Saturday, March 10, 2012

What you see is NOT what you get

If it were only true that what you see is what you get!
When people start dancing tango, they watch the dancers who are the most visually appealing.

This world is a world of wanting life to be so easy as What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWIG). This term came from the computer world when the first word processors actually started showing users a page that would look the same way when you printed it. 

Although a few intuitive and very astute dancers can see dancers who will feel good, this is not the norm. This talented person is never surprised by a wonderful dance from someone who didn't appear to be the stellar dancer that they are.  I pity the person who can guess so well! Most of us cannot know until we actually dance with someone, or at least we are open for a surprise now and then. For the beginner reading this blog:  I am afraid that overly focusing on how you look is a dead-end experience in tango. The WYSIWYG beginner too often gives up because of the time and energy it takes to focus on looking good. This is true in all other endeavors in life I would imagine.

Perhaps we never entirely grow out of the assumption that what we can see is what we should get. So how good is your WYSIWYG radar to tell how another person will feel on the dance floor? My guess is that most think that they are pretty darn good at this. The person who can see how things exactly how the will feel will rarely dance with anyone who will ruin their theory!

If tango where a religion, WYSIWYG is a red flag for religiosity, which tends to breed the need for the right appearance. Some of my most memorable feelings in tango have been from the surprise of the opposites of appearances: The elderly woman who is a treasure, the woman suffering from PTSD from a tragic childhood, the woman suffering from Alzheimer's, and the awkward beginner at a practica who wants to practice volcadas, finds her own grace and she melts into me in a simple walk. What about the guy who once looked awkward and overweight who now is the most musically talented tanguero on the dance floor, but still amazes women who do not expect to be amazed. 

The social element of tango is to hold a person and feel the person inside.  There is a little boy or girl in your partner who wants to play with the little boy or girl inside of you.  Why wait for appearances?

Have you had a tango teacher ask you to find that inner person? Find the rare teacher who focuses on what you bring to the dance by how you feel to others. To hold the person in front of you, be with them entirely, sense their soul--this is a world of quantum physics world of tango, the world of what-you-see-is-NOT-what-you-get.

Comment or "like" Tango Therapist's Facebook page at this link

Photo Credit:


  1. What an interesting, well-written piece, Mark. However, I disagree with almost everything that is written here, as I know you knew I would (full disclosure: Mark and I are friends). I have a lot to say, so I'll have to publish my comments in two parts.

    PART 1

    I think I *can* usually see, when I watch a dancer from the outside, how good or otherwise dancing with them will feel. (A lot of experience watching people and then dancing with them in which the hit rate of my guesses is extremely high has convinced me that this is true, especially as I've never been significantly wrong so far). However, I don't regard this a special gift, but a question of practice in the form of time clocked at milongas watching and dancing.

    You talk here about steps, but to know how the dance will feel I think it's more important to look at posture and embrace. Is the dancer standing in an upright, but comfortable looking posture? Does he or she look like she is holding a lot of tension somewhere (look for strong activation of arm and back muscles, gripping of hands, hyperextended legs, being on 'tiptoe' -- all generally bad, though of course it depends on the actual couple in front of you)? If, for example, I see the guy thrusting his head forward strongly into the follower's space, I know that does not feel comfortable for the follower. Then there is the question of whether they are dissociating, how grounded and secure they look, etc.

    As for moves, the important thing is not whether these are big and dramatic or small and modest (that's a question of preferred dancing style, musicality, the orchestra currently playing, how crowded the milonga is, etc.). I like to see a level of drama and/or quietness that fits the space available, music, the guy's partner etc. I don't have any preference for very small, modest dancing *in itself*. Though, of course, I don't like to see inexperienced leaders throwing their followers all over the place in complicated moves that they don't yet have the skills to lead, nor do I like to see a more advanced leader trying to rush a beginner through difficult moves.

    Another factor is that you want to see the couple very focused on and concentrated on each other, most of the time at least (we are all human and get distracted occasionally). If there seems to be a lot of focus outwards at an imagined audience, that doesn't look nice to me (even in performance I prefer to see the couple focused inward -- though this inward focus need not necessarily be expressed in very small, modest moves and is independent of vocabulary choices).

    So, in short, it's not a question of looking at moves, but at quality of movement. I would also contend that this skill is independent of how good a dancer you are. I have a good eye, I think. But whether or not I am a good dancer can't be 'proven' in quite the same way and I am definitely not the best judge.


