I spent the last year in Buenos Aires studying the history, culture, language, and dance of tango. I danced at least 2-5 hours daily, trying to take a day off each week. After a year, that’s probably about 1000 hours, on average, of tango, and maybe, I heard “Lo siento” or “I’m sorry” about 10 times and at least 8 of those instances came from me and two instances from foreigners. I’ve been back in the States for 2 months and I’ve probably heard dancers tell me, “I’m sorry,” at least a 100 times. This is a chronic problem outside of Buenos Aires that is toxic for followers and leaders.
Other bloggers and tango teachers have offered their two cents about this problem. In the blog article, “Apologizing in Tango,” the author outlines instances when it’s necessary and unnecessary to apologize. It’s the same logic that we apply to our daily lives. If we cause bodily harm to another, say sorry. If we are rude, insensitive, or inconsiderate to another person, say sorry. However, in our daily lives, when we communicate with words and utter incomplete sentences, grammatical errors, idiosyncratic expressions, or obscure cultural references, do we apologize after each instance of these? Everyday communication is riddled with incomplete thoughts and errors because no one speaks like the Webster dictionary. Just imagine for a second trying to have a conversation with someone, paying extra close attention to every one of your incomplete sentences, every grammatical error, and every idiosyncratic expression or obscure cultural reference, and try to say sorry each time. Imagine how difficult that would be for the other person to carry on that conversation while you interrupt them with “I’m sorry” each time they were about to speak. If we are to accept that tango is a kinesthetic language and that we converse with strangers and friends in this second language, it is equally difficult for the other person to engage in this conversation if they have to listen to “I’m sorry” over and over again. Dancers assume that they are being considerate or empathetic, but what they have actually done is hijacked the dance. If their partner is trying to connect with the music, their partner, and others on the floor, having to listen to “I’m sorry” throughout the tanda suggests that the dancer is not present and connected to their partner/music/others, but rather, fixed to the past and their own internal conflicts, insecurities, and doubts. A tango of two now becomes a tango of one– the rest of the song or tanda is now about taking care of the apologizing dancer.
I purposely chose to describe this in gender neutral terms because men do apologize as well; however, by far, women apologize significantly more. According to researchers Karina Schumann and Michael Ross, who conducted an experiment to determine whether women apologized more than men, they found in one study that women self-reported apologizing more. These same women also described committing more offenses than the men in the study. In the second study, the results showed that men reported the same number of apologies, but simply had a higher threshold for what constituted an offense. In other words, women identified more offenses in their actions, which is why they apologized more than men.
In tango in the States, men have apologized to me during practicas or milongas; however, their threshold for what constitutes an offense is much higher. For instance, a leader may have just learned a new complex sequence or technique and wishes to experiment with it and often apologizes when it is not executed fluidly or effortlessly. Women, on the other hand, often apologize for nearly every instance of instability, which could be the result of the leader’s actions, which may be due to the congestion on the floor, which may be due to a bunch of out-of-towners overly excited about the first D’Arienzo tanda of the night. What women identify as an offense or fault of theirs may actually have nothing to do with them.
As a relatively new leader, three years+, trying to speak this second language and trying to be present with my follower, it becomes nearly impossible to focus on Us, the music, and the floor when followers apologize for something that may have nothing to do with them. A self-aware leader can feel that something is different and won’t place judgment on that moment. A self-aware leader will modify their technique, relax their body more, and try to connect better with their follower and others on the floor. An inquisitive leader is intrigued by these moments of “disruption” because it becomes a new puzzle to solve in real-time with their follower. Followers, if you’re dancing with an impatient, cocky, aggressive leader, instead of saying “I’m sorry,” simply tell them, “Thank you,” and don’t bother dancing with them again until they resolve their personal issues or dance technique. If you’re close friends, maybe have a conversation with them about this outside of tango.
During one winter milonga at La Chiflada in Buenos Aires, I was dancing with one of my favorite leaders, and in the middle of a D’Arienzo tanda, some woman nearby kicked her leg out low right toward my ankles. In that moment, I instinctively leapt over her leg, staying in D’Arienzo tempo; my partner had not seen the women. He simply adapted to the sudden leap and turned it into an ocho cortado without hesitation, and we continued to dance. I do want to say sorry for not being there right now to dance another tanda with him.
Schumann, Karina, and Michael Ross. “Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior.” Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 11, Nov. 2010, pp. 1649–1655, doi:10.1177/0956797610384150.