Learning tango as a conversation

Tango can be usefully viewed on analogy with conversation, but instead of the medium of language, or words, we use the medium of the physical body and its movements. First, as with conversation, tango is interactive (see Interaction). Interaction means that we are responding to the immediate situation and we are cooperating with the Other to create an improvised conversation. Unlike composed language or movement, we cannot anticipate how the conversation will run. We have not rehearsed a routine or choreography that we are going to execute in a predetermined manner. We need to respond to the situation as it emerges, ie., the music and our partner. We co-create the dance in a cooperative manner with our partner.

The analogy with conversation also can inform our approach to learning it. Because conversation is essentilly interactive, it has to be learned by practicing interaction. It cannot be learned by rote learning your lines. Memorising the lines of a dialogue will not teach us conversation skills, and people who attempt to learn conversation in a foreign language this way are boring to talk to and can never find anyone to talk to them because they’re sticking to a rigid schema or model instead of responding to the immediate situation with its pragmatic elements and complexities that cannot be written down.

However, we cannot simply launch into a conversation without any preparation. We do need to prepare by some drill, memorisation and rote learning even how to say “Hello!” in the foreign language before we can say it in an interactive situation. It is therefore a question of proportion rather than an either/or scenario. The problem is that people start off rote learning and then never progress to actual interaction. They load up their heads with rigid schemas without testing them out in real life situations. When they attempt to do so they freeze under pressure and go back to the safety of the textbook. When they finally come out with their rehearsed schemas they’re boring conversationalists with no fluency.

As with language, before we can interact physically with another body we need to do some preparatory work. We need to get a sense of how our own body moves and some of its possibilities through some drill and repetition. However, it makes no sense to memorise whole sequences of movement when we have no clue how to take a single step with a partner in a satisfactory way. We want to star off small, with simple movements that with repetition become fluent. It is a matter of repetition on your own, and then repetition with a partner. At each point we want to be listening and also getting a sense whether our message is appropriate to the situation, whether it’s clear, whether it has been received and perceived correctly. What response we are getting.

I believe that this conversational schema—preparation through rote repetition, interaction in a practice situation, listening and adjusting—is fairly universal to anything we learn, whether it is a new language, to dance or to play a musical instrument.

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