Three months ago, I gave myself my six-month appraisal, and made what I felt at the time was a level-headed decision:
So I think that’s where I’m at with it. A year of lessons, culminating in a trip to Buenos Aires. If I call it a day at that point, I’ve experienced a whole new world, made some lovely new friends, and had a glorious adventure. But if I feel that I’ve reached a point where what I do in a milonga feels like dance, then I’ll stick with it.
Nine months in, things look very different …
There’s still a whole lot wrong with – and missing from – my tango, of course. This is only three months later. But four things have changed in that time.
First, I wrote this about the two-year beginner phase:
But that’s two years of, let’s be honest, a vast amount of work with some smaller percentage of fun.
That’s no longer true. The lessons are as much fun as they are work – partly because I treat them as dance in which we repeatedly use a particular figure – and milongas are now 95% fun and only 5% fear, concern and frustration. Hell, I danced in a pub recently: I can hardly claim I’m not having fun!
Second, I can dance. I can criticise my dance in dozens of ways, of course, and I’m sure my teachers could come up with a few dozen more, but the bottom-line is that I can take a partner out onto the dance floor, and we can both have an enjoyable time.
I said that, if what I was doing felt like dance after a year, I’d stick with it. It does.
Third, my ambitions have changed. Three months ago, I thought that if I wanted to enjoy the dance, I had to be as good as the people I see doing all the whirly stuff in milongas. I now know that’s not true. There are all kinds of tango dancers, from ones who virtually do performance dance to cuddle-shufflers, and it can be enjoyable in any of its myriad forms. I now have a solid sense of where I want to get to.
Finally, I’m addicted. I’m not going to be giving up tango because I couldn’t if I wanted to.
My technique continues to evolve
I think I’ve only added one new piece of vocabulary since last time: the sandwich (a very useful one!). But my technique has developed quite a bit.
My embrace is more comfortable and more huggy. I have significantly better posture (though that is still very much a work in progress). I get good feedback on my embrace from followers.
I get a lot of positive feedback on my walk, so all that early work was clearly worth it. Of course, dancers work on their walk all their lives, so there’s always a next level. I find it much easier to do a good walk in close embrace with a follower with a lot of presence, and when doing big steps. But I’ve been working on trying to get as much of a feeling of push into smaller and slower steps, and I’m definitely making progress there.
My ochos are night-and-day better. I can now really play with these – varying the pace, switching easily between front and back ochos, adding in paradas on either side or both, and exiting them very cleanly and in control. If tango were just walking and ochos, I’d be pretty happy.
I’m tackling my giros. These have so far been a cheat. I lead it in a vague fashion, followers know what it is and do their steps, and I try to stay connected as we turn. But it’s very far from a true, step-by-step lead – which means I’m not really in control of the pace. I’m now working on changing that. There’s currently a huge gap between what I can do in a lesson and what I can do in a milonga, but I’ve been there before and know that’s just a question of practice and experience. And when my anti-clockwise giro is there, then Federico and Julia tell me it’s a relatively easy transition to clockwise ones, which is a movement I see used a lot and seems a really useful one.
I also feel like the consistency of approach I get by having the same teachers for my Monday group class and my private lessons helps a lot. One bonus is that instead of just giving feedback during the group class on whatever it is we’re working on that evening, they will remind me of points from my last private. And while sampling different teachers has been great in many ways, this feels like a more grounded approach.
My musicality likewise
My musicality continues to improve. In part through the musicality workshop series I did, and understanding the options to switch between dancing to the beat, to the melody and to the counter-melody.
In part just by knowing some of the music better. There are a handful of songs I know well enough to be able to switch confidently between different types of movement. Not many, but enough that they do come up in milongas from time to time, and I can deliver a very nice dance when that happens (and it’s not just me saying that). Plus, thanks to a slightly better understanding of the structure – like the ‘call and response‘ pattern seen in so many tango songs – I can at least anticipate a little better even for songs I don’t know. And my hit-rate of ending on the final beat is maybe now 70% …
And there’s of course overlap between technique and musicality. The better able I am to control the pace of a movement, and to exit it on my timing, the better able I am to express the music.
But it’s also about increased confidence. Being less afraid of seeming pretentious. I’m more willing to take the dramatic pauses. Feeling better able to just go for it. There’s been an upward spiral here: the more I’ve really gone for it, the more enthusiastic the response has been from followers. I need to be less of the inhibited Brit and find more of my inner Argentinian.
Baby steps toward collaborative dance
I have taken more steps toward collaborative dance. I’m giving more opportunities to experienced followers through the parada-and-pause approach, and I now understand – in principle, at least – the surprisingly simple secret of how a follower can ‘propose’ something to the leader.
It’s still baby steps, but for nine months in, I’m told I’m significantly ahead of the curve here.
Finally, a sustainable approach
So yeah, I went pretty crazy for a time. I was doing 3-4 group classes each week, plus private lessons, practicas, milongas and almost every workshop with an All Levels label ever offered in London. At one point, four of them in a weekend. My life was work, tango and theatre. If I was lucky, I got one evening at home a week, often not that.
That wasn’t sustainable long-term. So now I’ve calmed down. I’ve dropped the beginner classes, so my normal schedule is two group classes a week – one with a 30-minute practica beforehand, the other with a milonga afterwards – plus one 90-minute private lesson every couple of weeks. If I supplement that, it’s normally with the occasional additional milonga here and there.
Ok, I do have another lesson booked with Diego Bado while he’s in London; I couldn’t not! He’s a genius tango engineer: able to offer simple, pragmatic solutions to my current challenges. Plus he’s great for my confidence! But that’s an occasional treat.
Appraisal rating: Exceeds Expectations
I feel like a dancer. I’m enjoying myself. I have a number of regular followers who like to dance with me. I have a clear vision of where I want to get to. And I think I now have a solid and sustainable strategy for getting there.
I’m well ahead of where I thought I would be three months ago. Perhaps there’s some flattery, but I do consistently hear from teachers that my general level is better than average for my experience (even if my steps aren’t!), and experienced followers are usually surprised when I tell them how long I’ve been dancing.
All in all, then, I’m giving myself an Exceeds Expectations. Next appraisal, the one year mark.
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