Picking Your Teacher
At different stages of your Tango life you’re going to be faced with the task (and it is a task) of picking the ‘Right’ Tango teacher. Sometimes because of where you live you may only have one, and if you’re lucky two people that are teaching. Those people are teaching what they know and most of the time it is rudimentary Tango ideas and concepts, but you don’t know that. Sometimes those one or two people are absolutely fabulous social dancers, they’re teaching not because they want to teach, but because they have to teach to train people for them to dance with so that they don’t die in the Tango Wilderness where they live. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to live in a city like New York, Berlin, Moscow (etc), and as such you are blessed with a plethora of teachers. So you can quite honestly be picky. You can get other people’s opinions as to what ‘X’ is like as a teacher, and then try out their weekly classes to see if you’d like to study with them further.
As a beginner the question of who to study with is an easy question to answer because you don’t know any better, so you’re going to pick the first one that comes along that has any information. If you’ve been dancing for a while you’re seemingly going to be more selective by picking classes and topics that interest you, and more often than not, the personality of the teacher, believing that this is the right teacher for you. More often than not, sadly, most people are impressed by the dancing of the couple, and not their ability to convey an idea. They’re impressed by the performance of a couple, and it is assumed that if they dance like that, then they must be good teachers. People immediately equate one skill (dancing) with another (teaching). This is erroneous thinking. However, that’s where we start in today’s quest of Picking Your Teacher.
The Reasons Why. We have to back up a bit and look at the reasons why you are looking for a teacher in the first place.
From a Leading perspective, 1.) Your spouse or partner is interested in Tango, and they’re dragging you along because it’s a way to do something together. 2.) You need to get out more and someone you know suggested trying Tango. You’ve heard it’s hard but you like a challenge. 3.) You’ve been dancing a while now, and have seen the benefits of taking classes and regular study. You want more steps. 4.) You really want to dive in and take apart your dance. You’ve seen what X can do, and you really like how they dance. They’re impressive. Their steps, patterns, & figures. You’re turned on by the ‘moves’, and not necessarily ‘how’ they’re executed. This, you believe, will help you to pick a ‘good’ teacher and ultimately to become a better dancer. Usually you’ll pick a man for these things because men lead, and women follow and that is the order of things. (clearing the throat….the proverbial ‘ahem’ sound: NOT!).
From a Following perspective, 1.) Tango doesn’t scare you. You’ve been wanting to do this for a while and you want your (enter intimate name of your partner here). 2.) You need to get out more, Tango looks sexy and there’s all that touching. It will make you feel sexy. (ahem). 3.) You’ve got a friend that suggested to you that you try Tango and you’re interested…maybe just one class. 4.) You’ve been dancing a little while and classes seem to be going well. You’re getting dances and meeting people and having a bit of fun. 5.) You’ve seen this really amazing girl do some really cool things, and while she doesn’t teach, you try to emulate her. You asked her who she studies with and pointed you at ‘Y’. 6.) You know you need the work. You want better dances. It’s that simple. You’re ready for the work. Guys tell you all these things and you feel like an idiot most of the time. You don’t know if any of it is true and classes aren’t really working at this point…so private lessons are your thing. 7.) You’re impressed by the local follower/teacher that you are exposed to, how they extend their legs, how they embrace, and you want to emulate this because they’re getting dances and they never sit unless they want to. They’re always dancing. They have beautiful feet.
Judging A Teacher. Taking a class with a particular teacher is a good way of trying out a teacher. It shows you a small slice of how that person understands and engages the ideas of Tango.
Pay close attention to 4 parts of their class:
1.) Beginning of classes.
2.) The Topic itself.
3.) How the information is disbursed and to whom ?
4.) The End of class.
These 4 things are the arbiters of ‘good’ or the ‘right’ teacher. How they manage their teaching experience for all to see and glean what they can from it.
