Category Archives: Methodology

Learning and teaching methods

Doing wrong can treat you right!

This morning’s email from Dr. Noa Kageyama “the Bulletproof Musican” brought an exciting revelation for me. It seemed like something out of Bizarro world, or maybe a selection from the Oblique Strategies card deck – Do the Opposite!

In his article, When Mistakes Are Good: A Counterintuitive Strategy for Rapidly Fixing Bad Habits in Our Technique, he describes research from the University of Verona published 2008 in “The Sport Psychologist”, where they describe something they call the Method of Amplification of Error (MAE).

Dr. Kageyama briefly talks about traditional approaches of telling versus showing [versus feeling, wherein a skilled dance teacher can lead/follow you, demonstrating “your” wrong way versus “the” right way]. My personal experience certainly bears out his assertion that changing bad habits seems to take forever.

How can we, and how do we, recognize a poor action in time to inhibit it and replace it with something more effective? I’ve often worked on and advised others to exaggerate the desired behavior, but that only goes so far, because we must first recognize where/when to apply the (toned down) exaggerated action.

Well now here comes the MAE suggesting that we amplify the error, and it promises reduced learning time and increased teaching effectiveness.

So here’s the concept in brief:

  1. The student wants to perform some action more effectively, so the teacher observes, identifies, and conveys (tell, show, feel) the main error that the student is doing. (There may be secondary errors, but some of these may be accommodations for the main error. It’s important to work on one error at a time, then see where that leads.)
  2. Now the student performs the action exaggerating as much as possible the main error that the instructor identified.
  3. Next the student has a “free try” in which they perform the action in their most resourceful way. From this the teacher can assess whether the student really understood the point of the correction – and its opposite.
  4. Repeat the process with the next main error.

The article points out that, “Consistent, habitual errors indicate the presence, rather than the absence of learning. What matters is that the participant knows how to perform the movement incorrectly; the mistake represents the limits of the participant’s knowledge about a movement.” “By asking participants to amplify their principal error during a given performance, they achieve a better understanding of what not to do.”

The researchers reported dramatic improvements in performance, and I’ve no doubt that this Method of Amplification of Error, thoughtfully applied, will produce similar results in our dancing.

Lead, Follow … err?

Adding to the overarching purpose of promoting creativity, resourcefulness, and excellence in teachers of Argentine tango, Two big themes played out at the Tango Teacher Coop (TTC) Minnesota Tango Camp this past June 12-15, 2014. (I see these themes also receiving a lot of attention in the Swing and Blues dance communities.)

The first big idea was that tango dancers, regardless of their preferred role, should learn to both lead and follow from the beginning.

Advanced students understand the value of having a good facility in both roles as an aid to learning. In this way you can directly fee what kind of inputs, from either role, provoke useful responses or awareness in your partner. Furthermore, Anything you can do, I can do better, as the song lyric goes. Though it may be stylized differently in each role, everything in tango is fair game for either role. That’s one of the things that makes Argentine tango such a richly creative ballroom dance.

Mitra Martin, a principal of Oxygen Tango School of Los Angeles, where they teach students both the lead and follow role from the beginning, made a highly effective case for this in her workshop session. We held brief mock “debates” on the propositions that “Leaders shouldn’t learn to follow” and “Followers shouldn’t learn to lead.” The principal non-silly pro argument was that these would slow everyone down and possibly confuse them. The con arguments (i.e., yes, teach both roles to everyone) involved learning faster and better, gaining creative options, and gaining empathy for your partner’s role. Mitra reported that at their school this approach doesn’t slow down the learning process, as everyone is learning faster even though they are learning both sides of the embrace.

The second big idea, closely related to the first one, was to give followers a bigger voice in the dance.

In today’s world of striving for equality, lots of followers and leaders feel that the notion of the follower submitting themselves to the will of the leader is antiquated and stifles creativity. One way of addressing this concern indirectly is for teachers to get away from role stereotypes, such as the gender-biased he and she, or even leader-follower, supposedly gender neutral but charged with the notions of controller and one being controlled.

