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.