Why years of tango will not make you an advanced dancer and what will
Veronica Toumanova | On 02, Aug 2014
All beginners are alike, each advanced dancer is advanced in his or her own way. When people come to tango (or when tango finds people), they all feel equally helpless, they all discover that they don’t know how to walk without loosing their balance and embrace another person without their head getting in the way. They discover that they cannot walk, embrace and listen to the music at the same time. And when they come to their first milonga, they discover that they have first to learn how to LOOK at another person.
The “theoretical” model then goes like this: a beginner gets to intermediate level in one-two years, advanced level in three or four, master level at five and becomes a teacher just after that. But in reality it is rarely true, except for the “becoming a teacher” part. We all know dancers stuck at “poor intermediate” level after 10 years and those who are “very advanced” after 3.
Why does this happen?
If you want to become a ballet dancer, you have to be six years old, have the right genetics, good musicality, natural turnout and a huge motivation. You also need very motivated parents. In professional dance the beginners are alike, so that the advanced can be alike, too. Professional dance education is highly institutionalized to be able to deliver very high final quality and measurable results.
To become a tango dancer you just need to find a beginner class. Tango comes to all kinds of people. Some are musical, others not. Some are at ease in their bodies, others need to be reminded that they have a body. Some are young, some are old. Some want to dance well, others want just to dance. How many have started tango to meet the opposite sex? How many to recover from a breakup? Besides, tango education is not instituionalized, everyone can call himself of herself a tango teacher, rightly or not rightly so. And so every student advances at a different pace and in a different direction. If you look at the incredibly rich variety of forms and styles in tango, you will see the richness of choice. You will also see the virtually limitless complexity of tango.
How does someone become an advanced dancer? Like in any other domain: you have to want it and you need a regular routine of study and practice. Taking classes without going to milongas is like booking beautiful trips but never actually traveling. Dancing in milongas without a regular study will only make you excellent at your own bad habits. You need dedication to become a good dancer, not only passion. You will need good teachers, too. In tango, unlike in professional dance education, there is no garantee of good teaching (or even good dancing). It is pretty much the matter of compatibility between what you want and what the teacher can give you. Tango, in a way, is like the path to enlightenment: there are guru’s of every kind, you will have to find the one right for you.
What does it mean to be advanced in tango? Here is my personal view. An advanced dancer is first of all musical, has a good understanding of tango vocabulary, can improvise easily, has a good level of technique and is able to improve by himself or herself. An advanced dancer has a good posture, a comfortable and functional embrace, and feels at ease when dancing. The leader dances the sequences, not the sequences dance him, and navigates the floor safely. The follower keeps her balance without leader’s help, completes her movements musically and is a “safe” follower on a crowded dancefloor.
A truly advanced dancer is able to “downshift” and make the partner still feel good. If you think of yourself as advanced leader but you feel incapacitated with a partner below your level, then you are not really advanced, you are just “highly specialized”. You have learned to speak about quantum mechanics but are incapable of discussing the weather. If as a follower you feel a terrific dancer with partners of high level but you cannot keep your balance or complete your movement with a lower-level one, then you are not advanced, you are “dependent” (it has been pointed out that the originally used term “co-dependent” is a psychiatric term and has a different meaning). A queen is a queen no matter whom she talks to.
Such dancers are a small minority in tango because to get there requires a strong motivation. And because motivation is fueled by interest, I notice that each advanced dancer is really advanced in only some of the above aspects. I know dancers who are exceptionally musical but lack in the embrace, excellent in complex sequences but not able to comfortably walk. I know leaders who are very enjoyable, but a danger on the dancefloor. There is also another important criteria. An advanced dancer is someone with a PERSONALITY. S/he does not wish to become an exact copy of someone else. A truly advanced dancer will never stop looking for his/her own expression in dance.
In some cases I also see a different dynamic. The more the dancers advance, the more they become alike. This happens, for example, when a teacher is unable to explain the intrinsic mechanisms of the dance and the students can only copy the outer form. This also happens when a community is over-identified with one particular style and this style is considered the only “true tango”. The students start believing that it is the FORM that makes them dancers, and the teachers protect this form from everything that it is NOT. For me, when tango starts being only about form, it stops being about tango. As soon as formalism or mindless physical exercise take over, art quietly leaves. Form is essential but not the essence, the essence of tango is CONNECTION, and if we limit tango to one particular style, we stifle its artistic development. Forms change. Choose your tango, but let others have their tango, too. If you were God and one day, out of boredom or curiosity, you decided to create tango dancers, would you make them all alike?
Paradoxically, tango is not about making you advanced, it is about making you dance. It is about discovering YOU in tango. For this you need to continuously look for the connection to yourself, for what makes YOU love tango. The only way to grow is to keep wanting to become a better you.
Photo: Daria Maslova