The search for a role model

May 2, 2017 § 2 Comments

Kill your idols.” Guy Debord

How do we learn to dance tango? One approach, seemingly the most prevalent, relies on the use of group classes, where progress is arbitrarily defined by an instructor. Often, these classes begin with the so-called canonical elements of tango and move on to more complex movements. There is some consistency among teachers, but not much, and what are considered the “basics” differs from class to class and level to level. We “advance” from simple to more complex movements, from individual steps to an entire series of interconnected movements; embellishments are often introduced at this point. In some places, instructors may offer workshops on specific topics. Critical elements of tango are addressed in some cases, ignored in others: posture, balance, musicality, walking, improvisation, floorcraft.

Although useful, none of this necessarily results in dancing tango. For most of us, the problem is one of building upon these structural elements, such as they are, and creating an organic whole whereby the “steps” are subsumed in the dance. And given the limitless possibilities of tango, how can we shape these elements into something that is personal and reflective of an individual style, hopefully one that is open to the potential afforded by the music and our partner?

Dancers often try to develop by copying the style (which we can provisionally define as the sum of a dancer’s movements, musicality, improvisational skill, phrasing) of another, more experienced dancer, often a teacher or performer (frequently the same person). In traditional dance forms like ballet, specifically intended for performance, students are partly shaped by the constraints of an established tradition; in modern dance it is the vision of the company’s choreographer or founder (Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham) that provides focus. Tango, which originated as a musical form and then became a popular dance form, has developed freely and variously over the years. Through its popularization (and a healthy dose of marketing), it has bifurcated into social dancing and performance streams, amateur and professional. (Even within social tango, there are strong stylistic variants, often the subject of considerable debate.) Consequently, beginning dancers today are largely directionless and free to choose from a smorgasbord of teachers and classes that may or may not add up to “tango” as a social dance form.

Critically, what most of us lack are viable role models of social dancing. While we may follow the counsel of an instructor, that influence can be positive or negative. And outside of class, dancers often take their inspiration from performers. Exhibition tango is ubiquitous in North America, and many milongas depend on performances to maintain attendance. We also have access to a video archive of tango, which is extensive but historically shallow. A major shortcoming of this archive is that it is overrepresented by the most highly stylized examples of tango—almost none of it social dancing. A limited subset of such archival material might include (to choose some of the best known examples) names like El Cachafaz, Petroleo, Carlos Gavito, and Chicho Frumboli. Although this is a highly selective and not entirely representative list, these are recognizable names of individuals who are considered by many to be milestones in the history of tango. Unfortunately, although often revered as innovative dancers, they are outliers in the development of tango as a social dance (and, to some extent, even in terms of its performance aspects). We could say, to borrow a term from linguistics, that they are the most highly marked examples of the form.

We see these extremes reflected, in less polished fashion, in the miscellany of stylistic gestures and lack of consistency found on the floor of many modern milongas, which can comprise a blend of traditional tango estilo del centro and estilo del barrio, and tango nuevo and mixed styles of dance, with the resultant mayhem of floorcraft.

In the past things were different. Young men (and it was largely restricted to men), often teenagers, were assisted by experienced dancers at prácticas and learned to follow before they were taught to lead. Christine Denniston provides a useful summary of this history in an article entitled “The Traditional Way to Learn to Dance Tango.” According to Denniston, beginners could learn to follow in about nine months and were not taught to lead until they had done so. The entire process (following and leading) took a minimum of three years, at which point they were allowed, under strict supervision, to dance with a woman at a milonga. What this afforded young dancers was (at least potentially) a role model or a mentor, a personal guide who could introduce the neophyte into the ways and manners of the dance, not just individual steps or movements but its music, customs, and codes.

In this context, I’ll define a role model as someone whose dancing and behavior we strive to emulate. This person could be a friend, a teacher, or simply a dancer at a local milonga. Ideally, they are someone we can look to for guidance or assistance. In terms of the history Denniston describes, it’s easy to see how a young man, as a fledgling dancer, might find a role model through his interaction with more experienced dancers in his community.

