This sentence bubbled to the surface in a breakout group of newer and aspiring teachers at a tango teacher training several years ago. As soon as it did about a third of the group came to life, all reciting different versions of the same incantation, amping each other up as they circled around the core message they believed students needed to “get.” The discussion included meditations on the beauty and power of the dance connection and two people moving as one.
It’s a wonderful thing for teachers to be excited about what the dance means to them and sharing that meaning with others. But there were several things about the discussion that made me uncomfortable:
There was a lot of preaching. There was a lot of “us vs. them” language. And there was a lot of little to no talk about the students themselves. There was no talk about what their students’ actual needs and desires might be (aside from what the teachers-in-training wanted them to be). And there were no specific or concrete methods (aside from preaching) offered for making this teaching goal a reality for their students.
This may be a common starting point for newer teachers, and – sadly – an endpoint for some more experienced teachers. But this simplistic idea of connection and limited vision for how to teach it is problematic. Here are three reasons why.
1. Not All Students Want Connection
Not everyone comes to the dance wanting the same thing. Connection with another person – in particular a magical or intimate one as described above – is sometimes one of the last of a student’s motivations when they come to their first classes.
No doubt this is the complaint of some teachers, and certainly it’s frustrating to see this attitude with students who have been at this for a while. But for students who are just starting out, it’s important to be understanding so you can work with students where they are. After all, the beautiful thing about dance is that it encompasses many things: movement, music, improvisation, creativity, emotion, challenge, community, culture, and – yes – connection with a partner. Every student comes with a differing level in interest in each of these categories, and that is okay. Why?
First, because students need to develop their own connections to this dance, not someone else’s. Second, because where a student starts is rarely where they end up. Someone may come to the dance primarily for movement and creativity, but they will likely end up developing other connections. After all, as John Muir wisely stated: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Students are the most likely to find these connections when they are first allowed to engage with the part of the dance that resonates with them. It’s important to not let our judgments interfere with our ability to develop a connection with our students.
2. Connection Isn’t Warm and Fuzzy for Everyone
For some students, learning how to be close to someone they don’t know can bring stress, discomfort, and even fear. Even for those who find the closeness relatively easy, most people don’t want to have the same kind of connection (particularly an intimate one) with just anyone. When teachers oversimplify and over-prioritize connection, they ignore these valid feelings and fail to prepare their students to deal with these feelings in a healthy way in the dance community.
For this reason, it is essential for teachers to communicate two things to their students: First, that connection is multi-layered and means different things to different people. Second, that every dancer has a choice about the type and level of connection they want to engage in every time they dance.
These two things will teach students that there are no obligations and no entitlements when it comes to dancing with someone, or dancing with someone in a particular way. Instead of feeling obligated or entitled – because Teacher said this dance is “all about connection” – students will develop their own idea of connection that works with their values and interests, and understand that others will differ. Students who are taught this way will be more likely to create, communicate, perceive, and respect boundaries with other dancers in the community.
3. Connection Is Built on Practical Skills
Connection of any kind is not willed into existence by passion or love for one’s fellow dancer. It is built on practical skills that require practice. Even a magical connection that feels out of this world takes place in this one. Preaching “it’s all about connection” is like telling students to “just feel.” It’s frustrating, because it isn’t specific or practical.
In a partner dance, physical discipline is required within and between both partners to move together and develop a somatic language with which to communicate and connect. Attention and presence are of course essential to connection. But students are more likely to apply these to their partnerships when they: 1) understand specifically what that looks and feels like, and 2) have the physical skill and sensitivity to support it.
When teachers focus on the practical, they empower students to create the conditions necessary for connection to arise. Timing, tone, spacing, balance, body mechanics, quality of movement, vocabulary, and musical familiarity – these are practical tools that will help students to have safe, mutual, comfortable, enjoyable, and sometimes magical connections in their dance lives.
This isn’t to say that preaching connection never has a place in teaching. A soap box can on occasions make a difference for students when sprinkled in at the right time.
But in general, the soap box and other micromanaging methods are patronizing and ineffective. When teachers preach, they stop listening. When teachers preach, they impose their experience of dance onto students instead of meeting them where they are and allowing them to develop on their own path. When teachers preach, it becomes about the teachers and not about the students.
Teaching connection doesn’t start with teachers preaching to their students to be present with each other. It starts with the teacher being present with their students.