Tango can be usefully viewed on analogy with conversation where instead of the medium of language or words we use the medium of the physical body and its movements. To begin with, as with conversation tango is interactive. Interaction means that we are responding to the immediate situation and we are cooperating with the Other to create an improvised conversation. Unlike composed language (ie., language that is written down) or movement (ie., movement that is choreographed) you cannot anticipate how the conversation will run. You have not rehearsed a routine or choreography that you are going to execute in a predetermined manner. You need to respond to the situation as it emerges, ie., the music, the space, and our partner. You co-create the dance in the moment, in a cooperative manner, with your partner.
The analogy with conversation also can inform how we approach learning it. Because conversation is essentially interactive it has to be learned by practicing interaction. It cannot be learned by rote learning lines. Memorising the lines of a dialogue will not by itself teach you conversation skills and people who attempt to learn conversation in a foreign language this way are boring to talk to and can never find anyone to talk to them because they’re sticking to a rigid schema or model instead of responding to the immediate situation with its pragmatic elements and complexities that can’t be written down.
By the same token you can’t simply launch into a conversation without any preparation. You do need to prepare by some drill, memorisation and rote learning even how to say “Hello!” in the foreign language before you can practice saying it in an interactive situation. It is therefore a question of proportion rather than an either/or scenario. The problem is that people start off rote learning and then never progress to actual interaction. They load up their heads with rigid schemas without testing them out in real life situations. When they attempt to do so they freeze under pressure and go back to the safety of the textbook. When they finally come out with their rehearsed schemas they’re boring conversationalists with no fluency.
As with language before you can interact physically with another body you need to do some preparatory work. You need to get a sense of how your own body moves and some of its possibilities through some drill and repetition. However, it makes no sense to memorise whole sequences of movement when you have no clue how to take a single step with a partner in a satisfactory way. You want to start off small, with simple movements that with repetition become fluent. It is a matter of repetition first on your own and then repetition with your partner. At each point you want to be listening and also getting a sense whether your message is appropriate to the situation, whether it’s clear, whether it has been received and perceived correctly, and what response you are getting.
This conversational schema (preparation through rote repetition, interaction in a practice situation, listening and adjusting) is, I believe, fairly universal to anything we learn whether it is a new language, to dance or to play a musical instrument.