Thursday, 29 August 2019

Reflections of a tango professional

This post contains boring, disenchanting or even disturbing details about the life of a tango professional. 

I have long pondered whether I can actually publish this, because it might be severely misunderstood. This is why I have to prepend the following:

This article is in no way meant as a complaint about my situation. I really like my job and find it rewarding to help grow an international tango community, meet lots of interesting people and bring joy by promoting such a wonderful dance. I also cannot deny, that I savour the attention, positive feedback and respect for my work. Ah... and dancing with a lovely person who has absorbed some of our principles into his or her dance! I get to reap the harvest of our endeavours directly in the milongas or encuentros. I have actively chosen tango over the career as a psychologist and am glad I did.

But as you know, I am a very realistic and rather prosaic person and a lot of my tango friends, students and clients do not seem to know what my profession actually consists of or implies. Their romantic misconceptions often leave me speechless. At first. Then I try to explain and get carried away. That can be quite annoying for the person whom I am talking to because they were just making polite small-talk. This post is so that I can say: read my blog. 

Here are the facts about my life as a tango teacher, dj and organiser.

1. Job description
My main activity is not dancing or being at milongas. It is not even teaching. 
What I do mostly is to sit in my office (or elsewhere) in front of my computer. This is where I spend 80-90% of my work hours with: event-, class- and travel organisation, preparing local team meetings, building and updating several websites, analysing or preparing music for classes or milongas, updating client data, editing videos, preparing class-content, writing and sending out class material, communicating with students, organisers or team members, writing invoices and bills of delivery, advertising in several languages and much more. A huge part of this involves spreadsheets, online forms and lists and is as exciting as the work of an accountant. Luckily I don't mind such tasks. But add some more annoying work like buying provisions for events or teacher-trainings, cleaning the studio or setting up venues and you'll understand my typical work day. Yes, there are the days during which I teach or dance, but even then the overhead work does not go anywhere. It still has to be done. 
In general I can say: My most important tools aren't dance shoes but the computer and my most important body parts aren't my legs but my brain. I could very easily do most of my work with a broken leg, but basically nothing without my computer.
When I am at home, I get up early in the morning and spend my day in front of the screen until dinner. I try to make a break around noon for a workout and breakfast. In the evenings, I watch a series or movie with my non-tango-sweetheart and go to bed around 11. I usually read 1/2 hour before I fall asleep. 
On rare days, I retire to my sofa in the afternoon because I started work before 6 in the morning. But as I take my computer with me, I usually end up working again. Like now. 
I do not take holidays and I will answer your e-mails within a day (usually within the hour) even on X-Mas or my birthday. 

2. Business travels
How come that everyone wishes me "have fun" when I am travelling to someplace for workshops? Would you say the same to an executive or engineer going to a business conference? Apart from the very few times per year that I go to an encuentro just to dance, travelling stands for a series of very challenging days with only few hours of sleep. Apart from classes, demos and dj-gigs, I squeeze in all the duties described above in the hours free of the payed work. Again, I love my work, but it is still work and I'd rather hear "I wish you lots of energy or success" than "have fun" as if I were going on a holiday. 
On business trips, I don't have time for sightseeing. Although I travel to many exciting places, I seldom see anything apart the tango venues, hotels, airports, train-stations and restaurants. And no, it does usually not make sense to stay a few days longer. I just spent some time in Austria with friends prior to an engagement in Slovenia. It was lovely, but the two extra days of group activities meant that I arrived less well rested than usual for work and overhead tasks piled up. I cannot allow myself to do this very often.
On days of traveling from A to B, I have some more time to read a book, because working whilst driving a car or sitting in a plane does not function well for me. If a train is not too full, I sometimes manage a few tasks on my computer, but I usually do not get a lot done because of the iffy internet. Traveling itself can take up two entire days per week. Judging by the actual work-output, you could call these holidays, but considering the amount of fatigue and stress, I am not sure if I can agree with this interpretation. 
In the past, we traveled up to 46 week(ends) per year. Now we are at home more often because of two encuentros, a 4-module tango-teacher-training, as well as workshops and classes in our studio. Less travel reduces my general stress level but increases the overhead-workload. How so? Well, when we give workshops at a festival or local school, the organisers will manage the client-bookings and payments, a huge part of the advertising and all local logistics. When we offer a workshop in our hometown, all of this is my job. 

3. Financial aspects of tango dj-ing
To dj does not generate an income to speak of, but is rather a very expensive and time-consuming hobby. A well known tango-dj can earn between 100€ and 250€ per gig plus expenses. (A local non-tango-dj in a disco earns a minimum of 500€.) Taking into consideration that you will have to buy lots of music and expensive equipment, the profit will be around zero, if not a loss. Some popular djs who live in an area with many regular milongas might be able to make a modest income, but usually even they have day jobs to pay the rent. When I am invited to dj at an encuentro, I see it as a great opportunity to play music for nice dancers, to get into an event for free and have my travel-expenses covered. My salary will most likely be spent on meals during the weekend. 

4. Financial aspects of organising events
Organising events or milongas will usually not be profitable. Sure, if you've got a regular milonga with more than 100 visitors in your own studio and you don't pay an external dj... But most local milongas just cover the expenses or make a loss. Our local milongas often are within the deficit range, but we see them as important service for our students and the community. 
Events like encuentros can generate a profit. But please note that the biggest part of the income will still go into the venue, djs, other staff, equipment, catering, insurances and taxes. Sure, if the organisers are smart, an event with 200 visitors can make an income of 1000-5000€. Sounds a lot? Not if you consider the work hours that go into organising it. 
Please be aware that the only ways of making an appropriate income with events would be:
- Reducing the expenses and therefore the quality and/or exploiting djs and helpers. Which would be evil and stupid!
- Raising prices. That would be the sensible thing to do, but tangueros will complain when the event costs 120€ instead of 85€. Considering that the entrance fee is the smallest expense over a weekend... well... 

