Interview with Alejandro Gée - Tango as Therapy, Culture and Context

Another picture from Alejandro Gée's Studio - more info and pictures here: http://tangoalejandrogee.com/


Understanding the Approach of Tango as a Therapeutic Technique

"Tango is successful therapeutically because it provides connection, openness, awareness (awareness, is number one aspect) - connection with another in a contained environment." - Alejandro.

When I sat down with Alejandro my last night in Buenos Aires, I had so many questions about how to approach tango students who either consciously approach learning tango as a form of therapy, or who, in the course of the class, treat learning tango as therapy unconsciously. For example, on several occasions I've seen a couple start a tango class only to engage in belittling or antagonistic behavior forcing the teacher to become (for the duration of the class anyway) a relationship counselor. (Or at the very least, a referee.) Issues come up whether we want them to or not when we make demands of our bodies to learn new things. Especially when we have to learn these new things with another person in our space.

“The personalities and where the relationship is at that moment, including conflicts, power struggles, etc., start coming up in the tango class, as soon as the communication between the two participants becomes necessary. This is the case of couples, but in the individual cases their lives are out too, since the dance requires expression, connection, and communication with another human being.”

I don't have the background or the training to actually do therapy, in a tango class or anywhere else. However I have seen tango classes (and business communication classes that I used to teach) derailed by individuals and couples who need more care and attention than a typical tango class might offer. There are ways to retain these students, and to minimize their anxiety and frustration simply by adjusting teaching methods, body language and even the progression of topics. I was surprised at how familiar those methods are to what I had learned as a business and communications trainer. 

For example, know when to slow the pace. Ask more questions. Watch for physical cues - the body can give a lot of information long before the conscious mind is ready to disclose. It's important to pay attention to that. Information about what a student needs from you is usually presented in very indirect ways. Go with what's presented and try not to make assumptions. 

From Alejandro, "There are things you consider - how far to go with the embrace, the feeling of the body. There are time constraints. Go very slowly, constantly test how much you can give and how much that they can take. It's constantly changing, minute to minute. When something presents itself [like a discomfort] there is always a reason. 

"When clients, and people generally, get uncomfortable they change topics to escape. If you want to help, take them to that moment. There are things you can see; the embrace is close but not too close. Guide the person to be there, present - guide them to find their own tango from inside to outside. “

"Self-awareness connects you with yourself - physical body and unconscious mind through the body. You start expressing what's happening in the unconscious mind. They [your mind and body] are processing all the time. You might not know why you feel better - but if you take the time, you learn. . . . Communication with another person - you have to wait. You both have to present in different ways. That's an opportunity."
As far as teaching tango generally, I had more questions.

Me: "When do you recommend that your students start going to milongas?"
Alejandro: "Right away, but not to dance. To learn by being there -learning the culture and the dance. Especially the most traditional milongas to learn the most authentic experience right away. It's best to start with the hardest milongas. Dancing [at the milongas] is a different story. That requires losing the fear."
“First watching and breathing the milonga. then, losing the fear which involves risking. at this point the student goes into the dance floor. the teacher, preferably, should coach this initiation by giving indications of what to do and giving support, even going to the dance floor with them the first time. taking it easy and doing the minimum is important the first time. the point is first just to experience the floor without distracting others and without losing the embrace, the connection, and respecting navigation (as much as the level of the beginner allows it). the rest comes with time.”

Me: "Do you send your students home with 'homework' - things to work on outside of classes with you?"

Alejandro: "Always. Homework is like a bag of tools - aspects of culture, technique, psychology:

- Technique exercises.
- Going to watch milongas
- experiencing the social aspect, the tango culture.

"The psychological aspect of take-home tango work - conscious awareness, in the right moment. Take it and apply it to your life. Pay attention to how you walk. Know yourself is the way to really learning tango. If a person is afraid to embrace, for example, explore that. You have to acknowledge it. For the physical aspect, I suggest pilates and/or yoga - it depends on each person. Whatever you can use. Whatever tool is useful to you. 

"Other homework of course is the music. Listening to different orchestras. Identifying songs, singers, orchestras. Thinking of how you would dance, and how your dance would be different, for each music. The music is instrumental in understanding the dance. The context of the time - its relevance. "

Me: "What is most important to observe in the milongas? Which milongas do recommend to your students?"

Alejandro: "The codigos are important. Especially observing the traditional milongas where men and women sit separately. There are cliques -people who know each other. Women make the milonga. If you want better milongas, you need to protect that [the codigos]. They make the milongas feel safer. Take the time to go through the ritual - the dance is softer. [For example] it is an invasion [for a man] to just approach a woman at her table. You also learn about another culture which is a very positive thing."

“The ‘codes’ are based on respect for the other people in the place, to the culture of tango and to its music, not as a strict, neurotic, and inflexible method (that some people understand as ‘codes’).

"Society teaches us to have control. Here (Buenos Aires) it is chaotic. Last minute. You need to be open [to changes]. Learn as much of the culture and context as you can - as a matter of respect. They (the dancers/milongueros in Buenos Aires) don't adapt to you. It's important to develop respect for the culture.

“Learning how people live here and how tango describes the daily lives of Argentineans, whether they dance it or not. very important aspect for foreigners, to translate into the dance and understand that tango is a whole culture not just a dance (it's dressing up, shaving, smelling nice, embracing everybody when we meet, sitting around, gossiping, watching and not even dancing sometimes, learning from each other, meeting friends, respecting our codes, etc.).”

Conclusion

My favorite bit of information from Alejandro, and so completely true -"An important thing to understand is that you are dancing as soon as you enter the milonga." My strongest experience of this was at El Arranque milonga. For some reason at that milonga more than any other, as soon as you enter, all eyes are on you. And when you're invited to dance and make your way down the long aisle to the dance floor - you are already being observed and judged. I started to think of that aisle as the "catwalk". Every time a woman (not so much with the men, I noticed) walked down that aisle, heads turned to watch her. In the milongas, you are always engaged in the dance - whether you're on the pista or not.

Alejandro added, “And the dance starts even at home…..when you are getting ready, taking a shower, dressing up, putting perfume…that is already experiencing the milonga and tango.”

2 comments:

Frances R said...

I am so happy for you, Mari. It looks like you had a wonderful trip, and learned tons about tango.

Mari Johnson said...

Frances - Thank you for your comment and for reading. You've always been supportive and I so very much appreciate it. ((abrazos))