Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Troublesome terminology

Tango has a vocabulary all its own. There are many extensive lists of tango terminology out there, and this is not meant to be one of them. This is a short list meant to clear up the meanings of a few of the most misunderstood terms in tango.

Argentine tango: It evolves on dance floors every day while remaining connected to its organic roots.

Argentine tango. Why do we specify "Argentine" tango and what other kinds of tango are there?

Tango originated in Rio de la Plata, the port cities of Argentina (Buenos Aires) and Uruguay (Montevideo), around the turn of the 20th century. From there tango grew and evolved and spread across the globe. Early on, it was picked up by the ballroom dancing communities in the U.S. and the U.K. who transformed the dance drastically, into something much more stylized, showy and regulated for competition. Ballroom tango uses different music, a very different embrace and posture, even different shoes and clothes.

To anyone who dances Argentine tango, what we dance is tango, just tango and the real tango. To us, the "tango" of ballroom dancing is really not tango at all, and we specify Argentine tango to differentiate what we do from both the Hollywood-created, rose-in-the-mouth caricature of tango many people envision and the exaggeratedly stylized tango of ballroom dancing, which is so far removed from its Argentine roots the two have nothing left in common but the name.

Somewhat ironically, Argentine tango has both evolved more and remained closer to its origins. In the 1920s the British and the Americans made major changes to tango to integrate it into their collection of competitive dances, but that tango has not evolved much since then, because it must follow a strict set of competition-friendly rules. Meanwhile, because Argentine tango is an improvised dance it evolves and grows every day on dance floors around the world, developing new moves and techniques and even branching into styles with different names (salon, milonguero, nuevo etc.) that all remain connected to the dance's organic roots and therefore remain Argentine tango.

I have to add that I cringe a little every time a student with a ballroom background tries to make comparisons between the two, and refers to ballroom tango as "regular" tango. To me, our tango is "regular" tango and that ballroom dance is something else entirely.

"Milonga" has two meanings. It is a place where tango is danced
but it is also a musical style and the dance that goes with it.

Milonga. It seems to refer to a bunch of different things. Is it a different kind of music? A different
dance? Or is it a type of event?

It is all of the above. Because the term "milonga" has a double meaning, it is initially a little confusing.

First, milonga is one of the trinity of musical genres that make up Argentine tango: tango, milonga and vals (waltz). Each musical style has a dancing style to go with it, but the basic elements for each dance are the same. The embrace, connection and technique do not change from one dance to another, but the musicality and feel of steps and movements will be different, and to some extent the choice of moves and sequences used will change.

Milonga music is in 2/4 time, while tango music can be in 2/4 or 4/4 and vals is in 3/4. Milonga has a very rhythmic, strongly accented beat, often contains an underlying "habanera" rhythm and is generally faster and more joyful than tango music.

Dancers avoid pausing, mostly stay in parallel system (see the cross vs. cross system below) and often use double-time steps, referred to as milonga "traspie." Milonga dancing uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than many of those used in tango.

Second, milonga is the name given to any venue or event where people dance tango.

So you get all dressed up to go dancing at a milonga, where you will listen to and probably dance milonga as well as tango and vals.

The cross vs. cross system. Are they the same thing?

No, they are not.

"The cross" simply refers to the basic crossed position used most often by the follower, in which the left leg crosses in front of the right.

"Cross system" refers to the walking relationship between the two partners. When the leader walks in line with his partner, we call it "parallel system" – basically just the normal walking system with the partners walking in step with each other, but on opposite legs: leader's left to follower's right or vice-versa. In parallel system, each partner is the mirror image of the other. When one partner changes weight, it is called cross system. In cross system, the two partners are in fact stepping with the same leg – left to left or right to right. Ochos most often take place in cross system.

Leader and follower. So, the man leads and the woman follows. Pretty clear, right?

The words "leader" and "follower" may be politically correct, 
but they don't really describe what the roles are all about.
Of course, it is not that clear at all. There are two roles in a tango couple, one for each partner. In English we call them leader, for the role traditionally held by the man, and follower, traditionally the woman. Today we find non-traditional couples on most dance floors, so it is common to find women leading women, men leading men and women leading men. In the interest of inclusiveness and political correctness, in many communities there has been a push to stop using the terms "man" and "woman" altogether within the context of tango dancing roles and to always use the gender-neutral "leader" and "follower." In terms of acknowledging, accepting and encouraging role changes and freedom of choice, I fully understand this movement.

