I got a surprise email from Cassiel, a German tango blogger, asking me if I would be willing to post on Tangocommuter a translation of his interviews with Melina Sedó. Not only willing, but absolutely delighted! Melina Sedó and Detlef Engel are known as among the very best European teachers and dancers. Moreover, they are kept extremely busy: I read that their schedule for 2011 is already booked solid. This is wonderful news because it means that a serious, large tango community that values an elegant, musical, close-embrace tango is beginning to develop in Europe.
The interview is in three parts, of which this is the first. The rest will follow over the next few weeks. The German version of Part I is here. Translation, many thanks to Tricia Bruce.
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Today’s interviewee needs no introduction from me. Melina Sedó & her partner Detlef Engel are internationally recognised Tango teachers. On 2nd Sept 2010, Melina spent over three hours talking to me though the medium of Skype.
We agreed to focus on “Teaching Tango”. The interview is divided into three sections:-
1. Introduction and teaching Tango to beginners
2. Workshops, such as those held at Festivals
3. The role of self confidence in Tango
Melina & Detlef live in Saarbrücken, Germany, when they are not travelling on behalf of Tango
This article is an accurate record of our conversation, with very light editing from Melina. The original text was published in three parts on http://tangoplauderei.blogspot.com/2010/10/melina-sedo-zur-didaktik-im-tango.html in German. This version was translated by Tricia Bruce, with kind permission of Melina Sedo & Cassiel.
For convenience and economy throughout the English text, “he” and “his” is used to refer to both men and woman.
Cassiel: Hello, Melina, it’s great to finally get some time with you. Shall we just plunge straight in?
As I prepared for this interview, I wondered how best to describe you. Not that we would need to, but I’m still interested. Tanguera? DJ? Tango-teacher? Tango professional? All these are accurate, but scarcely sufficient. How would you describe yourself?
Melina Sedó: Hi Cassiel. Thank you for inviting me to this interview. In Tango, I do all those roles, but I would describe myself principally as a Tango teacher and organiser. Although, of course, at the moment, the hours I spend on organisation, preparation, travel planning and marketing, bookkeeping and contact management far outweigh the hours spent teaching. ;-) In my heart, I’d say just Tanguera, but these days I just don’t get enough time.
Cassiel: Just roughly, then, how many hours do you spend on average on Tango each week. (Can you even give us any kind of rough idea?)
Melina Sedó: well, for me, all the organising counts as Tango. Most weeks, we spend two full working days in a car, train or airplane, travelling for Tango; I’d probably say six days a week, and sometimes, those are very long days, morning to evening, and long into the night.
Cassiel: Is Tango still fun, for you, after so many, such intensive years? Or do you find yourself tiring of the intensity?
Melina Sedó: The dance is still fun, as is teaching, DJ-ing, organising. But, of course, I’m often pretty exhausted, and, above all, tired of the constant travelling. I would love to spend more time at home, but, at the moment, that just isn’t possible. And when we do get a free weekend, it’s not unusual for us to hit the road again, to visit another festival, just for fun. And yes, nowadays, that doesn’t happen much, simply because we just don’t get that many free weekends. There’s no doubt about it, that it’s a huge challenge and not something that I see myself doing for ever, certainly not at this current level of intensity.
Cassiel: How do you relax, do you get any time for hobbies?
Melina Sedó: My favourite hobby is to lie on my sofa and read a book. Or watch some DVDs in the evening. When I can find the time and energy, I love historical fantasy role playing with my friends. I’ve also just started a University distance learning course, which is bound to take many, many years.
Cassiel: Distance learning? What are you reading?
Melina Sedó: A Masters in Modern European History and Literature, which I’ve always wanted to study.
Cassiel: That sounds very interesting, but we’ve got to leave that there and turn to Tango. We agreed that this interview would focus on “Teaching Tango” We had to choose a focus, or I would have needed days for this interview. Would you like to start with a definition, or shall I get started on my questions?
Melina Sedó: Well, it’s very sensible to narrow the focus, because I enjoy writing and will produce lots. We don’t want to bore your readers, so let’s get going with your first question.
Cassiel: Great, let’s start at the beginning. You (that’s you and your partner Detlef Engel) do introductions to Tango and teach beginner classes. What can you tell us about your teaching? How would you describe your approach? What do you cover in the first three or five hours? As teachers, what do you focus on?
Melina Sedó: Well, for a start, that’s quite a lot of questions, and I have a lot of material to answer them. Starting with classes for beginners: We held regular courses for beginners for years, so we have built up a good deal of experience. Nowadays, we teach exclusively at workshops, festivals or Tango holidays. When I talk about courses for beginners, I’m speaking from an historical perspective, but everything I say is just as relevant to a workshop working on fundamentals at a festival, and in many ways, to our approach to teaching in general.
Teaching beginners is a big challenge and carries a great responsibility. It also has the most scope for getting things wrong. Sadly, all too many courses or workshops for beginners are given by beginner teachers. Somehow, people think that you don’t need to dance that well, or know much, to teach beginners. For example, in France, there are a lot of clubs and associations, where they teach the beginners themselves, and get in professional teachers for the more experienced dancers. I’m not saying that the professionals are better, but it does rather suggest that ‘anyone can teach beginners’.
In fact, the opposite is true. It’s not very difficult to show a very advanced dancer a new figure, but getting a beginner to walk in a pleasant embrace requires a lot of skill. Amongst other things, in the beginners’ course everyone will be very different. The teacher will be faced with a very wide range of experience and abilities, with experienced dancers alongside people with no talent for movement; people who have been training their bodies for dance or sport for years, alongside people, who are trying to move in a coordinated way for the first time after years of leading a sedentary lifestyle. We meet people who have issues with being that close to someone else, others who have enormous difficulties with taking any decision or just standing self confidently in front of a partner. And we will be teaching people who have no relationship to music, who are suddenly required to walk to a beat. It all means that we have to help them feel good in their own skin, to openly and proudly embrace another person and then walk to the beat.
