|Solo practice is one of the best ways |
to improve your dancing.
Since I'm a teacher, I'm pretty much always reminding people to practise, but the word "practice" has underlying, deeply beneficial meanings.
As we head into Year 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic, with dance, especially social dance, being shut down to varying degrees for most of it, many people have repeatedly lamented the "death" of tango. In Montreal, indoor milongas finally reopened this past November – only to be shut down again a month later. So these days if we want to keep dancing, all we can do is practise. Then again, all dancing is, in fact, practice, isn't it?
While it's true that many social dancing events have been cancelled over the past two years, some people have found ways to continue to dance throughout the repeated and seemingly never-ending shutdowns and reopenings, following online classes with or without a partner, taking private lessons when possible and working on their own at home.
In addition to tango, I also teach yoga. I give classes, but I also take weekly classes and have a regular personal practice as well. Because yoga is a practice. That's what yogis say: We don't do yoga; we practise yoga. Unlike tango, yoga isn't primarily a social activity, so the goal of practising isn't something "other," such as going to milongas and getting to dance with our partners of choice. The goal of a yoga practice is, well, the practice itself. In addition to the ongoing improvement of that practice and the benefits it will in turn bring into our bodies and lives, such as stronger legs, better posture and perhaps a calmer mind. Hmmm. We can reap similar benefits from practising our dancing as well.
I often wish tango were seen in a similar way. Most social dancers stop taking regular classes very early, often after a year or two. The vast majority of tango dancers take a few sessions of regular lessons and then soon look down their noses at the offers of their local studios, opting to stop taking classes altogether or to only take lessons given at festivals by visiting maestros.
In group classes, most people just want to move up, up, up, rather than learning simply in order to learn. I say most people, because there are, of course, exceptions. There are those who take regular privates for years and those who actually prefer prácticas over milongas. While a system of group classes by level has proved to be the most marketable, offering students a sense of progression and accomplishment, it has the unfortunate effect of encouraging students to rush from one level to the next and to feel discouraged if the teachers suggest they repeat a course. I fondly remember one student who was only free one night a week, I think it was Tuesdays, so for years he just signed up for whatever classes we offered on Tuesday nights. It didn't matter if it was milonga, vals, an advanced course on sacadas or boleos, or Tango 1, 2 or 3; he was always there and he was always learning something.
A lot of satisfaction can be found in just making an effort. This is as true in tango as anywhere else. Positive side-effects will abound, from becoming an increasingly sought-after tango partner, to improving brain function (as more and more studies show), to maintaining good posture throughout our lifetimes.
The Oxford entry for the word "practice" includes two definitions, underlining the idea that we can practise in order to achieve a goal or simply for the benefits of the practice itself:
1. perform (an activity) … repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one's proficiency.
2. carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly.
So it's clearly important to practise, but if we truly want to improve it's just as necessary to practise well. We all know the expression "practice makes perfect," but some have argued that a better saying is "practice makes permanent." This implies two things: that practising regularly will have long-term effects, but also that practising something in the wrong way will only serve to further ingrain bad habits.
We see this – and teachers lament it – all the time on the dance floor: dancers with poor technique who have been dancing in the milongas for a decade or more with little to no improvement. I see it with posture as well. Poor posture develops over a lifetime. If you sit, slouch, hunch for eight hours a day or more for 30 years, your body will gradually adopt a rounded, hunched form. If you take up something like tango and wish to improve your posture (and therefore your elegance and balance) while you dance, you will need to spend a fair amount of time practising new postural habits – on and off the dance floor. I can't tell you how often I make a remark to someone about lifting their head or chest and am met with dismissive responses like, "That's just the way I'm made." Of course I can't force someone to work on something they're not interested in working on, but I must admit that kind of remark drives me crazy. If years of daily slouching can round your back, a sustained daily practice of standing tall can certainly straighten it, at least somewhat. This would not only improve your tango dancing, but also your back strength, your breathing and your confidence.
