Sunday, July 31, 2011

Highs and Lows at a milonga

If you put out your hand, perhaps you may find yourself richer than before. 
We all have had a tough milonga.  I have a pretty good idea that mostly the "highs" people have at a milonga are from excellent dancers, and the "lows" are from some beginner that tortures you though a tanda. Well, that has happened to me too, but not last night.

First, the Mountain High
Last night I put my hand out to a woman as she came near, wending her way through the crowd as I stood near the dance floor smiling at her.  She had assented to my cabeceo from about 4 meters away.  However, as I put out my hand, two women put theirs in mine!  Now I had a problem!

Every milonga has a story!  About four tandas later I told the lady who had mistakenly thought I was inviting her to dance, "Ma'am, I think I owe you a dance."  She seemed eager but very shy.  I asked her name, and from this intro, I started speaking to her in Spanish.  I found out that this little Peruvian lady had taken lessons but had never gone to a milonga before.   I don't think I will ever have a self-esteem issue after all the praise that sweet woman bestowed on me.  She didn't know that she was to stay with me for the three waltzes of the tanda.  She lavished embarrassing praise upon me, and nearly took off!  I had to stop her from leaving.  I told her about "el grupo de canciones" of a tanda.  I knew that as she was leaving that it was my way out of dancing more, but instead I danced the entire four songs of the tanda.  It was really wonderful. She was remarkably talented. It was her maiden voyage.  She made my night.

Now the Valley
I dance with a lot of very accomplished dancers; so I am certain that no one in my tango community will know who I am talking about.  After many wonderful dances with friends and some strangers, I finally danced with an accomplished -- no let's say, Very Accomplished Dancer.  In the middle of a milonga tanda she says, "You are dancing by yourself."  I was not sure what this means, mostly out of shock.  I have danced with women who are doing all sorts of decorations and I know how this feels.  It is hard for me to continue after such a nebulous and brash criticism but I listen to the music and do my very best.  She is sweet and it does not at least look like she is upset with me as we walk off the floor.  We go back and continue to talk.  She explains that I don't lead clearly with my torso and that milonga is more than just walking!  I am sure that I need to go in and revamp the entire way I dance.  Perhaps I should just find a bridge and end the torture I cause many pooer women!  She makes it clear that I am messing up on the most elemental level; so for the moment, I am considering just giving up altogether.  "Thanks for making this clear now!  I should have given up 4 or 5 years ago," I think to myself.

This phenomenon is called "Tango Trauma."  But it is easily healed.  Sure, I DO want to heed this unsolicited sage advice regarding my level of suck-ed-ness.  Surely it will make me grow because it did not kill me to hear her opinion, right?  Undoubtedly she had a good point that I have a long way to go and end point will lead me back to the most basic of things:  the embrace.  But how am I to psychologically survive to the next milonga?  I needed some sort of special milonga antidepressant!

I took one little "pill":  I remembered the little Peruvian tanguera.  I remembered how I got to be her first ever partner at a milonga and how she just was besides herself in joy.  And then a whole host of women stood in line behind her and reassured me of my worth.  The therapy worked.  I am whole again because I know that I hold no grudge against my Sage Adviser.  So even if you don't have too many experiences with other dancers, let these words embrace you:  You are unique and every person deserves to dance without criticism at a milonga.  When it does happen, sure it will hurt, but you will have many people who were and will be glad to have you in their arms.  Stick with these memories and thoughts.

Life has it's highs and lows, so does the milonga.  Dwell on the view from the mountain top.  You will need it to endure the Lessons of the Valley.

Outstretched hand photocredit:
The embracing words:


  1. Just remember you will never be able to 'please' everyone. No one can. I think it's healthy the way you are looking at it, observing yourself and your reaction and still being able to hear what she said. One of my teachers recently told me that tango, for him, is 'meeting his partner wherever she is and dancing with HER right there in that place at that moment, not trying to dance with some expectation of who she will be, and how she will dance.'

  2. Christine: Good point. I don't think I was fully present with her. Maybe performance anxiety? Perhaps the different outcome with the new dancer is that I was relaxed and fully there for her. -Mark

  3. Mark, I really like the philosophical way you have accepted this unsolicited criticism.

    Personally, I hate it when people offer criticisms of my dancing or, worse, try to teach me at a milonga and I try never to do so myself. But we are all human and maybe this Very Accomplished Dancer just had a sudden moment of frustration with your dancing and her criticism just burst out of her. I'm guessing this was the case, since she behaved with civility towards you afterwards.

    I'd take it as basically a good sign. If she felt you were hopeless and couldn't improve she probably wouldn't have said anything. We tend to criticise those who we feel are not achieving their full potential, rather than those who seem to be hopeless cases.

    Criticism is a gift -- no matter what the source -- if it can help you to grow as a dancer.

  4. Well, maybe it's what we hope to be able to do when the time comes and the music starts. It's a nice ideal--

  5. Dear Τερψιχόρη: I agree that there often is a silver lining to criticism. And I think this the case here; however, much criticism -- especially to children -- is very damaging. The same is true for beginners. Too much of this at a milonga is very toxic and unfortunately it happens way too much. Very critical teachers, I also have seen, create very critical dancers. The inner critic against self sometimes (as you said) busts out onto others, leaving a toxic mess that makes the floor sticky. :-)

  6. Dear Tango Therapist, would you have been happier if the advanced dancer had said nothing during your tanda and coyly smiled and thanked you at the end -- but never looked your way again? You would have wondered what went wrong, but not known her well enough to even ask. It would pestered you -- how haute -- she gave up on me after one tanda -- but why? Instead she started a dialogue. Not exactly what you wanted to hear. But she opened a conversation you can now follow up on -- in words and dance -- if you want to. It comes with the territory. You, after all, have a certain style. I doubt anyone enjoys dancing with you as much as I do. You have the clearest lead. It is different than anyone else. But a dancer not open to it might even resist it.

