What's the best way to learn Argentine Tango?

Part One: How the brain learns

Make It Stick

I have been reading Make It Stick, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel. This book covers several decades of learning research, aimed at the educated layperson. One of my students brought it to my attention (thanks, Marcia!) because she knows I am interested in ways to learn and to teach.

Expert performance does not usually rise out of some genetic predisposition or IQ advantage. It rises from thousands of hours of . . .sustained deliberate practice . . . slow acquisition of a larger number of increasingly complex patterns,  patterns that are used to store knowledge about which actions to take in a vast vocabulary of different situations. (Brown et al. 183)

Does this sound like tango to you? It does to me.

What have I found out? The way that most people think is the best way to learn is actually the worst way to learn. However, because it feels easier, learners ignore studies that show them how to boost learning and keep employing methods that don't work well.

I have seen a huge jump in retention of both technique and specific steps since I tweaked my teaching style to implement suggestions from Brown et al. in my teaching.


How does the brain learn?


Neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, actually happens in the brain BEFORE learning begins (Brown et al. 172). So that means that the intention to learn is a trigger for creating an atmosphere in the body that allows for new memories and motor patterns to stick! As a teacher, I find this exciting, because it means that, just by showing up for class, by intending to learn something new, a person is predisposed to learn.



When you learn new information, dance or otherwise, the brain first encodes it:

...the brain converts your perceptions into chemical and electrical changes that form a mental representation of the patterns you’ve observed. . . we call the new representations within the brain memory traces. Think of notes jotted or sketched on a scratchpad, our short-term memory. (Brown et al. 72)



Each time you repeat the new movement or piece of information, the traces in the brain are strengthened. The brain "reorganizes and stabilizes the memory traces," allowing for more connections to be made to other memory traces, so that it can be recalled at a later time (Brown et al. 73). The process of creating long-term memory storage is called consolidation.



In the next step of learning, the brain continues to work on the new material, reconsolidating it, pulling it out of storage, modifying it if necessary, and connecting it to more information to strengthen the memory, each time it is used: “Scientists believe that the brain replays or rehearses the learning, giving it meaning, filling in blank spots and making connections to past experiences…” (Brown et al. 73).



As you continue practicing, or using, the stored information, those neuronal pathways become coated with myelin. It acts like insulation, allowing the signals to move faster along those pathways. Brown et al. note that:

our learning it thought to be recoded in . . . the same area that controls subconscious actions . . . As a part of this process of recoding, the brain is thought to chunk motor and cognitive action sequences together so that they can be performed as a single unit [and they speed up]. (Brown et al 171)

In tango, this is why you can only do a new movement slowly at first. Gradually, you will be able to dance it correctly at higher and higher speeds: the improvement in performance is due to how fast the electrical signals can travel in your body.

Good news for older learners: our "neural circuitry" continues to grow into our sixties (Brown et al. 170)! Watching my older students, I suspect this actually continues longer, because some of the biggest gains I have seen have come from my students in their seventies.


So what does this mean for tango?

The next post will cover how to use this information to learn in a way that "makes it stick" so you can really dance!