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.

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One dance or many: the styles of tango

An important question is what style of tango one should learn and how the different styles are related to each other. For the purposes of a person learning tango outside of Argentina the styles of tango can be usefully divided into three types:

  1. Tango de salon – this is the traditional Buenos Aires tango that includes more open embrace tango estilo Villa Urquiza and close embrace tango estilo milonguero;
  2. Salon style tango – this is a globalised derivation of tango estilo Villa Urquiza that incorporates stage show choreography (tango escenario), that one finds in floor shows, tango competitions, and most commercial tango classes and events around the world;
  3. Tango nuevo – this is a style created in the 1990s that draws on estilo Villa Urquiza and tango escenario adapted to dancing contemporary tango music, electronic tango and non-tango music; it was popularised in the movie The Tango Lesson;

This seems simple enough, but then the more difficult question that causes seemingly endless arguments in the tango world is whether and how far these styles can co-exist? In order to provide my own perspective on the issue I will define it in terms of the following questions:

  1. If you learn one style can you dance with people who dance the other style?
  2. Can you effectively participate in events of the other styles?

My answer to these questions is basically No, not really. This is not unique to tango: I like Cuban salsa but I find that I cannot effectively dance at parties where people dance LA style salsa because the music and the dancing technique are too different. I don’t really like the music they play, and the women I dance with cannot follow my lead.

You can think of it on analogy with learning to play guitar. If someone told you that they are learning to play guitar you might assume that they are learning to play acoustic guitar because that is what most people start on. But actually a lot of people play electric guitar and others play classical guitar. The instrument, equipment, repertoire, venues and technique involved in each type of guitar are all very different. Still, structurally speaking, they are all types of guitar and so transitioning from say acoustic to classical guitar might be easier than from acoustic guitar to the saxophone or piano.

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As with the styles of guitar playing the different styles of tango are only loosely related in terms of the dancing technique and the type of event even if they might all be called milonga.* A dancer of tango estilo milonguero will sit through most sets of the non-traditional music at a salon style milonga waiting for a traditional tune, whereas a salon style dancer will find most traditional tunes do not fit well with his choreography which fits better with music recorded after the  mid-40s and non-traditional tango. A tango nuevo dancer tends to get bored with the traditional stuff and breaks out with non-traditional tango music, electronic tango and non-tango music.**

So it is best to treat these styles as distinct forms and lumping them together in the same basket. More importantly for our purposes here that means that the technique and mindset that you learned in a salon style tango or tango nuevo do not apply and will probably hinder your progress if you try to apply them to learning tango estilo milonguero.


… the technique and mindset that you learned in a salon style tango or tango nuevo do not apply and will probably hinder your progress if you try to apply them to learning tango estilo milonguero.


Currently most teachers and events around the world are salon style tango and this is the usual entry point for most people starting out with tango. It is a style of dancing tango that has been adapted to suit the mindset of people outside of Argentina: it has visual appeal so that it attracts people, and it has been formalised into steps and figures so that it is relatively easy to teach. Nonetheless, most dancers have been exposed at some time to either tango nuevo or traditional tango estilo milonguero. Most people will try one or the other and will in the end settle for the one that suits them most.

One may argue that Salon Style Tango is the most useful one to learn because it has the most classes and events. However, on the downside, it also has the lowest rate of retention, that is, while most people take salon style tango it is also the case that most people get bored and drop out within 6 to 12 months, whereas the other styles can claim that their adherents are more committed to their styles in the long run. Many people who do stick with salon style tango will gravitate in the direction of tango estilo milonguero as they find the fixed choreography increasingly repetitious and boring, or else move to Tango Nuevo.

The reality is that dance scenes in most Western countries are inherently unstable because they depend on constant need for classes and marketing for funding and styles of dancing that are the most visually appealing are also most marketable. Because of its emphasis on culture and limited marketability tango estilo milonguero is more likely to be organised locally by non-profit organisations and connoisseurs who enjoy social dancing to traditional tango music. It might not turn you into a rock star, but it provides enjoyment of classical Argentine tango.

Selecting a teacher

Here’s a quote from a tango teacher that represents a fairly common marketing strategy:


Interviewer: What style of tango do you teach?

Tango teacher: I teach the essence of tango of all styles. I do point out if something belongs to a certain style: Salon, Orillero, Canyengue, Apilado, Milonguero, Nuevo. I especially welcome dancers who want to learn tango in all its complexity and beauty, not bound to any restrictions. I am the only one dancer in our [major city] area who knows all these styles.


What this teacher is saying is that he superficially knows bits of each of these styles but does not know any of them well. He does not welcome any students who want to seriously study any particular style, much less if they actually want to know something about it in depth, but welcomes students who want to dabble in all the different styles and then move on to something else like Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, etc. His events will be a disconcerting confusion of music and styles where no one knows anything well. His students will turn up randomly to tango events once or twice a year with only the ‘basics’ that allow them to get through a set without falling over and then to hang around taking selfies and networking.

Now, it does make sense for you to try out the different styles in order to see which one suits you the most. However, the worst kind of student is one who takes lessons for 3-6 months and then turns up randomly to events with only basic ideas about the different styles. Once you decide on a particular style you should then stick with classes for at least 12 months to get good enough to participate in a tango event or help organise events.

As a rough guide, each of the three styles suits a different personality type:

  1. If your main interest is that you just want to dance, enjoy lots of activity, fancy constumes, musicals, and dancing competitions then Salon Style Tango is probably your thing. (O-, C-, E+, A+, N-)***
  2. If your main interest is that you just want to express yourself, contemporary dance performances and theatre improv, then Tango Nuevo might be for you. (O++, C-, E++, A+, N+)
  3. If you are more contemplative, enjoy classical music, romanticist literature, art galleries and ancient architecture then Tango Estilo Milonguero might better match your tastes. (O+, C++, E-, A-, N-)

Quick quiz

Which picture represents which style of tango? Write down your answer, then scroll to the bottom for the answer key.

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Notes

* Although apparently in Buenos Aires there is a law that requires that a milonga must play traditional tango music and follow traditional customs, so that a Tango Nuevo event cannot be called a ‘milonga’.

**Outside of Buenos Aires the default event for tango is Salon Style Tango and so these events are never specified as it’s taken for granted. Also, it is typical of these organisations to want to attract the maximum number of participants. Unless otherwise specified, an Argentine Tango event outside of Buenos Aires is probably a Salon Style Tango event, whereas events specific to Tango Estilo Milonguero or Tango Nuevo are likely to be marked as such, eg., “Traditional Milonga”, “Nuevo Milonga”, “Tango Nuevo Festival”, etc.

*** In the brackets are included high (+) and low (-) on the Big Five Personality Traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (OCEAN)

Answer key:

Salon style tango: A F H K L

Tango estilo milonguero: B E I M

Tango nuevo: C D G J