If I was learning tango again from the beginning, how and what would I like to learn?

Thursday, 17 September 2009 at 19:26

I'm writing this with the following questions in mind: If I was learning tango from the beginning again, what would be my ideal way of learning in a group setting? What would I like to learn and how?

The personal connection is paramount (although, I know, this is all too easy to forget sometimes, when focusing on technique). In the first lesson I ever did I experienced the essence of this connection. We found a partner, opened our arms and hugged. As we did this we breathed together. I still can't think of a better way of starting out on the tango journey. We then went on to explore walking in an embrace, which is the basis of the whole dance.

Aside from this there are social, stylistic and technical aspects to tango, each containing several key elements. (I will talk about the music separately since it is not something we learn in the same way as these other aspects.)

  • The social aspect of tango is one of the main attractors for many people. We gather together, dress up (if we feel like it and depending on the occasion), catch up with friends and dance to music we like with people we enjoy dancing with. For those who are single it's a great way to get out and meet new people and for couples it's a beautiful way to spend an evening. (Yes tango can be a real test for relationships.) Dances are typically divided into tandas, 3 or 4 songs, after which there is a short break allowing us to change partners or at least to have a short rest. In terms of what must be learnt I would list the following:

    • Etiquette: This is about acknowledging fellow dancers and respecting their space. When you enter the dance floor with your partner check there is space. If the floor is busy, make eye contact with the leader approaching you and see if they will let you into the line of dance. A nod or smile is sufficient to say thank you. If you are already on the floor, don't stand around chatting while couples are waiting behind you.

      Exercise. The room is divided if necessary to create a busy floor. The group is divided into 3. 2/3s are dancing in the outer lane, while the remaining 1/3 practices waiting for a safe opportunity to enter the floor with their partner and start dancing, making sure to acknowledge couples for letting them on. Dancing couples practice being polite and impolite to test the 1/3 coming onto the floor.

      Exercise. The whole group are dancing in the outer lane and the exercise is to keep an even space between couples and to experience the affect this has on the flow of the dance. Have one couple holding up the lane and another tale-gating and compare the affect on the whole floor.

    • Looking after your partner: The follower will generally be walking backwards and will often have their eyes closed, if they trust their leaders and the music invites it. This means it's the leader's responsibility to look after them and make sure they don't crash into anything or anyone. Depending on who they're dancing with and how busy and well behaved the floor is, the follower may also want to look after the leader and warn them of any likely collisions.

      Exercise. The room is divided if necessary to create a busy floor. The whole group are dancing in all the lanes. A few couples are assigned to be disruptive and do things like change lanes and plot collision courses with other couples (more in the fashion of a canon than a homing missile). The exercise is for all the other leaders to safely avoid danger as best they can. Everyone gets a go at being the disruptive couple.

    • Line of dance: Social tango is danced in anti-clockwise circuits around the dance floor, divided into lanes. The idea with this is to allow everyone space to enjoy the dance without pileups or traffic jams. It is bad form and potentially dangerous to change lanes in the middle of a dance, even to overtake and especially on a busy floor. The line of dance runs through the centre of your lane. Leaders should try to stick to this line as you dance. If you do this and avoid other couples your follower will feel safe in your arms, be able to relax and enjoy the dance more, which also helps them be a better follower.

      Exercise. Using string or some other markers, mark out 2 or 3 lanes on the floor. The game is to dance smoothly without putting a foot outside your lane. Decrease the lane width for more challenge. Teacher(s) and an assistant can watch for 'fouls' and blow a whistle and give out yellow and red cards to aid focus.

    • Inviting a dance: There are several ways to do this. The traditional way is called the cabaceo. A leader will look around the room and try to make eye contact with a follower. Also, a follower can initiate the eye contact as well. If the follower does not want to dance with the leader, they will avert their gaze. If, however, they wants to dance, they will make eye contact with the leader; who will then slightly nod their head in the direction of the dance floor. If the follower has decided to agree to dance they will nod yes. Only at this point would a leader go to a follower’s table or wherever they are sat and escort them to the floor. This set of conventions serves several purposes. Firstly, it prevents followers from feeling obligated to dance with just any leader who comes to them and asks for a dance. Secondly, leaders are kept from looking foolish by walking over and being refused a dance. Thirdly, if for any reason something comes up, or anyone changes his or her mind, no one else need ever know.

      This works very well if people are aware of the system, but can be frustrating and confusing if people are used to being approached directly. One middle ground is for a leader to half approach a follower and try to make eye contact a few paces away.

      At the end of a dance it is traditional for the leader to escort the follower back to their seat. Athough in England this is only practiced by some dancers, in the case of beginner followers it's a nice thing for an experienced leader to do anyway to help their confidence (which is a very significant part of being great to dance with).

      Exercise. Everyone is walking around randomly and the aim of the game is for people to catch each other's eyes. When you do this you navigate to the other person, circumambulate them and then join the crowd again as individuals.

      Exercise. Everyone takes a seat around the room and the music plays. The idea is for everyone to be aware of who might be trying to make eye contact with them (without looking too much like owls) and to practice making that eye contact. Here the cabaceo is practised. After an agreement is made couples take to the floor and dance a few steps before returning to be seated.

That's the initial draft for the social aspect block. (In practice there would be a basic technical introduction before the social aspect was introduced.) I really welcome constructive feedback and new ideas, so please feel free to share your thoughts. (Stylistic and technical blocks to follow in due course.)


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