What are you looking at? Why musicians rather than dancing teachers should be in charge of milongas

One major difference between milongas in Buenos Aires and those elsewhere, I believe, is that on the global tango scene milongas are controlled by dancing teachers who attract students by way of performances and various events: classes, workshops, bootcamps, etc. that are focused on movement.

Dancing teachers are in the business of movement, and that is therefore their main focus. They are mainly concerned with dancing that looks good, that attracts attention, that is highly visible and fun to look at.

It’s a basic principle of psychology that the prior stimulus primes your interpretation of subsequent stimulus. If you look at a dancing performance then subsequent evaluation of dancing will be controlled by that prior stimulus, and thus will colour your perception of it.

Musicians by contrast focus on the music. As a result, their interpretation of movement will be less in terms of how attractive it is visually, but rather in terms of whether and how it connects to the music.

In other words, what you view as primary in tango depends on where you’re coming from. If you’re a dancing teacher tango is primarily the dance. If you’re a musician, tango is primarily the music.

It is an interesting question whether the music could exist without the dancing, or whether the dancing could exist with the music. It seems that the two modalities are inextricably linked.

Some musicians play tango music that demands a performance. Then those musicians will probably have similar preferences to the dancing teachers. And the performance oriented dancing teachers will prefer music and musicians who play the sort of music that’s good for a floorshow.

On the other hand, musicians who have good understanding of traditional Epoca de Oro tango music and the reproduction of this sort of music, where that is their focus, are going to be interested in how social dancing connects to this music. The music is going to be their point of focus and their judgement and interpretation of dancing will be coloured by their understanding of the music.

Because tango milonguero social dancing is very inward it does not really have pulling power to the wider audience. It’s traditional tango music that is more likely to attract people’s attention.

One problem is that those who deal with movement are mainly interested in performance, whereas musicians are less likely to be skilled at movement.

Still, I don’t think that this is the main obstacle.

Rather the main problem is that it’s the performances that attract audiences, and once performances become the main vehicle for attracting people to tango then this gives the dancing teachers the power to then impose their particular views about what comprises competent tango dancing.

Performance dancers and their preferred musicians can attract audiences, but then need to translate that into a social dancing scene. The basic spanner in the works is that performance dancers are clueless about social dancing and so create the Frankenstein global tango scene.

So really the music rather than the movement needs to be the leading factor in the attraction of audiences to traditional social tango. Therefore, the people in charge should be those who are knowledgeable in music, in playing music, preferably some tango music, and in music reproduction.

The question then is whether they can teach basic tango dancing.

In my view musicians can develop the necessary movement skills to teach tango milonguero dancing by taking lessons in Feldenkrais Method and reading Moshe Feldenkrais’ “Awareness Through Movement”. If they also take some Contact Improvisation classes that would be even better.

In other words, I see the ideal skillset for a tango organiser as being a musician, or at least being a competent DJ with good listening and technical skills, plus basic knowledge of somatic movement in the form of Feldenkrais Method and Contact Improvisation.

In terms of promotional skills it would be preferable to attract audiences to tango via traditional tango music rather than via performances.

One possible strategy that I am myself exploring is to make a deal with a cafe or cocktail bar to promote their venue if they allow you to play tango music for an afternoon or evening and everyone buys at least one beverage. They will usually have enough space for at least a handful of couples to dance in the milonguero style.

Scoring a rent-free dancing space: make yourself musically useful

I am currently playing unpaid gigs on my guitar in some cafes and cocktail bars.

What I’m finding is that the managers are quite clueless about audio. Often they’ve invested a lot of money in their sound systems but are unable to get quality sound out of them.

Apart from just not knowing how audio equipment works they are quite poor at choosing good music for their cafe or bar.

Like most people they have no idea what a DAC does. Just like the tango DJs, they simply plug their system directly into their device.

I hooked up my Chord DAC to their system and played music from the Tidal.com app. Totally blew their mind.

After the demonstration, they tell me that they’re planning to buy a mixer. I think they believe that the problem is a lack of EQ knobs to get better sound. It’s kind of hard to explain to people what exactly a DAC does and why you need good quality music files.

So I think that if you’re smart and you have even basic knowledge of audio technology, eg., you know what a DAC is and own a good one that you can carry with you, and you can help them with their playlist and advice on where to source good quality music files, you can quickly score points and an afternoon for your tango party free of charge.

And if you keep clear of dancing large kinespheric movements you don’t need to be limited to dancing studios or large dancing floors and thus you save yourself those hefty rental fees.

