(As usual, what follows is only my opinion and should in no way be construed as expert advice on anything.)
There's been some teacher bashing happening on a few of the tango forums lately. Not particular teachers (thankfully) but of the practice of teaching tango to begin with.
- http://tangoconnections.ning.com/forum/topics/abrazo-apilado?x=1&id=2259628%3ATopic%3A38885&page=5#comments ;
- http://www.dance-forums.com/showpost.php?p=756595&postcount=15 ;
From Chris_UK, on Tangoconnections ( http://tangoconnections.ning.com/ ): " . . . From this POV classes are a massive success. No matter that the 1-yr drop-out rate amongst their students is around 90%. Amongst instructors it's nearer 10%, because giving classes very much works for them. Further, a large proportion of students that do graduate do so not to the milonga but back to the classroom, as the next layer of instructors in the pyramid scheme we see today. Classes are primarily a means of rewarding and creating instructors, not dancers."
While it would be lovely if most people's first experience with Argentine tango would occur at a milonga - it seems rare in many (most?) communities - certainly in the US. How would I have ever stumbled across a milonga a year ago? Mostly they take place in dance studios - though we do have one in a local coffee shop that's well established. I would never have guessed it was there. We now have two restaurant milongas so exposure is increasing slowly. For many communities though, milongas are not held in such publicly accessible venues.
Most people's first exposure to tango is in a class. Would critics rather people have no exposure to tango than starting in classes? The teachers I have met teach tango because they love tango. They're certainly not getting rich from it. There are far easier and more lucrative business models than teaching dance.
Teachers, in the process of promoting their business, also promote tango culture and expose more people to it then you can count on just stumbling into a milonga. Many teachers go much further and have outreach programs that benefit their local communities: (http://www.esquinatangoaustin.com/index.php/KnowUs). These teachers are frequently cultural advocates, who bring the world of Argentine tango to their local area - but then also represent their communities at festivals and events all over the country. Two teachers in my area not only encourage their students to attend milongas and become competent dancers in that environment, but also arrange yearly trips to Buenos Aires for the students who are interested, to dance and learn in the heart of tango culture.
And yet . . .
a reality check.
Having said that, there are definitely limits to the value of some classes. I still get a lot out of most classes I take, even if it's just more practice and spending time with friends. But there has definitely been a transition in the way I learn and improve my dancing. The bulk of that learning and improving takes place at practicas, privates when I can afford them, and in more intensive workshops - rather than the weekly classes I used to attend so regularly.
The reality for me, and a lot of followers in my community, is that many to most of the men in the regular classes don't go to milongas and only a few go to practicas. Conversely, almost all of the men at practica go to milongas. So if I want to spend time learning how to dance well with the men who attend milongas - practicas are a much more efficient way to accomplish that. I've also found that a lot of what is taught in those regular monthly classes is more and more focused on improving the repertoire of the leaders. That's great for the leaders - less great for me.
To some extent, I think that's the nature of the beast. The longer we dance, the more different followers' and leaders' instructional needs are. They still overlap in some areas, particularly in musicality-based workshops, balance and strength, and floor craft classes if one's community is lucky enough to have those. However, when money's tight and I have to choose where to allocate those limited tango funds, it's the weekly classes I drop first.
I am still learning from teachers, because I believe there is so much value in what they have to teach - but the setting is different. And, their role isn't any less valuable because I happen to also learn a great deal at practicas. That learning wouldn't be possible without the classes that served as the foundation of my tango education.
So, from my perspective, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Teachers provide much more than some of the critics would give them credit for - certainly as advocates for their communities. Yet, I don't think it's possible to get a complete tango education in classes - no matter how many you take. Tango is social and it is in the social setting that our knowledge is really tested - and greatly expanded.