The big small: courtesy

Recently I’ve been reading about the phenomenon of the big small: small things that make a big difference. These are things that seem really small and insignificant but actually make all the difference in terms of success and failure. In learning to dance we tend to focus on dancing skills and these are to an extent important. But what one sees all too often is that as skills go up the manners correspondingly go down (if they were there at all). One goes to a dance event, whether it’s tango or some other social dance, and one can tell who’s been attending a lot of lessons and workshops from the attitude. Yet precisely having an attitude is a sure way to end up dissatisfied and defeats the purpose of learning social dancing (as opposed to competitive dancing, I guess).

There are at least two important and closely related reasons to be courteous to people at social tango events. The first reason has to do with energy. An event is enjoyable and productive when it generates positive energy. When there is a lack of courtesy and people exhibit an attitude, distance, aggressiveness or aloofness, this basically sucks the energy out of the event and the atmosphere becomes stifled and uncomfortable and we no longer want to be there.

The second reason has to do with managing relationships. Social dancing is not merely dancing with a single partner. One needs to be able to get enough satisfying dances from a number of people. People are generally quite sensitive to the attitudes of the other people at the event. Small courtesies go a long way in building a positive and lasting relationship. Equally, small discourtesies go far in alienating and damaging the relationship. At some point its a race to the bottom as the number of potential partners rapidly diminishes. Courtesy (or lack of it) is a way of expressing whether and how much you value the relationship.


Courtesy (or lack of it) is a way of expressing how much you value the relationship.


A significant source of the problem is excessive emphasis on dancing skills, and corresponding lack of attention to social skills. At a certain point learning more dancing skills becomes an end in itself and can actually become a source of anxiety, frustration, competitiveness and end-gaining (see Posture). Social tango, by contrast, requires patience, understanding and generosity (to yourself and others). Investing excessive effort on gaining more skills is not always conducive to an easy-going, friendly atmosphere, and to building and maintaining positive relationships.

Courtesy is the big small because it often takes a very small amount of effort to be courteous but the results may be quite big. As a child I was taught that good manners simply means saying ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry’, and ‘please’ or ‘do you mind’, etc. I see at many milongas that dancers stop dancing and just walk back to their chair without expressing warmth or gratitude. The atmosphere at such events starts to resemble more of a physical workout or perhaps a nightclub scene. Often people confuse the energy produced by the DJ cranking up the volume to the max and activities like taking selfies or networking for the energy of an enjoyable milonga with positive relationships.

Equally dysfunctional are scenes where ostentatious expressions of gratitude is a way of marking the membership an ingroup, an inner circle, usually of a teacher and his students. This can leave people who are not part of the club as well as visitors feeling alienated as the outgroup. There are also fake rituals such as announcing the names of visitors from other countries. This only helps to distance and exclude. All of these dynamics indicate that the tango scene is not really functional and the ‘community’ is fake.

A good way to start is to express gratitude: to your teacher, students, partner, the DJ, and organiser, etc. Show that you enjoyed the class or the event, and show appreciation for their effort. Just this relatively minor effort will repay manyfold whereas failing to do so will leave people cold and unappreciated if they made a genuine effort. If, on the other hand, you feel that you cannot genuinely express gratitude, but that instead they should be thankful to you for bothering to turn up, you’re better off leaving the scene because you are probably not enjoying it and sticking around would be defeating the purpose. No amount of dancing skills can equal the feeling of genuine appreciation and inclusion, lacking which would in the end be defeating the purpose of what traditional tango is really all about, namely, to share the enjoyment of great music in a friendly social atmosphere.

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Posture and the head-neck relation

When we stand or move our sensori-motor system functions to organise itself around certain points of focus. When the iPhone notification sounds our attention is drawn and we feel an urge to grip the phone and look at the screen to check the message. Over the years and multiple repetitions this will affect our posture and thereby our whole functioning including breathing, digestion, etc. F. Matthias Alexander discovered that excessive focus on a task or a goal, which he called ‘end-gaining’ leads to inefficient movement patterns that become fixed in a poor posture and less than optimal performance. He saw the solution to the problem in focusing less on the goal, and more on the ‘means whereby’, that is, focusing on the the sensory-motor system that executes the movement.

In tango the biggest obstacle to effective movement and progress is the overwhelming tendency most dancers have to look at the feet. One often sees beginners as well as advanced dancers stare at the ground as they are dancing. This is considered to be a sort of ‘tango look’ but is in fact physiologically suboptimal:

  1. Dropping the head is not viable in a ‘close embrace’ tango which requires the dancers to present their chest, that is, the chest has to be forward. Dropping the head down naturally leads to the tendency to collapse the chest which has to be resisted which then causes tightness and rigidity.
  2. As Alexander pointed out, poor posture with the head forward and a sunk chest leads to an inefficient use of the body: shallow breathing, poor digestion, constrained and inefficient movement, and therefore less enjoyment and greater fatigue.

In order to remedy this situation the solution is relatively simple: use your eyes less and learn to be more aware of the body, especially the position of your head, neck and spine. In everyday life regularly take your mind off the task and bring your attention to how you sit, stand or walk, in particular, what is the relation of the head and neck. According to Alexander the head-neck relation is the primary control which determines the position of the spine which in turn determines efficiency of all movement. To simplify the matter, the main thing to focus on is the lengthening in the neck and spine, the head should be balanced on top of the spine, and the breathing should be deep and easy.

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