Why are there no home-grown top level dancers in the UK?

Story | Opinion | mark phoenix | 26 Oct 2015 | 1 comments

On another tango discussion page, someone asked, “Why are there no home-grown top level dancers in the UK.”


I think this is a very interesting question. (It moves us away from the usual ‘tango is about people just enjoying a milonga’, discussion.)  A question I wish to address.


There is no home-grown top level dancer in the UK, let alone dancers plural. Something we should be ashamed of. Not to recognise it, is even more shaming. There is no simple answer but a combination of causes. I will list some here and explain.


1) A lack of intelligence/ insight. People are unaware of themselves and their own abilities, unaware of what it is that makes good dancing, and an inability to see what it is that others are doing in their dance. A superficiality is all that is noticed. People are fooled by the smoke and mirrors, the illusions of good dancing without being able to see deeper into the dance and physicality of other dancers and hence an inability to see what they need to do to improve.


2) Ego. People think they are better than they are. People’s Egos are greater than their talent. They make assumptions about the people they dance with. They assume that because they dance with someone good, that they are themselves good. They are not, they are just dancing with someone good, or someone that they perceive as good. That perception itself may be wrong. See point 1.


3) Culture. British culture is not a dance culture, especially for men. Other cultures allow and support men dancing from an early age, but it is the exception rather than the rule for Brits. Also there is the fake adaptation of Argentinian culture. Going to BA and hanging out, does not make a better dancer. It will not make you Argentinian. The Russians and Columbians do not worry about being Argentinian, they work on their dance to a high level rather than trying to gain a new culture. Also there is the culture within the UK tango scene. There are so few natives compared to other nationalities who live in the UK, and as we are very tolerant, we tend to accept foreign influences to drown out our own. The tango scene is very egocentric, see point 2, and although this may not be a British trait, we allow it to fester and dominate the scene. This holds back people of all levels from progressing because of the worry of judgement and the unseen rules of who dances with who.


4) Not dancing with all levels. A top level (world class) dancer should be able to dance with any level partner. Yet we rarely see those who-think-they-are-good dancing with those-they-think-are-poor. There is a lot to be learnt from dancing down a level or two. For leaders, to be able to identify the limits of your partner and gently stretch them, and for followers to be able to maintain their own balance/axis no matter how rough the lead.


5) Elitism. Gangs of dancers who only dance with those they consider good, fail to enrich those ‘below’ them and limit themselves. Those that ought by now to be good, because they have spent 10 years dancing in the elite club, have shackled themselves to mediocrity. They dont improve because they think they are already good. see point 2. These egotists have killed the scene in the UK for the last decade. They dont improve. Many of them have got worse because of the laziness induced by their egos and the lack of insight into their own and their groups true level. I say again, the ego is bigger than the talent.


6) Historical Revisionism. To be a good tango dancer, you have to dance the tango and not limit yourself by buying into the historical revisionism that exists in most posts and milonga talk. If you reduce the range of the dance because of a false limitation in understanding it, you wont be able to become top quality in it. If you believe that the development of the dance at the turn of the 1900’s was limited to close-embrace-salon, danced only on the-open-side of the embrace with only simple forward side and back steps, how can you be top level? You limit the idea of the dance and limit your own dance.


7) There never was, is, or shall be a Golden Age. Nostalgia isn’t what it was! The dance has always been developing and changing. There never was a perfect moment of anything. Especially in tango. Being hung up in a past-that-you-were-not-involved-in, holds you back from the present, limits your insight and smothers creativity. Top quality dancers, dance like themselves. They dont dance like somebody else.


8) There is One tango not Three. Salon, Nuevo, Milonguero, are not three separate dances, they are all Tango. To be top level, you must be able to open the embrace, execute figures, find the elegance of shared weight and respond together on your own axis. To do only a third of the Tango will not make you a top level tanguero.


9) Only dancing half the dance. To dance only on the followers open side is only dancing half the possibilities. The current flavour of a tight left arm of the follower and tight right arm of the leader, desperately holding each other into a ‘close’ embrace, limits the dance further.


10) Mimicry. Dance your own dance. Stop trying to be (eg ) Noellia. Its ugly. She dances her dance and she does what she does well. You dont. Dancing like someone else, even top level, is not top level dancing.


11) Laziness. The current trend in the UK is Lazy Salon. Watch early videos of Zotto and the like. Close embrace, definitely the style we currently think of as Salon, above the waist. but look at those legs, dissociation, torque. Top level dancers are not lazy.


