The model of different learning styles that was presented by Barbe and colleagues in 1979 separated three different modalities of learning: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic styles (abbreviated as VAK). In tango teaching, that could simply mean that some students would learn faster from verbal explanations, others from looking at the teachers when they demonstrate a technique, and a third group would rather spend the time on trying it out in their own bodies.
It sounds like an elegant and plausible theory, which is probably why the idea gradually became one of the most wide-spread neuro-myths: in a 2012 study (Decker et al.), over 90% of a sample of 212 school teachers from the UK and the Netherlands believed the VAK theory to be correct. However, reviews of existing studies (such as Howard-Jones, 2014) show no scientific support for the theory – in many cases results have instead contradicted the VAK idea.
This means that tango teachers need to let go of the notion of finding the (VAK) learning style that will fit each tango student. Because the optimal learning style depends much more on the subject being taught than on individual student strengths. A mathematics class will require modes of input that are different from those of a dance class.
It may very well be that it’s a good idea to mix teaching styles within a tango class, i.e. to do a bit of talking, demo some things and then let students try it out – but if this works well, it is not because each student needs to get the input style that he or she can best absorb — it’s because tango dancing as a subject is best learned from a certain mix of modes of inputs.
So what is a good mix for learning tango? Well, apart from the obvious statement that nobody can learn dancing without trying it out in their own bodies (i.e. the kinesthetic style ought to be essential), we can only speculate about what the proportions need to be. I suspect that the physical skills in tango dancing primarily come from trying it out, where instructions could be given either in verbal or visual form. To the auditory learning style, we could also add the music as a (perhaps more subtle) source of input.
Tango dancing is more than physical skills, however, and I see some teachers who spend a lot of class time talking, e.g. describing the social atmosphere at milongas or addressing some of the insecurities that their students might have in relation to dancing. Although this time spent on talking may not be optimal from a strict dancing skill point of view, it will, according to some teachers, make students stay in tango and happily attending milongas, rather than abandoning tango for other activities.
But, to sum it up, regardless of your view on what specific skills should be taught in a tango class, science suggests that the best learning style to cater for does not depend on the preferred learning style of different students, but rather on the subject matter itself.
You might have heard of the study where 93% of US car drivers estimated that they had above-average car driving skills (Svenson, 1981). Naturally, we would expect that only 50% of the drivers actually had above-average skills. So there must be a huge gap between how people evaluate their own skill, and how their skills would be evaluated by others. This happens in many domains, not just car driving. Might it also happen in tango?
It is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after the researchers at Cornell University who published a famous paper on the topic (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). The name is almost harder to remember than the description of the effect:
“Incompetent people tend to over-estimate their own ability, while highly competent people tend to under-estimate their own ability.”
So in tango, unskilled dancers might often believe that they are much better dancers than they really are. But don’t we all believe that we are better than everybody else? No, according to what Dunning & Kruger found, we all just believe we are better than the average guy.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is often misunderstood: it does not state that everybody believes they are better than they actually are, or better than everybody else, for that matter. Look at the graph below from the original paper.
See how the left-most group got a really low test score (the round dot), but somehow still believed that they were slightly above average (the square marker)? Now look at the right-most group: they got fantastic scores on the test, but rated themselves lower than that. They still knew they were more skilled than the other groups, but they under-estimated how much better they actually were.
So, provided that these results are also valid in tango, we would expect that highly skilled dancers know that they are more skilled than most, but they do not understand just how good they really are.
The Dunning-Kruger effect makes you over-estimate your own ability only when you are unskilled at something, which means that as you improve your skills, you will also gain a more accurate notion about what skill means and how good you are yourself. Then, as you approach real mastery, the effect will actually be the opposite – since tango is easy for you, you will assume that it is easy for the rest of the crowd as well.
Now, that brings us to an interesting challenge for tango teachers. Many of them are naturally in the top quartile, so what if they do not really understand just how difficult tango is for their students?
For the not-as-skilled social dancers, the challenge will be a different one: the effect might cause frustration, e.g. if they go to a high-level dancing event, say El Yeite in Buenos Aires, since they will tend to think that they are at par with the general level of the place, but people are perhaps still reluctant to dance with them – which is then easily taken more personally.
