Sunday, 9 February 2014

Foregoing the Milonga in favor of tango classes

Being in Buenos Aires  is the best occasion to take cheap tango classes with a variety of the best teachers in the world, some of whom do not travel to Europe. For me, this means two or three private classes a week, and I would take more if I could afford it despite knowing it's a lot of information to incorporate. This has led me to wonder about the efficiency of packing one's schedule with too many classes. There are three particular events that I've been mulling over.

The first was a few weeks ago. I had taken classes with a female partner during a tango festival. When we arrived, the first thing the teacher did was walk over to us, wearing a huge smile, to greet us and ask our names. The theme was on different types of walking to the beat. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn't have gotten frustrated because of how the teachers patiently walked us through the steps and enthusiastically explained the concepts of the exercises.

At the end of the class, enthused by their teaching method and all I had learned about how to walk, how to step and put down my feet, how to accelerate and step on the beat, I turned to a friend who was also there, an intermediate male leader.

"That was great!" I told him happily. He looked at me a little bit sideways.

"Actually I found it boring," he admitted.

Of course I know not everyone enjoys the same things in a class. But this was really the sort of fundamental technique he has yet to master, and I had been hoping he would profit from it and incorporate it in his dance. As I stared at him in dismay, my partner from the class intervened.

"How can you say you were bored," she said (rather bluntly), "When you can't do these things?"

This is what bothered me: of course I was disappointed he did not enjoy the lesson, but the problem was that he was not ready to do this "boring" stuff like learning to accelerate and play with the beat. I was particularly disappointed because I used to enjoy dancing with him but now find it very flat - an opinion shared by the friends I have asked.

Moral of the story: you might find things boring, but do them or be ready to stagnate. Which is acceptable if you're happy with your current level. Oh, and also: different people, different tastes.

The second event was a discussion with a friend recently arrived from Europe determined to work on a specific style of dancing, very different from what he had been learning up until now.

"I take private classes every day," he told me proudly, then turned a bewildered expression towards me. "I don't understand why you don't take more classes while you're here".

I refrained from pointing out the setback of my limited budget, and wondered why I had not noticed any improvement in his dance as of late.

"I just don't know why you go out dancing all the time instead of resting more to be in shape for classes," he finished, tossing his hair back to get it out of his face in a typical gesture of his.

Looking at him in puzzlement, I pondered this opinion. Why should I forego social dancing in favour of taking classes? For me a milonga is the occasion to incorporate what I have learned into the way I move with a variety of partners, to commit information from intellectual understanding to muscle memory. Some nights feel like I have vastly improved and the next my legs seem glued to the floor by some strange magnetic field, but I insist and little by little the way I move, stand and react changes.

Going to the milonga is an important motivator for improving. When I watch dancers who have invested a lot of effort and time into their dancing, who are often professionals or semi-professionals, I want to dance with them and more importantly I want them to enjoy dancing with me - I would rather sit all evening than dance with people who don't enjoy it.

When I watch the explosive, high-energy dancers at El Yeite, the boisterous and lively crowd at Viva la Pepa, or the (mostly) advanced dancers of El Motivo, I want to have this much fun, and be part of the people who make these places feel alive and fun. It's simple: the more I improve, the more I enjoy those very good dances when I get them.

I try not to make the mistake of thinking technical skill is the only thing that motivates people to dance with each other. I enjoy the feeling of communication, of freedom, that comes with improvement itself and I can only find this by going out to dance - in a milonga.

Yes, the classes here are really worth it. The teachers are amazing and much more affordable than in Europe - most of these people deserve every last peso they charge. But the milongas in Buenos Aires are an experience I wouldn't miss for the world. There are some of the best dancers from all over the world here. La crème de la crème. Some of my tandas left me with an ear splitting smile for days afterward. Some moments of sitting with friends - people I had not seen for months - and simply talking or holding each other still make me feel warm and fuzzy.
So I'm sorry, but I can not forsake the milonga in the name of classes.
The setback in taking too many classes, I believe, is that information needs time to be incorporated and understood. This is of course different in the case of a series of classes with the same teacher... But good teachers can give enough feedback in one hour to keep their students busy for days on end. So then, I would like to ask my friend, what is the point of adding additional information on top of things you have yet to master?