The problem is, "leader" and "follower" are pretty faulty descriptions of what the two roles are all about. They make it sound like the leader is the dominant partner and the follower is passive, even submissive. The terms are limiting and really do not describe what truly happens between the two partners. The much more complex process goes something like this: the "leader" invites the "follower" to execute a movement; the "follower" executes the movement he or she felt and the "leader" follows his or her partner through the completion of that movement – whether or not it was the movement he or she intended. And, of course, the true leader through all of this is the music.

It is a beautiful process when both partners are actively listening and actively dancing, allowing room for error, change, creativity and expression on both sides. It is a less beautiful process when the leader is overly controlling and gets impatient when his partner misinterprets his intention, and when the follower just rushes from step to step, constantly worried about whether she "got it right." Unfortunately, this is the image conveyed by the words "leader" and "follower" – and the attitude of many dancers.

Interestingly, the terms "leader" and "follower" are not really used in Spanish. When referring to the partners, most of the time Spanish-speaking teachers stick to "hombre" (man) and "mujer" (woman), which, while not gender-neutral, don't restrict the partners to one active and one passive role. When referring to the action of the man or leader they say "marcar," which means to mark or indicate, not lead. The woman or follower "acompaña" (accompanies) or "se deja llevar" (lets herself be led), which implies that it is her choice and has a less passive implication.

Words are often more limiting than what they aim to describe and this is true of all the words we have come up with to describe the tango roles. "Man" and "woman" limit the roles to specific genders while "leader" and "follower" limit the roles to specific attitudes. Neither really describes the circularity of the relationship and how both partners must listen to each other, take initiative, complete each other's actions and, ultimately, dance as one.

In any case it is generally accepted, and in my opinion absolutely true, that whatever their traditional or preferred role, the best dancers are those who know how to dance both. They are the ones who both lead and follow, express and listen, give and take – and therefore connect more completely to their partner.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Your impossible questions -- and my answers!

A few questions come up repeatedly that either stump me, frustrate me or make me laugh every time. But if they keep coming up, that means people want answers to them. So here are your top five crazy questions, along with my best shot at the answers.

1. Can you find me a good partner?

Sorry everyone, but my answer to this one is, "No!"

I can find you a partner, and in group classes we go above and beyond to make sure the number of leaders and followers is balanced. But to those who want to sign up alone for a course, but come with a list of partner prerequisites, I say, "Can you find you a good partner?"

First of all, most people who are consistently unsatisfied with the level of their partners aren't half as good as they think they are. (For more on this topic see "So you think you're too advanced for the room.")

Second of all, quite frankly, beggars can't be choosers. Schools and teachers separate classes by level to try to group together students with similar experience, but everyone is different and not everyone is compatible. Expecting a body to dance with if that has been promised is normal and acceptable; expecting a partner of superior skill, suitable height, preferred gender and shining personality is unrealistic, unless you can come up with that person yourself.

Finally, if you never have a partner to take classes with, take a hard look at yourself. Maybe you have an inflated sense of your own skill level and should lower your expectations in a partner. Or maybe you're not as great a partner as you think you are.

Those who never have trouble finding partners generally have a few qualities in common: they work hard on their own dancing; they avoid partner-blaming; they are easy-going; they are not overly picky about who they get partnered with; they have good hygiene. Possessing these qualities will make you a pleasure to dance with, and if you are a pleasure to dance with, you will most likely have no trouble finding yourself a good partner

2. What is the point of that figure?

I have to answer this question with another question: What is the point of any figure?

This question generally first comes up in classes when we teach people their first basic sequence using cross system. We show this sequence that is similar to, yet different from, another sequence we have previously taught, and one student inevitably asks, "What's the point?"

The first time someone asked this question I was totally thrown and a little stumped. I muddled my way through an answer about variety being the spice of life and thought what a strange question... but since then I have been asked this same question many, many times.

So my much more well-thought-out answer is this: There is really no "point" to any figure. But if you need a point, here are three that apply to all figures, sequences or moves:

I. It is another way to move with your partner and do something fun with your feet.

II. The more variations you have in your dancing, no matter how subtle (subtle variations are often the best), the more interesting your dancing will be.

III. In an improvised dance like tango, it's all about finding solutions to the current situation. So the more possibilities you have in your repertoire, the better you will be at responding to your partner and resolving whatever comes up.

3. Would this course be a waste of my time?

I, personally, adore this question the most. Because, you know, when I or my teachers come up with a topic and material for a new course, we normally do so with the express purpose of wasting our students' time!

