Learner errors can be either due to (i) the background culture; or (ii) the form of instruction. These are distinct but nonetheless related because the form of instruction is usually adapted to the cultural background of the learners. Errors tend to centre around the following areas:
- Lack of improvisation skills – simply rehearsing set patterns, end-gaining or ‘powering’ through patterns
- Lack of connection at the embrace – moving in and out to accommodate the requirements of the steps, lead-follow with hands
- Lack of connection to music – dancing to all music without variation, dancing too fast, lack of variation to highs and lows in the music
- Lack of control on the dance floor – unable to stop when needed, unaware of the surroundings, takes up an excessive amount of space, fast uncontrolled foot movements close to other couples
Normal development vs. persistent errors
When we talk about learner errors we need to keep in mind two things: (1) errors are a normal part of development, and (2) errors are relative to one’s goals. Learning inevitably involves making mistakes. There are the mistakes that are simply due to a lack of knowledge. Then there are mistakes that are due to prior habits and beliefs, typically due to the background culture. For example, different cultures will have different beliefs and preferences pertaining to things like dancing and learning. Some cultures are more spontaneous and expressive while others are more controlled and systematic. Both attitudes will generate actions that are considered errors from the point of view of tango dancing, and teaching needs to address these errors in the appropriate manner.
So learner errors are not normally a problem if learners are given the appropriate corrective feedback. However, if learner errors are not given the appropriate corrective feedback, or the form of instruction is not appropriate, learners do not develop out of them and instead these errors become habitual and persistent. They will take on the form of both intellectual beliefs and motor habits that are now practiced and become habitual and persistent. A vivid example in second language learning are various forms of pidgin and creole languages that emerge when a language is only partially acquired. One can see something similar in dancing when a dance form is adapted to the learner’s cultural beliefs and is thus only learned in a partial and incomplete form. In that situation, what are considered errors from the point of view of the target culture becomes the normal part of the dancing repertoire.
So how we view errors depends on the stated goal of dance instruction and the learner, namely, whether the goal is to facilitate development in the direction of the target culture, ie., native-like performance or not. In other words, whether something is an error is not a matter of absolutes but is rather relative to the goal. Presently we are assuming that the goal is traditional tango milonguero and so the behaviours are considered errors from the perspective of that standard. If people do not have that goal then these same behaviours are therefore not necessarily errors for them.
Traditional tango is essentially an improvised dance that places emphasis on the embrace, the music and feeling as these pertain to dancing. Non-Argentine dancers often struggle to achieve competence in these areas. Experience suggests that dancers struggle to move beyond the phase of rehearsed routines and develop competence in the areas mentioned above. This appears to be primarily due to the emphasis of the instruction and type of correction given in non-Argentine contexts.
The source of the problem appears to be caused by the mode learning which consists of drill and rehearsal of step patterns. While these provide a learning crutch, they have the effect of forcing the learner to compromise the embrace and connection to music. In other words, when the focus is a pattern of steps, the other things fall down on the list of priorities. By contrast, in traditional tango, the music and the embrace are of primary importance and the steps are adapted so as to maintain these two types of connection. Learning fixed patterns creates a range of issues that prevent the learner from being able to improvise a connected dance:
Prioritising the footwork
The method of teaching whereby the learner practices a set sequence of steps places excessive focus on the feet at the expense of what is happening with posture and at the embrace. In order to execute the steps the learner neglects the embrace. In traditional tango, the embrace and the music are the primary focus and the steps are adapted to fit that. By contrast, in dance studio teaching walking in a particular way is the focus even when it might not be optimal given the partner and the music. One always strives to have a particular show look and that is considered a higher value than connection.
End-gaining and the visual aspect
Studio dance method of teaching is limited to modeling and drill. This tends to encourage end-gaining whereby learners seek to emulate the look of skills teachers. This tends to encourage focusing on how the dancing looks—the visual aspect of dancing—over the quality of the movement from a somatic or experiential perspective: how the dancing feels, whether it’s pleasant, efficient, or connected. Since the teachers tend to model choreography with large movements drawn from show dancing, which typically does not represent an efficient or optimal movement, the experiential aspects of dancing are neglected or completely absent.
Naming and improvisation
The practice of naming dance sequences has been the result of a need for teaching material for beginners. The rationale behind it makes perfect sense: learners need a vocabulary to communicate about what they are learning, and isolating patterns and naming them functions as a sort of a crutch. The problem is that this has the effect of creating the impression that these are agreed upon and essential aspects of tango dancing. But tango is improvised which means that by definition it does not have such fixed, agreed upon steps.
From the teacher’s point of view it also allows teachers to turn the named patterns, sequences, figures or moves into packaged items that can be marketed as distinct saleable and consumable items. I take a lesson and thereby purchase a particular move from which i derive use value. There is no problem with the economic model as such, but rather with the idea that the moves are the products themselves, when in fact they were initially devised merely as crutches for learners to be able to progress towards the actual dancing skills in which there are no moves but rather skills in improvised dancing. Thus, from the perspective of traditional tango practice, the products of tango dance training are not the moves but other skills.
