Love Takes Practice: How To Practice Together

by Mitra Martin

The true idealist is no dewy-eyed dreamer but a committed foot soldier in the cause of his vision.”Laurence Boldt

We started practicing Tango together around seven years ago. We didn’t have a teacher and neither of us knew anything. In our mutual lostness, trying to figure out how we could dance with each other, I remember moments of sobbing and scorn. I also remember, a few times, having the impression that sunlight, falling on the mutilated floor, had come specifically to make these beautiful moments more beautiful. That the hummingbird who lives outside actually paused, touched by our efforts. 

How do you go on in your practice when nothing feels right ? Or, how do you rouse yourself to find something deeper, when things everything feels blissfully okay ? If we believe in love, we believe in practice. We meet and try to connect. Then, we do it again.

Over time and through struggles, Stefan and I have found a few things that help us sustain our imperfect yet real Tango practice. Here are a few of them in case they are of use to you and your partners. 

Mitra's Suggestions for Practice Sanity 

  • Decide what you would like to practice ahead of time. Make a plan. Is there an improvisation game you're interested in ? A step you have decoded from video that you want to try ? Some new foot/ankle/leg/hip/shoulder/arm/whatever technique you want to build your own awareness of ? "Just" walking ? A particular song ? Or a particular orchestra ? Is there a movement theme, e.g., say, boléos ? Are you preparing for a class ? Consider both your and your partner's interests as you plan. 
  • Dress nicely for practice. It makes it feel more important, which it is. "Nicely" just means that you feel nice in what you are wearing ! Like, maybe something flowy instead of something sweatpantsy. 
  • Have a clear start time and end time. For us it is really ideal to make practice a regular ritual that always happens at the same day/time/place/frequency. That way you can look forward to it and prepare in the right way. We have experimented for quite awhile now to find exactly the right rhythm that fits with our energies and the demands of the day, and we're still tinkering.  
  • Starting with a small ritual of respect and gratitude can be really unexpectedly powerful. I remember when I took piano lessons as a very small person, each lesson would start and end with me and my teacher bowing to each other, which was totally impressive and focus-gathering. At the beginning of practice, saying something like, "I pledge to bring loving respect and curiosity to our time together -- Namaste," in words that are meaningful to you, will definitely have a positive effect on your practice time. 
  • Negotiate what you are going to do. Share agendas and be proud of how wonderfully prepared you both are. Then take some time and work out a plan that allows both people to work on whatever they are interested in. Probably, you can't get to everything. 
  • Set a timer for the end so you don't need to keep checking time. Clock-checking is a behavior that might make your partner feel rather forlorn and instead it's nice for both of you to know that you can focus fully on El Tango. Also, set a timer for taking a break if you think you’ll need one. Try different things til you figure out what’s realistic with your energy levels. If your plan includes different parts, set a timer for each one. E.g., first 20 minutes: walking. next 20 minutes: "Griseta" on repeat. Next 20 minutes: work out that thorny Balmaceda move. Or, ideally, more like 100 minutes for each. 
  • Try, seriously and earnestly, to REALLY understand your partner’s question/problems/issues/frustrations/blocks/interests. Tackle them, study them as if they are your own (they are !) Look for resources that can help them, during and outside of practice. 
  • Decide together any general principles you want to adhere to about feedback. As in, do you want it or not ?? Any kind of feedback or only certain topics ? How much/often ? Are you going to adopt The Stefan Fabry Five-Step Formula To Giving Tango Feedback ? (To come, next week !) 
  • Feedback can sometimes be super stressful ! Especially if you are someone like me who mostly expects to receive lots and lots of praise, with rare and only very very gently-phased highly constructive criticism skilfully woven into a fragrant bouquet of compliments ! So, since you have to give feedback to improve, I suggest that you do something that makes the situation funnier if possible, in cases when you can't find enough compliments in which to embed the critique. For instance, give each other feedback LOUDLY, from opposite corners of the room. Or, poke him or her in the ribs if he or she gets too serious/ostentatious in response to your feedback. 
  • Thank them at the end. Never take anyone for granted ! Each practice opportunity is such a gift, even -- especially -- with someone you're very close to and see all the time. In case it is hard to remember that, just saying "Thank you" can actually pull it into focus. 
  • Articulate the growth, improvement, or changes you’ve noticed. E.g., what has changed in the past 10 minutes/hour/week/year/since the partnership began. Say, "hark ! how awesome we are becoming !

Our practice feels more productive and harmonious when we keep to these things. Honestly though, I still feel like even with all this we could be getting so much more out of our practice time together. I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on how they work to reach their potential, through practice with a Tango partner. 

Mitra Martin

Mitra Martin is Program Director at the Oxygen Tango where her focus is developing an interconnected community learning experience, and facilitating conversation around excellence in Tango as a portal to personal and social transformation.