Doing Time vs Shortcuts – One Beginner’s Tale

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[I have been sent the following thoughts about learning the tango, which I wanted to share with you:]

When learning anything new, I have found that it is much better to experience how a thing feels when it is working, and then try to remember what you have already done. But, too often getting to that first experience can be a dull and painful process … unless someone takes you straight there.

My impression of the English tango scene is that it is quite conservative and… well, English. And to be fair, the traditional Argentine classes are… well, traditional.

And traditional, to me, means a class that involves a lot of stepping up and down the hall, a lot of interruption and lecturing to the group. A lot of time concentrating on and discussing the minutiae of basic moves, and very little dancing.

It can often seem that there is a lot of extraneous activity devoted to learning, when the only part of your brain that really requires the imparting of any great knowledge is your feet.

It is not just tango. Most teaching of any sort is done through repetition to condition ones’ mind into quietude, and one’s bodily memory into intuitively joining the dots between the basic steps that are given as signposts on the road to learning a skill.

My pet theory is that because these cues are learned intuitively and sub-consciously through repetition, we never learn to verbalize or describe them. One can have great skill and yet be unable to describe why one has great skill. Unfortunately, that makes it notoriously hard to pass it on.

Using tango as an example we may be taught the mysteries of Leading by being told to “step straight into your partner” and “moving forward with one’s chest” and “keep ones arms held firm and high”, but the reality too often leaves us stumbling about with a mind struggling to focus on a handful of crude signposts.  This in turn results in movement resembling nothing like tango. Of course, with enough time and dedication we fill in the gaps with unconsciously learned knowledge of where and when to place our bodies, and we start to dance.

However, it turns out that this intuitive space “between the dots” is not empty, but full of lesser cues and subtle signposts. Little movements that, if they could only be described and mastered, would guide one quickly, and relatively effortlessly toward correct form.

What we might call a step is not just a step. It is a step plus a collection of lower order movements that don’t normally get conscious headlining. A gentle twitch of the wrist or a touch of the toe can signal to ones partner in unequivocal terms where one’s weight will shift and suddenly Leading is effortless. Sergio has a talent is for disassembling each move and being able to communicate exactly the missing components that turn a clunky beginner’s step into a dance step. Pretty much instantly.

Occasionally one meets people like Sergio who have a deeper insight than most, and can provide these simple explanations. Suddenly great mysteries like Leading are effortlessly de-constructed, and the energy flows through the move as it should, and you physically feel like you are dancing… because you are!

In this way, tango steps are transformed from mysteries to mechanical movements that our bodies are in fact perfectly designed to perform.

This realisation doesn’t detract in any way from the experience. The awe of an unknowable mystery is converted into the charm of being in the movement. It’s just a question of pointing the Ooohs and Ahhs in the right direction is all.

Going to Sergio’s class in Malaga left me rudely and happily reminded that we are all capable of handling complexity as long as it is explained simply.

OK, I’m not talking competition acrobatics here, but certainly I think that the basics are within reach of everyone, yet I know from experience that the simplest things can seem totally beyond reach. I have done my time with long explanations of basic concepts leaving me confused and staring at my feet helplessly.

They may be tricks of the trade, but I have simply never seen them demonstrated outside of Sergio’s classes. A typical class with Sergio and Gema is just dancing and all the teaching is done while dancing. You are having fun straight away. There are very few lectures or interruptions. The excitement of actually dancing is never diminished. Certainly, none of the usual stepping up and down dusty dance halls for three quarters of the lesson and, certainly for one as impatient as me, rarely that feeling of no progress.

Also, I should add that this approach of leaving you swaying your hips on a dance floor from the start keeps the energy flowing, and encourages you to bring whatever you have to whatever is taught, and this alone makes that you feel like you are actually dancing from the first five minutes, and not just chasing or avoiding shoes, even with next to no experience.

Of course, to refine and to get really good will require long hours of practice and conditioning. The traditions are there to maintain the character of tango. Of course, for beginners there is merit in constant repetition and practice, and of course with persistence, one’s mind and body will put two and two together and “get” how things go together.

It is no secret that to become a good tango dancer, let alone a tango teacher takes years of hard effort. For those of us who are nowhere near a good level, but who love the tango and aspire to be having as much fun as our teachers seem to be, we will always find a way to get to class, but, especially for beginners it’s a shame that fun is under-exploited. If only because happier students are better students.

The rewards are there with practice, however, learning through fun is faster. It just is.

I have heard that Zen Buddhists say that one should not practice meditation, but instead simply meditate. I guess the other side of it is that tango is Fun, but that when learning tango and dancing tango become separated the fun can get stranded somewhere in the middle as well.

[note – the class this post refers to takes place in Spain – Sergio and Gema are teachers that I occasionally take groups to from London]