Losing Shoshin

Like with any learning process, there’s something particularly satisfying to the ego when your mastery of a particular activity or skill reaches a certain point that it’s recognised and appreciated by others. A compliment here. An applause there. A request to perform. An invitation to assist with a lesson. Maybe even an invitation to substitute for a teacher.

External acknowledgement can come in many forms, but the truly interesting part is what you do with it. Some people interpret even a minimal amount of it as a sign that they’ve earned themselves the title of ‘expert’ and decide to devote themselves more seriously to teaching, performing or a combination thereof. After all, that’s what an expert does, no? They show others how it’s done. But in my eyes there is a danger in this transition, particularly if it’s premature in one’s evolution of tango skills.

If you bestow upon yourself the authority that comes with expertise, you have to preserve it constantly. People’s tolerance for your mistakes goes down when you enter the ‘experts’ circle.’ After all, who will want to learn from you or see you dance if you’re fail to live up to the occasion, even if it’s during a social dance at a milonga?

You become more self-conscious of your body as you feel other’s eyes scrutinising your every move. You don’t want to embarrass yourself, so you practice tried and true moves that will meet those expectations. But in becoming concerned with other people’s judgments, you are more likely to stay within your comfort zone and avoid doing in public anything that you don’t know well enough to deliver them as they should. You don’t challenge yourself with variety, which implies risk. You become a [insert orchestra name] kind of person, dancing only to songs that match that particular style or sentiment. You may not even dance with as many people as before for fear that they might not be at the ‘right’ level to make you look good.

And because you’re already acting as an expert, your mind will catch up with it and start to become self-righteous and close itself off to possibilities. You’ll believe that enlightenment comes only from certain maestros or styles and that nobody else can have anything valuable for you to learn. In becoming the expert, you’re likely to lose Shoshin, the mental openness that student has when learning a subject, especially as a beginner.

Does this always happen? Of course not always. There are many people who truly know tango and the pedagogy of teaching it and don’t act like arrogant know-it alls. Neither do they stop pushing their skill level and are humble about always being on a learning curve. And by ‘teaching’ I don’t mean helping people out at practicas, sharing tips, or even giving friends the introductory lesson. By teaching I mean building a whole business around it. I’ve also come across people who have rushed to establish themselves as ‘teachers’, with negative consequences for themselves and the community.

They suffer because their growth stalls and they become isolated in a time capsule as the need to look good at all times prevents them from trying anything even remotely risky. Even worse, the community as a whole suffers because these people, while pleasurable to dance with, don’t necessarily have strong technique. Even if they do, it doesn’t meant that they’re able to break down movements in all their components as well as the order in which they occur, so that someone else can replicate it correctly. When they attempt to correct mistakes in other people, they focus on symptoms rather than causes. As a result, gets filled with people who start their tango journey with the same bad habits that their so-called teachers didn’t have the awareness to get eliminate back when they still could.

These bad habits are like an infectious disease and if one really believes that a big source of pleasure in tango comes from freedom of movement, then it doesn’t’ make sense to start teaching without being completely clean of them yourself. If you love tango, you owe it to the art itself to not spread it in a tainted form to other people who, not having been exposed to anything else, consider you to be the ultimate source of truth.

‘Experts’ and ‘beginners’ aside, let’s not forget that tango is about the intimacy of the embrace with another human being. And the most intense and beautiful embraces can come from anyone, regardless of where they are in their tango journey.

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17 Responses to Losing Shoshin

  1. Chris says:

    “These bad habits are like an infectious disease … it doesn’t’ make sense to start teaching without being completely clean of them yourself.”

    That very much depends.

    In the tango world, to be accepted as a dancer one must meet the expectations of those who can dance. To be accepted as a teacher one needs to meet only the expectations of those who can’t.

  2. Drunkard says:

    In my opinion, if you love tango, spread it with your Love and the way you love it. Its always good to have more tango lovers. Then In their tango Journey, they have to learn the basics and awareness of their bad habits which might come from imitating their teacher or from misunderstanding the lessons. Lets not forget that tango is about the intimate feeling that one could find it in the embrace, the connections, or the music, etc. Sometimes The intimate embrace/ connection starts from the cabaceo, and doesn’t require the mastery of tango techniques but attitude! Please come and embrace me from your heart, not only by your Hands.
    Thanks for sharing your love and awareness of shoshin in the tango Journey.

