Why sometimes you learn nothing from the best teachers

Story | Opinion | Veronica Toumanova | 10 Jan 2018 | 1 comments

Learning to dance tango is rarely a straightforward process. This has been my own experience and I have seen this to be the experience of many people I meet. Hardly anybody would deny that tango is a difficult dance and that mastering it on a satisfactory level can take several years. Also, that the process is often messy, frustrating and slow.

When you come to a beginner class, life is wonderful. Your teachers do their best to familiarise you with your role and to cultivate a basic sensitivity to music, movement and the social side of tango. You feel like in every class new doors open to an unexplored and fascinating universe. Towards the end of the first year you feel like you are already a pretty good dancer and if tango got you in a strong grip, you sign up for the next course.

It is usually during your second (or third) year that the truth becomes painfully obvious: you are anything but a good dancer YET. Sometimes you feel like you are not progressing as fast as before or not at all. You feel that your teachers are not teaching you the right stuff, not the right way or not fast enough. Dancers you used to look up to no longer seem impressive. At the same time you notice the truly good dancers around you and wish to be like them, to dance with them, to be accepted as one of them. This feeling of profound dissatisfaction is the start of your very own “hero’s journey” in tango: your quest of becoming a better dancer.

At that point you might stay with your teachers but often you will start looking for a fresh role model. You take workshops with renown couples, watch YouTube videos until your eyes hurt and try to find a steady partner to practice. You look for what you can call “YOUR teacher”: one able to help you to visibly and tangibly improve your dance. You may take your first private class, craving personalised attention. You might end up going from teacher to teacher, gradually losing hope, as confusions pile up with no results in sight. And sometimes you are lucky enough to meet a person whose teaching suddenly makes all the sense in the world. Your body starts doing things in a way it has never done before. Your dance partners compliment you on the improvements and you feel like you have finally found your personal holy grail.

How come that are you able to improve with some teachers and not with others, who seem just as competent? Which part of the learning process depends on you as a student and which on your teacher? And how can you recognise that your teacher-student relationship is going nowhere?

To understand this I propose a simple model. In a teacher-student learning dynamic we can identify three important parts: GOALS, STRUCTURE and PROCESS. Goals are about the desired results, what it is you want to learn in a given period of time. Structure is about how to get there, the kind of tools and exercises necessary to reach your goals. Process is about how you and your teacher engage in a live interaction from moment to moment.

One of the reasons we are happy and excited as beginners is because our goals are defined entirely by somebody else. We fully trust our teachers to know what we should learn, when and how fast. Not having clear goals, everything we learn is new and rewarding. There is very little pressure. The proverbial small steps we take in the beginning of this journey seem huge compared to those of an experienced dancer. The situation changes, however, once you decide to improve your dance and start thinking about your own goals. It is important at that point that you do not stick to long term goals alone. If you tell yourself “I want to dance like the tango star X or Z who already has twenty years of experience”, consider it a DIRECTION, not a goal, and instead define some clear short term goals that will take you in that direction ONE STEP at a time. Too general a goal will frustrate and discourage you. If you wish to get the perfect technique, guess what: it’s a lifetime endeavor. But it is possible to get a better balance, for example, or a more comfortable embrace within only a couple of months.

Before any learning can take place, the teacher and the student must agree on a common goal (or goals). In group classes and workshops it happens implicitly: the class description already conveys, in broad strokes, what you will learn. In private classes the goals have to be talked through and agreed upon explicitly, in detail, or the learning will not be effective. If the student has no clear goals, the teacher can suggest them based on the student’s current level of competence and the desired direction. The goals can be as simple as learning to pivot or as complex as improvising to different energies in the music. It doesn’t matter, as long as the goals are understood and shared. They will depend on where the student wants to go but most importantly, where the student is RIGHT NOW. Some goals will have to be broken down in secondary goals in order to proceed step by step. If you want to learn to improvise to different orchestras but still have trouble identifying the strong beat, you will have to start with that.

The goals have to be shared enthusiastically by the teacher and the student. For example, I am the kind of teacher who is interested in a in-depth teaching of technique, among other things. To me, working a student who is not interested in improving technique would feel like a waste of time. I would send this student to a different teacher. It is important that the students decide what they want but it is just as important that teachers are clear about what THEY love teaching most: they tend to do it better than everything else. Often teachers feel like they have to cater to their students in every way in order to keep the business running. However, knowing what you love to teach will not only make you a better, more enthusiastic teacher, but will also help students who are interested in that particular subject find you sooner.

