I have new students getting ready to a. go to Buenos Aires in a month; b. start tango. Now, all of us know that a month is not enough time to learn tango in any deep way. However, I appreciate that they want to get on the dance floor in Buenos Aires and give tango a try. For a crash course in Argentine Tango, we have to cut to the essentials of tango.
What are the essentials of a dance?
I had the amazing opportunity to teach for DanceAbility many years ago. I knew Alito Alessi from when I did contact improvisation in grad school, and he invited me to teach swing dancing at a Danceability event in Eugene, Oregon. The prospective teachers received DanceAbility training on how to teach effectively for dancers of all abilities. Alito encouraged us to look at what made a dance that all people could do; not simplifying it or cutting it down, but going to the heart of what mattered in a dance.
For teaching swing, the essential was creating tension and releasing it in a way that the dancers passed each other or could make a turn happen, more like a slingshot. It didn't matter what foot pattern was done (people were in motor wheel chairs, regular wheelchairs, on their feet, with walkers, you name it): the couple used energy and played with how that created swing moves depending on how they passed one another. We didn't even need to hold hands, but eye contact was really important. The music gave us an outline to play with, but it didn't really matter if we kept to a specific beat: it's really about improvisation!
What are the essentials for tango?
Let's apply that idea to a tango crash course: what are the essentials that REALLY make tango, tango?
Just be there. Breath, stand on your own balance, and tune in to yourself, your partner, the group of people and your environment. Be present. This is the most important part of tango.
Tango gives you a chance to work on non-verbal communication. You need to be able to read your partner and the people around you in order to successfully navigate on the dance floor and to have a good dance.
Think of tango as the cheapest relationship therapy, trust building coaching and body acceptance work you can get! You are here to communicate with other people, through beautiful music and being connected. Really, what's better than that?
Focus on making yourself clear to others. "I am here!" your balance proclaims, like a bird call. "Now I'm here!" "I feel [fill in the feeling]!" Let yourself be readable, and communicate back to the other person. This is the next most important part of tango: no communication, and you are just standing there, attached to someone else's body!
Tango is a sensuous experience. You can enjoy how your body moves, how you experience music, how your partner feels. It is supposed to feel enjoyable. Be happy to be alive and to have a body!
As one guy told me on the dance floor in Buenos Aires, "I feel sorry for you Puritans/Americans! We just do what we want, and then we go to confession!" Perhaps we just need to get out there and ENJOY life a bit! Enjoy your in-body experience, and your partner gets a better dance (you were already having fun!).
Tango is an improvisation. There is not one "correct" way to move to the music or one "correct" speed to dance. You and your partner need to negotiate the dance and the music, but this also gives you a chance to really hear how the other person hears the music.
The person following has just as much say in the music as the leader. The follower can always veto a suggestion, or inspire the leader to adjust to the music a different way, without leading. It's the shared experience that is so satisfying!
Open yourself up to hearing other versions of the song. I always feel pleased when my partner shows me some new part of a tango that I hadn't really heard before. Moving to music makes it much more of a dance.
You can hear the music any way you want. You can dance with any "flavor" of movement you want. There is SO much room in tango for self-expression! That said, it's a team sport, like marriage, so both people need to feel heard and appreciated in the partnership. Make sure you leave room in the dance for both of you, but don't cut out your own half of the dance so that the other person can do a monologue :-)
The community of tango dancers around you are very interesting people! Take time to meet other folks, talk to them and make friends. It will be lonely out there if you are devoting yourself to competing with people for partners above and beyond anything else. Those other men and women are your community: without them, you would not have dances to attend. Spend some time building your community, dancing with beginners and new people, greeting strangers who sit with you, and spreading the tango love!
I didn't see "Steps" in that list :-) I think we teach steps because the heart of tango asks for a lot of dedication, openness and presence from the dancer. People often feel safer just learning steps, but you miss the whole point of tango if that's your focus. Steps are just part of the shared conversation, and not the most important part. Don't be afraid to just jump in there and put yourself IN tango. The steps will come. The mastery will come.