Thursday 25 November 2010

What impact can a travelling Tango teacher have?

Just recently, I was interviewed by the Tangoblogger Cassiel and the (translated) interview was later also published on Tangocommuters blog. We talked about Tango didactics, especially from the point of view of a travelling teacher - as I am. 
During the interview I stressed the necessity to focus on basics, to structure the classes, to keep group sizes manageable... lots of important points that guarantee, that our visits all over the world help developing Tango. And yes, I can be proud of our work: I can see real progress during classes, I help people to understand things better and to evolve their personal style. Very often, we receive enthusiastic mails after classes, telling us, how tango-changing our classes are. That‘s very encouraging. 

But are they really? What if we come back? Have the dancers really changed or improved their Tango? What is the impact we have on people‘s Tango and what are the factors that further progress? To illustrate these questions, I am gonna tell you a story of two Tango communities, one in England and one in France. 

The Tango community A is situated in a tiny English village near a bigger industrial town. We have been invited for the third time by the local organisers, a very nice couple teaching Tango since 5 years. It‘s always a great pleasure to be there, not only because we have been received very warmly, made friends and had some great food there. Although it‘s been only 1,5 years, we can see, that our classes influenced people‘s dance a lot. Many of them really apply what we are trying to convey in our classes and I can see, that they are enjoying their dance and progress. It is great. 

The other community B is situated in a lovely French town with lots of culture and historic sites, near our hometown. We‘ve been teaching there since 7 years. The members of the Tango club are lovely and we know them quite well, as we used to give regular classes in another town nearby. Many of them have visited our Milongas and Festivals in the past. But unfortunately, very few of them take up our ideas of technique or musicality. They do well during the classes, really trying to grasp the concepts, but when we return in the following year or see them at a local event, only very little has changed. Most of them just keep on doing what they did before and we can start all over again with our basic principles. That‘s actually frustrating. 

So why the difference? Why is one group responding to our teaching and the other not so much? What are we doing differently? May it be the teaching in different languages, English and French? I took that into consideration, but have to say, that our French speaking abilities are almost as good as the the English ones - at least in the teaching context. I may not be able to write a blog in French, but I can very well explain the counter-body-rotation, believe me. 

A friend pointed out, that it might be a matter of respect: when we first came to town A, we were already quite known and thus more respected. Whereas in town B, we were basically locals, some of them even knew us as beginners. So maybe, they aren‘t so much impressed by what we teach and don‘t feel compelled to apply it... I can understand that point, but I don‘t think, it get‘s to the heart of the problem. 

I rather want to look at the totally different circumstances in these two communities: 

Former instruction: 
Tango community A (TCA) is pretty young - referring to the number of years, that people are dancing. I guess, only very few people are dancing more than 5 years there. They started learning Tango in a period, where there was already a decent know-how and good teachers where available. So all of them already had a good idea of social Tango before we started spilling our ideas. 
Tango community B (TCB) is much older and quite a lot people there are dancing the same number of years as we do. They‘ve seen a lot of bad teaching, especially in the first years, where most Tango teachers were doing unspeakable things on the dancefloor. Some of that stuff sticks to you until the end! 

Ongoing instruction: 
TCA has got very dedicated professional teachers, who participate in our classes and take consciously up our ideas in their teaching. This permits people to understand the concepts on a deeper basis. 
TCB does have a couple of very different teachers, who focus on steps in an open embrace, although they take part in our classes since years. This confuses people. 

TCA hosts regular Milongas, where you can find traditional music suitable for dancing and practising ours and the resident teachers musical concepts. 
TCB does have no regular Milongas and the DJs unfortunately focus on rather undanceable music, no matter of which époque and on Electrotango. 

Other visiting teachers: 
TCA hosts different visiting teachers over the course of the year, but most of them seem to focus on basic work. They may be dancing more in an open embrace, but they teach a modern way of communication, that goes well with our concept of organic movements. 
TCB hosts visiting teachers of a more classical or showy style, that promote such a different technical approach, that they basically contradict most of the things we are teaching. 

Personal dedication: 
In TCA you‘ll find a lot of people, who are really dedicated to Tango. They visit regular Milongas, travel for Tango and form strong opinions about how they want to dance. They choose teachers and classes consciously. 
In TCB most people won‘t travel a lot (or at all) for Tango and many of them practice other dances as well. Most of them don‘t seem to care much about the style of teaching and dancing, they just wanna have fun and take whatever class is offered. 

I could go on and find even more differences, but I think, I covered the most important ones. And now comes the part, where I ruin my business because I have to conclude, that travelling teachers can only achieve very little. Even if their teaching is fabulous, the impact will be limited by the local circumstances. 