On a deeper level, we can speculate about why our minds are twisted in this way. My guess is that the Dunning-Kruger effect is there to help us keep up the spirit when learning new things, rather than just giving up after the first attempt.
If tango beginners truly understood how little they learned after one class, would they at all feel like making the necessary investment for getting up to the general level of the community?
Of course, after just a few classes, they are usually already much better tango dancers than most of the people who never took a class, and they will quickly achieve a level where many experienced dancers will enjoy dancing with them at milongas. It is just that most dimensions of the dance, beyond “taking a few steps without crushing someone’s foot”, will remain hidden from them for a while.
When you look at yourself in the mirror, are you blissfully boosting your tango skills above your actual level? No? Well, I didn’t think so: this is all based on statistics, so you may very well be the odd exception, but still, isn’t it a fun fact to know that most of your dancing friends are hopelessly unable to accurately assess their own tango skills? 😉
Many dancers prefer tangos from a specific period, namely the Golden Age (approx. 1935-1955) of tango. Although there are plenty of gems in that musical treasure, some of the nicest songs get played more often than others in practicas and milongas, to the point where you will recognize them from the first few harmonies, and know much of them by heart. This is a good thing, in my mind, since knowing specific recordings really well also makes it easier to dance to them. My series on how to dance to the music continues.
A trained ear can guess rather well what is about to happen in a previously unknown tango. Some expressions of musicality in dancing, though, rely on actually knowing the specific recording by heart.
The accents of Edgardo Donato’s milonga “Ella Es Así” are virtually impossible to predict unless you’ve heard the song before, and if you want to play with the exact rhythm of the many playful fills of Rodolfo Biagi’s piano, you need to know from memory what is about to happen in the music.
The better you know the specific song, the better are your chances of finding time to prepare. The body needs time to create a movement, so it is not sufficient to realize what is coming just a fraction of a second beforehand – often movements need to be prepared at least one beat in advance, sometimes even several beats for a good build-up.
Here’s a few examples of how knowing the details of a tango piece can be used in the dancing:
After the basics, my series on how to dance to the music continues, diving deeper into more specific topics. This article explains how knowing the structure of tango music can help dancers make their dancing more interesting.
Listening to lots of different tangos, we can find recurring patterns. An important part of dancing with musicality relies on our ability to predict the music, and just like other genres of dancing music, tango is constructed in a predictable way.
It is not difficult to find descriptions of how tangos are built from alternating sections, how some tangos follow the pattern A-B-A-C-A, etc. In my mind, we don’t always need to make that kind of analysis formal or explicit. It might be sufficient to notice that “oh, this part of the song sounds very similar to the beginning”, or “ah, here comes the second verse of the singer, similar to the first one but with different words and an added violin in the background”.
Once you are familiar with the general architecture of the whole tango, it will be easier to know how much of the song is left, and whether or not the song has yet reached its intensity climax.
Phrasing in tango also follows certain patterns, although not as predictably as we might hope for. Sometimes a phrase evolves over 8 heavy beats, but other times over a different number of beats. So it is often better to listen than to count. Some phrases follow a wave-like pattern, where they start quietly, then grow in intensity, and eventually calm down again. Other phrases are more square: they start on beat number one and march steadily and evenly until they end promptly, perhaps leaving a beat or two empty before the next phrase takes over.
Here’s a couple of examples of how the structure of tango music can be used for a more interesting interpretation:
Some work is required for these exercises, but note that most of it includes actual dancing. You don’t need to just sit down and listen to tango music to learn about its structure – you can train your ear while you are actually moving to the music. Enjoy the practice!
Musicality is a wide topic that touches on many different aspects of tango dancing. Here we will look at the practical problem: what you actually need to do in your dance to make sure you are moving with the music.
Six important first steps towards getting your dance closer to the music:
The items of this list are all essential as a base to develop musicality in dancing. Note that all of them require some listening and some doing. Enjoy!
Malmö may be a small city (300,000 inhabitants), but still boasts a great tango scene. Is there something in the mindsets of Scandinavians that make them particularly attracted to tango? Or is there rather something about Scandinavian teaching methods that in the long term will cultivate a good tango environment?
