"The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself." - La Meri
There's been a lot of criticism thrown about lately on tango blogs, forums and on Facebook, regarding the "perpetual tango student" and of course the corresponding tango teachers that encourage their students to continue to take classes (presumably rather than learning the "traditional" way of just showing up and dancing socially - though I've never been too sure how that was supposed to work.)
I've only been dancing a little over two years and I still take classes, though mostly I take private lessons and workshops, when I'm able. Most of the people I dance with, in fact most of the people in my community, take classes from one or more of the teachers in town. A few dancers travel to Buenos Aires to take classes.
This is the usual advice I hear from people who tell me classes aren't necessary:
Just walk naturally.
And for followers, walk naturally, backwards.
Okay, let's clarify "naturally". My natural walk before I started tango, was walking on the outside of my feet (never in high heels) and with a posture that rather suggested I had an invisible pole up my butt. That kind of natural? Or do you mean the way South American women walk? They are not the same thing. "Walking naturally" has to be one of the biggest myths of learning tango. There's an excellent post here with some ideas addressing the tango walk.
My point is that I had to take lesson first of all to learn how to walk for this dance. If you've always worn high heels and have a beautiful, fuild gate, good for you - maybe you won't need lessons. The rest of us will probably always be working on our walk.
Just listen to the music. The music will tell you how to dance.
Okay . . . and then what?
Sure the music will tell me how to dance - but you probably won't like it. I was a Goth dancer. Let me tell you, very little of that "skill set" is applicable to tango. Or anything else really.
If I didn't know anything about tango as a social dance, I'd just amble about, more or less (most likely less) on the rhythm. Having no vocabulary or clue about body mechanics, I wouldn't know:
- to disassociate to stay with my partner during turns,
- or not constantly split my weight between both feet, leaving my partner wondering what foot I'm on,
- or backweight my posture pulling my partner off of his balance.
In fact I doubt I'd know to pay any attention at all to my balance. As a result I'd probably (and I'm sure I did in the beginning) hang on my partner like a wet coat because I wasn't able to keep my balance, trip over my feet, trip over his feet, kick people, and make a very uncomfortable dance for my partner. Of course it would be a milonga so my partner wouldn't be able to say anything to me, he'd just politely drop me off at my chair after a dance or two. And since I wasn't in any classes, the likelihood of my knowing about any practicas (since they are usually, though not always, hosted by teachers), would be pretty much nil.
So very soon I would be sitting on the sidelines not getting danced and wondering what I was doing wrong. I woudn't know anyone because I wouldn't have met anyone in classes, so I'd pretty much have to maneuver a new and intimidating social scene feeling completely inadequate to the task. That'll keep me coming back for sure!! Not.
But don't worry - I'm sure some very helpful tanguero would offer to take me under his wing and teach me all sorts of wonderful moves, especially all of those sexy, kicky ones, (that he can't get anyone else who actually knows how to follow) to do. And through him I would learn the "One True (his) Tango" and be just peachy without any classes at all. Think of all the money I'll save ( so I can get a couple of pair of really deadly stilettos!)
Meanwhile the people who start with classes enjoy all sorts of benefits I would be missing:
- Community. As soon as you start a class, in Austin anyway, you become part of a community. You're welcomed as soon as you show up - just for being willing to try to learn what certainly feels like the hardest dance in the world. Our teachers introduce you to other students and event organizers, guide you through the schedule of activities in the community - milongas, practicas, classes, workshops. We have tango events just about every night of the week, and live music to dance to weekly. Luckily our teachers promote one another's events and attend each other's events - I know many communities don't have that luxury.
- Encouragement. I would never have braved a milonga or a practica on my own without knowing people from classes. From what I've heard from other dancers, very few people would. Being in classes gives students a feeling of camaraderie and a sense of belonging that can help so much when coping with the more challenging (read: embarrassing, awkward) aspects of learning tango.
- Consistent practice time. Not only to physically practice the dance, but to listen to the music with other dancers. To hear and see other people's reactions to the same music. To be able to talk about the dance, the music, the history of both. To be able to ask questions and not expect someone on the social dance floor to spend what should otherwise be a relaxing time for them, basically teaching me how to dance and behave without using the pista as a classroom.
- Music, music, music. Teachers have vast quantities of music and they want you to hear it. They want to share their experience of it, information and history about it, technique for expressing it.
- Technique. Dancers who take classes (ideally) learn how to prevent injury to themselves and to others by strengthening muscles, improving balance, and increasing flexibility. Some dancers need more help with this than others. If I were 20 years old, I wouldn't have needed as much help - but as it was I was 36, with bad posture, back pain, and very limited flexibility. If I hadn't had classes to improve those things, how many dances do you think I would have gotten? You could argue that with continued dancing things would have improved on their own, but from what I've experienced, I doubt that. Sometimes the easiest thing for your body to do in a situation is not the best thing - and can even be harmful to your dance partner. We tend, without anyone to tell us otherwise, do whatever comes easiest or most natural. But what's most natural for a body that's out of alignment is frequently not the best thing.
So why STAY in classes?
Technique frees my soul's musical expression.
This is where my quote from about comes in. When you don't have solid technique and at least a basic vocabulary of movements, you are very limited in the ways you can express the music. You may not know how you want to express a piece of music - you'll only know that what you're capable of at the moment isn't it. The more experience you have, the more you are able to do with your body (in disassociation, in good posture, flexibility, balance), the easier it is to express how you feel the music gracefully - and the more easily you can recover from mishaps and prevent injury to your body.
When I stop taking classes, I forget to continue working on my technique - or I do it haphazardly. And I don't have the sort of body that maintains it's current state. I backslide. My balance suffers. My flexibility diminishes. And when I'm not in classes with other people, I'm not getting exposed to other people's ways of seeing things, and hearing and expressing the music.
I like to work on my weaknesses. When I got too comfortable in traditional, very close embrace, I took a few (very informal) classes on open technique and worked with leaders who danced more in that style. A year into dancing tango, I was still terrified of milonga tandas - so I signed up to take classes and through myself into milonga for several months. Now I have such a love for milonga, that I've made myself turn my focus back to tango and vals as my technique in those areas has started to slip a bit. I found myself unable to express the music the way I felt it inside. It's frustrating to feel the music a particular way, but be chained by my body's inability to do it gracefully. So back to work. For me, it's not a chore, it's a work of love and devotion to an art form.
Back to community - time to pay it forward . .
The last, but maybe the most important reason I try to take classes or workshops when I can, is to work with dancers with less experience. (Or experienced dancers who just want to work on something different.) Continuing to take occasional classes keeps me interacting with new people, old friends I don't see often, and visitors from other communities. It also gives me more time to interact with them than I would normally get in a milonga.
"Freedom to a dancer means discipline. That is what technique is for -- liberation." - Martha Graham