The Essential Role of Tango Instructors

(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 ;
- http://pythia.uoregon.edu/~llynch/Tango-L/2006/msg12104.html

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.

12 comments:

jen said...

just when i start feeling ok with my dancing, i realize that there is so much more to learn. tango is like a yoga practice, it is boundless & limitless in possibility.

as a follower, once you get your technical foundation down, it gets really fun (and overwhelming) with adding your own styling to your dance. i've been dancing maybe 8 months and am just starting to build enough confidence up as a follower to start exploring with embellishments & musicality.

i guess there is a trick to adding your own style while still following and not offending your lead, but from what i understand a more experienced lead will not be offended and provide those opportunities.

i agree that i get a lot out of practicas, to get that extra time to connect with different leads, to gain that trust and encourage each other & build our dance vocabulary.

there's so much to learn. i guess that's what makes it fun (addicting), right? thank goodness for our teachers.

see you on the dance floor....

londontango said...

Hi Mari,
There are some good teachers around, but more than twice as many bad or mediocre ones. We have had this argument on my blog before.
The problem is, everyone seems to be jumping on the Tango bandwagon and there are so many styles, it just gets confusing. People teach sequences and steps, volcadas, secadas, ganchos, voleos, you name it. There are many people who think they can teach after only dancing for a few years. With so many people wanting to learn, there seem to be no lack of teachers wanting their money and in this respect, Chris is right.
How to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak? Only experience can teach us that and by word of mouth. I have my own opinions, but I try to keep them to myself, but it can be difficult. I don't go to Tango classes anymore, but only because I feel I learn more on the dance floor. I do go to Salsa and Ceroc classes, but that is good networking and socialising in my new town.
What works for me may not be great for you and vice-versa. Just pay attention and do what feels right to you.

Captain Jep said...

Great post Mari. I think you put your finger on it when you say that regular classes are the first thing you give up (when you have to). Unlike say salsa classes, I believe that there is effectively a "time limit" that should be applied to tango classes. Once you've got some grip on fundamentals , drop the classes and just get out there and dance. Then top up with workshops and private lessons.

I believe its different with salsa classes as there are more "sequences"/"moves" involved. But that is a whole different discussion isnt it lol ?

tangopassionista said...

Having just stopped regular classes (after about 18 months) to concentrate on dancing and exploring workshops with other teachers, I agree that classes eventually become less attractive and even frustrating. It's a hard decision to make, but once made it gives you more freedom. At least that's what I've found. What then becomes difficult is saying no to all the workshops on offer ;-)Practicas here only seem to be for couples and there's no changing partners (but perhaps because no-one instigates it - that can be changed). I'll have to look further afield and see what else is on offer.

jen said...

so. i was at a class that turned into a practica last night and ended up dancing with a very experienced lead that i'd never danced with before. and it turned out everything i've been doing is wrong and he was breaking it all down and trying to fix everything about the way i move.

if i have been wrong this whole time, i wish that any one of my instructors would have told me at some point. i am so frustrated and discouraged. =(

Mari said...

Jen, the only downside to getting advice from leaders is that *they* may be wrong. Take advice with a grain of salt. Sometimes a large grain. There are a few leaders in our community that, while they mean well, don't always give the best advice - which tends to be tailored to their needs specifically, rather than to good form generally.

Anonymous said...

@jen- I totally agree with Mari. If you feel you have an issue with your technique or form, please go to your regular teacher to ask about it. And, IMO at least, you should also take these types of questions to a teacher who is primarily a FOLLOWER, because,as Mari pointed out, many leads are naturally going to tailor thie response to what best fits their needs, whereas a follow will tell you what she thinks with regard to follower's technique she has learned. That's just my experience and opinion though.

-bastet

jen said...

really appreciate all of the support everyone! =)

tangopassionista said...

I agree with Anonymous about asking a teacher who is also a follower. Many classes seem leader-biased and the followers get to stand around a lot until the leaders get the teacher to attend to their questions, adjust their positions, etc. Right now, I'm learning a lot from a female teacher who can teach both parts - not in class, but just through dancing with her at milongas. And as for the experienced leaders who tell you you've got it all wrong, there are just as many who'll tell you you're doing everything right. I've had some say they can tell I dance with a particular partner a lot, others say I'm a good follower, others say they can feel how I'm with the music and love dancing vals and milonga. Sometimes it comes down to a clash of styles and tango camps.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a sentiment that can easily be transferred to tango.

Alex said...

In the Aspen, CO community, where I first started tango classes, a handful of the "advanced" dancers would continue to take the beginner classes, both for the review/repetition of the fundamentals, and to help the newbies. Help them, and help retain them. Newbies followers experiencing a tentative newbie lead may not "stick" with tango. The little light bulbs would go off over their heads when they danced with an experienced lead.

Beginner classes were free for us, because we paid for the intermediate classes held just after. Even though we didn't need the classes anymore, it was dancing tango where dancing opportunities were limited, and we all saw it as a responsibility to further "support" our community and our one and only teacher. Plus just the social aspect of seeing and hanging out with your tango friends.

I would still take classes if I didn't live so far out in the sticks.

We've all heard this...that the learning process never ends in tango. Never. Even the milongueros still practice their walk.

happyseaurchin said...

nice post :)

i have been asked to teach a few times
but considering the mess
i prefer just offering what i can on the floor
(i know... i know...;)
to make the tango happen

the problem is men
specifically
funky young men

i like what you say about practicas and milongas and men
astute observation i hadn't noticed before
because i tend not to go to practicas or lessons

i am hoping to give an insight into tango this year
to young funky men
such that
after three "lessons"
they can learn in the arms of women
like with lovemaking
no?

if there are more funky young men dancing tango
the entire ecosystem of tango will be healthier
supporting more teachers should they seek better tango technique
and more happening milongas
with a healthy invection of modern music

of course
the trick is
how do i approach young funky men without them thinking i am hitting on them?

tricky problem
would be nice if you had any thoughts about this...

Frances R said...

@Jan: even if your practice partner was right about some points he brought up about your mistakes and shortcomings, or all of them (and there is no guarantee that he was! but suppose he was), consider that. There are a lot of skills to master in order to dance tango well. No one, even the most talented and studious person, can get them all at once. You have to go step by step, at times you do not progress at all or even go backward. That is learning. A good teacher would not tell you everything you are doing wrong at once, simply because there is no way for you to fix certain things at the present level. hearing about it without being able to do anything about it just gets discouraging and frustrating, and that is exactly how you felt. So I suggest, if you are sure you picked good instructors, trust them. And in practice, seek a partner who will encourage you and concentrate on the positive, not on your weaknesses. Wish you all the best.
Frances.