I have talked to many people with different perspectives about the tango community. A recurring topic is the growth of the community – not just in terms of ability but in terms of the number of dancers. This usually comes up in reference to a gender imbalance within the community, and how to grow the community in order to resolve that imbalance.
Why is it so hard to find new dancers? At first, it’s a matter of attracting people to the dance. Making it look interesting, fun, challenging, exciting. It’s true that a lot of non-tango-dancers are less interested in traditional tango music. A lot of social tango dancing isn’t as flashy and fun to watch as dances like salsa. It doesn’t exude sexuality. I have seen people walk by a milonga in a public venue with nothing more than a passing glance. In my experience with other dances as well as tango, the most motivating way to get people to try it is to have a friend who is into it. Someone who will drag you in to give it a try. Other dances work well with free intro workshops or classes, but I’m not so sure about that with tango, because of the problem of retention.
Clearly it isn’t just about giving people a taste of tango. A lot of people try it and give up. It’s too hard, it isn’t fun at first, they don’t “get” it or feel it right away. I know that for the first couple months I didn’t really get it, either. Why did I keep at it? Well, I hate throwing in the towel on something. If I have started, I want to at least reach a level of competence. Plus, I bought myself shoes as incentive! I knew that having the shoes meant learning enough to justify their purchase. And by the time I learned enough, I was hooked. So there has to be something – or someone – who creates reason enough for people to stick with it.
So what are those reasons? What can we do to help keep people around long enough to enjoy tango? The first thing that comes to my mind is having more advanced dancers encourage beginners. This doesn’t just mean dancing with beginners. I can’t count the number of times I have seen a poor beginning follower thrown around by leaders on the dance floor. Or beginning leaders getting flustered by followers who throw in adornos right and left. Experienced dancers need to work on dancing with beginners in a way that gives them a positive experience and hints at the ways it could be even better. Some of my favorite leaders know how to lead beginners into steps the beginners didn’t know they could do – nothing too wild, but just enough that the follower knows she can do it (and can do it better if she keeps learning).
Also, community-building in the personal, social sense could help us retain more newbies. Getting dances at the milongas was a thrill when I was new to the tango scene, but I really felt accepted when the other followers introduced themselves and talked with me. And the advice of other followers was invaluable, especially when they pointed out leaders to avoid, leaders who I could approach, tricks for encouraging invitations or avoiding them, tips for finding good shoes … It helps to feel like you’re on the inside.
I have heard people say that it helps to have really amazing dancers in your community, the kind who you have to be really good to get dances with. I have heard people speculate that these kinds of dancers encourage everyone to consistently improve in order to be accepted by those amazing leaders and followers. I disagree, though. It’s possible that these sorts of dancers raise the overall level of dancing within a community, but I don’t see how a brand new dancer would stay just for that. As a beginner, I was perfectly happy dancing with average leaders and probably would have been intimidated and even discouraged by the competition for a dance with an out-of-this-world leader. (In fact, I have noticed that dances with these kinds of leaders seems to have more to do with social factors – knowing them well, having taken their classes, being “in” with them – than with the level of your dancing.)
Any other ideas?