Dancing tango starts with learning it
Tango is not a dance of free expression, it has a complex vocabulary and a rather sophisticated technique. It is a skill that needs to be perfected over time. We have all heard stories about “needing to walk for ten years” before knowing how to walk. Yet I see that only a small minority of people continue to improve their skill past a certain point. As a dancer and teacher I naturally ask myself why.
Usually this point comes around the third year in tango. Depending on the progress a person makes in that time this can mean stopping anywhere from an “affirmed beginner” to a “stable intermediate” level. Those with more perseverance reach a more advanced level and stop after one or two extra years. Very few continue to work on their skill to reach a truly advanced level.
Why improve at all you may ask?
You can enjoy tango without ever improving, no matter what your level is. Often it is actually easier to enjoy tango if you are not in the “improvement” mindset. You are less critical of yourself, less alert, less obsessed, less focused on comparing yourself to others. Many dancers, when finally getting to dance with all the partners they desire, stop working on their skill. They have achieved what seemed to be the goal.
For teachers, it is understandably frustrating to see people stop learning, as they stop coming to classes and workshops. Another effect of this is that advanced workshops are filled with people who want to be advanced but aren’t. For those few dancers who do become advanced it is frustrating to see other people stop working on their skill because there are less and less people to enjoy dancing with at their own level. We can view the problem of skill stagnation in the majority of tango dancers as a problem for the “happy few”, the professionals and those who reached a high level. Is it then really a problem for tango as a whole?
It wouldn’t such be a problem if not for one thing. The greatest suffering in tango is not getting to dance with people you really want to dance with, which in most cases means with people who dance better than you do. Improving your skill in order to dance with desirable partners is a healthy and strong motivation. However, when you see learning only as a means to an end, as hard work, tedious routine or exhausting exercise, you naturally do not feel inclined to do it. And so there is a trap: you want to improve your skill to get that dancer, but you don’t like to do what it takes.
What I see in people who improve steadily is that for them improving has always been a goal in itself. People who keep on learning are those who love to learn. As philosopher Alan Watts said:
“You can’t have pleasure in life without skill, but it isn’t an unpleasant task to learn a skill if the teacher gets you fascinated with it in the first place. There is an immense pleasure in learning how to do anything skillfully.”
When you say you want to improve but do not apply continuous effort to do so, what it means is that you have lost the pleasure in learning.
Part of the responsibility for finding this pleasure is on the teachers. As Watts points out, teachers shoud get you fascinated with tango, which means that they have to be fascinated with it themselves first. And even if a teacher is utterly in love with tango she/he will still need teaching abilities to bring that love across and teach you how to do it. One thing a teacher can do to stimulate people into taking classes is fascinate them as a dancer. For this tango teachers need to be accomplished dancers themselves and besides that, build a good teaching reputation. Good marketing skills help a lot as well.
The other part of the responsibility is on you as the student. The teacher cannot make you enjoy learning just as the teacher cannot make you dance. The teacher can only facilitate it by creating the right circomstances, but you will have to do the enjoying and the dancing. If you put the full responsibilty of ‘giving you pleasure’ on the teacher, then you expect entertainment, not learning. If you enjoy tango and do not have the desire to develop further, there is nothing wrong with that. You just need to accept that those who do like improving will probably not dance with you.
I see many dancers end up in a situation in which they want to dance with better dancers but do not manage to reduce the difference in skill. They don’t progress because they have lost the pleasure in learning, and they have lost the pleasure in learning because they have stopped believing that they can get to a level of skill high enough to become desirable. They have lost confidence in themselves as successful learners. When you do not believe that you can become interesting as a dancer for another dancer, this becomes your truth and therefore your reality. You can accept it and move on. Unfortunately, most people cannot accept it and prefer to think that other people are somehow asocial, unwelcoming or unaccepting of them. This is because it feels as if others are putting pressure on you to do something you dislike. But of course they are not putting pressure on you, they just do what they like doing, which happens to be what you don’t like doing: learning.
You see, it is a perfectly natural desire to want to dance with a very accomplished dancer. However, if your personal investment in tango skill does not come close to the investment in skill of this accomplished dancer, then expecting him or her to dance with you is presumptuous. If you think that this dancer should dance with you because you have plenty of other qualities to offer besides your skill, you are being a hypocrite. YOU want this dancer primarily for the skill. He or she still might want to dance with you for a number of reasons, but if she/he doesn’t, then it is very probably because of a mismatch in skill. The least intelligent thing you can do is call this dancer a snob, for in his or her position you would do exactly the same. You actually already do exactly the same to people with whom you do not wish to dance with when you feel a mismatch in skill. And unless it is your first day in tango you always have people around you who are less skilled than you are. If you dance with everybody no matter their level you are either a beginner or an exception.
You might say that going dancing regularly in itself leads to improving one’s skill, and to a certain extent this is true. However, whether you improve or not by simply going dancing depends very much on what your are doing and the state of your awareness while dancing. If you dance in an automatic mode, reinforcing the existing movement patterns, then you will just get better at the same thing. If your existing movement patterns are correct, that’s good. If they are not correct and you are consciously seeking to monitor and correct what you are doing then yes, you have a chance of improving, provided that the mental image of your goal is correct in terms of efficient movement, which it might not be. Lets say, you want a higher voleo. If your internal image of a higher voleo is not sufficiently correct, then you will simply activate the wrong reflexes and learn an incorrect movement, probably straining yourself in places that are not involved in doing a high voleo.
To improve, you need a correct and quite a detailed mental and kinesthetic image of the movement and then a lot of aware practice. Classes and teachers are there primarily to supply you with these images, to make you understand them in detail and to discover the correct sensations your body should feel, so that new movement habits can establish themselves over time. Just understanding something will not lead to improvement, you will still need to practice and stay aware of what you are doing.
This takes time and determination, and if there is no pleasure you will not do it. What is the easiest way to rekindle your pleasure in learning? In a sense it is like coming out of a depression: to enjoy life in important things you have to start by finding joy in small things. To enjoy learning you have to feel that it brings results. Take one small issue and try to improve it. In a class, with your dance partner, with a friend who wants to practice it with you, during a private class with a teacher that is able to get you fascinated or maybe just by yourself. Set a specific goal and find suitable exercises. Monitor the changes when you go dancing. Congratulate yourself if you feel the changes. When you notice the result, you will also notice a shift in your attitude towards learning and, most importantly, towards yourself as a learner.
We get easily discouraged when we forget that it is all about taking small steps. We see what others have reached and contemplate how far we still need to go to get there. And we start believing that we never will. The learning process can be made more enjoyable by finding the right teacher, a motivated practice partner, inspirational articles to read, inspiring dancers to watch. But it will be truly enjoyable when you realise, again and again, that it bears fruit. When you know that yes, YOU CAN.