I get the question all the time: How hard is it to learn tango? Learning Argentine tango can be hard or it can be easy, depending on your kinesthetic sense of movement, but no matter what, there will be work and a lot of hours involved. Most of those hours are of your choosing:
- When and where and how often to practice.
- How many social events you attend (milongas, practicas, lessons, workshops, festivals).
- And of course private lessons, which are not as social, but are mandatory to your growth and understanding, and in order for you not to reinvent the wheel but to learn faster in the hands of a good coach.
- Maybe most important to the beginner is: Who you chose to study with. Unfortunately a beginner has no idea who teaches well or is accomplished in their methods of instruction. Though a good teacher should be surrounded by students that dance well and have been dancing for 5 to 20 years.
What a beginner can do is soften their eye as they watch people dancing. By softening your eye and not focusing on just the feet or the embrace, one can see a little deeper into how hard it is to learn to dance tango.
- Watch the face of the follower. There should be a serious but serene face that is interrupted by short bursts of smiles or grins, then back to the focused look. She should have the look of confidence on her face. None of this will apply if she is a beginner. If she looks confused with one man and confident with another, you have found she is not a beginner and you also learn something about the competence of the leader that confused her.
- Look at the face of the leader, notice if he seems to be aware of his follower, is he moving before she moves or after? Does he seem to invite her into a movement of push, shove or pull her into the steps? Does he seem to plow through the move irrespective of her stumble of confusion, or does he acquiesce and surrender his ideas to keep her comfortable?
This is a good way to begin to learn as you watch the dance. But what does it take to personally improve your tango learning process?
First: Learning Tango thrives only if one continues to cycle, recycle and complete all aspects of the learning process:
- Unconscious Incompetence – you have no idea you are doing something that is causing the dance to fail, e.g. (I will use this example all the way through) “not pointing your toe toward your partner’s spine on and outside partner step” also known as the #3 of the 8-step basic.
- Conscious Incompetence – when you learn that you are not pointing your toe toward your partner’s spine.
- Conscious Competence – when you begin to point your toe correctly.
- Unconscious Competence – not without thinking of it the tow has been trained to point toward your partners spine in outside partner. But then to complete the cycle automaton must be avoided there are some more advanced movements in tango where a one does not point toward the spine in order to get more torque. So the moment it becomes unconsciously competent, one needs to learn to make it reflective so that the learning process can continue.
- Reflective Competence – now one choses whether to point their toe toward their partner based on the coming resolution of steps and music in the dance.
By using this method, I have found dramatically faster learning curves for my students. And this cycle is a continuous process with no end. Without making Reflective Competence a conscious process one stifles and their growth stops advancing, because the dance begins to be knee jerk, Pavlovian behavior patterns that are not conducive to making decisions, but rather for running automated routines. Then all that is left is to dance on autopilot. Autopilot is not a good place to be. It is Pavlovian in nature and it countermands everything written about how tango wonderful tango can be for your brain, as it impedes building and utilizing new pathways in the brain. On autopilot my artist dies and my art becomes rote and my dance so predicable it is tasteless and even less musical. However, it is uncomfortable to leave ones comfort zone. It takes an effort to disrupt the comfort zone to create a new learning environment. A good teacher will help you work through and enjoy the lack of comfort and create comfort zones rather quickly.
No art form can survive on autopilot. Especially one as beautiful and complex as tango. The formula above applies to both partners and keeps them learning tango. Though one good partner can shake up the automatic behavior of the other, the dance is so much more genuine and real if both partners are fully reflecting their choices by utilizing complete awareness of every passing moment – and of course it helps if this is accompanied by good technique and balance within a fully aware and relaxed system of moving.
It takes an advanced dancer that is still learning tango to accomplish this because of the need to fully see so many split second choices. However one can begin this process early on by making themselves observe their dance. The higher the level of mastery one has achieved with a specific movement, the more ease and beauty they bring to the dance.
As I dance I use the same observer that sees me in my everyday life. The one that councils and gives me advice. I will use a metaphor to describe a mind set that has helped me learn and see myself clearer in my dancing. I am in the crows nest of a very large factory. From my perch I can see from the receiving docks where all the supplies come in all the way around through the tool and die area, past to assembly and packing into quality control a full 360 degree panorama back to the docks where shipping is done.
The well running factory has a specific hum and sounds just so when all systems are full ahead and running smoothly. During these times I, the manager, am sitting, listening as I make plans for tomorrow, all the while, quietly enjoying all the fruits of planning, training and organizing that makes the factory run so smoothly.
If the tune of the factory changes, I know instantly, but like any good manager, I do not run down stairs and get in the way, I assess the field from where I am, I observe. If I see that tool and die has a mechanical break down, I simply call and ask if they would like some help fixing something. If they say yes, I send someone from shipping or assembly over to lend a hand, since I know in a day or two they will be slow anyway due to reduced production. I cannot go back in time and stop this unfortunate situation, but I can learn for the future. There is no need to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. I would only be in the way if I go down and micromanage the repairs.
