Or, What To Do When Things Suck For Years
by Mitra Martin
I’ll tell you the truth: we sucked for eleven years.
And I’m not saying we’ve stopped sucking now. But maybe there is some kind of silvery kindling that has a bit of goodness in it. It feels different, anyway.
I wanted to share this because I know how hard and painful it can sometimes be to try to develop partnership. In life or in Tango or in business or anywhere. And if you’re struggling with this mysterious process maybe it would help to know of others who also found it NOT EASY. And hear what helped them a little bit.
Here is what helped us a little bit.
I can easily count scores of performances we gave that pretty much were horrible. Our big “debut” performance at a major national festival for instance. We knew it was awful and we figured we’d never live it down.
This summer we gave a performance that once again felt like crap and we resolved, together, that we wouldn’t let it happen again. We wanted to create a good mood, a good sweet real connection and share it.
Since we’d tried about a zillion ways of practicing and preparing for improvised demos, and none of them had worked, we decided that the only thing left to try was to make a choreography. We had four months, so we made a timetable. We chose a song and mapped it out. It took hours, but it was really collaborative. We developed material for each section. We rehearsed the variación over and over and over. We put it all together and started running it, with a week left to spare.
This is the musical outline we made of Troilo’s Quejas de Bandeoneón in order to help us choreograph it. Each section had its own poster, and we put Post-It stickers on the musical accents.
Then we watched the video of the choreography we had together so lovingly developed.
It was terrible.
We looked at each other, and went home. Had Chinese food for dinner.
Our next practice was different. Stefan asked me a lot of questions. We put the music on shuffle, and improvisation started happening. Listening was there. The degrees of freedom that had been clenched by wanting to be or do something good, started to open up again. We both felt thoroughly danced by the end of it, which was a new experience. And we didn’t fight.
Hmm. Something was opening up. I don’t know if it could have opened if it hadn’t been for all the failure.
2. Never stopping believing
I think thoughts are really powerful. And thoughts when they are capsuled into words and sentences are even more powerful. So I really think that the number one most important thing is to stay true in your thoughts.
For me what that meant is that no matter how lost I felt, how crappy our dancing felt, how angry or disappointed or discouraged or at-the-end-of-my-rope I was, I never let myself entertain the thought: “Maybe this is just never going to work.” That was a choice.
I could have easily let it slip in. It wanted to.
When it wanted to, I did other things. I actually prayed for us, for our dancing. I wrote about it, how it would be, how we would feel, someday, soon. I wrote about Stefan, I tried to understand what he was facing and what might help him. And I tried to keep improving.
3. Applying non-violent communication
I guess there is some Mad-Men-era social pressure to pretend and act like everything in your relationship with your partner is ideal and lovely. Practically every couple that I know of fights a little bit but doesn’t want anyone to know it. I think that all that hiding and making it into a dirty little secret adds more stress and shame, and makes it less likely that some real solutions can be found. The solutions are more likely to be found somewhere in the social network, which means that other people who can help out would need to know.
The fact is lot of times people who are working together as partners fight with each other. They get angry and they cry. They say mean things, they feel hurt and say things that hurt. Then they feel so sad and regretful, guilty and ashamed. There is a tremendous amount of waste going on. It’s very sad, very scary to fight with your intimate partner.
In the course of our trying to find each other dance-wise we tried so many ways of making communication better. We tried to put in some rules about giving each other feedback. We tried to structure our practice sessions more, so both people felt like their practice needs were being met. We got into the habit of doing written “practice evaluations” after practice and sharing them with each other. But a lot of times there was still friction.
Finally we asked a friend of ours for help. That in itself felt like a desperate measure. Practically like admitting defeat. But what else to do? Andrei has been part of our lives for years and is trained to teach Marshall Rosenberg’s system of Non-Violent Communication. We have always experienced him as exemplary in his way of communicating, and everything he’s told us about his work resonated as deeply sane.
In one incredibly gentle and sensitive two hour session, Andrei taught us how we can make space for each person to express themselves and their needs, without creating defensiveness in the other person. I am so grateful for what we’ve learned and for having a whole new way of sharing my needs. I feel like Stefan understands me better than he ever has, and is more curious and open to me than he ever was, and I feel like I am seeing him and what drives him and interests him more clearly than I ever could before. We are more flexible with each other, more interested in each other, and more than anything excited to go deeper into this powerfully peaceful way of sharing.
4. Understanding the source of each person’s self-disapproval
This came in at the very end. We each discovered that each of us had a nasty little judge inside our minds who was telling us we were bad. And that judge was making it so hard for us to truly connect with each other.
My judge came from a teacher-friend I remember who years ago was talking to us about some performances that had just happened at a festival. He said in a kind of disgusted way, “She has terrible technique.” That made me scared. It made me never want to be someone that other people would be disgusted by, that other people would say that kind of thing with that kind of inflection. It made me worried all the time that the way I was dancing was probably ugly. Now I really question those kinds of judgmental statements. I don’t think they bring anything positive. When two people dance there is always something beautiful. Even if it’s just their vague hope of connecting. We need to key into that.
Stefan’s judge also came in the form of a colleague we respected, who we had asked for honest feedback on a performance we gave. He told Stefan, “What you lead needs to be more complex.” That set him off on a quest to try to make his dancing more impressive. Which made it a lot harder for us to be in synch. The guy had a good point, but, before we could dance with more complexity we needed to find our connection with each other. That took time. I think we are starting to feel it. Maybe in a few years some complexity that is native to us will find space.
Finally we danced a simple Tango that felt connected. DeAngelis’ Pregonera, at the San Diego Tango Festival 2015. Here is the video.
So that’s it!
Believe in your partnership, and never stop believing even if it takes eleven years or more. Learn non-violent communication, you can start here, I think you won’t regret it. Try to understand what makes you feel like you’re no good and question whether it’s true. And finally, FAIL! Fail forward faster, and you may find yourself continuing to fail. Which might eventually be liberating.