Cybertango Dicussion from the Tango Mailing List


Articles: [ Deutsch | English ]
  Cybertango: [ Deutsch | English ]
    Geography Page: [ Deutsch | English ]

How Tango is Taught

Larry E Carroll
Stephen P. Brown
Tom Stermitz
Stephen P. Brown
Michael Hamilton


Date:    Sun, 2 Aug 1998 17:14:40 -0700
From:    Larry E Carroll
Subject: forgetting steps

Gabriella Marino writes
> [My boyfriend is] a bit scared because I'm dancing almost every night
> in Rome while he, who lives in Parma, doesn't have the opportunity to,
> and therefore is forgetting his steps!

I'm not sure if by "forgetting his steps" Gabriella means forgetting how
to dance tango, or something more specific: forgetting sequences of
steps. If the latter, he's making a common mistake -- thinking that you
have to learn long, complicated step patterns in order to dance tango.

If anything, learning this way will PREVENT you from learning tango, or
at least slow you down an enormous amount. Because tango is much more
improvisational than other partner dances, & it has a larger
"vocabulary" of dance techniques than other social dances. So anyone
watching tango dancers at a large milonga may see literally thousands of
step patterns. And confuse the "steps" with tango.

I think one reason why so many people make this mistake is that they
come from other dances, many of which do have standard step sequences.
Especially if they come from "International" (British) ballroom dance,
which has an official catalog of the "correct" step sequences & their
"amalgamations" (the approved way of combining them).

Another reason is that many classes are taught by visiting show dancers,
who are used to learning very complex choreographed dance sequences. To
them it's the most natural thing in the world to learn & teach "steps."

Another reason may be that professional teachers WANT their students to
learn slowly and (subconsciously or otherwise) sabotage their students
by teaching complicated steps.

So what's the better approach? Break all step patterns down into really
basic ones, of three (or less) individual steps. Help the student master
those half-dozen (or at most one-dozen) patterns. Then show how to
combine them. In less than a month many students could then begin to
create (or follow) most of the thousands of possible complex patterns.

This would NOT put teachers out of a job. Instead it would shift the
focus to other important subjects. Such as dance style (what Nito & Pupi
referred to when they talked about "walking" at Nora's Tango Week). Such
as good connections with your partner, music, leading & following, &
navigating the dance floor without ramming or scaring the other dancers.

I have my own idea, of course, of what those "most-basic" steps are &
how to combine them. It would clutter up TANGO-L too much to go into
that. Just look at my Web page at the URL below.

But you may have a better set of basic steps. I love to hear about them.

                        Larry de Los Angeles
                        http://world.std.com/~larrydla

top of page

Date:    Mon, 3 Aug 1998 13:49:38 -0500
From:    "Stephen P. Brown"
Subject: How Tango is Taught (Was: forgetting steps)


     Larry wrote:

     >[A] common mistake -- thinking that you have to learn long,
     >complicated step patterns in order to dance tango. ...
     >If anything, learning this way will PREVENT you from learning tango,
     >or at least slow you down an enormous amount.

     Although Larry's comments were not directed specifically at this issue
     of how tango is taught, I think he raises a very important issue in
     that vein.  Many of the experienced milongueros and master instructors
     talk about the importance of listening to tango music and walking the
     miles, but much of the available instruction presents steps or
     sequences of steps.  For instance, of the 40+ video tapes I have
     reviewed, less than one-fourth explicitly teach that tango is not a
     series memorized steps or sequences of steps.  Most of the videos
     present steps or sequences of steps.

     Although I am changing the context of his remarks, Larry offers
     several explanations for this apparent dissonance between what is said
     and what is taught.

     >I think one reason why so many people make this mistake is that they
     >come from other dances, many of which do have standard step
     >sequences.

     This comment might contribute to an argument that some teachers adjust
     to their students expectations.

     >Another reason is that many classes are taught by visiting show
     >dancers, who are used to learning very complex choreographed dance
     >sequences. To them it's the most natural thing in the world to learn
     >& teach "steps."

     I am in agreement here.

     >Another reason may be that professional teachers WANT their students
     >to learn slowly and (subconsciously or otherwise) sabotage their
     >students by teaching complicated steps.

