What Not To Teach

7th November 2009

(More Teaching articles.)

"Critical pedagogy: Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional cliches, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse." ~ Ira Shor (Empowering Education, p. 129)


Depressingly, I know of no Tango teacher with any credentials in teaching or training. There may well be some, but they don't put such qualifications on their resumes. The typical resume says "Studied under Pablo Veron for a decade, spent 20 more years immersing himself in Buenos Aires, performed in Tango shows worldwide, blah blah blah". (Possibly without the blah blah blah bit, I admit my eyes tend to glaze over around the "Tango shows" point).

Which, when you think about it, is a bit crazy.

Would you want your children to be educated in mathemativs by a person who was only a whizz at sums?

Would you want to be trained in a Microsoft Word by someone who was very good at writing?

Hopefully your answer is "No" to both.

But when it comes to Tango, we're happy to accept pretty much any old fool with a ponytail and a foreign name as a guru.

So what do you do?

Well, I'll start by saying what not to do. I'll leave the "What to do" part for another time.

Don't teach terminology, teach concepts

I'd avoid the following terms:

  • "Grounded"
  • "Axis"
  • "Energy"
  • "Presence"
  • "Intention"


Because I didn't understand them when I started; or for quite some time afterwards to be honest (I'll spare my blushes by not revealing how long it took me).

These are jargon terms. Jargon is only useful in discussion, if both the teacher and the student actually understand the jargon. If not, the student will nod knowingly, saying "Ah yes, I need to be more grounded", without knowing what the hell they're talking about.

If you can't explain all these concepts to students, in a way which they'll understand, without resorting to such jargon, then simply don't teach them.

Keep it simple, stupid

In physics, you learn that there's something called gravity which pulls things down, and then you learn about Newton's law of gravitation. But you don't start by learning about the relationships between the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force, or the model of gravity as a curvature in the space-time continuum, or the theory of gravity expressed as a string theory. Because that would be obviously stupid.

So all teaching should be tailored to what the student is ready to receive. Seven-year-old children are probably not ready for General Relativity.

In Tango, it's clearly impossible to teach the many levels of complexity involved in the dance, in a beginner course.

You couldn't even cover the complexities involved in taking a single step - hell, you can't even teach people to stand properly - in that time, unless you literally only teach that exclusively for the whole duration of the course. And even then, there'd always be much much more you can teach. And there'd be a number of uncertainties andv complexities and nuances which you'd encounter also, due to some disagreements about stylistics between different schools of dancing.

And you'd end up either with (at best) a very small number of students with a very limited ability to dance, or (at worst), no more students, having put everyone off.

Don't aim for perfection

My personal viewpoint is that students need to learn incrementally - or fractally, even.

The aim should always be to get people to make incremental-but-measurable improvements. It's perfectly OK to simplify things at the start - in fact, it's inevitable.

So accept this, embrace it even. It's not "dumbing-down" (unless you think it's dumbing down to teach children simple truths first), it's teaching at the level of the student.

As long as your students are not learning things which will cause problems later on, then anything goes.

Teach things which will get people dancing, comfortably, to the music.


This started out as a small article. I suspect it may turn into a series... So I'll conclude when I'm finished.

- David Bailey, 7th November 2009

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