As a tango teacher surrounded by students, I often think how wonderful it is to have just found tango with all those amazing discoveries ahead of you. For many people, the first few years of studying tango is a little like falling in love. You wake up in the morning and you immediately start planning how youʼre going to dance that day. You never leave the house without your dance shoes “just in case”. And your non-tango friends start to get a glazed expression whenever the subject turns to tango ... which is often!
But the path is not always smooth. Learning a new skill can be tough. You will have your setbacks - days when things donʼt seem to work, days when you have to deal with a not-so-tactful partner. And one common complaint is that of conﬂicting information.
You may already have already gone through it: youʼre told one thing by one teacher, only to be told something else by another. You accept that tango will take a while to master and youʼre happy - more than happy - to spend your free time learning it. But if you hear one thing, spend hours working on it, only to be told what appears to be the complete opposite, it can be quite dispiriting.
So I thought it would be useful to talk about the issue of conﬂicting information, why it arises and how best to deal with it.
The Tango Rule Book
If youʼre thinking “the The Tango Rule Book? Iʼve never heard of it, I must get hold of it”, Iʼm afraid Iʼm going to disappoint you. Unlike some other dance forms, there is no tango rule book. Yes, you can buy tango books, instructional DVDs, but, just like when you take a class, they will just tell you how they do it, how they have been taught. There are no official rules in tango and most of us “tangueros” like it that way.
Tango is a little bit like folklore ... it is passed down from generation to generation for those who love tango and are committed enough to study it. Yes, this can mean that it is a little less structured than some other dances and yes it can sometimes mean that there will be some differences in opinion as between teachers, but it creates a much more free, more creative dance. No one is worried about be penalised for having a little finger out of place, and in my opinion, this has allowed tango to breathe and grow into the wonderful dance that it is today.
But it is not total chaos. As I said, tango is passed down from generation to generation.`It has a core, an essence and once youʼve dedicated time to tango youʼll be able to recognise when something just is or isnʼt tango, what is correct (and there can be different versions of correct) and what is definitely not correct.
Other Dance Forms
But we canʼt pin everything on the fact that tango doesnʼt have a rule book. Even in the most structured of dances, youʼll find different schools, styles and methodology. In ballet for example, there are different schools: English, Russian, French and so on. And even within one school, one teacher may differ in the detail from another.
So itʼs good to know that weʼre not alone in tango!
Sometimes it can appear that you are receiving conflicting information but in fact it is just a different way of explaining the same thing. It sounds like this would be very obvious, but you would be surprise how long it can take for students to realise this.
Here is a simple example to illustrate this. It is a real one - students, even those who have been dancing for several years, have come to me with this.
Letʼs imagine you have three teachers A, B & C and they are all trying to explain how to turn the torso in order to pivot:
-Teacher A tells you to move your shoulder backwards.
-Teacher B says you should use your back muscles.
-Teacher C says that he initiates the movement in his abdominal muscles.
The students in question were left feeling confused. However, if all three teachers got together and compared their techniques, they would probably agree that they are doing the same - or very similar - movement, but just thinking of it in a different way. Their point of departure may come down to which way works best for them as dancers or how to best to convey the movement to a student.
The Studentʼs Language
A teacher may adapt their teaching to speak the “language of the student” - i.e. what they think that individual student will understand. This will differ according to the experience level of the student or the type of learner they are.
For example some students might find it easier to be given anatomical information - e.g. to lift their abdominal muscles. Another might better grasp what to do through an analogy - e.g. to imagine they are zipping up a pair of jeans. It is one of the challenges of a teacher to find the explanation that will work for you - the explanation which will be your “light bulb” moment.
So if suddenly youʼre given an anatomical explanation after previously visualising an analogy, it might seem like youʼre learning a brand new concept, but it is simply a different way to describe the same thing.
Simplification or White Lies
A teacher may choose to simplify information in order to give it to you in more bite-sized pieces - so as not to confuse you at the stage of development they perceive you to be. In fact it is not uncommon for a teacher to subsequently say “Remember I once told you that you always have to do such and such ... well, actually, there may well be times ...”.
This is less confusing when you have continuity with this teacher over a period of time. They will then have the chance to give you the full story or develop the concepts when they feel itʼs the right time for you. Unfortunately, however, it can give rise to considerable confusion where you donʼt have that continuity.
Sometimes it can appear that you have received a conflicting piece of information but what it really comes down to context. It is important for every student to be aware that what they are learning is often context-specific.
In one class for example, a teacher might be focusing on working with a strong dynamic. If in a subsequent class youʼre then told to tone down the energy, you might feel a little perplexed. But in fact, the first teacher may have just been suggesting you use strong energy in certain contexts - as an option for varying the feel of the dance.
It is important bear in mind that with any teacher you will inevitably be learning their style, their way of doing things. It would be a very boring world if we all danced the same! If you are confused that two teachers have told you to do something differently, simply watching them dance (in the milonga or performance) can be very revealing!
Of course, there will be some stylistic differences that are not visible from the outside. For example the amount of energy to put into the embrace or into the outstretched arm. Just as every person is unique, so is the feel of their embrace. And the fact that every partner feels different only enrichens our tango experience.
In certain matters it may come down to deciding which style you prefer or perhaps which style feels more “You”. Or why not be a magpie, collecting different tips and stylistic points from different dancers to help make your dance unique?
Sometimes students tell us that they have learnt something from another teacher - say a visiting teacher from Buenos Aires - but that they canʼt understand it or that it conflicts with their prior understanding. Our first question in these cases is whether they asked the teacher “why”.
If the conflicting information automatically makes sense and works for you, then this is not issue. You probably wonʼt feel the need to ask “why”. The problem arises when a student canʼt make head nor tail of it or when it seems to be just as valid, yet different, to what they had previously understood. This is when “why” becomes important.
You may not like to be seen to be questioning a teacherʼs authority. This is understandable. However a good teacher will not be rattled by questions and will actually be pleased you are asking them. In my experience most questions that start: “this is probably a stupid question ...” are the complete opposite! And even if it is basic, anyone who is passionate about teaching will be empathetic and appreciate the importance of your question even if the answer does seem obvious to them
The “why” will enable you to really understand what you are being asked to do and give you a proper chance to compare it to your original understanding. It will help you decide if any of the reasons above (different approaches, style, context etc) apply and make a choice as to whether youʼd like to incorporate it into your dance.
Find Your Own Path
As dancers, we are all unique. Movements, techniques and styles will all suit our temperaments and bodies differently. It is difficult when you are a beginner, but as time goes on youʼll increasingly be able to find your own path. To become a discerning student.
Over the years, you may even find your tastes change - that you prefer different styles - or that as your understanding of tango deepens, youʼre able to adopt new ideas that previously you werenʼt ready for. Adapting the way you dance as time goes on is not necessarily a backward step - it is part of the learning process and can be fascinating.
And the more we see things as options, ideas - not gospel - the more we can get down to the very serious business of enjoying tango.
Find a Mentor
In all of this, it is good to have a mentor, someone you can always ask when you get confused. We encourage our students to come and tell us what they have learnt from other teachers. As they often get the chance to take just a few classes with another teacher, confusions are common. Tango is a rich and complex dance and you will never learn all a teacher has to offer from just a few classes. But having someone you can bounce ideas off, can really help to piece together the little pieces of information you have received to make a fuller picture.
So there it is. I hope this post will help you deal with any confusions you have on your tango path, paving the way for an easier, smoother and more enjoyable journey!