A Tutorial About Argentine Tango Dancing 


Chapter 27: It's What Counts

Last updated, 1/25/04

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It is sadly amusing to read about teachers who ask their students to tap each other's shoulders and/or back according to the rhythm of the music to feel really wonderful about being massaged after a vigorous dance class, under the pretenses of learning musicality to improve their tango dancing.
This brings creepy memories of another teacher who keeping a straight face told a captive audience at a musicality class, that she was capable of dancing the bandoneon sound with one leg and the violin sound with the other one.

Musicians know that "El que toca nunca baila" (A musician never dances). Let us challenge anyone to debate our contention that musicality has nothing to do with one's ability to dance tango.

There is ample evidence that not a single one of the thousands of musicians who played tango since at least the 1920's, ever engaged in the social activity of tango dancing. Further, consider the famous quote attributed to Enrique Santos Discepolo, a poet, journalist and philosopher, "Tango is a sad thought that it is danced." There is not a shred of evidence that Discepolo could dance his way out of a paper bag. Not knowing (or wanting) to dance tango, he made a name for himself composing music and writing memorable lyrics. He knew, as many do,  that tango is multidimensional. It can be danced, it can be played, it can be sung, it can be listened to. It is safe to assume that Juan D'Arienzo, "el rey del compas," never danced a tango in his life. By the same token, nobody has ever praised Pepito Avellaneda or Petroleo for singing tangos or playing the piano, violin or bandoneon.

The introduction of musicality as an intrinsic element to be able to dance tango, seems to be another folksy American consumer's contradiction like veggie burgers, decaf coffee and dancing tango to Piazzolla. It is almost certain that nowhere in Europe or in South America there exists this ridiculous concept that dancers must be taught musicality before they can dance. Tango dancers, that is. Because those who dance foxtrot, swing or rock and roll would laugh if they were required to attend musicality classes before they can dance to Up the Lazy River, In the Mood, and Rock Around the Clock very well, thank you very much.

What is most saddening, are the cheap shots and outrageous displays of disrespect dished out to professional teachers and dancers under the excuse of not being capable of teaching musicality. While bashing the real teachers, there seems to be a desperate need to elevate to the rank of teachers, anyone with the latest gimmick aimed to keep people from having to face their lack of coordination to walk around the floor keeping a relatively simple beat.
Any educated individual knows, or can look it up in a dictionary, that musicality is the quality or state of being musical; it is the sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music. Being musical in turn, is having the pleasing harmonious qualities of music (melodious). In other words, having an interest in or talent for music.
By contrast, dance is the performance of a rhythmic and patterned succession of bodily movements usually (but not necessarily) to music. No musicality or  musical talent is required for dancing. Rhythm helps. Deaf people can dance.

From the dawn of civilization, humans have been dancing to primal rhythms produced by the stomping of their feet, the clapping of their hands, and the striking of objects against objects. The conception of the tango did not happen until the drum beating of the African slaves permeated the lower strata of the Buenos Aires and Montevideo society. By and by the dance acquired a form before the music could be identified. Over the next hundred years, the rhythm of the tango drove generations of men and women to the dance floors of Buenos Aires. They in turn, as time went by, influenced the evolution of the music from its primitive 2x4 signature beat to the post De Caro 4x8 rhythm. Generation after generation of dancers have followed Canaro, D'Arienzo, Di Sarli and Pugliese from club to club, from CD player to CD player, performing a rhythmic and patterned succession of bodily movements with a fanatical zest.

There were other musicians who tried with a vengeance to eliminate the dancing out of tango, ironically because dancing had nothing to do with musicality ("Tango is also music," was their mantra). It was Piazzolla who set out successfully to get rid of the rhythm of the tango to keep away dancers from disturbing his recitals for espresso drinking snobs. His universal success in adding yet another dimension to tango is underscored by the narrow perception of those who try to teach musicality to their feet (to dance Piazzolla, perhaps?) missing the rhythms of the forest by staring at the stiffness of the trees.

The Chan-chan of Tango
Counting and collecting steps is definitely not what Argentine Tango is about. There is a structure of the dance, as we have seen from previous installments. And this structure is made of blocks of movements, that when done in groups of up to four components, “match” the rhythm of the music perfectly. So often, we are asked, “how do I dance to the music?” A better question might be, "how do I chan-chan to the rhythm?"

