Sunday, May 24, 2015

No one can teach you to dance

No one can teach you what you already know.  Others can help you develop and uncover and nurture what you already know, but I believe that this is different than "teaching." Teachers do both: Teach and uncover. The best teachers know where uncovering starts and ends. They look for "talent" (latent abilities) rather than mostly focusing on every little error that a person may make.

So it is with dance.  If "dancing" means "to respond bodily to music." No one can teach you to dance because you already were born with that hardwired to your humanity.  The same is true of being the speaking animal.  No one has truly "taught" you to speak--to communicate your feeling and desires. You were born to dance and speak as a human animal. It is too late to teach children to speak or dance at grammar school.  They already can without the "benefit" of education.  Those who are the best teacher-guides know (or at least intuit) that their role is to co-discover (the external world) and co-uncover (the internal world) of these primary human talents of dance and speech.

Was your first school a learn-to-speak school or a "grammar school?"  Syntactic structures and vocabulary are important, but your language-rich environment had already uncovered the language-animal you naturally are.  50 monkeys in the same language-rich environment will not pick up English.  So it is with your tangrammer school.  Too late!  You already knew how to dance as a Homosapien child.  Start with latent ability, and it will change the method from "teaching" to discovering and uncovering the internal talents of the student.

Even the best teachers unwittingly hinder to some degree their disciples' learning process.  Certain teaching methods that aid one student may hinder another. This is why the wise teacher-guide will attempt to co-discover and co-uncover with you.  The great teacher actually learns more in a didactic interaction than you do, just as a parent can learn more while reading a book to a 5-year old than the child!  All great teachers appear to learn more than their students if they are interacting with each other.  This is a hallmark of a great teacher--one who learns more than the student in every interaction.  The poet Mark Van Doren, a legendary professor at Columbia University, said,

"The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery."

Try this:  Put on music and watch the infant or small child move!  Now, go home and in private, put on the music and let your inner child move. Even as the youngest homo sapiens, infants are somatically responding to music stimuli shortly after birth.  Other animals on our planet do not respond in this way.  What a shame we down-play this important central fact of our humanity as we grow older and at times claim to have grown "two left feet."

The Role of the "Teacher"
So if we uncover rather than teach certain things like speech, dance and higher function reasoning, then what is the teacher's role?  Mentor and guide!  Well, how about uncovering unique talents in the student!

But mostly be in awe and . . .

Get the hell out of the way!

My recommendation for teachers is that they aid the process of discovering (externalized and modeled behavior) and aid in uncovering internal, unique musical responses from the student's body. If the body is breathing, but the person does not have a pulse, what do we do?  Revive!  So it is with a body which is breathing but not responding to music.  CPR.  Put on some music:  Canaro-Pugliese Resuscitation!

Learning to Uncover what already is there
I have raised two sons to be bilingual. For a good part of their language learning at first, I was their only source of English.  There was no English on television, and we had no neighborhood kids who spoke English. Just me.  Although they are now fluent in English, I can tell you that I did not teach them English. For that matter, nor did I create in them the desire to breathe, to satisfy hunger or to quench thirst. They were born with these innate abilities. I exposed them to English.  I exposed them to music and dance.  I also sent them to grammar schools, music and dance schools, but that did not make them the unique animals-who-speak-make-music-and-dance. No school gave my youngest perfect pitch.  All these things are not taught but uncovered and guided.

Go to school
Just because you have natural talents does not mean that you do not need to go to school.  But now that you are an adult, chose well which tangrammar school you will attend.  Find an artful tango grammar teacher. Cherish the forms that you are learning and the syntax of how these graceful
movements describe the language of tango at your tangrammar school.

But learn dance?

That is up to you and your co-discoverers and co-uncoverers to learn together within the language of tango. It is up to you to let the music in and transform even the way you think and feel and move.

If you have found a great tangrammar teacher, then you have found something rare and precious. A great teacher knows that you, the student, are the precious paint and palette of their artform.  

Photo credit: "Old Fashioned School Room" by Robert Weissberg


  1. Cool to see it just days after Veronika also published an essay on inborn musicality, amusicality, and the ways to develop dance musicality in classes.

    I tend to agree with her that profound amusicality exists and can be ameliorated by teaching. It's just more rare to observe among the dancers because too few of the musically challenged people stick around. I am one of those people, who don't ever recall moving to music as children, but who do remember actively disliking most music for most of their lives :)

  2. The first difficulty with the proposal for teacherless learning is that while children learn to speak unaided by teachers other than their parents, siblings, other family members, peers and in fact anyone in their environment, you correctly identify that that happens at a much earlier age and often 20-40 years earlier than most people decide they want to learn to dance. Secondly, the teacherless method is slower and less effective. Why don't we all learn to drive by just getting in a car and doing what comes naturally? Thirdly, the result of teacherless learning or learning by disengaging with teachers is painfully obvious. If you want to move around doing whatever comes naturally to music, that's fine. However, to engage with others in a more formal, stylised, communicative dance involving many people, I am not persuaded how your proposal has any more chance of working than an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters have of producing the works of Shakespeare. I am not a 'natural" dancer but was taught the vocabulary and technique to enable and allow the personal and individual expression that I now use in my dancing.

