Learning to walk

17th November 2009

(More Next Steps articles.)

"It takes seven years to learn to walk" ~ Received Tango Wisdom


That "Seven years" statement has always bothered me for a number of reasons. Is it seven years regardless? If I attend tango classes for a year and then social dance once a week, will it still take as long if I were to combine the last 6 years with practicing, a dance partner, private lessons etc?

Is it code like saying "I'm just a beginner" means "I'm seriously good" in some circles? Does it mean it takes seven years to get to the point where you're good enough and experienced enough to realise that in tango walking is enjoyable in itself and be good enough at it to do so socially? Does "seven years" just mean "a long time"?

Plus it only takes about 3 years to get a PhD. In 5 you can become a medical doctor!

The basics

I've finally got a reasonably good description of what's needed for a basic man's tango walk in one style (as I understand it).

The first thing is that it's rather long. It's over seven A4 pages and that's just bullet points, forget actual explanations or pictures. Remember this is for a basic walk in one specific style. You'll then have to learn how to vary the length, speed, dynamics etc. Then how to do that to the music, which will most likely involve learning how to understand tango music and get familiar with a considerable number of pieces.

There are a number of other complications...


There's the basic physical considerations. Your body may not be tango-ready just yet. You may need to do stretching and strengthening. Improve your stamina and your balance. And so on. Especially if you're a woman!

You have to find a teacher who both walks in a way that you want to and can explain it to you in a way that makes sense to you, ideally without you wanting to kill each other.

You have to understand what you're being told. The fundamental problem is that the list I've written is really only useful to someone who's already learnt that specific style. Almost everything in it I had to work out what it actually meant to me. Bear in mind I was not just told this. I got to see it demonstrated with and without a partner. I've dissected videos of it being done and my doing it. I've been physically repositioned inch by inch. I've had it back-led on me. I've followed it. I've practiced it alone and with partners. I've danced it socially. I'm still getting the hang of it!

The four levels of competence

As David mentions elsewhere we tend to learn by continuing on from things we already know. I think of getting the woman to sit on the edge of a bar stool for example. Thing is your life experience is probably different to your teacher's. So you may have to work out what a lot of this means for you.

You then have to identify what's slightly different and change that. And changing old habits is hard.

Once you understand it, you then have to practice it enough to progress through:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence

(as described here)

And a lot of these things take time to do that is measured at least in months.

More complications...

To further complicate matters, the walk only works properly if you have all the elements present at once. The more that are missing or wrong, the progressively harder it is to do. Which makes it harder to learn and practice and indeed most likely adds faults which you will then have to later correct.

Human nature (and the marketing approach taken by many tango teachers) mean that you'll most likely get distracted from walking by boleos, planeos, and things ending in "ada" along the way. You'll probably try different teachers who have different methods, get hopelessly confused and have to go back to square one again.

You'd do a PhD 9-5, five days a week, probably with work in the evenings and the weekend too. You won't come remotely close to doing that in tango.

Once you've managed all this there's still the matter of making the walk your own. Like Comme Il Faut, once you've finally it takes time to break them in and get them to fit you (or so I assume).

So is it worth it?

In this respect I'm fortunate. I already have seven years experience in moving arts and I know how wonderful an experience it can be. To be honest it's pretty much what keeps me going.

As I've said elsewhere you have to decide what you value in tango. But if walking is important to you, hopefully you now have a clearer idea of what to expect.

 - Christopher O'Shea, 17th November 2009

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