So much has been written about the etiquette of the milonga and yet there seems to be nothing out there about the classroom etiquette and the best approach to learning how to become an accomplished dancer. With over thirty five years of experience dancing in a wide variety of venues, I would like to pass along my experience and the unwritten rules of the professional level dance class, rehearsal & performance.
The first and most astounding thing I notice about most attendees at an Argentine tango class is that very few people are actually prepared physically or mentally when the class begins. People arrive at the last minute, or late, and then start dancing. I hate to state the obvious, but the Argentine tango is a very physical dance. The back is twisting, the feet are pivoting, knees and legs are undergoing stresses that are not experienced in normal life, and yet, very few people actually do even the most perfunctory warm up! The professional dancer always has a ritual to prepare for class or performance, to get the blood moving and the mind prepared. Go to any golf course, tennis court or sport of your choice and even the most beginning person will know to do a little stretching and warm up. Failure to be prepared increases the likelihood of injury and wastes your time and the teacher's time because you are not ready for movement. If a class is an hour long, why do you want to spend the first 20 or 30 minutes waking up your body? Not only does a warm up help you physically, but it also gets your mind on what you are going to be doing, and you are maximizing your time in class. I will not even start dancing at a social event without a bit of stretching in the corner before getting on the floor. So do yourself a favor, arrive 15 or 20 minutes early and be prepared.
So now we are in class and ready to dance, and from my perspective, I see more bad behavior that would never be tolerated in a professional setting.
Why do you take class or milongas? To learn something new? All dancers are students, at least the good ones, and all should always be seeking to learn and expand their dance experience. And yet, the things I have heard make me shake my head in bewilderment. "I have danced in fourteen cities and have never heard of that step", was said to me by a "teacher" in a milonga, the intimation being that it must not be a step because she had not encountered it before. "I have been declared a master by Nito because there was nothing left that he could teach me" was another quote I heard from a so called teacher. Both of these "teachers" are representative of a mindset that is anathema to the artist and dancer. How can anyone think that they have learned all there is to know about a dance? For those who do not know Nito and Elba, let me tell you about them. They are icons in the world of the Argentine tango and probably have over a hundred years of dancing between them, and yet they are still students. At a tango convention in Las Vegas in 2002 a young couple who were friends of mine danced in the show put on by the teachers, which is pretty standard at tango conventions. Afterward, Nito came up to my friend, Gabriel, and asked him how he danced one of the combinations in their number, and Nito worked on it with him until he got it. Nito, the eternal student! And he told someone that they had learned everything and had no need of class? I don't think so. Learn from Nito, tangueros. You do not know everything about tango and never will. Keep an open mind and learn what you can from every teacher or partner. It may be different from what you have learned before but you might like it if you try it.
Accept corrections happily! I cannot tell you the number of times I have received attitude or arguments about some point. Class is not the place for disagreement. Maybe it is contrary to what you have learned, but you might just discover something you had never thought of before. In a professional setting I have seen dancers extremely upset after class because they had not received any corrections. Corrections from a teacher are an indication that they care about you and your dancing and want to help you get better. Even if you are in a bad mood or not having a good dance day, accept the correction with an open mind and a good attitude, or you might not get any further corrections, and you will find it hard to improve on your own.
So now we are in class, a milonga or show, physically ready with an open mind and ready to dance, learn and have a great time which is guaranteed; I think not. A word on good and bad dance days. You will have both, and if you expect to always have a wonderful class and a great time at a milonga, you are going to be very disappointed. Having spent years of my life dancing in class and on stage six or seven days a week, I realized a long time ago that usually I would have one great class or show a week, one lousy one a week, and the rest would fall somewhere in between. Have realistic expectations and work through the bad days with a good attitude and an open mind and you will be on your way to dancing like a professional.
There is one other element that I find lacking in many students. PRACTICE! Do you really think you are going improve by attending one class a week?? Ask any music teacher, thirty minutes a day is more productive than two hours one day a week. You are trying to learn new movements in one session a week? Basically, all you are doing is relearning the same thing every week. I am amazed at the number of people who have been taking lessons for years and still have not become proficient at the most basic moves. I have heard "my balance is not good", or "I can do it if I have a partner", meaning someone to hold onto. Unless one has a physical issue, their balance issues are generally because they do not practice. You do not need a dance studio to practice walking, ochos or even molinetes. To this day, I still practice walking when pushing a cart through the grocery store, and I have danced many hours in my little space while avoiding my dogs. Everyone can improve their balance with repetition and practice.
So to sum up: Warm up, keep an open mind and good attitude, and practice. Do these things and you will be on your way to becoming an accomplished dancer who will always be popular in the milonga.