Yombom (not his real name) is an avid tango dancer. He goes to milongas five to six times a week. He takes tango classes from many teachers, including us. In class, he genuinely tries to understand what we say, practices hard, and asks questions.
Somehow we started talking online. He asks me more questions about tango, and I try to answer him as best I can. I enjoy thinking about his questions and trying to come up with good answers for them.
I want to share one of our recent exchanges because it touches on two important ideas:
1) When we learn tango we wish we can find the right way or the best way to dance, but that does not exist. Great dancers are never great in the same way.
2) Partly because of (1), but also because we need to develop and protect our tango self-worth, it is not healthy to be humble and take criticism about our dance from everyone and anyone.
I would like to thank Yombom for his permission to publish this conversation. The dialogue has been edited for readability.
Yombom : Today someone told me that in an open embrace, the right way to create “tension” (the magic word!) is for the man to push horizontally towards the woman’s axis with both hands.
She has a very long history of dancing tango, and she is very enthusiastic about this tension concept. She has been preaching it to anyone who would listen. I think she has learned it in some recent classes.
Is this “tension” something that everyone should do all the time? Or is it just a style?
Me : I think focusing solely on how to create tension can be counterproductive.
The key question is: what is the tension for? Why do we need to create tension between two people? There have been performances where the two dancers are physically separated from each other, there is no tension between them. What is missing from that performance?
Yombom : No touching in open embrace, in a tango performance? I haven’t seen it before!
Me : The performance is here if you are interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bB9QHVdMYNk.
Yombom : “Tension” is perhaps the most dividing concept that I have come across in Korean tango culture.
Some women, during or after their dance with me, reprimanded me for my lack of tension.
It seems that for them, dancing with men who do not give enough tension is so unbearable that they consider it kind to let the men know.
Tension is soooooooooooooooo important to them.
Me : Did they talk to you about this in the milonga?
Yombom : I would say mostly during practicas.
Me :Were you asking for their feedback?
Yombom : Most of the time, no.
Me : They just gave you some feedback out of nowhere?
For me, unsolicited criticism implies admittance of one’s limits.
Basically they are saying that they don’t know how to dance with you, but expressing it as criticism makes it arrogant.
Yombom : I have no problem with getting feedback. What I’m interested in is whether what they say is “right” (for the lack of a better word).
Surely what they say and the way they say it can seem self-righteous. But I love harsh feedback.
Me : But you should not like arrogance, no?
Yombom : I just want to know what is correct. Arrogance is no problem for me.
Me : It should be, especially if the arrogance is directed towards your dancing.
Yombom : My attitude is: teach me something, I don’t care how.
If you don’t mind, can you tell me if you agree with this tension concept? I mean the critical importance of having tension from the beginning to the end when we dance.
Me : OK, let me try.
For me, the embrace is like architecture. We can construct buildings in many different ways. Buildings can be made out of straws, mud, steel… Because of the difference in material and how they are constructed, buildings not only look different but also stand differently.
Embraces are the same. Men construct their embrace in different ways – where they put their hands, how much and where they use tension (or no tension at all), where do the chests touch, … etc. That’s why different embraces can feel so different.
An experienced woman dancer understands how to comfortably inhabit different kinds of embrace. That’s why she knows how to enjoy dancing with different kinds of men.
A less-experienced woman understands less about how the different kinds of embrace work. Maybe she cannot dance if there is no chest connection, or she cannot dance if there is no tension in the arms.
There is no one way of making an embrace, just like there is no one way of erecting a building.
Tension can be a useful concept, but it’s more important to understand what effect we are trying to achieve with a particular kind of tension. Is it for stability? Is it for creating turns? How?
And what is the trade off? If we create tension in a particular way, are we sacrificing something else? (Usually we are.)
Great tangueros can dance with most women, and achieve the effect they want, even if the woman hasn’t “learned his way.”
Same for great tangueras, they understand what all the different kinds of men want.
Yombom : So you are saying that it’s a style… IMHO creating tension always sacrifices some comfort.
Me : Or rather tension is a tool, a device. There are many tools. A collection of tools that work well together is a style; or, a collection of tools that people commonly use together is a style.
It seems the questions you have asked recently are about how to dance with people who use different tools than you do. I can understand it can be uncomfortable to dance with them, and that can be unsettling.
Yombom : I’m more concerned about how uncomfortable THEY feel when they dance with me.
Me : Now that gets back to the question of arrogance and soliciting criticism.
Being overly concerned about others’ comfort is detrimental to one’s tango. Being too considerate does not help. It does not help her nor you.
I notice that you are quite a considerate person. If you think about it, you would know being considerate is not always beneficial in tango.
Yombom : What if she refuses to fit into what I do?
Me : Would that be a loss for you? If different women want different things from you, how can you be considerate to all of them? In tango, that’s exactly the problem.
What you should do is: be really good at what you care the most about, and try to satisfy the most number of women with that. The strategy is not to find out what all women want and satisfy all of them.
The key is to identify what you like, what you are good at, and develop that, for developing one excellent way of dancing already takes too much time.
Yombom : How would you advise me to react when some woman says something like this to me, “How come there is no tension in your embrace!?”
Me : It depends on the social situation – do I know the person, how polite I need to be… etc. But some possible answers are:
“I don’t give or take unsolicited comments about each other’s dancing.”
“Thank you,” and leave.
“You are right, but that concept is too high level for me. I am not ready yet. Thank you,” and leave.
“Do you want to dance, or talk?”
But, I think it’s BEST not to create a personal dynamic where the other person feels it’s ok for her to give you unsolicited criticism.
[Some time later]
Yombom : I’ve reread our conversation a few times to better understand what you are saying. I must confess the last topic we touched on still baffles me – that is, the “open to criticism” and “being considerate” issue.
I make sure that my friends know that I’m open to ANY criticism, no matter the way that it is given. It takes time to convince people that I’m serious, but now many know that indeed I am. Thanks to that I constantly get a lot of frank, and sometimes harsh, feedback, and I just love it. I continuously strive to improve my tango using this feedback. After all, the key to improving oneself is a fast feedback-adjustment cycle, right?
You said unsolicited feedback given as criticism is an expression of arrogance. Arrogance is bad for sure, but arrogance on the part of others is something that I have no control over, right? Can’t I just take their feedback as valuable input and ignore their arrogance?
Me : Your approach is great for developing your skill, but the most important thing about tango is not that.
Say you are an orator. Your job is to convince people by speech.
You will want to train your vocal projection, polish your speaking skill, work on your posture and delivery, and so on. All that helps you become a better public speaker.
But you don’t want to end all your speeches by saying, “Now I have told you all what I think, please give me ANY feedback that you have. I am very humble, I want your opinion and I want to improve myself!”
To convince people (and to dance well), we need passion, conviction, and confidence. They are more important than skill.
We need to start developing these things from day one, in parallel with skill. And you cannot develop them by always acting humble and soliciting opinions from anyone and everyone.
Also, if everyone knows they are free to criticize your dance, they treat you differently in the dance. Instead of dancing with you, they may be judging you.
Tango is about being the best version of yourself and that in itself would benefit others. It is not about catering to the specific needs of anyone.
Yombom : I haven’t thought about this before… I will spend some time getting my head around this new concept!
Me : Thank you for taking the time to hear what I have to say. I enjoy sharing my thoughts. If it helps someone in some way, all the better!