     With so many tango instructors now competing for the student's
     attention, I am doubtful that any one teacher would want to establish
     a reputation of having their students progress slowly.

     An additional explanation is that many of the master teachers have
     long since internalized the music and the half-dozen or dozen basic
     patterns from which more steps and sequences are constructed.  (And,
     perhaps they were never explicitly taught these basics.)  What they
     are teaching is their own ideas about how to put those more basic
     patterns together.  From Nito's and Pupi's comments, I see them
     expecting the serious student to already know the music and the basic
     patterns.

     The idea is similar to taking a master class in jazz improvisation.
     The student is already expected to know how to play the instrument,
     have good familiarity with the standards, know the scales, the
     arppegios, etc.  What is taught in master classes is how the master
     instructor combines those elements to create jazz.

     Where the trouble originates is in students advancing themselves to
     master classes without having taken the trouble to learn/understand
     the real basics.  At the tango weeks where beginning classes are
     offered, I have seen many beginners promote themselves to
     intermediate/advanced status with insufficient preparation.  They have
     memorized the beginning steps and see themselves as ready to memorize
     more.

     The professor who teaches tango to beginners has a difficult job.
     Teaching beginners requires the professor to strike the right balance
     between teaching steps, technique, musicality, and knowledge of the
     basics, so that the student is motivated to learn more and is prepared
     to learn more properly.  Student expectations that tango is a standard
     sequence of steps to be memorized would be a handicap to even the best
     laid out plans of a professor.  Such beginners are likely to feel that
     they are progessing too slowly when they count the steps they have
     memorized.  All of this suggests that if the professor is not
     successful in changing the expectations of the beginning students, the
     professor will be forced to adjust to the expectations of the students
     or lose the students.

     --Steve de Tejas

top of page
Date:    Mon, 3 Aug 1998 19:15:59 -0600
From:    Tom Stermitz
Subject: Re: How Tango is Taught (Was: forgetting steps)


>     Larry wrote:
>
>     >[A] common mistake -- thinking that you have to learn long,
>     >complicated step patterns in order to dance tango. ...
>     >If anything, learning this way will PREVENT you from learning tango,
>     >or at least slow you down an enormous amount.
>
>     Although Larry's comments were not directed specifically at this issue
>     of how tango is taught, I think he raises a very important issue in
>     that vein.  Many of the experienced milongueros and master instructors
>     talk about the importance of listening to tango music and walking the
>     miles, but much of the available instruction presents steps or
>     sequences of steps.  For instance, of the 40+ video tapes I have
>     reviewed, less than one-fourth explicitly teach that tango is not a
>     series memorized steps or sequences of steps.  Most of the videos
>     present steps or sequences of steps.
...

>     >I think one reason why so many people make this mistake is that they
>     >come from other dances, many of which do have standard step
>     >sequences.
...
>     The idea is similar to taking a master class in jazz improvisation.
>     The student is already expected to know how to play the instrument,
>     have good familiarity with the standards, know the scales, the
>     arppegios, etc.  What is taught in master classes is how the master
>     instructor combines those elements to create jazz.

[8CBw/DBS = 8 Count Basic with Dreaded Back Step]

This is a good metaphor. So is the 8CBw/DBS the scale? I would say a very
partial scale, like the four notes used in "Mary had a little lamb". It
simply doesn't contain enough notes.

So I don't see the 8CBw/DBS as very basic at all, it just happens to have
three common steps (and one unusual and dreadful one). It leaves out too
many other very basic and necessary steps.

For me the basics are the embrace, a graceful, connected walk around the
dance floor, leader syncopations to crossed-footed walking, feeling when to
cross, smooth and graceful back ochos and the grapevine. When combined with
hearing the rhythms and phrasing of the music, these are the elements used
to compose a dance.

Given the 8CBw/DBS you have a lot of leaders (and followers) getting locked
into that assymetrical pattern, so the character of the dance becomes a
zig-zag progression around the room three steps forward, one back.

