Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Twenty tango lessons: Part Five: Yes, you do need moves

Teachers teach steps and sequences all the while insisting that they are secondary
to things like connection, musicality and technique. Is this a contradiction? Not really.
To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 things I have learned in, through or about this dance and the learning/teaching process that goes with it. Here is my next "lesson."

Lesson No. 5: But you do need to learn steps.
If there are no pre-defined figures or steps in Argentine tango dancing, why do most teachers teach sequences, or figures? It seems contradictory, but it is not.

If tango is a language, it's all well and good to know the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, but you can't apply any of them if you have no vocabulary to work with. This is why teachers teach steps and sequences all the while insisting that they are secondary to all the other stuff like connection, musicality, technique and so on.

When we learn a new language, we usually learn a few key phrases to start us off, such as "Hello, my name is Andrea. What is your name?" or "How much does this cost?" or "Would you like to dance?" That way we can start communicating on a basic level right away, and then we go back and learn the alphabet, the rules of grammar and syntax and so on. The ultimate goal, of course, is to be able to formulate our own sentences, and if we one day master the language, we will speak it fluidly, without even thinking about how it all works anymore. Tango is much the same. We get a few simple sequences to work with, simple structures (phrases) we can learn, practice and understand, and through those we begin to communicate, while working on the individual movements (the alphabet) and technique (grammar, syntax etc.). Eventually we may be able to create new sequences on the fly (prose), all while retaining our connection (conversation) with our partner and playing with the music (poetry!).

Once we have learned to walk with a partner in front of us, we are already communicating at a basic level, but we need a certain amount of vocabulary to really express ourselves. And just as fancy vocabulary alone doesn't make for great conversation, fancy moves alone don't a great dancer make. But cool moves are still, well, cool, and as long as you use them correctly in the right context, they are an essential – not to mention fun – part of dancing tango.

Sequences are both pedagogical tools and leading tools, and that is why I believe they are an unavoidable part of the teaching/learning process. But while teaching sequences it is important for instructors to make clear the fact that sequences are different from individual movements, and that in the end it is the mastery of the movements that counts most, not the sequences themselves. So the sequences are a means to an end, not the end itself.

Teaching a movement, such as an ocho, within the context of such a structure, gives useful points of reference to tango students. So we teach sequences in order to teach such fundamental moves as steps and pivots, which when put together become such fundamental mini-structures as walking sequences, ochos and giros, which when linked with transitional steps in order to enter or exit the move in question become what we think of as figures.

Followers don't need to remember the sequences, but they do need to learn them, understand them and practise them. Getting stuck on the idea of the sequence itself will encourage anticipation on the part of the followers, because they will be overly concerned with what comes next, but practising sequences and understanding how the individual parts fit together teaches their bodies to do what they need to do, and how it should feel when their steps are properly synchronized to their partners'.

It would be great if we could just teach improvisation from the start. If we could get beginners to see the big picture from Day One, skipping the difficult, cumbersome and often frustrating parts of the learning process. But in my experience we can't skip the early parts of the process, because learning tango is just that: a process. And it goes something like this:

1. Learn some basic moves and sequences, along with some very basic technique and leading and following tools, all of which will feel awkward and surprisingly difficult at first, and won't really feel much like dancing yet.

2. Learn some more moves and sequences while continuing to try to master the first ones as well as paying some attention to our posture, the music and a bunch of other stuff that still feels like too much to think about all at once. This often leads to much confusion and frustration for leaders, who have a tough time learning and remembering their own steps, let alone knowing what their partner is doing every step of the way, not to mention wrapping their minds and bodies around such concepts as parallel vs. cross system. Followers, meanwhile, often feel they are learning faster than their partners at this point, and start to feel they can really dance – if they get paired with a more advanced leader or their teacher. At this stage, both partners are often impatient with the leader's learning pace.

3. Leaders continue to feel stressed out about not knowing enough moves, and get bored with themselves if they don't execute every move they have ever learned within a single song. Followers start to learn that their role is actually about more than following. They begin to realize that they should be responsible for their own axis, steps and pivots, and begin to understand that not every mistake is the leader's fault. Teachers keep saying that both partners should be focusing more on posture, connection, musicality and floorcraft, but most intermediate-level dancers don't yet fully understand this or believe it. Leaders and followers can both feel in a rut at this point as they both realize how much there is to learn and that it will take more time and hard work.

4. Leaders and followers have both experienced some aha moments where, by fluke or design, everything came together with ease: steps, balance, comfy embrace and the perfect moment in the music. At this point leaders have been exposed to just about every type of move that has a name – ochos, giros, paradas, barridas, sacadas, ganchos, boleos, volcadas, colgadas – and, having spent a fair amount of time dancing in milongas, they realize that as they improve their embrace, posture and musicality things work better more often. Followers, meanwhile, stop needing to be led into endless series of impressive moves to enjoy a dance and start to derive more and more pleasure from a good embrace, creative musicality and simple steps that give them a chance to connect, embellish, play with the music and express themselves.

5. Those years of hard work are paying off and we both get that it all starts with good connections and moves on from there. The sequences and moves become tools for improvising with the music and our partners, both of whom understand that skill and enjoyment are about the how, not the what. We look back and wish we had understood sooner what it is really all about. While we have reached a stage where onlookers consider us advanced, we see that the tango learning process is an endless journey and while we derive satisfaction from knowing how far we have come, we only want to go further still.

Next: Lesson No. 6: The truth about tango is ...

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