Naturalness in tango dancing

“I’m a natural dancer.” Tango teacher

My very first tango teacher was an Argentinian who was an above average dancer. In addition to teaching he did performances in restaurants and singles events. He taught in the standard way for the time: paso basico, cross, ochos, ganchos, high boleos. When a new teacher appeared on the local scene my teacher was not looking too happy. The other guy was not Argentinian. My teacher said that the other guy is academico whereas he himself is a natural dancer. I wondered whether learning from a ‘natural dancer’ means that I will be a natural dancer as well, or whether having taken dancing lessons I am destined to be ‘academico’. I guessed that being a ‘natural’ dancer means that you learn not through classes but just by dancing at milongas. The only thing that gave me hope was that the academico teacher gave long lectures while we stood listening, whereas my Argentinian teacher was more hands on, demonstrated the steps, shoved us around, but there was little verbal explanation, probably because of his limited command of English.

This illustrates some of the issues and contradictions that seem inherent in teaching and learning tango. Structured tango lessons seem to produce clunky sort of dancing with little fluency or connection to the music or between the partners. Learners seem to be forever stuck rehearsing the routines that they learned in class. On the other hand many good dancers claim that they have not taken formal dancing lessons and insist that you can’t learn to dance tango well in that way. Some insist that you learn tango by simply dancing preferably at milongas in Buenos Aires. This of course leads to the chicken-and-egg problem: you cannot start dancing tango until you have learned some, but you cannot learn to dance tango until you are already dancing. It raises the conundrum of how you get started in tango without falling into some academico trap and turn into a clunky tango robot.

I reflected on this problem over a number of years, seeing the perspectives of both sides, the advocates of structured learning as well as those who reject dancing lessons. One solution could be that this sort of is normal in all learning. For example, when you learn a language you start out taking lessons but then you need to go out into the world and actually interact in that language to gain fluency. Structured learning is necessary at the beginning, but eventually requires going out and getting real-world practical know how.

The situation in tango, however, seems to be different because people who take tango lessons seem to have trouble transitioning from what they learned in class to a more fluent and ‘natural’ dancing style, so that you can usually see this big difference between Argentinian dancers and those who learned in a dancing class outside of Argentina, and this is a source of the mystique and the idea that you can really only learn to dance tango in Buenos Aires. What you will find, however, is that the teachers in Buenos Aires teach in pretty much the same way as teachers anywhere, namely, using the demonstrate-and-drill approach with large walking steps, patterns and figures.

Now, we distinguish between broadly two ways of learning something. Most practical skills are picked up, whereas others are learned through some sort of systematic training. Picking something up, for example, picking up a language or a dance while traveling, is generally considered the ‘natural’ way of learning. Systematic training is viewed as the opposite of that, and hence as not natural, and is often viewed as producing knowledge that is merely academic but often inadequate to practical demands in the real world.

It is pretty clear that in the end one can only learn to dance at a milonga through practical experience. It is less clear that having someone completely clueless about the codes and rituals of the milonga decide to attent and to figure everything out through trial-and-error is a good idea. Surely there is room for some form of systematic instruction to prepare the student. But when people talk about learning to dance tango naturally, as my Argentinian teacher did, I think that they do not mean merely that the process of learning was more natural but rather that the result of that process, the dancing, is more natural. I think that the basic idea underlying this is that the dancing learned in a studio class where one rehearses some set routines inevitably leads to unnatural and hence inferior movement that is never going to be as good, ie., look or feel as aesthetically pleasing and fluent as the dancing of the ‘natural dancers’. Academic learning, the argument is, kills naturalness in dancing and invariably results in dancing which is clunky, robotic and lacking in fluency or grace.

This is interesting because in another corner of the world of dancing and movement there is an area called variously somatics, improvisation or movement awareness which includes practices such as the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and Contact Improvisation, where in relatively structured sessions participants learn or rediscover naturalness in posture and movement. The idea here is that what is normal and has been picked up through practical day-to-day living is not necessarily thereby natural and that we actually need to engage in some systematic practice, typically a guided exploration of some sort, to regain naturalness. How is that possible?

The basic reasoning behind the somatic approach to movement was developed by F.M. Alexander who was an Australian and whose occupation was to recite Shakespeare. At some stage Alexander experienced difficulties with his voice and upon lengthy investigation he came to the conclusion that the cause of the problems was due to the way he was habitually using his voice. Alexander argued that when we are focused on a goal we tend to do what he calls end-gaining, that is, we we tend to rush and perform actions with excess effort and tension. This leads to poor posture and a inefficient use of the body. Alexander proposed that we need to focus less on the goal and focus some attention on the means-whereby, that is, the body mechanisms required to perform an action with efficiency and grace.

