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Why you should worry

But isn’t tango a place where we can leave our worries behind? Isn't our tango time an opportunity to de-stress from the events of the day?

Yes, but once we're at a milonga, our worries tend to shift to our current tango skills. We wonder if we're being a good leader or follower. And oftentimes we feel insecure about other details: Are we relaxing enough? Paying attention to our frame enough? Etc. 

Before long we find that we haven't stopped worrying. We feel bad about that, which only creates more negativity in our heads...which affects our dancing.

Instead of trying to suppress or avoid all worries, let's use them as a motivator to improve. And that can be through doing individual drills, or making an effort to work on certain figures at a práctica. As long as we don't let it get out of hand, worry can be a fuel that drives our dancing forward. Worry isn't something to fight against; it's just another partner we learn to dance with.

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"SLOW DOWN" TO MOVE MORE QUICKLY

With a dance like tango, any number of figures can be initiated at a moment's notice. And so we prepare ourselves to react quickly. 

In order to react quickly, we feel we have to guess what will happen next. But viewing tango as a constant guessing game is stressful, which leads to a lot of bad things like physical tension. Physical tension makes communication with our partners more difficult, and this guarantees bad reaction time.

To be able to move and react quickly, we must focus on the moment. Instead of worrying about what will happen next, we must concentrate on what's happening right now. Oddly enough, to be able to react quickly we must learn to slow down our thinking.

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WHO DO WE WANT TO DANCE WITH?

We know the type of person we want to dance with. It is a leader or follower who is respectful, fun, and patient. This is the type of person who makes our night when we're feeling unsure of ourselves, and doesn’t react negatively to our mistakes. We've worked hard building up our own tango skills, and show up to milongas hoping to dance with such a person.

Stop leaving it up to chance whether or not this person will notice our skills and remember to give us a cabeceo. That’s waste of time. Instead, once we figure out the type of person we want to dance with, let's work hard to be that person. 

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JUST START MOVING

Technique is important. We listen carefully to our instructors, and work hard to understand the concepts designed to help make us good leaders and followers. 


But we can’t get through a figure simply by thinking our way through it. If we try, we’ll lock up, get stuck, and become frustrated. 

Instead, we have to put the dance into motion...to just start! 

It might not be perfect at first, but that’s what practice is for. The more willing we are to move, the better we’ll be at trusting our bodies to execute what our brains know. By moving, we might make mistakes. At the same time, being in motion gives us the best chance of getting it right. 

But we’ll never be right if we just stand still.

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Don't get stuck in the past

Over time, not only will our own tango evolve, but the community around us will probably change, too. 

Friends will come and go, as may teachers. New venues may appear, and old ones may close. Despite all this, it’s best to find ways to keep moving our tango forward. Yes, we’ll be nostalgic for times when certain dancers were still in town, or when classes and/or events were done a different way. 

But let's not get stuck in the past, or be too romantic about it. Constantly talking about how better things used to be is not a strategy for a better future.

The world of tango is aways in flux, regardless of how big or small our communities are. Sometimes the changes will be welcome, sometimes not. But regardless, there will always be opportunities for tango to enrich our lives. Ultimately, we are responsible for the amount of enjoyment we get from dancing. As times change, either we’ll have to look for it elsewhere, or we may have to create it ourselves.

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LEVERAGE YOUR LIMITATIONS

With tango, the shape of our bodies - regardless of size - presents a number of limitations. In addition to that, the amount of space we have to dance in, physical obstacles on the dance floor, and the length of each song create yet more limitations. And we're also limited by the extent of our dance knowledge.

We should be aware of boundaries in our tango, whether they be physical or mental. We should test them, stretch them, and on other occasions, work within them. 

But it’s counterproductive to think of limitations only as hindrances to our dancing growth. Paradoxically, the creative nature of tango can’t come to light without them.

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TANGO IS MESSY

For many of us, tango dancing is not a strict discipline. For instance, multiple teachers will introduce multiple ways to execute the same step. Two teachers may contradict each other, yet still both be correct. There is no universally agreed-upon method of instruction, and what works for one group of dancers won't necessarily work for us. 

Learning tango, and developing our own style can be like wandering through the woods without a map; we'll have to find our own way instead of following a trail. Becoming a good dancer in an environment such as this requires a willingness to experiment, and to discover a bunch of ideas that won't end up working. 

