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Tango. A partner dance. Right?

I had an interesting discussion with a local London tanguero. It was based on one of the videos I posted, where I was practising forward ochos by myself. I will by the way soon post a Let's Make It Personal video about solo practice and what value it has in a partner dance like tango, in my point of view.

This tanguero respectfully argued that practising ochos by myself is pointless since being able to do it alone does not give an indication whether I can also do it in a couple. He also added that UK teaching and learning methods are really not helping us produce quality dancers. He added that as a result, we have not had any success in the tango championship, and that we need a drastic rethink of the way we approach teaching and practising tango in this country.

This is a very very interesting topic, and I have been planning to write about it for a while already. While I don't want to write about the discussion we had, this e-conversation gave me a motivation to put my thoughts on many things in tango in order, and while many of you might not agree with me, I will write down a few things about this, from my point of view. It will be in two separate articles.

1. Tango is a partner dance.

Yes, it definitely is! It surely takes two to dance tango. Right?

Wrong. It takes minimum THREE. Leader, Follower and MUSIC. Without music, there is no tango. Music defines all we do as dancers, it gives us inspiration, suggests what we should do, and how. It tells us when to start and when to stop. If you don't listen to music, and do not let the music carry you, you do not dance tango.

2. Tango is a social dance.

Therefore, you learn in group lessons and then head to milongas to dance socially. That's what tango is. Right?

Yes and no. Tango is what you make of it, it is who you are, it is what you want it to be. Tango originally was a way to communicate (between men, then between men and women). Tango was and is a way to socialize. It was an additional language that people could use, it was a place where they met and the music they listened to. Tango is definitely a social dance.

So if what you want from tango, independent from where you live, is to socialize, listen to music, meet people, and maybe dance a little (as an “addition” to socializing), then taking some group classes and heading to milongas is absolutely the right thing for you. You will be able to enjoy spending time with many people, have wine, listen to beautiful music, and that would be the most traditional thing tango has to offer you. It is wonderful and suits many people.

If however you want to socialize AND dance, and dance well, with good dancers, you might need something different. Most people, when they come to tango (beside the most traditional BsAs approach of socializing), want exactly this: find friends and dance. As fresh dancers learn and improve, they notice that different people dance differently. They also notice that some people are more enjoyable in their dance than others. What often happens then is that people start searching out the “more enjoyable” partners, because tango with them is more fun. Thus, tango from a purely social and musical pastime moves into the category of “it gives me pleasure to dance, thus I want to dance more”.

3. What does “more enjoyable” dancer mean? And why do we search them out?

You feel connected, you hear the music similarly, the way you move as a couple is harmonious and feels wonderful. Your partner inspires you, and you feel respect and appreciation for this moment.

The most enjoyable partners give you a sense of beauty. What does beauty mean? Well, to and with everyone something different. Maybe it's an amazing embrace, or maybe it's wonderful musicality. Maybe it's the feeling of fragility and protection, or maybe it's power and strength.

Most people like to have a dialogue, to know they have a living, breathing, feeling person in their arms. This dialogue is what makes tango magical. It's not the fancy moves. It's the dialogue with their partner, to the spell of beautiful music. And how you have this dialogue, is entirely up to every single dancer. We are all different in what we look for.

4. What makes a dialogue possible?

Imagine you meet a friend on a busy street. Cars, buses, school children laughing, dogs barking, huge crowds of people around you rushing somewhere. You want to talk, you haven't met in a long time, you have so much to share. But it's noisy and distracting here,and you end up having to repeat some sentences, or scream louder than you would like to. Yours and your friend's phones ring constantly. You eventually part without a feeling of satisfaction from a long-awaited meeting. You feel you could have said so much more, and it could have been so much nicer.

Or imagine you meet a friend in a small bar. Nice quiet music playing, some people around you but they all speak quietly, nobody screams. You embrace each other hello, sit down and have a long fulfilling conversation. You share things, you ask questions, you laugh and you console each other if sad. Your phones are tucked away in your bags. When you part, you feel happy and satisfied, and you can say you had a fantastic evening. If only you could meet like this more often!

