Key skills - the list

21st February 2010


To dance AT well, you need to do a lot of separate things very well, all at the same time.

Each of those things - let's call them "skills", and let's say there are 10 of them - requires work, practice, learning, and development.

The problem is that most of us can't learn 10 things at the same time; and even if we could, there's no way we could consciously focus on those 10 skills during a dance.

So how to improve?

So given that you need do do multiple things well to dance well, and given that no-one can consciously do many things well simultaneously, how does anyone ever dance well?

The answer is that it's quite possible to do many things simultaneously; you just have to get them ingrained as unconscious habits. For example, you're currently doing at least two things - reading this and (presumably) breathing. But you don't have to think about how to breathe; it's an unconscious skill.

In dance terms, this progression has been codified into four stages:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: you're doing it wrong, but you know so little that you don't even know you're doing it wrong.
  2. Conscious incompetence: you're doing it wrong, but you're aware that you're doing it wrong
  3. Conscious competence: you're doing it right, but you need to think about it.
  4. Unconscious competence: you're doing it right naturally, all the time, without thinking.

(It's also worth noting, that stage 2 is one reason why you sometimes feel like you're "going backwards" during the learning process.)

So to dance well, you need to get all your 10 skills up to the "Unconscious competence" level.

What works for me

For me, the best way to do this is to focus on one area at a time.

And I've prioritised these areas, in terms of focussing on the areas which I think are either most important overall, or where I'm most deficient in.

The plan is, once I get to a certain (minimal) level of "Unconscious competence" in an area, I can then switch focus to developing another skill to that level. Of course, I can always progress beyond that minimum, and I'll probably revisit each area in turn as I go on. But so far, it's kind of working.

It's also worth bearing in mind that this list has been compiled retrospectively - I didn't have each of these areas in mind right from the start.

The List

This is - roughly - my list, in priority order. Caveat: this is my own list, relevant to my own dancing, and the priorities are relevant to myself alone.

Priority One: Clear lead

If I can't clearly indicate to my partner what I'd like her do, I'm simply not doing partner dancing. You have to lead clearly to connect with your partner. If she doesn't understand you, it doesn't matter if you've got great posture, musicality, and style. Even a pony tail won't help you.

So that's why this was my first priority. In hindsight, I think it took me a couple of years to get to minimal unconscious competence in this area.

Priority Two: Floorcraft

"First do no harm". Fortunately, I've some experience with floorcraft follies in other dances, so I started off with an innate appreciation of the importance of such skills.

The problem with floorcraft is that the only place you can really practice it, is at a milonga. And the general floorcraft in milongas where I dance (London) is... well... less than ideal. So a lot of my floorcraft skills developed as the equivalent of defensive driving. Which is not helpful in terms of creating a confident and enjoyable dance, but at least it means that my partners generally don't get hurt.

Priority Three: Timing

(Note: this is not the same as "musicality".)

My next priority was to simply understand the main beat of traditional tango music, and to be able to walk to it. Sounds fairly simple, but if you're not used to the style of music, it's actually quite tricky to isolate the beat - this is why some teachers "count you in" in classes.

Priority Four: Posture

When I started video-ing myself (about 2 years after I started learning), I realised that my posture was genuinely rubbish. At that time, I was dancing mainly nuevo, and it was painfully clear that I was hunching over - for example, when doing giros.

As this was causing secondary problems with balance and other areas, and as it was something where I could easily track progress via videos, I worked on this area next.

Priority Five: Musicality / Priority Six: Embrace

I've been working on both of these areas simultaneously, for the past year or so, as they're connected (for me).

Basically, the inspiration for this was a comment I read a while back. I shall try to repeat the essence of that comment here:

"In a typical milonga, there's a young energetic guy in the middle, whirling around like a dervish, doing crazy and crowd-pleasing things; volcadas, planeos, wraps, changes of direction and so on. Everyone's watching him. And then there's an old, unfit guy, just shuffling unspectacularly around the outside of the room. No-one's watching him.
But here's the thing....
The partner of 'energy guy' usually has a rictus grin in place, as she's trying to figure out what he's doing, and the partner of 'old shuffly guy' has her eyes closed, and usually has a look of genuine bliss on her face. Oh, and 'energy guy' has one or two partners; 'old shuffly guy' typically has a queue of gorgeous young women waiting to dance with him."

I decided then that when I grew up (!), I wanted to be 'old shuffly guy'...

So, in the last year, I've been dancing almost exclusively close embrace, making my steps smaller and simpler, and trying to use musicality within the embrace. As of early 2010, I'm now reasonably happy with my progress on this one.

Priority Seven: Figures

We're now moving from the area of "done" to "to-do"...

Notwithstanding the comments above, I also want to expand my repertoire in (what for want of a better word we call) "nuevo" dancing - that is, dancing based around pivot-based figures, typically in a more open embrace, and sometimes to non-traditional music.

This has a whole new set of challenges - balance, thinking in different ways, and ability to use a fluid embrace - which I think will help me overall.

I think now that I've spent enough time in close to develop some level of discipline, and to avoid the obvious traps regarding dancing in sequences, which hopefully will allow me now to control figures in a better way.

So that's pretty much what I'm working on now.

Priority Eight: Decorations

We're now looking to the future.

I'd like to work a little on decorations at some point - I'm a bit dubious of them, I'm not sure some of them are very manly, but I'd like to at least have the option to use them. Enrosques, for example, are quite nice.

Priority Nine: Style

Ah yes, the elusive "style" thing...

What I mean here by "style" is the ability to create and develop my own personal way of dancing - within the constraints of good technique as described in the other areas, of course.

(Well, sort of. Actually, once you've got to a certain level, you can break or bend the rules. But you need to be able to follow the rules well before you can break them...)

Some of this will develop naturally, of course - but I'd like to identify my own style, and help it develop.

Priority Ten: Feedback

The last on my list is "feedback" - by this I mean working on listening to what my partner is trying to tell me, and adapting to her requirements, preferences and style.

Of course, to do that, I need to be able to be reasonably proficient in a variety of styles. Which is why this is so low down on my list.


There are more than ten skills, of course - but you have to start somewhere...

It's also true that once you get to "unconscious competence" level, you can often forget how difficult it was to get to that level - because it seems natural to you at that point. This, of course, can make it difficult to empathise with, or explain to, people who haven't reached that level also.

It's a journey.

- David Bailey, 21st February 2010

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