Saturday, January 08, 2005

New blood is spilled needlessly.

It is hard enough to learn how to dance Argentine Tango without us making it harder for beginners than it needs to be.

Here are just a few of the horror stories I have heard from beginners:
1: A leader comes to a class after taking privates for several months from two different instructors and still does not know how to walk.

2: A couple is utterly and completely fustrated because after a month of lessons their minds are full of steps and patterns which they can not execute.

3: A beginners comes to an introductory class and is asked to dance only by other beginners who proceed to give her impromptu and contradictory dance lessons.

The end result is that the San Diego Tango community grows barely if at all and that beginners must really, really, really want to dance Tango in order to persevere against initial negative experiences. If you don't believe me, just keep track of the number of new faces at the milongas and how quickly they disappear.

So why does this happen? What could be done differently? I will share some of my thoughts and hopefully will hear from others about why this happens.

In the ideal world, beginners would be welcome with big smiles and open arms. Instead, I sometimes think they are seen as either marlin or pyranas. Let me explain what I mean. With an abundance of Tango instructors relative to newcommers, there is a tendency to view beginners as marlins. Big fish that need to be reeled, tied to the boat, and protected from the sharks lest another instructor draw them away from your class or from your privates. The other tendency is to view newcomers as pyranas and stay away from them as much as possible that they either do not dance at all at the Milonga or when they dance, they end up dancing only with other beginners who give them bad and often contradictory instructions. e.g. you are supposed to cross your legs now or here you do a gancho.

First a couple of obvious facts, at least to me. One, just because you dance Tango does not mean that you know how to teach. Two, just because someone says your a teacher does not mean you either dance well or know how to teach. Third, teaching begginers patterns instead of teaching them how to "dance" only makes it harder for them to learn and delays their learning to dance. And last, learning lots of shows moves that you execute by steering your follower with your arms does not make you a good dancer nor a good instructor.

Fortunately, humans are adaptable and you could still learn to dance Tango and dance it well if you were to suffer a teacher who is not a good instructor, teaches you pattern after pattern or gets you to dance by moving you around. It will just take two or three times as long, cost you much more, and deny you the joy of feeling the Tango connection for an unnecessarily long, long time.

I think dance instructors have a responsibility to welcome beginners to Tango. I still recall going to my first milonga and knowing absolutely no one. Tango teachers should be ambassadors and as such should perform their ambassadorial duty of dancing with beginners. No need to spend the entire night dancing with beginners nor is it necessary to dance full tandas with them. But a dance or two with beginners will give them a chance to see what Tango is like. If you are a Tango instructor and you do not do this, shame on you!

If you are going to be a Tango instructor, you should learn how to dance well. This is not the case of those who do well, do and those who don't, teach. You need to be a good dancer in order to teach. Otherwise, you end up teaching incorrectly because you are giving examples with your own dancing. Several promising beginners were litteraly destroyed because they started taking lessons from individuals who had no business teaching because of their bad body posture an their continual steering of the student. How they became teachers is still a mystery to me.

And finally, if you are going to teach, learn how to teach people to dance instead of teaching them steps. We have a mental straightjacket in this country that people learn by doing steps and patterns and there is a whole dance industry devoted to teaching and promoting dance choreographies. But Tango is by nature improvisational so patterns taught without the underlying technique are in my opinion a waste of time, energy, and resources. There is absolutely no reason why a couple should not know about walking, leading, following, embrace and torque after a month of lessons.

Yes, as I said, people eventually ge it but what a terribly price we pay for our own inability to teach well. Beginners become fustrated, lose interest in Tango and leave. I venture that this the experience of the majority if not the large majority of beginners.

More on what could be done differently next time.