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June 09, 2008

The Three Pillars of Tango


Tango dancing has three pillars of personal development: taking lessons, practice, and dancing at the milonga. Each area of tango activity reinforces the other. Of the three, I personally think that practice is the most important.

Improvement in tango has a simple formula: for each hour of tango practice a person gains one hour of improvement. For each month of tango practice, a person gains one month of improvement. No practice, no improvement.

Many people use classes and milongas as their only time for practice. This approach will not take a person very far very fast. During a lesson one is always learning something new, and doesn't have time to absorb it and make part of his or her unconscious movement repertoire. By "something new" I mean anything - it could be a step, a skill, a concept, a correction from the teacher. The material from lessons has to be practiced calmly and repeatedly to build it into a (good) habit. Only once you stop thinking about the movement can it become part of spontaneous improvisation.

The milonga is a place where dancers can acquire some mileage on the dance floor, and it is fun, and people improve by going to the milonga. But, however, it is a very different thing from practicing. Practicing implies that you pick some specific topic of tango study and work on it. It might be just walking while maintaining good posture. Or it might be working on a new step sequence that you learned in class. Or it might be applying a particular technique while dancing various moves. Whatever it is, a practicing dancer applies herself or himself to "learning" and "refining" that area of movement. It means internalizing the movement skill so that the you can do it w/ o having to think about it consciously. It means adjusting your habits until the move is comfortable for both partners, and successful. It means finding the way to dance on the music.

Practicing in this way, one needs time to stop and regroup, to discuss how it's going with your partners and try again, to watch oneself in a mirror ideally, and to work repeatedly on the same small thing. These options are missing from the environment of the milonga. That is why it is so important to have a simply for practicing, such as a living room with a wood floor, or an organized practica.

The milonga, on the other hand, is where dancers discover what the tango is all about. It is only at the milonga, surrounded by other dancers, caught up in the collective spirit of the night, inspired by the music and the surroundings, where dancers can experience the high points of synchrony with the rhythms and their partners. With one's own body in motion together with others, suddenly everything clicks and a person discovers a new world, a new depth to the music, a new feeling of really dancing "together" with another person, two people becoming like one. That shared moment of musical feelings and feeling like the music is in you and you in the music is what sends people back to take more lessons and to do more practicing. One quickly learns that such moments don't come all the time. They do come more often the more you practice.

Lessons, practice, and then the milonga. I think we are lucky to have ready access to class, weekly dances, and also group practicas. Every week, they are ready to hand. And tango dancers need all three.

As a dancer progresses, the milonga becomes the reason for practice - the fulfillment of the learning. But the dancers who get the most out of their tango are the ones who practice the most.

Some people will say that for each one hour of instruction a person should give three hours of practice. Others might say one hour of practice for each hour of instruction. Nobody says zero hours of practice. And nobody says just do your practicing at the milonga.

Posted by joegrohens at June 9, 2008 03:44 PM


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