Sunday, March 4, 2012

So I went to a tango class

I have a friend from a different city who has gotten really into Argentine Tango over the last year or so, and every so often we nerd out about dancing. Tango has always sounded fun to me, and I happened to be in town this weekend, so I thought I'd give it a try.

I looked up the tango club at my university, which stresses that it IS Argentine Tango and not that other kind of tango. Their website listed a schedule where they have a beginner lesson at 730, intermediate at 830, and "milonga," which I understood to mean social dancing, at 930.

So I showed up for the beginner lesson, only there was only one other total beginner there. Everyone else (a couple dozen people) had been coming for weeks or months. So the instructor got everyone else moving and paired up me and the one other beginner, a guy who'd come with his girlfriend who already danced, and had us walk back and forth. Just practicing basic lead-follow stuff with the rudiments of a tango aesthetic. Meaning, "dont bend your knees!.... straight legs! stop bending your knees!"

That was one of the several things that seemed antithetical and weird to me... there is no pulse, you don't bend your knees, you don't pick your feet up off the floor, and one of the moves that he taught us straight off the bat requires that the follow be led into split weight. Because you're not supposed to pick your feet up off the floor, the weight shifts are very subtle. I kept missing them, because in an attempt to be clear about where my weight was... I kept picking my feet up. Speaking the wrong language fail. "When your feet leave the floor, I cannot feel them," the instructor told me. "I keep losing your feet."

Another thing that I was unprepared for was the lack of systematic rotation of the lessons. I worked with the other total beginner for the better part of and hour, before I was switched to another partner that the instructor picked out. When I asked one of the other girls later if the tango lessons normally rotated, she was like, "Oh yes, definitely, we switch partners every 20-30 minutes."

I worked with this second partner for another 30-45 minutes, and then ultimately a third for another long chunk of time, at which point I asked, sure that it was 930 by now, if they ever "just danced." I got an extremely puzzled response. "We've been dancing the whole time." "Do you ever just, you know, play music and dance for a whole song?" More puzzlement. "Like without stopping? Like dancing to a song?" I was not communicating well. He eventually called the instructor over to answer my question. The teacher decided at that point (it was, definitely, according to the clock and their published schedule, dancing time by then) that it was dancing time, and turned off the lights.

It was still like pulling teeth to try and dance to a song. My partners stopped many many times to try and verbally troubleshoot what was happening, and my plaintive, "Do you mind if we just dance?"(which, in my previous experience, has always been good to stop social-floor teaching in its tracks) was mostly met with bewilderment.

Also, we still didn't dance to the music. At no point during the evening was the music even mentioned. I'm not sure I could pick out the the beat that we were supposed to be dancing to in tango music, and at this point I'm not even sure if you're supposed to dance to any particular beat to tango music, because the music was never mentioned during any of the teaching. There was music playing the whole time, but I'm certain we didn't dance to it during the instruction time. I can't tell if we danced to it during the "milonga" part. I asked some of the other students later in the evening where the beat was and if we were supposed to dance to it. They didn't know. The beginnings and endings of songs went unacknowledged, and people started and stopped dancing at will.

Coming out of my first experience with tango, I followed a few discrete things, but I don't know what the basic rhythm of the dance is, if it has a 'basic' step pattern, what that pattern might be, or how it might relate to the music. And throwing beginners into the mix and getting them to be able to enjoy a dance seems to be very low priority. I'm not sure I enjoyed it all that much.

So: good job swing dancing for making "getting beginners to be able to dance on their first night" such a high priority! I sincerely hope our beginners don't feel as adrift on their first night of swing dancing as I did on my first night of tango.


  1. Tango has a higher barrier to entry I guess. It sounds like you are a couple of stages away from being at least not annoying to lead. The first realization is that you are not at tango to "boogie down". You don't "just dance". This is the most irritating follower to deal with because you can't do anything with them. When I get one I will just stand there until she stops wriggling around. Then I'll make a small move, well short of taking a step. Invariably this invokes another paroxysm of boogieing. Back to waiting. Repeat until the follower gets the idea that in tango, following is a state of being, not just a word.

    Once this sinks in the follower stops asking what they are supposed to do and moves into the next, slightly less irritating phase, which is silently guessing what is going to happen next in a nervous knot of angst. Dealing with this as a leader is also problematic and usually dealt with in the same manner. The follower guesses and tries to jump a move and you just change the lead and go in the other direction. At this pre-beginner stage, it's also helpful to try to convince the follower to provide a "heavy" follow. So the leader is pushing through the follow step by step.

