A Tutorial About Argentine Tango Dancing 


Chapter 20: All Roads Lead to Tango

Last updated, 10/19/00

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A male Tango dancer approaches each dance as a journey around the dance floor inspired by the music and the presence of the woman he's holding in his arms. A female Tango dancer enters into the embrace of the man who's transporting her around the dance floor and lets her body become an expression of the feelings and emotions that she and her partner create as the journey takes them to unexpected levels of intimacy.
This is an instance where there is no degree of separation, no personal space and no boundaries. The man and the woman bond together, they extend their arms and surrender their bodies, coming closer to each other. The music is playing, their bodies are dancing, their breathing is silent. It seems so sublime and simple; it cuts to the chase of personal relationships; it brings the best of humanity in an act of trust and generosity. It has no ulterior motives and it repeats itself time after time in an universal setting that knows no geographical, racial or cultural barriers.
The Tango was conceived as a dance because of the primal needs of men and women to play out their lust and desire. This happened at a time and at a place where our minds can not even begin to comprehend, so we are left with isolated sound bites, stereotyped flashes and unredeemable cliches.
What brings us to the question of why people choose Tango as their dance? Which produces a predictable answer. Who knows? Human nature is so complex that whatever forges each person's personality in life seems to converge to an intrinsic desire to belong, to be part of, to be where everybody knows their name. And then, we seldom know if the person we're embracing is truly sincere and genuine, or we are just fictional characters in their undisclosed life story.
According to most accounts, the combination of a fortuitous outing to a theater to watch a Tango show, with an overwhelming desire to emulate the choreographed depictions of passion and emotions on the stage, has inspired many to join or start a Tango community at home. The release of cult Tango movies has also added more converts to the legions of Tango addicts. Then, local residents in search of a pastime joined the Tango classes, attended Tango parties, and a mushrooming number of cities where Tango is danced has dotted the world.

Real men ask for directions

For a while, a basic eight step sequence was taught so women could get their dances trusting that the men, notoriously singled out as incapable of asking for directions, could at least "lead" them in tedious repetitions of the same thing. The recipe was simple: separate the men and the women, teach each group their steps and then spend the rest of the evening trying to get them to agree on who forgot the next step or went the wrong way. There is nothing more unsettling than the sight of a bossy woman and a sheepish man on the dance floor.
The sooner preconceived life stereotypes are left outside the class or the milonga, the better equipped men will be to learn to navigate the dance floor with confidence. It is a difficult task, it is demanding and it is not about "leading" but about going places without getting lost even when exploring every single opportunity to take another route.
It would be fair for women to reflect on the fact that men go to the milonga to dance with women who don't behave like their mothers. The trade off for men not getting bossed around and treated like surrogate partners is to assume the role of a man who feels confident about himself, who knows where he stands, who knows where he is going, who is prepared to deal with the unexpected and cares about the woman he is dancing with. For that, men need to be humble yet confident to ask for directions from qualified and experienced dancers and teachers.
Guys who grew up kicking around a soccer ball may have a more natural body coordination and balance than those who grew up using their bodies to hit each other while carrying or hitting a ball with their hands. This is a fact and not racial profiling as evidenced by looking side by side at a marathon runner and a swimmer. Their bodies conform to the discipline they perform.
Pundits may quickly point out that smoking, drinking, chasing young women and putting on some layers of lard around the waist may be the ingredients required to become a milonguero, but these conclusions are ridiculous as are the often mentioned tales of men-dancing-with-men and the rose between the teeth as prerequisites before dancing with a woman.
Tango dancing is deceiving and Tango dancers can easily be deceived by promises of instant gratification when mechanical execution of the flavor of the month pattern is rewarded with awe rather than derision. There is no shortcut to Tango for men who want to dance Tango well. And here is where the real problem exists since dancing Tango well is a matter of opinion, a matter of taste, and a matter of convenience. Or is it?
It is not a coincidence that an overwhelming majority of Tango dancers over the last one hundred years were people with rudimentary education at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Dancing Tango was part of their life, and to reach the status of good dancers the men went through a rite of passage dictated by a rigorous system of promotion among their peers. The learning process took place on the streets, in the neighborhood bars, in the social clubs and every place where the male population gathered to drink, gamble and pass the time. Women were not part of these functions because of strict codes of conduct that required them to conform to the existing moral standards.
Men had a clear goal that kept them focused through months and often years of  training: that was the day they would be invited to attend their first milonga and be introduced to the rituals of the night life. When they stepped on the dance floor for the first time, they were prepared to face the music, to embrace a woman and to weather the critical eye of their peers.
Things are different today. Tango dancing is found everywhere and the pressures and demands of yore no longer affect the ability of men to dance. Yet, today as yesterday, the formula for success is deceivingly simple when approached with commitment and conviction.

