Learning – where do we begin?

September 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

How do we learn? In some fields, we go to school, read, study, get tested, pass or fail. In sports or professional dance, if we have the requisite physical characteristics, we study with a teacher or coach, we practice, we perform. Then we practice some more, are criticized and hopefully corrected, refine our technique, learn new things, perform again, in a seemingly endless cycle of practice, performance, correction, and so on until we retire.

Professional dance, ballet in particular, has been refined and institutionalized over a period of a hundred or more years. The requisite characteristics of a good ballet dancer are well known (height, weight, strength, posture, whatever) and teaching methods well established. Dancers are trained from a young age and continue, well, seemingly forever. You don’t stop learning or practicing once you become a professional. You just do it more.

I’m sure many professional tango performers have begun this way, and many have obviously had modern dance or ballet training over and above what they’ve learned through tango. Modern tango professionals are, for the most part, in superb physical condition. And they are clearly gifted professional who have devoted their life to their art. Their primary focus is performance before a live audience and well-known dancers travel around the world performing at various venues. But, perhaps, the best known form of tango, and the only one many people have been exposed to, is the stage show. One of the best known of these and the one that is said to have launched a tango revival after its spectacular success is Tango Argentino, choreographed by Juan Carlos Copes and starring a cast of brilliant Argentinian dancers. During the 1990s (New York City, 1997-1998), Carlos Gavito, who had been a member of Copes’s dance company, appeared in a dramatic new production, Forever Tango, which helped launch his career as an international star.

The above Gavito video from Forever Tango is a prime example of a form of performance tango, perhaps somewhat extreme in that it was designed as part of a Broadway show and is intentionally dramatic. Gavito and his partner, Marcela Duran, were superb dancers and the video demonstrates their mastery of the form and its ability to portray deep emotion when used in this way.

However, this is not tango as I understand it. That is to say, it is not “traditional tango,” or tango salon, or social tango, or the tango danced in dance halls, whatever name is given to it. I can’t speak as a historian of dance but from everything I’ve read, the development of performance tango is fairly recent and world’s away from its origins and practice by amateurs (even the most gifted or the most skillful). I bring this up because when we begin to learn a craft or a form of physical expression, it’s important, critical even, to know what we are learning and how we intend to use those skills. In other social dance forms such as ballroom dancing there are fairly well-established mechanisms for learning, which have been developed over years of teaching. Those who intend to become professional ballroom dancers will, of course, need more than a few months of lessons in the fox trot or waltz, but the pathways are well established.

This other, non-performance, idea of tango, the one I understand and can relate to looks something like this:

I’m not sure where this was shot in Buenos Aires, but it appears to be an ordinary late afternoon milonga. The dancing may not be of the highest level but in its simplicity and lack of pretension, it is closer to the origins of tango and the way most people dance today.

Unlike other dance forms, in tango the pathway to learning is not so clear cut. There are many places to study and to practice, but almost all teaching, aside from the most basic elements, develops according to the discretion of the teacher, the ability of the students, and maybe the popularity of certain figures. Training is based largely on what the teacher knows and feels is important. The systematization and institutionalization found in other disciplines is absent in tango. This is a problem for the student, of course, who begins in ignorance and is largely at the mercy of his teachers (although it can also make for a wonderfully diverse and idiosyncratic learning experience). There is, in my brief experience, little or no consensus as to what might be needed to dance tango, other than some basic physical ability, or how one should best go about acquiring the necessary skills, or even what those skills are. Each of us is left to find our own way. This is not as bad as it might seem, however, for it forces the serious student to seek out teachers or mentors who can develop whatever innate talent he or she might have. It requires that they be self-disciplined and studious, and take their craft seriously. Whether this makes them good dancers or not, I don’t know. That question can’t be answered adequately until we determine what a good dancer is. And that is a very unsettled issue, which seems to boil down to personal opinion, taste, and popularity.

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