I was recently looking at different teachers’ ideas about essential elements of tango, mostly to compare it with my own ABCD model. One of the models I have encountered is Tangoblomman, by Gunilla Rydén & Henrik Uldall:
This flower has five petals, each representing a different dimension of tango, where the selected dimensions translates to “musicality”, “repertoire”, “indvidual technique”, “partner interplay” and “social tango”. It’s a neat tool for teachers to remember what should be included in the teaching, and for dancers to know what to develop in their tango.
The similarities between this and the other models I found are striking! Apparently, when these Scandinavian teachers sum up into a model what they aim to teach their tango students, they reach very similar conclusions. See the table below for a summary of the 4 Swedish/Danish models I have encountered. With some minor variations, all of them include repertoire, technique, communication, social aspects and musicality. Two of them add aesthetics as an additional factor.
I find it astonishing that all these models agree to a large extent not only on how many aspects to include (5-6) but also on the content of each of these aspects! It is not hard to imagine other factors that could have been included, such as “the walk”, “the embrace”, “improvisation” or “stretching and toning the body”. But this is not the case; there is more or less full consensus.
A lot of questions can be asked about the results of this little survey. Here’s two:
Melodies are important in tango music, and very often they are what comes up when you try to remember a tango. Perhaps you can recall the melodies of “La Cumparsita” and “Vida mía”?
A notion I have often encountered in tango is that you can either dance the rhythm or the melody. I get the impression that dancing the melody is perceived as better, more sophisticated and a more advanced form of musicality in the dance: “Anybody will learn to dance the rhythm of a tango, but only certain advanced dancers are dancing the melody”.
Technically, a melody is a sequence of notes that we perceive as an entity in the music. The most important features of a melody are pitch (how high the notes are, not to be confused with how loud they are) and duration (how long they are). If you change the intervals or the duration of notes too much, you will no longer have the same melody. It’s easy to see that there is less tolerance for changing pitch than duration – just try it out with a well known melody. Pitch comes first, duration second.
But how would you make a corporal expression of a sequence of pitches? Once suggestion I heard is to be higher above the ground for higher pitches, and lower closer to the ground for lower pitches. This might work on rare occasions, but if performed more than for a couple of notes in a row, the effect would be purely comical.
And this is clearly not what “dancing the melody” is. It’s rather a question of reflecting the melodic line in the dance, as opposed to the (often more rhythmical) accompaniment of the melody.
The duration of the notes in the melodic line does not seem to matter much either. In workshops where “dancing the melody” is introduced, the rhythms of the melody are not danced, but it is rather a matter of slowing down the dance, as opposed to following the steady pace of a repetitive, rhythmical accompaniment (“dancing the rhythms”).
So, interestingly, when “dancing the melody”, you will not take into account the two foremost characteristics of a melody: neither pitch nor duration! Instead you will need to focus on the quality (timbre, emotional expression, etc.) and on the phrasing of the melodic line.
Isn’t it confusing to say “dance the melody” when you do not move to the most typical features of a melody? To me it is.
Dancers will achieve greater variation if they at times emphasize the music in a manner similar to the singer or an instrument playing the melody. But to describe this way of dancing, don’t ask people to “dance the melody” – it is more accurate to talk about longer and shorter phrases, emphasis and direction in the music. Or to simply say “slow down”.
The ABCD of Tango is a proposed model for teaching all essential parts of tango. The idea is that in each and every tango class, students should practice and develop all of the following 4 dimensions:
These tango dancer dimensions result from gathering a large number of qualities for good dancers, organizing the qualities into clusters and finally selecting the most essential ones. Consequently, the starting point for this model is what skills students need, as opposed to e.g. what is easier to teach or what is easier to evaluate.
The advantage of using a model such as this is that it reminds you to spend teaching time on several important aspects of tango, that could sometimes be left out in a less structured approach.
Attitude is the first dimension, because it will affect everything else. This includes how to take and give advice in classes. Trying to improve oneself before one’s partner. Ability to relax and enjoy. Level of commitment. How you invite people to dance and who you accept to dance with. Making an effort to become more attractive as a dance partner. Ability to see the good in yourself and in others. An important part of Attitude is that it includes the self-image of the student. In my view, the teacher should make sure that when students leave a class they feel better about themselves as dancers and as persons.
