Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Your Surrogate Tango Parent

"I am taking my tango money and going to a new
 teacher who teaches  candy moves and Barbie Doll ornementos!"
What would it be like if parents earned their money from their children?  "Mom, I think you are being too stern.  I am taking my money and I am going to live with Dad.  I like the elementary school near his apartment better anyway." 

Tango students are sometimes like children with money. And who are their poor "parents"?

Tango instructors:  their surrogate tango parents.

Even in the real world of true parenting, children very effectively modify the behavior of their parents. Often we think it is the other way around.  Sure, parents mold their children in many ways, but from the first cry for food and for the rest of their lives, children transform and teach and mold parents.

Tango students are like children in this way.  We students mold them more than they us in many ways.  Sadly, I would say that too much tango teaching has been molded by "naughty children" who have had too much power.  And of course, "power" here means "money."  If teachers don't do what their naughty children demand, they will go off to live with their stepfather or stepmother -- some other surrogate tango parent.  They'll take their business elsewhere.

However, the best real parents do not let the children take over or compromise the best path for their children.  The path of a good tango teacher is very much the same:  Insisting on teaching well takes a lot of guts and a sense of what tango really means to them.  Of course, if tango means "show time on the social dance floor," that opens a whole new topic, because now we have naughty tango parents teaching naughty children.  For the moment let's just say that  your teacher wants you to enjoy tango for its social, psychological, musical and yes, even spiritual dimensions.  That tango "parent" is worth of the 5th Tango Commandment:  "Honor thy tango parent that thy days may be long."

At some point we students must grow up, and change the all-too prevalent of naughty-tango-children syndrome.  This is also known as adult learning.  Our relationship will be dual -- teachers teaching us, and we will teach our teachers, but hopefully it will be a functional dynamic, as with any human relationship.  It looks like this:

The Larger Classroom
Teachers are influenced by not just one individual.  Their first individual or group class begins the process.  They learn the most from students who do not understand what the teacher thought would be easy.  If no one  in the class understands the teacher, then the teacher can be exasperated, but also the teacher will learn a lot from this humbling moment.  When I taught fourth-graders in Mexico, I threw out any test that no one did well on.  My test was failure, not the children.  It can be very humbling to be a teacher, and so it is with tango teaching.

As adult learners, let's reverse the way we look at teachers -- just for the moment if nothing else.  I have used and suggest these reversals:

1.  Have a lesson plan for the teacher:  For a private lesson, the practical thing for a student to do is to prepare for the lesson well.  How will you teach your teacher today?  Know what you want them to teach you.  Most students allow their teacher to tell them what they are going to learn and are not active, adult learners.  At best you have practiced what they have given you or bring some new idea.  At worst you insist on some direction that you are not developmentally ready for.  Here's an example:  The student says, "I want to learn how to do a wild-ass volcada."  The teacher says, "You need to learn to walk to the music!"  The teacher is now teaching you and you are no longer in charge because you didn't prepare or did not really understand your level.   Adult students should know that one learns to walk before one runs.  If your teacher has been taught to obey naughty surrogate children with too much money, they just might teach you that volcada and it will take many lessons because you were not ready for it in the first place.  How much did that cool volcada cost you?  $500?  And you still cannot walk that well.

Another reversal from believing you are now intermediate or advanced:

2.  Expect to stay a beginner:  The "beginner's mind" is an attitude of learning.  Once you think you are "advanced," no teacher can help you.  A wise teacher cannot fill "the cup that is already filled."

Here's the reversal of learning new steps:

3.  Add to your teacher's knowledge of steps:  Once you have really learned the basics, show your teacher some step that she has never seen before.  This is definitely a reversal of common wisdom -- showing your teacher some new cool step!  However, there are a million cool steps out on DVDs and YouTube.  Figure out some step that appeals to you.  A good teacher will fix it or tell you that you are not ready for it.  The BEST teachers might say.  "When will you actually dance that?  Are you planning on dancing on television or is this just to injure or kill people you don't like at a social milonga?"  If you are truly ready to drive the car responsibly, your surrogate tango parents will give you the keys.

4.   Go back to the basics over and over.  I suggest filming yourself.  Ask yourself:  "Why am I still bouncing around on the dance floor like  prom night at a special middle school for children with ADHD?"  Your teacher will help you with this (without medication, I hope).  Here are some more questions you might pose to a good teacher:   "I notice that my dancing has nothing to do with the music."   Dancing musically will be the work of a lifetime; so your tango coach/teacher has a lot of work to do.
Teachers need your help.  They need to stay on track.  So be a good student and prepare for your class on teaching them.  Remind them about how you need to learn to walk; how your evening is ruined by not knowing more about floorcraft; how you have a new step for them to clean up for you; that a video of yourself shows you are doing many things that look awkward."

The joke about the three stages of many tango students are:
  • Beginner

  • Intermediate

  • Tango Teacher.

If you start realizing the pain you have put your surrogate tango parent through, you won't want to start having children of your own at an "early [tango] age." 

The next time you see your surrogate tango parent, say:  "Thanks Mom!"  or "Thanks, Dad."  You might be surprised that they understand what you mean.  They may love you, even if you have been at times a naughty child. 

Photocredit:  Child with money


  1. What a great post!

    I'd like to add that I've been at some seminars in BA where the focus was entirely on the basics and we spent at least half our time just walking. And those particular seminars had a high proportion of professional tango dancers/teachers among the participants.

    Dancing figures is not that hard, if you have the basics right. The real challenges in tango are, for me at least, walking well in close embrace; performing turning movements smoothly and in a dissociated way and interpreting the music meaningfully. If you can do those three things, you will find complicated steps easy. If you can't, everything else will look crappy anyway. The more advanced dancers are often the most critical of the basics, because they realise just how many nuances they contain.

  2. You're right that the seminars I'm referring to were run by very famous teachers.

    Personally, I tend not to teach figures if I'm teaching on my own, simply because I have a crappy memory for them and can never remember them anyway. So I am forced to focus on the basis and on elements.

    It can be a different story when I'm teaching with a partner, though, as they may have other ideas.

  3. Hi Τερψιχόρη... I am glad I have pleased the Muse. Nearly every time I take some time just to walk by myself or with my partner, I learn something new. And I always say to myself, "How did I not see that before." Just yesterday this happened again, and the walking idea led to better understanding the woman's sacada to me in her ocho adelante. As it now stands, much of what is taught in many classes has nothing to do with the developmental level of the class because "money talks." Only a few really respected teachers can get away with what you have just described. I wish it were different. I have been naughty too. Sometimes very naughty. :-)


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