As part of our most recent Privates Intensive, I received an unusual opportunity to develop our pedagogy in a new direction.

One student’s mission statement for his time with us was very straightforward. He realized that when dancing at a milonga, he fell back on a simple routine and could not remember new material from recent classes. He hoped to solve this by learning to dance from the elements, rather than sequences, as tango is taught in most classes. And he wanted to go hard, with two hours of lessons each day.

The student diagnosed his trouble as a personal memory and learning problem, not knowing that almost all Marks have this problem, often to the bewilderment and disappointment of their dance partners who patiently repeated some new sequence umpteen times in the class just days our hours ago. On the dance floor, traffic, music, and the aversion to errors urgently occupy Marks’ attention, leaving little space and time to reconstruct memories of sequences. Most Marks dance a tiny fraction of what they can successfully execute in classes and practice.

I have known this forever. Every tango teacher knows this.

It has never before occurred to me to address it as part of our curriculum.

Ok, that’s not completely true. Here is what we have done to date:

  1. Repeat, ad nauseum: “It’s not necessary to dance sequences. You can do any variation of any element on the next step, without pre-planning.”
  2. Drills to give Marks the experience of the possibility to do any element at any time in the dance (and break their habitual sequences). In our group lessons we often propose and try a practice methodology. We make a list of the movements we learned and then we issue them as commands, like a drill sergeant. Between every command, the students go on dancing whatever they like. We explain to the students that the drill is a way to practice with a group of three (one giving the commands), or when a dancer is injured, or with a friend or child who doesn’t yet dance. Each Mark must execute the command on the very next step, without any preliminary steps. The drill commander can mobilize them in any order and at any pace. The Mark can choose any variation of the element commanded. Here are some examples of drills.
    • simple: voleo, sacada, rebote, cross, colgada
    • more specific: linear voleo, back sacada, revel’s sacada, contra rebote, back cross

One of the dramatic benefits we and our students have discovered in the Privates Intensives is that when a student takes a daily private for three to ten days, and we observe the students’ practica in the evening or dance with the student at a milonga, we the teachers must accept responsibility for the student’s progress. This is not the case in group classes, and also not the case in intermittent privates, when we tell the student to go off and practice during the week but we are not directly involved. When we work one-on-one day after day, we are forced to refine our teaching until it works.

I had to watch and feel responsible for the result when he mobilized exactly none of what he had learned during the day while dancing with the other students at the first night’s practica.

So, Day 2.

I turned to the student’s secondary goal, to dance “like” some of his favorites. For me it was clear that “like” would require an overhaul of technique. I decided to start by “making delicious’ all the movements he already knew. I asked him to tour me through all the things he liked to do. One was a sacada, several were ganchos, and he had a volcada and a colgada. For each one I created a technique mantra for a procedure of no more than 4 actions. For example, he was doing a typically uncomfortable gancho to his crossed step: [1] Place her foot [2] step deep behind her [3] relax the embrace [4] pull her leg through the hole.

What I found, to my great interest is that he remembered these mantras perfectly, could execute them, and promptly started correcting himself accurately when he skipped an action. So, this is not a guy with a memory problem.

Furthermore, he was grasping and retaining these procedures quicker than many private students do, so he was also not facing any learning difficulties.

During the tour of deliciousification and creation of mantras, I learned something important about his effective memory. While working on his sacada, I gave him the mantra “open and enter”. But his posture was collapsing every time he tried to “open” and I didn’t want to load in commands about knees, elbows, and shoulders. I reflected about our daily morning yoga class and remembered that he seemed quite experienced with yoga. I changed the language to “twist and open” and got a perfect result. So I learned that finding just the right word was important to evoking each action.

One of my teaching tools is to identify things a student does well and then bring that skill into a new context, as I did with the yoga twist. So how could I take this learning capacity and apply it to to the problem of memory in social dancing?

I often do drills in Marks’ private lessons, commanding the next move to break his habits and integrate new things into his dance. I presumed they could then internalize this practice, and most of my students do, but I have never developed a pedagogy for taking the commands to the milonga. So I tried drills with my student. I realized that it wouldn’t work to say ‘gancho’; we needed to conjure the ganchos he knew, through simple and easy to remember names. So we went again through all of his favorite movements, and he gave each of them a name that evoked his sensations. We named each of his favorite ganchos: ‘scissor’, ‘vine’, ‘billiard ball’, and ‘spoony’, Volcada became ‘Mary Poppins’ and colgada was ‘lean out’. Sacada we named by its procedure, ‘twist and enter’. The only proper name we used was ‘voleo’ for circular voleos. (A few days later he later marked a contra linear voleos by mistake, named it ‘willow’, and quickly learned how to do other variations.)

Realizing that he could remember a procedure of four actions, I decided to try a drill with just four commands, one of which would be walking, so really only three things to remember. First I gave the commands and he remembered what each one meant, again confirming that he didn’t have a memory problem.

Then I asked him to write down the commands and give them to himself while dancing. We didn’t have paper so he wrote them in his phone. We created a ritual. First listen to the music, then check the notes, then invite me to dance, then dance the whole song. He wasn’t limited to the items on the list, but he would try to do all of them during the song mixed with what he called “my usual stuff”.

This worked. We created a second and a third list. Using the ritual of checking the notes just before the cabeceo, he was able to remember both the movements and their technique corrections through the dance.

Later in the day he showed me that he had transferred the notes to his Google watch, so that he could have them easily accessible. A few days later we visited a milonga. Although the ladies resisted his ganchos, he was well-prepared, ducking to the side of the bar to prepare his memory before each invitation. We called each list a “Coda”. By the end of the training he had 21 Codas loaded into his watch, some of which I had written, and some his own.

Together we recognized that he would never try to give a presentation or run a business meeting without first reviewing notes or bullet points. Furthermore, we recognized that while we prepare many things for the milonga – for him, a pretty shirt, water bottle, and cash, for me thermos of red wine, 3 pairs of shoes, and a notebook…. We also need to prepare our memory.

We described the Coda system to the other students as a program for accessing the database of movements and we joked that we installed an upgrade to his database software.

On Day 8 I realized that his “base” –every Mark seems to have a basic sequence they fall back on, what this student called “my usual stuff”, which he had in quite heavy rotation when he arrived– had disappeared.  I no longer felt he was repeating himself. On Day 9, he started doing things that I hadn’t taught him and that he hadn’t done before. He started discovering new things. Given his proclaimed difficulties, I was not anticipating such results in such a short period.

For me it was beautiful to develop a new teaching technique in collaboration with such a lovely student. It was also startling to realize that I had never felt or taken any responsibility for this aspect of training – how to remember and mobilize the elements under the stresses of the milonga.

We haven’t yet tested Codas with other students, so we don’t yet know if Codas are effective for everyone. We do know that we will now always include “database access” as part of our teaching with all Marks.

And we know that intensive privates are not only demanding on the students, they demand that the teachers too go deep. And that with this mutual commitment we can indeed overcome some of tango’s most stubborn problems.