Advice to a young(er) dancer

11th September 2009

The question

The question was posed: "If you could go back and give you're starting self advice what would it be?"

A couple of responses from JiveTango.com contributors:

David Bailey:
In terms of direction, I'd say "do exactly what you've been doing, but do it harder, quicker and more often" - in fact, I'd say that to myself now, so I'm not sure it's much different... :)

Ken Royden
"Don't be put off doing any form of dancing by the attitudes of others. I should have learnt dancing earlier, but my 'then existing' friends put me off, as they had their own agendas on what they wanted to do (i.e. go down the pub, go shopping, visit relatives etc) expecting my full companionship in their own world. Put yourself first, do what YOU want to do.
Don't be intimidated by others who you think are 'better than you'. When I first went dancing, I was terrified of dancing with certain individuals (I was not good enough), but I soon learnt that some individuals are good at what they do, but they never progressed, always continuing to do the same moves.
Don't make a fool of yourself by dancing with those that are clearly on a different level than you. They are dancing with you because they are being polite. You need to put in the practice to get to their level.

Some background

"Most people don't go social dancing to dance. They go to socialize" ~ Andy McGregor

It's a bizarre statement, but strangely it does seem to be true, both in my experience and from talking to a variety of teachers. So what does it mean? Well for a start it means that for a lot of people "reasonably good intermediate dancer" is all they're aiming for. They go to chat to friends, have a fun night out and as long as their dancing doesn't actively hinder that, then that's fine.

Firstly as I considered here, there's a lot of different ways you can define a reasonably good intermediate dancer.

Simply put there is no consensus among dancers as a whole as to what "good" means. Does "good" means "good to dance with" or "having many skills" or something else? Different people won't agree that these different areas of skill have equal value or even what those values are. What is important is to try and determine what "good" means to you so that you can make the kind of choices that will result in you getting there. So for example, for me it means one that primarily values posture, embrace, walk, musicality, floorcraft, connection and both dancers feeling good. "First do no harm. Second dance."

However as there are many different views it's worth considering what your choices are.

Leadership types

Loosely speaking you're looking at something along the following lines for a leader:

  • Floorcraft - how to navigate the floor without colliding with anyone
  • Fundamentals - posture, embrace, walk
  • Moves - boleos, ganchos
  • Sequences - eg giro with sacadas to cross
  • Musicality - milonga has a different ryhthm to vals, knowing some songs by heart

Different people have slightly different interests as indeed do different teachers so for example one dancer may have better fundamentals and less sequences and vice versa. But overall you could group them at roughly the same level.

So what does this mean in practical terms?

Well for a start if you want to improve your leading beyond this level, you'll find the number of people who can follow you with a corresponding degree of skill drops off quite sharply. So you're probably going to either have to resign yourself to having less dances over a night, having the same number of dances but with only a few people, or adapting to leading intermediates and beginners.

These are arguably much easier options for leaders to do than for followers. Likewise just because you and the follower are both reasonable intermediate dancers doesn't mean that you have the same distribution of skill-sets. You may have better floorcraft and no real idea how to lead boleos, she may have very graceful boleos but no real care whether they're led or not.

Statistical anomalies

Say you have a teacher who's more focused on fundamentals than sequences. It makes sense that this would be reflected in their milongas, simply by virtue of having a higher concentration of their students than anyone elses.

Unfortunately this can also lead to milongas with a high proportion of people skilled in numerous sequences but with poor floorcraft. Although to an extent like attracts like, the dancers who have come from other venues are a wild card and so it is possible for a milonga where although the home students are dancing with floorcraft and musicality, there are enough visitors whirling around chaotically to cause problems.

Teaching

Teachers need to make a living. My educated guess at this point is that there simply aren't enough students interested in progressing beyond this level to support a teacher. It's worth noting that there are two ways to progress beyond this level. Firstly learn to do things properly from the get-go. Secondly learn enough to get by to reasonably intermediate level and then learn how to do it properly.

There appears to be a number of solutions to this:

  • Private lessons. You want a class where they're going to teach advanced stuff, well then don't be surprised that it's just you! (and maybe your partner).
  • Technique classes. But again these are usually woefully attended.
  • Find someone who does it anyway - there are a few teachers who have decided to just go ahead and teach properly from the get go without dumbing it down.
  • Practicas - again usually woefully attended. Indeed I know one school that offers the practica for free to its students yet virtually no-one takes advantage of this.
  • Partners / Practice Groups - find like minded people and work together.

Conclusion

Quite simply if you don't actively make decisions about how you learn and progress in tango they will be made for you by default. Ask yourself is this just a social activity for you? Are you content with attaining a reasonable intermediate level? If you are, what balance of skill-sets would you like it to have? What sort of people do you want to dance with regular at your local milonga? What skill-sets do you want them to have?

That should go a long way to helping you decide where to learn. And remember every now and then to ask yourself the same questions, and see if your answers have changed.

~ Christopher O' Shea, 11th September 2009

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