Getting Better

19th May 2009

(More Next Steps articles.)

"How do beginners get better, if no-one better than them will dance with them?" ~ Chris O'Shea


This article discusses how we can get better at Tango. It's a mixture of my own thoughts, and some comments from others in the Tango Practice Group.

10 General Tips

Some ideas, thoughts and proposals:

  1. Your strengths, their weaknesses:
    People learn different things at different rates, so a beginner lead may be OK at walking, but lousy at pivots. In the same class is a beginner follow who's good at pivots but bad at walking. So help each other, and you can both become a bit better.
  2. Leaders, be nice to followers:
    Followers initially learn faster than leaders. So the women you start with will overtake you and start to dance with the better dancers. but if they like you, then they'll (hopefully) still dance with you and help improve your dancing.
  3. Don't underestimate core skills:
    The way you do a move will change as you progress. Good balance will probably always serve you well.
  4. Practice:
    Learn to love the kitchen floor. We walk a lot in life, learn to use this time to practice it. Find a practice venue, and a practice partner, and use both regularly. Have your own "to-do" list and structure.
  5. Music:
    Listen to it. Learn it. Walk to it, immerse yourself in it. Eventually you may even come to like it...
  6. Critique and be critiqued:
    Learn to take advice, accept it, and use it. Seek out feedback. Use videos. Make notes. It's *really* annoying to have a lightbulb moment that suddenly makes doing xyz easier and then realise later on in the evening that you figured this out 3 months ago but have forgotten it. Seriously consider buying a web-cam so you can make video notes.
  7. Get good teachers:
    Don't rely on one teacher only, but if you find a good one stick with him/her. Private lessons are for technique, group lessons are for moves.
  8. Break it down:
    Try to work out what underlying technical principle is being illustrated in a moves-based class. If there is no such underlying technical principle, find another class.
  9. Ask:
    If it's difficult and you can't work out what you're supposed to do or why, ask the teacher if he will please show you. Say, "I don't get it, please will you show me". Teachers always look for feedback - it helps let them know how they're doing. Chances are, if you can't get it, many others can't either.
  10. Trust no-one:
    Nothing's gospel, including this. Take whatever teachers have got to offer, but don't treat it as gospel. And even Gospel isn't gospel...

Peaks and Troughs

I've encountered many people who say things like this:

"And it never fails, that just when I think I've gotten somewhere and maybe am dancing OK...things shift again and I'm back to dancing like absolute crap. Thank goodness I've got DH who has a background in music, and he assures me that my feelings are completely normal and somehow part of the learning process. According to him, it translates as progress." ~ A forum post

My theory is that this feeling happens when your awareness of the "amount to learn" expands faster than your actual progression, so it feels like you're going backwards.

So, say, initially you grade yourself on a 1 out of 10, then if you move to 2, that feels like genuine progress - only 8 to go! But then, you realise that you're actually at level 2 out of 100, and if you move to level 3, that's still good progression, but you're more aware of how much else there is to learn.

But yes, this is progress - in both senses. Both because you have a greater appreciation of the depth of dancing, and because you're still going forwards. But it feels like you're going backwards.

Or, "The more you know, the more you know you don't know."

To extend this further, the times when you're feeling a real sense of fast progress towards a goal may be the times when you need to reconsider - it may simply be that you've a false awareness of where you need to get to.

Yes, there are "lightbulb moments", times when you break through in areas. But mostly, these are exceptions.

So, the advice I'd give to anyone encountering this is, accept that this is simply a normal part of the learning process, which everyone encounters frequently.

Another way of putting it:
"You will have plateaus and periods when you don't know what to do next or go down wrong tracks (if you're lucky they will be productively wrong), this is OK and part of the learning process, just keep practicing and take the odd short holiday and chalk things up to experience."

Being self-directed

I've come to the conclusion that the only way to really progress in Tango, past a certain point, is to mainly motivate yourself to learn.

It's surprising how few people are willing to do this. Lots of people are willing to come to classes, but how many of them actually practice? Or make notes? Or discuss the lesson afterwards?

People are lazy; all of us. If we think we can learn Tango by attending a class once a week, we will do that. It's a real effort to get out there and push yourself to improve, to learn, to go out and practice what you've learnt, and so on.

Yes, OK, you can make that point about learning most things, to a degree. But it's quite possible to learn - for example - maths, by only going to maths classes. Of course, other topics have structure - they have assessments, they have examinations, tests, and a whole monitoring regime.

In the absence of structure, self-motivation is essential anyway. But my feeling is that Tango is especially dependent on this; to a point, we all have to make the effort to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

Hence this article. Hope it helps.

 - David Bailey, 19th May 2009

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