Why we start and why we stop practising
Before we dive in, you can absolutely have fun with social tango dancing without having a regular practice partner. Indeed this is how the large majority dance: classes and with the later addition of milongas - no additional focused technique practice. And that's fine. It is simply that by practising consistently with a partner (and on your own), between classes, you will discover new depths and joys to the dance. That's because learning tango is like learning a language; it benefits greatly from more repetition, experimentation and immersion.
We start practising because we want to improve at something. We continue practising either because we enjoy the process itself or the improvements gained are enough to continue motivating us.
When it comes to practising tango for social dancing the time requirements for significant benefits to your skills are fairly small. Even just 2 x 15 mintutes a week (between your classes) would be very worthwhile. Hence excuses along the lines of "we don't have time" will almost always be a way of avoiding saying 'we are not enjoying practising together' or 'we don't improve when we practice'. Because if you enjoy doing something and you feel the benefits of doing it, then you'll find 15 minutes for it. So let's look at some ideas for better enjoying your practice together and making it more productive.
Start with a plan
What specifically are you going to practice? The embrace and walking is always a good choice. Perhaps also include a couple of points from your last lesson to reinforce what you learnt. In any case, just being specific about the things you'll cover in your practice time will help you to stay focused.
Discussing with each other first, why you'd like to practice particular techniques or movements will help establish motivation for what you decide to have on your list. Be sure to hear your partner's preferences as well as share your own. And make sure you're both in willing agreement with what to practice before you start to work through your list. When that's done, if you're having fun you might find you start to experiment and other ideas come up that you're both interested in practising.
Doing things this way (having a todo list) at least until you establish a solid practice habit, means you'll avoid clearing some time to practice and then getting into conversations like "let's do X" - "oh, that's boring, let's do Y" - "but that's not what the lesson was on..." etc. and then, surprise, finding your practice time wasn't so productive.
If you're unsure what to have on your practice list, again, I'd suggest putting walking and fine tuning the embrace right at the top, even when you're already comfortable dancing a wide range of techniques and figures. Tango is built around a walking embrace and the upper bounds of the quality of your dance is set by how well you can walk together.
Practice communication while you practice tango
Like anything worth learning, Tango is challenging. While that's part of what makes it fun and satisfying as a dance, it also means you can expect some confusion, mistakes and maybe some occasional frustration along the way. How you deal with that with yourself and your practice partner is crucial to the healthy and enjoyable continuation of your practice. But as a teacher I see and hear of signs of let's call it 'obstructive communication' in group and private classes and on the dance floor, fairly frequently. It's often not done knowingly. It's just a set of communication habits that are not helping. Which mostly explains why many partners practise endeavours are short lived.
With that in mind, let's say you're practising and trying a step and for maybe the third or forth time it's just not working or feeling right. Which of the following possible reactions will you choose?
- blame yourself, including sweeping apologies for being a 'rubbish dancer' and rising levels of panic.
- blame your partner, with words or by tutting, sighing, huffing or rolling eyes.
- blame yourself while really thinking its your partner's fault, because you don't want them to feel the stress or shame of being at fault or you don’t think that addressing the problem will be successful.
- blame your partner while really thinking its your fault, because you feel unable to confront the stress and shame of doing something badly and admitting to it.
- pretend not to blame and get cross with anyone, but give 'subtle' signs that you are actually doing that, including sarcasm or growing disinterest/distraction.
- express what you're observing and feeling - without judging any fault - and check in with what your partner is experiencing with the technique or step.
Yes, option 6. above in practically all cases is the correct answer here. But let's look a bit more at how those possible responses can manifest and the effect they could be having on your dance practice.
When you're deliberately practising technique you're figuring stuff out, you're problem solving. And what's the best method humankind has developed for doing that? Yep, the scientific method. Dealing with observations, experimenting with a number of variables and again making observations to refine some process, understanding or product.
How to benefit from the scientific method (and avoid derailing it)
With tango practice, we have an end result in mind; a movement or figure, a quality of connection, a relationship to the music, etc. And we have some variables, such as posture, balance, tension or relaxation in various parts of our body, timing, the calibration between invitation and response, etc. The kind of observations we might make then are the state some of those variables, e.g. this arm is pushing out, or this arm is holding its shape, or my weight in going to the outside edge of my foot at this point in the movement, or the response to this invitation is faster/slower/lighter/heaver here. From these observations we can access or guess whether that state is taking us closer or further away from the result we're aiming for. We then try changing the variables for better results. In principle, all fairly straight forward, logical stuff.
Now, what happens to the above scientific process when we introduce a new focus on finding who has messed up and expressing discontent about it? More than simply being distracted from productive practice we're creating an emotional disincentive to continue. When blame, disapproval, condescension, insecure displays of authority or submissiveness, passive or overt aggression occur it's usually not a pleasant experience. If it happens regularly you probably wont want to carry on practising or dancing together.
OK, but what if you've made some observations and tried changing what you're both doing but you're still stuck and it seems like someone it just 'doing it wrong'? Is it then time to tell them (or yourself) they're messing up and that they should just sort their technique out?
Well, let's say in this case there is a correct technique and it's not being followed by one or both of you. If you've already made the observations about the relevant variables (positions, tensions and timings of your movement) and are simply struggling to make the changes you both want to try making, then what possible benefit could come from getting ticked off about it and creating some of those emotional disincentives previously discussed? Instead, try to figure out why making a change of some variable is difficult.
