Needs analysis

The goal of dance instruction is to develop the movement habits and awareness to perform the movements necessary in dancing. These movements are usually repetative and rhythmic movements, with a partner, to music. The goal is to provide the movement and awareness basis for improvising a complex dance based on simple elements. Learners need to learn to move gracefully, with good posture.

  1. Practice material needs to find a balance between all the elements without excessive focus on steps and feet. The instructional material should discourage end-gaining – excessive focus on “taking steps”, looking down and dropping the head – and promote a focus on the means-whereby (see Posture and the head-neck relation). That means relearning the movement without losing the correct posture. The exercises should discourage end-gaining and promote focus on the means-whereby.
  2. Learners need to develop good control of their movement. Learners need to learn to be grounded, and to be able to stop and reverse at each point. Learners need to be able to move without having to take large steps or swivel into turns. Learners need to be able to improvise a dance without being stuck in fixed and mechanical sequences of steps.
  3. Learners need to learn to listen—to their patner and to the music—in order to improvise a dance. Learners need to learn awareness of their body through focused movement exercises. Learners need to develop the habit of focused and deliberate practice, and adequate scheduled spaced repetition.

Error analysis

Learner errors can be either due to (i) the background culture;[1] 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:[2]

  1. Lack of improvisation skills – simply rehearsing set patterns, end-gaining or ‘powering’ through patterns
  2. Lack of connection at the embrace – moving in and out to accommodate the requirements of the steps, lead-follow with hands
  3. Lack of connection to music – dancing to all music without variation, dancing too fast, lack of variation to highs and lows in the music
  4. Lack of control on the dance floor[3] – 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.[4]

The source of the problem appears to be caused by the mode learning which consists of drill and rehearsal of step patterns.[5] 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 dancingover 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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)

Summary

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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.
  4. Practicing set patterns can lead to end-gaining where learners pile on more steps and figures without adequate repetition to master anything well.

Notes

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 basicocho/figure 8cruzada/crossocho cortadogancho, etc.

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. 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.

Teaching skills

My first experience teaching a class in anything was in my early 20s conducting a philosophy tutorial. The tutorial system of teaching philosophy derived from the days of the university as an elite institution for the upper classes in which a handful of students wearing tweed jackets would sit in leather armchairs, drink brandy and discuss a book set by the professor … or something like that.

The only difference is that in my tutorial class the lecturer set a series of discussion questions that I read out, the tutorial had 15-20 students who were hardly from upper class backgrounds, and there were also no leather armchairs, cigars or brandy on hand. No surprise the discussion wasn’t very lively. This system of teaching may have worked in a different world, but it hardly transferred over seamlessly to the modern university. That was the first time that the question ‘Is there a method to teaching?’ entered my mind.

Over 20 years later I am an experienced teacher and have spent over 20 years thinking about and experimenting with teaching methods. Obviously not everything we learn is the result of systematic teaching. Many things are learned incidentally or informally. But in a complex and globalised world it is increasingly the case that we want to learn a skill and the only way to do so is to undertake a systematic program of instruction of some sort. Here are some basic elements that I believe should be present in any such program:

Goals

Any systematic program of instruction should specify what specific set of skills or competence it is aimed at achieving and to what degree of competency. Is it designed for beginners to teach basic competency or to teach high level or expert performance? What specifically will you be able to do or to do better? It is a problem when the goals are either not specified or are not about learning a skill (eg., “Take this dancing class to have fun and get fit”), are specified in terms of goals that are very general (eg., “Learn how to dance the tango”), and so are not measurable, so you have no way of telling whether you are progressing toward the specified goal.

Level

Any systematic program of instruction should be specific to some level, at least in terms such as Beginner, Proficient, Advanced. Lumping beginners and experienced dancers in the same class or workshop is going to reduce the value of that class to both. It can only be either too difficult for the novices, or  too easy for the proficient learners.

Chunking

The material or content being taught needs to be simplified by being divided up into smaller bits that the learner can cope with (see Cognitive Load).

Cues

The learner needs some cues that help to perform the task or movement correctly, not just what to do, but how to do it.

Interaction

While there will be some need for a drill type instruction where the teacher models a movement and the student performs it, most of the learning should take place in the form of some sort of interactive task, where the learner is interacting with other learners or some material, or both. Simply repeating what the teacher does is not interactive, although it may be necessary for the teacher to model the performance of the task at the outset.

Feedback

Students need feedback about their performance either from a teacher or by comparing their performance to some idealised model. The difference between the student’s performance and the model will inform the student where they need to focus to improve.

SSDP: Slow Spaced Deliberate Practice

Improvement in any skill requires practice which is repeated, spaced, slow and focused. That means that many regular short practice sessions are better than few long practice sessions (eg., 20 minutes three times a week is better than 60 minutes practice once a week). The way the brain is designed we learn better with regular spaced out repetitions. However, when we practice it is better to practice slowly and with our attention completely focused on the task. When you practice it is better not to think about your goal and focus on slowly and deliberately practicing the skill. The mistake is to become distracted especially by the image of the goal and to start practicing too fast. That is, in practicing we should practice the movements more slowly than we would want to perform them and to focus completely on the movement we are learning.

Simple and Progressive

The course of instruction should be progressive, so that there is a relatively linear progress, and it should not be over complicated. Both of these aspects are necessary for getting motivated, and maintaining and increasing motivation, and avoiding losing motivation. A program that is not progressive will soon become too easy and repetitive and therefore boring. We should always be challenged by doing something more difficult as this is motivating. On the other hand, a program which is overly complicated will not be motivating. It should cover just the essential elements that are necessary to progress. A simple program is less likely to be abandoned and to distract the learner into thinking about things which are extraneous to the core goal of the program.

Conclusion

A program of instruction that does not contain these elements is unlikely to lead to any sort of improvement or to be good for motivation. Of course, the content of the teaching is very important and needs to be matched to the goals. If you (or your students) find yourself not progressing or losing motivation it may be useful to ask which of the elements above are not executed adequately or are missing from the program altogether.

Reading recommendations

Art and Politics

  • Roger Scruton Why Beauty Matters [Youtube][Amazon]
  • Stephen Hicks Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault [Amazon][Youtube]
  • F. Roger Devlin (2015) Sexual Utopia in Power: The Feminist Revolt Against Civilization San Francisco: Counter-Currents [Counter-Currents website]

Psychology of Learning

  • Thomas M. Sterner The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process [Amazon]
  • Brown, Roediger & McDaniel Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning [Amazon]
  • Martin, Goldstein & Cialdini The small BIG: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence [Amazon]
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience [Amazon]

Posture, Movement & Strength

  • Eric Franklin Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance [Amazon][Youtube]
  • Steve Paxton Material for the Spine [website][Youbube]
  • Moshe Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement: Easy-to-Do Health Exercises to Improve Your Posture, Vision, Imagination, and Personal Awareness [Amazon][Youtube]
  • Mark Rippetoe Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training [Amazon][Youtube]