with Graham and Nathalie
We have all been there. We have all hit that moment where we start to think that tango is impossible and that no amount of practice or tuition will ever make us any better. We become convinced that instead of moving forwards in our tango progress we are taking giant leaps backwards, and that as it is only a matter of days before we are no longer able to do something as basic as an ocho we should probably give up now before its too late. Anyone who compliments our dancing is obviously wrong or just being nice, and our teacher must be pulling his or her hair out in frustration whenever we are not looking. The tangocrisis seems to be a natural part of learning the dance, but why is that the case? And is it something unique to learning tango?
For most of us, learning tango is one of the most complicated and challenging things we ever just choose to do. We may have picked tango because it looked interesting, or because a friend introduced us to a local class. We may have seen it being danced somewhere and thought “I want to be able to do that!” or we may simply have seen a banner on a wall and decided to give it a try. But whatever our reasons, nothing could have prepared us for the strangeness, the frustrations, or the way it can end up taking over your life.
If you have done any other social dancing before then you are probably familiar with the way beginners’ classes tend to teach a series of steps to get you going, and then how you improve on those as you progress with your learning. If you have not done any dance classes before then you would probably assume that after two or three weeks of tango you would at least know a few steps, and that you would be able to ‘survive’ through a song whilst looking to your non-dancing friends like you knew what you were doing. These things are all true for salsa, modern jive, ballroom, blues, and all the standard social partner dances that you see in clubs, but they don’t really work for tango, and the moment when beginners realise this may well be their first tangocrisis.
When you go to a ballroom dancing class you will learn about natural turns and the whisk-and-chassé; at modern jive you will learn the spot turn, the loophole, and the slingshot; in salsa you will learn the cross-body turn, and the inside turn. All these moves have names, and assuming you have a partner who also knows the same moves, the chances are that you will be able to dance your whole repertoire with them and make it work. But the same is not true in tango, and although you will hear people talking about giros and ochos all the time, these are not specific steps so much as ways of moving around the floor. The steps are a continuous response to the lead in a way that is not the case for many other dance styles, and so there are a huge variety of types of turn that are all called a ‘giro’ or an ‘ocho’. Tango is a dance of technique, not of steps, and so in some classes you may well feel like you did almost nothing, whilst others are an endless list of twists, turns, hooks, and things you cannot even describe.
This can be a cause of huge frustration to beginners as they try to learn the steps they were taught by remembering what they are called, only to find out that the ‘giro’ they are learning now bears no resemblance to the ‘giro’ they learned last week but that they are both still called a ‘giro’. This can be one of the first times a dancer faces a tangocrisis, and I have seen many people give up at this stage (especially those who come to tango from a formal ballroom background) as they find everything too confusing and contradictory. It can take determination to push through, and in some cases a complete paradigm shift is needed as you switch from seeing tango as a dance made up of series of steps to one that is dominated by technique and subtlety.
Most people get through this relatively unscathed, and they begin to approach tango in a different way. They no longer expect every class to present them with a new series of ‘moves’ that they can use at the weekend, but instead they start to see tango classes as an ongoing series of minor adjustments designed to help them find their own unique path through this dance, and eventually they settle into a routine of steady progression.
You would think that dancers who have moved into this new ‘phase’ of tango would have become immune to the tangocrisis, but that is far from the case. It can hit anyone, and when it comes to people that have been dancing tango for years it can often be much harder to deal with. No longer simply a beginner misunderstanding how tango works, you are now an experienced dancer who has given a significant amount of time to something you feel you no longer understand or were not as good at as you thought, and that can hurt.
The causes of later-stage tangocrisis are varied and can be hard to pin down, but there are some triggers that are almost guaranteed to bring it on. A constantly critical teacher who keeps telling you that you are wrong but never says when you get it right is a common cause, but then so is a constantly critical dance partner, especially if they are someone you are close to outside of dance. Comparing yourself with others can cause problems as everyone progresses at different speeds and even the fastest learner may well not be as good in some areas as other people in the class. Elitism or cliques in a dance community are always unhealthy, and people who refuse to dance with someone because they are seen as being at “the wrong level” or “not from my club” are guaranteed to make the other person feel worthless. These are some of the most common triggers, but there are of course many more and some will be unique to the individual.
So how do you deal with a tangocrisis when it happens? Just saying “ignore it and carry on” is about as useful as telling someone with depression to “go for a walk and you will feel much better” so there has to be something more practical that can be done. You could of course give up tango, but as we are talking about something that has happened after months or even years of classes, most of which you thoroughly enjoyed, giving up is not really a constructive solution. So how do you deal with it and carry on dancing?
But above all, remember that this happens to everyone at some point. New students, teachers, long-time learners, performers… everyone has had their tangocrisis and will probably have one again, so talk to people and see how they dealt with theirs.
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