A different way of learning Tango



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The usual way

I like very much reading and discussing your comments. We often don’t have this opportunity in a milonga setting. So… some time ago, a friend of mine commented on a post about tango being just fun with a short extract from Danny el Flaco. I already discussed the difference that emotion can bring to our dance when we allow it to enter our brief conversation in a tanda.

In this post, I want to focus on the way we learn Tango. Usually, we are impressed by the shows… we go to a school and start learning steps, sequences, techniques, etc. Then, some of us who are lucky to encounter an inspiring teacher, start to get more into the music. If we are lucky and willing enough, we start getting even deeper into learning about stories, history, orchestras, etc. What is actually hidden behind the music… what was the inspiration? There we discover the biggest secret of Tango. The emotion. The missing link… the heart in what Dany el Flaco mentions.

A new suggestion

A lot of people are getting lost in this process and either lose interest, stop caring, start caring for the wrong superficial stuff, etc. Now imagine if there was a way… a teacher… a mentor… a school… something that would approach teaching tango differently. What if instead of learning to walk first you learned about the song you are walking on… its story… its orchestra… its lyrics… etc. Then after analyzing and finding the emotions that it creates in you… you simply start walking on it.

Things would get complicated the more you progress… every time a new orchestra… a new era… a new voice… whatever. How many people would get lost in their path in discovering the hidden treasure of Tango? Wouldn’t that way make more sense and give a bit more of a purpose to our Tango journeys? In many lessons in Universities, you have a theoretical and a practical part of it. Why not in Tango too? Would this make it more boring and uninteresting or exactly the opposite?

Tonight’s Goodnight Tango

Tonight’s Goodnight Tango is a song that we certainly encountered early in our tango journeys. How many of us learned what this song refers to? Why is it named like that?… when was it written?… what was the orchestra like at this time? If you knew that this song is named after the place where DiSarli was born and raised… transferring the feeling of the sea… the sense of the ocean waves hitting the shore… and that it was recorded during the last years of his life… almost like he was trying to get back to his childhood memories just before the end. Wouldn’t that change even at the slightest our very first steps in Tango?

How about you? What do you think about the way Tango is often taught today? Would learning more about the music help? Would it send people away quicker? How would it affect the end result… the dancers that would come out of it? Let me know with a comment below, an email, or a PM on Facebook… oh… and if you liked it… don’t forget to share it with your friends.


10 responses to “A different way of learning Tango”

  1. Els Avatar

    Here’s my two/three cents. 

    First, my piano teacher explained that there are two ways in which students learn. Either, they learn the technical part first and only at the end do they add musicality and emotion as a finishing layer. Or, they learn the whole piece in a musical, emotional way from the start. The risk of learning the former way is that when they have less cognitive resources (like when they are nervous, tired, learning something new,…), the dimension they added at the end may completely drop out, while those who incorporate it from the start don’t run that risk because there is no alternative way they can play the piece. So if under no circumstance one wants to revert to soulless dancing, your suggestion of adding in the emotional part from the start makes sense.

    Second, your point boils down to the question which dimension is primary. To the extreme, would you rather dance with someone with perfect technique and no emotion, or with someone with perfect emotion and no technique? While the former feels like a workout or some form of acrogym, the latter feels and looks more like the infamous vertical expression of a horizontal desire (and only that!). So there may be a few reasons, including a school’s reputation, for merely focusing on technique first and foremost. 

    Third, I have noticed a lot of compensatory thinking on those two dimensions: “I understand the culture and emotion, so I don’t need to learn much technique” (more often observed in cultures that have an understanding of the lyrics), or “The young maestros focus so much on technique, they completely lack the emotion” (a commonly heard old milonguero argument). The fact that this type of thinking is even advocated by supposed experts, is very troublesome. Other than for a lack of cognitive resources, there’s no reason why the two dimensions should be compensatory. It is very well possible (and desirable) to excel on both simultaneously! If one lacks the cognitive resources, it just means one needs to automate more of the process, either the emotional part (as you suggested and I described in my first point), or the technical part (through deliberate practice), or both. 

    1. Chris.Kourou Avatar

      Hi Els!
      First of all… thanks a lot for your comment.
      You are indeed raising valid points and I do agree that emotion and technique should not be developed in the expense of each other but rather in parallel.
      But let’s clarify something. One thing is the basic technique… eg. learn how to do ochos. The other is the understanding of the emotion (what is hidden behind the music). But in order to mange and express the emotion you understand from the song…. you need an additional piece of technique on top of the basic one that rather goes deeper than wider. I mean… learn to do the ochos fast… slow… with tension… relaxed… etc.
      So I think that learning about the emotion… the stories… etc… will be pointless if you don’t also find a way to express these in your dance… and the way to do this is to improve your technique. But rather than go wider in the technique and try to learn 20 different steps in the first year (which is the usual approach).. why not focus on the depth and learn 5 steps but in so many ways that will be like 100.
      So the question I guess is… what is more important in learning technique… the depth or the breadth?