As a student, it is important that you understand your goals and trust that you can achieve them. The next step is for the teacher to come up with a STRUCTURE (a set of exercises, a practicing routine) that will help you reach them. This part depends on the teacher’s competence and experience. There is also a responsibility in this for you as a student: you will have to establish a study structure for yourself, a regular practice of some sort. Only studying in classes rarely improves your dance in a lasting way. Whatever you learn in that one-and-a-half hour or less, evaporates from your mind and body if you don’t reproduce it again and again. This is why a part of your study structure should be as mundane as taking notes: simply to recall what you have learnt. The fact that we are studying movement doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use our analytical mind.

Things go wrong on the level of STRUCTURE when the goals are not defined or the teacher has no clear understanding of the student’s level of skill. Then the material tends to be either too easy or impossibly difficult no matter how you try. If the exercises are too easy, the goals must be adjusted and the bar raised or you will leave the class feeling “well, it’s good to repeat things but I don’t feel like I learned anything”. When the bar is set too high, the goals need to be broken down in smaller ones. In an effective learning process there always has to be a challenge, but the material should not be entirely out of your reach.

When talking about “exercise” I do not mean literally the kind of movement that you are supposed to do, I am talking about HOW. A walk is a walk, yet we do not teach it to beginners the same way we teach it to advanced dancers. You will be asked to polish your walk at every stage but each time with a different focus. If for a beginner student it is sometimes enough to walk on the beat, an advanced student has to focus on how to put down the foot, to push with the standing leg, to project the free leg, to stay connected in the embrace and so on. When judging how easy or difficult an exercise is for you, ask yourself what is its main focus. Ideally, the exercise should feel difficult, but doable if you apply consistent effort.

Of course, if you don’t pay attention, if you don’t try to get the point or are under the impression of knowing it all already, the exercises will always seem either too easy or too difficult. And this is where we touch upon the importance of a good PROCESS. First thing to understand about it is that it requires everybody’s full engagement. If you come to a class expecting the teacher to perform magic on you, you are not engaging in the process. And if you aren’t, then no amount of goals, structures, money, famous people, yoga classes or expensive shoes will help you. Engaging in the process for a student means, first of all, to understand and share the goals; second, to follow and trust the structure; and third, to be fully present, to take in the information, to do what you are told to do, to pay attention, to give and accept feedback.

There are a couple of things that can derail the process on the side of the student. The first, as I mentioned, is not to engage at all, to think that being in a class will somehow magically transform you into a better dancer. Another is to judge yourself too harshly, raising your level of stress to the point of becoming completely discouraged. This is not an easy thing to deal with. We come to tango mostly at an adult age, when we already consider ourselves experts in many areas of life. Accepting to be again literally in beginner’s shoes is a dire psychological blow to our self-image. It is especially hard on male leaders, used as they are, in our masculinity-obsessed society, to the constant pressure of being the best, the strongest and the most competent at all times. (It is not easy for women either, but in different ways). Sometimes it is hard to silence your inner critic. Yet to be fully present means to be completely aware, paying attention and keeping your mind occupied with the task, not nursing your ego.

Engaging in the process for the teacher means that s/he gives you regular feedback about how you are doing and how to do things differently. “Process” implies interaction, an exchange between people. It means responding both to the student’s struggles and his or her successes. Not only to point out what is wrong, but to give tools to correct it and, equally important, to point out when it is RIGHT. Harsh judgement on the part of the teacher can result in too much stress for the student, but so can total indifference. An engaged process requires a validation loop. If your teacher does not provide such a loop, ask for it.

If the teacher simply tells you how s/he does things, without checking whether you understand it, without watching or correcting you, then it is a LECTURE, not an engaged process. If your level of understanding is close to that of your teacher then a lecture is fine, it could be just what you need. If the gap in understanding and experience is too wide, however, then a lecture will leave you with a heap of mystifying statements and a sense of failure. Ideally, the teacher should make an effort to present the material in THE WAY YOU CAN UNDERSTAND IT and to do so, the teacher needs to assess your current skills.

