Dance & Art

Why art making must be for everyone

This post is not only for those who identify as artists, it’s for the artist in every person. Whether you know her or not, she’s there, and the more I explore creative process, the more I see with clarity how my own inner artist takes me by the hand and steers me gently away from undo commercial and political influence and firmly toward choices that further my holistic well-being.

Paradoxes of “Tradition” and How to Hold Them

Photo by Isaac Oboka 2010

Photo by Isaac Oboka 2010

As a community, we tango dancers devote a fair amount of time to the discussion of tradition; specifically, to questioning what is traditional and what is not. This discussion is alive and well in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the native home of the tango, but it is perhaps even more heated abroad, where foreign aficionados and professionals alike often use the term traditional to explain, justify, celebrate, and defend their choices in dancing style, teaching pedagogy, and social behavior.

Let me be clear from the outset: I believe a sense of tradition is vitally important. In my view, awareness of and participation in tradition shows respect for the contributions of the artists who came before us, and establishes an important human connection with those same artists through time. This is how community art forms survive, by living not in encyclopedias and databases, but rather in the very bodies of those of us who practice them.

The problem with the word tradition is that it is not a single template, but rather a whole set of constantly shifting ideas, aesthetics, and values, many of them contradictory. Merriam Webster offers these definitions of tradition: 

  1. the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction
  2. cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions
  3. characteristic manner, method, or style

Generally, we as a community are ok with a certain amount of shifting and shuffling among these various definitions. We study with different teachers, developing first in our home communities and then traveling to experience others. We dance in restaurants, libraries, and private homes, at airports, and on beaches. We dance fancy, and we dance casual. We enjoy discovering new ways of dancing and interpreting tango, and learn to tolerate and eventually welcome the inevitable contradictions we find along the way.

Sometimes, though, we focus on one facet of the tradition, holding it up as an absolute truth. In my observation, it is this holding up of one element of the tradition over others (regardless of what it is) that tends to exclude people and create negativity in our dancing spaces. Both exclusion and negativity shrink our numbers. In their wake, dancers drop out and fewer people are inspired to learn. In the long run, attempting to isolate any one aspect of the tradition doesn’t benefit any of us.

No study of tradition warns, “If this custom is changed, all hell will break loose.” No, instead, what research on cultural traditions consistently observes is ongoing change and adjustment. Art forms both reflect and influence (follow and lead) the belief systems and cultural norms of a society.

So rather than “Is [x] traditional,” I’m much more interested in the question “Do we want to keep [x] in our tradition?” Is any given aspect of the tradition (fedoras, chaperones, the ocho cortado) serving us as a community in the time and place that we are invoking it? Does it bring more people through our doors? Does it help us learn and develop our dancing? Does it make us feel welcome and connected? Does it make us feel creative and inspired? The answers to these questions may not be the same in every classroom, milonga, or community, but I feel that they are the relevant ones to be asking, nonetheless. Fedora hats are not items I consider essential for dancing, and chaperones are obsolete, but I wouldn’t ever want be without the ocho cortado.

What follows are my observations of some of our more familiar debates over what constitutes traditional tango, and proposals for how we might accept their paradoxical nature without one side eclipsing the other. We are, after all, leaders and followers. We know there are two sides of a coin, and we know how opposing forces harmonize to create transcendence. We have lived that in our embraces. Paradox is our signature cocktail.

Paradox 1: Social Tango and Performance Tango

If you primarily identify as a social dancer, you are likely familiar with the view that traditional tango is a social art form. Its inwardly focused, felt sense of connection between partners on the dance floor is the root and essence of the dance, rather than the outwardly focused display of virtuosity that connects audience to performer. Social tango is something that everyone can do; therefore, its movements are restricted to be comfortably executable in the small, shifting spaces of a fully occupied dance floor.