So this is what I want to tell organisers and dancers: 

- Don‘t invite visiting teachers, if you cannot support their work locally. It does not make sense, to expose people to good ideas and concepts, if there is no-one who can practice the stuff with them after the „stars“ have left. (If you don't have teachers, who can cover that, set up a monitored practica to encourage discussion and practice of the workshops contents.)
- Don‘t bother with the great „ball with demo“, if you don‘t organise regular Milongas, where people can dance to decent music and practise whatever they have learned in the workshops. 
- Forget about a „ very special couple“ if you plan to invite another „very special couple“ who contradict all their ideas next month. People need a little consistency in concepts. 
- All of you, be sensible consumers! It is up to you to decide, how much time and energy you want to invest in Tango and what kind of classes you book. You don‘t have to book every class and you don‘t have to appreciate every teacher. An intelligent buying behaviour and a lot of dedication are the most dominant pre-requisites for developing a personal style. 
- The fancy travelling teacher may give you some good ideas and concept, but it takes much more, to build up a Tango community with a decent level of social dancing. 

So... if now some of you organisers decide to cancel our invitation, because I convinced you, that we will not have much of an impact, I cannot help it. But I rather hope to encourage a more conscious teaching & event management: Please, think about what you want to achieve for your Tango community and plan your events, workshops and regular classes according to that goals. It will help you save a lot of money and it will be much more satisfactory for everyone, including the travelling teachers! ;-) 


Game Cat said...

Hi. That was a very interesting post. And brave too. Thank you.

If making a lasting impact is important to you, have you ever been tempted to focus more time in places that are most fertile to absorb your teaching (assuming they would like to invite you more)?

Anonymous of TCA said...

Wow that was very honest and very brave, I suspect if you'd gone to hogwarts you'd have been a gryffindor.

I shall try to be equally honest and brave. I don't think the organisers are to blame, the dancers themselves need to take responsibility for their dance, including how they sift the mass of information available from a wide variety of sources.

To this end I think a sense of direction, having sampled a few different styles of dance and teacher, is vital. To get anywhere you must have an idea where you are heading. Also an internal framework of what tango is (probably won't be perfect) will help the student to have something on which to hang the ideas of good visiting teachers, so they are not forgotten the minute the teachers leave the country. This internal model of tango will serve as guide between learning opportunities as well as allowing the student to weed out some other ideas they hear from teachers of different tango directions or worse, local dancers who think they are good enough to teach when really they should stick to learning.

So don't blame teachers, or organisers, we dancers need to take personal responsibility for our dancing, both for it's improvement through study and in the moment on the floor during milongas.

Tango Salon Adelaide said...

Melina, I endorse your comments totally.

Even though dancers have to bear some responsibility for their tango community, the teachers and organisers, by their very nature, necessarily have the greatest influence in steering a direction and shaping the culture of tango on their patch. This assumes that they have a clear and consistent vision, of course!

Sadly, many tango communities are fraught with unhealthy competitiveness, rather than cooperation. They often lack a common vision of how to nurture tango, with some teachers and organisers focussing on getting as many people as they can through the door, by pandering to the desire for novelty rather than consistency.


Joy in Motion said...

Great post, Melina. Individual dancers should definitely be conscious consumers, but local organizers and teachers should be providing good direction and instruction through the choices they make for that dancing community. Without good leaders and good leadership choices, dance communities stagnate.

I hope your post reaches those who need to hear it. Thanks!

Mikamou said...

That is a very interesting post! Please get on with your posts. :)

I was always suspicious about these migrant birds and I did not think of you but more these tango stars from the southern hemisphere. On one side it can give inspiration, ideas, new looks on tango but on the other side there is a total lack of continuity. I have the chance to life in a tango community with a really interesting level of teaching and a manageable amount of competitiveness so I can choose not to attend these traveling Tango teacher workshops and still having hope progressing. Dunno what I would do if I lived in TCA or TCB.

And ... Personally I really do not like this „ball with demo“ stuff ... the milonga prices are increased (shows cost extra in general), expectations are high (so is the stress of the dancers), the shows itself of unequal quality and break the night in two (2 - 3 "otras"!), it attracts all sorts of groupies but there is no actual blending within the local community hence I consider they are promoted for more than they are worth.

Melina Sedo said...

@ anonymous of TCA:

I do not feel so brave, but the House Gryffindor would nevertheless be my choice. I'm one of these persons who speak up and get themselves into trouble. Or not! ;-)

Melina Sedo said...

