Thursday, 17 June 2010

Lessons for beginners

It may help the beginner to know that there are, broadly, two approaches you're likely to encounter in a beginner's class. In reality, everyone uses some more-or-less-successful mixture of these two approaches, I don't know anyone at all who keeps absolutely to one or the other, that would probably be silly. But in most classes, one or the the other is very much dominant. I'm going to describe what the two extremes are, tell you my opinions about them, and hope that it helps you get what you need out of your classes.

Top-down: Learn some steps by heart, do them, and then work out how to lead and follow them. Break them up into simpler parts and recombine them. Repeat this without limit, looking at technique wherever it comes up, and then at some point later maybe go on to how to actually dance if you are interested or have talent. Very common in my experience.

Bottom-up: Learn how to move to the music and connect with your partner, start dancing in response to the music in a very basic way more or less immediately, and grow the steps from there. Work on technique as necessary. Get better at it over time. Add more complex skills if and only if they appeal to you. I've seen this only rarely around here, but it does happen.

The advantage of  top-down is that you get a map of where you're going, which is reassuring and gives you a sense of progress. The danger of this approach is that you get a map of where you're going which reduces a real landscape to a two-dimensional drawing, and makes you think things that aren't true, so that your sense of progress might be false.

The advantage of bottom-up is that you quickly get a view of the landscape, which is vast, awe-inspiring, and full of possibilities. The danger of bottom-up is that you quickly get a view of the landscape, which is vast, terrifying, and a bit short of signage.

Limerick has a great post on why that landscape appeals to him, and apparently looked good to George Bernard Shaw.

Practical advantages of top-down include that it's traditional and widely used, and it seems to be normally used to teach professional performers, so they feel very comfortable with it. Anyone with previous dance experience will probably also feel comfortable with it. It's also very good for bringing out points of physical technique, and introducing new techniques and ideas.

However, in my view it is very poor and slow at producing social dancers who anyone else would really want to dance with. The problem is that with non-professional students, the vital last few steps very often never happen - the procedure never gets broken down into re-usable elements, and even if it does, the student never actually gets to move to the music and develop their own dance.

Another problem is that the way a moves-based class has to work, spending 80% of the time on leader problems and then trying to compensate for that in various ways, it tends to seperate rather than integrate the leader's (man's) part and the follower's (woman's) part, so that the dance is a to-and-fro rather than a joint production.

Practical advantages of bottom-up include that it's (in my limited experience) about 1,000% more efficient at producing people who dance well, both more of them and much faster. This is a major advantage for the teacher who is primarily a social dancer and wishes to dance with his or her students. Another advantage is that leader and follower can get something much closer to equal time, because of the attention paid to creating and keeping connection, and to musical movement. That means the women can be more challenged and contributing more equally right from the start, which makes for less stress and soul-searching for everybody, as well as a better dance. It doesn't always happen, but it's much more possible.

However, it's demanding on the communication skills and curiosity of teacher and student. It also requires a much smaller number of lessons; the dancer can continue to improve at his or her own pace with relatively little help, a lot of it in the form of mentoring from peers and/or professionals, and just personal discovery, rather than actual teaching. Lessons will be fewer, more interesting, and more focused. So it only makes sense where the goals of both teacher and student are primarily to do with social dancing, rather than lessons as such.

So you can see what my opinion is. I think the bottom-up approach is better overall, but top-down is very useful for certain tasks and it never really makes sense to seperate them completely. Any teacher you choose will probably use some mixture, but with one approach predominant. Some will switch approaches if they realise you have a preference. And if you are informed, you can understand what is going on, and look for the useful bits.

OK, this is one of what I hope will be a series of posts intended to help out the beginner who has had either rather few lessons in tango, or no lessons at all. I'm not claiming any special authority, but I think help from peers is quite important. It is to me. And it's a confusing world. It's a common thing to take someone new under your wing as best you can; this is too important to be left to people who make their living out of it. If you are a beginner you don't need to assume I'm right, but I hope what I say will be useful to you; comments from prospective and recent beginners are particularly welcome. The next one I have in mind is a discussion of styles, and whether that concept means anything or is even slightly useful.


Tango Lessons in Atlanta said...

I agree that "bottom-up" approach is pretty much the only way to create a good Argentine Tango dancer. What I say in my classes is that Tango is 80% technique and 20% steps. If we spend 80% of our effort on "how-to", then "what" will come in almost effortlessly.
After all, the best way to enjoy Tango dance well :)

ghost said...

