Teaching Improvisational Dance

Non-dancers in America (think they) have a clear view of what dancing is all about, from watching Dancing With The Stars.  Americans also don’t know what tango is; we have a view of tango from DWTS and millions of YouTube videos (of tango performances), which provide our only guide to how to tango, and what to try to learn.  When we teach tango, we need to compensate for the students’ already-view of tango, and their lack of knowledge of tango music (in contrast to teachers in Buenos Aires who are teaching students who know what tango looks like from the milongas – not TV – and who already know tango music, because they grew up with it.)  In the milongas of Buenos Aires they still dance a simple tango, without fancy steps, from before Juan Carlos Copes invented show tango, in the 1960’s.  We Americans never get to see this tango.

Unfortunately, we have taught tango as a collection of difficult figures, which seems to have blocked men from learning improvisation, and blocked women from learning to follow.  What a shame!  My vision is a tango which is accessible to all dancers, intimate and satisfying to dance.  I have it, finally, and I want everyone to have it.

Argentine Tango is based on Musicality and Connection, as its practitioners like to say.   Musicality is the interpretation of the rhythms of the music in the movements – feeling the rhythm, and moving in response to it.  All dancing is done to the rhythm of the music, of course, but tango music has very complex and varied rhythms, so it’s quite different from dancing to a foxtrot, where the rhythm continues the same through the whole song.  Tango rhythms are made up of layers of rhythms, starting with a 4/4 time walk, then adding the QQS found in many dances, then pauses, which are an important part of any tango.  There are rhythmic additions unique to tango, such as syncopations, suspensions, Habaneras, and times when the string bass player stops strumming. Then there are interpretations of the music which are danced differently, such as staccato vs legato, louder vs softer, chord changes, piano trills, and solos by the singer or an instrument. Tango dancers hear all these layers of rhythmic nuances and improvise their dance to match each rhythmic nuance.

Connection is the conversation between partners through physical contact, wherein the rhythm of the music is communicated back and forth.  Tango doesn’t have the signaling of memorized figures, like ballroom dances; Tango has all improvised moves, which are led and followed through the body contact.  The real magic of Tango occurs when both partners get past the figures and improvise in perfect sync, without lead or follow, and move together as one.  The move itself is inconsequential, therefore, as it is purely the rhythm of the move which is the grist for the communication.  Knowing this, the best tangueros use very simple moves.

Teaching Tango as an Improvisational dance, with Musicality, is challenging, when the dancers don’t know the music.  When we dance foxtrot or samba, we hear the rhythm in the music and connect the rhythm of the music with the feeling of moving with our partner.  We would never dance a foxtrot to samba music, or vice versa, but it’s easy to hear a foxtrot rhythm, then dance the same figures for the whole dance – the rhythm does not change within the song.  Tango is also in 4/4 time (like foxtrot and samba) but the tango rhythm changes on every measure within a song, and every song is different.  In short, it is necessary to know the tango song – note by note – in order to dance in sync with the rhythm of that song.

Tango teachers in Buenos Aires have students who know every note of every tango song, because they grew up with the music.  Tango teachers in America have students who are unfamiliar with the music, but the teachers have not taught the music along with the figures.  To be successful, a tango teacher in America must teach the music along with the figures, and the music which matches the very figures he is teaching.  The rhythm of the music matches the rhythm of the figures in a tango.  That’s the meaning of Musicality.  Connection is communicating this rhythm with your partner.

In the past, teachers have also tried to teach tango based on a foundation of a single complex figure – originally the American tango basic figure, and then the “8 count basic”; then they tried it without figures, and then with a great variety of figures.  These schemes have not worked because the figures were not linked to the music; most dancers seem to find tango difficult and unsatisfying.  I myself learned hundreds of figures, over a decade of lessons and milongas, but I was still a terrible tango dancer; only when I had cleansed my vocabulary of figures, and studied Musicality, did I learn to tango.