I can fix my dance and make adjustments only if I do not get in the way. If I stop moving, I mess up my partner, I must make repairs and learn on the fly. My left brain notices, my right brain adjusts technique for the coming and future steps. Here is where good coaching is a must, one needs someone to let them know their propensities to certain breaches on foundation. Then all one does is soften and allow the moment to be what it actually is; in this case a mistake, soften and move along.
I do not want to micromanage the behavior of my body, my brain is not in charge down there, my body is a body and not a mind, though research is concluding there are neuronic activities in our muscles and organs. I also do not manage my partner either, I communicate, invite and guide, but I do not manage her steps. My legs take steps, my arms embrace and my torso twists and turns as do hers. All pretty simple jobs really. Timing is what is crucial, so when something goes awry it is usually because some portion of the partnership of a single body that is out of synch or out of time. Once a dancer trains their legs to walk, their arms to relax and embrace and their torso to twist without messing up the hips, the remaining part of what needs to happen is simply well timed harmony of movement.
If I micro-mange my body, in the way or as the metaphor states “I take the machine away from the mechanic and then I screw up a few production parts” (which I would do since it is not my job to be a tool and die worker) or in the real world, I interfere with the energy and flow – usually because I flinch and/or stop moving, it is hard to both move and stop moving. However, by softening my entire aspect, I am able to make a few small adjustments to my timing and find my partner again even after a stumble or complete misread – especially if she softens as well.
Joanne and I misread or misinterpret one another but it is no big deal since we do not react by trying to go back and fix things, instead we just simply relax and keep moving. We have trained ourselves to observe the dance from the crow’s nest. There, we know in a split second when something is misaligned or out of time (the hum in the factory changes) then we simply relax into a mistake, and by keeping our foundation, we allow our torsos to twist or spin into a new direction and pick it all up again. Then we move as though it were the original intention. This is why it takes so many hours of practice to develop the body knowledge to make adjustments on the fly without losing composure.
This is where you decide how hard it is to learn tango. You chose how many hours you dance and how many hours you practice. After a certain amount of practice you are able to recognize errors and make repairs on the fly. You will rarely have a perfect dance even if you choreographed the dance, and since social tango is an improvised sport, even advanced dancers are dealing with mistakes or misinterpreted invitations quite frequently.
It is easy to move into a state of denial when mistakes happen, when the tanda finishes, one forgets all about the hundreds of unacknowledged mistakes that may have caused a bit of stress, even though they happened only a few moments ago. Our endocrine system is busily emitting hormones that make us feel good as we dance tango, so it is easy to dismiss moments in the dance that might have been very hard on the person in our arms, if we habitually do this it is hard to grow in our dance, because we have no base line to grow from.
When people watch tango, most watch the feet in tango, I watch the faces, and I notice a lot on the face of either partner. I frequently see on partner with a look of bliss – maybe the woman has her eyes closed looking so serene, while the man looks miserable and confused. Or I see the man going about his next sequence oblivious to the confused and frightened woman trying to find her way around him while maintaining some sense of grace and rhythm. But more times than not, I see to people totally focused on one another, as they negotiate and make sure the person in their arms is comfortable and having a good time. That is the attainable goal.
It is no sin to make mistakes in dancing tango. If we avoid denial, and we awaken our inner observer or manager, we can learn a lot from the errors and mishaps that inevitably happen while dancing. It takes a certain intimacy with mistakes to remedy them. We can even learn to turn these potential “clumsy moments” into a graceful decision of improvisation that makes learning tango one of the greatest challenges two humans can rise to together and accomplish.
It is common for one to think they dance well or are advanced in tango because they have danced for a large number of years, but too often, those they dance with know better, but since we are all supportive and loving, no one says anything to the person laboring under such a misperception of themselves. Hence the need for a really good coach. This false feedback is a reason for how hard it can be to learn tango, in other competitive sports one has the score or a bruise or some record of the mistakes or failing technique, in tango you will merely get a compliment unless you have a good coach.
Jo and I will never quit learning from the mistakes we make. And so long as we can move or think, we will keep studying and exploring different and inspiring styles in tango. After well over 10,000 hours of study, and that much teaching as well, there is still an entire universe of tango to explore and discover.
Personally my goal is to disallow a know-it-all attitude and stay in a beginner’s mind because that is where I learn, and I learn everyday. Each year I make personal notes to surmise what I learned about dancing and teaching in the previous year, and I think, “Wow, how can I possibly learn anymore?” Then the next year it happens again. I always sit in awe of not knowing what I will learn in the coming future. I love this dance and I will always study and explore the many opportunities and styles that inspire me. I fully understand that learning tango did not stop with my mastery, I continue to learn tango and will for the rest of my life.
We are always here to help and coach. What ever you do. I wish you many wonderful tandas, tandas that are truly appreciated by both you and your partner.
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