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From Beginner to Advanced. Some thoughts about “levels” in tango

You like tango. You have been dancing for 3 years. You attended many many classes, you dance socially once or twice a week, you participate in many international events. You can do complex figures, colgadas and your boleo is high. You dance a lot and successfully and generally enjoy your tango life. Are you advanced?

Or you like cooking. You have been cooking for yourself once or twice a week. You can do omelette, boiled potatoes and even tasty fried chicken. You invite friends over and they come, eat what you made and even compliment you. With time, you need to look up less and less the recipe of that fish pie, you can do by memory now. Are you a chef?

While this comparison does not do tango justice, it's an easy way to demonstrate the silly way we tend to think about levels in tango. What are levels in tango and why is it so important to define yourself by a level?

A couple of days ago I posted a short message on TangoBETTER page. Just a flow of thoughts, about moving up the “tango level ladder” quickly. From beginner to advanced quickly. I said it is possible. And I think a lot of people got confused. First of all, it's not my usual rhetoric, as my friends and readers know I don't believe in ever stopping to learn. Secondly, it goes against all we are ever taught. You can't be advanced quickly. Simply can't. So I thought about it more, and here is more on this topic, from my side.

What are levels in your tango?

Do you know which level you are on? You dance for 5 years. Are you advanced? Intermediate? Beginner? (Surely, can't be a beginner!) Where should you place yourself on the “level ladder”?

Think about it. What does it mean, to be “advanced”. Is it being able to do complex figures? Ok, a sandwich is a pretty complex figure. It consists of multiple pivots, steps in various directions, changes or weight, decorations, disassociations, connection, listening to each other, musicality, dynamics etc. Maaaany things. If you take sandwich apart, it becomes very complex. And yet, most students learn sandwich as beginners.

Now, take an ocho. Pivot, step, pivot, step. Leader doing change of weight and steps. Easy? We learn ochos right after we learn to walk. So why do dancers who have been actively dancing for 10+ years practice ochos all the time, non-stop? Why do teachers work on their own ochos? Why do professional performers work on their walk? Does it mean they are beginners?

There is no such thing as exact “Levels”

Nope. Professionals learn to walk or connect, beginners want to do boleos and sacada combinations. A bit messed up, no? I see myself as intermediate. I know a lot of things, and yet I know nothing. I teach. And yet, I want to learn, desperately, hungrily. I am not at the beginning of my journey, and I'm not in the middle of it or in the end. It's ongoing. It's never-ending. It does not have a prescribed level or mathematical formula. When I take classes at festivals or with specific maestros, I do not care about what level they announce it as. If it's a topic that interests me, I go take that class. I took a “Connection in open embrace” class with one famous couple not too long ago. Level was announced as “beginner/intermediate”. Did I learn something? Yes.

Stop thinking of your level

Level name means NOTHING. Absolutely NOTHING. As advanced, you study basics, as beginners you long for complex stuff.

Think of yourself as a “Dancer”. As a Dancer, you always need to improve, and move. Dance is movement. Dance is flow and never-stopping. Learning to dance is not only basics, and it's not only complicated things. It's all together. It's first basics, then complex stuff. Then basics again, then complicated things. Then basics. It's all of it, and everything has the right time, the right amount.

So what do I mean when I say you can get from “beginner to advanced” quickly? Does it not contradict all I've written above?

What does it mean “quickly”? 1 Month? 1 year? 10 years?

I gave an example of 2 years. And I said I know a couple who went from beginners to champions in less than two years. Possible? Yes. They went “from beginner to advanced” in less than two years. But what was their journey? I can tell you: they locked themselves up in a studio for the whole duration of that time. 8-10 hours practice every day. Every day.

Can you win a championship in less than two years, if you do one class a week and some social dancing in between? No. You can't. And you won't reach “advanced”. You will be a “beginner” with an ambition, at the most maybe an “early intermediate” if you're very talented. No matter how many moves you can do, it's not about how many years or months you dance. It's about how much UNDERSTANDING, DEDICATION and HARD WORK you put in.

It's in whether you can do a boleo and sacada, or can do a boleo and sacada beautifully and comfortably. At the right moment, at the right speed. With the right amount of energy and connection. With good creativity.

When I say, you can be at the advanced level in two years, I mean:

  • You understand all you are doing and why you are doing it. Professionals don't practice their walk because someone told them to. They practice it because they understand there is so much still to be improved in it!

  • You don't shy away from basics. You long for fixing your basics! You want to work on fundamentals, because you know that's what it really comes down to! And you don't stop because you think, “I've already worked on my ochos for 6 months, that's enough”. You know no time limit is ever enough.

  • You practice, you practice non-stop. By yourself, with partners, with teachers, and by yourself again. It's in the hours you put in.

  • You are FREE in your movement. Free to choose an element, free in timing, free of patterns etc.

  • Everything in tango interests you. You want to know about history, about music, about styles and all kinds of things. Nothing is ever boring.

  • You don't see “advanced” as being able to do crazy things. You see “advanced” as being able to delve very deep into each topic, and know/learn your way around it.

  • When you do complex figures, you understand that each figure is just an OPTION, not a set of rules. It's an option now, but might not be an option next time. You understand that there is no such thing as “fixed figure”.

  • You know that the most complex things can be broken down to minimal elements, and each element in itself is a world. And of course, you can do it, you are able to break things down to elements and put them together again.

  • You can pick up things by yourself. You don't need a teacher to tell you what to do. You notice, do and change things by yourself.

  • You know there is no limit. You feel it, and you have the tools to achieve a possibility of having no limit. You know how to not be bored with your tango and where to find inspiration.

  • YOU ARE CONSCIOUS ABOUT EVERYTHING YOU DO. You listen, understand, practice until it works, and then you never stop on it.

  • And finally, you know that the more you learn, the more you have to learn.

Does this sound like fun? I think it does. Did anywhere in that description it say about the amount of figures you should know or years you have to dance? No. Because it's not in numbers, but in quality, ability, determination and consciousness.

Not quantity, but quality. Not an ambition to call yourself “advanced” but an ambition to be good, better, capable, exciting, knowledgeable, inspiring. And in this case, whether you attend “beginner” classes or “advanced”, what changes?

Nothing. Just a name.

This is my personal opinion, and it can absolutely differ from yours or other teachers'. It's ok. I accept that not everyone agrees with me. For some (most) people, you can't be an “advanced” dancer unless you've done X, Y & Z. Of course! I agree! You have to be able to lead or follow well, to be comfortable, confident, to have a wide vocabulary, to be able to do moves, to connect. This goes without saying. Is that all? I don't think so.

To learn moves, you don't need much time. To learn WHY and HOW to move, you need a lifetime. With love for tango,


Image is by Andre Kohn and is titled "Despair"

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