The conscious mind can be at once the best instrument of improvement, and the greatest interference to good dancing. The key is learning how to use it well. Otherwise, a dancer can get lost in a sea of concepts about dancing, and lose the direct experience of it (this has happened to me many times). Through my experience, I have found four main kinds of mental activity to be useful for improvement: direct feedback (obtained through attention), intention, contemplation, and indirect feedback. Attention and intention are to be practiced in the actual process of dancing, while contemplation and indirect feedback are best done off the dance floor. I will explain what I mean by each of them.
DIRECT FEEDBACK - ATTENTION
The most important tool for learning anything is the ability to pay attention. We initially learn tango by paying attention to someone else dancing it. In order to learn how to lead and follow one needs to pay attention to one’s partner. At more advanced stages of learning, when one must eradicate one's own counter-productive patterns, one must first become aware of them. This can only be done by paying careful attention to all aspects of one's dancing.
In a physical activity like dancing, paying attention means engaging the senses. This is what I mean by "direct feedback" - paying attention to how the dancing feels. Out of the common five senses, the tactile sense is the one most useful for the direct feedback, for we do not usually see, hear, smell, or taste it. There are at least two other senses crucial for one’s improvement: the proprioceptive sense - the sense of the shape and position of one's body in space, - and the sense of the tension levels in one's musculature. As one progresses, other special senses develop, such as the sense of one's partner's whole body while touching only in a couple of places, a sense of other people on the floor, a sense of space, etc. Such senses develop through attention and simply through practice, and as they develop, they in turn allow for the better paying of attention.
The wrong use of attention is noticing patterns and attaching to them. The right use of attention is noticing patterns and getting free from them or creatively transforming them. Do I really need all that tension in my arm? Do I really need to do this or that with my hips/knees/feet? The answer to all such questions is "no", so once I notice that I am doing something, I try to stop "doing" and start "letting". The intention of "nothingness" helps this process greatly (see the following section on intention).
Working on one's body is a tremendous exercise in attention. No system of exercise will produce significant results unless one listens carefully and patiently to one's body. Ultimately, a healthy, balanced body has some definite characteristics and proper degrees of freedom, but each person lacks proper coordination in one's own particular way, and needs to become aware of it and structure one's bodywork accordingly, or else it may not be fruitful.
Directing one's attention to different aspects of one's dancing is very useful for learning and training. It is essential for noticing how one falls into patterns and learning how to stop doing that. However, in the ultimate artistic experience, strict control of one's attention is no longer necessary, as it is allowed to be everywhere at once and in no place in particular. Attention can be at once with the music, the partner, the space, one's own body, bringing them all into one harmonious experience. So far I have glimpsed such states only occasionally, but enough to know that they are possible. In the words of Zen Master Takuan Soho, the mind is like a cat which must first be tied up and trained not to “grab the baby sparrow" - not to attach to anything - but then, once trained, it can be "untied" - allowed to be free from any conscious deliberation.
Another indispensable tool for learning and improving one's dancing is what I will refer to as intention. By this I mean a creative visualization, a projection of a vision directly into one's experience. This may seem somewhat mystical and unrealistic, as it did to me in the beginning. When I first started dancing, I was not aware of the power of intention. Like most people, I believed that the only way one could alter one's movement was by a purposeful change of position of some body parts, or by practicing a certain technique, a specific coordination. It was through my studies of Alexander technique that I found out that a human being is able to "think inside one's body", to direct it without mechanically manipulating it. It turned out that it was possible to project a conscious intention and begin to change one's whole way of movement immediately, and that it was actually much more effective than the mechanistic approach. A simple example is relaxation. One cannot relax by repositioning body parts (unless one simply collapses). During an activity, one can only relax through conscious intention. Later I also found similar practices in Tai Chi Chuan - for example, centered movement can only be trained by imagining one's center and all movement as originating from there.
Intention is difficult to understand or even to believe in for many people because of our modern scientific upbringing and technology-based culture. We are used to thinking that there must always be concrete means for the accomplishment of a certain goal. It is hard to believe that a simple "wish" for it can accomplish anything. However, it turns out that a human being can do precisely that. The issue of posture is a good example. One wants the posture to be as balanced as possible with respect to gravity. A mechanistic way of adjusting it would be for example trying to position the head, the pelvis or the chest more back or forward, according to one's sense of how it is unbalanced. A much more effective way is to intend verticality - to imagine the entire vertical balance into being. It turns out that the body has a way to respond directly to such an intent, without any perceivable mechanical means. Coming from a scientific education, such a thing seemed like pure magic to me. However, through experience I have become convinced of its reality and supreme effectiveness.
