After eleven years living, dancing, teaching tango, and writing in Buenos Aires, I came home to L.A. in 2014, where I'm reconstructing my life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

How to Choose a Teacher for Private Tango Lessons

This question goes around the net from blog to travel site to personal emails to internet mailing lists. As a teacher myself of social milonguero-style tango, here's what I think:

1) Do a little research and know what syle of tango you want to learn, and then if the teacher in question teaches that style. For example, if you want to learn tango nuevo, find a teacher who is known for that. Ot social tango as it is danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Or stage tango. Or whatever. Be sure to know before you start if the fit is right for your goals. If your aim is to be a capable social dancer, then a stage tango star is not the best teacher for you.

2) If you want to learn social Argentine tango, it's usually not a good idea to select a teacher at a ballroom studio who teaches other ballroom styles as well.

3) Watch the person dance and decide if you like what you see or not. Is he/she musical? Elegant? Do they have a good embrace and connection?

4) Prospective students often think they need a man teacher if they are a woman, or a woman if they are a man, because they are thinking they must dance together during the lesson. The ideal situation is a teaching couple, so one can dance with the student, while the other watches, and they both correct and contribute to the student's learning. (Remember though that only a man can teach a man how to dance like a man.)

5) Does the teacher play music in class that is actually danced to (not as background)? Does he teach by counting or to dance by feeling the music?

6) Pricing: how long is the private lesson? Is there one teacher or two? Are there extra charges for studio rental, a practice partner, translation?

7) Weekend workshops from traveling teachers are fine, but you need to learn technique and the basics from consistent classes. Especially at the beginning of your tango journey, it can be very confusing to take a couple of classes from many different people who dance different styles. Heel first, toe first, weight on the balls of the feet, pivot or not to pivot, disassociation? One lesson can cancel out another lesson, leaving you all the worse for wear.

After the first lesson or two:
Evaluate--does the teacher act like an arrogant tango god who knows everything? Does he also include some culture and codigos of how tango is danced in Buenos Aires? Does he expect you to dance just like he does (or she does)? Does he teach complicated patterns or the 8 count basic instead of how to improvise? Did he tell you that the basic step of tango is the walk? Does he encourage you to go to milongas?

Here's what British Peter Campbell had to say about his first lesson in Argentine tango:

The 29-year-olds Valeria Sol Alvarez and Sebastian Acosta emerge from their dressing room in full attire, complete with sequins and dark suit, I wonder quite what is in store.
Their opening number is a traditional tango from before the 1930s, but as their legs flick seemingly effortlessly through each others, I ponder how I am going to avoid crippling my partner if I attempt a similar move...Sebastian continually, and graciously, reminds me on which foot I have to start for each sequence...

In the final moves he lifts her right above his head, spinning her round before dropping to the dramatic final pose as the music crashes to a halt. They remain in the final position, bent over each other in passion, for a final few seconds.

Seeing the way that the pair interact, their bodies moving so gracefully and effortlessly across the floor, puts my humble steps greatly to shame.

This kind of experience is liable to put off a prospective student forever!
Above all, after a few lessons you decide that you are not enjoying learning Argentine tango, don't give up! Just find another teacher. There are as many different ways to dance tango as there are people; you dance who you are. So please don't give up on the dance just because you didn't learn or enjoy your first teacher. There are many more out there waiting for you. Just find one that you like and who makes the classes fun. Tango should be a pleasure, and that includes time spent learning it.


Preen&Ogle said...

Generally I agree with your comments but (there is always a but)re your point 3: As a beginner it is not always easy to understand what you see and know what you like. OK, so milonguero or salon social style (let's not get into the differences/arcane arguements) are obviously different from nuevo or show tango but then what? I took me 4 years to know what I like and to begin my real tango journey. Yes, OK I am a bit slow but you know what I mean. Maybe beginners should be asking the opinions of 2/3 year dancers that they admire how they got to where they are now.


tangocherie said...

Hi Terry,
Thanks for your comment!

I agree that it's good to ask around for opinions on various prospective tango teachers, but not everyone is after the same thing. A friend might be interested in learning lefts for stage tango, and you want to dance socially, so the advice wouldn't really help you.

That's why students should watch the teachers dancing. I know what you mean about not knowing what you're watching at the beginning, but you can see certain things like grace, musicality, and connection, no?

At least, people should know that there are various tango styles out there and that's one reason I wrote this post.

Ilya said...

Good post, Cherie. Seems like you crossed all the t's.

I liked that you said "only a man can teach a man how to dance like a man". And not because I am a man :) - it's just men and women move differently, as they should.

Not sure though the ideal situation is "a teaching couple". I think it is more important to have a student with a partner. That would make it into a "learning couple", wouldn't it? :)

For me it is especially important to have a student-follower having a partner. I would rather teach a leader without one, but I need to See how a follower moves. She's gotta look elegant in addition to everything else...

Tango Atlanta

tangocherie said...

Hi Ilya,

Some private teachers require that a student bring his/her own partner, making a "learning couple," at least as long as the lesson lasts.

But I don't agree with that because if they are not really a "couple," then they will go their separate ways and not be practicing together anyway.

If there is a real couple taking the lesson, then it is very beneficial for each one being able to dance with a teacher in the appropriate role, and then to learn to dance with each other. Ruben and I have spent lots of time in classes helping a couple get physically comfortable in the embrace, as well as leading and following the other partner.

With a teaching couple, the follower can dance with the male teacher while receiving feedback both from him and the follower/teacher who is watching. If you as the teacher want to observe the follower dancing--beyond the mirrors and video--she can dance with your partner.

Before I became a teacher, I often was asked to partner a man in private lessons, because many teachers do not want to dance the whole time with the student--too exhausting. But the man paid for the class and received all of the teaching and attention. I was a sort of "inflatable tango partner," which was fine, I didn't mind at all, and in fact, still learned things just from being there.

Of course this is my opinion: that the best option for private lessons is a teaching couple no matter if you are a single man, woman, or a couple. But everyone certainly can have a different point of view.

Elizabeth said...

I really love the way Ruben and Cherie teach. For us it was ideal. I hope to be able to learn from them again.