A reflection on learning and teaching Argentine tango

Asking ourselves about our roles in learning and teaching Argentine tango.

We have been busy writing articles for this website and are enthusiastic about sharing our thoughts and explorations. We thought that now would be a good time to reflect on why we approach our learning and teaching in the way that we do and our goals in writing what we do.

We have been so grateful for the positive feedback from around the world and would like to thank everyone for having open hearts and open minds when reading our notes, since they are sometimes a bit unconventional. We are constantly seeking to find innovative ways of coming to a noble dance, while honoring its foundation and canon.

We also understand that some people who read our articles, but have never attended our classes or who do not know us personally, might be skeptical.  We often contradict very common modes of tango instruction. Our goal in writing these articles is not to say that there is a right or wrong way of learning and teaching tango. Indeed, it is quite the opposite.  We feel that being exposed to a variety of teaching approaches is crucial in becoming a well-rounded dancer. It is very likely that the synthesis of several different instructors teaching the same thing, each in different ways, finally creates the connections that a student needs to learn a concept.

Our greatest hope is that these articles inspire readers to consider what they have been taught, or are teaching, and look at it with new eyes. Ideally, these articles will help readers learn how to ask important questions that lead to holistic integration of principles, instead of mimicking movements without a full comprehension of what is happening in their body (be it kinesthetically or literally).

The ways we describe movement has long-ranging impacts on students.

A few months ago, we wrote an article called “Learning to question in order to learn.” Writing it was pivotal to my own self-reflection of what it means to fill the role of the teacher, while still maintaining a core identity and perspective of the student. I talked about how we examined everything that we had been taught, especially common phrases, and asked ourselves if they were an accurate description or visualization of what happens in your body. A few days ago, I was reading a section in Eric Franklin‘s book, Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance. He has this to say in “Guidelines for Teachers”:

“Avoid phrases that are not necessarily clear to the student, such as ‘Organize yourself’ or ‘Get up on your legs.’ Linda Tarnay, a teacher at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, once remarked, ‘How can I not stand up on my legs? Everyone walking down Fifth Avenue is standing up on their legs.’ If you are now protesting that you use these phrases with good results, you have my respect. But there are many possible interpretations of ‘getting up on your legs,’ including getting down from it when you are already up. We need to ask: What is our aim when we voice such a phrase? Do we know what our specific intention is, or are we repeating what we have heard from others? Can we explain our personal kinesthesia with regard to the phrase? (Ask three people what it means, and you will get three different answers.) Does it mean square the pevis? Stay centered? Lift the front of the pelvis and drop the back? But… it just means, how could you not understand? . . .Well, to be up on your legs! (Can’t you feel it?).” Pp 71-72.

While Franklin is specifically referring to ballet, I think we can all commiserate with the feeling of a student who is dismayed because their teacher is telling them to do something (often repeating it many times over, sometimes in an exasperated tone) that doesn’t make sense to him/her. Have you been there? I have witnessed many people, in trying to mimic other dancers or do what their teacher is telling them to do, contort their bodies in unhealthy and awkward ways.

Everyone feels movement differently.

This very approach of questioning the true intent of a description led us to distill so much of what is taught into some very simple principles that we can describe (or seek to) in a concise, accurate way. In exploring technique, we were delighted to find that a properly focused yet very simple adjustment (your sacrum articulation, for example) has many benefits. The benefits manifest outwardly as a host of good “symptoms” (full leg extension, a more focused center and balance, fluid movement, effortless connection, and more precise weight placement).

Rather than taking the time to describe all the symptoms that set good dancers apart from others, we can help people come to a more connected understanding of how a simple postural adjustment or visualization can affect many parts of the body. As Franklin points out, everyone feels movement differently, and the closer we can come to accurately describing a movement and finding its place of origin, the more a student is able to use that information to come to their own understanding of how it feels and what they need to do in their unique body to make it happen.

We believe that it is far better to concentrate on a few ideas which greatly impact the body as a system, rather than to think about the outward symptoms that these few ideas are capable of creating. This goes for both good symptoms and bad symptoms or problems we are having in our dance.  Often one idea or visualization can create, or solve, several outwardly visible symptoms of movement.

Tango is natural movement, so we don’t need to contort or compartmentalize.

