Saturday, August 25, 2012

Music: Not a Spectator Sport

Waiting for a dance in Juarez

Sitting and listening to music is stressful.

Okay, it can be kind of nice.

If you are absolutely exhausted.

Having a broken leg is also a good excuse to sit and watch music.

It's rumored that one of the worst torture techniques used during the Bush administration was tying people down and playing tangos until they lost their minds.

As I was a musician, I didn't understand that I was a dancer inside.  I hardly could stand watching people playing music.  I felt I had to do something.  But I thought it was that I merely wished I was playing instead of watching.   But now I know what it was.  The "Do something!" that I felt inside was to dance.  I thought for years that I was impelled to play music, but what I really needed to do is get up and dance.  At the time I just did not know what was going on inside of me.

In 2007 I was playing Latin percussion along with a salsa DJ.  I was in heaven.  Playing music.  Nirvana.

Then a salsa came on and I put down my timbale sticks.  Sure, I  could have played the tune, but I just had to dance.  That's the day I realized something I really did not know:  Dancing is a higher level of Nirvana than being a musician -- at least, it is for me.

If it is true that music is not a spectator sport . . . then tango teachers really need to do a better job at changing the way they teach!  We are torturing all those tangueras by having them sit way too much.  Most don't have broken legs, I have noticed.

The gender imbalance is a complicated issue, but there are solutions.  Part of the solution would be to stop the blame-game-tango-teaching against men that goes on presently.  Here are a few solutions:
  • No-Fault Dancer Solution:  Men are only 50% responsible for every dance.  50% if it goes well or not so well.  If it goes well, the woman did not make any obstacles for me and I did not create obstacles for her.
  • The Music as Entertainer Solution:   Men are not responsible for giving the woman an entertaining ride.  This is the biggest mistake that teachers make -- giving a sense that you need to learn this $100 move to keep her satisfied -- or worse, that one should entertain the people sitting (who are already distressed because they are sitting and not dancing).  The music entertains us and motivates us when both are taking 50% responsibility for the dance and staying within their respective roles.
  • The True Leader Solution:  The music leads, not the man.  Are both listening to the music?  If not this could be Tai Chi for two, or acrobatics, but it isn't dance. 
  • The Body Language Solution:  Men have to listen to the woman's body and understand her level as much as a woman has to do the same.  If only the woman has to listen to what men are "leading," then the men are from the start at a disadvantage.
  • The New Analogy Solution:  If it is not "lead/follow," then what is it?  Men have to learn how to follow the music as much as women.  However, their embodiment role is quite different:  Men are the musical note; women are the musical rest (or pause) -- neither of them are leaders. 
  • Keep It Simple Solution:   How about men not having to be an encyclopedia of steps?  Do we really have to learn steps?  When I have danced well, the music has inspired some move.  I remember a tanguera saying something about me having an encyclopedia of moves.  I know that it may have felt as if I have a bunch of steps, but really I had stayed pretty basic but very much to the music. "I can't get no satisfaction," are pretty banal lyrics. Put to music and sung with energy, those lyrics suddenly seemed magical.  We don't need steps!  Both men and women have to learn how to move their torsos, shoulders, legs, feet -- bodies in such a way that it communicates to one's partner where we are in our feeling.  And then when the music says something, we can respond immediately to that.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is the way women teach me steps all the time.  The music inspired her, and I listened.
No-blame dance instruction would revolutionize tango.  Too many women are sitting for a very good reason.  Let's fix it instead of blaming this problem on men.  

It may feel to women that the man led so perfectly, that she "merely" followed.  Not true.  It may feel to the man as if he really had really led the dance when it goes well.  Not true.  Think about it:  Surely, there are times when a man has done his very best, and the dance was not magic.  Perhaps the music the DJ put on really didn't lead the partner well because the DJ plays for himself and not for the dancers.  Perhaps the woman was not present -- looking at the mirror or at who was watching.  Perhaps the man was nervous, thinking that he is finally dancing with a woman who never had looked his way, and he is trying to show her everything he knows.  He "dances" well, but it doesn't go with the music.  Perhaps, he is angry and distracted by a tanguero who has put his partner in danger a few times, and he's contemplating how he should end the evil tanguero's life in a tango fight, just like the old days. :-)  At the end, the man led.  She followed.  But they had a torturous dance.  The music must lead.  WE must follow.  The music entertains us, not each other or the audience.  The music itself is a mix of notes and rests; so are we -- a mix of yin and yang, a mix of notes and rests, a mix of male and female.

Music is central.  Without it there is no dance.  Music is not a spectator sport:  It is la voz de los dioses.  When the music plays it leads us to get up and dance.  Just don't stop there.

Let music's divine voice continue to lead.

Photo credit:  Ladies waiting for dance.


  1. Russian translation:

  2. Dear Readers: I checked out the link that Petya wrote above, thinking it might be spam. But no! He took the time to translate it this post into Russian!

    Petya...Спасибо за перевод этой страницы на русский язык. Это очень хороший комплимент, что Вы нашли время, чтобы сделать это! - Марк

  3. I love this post and second pretty much everything you say here. In fact, I've said some similar things myself (great minds!). Men have to stop leading, taking the follower places, trying to make her do things, taking responsibility for everything. The responsibilties in the dance, the musicality and the movement are all shared.

    This doesn't, in itself, solve the gender imbalance problem, of course. But it is a helpful attitude, imho.


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