There's no escaping the fact that to break free from that rut you will need to put in some hours of hard work.
In recent months, the subject of the tango "comfort zone" has come up repeatedly in conversation. And not necessarily in a positive context.
A comfort zone is a normal and in many ways good thing in tango, but when "comfort zone" becomes "rut" it's not so great.
When you dance tango, for sure there will be times when you feel stuck in your comfort zone, or rut. No matter your level or years of experience, there will be moments when you feel elegant, confident and in command of your body and other moments when you feel clumsy, heavy and awkward. This is all normal, and some of it is probably in your own mind. Sometimes on days I feel are my worst, when my feet feel klutzy and I'm not able to read any of my partners the way I usually do, I will receive compliments – both from my partners and observers. And when I feel great – connected to everyone and fully in my body – no one says a word, but it doesn't matter because I feel good.
My point is that while day-to-day ups and downs are a normal part of the never-ending tango learning process, sometimes we get stuck in a long-lasting rut that dampens our overall enjoyment of the dance and might even lead us to question whether we should continue at all.
I remember recent conversations with three people – two men and a woman – who came to me concerned about being stuck or bored or unsure of how to further their progress.
One was struck when he travelled abroad to a city where the overall level of dancers is known to be very high and found himself surrounded by men whose posture, floor craft and especially musicality blew him away. He said he was consequently mostly ignored by any potential partners. He expressed his frustration and in fact he was the one to use the term "comfort zone," knowing full well that he has been in his for too long. This is a dancer who I, personally, enjoy dancing with, who has a nice embrace, an easy-to-follow lead and a good sense of rhythm. With a little work and some direction he could easily get out of his rut, but he has a busy life and his time is limited, so for now he chooses to dance in the milongas and leave study and advancement for later.
The second man came to me for private lessons because he was getting bored with tango after many years, and a friend gave him some very good advice. She told him he was in a rut and could use some private lessons. Both he and I agreed. I believe the couple of lessons he took with me helped him, at least in the short term, but I would have liked to see him continue for longer, paying more attention to detail and really going back to square one to review his basics, an idea to which many people have an aversion either because they fear it will be boring (it isn't!) or because their egos get in the way ("I already know how to do ochos.").
The third person was a woman who wrote to me for suggestions as to where to go from here. She has done the basic group levels and wants to improve her technique – a great sign. So I suggested three options for her, two of which she was enthusiastic about, but then she never showed up. Perhaps she got sick or her budget was too tight or life otherwise got in the way. It happens to us all, but I was disappointed she didn't follow through on her promising plan.
First off, it's important to note that a comfort zone is a fully normal and by no means entirely bad thing. As we continue to study tango and expand our repertoire, some movements and sequences work for us more than others.
For leaders, some figures are more useful for navigating the dance floor and some come easier to our bodies than others, so we use them more. Novice leaders attending their first milongas often express frustration at not being able to use all their moves on the floor. What they need to know is that no leader uses all his moves in a single song, tanda or even a whole evening. Leaders have a comfort zone of steps they can lead and execute without thinking too much, and that is the zone in which they can and should dance in a milonga setting, because the large part of their brain power is inevitably and necessarily being used to navigate the floor, gauge their partner's reactions and play with the music. Leaders' "comfort-zone" or milonga-dancing repertoire will always expand more slowly than their overall repertoire.
For followers the "comfort zone" manifests itself in our technique. Perhaps there are movements we continue to struggle with and execute awkwardly month after month, year after year, for example backward pivots or giros. Or perhaps we never learned to master our musicality, so musical leaders figure out quickly that they can't take us into out-of-the-ordinary rhythmic patterns and are forced to stick to a very basic beat. Our own comfort zone puts limits on what our leaders can do, so we, too, need to keep pushing ourselves to learn new and challenging things.
How do we all accept our own comfort zone as a normal and good part of tango while still working to improve on and expand it?
Where it comes from
I hate to break it to you, but I believe (and I am not alone) that getting stuck in a boring comfort zone or frustrating rut stems primarily from laziness. Fixing those nagging technical shortcomings takes hard work and repetition. We all know leaders who have been dancing for years or even decades who dance the exact same way they did when we first danced with them five, 10, 15 years ago. Same figures, same posture, same technique, same floorcraft. And there are the followers who still have the same rigid embrace or lack of balance that they did way back when, who still can't do a simple giro on beat or follow an ocho cortado on the first try.
The consensus among many teachers in my circle is that many leaders are permanently stuck in that intermediate-level comfort zone simply because they can afford to be. There are not that many truly high-level leaders, and, as usual, women outnumber men at almost every event, so many women will settle for a less-than-stellar leader if it means getting a few tandas in.
As anyone who knows me knows, I am all for dancing with beginners, giving newcomers a chance and finding the positive in every dancer. But even I lose patience with leaders who think they are much better than they are just because they have a decade or more under their belts, who never take classes, who look at the floor while dancing, take too much space, weave from line to line and use the same party tricks milonga after milonga to every style of music.
Year after year I see follower's technique classes overflowing and women lining up for private lessons while men's technique classes are abandoned due to lack of attendance and only a handful of leaders sign up for long-term private instruction. Why bother working hard when you don't have to? When half the women in the milonga will be happy to dance with you even if you haven't changed a thing in the last five years?
What it leads to
Boredom. Yes, it's normal, and it's fully OK to rest in your comfort zone for a while. For novices, just the fact that you have a comfort zone is an accomplishment, so taking some time to relish it is perfectly fine. Also, understand that everyone has a comfort zone; it's just that some are larger than others and some evolve more than others. This is the key. Evolution. Without it, you and your partners will, eventually, get bored.
