When worlds (and tango dancers) collide

Worlds colliding

There you are, whizzing down the motorway and you come across a car in the outside lane doing 67 miles per hour, no more , no less. Traffic is building up behind, but the driver just does not move over. Then people start overtaking on the inside lanes, making the situation dangerous.

Or you’re passing through a variable speed limit area. Every time an overhead gantry appears the car in front brakes because while they are happy to break the speed limit between gantries, they don’t want to be caught. An example of the law of unexpected consequences, making a situation more dangerous.

Or you’re coming up to a junction, and a car cuts across from outside lane to peel off at the junction, all at high speed and within 100 yd of the junction itself. Ouch!

You get the idea. Eventually something goes out of control and… collision!

If like me, you find this sort of behaviour annoying on the motorway, its even more annoying on the tango piste! There is no need for tailgating, lane changing, dangerous braking, space grabbing behaviour in a milonga.

Everyone who goes to a milonga wants to enjoy their own dances, of course, but at the expense of everyone else around them? Some of my worst dances had nothing to do with my performance, or my partners, the music or the venue, but simply because I seemed to spend an entire tanda defending myself and my partner from getting bumped, kicked, and having to constantly cut movements short to avoid collisions.

But here is an interesting observation – it’s rarely to do with the amount of space available to dancers. I have danced in some of the most crowded milongas in the world, among good dancers who know their floor-craft. Didn’t get bumped or kicked once, and the flow of dancers around the floor was nice and steady, even when it was so crowded I only managed to travel one circuit in a tanda.

So it seems to be more to do with the general lack of floor-craft skills of dancers in particular dance halls. I don’t think these unruly dancers are ‘bad’ people setting out to deliberately inflict damage or be selfish (maybe one or two…). I just think that in some venues and classes not enough attention is paid to teaching people how to behave with respect for dancers around them.

I have also observed that some teachers have a different concept of floor-craft. Ducking, diving, weaving their way through dancers at their own milongas, using their obvious skill, but not bothering to teach their students how to do that safely.

This whole lack of floor-craft teaching may be because teachers, when demonstrating, or show dancing, always have the entire floor to themselves so they don’t need to think about floor-craft too much. Some like to teach movements that need a lot of space, but don’t teach how they can be modified for use in a crowded tango piste.

Presumably these teachers believe floor-craft is a skill you have to learn for yourself (and we wonder why the drop out rate for learning tango is so high when beginners and improvers find some milongas too difficult and frightening to dance at!).

An alternative point of view, which I share, is that we need to not only respect our partners, but also respect the dancers around us, so that everyone in the dance hall gets to enjoy their dances. So within this school of thought there has to be three things taught in class:-

1. How to manage your own dance so you are not impinging on dancers around you. For example the leader (or follower) can choose to cut their own movement before they force a problem on another couple. Resist the illogical urge to finish ‘a move’ even when you know you haven’t got room. Be aware of what’s going on around you by the simple act of looking around on a regular basis, and improve you’re spatial awareness, as in ‘I just left a space and I know (because I looked) there was nobody close enough to claim it, so I can move back in safely’, rather than ‘I left a space 5 seconds ago and I’m going to assume nobody has moved into it so I’ll reclaim it’.

2. How to anticipate what the dancers in front, behind and to the side may be about to do which might affect your next movement. How can you do this if you’re not a mind reader? Well, for example, if you are a leader and know how to lead well, then you can observer the dancers in front of you, and make a pretty good guess that if the leader starts to turn, his partner is going to be shortly arriving in the space just ahead of you. You can then react before the loss of space becomes an issue. Same if you intend to move backwards or sideways. Take a look first to make sure you have room. Don’t dance ‘blindly’, and assume everyone else will get out of your way.

3. How to avoid those dancers who have not had floor-craft training. You’re always going to come across dancers who haven’t (yet) been taught these simple rules. They will get in the way, they will cause chaos, and most likely be oblivious to it.

One of the things I do when dancing in a familiar environment is to simply avoid dancing near the ‘usual suspects’. Chose to dance among those leaders, and with followers, who exhibit good floor-craft awareness. In an unfamiliar venue don’t rush onto the dance floor as soon as you arrive. Wait for a tanda or two and just watch the dancers as they move around the floor. You can then spot the knowledgeable, and the unruly, and take appropriate action when you chose to join the piste.

When you are ready to join the tango piste, don’t just muscle your way into any little space that opens up (and try not to let your over-excited follower do the same 🙂 ). Try to catch a leaders eye. Many will just dance past with no acknowledgement, but if you get nodded into the line, you’ve just found someone who is aware of floor-craft etiquette and can protect your back :-). Beware though – he might be wanting you to deal with the unruly couple in front :-). If you are really lucky you can sometimes find a small group of good leaders dancing together in the line, and get invited into the middle of the group.

So the followers amongst you may be thinking this is a problem just for leaders, nothing to do with you. Oooh no… Followers can help the partnership by also being aware of the space around you. Many followers like to dance with their eyes closed to really feel the connection. This is not advisable in a crowded milonga. The leader has some natural blind spots (where the followers head is, for instance) reducing the field of vision, but which the follower can see. A follower could resist, or cut a move if the leader is trying to put them into a dangerous position.

Also followers; in a crowded milonga, don’t automatically do high kicks and flicks even if the leader is trying to lead them. Keep your feet low to the ground and shorten leg extensions if necessary.

So, to conclude it is incumbent on all tango teachers to teach their students how they can enjoy their dances in the social milonga environment with respect for their partners and the dancers around them. If your tango teacher is not teaching floor-craft, seek out one who will.

If we all danced with a little more respect for each other, the tango world would be a slightly less dangerous place and more enjoyable in popular crowded venues.

Happy (and safe) dancing to you all 🙂

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