Technique and culture

If technique is the correct way of executing certain movements, the question is whether this can be separated from the culture. So it is often argued by traditionalists that in Argentina people do not learn tango in a formal class and that instead of learning the correct technique we should learn about the culture of tango and the technique will emerge naturally out of that. They hold that learning tango is primarily learning about the culture of traditional milongas in Buenos Aires. Others focus on taking systematic technique classes from a professional dancing teacher and practicing.

Obviously, an extreme case of one or the other will result in unbalanced development, so what we want is some sort of a balance between the two. Yet one finds that some advocate avoiding classes and just learning more about the culture of tango, whereas others seem to have only a minor if any interest in the culture and focus on improving their dancing skills. What would be an optimal balance here?

Since dancing is a physical skill unless you take some instruction in dancing tango whether from a teacher or in some other way (eg., by watching videos) you won’t be able to dance. So learning about culture is not thereby learning to dance so one does need some basic instruction in dancing. Only a few exceptional people can pick up tango without any explicit instruction of some sort, and then there is always room for correction and feedback from a teacher or some other learning resource.

At the other end, people who focus on learning dancing without putting any time into learning about tango culture will lack important contextual knowledge that is also important. Often they will dance to the wrong music, will lack an emotional response to the music so that their dancing will be technically correct but rather mechanical and that would be defeating the purpose of dancing tango. They will also lack a way of communicating with other dancers about anything other than technique which then becomes an end in itself. Tango will be a less of a shared emotional and cultural experience and will be more of a mechanical and physical movement activity not much different to sport or exercises done to rhythmic music. In other words, it is likely to lack ‘soul’.

A common enough mistake is to confuse the two aspects, so that in answer to the question ‘how do I become a technically better dancer?’ one is directed to learning tango culture, eg., watching videos of milonguero dancers, or going to Buenos Aires and hanging out at traditional milongas. Alternatively, in response to the question ‘how do I learn more about tango culture?’ one is told about the technique which is ‘authentic’ and therefore somehow represents the culture. These are both common enough confusions.

Technique is really the mechanics of the dance which has some independence from the culture. Traditional dancers must have enough technique to dance effectively and so if one wants to emulate a set of dancers one needs to know their basic technique. But there are two problems here:

First, watching the dancers will not help a novice who does not know how to understand movement. Only an expert in the form or in movement in general will have the ability to interpret what is going on ‘from the inside’, whereas a novice will have only a very superficial and probably a confused understanding of what is going on. Trying to look like the dancer he wants to emulate he will often fail to understand the internal mechanics that make the dancer look a particular way. Then looking at different dancers he will find that they all look a bit different and will probably be puzzled as to what they all have in common, and will typically fall back on trying to copy their steps as these are the most obvious thing.

Second, traditional dancers obviously must have enough technique to dance effectively, but often their dancing is not representative of the ideal technique. This is not unique to tango. Some traditional guitarists such as those in Flamenco play with rather poor technique and no guitar teacher would recommend learning what they do to a student who can learn the technique that is the most efficient from the start. People who are self-taught or come from a tradition where the technique is just ‘good enough’ for their purposes often do not learn the technique that offers the best possible approach in terms of what is possible in the form.

Whether in playing guitar or dancing we want technique that allows for the greatest efficiency: the greatest ease of movement, least amount of tension, least effort, greatest freedom, and also higher speed. Traditional approaches or autonomous learning often are not the ideal vehicles for achieving these learning goals and a professional technique teacher will have enough understanding of the underlying movement mechanics to provide the appropriate sort of training that one cannot get from looking at traditional dancers.

While technique provides for greater freedom and efficiency of movement, this needs to be adapted toward the specific set of skills, whether it be playing a musical instrument, vocal performance or dancing. So the instruction in movement needs to be guided by the understanding of the cultural context, in the case of tango this will include the music, the history, the tradition, the attitudes, etc. Taking a ‘women’s technique’ workshop teaching adornments should be informed by an understanding of traditional tango culture and the difference between social tango for the milonga and performance tango for shows and competitions. Technique informed by a cultural understanding is more likely to be appropriate and help communication and feeling, and to render the experience more meaningful given the cultural aims of tango dancing, namely, a shared experience with a partner.