Base: true and false beginners

Beginner level students fall into two categories that affect the rate of progress:

1. True beginners have no dancing experience of any sort at all. The whole dancing thing is completely new to them and so really they are just getting into the world of dancing and movement.

2. False beginners have done some dancing before, whether tango or some other dance, and have some foundational skills, what we might call a ‘base’, which will allow them to progress at a much faster rate.

False beginners already have some knowledge of working with movement and with a partner to music so that they are able to coordinate better and sooner than a True Beginner who has to learn a host of skills related to partner dancing. Those are therefore very different learning tracks and learning curves. However, even in false beginners it is necessary to start of with the basics and practice in a slow and deliberate manner without end-gaining. True Beginners will usually take more practice sessions in the basic skills to get these under control.

On the other hand, the difficulty teaching false beginners has to do with attitudes to learning dancing acquired in prior dancing lessons. There are two types of movement lessons. The vast majority of movement lessons are of the steps-and-figures variety taught using the demonstrate-and-drill methodology. In such lessons, students come into the classroom expecting to learn a new choreography or technique, piling ever more of these. A tiny sub-segment of movement classes teach what might be broadly called “movement awareness”, including things like the Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, or Contact Improvisation.

So the difficulty is that, while false beginners may have a physical base in movement, they typically lack a base on awareness, and come into the class expecting to learn choreography. And teachers, even if they started out trying to teach movement awareness or culture or whatever, fall back on meeting the student’s expectation of teaching choreography. Therefore, part of the goal of a teaching system has to be to build a “base” in movement awareness for both types of beginner. The way to do that is to teach simple choreography but instead of falling on the demonstrate-and-drill method, to use movement awareness teaching techniques such as visualisation.


I enjoy lifting weights and I get a lot out if doing it. I feel better, look better, have more energy and can get more done. Still, there is always the issue of motivation. I don’t always feel like doing it and if I miss a couple of workouts I find that I quit lifting for 2 or 3 months and then need to get back into it which means that I have lost some of the gains I was making. I found that to minimise this I need to design a system that minimises barriers to training. I bought a home gym set so that I don’t need to go to the trouble of going to a gym. I invested in equipment that is of adequate quality to make sure that I enjoy training on it and that I have everything at hand. It’s right there at hand and the steps needed to start training are minimal.

There is also the mental game. I find that if I focus on some distant goal of lifting some really heavy weight that is at the moment out of reach this is too distant. It does not make me feel so good about my current workout. On the other hand, if I focus on having a good workout, eg., getting through the workout, having good form on most of my worksets, and improving the amount I lift at each workout by a small amount, I find that I feel more satisfied and feel better at the end of the workout. This helps me to keep motivated to get back into it at my next scheduled workout day. I also find that imagining myself having a great beach-ready body, or if I don’t feel like lifting a heavy weight that I had to work in a laboring job I’d have not choice but to lift stuff and that’s a normal thing, these help me get through any motivational blocks.

Motivation is a function of what is immediately in front of you or present in your consciousness at a given moment in time. If the completion of an action or set of actions mentally appears too distant, requires the completion of too many complex or indeterminate steps to getting a satisfaction, then this is bad for motivation. We lose interest and look for distractions or excuses not to do it. We want to learn a language but it seems such a distant goal. Yet we find that we have sudden onsets of high motivation, eg., there’s an image that inspires me to try to learn Chinese. There are other images or situations that kill that excitement. Certain language-learning apps are fun to do and I can use them when i’m bored but moving along the learning path increases my motivation. Other times I try something else like do language exchange or take a course and I find that it’s all too complicated and my initial energy is dampened.

Psychologists usually talk about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. They find that some people are motivated by the results of learning: they want to learn English to get a better job, or to learn dancing to meet people. They are not really interested in the subject matter itself but rather what it can provide for them, the effects of the learning. Others are intrinsically interested in the subject itself. They love learning the language and meeting people in that culture, or they love dancing, etc. But this distinction is really to say that if you start rewarding a person for doing something that they would do anyway, then their motivation will tend to shift so that they lose the initial intrinsic interest and become instrumentally motivated. If you take away the reward they are no longer interested in the activity. This is often a problem in studying for the test and presents teachers with an apparently insoluble dilemma.

Its not clear whether this is a really useful way of looking at the matter because motivation seems to be quite fluid. What seems to affect motivation appears to be whatever is the most immediate to the consciousness, eg., whatever is right in front of me, or whatever is on my mind at the time for whatever reason. Recently I decided to go on holiday to Vietnam and so I had to book a flight and accommodation. I was busy with other exciting projects at the time so doing the decision-making and booking seemed like a chore which had to be done otherwise if I delayed further the prices would go up. So initially I’d say I had a purely instrumental motivation to do the booking.

So I wrote the task in my To Do list that I have on a whiteboard so that it’s clearly visible when I sit at my desk. This put this undesirable chore in front of me so that when I felt the least resistance to doing it I would put in the necessary time and effort. However, when I started searching accommodation and looking at images of my destination I got really excited about my trip and my motivation shifted. I now had a visual image that was exciting and motivating and this image kept my mind on planning the holiday throughout the next few days. This is because I could clearly visualise and anticipate the satisfaction of enjoying the culture, the food, the architecture, the people, the street markets, etc. The satisfaction of my holiday went from something that felt abstract and complicated to something immediate and exciting.