There's an interesting idea in martial arts that should translate wonderfully to teaching tango, but somehow seems not to be.

Basics - this is what you teach a beginner. In essence here's a simple and effective way to stop you getting your face smashed in.

Advanced - this is what you teach advanced. This is what you do if you're fighting a very skilled opponent.

Here's the thing. Basics work. In fact 99 times out of a 100, they're all you need. Advanced is simply unnecessary in most situations. You can go your entire life without ever having to use the advanced stuff.

You see the parallel. The difference is that the martial artist understands the value of basics. For some reason in tango, most people underrate basics and want to get through them as fast as possible so they can then throw them away and just use advanced stuff.

So what I'd add is that by either limiting the top-down approach to basics, or adding basics to the bottom-up approach you get a very effective way for social dancing for 99 out of 100 partners.

If at some point you want to be able to deal with the other 1 out of a 100 that's cool. But don't ditch the basics ;o)

David Bailey said...

I agree with the analysis, but I'm not sure about the "top-down" / "bottom-up" terminology you're using.

There's a great post on the Ceroc Scotland forum (!) from "Brighton Belle" which describes what you're calling a "bottom-up" approach as "spiral learning".

(Original post here)

She says:
There's a teaching approach called Spiral Learning which is similar to this ... I have always used it teaching many other subjects and I've always found it very successful.

It involves 'touching all the bases' briefly and practicing them, albeit at this stage at a superficial level. Then you repeat them all again, at a more detailed level. Practice again. Then repeat them again with still more detail, adding maybe maybe one more basic element etc. So after a couple of lessons, the students can at least do a few things, even if it's not perfect.

Then when they repeat it the next week, the teachers can make corrections before students get into any 'bad habits'.

Personally, I think spiral / iterative / bottom-up learning is the best approach to take. I used to think of this as a "lies-to-children" approach, but now I think "Spiral Learning" sounds better :)

Excellent post, MsH: I look forward to reading the next in the series :)

msHedgehog said...

@Ghost - what you say is plausible, but if we went into detail, it's possible we might have big disagreements about what the basics actually are. This probably isn't the post for that.

@David - I think you are wise to stop calling it 'lies to children,' as nobody likes to find out that they've been lied to - or indeed bullshitted.

LimerickTango said...

Thanks for pointing out that the open infinity of the bottom-up approach may in fact be terrifying to some. For me it is one of the most wonderful aspects of tango.

...and I think the terms bottom-up and top-down suit perfectly.

David Bailey said...

@MsH: "I think you are wise to stop calling it 'lies to children,' as nobody likes to find out that they've been lied to - or indeed bullshitted."
But...but... that's A Pratchettism :(

I think "iterative learning" is my preferred term at the moment. Basically, it's the "A/ get them dancing as quick as possible, and B/ work on things continuously from there" approach.

Ceroc does very A/ well, but is rubbish at B/.

David Bailey said...

"So what I'd add is that by either limiting the top-down approach to basics, or adding basics to the bottom-up approach you get a very effective way for social dancing for 99 out of 100 partners.

If at some point you want to be able to deal with the other 1 out of a 100 that's cool. But don't ditch the basics ;o)"

- the other point about teaching is, it's a commercial enterprise. And, like it or not, most punters like the flashy stuff; they seem to want to do steps, steps and more steps, all in insanely-complex sequences. So arguable most of the teachers around are simply providing what their customers want - rather than what they need.

(I'm giving the move-monster teachers the benefit of the doubt here of course, and assuming they'd really prefer to do a bottom-up approach, but are bowing to commercial pressures.)

So I suspect teachers who adopted that "basics only" approach may quickly find themselves teaching very small classes.

tangocherie said...

Ruben teaches "top down" but not the way you describe it.

He says that "first the music must enter the body through the ears, then it goes to the heart, and only then does it reach the feet." (Note that in this "gravity" flow, the brain is bypassed completely.)

That if we learn steps and how to move our feet and legs from the "bottom up," we'll never be emotional, musical dancers who can improvise. And if the music doesn't fill our hearts, how can we feel the heart of our partner?

ghost said...

I agree. However it may be that part of the problem lies in the way the teachers dance socially. If the students get to see that their teacher (and the better students) mainly use the Basics when they dance socially, especially when dancing with "better" dancers I think that may have an impact.

