The role of teachers, and the "good ol' days"

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 the dance continues to be more mystified and more complicated, all for the convenience of the 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


souhami said...

nice piece

happyseaurchin said...

well written
and good points

i must say
i have been frustrated a little with the tango scene
because it has not evolved all that well to keep pace with modern music

i mean
i got into tango because of piazzola and gotan project
kids were getting into the vibe because it was modern
but sadly
most milongas have old music

there is so much modern electronic music
that is complex enough to enable the patterns and rhythms that i dance to in tango

i get bored listening to old tango music
because it is not part of my culture
it takes quite a lot of effort and a partner who really feels the music
for us to achieve tango

when the music takes me
and it is complex enough
with enough levels
enough changes
it comes pretty easily...
and once in the groove
it is a lot easier to find the more subtle tunes...

Marika said...

Sam - thank you :)

happyseaurchin - I think there might be two separate issues that you're addressing. Tango, as a set of music, reflects the culture and events of the time of its creation. In a way it's like saying why doesn't Baroque music evolve - because it is a reflection of its time. Many people, tango dancers and non-dancers alike, find much relevance in tango these days - which is a topic for a full post, not a comment I'm afraid. I'll just say that it may not be part of my culture, however the feelings of isolation, political and economic uncertainty, and unfortunately an amount of pessimism, do speak to my experience in the world. I'm finding a lot of resonance in the song Cambalache for example ( these days.

As far as what's played in milongas, there is always the option of holding neuvo/neotango/alternativo milongas if the community is large enough to support it.

My first exposure to tango music was Piazzolla and tango electronica too. The longer I dance, and the more I learn about tango and the hows and whys of it's development as a body of music, as a dance, and to a large extent, as a lifestyle, the more deeply immersed in it I become - and the more valuable the older songs feel to me. While I still listen to some electronica and alternativo, I find that many get repetitive after a while with their main beat overpowering the melody and striking like an unwavering metronome. The older songs, for me anyway, have a more varied texture, layers of rhythm to play with, and a structure that makes it easy to tell a story in a dance. The sound quality is challenging of course, and takes some getting used to - some restorations can be quite good, others not so much. There are also modern tango orquestras not only providing their own interpretation of classic tangos, but composing new ones. There aren't many as, I suspect, there are probably far easier ways to make a living for a musician. It has to be a labor of love to play and compose tango music. It might be something to look into if the older orquestras aren't resonating with you.

In the end you have to dance to the music that speaks to you, and either do your best to the rest, or sit it out. If the venues near you don't play what you like, you can try to organize your own milonga and see what happens.

Best to you on your tango journey!

Mark Word said...

Mari, this is a great, insightful and even spiritually inspiring post. The tango wars we have about differences in dancers and teachers are a microcosm of Earth's macro-wars. You are a peace maker.

Also, I loved reading Happysearching's insights/opinions and your informed comment. Excellent -- worthy of a post. However, I'd like to have the discussion with you about Baroque music being unlike tango. Let me just say that popular music is like languages. A dead popular language is no longer spoken -- it may be still around but no longer "living" in the street. Similarly, a music no longer danced is no longer "living" in the street. (I learned this from a tango maestro and Tito Puente; it's not my idea.) Tango MUST change because people are dancing it. The issue then for Happysearching is that he fell in love with a lady named Tango Nuevo; she takes him home to meet her parents and grandparents. As a result, he falls in love with them too because they are really cool too. Maybe he can appreciate the whole Tango family. I still like Tango Nuevo, but I fell in love with her family more than her. That's okay because now she is going out with Happysearching. :-)

Kirra said...

How do your community leaders/teachers/organizers all get along? And how old is the Austin tango community?

Marika said...

@Kirra - we're very lucky in Austin that our organizers and teachers generally work together - I hear that's very unusual. There's a lot of "cross-pollenation" between tango teachers and their students. In fact there used to be a weekly milonga co-hosted by two of our teachers and it's fairly common for teachers to attend each other's milongas. As far as how old the community is - I know that it's more than 10 years, but I don't know by how much.