In this blog I want to discuss an issue that has bothered me for some time, what is improvement? When teaching I have been asked several times what can people do to improve and normally I say “just dance”. However, when browsing the internet I have come across a lot of posts on improving your tango and they mainly stress that to achieve “perfect” technique is the ultimate goal. However, this seems odd as the people who attend the Urban Tango Nights’ classes want to have fun and just dance. In that mind there are several points I would like to discuss.
The first point I would like to make revolves around the idea of a “perfect walk”. I have heard several people say that you should walk for 6 months before you can even get into hold with a partner and attempt to dance, then it takes a lifetime to perfect the walk and a perfect walk is all important. I have several issues with this. The first is nobody has ever been able to show or tell me what the “perfect walk” is, and it seems the truth of the matter is that the walk changes depending on situation (i.e. partner, music, style, etc.) so there is no perfect walk. The second issue is that telling people to walk for 6 months will just put people off learning tango (it is odd teaching practice to put people off going to the class!). The third issue I have is that to try and create a perfect walk, the teacher makes the class walk in circles for 20 minutes. However, walking in circles by yourself for 20 minutes at the start of a class will just make you an expert of walking around in circles for 20 minutes by yourself but not a dancer. I found that as soon as you put a partner in front of someone, the walk that they have been perfecting is useless as their posture has changed, meaning their balance has altered, and their stride length has also changed. There are some advantages of practicing the walk by yourself as it gives you time to train certain aspects such as dragging the back foot or lifting the knee, but you have to know what you are aiming for and therefore it’s not a great exercise for beginners.
The second point I would like to make covers how people improve. I have taught a lot of people to dance over the past 5 years and I have made a lot of observations about how people learn. The first is obvious, that people learn at different rates, and the second that everyone plateaus at different times. Something that really annoys me in Tango is that dancers measure their ability by how long they have been dancing Tango or how many events they have been to. You quite often hear “I’ve been dancing for ten years so I’m experienced”. However, length of time dancing is a terrible measure unless you also talk about your learning curve. One person might get a level after 1 year then stay at that level for the next 5 years, another person might take 5 years to get to the same level, however both are at the same level. My point is that you may have been dancing for X amount of years and be dreadful and someone who has been dancing for a lot less time could be a lot better.
It brings me onto my final point: what actually is improvement in Tango? I find you tend to get better and more comfortable doing something with time doing that thing, therefore you are improving. However, I also think to improve you have to be challenged and learn something new. I’ve danced with quite a few people who would class themselves as experienced tango dancers but have never done fairly common moves, such as barridas, ganchos, colgadas, etc. I would argue that if you want to improve your tango learning the steps will give much greater returns over just trying to improve technique alone as technique will improve as you learn new steps as balance, posture etc has to adapt. So, as I see it, there are two options: either teach technique then moves will become easier. However you put a lot of people off learning, as they have come to learn to dance and therefore expect to learn moves to dance. Or a more sensible option, teach moves and watch the technique improve over time and keep those who are paying for the classes happy.
My final thoughts on this is: Why should your technique be perfect, unlike in Latin and Ballroom where you are judged and scored on your technique as part of exams and competition and perfect technique is actually defined, Tango is social in nature so therefore having fun and musical interpretation is all important not technique, of course, good technique will allow you to do things more easily but this suggests you find a technique that works for you and not a generic perfect technique of one size fits all.