Learner errors which can fossilise are primarily due to two factors: (i) the background culture or social distance; and (ii) the form of instruction. These are distinct but nonetheless related because the form of instruction is usually adapted to the cultural background of the learners. Learner errors tend to centre around poor improvisation skills, lack of connection at the embrace, poor connection to music and poor control on the dancefloor (more commonly known as ‘floor skills’).
Traditional tango is essentially an improvised dance that places heavy emphasis on good embrace, connection to the music and dancing with feeling. Non-Argentine dancers struggle to achieve competence in these areas. This appears to be primarily due to the mode learning which constists of rote rehearsal of fixed patterns or sequences of steps which may compromise the embrace and the connection to the music. In traditional tango, the music and the embrace are primary and the steps are adapted so as to maintain these two types of connection. Learning fixed patterns creates a range of issues that prevent the learner from being able to improvise a connected dance:
1. Prioritising the footwork
The method of teaching whereby the learner practices a set sequence of steps places excessive focus on the feet at the expense of what is happening with posture and at the embrace. In order to execute the steps the learner neglects the embrace. In traditional tango, the embrace and the music are the primary focus and the steps are adapted to fit that. By contrast, in dance studio teaching walking in a particular way is the focus even when it might not be optimal given the partner and the music. One always strives to have a particular show look and that is considered a higher value and connection.
- Poor posture: end-gaining and focus on the feet – poor posture, lack of connection, lack of awareness;
- Fixed sequences: lack of control, excessive use of space, lack of improvisation, compromising connection to partner and music;
- Compromised embrace: in-out/flexible embrace, primary connection through the hands;
2. End-gaining: seeking to emulate the look of skilled dancers
Studio dance method of teaching is limited to modeling and drill. This tends to encourage end-gaining whereby learners try to emulate the look of skills teachers. This tends to encourage focusing on how the dancing looks over the quality of the movement from a somatic or experiential perspective, that is, how the dancing feels, whether it’s pleasant or connected. Since the teachers tend to model choreography with large movements drawn from show dancing, which typically does not represent an efficient or optimal movement.
- Focus on show moves
- Using excessive amount of space
- Lack of control or floor skills
- Blocking line of dance
3. Naming and improvisation
The practice of naming dance sequences (eg., paso basico, caminata, ocho, cruzada, salida, giro, etc.) create the impression that these are agreed upon and essential aspects of tango dancing, and has a detrimental effect from the point of view of improvisation. Being essentially improvised tango does not have steps. While the patterns with names have been devised for the purposes of teaching, as sorts of crutches, they have effectively taken on a life of their own and become a style of dancin in itself such that the crutches are never dispensed with. This suggests that using set patterns as learning crutches is not an effective teaching strategy as the patterns fossilise into permanent habits.
4. Constant variation: training vs. performance
Social dancing requires the improvisation of a variety of complext movements. It represents the performance of a set of skills acquired through a process of training. While the performance of the skills involves a lot of variation, the process of training requires a lot of repetition of a relatively few elements. All training requires repetition and without adequate repetition no one can learn to dance unless they already have the physical skills required prior to the dancing class. It means that if the dancing class does not provide adequate repetition, only those with prior dancing experience and skill can progress in tango.
In order to acquite the necessary motor skills enough repetition is required (see Repetition). However, because dancing lessons are a form of entertainment rather than training, and are designed primarily to be fun, they do not function well as training which requires effort in the form of sustained focused repetition. Effective training requires adequate repetition for the motor skills to develop, ie., to re-wire the brain and effect neuro-muscular adaptation. Contant variation is not a good strategy for developing motor skills as it does not allow for adequate repetition and practice, although spaced practice is better than blocked practice. It’s better to practice for shorter periods 3 times a week is better than a long practice once a week.