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How do you feel about this?

In my freewheeling exploration of ideas to help me learn and teach better, I enjoy the columns at The Bulletproof Musician by Noa Kageyama, PhD. He has useful tips on learning, teaching, coaching, practicing, performing, and more, based on his exploration of psychological research studies.

In the latest column “What’s the Most (and Least) Helpful Thing to text a Friend Before Their Audition?” he explores the best way to show support — in a text message — to a person about to do something stressful. The conclusions were that mundane, boring texts work better than those showing positive support, concluding that, “… the boring texts managed to a) subtly distract the participant from the pressure, and b) remind the participant that they have a support network around them, while c) providing an implicit “hey, no matter what happens, life will go on, and we can grab a chalupa after this is over” type of reassurance, without actually saying those words.”

I can attest to my own counterintuitive negative response to messages of support. Me, “I’m driving to Timbuktu next week.” Them, “Wow! Well have a safe trip.” That seems nice, right? So why might some have the subconscious reaction, “Well of course I’ll have a safe trip. Why wouldn’t I? Do you know something I don’t?” Personally, I would rather have a boring, mundane response like, “Give them my regards!” That’s just me.

But what really struck me in this article was a method the psychological researchers used to create stress in their subjects by demanding that they, “count backwards from 2372 by 13 as fast as possible.” The absurdity of that task as something that truly mattered in life amused me, and it brought to mind the way that we can bind themselves up with needless, counterproductive stress in our dance.

“If I don’t intuit what is in my partner’s mind and anticipate where and exactly how they want me to go, at the instant of their slightest movement, then I will lose their respect and the respect of everyone watching.” “I must keep this person entertained and excited like they never have been before, otherwise they and everyone watching will get bored and never want to dance with me again.” Do those seem like absurd and unreal demands on ourselves? How far removed are they from our actual mental dialogs?

Suppose we take a meta-step, where our observing self offers our acting self positive support? “You’ve got this!” “You’ll do fine.” “This is your chance to shine!” I kind of feel that it will be like the supportive texts in the study, applying an unintended pressure to perform.

As a more productive alternative, consider making mundane observations. “The floor is crowded tonight.” “If I were writing a story, what would this music inspire?” “What is my partner’s level of energy? Does it feel like good energy or nervous, tense energy?” “What might be a fun move or theme to play with during this dance?”

Counterintuitively, positive messages of support might actually create unwanted pressure or misdirected intentions. Explore how casual, mundane, even “so what?” types of observations might serve yourself or others better.

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!

[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.