Shaping behavior

One day a while ago, after chatting with one of her friends as they were loading up the car to go to an Agility Trial, my wife told me, “You know, you’re much nicer since being in Argentine tango.”

I’m sure she meant ‘sociable,’ but maybe not. The Argentine tango dance and our tango community has changed me in lots of ways.

My wife is a professional dog trainer and competitor. After we married and moved to our first home I bought her a Dachshund puppy. She took Henry to the Capitol Dog Training Club classes and fell in love with the activity that some wag dubbed as “training two dumb animals.” She became a volunteer trainer and later an independent teacher. She has won many awards and championships in Conformation (the dog world ‘beauty’ contests), Obedience, and Agility (running an obstacle course against the clock).

Jennifer leads Robbie to race over the seesaw.

I feel much love and great admiration for how her passion for working in partnership with dogs has taken her to so many achievements in teaching and competition, as well as for her contributions to community, taking the dogs to visit the Children’s Hospital, reading programs, and first responders.

That admiration extends to a deep appreciation for how working–and playing–with animals (dog, horses, …) so closely resembles — no, not resembles, is — what we want in a relationship with a dance partner.

I’ve participated in my wife’s world of dogs a teensy bit (plus sharing our home with them and helping to exercise them). I did early obedience training with one of our dogs, we’ve done joint puppy training, and now we’re doing remedial work with our latest, a beautiful bearded collie who is a joy to be around with her exuberance for life; setting aside her penchant for playing “Keep Away.”

My wife has been more generous in sharing her energy in my passion for Argentine tango, but in the end, working with dogs is much less emotionally fraught.


It’s the Agility world that really got me thinking about how akin the lead-follow of an Agility Run is to the Lead-Follow of a dance. The Agility partnership seeks to make a clean run through the obstacles in as short a time as possible. The handler must give fast, clear directional intentions, and they mustn’t be too far ahead of or behind their partner.

Thankfully, we dancers are moving with the music, not racing against it (even if at times it seems that way for some dancers). The Leader must make their intentions for the Follower in a clean, clear, consistent manner, and convey them with good timing for their partner. The Follower responds with purposeful, intentional movement. And so the cycle continues.

Our view of the interplay between dog or dancer seeks to build comfort, clarity, and confidence. We want partners that will enjoy, that will desire to work with us. A fearful or timid animal cannot give their full attention, energy, and joy to the activity.


Insightful trainers know that when two animals interact, always, one shapes the behavior of the other. Could be in either direction; could depend on the activity or the moment. Shaping by successive approximations creates reproducible, consistent behaviors by breaking down a behavior into tiny increments, and reinforcing the animal at each incremental step until achieving the full behavior. 

If I have no clear intention (whether following or leading), then my partner must fill in the gaps. A highly resourceful partner may be able to make something good even with a weak, unsure partner. But if I leap immediately into an advanced behavior or movement I risk creating confusion or worse for my partner.

Argentine tango gives us a structure for shaping a wonderful partnership no matter the level of each partner. With a non-verbal animal–remember, no talking while dancing–we shape behavior with our own behavior. We make simple asks and evaluate the answers we receive. As we each gain confidence in the other, the questions can grow harder (Rule 7), the answers richer.

Whether Animal-Trainer, Student-Teacher, Follower-Leader, Me-You, or two persons on the street, we can accomplish so much more with each other by taking our other person as we find them in the moment, letting our behavior answer and influence their behavior in a kind and caring–even when challenging!–manner.

I love my wife. I love Argentine tango. I love my partners. They have all shaped me into a better, nicer me.

Guide Explorer

“Parents [tango teachers] try too hard to fix things.” “Let me make a mistake once.” “I’m just warming up. Give me a chance to discover what I’m meant to do.” –From the book Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say it, and When to Listen by Wendy Mogel, PhD.

I see it as the difference between a hierarchical superior/inferior, controlling/controlled, parent/child, teacher/student relationship versus a collaborative Guide/Explorer relationship. The guide knows the territory really well, and can also show you good examples of how they do things. They can answer questions, or show real expertise when they give you ways to discover your answer.

The guide works alongside the explorer.

To put it in a way closer to home, we want a student-teacher relationship like a good follower-leader dance partnership. The leader marks the territory, and the follower explores what is there.

Partner practice pointers

I have these things going on in my current practice with a partner.

  • Regularly checking in with each other on comfort and clarity.
  • Periodic video review looking for clean footwork, nice lines, good technique, dynamic movement, and flow.
  • Going back through the DVIDA syllabus to identify sequence fragments I particularly like and movements I seldom use (but would like to) in my social and performance dancing.
  • Creating a compendium of movements, where I note performance standards and problems to watch out for, as well as suggested uses. This helps remind me of things to use, and it’s useful in my teaching.
  • Reviewing my performance videos and asking partners about things I do habitually, looking for ways to change up habitual movements (such as with dynamics, elevation, size, speed) and vary entrances/exits.
  • Sometimes identifying musical fragments where we want to explore nice ways to express those thoughts.
  • Sometimes identifying sequences or moves we really like in other dancers’ performance videos, working to making them part of our working syntax.
  • Making notes at every session on what we worked on, what we learned, and what we want to work on next session.

Love the one you’re with

And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you’re with

–by Stephen Stills

Used to be, I had all kinds of excuses: they’re too short, they’re too tall, they’re balance is poor, I don’t like this music, and on.

Early on, I’d set a challenge for myself to find something I could use in every lesson that I took from any instructor, teacher. I think it paid off. And now my challenge is to cabeceo the first prospect I lay eyes on, and to enjoy every tanda with whoever asks me or accepts my invitation.

I’m grateful to Andrew Sutton of Dance Ninjas ( for fostering the notion that we ought to be able to create an enjoyable dance with anyone. Now sure, there will be preferences, and some exquisite dance partners. But do we want to have mediocre dances simply because we don’t have the ideal partner, music, setting, etc.? Andrew has both wonderful dance methods, and highly useful things to say about reframing experiences to give them new meaning.

The one type of partner who still challenges me is someone who has accepted my invitation (seemingly of their own free will!) but then proceeds to dance as if they have no connection to me or the music.

In this situation I employ two states of mind. First–and although I hate using this expression, it seems to make the idea immediately clear–there is the “resting bitch face”. That is, regardless of what I might think I perceive in their look, posture, energy, attention, etc.; I can’t really know what is going on inside. All I can really control is myself in trying to create the best dance experience I know how.

Secondly, I view my partner as if they’ve gifted me with a puzzle. One of my favorite work/life experiences was when as an undergraduate I served as a “User Consultant” helping faculty, staff, and students from all departments, all across campus, using any kind of computer language. I helped them debug their programs. Working with them to explore what they wanted and what they thought they were doing, they frequently discovered the solution for themselves as we talked.

By exploring the music and the movement possibilities with my partner, seeing what works well or not, what seems to provoke a (good!) response, what results in a feeling of calm, then we are able as a team to find that good place in dance.