Why do I dance?

I have not felt like writing to this blog for a long time. My latest writings were rather cryptic, because I tried to write about subjects that I felt were taboos. I was not happy about the results, so I came to a conclusion that it was impossible to talk about the important things.

But today I felt like writing. I have had some break from tango for quite some time, and I feel like the distance has given me some new insight.

For any serious person on the quest of learning tango the same question arises now and then. Why do I dance?

Of course there are the outer reasons. To socialize, to fill up free time, have fun, to feed the addiction. But there are easier ways to reach all these. Tango can be very frustrating. So why tango? Why not for example golf which I already tried? Or some of the other dozen hobbies?

I have come to see that I am seeking for those rare moments in the dance when I can sense something out of this world. It is something I had never felt before I started dancing tango. This means these are experiences that some people may never have a chance to experience in their whole lifetime. This thought makes me sad.

When this magical moment happens, movement becomes light, we are creating interesting improvisation to the music with my partner, being playful. I feel like it is no longer me who is dancing — rather there is some kind of creative force outside of us which is going through as and creating the dance.

This special magical moment I have called “the connection”. I have come to a conclusion that maybe this name is not so appropriate, as the name has been appropriated by some people who use this word to talk about an quite different kind of experience.

All this above sounds either mystical — or if you are more scientifically inclined —  bullshit. But I can assure that it is really neither. I have been blessed and these magic experiences have become more common. Actually they now have happened during most nights when I have danced. I take the prevalence of these experiences as a sign that the path I am on is going towards the right direction, and this gives me motivation to talk about them.

So now that I have had time to gather plenty of these magical experiences, maybe some reflection in form of this blog entry is now appropriate. At least I have observed there seem to be certain circumstance that make these magical moments more probable. Perhaps I can also elaborate a little bit of the glimpses of some of the underlying mechanisms under these magic experiences.

What I am describing here is a sensation, and it is impossible to express sensations to somebody who does not have the same experience. How do you explain the taste of strawberry to somebody who has never tasted it?

The first problem when discussing these experiences is that you will be reading this blog entry with your rational mind, which likes to analyze and categorize things based on things it already knows. When the rational mind meets things it does not know, it bends the story as much as is necessary so it can be understood in terms of experiences the person already has. This is called cognitive dissonance and it is Psychology 101.

For example, when there are some tough disagreements, we can see if some of the confusion is created by people using a same word to describe very different experiences. If this is so, then the easiest explanation is that maybe one party has felt the need to use the word to describe an experience they have, perhaps hide from themselves that there exists an experience they have never had. But as a consequence they create all kinds of trouble, not least to themselves. Actually by these rationalizations they make it almost impossible for themselves to have this kind of experience.

Like I said above, it seems that people are using the word “connection” to describe two very different kind of experiences. I call these kinesthetic connection and emotional connection.

I used to think that kinesthetic connection is a prerequisite for the emotional connection. As the same kind of experiences can be felt outside of embrace too, I no longer think so. However, it also seems that not everybody in tango has experienced these magical moments, because there seem to be a need to use the word connection in kinesthetic sense when people are talking about it in the emotional sense.

What authority do I have to talk about these experiences? I have had plenty of experience of festivals, marathons, encuentros, Buenos Aires etc. But anybody who knows me in real life knows I am not a tango superstar, and not even an argentinian. I actually think that any authority I have on the subject comes from my weaknesses. I have started with so little ability to dance, so I have had to learn everything the hard way, to really understand things.

So, don’t take my word. I don’t want to convince anybody. I just ask you to keep an open mind. You will meet lots of people saying what I write is bullshit. However, if you are later blessed with the experiences I describe here, then you will know for yourself what is true.

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Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la Mort

According to Wikipedia, the title is the original formulation of the motto of the French revolution, which later became the motto of France. I believe understanding it actually helps us to overcome some common disagreements about tango!

This motto does not contain just some random three terms. The relationship of the terms to each other is as important as the terms themselves.

Liberté was probably used in the sense that political right uses it now, meaning that one has the right to the fruits of their own work — low taxation. And égalité was probably used in the sense of equality of outcome (rather than equality of rights as we understand it now) — high taxation. If we understand liberty and equality this way, they are actually opposing each other. Why would one use opposing terms in one motto?