If you enjoy tango performance or are a performer yourself, though, you may relate to the idea that the artistic sophistication of tango is most evident and appreciable when viewed at a distance, in the center of a cleared dance floor, urban plaza, or theater stage. Traditionally, performers expand the boundaries of what is possible in the form and inspire others with the larger movements and creative innovations that are only possible in the open area of a performance space.

Clearly, both of these perspectives are traditional, even as they appear to contradict one another.

If you love social dancing are feel impatient with or critical of performance tango, consider that social tango, in a way, can already be seen as a performance of sorts, with the dance floor serving as a kind of stage for those of us seated around its perimeter. Perhaps the difference between this kind of social “performance” and one on a stage is simply a question of context and degree. Remember that informal “performances” were part of how tango was enjoyed as early as the turn of the century, and existed also, informally, in the men’s practices of the 1930s, probably as a competitive game of one-up-man-ship. Many social dancers joined tango orchestras on stage as they toured abroad through the 1950s and 1960s, driving the demand for social dancing around the world. This dynamic, of course, continues today.

If you love performing and feel less connected to your identity as as social dancer, it may help to acknowledge that the social experience of tango is indeed the predecessor of and therefore in some way inspiration for all tango performances. Without it, tango performance would not exist in the first place. Social dance can be a place to recharge your artistic batteries, reconnect with the seeds of your artistic practice, discover new elements to explore in the rehearsal studio or on the stage. Even your memories of social dance are rich mines for artistic inspiration. What is that feeling you have on the dance floor, and what is an embrace, really? What is the essence of leading, of following? What would tango be like without music, without a partner? These are questions we are permitted to explore in the realm of performance, but the social tango environment is where these questions are born. It is our eternal reference point.

 

Paradox 2: Preserve and Innovate

As older dancers pass on, it becomes more and more clear that whatever tango we know is carried in our own living bodies. If we have not absorbed certain details through dancing or learning or watching those elders, they will likely fade from the collectively held repertory of the tradition as a whole. For that reason, emulating and learning from those we name masters is an important part of our creative work, in the sense that the tango tradition includes the passing down of information from one generation to the next.

However, in my experience, the elders are the first to remind us that innovating, creating your own steps and your own style and interpretation, is also one of the most enduring and characteristic traditions of the tango. As they did before us, we must also take up the challenge of making the tango our own.  

Yet again, we have two impulses that contradict one another while simultaneously functioning to make the tango the complex and enduring creature that it is. Often, preservationist efforts are named “traditional,” while innovative efforts are named “experimental.” In fact, both efforts are traditional; they simply represent two distinct aspects of the tango tradition.

Sometimes, we focus more on preservation, replicating postures, timings, figures from master teachers. On the other side of the city, or the dance floor even, others of us play with the opposite approach, creating variations of classic movements or dancing in unusual embraces. The shift from preservation toward innovation may mirror beginner through advanced stages of learning. It may, instead, reflect our chronological age or the position we hold in our home community.

Wherever we find ourselves individually, as a group we are looking in two directions at once, reinforcing the wisdom of the past while listening for the insights of the future. Because there are many of us, we don’t all have to occupy both ends of this timeline – we may choose to hover where we are most inspired, or periodically drift back and forth.

How to be a preserver: take classes, watch videos (especially old videos), listen to Golden Age music, read books about tango’s history, learn Spanish, visit Buenos Aires and Montevideo

How to be an innovator: find a practice buddy (or six), dance constantly, watch others dancing, study complementary movement forms (somatic disciplines, martial arts, other dances, theater), travel to tango festivals, see tango performances

 

Paradox 3: Fixed Roles and Flexible Roles

Regardless of how you feel about who leads and who follows, this last paradox is no doubt the most challenging one. For many dancers, there is a conviction that a milonga in which men exclusively lead and women exclusively follow is required for tango to be named traditional, or perhaps to be named tango at all. All milongas we hear about from the Golden Age, as well as the vast majority of them over the past thirty years of the tango’s revival, conform (more or less) to this structural model. The fixing of gender roles in this particular way, then, seems to be inseparable from the experience of tango itself.