5. Financial aspects of teaching
The only activity that can generate a decent income in tango is teaching. But even then, I do not know any tango teacher who could be considered as wealthy by normal standards. 
I live from tango since 2006 and cannot complain. Actually I think that we are better off than many other tango teachers (see note below *):
We have (a little) above average per hour prices and therefore generate an appropriate income. Our lifestyle is acceptable: we never had to hunger, we rent nice apartments and I can afford to buy a new Macbook and iPhone every 5 years. Or books and videos. Or invite a friend for dinner in a restaurant and give money to family needy members. But I do not own a house, our car is old and I do not have a pension plan. Why is that?
- Because of the disadvantageous proportion of classes (payed work) to overhead (not payed work). I will usually not teach more than 6-10 hours per week, sometimes less, because we do not travel all the time. 
But teaching is my only income to speak of. So why don't we teach more? Well, even if there were more engagements, I would not have the time to actually take on more classes because of the overhead workload and the traveling from A to B. When we started traveling for workshop weekends, we decided to give up our regular classes in three cities. It would have been just too much.
The ratio of payed/not-payed work is better during tango-holidays (14-20 teaching hours per week) and teacher trainings (25-30).  
- We do only seldom take on privates during workshop weekends or festivals, because we have to preserve our energy for group classes for which the organiser carries the financial risk. We also do not charge for demos - unless it is during a festival where the other teachers also get payed for their shows.
- Because in spite of a good turnover, work-related expenses are quite high and we spend a considerable part of our income in tango again: travel to encuentros as paying customers, buy tango music, software, online services, ads in tango magazines, studio rent, equipment, paying staff, inviting clients for dinner... yes, I also buy shoes and dresses - but from what I can tell, much less than most dancers.
- We often give substantial reductions to people with a low income, in rare cases up to 100%. Sometimes, I even offer free classes or seminars for entire groups because I want the tango community to develop. In tango, one cannot just take, one has to give as well to keep the system running. 
Had I pursued my career as a psychologist, things would look very different.

6. Expiration date of tango careers
Unless you are an "old Argentine maestro or milonguero", who will still be invited for classes abroad and highly respected in Buenos Aires, please do not expect to make a great living from tango once that you've passed a certain age. Younger, better dancers are constantly popping up and the memories of customers are surprisingly short. No matter how impressive your résumé as a teacher or how much you have perfected pedagogical skills, you will eventually be discharged. 
And even if not: can you imagine how the above described workload will feel when you're 75? Would you really want to travel that much, live out of your suitcase, often staying at tango people's homes without any privacy at an advanced age? I actually pity the "old ones" who still have to go on tour. 
Successful local teachers in big cities will have better prospects, but only if they play their cards well and integrate young talent. 
Rigorose diet and exercise (or just good genes) as well as plastic surgery might also help, but Detlef and I have now both passed the 50s-demarcation and I stopped colouring my hair recently. We're not young anymore and one can see it.
This last consideration may sound particularly harsh and bitter, but I am just being realistic. I have been teaching tango and expanding my business for 18 years. I do not regret having chosen this path, but I'd better start working on a backup plan. 

The life of a tango teacher, organiser and dj is not in the least bit as glamorous as you imagine. Sure, there might be the few top-notch "maestros" who do not prepare their classes, are so famous that they do not need to take care of publicity, will answer mails with a delay of weeks and can spend their retirement on the beach. But I guess that these are rare exceptions. And even then: these artists might spend hours per day practising or preparing choreographies. That's maybe a little bit more exciting than managing the pizza-list for our encuentro, but it is also hard work. I guess.

Please consider all this:
- when you see me or another professional being tired or not dancing a lot during a workshop weekend,
- before you complain about the costs for a class or an event,
- before you plan on taking up one of these activities professionally.

... in particular if your partner is not a tanguero. You need a very, very understanding sweetheart. Luckily, I do.

* This is just a guess, because I know of so many tango stars living in tiny flats or even entirely out of their suitcases. But maybe they are just smarter and saving money for the future. It is true that I do not see a lot of professional teachers at tango events unless they are there for work. As mentioned above: we still go to encuentros a couple of times per year and everyone knows how expensive these trips can be. I guess we could save a lot of money by not going or by participating for free and staying with local dancers. But we don't feel comfortable with such practises and we love dancing. So: spending money for tango is indispensable. Also: what would be the point of teaching a social dance and not dance yourself? Right?

P.S. Here is a link to a post from 2011. As you can see, my general perspective has not changed over the years. 

Sunday, 28 April 2019

The Tango Zone

Remember a few years ago? 

In 2010, the first year of this blog, I wrote about how our own hometown had become a tango free zone for us. And this was true for so many years:
We were traveling all over Europe and to the USA, sometimes for 46 out of 52 weeks. It was interesting and rewarding, but also exhausting and it estranged us more and more from the city in which we lived and still live. Dancers from all over the world often assumed, that we were teaching in our hometown, when in fact, the local dancers did not even know our names. There were years when our annual Encuentro with 200 participants hosted not more than 4 dancers from Saarbrücken.

Although this was normality for such a long time, it never felt quite right: having to travel far just to dance one tanda; knowing that tango here was so different from what we loved... 

But things started to change little by little: 
Once in a while, we would organise a workshop weekend in our small Tangokombinat studio and I started to offer Ladies Only seminars. Sure, most participants would come from afar, but there were always 1 or 2 locals. And sometimes, dancers from Saarbrücken would visit a workshop with us in some other town. So - although we still did not dance or teach regularly in Saarbrücken, some local dancers got to know us and our philosophy. 
But it was our teacher training that re-connected us with tango in our hometown. In order to offer an evening activity for our teacher-trainees we would organise a milonga during each module. This is where the local tangueros got to interact with so many nice dancers that had traveled from far to work with us. They (most likely) heard positive feedback about our classes and noticed that there was no kicking and jumping at our milongas.
In 2016, we then organised the first edition of Pequeña with the aim to bring together the (still) few close embrace dancers from our home region with friends from all over Europe. It was an instant success and many new bonds were forged.
But the real change happened when in 2018 all of a sudden four dancers from Saarbrücken asked to participate in our TTT. Wow! We would never have anticipated this!
All of a sudden we spent a lot more time with local dancers, exchanged views, ideas and sorrows. We actually got to know each other.

