Blog‎ > ‎Tango Technique‎ > ‎

How to help beginner leaders

From Terpsichoral Tangoaddict

Beginner leaders, their problems and how to help them.

This is rather long status, but bear with me, because it's a topic very dear to my heart.

First, the bad news. I hate to shock you by saying something completely politically incorrect, but I have yet to be convinced that you can learn a technical skill from dancing with a beginner leader which will be applicable to your dance in general. Yes, when dancing with a beginner, you have to keep your own balance, since he [or she] will not be able to help you -- but a more skilled leader will not appreciate having to hold you up or help you find your axis either. In fact, much of what happens technically, when dancing with a beginner leader, has to do with being able to resist what is being led: refusing to take that huge back step right into the other couple he hasn't spotted because his eyes are glued to your feet; standing firm and not letting yourself be tugged into a shallow ankle-clashing gancho or yanked forward into a scary volcada; trying to get comfortable in an embrace which is painful or awkward; staying upright as he pulls you off axis; trying to take your ocho with dissociation and resisting the impulse of his arms pulling you in a way that will make you fall onto it lumpenly, like a block. It can feel like trying to keep your balance on a crowded and jolting bus, like sailing very rough seas on board a tiny dinghy whose captain is drunk. There are skills that you need specifically *to* dance with beginners, but I don't regard them as transferrable skills, since following is not about offering resistance or declining to do what is led, not about fighting against the partner or trying to hold your own *despite* what he is doing -- it's about listening, responding, interpreting, expressing.

And I quite honestly don't believe it's possible for most beginner leaders to learn from dancing with more advanced level followers, either. The majority of beginners I have danced with are not paying any attention to what is happening in my body; they aren't able to, as their minds are occupied in trying to get steps to work, in trying to stay upright, in trying not to bump into anyone. They really aren't listening somatically to my body movements at all and certainly aren't thinking "hmm, when I led the ocho *that way* it worked much better and felt smoother." They just attempt to push and pull me through the step in a way that doesn't allow me to modulate or control my own movement.

This isn't to say that beginner leaders cannot learn to dance well -- of course, they can, in classes, at prácticas and in other situations where feedback is possible. Just probably not through social dancing with good followers.

So, if you can't learn good dance technique from dancing with beginner leaders or them from you, am I saying that there is no point in more experienced followers dancing with beginner leaders? Absolutely not. If you have a small or medium-sized tango community with a dearth of men, it's important to keep them engaged and not let them get disheartened and, if you are one of the more advanced level followers, it's probably in your long-term enlightened best interest to dance some tandas with the beginner leaders in your community. (And, if you're a teacher, you probably have no choice, if you want to attract or retain students). But, to make this possible and desirable we need to look honestly at what the experience can be like and why -- just how bad it can feel and how we can change this.

First of all, part of the problem is, of course, in the way we conceptualise leading and following: we need to encourage beginner *followers* to take responsibility for their own movements, to be more active in the dance right from the outset -- because if beginner leaders are manhandling us on the dance floor, you can bet it's partly because they have been dancing with beginner followers who have been told to "close their eyes", "not anticipate", "just feel" and even "let the leader do the work". We need to put a very strong emphasis on teamwork right from the outset.

And we also need to understand the psychological difficulties of what we are asking when we tell beginner leaders to "keep it simple". First of all, in many places, the tango culture itself is riven with contradictions on this issue. I visited a lot of parts of the US, in particular, (including some festivals) where the students were almost all beginners or let's say almost-beginners or long-term beginners, but the classes offered were on abstrusely complex moves and difficult combinations that most experienced dancers hardly ever use when dancing socially. But, on the other hand, it's difficult to tell someone to keep on and on working at the same thing, such as walking or dissociation, when they are finding it hard at first. When you've been struggling with something you aren't mastering for a good while, it's natural to want to take a break and try something else, something easier or, at least, difficult in a different way. And that's when you think "OK, I've had enough of working on walking in close embrace; I'm going to try a few boleos". And that's probably why -- while most of the more highly-skilled partners I dance with might lead a volcada once an evening max and many never lead them at all, many beginner leaders I've danced with have led me in twenty per song. I understand the frustration of being told "no no no, just keep working on the walk indefinitely, until it feels smooth and right" -- and I think it's probably psychologically unrealistic to expect beginner leaders to do that. They can keep working on the walk, sure, of course they should, but interspersed with something which is challenging in a completely different way.

And, by now, you've probably guessed what that thing is, the thing that can give the beginner leaders a break from the monotony of trying to lead cross 800 times -- and the thing that can turn what seemed like hard work back into play. The thing that allows us to really dance with beginner leaders, to get genuine pleasure from dancing with them (rather than just enduring it as an act of charity or viewing it only as good karma). The thing that allows us to communicate with them (a two-way communication which is often missing on a technical level); to get them to look up and catch our eye (yes, I often make eye contact with beginners when the embrace opens up -- it signals -- "hey, don't forget that this is a playful, sexy dance!") The thing that lets us PLAY together, that lets us tease each other, that allows us to flirt with each other, that allows us to enjoy each other. The thing that makes me want to dance with some beginner leaders, makes me actively seek out their cabeceos, even though their embraces are awkward and their steps are clumsy. It's the music. And this is why I don't believe that musicality is an advanced level skill we should save for later, once the technical aspects of the dance have been mastered.

You want beginner leaders who are enjoyable to dance with? Help them to discover their musicality. (And that goes for beginner followers too -- it has to be a dialogue). For me, it should be 50% of the learning process: put half your energy into technique and half into expressing the music. You might not be as blissful to dance with yet, but you can still surprise and delight your partner, even if your technique is a bit ropey -- if you can learn to play in the music together.