On the other side of the traditional coin, however, lies the less visible legacy of flexible roles: neighborhood men’s groups that met to practice on a regular basis, and (far less commonly) mothers who taught their daughters to dance at home. From this perspective, tango is a language any two people can speak, one that we believe the majority of the Golden Age population was fluent in. From this perspective, it is the improvised nature of the partnership - not the gender of its participants, that makes tango what it is.

Both fixed and flexible gender roles, then, are part of tango’s history, and therefore part of its tradition. Like performance and social dancing, and like preservation and innovation, fixed and flexible are two sides of the same coin. Now, as then, we choose how to embody the tradition based on context. In the Golden Age, those choices were influenced by rigid social codes that enforced gender segregation between home and work. Men worked and circulated in public; women stayed home. They met at the milonga (and other social gatherings) under specific and enforced protocols. In learning environments (the home for women and the practica for men), flexible roles were normal. At social dance events, however, fixed roles were expected.

Today, thankfully, we enjoy more egalitarian social norms, and as a result, our role choices are based more on individual preference than collective convention. Fixed and flexible roles are both equally traditional, but today they are no longer separated into public and private realms, respectively, and neither are they dictated by strict gender segregation. Some of us, regardless of whether we are learning or dancing, prefer to stay in a conventionally fixed role, and others choose an unconventional one, or practice both.

Fixers: If you prefer dancing in a historically conventional gender role and are uncomfortable seeing others dance differently, try taking a broader societal view. As we now understand through decades of civil rights work, people are whom they are and love whom they love, and desire comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders. Further, recognize that while desire is a beautiful thing to express through tango, it is not the only thing. In your life, you have many kinds of relationships that support and sustain you, including family, friends, lovers, and colleagues. For many, tango inspiration arises in all of these relationships, not only romantically charged ones. Just as you can respect your neighbor’s right to practice Christianity while you practice Buddhism, you can respect one couple’s preference for flexible or unconventional roles while you and your own partner have a fabulous time dancing conventionally fixed roles.

Flexers: If you experience stress due to others’ discomfort with your role choices, know that history (and tradition) is on your side. Social art forms simultaneously reflect and reconstruct themselves as cultural values shift over time. Both reflection and reconstruction are traditional, as is the tension between them. The tango is there for all of us as a creative resource. Know, too, that an enormous segment of the contemporary tango community was built by other flexers. Male and female teachers, organizers, and performers proficient in both roles are responsible for training a substantial percentage of the current tango dancing population. They host dozens of milongas and offer hundreds of tango classes around the world. They are there for you. Find them, and be courageous about expressing your choice.

 

So, what do we really mean when we name the tango (or anything else, really) traditional? Are we using that term to defend a personal worldview, or to prove we are right about some technical detail? Or, more productively, are we referencing a historical legacy that truly serves us today, choosing deliberately to carry forward practices from the past that foster empathy, equality, community, and artistry? There is not only one tango, but many tangos. Which ones do we want to maintain? Which ones do we want to re-imagine?

I know that these are difficult questions, but I believe they the ones worth asking. We can ask them about the tango tradition, but we can also ask them about, say, the American tradition, or the conservative or liberal tradition. What seems clear to me is that our un-examined usage of the term traditional leads to conflict. I propose that getting clearer on what tradition means to each of us may well encourage greater understanding, tolerance, and acceptance instead. It may even result in expansion of the tango population, to more frequent and more fulfilling dancing. I think those are things that all of us can get behind!

Please leave your thoughts in the comments.  

Tango Sisterhood Pledge

Sharna and Brigitta, TangoMujer 2004. Photo by Astrid Weiske

Sharna and Brigitta, TangoMujer 2004. Photo by Astrid Weiske

International Women’s Day is coming up on Wednesday, March 8, and in my daily search for positive and productive ways to direct my energy, I discovered the Global Sisterhood Project.

