Published March 14th 2018
In this blog I’m going to talk about the format of the Urban Tango Nights classes, and the teaching philosophies myself and Alison use. We often get comments on how well people we have taught dance and are really surprised how quickly our dancers progress. It is not unusual for people we have taught to be able to do moves like volcadas after only a few weeks of learning while others are struggling with basic ochos after spending hundreds of pounds and months of learning in other classes. Of course, talent and time spent practicing has a lot to do with how quickly people progress, but we also believe that the way in which is teach our classes must also have a huge influence.
Between myself and Alison we have 18 years of dance teaching experience and have based our teaching format on what we have observed to work, rather than blindly following the format of someone else’s classes. This brings us onto our first philosophy: the class should be fun. We think that people who attend our classes are giving up their time and money (if they give a donation as our classes are free) to come to us and therefore we should provide an enjoyable and relaxing evening for them. We always say providing you are enjoying yourselves it doesn’t matter how much tango you take from our classes. We therefore encourage people to talk to each, get a drink from the bar and laugh, not have a sort of teacher dictatorship over the class (I’m sure you have all been to classes like that).
Our classes themselves are based around the understanding of technique used in tango, having a good understanding of the technique will allow you to do pretty much any move you wish. We have come up with 5 rules (I do not like the work rules but can’t think of a better word) of tango that if understood make learning tango much easier. The first is: tango is danced in an A-frame with the lead coming from the leader’s chest (please note that this does not mean that only the chest is needed, the lead should start at the chest and extend to the rest of the upper body including the arms) and the followers free leg moves to follow the chest. Second, the follower should keep their weight on one foot and not change it until led to do so, unless the leader centres the follower’s weight between both feet. Third, the follower should always try to move back in front of the leader’s chest, as this is where the information to follow comes from. Fourth, there is no musical time in Tango, instead move to interpret the music as you see fit. Finally, if the leader and followers feet make contact (a bite) it means stop/pause and wait until the next lead signal.
Our classes always follow the same format and start with a warm up. The warm up starts with an explanation of tango posture to ensure any people new to tango have the correct starting point and to ensure that those who have danced before do not fall into bad habits. We then do a simple warm up that involves walking in a box shape which makes sure that everyone is moving in their new posture and also allows dancers to explore some basic techniques such as trailing the free leg and chest isolation.
We then move onto the embrace. Of course, there are many different styles in tango including canyengue, milongero and salon/nuevo all of which have their own embrace. Also the embrace changes depending on body size and how close you want to be to your partner. Therefore, we teach a generic embrace that can be easily adapted. Of course, we believe that if you really want to be good at tango you should be able to do all styles and therefore we often cover other styles of embrace in our classes. We also work with our class members to make sure they understand what will make a comfortable embrace and implement it.
Throughout our classes we use the taxi system, this not only allows the class to flow smoothly if there is an imbalance of leaders and followers but also ensures that everybody dances with everyone else. The major advantage is this is everybody in the class gets used to adapting to new partners and all levels of dancers interact. Also, as teachers we also join in the taxi system allowing us to have 1 to 1 time with each class member and offer correct advice to solve any issues. This systems also means you do not need to come to class with a partner.
We always run the same exercise, and we still class this as part of the warm up, which is to form a partnership and walk on a simple beat around the room as this helps develop connection. The exercise then progresses by adding side steps, back steps and also changes in rhythm. We do not tell our class members what rhythms to use, instead ask them to listen music and react as they see fit, the aim of this is quite simple, develop true musicality.
One of the odd things about Argentine tango when compared to other partner dances is that there is no basic step, in fact there are really no moves are such, just concepts. As such we have come up with 4 core concepts which we think every tango dancer should be able to do and that all other “moves” come from. The 4 core concepts are: ochos, crosses, sacadas and systems of walking. In each class we take one or more core concepts and teach them which we then use as a base for the rest of the class.
For example, our class could be front ochos, then expanded up to include ganchos then going a step further to cover enganches and finish with an added leaders soltada in the enganche. As you will probably see, as the class goes on the complexity and difficultly increases right through to advanced level tango to experimental tango that only the world’s best dancers perform. We also teach variations at each stage and it is up to the class member which variation they do at any point in the class, this ensures that the follower is following the lead rather than just following a routine. This is all about developing the lead-follow communication and their connection.
There are several reasons that why we follow this format of increasing difficulty. The first is that it means that everyone can learn something in the class even the most advanced tango dancers. This means that advanced tango dancers also have to dance with beginners which will encourage unity in the community. Secondly, to perform these advanced “moves”, technique must be understood and implemented therefore ensuring technique is enforced in a passive manner. Thirdly, members of the class can come to the class and learn up to where they are comfortable and push themselves just beyond so they improve, the format of the class allows them to keep practicing with all members of the class under the supervision of a teacher. This format also allows class members to see what is possible if they keep with tango and keep coming to the classes. Fourthly, we have found in our experience of teaching, that people tend to find basic steps, including the ocho, very difficult at first. However, when you add an extra layer of complexity, they concentrate on the ‘harder’ part and since they are no longer worrying about the earlier part they are able to do it easily.
We also use teaching tools to ensure the people we teach can become the best tango dancers they can be. Throughout the class we use a wide variety of music. From our time as Latin and Ballroom teachers we found that our pupils danced better to music they were familiar with and liked. Therefore, in our tango classes we tend to use more modern music. However, many tango events often pay a lot of what people call “traditional” music or music from the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, from a musicality point of view it should not matter what time of music is played, however, we have found that this type of music requires getting used to, therefore to ensure our dancers can dance to the best of their abilities we play it in our classes.
At the end of our classes we do a recap of what has been taught and the recap of our Monday classes are filmed and uploaded to YouTube. We also announce local dance classes and events. The class then finishes and is followed by an hour and half of freestyle dancing in which you can request any style of music and dance what ever dance you like, as I said earlier people should enjoy their evening.
There are other ways of formatting classes such have having separate class for each level. Each format has its own pros and cons, and the way we have planned our classes works best for us, our class members and the general Swansea community which is too small to sustain different level classes. One of our aims is to continue building the Swansea Tango and South Wales Tango scenes so one day our format might change.
On a few final notes, there are so many ways to get into a move and so many variations that are possible and the fact that new moves are being invented means we never teach the same class twice. Even though each class is stand alone, coming regularly will mean you improve faster and you will learn more. Also, our format takes a couple of weeks to get used to and adapt your learning to if you are used to other class formats and teaching styles, therefore, we say you should try it for at least a couple of weeks before deciding if it is the class for you.