The Different Schools of Tango Teaching
It may not be apparent to those beginning to learn to tango, but there are quite a wide variety of teaching styles and philosophies used. This should not surprise us when we consider the origins of tango and the influences of the dancing on the tango teachers, the teachers on the dancing and the music on the entire thing. We think of tango as a single entity but, even now, it is not. The perceptions of what tango is vary from place to place and from time to time.
How to learn tango
Secrets of tango. In the beginning, Buenos Aires was small and quite distant in real terms from all those areas we now merely consider to be its suburbs. In each of these locations tango had its own style. The dancers moved little from place to place but the bands certainly traveled to make a living and brought back different things from their gigs. Those bands were like bees, pollinating as they collect nectar. As those smaller satellite townships were subsumed into the sprawling city over the first 30 years of the 20th century, what resulted was a cocktail of styles, all perfectly ‘legitimate’ within the remit of tango. The differences were immense.
Just think about it. Different dance floors – both floor surface and dimensions – led to different needs. Different dance floor traffic led to different embraces, as did individuals’ desires for closeness and intimacy of embrace or, on the other hand, for more genteel distancing. None of these styles was weak and easily subservient to any other and they all survived because they were legitimate and valuable. Who could criticise the ‘orillero’ style of the docklands areas of San Telmo or La Boca because it differed from the styles of those tango dancers from Mataderos or Villa Urquiza? The same must be true for the tango teaching that both led the styles and, at the same time, was formed by them. I think it is reasonable, however, for us all to judge for ourselves which style of dancing we like and which style of teaching is most likely to allow us to dance as we want. I propose to nail my colours to the mast here and now on this issue in the hope that it will help some fellow dancers.
Secrets of tango. There are many stories about the creation of the ‘basic eight’ and none is very complimentary. I refer to the ‘paso basico’, or basic step. Rather confusingly, you may also fnd this sequence of steps referred to as the ‘salida’ by some teachers. All dances have their basic characteristic step patterns, and tango is no exception. The problem with it for tango is that it tends to stife the feelings that power the dance. If we lose the feelings, the dance becomes just another dance form. I know some people who prefer to see it that way but to my mind, they miss the entire point of tango as a dance form with a distinct, unique and wonderful quality.
In a nutshell, the ‘basic’ in tango, from the beginning, is: we walk; the woman adopts the cross position, or ‘la cruzada’, walk; then we walk to the closed side of the embrace (‘resolution’).
There is a story that, once upon a time, there was a very successful tango school in Buenos Aires. The principal of the tango school thought to himself: “How can I improve my business?” so he sat down and pondered. He constructed an eight-step sequence, involving the basic tango elements (walk, woman cross, walk, walk to the closed side of the embrace), and then linked in lots of steps – which had already been found and named – to these eight steps.
Secrets of tango. Teachers I have spoken to who have prepared for classes in both systems confirm that for them the basic eight is by far the easiest way to teach tango. As one who spends a great deal of time preparing classes for pupils, I can see how I could reduce my own preparation time considerably if I taught this way myself. Less effort for the teacher may not be better for the pupil, however. There are benefits for pupils in learning by this system, of course. It is easy to grasp the curriculum and pupils soon acquire a sense of achievement at having mastered something concrete. Many people find learning steps by numbers easy, and it is well known that there is a long tradition in the military of teaching by numbered sequences.
The reason this method of teaching people things is still used is that it works, but I would like you to pick up on the word ‘concrete’ and remember that it conjures up other meanings: grey, cold, heavy and – I suspect most of us would agree – unattractive.
Secrets of tango. The basic eight is based on a set pattern of eight steps and is taught as a sequence to be honed until grooved to perfection. The problem with it is that, although this may well teach poise and probably gets you up on the dance floor with confidence quite quickly, it does teach you to think in sequences. “What is the problem with that?” you ask. The problem with sequences for me is that they stife improvisation and interpretation and, worst of all, they inhibit innovation. Only the teacher holds the ‘secret’ of the next new step and these are dribbled out from lesson to lesson. It must be attractive for the teacher to be able to prepare for a lesson with a ‘concrete’ item to get across. This works particularly well where a sequence taught in the previous week runs sweetly forward into the sequence for this week. This is how ballroom dancing is usually taught, so it appeals to those who learn and teach from that background.
I have discovered, however, that to learn a tango dance this way has its drawbacks. It is a little like learning a language by learning to speak a number of useful phrases extremely well. As long as you stick to those phrases, you will sound as if you really do understand the language well, because, within those few phrases, your accent will be perfect. The problem will arise when, fooled by the perfection of your accent, a native speaker throws at you, at speed, a sentence not including the words you have learned.
