Two common questions people learning tango ask about learning a movement:

(i) Do they do that in Argentina?

(ii) I saw a video in which the dancers do X. It looks very cool/pretty.

The idea behind the first question is that the reason to dance a certain way is that this is how people dance in Argentina. The problem with this is that there is really no one way in which people dance in Argentina (see Styles). Even within a single style of Argentine Tango there will be considerable variation between individual dancers, and so one has to distinguish between what is essential to the dance and what is an individual expression.

The idea behind the second question is that the reason to dance a certain way is that it is visually attractive. The problem with this is that visual attractiveness is not a good reason to learn something if one is learning social tango. It is only useful if one is learning tango in order to do tango performances. Strangely enough, many people seem not to realise that what one sees in a tango performance is completely different from social dancing for a number of reasons:

(1) In a tango floor show the couple usually has plenty of floor space to themselves;

(2) A show couple practice the routine with a particular partner;

(3) The primary purpose of a floor show is to entertain an audience;

None of these factors operate in social tango dancing. Tango is often danced in crowded conditions where the large movements, kicks and lifts done by show couples are completely impractical. In social tango we dance with different partners of different ability and size, which renders most difficult choreography of no use. Finally, traditional social tango is not intended to either entertain or compete and show off one’s cool moves. The essence of tango is for partners to share a beautiful moment.

So these considerations inform how we can decide whether a given movement or technique is useful to learn from the point of view of social tango dancing.

Rule for learning a movement or technique:

A movement or technique is useful to learn for social tango dancing when it is efficient in terms of (a) movement, (b) connection, and (c) space. Conversely, any movement or technique that is not efficient in these terms should not be learned.

Lets have a look at these three aspects of efficiency in more detail:

Efficient movement

Whereas in show dancing the pleasure is on the part of the viewers of the couple whereas it is not necessary that the couple themselves enjoy the experience since it is a job they get paid for, in social dancing the main purpose is the enoyment of the dancing by the social dancers themselves. Part of the enjoyment should be the actual movement itself. It is recognised that movement which is enjoyable is also efficient movement. Efficient movement is a relatively technical matter and it defined roughly as follows:

Efficient Movement = movement that exemplifies an efficient use of the neuromusculoskeletal system, that is, a use of the system that requires the least amount of effort, tension or strain in order to perform it.

The study of efficient movement is called Somatics, and it was created by F. M. Alexander and Moshe Feldenkrais. They discovered that when we are too focused on a goal (called end-gaining) we lose awareness of our body position and this leads to an inefficient use of the body, that is, excessive tension and strain. Efficient movement is gracefull, requires less effort, and is more pleasant.

One way to ascertain whether we are moving efficiently is to bring your awareness to your breathing and to see whether you can easily take a deep breath while executing the movement. If you are in a stationary position you can also close your eyes and see whether you feel that you’re standing or sitting in a comfortable position. In dancing we can ascertain that we are moving efficiently by asking whether we can execute the movement will little tension and without losing our posture and alignment (see Posture and Alignment).

Efficient connection

Here we mean a strong connection to the partner and to the music. It is this connection to partner and music that is strong and yet requires little strain or tension that provides the primary source of enjoyment in tango. If we are moving but the connection to the music and your partner is not efficient, that is, is loose or sloppy, then the dance is not very enjoyable. It then becomes a mere physical activity. On the other hand, improving in tango dancing is primarily measured in terms of the tightness or strength of that connection. The more connected you are the better your dancing. That is why we want to reduce the number of elements that may complicate the movement and thus make connection.

Rule 1: The goal of learning and improving in social tango dancing is to improve the connection to the partner and the music. The better the connection the better the dancing.

Rule 2: We want to simplify the elements to the most essential elements in order to improve the connection. We want to avoid unnecessary cimplications that can reduce the connection.

Efficient use of space

Watching people dancing we rarely consider the dynamic context of social dancing. If it’s a performance or demonstration we focus on the couple which dances on an empty dancefloor. Sometimes we watch couples dancing when there is relatively few people dancing and so there is a lot of space. But it is not reasonable to expect that these are the normal conditions. It is more reasonable to expect that the dancefloor is quite crowded and then we find that the style of dancing that looked so beautiful and graceful is completely impractical.

We should ask whether the tango we are watching is ’fit for purpose’, ie., fit for dancing on a crowded dancefloor. We want to learn some beautiful piece of choreography and then find that we kick or otherwise disturb other dancers doing them. The primary goal of social dancing is to dance in harmony with other dancers and that means that we are able to dance without disturbing them in any way. Dancing styles that are designed for performances are not functional in two ways:

(i) They do not allow us to navigate efficiently around the dancefloor, so that we either block the way of others or bump into them;

(ii) They include movements which are loud and distracting and create an unpleasant competitive atmosphere.