Beginning of class – What does this teacher start with ? Do they have you walking around behind them in a circle to a piece of music, stomping out the beat of the music ? Dancing with a partner through a ‘mock’ tanda to warm you up ? Do they start class with a technique exercise ? Or do they start with an exercise while they call out things to focus on, and demonstrate while you are doing it with them ? Hint: You want the last one.
Introducing a topic – Are their topics based on what you’re hearing in the music ? Or is a topic born from the exercise that you started with ? Again, you want the latter of the two.
Gender Roles – Do they split up the women and men ? Meaning the Men do one thing only, and women do one thing only and you’re supposed to do your part and nothing more. Or are you invited, and encouraged to swap roles and engage in a discovery of what and how X, Y, and Z functions ? Again, you want the latter of these processes. 🙂
(Notation: Role swapping is a good thing because not only does it give you a well rounded perspective of the dance, it also creates empathy for the other side of the embrace, and furthermore (believe it or not) you actually develop much faster as a dancer and you understand the vocabulary in far greater depth and detail than if you had focused solely on your ‘gendered’ role.)
End of class – Do they end class with a demonstration of X, Y, and Z to a piece of music ? Or do they end class with a list of where all the ‘gotchas’ are at and their possible resolutions –> where things don’t work, why they fail, further and more importantly do they show you all the possible variations of an idea in parallel, cross, open or close embrace, and how it fits into tango, milonga, and vals ? Again, you want the latter!
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Look At Their Students. It is assumed that once someone takes on the teaching mantle that they have rightfully assumed the role of grand maestro (maestra) and are king (or queen) of all they survey. Ummmm…not. The fact is that a good portion of people that hang up their shingles as call themselves ‘teachers’ realistically know a little more than you do. This is not true of all of them, so as not to disparage anyone, but there are a fair number of those folks out there that do fall into this category. So how do you separate the ones that just started, from the one’s that know what they’re talking about ? Take a hard, but long look at their students! Look at the long line of their students. Not the line to get into their classes. No. The line of dancers that have studied with them. If you like what you see…then that may be a good place for you to start your investigation of whether or not this is a good teacher for you. However, understand that what you see, you may not understand, yet. A good portion of the time you really do have to be educated in what you’re seeing. Just like you had to be educated in watching a tango performance to see the nuances. The same is true here. Furthermore you have, by now, more than a few preconceived notions of what you think is ‘good’, or ‘bad’ Tango. And the notions of that language of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ will, believe it or not, get in your way and your ability to pick teachers. You must be educated about what real technique is, and why it’s important to build a desirable foundation. And more importantly what a desirable foundation is and is not. A teacher that understands these things will explain this to you and reinforce it in every single session!
Dancing Is Not Teaching. Dancing and teaching are not the same things. Choosing a teacher based on whether or not they dance well as the sole criteria for whether or not the can teach you to dance is not a good idea. These are two very different skills. Far too often people make the mistake (followers) of being impressed by this the skill to dance thinking that equates to the skill to teach. You see it’s not about steps, patterns, and figures (leads) regardless of role, its about the technique of moving well, and more importantly their ability to explain the underlaying principles of HOW X, Y, and Z is done, and in every use case of it failing, where it fails, how it fails, and how to correct for it as well as the variations on a theme or an idea.
Put another way – watching a teacher dance, or dancing with that teacher just shows you that they know how to do X, Y, and Z. What it doesn’t tell you is how they can communicate those ideas to you and more importantly to the way in which you learn! The reality is that people learn at different speeds, and in vastly different ways. One size does not fit all. And that’s exactly what group classes are, one size fits all – cookie cutter tango!
