Friday 17 November 2017

Making better choices - wasting less time, energy and money

Tango is an art, it is a social dance and it is a business. 

Understanding these different aspects of tango is crucial when it comes to making informed decisions about what events you go to, what teachers you choose and how you want your dance to develop. So this post is about priorities and money well spent.

When it comes to choosing tango events, many people make conscious and well-informed decisions. Since the turn of the century, the tango community has grown and diversified and there are now events for all tastes. (Check out this post from last year.) There are of course dancers who love all sorts of events, but most of us have preferences. I think that’s a good thing, because knowing what you like and where to find it will minimise the risk of being disappointed. 

But are tangueros and tangueras as careful when it comes to making general decisions about their dance and with whom they want to study. I am not so sure.

Here is a story.

We are regularly teaching in Basel (Switzerland) in the form of consecutive intensive seminars - 4 hours on a Sunday over the course of 3-4 months, 1 class each month. People will book the entire seminar, that are accompanied by a guided practica. The groups are limited to 10 couples and we drive from and back to our hometown on the same day. Six hours of driving and 4 hours of teaching on one day ist quite exhausting and we ask for an appropriate salary. So these classes are not cheap and if someone commits to such a course format and is willing to pay a considerate sum of money, you’d think that they inform themselves in advance about what to expect. But this is not always the case. 
Last Sunday was the first module of the new series - a Milonga seminar. As announced in the class description, we started with an half-hour-session of bodywork on yoga-mats. I immediately noticed a gentleman, who did not take a mat and preferred standing in the back without doing the exercises. I did of course not insist that he participate. For all I knew, he might have a health issue. 
The rest of the seminar contained - as announced - lots of musical work in the group, enough time to apply the musical concepts in the parallel walk and two simple movements, that we varied on several levels to not have the participants memorise a step. There was a lot of interaction in form of games, short discussions…
During the entire class, our special participant was obviously not willing to really commit to the class objectives. His facial and corporeal expression was defensive, if not hostile. As he was also struggling with the execution of the exercises, we of course offered feedback and help as we did with everyone else. He did not even show a positive reaction when being addressed personally in a friendly manner. 
After class he told the organiser, that he would not come back for the rest of the seminar. He did not feel cared for and would have preferred that we showed more steps which he then could have repeated, like the argentine couples do. (His words, not mine.) In addition to that, the organiser hinted that the gentleman may not be used to receiving an honest feedback as most teachers in that region usually praise without offering alternatives.

So our guy was upset and quit. This is sad and I wonder, if we could have done anything else to improve the situation. Maybe. I will certainly analyse it in-depth to do better another time.
But I feel strongly, that there was not much that we could have done. I think we were not the right teachers for him and that he was looking for something that we would not provide. This is why I reckon, he cannot have read the class description or checked our website in advance. A purely frontal classes with step learning was not what we promise - on the contrary. So is he to blame for his disappointment?

Not entirely.

How many teachers will claim that they teach social tango and don’t show steps but rather focus on connection or musicality? Workshop description are often exciting reads. But when you visit the class, leaders and followers will have to stand on opposite sides of the room and practise complex moves independently from each other. So how can clients rely on anything that is published or even be bothered with reading it? After all, any written material ist of a promotional nature and professional teachers are trying to attract and not to put off dancers. 

Actually, believe it or not, I have to exclude ourselves. Already our first videos in 2003 were uploaded to avoid clients coming with false expectations. After all there are lots of things that we won't teach and the ones we teach, we will present in-depth. Our classes are (albeit Detlef's inclination to jokes) not geared towards entertainment, but towards serious study. This is why everything we write (and do) is meant to encourage the right clientele and discourage dancers who are looking for a different kind of tango or learning experience. Of course we do not always live up to our expectations and might even disappoint the people whom we want to attract. But having participants who are not open for our philosophy and/or methods are luckily a rare exception. This is why the recent incident made me ask:

How can we avoid such situations? How can future clients really inform themselves about the product they buy and therefore improve the chances that both students and teacher are content with the work.

From the teacher’s side, I find that quite simple: 
Please live what you teach. Don’t advertise falsely. If  you want to teach a social dance, please dance socially! If you want to teach complex and acrobatic moves, take dance classes, practise every day and make them look as perfect as possible! If you claim to be good teachers, please prepare your classes properly and constantly work on your teaching methods or skills! In any case: if you take money for a product, please take what you are doing seriously! It’s a job - for god’s sake.

My advise to all students: 
Do not rely solely on what any teacher writes. Look at what he or she does and examine the results of their work. Then make a decision based on what you want to achieve in tango. 

So this post is ultimately about defining one's priorities and then choosing appropriate products. The following is a description of the steps of such a decision-making process.

A Checking your general motivation

Ask yourself whether you really want to work on your dance and are willing to learn, maybe even change? Or are you happy with where you stand? 

