with Graham and Nathalie
Something we see and hear a lot in tango classes is frustration with the rate of progress that people feel they are making. People come along for a few weeks and enjoy the lessons, but the more they learn the more they realise how much they don't know and they start to wonder what's going wrong. Simple things like walking become a challenge, and we start to hear things like "I don't think tango is my dance", and "I'm never going to get this" by the end of the evening. A lot of this comes from their experiences with learning LeRoc and the rapid progress most people seem to make when they begin to learn it, but is the comparison justified? Or is it only natural that we find learning tango harder than learning LeRoc?
LeRoc is a dance made up of large confident moves, and the size and frequency of the steps tends to remain fairly consistent when dancing to any given piece of music. The "step back, step in" of the basic step sequence is like a switch - it's either one way or the other - and assuming you can tap your foot to the beat of the music it's relatively easy to pick up at least the basics. The lead in LeRoc again is big and confident; you can teach leading beginners to "use big bold arm movements", and following beginners to "follow their arms" early on, and it will soon feel like dancing. The detail in LeRoc, like weight changes, hesitation, and frame, can be added later on once people have already learned how to dance, so progression feels rapid, at least in the early stages.
But tango is different. Tango is a dance of detail. If your weight is too far back or your frame is too loose or open then tango simply doesn't work, so you need to get at least the basics of these things right very early on, and that can be frustrating. You keep treading on your partner's toes so you start concentrating too much on the feet and don't realise the problem is in your frame or your body position. You can't lead an ocho or turn without almost bending double, but try to fix it by moving your arms instead of by twisting your torso more and keeping upright. Everything seems counter-intuitive and the frustration begins to kick in as you try to apply the things you learned in LeRoc to the world of tango, with all the wrong results.
So how do you avoid the frustration? How do you enjoy learning something when your teacher keeps reminding you that "In Buenos Aires you spend a year just learning how to walk", and just when you think that you've worked out where your feet are supposed to go he then adds "Stop thinking about your feet; there are no 'steps' in tango, only movement!"?
Start by concentrating on the basics. Try the bigger stuff from time to time in the classes because it's always worth having a go and stretching yourself a bit, but spend the majority of your time looking at the fundamentals. When you see tango danced on the stage or on Strictly at Christmas it's a big, bold, dramatic dance with all the flicks and tricks throughout, but that's not the tango you will generally see danced in local social dances. There you will see a lot of walking, maybe a few ochos, some rock steps, and then more walking. So get those things right and everything else will begin to fall into place.
But mostly... enjoy yourself. It's dance, and dance is there to enjoy and have fun with, so don't let that get away from you. Find a class or venue that plays music you like, whether that's traditional Argentinian music from the Golden Age of Tango or something much more modern and Nuevo. Find a teacher you like, as everyone will have their own teaching style and ways of explaining things. Go with friends, or make new ones when you get there. And laugh about it when you get it wrong.
In my last post I wrote about how I accidentally became a tango teacher and turned Jivebeat from being a Modern Jive club into a Modern Jive and Argentine Tango club. But there has to be more to becoming a tango teacher than standing up and teaching your first class, doesn't there? There must surely be a process to follow or an exam to take? Or is there?
Unike LeRoc which has a recognised path to training as a teacher and obtaining a teaching qualification, there is no equivalent qualification available in the UK for Argentine Tango. You can train and qualify as a ballroom tango teacher through the IDTA or other similar bodies, but ballroom tango is not the same as Argentine Tango, and as there are more differences than there are similarities between the two dances a qualification in ballroom tango would be of no real use. So how do people make that jump from learning the dance to teaching it, and how do they know they are ready to do so?
This was a question that I spent some time trying to answer when I first realised that I would be teaching Tango on a regular basis. I asked around a few of the dance teachers that I knew, spoke to my accrediting body for LeRoc (the UKA), and hunted high and low across the internet, and the only answer that I could come up with was... you are ready to teach Tango when you think you are ready.
Wait... so the only person who gets to decide if I'm ready to be a tango teacher is me? That can't be right. There has to be more to it than that!
Before I try to answer that question, let's take a look at what we really mean by "Argentine Tango". This dance we think of as Tango has many different styles - Salon, Villa Urquiza, Milonguero, Club, Nuevo, Show, to name but a few - and yet they are all still Tango. They are defined by the approach of the person teaching them and the places where they are likely to be danced, and although they can look very different at first glance, they all use basically the same steps determined by the same lead and follow techniques expressed in slightly different ways. Tango is constantly evolving with new teaching styles and more scientific approaches to teaching being introduced, so the Tango world is already starting to move away from the traditional "do what I do" method of instruction, particularly here in Europe. So with all these styles and all these teaching methods, what is the 'correct' way to teach?
It turns out that the only way you can really say if a teaching method is 'correct' or not is whether your class enjoys the lessons and shows improvement or progression in their dancing after coming for a while. And the only way to find that out is to start teaching.
