So, this is a follow-up on my previous post on technique. I’ve received some absolutely lovely feedback these past few days, and I wanted to take a moment before I start to thank all of you for reaching out, it means more than you can imagine.
One of the comments I read was about working from a more instinctive place and if this could actually just be attributed to laziness, since the mainstream, more “intellectual” approach seems too hard at times. And I think that’s a great question to explore, there’s so many things to unravel!
I think the first thing that I want to say is that this discussion looks really different depending on where you’re standing and what your responsibilities are regarding tango. As a student, this can be a very valid question. Am I just too lazy to do what I’m told to do, if it’s too hard? It’s not perhaps the most compassionate question (and you might want to revise that), but it shows you’re thinking critically about yourself, which might be a good thing.
Now, from a teacher’s perspective, this question sounds a bit wrong, especially when you frame it like this “my student(s) is/are just too lazy to do it the right (i.e. hard) way“. If this is you, I’ve got news: your students are your responsibility, and if they’re struggling, it’s up to you to find a way to help them. Maybe you’re struggling with these movements yourself, but still somehow asking your students to do and be better anyway. This is more common than you would think, and sometimes it’s called being a hypocrite. But it’s really not, it’s just being human: we’re filled with contradictions, some we’re not even aware of, and some we’re not willing to revise.
Unfortunately for tango students, teachers rarely move away from the laziness mindset, which means they don’t help much. This, of course, could be interpreted as lazy teaching. But let’s be gentle, I just said it’s only human to overlook some (most?) of our contradictions. Also there’s this idea about how you need to do uncomfortable hard stuff, and a lot of it, to improve. Tango is just a minuscule part of a culture and society that thinks that your success depends exclusively on how hard you work on hard work. So, if you’re not successful you just haven’t worked enough.
Don’t get me wrong, hard work is great, but this mindset is very prone to making us do a lot of stuff that might not be the best for us, without complaining, disguising it as more or less a moral imperative. Not only this mindset might trick us into doing things that are not the best, it actively discourages us from finding alternatives that might be better. These problems of culture deserve a book on their own.
On intellectual work
OK, this is a big one. What most of you think is that the intellectual part of tango is not intellectual at all. Tango technique as it’s taught just taxes the brain because it’s so descriptive, almost to a fractal degree. This means that you continue to add detail upon detail upon detail, and there’s always some other level of detail that you’re not actively focusing on, resulting on a huge list of how every part should behave. This is not deep intellectual thought, it’s the most mundane of tasks. How can you tell? Easy, computers go through lists of millions of elements in a second, and they are not smart. This leads us to a point, the human-as-machine metaphor, it’s not just in play in the way we think about muscles and joints and muscles and mechanisms, but as you see it’s also present in the way we think in general. The mechanical view of the body leads to a mechanical explanation, and we’re just not too good at operating under those.
Now if you want to engage in more intellectual (a.k.a non-mechanical a.k.a human) tango, you have a question right here in front of you, how can we solve this technique problem differently? You do it by reducing all this visible complexity by means of understanding, condensing, reframing, which are really deep intellectual tasks. The best part is that if you do that, then you can be very intellectual upfront in coming up with the new system, only to be profoundly intuitive later on, when performing or studying (you’re actually doing both at the same time if you understand that they are integrated). I’ve personally found a way to do that and more, but I’m not selling anything here, I’m sure other solutions are possible. But in short, I’d say that the type of thinking present in mainstream technique is, at best, lazy thinking. There’s just a lot of it, so you’re brute-forcing your way in.
On other dances
Right in the middle of all this there’s the question of what tango really is and what it’s not. The way we usually go through tango is similar to the way ballet works so it should be great, right? Sure, except ballet is the polar opposite of tango in almost every way.
Ballet gained most of its traction under Louis XIV of France, with the help of Louis XIV of France himself. This, in itself, should tell you something. You know that thing ballet dancers do, where their legs are always rotated outwards in open positions? Care to guess who walked like that 500 years ago? Turns out nobility did that! Know why? Because no one does that, so it helped distance them from plebeians. Ballet dancing might be beautiful, but one thing it’s not is natural, it was built around a bunch of people acting as different from normal people as they could, going as far as claiming they had blue blood (although that was kind of metaphoric…ish). I want to make it clear that this is not criticism at all, I love ballet and modern dance, it’s just about trying to understand what values might lie inside of the discipline. If you look at it that way, repeating and repeating until the movement becomes as uniform and “perfect” and removed from human as possible makes a lot of sense.
Now, tango (I think) has different ideas and values behind it. It is the product of the working class, not of nobility or even aristocracy or bourgeoisie. It’s about improvising with peers in a social medium, not about repeating a fixed set of movements given to you by someone else on a stage. I don’t think it’s about being as pretty and perfect as possible either. Maybe stage tango is closer to that (that´s debatable), and that’s why there’s some confusion, especially if you try to learn from those stage dancers. In any case, if ballet and tango’s objectives are different from each other, maybe they shouldn’t try to reach them by walking in the same direction.
So what’s the alternative?
Well, you have the original post on technique to shed a little more light, and there’s even a related exercise that goes with it so you can get a glimpse of how it looks like (in Spanish for now, next in queue for translation). Let me summarize a little.
Tango in general and technique in particular should be the product of sensations and feelings, not of steps and mechanical instructions. It’s not about antagonizing with and controlling your body, but about discovering how it works… or should I say, how you work, because your body is you, not a separate entity from yourself. This relinquishing of control has a profound effect on tango, connection and the idea of roles in the dance. It’s also a part of building the framework to let go of fixed steps and sequences as the primary source of movements, and to begin getting into improvisation in a more systematic and consistent way.
Finally, it’s really about respecting yourself and your humanity, and about understanding that beauty is not just aesthetic perfection, it’s also pleasure and joy and the creative sparkle that ignites when there’s risk and mistakes and unknowns.
Thoughts on any of this? I’d LOVE to know, leave a comment! And don’t forget to subscribe so I can keep you in the loop…