20 October 2009

How many steps does it take to be good at tango?

"How many steps does it take to be good at tango?" Was a question I asked myself when I first went down this road. Coming from a ballroom background, it made perfect sense to think this way. You see, in the ballroom world, dance progression is linear. You go from Bronze, to Silver, to Gold levels. It's like school. You're taught the steps first, then somewhere along the way, you get taught technique—with more payment and classes.

Confusion of thought & technique

With that preconceived notion, I was trying to learn under what (I thought) was proper. It amounted to learning all the steps I could memorize. Thinking and operating that way felt safe. It felt gratifying. I could count the steps I learned (or thought I did), and racked them up like trophies. I thought it was good value for what I was paying. I was, a "Step Collector."

Failure of delivery

Armed with a repertoire of steps, I braved the milonga floor. Frustration and disillusionment soon followed. If you remember, I had a post called, "End results—Her tango look." How my partner looked after the tanda was my guage on how I did. It was my report card. To my surprise, their faces had the look of "Relief" on them... relief that the tanda was over. I was (in effect) throwing them steps in my arsenal and putting them into a state of confusion, terror, bewilderment, etc. Whatever it was, it was unpleasant for my partners. I also thought that I got turned down way too much. I had to diagnose the problem and figure something out.

Step realizations

Despite my vast and advanced "Step" knowledge (ballroom paradigm) I don't think it was happening for my partners, thus neither for me. "What was I doing wrong?" I asked myself. I decided to watch the floor and the more experienced leaders. I watched those who were considered to be really good leads and wondered... Why?

It dawned on me that these admirable leads only used around 4 to 5 recognizable steps or patterns, perhaps and extra embellishment here or there. Other than that, that was it! It wasn't the amount of stuff they could do that mattered, it was HOW WELL, they did the few things they executed.

Shifting to focus on technique

Knowing of my folly, I embarked on a new paradigm of learning Argentine Tango. Concentrate on the technique, first and foremost. Instead of learning steps, I learned to DELIVER the steps. This was my "short list" of things I needed to work on:
  1. Find my center of balance: Be able to move without knocking my partner over, nor falling all over myself
  2. How to land my feet: Landing, shifting weight, stepping, pointing as smooth as possible
  3. Weight changes: How to lead by shifting weight, rather than muscling through a movement
  4. Leading with the "Core" (chest): Leading movements with the ONLY point of contact that matters... The chest
  5. Intention and commitment: I had to develop the confidence to make something happen. Anything tentative would have gotten lost
  6. Smoothness: Take all of the preceding, combine them, and try to make them work together as smooth as possible
This was my short list. There's so much stuff that went into them that they seemed like blurs.

I tried to make my tango as simple as possible—just done well. Which in my experience was even much more difficult than just learning steps.

So how many steps do you need to know? My answer is: Not many. Just deliver them very, very well.


Captain Jep said...

Ah yes ... one of the best comments I can receive is "You lead very smoothly" ..

I always find it educational to follow a decent leader with my eyes closed. Then it all becomes obvious:

- Dont pull with your arms
- Dont change direction too much
- Walking is good : pausing is good
- Progress in a line where possible
- Listen to your partner's motion


msHedgehog said...

You put that very clearly. Which approach do you think is more difficult for the dancer?

AmpsterTango said...

@ msHedgehog
For the social dancer, my opinion is that it is more difficult to focus on technique first. I say this because, focusing on technique first becomes frustrating as the results are not immediate and less tangible. Furthermore, technique needs something to be applied to, and this is where the point where steps become apropos. On the other hand, memorizing steps at the outset gives the illusion of instant progress and gratification.

El escritor said...

I read this comment from Cacho Dante, talking about the milongueros. I think it expresses what you mean:

"The guys at that time had already surpassed the stage of steps. They had already passed through the filter: When they didn't really know how to dance, they did 20 steps; when they knew a bit more, they did 10; and when they really knew what they were doing, they danced five... but with real quality."

Anonymous said...

I find that if men lead/follow other men in a class or practica they realise very very very damn quickly what is clear what isn't, what is painful what isn't.

"ooo uuurrrghh ouch - damn i hope i don't do that!"


totally agree with previous post. one of my favourite teachers always responds to "how many steps" with "err .. forward 1, back 2, side 3... so that must be a total of THREE!"

Alan said...

Lately, I've been trying to make the forward, back, side more clear. It's that somewhat diagonal that degrades the experience.

But really, it's not the what, but the how that matters.