And there was one other thing: 
During the TTT, I got increasingly envious of our graduates who were giving classes in their hometowns. Regular tango classes. Teaching beginners. We had not done that for many years. Our workshop participants, even the teacher-trainees, even those who followed us around the globe were never really our students - they had discovered tango elsewhere. Sure, I am happy with what we achieved and how many dancers we could reach with our ideas. But it is still different than having your own students whom you can teach from the beginning. In the years 2002-2007, when we were giving weekly classes in Metz, Landau and St. Wendel (never in our hometown!), our pedagogical, musical and technical skills had been much less developed. Now, after so many years of teaching, learning, researching, discussing, I was eager to work with beginners from a new and improved perspective.

So I thought: It's now or never!

I wrote a mail to our local tango-friends, asking them, if they'd be interested in making tango in our hometown nicer - all of them responded positively. And with such great enthusiasm and dedication. All of a sudden, it was not only me, but Detlef, I and 9 friends! 

Everyone is helping to promote our activities, eager to participate, to develop as dancers, as djs and as hosts at milongas. Since our first meeting, we've started a bunch of activities:

  • Monthly milongas in the Tangokombinat studio,
  • Weekly classes for beginners and for those who want to improve their dance quality, 
  • A practica and milongas organised by our friends Armin and Elena, 
  • A simple couch-surfing platform for our events in Saarbrücken,
  • Outdoor dancing and much more...

Yesterday, at our monthly Minilonga - for the first time - we could integrate beginners into the fold. In their first four classes, they have learned to move in the ronda, to invite by mirada and cabeceo and to change roles! Yes, we're teaching both roles from the beginning and I think it is already showing great results. Although there was (as usual) a huge female majority at yesterday's milonga, no-one sat and moped. Everyone had fun. And I even saw a few men following. 

Not bad, eh? Guess the tango free zone is not tango free anymore!

The only downside: much more work. Building up something takes a lot of time and energy. What little was left for leisure activities and quality time with my sweetheart is now gone. Apart from my usual work organising and actually holding our international teaching-activities and events, I've now got classes during the week, meetings, fixing up the studio, workshops to form new djs for the community. Plus my new leading-practise twice a week ... sigh... anyone a youth potion? Should I by now not be preparing for retirement? But then, there's no retirement on a tango-teacher's wage anyway. So: on we go.

Friday, 29 March 2019


In this very nerdy tango-related post, I want to point out, how some common follower’s techniques or habits can make improvisation and navigation difficult and a comfortable embrace or good connection hard to achieve. 

I know that this post might antagonise female dancers - as much as my last blog was popular amongst women. Please be assured, that I do not write to insult or criticise, but to help create more awareness about the outcome of specific tango techniques. 

I am here not speaking about beginners who are struggling with their posture and actually might not yet have a technique. This is why I will not comment on issues that are considered as "mistakes", no matter what approach you follow: bad posture, a general lack of control over tension and relaxation, not carrying the weight of your arms, hanging on your leader or pushing too hard against him/her, stepping away from your partner, not knowing the music, not actively taking spaces...
Let’s assume that a dancer with some experience has sorted out most of those issues or is as least aware of them.

I am explicitly addressing "advanced" followers. You will dance at Milongas, Encuentros and Marathons. You look super elegant and do the most complex moves with ease. You might even be a successful teacher or performer. But that does not mean that your techniques are universal or helpful in all situations or with all partners. 

Don’t get me wrong: I do not think, that followers should have to adapt to every technique of any leader. On the contrary, that is the leaders job as well. I will, e.g. not pivot when not being given the space to build up my top-to-down spiral. But I will usually find a way to make the movement happen without having to compromise my ideas. Or I will not do so, being aware that this leader might not want to dance with me again. It is my choice. But I assume, that very few followers consciously want to hurt their partners or block movements. This is why I will describe advantages and disadvantages of techniques and habits.

I am aware that how I useful I find a technique, is defined by my priorities. Let me point them out:
  • A soft embrace and deep connection
  • Organic and comfortable movements
  • Real improvisation
  • Musicality
  • Social dancing
As I have written before: for me as a social dancer, it is about how it feels from the inside and not how it looks from the outside. Elegance is a plus, but no top priority. And my priorities determine the techniques and concepts that I use and teach.

Other teachers or dancers have different priorities and will therefore use differing concepts and techniques. So when I am disappointed by someone’s technique, another leader might be perfectly happy dancing with the same person.

Before shrugging off my blog as the quirky ideas of a mediocre dancer, please remember that I have been teaching for 18 years all over Europe and the USA. Therefore: If a follower’s techniques are incompatible with mine, they might be incompatible with others as well. Not least with the ones of my teaching partner. How often do you think that Detlef is disappointed by how uncomfortable a dance was and by how little he could improvise? I still remember when he came back from a milonga in Rome, almost having cried on the dance floor, because none of the women was willing to do a shift of weight to their right foot.

In this blog, I am mainly writing from the perspective of a leader. Let me comment on that as well:
As a teacher, it was alway my standard to understand whatever we do in class from the perspective of both roles and be capable of leading it. This is why all of the following observations have been confirmed in the class context as well as on the social dance floor. In a crowded ronda, in a close embrace, I usually stick to simpler movements than in class: variations of the walk, milonguero ochos, simple turns… The more disappointing it is, when some of these very basic moves will absolutely not function.

