Monday, February 08, 2010

Common myths about learning Tango

Here are the most common myths or fallacies about learning to dance Argentine Tango. I've heard each countless times from people, so I thought I would share with you why these statements/beliefs keep you from becoming an excellent dancer.

“ I am a good follower, just lead me” …. FALSE!!!

Tango requires communication. Just as you can not understand another person by having them speak a foreign language to you, you can not learn Tango by just having someone lead you. Someone has to take the time and the effort to explain to you how to embrace, how to move, how to allow your legs to respond freely, how walk elegantly.

Sure you can go to another country and ask people on the street how to speak their language. You will ask taxi drivers, waiters, salespersons, maybe even some random people on the street. And you will learn some of the language, some of it will be slang, some of it will be colloquialisms, some of it will be close to what you wanted to say but not really what you think you are saying. But to really, learn to speak well. One has to study the language with a teacher and a grammar book.

Likewise in Tango, you can learn lots of things on the dance floor, some good, some not so good. And you will think you are doings right but you may not be, and you may learn patterns but not necessarily how to really follow a leader. To do this, one must take classes. And to really learn the fine points requires, one must pony up for private lessons and the workshop.

The only real way for you not to spend money learning Tango is if you start dating someone who is an excellent dancer. This is how many women and and men have learned. If you are cute/sexy (also helps if you are young!) you can probably get lots of free lessons both on and off the dance floor. Some very well known and excellent dancers in San Diego started out by flirting/dating increasingly better dancers. (Some of you may not like this but hey, I am telling you the truth!)

Any dancer can teach Tango… FALSE!

Understanding how the body moves, how to communicate it effectively and positively to different learners, and how the other person in Tango moves is not a gift that everyone has.

All good dance teachers I know are first and foremost excellent dancers. So unless the person teaching you Tango on the dance floor is a respected and admired dancer. You are either wasting your time or learning to dance incorrectly. One sees lots of people dancing at the Milonga; some of the women look beautiful, graceful, elegant. Find out who they learned from and go to them. Other women look clunky with inelegant legs and feet. Find out how they learned and avoid making the same mistakes.

Some men will lead you with a soft yet firm embrace that guides you almost intuitively into the next step. These are men you can learn from. Other men jerk you around, move seemingly unaware of the musicality, and repeat the same things over and over again. A smart woman would disregard whatever these individual say.

I’ve learned Tango” x” months/years ago, I don’t need classes anymore. …FALSE!!!

Tango is an ongoing learning process. A true milonguero never stops learning. Once you understand one aspect of tango you realize that there is more to tango for you to learn. I’ve allude it to earlier but there is no place for a puffed up Ego in learning to dance Tango. Time and time again you will be forced to relearn, unlearn, and change the way you dance. My advice lose the pride and focus on improving your movement though I personally prefer to do it with someone who focuses on positive suggestions instead of negative feedback.

Besides your body changes. And, your ability to control your body changes. If you do not dance regularly, it becomes difficult to control and move your body the way you once did. If you dance regularly, you can forget about certain basic concepts or find yourself picking up strange movement habits that feel awkward or wrong to you or to your partner and that prevent you from executing certain movements that you once learned in a workshop.

If you are not getting comments like, “your dancing is getting better,” or “I really enjoyed dancing with you, save me another dance,” they you are not getting better you are more likely getting worse. Less dancing and dancing with less accomplished dancers will surely follow. If you are a men, women will say “No” to you or will not even look at you to avoid you asking them. And if you are a follower, the guys you want to dance with will pass you up for someone else.

It does not matter with whom you learn Tango… FALSE!!!

I’ve had some people come to me after going to Argentina and tell me that even after a year of private lessons that they could not dance at all in the milongas of Buenos Aires. How could this happen? First of all, there are some people teaching Tango in San Diego who teach steps and patterns instead of teaching how to dance, how to connect or how to lead/follow. Some instructors will have you perform without you even knowing how to social dance. Some will mix salsa, ballroom Tango, and swing into what they are teaching you and tell you it is all Argentine Tango. Worse yet, some will do all three!

I know because I’ve seen it. And, because I dance with some of the followers. I know this because I end up helping people unlearn some things and learn to really dance Argentine Tango in our group classes and private lessons.

Just recently I witnessed a well known instructor watch as a private student walked back in a grotesque, Quasimoto fashion, without the instructor making even the simplest correction.

Some instructors will not correct you at all so it takes years of private lessons to learn if you learn at all. Some instructors focus on point out everything you do wrong so pretty soon you are hesitant/afraid to do anything. Some teachers push their beginner students to advanced classes or just to fill the room or teach them complex movements that require doing 4-5 things simultaneously. For example, I once took a performance class and encountered a follower who had only take 2 tango lessons and never danced socially. She was there because her teacher said she would benefit from it. Excuse me! No wonder she could not follow the complex movements required for the routine we were learning. I never saw her again. Some teachers encourage their students, even beginning students, to take all their classes resulting in students who are thoroughly confused about what they are doing because the classes teach different dance styles.

