I had a chat with a friend the other day. Random tango stuff, milongas, styles, what to teach and where to learn, etc.
And then my friend mentioned one thing that got me thinking: that he doesn't like to take regular classes, only privates or workshops and pre-milonga classes with visiting teachers. His reason was clear: he doesn't like “cliques” that form by being associated with a particular school.
I told him that I agree and disagree with him at the same time, but didn't go into it in our conversation. However, I kept thinking about it, and about what it means to learn and study in tango. It is a topic that is of my biggest, deepest personal interest, as over the years I discovered that the process of studying and eventually teaching tango is the most gratifying, deep and involving thing I have experienced in tango. Studying often means and brings more joy to me than social dancing, and I've been thinking and analyzing why and the way to study for a long time, trying to understand myself and other dancers.
So while I absolutely respect my friend's opinion and in no way wish to discourage him from the way he sees his tango path, I would love to add my own view on the topic. Our conversation was simply a trigger :)
How do we study tango?
Everyone is different, and yet I personally believe that there is a way to study that can unite us all in its effectiveness: regular, detailed learning and finding a MENTOR.
I believe in mentoring and its power, inspiration and beauty. We don't necessarily have just one mentor through our lives, of course not. When we start, we view our teachers as something divine and our first teachers are our mentors. Nobody is better, wiser, prettier or inspiring than our own first teachers.
Then we move on, often we discover other teachers, as we SHOULD! Then many of us have a period of studying here and there, or nowhere at all, and no strict structure or program. We sort of try to find our own way, floating around without a clear goal.
And eventually, I believe, we find people who INSPIRE us more than others, who we can relate to and who open our eyes on something new and beautiful. These people unlock new doors to us, and show us a way. We don't have to meet such inspirational people often, because their impact is so powerful, it lasts awhile. So if your inspiration is a dancer who you met once three years ago, and his/her effect is still strong, then great!
But one thing that I think every dancer should aspire to do to make their journey more smooth, more clear, less one-step-forward-one-step-back, is finding a regular mentor.
Who are mentors and what can they help us with?
In my opinion, a mentor is one of the most important people on your tango journey. It doesn't necessarily mean someone you study with every week. But it is someone who you come back to, over and over again, for years, as regularly as possible, and who can observe and “direct” your development. Good mentors are a treasure, as they can give us energy when there is none, encouragement when we are down, and constructive critique based not just what they see this very second, but on what they know you've been through.
You can think of a good tango teacher/mentor as a “family doctor”: they've known you for a long time, they know your history, and they prescribe treatments based on that history as well as current situation. When you receive critique from a good mentor, it's not just “fix this, do that”, but “It's much better than what you did last time, I see progress. And what we need now is to adjust it here. And next time, we will look at that”.
A mentor can almost “write a program” for you, even if they don't physically do that, of course. You get tailored approach, that ideally goes with a good doses of constructive critique and praise for achievements. The absolute key here is finding YOUR mentor, the teacher who works well with YOU.
How do you find mentors?
I deeply believe in the trail-and-error approach. Solid, assuring, independent. All experiences that don't go well, they teach you something, too! Try a few different teachers, and if someone doesn't seem right, move on. Don't do it all in one go, let it sink in. Finding a mentor is not a task you can resolve in one weekend. You might take a class once every few months with a different teacher, but even if so, do it! Find the teacher who brings out the BEST in you: desire to try, desire to learn, to improve, to make mistakes and do it again, who explains and you actually understand. Don't take teacher's words as they are, you should understand what they mean! A good mentor will find a way to approach you and make you understand, whatever it takes. And when you find a teacher like that, stick to him/her!
How often should you come to your mentors?
As often as you need. If it's a regular weekly class, so be it. If it's a catch-up and review once a month, great. Even if it's a once-a-year thing, do it! But the key, I think, is regularity. Mentors are not there do help once, but to give ongoing guidance and help. So try to keep it regular.
What distinguishes a mentor from a regular teacher?
A mentor does not just teach you moves. That's not the point. The main idea is to receive guidance when you have questions, doubts or get lost on the way. So a good mentor should be able to help you along your whole tango path, and the best mentor will send you to another teacher if they think you can get better help there. A mentor is not a commercial thing, although do not expect someone to mentor you for free, after all, it's still most likely their job that brings food on their table. But a good mentor works in YOUR favour, so if they can't help you themselves, but someone else can, they will address you there.
I think I found my mentor. What is the best way to make it work most effectively for me?
Practice. Never just go to your mentor's classes unprepared, not having worked on material from previous classes. Believe me, it will be pointless! Whatever you receive from your mentor, needs implementation and work!
Avoid taking only private classes and doing nothing else, no practice, no dancing in between, no group classes, no homework/solo practice. Always, always practice in between sessions as much as you can! Otherwise you risk wasting time and money and not actually improving. And that's not the point :)
Can mentors change?
I think, yes. Everyone has their own tango path. And maybe at this point of your life, one person is good, and later someone else will be better. Stay focused and dedicated, but don't block out other possibilities. Who knows what beautiful things and people await you?
I hope this is something you found useful. I've been wanting to write about it for quite some time, and finally my friend's remark opened the door. Inspiration, you never know where it may come from! ;)
“Stay hungry, stay foolish” (c) Steve Jobs
With lots of love,