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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On Mistakes

In this interview, Kirsten Kaschock touches the relationship between boundaries and creativity in poetry and dancing.

I have seen the same relationship in tango. Some followers coming from modern dances or contact improvization have commented that tango “steps” constrain their movement too much. I have found the opposite to be true, at least for me as a leader with my current experience.

To me, like language, tango offers a rich vocabulary. The difficulty lies in how to remember less used expressions in the vocabulary, and how to use the expressions in the vocabulary in a creative way. I find that many forms of creativity actually require a shared vocabulary. This vocabulary is the “boundary” that frees me to be creative.

One form of creativity comes from “mistakes”, in other words from some incongruence between the leading and following. There is the quite famous saying that in tango, there are no mistakes, just variations. For a beginner, this is a healthy attitude.

One should truly not be afraid of mistakes. I have never danced with anybody, even with a world famous teacher, who did not do any “mistakes”. (Professional tango dancers seem to be quite vocal when they do a “mistake”, seems like they want to make sure the student does not think it was student’s fault.)

I have found out that the cause for the “mistake” is rarely where we think it is. The “mistake” is a natural consequence of broken connection. And as a leader, I can immediately feel when the connection is broken, so I am in some way already expecting the “mistake” even before it happens. I cannot necessarily guess what the “mistake” will be. But often there are not too many variations, so you can “fix” any of them immediately.

The broken connection seems often be a result of some tenseness in muscles in follower. Tense muscle is less sensitive, and cannot feel the direction as well as relaxed muscle. When follower cannot feel the direction, they can easily become anxious and start guess. But guessing only causes more “mistakes”, which again result in more tenseness. So, very fundamentally, the problem is not the “mistake”, but the fact that we are afraid of “mistakes”.

I have found that improvisation theatre has healthy attitude towards “mistakes”. Rather than re-label mistakes as “variations”, they are brought into light and celebrated as a source of creativity. For example, one might exaggerate a “mistake” to the point of absurdity, and then it becomes comedy. Much of the fun in improvisation theatre comes from this.

Even when we become outwardly more free from the fear of mistakes, we still seem to have some subconscious fears towards them. In practice when we feel a “mistake” was made, it creates negative emotions. When we exaggerate the mistake, the energy behind the negative emotion is released, and we feel reliefed. Laughter is the consequence of the release of this energy.

I try to do the same in tango whenever possible. Obviously it requires that very quick reactions, because comical aspect is situational and very sensitive to time. It also requires that I as a leader share a vocabulary with the follower. Unless she knows what I tried to lead, and, the recognizes the incongruence between the my lead and her follow, it is not possible to exaggerate the incongruence, and the comical aspect is not there. So, the boundaries of shared vocabulary are really necessary.

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