What's the point of teachers?

5th August 2010

"We don't need no education"~ Pink Floyd


There was an interesting question raised back in the 80s. Untrained street-fighters were repeatedly beating Black Belts in street fights. Not narrowly winning either. Beating up.

How? Well strangely the street fighters didn't really know. They just did what they did and it worked.

The obvious question became, why study martial arts for self defense then? Why not just learn street fighting? And this gradually spawned a raft of "reality based" fighting styles.

But always it seems there are scientifically minded people who are willing to take the time to work out the "Whys?". And what they found out were several things.

Even though they didn't consciously know it, the street fighters were using a set of fairly sophisticated concepts. Street-fighting operates on a different set of "rules" to self-defense. It's virtually always illegal to use street-fighting as self-defense. Once you knew what these rules and concepts were, it became remarkably easy for the Black Belts to defeat the Street-fighters. At this point the Black Belt's additional knowledge allowed them to win by controlling the fight on levels the Street Fighter simply wasn't aware of, whereas before it had been the other way around.

So what's this got to do with tango?

Well to my mind the milongueros sound suspiciously like the street-fighters. They've learnt what works by doing. And by all accounts it works remarkably well. The remark I keep hearing from people back from a trip to BsAs is how horrified they were that their dancing (Black Belt) really wasn't up to scratch.

So should we do away with teachers all-together and just learn to dance in milongas?

This is basically Point No 2. The way you learn in a class or a practica is not the way it works in a milonga. And if you get caught up in the class / practica mindset, your social dancing will suffer for it. You may know fancier moves than the guy who's just spent time dancing, but he knows how to dance in a milonga.

It's an option. But it has a number of problems.

The first problem for me is that it fundamentally ignores part 3 of the above points - using the "rules" and the training, together.

I'd be fascinated to see what milongueros' tango would become if they were to evolve it to conscious understanding (I think this is what Carlos Gavito did and I definitely like the results). And as such, I'm unwilling to place that limitation on myself.

(I also doubt the milongueros learnt completely by "doing". I suspect a fair amount of chatting-with-mates, informal demonstrations, and watching each other was also involved. And when the people you're chatting too / demonstrating / watching are at advanced / teacher level claiming you're not being taught starts getting into the realms of semantics. And I can think of plenty of people who've danced socially for a long time, but who really aren't that good, and never seem to get any better.)

Which leads to the second problem. If you learn to dance in milongas, you're profoundly affected by who dances at those milongas. If everyone there dances badly, you're probably going to dance badly. You can see this in London with floorcraft and musicality. Unless you see how people do it well, it's unlikely you'll do it well. So while it may have been a wonderful idea to learn in milongas in BsAs during the Golden Age, I really can't think of anywhere in London I'd recommend doing this today.

In London

"Your story makes me think of someone asking a group of people who are hard of hearing what their preferred volume is." ~ Amir Giles

"No, no! You need to really push me around" ~ a beginner Modern Jive follower, with a rather different take on leading to me...

Likewise it doesn't really matter how good / profound your lead is if there's no-one at milongas who can actually appreciate it!

What seems to have happened in London is a form of evolution. If you want to dance with the better dancers you need to be "this" good (or really hot). So if you're really hot, then yes, you might get away with dancing with the good dancers and learning that way.

But what about everyone else? Well this is where teachers come in. Whether a teacher will dance with you socially varies wildly. Considerably more teachers will dance with their students in practica. I assume all teachers are willing to dance with students in private lessons. And herein lies the path. Dance with your teacher one-to-one and gradually work your way up through the ranks in the milongas.

But if you're going to dance one-to-one with your teacher, doesn't it make sense to occasionally ask them questions? I mean if they've gone to the trouble of figuring stuff out, why not let them say, "this will work so much better if you just tweak this like so?". In other words, why not let them be, well, teachers?

The Circle of Life

Mufasa: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.
Simba: But dad, don't we eat the antelope?
Mufasa: Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great circle of life.
~ The Lion King

From what I've heard, in the Golden Age, there was tangomania. Tango was like Rock'n'Roll or the Beatles. Cafe owners promptly declared that their cafes were now milongas, which just happened to serve food and drink. And the local tango dancers happily filled them to the brim.

Which is great if you have a city full of tango dancers. However...

Don't cut off the air supply

There's one other thing that tango teachers do, which seems to get conveniently ignored when people are calling for their heads on pikes.

They teach classes. Which brings in new people to the dance scene.

Now admittedly I'm not thrilled with classes. I think they're usually an exercise in masochism. But quite simply, 99% of people who dance tango socially are not interested in getting past a certain level or taking private lessons. These people do, however, make milongas financially viable.

If you stop tango classes, Milongas In London Will Die. After all when was the last time you saw Starbucks packed with people dancing tango?

So maybe we should keep the teachers around after all...

- Christopher O' Shea, 5th August 2010

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