This has some advantages and disadvantages over a formal teaching qualification process. On the one hand it does mean that teaching styles and approaches can be very variable with no guarantee of quality, or that anything they teach you would be recognised as Tango outside of their classes. On the other hand it does mean that if you don't like a class or feel that you want a change, you can simply go to the next Tango teacher you can find, and the chances are that they will do things a little differently. You might prefer it... or you might prefer your original class... but either way you get the choice.
So whilst I would rather have done some sort of training or qualification before calling myself a Tango teacher, it turns out that things don't work that way in the world of Argentine Tango. I have started teaching Tango, therefore I am now a Tango teacher, and I am just as qualified to be one as 95% of all the other Tango teachers out there.
I continue to learn as much and as often as I can, attending regular weekly classes and going to milongas whenever possible. Tango is not a dance that you learn once and then just dance socially; it is an ongoing learning experience where no matter how good you get you will always meet someone inspirational and better. My aim therefore is to continue to learn and to continue to improve for as long as possible, and hopefully I can pass some of that on to my students.
Not many people can say that they became a tango teacher entirely by accident, but that's definitely how it happened in my case. When I first started Jivebeat, I assumed it would always be predominantly about Modern Jive, with maybe a few guest teachers brought in from time to time to demonstrate other dance styles or maybe teach a 'fusion' class. I had qualified as a Modern Jive instructor, and all my efforts were going into developing that style and working out our curriculum.
But then one evening in Sevenoaks after a fun but small beginners' class, I asked everyone what they would like to do next. I offered them a more advanced Modern Jive routine, maybe some dips and leans, styling or musicality tops, or perhaps they'd like to try some Argentine Tango. And unanimously they all decided they wanted to try some tango.
I had been learning the Tango for some years at that point, having started in 2010 in a class down in Southampton and then finding new classes and teachers when my job brought me back up to Kent. There had been a few gaps as Tango classes can be hard to find, but I had always loved the dance since first discovering it, and at that time I was going to a class in Dartford after just having moved up from one in Canterbury for logistics reasons. I had no formal teaching qualification in Tango (read more about that in my next blog post), but I knew how to teach dance in general so I just used the same techniques I had been taught for Modern Jive and applied them to Tango.
It was a good fun class and everyone enjoyed themselves, but I assumed that would be the end of it and so I prepared the next week's Modern Jive class as normal. Except that when I got back to Sevenoaks a week later the class all asked me if they could do Tango again as they had really enjoyed it the previous week.
Okay... that was unexpected, but not really a problem. There is plenty of Tango to go around, and even without a lesson plan there were a lot of things I had wanted to mention the week before but didn't have the time, so that's what we did. And once again I went home assuming that would be the end of Tango at Jivebeat.
But then the following week, two people arrived at the class to sign up because they "had heard we do tango in our classes and had been looking for somewhere to learn for ages".
I knew that Tango classes were a bit thin on the ground in the area so the fact that they hadn't found one didn't surprise me, but it did surprise me that word was getting out that we taught Tango. Jivebeat was a Modern Jive club - the clue is in the name - so how come people were hearing about us in the context of Tango?
It didn't matter. Since then we have become known for being the local Tango class despite me giving it almost no advertising (more about the reasons for that later), and people have started coming along purely to learn the tango in preference to Modern Jive. I had become the Accidental Tango Teacher, and Jivebeat had become as well known for its Tango as its Modern Jive.
Whenever you think about dance, you think of footwork. There are basic steps that define the character of every type of dance, from the simple “step back, then in” of LeRoc, to the “forward, side, together” of waltz or the “one, two, three-and-four” of latin. The steps are the first stage in learning a new dance. You begin by learning the timing and how to position your feet in the correct places, then when you’ve got the hang of that you start to concentrate on where to put your body to improve balance, posture, and styling and make the dance begin to flow.
But Argentine Tango doesn’t have any of that. It is that strangest of things, a dance without steps.
When you first start to learn the tango the temptation is to follow the steps that the teacher is doing and try to copy the way his or her feet are moving around the floor. This is a natural way of looking at it especially if you have done any other dancing before, but it is not how tango works. With tango the most important element is the upper body connection, the invisible link between the leader’s and follower’s chests that - if done correctly - means the feet will move in the right direction as a consequence of the movement. It is this chest connection that most new tango dancers find the hardest to master, partly because the isolation or dissociation needed to be able to rotate your upper body independently of your hips is not something we naturally do and needs to be learned, but mostly because they spend all their time trying to work out where the feet should go and try to dance whilst looking down.
Tango is a dance of connection, not of steps. It is a bit of an over-simplification, but you could start by picturing all of the dance happening from the waist-upwards, and the feet just moving around to keep you from falling over. The lead in tango comes not from the feet but from the chest, with the leader moving his or her chest in the direction they want the follower to go, and the follower responding by moving their chest in the same direction whilst maintaining as close a connection to their leader as is physically possible.