  3. Anonymous says:

    You’re taking a massive shortcut here. Becoming a teacher does not mean stopping being a student. Teaching is also an excellent tool to assist you in your progression: when you have to explain something to someone, you tend to question it a lot more. Try teaching a particular technique: you’re likely to realise you do not understand it or master it fully, and once you’ve sorted it out for yourself you can easily pass it on.
    Try to get out of these fixed roles: teacher/student. Most teachers do go to BA once a year to learn from other teachers. Very few people believe any teacher is the “source of truth”. And in the end, if some teachers are just bad, then competition tends to sort it out.
    I can’t really understand why you care so much about external scrutiny either. It mostly happens in your head. For most tango dancers, the most important thing is… dancing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Another aspect I think you forget is that teachers usually create communities. People go there time and again because they like the atmosphere, meet friends and just spend a good time outside of their daily worries. And, as hard to believe as it may seem in light of your post, some of them just don’t care about performance and technicality. The world is not so black and white, you know, shades of grey and stuff.

    • tangobora says:

      Thanks for the comments. You don’t have to read, respond to nor agree with anything that I write. I’m offering my views so if you don’t like them, feel free to present your own view and your experience of the world.

      To clarify, I’m zooming in on particular aspects of the transition between student and teacher, one of which is stalling growth due to less risk taking and the need to maintain a certain image as the ‘expert’. The other one is assuming the authority to teach too quickly, which results in an suboptimal learning experience due to inadequate knowledge.

  5. Anon y mous says:

    I think I understood which aspects you were focusing on. I would argue that your concepts of “growth” and “suboptimal learning experience” are very reductive. The dance is more than the sum of its individual components. As an example, a teacher able to transmit his passion for the music can be as legitimate as one able to do and teach a technically perfect giro. Tango, for some, is as much, if not more, an internal journey. “Growth” cannot always be perceived externally.
    Also, I do not see going from being a student to partaking in teaching as a transition from one status to the next. It is just part of the journey.

  6. terpsichoral says:

    I think it’s unnecessary to be a perfect dancer in order to be a good teacher. In fact, if we really had to eliminate every imperfection from our dancing in order to teach, no one would be able to teach! If I take lessons with someone who teaches me one single thing that helps to improve my dancing — even if I disagreed with everything else they said — I consider those to have been extremely productive and valuable lessons. The measure of a good teacher, for me, is not how wonderful their dancing is (though I agree that it shouldn’t be lacklustre or mediocre) but how much they are able to help their students. Though yes, I totally agree that if someone’s dancing looks clumsy and unskilled to me or feels uncomfortable, I will definitely not take lessons from them. I have seen teachers who fit your description. So I suppose I am not disagreeing with what you say in your post, just placing a different emphasis and offering my personal perspective.

    I haven’t done much teaching yet, but I would like to do more. I feel that, in the last five years in BA, I have learnt a lot of valuable things about teaching: from doing some teaching, observing a lot of teaching, occasionally assisting at classes and from my own learning process. I’ve discovered, in particular, some practical exercises — solo and partnered — and ideas, images and ways of placing my focus which have helped me to improve my own dancing and which I think could help others — though, obviously, not everyone. There are many different tango techniques which can work and many different learning styles and teaching approaches to go with them. But the small amount of teaching which I have done I have found deeply satisfying because I have seen, in a few cases, how my advice and help has allowed others to grow as dancers and get more joy out of tango.

    I would also agree that these roles are fluid. It’s important to remain a student, even when you are a teacher. Recently, I had a practice session with one of the local teachers here in London, who happens to be an excellent dancer. I gave him feedback; he gave me feedback. In effect, we taught each other. Both the learning and the teaching were valuable and helpful. I also find it quite hard to imagine feeling the kind of self-consciousness, or the kind of smugness, you mention. There are people I don’t enjoy dancing with, but not because I fear they will make me look bad.

    But I think you have hit on a problem which happens in small communities, where there are few good dancers. If you are one of the best dancers in town and don’t have any role models around of people dancing a lot better than you, it’s easy to become complacent and not realise just how much more you can improve your tango, how much further you have to go. Complacency is the kiss of death for a dancer. But I think this is not a problem exclusive to teachers.

    Sorry for this really long comment, Bora. I hope you have started a fruitful discussion here.

    • tangobora says:

      Thanks for the comment – I don’t mind that it’s long. It’s a good one and I read it all. I need to do a better job of defining ‘teaching’. It’s not helping someone out on a one-off basis or even sharing tips with someone. If I’m telling my partner what’s wrong during practice and how I think he should fix it, is that teaching? Not in my book. By teaching I refer to earning regular income by turning it into a serious business endeavour, which means that the standards for quality need to go up, just like they would for any other paying service. Would anyone go to a psychologist to cure depression if the psychologist actually doesn’t have the training to do it? Does it even matter that they make you feel good temporarily? Similarly for tango, I’m saying that certain ‘teachers’ get away with a subpar level just because there aren’t enough discerning clients to tell what’s going to help them and what isn’t. And the so-called ‘teachers’ perpetuate their status by doing things that separate them from the crowd, while deep inside they have little to back up them up.

