Absolutism corrosive in teaching a skill … and life

“My way or the highway.” “Love it or leave it.” “This is how you dance tango.”

A recent blog post [1] seemed to test the notion that, “There is no such thing as bad publicity, so long as they spell your name right.” People piled on [2][3] to say in adamant, sometimes vehement terms that the notions described there were wrong, wrong, wrong.

I don’t wish to defend or decry the particulars of any of those postings, but rather to urge against the many forms of absolutism — “This is the one and only right way to do things.” — in teaching Argentine tango (or any skill), and in life at large.

The examples in political life are all too depressingly familiar to anyone the least bit socially aware. And you probably don’t have to think hard or long to recall acquaintances who are automatic mismatchers. Whatever you say they take the opposite view, or an extreme view.

In teaching any skill, not only tango, the My Way approach often seems to serve for market differentiation before it becomes dogma. (Proviso: It does seem acceptable for a teacher to say, “If you like my particular style, these are the specific things I think I do to achieve it.”)

Let’s say we acknowledge the problem. What’s your positive intent?

I view Argentine tango as a particularly naturalistic dance. The fundamental movements are actions we take all the time in our daily lives. The language of our dance is an outgrowth of the way individuals naturally interact. (Even la cruzada can be understood as a natural outcome of geometry and the presupposition of the partners confronting[4] one another.)

Viewed this way, Argentine tango is fully accessible to an exceedingly wide range of individuals: long and short legs, thin and thick bodies, erect and slouching postures, old and young, fit and not so, body aware and not so, experienced and not so, fast and slow, high and low energies, and on and on.

With the vast range of possibilities, how can we dictate, “This is the only way you can achieve comfortable, clear, creative dances with others”?

The key, really, is matching a partner’s energy.

What if a partner doesn’t meet your preferences in some or many respects. Do you have a course of action beyond saying “Thank you,” and leaving the tanda?

I never felt comfortable with advice I received from many quarters saying that the dance is the dance of el hombre, the man, the leader. That followers should expect to adapt themselves always and wholly to the leader’s preferences.

The Macho, Sexist, Role-ist view of Argentine tango offends my sense of equality, I won’t impose myself or my views on others. Furthermore, I want to enjoy as wide a range of dances with as many people as I can. I don’t wish to narrow but to expand my enjoyable dance possibilities

In NLP, Neurolinguistic Programming we have a technique called Pacing and Leading. We can begin with our preferred pressure and style of dance, but if we find our partner not responding well to that, then we can begin matching what we sense from them. From there, we may be able to subtly shift to lead them (whether we are leader or follower) more to our preferences.

Among the most magical tandas I have enjoyed were ones that seemed to start off poorly, where there was some mismatch keeping our dance from nicely coming into sync, but that somehow I was able to sense what they wanted to make them comfortable in their dance — a change of embrace, pressure, style of dance, energy of dance.

This, too, is a functional embrace.

Okay, so even enlightened I can’t resist weighing in on the, “this is ‘real’ close embrace” issue that started this whole thing. My answer: it’s not an absolute, it’s a preference!

There exists a continuum of pressure levels that a dancer might prefer, both for selecting partners and over the course of a dance involving a variety of movements. In a neutral state, at rest or just walking, nothing special going on, the continuum can possibly, rationally, and acceptably range among, Space between the bodies, Quite close but no actual body contact, Barely perceptible touch, Skin deep touch, Muscle deep touch, Bone deep touch (maybe only appropriate for stage performance). Our job as teachers is to give students awareness of possibilities, ways of safely exploring them, and guidance as to the ranges that seems more useful for particular circumstances.

The degree of pressure is the key! Some prefer none, others light, still others heavy, plus, some range (narrow for some, broad for others) of variations.

Mostly we are independent, yet well connected through a subtle pressure between our torsos. Sometimes I stabilize my partner, sometimes they stabilize me. “Oh, horrors, you just don’t do that! Each dancer must be perfectly independently stable at all times.” Perhaps in lessons and practice, where we seek to develop and enhance our capabilities, we can apply such stringency. In social dancing I am seeking the success and enjoyment of the partnership, even it if requires occasional compromises.

The preferred pressure won’t be a single point, but will vary with experience, training, practice, and the kinds of movements in the moment.

Here’s an idea, give exercises and games that let a person experience a range of possibilities. Indeed, we switch partners during lessons and practice as a way to learn to accommodate a wider range of responses. Whether as teachers or practice partners, rather than tell our partner what we think they should be doing (or more often, telling them how we think they are wrong!), how about saying, “I would like more of (or less of) X“? In this way you are expressing your personal preference, not dictating.

Can’t we all just get along?

Felices caminando!
–David

[1] Ivica Anteski

[2] Miles Tangos

[3] Melina Sedó

[4] Confront (from French, from Latin: with + face)
I like this word as a way to describe one aspect of the tango connection. For me it seems to capture the highly active (not antagonistic) way of partners seeking to face and be with their partner. I learned the term from Luciano Brigante and Alejandra Orozco.

Acting as if

[ From a Facebook post from June 25, 2015, with an additional note about a possible solution. ]

I have begun recognizing a common debilitating – I think I’d have to call it attitude or maybe mindset that interferes enormously with that student’s ability to allow their body to simply respond in its own way “just to see what happens.” (Common, but thankfully low in numbers.) To me it seems as if they have been somewhat “crippled” kinesthetically, such that instead of seeing someone perform an action, then empathizing in their body with how that might feel, they instead try to mentally reproduce the action by moving their body to match the visual aspects that they notice. Instead of letting their body discover natural movement for a purpose, they try to mind direct it.
The problems, pretty obviously, are that the mind doesn’t and can’t act quickly enough to positionally control the body in a natural and effective way, and that they can’t even see or correctly interpret every aspect of what they take in visually.

I hallucinate that these are people who have never learned to “let go”, or perhaps more accurately, they were taught** at a young age to keep themselves under tight wraps. It’s the kind of attitude where, when someone introduces a game or exercise (in a dance or other setting), the person seems to see it, not as a fun activity to explore, but rather as some form of test.

I wonder about your experiences in this regard, and whether you’ve developed fruitful approaches to help people “forget themselves” and “let go”?

** Ah, schooling, the molder of minds and bodies. We’re taught to behave, and, “An average child who starts school at the age of five and leaves at the age of 18 will probably have sat for more than 20,000 hours during that time.” –The Alexander Technique Workbook. Hey, by that measure and Malcolm Gladwell’s criteria, they are experts twice over in sitting!

A helpful idea? We could use the NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) injunction to, “Act as if.” So we say, “Observe the teacher, or some person, or think of someone you’ve seen who does this really well. We’re not yet at a level where we can copy what they are doing, and our unconscious body can help us get better and better at this. So instead of copying that person, allow yourself to be that person with all the capabilities that this body (gesturing to their entire body) has in it. Act as if you are that person.