The Tango of Zero: Dance or Practice

22nd January 2010

Practice exercises vs dancing

Say I wanted to teach you how to do a martial arts block. The sensible thing is to show you the move, then get you to try it on your own. I could just keep hitting you until you figured it out (and indeed some teachers do this) but if you were learning it as a hobby rather than self-preservation you may not be too impressed. At this stage I can take time to correct your movement.

So let's say you can now do a reasonable block on your own. You won't fully understand it until someone tries to hit you and you feel what it's like to block a punch. Again, ideally a nice slow gentle punch to start with. Now I can correct more things. For example are you doing it too soon, or too late? It won't matter when you're on your own, but it makes a big difference when there's a real punch involved.

Great. Now let's say I do the same with a basic punch and again let you gently land a punch on me.

Now I can teach you a sequence. Block then punch. Once you can do it confidently on your own, then I pair you up with a partner who is told that their sequence is to punch (so you can block it) then stand still (so you can hit them!). Again here I can continue to correct technique. I can correct timing as before. But now I can also correct how well the moves go to together. Is the block stopping you from being able to punch effectively? Why? And so on.

Ideally this is mirrored in tango. First you learn a basic concept such as a weight change. The teacher corrects that, until you can do it properly on your own. Then you do it with someone and understand it on a different level. Repeat the process learning a single step. Then put them together. What works, what doesn't? Why?

Back to Basic (8)s

I've noticed that martial arts teachers when doing "sequences" will often go back to the basic sequences if something isn't working for the student. "Remember XYZ? See how you do this bit here?"?

Likewise, I noticed that when El Pibe Avellaneda was teaching tango on his recent visit to London, he would often go back to the Basic 8. "See how you complete each step? See then you do the next one. You don't cut the corners" and so on.

Now there's an obvious catch with learning sequences in martial arts. In practice the other person is playing their role. They will "punch, then stand still" in this example. Clearly it's a Very Bad Idea to try this in an actual fight because if their opponents do anything else it simply won't work...

But does that make the sequence a Bad Thing? Not really, no. it's a good tool for learning. What's important is to stress to the students that it is a learning tool.

Same thing with the Basic 8. Why do beginners dance it? If you think about it, in order to learn it, their teacher must have shown them how to do weight transfers and a basic forward walk. I mean it's got backward walks and a cross in it! So all the beginner lead needs to do is to keep asking themselves:

"Is there room for me to go forwards?"

  • Yes > walk forwards
  • No > do weight transfers


Being cornered

Where people get scared is corners. How do I corner? Well do corners normally present a problem for you when you walk? No, of course not. Just walk around the corner the same as you would do normally.

Think about it. If you said to someone who didn't know tango (and maybe was an experienced dancer) all you need to do is walk around a room and step in place when there's no space in front of you, do you think they'd find it difficult?

I think the problem is the mystique around tango. Simply put many teachers don't seem to tell their students the above.

Walk and transfer: that's it.

Learn the Basic 8: practice it to get good at the elements within it. As you get comfortable, add them to your walk and transfer. There's no rush.

Beyond basics

So is this just for beginners?

Nope. For more experienced dancers the next stage is to add musicality. Still just stepping and weight-transfers. But now doing so on more than just the basic beat.

Once you understand when to move through musicality, then you can apply it to all the other tango concepts.

For more information, see The Ghost Guide - but it's a deliberate choice on my part to have Walking at the beginning of the Ghost Guide, rather than at the end where it should go alphabetically.

For more information

- Christopher O' Shea, 22nd January 2010