This is easy to say, but it can be confusing. When you watch tango danced by experienced dancers, whether on the stage or just at a local social dance event, you will see a lot of footwork. Small detailed rock-steps, sweeps and pushes of all sizes, the famous tango hook or ‘gancho’, and many other classic elements all make an appearance somewhere in the dance, and beginners point and say “See… footwork! I told you there were steps…”
But all of those things happen as a consequence of the chest connection. The leader is not thinking about where his or her partner’s feet are going to be, but where their weight, balance, and chest must be to maintain the connection. Yes, there are rules and styling techniques involved for both leader and follower to make the dance look like a dance rather than just two people wandering around the floor, but the position of the feet and the centre of balance is all controlled by the upper body connection.
So how does this affect you in your class? Tango is usually taught using short sequences of movements that include elements with steps in them, and beginners (and some more experienced dancers) often make the mistake of thinking of them as steps that need to be learned. But these are just ways of teaching you about the chest connection, they are tools for you to learn how weight, connection, and balance all affect you and your partner’s position.
Learn the sequences and practise the routines, but remember that their real purpose is to show you how the chest connection makes the dance, and how the feet are just a consequence of where your bodies are and where your weight is at any moment.
When you’ve got the hang of that, then you can add the styling!
Argentine Tango is a dance that is steeped in tradition. From the music played by the great tango orchestras of the 1930s-1950s to the style and conventions of the social dance evenings (or 'milongas'), the argentine tango dance scene remains deeply connected to its roots in south America, and for some dancers this environment is as much a part of the dance as are the embrace and the steps. For these dancers, tango and its music cannot be separated; to dance one is to love the other and tango without the tradition is not really tango at all.
This environment is often the first introduction that people get to the unique and evocative dance of Argentine Tango, and the 'other worldly' atmosphere created by the music and traditional tango culture is what encourages them to stick around. "Golden Age" music is used in the classes, and teachers can trace their roots back to the great tango masters of Buenos Aires, each of whom has a subtly different style though they all follow the same basic principles. Every class feels special.
But musical tastes vary a lot, and for some the traditional tango music and strict tango culture can be a barrier to learning or enjoying this dance. People who love the dance but not the music were turning away from tango in favour of more modern dance environments, and so in recent years there has been an increase in popularity of teaching and dancing tango to non-traditional tango music. Electrotango and pop-tango bands formed to create music that was more up-to-date despite keeping to the basic tango music structure, and then dancers even started turning to music that was not written for tango at all. Blues, jazz, and even rock music are now regularly being played at 'alternative' milongas and this has re-opened tango to a much wider audience.
Traditions in tango however, remain strong, and many of the traditional tango dancers do not acknowledge this new approach to the dance as being 'Argentine Tango' at all. It is a different thing, as different as Modern Jive is to Ballroom, and so it can be difficult for an 'alternative' event to fit into the tango world. Terms like 'nuevo' and 'neotango' are used to distinguish them, but these also mean something specific to traditional dancers so it can be confusing. 'Nuevo Tango', for example, can mean a specific type of orchestral music largely from the 1980s that incorporates new elements, a teaching style whereby more emphasis is placed on the kinesiology of the dance and less to the connection to the traditional music, a style of dance that moves around the floor outside of the traditional line of dance (anti-clockwise around the edge of the room), any tango danced to non-tango music... you see the problem.
Dancers are by nature creative, and are always finding new ways to describe their events and classes to indicate how traditional or avant-garde they are. You see events announced as having "80% traditional, 20% nuevo music" in their advertising, or "No tango music, no tandas, no cortinas, just dancing from beginning to end..." (tandas and cortinas are traditional ways of grouping the music played at a milonga), so you can usually work out what an event will be like before you go. But if not, then just contact the organiser and ask. They will always be happy to talk about the sort of music they play there and what the atmosphere will be like, as that ensures that everyone who comes has a great time.
As with everything else in life, tango dancers are rarely just one thing or the other. Most dancers who prefer nuevo / alternative music also like some of the traditional from time to time, and most traditionalists are happy with the occasional modern track thrown into the mix. My personal preference is to dance tango to everything from jazz and 1940s ballads to modern pop and rock, but that does not stop me sometimes wanting to put on my suit and head down to a traditional milonga, and I continue to learn at traditional-style classes every week. For me the evolution of tango is important, but that only means anything if I stay in touch with its roots.
The tango we dance at Jivebeat is definitely in the nuevo or alternative zone, and no traditionalist would ever refer to the music we play as any sort of 'tango music'! We dance to blues, country, rock, and all sorts of musical styles from all over the world, and every now and again we will include a traditional piece or two just to keep you on your toes! We believe that tango can be danced and enjoyed alongside almost any musical style.
So if nuevo / alternative / neotango is your thing then maybe Jivebeat is your new tango home.
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