    It is tricky balance to decide whether to comment on the dance floor. I know it is not accepted in your tango etiquette and I myself have been on both sides of the stick. There is the dancer who cannot go more than a few steps in a dance without criticizing me. It ties me up in a knot. I just can't do it right for this dancer! But overall, I still think someone who goes to the trouble to offer a suggestion on the dance floor is extending an invitation, saying you are worth the effort. One of my best dance friendships started just that way. This wonderful person did non click with me on the dance floor -- but he kept asking me to dance! So I started making comments -- so that our dance connection would get better. Then one day, mid tanda, he stormed off the dance floor: "I guess we just don't dance well together!", he said in a huff. I had lost a friend. For months we didn't talk. Then one day some 6 months later, out of nowhere he asked me to dance. I was stunned that the connection was lovely. He was a completely different dancer. He had actually gone off and worked on his dance! That was maybe 5 years ago. We have danced and talked ever since -- and we do occasionally make comments to each other on the dance floor. Remember, diamonds start rough and have to be polished.

  7. Dear Anonymous: Very funny. You started out very formally; so I wasn't expecting that I know you. But then you said, "I doubt anyone enjoys dancing with you as much as I do. You have the clearest lead...."

    If this is true doesn't it make you wonder: Isn't the larger question here about what happens to excellent dancers? Do we progressively become harder to please? Does it mean that we will have less and less joy in our dance? Do we become less and less "present" and open to other styles and ways of communicating movement? I am coming up on just 5 years of dancing. In tango that means that I am a beginner. I don't want to grow up if it means I am going to be "too good" to just dance and accept people for where they are. I want to stay an ontological tanguero rather than become a deontological tanguero.

  8. another thing to think about is how you approached the two different dancers. In what ways does your prior knowledge of a partner affect your leading or interpretation of the music?--obviously you knew the woman was a Very Accomplished Dancer, and I'm assuming that must have caused you to take a particular approach, even if she made you nervous...more food for thought.

  9. Christine: The first thing that occurred to me was that I needed to start all over and build from the ground up and that I was really a nobody in tango. And above, I have considered how I approached her. However, my solution was to think of not only how the Peruvian woman was so excited about dancing with me but that I did not correct her many quirks and lack of understanding of the dance. I danced with her soul which was full of joy. My only correction was to stop her from walking away and explaining tango etiquette about staying with one's partner through a tanda. This explanation delighted her. The perfect gentleman (who I wish I was) makes his partner feel as if she is the only woman in the world and he is fully present with her. And the perfect Lady? Would I expect to be corrected at a milonga by a woman in Buenos Aires? Having said that, last night I went to a practica and many wonderful things happened. Was it a result of returning to basics? Perhaps. Interestingly it was the weirdest of all practicas I have ever gone to. 90% of the music was milongas. The tanda in question from my blog entry was a milonga! Were the tango gods intervening? :-) The practica went well, exceptionally and wonderfully well. Were there new dimensions reached? Yes. Was it because of being criticized at a milonga? Perhaps. For now, let's just say it was a great "Gift" to be criticized at a milonga (1) because I got over my initial shock and demotivation, (2) I am committed to improving just as much as ever, and (3) it was also a "Gift" (the German definition of the word) that did not kill me. What does not kill you makes you stronger, perhaps. (For my German readers, especially in Bavaria: "gift" auf englisch heist "Geschenk". Und danke schön, dass so viele von Euch mein Blog regelmäßig besuchen habt!)

  10. Well then, Gott sei dank dass du warst nicht vollstaendig Vergiftet durch dieses Erfahrung....

  11. Translation of Christine's impeccable German: "Mark, you are so amazing. How could any woman criticize you!?"

    Well... not the best translation ever. Translation was never my strength. :-)

  12. I really feel that milongas are not the correct venue to express criticism of your partner. A practica or a class certainly, but milongas are to have fun. If you have something that you must say it's best to do it quietly, preferably while you're not in the embrace and stuck with the person on the dance floor for the rest of the tanda. Also if you're going to give a criticism or ask for a change, giving a reason why would be greatly appreciated.
    I recently had a dancer from out of town seek me out at several milongas, probably out of courtesy in retrospect rather than a desire to dance with me. At the third milonga, he asked me for a milonga tanda. He then asked that I stop singing while we were dancing, the first time he asked this I didn't actually hear what he was saying, he repeated his request that I please stop singing....I spent the next 3 songs somewhat in shock and focused not on my connection with him but on making sure that I did not sing or hum at all. Had he told me why I might have understood (maybe I'm off key or much louder than I thought), but a demand to change my habits (however politely phrased) when he kept seeking me out made no still doesn't make sense to me, but should I run across him again I'll be sure to either avoid him or tell him explicitly that I do sing/hum and if he doesn't like it he's welcome to not dance with me. If you're going to make a suggestion or a request there are times and places to do it and times and places not to do it a milonga in the middle of the dance floor unless your partner is causing you pain is not the place to do it.


Please leave a comment with four options:
(1) Here on the blog.
(2 & 3) On the links given above for Facebook/Google+ links.
(4) Comment via email at, which with your permission, I can paste into comments.