All tangobloggers write at some point about learning tango. Here goes...
I've just read Arlene's post admitting her difficulty in remembering sequences, choreographies. Me too! Some people have an amazing facility for remembering, many of us don't. But I've learned a lot from video, and successfully worked out on the floor what I've watched. When I watch on screen I find it easier to break a sequence down into individual steps I'm familiar with. I don't think there are that many different steps in tango, but it's extraordinary how they can be combined and recombined. (By 'step' I mean one single step, not a sequence.)
For instance, in an ordinary salida the guy leads his partner by moving his weight to the left, then steps sideways with the left foot. Now here we reach the same position as in an ocho cortado. This must mean that we could continue an ocho cortado as if it was a salida, and vice-versa. I guess we've been drilled in salida patterns and ocho cortado patterns in classes, so this might not be immediately obvious, but it offers a simple way of giving our partners unexpected variety; a salida that ends in a cross, an ocho cortado that turns into a walk. The dynamic and the rhythm of salida and ocho cortado might be different, but the positions are identical.
This suggests a different way of teaching and learning. A few teachers sometimes offer puzzles to be solved in class: how many ways can you think of to step out from the cruzada? Can you invent more, what other possibilities are there? This seems a really useful exercise because it's an improvisational approach. Stringing memorised sequences, choreographies, together is a clumsy approach to learning an improvised dance: it's probably the cause of a good many collisions too.
A while back I assumed that the late Ricardo Vidort had cracked it. He claimed that to dance tango all you needed was eight lessons with him. I thought he might have identified eight basic positions, with an infinity of switches between them. & then I was told, yes, but he also said three classes with him, so I guess the next day it might have been six or ten! Dancing in general, rather than specific movements, must have been in his mind.
Laura, a milonguera from Buenos Aires, was in London recently, and it was a wonderful opportunity to dance with her for a while. 'What giros do you have?' she asked, then: 'I'd like to give you a giro': I liked the language a lot. The teaching method is familiar: it's as if a giro is a thing that can be passed on in its entirety. In an effort to simplify learning, the possibilities of alternatives at any step of the giro are ignored. However, this means that the giro is likely to become a brief, inflexible sequence of steps, whereas it is really a sequence of single steps each of which, I think, could lead in a different direction.
Laura talked of 'an old milonguero' who can dance only two (or was it three?) sequences, and yet he's the one all the women look forward to dancing with. (Ismael Heljalil maybe?) Of course, she still taught us new sequences, but the simple, practical advice she gave about leading, about making intention clearer, was certainly as useful as the giros she 'gave' me, and which I treasure. The classes in Buenos Aires I really valued were those where I got nuts-and-bolts observations about walking and body position. You can improvise sequences or if, like me, you're not that quick, you can work them out from YouTube or from classes, but feedback from an experienced dancer is gold dust. That's why I valued Cacho Dante's classes so highly: he took the trouble to watch me closely, and made valuable comments about the way I walked, and I think his advice was more useful than the sequences I was taught by other teachers. After all, what he told me applies to every step of every tango.
Tango teaching probably can't do without fixed sequences. However, if there is a small number of distinct positions vis-a-vis your partner, then a system based on memorising and recognising them might be useful. Memorise them so they are recognised when they occur, and learn some of the different ways to lead away from each distinct position. In theory this could lead to a more flexible kind of leading that can adapt more fluently to changes on the floor. Perhaps, after all, there are just eight distinct positions. Has anybody counted them?