So, to my mind, the paso basico system of learning is quick and easy to grasp to begin with but after a while it needs to be, as it were, ‘unlearned’. I shall describe it, however, for completeness and to further my view it is more of a help to the teacher than to the pupil.
Steps to learn Tango
All the steps are numbered from one to eight and, considering the man’s sequence first, step 1 is a back step on the right foot. Two problems become immediately apparent. Firstly, there is the potential for the man to step backwards onto someone else’s foot, but, more importantly, the novice leader often finds it so convenient to initiate the dance by pulling on the follower’s back. We should not be surprised. It works. The leader steps back and the follower steps forward and it feels like a result. The leader should be learning the proper way to indicate to the follower his intention, however, using his torso and never using his arms. Ballroom dancers are actually encouraged to use their arms for leading and, when they come to tango, they may have a problem learning not to do so. Step 1 in tango of the paso basico allows them to dance tango just as another ballroom dance, but it really isn’t.
Step 2 in tango is a sidestep to the leader’s left and at least those who teach the paso basico insist that, before this step happens, the leader must close left ankle to right. This is a very big and worthwhile lesson to learn. The collection of knees and ankles at each beat is very important and I have to admit that the teaching of the basic eight does achieve this quickly. If, however, leaders are allowed to lead the sidestep with a push from their right hand or a pull with the left, much has been lost. The sidestep must be led by a preparation for the step that ensures that the follower is on her left foot and able to move her right foot to her right. This follows easily from step 1, but it can be achieved from a starting position with feet together by shifting body weight from foot to foot. Often, therefore, teachers leave out step 1 to reduce toe crushing potential.
Secrets of tango. Usually, when the leader takes step 2 in tango, he angles his upper body to the right, restricting somewhat the sidestep of the follower, while maintaining the embrace frame. The reason for this is that he will take step 3 in tango forward on his right foot with the thigh outside the follower’s right leg. Usually, right thigh touches right thigh as the follower steps back on her left foot. Some teachers teach that this thigh-to-thigh contact is the signal that the follower will “go to the cross”, which I will describe in a moment. It is fine to learn the cross, but I hear that, lately, it may have fallen out of favour in some circles in Buenos Aires.
Step 4 in tango is taken in the same direction, with the leader’s left leg and the follower’s right, maintaining the same upper body configuration.
Step 5 in tango for the leader is simply to bring the right foot to join the left. Before he does this he must return his torso to the front by rotating it slightly anticlockwise. The effect for the follower is to simultaneously produce a deceleration and a need for the left foot to travel towards the right foot, and even further right, to maintain balance and stay in front of the leader. The outcome is, therefore, that the follower ends up standing on the right foot with the left ankle crossed in front of the right and ready to take the weight to enable the right foot to leave on the next beat. This position is referred to as ‘the cross’ (‘la cruzada’), but very soon it comes to be thought of as ‘5’ by those who sequence, particularly if they use some instructional videos. I believe this is another area where the constraints of a sequenced learning system may cause problems because it ‘hard-wires’ the pattern into our brains and prevents us from seeing it for what it truly is. We might ask ourselves: “What is the cross all about?” Call me fanciful if you will, but I suspect that the position is one that is designed to show the woman’s legs to their best advantage. Why is it that every line-up of Miss World contestants shows them standing with one foot crossed in front of the other? Surely this pose accentuates the hips and gives the illusion of longer legs? Still in doubt? Contrast this artificial pose, then, with an image of the same woman standing with her legs like those of a table, and tell me you find that just as attractive!
Secrets of tango. A nice result of the woman’s cross is that it places her in a ‘pre-sprung’ position with a slight coiled tension across her body that is useful for dynamic progression when she releases it. It is a useful preliminary position before that dramatic movement. As a prelude to a forward ocho, the ‘coiled spring’ feeling of the cross allows for a bigger, more swoopy and altogether more satisfying feeling than when effected from a more neutral start. From a leader’s point of view, any forward step led from the cross seems to be a little bigger, leaving a good gap into which we can intrude our legs; but I’ll say more about that much later.
I always think that the cross fulfills two vital functions. One is to act as a sort of punctuation; not so much as a full stop as a semi-colon. When we arrive at the cross, to a certain extent, we both know where we are. The other function is that the cross-legged position actively blocks some movements of the follower and allows a leader to settle her axis on that point and, for example, move round her central axis before she can move it.
To be continued…
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