Chapter 17   Leave a comment

Raising the bar

As we travel to teach, our own education as dancers and teachers develops. Many questions are asked, and one of the most often is regarding how long I have been a teacher. In a general sense I have been teaching a good part of my life. My mother operated store front dance schools, and I taught classes for her when I was a teenager. As an eldest child, I developed a natural proclivity for showing my brothers and sisters how to enjoy accomplishing a skill.

I often thought that I might become a high school teacher at the very least, but as I neared the time to make the decision regarding college choices, I opted for what I thought was a more glamorous choice of taking a fine arts degree in art school in New York City. A knee injury as a young adult curtailed my classical dance career.

Time passed and I accomplished reinventing myself in multiple artistic careers. The more recent of these concerned an event design company that I owned and operated. As I became known as an employer of creative types, I found myself in a teaching mode again. By undertaking the training of my crew, I found an old familiar enjoyment. I added classes in floral and life-style design offered to the public, which were held regularly in my studio. Business was good, so I often donated the tuition for these classes to a local charity. I taught for the pleasure of it.

More time passed and I found my way to the life of Argentine Tango (La Vida Tango). Although it was not an initial goal to become a teacher of this newly (to me) important art form, I cannot imagine that it wouldn’t have happened at some point in my development as a dancer and aficionado. The process was accelerated by my meeting my life and Tango partner. He being from Argentina, was already dancing and very knowledgeable about the music, history and art form. This jump started my education.

We embarked on serious albeit enjoyable study of the dance and how to teach it, together. This journey exposed us to many teachers and coaches, musicians and historians. Ultimately we found what we were searching for in Buenos Aires, where we took our pivotal training.

Our mentors showed us a way of thinking and teaching. We are indebted to them for that for all time. However, being thinkers and innovators in our own right, we chose not to become slavish copies and disciples, but rather take the good information they shared with us and put our own methods of organizing that respected material into practice.

Honing teaching skills is a continuing learning process within itself. As we present material to the hundreds and hundreds of students we encounter in our travels around the world, we revise and build upon our knowledge. Many of our methods have become tried and true. We are producing good improvisational dancers who enjoy what they create. We do this in comparatively short amounts of time. We also coach show dancers and can create choreographies. Since there are so many other coaches that can produce patterns, tricks, jumps and routines for the able bodied dancer, we find this enjoyable, but not as profound as producing the competent social dancer.

Being the female part of the couple, dancing and teaching the woman’s role has been a unique journey. Immersing myself in the culture that surrounds this dance has been extraordinary, merely for the fact that it is not my heritage. Learning about the music and what has created the music has been on par with any university level course.

Schooling myself in the mechanics of the dance has been another odyssey of self exploration. Out of this immersion I have discovered ways to move; to create balance; to be creative within the parameters of the movements; to understand and interpret music; to release energy for expression. All of this has been very enjoyable, and a lot less difficult then I could have imagined when taking my first tortured steps in this dance.

And who tortured me? Mainly myself! There was also a good sprinkling of teachers that shrouded learning this dance form with mystification and hopefully innocent misinformation. So many hang ups and expectations were pinned on this mythological social dance. But I’m a good time girl, and somewhere along the way I had to find a way to enjoy myself or stop dancing the Argentine Tango.

The most enjoyable aspect of Argentine Tango for me, is the music. Listening for hours and days and weeks and months and years on end is refreshing, amusing and inspiring. So I looked to the music for my enjoyment. I spent many hours by myself, playing my favorite Tangos while trying to logically figure out what made me physically comfortable while dancing on my own. It always came down to simple balance.

In one of my self sessions, I would start a simple movement and try to hear the voice of my mentors in my head. I would try to distill this information into actual movement, created solely by myself. Lo and behold, their previously elusive concepts, started to immediately gel and take form and make sense. Later when I went to dance in the partnership, many, many things went smoothly. I was onto something for myself and very happy. When coached again by my teachers, classes became that wonderful alchemy of the good student “riffing” off the good teacher, and vice versa. My torture had stopped. Months went by as I continued my solo sessions.

When we teach together as a couple, we move around a class individually to help people. I would offer some of my explorations into technique to the women. Usually and immediately, they understood and were able to execute some part of the theory, thereby making an instant discovery and improvement. Like me, their confidence increased and they enjoyed themselves immensely.

