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.

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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).

1 comment:

  1. The article is insightful and educative for Tango students and aficionados
    This paragraph is so truth. I learned the least from the visiting "grand maestro" " 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."