A beginners’ course is not just about getting the right technique in place, it’s also about getting people into the right mindset to produce social dancers rather than aspiring show dancers. So, lessons must cover music, milonga etiquette and how we keep harmony on the dance floor.
There is another issue, in that different people learn in different ways. Some people need a logical explanation, others to watch the teachers demonstrate, others still just need time to try things out for themselves, or understand what it’s supposed to feel like by dancing with the teacher. So we try to reach people on lots of different ways, by providing opportunities for intellectual, kinaesthetic and visual ways of learning. We often ask questions or set puzzles for people to work out themselves, whether through reasoning, or by trying it out. We use pictures a lot and occasionally include a touch of humour to help release tension.
I have to say, though, that really very unintelligent people tend to struggle with our methodology, as we both tend towards an intellectual approach. You are not very likely to hear us say ‘have a look and copy us’. There is certainly no learning of choreography, which doesn’t mean that we never teach figures. It just that figures play only a very minor role in our approach. For example, we never teach the Basic8 which takes us onto a whole new topic.
There are, sadly, too many teachers who believe that they have to entertain their students with figures, right from the start, because that’s what they, the students, demand. My only response to that is “Utter Nonsense”. If you tell any grown-up of at least average intelligence that Tango is about walking in the embrace and that before we can do any complex figures we have got to get to grips with the basics, they will understand. It’s not different to learning to play any sport or musical instrument. That’s why we take our time to get to grips with the basics and then write up and circulate our own notes. Our students, whether they join a course or a workshop, are given handouts covering the basic principles, ideas around improvisation, musical concepts, diagrams and lots of other ‘stuff’. That’s how we ensure that the key learning points, the concepts and the details, don’t get lost. The class is just the start of the learning process; our write up can help to accelerate that process.
That doesn’t mean that students in our classes have to “cram” or train for months before they finally get to go dancing. Quite the reverse, we teach simple elements which mean that they can join in a milonga right from their first class. Lots of couples find themselves having real “aha-moments” right from their first lesson, when they discover just how good, good communication can feel,
Our ‘beginners’’, which by the way we often run as a workshop for very advanced dancers at festivals, includes:
• Solo posture
• Solo elementary steps (forward, back, sideways)
• Embracing your partner, positioning for the embrace
• Distinguishing the lead for a weight change in place and a side step.
• Walking with your partner, in parallel system, in the line of dance
• Walking in single, double and half time
• Possibly covering changing tracks in parallel system
• Later, changing into cross basic, walking in cross basic, pivots, ochos as a combination of a steps and pivots; turns as a combination of weight changes, steps and pivots
The way we see it, in Tango, there are five words or elements: steps in three directions, plus weight changes and pivots. The grammar consists of the parallel and cross basic systems together with the knowledge of turns around different axes’. There you have the language of Tango, with no need to learn whole sentences off by heart. It means that using our methodology, and depending on the intensity of the training, the size of class and the aptitude, it can take months before a student will first meet a turn. In our classes, it will be two years before you meet a gancho, voleo or any other exotic move.
By the way, we always leave it up to our students to choose the type of embrace. Our concept will work with any style; all our movements are suitable for close as well as for open embrace. People tend to find close embrace more difficult, so beginners often start with a more open embrace
Cassiel: I’d like to drill down into some of the things that often lead to issues. What do you do for people with bad posture or those who have trouble hearing the music? (What tracks do you usually use for classes?). How do you address issues in the embrace or in the communication between the partners in the embrace? What else, what I missed? How do you stay patient while helping beginners find the right solutions for themselves?
Melina Sedó: well, now, we are getting to the heart of it all. To fully understand the answers to some of those questions, you would really need to join in one of our workshops. You can only get a very superficial answer from reading my words. First of all, I’ll leave out issues in posture, which go beyond the scope of this article. Issues with the music are very common, we so a lot of work on musicality, solo and in couples, just walking simply. We never use complicated figures or ways of moving in classes on musical interpretation. We practice musicality through listening, clapping, stepping in place, and walking. In this way, we start by removing all the difficulties caused by complicated figures. It amazing how well you can express the music when you concentrate on simple walking, with different tempos, rhythmic variations, dynamics, techniques etc. This is the key to our teaching, and our dance.
What music do we use? That depends very much on the musical theme, and would be beyond the scope of this interview. In the average workshop, in which we are focused more on the technique of movement and communication, we either use slow music without much rhythm (Disarli) or simple, slow rhythmic music (Canaro). In some, selected classes, we use quite different music, for example, we start milonga with some warm ups to African music. Choosing the music is always a significant part of our preparation for each class. When we cover specific musical themes, like rhythm or melody, syncopation and lots of other points, we always provide copies of the music for our students to download.
Issues with the embrace are a continual bug-bear, and, just like your question about posture, talking or writing doesn’t really get to it, you need to be there. Some points worth mentioning, though, are that we take plenty of time, and work a lot with pictures. Good basics play a very important role here. We work with circular, natural movements of the upper body to communicate within the couple, which allow the arms to relax. Lots of tangueros are still under the impression that they need their arms, in a fixed frame, to communicate. This causes a level of tension and interferes with a real embrace. By the way, we even have a special workshop which deals entirely with relaxed communication in the embrace.
And, yes, it takes time. But then, that won’t exactly be news to you, will it?