Hi all and thanks for your comments.I will be away for a couple of days, teaching of course as I do every weekend. It's another place where we've been a couple of times before. Let'see, how this turns out...

Just some answers to your comments:

@ Game Cat:
Do you speak about teaching locally in our homeregion or just staying longer/returning more to the same places?
We've done the teaching locally for 5 years and I talk about the reasons to not do this anymore in my interview with Cassiel.
As for the spending more time in certain places: We did this already. One place in France e.g. invited us for a series of 5 weekends over 2010/11 and we also worked with them on defining their clubs goals and practica-setups. And we've been invited twice to another city in France, where we stayed for 6 weeks...
That's all very nice, but unfortunately up to the organizers. We can ony go to a place repeatedly or longer, if we are invited to do so. And most organizers will invite a travelling couple only one a year. Maybe again in the following year.

@ the rest:
I talked about personal dedication in my interview with Cassiel and in the discusion afterwards. There I mention the need to practice, go to Milongas, choose teachers consciously in order to develop abilities. But: unfortunately only very few people have enough energy, time & money to show such a high dedication, if there's almost no Tango locally. I've been exactly in this situation: there was one very uninteresting regular Milonga in my hometwon and a quite deficient teacher. I had to travel far and much to learn Tango. I still live in this town without Milonga to go to.
But most people will not have that time or energy. People need local Milongas and access to consistent teaching to develop dancing abilities. And this is why I adress here the local organizers/teachers more directly. It is very much up to them, how the Tango community develops.

@ Mikamou: Yep. demos are very often an interruption of the Milonga and lots of good dancers don't like to watch them at all. This is why I am always reluctant to do one.
But on the other hand, they do have a paedagogic aspect: I wanna promote social Tango. If I do a demo without effects, jumps and fancy stuff, more people might say: "hey, look, they are dancing socially EVEN in a demo, so why do I have to show off during a Milonga." It's part of my job.
But, as I say in my post: such grand Milongas with demo only make sense in the context of there being also normal regular Milongas with good music!

So... and now I will have to prepare to leave... Gonna check the comments on Monday evening.

Cheers to all,


Kieron said...

My view is that genuine community progress is dependent on one nebulous issue.

The community is what holds itself back. I've seen it many times in many towns now. An individual may gain new insight, but the people he/she dances with are unenlightened, continue in their old ways. The fledgling birdie of new possibilities and subtleties is easily squashed by the bumbling elephant of entrenched habits.

It is so easy to slip back into old ways, and for the tango magic to gradually slip away unnoticed.

So far, I've only seen transformation and rebirth either where individuals go away, learn intensively, then come back to their community, or when a pod of students work together.

A few committed dancers (or more!) have a much greater chance of retaining their new skills because they can use them readily with each other. New techniques are instantly recognised by others who took the same classes.

My message is that we all should be working to assemble healthy learning groups, and that real change can demand that you spend time out of the nest before coming back.

The playground politics of tango are always divisive, and it takes a positive effort to keep people together. Simple and elegant demo dances are needed to challenge the audience's concept of tango beyond some video pulled off Youtube, whereas visiting superstar teachers who do not engage with their host community do nothing except promote more of that one-way adoration of a video.

Oh dear, my soapbox is cracking under the strain.

Melina Sedo said...

Well said, Kieron!

And yes: groups of dancers, exchanging their ideas or skillls, they've learned in classes are excellent media for development!

We've even monitored a group of dedicated studends in NYC from afar over a certain period... Worked very nicely and people learned a lot by thinking and explaining it to their fellows!

Now I'm off to Brittany!

Unknown said...

after the post, and all the comments, my first thought was: all things in the world are bound to change, it is inevitable.

- Good communities may become bad, maybe even vice versa, but i doubt :).
- A new hope can develop in a hopeless case, a hopeless case can get new insights and hopes.
- Dancers can get and lose their motivations to move and learn more.

The drives behind these developments are all very complex, and complaining about it doesn't really help, so bottom line would be that everybody is really responsible only for him/herself, as the TCA friend said :).

have a good weekend, both :).

Anonymous said...

A very interesting post.

I was until recently an organiser of a local tea dance. I was running the tea dance about once a month in response to people's complaints about the existing tango scene. The existing teachers tended to limit social dancing to an hour or so after their class. We wanted a proper three hour slot to dance in.

Trouble is .... the dancers then wanted us to organise visiting teachers. This was also something the local teachers werent doing much of. Or when they did it was expensive to attend.

Eventually we decided to organise a workshop before the tea dance. The teachers we found were the Argentine friends of another set of local teachers. They were prepared to come to us at a discount - as we couldnt really afford to pay any more.