    The point is that follower's only job is maintaining the connection. She doesn't need to know anything or do anything except to be quiet within herself and focus on the connection and the basic dance can easily emerge from this.

    From there, you can start talking about cross-system vs. parallel system, various styles of embrace and dance, and rudimentary building blocks like the cross, ochos and molinietes. At a year and a bit in, I'm still a beginner myself but it gets fun after a few weeks.

    I'm sorry you had a less than awesome first time at it. It's a tough thing to break the surface of - the nice thing is that as climbers we have a huge advantage in the core strength and flexibility departments that gives you the disassociation needed for advancing quickly once the basic concepts are mastered. Some tango dancers don't get much beyond being beginners because they are physically incapable of the mechanics required to develop further.

    I hope we get another chance to dance in a better venue than that Lover's Leap whiskey bar - maybe on my road trip we'll get a chance!

  2. I definitely didn't mean "just dance" as in "boogie down." And I most certainly was not "wiggling around."

    I just wanted a chance to try and follow rather than standing around talking about it.

    I'm sure I'm still annoying to try an lead, but I do have some concept of following, come on.

  3. And I also was not "asking what I was supposed to do." I was quietly trying to follow, and the leads kept stopping, stepping away from me, and lecturing me on what was supposed to happen and interrogating my responses. If that's what learning tango is like, and you never get to attempt to move together through a song, then count me out. It was not fun.

  4. Well, fair enough. So let's put you at a point further along. It does sound a little weird that people are stopping for post mortems in the middle of songs. In retrospect, did these leaders seem to have much of an idea what they were doing or were they just trying to figure things out as well? Unfortunately one of the worst places to learn how to follow tango is in a beginner's class. A beginner leader can blunder around with anyone while they internalize things but a beginner follower is really at the mercy of the leader and won't pick up much from a beginner leader and will basically just be trying not to get hurt.

    As a more advanced swing dancer you have a sense of how dance should "feel" and experiencing the complete lack of that "lightness of being" is no doubt frustrating. Here is my advice, if I haven't totally pissed you off yet. You can 1) suffer through the beginner's classes and really try to be proactive about getting with the leaders with a better sense of what is going on. Better yet, be on the lookout for a "cross-over" dancer in swing who also is a tango leader and ask them to dance with you for a while. I honestly feel that with your rhythm and athleticism you just need to be in front of a good leader for an evening and it will start to click for you.

    Sorry if I was implying that your experience was your fault. As I re-read your post it does seem like you were an advanced dancer (albeit in another genre) in the midst of beginners. I was projecting some of my recent experiences onto your tale. Which is probably a similar one you get in swing dancing: the communication channel between leader and follower becomes increasingly sensitive as you get better and at its best becomes a complex language spoken in whispers. Then you get a beginner on the line and they pick up this communication device and start screaming gibberish into it. You were probably handed just such a phone.

  5. Hey, so coming from the perspective of a follow who has been dancing Lindy for ten years, and tried tango; I started with the same feeling of frustration. I wanted to analyze the dance, and be given specific steps to memorize. What I realized about tango is that it is about a feeling, and a connection between the couple and the music. In my beginner course the instructors made us all feel very comfortable, and we rotated quite frequently. Another thing that is different about tango is that there are not set steps. You start by walking, getting the connection right between you and your partner, and by connecting with the music. At least, that's how it should be. Also, traditionally there should not be any talking between partners during a dance, or tanda. Instruction is saved for class, or a practica, ( a practice time that is for working on technique.) I think that Tango is beautiful, but very complex, and I will always prefer the joy, and freedom of expression that is Lindy Hop. :) Happy Dancing!

  6. "...the communication channel between leader and follower becomes increasingly sensitive as you get better and at its best becomes a complex language spoken in whispers. Then you get a beginner on the line and they pick up this communication device and start screaming gibberish into it. "

    I love this description.

  7. Late-breaking update-

    This past weekend on a hardwood floor in a house in the mountains of West Virginia, the Clausti was found "not guilty" on all counts of the charges of "paroxysm[s] of boogieing."