Sure, I (like any other leader, also Detlef) make mistakes, but please be assured, that after so many years of in-detail analysis, I will always be able to tell, why a movement did not function in a given moment. So when I could not step out to the right lane, I might not have prepared this properly by turning my leg in the hip and by this opening a space. But it might also have been the follower’s doing, because she did not open her left side due to her asymmetric embrace. In this complex dance and communication, both partners contribute to the successes and failures. This post is about the follower’s part in the interaction.

My dear friend Ms Hedgehog has recently written a great blog on what it takes to be a good social dancer. She focusses on the positive aspects and I agree with everything she writes. But because of being my usual critical self, I will rather present a list of techniques and habits that can make the dance less agreeable or even limit improvisation significantly. 

The order below is coincidental.

1. Projection of the free leg
This is commonly taught by teachers with the idea of "making space for the leader’s front step". With the tiniest invitation, the follower will project her free leg to an extended position using a significant amount of muscular control in this leg. 
Advantages of this technique:
  • Lazy leaders get super results. They just hint at something and the follower will terminate the whole move on her own.
  • Looks very elegant because the legs are nicely extended.
Disadvantages of this technique: 
  • The leg is not really free and lead-able. Changing the length or speed of a step, as well as re-directing or stoping the movement is much harder, because the leg is already on a trajectory towards an anticipated direction. Therefore improvisation and musicality will be limited. 
  • Often, this technique inhibits small steps altogether, because the leg will be extended into a long step on principle. This will endanger navigation on the social dance floor. It is not always the fault of the leader when a follower runs into other dancers and hurts them by stepping down with a lot of energy. 
  • Loss of connection. When dancing with a follower who uses this technique, I will only feel connected in the initial moment of the movement, but during the transfer the connection is lost because her leg moves independently from her gravity centre. I would like to feel connected on every inch of the transfer.
What we teach: We concentrate on pushing from the supporting leg and letting the free leg move with the gravity centre like a pendulum. It is relaxed and has roots in the floor. Thanks to this approach, we also never have to think where to put this leg. Agreed: It looks less elegant.

2. Closing the position as quickly as possible
This technique is often connected to the projection of the leg and has the same advantages and disadvantages. In particular traspiés (or rock-steps) are difficult to communicate because they happen in the open position and leaders often have to stop those followers with their arms in order to prevent an automatic closing.
What we teach: a closing will eventually happen by a complete transfer of axis onto the new supporting leg and coming back (up) to a straight leg.

3. Overactive rotation of the hips and automatic pivoting
A lot of teachers stress that the hips most be rotated as quickly as possible in order to allow for speedy pivots with a big angle. 
  • Leaders, who don’t want to dissociate get super results.
  • Pivots and ochos remain a follower’s movement and nothing in the leader’s body will distract from it. (Or this is what a famous teacher once told me.)
  • Basically the same as in 1, because improvisation and connection are inhibited. Ever tried to lead a milonguero ocho (without pivots) with such a follower? Or just change the angle of rotation in a pivot? Impossible, because she will automatically rotate her hips to a maximum. Or try rotating your upper body towards your partner to compensate for an offset of feet: she will most likely pivot a little and therefore the next step might go into a different direction than intended. Walking in crossed system is often impossible and unintended crosses happen. 
What we teach: Lazy hips. A rotation will only happen when it is communicated by an opening of space around the axis of the follower, so that she can create a spiral in her body from top to down. No opening equals no pivot.

4. Step on one line
A lot of teachers ask followers to walk on a virtual line, therefore they will position one leg behind the other when walking backwards or forwards. 
  • This is elegant because the position will always look closed. Leaders who change direction with almost every step, might never notice the disadvantages of this technique.
  • Try walking front-to-front with such a follower’s technique for more than 2 steps. It feels very weird, because she will aways position her free leg directly where you want to go with your next step. You constantly have to compensate by opening your position laterally. Later have her walk on two lines and follow her free leg. That will feel completely different.
What we teach: Step on two neighboured lines.

5. Have musical automatisms
A lot of followers will automatically double the speed in a number of movements: the Ocho Cortado, the cross, the back and side step of the molinette structure… This comes from teaching steps linked to fixed rhythmical patterns and I cannot find any advantages in this approach.
Just imagine: I want to lead a turn in normal speed to slow music, starting with the back step of the follower - I invite her to pivot and - whooosh - she’s already finished the turn. ARGH!
Also the contrary is a problem: you might want to speed up for a longer time because the melody says 12341234 (think D’Arienzo), but she slows down after the second step (123_), because she is used to quick-quick-slow patterns. It will be impossible to interpret the melodic rhythm.
What we teach: Adapt the movement to the music. Don’t ever memorise a rhythmical pattern with a figure. Learn any step/figure in a default variation (normal of half speed). Then practise changing speed in every possible position.

