Naturalness

“I’m a natural dancer” (Tango teacher)

My very first tango teacher was an Argentinian who happened to also be an above average dancer. In addition to teaching he did performances in restaurants and at events. He taught in the standard way for the time: 8-step paso basico, ocho, cross, ganchos, etc. When a new tango teacher appeared on the local scene my teacher was not looking too happy. The other guy was not Argentinian. My teacher said that the other guy is academico whereas he himself is a natural dancer. I asked myself whether learning from a ‘natural dancer’ means that I will be a natural dancer as well, or whether having taken dancing lessons I’m destined to be forever ‘academico’. I reasoned that being a ‘natural’ dancer means that you don’t learn through classes but somehow just by dancing. The only thing that gave me hope was that the academico teacher seemed to do a lot of talking and explanation whereas my Argentinian teacher simply demonstrated the steps and there was not much explanation, mainly due to his limited English skills.

Anyway, you can see from my story, which I think is representative of some of the issues arising in tango teaching and learning, that there are inherent contradictions and incoherencies in the whole business of tango teaching. Structured tango classes seem have a tendency to produce rather clunky, mechanical, almost robotic, sort of dancing with little connection to the music or between the partners. Learners seem to be forever rehearsing the routines that they learned in class. On the other hand, many good dancers claim that they have not taken formal dancing lessons, and that you cannot learn to dance tango in that way. You have to, they insist, learn tango by simply dancing. This of course leads to the chicken-and-egg problem: you can’t start dancing tango until you have learned some, but you can’t learn to dance tango until you’re already dancing. It raises the conundrum of how we can get started in tango without falling into some academico trap where you become a clunky tango robot.

Learning and nature

Part of the problem lies in what I think is a false assumption that learning in a class is the opposite of naturalness. Lets break this down in some detail. Most skills are picked up rather than learned through formal study. This is therefore considered the natural way of learning something. Formal schooling, on the other hand, is viewed as the opposite of that and hence as not natural, and often is viewed as producing knowledge or skills that are merely academic but often inadequate to practical demands in the real world.

There is absolutely no question that in the end one can only learn to dance at a milonga through practical experience. However, it is not clear that having someone completely clueless about the codes and rituals of the milonga decide to attent and to figure everything out through trial-and-error is a good idea. There is surely room for some form of direct instruction to prepare the student, which can be more or less formal or systematic. But when people talk about learning to dance tango naturally, as my Argentinian teacher, did I don’t think they they mean merely that the process of learning was more natural, but that the outcome of that process, their dancing, is actually more natural, and the implication is that it is thereby also better.

I think that the basic idea underlying this is that the dancing learned in a studio class where one rehearses set routines, inevitably leads to unnatural and hence inferior movement that is never going to be as good, ie., look as aesthetically pleasing and fluid, as the dancing of someone who learned tango simply by dancing. Academic learning, the argument seems to be, kills naturalness in dancing and inevitably results in dancing which is clunky, robotic and lacking in fluency or expressiveness.

Naturalness as efficiency of movement

This is interesting because in another corner of the world of dancing and movement is an area called variously Somatics, Improvisation or Movement Awareness (including practices such as the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, Contact Improvisation and 5 Rhythms) where, in relatively structured sessions, participants learn, or perhaps more accurately rediscover, naturalness in their posture and movement. The idea here is that what is normal and has been picked up through practical day-to-day living is not necessarily thereby natural and that we actually need to engage in some systematic practice, typically a guided exploration of some sort, to regain our naturalness. How is that possible?

The basic reasoning behind the somatic approach to movement was developed by F.M. Alexander. Alexander was an Australian whose occupation was to recite Shakespearean plays. His job depended on his voice. At some stage Alexander experienced difficulties with his voice. Upon lengthy investigation he came to the conclusion that the cause of the problems is due to the way he is habitually using his voice. Alexander argued that when we are vere focused on a goal we tend to do what he calls end-gaining. That is, we are so focused on the goal that we rush and perform actions with unnecessary excessive effort and tension. This leads to poor posture and a inefficient use of the body. Alexander proposed that we need to focus less on the goal and focus some attention on the means-whereby, that is, the body mechanisms required to perform an action efficiently.

