Not too long ago, I wrote a blog entry on the importance of being bold and taking “big steps” in order to move our dancing forward.
But in the past, I’ve also made the case for paying attention to “smaller steps,” such as fundamentals and the finer details of body awareness.
I’m sure other tango teachers have given similar advice emphasizing one approach as well as the other. So which is it? Is there a right way? Should we choose one according to our personality, then stick to it?
Perhaps the answer is a little more nuanced. I’ve found that when choosing to go the “bold” route, we definitely accomplish a lot. But at some point, we come to a place where we have to step back and work on fundamentals and finer details.
But I’ve also found that when choosing to focus heavily on basics and small details, we eventually find ourselves pressed to take bigger, bolder leaps. This can include going to a festival for the first time, taking a more challenging class, or attending a milonga in a different city.
The issue isn’t about choosing one path over the other. It’s knowing when to transition from one to the other – and perhaps back again – while motivating ourselves to break the mold each time.
At every turn, it seems that tango won’t let us stay in any comfort zone for long.
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What do we want to accomplish right now? Do we want to learn a particular figure? A way to make our dancing look more polished? Improve technique?
That’s great! But let’s remember that it all connects to our fundamentals in some way. Once we’ve gotten the grasp of a new step, are we better at maintaining balance? Are we more sensitive to the connection with our partners? Does something as elementary as walking seem easier?
No matter how far we progress with our tango, tying all the knowledge we gain back to improving the basics is aways at the core of becoming a better dancer.
No, I’m not encouraging us to try outrageous things or boleo ourselves in the back of the head, although that would look pretty awesome/hilarious (just let me know if you’re going to try so I can get it on camera).
I’m also not advocating that we all become obnoxious dancers who hog an acre of floor space at every milonga.
But learning fancy figures has its place. For one thing, it challenges us to improve our technique and partner communication skills. And more importantly, it reveals just how competent we are at fundamentals. Ever notice that the biggest difficulties we encounter from fancy steps is usually traced to more basic elements, such as ochos and maintaining our balance?
You might not have the space to do all the fancy steps you finally mastered, but that’s nothing to worry about. The foundational, but more commonly utilized, abilities you improved in order to figure them out will shine as you dance the simpler steps you do have space for.
At a tango workshop, we understand the new figure being taught, yet are barely able to keep up. Afterwards, we’re not sure if we’ve fully grasped it.
Even when we apply strategies to make our learning more efficient, sometimes practicing that new step is simply a grind. For days, weeks, or sometimes even months, we do the new figure wrong for what feels like a million times before we get it right.
But the alternative is to scale back the effort, to just be “good enough” in order to get by. It’s far less painful, and seems like an acceptable strategy to advance.
But “good enough” reinforces lazy habits, such as pulling one’s partner around instead of leading. “Good enough” becomes a need to re-learn fundamentals, and results in a learning curve that ends up taking even longer than the grind.
The effort we take to grind through our progress, to endure the frustration happening now, pays off in the long run. It saves us not only time, but the additional pain which comes with only being “good enough.”
If we’re still in the early stages of learning tango, retaking a beginner class can be a big help. For one thing, we’re likely to pick up on material or technique tips we missed the first time. Also, familiar information will make more sense the second time around, since our brains absorb information more reliably after repeated exposure.
And if we’re more seasoned dancers, we’ll have the chance to help novices. They’ll appreciate our experience and support, which presents opportunities to build a closer-knit community.
But when we help others with the fundamentals, we also gauge the depth of our own understanding. Does it all make more sense now? Did we really grasp the material way back then? Or have we gotten lazy with basic elements? And is it possible we’ve been doing something wrong this whole time?
As we hear over and over again from our instructors, practice is important. Progression is still one of our main goals, but by reviewing basics we have the chance to repair potential “cracks” in our tango foundation.