6. Have movement automatisms
The result of traditional step learning is that followers (and leaders) will develop very strong preferences for certain movements and are often incapable of dancing variations. 
I mentioned above how Detlef often does not succeed in inviting followers to do a simple shift of weight to the right foot because they block the movement. No problems changing to the left.
Sorry, but I cannot think of any advantage in creating these strong habits, so I am just going to point out some of the typical habits:
  • Dancing a cross only on the usual side and expecting to be "forced" into a cross with the right left in front of the left leg instead of just reacting to the same leading mechanism on the other side.
  • Being used to stepping forward with the left food in the "8-count-basic", but blocking any front-to-front forward movement with the right foot. Walking forward with the right leg on the outer lane in an ocho cortado might still work, but stepping forward into the space of the leader just will not function. Trying to prepare this step forward, I had followers change leg, turn their hips or even fall onto me, because they rather do a volcada than stepping forward with their right leg. Ask Detlef to tell you his story of that very tall and heavy follower doing a volcada instead of a front step. His back was hurting for days!
  • Cross or uncross automatically. Do you know, how many variations there might be around the traditional cross - apart from doing it on the other side as mentioned above? And did you know that you might prevent a leader to walk on the outside lane for a longer period, because you cross automatically after 2 steps? Are you expecting him to "block" the crossing?
  • Automatically projecting your leg into a back step after a pivot because you expect an ocho to happen. What if the leader takes the pivot back?
  • Automatically rotating the hip to a neutral position after a back or front step in a turned movement, because you expect a side step to happen. This result of lifelong molinette practise will prevent any variation in turns.
The list is endless. Unfortunately, these automatisms prevent everything that goes away from the traditional patterns as well as any real improvisation without fixed patterns, based on freely linking the smallest elements.
Sure, if you dance with a leader who repeats patterns without actually communicating them, it helps to know them in order to make the dance work. But do you really want to be so unflexibel?
What we teach: Be prepared for any movement in any given moment. Also: Relax the free leg and let it fall towards the floor with its own weight, so that your body is also physically prepared to react naturally to unusual and/or subtle movements. 
A note: Yes, dancing with leaders who really improvise can be challenging and might feel stressful. Even I sometimes enjoy dancing with someone more predictable, in particular when I am tired. But I would not always want to dance that way.
A second note: Dancing with very creative leaders requires much more focus on the communication, so there won’t be much capacity left for decorations. You either have to ask more actively for the time/space to decorate or skip decorations altogether. Which is what I do. And you won’t see a lot of followers who are dancing with Detlef do a lot of firuletes either.
A third note: Yes, even Detlef has these automatisms because he learned tango based on steps before we started teaching and breaking up these patterns. In the first years, we also taught more figures but nowadays, we seldom teach steps anymore. And if we do so, we will vary them in manifold ways to prevent automatisms. This is why some of our students dance much more freely than we do. 

7. Push with the head
I don’t think that any teacher consciously instructs followers to drop their head or to push their forehead against the leaders right cheek or forehead. But a lot of advanced dancers do so because of misunderstood cuddling or the wish to imitate the aesthetics of famous dancers. 
  • Looks feminine?
  • Starts hurting after a while because of increased tension of neck-muscles. 
  • Leaders move their head into a left-bent position to get out of the way. (I once watched Detlef tilt his head more and more to the side because of the follower invading his space with her head. He looked really stupid.)
  • Inhibits movements to the so-called closed side. (See 7.)
  • Often has a negative effect on stability of axis, even without the pushing.
What we teach: Hold the head upright and in line with your spine. Search for head contact only if it is anatomically possible.

8. Push with the right arm and/or asymmetrical embrace
A high tension in the right arm of the follower is very often taught in combination with a stable v-frame. Often followers are told to give resistance so that force (or at least tension) can be applied to communicate pivots. In the v-embrace, the other side is often closed and the two shoulders will usually be much nearer than the ones on the so-called open side. I know that v-hold does not necessarily imply a pushing arm, but the problems created are comparable.
The positive effects of this technique:
  • I am not sure, but one obviously does not need dissociation. A follower can remain more passive and let herself be pushed or pulled into pivots. The strong frame might also increase stability when doing automatic pivots with a spiral starting below (see above). It is certainly easier than doing pivots actively by creating a spiral from top-to-down. 
The negative effects of the technique:
  • Any pushing or tension in the arms just feels less comfortable and starts hurting after a while. Even Detlef (who works out on a regular basis) can sometimes barely stand the pain a fragile follower causes with her strong right arm. You don’t believe me? Ask him.
  • With a right rigid arm, the follower pushes herself into an asymmetrical position. So even if a v-shape is not intended, an open and closed side are created. You can see that with many "milonguero" dancers who are starting out with a parallel chest-to-chest position, but then open to a v-hold in ochos or turns.
  • A general v-hold or pushing arm results in movements feeling uncomfortable or even being impossible into one direction. Try to walk on the right outside lane in parallel system with a follower who pushes with her right arm or brings her left shoulder so much forward that she cannot dissociate to the left anymore. You won’t succeed. Most likely it won’t even be possible to walk straight without her pulling you to the right side, because she not only opens her right side but also turns her hips with her as a result. This makes navigation really hard. And please examine your back-ocho technique: there will often a nice opening for an organic pivot on the follower’s right leg, but the pivot on her left leg is initiated by the leader pulling her with his right arm.  Or she will pivot automatically. I find it illogical to use different techniques on the two sides.
  • In general v-shape will also affect all musicality as it inhibits free change of speed and step length on both sides. (This is a huge topic!)
What we teach: Have soft arms. We want to embrace, not to have a stable "frame". We connect and exchange information in the centre. The leader opens spaces that the follower takes actively. We are therefore searching for a parallel position of the upper bodies and want to be free to execute all movements comfortably to both sides.
Note: When dancing with a leader who uses either active pushing/pulling with the arms or at least relies on the stable frame for building up a tension for a pivot, I will not compromise my priorities and start pushing, but rather find other ways to make the movement work: Either create a counter-spiral in the body or not pivot and reach the end position by doing a milonguero-ocho. My arms remain soft.

9. Dropping, lifting or swinging the hips
Sometimes this comes from the wish to look sexy and might result in a slight difficulty of taking steps back speedily. But very often such a hip movement comes from consciously or inadvertently wanting to pull the free leg to the axis in the end phase of movements. In dynamic steps the phenomenon might not occur, because the initial push is enough to transport the axis fully to the new leg, but try a very slow transport of axis in a back step of the follower. In the last moment it might feel, as if the follower is breaking away and her axis gets wobbly.
What we teach: The hips remain calm and parallel to the floor. The transfer of axis is done by the former supporting leg that pushes until the axis is above the new leg in particular in slow motion.