If on the other hand the teacher pays lip service in class to how important basics are, but then when they dance socially they do mainly advanced stuff, it's no wonder the students think they need to learn it.

LimerickTango said...

Au contraire, tangocherie, a heart full of music must be supported from the floor by the feet and wrapped in the embrace.

Do not confuse the bottom-up approach with mechanical dancing. The directions being used in this article refer to view-point rather than the position of the local gravity-well.

Top-down views the sequence as the starting point. This sequence is to be broken down by the dancer but then the expectation of top-down is that the dancer will build things back up to the original sequence.
Bottom-up views tango as the combination of the embrace, the music, and the walk. Everything else is an upward bonus.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

tangocherie said...

LT, I think we are talking about the same thing. Doesn't the heart feel the music, though, after the ears hear it!

LimerickTango said...


Yes we are very much on the same page.

In any dance if the music does not enter the heart you're not even shakin' tacky (1).

It can be very difficult for the music to make it from the ears to the heart if the head is clogged with steps.

(1) Limerick term for disco dancing

msHedgehog said...

@Cherie: in the top-down method I am describing, the music is either never alluded to at any time, or is treated as an advanced topic. In the bottom-up method I am describing, it motivates the dance. By bottom-up I mean you start from the inside and why you would want to do this, rather than the outside and what it looks like.

David Bailey said...

@Ghost: yeah, good point, it would be a start if teachers practiced what they (should) preach.

If I were bending over backwards to find excuses for this complex-move behaviour on the dance floor, I'd say that they're trying to "advertise" themselves - marketing their cool moves. But yes, you see [Teacher X] zoom around the floor in random directions, you're bound to think such behaviour is acceptable.

Maybe we should take a camcorder to Negracha's and post some examples as a "name and shame" exercise...

tangocherie said...

Maybe MsH what you describe should be the "inside out" approach?

Captain Jep said...

I dont see much changing while the other popular dances (salsa and jive) remain so top-down. If we could change the culture of THOSE dances then maybe there would be a chance!

But yes - on your main points - I couldnt agree with you more. Great post.

ghost said...

@ David

It's more of a long-term idea, but at some point for either 3rd Edition Ghost Guide, or Tango of Zero, I'd like to get footage of teachers / advanced dancers dancing socially in London / UK in a sane way (with their permission)

David Bailey said...

That all said, here's an anecdote of why the "big move" stuff is so attractive...

I had a dance at a venue a week or so ago, with a relative beginner in Tango (but an expert in other dances). It was all nuevo, fast and furious, and she was doing a lot of big dramaatic steps, occasionally pulling me off-balance even. At the end of the dance, I thought, frankly, "Thank God that's over, it was hard work".

But, and this is the thing, loads of people were saying what a great dance it was. Because it "looked good".

I know it wasn't a good dance. My partner knows it wasn't a good dance. But a lot of the people watching? They thought it was great.

When you have that kind of feedback, it's difficult to resist doing more of it. If fellow (competitor) teachers are dancing big and attracting students because of it, I can understand there's pressure to do the same.

Maybe all teachers should be banned from London milongas... :)

ghost said...

A theory -
a) Develop a form of defensive floorcraft that allows you to dance simply and musicality regardless of the surroundings.
b) Tell as many people as possible how it works
c) Skilled dancers use it to start dancing musically at milongas.
d) Beginners see it being done and want to learn it.
e) Teachers can then teach it without loosing business.

This is kinda happening downstairs at Negrachas. A couple of years ago I thought "Ah hell with it, I want to dance close embrace, to decent music. So I will!" And I did. I've been looking around over the last month and thinking "When did all these people start dancing in close embrace down here?!"

Imagine what would happen if the really good dancers did this :o)

msHedgehog said...

@Cherie, top-down and bottom-up feel like more logical descriptions to me, but they are fairly unimaginative so I'm not attached to them. Thanks for your contribution, as they are also rather arbitrary and metaphorical, so they can be misunderstood, and it's good to sort that out. Maybe inside out and outside in are actually better.

@Ghost I also have the impression that things are changing, but in very mixed directions at the moment. This sort of thing is just my attempt at a positive contribution - beginners are IMPORTANT and I would still really like to hear from some.

Elizabeth Brinton said...