Group classes are marked with levels (or sometimes the number of years of experience) in a desperate attempt to shorten the time that the teachers need for such an assessment and to be able to define a goal and a structure fit for all. In a private class this is what the teacher should start with: for example, by dancing with you or by making you do a test exercise. If you come to a private class and the teacher does not take some moments to do a general assessment of your level of skill, the process will not be effective. You might get exercises that are not reflective of your goals, too easy or too difficult. You might not understand what the teacher is telling you because you are not speaking the same “language”. This is an often occuring painful paradox in tango: you go for a class with an amazing dancer, you feel that this person is brilliant in oh so many ways, you try to do what you are told and at the end leave the class feeling lost and frustrated. When this happens, it means that something has gone wrong in the process.

If a teacher tells a group of advanced students to ground themselves, they know what it means and do it correctly. They have previously gone through a process of learning what exactly “grounding” means. If a teacher told this to a group of beginners, they would look down in amazement, wondering how their feet have managed to leave the ground without them noticing. Before you can teach people to do anything, you have to understand their current idea on the subject – or the absence thereof. The reason so many students leave so many classes with profound statements such as “lead her by intention”, “maintain the connection” and “find the floor” stuck in their head without a clue of what it means, is because the teachers do not explain it in a way that the students can understand and reproduce. In other words, because the teachers, no matter how brilliant, DO NOT FULLY ENGAGE IN THE PROCESS.

It might look as if I am suggesting that the effort of making the student understand something is entirely the teacher’s responsibility. It is not. To successfully transmit an idea both parties need to be CONNECTED on some common level of understanding. Now, some teachers are opposed to the idea of having to explain it to you in YOUR terms because they believe it is your job to crawl up the thorny path to enlightenment just like they did when they were “your age”. And for some (very few) students it works. There are people in tango who are so motivated and obsessed, they will walk the world around twice to get the understanding they need. They usually become really good and many of them start teaching. Yet we have to remind ourselves, as teachers, that not everybody is a jedi. Very few people actually are. If, as a teacher, you have disdain for the (majority of) students who need the material to be clearly explained, and explained again, who will stagnate, doubt themselves and give up as soon as something seems too fuzzy and too difficult, then you should limit your audience to those you wish to coach for tango olympics. To an ordinary person, who dances tango as a hobby, your teaching might be ineffective at best and traumatising at worst. If you want to teach any person, you have to accept that not everyone learns the same way, not everyone has the same capacity or motivation and not everyone is a future tango wizard.

For both the teacher and the student to be fully engaged in a process, they need not only motivation, but also physical and mental resources. If in an event a teacher gives four workshops a day with a huge number of students of very mixed levels, all the while worn down by the fatigue of performing, travel and late milongas, then for such a teacher to fully engage in a process with every student will be next to impossible. In this case, a student will have to put in a lot of effort, ask for personal attention when possible and be patient. Some teachers favour the lecturing style because of their lack of energy in such a setting, meaning that only the most advanced dancers will truly get the point (others will leave mystified, but frustrated). There exists a conspiracy theory that tango teachers do not like to reveal all their secrets in order to remain superior and desirable, and maybe it is true in some cases. In my experience, however, the unwillingness of a teacher to fully engage in the process is due either to a lack of teaching skills, lack of motivation, lack of resources or all of the above combined.

If you want to significantly improve your dance and have found teachers that you like, then I suggest you keep a checklist. Frequently ask yourself, how clear are you about your short term goals? Are you in agreement on them with your teacher? Does practicing clarify things for you or makes it only more confusing? Don’t be afraid to tell your teachers that you don’t understand something. Remember that it’s the teacher’s JOB to explain things to you in a helpful way. Manage your challenge level wisely: let it be difficult but not totally overwhelming. An effective learning process brings more clarity to the subject and obvious results in your dance: obvious not only to you, but to your teacher and to your dance partners. If after a while this is not the case, it does not necessarily mean the teacher is not right for you but is does mean that there is a glitch in the process.

You also need to remind yourself that, while your teacher must take the responsibility of teaching you, you must take the responsibility of learning. There is no magic, just understanding and practice. Learning is not something you get, it is something you do. And the more you do it, the more successful you become. This path is yours to walk and it can feel very lonely at times, but trust me: the further you go, the greater the view.



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Published: 10 Jan 2018 @ 18:22

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Anonymous commented:

Excellent – Read
Comment | Anonymous | 12 Jan 2018
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