Why your dance does not look good despite all the practicing
Once, in a class, a woman asked me: “How can I dance beautifully?” It would have been easier for me to tell her right there how to be happy or what is the meaning of life. Beauty in dance is a complex and multi-layered issue and is difficult to convey in a couple of sentences. So how can you dance beautifully? And what IS beautiful?
Our perception of beauty is at once universal and highly subjective. On one hand, the scientists have shown that there are certain visual and auditory patterns that we unconsciously consider beautiful. It seems we come into this world with a beauty radar tuned to certain signals. Research suggests that a pleasant aesthetic experience is triggered by patterns found in the fabric of the universe, like the golden ratio, and so our emotional reaction to beauty is a reaction to something that is fundamentally TRUE to us. On the other hand, aesthetic experience varies greatly from person to person. We do not know why some work of art touches one person more than another, but we know that our taste in beautiful things is influenced and shaped by our previous experience, our education and our personality. This is why you sometimes totally dislike a dancer that everyone around you adores.
You can argue about beauty till you are sore, yet everyone will stick to his or her opinion. Why is that? Because beauty is not something we think, it is something we FEEL. Things we find beautiful are those that resonate directly, as scientists observe (*), with our deepest sense of self. Our inner notions of beauty change over time, through our activities. For such a notion to change we need to have an internal emotional shift. You cannot make yourself like something by simply saying “this must be beautiful, everyone says so” but such a shift in your perception can happen over time. As a beginner you probably thought some tangos sounded boring and silly, but now their touch you emotionally. Contemporary dance, for example, might at a first glance seem foreign and incomprehensible, but the more you watch and learn about it, the more you develop an emotional response to it, until some choreographies directly touch your “beauty nerve”.
The context for us finding certains things beautiful is defined by the cumulative preferences of a particular audience at a particular moment in time. What we found beautiful in tango ten years ago we find less beautiful now. Tango evolves and so do our ideas, collectively. At every moment in time we uphold standards by which we define dance as beautiful. If this were not so, we would not be able to hold tango competitions or even teach how to dance. These collective preferences basically tell a newcomer: “This is what most people like nowadays in this field. It is OK to like it.”
Yet, as often, tango is a special case. It is one of those rare dances in which the way your dance feels to your partner is much more important than the way your dance looks. Therefore you do not have to dance beautifully to give another person a fulfilling experience. It might sound like a paradox when talking about dance, but remember that tango is similar to conversation. You can have many interesting things to say, create an authentic warm connection, be musical, funny, reactive and an excellent listener. And you can be all of that PLUS express your ideas with style. Dancing beautifully is a skill, something you need to train like you would train rhetorical skills to speak in public. Usually only professional dancers take it that far and this is why you watch their videos and not just anybody’s.
Although we value most how it feels, we do believe that a beautifully dancing person will also be a great partner to dance with. The reason for this is that the most beautifully dancing people are usually accomplished dancers in every sense. Aesthetics play a role in both choosing and attracting potential dance partners. Does it make a difference to your partner if you dance beautifully? Of course. A meal is not just a meal when cooked by a great chef. A visually beautiful movement has a wonderful kinetic quality. If you are a good leader/follower and you also move beautifully, you will give your partner a very special aesthetic pleasure.
At some point in your development you might get the feeling that despite all the learning and practicing your dance still looks mediocre. Watching yourself on video or photos is a traumatizing experience, as you compare yourself to dancers you love watching. You could say that you don’t care much for visual aesthetics and concentrate on how to give the best feeling to yourself and your partner. This is a good strategy, which will always pay off. The social environment in tango is mostly about communication, to dance beautifully is not a strict necessity. When you walk into a milonga you see many people not dancing beautifully at all, yet they are all having a wonderful time.
If you wish to develop a beautiful dance, you need to be aware of three main factors that influence the way your dance looks.
The first factor I will call EMBODIMENT. It is the way your body moves at any time as the result of your personal history, your life, your activities and your psychological state. Your body has grown into your current life much like a tree adapts itself to the surrounding conditions. In Western Europe, for example, most tango people have intellectual background and their professional activities demand to sit long hours in front of a computer. Such a lifestyle results in a tense shoulder area, forward protrusion of the head, inflexible pelvis and weak legs: just about the opposite of what is needed in dance.
The way you move and hold yourself will define how easy or difficult learning a dance will be for you and also how your dance will look. A lot of students start their tango classes basically as a brain on two legs. The good news is that embodiment changes when your activities change. Your current way of moving influences how you dance, but learning a new dance will also eventually influence the way you move. These changes, especially postural ones, are slow but possible.
A beautifully moving body is naturally toned, holds itself upright without effort, finds balance easily, its posture and gait are anatomically efficient, its movements are smooth and harmonious. Such a body is highly reactive, spontaneously adequate in its reactions and generally relaxed, meaning it is free of tension. Tension is the opposite of movement and therefore the enemy of dance. If one part of your body is holding itself in a tensed position during the dance it will spoil the visual impression, no matter how masterful you are in your steps.