This is not to say you can learn nothing by dancing in the milongas. Valuable skills you will hone on a crowded dance floor include floorcraft abilities like navigating and reacting on the fly, adaptability to different partners and overall improvisational prowess. Not to mention such social skills as the use of the mirada-cabeceo system and how to gracefully deal with rejection. And you can't (or at least shouldn't) get or give feedback on your dancing in a milonga the way you would in a lesson or even a serious practice session with your partner. If your technique is already great, you might reinforce it through social dancing, but if it's not, you will likely find yourself solidifying your bad habits even further.
Many tango dancers abhor the idea of solo practice, believing it to be useless – since tango is supposed to be danced with a partner – or just plain boring. One of the courses my partner and I have taught the most during the pandemic is called Tango Drills. In it, we do a few technical exercises and then teach short sequences set to music, which we repeat and combine and repeat and combine. It's a great course for COVID times, because you don't need a partner for it and it works just as well online as in person. In the summer we taught it a few times in the park and posted a video of the class online. One commentator remarked: "That's not tango, it's line-dancing." Oh, how I love it when people spout their closed-minded opinions about what tango "is" and "isn't." But that's beside the point. Which is that solo practice is one of the best ways to improve your dancing. If you can execute giros and ochos alone with great balance, style and musicality, you will not be a heavy burden on your partner because you are hanging on to them for dear life, rushing from one step to the next to avoid losing your balance or relying solely on their ability to keep time with the music. Everyone who has taken our drills classes over the past couple of years agrees: Their dancing has improved.
Often, a little practice goes a long way. When I am teaching someone and I notice a jump in skill between lessons I will ask, "Have you been practising?" Their answer, almost inevitably, will be, "Yes." Even if that means they only practised for 20 minutes one time between lessons, it always shows.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are the students who walk away or sit out any time we teach a solo exercise or drill during a class. I remember one particular student who just stood there watching as the rest of the group was repeating their back crosses. We encouraged him to participate, but he refused, saying, "Oh, I've already learned that." He just couldn't see the importance of repeating a thing in order to do it well. If he had tried it once and understood it, in his book that was enough and it was time to move on to something else.
These past two years with all their turmoil and unpredictability have been a time to practise many things: patience, acceptance, letting go, gratitude. Sometimes it's not easy. We've had to be patient through lockdown after lockdown and accepting of so much, from constant new normals to the wildly differing politics and beliefs of our family members, friends and acquaintances. In recent weeks, the COVID numbers here have skyrocketed, and when my dance school was shut down once again and then several family members caught the virus (including myself and despite being cautious and fully vaccinated), shutting down our Christmas plans, it was easy to feel like a victim and complain, "Why me? Why us?" But then I had my daily yoga practice, which always includes a reminder to practise gratitude, and I thought of the many things I have to be grateful for: my family, a warm home, food on the table, a healthy body that is able to fight illness, and access to vaccines that help it do so. In practising gratitude, It doesn't take long to actually feel and become grateful.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded, non-judgemental person. But everyone is judgemental, at least sometimes – even me! So what can I do about that? It's hard to change our reflexes or automated responses, and now and then I might see someone who is dressed "funny" or "wrong" and I might think, "Ew, what are they wearing?" But then I consciously remind myself not to judge people, training myself to practise being non-judgemental, even when my first reflex was a judgemental thought.
The same applies in tango. If, for example, you have a habit of lifting and tensing your shoulders when you dance, becoming aware of the tendency is a first step. You might need several reminders from a teacher as well as some practical techniques for relaxing your shoulders and placing them properly. Then you need to practise. Your shoulders will still lift and tense, but you will notice and you will correct, over and over again until you finally change your body's reflexes and holding your shoulders down becomes the new normal. This can take a long time and a lot of repetition, but eventually the work will become much less conscious until one day it becomes effortless.
Just about everything we repeat in our daily lives could be viewed as a practice, whether intentional or not. When it comes to things you would like to improve on, be it your dancing or your attitude, why not make it a conscious practice? The benefits are sure to be many and far-reaching.