Unfortunately, this is hard for a beginners to discover. So I recommend trying different teachers. Even if you love your teacher, try some of the classes offered by other popular instructors. I guarantee you will either learn to appreciate your teacher even more or you will discover an approach to learning Tango that is easier and more logical.

One can learn to dance Tango from videos and online sources like YouTube. FALSE.

Videos are good for remembering and not so good for learning. Here is why:

Videos do not provide feedback as to whether you or your partner are doing things right or not. Sometimes when I’ve tried learning something from a video and when I can get my partner to “do” the video with me, we end up disagreeing as to why things are not working the way they are supposed on the video. For this reason, it is difficult to find someone to learn from a video with you.

Videos often miss subtle but critical detail. No video that I have ever seen details everything that the dancers (lead or follow) is doing. What is often missed are weight changes, and slight changes in orientation of the feet and torso. This is particularly the case in youtube performance videos and even in “instructional” videos found on sites like “YouTube”

The end result in learning from videos is that you learn the steps but not how to execute properly, with control, or elegantly. I’ve seen several local dancers who pride themselves on learning lots of “cool” moves from videos unfortunately, none of these dancers “look” cool executing these moves. They tend to look like beginners doing complex steps badly.

I tried learning vueltas from tapes and event though I had already been introduce to vueltas, and even though I watched the tape at least 20 times, once or twice even with a follower, vueltas are still problematic for me. Is it my inability to dance or the fact that I may have been doing something wrong those 20 times?

But as my first Tango instructor Alberto Paz said, “There is no documented evidence that anyone has ever learned to dance Tango solely from videos.”

Still it does not prevent me from buying or collecting videos even though I’ve rarely watched them and most not at all.

I realize some people are loath to spend money on learning to dance Tango. Maybe you can do a trade with a teacher or with another dancer. Remember though not everyone who offers to teach you is not necessarily a good teacher and their interests maybe me more than just teaching you.

I’ve taken the beginners/intermediate/advanced course, I am ready for the next level or

I’ve already learned _________ (fill in the blank with molinete, sacada, voleos, etc.) I am ready for something else.

Tango is not difficult dance but it is neither an easy dance. And just because someone explained to you a particular movement on one occasion and you got it right. It does not guarantee that you will be able to do it on the dance floor, with different leaders, or when they are leading you to do it. They say walking is the first thing you learn in Tango and the last thing you master. Many of us have been humbled by paying big bucks for private lesson with famous dancer only to spend the entire hour on walking.

The really good dancers keep taking beginners classes because they always learn something that improves their dancing and because they realize the improving the basic technique is fundamental to improving their dancing. Go back to the above paragraph!

Leading good weight changes, pivots, displacements, suspensions, is critical to all the fancy moves and combinations on the dance floor.

I’ve learned some things twelve times and I am still trying to execute the movements flawlessly.

Women have the hardest time improving their molinete technique. For me, the quality, consistency, and dependability of the follower molinete is what separates a beginner from an intermediate and an intermediate dancer to one of my favorite dancers. I’ve seen women work for years to get it right and even for the best followers, there is still room for improvement. The same applies to leaders.

Some students of their own choice end up in classes and workshops way over their head (I have been guilty of this) and attempt, for example, sacadas or volcadas without having the prerequisite muscle control, flexibility, or understanding of the frame and connection. The end result is contorted body movement that look grotesque and disjointed and even result in injury to their partner’s feet or legs. Women have been dropped, their ankle joints twisted, the head banged on the floor. I once took a class that was beyond my physical dexterity. I had sweat pouring down my face, my back was all wet from perspiration, and my partner was not having fun.

My advice- take the “All Levels” classes. Stay in the beginner and intermediate classes for as long as you continue to learn something from them. Take the intermediate or advanced classes only when a good dancers recommend it to you and not when you think you are ready.

Work on your fundamentals and you will become a better tango dancer. This is what Mikhail Baryshnikov does before dancing and before performing. This is why visiting Tango professionals, at least the good ones, always start with basic technique. Remember, learning Tango is about learning to control your body so it moves on command, elegantly, effortlessly. This take practice and study.


Learning to dance Tango is a process and a life long endeavor. This is the frustration/joy of dancing Tango depending on your point of view. But it is clear that to dance with good dancers, you need to be a good dancer yourself and while one in a thousand will dance excellent Tango in less than a year. 99.9% of us take years of continual effort to arrive at a point that we can relax and enjoy Tango for the bliss that it delivers to our soul. None of us learn it by ourselves and, all of us need to continue improving or we get worse at dancing Tango. This is what it comes down to. We are either getting worse or getting better. This is our choice.


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