Monday, 1 November 2010

Interview with Melina Sedó: Part II

Many apologies for not getting Part II of Tricia Bruce's translation of Cassiel's interview with Melina Sedó onto Tangocommuter for almost a week. I've just been very busy with non-tango stuff. It happens.

Once again, Melina Sedó is to be found here, and Cassiel's original German version is on his blog, here. If you have any comments or questions, do leave them as comments, and Melina will answer you.

Tango teaching is very new: none of the acknowledged 'milonguero' dancers ever went to classes - the very idea seems ludicrous. Before the current interest in tango, there was very little organised teaching, so the best way to teach a lot of people in the context of a culture in which tango isn't mainstream might not be obvious. These days, most teachers decide to teach 'steps': repeatable patterns of foot and body movements. It's a mechanical approach: it is necessary to some extent, but perhaps rather misses the point of tango. Melina and Detlef's approach, starting from musicality and improvisation, and encountering 'steps' as examples, rather than as the dance itself, might be a better way to encounter the world steeped in tango music of BsAs 70 years ago, in which those we call 'milonguero' grew up.

- - - -

Cassiel: Let's turn to another typical Tango situation, which has a similar scope for causing issues, albeit with completely different causes. Take any workshop at any festival. How do you agree the topic, or theme? What are the typical issues you find amongst the participants? How do you address them?

Melina Sedó: Well, that’s another whole heap of questions in one. I’ll start with how we agree the theme. We send out our list of workshop themes, which comes sorted in priority order, with Fundamentals, Improvisation and Musicality right at the top. We don’t do workshops which just cover steps, or figures. Steps tend only to crop up at the end of our workshops, as examples, or when we are working on improvisation.

We also rule out lots of potential themes; we never teach ways of moving that are not suitable for the Salon, or which require breaking the embrace. Any organiser who just wants us to teach figures, and who isn’t interested in our work on fundaments, would probably be better off engaging other teachers. There are plenty of other teaches who are prepared to do just that.

This does tend to mean we exchange lots of emails before an agreed theme finally emerges. Naturally there are always organisers who want to cram everything in to a weekend, and those who are looking for the latest Nuevo figures. My job then becomes, to tie it all down to something do-able, which plays to our strengths and so that anyone who attends all the workshops can see how the material covered in each workshop builds on all the previous ones. Typical Themes include:

• Walking in the embrace
• Walking with elegant variations
• Improvisation with pivots, ochos and linear turns
• Savouring Tango: Discovering Tango danced slowly, with savour
• Elegant variations of the cross
• Tango Milongero: improvisation around the ocho-cortado
• Salon Survival Guide
• Musicality: Expression and dynamics of movement
• Musicality: Rhythm & Melody
• Vals - the music

The trickiest question for us is always about different levels. Many organisers expect each workshop proposal to come with an indication of what level of experience is required to attend. We don’t really have any regular concept of levels of experience required; only occasionally do we have to set out a level of experience required to attend. Generally, we just announce the themes and let each couple decide whether they are ready for that theme. We tend to find couples in our workshops have a very wide range of experience, from beginners to professionals. This really isn’t an issue for us; in each workshop we start with the basics and build up from there. At each point in the workshop, each pair can decide whether to accept more input or continue to work on the material that they have so far.

Take, for example, our workshop on elegant variations on the ocho. We start with the axis, techniques for pivoting, ochos as a combination of steps and pivots, communicating a simple ocho (forwards and backwards) in couples, one or two examples of using ochos followed by musical variations. So, a beginner couple can stick with the simple ochos, while more advanced couples explore further possibilities to apply these techniques. Couples who come to our lessons are seldom looking for advice on more figures, it’s not unusual that we would work with the more advanced couples on details of communication and technique which they have discovered for themselves within this workshop format. This means that everyone can learn at their own pace, and take responsibility for their own learning. If everyone in the workshop appears to be struggling with the material, then we can refocus on a subset of the material, or even change the focus entirely.

We don't tend to get problems with "step collectors"; they just won't be attracted by what we have to offer. Anyone who sees our videos, or reads our web page, will know that we concentrate on the quality of movement and we won’t don't waste any time on figures.