      1. Els Avatar

        Hi Chris,

        When answering your question, you need to keep in mind a follower’s perspective of how it is to dance at a milonga. At any level, you tend to think you are doing great when you can follow what’s being led (because you are usually unaware of how roughly and primitively you are doing things until you advance), but the feeling of not knowing what to do at all is very confronting.

        At one of my first milongas, a leader tried something a couple of times and then concluded aloud “clearly no colgadas”. I went straight to my teacher after the tanda, asked him what’s a colgada and told him I didn’t want to go to another milonga until I knew how to follow “everything”. (To be clear, I’m not particularly interested in doing colgadas at milongas, but when someone leads an occasional colgada, I don’t want to be left hanging in there — pun intended.)

        In other words, as a follower at a milonga, you’re oblivious of your lack of depth, but your lack of breadth is very salient. So unless you want to create a situation where it takes a few years before followers can confidently dance with anyone they want at a milonga (which may not be a bad thing as it would balance things out with leaders), you need to teach them breadth first.

        1. Chris.Kourou Avatar

          First of all… if I may say one thing about that “clearly no colgadas” incident. In my opinion… you should have stopped right there, leave the tanda without any excuse and inform the organiser…. but I can also fully understand the difficulty of what I am suggesting. Anyway… that’s a topic for a whole series of posts and I have that in mind.
          I like that you bring the follower’s perspective in the topic. It’s really interesting to see the other side. Maybe what you say is the reason why most teachers follow this approach. I don’t know… but it makes sense to some extend.
          In an ideal world however (far away from ours) not having a breadth first approach would be no problem. I mean… if tango was actually educating us (as I wrote in another post)… leaders (i hate those terms) should have learned to respect their partners, adapt to their abilities and try to get the most given the specific limitations of both parties (because the situation could be inverted… although you wouldn’t hear a follower saying… not even one colgada).
          But…first and foremost they must have learned NEVER EVER to insult your partner. Personally, I might think to myself… OK… this move doesn’t work… let it go… use the rest. More like a mental note on how to adjust myself for the rest of the tanda. But I would NEVER EVER say that out loud.
          Now… in this ideal world with well educated only partners… having a teaching approach that focuses on depth first would probably be more beneficial for both parties because you would be able to enjoy more your dance even from your first steps in the long never ending journey.

          1. Andi El Adios Avatar

            General rule for leaders: start from the basics and advance. If one sees that Ochos for example are not danced correctly, don’t try more complicated things. With a bit – a tiny lil bit of watching you can see your partners capabilities from the basics.
            The described behavior shows a guy who likes to show off – not OK.
            Dancing is fun. Even with complete basics you can achieve a great looking – and feeling – result. Capabilities of good leaders start when you get the follower doing things they didn’t formally learn.
            I would agree that Colgadas and Volcadas need a great bit of knowledge to work correctly without carrying weight bags. Practically speaking – there are variations of Colgadas that can be performed by people with little to no experience… but again… dancing is not about showing off – it’s about making your “partner” look great. 🙂

  2. davidtangotribe Avatar

    I love this, and I love Els’s comments and your replies. On the same page but looking at it differently.

    In our feeling for the tango, the music is like a third partner leading both of us. So while we teach technique in a foundational, building blocks way, we do it to music. Not as in some workshops, where the group is taught a specific pattern with specific music—patterns that often fit only on specific parts of the music. Instead, we seek to guide the discovery of how dancers can fit movement elements to different musical elements.

    We agree that knowing the background of a song can add richness to the experience and interpretation of it. We can also add richness by creating our own imagined stories from the way the music makes us feel.

    1. Chris.Kourou Avatar

      Or even better… recollecting personal memories that invoke similar emotions.

      1. David Phillips Avatar

        Yes, memories of how we felt can put us in a powerful state of body-mind.

        It occurs to me that I failed to invite you, Chris, and any of your readers (& listeners) to experience the style of teaching that I described oh so briefly. The completely free Game of Argentine Tango (gameoftango.com) is our way of giving back to the tango community.


        1. chris.kourou Avatar

          Thank you so much for sharing this!
          Keep on playing!

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