I found myself enchanted with Brigitta Winkler’s suggestion of Flow (follower) and Space (leader) as alternative terms. On reflection it struck me that one could view these states or qualities as flowing and exchanging between the partners over the course of a movement or figure. For example, as one partner flows about the space of the other in the circular movement of a molinete, if you aim the flow perpendicular (tangential) to the space, then you can flow with a sacada into the space they allow between their stepping legs.

That struck me as an interesting notion, but just as cumbersome as any textual depiction of dance movement. I got to thinking about forward/backward, left/right, inside/outside (of the embrace/of the line of dance circle?) — from which partner’s viewpoint? Then it occurred to me that by using the imperative mood (commands) with 2nd person you; and 3rd person plural they (which is gender-neutral and, despite what your high school teacher may have told you, grammatically correct with a singular subject) to refer to your partner, you don’t even need to refer to role.

  1. Lead your partner to a basic cross with you also ending crossed, right behind left.
  2. Leading a molinete around you CW (clockwise) …
  3. As they step out of the cross, you may tap with right behind for an adorno, then …
  4. Lead them across your path and somewhat away from you (instead of around and near you).
  5. They step with right, and you step with right into the space under their trailing shoulder for a sacada.
  6. In your new positions your right side continues pulling around your right, to …
  7. Lead them in an open (side) step to your right across your path, as …
  8. You step with left under their trailing shoulder for a second sacada.
  9. Parada: In your new positions you end your rotation, but allow them to continue somewhat and settle back on their right leg, as …
  10. You hold them in this position as you place your right foot alongside their extended foot.
  11. Sandwich their extended foot with your other foot, then bring them forward as you step back and settle on your right leg.
  12. Pasada: Allow them to pass over your extended foot.
  13. Pivot both to face torso-to-torso.

Well now that doesn’t seem like an improvement over any other method of textual depiction. Maybe this tabular idea from Oxygen Tango is easier:

There was so much more, of course, in all the Teacher Training, Tango Classes, Instructional and Guided Practice, Panel Discussions, and Milongas. Led by the work, knowledge, experience, and creativity of Argentine tango teachers Homer & Cristina Ladas, Nick Jones & Diana Cruz, Jason Laughlin, Melanie Klaric, Tomás Howlin, Brigitta Winkler, and Mitra Martin, and produced by Sabine Ibes and a whole host of volunteers. (Go to to get on the mailing list for future announcements.)

My introduction to sacadas – class structures

Do you remember when you were first introduced to the concept of sacadas?

For me it was a figure starting from la cruzada, flowing in a molinete CW around your space; you tap behind before you give a X-system sacada, then a ||-sys sacada, ending in a parada, pasada. Whew!

Really!? Can’t you just imagine (or recall!) all the opportunities for creating bad habits and misunderstandings? This was in a class ranging from quite novice beginners who figure they’re smart enough and experienced enough in other dance so they can handle it (that was often me, alas, but in the absence of guidance otherwise …), to quite experienced dancers.

How could such a situation be handled so that everyone has a good chance to get started on the right foot? I have three big recommendations:

  1. Curricula with tested levels,
  2. The Montessori classroom method, and
  3. Doing hard parts first, in isolation.

1. Curricula with tested levels

Mitra Martin and her team at Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles have developed curricula and testing methods, and implement this methodology in a structured series of classes they call The Tango Challenge Can most, or even many other tango communities afford to implement level-restricted classes? Maybe not. But that doesn’t change the value of giving clear expectations for a student’s current level and HOW they can usefully, with good results, participate in more advanced classes. Which leads right into recommendation Two.

2. The Montessori classroom method

A key concept of the Montessori classroom is a mixture of different levels working in the same room but on different levels of activities, with the more advanced students helping the less advanced. Much like the one room school house in days of old.

I see huge resistance to this concept among tango teachers of all levels and in communities and workshops across this country and elsewhere. It often comes in the form of an explicit announcement that, “There is only ONE teacher in this class; if you have a question or problem you come to me!” This often has the chilling effect of squelching even feedback to your partner out of fear that it will be seen as ‘teaching’. So a couple muddles along or stands idly waiting for the teacher, even when the more advanced partner or some couple nearby could readily resolve a misunderstanding or missed point.