But even without a "map," we can successfully navigate the tango "wilderness" by indulging our curiosity. Add a strong dose of pure determination, and we'll be on our way. Don't panic if the journey gets messy. That's just the way tango is sometimes.

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THE MORE WE ACCOMPLISH

On our tango journey, we'll encounter a numerous internal obstacles such as voices of doubt, lapses in confidence, and irrational fears of judgement by others. In the face of all that, we push ahead anyway.

But those obstacles don't go away as we improve. In fact, they get bigger. The fearful voices in our heads get louder.

The more we accomplish, the more reasons we'll find to quit.

We'll never completely silence the voices of doubt, but that isn't the goal. Instead, we need to be careful not let our internal fears drown out the objective, observable improvement in our tango. The process of getting better is a worthwhile endeavor, even if it's never a smooth journey. 

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DON'T CELEBRATE GOALS

It's important to have specific goals with our tango, whether it's to attend a certain festival, learn a particular step, or build the courage to perform for an audience.

Reaching a particular goal feels great...for a short while. But focusing on that single moment is a waste of time in the long run. Nothing magical will happen, and chances are we won't be suddenly transformed.  

We also need to think about what a particular tango goal means. Upon reaching it, what have we learned? What other opportunities have opened up? What have we been doing wrong up until that point? What do we need to do more of? Or what do we need to stop doing?

Celebrating a goal, like dwelling on failure, becomes counterproductive after a while. They should be looked upon as occasions to honestly evaluate ourselves before moving forward.

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LET THE MUSIC TAKE YOU

When we feel like we're actually dancing, we realize that we've let go of anxiety and the mental struggle of remembering countless technique points. That feeling of smooth movement, even if it's fleeting at first, gives us a sense that we can indeed become tango dancers after all.

The sensation is like riding a bike for the first time, when the person teaching us lets go of the seat and leaves us to balance on our own. On the dance floor, we capture that feeling when we start making a better effort to move with the music.

We may still stumble every now and then as our muscle memory takes shape, but the key to our next tango breakthrough is closely tied to the music. So let's pay closer attention to it, trust it, and not be afraid to let it take us. 

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HANDLING FREEDOM

When we watch our favorite tango couples online, we're mesmerized by their amazing technique. But what exactly goes into that technique?

Once we start understanding particular steps and/or technique, we often find ourselves trying to control every single body movement in order to get things right. Intuitively, this makes sense. But the more we apply control, the more restriction we'll feel. And when we feel restricted and tense, nothing feels or looks right.

If we take a closer look at those tango pros, we'll notice that their movements reflect freedom and ease; they're not exerting absolute control over every movement. But when we try embracing freedom, tango feels more risky and scary...as though we're about to lose control.

Yet the need for control - or illusion thereof - is the very thing holding us back.

Tango requires us to embrace more freedom than we're comfortable with at first. But in the long run, things work better when we trust that our minds and bodies can handle that freedom.

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SMALL VS LARGE CHANGES

Learning new steps is always fun. However, learning more and more steps doesn't necessarily mean we're improving our tango. Even if we don't know too many steps yet, there's a lot we can do to make our tango more interesting and dynamic. Here are three ways to improve our dancing without having to learn a bunch of new steps.

RE-ORDER
If we're leaders, we fall into a habit of dancing the steps we know in a certain sequence. if we stick to the routine, things can get boring. We can take the steps we currently know, and simply reorder them. Reorganizing or breaking old sequential habits will help our tango feel new and fresh again.

MUSICAL INTERPRETATION
With tango, it's relatively easy to move with the strong beat of each song, and apply occasional quick-quick steps during certain musical phrases. This, too, can become a habit that can eventually make our tango feel stale. Fortunately, addressing rhythmic habits can be as simple as slowing down when we have normally sped up. Or, for some more dynamism, we can mix half-time steps with faster syncopations - this is fun. Leaders probably have more flexibility in applying this change, but opportunities also exist for followers as well. 

BE BOLD WITH SMALL ADORNMENTS
For followers, be on the lookout for opportunities to try adornments. As we gain experience with tango, we'll find that following is quite an active and assertive role. Adornments are a fun way to bring that out. They create spice in the dance, and open up opportunities for back-and-forth playfulness with the leader. And with leaders who are alert, adornments offer further connection practice. 

Although easy to understand, it takes a lot of practice to implement these ideas effectively. Work on them one at a time, and take your time thinking them through. Although keeping our tango fresh and feeling new takes effort, it won't always require drastic action. 

