Why we believe that dancing with better dancers makes us dance better
There exists a belief in tango community that sounds something like this: “If I get to dance with better dancers, my dancing will improve much faster than if I only dance with people of my own level.” Or like this: “Experienced dancers should dance more with beginners. How are these poor souls supposed to learn if they are stuck with other beginners?” A female student leaving a class with the words: “Every new follower should be given a very good leader from the start! If we wait for these men here to become decent dancers, we will be waiting forever!”
The learning curve phenomenon seems to back it up. For beginning leaders this curve is rarely the same as for beginning followers. Leaders generally have a harder time learning and getting dances in the first couple of years. A beginning (female) follower, on the other hand, if she is a promising dancer, plus young and goodlooking, will be noticed by more experienced (male) leaders. How often have you heard the story: “Oh, when she started, all the better dancers wanted to dance with her, so OBVIOUSLY she became very good very quickly.” It can happen with a new male leader, too. Being young and goodlooking helps, but the key word here is “promising”. It means that this person already has something worthwhile to offer, such as an eagerness to learn.
The notion that if only expert dancers agreed to dance with you, your tango skills would skyrocket is so widespread that it regularly puts me (the “expert dancer”) in comical situations. I had a total stranger once come up to me in a milonga and say: “I have only been dancing for a month, but I figured that dancing with a teacher would be very beneficial for me.” I have been rebuked for refusing invitations: “You have some nerve, you know. How are these guys supposed to become good dancers if you won’t even look at them?” And consider how often you hear the following remark: “You know, when YOU were a beginner, better dancers danced with you because they wanted to help you.” To which, by the way, I always reply: “They danced with me because I was young, pretty and with a background in dance.”
So is it true that dancing with better dancers makes you a better dancer?
First, let’s define what we mean by “better”. When talking about levels in tango, we are forced to over-simplify things in order to categorise, but in reality there are many variables that constitute someone’s appeal as a dancer. It is never the technique alone, nor the number of steps, nor the ability to lead or follow, nor the musicality. It is all of those things combined. We can at best imagine a dancer’s skill as a DJ mixing table with several sliders. Each slider represents a sub-skill or an ability that can be at a higher or a lower position, depending on this person’s experience, talent and dedication. I can think of several sliders: technique, vocabulary, communication (leading/following), embrace, musicality, navigation, social skills. To this we should add, to further complicate things, the human factor. It is partially inherent and partially learnt in order to fit into the tango community. In many situations, human factor will be decisive in the choice of partner DESPITE good or bad skills in other areas.
To think that we can categorise each dancer based on the vocabulary or the number of years in tango would be naive. It would also be naive to categorise dancers by human factor alone. We know that the reality is more complex. You have probably met people who dance a lot of complicated steps and all of them badly. You have surely met dancers with a modest vocabulary but a great embrace or musicality. When we speak of “better dancers” or “a higher level”, we therefore have to bear in mind that it encompasses an array of skills, not all of them necessarily in equally high positions on the mixing table. Choosing to dance with a certain person is always a package deal. We will easily accept some flaws if they are compensated by finer qualities.
This said, let’s look into what happens when you dance with a partner whose sliders are - for the sake of the argument - all in much higher positions than yours. If you are a follower dancing with a much more expert leader (and you are not stressed out of your mind by this situation), your movements will feel more effortless, more “correct”, you will feel more balanced, easily musical and possibly dance steps you have never danced before. An experienced leader will create the optimal conditions for your movement to be as good as you can make it. The goal of a precise lead is exactly that: to PROVOKE a well-done movement. Whether the follower is able to dance this movement well, is another matter. The leader will also avoid leading you steps that would totally overwhelm you. If you have problems with balance or pivoting, you will either feel them very clearly, if the leader is not compensating for them, and become acutely aware of how much you still have to improve. OR you will feel as if they magically disappeared. This can mean two things. One, the leader is discreetly helping you. Two, you are able to do these movements well, but only in ideal circumstances and with an ideal partner (also known as the “conscious competence” learning stage).