Managing your own Body well is an excellent way to make it more pleasant to dance with a partner. Body awareness and balance are essential. Posture and quality of movement. A smooth walk. Toning the right muscles and relax others. Breathing. Dancing in a way that is healthy for the body. All of this is often addressed specifically in technique classes.
The Creativity dimension is what makes tango an art form and not just bodies moving around randomly. It includes musicality, with components such as rhythmic play, phrasing and understanding the structure of tango music. It also includes having a variety of steps and figures to choose from, as well as other ways to create variation in the dance, such as using different aesthetics in movement or different emotional expressions.
The Dance dimension is basically what most people expect to learn in a tango class, and includes much of what distinguishes tango from other dances. Walking together in an embrace. Typical tango figures such as the giro and the cross. A firm and comfortable physical contact. Flexibility of the embrace. Sensitivity and presence. The fine tuned communication of leading and following. Also, how to move on a crowded dance floor.
I suppose that if any of the 4 dimensions seems surprising it would be Attitude. But think about how much attitude can affect both the ability to learn and the whole tango experience! Also remember that attitude is always transmitted from teacher to student, through words and behaviour – but by doing it consciously your students will get more out of their tango.
This is information that might be useful for anyone travelling to Buenos Aires for tango. I spent six months there until February 2012. There’s a lot going on in the big city, so some of the information might already be outdated, but this post can definitely serve well as a general overview. It is divided into three parts:
Expect to meet tango dancers from all over the world who are traveling to Buenos Aires just like you.
Expect a good level of dancers – apart from the locals there will be lots of visiting tango teachers on their yearly pilgrimage.
Unless you are an exceptional dancer or breathtakingly beautiful, don’t expect to dance a lot with locals for the first few weeks. They already have lots of dance partners and sometimes are hesitant to invest in relations with tourists who will just stay for a brief period of time.
If you are a young beautiful woman, expect a lot of attention, especially out in the streets where men will constantly approach you to praise your beauty, unless you are walking with a man by your side.
Expect more dancers in less space. The floor-craft is somewhat adapted to the situation, but still expect dancers bumping into you quite often, depending on which milongas you attend.
My impression is that there are lots of really skilled leaders in Buenos Aires, perhaps more so than followers. So leaders, expect that it might take a little time to get into the game. Both leaders and followers who are visiting might get the impression that they don’t get to dance with as skilled partners as they do at home. This may be partly true, since the good dancers don’t know you yet. But it may partly be that other qualities of a dancer is appreciated here than in your home country.
Expect traditional tango music only at most milongas, as this is what is played, unless you go to a specifically alternative place. DJ:s are not very creative, so you may hear basically the same playlist every week at a milonga, but it is generally good stuff.
Look out for free concerts! There is a lot of those if you find a way to keep yourself informed. Get to know a musician!
Orquesta Victoria played at Café Vinilo every Monday when I was in town – really nice concert and nice atmosphere. It is a milonga, but few dancers go there (and the floor is very hard). Nice place to go for a tango introduction if you have non-tango friends visiting, since there is a tango class before the concert.
Alberto Podestá gives performances every now and then. This legendary singer might not have a lot of voice left, but his audiences are still spell-bound.
If you don’t have much time in Buenos Aires but can afford privates – go for it! It is a great way to develop your tango.
Good privates can cost anything from 200-600 ARS if you are a tourist. 300-350 ARS was standard for many famous teachers when I was there. You can negotiate discounts if you take more classes or if the teacher likes you.
If you have several weeks, take perhaps a group class first with teachers to see if you like them.
Spending lots of time in classes is a much safer option than going to milongas if you want to improve your tango a lot. You may or may not dance a lot in milongas, but you are sure to be dancing in class.
Remember that milongas can be very different for different nights of the week even though it’s the same place. A certain crowd may only attend a certain night of the week, depending on the organizer. A milonga can actually be held at different locations on different nights, or move altogether from one place to another.
Here are short comments on some of the milongas and practicas that I attended, ordered by how important they were for me personally. The list is by no means complete.
Milonga 10 was at Club Fúlgor, Loyola 828 on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and this was perhaps the one milonga I attended the most. Young crowd, nice shows, quite wild dance floor with lots of big moves, but generally good dancers so the floor craft was decent. Easy to invite people either by cabeceo or verbally.
