Saturday, 5 April 2008

Dragging you down and wasting your money

Argentine tango is a rather difficult dance to learn, though very satisfying, and if you want to get good at it you have to be quite proactive and intelligent about your learning. You have to be realistic, and solve the problems you encounter one at a time. For example, if you are seriously pursuing actual competence as a leader or follower, there are some things that you give a high priority. They include being able to balance and rotate on one foot with your feet together, and being able to point your shoulders at least moderately in a different direction from your hips. If you are a leader they also include following occasionally; and if it bothers you to dance with another man, well, giving in to that will make you significantly less competent than you would otherwise be. Tough. Either get over that little bit of superstitious dread, or sacrifice competence to it. Your choice. You also have to deal calmly and sensibly with not getting it quite right first time.

Group classes are very good for learning a social dance because you dance with lots of different people and you have to adapt. But perhaps the most pervasive annoyance when you are learning in groups is people who can't do the things it's necessary to be able to do in order to benefit from the content of the class. The teacher can do one of two things; ignore them and let them struggle and prevent their dancing partners getting anything out of the class, or adjust the class level to the least competent person there. That drags everyone down and wastes the time and money of all the students in the class who are genuinely trying to manage their own learning intelligently.

And it is the followers who suffer most. Generally I go to every class with some idea in mind of an aspect of technique that I am going to pay attention to regardless of the specific content of the class. I may seek feedback on it or I may not; generally I'll just give it mental attention in executing whatever comes up. If something does come up in the class that's new or challenging or interesting, then I'll drop my plan and seek feedback and help, and put whatever it is on my list to work on. But I never assume that I will get the opportunity to work on the actual advertised content of the class - even if that includes anything at all directed at the followers.

Please understand that inexperience doesn't make you a bad dancer. Beginners are usually not bad at all. It takes time, ambition, and delusion to be bad in the sense I'm using it here. What it takes specifically is learning lots of things and going to lots of classes without ever solving the real problems that have to come first; posture, balance, dissociation, walk.

Very often the teachers contribute heavily to this by never spelling out what the prerequisites are, which is the least you can possibly do. I think it's rude and thoughtless that teachers don't do this. They should at least say in advance what the class is about, and what you should be able to do, as leader and follower, with confidence and competence in order to make use of it.

It's not unusual to find that teachers don't even seem to bother to tell people that they have a problem, or that the problems have a physical hierarchy (which they do) so that solving one will make it much easier to solve something else. They don't treat people like adults and say "you have a problem with your balance which is causing you to find this difficult. You should work on that for a while, and then this will be easy. Let me suggest some exercises." They don't say "fix your walk - your feet are too far apart and your posture is mistaken - try changing this one thing, and class X next week at venue Y taught by Z would be a good place to work on it." They just sigh, and let the other students, especially the women, suffer.

It's not rude to make a gentle but matter-of-fact statement about what the problem is, especially if you then make a sensible suggestion for dealing with it. It just isn't. I think it's what you're supposed to do.

It also is not rude to say something like "Beginners please sit down now and have a rest, drinks are over there. The next class will be about Whatever and to benefit from it as a leader/follower you will need good balance and to be able to do X with confidence. It starts in five minutes." No, that's not rude - it's treating all your students with proper professional respect. You have to think carefully about what X should be, that's all.

It seems to me that I'm stating the bleeding obvious here. Am I wrong?

But I understand that some people find these situations very awkward. It gets tiresome and frustrating and it can sap the teacher's morale.

So, over to you. As a student, how have you seen this dealt with? What worked, and what didn't? If you have ever been the teacher, how do you deal with these awkward situations and how much of a struggle is it for you?

23 comments:

Debbi said...

A topic that will always be timely!! I completely understand your frustration. There are a couple of solutions I have resorted to when in class situations. First, I come with a partner whom I know is a solid dancer. This way we can choose not to rotate partners if we see that the overall level of the class is well below the advertised level. Second, if we do rotate and I am paired with someone who can't walk in a straight line, I will say something along the lines of "hmmm, that did not feel very stable to me. what did you feel? Can we try doing this before jumping into blah-blah?"
Then there have been teachers who have split the class into two levels, the general level and the level of those who are "getting" it faster. I bet that is exhausting for an instructor though. I also have taken class with instructors who encourage some people to stay on material that they have not mastered yet instead of moving on.

I don't think that there is any really good solution for instructors, they are in a tight spot because they need to make money. And yet, we want to learn.... I don't know, it's a tough area.

Good post though!!