It feels to me as if teachers fear loss of authority and being held responsible for less than optimum or even outright wrong ‘instruction’. We can empathize with this viewpoint even if we don’t fully appreciate it. It seems, in a way, to hold both themselves and their students in less than high regard. Teachers can only control the direction and outcome of the class with rigid authority? Students can’t tell the difference between what some other student tells them and what comes from the master teacher?

3. Doing hard parts first, in isolation

I’m reading Guitar Playing and how it works by Peter Inglis of and that led me to Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang at, where he points out that we want to start by practicing the difficult sections first. They are the hardest to learn, so they should get the most attention. (Instead of the typical procedure, where we start at the beginning of a sequence, flying or muddling through it until we hit a snag in the hard part, then repeat. The easy stuff gets the most practice, while the hard stuff gets memorized with its errors.)

We can simplify the hard parts by reducing them to just two steps: the really tricky bit – e.g., the step into the space between legs for the sacada – and the immediately preceding one. Then as we develop mastery and comfort we can build by adding steps to the beginning and end of the hard part.

This post with its strange mashup of concepts was inspired by two things. Last weekend I attended the Tango Teacher Coop (TTC) Minnesota Tango Camp where I learned interesting things about learning and teaching and thinking. Then just the other day I received an email from TangoForge with their Procedural Postcard: How do to a Sacada, a simple graphic with four parts:

  1. Flex base leg’s hip and knee joints.
  2. Mark the Revel’s [Follower’s] projection perpendicular to Mark’s [Leader’s] intended step.
  3. Transfer simultaneously by extending joints of base legs.
  4. Relax embrace to arrive at new base before next pivot.

So, what kind of step do you need to start a sacada? Basically anything will do – forward, backward, side, front cross, back cross – so long as it is projected across – i.e., somewhat perpendicular to – the partner’s path. Furthermore, that projection can be created with either partner: either lead them across your path, or pivot so that your projection lies across their path.

The important considerations in my mind for a sacada involve:

  • Projecting your partner’s or your path perpendicular to each other.
  • Flexion of each partner’s support leg to create space to enter and driving force.
  • Signaling to partner, both with the projection and with “holding down or in place” so as to give time and space to enter.
  • Stepping inside the partner’s base leg, under the shoulder of that leg – an aiming point you can see without needing to look at feet.
  • Stepping with full weight onto that new base leg, displacing partner, and in effect changing places with them. I.e., your new base leg is now (approximately) where their old base leg was.
  • Flexibility in the embrace so that the partner’s slide in each other’s arms as they assume the new torso-to-torso orientation.

It seems to me that that is plenty to learn in isolation, without all the complication of entrance and exit sequences. Yes, if your class has mixed levels of experience, after covering the pure principles of the sacada, one can give easy entrances (an over-pivoted forward ocho, for example), and harder ones, such as the one that opened this article. And since you don’t have a whole class that has to learn a lengthy sequence in lock-step with each other, you can encourage and help the quicker students to explore, discovering their own ways of putting the sacada into what they already know or can invent.

That’s one of the ways I think learning should work.

Shoulder-in exercise

Recent reading and discussion suggested that both Dressage and Martial Arts, being organized sports that originated centuries before Argentine tango — horsesport was introduced to the Ancient Olympic Games in 680 BC, and martial arts in China has a history more than 4,000 years old — have a richer, deeper, more organized body of training knowledge.

More than just learning how to dance Argentine tango, I’m also interested in meta-learning, learning about how to learn. To begin exploring these other schools of teaching I bought Jane Savioie’s DRESSAGE 101. (My wife, a dog trainer and competitor, tells me that Jane’s book That Winning Feeling!: Program Your Mind for Peak Performance is highly regarded in competitive sports circles of any type.)

This 453 page book, beautifully illustrated with diagrams and fine photos, filled with highly organized, crystal clear writing, describing concepts, exercises, imagery, and procedures to bring you and your horse to a state of exquisite connection, is all a bit overwhelming to try and summarize its value for gaining insights into tango training. So I’ll begin with one illustrative exercise, and likely draw on this outstanding book as a source for interesting material for some time to come.

