An experienced tango friend tagged me in a Facebook thread by a tango teacher, on what can be done to encourage beginner leaders to stick with it long enough to graduate from Tango Hell.
I wrote a lengthy reply, and then realised I’d just written my next blog post. Here’s what I wrote …,
I could write an entire book on the topic (which few would read …), so I will be as brief as I can! Which, as anyone who knows me will tell you, is not very.
I’ll address retention now, and give some thought later to attraction. Note here that I’m only talking from the perspective of a complete beginner, in their first year. I can’t comment on leaders who drop out after a few years.
Tango is incredibly tough to learn. Especially if you’re a typical British bloke: never danced, little body awareness, stiff back from sitting at a desk all day, from a culture where men don’t hug, etc, etc. The first few months are hell. I doubt there’s any difference between leading and following there – the challenges may be different, but I’d be surprised if one were easier than the other.
Tango is also addictive. Once you have your first tangasm, that’s it, there’s no going back. So the question of retention, I think, is how to get leaders to that point as early as possible in their tango journey. How to give them their first rush, so they are willing to put in the work to get more.
I think there are a bunch of things we can do here. One is, as others have said, experienced followers being generous with their time and courageous with their toes and giving beginner leaders the chance to dance with someone else who isn’t a complete beginner. Two beginners dancing together in their first few months is always going to be horrible, and if it’s in a milonga, fatalities are a distinct possibility. But a beginner leader with an experienced follower, who will pick up the leader’s slight hints of a lead, smooth out their awkward movements, help with their balance and – in a milonga – take the primary responsibility for navigation … that’s a massively different experience. I was fortunate enough to have met and been introduced to many such generous and brave experienced followers, and it’s thanks to them that I’m here now.
Two, if you are an experienced follower and your life partner is a beginner leader, for the love of all that is holy, don’t ever try to teach them! But do dance with them in a milonga from time to time. Smile. Be encouraging. Make them feel better than they are. You don’t have to dance with them often, but do it sometimes, and do all you can to have it be a good experience for them. Offer support and encouragement, never advice.
Three, encourage them to have a little taste of following. They probably won’t want to do it, fearing it will further torture their already massively confused tango brains, but assure them that it is the single best thing they can do to understand how to lead. It doesn’t need to be anything complicated. After four hours of privates devoted to following, all I can do as a follower is walk semi-competently and do an absolutely atrocious, unbalanced version of something that looks entirely unlike an ocho, but even that much was a bigger help than I can say. If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the way tango is taught in the UK it would be for everyone to learn both leading and following from lesson one.
Four, get them into a milonga asap. As soon as they can do something which could, in poor light and from a distance, be mistaken for a tango walk, get them into a milonga. Be standing there when they unlock the doors so they can get straight onto an empty floor with no navigational problems and no spectators. The longer beginner leaders wait before their first milonga, the more intimidating a prospect it becomes. Get them there in the very early days, before they know what they don’t know.
Five, introduce the concept of collaborative dance as early as possible. Again, this will terrify them, but again assure them it is about making their lives easier, not harder. Beginner leaders have no vocabulary and 60% of their internal dialogue when dancing is ‘WTF am I going to do next?’ Tell them This One Simple Trick will greatly relieve them of that problem. Ask their teacher to show them how to lead a parada and then relax the embrace. Experienced followers will then strut their funky stuff. Tell them this is how they get to look good while doing absolutely nothing. If you’re an experienced follower dancing with your beginner life-partner, see how much of the dance you can spend doing pretty decorations to the music in these moments. That will not only make your leader realise they don’t have to be Gavito to create an enjoyable dance, but you’ll also be teaching them musicality by the way you respond to the music at a time when they have the free brain capacity to notice. (They won’t notice the lovely little double-time stuff you do while walking – they’re too busy trying to avoid the pillar that just jumped out in front of them.)
Six, make sure they understand that This Stuff Is Hard For Everyone. Show them the post from Pablo and Anne above. They are *amazing* dancers, and they struggled just as much. They wondered if it was all worthwhile. They had teachers tell them the same bloody things over and over again. None of the dancers they see doing whizzy stuff in milongas were born with that ability. Not even the Argentines. It takes time, it takes work and it takes practice.
Seven, tell them to listen to tango music all the time. In the morning, when commuting, in the evening, when sleeping, all the time. Sure, point out the phrasing, but mostly it’s about listening and listening and listening. Reassure them that when they’ve been X milongas, they will start hearing the same songs over and over again. It’s not impossible to get to the point where they know what is coming at least some of the time.
Eight, maybe a couple of my blog posts below might help. The first is my six-month appraisal, at a time when I was wondering whether to continue, and essentially setting myself a deadline of a further six months to either become a dancer or give up. The second is an experience a few days ago at a little over one year in. If they stick with it, they can make the same journey I did. I’m still a beginner, but I’m a very happy one!