The red shoes

red shoes

There is something truly wonderful about learning a new thing and becoming gripped by it. This is the place I find myself in just now, as I’ve been tangoing as much as I can since the New Year.   And I’m not only gripped; it’s fair to say it’s developing into a bit of an addiction. Learning new things is easiest done as a child when our brains are shiny and new and we don’t have a million other things to think about. As adults it’s tougher, but maybe we get more of a reward from the achievement.

What I like about it, apart from the dance itself, is what it is showing me about myself, my fears and subsequent behaviour. For example, apart from in lessons where everyone is in the same boat of being a student, I am constantly apologetic. When a man asks me to dance, I murmur excuses about being a beginner, or warn them that I am heavy and strong and might knock them over. If I was watching someone else do that, I would think they were an idiot. And yes, I am an idiot.

Last weekend, I had a workshop session on Saturday and then stayed for the practice session afterwards. It’s good to have a shot at putting what you’ve learned into practice and I managed to get some dances with men who are very good at tango, which makes me feel like a better dancer. One of them is quite strict with me, insisting that I wait to be led and constantly refers to one of the other women dancers, B, who is a very petite woman in her early 60’s and a lovely, elegant dancer. I am still struggling with this bit, anticipating the next move, or moving through a set of steps that I know, whether there is a pause or not.

According to him, she does not move at all, unless the man invites her to. If his intention is not clear, then it’s his job to make sure it is. Patience is key. That and a good connection with the other dancer. I am already aware that I am an impatient person, although becoming a parent helped that a bit. There’s probably a bit of a feminist thing going on too – being led by men doesn’t come easy. But tango is not a submissive dance for the follower, it’s a communication.

On top of all that, I am afraid to put my weight on the leader. In tango, the connection is at the chest, and both people should lean towards each other, in a narrow inverted V shape. I have issues with being a heavy lump, even though I know (much as it pains me to admit it) that men are generally stronger than women. Of course there are times when I am more than happy to put my weight on a man, but we don’t need to talk about that. In class, when I see a slim man about the same height as me, I tend to panic, assuming that I will lean into him and flatten the poor bastard. Which is nonsense, and purely a product of my own lack of confidence and self-criticism.

I have a suspicion that my other problem with all this is the need not to look like a numpty standing on the dance floor doing nothing, while lots of other great dancers swoosh around the floor, kicking and flicking like Argentine maestros. While I am rubbish at various things in life, I don’t like it. I feel uncomfortable being a beginner at something, and tend to compare myself to others who are fitter/stronger/more skilled. But instead of putting in the hours that those better people have done to get that way, I often shy away, allowing myself to get out of it by thinking ‘I’m no good at that’. Sound familiar to anyone? Instead of our inability to develop a skill, it’s our stubbornness/laziness or fear of failing that stops us.

For us oldies to stick at learning something new, it has to be fun and we really have to want it. Since December, I have been desperate to get a place on a proper improver’s course and lo and behold, I started one yesterday. And who should be my leader, but the tiny, beautiful B, there to improve her leader skills. At first I was the same nervous and apologetic me. Although some men can hold my weight, I was terrified of spinning her off her axis and flinging her into a wall. Bizarre perhaps, but I suspect I could probably fit about two of her inside my frame. It was a real learning curve.

In the beginning, she held me without moving into a step and warned me that I might be there a while. Either she was nervous about trying to manoeuvre me around, or she was trying to teach me something about the dance. Whatever the reason, it worked. Maybe it was easier to be taught this lesson by a woman. When we switched partners that session, and during the dances I had in the Tango Bar after the lesson, I did not walk or step unless I could feel the intention. I even managed to lean into her without knocking her over. No-one of any size should fall face down in tango if the partner moves away. The tricky bit is mastering how to lean forward without losing your own balance. I’m not quite there, but it’s a case, like much in life, of holding strength in the core. And feeling afraid but trying it anyway.

Talking briefly of the core, mine is crap. My arms and legs are strong, but my belly is a bit like a squidgy pillow. Action must be taken, not just for posture and strength, but for general wellbeing. I read an article a few months ago that advocated planking as a great exercise for anxiety. It makes sense if you think about it: take the pressure away from the maelstrom in the mind to the centre of the body. You need to breathe slowly, and do maybe 30 seconds to one minute full plank, then taking turns to raise one arm, then the other, then the legs, one at a time. The focus is on balance, which in turn, helps to rebalance the mind. And there should be no excuses – this is a five minute exercise that you can literally fall out of bed and do, still in your PJs. Setting your alarm five minutes early is no hardship, and I started it yesterday. No sign of the six pack yet, but if I keep it up, improvements will certainly occur.

And we need that to keep us motivated. I can already feel improvements in my dancing. In between steps you need to collect your heels together, which again, is hard to remember, especially, when you’re trying to remember where your feet should go. Or maybe I am just a bit slow at learning. Last night I was determined, with the voice of my teacher in my head: ‘Tiny steps, collect, collect, collect!’ This worked too. A testament to the power of mantra, and a reminder that in middle age, most new things don’t come naturally anymore.

In my current spirit of adventuring, I am off to Paris on Saturday for a couple of days. I had planned to go alone, but a London friend is popping over on Saturday night for a night out in Paris – quelle glamour! On Sunday night, I am going to a milonga and I will hope and pray that someone will dance with me. I think I can carry it off, even though I don’t quite live up to the red shoes yet. Just in case, I will learn the french for ‘I’m a beginner’. Je m’excuse might come in handy too, for when I step on their toes.

I’ll leave with these lovely lines from the Kate Bush song about dancing ‘The Red Shoes’:

And this curve, is your smile

And this cross, is your heart

And this line, is your path.


Until next time, à bientôt







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