As I ran my eyes over the slightly murky, high-ceilinged room, hearing the first notes of a lovely Donato begin to ring out, I spotted the curly-haired head of a dancer I had shared some very nice dances with a few days earlier. I gave him a happy little wave, trying to think of a way to show I would like to dance with him again without being too insistent. He at first seemed slightly surprised to see me - it was my first time in that particular practica - then he sent me a brief smile and made his way over.
"Would you like to dance?" he asked, clearly amused.
I suppose I maybe could have been a little less enthusiastic in my I want-to-dance expression. Oh well. While I generally prefer cabeceo, verbal invitations are often fine from people I know - especially when I make it so obvious that yes, I do want to dance. I nodded, trying not to look too happy I had succeeded in my attempt, and proceeded to make my way to the floor.
As I moved into the abrazo, breathed out, aligned my spine, and stepped into the dance, a sudden feeling of dismay washed over me. I felt late - and then I felt early. I couldn't dance to the music. The way I was holding him felt awkward, forced, my balance was shot to hell, I couldn't dissociate, and even I could feel how tense my shoulders were.
As I desperately tried to find a workable way to move my suddenly clumsy, ungainly legs into a semblance of the tango, I felt rather like letting loose tears of frustration. Where was the effortless gliding, swirly feeling I remembered from our dances in the Monday practica I usually attend? Finally, we rather dubiously and a bit regretfully thanked each other at the end of a few songs, as it seemed useless to insist.
I'm quite certain all of us have had those moments - generally, what keeps me going is two pieces of advice I really want to share now, especially with the less experienced ones amongst you, because of how much they helped me. The first one I was told almost immediately after I started tango. The second is much more recent.
I remember the muted light and quiet, almost dispiriting atmosphere. Maybe I had been dancing for five or six months. I had just attended my first tango festival and seen really top-level dancers going at it for the first time in my life. I had danced every day from 15.00 to 20.00 and then from 22.00 to 6 or so in the morning. I had danced so much because I had accepted every single person who invited me. It was before I started becoming picky, when I was just so glad to be invited at all I would almost spring out of my chair with every invitation - or cabeceo, which I was just learning all about. I had literally danced until I could barely walk; I was completely crazy back then. Anyway, I went back home feeling like I had progressed immensely.
What do you think happened; obviously, I spent a whole milonga - or two - as a wallflower, and when I did get invited nothing worked any more. Then a more experienced dancer told me this.
"You always progress by steps. When it feels like you're stuck or even regressing, then keep at it. Keep trying to understand what's going on in your body. Keep chasing the feeling you're looking for, because it means you're about to get much better."
So I went home, and practised walking and ochos and dissociation every day. Whenever I was sitting in a milonga watching other women spend tanda after tanda in the arms of leaders I wanted to dance with, doing beautiful steps and adornos that I wanted to be able to do, it would give me the motivation to stubbornly keep trying, keep practicing, no matter how often I stumbled or got stepped on or messed up or had my arms hurting because I was dancing with dancers I wouldn't consider dancing with any more, just because they were the only ones who would invite me.
The second piece of advice I received shortly after arriving in Buenos Aires in December. I'm afraid I don't remember the context - maybe I read it on the internet, so feel free to manifest if this is your quote.
"These are the phases of progress. First you do things wrong unconsciously. Then, once you have been corrected or felt yourself that it wasn't working well, you begin doing them wrong consciously. This is the most painful phase. Then, you begin learning to do them right - but you have to make a conscious effort. Finally, you can do it right unconsciously; this the phase when you can really begin to enjoy the dance."
I have found this invaluable. Every time a teacher explains a concept, and I feel like crying because I understand it intellectually but I just can't do it - I think about this. I tell myself I will practise it, incorporate it, and sooner or later, whenever I'm ready, not whenever I want, it will start working.
"It takes about two weeks," a pair of teachers I respect enormously told me, "it takes about two weeks for you to really feel the effects of a private class, and begin to understand what you're taught. So don't be sad or angry at yourself if sometimes you loose the feeling, because as long as you did it once, or understood it once, you can do it again."
So keep practising, keep progressing, and don't give up - because it's worth it.
Oh, and about Mr Curly-Hair. He did invite me again. And this time, the dynamic was back - and feeling, maybe, a little bit stupid, I even understood why it hadn't worked the last time.