10. Be overactive
A lot of advanced followers seem to think, that they constantly have to do something in order to dance interestingly or musically. They will decorate, insert double steps, change weight without invitation, move, move, move. They never stand still. Being calm equals being boring. Right?
This is very handy for leaders who do not have a clear leading technique or who are un-inspired, but I think that constant activity makes it impossible to build up a more intimate connection. Sure, feel free to fill spaces, to add to the dance, to give input to the leader. But please: don’t move all the time. Can we not just stand for a second. Slow down? Enjoy the embrace? Just listen to this tiny piano fill? Just honour the end of the phrase? Does tango have to be so nervous?
When I dance with a guy who expects me to act all the time without inviting me properly, I might do so. For a short while. But then I usually get bored, because of the lack of interaction and communication. So I might just stand and embrace. You’d be surprised at what can happen then! 

So. This is it. Sorry to be a know-it-all. 

I am aware, that every dancer will make her personal choices. I always assure our students, that our techniques are just options amongst many. But I am strongly doubting that everyone actually makes conscious choices. I so wish that advanced dancers were more aware of their techniques and possible outcomes. Not only for the sake of the leaders, but for your own comfort and clarity. So that you can make better informed choices!

Some might think, that they now understand our entire technical concepts. Nothing I can do about it, apart from saying: buy our Book + DVD Caminar Abrazados and you'll how much more there is to it. Or visit one of our classes. You might be surprised. And no, I am not ashamed of self-advertising. ;-)

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Long overdue post on gender and roles in tango

Preliminary note:
This post is written from the perspective of a female tango dancer, teacher and organiser and primarily addresses women. But it is my belief that the thoughts expressed herein are of great importance for everyone: men, women, straight and gay people, consumers, organisers and teachers. Because something is not going so well in our little tango world.

It is this time of the year:
I have finished the registrations for one of our annual Encuentros. Pequeña is obviously not big, but we have received almost 4 follower bookings for every single leader who signed up. As usual all followers are female and all but two leaders are male. Additionally there is a small number of double-role dancers, only one of them being male. Even after my usual efforts to find more leaders, there is zero chance to get even half of the followers in. I know how disappointed or vexed most will be after after yesterday’s waiting list note. And this makes me sad and furious at the same time. Increasingly so. 

As you all know, this is a very common problem: 

When registering for gender- or role-balanced events, many single women try to find partners to better their chances of being accepted, but only few are lucky and the process itself is often humiliating. Apart from the fact, that there aren’t so many single leaders to ask, their reactions can be very degrading. They range from not answering to the lady’s mail, over the assumption that she will pay their entrance fee, to outright sexual propositions. This is super frustrating. So women sign up alone and risk being refused. Which is - when it occurs - another frustrating experience.

And this it where the frustrations comes from: gender and role imbalances. Which in tango is basically the same, because dance roles are still strongly tied to the gender of a person. Which makes me think: Is this rather not a problem of role stereotypes? But why?

Yes, I know that real equality is still not implemented in our societies, but at least there are laws against discrimination and efforts are being made. So many women aspire for equality or leading positions in real life. They invest time, energy and money to achieve their goals. Strong women everywhere.

Yet in tango, a huge number of educated and emancipated women do not ever question their position. They automatically accept being assigned the follower’s role or happily choose it - often stating that they are glad to give over responsibility as they already carry so much in real life. I know that, because this is what I said as well. But does it make them happy? Often not.

The reason for this dissatisfaction is usually not the dance qualities but the quantity of leaders. There are just not enough men who dance Tango. If a lady is lucky, she has a partner to start with or her teachers will provide for experienced leaders to join the beginner’s classes. But in the milongas, most women will soon learn that waiting for dances is their lot. Yes, an active mirada and cabeceo can help, but there is nothing you can do, if you’re in a local milonga with 20 leaders and 30 followers. 10 followers will always sit - even if the leaders danced all the time. In case you’ve got a regular partner, you might get to dance more often, but we all know how good it goes when we pressure our partners into dancing with us: not good at all. The situation gets even worse if women split up with their partners who will of course find another great tango dancer. The chances of finding a new male partner in tango are not that super. Still: the ladies accept their lot, keep on dancing and sitting and and suffering. Sometimes silently, sometimes loudly.

I know what I am talking about: I started out with my husband as dance partner and because I was fairly young, pretty and talented, I got to dance all the time. But after I had taken up teaching this changed radically. Many men were intimidated and I spent a couple of years sitting at milongas and festivals, watching Detlef dance all night and being super frustrated. So you don’t even have to be a single follower to feel the pain. And although I had taken classes as a leader and was leading in class, it never occurred to me, that I had it in me to change my situation. Maybe it was just too early? Also, after a few years of teaching, developing more defined musical tastes and quality standards, I actually did not want to dance that much anymore. So: problem solved for me.

Then, 12-14 years ago, the first encuentros came into existence. In the beginning, these events were not gender-balanced. The first French Encuentro had a surplus of more than 40 followers and it took years until gender-balance was the standard at pretty much all of these events. In these early years, I thought that we had found the solution for the gender-imbalance-problem by creating zones in which ladies get to dance as much as men and go home happy. I too was glad, because this is where I found leaders with whom I really liked dancing. In particular, because we encouraged many of our students to join the community.

But in the long run, Encuentros (and Marathons) created another problem: because of their specific features, most female dancers wanted (and still want) to join such events. But guess what: many male dancers do not feel that urge, because they are much more satisfied with their local milongas - where they find lovely dancers to choose from in abundance! The result is an even bigger gender-imbalance in the booking process and the dreaded follower’s waiting list.

So, how to solve this problem? Is there any chance of bringing more men to tango? 

Yeah… forget about it: as long as young boys are encouraged to play soccer, whilst their sisters are carted to ballet classes, this will never, ever happen. As long as these role stereotypes exist, there will always be more women than men interested in dancing, no matter how appealing you make it look on posters and flyers. Couple-dancing is still considered as being unmanly in many societies. Fact. 

And in any case: does it really make sense to always base one’s happiness on other people’s decisions and actions? After 20 years of dealing with this specific situation from different perspectives, I think that there is no other solution than to finally and seriously uncouple dance-role and gender in tango. I am dreaming of a tango community in which everybody learns both roles from the beginning and in which we do not have to bother gender- or even role-balancing events, because people are free to choose how and with whom they want to dance at any given moment.

