Tell Your Face

Heads up. I have been advised by more than one insightful reader that this blog contains some contentious opinions in that I (as a male), am perpetuating a potentially offensive practice of requesting that women smile more, (sometimes perceived as a form of deference. Read the Atlantic.)

This concept is new to me and I would welcome more input. It does touch on an issue to which I am sensitive and which is pervasive in tango - the delineation between the sexes, evidenced in style and fashion (e.g. slit skirts vs. suits, stiletto heeled shoes) as well as the fundamental structure of the steps with male lead and female follow (kudos to those who are challenging these customs).

Which is precisely what I find fascinating about tango. It dances around the edges of relational dynamics and offers the opportunity to reinforce stereotypes or learn new behaviours.

I think this is a very important discussion which is at the foundation not only of our dancing but also societal practices and sexism generally. Please feel free to comment, either on the blog site or to my personal email The only comments that I will not entertain are those that are dismissive of another’s experience.

Smile as if your life (and dance) depends on it. Sometimes it does.

Consider the following “near death” story of Antione Saint-Exupéry, author of “Little Prince” (taken from, Maria Popova):

One night during his time in Spain as a journalist reporting on the Civil War, Antoine found himself with several revolver barrels pressed tightly into his stomach:

“My skin tightened. I waited for the shot, for this was the time of quick trials. But there was no shot.”

Saint-Exupéry was instead transported to an underground detainment centre. After a tortuous period of observing his captors sit passively, detached, Saint-Exupéry grew increasingly exasperated with a longing for contact, for the mere acknowledgement of his existence.

“Then the miracle happened... As one of my guards was smoking, I asked him, by gesture, showing the vestige of a smile, if he would give me one. The man first stretched himself, slowly passed his hand across his brow, raised his eyes,... and, to my great astonishment, he also attempted a smile… That smile saved me. It was a sign ... everything was changed…. I had an extraordinary feeling of presence… And I was aware of a connection… (Recounted in Maria Popova)

Smile/ Presence/ Connection.

Note the progressive resolution of Saint-Exupéry’s predicament: it begins with a SMILE, then a feeling of PRESENCE, then awareness of CONNECTION.

Connection is of course what we are seeking in tango. It is the heart and soul of the dance, the reason why we invest ourselves in tango rather than easier dances or less stressful pursuits (e.g. rock climbing or sky diving).

The Tango connection begins with the cabeceo (eye contact, raised eyebrow), as acknowledgement and acceptance of the invitation to dance. But all this remains hollow, cold, emotionally non-committal unless the deal is sealed with a smile.

A Smile Communicates

The smile is a universal language. It is the one facial expression that instantly communicates a thousand thoughts and reveals the inner state one’s heart and soul.

“Smiles are universally recognized and understood for what they show and convey... Smiles are much more than cheerful expressions. They are social acts with consequences.” Marianne LaFrance explores in Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics

Smiles indicate positive intent. They say “I am present, open, excited about the possibility of connection.”

Smiles express unconditional, positive regard.

A smile reveals my commitment to care for this engagement with respect, gentleness and reverence.

A smile states that I am creating space for you, your individuality, your creative expression. It communicates that I am expecting a positive, pleasant, cheerful, generative encounter.

Smiles say “I am here for you. I see you. I am focused on your needs, your experience. You have my full attention. This is all about you.”

A Fake Smile vs. A sincere Grouch

Should I smile even if I don’t feel like it?

Even a fake smile has a positive psychosomatic effect. It is difficult or impossible to be self-absorbed or distressed when smiling. The action of smiling itself re-calibrates one’s emotions.

A smile takes me out of myself and orients me to the other person. It invites the other into my space with acceptance and assurance.  

Smiles have the effect of affirming the recipient, of relaxing them, of giving them permission to let down their guard.

A smile pushes aside all the questions of “does she like me, does she want to dance with me, is she as excited as I am, is she emotionally present and responsive.”

When I read a smile on my partner’s face I relax, I dance better, I know I am assured of non-judgemental regard and my parnter’s intent to join me in making this experience pleasurable.

A sincere grouch on the other hand, drastically limits the possibility of connection.

Any social interaction that is not prefaced with a smile is severely limited, hampered, constricted. I occasionally end up dancing with someone who doesn’t smile. I then have to do extensive translating of their attitude or mood.

Is she not smiling because she doesn’t like me?

Is she not excited to be dancing with me?

Is she simply nervous or self-conscious?

Do I have her permission to enjoy her company?

Whatever the absence of a smile or scowl indicates, there is an communication deficit and a barrier to connection that needs to be overcome.

Why is Smiling Difficult?

Smiling reveals one’s inner state. It makes one vulnerable. It cracks through a defensive exterior and invites your partner to see inside.

I often notice the difference between the smile at the beginning of the dance and the end. A smile at the beginning is sometimes guarded, reserved, thin, tentative. At the end of the dance, the smile may be softened, relaxed, unguarded. There has been an opening and a trust that has been created during the dance.

Most of my dances end not only with a smile but a laugh, an expression of shared delight. What a delightful feeling, to know that in a few brief minutes you have bridged the gap between uncertainty and mistrust to a heartfelt comfort with one another.

Tell Your Face

A support group I was leading started off innocently enough and then quickly went sideways.

As one of the participants walked in, another asked a seemingly innocent question. “How are you feeling? You are looking depressed.”

The other responded, “No. I feel fine.”

Retort from the first party: “Then you ought to tell your face.” (Yikes!)

Double retort. “Well you could tell your face a few things too.”

OK. No support group today.

If you feel good on the inside, it is important to show it on the outside. People can’t know how you are feeling otherwise.

We want to begin each dance with a smile. It is a commitment to our partner (and ourselves) that we are emotionally invested in the dance, that we will take care of each other and that the risk of mistakes will be shared.

A smile have a very endearing secondary effect: they make you attractive. No face so perfect that it is not enhanced by a smile or so disfigured that it is not also beautified by one.