Thursday, October 02, 2014

No teaching on the dance floor

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Teaching on the dance floor is my Number One pet peeve, and I say this as a teacher, a milonga organizer and a dancer.

For everyone, leaders and followers alike, being taught or corrected by our dance partners always makes us feel bad in some way or other. First, it interrupts the flow of the conversation that is the dance, leaving little chance we will be left with that wonderful feeling we have after a particularly connected tanda. Second, it puts the “instructor” in a position of authority or superiority, deserved or not – let’s assume not. Consequently, the instructee will tend to feel inferior, so the idea of an equal partnership is destroyed. Third, the act of instructing our partners immediately assigns blame for any miscommunication, inviting feelings of defensiveness or inadequacy. These negative feelings may be fleeting, in the case of a dancer who has a certain amount of experience and self-confidence, but sometimes they can linger, putting a damper on the whole evening, or even the entire tango experience.

More understanding needed

As a teacher I disapprove of self-appointed dance-floor instructors for many reasons, not the least of which is that they undermine the work that real teachers do. We have training and experience and expertise (the good ones do, at least). We have a method we have spent years developing. We have technique as dancers and as teachers. And we understand both roles. Different teachers will have a different level of mastery of the “other” role, but any decent one will have developed at least a solid competency and, even more importantly, an understanding of both experiences. So we are able to see both sides of the situation and figure out a solution, ideally one that does not assign blame but that involves a tweak or improvement on both sides. Any experienced dancer may be able to see what the mistake itself is, but it is unlikely anyone but a teacher will be able to figure out the underlying reason for it.

Let’s say a couple is dancing and the follower loses her alignment and therefore her balance whenever she pivots a certain way. Her leader may notice her “mistake” – i.e. her lopsided posture at the moment of pivot – so he might tell her not to lean over or not to push on his hand. But that leader might not realize that he is in fact throwing her off balance by changing the position of his arm, abruptly changing her points of reference and making it difficult for her to stay straight. At the same time, a follower in this same situation might blame her leader for throwing off her pivots, while there are in fact many adjustments she herself can make – keeping both feet on the floor, pointing the toes slightly outward, not allowing the pelvis to swing forward – to stay straight and balanced regardless of her leader’s technique.

In our classes we actively discourage instruction and correction among dancers even during class time. It is the behaviour we receive the most complaints about, from singles who want to switch partners (or drop out altogether), and from couples whose uncomfortable conflicts on the floor might follow them home after class. (My teaching partner and I often feel that the work we do is in part couples therapy.)

Even teachers should refrain from doing their job on the milonga dance floor. The rules of etiquette apply to us, too. In fact, we should set the example. When we are dancing we are not teachers, we are dancers. We teach those who come to us for lessons, but just because we can teach doesn’t mean we should make it our mission to offer unsolicited advice to anyone who will listen, or to modify the style or technique of every dancer we touch. Anyway, we deserve to take off our teacher hats and just relax and enjoy the dance in our off hours!

Blocking the flow

As a milonga organizer I dislike those little dance-floor lessons because they block the flow of a milonga both on and off the floor. Tango is a social dance, which means we are not only dancing with our partners, we are also dancing with all the other couples on the floor. The best dance-floor flow happens when all the dancers are paying some attention to what's going on around them while trying to keep things moving in a forward direction. The couple who is standing on the spot teaching, discussing, trying to figure out a move is creating a bottleneck behind them and thus blocking the dance-floor flow.

So how does it break the flow off the floor? I can't count how many people have complained to me over the years about "teachy" partners and their condescending comments. I have seen people leave angry or on the verge of tears after a particularly unpleasant tanda because the flow or enjoyment of their evening was ruined by one insensitive partner. If one dancer has a negative experience at my milonga, the flow of the evening as a whole is affected in some way. Obviously the occasional bad experience is impossible to avoid, but there is one way every dancer can contribute positively: Don’t teach on the dance floor!

Negative feelings

As a dancer I despise being taught, corrected or commented on while I am dancing because it eliminates that state of abandon I so enjoy when there is a good connection. And then it brings up such unpleasant feelings as disappointment, self-doubt, defensiveness and resentment. Sarcastic responses play around in my head – but I’m polite and a professional so they don’t come out my mouth. I grin and bear the rest of the dance and do my best to avoid the dancer in future.

And I am lucky. I do most of my dancing at my very own milongas, so even the worst offenders don't try to teach me. But I do get the occasional condescending “muy bien” (which is well intentioned I’m sure, but feels like a pat on the head), and now and then if a tanguero tries to lead a particularly complex sequence of fancy moves and I miss something, he will try to explain what I “should have” done. Inside I am screaming: “Should have? Really? Well you should have led it properly if that’s what you wanted me to do. And by the way, try just walking a couple of steps now and then. Listen to the music and give the unending cycle of ganchos and volcadas a rest...” But outside I just smile and nod.

I was floored when a fellow teacher, a young and extremely talented tango dancer, told me that a dancer we know – one who has a reputation for rubbing people the wrong way with some of his judgemental and condescending remarks – informed her that she’s become a pretty good dancer and he would give her a 7. As in out of 10. As I said: floored.

The examples I have mentioned here are of bad leader behaviour, because I am a woman and most often a follower, so that is my experience. But women can be just as guilty of offering unwelcome advice on how to embrace, walk and lead. Men have plenty of stories to tell about women who offer such helpful little comments as, “It shows that you don’t really practice often.” Unbelievable!

About that self-doubt we feel when faced with situations like these: Next time you find yourself with a "teachy" dance partner, remember that dancers who regularly correct their partners are not among the most skilled on the floor. For leaders, it means they are attempting moves that either they or their partners are not ready for. For followers, it means their following skills are still underdeveloped. (Good followers can follow any lead, regardless of level.) Those who correct their partners do so because they don't know how to correct themselves.

Don't get me wrong, we all could improve our dancing, amateurs and professionals alike. (As a teacher I need to work harder than anyone on my technique so I can set the best example possible.) But there’s a time and a place to teach and be taught, and the milonga isn’t it.

As dancers it is not up to us to mold all our partners into the dancers we would like them to be. We shouldn’t try to adapt them to us; we should accept them as the dancers they are and adapt ourselves to them for the 12 minutes it takes. This, as always, applies to leaders and followers. If everyone tried to adapt themselves instead of each other, we would come much closer to finding that 50/50 balance that makes a dance feel just right.

Let’s try this: Instead of looking for what needs to be fixed in the dancers we dance with, let’s find something positive in each one. Maybe he has a perfect sense of rhythm or she conveys true passion. How about we all just relax and enjoy a little more, leave the lessons for the classes, keep our judgements (or scores!) to ourselves. And, as I tell my kids, if we can’t say anything nice, we’re better off saying nothing at all. (Well, we do have to say thank you.)


  1. Thanks for the in-depth article!

  2. Loved your article Andrea! I learned that etiquette at the very very beginning of my tango journey, back in Florida, and took for granted that everyone knew this as well. My reality is like yours. I have also been floored by teachy situations, from people of all levels, and too many who should know better. Thanks for spreading the word in such a clear and polite way ;-)

    1. My pleasure. :)
      This is, unfortunately, the topic I keep having to come back to, in my writing and in my classes...