Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Wrong Question

Arlene (LondonTango) has an "Ask Arlene" feature where people send in the questions that are on their minds, and she gives some sort of an answer and then throws it to the floor.

The last question was "How good do I have to be for a good dancer to want to dance with me"?

The answers are ok, you can go and read them there. I started to write a comment, but it turned into an essay. So I put it here.

On one level this seems to me like a completely reasonable, natural, and practical question, and I entirely sympathise with it. On another level it seems, like most questions that are interesting at all, to be The Wrong Question.

It does work like that, up to a point. As you get better at dancing, people feel able and willing to dance with you, who weren't before. If you eliminate some quirk that makes you difficult to dance with, you're going to get more dances and they're likely to go better. The goal is to have fun, and to a certain degree it's more fun if your partner is better at it, so it makes sense to want good dancers to ask you, and it makes sense to assume that they want you to be good. It's also more fun if you are better at it, but I'll come back to that.

I feel sympathetic towards the person wondering whether it is actually feasible to make the next step up, what that step would be, how long it's likely to take, and whether, even if she does, it will do her any good at all. Is there anything on the other side of all that effort - effort to be made in an unknown direction, by unknown means - that will make it worth it?

Everybody talks about what makes men good to dance with, but hardly anyone talks about what makes women good to dance with, as opposed to merely inoffensive, and you can easily get the impression that either there's no such thing as quality for women, beyond looking good, or that it just doesn't matter very much. What it consists of is generally a mystery. You may well wonder whether it's worth sticking around, what exactly your contribution is meant to be, and what on earth you are meant to do next.

On top of that, it's very easy to waste a lot of time going down wrong tracks, so I sympathise with the writer's "When?."

If I were trying to pick apart the question, I might point out that there's no general consensus as to what "good" means. People like me and my friend tangocommuter and many others might like it if there were one, and we may sometimes write as though we think there is. And maybe there is, either at some very broad worldwide level or at some narrow local level of people who think and talk about these things, or maybe both. But among the general population of dancers in London, there just isn't. There isn't anything remotely approaching one. I'm not saying there won't be one some day, but there isn't one now.

However, if the questioner were sitting with me or with Arlene at a milonga, we might very well ask "Which good dancer?" And she might reply "That one over there." In that case, the chances are good that we'd have some practical hints. For example:

"You need to be able to do close embrace properly, and work on your connection, and do something to show that you're interested in dancing that style, like always defaulting to close instead of defaulting to open as you were taught."
"It doesn't matter, he's really shy and only dances with people he knows from class. Try chatting to him."
"You need to be able to do a V-embrace. He can't lead square-on."
"You need to be able to do a square-on embrace. He can't lead in a V."
"Try changing your clothes so he knows you want to dance that (other) style."
"You need to stop doing that 'ornament' where you rub your shoe on the man's trousers, he hates hates hates that!"
"You need to have totally neutral steering and be able to deliver everything likely to get thrown at you in social dancing."
"You need to be a safe and accurate follower, and then just chat to him, then wander off for a while and give him a chance to watch you. If it doesn't work just cross him off the list for three months and try again."
"You need to do all of the above and listen to the music more."
"Just ask him, you're a reasonable dancer and he likes to be asked, and so many good dancers ask him he doesn't need to bother."
"You're over half his age, and you don't come in a colour he likes. Forget it."

What I'm saying is, it's not a silly question.

But when I say it's the Wrong Question, I mean it's a question that's directed at a solving a problem that might be better solved by the answer to some other question. It's a Wrong Question I've asked myself more than once, but I've only ever answered it with different ones.

For example:

Is my own pride and satisfaction a sufficient reason for me to want to dance well, rather than badly?

Does this activity, as it is now, add something good to my life that I want to keep?

Because, if the answer to those is no, I am not doing myself justice and I should switch to something that does satisfy me as a person. If the answer is yes, then who asks me to dance doesn't cease to matter, but it does become something I look at in a different way.

I can use whatever motivation there is lying around to get me through difficult times when I'm doing something I want to do. If I feel inspired by someone in particular, I can try to put myself in a place where I'll truly appreciate him and be able to give him back as much fun as he gives me. There's nothing wrong with that. It's natural and it makes sense, and it's great motivation to look for improvements and try to solve the mysteries.

But I don't have control over whether he wants to dance with me. That's not up to me to decide, and I can't necessarily change it by dancing well.

If I do dance well, I'll get dances with others who dance well too. I'll be able to give and recieve more pleasure. But this is not a mechanical thing. It's not like passing some sort of exam. As I do it for longer, and the average quality goes up, another dimension starts to matter, too; those who I have known for a while now, and who also care about me.


ghost said...

Something that's always annoyed me is when people say that an excellent dancer can have an excellent dance with a beginner. It sounds like a good thing, but if you think it through it implies that women don't really add anything to a dance. Really women shouldn't bother learning to follow. Just turn up and dance with the excellent dancers and everyone will be happy. The beginner / intermediate men will just have to dance with each other till they get good enough.

Meh. Yes an excellent leader can have an excellent dance with a beginner. But he can have an even more excellent dance with an excellent follower! Women make a vital contribution to the dance, far beyond pretty clothes and occassionally showing their knickers.

But I also think the question is wrong. "How good do I have to be to fully appreciate the dance with a good dancer?" or "how good do I have to be for a good dancer to lead us both to the best of his ability?" are better questions I think.

Claudita said...

Great post MsH!

londontango said...

