There are good reasons why it’s hard to learn Argentine Tango.
I had the honor today to attend a workshop taught by revered Maestros Nito and Elba, as the guest and partner of one of my students.
The enduring attention given to this couple is well-earned by their smooth and charming dance, and Nito’s sharp footwork. The couple are certainly beloved for their commitment to teaching. I have never received such constant attention in a class of this size. And it was clear that they did not register a flicker of distinction against a female-female couple.
I very much appreciated Nito’s emphasis on the point that “There is no tango syllabus, and that’s a good thing for tango.” He said “This is Nito and Elba’s tango.” I too believe that a living art is better served without practitioners fighting into and out of orthodoxy.
Very expensive sequences
All that being said, I was horrified to attend yet another pricey workshop in which no technique was taught. The reason it takes so long for people to learn to dance is because most teachers are not teaching people how to do anything. Nito said “the man needs to lead the turn”, but he didn’t say how. (And this was not the fault of the translator. I could understand everything Nito said in Castellano excepting one joke, the translation was nearly word for word.)
I feel so sorry for the 40+ students who were beating themselves up for not inducing Nito’s grace into his sequence but having no information about how to move. The corrections from the couple were only focused on getting the sequence right. Not to mention that the sequences are on youtube, so what’s the point of teaching if that’s all you are going to impart?
Leading with your hands
The closest Nito got to telling the leaders how to lead was when he mentioned that in “milonguero” tango “we lead with the chest, but in Salon tango we lead with the hands.” And indeed he drew our attention to his fingers digging into Elba’s back as he dragged her forward, and he showed that he was pushing her into back ochos with his left hand. When I followed him, the amount of force coming from his hands was dramatic and a big surprise to me, as I find very few advanced dancers do this.
Apparently Sebastian Misse also instructed students to lead with fingers and wrists. The problem with this method is very simple. It means leading by pressing against the follower’s axis, which makes it difficult for her to move with grace.
A follower led by these means who wants to move with grace has two options.  She can push back, hard, against the leader, creating a very forceful embrace.  She can exert her core intensely to hold and control her body while out-of-axis. This is difficult, draining, and excessive workload for the follower.
The disappointment I want to register not a matter of instructional or dancing style and it’s not about these teachers in particular. It’s that Nito’s legs and core are perfect (like most world class dancers) and he never mentioned them. Not only did he never mention them, but he believes that what he is doing when he leads is using his hands, when that is unnecessary given the perfect stability, strength and torsion visible in his legs. What is sad to me is that many superlative leaders, world famous and not so, have somehow learned to use their legs and core in a way that is consistent in Argentine Tango.
Just as consistently, they talk about leading with the chest, the frame, or in this case the hands. But I can see the way their legs work, the consistent position they hold (hips behind rib cage, muscles of the backs of the legs activated and pushing…), the way they leverage the floor, the way they use their muscles to create openings that indicate direction to the follower. And when I follow, I can feel what is going on in their legs and hips/core. They have learned to do it, but somehow they don’t explain this most crucial aspect of their skills.