“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.


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.

Microskill stack

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wrote a book called How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big in which he develops the concept of a ‘skill stack’. He thinks that rather than knowing a few things really well you have a better chance of success if you develop a wider range of skills. He thinks that success is a function of the convergence of a range of skills, that is, of your skill stack. I think that this applies to tango as well and that people often make the mistake of thinking that being successful at tango is a matter of knowing a few things like choreography and technique really well.

In a real milonga situation there are many skills that are never covered in dancing lessons. These are usually learned through some sort of trial-and-error. This typically leads to more error than success and ultimately burnout as the dancer discovers that it’s all too hard and impenetrable. A more effective system or approach to learning social dancing is to spend less energy on dancing lessons and more on developing a stack of microskills. If you focus on developing a stack of really basic skills then the larger goals will take care of themselves.

Most of the choreography that you learn in classes requires that you have mastered a series of more basic skills. Without these more basic skills learning and executing choreography will always be a struggle. A more effective strategy is to focus on the basic microskills that in the long run will make mastering complex choreography effortless. In fact, I claim that choreography naturally and effortlessly emerges out of walking with the correct technique.

The key is to focus on developing a microskill stack and to learn the ones that have the biggest payoff in the long run. People put these skills in the ‘technique’ bucket and only revisit them between sets of choreography lessons to correct their poor form with the goal of executing the choreography. In this they tend to focus on a narrow range of these and do not practice them enough. Yet their power lies precisely in the regular practice of the whole range of these, because it is when they are used together that they become very powerful and make all choreography easy and natural.

In particular, these are the microskills that allow us to exploit learning opportunities, whether these are things that spontaneously come up while dancing, or a step or pattern that we are introduced to. Without these microskills the step or pattern will be an endless struggle whereas if you have the right tools in your microskill stack you will master the pattern effortlessly and without much practice at all.