In this scheme, our habits and use of the body are often not natural in the sense that they are not optimal given the design of the body functioning. Often our lifestyle leads to poor habits such as poor posture and excess muscular tension, that over time becomes fixed in habitual patterns of movement that feel normal and natural but actually wear us out and make things more difficult than they should be. Regular mindful practice of certain movements can help us to rediscover our natural movement—natural in the sense that it is efficient and optimal given the evolutionary design of the body. For example, Alexander discovered that we tend to shorten the neck and that the head-neck relation is essential to how we use the spine and our overall movement efficiency. Doing exercises that release tension in that area and then consciously registration the new feeling of optimal head-neck relation can then carry over to a more efficient and in that sense more ‘natural’ movement patterns in our daily tasks.

Here we can see that naturalness is defined not as what is learned through practical experience as distinct from academic learning, but rather in terms of efficiency of movement that is in accordance with our biological makeup, that is, how our neuromuscular system has been designed through the process of evolution. Because a lot of our practical experience is not the same as it has been throughout our evolution, eg., nowadays we spend much more time sitting and looking at a computer or phone screen than we have for 100s of thousands of years, we develop poor movement patterns. In that case, naturalness requires us to undergo some systematic training that allows us to bring awareness to our body systems (the means-whereby) so that we execute movement in a way that does not excessively strain the body and create excess tension.

Efficiency of movement and the process of learning

This is interesting because we can see that from the point of view somatic movement awareness practices, both academico and natural dancing can be inefficient or efficient, or more accurately, both can be equally inefficient. However, it may be granted that studio academico type instruction is more likely to lead to inefficient movement for the following reason: studio teaching involves the rehearsal of steps that require focus on taking large steps and decorative movements with the legs. Because students need to focus on where their feet are going and usually this demands visual feedback.

The problem is that if you keep your head up and stand completely erect, looking ahead, we have a blindspot on the floor. In my case, being quite tall, I estimate that the radius of the blindspot is about 1 meter. That means that floating my head above my spine and being completely erect I can’t see my or my partner’s feet. Given that most studio dance classes teach rather large steps and the embrace is usually rather open, there is a very high change of colliding with your partner, and generally without visual feedback you cannot see where your partner’s feet are. As a result there is an overwhelming tendency to look down at the feet and you can this that this is almost universal in dancers who learn patterns in studio classes, ie., academico dancers.

On the other hand, those who have learned ‘naturally’ or informally often adopt a closer embrace and adjust their steps to the demands of the embrace. Informal learning usually does not focus on walking with large steps or rehearsal of predetermined patterns but usually starts out with a simple walk. So they only take steps that they can lead without kicking their partner or falling over, and only if they feel their partners position through the feedback their receive through the embrace. In other words, before taking large steps they go through a period of taking baby steps that allow them to develop good awareness of the connection with their partner without looking down. Also, when the situation becomes uncertain, they know how to pull back so that if the feedback is uncertain they can reduce the movement and don’t need to fall back on visual feedback. As a consequence, their dancing is more likely to be ‘natural’ in the second sense discussed above, namely, it is more likely to be efficient. Because dancers who learn informally also move more efficiently, these two issues are conflated so that informal learning is identified with efficient movement.

However, once we recognize that there is a connection between informal learning and a more efficient dancing, but that these are actually distinct and separable issues, we can now see that it is actually possible to devise a more systematic (and so in that sense formal) system of learning which teaches efficient dancing. The key of such a system is to eliminate the practicing of walking with elongated steps and rehearsing fixed patterns of steps and figures. On the other hand, we want to teach a more natural movement and awareness which will eliminate the need for the sort of trial-and-error characteristic of informal learning. Exercises that develop greater awareness of efficient movement, listening for feedback from one’s partner, and prevent the learner from making large movements that interfere with the embrace can make the learning process more systematic and direct, and yet promote a more natural movement in tango dancing.

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Training vs. demonstration of skill

When we watch competent people dance what we are observing is them demonstrating a skill that they already have. This skill was acquired through a process of training which was most likely progressive, that is, involved a series of steps whereby they started off with no skill and then progressively acquired the high level skill that allows them to dance in a complex way skillfully.

This is important because many people seem not to realise that what you do in the process of training is going to be very different from what one sees when dancers demonstrate their skill that is the result of the training. They see skillful dancers do a certain pattern of steps or some movement and they want to immediately learn how to do that specific pattern or movement.

They want to learn that without apparently taking into consideration that they are not themselves at the level to be able to execute that pattern or movement, because executing it would be a matter of demonstrating a level of skill that they do not yet have. I think that the reasoning is that learning the pattern of steps and movement then just requires a lot of practice of those steps or that movement in order to acquire the skill.