Very nice analysis MsHedge. I was in a "top down" class for a long time my partner and I could never get to a place of putting it together. We switched to a famous local teacher and got the "bottom up" treatment. Eventually, (like years later) we became milonguero style dancers who are able to go out and be decent dancers. You know what, all that really matters is that we became steeped in the music. We heard all the standard tangos and learned the orchestras by osmosis and heard it in our sleep and now I DJ here in Seattle when I am not dancing. SO Cherie, via Ruben: I agree totally. Dancers need all the music to be inside of them.
But for early learners, MsHedgehogs words could save a lot of time and anguish.

Evaldas said...

great post, interesting discussion!
I'm 90% on "bottom-up" side.
I just want to add that when talking about learning/teaching and the beginning of the "tango career" in general, things are dramatically different for leaders and for followers.

Follower with basic musicality and posture skills often can dance decent tango with an experienced leader just after several introductory lessons.

It is not the case for a leader. If you are a beginner even very good follower wouldn't help you to dance good. Normally it takes months and years to reach even "average" level, whatever that means.

Asymmetry is inherent to tango. That says that maybe approach to teaching of beginners must be different for leaders and followers.

msHedgehog said...

@Evaldas: I certainly have met multiple examples of leaders going from absolute beginner to well above average in under a year. But this is in a particular environment where there is a lot of real disagreement about what to aim for and hence people probably have different ideas about what 'average' means.

Anonymous said...

The majority of those who teach tango in BsAs use the "top-down" method because students see the results. The objective is looking good when you dance. That's why people demand new figures, and teachers are more than happy to give them what they want rather than what they need.

The milongueros who teach have a different objective for they know that in order to dance tango, one has to feel it and have a connection in the embrace. Dancing has to begin with knowing the music. Then your dance comes from inside.

As a dance teacher, I believe that anyone interested in dancing tango needs to start by listening to the recordings for at least a year. Then their tango will come out of them.

Sophie said...

I like bottom-up too (hi Limerick!), but I, as you also say, I think top-down works for some things. For example, my current teachers seem to have really thought out the sequences they teach to get the students to practice certain types of technique, rather than just what looks "cool". It's useful. I just really wish they would verbalise why they are doing what they do. If only they said something like: "This is a sequence that works on dissociation" or whatever the particular exercise was set up to teach. Too many students still seem to think a particular sequence has to be danced exactly the same way, all the time. I think that is what I want to say to Beginners: (that is, people who are even more Beginner than me) "Sequences are just examples of what it is possible to do, they are a method; they are not the dance, not the thing you are actually learning."
Most dreaded words on the dancefloor: "Let's do the one we learned last week".

msHedgehog said...

@Sophie - yeah, when I last took a regular group class it was much the same. It's fine on certain terms, I'm just not satisfied with those terms. I get fed up with 'too many students think X' when I don't really buy (or no one is even making) the excuse for them to be allowed to think X for five minutes, while the whole concept and structure of the class are apparently designed to make them think X. Especially when it adds up to decades of failure. But at least we can try to inform the students.

ghost said...

"As a dance teacher, I believe that anyone interested in dancing tango needs to start by listening to the recordings for at least a year. Then their tango will come out of them."

Could you elucidate on this please?

Most people who start Modern Jive have been listening to pop music for at least 10 years, often considerably more. Yet if you watch the majority dance, they are unaware / do nothing to mark breaks, accents, changes of speed in the music and so forth. Indeed a considerable number don't even dance in time to the beat.

Of those that do dance musically, it's been my experience that they've had some kind of explanation and practice.

Likewise I know many women who listen to tango music. I would not say that their tango just comes out of them.

I accept that listening to tango music is a good thing, but I'm unconvinced that it is sufficient without some kind of teaching of how to apply musicality to it.

LimerickTango said...

@Evaldas: What you expose here is merely the misplaced expectations of the tango community.

A leader with basic musicality and posture skills should be able to walk a decent tango with an experienced follower. Yet instead we burden his progress with complications that mar his connection to the music. We tell him that you must be able to do this, this, and this. When instead we should be telling him to feel the music.

David Bailey said...

@Ghost: "I accept that listening to tango music is a good thing, but I'm unconvinced that it is sufficient without some kind of teaching of how to apply musicality to it."
- I agree, in fact I suspect that if someone did spend a year listening to Tango music without dancing, they'd develop an appreciation of the music, but from a musical point of view, not a dancing point of view.#

For me, it's difficult / impossible to plan movements to music, without actually trying out those movements.

