Wednesday, March 16, 2011

4 traits to pack whether touring or taking a tango lesson

Stepping on a ballroom dance floor for the first time is a lot like landing on foreign soil. The vernacular is perplexing. Customs from the old country die hard. Culture shock sets in.

Adjusting to life on the dance floor is less of a strain when you’re able to relax into tourist mode. Be sure to pack these traits, suggested on a website for expats. They can be quite useful for dance students who find themselves on unfamiliar terrain:

High tolerance for frustration and initial failure
If you’re a Type A personality, someone driven to conquer and rack up the wins, it might work against you here. Your impatience could be your own worst enemy. Regulars who know their way around the dance floor make it look easy. Don’t be fooled.

Are you analytical, given to breaking down degrees of longitude and latitude in partner positioning? Do you put off decision-making unless the information at hand reaches critical mass? You may want to let it go, just for the duration.

Curiosity and keen observation

It helps to have a desire to discover. What would happen if you flex your knees just so? Does it help you balance? Are you willing to put up with feeling awkward? Are you fully in the moment, such that when the instructor points and says, “Move your left leg” you move precisely that, not your other left leg?

Do you check yourself in the mirror habitually? Do you clown for the mirror? Here, the mirror is your friend. Let go of inhibitions and lend your body to the dance.

Strong communication skills

A couple’s level of communication is tested in times of crisis. Both of you floundering and unsure of who does what next—that qualifies as a crisis. Do you blame the other? Take turns giving feedback and listening? Do you sulk, burst into tears, walk out, turn a cold shoulder? The post-dance lesson counseling office is right next door. I’ll be right with you.

A sense of humor

Wardrobe malfunctions, a loudly grumbling stomach, a fall on your rump that does not lead to paralysis, brain farts, and other humbling experiences do not need to cut short one’s dancing aspirations. Stuff happens. (It’s all happened to me.) If you are capable of laughing at yourself, you can set everyone at ease and return the focus where it belongs—turning the dance floor into your new stomping grounds, where you’ll want to come back for more.

As a ballroom and Latin dance instructor since early 2007, I’ve seen similar behavior patterns in students new to the concept of partner dancing. As an expat to the United States since 1985 and a graduate student in acculturation in the late ‘90s, I’ve mulled over the best practices to hasten adjustment and optimize learning.

I have a special empathy for new kids on the block, having been one repeatedly through many school transfers and as an adult immigrant. I can tell you’re new here because you’re leaning up against the studio wall and I have to peel you off by coaxing, “Come claim your floor. It’s yours for the next hour.”

And now, four rules that don’t apply outside these walls:
1.     Men, you’re leaders. Always. With that comes major responsibility. Your partner will be walking backward most of the time. If she bumps into the wall or trips over someone, it is your fault. Always. You’re the only one who can see where you’re both going.

1.1 Women, you’re followers. Always. But we start with our right foot—because we’re always right. If your leader doesn’t do a step perfectly the first time, your only option is to follow.  He won’t learn if you backlead him all the time. His orders are to invade your personal space. If he steps on you, most likely it’s your fault. You have to move your feet well out of his way.

2.     Face each other. Put your palms up. Press your palms against your partner’s. Give each other resistance. That’s right, push gently away from your partner. You not only have my permission, you are hereby urged to do so. It’s how you’ll “hear” non-verbal cues.

3.     On public displays of emotion: Quick smooches are OK; hollering is not. This is not the debate club. Sticky-sweet newlyweds-to-be will have to reset to un-cling mode for the time being. If you start hitting each other I will separate you. (It’s been known to happen.) Mrs. Scrollwork has zero tolerance for partner abuse.

4.     Try not to talk over my instructions. I know you’re trying to be helpful. Believe me, it’s not. You are not your partner’s parrot. The one exception is if your partner does not understand English. Or is deaf, in one or both ears. But even then, if you’re louder than the instructor, we will both be hoarse, and everyone will leave exhausted. Not fun.

(I always want to say the last two out loud when I’m teaching. Diplomacy stops me.)
To put it in dance studio terms, welcome to my world. Life as you know it is suspended here. You and your partner have your work cut out for you. Work with me, people. = )

P.S. I understand that in certain parts of the world it is taboo to show the soles of your shoes. Unfortunately that constitutes a vital part of the “promenade with flare” in tango. Perhaps a menu substitution is in order. How does the chicken walk sound?


  1. As a non-dancer, it's fascinating to see dance from this perspective. I now have an even greater respect and appreciation for the talented folks who make dancing look so effortless!

  2. Ha ha, we start with our right foot because we're always right. That's what I choose to take away from here.

  3. I struggle so much with letting people lead (when they don't really know what they are doing - anyway that's my excuse!). I have to admit that ballroom dancing with a really good partner always makes me feel like I've just stepped into a romance novel - but in a really good way.

  4. They ought to have like buttons for comments, ala Facebook, dont' you think?

    Being the lead (breaking the rules, really, because I'm a woman) is so empowering. I encourage my "always right" students to switch to learning the lead if they don't bring a partner (not required). Opens up their perspective, and they leave with more empathy for how much is resting on a lead's shoulders.

    Isabelle, yes, dance=romance. When I applied, I wrote on the application form that I wanted to teach ballroom dance because it takes people out of the everyday and gives them a filter of enchantment over their lives. Or something like that ; )

    Some of my female students sigh after I lead them and say, "Why couldn't you have been a guy. I'd ask you to marry me." LOL! A good lead is a rare find, indeed.