This, however, is a major confusion about the relationship between training and demonstration of a skill. The pattern of steps or the movement is not the skill itself, but a demonstration of movement skills that are distinct from the pattern. By analogy, one does not learn to drive fast by driving fast. One first has to learn to drive slowly, and then progressively faster. You do not learn to beat champion chess players by playing them from the start. You have to go through baby steps.

The problem is that in many areas of expertise, the skill required to perform an action is not acquired by performing that action repeatedly, but rather by a completely different process. The teacher knows the process that can get the student from his current level of skill to the level required to perform the action that the student desires. Whether the student undertakes the correct training depends on both the teacher and the pupil: the pupil wants to learn to perform the action and the teacher can bamboozle the pupil by teaching what the pupil thinks he wants. Alternatively, the teacher can tell the pupil that the process requires doing something else to get to the desired destination. It’s then up to the pupil to trust the teacher to show the right path. The image of the Karate Kid washing the car is the correct view of the situation.proxy.duckduckgo

This applies in many areas of expertise where the skill demonstrated and the training required to attain that skill are quite different. Many sports require physical strength that cannot be achieved by doing that sport itself but by lifting weights or some other sort of training. In music, learning to play long sequences of notes fast requires patient practice of short sequences at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Tango teachers would not be so generous with handing out their stage choreography if they thought that the students could effectively execute them, because then they would be creating unwanted competition. They know too well that attempting to perform these sequences sets the students back more than anything else. Conversely, many students naively believe that if they master the sequence they will be able to set up as teachers themselves. They are then surprised that they never really get anywhere close to the level they would expect. They were too impatient.

Like it or not, the reality is that the fast way to mastery is through slow practice: to execute a complex set of movements fast one has to first practice executing simple movements in a slow and focused way. These are not going to be the eye-catching choreographed sequences that one sees performed by champion dancers who then teach them. Trying to execute these complex patterns merely results in the acquisition of poor habits. Performance of sequences is the demonstration of a skill that was acquired through training, and training is not merely the practicing of the performance of these skills but a completely separate process which is progressive and culminates on the skill demonstrated.

Videos

It is now accepted that videos can be a great resource for learning and are increasingly used in classrooms. There is even a new educational methodology called flipping the classroom where students watch videos with lectures and demonstrations in the classroom. The teacher’s job then is merely to manage, support and clarify. In one way or another using video for the purposes of teaching both in the classroom and as a self-study resource can be very effective.

However, there is a way in which the use of videos for the purposes of learning tango is counterproductive and can set the learner back quite significantly. This is to simply start searching around the internet for videos of tango. Generally speaking, searching the internet (Google, Youtube, etc.) for learning resources is useful only to the extent that it helps us to find a structured course provided either by an educational platform providing such courses, or independent educators who provide such structured educational materials on their own platform. Such materials should be well organised into progressive levels and include printable materials in PDF form for download, systematic practice exercises, etc.

So a good way to use video and the internet for learning is either when it is integrated into a structured course of study by a teacher as part of classroom instruction, or when it is part of a course of study provided online via an educational platform (eg., Udemy) or an independent teacher selling educational materials.

A bad way to use video and online information is to simply search around for something randomly. For example, if I want to learn to play the guitar I can search around and find videos teaching various techniques for playing guitar and soon enough I will be confused and exhausted because I won’t stick to anything and the things I will be learning will not be organised in any systematic and progressive form that will allow me to progress to something tangible and keep me motivated to continue. So soon I will quit learning guitar due to boredom and move on to something else.

This problem is even worse in the case of tango. When one searches “tango” on Google what one gets is mostly exhibition tango, whereas the teaching materials that are there are mostly demonstrations by Salon Style Tango and Tango Nuevo teachers. These demonstrations are for set routines that they teach in a way that is non-interactive. That is, a typically studio dance lesson involves the teacher demonstrating a set routine that has a name such as “Paso Basico” and the students copying that routine based on the visual image that they receive. The result of these images is that students come to believe that this is social dancing, when in fact it is actually technique and choreography for show dancing. The techniques for embrace and walking are all derived from stage dancing.

Even when looking at social tango, learners are likely to become confused because there are many aspects of the video that require explanation. In other words, the videos need to be curated, selected and clarified by the teacher. Students viewing videos will have a lack of understanding of the context for what they are seeing. A well-designed, progressive course of study involves providing information at a level that is appropriate to the level of the student.

Watching videos of dancers who look very good has two other detrimental effects:

(a) It promotes a focus on the visual image

(b) It leads to feelings of failure which are bad for motivation and promote end-gaining.