To teach an improvisational dance successfully, it seems to require a foundation of Tango Music on which to build the dance.  Figures are not an adequate foundation.  Porteños are able to learn tango, because they have a foundation of tango music, which has been the popular music for their whole life.  They know the tango music like we know the music which was popular in our younger years.  Porteños can learn a few figures, and dance them to music they know and love, and quickly become able to improvise their dance.  As they learn more figures, they expand their dancing on the foundation of tango music they already know.  Tango connects the feeling of the rhythm of the music with the feeling of moving in sync with a partner. 

After a decade of studying this tango teaching problem, I have worked out a method of teaching tango as Musicality and Improvisation combined, and tested it by teaching a group of dancers who were new to tango.  In a half hour they became able to dance a tango musically and improvisationally, using a few simple figures and one song. Later on, these dancers were able to dance Musically and Improvisationally to other tangos as well.  (There is, of course, way more to learn, but they can tango now.)

In order to enable the dancers to learn quickly and easily and become confident in dancing musically, I spoke very little (no history, opinions, great stories, details of posture and connection, etc.)  and started with the dancers dancing, and kept them dancing almost non-stop. 

There was a delicate balance between: memorizing a sequence vs not knowing what step to do next.  I kept them on this balance; didn’t let them fall into a repetitive sequence, and didn’t let them not know what to do next.  It wasn’t easy, but I think a teacher must be alert to each dancer and keep each one on this balance.

Halfway through I explained a few basics: that the choreography is up to the man, and there is no such thing as incorrect steps.  I explained that it was up to the man to follow the woman, because wherever she went it was because he led her there.  I explained that strong intention was required always, and explained that all moves started with intention, and then the body movement (without signal or bounce); that the movement was smooth, even, and steady, with no up and down or side-to-side movement.  As I explained, I demonstrated, but I let them keep dancing.  With few words I explained these essentials, knowing that there is way more to tell them, but restraining myself in order to get them experiencing dancing tango ASAP.

I played simple music with strong clear rhythms: Don Esteban by Don Pancho.  I started out by extracting a phrase of 4 measures, about 8 seconds (after deleting the introduction), and I made 10 copies and played them in a row.  I called out the QQS and SS rhythms until all the dancers heard it clearly.

Next I showed them the starting figure: a forward-back-close figure (sometimes called a “repent”) done to a QQS rhythm; and when they got that I added 2 walking steps.  I played the phrase over and over a dozen times, as the dancers repeatedly did the repent and 2 walking steps.  After 5 times through I explained to them to make it snappy – almost staccato – and to step just half way (equal weight on both feet), and return to both feet together.  I emphasized that they were to hear the rhythm (not just the 4/4 time) and step with the rhythm – QQS SS.

When they felt confident and comfortable with this phrase, and danced without counting or thinking, I moved on, but not sooner.  It got boring, but I wanted the dancers to feel good about themselves and their dance, and their dance to become automatic.  This first figure and music set the tone for the entire lesson, so I wanted it to be successful.

To start, my partner and I demonstrated the figures, 6 or 8 times, and we danced with the group at first.  I liberally scattered acknowledgements and compliments and pointers and assistance, as needed, but I let the music play and the dancers dance.

When the dancers were ready, I added another 4 measures of music, and another figure, and went through the same whole procedure until the dancers were confident and comfortable.  The second step was a forward rocking step.

I continued to add music, 8 measures at a time and then more.  And I added 2 more steps: a side step R and close; and quick steps in line.  4 figures plus the walk was enough.  Eventually we were dancing, repeatedly, to the whole song (I added the introduction, and explained that Porteños didn’t dance during the introduction)

When they were ready, we launched into full improvisation.  I explained to the men that they could mix the steps, invent new steps, use steps they already knew, and experiment – as long as they communicated everything to their partner.  I explained to the women to not think about past steps (and criticize herself) and don’t think about possible future steps (and plan) because both of these kill the improvisational nature of tango.  Feel the man moving, and be with him.

