Whenever dancers get together there is one question you hear asked more than any other – how long have you been dancing? However, this is rarely the question people are really asking. If it is a better dancer being asked, the real question is how long will it take for me to be as good as you? For a worse dancer, they are often being judged on how quick they are learning. And for someone you know nothing about, they are really being asked how good are you?
This is a tough question for anyone to answer. At the very top they can sometimes point to championships they have won. Perhaps festivals they have headlined. But for us mere mortals is it a really hard question to answer.
We all know that the length of time dancing is a poor measure of this. Two people could have been dancing a year, but the one who has gone to two classes a week has had more education than someone who goes once a month and has likely progressed further. But even then we can’t be certain – no two people learn at the same rate. Generally young brains are better at learning than old ones. Those who have done other dances are more used to body control than those who haven’t. But they may have habits from other dances that are hard to kick. And whether someone’s life partner is learning quicker or slower or started earlier or later can affect their own learning pace too. Small wonder we fall back on something that we can give a firm answer too!
As an event organiser and dance teacher it is a subject that can vex. There is no harder question than an email from someone you barely know asking if a class will be ok for them! For the Edinburgh International Tango Festival we looked around and adapted an idea from the annual event in Tarbes (listed in full at the end of this article). We make reference to the basics: balance, posture, walking, leading, navigating the dance floor, forward & backward ochos and giros. We defined the levels as follows:
- Beginner dancers have no idea what some or all of these basics are.
- Improvers have some knowledge, but often find execution difficult.
- Intermediate have a good knowledge and can do them competently.
- Advanced dancers can do them competently and have introduced elements of musicality, decoration and different styles.
We still feel obliged to add times though. At best these can only be guidelines – for example I have seen supposed teachers with much more than 5 years experience displaying complete ignorance about dance floor navigation.
And of course these are far from definitive. They do have the merits of being independent of any particular style, but it may not be unreasonable, for example, to expect intermediate dancers to be showing signs of musicality too. And there is no indication where such things as barridas, boleos/voleos, ganchos etc. fit in (some might say not at all but that’s a different argument!)
Why does this matter?
On one level this doesn’t matter. The main thing is to dance and enjoy yourself dancing, and you can do that regardless of how good a dancer you are. Often you’ll find that whether you enjoy dancing with someone is independent of their technical ability – for example perhaps that dancer you think is really good tries too much stuff and makes you uncomfortable, but that new dancer connects really nicely.
But when it comes to classes it can matter. This is for two reasons. The first is when a class is set at a certain level the teacher will assume the students know things and can do them. This is so they don’t waste time going over stuff that people know and focus more on what they don’t. If a student can’t do something that is expected it can be irritating for their partners, who then can’t focus on what they are trying to learn. It can also be distracting for the teachers, who then have to decide how much attention to focus on making up the knowledge deficit. None means their partners will continue to struggle, lots means not giving attention to those who have picked the right class.
The second reason is muscle memory. In all dances we are aiming for unconscious competence, where we can do skills automatically in a correct way (there are other terms for this). A student who goes to the wrong class will force themselves to do something they haven’t been taught, usually in a way that isn’t right. In essence they learn to do it wrong, and that becomes their established habit. It is much easier to learn a skill properly the first time than to change something you are doing wrong – the student has actually made learning harder for themselves in the future. By doing the wrong level of class students can actually set back their learning rather than advancing it.
This doesn’t mean you should obsess about it. Many different teachers apply different standards and expectations, and it is hard to argue that the definitions we have suggested are better than theirs, or vice versa. Intermediate in one place or under one teacher can be the same as improver or advanced in another. We do pass these guidelines to our Festival teachers though to encourage them to set classes at the right level.
It is really just about finding the right class for you. When doing classes with new teachers or in a new place most people will be also quickly become aware whether they are ok there or not. Some self-awareness is needed, but most teachers are quite happy to say whether you are in the right class or not (though some aren’t – when someone is paid on a per person per class basis motivation can be complex.) I often encourage students to try moving up a level if they want to, but be honest if they aren’t ready yet. There is no shame in that. Chances are they will be ready soon.
The EITF criteria in full. Choosing the right level.
To enhance the teaching experience for everyone, please make sure that you attend classes for the right level of your experience.
- Beginner: Little or no experience of dancing tango.
- Improver: Have some knowledge of the basics* but often find execution difficult. Have been dancing regularly for about 6 months to a year.
- Intermediate: Have good knowledge of the basics* and can do them competently. Have been dancing regularly for about one to 3 years.
- Advanced: As well as being competent in the basics, you have introduced elements of musicality, decoration and different styles into your dancing. Have been dancing regularly for at least 3 years.
- Master: Have been dancing regularly for over 5 years.
* Basics: balance, posture, walking, leading, navigating the dance floor, forward & backward ochos and giros.
As well as helping with EUTS classes and the Edinburgh International Tango Festival, Brian Moretta also blogs about dance on his salsa DVD website.