A magical aspect of intention is that it can extend outside one's body and include the body of one's partner. Ultimately, a good lead is just an intention. More precisely, for both partners the communication can become a curious mix of intention and sensitive attention to the other. That is when things happen as if by magic, communication becomes incredibly direct, where neither of the partners is any longer aware of the actual mechanical means of it.
The "nothingness" is an example of a useful intention. Intend the nothingness - the sensation of no effort, no weight, no preset pattern. As soon as, through attention, I become aware of a rigid pattern in my body or my mind, I begin to intend it to subside, to say "no" to it, or to "inhibit" it using the terms of Alexander Technique. It is usually impossible to "make" it disappear immediately - one cannot suddenly change one's posture or stop contorting the body in habitual ways. But if one notices the pattern, keeps paying attention to it, and realizes that it is not necessary, it begins to gradually dissolve. I have dissolved a lot of excess muscular tension by first noticing it, and then gradually letting go of it. In this way, attention and intention work together: notice the compulsive pattern, intend the freedom from it.
Another example of useful intention is creative attitude. Very often, dancers fall into believing that certain circumstances are preventing them from having the ultimate dance experience. It can be lack of desirable partners, a floor that is too slippery, sticky, or crowded, or one's own physical or psychological limitations. If any such things are perceived as obstacles beyond one's control, this is defensive attitude. Seeing them as opportunities to learn and improve is creative attitude. I have learned a lot of tango from dancing on difficult surfaces and from partnering beginner dancers. When one is challenged is when one has the best opportunity for a new breakthrough. The right intention is to simply make the dancing feel good in whatever circumstances. Blaming someone or something while dancing creates many more counter-productive patterns. I realized this very clearly when I discovered one day that when I was able to suspend my mental criticism of my partners, they invariably began dancing better instantly. I understood that by focusing on their shortcomings, I was subconsciously doing something physical to bring those shortcomings out, to expose them even more. But if I managed to accept my every partner as simply the partner, I was letting my body adjust to their movement, and their supposed shortcomings became a lot less noticeable, and many times not noticeable at all. This is just another example of creative attitude, which can and should be applied to all aspects of tango, from one's body to any particular tango "scene" that one is in.
In my experience, intention is essential for guiding oneself through the process of learning and improvement. Intention is the enactment of one's most lucid vision of what tango wants to be. Ultimately, intention and attention become merged, where there is no sharp dividing line between the creation of a beautiful experience and the perception of it.
By contemplation I mean everything that amounts to the gradual creation and development of one's artistic vision, or, more precisely artistic sense. It includes watching other dancers, being inspired by them, evoking their image and their energy in one's mind. It can be both exploring everything tango has been up to the present, and imagining what it can be in the future. It can be a contemplation of some particularly blissful dance experience that one has had and cultivating the feeling of it inside oneself. Sometimes looking at an old photograph, or a painting of tango dancers, can bring insights, can reveal something on an intuitive level. It can also be a process of a more rational understanding of the dynamics of this dance and of the human body in general, which may be necessary in order to move consistently towards the desired experiences. Tango strikes many chords inside the dancers - some aesthetical, some archetypal, some sensual, some physical, some even philosophical and spiritual. To contemplate such resonances is to grow one's artistic vision which will then gradually but inevitably manifest in one's dancing.
By indirect feedback I mean all the possible information about one's tango that one cannot receive while dancing. It can be watching a video of one's dancing, for example, which is almost always an extremely humbling experience. It can make one see many problems with one's body and one's psychology which are not yet apparent through direct feedback. But focusing too much on one's outward image as a source of feedback can easily lead one astray. This happens to many professional dancers, but also to some amateurs - one begins to do certain things in order to "look good". If looking good becomes more important than feeling good, one's artistic process becomes corrupt, for truly good looks are the looks of someone whose body is simply functioning according to its design, and whose dancing is free, harmonious, and full of feeling. It is best to focus on one's own and one's partner's experience of the dance, and let the image be what it may. If one is bothered by one's image too much, it means that there is some gross limitation in one's movement, one’s partner connection, or one’s psychology which one is not aware of yet through direct feedback. It is a signal to pay more attention to one’s experience. But if one begins to manipulate the body in order to look better, one is certainly on the wrong track.
Indirect feedback can also come in the form of other's opinions of oneself. The number of dancers who want to dance with you is a fairly good indicator of one's progress. A less reliable one is the opinion of non-dancers who watch you dance, for appearances can be deceiving. This is the case with many professionals, who may have a successful performance career, but are not very good on the dance floor. In general, all of such feedback is inferior to the direct feedback. It is useful mostly as a reality check - to dissolve certain illusions about one's dancing which tend to build up sometimes. Ultimately, however, the quality of one's experience while dancing is far superior as an indicator of progress.