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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On Cabeceo

Love at first sight:

The classical conception of love’s arrows were elaborated upon by the Provençal troubadour poets of southern France in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and became part of the European courtly love tradition. In particular, a glimpse of the woman’s eyes was said to be the source of the love dart:

This doctrine of the immediate visual perception of one’s lady as a prerequisite to the birth of love originated among the “beaux esprits” de Provence. […] According to this description, love originates upon the eyes of the lady when encountered by those of her future lover. The love thus generated is conveyed on bright beams of light from her eyes to his, through which it passes to take up its abode in his heart.

In some medieval texts, the gaze of a beautiful woman is compared to the sight of a basilisk¹.

Boccaccio provides one of the most memorable examples in his Il Filostrato, where he mixes the tradition of love at first sight, the eye’s darts, and the metaphor of Cupid’s arrow: “Nor did he (Troilus) who was so wise shortly before… perceive that Love with his darts dwelt within the rays of those lovely eyes… nor notice the arrow that sped to his heart.”

¹ basilisk — a legendary reptile said to have the power to cause death with a single glance.

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On Fragility

What is the opposite of fragile? The common answer is: robust.

If I ship a fragile package, for example one containing glass, I believe it will not be able to withstand even a single strong hit without breaking down. I would expect a more robust package, one containing a teddy bear, to withstand many strong repeated hits. (Of course, to a certain extent, it is possible to destroy a teddy bear too).

But I would not expect even a teddy bear to become stronger from these hits. However, we can, at least intellectually, posit a category of things that are not only robust but antifragile — things that actually profit from hits — or more generally, shocks. (Likewise, always only to a certain extent.)

It seems strange and unpractical idea, but with some effort, we can think of examples. For example, the scientific consensus seems to be that the human immune system actually needs certain amount of shocks to become strong and healthy. Too clean environment when growing up, does not expose the child to bacteria, and tends to create adults with a weak immune system. If we look at living organisms from this perspective, it suddenly seems many living things actually need such shocks for their growth.

Taleb defines antifragility in his book as the positive attitude towards volatility. The whole discussion is too lengthy to be described here, but I can heartily recommend the book, it may change your life. While antifragility is common in living organisms, we can extend it to practically anything.

How is antifragility related to tango?

We may for example see that “mistakes” during our dance are shocks. If we borrow the attitude from improvisation theatre that “mistakes” are actually helpful (as I explained before), because they are opportunities for creativity, we have taken a positive attitude towards volatility, and our dance becomes antifragile towards “mistakes”.

Or we may see, that when learning, “technical problems” with our dancing are shocks. If we value learning about “problems” in our dancing, and accept their existence easily, we have a helpful attitude that allows us to continuously improve. We have become antifragile towards “problems” in our dancing. It seems tango challenges one so much that most people cannot withstand it without growing at least to some extent an antifragile attitude towards growth in our dancing.

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Tango theory of mind

There is a “tango theory of mind” that many tango dancers seem to subscribe to. According to this theory, leader listens to the music, thinks what figure combinations fit the next phrase in the music. He then commands his body with his mind to move according to those movements. These movements are then sensed by the follower, and she then interprets the bodily sensations, in other words, thinks what lead the sensation represents, thinks how she wishes to interpret the lead, possibly adding her own spice to it, and then commands her body with her mind to move according to the interpretation.

This “tango theory of mind” is true in the sense that it really describes how these people dance. It is based on reality. But recently I have had experiences that cannot be explained through this theory. So, I do not believe there is single unified “tango theory of mind”. Rather, I believe there co-exist several “tango theories of mind”, each based on our understanding, rooted in our experiences. According to different experiences our body and mind may have different ways to understand what it means to “dance well”.

In my current theory the mind and body are in a different relationship with each other than in the theory described above. The mind is involved in dancing only when I am learning, taking lessons etc. During dancing, it works better if my mind is “switched off” whether I am leading or following. In other words, there is some magical direct connection, which does not involve the mind. However, sometimes, maybe for dancing with a beginner, or when the dancing for some reason does not go smoothly, it seems I return to this “original tango theory of mind”, although it seems to create more problems than it solves.

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On not being a good dancer

The worst thing you can do to me is to tell me that I am a good dancer. I know your intention is good, so there is no need for you to blame yourself. But it is just not useful.

I dance because I wish to experience more of those rare moments when we move as single-body, four-legged animal. During these moments many things happen that are typically assosiated with “good dancing”: relaxation, creativity, musicality, flow of energy, etc.

These moments do not belong to “me”. “Me”, my ego, can only prevent these moments, because my ego disconnects me from others, in this case from you, my dance partner. Ego does not make these moments happen. “I” am not their cause.

The trouble begins when I think I am a good dancer. It lifts my ego, creates hubris in me. My ego will eventually come down through painful experiences. Greater the hubris, greater the fall.

It may take time for me to experience the fall, but my dancing is affected immediately. I am lost in myself, chasing my self-image of me as a good dancer. I “try hard” to be a good dancer. But those rare moments did not occur because I was “trying hard” in the moment, they just kind of happened.

Often, “trying hard” makes me tense, and makes my dance worse.

Neither does it seem helpful for me to wallow in self-pity, to think that I am a bad dancer. The self-pity seems to be part of the same cycle.