If you listen to Poema 100 times whilst sitting down, you'll have very little idea of how to dance to it. But if you dance to it 20 times, you'll be very familiar with what you can do with the track for dancing.

I'm happy to accept that in BsAs, milongueros are already familiar with the music before dancing. But that doesn't help if you're not familiar with the music.

If think you need to move to the music to feel the music as a dancer.

ghost said...

"I agree, in fact I suspect that if someone did spend a year listening to Tango music without dancing, they'd develop an appreciation of the music, but from a musical point of view, not a dancing point of view."

In my experience this isn't that unusual with women. Basically they like the music and so listen to it, often with a glass of wine. But it takes them a year (or more) to work up the courage to actually go to tango.

So far I haven't witnessed any miraculous "Wow, I can dance tango" happenings among them.

hans peter meyer said...

Dear Ms. Hedgehog - thank you. I'm going to take your wonderfully simplistic (but not inaccurate for being so) schema, and some of the lively comments that have flowed from it as the occasion for my own meditations on the subject. *abrazos*

Tangocommuter said...

If anyone can listen to tango music for a year without dancing to it -- then there's no hope for them. They'll never be able to dance!

msHedgehog said...

@Tangocommuter, well, yes, they'll be moving to the music because it's very dancey music (at least that subset of it that's written and performed for dancing, is). But that alone doesn't enable to them to dance enjoyably with a partner.

Detlef said...

@ David:
"So I suspect teachers who adopted that "basics only" approach may quickly find themselves teaching very small classes."

Hmmm, not so sure. In our teaching, we work on basics all the time, built on the embrace, the posture, the walking, the communication and the music. In most of the classes (maybe 7 out of 10) we don't teach any 'steps' at all. And if so, they are the least important part of the class.

Our clear 'basics only' approach has led to an agenda for 2010, which leaves us 5 weekends without work. :-)

msHedgehog said...

@Detlef, mmm yes, but what I am thinking is that in close embrace you know more directly whether you got it right or not, but in open you don't have that automatic feedback so you can go on doing it badly as much as you like. And just keeping tuned into the lead in open seems so much more complicated to me nowadays (although maybe not if they stay there and don't change). Perhaps that's an illusion because of what I'm used to?

Chris said...

> If anyone can listen to tango music for a year without dancing to it -- then there's no hope for them.

Except that the vast majority of tango that's listened to nowadays is not dance music.

Evaldas said...

I couldn't agree more with your words: "... I believe that anyone interested in dancing tango needs to start by listening to the recordings for at least a year. Then their tango will come out of them."
That would be close to my approach if one day I decided to teach tango :))
I myself completely changed my dancing (leading) since I started DJing and had to listen to a bulk of Golden Age recordings.

But... What is said, is more applicable to a man (leader) than to a woman.
"A man is in between of two females: the woman and the music" as one milonguero said.
Relation "music-leader" is very different from relation "music-follower" and is similar to relation "leader-follower" (music leads the leader).
This is why I believe that one have to teach male beginners differently from female beginners.
To my knowledge, it is exactly the approach of Golden Age epoch: men has first to learn how to follow and to listen to the music. Only then they had a chance to lead.
Is it possible socially nowadays? I'm not sure... But it makes a lot of sense.
Follower has to learn how to "read the leading", which is deeply different skill from "draw the leading".

I agree with what you say almost completely.
The problem is that "basic musicality and posture skills" sounds simple, but for leaders is much more difficult to obtain it than for followers.
It is because musicality being a real priority for the leader cannot be taught by simply "telling him to feel the music".
As for expectations, when a couple of beginners start learning tango there are big chances that expectations of the woman quickly become higher than ability of the man to meet them.
I wouldn't call those expectations "misplaced". Simply followers are usually quicker in learning their basic skills (it takes a lot to reach certain level of quality, though).


LimerickTango said...


Yes you cannot simply tell a leader to "feel the music" and expect him to feel it. You can however tell him that he is expected to feel the music.

hans peter meyer said...

@Evaldas and @LimerickTango - beautiful! And@MsHedgehog - what a delightful, rich conversation you've started here. I keep meaning to write about it... but all I do is repost bits and pieces of what I'm reading here. *abrazos*