As with question No. 1, this one tends to get asked by students with an over-inflated view of their own skills.

As long as the teachers are qualified, there is no course that could be a total waste of time for anyone. Time and again when we invite intermediate or advanced-level students to help out by partnering someone in a beginner class, they tell us how amazed they are at how much they got out of the course the second (or third) time around.

I have been dancing tango for 18 years and have been teaching for well over a decade, but I still make sure to take a few classes every year, and I am sure that if I took any beginner or intermediate-level course at any reputable local studio I would come out of it having picked up something worth learning. As with anything, you get out what you put in and can never spend too much time on your fundamentals. So if you are willing to work on the details of your dancing and are not simply interested in acquiring a huge vocabulary of fancy moves, you cannot waste your time, even in the most basic of classes.

I often wish people would view the practice of tango like the practice of yoga. In yoga, you take classes not to advance through a series of levels as quickly as possible, but to improve yourself through steady work and repetition. The teachers lead you through exercises and movements, some of which become familiar and much easier with time, some of which remain challenging for a long time and some of which may be brand-new.

So, no, this course would not be a waste of your time. And the next time you think of asking this question, at least find a more diplomatic way to word it, because, frankly, as questions go, it's a little insulting to your teachers.

4. Are the teachers from Argentina?

This question may not seem that crazy to you, but when someone comes in off the street for lessons and doesn't know the first thing about this dance and asks me (because I am not Argentinian) if there are any actual Argentinians who teach in my school – usually with a condescending, head-to-toe look at my fair, northern complexion – I have to remind myself not to get sarcastic or defensive.

Tango, in fact, was born in Argentina and Uruguay, and from there it spread through the world, just as jazz was born in New Orleans and spread through the world. And just as you don't have to be from New Orleans to be a world-class jazz musician, you don't have to be from Argentina to be a world-class tango dancer (or teacher). Of course many of the world's top dancers are Argentinian, but you don't automatically know how to dance tango just because you come from Argentina.

A little explanation of the term Argentine tango may be helpful. We specify Argentine tango not because it must be danced by Argentinians but rather to differentiate it from the stereotypical Hollywood-created, rose-in-the-mouth caricature of tango many people envision and from the "tango" of ballroom dancing, which is so far removed from its Argentine roots the two have nothing left in common but the name.

So if you are looking to take Argentine tango lessons in your local studio, and that local studio is not in Argentina, do not expect an Argentinian teacher. You may well get one, but whether you do or you don't, what you should expect is instructors who have studied and mastered their art and are good at teaching, whatever their ethnic origins.

5. How long does it take to learn tango?

The only true answer to this question is: "It depends." It depends on how good you want to get, how much natural ability you have and how hard you are willing to work. It also depends on your definition of "learning tango."

If you want to be able to walk the floor with a partner, you may get there, to some extent, in one day. If you want to become the best social dancer you can be, or go beyond that and either teach or perform professionally, you have years of work ahead of you, and will need to continue working on your self-improvement forever.

Whatever your ultimate goals, you might feel you've "got it" after some amount of time between one year and five years, but then you will again have days, weeks, months when you feel like you really don't know anything after all and should either give it up or work much harder. This is all a normal part of the learning process.

A tanguera who has been dancing as a follower for several years but just recently started learning to lead said to me in a recent conversation that as a leader she is not "there yet." I was quick to tell her that as dancers we, in fact, are never "there." This was not meant as discouraging in any way, and she totally got that. On the contrary, it's a plus. One of the things that attracted me to tango from the start is I knew I would never get bored because there would always be new things to learn and new ways in which to improve myself. After all, just like life, tango is about the journey, not the destination.

Along the way, just be sure to pay attention to the "aha" moments. They are so rewarding, and while they might not mean you are "there," they mean you got somewhere and are therefore well on your way.

In the end, I guess it takes as long as it takes, somewhere between one day and forever.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shut up and dance

Lire en français

I've said it before and I say it again: No teaching on the dance floor.
I feel very strongly about this, as anyone who knows me or has read my blog post on the subject knows. People go to a milonga to dance and enjoy themselves. The best tangos are those during which you get into that zone, that total live-in-the-present, abandon-all-thought meditative state of being. Which is impossible to reach if your partner is constantly telling you what to do -- which nobody likes, so why do people insist on doing it?
Tonight, I witnessed some teachy behaviour that was truly above and beyond, and I decided to finally do the ladies a favour and step in. But I guess no good deed goes unpunished, and things got a little ugly.
We were at an outdoor milonga that my school organizes, and a dancer who is notorious for both his lack of dance skills and his constant teaching on the dance floor (funny how those two things so often go hand in hand) was doing what he does best, over and over again.