Frustration. Frustrated with all those partners who don't lead/follow you properly? With the dancers around you on the floor who always seem to be in your way? With the lack of miradas or cabeceos you receive in a night? These are all signs you may have been languishing in your comfort zone too long and it's time to up your game.
How to break free
Below are my suggestions for breaking free of that comfort zone, with a word of warning: Getting out of a rut will take some work, along with a good dose of self-examination, self-awareness and humility. But you already know that tango is a humbling dance, so no problem, right?
Make time. If you really can't free up more than one night a week, you might not solve your comfort-zone problem any time soon. You need to put in some class time – with a teacher who will give you a frank dose of reality – and some practice time (see below). You can practice on your own, at home with a regular partner or at an organized práctica at a local studio. And, of course, at milongas, where you will put everything you have worked so hard at into real-world practice.
Put your ego aside. Start by remembering that in any sport, physical pursuit or performance art the professionals are the ones who practice the most and they all have teachers and coaches. So saying you don't need a coach or teacher any more or that you don't need to work on your basics is arrogant and, frankly, ridiculous. We all need outside eyes to make us aware of our bad habits and weak points. Try not to get defensive when a teacher tells you you are (yes, still) holding your head too far forward or your embrace is too tense. The first step toward improvement is awareness, and if your ego blocks that awareness you will go nowhere.
Open your mind to new approaches. Good, experienced teachers try different approaches because they want to keep you on your toes, so to speak, and stimulate your brains, bodies and imaginations. So give them the benefit of the doubt and try a new way. It may expand your horizons and even give you one of those elusive "aha" moments. I can't tell you how many times I have tried to suggest a learning or practice technique only to be met with instant resistance. "I don't know how to do that." (Um, that's why I'm trying to teach it to you.) Or "I can't learn by watching/listening/just following." (I fully respect different learning styles, but if your way isn't working, why not give mine a try?) Or "Don't bother me with musicality; let me just work on my steps." (Trust me, the music will help you if you just give it a chance.) Trying something completely new might just be the surprise boost you need. For example:
Private lessons. If you've never taken private lessons because you're afraid of boring technical work (see below) or you simply don't see what you would get out of them, maybe it's time to try one – or, ideally, several. Sure, they're more expensive than group lessons, but you'll get way more bang for your buck and probably get your eyes opened to what you really need to work on.
Choreography. Many people shy away from choreography for a variety of reasons, among them the belief that because tango is an improvised dance choreography would be useless. But in fact, learning and perfecting choreography with its sharp transitions, precise musicality and focus on aesthetic appeal could be the one thing that finally breaks you out of that comfort zone and improves your technique. I've seen it happen time and again.
Solo practice. I and most of the teachers I know strongly suggest spending some time practicing your technique and footwork on your own. Get a teacher to suggest some drills for you to repeat; practice the footwork from the sequence you just learned in class until you can do it ten times in a row and on beat every time; spend 15 minutes walking backward or doing ochos or giros with a wall or around a chair; sit, stand and walk with postural awareness in your daily activities; put on some tango music and play the melody with your feet. There are a lot of little ways to fit tango practice into your daily routine, and you and your partners will notice the difference.
Get over your fear of boredom. There is a lot of joy and satisfaction to be found in hard work, so learning or re-learning how to stand/walk/pivot properly is unlikely to be boring unless you come in with the preconceived idea that it will be. No one's technique is perfect and there is always room for improvement. The cliché about tango (and life) being about the journey, not the destination exists for good reason. Life and tango would both be boring if we actually arrived one day and had nowhere left to go. And, really, there is just no point in learning four new sacada sequences if you can't properly execute a basic giro.
Go to a teacher you trust, and trust your teacher. If you think your teachers have something to teach you, let them do it. Even if you don't always get what the end result of a given exercise is going to be, bear with them and see where it leads. If your teacher seems interested in your progress and has significantly more experience and better technique that you do, you will probably learn something – maybe even a lot. If you really don't trust your teacher and don't think he or she has much to offer you, go somewhere else.
What to work on
Posture. This is probably the hardest thing to work on, because changing your postural attitude means changing years of habits and putting to work muscles you didn't even know you had. But it is so worth it. Proper posture and alignment will give you better balance, more ease of movement, especially in close embrace, and will probably improve your day-to-day life (and appearance) as well as your tango.
Musicality. This is my personal favourite quality in a dancer and I know for a fact I am not alone. If you can do the same move three different ways in the music it's as good as (maybe better than) knowing three different figures. So work on your musicality. Leader or follower, it will make you impressive and, more importantly, a pleasure to dance with.
Connection. This is the obvious one, I guess. But there are plenty of dancers out there who are much more focused on their feet or their next move than on their partners' reactions. Work on your receptivity, your lead/follow skills, your ability to be in the now and wait for what's coming next and your partners will notice.
Simple, useful vocabulary. Yes, it's fun to do cool wraps or colgadas once in a while, when they are smoothly executed. And in the end, everyone should know how to do all types of moves, from ochos and giros to sacadas, volcadas and boleos. But don't neglect the simple stuff: the little direction changes that will allow you to avoid accidents while leading something nice; the compact versions of all your beginner moves, which will allow you to dance on the most crowded dance floors; the musical variations that will keep you interesting even when there's no space to do anything fancy.
To summarize, the fact that you even have a comfort zone is a positive sign in the early stages of your tango learning, but get stuck in it too long and it becomes a rut, which will ultimately bore your partners and you. When that happens, it's probably time to swallow your pride, go back, take some lessons and break free.