“Humility isn’t about thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
— C.S. Lewis

It seems useful to cultivate real humility, based on sincerity. I have certain consistent strengths and certain consistent weaknesses. And there is lots of variation in my “level of dancing”. There are “good days” and “bad days”. There are “good tandas” and “bad tandas”, even with same people to same music. Within tandas, there are “good moments” and “bad moments”.

In midst of all this, there are those rare experiences of pure tango bliss. In front of such experiences one feels naturally in awe. Maybe real humility can arise from these experiences, as they are completely beyond my control.

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Freedom in movement

Image by Wiborg

Image by Wiborg (CreativeCommons)

It seems like magic when one observes a school of fish changing direction. The change happens in an instant.

When participating in an aerobics class, sometimes the instructor verbally instructs the the class to go to one direction while she by mistake moves to the opposite direction, and still everybody gets it right. At that moment, one can sense the magic of participating in joint movement.

In an ice hockey match or when singing in a group one can feel the magic of shared emotions.

All these are observable natural phenomena, accessible to all of us, nothing super-natural. I don’t know if the Swarm theories cover all the aspects of these various phenomena.

In any case, in his Crowds and Power, Elias Cannetti writes:

“As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there: no distinctions count, not even that of sex. That man pressed against him is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly, it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body.”

Contrasting a crowd with a single body — a single animal — is a recurring theme in crowd psychology. The swarm in the video below certainly looks like a single animal from a distance.

For me, tango sometimes also really feels like that. I feel like being part of an animal that has one head and four legs. While I am supposedly the leader, it does not feel like I am leading the movement. One could say that “the music is the leader”. It does not feel like “my” movement. It is happening, and I am participating in it.

It probably sounds really strange unless one has experienced it. But it is quite natural when one is participating in it.

Of course, this is not the only way to dance. There is “active following”, where leader and follower do keep their individuality. Most of my dancing feels like this. In Cannetti’s terminology, “packs” are groups where participants do keep their individuality, and do not “surrender” to the crowd. Some people dance only that way, and there is nothing wrong with that. Dance can look stylish and impressive either way.

In any case, the four legs experiences seem quite delicate and rare. I cannot force them to happen, but it seems easy to block them from happening. Contrary to what one might believe, it seems “not knowing the right steps” or “making mistakes” does not block them. What could block the experiences might be the attitude behind these: wanting to know what is the right step, or being anxious about making mistakes. Both of these seem to arise from wanting to control the situation.

I may dance with a fresh beginner, with no background in dancing, who dances beautifully. We may have a connection instantly and we are moving as a four-legged animal right from the start. Maybe we all humans have this built-in capacity for joint movement hidden inside us?

But then I dance again with the same person months later, when she has taken classes, and learned steps, and magic of the connection may be gone.

So, what happened during these months? I don’t know, exactly. But for me, it feels like such a person is dancing from their mind, trying to control the situation. She seems anxious not to fail, which makes her tense. I feel we are connected only occasionally, sometimes not even when we are still.

So, how to return to the way one danced before one learned the steps?

Perhaps one can say that each time I affirm the freedom of my own movement, I am at same time restricting the freedom of the movement of that “four-legged animal”. And that “four-legged animal” can lead us to very interesting experiences.

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On Boundaries

In previous post I wrote about mistakes, and how they can be a source of creativity, as well as touched lightly on the subject of boundaries.

Another source of creativity in improvisation theatre is to create artificial boundaries for yourself. Practically all exercises in improvisation theatre involve some kind of limitation. You are not allowed to use some letter at all in your lines, you are told on the fly what what emotion you have to express in your next (improvised) line, etc. Unless you have experienced it yourself, it seems counter-intuitive that these limitations can actually enhance creativity. But setting an artificial, more stricter boundaries seems to make us somehow psychologically less rigid.

We seem to have a quite strange relationship with boundaries. We feel that boundaries somehow limit us. But, it seems that opposite is actually true. It can be argued that without boundaries, we cannot in fact grow, to transcend the boundaries. (The article is somewhat New Agey, but raises some very valid points.)

I re-learned this again in the context of the tango burnout. I wrote earlier, that I had a practical solution that seemed to work out most of the time. This turned out not to be true. After writing that, I spend several evenings in milongas with the agony of feeling discontent about tango, but unable to do anything about it.

However, a week later I took I private class from a tango teacher familiar with Alexander technique. He gave me a few practical advices. Applying those advices, the discontentment was completely gone in the next milonga. I could feel that sometimes followers were tense, but it no longer bothered me at all.

The advice that maybe had the biggest impact was directly related to boundaries. I wrote earlier that I had felt that I was responsible of making the follower to relax. But I learned that I had also unconsciously felt responsibility to seek for the connection in to the embrace more than was healthy. This made me lean in to the embrace, which hurt my own axis, as well as made it more difficult for followers to keep theirs.

After I concentrated on being on my own axis, as well as certain relaxation techniques from Mr. Alexander, my dancing was no longer disturbed by the tensions, and I could feel myself relax in the dance even with followers with whom I had real trouble dancing with before, and even when I was not too enthusiastic about the music.

There was a price for this, however. In a practica with my long-time practice partner, our connection was lost. But we found it again towards the end of the practica. It had very concretely become more the responsibility of the follower to seek for the connection.

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