There are certain areas of teaching that you want to focus on with regards to picking a teacher, these are some critical things to think about:
Critical Feedback. Teaching you to do something is one thing. Giving you prompt, clear, consistent feedback of how you do X, Y, and Z (assuming they give any), how you feel (what it feels like – the kinesthetics involved), how you look, your embrace, your walk, your disassociation, your collections is absolutely critical to your ability to progress beyond your current skillset. Put another way, when they give you feedback is their feedback critical or effusive ? Do know if they’re telling you the truth ? Do they blow smoke up your ass with effusive complimentary commentary that tells you absolutely nothing about what you’re doing. “Yes dear, you’re doing just fine, fabulous …. keep up the good work!”. Ideally you want a teacher that says in clear, constructive language, sometimes harsh or hard to hear, “Look bub, you’re screwing up here, here, and here…oh and while we’re at it…here, here, here, here and here!”. And then to say to you in no uncertain terms, “And this is how you fix it…”. And then goes on to show you the most important part of why you’re there: The How-To! Critical feedback is hard to hear, but one of the most crucial parts to your development as a dancer. You can’t see your own errors, and you can’t see how to fix them. Hopefully your teacher can and does have a solution for them. “Hopefully” ? Truthfully, just because said ‘teacher’ wears the teacher hat does not mean that they are the sole of all wisdom.
Homework. Do they send you on your way with a pat on the back and/or a hug while they’re counting your money ? Or when you’re done with class/private lessons, do they provide you with a study plan of what you need to work on before you’re next meeting. Do they give you exercises to work on ? Do they have exercise videos for you to watch or to remind you of all the things you should be doing ? Do they give you a series of daily regimes that you must accomplish between now and your next session ? Again, you want the latter.
Progress. Do they acknowledge your presence outside of classes or instruction time with a kiss and a hug and that’s it ? OR do they a.) actively keep track of you when you’re out dancing at a practica or a milonga. b.) watching whether or not you’re doing what they’ve shown you to do. c.) comment on your dancing after a milonga or during your next private lesson and d.) engaging you outside of lesson time with reminders and support to get you to your next level of dancing ? Again, you want ‘D’.
A teacher is not there to blow smoke up your ass. Nor are they there to collect the cash. They are there to educate you about Tango. You on the other hand are there to make mistakes, lots of them. It is only through those mistakes that you will learn, grow, and change. Further still, you absolutely require their feedback, and that means that you must, must, must be willing to ask questions, engage, take control of your own education, invest in doing the necessary research about how you look, how you feel, and more importantly to hear that feedback from them, and be willing to ask for it.
If you think class is about getting it right, that’s a mistake. It’s better that you make the mistakes in class vs. out on a social dance floor. Why ? Several reasons. First and foremost because believe it or not class is about making mistakes. John Dewey, a famous 18th centure educator, said “We learn best by doing”. He was right. And that doing takes time. It’s not about doing it right, it’s about the learning to do it right. So that you know and understand what it is that you are doing and why! Secondly, and some people will radically disagree with this reason: Because like it or not the Tango world can be very judgmental. You’ll go to a Milonga or a Practica, and there will be people watching you and judging your abilities. Yes, they’ll smile and talk you up one side So you would rather have a teacher that will tell you truth about how you feel and look, and then to show you the realities of your dance than blowing smoke up your ass for an hour and you leave with a happy smile on your face, and then at milongas sit all night long or not get the dances you desire. A good teacher, and really the ‘right’ teacher, does that for you.
Look, the classroom is a crucible, in it we burn away all the irrelevancies that do not matter, and in it’s place we seek to inform, educate, illuminate, and ultimately get down to truth of how to do X, Y, and Z.
Which Teacher Do You Want to Have ?
a.) The ‘show & copy’ teacher. Meaning they show you, and you’re expected to copy what they’re doing exactly and when you don’t copy it exactly, they move on to the next ‘show & copy‘ to repeat the cycle.
b.) The ‘show, copy, add music’ teacher. Meaning at the end they add a piece of music to make it all seemingly fit together.
c.) The ‘show, build, copy, and then add music’ teacher. Meaning that yes they show you a piece at a time, building the elements that create X, Y, and Z and then add music at the end.
d.) The ‘explain, build, explain, build more, explain, discover, build, discover, explain, discover, build, test, try, build more, add music, build more, explore more, discover…oops, class is over’ teacher.
You decide which of these teachers you want to have teaching you about what Tango is and is not.