On that particular Wednesday, I will be on the island of Maui, co-leading the Aloha Girls retreat for tango women with one of my early tango she-roes, Brigitta Winkler. We will briefly join our women’s tango circle that evening with Global Sisterhood’s international synchronized meditation.

I’m often tempted to dismiss this kind of quiet internal work as less important than public protests or calls to representatives. It’s not. Both are important, because our internal and external lives are constantly mirroring one another. As we grow within, we are able to see more clearly the work to be done in the world. And as we interact with the world, we identify the next step of our own personal evolution. It is this balance of internal and external work that keeps me grounded, calm, and productive. If I linger on either side for too long, I start to lose focus.

In addition to the synchronized meditation, I am inspired by this organization’s Sacred Sisterhood Pledge, which acknowledges the habits of competition, comparison, jealousy and judgment that deteriorate our emotional lives and our relationships. Again, the damage is simultaneously internal and external. If we want to see (and be) strong women in the world, we've got to pull these stubborn weeds out by the roots and replace them with something else.

Since I’ll be working in a tango environment next week, I decided to write my own Tango Sisterhood Pledge. For myself, I know that the process of owning up to my negativity and transforming it, over time, into more positive and uplifting attitudes is the single greatest factor in whatever success and joy I have experienced in my life and in my career.

Sharna and Angelika, TangoMujer 2005. Photo by Astrid Weiske

Sharna and Angelika, TangoMujer 2005. Photo by Astrid Weiske

Still, it’s always good to revisit old territory and keep sweeping out whatever stray cobwebs may remain.  So here’s my pledge to tango women everywhere:

Dear Tango Sister,

I admit that I have been jealous of you in the past. I have envied your clothes, your boleos, your dance partners, and even resented you for having them. I have invented elaborate, fictitious justifications for the times you got something I thought I deserved, like a dance or compliment, or a job. I have judged you harshly and unfairly. I have compared myself to you and concluded I was worse or better in countless ways, all of which left me feeling miserable and powerless.

I am sorry for this. I’m sorry for doing this both to you and to myself, because I fully understand now that it’s always both or neither. The inside and the outside always match.

From this moment forward, I promise to abandon the habits of competition, comparison, jealousy and judgment that chip away at our self-worth, keep us divided, and drain our precious creative energy. I know that the best way to keep myself strong is to strengthen you, too, and that solidarity is the only path to health and stability both individually and collectively.

Sharna and Valeria, TangoMujer 2005, Photo by Astrid Weiske

Sharna and Valeria, TangoMujer 2005, Photo by Astrid Weiske

I hereby take this Tango Sisterhood Pledge:

1. I will care for my body, mind, and spirit as best I can, so that I’m never tempted to put you down as a way of making myself feel better.

2. I will speak well of you in public and private, no matter what the circumstances. At minimum, I will refrain from negative comment.

3. I will take responsibility for my own actions and set clear boundaries around what is and is not ok for me so that I can remain generous and open with you.

4. I will encourage you and celebrate your achievements and success.

5. I will respect your choice to lead or to follow at any time.

 

Ready to take the pledge? Leave your name, or add your own suggestions in the comments!

 

Lady Leading: the Ripple Effect

I’ve been teaching tango women to lead for quite some time, and have received a variety of feedback on that work over the years, comments that range from “Thank you, this has changed my life,” to “You are destroying the tradition.” I have come to accept that both ends of this spectrum will continue to exist. One response, though, that I’ve always been curious about, falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a response that usually comes from men, although not always. The response usually takes the form of a stated or unstated question:

“Why?”

If you are one of these men or women, maybe you’re not sure how female leading could be fun or valuable. Or maybe you’re just wondering,

“What’s the point?”

Well, there are lots of ways that women's leading classes and events benefit the women who attend, but I believe they are also a gift to the women and men who DON'T attend. Let me explain.

