Las Rosas del Tango


Serious Play


At a weekend workshop I was giving recently I invited a group of adults to play as a way of exploring the music, and was initially met by a palpable wave of resistance that washed through the room. The instinctive reflex, ‘we don’t do that any more’, was silently, but emphatically communicated. I say so and repeat my invitation. Gradually, as I coax, I see smiles appear, bodies relax, patterns of movement reorganise, losing tension and force. Improvisation and spontaneity appear, regardless of the amount of dance experience in the group. Each person finds movements which fit perfectly into the music, conveying something personal about what they’ve heard that adds up to a coherent interpretation. The organiser and I exchange glances: the power of play.


There are different sorts of play, and here I’m talking about the ‘serious play’ that children engage in: unstructured, with no particular goal, just for fun, using their fantasy to explore, laughing as their mistakes lead them to discover better ways of doing something, losing all sense of time. Nothing has to happen and yet a lot happens.


In any creative learning process there is an element of hard work and effort, and its counterbalancing element of play and fun. They’re two sides of the same coin. Analysis and synthesis. Goal-oriented and just for fun. Methodically learning scales and arpeggios, and then improvising around them. Slow and careful exercise of a basic movement in dance, and playful experimentation with all its possibilities, timings, resolutions, qualities of energy. To quote ‘Wired to Create’: ‘When it comes to creative work, there is a time for seriousness and a time for play, and very often the best work arises as a result of combining effort and ease.’


This is one of the reasons that finding time to practise outside lesson time is so important. Lessons or workshops are typically structured learning time, with a balance of group and individual instruction, and time to do that slow, careful exercise and ask questions. Usually the last phase of a lesson is more loosely structured - less input, a change of partners, encouragement to dance without stopping to correct any mistakes, to go with the flow. This is one side of the equation.


Depending on circumstances there might also be time offered as a practica, but for all sorts of reasons this is not always possible. And experience says that this is the moment that most of my students will take a breather, grab a coffee and sit down for a chat with a friend.


I thoroughly approve of breathers and time out as essential for healthy learning. But that does mean that the other side of the equation is in your own hands.


So why the resistance to the idea of playing to learn?


One guess is the baggage that many of us carry from our school days. The internalised classroom of the past manifests itself in another time and context in quirky ways. Clearly it wasn’t a happy place. My adult students often come in instinctively expecting to be marshalled and ordered. They hate making mistakes, regard them as personal failures, and want to know what is right and what is wrong. Competition sometimes creeps in unwittingly, in unhealthy comparisons, or not asking a question for fear of looking foolish.


And I suspect that as we grow out of childhood playing, we move onto more structured ‘play’: organised games with rules and winners; sports in which we might train hard to improve our performance. All good and well, but no replacement for free playtime - self-directed, without any tasks, goals, or Stuff-That-Must-Be-Done.


One of the most joyful things you can do to fire up your dance is just finding some unstructured time and enough space to really let rip. My happiest memories of playful learning were at a large event, spread over many days, with a lot of teaching input. I would deliberately go to bed early and set my alarm to get up and arrive at the studio before most people had surfaced from the late salon the night before. By good luck there was a leader with the same idea: a tiny, bird-like man, with an extraordinary grounded strength and a wondrous child-like sense of play. For a half hour, or on a good day a whole hour, we might have the floor to ourselves to mess about, improvise, play the fool, find impossible combinations, make a thousand mistakes, giggle like little kids, and to do exactly what the meme tells us to do, ‘dance like nobody is watching’, safe in the knowledge that everybody else was busy showering, drinking strong coffee, and having breakfast.


As a DJ I see couples with the same idea, turning up for the first half hour of a salon before most people have arrived or got their shoes on, to find some free time and space to play. I love this quiet time of goofing around, the sounds of giggles and exclamations punctuating the music. Once the crowd has arrived of course we all have to adapt, come out of our bubble, and take account of the flow of the ronda and the other couples on the dance-floor.


If you’re having a ‘tango dip’, or you feel stuck and frustrated in your learning, I recommend this as a failsafe way to get out of your rut and back on the dance floor feeling enthused and inspired. Relaxed, free-spirited, spontaneous playtime. Try it!



Bring this blog to a friend's attention

Give a reaction

Name *

Email * Is not published


For spam protection please click the checkbox

* Required