5. Now let's go back to tango.

When we dance, we have a conversation. It is a conversation between a leader and a follower, to the sounds of music. Instead of words, you use movement. Your embrace is your meeting. And what matters is not only that you speak, but that you have something to say, and that you want to listen to the other one. In your conversation, you want as little distractions as possible, to enjoy this meeting to the fullest. You want to say “listen to this phrase in the music, it calls for a wonderful smooth giro!”, but you get distracted by not being able to stay balanced and have to apply force to help each other upright. Or maybe you wish to say “I really feel like walking now, this music is perfect for a nice caminata!” but instead you or your partner fall into the step and your dialogue gets interrupted. You had to open up the embrace, even if ever so slightly. And pufff, the magic is gone.

The best dialogue is when you can get rid of as many distractions as possible. And when you both listen and speak, you both have something to say. BOTH. Not just a leader. Both.

6. Leader and follower. The roles.

Leaders speak, followers listen? That's a lecture, not a dialogue. That's not fun. Lectures are limited. In tango we look for a dialogue, for connection, not for domination. It's important for leaders to speak clearly and say interesting things, and for the follower to listen, to interpret and to suggest things of her own, to add. Tango connection is not a one-way street. We share things, and we listen to each other. We both have opinions. We both matter in the couple.

And to matter, and to have something to say, we need to have opinions, we need to be able to think and act independently. If you have a mind of your own, but you are respectful and interested in coming together with another dancer, and to listen to each other, you will have the most fulfilling communication ever. If you have nothing to say, you will be very limited. Your dialogue will be more like “Hey how are you yes I'm ok what about you yes all good thank you”.

I firmly believe in both roles having a mind, an ability and a voice of their own. They needn't shout, they should be respectful of one another. But we are two independent people who choose to come together, embrace each other and talk.

7. And finally, how do you become a dancer with a voice, with things to say, someone who can talk to another dancer without distractions?

You learn. It's not a skill we are born with. You learn the vocabulary of new language you want to speak (your moves), you learn to pronounce the words clearly and without mumbling or stumbling (your technique). You learn the specifics and the rules of the language (musicality). You continue improving, because once you stop speaking, the skill not only stops growing, it shrinks.

In order to speak and have something to say, in a fulfilling dialogue without distractions, both dancers need to have skills. They need to have vocabulary, they need to be able to say things without being distracted by bad technique, they need to listen and respond to the music, and they need to have something to say.

Work on technique. Learn about musicality. Learn it for yourself, by yourself. Do not wait for someone to come to you and expect that magic will happen. To be skilled, you need to learn the skill for yourself. Partner is important, yes. And to dance, you can't dance without a partner and without music. But you can acquire skills by yourself. The technique, the musicality, the appreciation and the things to say. Practice by yourself, learn to speak (dance) without distracting YOURSELF in the first place. Learn to disassociate and walk and pivot and do your enrosque without support, without falling and tripping over. Learn to speak independently first and foremost.

Then learn to communicate with another dancer. To embrace her/him. Understand what it means, to speak. What it means, to listen. What is it like, to speak without interrupting each other, to dance in harmony.

And finally, when you come together with your friend, you will share a beautiful evening together. A magical tanda, with laughter, with emotions, with consolations, with things to say and things to hear. Without distractions. Without falling onto each other, without holding onto to each other. Instead, you will embrace each other, and feel in harmony. You can then FORGET about any technique, because the skill will be in your body. And you can finally both speak and have something to say. Now, it's time to share and enjoy. The embrace, the connection, the music and the movement together.

I will write about London / UK tango in my next post. Too much for today! :) Enjoy the tango, whatever it is you want from it :)

Yours, Olga

Videos of me practicing Musicality (Syncopations, above) and Ocho Technique (below)

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