  7. Bora, let me clarify too that I would actually like to be a teacher in the exact sense of your definition, even though I still have issues that I am working on improving in my own dancing. However, I feel that I could help some people — not all — to dance better. If I wait until I am satisfied with my own dancing, I will wait forever. Literally. I know there are different learning styles and different teaching methods and dancing techniques which can work. Mine is only one perspective, but I feel I could make a valuable contribution. Perhaps. (Not necessarily in this geographical location).

    I have been thinking about this issue a lot, as I am visiting London at the moment. This city is not filled with dancer-teachers of the calibre of Sebastian & Roxana, but people still need to learn. The teachers run the full gamut. There are those who clearly have some solid technique, but whose dancing is so lifeless and perfunctory that it upsets me. There are others who have become sloppy and clearly don’t work much on their own dancing anymore. One of them actually said to me “it’s only London, after all, who cares?” (I care.) There are one or two self-proclaimed gurus who believe that they have access to some esoteric truths about how to teach, but whose own dancing is laughably awful. And then there are a small minority of teachers, like my practice partner, who dance very well, though not perfectly, care about their own and their students’ dancing and continue to learn, for their own satisfaction, as well as teaching. That’s the kind of teaching I’d like to encourage.


  8. Chris says:

    “I need to do a better job of defining ‘teaching’. It’s not helping someone out on a one-off basis or even sharing tips with someone. If I’m telling my partner what’s wrong during practice and how I think he should fix it, is that teaching? Not in my book.”

    Well, that does not accord with those books known as English dictionaries. And I think their definition serves us more than adequately. Teaching means imparting skill or knowledge.

    “By teaching I refer to earning regular income by turning it into a serious business endeavour, which means that the standards for quality need to go up”

    The evidence I’ve seen suggests overall the opposite is true. The aforementioned London tango scene provides good examples in the many tango dance schools that have cropped up in the last decade. These are successful business largely because they’re heavily based on bulk instruction, maximising taking per teaching couple through economy of scale. But the social dancing standard of their students is the worst to be found in this city. And that’s not considering that the majority of their students quit even before ever reaching the milonga.

    In social tango dance, the teaching methods that are best for earning are the worst for learning.

  9. Susan says:

    A very interesting post Bora, thank you. I think a great deal about the teaching of dance. I have danced from a very young age, but am relatively new to tango and in my quest to be a better tango dancer, have tried a few teachers around the globe. What strikes me, in the tango community, is the number of so-called maestros that tour around the world like a travelling circus, charging huge sums of money for what I can only describe as nothing short of disgraceful, arrogant behaviours. I have attended some very expensive workshops, led by some of the most well-known stars of today, only to find they are either useless teachers or so full of their own inflated egos that anyone else is beneath their contempt and not worth bothering about, even although they are being paid a huge fee to “teach” them. They may well be fantastic dancers but they cannot, or will not teach. In stark contrast there are some exceptionally gifted teachers, not stars or maestros. I think I prefer the type of teacher who may not be the most “perfect” dancer or performer, but like TTA says “care about their own and their students’ dancing”, and who care about the “connection” they are making with another human being.

    • tangobora says:

      Thanks for your comment Susan, it’s a great one. I certainly share your view. The best teachers I’ve had not only know technique inside out but are patient, humble and respectful of my efforts to learn (And I’ve had lessons with others who haven’t actually taught me anything and have made me not want to dance again). One of the main points I’m trying to make here is that we should have high standards for the teaching services that we receive in return for our money. There’s no point in starting out with bad technique (and paying money for it!) when you’ll have to spend the rest of your life trying to unlearn it (and spending even more money in the process). I’m advocating that as a community, we exercise the same discretion in picking them as we would when selecting a doctor, psychologist or any other service provider. You bring to the surface the other side of the story, that certain people charge obscene amounts of money for what they actually teach, even if they’re good dancers and clearly know good technique. Again, I think as a community of tango students, regardless of our location, we should talk to each other and learn from each other’s experiences so we don’t consider anyone as the ultimate source of truth but pick what works best for us, regardless of how it’s being marketed to us.

      • Anonymous says:

        The student him/herself has to be smart enough to KNOW what good for self regardless others’ opinion, this is tango, use you OWN observation, not opinion, if you subject to influence, you probably will blame others people again. Take responsibility for yourself.

    • tangoembrace says:

      Susan you express very clearly what I have been thinking for a while.

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