Saturday, 9 July 2011

Technique, again...

There seems to be a misapprehension, that I don't like women learning technique. Of course I don't have problems with that! But classes are advertised as women's technique classes which, to judge by the contents, are actually classes in stage tango moves, and it makes me sad to dance with a partner who's taken those classes seriously. We all need technique, but how much technique do we need?

Someone asked me: do I, TC, get to dance with the best partners? If you mean just technically brilliant, no, and I really wouldn't want to. Do you mean musical? Yes, I'm glad to enjoy dancing with partners who are wonderfully musical. Technique, as someone said, is the finger pointing to the moon. Without the finger we won't find the moon, but we won't get to the moon if we think it's the finger.

Chris points out that the average milonguero has never taken a technique class in his/her life, and maintains that we should learn in the old way. But just how far can we copy the learning methods of the dancers who were teenagers in the 1940s and 50s? Or do learning methods need to be reinvented?

As MsH in her very clear post on Technique says, lifestyles have changed. We're talking about teenagers or people in their early 20s learning and dancing in a society where people often started work around the age of 14, and were out and about, and not sitting at desks in school. A world where there were no computers or TV to slouch in front of, or perhaps the leisure to slouch, where people most likely walked a lot more. It was a society where childen grew up with tango on the radio, and watched their parents dancing, and where they might start to learn around the age of 11, if not earlier. By the time they were 18, and close embrace milongas were the big thing, they were out dancing all night. That music and those songs have been the background to their whole lives. (I've been watching the interviews on Practimilonguero.)

Is that our world? It's certainly not mine (regrettably!) They didn't go to lessons, but did they need to? With the good basic posture, the strong ankles and good balance, the supple waist and lower back and the effortless co-ordination and quick eye of youth, growing up with the music and the dance, and with real passion and endless energy for the dance and lifestyle, did they really need classes? No! But I don't think that means therefore we don't need classes: I don't think the way they learned is an option for us. It would be great, but sadly it's just not possible. If we want to dance the way they danced we need to pick out what they had going for them, the essentials, and work to replicate or recreate them.

& how gifted, technically, are those now-old milongueras and milongueros? Do we think of them as marvellous technicians? Do you notice technique when you dance with them or watch them? So why does everyone enjoy dancing with them? Because they can dance! They have a sense of the music and movement that is truly remarkable. I think of technique as one of those things you don't notice if it's good: you notice bad technique, or lack of technique, or even too much technique. Technique shouldn't intrude.

A good leader can take any partner and get her to dance, but she won't necessarily be a partner he'll invite to dance week after week, not unless she does some serious hours of work. For example, when walking she's probably going to step backwards, rather than reaching back, and reaching back is a technique that has to be learned. Moreover, reaching back requires suppleness of the lower back, which may be lacking in anyone over the age of 25, or who has had lower back injury. If basic posture is poor, the head will be too far forwards and the chest back, which leads to poor balance in turns. There's nothing instinctive about leading a back ocho. And so on. We need to learn and practice these things.

So class work is needed and also, very often, work on posture and ankle strength to improve balance. & it seems to be generally accepted, and largely ignored, that guys are going to lead better if they learn by being led in the first place. Classes are necessary, but classes focused on good social dance – and they do exist in the UK, even if they are in a minority. And of course classes aren't everything, classes are just the beginning. You don't learn tango by going to a few classes: I don't see how you can dance tango without making what you've learned your own on the floor, by dancing lots and lots to all the songs by all the different orquestas, and with many different partners. 'You don't learn tango: you develop your own tango'. You develop tango, and you develop musicality.

Of course, some people watch stage tango and see themselves there, and seek out classes where it is taught. But, if we dance, most of us are going to dance in milongas, and my impression is that a lot of teaching isn't suitable for social tango, that to some extent classes have become an industry that thrives by making learners feel inadequate, and therefore in need of yet more classes. A mystique of tango is created, a complicated, difficult dance full of a kind of thickly-applied elegance and exaggerated sexiness that can be approached only through years of expensive classes and workshops, a perception enhanced by performances, which are usually at least part-choreographed, and danced by performers who grew up as gymnasts or classical dancers.

