Friday, April 4, 2008

4 Steps To Becoming A Great Tango Dancer

I'm not a great tango dancer, but I love studying "expert performance" and there's something that's come out of this field in recent years that can help those of us working on becoming better tango dancers. What is this fascinating finding?

Experts are made, not born.

So, what does that mean for us? How can we develop into much better tango dancers than we are today?

Well, it turns out there are actually some very clear ways to do this. Paraphrasing one of the world's thought leaders on expert performance, Professor Anders Ericcson, it all comes down to "deliberate practice". According to Ericcson, there are 4 critical elements that everyone must do to become an expert, which I've tailored below for this tango blog:

1. Set specific tango goals. Where do you want your tango to be in 1, 3, 5 years? Is your focus on becoming a better social dancer or do you want to perform or both? Do you want to become a sacada or colgada master? I have friends that want to simply enjoy tango at milongas, so they're correctly casual about their tango. But I have another friend who wants to become a leading tango teacher in America, so she has set very specific tango goals for herself (take x classes a week, take x privates a month, go to x milongas a month...). When she first told me this I felt like her tango had become so regimented that the fun must be gone. But then I realized I don't know anyone developing faster than her and she's more likely to join the ranks of great tango dancers than anyone I know. Interestingly, she does find it fun because she's making such fast progress towards her goal.

2. Focus on technique. Too often people focus more on doing as many moves as possible as opposed to focusing on technque. I made this mistake for years in salsa and it's the same in tango. Woman would rather dance with a leader who can only lead 3 moves with excellent technique versus dance with a leader who throws in 20 moves, but doesn't have much technique. When my tango technique goes through growth spurts it's always when I'm taking the most classes and privates from the great teachers, watching a lot of teaching videos (I'm watching a lot of Christy Cote's & George Garcia's videos now, which are excellent), watching video of myself, and going to a lot of practicas and milongas.

3. Get immediate feedback from your tango teachers on what you need to improve the most. It can be hard hearing this feedback at first--especially for beginners. I know--I've been there (one time in a salsa class my teacher said I was dancing like Robocop and I don't think he meant that in a good way). But this feedback is critical to our development, so ask your teacher for it. Another great way to get feedback is to video yourself. I remember how shocked I was the first time I did this. I'd never seen myself dance tango, but I had a mental image that I looked like the best of the Forever Tango performers (hubris is an amazing thing). Then I was Forever Humbled watching my video as I saw what I was--a beginner with lousy technique making a hundred mistakes. I recovered from that shock & am always using video now to get feedback from teachers, tango friends & for self-feedback.

4. Work extremely hard. This is probably the easiest element to understand, but hardest to do. It's critical to development, though, as proven by both of last years "Athlete's Of the Year" according to the Associated Press. Tom Brady, Quarterback for the New England Patriots, has long been known as the hardest working player on the team. And according to Links Players, Lorena Ochoa (# 1 women's golfer in the world) "is marked by two stunningly mature benchmarks: extraordinary discipline and a yearning to be mentored. In college, Ochoa's fitness regime was almost legendary. When the rest of the team showed up for workouts at 6 a.m., Ochoa had already completed a 10k run."

Funny thing, but it turns out that "practice does make perfect". This is why to avoid burnout as we work on our "deliberate practice" it's so important to do something we love.

And we do love tango.


Tara said...

Thank you Mark for these tips on improving your tango! I never thought of videoing myself on the dancefloor, but it sounds very useful.

Mark Andersen said...

Yes, Tara--I watched more video of myself this weekend & it was so helpful. I'd say video & private lessons are the two most learning tools I've found.