Back to basics

There are some misconceptions about learning to dance tango:

  1. You will never completely learn it and could spend years on one step.
  2. It is a difficult dance and requires years of study to dance well.
  3. It is best to study with a variety of teachers because one can always get something from every class.

Learning tango is approached by many as a dance to master, no matter how long it takes.  Those who become obsessed take classes with every teacher they can find (whether or not they are qualified to teach), attend marathon weekends of seminars and milongas, and work tirelessly on perfecting every detail of their dance until it no longer resembles tango.  They look to the so-called experts for criticism on how they can improve.  A simple social dance has become a world-wide market for anyone with the guts to hang out a shingle and call themselves a tango teacher.

What does “completely learn it” mean?  Learn all the steps ever created and master them?  Why spend years working on one step?  Who says it’s not good enough the way you did it a year ago?  How can someone judge a feeling?  There is a collective mindset that is brainwashing everybody into believing that it takes years to complete enough training to be worthy to dance it.

I taught social dance classes for ten years.  At the end of eight classes, the students had enough basics to go out and dance.  People have busy lives with work, family, and other obligations.  They learn to dance for pleasure and to enjoy the company of other dancers.  Those in my classes didn’t have to continue with more classes in order to dance socially and enjoy themselves.   Why isn’t it the same for tango?

Tango has been labeled as a “difficult” dance.  It is really very simple.  One needs to learn to walk with the music.  Understanding the music takes years, but dancers rarely dedicate themselves to the music first.  They go to classes where they are expected to memorize steps and then try to fit them to music they never heard.  This is what makes tango difficult.  If those who wanted to learn to dance were told they had to listen to recordings of Troilo, D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, and Calo for eight hours a day, seven days a week, in one year they would be ready to learn the basics of tango and dance after eight classes.  We can’t dance to music we don’t know.  Music that is foreign to us requires time to understand.

Ricardo Vidort once told me that he taught everything he knew in eight classes.   Then he told his students he had no more to teach them. They had to go practice on their own and develop their own style.  They didn’t need more classes.  He was right.  Those who stay in classes for years want approval from the teacher and won’t practice on their own. 

People who have taken years of lessons with many teachers eventually return to basic classes.  Imagine all the hours spent in classes to improve one’s level of dance only go back to the beginning.  I suppose many finally realize that all those advanced technique classes were not what they needed.  They forgot most of it, and in the end knew that one needs only a few steps to improvise tango.  

Those who place themselves at an “advanced” level continue to attend classes.   Perhaps they like showing how easy everything is for them and justify participation because they always learn something new.  That’s life. We learn something new every day and hopefully continue learning throughout our lives.  There should be a point, no matter what we are learning, when we gain more from self-study and practice.  That’s certainly true in tango.

  1. Learn the basics, practice on your own, and then go dance.
  2. Tango is simple.  Love the music first, and your tango will come out of you.
  3. Leave class before you become obsessed with collecting steps.  Then develop your own style.

Tangobob has posted his thoughts on Back to basics.

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9 Responses to “Back to basics”

  1. yabotil Says:

    I completely agree with you! These days I occasionally do some private classes where I get my posture, embrace and walking checked/corrected but I’ve long stopped classes that taught steps.

    Steps may be fun in class, but they’re totally useless in the dance floor. They also make you look foolish as the steps rarely convey the music.

    The music has been the greatest challenge to me – occasionally there are classes on musicality and how to dance to different orchestras which points out things I may not have heard in the music and these are the classes that are most worth going to.

  2. Evaldas Says:

    words of truth… I especially liked about role of listening to the music while learning tango.
    I’m always surprised how often teachers tell to beginners: “first learn how to walk/lead/follow, then learn how to walk/lead/follow to the music”.

  3. Vladislav Says:

    I’m agree with the most of this, but want to put two points.
    First there is a technical aspect of tango (and, of course, of all the dances). The way of stepping is very important and is so easy for Argentinians and somewhat difficult for others. That’s because of the environment where one grows up, and all the movements and behaviors one unconsciously copies building their own style. Also, nobody teaches the mechanics of dance movements or the logic behind the mechanics of each movement.
    The second aspect is emotional. Most of the classes are about technique. But the social dance is mainly about the emotion. How to make the connection with your partner? How to feel the music? How to become one? All this couldn’t be taught.