Getting dances: the practice milonga, distance invite and musical chairs

For social dancing lessons to be worth anything (beyond the lesson itself) there must be social dances. Why would you take social dancing lessons if there is no social dancing events where you can dance socially (other than “to meet people” as a sort of speed dating)? Let’s take the goal of social dancing lessons at face value, namely, to dance at social dances (I know that’s a stretch, but . . . ). But for there to be social dances you need enough people to attend such events, otherwise they will be uninteresting and uneconomical. But for people to want to come to social dances they need to have a reasonable expectation that they will be able to dance. But to be able to dance they need to be able to get dancing partners. The reality is that on the typical tango scene this is the main bottleneck and a well-concealed reality: it’s really hard to get a dance.

Social dances can function only if people are able to get partners to dance with. Otherwise people will stop coming and the social dancing scene will collapse and will become stale and boring, consisting mostly of a lot of beginner classes, private lessons and practice sessions, with milongas organised only as a necessary formality to keep up appearances, or for the students of the teachers. It is relatively easy to dance with the person of the opposite sex who is your companion or someone you know from the class. But it’s also boring to dance with the same people all the time. People go out to social dances because they enjoy variety and novelty. If you came alone to a social dancing event you then you have no choice but to dance with people you don’t know.

Experienced dancers know well that the direct invitation to a dance has many disadvantages. Being turned down is never pleasant for the man even if he was not all that interested in the woman. Then the woman may feel uncomfortable turning down a man because either she doesn’t want to cause him to have an unpleasant experience, or because turning him down may stop him from asking her again, and she may want to dance with him on another occasion, or because it may stop other men who have witnessed this from asking her, and so on and so forth. Then the man who asked the woman directly knows that even if she accepts, this may be more because of these ulterior reasons than that she actually enjoys dancing with him. It creates a psychological Catch 22.

In the class situation the teacher determines the arrangement for changing partners. The most typical systems are either (1) no changing of partners, whoever you happen to be with at the beginning you’re stuck with for the whole class, or (2) the teacher tells either men or women to move to the next man every few minutes. The first approach only works in the unlikely scenario that there is gender balance. The second approach means that if there is gender imbalance everyone gets to dance with a person of the opposite sex. The problem is that, while it satisfies the requirement of running a lesson it doesn’t reflect the real world conditions, in other words, it’s not something you can do in a social dancing situation outside of the dancing lesson.

In the milonga the system of using gaze and gesture at a distance (“cabeceo“) to invite partners lets you dance with different people without the risks inherent in the direct invite. But the dancing lesson does not teach people how to do that and as a result people don’t use this system even if they know about it. There may be different reasons for this. Typically, people with little experience in social dancing fail to see the reasoning behind this and simply assume that a direct invite is the easiest and most efficient thing to do and that it works. Because of their lack of experience they often fail to see why it doesn’t work and that it is neither easy nor efficient.

Because people are either unpracticed in its execution, or unconvinced of the need to do it, or both, the distance invite (cabeceo) is not applied consistently. It’s not enough that people know about it. What you need is a consistent use of this as the only proper system for inviting partners. Unless everyone is convinced of its utility and necessity, practiced in its execution, and reminded and encouraged to use it, then the system will fail. This is in fact the normal situation.

When the distance invite (cabeceo) is not applied consistently several things seem to happen. First, people often seem to use the distance invite concept to avoid dancing. This may be for a variety of reasons. Some people are mainly interested in the classes or in performing and only come to a milonga to please their teacher or to be seen with him, or to maintain a profile on the tango scene, but are not interested in social dancing per se other than with their teacher or to show off their workshop moves. Often the milonga is full of people who are there for the networking or just to hang out because they have nothing else to do, but aren’t interested in dancing.

Second, people know about the distance invite (cabeceo) concept but are seated or positioned in a way that does not allow for it to work, eg., they’re seated at the wrong angle to the other people. In other words, people are not mindful of the need to be positioned in a way that facilitates the invite at a distance. The organisers don’t pay attention to this issue when arranging the space. Furthermore, while during the lesson the focus is necessarily on the movement and dancing, in a milonga it is easy to become distracted with conversation or staring at the people on the dancing floor etc. and to become inattentive to people trying to get a dance. I often look around to find partners and find women at the crucial moment at the beginning of the tanda either (a) sitting with their back to the dancing floor or any potential partners, (b) sitting away from where all the action is, (c) absorbed in conversation with their companion, (d) absorbed in looking at the people dancing, or (e) looking at their phone, etc.