So motivation is very fluid but also responsive to specific sorts of stimuli. We might start with a purely instrumental reason to do or learn something: I need to go on holiday, I need a hobby, I want to meet people, I want to get fit, I want to participate in a cultural activity. As we take action in that direction, we can then shift and build that motivation by making the satisfactions associated with it immediate and palpable.

What we don’t want is to set goals that are distant and involve many complicated steps. I try not to overplan my holidays because that would require me to make all the decisions before going which would be a mental drain and I would lose interest. I try to spread the decision-making leaving options open as I go along. This might not work for others. But I feel that it’s good to have some flexibility so that things are available for you to follow an impulse. I feel that it’s good for motivation to have a fairly linear progress, but that within that you will find that there are moments when you come across obstacles, unforeseen opportunities and bursts of progress or energy. That means that you may need to rewind or de-load on some things, fastforward on others, and exploit unexpected opportunities.

Training vs demonstration of skill

When we watch competent people dance what we are observing is them demonstrating a level of 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 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 their training. Many (perhaps most) people 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 simply because executing it would require a level of skill that they do not yet have. I think that the idea that many people have 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 the process of training and demonstration of a skill acquired through that training. The pattern of steps or the movement is not the skill itself but a demonstration of movement skills that are distinct from the pattern, and that are presupposed in executing that pattern skillfully. 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 (perhaps most) areas of expertise the skill required to perform an action is not acquired by performing that action repeatedly but rather by a completely different and separate process. The teachers typically know 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 student. The student wants to learn to perform the action and the teacher can bamboozle the student by teaching what the student thinks he wants. Alternatively, the teacher can tell the student that the process requires doing something else to get to the desired destination. It is then up to the student 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 fast notes typically requires the patient practice of short sequences of notes at an excruciatingly slow pace to train the muscle memory in the hands.

If you just think about it, tango teachers would not be so generous handing out their spectacular stage choreography if they thought that the students could actually 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 naïvely think 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 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 in workshops. Trying to execute these complex patterns merely results in the acquisition of poor inefficient movement 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.

Further reading

Thomas M. Sterner The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life — Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process  [Amazon]


Learners attending classes in Tango Argentino are usually presented with a series of set step sequences, progressing from basic to complex, that are modelled, drilled and then practiced. This type of dance training results in a form of dancing that does not provide adequate repetition of technical skills, emphasises the rote memorisation of showy step patterns that provide for little control on the dancefloor and over emphasise the action of the feet.

The objective of this program is to move away from the model-drill-practice model and to offer a structured movement practice that provides a technique basis for improvised dancing. The question is: How it is possible to teach movement for improvisation without teaching set step sequences using model-and-drill method?

Steve Paxton, the creator of Contact Improvisation, observed that improvisation cannot be taught, and people who learn contact improvistion through exercises do not necessarily thereby learn how to improvise movement.

Paxton observed that the practice of naming movements, movement patterns or exercises changes their fundamental character. Coming to the conclusion that improvisation cannot be taught Paxton developed Material for the Spine, a set of exercises that develop basic movement skills that can be used in developing coordination and understanding of the body that can form the basis for improvisation.

… the practice of naming movements, movement patterns
or exercises changes their fundamental character …


So this presentes us with a third alternative which is to teach basic movement explorations that can form the basis for dance improvisation in Argentine tango. These explorations should be simple and progressive and provide the basic awareness of movement and habits of efficient movement. They should be reasonably close to tango dancing so that they have face validity and provide some basic movement habits that can be immediately utilised in tango dancing.

Dance improvisation cannot be taught explicitly but is rather a skill acquired through practice. Given that (a) improvisation cannot be taught directly; and (b) the alternative of teaching fixed sequences of steps is ineffective and prevents the development of improvisational skills, the alternative proposed is movement explorations that provide the basis for improvisation in tango dancing.




Needs analysis

The goal of dance instruction is to develop the movement habits and awareness to perform the movements necessary in dancing. These movements are usually repetative and rhythmic movements, with a partner, to music. The goal is to provide the movement and awareness basis for improvising a complex dance based on simple elements. Learners need to learn to move gracefully, with good posture.

  1. Practice material needs to find a balance between all the elements without excessive focus on steps and feet. The instructional material should discourage end-gaining – excessive focus on “taking steps”, looking down and dropping the head – and promote a focus on the means-whereby (see Posture and the head-neck relation). That means relearning the movement without losing the correct posture. The exercises should discourage end-gaining and promote focus on the means-whereby.
  2. Learners need to develop good control of their movement. Learners need to learn to be grounded, and to be able to stop and reverse at each point. Learners need to be able to move without having to take large steps or swivel into turns. Learners need to be able to improvise a dance without being stuck in fixed and mechanical sequences of steps.
  3. Learners need to learn to listen—to their patner and to the music—in order to improvise a dance. Learners need to learn awareness of their body through focused movement exercises. Learners need to develop the habit of focused and deliberate practice, and adequate scheduled spaced repetition.