Sunday, March 16, 2014

Ask Helaine: What's wrong with dancing in the center?

Today we have another question from Robert in New York:

"I’ve heard you say that if a man dances a lot in the middle of the dance floor you will probably avoid his invitation, because you really prefer those who dance in the outer ring.  

"Why is that? What if the outer ring is very crowded and there's space inside the outer ring of the dance floor? One could, if their navigational skills are good enough, even move into the center and then out back to the outer ring. Long as you respect the space of the other dancers along the way, of course."

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Thanks for the great question, Robert.  

If one moves smoothly, skillfully, and safely between rings as you describe, I think it’s okay.  But please be aware that traveling back and forth across rings throughout a tanda is outside of traditional milonga etiquette. 

The second ring is my second favorite place to dance.  But it’s usually not where I’ll watch, when I’m sitting, to find the men whose invitations I’ll seek later.  More about that at the end.

Any further inside than the second ring, outside of Buenos Aires, is often the zone of chaos.  In the very center is what I call “Bumper Cars”.  It’s the area where men gravitate when they don’t understand the importance of the line of dance, or if they want to perform extravagant figures. Those are the dancers who put their own sense of freedom ahead of their respect for the community and for their partner. It’s also where inexperienced or less-skilled dancers go because they want to stay out of the way of the the experts who move confidently on the perimeter.

The woman’s perspective on dancing in the center

Before I answer your specific question, Robert, I’d like to address dancing in the center of the floor for anyone reading this who prefers to dance there. I hope to shed light for him on what his partners are probably experiencing.

The center of the tango dance floor can be a dangerous place for a woman. It’s where she is more likely to receive kicks or elbow-jabs, even if her partner considers himself skillful.  Unexpected, unrestrained movements are more likely to happen in the center. 

The center can be a a stressful place for her to dance also because there is no unified flow in the “community” of dancers-in-the-center.  She’s dancing  backwards and can’t see what’s behind her, and what she can see before her or in her peripheral vision has no order and feels confusing. She starts to yearn for the sense of harmony she experiences in the outer rings.  Even if a man I know is a very skillful dancer, has fast reflexes and avoids collisions, if he is a center-dancer, I will rarely be available for his invitations. It generally puts me ill at ease to dance in the center.  And really, how much can my partner be present with me if he is busy meeting the challenge of dancing well amid disorder?

Even in the milongas of Buenos Aires where there is a culture of good navigation, when the dance floor is extremely crowded, the center can feel chaotic. The couples on opposite sides of the innermost track pass very close to each other as they move in opposite directions, and often have body contact.  Though it’s not quite “Bumper Cars”, it can still be stressful for the woman who’s moving backwards, can’t see behind her, and has no opportunity to choose a safer place on the dance floor, other than to tactfully request a change of location between tandas.

But, Robert, I know you’re not talking about choosing to dance mostly in the center.  You’re mainly asking “What’s wrong with dancing in the inner rings?”  

Nothing’s wrong with dancing in the inner rings when they’re orderly and harmonious.  Perhaps we should rephrase the question as, “What’s so special about the outer ring?”

The beauty of the ronda’s outer ring

One of the reasons I recommend the outer ring to my students, is that there the man has only three adjacent spaces that concern him in his navigation:  before him, behind him, and to his left.  To his right, where his view is often blocked by his partner’s head, there are only tables and chairs, so he can give that side minimal attention. Dancing in the outer ring simplifies his navigation.  If there’s a rare obstacle on the edge of the dance floor creating any danger in the outer ring, like the intruding foot of someone’s crossed leg, or a chair left out of place, he can usually see it in advance, as a driver sees the movement on the highway at least several vehicles ahead. 

I, as a tanguera, usually feel a beautiful sense of order and harmony when dancing in the outer ring.  Even though I am focused inward toward my partner, moving in the outer ring gives me the greatest sense that we are dancing with the community. The neutral space to my right provides for me a sense of both freedom and security.  It feels like breathing-room while at the same time serving as a silent, protective wall, on the side where my partner can’t see.  