Johanna said...

Great post, Ms. H., albeit one without an answer. Debbi said it best: teachers need to earn money and students want to learn.

The problem is the inability (or interest) for students to be perfectly honest about their own skill set. Perhaps it is human nature? As in people disobeying traffic signs? The signs do NOT say "STOP. Except YOU Ms. H.", do they?

I've had many conversations with teachers about this - who all started out very idealistically wanting to teach walking, balance, foot and posture exercises. But the students want boleos, ganchos, and trapeze moves, and will go to a teacher who will them what they want.

msHedgehog said...

That's true, but it's not obvious to me that just giving people some indication - rather than nothing - would in fact result in smaller class sizes over time. Is it your experience that it does?

Johanna said...

I really couldn't say. I have always sought out (and appreciated) "feedback" in a class, but usually have to be proactive to receive it from teachers.

I think most of us underappreciate the basics, and their importance and relevance to the more advanced levels. I cannot count the times some yahoo with 2 hours of tango under his belt has tried to lead a gancho followed by a sacada, simultaneously clinging to me for dear life and balance while taking out my weight-bearing leg.

Pleas to try mastering something more basic first usually went completely unheeded.

Perhaps this has something to do with men "not stopping to ask for directions"? Believing they can figure it out on their own? Not recognizing that their undisciplined actions can send their partners into traction?

Debbi said...

On the flip side, at the Yale Festival this past week there was a "Basics for Advanced Dancers" where we all went back to the basics of posture, balance and axis... Maybe some folks need to dance for awhile before they realize that they need to nail down the basics? Of course, i believe we can always learn something new or enhance what we already know from a basics class.

msHedgehog said...

I do agree more, the more I think about it, that it is a very difficult skill for teachers to give people the kind of feedback that's not quite what they expected. But I'm not really thinking about delusional students here, but the kind who really do just require some guidance and prompting and advice about which class they should or should not take when perhaps there is a choice available.

msHedgehog said...

The "basics for advanced dancers" sounds like a really great idea. Who gave it? How did it go? Let's give them a public round of applause!

Johanna said...

At the risk of sounding like the proverbial "bah humbug-er"...

After over a decade of watching how people learn to tango, the ones usually taking the beginner basics are the "advanced" dancers who finally realize they need it :-)

The overwhelming emotions we feel when we first discover tango are just too overpowering to be rational about our approach to it. Fortunately, some people eventually realize that something is "missing" in their skill set and go about fixing it.

Anonymous said...

excellent post!

you are not stating the bleeding obvious. i think two things are happening:

(1) teachers are good dancers themselves, but they can't actually teach - its a different skill set. the best teaching i've had has been by people who are not the best dancers - but are good at the process of "teaching".

(2) teachers are cynical and are running a business for profit with no space for the love of tango. they don't tell students things they don't want to hear. they don't make students do exercises that are boring but good for us. i've even heard some admit to similar business strategies (such as making sure the better leaders are interested, keeping the followers keen, and trickling down to the aspirational).

in between the above two categories there are many possibilities - teachers are either bad teachers or cynical business types.

i'm still looking for a teacher who will take me through a proper learning process, covering always the fundamentals - posture, movement, music, dissociation, cadence ...

the closest i've come to this is doing "beginner" classes taught by the lesser/shadow of the main teacher (who teaches the intermediates) ... they often can teach, can empathise with the learners, can bridge the gap, and work on these fundamentals.

its depressing when i see so-called intermediate classes full of people who are so obviously not intermediate .. and it becomes a waste of my precious time and my hard earned money.

by the way - i would recommend against the obligatory classes held before the weekend milongas .. they are usually a waste of time and done often as a money-spinner or people expect it. find yourself a "school" where the aim is only to teach and learn.

Anonymous said...

.. Sigh .. Reminds me of those tango dancers who after 6 months say "we only go to classes given by the world-class Argentine stars" (such as those you see on youtube). I've never enjoyed a dance with these types ..

Anonymous said...

I agree with debbi, a clever teacher should start teaching the basics but advertising it as

"Deadly-Secret Techniques for the Super-Advanced Ultra-Tangueros"

.. to which the men would flock no doubt.

msHedgehog said...

Re-reading this, I realise I should have split it up. The problem I was really thinking of was the advertising and management of the class as a whole; not of the individual student with a problem. It's the "beginners please sit down now, and this is what you need to know" bit that I really wanted input on.

Alex said...

Hola mshedge...