Vermont Tango & Yoga Retreat 2016, Photo by Sally Wright

Vermont Tango & Yoga Retreat 2016, Photo by Sally Wright

1. Happiness Quotient. Who doesn’t want a positive, supportive, relaxed partner? Like a microscopic experience of society in general, most women confront a whole battery of anxiety hair-triggers about their appearance and performance when they attend a milonga.

Am I smiling enough? Should I have worn the other skirt? Did I say yes at the right time? Are my boleos satisfying? Am I leaning too much? Are my boobs secured? You get the picture. This is not women being crazy. This is the tango version of the unrelenting “not good enough” advertising propaganda that women are force-fed from an early age.

This minefield of psychic self-critique can prevent women from relaxing and enjoying themselves at a milonga, and that can diminish the chances of positive, connected dancing no matter who the partner is. This was definitely true for me for many years, until I started taking charge of how I was feeling about myself. What helped me to do that? In large part, studying the leading role with other women.

Women-only events take the edge off, at least for a little while, so that women can fall in love with tango again, and make choices that will help keep them positive when they go out dancing. And that means lighter energy in the room and more fun dances for everyone.

Aloha Girls Maui Retreat 2016

Aloha Girls Maui Retreat 2016

2. Practical Skills. Leading gives women very clear insights into what the men they dance with typically feel in the embrace. When I first started learning to lead other women, I remember thinking, “Wow, she trusts me so much, I better bring my A-game,” and also, “Wow, she is really not trusting me, I can’t communicate with her at all.” You can’t get that kind of learning by just hearing an instruction like “Trust your partner.” What does that mean? Well, when you hold someone, you feel the difference between physical trust and physical lack of trust. You then KNOW what it means.

Trust becomes a verb, not a noun, and you do it yourself more easily when the roles reverse. Perhaps more importantly, you are also motivated to do it, because you understand why it’s so important. This is just one example of how leading helps women improve their following. As they say, knowledge is power, and in this case, knowledge is also SKILL.

Aloha Girls Maui Retreat 2016

Aloha Girls Maui Retreat 2016

3. Stress-Busting. Really? Yes. I believe that with a critical mass of female leaders, milongas become less stressful for everyone. Think about the demographics of most US milongas. There are more women than men, and because of this, many men have told me over the years that they feel pressure to dance with their female friends, with women who are sitting, or with any woman who asks. Also, women who only follow tell me they feel pressure to compete for male partners, a stressful situation indeed.

When women know how to lead, though, they have more options. They can choose to dance with men or with women, balancing out the room, enabling more people to participate and circulate. The pressure on male leaders then goes down, and leaves men more free to choose as well.

So, yes, of course women’s events serve the women who attend them, but they also serve the communities those women are part of. As dancers and as people, I believe that we experience greater freedom and possibility when we loosen the gender roles of a century ago. This freedom can feel scary because it’s unfamiliar, but let’s face it, while the high heels and fedoras may work great for some of us, they’re never going to work for all of us, not anymore. Perhaps they never did. Perhaps a bit more flexibility around who leads and who follows can help us to be more fulfilled and happy as an international dance community. I propose that we step it up, and be open to new ways of being together, along with old ways. If connection is our fundamental value, as we so often claim it is, then our embraces have to be generous enough to hold everyone.

How to Save a Memory

Last week, I visited northern Arizona, spending much of my time in a cozy rehearsal studio choreographing a duet for soulful and skillful collaborators Delisa Myles and Jayne Lee. A deep reflection on partnership, How to Save a Memory explores closeness and distance, hiding and sharing. To get a tiny glimpse of our process, complete the following sentences in any way that makes sense to you:

1. “When something or someone is disappearing, _________________

2. “When I’m far away from someone or something, _________________

3. “When I get close to something or someone, _________________

I love that I get to ask these questions in my work, hovering on the border between imagination and intellect. They could be answered so many different ways. For the first question, I wrote: “I put it in a bottle,” “I feel like I’m disappearing, too,” “I can’t see them anymore,” “I am sad,” “it's vapor.”

