“You didn’t study French, you only went to class.”

Back in 2007, I was a child death investigator. Interestingly, I got the job because the Inspector General loved my senior thesis on Argentine tango, and thought my ethnographic research training would make for better in-depth investigations and compelling reports. I occasionally handled other cases – fraud, waste, abuse, ethics violations – but the bulk of my caseload was root cause analysis of circumstances leading to seriously injured or dead children who’d recently had an open DCFS case. As you might imagine, it was mentally grueling – the detached autopsy reports, the interviews with doctors who’d last attended to battered toddlers, the reams of forensic evidence replete with mistakes by burnt out caseworkers. While I enjoyed the challenge of the work, I needed to find something else to occupy my mind or else I was going to unravel, so I took up Spanish, and determined to become fluent. I already had two years of college classes in my back pocket, and the plan was absconding to southern Spain to study the history and poetry of flamenco.

Fast forward 8 months, I’d managed to convince a crusty Cuban-American Buddhist to run away with me and, voilà, I had an off-the-books teaching gig in Algeciras, a small town in Andalucía where the flamenco guitar virtuoso Paco de Lucía was born.

One day all the staff at my school were called in for group training, and when I arrived, the other teachers were happily chatting away in French. Having a few years of high school French under my belt, I tried chiming in, clumsily and nearly incoherent, “Three years it makes that I too have also studied the French language, friends.” A veteran teacher turned to me with a sly smirk, and in Spanish, he said “You didn’t study French, you only went to class.” And it was true. At the time, my Spanish was off the charts because I’d been a ravenous student – consuming Colombian soap operas, reading several Isabelle Allende novels, listening to Spanish podcasts essentially all day every day, and meeting with my language partner from Madrid at least twice a week for 2-hour conversation exchanges for 6 months straight. My French, however, was complete shit because, indeed, I had never truly studied it. I had never engaged the material outside of class, not with reading, nor with writing, conversation or listening exercises. Nothing.

The difference between going to class and studying a subject is like the difference between picking up a bottle of wine at the supermarket and actually cultivating a healthy vineyard through soil analysis, pruning, grafting, cloning, proper irrigation, monitoring drainage and exposure to sunlight, and timely harvesting in order to bring a high-quality product to market. The difference, in short, is doing the work.

We created Dojo to continue taking ownership of our own learning and to offer the same opportunity to other tango dancers. I’m grateful to the dancers who have devoted their lives (or whatever time and energy they can) to teaching and sharing the artistry of tango. And while teaching requires a honed pedagogical approach that is tailored to student needs and level, it’s not my instructors’ job to spoon feed me, force me to listen to Troilo a.k.a. Big Sexy, or fix my posture and balance. That’s my job. It’s also not the visiting maestro’s job to make me feel good or be my Thursday evening comic relief. Sure, those things are nice bonuses, but in the immortal words of Tangófiles, “Class is where you learn what you have to learn, and practice is where you learn it.”

Practice. Individual practice, group practice, mental practice (it’s awesome, it works, please Google it).

What’s more, you can improve your tango through engaged feedback from non-experts, your tango peers, and even non-tango dancers. As Tony Robbins put it, I am not your guru. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to be your guru or your maestra or the next traveling YouTube tango starlet. I’m just a devoted student. And I’m immensely grateful to my first teacher Al Gates of Tango Chicago who never hesitated to draw attention to all my errors and make me walk the pista alone to Di Sarli until I got my shit together. I’m grateful to the amazing tangueras – Neika White, Natasha Lewinger, Erin Rea, Mitra Martin – who showed me that learning to lead wasn’t a follower’s consolation prize, but a rich, illuminating and fuller embodiment of self. I’m grateful for time to study biomechanics and gait analysis, proprioception and equilibrioception, self-other merging, and the effects of synchronous non-verbal communication on self and social perception.

At the end of the day, you don’t need fancy kinesiology or psychology terms to make you a better dancer, but as students, it’s up to us to do the work and take responsibility for our own growth. You’ll thank yourself later.