Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What I learned from a ballet teacher

An interview with a ballerina . . .

Jenny has a remarkable business--a type of missionary business--dedicated to dance.  Most of her staff members are volunteers, and I wanted to be part of the good that she is doing. The mostly volunteer staff is all talented dancers, and have it in their blood to dance.  Jenny asked me to help with the theme "tango" at her studio's second anniversary in a small city in Germany, where I was living recently.

I shocked poor Jenny with the suggestion that she should be my partner to perform this tango demonstration in front of all her students, their parents and her staff.  

I was not worried. She had years of ballet and yoga teaching, so she knew all about graceful movement.  
In the end teaching Jenny was not about tango, but a reintroduction to what she felt as a little girl and that she just had to move to the music.  I guess, what I most learned, is that whether a choreographer, or teacher, or partner indicates the next step, ultimately in must be the music which truly moves us to take the next step.  This somatic response to the music is what dance truly is.   Whether it is salsa, ballet or tango, music is the  true leader:  Music speaks, we move.

Here is our conversation:

Jenny, I remember that the first time I met you, I had agreed to do a tango demonstration at Grace Studio's 1st Anniversary.  You enlisted your ballroom teacher to find a tango dancer in town, and she found me through my tango blog.  You'll remember that I asked her to be my partner.  She was very skeptical about being my partner.   In the end she did really well.  Do you remember why she was so timid?

The staff ballroom teacher was timid, I think, because she expected to be taught steps and terms. She wasn't comfortable with just being taught to listen to the music and going with the flow.  Her uncle was crazy about tango; so she tried, and found it too be very difficult the way it was taught.

So about three years ago, your staff ballroom teacher and I were practising.  I remember as we were finishing up our practise, your entire staff showed up for a staff-made choreography for the show for students and parents.  One of your teachers, remarked, "Wow, who did that choreography?!"  The ballroom teacher remarked, "We improvised."  Your staff teacher seemed to have a look of disbelief, as if to say:  "Now, that is not possible." What was your impression that day?

Seeing your dance unfold on the spot without any pre-planned choreography was astonishing. Nobody there watching would even consider all the movements as being not choreographed. There was no paradigm for us to understand how two could improvise dance like that.  It flowed perfectly together as if there was a prior choreography.

Then after the ballroom teacher moved back to the US, you met a visiting tenor, who loved singing tangos, so you made the theme of the 2rd Anniversary "Tango."  You asked me to come back again and dance, and then I talked YOU into being my partner. Although you have been a talented dancer all your life, what made you so skeptical?  Honestly, I expected you to be more confident.  What made you timid about this?

I was not used to partner dancing. I had to learn to trust you as my partner and let go. Partner dancing in tango is so much more intuitive. It was a new experience for me.  And you would often immediately notice if I was trusting you too much and not listening--not trusting--the music to lead.

Great!  I think that was the most important lesson for you when learning tango-- listening less to me and more to the music.  I remember distinctly what you said:  "I have always focused on the count of the choreography, so this is new to me."  But when we returned to practising to the music you were able to do amazing things.  What was that like for you?

It felt like I was dancing in a dream. I felt as if I were floating. I loved it.

Did this transform anything about the other genres of dance you teach and dance?

Yes, I experienced that dancing is not just about steps and dancing your heart out. When you actually dance with a partner you learn aspects about yourself that you didn't know about yourself. When I teach dance now, I encourage my students to take the opportunity to learn about themselves, to grow, to change, to let go.

I have to say that I was very proud of you at the tango demonstration under the pressure of dancing in front of all your staff, all of your students and their parents.  Tell me about that experience?  How did you pull it together in seven 1-hr sessions?

YOU pulled it together. You made me look good.

That's funny.  I guess good partner-work is when two people both have the same feeling that the other is making it all look so good.  I am sure of this because I have felt it so often, and then at the end, the woman acts as if it were me "leading."  Music is such a magical thing, and the human spirit somatically reacts to music naturally.  Thanks, but really it was you and me following the music's lead.

Okay, one last question:  Your "final exam" actually came later.  You came with a group of friends and your fiancé to your first milonga ever.  When we danced, it was as if you hadn't forgotten anything, although we hadn't danced for a few months, and your entire history of tango was eight sessions, counting the performance.  You looked nervous, but I told you again to only listen to the music.  Tell me what that was like.

Since it had been a while, at first it felt like I had forgotten it all. But by trusting you as my partner again, I quickly picked it back up. You again told me to focus 90% on the music, and 10% would be your suggestions; that the music is the leader; that both partners have equally responsible roles to listen to the music -- that is what made it easy for it to all come back to me as if I had been a great tango dancer in a past life.  

I like that:  Perhaps, that is a good way for each of us to come fresh and new to each milonga--as if we were once Masters and now we are Beginners.  Master-Beginners dance with the grace of a trained dancer and the heart of a child.  You did that!  I am certain that I learned more than you did. Thanks!

It was my pleasure.

Photo credit:  Grace Studio

Here is the link to an earlier post that explored the definition of dance as the somatic response to music.


  1. As a woman, when i have the pleasure to be invited to dance..(first hope;;;first step!)often it is impossible to dance the music because you are the prisoner of the man who do not listen to it; and then it becomes horrible and sad !!

  2. Hi Ms. Carabosse! What you describe is exactly the center of the problem with how tango is taught: The man listens to the music and moves. The woman doesn't listen to the music and follows movement. This is NOT dance. Movement is cool. Movement is even more essential for physical and psychological survival than dance, but movement is not dance. The way to fix this is for both to be listening/following the music. The Rol Masculino is as a navigator/listener, as I see it. The Rol Femenino is a type of ambassador/listener. She mediates all the distractions that I have, always bringing me back to the music (the subject at hand). I am pulled away from the music when I am in a "protective mode" because of wild dancers. I am taken away from the music when the DJ is not paying attention to volume or conventions of the majority of knowledgeable DJ's. Our distinctive roles still follow only one leader who called us to the dance floor: The music. And by the way, when women are listening mostly to me, they are pulling me away from the music. This causes a vicious circle of poor dancing. It is not just the man, but a poor way of understanding the beauty of tandem movement to the music.

  3. Carabosse wrote: "when i have the pleasure to be invited to dance..(first hope;;;first step!)often it is impossible to dance the music because you are the prisoner of the man who do not listen to it"

    Sympathies, but surely the solution is not to choose to enter that prison. Why not instead wait for the man who does listen to the music?

  4. Lovely observations. And so true.
    It reminds me of an evening with a Salsa Liveband. I have never ever learned one single Salsa step. But I had three wonderful people to lead me. So experienced leading plus music made for a memorable night. Someone who watched us later said, you looked really like you were having a ball. And we literally had!


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