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Learning to Dance Tango - Another Lightbulb Moment

We've been teaching Tango for almost 20 years, mostly in group classes, and occasionally in private lessons. Although we have always known that students improve much faster in private lessons, we have not given too much thought to why.

Following the easing of Covid restrictions on dance classes in early 2021 (with thanks to Ausdance for negotiating the Dance Industry Covidsafe Plan), we decided to re-start with private classes. We are delighted with the speed at which new students are acquiring excellent technique, compared with group classes; so much so that we are not looking at public group classes for the foreseeable future.

Then this......I had been aware that Christine Denniston is regarded as one of the definitive sources of writing (in English) on Argentine Tango. However, I decided to purchase her book, “The Meaning Of Tango: The Story of the Argentinian Dance".

The book, especially the following passage, crystallised our thinking on why group classes are difficult, if not impossible to impart the technique and essence that is required to dance social Tango at a high level.

She compares modern group classes with the Argentine tradition of learning in a practica. Unfortunately, the practica, in its classic form is extinct. Modern practicas tend to be a casual milonga-style events, at worst with beginners attempting to teach beginners or practice together. There are insufficient competent dancers, especially male dancers, to enable a practica to work effectively. However, we find that one-on-one lessons and very small private groups substitute effectively.

The Meaning of Tango - Christine Denniston

“People with little knowledge of the history of Tango tend to assume that to learn to dance the Tango (or any other dance), the thing to do is to go to a beginners’ class. At that beginners’ class they assume that they will learn a step, which they will try to do with another beginner who has also just learned the step, and that then they will go to a dance and try and repeat that step with someone else who already knows it.

Learning technique is not something many novices give much thought to, unless they are told that it is what they need to do. At a beginners’ class, and probably at a dance that follows it, they will be surrounded by other beginners. They rely on the teacher, and perhaps a small group of more advanced students, to give them the information they need about the dance, and put their faith in the assumption that the teacher must know what they are talking about, or they would not be teaching a class”.

“One of the fundamental differences between a class and a práctica as a way of passing on the dance is that in a group class the student generally receives the bulk of their information through the eyes and ears, and processes that information mentally in an attempt to communicate it to the body, while in a práctica the person learning receives information through the body, directly from the body of the more experienced dancer. In a class the student relies on the teacher having two skills–skill in the dance itself, plus the ability to communicate that skill in a way the student can comprehend.

It was rare to find people who learned to dance in the prácticas of the Golden Age who had the ability to articulate and explain the highly developed skills in the dance that they possessed.

Conversely, sometimes people who were skilled communicators, able to teach a class with conviction and confidence, did not have an equivalent level of skill in the dance, and might teach things that would not have been recognised by the dancers of the Golden Age–the dancers who represented the continuous, living tradition of Tango–as being Tango at all. It is a very fortunate student who finds a teacher who has true knowledge and understanding of the dance, as well as the skills to communicate that knowledge.”

“A friend of mine in Buenos Aires, who decided she wanted to learn the Tango in the early 1980s, like many another beginner, looked for a class. Because she was a trained dancer, she picked up the steps very quickly, and before long she was the teacher’s assistant. After about eighteen months, out of curiosity, she decided to go to a milonga. She walked in, looked at the dancers, and instantly realised that what she had been learning for a year and a half had absolutely nothing to do with the Tango. She fled the milonga in floods of tears.

Fortunately, she had both the insight to understand what had happened, and the determination to start again from scratch. She found Golden Age dancers to learn from, she worked hard, and she became a wonderful Tango dancer with beautiful technique, helping to carry forwards the tradition of the dancers of the Golden Age. This may be an extreme, but it is not so very different from my own first experience of Tango, or the experience of others around the world.”

“Fashions change in the new generation of dancers in Buenos Aires, and in the rest of the world.

The early Tango Renaissance (1983 - 1990) was dominated by complicated steps, often at the expense of technique. This is not surprising, as the steps are the easiest thing for a newcomer to see. Complicated steps are instantly appealing, especially to those with a dance background, or with a desire to perform. In the 1990s there was a backlash against the complicated figures. Some people in the younger generation felt that people were using steps as a way of keeping at bay the intimate connection that Tango called for, and, indeed, there were those who did.

A new style became fashionable, inspired by the choreographically pared-down style that some people who danced in the 1940s referred to as ‘the style of the 1950s’ which brought the connection between the partners and with the music into a sharper focus.

This new style was given the name ‘Estilo Milonguero’. Many people began to assume that this was the only authentic style of Tango in the Golden Age, although it was based on a style used by a minority of dancers at that time. When done well, this style is delightful, though it is not the whole story of Tango. And ironically, some young dancers have found a way of using the closer hold made popular by this style to keep their partner at a greater emotional distance, by changing the relationship between the hearts.”

“While fashions in the Tango scene may come and go, there always have been and always will be those whose love of Tango takes them beyond the surface to a deeper understanding of the true nature of the dance.”

“Trying to describe the technique used by dancers who danced the Tango in Buenos Aires during the Golden Age can make it seem very complicated. There are many details to get right if the dance is to work as the people who created it experienced it.

But it all becomes simple if the dancer remembers that the essence of good technique is to keep the two hearts perfectly together at all times throughout the dance, and that the purpose of this is to give the most satisfying dance to both partners, both emotionally and creatively.

Good technique is designed to create an emotional connection, and also to create a framework that gives the maximum possible choreographic freedom. Good technique takes time and effort to acquire. Learning a step may take an hour. Acquiring excellent technique may take years of practice–but it also makes learning new steps so easy that it becomes trivial.”

Extracted from - “The Meaning Of Tango: The Story of the Argentinian Dance by Christine Denniston”. (available on Amazon)

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