If you are a leader dancing with a much more expert follower and relaxed enough to concentrate on the dancing, then you will find that practically everything you lead gives marvellous results. The tiniest impulse evokes a meaningful response and the blurriest of ideas transforms into something delicious or at least dignified. You will find yourself leading things you have never lead before and expressing yourself in the music with much more ease. You might truly feel like a DANCER. Your problems with balance, pivoting or walking may still bother you but at the same time you will feel that somehow they do not bother your partner all that much. The overall experience will be quite enjoyable. However, all of this is only true if the follower decides to compensate for whatever is lacking in your lead. In a milonga this is what an experienced follower will do most of the time if s/he accepts your invitation. To understand this imagine yourself trying to talk in a foreign language that you barely know to a native speaker. You can actually have a very good conversation if that person makes the effort to understand you, to ignore the imperfections, to finish your phrases here and there and to help you find the right words. Your conversation partner will do his or her best to understand you with as little input as possible, but will also limit their own expression to what you are able to understand in return. Now imagine that instead this person points out every single mistake that you make. You would promptly lose track of your thoughts and the whole conversation would become about how to say things correctly instead of what you actually want to say. And if this person starts speaking to you as if you were another native speaker, you wouldn’t be able to hold the conversation at all.
When I am teaching a leader or a follower, I do my best to make the student immediately aware of the results of our communication. Therefore in a class context, in movement terms, we have conversations about “how to speak properly” and “how to express oneself”, with some chatting practice. But in a social setting this kind of feedback would be too confrontational. In a milonga we want to make the best with what we have and to have a good time, not to make other people uncomfortable. This ability to compensate for the lack of skill in a partner is actually what makes a dancer truly advanced. The whole point of improving your technique is to become like a native speaker. This is also what makes dancing with an advanced dancer so fulfilling: s/he is independent of your skill yet able to communicate with you at YOUR best. This does not mean that advanced dancers always enjoy dancing with partners far below their level. Often they don’t. Compensating and trying to understand other dancers with very little input is hard work. Limiting your own range of expression just to have a simple conversation is frustrating. This is why experienced dancers tend to be picky. Not because they are snobs. Not because they look down on less experienced people. But because the inequality of the situation is hardly ever in their favor.
If dancing with a much better dancer gives you a better EXPERIENCE, does this mean that you automatically become a better dancer yourself?
Many students choose to take private classes with teachers of the opposite role instead of going to group classes. Working with an experienced partner does indeed create the MOST OPTIMAL conditions for improving your skill. You can be sure that what you lead or how you follow is felt and understood by the other party without the “noise” of their own struggles. You know that ninety-nine percent of all mistakes will be your mistakes. And even if in social context we very much like the phrase “there are no mistakes, only pure improvisation”, in a study you need some established notions of what works and what doesn’t, what is comfortable and what is not, what is right and what is wrong. Taking regular private classes offers a “fast track” and can deliver very good results, but only on two conditions. First, your teacher must give you precise feedback (meaning, not compensate for your shortcomings) and second, YOU must make consistent efforts to improve.
This way of learning also has a potential risk. The more you practice exclusively with a professional of the opposite role, the more you become accustomed to these perfect conditions. This can leave you feeling helpless with people of your real level. With your social partners you might feel like all your hard-learnt technique vanishes into thin air and this means that you are still very much dependent on the other person. If this is the case, do not despair. You are in your “conscious competence” phase and if you persevere, things will get better.
This is why I recommend starting to study tango by going to beginner classes, not directly with private classes. If you put a total beginner with a professional teacher, the beginner will feel that things work out well most of the time. Working exclusively with a private teacher might make you a very lonely social dancer. There is a risk of ending up with unrealistic expectations for both the people of your own level and the more advanced dancers. The first won’t satisfy you and the second won’t dance with you for some time. Therefore I advise beginners to take regular group classes and to practice with other beginners for at least a year. Even if it seems slower and more painstaking, it does achieve something very important: it teaches you to be patient. It shows you the importance of accepting the struggles of your partner and your own struggles as your partner reflects them back to you. It prepares you for the social context of tango by cultivating compassion.
