Tango Dancing in Bend, Oregon, Since 2003

Learning to Dance Tango

Social tango dancing takes place in the milonga; for that reason, dancing instruction should concentrate on the skills needed to successfully participate there: musicality, dancing technique, line of dancing and general milonga etiquette.

First, the aspiring dancer must understand the music. Hear the downbeat and syncopations. Listen to the musical phrase, semi phrase, and section. Next, the walk: step on the beat, with proper posture and technique. Forward, back and side step, check step, and turns to the left and to the right. Leads and follows should execute these moves in the proper embrace and with the correct posture. Other items to be taught should include navigation in the line of dancing and other milonga etiquette items, such as how to ask for, accept, or refuse a dance.

Once the elements of the music are understood and the basic moves performed fluently, on the music, and following the milonga etiquette, the aspiring dancer is able to dance in the social setting. Now dancers need to keep practicing with multiple partners to improve the fluency of their moves and to follow the music more closely. This continuous build of skills will last for as long as they keep dancing tango. Nobody is ever done with learning.

Tango Instruction

Traditionally, tango dancing was handed down within families, from parents and older relatives to children, or among friends. Also, at informal gatherings older dancers taught younger ones. This was done just for the love of the dance rather than for money. However, given the small number of experienced dancers available when tango dancing became popular once again in the early 80's, the traditional method could not cope with the surge in interest in learning tango, both in Buenos Aires and abroad. Methods for teaching groups of students had to be devised. Two main methods evolved, one concentrating on teaching patterns and the other focusing on the music.

Teaching patterns consists in teaching the "leader part" and the "follow part" separately, and then having leader and follow perform the full pattern together. While this method may work well for a choreographed dance, the common complaint of aspiring social tango dancers who are taught patterns is that although they may know many patterns, they do not know how to put them in a sequence. On the other hand, teaching from the music starts listening to the music to find first the down beat, having the leader and the follow walk by themselves with correct posture and stepping on the beat, and then having the leader lead the follow walking on the music and in the embrace. Check steps to denote the syncopation in the music are added next.

Stage dancers favor teaching patterns, which is natural given that the focus of the stage performance is to show the audience a range of visually appealing moves, while social tango dancers focus on teaching how to follow the music, because the objective of social tango dancing is to enjoy the music and the movements induced by the music, for the dancers and not for an audience.

Outside of Argentina tango started to being taught by dancers from the tango shows that have been touring the world since the 80's, thus initially the patterns method was dominant. Later, the demand for tango instructors created the itinerant teacher, a person who tours the world teaching how to dance tango. These itinerant teachers may have a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from experienced social dancers to fresh graduates from dance schools, and from established stage dancers to under studies dancers. Many itinerant instructors tend to focus on patterns, and teach patterns of increasing complexity on each visit, in spite of the fact that just a small number of relatively simple steps, executed with good technique, is all that is needed to dance tango socially.

Few Steps, Done Well

"When they didn't really know how to dance,
they did 20 steps; when they knew a bit more,
they did 10; and when they really knew what they were doing, they danced five...but with real quality." Cacho Dante, 1998

This fact cannot be overemphasized: the skill level of a lead is not given by the number of steps he performs but by how he interprets the music, for his and his follow's enjoyment, not for an audience. And following the music requires executing steps precisely, with proper technique. Generally, it takes time for beginners to understand this fact; meanwhile, they request to learn more and more steps instead of improving their technique. Some instructors comply, teaching patterns designed for the stage (such as sanguchitos, ganchos, boleos, volcadas, colgadas and the like) to aspiring social dancers. As a result, many beginners perform mechanically a whole catalog of steps, frequently with poor technique and off the music being played. Stage steps do not belong on the social dance floor because they break the flow of the dance, break the mood between lead and follow, interfere with the line of dancing and distract other leads.

Tango dancing is based on walking, but not on a casual walking, it is based on a tango walk (step-wait-step) driven by the strong downbeat of tango music. Thus, learning to walk properly is essential to develop all other moves. Unfortunately, many instructors rush over this topic to jump into steps. Others omit it altogether, claiming that the tango walk is the same regular walk people use in daily life. Yet, a closer observation of how they themselves dance shows that their walk while dancing is not their regular walk - who walks on the street keeping the back leg lagging behind in a step-wait-step fashion? The fact is that acquiring a tango walk takes practice, as any other physical skill does. There are no shortcuts.

Perhaps it is not superfluous to reiterate that social tango dancing is for the enjoyment of two dancers, lead and follow, not for an audience. To further illustrate this point, let's see how a young tango star dances on the stage and in the social environment, and what a seasoned tango dancer has to say about her experience dancing on the stage and at the milonga.

Steps for the stage

As the credits roll in the closing scenes of Robert Duvall's movie Assassination Tango, professional dancers Geraldine Rojas and Pablo Verón dance to "Una Emoción" by Ricardo Tanturi/Enrique Campos. There is no shortage of flashy steps here: boleos, ganchos, volcadas, colgadas, sacadas, etc. make the dance interesting and visually appealing to the audience. This is great stage tango.

Steps for social dancing

Now that we have established that Geraldine knows a bit about visually impressive steps, let's see how she dances in a social setting. Scenes from the milonga Porteño y Bailarín, in Buenos Aires, are shown on the right. The camera follows Geraldine, who is dancing there for her own enjoyment rather than for an audience. Obviously she shines on the dance floor, but...lets watch many boleos, ganchos, volcadas, colgadas and the like is she throwing? ...none! zero! Her dancing is limited to turns to the right, to the left, and walking... maybe a total of half dozen steps, all in strict close embrace. The same is true for the other couples on the floor.

Now, if Geraldine and her partner take only simple steps, what sets them apart when dancing at the milonga? Their TECHNIQUE: Posture, embrace, walk. And a dance that flows uninterruptedly.

Differences between social and stage tango

Social tango differs from performing tango not only in the steps used but, more importantly, in the objective of the dance. Social tango is danced to interpret a feeling between two dancers. Stage tango is for the enjoyment of an audience.

In this clip from Assassination Tango, dancer María Nieves captures the essence of social tango dancing when she tells Robert Duvall: "Tango salón (social tango) has a different feeling. When I dance tango salón I feel transported, like flying. When I do patterns I have to worry about not being stepped on, or not kicking another dancer, so I am constantly jumpy. Instead, tango salón is a feeling shared by two people, man and woman." (This video has no English subtitles.)

The whole point of social tango is sharing an emotion, not performing fancy patterns. Patterns are for the stage. Performing patterns requires a degree of concentration that generally prevents the free expression of the tango feeling.

Walk, walk, walk...It's the walk! The importance of the tango walk cannot be overemphasized. The tango walk, step-wait-step is the basis of all moves.

Assassination Tango - credits Stage tango at its best: Geraldine Rojas and Pablo Verón.

Milonga Porteño y Bailarín Geraldine Rojas dancing tango in the social setting.

Assassination Tango Dancer María Nieves discusses social vs. stage dancing.

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In this website, unless otherwise indicated, we restrict the use of the word tango to name just the dance danced socially, in close embrace, and the music that dance is danced to. Also, we limit the use of references to materials by authors who dance social tango regularly.