I am on a road trip. Deciding my destination day by day. The roads are full of tractors hauling the grape harvest to the local wine cooperative. I like the view of orchards and vineyards so I stop for a few days. To my utter shock, some tango teachers show up, with their students in tow.
The bystanders and the students expected this to be a wonderful opportunity for all the pros. They imagined we would play and explore together. Knowing this was unlikely, I nevertheless expressed my desire to dance with both partners in the couple and then, as expected, endured their unyielding hostility for two weeks. I served coffee, talked gastronomy, and as much as possible avoided my TangoForge sweatshirt, wearing instead the only other long-sleeved item in my minimalist summer road trip costume department – my lucky writing sweater which is embarrassingly rife with holes. I didn’t lie about my job, but I changed the subject as quickly as possible.
I always invite my students to share their confusion when teachers are telling them different things. I think it’s incumbent upon professionals to show students how our different pedagogies aim for the same universal technique. Likewise I now feel a responsibility to explain why teachers are almost always covertly hostile to one another.
The root fact is that almost all tango professionals feel underpaid. Whatever the details of our hourly, weekend, or annual earnings, we face:
- No job security. We maintain our prominence and attendant income by soulforce, good health, and charm.
- A chasm between our earnings (whatever they may be) and the massive financial, psychological, and emotional investments we have put into our skills and businesses, often at great personal cost, including careers, heartbreaks, humiliation, and voluntary poverty.
- Therefore, the main ways in which we are compensated are not financial but are glamour and respect.
Since there is an oversupply of teachers, the landscape is rather densely populated and territories are tensely guarded. We each have our community of loyal students, with whom we feel grand and glorious. We don’t want to share that precious stagelight and adulation. And we do our best to maintain their loyalty with a diversity of tactics.
Almost every tango teacher has invented their own pedagogy, remixing what we were taught with our own insights over the years. We’re all very attached to our own way of teaching and honestly believe we have the best possible system. We are therefore authentically wary of almost all other teachers and wish to protect our students from their inferior methods.
I want to make plain that I’m no better or different from all this. I avert my eyes from others’ classes to avoid the rage I feel at what passes for instruction. When asked for referrals, I only recommend three of my own former teachers.
Regardless of how many students we have and how much money we might be making, we never feel adequately recognized for our pedagogic insights and we are always bitter about this. We would most relish respect from other professionals, but that’s highly unrealistic as they occupy they very same psychological position and have no incentive to give more than cursory politeness to a peer. The loyalty of our students is therefore crucial to our psychological well-being even more than to our finances. We pretend it doesn’t hurt when favored students also study with other teachers, but it does.
Know that regardless of your admiration and their glamour, your tango teachers (and the ones across town who you can’t stand) are in pain. They have given themselves to tango unreservedly and their contributions are under-recognized and under-compensated.
As status is the main way we get “paid”, we avoid putting ourselves in an inferior position to anyone, save discreet visits to our Maestros in Buenos Aires, or (preferably exclusive) workshops with tango’s top stars.
We generally avoid collaboration with other professionals because:
- They could steal our brilliant pedagogy.
- If we trust them with so much as a dance, they might use what they learn to try to hurt our reputation.
- If we share our stage with them they might be more attractive to our students, whose financial and psychological loyalty is so precious.
- If we collaborate it means giving up some control and this could result in mistakes or flaws that we fear would hurt our reputation or decrease our sparkle in the eyes of our students.
- The only person even more important than the students is our partner, and any collaboration is also risky because our partner could be seduced (personally or professionally) by the collaborator. We want to shield our partner from experiences that could in any way dim their view or cast doubt on our partnership.
When my peers act bizarrely I labor to explain that it’s not a failure of character. It’s structured and systematic, predictable and unavoidable. While a few professionals may find the financial and psychological infrastructure to behave differently, these brutal tensions will continue to accompany the industry until we reconceptualize compensation in all its complexity.