Instructions from visiting teachers Maria Olivera and Gustavo Benzecry Saba. I like this. Keep instructions simple, concise, and whenever possible, make it rhyme. Than maybe I can remember. It worked this time, apparently.
To be a little more precise (and risk jumbling the jingle) their full meaning was:
collect - pause - connect.
A little word: pause. But it encapsulates one of the foundational elements of tango. This is at the heart of the dance. This is what gives it its soul; those moments, however fleeting, when the couple creates time and space to join together, connect, to listen to the other, to attune to the press of body against body, feel a heartbeat, share a breath. Some call this the tango high, tango heaven. We might call it, simply,
Our 9 year old neighbour was over visiting during the holidays. With the intent of entertaining, Patricia and I sat down to play a piano duet which we had been half-heartedly practicing. I said in jest, “Of course, you will have to pay.” She shot back, “I can pay attention.” That was certainly more than a fair exchange.
When we are paying attention to someone, we are giving them the greatest gift, the highest compliment we can. In the words of the French/ Jewish philosopher, Simone Weil:
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
The opportunity to pay attention to our dance partner in an attuned, intimate manner is the true genius and gift of tango.
This is not the visual that tango presents, of course, nor is it necessarily what we are taught as budding tangeros. All the attention goes to movement, intricate maneuvers, pivoting, flashy flourishes, dramatic endings.
But that is only half the dance. Tango is an alternation between active conversation and active listening, between movement and stillness, between executing one’s own steps with definition and precision and then stopping to admire how your partner is moving in response.
Attention: collecting, pausing and connecting.
This is communication at its most sophisticated. It serves as a model, not only for dancing, but all relationships. Imagine how this would change our communication style if we inserted, at pivotal moments, pregnant pauses, time to collect and connect, breath together, ensure that each other is not off balance before proceeding?
How often is the exact opposite our practice? Conversation becomes more of a combat sport. We try to keep the other off balance to gain the advantage. We speak overtop. We finish one another’s sentence. We show no interest in or intimate engagement or emotional entanglement. We walk out in the thick of things, frustrated that our partner is not responding in the way we intend.
The same can be true for tango. As a lead, before I begin the first step I often envision a fully-completed sequence. This allows no opportunity for my partner to respond creatively, change it up, even abort my intentions. If she attempts to do so, we stumble over each other and begin profusely apologizing.
Of course, this is not true of sensitive and skilled dancers. (There are skilled dancers who are not especially sensitive, and vice versa). They never lose touch with how their partner is positioned, how they are leading or responding to the lead, whether each is maintaining their axis. They instinctually collect, pause and connect, creating mini-moments of stillness and awareness throughout.
For the rest of us, we need to make conscious effort to pay attention. In tango, nothing is seen, everything is felt. The embrace is too close to allow the partner to see any of the intricate maneuvers your may be executing. This is a continual frustration to novice dancers who want to continually look down at the feet to figure out what is going on. Instead, one must sense where your partner is, when they are on their axis, on which foot they have placed their weight, intuit where they are leading or attend to how they are following.
It all begins with the embrace as one attunes to the partner’s positioning and the subtle indicators of confidence, tension, insecurity. (This is afterall, an intimate conversation which is predicated as much on trust and vulnerability as one’s proficiency.) This recalibration needs to be continued throughout the dance. There are classic steps that lend themselves to collecting and connecting, e.g., the salida or the cross. But there are opportunities throughout the dance, at the beginning and end of any step or sequence.
All of this takes time. It has to be done slowly, methodically, intentionally. And for whatever reasons, we all have a certain reticence to this practice. We would rather be busy, stuffing in as many maneuvers into the precious three minutes as possible.
We will explore some of these inhibitions to connecting and paying attention in future blogs. Follow along.
Or if you would prefer, come out to the Monday night lesson for a three part series for January, “Collect and Connect,” beginning January 11th at Naked Cafe.