In search of the perfect wave...

Post date: Oct 13, 2014 11:28:21 PM

north sydney tango

Yes this is about tango!

I'm sharing this article by one of my favourite tango bloggers about the value of 'self-calming', i.e., the removing all unnecessary tension from mind and body, when tango dancing. Even though I have been dancing tango for many years, it is really only in the past year that I have truly realised the importance of this. 

When dancing tango I now aim to let my body be free to do it's dance, play with the music, and connect with the body of my partner in the most natural, relaxed and responsive state possible - within the structures and parameters of tango technique. 

As a result of a focus on tension-free dancing, I have certainly noticed a corresponding improvement and enjoyment of my dancing tango experiences.

Of course this does require competence in good tango technique, and one can never stop drilling technique. To quote Anna Pavlova:

"Master technique and then forget about it and be natural."

Why we sometimes fly and sometimes crawl  By Veronica Tourmanova, Oct 1, 2014

We all have had, at some point or other, a feeling of everything working out perfectly. If you have been dancing tango for some time, you have surely experienced this feeling more than once. It is one of life’s best. It feels as if your body becomes the dance, effortlessly, and a sparkling current is carrying you through the song. You are at once fully participating and watching yourself participate. There is a fusion with your partner, a wonderful oneness between you and everything else. All your technical “problems” vanish and everything simply works.

I believe that we dance tango primarily to experience this feeling. When talking about tango to non-tango people, I like to compare it to windsurfing. Surfers, like tango people, are capable of traveling to some faraway location to do the same thing day in, day out: namely, chase the perfect wave. In a sense this is what we do, too: we chase our perfect wave. That particular connection we already felt once, slightly different for each of us and also different for each period of our growth in tango. We chase it in partners, teachers, steps, shoes, music, events.

We also know the opposite feeling, when literally nothing seems to work. Your body, despite all efforts, seems incapable to reproduce the movements as gracefully as before. It feels as if you have somehow lost it and so you attempt to find it back, to force the harmony into place. Usually it only makes things worse. You stress yourself, become angry and depressed, you feel like the worst dancer in the room. You start explaining to everyone around you that you really, really are not dancing well tonight. It brings a short-lived relief, but doesn’t really help.

Why does this happen?

I do not pretend to have the complete answer, but I will highlight a couple of important aspects. The first concerns our skill. The more experienced we are at something, the easier it is to get into the state of “everything working” at any time. This is the whole point of practicing. This is how professionals are able to travel for a half a day, teach several classes and dance a beautiful show on the same evening. The more your body integrates the technically correct and comfortable way of moving, the easier it becomes. There is an important advantage in continuing to learn and practice: you swing less between “highs” and “lows”. And not only that, but you actually learn the tools to transform the “lows” into something tolerable.

If you are subject to severe swings between these two states, this possibly means that your skills are currently in the phase of “conscious competence”. I wrote about these phases in my article “Why we suffer when learning tango and how is that a good thing”. Conscious competence means that you are able to dance correctly and comfortably when the conditions are right and you are making a conscious effort. The moment the conditions are different (you are stressed, tired or distracted), your body reverts to your old, unconscious habits of movement. These habits, however established, feel bad to you because you are have trained yourself to recognise them as incorrect. Say, you often lose balance. When you feel calm and pay attention, you do what is necessarily to arrive well on your standing leg. In a milonga, however, with all the traffic around, a stressful partner or a stressful emotional state, you start losing balance again, which, of course, drives you insane.

Many dancers get stuck in the phase of conscious competence, which can become a source of tremendous anxiety because you basically never know how you are going to dance. To take it to the next level means to fully integrate the good movement habits until they become “unconscious competence”, but this takes time and practice. Meanwhile, you can help yourself by every time consciously re-creating the conditions in which it becomes easier for you to dance better. If stress affects your dancing, look for ways of calming yourself down. If being tired has a significant impact on your dancing, take a nap before the milonga. Stop dancing with partners that make you feel uncomfortable. Start the evening by dancing on the music that inspires you. Socialise. Distract yourself.

