Every student of Argentine tango social dancing is told that this is an improvised dance. Yet, most couple's "improvisational" social tango dancing looks very little, if any, different from other couple's.
This uniformity is not limited to the milonga scene:
Every year, hundreds of dancers descend upon Buenos Aires to compete in the world's largest Argentine Tango competitions in (improvisational) Salon Tango. I invite you to watch videos of these competitions, perhaps not for the first time, but (this time) through a particular lens:
Look for creativity, individuality, and uniqueness in improvisation so obvious that needs no magnifying glass to spot it!
How similar do the "improvisations" look from one couple the next in a given year's competition, and among all couples across all years?
The truth is that the tiresome and stale uniformity of expressions duplicated among so many dancers in and outside milongas has nothing to do with the dancers' ability to improvise more creatively. Rather, it results from a lack of understanding of the structure of tango, and the freedom of expression and diversity of ideas that that understanding enables. Thousands of dancers who understand this structure and put this understanding to use, are able to create limitless beautiful and musically meaningful things in social tango dancing; but you never see them in the Salon Tango competitions, because the judges will disqualify them!
Nor will you see many of them in places where tediously and perfectly duplicating frozen-in-time forms are touted as the pinnacle of achievement in Argentine tango social dancing.
If you like to see something deeply telling and enlightening about Salon Tango championships in Buenos Aires, watch this video. It shows the 2016 champion couple dancing in front of numerous other couples in the background who made it through round after round which eliminated hundreds of other couples--in other words the dancers you see in this video are the cream of the crop, and the year's champion couple. Observe especially what happens 1:45 to 1:55.
Contradictions in the Tango Encyclopedia.
When I started learning to dance Argentine tango, I often found confusing and contradictory information about the dance, not least from very famous teachers. Every class was like opening a thousand-page encyclopedia randomly, haphazardly; worse, the entries on different pages were inconsistent.
Consider these two quintessential clichés:
"Tango is a walking dance; if you can walk, you can tango."
"Tango is a walking dance; learning to walk is the hardest part of tango."
That is one example among many more similar contradictions uttered by many teachers and dancers, most of them phrased in similarly poetic language. The more famous the teacher who uttered them, the more I suffered as I tried to make sense of the nonsense.
If students of social tango dancing did not take statements like those seriously, the contradictions would just be nuisances. But they are not just nuisances: the contradictions, and the resulting confusion contribute to a constant and gradual drain of time, energy, ambition, good will, and hard-earned money that students spend on learning to dance tango. Together, they lead to the notoriously high attrition rate among tango dancers.
Otherwise clear-minded, rational people frequently buy into the confusion surrounding the Argentine tango dance as perfectly legitimate. I believe they do that because the ultimate sources of the confusing and contradictory information are the least suspected.
In a class I rhetorically asked: "Ladies, wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to take a pain killer to sooth your feet after every milonga?" One of the ladies with a totally straight face answered seriously "I take the pain killer before I go to a milonga."
In one class a dancer learns one thing (for example a step combination); in another class, perhaps from another teacher, (s)he learns another thing (for example about musicality), ... Do these "things", even when they seem disparate, have a commonn thread running through them, a kind of glue that pulls and holds them together? Can that be unambiguously and clearly articulated in unmistakabley comprehensible language with definitive pedagogic utility for learning other "things" in the dance too?
Is it possible to see different aspecs of the dance as emanating from a few core, clearly identifiable elements and ideas? Does a blueprint exist to facilitate advancing a clear, consistent understanding of the dance, from which then creativity, originality, and pleasant surprises in a truly improvised tango dance may derive? Frequently?
Can we learn to dance tango without relying on our memory of fish handouts?
Can we learn to fish for ourselves? !
The answer to all these questions is yes:
The Argentine Tango dance has a beautiful and equally utilitarian structure that we articulate exactly, unambiguously, and transparently in unmistakable language using clearly-defined concepts, and correspondingly-clearly teachable fundamental corporal and musical elements.
A tango dancer can learn and understand this strucutre. From that understanding (s)he can gain amazing insight into the possibilities of the dance (largely encoded in the music) for self expression and for connecting to other human beings; and find his or her (or a couple's) dance transforming in ways that reflect a unique identity. This is unapologetically knowledge-driven learning, as opposed to romanticized wishful learning.
This is possible without having to cling on to frequently unfulfilled promises of passion and romance in search of dancing better and enjoying the dance more.
Many precious intangibles in tango dancing are highly subjective and personal; romance, passion, and elegance cannot be taught in a tango class, because people have different understandings of them; what passes for elegant by one dancer may be considered a stale, inflexible, and frozen-in-time form to another dancer. More importantly, whatever the subjective qualities may mean to a dancer, they cannot be enjoyed without first learning to dance well.
Learning to dance tango well need not be a subject of mystery, secrets, and vague and loosely outlined "ideas".
A tango dancer gradually develops his or her unique voice in the dance as (s)he first learns, then comes to own, those parts of the dance that are definitely NOT subjective, starting with the structure.
The structure of the Argentine tango dance is rooted in a system of turns, and has nothing at all to do with any one style or another style. It is universal; it is style-independent.
The structure of the tango dance is anything but subjective. Every dancer can learn it objectively, without having to try to decode and make sense of confusing or contradictory information.
Is there a way to bring the different parts of the dance together and approach it as a whole?
Technique, musicality, navigation, partner connection, sequencing, and even styling and embellishments ..., they all become integrated through understanding the structure, and understanding the imperatives and the alternatives that the structure encodes into every aspect of the dance. This starts with a clear, unambiguous articulation of the role of each partner far superior to the rarely-well-defined ideas of leading and following.
Once more, the structure of the Argentine tango dance is not tied to one style or another style. It is style-independent.
What is the benefit of the structural approach rooted in the system of turns to learning tango?
First: Clarity replaces confusion, reason replaces dogma, sensibility true to the human instinct and experience starts reasserting itself, ... and you start feeling really good because you can understand things ... bit by bit. From this follows everything else:
Learning and progress becomes easier, independent of style.
As a man or woman, a leader or follower, your dancing becomes more refined, and more enjoyable, with more partners who also know the structure; these are the best-educated tango dancers and they dance all over the world.
You will learn anything from anyone, easier, faster, and more efficiently.
You will be able to explain your own or other dancers' ideas unambiguously in ways that facilitate dissemination of tango knowledge.
Partners will progress and advance together, faster, and easier.
You will see the logic, not the mystery or the magic, that underlies technique and fundamental musicality.
You will see that musicality in the dance is not entirely subjective (any half-serious musician will tell us that about music, too); and you will learn how technique and fundamental musicality are intimately connected through the structure, rooted in the system of turns.
You will be on your way to improvise more creatively, and understand that neither improvisation, nor navigation, nor styling and embellishments are exclusively the domains of one partner or the other.
As your understanding of the structure becomes more complete, you will also gradually free yourself from problems like "... I can't remember that step I learned last week!" or, like "Why does this combination work just fine with one partner but not with another partner?"
Learn to fish for yourself! Let us show you how.