Friday, 25 August 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Nine: Breaking that advanced barrier

Most tango dancers out there are intermediate.
So what can they do to break through to the next level?

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this long process that is full of frustrations and rewards.

Lesson No. 9. The intermediate level is the toughest, the longest lasting, and the hardest to break out of. Really, you ask? But wouldn't the beginner level be harder than the intermediate stage? Not in my opinion. There are reasons why most dancers out there are intermediate.

The beginner phase: As beginners we are in a place of pure discovery; you could call it tango innocence. This tango world is all new and somewhat magical. Sure, there is some frustration at this stage, but most dancers move along the learning curve pretty quickly at the start, going from nothing to something in quite a short time.

I would say the beginner stage lasts somewhere between six months and a year for the average tango student. As I said, this is an average; there are always exceptions. Every few years a particularly gifted student skyrockets from beginner to advanced in a year, and now and then there are students who repeat Tango 1 half a dozen times without ever really getting it. But for the most part, within a year students acquire enough skill and knowledge to move on to:

The intermediate phase: At this point, tango has lost some of that initial mystery. We still love it, we are still impressed by those who master it more than we do, but it is no longer brand new or unattainable in a way that it once was.

This stage is full of plateaus in the learning curve and just as we feel we are getting somewhere we have a crappy night and decide we don't know a thing after all. So there is frustration, lots of frustration.

At this stage, leaders tend to feel stressed out about not knowing enough moves, and get bored with themselves if they don't execute enough of them during a tanda. Followers, too, get frustrated – with their partners if they feel they are not keeping up, and with themselves as they start to understand that their role is actually about more than following. Eventually, they begin to realize that not every mistake is the leader's fault and their side of the partnership is more difficult than they expected. While this realization is a good sign, it is – again – frustrating.

Meanwhile, teachers keep saying to focus more on posture, connection, musicality and floorcraft, but most intermediate-level dancers don't yet fully grasp this. Leaders and followers can both feel in a rut at this point as they both clue in to how much more time and hard work lie ahead. Many dancers stop really moving forward at this point. They have enough moves and partners to enjoy themselves at milongas so why keep putting time, sweat and money into classes? If the goal was to socialize and dance, it has been reached, and many dancers are content here and don't feel the need to take things further.

Some, however, do want to go further, breaking through the next barrier and becoming truly "advanced." Most dancers at the high end of the intermediate phase have hovered at the cusp at least a few times when, by fluke or design, everything came together with ease: steps, balance, embrace and the perfect moment in the music. They have felt what it should be, what it could be, and they want more. These dancers need to find a way to do get there or they may eventually give up in frustration.

For all but the few and far between truly exceptional dancers, the intermediate stage lasts the longest. It begins on average at around one year and, again, for many it never ends. This is not to say there is no improvement in all this time; there will be some, maybe lots. The intermediate level is wide ranging and most dancers improve and advance at least somewhat, but actually breaking the elusive "advanced" barrier will not happen for everyone, no matter how long you keep dancing in the milongas.

The advanced phase: Once we become truly advanced there is new magic. There are all these things we heard about before but never really got, but now we do. It's like we've finally been admitted to that secret society and unlocked the codes to a new level of understanding and enlightenment. We dance with abandon, embody the music, become one with our partners. There are still and forever new discoveries to come, but they are on a whole different level.

Those years of hard work are paying off and it is so rewarding. This is when the light comes on and we understand for ourselves what our teachers have been saying all along: that technique is king and will free us to enjoy the dance on a whole new level. We see that the sequences and moves are secondary not just to technique but to musicality, connection, floorcraft. Now we really comprehend that both skill and enjoyment are about the how, not the what.

It is rare for a dancer to become truly advanced in less than five years, and, as I said before, many never really do.

I wish I had the universal, magic solution to achieving this breakthrough, but I don't. In the end, the hard work and resulting accomplishments belong to each dancer. As a teacher I can only guide and coach, I can't do the work for you. I can steer you in the right direction and even lead you along the right path, but whether you reach your destination or not is up to you. As a writer as well as a teacher, I suggest the following recipe, but you have to be the one to put it together.

The four essential ingredients to achieve that advanced breakthrough:
  1. Talent. Some people walk in the door and their teachers just know they have something special. They move right, absorb corrections almost instantly and seem to get the big picture of how it all works from the start. Maybe she had dance training all her life and developed strength, axis and body awareness early on; or maybe he just "has it in his blood": He's not a musician or a dancer (yet), but he's got rhythm in his body and moves like he was born on the dance floor. If you've got some of this talent, the rest will be easier. Then again, many people take their talent for granted and are lazy students because of it. So talent helps for sure, but alone it is no guarantee of greatness, in tango or elsewhere.
  2. Hard work. This means you will train regularly outside the milonga setting. First, you will continue to take lessons, especially private ones. I would say that every single person who has reached the advanced level has studied privately with a good teacher at some point. You will also incorporate workouts besides tango in order to improve things like posture, balance and strength. This could mean yoga classes, working with a personal trainer or something else, but body awareness, correct alignment, good posture and strong legs are essential to mastering tango. And you will remain humble enough to admit that you are never done learning. No matter how good you get, you could get better. So don't give up taking regular classes too early. There is this phenomenon in social dance whereby students stop taking classes in their local studios early on, after just a year or two in many cases. This is not the case in such disciplines as ballet or yoga, for example, in which even advanced practitioners continue to attend classes for years and years. Meanwhile, the vast majority of tango dancers take a few sessions of regular classes and then suddenly turn their noses up at the local studios' offerings, opting only for festival classes taught by travelling maestros, if they take any classes at all. Don't get me wrong, I take advantage of these opportunities, too, but they are pricey and offer no followup, so are probably less valuable as a learning tool for your average dancer than regular lessons with a quality teacher. All this being said, the cool thing is, once you have finally broken that advanced barrier, you can actually start learning a lot on your own. Since by this point you have an integral understanding of your own body and what constitutes good tango technique, you can train on your own or with a partner and improve through a certain amount of self-teaching. You can practice without the constant observations of a teacher because you are practicing right. But, as any advanced dancer knows, periodic lessons and coaching from a maestro or teaching colleague are a must. Even the best dancers have bad habits and sometimes need an outsider to point them out.
  3. Determination. You have to want it and be willing to work for it. This can't come from anyone but you. However, some people don't necessarily feel this determination early on, but one day, for whatever reason, they suddenly wake up having decided they want to "get there," and will do the hard work necessary, spurred on by its rewards rather than discouraged by its demands. This decisive action is essential.
  4. Time. Years of experience alone will not make you advanced. We all know people who have been dancing for 15 years and whose technique has not budged in the last 10. But you can't totally rush the process either. Your mind and body need time to integrate and absorb the work you do, so while practicing tango three times a week will certainly be more effective than once a week, taking 10 classes a week and dancing every single night won't necessarily accelerate your learning pace exponentially. So put in the floor time, but accept that it will also just take time. 
You need to find just the right blend of hard work, time and determination. Add to that a pinch of talent, and you're cooking.

Previously: Lesson No. 8: Leading and following are not so different.

Next: Lesson No. 10: You've got to be clear about what you want.

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