Some people seem to be naturally more in touch with their bodies than others, more conscious of their body parts and their subtle muscular sensations. Just like the “natural dancers” I wrote about in my article on musicality, you can easily spot such people in a crowd. You will notice their relaxed bodily attitude and a distinct harmony of movements. The ways in which they move can be very different, from sensual to elegant to powerfully dominating, yet they all have one thing in common: their movements are free of excess tension. You cannot be tense and move sensually. You cannot be tense and dance elegantly, or play, or make love with abandonment. Tension is not only the opposite of movement: it is also the opposite of joy.
Your embodiment is further defined by your psychological state, your sense of self as a unique separate human being. As Alan Watts wrote “I have discovered that the ego is a chronic and habitual sense of muscular strain”. A lot of tension in our muscles is the result of our ego-related anxieties. Mindfulness meditation or simply being in a happy mood makes your body more relaxed because you loosen up the tightness inside yourself that you unconsciously associate with this feeling of “me” and what this “me” represents. When you relax your mental grip, you let go of some of your muscular tension. In dance it is very important to be able to let go of this imagined tight “me” to dance from your true expansive self.
Body sensitivity is underdeveloped in many people due to a life-long focus on processing and producing information inside their heads. But it can be cultivated. The more you move in awareness of how you move, the more you will improve the way you move, and the better you move, the better you will feel physically and mentally. Many body education techniques allow you to change in a profound way: Feldenkrais, Alexander, Rolfing, Yoga, Pilates, Gyrotonic, Qi Gong and so forth. Dancing tango also re-educates your body, but tango is less effective than, for example, solo dances. Tango is a communication dance in which the priority is given to adapting oneself to the partner and the situation, not to developing a better looking body. Tango is more of a party than a workout, unless you are training intensively. If you want lasting structural changes you should do some bodywork next to tango.
The second important factor in beauty is the MOVEMENT QUALITY itself. Irrespective of style, there are some criteria by which any dance can be considered beautiful. When practicing, remember to work on these criteria and you will soon notice a clear change in the aesthetics.
A beautiful movement is one that makes meaningful lines in space. This means that each movement has a certain given trajectory, logical within the whole. Dance is what happens while you are creating those lines with your body and it comes down to HOW you create them. Making beautiful lines means completing each movement’s trajectory fully. Even if your movements still do not look special, simply completing each of them will make your dance look more beautiful. This fullness is also part of the inherent musicality of each movement. A musician would never skip or shorten a note when playing, it would immediately ruin the harmony. An incomplete movement is neither beautiful nor musical.
A beautiful dancer also keeps his or her energy flowing. This does not mean you should be visibly moving all the time, but even when you are standing completely still you should “continue to vibrate”, as one of my ballet teachers said. “You can always tell a dancer who vibrates from one who is just standing there.” Like musicians: even during silence, as long as the silence is part of the musical piece, a musician will keep the energy moving, expanding, vibrating inside. Energy moves wavelike, compressing and releasing, charging and firing, a movement you find in everything: breathing, muscles, bandoneons, life.
And so a truly beautiful movement looks effortless. This means that only the necessary amount of energy is spent and for this you whole body needs to participate. In tango this means, for example, keeping yourself balanced on one leg while the other leg is drawing a line on the floor. The movement of the free leg can only be effortless if the rest of the body is working to keep itself in balance. To make any movement effortless you need to build the necessary muscular strength and to learn to be in balance at any time, so that your body is not stressed by the gravity pull and not tensing as a result. Beautiful dance looks like flying, not like moving furniture. Give time to your muscles to build strength and to your nervous system to rewire for better control of what you do.
Tango is composed of two skills (communication and individual technique) and visual beauty is part of your technical skill. When in despair, remind yourself that aesthetics do not just happen, they need to be trained. A beautiful dance has to be re-created again and again every time you dance. For an adult who has never danced before it will be harder to learn how to dance beautifully than to learn how to lead or follow. In our daily life we physically lead and follow each other much more often than we are aware of, so these reflexes are already well developed, while moving beautifully is not. You will have to practice by yourself, alone, and you will need good visual examples. Even if you are a visually-oriented person, you will need a DETAILED EXPERT EXPLANATION of the biomechanics behind that movement. You cannot dance beautifully if the movement is not well understood and felt inside your body. For practicing you will need a mirror (and a video camera) and to remind yourself every time that the way your dance feels to you is NOT the way your dance really looks.
Just like in visual art paint has to become color, so in dance “doing” has to become “being”. This brings me to the next factor: your PRESENCE. You can always tell when a dancer is working hard, stressing about the result, executing a routine or when s/he is truly dancing. “Becoming” dance is what ultimately dance is all about and it means to be fully present in what your body is doing, at once being the dancer and letting the dance happen through you. For this you will need to concentrate your full attention every time on here and now and completely, consciously, abandon yourself to the dance. If you do this, a strangely wonderful thing will happen: people will find your dance beautiful although it might be far from beauty standards. You will be openly and genuinely yourself and this vulnerability, this truth of human experience will never fail to resonate with everyone’s deepest sense of self.
NEW! Veronica Toumanova has just released a book “WHY TANGO” with her first nineteen essays written in 2013 and 2014. The book is available in print and in Kindle format on Amazon.
More essays by Veronica on her webpage VEROTANGO.