But first, to whet your appetite for the material, here’s a nice traditional technique video:

Damian Thompson – The Walking Drill, Argentine Tango

You could do Damian’s walking exercise solo — and you certainly should! — and with a partner.

As a solo exercise, the Shoulder-In Exercise in DRESSAGE 101 is straightforward. Where it is safe to do so, walking in a straight line alongside a wall, fence, curb or other boundary you can observe, using it to keep a constant distance, rotate your upper torso to face the boundary, hands in front of you, palm-in-palm, palms facing you. Continue walking along the boundary in a straight line with your lower body as your upper body continues facing to the side. When you come to the end of the line, repeat in the reverse direction, reversing the twist. Now the same thing backwards. Careful you don’t trip! (Of course, in our tango context the term shoulder-in would more properly be torso-in.)

As you walk internally observe yourself for such things as collecting your knees as they pass, feet turned out, knee flexion that maintains a constant top line height, upright torso, moving with torso intention, reaching from the hip not the knee.

How about practicing the same thing as a couple with a partner? Now you might think of rider and horse as having a relationship similar to leader and follower in a dance couple. There’s a lot of wisdom in this book about the quiet communication that goes back and forth. But for this purpose I’m thinking of the couple as a strangely built animal where the leader is whichever partner is going forward at the moment. (Clearly the traditional leader role can lead this walking exercise going forward or backwards, in a straight line or circle, and inside, parallel, or outside partner.)You could think of this as a weird horse that has its front knees facing backwards. The main consideration is that with four feet we have the possibilities of two, three, or four tracks of travel. Parallel-system walking in front of each other is two tracks, parallel- or cross-system sufficiently offset is four tracks, and cross-system, where the middle legs line up (like a three-legged race, with one partner facing backwards) is three tracks.

For purposes of the shoulder-in exercise with a partner we’ll use cross-system, though I suppose it could be done in parallel-system.

Excerpted from the book:

  • Shoulder-in is a suppling, straightening, strengthening as well as an “increasing self-carriage” exercise.
  • It stretches and loosens the muscles and ligaments of the inside leg (the side the torso is facing).
  • It strengthens and improves self-carriage because with each step you move the inside leg underneath the body, under the center of gravity.
  • The inside leg gets stronger because it has to carry additional weight.
  • Also, in order to move the inside leg in this way you must lower that hip, which contributes to the development of self-carriage.
  • Be sure to do the shoulder-in with the same amount of angle in both directions; you want to develop evenly in both directions.
  • Essentially, a shoulder-in is a first step of a small circle but repeated on a straight line.
  • You can also practice on a circle. Here, the lead (going forward) partner legs stay on the line of the circle while the other partner legs are brought to the inside, to describe a slightly smaller circle.
  • Keep your tempo constant. Don’t let the new demands cause you to lose impulsion and slow down or get worried and rush off.

Interesting variants for “schooling”. (In Jane’s parlance, these would be figures not used in competition {or at the milonga, perhaps} but useful nevertheless for developing suppleness and strength.)

  • Shoulder-out where, say, the follower is on a larger circle track, leader on the inside.
  • Haunches-in where the lower carriage is facing in (or alternatively, out) while the upper body continues straight.


Add this to your walking exercises! Solo or with a partner. In a straight line or on a circle. Going forwards and going backwards. (Be careful!) Inside, parallel, or outside partner. Parallel- or cross-system. Torso facing inside or outside line of travel. Hips facing inside or outside line of travel. In an embrace position with upper body facing one direction and lower body continuing in the line of dance (or vice-versa), now walk.

Plateaus and periodization

At group class the other night a friend told me he felt that he had recently overcome a plateau and was really beginning to enjoy his Argentine tango. In my twenty-two months of group and private lessons, workshops, practice, and milongas I feel like I’ve enjoyed four major plateaus, each involving some mix of greater understanding of: dissociation to “associate” with my partner, moving with intention, controlling our axes, “following her lead“, understanding my dance, and dancing with the music.The-Plateau-Effect

Friend and I agreed, it actually seems more useful to think of a plateau not as the fallow flat period, but the time you get to enjoy the fruit of your various labors spent in climbing up to that level. Then after some period of capitalizing on your investment in your dancing, you begin to hunger for the next new climb up. But what is it that makes that climb out of a plateau take longer and seem harder than it should?