Also, moving bodies respond to words and images differently than thinking minds do, accessing feelings and associations that normally fly below the radar. In that territory, dance takes us on a surprising and insightful journey. To get there, though, either as a dance-maker or as a dance-viewer, we have to step into the unknown, and that can sometimes be uncomfortable.

Perhaps because I struggled with it for so long, I'm particularly aware of how creative process depends on extensive trial and error. We're used to thinking of trial and error in science, perhaps, but it's equally as necessary in art-making. It's how we navigate the waters of the unknown, asking odd, poetic questions, searching for the thing we can't name until it appears.

When I say I struggled, I mean that for a long time I couldn't accept the "error" part of the equation. I interpreted it as “failure,” or as evidence of my incompetence. For years, every time I thought to myself, “I don’t know,” I assumed it was because I wasn't clever or talented enough. My Inner Perfectionist grew strong in this theory, and as a result, I didn't like dwelling in the unknown very much. Here’s what used to happen:

Mind: I don’t know what to do.

Intuition: Try X!

Mind: That might not work.

Intuition: Try it anyway!

Mind: But what if it’s terrible and everyone hates it?

Intuition: Well, just try it and we’ll find out!

But the story has a happy ending. As I made more creative work, the theory started to crack. Mainly, I noticed how maddenly counter-productive it was. So, with considerable effort and the support of many patient mentors, I finally managed to teach myself that what I was calling “failure” was actually just the "error" side of "trial and error," and that it was an indication of learning, of progress even. I now understand that the unknown is exactly where I want to be when I’m creating, because it’s what makes me try things. And when you try, guess what? You're going to get a lot of errors. And that's progress!

I can't really overstate how liberating it has been for me to recognize failure as part of progress. In choreographic trial and error, I vacillate between idea and movement again and again, noticing, mostly, what does NOT work, until something does. I work more quickly now, with less anxiety and more flexibility, but every once in a while I catch myself trying to “get it right the first time,” and inevitably, the project stalls. I see clearly that it’s my willingness to repeatedly fail that actually keeps me in the creative flow. Whether the work is a physical movement, a sentence, or a paper airplane, I now equate creativity with continuous risk, and I'm in a totally different conversation with myself most of the time:

Mind: I don’t know what to do.

Intuition: Try X!

Mind: Ok… oops, that doesn't look right.

Intuition: Try Y!

Mind: Hmm, well, not quite what I expected. Don’t like it.

Intuition: Try Z!

Mind: Oh, yes, that’s better, how about a variation of that…

So, in reflecting on this intense week of rehearsal, I really want to honor all of the risks that we take in our lives, the tiny ones along with the massive ones. Because whether it’s a homemade pencil box or a new relationship, I have the sense that the same dynamic is at play. We don’t know how it will be until we try, but trying seems hard because some shadowy fear of a negative outcome is hiding under the table quietly chaining our ankles to the floor. When that little monster comes to visit, I do my best to remind him that even if the outcome is not what we want, we have the power to change it.

*How to Save a Memory will be performed by Jayne Lee and Delisa Myles as part of Human Nature Dance Theatre’s upcoming show Migration on Oct. 1, 2017 at Arcosanti in northern Arizona.

What risk are you ready to take right now? Leave your thoughts in the comments…

Wrappers Off

Eight months ago I started 2016 with a new project: a drawing journal. This was a commitment to bring creative play back into my life in a way that would be totally separate from “work” of any kind, and I promised myself I would cover at least 52 pages with color by the end of the year. I’m returning to this subject now because I’ve come to an unexpected turning point in my visual art adventure.

