The Problem with Tango Group Classes

Originally published at: The Problem with Tango Group Classes – Awaken Tango

I taught lots of tango group classes between 2005 and 2017. At one point I did some rough calculations and it looked pretty likely that I’d probably taught at least two thousand classes. There are definitely people who have taught way more, and for way longer, people I respect hugely. Those figures are just to give you a sense of what amount of experience my ideas are based on.

I put a lot of effort into learning how to teach group classes. I took all the “tango teacher training” programs I could find being offered at the time (not too many.) I read books on pedagogy and learning experience design. I observed tango dancers whose teaching I admired (Eric Jorissen, Brigitta Winkler, Tomas Howlin, Jaimes Friedgen, Daniel Trenner), transcribed their group classes word-for-word, studied patterns, and copied their strategies and language. I was invited to teach tango teachers at the Tango Teacher Training Coops convened by Sabine Ibes.

Ultimately I developed an approach to teaching group classes that felt authentic to my experience of tango. But along the way I started to deeply question the group class format. I stopped teaching group dance classes because I don’t believe the format is a very good way of supporting tango learning and community.*

Problems with group classes

  • They feel the most fun if they are large. This makes them more festive. But it’s actually really hard to convene a large group because the market is small.

  • In “beginner” group classes, where everyone is close to being an “absolute beginner” there is nobody who has enough skill to lead — unless the teacher literally dances with everyone, or has a crew of hardworking assistants doing that. (More about teaching and roles here.)

  • In tango, what you are able to learn is in some ways constrained by what your partner brings to the table. I encourage everyone to cultivate an attitude of willingness to learn “from everyone and every experience” and this happens anyway on some level. When it comes to movement and techniques, however, in a group class, it often happens that a given random pairing of people in the class is not be very productive for one or both.

  • Group classes can focalize the teacher in an unhealthy way. Especially, they incentivize immature teachers to posture, make absolutist and reductive statements, and build an aura of power and status that is unhealthy for the community.

  • For teachers to get by, group classes need to at least partly serve as marketing for other services. Therefore there is a big incentive to make them really fun and entertaining, usually diluting or distorting the subtlety of tango in the process.

Learning one-on-one from a more experienced peer who follows a curriculum is the best way to learn tango. That’s what I believe, that’s what I’ve experienced, and this is reinforced by my understanding of Golden Age tango learning culture articulated by Daniel Trenner.

What group classes that work well have in common

I observe that those teachers who are able to build community through group classes succeed because their classes reflect the above insight:

  • They create incentives that get higher-level dancers participating in lower-level classes, and get them partnering with the lower-level students.

  • They are savvy and intentional about who they pair with whom, because they know that each person’s experience is dramatically affected by who they work with.

  • They encourage role-switching and collaborative problem-solving which elicits a peer-to-peer dynamic.

  • They teach using a clear curriculum that community members become familiar with the more experience they have.

  • They model humility, curiosity, gender equality, and courtesy.

As my confidence in the group class format eroded, I also noticed that many of my colleagues were experimenting with new approaches to more structured practicas (guided practicas, X sessions, etc.). It seemed to me that we were all looking for a NEW format: something that brought together the strengths of group classes (facilitated pairing and material to catalyze exploration) with the strengths of practicas (peer-to-peer, non-hierarchical, exploratory mood, not mediated by an authority figure.)

In the next piece I’ll write about what the tango learning lab format is and how it creates a new kind of experience that brings learners and the community many benefits.

*There are some exceptions — I think group classes work reasonably well in the following contexts: couples-only classes; classes focused on solo drills (somatics or musicality); classes using a lot of lecturing/discussion.

Mitra Martin has been exploring tango since 1998. She is the co-founder of Oxygen Tango.