According to this scheme the normal habits and use of the body that are picked up are not necessarily ‘natural’ in the sense that they are not necessarily optimal given the evolutionary design of the body. Often our lifestyle leads to poor habits such as poor posture and excess muscular tension that over time becomes fixed in habitual patterns of movement. These come to feel normal and in that sense ‘natural’ but actually wear us out and make things more difficult than they should be. Mindful practice of certain movements such as those in the Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais Method can help us to rediscover our natural movement—natural in the sense that it is efficient and optimal given the evolutionary design of the body.

For example, Alexander discovered that most people tend to shorten the neck and that the proper head-neck relation (a ‘long’ neck) is essential to how we use the spine and our overall movement efficiency. Doing exercises that release tension in that area and consciously registering the feeling of an optimal head-neck relation then carries over to a more efficient and in that sense more natural movement patterns in other tasks such as walking, daily activities or dancing.

Here we can see that naturalness is not defined in terms of something that is picked up through practical experience as distinct from academic learning but in terms of efficiency of movement that is in accordance with our biology, that is, how the human neuromuscular system has been designed through millions of years of evolution. Because our practical experience nowadays is not the same as it has been throughout our evolution we develop inefficient movement patterns or habits, eg., nowadays we are spending a lot of time sitting and looking at a computer or a smartphone screen. In that case, naturalness in the evolutionary sense requires us to undergo some systematic training that allows us to bring awareness to the body systems (the means-whereby) so that we learn (or re-learn) to move in a way that does not excessively strain the body, create excess tension, and is thus efficient, graceful and pleasant.

We can see that from the point of view somatic practices and evolutionary biology both academico and natural dancing can be either efficient or inefficient. Nonetheless, it may be argued that academico type instruction may be more likely to lead to inefficient movement for the following reason: studio teaching involves the rehearsal of steps that require focus on taking large steps and decorative movements with the legs. Students need to focus on where their feet are going and this usually requires visual feedback. If you keep your head up and stand completely erect, looking ahead, you will find that you have a blindspot on the floor. In my case, being quite tall, I estimate that the radius of the blindspot is about one metre. Floating my head on top of my spine and being completely erect I simply cannot see my own feet or those of my partner. Given that a typical tango lesson teaches rather large steps and the embrace is usually rather open, there is a high probability of colliding with your partner and generally without visual feedback you can’t see where your partner’s feet are. This invariably results in an overwhelming tendency to look downward toward the floor and you can this that this is almost universal in dancers who learn patterns in studio classes, ie., academico dancers.

By contrast, those who have learned tango informally often adopt a closer embrace and adjust their steps to the demands of the embrace. Informal learning usually does not focus on walking with large steps or rehearsal of predetermined patterns but usually starts out with walking and simple turns. Where an academico dancer will use an artificial standard of the class choreography, the informal dancer is more likely to adapt the level of dancing to what they can lead/follow and respond more to the feedback from the partner. It will be a more restrained or minimalist approach to dancing. There will probably be a longer period of taking baby steps that allows the development awareness of the connection with the partner without looking downwards. Also, when the situation becomes uncertain (eg., less feedback) there will be more pull back by reducing the movement, more physical/somatic listening rather than falling visual feedback which you commonly see in academico dancers. So their dancing is more likely to be ‘natural’ in the second sense discussed above, namely, it is more likely to be connected, efficient and graceful. Because dancers who learn informally also move more efficiently, these two issues are conflated so that informal learning is identified with efficient movement.

Even those who take lessons in Buenos Aires, which is currently becoming more common, have a certain advantage over those who take lessons in other parts of the world. The difference is that in Buenos Aires the milongas tend to be more packed and dancing in a loud and intrusive way that gets in other people’s way, or even risks it, attracts stern stares. This seems to be a learning experience that switches novices from merely rehearsing their patterns and to try dancing with greater awareness and efficiency. On the other hand, the majority of milongas outside of Argentina are more accurately viewed as practilongas which the local teachers adapt to the weaknesses of their students rather than trying to push the students to improve. So what we typically find is that the music and space are adapted to the need of students rehearsing the patterns acquired in the lessons, and the students tolerate each other’s poor floor navigation skills so that this becomes a self-reinforcing norm of a globalised tango.

But once we recognise that informal learning and efficient dancing are distinct and separable issues we can now see that it may be possible to devise a systematic approach to teaching/learning. The key is to eliminate from the syllabus the practice of walking with elongated steps, rehearsing fixed patterns, and the model-and-drill approach to training. On the other hand, we want to teach a more natural, ie., more efficient, movement and awareness which will eliminate the need for the sort of trial-and-error characteristic of informal learning. Exercises that develop greater awareness of efficient movement, somatic listening for feedback from the partner, and prevent the learner from making large movements that interfere with the embrace can make the learning process more direct while at the same time promoting a more efficient and natural movement. Such an approach to study should emphasise the awareness of head-neck relation, efficiency of movement, efficiency in use of dancing space, and a tight connection to partner and music.