There is another peculiarity about the terms:

The third term, Fraternité, was the most problematic to insert in the triad, as it belonged to another sphere, that of moral obligations rather than rights, links rather than statutes, harmony rather than contract, and community rather than individuality.

But if we consider the historical context, we can see that these features of the motto are not so strange after all. The triad follows structurally the model of thesis – antithesis – synthesis which was very much in vogue at that time. Synthesis is something “higher” that brings the two opposing “forces” together, creating harmony.

Liberty and equality were chosen as the first two terms exactly because they oppose each other. Their order is also significant: one cannot talk about taxation before there are some gains to be taxed. And as the third term, fraternity was chosen because only through community based on relationships, the inherent conflict between liberty and equality of outcome can be overcome, and harmony reached.

This original formulation also tells us what happens if we do not follow the motto: we will turn away from life, which is harmony, and create disharmony, death.

Perhaps it is also useful to remind ourselves that the triad contains all three terms, not only the last term. The struggle between the two first ones creates the potency of the last term. The last one would not exist by itself.

In Richness of Tango I described some discussions regarding tango in the internet. Behind each one of the discussions one can find an argument about equality of the roles in tango, the second term in the motto. This is natural reaction and “progress” in relation to the first term.

But, to help overcome these disagreements about the roles in tango and perhaps learn to understand the issues more deeply, one can apply some structural analysis to these discussions. What are the two missing terms, the first one, and the third one? What is the consequence if “harmony” is not reached?

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Richness of Tango

These are some often recurring tango discussions.

One recurring discussion is about “active following” versus “passive following”. What people typically mean by these expressions is that in “active following” the leader gives an impulse to the follower, who then decides how to interpret the lead, for example by changing timing, or increasing or decreasing the energy of the lead. The leader follows her through the movement, and then receives the follower, and gives a new impulse for the next direction. This creates a kind of kinetic exchange, where gravity (and turn in “leading”) changes back and forth between the leader and the follower.

Some other people use expression “active following” or something similar to mean that the follower may do decorations, or take even extra steps which fit the music, but this is done within (without interpreting or changing the timing or the kinetic energy) the original impulse of the lead. (This is not incompatible with the first version, so some people may use both.)

There is also third interpretation, adopted by some contact improvisation style dancers as well as some others, mostly beginners, where “active following” means that for example extra weight shifts and extra steps can be taken to any direction at any time, even when they are not connected to lead. Here there are actually in practice two leaders.

Sadly, people very rarely clarify how they use the terms.

* * *

Another discussion is about “becoming one in tango”. From recent Facebook discussion:

“There is this myth, in tango”, X said, “that it’s about becoming one. But there isn’t one of you dancing. There are two. And you both have to dance. Leaders, it’s not about controlling *her* body; it’s about controlling your own body. It’s not about managing her movement; it’s about managing your own movement. When we dance, it’s not that Y [X’s partner] feels me moving her with changes in my embrace. I move *myself* and she feels my movement and responds with her own movement. It’s not about doing something to her, out *there* [demonstrating an outwardly-projected movement]; it’s about something that happens *here* [brushing his hand over his torso, showing his own body in motion].”

* * *

Sometimes one talks about the “control” separately. There are leaders who might be accurately called Puppet Masters, who completely control the movement of the follower, having the follower in an iron grip. Their idea is that the leader moves the follower. The other idea is that the leader moves himself, which signals to the follower of the direction. Sometimes these controlling leaders may even say that the follower should not do decorations because they may disturb the leader etc.

* * *

Many other discussions are about “connection”. When some people who talk about connection they are really talking about the “kinetic connection” what I described in the “active leading” and “passive following” above.

Others, when talking about connections, seem to talk about more blissful mystical experiences, referring to “energy fields” etc. These same people may be talking about “becoming one” And there are those people who say that they “do not believe connection exists”, meaning such experiences.