Shake it up, baby!” Mother Nature is lazy at heart. It likes to get maximum results from minimum efforts. The body and the mind are built to automatically develop shortcuts and routines for things that we do repeatedly. You might call these time, labor, and brain saver shortcuts for living, or you might call them ruts for things we do repeatedly. Dancing, I don’t care how creative you are, is something of a repetitive activity.

Serious athletes know that the way to shake up their neurophysiology is to confuse the mind-body. Do new things or do things in an unusual way. Make things harder. The body-mind says, “Oh, hell, now what’s going on with this stuff?” Then, in the process of figuring out a new easiest way of doing things it comes to new capabilities.

Body Building periodization

Serious athletes often plan their workout regimens in three timeframes: a microcycle of a week, a mesocycle of one to a few months (so long as a routine is producing new results), and a macrocycle that usually refers to a training season. The mesocycle period is more or less the time it takes for one’s neurophysiology to develop a groove for dealing with a new routine.

So how might this be applied to dancing? How can a dancer shake it all up without switching to a new dance? Here are some thoughts that come to my mind, and several of which I’ve used with success.

Switch to a new dance. Well, maybe not altogether, but suppose you take classes in a type of dance entirely new to you, while continuing to practice and social dance your mainstay. Ballet, tap, hip-hop, grunge, salsa, swing, Bollywood. You name it.

Switch to a different dance style: from tango salon to nuevo, for example.

Take non-dance classes: Improv comedy, circus arts, public speaking, a new language?

Do other body work: pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique.

Add contact improv, also known as ecstatic dance to your weekly schedule.

Ecstatic Dance
Dancing Together

Study martial arts: tai chi, aikido (be careful out there!).

Take a break. The mind-body integrates past learning and physical work during rest periods.

Double your practice time and halve your class time, or vice-versa.

Switch roles. Learn how to dance the opposite lead-follow role — well.

Ambidancetrous: The Blog

Restrict yourself. See, for example, the first part (and all the rest!) of these good articles.

WikiHow: Be Creative
99U: 7 Ways to Boost Your Creativity

Suppose you only allowed yourself to only walk in all your milongas for a month. How do you think that might affect your dancing? What different kinds of things might you learn and incorporate into your dancing?

Change teachers.


So now, What do you do to shake yourself up?

Mental model of follower’s axis for leg wraps

Mathematicians and scientists often employ simplified, idealized models of the real world as a way to understand complex concepts, processes, and systems.

A piece of string with a binder clip at each end

Click the picture for a movie showing movement of follower’s axis during leg wrap.

As I was awakening this morning I thought again about the question you raised at the practica, of how to lead a leg wrap to the closed side.

(You were already in good shape with leg wraps to the open side, both in parallel and promenade positions. Many things come easier on the open side where there is more room to maneuver.)

A mental model for the follower’s axis came to my mind, and it seemed useful. See if you find it any help. Take a piece of string of, oh, say about 12 inches. Put a simple overhand knot at each end and fasten a binder clip over each knot. Now hold the string in the middle, with the binder clips dangling down.

Where you are holding the string in the middle represents the follower’s pelvis, and the binder clips represent their feet and leg weight.

If you hold one “foot” in place, representing the follower’s standing leg, and then raise the “pelvis” directly over it, you’ll see that the free leg collects to the standing leg. If you “pivot” the follower on their own axis (by twirling thumb and finger) the legs and feet stay collected.

But now, while still holding the standing foot in place, moving the pelvis to the side and forward toward you, you see that the free leg swings away from the standing leg. And if someone else’s standing leg – yours! – is in the way, the swinging leg will wrap around it.

