Choosing a Teacher: Part 3 - Warning Signs - What matters most, and what doesn't ...

Disclaimer - I am not claiming to be an expert about anything. This article is the result of several conversations with students and teachers in my own tango community and other communities around the US, and the world. This advice is subjective, most likely biased and certainly incomplete.

Warning signs:

Negativity: They publicly insult or ridicule other teachers or students. In fact if they publicly bad mouth anybody (or other styles of tango) it's not a good sign. I emphasize publicly because everyone, even teachers, have the right to their opinions. A good teacher knows that learning tango needs to involve learning from more than one teacher - either through festivals, visiting teachers, workshops, or simply visiting other schools. Almost all teachers have something valuable to teach you - even if it's only that their style doesn't appeal to you. Anything that helps you know yourself better will contribute to your dance.

Isolation: Are they they teaching in a vacuum - with little or no community involvement or activity in other communities like festivals, workshops, inviting visiting teachers etc. If they are teaching without any outside influences, their style, technique and methods may get stale. A dancer never stops learning tango - especially if they're teaching.

Uninvited Instruction at the milonga (as opposed to practicas): This is tricky because, without knowing it was against the codigos, I put two teachers in the position of instructing me at a milonga (on two separate occasions) by asking for help with a step that I was not able to follow. There are exceptions to the "no teaching" rule and certainly more discreet ways of handling questions. However, milongas are social events. Even the teachers need time to relax, just enjoy dancing and not be "on the job."

Questionable credibility: Teachers that consistently draw on their non-Argentine tango experience. The key word is consistently. We all use our background experiences to learn new information - we have to in order to make sense of new things. But if a teacher consistently emphasizes their non-tango education and experience over their Argentine tango education, I would be a little concerned.

Things that don't matter to me -

- The first class is free. I may get some negative responses to this but I think it's a teacher's right to make a living at their job. I have a very hard time affording the classes I want to take, let alone the workshops, so I understand the appeal. I'm all for free classes whenever possible (before milongas, through community centers or schools.) But if the local teacher doesn't do the free first class thing - it shouldn't be a mark against them. Tango instruction is worth paying for.

- Ballroom background - In some communities, the word "ballroom" is almost a four letter word. Think about it - would you want to be judged negatively by something you were doing 5 years ago? By the same token, 20 years as a ballroom teach/dancer/performer/champion isn't necessarily a positive thing either. It could contribute positive things (musicality, grace) just as easily as negative things (rigid movements, stiff frame, too much focus on choreography over connection.) What matters is now.

I prefer tango teachers that focus on tango. It's personal and certainly not a requirement. But Argentine Tango is hugely demanding and teaching it as a "side course" to something else doesn't appeal to me. (I should clarify, I don't mean the studio in general doesn't teach anything else. Most teachers teach out of a dance studio that teaches lots of different dances.)

- A beautiful stage or exhibition performance. How a teacher performs on stage can tell you a lot of things - musicality, grace, athleticism. But it can't tell you how they dance in social situations. Watch your teachers at the milongas. Do they follow the line of dance? Do they respect their partner and the other dancers? Are they musical and creative within the small spaces of a crowded milonga floor? Do they dance with other people besides their regular dance partner - particularly do they dance with their students?

Even though this a lengthy diatribe, it's just the tip of the iceberg and I'm sure everyone has loads of advice about choosing teachers (which I encourage them to post in the comments) - and some of my guidelines might not work for some people. So the usual caveat applies regarding the above criteria:

Your mileage may vary.

For some more guidance, check out this article from Alex Long, a tango teacher here in Central Texas:

Additional Notes from comments on Tango Connections

Comment by Trini y Sean PATangoS on October 16, 2009
Interesting series, Mari. In my experience as a teacher, the most important influence in where one first studies tango is simply a question of scheduling. Either a teacher's classes fits into a potential student's schedule or it doesn't. The issues you bring up are good for those who are really serious about tango, are considering privates lessons, or who have a choice about who to study with. It can also take a great deal of time to figure out what's really going on. It's easy for someone to think that a teacher who has been to BsAs would be more qualified to teach than someone who has not, for example.

Comment by Mari You're right unfortunately, about scheduling. So much of how we choose what teacher to study with (in the beginning especially) has more to do with availability than anything else. I've also heard from many dancers that, in their city, there's pretty much only one teacher or school in town. If they want to expand their learning, they have to travel to other cities or festivals to do that. In so many ways, that's why I'm glad to see communities like Tango Connections sharing so much information and resources with dancers who may not otherwise have access to such input.


An email I just received suggested I should clarify something, in case I convey the wrong idea - I don't mean students should jump around from teacher to teacher, or get a second and third opinion if you just don't like the opinion you're getting. I know a student who changed teachers because the first teacher didn't want to put them in a more advanced class and the teacher was, in my opinion at least, correct in her decision. Unless a student is made very uncomfortable, either physically or emotionally, it's better to go through a few classes to determine if it's a good "match".


Tina said...

I agree with and appreciate your remark about the first free class. I have never offered a free class. Hey, Tango teachers are not rich - we have to eat, pay bills, pay rent, and our average income is below that of most of our students, unless we're absolute stars. I have offered packages, where if someone wants several private lessons I give them a discount, because I do want people to be able to afford to learn a beautiful dance. But in the end, I have to survive.

Mari said...

Tina - I heard a student go off on a volunteer(!) at the tango studio I take classes at most. This studio is a non-profit org, which the volunteer tried to explain to the prospective student and the class price was very reasonable ($12). He insisted that *all* of the other studios offer free classes the first time and it was "ridiculous" that this place didn't. (In fact I think only one of the other schools offers a free class, but still.) There are so many ways that this place would have been able work the guy (this teacher offers scholarships and other ways of being able to afford classes and lessons etc.) - but that wasn't acceptable. Crazy.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I have had the teacher that doesn't say nice things about other teachers if you try them. The same teacher organises their own Milongas and doesn't go to any others.
I have also had the one who offers a free class! Hmmm! You don't get something for nothing!
I have had the ones that want to improve my dancing! That one is like going to a new hairdresser and they say: 'Who cut your hair?' Anyone who criticizes my hair will see me out of the chair so fast. That doesn't make me feel good.
And just because they can kick the backs of their heads during a demo, doesn't mean that they are good salon dancers or can teach it.
Nice post!

Mari said...

"And just because they can kick the backs of their heads during a demo, doesn't mean that they are good salon dancers or can teach it."

that cracks me up!! Thank you so much for your response!