Painful to watch

I first saw him dancing with a beginner student of mine whom I quite like and who works hard and follows well, and I cringed to see him literally giving non-stop instruction to her for the whole tanda. Later he invited someone else, who is gradually easing herself back into tango after an injury, and he literally stood there giving her advice and instruction for a good five minutes BEFORE EVEN STARTING TO DANCE. It was painful to watch -- so much so that another woman was frantically motioning to this woman not to dance with him -- and in the end she didn't, lucky for her.
A couple of tandas later I was on the dance floor and I saw a woman walking away from him and he was angrily yelling after her something like: "Well, fine, if you don't want to learn, go sit down!"
She did just that, but the situation just did me in.
I -- known for being too nice, too soft, too gentle if anything -- decided it was finally time to put my foot down and have a talk with this man who makes me and so many others cringe every time he enters a milonga.
So I waited till he was alone, went over, smiled, said hello and pulled him discreetly aside where no one would hear our conversation. As gently, as diplomatically as possible, I told him that while he is free to do what he wants, I had received several comments about him teaching his partners, and that since women don't enjoy being instructed throughout a dance, maybe he could try dancing a little more and teaching a little less.
His response was: "If women don't want to dance with me, they don't have to," and then he continued with the priceless comment: "If they don't want to learn, they don't have to dance with me."
To which I responded, "But you're not a teacher."
To which he replied, "I don't have to be a teacher to teach."
Well OK, then. I told him I disagreed, but that that was probably a conversation for another time. Then I said that I, for example, being a teacher, could teach him while dancing, but that I wouldn't because it is not done.

From bad to worse

And at that he pretty much flipped. He said that HE could certainly teach ME a thing or two, and continued to inform me that I am nil at dancing ("nul" in French, the language in which this all occurred), that I am a terrible leader and a terrible dancer, that I don't follow the music and so on. Realizing that this conversation was going from bad to worse I just said "OK," and walked away.
Of course, as he is a person who always has much to say, he followed me and continued his rant, to which I replied, "I didn't insult you and you didn't need to insult me. The conversation ends here."
That good samaritan who had given the warning gestures not to dance with him was nearby, got involved and got herself insulted also, though not quite as thoroughly as me.
I really didn't want to say anything else -- after all, it takes two to tango and there were much better tangos out there than this ridiculous dance -- but when he told me that he was just telling me what he had thought of me for many years I couldn't resist. I said, "Yeah, well, I won't tell you all the things I've thought of you over the years."
On that note he finally left, but not without accosting some poor woman who was just arriving to tell her that I had told him not to give "feedback" to his dance partners so he told me how I am just the worst... and then he told her that he doesn't dance with her because they have no chemistry! Lucky for her, but in that moment I think she really didn't know what had hit her.
Of course this man will no longer be welcome at my milongas, and my milongas will be better for it.
But his was just an extreme example of all too common behaviour. And just as it is ironic how the teachiest dancers are often the worst, those who are ready to dish out unsolicited advice are often the least capable of accepting any advice themselves.

You are not the exception

This one moment was a situation that blew way out of proportion in an instant, but I use it as another opportunity to plead with all the dancers out there: Please, please, please do not teach your partners!
There are people who will read this and think they are the exception. That they have truly valuable things to teach those poor little beginners because blah blah blah. But if that is what you are thinking, I am telling you that you are NOT the exception. And neither am I. I am a teacher, but I do not teach during milongas because that is not what milongas are for! And regardless of how much dance experience you have, you are not there to fix your partners or to be fixed yourselves. If people want fixing they will take classes and they will get advice and instruction from real teachers with the skill and experience to back up what they say -- in an appropriate setting.  Just because you have more experience than someone else doesn't make you a better dancer, and it certainly doesn't qualify you to teach. In fact, if you are the one with more experience, you should be the one who is capable of adapting to your partner's skill level.
For the peace and pleasure of all involved, the next time a dance is not going as you had hoped, slow down and see if there is anything YOU could do to make things easier for your partner.
And then just keep quiet, enjoy the moment and dance.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Classes vs. milongas vs. prácticas

Milongas are there for dancing and enjoyment, not for practising that brand-new figure you have not yet mastered.