An idea began to form for me to give a class for women. I started by thinking about what I did not want it to be. I did not want to stand in front of a class and have them imitate my movements. I wanted to give solid reasons and ways of executing a logical technique. I did not want this to be a torture session or something designed for only the physically gifted. The average social dancer is not a trained athlete or dancer. I wanted to present a series of repetitive movements that would improve one’s dancing immediately at first, and dramatically with only a few weeks of work. I wanted to design a little workout that one could memorize and take home with them and use it when each one felt the need for a touch-up. I wanted a class where professional and amateur could go through the exercises side by side and benefit from the experience.

I realized that many of these values echoed my very best classes when I was training as a ballet dancer. There were many “barre” classes that I took that often had the principal company members sweating right alongside the neophyte. The difference now would be the torture free aspect and the physical availability of the movements. The similarity would allude to the repetition of movements designed to strengthen the dancer both physically and mentally. Almost every ballet bar class in any studio, in any language in any part of the world has the recognizable movements to any ballet dancer from age six to sixty. This common language of movement allows one to utilize any class at will, necessity and convenience.

Hence my metaphorical bar class was created. I wanted to call my class Tango Bar as an amusing homage to Gardel’s Tango Bar (and Raul Julia’s Tango Bar too). When I wrote a friend in Salt Lake City about my plans, he suggested “barre”, a made-up word alluding to the French and Russian ballet. So it became Tango Barre.

While offering this class to women, I have discovered that by simply making this offering, I have struck a chord. As anyone who takes an Argentine Tango dance class knows, not much focus is put on the woman, and our education comes catch as catch can.

I have often been asked to include men in the Tango Barre class, and I sometimes agree. The technique for men and women is the same. However, I try to make a time especially for women, because the camaraderie it fosters is as important as learning the movements themselves. My partner and I are putting together a men’s class to coincide with the material I present in the women’s class. Ultimately, we must dance together, men and women. Ultimately we want it to be an enjoyable proposition.

I explain my concept, because as I travel I hear so many interesting comments. One charming woman in Massachusetts remarked that she nearly refused to come to my class solely based on its name using the word bar. She disliked ballet bar classes, and thought that anything alluding to that style of class was not for her. She changed her mind and attended the session, and later told me how valuable and useful and enjoyable it was, and how she regretted not spreading the word to more people to encourage them to take the class. Always in the learning by doing state of mind, I made a mental note to perhaps approach describing my class in a different way.

The Tango Barre class is designed to be given in a four to six week cycle, with at least one two hour session per week (ideally I would like two weekly sessions to be the norm). I am often hard pressed when we travel to present an hour, or at best a two hour class, to a completely new group. There is a philosophy and reality behind the creation of the movements I present. So these classes, as are the first classes in the weekly cycles, involve lecture and movement. I encourage people to tape the class, and I try to demonstrate (and take the class to go through the process of theory and movement) as many of the concepts that I want to present in these isolated sessions.

The main idea of the class is to use a series of movements on a repetitive basis. They start with simply understanding what the Argentine Tango axis is and how to get the body to create it and then use it to simply stand on one leg. The class progresses quickly with stretching exercises designed to be useful for the movements used in Argentine Tango. Concepts and small historical ideas are presented in order to give context to movement. Creating embellishment is demystified and put into practice at once. Giros are demystified and explained. Methods for connection to a partner are presented. Music is discussed and ideas presented for interpreting rhythm and melody. All this information is something one can practice at home. Any part of it is useful and doable, which one can put to use the very next time while on the dance floor at the milonga.

The last part of the class is spent on questions about any aspect of Argentine Tango, technical, social or historical. It provides for lively conversation.

The idea I try to impart to the participants is that if you want to become a confident dancer who enjoys herself, there is a bit of a commitment and some body work to do. It is not as difficult as ballet, or probably any other exercise class you might experience at the gym. It is accessible to all at any age and at any level of dancing. However, without making the effort and the investment of time in oneself, the road to learning the dance, or taking a spin around the dance floor, can indeed, be torturous.

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Posted January 7, 2009 by Alberto & Valorie in Tutorial

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