Friday, July 18, 2008

Tango Zen

This is an excerpt from a post by Robert Hauk that I found here. The question was how to create the space for the follower to achieve the zen state.
The Zen like mental state I described is something I first encountered playing improvised music. There is a point, when the musicians are really connecting, where I have no thoughts in my head at all, and the music seems to flow out of me directly from my emotions. I am no longer worried about what I am creating, if it is good enough, where it is going, etc... It feels like there is a direct path from feeling to sound and the experience is very immediate. When the music is over Ifeel like I am waking up from a dream. I have played music for a few years for a group of dancers who do contact improv, and I always find that when I have found this place in the music, the dancers have found this place dancing. We connect across the space of the room, and we interract. The musicians respond to the dancers, and the dancers respond to the musicians. It is an intimate, immediate communication without words.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this could happen on the dance floor dancing tango. In this case I have to help my partner relax and really dance her to the music so she can let go. I dance smoothly, and without complicated steps, to get her into a groove. With some women I will dance a repetative sequence so that they know where I might be going so they quit worrying about the steps. When I feel my partner relax I begine to vary the sequence, and I don't know how I decide really, it just happens when we begine moving together well. If things stay smooth and we don't get bumped we just go deeper into this connected state, and the dance can go anywhere. Often I end up doing 'steps' I have never done before, and that I can't remember after the dance is over. I am no longer thinking in words at all. There is only the music, my partner, the movement, and the other dancers around me (I still have to navigate and not interfere with their dance).

The wonderful thing is that my partner doesn't have to be an experienced dancer for this to happen. I have felt this while dancing very simple steps with a relative beginner. It isn't a technique as such. If I can make a comfortable space for my partner, and give her confidence that she can do all the steps I am going to do, and I will dance with very simple steps if it is necessary, then she has the possibility. A beginner who listens to the music can do this even before she knows much about the dance. The main thing to know is that for me to get into this wordless 'Zen' mental state I have to first get my partner there.

There is no way to force this. My answer to Clifton's original question is that there is nothing he can suggest to his partner to make it easier for her, no technique to perfect. The leader first has to make the dance comfortable and safe for the follower. The follower has to feel that she/he will move where the leader moves. When the follower can feel confident with the movement, then it is possible to forget to think about where to step. Then it is possible to let go. When we give our partners suggestions on the dance floor we close the door to this place entirely. They will try to do what we suggest, and will be seeking aproval, or maybe they will just think we are idiots for suggesting something that, to them, sounds rediculous, or they will be hurt and no longer able to trust. The only thing I have found that I can say to really help is something encouraging. Something that gives a bit of confidence.

Having said that the follower has to know something as well. If the follower is trying to do the steps consciously, or worse trying to do 'embellishments' learned in a class, or anything that keeps the intellect engaged, the door is closed. If the follower is thinking about the dance then the dance will be a conscious, intellectual activity. In this case it could be a technically perfect dance and yet there is no possibility for the Zen state. I walk away from these dances hungry, feeling empty. This is most unsatisfying when it happens with a partner who has a lot of experience, and should be amazing to dance with.

When I go dancing the Zen experience is what I am after. It is nice to be able to dance well, and look nice on the dance floor, but if it stopped there I probably wouldn't be so crazy about tango. The Zen experience is really what I am after. This is the feeling I wouldn't want to live without. I think this is what the old milongueros in Buenos Aires are after when they go out dancing. Why else would a 75 year old man want to go out dancing every day until 5:00 AM? It can't just be about looking good on the dance floor. For a 75 year old man it can't just be about chasing women. I think this feeling is the magic we are all after. The milongueros all talk about it, often in very poetic terms.
Are there things you consciously do to encourage this state for your self and your partner?


ModernTanguera said...

Oh, that was beautiful. I had the opportunity to dance a tanda with Robert Hauk earlier this year, and it was beautiful even though I was still a very new dancer. Now I know (at least partly) why it was so nice.

As a follower trying for that Zen state, I try to focus on my breath and torso ... very similar to if I were doing sitting meditation. I try to clear my brain, focus on the moment, the music, the immediate sensations of the dance.

I have fun with more intellectual dancing, but similar to Robert I look for the Zen state whenever I dance.

Psyche said...

I spend my life chasing the Zone. Incidentally, a great book for this is The Inner Game of Tennis.

I've tried a lot of things to improve my ability to get out of my Brain space and into follower's mind. Anything right-brained can helkp me - focusing on the music, the feel of my partner, the feel of my own body alignment. Recently the thing I've mostly been directing my attention to is the feel of my feet on the floor, the weight passing through my feet. It seems to ground me. But still, sometimes it's there, and sometimes it isn't. The less I fight, the more it's there. Fight with my mind, I mean. If my mind is fretting, I have to just try and accept that, because if I try and fight it it only gets worse.