La Maleva has a Friday practica and after-party with a relaxed atmosphere, especially considering the high caliber dancers you meet there.
El Yeite is at the top floor of a salsa club and this is where the best young dancers go. Some dancers feel it is too elitist, but as long as you go with some people you like dancing with you’ll have a great night until sunrise. Great wooden floor, sometimes very hot due to bad air conditioning, party mood with long cortinas of rock, pop and cumbia (but the tango itself will be traditional).
El Motivo, Mondays at Villa Malcolm, was very successful and the first choice for shows with the big stars. Great for talking to people and meet friend of friends, but the dancing is often fraught with peril at a crowded floor with all kinds of dancers. Apparently the stand-in organizers who made it really popular left and created a new milonga on Sundays in the same room, called Viva La Pépa. I suppose the crowd will go there instead, possibly giving the Mondays at Canning a renaissance?
El Beso was closed down after I left Buenos Aires, but I heard it’s coming back. Here you will find one of the few good wooden floors in the city, and I very much enjoyed the traditional atmosphere on Wednesdays and Sundays here. There’s separate seating for men and women, invitation is by cabeceo, and this is a good place for dressing up. It is also a good idea to call and book a table if you want a nice seating for inviting people to dance.
Tangocool, Thursdays at Villa Malcolm, pretty nice for dancing early on, before El Yeite later on Thursdays.
La Viruta is the place where you are likely to end up in the late hours quite often. Open most days of the week, La Viruta offers classes in tango and classic rock at many levels if you want to come early (great place to recommend for complete beginners if you get visits), but the best tango dancers arrive once the entrance is free, at 3.30am Fridays, Saturdays, and special occasions, 1.30am other days. When the medialunas arrive at 4.30 you’ll need to act fast to get breakfast while they are still fresh.
En Orsay on Thursdays has live music and attracts perhaps more musicians than dancers, so bring some dancer friends. Very casual and with a bit of an underground feeling.
La María is a nice afternoon practice for changing roles, where you also can have a cup of mate.
El Gardel de Medellín has live music and great performances. The location is a bit off, but it’s worth a visit.
Fruto Dulce, a bit more formal with nice dancers, where it also may be harder to invite partners.
Paracultural has a Tuesday milonga at Salón Canning, which is one of the few venues that is really made for dancing with a great wooden floor and lots of room for seating around it. I mostly went to see some live orchestras or late at night when it’s free (I think after 3am). Also, i sometimes lingered there after Julio Balmaceda’s classes if there was someone I especially wanted to dance with.
La Milonga De Las Flores was apparently the place where “everyone” went before El Motivo became so successful. A bit further out from the usual places though, and you might want to go there with a group of friends since it appeared to have very uneven attendance from week to week.
La Milonga Del Bonzo is a post-concert milonga at Café Vinílo. Very nice room, but stone hard floor. Only go for (seated) concerts, but bring your shoes if you happen to feel like staying for some dancing.
Cachirulo, which recently moved to Villa Malcolm for their Saturday milonga, is one of the really traditional milongas, where they ask arriving couples whether they would like to be seated together or split up for the seating where men are lined up at one side of the floor, women at the opposite side. I also heard that traditional etiquette is forcefully upheld, e.g. that someone who invited a woman to dance but did not finish the full tanda was asked to leave by the organizer. At one occasion when my partner and I stayed on the floor too long into the cortina, people started to throw things at us to clear the floor so we wouldn’t obstruct the view for cabeceos.
You will see folklore dances at La Viruta around breakfast time, but for a great authentic experience, go out to Peña de la Ribera for a Saturday evening with live bands and easy-to-join dancing under the stars.
Chacarera is good to know since it is played as a dancing interruption at milongas all over the world. Take a class if you have the opportunity.
Note that classes in folklore may be very different from tango classes. You may not meet academics only here – it is a different crowd, the tempo will be different, the questions people ask will be different. Enjoy the difference!
Escondido, gato, etc. are other dances where the same elements as in chacarera are used, just in a different order. Look at the person next to you and try to hang on.
Argentine zamba is a beautiful dance where you circle around your partner in an intricate pattern at the same time as you are waving a handkerchief. The songs are folklore ballads.