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.

“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.