What is appropriate in Buenos Aires for beginners is very different than
here in the exterior, something that is probably totally confusing for a
recently arrived Argentine. In BsAs you can assume more than a passing
familiarity with the music, probably some familiarity with the graceful
"pose" or the appearance of the dance, and not too mention some latin
cultural expectations about men and women.

Would any of the argentines on the list care to comment about the concept
of having to teach North Americans how to embrace each other? I'm not
talking about the "frame" or "pose", rather about the "embrace".


>     Where the trouble originates is in students advancing themselves to
>     master classes without having taken the trouble to learn/understand
>     the real basics.  At the tango weeks where beginning classes are
>     offered, I have seen many beginners promote themselves to
>     intermediate/advanced status with insufficient preparation.  They have
>     memorized the beginning steps and see themselves as ready to memorize
>     more.

This sounds familiar.

I am noticing a tendency here for some (not very many) of the intermediates
and advanced dancers attending classes labeled "Introduction to the Tango
of XXXX". This shows a maturity of attention span and focuss.

>     The professor who teaches tango to beginners has a difficult job.
>     Teaching beginners requires the professor to strike the right balance
>     between teaching steps, technique, musicality, and knowledge of the
>     basics, so that the student is motivated to learn more and is prepared
>     to learn more properly.  Student expectations that tango is a standard
>     sequence of steps to be memorized would be a handicap to even the best
>     laid out plans of a professor.  Such beginners are likely to feel that
>     they are progessing too slowly when they count the steps they have
>     memorized.  All of this suggests that if the professor is not
>     successful in changing the expectations of the beginning students, the
>     professor will be forced to adjust to the expectations of the students
>     or lose the students.
>
>     --Steve de Tejas

I will bet any sum of money that Steve is not speakin hypothetically here!



Tom Stermitz
top of page
Date:    Tue, 4 Aug 1998 02:01:46 -0500
From:    "Stephen P. Brown"
Subject: Re: How Tango is Taught (and learned)

[8CBw/DBS = 8 Count Basic with Dreaded Back Step]

      Previously I wrote:

      >>The idea is similar to taking a master class in jazz improvisation.
      >>The student is already expected to know how to play the instrument,
      >>have good familiarity with the standards, know the scales, the
      >>arppegios, etc.  What is taught in master classes is how the master
      >>instructor combines those elements to create jazz.

      Tom (Stermitz) responded:

      >This is a good metaphor. So is the 8CBw/DBS the scale? I would say a
      >very partial scale, like the four notes used in "Mary had a little
      >lamb". It simply doesn't contain enough notes.

      >So I don't see the 8CBw/DBS as very basic at all, it just happens to
      >have three common steps (and one unusual and dreadful one). It
      >leaves out too many other very basic and necessary steps.

      I would like to think Tom asked his question rhetorically, because I
      agree with him, although I probably don't dread the back step quite
      as much as he does.  :-)

      As a dancer, I regard the 8CBw/dbs as a trite way to combine a
      limited number of elements of tango.  Unfortunately, the 8CBw/DBS is
      the way that many professors start their beginning students--probably
      in an attempt to meet the student's expectation of learning steps.
      In doing so, however, they are in no less company than Juan Carlos
      Copes--as shown in the movie Tango: Baile Nuestra.

      >For me the basics are the embrace, a graceful, connected walk around
      >the dance floor, leader syncopations to crossed-footed walking,
      >feeling when to cross, smooth and graceful back ochos and the
      >grapevine. When combined with hearing the rhythms and phrasing of
      >the music, these are the elements used to compose a dance.

      I agree with Tom's definition of the basics.  In my posting, I did
      not mean the term "basics" to refer to the 8CBw/dbs.  Repeated use
      the 8CBw/dbs or any other sequence of steps is ccontrary to the
      improvisational nature of tango.  Even teaching other steps as
      departures from the 8CBw/dbs can limit the beginning student's vision
      of the possibilities in tango.

      In my mind, the foregoing raises two questions.

      1)  How should one approach the classes taught by master professors,
      who presume the students know the basic elements of tango and that
      tango is an improvisational dance?

