Many of us have heard the expression “it takes two to tango.” I had the pleasure of visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina, with my girlfriend, and it was one of our goals of our vacation. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the local culture by learning the basics of this romantic, mysterious dance. We even decided to wait until we reached Buenos Aires to take our first lesson since the tango is more than a series of steps and patterns. It is an expression of emotion and passion, so it would be best studied in the city of its origin. The expression reminds us that it cannot be done alone. However, we learned that it actually takes more than two people. It takes a team (and coaches) to tango.
Let’s point out the obvious. You cannot tango alone. The dance is defined by its coordinated movements between two people where the most subtle shifts in balance and direction allow each partner to understand exactly where the next step is headed. There is enormous flexibility for innovation and personal expression in each partner’s moves, but they are always carefully in sync with the current and next movement of their partner. It takes time to master the steps and style as well as learn to react and respond to another’s movements.
Our decision to learn how to tango began a few weeks before we departed Washington, D.C. for the milongas, where people gather to dance, in the Southern Hemisphere. The first step was the realization of our current performance level in the tango: complete incompetence. We were conscious of the fact that it was something that we did not know how to do and could not learn on our own in a way where we would not cause a minor international incident by winging it on the dance floor.
Our next step was to put our trust in Google to help us find local tango instructors that could help us enjoy ourselves while not crushing each other’s feet over the course of a few embarrassing hours after a bottle (or two) of Malbec. I decided to practice what I preach from researching and writing about how performers in any activity become great at what they do. We wanted to start with the fundamentals. We needed to practice. We needed coaches to help us engage in deliberate practice while fine tuning our performance. Finally, we needed to immerse ourselves in the real thing and hit the dance floor. Why take the time to learn the skills only to hide in a studio instead of giving the locals the pleasure of bumping into them repetitively? I am sure my girlfriend did not appreciate me turning our romantic trip into a work study project, but that is how my brain is built. She is smarter than me, so I think she is either in complete agreement with my approach or knows that it is the best way to humor me while getting what she wants.
Our final step was to commit to our goal: to go to Buenos Aires and receive private instruction in a studio before heading out to immediately dance until the early mornings hours in the heart of the city. Our goal was not an outcome (learn to do the tango). Our goal was not a performance (do the tango at a milonga). We set a process goal of how to do it. Anyone can set a goal of becoming a great dancer that dazzles the crowd while clinching a long stemmed rose in their teeth. However, it is those that set process goals that are able to perform and achieve those outcomes.
With our tickets booked and our pride securely wrapped in bubble wrap, we packed our best dancing shoes and headed to the airport. That is when we learned that you cannot tango alone or with just one other person. It takes a team to learn, perform, and master the tango.
Part 2: Fundamentals and deliberate practice