In the process of my own learning, and now, again as we are helping new beginners to learn tango, I am questioning the way many of us have been taught and the perspectives that new dancers have, or are taught to have, shortly after they begin learning Argentine tango.
The questionable argument is that, in the beginning, leaders have a steeper learning curve than followers. I have argued this perspective many times myself. It states that beginning leaders really have it all stacked against them. Beginning leaders must learn good posture, grounding, intention, navigation, axis, sensitivity and the embrace, just for starters.
In the end, however, everyone has to learn the same thing
Leaders must do this by a large amount of trial and error, accompanied with an onslaught of instruction that can be at once useless and carry far too much meaning. Beginning leaders (often dancing with beginners) hear things like “ground more”, “soften your embrace”, “be firm”, “follow the follower”, “be sensitive”, “don’t push”, “wait”, “stand up straight”, “don’t step before she does”, “don’t lean back”, “listen to the music”.
As part of the same argument, followers supposedly have an easier time, since they are required to learn less up front– only posture, sensitivity, pivots, turns, etc. We are told the learning curve is steep for beginning leaders, but the followers will have to catch up later. We are told that, at some point, followers will need to learn about grounding, intention, presence in the embrace, and musicality, among other things. In the end, however, everyone has to learn the same thing, but in a different order.
Here is a table that illustrates this perceived learning process:
This perspective actually causes the imbalance in the learning curve for leaders verses followers.
I think this argument and paradigm, so to speak, results from the expectations and misconceptions of new tango dancers, coupled with teachers’ misguided perspectives on instructing beginners. First is the expectations possessed by new dancers, whether they have experience from other dances or are completely new to dance, that learning tango involves learning a few steps or learning to walk and they will be on their way. It is likely that this expectation comes from knowledge of other dances, such as swing and salsa, that are based more on steps, in that they actually have a step pattern and rhythm.
Yet when teachers succumb to these unreasonable expectations, and even buy into them and teach them, a misguided perspective is then born– the perspective that a beginner will lose interest if they don’t feel they are learning steps (in turn, perpetuating the misconceptions that new dancers have about tango). This view point actually causes the imbalance in the learning curve for leaders verses followers.
The excitement a student has the first time they experience a good connection is hard to beat.
So far, in our experience, I believe this viewpoint is misguided. In fact, I think the opposite is true. Learning sequences of steps is a short-term shortcut and a long-term delay which greatly increases the chances that a dancer will become stuck at an elementary level and never know it. By teaching steps, we run the very high risk of losing a student after 2, 3, 4, or 6 months, when they still aren’t getting it, the steps still aren’t working to their satisfaction, and they still haven’t felt what tango is all about. On the other hand, the excitement a student has the first time they experience a good connection is hard to beat.
Steps are a consequence of movement and connection.
There are those that will disagree with me, and say that the basic eight or some other choreography is just what we need (I acknowledge, though, that the basic eight could work, if the primary focus is not on the steps, but on posture, movement and connection). We believe, instead, that individual posture, movement, and communication are more important than any step that can be taught. We also believe that everyone needs to learn the same things, at the same time, regardless of their role in the dance. The roles of leader and follower or initiator and responder are not that different, especially in the beginning. Steps are a consequence of movement and connection, therefore steps do not need to be the focus.
The concepts illuminate the path equally for both leaders and followers.
As teachers, we should be showing students how to see tango in a way that facilitates their learning of the most important aspects of the dance, not encouraging incorrect pre-conceived notions. Part of teaching tango is teaching how to see it and how to think about it. Learning tango from the wrong perspective is a long, hard road. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We should be emphasizing posture, relaxed fluid movement, sensitivity and connection in the embrace. Learning tango in this way facilitates a new dancer’s ability to find out what tango is really all about: the connection and expression in the music. It shows the way to find the steps, through movement, rather than figuring out movement from the steps. With the proper perspective, the road to tango is still a lot of work, but if our expectations are well founded, the concepts illuminate the path equally for both leaders and followers.