Four questions for tango class

For experienced tango dancers and teachers in training

During class, teachers will probably use a set of tools, learning devices, and methods that they are comfortable with. Some of these they will explain and openly disclose to all participants in the workshops or classes, while others will be hidden.

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As a tango teacher or learner, your involvement and engagement in class is critical to the success of the enterprise. Having a strategy is a good way to foster engagement. In this article, I present a few suggestions in this direction.

I recommend that you craft a set of guidelines to help you observe classes closely and how they progress. You can later use the guidelines to review, compare, and discuss information. Each teacher has their teaching style and favorite ways of doing things. Discoveries will become clearer to you, as you compare what different teachers do given similar circumstances. Some examples these are: how does this teacher handle partner changes during class? What does this pattern look like in action? How do the students like it? Or how does a teacher talk about technique? How do he or she introduces structure?

I suggest you build your own guidelines, to follow your own needs and questions. But to help you get started, I will give you a simple and practical list to begin organizing your observations. I prefer to start by using questions instead of systems or structures. I will call it The Four Questions (what, how, when, and why). These questions can be asked as a teacher or as a student.

The complete questions are:

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Each of these questions can derive into many others, some complementary and others not. Try to keep the work as compact as possible by answering these few questions first with one short sentence only. If you wish, you can expand once the main question has been acknowledged. Keep in mind that most probably, in answering any of these questions, you will feel a strong urge to give voice to your own opinion. This is to give voice to your own judgement. Try to not get caught in doing this for too long, you will have time for that later. Spend more time observing and noting the class work. There will be time to collect opinions once the class or workshop is completed. Doing this will be quite hard, but I strongly recommend you try. This practice will make you a better student and teacher.

Question 1: What is being taught? or what am I learning?

This question refers to the topics presented in class, what you can also call its content. It can simply be an object of study, like a certain tango figure, a pattern, or a sequence of movements. It can be something more elusive to describe, like noticing a relationship between certain elements, or some mechanics of partner interaction. Or, it could be an overarching topic that unravels throughout the whole class but is presented through different angles. For example, musicality in the walk or connection in the embrace.

What is being taught / What am I learning = topics, content

There might be some teachers that bring out less obvious topics, material that is not easily labelled. The actual topic of the class may not be explicit in the class title. It is up to you to figure it out. An example of this could be a class on a certain body skill that allows the students to improve their connection with the floor.

Lastly, some classes could have one driving topic accompanied by some adjacent ones. Others might be a potpourri of different topics apparently disconnected from one another.

How is this useful? Identifying the main concepts or elements in a class helps you grasp and understand the material. It also helps you organize it and retrieve it later.

Questions 2: How is it being taught? or how do I achieve this?

This question refers to the methods used by the teacher to communicate class material. Methods are geared to present class material clearly or to create new understanding about already well known topics. Other times methods are aimed to bring out completely new content or game changing insights to in the students. The teacher will show you how to do something in order to help you arrive to a certain result. For example: by moving your body in a precise way you will be able to feel certain muscles or a group of sensations that are critical to being able to execute a desired move.

How is it being taught / How do I achieve this = method, how-to

A method is presented as a series of steps sequenced purposely to help you complete a task. There is a large spectrum of methods a teacher can use. For example, a teacher might use a mechanical method that gives the student a set of steps that are also attached to a device (like counting) that helps the student remember the order of the elements. The student then follows the steps as the teacher observes the process. In contrast, a teacher could use guided exercises as a method to verbally direct the student through a series of actions and the result arises naturally at the end of the exercise, much like following a recipe.

How is this useful? A method allows you to have a process that leads to achieving a result. Once you have a method you can repeat it on your own, like when you practice, for example. The method will be your pathway to the result you wish to attain.

Question 3: When is it being taught? or when shall I be able to perform this?

Every presentation will be done following an agenda (a schedule of events for each class). First things first and last things at the end. Some teachers agendas are flexible, while others are not. This will depend on the teacher's perspective of what a good result should look like. When does your teacher present the most challenging elements? When in the class does this occur? How much does he or she push a schedule? Is there a clear schedule or does the class pass by in an open-exploration manner? If there is a mix, what is the timing for that balance?

When is it being taught / When shall I be able to perform this = sequence, timing, duration

Another aspect to observe here is progression and performance. At what moment is the content being shown (progression)? At what point does this teacher introduce the core of the topic (progression)? Does this happen right at the beginning or later (progression)? When is the student expected to demonstrate comprehension of the material (performance)?

Note how the question of time, timing, and duration connect to the teacher's strategy towards encompassing attention span and learning curve considerations.

How is this useful? Seeing that there is a timing in each class allows you to get a sense of the underlying fabric of that class. This helps you set and manage your mood and energy. If there is a timing, there is a progression and so a moment for everything to happen. There is less pressure to getting things right and right away.

Question 4: Why is it being taught? or why am I doing this?

Purpose is always behind instruction. Sometimes the purpose is explicit and other times hidden. It is for you to discover what the teacher's purpose is for the class or for the teaching itself. The teacher you are observing may or may not decide to tell you. If they do, this can happen right when the class kicks off, or later in the process. She or he might tell you what they think the purpose is. You might agree, or sometimes experience something else in addition to or in contrast. Take note and keep watching for purpose.

Purpose sets the direction of the teacher's intention for teaching a class, and this reveals the heart of the matter. Consider the possibility that the ultimate goal of the class might not be made clear to you until the class is finished and you are back at home, or even much later.

The teacher's teaching style might be to observe the class develop before setting a purpose, or he might choose it before hand and launch it with the opening instructions. Both approaches can tell you a lot about his or her attitude towards teaching and learning. 

Why is it being taught / Why am I doing this = purpose, intention

Lastly, some personal advice. I often found that I disagreed with my teacher's purposes during class, believing that I always had a better idea of what needed to be taught at that moment. This attitude would make me bitter at times. If this happens to you and you find that there is no reason whatsoever for your teacher to be offering a particular set of instructions, I recommend that you remember that this does not means that the class was purposeless. There is always something good and useful in working together.

How is this useful? Knowing the purpose of what your are doing can work as fuel to your motivation. It can also give sense to what is happening during your learning process, which builds overall perspective about your tango journey and can give you a sense of achievement and joy.