First, a brief summary of the past six months: Perhaps because I established such a firm boundary between work and play, I resisted any sort of formal or informal learning about drawing or painting while I was doing it. No classes, no teachers, no books. Just a box of the cheapest pastels I could find and a pad of paper, just like kindergarten. This boundary was very freeing, and it was what I needed to get started.

In retrospect, I’m pretty sure what I was doing here was protecting myself from my Inner Critic (hereafter “IC”). I needed to draw by a 5-year-old’s rules: be so engrossed in what you are doing that you barely notice what it is. I couldn’t risk evaluating my work in any way, even for my own education, because my IC happens to have the magical ability to translate perfectly good advice and guidance into thoughts such as, “These are worthless and should never have been done in the first place. What were you thinking?”

So the non-learning approach, to be fair, was actually working pretty well until mid-July. The IC was minding her own business in some far corner of my mind, and I was happily filling page after page with color. Somewhere during the month of August, though, I started to feel restless. It wasn’t boredom, exactly, but I was beginning to feel the desire to do more. I tried bigger paper. I tried a new box of slightly better quality pastels. Mostly, I fidgeted.

The moment of truth arrived when my partner suggested I watch some online instructional videos. The Inner Critic’s ears perked up. I threw a tiny but defiant tantrum and cleaned the kitchen. But like taking a shower or sitting in traffic, sometimes washing the dishes brings unexpected insight.

In my case, I couldn’t deny that there was an opportunity underneath this obstacle. If I wanted to get to page 52 of my journal, something in me needed to change. My artist self was outgrowing kindergarten faster than I expected.

The next morning, I woke up early (the IC was still sleeping, I told myself), and typed “abstract pastel” into the YouTube search field. I sincerely thank the many artists who have shared fragments of their working process through the internet for public use. I felt like I was peeking out of a dark room, seeing outside for the first time.

This all might sound rather melodramatic, but I assure you it felt no less than revelatory to me. I still have quite a large internal block against learning in this particular area, but I knocked a chunk out of it that morning. The Inner Critic, remarkably, was stunned into silence.

What happened next is that I methodically removed the paper wrappers from every single one of my pastel sticks, and started dragging them sideways across the paper. I think my artist self jumped from kindergarten into, say, 10th grade in a single day. Before I was coloring. Now it felt more like painting. Colors blended and textures appeared. Everything was different.

Beyond the dramatic visual difference in my journal, this tiny miracle has reminded me that given the right conditions, growth is inevitable, even when we’re not trying to grow. We are like plants, steadily moving upward. Sure, I could have given up on drawing and called myself a failure instead of watching those videos and trying again. That would have been like dropping a cinder block on top of a young seedling and blaming the seedling for its incompetence.

While I wasn’t paying attention, my 5-year-old artist grew up and wandered out of the classroom, took a walk and came back 10 years older, demanding a bigger desk and more challenging activities. Thankfully, this time I was able to put the cinder block down, far away from the garden, so to speak.

The drawing journal project has four months to go, and I’m happy to say I’m way ahead of schedule on my goal of 52 pages. More importantly, this recent shift has reminded me why I started it in the first place: to practice allowing the creative spirit to direct, and to tell me what it needs and when. By the time this year is done, I hope to invite this way of being into other areas of my life as well, even the ones I may call “work.” I hope that I can be responsive to needs for growth in those places, too.

Do you have a surprising or unexpected story about creative growth? Please share in the comments.

Dancing with Women

Photo by Erica Schmitt 2016

Photo by Erica Schmitt 2016

After many years in the tango community, classes for women still hold a special place in my heart. In offering them, I think not only of female tango dancers, but also of the entire spectrum of feminist effort in the world, the right of women to dress, live, study, work, marry, create, and reproduce (or not) as they themselves choose. Relatively speaking, most women in the United States live well, but “it could be worse” is not an answer to the question of equality and freedom. There is inspiring “feministing” to be done everywhere, some of it subtle and some of it fierce. I imagine all of it flowing into the same river of compassionate progress.