Argentine Tango music is no different than any other popular music, in that for the majority, it is written in 4/8 time signature. For most of us, who are non musicians, what does this mean? In non musician terms, it means that there is a measure of music eight beats long, and within this measure, groups of four main (down=Chan) beats are counted, not exceeding the measure of eight. It can be counted out in two groups of four.

Take any piece of popular music - disco, swing, a ballad or even a tango, and start to count along aloud. Count one, two, three, four, one; two, three, four. Or - one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Repeat this throughout the whole song. You are now chanting 4/8 time. You can also call out the upbeat(chan), or the “in-between” beat, along with the stronger down beat, which will double the counts ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and.
While counting, chanting or calling the rhythm of the song, walk or better march, stepping in time with the down beat (Chan) and changing weight on the upbeat (chan).

Chan-chan to the Salida Simple
This is one of many figures contained within the left turn Giro, drawn on a gentle curve to the man’s left, and executed in four moves.  Gentlemen: lateral move with left leg (ONE-and), forward cross of the right leg (TWO-and), forward opening of left leg (THREE-and), close and weight change with right leg (FOUR-and).
Ladies: lateral move to her right (ONE-and), gentle passing her left leg behind her right to his left (TWO-and), back opening of her right leg to his left (THREE-and), crossing her left leg in front of her right to his left (FOUR-and).

 A very common way to change direction after the Salida Simple is the Tango Close or Resolution. The change of direction is to the man's right side, and it is executed in three movements.

The man opens his left leg forward placing his foot next to the inside of the lady's left shoe causing her right leg to open into the man's left side (ONE-and). The man then opens his right leg into his right rotating his upper body to his left and opening the lady's left leg to his right (TWO-and). The man finally closes his left foot next to his right foot and steps in place to change weight, marking a similar movement for the lady (THREE-and). 

To complete the four movements, the man can change weight in place again, or move his right leg back a very short distance, enough to change weight (FOUR-and). The sequence Salida Simple-Resolution can be repeated again. If you never heard of the Eight Count Basic, never mind and just dance the two sequences of four movements. Each time you open left or right, you are changing directions, so that at the end of four repetitions, you have completed a four corners type of navigation.



Chan-chan to La Base
This is another common pattern that combines direction changes to the left and to the right. Practice it the same way. In La Base, the man avoids the fourth movement of the Salida Simple (woman's cruzada) by beginning the change of direction to his right on what otherwise be the third movement of the Salida Simple. He also skips the Resolution by backing up with his left leg instead of closing to change weight in place. Thus, La Base is a continous movement where the dancers step alternately with either leg on time with the rhythm.

The man moves to his left with a lateral opening of the left leg (ONE-and), then a forward cross of the right leg (TWO-and), then a forward opening with his left leg getting in front of the lady (THREE-and). Pause long enough to establish a good axis on the left leg. The man continues the back end of the base with a lateral movement to his right (ONE-and), a back cross of the left leg (TWO-and), a back opening with his right leg (THREE-and). Pause long enough to establish a good axis on the right leg. Open out to the left with a lateral, and repeat, using curved lateral moves to navigate changes of direction.

The movements in La Base are also complimentary and done exactly the same way by the man and the woman, except that when one is moving forward, the other is moving back, and vice versa. Resist the temptation to do La Base in a square shape to avoid stepping twice back into the line of dance.

Out into the dance floor

Let’s organize now and put a few basic movements to the test. We'll start with a Salida simple, followed by a right turn Giro with Sacadas, ending the Giro with a forward Ocho of the lady, and ending the sequence with a Resolution. Refer to the corresponding video frames.

We begin the sequence aligned in the same fashion as when we first take to the dance floor: feet together, in front of each other, weight on the man's right leg and the lady's left leg (Frame 1).

In Frame 2, the man takes the lady to his left with a lateral opening (ONE), and in Frame 3 they complete the transfer of weight to the man's left and the lady's right (and).

In Frames 4 and 5, the man advances with his right leg on the lady's right side as she takes a back step with her left foot (TWO), then they both transfer their weights to their supporting legs (and).

In Frame 6, the man begins the marking of the cruzada by opening the lady's right leg with a forward opening of his left leg and a weight transfer (THREE-and). 
In Frame 7 the man closes his right leg behind his left, bringing the lady to his left, which she accomplishes by crossing her left leg in the direction her body is being sent (FOUR). Frame 8 shows the weight transfer to the man's right and the lady's left. Often, ladies who are taught improper technique, fail to complete the weight transfer to the crossed leg, skipping the "and" segment of the fourth step, and getting ahead of the music, compromising their balance and posture.

