Friday, July 22, 2011

The Unbalanced Tango Faculty

The Tripod of Tango: Skill/Social Value/Originality

I realized something about tango during a conversation about tango and art.

Alex, a painter and graphic artist friend of mine, told me about his experience in a prestigious school of art in California.  He had a great instructor, who pointed out three schools of thought that pervade at most large schools of art.  His mentor told him to look for three types of teachers who have their special focus:

1.  The Obsession for Skill as an artist.

2. The Obsession for Originality as an artist, to do things others have not done before.

3. The Obsession for Social Meaning -- to create art that speaks to the larger human condition.

This same teacher, however, pointed out that no matter which school of thought you followed, the artist will die poor if he or she does not create something aesthetic that others can understand.  Skill, originality and a social meaning have no value if people cannot understand it or are not drawn to the artist's intended message.

Skill by itself has no soul.  Originality can be simply weird or too visionary for it to be appreciated.  Social meaning can be a preaching stump for some "enlightenment" that will only embarrass the same artist in 20 years.

Imagine now if we look at tango as it is taught and practiced today throughout the world.  We hear so much in classes about our stances and balance.  So, one might think that tango, as an improvisational dance with intricate balance issues and changing of individual and shared axies that tango itself would be taught in a balanced way. But it is not.

One might think tango as a socially rich dance with an intricate social etiquette, that it would be taught with a balance of technical skill, social sophistication and a keen eye for original expression that values the larger social picture. But it is not.

One might think that tango as a remarkably original art form as we see at the highest levels of the performing arts (unlike in ballroom dance which looks more and more the same at the highest levels) -- that TANGO of all art forms would look like a tripod, a very balanced structure of Originality/Skill/Social Value.  But it is not.

At the University of World Art: 
The school of tango's faculty is unbalanced 

Our schools of the Art of Tango are very lopsided.  The majority of our teachers in tango are following the Obsession for Skill path. 

This is the sad state of affairs for tango.  Imagine if a school of jazz -- perhaps the most improvisational music since baroque -- just worked on skill, intonation and theory!  Imagine if sociologists, community activists and social rights organizers were mostly interested how well their plans could be implemented rather than how many lives were positively impacted!  Imagine if the school of Arts & Sciences at any university had no faculty member interested in the principles of exactitude and technique to add to the social impact and original expression of the arts? 

The School of the Art of Tango has an overwhelming faculty obsessed with Skill & Techniques.  The head librarian has all the steps ever created all neatly cataloged.  Sure, the teachers may be very balanced as dancers with originality.  In fact they may be sought out as performance dancers because of their originality and musicality as their most salient strength.   They may love their work for the social connections and the social meaning of human connection between dancers.   However, they do not help their students with floorcraft or community building.  Instead, they teach steps they most like or what their students want to copy.  They teach without pairing it with a particular piece of music that spawned it.  The Skill & Techniques Faculty may dance well in close embrace, especially when dancing just for fun, but they teach open embrace because social connection is secondary to opening up and showing one's skill with sacadas, ganchos, vocadas, colgadas and boleos.  Skill is what the vast majority of teachers hammer.  You will NOT get good grades in the School of Skill & Techniques if you dance musically while in close embrace.  No cool scadas, colgadas, volcadas?  You'll get a C and not be allowed to perform with the top students upon graduation.

Practice what you preach
Okay.  I too am an unbalanced teacher.  I admit it.  My ability as a teacher is only to get people to walk, to listen each other's souls and the music.  I am a very lopsided teacher.  My methods are only focused on connection because I use tango as trauma therapy.  An amazing thing happens, however, in therapy.  People learn to dance well and fast.  Their musicality is outstanding.  But my focus is all about the social aspect first.  That is my bias, my own obsession as a non-tenured teacher in a small, windowless room at the School of Tango.  At my closet-sized office, I have over my door my own "tripod" of balance.  Although I do believe in the balance of Skill, Originality and Social Value, my little sign reads:  "The heart.  The soul.  The connection of two."  Yet, doesn't this sound rather primal too?  To me it sounds like what tango was and not what it has become.  It sounds like a Buenos Aires with no dance studios and tourists. 

The world of tango teaching is not all bad out there.  Tango is resilient.  Often the people who once just loved Tango Nuevo with a strong electric bass and drums and were "step collectors" magically fall in love with the classics, the social embrace and the simplicity a musically inspired tango walk.  Also, teachers of social tango abound who know about the art of balance.  You must find them (or be one yourself).  Excellent skill-focused teachers respond to their students too; so tell your teacher that you want to develop your own expression of tango; tell your teacher you want to develop a way of dancing that will connect you socially to people for the rest of your life.  I have had had some great teachers who taught from the heart and practiced a balance of social value/skill/originality.  Without them as my guides, I would not enjoy tango as much as I do.

While out on a search for your teacher, look for balance.  Balance looks like a tripod.

Post a Comment:  If you cannot post easily to this blog, please send a comment to  I have had email from readers who have said their comment "disappears" after they send it.  So please copy your comment before sending it forward!  I'd love to hear from you.

Photo Credit, and to see the artist's work go to:


  1. You know Mark, it seems to me that in the early stage of learning tango, one wants to learn 'moves' because that is what they can see. They can watch dancing and say 'that is what I want to do', not even yet having a clue as to the depth of the experience. Until they have gotten a little more deeply involved with the dance, the culture and the social aspect, they do not realize the importance of the other two.

  2. Christine: I agree fully with your statement. I think we would both agree that it is not as you said, that "one wants to learn moves" but rather that new dancers in euro-centric cultures -- that THEY want to learn moves. This is a social research question, I suppose. I am only guessing. But I know a Colombian woman who said she always loved tango music, so in her 50's she finally got the chance to dance it. For her it expressed the human warmth and the beauty of the music first and not the way it looks on the dance floor. I think we both agree that an imbalance is not easily rectified because the music and the culture of tango are both foreign to most of us.

  3. Great post Mark, it reminds me of the saying "El Tango te espera", tango waits, it is patient, it loves us no matter what, and that is comforting.
    Missing you in Austin, somehow, you were part of the whole scene, the community which is as much tango as everything else.

  4. Dieudonne... I appreciate the kind words of still being member emeritus of the Austin Tango Community. I cannot complain about my new tango home in DC, but I cannot imagine a more wonderful tango community than Austin is.

    I think your summary of my post recapped very well. Forgive my many words to say what you said in so few. :-)


Please leave a comment with four options:
(1) Here on the blog.
(2 & 3) On the links given above for Facebook/Google+ links.
(4) Comment via email at, which with your permission, I can paste into comments.