This leads me to the third event I've been thinking about. A woman I know came back from a class almost in tears and told me:

"I couldn't do anything today. None of the exercises - my body just won't do it. My teacher was showing me the exercises and I just couldn't do it."

She's a good dancer and takes her dancing seriously - she's not one of those people who never push themselves and still expect to get all the dances. She has never taken many classes in Europe (for financial reasons), and here she has been taking all those she could: privates, group classes before the milongas and women's technique classes, as well as practicing with friends. She's enough to make me feel lazy. And yet, she felt so frustrated she was practically crying.
This has happened to me too of course. Any person afflicted by chronic perfectionism can identify.

In this moment I truly realised the perverse effect that pushing yourself too hard can have. No matter how many times you fail an exercise, you must remember not to take it personally. Wait, then try again - give it time.

Remember, the body will not progress with the same speed as the mind. It's no use stuffing your brain until you can't tell your right foot from your left foot, and spend the dance trying to go up while going down, without forgetting to relax your shoulders.

I love tango when it sounds like a strange child of zen philosophy. Go up but down. Present but relaxed. Expand your chest but close your muscles. Walk normally but spend hours practising how to walk.

And remember to do yoga.



  1. Hi again, this time to Vida :)

    You wrote
    "I love tango when it sounds like a strange child of zen philosophy"
    My experience is, that as mysterious and exciting this "philosophies" and "pictures" sometimes sound and we all often pretend - or even really think - that we understand them, we mostly don't.
    I had a lot of experiences where I got the grasp of a concept some years after I heard it first, and thought that I understand it. Then, mostly years later, came the revelation "ahhh this is what he/she meant by that!!! How stupid am I, it's so simple!!!" - this was the usual reaction.

    But I realized that the problem was mostly ;) not my stupidity or inability but actually the inability of the teacher to explain it properly.
    No really, it's nice to hear this mysterious philosophies, but most of the teachers are just as struggling the same way we are, to understand some concepts, and often cannot find the easy and understanding way to explain it.

    I am in a position that I have to explain some of this concepts to others and I always try to make it as simple as possible. Sometime it's not working with words, but I have to use the body or the music or a sheet of paper to make people understand - and reassure they really do. And make it as simple as possible. From the right understanding comes at the end the ability to dance (or move/feel your body) better - faster.

    So, as much I too do enjoy the mystery in some explaining (as most of them now I know what the people mean) I mistrust them as they usually lead the people on the wrong way. It's ok, if you are in to get to know ways which not to go (and why, it's experience too), but if you want to become better fast, it's very inefficient.

    Some things need time to be able to do them. It's training, practicing, dancing...but understanding the concepts should be simple, even if the zen mystery is gone then (but there is this other one, in the couple, with the music... :) ).
    Hugs, J

  2. Hi! I'm loving this blog! Keep them coming! :-)

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  4. Hi Jaro,
    Sorry but I deleted my comment by accident :-).
    Concepts can indeed be very hard to explain, especially to people with little body awareness, for example who have never done other dances or martial arts. Besides, some people will understand by watching, but others will need the ideas expressed in words.
    I understand what the teachers are trying to prevent - often by trying to correct a mistake we might end up in the opposite situation :-).
    But I don't really get frustrated with it, I just try to adapt my body and movement to fit what my teachers are trying to show me, even if I have to correct my posture every three steps in class, I tell myself it will finish by happening automatically.
    I actually appreciate than in tango, there is so much work to be done with listening to your body, to your partner, to the music...

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    1. Sorry, but we had an excellent reason only to name anybody. I had to delete your comment. Thank you for understanding and I hope you continue to enjoy our writing.

      - Mia