When do we stop being beginners? Can we ever stop learning in tango? When do we become advanced enough to teach?

All these questions I am constantly asking, and I am afraid I have yet to come up with a definitive answer. I myself have been dancing tango for more than ten years, nearer fifteen. The fact that I cannot even put an answer on this, I think, shows what a protracted journey it has been for me.

Even after all this time I still feel like a principiante when in the crowded and well organised milongas in Buenos Aires. The porteños have tango in their blood and understand that there is more to this dance than steps, or even the dance itself. They learn the music first, how to move to it comes only with time.

Yet here in the UK, I see people who take six months of classes and then think “I can teach this”, I see ballroom teachers whose only experience of tango is from a book, teaching steps and choreography, and I see DJ’s who think that it is clever to put something on other than tango (after all it is four-four time).

I am moved to write this after comments about people learning steps, who are considered to be no longer beginners. To be more than a beginner you need to immerse yourself in the music, you need to feel the hearts and minds of the greats like D’Arienzo or DiSarli and you need to be acquainted with the milongas of Buenos Aires.

So to me those who learn routines and dance steps will always be beginners. People who learn to dance this way cannot know the joy of a pure improvised tango and until they do they will not understand.

I have seen people who have learned steps come to Buenos Aires and stand confused and unable to move in the milongas. They take a step from their routine and find that they cannot make the next; they find themselves barged and pushed to the centre where they can do less harm. Unless they are prepared to start afresh they will leave disillusioned and look elsewhere for their dancing experience.

While I am happy to teach what I know and pass on my experience, I still lack much of the knowledge needed, even after all this time and as others will tell you, I still have trouble identifying the music.

I see tango watered down all the time, as more and more people come onto the scene, all wanting to make a buck from the new sensation. The only person I know of who ever became rich through tango was Francisco Canaro, and much of that was from cheating his fellow musicians. Nobody is ever going to become rich teaching tango in the UK, the most we can hope is to cover our costs.

To teach tango here for any other reason than the love of it, is cheating yourself and your customers.

The other great “mistake” I see is teaching for its own sake; how often in this country do we get a milonga without a workshop first? We see three or four hour classes with half an hour of practice. To my mind this is all about face, when we go to Buenos Aires we will take maybe one or two classes, but dance three or four hours a night, every night. That is a ratio of about ten to one, hours dancing to hours in class.

You will never become a better dancer by listening to someone talk, the only way to improve you dancing is to dance and dance some more, then go back and just have your dancing fine tuned a little each time, then dance some more, (In the words of one of my dance teachers “Practica, Bob, practica, practica, practica”).

You could, of course, just keep going and learning steps, but then you will be learning something else, not Tango.


Filed under milonga, Tango

7 responses to “Beginners?

  1. tangobob

    This was in a way a reply to Chris who commented on my previous article, if I have rambled somewhat then I apologise, I do get a bit carried away.

  2. Captain Jep

    @Bob Is there a consistent theme to this post?? I’m confused..

  3. tangobob

    You make some good points, and I would not want to discourage any new tango scenes that appear. My gripe is with those who see it as a cash cow and mke a simple folk dance ito something complex in order to keep people coming to classes. Those and of course the people who come to a few classes and after six months become the experts.
    Something I have always said is that Tango is different wherever you go, even barrio to barrio in Buenos Aires, so we can never expect to get what they have in Buenos Aires this far away. BUT we must try to be true to what tango really is and not make it what it is not: It is not Strictly, it is not a way to show off your skills at the expense of your partner and it never will be just a dance.
    What it is is a genre, and a social event, we can play with the music, we can invent new moves, but to use your gardening analogy, if we cut off the roots the garden will die.
    You have given me much to think about here, give me time and I will give a fuller reply in a blog.

  4. > how often in this country do we get a milonga without a workshop first?

    Good question. For as long as I can remember London had one per year – the Carablanca Xmas Party – but it now has a class.

    Here in Cambridge, most milongas are class-free. But that’s down to our unfair advantage – class teaching that’s so bad even newcomers run away from it.

  5. John

    Just taking this chance to add some thought on the culture of Tango in the UK, and it’s comparison to the source, BsAs. As usual it’s a bit of a ramble.

    It’s difficult to express in words, because so much of what Tango means to us comes from a feeling, an instinct that we don’t quite have the vocabulary for. So lets try for a metaphor…

    Think of BsAs as a great established garden, set in the grounds of a great house, laid down by a great landscaper, maintained with loving care by generations of gardeners. In this garden we see great plants, with deep roots established over decades, providing shelter for newer introductions. Different parts of the garden may have a different look to them but all in all a great garden has a character that you can feel and recognise.

    Someone spending time in BsAs who gets inspired enough may want to start a garden of their own. But where do they start? Bare earth is what they start with, no 60 year old trees to provide structure and shelter, no head gardener to guide them. There are going to be mistakes along the way, but as the locals gain more experience, the garden with become better defined, more refined. In our young garden we need to be a bit careful how we do our weeding. Who knows what wonders are springing up under our feet. We also need to accommodate different soil conditions and a different climate and realise that no two gardens are duplicates, our garden will never be another BsAs.

    I think we should aim to bring the best of BsAs here if we can, but we need to realise it will never quite be the same, it’s not possible, the environment is too different. But I think that there’s a chance that we can foster a great garden here with care.

    A question I would ask, is how do we nurture those aspect in the garden that we enjoy? taking into account the local conditions and the fact that this is a very new garden?

    Because in most comparisons I hear, between Tango here and over the sea, the local Tango is deficient, just not a patch on the true source. But these comparisons never make reference to the environment we dance in and the relative youth of the scene here. We don’t have dance venues around every corner. Our dancers are not born with Tango playing in the background. Tango is not passed on from mother to daughter. There are no 60 year maestros on hand. But we do have people who discover Tango and develop a genuine passion for it. Rather than bluntly telling them that they’re not dancing real Tango, how do we guide them, and the local culture onto a better path? How do we ensure that in 60 years time we have a garden of the same standard as BsAs if a little different?

  6. tangobob

    60 years? He has probably reached intermediate level then. 🙂

  7. jantango

    I heard a milonguero say to a woman (who has danced only six years), “you’re a beginner.” He could say that since he has danced for 60 years.

    Carlos Gavito didn’t label his classes beginner, intermediate or advanced, because he said, “you dance at your level.”

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