Because I came to tango from a M.A. in dance and a background in teaching dance, I have a different approach compared to many tango dancers who happen to teach. I am constantly experimenting with ways to make class work better for more people. I tend to create tango "games" that help dancers find new creative space in the dance, rather than focusing on teaching combinations of steps.
Getting in the groove
When I did my thesis research in the late 1990s in Buenos Aires, several of the older dancers I interviewed bemoaned the loss of a collective groove in the milongas. They told me that before, there were fewer collisions and that everyone on the dance floor seemed to be in sync with each other. "Now," one guy told me, "It's everybody for themselves, running all over the place, crashing into people."
When did we lose the part of tango that tunes into the GROUP, as well as the self and the partner? I have thought a lot about this since those interviews.
I have been playing games to train awareness of the group as well as of the couple, since those interviews. My Solo-Couple game has everyone dance through the space, finding the shape of the available room, how much space you can take as a person, and then teaming up with various partners to explore the space. This game works well and I've used it for years.
I yell "Solo!" and let people get in a groove with the music. They can dance in any direction, and I encourage going against line-of-dance and through the middle of the group. Then I yell "Couple!" and everyone grabs the closest person and keeps moving. This is not the time to stop, introduce yourself, and carefully find an embrace. Grab and go! And yes, often two women who haven't led, or two guys who have managed to avoid following end up together for 30 seconds or a minute. Everyone survives.
A side effect of the game, is that everyone tunes into the music better because they have to move as a group.
Tuning into the music better
Last week at Luisa and my milonga, Las Naifas, I walked in prepared to teach a beginner lesson, and most of the people who came were intermediate and advanced dancers. I wanted to challenge them to dance more tuned into the music and to the group, so I improvised wildly on my planned lesson; and found something much better!
First, we played with the music. We stepped on the beat. Then, we found the double-time (quick quick) parts of the music. Then, we added half-time (step, pause, step, pause). Then, we found the pauses in the music and adornos to ornament the spaces created (different lengths of pause). Then, we added slow motion parts to the dance. After that, we did milonga, vals and tango, and felt the differences in the music.
OK, so now we have both the idea of solo-couple, tuning into the group, and focusing on musicality to play around within the available space. I asked people to try to dance the music WHILE tuning into the entire group groove. "And you could even steal partners," I joked--and then realized this could be really interesting!
It turns out that, to steal someone's partner, both couples have to be almost completely in sync, dancing very close together. There were moments of syncing up, stealing the partner, and moving into a new connection with a new partner and the music. The best was when two couples were obviously doing this, and a third darted in, synced up, and stole dancers right under the nose of the other people! We ended up with everyone dancing in about one quarter of the available space, dancing well with the music and the partner and the group.
It was fun, too, with lots of giggling. I think that fun is the most important component of learning to dance. If you have fun, you will keep doing it. If you have fun, it helps balance the fact that you are an adult learner, not used to being a beginner, and the awkwardness disappears when you are laughing (not at someone).
Steal a partner notes for teachers
Games make structured students freak out
It is easier to make beginners play tango games. More advanced dancers sometimes get stuck in tango-mode, and are not willing to take risks in order to improve their dance. A few months ago, a person who had danced for a long time walked up to me, told me, "I'm not going to get SLOPPY in my dance after working this hard all these years," quit the lesson, and stalked off to their table, instead of trying something new. Be prepared that some of the more structured dancers may freak out quietly (or loudly) about pushing their comfort envelope.
You need a ringleader
The reason this first trial worked so well was that most of the dancers who showed up enjoy playing with their dance. One dancer in particular made this more fun than I could have dreamed (Thanks, Jay!). I hadn't expected that, as I don't know him well, and I would have guessed he was more conservative in his approach, but he got a gleam in his eye, and charged off to make as much trouble as he could. The game needed a ringleader to encourage misbehaving amongst the others. If you are this kind of person and no student jumps into the fray, you can join the game and help rile things up, but it helps to have a rabble-rouser in the group (or several).
Try milonga first
We had the most success stealing partners while dancing milonga. Musically, it was less complex (regular and double-time only). Then, we moved on to vals (adding half-time and short pauses). When we expanded to tango, and I asked them to add slo-mo and looooong pauses, it was harder for couples to sync up with each other. After a few tangos, they adjusted, but it would not have worked to do this first in tango.
Too many balls in the air, and things fall apart
I tried to combine this game with also finding your partner's breath during pauses, and everything fell apart. The dancers couldn't do the space/group awareness game and tune in deeply to their partner at the same time--yet. My guess is that advanced dancers would be able to add this part as well. When things start to fall apart, take it down one level of complexity and try again.
Have fun trying this new game!