What is a Tango Learning Lab?

Originally published at: What is a Tango Learning Lab? – Awaken Tango

Tango learning labs are an emerging format with an emphasis on peer-to-peer learning. They bring together the strengths of a group class and a practica.

What is a learning lab?

Here are the main features of learning labs:

  • Dancers have explicit levels, based on material they can teach (lead and follow.)

  • Everyone learns half the time and teaches half the time (except first-timers and the facilitator.)

  • When working with a higher level dancer, you learn a preset curriculum one-on-one from them.

  • When working with a lower level dancer, you learn by teaching them material from the curriculum which you’ve recently learned.

  • The facilitator assigns pairs based on self-reported level, so everyone is optimally matched, and announces new pairs on a schedule (e.g., every 15 mins.)

Benefits of tango learning labs:

  • Learning labs get people deeply engaged with your community’s documented curriculum.

  • Everyone gets to work on things that are at their learning edge. Teaching things you just learned is as challenging as learning new material — if not more!

  • Dancers deepen their understanding of material by encountering the challenge of teaching it.

  • Since the roles of teacher and learner are clearly delineated, useful information flows freely. (E.g., you avoid those weird situations where a beginner thinks they know more than an advanced dancer, or an advanced dancer is timid to give a beginner feedback because they’re not sure it will be welcomed.)

  • Since everyone’s learning all the time, people stay humble.

  • It unlocks the helpfulness of intermediate dancers and gives a structure for sharing what they know. Even if they only know a little, they still know a lot more than a total beginner!

  • Learning both roles is built into the fabric of the format.

  • Learning labs require practically no preparation for the facilitator — as long as you have taken the time to document your curriculum, which is something it’s probably worth your while to do anyway.

  • They provide a clear path for hardworking learners to get experience teaching. Once someone has learned the whole curriculum, they can replace the teacher in the lab. Theoretically, this also allows the program to grow pretty easily to new locations (if you have marketing that supports that.)

Some problems with learning labs

This is a new format and it’s not perfect. Kinks to work out include:

  • Quality control is the biggest challenge. People could teach the wrong thing. The ones teaching might not know the material well enough to teach it.

  • What if a whole bunch of total beginners randomly show up? The format isn’t ideal for that, it messes up the 1:1 ratio since they won’t be able to teach at all.

  • Some people miss the excitement and mystique of a charismatic focal teacher (personally, I think this is overrated) and the festive feeling of being part of a large group (which is usually impossible to create anyway since you don’t have enough marketing resources.)

What works:

1) Soft launch. Start inviting the public after you have 3 or 4 participating dancers who are at different points in the curriculum. (Teach them during practicas.)

2) 15 minute shifts. You can even just use a preset playlist with tandas and cortinas.

3) Curriculum they can interact with. Here are some ways to present the curriculum: on a whiteboard, on a poster, or on little cards that participants can take and hold during their shift.

4) Leveling. Let people self-report their level (instead of assigning it or testing them.) Just remind them that they are not allowed to choose a level where they wouldn’t be able to teach someone how to follow AND lead ALL the material in ALL the levels below their level.

5) Matching system. You need an easy way to optimally pair people up. A spreadsheet with formulas can help.

6) Mid-point notes. Halfway through the lab, it can be helpful if the facilitator shares something. They can demo an element in the curriculum, clarify a basic technique, or explain some aspect of how the lab works.

7) End-point show and tell. Inviting everyone to show “works in progress” from their lab at the end is a great way to wrap up the lab. I find that doing this without music makes it less intimidating. It’s amazing to see even total beginners demoing at the end of an hour!

Here is a video recap of a tango learning lab we facilitated as part of the San Diego Tango Festival beginner’s track. Video by Andrei Andreev:

A lot of these innovations have come from Oxygen Tango’s Famous Tango Learning Lab. With thanks to Dave, Magan, Alex, Thomas, and Andrei at Oxygen Tango, and Tommy and Christian and the Boise Tango community for their work in developing tango learning labs!

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