An Interactive Pedagogy for Tango

I have wanted to post and further elaborate on a comment I wrote on the blog Tango High and Low. This blog should be taken as advertised, ie., the reflective diary of a learner, which can bring up some interesting points for discussion. He writes:

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. … 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. …

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.

This should give the flavor of the blog, ie., the typical attempts by an intermediate learner to try to make sense of it all, which is what a lot of these blogs amount to. You can feel the frustration, especially in the final sentence.

In education, especially my area of second or foreign language education, it is recognised that learning involves also learning to learn, ie., the ability to manage one’s own learning. Part of that includes learning to manage ones emotions, feelings and motivation, or broadly ‘affectivity’ in the learning process. Generally speaking, negative feeling or losing motivation is disastarous for learning and learners are deeply aware that their success or failure in the acquisition of a skill depends on keeping the spirits up and maintaining or increasing motivation levels.

This does not entail of course the sort of positive psychological approaches in which no one fails and everyone gets a trophy, because learners are also aware that lack of negative feedback is not a good thing, ie., that negative feedback is necessary if one is to make progress. Also, research consistently shows that if things are too easy and there is no challenge that is also bad for motivation. So being challenged and getting negative feedback about where one needs to improve is necessary for motivation and progress.

So in tango as in anything else role models provide a necessary way of providing or getting feedback, a point for comparison. The problem is to determing which role models are the right ones and the problem here is that the teachers fail in the task of providing appropriate role models. Now, this is a relative statement in which the key words are appropriate and fail. What is success or failure, appropriate or inappropriate depends on what your aims are.

And this is where I disagree with the idea that the progress is “arbitrarily defined by the instructor” in the above quote. Dancing teachers, and actually teachers in any other discipline, define their aims in terms of being able to effectively carry out a course of lessons. They do not generally define their aims in terms of so-called ‘outcomes’, and if they do this is little more than window dressing. This is because despite supposedly enormous advances in psychology and neuroscience no one, regardless of what you may have heard in the media, has figured out how learning actually happens or, more to the point, how to bring about learning.

Instead, what we have is the rule of thumb idea that learners are either required or want to learn X and that they have a set of beliefs about what the X subject consists in and that therefore it is best to teach what learners are expecting to learn. I was once a teaching assistant in a course which was advertised as “Informal Reasoning” which received an unexpected number of enrolments. I have never encountered a bigger number of disappointed students when they discovered by week 8 of the course that we’re not going much beyond boring Venn diagrams. Clearly, the majority of these students expected something else.

So teachers learn soon enough that it is best to provide what the students expect, and if the students eventually came to regret what they proverbially wished for, by that time the course is long gone and hopefully they have moved on and are too preoccupied to come back and take vengeance. This also tells us that people who become teachers are selected by the fact that they’re not so invested in the ultimate success of the students as to preclude them from teaching regardless whether the material is of use of not.

The working assumption in education is that the majority of the students will move onto something else, whereas those who persist will be so motivated as to ultimately figure it out for themselves. Some teachers try to provide some useful material that will aid on the path of those who are likely to pursue the interest, but actually it is so difficult to figure out who these students are, and the incentives for the teacher are so low that these teachers are relatively rare, and those who try to be ‘good teachers’ risk getting burned out.

So in the end, the truth of the matter is that while you might get something from some teachers you cannot rely on teachers for your learning and you need to take control of your learning yourself. But that does not mean that you don’t need role models, for you do, and this is where the difficulty arises, for learners by themselved get easily confused about what’s what. The problem is not lack of teachers but more a lack of reliable information. More to the point, the problem would not be teachers if learners could easily find reliable information on the internet. But they cannot, because the internet is littered with unreliable and confusing information, or information that is incomprehensible or just not useful from the point of view of learning. This is something that I am hoping to remedy.

Traditional and Non-traditional Methods of Teaching

The author of the blog writes:

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.

There are several issues being raised here and I cannot address all of them here. The attainment of expertise in any area requires that one gets started in some way and then is given some instructions as to what to practice and how to response. The problem is that if those instructions are of the wrong sort then the lack of progress and failure will lead to negative feeling and ultimately to collapse of motivation. It is then an issue of pedagogy as to what sort of instruction facilitates progress and promotes moving to the next level and increase in motivation.

Phenomenological philosophers (eg., Maurice Merleau-Ponty) tell us that we are always striving to get a grip on things, and the fact is that if we are unable to do so we lose confidence and quit. Below is my reply to the blog post in which I outline what I consider to be an effective pedagogy based on traditional methods and how it differs from contemporary ‘studio’ approaches to dance pedagogy.

An Interactive Pedagogy for Tango

It is true that there are old and tried methods, and also that pedagogy evolves. The problem is that an analysis of what learners need to learn in order to progress efficiently is typically lacking in favour of providing what will keep them entertained and coming to class: choreography and technique. There is an overemphasis on movement, style and patterns at the expense of understanding the pragmatics of social dancing. In particular, it is rarely recognised that unlike choreographed dancing, social dancing is interactive.

Recent analysis of the pragmatics of language has shown that spoken conversation is fundamentally different from composed language. Spoken conversation is two-way, interactive, synchronous, and has a simpler grammar. By contrast, composed language  is written or rehearsed, asynchronous, one-directional and has a more complex grammar. I think that’s a really good way to think about the problems with group lessons which rely heavily on drill and modelling by competent dancers of a rehearsed composed choreography. I think that the model-and-drill of rehearsed choreography is very much like the structured grammar of composed language.