Lire en français

Group classes, private lessons, prácticas and milongas. There are several paths you can take along the road to mastering tango. All of them offer learning experiences, and ideally you will venture along each one at some point during your journey. Here is a breakdown of the usefulness, pros and cons of each, to give you a better idea of what you can expect to get out of them.

Group classes

Group classes are classes taught to a group of students at a time. The vast majority of tango students start out with group classes, and it's a good place to start.
Argentine tango is primarily a social dance, so it makes sense to learn it in a social setting.
People who learn at an average pace, that is neither significantly faster nor slower than the rest of the group, generally do well in these classes.
Within the category of group classes, there are several options. Here they are broken into several sub-categories:

Regular courses at a local studio

Local studios generally offer a progression of levels organized in sessions that take place over a number of weeks. Movements and sequences are taught, starting with the basics, and technical aspects such as walking technique, posture and musicality are covered in a general way.
Any local studio that has stood the test of time probably offers quality courses. Tango schools are not in it for the big bucks (believe me!), so your teachers are most likely passionate about tango as well as about teaching. If they're around for more than a couple of years, it's because they love what they do and know what they're doing.
Tango studios generally direct students into courses of different levels that might be named "Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced...," "Tango 1, 2, 3, 4..." or something similar. The levels system is widely used because, overall, it works pretty well and gives most people the basic skill sets they need to get out there and start dancing tango.
But it is not a perfect system. It inevitably lumps together people of varying skill levels and while some students pass every level with flying colours, others just squeak by. As is the case with any subject taught in a group setting, the teachers teach primarily to the middle students, who therefore get the most out of the courses. Those who struggle to keep up or who catch on more quickly than average can get lost in the shuffle in a group setting.
The levels system can make people feel that they have failed, for example, if the teacher suggests they re-take a given course before moving on. This is unfortunate, because tango is not about pass or fail, it is just about learning; so why move on if you haven't yet mastered what you're already working on?
The levels system can also make people feel they are more accomplished than they really are, in the case of the student who has squeaked through 5 levels and thinks he or she has little left to learn. In tango, finishing your basic levels is the beginning of the learning process, not the end.
For those who really are ahead of the crowd, they may get ignored in big groups if there are many other students who need and request more help. Some students also may feel bored if they, for example, learn and remember sequences really easily. Remember, though, that you can work really hard even on the simplest material if you focus on technique and musicality. You can also ask the teachers specific questions about your technique, making sure they don't forget to correct you. As in every domain, you get out what you put in.
Do try not to overestimate your own level when choosing a course. Unless you are exceptionally gifted -- and not many of us are -- you are generally better off taking a course that is slightly below your level than slightly above. If you can easily master the steps being taught, you will be able to focus more of your energy on improving your technique. Also, taking courses that are beyond your level may feel fun to you, but it's less fun for the other participants in the group when they have to partner with you or when the teachers slow things down so that you can keep up.
Pros: A fun, affordable way to learn the necessary moves and techniques. People who learn at an average pace do well in group courses.
Cons: In big groups, there can be little individual attention. Some students may feel lost in group settings. If you sign up alone, you have little control over who you will be partnered with.

Open or drop-in classes

Drop-in classes are an accessible way to pick up a new step or two when you feel your repertoire is getting old.
They tend to be less expensive than specialized workshops or classes offered in a progressive session, and when they are offered before a milonga or práctica, as is often the case, the cost of the event is sometimes included. So they are affordable, and can be a good way to meet people and make some connections before the milonga begins.
Pros: A very affordable option. A good way to meet people. Learn something new without the commitment of signing up for a session of classes.
Cons: There is no guarantee of landing a compatible partner, or any partner at all, so it may be a better option if you take the class with a partner. The skill level of the participants can vary widely. These classes tend to be about steps rather than technique, so while they will give you some new material, they will probably do little to improve your overall dancing.

Technique workshops

Take them. Women's technique, couples' technique, men's technique, ocho technique, walking technique... just take them!
Do not be allergic to the word "technique." 
Working on yourself is essential. If you can't execute a movement on your own, you will be a burden on your partner. And good technique is what will ultimately free you to dance with ease, fluidity and ultimate enjoyment. In addition, there is a lot of satisfaction to be had from improving yourself. If you are bored by the mere thought of practising your walk or your pivots on your own, it's not a good sign in terms of your attitude toward self-improvement.
Pros: Less expensive than private instruction, with similar benefits.
Cons: None!

