Answer: Not the one watching the mirror!
Last week, I wrote something about how Latino salseros too often would be searching for their next dance partner or anyone watching their coolest moves. And I mentioned that women both in tango and salsa are too often watching the mirror. The comments that came from Buenos Aires were, at first, that MEN watch the mirror there, and women have their eyes closed. Then an expatriate tanguero living in Buenos Aires spoke up to say that the women indeed were watching the mirror there too. So one thing I learned from the many comments – not paying attention to your partner is not a gender-specific problem.
I think people keep coming back to dance tango not for how it looks but how it feels. Yet, there is a natural desire to see how it looks because it feels so nice. The draw of mirror is fascinating, and is not easy to explain.
Three mirror stories come to my mind about bodily self-reflection: Consider Narcissus, a handsome half-man/half-god. He falls in love with the person he sees mirrored by the pond. Although many may not know Ovid's story of Narcissus, most adults know his name through the often-used word "narcissistic." The second story that comes to mind is the Märchen (fairy tale) recorded by the Grimm Brothers, a story most Europeans and Americans know: Schneewittchen ("Snow White"). And a newer story, published in 1997, gives us a great magical object called The Mirror of Erised, which is a mystical mirror discovered by Harry Potter in a back corridor of Hogwarts, his school. On this mirror the words inscribed, erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi, are the reversed letters of "I show not your face but your heart's desire."
Which of these stories best fits the person who watches the mirror while dancing? Maybe there is an element of all three stories in this natural draw to look in the mirror. However, I think that people do not look at mirrors during a milonga because they are being full-fledged narcissists, nor are they inquiring about who is the most beautiful/handsome at that moment, nor do they see their desire rather than their true image, as in with the Mirror of Erised. But this is the danger: Watching a mirror at a milonga will give you seven years of bad dancing! Please note that this urban myth first started here! ü
It is not easy to break the habit of looking in the mirror because mirrors are generally a good thing in our lives. Besides the obvious loss of attention and poor dancing caused by mirror-watching, a very important and very old tango rule is being shattered: Looking at the mirror breaks the rule of not instructing at a milonga. Usually we think of not instructing others, but mirrors are a type of self-instruction and self-focused information. The issue, then, really is not a our friend the mirror. The problem is self-instruction at a milonga, leading to a lack of attention to the music and to one's partner.
The Light and the Dark Side
So if you find yourself dancing with a mirror-watcher, who is this partner? Maybe Sigmund Freud would say that you are dancing with Narcissus, or Snow White's Stiefmutter, or simply the object of your desire. Wrong, Mr. Freud. But good try. No, you are dancing on the Dark Side with Darth Vader (or perhaps Dorthy Vedic?). Although I am not a mirror watcher, I fight the temptation of being pulled over to the Dark Side of tango, and it is not an easy fight. The Dark Side focuses on how things look rather than how things feel. Beginners are drawn to tango because they don't know how it feels but how it looks cool. I think it then it becomes a quest to dance the way it looks for others, which compliments the feelings they get. This, my friends, is okay, but still the "Dark Side" in my opinion.
Clarification: I do not want to sound holier-than-thou. There is nothing wrong with the Dark Side. I live on the dark side most of the time. I run a blog. That is the dark side. I snowboard on skiers' slopes. That is the dark side. I wear aggressive in-line skates at skateboard parks. That is the Dark Side. I play drums: Definitely the Dark Side. My ex-wife on a more charitable day would say that I am 99% Dark Side. So it is just that finally in one thing in my life I have found the light – tango. So I will try to be patient with tangueros and tangueras who want to play on the Dark Side, preoccupied with how they look rather than dancing in the Light of How Things Feel Between Two. May the Force be with you.