People often contrast Argentine tango with ballroom dancing by saying that tango is improvised and not composed of a fixed, predetermined choreography. While this is true of traditional forms of tango, the fact is that tango is now taught using set patterns that are no less fixed than those of ballroom dancing. The idea is that you learn snippets of routines—typically with names like Cruzada or Ocho Cortado to indicate that this is an actual ‘thing’—and then improvisation consists in recombining these in various ways. These memorised fixed routines can be reconfigured to navigate around the dancefloor.

Most people have only a vague idea of what improvisation actually is in either music or dancing. The main confusion is the idea that improvisation is about lack of constraint and more freedom. In reality, in both music and dance, improvisation takes place within narrowly defined constraints. In a typical dance improvisation exercise the choreographer sets a dancer a constraint, such as, “imagine that you are inside a cube and are touching its sides”. The dancer uses this rule or mental image to create movement. Such a set limitation will elicit a movement naturally without a need to demonstrate, replicate and memorise a specific pattern. Moreover, with practice a dancer will get very good at improvising that sort of movement. In other words, improvisation is best defined as movement that is not copied and memorised, but rather is elicited by defining a set of constraints.

Improvisation is best defined as movement that is not copied and memorised, but rather is elicited by defining a set of constraints.

The limitations in tango include the posture, an unchanging embrace, the walk and the music. The dancer needs to figure out the possibilities of movement within these narrow constraints. At first this will appear extremely limiting and difficult to do anything at all, but with practice the dancer will find greater freedom than the dancer who learns choreography that he copies and replicates. Moreover, he will find that when he losens the constraints by compromising the posture, the embrace or the walk he has less freedom. In tango, the freedom and the improvisation necessitates the constraints.

The freedom implied in the idea of improvisation is primarily the freedom to respond in the moment to the situation, namely, to the music and to the limited space available on the dancefloor. A student who has learned fixed patterns of steps needs to anticipate both because once he initiates a pattern he has to complete it. If, by contrast, tango is just a walk, I only need to complete a single step and can stop and go in several directions: resume forward, reverse backward, step to the left or right, pause for a few beats, or turn. All these options are available to me. These are complications on the walk, and if I try to do these without learning to walk in the constraint of posture and embrace I will compromise them.

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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.