Clearly, the mere knowledge about the concept of the distance invite (cabeceo) doesn’t solve the problem of getting dances if additional factors are not functional, including (a) a seating arrangement that makes facilitates invitation by the distance invite; (b) a seating arrangement that discourages excess socialising and encourages dancing, (c) the ingrained habit of getting dances by way of the distance invite, and (d) the habit of focusing on getting a dance at the beginning of the tanda. When these conditions don’t exist (and outside of BA they typically don’t) what we find is several de facto alternatives to both, the distance invite and the direct invite, including:

(i) The “direct cabeceo”, a sort of hybrid of cebeceo and a direct invite, where a man stands very close or directly in front of a distracted woman and stares at her intently for an extended period of time to the point where she can no longer ignore him;

(ii) The “despondent woman”, which is a woman who is bored and passive aggressive in some way because as a woman she can’t do the “direct cabeceo” so she refuses to play (chats, stares at the phone, pouts, engages in loud socialising and networking, etc.);

(iii) The “conversational invite” where men engage women, or vice versa, in conversation in order to loosen the defences and reduce the risk of being publicly turned down;

(iv) The “I’ve-given-up-on-dancing-with-men invite” where women start habitually to take on the role of the leader and ask other women.

Clearly, while the direct invite is completely dysfunctional, the invite at a distance by itself is not the solution. For it to work you need additional infrastructure. What you need is

  1. a seating arrangement where the seating is around the dancing floor, as placing the seating away from the dancing floor creates a separate space which is not focused on dancing and distracts away from it;
  2. men and women sitting across the dancing floor from each other, and as much as possible facing each other;
  3. people to be in the habit of doing the distance invite from a seated position, or at least from the distance,
  4. people to be attentive to other people sending out the invite from across the room;
  5. focus on the dancing and encouraging the idea that the event is primarily intended for dancing and that the tandas are an opportunity to change partners and not to stop dancing until I’m bored again or someone intimidates me again into dancing;
  6. discouraging the idea that a milonga is a place to hang out and meet people as there are already many places to do that (pubs, restaurants, clubs, etc.);
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The practice milonga

Given the importance of being able to get partners at the milonga why would we not teach these things at a tango lesson or practica but leave them to the student to figure it out? I have found from talking to students that they find this quite difficult. It may be that there are personal or cultural factors involved. But there are personal and cultural factors in learning many things, like foreign languages. This should not be a reason to just ignore the issue but precisely the opposite, it is something that the teacher needs to address directly. If the students find a certain area of learning difficulty then it is best learned and practiced in a safe environment that only a structured lesson or practice session allows.

Now, I think that the the best and perhaps the only way to teach the basics of tango and to teach essential skills like the distance invite and moving in the line of dance is not the standard teacher-fronted choreography and technique lesson but a sort of practica-milonga hybrid. Now, these days people organise so-called “practilongas”. I don’t like the sound of this neologism. But what is worse is that it typically seems to refer to a a type of social event which reduces the formalities such as moving in the line of dance or changing partners.

Nonetheless, I think that a sort of practica-milonga hybrid is probably the best system for teaching social tango dancing because this is the best and probably the only efficient way of teaching the formal aspects of milonga such as moving in the line of dance and changing partners by way of the distance invite. The standard so-called “practilonga” is only useful if you believe that the purpose is to practice steps and that this is best done with a single partner without having to worry about changing partners or moving in the line of dance. If on the other hand you believe that the main thing to learn is precisely how to change partners by way of the distance invite and to learn the habit of moving in the line of dance because tango is a social dance and not a performance, then it seems that a “practice milonga” should focus on these things and not on practicing steps.

So because of the potential confusion due to an already established meaning of words like “practica” and “practilonga” I will use the term “practice milonga”. It has a better ring to me and seems to effectively convey the meaning precisely without being overly cumbersome. It also nicely suggests that it’s actually a practice for a milonga, which in my view is the correct framing. Of course the standard “practica” is theoretically supposed to be a practice for a milonga, but in reality it’s just practicing steps, which is not what you need for a milonga, it’s actually the opposite of what you need for a milonga.

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Practice milonga musical chairs

I suggest a sort of a musical chairs type activity to (i) get people used to changing partners, (ii) get people used to choosing a partner from across the room from a seated position, and (iii) use gaze and gesture to communicate their intention at a distance. To run the practice milonga musical chairs you will need the following:

  1. Arrange the chairs on the opposite sides of the dancing floor, spaced out about one chair width apart.
  2. Men will sit on one side of the room, and women will sit across from them.
  3. They wait until the tune begins. No one gets up from their chair until the music starts.
  4. When the music starts the men look at the woman they will dance with next and then walk over to her and they start practicing whatever movement/technique is being taught.
  5. The woman should wait until the man comes over to her side of the dancing floor.
  6. Each time they dance with a different partner. The rule for selecting the partner is this: the man dances with the woman to the left of his immediately previous partner.
  7. When the tune stops students sit down in the same chair. Don’t change chairs between songs.
  8. Once students get better at dancing they can change partners once every two tunes and then once every three or four tunes. The teacher can have a mini-cortina inserted between tunes to facilitate this process. For beginners we can even make this a way of changing partners even more often, say half way through the tune. The teacher can phase out the music using a mixer console. the dancing space may need to be made suitably smaller to reduce the time it takes to get to the chair simply by placing the chairs closer to each other across the room.