That kind of tango is worlds away from the social tango of the milongas and the wonderful, intimate conversations that can happen there in the course of a tanda.


Anonymous said...

Dear Tangocommuter, I feel I have said most of what I have to say about why I feel technique is important here:

Please feel free to leave a comment there.

But, for me personally, technique is what frees me to concentrate on other aspects of the dance while I am at the milonga. Because I am not having to think about how to walk backwards or follow an ocho smoothly, I can focus on connecting with my partner, on musicality and on the more artistic elements of the dance.

I also sing (though not very well) and when I am in choir and trying to concentrate on keeping my line or staying in tune I just simply don't have as much mental focus to spare for singing in a way that is expressive and musical. And for me the tango is analogous.

Having good technique, for me, in no way detracts from the other aspects of the dance: quite the contrary. And I would like to put in a good word for professional dancers. I have seen many, many wonderful, fully improvised performances (I do live in BA). And I have danced with some of the performers and many of them feel lovely -- soft and snuggly, playful and musical -- on the dance floor. See my description of Osito, a professional I dance with often, and who is very concerned with his own technique:

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, what's not to like?

If you feel that someoene's technique is somehow getting in the way of your enjoyment of the dance, then that's probably due to one of two things: the shortcomings of your (one's) own dancing (there are always two parties involved); or the fact that their so-called technique is not actually very good.

Anonymous said...

OK, I read your article about technique . I want to say I have seen some ridiculous ideas about tango teaching but none as ridiculous as a man doing three lessons a week in high heels shoes to improve his balance. This tango technique cult has gone too far.

Anonymous said...

I have never heard anyone make it a requirement that men wear heels in any kind of tango class. And everyone made fun of him, of course, which he took in great humour.

I think you have misunderstood my blog. My blog is descriptive, not prescriptive. It's about my subjective personal experiences as a tango dancer. I make no suggestions in the blog as to how anyone else should practise technique, what milongas they should go, how they should dance, etc. There are at least three kinds of tango blogs: those that discuss more abstract topics, such as how much to decorate, how to use the cabeceo, etc; those that review milongas, shows, dancers, etc; and those that are like extended diaries, detailing the writers' experiences in Buenos Aires, etc.

My blog is one of the diary variety. I just describe my own experiences. One of those experiences is my daily technique practice. It's important to me personally and that's all I claim.

I hope that clears things up for you.

Anonymous said...

@TC - how many women's technique classes have you actually been to / observed to comment on their contents with such authority?

Anonymous said...

"I make no suggestions in the blog as to how anyone else should practise technique"

Here is the suggestion in your blog that I commented on.

"I just wish some of the men who think following is easy would don a pair of heels and try this. I have a male friend who did just that: took a thrice-weekly technique class in a fetching pair of vertiginous, polka-dotted Comme Il Fauts which turned him into a giant. A poofy-looking giant, but one with excellent balance."

tangocherie said...

TC, absolutely right on, I agree with all of your points.

Tango isn't ballet, in which you must take class all of your dancing life.

Once you learn the basic technique, preferably in private lessons where the teacher won't allow you to develop bad habits, then you just need to practice, practice, practice. You can become self-correcting, which is what Ruben and I try to instill in our students.

There are problem students who get hooked on learning new moves and clamor for more patterns and there are problem teachers who oblige them so that they keep coming back.

I can't tell you some of the ridiculous things I've learned in group classes.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous My point in the blog was that I wish some men knew how hard it can be to balance, dance, etc. in heels. I wasn't seriously suggesting that they practise in heels three times a week (though I had a friend who did). I should point out that it certainly wasn't at my suggestion. I was as surprised as everyone else when he showed up for class in his size 43 Comme Il Fauts.

