Thursday 15 November 2012

Young and beautiful - a Tango obsession?

Tango is a great dance and a fabulous environment that brings together people from different countries, ways of life, as well as different age-groups. When talking to non-Tangueros about it, I strongly emphasise the positive features of our community.
But, in my opinion, the same characteristics of the Tango setting also promote an increasing obsession with a slim, beautiful and young body. It‘s become a veritable beauty craze!

Sure, our whole western society is founded on these principles and a lot of money is made with diet nutrition, beauty and skin-care products and cosmetic surgeries. But when I started dancing Tango, I perceived the participants of Milongas as relatively „normal“ people. Sure, especially women tended to dress up, but not more than in other ways of life. So, what has changed?

Let me first point out another defining characteristic of our Tango society: it is perceived as a big family and it‘s central activity is the Milonga or Festival. 

Many other dances are centred around activities like the learning, practising, performances and competitions. In these events, the professionals (or high ranking amateurs in ballroom dances) are mostly separated from the normal public. You watch them in a demo or competition, you take a class with them, but you won‘t dance with them in the Ronda. There are the professionals and artists, who have undergone an proper training at an academy or with personal coaches and here are the ordinary persons who just dance for fun. They don‘t mix a lot.

We all know that in Tango, life is completely different: 
  • First of all, Tango professionals are expected to participate actively in the social events. If they keep apart too much, they will be perceived as big-headed and overly reclusive.
  • Secondly, there is no official training for Tango teachers, so that any „ordinary dancer“ can ascent into the ranks of the demi-gods in black. I‘ve done that, so do others. ;-)

Apart from creating lots of problems in the modi operandi of this non-professional/professional setting (read also: It‘s a job, for god‘s sake!) the result is an high exposure to more elaborate concepts of beauty on a very regular and casual basis:
  • Normal women (doctors, housewives or schoolteachers) meet professional dancers with their perfectly shaped bodies. Young professional dancers migrating in large numbers from BA since the start of the Campeonato Mundial increase these experiences.
  • Middle aged dancers with a time-consuming job encounter young Tango-fanatics who decided to dance every hour of the day and form their body for this challenge.
  • Northern European women with rather heavy body structures mingle with petite Argentine, French or Italian ladies. 
  • Fairly „down-to-earth“ women communicate with those who come from cultures where women strive to be as beautiful, young and sexy as long as possible - think of all the Tangueras in Buenos Aires who have undergone cosmetic surgeries! A nice lady and acquaintance of mine was asked by her argentine friend, why she would not undergo a facelift - she should not have to live with her ageing features. Imagine!
The fact that traveling to international events has become much more important and common in the last few years increases this exposure to more extreme ideals of beauty. Its pressure on women is immensely high and one possible consequence (apart from depression) is an exaggerated obsession with beauty, an ideal figure and everlasting youth. So nowadays, when I go to a Tango-event, I see many more women with super-slim, perfectly shaped bodies in super-sexy and youthful clothes than in earlier times of my Tango life. The more you go to the „cooler“ events, the higher the dance-level gets, the more of these women you‘ll meet. Ok, not all of these women look really healthy, happy or dressed appropriately, but still.... They conform themselves to the standards.

So what about me?

When I started dancing Tango, I was in my early thirties, slim and not ugly. Most people I met in Tango were older than me, very few in the same age group. I did not aspire to become a Tango teacher, but I liked dancing and felt quite positive about my outer self. As you all know, I somehow got sucked into this parallel universe and ended up as a full-time Tango teacher, DJ and organiser. ;-)

And absurdly, by becoming a full-time Tango-teacher, I started to gain weight. Why?
Well, I travel most weeks of the year and am usually fed with tasty, but sometimes unhealthy and very often rich stuff. Holding onto a healthy diet is very difficult under these circumstances. You try resist the temptation, when every hosts prepares his or her most special meals or you are hungry and have to eat at airports or train stations.
Because of all that traveling, I also have much less time for sports that I did before. and when I'm at home, there's more work to be done: I prepare workshops and analyse music, I write and distribute class notes, I prepare my DJing gigs, I manage contracts on a professional basis... So, for me, being a Tango teacher means mostly sitting in trains, planes, cars or in front of the computer and standing vis-a-vis a group of students. There's not much physical exertion. (And the dancing? Yea... well, I wrote about that...)
So my work ethic in combination with the disadvantages of frequent travel do not contribute to maintaining a perfectly shaped body, especially if this body has the strong tendency to expand. ;-)