  2. Sorry, there wasn't meant to be a kiss at the end of that first part, that was a typo.

    PART 2

    As for beginners, I think you underestimate them. Perhaps here in BA, where I learnt to dance, there is so much social tango around that it is easy for beginners to train their eyes. Beginners are less fussy about who they dance with, on the whole. Their bodies haven't yet developed as much sensitivity to the nuances of the dance, so dancers who feel good to them may not feel good to more experienced dancers. And they may also feel intimidated at the thought of dancing with very advanced dancers. But bearing in mind that the beginners' scale is calibrated differently, I think many beginners still have a good eye. I often chat to my table neighbours during the cortinas -- cabeceo doesn't happen here until the first number of the tanda starts, so this is a kind of 'down time'. And, on the whole, beginner followers don't want to be thrown around the floor in a million wild moves. They are generally looking for a man who is comfortable to dance with and often make some pretty accurate guesses, based on sight, as to who those men would be.

    As to whether beginners in general want to learn 'flashy' moves, this is often asserted, but when I'm teaching beginners they usually ask me to focus on basics like walking. I'm sure some want to learn flashy stuff, but are they the majority? I think that's at the very least unproven. Ms Hedgehog has some interesting things to say about this here:

    I definitely CANNOT, however, read a person's soul from either watching them dance or dancing with them. I've known a few dancers who are blissful to dance with who are actually idiots and many very beautiful human beings who feel horrible to dance with. And one mistake I think beginners do occasionally make is to believe that someone is a wonderful person because their dancing feels so soft and nice.

    Of course, there are exceptions, and, of course, sometimes someone can look bad because their partner is unskilled (though I think, in general, you can still tell they are a good dancer, but their partner isn't). But on the whole, tango danced well is designed to look beautiful, I feel. That's in the nature of the way the dance works -- it's an intrinsically beautiful activity. What feels good tends to look good and vice versa. And that's why I think it's not so difficult to tell how someone will feel to dance with, just by watching them dance.

  3. Terpsi, thanks for such an well considered comment. You have helped many to see with better eyes and what you write will help the empirical observer. Aristotle would have been pleased; perhaps Plato, much less. However, it is odd that your observation of the adoring eyes of beginners seems so different from mine. You explain it as your environment in BsAs. Surely that must be the difference. -- Mark

  4. Thank you so very much for your article. One of my best dances was also with an 80 year old woman. Relatively new to Argentine Tango, I dance in a city without a strong dance family, and very few leads. Some years ago I travelled to South Florida to attend a milonga with a class at the start. The teacher was a world champion and I learned a good deal in my one hour.

    Although I am a woman, I studied the lead, and danced as lead throughout the class. The milonga that followed was grand! Everyone so well dressed, many "stars" on the dance floor, and I was happy to watch as I was new to the group and new to the dance. I may have been asked for a few dances as I put my heels on after the class, however, I sat watching as beginners so often seem to do.

    I was surprised when an older woman approached me and asked for a dance. She appeared so fragile, yet so gracious. We had danced during the class and apparently I managed the lesson well enough for her to trust me. I took off my stilettos and put my jazz shoes on at once. I was so honored that she trusted me to lead.

    I soon realized that she had been sitting quite a while hoping for a dance (as had I.) We embraced, we connected, we shared time and music and the dance floor for a full Tanda. It was one of the best dances I have had. I remain so thankful that she asked me to dance. I learned so much in those 9 minutes, as dancing with a great dancer is often my best lesson.

    Now, years later, as the situation in my town is not much improved, I dance lead most every class I am able to attend. I am fortunate that in Northeast and Central Florida most followers at the milongas I attend will accept a female lead without hesitation.

    The best dances I have had are those with connection, regardless of role or gender. While I may not be the most dazzling dancer on the floor, if my partner leaves the the floor smiling and happy, that is fine with me.

  5. I love your article Mark! I think through observation you can have an idea if you will like or not the dance, however I am wrong at times. Now, what I can NEVER guess is if I, and/or the leader, will have such an experience that will bring tears to our eyes! Because of my inability to predict that experience, I take a chance to dance with whomever invites me. This experience does not happen often, but can even happens with a beginner that has a good walk, keeps to the basics and is able to connect. On my end, I know that ANY leader can surprise me and be a bonus oportunity!
    Denise Guimarães - a nomad that dances tango around the world
    (written while in Buenos Aires)


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.