There is also the question of the size of the group in a workshop, especially at festivals. We find that the ideal number is about 8 couples, but organisers, especially those looking to keep the cost of workshops down, can have a different perspective. We often work with 12-15 couples over a weekend of workshops. Workshops at festivals, especially those held in the USA, can attract huge, practically numbers. We think the record is currently held by Portland, where there were over 100 couples participating. When it’s that big, it’s just impossible for us to provide any individual attention or even to accept questions, all we can do is lecture.

In the end, environmental factors can have a significant influence on the quality of the teaching. Regardless of how well we prepare and try to follow a theme, if the theme is not well chosen, the group just too big or the numbers are uneven, well, no-one is really going to get as much out of it as they could have, were the circumstances different. In my preparation with the organisers, I try to eliminate that sort of issue as far as possible. We find it usually works pretty well..

Cassiel: Can I interrupt just to clarify, what do you mean by „uneven“? I‘m not quite following you.

Melina Sedó: When we have different numbers of leaders and followers in the same workshop.

Cassiel: How does it feel to you, to only ever working with a group for a short time, and then leaving them behind ? Do you find it becoming unsatisfactory?

Melina Sedó
: I’d need to think about that. Probably not, because the advantages of this way of doing things tends to outweigh the disadvantages. At weekend workshops, the participants are usually more relaxed and motivated, compared to those in an evening class on a weekday. They are taking the time for some intensive tango and really want to learn. That means they are ready to focus on a lot of material over a concentrated period of time and really make some progress.

Weekday courses are often attended by tired, stressed people who just want to be entertained with figures. That doesn‘t work so well with our ways of working. For years, we did regular courses using our methodology; students did tend to stay with us. I am sure, however, that lots of them would have been satisfied with a „step of the week“ followed by drink together after class. That‘s why we now find workshops and tango holidays more satisfying. We are often invited to return to a particular location, or people travel to different locations to attend our workshops, so we get to meet up with some people regularly and can follow their progress over the years.

Cassiel: Which participants do you remember? I am extremely forgetful with names.

Melina Sedó: I usually manage to remember a good number, when you consider the sheer numbers who attend our workshops. It helps that we collect email addresses, so that we can circulate our hand outs and provide information on future events, a gentle form of advertising. In that way, I manage to stay in regular contact with lots of people. Some seven send us written questions to issues that they have identified which we answer as fully as possible given all the demands on our time.

Cassiel: Do you provide any training for tango teacher‘s? If so, how do you approach teacher training? How much value should be placed on the actual teaching, when you are teaching teachers? Please tell us something about your approach

Melina Sedó: That’s quite a topic. I think that many tango teachers could do with some well grounded training, but, of course, you can’t make a great teacher of someone with no capability for teaching.

There are just too many tango teachers who want to demonstrate their charm and ability, for whom the students are entirely secondary. Many „Maestro“ show dancers think they can teach tango, but what does show tango have to do with teaching social tango? The capacity to transmit knowledge requires the right personality: an interest in education together with the ability to get on with people. Given the right personality, I‘d suggest that tango teacher training should cover:

• Technique and improvisation
• A few examples
• Knowledge of music and musical interpretation (Tango Milonga Vals)
• Social aspects of the milonga
• Basic DJ ability and basic knowledge of the history of tango music
• Basic knowledge of movement and anatomy (really only the basics, we are not training medics)
• Educational theory and didactics as would covered for adult education and sport education.

It‘s about being as clear as possible about the „what“ and the „how“ of such an education. Any teacher should be very clear in advance about what to teach, what themes will be covered, full details of how the lesson will unfold, plus the exercises which will be included. The training should cover this, and provide opportunities to practice. I don’t think its particularly important to include:

• The History of Tango (there are plenty of books where anyone interested can read that up)
• Choreography (completely unnecessary, unless you are training show dancers)

I don’t have any experience with the existing teacher training opportunities, so I can’t make any recommendations. Based on my observations of, and discussion with teachers and graduates of a variety of schools, I suspect that they continue to place far too much weight on figures and other irrelevancies. We have been wondering whether we should start tango teacher training, especially since we have already done some teacher training in France. We would need to have a close look at the potential market. If we were to start, we would certainly be focusing on an international market.

Cassiel: lets get a bit more specific: what are the minimum qualifications for a tango teacher?

Melina Sedó: A tango teacher...