Frame 1
Frame 2
Frame 3
Frame 4
Frame 5
Frame 6

Frame 7
Frame 8
Frame 9
Frame 10
Frame 11
Frame 12

Similarly, a failure of the man to transfer his weight to his right leg on the "and" of the fourth step in preparation for a right hand turn, creates unnecessary perils in the sequences that follow.

After the Salida Simple, a movement oriented to the left of the man, choosing a right turn giro to continue is an option to make a change of direction oriented to the man's right. The man brings the lady around to the his right side marking her three fundamental moves: a forward opening of her right leg (ONE-and), opening of  her left leg (TWO-and), back cross of her right leg (THREE-and).

In Frame 9, as he marks the first step of her giro into his right (ONE), the man stepsforward into her right (counter motion).  The man displaces the lady on the "and" as he transfers his weight and continues turning to his right (Frame 10). Notice how the lady responds to the sacada by holding her axis on the leading leg while turning as a result of the man's rotation.

The second movement of the giro continues in Frames 11 and 12. On the TWO the man marks the lateral opening of the lady's left leg into his right while he advances again into her right. On the "and" the man displaces the lady and she holds her axis on her left leg while turning in place while the man turns into her. Ladies need to remember that they always dance around the man (and the man dances around the room).

The third movement of the giro is shown in Frame 13. The man steps and holds his axis on his left leg (THREE) while aligned on the left side of the lady. Frame 14 shows that on the "and" the lady transfers her weight to her left leg because the rotation of the man in place does not allow her to finish her back step on her right leg, but rather it provokes the quick lateral step with her left that brings her back into the initial body aligment of the giro where they are both on the right side of each other.

For all practical purposes, Frame 15 is identical to Frame 9 as far as the lady is concerned. She can expect the possibility of going around the man again with her three fundamental giro steps. For the man, because he held a step in Frame 13, he is now "crossfeet" as he advances with his right into her right side (ONE).
Frame 16 shows the "and" part of the previous step, and the resulting displacement of the lady, who as indicated before holds her axis on her support leg. Here, the man holds his axis on his right leg without rotating. The right turn "giro" has ended, and a change of direction is forthcoming.

As the lady received the displacement in Frame 15, her weight transfer provokes a complete rotation on her right axis as soon as the man transfers his weight to his right leg without rotating. The anticipated change of direction takes the form of a forward "ocho" (Frame 17) as the lady now advances to the man's left side with a forward cross of her left leg (ONE). In Frame 18 the man holds his axis on his right leg while the lady transfers her weight to her left leg and rotates on her axis to face the man (and).

Frame 13
Frame 14
Frame 15
Frame 16
Frame 17
Frame 18

Frame 19
Frame 20
Frame 21
Frame 22
Frame 23
Frame 24

The short lived motion to the left of the man is altered in Frame 19 as the man readies to end the sequence using a standard Resolution. While sending the lady one additional step to his left, he advances forward with his left leg into the lady's left side (ONE). In Frame 20, the step is completed (and) when both transfer their weight, man to his left, lady to her right. In Frame 21, the man opens laterally to his right, bringing the lady also to his right (TWO). In Frame 22, they transfer their weight (and) aligned in front of each other. In Frame 23 the actual closing takes place when they both change axis in place (THREE). Frame 24 shows a typical link to the initiation of another sequence. The man opens his left leg back enough to provoke another weight change (FOUR), and at this point their position is similar to Frame 1. So after an exciting side trip to enjoy the sights, they are back on Main Street ready to continue their journey around the dance floor.

After developing a sense of control over the timing of these or any sequence, put the music on! Carlos Di Sarli is an excellent choice. He isn’t called the Lord of The Tango for nothing. Both dancers may count aloud while they are doing the exercises. Try the whole Tango using only the exercises, but with the goal to move around the dance floor at least once. We think you will be pleased at how your movements will naturally correspond with the music. Organizing your movements in blocks of threes or fours, let’s you build your own figures in a controlled and rhythmic way, with navigation of the floor and connection to your partner as your goal.
Have the discipline to step on the down beat (ONE), come up on axis to finish the step on the upbeat (without a weight change) at the “and” part of the beat. You hear so many clichés about how to walk the tango. “It’s like a heart beat”. “It’s like breathing” “It’s the chan-chan.” Whatever it takes to stop you from running like a Tasmanian Devil or Woody Woodpecker on skates on every beat. (Just forget “walking like a cat”, unless you want to get down on all fours).