Watching videos of dancers that look very good leads learners to focus excessively on the visual aspect of dancing (see Imagery). Because it focuses attention on how the dancers look, it promotes the idea that learning to dance well is a matter of looking a certain way as if one were to see oneself from the outside, rather than as feeling a certain way from the inside. The learner will not compare how they feel when they are dancing, but always how they look, the visual image of themselves compared to the instructor or model on the video. The focus is always on the outer image of dancing and never on the inner feeling.

By far the biggest problem with watching tango videos on the internet, however, is that it is that it is bad for motivation and promotes end-gaining (see Systems). The dancers who are either performers or teachers (rather than average social dancers) will always look great and much better than the student, and the student will tend to compare themselves to these much more advanced dancers. Comparing himself to some ideal that you aspire to you will make the learner aware of their shortcomings and this will be perceived by the subconscious brain as a failure and will be bad for motivation and promote end-gaining, that is, trying too hard.

Tango students watching videos that they found on the internet will attempt to learn things that are beyond their current level of ability in terms of skill and understanding. So the fact that many online resources are available is not always a good thing, and can be counterproductive and prevent students from learning effectively. It does not mean that the teacher is no longer required, and it is the job of the teacher to curate these resources so that they are actually helpful to the student’s development.

Mental imagery in movement education

How we stand and move is controlled by our mental images. We have a mental image of our body that is our normal or habitual way of standing or moving. When we have to make a new movement, however, we need some other image. There are different sorts of imagery that we can use in learning movement. One sort of imagery is seeing how people move and then using that sort of a superficial image to copy what they do. This is a common strategy in learning to dance tango or any other sort of dance. People look at someone dancing and then they try to copy that. A teacher might break down the choreography into simpler elements, but ultimately the goal is to copy the dance as it appears superficially.

Any professional who specialises in movement education will immediately see the problem with this approach: what we see from the outside is merely the surface image that (while it may be pretty) conceals the underlying mechanics of the movement, that is, the way in which the mover or dancer achieves that movement. Any movement is the result of the brain sending messages to the neuromuscular system to coordinate the various muscular contractions. When a person moves in a certain way, their brain sends particular messages that are going to be different then when you try to copy that movement by looking or imagining their movement as it appears to you from the outside.

Now, most people believe that merely trying to imitate a movement done by a performer or a teacher is a good enough strategy typically because they don’t know better and because they believe that their dancing teacher is a professional who knows what is good or bad. But the reality is that the vast majority of people attending dancing lessons never proceed to dance socially and have essentially wasted their money on useless dancing lessons.

So the majority of people are essentially clueless as to how movement is actually learned and follow the lead of those who advertise themselves as experts on the basis that they can themselves perform the movements that they purport to teach. But the ability to make certain movements no more enables one to teach them than the ability to speak a language enables one to teach that language, otherwise we’d all be professional language teachers simply by virtue of being able to speak our native language fluently.

The typical dancing teacher does little more than break down some steps into more elementary ones that a learner can perform and then ‘put together’ into longer sequences. They teach dancing typically because they are competent enough dancers themselves to convince people that they can teach. Actually, most of the skill of the average dancing teacher is in their ability to market themselves as such. This gives the whole idea of teaching dancing a bad name, leading some to argue that teaching dancing is really selling snake oil, and that in the end you can’t teach people how to dance, ie., dancing is not really teachable. As a result, the failure of the teaching method whereby students copy the movement of people performing the movement leads to the other extreme view that no method can ever work.

Even if we agree that movement is taught through images, there is still a question of what is the  right sort of image. The problem with a lot of dance teaching is that one is asked to use the wrong sort of images. That is, imitating the movement as it appears to us is only one sort of image that we can use in learning to dance. Yet there are two other sorts of pedagogical image that have been developed by movement professionals that work much more efficiently:

First, there are images that have been developed specifically because they generate the desired response which can then be made habitual, ie., performed without the image. In this case, the image is a sort of a crutch. For example, when we want improve our posture, rather than imagining a person who has a good posture and trying to look like that, we can imagine being pulled up by a string attached to the top of the head. This image will move effective in getting us to lengthen the spine which is more desirable than standing straight like a soldier which is what people usually do.

Second, another type of imagery is related is the ‘somatic’ awareness of the body, that is, the awareness of the body from the inside. This usually requires us to close our eyes, or at least to not focus the eyes on anything, allowing us to use our ‘inner eye’ to scan the body and how it feels. This allows us to get a sense of when a movement feels more or less efficient. The goal of dancing and movement learning in general is to make a movement more efficient. Efficiency here means that the movement is optimal or good given the structure of our skeletal and muscular system. Movement which is efficient in this sense is usually healthier and more graceful and pleasant.