Workshops by visiting maestros

Whether in a festival setting or as a special activity offered by your local studio, workshops by visiting maestros are a popular activity, and often with good reason. Tango stars got to where they are for a reason. They usually have impressive skill as dancers and often charisma to match.
However, their teaching level can be uneven. Some visiting maestros are excellent teachers and every minute with them is of great value, but some are performers at heart who only teach to pay the bills. Visiting teachers can be generous and attentive, or arrogant and uninterested in any but the most advanced students in the class.
One of the fun things about festival-type classes is that people travel to attend them, so when you go to these classes you often meet lots of new dancers from other places.
In any case, don't underestimate your local teachers. While they may not have the international reputation of the festival-circuit travellers, they probably have at least as much teaching experience -- often more -- and they can give you a continuity the visiting instructors can't.
Pros: Meet the stars! Hang out with dancers from outside your local community. Learn the new and up-and-coming techniques. Get a new perspective on your dancing. A good option for advanced dancers who won't be confused by a different technique or explanation.
Cons: Can be expensive. Lack of follow-up. Sometimes new and differently worded corrections and explanations can be confusing to beginner-intermediate students.

Private lessons

Many dancers never take even one, but private lessons are a must if you want to truly improve your dancing.
Only in a private lesson will you get an in-depth assessment, and thus a true awareness, of your strengths and weaknesses.
In a group class with 10, 20 or 30 other students around you, you might get five minutes of one-on-one with the teacher. He or she will probably give you some tips, such as reminding you once or twice to drop your shoulders or slide your feet, but only with the undivided attention you get in a private lesson will you get the constant coaching you need to a) realize what habits you really need to work to change and b) learn how to change those habits.
Students who struggle with the course material no matter how hard they try or who feel that they are always falling behind the rest of the group are also good candidates for privates, either in place of or in addition to group lessons.
Private lessons are also the best option for students who move or want to move at a different pace from the group average. Those who learn faster or would like to, as well as those who get frustrated or impatient dancing with students of their own level, will get more satisfaction out of one-on-one instruction with a teacher.
Privates can be taken individually or as a couple. I suggest taking lessons as a couple only if you are or plan to be regular partners. A good part of a couple's lesson is spent teaching you to dance and communicate with one specific person, so if what you really want is to improve your own individual dancing, take some lessons alone.
Even students who enjoy and thrive in group classes should consider treating themselves to the occasional private lesson. Everyone has at least a few bad habits, and it's good to be reminded of them, and how to change them, every once in a while.
In any case, leave your ego at the door if you're signing up for private lessons. Try not to get defensive or impatient when faced with your instructor's corrections. You will get the most out of your lesson if you are as open to learning as possible. That's what you are there for!
Privates are more expensive than group lessons, but you really do get way more bang for your buck. Just make sure you are taking the lessons with a qualified, experienced teacher who has a style and technique you appreciate.
Pros: Undivided attention from your teacher. Learn at your own pace. Dance with a pro!
Cons: More expensive than group lessons. (But worth it!) If you only dance in private lessons, you only dance with one partner, which won't necessarily improve your adaptability to different types and levels of partners.


Práctica means practice in Spanish. There are different types of prácticas: guided, supervised and open.
The types refer to the amount of teacher involvement in the practice session.
A guided practice means there is some type of instruction. The teacher may show a step or technique to work on, or suggest some type of exercise to work on partnering or musicality, for example.
A supervised practice means there are teachers on hand and available to answer questions and to help you out.
An open practice, or just a practice, means you have a laid-back setting where you can practice and work with your partners, but there is little to no teacher supervision or involvement.
Prácticas are wonderful, and seriously under-appreciated. Many dancers stop attending prácticas once they feel ready to dance in the milongas, but this is a mistake. Just as no one is ever above taking classes, no one is ever too advanced to practise.
Among other advantages, the práctica is the cheapest activity going, therefore an accessible way to practise, socialize and get some teacher help if you want it.
Unlike in the more formal milonga setting (see below), in the práctica it is acceptable to talk with your partner and to try out new steps you may not have fully mastered yet.
However, I have two important points to note: 
First, even during prácticas you should still follow your line of dance and respect the other dancers on the floor. After all, floorcraft is among the hardest things to master for leaders, so it needs to be to practised at least as much as everything else.
Second, talking allowed does not mean free license to correct everyone you dance with. Just because your partner may have less experience than you does not make you qualified to teach him or her. Always dance to the level of your partner and leave the teaching to the real teachers. 
Pros: Inexpensive. Laid-back atmosphere with some talking on the dance floor allowed. Teacher help often available.
Cons: None, really, except that the level of dancers can be relatively low if the more experienced dancers consider themselves too advanced to attend.


