Tango and I recently celebrated our Second Year Anniversary. This momentous occasion neatly coincided with bringing in the New Year and turning a page of my own calendar, my 56th birthday.
That gave me three excellent reasons to celebrate and literally kick up my heels. Not too high a kick though, so as to not injure others on the dance floor with a potentially poorly timed boleo (a whip-like swinging of the leg).
To celebrate my auspicious day, a dear friend and fellow tanguera Shawne, treated me to evening of tango on both Upper Sides of Manhattan.
We began on the Upper East at The Museum of the City of New York. The museum was hosting an Argentine tango themed event inspired by a painting exhibition depicting the tango dancers in Central Park. At times, I too have been seen in the park dancing around the Shakespeare statue on a midsummer’s night. The viewing was followed by a dance performance with Maria Blanco and Jorge Torres, who were accompanied by a tango orchestra, all of which was flawlessly performed under the spiral of a gleaming, white marble staircase. Though lovely and wonderful to watch, by the end of the show we’d had our fill of tango as spectator sport and so with a wink and a nod, we grabbed our tango shoes (never leave home without them) and set out to find the nearest dance floor.
We taxied our way across town to the Upper West. Headed to a milonga (tango social) hosted by the flaming-red-headed, rhinestone-encrusted, peace-sign-wearing, irrepressible Lucille. It was there that I was honored with my very first birthday dance. For the uninitiated, this is tango’s way of saying Happy Birthday. The lucky celebrant stands in the middle of the dance floor and for the length of one tango, leads (usually men) or follows (usually women) take their turn dancing with the honoree, aka me. That night as I passed the halfway point of my 50s (never to return), I celebrated with good friends and took part in the tango rite of passage as I was spun around the dance floor by a revolving door of dashing leads.
While this all sounds lively and fun and engaging–and it was–I never in a million tandas (tango dance sets) thought I’d be saying this: Sadly, some of the thrill is gone. I seem to have reached what may be an inevitable plateau. Now I’m not talking about a high plateau of dancing excellence. I would characterize this as more of a low mesa, at an intermediate level. The novelty has worn off and some of the passion has begun to lag.
How could this possibly happen? The tango and I were madly in love for the better part of two years, to the detriment of all other relationships. Even my dog was wondering where the heck I had up and gone off to. I couldn’t wait until the end of my workday so that I could put together that night’s outfit, apply my mascara, grab my tango shoes and head into the city. All dressed up with someplace to go. At one point, I was taking two or three classes a night and a couple on a Saturday afternoon, plus three or even four milongas and practicas weekly. I was gliding (when I wasn’t sitting and waiting to be asked) across one dance floor or another at least 20 hours a week. Lest you think that sounds a tad excessive, I was in very good company. The classes were well attended and the social dances were packed with plenty of other familiar dancing fools.
This may come as a shock but…10-plus tango classes a week is now too much. Two and three classes a night began to feel like a run-on sentence in need of punctuation. Not surprisingly, dance class fatigue has set in and I’m not having quite a much fun as I used to.
One of the reasons may be that, as I’ve progressed, it’s become apparent that we are not all advancing at the same rate, and the skill level at times is uneven. In deference to my classmates, most of them have become great dancers and are as nuts about the tango as I. Then there are the others that ought to repeat a grade. In the beginning, it was much easier to dance with everyone. I knew nothing, they knew nothing—it was a match! But after two years of dedicated (if not obsessive) practice, simply put, it’s easier and more enjoyable to learn with the leads who can lead and frustrating to learn with those who can’t.
At the risk of sounding like a late night infomercial that addresses loss of desire, how then do I put the spark back into my relationship with tango?
When I told my friend Melissa how I was feeling, she sent me a terrific article titled “The Psychology of Getting Unstuck: How to Overcome The OK Plateau.” It describes the three stages that we pass through when acquiring new skills, the last one being the comfort zone of autopilot, when one is satisfied with their skill level and improvement slows to a halt.
Whether I’m on an OK plateau or a complacent mesa, it’s time to revaluate and come up with a strategy to continue to challenge myself and ultimately free up some more joy. I talked with my teachers and a few longtime tango-dancing friends and they had a few ideas. One of my teachers recommended that for now, I take fewer classes and attend more milongas. At her suggestion, I’ve reduced the number of classes by 80 percent and am now taking only two classes a week. I’ve also made it a point to ask my instructors for more targeted feedback so that my practice can be more focused, whether in class or when budget allows, a private lesson or at a social dance.
When I was dancing with my friend Daniel the other day, he remarked that I had not posted anything new to Nancy Learns The Tango since November and that its absence had not gone unnoticed. “Nancy, your fans await you,” he said. I told him that I was working on an essay titled “When The Thrill Is Gone.” He stopped mid-ocho (pivoting to form a figure-eight) and said, “You may not want to mention that to your dance partners, especially while dancing with them.”
We cracked up, laughing so hard that we could not continue dancing, causing a traffic jam on the dance floor. I agreed with him and let him know that present company was excluded. As we rejoined the line of dance, Daniel noted that since I am no longer a beginner, having traveled way past the stage of causing injury to myself or to others, I now have the opportunity to experience and enjoy tango from a contemplative and inward perspective. A dancing meditation if you will.
Tango demands that I pay attention, to be present so that I can respond to and interpret my partner’s improvised steps. That’s right…improvised. He may have no idea what he’s going to do next until he does it! Therefore, anticipation on my part can really mess up the works and will inhibit my connecting with him and consequently, even though I am in his arms, it may cause me miss out on the dance. It’s essential that I check all outside distractions at the door, for if a thought comes in, I often stumble, and my partner, if he’s tune with me, will know that I’ve “left the room.”
Later that evening, I asked Daniel what tango meant to him. He thought for a moment, shrugged and said, “Sometimes when I ask myself why I on earth do I keep doing this, the only thing that I can come up with is that…I simply love to dance!”
Tango is a dance of communication, passion and partnership. The irony is that since we change partners after each set, we are in and out of a new relationship every 15 minutes. The one constant, the one partnership that I can count on is ultimately and thankfully the one I have with myself.
So maybe the thrill doesn’t have to go. Perhaps approaching tango from the inside out can be my new tactic. As our relationship matures and we dance on into our third year, the tango and I will adjust to each other’s rhythms. And as I continue to search for deeper meaning, perhaps the answer was always right there at my feet–I simply love to dance the Argentine tango.
Copyright © 2014 Nancy Green