. . if you want to be a good tango dancer, that is. There is no other way to do it. If there are three parts to becoming a good dancer, and practicing is one of them, the first part is to learn from someone who knows, and the third part is to go out to a milonga to dance.
I want to talk about how to practice, or what it is that makes up a practice environment. But first I just need to restate: the reason people study tango is to go out dancing. If you don’t want to go out dancing I don’t know what to say — maybe you are a tango performance dancer, if not, you should just take up Tai Chi or something.
OK, practice, the ingredients: a practice partner, music, and a space with a decent floor.
There is not a lot to say about the space. A couple needs about 100 square feet of practice space. More is better so you can practice your walk. But you could practice turns and small things in 25 square feet. The floor should be smooth enough and slippery enough for pivots. Women should practice at least some of the time in heels if that is what they will wear to a milonga. But practice dance sneakers are better on your feet for the long haul.
The music: Non-Argentines, people who did not grow up listening to tango, need to listen to the best music as much as they can in order to get it into their bones. Tango is a unique music form with a unique feel. To be a good dancer you have to feel the music. This is the longest, slowest, most mysterious learning curve for a developing dancer. If you listen to Oiga Tu Voz and move to it, it might not happen for 100 times through before you start to feel it. Maybe it will take 500 listens. The point is to practice to the great songs as a way to immerse yourself in the music and get the feel of the culture. The feel will start to click in time. And practice to great songs with a clear and steady tempo. Later music that is more experimental is harder to dance to and practice to.
Your practice partner: You need one. Find someone. Find someone who is a good match for you. Someone close to your level of experience and ability. If the practice partnership is well matched then there is a combined explorational attitude that develops. This is a great time. So much fun, but serious fun. Fun with a purpose. The best kind of fun. If the couple is too unmatched, one person becomes too much like a teacher and then that person gets fatigued and does not feel like they are growing enough. The less able partner feels inadequate and swamped. A romantic couple who is not that well matched will struggle through this because they want to dance well together. But in non-romantic couples, both dancers will burn out and there will be bad feelings. The point is to be well-matched.
The attitude should be exploratory and investigative. People don’t realize how important understanding is to dancing well. You have to understand how movement works. And if you are going to communicate your understanding you will need language. This is a ball-buster. You are going to explore and investigate and discuss why something felt good, or went well, or didn’t. You need to pick apart the mechanics and dynamics of movement so you can figure out what needs to change to make it work better: dynamic balance, foot placement, interactive timing, etc. When something works well, why does it work well? You need that information so you can use it to understand how to make the next thing work. Everyone is asked to become a movement master. We’re not going to make it, but that is where we are heading.
The material doesn’t matter so much. There is so much to learn and work on with tango, it is kind of limitless. But always strengthen your foundation: your balance, your walk together in all directions, your timing and tempo. Once you get the basic mechanics of the movement work on the feel if it. It should be smooth and coordinated and without struggle in it. Make it as timely and effortless as possible. And then pick out distinctive elements and explore their many possibilities like ochos, or rocking steps, or transitions from parallel to crossed foot.
When practicing, keep the milonga in mind. Your practice is to take you there. This means you have to think about how the movement integrates into your social dance. Movements need to be small when the floor is crowded. The couple dances close together. And the movements need to take you forward in the line of dance. The character of the movement changes as the music changes, something else to explore.
Dancing well at the milonga is the goal of your practice. If you get good enough and love and feel the music, the feeling of dancing in a crowded room with many other accomplished dancers all dancing in the groove together, this is the ultimate joy of all of your study and practice.