I’ve only been practicing tango for roughly 5 months, but I’ve experienced a wide range of instructors with varying teaching styles. Here are the main factors I look for in an instructor.
I think one of the most important aspects of finding the right instructor is their attitude towards teaching you and how clearly they explain the biomechanics and reasoning of each movement. Some are nicer than others and some will be very harsh/critical towards what you’re doing. Ultimately I think the deciding factor despite whether they are nice or not (I have a fairly thick skin) is if they are actually providing critical feedback to you. I’ve had one instructor who some would consider abusive – for example he would yell out “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”, stop the entire class and mock my movements repeatedly. After that, the followers would try extra hard when partnering with me and also came up to me after class to see if I was cool with what happened. I’m honestly fine with his harsh remarks – but I wasn’t fine with him not providing any clear or detailed feedback. The instructor would also not dance with other leads (by following) while he would only dance with the follows (as a lead), personally I feel at an instructor level you should be able to be fairly competent at dancing both roles when teaching. I do think there is such a thing as tough love, but if an instructor is just trying to flaunt his own power and ego without really making you a better dancer, then you should look elsewhere.
An also important factor is the size of the class – a much smaller class is preferred since you’ll get more one on one attention from your instructor. The only time I think a larger class is beneficial is if it’s right before a practica/milonga and there were a lot of rotations going on – which would make dancing with new followers easier since you’ll have classmate familiarity with them instead of playing the whole cabaceo game once the class is over.
Having the right class vibe and dynamics is also crucial for your learning. For instance if there’s a huge gender imbalance and you’re a leader that’s mostly just either watching (waiting for a follower) or dancing with another leader who’s not exactly enthused about following – it makes learning the dance difficult. Also age difference is also a factor, although a lot of the older followers can have more experience than young followers, a potential downside is their athleticism and agility. Although tango isn’t a very athletic dance compared to other dances, you can definitely feel if a follower’s body has a lot more spring and energy in their movement compared to those who don’t. One of my instructors also told me one of the greatest tools of learning is to find a consistent dance partner – and that person should also be someone you’d be able to get along and hang out with outside the tango scene, so you’re much more likely to find such a partner in a class environment that fits the vibe that suits you.
I think there’s a debate among the tango community about classes that just teach “the steps”. In my opinion I think it depends on how the steps are taught. Some figures are very common in tango that it’s very beneficial to be exposed to them – however the ways in which you learn them can go a long way. Some instructors may refer to each step as a position, i.e. position 1, position 2, etc. while other instructors will explain the exact mechanics of the cause and effect of all the small nuances of each movement you perform. Generally I am fine with the teaching of figures as long as there are clear explanations for each movement with why and why you shouldn’t do a,b,c instead of x,y,z.
Contradictions In Teaching
As I went through various instructors, I noticed some of them teach different ways to accomplish the same thing. One thing I always ask them is “Is there a reason why I would want to do the other way instead of yours?” If they don’t have a proper response to that question it would raise my eyebrows since I feel especially for tango you should look at all angles of why one should dance with one technique over the others. Some of my instructors have told me that tango is not really black and white and there are no absolutes, so if some instructor is 100% stressing an idea without acknowledging the counterpoint (even the exceptions) then that could be a potential red flag.
This applies in general to if the classes and their associated practicas/milongas fit your schedule. Many instructors not only teach a class but host a practica or milonga for their students.
After some time of group classes you should also look into private lessons if your budget permits. Some instructors I’m fine with taking group classes but not private lessons as I don’t think I’d get as much value out of the privates as their group ones.
Overall everyone has their own availability and finances to set aside to dedicate learning tango, but I do think people should stick to 1-2 main instructors but also explore all the other ones in your city (if there are multiple options) to see the variety of teaching/dance styles offered. I’m still fairly new, but I have not encountered much drama between rival teachers although I am sure it exists due to the nature of business and having classes/practicas/milongas on the same day as other teachers.
Ultimately, choose the ones that resonate with you.