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7 WAYS TO GET THE MOST OUT OF GROUP TANGO LESSONS

Whether we're taking a class to reinforce basics or challenging ourselves with something new, group classes or workshops are an obvious choice for moving our tango forward. But once the class starts, it's easy to become flustered and frustrated. Sometimes our brains feel overloaded, and we find ourselves struggling to keep up mentally.

What to do? Here are seven strategies to organize our thoughts and alleviate much of the anxiety. It'll help make the most of our tango, and get our money's worth.

1. FOCUS ON UNDERSTANDING - NOT MASTERING - THE SUBJECT MATTER
If the instructors are introducing a new exciting step or technique concept, it's not going sink in right away. And that's fine. Our teachers make it all look so easy because they've been doing this forever. Rather than try to waste all our energy trying to perfect the step within the workshop's 60 - 90 minute timeframe, let's focus more on understanding the subject matter. Once we grasp the concept, the bulk of perfecting the material will happen during our own practice time.


2. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR BODY
Teachers will often introduce a new step by giving us a sequence to work with. Instead of just going through the motions of the sequence and treating it as a to-do list, it's much more important to pay attention to what our bodies are doing while we're working through it.

How much are we pivoting? How close or far away do we have to be from our partner? Are we on balance? Are we pushing or pulling too much with our arms? What are we doing right? What do we need to improve?


3. TAKE THINGS LIGHTLY
Even though we're serious about our tango, remember that even the most challenging tango class/workshop is meant to be fun (as opposed to torture). Let's put in our best effort, but keep the perfectionist tendencies in check. If we start to put ourselves down, then we're doing it wrong. Taking things too seriously is counterproductive.


4. TAKE VIDEO
Most teachers will do a video review or demo at the end of their classes, which summarize the topics they introduced. Have your phone or camcorder handy, and take the video! Or at least get a copy from a fellow student. Never rely on your memory, as you'll be surprised at how much you forget after the workshop ends. 


5. TAKE NOTES
Yes, old fashioned note-taking is a great way to retain new tango knowledge. Jotting down your own description of the workshop's main points (along with the video summary) will go a long way in committing the information to memory.


6. COMMIT TO PRACTICING, AND THINK LONG TERM
When the class or workshop ends, out tango teachers will remind us to practice. This isn't just a final pleasantry before saying good-bye. They're serious, and the class or workshop is only the beginning when it comes to the next stage of tango growth. After the motivational, feel-good rush of a fun workshop wears off, it's on us to work the new ideas into our bodies. Sometimes it takes weeks, or months for the material to fully sink in. But if we had a great time at the workshop, why wouldn't we want to keep working at it?


7. SHARE THE KNOWLEDGE
Did some of our tango friends miss the class or workshop? Let's show them what we learned, and spread the fun! Sharing new knowledge is not only good for our communities, but it's a great way to solidify our own understanding. Everyone wins.

I hope this list is helpful, and thanks for reading!

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Remember to Play

Taking tango too seriously makes the learning process more difficult than it needs to be. Yet, it's so easy to catch ourselves trying too hard.

In Episode 53 of my podcast, I interviewed Veronica Toumanova, an instructor based in Paris. She made an excellent point about why we struggle with tango, in that we often start the dance at a time in our lives when we've already developed expertise in a different field (usually related to our professions). And because of that, taking on a new activity like tango can leave us feeling vulnerable and frustrated.

But despite requiring commitment and practice, it's counterproductive to approach tango the same way we would with work. There are no deadlines, meetings, or yearly evaluations. And we won't get called into anyone's office for making a mistake. Much of the learning process requires experimentation, or play. So let's re-work our thinking habits and try a lighter approach.

Treating tango like play not only makes it more fun, but also creates a rich atmosphere for learning that we haven't experienced since we were children. Bringing back that kind of enjoyment into our lives as adults can only help with moving our tango forward.

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THERE IS ONLY MORE

While attending milongas, we look on in admiration as experienced tango dancers execute steps that we've never seen before. How did he or she do that? we think to ourselves. I want to learn that, too!

We work to figure it out, either on our own or with the help of teachers and peers. We think that once we figure it out - whatever "it" happens to be - we'll finally be happy with our dancing. But on the way to figuring "it" out, or once we do, we realize there's yet more to discover.  As a result, do we let our minds slip into a cycle of frustration and struggle? Or do we instead appreciate the constant discovery and endless layers of understanding?