Begin with the music

Identifying and understanding the sounds of at least the Top Ten orchestras of all times is paramount to approaching a plausible compromise between being a native of Argentina and being in the Tango scene only for a short period of time.
Roberto Firpo, Francisco Canaro, Osvaldo Fresedo, Julio De Caro, Juan D'Arienzo, Anibal Troilo, Osvaldo Pugliese, Carlos Di Sarli, Miguel Calo, Alfredo de Angelis could arguably make up the Top Ten for some, give or take a few names. The whole idea is to listen to the music; to learn the sound of each orchestra; to recognize the most popular songs. No matter how you do that, but don't ever accept the commercial claims, much less the wrong notion that there is music for beginners and music for other levels of dancing. Above all, remember that there is only one level of dancing, yours.

Know where you stand

Attitude, presence and intention are subjective factors that contribute to the development of good posture and balance.
Men must be solid on the ground with their weight mostly on the ball of their feet, yet their overall silhouette must project upward with their upper torso relaxed and firmly standing tall. The arms must create a comfortable space for the women to dance. The right arm surrounds her torso, and the raised left arm extends to the side to bring her right arm forward.

Move with confidence

When ready to move, the body weight rests mostly on one leg, with the knee slightly flexed, effectively compressing the muscles on that leg so the other leg has elongation to reach forward, or backwards. Just before the free leg begins to travel "hanging" from the hip, rotate the upper body on the leg where your weight is, so the shoulder associated with the free leg goes in the opposite direction that  the leg. This counter body motion insures that the movement will not cause the body to fall onto your partner, but rather produces a movement that will make her extend her free leg in the opposite direction of her shoulder. Effectively, the bodies are centered between both legs firmly on the ground. There is a slanted line that runs from the legs to the upper torso that creates the optical effect of leaning bodies and crossed legs. Moving confidently following the beat of the orchestra transmits a clear sense of motion to your partner. Before you know it, you are dancing. Now watch where you are going.

Aiming to please

Dance floors have at least one thing in common: they have boundaries. So the object is to work around the floor using a variety of routes. It is commonly accepted that dancers generally progress around the line of dance in a counter clockwise manner. This does not imply forming a conga line. At one time, certain salons in Buenos Aires observed a rule that required dancers to keep their place in the line of dance, that is, no passing or being passed, sort of dancing in-place on a merry-go-round.
As with everything else people talk about the old days, never mind. Consider primarily the rudeness of banging your partner against somebody else, or allowing her to be run over by another insensitive couple. Then, don't let it happen. And although it shouldn't have to be said among reasonable adults, don't use your partner as a prop for your ridiculous fantasies of imitating Rudolph Valentino. He was not a Tango dancer.

Sooner or later you'll reach the end of the dance floor and you'll have to veer left the way you turn around the corner. You aim your body without forgetting to keep your partner in front of you, and your legs follow. While at it, you may begin to move laterally instead of forward. This allows you to change your front so you can walk backwards. Now you must be aware of bringing your partner into you. 

As you begin to see that the longest path always consists of single displacements put next to each other, you will begin to create short patterns as you zig zag your way around slower or stationary dancers. At times you may find yourself cornered. You may want to bring your partner back and forth keeping her in front of you until you find a new front to aim to.
Random repetition of these and whatever else you may come up with to navigate around the floor falls under the general category of improvisation. Dancing without a prescribed set of patterns frees the imagination and let the bodies fuse into a dancing couple to the rhythm of the orchestra. There are names for the things you'll be doing, but when the time comes to learn more about the name of the  patterns, you'll see the possibilities of more exciting journeys rather than another mental block to stiffen up your act.

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