Most of us can vaguely recall what it was like to spell for the first time, gripping our blunt pencils thick as cigars and rounding out a G on the page, like the way my father would round his neck beneath a small doorway. I still recall learning the alphabet song, a rhythm that I still use to determine where those damn Vs, Ws, and Xs are supposed to go. When I rode my bicycle for the first time, I didn’t look back at my older brother when he let go of the banana seat, but I could feel that last push forward into the summer afternoon. I rode my bike that day until the sun touched the tops of trees, only because my brother forgot to teach me how to brake. Crashing made more sense than turning the crank arm in reverse. Unlike learning to read, write, or ride, learning to tango doesn’t have a completion point. Much like jazz, Argentine tango is an improvisational art form, in which no two dancers will ever dance the exact same tango, the exact same way, even if danced 1000 times on the exact same floor.
Tangueros all over the world attest to a lifelong process of learning and discovery, dancing with thousands of dancers who speak another tango dialect; who vary according to body constraints and abilities; and who vary depending on temperament, personality, or mood. Each dance is new; however, many dancers do reside in safe spaces where they repeat the same familiar sequences, avoid the “dark side” of the tango embrace, dance with the same dancers from their weekly roster, or hesitate to dance to live orchestras, which often deviate slightly from classic songs that have been long stored in muscle memory. What is lost in this improvisational art form when tangueros settle into familiar patterns and avoid risk and failure?
Educational researchers find that learning occurs, not despite risk and failure, but BECAUSE of risk and failure. Learning takes place in what Erik Meyer and Ray Land call liminal spaces, where learners run into a cognitive fog when they try to reconcile prior knowledge with new knowledge. When learners are asked to perform a new task, and struggle to grasp new concepts, skills, and/or strategies, experts and educators can guide learners to engage in discipline-specific activities. Liminal spaces are the crossroads of knowledge and ignorance.
Once we have intuited a set of skills, strategies, or concepts, recalling how much time it took to gain proficiency, we often settle into patterns of familiarity and avoid these liminal spaces of struggle, confusion, and doubt. Rather than avoiding risk and failure, I embrace it like a new dance partner. This week, I had fun playing in my liminal sandbox trying to learn the basics of milonga traspie: 1–2–1-2-3; 1–2–1-2-3. Prior, I had learned: ba rum bump bum; bu rum bump bum. For the most part, this mnemonic worked, but I often got lost when I had to lead faster songs, stalling my feet, thereby disorienting my follower. My practice partner modeled for me the footwork of the numerical sequence and danced numerically to Francisco Canaro’s Milonga Criolla (1936). After two hours, I stepped out of my liminal sandbox ready to step onto a dance floor, until I reviewed a tango lesson about milonga traspie, by two of my favorite tango teachers, Homer and Cristina Ladas. Teaching in the San Francisco, California area, Homer and Cristina use the city name as a rhythmic tool to teach the 1–2–1-2-3: SAN fran CIS co (SAN=1 and CIS=2). I could not make sense of this mnemonic device, mainly because my pronunciation of the city is too far removed to the musicality of milonga. It’s what Meyer and Land would call “disruptive knowledge.” In fact, after reviewing the YouTube video, I even forgot how to do the numerical footwork that my practice partner modeled for me and had to review again the video we took during our practice, which means, as a leader, I haven’t yet intuited the basic rhythmic pattern of milonga. This upcoming week, I return to my liminal sandbox to experiment some more. Leave a comment down below and tell me about your liminal sandbox. What are you learning? What concept, skill, or strategy disrupts what you already know?