  3. Paul, I see that I have failed to express myself well by your comments... or perhaps read it again?? I have no idea what you mean "teacherless learning." Perhaps, I can point out a few things that I did say that indicates that teachers are necessary for mastery and further uncovering latent talent. I said, " Teachers . . . teach and uncover. The best teachers know where uncovering starts and ends. They look for "talent" (latent abilities) rather than mostly focusing on every little error that a person may make." Find a good teacher, Paul. It seems you have.

    Where is the "teacherless learning" in this statement: "Those who are the best teacher-guides know (or at least intuit) that their role is to co-discover (the external world) and co-uncover (the internal world) of these primary human talents of dance and speech."

    You may have noticed that I quoted Mark Van Doren: "The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery." There is a teacher in the room.

    I have a special end section just for your concerns. It is "GO TO SCHOOL" and the first line is, "Just because you have natural talents does not mean that you do not need to go to school."

    There must have been a psychological button that I pushed for you have to so missed the points so often repeated in my post. I think I know what caused this cognitive distortion from your words above: "I am not a 'natural' dancer." Maybe you are more than you know! Many people believe that schooling can change things that are not there. They cannot. (Now, this is where an infinite of monkeys with typewriters comes in). If there were no natural talent, you'd be a monkey or some other animal.

    I cannot know, but I think that your efforts with teachers are only partly responsible for your learning to truly dance. I think it was some kind women who embraced you and helped you return to the talents that were always there. Sure, it came a bit late, but it is the same process of a little kid, growing up in Cuba and learning to dance because it is all around him and so many moments were magical. When you watch him dance, perhaps you'd say he was a natural. Not really. He never left the child-who-dances as so many do in the US and England. Also, he had a great salsa teacher and a Latina girlfriend who loved to dance. What is "natural"? What is taught? That is what my blog post was about. May I suggest a very short post which may make things a lot clearer than my prose?

  4. MOCKBA... hey thanks for sharing that article. Interesting that we wrote on this subject at about the same time. She does not answer my friend request. I know that there are limited amounts of friends one can have; so perhaps that is the case. (Maybe put a good word in for me to her?) :-)

    I cannot know what your early childhood experiences are, but my belief is that event happen that make us dislike certain things. Unfortunately, you cannot know what many of your very early experiences are either. Emerging research is showing that the nature / nurture argument should be turned into "compromise." There's a good balance of both. Why are you dancing now? Somehow you are getting back to the little homosapien animal, I believe, who just is a dancing crazy guy! :-)

  5. Mark, I don't know Veronica personally, not even from the online discussions, I just respect her as a thoughtful and passionate writer about tango, both on fb and off. But her essays are wide open to every reader, not just for her circle of friends.

    Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised if "dancing crazy" was our ancestor's biological norm :) Archaeology is largely powerless to resolve it, but perhaps paleogenetics might eventually shed light on the evolution of human abilities eons back. But as it with every cognitive and behavioral norm, it runs a spectrum of the degrees in the human population. Some may be innately super-endowed and some are barely capable or outright disabled. But the human mind is very flexible and can rebuilt lacking skills from the unusual materials. Even stroke victims come back together despite the brain damage. The two essays on tango learning discuss autistic children harnessing other abilities of their brains to grasp what they innately lacked.

    Research does show that several percent of the human beings are profoundly amusical. The core features of amusicality have to do with the poor ability to hear, reproduce, or appreciate tonal harmony. Amusical people generally prefer text or image to music in all contexts. But they still possess some abilities in the related spheres - they may have some skills in understanding rhythms, emotions, and textures of the music, they just usually don't develop these innate abilities because they, doh, don't enjoy music, and prefer to banish music from their personal worlds altogether.

    To start dancing tango musically, I had to harness my deep sense of the written word of poetry - rhythm and rhyme, alliteration and texture, pause and contratiempo are all there in the lines of text. To segway into purely instrumental pieces was a bit harder, also to get a good grasp of overlayed layers of rhythms and melodies since poetry tends to be monophonic ... but after a while I got it covered too. I have pretty good memories for verses, could recite thousands at any given moment, and now I found a use for the same skillset to remember tangos, which makes my job as a tango DJ so much easier. But I still barely tolerate any music to which I can't dance tango :)

  6. Wonderfully written. Love the article.


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.