As a teacher I regularly see students become frustrated when teachers tell them, again and again, to work on something very basic. They think: “I have heard this already years ago and apparently I did not improve!” With every teacher offering a fresh view on the same problem it often feels like the study is a never-ending story. You never seem to “get there”. This despair can become so strong that people abandon studying altogether and just have fun with what they know. So why do we have to go back to basics? And why is it so frustrating?
First, let’s define what we mean by “basics”. Tango is an improvised couple dance with a vocabulary built of very few basic elements. We create all the possible sequences much like words and sentences are created from an alphabet. In individual technique we talk about three upper body related elements (posture, embrace and dissociation) and three lower body related elements (free leg movement, weight transfer and pivot). In couple communication we talk about leading and following the above movements in a musical context: giving or receiving direction, dissociation, embrace shape and distance, pivots, free leg movement, weight transfer, off-axis weight shift and so on. Leading is indicating what you wish another person’s body to do and following is moving your body as a result of somebody’s lead.
Each basic element can be performed in a variety of ways by changing its parameters. To give you a simple example: at the end of a forward step you can go upwards, straightening the standing leg, or downwards, bending the standing leg. This will create different dynamics. You can do this in an associated or a dissociated position of the upper body. While stepping you can open your embrace, close it or keep it the same. You can accelerate towards the end of the step, slow down or pause in the middle. You can step heel or toe first, with a curved or a linear foot trajectory, pushing the floor strongly with the standing leg or just a little. You can make a large step or a small one, put in a lot of energy or just softly slide into it. All this you can do while leading somebody or while following a lead. And here we are talking about just ONE forward step. Consider two people, each with two legs, moving and turning in numerous directions, and just imagine the astronomical amount of variations they can dance with these basic elements!
In the past it often happened (and happens still, here and there) that a teacher would develop one way of doing a certain movement (say, an ocho backward), with just one set of the above parameters, and then claim this was the only correct technique. When studying with another maestro, the students of such a teacher would become greatly confused, as the other maestro would also have his or her own set of parameters for a backward ocho and call it “the only correct one”. And here I am talking about a situation in which both ocho variations are done biomechanically WELL. Imagine the number of ways in which you could do those ochos badly! Nowadays most teachers understand that there are different ways of performing the same movement by changing its parameters. This knowledge allowed an explosive growth of tango vocabulary and also the emergence of clearly distinguishable styles.
A style is nothing else but a preferred set of parameters with which the basic elements are performed recurrently throughout the dance. By arriving downwards on a bent leg while accelerating towards the end of a step gives you a grounded, bouncy kind of walk. If you keep the same speed and travel from one leg to the other without changing the level, you will have a walk that rolls on smoothly. If you go upwards at the end of each step it will punctuate your walk by micro-pauses every time you arrive on a new leg. This is why claiming that one particular style is the only true tango is just as silly as claiming that a large sidestep to your left is the only true sidestep and people who insist on making any other kind of sidesteps are frauds or have no taste.
We start learning tango by mastering small sequences of basic elements, like in a language class a student would start with short pre-defined phrases. The walk, the ochos, the cross steps are all combinations of basic elements, they are not basic elements themselves. The beginner’s sequences are combinations of basic elements with a set of parameters that are the easiest to perform. In a walk, for example, it is better to learn not to change your level too much in the beginning, until you master it enough to be able to go up or down elegantly. At first we learn to pause in a cross step, to catch our breath, and later to walk on without a pause if we want. In former days, if you knew a complex figure you were considered advanced. Nowadays, if you know a complex figure but are not able to break it down into smaller elements and create a variation, you are no longer considered advanced, you just know how to copy. An advanced dancer is able to create “phrases” and change the parameters of the basic elements at will. A beginner can only say “My name is James” whereas an advanced dancer can say “Name is Bond. James Bond.”