But I don't see why it's such a ridiculous idea, even so. It helps to challenge your balance. To execute certain difficult moves like enrosques in heels requires quite advanced balance and groundedness. And those are things that leaders need too. Also, I think it's not a bad idea to get a sense of what the follower is actually experiencing physically during the dance. So if you are interested in that, as a leader, why not? My friend found it useful.

@Cherie I couldn't agree with you more: practise, practise, practise. One thing I think is great about solo technique practice is that you can go on practising even when you don't have a partner or are in a place where there are very few good dancers.

Chris said...

Gosh, someone wrote under their real name! Hi Cherie :)

Hmm... men practicing in Comme Il Fauts.

Terpsichoral says "I don't see why it's such a ridiculous idea"

Well, it's slightly less ridiculous than some other tango teacher innovations, such as praticing in diving flippers and on sheets of paper.

T says it "It helps to challenge your balance." Here we see the same educational principle that's behind nost regular class exercises too: Making an activity harder actually makes learning the associated skill easier.

Unfortunately when it comes to social dancing, this is nonsense. People most learn to dance from those who make it easier for them, not harder.

Something every genuine teacher knows.

Anonymous said...

For the record, Chris, my friend is not a beginner dancer. He didn't need things to be made easier for him and was looking for ways to challenge himself and grow as a dancer.

The proof of who is or is not a "genuine teacher" is, for me, in how much you can learn from them, how much progress their students are able to make. Personally, I am interested in dancing to the very best of my ability and I actually enjoy this challenge. So I like to learn from people who will help me to achieve this: to dance better, both for its own sake (I enjoy doing things well for my own personal satisfaction) and in order to get more pleasure out of the dance.

However, I am sure you will find some way to twist this comment and make some unpleasant remark. For me, tango is about pleasure and enjoyment, not about finding ways to attack and belittle others. Good luck with your blogging and commenting. I won't be visiting this site again.

tangocherie said...

Hola Chris!

Thanks for pointing out the flippers and paper videos; who knew?

The paper game could be "dangerous," though, in teaching students to slide their feet on the floor, instead of putting them down precisely where they want them. There can be no "tango attitude" if you are tentatively sliding your feet around. Confidence is what students need!

I've also seen "tango teaching games" with hula hoops and balloons. I think it's because the teachers are motivated to make the classes fun so that the students come back.

Tangocommuter said...

Hi Cherie, and many thanks for your comments, and for your affirmation that learning the basics well, and a lot of dancing, are what counts. I'd add 'and watching a lot' to that, as I think those of us who can't go to great milongas regularly are very lucky to be able to watch a wide range of tango. We see what looks good and what doesn't, and I'm always finding new ways to use basic positions.

And anonymous: I said that classes are advertised as women's technique classes whereas, according to the listed contents, they teach stage tango moves. I'm not sure where 'commenting with authority' comes in.

Anonymous said...


“I said that classes are advertised as women's technique classes whereas, according to the listed contents, they teach stage tango moves. I'm not sure where 'commenting with authority' comes in.”

Ok here’s an upcoming set of women’s technique classes. Please explain to me how these constitute “stage tango”.

28/7 - 30/07

Let's get physical! Quick and easy warm ups and exercises for the milonguera

We might feel great in our stiletto heels, but after a night out our calfs do not think the same way! In this class we'll explore exercises that can help us build the strenght we need to go through a night out (and the morning after), and to control our movements in a precise way.

04/08 - 06/08

These shoes are made for walking : All about the walk

What should be the easiest part in our dancing, it is usually the hardest. We'll work on exercises to help our balance and on the technique to improve our walk, as well as different ways to express ourselves in it.

11/08 - 13/08

Turn, turn, turn! (to everything there is a reason) Ochos and turns made easy

Ochos and turns can be quite challenging, but that doesn't mean they are impossible! We'll study the dissasociation, the balance, different ways to start a turn, and different types of turns (and when they are best used).