Great post as always...teachers should also be flayed...or at least flogged...for not touching on floorcraft/navigation in EVERY SINGLE class...it's obvious that it has to be beaten into the heads of most leaders...I think these jokers are so oblivious that they actually think the are good/advanced leaders...but it's impossible for 70 percent of them to dance 'constrained' by a virtual lane...

msHedgehog said...

Alex is at a festival, I think ;)

koolricky said...

Hi there!
Excellent post. I think it is also important for teachers to realise those people that are just below the level required but have the will and the capability to develop fast.
It's very good telling students that they have to do yet another set of improver class but sometimes that is also killing an eager student.
Each case is a case.
But I agree with you. It's a waste of money, time and patience to go to a class and face some people that want to run before they learnt how to walk...

msHedgehog said...

@koolricky - I'm not even really asking for that. I'm just asking for students to be informed about what they need to have mastered to benefit from the class, so they can make an adult choice about whether to take it or not. Only if that's happened can anybody whinge about them making the wrong decision.

Anonymous said...

@mshedgehog's last comment - i do believe that the reasons teachers don't do what you suggest in the above message is (1) because they are not good at the process of teaching, or (2) they don't want to say anything that will upset their revenue.

bruno said...

Some teachers will actually invite better students/dancers to their beginners series. As in, virtually for free. This allows for the student to improve on the basics but also for the beginners to have a glimpse of what some things should feel like, easing the path to enlightnment ;-)

It's a good "trick" to get some students to improve some flaws and get beginners more motivated by seeing how mastering the basics allows for simple but nice dances, without complicated stuff. If they see another "student" having with a follower a nice dance with very simple stuff, they feel more confident.

It's hard for more seasoned dancers to go back to basics. Everyone in tango tends to build their ego as they get better and people will just rather believe they don't need it. Human nature.

Musicians know that there's no such thing as going back to basics. It's all part of technique, and all of it should be practiced all the time. If you're in a class in a pro-active way, you will always strive to think about new approaches to "basics" and challenge yourself.

I don't believe any serious tango dancer will ever be totally satisfied with their walk.

Johanna said...

Bruno makes an excellent point. Musicians and other artists who use tools other than their bodies, understand the importance of mastering the basics in order to move on to the next steps, and eventually to "mastering" their field.

I guess because we use our bodies, dancers - or in this case, tanguer@s - feel there is nothing to master. The exception would be ballet dancers, which if anyone has noticed, is where most of the "professional" tango dancers come from...

msHedgehog said...

@Bruno, I agree that's a really good plan, I know someone who uses a version of it by getting followers with about a year's experience to take the class as leaders. It works well, for the reasons you mention.

Alex said...

Hola mshedge...how could you tell? You made me laugh!

Here's how I do it...when faced with a follower who is challenged in an advanced class, I see it as an opportunity for me to focus on and improve my lead. In other words, with an advanced follower, sometimes I get the element right away, then I am thinking "this is too easy, I must be doing something wrong". Then I rotate to a new partner, and it's a new angle on leading it.

If I can lead an beginning follower in a fairly advanced element, then we both benefit from it. I try to make the most of group classes like this (at a festival, where the mix is crap shoot) and make it a win-win scenario...if at all possible...

msHedgehog said...

@Alex, that's really interesting. Something I edited out of the post was about how I deal with the equivalent situation. What I often do when faced with a leader who's having serious but irrelevant problems, like horrible arm-steering, is pay careful attention to how I compensate, so that I develop those skills and also give myself the choice of whether to use them or not. If it's just problems with the content of the class itself, I'm fine with that, I just follow as best I can and concentrate on my own dancing, otherwise I'll sabotage his learning. The only thing that gives me trouble is where I'm totally prevented from even exploring the content of the class or finding out what I might learn from it. That can happen in the first situation.

One reason why you get a lot of women in classes that deal with things that are difficult to lead, like boleos and ganchos especially, might be that these are also quite difficult physical skills for the follower and most of us don't get enough practice.

La Nuit Blanche said...

argh, i'm a month late. but it's such an excellent topic, i'm going to put in my 2 cents anyway. :)

a couple of teachers i know (one man, one woman), dances with every student in the class individually. they're very honest, and pretty harsh with their feedback. "no! don't do this -- your lack of balance is not making this work. no! your head is in the way, no wonder that turn teeters over the follower. no! you can't cheat by hanging onto the leader..." and so forth.

it's not surprising though, that their group classes get smaller and smaller as the month progresses... but the ones who stick with it tend to be the better dancers at the milongas. :-/