There is no getting away from it, learning tango is different to learning other dances. Other dance classes will start by teaching you some basics that can be used to take you through an entire song, which might include a few fundamental steps, some sequences that you can dance from memory, and maybe a few embellishments to add a bit of flair to the sequence. After a couple of lessons you may not be good, you may not be smooth, but the steps you have learned at those classes will look like and feel like dancing. You will usually have the shape and rhythm of the dance by then, and over the next few months you can start to concentrate on polishing up the edges and expanding your repertoire of steps.
But tango is a bit different. Tango isn't danced in sequences like some dances, and the basic step is really just walking in close connection with your partner. There are no steps to learn like there would be in ballroom dancing, and there are no equivalents to the LeRoc fundamentals that you can use to get you started. Most classes will teach movements and connections using short sequences of movement that illustrate certain parts of the connection, but the sequences themselves are not what matters. Everything about learning tango is about the connection. And that connection can be difficult to master.
This first phase can be extremely frustrating. Anyone used to other dance styles like LeRoc or Salsa can start to wonder what's wrong with them that they can't pick up the basics of tango as quickly as they did the other dances. They see more experienced people dancing around the room in effortless flowing movement and get frustrated that they can't do the same. They go to another class to see if a new environment will help, but that only adds to the confusion as no two tango teachers ever seem to teach things in the same way and they start to get confused. So how does anyone ever manage to learn tango?
Firstly, it is important that your teacher reminds you regularly that tango is hard. There is a reason that the traditional teachers in Argentina spend a year or more concentrating on little other than the walk and the basic connection before progressing anywhere near actual dancing. We walk every day, but walking in tango uses all the muscles in completely different ways to regular walking and it takes a while to learn the difference; the connection can be a very difficult concept to grasp as it is unlike anything else we see outside of tango; the combination of the two can at first seem completely alien. Terms like 'ocho', 'sacada', 'giro', and 'parada' are used in the class all the time, and even if you know Spanish it is unlikely you will be able to make sense of your teacher's terrible pronunciation. Not that it would matter if you could, as knowing that 'ocho' means 'eight' won't help you in the slightest as you are trying to work out what step you are trying to learn!
Secondly, you need to persevere. Like many other skills, tango isn't something you are going to learn in a week. It requires practice, observation, tuition, more practice... learning tango is an ongoing process that can last as long as you want it to. Every tango teacher, performer, maestro, or all-round tango god you meet will have someone they look up to and try to emulate. I won't say who mine are as they might read it and that would be embarrassing 😉, but everyone has people who inspire them, even if we know we will never get to their level as we are not fit enough or maybe a little older than we might like. But we carry on learning and dancing because we love it.
And finally there is the one that a lot of people seem to forget... we dance tango because it is fun. Tango is dance, it is entertainment, a release from day to day stress and routine. We go to a dance class to get away from the seriousness of life and have a laugh for a few hours. If we get it wrong on the dance floor it's not a disaster, we just laugh about it and either try again or move on. It really doesn't matter. We get the opportunity to dance to music we love with friends around us and where someone else sorts out the music, lighting and refreshments. Dance - even tango - is escapism, and we all need that in our lives.
So don't forget the fun. Don't get so caught up in the learning and the practice that you forget to smile.
And that's the key to learning tango. It may seem hard at first, but don't worry about getting it right or remembering the dozens of things your teacher told you last week that you forgot to write down (hint: chest connection... weight forward... stretch the back leg). Just enjoy the dancing and the rest will come at its own pace.
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