Now here is a detail that gets glossed over during some instruction. The leader may have to make one or more small adjustments to the position of their own feet during the move in order to gain a position that will allow the tilting of the follower’s axis. A tiny side step right – as you pivot the follower in a back boleo about their axis – gives you position for the second part of the movement, to bring their axis to the side, opening the legs. Then as you “swing” them forward and around YOUR axis a tiny back step on the left tilts their axis forward. It’s a miniature volcada.

Two additional points. When you start the follower’s back rotation for the boleo you are rotating YOUR torso about THEIR axis – keeping their axis vertical. Then in the next part where you swing forward you are rotating YOUR torso about YOUR standing leg, the left back one. This leads the follower’s torso to rotate about your axis. The second point is that it helps to create a spiral, going from a lower elevation in the boleo to a raised torso at the height of the leg wrap, to give the follower the idea of lifting the leg as it wraps.

But two actions by the follower can thwart all of this. If they, consciously or not, resist the movement by breaking at the hips, allowing the hips to come forward while the upper body stays back, it causes two problems. First, the leader’s movements can’t be transmitted from the torso down to the legs because it gets lost at the hips, and second, it causes the follower’s axis to tilt down toward the floor, having the effect of making them heavier, instead of forward to the leader. Also, if the follower can’t give up control of their free leg, allowing it to swing freely, but instead holds tension, such as bending the knee or keeping it collected, then the leg won’t swing away from the follower’s body regardless of how well it’s led.

There is a big element of trust involved. Any time the leader tilts the follower off axis, the follower must feel that they are secure and safe in committing to this leader. Likewise, with a follower’s leg wrapping around the leader, or with either partner’s leg intruding into the space between one’s legs, they must feel that they are being treated respectfully.

Perhaps you, dear Reader, have a good different way of thinking about this, or perhaps you can offer clarification or correction. Please join me in the Comments section below.

Felices caminar,

Advice I wish I was given when I started learning Argentine tango

Spotify radio stations - Argentine tango

Regularly listen to Argentine tango music

Listen to the music regularly and repeatedly. Plug “Argentine tango” into your Spotify, Pandora, or other radio, and let it play in the background.

The pulse of the music matters. Learn to recognize and step on the strong beats of the music. When you can do this reliably then you can begin experimenting with taking one, two, three or more beats to complete a movement.

Attend milongas regularly and watch. Identify people, both leaders and followers, whose movement and style you admire.

Know that what you admire in tango dancing now may change as you mature in your understanding of the music and the dance.

After you’ve gained some sense of the people in your tango community, and early on, seek a mentor, both a leader mentor and a follower mentor. These friends could be some of the most valuable help you receive for progressing rapidly in your understanding of Argentine tango.

Make everyone a friend. It’s a hard process to learn Argentine tango, and many times a friendly, supportive comment from others will be all that keeps you going.

Take every opportunity to make honest and earnest comments about specific improvements or accomplishments you observe in a person’s dancing, or the questions they ask, or the help they give, or . . .

Help out whenever you can. It takes active and involved participants to keep a tango community going and growing. Working with others will help you build friendly relationships.

Meet the milonga DJs. Thank them for their valuable, thoughtful service and get to know them. They are a wonderful source of information on Argentine tango music, orchestras, and songs. They have been a central part of the scene for years.

Take notes in class. Videos of didactic (or mostly, actually, non-didactic) demos are fine, but that is a passive activity. How often do you actually go back to videos to study them, understand them, and practice them? Notes should be an active process. You can’t take down every word. You can only afford the time to write key concept words and phrases in terms that make sense to you, and to sketch.

Practice sketching. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, only that you understand what it means.

Review and recast your notes. It’s when you attempt to explain something to someone else (even if that someone else is your permanent notes) that you begin to gain a real understanding.

Argentine tango reduced to geometry is all about circles and triangles on the floor (and even in the air). Your partner (or you) move in a circle either about your own axis (or sometimes in a tangent to the circle) or in a smaller circle about their axis. The two of your feet and one of your partner (or vice-versa) form a triangle that creates a stable base on the floor. Learn how movements go into or out of what specific configurations, and then you will have a deeper understanding for how to do this movement and variants of it.

