It was three years ago today that I opened Jivebeat and taught my first ever dance class. This was not something I’d ever imagined that I would be doing, particularly since I started dancing so much later in life than most of those who end up making a career out of it (I was 42 when I went to my first class), but I knew from the moment I clipped a radio mic to my head and started going through the fundamentals that it was something I was going to enjoy.
The story of how I got into dance teaching almost by accident, and how at some point this switched from being all about modern jive to focusing on tango has been told many times before, so I’ll let you read about that elsewhere. But I rarely talk about the ups and downs of running a dance class, and why I kept going with it even through the more difficult times. So on Jivebeat’s third birthday I want to look at what it has meant to me to be doing this.
Setting up that first class was an easy decision for me, as I knew that I loved dancing and people had told me many times before that they liked the way I taught things and explained what to do. A far harder decision was to work out where that first class would be and how to tell people that it existed, and I soon discovered that my expectations of “If you build it, they will come” were somewhat optimistic. I assumed from the start that if you put a class in a central location and advertised it well enough in the surrounding area that it would naturally gain followers. But that’s a long way from what happened, and after an initial surge of visitors from people I knew and interested locals, the numbers soon dropped to a point where from a financial perspective it made little sense to continue.
But in that period of learning and start-up I realised something important. Teaching dance was not just something I did, it was something that gave me purpose. I am an engineer by training, a quality assurance analyst by experience, and a creative designer by passion, but whilst I love all of those things and would never walk away from them, they all lack that immediacy of seeing people turn up to a dance class then leave three hours later happier and more relaxed than they were at the start. Teaching dance gives me the opportunity to work directly with people and to shine a bit of light and fun into their lives, and that made it all worthwhile.
Without the numbers turning up to the classes however, there was a real risk that the decision to continue teaching would be out of my hands. We are not a charity and anything we do has to be financially viable as well as fun, so this meant that we needed to change things around to get more people interested. We moved venues a few times and adjusted the format of the classes, and this seemed to work for a while, but it soon became obvious that there was something else missing. I had based my classes on teaching modern jive in the way that I liked to learn it: giving people the tools to understand the dance and to improvise for themselves, rather than just learning moves by rote and hoping they can string them together later on. There were a few people who wanted to learn modern jive in that way, but the majority of them would rather go to a busy venue and dance the moves they already know rather than focus on technique, and I had neither the budget nor the venue to set something like that up.
And then one day I accidentally taught a tango class. The concept of accidentally teaching anything sounds strange, but that is really how it happened. It was a quiet night, and so with no planning or preparation I asked the group if they would like to try something a bit different… maybe some tango. And they said yes. Moreover the following week they asked me to do it again. And again the next week. And things began to change.
Tango is different to modern jive in almost every way, and so I had to rapidly learn new ways of teaching to encompass this other style. I had qualified as a modern jive teacher through a formal program overseen by the UKA, but there is no equivalent for tango so I had to work it out for myself. I took the bits I found most useful from all my own teachers, blended them with teaching methods I had been given as part of my qualification, then merged it all together and began to develop my own style.
It worked. People started to come who were really interested in learning and developing their tango, and the classes became viable again. But something else happened that I had not been expecting, which was that teaching tango became even more important to me than teaching modern jive. There were a number of reasons for this. One was that it provided more of a challenge because I had no framework on which to base my teaching and had to devise it all myself. Another was that being a dance that is far more about technique and understanding than it is about memorising steps, it fitted with the way I had been trying to teach modern jive. But the main reason was, I think, that it meant more to the people learning it.
Tango touches something inside you that other dances seem to miss. It is often described as a “dance of connection”, which is generally understood to mean a connection between you and your partner as with no rules and no choreography you have to move as one if you are going to make it work. But I see it primarily as finding connection with yourself, as tango teaches you to understand your own body and how it interacts with its surroundings like nothing else I’ve ever done. Maybe contemporary ballet has the same effect, but being in my mid-fifties already I’m unlikely to ever try that myself, so for me it is tango that finds the connection.
Tango, although being quite technical and difficult to master, is also far more accessible than modern jive, as it is low impact and the basic step is simply walking. Modern jive requires much less energy and fitness than its traditional counterpart, but it is still a bouncy and energetic way to spend an evening and a good part of your weekly cardio workout. Tango however can be as slow and as calm as you want. There is no requirement to dance on every beat, there is no bounce, and you generally won’t feel like you need to improve your fitness regime in order to survive a class. This really does mean that it’s a dance that is open to everyone. Young and old, fit or out of condition, if you can walk (or even - with a bit of adjustment - use a wheelchair) then you can get something out of tango.
Jivebeat had evolved, and with all the tango we were doing we needed a new name. I tried “Tango Synthesis” as I was hoping to convey the link between our modern jive background and our tango future, but I soon realised that the name itself had a better meaning, and I merged the words together. “Tangosynthesis” was born; just as plants need photosynthesis to thrive and grow, so we need something to find our connection to ourselves and to our surroundings, and for me that was tango. Tangosynthesis… growth through tango.
So here’s to the first three years of Jivebeat, now Tangosynthesis, and may there be many more to come. A lot has changed from that first evening, but I’m enjoying teaching even more now than I did then.
From November I'll be back to teaching Tango in Tunbridge Wells at Learn to Tango Kent for a while. This will be on Monday evenings in the Showfields Hall, so if your week is a bit short of tango, or you just want to see your regular teacher out of his natural habitat, then pop down to Tunbridge Wells and join in. Mark is teaching the beginners' class from 7.30pm, then I will be teaching the improvers and intermediates from 8.30pm. Practice from 9.30pm-10.30pm.
The address of the hall is:
1, Rowan Tree Road
Kent. TN2 5PX
You may want to check that postcode if you're using a SatNav, as there seems to be a bit of dispute between them as to where that goes. The address is correct though.
Yes, that's right, for the whole of July (and possibly some of August) I'll be teaching Tango down in Tunbridge Wells at Learn to Tango Kent. This will be on Monday evenings in the Showfields Hall, so if your week is a bit short of tango, or you just want to see your regular teacher out of his natural habitat, then pop down to Tunbridge Wells and join in. I'll update this post with the format of the evening once I know the details, but the address is...
1, Rowan Tree Road
Kent. TN2 5PX
You may want to check that postcode if you're using a SatNav, as there seems to be a bit of dispute between them as to where that goes. The address is correct and confirmed though.
See you there in July!
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.
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