The result: Whilst I was gaining popularity, I was also getting more rotund. From the incredibly large number of female feedback, I have to assume, that my body features where indeed one reason for our success: So many of our female students explained that they are fed up with the young, skinny and perfect dancers and prefer a „normal“ or „average“ woman as their teacher. Well, good for them. 
Whilst they were happy with their round role model, I was becoming increasingly unhappy with my increasing proportions. This would also have been the case in a non-Tango environment, but the special conditions of the Tango world did not help to maintain my self-confidence. Try being the „biggest“ Maestra at a festival or coping with commentaries on Youtube like: „Nice dance, but the lady should pay more attention to her figure.“
It‘s no fun, I can assure you!

So, after years of suffering from an increasingly negative self-image (as well as permanent fatigue and frequent illness) I decided to change my ways and mutated into a fitness-freak: I am on a strict (healthy) diet - which is no fun for our organizers - work out every day and started practising Yoga.  Hell, I will even undergo a Yoga-teacher training beginning next January. My friends have trouble recognizing me!

But although such a metamorphosis costs a lot of willpower, the results of my activities are pleasing. My stamina has much improved, I am only rarely ill and can dance for hours at an Encuentro. All the great compliments do not hurt either... These transformations go hand in hand with our decision to travel and work less in the coming years. So even more positive changes are to come. Yay!

I am nevertheless worried: Two weeks ago in Impruneta, I found myself wearing a belly-free outfit. Does a women of 46 (ok, by then still 45) really have to dress that way? Is it not just one more sign for a loss of perspective? Am I a victim of the beauty-craze?

And what do my customers say? 
There is more and more negative feedback. Although I‘m still far from being skinny (and more curvy than most women at a typical Festival), many perceive my as too slim and complain about my changes. They express their sincere hope that I won‘t transform into one of those typical Tango-dolls, with whom no „normal“ dancer can identify.

But, do not worry, folks! This will not happen, as I won‘t change my general attitude towards dancing or teaching and I won‘t get very much slimmer either. My natural disposition and my love of good food will prevent that. But I could not stay fat to meet your expectations either. ;-)

As I am also very aware of what I‘m wearing and doing, I will try to not fall into the everlasting-youth trap. I will age appropriately, become wrinkly, wear decent clothes and will not embarrass myself by trying to be fake young age. I will buy my first pair of real glasses soon (I‘ve already got reading glasses) and I will not hesitate to wear them in public. How else could I do a perfect Mirada and Cabeceo?

What is the male reaction to my changes? Well, I get a lot of compliments, but most men assure, that they liked my rounder form as well. And as they‘ve danced with my former curvy self as much as with my new slimmer incarnation, I somehow believe them. So I won‘t overdo it and stay „average“. ;-)

My conclusion: the beauty crazy leaves only few people unaffected and we have to be aware of it‘s mechanisms and dangers in our very special Tango bubble. I‘ll do everything to stay grounded!

A short note:
Early in the text, I contrast Tango to other dances with different settings, but I‘ve got a hunch, that the Swing/Lindy or Salsa environment shares similar characteristics and its resulting problems.

Two disclaimers after thinking some more:
1. Note that I do not accuse men of not dancing with curvy women. I write about the fact, that the sheer existence of so many beautiful, slim and young women put "normal" women under so much pressure. Although some man might have preferences, as I commented upon in my very first blog post. ;-)
2. I don't want to criticize slim women or those who are striving to become slimmer or more beautiful. Do whatever you must to feel good and be happy, if you're already close to perfect. It is just the general and unhealthy obsession over these features that I find worrying.