The second important aspect is your focus. The way we experience our body at any point in time is influenced by the totality of what is going on inside and around us. It is also influenced by what happened to us before, what mood we are in, our energy and emotions. Our bodymind is a highly complex being. This intelligent system runs a huge number of processes simultaneously at any time, most of which we do not consciously perceive nor control, unless we purposefully train ourselves to. Our conscious attention, however, usually focuses at one thing at a time, or a couple of things at maximum. The narrower our focus, the more what we are focusing upon will color our global perception of that moment. Our mind, moreover, likes to stick to a thought and start spinning and unraveling it like a kitten a ball of wool, sending us into reasoning “tunnels” that create strong emotional reactions.

The highs and lows you feel are your internal experiences of what happens. Your internal sensations are not necessarily a correct reflection of what is going on objectively. Performers are familiar with the following paradox: sometimes a show would feel flawless, smooth and easy yet look nothing out of the ordinary. Then sometimes there would be disturbing internal sensations, feelings of disconnect, tension, fatigue and yet the performance turns out exceptionally well. You also have the one-to-one situations: a show that feels bad and is actually below the dancer’s abilities; and a show that feels totally “in the zone” and takes the dancer’s art to its absolute highpoint. Needless to say that the later is what all professionals strive for. True mastery does not feel like hard work, it feels like flying. The work has been put into it before.

Besides learning a certain way of moving, dance training also has another major goal: to train your awareness to simultaneously encompass as many parts of your body as possible, including your psychological state. The simple reason behind this is that you cannot control what you are not aware of. This also leads to the diminishing of that feeling of “nothing working anymore” because the dancer is aware that many things ARE working at any time. Both professional and amateur tango dancers train this awareness. However, as an amateur dancer, your internal focus of attention tends to stay much narrower. And then often, what starts as a feeling of uneasiness about some minor thing, becomes a full-blown depression within one tanda.

It’s like any disturbing thought: if you concentrate on it very hard, you enter in a tunnel and the whole world starts to feel like a horrible mistake, while in reality the same sun is shining, the same people go about their normal activities, all that changed is that YOU had a disturbing thought and let yourself get carried away. In this case, instead of frantically looking for ways to control the situation, do the opposite: relax and expand your focus. Internally, take a step back from your feeling of discomfort and look around in your body. Look around the discomfort. Feel where things are working well, which sensations are pleasant. Let it calm you down. Create space around the problematic sensation or area, breathe, relax. Things will soon start working better.

If your first reaction is: how the hell do I do that while also concentrating on my partner and the music, then this is simply something you have not yet practiced. Not only is it possible, you will dance better if you are able to maintain a larger focus on your internal and external sensations. If you can eat your breakfast and read a newspaper at the same time without pouring coffee in your ear, then you can also learn to manage multiple processes at once in your dance. This does not mean concentrating very hard on all the things at once, quite the opposite: it is about letting your focus soften and wander around where you send it while continuing to dance. If this is still difficult for you, then train your focus while going about your daily activities. Now and then let your attention go into some other parts of your body. Feel where your toes are or how your lower back feels while keeping the concentration on your task. Your body will be grateful for this, it loves your attention. You’d be surprised how well it will pay you back.

The good news is that you can relax about one thing: when your dance feels bad on the inside it usually looks and feels pretty much the same on the outside. You just might look somewhat less happy. When you are in a flow you do not necessarily dance better in objective terms, you just feel better, more relaxed and inspired. When you feel like crap you do not necessarily dance badly, either. Your partner might feel some tension coming from you or s/he might not. Remember, other people are just as preoccupied with themselves as you are with you. So next time your find yourself in this state of internal disorientation, don’t panic: you will not lose your dignity in public. People will not point at you saying “Wow, this one there dances really badly today.” Your favorite dancers will still want to dance with you tomorrow, although today it might be hard for you to imagine. You felt better before, you will feel better again.

As I already mentioned, dancers of all levels of skill are familiar with highs and lows, each in their own way. After all, we are not machines. Learning to master the technique, enlarging your focus, calming down your anxieties are all useful ways of catching your perfect wave. Remember also that you would not have perfect waves if some of them were not less perfect. Remember that you can still do very well even with a less perfect wave, if you focus the right way. Because ultimately it is not really about the wave, is it? It is about the ride.