Tango Taught Me Not To Cheat My Steps, In Dance, Love and in Life!

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When I turned to tango, I thought it was an escape, from the embarrassment and hurt I felt over being betrayed in a relationship in the salsa scene. I thought that everyone knew what was going on for those couple of years except for me. And when I found out about it, I just wanted to run away from the salsa regulars- those faces that I imagined were either pitying me for being so gullible, or maybe even laughing thinking. “He’s a salsa instructor, for God’s sake! What did you expect?”

I knew I still wanted to dance, but everytime I would go to those same venues, he would be there, eyeing down his next prey. I was disgusted because now I could totally see him for what he really was, and how I had been so blind to it. As much as I tried to ignore it, and put it behind me, I could feel him around. And I knew he was very aware of exactly where I was.

I couldn’t shake the bad energy from it. My body would actually literally be shaking with anger whenever I would go out on the dance floor. It hadn’t forgotten about the mess, eventhough I was trying to will my mind to. How ironic that the muscle memory for salsa dancing had finally been ingrained into my system. But unfortunately, along with that were now these negative associations with the venues where that learning had happened. The spaces that brought me so much joy felt tainted with the lies that were uncovered, so I couldn’t get myself to enjoy dancing in those surroundings.

Where could I still dance and actually have fun with it again?

That’s when Tango came to me- literally. At the time, I thought I chose it. I thought I came up with the idea of trying another dance. But it would take me some time to realize tango had actually chosen me. It had lessons to teach me that I didn’t even know I needed to learn, and at exactly the time when I was ready to learn them.

One of them was that the relationship I had just come out of was actually meant to lead me right into the the arms of another. But not like an unhealthy rebound or anything. It wasn’t even a person, but a dance. Tango itself. And it’s embrace was so unlike any other. Tango was going to teach me how very alive and healing a dance could be. How held and deeply in touch to something greater I could feel. How dance could be such great therapy. I needed to learn how to get centerd back to myself again. And tango was the teacher that would lead me there.

It shouldn’t have been a suprise then that much of the initial lessons of this dance were dedicated to the art of the tango embrace. I thought I’d pick it up quicker now that I had learned about the frame and connection in salsa. But in tango, it was so different. We went into so much more detail. From the adaptability of the frame, to the positionings that best allowed both partners to feel the different points of connection along the arms and chest. It was an embrace that held me in a more full, expansive, and all encompassing way. So much so that I found myself craving it more and more. It showed me how to trust not just in my partner, but also in myself, which made this dance even more inviting and intoxicating.

But there were so many nuances to learn before even thinking of stepping out on the social dance floor. We could no longer rely on a predictable count, like in salsa, where each basic step told us which foot or direction we needed to go. In salsa, we knew to just go back on the 1 with the right or go forward on the 5 with the left, for example, should we lose our step.

In tango, the breakdown wasn’t in terms of steps or combinations. There was no 1,2,3, 5, 6, 7 to fall back on.The structure was less in the counting and delegation of number to foot, and more in the beat and feel of the dance. Not just in terms of a direction, but also the angle, speed and length of that direction. But it also wasn’t just random. It could be different every time depending on the lead and even how much space there was on the dance floor. And there was an art to sensing and leading this with precision. We had to first train that ability in our bodies.

We were also no longer dancing just in straight lines. Much of the energy was circular, but the degree of the curves and circles needed to be picked up through subtle cues that required deeper body awareness and connection. I felt like salsa had only given me a glimpse of this. And there was more of a linear fashion to the steps and times when you weren’t even facing or connected to your partner. But in tango, the connection had to be there all the time, and you had to be fully present to pick up how much of a rotation in those cicrular movements you were meant to make. If you weren’t, the whole dance would fall apart.

For this reason, there was this kind of slower pace to the learning of this dance. This time, it wasn’t just my own individual progress that felt slow in comparison to others. Everything was broken down to the minutest detail with a focus on the quality of each movement- the placement of the foot, the speed at which the leg was drawn in, even what part of the toe was gliding along the floor to complete the move.

The connection- between us and our partners, us and the floor, and us and our own selves became hugely imperative to the lessons. Although these concepts were brought up in salsa, I felt like people could get away with not mastering them in that dance, and still be able to go to socials and make a night of it. They could cheat their steps, even fumble through them if needed, and get out on the dance floor and have fun.

But with tango, there was no cheating your steps. If you even tried, it looked and felt messy, for both you and your partner, because you were so much closer. So you couldn’t just peak at your partner’s feet to know what was coming next. You often couldn’t see their feet. The feel was how you knew which of your partner’s legs were free to make the next step. And being aware of your own weight transfers was so important.

Without taking the time to train this, there would be a mismatch of energy that could also be felt by anyone watching, not to mention a high probablity of toes being stepped on. Not so fun when 3 inch tango heels are invovled, let me tell you! And the result would often mean not geting any more dances for the rest of the night.

This proved to be quite frustrating for those wanting a crash course in the dance. Trying to go social dancing with only a few weeks or even months of tango lessons was almost unheard of in the tango scene, especially if you wanted to be taken seriously. This dance seemed to take more patience, and care. So we had to start from the ground up, literally.

JUST WALKING. Feeling the connection of the feet to the floor and paying close attention to the details of each step as well as the ‘non-steps’.

Which part of the body started the movement? We would feel into it and observe. Many times, it was more an impulse from the center which was the real initiator, before any visible movement was involved. Other times, it was even just a breath. We would practise this several times before even traveling an inch from where we started.