- needs the intellectual capability to pass on knowledge in a structured but still flexible and empathetic way.
- Doesn’t need to be the greatest dancer, but does need the capacity to demonstrate everything he teachers slowly, without mistakes and with the music.
- Does need to know his own limits, and to restrict himself to teach only what he really knows
We have refined our own concept over the years. We started out using it, before we had dotted all the i s and crossed all the t s. While our backgrounds (in Psychology, Engineering, Technical Teaching) helped us to some extent, the major input came from the real life problems that we encountered in classes. That’s why I would say that being open to change and and looking for continual improvement are key to developing and maintaining a logically coherent teaching methodology.

But then that‘s pretty obvious, and therefore not terribly interesting, "innit"?

Cassiel: Now, I‘m going to ask you again, I’m looking for your personal opinion. What are the typical mistakes made by tango teachers and what are the long term consequences?

Melina Sedó: Typically, tango teachers tend to:

- expect too much of their students;
- forget or drift away from their teaching approach, or don’t have one in the first place;
- overestimate their own abilities
- are too quick to pick up on fads, or ‚customer requirements‘, especially when these are not any kind of fit to their own style ; and
- Give too much prominence to teaching figures

We expect that in the longer term,the impacts would include:-
- Incorrect technique and musicality
- Loss of self confidence
- Students tend to over estimate their own abilities
- All the fun goes out of Tango

Oh dear, maybe I‘m overdramatising the situation. But, seriously, a bad teacher can really cause a lot of damage. I expect most of us have experienced that at some point in our education.

Cassiel: How does this help us? How does anyone, who has been not been dancing for long, say less than a year, recognise a good teacher?

Melina Sedó
: A good tango teacher will be clear about what Tango means for them, in their own dancing and their publications. They will set priorities. Anyone who claims to have mastered all figures and styles, is likely to know at most, only one way. A good tango teacher will recognised their own limitations, and not claim to know everything. I have never come across anyone who manages this, so they would ideally also be modest, and certainly not have a big mouth. A good tango teacher will listen and respect the way you express yourself. Anyone who tries to force you into a style, or technique, which undermines everything that you have learned so far, is just not smart enough to recognise the variety and individuality of Tango.

A good tango teacher will be able to dance what they teach well enough to give a good account of themselves up in the milonga, or for a demonstration or performance. They will know how to behave in the milonga and avoid showing off. All this applied equally to men and women. Women in particular will resist the temptation to show how many decorations they can do and just how high she can kick up her legs.

Cassiel: That’s that‘s alright then.  But what do you suggest a tanguero/tanguera is to do, if they have outgrown, or don‘t rate, their local teachers?   Are their exercises people can do at home?  Do you recommend solo exercises?   (I know tangueras who put in millions of ochos in their own space)

Melina Sedó:  Well, it was the same for me. I lived in the provinces, there was only one, not really first rate, tango teacher.  Nowadays, there are two tango schools in that area.  Based on what I know of their teaching, I can’t really recommend either of them.  

There are two things for a Tangero/Tanguera to do; lots of solo exercises, listening, thinking.  And lots of travel, to the next village, town, city, to an interesting workshop or festival, even down to BA.  I know that its frustrating, and that Tango is only really available to people who have the time and wherewithal or to those who are prepared to make sacrifices elsewhere. What’s what it was like for me... That’s why in Europe, Tango remains the privilege of the relatively affluent, and those who happen to be in the right place. Unfortunately. In BA, for a few coppers, anyone can join a simple practica which will have good-enough teachers simply because these is so much choice. But things are getting better. Nowadays you can usually find a pretty good teaching couple within reasonable travelling distance. Only a few years ago, it was all very different.

The main thing, is just to dance, to get those tango miles under your belt. Classes are just the beginning of the learning process, the real improvement comes later, in a milonga, a practice, working with lots of different partners. Don’t despair, good teachers are just one part of your tango development, so we need no excuses.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant all tango dancers should read this over and over

Anonymous said...

Wonderful stuff. I particularly like the comments on the typical mistakes made by Tango teachers.

Regarding your comments about solo exercises, I was wondering what you would recommend as solo exercises for tangueros. This is an area I've never really seen covered.

Melina Sedo said...

Solo exercises for Tangueros? But there are hundreds! I would not even know where to start, as every person might have other demands and issues.But we always recommend the following:
1. standing on one leg, feeling the other get heavy and fall to towards the floor
2. standing or sitting and rotating the upper body
3. Doing steps in all directions with the focus on pushing from the supporting leg
4. doing pivots using the torsion of the upper body
5. putting steps and pivots together
Have fun!


Chris, UK said...

"Incorrect musicality"