Why most advice you get about your dancing is wrong
Sometimes a student would tell me during a class: “You know, a dancer I danced with recently told me…” and then follows some kind of feedback, criticism or advice. For followers some recurring examples are: “You are too heavy, be lighter”, “You are not in balance, put down your heel”, “Give more resistance in the embrace”. For leaders it can be “You are not leading with the music”, “You should lead more with your center”, “Be more of a macho” and so on. My students get confused with such statements and ask me what they should do. I hear these things mostly from women, because I have more women students but also because women ponder such remarks a lot more, letting the criticism affect their self-judgement, and are more willing to talk about it with a teacher. Leaders prefer not to talk about being criticized by their partners unless the problem is urgent.
Tango is a couple dance and it is important to be aware of how your dance feels to your partners as well as how their dance feels to you. Since the beginning of tango there exists a belief that your dance partners are the best authority when it comes to judging your dance. It is largely true, especially when it comes to the “human factor”. Yet, and this might come as a surprise, when another dancer gives you advice he or she is often wrong.
There are three angles from which you can analyse a movement: the way it feels, the way it looks and the way it is performed in terms of actions. When something between you and your partner is not working, it first becomes clear to you because you FEEL it. You can only qualify that feeling as “wrong” if you have already experienced something that felt better or if your “common body sense” tells you that there is too much discomfort (tension, force, imbalance, lack of musicality and so on). It works the same way with your own movement. Once you become aware that something feels or looks “wrong”, you try to create a sensation or a visual shape that you experience as “right”. When your partner tells you that a certain movement is uncomfortable you do not yet perceive that movement as “wrong” and therefore lack the idea of how it should feel. In this case you need information from your partner, from your own senses and eventually from an expert.
When practicing, you constantly go through this cyclic process of understanding how external actions translate into internal sensations and how to modify the action in order to create a different sensation. Assessing and describing our internal sensations is something most of us do quite well, as dancing develops our sensitivity to movement and focuses our attention. However, to tell how something should ideally feel or look, as well as which external action leads to which sensation, you need more than just feeling. You need knowledge of movement biomechanics for tango.
Imagine that a restaurant chef cooks you a meal and asks you what you think about it. You could say things such as “I find it lacks flavour”. If the chef then asks you “Tell me how I can improve it” and you have no experience with cooking, you would either say “Hey, you are the chef here” or start speculating. In dance you also find these two aspects: the SKILL of doing something and the EFFECT it creates. Having eaten in a lot of good restaurants can eventually make you a restaurant critic, but not an expert in cooking. In the same way, having danced with a lot of different partners does not make you an expert in tango technique and even less in the skill of the opposite role. Unfortunate, but true.
It is therefore essential to understand the difference between FEEDBACK and ADVICE. Feedback describes your internal sensations, the effect of your partner’s dance on you. An advice tells your partner what to do. You have to realise that you always dance with someone of the opposite role and therefore quite a different skill. Your feedback can be very accurate but unless you are an expert in tango and in your partner’s role, your advice will probably be off track.
A competent teacher has sufficient knowledge of both roles, although more specialised in one of them. When you take a class with a teacher of the opposite role the emphasis is often on how it should feel. When you take a class with the teacher of your own role it is more often on what to do. Both ways of learning are very useful. However, it is always easier to follow an advice on what to do than to understand how to move in a way that creates a certain feeling in another person. This is also why sometimes taking classes with the teacher of the opposite role can become very confusing unless the teacher helps you with the “doing” part.
There are four levels on which you can talk about issues in dance with your partner. The first and basic one is that of the PROBLEM: the internal sensation that makes you feel uncomfortable. To identify a problem it is usually enough to listen carefully to your sensations and verbalize them using sentences starting with “I feel”. However, if you remain too general, making statements such as I quoted in the beginning, you will sooner hurt your partner’s feelings or create a profound confusion. If you want your feedback to be understood, accepted and acted upon, be PRECISE. Tell your partner exactly when, where and how you feel the sensation that you find problematic.
Secondly, there is the level of the CAUSE: what the partner is doing that leads to the problem. When the follower feels unbalanced to the leader the cause can be anything from her posture to her level of stress. It can also be him unconsciously pushing her off balance. Often a problem in one partner is the result of a problem in the other. Before taking up an issue with your partner be prepared to unravel a whole bunch of issues in yourself.
Third, there is the level of the SOLUTION, or what the partner should do. The solution usually follows from the cause. As sometimes the problem comes from another issue somewhere else, the solution will be found elsewhere as well. Our movement is a complex process in which many factors play a role, all parts affecting the whole. Integrating a solution into your movement always takes time.
And finally there is the level of the desired EFFECT, or the internal sensation created by the improved movement. If you are aware of a problem, you might already have a vague idea of the desired effect. Of the four levels – problem, cause, solution and effect – the first and the last one are identified in terms of sensations. You can talk about them without having extensive knowledge of technique, just from your experience in dance. However, to identify causes and offer solutions a thorough knowledge of technique is essential. If you are not an expert and you want to improve your dance by practicing with a partner, try to talk to each other as much as possible on the levels of the problem and the desired effect. Do not be tempted to rush to conclusions and offer advice. Rather experiment a lot together. This way you will keep more doors open to finding solutions in the process. Also, get an expert opinion.
What to do when other dancers comment on your dance? Do not immediately try to do what they suggest. First ask yourself: am I getting feedback or advice? If it is feedback, try to get precise information about the problem. In case nothing more precise is coming, say thank you and move on. If you are getting an advice, ask yourself: does this person have sufficient knowledge of my role and general tango technique to give me a correct advice? If the answer is no, ask this person to give feedback instead, to describe how it feels without jumping to conclusions. If you blindly follow a wrong advice, you might end up with a wrong movement habit that will be difficult to correct later. Developing new movement habits is like rewiring electricity in your house, it brings modifications to your nervous system. Do not do it without careful consideration.
Veronica’s essays are now available as en e-book “TANGO ESSAYS: Volume I”