I often hear leaders complain:
“When I dance, I get bored with my own dancing. At some point it seems like I have already danced all the combinations, tried all the variations and I just don’t have any inspiration anymore. It is a terrible feeling because if I am bored with myself, I guess the follower must be bored out of her mind with me.”
Sometimes a leader would say:
“Sorry, but I will only invite you when I feel I am in a top condition. Else I am afraid you will be bored.”
My students also say sometimes:
“No matter how many classes I take, I always forget the new fancy stuff I learn and revert to the same old combinations that are boring and repetitive.”
The above statements are just as true for the beginning leaders as they are for the advanced. It does not matter how rich your vocabulary of steps is as a leader, the feeling of being “fed up” might come up now and then nevertheless. Why does this happen? And is it true that when the leader is bored, the follower is bored as well?
There exists a myth (mostly among leaders) that to give a follower “a good time” you need to know a substantial amount of steps. But most of the time the follower does not know what is going to happen, she cannot read the leader’s mind and she is way too busy dancing what is proposed by the lead. New doors to new places are constantly opening for her, exposing new landscapes. She is not keeping score of what steps the leader uses or doesn’t’t’t, that is uniquely a leader’s issue. Therefore, when a leader is bored with his steps, the follower usually is not. Besides, it is not the vocabulary that the follower finds attractive in a good leader, but the deliciousness of her own movement as a response to his lead that either helps her or doesn’t’t. Too few dance combinations are never a reason for the follower to become bored, it is the ABSENCE OF CONNECTION that makes her “check out”. This might be because the leader dances in an automatic and unconscious way, devoid of feeling, or because he is too preoccupied with his own steps and forgets about her. A follower does not like being used as an instrument. You could be a tango encyclopedia and bore your follower out of her mind or have only some simple elements in your vocabulary and make her melt in your arms. The value is never in the quantity.
There also exists a myth (mostly among followers) that followers do not like complex sequences. It is true that following a complex tango vocabulary is stressful, requires a solid technique and a high reactivity. However, it is not true that followers don’t like complex vocabulary. The followers LOVE it when it is danced well. Complex movements make a follower explore her boundaries, they are exciting, dynamic and fun. It is just that between simple steps done with quality and complex steps danced badly the followers will always prefer the first.
So why, you could ask, does a leader need to learn complicated sequences if the follower is easily satisfied with less? In other words, how many steps does a leader need to know to be a desirable partner? When I speak of “steps”, I refer to the variety of sequences created with the basic three elements of tango: step, pivot and change of weight. In that sense a leader never learns anything new, he merely learns to improvise in a more a more complex way with the same basic elements.
Asking “how many steps a leader should know to create a fulfilling dance” is like asking “how much money do I need to be happy”. The answer is: money is irrelevant to your happiness. Money is a way to obtain things that bring you joy and satisfaction, but your happiness comes from a different source, namely, your own being. In the same way a larger number of steps will not in itself create a fulfilling dance. But, like money, steps can help you to have more fun and freedom in what you do. You will need a “basic amount” of them in order to dance. How complex your vocabulary should be then depends totally on what you want to do and where you put your emphasis. At the end it all comes down to what you like, what makes tango enjoyable for you. A rich vocabulary is meant first of all to give pleasure to you as the leader.
I personally believe that leaders should keep exploring new variations simply because this is in the nature of their role. The beauty of tango is that it unites two energies: an energy of doing and an energy of being. The leader’s role is to create, construct, deconstruct, discover new possibilities. Telling a leader “Forget complicated steps, just walk in the music, embrace nicely and the follower will be happy” has a lot of truth in it but it is also like saying to a little boy “Here you have some colourful building blocks. You can touch them and admire them, but don’t build anything. That’s too complicated.”
In former days tango vocabulary was very limited but over the years it grew into an almost infinite array of possibilities. We can ignore the rich complexity of tango under the premise that in former days people created deeper human connections in tango without “all those steps”. Yet a rich tango vocabulary is there for a reason, it remains a fact of life and comes with its own advantages. You can enjoy this variety, provided you are not only interested in the quantity, but in the quality. Tango is always much more than the steps you make, but there is nothing wrong with steps.
Leaders get bored with themselves for the same reason we get bored with any activity, no matter how complex it is: it has to do with the feeling of ROUTINE. Routine sets in not only because you repeat the same things over and over again, but also because you repeat HOW you do them again and again. Routine is when you become predictable to yourself, when your reality stops to be surprising and delightful to you. It has a lot to do with functioning on automatic pilot. How to best deal with your boredom as a leader?
There are some “practical” solutions. You can learn new steps, but remember that before you can use them spontaneously in a milonga you would have to practice them so that they are integrated in your existing vocabulary. And even if you are not able to reproduce them in a milonga, don’t despair: the fact of learning something new in a class is already a very good exercise for your brain and will always benefit your tango. In that sense nothing you learn is lost completely. You can also start breaking down the combinations you already know and change their endings, modify the order of elements or the timing, use the right leg instead of the left (or vice versa) and so on. This, in itself, is an exciting and stimulating exercise and will make you grow as a dancer, as well as make your patterns less predictable. You can work on improving your technique, for the more you master the basics, the easier everything will flow, giving you more pleasure in the process (and your follower as well).
There is also a deeper, more important level on which you can deal with the sensation of boredom. It is about switching your focus from WHAT you do to HOW you do it. For this you can turn to the music as your primary source of inspiration and dance the steps you already know based on the energy, rhythm and tempo of the music. This means slowing down when the music suggests it, making pauses, accelerating, putting accents on certain moments. When a leader dances truly from the music he creates a blissful dance for the follower. It is then that you might find yourself in a situation when you just walk for a whole tango and not have one instant of boredom. This is actually what teachers mean when they urge you to “keep it simple and nice”. It is everything but simple, of course, for it requires a sensitivity to music and your unwavering attention. But as long as you allow the music to move you from within, steps will be of minor importance and the quality of movement will be the primary focus. Again, tango is a conversation: when you know what you want to say, the words will come. In tango what we want to say is what the music inspires us to express.
Next time you feel bored, start consciously directing all of your attention to how you move in that particular moment and try to grasp the fullness of various sensations: from yourself, your follower, the environment. Your boredom will cease to exist in the very instant you put your FULL attention into the present moment. For boredom, you see, is a byproduct of a wandering mind that is preoccupied with judging the present and projecting into the future. Your mind thinks that true tango is in the cool steps, a particular embrace, a specific partner or the right music. Yet true tango is in none of that, it is in your NOW moment and only there, along with other important things of life, such as love, joy and happiness.