Sunday, March 21, 2010

Learning Spanish and Tango

Reprinted with permission; originally published at Life At The Margin on July 9,2009

To gain knowledge, a person must allow himself to feel stupid; to gain skill, a person must allow himself to feel incompetent.

It had been a long time since I knew how a child felt. In fact I don't recall knowing how a child feels. Now I think I have a good idea. The difference between children and adults is that, while neither can effectively and consistently control their emotions, adults can use words to generate the appearance that we can control emotions. Children, lacking speech altogether or sufficient vocabulary to communicate in a given situation, resort to crying, screaming, and flailing about in frustration when they fail in communication.

Trying to speak Spanish with a limited understanding of the grammar and severely limited vocabulary, sometimes, makes me want to scream and flail about. Or at least say something in English, if only to myself.

Tango is a language as well, like any dance. In some ways, it is much more complicated than our verbal languages. There are so many aspects that either mean something or generate noise, aspects that give cues and clues to the partner one way or the other, that will be interpreted as the dancer intends them, or, more likely, in some other way.

In each of these areas, a small bit of knowledge can take a person a long way. You can certainly talk to people with a short list of the most common verbs, knowledge of their primary conjugations, and a good list of nouns gives you roughly equal competence in both adjectives and adverbs. Likewise, you can dance for weeks with a good walk, a solid embrace, and 4 or 5 simple, well-executed figures.

But you cannot say everything, and a partner is unlikely to know why it is that you're not saying certain things.

In language, dance, or any other form of communication, it is the uncertainty of meaning that makes interactions meaningful. This is the source of all laughter, for example. Even with a well-formed thought, much can be lost in the transmission. Our partner's state of mind is unknown. What was she just thinking about? Why does he say that now? Oh no, she is pulling away from me. No amount of words can account for all possible misunderstandings.

With the limited knowledge of the early stages, we are doubly disadvantaged because we don't even know what we don't know. One area of Spanish that intrigues me are the great many words that are essentially the same in english (for example, paciencia and patience, tranquilo and tranquil). I find it easy to understand others who use these words, but difficult to incorporate them into my own speech. Perhaps because I think they are easy and do not require as much work as less familiar words.

In tango, the superficial layers are relatively easy to teach and commonly learned. Perceived mastery of these figures or steps (like ochos, sacadas, boleos, etc.) can lead one to believe he knows how to dance. But knowledge of the existence of those interior layers can lead the same person to wonder why those teachers were wasting time teaching figures to beginners.

Learning in these areas, and possibly in all areas, is not linear; it is circular. We must continually come back around, retracing the same path, looking for the things we dropped along the way. And for the things we failed to notice on our early trips.

A few very early beginners have asked me what I recommend for solo practice. "Put on Carlos DiSarli and walk," I say. Each time, I have gotten a look as if I've deeply insulted them. They have done boleos in "intermediate" classes. But no one walks perfectly, and truly advanced dancers do exactly that.

Enrico, one of my current housemates, puts it this way: If you go to a beginner class for the flute, the teacher will start with how to make a sound with air and the lips; If you go to a highly advanced class for the flute, a good teacher will start with how to make a sound with air and the lips. Daniel Diaz says that after his parents bought him a bandoneon, it was six months before his teacher let him touch it.

Great dancers make boleos and ganchos look easy. The reason is that they are easy. It is all the stuff that they are built upon which is difficult: stepping with the music, balance, dissociation in the torso, hip alignment, timing the rebound, and more. The list is long. Most people don't think of these things until years have gone by, if ever. Some develop competency by chance, others come from intensive dance backgrounds and already developed them. Many compensate (sometimes quite effectively) for weakness in some areas with strength in others, but sometimes this takes its toll on the partner.

All of the layers of foundation can be quite daunting. The euphoria of quick progress in the beginning can be addictive. It provides its own motivation. Moving from not knowing any Spanish beyond "sombrero" to being able to make small-talk with people who know no English is real and measurable. As is the ability to stand apart from the completely arhythmic on a dance floor. But pessisimism is not far beyond. As we become conscious of our own incompetence, the strength of ego yields to self-doubt. Making progress, getting around that circle a few more times, becomes a matter of feeling like we are getting worse.

And sometimes we really do regress. Partly due to a bad choice of teachers, as well as the adjustment to a new place, I'm almost certain that I really got worse through my first 6 weeks in Buenos Aires. Who knows, though, maybe I picked up a few things. And my Spanish definitely did improve during that time. How could it not?

Recognizing the myriad areas that need improvement, however, isn't all bad. In fact, I find it quite liberating. I enjoy tango more with each week that goes by, and finding big and little things about myself that need attention gives me confidence that I will improve and enjoy it more, and bring greater enjoyment to my partners, in the future. Life would get boring if mastery came early.

Recognition of this phenomenon is what keeps people learning late into life. We are all good at certain things, and it feels good to do those things. We get positive feedback from others; we feel smart when the conversation shifts to our areas of expertise. But this can be a trap. To broaden the skill and knowledge bases, we need to expand our comfort zones. When we venture far from what feels natural, often times we get slapped around, and the easy thing to do is go back to what we know. Why else would our society be so averse to unemployment (even though polls show that most of us dislike our current jobs)? It is at this point when human nature must be overcome. The cost of learning is great in the beginning; the benefits are enormous but they are largely in the future. We know this instinctively; otherwise we would not plant gardens and wheatfields.

Finally, I think a lot of people find motivation in focusing on an end goal. Maybe to read a novel in a new language, or write one. Or to dance in a competition or an exhibition at a weekly practica. Or to have that one great and beautiful dancer say yes.

I am sure this works for some, but I take a different route. It is good to see what is possible once in a while but I find great value, when progressing toward a destination, in keeping my head down. That is, focusing on the present rather than the future, on myself rather than some idyllic model, on details rather than the big picture. Yes, I like to have some idea about the big picture I am painting, but I never want the final product to be too clear in my mind. If my image is cloudy it is easier for me to divert. I can still develop that picture, but I am not locked into an outcome. I am free to explore other possibilities.

The sun is there even on the darkest of cloudy days.

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