A mentor is someone quite different. Here, the relationship is direct, personal, and relatively long-term, and is focused on the practical application or refinement of previously acquired knowledge. Mentoring is common in education and business, where an experienced person works with a student or protégé to help develop a set of tools that will benefit them in the real world. It is not designed to provide theoretical knowledge but to build upon that knowledge by helping the student develop the means to solve real-world problems: how to interact with clients, how to become more efficient, how to refine the skills they have, and so on.

In contemporary tango, social tango, we lack both functional role models and mentoring. Neither of these is quite the same as working with a teacher during a series of private lessons, which is primarily a business relationship. So how, then, do we learn to dance in a way that allows us to integrate the inherited knowledge of the tribe in some meaningful way, and how do we continue to deepen and refine that knowledge over time?

It’s been said that we learn by doing, so, presumably, we learn to dance by dancing—in other words, through practice and repetition. While accurate in its broader implications, this truism overlooks the fact that we begin (most of us) from zero and need to acquire a minimum set of skills before we even hit the dance floor (whether such a precept is universally followed is a matter of dispute). Once those basic skills are acquired, we can begin to dance and even improve. Once we acquire them—which begs the question of how we get them in the first place.

A further consideration, complicating the growth process, is the perceived need for constant improvement. Presumably, as in many things we do, we get better with experience and, as elsewhere in life and unless we are particularly obtuse, we are always learning to some degree. But the mania, the pressure, to upgrade our skills is largely promulgated by teachers, performers, and competition organizers. This has resulted in a kind of mini-industry within tango that supposedly will help us achieve some kind of mastery. Unfortunately, this is a never-ending process because not only is total mastery of our craft an impossibility but it is perpetuated by a system that has a vested interest in promoting its attainment.

Veronica Toumanova is a dancer and an astute observer of the social dynamics at play within tango. In an article entitled “Why tango dancers lose interest in improving their skill,” which, as its title suggests, examines why dancers give up on learning, she writes:

I see many dancers end up in a situation in which they want to dance with better dancers but do not manage to reduce the difference in skill. They don’t progress because they have lost the pleasure in learning, and they lost the pleasure in learning because they have stopped believing that they can get to a level of skill high enough to become desirable. They lost confidence in themselves as successful learners.

There is some truth to this, of course, in the sense that we can give up on learning through disappointment or failure. However, the assumption is that the better we are, the more skilled we become, the greater the number of our potential dance partners will be. We will become “desirable.” The problem is that this approach treats the learning process as largely instrumental. In other words, we do not learn because we enjoy the process, the acquisition of new knowledge or skills, but to increase our marketability on the dance floor. If we improve, we become a more desirable partner and those we want to dance with are more likely to want to dance with us. In reality, however, and with certain exceptions, it is less a question of skill than of compatibility. We dance most and best with those who want to dance with us. (Moreover, seeing someone dance doesn’t really tell you all that much about how they will dance with you, regardless of apparent skill level.) The complex matter of partnering has more to do with our approach to the dance, our attitude, if you will, and our ability to please our partner than it does with skill per se. It helps if skill levels are matched, but it isn’t essential that there be complete parity.

Toumanova believes that we stop improving because we lose the desire to continue learning. And this happens not because we believe there’s nothing more to learn but because we grow complacent about our abilities or disappointed in our progress. As our desirability quotient declines, we grow frustrated and lose faith in the need for improvement or even its possibility.

All of this—coupled with the inconsistency and narrow focus of the learning process, the lack of suitable role models, the absence of mentoring, the fact that learners are largely unguided, the presumed need for constant improvement—is compounded by the prevalence of the traveling show of performance and performers, with whom we are constantly encouraged to compare ourselves, even if implicitly. The result is a not-so-virtuous circle of perceived inadequacy, continuous study, and comparison with ideals that are not only impossible for most of us to achieve but not intended for the world of social dancing in the first place. Like the snake swallowing its tail, in the end, we consume ourselves as well as our desire.

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