You are right about being asked the wrong questions. I think here in the UK, there is a big issue about sociability combined with dance quality. I don't always dance with great leaders, but I mostly dance with people that I want to, for many reasons. I have a lot of friends and I will dance with them because they may have been there for me when I first started. I don't know what my skill level is. I do know that there are men that like to dance with me and I do feel I have improved considerably since I started.
I do not agree with the implication that women don't really add to the dance. Even a novice can add something with a sympathetic leader. We all have to start somewhere. I have had great dances with beginner leaders, so what is the difference here? To imply that women shouldn't bother learning to follow is ridiculous. It takes time to learn to follow and to feel what the other person is doing. To feel without thinking is a skill and means one is comfortable with the music and one's partner.
Frankly, I don't know what I would have done if my leaders hadn't either taken pity on me or fancied me or just wanted to teach me something when I first started.
It's a learning process.

msHedgehog said...

@LondonTango - exactly. The implication is blatantly ridiculous; but it is the impression you'd get from ten out of a dozen classes. As soon as you stop doing anything actively bad, you won't get spoken to at all. The student knows she can't exactly be all that wonderful, but she has no idea what might come next. She can keep going to classes for multiple years without anyone ever acknowledging that she might be capable of more. So I think it's totally understandable that people get stuck there and often feel discouraged.

Game Cat said...

Good post and follow up comments.

Dancing noticeably better, and ensuring you are noticed for it, is only one lever a woman can pull to get invites from better dancers (at least from men who prioritise dance ability (dance-ability?)).

I firmly believe that women who dance better can add A LOT to the shared experience. Generally, the better she is, the more freedom I have as a leader in terms of what to do and how I want to do it (according to the music of course).

I'm surprised if not many people discuss what makes women good to dance with. Some things I hear frequently include:

- Comfortable close embrace. Searches for and maintains the connection
- Follows the lead, and only the lead. Doesn't anticipate.
- Stretches the leg back in the walk, arching the foot to land toes first.
- Likes good music. On the beat.

To which I would add: expressiveness with the music, preferably more than just adornments. At best, it becomes a conversation.

I'm also surprised if women don't get enough good guidance in classes once they are beyond "actively bad". I've been lucky to be in classes where teachers would always have something to give women, even if they've already mastered what they immediately needed. Women: if you feel short-changed, find a better teacher. There are some out there.

ghost said...

Some thoughts / suggestions

It does admittedly favour a Hedgehog view of what a good dancer is

PS Yes the implication is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

@game cat: please can you give examples of teachers who will try to push people who are not "actively bad". i haven't found any yet and i've tried many and it is getting harder in this economic climate.

msHedgehog said...

@Anon - seriously, and based on my own experience (I have *not* attempted to work my way around all the teachers in London and at the moment I can't imagine doing so), here's one possible, not necessarily optimal, approach.

Once you can accurately follow everything that gets thrown at you in social dancing, which takes about 1 year to 18 months of practicing in weekly classes plus regular social dancing, stop taking them. Instead spend the same monthly money on one private lesson once a month (or every two weeks in alternate months, or what works for you) with a teacher whose dancing you admire and whose character and taste in music appeal to you. The cost will be very close; adjust the frequency till you can afford it, or have two months on, two months off, or whatever. Start the first one by asking what the highest priority problem is that you should solve. Dance socially and practice till you've solved any important technical problems, then go back and ask for advice with musicality and expressiveness if you haven't already got on to that. Stop taking lessons whenever you have more than three things to work on at once; when you master one of them, book another set of lessons to check you've got it right and find the next thing.

This is an edited, streamlined version of what I've been doing. I'm not saying it's optimal, but it's one possibility that isn't too expensive. Private lessons cost more, but you need far fewer of them because you get so much to work on. I'm personally happy with how it's working out so far. I also carry on taking any class that interests me from time to time.

One point: I think this approach only works if the teacher you choose is one who dances socially a fair amount. That's an assumption. If you choose someone who's primarily a performer, you might get odd results. It also relies on you taking a lot of responsibility for going away and gradually mastering things outside the class. And it's more efficient in money than it is in time.

londontango said...

@ Ms H
You are so right about taking classes for about a year and then moving on to private lessons. I have had a few myself (on and off the dancefloor) and it is amazing what one can learn and work on in one hour with someone who actually knows how to lead (providing they are good!). Funny though how after my lessons and when I try out what I have learned, there is always one smarty pants leader who thinks he knows better!

Game Cat said...


I think "pushing beyond actively bad" is only one criteria to selecting a teacher. It is also equally important to consider the other ones Ms H mentions (e.g. type of dancing, music preference), so the teachers I've seen push their women students still may not necessarily work for you for different reasons.

To find potential teachers, I suggest:
- if you go to milongas already, get friendly with and ask dancers you like what teachers they recommend
- look through the list on Ms H's site or Arlene's (londontango.wordpress.com)

Also, Ms H's suggested long-term approach has many good things, and is worth consideration.

Finally, I suggest push your teachers by asking thoughtful questions. That's what they're paid for. You get as much as you're willing to put in. Especially in a class, they will be biased towards the weakest student. Ask for personal attention if something's not working. Classes aren't for fun (well not entirely), they're for learning.

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone for the suggestions, very kind. I think I'll try it - next step, find a teacher I trust enough to take this high risk, high yield strategy with.

ghost said...

@ Anon - good luck

My thoughts on the idea

LimerickTango said...

Quite simply you can't create good leaders without access to good followers. You can't get passable leaders if you have poor followers. Ignoring followers once they pass "actively bad" is short-sighted.

Ghost said...

Do all of this apply to *leaders* wondering about getting dances with specific "good" followers?

Or are there other factors and some things which don't apply or apply differently?

Ghost said...

Also in the past you've said words to the effect (please correct if I'm remember it wrong)that a way to tell how good you are is by seeing who actively asks you to dance - as opposed to who will accept if you hunt them down.

Does this blog post mean that the opposite isn't true - ie you can't tell how good you are by who *doesn't* actively seek you out?