Also, I as a tanguera, don’t leave floorcraft (navigational skill) solely up to my partner.  I too have an active role in our dancing in traffic, with my share of the responsibility for what I call the “micro-navigation”.  I’m managing my own movement relative to the couples and objects around us, as well as being an extra set of eyes facing in the opposite direction for my partner.  So the advantage of the neutral fourth side applies to me as well as to him. 

Robert, I’ve had wonderful tandas with outstanding dancers who have moved inward one ring when they’ve found the outer ring unreasonably crowded. But when the floor is so crowded that it calls for an excellent dancer to get out of the outer ring, I have to combine allowing myself to feel slightly lost and trusting more in my partner for my wellbeing, with being extra alert in the “micro-navigation”, including  being ready to help my partner manage his blind spots.  With very good dancers who generally prefer an inner ring, I can have a great tanda, but it’s rarely optimal for me.

There are two more reasons why I generally seek partners from among the men who dance in the outer ring:

1) In the outer ring are usually the dancers with the highest level of skill. They don’t mind that they are being watched.  They may even position themselves in the outer ring knowing that they are more visible to discriminating tangueras who are choosing prospective tanda partners.  They are able to smoothly manage staying in line in the outer ring because they make the most of a few critical skills which also make dancing with them divine. (I’ll reveal these in a moment!)

Even less advanced dancers who prefer dancing in the outer ring are proving that they’ve mastered those few essential skills that make dancing in the outer ring so enjoyable.  I’ll gladly dance with a one-year tanguero who demonstrates mastery of those same few simple-but-critical skills that I said that the finest dancers have. 

2) Finally, I experience such a sense of refinement in dancing with a man who chooses the outer ring.  In that choice is an implicit respect for tango tradition and for the community.  When I’m led to start there and stay there for 10-12 minutes, I know that I’m dancing with someone who has a similar aesthetic to mine.  When I get to dance a whole tanda in the outer ring, I think “Bingo! The Universe has smiled on me again.”  Really.

Tangueros, would you like to feel totally comfortable dancing in the outer ring?  

Here are the 4 Simple-but-Critical Skills 
that you need to dance divinely in the outer ring of the ronda.

  1. You must be very grounded, and therefore have excellent balance.
  2. You must develop a mastery of the woman’s axis, so you can allow her or help her to be grounded as well.  
  3. You must make the most of the pauses in the music, as well as slow down when the music does. You must dance in such a way that you and your partner can savor the pauses and the slow passages that come up in many tangos. 
  4. You must know how to dance in a square meter enjoyably and without stress, when the traffic isn’t moving, but the music is!

My offer to you for a mini-email consultation:

If you can identify your areas of weakness on this list of four skills, you'll know exactly why you don't feel comfortable in the outer ring! 

Email me and tell me which of the above skill or skills you need the most help with - # 1, 2, 3 and/or 4 -  to give you much greater confidence on the outer ring of the dance floor.  I'll get back to you with my recommendation about how to quickly and efficiently master that skill or those skills!

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I encourage everyone to leave your comments in the space below the article!

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  1. Excellent points, Helaine, all of which I agree with, by the way. My concern, the more I practice, is with egotistical dancers who insist on "performing" on a very crowded floor. I've seen men lead very rapid giros in place, again and again, and the moves are not tight, well-controlled revolutions, but the kind of stuff you see from performers. I think it's very dangerous for the woman on the receiving end, no matter how accomplished. OK, the guy is technically profficient, bravo, but he has no respect for tradition or the other people on the floor. And of course, the guy behind continues to creep up on you. Of course, the other problem is that the floor (in NYC) is often simply too crowded. You do get the one-square meter, which would be not too bad (but not so much fun for a vals) if everyone respected their fellow dancers. I always try to dance in the outer ring of the floor. I prefer it there. You have a bigger circle to work with and you don't have people on all four sides, which can be disorienting. Robert

  2. In the highly disciplined dance venues in BA, and some other places, your description of the outer lane is accurate, but I often dance in places where it is not. There is often one side of the floor where couples enter the floor. In the better places there is a 'male cabaceo', where men acknowledge a new entry and leave room, which I find wonderful. However, there are also couples that just barge in, and a crowded outer ring with bad floorcraft is terrilble. If I find myself in that situation, I tend to move to an inner lane. Gary