* * *

There is richness and variety in these descriptions and opinions. The only natural explanation I have come up with is these disagreements are a sign that people experience tango quite differently. To me, this richness is positive life force. Unfortunately, many seem to think there is only one right way to dance.

While all these discussions seem different on the surface, they seem to revolve around two major themes. More about these two themes in a later post.

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Inner Game of Tango

It seems that beyond a certain point, our development in tango stalls unless we take a look inside, at things that are preventing us from realising our full potential. One fundamental obstacle is described in the classic book Inner Game of Tennis.

This fundamental obstacle seems to manifest in many ways. Physical tensions around hips and shoulders, neck, chest, in the arms, need to use the arms to force the lead, feeling frustration because the followers are not following, having difficulty to relax although trying very hard, being anxious in following, feeling that the leaders are forcing me, trying hard to follow etc. Or somebody may tell you that you are using too much force. For me, it was a long process to become aware of this obstacle sufficiently to have sensations of not having this obstacle.

First, I noticed the followers sometimes getting tense. Then I could locate the tension starting from the right hip of the follower. Later, I saw that the tension was caused by my own tension. Furthermore, that tension originated in my own left hip. It become possible to pinpoint the tension in that part of psoas muscle that is close to the inside of my hip joint. And, I saw that when this was happening, my lower body was too much in the front. Then, I saw my arms being tense, trying to force the follower, and being disconnected from my body.

Later, I saw that the arms were tense because the shoulders were tense, which in turn were effected by shoulder blades. Later, I saw my chest tightening. And lastly, I saw the neck constricting before the other reactions. Through intensive work, culminating in one month of daily private classes in both Alexander technique and tango, I started experiencing the sensation and feeling of the right posture from the inside. Through that, I started catching myself at moments when constriction in some part of the body started happening.

Ultimately, I saw that the physical effects were a manifestation of an emotion, the fear of lack of control. When this fear appears, we literally try to grasp tightly with our body to control the situation. This fear is natural, and the physical reactions associated with it are built-in and were very useful in our original habitat. In dance the fear is also based on reality, because it is a fact that we cannot control the follower. The emotion is attenuated for us leaders, because we feel responsible for example for not colliding with other couples, and we also feel that the only solution to avoiding collisions is to control the follower. And sometimes the women even really do take extra steps, or worse, make boleos contrary to lead. And it is also a fact that we leaders are held socially responsible for collisions and other accidents.

However, control by force does not help us to avoid collisions or even to dance as a “leader”. It only creates a force, and like Physics tells us, each force attracts an equal but opposite counter-force. This counter-force in the follower manifests in her tensions, which makes her less capable of feeling the lead. It also manifests as her leaning in into extra steps, which make you less able to respond to changing conditions on the pista.

This practical inability to control the situation makes the fear of lack of control stronger in you, which probably causes you to use even more force to try to control the situation. The only way to cut off this vicious circle is to break the automatic cause and effect between the emotion of fear when we feel lack of control and this physical manifestation of taking control by force. Only then we can gain feeling of unity and connection with our partner, which gives us everything we are looking for, and more. It does not give the same feeling of “control”, but we will find that “control” was not very useful for what we wished, anyway. It will give us confidence that whatever is needed will happen.

Going through the process described in previous four paragraphs took from me approximately 1,5 years, from the initial observation to the first experience of overcoming this obstacle. Each individual observation (sentence in the paragraph) might have taken one month of active dancing and researching the issue. I am still not completely free of this obstacle, but experiences of being free from it are becoming more common in milongas, and I am becoming more aware of lack of freedom when it happens, and then there are more helpful pathways that can be consciously returned to.

During these 1,5 years, there were temporary remedies, which made it difficult to understand the obstacle. This resistance often disappeared after enough active dancing, during marathons. In the beginning a glass of red wine helped, but later not so much. Overcoming certain unhelpful beliefs also provided temporarily relief. One of them was “I am a bad dancer if I cannot lead”. Another one was “I am a great dancer because I can lead so well”.