If the answer to this question is:
I am happy with what I know and do; I don’t need to develop any more - this is perfectly fine. Don’t force yourself to take classes, because everyone else does or if you go, comprehend them as an entertaining activity. But do not visit any classes in which your abilities might be put into question. If you are not willing to receive an honest feedback, the result can only be frustration for both you and the teachers. Also: please do not expect to dance with all the top dancers. Unless you are already perfect (which is unlikely, because no one is ever), they might want to develop and could be looking for something different in the dance.
Although I am a teacher, I don’t think, that one has to learn and improve constantly. If you are happy with your abilities and the resulting situation then why should you? Spend your money on a nice pair of shoes! I mean it.

But if your answer is:
Yes, I am curious and there are things that I want to improve or change - then you should try to define your priorities and goals. Without knowing what you want to achieve, the hole learning process will take much longer and you are going to spend a lot of money on trial and error.

B Defining your priorities 

This is about defining how you want to dance, so please ask yourself the following questions: 
Do I want to dance elegantly or is this not my priority? Do I want to decorate my steps? Do I want to be challenged with complex movements or am I happy with simple variations of the walk? Do I want to dance tango shows, do I want to become an artist or do I want to dance socially only? Do I want to feel comfortable and want to be invited for my nice embrace? What kind of music do I like and how do I want to interpret it? What is important for me at this stage of my tango life?

Why don’t you make a list of priorities in a ranking order?

Just to give you an example, these are my priorities as a dancer: 
  • a nice embrace and deep interaction
  • an interesting musicality
  • harmonious, comfortable movements that feel "technically" right for me
  • improvisation
  • an intellectual challenge (understanding how movement and music function in order to become a better teacher and dancer)
You can see, that elegance e.g. is not one of my priorities. If elegance develops from a harmonious movement and a good technique, then I am happy. But I would not compromise general relaxation and comfort for looks. This is my personal choice. You have to make yours. If elegance is top priority for you, you will need an appropriate technical approach, e.g. working with projections to make your legs look extra long and straight. Every technique comes with advantages and disadvantages and you should choose them according to your priorities.

So, let us say that you have defined your personal priorities and goals. Most likely taking classes will (apart from serious practise) be one instrument to achieve your goals. This means choosing appropriate teachers. The next paragraph will therefore deal with sources of information and with questions to examine.

C Choosing teachers

1. Read what they write.
Please read what teachers have to say about their methods, class-contents and their general philosophy. Do you agree? Do you share the same ideas? Good. Please proceed with the next paragraphs. If not, find other another teachers to look into. 
But be aware: there is the issue of language. We all use it differently. For someone, improvisation will mean putting together different steps, for someone else it is deciding each moment, which single element to use. "Technique" can be understood as general bodywork, posture, communication and execution of very basic elements (e.g. a pivot) or it can be understood as steps. Also: the teacher's native language may be another than your own and a third language (often english) will be used to communicate. So there is a huge potential for misunderstandings.
Additionally - as discussed above - whatever you read (class descriptions, flyers, websites, blogs - yes, also this one) is ultimately promotional material. I don’t want to imply, that all texts lie. Many teachers will surely advertise with the best intentions of describing their product and motivations properly. But even the most honest text will still not be conclusive, because it does not tell you everything you need to know. 
So written material might be helpful to exclude teachers, but you will need information from other sources to decide whether you really want to work with a particular person or not.

2. Watch dance videos.
Please ask yourself: Do I like what I see? Do these teachers dance complex steps or do they focus on seemingly simple moves? Do they dance musically? Do I perceive them as being elegant? How does their embrace and posture look, comfortable or stiff? Do I see anything at all that I would want to study?
A few hints: If you see a dancer decorating her every move and making lots of high boleos as a result to the most subtle invitation, but you currently want to focus on the embrace, better don’t go to the boleos class. If you see a couple mostly walking to the music and not executing any giros with enrosques in an open embrace, please do not expect them to teach these movements. 

3. Check out the teacher’s activities and behaviour at milongas.
Inform yourself: What is their background? Do they dance in a tango show and understand themselves as artists? Do they visit local milongas or other social tango events? Do they dance with each other or professionals only? Do they dance with "normal" dancers? How do they behave on the dance floor? Do they show off or adapt to the ronda?
A few hints: If the couple in question does not visit social dance events or will only dance with each other - don’t take their class on adapting your embrace to different partners. If they disturb the ronda with their fancy moves, don’t expect them to teach a tango that is fit for the social dance floor. But: The skilled artists might nevertheless be the perfect teachers for you to develop a complex repertoire if you are planning on performing in a theatre or if you are looking for a practise challenge.
I am no artist, so please do not expect me to teach you a lot of things that will impress an audience. But by watching me dance at a Milonga, you could come to think, that I might help you to enjoy a tanda of Biagi or Di Sarli! 
A note: many teachers (including myself) will be tired after a day of workshops and may not dance a lot during workshop engagements. So you might not want to base your decisions on the observations of one or two workshop-weekends only. And of course there are brilliant artists who are social dancers at the same time!

