Las Rosas del Tango


The art of slowing down


Most of the learning that we can remember has been structured around a fairly rapid, linear progression upwards and onwards, from simple to complex material or ideas. We have education systems structured around progression, goals, mileposts, attainment. Even sport and dance programmes are often structured around these same principles. Do you remember working your way proudly from bronze, to silver and onto gold in your first swimming lessons?


When we come to a non-competitive physical discipline which requires fine motor skills, be it tango or Tai Chi or yoga, we suddenly come up against another, less familiar learning curve. A process that is iterative, where we keep coming back to first principles, where progress is less easy to discern or measure. We have the feeling of taking one step forwards and then two backwards.


This kind of learning is usually slow and non-linear. It often happens on a timescale that we can’t easily perceive - not from day to day, or week to week, but more often over the space of several months. I think of it more like a slow spiral, winding its way ever upwards. Our neural system, muscles, bones, and body memory don’t learn in the same way or at the same tempo as our cognitive processes. The fact that you could make a movement fluently and easily last week does not guarantee that you’ll be able to do the same this week. Often we land in the frustrating place of being able to understand what is being asked of us long before our body can actually do it!


Learning to change your patterns of movement is slow work, quite unlike learning long division or how to conjugate verbs. Muscles learn best with slow, conscious movements and repetition. There is a sense of diving into another experience of time; slowing down, sensing, feeling, adjusting little by little, giving our senses and body the time to explore a movement in depth.


We have to adjust to making mistakes, lots of them, often involuntarily, searching by trial and error for the particular form, the specific sequence of impulses and movements that is characteristic of this dance.


We need time to become conscious of our own idiosyncrasies of movement - the foot that loves to turn inwards or which rolls habitually to its outer edge as we walk, the hip that collapses forward, the unconscious thrust of a chin.


Think of it this way. Effectively you are learning to walk again from scratch and your body must re-organise around a new set of movement principles. Old and ineffective movement habits unravel slowly and unwillingly. New habits organise, disintegrate, re-organise, fall apart and re-organise again in a slow constellation. You need patience and a long breath to perceive that in fact everything is fine, there is progress, improvement, growing skill and confidence.


Sometimes I remind my students that they’ve been here before. That at this point 6 months ago we tried a cross step, or a turn, or a voleo, and it didn’t work out too well. It was hard, the co-ordination wasn’t there, it was all too easily forgotten. Six months later, the puzzle pieces have fallen into place. The thing that seemed nigh on impossible is suddenly viable after all. It flows and feels good and works well in the music. The fact that it took six months, maybe longer, to ripen doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t celebrate. Every piece in the puzzle makes the whole stronger, more coherent, more of a dance.


To keep your motivation strong it helps if you get this early on, and adjust your expectations of yourself - and of your partner! - accordingly.


I’ve seen people starting to dance tango in their 60’s, even in their 70’s. With no prior dance experience whatsoever. And I’ve seen them succeed. I have the great good fortune to make repeat visits to different tango communities, watching them learn and grow over the space of many years. Slowly, like a time-lapse film, movements soften and flow. The guy with the stiff back makes a breakthrough and starts to stride forward with that ineffable grace and groundedness that is essential to tango. The woman with stubbornly turned in feet suddenly finds a flexibility in her ankles that she didn’t know she had and her foot placement becomes assured, soft, steady, elegant. Everyday miracles happen. The time-lapse effect makes it seem effortless and inevitable, but I know that it’s always, always, the result of hours of attentive practice, instruction, trial and error.


Looking further along the spiral path is allowed, but please, please, do it this way: look further down the path to keep yourself focussed, to keep your reference point fresh in front of your eyes, to navigate. Look further down the path to inspire yourself. After all, the path is only there because others have been here before you. They made it, in all senses of the words. Look further down the path to remind yourself where you’re going, to fuel that yearning pang of desire. And then bring yourself back to where you are, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.


My search for an inspiring photo lead me to a beautiful image taken of the interior of a chapel on the Thanksgiving Square in Dallas.  The same search turned up the fabulously appropriate quote from Hermann Hesse: "We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps."



Bring this blog to a friend's attention

reaction from Carlos --- 25-Nov-2016 22:47

Good stuff! Shared it with my students. Thank you!

reaction from Sabine Ott --- 26-Nov-2016 08:03

Thank you for this light and colourfull photo which attracts me very much to this chapel!

reaction from Donny Amknou --- 26-Nov-2016 08:37

Terrific writing! It reminded me how I was 13 years ago when I started Tango and not only that, because Tango is a dance improvised each time, I feel like learning something with every new partner I dance with. This article reminds me all those aspects that people think are granted when they start believing that they are very good tango dancers. Thank you Shioban.

reaction from Marja Dijkstra --- 30-Nov-2016 07:13

Beautiful spoken,

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