  4. jantango Says:

    Technique has become the focus in tango, rather than feeling it. Many professionals who teach tango worked hard to achieve technical proficiency; most of their students are in classes to enjoy tango as a social dance. Professionals teach choreography to those who are interested in improvising on the social floor. This is the reason people are not learning to dance tango. They don’t need to dance it perfectly in order to enjoy it. We expect to be dazzled when we see a couple performing who dance choreography, but that isn’t the same as feeling while improvising on the social floor. Tango began as a street dance; today it is a performance dance. Dancers are being convinced that they have to study technique. There is a collective consciousness that one has to perfect the dance and be a master of it or not dance at all. This is not the case.

    The milongueros were young men during the 1940s and 1950s who didn’t have the benefit of technique classes. They practiced and found their own style and wouldn’t copy others. No one was around to tell them if they were good or not; they had to prove themselves in the milongas. The milongueros didn’t know about the mechanics of movement, but they were able to dance and enjoy the music. Tango is a feeling which is danced.

    Today, the emphasis is on technique. Dancers don’t know how to be comfortable in the embrace because no one teaches it. I can tell where a dancer is from by the way they embrace in a milonga in BsAs. They stand out in the crowd because they use some strange arm position. The embrace is an natural as giving a friend a hug. That’s how to connect with a partner. You feel one another’s body in movement, breathing, etc. Tango classes focus on steps and miss the important part–the music–how to listen to it and respond to it. When we connect with the music with our partner, we become one. It can be taught, but teachers need to learn how first. They are selling steps instead of teaching people how to be good social dancers who improvise in the moment with the music they feel. The milongueros do this instinctively. That’s why it is such a pleasure dancing with them. They aren’t interested in impressing anyone. They dance for themselves and their partners.

    Thanks for commenting and reading the blog.

  5. tangobob Says:

    How very true, it is my mantra. You dance for the music, for your partner and never for the audience. It is a very english thing to do dance classes and never use the knowledge in a social event.
    Tango has become big business and if you make it too easy the students will not need to keep coming back, but Buenos Aires will always be a draw to anyone aspiring to tango well, as a business Buenos Aires should just give us good tango and the world will keep coming.
    As for more advanced dancers going to classes, well I believe we can give a lot back and bring on the beginners faster. This of course by encouraging, supporting and helping, not by showing off.
    Great post Janis.

  6. Enrique Madris Says:

    No hay recetas de aplicación generalizada. Lo que para uno es fácil, no lo es para otro. Depende de la facilidad de movimientos, del amor a la música, del interés y perseverancia.
    Para el que toma clases es de real importancia CON QUIEN. (Hoy todos son profe) Para quien no tiene conocimientos previos, puede ser importante, ver, tomar clases con distintos enseñantes- que realmente enseñen bien. Mirar a las parejas que bailan bien, que se deslizan sobre el pisoi al compás de la música,, no a los que hacen piruetas.
    Es cierto, quien ama, siente el tango, y trata de caminar al compás de la música,quien baila para sí y su eventual pareja, no para espectáculo, tiene ya el panorama. Como pararse, el abrazo, la marca, desplazarse en la pista y bailar, bailar y bailar.

    Translation by jantango:
    There are no general rules. What may be easy for one isn’t for another. It depends on the movements, the love for the music, interest, and perseverence.
    The important thing is with WHOM to take classes. (Today everyone is a teacher). For those with no previous knowledge, it can be important, to see, take classes with different teachers, who really teach well. Watch couples who dance well, those who show how to dance the music on the floor, not those who do pirouettes.
    Surely those who love and feel tango and try to walk the rhythm of the music, those who dance for their partner and not for show have a better view. The posture, embrace, lead, and move on the floor, dance, dance, dance.

    Thanks, Enrique.

    You can listen to his radio program Abrazando Tango on Thursdays from 2:00-4:00 p.m. on http://www.am680.com.ar

  7. Keiko Says:

    I love your blog! This is a great post. I was very upset one time when I was in class and I heard someone complaining about the music! I was so mad! If you don’t feel the music, there’s no way you can dance to it. Thanks for the blog and all the info!

  8. montreal tanguera Says:

    This reminds me of an short exchange I had with a guy at a Salsa club. There were a number of *serious* salsa students there that night, and I — a salsa novice — felt bad that I might be slowing my partner down somehow. When I apologetically confessed I’d never really taken classes, he looked at me like I was crazy and said something to the effect of, Where I come from, we don’t study this, we do this for fun! I remind this of myself now and then, and it always makes me smile.

    Thanks for this inspiring post.

  9. Chris, UK Says:

    > nobody teaches the mechanics of dance movements or the
    > logic behind the mechanics of each movement.

    I think the reason nobody teaches mechanics and logic of movement to dancers is probably the same as the reason nobody teaches aerodynamics and logic of flight to birds. 🙂

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