So we want to be able to move in such a way that we can easily navigate the dancefloor, move efficiently around other dancers, moving along the line of dance at a good rate so that we don’t block the dancers behind us.. Difficulties navigating caused by a choreography that is too fixed or uses large steps and kicks, in the end leads to situations which cause tension and unpleasant feelings.

Key point summary:

  1. Students learning tango often focus on irrelevant aspects of tango because of a lack of understanding of the practical aspects of dancing.
  2. In learning social dancing we want to learn to dance efficiently in three aspects:
    • It is efficient in the sense that it is a good use of our neuromuscular system and requires the least amount of effort or tension.
    • It allows for an efficient connection between the partners and the music;
    • It allows for an efficient use of space: using less space and being able to navigate around the dancefloor.

The big small: courtesy

Recently I’ve been reading about the phenomenon of the big small: small things that make a big difference. These are things that seem really small and insignificant but actually make all the difference in terms of success and failure. In learning to dance we tend to focus on dancing skills and these are to an extent important. But what one sees all too often is that as skills go up the manners correspondingly go down (if they were there at all). One goes to a dance event, whether it’s tango or some other social dance, and one can tell who’s been attending a lot of lessons and workshops from the attitude. Yet precisely having an attitude is a sure way to end up dissatisfied and defeats the purpose of learning social dancing (as opposed to competitive dancing, I guess).

There are at least two important and closely related reasons to be courteous to people at social tango events. The first reason has to do with energy. An event is enjoyable and productive when it generates positive energy. When there is a lack of courtesy and people exhibit an attitude, distance, aggressiveness or aloofness, this basically sucks the energy out of the event and the atmosphere becomes stifled and uncomfortable and we no longer want to be there.

The second reason has to do with managing relationships. Social dancing is not merely dancing with a single partner. One needs to be able to get enough satisfying dances from a number of people. People are generally quite sensitive to the attitudes of the other people at the event. Small courtesies go a long way in building a positive and lasting relationship. Equally, small discourtesies go far in alienating and damaging the relationship. At some point its a race to the bottom as the number of potential partners rapidly diminishes. Courtesy (or lack of it) is a way of expressing whether and how much you value the relationship.

Courtesy (or lack of it) is a way of expressing how much you value the relationship.

A significant source of the problem is excessive emphasis on dancing skills, and corresponding lack of attention to social skills. At a certain point learning more dancing skills becomes an end in itself and can actually become a source of anxiety, frustration, competitiveness and end-gaining (see Posture). Social tango, by contrast, requires patience, understanding and generosity (to yourself and others). Investing excessive effort on gaining more skills is not always conducive to an easy-going, friendly atmosphere, and to building and maintaining positive relationships.

Courtesy is the big small because it often takes a very small amount of effort to be courteous but the results may be quite big. As a child I was taught that good manners simply means saying ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry’, and ‘please’ or ‘do you mind’, etc. I see at many milongas that dancers stop dancing and just walk back to their chair without expressing warmth or gratitude. The atmosphere at such events starts to resemble more of a physical workout or perhaps a nightclub scene. Often people confuse the energy produced by the DJ cranking up the volume to the max and activities like taking selfies or networking for the energy of an enjoyable milonga with positive relationships.

Equally dysfunctional are scenes where ostentatious expressions of gratitude is a way of marking the membership an ingroup, an inner circle, usually of a teacher and his students. This can leave people who are not part of the club as well as visitors feeling alienated as the outgroup. There are also fake rituals such as announcing the names of visitors from other countries. This only helps to distance and exclude. All of these dynamics indicate that the tango scene is not really functional and the ‘community’ is fake.

A good way to start is to express gratitude: to your teacher, students, partner, the DJ, and organiser, etc. Show that you enjoyed the class or the event, and show appreciation for their effort. Just this relatively minor effort will repay manyfold whereas failing to do so will leave people cold and unappreciated if they made a genuine effort. If, on the other hand, you feel that you cannot genuinely express gratitude, but that instead they should be thankful to you for bothering to turn up, you’re better off leaving the scene because you are probably not enjoying it and sticking around would be defeating the purpose. No amount of dancing skills can equal the feeling of genuine appreciation and inclusion, lacking which would in the end be defeating the purpose of what traditional tango is really all about, namely, to share the enjoyment of great music in a friendly social atmosphere.

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