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Tango has had a tumultuous journey.

It was born in the slums of Buenos Aires in the late 19th Century. It enjoyed a Golden Age in the 1930ʼs and 1940ʻs only to go into decline in the 1950s. It somehow survived a military dictatorship when it was outlawed and it may well have died completely if it had not been for a group of dedicated “milongueros” who kept the culture alive.

Towards the end of the 20th Century and now in the 21st Century it is enjoying something of a revival. Tango has once again become the worldʼs darling. Blinking it has stepped out of the darkness and into the light. And it has discovered that since its heyday, the world has changed.

The Age of Chivalry is seemingly over. Women have won the Battle of the Sexes. Can tango - a dance which is essentially all about a man being a man, a woman being a woman - survive in this new world?

Every Friday and Saturday, I welcome Beginners to tango for the first time. Most work in the West End and the City and are still wearing their suits from the office. Many are looking for something to distract themselves from their demanding professional lives.

I explain to my female students their role as a follower in tango: there can only be one leader and one follower! Try not to anticipate, try not to think! Focus only on the guyʼs chest and allow your movements to tune into his.

And every week, they respond with words to this effect:

“Iʼm not sure I can do this following thing!”

“Iʼm used to telling him what to do!” [smiling playfully at their partner]

“Itʼs not in my personality to follow. I keep leading.”

And I always think, thatʼs a relief! I would be pretty worried if they chirped: “EASY! Iʼm so used to being told what to do, this should come naturally to me!”

However, after a few weeks, these strong-minded professional women are all following. Why? Because tango is completely improvised and if you have no idea what your partner is going to do next, you quickly learn the futility of trying to lead.

Beaten into submission? Not at all! It is an amazingly beautiful and therapeutic experience to tap into your feelings, not your thoughts. To let yourself go and allow yourself to be carried through the music.To give up control. A tango lasts three minutes and when the music stops, the leader and follower stand apart as equals.

And it strikes me that perhaps tango has a very important role to play in modern life

A very dear student of mine is a consultant doctor in intensive care. Despite having enormous stresses in her every day life, she always makes time for her tango class. Her profession demands such an overwhelming degree of responsibility from her, that to her it is a blessing (indeed a need) to be able to give up responsibility for just a few minutes ... or a few hours if she dances all night!

Another (male) student of mine, said something very interesting the other day after class. He said how he felt that tango allowed him to be entirely masculine for a few moments and he was surprised how much he enjoyed this. And I know that there are many women who also enjoy that tango gives them an open invitation to be completely feminine.

And it occurs to be me that perhaps in this day and age of gender equality, we at times feel the need to explore our masculinity/femininity without fear of this being frowned on or impinging on the equal rights that we have fought so hard for.

I am aware that this blog could be misconstrued as anti-feminist. So I just want to make it clear: as a woman there is no other age that I would prefer to have been born in. In my motherʼs class at school, most of the girls were expected to become housewives, teachers, nurses or secretaries. Despite this my mother became one of five women to attend law school. However, after qualifying as a solicitor, she was unable to get a mortgage or buy even a radio on credit, because she didnʼt have a male guarantor. And this was as recent as the 1960s! I was brought up to be incredibly grateful that women - at least in the Western World - are treated as menʼs equals.

But I love the romance of tango and have found that I love being unashamedly feminine. And there is nothing that makes me feel more feminine than tango.

In any event, Tango in the 21st century is not as politically incorrect as it may at first seem.

Tango is much more about chivalry than machismo. As I mentioned in my last blog post, the leaderʼs objective in tango is to make the follower feel WONDERFUL. It is about guiding the follower, not demanding of her. A good leader doesnʼt just lead, he also listens. He is sensitive to what the follower needs and the more experienced you become in tango, the more dance begins to resemble a two-way conversation.

A leader who insists on leading movements that the follower is struggling to understand is frowned upon. So just as much as the follower tunes her movements into the leaderʼs, a leader must adjust his movements to the follower. And the result is a perfect harmony between two people.

And to really silence any critics, in recent years, it has become acceptable to explore the other role in tango. Are you a woman who would prefer to lead? No problem! Same sex tango or tango with inverted roles (the man following, the woman leading) can be found in most tango communities around the world. It is not uncommon to have ladies in our classes who, having learnt the followerʼs role, would now like to explore the leaderʼs role. Or a leader to try his hand at following, either as a means of improving his leading or simply because he enjoys it. In fact, in our classes we often replace the words “men” and “women, with “leaders” and “followers”.

Tango a dance for the 21st Century? Absolutely!

It is one of the curses of dancing tango that you will find yourself misunderstood by all but a small collection of fellow tango fanatics. It is something that we tango dancers learn live with. Family members, colleagues, even very close friends, will ask well-meaning but totally misconceived questions.

And we canʼt blame them. We know that not everyone in the world will fall head over the heels with tango (although secretly we wonder why). And we know that tango - contrary to popular belief - is not a mainstream dance. Sure, youʼll find it in Hollywood and on Strictly but thatʼs not the real tango. Thatʼs a pantomime, a caricature of the real dance.

Then there is that rather unfortunate coincidence that it shares a name with ballroom tango, leading people to believe that the two dances must in some way resemble each other. Most tango dancers I know internally cringe to think that anyone they know think that this is what they dance every weekend!

Most people have no idea of what tango is really about. And although a lot of us want to shout out to the world how amazing tango is, in some ways we like it that way. We like tango - real tango that is - to be a little underground, like being part of a secret club.

So what is the truth about tango?

EXTERNAL APPEARANCES

Tango is utterly beautiful to watch. You knew that. But did you also know that it is how tango feels (for you and your partner) that is just as - if not more - important?

Tango is not just about external appearances, but about an amazing connection between two people. A connection that simmers beneath the surface so that it is barely visible to anyone outside of the couple.

It is often said that tango has a lot in common with martial arts and tai chi in particular. There have been studies drawing parallels between tango and transcendental meditation.

MACHISMO

Tango has a reputation for being a macho dance. And surely it is so: the man leads, the woman follows. Thereʼs no way round it. But did you know the lead is more about guidance, listening and communication, than giving orders? “Push” and “pull” are words you will not often hear in a tango class. “Invite”, “breathe”, “lift” are more commonplace.

And did you know the lead is all about making the follower feel AMAZING. That is the leaderʼs prime objective. What could be better than that?

SERIOUS AND SAD

Tango is always so serious. But is it really? There is another side to tango that is playful, upbeat and flirtatious. It is multi-faceted. Like a person, it doesnʼt have just one mood.

And even when itʼs mood becomes more brooding, it doesnʼt necessarily make you feel sad. There may be times tango makes you feel nostalgic or melancholic, but I find that this is in a cathartic kind of way, like watching a sad film.Most of the time, however, it does nothing of the sort. In fact, tango can take you away to another place, giving you an unparalleled feeling of escape, bliss and even at times euphoria. It is not uncommon to see a couple on the dance floor, gripped a close embrace, cheek to cheek, and each with a dreamy smile on their face.

Tango is like an onion: the more layers you peel off, the more you discover to enjoy. And one thingʼs for sure, youʼre never going to discover the truth about tango by reading a blog. Youʼre going to have to find out for yourself!

As a a Beginner told me just the other day, after his third or fourth class:

“Tangoʼs nothing like what I expected it to be. But itʼs so much better.”

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!

Different Approaches

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.

Context

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.

Different Styles

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?

Ask Why

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!

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