"Yes, but are you dancing?"
The second time feels even more insulting. I just finished giving a rather eloquent explanation of my dance process, the list of things I was working on, that I am always working on something when I’m dancing, that I am always learning, always paying attention to various things, alignments, geometries, sensations, etc... But after patiently listening for a while, with unchanged seriousness, he asks me again... "Yes, but are you dancing?"
I didn’t realize this at the time, but that question changed my life.
I fumble towards a bullshit answer but inside I’m crumbling. “What is dancing? Do I not know what that is? Is what I’m doing something other than dancing? How do I know if I’m dancing or not?” I’m embarrassed, maybe I even tear up at one point, this feels like one of those dreams when you suddenly realize you have to take an exam for a class you didn’t attend all semester.
It is January, 2018, my third time in Buenos Aires, my ninth year of dancing Tango, my sixth private lesson with Pablo Inza and Sofia Saborido...
I leave the lesson with a sinking feeling in my belly. I feel defeat. Tango is just as hidden from me as ever. I don’t know anything. I’m no good, I’m bad at learning new vocabulary, I am not putting in enough time into learning it, not enough, not enough, not enough...
I let myself go into this stream of inadequacy, I let it carry me into that familiar state of despair that is both the scariest and the most profound space I know.
It’s funny how these things work, a little pebble of a question leading to an inner avalanche.
The inner critic is a lot more malicious and hurtful than any external critics we might have in our lives. The self-created flood of judgement and insults is much harder to withstand without losing perspective. But sometimes there is just no other way, you have to hear all of it, see all of it, feel all of it and still choose to trust, to be vulnerable, to love yourself. There is no other option. I know this to be true because I have been in this place many times and every time I had to rely on myself to survive, to learn, to adapt, to evolve, to dare to believe in myself even though all these judgements I was hearing inside might be true, even though I might not be good enough. I had the sole responsibility of loving myself more than anyone else could ever love me.
Illumination occurred suddenly, unexpected, unannounced, at a place in my consciousness when I reached a point of giving up the hope of ever figuring it out. I had accepted my defeat and felt an unusual sense of quiet numbness that comes after a weight that has been oppressing a body for a long time is suddenly removed.
I am at Salon Canning waiting... I see a gentleman from the night before who had danced with a friend of mine. Because she is such an accomplished dancer I reason that he must be a good dancer and agree to his cabaceo. His embrace overtakes me with the sensitivity and grace of a bulldozer. His frame is so rigid that everything in my body, from my neck to my ankles feels crooked. His movements, jerky and illogical, eliminate any possibility of me actually moving well. And this is all within the first thirty seconds of the first song!
"This is the worst tanda of my life..." these words scroll across my mind on an electric marquee. Surprisingly all I can do in response to that is laugh at the absurdity and the poignancy of the situation. My checklist of technical aspirations violently torn to shreds, my hopes of actually looking or feeling good totally dashed, and it was in this moment that illumination came.
In all of this imperfection and discomfort there is nothing else to do but to surrender to the music (or spend the next 10 minutes in total agony). I suddenly realize that my responsibility is to express the music no matter what. Whether my feet land crooked or I lose my axis, the music has to be danced through every imperfect gesture. The skill level of my partner has little to do with my feeling of the music, it is MY responsibility to dance whatever the circumstance. In that moment all of my judgement of myself or of my partner dissolves, I do not take it personally that he is so "bad" at tango, I don't feel any necessity to be perfect, I am not chasing after that elusive sublime state, I am being moved by the music and my body adapts to whatever space it is given, my movements articulate the imperfect geometry with complete attention and care. Like a vine that figures out a way to grow through the cracks in cement, I feel my body reaching, stretching, insisting, driven by the emotional intensity of the music.
That experience had a profound effect on my dance and on my life. My whole philosophy of how I approach the study of tango, how I teach, how I dance at the milonga, shifted radically. And of course, as in the case of the mystery of life itself, once I let go of the chase to figure tango out, what eluded me for so many year was suddenly revealed. All of the questions about physical alignments and geometries, whether something goes here or there, all of it just stopped being unknown to me. I came to understand that dance is an intentional state of mind in which all of my consciousness (mental, physical, emotional) is in dialogue with and in service to the music. My beloved checklist of technical imperfections (which has a strange tendency to get more extensive with time rather than less) belonged to a different department of my mental processes and was there to give me some fun things to work on in my practice time, not to serve as a set of hurdles to overcome on my way to tango bliss.
It was some time after the internal avalanche of insight settled that I was able to really hear and understand the very meaningful words of Sofia, that she spoke in the same session as Pablo's profound question... "when you are dancing, there are no transitions, every movement is the most important movement of your life."