And when there was movement involved, we experimented with which part of the foot would hit the floor first- the heal, the toe? And would it actually be a hit, a smooth glide, an attack or somewhere in the middle? And how would the progression of the landing happen?

A simple walk was broken down into projection, extension and transfer. Details like making sure to caress the floor with the big toe of the foot and making a gradual transfer using the abductors of the legs helped develop a strength and smoothness in our movements which would eventually become like second nature to us. Even the emphasis on the collection of our feet became something I found myself doing without even thinking about outside my dance life.

For some people, it was too much. They wanted to show up to a dozen or so lessons, and assumed that that would be enough to get out on the dance floor. When this didn’t work, they gave up and sought something ‘easier’ or that took less time and focus. They wanted to move more and cover more distance and learn fancy tricks like boleos and gancho kicks right off the bat.

What they missed out on was that even though the distance we were traveling on the floor was not far in length, tango was taking us deep within ourselves and including us in its magic as well. And those of us who stayed long enough had the privelege of experiencing this. I was lucky enough to feel little moments where something clicked and kept drawing me in despite the frustration.

Tango surrounded me with a new environment, new dancers, and new ways to move my body. It all felt like a fresh start, but it was also a deep dive into something old – into a fascinating history, culture and traditions that arose so long ago. And that it was still alive and still reaching people’s hearts hundreds of years later astounded me. I felt so privileged to be a part of the mystery, history and passion of that world.

And it DID feel otherworldy. People drawn to it carried themselves differently. They even dressed differently. I always felt like I was being transported back into time when entering a tango studio or milonga, with its unique music, instruments and intrigue. It excited me even on my way there. Like a special aura, its pull could be felt even before entering the venues. The mixture of its strong, fiery, powerful energy, but also a grace and poise that seemed so ethereal, made it feel like time slowed down with tango.

And I so needed that. I didn’t even know I did. And because I felt that first through this particular dance, I assumed that it was unique to tango. And in my mind, that was what made tango different and beautiful. So I stuck with it.

But one day, some friends from salsa reached out to me, and they wanted to go out dancing. I hadn’t been in that scene for a long time, but I realized I was no longer holding onto the upset of the drama that had happened before. So I thought, sure. It would be great to get out and dance salsa again, and see my friends.

I was curious how my body would adapt back to salsa after spending so much time focusing on tango. Would it come back to me right away, or would I be rusty and have to get used to it again?

I was so suprised by the strange sensation that came over me as soon as I had my first salsa dance again. Simply put, I WAS BETTER. I mean, my salsa dancing had gotten better even though I had been away from it for so long. My body was more connected to the floor, to my partner and myself. And I could pick up cues faster than I could remember doing before.

I also felt more grounded, more centered, and my steps felt fuller. Like I was taking my time with them, and not cheating them. I hadn’t even realized I was cheating them in the past. But my body was so trained from tango to fully step, or fully embrace, or fully transfer my weight when needed, that my salsa dancing felt so much more fluid. And my feet would naturally collect during pivots which kept my steps neatly contained and cleaner.

I could feel the expansiveness that I was feeling in tango come into my salsa dancing. I felt more depth, more intention and more present to my partner and the music. I was responding with more confidence, and my responses were more precise, with a clear direction and sure footedness I hadn’t remembered feeling before. Even the little tips that I had heard in salsa before- like not putting your heal down when stepping back on the 1, made so much more sense to me now.

It was such a great feeling. And I started to realize that what I thought were just qualities and concepts unique to tango dancing were actually qualities that made ALL dancing beautiful. And tango hadn’t confused my ability to salsa dance but had actually improved it.

In fact, over the years, I started taking that concept of not cheating your step into all the other dances I got into as well- from bachata to kizomba to zouk, and even solo dances like house and bellydance.

Not cheating my step helped me really use the floor, and move as a whole unit, aligned and centered and connected to my partner and myself. And that readied me for new steps that might be thrown at me. Slowing down the learning in tango actually quickened my responses, and strengthened my confidence in tango and all other dances.

The strange thing is that I started seeing this show up in other areas of my life as well. For example, I could understand better why slowing down the reps I was doing in my arm and leg workouts gave better results. And slowing down and focusing on more accurate finger placement when playing guitar chords or being deliberate in how I attacked notes when singing riffs and runs, allowed me to become more fluid in these practices as well.

The best part was taking this into relationships. Slowing things down, to really get to know someone and honouring how I really felt in their presence made such a difference. Did I feel off balance or unsure of myself? Did I need to take a step back and feel into where I stood in the dynamic? This allowed me to not fantasize about what this person could be or what we were and to see things more clearly.

Just like not jumping onto the dance floor in tango before I was ready, I was able to slow things down in relationships and not cheat my steps. This allowed me to see the truth of the situation, making sure to take each step at a time, rather than rushing forward. With this lesson from tango in my mind and in my body, I was more able to speak up about what I needed, or about something that different feel right. And I would take a step back to go at a pace that was more comfortable for me whenever my body indicated that it needed that space and time.

And just like in tango, this didn’t actually slow down my ability to form relationships. It just deepened them, made them more meaningful. And this made me able to decipher what felt right or not for me more quickly. I didn’t waste time in something that wasn’t in line with what I wanted, and I was all the more truer to myself in dance, love and life because of this.

Thank you, Tango.

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