my students and how they approach dancing tango (and other dances). One Thursday night, I am happy to say, several students were out on the dance floor, doing their thing. However, two more were sitting at the dance, not making much eye contact with potential dance partners; one was texting. Another beginning dancer was hiding in the bar and watching from where no one would ask him to dance.

One student told me that he may never go out dancing, but just wanted to learn tango. Several people have told me that their fear of asking someone else to dance has made it almost impossible to dance, although they have reached intermediate and advanced levels of dancing tango by taking lessons.

This is not only about my students. I had the opportunity to talk to other dancers at workshops and milongas during the past few weeks, and asked them about their experiences going dancing. Some told me of crying in their cars after the milonga, or not being able to walk in the door some nights. Only a few people seemed to find my question silly: "What problem? I love this!"

Most of the responses of current dancers were similar to those persons who were too scared to go dancing, but something must have occurred to get them over that initial hump, and out on the dance floor. What could make this experience work better for those of us who are shy, anxious, lacking confidence, or just starting out dancing? How can we get out on the dance floor more easily?

I would love to hear what you have to say about your experience getting out on the dance floor. What advice would YOU give to someone to help them get out there?


Access more of your tango knowledge on the dance floor!

Typical tango nightmare

The music begins. Joe Tango asks someone to dance. The floor is a bit crowded, which makes Joe a bit tense. The song is unfamiliar, which makes him more tense. The partner is someone he would like to impress with his tango skills: more pressure! Suddenly, Joe can only remember three moves. His brain freezes, and for a moment, he can't remember even a single move. Freak out time!

If you lead tango, I am sure this has happened to you before. For some dancers, this is how it feels at the beginning. For others, this is how it always feels when the room is crowded. People say to me, "I went to [x] milonga, and it was too crowded to dance, but YOU looked like you were having fun and doing cool moves!" (in an accusing tone of voice). "How did you do that?!"

How I deal with lack of space

The reason I don't freak out in crowded spaces, is that I had the equivalent of learning to drive in Boston as my training for learning to lead tango. Three years into tango, I spent four months over the space of two years, dancing in Buenos Aires. I led a lot at Torquato Tasso, La Viruta, even at El Beso.

My Spanish was eight weeks old when I first visited Bs As, so I had no idea how much negative attention I was attracting by leading. Some of the guys said rude things about "women drivers" and some women refused to dance with me. However, many guys simply tried to get me to run into them so that they could point out how badly I lead. Others just tried to run me off the dance floor.

I learned to protect my partner from other couples and from the tables at the edge of the floor. I saw that everyone else seemed to be leading just fine in small spaces, and copied their moves. I learned that a well-planted axis (an ample butt helps) keeps other leaders from taking your space. I experienced following good leaders with no space to maneuver, and alternated that with leading in the same spaces.

If you can't make it to Buenos Aires, go to crowded practicas. Or, set up chairs in your practice space, and dance around them. Attend classes focused on dancing well in small spaces. Practice is the only way to learn to do this.

How I remember moves easily

I have discussed how I arrange my vocabulary of tango moves in a way that makes it easier to remember more moves than my short-term memory has slots for recall. Here is an example of some moves from a student's lesson:

Apart from that, I practice moves in different combinations. I practice them to the right and left. I practice them as a leader and as a follower. This gives me more ease in recall, as I don't have to follow the same brain path to find a move; there are lots of connections between each move and at least several other moves.

How I deal with unfamiliar songs

At this point, I only hear a new song a few times each year. Very few of the tangos, valses and milongas that DJs play are strange to me, so I rarely have this problem anymore. So, the easy answer is: listen to tango all the time :-)

A more useful answer when you are already on the dance floor: tune into the "flavor" of the music. Explore the music with your partner. The next time you hear that tango, you will dance it better. Approach it as a new adventure, not a roadblock to good dancing!

One outstanding problem: shyness

I don't know the answer to how to deal with the nervousness that accompanies dancing with someone who you are nervous about leading. I get nervous when I dance with someone new who is above my level, even though I have danced tango for twenty years! Being a shy person, I think I will always struggle with this part of couple dancing. I just try to remember that they would like to enjoy themselves, and I try to give them a sensitive, connected, energized dance.

DRAW your Argentine tango future!

My favorite idea of the week

I like to surf TED Talks while I knit or spin fiber (my main hobby right now). This gives me all sorts of ideas about tango. Here is the one I watched yesterday: Draw Your Future. Patti Dobrowolski gives a vibrant, short talk about designing positive change in your life. You draw what you want to see happen, and then work on making the drawing reality.

What if we apply this to our tango?

Recently, many of my students have asked me, "Why am I doing this?" They have spent a lot of time, money and effort to learn tango. They go out dancing--and sit. They ask people to dance, and get rejected. They feel ignored, not welcome, and invisible. This includes my most advanced student, men with years of tango experience, and beautiful, young women with intermediate tango skills. Instead of quitting, what if we all applied Patti Dobrowolski's ideas to improving our tango life?

An example

I tried this with one student already. She took almost no time to draw it: she already knew what she wanted to be different. I asked her to list three things to change into her dream, and she had two in under a minute. All three goals were spot-on in my opinion, and all three were practical, reasonable, and could be achieved! Now, we have a plan to work on!

Translation (not word-for-word): "I have my axis, but anything like criticism, or a dancer who is not dancing well with me, or a bad day, blows me off my axis." The green is wind, energy, things pushing the dancer off-balance. Instead, she wants to add glide to her dance, more flexibility/bounce to her alignment, and warm, positive energy coming off of her that makes her feel confident about her own dance. She wants people to see her dance by, and ask, "What was that [masked] woman?"

Plan so far: part of each private lesson will be spent on strengthening her body so that she can better maintain balance and alignment without tightening her body. Part will be spent on how to use her feet, knees and hips better so that her movement smoothes out to a glide. Part of her "homework" is to go out dancing more, to practice. And part is working on her self-confidence, partially by me pretending to dance badly while she manages to still dance with grace and balance: no matter who takes her out on the dance floor, she will know she can look good and dance well. Part will be personal work on her own.

Your turn!

So, I am asking you to consider watching that short video, and then trying out this idea: draw your current tango experience, and draw the future that you envision. What is it that bothers you about your tango/tango experience now? What would you like to have happen by a year from now?

Would you draw YOUR tango future and send it to me? I would love to hear your transformation goals and how you plan to get there!