A milonga is a place or event where we dance tango purely for enjoyment. It is the tango night life.
Dancing in the milongas is the ultimate goal for most amateur tango dancers. It is the fun part. This is where you can meet up with friends, have a drink and dance the night (or the afternoon) away, either with your significant other or, more often, a variety of dancers.
In a milonga you learn to adapt to different partners and different music, and you get to practise your floorcraft and navigation skills.
There is no instruction whatsoever during a milonga, and it is bad form to teach or correct your partner, or even to comment on his or her dancing, other than in a positive way.
There are codes to be followed in the milonga, the most important to do with respecting the other dancers.
With this in mind, the milonga is not the place to try out the complex move you learned in class or saw on YouTube yesterday. Leaders should stay within their comfort zone of repertoire, executing moves they do well and feel their partner will be able to follow with ease.
Just remember, if dancing with increasingly advanced dancers is on your list, you will need to do other things outside the milonga to improve your dancing.
The danger of only practising your dancing in the milongas is you will reinforce all those little bad habits we all have.
It is worth noting that, while success in the milongas is the objective for most of us, it is not the case for everyone.
I have taught some students who took many classes, both group and private, for years, and never or almost never came to milongas.
On a personal level, I don't really understand this because for me the goal of learning tango or any other social dance was to be able to dance it socially. But not everyone has the same goals. And classes are not always a means to another end. For some, the classes themselves are the end. The fun is in the learning and the lesson itself is the fun activity.
Recently I was explaining to a private student how to dance smaller in order to take less space on a crowded dance floor and he replied, "Why would anyone want to dance on a crowded dance floor?"
Seems strange to those of us who live for the milongas, but while tango holds lots of appeal for students like him, milongas just don't.
Personally, I think a balance between the two is ideal: Take pleasure in dancing the night away at the milongas, but also in working hard, learning and improving your technique.
Pros: A fun, social activity. Practise and improve your floorcraft and navigation skills. Learn adaptability.
Cons: Not the place to practise your new moves. You don't -- and shouldn't -- receive critical feedback on your dancing, so if you have bad habits -- and we all do -- dancing in the milongas will only solidify them if you don't supplement with some type of classes.

If you really want to grow as a dancer you should use all the options. You don't have to do it all every week, but if you really want to work on your tango dancing you should do a bit of everything with some regularity.
If you are satisfied with your level of dance overall but would like some reminders of what to work on or to boost the ease with which you move or the number of advanced dancers who will dance with you, just be sure to incorporate a little of everything in a given year.
As a minimum, I suggest:
-Dancing at least twice a week.
-Doing more than one type of tango activity (classes, practices, milongas) each week.
-Treating yourself to at least the occasional private lesson.
-Doing something else active at least once a week (to contribute to your dancing and your overall well-being).

Monday, January 11, 2016

Enjoy every moment

Discover the pleasure
of just being.

"The secret of tango is in this moment of improvisation that happens between step and step. It is to make the impossible thing possible: to dance silence.
-Carlos Gavito
I think it is safe to say that those who stick with tango beyond a couple of months of beginner-level classes do so because they enjoy it. They probably love the music; they likely embrace the human contact and they are almost certainly passionate about the dance. But within the dance, it can take a long time before they really discover how to truly enjoy it to its fullest potential.

When we dance tango, we need to be very present, both physically present and also present in time, meaning we are living completely in the present moment. This entails three things:

Letting go of the past. Tango is an improvised dance. That means mistakes will be made, and the sooner we can accept that, the more we will enjoy it. Once a step or a movement has been completed, it cannot be taken back. Right or wrong, planned or not, what’s done is done, so there’s no point in worrying, second-guessing, apologizing, criticizing, correcting. It’s part of the challenge and the fun of tango to find creative ways to get out of a sticky situation.
   Leaders who correct their partners or who make comments about what she was “supposed to” do remain too attached to their initial plan, unable to adapt, move on and enjoy what is happening now. The same goes for leaders who are constantly annoyed by all the dancers around them, because the unpredictability of the dance floor means they often can’t reach their end goal. But we all know the best laid plans often go awry ... especially on the tango floor, so why ruin the moment with frustration?
    Followers often hold on too tight to their doubt and insecurity: “Was that right?” “Was that what he wanted me to do?” “What was that I just did?” The answer to all of those questions is, “It doesn’t matter.” Again, what’s done is done, and it’s up to both partners to own what is done and take things from there. That’s how it is meant to be.
   For many, letting go of that plan or that doubt is no easy task. But if we can learn to embrace the unpredictability of tango, we will experience its true beauty. The dance will always evolve in unexpected ways. It is a conversation between two unique people moving through space with dozens, sometimes hundreds of other people, so no two dances will ever be the same. That is why this century-old dance never gets old.

