Tango as conversation

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. As with conversation social tango is interactive. Interaction means that we’re responding to the immediate situation and we are cooperating with the partner to create an improvised conversation. Unlike language which is composed, ie., written down, or movement which is choreographed, it means that you can’t anticipate how the interaction will run. You have not rehearsed a routine that you are going to execute in a predetermined manner and instead you need to respond to the situation as it emerges, ie., the music, the space and your partner. You co-create the dance in the moment in a cooperative manner.

The analogy with conversation also can inform how we can approach learning it, in particular what makes sense and what doesn’t. While this may seem obvious it bears pointing out that because conversation is essentially interactive it can only really be learned by practicing interaction. It can’t be learned by rote learning lines. It has only fairly recently been noticed in language education research that interactive conversation has different pragmatic features from language which is composed and can’t be learned simply by studying its formal structures. Studying grammar or memorising sentences, even if they’re lines of an idealised dialogue, will not teach you conversation skills. People who attempt to learn conversation in a foreign language this way are boring to talk to and can never find anyone to talk with them because they’re sticking to a rigid schema instead of responding to the immediate situation with its pragmatic features and complexities that can’t be written down.

On the other hand, you can’t simply launch into a conversation without any preparation. You do need to prepare with 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 also useful to notice features of interactive language, eg., by looking at videos or transcripts. I’ve met people who learned good conversational skills by watching a lot of movies which feature a lot of conversation in the target language. The problem is that people often start off rote learning without progressing to actual interaction, and they tend to focus on formal, composed type of language and fail to notice that interactive has different sorts of features. Then 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 the 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. Also, it may be useful to look at people dancing in an interactive, improvisational manner and notice important features of this type of dancing and how it differs from more composed, choreographed type of dancing. But while some rote learning is required, it makes little 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. I think that this conversational schema—preparation through rote repetition, interaction in a practice situation, listening and adjusting—is fairly universal to anything we learn whether it is a new language, to dance or to play a musical instrument.

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