Knowing basic technique means performing the main elements well within a simple tango vocabulary. Knowing advanced technique means performing the main elements well within both simple and complex tango vocabulary. The advantage of attaining a good level of basic technique is that complex vocabulary is easier to master. Yet, even if you have attained a solid level of basic technique, you will still need to practice advanced vocabulary before you master it. A way to understand this is to compare it to other motoric skills. While you might recite a short children’s poem effortlessly, the moment you go on stage to recite Hamlet’s monologue you will find yourself struggling with even the simplest phrases unless you have specifically practiced reciting Shakespeare. This happens because the overall complexity of your task is much higher in the second case.
The vast majority of tango classes are about learning steps: all the various combinations of the basic elements. This is done so that people can “converse” with each other in milonga and not end up dancing the same patterns over and over again. Ideally, tango classes let the students work both on the figures as well as on the technique. However, students sometimes learn very complex vocabulary without knowing the basics. This cultivates dancers that do difficult stuff badly. They are trying to recite Shakespeare without having practiced their diction first with something simpler. A poor mastery of the basics can be seen and felt in a dancer independent of what s/he does. Sometimes the sheer complexity of the figures bedazzles an outside viewer, creating the impression that the dancer is a virtuoso, yet ask such a dancer to just walk to the music or do some ochos and the lack becomes painfully apparent.
Why do tango people become frustrated when asked to go back to basics? Many teachers are of the opinion that tango people are essentially lazy. What they want is to party. They do not want to work hard and would love to dance difficult stuff without doing what it takes to dance it well. It is just another hobby for them and you can have a lot of fun in milongas without knowing the basics anyway. There is some truth to this view. Yet, there is also another reason.
A large number of people who come into tango never danced before and have a largely intellectual education, meaning that they have learnt the things they know by READING. Their daily activities are concentrated around processing and recalling information. Becoming an expert in a field that requires intellectual knowledge means working primarily with your analytical mind. When the goal of your learning is knowledge, the learning process can be fairly straightforward. Once you have understood a topic, you do not go back to it unless you have forgotten some of the details. And then a quick review is sufficient to refresh your memory.
This is not how it works in dance. Dance is not only about knowing and recalling, it is in the first place about doing and being. Intellectually knowing what to do is an important part of it, but still only a starting point. You have to train your body to move in a certain way. Learning dance is by definition a cyclic process, as dance only exists in the moment it is performed. Each movement has to be re-created every time, often in different conditions. Perfecting a movement means developing a motoric habit that produces the result you want in any circumstances. And when you are training your body to develop correct movement habits, you do it by repeating and consciously correcting what you do, reinforcing the associated neural pathways in your nervous system.
Progress is dance is achieved by going from simple to more complex movement patterns and back in loops. It is common for a professional ballet dancer to go to a class and get a correction about something seemingly trivial (say, a plié). For a person with no affinity with dance this sounds very strange. Shouldn’t a professional know by now how to do a plié? But in dance – as in playing music, acting on stage, singing or sports – it is not only a matter of knowing, it is a matter of doing it a little better every time. To a dancer going back to basics is what constitutes the most rigorous, most efficient learning. Dancers know that quality lies in the details and the details are always in the basics.
For a novice tango dancer this might come as a revelation. I once had a beginner student who during his second class remarked: “Damn, my walk is still not perfect.” When after one year students expect to move automatically from the “beginner” to the “intermediate” level, they believe that being familiar with the beginner’s vocabulary makes them ready for intermediate level, only to find out that the reality is more complicated. People can know lots of figures and dance all of them badly, or they can know few figures but dance them exceptionally well. This makes any kind of categorisation by level or the number of years in tango very difficult.
If you find yourself hearing the same things about your dance over and over again, remember that this is simply THE WAY IT WORKS. It does not mean you do not progress, you probably do, a little every time. When complex movements are difficult for you, the solution is to break them down into simpler patterns and to work on them until you can dance the combination flawlessly. This is why before we can do anything rapidly we first need to do it slowly; why before turning on one leg we need to have a good postural alignment; why before doing adornos with ease we need to learn how to stay in balance. And this is at once my conclusion and my most important message: dance is really nothing else BUT the basics. The great thing about this realisation is that each time you improve your basics your whole dance improves. This is quite a miraculous feeling and in itself is worth the struggle.
More essays by Veronica Toumanova in her newly released book “Why Tango: Essays on learning, dancing and living tango argentino” available on Amazon.