I know that my utopia may stay a dream, because as long as dancers are exposed to the traditional and often hugely exaggerated clichés in tango ads and shows, as long as there are not more role models who go different ways, a change may never happen. Or it’ll take decades.

But until then:

You are a woman and just want to dance tango? You want to be accepted to the nice events, even if you do not have a partner? So, please, please, please stop being passive, stop complaining, stop crying and do something about it. Learn to lead.

Does this sound appealing or logical? 

It might and maybe you have already started the process. Or have been working on your leading role for ages. But still many of you do not dare to register as a double role dancer - even if the organisers give you the chance to do so. There seem to be just too many fears, prejudices and obstacles. 

Please let me discuss the most common ones:

1. Leading is so much harder than following.
Is this not what we have heard from our first tango class on? The leader carries all the responsibility, has to be creative, musical, navigate and on top of that learn lots of challenging moves. The follower just has to be there. She cannot even make mistakes. Right?
NOT RIGHT! Apart from the fact, that we are nowadays searching a tango where both partners actively participate in the creation process and share responsibilities, even the "just being there, just following" can be as challenging or even more challenging than leading. Why?
Just stop and think: Sure, in the beginning, leaders really struggle with all the skills that they have to integrate. But even in their early stages, leaders will always know what will happen in advance and will rarely be surprised. Sure, they too have to adapt to the follower’s skills and habits, but the system allows for them to stay in their comfort zones. So in a milonga, they will usually apply the techniques that they have grown accustomed to, step when they choose to and repeat patterns that they feel comfortable with. Some of these patterns might be challenging, but depending on in which tango sub-culture you live, leaders know that most women are happy with musical walking in a nice embrace. Only few dancers actually "need" the complex moves. So this is what a lot of leaders do: stay in their comfort zone - year in, year out. Only few bother taking classes once they have reached the level of moving stress-free in a milonga.
Whereas many followers see tango as a lifelong learning process, go to classes and practise tango-technique or bodywork in order to be flexible, toned and in a good shape, One reason for this being: they need a much larger technical and step-based repertoire than any leader. In one single Milonga, a follower might be confronted with 5 different leading styles, 10 different ways to interpret the music and 20 different step-repertoires. Do you know how challenging this is? Yes, you do, if you are an experienced follower. But do the leaders know?
Two years ago, my boyfriend - who is no tanguero - participated in one of our basic role-change seminars. His verdict after 5 days was clear: following is more challenging than leading - in particular when you are dancing with inexperienced or unclear leaders. He found leading relatively easy, although we ask leaders to listen very carefully to what the followers do and to improvise with basic elements rather than to produce patterns. (Ok, the last may actually make leading easier.)
My view as a teacher and dancer: I don't wanna insult the guys, but leading is no rocket science. In the very beginning and depending on your personal skill set, it sometimes seems to be more challenging than following. No, you ladies should not just up and lead without instruction and serious practise. But an experienced follower can bring her leading skills up to an acceptable level within a year. Another year and you can be awesome! I have seen it happen often enough. Again: you will have to take classes and practise on a regular basis, but you can do it.
Even I have taken up weekly practice in order to be able to apply everything that I lead in class also in the ronda. At the last Minilonga in our studio, I lead six tandas and followed one. My goal is to lead 50% at Pequeña in June.

2. Women are not made for leading.
They are too weak and small, a big guy recently suggested.
Ok, this is just wrong. Apart from the fact that there are lots of tall women: has being short ever bothered any male Argentinian dancer? Everyone has to adapt to different partners and there will always be people whom you can lead comfortably - provided they have a proper technique and posture. 
Sure, followers without an axis who hang on their partners and expect to be moved, will be hard to dance with, if you are only 1.60 metres and of slender build. So don’t dance with them or give feedback! Even strong men often feel uncomfortable dancing with such passive followers, why should you put up with that?
I will not even honour the argument that women are mentally not equipped for leading with a response other than: do you think that men automatically come with the right skill set?

3. Women do not want to dance with female leaders.
Sure, some don’t. But many do. I do very much. Just recently in the UK, my nicest tandas were with female leaders and followers - although most of my male favourites were there as well. Dancing with another woman has long developed from a weak substitute into a privilege. It may be different from dancing with a guy, but can be equally beautiful. Guess whom I am searching in a room full of great leaders when Biagi is played: Yup. Dawn. Because she is the right leader to dance Biagi with. So, just look around and you’ll find a great number of fantastic women and even some men who like following a good female leader. A good female leader! So practise!
And by the way: those who worry, that they might just not be visible as a leader when unknown in a community, ask the organisers to introduce you to some potential partners. At our events, we e.g. introduce all double-role-dancers to the rest and they get pins with flowers. This works really nicely.

4. Guys will not invite female leaders.
Yes, some men might not dance with you anymore. But are these really the guys you want to interact with? Actually, when I think of the events that I prefer, quite the opposite is true: The ladies who lead occasionally or on a regular basis are amongst the most sought-after followers. All the best leaders want to dance with them. Why? See 5.

5. Leading will have a negative impact on the followers skills.
Who told you this? On the contrary: Dancing both roles will broaden your horizon and enhance your skills in both roles. And those who lead and follow from the beginning are more often than not super dancers. 

6. Female leaders are not appreciated by organisers.
Indeed, there are still milongas, in which non-gender-conform-dancing is not appreciated. Just recently a milonga organiser in Russia expelled two ladies who were dancing together. This outrage was widely answered by Facebook postings with the hashtag #tango4all and many organisers showed support. In general, I think that such incidents and the mindsets on which they are based are exceptions and certainly on the decline. Even in the more traditional Italian Encuentros you will nowadays find leading ladies or even following guys. This was not imaginable 10 years ago.
Things change and many organisers have replaced the old gender-balanced setup with a role-balanced registration-system. This is a good first step into the right direction.
It is true, that some organisers are still worried about the visuals. They fear that the event will look gender-imbalanced if they accept more than a few female leaders. Yes, it bloody will. This is an inevitable result of accepting female leaders or double-role dancers. We cannot on the one hand accept them to balance the single followers, but then try to "hide" them by keeping their numbers down. This is absurd.