The workshop went well. The teachers were definitely from a show background. Classic tango salon. Personally they wouldnt have been my choice - I prefer the sort of teachers who go to TCA - but they were appreciated by the local dancers. And we more or less broke even financially.

So - I agree with what you say Melina and the teaching style you believe in. But from my own point of view the workshop we ran helped people to believe more in their local tango community. I was just one of the local dancers myself, and it was the first time that any of us had run something outside the usual teachers' dance classes.

It has now encouraged other people to offer dance lessons. Hopefully it will lead to a better more vibrant local tango community.

PS I wont put my name on this post in order to keep things anonymous ..

Valentin said...

I like a lot your post Melina : " B, situated in a lovely French town..., near our hometown (~120km)... we used to give regular classes in another town nearby(~50km)... unfortunately, very few of them take up our ideas ... when we return in the following year or see them at a local event, only very little has changed. Most of them just keep on doing what they did before ..."

Somewhere else in internet, on other occasion, I found the words "... they go to workshops only to transfer what they learned in another way to dance as bad as they did it before..." (what is the same as your words)

It's very easy to guess where this community B is ... especially when one lives in this town. I know well the people you described, because my partner and me, we have participated (till the last year) all the workshops and we had the same negative experience as you... The result is, we dance less and less in this town...

Excellent words Melina. I would like to translate your post in French and to stick the paper on all milonga doors in this community, but, you know ... it WON'T HELP. You understand very well the reason why the community B is ... what it is. And you understand also that there is no way to make it better.

It's like the bad wheather what you cannot change. You only can (from time to time) take the plane and go there where is the sun... for few days, for a week.... Higher quality for less quantity - that's life.

Anonymous said...

Such interesting observations on human behaviour. Maybe the dance is almost inconsequential.
Would these two groups connected by another common interest have behaved similarly? Who knows.
From the point of view of the peripatetic teacher; maybe the nature of the job i.e.: the transience of the life encourages the feelings of never sort of finishing and continuing with a group with the hope of nurturing the group long term. Fortunately as a student these feelings are not supported. An inspiring 'guest' or peripatetic teacher is not just a 'breath of fresh air, but a real inspiration. An inspiration which lasts much longer than a weekend. The experience can truly have a lasting and dance-changing effect. An epiphany no less. Yes it can feel a little frustrating not to be able to have access to ones favourite teachers because of geographical barriers but if the teaching is so inspirational then it is just a cross that we have to bear. Melina and Detlef, although you are not present all the time we realise how dedicated you are and your enthusiasm and clarity of teaching encourages us to be thorough and to practice. You are not present but your influence still is. So Melina keep treading that road to Damascus.

Melina Sedo said...

@ anonymous (both of you)
Sure, i belive that visiting teacher can inspire dancers and a community and i am always happy, when we manage to do so.
I was just stating, that a lasting impact dependson what happens later locally.

@ valentin
Tu nous a deja manque!
Do not understand me wrong. I still like vising tcb, abd i evendon't want to say that the dancing is bad there. Maybe other teachers left their impact. It is just, that we do not manage to influence the dancing there. Or only very very little. And this is sad after 7 years.

Greetings from Brittany (Bretagne)

Anonymous said...

Melina-I can't say the impact you had in Portland as I traveled there myself. I can say that I didn't know there was more than one style of Tango done in close embrace until I started asking questions in your class. As a Follow you gave me a new skill set. My full-time partner and I chose Milongero style for several reasons. However when I dance with Leads who dance Salon style I can now follow thanks to you.

Melina Sedo said...

Thanks Elisabeth. I'm glad we managed to make some points.
Are just now finishing our 4th stay in TCC. yup...

Bruno Afonso said...

What a great insightful post Melina. Some of your teachings linger over long periods of time. Just today I shared something you taught here in boston over a year ago.

You can't control communities, you can only try to help them.

Melina Sedo said...

Hi Bruno!

I'm glad, we're not totally forgotten, as we might come back. ;-)

Greetings to all our friends in Boston,


msHedgehog said...

I think it's worth mentioning that creating change in an existing community is difficult for all sorts of other reasons that are only indirectly connected with teaching or how people physically dance.

For example, at a certain point people who feel that they are on top of the existing situation, but not securely, may feel threatened enough to attack anyone who questions it, as a more obvious and easier course than raising their game.

Without access to some sort of moral support, the student may not have the means to win that battle.

Which entirely backs up the point - local, determined support for good ideas is crucial. In some ways this is more feasible in a large community, but in other ways a large community has more problems.