      As a (male) student in such classes, I do my best to execute the
      sequences as they are taught, and find out how to successfully mark
      the steps.  Later, I take the sequences apart, find the connections,
      and then recombine the elements on my own.  Sometimes, I take the
      sequences apart during the class, so that my partner and I can learn
      to differentiate how the steps are marked from other similar steps.

      Btw, I think one value in executing a professor's sequences is to
      develop a feel for how movements from one position to another are
      marked.  Most professors do no explain how the movements are marked
      in the sequences they teach.  They leave this to the students to find
      for themselves.

      2)  How can the professor who understands tango is improvisational
      provide enough structure so that beginning students have some frame
      of reference for learning without locking them into a limited vision
      of the tango's possibilities?

      The approach that Susan (my partner) and I have taken is to emphasize
      the use of elements (such as, walking, ochos, grapevines, etc.) to
      create steps.  I must admit that our approach does not appeal to
      everyone.  One compensation is that we discover new things ourselves
      in many of the classes we teach.

      Our approach may also not prevent students from locking into a
      limited vision of tango.  Ultimately, the professor must simply
      realize that even the best instruction leaves the students in the
      wilderness.  To find their way home, the students must follow Nito's
      and Pupi's advice to walk and listen to the music.

      My thanks to Tom for stimulating these ideas with his though
      provoking post.

      --Steve de Tejas


      >>The professor who teaches tango to beginners has a difficult job.
      >> ...

      >I will bet any sum of money that Steve is not speaking
      >hypothetically here!

      Tom would win such a bet with anyone who has been foolish enough to
      disagree.


      Independent reviews of instructional videos:
      
        http://www.hooked.net/~tangoman/revu-1.htm

top of page
Date:    Wed, 5 Aug 1998 10:03:24 -0700
From:    "M. Hamilton"
Subject: Re: How Tango is Taught (Was: forgetting steps)


On Mon, 3 Aug 1998, Stephen P. Brown wrote:

<snip - many good comments and discusion>
>      The idea is similar to taking a master class in jazz improvisation.
>      The student is already expected to know how to play the instrument,
>      have good familiarity with the standards, know the scales, the
>      arppegios, etc.  What is taught in master classes is how the master
>      instructor combines those elements to create jazz.
>
>      Where the trouble originates is in students advancing themselves to
>      master classes without having taken the trouble to learn/understand
>      the real basics.  At the tango weeks where beginning classes are
>      offered, I have seen many beginners promote themselves to
>      intermediate/advanced status with insufficient preparation.  They have
>      memorized the beginning steps and see themselves as ready to memorize
>      more.

Always a problem with self-assesment in social dance arenas.  The same
kind of thing in Lindy Hop.  People really want to be advanced dancers.  I
think you feel like you learn so much at first, you start to think "With
all I've learned, I must be an [intermediate/advanced] dancer now....".
But there's still so much more, and so much more that's just *subtle* and
difficult to understand.  Steps are easier to learn, but, less important
than concepts.  So, what do you teach a beginner danceer?  Like Steve
suggested,  it's a difficult balance.

Back to tango teachers more explicitly ---

We in Seattle were just gifted with the pleasure of having Indio and
Mariana here for about three weeks teaching workshops and private lessons.
They are the *first* teachers I have had who *really* concentrated on
musicality, rhythm in the dance, balance... and they did it outside of the
context of teaching steps.  They taught one, maybe two sequences of steps
the whole time they were here.  The rest was excercises in walking,
leading/following, rhythm/timing, posture... it was a religious
experience.  It was an advanced workshop, which focused on the important
base concepts of the dance, not on advanced steps.  It's the first time
I've had a class like that.  And it was wonderful.

Hope that doesn't sound too corny.  Basically, though, these people are
excellent teachers, teaching excellent material - stuff you don't get many
places.  Kinda reminds me of a swing movement class from Steven Mitchell,
for those of you who can relate to that...

You folks in New York are lucky - I understand that's where they're off to
next.  This is their first trip to the US - usually they perform in San
Telmo Square in Buenos Aires.  Anyway, if you have a chance to take
lessons from these people, do it.

Mike
________________________________________________________
Michael Hamilton                mh@u.washington.edu

top of page

top of page


Garrit Fleischmann Aug.98
Email: kontakt(at)cyber-tango.com