7. There are not enough opportunities to learn and practise the leading role.
Now this is just lame. There are practicas everywhere and an increasing number of instructors teach both roles from the beginning. We encourage all of our teacher trainees to do so. Even Detlef and I will - after 18 years of teaching internationally  - finally start giving beginner’s classes in our hometown (that’s another post) and we will of course change roles from day one.
In addition to that, there are many courses and workshops for experienced dancers in which learning the other role gets centre stage. Either amongst women or in mixed groups. We offer a role-change seminar in the South of France and there are still places left. (Yes, I am totally fine with self-promotion. Find all info here.)

So, here is my plea: 

To all women, wo do not yet lead:
Learn to lead. It is challenging in a fun way, will improve your skills as an active dancer, bring interesting new experiences and make you happier.

To all women, who have been seriously practising leading for longer than 1 or 2 years:
Please check, if you cannot sign up as double-role dancer next time. Why have you invested all the money and hours of practise? You have to start some day! Cut the excuses!

To all men:
Learn to follow. It will hugely improve your leading skills and make you more aware of what so many women actually have to deal with. Plus: it’ll turn out to be nicer than you expected.

To all teachers: 
Teach both roles from the beginning and encourage role change in all of your classes. This may require some more time, so just stop showing long sequences and you’ll compensate for it - no problem.

To all organisers:
Encourage non-gender-role-conform dancing at your events whilst holding all participants to the same high standards. If it is an event for which people need to sign up in advance: go role-balanced instead of gender-balanced and please forget about the optics. Rather think of how good everyone will feel once they get to dance with each other.

I want to add one last wish:
There are still many dancers who believe that tango is a unique experience between a woman and a man that can or should not be replaced by any other form of connection. Well, this is your opinion and totally fine. No one forces a guy to dance with that other hairy bloke. No one forces a woman to dance with a slender female leader, if they prefer the handsome tall man. No one forces you to dance the other role. You don’t even have to go to events in which role-change will occur.
But please do not complain or stand in the way of a necessary and beautiful development by discriminating others who just want to enjoy the dance. 
Because this is what tango should be: a pleasant encounter between two open, caring and active partners. Not a historic role playing game. Not a dating event. Not an activity where a majority (women and all who want to dance in a non-gender-conform manner) don’t get what they deserve:

Many lovely dances. 

Post Scriptum (after 3 days on the net):
This post got a lot of attention. Many positive comments by numerous women and some men. There are of course also critical remarks, some of them constructive, very few not so much. But this was to be expected. I just wanted to add a few explanations for those who are not following the Facebook discussions:
- The comments on my blog are not disabled because of fear of opposition, but because of GPDR issues. I have posted about this last year. Here.
- I am a straight woman, but still believe that dancing with the same sex can be beautiful. The reason why I can find pleasure in leading or being led by women is: Today, tango for me is all about the connection to the music, the quality of movement and the comfort in the embrace. These factors are independent from gender. 
- I am living in Germany, but have been traveling as a teacher, dancer and dj all over Europe and the USA. (And of course also to BA.) My observations are based on conversations with women and men all over the world. The issues/problems/prejudices described in this blog post will not apply to every tango community or person to the same extent, but are still somewhat universal. 
- Please remember that I am not an organiser/teacher/dancer in the context of queer tango events, festivals or tango marathons. I belong to the Encuentro crowd - often called the tango taliban, because of our compliance to certain guidelines on how to interact with others, because of us favouring close embrace and dancing to classical tango music. When mentioning my friends who like changing roles or accept leading women, these are dancers who prefer dancing at Encuentros too. So: my seemingly provocative thoughts are actually shared by many people who are often called traditionalists. Go figure. ;-)
- I believe the time that everyone needs to become a leader suited for an encuentro or marathon is based on his/her general skills, the teaching that he/she is exposed to and the time/dedication that he or she invests. There are dancers who fit perfectly into such an event after 1 year, others won't be ready after 20 years. I have danced with members of both groups. In this article, I mention that talented and experienced followers who dedicate 1-2 years of classes and earnest practise could be ready after 1-2 years. This does of course not implicate that every woman will be a super leader or does not need instruction. I never wrote that. But no-one can deny that an experienced and talented female follower has an advantage over a male beginner.
- I know that my wish for a more open definition of the roles might not come true, but I also believe that voicing utopian views can help bring about change. And if - someday in the nearer future - more women lead (well) and organisers accept them as equal leaders at events and abandon the thoughts of gender balance, then we have already won something. 
- I find it not logical that one should feel threatened or disturbed by the fact of there being more women than men at events because of role-balance:

  • Men who believe that women like dancing with men better, might be less numerous at an event. So: good for them, because more women will want to dance with you. Or not?
  • Single women will certainly have better chances being accepted to events when dancing both roles. Even if they prefer following to leading, they will then have the chance to follow for half of the time at a nice event. Is this not better than not being accepted? And by the way: this is not about strict 50%. No one counts the tandas that you lead at an event. If you partially lead, you'll have better chances. 
  • The only ones who might not get out of it so much at first glance are women with partners, who prefer dancing with male leaders. They easily get into the desired events, but now there might be some more female leaders instead of the male ones to dance with. There is not so much that I can say to you, apart from: If a leading lady is accepted by a responsible encuentro or marathon organiser with high standards, this person will have qualities that define her as a good dancer. Give her a chance. Dance with her. It might be beautiful. And if it is not that great yet: try again next year. Have you not seen men evolve into nice dancers given some time and practise? Why should women not have the same chances?