There is much discussion here and on many other forums, lists and blogs about how wonderful it would be if we could all learn tango just by watching and learning with peers, going to practicas and milongas etc., just like they used to do in Buenos Aires. Mario's video here describes that very thing - learning from the people already doing it, by listening to tango on the radio and practicing etc. These sorts of posts and blog entries range from nostalgic (even by people who never had the opportunity to learn that way) to bitter teacher-bashing with insinuations that tango teachers will do anything to sucker folks into continuous lesson.
From Tangoconnections: " . . . 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."
And another via Tangoconnections, "So, now we come around to the whole Magilla of Professional Teaching in Tango.....how the dance continues to be more mystified and more complicated, all for the convenience of the teachers..so that they have something to teach...well hell, why not bring ballett into it...and maybe Martha Graham and then there´s contact improv..and some colgadas, etc etc....and on and on...meanwhile, is anyone getting effective results from their classes__-well , yes if they are seeing the class as THE alternative to the Milonga...after all, the music is non stop and in a well planned class there´s no sitting out a song..plenty of partners to experience!...and then there´s Nuevo...the perfect vehicle for ´teaching´ Heck there´s no chance of running out of material there...we will be inventing new stuff every week... meanwhile, the close embrace skills will erode and be a thing of the past...check it out..."
The reason I write about this, or rather the impetus for this post, is that I truly believe that pining for the traditional way tango was learned and experienced, or complaining about the lack of different opportunities for learning and experiencing tango, takes energy and effort away from actually working to build the community we'd like to have.
I've written before about what I believe is the essential role of tango teachers in their communities, so I won't go into detail here. But I do want to address this idea that it's somehow feasible to learn tango now, as people did before in Buenos Aires during the height of tango popularity (and for sometime after). In Mario's video of Elsa and Roberto they talk about a few key things that are missing from our current culture of tango around the world
1. In most places, tango is not popular, mainstream music played on the radio. So how would when even get exposure to the music, let alone dancers who dance to it? There is one regular milonga in a public business (in our case a restaurant) in my community. There you might, if you were having dinner on the right night at the right time, get to see people dancing tango. Every other milonga is in a dance studio or school. So it's unlikely you would get any exposure to it without knowing about it in advance. And who promotes tango events like these? Usually teachers. If you took the teachers out of many (maybe most) tango communities, how would that community fair do you think?
When I learned to "club dance", I didn't go to classes for it because the music was all over the radio, there were programs and videos on TV and I had loads of friends going to clubs to dance. I learned from them. I imagine the culture was much the same for tango in the height of its popularity. But it's not mainstream here. It's not all over the TV and the radio. Most people get their first look at tango in a movie or on (*shudder*) Dancing with the Stars, or So You Think You Can Dance.
2. Outside of Argentina and Uruguay, tango is not embedded into the fabric of our culture. We are missing, until we are shown/enlightened/educated about it, the context of tango. If it were not for shows and tango teachers most of the world would have no idea about tango at all. For those most opposed to the "teacher model" of learning tango, is that somehow preferable? To not have any tango if it's "all run by teachers"? For me at least, I will never be able to express my gratitude enough to all of the teachers who have helped me not only learn this music, and dance - but to participate in a community that nourishes my soul. Which brings me to my next point . . .
3. At their best, and this is certainly not the case in all communities, teachers grow and nurture their communities. Teachers who encourage in-fighting and snobbery, do so at their own peril. Tango is social - it needs a community to thrive, and communities require solidarity to survive. Tango is it's own ecosystem. I realize I'm very lucky in my own community. Our teachers attend each other's milongas, encourage their students to go to each other's milongas, and co-host events, support local musicians and perform many varieties of public outreach (and not just in tango - but youth groups, Latino cultural events etc.) I know it isn't that way everywhere.
But it could be . . .
If our communities aren't what we'd like it to be, because of teachers or organizers or whatever, then we have to fight for it. Rather than taking shots at the teachers who aren't "up to snuff", we can be the example of the solidarity we want to see. Raise our expectations. Be the example. Be the tango we want to see in our community.
I'll put away my soapbox now. Thanks for reading this far. :)
(picture courtesy of morguefile.com)