18/08 - 20/08

Hot legs: How to do boleos and not die in the attempt

We have been told over and over that boleos are not made for the dancefloor; prove them wrong! In this class we'll see not only exercises to make our legs faster and more precise (and how not to fall in the process), but also different types of boleos, including those that can (and should) be done at the milonga if needed.

25/08 - 27/08

Only You: how not to be a clone

Free yourself! We'll work throught the musicality on exercises to unlock our personality, and how to convert them into embellishments that will make you stand out from the rest.

Chris said...

I have to say those class plans looks like the work of a show dancer having very little understanding of social dancing.

For example, "Ochos and turns made easy". In social dancing, ochos and turns rely on the embrace of a guy who can make them happen. By eliminating all guys from a class, you don't make ochos and turns easy - you make them impossible.

As for the show moves, since this teacher has "been told over and over that boleos are not made for the dancefloor", one really wonders what makes her think she knows better.

Anonymous said...

@Chris Uk

Clearly we're not going to agree on this. For the benefit of anyone else reading though

"For example, "Ochos and turns made easy". In social dancing, ochos and turns rely on the embrace of a guy who can make them happen."

They are however an awful lot easier if the follower understands what her axis is and how it applies to turns.

Which is the reason for my asking TC whether he's actually been to any of these classes. Even if you leave aside the distinct lack of "show moves" he refers to - soltadas, lifts, choroegraphy etc - it's still entirely possible for a teacher to use different moves such as boleos, and ochos to explain how technique such as axis works.

While I'll grant you that some women do backlead all manner of things, learning the technique of a boleo still leaves it up to the leader to actually lead it. Given that boleos are led socially in London (where these classes are being held) what's wrong with explaining to women how to identify when they definitely shouldn't follow a boleo and what constitutes circumstance and technique for a boleo that is appropriate?

Makes me wonder if either of you actually follows socially to any level of competency?

Ultimately TC's points boil down to
1. Some people will do their own thing regardless of what they're taught and whether it's appropriate.
2. Some teachers are better than others when it comes to learning social dancing.
3. Some ways suit some people better than others for learning social dancing

I've no issue with these. But the whole Women's technique classes being to blame is just a red herring.

Chris said...

"Even if you leave aside the distinct lack of "show moves" he refers to - soltadas, lifts..."

You're misrepresenting him. He did not mention soltadas or lifts.

"Given that boleos are led socially in London (where these classes are being held) what's wrong with explaining to women..."

At last night's London milonga the only boleos I saw were from just one girl - a local class teacher. Likewise at the others I go to. Almost the only people rude enough to do show steps are the teachers who're selling them.

"[ochos and turns] are however an awful lot easier if the follower understands what her axis is and how it applies to turns."

Except that's not what you're advertising. Take "different ways to start a turn, and different types of turns (and when they are best used)." I'd like to hear what possible sense there is in teaching that to girls rather than guys.

Because sorry but the only benefit I see is increased takings for a teacher who can't get enough guys to attend her classes.

Tangocommuter said...

Anonymous, I agree with Chris that anything that can be separated out as 'technique' is best learned in couples. Several times I've moaned about the lack of good practicas in London, as practicas are where couples can talk about things like axis, and work on them. A good practica, preferrably watched over by a good salon couple, might be really useful. Trouble is, I think people have picked up the idea that all they need to do is go to class and then go and dance at milongas. The idea of spending time working on your dance seems a bit alien.

My comment on 'Women's Technique' classes a red herring? I don't think so. Ever tried to dance with a partner who is too busy trying out what she's learned in class to think about where she's being led, or who is around her?

Patricia said...