In Argentine tango, sequences of moves have no intrinsic value (setting aside historical significance and utility as a learning vehicle) in and of themselves. You may on occasion be able to use an entire sequence intact, but you’re much more likely to find it useful to break apart and understand the elements of a sequence. The teacher will most typically show you one way to start and one way to exit a sequence, but you want to learn, and explore for yourself: what are all the different ways I can get into or get out of this sequence; which of those ways feels easier, relates to other things I know, or is more “organic”; what are the atomic movements that make up the sequence; how can they be recombined differently; can it be done to both the open or closed side of the embrace; how can I relate these movements to the music?

Leading or following: The reason you practice a movement to an actual tango song is not so that you can mindlessly repeat the sequence over and over and over again. It is so you can fit the movement naturally into your dance. (Understanding that there are exceptions while you both work out the kinks.) Do not push and pull to put yourselves into the same starting sequence each time. Instead, dance into the sequence from all the different ways that make sense. Dance out of it in all the different ways that make sense. Explore the pieces of it. Explore doing pieces to opposite sides or directions.

Don’t bother saying, “Sorry” for anything except for running your partner into something or someone (where you may owe multiple expressions of “Sorry”). It’s an imperfect world, and this tango can make it seem more so at times. Mistakes will be made. Your partner will know, or may not know but won’t care in either case, why you are temporizing in the face of traffic, or the sudden grab to prevent a collision. If your partner says “Sorry” to you, a comforting squeeze or a murmured “Not at all” can be nice.

Learn to both lead and follow. A lovely aspect to Argentine tango is that all the movements are available and useful to both leader and follower. It helps tremendously to understand all the issues involved by experiencing the dance from both sides of the embrace.

Know that your fellow dancers, whether leader or follower, and whether novice or experienced, may have the much the same anxieties, doubts, and fears that you do. We’re all in it to support each other, learn, and enjoy ourselves with each other.

The best you can be, whether following, leading, or learning, is calm and confident, even and especially if you don’t know what you are doing. Calm and confident that your leader will give you a good dance (even when they don’t). Calm and confident that you will satisfactorily show yourself as a leader (even when you don’t). Calm and confident that you will understand what is going on, even when you don’t right now.

Have the confidence to step out of a lesson and only observe when you feel that it is beyond your current understandings.

Have the confidence to feel that you can learn a difficult movement, with patience from yourself and your partner, an attitude of exploration and helpfulness, and with help from the teacher.

Have the confidence, when the teacher isn’t available, to ask for help from someone else that seems to be getting it.

It is difficult to give constructive, useful feedback. Try this formula, When I do this, what I’m feeling is this, and what I think I’m wanting is this. What do I need to understand differently?

Never make excuses for or object to feedback, questions, suggestions. Do insist, if need be, on your right to be treated with dignity and respect. Otherwise, comebacks serve to cut off or minimize future, possibly very useful input. They also serve to minimize in your mind the value of input before you’ve even had a chance to understand it. Do question the other person as necessary to feel that you understand the point they are making. Then let it rest inside you, quietly observed. With a little calm patience you may well come to feel that you can tease out a little or even a lot of useful understanding from it.

Remember the people who help you. You will want to repay their kindnesses. Be kind in turn to other new dancers. Help bring them into the community.

Above all, know that if you are doing for yourself, you are doing it for good.

(I wrote this after reading the article that Mari Johnson referred me to: Offbeat Advice I Wish I Was Given In School.)

Leader-follower pairings

Fixes for imbalance in companieros pairings

Argentine tango workshops, in my not yet two years of experience, generally have more leaders than followers, and this seems common sense, since most workshop material focuses on the leader’s role. (I’ve observed but not noted — will do so in the future — where a strong follower of a teacher-pair can make sure that the follower role gets good attention. Even then, unless it’s a follower-specific workshop, the leader role gets most of the attention.)

In Austin there is often a significant imbalance in numbers. Leaders have taken a course of sensible self-interest by recruiting their own follower for a workshop. But then they don’t share!

From the follower’s perspective, they may prefer to stay with a partner because they know and are satisfied with that person’s abilities. A tanguera told me, “I’ve paid my dues. I don’t want to be jerked around that floor by guys who don’t know what they are doing.” But then a teacher told me, “Followers want to dance with leaders, but how will they have leaders if they don’t help grow them up?”