4. Interview other consumers.
If a couple is either teaching locally or is travelling internationally, there is the chance, that others have already taken their classes. Ask about their experiences. Did they like the class? Was it well prepared? What are the pedagogical methods of the couple in question? Do they teach frontally or do they interact? Do they show many steps or do they work on the basics? Is there additional class material? 
A hint to the decision making process: Please do not take a class of teachers that might engage you in group interaction, when you just want to receive input. 

5. Look for class summaries on the internet.
Class summaries do not only provide information about class-contents, but might also give an impression about general methods. There are e.g. no typical „end-of-workshop-dance-demos“ from Detlef and me on the internet. Why? Because we rarely show steps and will in any case rather make an extensive summary with explications in which we explain the basic concepts and then additionally send written material by e-mail. As we do not want dancers to memorise steps, we cannot just have them film the moves at the end of a class. In order to show what we do, we have uploaded two excerpts of class summaries on Youtube. They are quite old, but still give a good impression. One is in German, one is in French
Other teachers will have similar videos on the internet. Watch one or two of them before signing up for a class. If the class summary shows a long sequence of acrobatic moves, please be prepared for that kind of work in future classes. If they focus on small technical details, don’t complain if the they ask you to pay attention to those details in class.

6. Dance with the teachers and/or their students:
This is actually the most important criterion. If you don’t like what you experience, then don’t take that class. If you like their embrace, musicality, movements, navigation skills - go for it!
But, as I mentioned in section 3: You cannot base such a decision on one or two samples only. Every dancer - including a professional teacher - will have a bad moment and not every student is a key to judging the teacher’s abilities and methods. You will need a little time to get a valid impression. 
Also: you cannot expect a professional teacher to dance with every potential student, so dancing with the students will be a more likely option. And ultimately, they are even more important, as they show the results of the teaching. Even the best teachers are not always super dancers and some of them will not even use their own principles. There are e.g. teachers who promote counter-body-movement in the parallel walk, but cannot apply it in their own dance. Others oppose to it officially, but still use it unconsciously. So dancing with students who apply these teacher's principles, will tell you much more about the content and quality of their teaching.

With this, I come to one last observation:
It takes some effort to make informed decisions, but I think it is worth it in order to avoid mis-spending your hard-earned money - in particular if you plan on doing intensive seminars or tango holidays.
Nevertheless, you might not always have the capacity or motivation to go through such a decision-making process. It is totally fine to take a chance and sign up for workshop spontaneously. 
But if you do, please do not show up with strong preconceptions. If you are openminded and prepared for surprises you might learn something valuable in an unexpected context or during an exercise that you cannot see the point in at first. Sure, you may also learn that you do not agree with these teacher's ideas or that you are looking for something completely different. But this is positive too, because it helps you define (or re-define) your priorities. 

So don’t be mad but rather try to make a better choice next time.


El escritor said...

A very interesting post Melina, as always, with lots of good advice that I wish I'd had when I started! But I think this advice is suited more to the dancer with some experience already, when you start to realise you need this advice. Many (most?) beginners have only a vague idea of what they want. Perhaps they have seen stage tango on TV, or maybe they already dance jive and a friend suggests coming to a tango class. We are complete innocents at this stage!

Many towns have only one teacher so that's the obvious place to start and hence what you get is somewhat random. Until you have a comparison it's hard to know what you want. So how do people graduate to where your advice is relevant? I guess in Patricia's and my case we took classes with several teachers and began to appreciate the differences. Our trip to BsAs also widened our horizons and eventually we defined what we wanted from tango. It took us a long time though, maybe it is easier for people starting today, with so much more choice and information available.

I will end with something I heard from Ney Melo. When he takes a class he does *everything* the teacher advises even if he doesn't agree with it or like it. Afterwards he accepts or rejects things from the class but he has given them a fair test first. I think this is a good philosophy and it's a pity your student couldn't follow this.


Melina Sedo said...

Hey Mike,

You are correct: the post mostly targets dancers who have already started dancing.

But nevertheless: we don't have to be so innocents anymore from the beginning. There is the internet, there is youtube... People can inform themselves much better before they start of a new activity, than this was possible 20 years ago. So if you are living in a town with 2 or more tango schools, you can still check them out in before. And there are people who do that.

Many years ago, we were giving regular classes in a couple of towns in our region. There was one guy who signed up with his partner. He told us, that he had been interested in tango for some time, but had only seen dramatic show tango exhibitions by a local teacher. As he did not like what he saw, he did not go to her classes. Only when he saw what we were doing, he registered. I think it took him a year or more to find us. But then he stuck to it and as far as I can tell, he still dances. I think his waiting payed off. And today it is even easier.

Sure: if you are living in a town/area with only one or two schools/teachers, there is not much choice, so most people just stick with what they have. But if you are not content with the situation, you will sooner or later have to decide, whether you stop doing tango or whether you start traveling and spending more money. Again: it is about priorities.

Good advice from Ney. It goes well with what I say in the end: if you take a class, go there open minded.

Good luck and lots of fun to you!