So the process has been that dancers cum teachers have isolated what they happen to do frequently, but other dancers might do rarely or not at all, and have baptised these as the steps or tango: the paso basico, the salida, etc. This has resulted in patterns that are teachable but only roughly resemble actual dancing and are more often than not actually dysfunctional in a social dancing setting, as in, for example, starting off to the back or to the side in a ‘salida’. “Salida” simply means start or depature in Spanish, but to a non-Spanish name sounds like the name of a dance move comprising a number of complex steps, when it is quite possible to start dancing tango without taking any steps at all, but simply by moving in place.
Being essentially improvised tango does not have steps.
Needless to say, all of this has a detrimental effect from the point of view of improvisation. Being essentially improvised tango does not have steps. While the patterns with names have been devised for the purposes of teaching, as sorts of crutches, they have effectively taken on a life of their own and become a style of dancing in itself such that the crutches are never dispensed with. This suggests that using set patterns as learning crutches is not an effective teaching strategy as the patterns fossilise into permanent habits. It also leads to end-gaining and learners seek to learn as many moves as possible.
Constant variation: performance vs. training
Social dancing requires the improvisation of a variety of complex movements. Actual dancing represents the performance of a set of skills which have been acquired through a process of training. The failure to distinguish training and performance may confuse some into thinking that in order to acquire the complex skill of dancing the process of learning should also involve a lot of variation and complexity. In fact, the situation is quite the reverse. While the performance of the skills involves a lot of variation, the process of training typically requires a lot of repetition of a relatively few simple elements.
All training requires repetition and without adequate repetition no one can learn dancing (or most other higher order skills for that matter) if he does not already have the necessary movement skills prior to a dancing class. So if the dancing class does not provide adequate repetition, only those with prior dancing experience and pre-existing skills can progress in tango (see Base).
Training requires mental effort in the form of sustained focused practice. Effective training requires adequate repetition for the motor skills to develop, ie., to re-wire the brain and effect neuromuscular adaptation. That does not mean that variation does not have a place in learning. Educational psychology research tells us that we need the right combination of repetition and variation. There are those who take it to the opposite extreme and get stuck on practicing a few elements ad nauseam. That is not good either.
I am not here advocating the practice practice practice approach to learning. What we are striving for is adequate repetition with a reasonable amount of variation. In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014) Brown et al write:
Practice that is spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention and more versatility.
An ideal training schedule has the following elements:
- Spaced practice is better than massed practice: 20 minute practice 3+ times a week is better than a single 2 hour practice session once a week
- Interleaved and varied practice is better than massed practice: given adequate repetition, it is not necessary to nail the skill before progressing on to the next thing. In fact, it is better to mix up the practice of several skills.
- Trying to solve a problem before being shown the solution leads to better learning even when errors are made in the attempt (ibid. p. 4)
Given a well-designed program with appropriate corrective feedback, focus on the correct elements and appropriate levels of repetition and variation learner errors should be corrected and learners should progress towards native-like competence. The fact that learners in most countries outside of Argentina never progress to dancing traditional tango that emphasises improvisation, embrace and musicality suggests that cultural and instructional factors are missing. The factors identified here include:
- Inappropriate focus on the action of the feet, including steps, decorations and hooks/kicks, at the expense of other factors such as improvisation, embrace, musicality;
- Seeking to emulate the look of advanced dancers (teachers, show dancers or milongueros) which leads to end-gaining at the expense of factors such as awareness, process-orientation rather than product-orientation;
- The practice of naming patterns (esp. calling them ‘basic’) inculcates the false belief that these sequences are an essential part of tango practice rather than crutches and thus creates a rigid adherence and a mental block to the ability to improvise.
- Practicing set patterns can lead to end-gaining where learners pile on more steps and figures without adequate repetition to master anything well.
1. Social proximity or distance characterises the differences between cultural groups that cause these groups to interact more or less respectively. This determines the extent to which members of one group acculturates (their behaviour and habits become more similar) to the other group. Acculturation is considered a causal factor in the acquisition of cultural characteristics such as language and by extension cultural skills such as dancing, taste in music, etc.
2. Because how we learn and the errors we make is strongly influenced by the background culture, it is not really possible to generalise about learner errors without defining a particular cultural group. The errors will be a function of background assumptions about dancing, learning, etc. So in what follows I am making generalisations about typical tango dancing students in an Anglophone or West European country attending a typical commercial dancing studio.
3. This is more commonly known as ‘floor skills’. I believe that the concept of floor skills as distinct from dancing skills is a myth. As I argue here, a lack of ‘floor skills’ is solely the consequence of a particular sort of instruction which requires movements that render good control on the dancefloor virtually impossible.
4. For the purposes of present discussion I will designate as “Argentine” people who are either culturally native to Argentina or are assimilated to Argentine culture, eg., through extensive stay in Argentina.
5. By sequence or pattern of steps I mean the sequences that are given a specific name such as paso basico/8-step basic, ocho/figure 8, cruzada/cross, ocho cortado, gancho, etc.