Both of these techniques have been developed and have been effectively applied by movement education professionals in fields such as sports, dance and vocal training. The reality is that we need to use images to control and coordinate all of our muscular activity. The problem is rather having the right sorts of images. Simply copying what we see another person doing is not an effective strategy and a professional teacher can provide the right sorts of images and training exercises to produce the desired results. Unfortunately few, if any, teachers of social dances like the Argentine tango are trained in using somatic awareness or mental imagery to teach the rather complex skill of dancing the tango, and so most people go through classes in which they are merely asked to imitate the movements of others.

Key point summary

  1. Our brain controls movement through mental images.
  2. Learning a movement effectively is therefore a matter of having the right mental image.
  3. A common strategy which is not usually effective is to copy the movement as it appears to us visually.
  4. In fields like sports, dance and voice specialised movement coaches can provide the right sort of image (sometimes called a ‘cue’) to elicit the desired movement.
  5. One sort of cue is a movement done with awareness whereby your attention is drawn to how the body feels and how the movement can be done efficiently given our neuromuscular structure.
  6. Another sort of cue is a mental image that provides the desirable response which can then be stored in memory or made habitual.

Further reading

Eric Franklin (2012) Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery

 

“The setup” for milonga success: minding the red flags

Of fundamental importance to dancing with good technique is the setup. That means that the execution of the dance depends critically on what happens immediately before you start dancing. If the setup is poor, the dancing experience is likely be mediocre. I can predict the quality of the dance before I start dancing because I know whether the setup has been good or not. That means that I can avoid bad dancing. And we want to avoid bad dancing not only because it is an unpleasant experience, but also because it is bad for our motivation and desire to carry on learning tango.

The setup can be divided into two phases. The first phase is actually before we even enter the dancefloor, and it includes the quality of the event, the music being played, the condition of the dancefloor, and the options for partners. If these aren’t working out then the probability of a satisfactory dance are minimal and you should seriously consider leaving the event or hitting the snack table to recover the costs. The sad reality is that most tango events these days are hit and miss, and more often miss than hit.*

If, however, you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a situation where the music is right, the dancefloor is not excessively packed with leg swinging dancers, and there are some potential partners looking available, you may proceed to engage in the cabeceo ritual and find that you are hitting the dancefloor.

We now enter the second phase of the setup. What happens at this stage will tell you 90% of what the dance is going to be like. If you find yourself standing with your new partner facing the right direction, face relaxed, taking a deep breath, getting your alignment right, and entering a square embrace, elbows floating up, you’re in for a good start. Once you lock into that embrace you have the right set up for success and you proceed with the walk.

If, on the other hand, you find that your partner has a ridiculously big smile on their face, or worse, is giggling, is facing in the wrong direction, their elbows are pointing downwards, and then embrace you in the armpit embrace, you instantly know that this is not going to be good. Here is what you do: you make the dance really boring, perhaps chatting throughout, and then come up with an excuse to end the dance at the end of the first track, then hurry back to your seat to analyse how you got yourself into that situation in the first place.

Key point summary

The setup requires the following elements being right and if any of these is absent this is a red flag that the dance is not going to be pleasant:

  1. Music – music that is suitable for the partner you’re inviting: if this is a new partner, someone you’ve never dance with before, the music should not be difficult since you don’t know their skill level;
  2. Dancefloor – the dancefloor is not be too crowded or full of dancers who are overactive;
  3. Partners – there should be potential partners who are suitable in terms of body type (height and weight), and skill level;
  4. Invitation – invitation by way of a cabeceo rather than direct invite by someone you don’t know or aren’t with;
  5. Orientation – your partner should enter the dancefloor correctly, namely, the man should check in with other couples that are passing and both partner should stand in the correct orientation with respect to the line of dance;
  6. Alignment – check in with your alignment and posture;
  7. Elbows – elbows float up;
  8. Embrace – partners enter into a square embrace.

 


Notes

* There is little mystery as to why most so-called milongas around the world are such poorly conducted events: usually they are little more than practicas for the students of the teachers who organise the event, doubling as marketing opportunities to sell classes to their friends. Often local Argentinians who have not had much interest in tango discover that they can use their background to earn some extra cash. With very few exceptions milongas are organised by people without professionalism, experience or the deep interest of a connoisseur and cater to gullible masses who know even less.