We believe that tango is natural movement. That statement might seem redundant and silly (it’s happening in our bodies, of course it’s natural!). However, we find that in the analyzing or teaching mode, it is very easy to compartmentalize parts of the body and forget that it moves as a whole. This is when contortion happens, and most of us will admit that we see it all over the place (in daily life, as well as in tango). We all do it, and if not corrected, either by our teachers or ourselves, it can result in habits that, over a period of time, can be very unhealthy for the body. Equally, contrition will prevent us from getting to a point in our dance when we can tune completely into our partner and the music, without thinking about the pieces of our bodies.

That said, finding an ability to narrow our focus to parts of our body during a movement allows us to create “inner eyes” and an image of our body system that reinforces healthy movement. The art for the student lies in being able to utilize the most effective visualizations for them and comprehending the ways in which they connect to the overall movement in the body. For example, thinking about balancing your head on top of your spine might fix drooping shoulders and/or a caved chest and the resulting spongey connection with your partner.  Thinking about taking your center of movement through your line of gravity will cause your feet to collect and your weight to transfer cleanly and completely to your newly planted foot.

Deep understanding of tango movement is within everyone’s reach.

Body awareness challenges I enjoy creating challenges (that, for the record, we try to do as well) that allow us to focus on a visualization or an alignment and notice its effect on our posture and movement. Doing this at rest, when we are not in the middle of dancing, allows us to create a body image and connection that we can draw on, if needed, when we are dancing, but with less effort and minimal distraction.

As students, once we start to develop an awareness of our movement, tapping into that inner vision, we can begin to apply concepts more holistically and broadly. In so doing, we are better capable of making consistent, wholesale changes in patterns of movement. We can rechannel our patterns into healthier ones by incorporating our awareness into everyday life. This framework of understanding is built equally by teachers, fellow dancers, and the individual student, so we all carry responsibility in its functionality.

A good teacher believes in their student’s ability to dance. A good student believes in themselves, and acts upon their “desire to do.”

As teachers, we have a responsibility to convey the pith of movement concepts to our students without taking shortcuts or relying solely on descriptions that are commonly used, even if we think we understand what they mean. Teachers also have to have an open mind and heart to different learning styles and seek to provide a wide variety of ‘tools’ (rather than directives) for students to be able to do self-processing and reflecting.  Most of all, teachers must have faith in their students ability.

In Dynamic Alignment through Imagery, Eric Franklin emphasizes the role of the teacher in empowering his/her students: “I have known teachers of dance with the attitude: ‘Very few people were made to dance, and certainly not most of the people here.’ Watching the students in such a class, I see tension, sullenness, self-distrust, and a failure to achieve. I am sure we have all experienced the benefits of receiving encouragement, or what is often referred to as positive ‘vibrations.’  It seems the more deeply an image is held in the teachers mind, the better she or he can convey it, and the more likely the student will react to it.”

As students, we are responsible for investing in the creation of an internal radar or vision of our bodies as well as opening our hearts and minds to perceiving in new, and often very subtle, ways. Students also have to accept their role as teacher, even if it is only to be their own, providing themselves with positive feedback, and adjusting their own movement with gentleness. A student must search or ask for new ways of understanding if what they are being told does not work for them, rather than resigning to the fact that they can’t get it because they aren’t good enough yet, or because tango is supposedly really hard.

Mabel Todd, in The Thinking Body (1972), writes: “When doing exercises under instruction we are apt to think that we move or direct the moving of the muscles. What actually happens is that we get a picture from the teacher’s words or his movements, and the appropriate action takes place within our own bodies to reproduce this picture. The result is successful in proportion to our power of interpretation and the amount of experience, but most of all perhaps to the desire to do.”

We hope these articles and challenges contribute to developing an awareness of your tango kinesthesia.

While We know that we still have much to learn about the role of teaching, we do feel that in our journey, we have picked up tools that have helped us process movement in beneficial ways. We are so grateful for this that we also want others to have the opportunities that we have. Our goal in the articles that we write, the way that we teach, and challenges we provide, is to encourage readers to develop tools of discernment.

We only hope that these articles, rather than instructing you how to think, will encourage you to think for yourself in new ways, ask questions, and be your own guide in your learning and teaching process. We hope you are invested in the health of your body, your emotional expression, and the beauty and subtlety of this enigmatic and transformative dance.

Lovingly and with great respect,

Eric & Susannah

© 2018. All rights reserved.