The Marcelo Mindset: What Great Tango and Great Critiquing Have in Common

Turn on some Pugliese, sit back and relax while you sip mate through a bombilla, and let me tell you about the first time I fell in love dancing tango. It was during my first trip to Buenos Aires. I had longed to dance Argentine tango for years. But then one day, after sporadically dabbling with classes for over a decade, I saw an advertisement for a tango tour of Buenos Aires. A tour that was leaving in just three weeks.

My suspicion is that many people in a similar situation might say to themselves, “Okay, maybe next year. Three weeks is not enough time to even get the basics of an art form like Argentine tango down. I can take classes, learn the dance, and then go. A great goal to work toward.”

That is not how my head works. My brain said, “You grew up dancing. It is Argentina! Go! Go! Go!” Spurred on by my own enthusiastic abandon, I called. There was room! Yay! The tour host did suggest that I take as many private lessons before I left as I could. Which I did. A veritable bootcamp of private lessons.

Twenty-one days later, there I was in Argentina, taking classes; going to practicas, the organized, less formal practice sessions; and milongas, the formal dances where you get all dolled up and dance the nights away. I was not making a fool of myself, but I was definitely clear that even years of ballet was not magically helping me land tango. The feel of ballet and tango in the body is completely different. Ballet is air. Tango is earth. And I was having difficulty letting go of my gossamery ballet instincts.

Still, it was a dream. The taxi dancers (dancers hired to dance with groups like ours) were lovely, and even just watching the couples swirl around was a delight. But the locals know you are a tourist. I wasn’t expecting anyone to ask me to dance other than the dancers in my group. Which meant I was totally flustered and knee-shakingly giddy when a local ask me to dance. And not just any local but Marcelo Varela, a professional tango dancer local. He and his wife, Analia Vega, had taught one of our classes, so he knew my skill level. Which meant along with being flustered and giddy, I was so confused about what could have possessed him to ask me to dance that I asked him, “Are you sure?”

He raised an eyebrow and said, “Yes.” And then we were on the dance floor, and the situation got better and worse all at once, because it turned out we were going to dance a milonga set. Stay with me here, because it gets a teensy bit confusing. There are three dances in Argentine tango: the tango, the vals (a waltz), and the milonga—which along with being one of the specific dances, is the name of the formal dance event as noted above. 

The milonga, then and now, is my favorite of the tango dances to dance. That was the better part—seriously, to get to dance a milonga with Marcelo in Buenos Aires?!??! But it was also the worse part, the so, so, so worse part, because milongas are fast and . . . well, here is what Wikipedia has to say about the milonga:

Milonga … incorporates the same basic elements as Tango but permits a greater relaxation of legs and body. Movement is normally faster, and pauses are less common. … Overall, milonga is danced in a faster pace than tango which makes this dance “unforgiving” regarding mistakes or clumsiness.

Uh-oh.

Milonga might permit in theory a greater relaxation of legs and body, but in that moment in Buenos Aires, facing Marcelo as the opening notes of the milonga played? I can tell you that all relaxation had fled my body and had been replaced by nerves, excitement, and roiling panic. All which I tried to hide behind a determined American smile.

And then Marcelo lifted his arms, I stepped into his embrace, he breathed with me, I breathed with him, he led me into the first step, and . . . a miracle happened. I became the best milonga dancer than ever danced across the dance halls of Argentina. He led, I followed, joy bubbled inside me, and, oh . . . I was transported. And then the set ended. He escorted me back to my seat, thanked me, and left to find Analia. I sat in my chair gobsmacked, totally, completely, and utterly in love with Marcelo Varela.

I just laughed aloud as I wrote that. Even now I can remember how I felt. The way my brain was short-circuiting. Logically, I knew that I had flubbed up a lot; I vaguely remembered tripping over my own feet more than once. So I certainly had been far from the best milonga dancer who had ever danced across the—yada, yada, yada. And, let us not forget the man is married. But logic had nothing to do with what was happening inside me.

Marcelo could have danced me into a knot of stress and shame. With each step he could have conveyed frustration, or impatience, or just a sense of why-did-I-ask-this-woman-to-dance and why-did-she-even-bother-to-show-up? But he didn’t. He met me where I was. And we danced.

It took me three whole days to get myself out of love with Marcelo. Seventy-two hours for that potent elixir of awe, wonder, giddiness, and gratitude to subside enough for my heart to stop cavorting about in the love clouds.

But I have never, never, forgotten how extraordinary it was to be met like that. Especially as a beginner.

Tango is a relational art. Two people creating together. That is how I perceive the critique process. One person, the critiquee, more like me. Putting themselves out there. Opening to whatever is going to come. Perhaps feeling, like I did, a discombobulating mix of excitement, fear, hope, and vulnerability. It can be an awesome and terrifying place to be.

When we agree to critique someone’s work, we become the Marcelo of this metaphor. We choose how we are going to show up for our critique partner. How we are going to lead the dance of our feedback. Skill is awesome, and I encourage you to learn as many tools and techniques you can find to expand your critiquing game, but what transformed me that night, what made me fall in love with Marcelo for three whole days was how he met me: with attention, kindness, and a supportive I’ve-got-you embrace.

And now we come to where I have been leading us with this tale: When we bring ourselves to a critique of someone else’s work with a Marcelo mindset, letting that level sensitivity and connection guide our feedback, no matter the actual words, we are giving our fellow artists a wonderful gift: the gift of being met.

That is what I’ve got for today, folks. Or, wait, you know what? No, it is not. It would be criminal to tell you that whole story and then not let you see Marcelo and Analia dance. Below the postscript is a video of them dancing a milonga. And remember when you watch and when you deliver your next critique, when I danced that time with Marcelo, I felt as if I were as great a tango dancer as Analia is. I was not and absolutely am still not, but the memory of that experience is one of the things that still keeps me striving to be better in tango. May you give that same gift to the writers you critique. 

Onward in kindness,

Christine Carron, The Critique MD

P.S. As the opening line of this post implies, dancing with Marcelo was the first time I fell in love on the dance floor. Luckily, what I described as the Marcelo mindset is really a tango mindset. And in all the best dances I have ever had, the dances where my heart took a little dive into love, my leads embodied that same presence. It is absolutely one of my favorite things about tango.

And here they are, Marcelo and Analia. Enjoy!

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Look for news coming soon about The Critique MD’s first live webinar course: 

A Whole-Brain Approach to Giving and Receiving Critiques.

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