Active learning

Like most people outside Buenos Aires, when I first started learning tango I was clueless about it, and had no idea about dancing in general for that matter - one may say rather typically for a man living in Australia. Initially, I remember going to classes in some semi-regular fashion and fumbling my way through them. Then gradually, I became more comfortable and aware of the typical tango class situation. And eventually, I became experienced enough to work out how to best approach a class, whether it be taught by a local expert or by someone internationally known. The point that I became aware of, after some exposure to different teaching styles, is the importance of becoming an active student on my part.

In a typical class, I really try to filter what the teacher is saying, to make the concept applicable to me. An example is a workshop that I attended on boleos, taught by a visiting couple from BA. They talked about the boleos with some reference to the old milongueros in BA, and introduced the concept of using the arms for leading (incorporated nicely into the body, rather than flaying them around). This was a different approach to my normal method of leading, which I knew mostly worked in my situations. So I simply took one of their concepts on creating stability from the arms and incorporated it into my way. This improved my boleos, and also opened up the possibility of trying to lead the same movement in different ways.

Group classes can ultimately only address ideas aimed at the majority of the students. So it makes sense that we as students should tailor the instruction for our own individual needs, rather than taking the teacher's words as gospel. I think this idea is equally applicable to private lessons (though the process of filtering is usually easier to do after the lesson). It's not difficult to find two teachers teaching the same movement in completely different ways, sometimes in apparent contradiction, with equal passion. There is no right or wrong way here, but just different ways. Tango can throw us into a maze of different instructors and methods, but also gives us the freedom to forge our own path, and we should gladly take this gift.

Assessing teachers

Unless you have a lot of experience from other dances, it's likely that you find it difficult to make a critical assessment on the quality of tango teachers. I know from my own experience that I had no idea initially - and I started in the days before youtube and greater accessibility of tango in general, so whatever the teacher said in the class used to be the what we had to believe, especially in a place like Australia with no prior knowledge or exposure to tango.

In general, I find that there are many great dancers but not many great teachers (probably similar to many disciplines). Typically, a tango class is structured this way: the teachers show a figure and gradually during the class the students are trying to learn the figure, often in stages. There's nothing wrong with this structure, but watch that it doesn't become a purely show-and-copy way of learning. Many teachers can show "what" but can't teach "how" very well. The difficult part of tango dancing is learning to work with another body - most people can learn "their part" of a move quickly but it's the leading and following which is difficult. So look for teachers who can help you with this, and not just show you their moves over and over again.

For local teachers, it is probably a matter of trying a few different ones and finding the classes that you enjoy the most - soemetimes this has very little to do with teachers but more to do with other factors anyway (other students, class time/location, etc). For visiting international teachers, I would like to see an overall improvement in the quality of teaching, as often they can be hyped up and highly in demand but their methods of teaching may be very ordinary. As an example, I recently attended a workshop by such teachers of repute and found that I had many issues with the class. Just one example was that they often showed what-not-to-do, based on the mistakes that some students were making. At one stage they even made fun of a wrong move and made everyone laugh - this can't feel great for those who made the wrong moves even though they weren't pointed out. It's easy to point out a million wrong ways to do something, but it's harder to figure out why the students are doing them and work out how to help them.

Not escaping reality

There is a premise which is often used in the movies about dancing: the protagonist feels inhibited by his or her job or personal life, but finds escape in the dance - providing a means of losing inhibition and getting in touch with his or her true self.

One of the things that attracted me to tango is its introverted nature. It's mainly a social activity, and the dance is like a conversation, which can be loud or soft. One doesn't need to tab into some other personality to enjoy tango, and the escape from reality doesn't have to be any more than what one might get while playing golf or going to the pub.

There are of course many people who dance tango as means of an escape, but there are also many people who dance tango because they can just be who they are. This probably won't make such a great movie plot though: a man who is already happy in his life takes up dancing and is still happy.

Feeling secure

I remember feeling very shy and insecure about my dancing when I started. I suppose most people feel this way when they start. Every dance becomes a test, rather than a fun activity. These insecure feelings may be self-directed: "Oh no, she is probably having a terrible time and thinks I'm terrible." or outwardly directed: "Why doesn't she do that move when I do this? Only if she was like this..."

Beginner men often feel that their limited repertoire of steps mean the woman is bored. Beginner women often feel that they're not following the man correctly. Not only are these beliefs not true - I've talked to plenty of women who would rather dance with a beginner with a nice walk to the music than someone executing lots of complicated steps - but it's fundamentally a flawed question to even ask, since it focuses on the performance of one partner and not on the process of achieving something together. However, most of us still do this at the start.

At some point in my tango journey though, I felt that I had moved on from this state, to simply accepting my partner standing in front of me and my own limitations, and enjoying the moment for what it offered. The fact that I can't recall the exact moment when this epiphany occurred must mean that the change was gradual. It is a much more enjoyable state to be in, as labels like "beginner", "good, "bad" or "should" disappear, to be replaced by enjoyable thoughts: "That is an interesting way to move" or "Let's try this for fun."

I believe that this rite of passage is rather common and universal, based on knowing those around me with also many years of tango experience. I don't know exactly what it is that one can do to feel more secure - probably just gaining some confidence to get past the beginner phase, then becoming more comfortable with each dance and each encounter, and learning to accept. There is nothing quite so liberating as the thought that we will work together to enjoy this short dance with no prior expectations. It is just a dance after all.


Copyright 2013 J.Choi. All Rights Reserved.