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.


  1. I agree with all this Andrea. However, I feel you discount question #3 "Would this course be a waste of my time" a little curtly. You are forgetting that people who are paying $170 for a course, or $20-$30 for a workshop, are entitled to get something "significant" for their money.

    The problem is not with course content which is usually very good. I agree that there is always something to learn or improve. The problem stems from the fact that group participants have very different skill levels. There is no evaluation at the end or beginning of classes to assess skill level and mastery of the previous levels. People can move on from level to level without having mastered the previous levels. School owners should tell some students to retake a class or to keep practicing before they can move on to the next level.

    I am very annoyed when I register to a level 5, 6 or 7 class or to a workshop requiring those levels to observe that most participants are far from been up to par. They ask basic, not to say stupid questions showing they haven't mastered the pre-requisites or even basics such balance, leading, following and executing ochos and giros. These weak participants grab more than their share of the teachers’ attention and I end up been lucky if I get one comment per class or workshop. And when we are asked to change partners and I end up with someone who is way too far behind, it aggravates me. Yes, I feel I am wasting my time and my money.

    I would feel much better if groups were more homogeneous and if teachers gave equal attention to all participants, regardless of their skill level. After all, we all paid the same price.

    I also feel cheated when teachers adjust the class level to the slowest learners. I feel cheated. If I am good enough to learn quickly the new step, then get me to do it better or to add something to it. Don’t limit me to an approximation because you have to attend to the weaker students. Don’t give my share of time to those who are unable to learn because they haven’t mastered the previous levels well enough and are going too fast to the next level.

    Tango schools should filter weak students and route them to consolidation or technique courses. I understand that too often they need more participants to make more money, though at the expense of not serving more advanced participants. I can hear the response: but people don’t want to redo classes or remedial workshops. Well, what are tango schools going to do about it? What efforts are you investing to sell the point? Maybe more people would enroll in advanced classes and workshops because they would feel they are getting their money’s worth. And maybe fewer men would drop out of tango because they are not enjoying themselves because they don’t feel good enough. Involving men in tango is another topic.

    1. Thank you, Jacques, for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate the feedback.
      Everything you say here is valid and indeed, the uneven skill level of students is the weak point of group classes in general -- in all domains, not just tango.
      Two points I would like to clarify:
      First, Question #3 of the blog related specifically to course content. I maintain that in terms of material, there are few courses that would be a true waste of time for anyone. In fact, most of the time people who ask this type of question are those who are only interested in learning as many new moves as possible and as soon as they see words like "technique," "posture" or "walking" in a description they discount the course as boring or too basic.
      Second, I believe that in group settings, the teachers can and usually do teach to the middle students. And this means that both the weakest and the strongest students in the class can get lost in the shuffle. (I addressed this in a previous blog post: Teachers should definitely try to give equal attention to all students and not focus solely on the most advanced (yes, this does happen) or those who struggle the most. In practice, this doesn't always happen, but I think many teachers do try. Giving little extras such as advanced technical tips or embellishments to the stronger students is a great option... except that inevitably the weaker students immediately start trying them too!
      Indeed teachers need to direct students to the right levels. We, for example, offer a discount on re-takes of any course, to encourage people to master one thing before moving on to the next. And we do not allow students to move on if we see they are still struggling hard with most of the current course material. But not all "passing grades" are the same, so there will always be varying skill levels in any group course.
      Generally, when dancers are unhappy with the partner situation or the overall group system, we recommend private lessons, which may be more expensive at first glance, but worth every penny in my opinion.