But what about the competent dancers who haven’t found a regular partner or who prefer to switch so they can develop their lead/follow with a variety of partners? Or the person who gets stuck with a dud? (I’ve been that dud when I took a too advanced class that I should have left but stayed to complete the pairings. No fun for anyone.)

I wonder how many people would leave a workshop dissatisfied if told that everyone must change partners, versus how many who would leave dissatisfied – or simply not attend in the first place – if they knew they would either have to twiddle their thumbs or attempt to lead guys who don’t know how to follow. For those people who don’t want to switch I might ask, “Do you dance with other people at milongas? Well then you’re going to dance with others here.”

But I appreciate all points of view. What to do? My thesis is that all dancers should learn both roles, to at least some minimal level. My thinking is that you would do your secondary role primarily with your same sex, for two reasons. First, you wouldn’t get a “true” experience of being in the secondary role unless dancing with someone for whom that opposite role is primary. Second, there’s the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” thing about communication style. For example, there’s only one woman I can think of in today’s Austin community from whom I could have the experience of dancing with a strong, highly competent leader, and even then I wouldn’t have the same style of communication that I would have from a man.

Benefits of learning both lead and follow:

  • Both leaders and followers do the same adornments, even if with different styling.
  • Leaders who understand how to follow can have teachers or knowledgeable fellow tangueros lead them, to learn what the follower is supposed to feel from the lead.
  • The person leading a skilled leader, or following a skilled follower, can get invaluable mentoring feedback from a person who can reflect not only what they are feeling, but also what they do to succeed with particular maneuvers.
  • Leaders who follow can learn both from poor leads – what not to do, and good leads – what to strive to do.
  • Followers who understand something of the lead can give more useful feedback on what they need to feel and how to produce it.
  • Both leaders and followers can gain some empathy for the opposite role, while learning about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good.
  • Whether there is an excess of leads or follows, everyone can, with some measure of success, pair up.

Attracting followers:

  • Be certain that workshops, and each session of workshops, contains significant material for followers.
  • Let women attend leader focused classes for some reduced price.
  • For women that don’t want to be jerked around by novices, what about sharing yourselves among leaders you know and trust. For example, I’ve seen it work well where excess pairs of men shared one women. This was actually additionally helpful in that you had an interested observer who could offer useful feedback.
  • Have an excess of men and women door monitors. Take a census of people entering the workshop sessions as you check their credentials, then when sessions start, shuffle the volunteers as necessary to make up pairings.

Regardless of whether there is a perfect pairing of leads and follows, if there is to be *any* changing of partners, then the class leaders has a duty to ensure that it proceeds consistently and smoothly, so that everybody gets treated fairly. I would make sure in each class that there is a well known, routinely followed pattern of changing partners. (With, perhaps, some reasonableness exceptions to skip over, for example, a couple that really does only dance with each other, or the couple that is just about to “get it” and isn’t ready to switch yet.)

Just before starting the FIRST practice song I would announce:

  1. We will all be changing partners in this class, and near the end of the class we will announce and play a couple of songs for you to dance with your preferred partner.
  2. Everbody pairs up. If there is an odd person out, that is a hole that moves around the room (against line of dance) as each change happens.
  3. If there is a same sex couple where both want the same role, one of them starts as leader. At the next change the leader moves on and the follower in that same sex couple becomes the new leader for that couple slot.
  4. Followers, please see where you are standing in the room. See who is the follower to your right and the one to your left. Return to this spot with your current partner at the end of each song.
  5. Leaders, at the beginning of each song, whether I say to or not, always please thank your partner and move in the line of dance to the next follower. (The class leader should remember to say “change partners” before starting each song.)

Felices caminar!

P.S. In a discussion on the Facebook page for Terpsichoral Tangoaddict about the problem of people in classes too high for their abilities, it reminded me of a situation where it really is desirable to have couple-pairings: in (truly) advanced classes. Two people as a couple probably have a better shot than a single person at assessing their skill level, and if they are under-qualified, then they are only inflicting themselves on each other.