How to Learn at a Tango Festival - Taking Workshops

by Mitra Martin

After one of the big summer Tango festivals this year, one of my students scheduled a lesson to review work together on what he’d learned in the festival workshops. 

It became clear to both of us that getting something worthwhile out of his festival workshop experience required a better learning strategy. 

We are blessed with so many incredible Tango festivals, filled with brilliantly inspiring teachers from all over. How can intermediate students get the most out of the time and money they spend at festivals ? Here are some things I have found that work for me: 

1. Workshops or social dancing ? Most festivals have really packed schedules. Usually, it’s physically impossible to do ALL the workshops AND all the social dancing. For your health and sanity, I suggest you choose what your emphasis will be. E.g., “I’m planning to dance til 5am every night, spend the days sleeping and eating, and oh yeah I want to make sure I hit that one Alex Krebs technique workshop Sunday at 4pm.” Or, “There are so many teachers here I want to learn from, so I’m coming home from the milongas at midnight sharp so I can show up for classes all shiny-tailed and sparkle-eyed!” You can learn a lot by social dancing, and also socialize a lot in classes; but I’ve found trying to do BOTH in one fest may make you grumpy, or likely to catch a cold!  

2. Choose your workshops. Ask someone you respect for class recommendations. You could ask your teacher or an advanced dancer whose dancing you like. Make it easy -- just show them the festival program on your smartphone at a practica, or bring a printed copy of the schedule. If you’re not sure who to ask, you could watch videos of the teachers and see whose dancing, and what specific aspects of their dancing, you’re attracted to. 

3. Dress Up. Personally, I have found I get more out of festival workshops if I dress a little more festive than usual for the occasion. Tango’s just like that, I guess.

4. Bring Snacks. Apparently, the brain can learn only once stuff like basic survival is taken care of. Bringing along a bunch of granola bars, juice, and salmon jerky (for instance) will help you keep your mind on what you’re learning, instead of trying to figure out how the heck you’re going to find a sandwich before you have to get across East Burnside or even across the hotel. 

5. Learn both roles. If you are already out dancing and learning at festivals, probably you know both roles a bit. If the teacher is showing a figure in the workshop, definitely take the time to understand and practice both roles. Trying out the other role may very well reveal questions that you may need to ask the teacher about, to understand the gist of the figure. 

6. Take notes. Bring a notebook to the workshop and write down everything you can in as much detail as you possibly can, both during and immediately after the workshop. I recommend writing down instructors’ technical words verbatim, because usually they say things a certain way for a very good reason. If a figure is taught, once again, you need to write it down such that you can reconstruct it fully from your notes when you are back at home, whether you are primarily a leader or follower. Writing Tango down is an incredibly useful challenge that enriches and extends your Tango mind. And, by the way, it will continue to be quite tedious until mass adoption of the Tango Fairytale Game. 

7. Make a voice memo. This is the speedier, more high tech version of taking notes: just “explain” to yourself what you just did in a voice memo. Like, talk right into your phone voice memo recorder as you watch someone doing the move and narrate what happens using all your normal terminology, references and vernacular. “Okay, so, step forward, switch with a cross in front, media luna...blah blah blah enrosque the usual type... blah blah...then, that crazy ganchoey thing with the butterfly bit...etc.” Voice memos are also great for recording technique information or technical exercises you have learned.

8. Engage the teacher. Now, having an expert of such rare kinesthetic sensitivity, right there in the same room as you, represents a very special opportunity because of course there is the possibility that you might DANCE it with him or her. Now, don’t get carried away! Festival teachers are not there to provide an amusement park ride for you! They are there to help you learn. So, usually they will be happy to dance it with you if that is the best way they can help you learn. Personally I feel weird about stalking the instructors and just asking “Can I do it with you?” Maybe that would work for someone with a more direct personality than me. For me, instead, I feel like I should earn the instructor’s attention, either through the way I am dancing/working OR through working hard enough until I have a very specific, real, concrete, and authentic question that ONLY the instructor can answer. Once I have that, I make a beeline. Remember, often you get extremely great info from your same-gender teacher.

9. Work with other couples! A lot of times, out of over-politeness, diffidence, or forgetfulness we neglect the humongous educational resource right there in the room with us at festivals: the other dancers! Yes, you are surrounded by other dancers, some of whom have tons of experience, all of whom are working on the same thing you’re working on. So maybe, instead of struggling or asking the teacher right off the bat, ask your neighbor how they are doing with that crazy ganchoey thing. 

10. Make a video. It’s true, sometimes there are these rules about video-ing the teachers. However, you can still video! You can get a video of...YOURSELF (!) and your partner, doing your best roughed-out version the figure. Just ask some nice fellow-workshop participant to videotape you guys. Or maybe better, you can videotape a pair of advanced dancers who looks like they have got the hang of it. 

11. Review within 3-4 days, and again within a week. Workshop gems can go in one ear and out the other if you don’t review it and work on getting it into your long-term memory. Mentally review or rehearse what you learned several times over next 3 or 4 days -- festival prácticas can be a great place for that. When you get home, schedule some time with a practice partner (or maybe your teacher, if you do regular lessons) to work through the material and techniques. Then, practice each thing about 50 times, practica after practica, and get your partners’ input.

Make notes, reviewing, and practicing what you learned does take time. If you take the time to engage the workshop material this deeply, it will be more likely to stick with you and be available to you when you dance socially. It might be wise to take only as many workshops as you can “really” take seriously, so you can be sure you’ll get a lot out of the precious and expensive time you’ve decided to devote to notsleeping, not eating, and not social dancing, at the festival. :) 

I’d love to hear about anything you’ve found that helps you get more out of the festival learning experience! 

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Mitra Martin

Mitra Martin is Program Director at the Oxygen Tango where her focus is developing an interconnected community learning experience, and facilitating conversation around excellence in Tango as a portal to personal and social transformation.