What is Confidence?


In my work with dancers it’s become clear to me that what distinguishes rapid improvers from slow improvers is one thing, confidence. The confident ones have the intention to do the new thing right away. The unconfident ones have already decided they won’t be able to do it before they try. I can feel this clearly. This distinction is far more important than anything else about them, like what kind of physical shape they’re in, how experienced they are with tango, etc.

One of my students, who was not fit, had such a  wonderful attitude. I would ask him to do something and he’d say “Ok, sacada, then voleo, then gancho, coming at you, Baby!” And he’d do it! In fact in 7 weeks of private lessons he went from beginner to advanced intermediate and all the girls in town wanted to dance with him.

I think part of this problem is that we’ve all been frowning and saying that tango is “hard”. I’ve put a moratorium on that word. Rock climbing is hard. Acrobatics is very hard. I think “hard” is a word that teachers use when they don’t know how to teach something. And the result is that students end up excessively intimidated and disempowered about their ability to learn tango.

Part of what can make students confident is for teachers to stop intimidating them.

The second part is about how we all get through this intimidating world, this world full of messages that we’re probably not good enough. There’s a great film by the Media Education Foundation, called “Advertising and the End of the World”, and it’s mostly about overconsumption and ecological disaster, but it also includes a section about why it is we consume in the first place. Advertising is a two stage lead… First the advertisement introduces some kind of insecurity about our desirability and deservingness of love, then it promises us that the product will ensure love, family, and friendship. So we are surrounded by messages designed to hack away at our confidence. We also live in the most individualistic and alienated society in world history; our species was not supposed to be so lonely in the first place, so we are vulnerable to the suggestion that we are lonelier than we should be, and it’s because of some flaw.

I don’t see lack of confidence as a personal pathology. I hate the phrase “low self-esteem”. I see that everybody struggles to feel confident (and we all have different tools that we use to get through…coolness, gregariousness, preening, “not caring what people think”…). The lucky ones have at least one area of our lives where we feel masterful in ourselves and the situation. The challenge is to generate that feeling everywhere, including tango. Unfortunately, compliments don’t work — although they are a good reality check as most of us think we are way less than what other people see in us.

The self-help movement has come up with a lot of good tricks and exercises. In my experience, positive mantras work (as do negative ones). The Dhammapada says “With our thoughts we make the world.” If that sounds a little megalomaniac to you, at least we make ourselves. I think the ritual of looking yourself in the eyes in the mirror and say “I love you” is powerful. (If you find this hard, that’s a sign that doing it will probably help you…) Somebody said “worrying is praying for what you don’t want.”  Just spend that power visualizing and affirming what you do want, who and what you want to be. I used to play a game with myself in my days before tango when I spent time in bars. Some of the bars intimidated me, especially when I needed to run a gauntlet of boys and pool tables to go to the bathroom. So I told myself I was being paid $2000 to walk across that room with confidence (as if I was a model on a runway). That got me focused on doing a good job for myself, and not caving in to the intimidation.

There’s a statement by fashion designer Oscar De Renta for women: “Walk like you have three men walking behind you.”

I think the self-help stuff is good, but what I want to share here goes a little further.

Feminists are well aware that the objectification of women (over-emphasis on how our bodies look) is disempowering to us, and causes us to compete with our sisters. Most women can vigilantly evaluate every body part and itemize what needs improvement, what needs to be kept hidden… (Susan Bordo says that anorexia is a cultural condition, not an individual diagnosis.) This obsession and the self-restraint that comes with it is an absurd waste of our beautiful spirits. So the feminists deal with this by insisting that women must love your body now.  That doesn’t mean don’t work on it, but so long as we are unloving, we are staying on this cycle, sticking to the idea that it’s possible that we aren’t good enough. And so long as we are unloving, the body may improve a lot, but it will never be good enough.

This is a very different way to think about confidence. It’s not a personal problem. And the thing to do about it is decide, now, that you are not going to indulge self-doubt any more. In the case of tango, a confident attitude is simply to tell yourself “I am going to do this.” Visualize doing it correctly and go for it! Suppress your urge to argue about how whatever-it-is is too hard for you by just saying “ok” — and say it brightly.

Women don’t have to be skinny to love their bodies. Tango dancers don’t have to be advanced to feel masterful. It’s not about mastering the dance. It’s about mastering yourself, so you can enjoy your beauty and talents.

This confidence is a deep and important part of Porteño culture – what Americans call “fake it till you make it”– and for good reasons.  (Indeed I have a theory that a fatal miscommunication is the link between the importance of confidence to Tangueros and the root of all bad teaching… “Lead with the Chest“… )

Some of us worry about false confidence, about deluding ourselves. I’ve met some people (and most Germans, actually) who got very angry when I complimented them, accusing me of false and misleading flattery. These people are terrified of thinking too well of themselves. Loving your body as it is doesn’t mean you stop working to make it stronger and more flexible. But it does mean getting to enjoy it every step of the way. Having confidence in your dancing doesn’t mean that you already know enough and you can stop learning and improving. Confidence means that you can master new things, and improve the quality of the moves you already know,  for your own pleasure and your partners’.

I hope to get better at teaching students confidence. If that’s what learning to dance tango requires, then it’s my job as a teacher.


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