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‘Question’-Why become a high level dancer?

by Isolde Kanikani

Why become a high level dancer? What is the need behind this search? Is it the promise of more dances or a deeper more qualitative connection? Is there a line we can reach when there are fewer people we want to dance with? Why?

At some point in our tango adventures something changes or we leave for another activity that suits us better. For most of us this change is intrinsically personal but the need to become a better dancer seems to be a common outcome. Why? Whether its to become good at something or to be accepted in the ‘cool crowd’, to not be left out when people come asking or that we are hooked on the self learning process possible with this dance. I can’t answer for you, only bring the questions to aid your own searching. Always question and you will go far. Its when we stagnate in our knowledge that we are ‘good’ or that we have ‘achieved what is desired’, that we inevitably become normal or loose the things we found because we no longer work for them. I can only offer my own experience and that of those close to me.

My first lesson hooked me on tango and I wasn’t to know this until later on. I will always remember my first teacher Adele who was so beautiful in her deep red dress and graceful flowing movements. A bit cliché maybe but I was stuck by her beauty in the way she moved and more deeply as a woman. I was 16 at the time and searched for the discovery of what it was to be womanly, moving comfortably in my body.

But it was only about 6 months later, when I had a really bad lesson from another teacher that I questioned why each and every week I turned up to dance with people 2-3 times my age. The difficulty of the lesson that provoked the question was having to look into the eyes of my partner and walk around them in various ways, for about 15 minutes. This is fine if you feel safe, but he happened to be the known letch of the group and I felt decidedly more uncomfortable as we went on. 

My only answer was that I loved this dance, and wanted to become a better dancer. In my case I had wanted to learn a dance since I was about 12 but never had the chance until I moved into an area with more things going on. The unconditional freedom one can have to move with partner and music, while confined in the movements and vocabulary of the Tango. These confines or boundaries, becoming the tools for creativity and fun. Without them we are left standing. I got addicted to the feeling of dancing in my body and connecting with other people. Also to the endless adventures I found myself in, travelling to faraway places and flowing spontaneously with those wonderful situations that can only happen when you are in the moment. Be it in the tango or simply in life. I was learning to be present with now and yet I found myself always planning the next big adventure, to the extent of not really living in the present one. Something that later become apparent in my search for people I wanted to dance with.

I travelled, I learnt and I grew as a dancer. After a little more than a year I was asked if I would like to teach. Something I had childishly dreamed I might do but never thought it was a real possibility. I was going to be a barrister and had every intention of going to law school in later years. But when I was asked, it was like something clicked into place. I said yes, and I started to teach. I carried on learning. I am still learning. I love teaching and I love dancing.

As I travelled I grew as a person and in the understanding of myself. When I was 18 I went to Buenos Aires for the first time. I grew in experience, the people I wanted to dance with when I got back home become harder and harder to find. I think many people can identify with this. Two things happened for me in this time. The first was that I felt people wouldn’t accept me as myself. They were becoming a mirror. I would see myself as 16 in their eyes. At 21, I went to America to help some friends with their tango scene while they went to Argentina. I taught regular classes, workshops and travelled to other tango scenes in the USA. Linking this with being in Buenos Aires for the 3rd time meant that it was about 4.5 months before returning to the UK. During this period, I realised that by allowing people to see me as a 16 year old, I was denying all the experience worked for and gained in the last 5 years. , in dancing ability, in understanding of teaching and most importantly with life itself. Some of my old ‘friends’ thought of me as an angel, innocent in many things. What they didn’t want to see is that I was more experienced in life, coming closer to the image of the woman in red I had seen at my first Tango lesson. 

The second reason that people I wanted to dance with got fewer was a matter of perception and level of dancing. It was true that there weren’t so many people with the same level of experience to dance with in my area. As I learnt this got more and more pronounced. If I focused on this I would get frustrated and finally take myself away somewhere to find people who inspired me. But then the realisation came that all this is also a matter of perception. Yes there were few people around of the same level but why is that so important to enjoy a dance. Ok, one wants to be comfortable and stretched at times too. But one can be comfortable with a beginner. We can also have those amazing dance connections with someone who has danced under 10 hours. I know because it has happened many times. So why this idea that beginners should dance with each other and if you are ‘an advanced dancer’ then you do them a favour by dancing one dance. 

Try looking at it from another perspective. If you can only lead ‘an advanced’ follower are you really so proficient? Can you make an absolute beginner feel like they have had the best 3 dances they could possibly have, with the clarity of your lead allowing them to find ochos, turns and at times even the cross? Have you tried it? As a follower have you given a new leader the feeling that he can lead you? Yes he is unclear in his body language, but are you sensitive enough to know what he is after? Ok last question; can you remember how it was to be a beginner when an experienced dancer danced with you, instead of giving advice on the dance floor? I can remember that far, just about (smiling). As a beginner that there were two men who would regularly ask me to dance. They were at a more advanced level. It was wonderful because they showed me I could dance with very little experience. Later it swapped round, I became more advanced and we still dance.

Some friends got as far as making the decision to stop classes, the figured that if they got more advanced than a lot of their peers it wouldn’t be so much fun. Prolonging the enjoyment they can have with tango. Some have still kept it up and have a great time in milongas. While others stopped learning and questioning their dance. Inevitably falling behind and in some cases stopping. 

Whether you choose to find some way to prolonging the journey of learning and enjoying. Changing perception, maintaining level or travelling to faraway places. Or you take it for what it is a story with an end to tango, but a beginning to something else. Taking all the discoveries you have made along the way with you. Who knows, many go both roads. Can we try and savour this experience too long who knows. Keep asking yourself the questions that only you can know.