Tango Commuter, I totally agree with you. At a milonga it can be quite disturbing dancing with a partner who's busy trying out what they've learned in class, rather than focussing on dancing with their partner in a way that's appropriate to the social setting. Could it be due to lack of awareness, maybe lack of consideration for others? Certainly the practica is the place for such activities. However, to be fair, I don't think this problem is exclusively caused by women, nor technique classes.
For me, it boils down to the fact that as a social dance, we need to be considerate of our partners and the dancers around us. Any good teacher of social tango would emphasise this important point.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Patricia that the other couples are important, too. There's often too much lack of consideration for others at milongas.
Of course, it's the men in the first place who have to take care of their partners and the environment. But the women have a responsibility, too. Not for the first time did I get to feel the effect of a comme if faut heel while dancing at a milonga recently.
Boleos and other show dance stuff certainly don't go with social dancing on a crowded dancefloor. My partner couldn't possibly prevent the other woman from hitting me. But I was lucky in that he was caring :) and lead me off the dance floor immediately and asked the barman for some ice to put it on the bruise so to keep it from swelling.
I sat with the ice pack for half an hour, but after two weeks my foot is still hurting. The woman who hurt me didn't even realize. She was far too busy trying out what she'd learned in class and thought looked good.
Dancing (preferably with eyes closed) would be even more enjoyable if one didn't have to worry about such things.

Chris said...

"The woman who hurt me didn't even realize."

I think part of the cause is that classrooms are so much less crowded than milongas. In her class life she's probably never been on the receiving end of such an injury. Class students don't get to learn through injuring each other how dangerous those steps are. And when they reach the milonga, many think accidents such as yours are the fault of the victim - for getting inside the three metre circle that they think of as their space.

I'll be impressed when I hear of a dance school tango teacher bringing his/her newcomer students out to actually see what crowded milonga floor looks like.

Tangocommuter said...

Very sorry to hear about your injury, anon, and I hope you'll be back in action again soon. I've had a bad injury from a heel too, but my legs are better protected...

When you say that your partner '...couldn't possibly prevent the other woman from hitting me' you highlight one part of the problem. Of course, the high kicks are a problem, but the erratic movement of these couples is really alarming when you lead in a crowded milonga: you turn a lot so you keep an eye on the space around you, but any space can suddenly disappear as a couple dashes into it just as you're going to use it. Smooth, relaxed, considerate social dancing hasn't really caught on, not yet.

Patricia said...

Smooth, relaxed milongas without couples engaging in erratic behaviours allow everyone to relax and focus on the music and their partner. Of course, each person at a milonga will influence this through their own behaviour and choice of dance partners.

I remain eternally optimistic that the "dodgem-car" mentality of some dancers can be modified.

Dare I say that it? Technique (body contol - men & women) makes a huge difference, too. Effective navigation, especially in a crowded milonga, is very hard to achieve without it.

Tangocommuter said...

Thanks for your optimism, Patricia!

& of course I agree with you about the need for technique. I made that clear in the post. But personally I don't think it's a good idea to separate the teaching of technique from the practice of social dance. & I certainly don't like the teaching of stage tango under the guise of 'women's technique', which can be misleading.

Patricia said...

We're in complete agreement, Tangocommuter. Technique should be taught in the context and for the purpose of the social dance. After all, that's what the milonga is all about. Besides, the vast majority of people dancing tango have neither the desire nor the possibility to be stage performers. Unfortunately, this last point seems to be lost on some teachers.

Anonymous said...

I consider myself fortunate for having two parents who loved ballroom dancing including tango, so I learned to dance as a child. When rock 'n' roll was the hit in the 60s, my sister and I learned by watching television and practiced at home with music on the radio. That's how street dances became popular, just like tango.

I agree with Chris that dance can be learned by watching others. Milongueros loved the music and had the desire to dance. They practiced with friends and went to the milongas. There were no classes.

Technique classes are more abundant that ever in BsAs. These seminars with a stage professional will not help social dancers.

Another seminar is for those entering the world competition. It's really about taking your money, because if someone isn't ready and well-connected, six hours with a stage professional won't help anyone win the world title.

Dance professionals are trying to change non-dancing adults into trained dancers. A person who finds tango late in life just wants to enjoy dancing, not become a professional dancer. I know a guy of 70 who took classes for years from stage pros who wasted his time trying to teach him technique and choreography when all he wanted was to dance at a milonga. He thought his teachers were his friends, but all they wanted from him was his money.