Not worrying about the future. This can be a big one for followers. They can get so worried about what’s coming next that they forget about what’s happening right now, and they anticipate instead of following. Leaders who dance with one foot in the future tend to forget to wait for their partners to finish one movement before dragging them on to the next. True, leaders do need to indicate one step ahead what they will do next, so their partners have a chance to react, but they still need to wait, to feel the follower’s response and follow through from there. Sounds like a lot to do in a short time, but when it all comes together it feels so good. And it’s a very good reason not to rush things.
Experiencing now to the fullest. Why concern ourselves with the past or future when there is so much to enjoy right now? Beyond the fancy moves and fun figures, there is the warm, secure feeling of a strong and present embrace; there is the way your foot caresses the floor all the way from one step to the next, drawing lovely curves or lines on the floor just so; there is the way your partner’s shoulder blade fits just perfectly into the palm of your hand; there is that sense of perfect synchronicity when you know, with the simplest of rhythmic little steps, that the music is speaking to you both exactly the same way; there are the happy mistakes and lucky surprises that sometimes work out just right, creating an embellishment you didn’t know you knew or a cool new sequence you may or may not ever reproduce; there is that moment you realize the connection is so profound, so natural, so meditative that you don’t even know what steps you’ve been doing, you just know it is wonderful. ...

One question I often ask myself is why so many leaders have this impatient need to move forward, as fast as possible, all the time? We are dancing in a circle! There is no destination, so we ought to enjoy the journey. For the follower, it is not any more rewarding to dance along the line of dance than to dance in place, to step back-back-back rather than on the spot ... so why do some leaders get so impatient when they can’t rush around the dance floor turn after turn like the Tasmanian Devil?

And to those leaders who are so worried about boring their partners if they don’t do enough stuff, I say this: Every leader has a repertoire. Whether that repertoire is made up of simple steps, weight changes and ocho cortados or of complex series of ganchos, wraps and volcadas doesn’t change that fact; everyone has a comfort zone of figures they lead comfortably and come back to when the going gets tough on a crowded floor. The thing is, while creative sequences of kicks and leg throws might be surprising and fun the first time around, those same big, impressive moves lose their novelty the second or third time around when they’re no longer, well, new (not to mention they’re dangerous on the dance floor). What keeps dancers fresh and interesting is their ability to play and dance differently to different music or to do the same steps – even the very simplest of steps – using a variety of rhythmic patterns. The novelty of that kind of dancer never wears off. Dancing tango isn’t about doing as much stuff as possible in a single song, it’s about connecting to the music and to your partner and gradually creating a dance based on this song and this partner. This is how you will enjoy every moment.

Of course, it takes time to learn and appreciate all this, to move past doing and discover the pleasure of just being. To do so we have to first get comfortable with the things we have to do, such as walking with control and clarity, embracing a partner, leading and following, keeping time to the music, and the list goes on. Which is why solid basics are so important. If the technique is not there, there will be no space for the connections. But there can even be enjoyment in working on technique; it is a great feeling to know you are standing straight and tall, to feel you are building strength and power as you perfect your walk, or finally pivoting with smoothness and balance. Once the technique and the connections are there, you’ll find you don’t even have to be moving to dance, and you can get even more pleasure from a moment of stillness than from one of those big, impressive moves. Then you can dance that silence the late, great Carlos Gavito spoke of in the quote at the top of this article.

At the end of a dance, I don’t remember what steps or patterns I did with my partner, but how I felt with him or her. I remember how the embrace felt and how well we connected to each other and to the music. I remember whether I felt pushed, pulled and tossed around, or was made to run after my partner, or whether we both enjoyed every moment of every step, from the intensity of the embrace to the push of the toes into the floor to the caress of the free foot to the precise moment we placed that foot just so, in time to each other and to the music.

Just as the musicians keep time with the beat, but add layer upon layer of melody around and in between every one, giving each song its own unique feeling and personality, dancers need to pay greater attention to what happens in between steps: how we hold our partners, how we hold ourselves, how we move through each moment of each step. Do we wait or do we go? Move fast or slow? With passion or playfulness? Listen to it, feel it, be aware of it. Enjoy every moment of it.