Composed language has its advantages in that the grammar is more complex. However, in the context of language learning it can interfere with the development of interactive conversation skills which have pragmatic components that are absent in the composed language of the grammar or reading class. While choreography and practiced movement can lead to more complex, sophisticated, and enjoyable dancing, people who have no experience in the basic skills of social dancing end up unable to go beyond practicing choreography and technique. Therefore, I would suggest that it is important, from the start, to spend some time on practicing ‘conversation’.

This is the essence of the traditional tango pedagogy which we need to return to, that is, an interactive, synchronous, unchoreographed, immediate response to the music. When I say ‘unchoreographed’ I mean that the steps are minimal, say, walking and crossing. Having some interactive skills is essential to moving on to more complex tango ‘grammar’. Progressing on to more complex ‘patterns’ and ‘techniques’ is, however, complicated by tango demonstrations that supposedly provide a model, as it is not clear whether the choreography is applicable to social dancing, and typically it is not.

More complex dancing with ‘technique’, like more complex grammar, is generally good when it allows us to express a greater range of ideas or feelings, and as such requires ongoing improvement and study. However, the question is at what point does the dancing become merely ‘academico’ choreography or technique for its own sake, devoid of real feeling or meaning? I think everyone has, at some point, come across people whose conversation is really a sort of a lecture, ie., it’s not really a conversation. The product of most group dance lessons is this kind of weird non-interactive dancing.

I think that what needs to be communicated to the student is that the priority is interaction and communication of feeling, and technique should not be pursued for its own sake. But the reality is that most teachers are only ever really comfortable in the dancing studio and typically lack a way of teaching interactive dancing because they typically don’t practice it themselves, eg., they rarely if ever dance interactively with their students without focusing on technique or choreography. They don’t know how to teach through ‘pedagogical conversation’ because of the assumption that all teaching is the teaching of ‘grammar’, ie., choreography and technique. The question whether we should aim to be more skilled at complex dancing is a question of values, like the question whether reading literature is desirable. Generally speaking, the goal of teaching is getting better at something, so one can hardly blame teachers for promoting that. The problem, seems to me, is rather the bad ‘academico’ teaching that focuses on idealised, two-dimensional models.

Proposal: Pay Taxi Dancers, Not Teachers

An interactive pedagogy requires that you have someone interacting with you. Typically, learners practice with another student, but at some stage they discover that they want to dance with someone who is actually a competent dancer. This would typically require a ‘private lesson’. On this issue Bonnono writes:

Neither of these is quite the same as working with a teacher during a series of private lessons, which is primarily a business relationship.

I don’t see any problem with this being a business relationship, because I believe that if we want to have teachers basic principles of economics tell us that we need to provide incentives and that people ought to be rewarded for their effort. The problem is not that this is a business relationship but rather that learners do not know how to choose the teachers that provide what they feel would be value for money. In other words, the teachers who are rewarded and paid the most are not the ‘interactive’ teachers but rather the performers. So if people are uninformed and succumb to such obvious marketing techniques and fail to reward interactive teachers they have only themselves to blame.

975d34003eba38f391bff69ae132327eI think that to supplement the formal lessons there should be a market for taxi dancers, ie., people who are experienced dancers who are rewarded at a price acceptable to both parties for dancing with learners, or practicing with them at practicas. I saw something like this at a ballroom dancing studio in my city,  where paid partners were good dancers who ran through the moves. Also, there is a milonga in Manila, Philippines where all the men are taxi dancers. Interestingly I’ve never seen female taxi dancers, but I have seen a movie from the 1940s in which a woman was a taxi dancer (I think the first time I’ve been introduced to the concept).

This might be the only viable solution for learners in my view as I have found that it is almost impossible to find suitable practicing partners for learners and experienced dancers as well as teachers are usually unwilling to practice/dance (enough) with low level dancers, which leads to the demand for more classes, and I must agree with Bonnono that piling on more material without consolidating the basics through regular practice and dancing is actually a recipe for bad dancing and ultimately burnout, ie., loss of motivation.

I think advanced dancers feel that they are in effect providing practice to the learners who throw money at teachers, which leads the latter to use the former as practice horses for the newly acquired moves, and so on ad infinitum (or perhaps rather ad burnout). On the other hand, I believe that many tango teachers find that a lot of their time is spent being practice partners for their students, which eventually wears thin as it is not necessarily that enjoyable and can become a chore, and is not really covered by the lesson fee.

An economic exchange is a matter of the subjective value on the part of the buyer and the seller, and the problem is that those who purchase dance training do not factor in the cost of the practice, ie., the subjective value of providing practice on the part of the experienced dancer. So my suggestion is that if you are going to spend money on a workshop teaching, say adornments, perhaps a better investment of that money is to pay for a partner you think is a ‘good dancer’ to dance/practice with you.

Yes, this would be primarily a business relationship, but business is how things get provided and there is no reason why it should not be so utilised to deal with this problem. It would really be no different than paying a Spanish person to help you practice your Spanish conversation. If you care enough about is and find that it provides value then you will pay for it. Given how many times I hear or read about people trying to get dances and finding that it’s a Catch 22, ie., they need to be good to get dances but you need to dance to get good, I’d say that it should be seriously considered as an option.