Tuesday, 1 September 2009

You know what - it isn't.

I know all of this has been said a million times before. I'm not even going to search for the blog entries. But just the other day I overheard an experienced leader telling one just starting out that it's all about practice.

You know what, it is not all about practice. For perfection, perhaps yes; for competence, no.

Well, maybe it is. You have to practice to get good at anything. But practice is not the whole story.

I can think of people who've danced for a very long time, who throw me around like a frog in a blender and have such terrible posture that it causes me physical pain to dance with them. These are the bad intermediate dancers; middling skill level with giant holes in crucial places, awful results, no progress. As they practice, they stay the same or get worse.

I can also think of some pleasant young gentlemen ten years younger than me who have been dancing for less than a year or eighteen months and who are clear and gentle and reasonably decisive and have good posture and listen to the music and are fun to dance with. These are the good intermediates; basic skill level, just in the bits that really matter, good results. As they practice, they get better. (As long as they don't take too many intermediate classes full of material that's totally inappropriate to their skill level, in which case they stop getting better and start to get worse).

And when I find one of these, I try to dance with him regularly. I try to invest in him, and make the simple things feel like fun and encourage him to stick with it and have the confidence to give worthwhile skills priority over useless ones. It pays off immediately, because he is nice to dance with already, but it'll pay off even more if I'm still dancing tango when the grey exceeds the brown. He may be unexciting or make a few mistakes but I can add a little of my own excitement, and I don't care about a few mistakes.

I don't know for certain what determines which one you end up as, although my guess is that which beginners' class you take for the first five weeks of your tango career probably explains a lot. But on the basis of my observation so far, I can falsify two things:

  1. you don't need years of practice to be pretty nice to dance with, and
  2. practice is not going to help you at all if you're practicing the wrong thing.
Now you may well ask me why I dance with the bad ones at all. The answer to that turns out to be more interesting than you'd think. I don't, very often; but those I do occasionally dance with are among the people who were kind to me and danced with me regularly and took notice of me and encouraged me and supported me when I started out. If you have an adventurous spirit and you're dancing mostly open embrace, you don't notice bad posture, and being a frog in a cheerful, friendly blender is great for your sense of achievement and actually not at all bad for your technique. Anyway, their gentlemanly and considerate behaviour in simply bothering to be there back then counts for something now, and at the time, it counted for a lot.

Were there any among the actually-skilled dancers who made the same investment in me? Not many, no.

Now that might be because presentable women who dance fairly well are in oversupply and there is no incentive to bother with beginners. But it might also have something to do with beginner women not being taught until many months later - if ever at all - how to dance close embrace, or even led to think that it's usual to do so.

Which brings me to a point of good news: the practice of treating close embrace as other than a non-optional basic beginner-level skill seems to be a little less normal than it was. I think the consequences of that go a long way.


ghost said...

There's a question that mystifies me more and more as I gain experience in tango.

"How on earth did I ever manage to lead anything?!"

I look back at the sheer volume of things I was doing wrong with women who were equally doing many things wrong - and yet I had some truly lovely dances that I remember fondly.
So this

1. you don't need years of practice to be pretty nice to dance with,

is definitely true (thankfully)

I think it goes without saying that this is true ;o)

2. practice is not going to help you at all if you're practicing the wrong thing.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, how does anyone ever learn this thing?
As my grey vastly overtakes the brownish blond, I am pleased to continue my tradition of being a kind, and able partner to newbies (who become intermediate dancers quite soon) and who, even in frog blender moments, do not hurt me or cause upset, as they lead in the gentle fashion of, dare I say, younger men....
And they so clearly do not need years and years of practice to become fun dancers. Well, that's tango for you.
All those exercises...meh..

LimerickTango said...

My fencing master used to warn us of the perils of excessive practice. It's a sure-fire route to ingraining flaws.
Try something a few times and then move on to a different exercise. If you are not getting it right then either you don't quite understand what you are doing or something else is wrong. Quite often, as you mentioned, that something is basic bad posture.

Jessica said...

For me the developing leader needs to spend lots of time paying attention to his/her partner - experimenting and seeing what happens, but always being really aware of the physical feedback.

A leader who's paying attention will notice fairly quickly that their partner is in uncomfortable or confused... and seek guidance from partner or teacher. Somebody who doesn't notice how the partner is reacting can practice and take lessons for years and get no better.

>clear and gentle and reasonably decisive and have good posture and listen to the music and are fun to dance with.

Yes, that's my wish list too!

Game Cat said...

Nice topic and posts. Fully agree with the importance of figuring out what is right/ wrong to ensuring you're practicising the right thing.

I've noticed two things that men and women who keep improving do regularly (and those those who hit a ceiling regularly do not):

1) Reflect on their weaknesses and have a clear list of what they want to improve, and which they work through

2) Challenge and re-validate their assumptions of what is right/ wrong.

I personally recommend having a regular partner to practice, diagnose, experiment things with. I've noticed there are more official practicas in London than 2 years ago (maybe I'm wrong). I hope this is a positive sign.

Ultimately, we're responsible for our own improvement. We will put in as much effort as we care about it....and it will show in a milonga. This is even more important for those of us who can't be in a BsAs milonga 10 hours a week.

msHedgehog said...

@Limerick: That is very well observed. I think that getting good results from exercises is quite difficult without a lot of help from an experienced teacher.
@Game Cat: I entirely agree about regular checkups. It's a good way of learning anything. I find that dancing too much with one person reinforces personal quirks; I need to practice most things with lots of different people before I can tell whether I'm getting them right. But the tradeoffs here are different for leader and follower. And a regular practice partner is good for discussing things.
@Jessica I think you are right.