Exhale as you put your foot down (the first contact with front of the foot, the ball, the metatarsal, edge of little toe when you go forward, edge of big toe when you step lateral or back, arrive flat on the ground with the heel down, knee softened). Inhale as you arrive up on the step, on axis (when you are “up on the step”, or “over the step”, at this point completely on axis on the support leg, cast your eyes downand -  you should not see your foot). The free leg naturally closes to “finish the step” as a result of coming up on the step with both knees straightened. The effect of the counted movement of the walk is, One-and. Or Chan-chan. Or Bomp-bomp (or whatever the sound is that the heart beats in your imagination). Breathe, but don’t overdo it and hyperventilate. This explanation and exercise take place naturally and simultaneously and seamlessly, the several parts of each step imperceptible to the onlooker, except that you move with the cadencia of the Tango. All the steps we dance are “walks”. However, as we should now know, it is NOT like walking in the street in our normal way. We are dancing the “walks”, by changing axis with each step.

As the music changes...

Juan D’Arienzo is playing. It’s rocking. In fact it’s swingin’! Again he is not known as The King of The Beat for nothing. You can still dance the entire tango stepping only on the downbeat, but because of the tempo of this orchestra, it is natural to feel inclined to also step on the upbeat, to step on the “and."

D’Arienzo is also credited with speeding up the old 2X4 Tango rythmn of the 1890’s, to a modern interpetation of the 1930’s and onward. 2X4 has nothing to do with a piece of wood (or dancing like one).This time the measure is only four beats, with counts of ONE-and, TWO-and. So you can make your life even easier when using  the 2X4 tempo, because you never need count above two!

When dancing to D'Arienzo or Biagi, it is very popular among milongueros to end the Salida Simple on the upbeat rather than the downbeat. That is, the lady is made to cross on the "and" of the third step, rather than on the fourth step. So the salida simple would be counted, ONE-and, TWO-and, ONE-and where the third "and" is used to actually change weight to the other leg, rather than holding it as in a regular "and."

The Tango Close or Resolution is also ended on the upbeat rather than the downbeat. You can count it like this: ONE-and, TWO-and, where the second "and" is used to actually change weight to the other leg, rather than holding it as on a regular "and."

Stepping on the "and" is called a "traspie," a "quick," a "sobrepaso," and even a "syncopation." or  “bomp, bomp, bomp.” As you can see the lady can also double step, by accident or design without ever again having to apologize for her "mistake!" It is desirable that the man always mark the stepping on the "and," but it is even more important that he be aware of an "unmarked" double step by the lady.

The result of an unmatched doublestep by either one of the dancers, is to change the moton of their legs from a parallel sequence to a cross feet sequence, or viceversa. Working around these conditions is at the heart of tango improvisation.

It would be exhausting, and perhaps a visual overkill to double step every beat, so keep in mind that dancing is not racing to hit the floor on every beat. Mix up stepping on the one, the downbeat, and mixing it up with stepping on the upbeats, the “ands”. Why it isn’t counted as a triple step for the man, is because as he steps one, two, three, he steps twice with the same foot, hence double stepping.

In ballroom parlance, the rhythm would go slow, slow, quick quick, slow quick quick, slow. Again practice first while listening to the music counting aloud (or banging the steering wheel or the top of your desk) in groups of threes and fours. Count aloud while you practice to dance with the music. Or chant “bomp bomp, bomp” or “quick quick, slow” or “Larry, Moe, Curly” . What verbalization you use to get  your body moving is semantic. But get your body moving!

Double stepping can be done to the tempo of any tango, vals or milonga (besides D’Arienzo) - Di Sarli, Tanturi, Biaggi, De Angelis, Calo, Troilo, Canaro, Rodriguez, Varela, Pugliese - just let the music speak to you.

Let the music speak for you...

Remember that we are phrasing the tango, much in the way we naturally speak with implied punctuation using the idea of commas and semi colons and periods, as a way to breathe and organize verbalized thoughts. Since we don’t have an orchestra playing when we speak, dictating the tempo in which we speak, we can speak in any time signature that is comfortable or expressive. But with dance, the music dictates how we express our bodies with rhythmic thought. No two dancers will ever interpret the music in the same way, but the music must be used to speak for you and your partner, and further, for those looking on, especially if it is a live orchestra playing for dancers (yes musicians do watch, and when the dancers are dancing the music, they feed into your dancing as you feed into their music).

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