Everybody who has ever taken learning tango seriously, has suffered psychologically during the process. I could even safely say that if you have not suffered at least once while improving your tango, you have probably never learned anything. I often hear students say “I cannot go dancing after a class. Everything feels wrong!” In times of intense learning the suffering can become so unbearable that you will think of quitting tango. But what makes us suffer so much?
When learning a new movement or a new way of doing something, you will go through four phases: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence. I did not invent these terms, they are widely used in many fields. Take an example of how to do an ocho. You might be dancing ochos but not be aware that you don’t do them correctly. You have developed a habit of doing them in this particular way. You might loose balance sometimes, or be otherwise uncomfortable, but you don’t know how it is related to your ochos. This is the “unconscious incompetence” phase.
Then the teacher tells you that your ochos could be improved and what exactly is not working well. You start paying attention and suddenly you too become aware of what is not working. This is the start of the “conscious incompetence” phase. You now know what you are doing wrong.
Next, you start trying to do it right, with the available understanding and guidance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Slowly your ochos improve, but only when you pay close attention, correct your movement, use the right images. This is the “conscious competence” phase. Your competence is growing, but requires a mental and a physical effort to disarm the automatic pattern and to create a new one.
When your body has fully assimilated the new way of moving, it no longer feels like effort and it no longer requires your full attention. It becomes a HABIT, just like doing the ochos the wrong way was before. This is when you become “unconsciously competent”. This is what dancers, musicians, actors, athletes and others are working toward. Only when it is without effort can a movement be truly free. This feeling of EFFORTLESS DANCE is one of the most beautiful experiences in life. Yet, as a teacher, I see far more students stop at some point in their development instead of continuing to improve. Why doesn’t everybody keep on learning, if in the end we get this beautiful reward?
It has everything to do with the second and the third phase.
You see, when you develop a habit it becomes comfortable, even if the movement itself is incorrect or unproductive. You get used to the effort it requires, to the consequences it produces in your body. You settle into it and your body prefers the comfort of an automatic habit to something new every time. Seeking comfort is one of our main driving forces. The trick your brain plays on you, is that you can do bad ochos but still feel like a queen. But then you take a class, you learn what to do and what not to do. You come to a milonga, start dancing and your body, by habit, goes into automatic mode, except that now you are aware of everything you don’t like about it. And that feels terrible. The new, correct movement, has not become automatic yet. Changing an existing habit is like breaking off a long-term relationship: you know it is no longer good for you, but you still suffer miserably.
First, you suffer because of your body. You have now rationally learned not to trust a habit that your body has always trusted, so there is an internal conflict. Secondly, it is your ego. It has a hard time coping with the feeling of “nothing working anymore”, especially with so many people around you and one of them in your arms. You feel all kind of emotions, from shame to anger. You feel like a broken instrument, a dismantled doll.
How you deal with this feeling will define what comes next.
If you get stuck in this frustration and start identifying yourself with your “problem”, then the phase of conscious competence will be very difficult. As soon as you start thinking of yourself as “the girl who does not do her ochos correctly”, you, well… become the girl who doesn’t do her ochos correctly! The longer you focus on what is “wrong”, the slower the change will be. On the other hand, if you see this frustration is a vital and positive step, if you welcome that feeling, if you rejoice in the understanding of your “problem”, then the solutions will come much easier. Push, but do not punish yourself. Instead of saying “here I go again, all wrong!” say: “Ha, I did it the old way again, that’s interesting. Let’s try a different way.” To effectively train your body you have to effectively train your mind.
You have to understand that frustration is a sign that you are on the RIGHT PATH. And there is even more good news. If you keep CONSCIOUSLY OBSERVING what you are doing, your wrong habits will start changing by the mere act of observing. I don’t know why and how it works, but I know that it does. Such is the power of human awareness. The phase of conscious competence will require this constant awareness of what you are doing, every time, it will also require a mental and a physical effort, but most of all it will require dedication and perseverance. In tango this is when things become challenging. You see, we are talking about going out here, having fun, socializing, dressing up, flirting, meeting friends and new people, being on constant display… not practicing the violin all by yourself in your room! This is where a lot of people give up, right when it starts to become interesting.
When you learn something with your body and do not spend sufficient time practicing the new way of moving, you do not reinforce the corresponding neural pathways in your brain. Even if something worked in the class and your body already knows how to do it with a conscious effort, the moment you allow yourself to revert to automatic behaviour you are reinforcing the existing neural pathways and therefore reinforcing the habit. This is why, for example, professional ballet dancers still go to a class every morning before rehearsals and performances: so that the teacher can help them correct what they do. In tango many people develop the knowing of “what is wrong” but never get to the stage when it is “right”. They either keep bouncing back and fourth between frustration and unconscious movement, or prefer to stop learning altogether because it is too hard. You still can have a lot of fun in tango even if you have never danced a correct ocho in your life, you just need to find partners to share it with. You can say to everybody and yourself “this is the way I do my ochos”, and be done with it. To keep improving the skill is a choice surprisingly few people make.
Do we have to suffer to learn?
No, in reality we don’t. Small children learn many things without suffering and beating themselves up, just by remaining curious and open. We don’t have to suffer to learn as we don’t have to suffer to live, yet we all do. Our suffering can be a great catalyst for change, and if you use it as one, you will eventually get to enjoy the “unconscious competence” phase. And then you will know that it was all WELL WORTH THE PRICE.