The goal of this exercise is to use repetition to ingrain the habit of choosing the partner from a seated position, at a distance, across the space. Most teachers expect students to learn this at the milonga. This is a mistake. There is really no better way to do it than with a lot of repetition that is done in the safety of a practice session that is supervised by the teacher.


Post Scriptum

The importance of repetition and recall to learning is not adequately recognised by most teachers. I highly recommend reading Brown, Roediger & McDaniel Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning [Amazon]. Here is a nice review and summary of some of the concepts but people serious about becoming better teachers are advised to read the book itself.

Why inefficiency and obsolescence is not a bug but a feature of “Argentine Tango” teaching

Planned Obsolescence | Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN)

“In economics and industrial design, planned obsolescence is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete after a certain pre-determined period of time upon which it decrementally functions or suddenly ceases to function, or might be perceived as unfashionable. The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases. It is the deliberate shortening of a lifespan of a product to force consumers to purchase functional replacements.” (Wikipedia)

Planned obsolescence is a feature of products so that companies can sell more stuff. If things were designed to last people would continue to use the product they bought and not buy the new one. Companies design products to break or become obsolete even when they continue to function perfectly well. A good example is computers which need to be replaced to the new model in order to be able to run the new software or to update existing software. I bought a MacBook in 2009 and it became obsolete by 2013 because I could no longer update the operating system and all the new apps or updates were only available on the new operating system.

While the traditional tango danced by the milongueros could be learned fairly quickly and lasted a lifetime, the new “Argentine Tango” that’s been marketed globally since the 90s is designed for obsolescence and inefficiency. It’s the same business model as ballroom dancing which is designed to keep students learning completely useless dance choreography under the impression that it’s “social dancing”.

Social dancing, for it to be functional, needs to comprise of relatively simple choreography. It’s not meant for dance professionals or people who are keen on attending a lot of dancing lessons just for the sake of it. It’s meant to be relatively easy to learn and to be danced with a range of different people for the purposes of enjoyment of a social occasion.

By contrast, choreography is designed for performance, typically by professional dancers, with a practice and performance partner. Another alternative might be something like a wedding dance or an amateur performance. Either way, it’s a case of learning something for a specific purpose which involves a set pattern of steps and a limited number of partners similarly trained.

Now, if you attend a lesson in “social dancing” in which you learn some extended pattern of steps, and then practice these with a limited number of partners at a “practica” you’re essentially saying that you will only ever dance with these people, or other people who know these same steps and techniques.

There are number of problems with this approach to dancing education.

First, the people who create these patterns are often trained professional or semi-professional dancers who have experience in a number of dances, often in something like ballet. Without such background these patterns don’t work very well.

Second, different teachers of this type of choreography will teach the technique differently, so that people from different schools, even if they know the same “steps” might execute them differently, and this will interfere with the efficient execution of these steps and patterns.

Third, these patterns observably take a lot of space. While the natural assumption might be that in the studio students need a lot of space to practice these steps but with enough experience they will become more efficient and develop “floor skills”, in practice one finds that few people going through this type of training learn good control and efficient use of space. It seems that these patterns are inherently consumptive of a lot of dancing floor space. This is natural given that these patterns are essentially show routines adapted for “social dancing”.

Finally, the system of teaching requires enough material to fill up at least 60 minute slots such that students feel that they’re learning new and exciting material which leads inevitably to piling on of more and more such patterns. Few teachers stop at a “paso basico”, “cross” and “ocho”, and once the student has done a few of these “beginner” lessons they can move on to an “intermediate” course that piles on more and more patterns. After that, the teacher or workshop instructor will bring in more exotic patterns that are more “advanced”. Then over the years there will be further innovations with new names introduced by the “latest” best couple from Buenos Aires, and so on and so forth, wash-rinse-repeat.