The worst thing was, that although these remedies provided momentary relief, the effect was getting gradually worse and worse. In the last months it was becoming practically impossible for me to dance with most followers, because the resistance formed in them was so strong. So, I started seeking those followers that had certain ability to compensate this problem. I started avoiding those who did not. That of course was not very enjoyable socially, but I felt it necessary, because I felt neither them nor I enjoyed the tanda very much, and it resulted both of us getting very tense, affecting other dances.

I cannot express in words what was it that ultimately helped me to cross the line from there to here. But if you are experiencing those sensations or feelings described here, maybe the book Inner Game of Tennis will help you. I also suggest taking up private lessons in Alexander technique and working with a tango teacher who has overcome this problem himself. (It is probably a leader, because followers probably know this intuitively, and that makes it hard for them to help you to overcome the obstacle if they have not had to solve it personally.)

For a leader, learning to “just follow” might also be a good starting point, because “not using force” when leading is actually the same as following (but probably not the same as “active following”, or “following with musicality”).

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On Internet Advice

I am, again, at crossroads with this blog.

On one hand, I like sharing what I have learned, so the journey to learn to dance would be easier for others. On the other hand, I am deeply frustrated and disillusioned about how much you can actually transmit about dancing by written text.

Human psyche is just constructed that way. It seems  we aim for stability in our world views. This is natural — otherwise we would hemming and hawing all the time. But the side effect of the stability is that we tend to bend the evidence so that it supports what we already believe. Cognitive dissonance is old news to anybody who knows anything about psychology.

It means that every time we read something in the internet, we either agree or disagree with it. If we agree, we use it as evidence to strengthen our prior belief. We tend to seek the kind of information we agree with. And even when we accidentally read something we disagree with, we tend to figure out ways to discredit it, and again strengthen our prior belief, instead of incorporating the information to our world view. Because all world views are ultimately limited, reading something actually hurts us, instead of helping, because we hold to our dear limited beliefs even more.

The only way to overcome this stasis of prior belief is through bitter, repeated experience. Most of us does not learn from the first time, so it depends on personality how many times we need to repeat the lesson.

Furthermore, if we read something that somehow overcomes the built-in resistances to change, we have only learned about the thing theoretically. Then we think we know how it goes, so we stop learning about it.

Now we come to the worst problem with internet advice. Learning about something before we have any experience, is how we form the original belief, which is probably very wrong.

So reading advice on internet not only hurts us, but blocks the natural remedy that would cure the wound created by this hurt. And the wound is so bad that it actually gets worse over time.

I guess it applies to this blog post too.

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World of Possibilities

When stuck in the discussions about who should be dancing with whom, we are engaged in a world of competition and scarcity. This is a downwards spiral, where the driving force is money, wealth and power. Even if we “win”, we lose.

There is another kind of world, which Benjamin Zander calls the World of Possibilities.

Interestingly, his description of the World of Possibilities comes close to the description of antifragility.

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Who Should Dance With Whom?

There is discussion about tango that repeats itself in the internet. It goes something like this, although typically not as bluntly and directly:

A: Dancer X did not dance with me in milonga last night! Who does she think she is? I think people should dance with everybody. Being nice helps to build up community because it helps beginners grow. Does she not want to build up the community? Her behaviour is selfish.

B: Maybe she just did not want to dance with you because she has much more experience and she can dance with the best dancers. It can even hurt her physically to dance with you. It is her choice to dance with whomever she pleases. Everybody should be able to choose who they dance with. It is actually good that she did not dance with you, because it will motivate you to learn more dancing and a nicer embrace.

From this invented discussion, we can already guess the approximate attractivity of each as a dance partner in the milonga.

Why can we guess it? Wikipedia explains it:

Nietzsche argued that there were two fundamental types of morality: ‘Master morality’ and ‘slave morality’. Slave morality values things like kindness, humility and sympathy, while master morality values pride, strength, and nobility. Master morality weighs actions on a scale of good or bad consequences unlike slave morality which weighs actions on a scale of good or evil intentions. 

According to Nietzsche, strong people favour master morality, whereas weak people favour slave morality. We can guess the approximate attractivity of the person at the milonga just from their chosen morality, and that we can tell from the language they use.

There is a third way to see things beyond this master-slave morality dichotomy, which can lead to experiences that are more interesting than you can imagine.

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