With tango, there is no final "it" to figure out. There is always more. There is only more.

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THE WATER IS NEVER AS COLD AS YOU THINK IT IS...

As novices, we're understandably apprehensive when we're about to attend our first milonga. But even if we're pumped up and ready to go, we'll likely come down with a case of the jitters once we notice the dance floor. 

To our inexperienced eyes, it will seem packed with expert tangueros.

Working the nerve to tango as a newbie is like approaching a pool for the first time: We can either jump in right away, or wade in slowly. Sooner or later, however, we'll have to get wet. 

It's always a little uncomfortable to leave our comfort zone and step into something new. And when we do, things aren't guaranteed to go perfectly. But at the same time, we'll find that the water is never as cold as we fear it is.

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Looking for the blog archive? Click here (Blog archive 2013 - Sept 2017)

Podcast Episode 50 is now online!

Hello Friends!

Episode 50 of Joe's Tango Podcast is now online!

In this episode, we'll meet Jake Spatz, who's based out of Washington, DC.

My guest today is Jake Spatz. He began dancing tango in 2001 in Brooklyn, NY, and has been teaching regularly in Washington, DC, since 2005. He currently runs the popular Eastern Market milonga on Thursdays, where he has been the house teacher and a regular DJ for twelve years. Since 2010, he has taught for the student tango club at the University of Maryland.

Jake's work in tango has led to performances for the Washington Performing Arts Society, where he led a small troupe that opened for Broadway legend Chita Rivera; and he has been featured as a dancer at Disney World,  two television commercials, and a full-length stage play. As a dancer and DJ, Jake has been featured at the Philadelphia Tango Festival, Tango De Los Muertos, the New Year's Marathon in Providence, and numerous "big weekend" events around the East Coast, including a milonga thrown by actor Robert Duvall.

In addition to dancing, teaching, and DJing, Jake's tango interests have included translation and literary research. He edited the book In Strangers' Arms by Beatriz Dujovne (McFarland, 2011), and has translated the lyrics of more than 80 tango songs. 

Check out our conversation on iTunesSoundcloud or Stitcher.

Please take a few seconds to subscribe, give a 5-star rating, and a positive review (on any or all of the above mentioned sites). This makes it easier for new listeners discover the podcast. Thank you!

More episodes coming every Monday...

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FEELING vs AESTHETICS

When it comes to dancing tango socially, a good embrace and connection may not be apparent to an outside observer. But those elements are necessary in order to make tango enjoyable for our partners.

In a social setting, making the dance feel good is the priority.

But what about making our tango look good as well? 

Although not totally separate from maintaining a good connection, emphasizing tango's visual aesthetic is a separate skill set. It requires a deeper understanding of technique, body awareness, and concentration. It's also a bigger mental challenge, as we'll need to make sure the extra focus on ourselves doesn't compromise the connection with our partner. 

Again, making tango feel good for our partners is more important. But the added effort to look good has benefits, too. It shouldn't be viewed only as an opportunity to impress onlookers or to gain attention. It's much more useful when approached as a new mental challenge.

And any new challenge carries potential for growth.

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ACTIVE LEISURE

Improving our tango takes a lot of practice. And when we find ourselves putting forth more and more effort, our brains often convince (or fool) us into thinking that we're doing work. And work is something we make an effort to avoid during our leisure time. We ought to be relaxing and not working so hard, right?

In a strict physical sense, we do need regular rest. But let's not conflate leisure time with lounging around, or engaging in activities that involve passive entertainment. If we think about it, spending free time doing things that don't engage our brains isn't all that enjoyable or satisfying in the long run. 

Instead, remaining mentally active during leisure time feels much better. Tango definitely keeps our minds active, but it also brings a sense of relaxation/meditation that we need in order to counterbalance the stress that builds up in life. Any time we "work" at improving at tango, rest assured that it's leisure time well spent.

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THINK OF THE FUNDAMENTAL ELEMENTS

After the initial excitement of beginning tango, we strive to move on to the next level. New challenges crop up, and the dance appears to become more complex. With that, we'll experience more periods of frustration.

But before we surrender to that frustration, let's remember that all tango figures, even the seemingly complicated ones, are based on some combination of the basic movements: Forward, back, left, right, and pivots. Once we're aware of that, organizing our thoughts and working through difficulties becomes easier.

Becoming more experienced isn't so much about exploring completely new figures, but deepening our understanding of the elements we encountered as beginners.

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