Now, if you have all these people on the “Argentine Tango” scene who have gone through a lot of this type of instruction you are probably going to get certain sorts of results. First, there will be a lack of confidence in dancing. If two people dance together they will never be sure how to respond to their patner. The man can never be sure what they woman will do, and the woman can never be sure what the man is leading. There is going to be a lot of room for miscommunication. The dancing will be slower and the dancers will have to fall back on looking at the feet thus compromising their posture and making the dancing less efficient and pleasant. You often see people staring at the floor/feet and chuckling, because they’re effectivaly trying to guess what their patner is doing and this creates uncertainty and tension. They are “in the head” and not “in the body”. What works as training for a show does not work as training for social dancing with people you don’t know well.

Second, people will get frustrated with a lot of conflicting ideas and information and lose faith in any notion of “proper” or “correct” technique. Teachers will start losing authority and students will start losing discipline and will start pulling in different directions. They will act like ill-behaved children, refusing to follow rules, dress properly, will start doing weird stuff on the dancing floor, and exhibit passive aggressiveness. The mood of tango events will be low and scattered, there will be little focus or confidence. People will start focusing on things they can control, like fashion, networking, etc. Social dancing will start to feel like an unwelcome necessity, and excuse for the other things.

These sorts of reactions are typical of learning situations which emphasise interest, which are against “ableism” or skill, and which move in the direction of “edutainment”. Private language schools and anti-ableist Contact Improvisation jams exhibit similar sorts of responses. Generally speaking the development of competence does usually require a relatively linear system of training where there is a relatively well-defined goal or outcome and the teaching is designed to move the student in that direction. In an “edutainment” sort of a situation the goal is the performance of a lesson where students are able to execute some tasks during the lesson.

But while the lesson can be called a “language lesson” or a “dancing lesson”, that does not guarantee that the outcome is any meaningful learning of the language or of dancing. There will be some learning, but the question is whether it will be enough to provide functional skills that can be used at the end of the course. What in fact happens in the “edutainment” type of situation is that students are kept busy and entertained but eventually become frustrated because they lose a sense of progressing towards any specified goal.

One thing that I have learned over the years both as a learner and a teacher is that a major part of learning is developing a meta-language. When you learn something this is usually accompanied by discourse or conversation about the learning process itself. For example, when you learn a language there will be a meta-language that describes the language itself, such as the language of grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. This meta-language can have a huge impact on how the learner conceptualises the learning process and what it is possible to accomplish. For example, the meta-language of accents tends to have a negative impact on the learning of correct pronunciation which requires students to learn things like vowels, word stress and sentence stress.

What that means is that the meta-language of the learning situation has a huge impact on the students ability to bring the learning process under control and to become autonomous. Successful learners are autonomous learners, and successful teachers create autonomous learners. There is a common misconception that being an autonomous learner is being either self-taught or being “independent” or “self-directed” so that teachers should just let the students do whatever they want or give them “independent study” tasks. These sorts of education ideals and experiments consistently fail. Instead, to become an independent learner the student needs rules, in particular, he needs the correct meta-language.

The metalanguage of accent training is correct for actors who have to learn a specific accent for a movie. It is wrong for foreign language learners who need to learn the correct pronunciation that is relatively neutral. The meta-language of choreography is correct for choreography learning, that is, for learning to perform a choreography, on an empty stage or dancing floor, with a practice/performance partner. It is the wrong meta-language for social dancing.

But what has happened is that “Argentine Tango” is being taught by show dancers who have spent relatively little if any time dancing socially. This is not unique to tango. The same thing has happened to all of these latin and ballroom dances. Studio trained choreography teachers who only understand the meta-language of performance become the teachers of social dancing probably because there is more work teaching social dancing than doing stage performance. Then the impressionable students come to be convinced that this is the correct way of approaching the learning of social dancing. Then, when it’s not really working for a lot of people the leftists came in with the idea that this is somehow “oppressive” and that people should “liberate” themselves by “letting go” and doing whatever they feel like.

The problem, however, is not that the meta-language is inherently oppressive but that it’s the wrong meta-language for social dancing. Just as accent training (another example is the teaching of descriptive grammar) is not the right way to teach foreign language students, so the meta-language of choreography training is wrong for teaching social dancing. What you need is not no meta-language but the right meta-language. Giving the students the correct meta-language, the correct “rules of the game” of social dancing sets them up for independent learning and success. Giving the students the wrong meta-language sets them up for confusion, dependence, frustration and ultimately failure.

Now, we may ask how it is that we’re getting the wrong sort of teaching of tango. Is this a bug or a feature? Well, the reality is that the social dancing industry depends on a system of “academic” dancers who make a name for themselves doing stage performances and then give workshops in “social” dancing. Few people are observant or reflective enough to come to a realisation that this makes little sense. Most quit or develop a negative, passive aggressive attitude by the time it hits them that this doesn’t work. And that’s for the most part what we’re seeing on the global “Argentine Tango” scene today.