Is the difficulty a) to do with mobility or agility? Or is it b) more about trust and fear of being in a certain position? If a) then is there tension anywhere else in the body that could be released that would enable the movement (e.g. one side of the frame), or is it really a current limitation of your body? If b) is there a way of approaching the position or movement in a more gradual way, or making a game out of it, to build trust and confidence? Again, the experimental, methodical and creative approaches are more likely to result in success. Imagine you are two scientists working together to solve a problem.
When you start communicating in this way, if your partner was used to hearing or speaking in an emotionally loaded way around tango practice (or in general), then it could take a bit of time before they understand you're not still trying to make them wrong, or that you're not interested in them being wrong.
In the case of your tango partner being your life partner, you'll have more ingrained styles of communication between you. Where if in every day life you've found ways of working around or avoiding any communication malfunctions, that often doesn't work in tango practice due to the challenges of learning the dance. There is also the potential cost of a practice fall out spilling over. That's my theory for why couples in particular often struggle to maintain regular practice together. It may take a bit more concentration to shift communication style. But hopefully very much worth the effort.
For group classes and milongas
One thing the health and vitality of a tango community depends on is well attended group classes and milongas (and for bigger or more advanced communities, practicas too). Without those, not much of a community.
Classes and milongas are only well attended when people enjoy going, which brings us back to how we communicate with partners. With constructive communication, everyone benefits, because it's easer to then improve and the process is more enjoyable. With non-constructive communication, what we have is a heavy tax on fun, but without any communal benefit.
What led to this post is the fact that I fairly frequently hear about the kind of blame and disapproval laden comments (see section "Practice communication while you practice tango") that lead to emotional disincentives to attend classes or milongas. Several students have stopped dancing entirely because of such comments, who attended my classes over the last 6 months, and several others have been on the verge of stopping. From what I can tell, it’s not too different in other communities. That's bad for any community and also bad for business. [So I may be following up on this blog with a little communication guidance in classes..]
Of course, in group classes, everyone moves a bit differently and skill levels are variable within a certain range. So when you try a technique with one partner and it seems to work fine, but not so much with the next partner, it's easy to get frustrated, which is where 'communication malfunctions' can occur. So, if you find yourself tempted to make a comment as listed 1. through 5. in section "Practice communication while you practice tango", including tutting, huffing and similar, just take a moment. Consider the negative impact that will have, ultimately on everyone in the community including you, and try the more constructive, scientific approach.
As for milongas, if you can possibly avoid discussing technique with the person you're dancing with, so much the better. It can easily distract from the enjoyment of social dancing and, if it's about wanting them to change something, be potentially off putting. If something is persistently uncomfortable or dangerous, say something (as constructively as possible, e.g. 'would you mind if we try dancing with a slightly looser hold?', rather than 'your hold is too tight'). Otherwise, probably best left for your technique practice session. If you want to be more subtle about making a request you feel is necessary, you can try physically emphasizing the change you want your partner to make, and see if they mirror you. E.g. take the close side arm of your embrace away for a moment and then gently replace it, to see if they loosen their embrace in response.
Remember why you're practising
Tango can be many things, from an enjoyable social activity to a performance art demanding great athleticism and technical mastery. What are you working towards? Being on the same page as your practice partner (or at least recognising any differences in goal and adapting to them where possible) can help avoid frustration and increase the satisfaction you have in the results you get.
This is also about setting your expectations according to your own level of commitment to learning and practice time. So if you're looking at world class dancers, who train and dance for hours a day, and wondering why your musicality or the shape of your ganchos (or whatever) doesn't look that similar, when you practice maybe once a week, then it's time to adjust your expectations. Think more about what you'd like to use and improve on in your social dancing. Doing that doesn't mean your dancing has to lack excitement and dynamism. It's more a question of being smart about picking the challenge and complexity level of the movements you practice, given the time you have available.
Because tango is such a rich dance with potential for great emotional intensity and intellectual, mind-body connection depth, it can all get a bit addictive. I say that, knowing that it's something every dancer who stays the course for more than a year or so will go through. That addictiveness can be a source of stress if you're not getting the fix or quality of fix you crave. Being mindful of that process, however, may help you maintain perspective. It's a dance. And the learning of it has no end. So be patient and enjoy the journey, for however long you stay on it.
You started learning tango because you thought it would be fun. Hopefully these tips will help it stay that way in your practice. If you get really hooked you might even find that your practice sessions are a particular highlight, where you get to deepen your knowledge and discover new and better possibilities for movement and expression in the dance.
Bonus section: Wait! I don't have a partner!
If you're serious about wanting to practice then you'll be able to find at least a little time for it. The challenges then may be finding a partner and finding a space to practice. Space is relatively easy to fix. If you can't afford to hire somewhere, then living rooms or kitchens will do. Even hallways (or indeed the ocean) are good enough. If you're lucky, there'll be some time before or after your regular group class where you can use the space to practice too. So then on to finding your partner.
If you're looking to improve your social dancing the main requirements for a practice partner are that there is at least some enjoyment dancing with them and that you can communicate constructively with each other (see previous sections). If you have that and you both want to practice then everything else can be worked around.
You might ideally want someone of the same or higher ability than you, but if you let that hold you up you might have no partner at all. Better to have someone in the same ballpark or at least a near by ballpark in terms of skill and start by refining simpler techniques and concepts. If you do that consistently, you'll both be pleased with your progress (even though you may be the more ‘technically advanced dancer’) and will grow to enjoy dancing with each other much more.
Finally, it's worth repeating, whether you have a practice partner or not, there’s a lot to be gained from regular solo technique practice.
Enjoy your dancing and dance practice.