Why we believe technique kills emotion
There exists a belief that focusing too much on technique will put you at risk of becoming an emotionally detached dancer. In tango, this is a very serious risk. If saying about someone “this dancer is not very accomplished technically, but has great human qualities in his or her dance” can be considered a compliment, saying that someone’s dance is too technical and not emotional enough often means that this person did not understand what tango is really about. We seem to believe that technique can become the opposite of emotion, or human factor in general. To my articles in which I discuss the difficulties of learning the skills of tango, every now and then I get the reaction “Yes, yes, that’s all very nice, but you know, you dance tango with your HEART and all the technique in the world will not teach you this!”
The tension between technique and emotion is not new, we perceive them as sometimes complementing and sometimes opposing notions in many domains of life, not just tango. In all dance forms teachers and choreographers complain about dancers becoming so driven by perfection that, as a ballet teacher once said, “they seem to be in love with their own legs!” In dance, being absorbed by the technicalities of a movement prevents the dancer from “becoming” the movement and therefore from expressing all that which lies beyond, such as intention, narrative, imagery, mood, emotion, soul and passion.
This tension field between technique and emotion is created in the first place in the way we master any kind of complex skill: the learning process takes up most of our focus. As long as you are learning to master a smooth giro, the emotion will be the last thing on your mind. This study mindset, requiring a complete focus on the task, is what we develop in the context of classes and practicas. As long as our bodymind feels overwhelmed with difficulty, we will tend to “do” rather than “become”. If, after we have arrived at a sufficiently skilled level, we keep this mindset of concentrating on “doing”, our movement will never be fully embodied and our being therefore never fully expressed.
In any kind of a dance class teachers regularly urge their students, now and then, to stop “executing” and to bring their entire being into movement. It is only then that a movement can become more than a physical action. In some cases, to forcefully leave this mindset, a dancer must completely let himself or herself go and take the risk of doing it IMPERFECTLY for the sake of doing it with real feeling. In each dance we are facing the same trap: the risk of concentrating so much on doing the dance that we forget to live it.
In tango the word “technical” is often used to describe an obsession with complex steps or movement. In social dancing to focus entirely on steps and movement is considered the highest degree of treason as you forsake the connection to your partner and dance by yourself, using the other person as an instrument. This is allowed while practicing, in order to improve, but not in social context. Once in a milonga, you are supposed to put your heart and soul into it. Yet, this is not about technique: it is about FOCUS. Technique is a tool helping you to dance with the least effort possible in the most graceful and efficient way. It is this effortless quality that allows for true expression and makes your dance feel free, exhilarating and so close to flying. Technique gives you freedom of expression by giving you the freedom of movement. What we call “technical yet unemotional” should be more accurately called “movement-focused” or “disconnected”, because, when focusing entirely on how to do the movement, we inevitably disconnect to some extent from the partner, the music, the dance and our emotional self. Being technical means having a certain quality of technique, not being technique-obsessed. All dancers wish they were truly technical, for then they could forget about it.
A very interesting phenomenon occurs when a person who has been trying to do something perfectly, lets go of this focus and consciously connects to the music, or an image, or an intention. Suddenly the technical quality of the movement improves dramatically! Why is that? You see, when you focus exclusively on the physical action, you neglect the other parameters that create an effortlessly danced movement: its musicality, intentionality and connectedness. This is why dancing with a “technical” focus makes us move in a mechanical way, with either too little or too much energy, either emotionally detached or pathetically frantic.
The above phenomenon explains why teachers so often, instead of reminding you “to put the foot forward heel-first, then roll it until you arrive” will tell you “now, walk softly, like a cat, imagine your feet are massaging the floor”. Imagery in dance is used precisely for the purpose of enlarging your focus to incorporate other things: music, space, energy, your partner, intention and emotion. This is why images are so effective in dance: when they hit the target your movement becomes instantly COMPLETE. You do need, at some point, to understand the mechanics of a movement in order to bring your technique to a higher level, but to go beyond mechanics you will need an image or an intention. And you need it at every stage, not just after the mechanics have become perfect, because, as we see, the mechanics will not be perfect unless your awareness includes more than just mechanics.
Understanding the movement-focused way of dancing makes us understand why we oppose it to “emotion”. In tango context I would describe “emotion” as the extent to which you let your personal presence be felt and seen by the other person in an authentic and open way, in other words, whether you are fully present in what you do. When you disconnect from various aspects of the dance and concentrate uniquely on doing the physical movement, you disconnect from your emotions as well.
We should not confuse emotion with being “all over the place”. An excess of emotions actually disturbs your dance, as your bodymind becomes overwhelmed. One of the reasons we have technique is to be able to feel and show strong emotion yet to keep the body movement within our control. Tango is a dance in which the emotions are directed inside the couple, towards the other more than to the outside, even if you are performing. In tango therefore quite often things do not look the way they feel. Not all that looks complex is necessarily technical: sometimes the least eye-catching dancer in the room is the most technical one. Likewise, not everybody who looks emotionally expressive will feel genuinely present in the embrace. Often a somewhat cold or aloof looking dancer will give you the most intense dance experience.
Teachers are often criticised for making people “technique-focused” as they spent so much time on showing students how to do the steps properly. Many people hold the opinion that studying ruins your authentic connection to tango and that you should go about it intuitively, by feeling and desire only, by human factor alone. If you believe that this has been your way through tango and it paid off very well, you probably do not realise that the way you dance has been largely copied from and influenced by people around you, as well as adapted to the movements of your partners, in other words, there is still a technical part to it that has simply not been the result of a structured study. There isn’t much you can do on a dance floor if all you can offer your partner is a big corazón. Technique is not the problem. The problem is the belief that knowing how to move will make you dance, or the belief that being a lovely person and knowing how to embrace will make you a dancer. Neither of these things ALONE will. However, combined, they can bring about what I still consider, after all these years, to be pure magic.
There is also another reason why in tango we are so sensitive to this apparent tension between technique and emotionality, and it has everything to do with the nature of the dance itself.
One of the reasons many social dancers do not enjoy watching tango artists perform choreography is that, to them, the mere fact of it being a choreography diminishes the emotional pleasure they get from watching it. Yet, paradoxically, those same viewers may be moved to tears watching a ballet or a contemporary dance performance which is always strictly choreographed. It would never cross their mind to look at Baryshnikov dance, shrug and say: “Well, all very well, but that’s a choreography, it does not really touch me emotionally.” In tango, however, we believe that the dancers’ vulnerability in the context of total improvisation brings out that deep emotional charge and that profound and very particular human connection that we see as a UNIQUE CHARACTERISTIC of tango and associate specifically with this dance. In a sense, tango is like a thriller: it seems at every turn that the dancers won’t make it, yet somehow every time they do. In tango we want to see human nature act out spontaneously in these moments of utter insecurity, with all the resulting suspense, abandonment and surprises, yet eventually sail through it with mastery and aplomb. This is why the choreographies that we do like in tango are those that are able to invoke this sense of risk, by a very difficult technical achievement, or by a very strong, often extreme emotion, but most of all by invoking this special human connection specific to tango.
Ultimately, it all comes down to connection: connection to yourself, to emotion, to dance, to music, to your partner, to space. Connection in itself is a technique and at the same time a human factor, therefore difficult to explain and teach. Yet it remains the primary feature in tango, making it into what we know and what we so passionately love, and without which all the techniques and emotions of the world are nothing more than notes on a score, simply waiting for you to play the music.
More articles by Veronica Toumanova: www.verotango.com