We often so desperately want to do things right that we forget that we have to do them wrong many times and enjoy the process before we actually get anywhere. Learning together with other people of similar experience prepares you for the group dynamics and partner changing of social dancing in which nobody is perfect. It teaches you to finetune your skill despite other people’s problems. And there is also a tremendous sense of achievement in progressing TOGETHER with your partner when, after mutual struggles, things finally start working. Believe me, there is nothing quite like that feeling. If you ever studied a foreign language, think of trying to have a conversation with other language students. You all struggled and searched for words, yet how glorious it felt to be able to communicate!
Observing that certain people learn faster by dancing with more experienced dancers has led to a serious misunderstanding. Namely, that simply by having access to better dancers anybody will somehow automatically improve. This is not true. Dancing with a better dancer in a social setting will in most cases simply give you an enjoyable experience at their expense. You will not dance better until YOU intend to dance better and until you put some effort into it, with or without their help. If you find yourself chasing the better dancers without offering something in return, you are being a consumer, not an equal partner. If you demand that they dance with you because this is supposed to be the only way for you to improve, you are using it as an excuse to coerce them into dancing with you.
In smaller communities the argument “how else are we supposed to learn?” is used to pressure advanced dancers to keep in touch with the beginners. Some efforts to mix the community and to create a more welcoming environment for the newcomers is definitely a good thing. However, I believe that we should be less hung up on our general (and incorrect) definition of levels and leave it to the individuals to choose with whom they feel or do not feel like dancing. We have to remember that someone’s appeal as a dancer is composed of several sliders on a mixing table and that people choose to connect with each other for very different reasons. We also have to respect the advanced dancers. They are a small, tough and very motivated minority and want, like everybody else, to dance to the best of their abilities.
All of the above poses another interesting question. If it’s true that we can improve while dancing with better dancers (provided we are making an effort), then is the reverse also true? Do better dancers become somehow less good when dancing too much with people far below their level?
When professional leaders spend a lot of time teaching and dancing with inexperienced followers, they might develop “unhealthy” habits. These habits come from consciously or unconsciously compensating the students’ flaws and may result in “over-leading”, tension in the arms and forceful movement. When confronted with a partner of their own level, these leaders might put too much energy into leading movements for which an expert follower needs only very little input. Besides, with their students these leaders practice a simpler vocabulary than they are capable of, risking to lose the finesse of more complex movements if they do not practice. The same can be said of professional followers who dance a lot with inexperienced leaders. When they have to follow someone of their own level again, they might feel overwhelmed with the complexity and the subtleties of the lead. Dancing with students does not make these followers less accomplished, but it does make them feel rusty. They might, like the leaders, lose the feeling of ease in dancing more complex dynamics, unless they dance or practice regularly with a partner of the same level.
If you spend a day in the forest chopping wood and then try to play the piano, your fingers will be stiff and insensitive at first. If you spend a day entertaining toddlers, to have a complex debate on international politics in the evening might require some mental readjustment. The same mechanism is at play here as everywhere else: the more you practice something the better you become, and the reverse is true as well. This is why advanced dancers from smaller communities in which they are a tiny minority (and often teachers), feel like their skill is deteriorating with time. They feel the need to travel on a regular basis to meet other advanced dancers just to feel complete, to feel like they can still truly dance.
Whatever side of the equation you find yourself on, understand that it is never the other dancers that directly enhance or worsen your skills. What they do is provide you with a context, but YOU decide how to deal with it. You can choose to work on your dance with the help or despite your external conditions. This dance requires a lot of skill and a profound connection. If tango were a dance in which everybody just happily danced with everybody else regardless of all the variables I talked about, it would be a very different dance. It would never give us moments of such intense joy that its effect on our brain has been scientifically shown to equal that of meditation. We do pay a price for this intensity, for these moments of incredible connection, but the fact that this does not come easy to us for me is just one more reason to love it.
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