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.


People learning Tango start out with some goal, typically associated with some visual image of some people dancing that represents this goal. Having a visual goal is usually much more motivating that just a verbal one. So usually people are motivated by images of people who dance really well and strive to achieve that. They usually do that by taking classes and practicing.

I take the view that success and failure is not necessarily a matter of being highly motivated to achieve a goal, but more importantly of having the right system. Focusing excessively on goals represented by images of beautiful dancers can be detrimental to our learning tango. I suggest that instead what we need is a reliable system and to focus on applying that system.

The hacks presented here are systems that work each time they are applied, and that when they are applied together are very powerful in making us better dancers. You should feel a sense of calm and satisfaction each time you apply them and applying them consistently will move you towards your learning goals.

Focusing on goals and role-models can give us an initial injection of inspiration and motivation, but over time can lead to stress and disappointment. As Scott Adams writes in his book (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life):

Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals.

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach that goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of that goal. In other words, goal oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. It becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

I think Adams here describes the motivational conundrum of many students of tango. They have an image of how they want to dance and this creates tension so long as they feel that they haven’t achieved it. If they never quite measure up they always feel like a failure. If they do manage to achieve it, then after celebrating and briefly enjoying their achievement they soon feel the need to set another goal which once again sets them into a state of scarcity.

By contrast, if you can find a system that will take you to that goal you no longer have to focus on that goal and instead focus on applying the system. If the system is a good one it will yield visible positive results every time it’s applied. Therefore, focusing on systems you are always in a state of abundance.

Adams says that goals work for relatively simple tasks where you can control the variables, such as making a meal or writing a blog post. When however the situation is very complex focusing on goals means that we are unable to take advantage of opportunities that arise that we have screened out because we’ve been so focused on our goal. Adams defines a system as follows:

Something you do regularly that improves your odds and makes you more valuable (ideally).

So the question is whether learning tango is a simple and predictable task such as making a meal, or a more complex task in which we have little control or predictability. As anyone who has danced at milongas will attest, no two people dance alike. Learning fixed choreography means that we can only dance with people who do the same steps but as soon as we move outside of that circle we find that different people dance differently.

So is spending a lot of time and effort on learning a particular choreography the most useful strategy if one can only dance that with only a few people? Or is it better to learn systems that allow us to be flexible and dance with the widest range of people? In the second strategy we are we are not rigidly committed to a particular choreography. We can adapt to the situation and are able to take advantage of opportunities that arise in the given situation and in the given moment.


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