Begins with: “Dance with me and tell me what is wrong, and then fix it.”
This might be one of the top five requests I get from students after asking them what they would like to work on in class. This request always makes me feel like a tango physician and the student my patient. There is a diagnosis I should make based on the signs and symptoms. Then, I should prescribe the appropriate treatment.
Students can sometimes request and even ignite this kind of attitude towards learning. Other times teachers do. This approach holds a belief that sounds like this: There is right and there is wrong in tango, teachers know the difference and how to get from one to the other. This attitude starts a power interaction between the teacher and student. The teacher becomes a power figure, someone who can see-it-all and has the ability to generate lasting changes in the best foreseeable directions. The student becomes passive, a fertile ground that offers the conditions for this to happen. This is the most common approach to learning and teaching the tango today.
Concerning learning outcomes, holding this belief and establishing this kind of teacher/student relationship presents a few assumptions and challenges.
- The teacher has more knowledge than the student.
- The teacher knows how to direct the student in “the right direction”.
- The student has the capacity of being molded by the teacher.
- The teacher can miss the point and generate unnecessary changes in the student (misdiagnose and mistreat).
- The student can avoid “doing the work” by resisting or idolizing the teacher.
- The teacher doesn’t know how to create durable changes, or the student doesn’t know how to maintain the adjustments that the teacher suggests.
Begins with: “I’ve been wondering how to do a volcada.”
Here, the student begins by asking a question to the teacher. She is coming to class with a very different motivation. Rather than asking for what is wrong, she is asking for something she could add to what she knows. Questioning in this case, reflects some curiosity from the student.
In this conversation, the student is looking for a response that can solve a specific problem, “I do not know how to do a volcada.” Instead of being asked to diagnose and fix, the teacher is being consulted. With this question, the student established that she has experience in the field, and the teacher becomes a knowledgeable consultant. This can be a very efficient way to work with more experienced dancers.
- The teacher has an answer to the question, and a method that follows.
- The teacher is open and comfortable to sustain a conversation about a specific move with the student.
- The student is willing to maintain a fluid dialogue with the teacher.
- Student question may be rooted in material that is not useful for her development at that stage.
- Teacher may feel challenged by questions and interrupts dialogue, shutting down the student’s curiosity.
- Questions can turn into broad topic conversations and little dancing takes place during class.
Begins with: “Do you mind if I do that sacada again? I’d like to try something else, please tell me if you feel any difference.”
In this case, the teacher figure has a different role, he is out of the embrace and two dancers are having a conversation. Depending on how these two dancers manage this exchange, a different kind of learning could happen. Successful navigation of potentially uncomfortable feedback moments, can help their relationship strengthen and grow. Then, learning happens without the direct intervention of a teacher. Our idea of what a teacher is has changed.
When our idea of what a teacher’s role changes, learning looks different. It can be more of a deepening of the real-time dancing experience for the students. Both dancers begin collecting practical feedback about their dancing. When this happens, the teacher is a learning facilitator. By staying in the background, allowing and even encouraging these targeted exchanges, the teacher facilitates learning opportunities of a different kind and tone.
- Students are given the time and conditions for exchange and have focused conversations.
- Teacher fosters and guides these kind of interactions between students.
- Students are experienced enough to to be able to articulate what they feel, without having the teacher become a referee.
- Teachers must give away some of their air time for this student-to-student conversation.
- If not facilitated, conversations can get too general and learning dissipates.
- Some students may feel hurt in the exchange and look for teacher support.
These three conversations are examples of classic interactions between dancers (students and teachers) in class. Each way of interacting can be useful, and can provoke constructive outcomes. My advice for tango learners and teachers is to give each conversation a try. Remember, each conversation has its risks and benefits, so proceed with caution. Most often, I see both sides holding on to Conversation 1 (teacher as power figure). This also occurs between students. When this happens, the exchange is impoverished, and the potential of the learning opportunity is at stake. If you are trying Conversation 1, change the statement for the following request: “Please dance with me and tell me what can be different.”
Try Conversation 2. If you are a tango student, take a moment and look for your own personal questions and tell your teachers what you care about. If you are a teacher, ask your students questions based on your observations and work with them towards an answer.
Finally, try Conversation 3. As a teacher, give students time to discuss and exchange perceptions. Remember to focus on a certain aspect of what they are learning in that class. As a dancer, take the risk and break the pact of silence with your dance partner by launching a potentially fruitful conversation. Remember, your fellow dancer is probably as eager as you are to improve their dancing. You both have the opportunity to help one another and narrow the gap between knowing and not-knowing.