You may be thinking, dancing is what I do for fun! I don’t want it to be work! And I would agree with you. I guess I just don’t view uplifting women as the tedious or boring kind of work, but rather a kind of “creative work,” like arranging flowers or decorating roller skates. I do it for the same reason I dance at all, because it’s meaningful and satisfying! For many women who have followed for a long time, it can be very refreshing to lead, especially if it means they can dance more frequently. Others report greater satisfaction with their overall social tango experience when they share learning and dancing time with other women.

Like all art forms, tango invites us into the world of imagination. In my tango world, everyone in the room has equal access to the resources and pleasure of the tango tradition and is free to participate in it as they so choose. This world is a curious, playful, and accepting one, and I am delighted to see it materializing more and more in the cities and towns I visit. In my observation, female leaders are often the hallmark of this atmospheric shift.

Mine was a typical fledgling tango community in the late 1990s: a handful of obsessed beginners but no dedicated teachers, and a few seasoned dancers who told the rest of us captivating stories about Buenos Aires. We organized workshop weekends with visiting artists and then practiced the material for hours on end, willing the tango into our bodies through sheer enthusiasm. I was as passionate as any tango pioneer, but my community still had its share of challenges.

Learning to lead kept me involved with tango when women outnumbered men 3:1. I know with certainty that I would have quit long ago had I not had the opportunity to learn both parts. Leading also gave me deep and lasting female friendships that have supported and nurtured me both inside and outside the tango community.  Those women hugged me when Mr. Right did not ask me to dance, when Mr. Wrong harassed me mid-tanda, when my skimpy top twisted sideways at the wrong moment, when my own ill-placed stiletto drew blood. They reassured me that I was not alone in my disappointments and mistakes, both tango-related and otherwise. In fact, my most cherished friends today are the women I have held in my arms on the dance floor.

Photo by Erica Schmitt 2016

Photo by Erica Schmitt 2016

The perspective of the leader as well as that of the follower has enabled me to teach successfully as a solo artist, both through community organizations and in university settings. This career also gave me the opportunity to travel and the time to refine my skills and gain deeper generalized knowledge of movement. It also greatly influenced my craft as a choreographer of dance performance, both within the classic tango form and when exploring hybrid movement languages and theatrical structures.

Beyond my own story, though, one of the biggest reasons I continue to offer events for women is simply to keep them dancing! I want tango to be healthy and inspiring for women and the truth is that it is not always that. Whether it is a gender imbalance, stereotypes of “younger” vs “older” women, or other stresses, many women speak of frustration and lack of fulfillment stemming from the social tango environment. Learning to lead together creates a relaxed, supportive space in which they can cultivate tango in a different way.

Because when women DO stay involved for the long haul, and find ways to enjoy tango on their own terms, everyone wins! The community as a whole grows stronger and benefits both from their dancing skills and also from a multitude of creative contributions that range from DJ-ing to dressmaking. Studying both roles and contributing over time looks different for each woman. Maybe you find that your boleos are more balanced and powerful, or you discover that when injuries prevent you from following, you can still lead comfortably. Maybe you learn to play the bandoneón, or produce a festival. Whatever your vision is, I’d like to do my part in making room for it to enter the tango world.

If you are a woman who leads, or have one in your life, please share a dancing story or image in the comments.

 

Creative Play

Back in mid-December, the inward focus of Winter settled on me like a thin fog. This was a particularly surreal experience in Los Angeles, where I live, because, of course, it was still sunny and 70 degrees. Still, I had a little too much time on my hands and began to feel idle and directionless. I have a rather purpose-driven disposition, so idle is not a good sign for me. I needed a project. On the encouragement of some wonderful friends, I took myself for a walk to my local art supply store. Ok, the truth is that I had to go twice before I found the courage to actually purchase something. In the end, I have to say it was the best $9 I have spent in a long time. Who knew a set of cheap oil pastels and a sketch pad could bring me so much joy on a daily basis?