12) Lack of moves. Revisionism plays its part here. The mistaken idea that the 1900s 1930s 1950s had no figures and moves means that people are trying to dance a mythology of dullness. Most ‘moves’ we do now were originated in the ‘Golden Age’. So if you want to dance as they did in the 30’s then work on some figures. You want to spread the mythology? Then you will never be top level.


13) 10,000 hours and more. To become good at anything you have to put in 10,000 hours. More than that. The joke that someone claims to have 35 yrs experience is countered by ” No, you have had 1 years experience, 35 times”. Make sure your experience grows and is not repeated.


14) A lack of Improvisation skills. People are obsessed with the rules of tango and have no creativity. They think they are improvising, but more often than not, one typical default step will follow another in every dance. Learn to improvise. Without the ability to truly improvise you cannot be top level.


15) No real understanding of the dance structure. Top dancers understand the structure of the dance and can adapt, invent, develop the work on their own. Most people in the UK dont understand the structure one bit. They dance as they were taught. They dont understand the concepts that are available to play with.


16) Lack of competition. Until recently there was no way to make a comparison on the world stage of how the UK rates. It will take a while but maybe the yearly UK preliminary to the Mundial, will encourage our top dancers to compete. Currently the rest of the world enters their teachers, professionals and very top people into the Mundial. The UK preliminary however, is currently something only us amateurs enter. Why? Because the teachers/professionals have something to lose. The esteem they hold themselves in.


17) Poor Teaching. Too many tango teachers know nothing about teaching. Even if they do know something about tango, they lack real communication skills, insight into the subject, analysis of what it is they are teaching, personality, clarity, good English. Many teach mythology and revisionism as part of teaching the dance and thus hold their students back from top level ability. How can we produce top level dancers with mediocre teaching? Where are the top experts? A handful exist only. Too many teachers have no insight and only teach what they were taught and start teaching too early. Three years? Really? To produce top level dancers we need top level teaching. Both with the ability to teach and the ability to break down the tango.


18) No knowledge of the 1980s teaching boom. Brilliant dancers of the 30s 40s 50s could really dance, but not really teach. The only way they knew was to take on the apprentice and the apprentice would spend a couple of decades learning by copying. Very poor teaching practice but mythologised as something wonderful. Then some dancers with insight investigated what each bario was dancing and formulated an understanding of how tango was danced across the board. They worked out how the structure of the dance worked, then they worked out how it could be taught. Without understanding this, you can have no understanding of the teaching and therefore the learning of how to do this dance. Top level dancers are not born out of mythological methodology but of insight and hard work.


19) No hard work. There is very little focus on bodywork and dance training in the UK scene.


20) Inability to fail. Learning means failing. If you want to be good, you have to fuck up. You have to learn from your mistakes. The pressure to succeed stops us becoming top level in many fields not just tango. Attaining high levels is all down to acceptance of your failures and doing something about it.


21) Lack of practicas. The UK scene seems to be about group classes and milongas, but to get really good you need top level private lessons and plenty of practicas. The UK scene really lacks on this front. Advertised practicas get turned into milongas. What is needed is Guided Practicas, where teachers hover around a practica to give help and advice.


22) Lack of generosity/ honesty/paternalism. The scene seems too competitive, (without actually going into a competition) and people do not help out others (without large fees). They are not honest in feedback. There is also a lack of the Buenos Aires maestro/father figure who helps out and advises those they think worth the help and advice. Top level dancers need top level wisdom and guidance.


23) A lack of joy. The scene is far too serious and many dancers lack a sense of joy. Do they really enjoy the tango? Does attaining a high level reduce the passion?


24) Costs and house prices. This may seem off target, but London house prices are exorbitant compared to many other cities. These costs are spread down to hall hire and therefore milonga costs. In countries with cheaper milongas, more people can dance more often and raise the level of that country’s dance.


25) The tango-marathon trap, snaring those-who-think-they-are-too-good-for-UK, a larger elite-building and tango-limiting idea, that has produced its own lazy style of tango.


26) Class gangs. The limitation of belonging to a club and dancing only with that club, repeating the mistakes of that club, and believing the tenets of that club.


27) Facebook and other boards’ criticisms and lack of insight and knowledge, spreading bullshit, revisionism and self referential ideas of what tango is and should be, also limit the thinking of the country’s tango scene and limit the possibility of a real top level dancer or set of dancers to evolve.


All this being said, there is still a Potential to allow the Potential of some dancers to discover their own Potential. At the moment it is POTENTIAL only. More insight and less ego is needed from these dancers, and more support offered from within the scene.


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Published: 26 Oct 2015 @ 15:48


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mark phoenix (Author) commented:

still true. although having become uk champions we have now started our own practica to guide and help others develop their dance and improve the london/uk scene – Read
Comment | mark phoenix | 12 Aug 2017
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