    Dominic and I danced a while (a tanda? several tandas? a flock of tandas?) and it was very fun. Communication was also noticeably better toward the end of the evening; the language required some acclimation by this follower. But it was enjoyable enough that I have been induced to try The Tango again at a different venue.

  8. My understanding is this :

    There is an actual rhythm to Argentine Tango and a basic step as well as moving your feet off the floor in order to step (or to do fact, there is often a time when women keep one foot off the floor and awkwardly bent, ankle to ankle).

    A milonga should go in three songs at a time, meaning you dance with the same partner for three specific songs. Breaking this is very rude. You do this so that you can get to know your partner, get to know your partner better, and then have a good dance.

    In general, my experience is that ballrooms vary in cliqueyness and social graces. You seem to have come across a scene with poor social skills. That sucks. Because you could definitely have a good time. If you're ever up here, I suggest Latin Soul Ballroom. You will actually learn, and hopefully have a good time.

  9. I hope you didn’t get discouraged. It’s just the first day, after all. Tango is simply intimidating, and like what Dominic said, it has a higher barrier to entry. But once you’re in, it’s empowering, knowing you’re now part of something not everyone is capable of doing.

    -->Henry Gay

  10. Sounds like you didn't have a great first lesson experience in Tango - hopefully you aren't off put Tango.

    From the AT side, if you think through the concept of heart to heart connection, so much of the rest flows (other e.g. say could be the knock on effects of straight legs, not lead with your hands but with core/heart and keeping good frame, maintaining your own balance). As say a beginner lead's right arm's connection to their partner is to blues so the chest to chest heart to heart connection is to tango?

    In blues, if you're moving from the core, tango is similar - but maybe the connection is a little higher up physically as the it's more chest to chest connection (if similar heights) than a close blues connection which doesn't have the slight forward of centre weight positioning of the core tango has.

    Maybe leading & following blues without any hands gets a little close to the idea of the chest to chest connection. What if it was the goal of the follow in a blues dance to walk so they were always trying to chest to chest with their partner?
    Lack of pulse or hip movement can be a different sensation. Having 100% weight on 1 foot or another is useful in both styles - knowing where the follows feet are through you placing them there, the weight staying there & not shifting to the other foot. Being able to sense where the partner's feet are (at least for the lead) is a transferable skill to blues (then you get to play with parallel and cross system, and changing weight without your partner doing it and...

    Leading each movement, each step (vs a "move"), is similar. Having some resistance, and the lead moving through the follow into their space has some crossover. Some great stuff can be lead by following certain rules. The dance just emerges as Dominic says.

    No systematic fairly frequent rotation seems weird. In many senses, a follow being able to dance with a lead who knows what they're doing can really help the follow grok the dance, and for the lead to work on their connection, lead, basics and enjoy helping a dancer learn the joy of the dance. There's a fair bit for a tango beginner lead to take in before their lead can help a beginner follow in comparison to a lead with more experience. Same with most dances, but may be acutely felt in tango. A thousand words vs a kinaesthetic walk through/show.

    Getting to enjoy just walking in tango can be a fun achievement. (Getting past that brain alert about stepping on your partner's feet (who may well be more likely to be wearing some pretty delicate, expensive open toed heels) and then being able to walk without stepping on each other). It's a different learning curve than other dances. Isn't necessarily a one lesson and you're up and dancing on the first night with confidence of the basics.

    Sounds like the milonga for just dancing was more a practice. Maybe the student's response about the beat and should you dance to it was an indication of the teaching of fundamentals? (Teaching a split weight move before fundamentals for example). It'll be a snippet of each of the big topics to try and cram everything into your first lesson.

    And there is a joy in tango like blues to play and dance with the music. "Where's the beat? Hey - where's the percussion?!" Neotango can music and some percussion can help. There's buckets of musicality to be had even with the basics like walking/pulse in blues - staccato, double time, half time, light & dark, smooth& sharp, moving on the beat vs higher level interpretation of the music is there. Don't have to like or get the bandoneon to enjoy the dance fortunately.

  11. Length to initial pay/learning curve is greater in tango than some dancers. Dare I say it, it's can be a different type of fun/zone also (eg high adrenaline endorphin partner dancing all the way vs say happy oxytocin quiet mind in the zone late night slow bluesing)?

    Sometimes, just seeing a video of some awesome dancers, with some music and dance you can relate to lets you go ah! Whatever Rosetta stone you need. Have you tried any more since the more successful dancing in Virginia?