In Defense of the Perpetual Tango Student

"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


Keno said...

Coming from a dancer who started his dancing journey in a Ballet company, you have to wonder what would happen to the dancers in a ballet company who stopped taking classes. I take a class every week to just keep up with the basic. Like in ballet you spends two to three hours at the bar perfecting your technique for every one hour just dancing. The classes I attend start the class with 15 to 20 minutes of just basic walking balance and turning. Dancing is a way of life and when you work on that technique you find ways to enjoy it to the music. Try walking to just on instrument in a tango song and see what happens. Try only walking on every 8 or 16 beats of the music and see what happens. You can know all the big moves in the world but if you do not have that foundation to build on you will not be able to do those big moves with elegance and grace. Just my thoughts on the matter, I am going to keep taking classes because I love to just dance

Dieudonne said...

Mari, you are right on the money, so to speak. Practicing and working on one's craft is a journey to the satisfaction that one derives from the practice of that craft, it is not about getting somewhere or to some level.
I grew up in a football (soccer) playing environment, and played at a high level (turning pro was a consideration at so point). I started playing with adults (over 18 yrs) when I was 14 years old, and the reason I was able to do that is because I practiced/trained more than anyone I knew, and even though I was a better/more skilful player than my coaches, I listen to them, because they could see things that I was not able to see about my game.
I was a "perpetual football student". I was always working developing, expanding, improving... my skills. And it was interesting to me at the time that the friends who asked me for advice, spent less time than me in training.
I think that the same thing applies in Tango and life in general, ie: the more we worked at it, the more we develop mastery of the subject matter, and can then truly attempt to enjoy it from a state of being, and bring our soul to the joy of it, with the support of the body tamed by the training.

Jane Prusakova said...

Dance classes are about two things:
- being part of a community
- actually learning the dance

Community aspect is very important in the AT scene because a relatively formal approach to dancing tango limits conversations and non-dance interactions at the milongas.

Learning to dance is secondary: poor dancers don't know that they're not good, and have no reason to learn. It's easier to find a partner to dance with for someone who is a good dancer. But other things matter more than good dancing when looking for a partner: looking good, bringing friends or a permanent partner, etc..

Different people will have different priorities as to why they do or do not take classes.

There is yet another reason to take and keep taking tango classes right now. Argentine tango is experiencing a renaissance in recent years, and is being re-invented by a new generation of dancers (and teachers). It is in classes that social dancers get to interact with people who spend their lives living and breathing modern tango - both to learn, and also to influence the modern tango scene.

Tango Therapist said...

What a great article! I do love taking classes, but perhaps I have gotten away from doing the classes out of money concerns or simply that I cannot do both a class and dance a lot at a milonga. There was a period of time with Daniela's class in Austin that we were almost all men. It seemed that the women felt that they would learn it at the milonga. Even if that were true (and it isn't), we men needed the support of the ladies to progress, and it wasn't there.

Tangocommuter said...

I've noticed a lot of people ONLY go to classes, and have to be dragged out to go to a milonga! Fine, if that's what they want...

Ballet and tango aren't directly comparable. Tango started from humble roots. Until very recently tango dancers never had classical training. Stage tango dancers usually start from a ballet background, and need their daily workout because they perform choreographies in public. Social tango came from people with no formal training. I think the 'traditional' way just meant turning up at milongas all night long, night after night. They were passionate about it: it was their community, their practice, where they got their technique and musicality.

The 'natural walk' is for guys. But most European guys walk badly, slouched. In some videos from BsAs you see guys leading who really give the impression of just walking well, and it looks great.

Some classes feel like just learning 'steps', and in others you feel you're learning to dance, which is the point of classes!

ghost said...

@Mari, glad you liked it :o)

@TC "The 'natural walk' is for guys."

Really? When exactly do you see guys outside milongas naturally walk about with their arms held in front of them, their weight forwards and to the inside of their foot with a woman pressed up against their chest? When do you see guys stand naturally with their weight only on one foot rather than split evenly? etc

Marika said...

Keno - "Dancing is a way of life and when you work on that technique you find ways to enjoy it to the music." <-- Exactly.

Dieudonne - "body tamed by the training" is was exactly what I was thinking. It's frustrating to want to express something in the music, with of course another human being in my arms, and be unable to because I can't get my body to do what I want it to do.

Jane - Thank you for your comments. You're so right about community and staying in the classes to stay in the dialogue, so to speak.

Tango Therapist - I hear more and more men getting frustrated and dropping out of classes because there are never enough women in the intermediate and advanced classes. Working with leaders (of every level) in classes and practicas is an investment in the future of our community.

Ghost - exactly!!

Anonymous said...

For inexperienced dancers, I agree it's best to stay away from the milonga until you feel that you're ready! It took me a year to feel that way.

"Learning to dance is secondary" - really?! A milonga is not a show where people sit around with their chit-chat watching others dance. The dancers pay to dance, and are not paying to entertain non dancers! Of course there is always this performance aspect but it works better if it is a peer group where dancers are watching each other, not a performer/audience relationship. If people want to chit chat and watch a show there are some great opportunities to do that, or if they just want to chit chat they can join Toastmasters or some such.

It can be pretty frustrating going to a milonga where half the people you might ask to dance don't know how to do it, and they will either decline the invitation saying they don't know how, or they will accept and make it difficult for the leader.

I think this is bad for a community because it will turn off many of the competent dancers, and if the community is large enough it will also establish unhealthy patterns like cliques, where a leader may not invite someone they don't know, because they get burned so many times.

Even for experienced dancers it is very helpful to get a different point of view, to see the movement in different ways, to keep your style fresh. Bottom line, we should all continue to learn.