Friday, July 26, 2013

Black Belt in Tango?

The Innovator:
Starting, not "starting over."

I am trying to earn my white belt in tango.  Please join me and many others -- those of us who are on a wonderful path of tandem self-discovery in a dance called tango.  

How often have I heard someone lament after starting with a new teacher that they must "start all over"? That's nothing to lament about! Starting from the beginning each time is the task at hand in tango and in life!

I see two basic paths in tango: becoming and being.
  • The path of becoming:  Getting a "black belt" in tango, striving to learn the infinite amount of movement combinations and endeavoring to perfect bodily grace.  You become a Master Innovator on this path, building on what you have learned and established.  Your dancing is truly beautiful and you leave many other dancers behind.
  • The path of being:  Gladly putting on one's "white belt" in tango, being a "Master Beginner" -- the eternal beginner. Master beginners in tango are present with the Now: the unique moment of time, space, partner, music and ever-changing mix of body, soul and spirit.  As a Master beginner, you consider what is established.   This may not be what you have learned but what has been established in the art of movement, the power of the music, and the soul of your partner.  These are the "earth" below the foundation of your dance.  Your dancing is truly beautiful, and, whether dancing with a beginner or a highly skilled dancer, your tandem dance brings you both into a wonderful shared experience.   The true "master beginner" gets to the point that she/he rarely considers "starting over."  "Starting" and "over" are opposites.   The person who is present does not do the dishes over and over again.  The Master Beginner starts and finishes the dishes, fully present (not loathing the past experiences of dishes, not thinking about what is going on in the other room, not absent off in the future).  Tango helps us understand this concept perhaps better than any other human activity on the globe.

"Master Beginner" is a term I created to describe getting better by going backwards into any subject.  Legendary martial artist, Bruce Lee started wearing a white belt later in his career.  The good thing about seeking levels is that it helps students to progress, but has disadvantages even in karate.

If you are on the path to get a black belt in tango, perhaps you have decided to be a dancing encyclopedia of dance moves and a tango musicologist.  Let me suggest that one day you will realize your path was mistaken.  For anyone dancing after a few days or a few decades, the task, I believe, is the same:  Start and stay present with the beginner's mind each time you dance. 

The Now is the structure and form of all things, and being a Master Beginner is the only way that I know of how to continue in this wonderful place of true innovation (beginnings).  The term "Master Innovator" sounds nobler, more advanced.  However, the Master Beginner seeks the state of mind which allows him or her continually to innovate--the process of introducing something new to something which has already been established.  Master Beginners introduce themselves to what is established and Master Innovators introduce ideas/concepts/experience/knowledge to what has already been established.  Sure it is cool to innovate, but do it as a Master Beginner!

Master Beginners' innovation creates the process of what appears to be great moves, but these creative movements are tied to the present, which is the music, the partner, the amount of space at the milonga which the community of dancers around you define.

A Master Beginner has the beginner's mind to:

  • Gladly be at the beginning of all things new or old. 
  • Innovate responsibly where others are stuck in generations of habits.
  • Feel confident in dancing responsibly and simply, that is, wearing a white belt when others around him or her are demonstrating black-belt moves. 
  • Understand what is under the foundation of what one plans to build. 
  • Improvise well in a never-heard-before song because of a focus in the now rather than what what has been learned or what should come next.  Dancing is so much more fluid in the Now, because the Now is truly the form and structure of all things.

A Zen master once filled a new student's tea cup full and let it flow onto the table as the student went on and on about how many
masters had taught him.  Eventually the tea poured onto the student's trousers, which enraged him. The master's lesson:  You cannot learn if your cup is already overflowing with knowledge.  Empty your tango tea cup!*  

Join us beginners on the dance floor.   Come sit with us in the section of dancers whose first step is always to embrace their partner's body and soul.  (You know who we are.)    If you stay with us, the Master Beginner state of mind will appear where it always was--within you and Now.

*Thanks to my behind-the-scenes blog editor for this great Zen Buddhist story.  It is also a central learning point in the movie, Avatar.  The photo and the retelling of the wisdom story can be found at:

Photo credit for white belt (visit the website: for some "white belt wisdom."   Quote:  The most powerful feature of the white belt is that it reminds you to avoid the “I know that” syndrome."

Photo credit for black belt martial arts picture (original version):