I explained that men should act like macho Porteños, strong, confident, purposeful; they should take their partner to dance, hold her firmly with the right arm while letting her slide side to side, and limit her leftward slide by keeping his elbow against her side.  Then I explained the rest of the embrace: hands, etc.  Most of the details of tango I never mentioned, in order to minimize talking and maximize dancing.

After Don Esteban, we did another tango: El Calabozo by Carlos Di Sarli.  It has bold rhythms, clarity, and is easy for dancing.  Here the dancers could see that they could use similar techniques and steps to dance to any tango.  We then danced to Assassination Tango as another demonstration of the universality of what they knew.  During the dance later, I played a half dozen more tangos and alternatives, and those who were in the class seemed to be able to dance to all of them confidently.

Lesson 2 continued the emphasis on combining Improvisation with Musicality – marrying the feeling of the music with the feeling of moving with a partner.  The music was El Flete by Juan D’Arienzo broken down into phrases as I did with Don Esteban.  I would play the first phrase of the music repetitively until the dancers knew it well, and work with matching steps, demonstrating how the steps matched the music.  For El Flete, I taught 2 new rhythmic step sequences: stepping forward and backward on the L alternating with steps on R in place, on QQQQQQS; and multiple step-closes to the man’s R in a small CW circle on QQQQQQS; and I encouraged the dancers to mix all the steps they know, always matching the steps to the rhythm of the music. 

Lesson 3 will use a song like El Abrojo by Carlos Di Sarli, which has a mix of staccato and legato phrases, distinct rhythms, and some QQSQQS phrases which match the rhythm of the ocho cortado.  (Ocho cortado is a popular figure, which fits perfectly with a popular musical phrase in the rhythm QQSQQS.)  Again, I would break the song into phrases so the dancers could thoroughly learn one phrase of music, and I would identify the rhythm within that phrase (and some alternate interpretations of that same rhythm). 

Here I would address the use of rhythmic steps in rhythmic phrases and smooth steps in lyrical phrases.  I would also emphasize pauses, slowdowns, and opportunities to connect more closely with partners.

Ongoingly I would demonstrate improvisational variations and different musical interpretations.  I would vary the pedagogy to counter tendencies toward repetition of a single step sequence vs. not knowing what to do next – keeping the same balance as in lesson 1.

At a Social Tango in a milonga in Buenos Aires you can see that the figures become inconsequential; it is the feeling of the rhythm of the music, matching the rhythm of your steps and your partner’s steps that gives the exhilaration.  When the old tango dancers – Milongueros – talk about tango (having danced all their life) they allude to the thrill of leaving their body (left brain) behind, and dwelling in the right brain sensation of “being one with”, which, in my own experience, is the ultimate thrill.

Dance, then, becomes an elevated experience of BEING, and not about DOING. In order to experience this improvisational experience, you must release “doing it right” and “doing a sequence in a certain way”.  You must be able to feel the music, and interpret it for yourself – at the moment – without thinking, or comparing yourself to others dancing near you, or comparing this dance to previous partners with whom you’ve danced this same song.  In fact, you’ve got to be present in this moment, unique in time, and with the experience you’re having right now.  You’ve got to feel the music, and this partner, right now.  “Be Here Now”, as Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) put it so clearly in the ‘60’s.

Tango spread rapidly across America after Richard Powers’ tango festivals in 1991; but in recent years tango has slowed: there are fewer dancers and fewer classes.  Why?  Tango dancers often learn for just a few years, and then quit.  Sometimes I see couples at a dance practicing figures; they don’t look like they are experiencing the exhilaration and connection that we would expect.  What are we missing?

If you see an Argentine woman (Porteña) dance tango, you may see her do a dance that American women don’t even know about.  She follows easily and accurately, but she also improvises the dance as she goes, step by step, confidently and joyfully.  As an artist expressing her art, she takes pride in each step, and pays no attention to correctness. See: http://socialdance.stanford.edu/syllabi/Mistakes.htm